I Was a Vietnam War Helmet. This is My Story.
At our last Veterans Breakfast Club event, we talked about the uses and abuses of the M1 steel pot helmet, which was standard issue from 1941-1985. After the event, Vietnam veteran Bill Moran, who served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (B Co, 5th Bn, 12 Inf) from October 1969 – October 1970, somehow communicated with his old Vietnam war helmet and asked that it send a letter to me explaining the war from its perspective. Below is the helmet’s response.
First of all, I’m a helmet. My full name is “Helmet, Steel, M1.” Nowhere in that name do you see the word “pot.” I was never a pot and never intended to be used as one.
I am three pounds of pure non-magnetic Hadfield manganese steel. I can stop a .45 caliber bullet at near point blank range. And, with my front visor and slightly flanged sides and rear, I can keep rain from dripping down your collar and still look stylish. Topping it all off is a tastefully subdued olive-drab paint job with a little silica sand mixed in for rich texture. If I weren’t so darn useful, I might be considered a work of art.
With all this going for me, you’d think Bill would’ve worn me all the time. But he didn’t. He typically wore me only at night, when few could behold my understated elegance.
Why night? Because that’s when Bill was in the prone position. It rained almost every night, sometimes all night, and I kept his head dry. The only other part of him that stayed dry was his M16 and my cousin Boonie, which he stashed away somewhere. More on cousin Boonie in a bit.
Bill acted a little strange at night, I must say. He wrapped himself in his poncho liner and hugged his M16.
Sometimes he’d dream. With the M16 held so close, I sometimes wondered who he was dreaming about. I’m probably better off not knowing.
When dawn broke, off Bill’s head I went. And then–this is hard to talk about–he’d set me on the ground and sit on me, as if I were a random rock or cheap stool.
He’d grab his pack, reach in and pull out cousin Boonie. A couple dusting swipes of the hand, and Boonie was on Bill’s head. I got stuffed back in the pack.
Everyone loved cousin Boonie. I never understood it. Boonie’s full name varied. At first, he called himself “Hat, Jungle, with Insect Net.” Then, he changed his name to “Hat, Camouflage (Tropical Combat) Type II.” Finally, he became “Hat, Sun” or “Hat, Sun, Hot Weather.”
What a diva.
By whatever name, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines all thought Boonie was the greatest and wanted to wear him all the time.
Cousin Boonie, aka, “Hat, Camouflage, (Tropical Combat) Type II”
I sometimes think the men loved cousin Boonie because Army brass didn’t. They thought Boonie looked unprofessional and sloppy, with his wide brim flapping and his top all wrinkled and crushed.
Sure, he may have shielded faces against sun and rain. And he wasn’t heavy like I was. And he did have a lightweight drawstring to secure him in the wind. Unlike me, he was easy to pack.
But could he stop a bullet?
Now, it’s true, some have claimed that my elegant contours stood out in the rugged bush, making my wearer an easier target for the VC or NVA. Boonie allegedly had a more “natural” outline and blended in with the foliage better. But I’ve never read that in a textbook. I’ve never seen that in a movie. It’s all hearsay.
While cousin Boonie was getting all the love and attention during the day, I got stashed in Bill’s rucksack with the insect repellent, C-rations, ammo, C-4, and water. It was humiliating.
But, every once in a while, I’d hear the call.
Then, all of a sudden, Bill would pull me out, stuff old Boonie away, and put me on his head.
It was glorious. For a few minutes or hours, I was the hero, deflecting shrapnel, protecting Bill’s head from dirt and exploding foliage.
I like to think I might have saved Bill’s life a few times. Or at least kept him from getting hurt.
Then, the noise stopped and smoke cleared. Back into the pack I went.
There were other times he’d pull me out. These moments weren’t as–how should I say it?—“elevating.”
We’d be tramping through dense jungle for a few days and then come upon a stream or large puddle. I’d hear Bill say, “Bath time.”
Out I’d come. The first few times, I thought he might put me on his head. But, no. He turned me upside down and filled me with water. Again, this is hard to talk about. Very humiliating.
Every once in a while, we’d have short stand downs in the rear. Bill would pull me out, flip me over, open side up, and set me down on the ground. Then, he’d empty his pockets and pack and fill me up with odds and ends. Cigarettes and lighter, a deck of cards, a couple crinkled letters, even dog tags and a rosary. He’d toss those and other things into me like I was a change holder or junk drawer. I’d get filled up to my elegantly flanged brim. What a life.
I know some of my brothers had it worse. I’ve heard stories that would make your webbing quiver. Stories of M1 Vietnam war helmets being used as makeshift entrenching tools or . . . dare I say it? . . . toilets.
Finally, in September 1970, Bill became a short timer.
Isn’t it funny how in those last few weeks and days, the short timers get all cozy with their helmets? Bill started wearing me more often to protect his precious head. It’s like he suddenly realized he might make it home in one piece.
He did make it home, thanks in small part, to me. Bill boarded the Freedom Bird on October 1.
But I didn’t make it home with him. I got left behind like a jilted girlfriend.
“What happens in ‘Nam, Stays in ‘Nam.” Isn’t that the saying?
Didn’t even get a “thank you” or parting conversation.
Who boarded the plane with Bill? That’s right. Cousin Boonie.
Boonie even got a special inscription sewn into his brim before he left, bragging about all the great places he’d seen. He even got to wear Bill’s sergeant stripes. Did Boonie ever stop a bullet? No. All he ever did was protect Bill’s neck from a little sunburn.
But I’m not bitter. I genuinely wish the best for Boonie and hope he’s happy sitting on a shelf somewhere in Pittsburgh looking as dirty and wrinkled as the day he left Tan Son Nhut.
As for me, I sometimes think I’d rather have ridden off into the sunset to D&D Auto Salvage and Metal Recycling.
D&D began as a small hauling and used auto parts operations shortly after Bill came home. Today, they’re a full service metal recycling company with a second location in Pittsburgh that’s a state of the art scrap yard. They treat their metal—ferrous and non-ferrous—well.
Do you think they could handle three pounds of pure non-magnetic Hadfield manganese steel?
aka, “Steel Pot”