This article has been adapted from The Vietnam War: The illustrated history of the conflict in Southeast Asia, edited by Ray Bonds and published by Salamander Books in 1979. The words and illustrations are under license from Pavilion Books and have been published from the 1979 edition without adaptation. The featured image above was sourced from Shutterstock.
The conflict in Vietnam from French occupation to US involvement and evacuation raged on for over 20 years. Across this timespan, several nations allied themselves with South Vietnam in order to defeat the Communist forces.
Within Vietnam itself, there were also numerous factions – with a clear division on the Communist side between the North Vietnamese Army, who fought a conventional war, and the Vietcong, which fought a guerrilla campaign against the south. This article describes the equipment of the different combatants.
The anti-Communist forces in Vietnam included the South Vietnamese (Army of the Republic of Vietnam, ARVN), French, American and Australian. The ARVN were often compared unfavourably with the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, but the ARVN fought well when led well. The French fought in Indochina from 1946 to 1954, losing 94,581 killed and missing, with 78,127 wounded.
The US infantrymen bore the brunt of the Second Vietnam War effort; there were more than 500,000 US troops in Southeast Asia in 1968-69. Between 1964 and 1973 45,790 had been killed, making the war increasingly unpopular in the United States. The Australians had 7,672 men committed in 1969.
This Australian infantryman carries his squad’s 7.62mm light machine gun and two spare ammunition belts. The weight of his web equipment is taken by the belt; the front of his body is clear so that he can lie comfortably in the prone firing position. The Australians were heirs to two generations of jungle warfare, and this experience is shown by his extra waterbottles, the value of which more than offsetting the extra weight involved.
This private in the US Marine Corps during the battle for Hue, February 1968, wears standard olive-drab combat dress and a flak jacket. The bayonet on his M16A1 5.56mm rifle is fixed for house-to-house fighting, and slung around his body is a belt of 7.62mm ammunition for his squad’s M60 light machine gun. His pack contains spare clothing and equipment.
The French Soldier
This corporal of a line regiment from Metropolitan France (above) carries the compact, reliable 9mm MAT-49 sub-machine gun. He wears a jungle-green uniform and canvas and rubber jungle boots like those worn by the British in Malaya. His pack is the French canvas and leather pattern; his web equipment and steel helmet are of American manufacture.
The South Vietnamese soldier
This soldier of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam is equipped with US weapon, uniform, webbing, and radio pack. He carries the M16A1 Armalite rifle, which the small-statured Vietnamese found ideally suited to their needs.
While his allies came, fought, and left, the ARVN soldier had to live with his successes and failures. When well led he was fully the equal of his enemies: during the Communists’ Tet offensive of 1968, for example, despite being caught badly off-balance the men of the ARVN stood firm and defeated the Viet Cong.
The Communist forces
The Communist forces included the Viet Cong, which was the indigenous national liberation movement of South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese Army, of which it was nominally independent. There were regular VC units of up to regimental strength and many small, part-time units in villages under Communist control.
The North Vietnamese Army at first supplemented and then took over from the VC. The Communist victory in 1975 was the result of a conventional invasion by North Vietnamese armour and infantry.
The Viet Cong soldier
This Viet Cong soldier wears the “black pyjamas”, which have come to characterize the guerrilla fighter, and a soft khaki hat and web equipment produced in jungle workshops. His light, open sandals are probably cut from an old truck tire. He carries a Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle.
The North Vietnamese soldier
This soldier of the North Vietnamese Army wears a green uniform and a cool, practical helmet resembling the pith helmet of earlier European colonizers. The basic personal weapon of the NVA was the AK-47, but this man carries a Soviet-supplied RPG-7 anti-tank missile launcher. His food-tube contains sufficient dry rations and rice to last seven days.
The “People’s Porter”
This Communist porter can carry some 551b (25kg) on his back for an average 15 miles (24km) per day in flat country or 9 miles (14.5km) in hills. With the modified bicycle seen here the payload is some 150lb (68kg). The bamboos attached to handlebar and seat column enable him to control his machine even on rough ground.