The Things They Didn’t Carry

Knuckles (with GI machete) and Mike Derrig (with Fanta soda) on a log day. Song Be, Vietnam 1970.

On patrol every third day Delta Company will find a suitable spot for the birds to set down. We will set up a perimeter, post men on guard, then settle in and wait. Soon enough, we hear the whirling beat of rotor blades, look to the horizon, see the resupply choppers as they come into view. “Log day,” we call it.

Knuckles and Kelsch pop smoke, guide the birds in, enlist men to offload and break down the supplies the choppers have brought to us. Grunts with sleek machetes cut the metal cords from a pile of large cartons, dump out dozens of smaller ones. In a muted frenzy, the company swarms over the boxes in the hunt for the best C-ration meals.

Each box contains a complete lunch or dinner packed in green tin cans with the contents of each stenciled in black. There is a main course, a can of fruit or tinned cake, flat chocolate disks. There are packets of salt and pepper, a plastic spoon, a small can opening device. Finally, there are five cigarettes in a slender pack, a napkin, and toilet paper. The dread Ham and beans are detested. Beans and franks are prized. Like an army of ants, we rifle through dozens of boxes, dump out their contents, quickly carry our trophies away.

Water arrives in huge black rubber kegs. “Blivits” we call them. The men line up, one at a time fill their canteens. Each man carries at least a dozen quarts, which he hooks to the sides of his pack, or stores in his ruck, and hooks one or two canteens on his pistol belt.

We break open M16 ammo crates, sit cross-legged on the jungle floor, patiently reload our steel gray magazines, keep or replace our worn-out bandoleers; the chemical smell of the green fabric so unlike the jungles sweet scent.

Each radio man unhinges the twenty-six-pound field radio he carries on his back, removes its three pound cardboard encased battery, inserts a new one. He will purposefully chop up the other with his machete, “Don’t want to leave nothing for the gooks,” we say. In fact, the enemy is clever and fierce and will use anything against us.

Each platoon receives a red mail bag and a large carton marked SP. Lieutenants will reach into the bag and hand out the bundled mail and packages. There are letters from anxious families, girlfriends and wives. There are Dear John missives too. One man opens a small flat box, peels back the red tissue paper, all smiles holds up a pair of red panties. Another receives assorted cookies in a blue metal container, bags of potato chips, a bottle of wine. After reading the letters, we burn the envelopes we do not keep. It is said the enemy will find them and threaten the family, or tell them their son is dead.

The SP box is filled with candy bars, chewing gum and mints, shoe laces, paperback books and magazines. We take the edible things that remind us of home, savor a few, store handfuls in waterproof sacks or machine gun ammo boxes stored in our rucks.

During this festive time, Knuckles and Kelsch have carefully sorted out piles of clean fatigue shirts and pants, army T-shirts, socks, small green towels. There is no underwear. Too tight fitting, it causes a tropical rash that is hard to treat and persists for months. “Jungle rot,” we call it. Sorting through the piles, we look for our sizes, shed our filthy uniforms, for a brief time feel clean. The discarded clothes are loaded onto the choppers. In the rear, Vietnamese women, standing in water filled trash cans, will pound the garments clean with the soles of their feet.

Medics receive ointments, antibiotics, aspirin, anti-acids, disinfectants, Band Aids, white cloth bandages wrapped in thick transparent plastic.

Before we move out, Kelsch or Knuckles tell us to destroy whatever is left behind. With machetes or grippable knives, we stab or slash hundreds of C ration cans, rip up unwanted books and magazines, stomp the surplus sweets, the cut-up batteries, bury the ashes of envelopes.

At the order to saddle up, men struggle to hoist and right their bulging packs. One soldier at a time, we move out, inching forward into the sinister jungle. Behind us, the littered land is trampled down, as if a sleeping giant had suddenly woken, kicked at the casual havoc, then wandered away.

Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: