Basic Training During Vietnam


I was sworn into the US Army on February 19, 1968 at the Boston Army Base.  It was the beginning of a career that I could not have imagined.  At the time things were extremely hot in Vietnam.  The Tet offensive had occurred just a little earlier in the year.  We were bombing North Vietnam, and everyday the news reports coming back brought the war into our homes.  Honestly, I do not remember watching those news events although I know I must have because I have always had an interest in the news.

I joined the army in part because I had failed in my first semester at Boston University and not knowing what else to do with myself.  I had been working a job as a gas station attendant and I knew I could do better.  I just did not know how.  I also joined out of a sense of patriotism.  That came in large part because of my father who had served in the Army Air Corps in World War 2 in North Africa and Europe.

I truly loved the idea of the military regardless of what was happening in Vietnam.  I had tested extremely well on the Armed Forces Entrance Test and could pick and choose what I wanted to do in the military.  I chose officers school.  The choice got me assigned to Fort Polk Louisiana instead of Fort Dix New Jersey where most recruits from the Northeast went.

My arrival at Fort Polk had taken me through the south that was still struggling with desegregation.  On the bus trip from Lake Charles Louisiana to Fort Polk I remember passing by a bus stop where there were two water fountains within two feet of each other.  One had a sign over it “white only” and the other had a sign “colored.”  Jim Crow was alive and well at the time.

At the time, Fort Polk in large looked much as it had in World War 2.  All the barracks were still the “temporary” barracks that had been constructed at the start of the war when the size of the army increased greatly.  But that was where all resemblance to those days ended.  After a brief stay at the “reception station” where we got our uniforms, our military haircut, tested, given shots for various diseases, and had our personnel files started, we were marched, a euphemism for a merciless run, to our company training area.  I was assigned to B Company 5 regiment of the 1st training brigade.

We stood at attention in the company street while we were dressed down by our drill sergeants.  They told us exactly what we would do, when we would do it, and how we would do it.  We were then divided according to where we came from.  Two platoons consisted entirely of men from the south, a bunch of us were put in the “Yankee” platoon, while the remainder were put in the “odd ball” platoon for those from other areas.

Good basic training requires that the drill sergeant break us down as individuals so we can be rebuilt in a manner that meets the needs of the Army.  Any ego we had brought with us was determined to be detrimental.  Our ego was regained with successful training.  The start of breaking us down was their yelling at us constantly from the time we entered their company area.  They had also put us together as they did because they intended on pitting us against each other.  It worked.

After a while each drill sergeant took his platoon into their assigned barracks and told us what was expected of us in the barracks.  This included things like where we slept, cleaning the barracks, and fire guard at nights.  The barracks were entirely wooden and they were ostensibly guarding against a fire starting in one of them.  They also informed us how quickly they expected us to form up in the company area from our barracks once we were given the order to do so.  I can assure you, it was on the line of 30 seconds, maybe less.

He gave the order at that moment to form up in the company area and we failed, miserably, at least according to him.  At this point he said he did not want us dirtying his clean barracks with our dirty selves and ordered us to crawl under the barracks so we could attempt to complete his order successfully.  Each of these barracks had about a two foot crawl space beneath them that extended the full length of the building.  We went through this bit of “training” many times before we were finally allowed to go back into the barracks.  By that time we were exhausted and scared to death of the drill sergeant.  He had succeeded.

"temporary" barracks at Fort Polk

Army basic training at the time was about eight and one half weeks long.  We were told that we would not be allowed to leave our company area that first weekend.  We did not leave the second, or the third.  On the fourth weekend we would be allowed a day pass if we were the best platoon during our weekly inspection.  By this time we knew as the Yankee platoon we would not win and that was exactly what happened.  One of the southern platoons won, of course.  But that put a chip on our shoulders that we carrying the rest of our time there.  We had been brought tightly together just as they had wanted.

The other aspects of daily life at the time was first meals.  Today’s army has large modern mess halls where hundreds of soldiers are fed at once.  In 1968 each basic training company had its own mess hall.  It was a smallish building that could accommodate roughly 50 men at a time.  We were lined up at one door, pushed through the chow line, given about 6 minutes to eat and get out.  Lunch meals were always in the field which were generally “C” rations.  These rations do not exist any more.  What they were was a box that contained a can filled with meat and potatoes, a can of fruit, a chocolate bar, and a pack of four cigarettes.  I did not smoke so I could trade those for another guy’s chocolate bar.

