One of the stupidest ways money was saved in the Vietnam War was having our footmobile infantrymen and Marines carry C rations — 4.5 pounds of canned wet food for each day’s adequate nourishment. Fig. 17-1 shows how some of our foot soldiers packed their bulky C rations — suspended in socks hanging from their overloaded rucksacks. Even when struggling for days across swamps and flooded rice paddies in areas where there was plenty of fresh water they could disinfect and drink, the great majority of infantrymen carried heavy canned C rations for want of lightweight dehydrated combat rations providing equal nutrition and weighing less than half as much.
Incredibly, during the Vietnam War the peacetime system for supplying rations and other regularly used items typically prevailed. A company commander had to decide what items could be afforded, using the meager monthly funds available to his company. Dehydrated, ready-to-eat rations were too expensive for a company to afford.
Fig. 17-1. An overburdened infantryman beginning a several-day operation in Vietnam in 1970, sweltering in his body armor, carrying his canned wet rations suspended in two socks tied to his rucksack. U.S. Army photo.
Canned wet rations cost much less than dry, ready-to-eat foods of equivalent nutritional value that are acceptable to Americans. Little or no account was taken of the prices paid in reduced mobility and lowered morale of infantrymen forced to carry the weight of the water and metal in their relatively inexpensive canned rations. On several trips to the Mekong Delta I talked with no man in a company that then had any dry rations. Our infantrymen down there usually waded in water part of each day when searching for our elusive enemies. They used iodine tablets to disinfect much of the water they drank and did not need the water in wet rations. A company commander told me that he could not get dry or other lightweight rations for his men because his company was budgeted each month with insufficient funds to afford enough of the needed items not regularly issued in sufficient quantities, including toilet paper. In tropical wars soldiers have to relieve themselves more frequently than in conflicts in healthier climates, a fact forgotten between wars by the Army’s supply people. What a way for the Army to save money while fighting a generally extravagant war!
Meanwhile in the same war, the high cost of artillery shells apparently did not greatly restrict the number expended in “har-assment and interdiction” fire aimed at jungle trails and other spots where Vietcong might be. The roar of such outgoing fire often disturbed my sleep when I spent a night at a base camp. I still believe that official estimates should have been made comparing all costs of harassment and interdiction fire with what would have been the additional cost if our infantrymen in Vietnam had been supplied with plenty of excellent lightweight, ready-to-eat combat rations. Realistic estimates of the dollar cost of killing a Vietcong by harassment and interdiction fire, compared to the cost resulting from weapons fired by infantrymen, might have helped convince decision makers that our foot soldiers should have been issued lighter, better rations and equipment.
Airborne troops and other elite outfits at times got good lightweight combat rations for important operations. But not nearly enough dry rations weighing only about half as much as C rations were produced. As I learned from ration specialists in 1968 when visiting the Army’s Natick Laboratories, the Long Range Patrol (LRP) ration was severely “controlled.” Production was limited to 5 million in 1967, and raised to only 9 million in 1968. This severe control was maintained while Campbell Soup and United Fruit had a combined capability of producing 30-40 million LRP rations a year and wanted the business.
The great majority of our infantrymen continued to save the American taxpayer a relatively insignificant amount of money by carrying heavy C rations throughout their Vietnam ordeal.
Vietcong rations were mainly rice, typically cooked at night under good fire discipline. Our enemies also carried ready-to-eat parched rice. With a little salt and plenty of locally obtainable water, parched rice enabled some Vietcong units to march and fight or hold ambushes for days without the disadvantages of making fires.
A Special Forces captain near Da Nang gave me a sample of captured parched rice, which I carried in a transparent plastic sandwich bag when I went to Thailand to try to help the Thai army improve its mobility and overall effectiveness. Among the Thai officers with whom I talked was a colonel responsible for rations. Thai combat rations, except for rice that had to be cooked, consisted of a variety of canned wet foods. The colonel was an expert on the varieties of rice in his lush and well fed land, and quite fluent in English. Obviously surprised when I showed him my sample of Vietcong parched rice, he first carefully examined the slightly browned kernels and then exclaimed: “Why, the grains are very small and poorly shaped. It must taste terrible!” Like our Vietnamese allies, the Thai army remained addicted to tasty food, preferably hot.
Many footmobile war winners throughout history have eaten ready-to-eat dry rations and taken pride in being tough and enduring. According to the account given by Sun Tsu in his 2,300 year old classic, The Art of War, the elite shock troops of King Ho-lu of Ch’u in 500 BC carried a three-day supply of parched rice and were able to march 300 li (about 100 miles) without resting. Mongol horsemen reportedly could campaign for 40 days while eating only the sun-dried mares’ milk carried by their tough ponies in leather saddle bags waterproofed with tallow.
Indians and frontiersmen in both temperate and tropical parts of the Americas traveled light and far on parched corn and other parched grains, dried meat prepared in various ways so it was ready to eat, and dried fruits, berries, and vegetables. Pemmican, rich in dried meat, fat and energy, is a favorite lightweight food in cold lands, but spoils too soon in jungles.
American advisors with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops told me that they could not persuade some units to refrain from stopping around noon to make fires and cook, even when operating in hostile territory. Soldiers who are neither highly motivated nor well disciplined practically demand their accustomed foods, at traditional hours if at all possible.