US Army in Vietnam - the observations of a Grunt in the 1st Infantry Division

Steel Pots & the Poppa-san Squat

Maybe kind of a  dull topic, but it is another piece of info for your page, if you want it,  and one that I am certain has received little or no attention in books about the war (which I do not read anyway).

Ever wonder what a grunt used as a chair in the  field? What he used to bath in (besides sweat!)? How often did he bathe? What about clean uniforms?

I was thinking about this, after the write up I sent you about chow in the field, and realized that most folks have not the foggiest idea about any of these topics either.

To sit your butt on the ground was to invite trouble in the RVN. Bug bites, snake, bites, stickers, man eating ring worm, jungle rot, etc, were all just waiting  for a chance at the poor grunt's nether regions. True there were times when you had to lay on this  ground, and could not avoid contact with same. But most of the time, you had no desire to plonk your skinny (all grunts eventually have skinny butts!) butt on the soil of the RVN to rest, or perform sentry duty at the  NDP or in the boonies on a sweep or patrol.

Steel pots were the solution. Even now, I can see the look of disbelief on the faces of folks who were not there, as they try and visualize a GI folding up to sit perched on his steel pot....

Well 'tis true, the ole faithful noggin protector was also a GI's best chair!

When the column stopped, or the patrol, and it was time to watch while the cloverleaf was being made or whatever, or if  it was time to chow down, or the day was done and the soldier was back inside the NDP or FSB,  some soldiers would remove their steel pot, turn it upside down and place it on the ground, then casually sink downwards until their butts made firm contact with the open side that formerly held their head inside of it.

AHHH! Taking a load off the always tired and overburdened legs and feet of the grunt. A luxurious moment of soldier life . The rifle could still be held at the ready, or placed butt first on the ground and muzzle up between the  legs .  The soldier could get a quick rest and  be allowed a swig of hot, bad tasting water to be savored from one of the 2 canteens dangling off the  web equipment belt, or splashed over the head in an effort to fight the always oppressive heat of the jungle, the elephant grass, or the swamp.  C-rations and other meals could be eaten this way too, and were, in the patrol base or at the NDP or FSB.

This was so common amongst soldiers in the field, and at FSB, that many returned to the States, and automatically reached for their steel pot to use as a seat  instead of using the glaringly evident chairs or other furniture. This always resulted in blank looks from relatives, girlfriends, wives,  and soldiers of all ranks who had never been in combat as infantrymen or artillerymen.

In the NDP or the FSB, the steel pot could also serve as a pillow, a writing desk, a sink to wash the crud from ones face hands and  body, as a shaving bowl, or as a washing bucket for filthy, sweat stiffend uniforms, or as a container to hold the gasoline that was used to clean the daily crud and overnight crud off of those  M-16s, as well as  all other infantry weapons and ammo. I have often wondered how many zillions of gallons of gasoline was used as cleaning solvent for weapons of all sizes in the RVN. Gasoline while dangerous for the idiots, cut through grease, dirt, mud, etc like a miracle household product now seen on the tube (TV).

The steel pot also saw extensive use as a  super entrenching tool, close combat weapon, urinal, bar catcher,   cooking pot (seldom done but done nonetheless!) and  water bucket to fill those empty canteens at times or to soak a soldier burning up with heat stroke or malaria till the dustoff chopper arrives.

Another universal type of chair and desk in use by soldiers in the field, was the common garden variety bright green plastic woven sandbag filled with the local earth. Sometimes as pillows too. Since these covered the roof and were the walls of the Dupuy bunker (IFP) as well as the sides of the shelters that were our homes (only 2 or 3 high around the shelter) they were always plentiful!  Used as seat cushions on the open pit latrines in each platoon area too. Much more comfortable than plonking your bare and skinny butt down onto rough, knotty tree bark for the daily dump! Allowed a soldier to read his mail in comfort while doing something really positive at least once a day (unless you suffered from constipation, which was really really rare!).

But sometimes, there were no filled and unoccupied sandbag seats available, and for some reason, you did not have your steel pot with you in the NDP or FSB, and wanted to sit down, there was the ultimate GI expression of becoming as one with the RVN environment: the Poppa-san Squat! Also known as going Asiatic to the guys from WWII and Korea.

To do the Poppa-san Squat, a soldier, just folded up in a sitting/squatting position, with his skinny butt touching the heels of his jungle /  combat boots, leaning forward with arms on knees or at the dangle (see pictures of the RVN civilians sitting this way). Once accustomed to doing so, a body could sit like this for prolonged periods of time without discomfort, but no GI could remain in this position as long as a Vietnamese!!!  With practice, you could really get comfortable, and simply by pulling down the trousers, it was possible to take a dump in this pose (that is why the RVN copies of those famous old French toilets had footpads inside the bowl!). Be advised that one must be slender and fit to do the Poppa-San  Squat without causing damage to muscles and tendons!

You see, most of the RVN peasantry did not own furniture other than a crude platform bed, and a maybe a table, so that is how they sat for social occasions in the vill, and  even the poor folks  in some of the big cities too.

