Fortunately, I never had to survive on K-Rations. These were meals in a highly concentrated form, usually mystery meat by-products, grains, and fruits, all compressed into a bar and wrapped in foil, providing lots of calories in a most unappetizing form. Members of Long Range Reconnaissance patrols carried them to survive extended periods of time while operating in hostile territory where they could not be resupplied easily. You could survive on them, but had little inclination to do so.
Unfortunately, a tour of duty in Vietnam was like a stint in rehab for the milk-drinkers among us. Like most young American men, I had been raised drinking copious amounts of milk. Our family milkman wept when I marched off to war. Every Army mess hall stateside had a refrigerated dispenser with two large boxes of milk; one whole and the other chocolate, and it made early Army life bearable. The milk we were served in Vietnam was reconstituted from either powder or condensed milk, and it was undrinkable, even to those of us who were addicted. Imagine my joy when, on R and R to Hawaii, I sat at a breakfast counter while I waited for my hotel room to be prepared, a waitress delivered a large glass of milk unbidden. When I mentioned that I had not ordered it, she replied simply, “You were going to,” and she was correct. I downed it in one drink and asked for more.
One of the unfortunate side effects of mess halls catering to our tastes was that our excrement smelled far different from that of the Vietnamese who ate more vegetables, rice, and fish. If you had a bowel movement while hiding in a listening post or sentry bunker, your location would be advertised to any Viet Cong hundreds of yards down wind regardless of how deep and how fast you buried it. Even your body odor was dictated by diet, and our scent was detectable by the enemy. Conversely, we could find them, especially at night using our noses as well.
The only relief from Army cooking came in the care packages that we received from home or the food that we bought from the Vietnamese. There were rumors of Vietnamese sabotaging food and drink, and some soldiers were afraid to touch any of it. I felt that if I bought something from a street vendor who was catering to the local clientele, and that I selected my own portion rather than allowing the vendor to pull something out of a special stash, I was safe. Thus, I came to discover Vietnamese cuisine.
Vietnamese cuisine is not loaded with the heavy sauces such as Mandarin cooking. It is not as spicy as Szechuan nor Thai dishes. They are more likely to use rice paper whereas other Asian cooks might use wonton skins or crepes. The sauces are delicate and they use fish, shell fish, and oysters, while limiting the use of pork and beef. Pho is their best national dish consisting of vegetables and very thinly sliced meat cooked in hot broth as it comes to the table. The diner is then provided with an assortment of condiments rivaling the selection of kimchi found on a Korean table.
Towards the end of my tour of duty, our Division was joined by the Royal Thai Regiment. We built an annex to our base camp Bearcat near Long Thanh, and officers were frequently invited for a Thai meal and an evening of kick boxing for entertainment. Anyone who could eat everything placed before them was awarded a Dragon Pin that became coveted, not for the quantity one ate, but the ability to swallow molten lava with impunity. I could not end this reminiscence without mentioning the snack foods that we survived on. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, especially when it comes to developing a comfort food from whatever you find at hand. With a loaf of bread pilfered from the mess hall and a can of mayonnaise or peanut butter (yes, they came in cans painted olive drab – Army OD) we added whatever ingredients we could come up with. Peanut butter and mayonnaise – the mayonnaise lubricated the thick Army-issued peanut butter and helped it go down. Onion sandwiches – simply slices of onion and mayonnaise on bread. Don't laugh, we developed a taste for them that has stayed with me to this day.
It's funny how many other foods I still eat though they were viewed with horror when I first enlisted. SOS (Shit on a Shingle) – creamed ground beef in a greyish white sauce served on toast for breakfast (the Navy version was made with rabbit and nowhere as good), remains one of my favorites. It is one of those foods that can transport me back to those days when I was a better man, certainly more fit and full of adventure.