Songs of the Vietnam War:
An Occupational Folklore Tradition

Les Cleveland

Senior Fellow
Armed Forces History
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20460

Whatever the military perplexities of Vietnam, at least the social behavior of its Western participants conformed to some of the traditional experience of modern warfare. Like a previous generation of U. S. and other Allied services personnel in World War 2, the troops in Vietnam used occupational folksong as one of the ways of defining the complexities of their situation. This can be explored by using the concept of organizational culture to analyze a selection of the songs that were current during the war.

Edgar H. Schein (1985,9) defines the culture of groups within occupational communities and organizations as a pattern of basic assumptions invented or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external advantage and internal integration. This needs to have worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to these problems. In other words, organizational culture is the way the groups face the world and maintain their own internal solidarity. Their cultures can be studied formally in their officially sponsored frameworks as well as in the traditional customs and observances of particular units. Or they can be investigated informally in their folklore.

From a military point of view, the essential requirement of the organizational culture of a combat unit is that it should be productive of a strong sense of solidarity and esprit de corps because, along with leadership and training, this is one of the key factors in combat motivation. Military sociologists and historians have long known that esprit de corps is an outcome of a strong sense of group identity as well as commitment to military goals. It requires that each individual should feel integrated with the others in his squad, section, gun crew, flight or team because that is the primary organization in which he lives and fights and the group on which his personal survival ultimately depends. Central to the experience of most infantry and most combat aircrew is the paradox that the individual struggle for survival often demands collective dedication in which a person may be risking his life and making sacrifices for others. The pattern of basic assumptions by which he learns to cope with this kind of crisis is of very great importance. Its centrality to the organizational culture of the ordinary combat soldier in Vietnam is apparent in a few lines of a song entitled “Grunt” (Lansdale 1976; Ellis 1980). It teaches that learning to improvise under circumstances of deprivation is what matters most, and that comradeship (and hence the integration of groups) requires sharing.

Being a Grunt, you learn to live with what you’ve got
Little things mean a lot, when they’re things you haven’t got;
Share between you what you’ve got
And learn to live with what you’ve got, etc.

However, this homily on the imperatives of group socialization was far from being universally accepted by all who served in Vietnam. That there was a great deal of conflict concerning the problem of integration within the organizational cultures of the military in that campaign is a notorious historical fact that can be amply illustrated in both the popular music and the folksong of the era. In their early phases, the hostilities were depicted in popular commercial entertainment as a crusade for freedom by heroic U. S. soldiers helping their South Vietnamese allies. An outstanding example of this romantic patriotism is Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966).

Fighting soldiers from the sky,
Fearless men who jump and die;
Mean just what they say,
The brave men of the Green Berets. Etc.

But as the war continued and opposition to it intensified, a stream of anti-war, protest songs like “Piss on Johnson’s War,” “Hitler ‘Ain’t Dead Yet” and “The Army’s Appeal to Mothers” emerged. At the same time the folk compositions circulating in the military showed similar ideological polarities. Examples of this can be found in the songs of Army Air Force pilots. On the one hand they contain a very strong sense of the integration of particular groups of men and machines as part of their core of basic assumptions about life in the military organization. The classic statement of this cohesive relationship occurs in a song about a type of aircraft known popularly as the Thud, an abbreviation for the F-105 Republic Thunderchief, a jet fighter-bomber used in Vietnam.

I’m a Thud pilot, I love my plane;
It is my body, I am its brain;
My Thunderchief loves me,
And I love her too,
But I get the creeps with only one seat
And one engine, too. (Tuso 1971; Getz 1981; Jonas 1987)

Such total identification between weapon and operator suggests that the technological and specialized nature of the occupation can influence the degree of integration of the workforce as reflected in its folksong and social behavior. Tuso comments on the centrality of folksong to the social life of the pilots at some fighter bases, and even romantically compares the all-male, war-oriented culture of the officers’ mess to the life of Anglo Saxon warriors in the comitatus! Certainly the war seems to have appealed to some participants as a kind of game, celebrated in “Wild Weasel” (Tuso 1971; Getz 1981) and sung to the tune of “Sweet Betsy From Pike.”

Wild Weasel, Wild Weasel, they call me by name,
I fly up on Thud Ridge[1]Thud Ridge was a ridge west of Hanoi where many Thunderchiefs crashed. and play the big game,
I fly o’er valleys and hide behind hills,
I dodge all the missiles then go in for kills;
I’m a lonely Thud driver with a shit-hot fine bear![2]Slang: shit-hot means excellent. Getz (1981, W-ll) explains that “The Bears” were electronic warfare officers who rode the back seats of the F-105. “Wild Weasels” were … Continue reading Etc.

On the other hand, many Vietnam songs expressed unheroic and highly resistant attitudes. Tuso (1971) reproduces an item from the songbook of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phan Rang which satirizes the unit’s leadership.

Our leaders, our leaders
Our leaders is what they always say,
But it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit
It’s bullshit they feed us every day! Etc.

A parody of the World War I popular song “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” expressed the anger and contempt of infantry draftees towards the volunteer professionals signified by “R.A.,” presumably an abbreviation for Regular Army.

Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail
As the lifers go stumbling along,
Watch them drink, watch them stink,
Watch them even try to think,
As the lifers go stumbling along.
For it’s heigh heigh hee, truly fucked are we,
Shout out your numbers loud and strong. R.A.!
For wher’ere you go, you will always know
That the lifers go stumbling along.
Stumble! Stumble! Stumble! (Brown 1969)

A parody of the “Ballad of the Green Berets” (Lansdale 1976) has

Frightened soldiers from the sky
Screaming “Hell I don’t wanna die,
You can have my job and pay,
I’m a chicken any old way!” Etc.

A parody of “Take This Hammer” (Lansdale 1976) advocates nothing less than the complete abandonment of combat service.

Take my rifle,
Take it to the Chieu Hoi[3]Enemy soldiers who have surrendered under a U.S. psychological warfare program directed at the Vietcong.
Tell ’em I’m gone, boy,
Tell ’em I’m gone. Etc.

Unashamed, time-serving reluctance is expressed in “Short Timers’ Blues” (Broudy 1969). A rotation date marked the expiry of the period of 12 months service which drafted personnel were obliged to serve.

I’d like to leave this country far behind;
This yellow streak is creeping up my spine;
I’ve got to see the doc ‘fore it’s too late,
I’m nearing my rotation date. Etc.

Cynicism toward war in general was evident in songs like “Dear ‘Ole Dad” (Brown 1969) collected from a Vietnam veteran who learned it in 1965. It was always sung as a big group effort, usually in bars.

I want a war, just like the war
That mutilated dear ‘ole Dad;
It was the war and the only war
That Daddy ever had;
A good ‘ole fashioned war
That was so cruel,
But we all abided by Geneva rules
Hey! (Come in with gusto)
I want a war, just like the war
That mutilated dear ‘old Dad

The basic patterns of assumptions in the organizational culture of most field units in Vietnam obviously contained room for the formulation of ambiguous attitudes towards the war and towards military authority and the level of individual motivation. In addition to advocating unheroic behavior, Vietnam songs featured a good deal of nostalgic, I-want-to-go-home sentiment, probably encouraged as much by the policy of individual rotation as by conscription and the ideological objections to the war that some draftees might have had. “Freedom Bird” (Lansdale 1976, Ellis 1980) expresses a kind of dream–like yearning for the coming of the aircraft that will transport the soldier back to the homeland at the expiry of his period of service.

I hear the sound,
Of that freedom bird,
Comin’ down the way.
It won’t be long now.
‘Til I’m in the world.
It’s been a long, long time,
It’s been a long, long time,
It’s been a long, long time.

The war also provided wide-ranging opportunities for protest and mockery along lines similar to those attributed to World War 2 conscript soldiers by Cleveland (1985). There were innumerable jokes about politicians, bureaucracy and the Brass, evident in the disillusionment and cynicism of compositions like “We are Winning” (Lansdale 1976) sung to the tune of “Rock of Ages.”

We are winning, that I know,
McNamara[4]Robert McNamara, U. S. Secretary of State. tells us so. Etc.

A song called “Saigon Warrior” (Broudy 1969) sung to the tune of “Sweet Betsy From Pike” is a variant of a World War 2 composition which could be used to complain about base camps, training establishments, or headquarters anywhere in the world. For instance, a version sung in the New Zealand Army during World War 2 (and still in circulation in 1986) was entitled “Waiouru’s a Wonderful Place.” Waiouru was a much disliked training camp in a mountainous and lonely part of the country. (The source of this and other unacknowledged texts reproduced here is the present writer’s field collection of soldiers’ songs).

Oh they say that Waiouru’s a wonderful place,
But the organization’s a fucking disgrace,
There are Bombardiers, Sergeants, and Staff Sergeants too,
With their hands in their pockets and fuck-all to do;
And out in the bull ring[5]British Army slang: parade ground. they sing and they shout,
They scream about things they know fuck-all about,
And for all that I’ve learned there I might as well be
Shoveling up shit from the Isle of Capri.[6]“The Isle of Capri” was a popular song in the late 1930’s.

The “Saigon Warrior” variant of this song collected in Vietnam by Broudy has Captains and Majors and Light Colonels too instead of Bombardiers etc. It is also organized in four-line stanzas with each one followed by a two-line chorus:

Singing dinky dau, dinky dau, dinky dau doo,
With their hands in their pockets and nothing to do.

It satirizes “Saigon Commandos” who have lunch at the Cercle Sportif (a fashionable club in Saigon) and wear a Bronze Star which they got for writing reports about the war. Then it concludes prophetically:

When this war is over and you all go home
You’ll meet Saigon warriors wherever you roam
You’ll know them by sight and they’re not in your class
They don’t have diarrhoea, just a big chairborne ass!

Broudy states that the text was transcribed from a tape-recorded performance by Maggie, an Australian woman. This suggests that it may either have been part of some Australian-inspired entertainment, or it may have originated with the ANZAC forces in Vietnam. Dinky dau is a corruption of the Vietnamese die cai dau, literally sick the head, hence, meaning crazy. This makes no sense unless it is related to a traditional Australian folk ballad, current in World War 1 and 2, entitled “The Lousy Lance-Corporal” (Cleveland 1959, 1961, 1975, 1982; Tate 1982) which makes repetitive use of the expression “dinky die” as a chorus. This is a slang term meaning truly, emphatically, indisputably.

Another Vietnam War version about an airbase is entitled Ol’ Phan Rang” (Broudy 1969). This follows the World War 2 text move closely, even to shoveling sand on the Isle of Capri, but does not make use of a chorus. Other songs with World War 1 and 2 origins that emerged among Americans in Vietnam are a fragment of “The Quartermaster’s Store” (Lansdale 1971) and a parody of the World War 1 epic, “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” (Broudy 1969), but except for those of Air Force pilots, the songs of U.S. forces in Vietnam do not retain many direct linkages with the World War 2 allied services’ repertoire, although their content has some strong similarities.

