The Soldiers’ Point of View

The Soldiers’ Point of View: The Experience of World War II and Vietnam as Portrayed in Folklore and Oral History

Barry Pearson

Both folklore and oral history involve the spoken word, and both come into being only when there is a listener or interviewer present. Generally, folklore within this context includes the legends, tales, songs, customs, beliefs, language, and attitudes that soldiers share and repeat at different times and in different places. On the other hand, the narratives that constitute oral history are personal accounts or individual stories. Although we may oversimplify, we could say that folklore speaks for the group, and oral history speaks for the individual.

Folklore is the soldiers’ common lore; it is repeated because it is representative. We can study folklore to gain insight to the shared experiences and values of the soldiers’ lot. In a sense, folklore mediates between individual and group experience by providing a common, collectively understood vocabulary of attitudes, images, or examples that serve as shared reference points. Folklorist Barre Toelken has pointed out that, “Since folklore is comprised of those artistic expressions most heavily governed by the tastes of the group, we should be able to find in folk performances a continual tableau or paradigm more revealing of cultural worldview than we might find in the expressions created independently by individuals.”1

Oral history, by contrast, is precisely those “expressions created independently by individuals.” It describes experiences from speakers’ lives, or events they witnessed or perhaps heard of at close hand. Stories told as oral history may be repeated by the speaker and, through periodic retellings, shaped into better art or entertainment, but they are not retold by many speakers. If the stories are told by many different speakers they become less personal, more general, and become folklore. Historians sometimes discount individual accounts of the past as too subjective, too personal, or too narrowly focused to be of much use, and indeed some stories may not prove to be much more than anecdotes. Nevertheless, oral history provides valuable insights into how participants remember their wartime experiences, what they choose to talk about, and what they believe others would like to hear. Of course speakers have biases toward events that have made an impact on their lives, but their commentaries draw authority from their participation, personal feeling, and an in-group awareness of what events meant to then and to those who were there.

Contrary to the overviews that historians construct, personal narratives provide brief flashes of insight into human experience and personal concerns; the world they portray is circumscribed by immediate experience by a relatively small group of actors–co-workers, authority figures, and, of course, the enemy. Soldiers’ interests may not be the same as those of the historian, economist, sociologist, or philosopher, but their oral histories describe real human reactions to the experience of war. As survivors, soldiers pass on the lessons they have learned through their oral histories, and we should pay attention to what they have to teach us.

Folklorists and oral historians use similar techniques to gather data. Through fieldwork, both seek out informants to interview about a specific subject. As interviewers, both serve as a sort of editorial presence, selecting specific questions and determining which responses to include in the presentation of a subject. Both strive to recreate the individual voice of someone whose words can illuminate the subject being studied.

To simplify for the sake of comparison, historians are most interested in the information or content imbedded in a speaker’s testimony and the speaker’s attitude toward the event described. Literary scholars are also interested in the content and attitude the speaker’s account, but they pay particular attention to the artistry of the account–how it is put together and how effectively it portrays the events or conditions described. Folklorists share these concerns with content, attitude, and artistry, but they also consider the traditional dimension of the narrative. For example, a folklorist would ask how the material articulates traditional patterns of language and thought. Folklorists seek to discover the extent to which an oral history narrative approaches folklore; they are especially attentive to the stories, narrative elements, customs, beliefs, or values that are held in common by a group of people.


Before World War II eminent folklorist B. A. Botkin described folklore as:

…a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating chiefly outside of commercial or academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even “literary,” but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole.2

Botkin’s definition identifies some key issues. First, he addresses the informal mode of communication that characterizes the way folklore is passed from one person to another. Second, he notes that every group possesses folklore to some degree. Third, he notes that folklore draws from popular culture and even fine art, but he understands that these materials are reshaped once they enter the tradition and conform to the group’s value system or worldview, including its artistic and social rules.

Oral Tradition

Folklore depends on tradition for its dissemination and for the way in which its form and contents are shaped. Oral tradition is the process by which members of a group pass on information through verbal channels, generally without recourse to the printed word. But it also involves learning through informal systems of observation, imitation, and participation; musicians may learn, for example, by listening to and watching other musicians and then practicing what they observed on their own. Thus, stories or beliefs are passed from person to person and generation to generation.

An item of folklore is considered to be traditional in form and content when it conforms to a set of rules governing its structure, style, and content. Folklore such as jokes or songs can be repeated more or less intact, and thus recognized by their plots. But folklore also implies the presence of a value system that respects and maintains certain artistic products. These products are kept alive, reworked, and passed on because they conform to the group’s artistic and social sensibilities. The rules and values that shape the way something is made or performed constitute the traditional style of the group that perpetuates the traditions.

The Folk Group

Folklorists approach a subject through the people who perpetuate folk traditions, those who share and pass on a body of traditional lore. The term, “folk group” is commonly used to describe any group of individuals who share common traditions. Folk groups can be large, as with regional or ethnic groups, they can be tied together by religion or age, or they can share working contexts, as do cowboys, coal miners, truck drivers, and soldiers. These groups usually have a sense of identity that has been shaped by a common history and a common set of experiences, training, rituals, rites of passage, trials, or dangers. As mentioned previously, they also share a body of artistic or stylized expression that they appreciate, use, and pass along.

Forms of Folklore

Folklore includes a wide variety of forms, some spoken or sung, others enacted, and still others that are made (barns, dolls, instruments). Some forms, such as storytelling, are best understood as performance. Through storytelling we encounter a tale teller and an audience whose response largely determines whether a story has been successful and, by extension, whether it will be retold. As we will see, folklore changes over time, and tales and songs exist in multiple versions. The differences between versions demonstrate how a group reshapes materials to suit its current needs and artistic values; they also reflect the process of oral tradition.

Folklore is a tool, a key that helps to unlock the meaning of events. It helps us to understand not the overview of an event sought by the historian, or the artistry valued by the literary critic. Rather, folklore helps to reveal an event as it was perceived and described by its participants; their interpretations, whether or not they were witnesses, pass on a meaningful story, offer us multiple versions of the past that may prove to be encoded in symbol, artifact, or straightforward commentary. As a supplement to more concrete historical data, folklore provides a human dimension. Its primary importance stems from its ability to articulate feeling–to focus on the daily life of the average soldier and reveal his attitudes toward the events that touch him.

As a cultural document, folklore can be trivial or terrible, comic or heartrending. It may describe unbelievable brutality, elicit laughter, or both. It may be true, or it may be artistic–a metaphor for experience. In any case, folklore records examples of what people remember and talk about concerning a particular subject–in this case, war. Although the contributors quoted in this piece remain anonymous, they are real people and the words you will read are their own. You might think of them as average–the type of people that don’t write historical accounts. Yet their actions have contributed to history, and they have left a record of their participation in their personal accounts and in their folklore.

Before we proceed further, let us consider briefly the three sources of folklore we will be working with: legends, folktales, and folksong.


Legends are narratives that are told as the truth. They may not actually be true in a historical sense, but both the teller’s and the listener’s attitude toward the account presupposes that the event actually occurred. Therefore, the fact that such accounts are believed demonstrates that they incorporate attitudes or beliefs held by those who pass them on. As jazz historian Frederick Turner notes, “Unlike historiography which must attempt to sort out probable truths from available evidence, legend deals solely in The Truth as it is felt by those who celebrate the legend.”3 Sometimes referred to as belief tales, legends provide examples of a belief in action, usually in a straightforward, unadorned, just-the-facts manner. For example, let’s consider a training camp narrative from the Vietnam era:

Nothing much else happened in Pensacola except that they had…an obstacle course that was used primarily for sending the goof-offs on a . . . inspirational run, you might say. That is, if you messed up in class they were sent to the obstacle course. We heard the stories about how they used to run the obstacle course with live machine guns firing overhead. And then they got around to the part where some guy was crawling through . . . concertina wire . . . and happened to bump into a rattlesnake . . . . And of course he forgot about the machine guns and jumped up right away and was cut down.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But that’s the nature of legends. Further investigation, however, proves it to be just one version of a traditional scare story that has frightened boot camp rookies in at least three wars. This legend doesn’t simply scare inductees, however, it also teaches them that the training they have to put up with is, in fact, deadly serious business. Traditional legends like this one have a life of their own, but they tend to become localized when repeated d embellished for dramatic effect. Legends also detail the exploits of larger-than-life heroes and villains, from Sergeant York to General MacArthur.

Folktales differ from legends in that they are generally recognized as fiction, and told primarily as entertainment. In military lore, jokes or anecdotes are the most common form of folktale, and despite their obviously fictional status, they also articulate values and beliefs, common fears and dangers. The following example is a vintage folktale from World War II that deals with a serious subject–desertion:

The going got just a bit too hot for a little lad in the front line trenches and he suddenly decided to take a run-out powder [run away] . . .. He sneaked out of the trench and…began running….Suddenly, in the pitch blackness, he ran full tilt into somebody who, it was immediately apparent, was an officer.

“Where the devil are you going?” cried the officer.

“Why, Lieutenant, ah–” began the frightened soldier.

“Lieutenant!” echoed the officer in amazement.

“Maybe you’re a Captain…,” began the private.

“A Captain!” cried the officer.

“You can’t be a Major, could you?” essayed the private.

“Major!” came the reply….”Damn it all, man, can’t you tell a General when you see one?”

“General!” gasped the private. “Glory be, have I run that far?”4

Although a tale like this is obviously told for amusement and would generally be understood as fictional, it also tells us about the soldiers’ value system, especially their attitude toward rear-echelon officers–in this case, the higher the rank, the further the officer from the actual fighting. This tension between enlisted men and their officers is manifested in other forms of expression as well. Such common attitudes and ideas characteristic of folklore tend to show up in more than one genre, from legend to tale, to folksong, and to simple folk belief.


For our purposes, folksongs may be defined simply as the songs that soldiers sing. Ideally, these songs are perpetuated in a tradition where, regardless of origin, they are embraced by a folk group and passed from person to person. As a result, song will probably change over time, possibly because some forget the words, or more likely because members of a folk group reshape the song to suit their needs or tastes. For example, The traditional complaint “I Don’t Want No More Army Life,” is changed here to suit the Air Force:

The coffee in the Air Force,
They say is mighty fine,
Looks like muddy water,
And tastes like turpentine.

CHORUS: I don’t want no more of Air Force Life,
Gee, Mom, I wanna go,
Gosh Mom, I gotta go,
Please Mom, I wanna go home….

Navy people sing the same traditional song, with appropriate changes in the text:

They say that in the Navy,
The biscuits are so fine,
But one dropped off the table
And killed a pal of mine.

CHORUS: I don’t like Navy life,
Gee Mom, I want to go
Right back to Quantico,
Gee Mom, I want to go home….5

Despite their internal differences, both examples are two distinct versions of a very popular folksong that say and do essentially the same thing. Each version has been changed slightly to serve the purposes of the group that sings it. The song works because it is easy to make up new verses or alter the language to reflect the language used by different units, such as the Coast Guard, the Marines, or others. A comparison of these two songs provides a fine example of how folklore can maintain a certain continuity of form and content and reshaped to suit the needs of taste of the group that preserves it. As the needs and tastes of the group change, the song can be changed.


Certain differences will become evident as we look at the oral history narratives and traditional lore of World War II and Vietnam; after all, as folk wisdom has it, the United States won World War II and lost the Vietnam War. We can, however, focus on the similarities of the soldier’s experience over some thirty years. By examining soldiers’ folklore and oral histories we can learn about soldiers’ value systems, their network of relationships, and the way they view their war-time experience. By looking closely at continuities of experience and methods of communicating experience we will be able to address the question, “What is it like to be a soldier?”

There can be no single answer to that question because no two people are exactly alike, or respond to the same situation in exactly the same way. Soldiers’ folklore and oral histories come from individual soldiers, each with his own unique personality and historical background that includes ethnic, regional, family, and religious biases. Each soldier has his own preconceptions about soldiering as it is derived from propaganda, popular culture, and personal attitudes toward war and the specific enemy. After a war is over, each soldier is influenced by his war-time experience and history’s interpretation of his mission in war.

Folklore should be regarded as neither cute nor quaint, nor as if it were designed for children. It is neither invalid, untrue, or dying. Rather, it is coarse, vibrant, and honest. Folklore serves those who use it; if it doesn’t, it changes or dies.


For most soldiers of both World War II and the Vietnam War, military service was a short-term departure from civilian life. Thinking back on their wartime experiences, veterans display mixed emotions–nostalgia for their younger days, pride in having survived the trials of training and combat, and in the case of Vietnam, a certain bitterness about the conduct of the war and the treatment they received upon their return home. Most soldiers also feel a strong sense of kinship with those who shared their wartime tribulations and understand what they went through.

Soldiers are likely to recall people as much as they recall events: fellow inductees; barracks mates they trained with; tough lifers, the professional, long-term soldiers who taught them; drinking buddies; and especially the small group they fought beside and sometimes saw die. From induction through training to combat, a soldier often presents his world in terms of a small band of friends and co-workers who perceived themselves to be a single group against the rest of the world. Members of the group learned the same lessons and applied them to the common problems of survival and winning the war.

Generally, soldiers’ folklore articulates the tension between the individual, the barracks, or the combat group, and the monolithic military structure. Facing constant pressure to conform to the military structure, each soldier seeks to maintain a personal identity and resist any authority that appears to threaten it. At the same time, each recognizes the need for collective effort and, whether in basic training or overseas, develops a network of friendships or communal ties within the smaller group of co-workers to whom he owes his primary allegiance. The small group serves as a buffer between each soldier and the rest of the world, including military authority and the enemy all are supposed to fight.

Although soldiers and veterans have many other concerns and talk about many other subjects, most would recognize their experiences as part of a collective lore which they consciously or unconsciously embrace. Despite their individual voices we can discern a collective ethos that reflects their common experiences and the shared traditions that define them as soldiers. A profile of the soldier’s life is necessarily circumscribed by such traditions as they influence the subjects of soldiers’ accounts and their attitudes toward those subjects.

At the same time, oral format and the constraints inherent in an interview situation also have an impact on a soldier’s account of his experience. Restricted by these conditions and unsure of what the audience understands, a soldier seeks points of mutual understanding. Working within the oral context, a soldier must limit his account to include things he can narrate effectively and what he believes his audience can comprehend. As a soldier looks back on his experience, he feels the need to tell a cohesive, understandable, focused narrative that forces him to concentrate on relatively few events or anecdotes. Since a soldier often recounts events in a single interview that may have occurred over a period of days, weeks, or months, his audience may get the impression of immediate transformations–from rookie to veteran, from would-be-hero to cagey survivor.

Moreover, certain events acquire greater symbolic meaning after the fact, some because they make a good story, and others because they serve as a transition from one condition to another. An account may be retold simply because it is visually evocative or has a dramatic or entertaining quality. This is the artistic aspect of the soldier’s story that we can view as a blend of history and oral literature, tradition, and individual vision. As an individual exerts artistic control over the events or subjects he chooses to recreate, he imparts meaning to his experiences. Therefore, these events or subjects serve not only to connect the soldier to the changes in his life, they serve to connect his experience to our awareness as well.


Although no two soldiers’ experiences are identical, most soldiers go through similar stages of development and face similar problems. First there is enlistment or induction, then basic training, and then assignment stateside or overseas; in wartime, that can mean actual combat experience. Living in close quarters with a group of fellow recruits or trainees all going through similar rites of passage, a soldier can hardly remain immune from the traditional lore around him. Torn between the demands of the military establishment and the need to be accepted by his co-workers, the soldier learns several different sets of rules to satisfy the army, his own companions, and last but not least, himself.

Induction: “Greetings. This is your Uncle Sam.”

Since 1940 a common soldier’s first encounter with military life has been the prospect of enlistment or the draft. Enlistment may be thought to offer the opportunity to leave home and participate in an exciting and meaningful venture. Whether caught up in the passion of the moment, looking for a way to better themselves, hoping to escape unhappy marriages, or simply finding ways to get off of the farm, Americans have long volunteered to serve in the military. During World War I and after peacetime conscription was introduced in 1940, others enlisted to escape the specter of the draft.

Americans have never been happy with a forced draft. Perhaps you recall the 1863 Civil War draft riot that occurred in New York City or the resisters of the Vietnam War Era. Even when most people in the country support a war effort and concede that a draft may be necessary to ensure its success, the idea of being forced into the military–and into a particular job in the military–violates the personal freedom on which Americans pride themselves.

It should come as no surprise that folklore about the draft reflects traditional antipathy by demeaning and poking fun at the system. Characteristically, the draft board, draft notices, and the general physical examination are portrayed as part of an impersonal, voracious machine eager to seize any human body regardless of physical condition. Both of the following narratives illustrate this point. The first narrative is derived from the World War II Era, the second from the Vietnam Era.

After a visit to the draft board, the nearsighted man complained to his friends, “Brothers, let me tell you what happened at the draft board….A blind man came in led by a seeing-eye dog. They not only put the blind man in l-A [acceptable for military service] but they took the dog too.6

There was a one-armed inductee who went all the way through basic training because he couldn’t get anyone to listen when he complained about only having one arm. Finally, one day a sergeant found him on a work detail and said, “You see that man filling up that bucket of water over there? Well you go over and tell him when its full because he’s blind.”

Both narratives–the first a folktale told as a joke, the second a legend told as true–employ the motif (a narrative element or idea) of the handicapped soldier to portray the military draft as comically inept and insensitive. The similarity between the narratives suggests a continuity of these attitudes about the system over the decades.

Other examples of folklore celebrate the exploits of draftees who are unwilling to submit to the system. Viewed collectively, they present a picture of the draft as a system the clever can escape but the disabled cannot. Several popular legends portray soldiers who pretend to be crazy to escape compulsory military service:

This character rides an imaginary motorcycle all over camp…He mounts it, gives a kick or two, and starts off, holding the handlebars and put-putting with his mouth. Called in by the C.O., he rides into his office, screeches to a halt, jumps off, and salutes smartly. The C.O. puts him in the hospital for observation, and the soldier rides happily up and down the corridors. At length the hospital psychiatrists decided he must be loony and granted his discharge on a section eight (insanity). He mounted his motorcycle, rode to the hospital entrance, parked it by the gate, and walked off.

“Hey, don’t you want your motorcycle,” the orderly yelled after him.

“No thanks, I don’t need it anymore,” answered our hero.7

The legend above was collected during World War II. The next legend presents the same subject as it resurfaced during the Vietnam Era:

I know a true story about a guy who got hold of a number of psychiatry texts and copied or paraphrased poetry written by psychotics. He took the poetry with him to his physical and wouldn’t let anyone look at them or even touch them. Finally after acting real weird, he was convinced to let a psychiatrist look at what he claimed to be his poetry. The psychiatrist got all excited because he was familiar with poetry written by the insane. So he pronounced the guy unacceptable. He said it was a text book [sic] case.

Although these legends come from the experience of Americans in two different wars, their motif is traditional. Both illustrate the theme of bucking the system; they share the motif of escape from military service through feigned insanity. But the section eight discharge is far more the exception than the rule. These legends, perhaps best commemorated in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, celebrate the exploits of those who, by acting crazy in an insane society, achieve their goal and demonstrate that they are saner than anyone else.

Such legends are perhaps best appreciated by soldiers undergoing the rigors of basic training since they can identify vicariously with the protagonists described in the legends. But they also have a universal appeal. Although the public generally disapproves of evasion or flight as undemocratic or as a sign of cowardice, most enjoy tales of a clever trickster who bucks the system. Perhaps it is a simple case of rooting for the underdog. Similar accounts have been attributed to other wars and collected from other countries as well.

Let us pause to consider how these legends about draft evasion display a continuity of tradition despite two distinctly different sets of historical circumstances. We can speculate that draft evasion stories and the draft evader took on different functions during these two wars, reflecting their very different levels of popular support at home. For Americans who opposed the Vietnam War, especially draft-eligible college students, the draft evader became, perhaps, an admirable antihero that inspired those who wished to avoid military service. Legends that had provided vicarious entertainment for the storytellers and listeners of World War II provided more serious educational lessons and models for their sons during the Vietnam Era. The fact that certain stories and motifs we now recognize as traditional circulated during both eras indicates that they may not have held the same meaning to the people who passed them along.

It should be noted that the draft evasion stories of the Vietnam War did not always end in escape. Sometimes the strategies backfired:

This guy drank fifty cups of coffee to try to get out for high blood pressure, but he still got accepted. Later on after an accident he saw another doctor, who took his blood pressure again. The doctor told him, “How did you ever get accepted in the first place with blood pressure so low?”

These legends represent a collective antipathy toward the draft; they focus more on escaping military service than with becoming a soldier. More often soldiers tell of beating the system through other strategies to get into a special branch of the service or to avoid unpleasant duty. Consider this final personal account, which is more of an oral history than folklore.

My dad wanted to be a pilot or at least get to fly but he knew he couldn’t pass the vision test because his left eye was so bad. So when he took the test they asked him to read the chart with his right eye. So he covered his left eye with his left hand and read it. Then they asked him to read it with his left eye, the bad eye. So this time he covered his left eye with his right hand and read it again with his right eye. And they didn’t notice, so they passed him.

Despite the different attitudes toward the draft that were expressed in the legends and narratives of World War II and the Vietnam War, the fact remains that most draftees entered the system, and most Americans supported it. The average soldier may or may not have welcomed the experience, but most felt powerless to stop the machinery of the draft once they were inducted. They probably reacted with a sullen compliance as they were shuffled through the system and sent along to learn what soldiers need to know.

Basic Training: “You had a good home but you left.”

Once inducted, the soldier finds himself shipped off to a basic training camp. There, according to stereotype, he receives a terrible haircut, an ill-fitting uniform, and is otherwise stripped of his sense of individuality. Thrown together with a disparate group of fellow recruits, each soldier faces the problem of coping with the military system. This involves learning two sets of sometimes mutually contradictory rules. On one hard, each soldier needs to satisfy the military establishment personified by his sergeant and instructors, and on the other hand, he needs to be accepted by his peers. There are at least two types of initiation here: one involves the military as a whole, and the other involves the soldier’s immediate group of barracks mates or fellow trainees. Ironically, acceptance into the latter group was often predicated by an outward rejection of the former.

The recurring story of the trainee who encounters a snake while crawling through an obstacle course, stands up, and is cut down by live ammunition is one legend about a soldier’s initiation into the army during basic training. Now let us focus on folklore about the soldier’s other initiation–into this peer group.

Earning the acceptance of a soldier’s peers involves learning the rules of barracks life. Sociologist Larry Ingraham describes this process in his study of the barracks community, The Boys in the Barracks:

To be incorporated into the barracks a new man had to present himself as an approachable “regular guy” and he had to abide by the commandments of barracks living: he had to be willing to let everyone do his own thing; he had to accommodate himself to the dress and housekeeping standards of the barracks; he had to verbally scorn the Army at every opportunity; he could not invoke formal military authority or squeal on his buddies; and he could not steal from his comrades. Those who were not regular guys or who could not live by the commandments had to go it alone.9

Soldiers also must prove that they can take a joke, and many veterans tell of pranks they were subjected to as rookies. In the prank’s classic form, the newcomer is instructed to perform an impossible task using a nonexistent but credible-sounding device, such as a sky hook or prop wash. Often times the rookie may be tested in other ways to determine whether he has assimilated in-group knowledge. For example, he may be called to fall in for a short-arm inspection. Whatever the ruse, the result is usually humiliation. This process is a form of initiation, for after the rookie experiences the prank, he

perpetuates the tradition at the expense of new recruits.

While these pranks may seem cruel, they are a form of play that reinforces the rule that one needs to know what’s going on to survive. Pranks also test the recruit’s ability to “take it” and keep cool in a tight situation, qualities that will prove essential in combat.

