Sunday, February 26, 2006

Grunt Whining, Grunt Cooking

In 1969, I was a platoon sergeant in a "Grunt" platoon.

"Grunt" means U.S. Army foot soldier, nobody special.

Not Marines, certainly. Absolutely not Special Forces (Green Beret) or "Special Operations Group" (S.O.G.) or Rangers, or Delta Force. Not "Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol" (LRRP), not Airborne or even Military Police or Cavalry or Artillery ... we were Infantry, The Queen of Battle. The Sharp End.

Look at the U.S. Army, eliminate the elite units, take away any glamour or esprit de corps or special training and tactics, and what you have lift is Grunt Infantry.

The Airborne folks had a special name for us: Straight Legs. That means we didn't even parachute into a battle. We walked in. And when the battle was over, those that were left walked out.

No glory, no transportation, no dates with the Donut Dollies or Canteen Girls or Nurses. If you watched "China Beach" on television a decade or two ago, you didn't see us except as the guys on the stretchers.

Well, the amenities often DID include helicopter rides. If we were to be inserted into a hostile area, we rode helicopters. If we were wounded during that activity, we got a helicopter ride back to the rear ... if we were lucky, which we usually weren't.

Before I begin to sound too much like a whiner, let me emphasize that nobody expected any more than this sort of "oh, by the way" treatment. We were almost 100% draftees. Cannon fodder. Reluctant soldiers. The losers in the Draft Board lottery. We didn't want to be there, they didn't particularly want us there, but they (the guvmint) needed warm bodies so they sent us to fill out the ranks. Our best usage was to draw fire away from the GOOD troops.

We were surly, undisciplined, uninformed afterthoughts in the war of attrition. If we lost the war, it was because nobody expected any better. If we won the war, it was because we happened to be there in support of the Marines, or because we received exceptional support from the Green Beanies and outstanding intelligence from the LRRPS and tactical advice from the Rangers.

We didn't get anything from the Green Beanies or the Rangers, and the LRRPS let us walk into ambushes rather than to chance revealing their position by warning us.

That's okay, we never expected anything better and I can live with that. Support was a concept, best illustrated by 8-day "reconnaissance" patrols that they sent us on (similar to kicking a hornet's next to see what happened) during which they sent in a helicopter every two or three days to give us ammunition, C-rations, and 5-gallon plastic water bottles.

Never mind that in that tropical jungle environment, where we moved 10 kilometers through dense foliage every day and set up ambushes at night, we drank more water in a single day than we received in resupply each insert. We had enough food, and we found enough water, and we survived.


We didn't care about the glory (which we didn't have) or the supply (which we didn't have). If your boots rotted during a mission, they would usually send another pair out to you eventually. It may not be your size, but you got new boots. Trousers ripped and embarrassingly exposed? No problem, another pair of pants will be forwarded from the Slop chute (an admittedly Navy term, but appropriate.) Again, one size fits all.

Food ... was an issue.

Ultimately, food was the ONLY thing we really cared about. Well, and our Sundries Pace (SP) issue, which came twice a month. We got razor blades, writing paper, candy and chewing tobacco. Most important, we got cigarettes for free! I wasn't a confirmed smoker until I served my tour in RVN, but I've never been able to permanently kick the habit since I got back to The Land of the Great PX, and had unlimited access to cigarettes ... at greatly increased prices!

We would send back a wounded man from time to time. Regrettable, but not important. One time we sent back a man who, while fording a stagnant stream, had picked up a leech. Nothing new about this, we forded a lot of water hazards every day and leeches, ants, centipedes, flies and other insects were our constant companions. Unfortunately, this leech had crawled up into his penis, and by the time our boy reported it to the company medic (another draftee with a total of three months of medical training), it had almost disappeared into the penis in question. The medic had called in a 'Dust Off' (medivac), and the helicopter pilot complained vehemently because he had a Priority Dust-Off and the patient walked to the helicopter unaided. The pilot was accustomed to PDO patients being carried on board,bleeding; not walking with no visible injury. No matter that the leech would have invaded the patient's liver within 24 hours and killed him in another 12 hours. We were just Grunts, and ignorant, so they eventually let it go without further comment.