From the first time we were marched out of our company area to one of the many training areas one of the drill sergeants sang out a marching song that we had to follow.  They had not problem taking us from a march into what in the military is called “double time.”  This simply means that we were jogging, full pack on our backs and rifle in our hands.  If we were not doing it right, which was usually according to them, they would yell at us that “Charlie is going to get you and you are going to die!”  Charlie was the euphemism used when referring to the Viet Cong army.  I do not think a day went by when we did not hear them yell that at us at least once.  It was not just a scare tactic.  It was the truth.

During basic training our contact with the outside world was extremely limited.  We could, of course, write and receive letters.  We could call home only when we were allowed to leave the company area because all the pay phones were on a different part of the post from where we were.  Of course there was no television so we were woefully unaware of what was going on in the world around us.

The first week in April we in the Yankee platoon we advised that we would be allowed our first pass off base.  But then, on April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a riot developed in Leesville, the town nearest to Fort Polk.  All passes were cancelled of course.  In the 200 men in my basic training company there were a fair number of black men.  I had arrived without any prejudices against black people but that would not have mattered anyway, none of had time, or the inclination, to show prejudices.  There was not a single such incident of that sort in our company to my knowledge.  But the death of King,  I believe, removed any lingering prejudices some may have had.  We had come to realize that we needed to rely upon each other and that in a combat position, our lives depended upon that.

We all graduated on a Wednesday in the last week of April.  Immediately following the graduation ceremony those men who had not previously known their next training assignment found out where they were going.  Over 80% of the men were assigned to advanced infantry training right there on Fort Polk.  They were also told that this was in anticipation of their going to Vietnam.  I was one of six going to officer training afterwards while the others had been able to secure assignments of their choice when they enlisted.

"Tigerland" Fort Polk, advanced infantry training

By the time we finished basic training we were still not ready to go to Vietnam but we had become aware of what a dangerous situation it was.  It meant that a lot of guys I had trained with would be in Vietnam by that July.  It was a sure thing many of them would die there as well.  But we were also trained that we could not think about such things.  It served no purpose.  I was very fortunate.  Towards the end of 1968 I was assigned to Korea which was considered an assignment similar enough to Vietnam that we were in no danger of being assigned to Vietnam afterward.

Basic training changed many parts of me.  It opened my eyes to a lot, and prepared me for the world that lay in front of me.

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25 thoughts on “Basic Training During Vietnam

  1. Been there, done that. E31, 1968, life began. Later, Vietnam removed who I was and helped create who I am. Everything past 1970 has been a gift but hard. Did pennance as Teacher.
    Many of our Brothers never returned and I honest to God, miss them. Every one of them.. Some of us were simply damaged.
    Al Herrle, 101st, Hue Phu Bai, 69/70

    • I James R Hodges was in E31 in Dec 1966 – March 1967 for basic in South Fort went to North Fort and stayed until November 1967 Went to and arrived in Long Binh Vietnam January 4, 1968

  2. The men of E-2-2, also were sworn into the army 19 Feb 69. Our Family Day was the day after MLK assasination and I lost my first leave and had to “return to your company,” where my parents and grandmother entertained ourselves at the PX cafeteria.

  3. Had Basic Training in 1970 at Fort Bragg, The above description is accurate. When I jog or go for a long walk….sometimes those old songs come to mind . Crazy times then,

  4. charley 3-3 sept 1974. never forget the time a guy in his sleepwalk peed on another dude while he was sleeping,,,guy got up and was yelling,,,woke everyone up…he then swapped matresses with the pee dude after he kicked him out of the barracks,,what fun times.

    • Attended MOS 11C (Indirect Fire Infantryman) course in Nov. 1974. During Night Escape & Evasion phase, Cadre SGs strongly advised us to place our valuables (namely wallets) into
      a box before beginning the course; I naively placed my wallet inside. After successfully completing the course, I retrieved my wallet, only to discover that my month’s pay was missing.
      I never logged formal complaint/charges against those SGs. Such was the quality of the NCO
      Corps at Fort Polk.

      SSG Richard Laird,59, USAR Ret.
      Desert Storm
      Brookline,MA

  5. I was in Basic from 3 Jan to 8 March 1968 in Fort Bliss, Tx. I remember pretty much similar stuff to what you did, although the barracks at Bliss were the cinder block H-style, and of course it was desert terrain. For an 18 year old from Virginia the terrain was very strange on top of being away from home, girl, and trying to deal with this new Army life and world events going on around us. Thanks for posting this, brought back memories.

  6. This is just what I remembered too, from so long ag. Thanks for writing this. Bill, I was in Basic at Fort Bliss, the same dates, I’m from Virginia, and was SO missing my girl back home. We should know each other. I think I was D-3-3, it was on Gatchell Street up in Logan Heights.

