Field hygiene or …
careful with that zipper, buddy
Bathing in the bush or … don’t drop that bucket!
Keeping your body clean was actually pretty simple. You donned a pair of shorts and your flip-flops, then grabbed your bar of Dial — and of course your M-16. Some guys carried shampoo while others did without, or “bummed” from someone. Dial soap would get your hair sort of clean. Usually we went everywhere with a buddy to make it harder for the VC to pick us off. Then you chose between the river or one of the two dozen wells scattered through our ville.The river was the Song Thanh Quit, a muddy stream averaging maybe 100 feet wide, that flowed along the southern boundary of the CAP 2-7-2 AO. Footpaths led to the river’s edge in dozens of places where the villagers went to bathe or wash their clothes. Stashing your rifle as close as possible on the bank, you waded in about waist deep with your bar of soap. Sometimes your buddy stood guard while you bathed, and you returned the favor when you were done.
Then it was just a matter of getting wet, soaping down and rinsing off. Of course, the water was full of dirt, debris and whatnot. Lots of villagers used the river as a toilet, and occasionally a swollen corpse would go floating by.
The wells were more work, but the water was cleaner. Some wells out in the countryside were just large rectangular holes in the ground, maybe 30 feet long by 10 feet wide. A steep, muddy path or steps would be cut into the long side of the well, leading down to the water. But most wells in our ville were smaller round holes, four to five feet across with a waist-high concrete wall around the hole. Some wells were surrounded by four to five feet of concrete or brick paving. Others were surrounded by plain old dirt that got muddy as people spilled water through the day.
Each well came equipped with a small bucket on a rope, often just a #10 tin can. You dropped the bucket into the well, it filled with water and you pulled it up. Three or four buckets were enough to get you wet, then you lathered up and used four or five buckets for rinsing. Most wells found water six to 10 feet below ground, so pulling up the bucket was no big deal.
It WAS a big deal if you happened to drop the bucket in the well — rope and all. Then you were confronted with angry women who needed to draw water for drinking, cooking and washing. Sometimes you could fish up the rope with a long stick or piece of bamboo, or by dangling a village kid in the well head first. The families who lived nearest the well tended to be experts in retrieving lost buckets.
Laundry … “Beaucoup yak-yak!”
Getting your clothes clean was much harder. Some CAPs hired village women to wash their clothes on a regular basis. But CAP 2-7-2 never had that kind of arrangement for some reason. I suspect it was because the people in our ville were too wary of the VC to get involved with the Marines, even to the extent of doing our laundry.
Some of us washed our own clothes or succeeded in making individual arrangements with village women. Sometimes you could pay one of the village kids to “wash” your clothes, meaning they usually came back from the river dripping with soap suds and water, and just as dirty as ever. And they did get dirty.
When you work up a big sweat two or three times a day, and sleep on the ground every night, it’s not long before your clothes get gamy. Nobody carried a change of clothes — we were too loaded down with equipment and ammo. A spare pair of socks or a sweatshirt during the monsoon was about as far as anybody went. At least during the hot weather, nobody wore underwear. That led to occasional amusing incidents when somebody got in a hurry and caught their dick in their zipper.
That happened to me once and I’ll never forget it. Talk about a painful surprise! After relieving myself, I wound up caught firmly in the jaws of the best zipper the government could buy. Then I faced the dilemma whether to ask “Doc” for medical help, and endure the jokes of my friends, or bite the bullet and just yank my zipper down in privacy, risking further injury. Of course I chose to do the job myself, after taking a deep breath and averting my eyes. Despite a short, sharp pain, I was soon able to restore my “works” to my pants with nothing but a tiny nick on the bitter end.
After your first 10 or 20 days in the bush, you got accustomed to your own stink and no longer noticed. But you had to get used to the smell all over again when you came back from R&R or the hospital.