The young soldier may be inexperienced in dealing with strangers, and initially, he may have little more in common with his barracks mates than shared space and work. Over time, however, and through shared experience friendships develop. Peer allegiance provides emotional support in an unfamiliar and sometimes frightening environment. The soldiers share barracks folklore about the other initiation they’re going through, such as dealing with the military establishment. Their legends and tales, which they tell for entertainment, often exemplify the theme of an individual’s fight against military authority. Let’s consider two humorous legends:

When I was in basic we were all supposed to know these general orders and once a friend of mine….Well, a high- ranking general was inspecting them and they were all standing at attention. So the general was looking them over and asking them questions. So he stops in front of my buddy and looks him up and down and asked him if he knew what the seventh general order was. Well this is something that everybody is supposed to know but my friend was really crazy so he finally answered, “You got me. But here’s one for you. What was Tom Mix’s horse’s name?”

It seems that a personnel clerk at the post headquarters of Fort Dix was lounging around one day when the phone rang. He picked it up and said, “Yeah?”

A voice at the other end asked, “Yeah? Yeah? Is that any way to answer a phone, young soldier?”

The clerk asked, “What’s it to you?” and the by-now enraged voice said, “Do you know who this is, young soldier?”

“No,” he answered, “I don’t.”

“Well, this Colonel Gall, the Chief of Staff.”

“Oh yeah? Well, do you know who this, Colonel?”

“No I don’t,” the colonel answered

“Good,” snapped the soldier. “Fuck you!” And he slammed down the phone.

Both legends depict minor victories in confrontations with authority; the first is a public act of disrespect performed before the soldier’s peers, and the second is an private act of aggressive rebellion. In each case the soldier’s actions would win the respect and admiration of his peers. According to an old adage, “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the army way.” As we can see from barracks folklore, however, there is also a traditional rejection of the “army way,” perhaps even an anti-army. Other accounts involve challenging authority on a physical level, a theme that recurs in narratives concerned with combat. Consider this legend:

Before karate instruction, the instructor always challenges anyone who thinks he can beat him. Once a small guy from New York City answered the challenge. He threw a wide punch at the karate instructor and was flipped into the sand. As the instructor approached him, he came up with two handfuls of sand, throwing it into the instructor’s face. The boot [recruit] then grabbed the instructor by the ears and rammed his head into a tree.

Here we encounter another common theme–the enlisted man winning a contest through unorthodox or nonregulation behavior. Without stretching the point, we see the underdog recruit beating the system by, literally, beating his instructor. Sergeants and instructors commonly play the role of villain in the soldiers’ lore. As the object of both fear and ridicule, these authority figures embody the values of the regular army, of the system, and are therefore natural enemies of the inductees. Traditionally tough, insensitive, and inflexible, they hand out punishment and, in some legends, even kill recruits.

There are stories concerning one Drill Instructor [DI] who marched his men into the swamp. He was drunk and decided to harass his men one night, so he got them out of bed and marched them right into the swamp. Many of them were beaten, and the DI was busted after a congressional investigation.

Folksong also serves as a vehicle for ridiculing authority. Here is a parody of the popular song “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”

Five foot one, weighs a ton,
I.Q. of just thirty-one.
Has anybody seen the sarge?

Out of shape, watch him gape,
Walks around just like an ape.
Has anybody seen the sarge?

Now if you run into,
A soldier who’s
Dressed in O.D. [olive drab]
Wearing brown, in the town,
Bet your life it isn’t me.

Cause he’s R.A. [regular army] all the way
He has thrown his life away.
Has anybody seen the sarge?10

This brief sample reiterates the motif of trainees at odds with their sergeant that we have seen in other forms of folklore. This theme, and those of beating the system by demonstrating superior knowledge, unorthodox techniques, or by strategically acting stupid recur throughout barracks folklore. The fact that the soldiers enjoy hearing and repeating these stories indicates that the stories reflect and reinforce their value system. Popular culture vehicles from Sergeant Bilko to Stripes have brought these traditional themes from the barracks into public knowledge.

Let’s turn to another form of barracks folk expression. Known as cadence calls or chants, work songs serve as a rhythmic “soundtrack” for marching and other forms of drill. Generally, they demand group participation, coordinate group action, and encourage a sense of unity and identity. Likely as not obscene (a common characteristic of soldiers’ lore), these calls articulate common concerns different from those we have already discussed. Read these four examples; the first two are in call-response form, the second two are chanted in unison.

Leader: You had a good home but you left.

Everyone: You’re right!

Leader: You had a good home but you left.

Everyone: You’re right!

Leader: Jody was there when you left.

Everyone: You’re right.

Ain’t no need in lookin’ down
Ain’t no discharge on the ground.
Ain’t no need in turnin’ back
Jody’s got your Cadillac.

I don’t know but I’ve been told
Jody’s wearing your one-button-roll [a type of suit]
Lift your head and hold it high
Company C is passing by.

We don’t care if you don’t sleep
Sit on the bunk and tap your feet.11

Hidi, hidi, Christ almighty,
Who the hell are we?
Zim, Zam, Goddamn,
We’re the infantry.
We’re Captain Ward’s Rangers,
Rangers of the night.
We’re dirty sons of bitches,
We’d rather fuck than fight.
Hidi, hidi, Christ almighty,
Who the hell are we?
Zim Zam, Goddamn,
We’re the infantry.

I’d rather be a pimple,
On a syphilitic whore,
Than be a second louie [lieutenant],
In the Quartermaster Corps.

Referring to the first fragment, you may wonder who Jody is. Drawn from black folk tradition, Jody represents the generic man back home taking care of a soldier’s girlfriend while he is conveniently away. A concern about what’s going on back home is another common theme of soldiers’ folklore. These examples contrast what was left behind with the soldiers’ present condition. These chants use a sort of ironic humor to poke fun at the soldiers’ tribulations. There is also a sense of unity, shared experience, and common concern implicit in them. In fact, the last example stresses group identity and pride in one’s outfit, albeit in uncouth language.

Cadence calls are designed to promote unity of thought and action. They show us the soldier and his unit in the process of constructing a group identity. They also present a fine example of how folklore functions. Beyond simple time keeping, cadence calls instruct the soldier about how to carry himself. Moreover, they use aggressive, ironic humor to undercut loneliness. As group expression, they preach stoicism and discourage self pity. They often incorporate in-group language and abbreviations that are only understandable to the participants, thereby reinforcing the idea of the unit as a collective body.

Other traditional cadence calls take the form of aggressive bragging. Consider this cadence:

The girl I marry’s gotta be,
Airborne, Jungle, UDT,
Virgin daughter of an AOC,
Five hundred points on the PFT.

[Airborne: jump qualified; Jungle: jungle operations; UDT: underwater demolition team; AOC: air officer commanding, in charge of a cadet squadron; and PFT: physical fitness test, five hundred points is maximum]

Like the soldiers’ folksongs we examined earlier, cadence calls are extremely stylized forms of expression. They have relatively simple rhymes that can be updated or changed to suit the occasion:

I want to be a Recon [reconnaissance] Ranger,
I want to live a life of danger.
I want to go to Vietnam,
I want to kill some Viet Cong.

Or more up to date:

I want to go to Israel,
Send some Arabs straight to hell.

As with other kinds of folklore, cadence calls serve several different functions. They continue in tradition because they continue to work and give a certain degree of pleasure by turning unpleasant tasks into a form of play. For us, they provide clues to how individuals deal with the common problems they face in becoming soldiers.

All told, this cursory look at draft and training camp lore shows us a fairly consistent pattern in which soldiers resent and resist military authority. Although they may acquiesce in the demands of military life, their folklore glorifies those who oppose or beat the system. We can also perceive a pattern of in-group initiation at the barracks level, and with the cadence chants, an increasing awareness of group unity.

The Final Initiation: Combat

After the initiations of barracks life and basic training, the soldier must undergo still another initiation–the experience of combat itself. On the battlefield, the soldier must learn a new set of rules to survive and be accepted into the fraternity of front-line soldiers. Until this rite of passage occurs, the soldier remains an outsider. For some soldiers, the initial combat experience is a sort of trial by fire, a shock that alters the way they think about war. For others, it is a personal test of their ability to stand firm in the face of danger.

In an oral interview, World War II veteran Robert Rasmus recounts his personal transformation in the course of a single day’s fighting. As he approached the front, he remembered recognizing that he would be tested. He recalls:

I was [a] skinny, gaunt kind of momma’s boy. I was going to gain my manhood then. I would be liberated from the sense of inferiority that I wasn’t rugged. I would prove that I had the guts and manhood to stand up to these things.

Rasmus observed the differences between himself and his fellow rookies and the tried combat veterans he encountered. By the end of the day, he realized he had made it and been changed in the process. Afterward, he could assume the role he had formerly observed:

We were passing people who were taking over from us, another company. We had one day of this. Our uniforms were now dirty and bloody and our faces looked like we’d been in there for weeks. Now we had the feeling. You poor innocents.12

Perhaps more articulate than his peers, Rasmus provides in his account a personal version of an experience shared by all combat soldiers. Most soldiers can tell us of their first time in battle because it stands out as a juncture in their lives. Other battles, perhaps more noteworthy or historically more important, may follow, but their first experience of combat has a deeply personal meaning as a rite of passage.

Life in the Combat Zone

So far we have looked at the process of becoming a soldier as it appears in the soldiers’ own folklore. Now we will turn to soldiers’ ideas about overseas duty, behind the lines and in combat. Keep in mind that we are not looking at the whole of any one soldier’s experience, but at a cross section of oral accounts drawn from various folklore collections and individual oral histories. Some incorporate the traditional material or motifs we have already encountered.

Fighting the Army: Resistance and Survival

Narratives about soldiers in combat zones often exemplify the themes of initiation and fraternity among soldiers, at least in relation to small groups or combat units apparently at odds with the rest of the world, including the army. Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist and critic Bill Mauldin presented an especially sympathetic picture of the common GI in World War II [infantrymen] named Willie and Joe. Although his cartoons cannot be considered folklore in their own right, Mauldin’s perceptions of the daily experiences of their front-line enlisted men incorporate the same general motifs as the soldiers’ own folklore.

As symbols, Willie and Joe embody the soldiers’ vices and virtues, and their workman-like attitudes. Quick to complain about army food, army competence, or army life in general, they persevere nevertheless. They represent what Mauldin sees as an exclusive fraternity of fighting men who despise their officers (though they may accept one into their company if he learns to behave properly), and resent all outsiders including rear-echelon troops and members of other branches of the service. They learn to endure the physical and mental rigors of combat because they have little choice in the matter. But they also know how to take their pleasure where they can. Most importantly, they learn the rules of survival under fire and how to make do on their own initiative, despite the army.

Soldiers’ folklore clarifies that in combat, as in basic training or base camp, a soldier’s primary allegiance is to his co-workers or friends. Soldiers share each other’s trials and joys, and they depend on each other for companionship and for survival. Both literature and folklore emphasize the themes of fraternity a soldier’s primary responsibility to a small group of companions. They also emphasize how his overriding concern for his own survival outweighs abstract notions of patriotism, political ideology, or even personal courage.

At war on two fronts, a soldier fights the enemy as well as his officers, who appear equally intent on getting him killed. Mauldin’s cartoons often contrast Willie and Joe’s version of the war with their officers’ perspective. [One of his cartoons] shows the dogfaces carrying officers’ luggage and saying, “Oh, I likes officers. They makes me want to live till the war’s over.” 13 Forced now to accept the system, they dream of a future encounter in which they will be treated as equals, beyond the jurisdiction of military authority.

The following Vietnam narrative describes the classic confrontation between the seasoned soldier and newly arrived officer:

There’s a lot of talk in [the] army these days about the length of your hair, and even when I was in Vietnam it was a big topic. You were supposed to keep your hair fairly short. Some of the people I was with requested to stay in some of these outposts for thirty to forty days at a time and they were forever leaving for these little camps or outposts we had on tops of mountains.

One guy, I don’t recall his name, but he was a captain. We didn’t wear ranks and we didn’t wear regular army uniforms. We wore what we called these tiger suits, and we had about five or six different types to match the terrain. Well, this one fella came off a mountain after being up there for forty days. He looked like Rip Van Winkle; he had a full-length beard; he had hair that was down to his shoulder in length. He walked into camp. Naturally, you didn’t even have to know he was in the area. You could smell him twenty feet away. He hadn’t had his clothes washed in, like I say, forty days. He’d been up there and he had one set of clothes. He was a real frontiersman.

Well, anyway, the day that he walked into camp,…from the chopper pad we had some staff officer from Saigon. He looked like he had just stepped off the plane from the United States. He had polished boots, uniform pressed, just what you see on the posters. Well, he took one look at this guy and cussed him up and down, asked him who he was, name, rank, and serial number. He was going to get him court-martialed, and this and that if the guy didn’t get a haircut immediately. Well, this captain just told him where to go, turned around, and walked out of camp, and we didn’t see him again for two weeks. Nobody knew where he was or what he was doing. We assumed he went back up on the mountain.

Note that in this case the protagonist tells the officer where to go and walks away, an act of rebellion Willie and Joe would only dream of doing. Tales of these confrontations have symbolic value for the tellers and their audience, and they are often altered for greater artistic impact through exaggeration and selective highlighting.

It is probable that the World War II soldiers were more apt to work within the system whether they liked it or not. Such confrontations between officers and enlisted men occurred frequently in Vietnam, however, where personal appearance symbolized individuality and a rejection of regular army values. Moreover, the frustration of an apparently undirected war effort and an overall decline in respect for authority gave the traditional tension between officers (called “lifers”) and enlisted men a new and ominous direction know as fragging, incidents in which officers were murdered by their own men with fragmentation grenades. The following three oral history accounts of describe this type of open rebellion:

Sometimes a boot lieutenant will order a charge on a bunker. Whenever it happens, he is shot before anyone can obey him, and artillery and air support are called for by the second-in-command. Every Marine Corps unit has a phantom fragger. In LAAM Battalion, this mysterious person killed thirteen officers in thirteen months on Monkey Mountain.

They’re some pricks, let me tell you. Like out in the field it wasn’t so bad. Because out in the field if you get a lifer you don’t like, you just shoot him. You have to wait until you get into an engagement with the gooks until you do it. Then you say some Viet Cong did it and who’s to tell you otherwise? But I heard a lot of stories about that actually happening. Like the only casualty of the fight on our side just happening to be some lifer who used to hassle everyone. And people would blame it on luck! [Laughter].

He was a real prick, come straight from Germany. It was spit-shine boots and the whole bit. He come over there and the first thing he did was he started having reveille at six in the morning. I told him that men just weren’t going to be there. I told him that I’d have my day crew there for reveille, which is eight out of twenty-four men. And I said that the midnight-to-eight crew wasn’t going to be there because they were just getting off work and they were going to bed. And my other crew that was on evenings was still in bed and they weren’t about to get up to say, “O,K., I’m here,” and go back to bed.

I said that was their assigned time off and they didn’t have to do that shit and he said, “Well, we’ll see about that.” And this kept going on and on; and he was hassling me.

So, finally, there’s these couple dudes, they were really strung out on some shit. Like they had no mind; they were vegetables. So the First Sergeant just kept hassling this guy and hassling this guy.

And the first time, he just went into his hootch [hut] you know, and threw a grenade in there and didn’t pull the pin at about three in the morning. He left a little note on it that said, “Keep hassling with us and next time this pin will be pulled.” So the sergeant let off for about two weeks, then he went back to his old ways again. He started hassling people just like the old days.

Well, the dude who threw the grenade the first time finally got totally pissed-off. And it was all over, the grenade went off underneath this sergeant’s bunk and that was that. And they [the army] had a hell of a time finding the guy who did it. They suspected the whole company. They’d ask everyone, “Well, what did you think of the First Sergeant?”

“I thought he was a prick, Sir!” So they couldn’t narrow it down because all of us said that. But finally the guy who did it broke down and confessed.



A soldier learns to rely on his own initiative and the support of his immediate group for survival during combat. But soldiers, like all occupational groups engaged in dangerous activities, also look to supernatural help. Some resort to prayer, but clinging to luck charms and maintaining some belief in other forms of magic are just as common. Many soldiers carry personal protective amulets to ward off danger–anything to provide an added sense of security. At the same time, soldiers scrutinize the world around them to identify possible connections between signs, behavior, and bad luck. Superstitions flourished in every branch of the service during both World War II and the Vietnam War. The following narratives incorporate soldiers’ notions of luck and magic.

Commenting on superstitions in Vietnam, one veteran pilot admitted:

You know, I was never superstitious at all until I got over to that damned place. Even flying here in the states, I wasn’t superstitious. But the slopes are so treacherous, and the whole place is so different, that you just kind of wind up being superstitious. Like when Joe and I went over there, we each carried a bullet from a .45 because we figured there’s a bullet somewhere with our names on it and if we keep these in our pockets, we’ll be accounting for that bullet. Like, one time Joe came down to visit at An Khe, and when he left he dropped his bullet. So I put it in my pocket and kept it for him, because everybody has a bullet that belongs to him, and if I had Joe’s in my pocket, he’d be okay

My first day in combat, we got hit with RPGs. I was out on the flight line, so I ducked into a bunker to wait out the shooting. When I got back to my tent, my bunk had a big slash in it and right on my pillow was about a six-inch piece of shrapnel from an RPG. So I figured that one had my name on it too and I carried it in the leg of my Nomex suit.

Another Vietnam veteran recalled:

I had a rosary that I wore the whole time I was out in the field. About the time I lost the rosary was about the time I got taken out of the field too. I lost the rosary one day and I was scared shitless for the rest of the time I was doing direct combat. You know, when you’re coming face to face with the enemy every day and like, they’re shooting at you, man [laughter], it’s easy to get superstitious about stuff like that.

In the first Vietnam account the long-standing soldiers’ superstition, the notion that carrying a bullet in your pocket keeps you from being shot, is extended and a new amulet comes into being. The theme of fraternity among soldiers is interwoven as the narrator protects his friend, Joe, by carrying his bullet for him. In the second account, the good luck charm is religious. Both examples underscore the belief among soldiers that magical protection can help to ensure survival.

In Vietnam, using magic to assert control over generally uncontrollable situations often led to practices that violated formal regulations. Here, as with fragging incidents and drug use, we see the soldiers’ world view in direct conflict with the military establishment:

Another thing they do, too, the same way, that’s also against the regs [regulations], is retire a pilot’s call letters if he gets zapped. They make sure nobody in that unit ever gets the same call letters. So the call letters are like a nemesis, you know, for the pilots, and if one is unlucky, everybody figures the bad luck can be passed along with the call letters. So everybody has to keep remembering which call letters are no good in that unit, so no pilot accidentally gets call letters that belonged to some dead guy.

Other tales describing acts of sabotage and conspiracy demonstrate that soldiers’ superstitions outweigh other considerations, such as the value of equipment or accepted notions of civilized behavior:

Like, there’s all sorts of legends about lucky helicopters and unlucky helicopters, and lucky numbers and stuff like that. Like they have this thing about never flying a helicopter once its pilot has been killed. It doesn’t make any difference if the co-pilot or anybody else in it gets killed, but if the pilot gets killed, nobody will fly that helicopter. So what they do is try to get these crates out of the country, where nobody will have to fly them, because they’re deathtraps.

So if a pilot gets killed, usually his ship is so shot up nobody can fly it anyway. But sometimes the ship is okay–maybe a lucky shot got the pilot or a sniper got him. Like this time I was on a flight and my chopper took all sorts of hits and nothing happened to me, but this buddy of mine was flying the same formation and one bullet hit his ship, right through the windshield and cut his jugular vein. So they had to get rid of his ship even though nothing was wrong with it.

Well, you know, you can’t just go around throwing out helicopters, or you get the S4 raining pee on you. So a couple of guys get together and make sure the helicopter’s a wreck, and then they have to get rid of it and nobody can fly it again. Everybody kind of conspires to wreck this helicopter, and everybody knows it’s happening, but nobody ever does anything about it, because morale would go down among the pilots real bad if a pilot was forced to fly a deathship.

Yeah, well you know about the necklace of ears he wore around his neck? He used to say that it brought him good luck, I guess it must have been because he should have been killed at least a dozen or so times [laughter].

Hero Tales

Let us now turn to another category of narrative that we will simply refer to as “hero tales.” Every occupational group passes along legends or anecdotes that describe the actions of outstanding individuals whose exploits elicit admiration or awe from the rest of the group. These characters seem supernatural in their capabilities, yet their larger-than-life actions act as an index to indicate the values of those who tell of their adventures:

Every genuine folk movement creates its ultimate hero or heroine, and so it is here. Such a figure has a basis in historical fact and functions as a prismatic image through which a total historical experience is concentrated and made readily available to those who have had their parts in it. To the hero are attached attributes and experiences that symbolize those of the group; when they speak of him they are speaking of themselves, for his story is really theirs. 14

Vietnam, like other wars, spawned a number of hero tales that appear particularly ghastly to civilians safe at home. But to soldiers who fought with these heroes, their exploits act out shared frustrations and fantasies. Consider the following tales:

The Geneva Convention rules claim it is illegal to kill the enemy by electrocution, but one radio man did anyway. He was in a bog with a radio jeep when he saw the enemy approaching. They were too many to shoot, and they weren’t firing at him because they wanted the jeep intact. He attached a wire to his antenna, dropped it in the water, turned the radio on to one thousand watts, and keyed it. Not one gook survived.

Anyway, they came across these guys, and here they were, four Americans. All they could see was about 400-500 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers. All their weapons were stacked and they looked like they were going through some sort of formal indoctrination.

Well, this guy just went berserk. This American, this big guy from Alabama, running right at these guys. He was 6’8″. He started running as fast as he could like a big tackle on a football team, throwing grenades, right, left, right, left, or at them right down the middle. Bang, bang, bang, bang.

The other guys didn’t even do anything. They were so horrified that he would reveal his position and run through there. He did live through that mission and they did get out of there okay.

While I was there he was put in for two medals of honor. I don’t know if he got either of the awards, but, the guy was just a psychotic towards killing. It was just the sight of it, I don’t know whether he got pleasure out of it, or what, but it was like a trigger mechanism in him. He saw the enemy and he had to kill them. He didn’t rationalize or try to develop a plan with the others as to how to do it. The sight was enough to trigger him to kill and that was the way he reacted to the situation.

The first legend presents the values or skills that were admired by the group: improvisation, self-sufficiency, and the ability to survive by killing the enemy. The second tale, however, presents an ambivalent attitude toward bravery and self-sacrifice. The heroic action is in the tradition of Sergeant York or Audie Murphy, but the teller and other soldiers do not clearly approve of the “big guy from Alabama.” He is “berserk,” “psychotic.” Indeed, even those within the group object to his lack of control and especially to his willingness to risk their lives. A hero can be brave, lucky, or crazy, as long as he does not endanger his comrades or overtly seek the approval of the military establishment.

Sometimes the soldiers’ values invert popular notions of heroic action. Consider the following five personal legends associated with two noteworthy, albeit nameless, individuals:

They tell a story about him sneaking through a Viet Cong perimeter at night and slitting the throat of every third or fourth man. And this is with guards in camp and everything else. Evidently it was a true story because they (the platoon) came across a Viet Cong campsite that had fresh graves and everything else. Like he snuck out one night himself. With his K-bar, which is a knife. And they figure by the size of the camp site that it was a sixty-man company or so. That’s when they found the twelve graves. And there was definitely a GI out of camp the night before and no one could account for him. And people said they heard him leaving. I guess everyone kind of knew he went on one of his little operations. Well, he had a good chance of being disciplined or something along those lines. Like he didn’t do this kind of thing to win medals or shit like that; he did it for the love of killing.