  7. Basic at Ft. Knox May 70. Not too bad except Misery & Agony, two big hills they loved to march or run us up. Ft Polk end of July 70 through Oct. 11b with orders to Long Bien. Tough training, little sleep and a lot of heat, humidity, bugs, snakes & wild boars. Never got to Leesville. Brutal summer heat & humidity that i still remember all to well and the salt tablets and wetbulb uniform days. Untucked, unbloused and sleeves rolled up. White sweat rings all over your fatigues. It would rain like crazy, dry up and your fatigues would smell like mildew by the end of the day. Tigerland too. Wouldn’t want to do it again but wouldn’t trade the memories either.

  8. got to ft polk sept 66. Basic was worse than some on this post. My first nite was spent helping the cooks……….D.I.’s would throw foot lockers, wall lockers etc outside while you were training.
    In the mess hall if a whistle blew you got out finished or not. Lot’s more memories (?)

  9. Fort Polk 11/65 to 11/67. Basic B-2-2 in South Fort. Assigned to Company A Special Troops as a permanent party. Personnel Specialist 71H30 in Bldg 317. Did out processing, got port calls and extracts of morning reports. Louisiana was a lot different that West Los Angeles!

  10. Charlie company, 2nd Bn, 2nd Bde, March 65 to May 65. Then I went to Cooks School from June 65 to August 65. Stayed in 6 years, got out for 5 years then went back in as an MP. Retired in 1995. Good times

  11. I am looking for Bill (William) Day, from New Mexico, who did his basic training at Ft. Bliss in 1968, I believe. If you know of him or you are him, please email me.

  12. i am looking for anyone that took basic at fort dix new jersey ..d-6-2,our main drill sgt. was sgt.whitehead..trying to track down graduation book.thank you,anyone please reply..gettin old!!

    • Hello Randy,
      I don’t remember the month but I went to For Dix in 1970 under Drill SGT Whitehead then on to Radio Teletype school and Nam. I will find my old paperwork, don’t remember our group/company number.
      Dave Chessey

      • gettin old sucks…but i remember some good times not bad…i am on youtube..cause i have been a musician for about 45 years or so..you have to type in..diane gotshall in search!! i am the bass player but also play alot more instruments!!..god bless..please reply!

  13. I was in ft.polk in 74. Also b4-2 &d-2-3. Man does this being back memories. Im looking for my buddy jarome gurrino. From bellville n.j. We both went though Training together. I hope by placing this he might see it.
    And reply, its been 40 years!
    My god. Part of my life ill always
    Remember. With pride.

    • yes..i was there..1970 but cant remember what month!!..old age i guess..63 now!! my company was..d-6-2 old barricks.sgt. whitehead(richard) was my drill sgt. plus we had week-end warriors but cant remember their names except ..assholes..!! i am lookin for a year book but cant track any down??..please reply..where ya from??..i am out of harrisburg pa. now but when i enlisted was out of elizabethville,pa. small town. hope to hear from ya..later,randy.

  14. The best you can be, by competing against YOUSELF not any other swinging Richard.

    Gee, Batman, where was that when I was born..

    Of course how did I learn that… Going to War to save America. 1) A small minded PFC on the Mental Test said, if you work ahead in this Test and I catch you will be Court Marshalled. So I was stuck on the first Calculus question trying to figure out with no mathematical training (Lesson One).

    Our barracks won best barrack 4 weeks in a row. Fifth Weed End we lost. Entire company got Post Privileges, except the new winner go off Post. So when a taxi drivers said, taking us from South to North. Get even. I can get you to LA Platte LA and back for $20 and it will cost you $20 each for the best LA has to offer (Lesson two).

    Went to a library and read all there was about Nam (post fact, obviously) leading grunts in a jungle was not going to Save America or the World. I changed MOS from Combat to Clerk Typist to get to the Pentagon it worked (Lesson three)…

    More of the same lessons related to this lesson. In the Pentagon as a Personal Specialist. I shipped the first Missile Site Team to NAM. Tied up for 3 years with no Missile Site Team in Vietnam. Still got chewed out by 2 Sargent’s and a Major for not Saying “YES SIR” enough. Like where did the Sargent think I should Interrupt a 4-Star Inspecting General of the US ARMY to say “Great General why don’t we go out and look for girls and hug toilet afterwards, SIR”. Of course Military Protocol. I listened and said: Thank You, Sir (once), it was my DUTY. That was the US ARMY and the Perfection of ME and my SERVICE. I survived. (Lessen 4-5)

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