Weather plays a big part in planning military operations. In Vietnam, depending on where you were in country and the season, our servicemen dealt with snow in the mountains, flooding in the lowlands and extremely hot and dry conditions in the sandy areas. Vietnam wildlife posed its own dangers. Malarial mosquitoes, leeches, ticks, fire ants and thirty different kinds of venomous snakes were just a few of the perilous critters soldiers and Marines had to cope with.
I spent most of my time in the “I Corps” area, south of Da Nang. The temperatures averaged around 80 degrees. In some of the areas I was in, during the hot months, it was not uncommon to get over100 degrees. We had two seasons—wet and dry. The monsoon season generally started in September and ended in January. There was no fixed date when rains began. The season started when it started to rain.
The monsoons were something that I had never experienced before coming to Vietnam. It rained so hard you had a hard time seeing ten feet in front of you. You could hold your helmet out and it would fill in a matter of minutes. The rain would start in a flash and leave just as fast. A large area experiencing heavy rain could come from a typhoon, which is the same as the hurricane in the Atlantic. Thankfully, I only went through one typhoon; as with a hurricane, it was off the scale when talking about rain.
I hated running patrols in the rain. It caused a lot of problems in treating the wounded marines. Maneuvering over the flooded terrain was also troublesome. The monsoon made it difficult to call in air support due to the low hanging clouds. It also made it difficult to get a medevac. In most cases, we had to wait until we had a break in the weather.
Even during the monsoon season, we ran night patrols when we could. Night ambushes accounted for nearly a third of all American engagements in Vietnam. Due to the constant drizzling, everything we had was soaked beyond belief—soaked to the point your skin begins to wrinkle. The temperature got in the low 60s, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Vietcong could hear the chattering of our teeth. The only cover we had was our ponchos and liners. As a corpsman, I was very concerned about the well-being of our Marines; at times it felt like hypothermia was draining our strength constantly.
Fighting was not just with the NVA or the VC. It was with the inclement weather, rough terrain, leeches, ticks, and snakes. They became an additional enemy. When the monsoon rains came, it rained so fast and so much that flooding started almost immediately. The lowlands filled with water, and the snakes started slithering to higher ground where we were located. Not to mention the Vietcong wanted the high ground also. When we were at the schoolhouse, the water would get up to the school, and that’s when the snakes would start coming into the school itself. We always had to watch ourselves with that because they’d always try to find dry land and, of course, that’s where we were too, so we did have trouble with snakes.
One day during the monsoon season, we had gone out on patrol, the sun had gone down, and it was pitch dark. When I say dark, it was dark beyond belief. There were no reflections from any sort of light for miles away. It began to rain so hard it was difficult to walk. Due to the torrential rain and the darkness, we were told to make camp. We pulled our ponchos and liners from our rucksacks and draped them over our bodies for the night.
When I awoke in the morning, the rain had stopped, and I was almost dry. We started moving around when one of the Marines started yelling. I ran to him to see what his problem was. His body was covered with leeches, and he was freaking out. There were a battalion of these slimy bloodsuckers marching over his entire body. They were big, fat, and juicy, blood-engorged suckers trying to get as much blood as possible from his body. We removed all his clothing and started the firefight with our Zippo lighters, cigarettes worked well too. The leeches started falling as the fire made contact.
Treating Marines in the rain caused a lot of extra problems. My poncho was used extensively to protect wounded Marines from the elements. The first thing I would do was throw the poncho over the casualty and myself. Then check all vitals and bleeding, open my unit-one bag, and empty the battle dressings, morphine, scissors, and so forth.
Over time I saw a lot of trench foot, also known as immersion foot. This occurs when the feet are wet for long periods of time. The unsanitary conditions in Vietnam elevated the seriousness of this problem. Most people think trench foot is a cold weather problem, heat also contributes to its seriousness.
This is a serious bacterial skin infection. It starts when the skin is broken open and becomes infected. Symptoms and signs of inflammation include redness, tenderness, swelling and warmth of the affected area. In Vietnam, the feet and ankles began swelling to the point that the Marines couldn’t fit into their jungle boots. I then had to order bed rest until the foot healed; this usually lasted for at least a week. My treatment was to have them stay off their feet, keep them elevated and lie outside with their feet exposed to the sunlight. I also administered an antibiotic.
I had a suspicion that some of the Marines were getting trench foot on purpose so they wouldn’t have to run patrols for a few days. So, at the end of one of our patrols I had all the Marines take off their boots. As I suspected, some of them were not wearing socks. Bingo. I found the root of the problem.
When I reported this to our commanding officer, he became very upset. We were already in short supply on grunts. We had a command meeting during which he stated that if any Marine was caught without socks during a patrol, that soldier would be demoted and written up. From then on, I would occasionally have the men remove their boots for an inspection. And whenever an opportunity presented itself, I would have them take off their boots and socks to keep their feet dry and powdered. It was also a good idea to keep dry socks nearby. Bill Maudlin, the famous WWII cartoonist in Stars and Stripes military newspaper, made much of his cartoon characters Willie and Joe and their problem keeping dry socks.
HMCM Ron Mosbaugh