Keeping with this issue's 'food' theme, here's the fifth in David Thayer's series
of Vietnam War memoirs -- this time about military life and the food that goes
along with it. It's an understatement to just say that Army food is 'bad'. David
tells us that Army food was so bad, that at times he wasn't sure it wasn't a
greater threat to life than enemy soldiers.
C-Rations were the quintessential food of the grunts in the jungles of Vietnam. We received them in cases of 24 boxed meals. Individual olive-drab cans had labels such as 'Spaghetti and Meatballs', 'Ham and Eggs', and 'Ham and Lima Beans'; Pork Chop Hill and Hamburger Hill, infamous ground battles, had more appetizing-sounding names to me. The preparation processes needed to give the food long can life altered the flavor: the spaghetti and meatballs had a strange metallic taste, while the ham and eggs reminded me of dried pus. The ham and lima beans just left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Having to eat C-Rations just to survive made me simmer with anger, a dangerous emotion for someone living constantly with a rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammo. I wrote letters home demanding the family send me civilian food. The only photograph I have of myself in the field shows me pouring ketchup on a C-Rations meal to cover up its taste.
To distribute the meals fairly, my squad broke up into groups of four and rotated who had first choice out of the cases. I tried for light items like chicken noodle soup, pound cake, and peaches. Peanut butter and jelly from C-Ration cans were palatable when mixed and spread on the otherwise dust-dry crackers. The heavy nature of C-Rations convinced me that the bastards who created them intended them for consumption in regions with harsh winters, such as Korea and Europe. Having learned about C-Ration fruitcake in basic training, I never ate one in Vietnam. It seemed to lie forever like a rock in the bottom of my stomach. I threw more than one can of it off the side of a jungle mountain, hoping to hit an enemy soldier in the head and kill him with the sheer weight of it. The candy bars in the C-Rations provided a better sugar rush, but the paraffin in them (which helped them keep their shape in storage) made them taste like chocolate candles.
In every case of C-Rations there were several finger-sized can openers, but using one of them required patience, dexterity, and perseverance. Blue heat tabs were supposed to come in each case as well, but out of the scores of cases I opened, I saw only one or two tabs. Instead, we substituted C-4 plastic explosive, sometimes gutting Claymore mines for the stuff. It burned hot and fast, and gave off toxic fumes, but the inconveniences were minor considering that cold C-Rations were virtually inedible.
On one mission in the late summer of 1970, my platoon drew bunker-line duty at a round hilltop firebase. When we landed by helicopter, I cheered at the sight of a mess hall. The thought of someone else cooking something that wasn't C-Rations for me seemed almost like home, but the building proved empty and unstaffed. The brass had decided that the troops were not worth the hassle of flying in provisions, and they converted the building into an oversized storage shed. I watched as firebase personnel stacked cases of C-Rations inside.
"Hey, Dietz," I asked my buddy. "Want some extra rations of peaches, pound cake, and chicken noodle soup?"
He eyed me suspiciously. After dark, I led him on a raid to the mess hall, which was only a few steps from our position on the perimeter. I little feared anyone would spot us -- all other eyes in the firebase were either closed, or searching the surrounding concertina wire for enemy sappers. We easily pried the lock off the back door and once inside, we took two cases of C-Rations off the large stack and carried them to the back of the building. With the help of a flashlight, we identified the cans we wanted, and stuffed them into the pockets of our fatigues. We hid the rifled cases in the trash bin behind the mess hall, and in five minutes, we were back in our position on the perimeter again. With the treasured meals safely in our packs, we watched troops the next day load the other cases into helicopters for resupply of the rest of our company humping in the jungle. Over the next few days, Dietz and I gorged on our extra rations, and never heard a word about stolen food.
One morning in the field, I started heating a can of spaghetti and meatballs. After humping the M60 machine gun down a mountainside the evening before, I was hungry enough to eat anything. A sniper interrupted me; diving for my weapon, I knocked over my hot meal. The gunfire ended quickly, and as the jungle swallowed the enemy back up, I felt a burning on my thigh. Sitting up, I saw a moist dark red spot on my fatigues. My buddies thought I had been hit, but I knew it was only spaghetti sauce. The rest of the meal lay in the dirt, but I felt little regret at its loss. Adrenaline made me momentarily forget my hunger.
I didn't scorn C-Rations all the time, however. On one trek through the jungle, low clouds kept helicopters from resupplying us for several days. At a campsite halfway up a mountain, I consumed the contents of my last can. Only one enterprising private seemed to have any food left, and he offered me a can of peaches for five dollars. I and my stomach grumbled. The thought of paying him for something the Army had given him free pained me more than my hunger, not that I had five dollars to give him anyway. Mercifully, the helicopters dropped in the next day.
In the field, I drank water by the gallon. It was the only liquid which tasted good warm. I tried flavoring it with packets of Kool-Aid from home, mixing it in my canteen. But water was too precious to wash out the canteen after the Kool-Aid was gone, and the residual sugar left in the bottom promoted the growth of mold -- impossible to purge once it had started -- which gave the water a revolting musty taste.
Packets of instant coffee, sugar, and creamer came in every box of C-Rations but drinking hot coffee in the jungle seemed counterproductive. Other non-drinkers poured the sugar directly into their mouths for its food value. I prized my teeth too much to so blatantly assault them, but C-Rations offered no other ways to consume the sugar, and I hated giving it away. Finally, I made some coffee and discovered that flavored with the sugar and creamer, I liked the taste -- my fear that drinking it would overheat my body proved groundless.