Again this method of sitting has caused many weird looks from wives, girlfriends, family members, passersby, and soldiers who never served in combat in  the Pacific, Burma, Korea, RVN, etc. The presence of obvious furniture is again often overlooked, and i even squatted down next to my footlocker in the barracks like this several times, to polish footwear, in spite of the big OD footlocker at the foot of my bunk - this is  the Stateside, European or garrison soldier's lounge chair in the barracks environment).

LOL! It used to drive the lifers wild Stateside and in Europe  to see lines of GIs (for whatever reason there was a line waiting) with the RVN vets hunkered down in the Poppa-san Squat instead of standing tall! Not proper soldiers! Bad image! Etc, etc!

Soap suds. Mostly in the field, except for shaving daily, and washing off from the steel pot bath, or during a monsoon rain storm (it always seemed to stop before the soap was removed from my bod when I was in the NDP or FSB!), or using the latex from rubber trees to get clean, grunts had daily sweat baths while going about their duties in the field.

A heavy rain might chill a soldier to the bone, but it did wash some of the crud  and stink off  of him and his uniform, as long as one was not getting muddy on AP or OP duty lying in the water and mud!

Uniforms soon acquired a stiff, filthy look with white salty patches on the back, under the arms, the hips, etc, and stank so bad that no one even noticed after a few days (as did the soldier wearing it!). It was just a part of life in the field. The jungle would  soon turn boot leather white from constant contact with vegetation, and poplin to tatters, so soldiers in the field soon  came to look like shaggy haired, clean shaven, dirty, and ragged bums loaded with weapons and gear during an extended period of operations (the weapons, and ammo were always as clean as was possible, and cleaned 2 or 3 times a day).

Running water (streams and rivers) or natural  standing pools were always avoided as bathing spots, no matter how cool and tempting they looked. Reasons?  Gook ambushes, leeches and  bugs  to name a few.

Another reason was that fording or swimming rivers usually resulted in the uniforms and bodies  getting even dirtier due to the high silt content in them. Natural standing pools usually  were so full of crap (algae, scum, etc) as to be uninviting as a bathing place. It was bad enough to have to strain  the water through  a  neckerchief, bandana or hanky  from rivers and pools to refill canteen sometimes, let alone bath in it!

B-52  bomb craters in plain view and weapons range of the NDP were much prized as bathing spots, and if there were any around the NDP, organized security parties, with pre-plotted fires went out with the bathers( easily  ID'd on the way back as they were the ones with jungle hats, ammo carriers, weapons, boots and bare butts caring their wet, washed uniforms in their steel pots).  Why? the bomb blast and heat killed off the leeches, bud, parasites, snakes, etc, and made the water a  cool, beautiful and inviting blue with clear fields of fire in grassy areas (the elephant grass was blown flat, burned and uprooted by the bomb making the crater).

LOL! of course, it is really living on the edge to come under fire when buck naked except for helmet, boots , bandoliers, and weapons! Everyone is most aware of their shiny light colored body parts (white, black, brown, red or yellow) that glare when compared with the tanned pieces of their anatomy!!! Laugh, now, but more than one soldier was worried about those NVA/VC Davy Crocketts OUT THERE zeroing in on their genitals with an AK bullet! But the upside is, after it is all over, and you survive intact,  you do not need to clean your clothes if you experience a catastrophic  urinary tract or anal muscle control failure due to fear!!!!

No muss! No fuss! Just grab some dirt and clean up on the fly! And only your buds will know what happen, and LOL!, they will only tell the whole Division about it (such is GI humor!)!

If the operation ran a about 30 days or longer, the Division would send out a pile of clean uniforms via the daily log chopper for us to swap for our worn and dirty ones! Bless you General, and your G-4 for getting them to us! That is why so many photos show soldiers wearing uniforms with just a divisional patch and nothing else on them (besides what kind of idiot walks around in the field advertizing his rank?)

Another sight to be seen to be believed was the naked GIs strolling about near the company shower facilities after an operation!  Off come the stiff and filthy uniforms outside the shower, tossed into a pile where the supply guys will collect them and turn them in for clean ones for the company, into the cold water  showers assembly-line style, and out the other  side to stroll about naked as a picked bird, grabassing about and selecting a new uniform from the clean stacks!

All the while , being watched by the little folks who work in the base camp (Moma-sans, girl sans, boy-sans and poppa-sans )with big staring eyes, wide mouths, laughing, pointing, ribald commentary,  as they  were comparing GI plumbing and hairiness to the generally much smaller plumbing  and lack of body hair of the Vietnamese men. Lord what a circus! What a way to end an operation where each day could be your last! As a public entertainment spectacle!

And of course, American soldiers being the way they are, the GIs, while loudly  proclaiming shocked outrage at being subjected to this, made a floor show out of it,  laughing, joking, making rude  and suggestive gestures while  shouting rude comments to the watchers, who shot back zesty replies!

Well Mike, there it it, a long, and probably very boring piece about seating arrangements, clothing supply, and  personal hygiene, and the first part of post operations entertainment (think of it as winning their hearts and their minds as Top used to say with an evil leer) as a grunt in 1967 where I was serving.  Might answer some more of those questions that have gone ignored up till now!

Delta Mike Two, Out!

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1st Infantry Division TAOR (1969) 

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