Fear of the enemy or of death, wounding or captivity could be brought under social control by such expedients as calling the enemy Charlie, indulging in humor about booby traps, claymore mines, mortars, or the fear of running out of fuel, getting hit by a SAM missile, or having to make a forced landing and ending up a guest at the Hanoi Hilton, a prison camp in North Vietnam. Guilt and anxiety over having to engage civilian targets could be relieved by the black humor of pilots’ songs like “Two, Four, Six, Eight, Who’re You Going to Defoliate” (Lansdale 1976) and “Strafe the Town” (Broudy 1969; Getz 1986). This perfectly reflects the mad, Catch-22 contradictions of the war which by its fatal, obsessive technology of over-kill destroyed some of the very people it was supposed to save.

Drop some candy to the orphans
And as the kiddies gather round,
Use your 20 millimeter
To mow the little bastards down.
Isn’t that sweet!

Criticism of the War

In scandalous actuality, resistance towards the war reached the point of demoralization in some U. S. formations, with insubordination, refusals of duty, fragging of unpopular NCOs and officers, engagement in black market trading and the consumption of drugs, while at the level of comic self-assertion, some soldiers symbolized their personal autonomy from the military organization by giving peace signs, wearing non-regulation clothing and growing idiosyncratic styles of moustache.

The recordings made by Lansdale in 1967 had a highly original purpose that arose from a fundamental disagreement about how the war should be fought. The tapes were sent to President Lyndon Johnson, the Vice-President, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State and to various officials in Saigon including General William Westmoreland. The intention was to impart a greater understanding of the political and psychological nature of the war to the top decision makers in Washington, but this unique use of folksong as a creative attempt to influence cultural perceptions and to change the basic assumptions of the policy makers in the external environment of Washington was to no avail. Washington was not listening to what is perhaps the only example known to military history of folklore being used as a device for the transmission of intelligence. If the policy makers had been paying attention they might have heard a very sensitive account of the dealings of American advisors with the Vietnamese peasantry, along with this kind of plea.

Hello General Westmoreland
This is Advisory Team 54;
We can’t take much more,
We’re damn near out of ammo
And we haven’t got much gas;
If you don’t help us out
We’ll be out of work for sure. Etc. (Lansdale 1976)

The command might also have adopted a different strategic approach to the campaign, with more reliance on small group operations among the South Vietnamese, backed up by counterinsurgency warfare on a larger scale, and less emphasis on big operations supported by massive manpower and firepower as well as the large-scale use of bombing and defoliation. This critique of the operational conduct of the war also emerges in the comments of some of its ANZAC participants.

For instance, Ross (1983:83) comments that Australian soldiers whom she interviewed thought Americans undisciplined and unprofessional and were critical of their trigger-happy tendencies and the way U.S. officers wasted the lives of their men. Some New Zealand rank-and-file veterans interviewed by the present writer considered both the Australians and the Americans as inferior because they (the New Zealanders) had mastered the techniques of jungle warfare that required a more stealthy style of aggressive patrolling in the jungle rather than relying on open trails and large-scale operations.

Australian-N. Z. Relationships

This attitude of superiority is a consistent element in the folklore of the New Zealand Army. Cleveland (1984) describes how the presence of U. S. troops in New Zealand during World War 2 gave rise to hostile parodies of the “Marines Hymn” and other songs. In the Korean War a composition entitled “They’re Movin’ On” became current among gunners of the 16th Field Regiment of the New Zealand Royal Artillery Corps which formed part of the Commonwealth Division that fought with the United Nations forces in that campaign. The song satirizes the precipitate retreat of the U. S. Eighth Army in the last days of 1950 when a Chinese army entered Korea and began to roll back the opposing United Nations troops. It also adverts to the existence of a long-standing rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders. A Mama San is soldiers’ slang for a female Korean. A 25 pounder was the standard field gun used throughout the British and Commonwealth forces during this era. It fired a 25-lb, 87 mm. shell. Noggies is military slang for North Korean troops. Aussies is ordinary colloquial usage for Australians.

There’s a Mama San coming down the track
With a 25 pounder on her back,[7]Alternatively: “Titty hanging out and a Kiwi on her back,” a reference to the ability of the Korean peasantry to carry enormous loads.
She’s moving on, she’s movin’ on.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
If the Noggies don’t get you the Aussies must,
We’re movin’ on, we’re movin’ on.
I hear the thunder of a thousand feet,
It’s the First Cavalry in full retreat
They’re movin’ on, they’re movin’ on.
‘Cause there’s two kinds of man that they can’t stand
A North Korean and a Chinaman,
So they’re movin’ on, they’re movin on.