In the late fall, my infantry company operated in and around a village near the city of An Khe in the Central Highlands. We made friends with women, children, and old men of the village and the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVNs) stationed there, giving them C-Rations that none of the GIs wanted to eat. We never saw any civilian men of military age, at least not during the day.
One day, a buddy received Jiffy Pop popcorn from home. We urged him to immediately pop it and give us all a taste. Someone generously handed him a chunk of C-4, and we huddled around it as he held the wire handle and shook the aluminum pan over the roaring flame. We cheered as the kernels inside started popping, expanding the cover, but halfway up, the popping stopped.
"You're cooking it too fast," someone complained.
"It's Jiffy Pop," I said. "It's supposed to be fast."
"The flame's too hot."
The cook moved the pan away from the flame. A couple more kernels popped.
"Take it off," I said. "It's starting to burn."
"It's not all popped," the owner complained.
Finally, he placed the pan on the ground and gingerly peeled back the hot foil. Steam and smoke puffed out. A dozen hands reached in around him for the blackened popcorn until only burned unpopped kernels remained in the bottom of the pan.
"Twelve thousand miles and weeks to get here," our benefactor despondently said, "and I burn it up."
"That's war," a buddy consoled him. "At least we got a taste."
My buddies and I normally avoided all local cuisine for fear of catching something. One day I watched one of the local women of the village fry what looked like egg rolls. Sick of eating nothing but Army food for months, I was ready to take a risk for a change. Pointing at them, I asked her what they were. Not understanding my English, she gestured at C-Rations I'd taken out of my backpack for breakfast.
I picked up a can of spaghetti and meatballs. After a brief exchange of hand gestures, pidgin English, and bastardized French (the colonial tongue of the country), we affected a trade. Without a thought of the danger, I quickly chomped the native dish, and found that it's chicken and vegetable ingredients tasted good. My buddies shook their heads, predicting the shits, but I remained healthy. I thought about trading for more the next day, but then a package from home arrived.
Mom had sent me, among other treats, a container of premixed chocolate cake frosting. My mouth watered, but I did not immediately open and devour it; I wanted to savor the anticipation, so I hid the frosting in my backpack. My squad drew ambush duty that night, so at dusk, we placed our backpacks on the dirt floor of a small mud-walled thatch-roofed building behind the village chief's house. Burdened with only our weapons -- M-16 rifles, M-79 grenade launchers, and one M60 machine gun -- we walked single-file out of the village and into the surrounding brushland.
Returning for breakfast the next morning after an uneventful night of dreaming about chocolate, I was enraged to discover that my frosting was missing. I stormed out of the building, and demanded of the villagers to know who'd stolen it. The crowd of women and children loitering outside pleaded ignorance and innocence. In my anger, I chambered a round in my rifle and leveled it at them, trying to scare them into returning my chocolate. They drew back, and my buddies made no move to intervene. I knew Vietnamese civilians had died for less, but not at my hands. My anger started to clear. Looking into the faces of women and children I treated as friends for weeks, I turned the muzzle of my rifle skyward.
"One way or another," I vowed, "whoever stole my food is going to pay."
I was able to convince the entire platoon to stop giving unwanted C-Rations to the Vietnamese. In front of them, we opened the cans and tossed them into our campfires. One child, trying to make friends with me again, told me that one of the ARVNs had threatened to slit my throat while I slept at night. I caught the soldier's eye the next day, and, pointing my rifle in his direction, smiled. He stayed out of sight after that.
Everywhere we went, underfed kids with outstretched hands assailed me and my buddies with cries for food. My unit consisted mostly of California hispanics, Southern blacks, and poor whites, but to the Vietnamese we were rich Americans -- anyone who ate three square meals a day was rich to them. On one long convoy, my squad was traveling in a deuce-and-a-half truck. When the first truck in the convoy passed hooches along the paved highway, children ran out.
"Look at the bastards," a black buddy commented. "Begging food every damn chance they get."
"Give them something," I told him, struggling to eat peaches amid the road grit and diesel fumes.
"You give them something."
Finishing the last morsel in the can, I leaned over the side of the truck at the approach of the next group of hooches. I timed the release of the empty can perfectly, and it hit the ground rolling, flashing past the ubiquitous gaggle of kids. They chased after it, and everybody in the truck sat up to watch. An older kid caught up with the can, and we all laughed at his look of disappointment and anger.
"Serves them right," I muttered.
Others repeated the game at subsequent hooches. We stopped only when we tired of gulping food to provide empty cans.
My time in the field finally came to an end. In her last package to me, my Mom included a can of tamales. Back home, I'd never cared much for Mexican food, but now my mouth watered at the mere sight of the large can. During a brief stop on the convoy from the Central Highlands to the coast, I tore off the colorful label and opened the can, and placed it over a burning chunk of C-4 to heat. The thick grease didn't faze me; when the tamales began to bubble, I showed my ignorance of Mexican cuisine by sticking a spoon in to stir, and disemboweled a couple of tamales before realizing they were wrapped in paper. I kept heating the can until fear of burning the tamales stopped me. Separating food from paper, I relished every bite of the unevenly-heated meal, directly from the can, corn meal, stringy meat, and all.
Dreams of chocolate have long ago faded from my memory. I still feel regret at the way I treated the Vietnamese civilians, but I don't regret not having to eat food from olive-drab-colored cans. Twenty years of civilian food since my war experience has only reinforced my distaste for C-Rations. I'll go to war before I ever take another bite of Army food.
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew