03 April 2010


During all of our wars, at least through WWII in Europe, one problem facing commanders has been looting. Grant’s staff picked Mr. Mc Lean’s parlor clean after Lee’s surrender. Many officers and men in the American armies in Europe sent home German silver, art, and other artifacts that they had taken from private homes as well as German offices.

Looting while hostilities are still underway, is a serious problem. In addition to giving the enemy additional cause to fight to the end, troops who abandon the fight to loot seriously impede the war effort. Thus, under military law, a commander can establish or issue a “safeguard” with respect to enemy or neutral property. The Manual for Courts-Martial defines a safeguard thusly: “ A safeguard is a detachment, guard, or detail posted by a commander for the protection of persons, places, or property of the enemy, or of a neutral affected by the relationship of belligerent forces in their prosecution of war or during circumstances amounting to a state of belligerency. The term also includes a written order left by a commander with an enemy subject or posted upon enemy property for the protection of that person or property.” So serious is this matter that when Congress adopted Article 102, UCMJ “forcing a safeguard,” it was adopted as a capital offense.

“Article 102. Any person subject to this chapter who forces a safeguard shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.”

Article 103 makes criminal any failure to “secure all public property taken from the enemy for the service of the United States, and [to] give notice and turn over to the proper authority without delay all captured or abandoned property in their possession, custody, or control. This article has a different motive—protection of Uncle Sam’s pocketbook. By definition, captured enemy property becomes the property of the United States. And it leads to a major leadership balancing act.

Looting was not a problem in the largely rural wars in Korea and Vietnam, but retention by troops of “war souvenirs” is an ancient tradition. The Marine who has taken a weapon or other article of military equipment from an enemy he has killed or captured ought not be punished for failing to turn it over to some REMF bean counter. (Under international law, certain items cannot be taken from captured troops: money, personal photos, and their personal clothing and protective gear, i.e., cold weather clothing and helmets so long as they are still subject to hostile fire. Diaries and papers that are of intelligence value may be taken.)

Accordingly, in all of our modern wars, procedures have been established to help troops account for, but retain, bona fide war souvenirs.

My first exposure to the issue of war souvenirs came shortly after I got to Vietnam. While searching a ville, I found a SKS rifle. The SKS is a Russian-designed semiautomatic rifle that fires the 7.62x39 caliber round, the same round fired by the AK-47 and the RPK light machinegun, both of which were in wide use by both the VC and the NVA.

Unlike the AK-47, the SKS was semiautomatic and thus could be lawfully possessed without a Federal firearms license, making it a very popular souvenir. It was, I was to learn, also rare, because the AK-47 was the primary weapon of the NVA and the VC.

One of my troops, a Tet survivor who was only a couple of weeks away from going home, admired my find. In a fit of generosity, I handed it to him and said, “Here, you take this one. I’ll keep the next one.”

I never captured another, and finally got my SKS from our Clerk of Session who was selling one his two rifles. (As we exchanged rifle and check in the church parking lot after services, the Pastor walked out, took one look, shook his head, and walked back into the church.)

I only saw one NVA pistol, a Russian Makarov PM, with red-star hand grips.It went to the Marine who found its previous owner, either the CO or the Political Officer of 2/90 NVA) dead in a bunker when we recovered the downed medevac bird in the Arizona.

Other popular souvenirs were cap badges (a red enamel star), belts (made of leather or the hide of the endangered “nauga”) with belt plate, canteens, and Soviet compasses which were better than ours. The Soviet compass had a small wheel in the base that was marked for various map scales (1:50,000, 1:25,000, 1:12,500). Running the wheel along a route gave you a pretty accurate measure of distance.

Another popular item, especially for Marines with small feet, were Ho Chi Minh sandals. These were rubber sandals made from old truck tires. The tread was the outer face of the sole. It was easier to get Marines to air their feet—as a preventative for warm water immersion foot—if they had sandals.

I still have the NVA belt and hammock I took from a NVA soldier who would never again need either. He was also carrying a set of US wire cutters, still in the original canvas belt pouch, which he had probably taken from a dead ARVN (South Vietnamese) soldier. I still use those.