Ten years later in Vietnam, a composite ANZAC force (known as the Australian Task Force) was made up of Australian infantry battalions plus two companies of NZ troops from the New Zealand Infantry Regiment stationed in Malaysia.[8]The acronym ANZAC was coined in World War 1 when troops from both Australia and New Zealand formed an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps for the campaigns in Gallipoli and France. This began a … Continue reading This has been in the region since 1957 when it became involved in the Malayan Emergency. This was a sequence of operations against Communist insurgents in what today is known as Malaysia. At the time of writing, the regiment was still garrisoned in Singapore under a Five Power Defense Agreement by which a number of Western powers have guaranteed the stability of both Malaysia and Singapore. The NZ regiment fought successfully in the Malaysian jungle and also in Borneo where it was involved in the Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore. It evolved tactics that worked well and kept its casualties down. The NZ infantry were also professional volunteers with very high standards of performance. According to one informant interviewed by the present writer in 1986:

We were highly trained and experienced and we welcomed the chance to get into Vietnam where we could develop our tactics. We were away ahead of any other troops in Vietnam. Each section in a platoon was completely competent and the individuals in it were so well prepared that they knew exactly what to do whenever we went into action. With close contacts at 25 meters you don’t get a second chance. We fought as groups all the time. We knew each other and we had great companionship. The Vietcong recognised us and put the word around that we were professionals and that contact with us was to be avoided if possible.

The Australians in Vietnam did not have quite such a high opinion of themselves, perhaps because about 50 per cent of them were conscripts, but the traditional rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders continued. Barber (1971) reported criticism of the ANZAC arrangement on the grounds that the NZ government having made the decision to enter the war, did not put its wholehearted support behind the groups it sent. They resented their lack of national identity resulting from their integration in an Australian Task Force. “Second best” and “done on the cheap” were derogatory terms that some NZ officers used to describe this effort. These allegations were officially denied by the NZ military command and the NZ government, but the taunt “Cheap Charlie” was directed at members of the NZ contingent in the Australian Task Force because it had to rely heavily on American and Australian equipment and logistic support. New Zealanders responded by composing a version of “Cheap Charlie” to the tune of “This Old Man.”

Auc de lai Cheap Charlie
He no buy me Saigon Tea,
Saigon Tea cost many, many P.
Auc de lai is Cheap Charlie.
Tan ti lan number one
He go jig-a-jig just for fun,
Tan ti lan is very much fun
Tan ti lan is number one.

Auc de lai means “big red rat,” a Vietnamese approximation for Kangaroo, and hence an epithet for those of Australian nationality. Tan ti lan is Vietnamese for “bird that cannot fly,” or Kiwi. This is an epithet for those of New Zealand nationality. Saigon Tea is a colored-water drink supplied to Saigon bar hostesses at excessive prices paid by customers. P is an abbreviation for piaster, the Vietnamese currency of that period.

However, in spite of such discords there were very few morale, disciplinary or drug problems with the Australian Task Force as a whole. There was some hostility towards officers by the Australian rank and file (Ross 1983:87), but there was a much stronger sense of unit cohesion than appears to have been the case with many comparable U. S. formations. This owed much to the fact that rotation was practised on a unit basis so that an Australian battalion would serve a period of 12 months and would then return to the homeland to be replaced by another complete unit. This meant that the platoons and sections retained their organizational identity as small groups and were not continuously being disrupted by individual members retiring and being replaced by strangers as happened in most U. S. units. This regimental approach to rotation avoided the problems of primary group instability and “short-time fever” noted by Kellett (1982:131) and other writers. It may have accounted for much of the Australian Task Force’s superiority in morale. This may also have benefited from the fact that the Phouc Tuy sector where it was employed was not of major importance and casualties were moderate. The NZ contingent in the force rotated its companies between Vietnam and the battalion’s base in Singapore. The New Zealanders were also the possessors of a powerful military tradition which was central to their organizational culture.

The Organizational Culture of the RNZA

This has been influenced by a history of participation in two world wars in which New Zealand sent expeditionary forces overseas. The activities of NZ troops in France in World War 1 and in the Middle East and North Italy in World War 2 established the reputation of the NZ soldier as well able to fight in the interests of his country when called upon to do so (Wicksteed 1982) and contributed images of national identity that emphasized both the resourcefulness and the ability of the ordinary NZ male to withstand hardship and adversity and to perform in battle as well as, if not better than, soldiers of other nations. Whatever its substance in actuality, this belief has been generally sustained in the popular culture of New Zealand and as part of the assumptions of any recruit entering its armed forces. Because these forces are small in size, each individual member takes an extra responsibility when on active service as a representative of a small nation state and is expected to act creditably.

The behavior of the professional NZ soldier in the field is also influenced by the fact that many of the rank and file are Maori. This is a Polynesian minority that forms a distinctive part of New Zealand society because it has managed to retain much of its tribal culture, customs, songs, dances and language. Its traditional values attach importance to warrior-like behavior. In World War 2 and subsequent commitments, Maori soldiers have been notable for their combat motivation, offensive spirit and readiness to take casualties.

The expectation that New Zealanders will fight well is reinforced by the continuance of regimental traditions and customs that reach back to the 19th century origins of the New Zealand Army and connect it to British models of military organizational culture that have evolved from the 13th century. An example of this traditionalism can be seen in the case of 161 Battery, an artillery unit which served in Korea and then in Vietnam with the U. 5. 173 Airborne Brigade at Bien Hoa, and subsequently with the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat in support of Australian and New Zealand infantry. The battery is part of the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery (RNZA). The word Royal connects it with the Commonwealth Brotherhood of Gunners. Recruits are reminded of this in an organizational manual entitled The Gunners Handbook. In it they are told that

In joining the RNZA you are joining much more than just a regiment. You are also joining a close family of gunners with links throughout the Commonwealth. We share our history, customs and tradition with our wider family, and this helps distinguish us from the other corps. We have formal alliances with the Royal Regiment of Artillery, the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery and the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery.
The concept of family is not only a symbolic device of considerable cohesive power, it also has extensive historical connotations. The regimental family is headed by HM Queen Elizabeth II who assumed the appointment of Captain-General of Artillery in 1953 on her accession. The Master Gunner at St. James’ Park is the head of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and is the channel of communication between the Regiment and the Captain-General. This appointment stems from the days of Henry VIII who first established a permanent force of gunners in England. It has its origins in the days when British monarchs appointed various people to specialize in particular military arts like Wagonmaster, Trenchmaster and so on. These have long declined except for the Master Gunner who is responsible for the proper maintenance and accounting of guns, ammunition and associated stores.

