The best defense of the mobile CAPs was frequent, quiet movement, but our steel pots often made stealth a joke. Several times I remember CAP 2-7-2 moving quietly through the night, winding invisibly for hundreds of meters through paddies and treelines. Then our position would be given away when someone’s helmet fell off and rolled clattering along the ground. In the quiet South Vietnamese countryside, the racket could he heard 100 yards away.
And my helmet seemed to fall off more than anybody’s. I started my career in the CAP as an assistant machine gunner — a glorified pack mule. I think it was the 80 pounds of gun ammo that made me clumsy, or maybe I was clumsy anyway. Whatever the reason, I remember other Marines cursing angrily while I felt around in the dark for my runaway helmet.
Our helmets came with chin straps we considered worthless and never used. Most guys let them dangle loose, but some tucked them up in the helmet and others cut them off.
The steel pots were not only heavy, but top-heavy. No matter how much you fiddled with the liner, the center of gravity stayed even with the top of your head. The next time you see a combat documentary, watch for guys running. Then count the guys running while holding their helmet on with one hand.
A helmet protected the top third of your head, but it’s not like we needed a lot of protection from overhead fire. The village war didn’t involve huddling in a hole while shells rained down. Most of our KIAs and WIAs were hit by shrapnel from the side or below.
The longer I wore my helmet in the bush, the more I hated it. One day I got fed up and threw my steel pot in the river. It felt good.
A day or so later, Mike Kubina asked me where my helmet was. I told him I lost it, so he ordered me a new one. I wore that one a couple of days then threw it in the river. Again Kubina asked about my helmet and I said I lost it. He threatened to have the cost of a new helmet deducted from my pay. I don’t remember if he ordered third helmet, or just gave up. Whichever way it happened, I stopped wearing a helmet altogether. Within a month it was rare to see a Marine wearing a helmet in CAP 2-7-2.
I stayed happily helmet-less through the rest of my tour, wearing a cloth utility cover instead. When it was time to turn in my gear before rotating home, I stole a helmet from one of the new guys in the transient hootch.
The Marines finally replaced the steel pot with the lightweight Kevlar “Fritz” helmet in the 1980s. I hear the troops like it. It’s funny. The U.S. military will buy $35 million airplanes by the dozen, but it took them nearly 50 years to find the money for a $35 helmet that’s light and effective.