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Vietnam Helmet Art

By Marc Leepson 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: July 30, 2010 
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During Operation Ashburn, south of Da Nang in Decmber 1967, a member of the 5th Marine Regiment scans the jungle for signs of enemy activity (Sgt. Dickman/Marine Corps/National Archives).

The Things We Wrote

The military called it the M-1 helmet; the troops called it a "steel pot." The damn thing felt like it weighed half a ton when you first put it on your newly shaved head in basic training or boot camp. It's a sure bet that not long after the U.S. military introduced the steel pot (with its fiber glass shell liner) in 1941, some GI or Marine scribbled "Kilroy was here" or some other oddball or ironic saying on his helmet. Until the Vietnam War, though, what you most commonly saw on helmets were rank insignia and unit designations.

As is the case with so many other things, the conflict in Vietnam put its own unique stamp on the things we wrote on our helmets.

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All manner of iconoclastic stuff found its way onto our steel pots. By far, the most popular were peace signs and short-timer calendars. Ironically, the most reproduced helmet graffito to emerge from the Vietnam War is a fictitious one, although it is based on reality: the "Born to Kill" that Private Joker wrote on his steel pot in the movie Full Metal Jacket, which is based on former Marine Gustav Hasford's 1979 novel, The Short-Timers.

The iconoclastic Joker's helmet message is central to the surreal "duality of man" dialogue in the movie, in which a hard-core colonel chews out Private Joker for his peace symbol button. "You write 'Born to Kill' on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?" the colonel harrumphs. To which Joker replies: "I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir, the Jungian thing, sir." To which, the colonel replies: "Whose side are you on, son?"

The troops in Vietnam were the children of the '60s, and like their cohorts back home, even in a war zone they found a way to express themselves.

 


6 Responses to “Vietnam Helmet Art”


  1. 1
    jeffery a. barnes says:

    My personal helmet "graffiti" was the moniker "Teenage Killer". As a recruit in Marine boot camp, we were repeatedly told a story of Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly telling someone she had found Marines to be "over-sexed, under-paid, teenage killers." One night, outside Da Nang, after imbibing a bottle of "Panther piss", the phrase popped into my head and was promptly Magic-Markered onto the side of my "piss-pot". It was greeted with mixed reviews by the higher-ups and I was "asked" to make myself scarce when photographers were in the area. Sometime later, I was ordered to remove the "offensive" phrase from my helmet cover. This was accompanied by a new helmet cover. I ignored the order, and the new cover, and was given an Article 15. With a grin, the 1st Sgt replaced my "salty" with a new greenie.

  2. 2
    Krontech says:

    Idiot Yank..

  3. 3
    Chaz says:

    Thats not a pegasus. That is a winged Panther from the 505th PIR of the 82nd Airborne Division. Do some research.

  4. 4
    michael w ryskoski says:

    in may 1968 I was put in the 82nd airborne as a replacement infantryman.at that time we came under heavy rocket attack 122,s.while we ran to take cover I forgot my helmet,I decided to go back for it.at that time a rocket landed at the spot we were running,killing4 and wounding 13.I did not get hurt because I forgot my helmet.I will never ever forget that day

  5. 5

    [...] Helmet Graffiti The Things We Wrote [...]

  6. 6

    [...] centered on the symbolic externalization of identity—in the pop art movement, for example, or Vietnam helmet art—but until recently it has been easy to mistake those controversies as failures of the critical [...]



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