At the administrative level, of the RNZA, a Colonel Commandant is a distinguished retired gunner officer who is concerned with domestic matters and the general wellbeing of the Regiment. The Director RNZA is the senior serving officer in an RNZA appointment. He advises the Chief of the N.Z. Army and his staff on all technical and professional matters connected with the RNZA and is the official link between the Regiment and the Colonel Commandant. An RNZA Advisory Council provides advice to the Director on aspects of the Regiment’s history, customs and traditions. Linkages with previous members of the regiment are provided by a number of organizations which include the New Zealand Permanent Force Old Comrades Association, as well as several Artillery Associations and Artillery Officers’ Messes. The Handbook remarks that

Though a gunner may retire from the regiment or even transfer to some other arm of the services he will always remain a gunner at heart. He will continue to act up to the traditions of the regiment which nurtured him, and keep alive the old spirit of comradeship we value so much.
Among the ceremonial observances of the RNZA are some special arrangements concerning the acceptance of the guns as Colors. According to the Handbook these are “an emblem to be kept bright and free from all reproach.” On ceremonial parades the guns are accorded the same compliments as the Standards, Guidons and Colors of the Cavalry and Infantry. On non-ceremonial occasions the guns are “always to be treated with dignity and respect.” The badge of the RNZA duplicates the battle scroll of the Royal Artillery. This was designed in 1833 when it was decided that a badge would be cast to indicate the numerous battle honors of the artillery. On this the motto Ubique (everywhere) indicates that the Royal Artillery fought in every major engagement of the British Army. A Crown appears above the motto and below it is the centerpiece, a replica of the type of nine-pounder gun used at Waterloo. Symbolic linkages with the Royal Artillery are also preserved in the colors of the belt worn as part of the gunner’s uniform. These are red, dark-blue and gold. The red and blue are also the colors of RNZA flags and pendants while the gold symbolizes the regiment’s connection with the Sovereign.

Gunners’ Day on May 26, is the anniversary of the formation of the Royal Artillery by Royal Warrant in 1716. It is the occasion for a ceremonial and social program in the various RNZA units. At formal dinners in the Officers’ Mess, gunners are expected to be able to sing a number of songs that have been adopted by the regiment. These include musical arrangements of several Rudyard Kipling poems–“Screw Guns,” “The Young British Soldier” and “Ubique” (a composition dedicated to the Royal Artillery).

Extreme, depressed, point-blank or short, end-first or any ‘ow,
From Colesberg Kop to Quagga’s Poort–from Ninety-nine till now–
By what I’ve ‘eard the others tell and I in spots ‘ave seen,
There’s nothin’ this side ‘Eaven or ‘Ell Ubique doesn’t mean. (Hopkins 1979)

Informal aspects of the organizational culture of 161 Battery include a repertoire of unit songs. “The Gunners Battle Hymn” (sung to the tune of “The Dogface Soldier”) is an affirmation of the unit’s own special sense of its exclusive worth.

I wouldn’t wanna be in tanks or infantry,
I’d rather be a gunner like I am;
I wouldn’t change my jungle greens
For Ranger Squadron’s cammed–up[9]A Special Air Service (SAS) Squadron was formed in 1955 to fight Communist terrorists in Malaya. It was known popularly as 1 Ranger Squadron. The term “Ranger” was borrowed from Von … Continue reading jeans
For I don’t wanna jump out of no plane.
Chorus: And all the posters I read say that Arty is best,
Wearin’ me down to put me over the test.
Well I load me a gun, and I come from One-Six-One
And I’m waitin’ for whatever comes my way,
So keep up the ammunition,
Keep me on the gun position,
‘Cause One-Six-One is okay.

Such testaments to regimental devotion have resemblances to the cadence tradition of the U. S. Army. For instance the “Gunners’ Chant” (Johnson 1983:75).

I was born with a lanyard in my hand,
I’m a real straight shooter, I’m a gunnin’ man;
They call me Cannon Cocker, and I’m number one,
I’m a ’55 baby, I’m a son of a gun. Etc.
Or “Ranger” (Johnson 1983).
Let it blow, let it blow,
Let the four winds blow;
From the East to the West
Airborne Ranger is the best. Etc.
Or “Air Cav Trooper” (Johnson 1983:106)
I like it here on the Air Cav side
My trade mark is “guts and pride”;
Can you do it? Can you pass the test?
And be like me, “Above the best.”