No problem, we can handle it. Chopper pilots are very polite and accommodating when they land in a circle of armed men, all weapons trained inside the Landing Zone at the Senior Pilot of a helicopter.

Every week or so, we got to walk to the "Red Line" (representing a road on a map) to where we would, sooner or later, be picked up by trucks to return to base. Or, if we were within 10 kilometer of the base, we would walk back to the base. It was considered "extended reconnaissance" to walk back to the base, and A Good Thing as long as you weren't the people who had been in the jungle for a week and had been living off rice-paddy water (requiring halogen application for an hour before it could be drunk, to kill the parasites) and usually uncooked C-rations which were left over from WWII.

All of this is a preamble to the central thesis: Food is Important to Grunts!

During the one-night-a-week (average) when we spent the night within the confines of a protected perimeter (Night Defensive Position, or NPR: a semi-permanent base camp which included a Mess Hall), we got a dinner and a breakfast of reconstituted whatever's. Reconstituted milk, reconstituted eggs, reconstituted juice, reconstituted mashed potatoes, etc. In the civilian world, we would call it powdered whatever. No food value, very little vitamins, very lilttle minerals, mostly powdered water. The water was chlorinated. Do the math, and it's perhaps not surprising that we honored Joseph Lister for his contribution to our well-being because that was the best water we got for months on end.

But the food that we ate was the food that we carried on our backs. If we were very very lucky, it wasn't all the egregious C-rations, and that's the point of this entire essay.

C-rations were "Canned Food", and everything we got was in a can. Think of dog food with out heat or flavor. The least appreciated was Ham&Lima Beans. Actually, it wasn't bad unless you got a can with a great huge glob of pork fat and very little beans or ham, which happened to me one night as I attempted to eat a can of 'Ham & M*therF*ckers" in the dark. If you find a can of ham fat during the day, you can meld it with other meals to provide value to otherwise bland meals; by itself, I can attest that a mouthful of cold ham fat has little to recommend itself, except as an experience you can use to gross out your friends for decades to come. What do you do? You choke it down: that's the only food you're going to get for 12 hours, and you have many rivers to cross before more food is available.

Personally, I traded "the good stuff" (canned peaches, for example) for "Ham and Eggs" meals. The value of Ham&Eggs is that it has a certain modicum of not-entirely objectionable taste (think reconstituted eggs with spam flavoring --- yummy!) whether it is heated or not.

Speaking of heating, we didn't have stoves. We didn't have heat-tabs, which go with the cute little stamped-metal stoves and heated one canteen cup's worth of coffee, or whatever. What we had was C4 explosives. Everybody carried a one-pound chunk of C4, which was roughly equivalent to 1.5 pounds of industrial dynamite. But it wouldn't explode if you put a match to it; it required a percussion effect to explode. If you lit it, it would just burn with a fast, blue flame. That was enough to heat a canteen-cup full of coffee, or hot chocolate, or a can of C-rations.

Actually, it wasn't enough. You had to cut off a 1" square chunk of C4, and heat your can. Then cut off another 1" square, ditto. And do it one more time, to get a canteen cup of liquid to where it was luke-warm, and thus drinkable. It wasn't actually "drinkable" because it hadn't actually boiled. But it was hot enough to dissolve instant coffee or instant coffee, which was all we had.

Unless we had ... something special.

We often "worked"(patrolled) with members of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam -- ARVNs.

They had even worse rations than we did. They had rice, usually from Texas. Sometimes they had mackerel (sp), which is a terribly oily fish and was what the NVA and the Viet Cong had for meat. We couldn't get that from them, but the ARVNs would usually trade rice for C-ration.

That's right: their diet was even poorer than ours, and they considered our C-rations to be a delicacy, because it included Meat. Sorry bastards thought a can of Ham & M*ther-f*ckers with a glob of fat in it was a delicacy. They would trade almost anything on the one-in-ten chance of getting a glob of fat because it was it was an improvement on their regular diet. The sad part of it is, they were right.

But they had rice, which we did not.

Before every mission, we tried to find an ARVN who had a pound of rice or two to trade for C-rations. It didn't always happen, because usually we considered the ARVNs to be politically unreliable,k and avoided them. We were desperate for a variation in our diet, though, and we actively sought them out prior to another mission.

