Will the Vietnam war ever stop being fascinating? Not to me it won’t. One of the many things from that period that is fascinating to me is what the fellows carried and used while in the war. Not just the Special Forces, but the regular guy. The equipment started out much like the gear of the past generations. Made of cotton and canvas and metal. Then , towards then end, we started to see the first widespread use of the nylon and plastic that would be the materials of the ALICE system used all through the 1980s and most of the 90s. Today we will take a look at two set ups used in the war and a few other things.
First we have up a near mint set of the webgear that would have been carried by an infantryman in the US Army. It is the M-1956 Load-Carrying Equipment (LCE), also known as the Individual Load-Carrying Equipment (ILCE). This is the system that replaced the the combat pack of WW2 and Korea and the multitude of cartridge belts used to support the older US family of weapons. The M56 gear was developed and came out during the time the military was going to the M14 and then on to the M16. Because it was a time when a lot of the older legacy weapons were still being used, the equipment was very general purpose. Especially the M56 ammo pouches.
The M56 ammo pouch would carry a 6-pocket M1 cotton bandoleer of M1 Garand enbloc clips (8-rounds each; total of 48 rounds), 8 x M1 Garand enbloc clips (8 rounds each; total of 64 rounds), 2 x BAR magazines (20-rounds), 4 x M1 or M2 carbine magazines (30-round), 3 x 40mm M79 grenades, or 2 x M26 hand grenades plus 2 x hand grenades fastened on the sides of the case. Then with the newer rifles it would hold 2x M14 magazines and 3x M16 magazines. Or so it is said it will hold only 3 mags for the M16 but it will hold 4x M16 magazines though tightly.
The belt is is a slightly different design than the WW2 era belt but in function it is nearly identical. With the adoption of the M56 pouches, this combo did away with the the M-1936 individual equipment belt, the M-1923 cartridge belt for the Garand , and the M-1937 cartridge belt for the BAR. The M56, like the older belt, also has the holes for using equipment that attaches via the 1910 wire hangers.
The new H harness suspenders are cotton canvas with two webstraps for hanging various items from like the flashlight shown above and the general purpose first Aid/Compass pouch on the other. The H -harness is very wide and flat and comfortable. Out of all the older military webbing I have tried over the decades, the M56 H suspenders is the most comfortable.
The M56 canteen covers are heavy canvas with heavy wool lining. They aren’t that different from the older covers but use the “slide keepers of all M56 gear. The slide keeper is now known as “ALICE clips”. Covers held one 2 quart canteen and cup. Though they were used by special operations forces to hold rifle magazines and various grenades in other units like MACVSOG. Those units needed to carry considerably more ammo and munitions that the average infantryman and the M56 ammo pouches were not enough. The canteen covers could be worn on the belt or on the field pack ( AKA butt pack) by attaching it to wide webbing straps on each side of it. Or, they could be attached to webbing straps on the various rucksacks used in the war. The cover was meant to be soaked in water to help cool the water in the canteen. This soaking and drying faded the color and it is common to see surplus covers nearly khaki in color from fading.
The field pack, also known as the butt pack, is the samll backpack looking bag at the center rear This pack is the M1961 pack and is and upgrade from the original M56 pack The M61 pack has a rubberized collar inside to protect the contents as well as eyelets along the outside flap to attach more equipment. The field pack was meant to carry the items the soldiers needed, one day’s ration, toilet paper, socks and such. It didn’t take long to find out that the “butt pack ” did not hold enough.
In addition to the M56 gear you can see the M16 bayonet with scabbard and light weight rip stop poncho attached to the bottom of the M61 field pack. A M56 entrenching tool cover was also issued. The shovel cover held the folding shovel and had two grommets and strap for attaching the rifle bayonet to it to make room on the belt. Also, a convoluted sytem of webbing straps exists with the purpose of carrying the bed roll. I have a set but did not picture it since putting it together is a nightmare.
Next up is a belt worn in the early days of the war in some units whose automatic rifleman used the M14. It was issued to indig forces who used the older US family of weapons from Korea nad WW2 and it was a popular choice by US Army Special forces.