Other than weapons, we rarely bothered to send the small stuff back for accounting. There was a major problem with pilferage—REMFs would take weapons or other equipment as their own souvenirs. I had personal knowledge of one such instance.

A couple of weeks after I became the S-4, a Marine reported to me as the S-4 clerk. He was actually an honest-to-goodness school-trained 0431 Logistics Clerk.

He joined the rest of the rear echelon as a candidate for the regimental reaction force. Each night, the various units at An Hoa would provide Marines to serve in a reaction force of platoon strength. In essence, the reaction force was the regimental reserve. Many nights, the duty was no more onerous than having to sleep in fighting gear in a bunker in the CP area. But if one of the combat base sectors was penetrated or, heaven forbid, overrun, the reaction force was the outfit that got to do something about it.

Sane was tagged for the reaction force his very first night at An Hoa. It was the night of the final game of the 1969 World Series of which I have already written. One of the Sergeants from S-1 was also on the reaction force that night, and I asked him to keep an eye on my new Marine. Then I headed for Alpha Sector.

When Sane got to Regiment, he was assigned to a squad for the night. The Squad Leader, an experienced Sergeant, told him “You stick with me. kid.”

When Echo Sector was attacked later that night (interrupting the ball game, I might add), Sane's squad was sent down to the line to help push the enemy back. The attack was by a force of NVA sappers (engineers/demolition men), apparently intent upon destroying the guns and ammo supply of Battery E, 11th Marines.

As Sane and his Sergeant moved down to the wire, a chicom grenade exploded between Sane and the Sergeant. Both were knocked from their feet, and the Sergeant suffered some shrapnel wounds to the head.

As Sane regained his feet, a flare popped overhead. There, standing in the wire, wire cutters at the ready, was an NVA soldier.

“Sergeant,” Sane yelled. “There’s a gook in the wire. What should I do?”

“Kill him.” He did.

The Sergeant then regained his feet and the two of them cleared the wire, taking a couple of satchel charges and the NVA’s weapon. Sane took a really nice bone-handled knife from the dead NVA’s belt.

The next morning, as the troops were being formed to be dismissed and sent back to their commands, a Lieutenant spotted the knife. He took it and walked into the Regimental Commander’s Office where he gave it to the CO, “as a souvenir.”

Fortunately, the Gunny who had been the platoon commander saw what happened. He immediately informed the Sergeant Major.

The Sergeant Major walked right in to the CO’s office, as it was his privilege to do.

“Look, Sergeant Major. Lieutenant ____ gave me this NVA knife. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Sir, it surely is. Except it ain’t the Lieutenant’s to give. There’s a young PFC out there who killed the gook that was carrying it. May I return it to him?”

They said you could hear the ass-chewing the Colonel gave that Lieutenant all the way to Hawaii. I don’t remember seeing his sorry ass around the CP after that.

But I know of an even better instance of souvenir retribution.

In early 1969, about the time President Nixon announced his policy of “vietnamization,” a rumor began to spread, and it was apparently also rampant on the other side. The gist of the rumor was that on a particular date, a cease fire would be announced and whichever side’s flag, either Republic of Vietnam or National Liberation Front, flew over a particular ville or hamlet that morning could claim it as theirs.

Tom Peachey told me that shortly thereafter, his company overran a VC flag factory. There were literally hundreds of finished VC flags, and hundreds more that were in various states of completion. After giving each Marine in the Company two completed flags and two unfinished flags, the rest were sent back to Regiment. Now, these were obviously very desirable souvenirs. When Regiment learned that the troops (who had captured them) had been given “first dibs,” Tom was hauled on the carpet. The Regimental S-2 informed him in no uncertain terms that henceforth, any captured “enemy items” would be sent to S-2.

A few days later, one of his patrols captured a small bobcat. It was obviously a belligerent. Recalling the explicit instructions of the S-2, Peaches had the wriggling, spitting, clawing beastie put into a wooden grenade crate and returned to the S-2.

That afternoon, word went out that company commanders could exercise discretion in returning captured materiel to the rear.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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