My uncle Jay is a teddy bear of a man, with a fluffy beard, gentle eyes and a corny joke for every situation. He and my aunt even collect teddy bears. It's always been hard for me to reconcile this cuddly image with the one of him carrying a grenade launcher during the year he spent in the U.S. Army as a combat infantry soldier in Vietnam.
Jay was drafted in 1966. He arrived in Vietnam on December 25, a few weeks after his 21st birthday. "The first thing I said was, 'Even for a Jew, this is no way to spend Christmas,'" he says. "They may have had a turkey dinner or something for us but if they did it wasn't very memorable—because I don't remember."
Some meals were memorable, though not for the menu. One of his earliest Vietnam food experiences was being in a chow line at a big base camp, when a round came in and landed in the bread, injuring the guy who was serving it. It turned out to have been friendly fire from someone who had been playing around with his grenade launcher.
Feeding soldiers on the battlefield has been a challenge throughout the history of war (which is to say, the history of humans). The outcomes of the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars (it was Napoleon Bonaparte who coined the phrase, "an army marches on its stomach"), to name only a few, were all decided in part by which side had better access to provisions.
Today's troops in the field have MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat)—shelf-stable, high-calorie meals that come in a pouch, along with a flameless chemical heater—and Hooah! energy bars. Although MREs get mixed reviews, they're an improvement on earlier versions.
I asked Uncle Jay to share more memories about how they ate during the Vietnam War.
Lisa: What did you eat when you were out on missions?
Jay: While out on missions we ate C rations, those "wonderful" meals in a can. We used C4 explosive to heat them (if you ignited the C4 it would burn and not explode). You couldn't do that at night, because you might attract the attention of the enemy, so sometimes we ate them cold.
If available, we "borrowed" onions from some of the local gardens to enhance our meals.
Lisa: What was in a typical C ration?
Jay: I remember they had turkey loaf. Another was lima beans and ham. They came with cookies that weren't very fresh. I don't know how old the C rations were, but they weren't made just for us! You remember how bad they were but when you're that hungry anything tastes good.
Lisa: How were meals back at camp?
Jay: When in base camp we had the regular mess hall meals which were not great but better than C rations. Our base camp was near Saigon and when it was possible we went to the big city for food.
Lisa: Was eating strictly about survival, or did it take on extra importance as one of your rare pleasures?
Jay: I always liked to eat (and still do) but while in the field we ate when were not engaged with the enemy or on a sweep mission to clear booby traps. Needless to say it was not a relaxing experience most of the time but much better than combat.
I can remember going into the USO in Saigon and getting a hamburger and a Coke but when we went to the city restaurants we were not sure what we would get (and that included a live hand grenade at times). Eating was usually better than not eating, which happened very often.
Food was important because that was a release. Especially if you were back in base camp, it was kind of relaxing because it was fairly safe.
Lisa: Did you ever fantasize about certain foods you missed from home? Which ones?
Jay: Food from home was always better than the food we were served regardless of what was sent from home. I missed anything my wife could cook and as you know that is a very long list.
Lisa: Yes, I do! Big props to Aunt Suzy's cooking. Did you eat any local Vietnamese foods? If so, do you like those foods now, or do they have bad associations for you? Are there any foods you won't eat now because they remind you of the war?
Jay: We ate any local food and as I recall some of the items were great. It's hard to recall any specific food and yes I will go to a Vietnamese restaurant and I do like most of that food. Some of my combat brothers will not eat Vietnamese food but to me food is food as long as I like the taste.
I don't think I ever eat rice pudding because for some reason it reminds me of the rice paddies.
We worked with the South Vietnamese soldiers and they showed us how to catch shrimp. But the best way to catch fish was to throw a hand grenade in the water and go collect the dead fish.
The Vietnamese would also barbecue snakes, but we were a little leery about catching them because there were some deadly ones and we didn't know which was which.
Lisa: Do any particular meals stick out in your mind from your time in the war?
Jay: Someone's girlfriend or wife or mother sent popcorn, but not popped. This was before microwave popcorn. So we rigged up a popper with a pot and a tripod. This colonel came by—not a kernel, a colonel—and we thought he'd be mad. He just said, "God damn! American soldiers can do anything!"
Lisa: I assume this was in an area where the noise wouldn't attract the enemy?
Jay: Oh, yeah. It was in base camp. But even in camp, you had to be careful about making any noise that sounded like rifle fire.
Lisa: Do you remember the first thing you ate when you came home?
Jay: No, but I remember meeting Suzy in Hawaii when I was on R&R. The milk we had in Vietnam was reconstituted. So I ordered three glasses of milk, and they only brought one at first. Suzy told them, "You might as well bring the other two, because he's going to be done with this before you can go and come back." It tasted like cream to me.
When I came home they had a homecoming party and I remember Grandpa Leonard asked me if I wanted pizza. I said, "Sure." He ordered about 15 pizzas, even though there were only about 15 guests. He was so excited to have me home.
Just remembering all this makes me think of the guys going through this right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lisa: Thank you for sharing your memories, Uncle Jay. I'm so glad you made it home safely, and I wish the same for all the families of the troops overseas now.