Because we never had a cook-pot, we also (to our everlasting shame, because we KNEW that nobody would understand) hunted through the garbage pits of the mess hall for #10 cans which had been cleaned before disposal. We knew that they were filthy and germ-ridden, but the only alternative was to use our helmets as cook pots, and the resulting stew invariably tasted of olive-drab paint. Also, the helmet stank forever on from the residual stew-orts, because we had no means of cleaning cooking utensils. Remember the lack of potable water?

On an ideal mission, we would set out with the following:
  • a large tin can to cook in
  • a pound of rice
  • several C-rations which prominently featured meat. They were never the SAME meat, so we had a different taste every meal.
  • Enough water to make a rice stew. Usually, it was water we retrieved from a bomb-crater. It was usually fairly fresh rain water, but not always. We could not afford to use drinking water for cooking. Or washing. Or shaving, or any other use.
  • There would be a tactical situation in which we would be able to build an actual fire, using wood, and keep it going long enough that we could boil the components of the rice stew.
There were usually four or five members of the patrol (usually a short squad, rather than a platoon), who kept themselves supplied with one or more of the following condiments:
  • salt
  • garlic salt, or garlic powder
  • Java Black Pepper
  • McMennahin's Tobasco Sauce
  • Italian Seasoning
  • If you were very very lucky, Onion Salt or Onion Powder
Here's the recipe, for a small portion (we didn't have the pot capacity for more, or the heat source to heat more between movement end and dark) of Rice Stew:

  • Four Cups of water
  • Two cups of rice
  • as much meat-dishes as you could find in your butt-pack; usually two 8-ounce cans
  • any fat or oil that you could find or scrounge
  • any salt that you could find or scrounge (not included in SP packs, so Ham&Eggs was prized as much as Ham&Lima because it was intrinsically salty)
  • Lots of Java Black Pepper
  • Lots of Hot Sauce (Tabasco)
  • A healthy measure of Garlic, Onion, or any other pungent herb available
  • As much Italian Seasoning as you could talk the "Italian Guy" out of, for a disproportionate share of the meal.
Serves two, three, four, six ... as many as had contributed to the meal. Often it was heavily watered (from disreputable water sources) to make it go farther. The guy who had to sacrifice his helmet as a cook pot typically got a larger portion, but that was a bad trade-off because, as previously mentioned, it either tasted like olive-drab paint or had been used before and reeked like rotting food. We trusted the paint-smell more than that which we got from previously used helmets, which explains the value we place on large cans from the Mess Hall Garbage Dump. (I am, to this day, convinced that the Mess Hall staff at November 2 Night Defensive Position made special efforts to wash and disinfect #10 cans before disposing them in the dump in recognition of the hight probability that they would be used to serve American Troops in the immediate future.)

As we sat around a dying campfire (always before the sunset, so we wouldn't reveal our position), we use to tease each other about being back in The World and preparing this sort of meal for our family. The visual images included crouching on top of a stove while the pot burbled on the burner, half-naked and reeking, chattering a monologue in which every other work was the F-word, oblivious of the sensibilities of our intimate family. We are voluntarily ignoring the stench of Olive-Drab paint from the the new GI Helmet we're using as a Crock Pot, because we know that the smell from a 'used' pot is even worse.

Strangely, I made a pot of GI Rice for my wife during a R&R leave of absence in February, 1970, while we re-established our relationship in Honolulu, Hawaii. She liked it. I was comfortable with my meal for the first time in that month, although I admit I easily ignored the temptation to squat on the stove while cooking.

Why am I telling you all of this useless War-Story history?

Because I still make this dish for myself on a monthly basis, and I have a pot of GI Stew on the stove even now.

It's cooking in a Revere Ware Dutch-Oven. The rice is probably from the same ranch in Texas as provided it to the ARVNs in 1969, but I have more confidence in its cleanlilness. The Garlic and Onion are flaked-version from CostCo. The water is filtered through a Brita refrigerator pitcher,all of the seasonings come from jars with the "Spice Islands" logo on the label. It will be served with either Ritz or Nabisco crackers, or fresh-toasted Sourdough Bread from San Francisco (with Tillamook Creamery Butter spread) on the side.

The Tabasco sauce, however, is from New Orleans as before.

Some things just don't allow substitutes, no matter what the circumstances.

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