Fishing With Grenades and Cooking With C4: A Veteran’s Vietnam Food Memories

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My uncle Jay is a teddy bear of a man, with a fluffy beard, gentle eyes and a corny joke for every situation. He and my aunt even collect teddy bears. It’s always been hard for me to reconcile this cuddly image with the one of him carrying a grenade launcher during the year he spent in the U.S. Army as a combat infantry soldier in Vietnam.

Jay was drafted in 1966. He arrived in Vietnam on December 25, a few weeks after his 21st birthday. “The first thing I said was, ‘Even for a Jew, this is no way to spend Christmas,’” he says. “They may have had a turkey dinner or something for us but if they did it wasn’t very memorable—because I don’t remember.”

Some meals were memorable, though not for the menu. One of his earliest Vietnam food experiences was being in a chow line at a big base camp, when a round came in and landed in the bread, injuring the guy who was serving it. It turned out to have been friendly fire from someone who had been playing around with his grenade launcher.

Feeding soldiers on the battlefield has been a challenge throughout the history of war (which is to say, the history of humans). The outcomes of the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars (it was Napoleon Bonaparte who coined the phrase, “an army marches on its stomach”), to name only a few, were all decided in part by which side had better access to provisions....

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