He played cards one night with the Viet Cong in a whorehouse. They just happened to come along on each other–them with their AK-47s (a type of Russian machine gun) and him with his M-16. They were there in the whorehouse, playing their form of cards and he took them for everything they had. After whoring and carousing all night they went to sleep and he killed all of them.

They used to sneak outside the perimeter at night. You know, like you’re not supposed to leave the company. And especially not in the middle of the night. They went AWOL (absent without official leave) in the fucking Vietnam in the middle of the night, man [laughter]. Like some nights you’d hear some explosions off in the distance and the next morning they’d come back. Like those two were even more nuts together than when they were alone. They would go out and set up their own ambushes. These guys set up their own ambushes, they set up their own operations, like it was their own war!

Well, he lost a brother in Vietnam. One time during a flood he took gooks while we were evacuating a town. He wasn’t evacuating, he was plunging gooks underneath the water [laughter]. “Get them now while you can!” [laughter].

Yeah, well he was definitely nuts. He was very kind towards kids; he just figured kids were kinds of caught in the middle of the war, but he couldn’t stand gook males, you know, grown men, unless they were fighting on our side. You know, like unless they were ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and definitely fighting on our side. But unless they were definitely fight on our side, well, either you’re for us or against us, and that’s just the way he took things.

The characters described in these tales are both heroes and antiheroes. They surpass their peers in the business of killing the enemy, but they do it for themselves, breaking the rules and beating the system.

The first tale shows a hero performing an almost superhuman feat, terrifying and killing the enemy. But he works on his own initiative, against formal rules and without endangering his fellow soldiers. The hero of the second tale faces the enemy in a chance meeting. He beats him at his own card game, outdrinks him, outcarouses him, and kills him in his sleep. In the third example, both heroes continue to conduct their own war by breaking the rules again and daring to fight at night, something most soldiers fear doing. Once again they beat the Viet Cong at their own game, playing by Viet Cong rules. The hero of the fourth account also breaks the rules by taking an opportunity to kill Vietnamese without considering whether they are friendly or not. But the teller rationalizes the hero’s behavior, and the rationalization echoes the words and attitudes of countless other soldiers.

Altogether, these tales present a hero figure whose behavior provides a clear example of the soldiers’ in-group values in opposition to America’s popular image of heroic or even acceptable behavior. From the soldiers’ perspective these figures may appear larger than life and their actions extreme, but their behavior is not necessarily deviant. I suggest that they are idealized representations of values that the soldiers shared–at least while they were in Vietnam.

Horror Stories

As we might expect, combat narratives include chilling accounts that appear to be parallel to the scare stories of basic training. As traditional tales of sensational violence, or even the violent accounts that are splashed across the front pages of popular weekly newspapers, these tales are intended to shock us. This intention does not mean that such stories are not true, but it does indicate that the teller is aware of their shock value and of the listeners’ interest in the morbid.

First, let’s examine an account from World War II:

The way you extracted gold teeth was by putting the tip of the blade on the tooth of the dead Japanese–I’ve seen guys do it to wounded ones–and hit the hilt of the knife to knock the tooth loose. How could American boys do this? If you’re reduced to savagery by a situation, anything’s possible. When Lindbergh made a trip to the Philippines, he was horrified at the way American GI’s talked about the Japanese. It was so savage. We were savages. 15

Horror stories portray atrocities and battlefield encounters with corpses. Often they include rationalizations for the actions described. The attitudes are no doubt derived from a set of conditions in which soldiers progressively dehumanizes his enemy, and become dehumanized in the process. Forced to transcend personal fear or to function despite it, they may become inured to the presence of death; they may come to treat dead bodies casually or even maliciously. Perhaps they will show hatred of the enemy by mutilating the enemy dead. Perhaps they will find a grim humor in death and decay. Soldier will do what they have to do to maintain some semblance of sanity in an insane situation.

To make killing easier, soldiers often replace ideological rationalizations of their actions with a gut-level hatred of the enemy. They know that the enemy’s job is to kill them, and theirs is to kill the enemy. As a result, enemy soldiers become stereotypes rather than people, and the labels assigned them become part of the soldiers’ in-group vocabulary. Bill Mauldin once told Studs Terkel, “I never once heard an infantry soldier who’d been in combat refer to Germans as Nazis. Or North Vietnamese or North Koreans as Reds or Commie Rats, or any of that stuff. There were lots of ethnic slurs: slopes, gooks, and things like that. I heard about krauts, square heads.” 16

These terms have appeared in other narratives; they represent a form of folk speech. As part of the soldiers’ in-group language, they indicate a consensus based on traditional ideas, including racism. In Vietnam the enemy was seen as physically and culturally alien. Moreover, American soldiers were unable to distinguish friend from foe, the Vietnamese they were there to help from those they were there to kill. Typically, American soldiers felt victimized by the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese were often brutalized as a result:

When you’re over there, you don’t know who the hell’s who. That’s the problem. I mean, I could be talking to you like tonight, say you were Vietnamese. Tomorrow morning, I might walk outside, and you might shoot me in the goddamn head. ‘Cause you don’t know. They’re farmers, and we’ve seem ’em, but we’ve seen ’em with their tools out there hoeing down their rice paddies, and then you’re walking back, and all of a sudden they drop their hoe and pull out their rifle. You know, so who the hell you gonna trust? So if you’re walking down, and you can’t care if he is sixteen or two years old, you think he’s gonna kill you, you’re gonna kill him anyways. 17

The sense of confession within these accounts suggests the confusion inherent in the Vietnam War: Who was the enemy? Why was the soldier fighting so far from home?

Mutilating the dead for souvenirs, for revenge, or as an insult to the enemy was far from unknown in Vietnam. Numerous reports confirm the practice of collecting ears from the dead as described in a previous narrative. Consider the following three legends of brutality to determine whether any patterns emerge:

He had been a sergeant during his stay in Vietnam and he wore the ears of gooks that he had killed around his neck. He cut off the ears, tanned the ears, and wore them like just a string of these ears, a necklace of ears. You know, he could only keep ears so long before, well you know (laughter)–before they were really something else. At one time, I counted 24 ears and they were always left ears–he never took two of a kind. He always took one ear.

Another Vietnam veteran simply stated:

One of the trophies Marines took were ears. After returning from Vietnam, he kept one in a jar hanging from the mirror in his car. It ruined so many dates that he eventually had to get rid of it.

The final anecdote captures the blending of horror and humor:

I’ll tell you a story about the 502nd. They were called the headhunters. And this actually happened. The colonel of the place, I forget his name now, was really angry about what had happened to his men down at Dac Tho, because he had found a lot of his dead mutilated.

So what he did was offer a case of beer for every head of every gook that was brought in. And some crazy son of a bitch, right in the middle of a public relations type thing, full of newspapermen in questioning him (the Colonel) about what had been going on, right–a sergeant from one of the companies came in with a head, put it on the desk and said, “Where’s my case of beer?”

The final account can be considered a legend, although it strains our credulity. Framed as a narrative (“I’ll tell you a story”), validated as true (“this actually happened”), the narrative offers a reason for headhunting. Then it shifts to the outrageous (which is not to say it couldn’t have happened), as a soldier tosses a head on the desk and demands his case of beer in full view of the press. Certain elements, the severed head, the case of beer, the press (generally feared by the soldiers), and the embarrassed officer can be found in other narratives. Keep in mind that in the act of repetition personal experience narratives become progressively more stylized or artistic until it is almost impossible to determine whether they are traditional.

Let’s look at one final legend that is known to be traditional:

Well, they’ve got this island somewhere in the South China Sea somewhere. And you know girls in Vietnam aren’t exactly the cleanest in the world. And the ones that are clean are working for the VC so as soon as you get near them they cut loose with a grenade or something, so the secret is not to go near them at all.

Well, a lot of guys don’t get in on the secret, and not only do these girls have all the regular diseases, but they’ve got some that nobody has a cure for and they have more that nobody’s even named yet. But some guys never get the word, so they have this island where they keep these guys with these incurable diseases they picked up from some South Vietnamese lay. And they just write home and say the guy’s missing in action or dead, because they don’t want these diseases to come back here, where there’s no cases so far and no cure.

Those horror stories are designed to be both humorous and shocking. Some are believable, others less so. We may find the humor offensive, but for soldiers, humor is a tool for survival; it offers a way to face nightmares and share fears and self-doubt. It also facilitates in-group bonding mechanism. Tales are often meant to offend outsiders, a function that explains why you might find them shocking and serves to reinforce in-group bonding. The soldiers’ joking relationship was a privilege reserved for those who had earned the right to participate. Bill Mauldin noted:

While men in combat kid each other around, they have sort of family complex about it. No outsiders may join in….if a stranger comes up to a group when they are bulling, they ignore him. If he takes it upon himself to laugh at something funny they have said, they freeze their expressions, turn slowly around, stare at him until his stature has shrunk to about four inches, and he slinks away, and then they go back to their kidding again….Combat soldiers are an exclusive set, and if they want to be that it is their privilege. 18

Mauldin’s perception of the combat soldiers’ joking relationship comes from his World War II observations, but it applies equally to Vietnam. As we turn from combat to recreation, our final topic, we can examine joking and storytelling more closely.

Soldiers at Play

During their leisure time, such as rest breaks or lulls in combat, soldiers entertain themselves as best they can and usually try to forget about the war around them. They talk about their playtime as much as any other subject for several reasons: First, many of their most memorable adventures occur during their leisure. Moreover, these tales form a type of entertainment in their own right; they are told and retold not simply during recreation, but as a form of recreation. During bull sessions soldiers entertain each other with humorous anecdotes and discuss all manner of topics ranging from social commentary to outright fantasy. Generally enlivened by alcohol, and in Vietnam by drug use, storytelling engenders social cohesion.

Base Camp Life

Let’s consider three personal experience narratives describing base camp life in Vietnam:

Life in Vietnam is very, very monotonous, at least out in the base camp. Roughly five or six individuals is the sole extent of your world. These are the only people that you can talk to. Anyone else that you talk to outside of this sphere is done through an interpreter.

Well, we all lived together with the Vietnamese. We had to isolate ourselves in one area and we called it a Team House. It was sort of like a little homey atmosphere. We had lounge chairs, more or less like a little bit of Americana in Vietnam. Of course, the thing there was the bar. I mean we had our refrigerator.

About 4:30 or so we all started drifting in. The day’s work had been done by then; we would take it easy for an hour or two. However, we did work in the evenings. We usually knocked off about 3:30 or 4:00 and would sit in the court and drink beer, Coke, mixed drinks, or what have you.

One particular day we were in there throwing our little war stories back and forth, bitching about how great it would be to get back to the States and all sorts of things. All of a sudden we started hearing all of these loud bangs. The Team House was sealed off so you couldn’t see what was going on outside. Then two of the guys got in an argument. “Nah, it’s not incoming. Nah, its just artillery going out. Nah, someone’s just blowing up something.” The next thing you know the whole ground underneath us started shaking and everybody started running. Before we knew it everything was just pancaked out. We had incoming rounds and they just mashed all the buildings down.

A half an hour after it was all over we went back into what used to be the Team House. We found those cans of beer which hadn’t been broken, so we were just trying to finish up what we had. And we went on talking about what we were going to do and what we had done. And life went on.

In Vietnam we had a routine that was followed every day. A part of it was that after the evening meal we would retire to the enlisted men’s club to drink and play cards–card playing being secondary to drinking. After about three hours, I was fairly drunk most nights.

On this one particular night the VC decided to say hello and leave their calling card with a mortar attack. Well, I heard the siren go off telling us that we were under attack. I stumbled to my room and got my equipment in a drunken stupor. While I was inside a round went off very close by and I tore out of my hut headed for the relative safety of my bunker. Halfway across a fifteen-yard opening I stepped in a hole and twisted my knee. Well I crawled to the bunker just like I was first cousin to a snake.

When the attack was over, I reported to the sick bay and had to spend the next day in the hospital. When I got back to my office, my friends decided to be funny and put me in for a purple heart saying that the wound was received due to enemy action.

There were always about three battalions of VC near our base. Because we were expecting an attack, we had to have our guard tripled which required all the personnel to be on duty most of the night. We had had our evening drinks when the alert occurred. We had to put some drunks in one of our guard towers. They were both in the tower near our airstrip.

The Air Force had a jeep-mounted patrol on the airstrip and on their second round, the drunks in the tower stopped them and told them to turn out their lights because we were on alert. They refused and our drunks opened fire with automatic weapons.

When we heard the shooting we all got ready because we thought the VC had a sapper team on the compound. Well, into our office stomps an irate Air Force type cussing and swearing. We all just laughed and this made him madder and all he could do was stomp out.

Despite the differences in contecontent and style, each narrative describes the routine of drinking, a familiar, controlled method of passing the time, interrupted by life-threatening confusion. The situation in the first narrative is resolved by a return to the usual routine as it would usually be experienced by the small group who live and work together. Although they are participating in a war, their world revolves around the bar with its home-like atmosphere and comfortable socializing. Although their fragile retreat is destroyed, they return to the familiar acts of drinking and storytelling. The Team House is rebuilt, tradition continues, and life goes on.

Although similar in content, the second story is presented in a more sophisticated narrative style, a tighter focus more dramatic punch line. It’s more descriptive, more action oriented, and more humorous as it balances drunkenness, danger, and a military decoration. I suggest that it has been told more often, and, through successive retellings, shaped or edited into its present form.

The same narrator tells the third anecdote. Although it also involves drunkenness and confusion, this narrative focuses on inter-service rivalry, enlisted men besting an officer, and American soldiers shooting at each other, an unfortunately common occurrence in Vietnam. Vietnam veterans concur that they were often in danger of being accidentally killed by Americans; it seems that it was sometimes as difficult to distinguish friends as foes in Vietnam.

Alcohol and Drugs

As you probably noticed, alcohol is the primary ingredient in the three stories above. Bought, bartered, stolen, or distilled, booze remains part and parcel of the stereotypical soldier’s experience. Drinking alcohol has long been among a soldier’s rights and privileges and very much a part of our popular notions of how soldiers behave. Soldiers drink to forget war-time pressures, to relieve boredom, or simply because it is something to do with the boys.

Liquor lubricates song and storytelling sessions and serves as a subject for both. Here are two fragments of drinking songs that are parodies of the calypso hit “Rum and Coca Cola.”

When the sailor boys are on the shore,
They drink their beer and then some more.
But when the boys are out to sea,
They stick to Alky [torpedo alcohol] and Pepsy [sic].

Drinking Alky-Pepsi Cola,
Just to keep the old gloom away.
Drinking Alky-Pepsi Cola,
Anytime of night or day.

On Saipan island it is clear,
Enlisted man gets just one beer.
While officers get the whiskey and wine,
Making whoopee all the time. 19

Recreational drug use in Vietnam paralleled increased drug use at home. Although it was officially frowned upon and in many cases ignored, drug use was not considered deviant but acceptable by the common soldier. do. Drugs were a cheap way to relieve boredom and they provided a pleasurable means of coping.

In the field most of the guys stayed high. Lot of them couldn’t face it. In a sense, if you were high, it seemed like a game you was in. You didn’t take it serious. It stopped a lot of nervous breakdown. 20

Much like the preparation and consumption of illegal alcohol in World War II, drug use in Vietnam also held certain symbolic meanings such as protest, a rejection of the army, and an expression of individualism. Drug use generated its own subculture, notable for both its numbers and alienation from the establishment. According to Larry Ingraham, “Drug use was the governing metaphor to express the private soldier’s anti-Army sentiments. It was the ultimate in getting over on the system a disapproved behavior which cannot be regarded as mutiny or refusal.” 21 As we might expect, narratives of drug use take on overtones of bragging. They also exemplify the repeated themes of beating the system and breaking up the monotony of daily routine:

I was a smack-freak over there. It was some great smack. I didn’t shoot up, I smoked it. See, what you would do was take about half of the tobacco out of a cigarette, put your smack in, and fill the rest with tobacco, and you can’t smell it or nothing. You can go right up in front of an officer and be smoking and it smells just like regular tobacco. I used to do that all the time. In fact, our First Lieutenant used to smoke it straight in a pipe right in the orderly room. He’d sit in the back and get higher than a kite….

I wouldn’t know how many units were out in the field doing it. I guess it would be kind of dangerous in the front. But back in the rear, I’d say at least seventy percent of the people were either high on smack or cocaine, one of the two.

It was mostly a matter of being bored shitless. You’d just sit around most of the time with nothing to do. Besides the stuff was really cheap, too. Like a vial of cocaine or heroin, whichever you wanted, about as big as the end of your little finger starting from the last knuckle, there, which was pure cocaine or pure heroin, which would sell on the street over here from 75 to 150 dollars, depending on how it was cut, would sell over there for $2.40. And an ounce of grass would cost you, at the most, a dollar.

The dramatic increase in drug use, especially heroin use, among soldiers in Vietnam can also be understood as symptomatic of their basic need to reject their immediate circumstances through withdrawal or escape from reality.

As with alcohol use, drug use was often a social act involving storytelling and other group behavior. Torn between military authority and the social pressures of companions, soldiers found it difficult not to do drugs and still maintain the trust and support of their peers. Group identity and trust helped soldiers make it over, and, by extension, humor, alcohol, drugs, and storytelling all served to strengthen relations within the immediate group–usually at the expense of regular authority. In this way drugs may be viewed as tools of a sort, and drug use a method of survival.

Storytelling and Group Identity

Another element associated with the development of group identity that emerges in the narratives is humor directed at military incompetence, especially in other branches of the service. Consider the following narrative:

One of the funnier things. We had what is called MACV, Military Assistance Command. It means we were supposedly experts who were to help the regular Vietnamese army. They were separate from the Special Forces people. At this one camp they decided they had a new big mortar and they were going to help us defend our camp. So they started to fire rounds just for effect; to place rounds where they would place them if we came under attack. Well, as it turned out they really didn’t know as much about it as they claimed to and they started putting rounds into our camp. Before you knew it, we didn’t have a camp anymore.

One particular night a Vietnamese guard started firing away at brush or shrubbery. So we got excited and ran to our work positions. I was at a mortar position, and the next two guys above me, who were supposedly Special Forces experts on weapons, were standing there cussing each other. “The machine gun doesn’t work. I can’t load it. What’s wrong with it?”

And I went up to see if I could help them. The only thing they did is they forgot to put the cartridge in the magazine case through the lever and pull the safety twice. You have to pull the handle twice to get it to fire. If you just do it once it doesn’t do anything. Anyway, they were in such a state of fright and excitement that they couldn’t do this.

And it was pitch black, and I went up there, and I was not weapons qualified. Each man specializes in a certain area and these men were supposedly experts and I went up and I’m not very good with this thing, but I could see what was wrong and I lifted the magazine up and, here they were, they had the bullets turned around in the wrong direction. [laughter]. And it was just a matter of reversing the feed order, turning it around so that the hammer was hitting the firing pin instead of the bullet [more laughter]. They were quite embarrassed about that.

Despite the danger, night attacks broke up the monotony of the general routine and provided topics for conversation. And if the Viet Cong would not cooperate, soldiers broke the monotony by attacking each other.

We used to have tear gas battles with other companies. It was the going thing; it was like you had water fights when you were in the Boy Scouts. We’d get all of these tear gas “frags” and run over to the next company. It was only about 100 yards or so down the road. And we’d go down there one night and set thirty or forty gas bombs off in their hootches [huts] and run back up. Then you’d see all of these guys run out coughing and shit and you’d sit there laughing your ass off and shit, you know. You’d better wear your gas masks the next night because you knew they were coming to get you [laughter]. It got really ridiculous after a while. It got so you could sleep right through one of the tear gas raids, there were so many of them. You’d build up kind of an immunity. Plus, if you stayed in your bunk, you know, all you had to do was pull the covers over your head and it filtered a lot of it. Your eyes would water and burn and shit, but usually I was too damn tired to get up.

Other soldiers showed their macho by playing dangerous games or otherwise risking their lives.

I spent a lot of time on the Mekong River and we used to water ski right on the Mekong River even though we were within a thousand years of the border. We had all these international boats going up and down the river and you’d see these crazy Americans out there with their water skis. I believe we were the only ones in the interior of Vietnam to water ski [sic] around in a hostile area, and this was strictly Special Forces.

Alcohol, drugs, storytelling, pranks, and other forms of play helped fill out the soldier’s free time and kept him from dwelling on the thought of when he would return to combat. But we can also note that work and play seem to overlap; danger intrudes on leisure-time fun, and soldiers simulate battle or play other dangerous games. Base camp lore provides a somewhat jaundiced view of the soldier’s lot. We see the soldier laughing at his situation and at himself, squeezing ironic humor from the dangerous and depressing conditions in which he serves.

Let us conclude by looking at two folksongs, the first from the Pacific theater during World War II and the second from Vietnam. To my mind these bits of song sum up the soldier’s perspective:

They sent for the Army,
To come to Tulagi,
But General MacArthur said “No.”
And this is the reason,
It isn’t the season,
Besides, there is no USO.


Bless ’em all, bless ’em all,
The long and the short and the tall.
Bless all the admirals in ComSoPac,
They don’t give a shit,
If we ever get back.

So we’re saying goodbye to them all,
As over the gang plank we crawl.
There’ll be no promotions,
This side of the ocean,
So cheer up my lads, bless ’em all.[1]8

They sent for the Navy,
To come to Tulagi,
The gallant Navy agreed.
With one thousand sections,
In different directions,
My God, what a fucked up stampede


No doubt you’ve detected in this song a note of exclusiveness, a to-hell-with-everyone-else attitude. The song presents the soldiers’ conviction that they expect little sympathy, much less help, from outsiders. But it also presents a certain pride, and a sense of community that implies, “that’s okay; we’ll do the job ourselves.”

The next song shows the soldier at his ironic best, laughing at himself that’s reminiscent of the blues line, “I’m laughing to keep from crying.”

There were a lot of songs that we used to sing over there. Most of them we made up on the spot and most of them just got forgotten. Let’s see; I remember one that everyone kind of knew. Are you ready for this [laughter]?

We like it here, we like it here,
You’re fuckin’ A, we like it here;
We shine our boots, we clean our brass,
We don’t have time to wipe our ass!

In the morn, we start KP [kitchen patrol],
Somehow I know, it’s always me!
We like it here, we like it here,
You’re fuckin’ A, we like it here.

The Soldier’s Perspective

Let me reiterate that we have looked at a limited amount of material that I consider representative of soldiers’ folklore and oral commentary. As a folklorist, I recognize that my concerns have influenced what I chose to included. Historians, anthropologists, or literary scholars might have chosen other examples, perhaps more informative or artistic. I selected the most traditional accounts that have withstood the test of time and link one soldier to another. Further investigation of a larger body of songs and narratives would no doubt give us some new directions to pursue, but we would probably encounter many of the same general themes and attitudes. From this perspective, folklore has given us a relatively “packaged” look at the things soldiers know and practice.

Together, our speakers have provided us with a collective portrait of the soldier’s world. While accounts may vary, an overriding concern with setting the record straight runs through their testimony. Grasping for words, images, metaphors, and traditional examples, the speakers face the frustrating task of explaining their fear, their grief at the death of a friend, and their feelings toward the enemy, toward civilians, and toward their branch of the service. They seem to feel that the full story has not been told. Often they contrast what they thought the war would be like with what they learned in combat. Perhaps their descriptions differed from your own preconceptions about the soldiers’ lot. The lessons they learned in the field of fire changed them, and to a certain degree, they can never share the wisdom they gained or the disillusionment they suffered. As survivors, they advise us how to deal with similar hazards, and we should pay attention to the methods of survival implicit in their words. Yet, at the heart of it, it’s not what they learned, but how they learned it that gives their accounts meaning. And they are probably right: unless you have been there, you simply don’t share enough reference points to understand.

