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


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