Another composition current in 161 Battery in Vietnam was a variant of a well-known World War 2 song entitled “The Dugout in Matruh.” Texts of this are reproduced in Cleveland (1959) and Page (1973). It is a comic lament concerning the lot of either the ordinary gunner or soldier, depending on which particular version is required. It has connections with the oral traditions of frontier Australasia and the U. S. The World War 2 version of this depicts the serviceman’s life as one of mournful endurance and discomfort. Matruh is an attenuation of Mersah Matruh, a seaside village near the border of Egypt and Libya. It was used as supply base for desert operations by the Allied Eighth Army in the North African theatre in World War 2. To most soldiers who were involved in these operations, Mersah Matruh is synonymous with heat, monotony, thirst, flies, confusion, military incompetence and bombing raids.

Oh I’m just a greasy private in the infantry I am,
And I’ve a little dugout in Matruh,
Where the fleas play tag around me
As I nestle down to sleep,
In my flea-bound, bug-bound dugout in Matruh.
Where the windows are of netting
And the doors of four by two[10]According to B. F. (“Mick”) Shepherd, a World War 2 veteran of Auckland, New Zealand, an alternative version is “where the walls are made of hessian and the windows four by two. … Continue reading
And the sandbags let the howling dust storm through;
I can hear that blinking Eytie[11]A reference to the Italian Air Force
As he circles round at night
In my flea-bound, bug bound dugout in Matruh. Etc.

This has some obvious connections with a song collected by Colquhoun (1972) which circulated among shearers and the rural workforce of Australia and New Zealand.

I am just a poor old shearer,
I am stationed on the board,
I’ve got my little handpiece in my hand
But I’m happy as a clam
In this land of ewes and lambs
In my tick-bound, bug-bound dugout in the True. Etc.

The True is synonymous with the Blue, an Australasian slang expression meaning some remote and under-populated district where huge spaces of empty and often vividly clear blue sky confront the lonely resident. The exact nature of the connection between the two songs in unclear, but the flea-bound, bug-bound dugout in Matruh may have been inspired by the shearer’s tick-bound, bug-bound dugout in the True. Both have resemblances to an American composition, “The Little Old Sod Shanty” and would appear to be variants of it. According to Alan Lomax (1960,397) this was composed in 1881 by Linden Baker of Kernilt, West Virginia, after his brother returned from several years in Kansas.

I am looking rather seedy now while holding down my claim
And my victuals are not always of the best;
And the mice play shyly round me as I nestle down to rest
In my little old sod shanty in the West.
The hinges are of leather and the windows have no glass
While the board roof lets the howling blizzard in,
And I hear the hungry coyote as he slinks up through the grass
Round my little old sod shanty on my claim. Etc.

The parallels between the sod shanty and the dugout are evident. The mice playing shyly have become fleas playing tag; windows without glass become windows of netting; hinges of leather become doors of four by two and the hungry coyote slinking through the grass has become the Italian Air Force circling round at night. As an expression of protest against the hardships of life in adverse frontier conditions, variants of this song have traversed three occupational fields in at least four regions of the world during a period of approximately 100 years. Its appearance in 161 Battery in Vietnam, however, is less an expression of protest than it is a proclamation of the superior powers of endurance of the gunner. This is in keeping with the offensive spirit of the ANZAC in Vietnam and is perhaps the more in contrast to the discontents of some of their American allies.

Oh I’m just a greasy gunner
From One-Six-One I am
And I’ve a little dugout in Vietnam,
But the boys they took no notice
As they nestled down to rest
In that flea-bound, bug-bound
Dugout in Vietnam. Etc.

Such songs are an occupational folklore that locates 161 Battery in a continuous military tradition that has many linkages with World War 2. Thus a Vietnam veteran who served in 161 Battery as a Sergeant, when interviewed by the writer in 1986, was able to identify as familiar to him a total of 40 out of 132 songs that were current in 2NZEF in World War 2, which members of the battery had learned while exercising with U.S. troops in Hawaii under the terms of the ANZUS security alliance, before this was disrupted by the N.Z. Labor Government in 1984. But, in addition, he was able to sing several 19th century ballads which he had heard performed in the ranks at various times. One of these was entitled “Soldier, Soldier.” Dallas (1967:52) attributes it to a 1900 field source.

Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket, fife and drum?
Oh, no, sweet maid, I cannot marry you
For I have no shirt to put on.
So she went up to her grandfather’s chest
And brought back a shirt of the very, very best
And the soldier put it on. Etc.

This informant had been serving in the N.Z. armed forces since 1968, much of the time as a sergeant gunnery instructor. His service record included 10 overseas tours during which he had acquired a repertoire that not only extended across a broad period of time, but also incorporated items from the armed services of several other nations. Such versatility demonstrates the potentialties of the military environment for the informal transmission of folklore among the rank and file.

This process can also be enriched by mythology. For example, the entire structure of tradition, ceremony and symbol at the center of the organizational culture of 161 Battery is also reinforced by religious legend. The patron saint of gunners is St. Barbara. Although she was decanonized in 1970, December 4 is still celebrated throughout the regiment as her feast day. An account of her legendary activities is reproduced in the Gunners Handbook. It describes her as the patroness of Fire, Cannon and Firearms and a protector against “the thunder and lightnings of Heaven.” In future she may also have to serve as a protection against the intrusions of political adversity.

According to Pondy (1983, 163) the role of metaphor and myth in organizations is to place them beyond doubt and argumentation and at the same time to facilitate change by deepening the values of the organization in order to give them expression in novel situations. This explanation fits what has been recently happening to the RNZA. The small peacetime NZ Army has always had a hand-to-mouth dependency on the political regime for funds to purchase equipment and to modernize its operations. Consequently its future has been affected by the uncertainties of party politics, the outcomes of general elections and the attempts of central government to keep expenditure under control.