Of course we are talking about the M-1937 cartridge belt for the BAR. This one is an unissued example made during the Korean war era. This is why it is a dark shade of green instead of the OD3 mostly used during WW2. The BAR was popular because it would hold would hold more M16 magazines than the M56 pouches that was standard issue. The belt also was lined on the bottom of the magazine pouches with holes for the older 1910 wire hangers and the webbing on the back had room for M56 canteen covers. The top holes on the belt would also fit the M56 H-harness.
Each cell of the BAR belt would fit x M16 20 round magazines. I have read many times that it is possible to get 5 mags in each pouch but I have never been able to get 5 in all of them. It does require stretching to get it to hold 5 magazines. It would also hold a variety of other items if desired. One of the practices of SOG recon teams was to hang a older WW2 type canteen covers off of the lower grommets for additional canteens or to use as munitions pouches. Using this they could carry grenades or the larger 30 round M16 magazines. In various books about SOG, it is noted that the canteen cover was hung on the left side for reload magazines and the right side for hand grenades.
The 1910 attachment holes also allowed for attaching more pouches like extra first aid kits from WW2, the jungle survival kit, handgun holsters or pouches for radio antenna. You can see int he image below the way a Special Forces SOG recon man has set up his BAR belt. Often later int he war the SOG troopers replaced the H harnes and M56 web belt with the STABO harness. The BAR belt was added to the STABO rig. The STABO harness allowed a man to snap into a rope from a chopper quickly to be lifted away.
Above you can see how the older 1910 wire hangers allowed the user to attach the older equipment like this WW2 era type first aid pouch and the jungle first aid kit.
I have also recreated the common practice of tapping water purification tablets to the plastic USGI canteens. The M56 covers did not have the side pouch for the tablets. Perhaps extra tablets would have been taped to the canteens anyway so as to always have extra in a convenient spot. The covers have been painted over for camo sake. Which was another common thing seen done by the SOG recon units, along with uniforms and guns. Being the BAR belt is mint I demurred from painting it.
Another iconic piece of equipment common;y seen during the war was the now rare lightweight rucksack. The pack was originally designed for arctic use to replace the mountain rucksack. It was the first all nylon piece of equipment to be adopted by the US Army
The pack will hold more items that you can carry and most equipment the soldier did not need to immediately fight with was store on or in the rucksack. Things like LAWS rockets, rations, shovel, machetes, extra canteens and clothing could be places inside its main compartment of the three smaller ones outside or hung from the webbing and cargo straps on the frame. The pack could be worn low on the frame, in the middle or high up depending.
Of all the things my Dad spoke about using during the war, the light weight ruck, the M16 and the poncho liner was like the holy trinity to him. For years I hear about how comfortable the curving tubular pack frame was. Finally after 30 years I was able to track down two of these packs for him and bought both of them. He was right, the pack frame is very comfortable when wearing it. Below you can see how the frame curved for the body.
The suspension system of straps on the frame also kept the pack off of the back and allowed air to move through to help stop over heating. The original waist belt band is missing on this example and some one had replaced it with the ALICE pack style kidney pad at some point post war. IF you look at the shoulder straps you can see the quick release feature. The vertical straps are cargo straps for holding items added above the pack.
From the side you can see the webbing straps to hold addition canteens. Both the left and right side have webbing straps for the older 1910 wire attachment or the M56 covers with ALICE clips. A web strap with buckle goes around the canteen to secure it and to keep it from flopping around. This pack was replaces later in the war with the tropical rucksack that is the basis for the later ALICE pack.
A pack that did serve as inspiration for the tropical ruck was the ARVN ruck or also known as the indigenous ruck sack. The pack was made in the US for ARV troops. It became popular with US troops who could get it as it was a better option than the M1961 butt pack. This pack is the one seen in the movie Platoon.
The ARVN ruck used the same X frame that was later used int he US tropical ruck . The ARVN rucksack is a handy pack about the size of modern assault packs.
The ARVN ruck is hard to find now a days as it was made and issued only for the military of the Republic of South Vietnam. It was never issued to US forces for US military use. It was a handy little pack though and you can still see the influence it had in later years on other packs.