Nevertheless, the contributors tell us their stories and, by extension, the stories of the war they fought in. Regardless of educational background or facility with language, their words, like their actions, make history. Although limited, personal, and interpretive, each accounts presents an ordered version of past events that has been shared with the interviewer.

As witness-now-truthteller, each soldier filters his experience through a present-day understanding of what he and his comrades did. And here we see a significant difference between war as perceived by those who fought in World War II and Vietnam. Both groups of soldiers learned and changed in combat, but the contexts in which they recall and recount their experiences differ radically. Americans appreciate the former and expect the latter to apologize. The intervening years have reinforced the essential rightness of the World War II veteran who meets with his fellow survivors to commemorate famous battles. For the Vietnam veteran, however, history and popular opinion vacillate between condemnation and guarded support. The World War II soldier who fought in the “good war” and is proud of its outcome tells his story differently from the Vietnam veteran who returned from a war without resolution to a country that didn’t seem to care. It should come as no surprise that the Vietnam accounts are imbued with bitterness.

The force of tradition, the constraints of the interview situation, the malleability of memory, and the perspective of the present all work to shape the history we can know through folklore. Yet, despite these shortcomings, these marginally artistic, completely human documents can add to our understanding of the past.

Legends, tales, songs, and reminiscence have taught us much about the soldiers’ world and what they think of their military experience. Soldiers comprise a folk group that passes along traditional forms of folk expression, and despite the differences between World War II and Vietnam, these traditions and the values they articulate remain remarkably constant, including the repeated themes of initiation, fraternity, group loyalty, resistance to authority, and survival.

Following initiation into the barracks group or combat unit, the soldier owes his primary allegiance to the group and adheres to its traditions as a means of self-preservation and a source of companionship. These group traditions include resisting authority and refusing to play the game by the regular army’s rules; instead soldiers have developed their own set of rules predicated on their overriding concern for survival. Although balanced by group preservation and the desire to win the war, survival remains the primary objective. To this end, soldiers employ all manner of “tools” or techniques to preserve their lives and sanity. Their tools range from humor to magic, from mutual dependency to fragging (or stories about fragging). Soldiers accept the need to kill their enemy but place that need in the context of group and self-preservation. Their heroes can violate the Geneva Convention or risk their own lives by their actions, but they shouldn’t endanger their comrades. To outsiders, their behavior seems extreme, but to the soldiers it is acceptable conduct. Adept at killing but not at taking orders, soldiers conduct the war on their own terms, not on those of their officers or the politicians back home.

Finally, we should remember that folklore is not necessarily a mirror of culture, and the things soldiers think make good stories are not the things they personally do. But the approach of folklore, listening to what soldiers talk about and examining the way they say it, illuminates the soldier’s traditional perspective and adds dimension to our understanding of war and American society.


Unless otherwise indicated. all materials in this unit are drawn from my collection and the Maryland Folklore Archive, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

1. Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 227.

2. American Folklore Society, Folklore and Folklife (Washington, D.C.: American Folklore Society, 1984), p. 4.

3. Frederick Turner, Remembering Song: Encounters with the New Orleans Jazz Tradition (New York: Viking Press, 1982), p. 29.

4. The New Anecdota Americana: Five Hundred Stories for America’s Amusement (New York: Grayson Publishing Corp., 1944), p. 142.

5. Richard M. Dorson, American Folklore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 275.

6. New Anecdota Americana , p. 140.

7. Dorson, American Folklore , p. 273.

8. Richard M. Dorson, American in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), p. 304.

9. Larry Ingraham, The Boys in the Barracks: Observations on American Military Life (Philadelphia: Ishi Press, 1984), p. 82.

10. Robert Price, The U.S. Songbook , 1955, Library of Congress.

11. George Carey, “A Collection of Airborne Cadence Chants,” Journal of American Folklore 78 (1965), p. 59.

12. Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 39, 44.

13. Bill Mauldin, Up Front (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1944), p. 214.

14. Turner, Remembering Song , p. 25.

15. Quoted in Terkel, Good War , p. 62.

16. Ibid., p. 361.

17. Quoted in Paul Starr, The Discarded Army: Veterans after Vietnam (New York: Charterhouse, 1973), p. 18.

18. Mauldin, Up Front , p. 58.

19. Alan Lomax, “Army Folksongs,” Archives of Folksong, Library of Congress.

20. Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 139.

21. Ingraham, Boys in the Barracks , p. xv.

22. Price, U.S. Songbook.

© Barry Pearson and used by permission


1 8

Songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War

Songs of the Air Force
in the Vietnam War

The following paper, which is very much a work in progress, was read at the symposium After the Cold War: Reassessing Vietnam in Lubbock in April 1996. Slightly different versions were read at the meetings of the American Folklore Society in Pittsburgh in October 1996 and the Popular Culture Association in San Antonio in March 1997. I am now in process of revising the paper for publication.

Because of the usual twenty-minute time constraints of a reading paper, there were several subjects that I was not able to pursue. In the revised version I plan to:

(A) describe more fully the circumstances under which these songs were composed, performed and collected.

(B) attempt to differentiate between the singer/songwriter material and “the songs we all sang.”

(C) discuss the songbooks, especially as they reflect repertory.

Obviously, I need help! I am sending a copy of this paper to all my friends who sing, write, study, or just enjoy Air Force songs. Please let me know what you think of it–all comments, suggestions, additions, criticisms and corrections are welcome.

The songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are part of a long tradition of military folksong. They are closely linked to the mainstream of American folksong, to the folksongs of other services, and to the folksongs of earlier wars. However, they also have some characteristics that set them off from the songs of civilians and of other military personnel who served in the Vietnam War.[1]For a discussion of the songs of Americans who served in the military or as civilians in Southeast Asia see Lydia Fish, “General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam … Continue reading Some of these are related to the temperament of the men who created and sung them; others probably are related to the nature of the war itself.

Most of the songs of the Air Force are set to well-known tunes, either those of popular songs or folksongs. Tunes like “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “The Wabash Cannon Ball,” “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” “Down in the Valley,” and “The Strawberry Roan” turn up again and again. One of the best-known of all Air Force songs, sung in World War I as “A Poor Aviator Lay Dying” and in the Vietnam War as “Beside a Laotian Waterfall,” is a variant of a widespread song known in American tradition as “The Dying Hobo” and in British tradition as “Wrap Me Up in my Tarpaulin Jacket.” One of the more popular bawdy songs, “Zoot Suits and Parachutes,” which appears in Navy tradition as “Bell Bottom Trousers,” is a direct descendent of the British song “Rosemary Lane.”

The young officers who flew in the Vietnam war had attended college during the folksong revival of the late fifties and early sixties and many had been members of performing groups in college. Some even brought their guitars along to Southeast Asia. Bull Durham, a fine country music performer as well as a career officer, had already recorded an album of SAC songs before his tour. Almost every Air Force pilot owned copies of the Korean War-era recordings of Air Force songs (The Wild Blue Yonder, 1959, and Out of the Blue, n.d.) that Oscar Brand made for Electra Records and these strongly influenced the Vietnam War tradition.

The American pilots in World War I sang mostly British and French songs, just as they flew British and French aircraft. (Getz, 1986: 2) In World War II, also, there was a strong link between the British and American traditions of pilots’ songs. Robin Olds, who arrived in England in May of 1944, writes of the RAF pilots:

. . . Their songs were down-to-earth, direct and live-for-today. They voiced a warrior’s ritual of defiance: screw you, world, screw what you’re doing to me, and screw the horse you rode in on. And their songs separated them from the reality of another empty chair in the mess. To hell with tomorrow!
Ribald and bawdy, RAF voices rose in exalted deification of man’s bodily functions (or, more particularly and specifically, of woman’s). There were derisive songs about certain aircraft and those who built them, sung mostly by those who had survived flying the things. There were songs about the bumbling asses in higher headquarters who “run and they shout, talking of things they know nothing about,” in contrast to the “boys that fly high in the sky, bosom buddies while boozing.” And sometimes, not often, there were sad songs, late in the evening, when defiance had abated, and a measure of lonely hopelessness crept in:
Stand to your glasses steady
[This world is a world full of lies]
Here’s a toast to the dead already
Hurrah for the next man to die.
. . . In 1942, as America’s young fighting men spread around the globe, these songs percolated into their mess tents in New Guinea by way of Australia. They became a part of squadron life in the desert of North Africa by way of the RAF’s Desert Air Force. They were learned in British pubs and in contact with the men of the RAF. They were a delightful addition to America’s own milder creations, and helped infuse an entirely new gusto in our appreciation of ourselves in the crucible of combat. (Getz, 1986: 1-2)

Many of these songs, suitably updated, survived into the Vietnam War: “Give Me Operations,” “Throw a Nickel on the Grass, Save a Fighter Pilot’s Ass,” “The Co-Pilot’s Lament,” “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell,” and “The Air Corps Lament” (“The Force is Shot to Hell”). It was during the Korean War, according to Robin Olds, that they were matched by songs of strictly American origin (Getz, 1986: 2), many of which remained popular with Vietnam War aviators: “Call Out the Goddamn Reserves,” “Itazuke Tower,” and two marvelous variations on the boy-meets-exotic-girl theme, “Lee’s Hoochie” and “Cigareets and Sake and Wild, Wild Josans.” It was also during the Korean War that a certain element of black humor first became noticeable in Air Force Songs, to a degree, Getz argues, not found in World War I or World War II songs: “the satiric, sometimes bitter, sometimes callous words that tell of the innocents of war.” (Getz 1981: 5) “It Was Sad When my Napalm Went Down” and “As We Came Around and Tried to Get Some More” were still sung in the Vietnam War.

Songs are often shared among the services. “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” a World War I parody of a song from The Passing Show of 1914, a revue at the London Hippodrome, turned up in Army and Marine Aviation as well as Air Force tradition in the Vietnam War. “Fuck ‘Em All,” the anthem of the British fighting man since World War I, probably originated in the Royal Naval Air Force. It was current among British, Commonwealth and American troops in the Pacific Theater in World War II and was updated to “Tiptanks and Tailpipes: in the Korean War. (The “cleaned up” version of the song, “Bless ‘Em All,” copyrighted in 1940 and made popular by Grace Fields, has only served, in the words of Ed Cray, to teach civilians the proper tune for the many improper verses that circulate. (Cray: 389) “Stand to your Glasses” supposedly originated in the British Army in India during a cholera attack. “Saigon Warrior,” “Saigon Commando,” “Here’s to Old Da Nang” and “Here’s to Old Udorn” are variants of an Australian and New Zealand Army song from World War I, “The Lousy Lance Corporal.” The song turns up in Army and Air Force tradition, as well as among Australian troops, in the Vietnam War. Texts of Air Force songs such as “Throw a Nickel on the Grass,” “Dear Ma’am, Your Son Is Dead,” and “Strafe the Town” are found in the songbooks of Marine aviators. Randy Cunningham reports that the text of Toby Hughes’ “Tchepone” was posted in the ready room on his ship. (Cunningham: 3)

The Air Force also shares with the other services a vast body of bawdy song. Some of these, like “Barnacle Bill the Pilot,” “Sammy Small,” and “Zoot Suites and Parachutes” have been adapted to fit their environment, others like “Adeline Schmidt,” “The Ball of Ballynoor,” “Mary Ann Burns, Queen of all the Acrobats,” and “In China They Do It for Chili” could have been heard at almost any fraternity house or college rugby party in the sixties. Ed Cray, the principal contemporary scholar of bawdy song, feels that these songs are less common than they used to be among the general population, but they still appear to be flourishing in the Air Force; the 744th Combat Song Book, printed at Incirlik Air Base during Desert Storm, contains many of the classics. One fine new song, “Shit Hot from Korat,” was written during the Vietnam War, presumably at Korat. It belongs to the great tradition of songs about young women who will take on all comers in various combinations.

The distinctive qualities of Air Force songs reflect the personalities of the men who write and sing them. Most of the songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War that have survived on tape or in songbooks were written and sung by fighter pilots, who have always been distinguished by a certain independence of spirit. In 1917 Edgar C. Middleton wrote in The Way of the Air: “The air does affect a man to a degree and endows him with the strange malady, flying temperament, that makes him reckless, and, to a certain degree headstrong; [leading him] occasionally to get out of hand and to find rules and discipline chafing and irksome.” (Kennett, 134) Almost sixty years later this opinion was echoed by an assistant to the secretary of defense who wrote after a familiarization visit to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli, “While these men might be of some significant value in the event of all-out conflict, I fear that they might not be susceptible to normal management techniques in any other situation.” (Letter to LMF, 7 January 1994)

Fighter pilots were also very conscious of their status as members of an elite, heirs to a tradition of legendary “knights of the air’ that had emeged during World War I. (Pisano, Dietz, Gernstein, Schneide: 19-41) They were not draftees who had been mass-processed into the infantry, but volunteers who had survived the stringent and competitive processes of pilot training.

The most romantic and adventurous of those who had volunteered to fly were certain that the ultimate manner in which to pursue the war was a fighter pilot, a figure who had emerged from World War II as the most glamorous in the air–the very top of the pilot pecking order. The fighter pilot was viewed as a man with dash, derring-do, and a special edge of courage that singled him out from all others. (Robbins: 8)

Their songs reflected their sense of mission, of honor, and of loyalty to the group, as well as their lack of reverence for authority, scepticism, and rampant individualism.

In 1970 Major John Roberts, who served with the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969 and later transferred to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, put together a narrated tape of Air Force songs that he had collected during his tour. In his introduction he states:

As might be expected, the war in Southeast Asia has generated quite a number of songs, written and sung by the participants, and, as much as anything else, they tell it like it is. This is history, and it deserves to be preserved. So on this tape you will hear some fifty songs that I’ve been able to collect from the wings in Vietnam and Thailand. Some of them are happy; some are sad. Some are fresh and enthusiastic; some may seem cynical or disdainful of the way things are. Fighter pilots have never been reluctant to complain a little. Just let’s not forget that we often pretend to deride those things we hold most dear. You’re going to hear genuine courage, and honest understandable doubts about the good sense of doing things which are then done with the fullest enthusiasm. But let’s also not forget that not nationalism, not even patriotism, but only comradeship, the loyalty to the group, is the essence of fighting morale. And that morale is certainly embodied in the songs you are now going to hear.

According to Les Cleveland:

. . . the occupational folklore of the military services contains a wide-ranging expressive repertoire that ranges from compliance with the military system to extreme opposition to it. On the one hand, it contributes to the official values that military organizations promote and feature in their integrative rituals, ceremonies, uniforms, insignia, specialized jargon, narratives, cadence calls and the occupational songs of the happy warrior. On the other hand, it offers large possibilities for indulgence in erotic fantasy as well as protest, opposition and grumbling. (Cleveland: 88)

The songs of the Air Force are unusual in military folklore in that they display little of the concern with the negotiation of power that is often present in the songs of the other services. Although there is plenty of grumbling and opposition in Air Force songs, they do not express the sense of powerlessness that is often found in the songs of conscripted troops. As one of my fighter pilot friends put it, “In general we regard our SEA experiences from the perspective of badly-managed warriors rather than victims.” (Letter to LMF, 9 Feburary 1993) Many of the songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are sharply critical of bombing policies, the rules of engagement, and the brass in general. “Our Leaders,” which appears to have originated among Thud drivers at Takhli in the early years of the war, and expresses their contempt for Air Force leadership and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, is a fine example. Later in the war Dave Wilson, who was flying F-100s at Phu Cat with the Sioux City Air National Guard, wrote a delightfully cynical song about the joys of bombing trees in I Corps.

Air Force songs are typical of occupational folklore in their concern with technology and their use of esoteric language. Les Cleveland writes:

The occupational basis of services songs is also evident in their specialized vocabularies, their richly imaginative slang and the great number of compositions that deal with the technicalities of the work process, especially drilling, marching and the management of weaponry and equipment. Such a concern with the maintenance, servicing and operation of weapons and machinery might be expected since twentieth-century warfare is essentially an industrialized, mass production and mass consumption activity that is increasingly dependent on the disciplined performance of the work skills demanded by high technology. A glance at the navigational aids of any modern naval vessel, at the controls of any jet aircraft, at the range-finding equipment of any field artillery unit, of at the signals system used by any modern combat formation indicates the extent to which mechanized warfare is enmeshed with technological resources that demand competent, disciplined performance by its users. (Cleveland: 22)

A large number of the Air Force songs from the Vietnam War are about airplanes: “The Thunder Thud,” “If You Fly,” “The Inventory,” “Give Me Operations,” “My Darling F-4,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “Republic’s Ultra Hog,” “Skoshi Tiger,” “Extracamouflagalistic Super Constellation,” and “Whispering Death.” The songs complain about the shortcomings of planes, describe their idiosyncracies, compare one plane favorably to all others, or discuss the technique of flying them. Very few Air Force songs are written from the point of view of the ground personnel, but there is one song in the Project archives, about an F-4 that never returned, that was written by Richard M. Tsuda, CMSgt, while he was working as a dispatcher in Maintenance Control at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1967. He writes:

My job was to dispatch avionics specialists to fix the various aircraft we had assigned so they could meet their missions. The F-4 I wrote about was launched one morning and never returned. I called one of the many shops I had hotline to and told one of the technicians that he could take tail number xxxx off of his status board. When asked why, I sang the song that I had just written. (Letter from Richard M. Tsuda to Lydia Fish, 18 September 1989)

These songs were sung at formal dinners, at raucous hundred-mission parties, in O-club bars, and in hooches. Thanks to the ubiquitous duplicating machines, songsheets and songbooks could be printed and passed out for group singing. The ambitious collector of Dirty Ditties had his songbook printed professionally by the Dragon Gate Stationery and Printing Company in Taipei. Excellent tape recorders were available on R and R trips to Bangkok and Hongkong, so concerts and informal song sessions could be recorded, copied and passed from one base to another. The Vietnam War produced a number of talented Air Force singers and songwriters, so many new songs were added to ones passed on from earlier wars. The black humor found in some Korean War songs persisted, producing such songs as “Chocolate-Covered Napalm.” Other songs reflect the peculiar circumstances of what Bill Getz has described as “the most difficult war that any American soldier, sailor or airman has ever had to fight.” But with a few exceptions, he says, “the selections in the Vietnam War songbooks are the same funny, profane and thoughtful songs of past wars.” (Getz, 1991: 5) Thanks to an informal tape network, these songs spread fast. Toby Hughes wrote three songs while he was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1968 and made a tape for the members of his squadron before he left. The tape beat him back to the states–when he walked into the casual bar at his first stateside assignment he was greeted by his own voice singing “Tchepone.” (Interview with Toby Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991)

As Joe Tuso has pointed out, a certain atmosphere, a certain kind of person, and sufficient leisure time were necessary for these songs to have been written. At some bases, he writes, songs were doubtless composed and sung in the confines of a lonely room in the early morning hours after a mission–such songs were probably not meant for the public and, except for rare instances, will never be sung again. But at other bases like Phu Cat and Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam and Korat, Ubon and Udorn in Thailand, songs locally composed and sung were often central to the flyers’ social life and were sung, copied, and taped over and over again. (Tuso: 15) Dick Jonas, of the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon, was the most prolific songwriter of the war and his songs circulated widely, both in informal recordings made during his tour and in commercial recordings made after his return to the United States. Frank Walsh, J. J. Smith, and Irving Levine, of the 553rd Reconnaissance Wing and 399th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, compiled a wonderful tape of Thud and EC-121R songs recorded during an informal song session and at Levine’s one hundred mission party. Gene Deatrick recorded the songs of Ron Barker at Bien Hoa. Draper and Hunt, of the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tuy Hoa, wrote six fine songs and sang them in harmony on a tape that turns up again and again. Dave Wilson, stationed at Phu Cat with the Sioux City Air National Guard, recorded eight songs, mostly of his own composition, but including a superb version of “Call Out the Goddamn Reserves.” Tony McPeak, later chief of staff of the Air Force, was also at Phu Cat and wrote two FAC songs: “VC Blues” and “Phu Cat Star.” A third singer from Tuy Hoa, Pete J. McGaddis, recorded one original song and a version of “Saigon Girls.” Toby Hughes wrote three songs at Cam Ranh Bay, including “Tchepone,” the best-known of all the songs of the in-country air war. There is a whole series of songs written from the point of view of the truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including four by Chip Dockery. Al Tischner, Fred Wozniak, Dave Post and Dave Biermeyer, members of the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Udorn, recorded six songs and collected them on a narrated tape after Fred Wozniak was shot down. The Covey FACS produced two excellent singer-songwriters, Fred Clark and Skip Franklin. An anonymous group of Air Rescue pilots at Da Nang recorded 21 songs.

These tapes also contain other material: recitations, skits, poems, and cockpit recordings. The most famous of the skits is “What the Captain Means,” “recorded when a civilian correspondent interviewed a shy unassuming Air Force Phantom jet fighter pilot. So the correspondent wouldn’t misconstrue the pilot’s replies, the Wing Information Officer was on hand as a monitor to make certain that the real Air Force story would be told.” This classic of the Air War was written by Lt. Col. Joe Kent, who was at that time serving as the Information Officer for the Twelfth Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay. It was recorded in August or September 1967, with Kent playing the part of the Wing Information Officer, Colonel Travis McNeil playing the part of the captain, and “a major from PACAF” playing the part of the correspondent. (Interview with General Travis McNeil by Lydia Fish, 8 May 1992) “What the Captain Means circulated among pilots during the remainder of the war; I have received copies from twenty or more sources. Several introductions have been added at different times and there is also a Sandy version, possibly from Da Nang, another A-1 version from the 633rd Special Operations Wing at Pleiku, and a Connie version from Korat. Another famous skit is “Sharkbait 21,” also from Cam Ranh Bay, a fake cockpit tape about a mission during which the fighters manage to shoot down their forward air controller. There are two charming monologs, one about a truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one about a ZPU gunner, by a Misty FAC whom I have not been able to identify.

Two real cockpit tapes which were widely circulated are “Detroit Lead” and “Strobe Eleven.” “Detroit Lead” is usually identified as a tape of a F-105 shootdown and has even been used in pilot instruction as an example of the dangers of over-confidence. (Interview with Toby Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991) The episode occurred in December 1966 during a mission by the 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron from Takhli. Detroit flight, the third flight into the target area, was out of position and got strung out. Detroit Lead became separated from his flight and thought he had extensive battle damage, but landed unscathed at Udorn. (Bell, 124-130) “Strobe Eleven” is a tape of the episode in which General Worley, at that time Vice Commander of the Seventh Air Force, was hit by ground fire while flying a night reconnaissance mission in an RF-4C. The back seater ejected, but the general did not. (Letter from Lee Dixon to Lydia Fish, 2 December 1994)

Many of these tapes are simply personal collections–men copied songs or entire tapes from a friend’s collection, or recorded a concert or party. Other tapes are carefully edited and narrated and are presented as esoteric oral histories. A copy of the tape that J. J. Smith, Irving Levine and Frank Walsh put together at Korat was sent to General Ryan, Commander of the Seventh Air Force. The tape that Dave Tischner edited and narrated may have been intended as a memorial to Fred Wozniak, who was shot down on 17 January 1967, two nights after recording “Foggy Night, No Moonlight.” Mark Berent, the author of Steel Tiger and Rolling Thunder, edited and narrated a tape that included a lot of standard material as well as some fine songs from the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron and the Mike Force troops at Bien Hoa. A copy of John Roberts’ tape, presented as a musical tour of the air war, wound up in the tape library at Udorn, where it was copied by numerous pilots.

This consciousness of these songs as an integral part of Air Force history was best expressed by William Wallrich in the introduction to his Air Force Airs, an excellent collection of Air Force songs from World War I through Korea. He writes:

Songs such as these are known on every flight line, are sung in airmen’s, NCO, and officers’ messes and clubs throughout the world. They are one element in the voice of the service world–in this case the Air Force. They are the voice of the line mechanic and the supply clerk, the second lieutenant wing man and the “retread” who flew archaic aircraft into battle in an age when today’s latest aircraft design was obsolete just before noon yesterday. The aces, single and double and triple; the bemused and bemedaled characters known by all fighting organizations; the generals whose every thought, action, and verbal statement made stateside headlines–all had their means of expression. Their deeds were constantly recorded by articulate PIO and PRO men as well as by the complicated, mechanical, and “story” seeking and creating American press.

Everyone else, front-line peon to rear-echelon honcho, had to seek his own means of expression–and found it. Their jokes, catch phrases, and, above all, the songs they created and sang and remembered to sing again, all contained the essence of how they felt, what they thought, what they thought about, and, most important, what they thought of themselves and where they were and of what they were doing and why they were doing it. (Wallrich: xviii-xix)[2]The songs mentioned in this paper are from the tape and songbook collections in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. The Project is seeking additional material; if … Continue reading

Works Cited

Bell, Kenneth H. 100 Missions North. Washington: Brassey’s (US), 1993.

Cleveland, Les. Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Cray, Ed. The Erotic Muse. Second edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Cunningham, Randy (with Jeff Ethell). Fox Two. Warner Books: New York 1984.

Getz, C. W. The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Volume I. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1981.

——– The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Volume II. Stag Bar Edition. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1986.

Kennett, Lee. The First Air War: 1914-1918. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Pisano, Dominick A.; Dietz, Thoma J.; Gernstein, Joanne M.; Schneide, Karl S.

Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air. Published for the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1987.

Tuso, Joseph F. Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A and M Press, 1990.

Wallrich, William. Air Force Airs. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1957.

© 1996 by Lydia Fish

Page updated 28 July, 1999


1 For a discussion of the songs of Americans who served in the military or as civilians in Southeast Asia see Lydia Fish, “General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War,” Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989) 390-411.
2 The songs mentioned in this paper are from the tape and songbook collections in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. The Project is seeking additional material; if you have tapes or songbooks that you are willing to contribute, please contact us at the address below. Open reel and cassette tapes will be copied and your original tapes returned to you along with digitally enhanced studio copies. If you prefer not to send original songbooks, we shall be delighted to reimburse you for copying costs.

Several of the singers mentioned in this paper–Chip Dockery, Bull Durham, Toby Hughes, and Dick Jonas–are working closely with the Project. We are still searching for the others. If you know the whereabouts of any of the singers mentioned in this paper, or of any other Air Force singer or songwriter, please contact us!

Folklore (Excluding Folksongs) of Americans in the Vietnam War

Folklore (Excluding Folksongs) of Americans in the Vietnam War


Baky, John. “White Cong and Black Clap: The Ambient Truth of Vietnam War Legendry,” in Duffy, Dan (ed.) and Tal, Kali (ed.), Nobody Gets off the Bus: The Viet Nam Generation Big Book. Woodbridge, CT: Viet Nam Generation, 1994.

Beidler, Philip. “Situation Report: The Experience of Vietnam,” in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia of Press, 1982.

Broudy, Saul P. “Vietnamese Pidgin English,” unpublished ms., 1970.

Chittenden, Varick A. “‘These Aren’t Just My Scenes’: Shared Memories in a Vietnam Veteran’s Art,” Journal of American Folklore, 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989):412-423.

[Dioramas by Marine combat veteran, Michael D. Cousino, Sr.

——– Vietnam Remembered: The Folk Art of Marine Combat Veteran Michael D. Cousino, Sr. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Clark, Gregory. Words of the Vietnam War: The Slang, Jargon, Abbreviations, Acronyms, Nomenclature, Nicknames, Pseudonyms, Slogans, Specs, Euphemisms, Double-talk, Chants, and Names and Places of the Era of United States Involvement in Vietnam. Jefferson NC: McFarland and Co., 1990.

Cornell, George. “G.I. Slang in Vietnam,” Journal of American Culture, 4 (1981):195-200.

G.I. slang in Vietnam developed as a specialized terminology and an expression of futility. With glossary.

Dewhurst, C, Kurt. “Pleiku Jackets, Tour Jackets, and Working Jackets: ‘The Letter Sweaters of War'” (note), Journal of American Folklore 101, no. 399 (January-March, 1988):48-52.

Feola, Chris. “The American Who Fought on the Other Side,” New York Folklore, 15, nos. 1-2 (1989):119-120.

Discussion of a legend which circulated among soldiers during the Philippine-American War and the Vietnam War.

Ferris, William R., Jr. “The Enlisted Man: Army Folklore,” New York Folklore, 2, nos. 3 and 4 (Winter, 1976):229-234.

Collected at Ft. Bliss in 1970, copying machine folklore, including “the chain of command” and a short-timer’s calendar.]

Foster, Ted. The Vietnam Funny Book. Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1980.

Gibson, James William. “American Paramilitary Culture and the Reconstitution of the Vietnam War” in Walsh, Jeffrey (ed.) and Aulich, James (ed.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.

Holm, Tom. “Culture, Ceremonialism and Stress: American Indian Veterans and the Vietnam War.” Armed Forces and Society 12 (Winter, 1986): 237-251.

Jackson, Bruce. “The Perfect Informant,” Journal of American Folklore, 103, no. 410 (October–December, 1990):400-416.

Martin, Charles E. “‘A Good One Is a Dead One’: The Combat Soldier’s View of Vietnam and the Indian Wars.” Kentucky Folklore Record, 26, nos. 3 and 4 (July-December, 1980: 114-132.

Melvin, Ken. Sorry ‘Bout That! Tokyo: The Wayward Press, 1966.

Myers, James E., ed. A Treasury of Military Humor. Springfield IL: Lincoln-Herndon Press, 1990.

Chapter on humor of the Vietnam War

Nusbaum, Philip. “Traditionalizing Experience: The Case of Vietnam Veterans,” New York Folklore, 17, nos. 1 and 2 (1991): 45-62.

Pearson, Barry. “The Soldier’s Point of View: The Experience of World War II and Vietnam as Portrayed in Folklore and Oral History,” unpublished ms., n.d.

Material drawn from author’s collection and the Maryland Folklore Archive, University of Maryland, College Park MD

Pratt, John Clark. Vietnam Voices. New York: Viking, 1984.

Office copier folklore, Saigon graffiti, text of “What the Captain Means…”

Smyth, Cecil. “Unofficial Military Insignia of the Vietnam War: United States Army Special Forces,” Antiques and Collecting Hobbies, 92 (February, 1988):28-30.

Sossaman, Stephen. “More on Pleiku Jackets in Vietnam,” Journal of American Folklore, 102, no. 403 (January-March):76.

Spark, Alasdair. “The Soldier at the Heart of the War: The Myth of the Green Beret in the Popular Culture of the Vietnam Era,” Journal of American Studies, 18 (April, 1984):29-84.

——– “Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam,” in Walsh, Jeffrey (ed.) and Aulich, James (ed.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.

Tuso, Joseph F. “A Folk Drama: ‘What the Captain Means Is…,’ or That Interview You Never Saw on TV,” Folklore Forum, 5, no. 1 (January, 1972):25-27.

Text of a humorous sketch which circulated widely among pilots in Southeast Asia.

Zidek, Tony. Choi-oi: The Lighter Side of Vietnam. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965.

Page updated 30 July, 1999

Select Bibliography of Military Folklore

Select Bibliography of Military Folklore

This bibliography is limited to folklore of the American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armed services in the twentieth century, excluding the Vietnam War. Notes by Les Cleveland [LC] and Lydia Fish [LF].

Adler, Kurt. Songs of Many Wars. New York: Howell, Soskin, 1942.

65 items from various countries with words and music, from the 16th-20th centuries. [LC]

Beale, Paul. “‘And So Nobby Called to Smudger…’: Nicknames Associated with Individual Surnames,” Lore and Language, 9, no. 1 (January 1990): 13-18.

Boatner, Mark Mayo. Military Customs and Traditions. Westport CN: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Bowman, Kent. “Echoes of Shot and Shell: Songs of the Great War,” Studies in Popular Culture, 10, no. 1 (1987): 28-41.

Based entirely on secondary sources [LF]

Brand, Oscar. Ballad Mongers. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1962.

Contains brief notes about World War II and Korean War Songs in a chapter entitled “Singing Servicemen.” [LC]

Brophy, John and Eric Partridge. The Long Trail. London: Andre Deutsch, 1965.

Texts of what the British soldier allegedly sang and said in 1914-1918. Contains 58 songs with notes and a glossary of military slang. Bowdlerized, with no music and no index. [LC]

Bureau of Naval Personnel. Navy Song Book. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1945.

94 items, mainly popular songs, but including a few traditional services compositions. [LC]

Burke, Carol. “‘If You’re Nervous in the Service. . .’: Training Songs of Female Soldiers in the ’40s,” 127-37 in Holsinger, M. Paul (ed.) Schofield, Mary Anne (ed.) Visions of War: World War II in Popular Literature and Culture. Bowling Green OH: Popular Culture Press, 1992.

Carey, George G. “A Collection of Airborne Cadence Chants,” Journal of American Folklore, 178 (1965): 52-61.

Cerf, Bennett. The Pocket Book of War Humor. New York, 1942

Contains some service folktales. [LF]

Cleveland, Les. Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

——– “Military Folklore and the Underwood Collection,” New York Folklore, 13, nos. 3-4 (1987): 87-103.

Description of seminal collection of World War II folklore, now housed in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project; excellent bibliography. [LF]

——– “Military Folklore: Additional References,” New York Folklore, 14, nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring, 1988): 143-146.

——– “Soldiers’ Songs: The Folklore of the Powerless,” New York Folklore, 11 (1985): 79-97.

Discusses the functions of military folksong and especially its significance as protest. [LC]

——– “When They Send the Last Yank Home: Wartime Images of Popular Culture,” Journal of Popular Culture, 18 (1984): 31-36.

Reproduces several anti-American parodies circulating among NZ troops in World War II. [LC]

Colby, Elbridge. Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942.

Commission on Training Camp Activities of the Army and Navy Departments. Songs of the Soldiers and Sailors. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1917.

62 popular songs of World War I and six hymns. [LC]

Cox, Gordon. “Songs and Ballads of the Wet Canteen: Recollections of a British Soldier in India,” Lore and Language, 3, no. 7 (1982): 53-67.

Cragg, Dan. “A Brief Survey of Some Unofficial Prosigns Used by the United States Armed Forces,” Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, 4, no. 2 (Winter 1990): 167-173.

Dallas, Karl. The Cruel Wars. London: Wolfe Publishing, 1972.

100 songs “from Agincourt to Ulster” with melodies and guitar chords.” [LC]

Denisoff, R Serge. Songs of Protest, War and Peace. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, [1973].

Bibliography containing some useful references to World War I, World War II and Korean War song material. Most of the Vietnam War references are to protest songs, country music, and patriotic songs. [LF]

De Witt, Hugh. Bawdy Barrack-Room Ballads. London: Tandem, 1970

Texts of 69 songs, many of them well-known in the British Army. [LC]

Diamond, George Arthur. “Prisoner of War,” New York Folklore Quarterly, 6 (1950).

Dolph, Edward Arthur. Sound Off! New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929.

325 songs and bugle calls from the American Revolutionary War to World War I with music and notes. The most substantial of the U.S. military song collections. [LC]

Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Section on “G.I. Folklore” in chapter on “Modern Folklore.” [LF]

Dundes, Alan. “The American Game of ‘Smear the Queer’ and the Homosexual Component of Male Competitive Sport and Warfare.” Journal of Psychoanalytical Anthropology, 8 (1985): 115-129.

Claims that there are homosexual underpinnings to warfare and cites some military songs. [LC]

Edwards, Ron. Australian Folk Songs. Holloway’s, Queensland: The Ram’s Skull Press, 1972.

A section of this work is devoted to the services and contains words and melodies of twenty songs. [LC]

Edwards, Thomas Joseph. Military Customs. Aldershot, England: Gale and Poldon, 1961. [Earlier editions in 1947, 1952 and 1954.]

Eisner, Harry. “‘Poor Child’: A Sculptale,” New York Folklore, 16, nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring, 1990): 43-51.

Sculpture by a World War II veteran based on his war experience. [LF]

Elkin, Frederick. “The Soldier’s Language.” American Journal of Sociology, 51 (1946):414-422.

Soldiers’ language reflects self-images of solidarity, freedom from social restraint and strength as well as attitudes towards authority. [LC]

Elting, John; Dan Cragg; Ernest Deal, eds. A Dictionary of Soldier Talk. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984.

Fraser, Edward and Gibbons, John. Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases. Soldier and sailor words and phrases; including slang of the trenches and the air force; British and American war-words and service terms and expressions in everyday use; nicknames, sobriquets, and titles of regiments, with their origins; the battle-honours of the Great War awarded to the British Army. London: Routledge and Sons, 1925. Reprinted, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968.

Fussell, Paul. “Myth, Ritual, and Romance,” in The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

——– “Rumors of War,” in Wartime. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Getz, C.W. The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Vol I. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press:1981.

Good detail on variants and sources. Lists 33 unit songbooks. Contains texts of 661 songs and many variants. [LC]

——– The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Vol. II. Stag Bar Edition. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1986.

Lists 23 songbooks of military organizations and reproduces 336 texts, about half of which are bawdy, with glossary. [LC]

Glazer, Tom. Songs of Peace, Freedom and Protest. New York: David McKay, 1970.

Contains a few traditional military items critical of services life. [LC]

Graham, Joe S. “Old Army Went to Hell in 1958: Aggie War Stories from the Corps of Cadets,” 105-121 in Abernathy, Francis Edward (ed.), Sonovagun Stew: A Folklore Miscellany. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985.

Halpert Herbert. “Mosquitoes on the Runway,” Western Folklore, 49 (April, 1990): 145-161.

Hamilton, Hamish. Ballads of World War II. Glasgow: The Lili Marlene Club, ca. 1945.

Collection of British, German and Italian songs current among, or known to, 51st Highland Division soldiers in the British Eighth Army. [LC]

“The Hard-Boiled Songs of Aviators,” The Literary Digest, December 8, 1923:48-51.

Texts of nine World War I songs current among airmen. [LC]

J. K. Havener. Army Air Force Lyrics. Fallbrook CA: Aero Publishers, 1985.

Excellent collection of World War II material by retired Air Force Lt. Colonel. [LF]

Hench, Atcheson. “Communal Composition in the A.E.F.,” Journal of American Folklore, 34 (1921): 386-387.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Minority Report,” The Nation, February 13, 1989: 187.

Texts of one complete song and three song fragments from songbook of the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Upper Heyford, England.

Hopkins, Anthony. Songs From the Front and Rear. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1979.

120 songs, with music, current among Canadian servicemen in World War II. Not bowdlerized. [LC]

Jackson, Bruce. “What Happened to Jody?” Journal of American Folklore, 80 (1967): 387-396.

Jansen, William Hugh. “The Klesh-Maker,” Hoosier Folklore, 7 (1948): 47-50.

Johnson, Sandee Shaffer. Cadences: The Jody Call Book, No. 1. Canton, Ohio: Daring Press, 1983.

Compilation of approximately 260 bowdlerized cadence chants with a brief historical introduction about their origins in U.S. military tradition.

——– Cadences: The Jody Call Book. No. 2. Canton: Daring Press, 1988.

Keith, Sam. “The Flying Nightmares,” New York Folklore Quarterly, 6 (1950): 154-160.

Folklore of the 413th combat squadron, the first medium-bomber squadron in the history of Marine Corps aviation. Texts of two songs.

Kenagy, S.G. “Sexual Symbolism in the Language of the Air Force Pilot: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Folk Speech,” Western Folklore, 37 (1978): 89-101.

An analysis of sexually oriented metaphor as displacement of fear and anxiety and as phallic fantasy and aggression. [LC]

Knight, Jeff Parker. “Literature as Equipment for Killing: Performance as Rhetoric in Military Training Groups, “Text and Performance Quarterly, 10, no. 2 (1990): 158-168.

Some Vietnam-era cadences

Koch, Edwin E. “G.I. Lore: Lore of the Fifteenth Air Force,” New York Folklore Quarterly, 9 (1953): 59-70.

Texts of five songs

Lally, Kelly A. “Living on the Edge: The Folklore of Air Force Pilots in Training,” Midwestern Folklore, 13, no. 2 (Fall, 1987): 107-120.

Limouze, A. B. “The Hump Song.” Journal of American Folklore, 63, no. 250 (1950): 463-465.

Lovette, Leland P. Naval Traditions and Usage. 3rd edition. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1939.

Meyers, Hazel. [W.A.C. Songs]. Brooklyn, 1943.

A typescript collection of 89 songs compiled by W.A.C. Pfc. Hazel Meyers, Port Headquarters, W.A.C. Det., Fort Hamilton NY. [Library of Congress, Music Division]

Miller, William Marion. “A Modern Atrocity Story.” Journal of American Folklore, 58, no. 228 (1945): 156-157.

Myers, James E., ed. A Treasury of Military Humor. Springfield IL: Lincoln-Herndon Press, 1990.

Navy Department Commission on Training Camp Activities. Marine Corps Songbook. Washington, DC: National Committee on Army and Navy Camp Music, 1919.

78 popular wartime songs and seven hymns. [LC]

Nettleinghame, Frederick Thomas. More Tommy’s Tunes. An Additional Collection of Soldiers’ Songs, Marching Melodies, Rude Rhymes and Popular Parodies, Composed, Collected, and Arranged on Active Service with the B.E.F. by F. T. Nettleinghame [sic], Middlesex Regiment. London: Erskine MacDonald, Ltd., 1919.

Words of 97 songs from World War I. [LC]

——– Tommy’s Tunes. A Comprehensive Collection of Soldiers’ Songs, Marching Melodies, Rude Rhymes, and Popular Parodies, Composed, Collected and Arranged on Active Service with the B.E.F., by F. T. Nettleingham [sic], 2nd LT. R.F.C. London: Erskine MacDonald, Ltd.,1917.

Words of 93 songs from World War I. [LC]

Niles, John Jacob, J., D.S. Moore and A.A. Wallgren, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me. New York: Macaulay, 1929.

Collection of World War I soldiers’ songs with musical arrangements. [LC]

——– Singing Soldiers. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1966.

Superb collection, with narration giving contextual information, of Black soldiers’ songs from World War I. [LF]

Page, Martin. Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major. London: Hart Davis MacGibbon, 1973.

157 songs and rhymes current in World War II, mostly in the British Army. [LC]

——– For Gawdsake Don’t Take Me. London: Hart Davis MacGibbon, 1976.

186 songs and rhymes. [LC]

Palmer, Roy. “What a Lovely War”: British Soldiers’ Songs from the Boer War to the Present Day. London: Michael Joseph, 1990.

Pearson, Barry. “The Soldier’s Point of View: The Experience of World War II and Vietnam as Portrayed in Folklore and Oral History,” unpublished ms, n.d.

Material drawn from author’s collection and the Maryland Folklore Archive, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. [LF]

[Posselt, Eric.] G.I. Songs, Written, Composed and/or Collected by the Men in the Service. Bruce E. Palmer [pseud.], ed. New York:Sheriden House, [1944].

——– Give Out! Songs of, by and for the Men in Service. Florida: Granger Books, 1943. [Also New York: Arrowhead Press, 1943]

120 songs current in the Allied World War II services. [LC]

Riordan, John Lancaster. “American Naval ‘Slanguage’ in the Pacific in 1945.” California Folklore Quarterly, 5, no. 4 (October, 1946): 375-390.

Rixey, Lilian. “Soldiers Still Sing,” Life, September 27, 1943, 48-54.

Lists several songs popular among U.S. troops in World War II. [LC]

Roulier, James B. “Service Lore: Army Slang,” New York Folklore Quarterly, 4 (1948): 15-28.

Sandburg, Carl. The American Songbag. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927.

Has twelve songs from five wars, with music. [LC]

Sandels, Robert. “The Doughboy: The Formation of a Military Folk,” American Studies, 24 no. 1 (Spring, 1983): 69-88.

Seton, Bruce Gordon and Grant, John. The Pipes of War. A Record of the Achievements of Pipers of Scottish Overseas Regiments During the War, 1914-1918.

Shorrocks, Graham. “Body Bag Backlog: A Contemporary Legend?” Foaftale News, 20 (December, 1990): 5

Stevens, Bob. “If You Read Me, Rock the Tower.” 1980.

——– More There I Was. . .” 1974.

——– “There I Was. . .” 1968.

——– “There I Was. . . Flat on My Back” Fallbrook CA: Aero Publishers, 1975.

Excellent collection of Air Force songs and cartoons from World War II through Vietnam. All Stevens’ books have an extremely high folklore content. [LF]

——– There I Was. . .” 25 Years. Summit PA: TAB Aero, 1992.

Thorpe, Peter, “Buying the Farm: Notes on the Folklore of the Modern Military Aviator,” Northwest Folklore, 2, no. 1 (1967): 11-17.

Observations by a naval flyer on some of the myths, taboos and language of the service. Includes a discussion of pilot psychology, the cult of masculinity and the social control of fear [LC]

“Tommy’s Songs,” The Literary Digest, December 1, 1917: 36

Review of Tommy’s Songs.

Trident Society, U.S. Naval Academy. The Book of Navy Songs. Annapolis: Doubleday, 1942.

Collection of songs current in the U.S. Navy. [LC]

Trnka, Susanna. “Living a Life of Sex and Danger: Women, Warfare and Sex in Military Folk Rhymes,” Western Folklore, 54 (July, 1995): 232-241.

Underwood, Agnes Nolan. “Folklore from G.I. Joe,” New York Folklore Quarterly, 2 (1947): 285-297.

Discusses Kilroy, Smoe, Clem, services slang, slogans, superstitions, names, aircraft and songs. [LC]

Waelde, Barbara. “The Function of Folklore in the Louisiana National Guard,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, 5, no 4 (1984), 28-39

Wallrich, William. Air Force Airs. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1957.

Collection of songs current in the U.S. Air Force from World War I to the Korean War. [LC]

——– “Superstition and the Air Force,” Western Folklore, 19, no. 1 (January, 1960): 11-16.

——– United States Air Force Parodies Based Upon ‘The Dying Hobo.'” Western Folklore, 13 (1954).

Discusses connections between “The Dying Hobo” and a sequence of military variants. [LC]

Ward-Jackson, C.H. Airman’s Song Book. London: Blackwood, 1945.

Anthology of songs “mainly of the Royal Air Force, its auxiliaries and its predecessors, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.” Contains 144 songs with 55 melodies and a glossary of technical terms. [LC]

Wilkinson, Stephen. “Aviation’s Urban Legends.” The Director’s Cut, Air and Space Magazine, December/January 1998, supplemental information.

Six classic aviation legends.

Ye A.E.F. Hymnal. Nancy: Berger-Levrault, ca. 1918.

Collection of 17 “Doughboy lyrics that smoothed the road from Hoboken to the Rhine.” [LC]

Yates, Norris. “Some ‘Whoppers’ from the Armed Services.” Journal of American Folklore, 62, no. 244 (1949): 173-180.

York, Dorothea. Mud and Stars. New York: Henry Holt, 1931.

Texts of 309 songs and poems from World War I. [LC]

Page updated 30 July, 1999

Bibliography: Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War

Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War


Bartman, William J. “Soldiers’ Ballads Tell Saga of Vietnam War.” Stars and Stripes (European edition), July 24, 1989.

Bloom, Lary. “Boonie Tunes.” Hartford Courant, August 4, 1991.

Broudy, Saul P. “A Chopper Pilot’s Day”: The Singing Tradition of the Army Aviator in Vietnam,” unpublished ms., 1987.