At the time of writing [1988] the NZ Labor Government had, as part of a shift in defense policy, refused to replace the RNZA’s worn-out 155 medium guns and would not purchase modern, anti-armor, missile equipment. The future role of the regiment and of the entire New Zealand Army was also in some doubt owing to the virtual termination of the ANZUS agreement on which defense policy has been founded for more than three decades. This’ followed on the government’s insistence that no nuclear-armed (and hence U.S.) warships should be allowed to enter NZ ports, and its attempt to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Pacific. These policy shifts have imposed a period of organizational turbulence on the NZ defense services.

As for 161 Battery, its personnel have twice had to adjust to the contradictions of transition from active service first in Korea and then in Vietnam to peacetime duty in the homeland. In 1971 on their return from Vietnam they paraded through the streets of Auckland, the country’s largest city, to be unexpectedly faced by an indignant mob of peace protestors shouting slogans, attempting to disrupt the parade and bearing placards that proclaimed that “New Zealand troops are murdering in our name.”

The Saigon Correspondent of the New Zealand Press Association summed up the effects of the Vietnam involvement in these terms:

After six years of fighting in Vietnam, the New Zealand Army has withdrawn to find its status reduced, its morale badly weakened and its future peace-time role clouded over with uncertainty. For the first time, New Zealand soldiers have fought, killed and died in a war that did not have the full support of the people back home. Their original commitment was controversial, and the war continued to divide the nation as they pulled out, victory still in doubt, six-and-a-half years later. (Barber 1971)


The cultivation of myths and symbols that consolidate a sense of historical continuity is a normal defensive strategy of organizations under attack or exposed to hostile circumstances that challenge their purpose. Organizations as culture-bearing milieus provide an environment in which people associate regularly and can arrive at shared understandings. The occupants of military organizations in the field have the cultural advantage of being closely integrated communities as well as group networks engaged in the performance of tasks, consequently much of their folksong is occupationally based. Workplace cultures like that of 161 Battery, and the U. S. Air Force units described by Tuso (1971) have their grounding in technological specializations which give them a distinctive language of “unique” terminologies, codes, acronyms and sign systems, as well as the symbols and metaphors that convey the culture of the particular organization.” (Evered 1983, 115-126). Thus the artificial community of the pilot’s mess is the functional equivalent of the family of gunners and the fraternity of the RNZA or any other military organization with a strong sense of its identity and traditions. Little of this kind of research has been done in the U. S. but a cursory investigation of the symbolism and mythology of aggressive formations like the U. S. Marine Corps and some Airborne units confirms these findings. For instance there is an elaborate sub-culture of hyperbolic, aggressive, self-assertion at the center of the folklore of the Marine Corps that derives its inspiration partly from events in the history of the corps and partly from the mainstream tradition of American folklore. This cadence, circulating in a boot camp in Texas, draws upon the elemental tall tale to case its hero in the image of epic frontiersman.

Born in the backwoods, raised by bears,
Double-boned jaw, three coats of hair,
Cast-iron balls and a blue-steel rod,
I’m a mean mother-fucker,
I’m a Marine, by God! (Tuckness 1982)

Similarly, Airborne soldiers consider themselves the Army’s elite. There is a special insistence on physical fitness and a strong sense of regimental pride evident in cadences like

Airborne, Airborne, where you been?
Round the world and gone again.
What you gonna be when you get back?
Run round again with a full field pack. (Johnston 1983, 19)

Emblems like the paratrooper’s wings symbolize the dedication of those who have a highly dangerous task.

If I die on the old drop zone,
Box me up and send me home,
Pin my wings upon my chest,
Tell my gal I done my best. (Johnson 1983, 95)

The songs and humor of such organizations express the socialization crises of the individuals within them, as well as their degree of dedication to the organization itself. The Thud pilot who is both the body and the brain of his aircraft is symbolically related to the gunner who “wouldn’t wanna be in tanks or infantry” and the Air Cavalry trooper whose trade mark is “guts and pride” as well as the Airborne Ranger who wants “to live a life of danger” (Johnson 1983, 139).

Folksong in Vietnam performed much the same functions of expressing both the dissent and the integrative idealism of participants as well as their contempt for those in the rear as was the case in World War 2. But on the evidence assembled here a tentative finding would be that among U.S. soldiers the inter-generational transmission of songs from World War 2 to Vietnam was slight compared to the extent of this process among professional NZ soldiers who were more systematically exposed to a regimental tradition and more directly located in a symbol- conscious organizational environment. Furthermore, the songs of NZ professionals in Vietnam express little or no criticism of the war as such and illustrate the difference between the organizational culture of a volunteer force and that of reluctant draftees. An exception to this, however, is the spirited motivation evident in the songs of fighter pilots collected by Broudy (1969), Tuso (1971) and Getz (1981) and composed by Jonas (1987). Apart from differences in class, education and rank which may have exhibited themselves in superior organizational and technical skills, these men appear to have evolved an elaborate social life that encouraged the performance of a folksong rich in the technicalities of their specialized duties and their vivid sense of occupational community. Their songs also show a stronger sense of the traditional past in that a greater proportion of them are adapted from compositions that circulated in Korea, or in a few cases, in World War 2. All this contains important lessons for those who are concerned about the maintenance and well being of the military organization, especially, in periods of peacetime indifference.



