In 1966, anti-war protests and other forms of political protest were rampant in the United States, and the nation’s youths were struggling to assert their individuality.
I arrived in Vietnam that year, attached to Second Battalion, First U.S. Marines, Hotel Company. I was an 8408 field corpsman, and as I was going through medical records of the 120 Marines attached to our company, I noticed most were younger than 20. The largest age group who served in Vietnam during the war were 18 years old — there were 33,103 of them.
Although the soldiers in Vietnam were 10,000 miles from home, they were products of the times, and just like their friends back in the states, they struggled to assert their individuality. One way they did this was by writing graffiti on their helmets.
As one might imagine, it was considered counter to good order and discipline to write on one's helmet cover. The helmet was for the soldier, after all, a uniform item provided by the government. To deface it meant defacing government property while at the same time violating the rules of wearing the uniform properly. But this never prevented our troops from doing it. I also have my own suspicion that perhaps the upper echelon allowed us to deface our helmets to further their agenda of brainwashing Marines to kill and destroy the enemy, because the phrases we scribbled on our helmets (i.e. "Born to Kill") encouraged that mindset. Just a thought.
We wrote on our helmet covers with a purpose, and our messages and artwork became an ongoing mission that evolved over time. The slogans were lewd, rebellious and political, but also heartfelt.
I had several phrases and two song titles written on my helmet. Across the front was, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and the other song title was, “Born to Lose,” which I wrote after I received a “Dear John” letter from my girlfriend after three months in-country. I was feeling depressed, rejected and melancholy. I also had Psalms 23:4, "Yea, though I walk thru the valley of death, I shall fear no evil." I had “DOC” written on the front top. All 8404-field corpsman in Vietnam were called “Doc." The back of my helmet listed my “short-timer” calendar. When I completed the month, I would place a line through it.
Some of the slogans the Marines had on their helmets will give you a brief description of their mindset. Other common slogans were “War is Hell,” “Kill a Commie, for Mommy,” “War is Good Business, Invest Your Son” and “Hear All Evil, See All Evil, Kill All Evil.”
As if these weren’t shocking enough, one slogan I saw read, “Teenage Killer,” and another said, “Mommy, can I go out and kill tonight?” There were hundreds of these slogans. It was mainly all about killing and destroying. To be honest with you, that was the Marine Corps mission in Vietnam — to kill and destroy. We would often see "Born to Kill" placed in all innocence next to the peace symbol. Go figure.
Front-line grunts were the only ones who practiced helmet graffiti. It wasn’t allowed but we did it anyway. We never worried about getting into trouble as we were already in Vietnam. In other words, it couldn’t get any worse. It was so popular in 1966 that a photographer took a picture of John Wayne signing his name on a warrior’s helmet. Two years later, the movie "The Green Berets" was released.
Vietnam veterans say the graffiti depended on which outfit you were attached to and that it was usually OK if it didn't defeat the purpose of camouflage in combat. The rule was, as long as the graffiti didn't disparage the Marines, the United States or the chain of command, it didn't matter what you wrote or how you wrote it.
When I was being rotated back to the world, during our departure we turned in all our gear before boarding “The Freedom Bird.” I didn’t think about taking off the helmet cover. I didn’t think of it being of any long-term historical value. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know of any Marines in our departing group who kept them. Looking back on it, I have no doubt that they were removed from the helmet and simply thrown away.
Writing graffiti on our helmet covers was part of Vietnam history. In ways, it seems so insignificant and trivial. However, it was a way to express our inner selves and personal experiences.
Hospital Corpsman Master Chief Ronald C. Mosbaugh served in Vietnam in 1966-1967. He is the author of “Marine Down, Corpsman Up.” He lives in Joplin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.