Robin Bartlett


In Vietnam with the 1st Cav Division, FNGs (F-ing New Guys) received light duty for several weeks. They were jumpy and anxious and could not be relied upon until fully acclimatized and field tested. We assigned an experienced soldier to be the FNG’s buddy and to work with him to get his equipment organized, overcome the jitters of being in combat, and teach him to the point where he could be trusted by the other men in his squad. As platoon leader, I was in constant need of replacements. My three squads should have been four. Each squad averaged eight men and should have been ten. After a month, if an FNG proved to be too nervous and too unreliable, we tried to find him a “straphanger” job in the rear (a relatively safe job). Without exception, we watched every FNG replacement carefully for 30 days. By then they were wounded, dead, removed to the rear as liabilities, or became trusted members of the platoon.

In the field, we carried our weapons loaded, but without a round in the chamber unless we were on patrol. We set our fire selector switches to safe except for the point man and cover man who carried their weapons set to full automatic. When we came into base camp to pull security, the first thing everyone did was to pull the magazines from our weapons and clear them of ammo. This was standard operating procedure (SOP) and a cardinal rule of being in base camp.

I had one FNG who failed to do this and was standing in line waiting to get a haircut. He had the tip of his M16 resting on his foot. Another experienced soldier noticed the magazine still in the weapon. He scolded the FNG, reached over, pulled the magazine out of the weapon, moved the selector switch to fire, and pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, this FNG had also failed to remove a live round from the chamber after his last patrol and the bullet severed two of his toes. He was evacuated to Japan, and this ended his military experience.

Base camp meant light duty for everyone. You could get a haircut, eat hot chow, and take a cold shower each day. We all took advantage of these facilities. The men slept on top of the bunkers surrounding the perimeter and built poncho tents overhead to keep the sun off. A four-man bunker team pulled security each night and rotated on hour-long shifts. It was common to sleep until 10:00 – 11:00 AM the next day if you did not have to go out on patrol. Afternoons were spent reading paperbacks, writing letters, and receiving letters and care packages from the World, and playing marathon blackjack and poker games.

The engineers built shower stalls in each base camp. The showers consisted of concrete platforms with shower heads connected to pipes running overhead. Tents were erected over the structure and water was stored in several 55-gallon drums with a pump to power the water to the showers. Water was always at a premium, so to take a shower, you fired up the generator and turned on the pump. Then you quickly wet yourself, turned the water off, soaped up, and then rinsed off using the least amount of water possible. The water truck would come by each day to fill the drums. Within an hour or two the water would be warm or even hot by the end of the day. If there was enough water, it was great to take a hot shower late in the day or early in the evening. This was a real treat, but usually, all the water had been consumed by that time. Cold showers, therefore, were most common.

Just Another Day In . . . Well, You’ll See

The engineers also built two-man latrines. These were small structures enclosed by screens to keep the flies away. They were elevated to allow a 55-gallon drum that had been cut in half to be inserted underneath each of the toilet seats. Each day it was the job of an FNG to go to the latrine, pull out the dirty cans and insert fresh ones. Then the excrement was burned in the can. This process eliminated the need to dig holes and then fill them in and relocate the latrines once they had become full.

One FNG in my platoon was designated to perform this duty, so my platoon sergeant carefully and thoroughly explained the procedure, step-by-step. The FNG was to go to the artillery battery and pick up an empty 105mm Howitzer shell casing. The casing, made of brass, held about a half-gallon of liquid. Then the FNG was to go to the diesel fuel bladder and fill the canister. He would proceed to the latrine, pull out the dirty cans, and insert clean ones under each seat. He would then pour half of the diesel fuel into one can and half into the other. The last step was to light a match, throw it into the dirty cans, ignite the diesel fuel, stir, and burn the excrement. My platoon sergeant asked if the FNG understood what he was to do.

The FNG replied that he did and set off up the hill to the artillery battery. We watched as the FNG filled the canister from a huge rubber bladder and then walked over to the latrine. He pulled the dirty half drums out from underneath the latrine and inserted the clean cans standing nearby. We noticed that the dirty cans seemed very heavy, so the FNG only pulled them about 10 feet away from the wooden structure. We guessed this would be a safe enough distance as diesel fuel does not flare up when ignited. What we didn’t realize was that the gasoline bladder was located right next to the diesel fuel bladder, and the FNG had filled his canister with gasoline instead of diesel fuel.

The FNG proceeded to step back and throw a lit pack of matches into the first can. Well, of course, the can exploded sending burning shit in a seventy-five-foot radius of the can. Burning refuse landed on the latrine and set it on fire. Men came scrambling out of latrine pulling their pants up as they ran. The latrine burned to the ground. Men who were close by including the FNG were covered in shit.

While this was a serious event, it was also one of the most hilarious things I had ever seen. Those of us who were watching laughed so hard we had tears streaming down our faces. Some men laughed so hard that they could not stand up.

The poor FNG spent the rest of the day cleaning up the area and was ordered to help the engineers build a replacement latrine. He was also on latrine duty for the rest of the time we were in base camp. This was an incredibly happy soldier to eventually go to the field with the rest of my platoon and end this shitty experience.


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