Barber, David. 1971. “Morale of the Army Shattered by Loss of Public Regard and Support by the State.” Evening Post, December 20, 1971, 4. Wellington, New Zealand.

Broudy, Saul F. 1969. “G. I. Folklore in Vietnam.” M.A. Thesis, Folklore and Folklife Program, University of Pennsylvania.

Brown, Penelope. 1969. Military Lore Collection, Folklore Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

Cleveland, Les. 1959. The Songs We Sang. Wellington: Editorial Services.

——– 1961. The Songs We Sang. L.P. recording. Wellington: Kiwi Records, LA3.

——– 1975. The Songs We Sang. L.P. recording. Wellington: Kiwi Pacific, SLC-l21.

——– 1982. The Songs We Sang. Cassette tape. Wellington: Kiwi Records, TC SLC-l21.

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

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

Colquhoun, Neil, ed. 1972. New Zealand Folksongs. Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed.

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

Ellis, Bill. 1980. First Cav: Impressions of a Skytrooper. E.P. . recording. San Francisco: De Gar Music Publishing Co., ASCAP.

Evered, Roger. 1983. “The Language of Organizations.” In Louis R. Pondy et al., Organizational Symbolism. Greenwich, Connecticut:: JAI Press.

Getz, C. W. 1981. The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force, Vol 1. San Mateo, California: Redwood Press.

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

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

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

Jonas, Dick. 1987. FSH Volume 1. Cassette. Las Cruces: Goldust Records.

Kellett, Anthony. 1982. Combat Motivation. Boston: Nijhoff Publishing.

Lansdale, General Edward G. 1967. In The Midst of War., LWO 8281. Archive of Folksong, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. thirty songs tape recorded either in English or Vietnamese at the General’s home in Saigon while he was Head of the Senior Liaison Office of the U. S. Mission in Vietnam.

——– 1976. Songs by Americans in the Vietnam War. WO 9518. Archive of Folksong, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. A collection of 160 songs by U.S. military personnel collected during the period 1962-1972 and subsequently edited and deposited in tape-recorded form.

Lomax, Allan. 1960. The Folk Songs of North America. New York: Doubleday.

Page, Martin. 1973. Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major: Ballads of World War II. London: MacGibbon.

Pondy, Louis R. 1983. “The Role of Metaphors and Myths in Organization and in the Facilitation of Change.” In Pondy et al., Organizational Symbolism, Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Ross, Jane. 1983. “Australian Soldiers in Vietnam: Product and Performance.” In Australia’s Vietnam: Australia in the Second Indo-China War, ed. Peter King, 72-99. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Sadler, Barry. 1966. “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” 45 rpm recording. RCA 447–0787.

Schein, Edgar H. 1985. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, Jessey-Bass.

Tate, Brad. 1982. The Bastard From the Bush. Kuranda, Queensland: Rams Skull Press.

Tuckness, Eric. 1982. Military Lore Collection. Folklore Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

Tuso, Major Joseph F. 1971. Folksongs of the American Fighter Pilot in Southeast Asia, 1967-68. Folklore Forum, No. 7, Bibliographic and Special Series. Bloomington, Indiana:Folklore Forum Society.

Wickstead, M.R. 1982. The New Zealand Army: A History from the 1840s to the 1980s. Wellington: Government Printing Office.

© 1988 by Les Cleveland, and used by permission


1 Thud Ridge was a ridge west of Hanoi where many Thunderchiefs crashed.
2 Slang: shit-hot means excellent. Getz (1981, W-ll) explains that “The Bears” were electronic warfare officers who rode the back seats of the F-105. “Wild Weasels” were two-seated F-105s especially equipped to detect and knock out hostile SAM sites.
3 Enemy soldiers who have surrendered under a U.S. psychological warfare program directed at the Vietcong.
4 Robert McNamara, U. S. Secretary of State.
5 British Army slang: parade ground.
6 “The Isle of Capri” was a popular song in the late 1930’s.
7 Alternatively: “Titty hanging out and a Kiwi on her back,” a reference to the ability of the Korean peasantry to carry enormous loads.
8 The acronym ANZAC was coined in World War 1 when troops from both Australia and New Zealand formed an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps for the campaigns in Gallipoli and France. This began a tradition of military co-operation between the two countries which is still in place.
9 A Special Air Service (SAS) Squadron was formed in 1955 to fight Communist terrorists in Malaya. It was known popularly as 1 Ranger Squadron. The term “Ranger” was borrowed from Von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers, a special bush-fighting unit raised in New Zealand during the Maori Wars of the 1860s. It evolved guerrilla tactics suited to operations in densely forested mountain country. The standard issue uniform in Malaya was known popularly as “jungle greens” but the SAS acquired, through their own resources, American camouflage uniforms.
10 According to B. F. (“Mick”) Shepherd, a World War 2 veteran of Auckland, New Zealand, an alternative version is “where the walls are made of hessian and the windows four by two. “He points out that the standard size for timber framing during this period was four inches by two inches by whatever length was appropriate. As for the dugout, it could be a comic reference not to a slit trench or some kind of sandbagged position, but to a troops’ latrine. “A dugout has no windows, nor does a latrine, but if it had them they would have a four-by-two frame. The walls would be of hessian and the doorway would let everything through.” Shepherd also dates the earliest known performance of this song in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force as 6 September, 1940, the day the force’s First Echelon landed in Egypt.
11 A reference to the Italian Air Force