Shave and a haircut, 200 dong
Haircuts were easy in CAP 2-7-2. There was a barber who set up his stall beside Highway 1 every day, complete with a homemade barber chair. We used to go for haircuts in pairs so one guy could stand guard while the other guy got his hair cut. You were kind of vulnerable sitting there in full view of all passersby, with a barber’s sheet covering your hands. I kept a loaded pistol in my hand under the barber’s cloth in case any shooting started. I remember that made the barber nervous, but he never slipped even when shaving me with a single-edge blade stuck in a handle.
Some guys “buzzed” their hair off (e.g. Mike Kubina and “Crazy” Sigouin) because it was easier to keep clean that way. Others kept it fairly long because we could get away with it. We went weeks at a time without seeing an officer or senior NCO out in the ville, so there was nobody to bug us about keeping our hair short.
One time, Denny Erpelding and I went to CACO 2-7 HQ for something just after Capt. Bob Mallard became our new commanding officer. We stashed our M-16s in the C&C bunker and were walking across the compound when the new CO spotted us. He asked one of the HQ enlisted men, “What are those war correspondents doing here?” He was a little pissed when he learned we were Marines walking around his compound in love beads and “long” hair. We were ordered to get haircuts.
Most of us shaved every day, or every other day, though some barely had enough beard to bother with. Me, for example. Vietnam is where I learned the practice of shaving without shaving cream, back in the days before “lubricating strips” on razors were invented. I didn’t carry any shaving cream, because of the weight, but most guys did.
Brushing your teeth was pretty easy and toothbrushes and toothpaste were included in the SP packages each CAP got once a month. The only problem was getting clean water to brush your teeth with. CAP 2 got one or two 5-gallon cans of chemically treated water delivered each day by the resupply truck. We used that water to fill our canteens, and most of us carried two one-quart canteens. Our canteens were often empty by dawn the next day, especially during the hot months. You could use well water to brush your teeth in the morning, or you could wait for the daily water delivery. Once or twice I remember brushing my teeth with RC Cola when the resupply truck was late. At least I knew it wasn’t crawling with bacteria.
We got a lot of stateside training on how to avoid “trench foot” or “immersion foot” — conditions caused by wearing the same wet boots and socks for days at a time. But trench foot was no problem in our CAP, because guys spent many of the daylight hours padding around in flip-flops or Ho Chi Minh sandals while their boots and socks dried in the sun. Some guys even patrolled in flip-flops, though that was a little too salty for me.
“Crotch rot” was another matter. We sweated constantly and the humidity was so high that our skin rarely got really dry, especially during the rainy months. Once I got “diaper rash” so bad that Doc Doggett gave me a small brown glass bottle of “5% Undecylenic Acid” to dab onto the affected area with a gauze pad. That stuff took care of my fungus in a hurry.
The people of rural Vietnam were pretty straightforward when it was time to piss or shit. They stepped off to the side of the road or trail and did the job without embarrassment — or toilet paper. Dawn often found CAP 2-7-2 on the move, and the rice farmers of Thanh Quit squatting on their paddy dikes adding fertilizer to their fields.
It was a bit more complicated for us Marines. You could hardly call us modest in the usual sense. During training we showered and used the bathroom in full view of dozens of other Marines. Most retained some modesty, however, when faced with the prospect of going to the bathroom in full view of our villagers — especially women.
We had the added problem of vulnerability to snipers. Squatting for several minutes on a paddy dike made you an immobile and tempting target. That’s why we tended to search out secluded little patches of waste land and scrub jungle to take care of business. Even in heavily populated rural Vietnam there were many such scraps of land, often equipped with thorn bushes and biting insects. I always took my M-16 on such excursions, because I never went anywhere unarmed. Some of my comrades thought my caution was excessive and headed for the bushes armed only with toilet paper and sometimes an e-tool.
A tiny roll of toilet paper was included in each C-ration meal, and most of us carried one of them on us at all times. A Marine caught without toilet paper in time of need might quickly learn about the nature of cruelty and the scatalogical humor of his buddies. Toilet paper was even more valuable when one or more guys in the CAP had dysentery.