——– “G.I. Folklore in Vietnam.” M.A. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1969.

Briefly discusses military folklore in Vietnam with a list of slang terms. Also reproduces 23 texts from the songbook of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company and 22 songs transcribed from a tape recording of a singing contest held at an aviation unit commanders’ conference in Nha Trang, April, 1967.

——– “Politics in Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Songs,” unpublished ms., 1972.

Carol Burke, “Marching to Vietnam,” Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989):424-441.

Cadence in the Vietnam-era military

Burruss, L. H (Bucky) Lt. Col. USA Special Forces (Ret.). Mike Force. New York: Pocket Books, 1989: 61, 110, 146, 156.

Texts of “Green Beret and Friendly FAC,” “Mary Anne Barnes,” “They Promised Us Wings of Silver,” and “Rat-A-Tat-Tat.”

Clark, Charlie. “Looking Back on Vietnam and Its Music,” Veteran, 6, no. 2 (February, 1986):10-13, 22-23.

Cleveland, Les. Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Chapter on Vietnam War songs

——– “Songs of the Vietnam War: An Occupational Folk Tradition,” unpublished ms., 1986.

Deals mostly with song traditions in New Zealand units in Vietnam

Columbino, Ralph. “Taisau (Why),” Sing Out, 17, no. 1 (February-March, 1967):9.

Text of song “written in Viet Nam by Lance Corporal Ralph Columbino, USMC” in 1966; also in Lansdale

Cote, Jean C. “Blues in Vietnam,” Music Journal, 26 (February, 1968):48.

Band of the Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet

Crofut, William. Troubadour: A Different Battlefield. New York: E. P. Duttom, 1968.

Personal account of two folksingers, Steve Addis and Bill Crofut, who toured 29 countries in eight years for USIS. Three chapters on Vietnam.

Currey, Cecil. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.

Dane, Barbara and Silber, Irwin. The Vietnam Songbook. New York: Guardian, 1969.

144 songs from the anti-war movement. Two, by “anonymous American G.I.’s” are variants of songs in the Lansdale collection. A few were written by veterans.

DeGracci, Jim SP4. “Band Socks It To ’em Everywhere.” The Green Beret (October, 1970), Fifth Special Forces Group (Abn.), Nha Trang.

Denisoff, R Serge. “Fighting Prophecy With Napalm: The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Journal of American Culture 13 (Spring, 1990):81-93.

Excellent article on the early career of Barry Sadler.

Durham, James P. (“Bull”). Songs of SACk. 1965.

——– Songs of S.E.A. Dur-Don Enterprises, 1970.

100 songs collected during the author’s tour of duty, 1969-1970

Fall, Bernard. Street Without Joy. Fourth edition, revised. Harrisburg: The Stackpole Company, 1964.

Text of “The Viet-Cong Blues,” sung by the Special Forces Team of 1/Lt. John B. Dooley.

Fish, Lydia. “From the Delta to the DMZ: Folksongs of the Vietnam War,” New York Folklore Newsletter, 9, no. 4, (Winter, 1988-1989), 2, 3, 11.

——– “General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War,” Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989) 390-411.

——– and Bowen, Thomas. The Longest Year. A Collection of Songs by Advisors and Civilians in the Vietnam War. Buffalo: Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project, 1990.

62 songs from various manuscript and tape sources. Some were written or collected by General Bowen during his tours in Vietnam, 1963-1965, 1967-1969, 1971-1972.

——– “Vietnam War–American Songs: The General Edward G. Lansdale Collection,” Folklife Center News, 9, no. 3 (summer, 1989).

——– “Walking in Charlie’s Land: Songs by Americans in the Vietnam War,” SUNY Research, May, 1991.

——– “What Did You Sing in the War?” New York State Veterans’ Interchange, 1, no. 1 (spring, 1990) 15-16

——– “What Did You Sing in the War? Vietnam Rocked and Rolled for Most Soldiers,” Vietnam October, 1990: 58, 61.

Foster, Wynn F. Captain Hook: A Pilot’s Tragedy and Triumph in the Vietnam War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Appendix of songs composed aboard the USS Oriskany, 1965-1966.

Getz, C.W. The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Vol I. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1981.

Good detail on variants and sources. Lists 33 unit songbooks. Contains texts of 661 songs and many variants.

——– The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Vol. II. Stag Bar Edition. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1986.

Lists 23 songbooks of military organizations and reproduces 336 texts, with glossary

Gonzalez, David. “From Smokey Saigon Bars to Stateside Concerts.” The New York Times, November 7, 1993.

Hardin, James. “Songs of Vietnam-Era Soldiers Featured at Center Program, Folklife Center News, 9, no. 3, summer, 1989.

Hargrove, Thomas R. A Dragon Lives Forever. IVY Ballantine Books, 1994

Memoirs of an Army Captain Ag Advisor with the CORDS in the Delta, includes texts of songs he wrote

Hughes, Toby. “What the Captain Means: Songs of the In-Country Air War.” Unpublished ms, 1989.

Jonas, Dick. The Dick Jonas Songbook. Vol. 1. Litchfield Park, AZ: Erosonic Enterprises, 1976.

Words and notes to 23 songs by Dick Jonas

——– RBAAB: The Red-Blooded All-American Boy. Fort Mojave AZ: Erosonic, 1996.

The songbook companion to six albums of military aviation music by Dick Jonas. Words and notes to 72 songs, mostly by Dick Jonas, some traditional.

Lansdale, Edward Geary. In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Maxa, Rudy. “What Did You Sing in the War, Daddy?” The Washington Post, Potomac Magazine, (February 23, 1975), 4.

Noel, Reuben, and Nancy Noel. Saigon for a Song: The True Story of a Vietnam Gig to Remember. Phoenix: UCS Press, 1987.

Personal narrative by a husband-wife entertainment team

“On Top of Old Ap Bac,” Newsweek, March 15, 1963

Patrick, Joe. “Former ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ Gunship Pilot James P. Durham Is a True Balladeer of the Vietnam War,” Vietnam, August, 1996: 12, 16, 64, 66.

Pendleton, Scott. “The Unsung Story: Vietnam Songwriters.” The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 1992.

Perry, Charles. “Is This Any Way To Run the Army? Stoned?” Rolling Stone, no. 51 (November 9, 1968), 1, 6, 8, 9.

Excellent discussion of AFVN Radio and musical preferences of troops in Vietnam

Ploetz, Elmer. “In Country. A Buffalo State College Researcher is Compiling the Work of Some Unlikely Musicians: Those on the Front Lines in the Vietnam War.” The Buffalo News, May 3, 1992.

“The Purple Heart Boogie.” Time, March 4, 1966:41.

Ritter, Jeff. “Songs of the Vietnam War,” Broadside, 172 (April, 1986):3-9, 13.

Words of 10 songs from Lansdale collection and one by Rick Duvall, words and music to one song by Jim Wachtendonk

“Rock and Roll Song Becoming Vietnam’s Tipperary,” New York Times, June 14, 1967.

Sadler, Barry. I’m a Lucky One. With Tom Mahoney. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967.

Personal narrative of Sadler’s tour in Vietnam

Safer, Morley. Flashbacks. New York: Random House, 1990: 164.

Text of Hershel Gober’s “Saigon Warrior”

Scroft, Gene. “Eternal Mercenary.” Soldier of Fortune, February, 1989.

Recent activities of Barry Sadler

Shadbolt, Stuart Lt. Col. Letter to Air Force Magazine, December 1971: 16.

Texts of two Nail FAC songs: “Well, I Am a Nail FAC in Laos” and “Run, Run, Cricket Run.”

Sheehan, Neil. Bright Shining Lie. New York: Random House, 1988.

Text of “Ap Bac,” composed by a helicopter pilot or crewman after the battle and “sung in the evenings over gin and vodka and cold beer in the clubs at Soc Trang.”

Sipchen, Bob. “The Ballad of Barry Sadler.” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1989, sec. 5, col. 1.

Slavin, Peter. “Singing in the Ranks,” Army Times, April 17, 1989.

Stevens, Bob. “There I Was…Flat on My Back.” Fallbrook CA: Aero Publishers, 1975.

Excellent collection of Air Force songs and cartoons from World War II through Vietnam.

Treaster, Joseph B. “G.I. View of Vietnam,” New York Times Magazine, October 30, 1966:100, 102, 104, 106, 109.

Tuso, Joseph. “Folksongs of American Fighter Pilot in Southeast Asia, 1967-1968,” Folklore Forum, Bibliographical and Special Series no. 7, 1971.

33 pilots’ songs from Vietnam with glossary and introduction describing the performance of the songs

——– Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A and M Press, 1990.

Ward, William A. “U.S. Army Vietnam Band: Always on Sunday,” Music Journal, 28 (November, 1970): 30, 31, 45.

Weiss, Lt. Col. George L, USAF (Ret.). “Throw a Nickel on the Grass.” Air Force Magazine, September, 1971: 84-90.

Woodruff, John E. “Songs Helicopter Pilots Sing on Flag Day in Vietnam: ‘Napalm Sticks to Kids.'” Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1970.

Vietnamese Folk Songs

“Songs and Vietnamese Clientele are Sad at Nightclub in Saigon.” New York Times, December 14, 1969.

Treaster, Joseph B. “Saigon Bans the Anti-War Songs of Vietnamese Singer.” New York Times, February 12, 1969, 18. [Ref: Bernard

Weinraub, Bernard. “A Vietnamese Guitarist Sings of Sadness of War,” New York Times, January 1, 1968, 3 [Ref: Arnold

Reprinted in Broadside (New York City), 99 (June, 1969): 4

Related Books and Articles

Bindes, Kenneth J; Houston, Craig. “Takin’ Care of Business: Rock Music, Vietnam and the Protest Myth,” The Historian, 52 (November, 1989):1-23.

——–; Romanowski, William D. “The Pentagon’s Top Guns: Movies and Music,” Journal of American Culture, 12 (Fall, 1989):67-78.

Elison, Mary. “Black Music and the Vietnam War,” in Walsh, Jeffrey (ed.) and Aulich, James (ed.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.

James, David R. “Rock and Roll in Representations of the Invasion of Vietnam,” Representations, 29 (Winter, 1990):78-98.

——– “The Vietnam War and American Music,” in Berg, Richard (ed.) and Rowe, John Carlos (ed.), The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.


Page updated
30 July, 1999


Commercially Available Recordings of Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War

Commercially Available Recordings
of Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War

Oscar Brand

Oscar Brand and the Bare FACs. The Wild Blue over Vietnam.

TRO, 2001. (CD $15.00, plus $4.00 shipping and handling. New York residents add 8.5% sales tax)

Twenty songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War.

Oscar’s legendary Korean War recordings, The Wild Blue Yonder and Out of the Blue are also available on his website.

Oscar Brand
Box 1362
Manhasset NY 11030
[email protected]

Border City Records

Border City Records has released a series of documentary recordings from the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. These include FAC Songs of S.E.A., a collection of songs by pilots who flew the FAC mission throughout the war, mostly from original in-theatre recordings, Songs from Korat R.T.A.F.B, the notorious recording of Irv LeVine’s One Hundred Mission Party at Korat in 1968, and Commando Sing, a concert featuring singers from several bases in Thailand, recorded the night before the Thuds left Korat in 1973. Also, if you remember a tape or a song from the war years, Border City may be able to find it and make a CD for you. For information about prices and shipping contact

Gary Lee / Border City Records
217 Highland Parkway
Buffalo NY 14223
BorderCityRecord [at] aol [dot] com

In Country

Saul Broudy, Chip Dockery, Bull Durham, Bill Ellis, Toby Hughes, Dick Jonas, Chuck Rosenberg. Flying Fish Records, 1991. (CD $16.00)

The classic recording of songs by Americans in the Vietnam War.
28 songs, recorded in Chicago in the summer of 1991.

For price and shipping information, contact

The Society of Old Bold Aviators

The Society of Old Bold Aviators, dedicated to the preservation and propagation of military aviation songs, produced six Flyer’s Songfests in the metropolitcan Washington DC area between 1998 and 2004. CDS are available based on three of these concerts: SOBA-2000, SOBA-2001 and SOBA-2002.

Singers have variously included Jim Bullington, Chip Dockery, Bull Durham, Dick Jonas, Irv LeVine, Ron Barker, Jonathan Myer, Chinch Wollerton, Saul Broudy, Dolf Droge, and the RB Double-A Bravo Quartet.

For more information about contents, price and shipping, contact:

Jonathan Myer
2502 Davis Avenue
Alexandria VA 22302
[email protected]

James P. “Bull” Durham

The one and only!!!!

Bull Durham’s Songs of SACk and Bull Durham’s Songs of SEA

(Two recordings on one CD) Border City Records, 2001. (CD $15.00, plus $2.95 shipping and handling)

Ten songs about SAC in the Vietnam era recorded in 1963
Twelve songs collected during his Vietnam tour of duty and recorded in 1971

Gary Lee / Border City Records
217 Highland Parkway
Buffalo NY 14223
BorderCityRecord [at] aol [dot] com

Jim Hatch

A Viet Nam Aviator’s Odyssey. CWF, 1996. (CD $16.00, cassette $8.00, plus $3.00 shipping and handling. Two or more CDS, $15.00 each; one CD and one cassette, $22.00, plus $3.00 shipping and handling)

Twenty songs from Navy and Marine Aviation tradition.

Jim Hatch
14442 Cloverbrook Drive
Tustin CA 92780

Now available on CD!

High Priced Help

(also known as Three Majors and a Minor)

High Priced Help. Border City Records, 1999. (CD $15.00, plus $2.95 shipping and handlng)

26 songs by a superb quartet of Army aviators of the 174th AHC recorded in country in 1967.

Gary Lee / Border City Records
217 Highland Parkway
Buffalo NY 14223
BorderCityRecord [at] aol [dot] com

Dick Jonas

The most famous Air Force singer/songwriter of all time!

FSH-Volume 1. Erosonic, 1997. (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Twelve Vietnam War fighter pilot songs

FSH-Volume 2. Erosonic, 1997 (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Twelve Vietnam War fighter pilot songs

Two Sides of Dick Jonas. Erosonic, 1997. (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Five Vietnam War fighter pilot songs, seven other songs

Swamp Fox. Erosonic, 1997. (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Twelve songs from the post-war Air Force

Nickel on the Grass. Erosonic, 1997. (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Twelve air Force classics and other songs

Itazuke Tower. Erosonic, 1997. (CD $15.00, cassette $10.00)

Twelve Air Force classics and other songs

News Flash!

Dick has recently added six more recordings to his catalog, featuring Air Force “superstars” Toby Hughes, Chip Dockery, Bull Durham and Irv LeVine. Three more will be released in the summer of 2005. He also sells a good assortment of Air Force songbooks. For prices and shipping details, check out his website at

Jonathan Myer

Songs of the O-1-E “Bird Dog.”

Border City Records, 2000.

Twelve songs plus narratives about his experiences as a forward air controller in Kontum Province and the DMZ in 1966-1967.

More FAC and Flying Songs

Border City Records, 2004.

Fifteen more songs and background, mostly based on memories of the same period

For price and shipping information contact:

Jonathan Myer
2502 Davis Avenue
Alexandria VA 22302
[email protected]

Michael McCann

Soldiers’ Songs. MM01, 1998. (CD $15.95, cassette $10.95)

A beautifully produced recording of thirteen songs from eight wars, sung by a Special Forces veteran: World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the American and Irish civil wars, the British African wars, and a few Irish Rebellions.

Soldiers’ Songs
PO Box 2927 New Haven CT 06515
E-mail: [email protected]

A Night at the Bar with the Boys

Sneedo, G. and Tommy T., Garage Music Ltd., 1989. (CD $15.00)

28 completely uncensored Air Force songs by a trio of Warthog drivers. Recorded in Scotland in 1989.

Major Tommy Abbott
PSC 103 Box 3871 APO AE 09603
[email protected]

Page updated
17 May 2005

Vietnam and Rock & Roll

Vietnam and Rock & Roll

Michael W. Rodriguez

In the Fall of 1967 the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines had just come off an absolutely disastrous operation called Medina. Hotel Company had had beaucoup people hurt and killed, so we regrouped on our mountain, licking our wounds, receiving new people, drawing fresh ammo, and here comes my man Parker. Parker was just back from R&R in Hong Kong (where he came down with malaria – in Hong Kong!). He’s got this portable record player under his arm, the 10 D-cell kind, and a red plastic album, the kind you bought overseas in those days.

So we say, “What you got, man?,” and he says, “It’s a new album by the Beatles, called ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.'”


Now, just a day or two before, we had welcomed a couple of FNG’s (-New Guys) into the Company, and we’d naturally asked them what was “hot” back in The World, besides mini-skirts (we had already seen pictures of those!), and this one kid says, “A song by The Boxtops called ‘The Letter’.” Not too long after that, but before Parker came diddy-bopping back to the Bush, we heard ‘The Letter’ on AFRVN, the radio station down in Saigon. We thought, “Yeah – There it is!” Get me a ticket for an airplane. I heard that!

How many times, over there, did we go Rock’N’Roll in a firefight, and not mean the Rolling Stones, or The Who, or The 4 Tops? Many, many times. Rock’N’Roll meant fully automatic fire, get some adrenaline running through the body like a runaway train.

We were not warfare’s first generation to go to war to the sound of music (sorry, bad pun; couldn’t help it), but we were certainly the first of America’s fighting men to go off to war listening to musical groups with names such as The Beatles, The Boxtops, Thee Midnighters, The Dell-Kings, the 4 Tops, Sam & Dave, etc, etc. Loud music, raucous music, music meant to get the body moving, music that totally hacked our folks off! In short, it was music that said, “Yo! This is ours. This is us!”

We went off to war, having grown up to Jerry Lee Lewis (remember his 13 year old bride?), Fats Domino, Elvis, the Stones (they didn’t want to hold your hand, they wanted to spend the night together), The Kinks (some say “Louie, Louie” was the dirtiest song ever written), Doug Sahm and those that sang of young love: the Flamingos, the Shirelles (“Soldier Boy” anticipated Jody by only a few years), The Byrds (8 Miles High? Right!) and the 5 Satins’ anthem to Junior High’s First Love, “In the Still of the Night.”

We fought the war listening to The Animals, The Doors (“Light My Fire” is a classic), Bob Dylan (You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows), Janis and Credence Clearwater Revival (you better “Run Through The Jungle”). Country Joe’s “I’m Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” became, for many of us, the song for Vietnam. Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn’t understand, the “Rag” became the battle standard for too many Grunts in the Bush.

And we also had Gracie Slick, the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly and the ubiquitous Four Seasons (“Walk Like a Man,” but sing like a girl) and for Gary Reinhardt (wherever you are), the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” We got drunk to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (I left on the eve of TET; I didn’t miss a thing, not a thing) and we thought about our loves back in The World while listening to Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is.”

Hey, hey, my, my. Rock and Roll will never die.

My buddy Parker, along with his 10 D-Cell record player and Beatles album, introduced us to an entirely new genre of music, album rock, and with it, an entirely new form of warfare (for Americans, anyway): concept war. Maybe that’s why Vietnam and Rock’N’Roll seem to go so well together.

Remember the television series, “Tour Of Duty”? It opened, for example, with “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones and producer Zev Braun could not have picked a better song, nee anthem, to define his vision of the Vietnam War.

Hey, hey, my, my. Yo, Parker. This one’s for you.

To paraphrase Kevin Kline’s character in “The Big Chill,” there is no other music in my house.

“My baby she wrote me a letter.”

© 1990, 1995 by Michael W. Rodriguez, all rights reserved

Used by permission

Page updated
28 July, 1999

Colonel Healy’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Colonel Healy’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

SSG George “Sonny” Hoffman

In June of 1968, General Creighton W. Abrams assumed command of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam. The very conventional Abrams was no lover of Special Forces. With orders to begin Vietnamizing the war, he moved quickly to phase out the SF role and send the 5th Special Forces Group home. His early efforts were thwarted by many high level people that thought SF was an efficient use of American manpower, and that their use should increase as US forces pulled out. The mad rush to turn over the SF camps to the Vietnamese resulted in disaster, and Abrams was forced to slow his plans.

The perception in the Abrams camp was that the Special Forces were digging their heels in and resisting their phase out. The perception throughout SF was that Abrams was out to get them. Both were right.

When I arrived in-country on September 17, ’69, the war between the SF and Gen. Abrams was in high gear. In August, Abrams relieved the 5th SF Group commander. MACV jailed him and seven other Green Berets on a charge of killing a Vietnamese double agent. The charges were later dropped, but Abrams replaced our commander with a non-Special Forces colonel, a man that wasn’t even jump qualified–what SFers call a “straight leg.”

To be led by a “leg” was a tremendous blow to the Green Berets. It was meant to be a slap in the face; the slap stung. SF slapped back by playing to the media. The Green Berets are almost as good as the U.S. Marines when it comes to protecting and projecting their image.

The press came down hard on Abrams and made heroes of the eight Green Berets sitting in Long Binh Jail–the infamous LBJ. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the new colonel was trying to earn his jump wings by making five jumps in a jump school designed especially for him. He broke his leg and was shipped home in a cast. His replacement was Colonel “Iron Mike” Healy. At that time, he was arguably the finest Special Forces officer anywhere. He was Mr. Green Beret. How he got command was a mystery, but a pleasant surprise. One thing for certain, though, it wasn’t Abrams’ idea.

“Iron Mike” was loved and respected by every man that soldiered under a green beanie. Colonel Healy was hard core and told it like it was; but more importantly, he took no crap off of anyone, including Abrams and his command staff. He was an officer we would have followed into hell without a map or compass. We all knew that the end of our involvement in the war was near, because the American people were tired of the endless stalemate. We knew we would go, but at least under Mike Healy, leaving would look less like a rout and more like our own idea.

Leaving Vietnam was difficult for many of the old timers. Some traced their involvement all the way back to 1944 when–as members of the OSS–they trained Ho Chi Minh’s rag tag band of guerrillas to fight the Japanese. Special Forces advisory teams were making regular visits to South Vietnam as early as 1957. Our first casualty was recorded that same year, just outside Nha Trang. He was Captain Harry G. Cramer. He died two years before we even started counting Vietnam war dead, so his name is not on The Wall in DC.

Many old timers seemed to be homesteading Vietnam. Encountering men with six, seven, or eight tours was not uncommon in 1969. On my team, A-502, SFC Jim Tolbert had become an icon. He was reputed to have beach front property, a pig farm, and a fleet of pedicabs. Others had gone native and were deeply involved with the people, especially the Yards. The prospect of leaving was traumatic to contemplate. We all knew the South Vietnamese could not, or would not fight. We feared the worst for the Yards, as they had thrown in their lot with us and we were packing it in.

Closing an A-camp (they were actually turned over to the Vietnamese) was a sad affair. Most of the camps had been in existence since 1961 and were a home away from home to many SFers. When I arrived at camp A-502 around the first of October of ’69, we had just been told to plan on closing the camp by the first of March 1970. I took the news in stride, but the guys that had spent years building the place and training the troops were despondent about turning it over to the Vietnamese.

When the big day finally arrived, we stood in formation with the camp strikers (now called Rangers), the LLDB, and local dignitaries for the change of command. That night, the American team members gathered at one of our old outposts in Nha Trang for a private party. For the party, we hired a Filipino Rock band (they were common in Vietnam, and played the U.S. club circuit) and invited SF support personnel from the Special Forces Operational Base in Nha Trang for a real blow out. The object was to let it all hang out and get curb-crawling, knuckle-dragging, commode-hugging drunk.

The bash was to be the last time many of us would see each other, as we were all slated to be either sent home, or sent out to other A-teams to finish out our tours. Since Sgt. Bemis and I still had six months to go, we were awaiting reassignment. Don Bemis and I had become great friends and we shared a common past as members of Rock and Roll bands in high school. I had been a drummer; he was a singer. Jim Tolbert was a balladier and guitar player who had several records out that were popular in Vietnam. He wrote and sang, Purple Heart and Choi Oi among others. He was well known in the 5th Group and could be counted on to pick up his guitar and keep guys entertained for hours, strumming his war ballads. The guy was damn good.

During the performance, Bemis and I asked to sit in on a few numbers with the band. Later, Jim picked up a guitar and was joined by Dalton Kast, a staff sergeant from Project Delta. Kast was outstanding on guitar, but his real talent was his singing. He sounded more like Johnny Cash than Johnny Cash did. For a group that just fell together out of the blue, we weren’t half bad. Maybe it was all the booze, but we were a big hit and stayed on for the rest of the night. When the band’s time was up, they left their instruments with us to be picked up in the morning. They knew we wanted to keep playing, and they didn’t want to stop our party. Long into the early morning hours, A-502 went down partying hard. It was a close-out party none of us would ever forget, and a most fitting way to end our involvement at Camp Trung Dung.

A lieutenant colonel (his name escapes me) from “Iron Mike’s” staff attended our party. As we played our hearts out, the seed of a bizarre idea began to germinate in his head. He said nothing to us that night, or for several days following the party, but after the party, strange things began to happen.

The first inkling that something was up came the next morning when Bemis and I went to find out what our new assignments would be. While all the other team members that weren’t going home drew assignments and headed for the four corners of the war, we were told that our orders were flagged–put on hold. No explanation was given, we were just told to wait. Waiting is hell when you wait in the dark.

Two days later, we bumped into Jim Tolbert who was supposed to have left for Cam Ranh Bay to board a freedom bird for home. In his case, they had asked his permission to flag his orders, still saying nothing except that they wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, and that he wasn’t in any kind of trouble. Jim wasn’t happy about the flagging, but being a good soldier, gave his consent. Jim had good reasons for wanting on that freedom bird and missing home wasn’t one of them. Evidently, he had some problems with liquidating some of his unofficial assets and was laying low.

With Tolbert’s inclusion, we at least had something to go on–we were the three team members that got on stage at the party. Why that would generate a flag on our orders was beyond our reasoning. The only thing we could figure was that some big wigs wanted us to jam at their private party. If that was the case, we knew Tolbert would go berserk. Out of curiosity, we looked up that staff sergeant from Project Delta, Dalton Kast. He was easy to find, as he had been put on administrative stand down (no combat operations) the morning after the party.

He was happy to see us, as it gave him a clue as to what was going down. Dalton gave us the only rational explanation for the puzzle: the Filipino band had obviously put a claim against the 5th Group for damages to their instruments, and until it was settled, no one would go anywhere. We knew we hadn’t done the instruments any harm, but it would not have been the first time someone tried to scam Uncle Sam.

The idea of being wrongly accused bothered us greatly. The Filipino band was still in the area. We found them at the Air Force NCO Club and cornered the leader between sets. He was very friendly and swore they had made no complaints against us. We were back to square one.

The riddle unfolded the next morning in a briefing at the headquarters building. Present were Jim Tolbert, Dalton Kast, Don Bemis, the lieutenant colonel from the party, a few staff officers and me. We were in a briefing room about to get briefed. We sat around a large oblong table with a huge map of Southeast Asia on the wall. The lieutenant colonel stood at the map end of the table.

He said, “Gentlemen, I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark, but until last night, I had nothing to put out. I know you all realize that we are in the process of closing out A-camps throughout Vietnam. Your camp, A-502, was one of the first. The pace of camp closings will pick up in the coming months. Within the next six months, most of the camps will be closed. We are slated to be out of Vietnam by the end of the year. The way you guys went out, is the way Colonel Healy wants all A-camps to go out–with a party. Iron Mike said, ‘In Special Forces, we fight hard and we party hard. When the fighting’s over, it’s time to party.’

“The problem is, most of our camps are in the most remote regions and getting a civilian band to them is too risky and would probably cost a small fortune. The men on those border camps haven’t seen any form of entertainment in years: no bands, dancing girls, TV, not even a donut dolly.

“What we need, gentlemen, is a combat band–a band, every bit as good as anything that tours the rear areas, but composed of volunteers from within the ranks. We need a band that can play popular rock and country music to go to the camps and provide the entertainment for their close-out parties. We have no idea how this will go over. You may get blown away the first time you set up out in the open and start playing. Charlie may not like rock or country; we just don’t know how he will react.

“The bottom line is this: Colonel Healy wants a first-rate combat band ready to roll out of here within thirty days. He promises all the support that is required. What I need to know is: can it be done, and who wants in?”

Jim wanted in but for personal reasons had to decline. Dalton, Don, and I readily agreed to sign on for the duration. Dalton, being the ranking NCO, took command and we went to work building a combat band.

Our first order of business was to figure out what a combat band was, then decide how to go about building it. We needed to locate instruments. Special Services loaned us drums and guitars and a third rate PA system. The equipment would not serve our purposes, but it would do as a start. Jim Tolbert remained to help get the show going and serve as a scrounge. When it came to scrounging, Jim put me to shame. What ever we thought of, he found, and we acquired.

We needed a lead and a base guitarist. Jim found them both in Nha Trang. Pete Barra was a jazz guitarist from New York. Pete was drafted into the army as a clerk, but his passion was jazz. Pete could make a guitar do anything: jazz, country, rock, blues, and he made it all look easy. When Pete heard something once, he was ready to play.

Red Sirois, from Maine, played base with the group that put out, Bird is the Word. He was a real pro and needed little or no practice. He, too, was a draftee and Nha Trang clerk–the band had two “legs.” Getting the two clerks released to us was no problem. Getting them to go out in the jungle to play their guitars was another matter. In the end, the desire to play music for a living won out and a band was formed: Dalton, Don, Pete, Red, and Sonny.

The band needed a name, or so we thought. We learned that there was no place for a band of any kind in the Special Forces organizational structure. The whole project was to be low profile–no promotion. Without promotion, what good is a name? Unofficially, we were referred to as the 5th Special Forces Group Political Warfare Band. We were also called: The 5th Group, The Green Beanies, The Round Eye Band, Iron Mike’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mostly, we were just, “The Band.”

Equipment was a big priority. We needed the right equipment, and fast, so we could begin working with the instruments we would be going out with. The funds to buy this equipment came from a CIA special operations slush fund–or so the story went. I doubt we will ever know where the money came from, but it was unofficial funds to be sure. We were warned not to discuss the band’s business with anyone. This was typical of unconventional operations. I doubt that the band appears anywhere in SF documents or unit structure.

Regardless of how they did it, Dalton and Don were flown to Hong Kong with a blank check and told that Colonel Healy wanted an American band that was to bands what the Harley Davidson was to motor scooters. They returned with the best equipment money could buy. I got a set of Ludwig drums just like Ringo Star’s. The guitars were Vox and the amplifiers were Stadium Super Beatles designed for outdoor concerts. Cranked all the way up, they’d blow a tank off the road.

We had echo chambers, fuzz and wa wa effect machines. Our PA sound system was state of the art. When the boys came back from Hong Kong it was like Christmas in March. We went nuts over our neat stuff. We were riding a hog on a highway with no cops and the gas was free.

Our next challenge was to play up to our equipment. We dedicated ourselves to perfecting our craft to the best of our abilities in the shortest amount of time. We wanted to give the guys on the line the very best the instruments and the musicians could offer. Many American performers toured Vietnam rear areas. Most gave their stylistic renditions of popular music. The equipment they brought to Vietnam was little better than the Special Services loaners we started with. These performers were always well-received, but the men wanted to hear the familiar songs that took them home, sung without an accent.

We agreed that authentic recreation was what they wanted–live American music, loud and clear. To that end, we became mimics of the popular bands of both country western and rock. We gathered the recordings and copied them beat for beat, note for note.

Dalton Kast did one hour of the best Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Charlie Pride I’d ever heard. Don Bemis was a dead ringer for Paul McCartney. We put together three hours of music–one hour of country, sandwiched between two hours of rock. We also became familiar with every piece of 50’s’ and 60’s’ music that might be requested. The most popular ones were the sounds that were playing when the guys were back in “The World.” They were: Proud Mary, Purple Haze, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Fire, Smoke on the Water, Inna Godda Da Vida, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Yellow Ribbon, House of the Rising Sun, all of the Beatles and all of the country standards.

We had the use of the base theater for practice sessions; and, as our shows came together, we played before live audiences in the Nha Trang Clubs. Even in the first shows that were more live practice sessions than performances, everyone raved about our music. The GI’s thought we were great; we thought we were good. The clubs were packed every night we performed. In all honesty, I was the least talented member of the group, and I wasn’t bad, except when I sang Dock of the Bay.

We were asked by the lieutenant colonel to learn two Vietnamese numbers to add to our show. It was thought to be a nice gesture to the Vietnamese in our audiences. Since I spoke some Vietnamese, that job fell to me. My other task was to learn the lengthy drum solo from the Iron Butterfly’s Inna Godda Da Vida beat for beat. I managed to do both before we went on the road, but I spent many hours playing records over, and over, and over again. I worked hard, but no harder than anyone else.

We had one week left to practice before our scheduled departure. We played the Officers Club in Nha Trang with Iron Mike in attendance for the first time. He was ecstatic with his combat band. With the “old man” we were a big hit. He was in a good mood anyway, because the siege on camps Dak Pek and Dak Seang had just been broken. For over one month the two camps north of Kontom near the Laos border were besieged by the NVA 2nd Division. Thousands had died. SF Mobile Strike Forces and B-52s broke the NVA’s back. The camps were down but not out. They had survived several human wave assaults, B-52 air strikes, and continuous ground combat for weeks. They hung on tenaciously and survived. Though they weren’t due to close in the near future, survival was cause for celebration.

The next morning, we were awakened early and told to get our shit. Half awake, we stumbled as a group into the lieutenant colonel’s office. Dalton said, “What the hell’s going on? We were supposed to have the morning off. We were playing till past midnight.”

The lieutenant colonel smiled and said, “Iron Mike says you’re ready, and he wants his band at Dak Seang on the next chopper. Need I say more?”

“Sir,” Said Dalton, “From what I hear those camps were leveled. Do they even have generators? Electric guitars are real hard to hear unless you plug them into something.”

“We understand. Look, the 2nd NVA is still in the hills licking their wounds. The camps are still standing and still being defended. What better way is there to say, ‘up yours’ than to bring in a live band and have a party under their noses. The beer, ice, and generators are already on the way. All they need now is a band. You call yourselves a combat band; here’s your chance to prove it.”

“Sir, we’ll go get our shit!”

At noon, we were in Kontom. At one, we were in a low flying chopper snaking our way towards Dak Seang while F4 Phantom jets dropped napalm on the mountain ridge to our right. As we banked hard to the left to approach the camp’s airstrip, 50 caliber machine guns raked the opposite hills. The chopper touched down (slid down, actually). A group of Yards ran out and roughly man-handled our precious gear off the chopper as we scrambled to the ditch alongside the battered runway. The chopper took off and we were left with a very confused welcoming party. The Yards had never seen band instruments. One unzipped a drum case and peered in at the pearl and chrome tom tom that had rolled to the ditch under the rotor wash. When he looked to me with a puzzled expression, I simply said, “Ludwig.”

Dak Seang was everything we’d imagined and worse. Along with aircraft wreckage that littered the area, the scorched and battered earthworks, the B-52 insulted terrain, we were also assaulted with the stench of decaying bodies left for weeks in the sun. Bodies and pieces of bodies littered the jungle surrounding Dak Seang, but there was no time for sight seeing or smelling. We had a show to put on.

The A-team members of Dak Seang were in agreement with Iron Mike–it was party time. We all speculated as to what the enemy would do. With their hillside vantage, they were looking right down our throats. Some thought that just setting up for the show should bring the expected incoming rounds. Others said the enemy would wait until we started playing. Several thought the enemy would settle in and listen along with the camp defenders. Whatever the reaction, we had to set up and start playing to find out. The camp defenders simply looked on with an amused detachment as we worked to set up.

We chose the broad flat top of the medical bunker to set up our instruments. Each of us went about setting up our respective parts under the watchful eyes of friend and foe. As we unpacked drums, amplifiers, mike stands and cords, the Yards and American team members looked on from protected areas. The NVA watched from the hills.

Twenty minutes later, we were ready to start; and so far, no word from Chuck. As we were about to kick in with our lead-in song, Proud Mary, I felt ridiculous sitting in the open beside a twenty-four inch brass cymbal, shining in the afternoon sun. I just knew some enemy gunner had his cross hairs on my cymbals and was waiting for the downbeat to cut loose. The band’s “legs” were a bit wobbly to say the least. When all was ready, Don Bemis turned to me and said, “Hell of a way to die, huh?…ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR…”

For whatever reason, the hills remained silent throughout the show. Eventually, the Yards and American team members came out of the bunkers and moved in on the stage. They were fascinated with the sounds we were making. The beer started flowing, and the defenders of Dak Seang had a party. Loud music echoed through the valley well into the night.

The next day, we were air lifted to the next valley and camp Dak Pek. Dak Pek was an unusual SF camp in that it sat on seven hills surrounded by mountains. The Americans occupied a hill to themselves, centrally located. The team at Dak Pek was glad to see any friendly face, but they were beat. They had had little sleep for weeks on end as the camp had been breached many times with a significant loss of life. They’d lost several American team members. We set up in the team house for a low key private party.

Afterwards, the band took up positions to relieve the tired defenders. Red and Pete took turns on radio watch. Dalton manned the tactical operations center. Bemis and I alternated on the 4.2 inch mortar, firing illumination rounds every fifteen minutes throughout the night. The team members got some much-needed rest that night, and the band learned what it meant to be a combat band. How many band members have ever had to do a four-hour gig, then man a mortar pit all night?

For five months, the band went from camp to camp. We traveled from the tip of the delta in the south, to the DMZ up north. We brought with us a little respite from war. Even our tired adversary seemed to appreciate the break, for they never interrupted a show with a show of their own. We were fired on coming into a camp, but only once when leaving.

At camp Ba Xoai (Ba Swi) in the delta, our show was interrupted by a B-52 strike. We stopped to watch the awesome display of firepower being vented on the mountains fronting the camp. It felt like a rolling earthquake with the sound of muffled thunder. When we departed the next day, the enemy fired a 51 caliber machine gun at our chopper. The fire came from the area of the bombardment. I suppose if you bomb your audience, you can’t expect good reviews.

Visiting so many places over a five month period, the camps began to blend as one in my memory. Typically, we offered our services to the A-team commander to use us as he saw fit. Mostly that meant putting on two shows: one for the camp population, the other for the A-team. The show for the camp was a one hour affair featuring my Vietnamese songs, which were a big hit, mostly because of the novelty of seeing an American singing a popular Vietnamese song. Even the Yards liked it. The Yards liked the music with a strong jungle beat. Yards like “Inna Godda Da Vida.”

One team commander asked us to set up in the nearby Montagnard village. He provided a portable generator. The curious villagers quietly watched us set up. We did not tune our instruments, wanting the first sounds they heard to be our opening. Proud Mary sent Yards scrambling for the trees. They slowly emerged and gathered near, wearing big smiles. Yards have a sense of humor as well as good taste in music.

In the team houses afterwards, we put on a more relaxed and informal show that often lasted long into the night. After one of our performances, the enemy could have easily overrun the camp with little difficulty, as the team was usually stone drunk. Being the only ones left standing after an all nighter, manning the important camp defenses fell to the band by index. Fortunately, we were never tested, and the worst that ever befell a team was a group hangover the next morning.

Before we began our tour, we speculated as to how the old-timers, the team sergeants, would take to rock and roll–“hippie music.” They are a very conservative group, die-hard country fans. Early in our tour, while playing in a team house bunker, a grizzled old top sergeant stopped us at the beginning of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. We thought he wanted us to turn the volume down, but we were as low as the amps would go.

He said, “The night before I left the states, my daughter was playing that song. I yelled upstairs for her to turn that shit down. Do me a favor, will ya? Turn that som bitch up all the way.”

On a scale of ten, we were set between one and two. Even outdoors, we usually set the volume at six. Ten could knock birds from the sky. We tried to discourage him. He insisted. We cranked it up and resumed. Sand poured from the steel rafters; bottles and glasses danced across table tops; the other team members covered their ears, but the old sarge stood before us with a big smile. His daughter would have been proud.

When we played the larger, rear-area units, riots broke out from the drunken revelry as men under long periods of stress let off steam. Alcohol, firearms, and loud rock music are not the best of combinations. In the movie, The Blues Brothers, there is a scene where the band plays a country honkie tonk behind a chicken wire screen. That scene brought on a Vietnam flashback for me.

Many of our big base shows degenerated into madness as the men let it all hang out. We played the clubs at just about every big base. These were goodwill gestures by the SF “C” and “B” team commanders. Few knew who we were. We were billed simply as “An American Band.” GIs had a hunger for real American band sounds, played loud and strong. They say music soothes the savage breast; ours never did. Brawls were common when men of different units mixed.

The civilian bands never played under these conditions. Females (singers, dancers, Go-Go girls and strippers) were almost a prerequisite for touring bands. The presence of any female tempered the crowd. Civilian bands were treated as special guests and security was high. Fights were rare and would stop a show.

With our band–having no women and being GIs–security was almost non-existent. The GIs, the commanders, and the MPs pretty-much let it all hang out. Fights were common and would not stop one of our shows. We played through fights. We played through riots. We even played through incoming. We stopped when the man in charge told us to stop, which was usually at the point where firearms might be brought into play.

In Can Tho, the SF sergeant major had to end the show which pissed off a drunk Sea Bee. He was then tossed out by the sergeant major. I walked away from my drums and headed for my bunk to get clear of the chaos. A short while later, the Sea Bees were in the room next to mine arguing among themselves. I was about to go find a quiet bunker to sleep in when the sound of a sub-machine gun firing a long burst came from their room. A crying wail followed.

I crawled outside and peered over the sandbag wall into their room. Standing just inside the door was a See Bee with a smoking grease gun still aimed at a writhing figure on a bottom bunk. The man on the bunk was the loud mouth from the club. He had six 45 caliber holes in him, but was still alive. I came up behind the gunman and took hold of the gun. He let it go. I unloaded it as a medic arrived to see about the wounded man. I don’t know what happened to either of them. I returned to my bunk, and we left first thing in the morning.

At Kontom, home of CCC recon, a wild brawl and a general club destroying melee highlighted a stellar performance. At the sister base in Ban Me Tuot, home of CCS recon, beer was so deep on the concrete floor it made waves when people walked through it or fell in it. It was there that Red was almost electrocuted before the equipment shorted out from all the beer it had absorbed. CCS was like the bar scene from the “Blues Brothers” movie, except without the protective wire cage. Special Forces likes to party hard.

We lost Dalton in June; his time in-country was up. I was made the NCO in charge for our tour of I Corps. Red proved to be a competent country western singer, though he was no Dalton Kast. By the time we got to I Corps, we were the best combat rock n roll/country band in the world.

In the five months that we toured, we saw a side of the war that few knew. Both sides took a vacation from combat to hear us play music. I saw Americans, Vietnamese, and Montagnards standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, laughing, and clapping, swinging to the beat of “hippie music.” I saw a battle-hardened Green Beret crying like a baby over some silly song that was probably playing in the background at some not-so-silly time in his life. I saw an old Montagnard mouthing the words, “I’m proud to be an Oakie from Muscogie.” When you’ve seen that, you’ve seen it all.

I’ve heard it said that war is hell, but that was said by a man who never served in a combat band.


I don’t know the details, but Dalton Kast died in 1975. I last contacted Don Bemis in 1972. He was singing professionally. I haven’t been able to locate Red or Pete. A reunion is in order. If the Beatles can do it minus one member, so can we.

Don and I returned for another tour with CCC recon at Kontum. We tried to turn in the band equipment, but nobody would receive it. The equipment wasn’t on any supply system. No one had responsibility for it, and nobody wanted it in their supply system.

We took it to Kontum and locked it in a shed. It remaind there while we ran recon. When our time was up, we again tried to turn the stuff in. We contacted the supply officer in Nha Trang, a man who knew the band well. He said, “You earned it; take it home. If you don’t, it will go to the Vietnamese.”

We divided it and sent it home in our hold baggage. I traded my half for a 650 BSA chopper and did the Easy Rider scene for a year. Bemis put his to good use. At least it didn’t fall into the hands of the Communist menace. That would have made the Vietnam War a worse tragedy. Thank God that didn’t happen.

© 1994 by George “Sonny” Hoffman. All rights reserved.

Used by permission.

Page updated
28 July, 1999

Songs of Army Aviators in the Vietnam War

United States Army Division

Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project

Songs of Army Aviators in the Vietnam War


Marty Heuer in Vietnam, 1966
Marty Heuer in Vietnam, 1966
I joined the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project in 1992 as the Army representative to assist Lydia Fish in locating and archiving the many songs composed, performed, and recorded by army personnel in Vietnam. The mission of the project has already been explained on the page “About the Project” so I won’t repeat it here.

It is amazing how few people are aware this music exists. For those who were there, and heard it first-hand, these songs occupy a special place in their memories of the war. For me, the music brings back many fond memories because I was one of the guitar-playing singers. Chinch Wollerton, Scat McNatt, Jack Westlake, and I were introduced by the war and our occupation as helicopter pilots. Our interest in music resulted in the formation of a quartet we called “The High Priced Help.” We were all majors at the time.

I have been collecting these songs for more than fifteen years now, starting with those I brought back from two Vietnam tours, the first with the 174th Assault Helicopter Company and 14th Combat Aviation Battalion at Lane Army Heliport, located 12 miles west of Qui Nhon at Phu Tai. That was in 1966 and 1967. I went back again in 1970 to command the 341st Aviation Detachment (Divisional) co-located with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi and later I served with Headquarters, 165th Combat Aviation Group at Long Binh as the adjutant.

In 1997, Lydia and I gave presentations at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association in San Antonio, Texas. Mine was titled “Songs of Army Aviators in the Vietnam War.” It provides a brief history of Army Aviation leading up to the conflict in Vietnam. It also explains how and why service members entertained themselves with music, a tradition that has its roots in the earliest known conflicts between men on the battlefield.


Presented at the meeting of the Popular Culture Association at San Antonio, Texas, on 29 March 1997

LTC Martin Heuer, USA (Ret.)

Army Aviation is a relatively new element of the United States Army in spite of the fact that the Army has had aircraft since the Wright Brothers. Army pilots flew observation aircraft in World War I and then became the Army Air Corps, flying all types of aircraft, from observation to fighters to B-29s, in World War II. Throughout this forty-year period, the pilots and crew members developed a rich tradition of being an elite group among their Army brethren, set apart by their skills, daring and risk taking, and, eventually, even their uniforms. A pilot– whether in the seat of a biplane with his white scarf streaming behind him as he dropped bombs on the enemy by hand, or in the lead B-29 in a flight of fifty on a bomb run that could devastate a whole city–was on the top of the list of elite forces. Just ask any pilot.

While all the ground forces often sang and marched to songs written by civilians, the Army Air Corps wrote their own songs and then sang them over and over in their clubs after and between missions. Writing and singing songs in the Army Air Corps was not a product of their status as an elite unit. The songs came from the idle, lonely hours in a relatively safe, secure environment, well behind the lines where the horrors, dangers and fears from the last mission were being washed away, often with the aid of some alcoholic beverage, and the certainty of the next mission, which could be their last. I should hasten to inform you that not all pilots or crew members participated in these celebrations. There were only a handful of pilots who wrote songs or even played a musical instrument, but they were the ones that provided the music and entertainment while most just observed and applauded, even though they might have heard the songs countless times before. I also want to put song writing by aviation personnel in perspective by reminding you that there were a few cowboys, during the settling of the West, who lugged a guitar wherever they went, and entertained their fellow cowboys around the camp fire at night. Same environment–same results.

