Comanche Home History Main Reunions Guest Book Stories Search
A DISCUSSION OF BODILY FUNCTIONS IN VIETNAM
For this essay I was looking for a topic that would show some of the daily routine of an infantry company in Vietnam. I don't think our friends and relatives back home ever really understood what daily life was like in the Nam. It wasn't all fighting. Most of it was daily routines, guarding bridges or walking through the bush. The description of war written by someone during the Civil War was just as true 100 years later in Vietnam: "War is days and weeks of tedium and boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". I've felt that people back home had the impression that we punched a clock in the morning and went off to battle, returning in the evening. Many grunts received useless gifts from home - - shoe polish, after shave - - etc., obviously showing a lack of understanding of what we were going through. It occurred to me that even the routine of daily bodily functions was completely different from back in "the world". The very first time I went to the bathroom in Vietnam was at the reception area in Cam Rahn Bay. I went to the latrine (essentially an outhouse--a 10 holer I think) and sat down. A few minutes later a Vietnamese woman hired by the military to work on the base came in , smiled sweetly at me and sat down 2 holes over. At that time I said to myself --"Self---this year is going to be different than the previous twenty I've been on the planet." And I was right.
There are three areas of discussion. The first one is about the small temporary lzs and firebases that might only be in existence for a few days or weeks. Proper field sanitation called for a slit trench latrine. A small trench was dug and some metal planking was put across it. On the planking was placed something like a old ammo box with a hole cut in the bottom. (The manual stated that as the medic I was to oversee and supervise this construction. This actually meant that I did the digging) There you had it. A throne fit for a king or private first class. One would sit perched on this "throne" in full view of everyone (including the Viet Cong) alone with his thoughts and the buzzing of countless flies. A little dirt thrown in the hole each morning could keep it in use for a few days. I'll get to the toilet paper part a little later.
The next area is the large permanent bases. In the case of Tall Comanche areas like l.z. Jane, l.z. Ike, Phouc Vinh, An khe etc. At these places outhouses were set up, usually 1 to 4 holers. A steel drum was cut about a third of the way up making a sort of pan. A small amount of kerosene was poured into the bottom of the pan (I think that's what it was) and it was placed under the hole. This kept down the smell and the flies. The following morning the pan was replaced with a fresh one and the disposal of the contents of the previous one was done as follows. Gasoline was poured on the contents and set ablaze. This had to burn for several hours with occasional stirring with a large stick to make sure everything was consumed. The ashes were then buried in a hole dug for this purpose. Every grunt and medic has performed this invaluable service at least once if not several times. (Every time I see the opening scene of Macbeth with the witches at the cauldron, my thoughts turn to Vietnam). All over Vietnam every morning this scene was repeated thousands of times with thick black smoke rising from the compounds into the atmosphere. (Did someone say global warming?).
We now come to the 3rd area of discussion which most infantrymen are familiar with, being out in the woods for days and weeks at a time. Most of the meals eaten in the field were canned rations designed for field situations--C-Rations (another whole topic of discussion). In the cartons was included small packets of toilet paper. If your paper got wet or you were just low on it, it became quite valuable. Picture your uncle Louie writing his will on a paper napkin leaving you a million dollars. As carefully as you would protect that piece of paper is how carefully toilet paper was protected. When nature called the soldier would step off the trail or go out in front of the perimeter with an entrenching tool and dig a small hole termed a "cat hole" because of the way cats do it. The individual would then sit on his haunches with his rear end inches above the hole and do what he had to do. (I hated this) The hole was supposed to be something like a foot deep. The idea was for both field sanitation and to not leave traces of our presence to the enemy. Believe me cats do this better. After doing this several hundred times the hole became a little scoop of earth. One would just see several small mounds in front of his position with bits of white toilet paper sticking out and flies all over it. I don't think the enemy would have needed bloodhounds to find us. This could be a dangerous situation. It was a combat zone and there was always a sentry at each foxhole. One quickly learned to announce that he was going out front. I remember at least 2 instances of near tragedy when the sentry heard a rustling in the bushes and almost fired. The early morning sound I remember from Vietnam is the sound of whoever was on guard duty passing the word from foxhole to foxhole--"man out front taking a shit". You were also exposed (no pun intended) if there was an attack. One time in the Khe Sanh valley I remember the company coming under a mortar attack, after the explosions stopped I peeked out from my foxhole and saw one of the guys scrambling to get back to his hole trying to pull his pants up at the same time. I'm sure there's been more than a few "war stories" of a similar nature told by veterans. I myself always looked over carefully the area I had chosen for snakes, leeches, bugs etc. When you were in this undignified position your private parts dangled close to the ground. I was always afraid some creature would look up and using a fishing term--take the bait. We have not exhausted this fascinating (?) topic yet.
We have discussed normal bodily functions. We will now turn our attentions to abnormal functions. In short---diarrhea. Diarrhea was a very real medical problem in Vietnam. Just being in a tropical climate, drinking water from unclean streams or rivers, accidentally swallowing rice paddy water or any number of other circumstances related to being in a combat zone could contribute to this. All medics carried anti-diarrheal pills to distribute when necessary. (I never gave anyone a laxative that I remember). Aside from the obvious health factors involved all the indignities described above were multiplied. The worst situation that Tall Comanche had was I think in April of 1968. A container that had creamed corn in it as part of our hot meal the night before had not been cleaned properly. That morning about 60% of the company was hit by cramps and severe diarrhea. This made for an interesting scene. There was no need for the sentries to announce that a man was "out front taking a shit" as practically everyone was out front taking a shit. With all the cat holes being dug it looked more like a group of prospectors who had struck the mother lode than an infantry company. For efficiency we were going to organize ourselves into teams of three---one digging, one shitting and one out scouting for new territory. Fortunately this plan did not have to be implemented as most of us recovered within an hour or two. Some it took a little longer. Lieutenant Pearly had a problem in that he was going so often that he ran out of toilet paper. He was using the book he was reading as toilet paper but could not read fast enough to keep up. I think when he recovered he was using chapter 7 and had only started chapter 8. It was close. Vietnam today is doing very well in agriculture, even exporting rice to other countries. I think they owe the American soldier a debt of gratitude for their country's fertility because of the thousands of tons of fertilizer that we spread around the countryside.
To summarize: this has all stayed with me for the past 30 years. in my apartment over the years I may have run out of bread, milk, soap and so on but believe me I have never ever run out of toilet paper. The most beautiful sound that I hear when I am at home is the sound of the toilet flushing.
Webmaster Note: Jerry "Doc" Watson also served with C 2/5 as a medic. He created an entire website - with pictures - to show how the "shit burning" detail was done. Please take a look at Latrine Detail.
Webmaster note: A picture of "Doc" Bovie in Quang Tri Province, 1968.
Comanche Home History Main Reunions Guest Book Stories Search
Updated November 11, 2001