This is about the man under the cloth camouflage covered helmet in the Republic of Vietnam , the person you portray, the man himself. To recreate the American Soldier at this time, and do it in a way that perhaps honours these men. You need more than window dressing, you need a good, solid foundation. Otherwise, what are we...but a guy in costume?
It is impossible to begin this without understanding exactly what the young, American of this time actually was. His appearance, his mannerisms and language (not necessarily his accent, but the words he used at the time.) a few phrases come to mind.
flicking your M16 to full auto, was to flick it to “rock n roll” and you didn’t hike through the jungle, you “humped the bush.” For example.
The grunt in Vietnam had his own personality, he may have had an occupation before the war, an education. He had family, maybe a religion. A whole other life to tell before he arrived in-country. Getting this part right is the cheapest and most difficult part of the hobby Ive always thought.
I remember once coming away from a camp display and was genuinely impressed by the reenactors ability to stay ‘in character.’ it wasn’t the fact that they had put a lot of money into the minute details of their uniforms and equipment that Impressed me, it was the ability of the Re-enactor to make me believe I was really there. The way they stood, cooked, cleaned their weapons, and communicated to each other, which was impressive. How many times have we walked onto a display (maybe our own) and caught somebody checking their phone to see why the wife is mithering again! I’m guilty of that. And it cuts dead the authenticity of any display. Not just for yourself but also the hard work of others too to get it right. Don’t give people an excuse, it’s all to easy now to be sneakily snapped in period authentic uniform carrying something modern. Even a mobile phone hidden in your pocket can show an through material and can ruin a perfectly good photo. It has happened!
Appearance is the simplest, haircuts varied from the beginning of the war to the end. The guys who turned up to Vietnam in the early days were most likely career soldiers. Short back and sides, sometimes buzzcut, or ‘high and tight’ for marines. These cleanly shaven, heavily starched troopers can be seen jumping out the landing craft at the beginning of the war. Long serving military men, who were taught at school by their teachers that communism was wrong, and at the dinner table by fathers who believed the domino theory.
He grew up hearing war stories of brave Americans fighting the Germans in Normandy and the Ardennes, and the Japanese on Pavuvu and Guadalcanal. He was ready to bring the fight to Charlie in ‘his’ war.
But as we know now, the war dragged on into the early 70s. And facial hair and longer hairstyles could be seen. A sign of the times, and new culture state side. Anti-war protests, music, drugs and sexual freedom had changed peoples perspectives. Even those serving and drafted at this time had a different mindset to those in the beginning. How you felt about the war at that time determined how you would carry yourself in-country.
Mannerisms - being English, I found I didnt have the natural slouch of an American, I didn’t eat like one or talk like one either. Look at how a GI poses for pictures in-country, how he holds his M16, he holds it like it’s his daddy’s shotgun back at home. There were no high up tactical at the ready holds at this time. Let’s not go into the trigger finger either!
See how he leans or rests against anything he can, with hands in his fatigue trouser pockets or resting on his hips. It’s all very casual. Statistics show that during the 1960s, 56% of Americans smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day. Now this isn’t to encourage you to pick up a smoke and start puffing away at events, far from it. But to encourage the carrying of period smoking ephemera wouldn’t do any harm would it? At least not to your health.
Though not all American soldiers smoked, it sure as hell probably felt like it at the time. During Monsoon season, what did grunts do to stay dry on patrol? Nothing, they just got wet. Any veteran will tell you this, so keep that poncho wrapped around your bed roll GI! Your letters from home we’re the most important thing you got! The wait for mail call dragged, but when that bird dropped the big red bag with some black label and c rats. You didn’t feel so down anymore. You read that mail, twice, maybe three times. Then sometimes you had to burn it, other times you kept it inside your ammo tin or under your helmet next to the picture of your girlfriend/wife. If you were a grunt in 1970/72 chances are you really didn’t want to be there. So untuck that teardrop peace sign from your green t-shirt, grow that moustache until you can filter coffee through it and turn up that Quicksilver Messenger Service record that your friend who ‘moved’ to Canada sent you. There ain’t no officer or NCO who cares enough stop you now. beach wedding dresses 2018
Language - we’re at a loss here right from the get go. We’re English and we’re not real actors even if our title suggests we are. Most of us can’t put on believable American accents without sounding like Colin Firth in Main Street. But we can communicate with period American phrases and words. That cigarette.
in your hand is a smoke, that VC you hit got zapped, the Officer you didn’t like got fragged. That Vietnamese guy/girl trying to sell you a box of tide while you’re on R+R is a gook or mama/papa-san. Base troops are REMFS, career soldiers are Lifers and you are a Grunt. You hump a ruck, your air mattress is a rubber b*tch, the radio is a ‘prick.’ Getting close to the end of a tour means your getting short. when you go home, you go back to the world, in free-fire zones anything is game. blacks are brothers, new guys are cherries or FNGs. And yes.....you really have gone asiatic if you wear Ho chi Minh racing slicks and squat to cook your ham and motherf*ckers!
Have you ever been in a public/private battle display in full “gear” not kit as we brits know it as! A Sec 5 ‘sweet 16’ in your hands, pumped full of adrenaline, rattling around inside the AIPS M113 “M one thirteen.” It ‘almost’ feels real. The ramp drops and you crash out of it dazed, with no sense of direction. At that moment you’re an American soldier, lost, a million miles away from home in a weird place. especially if you’re a northerner and you still have nose bleeds from the journey south to the war and peace show!
You head to the nearest dike where your buddies are already down and spraying the bush. The squad leader or El Tee is yelling at you, getting you to haul ass up the small embankment with him, dragging you along the dirt by the handset, the radio loudspeaker is blurring with radio chatter. You recognise the guys around you. But they’re not them anymore. They’re American PFCs, Sgts, Spec 4s, radiomen, pig gunners, grenadiers, all of them grunts.
This is what it’s all about, seeing and hearing (as close as possible) what it was really like for those who experienced it for real.
I was once told that you as a reenactor have to ‘get it right’ not just for yourself but mainly for the guys around you. The real enjoyment of the experience comes from seeing your buddies around you get it visually right. And it certainly helps if you and they sound right too!
This article is not just about us as reenactors, it’s about the vets over all else. So I’m ending on this, as the title is written the young man under the helmet in Vietnam, was not just a faceless shadow in a green uniform, the uniform is just one small part to get right! he was a person a lot like me and you. And it could so easily have been you there instead of him. This is why the ‘character’ of who you are recreating is just as important as the gear you are wearing!
So as the old re-enacting cliche goes, we not only want to get it right, but have to get it right, for them....because after all is that not why we are here?
By The Unknown English Re-enactor