The songs that were created by the early pilots have endured because they relate aviation history in a special way. A song writer, like a poet, has only two to five minutes to tell a story, whether it be sad or humorous. These songs, written by the combatants as the events occurred, present a powerful, emotional story to those who participated and more often than not, became the mortar for the blocks of morale and esprit de corps of a unit, or even the whole Army. If you really want to know how the individual warrior felt about any war–or any part of it–read or sing their songs and you will probably experience every emotion they did, good and bad.

Then in 1947, after World War II, the Army Air Corps was re designated the United States Air Force. They even got a new blue uniform. They also took the traditions of the elite Army force they’d once been, including the songs.

The Army, however, was not to be denied, even though the only airplanes it had left were a few very light observation, fabric-covered aircraft, and some primitive, experimental autogyros called helicopters, which looked like something constructed from a Tinker Toy box. The Army started over with only a few hundred pilots, while the Air Force, with its new jet fighters, continued their proud traditions, creating commands called TAC, MAC and SAC. (Tactical Air Command, Military Airlift Command and Strategic Air Command).

The Korean War, and the further development of the helicopter, gave Army pilots a new life and mission. Helicopters were used for evacuation of wounded but there were very few aviation units on which traditions could be built. Army pilots did some singing in Korea but most songs were stolen from the old Air Corps and many of these were of World War II vintage

In the 1950s, the fledgling aviation element of the United States Army became known as Army Aviation and the motto “Above the Best” was adopted. Army Aviation continued to grow and reorganize throughout the late 50s and early 60s, forming aviation companies that had both light, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. Pilots began wearing flight suits, jackets, and even flight helmets. The flight uniforms all came from Air Force depots, but we wore them with pride. You should know that Army aviators felt closer to their Air Force brothers than to those in the Army, where they were resented by ground officers and commanders alike because they wore flight clothing, made more pay, and were, generally, a more boisterous bunch–following, of course, the traditions of the Air Force. But Vietnam would soon change all of this.

Starting in 1961, U.S. Army Aviation companies and Special Forces units were among the first to be sent to South Vietnam. The Army Aviation companies were usually billeted in an encampment like stateside, in larger city strongholds, for the security of the aircraft and personnel, but here they were surrounded by concertina wire, trip flares, mines, sand bagged bunkers with interlocking fields of fire for their machine guns, the enemy–and loneliness. They undoubtedly thought about how nice it would have been to have a USO (United Service Organizations) show with “round-eyed girls” but understood that was a remote possibility, because few Americans back in the states even knew they were in Vietnam. The environment for the creation of songs, and providing entertainment had once again developed, so those aviators who could play an instrument, usually a guitar, procured one locally and began entertaining themselves and their hootch mates. It wasn’t long before these entertainers composed songs of their own. Rewording some from previous wars and conflicts, they began to sing for the amusement of larger groups in the officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men’s clubs. Every unit had one of each of these clubs because the Vietnamese bars were generally off-limits, especially after sunset

These early Army Aviation songs were set to well-known tunes of the period like “Davy Crockett,” “Five Hundred Miles,” “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and “Red River Valley” and “Old Shep” from an earlier time. Others were reworded Oscar Brand songs like his “Fighter Pilots Lament” now renamed “Shawnee Pilots Lament” in reference to the tandem rotor helicopter that looked like a grasshopper and often referred to as the “Flying Banana.” Those who flew it called it other names, which, of course, they put in the song. Another remake of Brand’s “Lament” was titled “South of the Mekong.” Most of these early Vietnam Army Aviation songs were about the environment in this new war. They wrote and sang about the aircraft that were clearly not suited for the mission; the general lack of enthusiasm for the war for which they did not yet even receive combat pay; the people, culture and soldiers of South Vietnam; their leaders and–whorehouses. These songs express a certain bitterness due to the fact that the Americans were in a camp surrounded by barbed wire, and outside, the Vietnamese could not be identified as friend or foe. As a result, many of the songs are X-rated and will rarely see the light of day, especially now in our politically correct world. But it will be difficult to deny their existence and their message.

Sergeant Barry Sadler, a Special Forces soldier whom you may remember, wrote his song “Ballad of the Green Beret” during this period. It became a popular song in the United States but in Vietnam, an unidentified Army aviator grabbed it like a hot grenade, changed the words and retitled it “Green Flight Pay” and tossed it back to the Special Forces. Needless to say, there was an explosion of resentment from Special Forces when they heard the Army Aviation version which goes like this:

Silver wings upon my chest
I fly my chopper above the best
I can make more dough that way
But I can’t wear no Green Beret.

and ends with:

And when my little boy is old
His silver wings all lined with gold
He then will wear a Green Beret
In the big parade on St. Patrick’s Day.

I suppose you could say that Army Aviation resented the elite Special Forces, who were getting all the glory in Vietnam at the time and chose this opportunity to bring them down a notch or two. I personally know of an officer who prohibited the singing of this song in his club in Saigon. He was not an Army aviator.

The war escalated and Army Aviation grew rapidly. In late 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division left Fort. Benning, GA and sailed to Vietnam with hundreds of helicopters and thousands of soldiers, ready to test the new airmobile concept. At the same time, aviators and crew members were gathered from all over the world and brought to Fort. Benning to form helicopter companies. These aviation companies were not “ordinary” in any sense. They were now flying the Huey, the first jet-powered helicopter, loved by all who flew them. The aviators were older and many had thousands of hours of flight time. There were 38 majors in the 174th Aviation Company (Airmobile) (Light), the unit to which I was assigned, when only one–the commanding officer–was supposed to be there. Nothing at the time was normal.

What would possess an Army aviator to take a guitar to combat? At best, he could expect to live in a small tent, and move frequently. Love of music and a desire to combat loneliness are the only reasons I could come up with–and I was one who took a handmade Peruvian guitar with me. When we assembled in the late evening for departure from Ft. Benning to Oakland, CA I discovered that Jack Westlake, another aviator in the unit, also had his guitar with him and a friendship began.

In the early years, Army Aviation units went to Vietnam by ship. The 174th and 175th boarded the USNS Upshur and sailed from Oakland in late February ’66. The voyage was typical–twenty-one days in cramped quarters with nothing to do. I was happy to have my guitar. Jack Westlake and I spent hours playing and singing and were joined by Scat McNatt, Jack’s boss. With three part harmonies set to Peter, Paul and Mary songs and some calypso music then popular, the days passed more quickly. Our trio was asked to provide musical entertainment for the initiation ceremonies on crossing the International dateline and we sang at breakfast in the ship’s mess as well as for the enlisted men in their severely cramped quarters below deck. We called ourselves “The High Priced Help.” Scat and I were majors and Jack was a captain.

Arriving at Qui Nhon, we disembarked by climbing down the side of the ship on rope ladders to the bobbing landing craft waiting below, just like in those World War II movies. I haven’t stopped thinking about how abnormal this all was. Here I was, going into the combat zone with a camera slung around my neck, a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster without a single round of ammunition–and a guitar.

The 48th Assault Helicopter Company’s third platoon who called themselves “Guts and Guns” wrote a song they called “The 48th” about their formation at Fort. Benning and their early days in Vietnam. The words expressed pride and esprit de corps in the accomplishments of the company even though the unit had picked up, lock, stock, and helicopter and moved six times.

In the early months of 1966, General George P. Seneff was selected to form the 1st Aviation Brigade in Saigon. It was probably the largest single brigade the Army has ever assembled. Each month, all unit commanders of the brigade, from battalion level and above met with the brigade commander at various locations throughout the southern half of Vietnam.

Musical talents, as one of the notable attributes of Army Aviation personnel of all ranks, became apparent during the early stages of the brigade formation. The word got around about the singing and entertaining that had already begun in the aviation units in the field. To enhance morale, General Seneff and his staff decided to recognize the musicians at his commanders conferences by creating a song/ballad contest. At the end of the one day meeting, usually a Saturday, a song contest was held in the dining facility, or in the host units’ officers club following the evening meal. The first contest was held at the Red Bull Inn, the 1st Aviation Brigade officers’ club, in Saigon in June 1966.

General Seneff encouraged the unit commanders to challenge the musically talented soldiers in their units to enter the monthly contest. There were many individuals and groups who were already providing entertainment in their units, so the contest became the catalyst for the creation of original songs and provided the forum for them to be heard and recorded.

The only rule of the contest was that the words to the song be original and if the music was original also, it was okay, but not absolutely necessary. Many of the contest songs were melodies you’d recognize immediately, but the words were changed to tell a story about an individual, a unit, an aircraft, a combat assault, the enemy, or just about anything in Vietnam. Some songs were a combination of all of these. The talents of these ordinary, everyday soldiers were truly amazing. The contests produced some great songs about Army Aviation in combat in Vietnam and many of them were new, not merely word changes to songs sung in previous wars, although some of those remained. And, because of the availability of reel to reel audio recorders, the contests were recorded live. We have found the tapes for six contests but are still searching for at least eight more.

The participants were soloists, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets. The instruments used included guitars of many varieties, mandolins, banjos, violins, ukuleles, bongo, and snare drums, and in one case, a complete drum set. Many of these, usually the string instruments, were brought to Vietnam by their owners. The others were ordered from Thailand and Japan but some guitars were purchased in Vietnam, and those who used them complained constantly that they could not be tuned nor would they stay in tune.

The names of the groups were usually a take off on the unit call sign. The 173rd call sign was Robin Hood, so the group called themselves The Merrymen. The 48th was Blue Star, and the singers were The Blue Stars. The 117th were the Beach Bums and the 170th were The Buccaneers. The 282nd trio was the Black Cats and sometimes the Hepcats. Our trio in the 174th grew to a quartet when Captain Chinch Wollerton joined the unit. Jack had been promoted to major so, with three majors and a captain, we called ourselves Three Majors and a Minor. Chinch was promoted to major shortly thereafter and we reverted to our original name of The High Priced Help. The 179th Assault Support Helicopter Company quartet called themselves The Nads. Although you may not understand, every time they got on stage to sing, their audience could cheer them on by yelling, “Go Nads, Go Nads!” One other example is a complete band, including the commanding officer of the 57th Aviation Company, featuring a fine ukulele player, who called themselves Pineapple Joe and his Lakanukies. Some of you may not understand that one either, which is just as well.

The songs covered a wide spectrum of daily events in the life of Army aviation personnel, and the majority were in a humorous “tongue in cheek” vain. I have chosen some examples from the many which are representative of some of the subjects.

One titled “Aviation Medicine” was written by Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Eugene Easely of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company Black Cats who flew out of Da Nang in northern Vietnam. Gene’s song, to the tune “I’ve Had It,” is a spoof about the trials and tribulations of a flight surgeon treating aviation personnel of all ranks for an unnamed social disease. The Doc treats a specialist fourth class, a lieutenant, a major, and finally a general, who of course was General Seneff, the brigade commander. The last verse goes like this:

Well, General Seneff, if you’re willin’,
Let’s bomb this place with penicillin,
Or we’ll get it, ya ya, we’ll get it.

and naturally, some did.

“Six Days in The Jungle” tells the story of a typical four man helicopter crew being shot down and surviving for six days. Major Austin of the 222nd Combat Aviation Battalion wrote the song to the tune “Six Days on The Road.” The song provides the details of the crash and the crew’s encounter with Viet Cong troops, all of this in surreal exaggerated terms. The last verse finds the crew still in the jungle with nothing but hope. This is how it ends:

Well the crew chief and the gunner, they have eaten up all of my C’s,
And the AC keeps a-mumblin’ and a-crawling around on his knees.
I don’t think things are going my way; I had a booking made on blue ball today.
Six days in the jungle and they gotta pick me up tonight.

The reference to blue ball was to the charter aircraft that was one of those that took the troops on Rest and Recreation (R and R) leaves of five day duration in spots like Japan, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampeur, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hawaii.

The 174th’s The High Priced Help wrote a song to the tune “The MTA” about their battalion commander. His name was Samuel P. Kalagian and he was of Armenian descent with a dark swarthy look which resulted in the nickname “Black Sam.” The 14th Combat Aviation Battalion was given the call sign “Arab” in his honor. He had thousands of flight hours and had been a P-51 fighter pilot in World War II. The song, titled “Black Sam” is a story of Colonel Black Sam Kalagian as he led the yet untested units of his battalion in their first combat assault under his command. The writers, of course, took great liberty with Black Sam’s performance and the confusion that ensued, but this humorous song was mostly the truth about a new unit’s introduction to combat. This song was introduced at the song contest held in Vung Tau on 24 September ’66 and was the winner.

The 173rd’s Merrymen in their Kingston Trio style, sang a great version of “Green Flight Pay” mentioned earlier. They also wrote a song about the young ladies of Saigon to the tune “New York Girls” which they titled “Saigon Girls” but it was also known as “Chu Yen.” It is a story about an older army pilot who goes to Saigon for a three-day R and R and found out that Miss Chu Yen could do a lot of things but couldn’t dance the polka. After waking with an aching head to find the lady gone, his pocket picked, and a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall, he decides that going to Saigon will test your morals and recommends the Red Cross recreation center where the “Doughnut Dollies” pass out cookies and Kool Aid and of course, can dance the polka. The Merrymen introduced this song at the contest at Nha Trang on 13 August 1966 and won.

One song that was usually met with jeers and hisses as soon as the title was announced was written by Rick Kelly, a West Point captain from a family of West Pointers. He was one of the NADS, remember them, of the 179th Assault Support Helicopter Company. The title was simply “The Letter” and the tune was an original by Rick. The song takes the form of a letter from a pilot to his wife who has been unfaithful during the year they have been separated. The pilot interrupts his letter to go fly a final mission which turns out to be his last on earth, but just before he dies, he tells his friend he forgives his wife. His friend finishes his letter for him with the pilot’s final words. This was another way the constant threat of the time honored “Dear John” letter was handled. A new perspective, so to speak. Rick also wrote a song titled “Song Contest”– all about a pilot who finally got to the contest but his song was so bad it finished last and quote–“He was forever banned from the song contest.” Rick’s song, however, was good enough to win the Soc Trang contest on 15 April 1967.

The UH-1 Huey was the subject of many songs and the one I selected to represent all of them was written by Captain Britt Knox of the 117th Assault Helicopter Company and introduced at the commanders conference song contest at Soc Trang on 15 April 1967. The title was “Old Zero Six Nine” and the tune was “Strawberry Roan.” Captain Knox changed the original story of a cowboy and a horse to an overconfident Army aviator who believed he could fly an old Huey that was known to have broken many good pilots. Needless to say, the chopper got the best of him, threw him out, and, by itself, landed back on the pad from where the ill-fated flight began. This song, like most, had a message for all “hot rock” pilots.

The next song was one of a kind. It was written by then Captain Donald R. Kelsey and members of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company Blue Stars. I haven’t yet figured out if the tune was original or not but the title was “American Fighting Man.” The song was another message; a message of the courage each crew member knew they would be asked to muster should they be shot down and captured. All military personnel of the U.S. Armed Forces are bound by a code of conduct that spells out very clearly how each individual must conduct themselves once in the hands of the enemy. Personally, I am amazed this song was written, as it is not the kind of subject easily adapted to music. The code of conduct begins with the words “I am an American fighting man.” The song cannot be defined or described, you must hear it to derive the deep commitment the writers felt to the code and to their fellow soldiers. This is a couple of lines from what they wrote:

I’ll not surrender of my own free will
I will stay and fight until
The last breath leaves my body cold still

This song is a clear example of the pride in unit and country that existed among all the units in Vietnam in the 1966 to 1967 period. Everyone thought we were there to win. As time passed and the war ground on, that whole basic concept as they say, went to hell in a hand basket.

The pace of the war and the one year limit on the tour length without a voluntary extension, which most people were loathe to do, caused the Army to vastly increase the number of pilots to man the thousands of helicopters now in Vietnam. New pilots arrived as individual replacements with only 100 hours of flight time, enough to make them dangerous, and they were dubbed “Peter Pilots.” They were called that until they were qualified to become an aircraft commander. Ultimately, almost all of them became AC’s as the rotation progressed. A song was written about a typical Peter Pilot by Captain Conroe of the 170th Assault Helicopter Company and was introduced at the song contest at Nha Trang on 13 August 1966. The tune is not yet identified, it may be original, and the title is “Peter Pilot.” The song starts out with Peter Pilot, fresh out of flight school all trim and neat who the ladies call pilot Pete, getting his orders for Vietnam. Much fun is made of Peter Pilot as he arrives in Vietnam and quickly screws up everything he’s asked to do, including his first combat assault. The song is not a malicious attack on new pilots but sends the message that those without experience should heed the advice of more experienced pilots. The High Priced Help adopted this song and sang it nearly every time they performed.

Another great song was written by a yet unidentified, pilot of A Company, of the 501st Combat Aviation Battalion later re designated the 71st Assault Helicopter Company. Their call sign was Rattlers and they were based at Bien Hoa, which they called the Snake Pit. This fourteen-verse song tells in a humorous way how a poorly planned and executed early evening company flight mission went awry. The company commander’s aircraft had not been refueled. Can you imagine that? Forty miles northeast of the Snake Pit, his aircraft ran out of fuel and lands without damage in the darkness. A rather questionable fete but that is what they wrote. The unit’s pilots and aircraft spent all night looking for their commander. The story continues with the commander stealing a Viet Cong bicycle and pedaling his way back to the Snake Pit. Certainly there is some truth in this song but also some fiction. It was common to use a mistake or, more accurately, a dumb, stupid inexcusable error or omission as the subject for a song. Again, it sent a message and every member of the unit loved to hear it over and over, including the person who made the mistake. However, a mistake that resulted in someone’s death was never, to my knowledge, put to music.

The last of these example songs is one that helped make the Merrymen of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company famous. The origin of this song is in dispute. Some say it was written originally by Major John Tobias of A Company of the 501st. The Merrymen say they wrote at least some of it and we will eventually find the answer. The tune used was “Oleana.” The Merrymen performed this song virtually every time they got up to sing at Lai Khe, their home base, or anywhere else they performed. The song was titled “Army Aviation.” It is a rousing rendition and touches on all the missions Army aviation performed in Vietnam. All pilots and crew members identified themselves with the song immediately, with those who knew the words usually singing along with the Merrymen. If you were an Army Aviation crew member in Vietnam, this was your song. It certainly was the Merrymen’s, who always introduced it with these spoken words: “We, the Merrymen of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company dedicate this song to all the aviators who have gone before us, and to those who will follow us into this conflict here in Vietnam.” These are the words of the first verse.

Fly the jungle, fly the mountains,
Fly the whole of Vietnam.
Carry cargo, carry troopers,
Carry anything we can.

The song ended with a crescendo of the words “Army Aviation.” It was a winner and a crowd-pleaser every time it was sung. Some even lobbied for the adoption of this song as the official song of Army Aviation but it was too specific, including too many references to the Vietnam War. For Army Aviation crew members who are veterans of this conflict, most remember this song.

There are well over one hundred songs known positively to have been written and sung by Army Aviation pilots and crew members in Vietnam. Several more were written in other places, like Germany and the U.S. but were later sung in Vietnam. Kris Kristofferson, yes, the Kris Kristofferson you know as an actor, songwriter and singer, was an Army aviator who served in aviation units in the states and Germany, but never served in Vietnam, wrote two or three songs that were sung frequently.

The titles, the subjects, the emotions, the writers, and the singers of all these songs are as individual as a finger print. The songs written by the Air Force and other services are exactly the same. The person or persons who wrote the song are the only ones who really knew what the words meant. They knew what action, event or thought inspired the subject matter; the emotions they were trying to express. The listener, then and now, can only imagine what the writer or writers experienced and then put in words and song. It helps a great deal to have had similar experiences, with similar emotions but even that is not always enough.

The song contests were the major reason why so many songs were written and recorded by Army Aviation personnel, most of them by pilots. Some of the song writers have said they were ordered to write a song for the contest by their commanders, who knew they had the talent but needed some gentle prodding to get it done. There would have been casual song fests in the hootches, clubs, and fire bases, but most would never have been recorded, even on paper, although a few units did publish song books and disseminated them by use of a stencil and now outmoded mimeograph machines. Army Aviation should be forever grateful to General Seneff, who recognized the value of this organized morale enhancing entertainment and the efforts of those talented enough to accomplish the task. We should be thankful that Colonel John Marr, commanding officer of the 17th Combat Aviation Group, preserved his copies of the reel to reel tapes for six of the contests and another tape with songs from other contests. Without these, much of the information about the songs would have been lost forever.

The song contests ended with the last one in September of 1967 when General Seneff departed. The next brigade commander canceled all further contests and the creation of new or recorded songs by Army aviators and crew members declined dramatically. There may have been individuals and groups that continued to write and sing songs but no record of such activity has yet been found. There is another reason – the introduction of paid entertainers in the form of rock bands made up of Filipino, Vietnamese, and other nationalities who now provided the much needed diversion and entertainment.

None of the 2.6 million troops of all services who served in Vietnam went there to sing. Army flight crew members went to fly helicopters in combat, day and night, in good and bad weather. Of all the aviator singers who participated in the song contests, only CWO Gene Easely of the 282nd died as a result of combat. He was shot in the neck while flying a gunship in northern South Vietnam two months before he was due to return to the states. When General Seneff heard the news, he issued an order that all contest participants should not be permitted to fly combat missions as they were too valuable to unit morale. Needless to say, it was an order issued out of frustration and sorrow, so it was never really implemented. As a participant and now a collector of the songs of Army Aviation in Vietnam, it is clear there was a need for the relaxation and therapy provided by the music. I must point out again, there were a few pilots and crew members who, for their own personal reasons, did not participate in sing-a-longs or other entertainment but the vast majority did. Many who couldn’t carry a tune sang along anyway. Since returning from two tours in Vietnam I have spoken to hundreds of aviation personnel of all services. All of them recall the music with fond memories and are quick to add that without the singing and the good times, their tours would have seemed endless. Music can soothe the soul.

I salute all of the officers and enlisted men who gave so much of their own free time to create the songs way back then and who have contributed so much to the history and traditions of Army Aviation. It was an honor to have served with them. Thank you.

© 1997 by Martin Heuer and used by permission. All rights reserved.


If you were one of those who participated in the singing, wrote songs while in Vietnam, or know someone who did, please contact me. Although this appears to be focused on Army Aviation, it definitely is not. We want to include and give credit and recognition to everyone. We are looking for song books; photos of singers, whether they were just sitting around in a tent or hootch, or in a more formal Vietnam setting; tape recordings of songs or of individuals entertaining themselves; or anything else related to the songs of Vietnam. I can assure you we will handle these possessions with the tender loving care they deserve.

We can understand your reluctance to part with an original photo, song book, or tape. We would only need them for the time it takes to scan them, or in the case of a reel to reel audio tape, the time to transfer it to CD. After all these years, we have that down to a science, and we haven’t lost a single item. All of it will eventually be archived in the United States Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. As a token of our appreciation, we will return your tape with a CD listening copy.

I can be contacted a number of ways. My email address is [email protected]. I am a member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association and the Florida chapter and you can reach me at their website at or send mail to 10215 Thurston Grove Blvd., Seminole, FL 33778-3824.

Your assistance in compiling this part of the Vietnam history will be much appreciated. All we can do is make this appeal and hope you will go to your old footlockers, closets, attics, garages, storage facilities, or wherever you have the items listed above. We want everyone who participated to be included.

Thanks–and I hope to hear from you soon.

Marty Heuer