History

Human Enemies Weren’t the Only Thing That Were Lethal to U.S. Troops in Vietnam

When we think about war, it is tempting to focus only on its human participants. Sometimes it is all too easy to forget that the natural world around us is, in fact, alive and dynamic, and filled with creatures that can have unpredictable and dangerous interactions with humans. Soldiers often run across these creatures when fighting in harsh or remote environments—indeed these creatures often literally run, or crawl, across them. Wildlife in war zones can be fascinating, annoying, or even fatal. Animals and insects remind us that, despite incredible advances in technology and weaponry, there are still some things that humans cannot fully control. The Vietnam War is a particularly good example of this—a war in which a “Spooky” gunship could wipe out enemy troops in wreaths of fiery destruction, yet something as tiny and fragile as a single mosquito could bring death by transmitting malaria. Numerous men who fought in Vietnam mention their interactions with wildlife—good, bad, or ugly. Many of these creatures are common across Southeast Asia, and there are too many to describe in a single article. In this portfolio, we take a look at animals and insects that posed dangers to soldiers in Vietnam. In some cases, the danger seems obvious; in others, not so much. It is worth noting that the enemy often used venomous creatures against American and allied troops when possible. The VC made use of snakes, spiders, and scorpions to guard entrances to underground tunnel systems; “guard” snakes were suspended from tunnel ceilings to strike intruders, while spiders and scorpions were released from baskets to sting interlopers entering passageways [read more at: www.historynet.com/tunnel-rats-vietnam]. Sometimes soldiers had to get creative to keep unwelcome creatures away from them. There is no question that the presence of dangerous wildlife made fighting the Vietnam War even tougher.

Photo of a King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) in strike pose, Malaysia.
The king cobra, the world’s longest venomous snake, can grow up to about 19 feet and when threatened can raise itself upright to about one third of its full length, which can make it as tall as a person. The king cobra growls, has sharp eyesight and potent venom, and prefers to eat other snakes.
(Nature Picture Library/Alamy)
Photo of a BAMBOO PIT VIPER. Trimeresurus gramineus, venomous, common.
The bamboo viper is another type of pit viper found in Vietnam. Pit vipers’ speed, toxicity, and preference for hunting at night make them formidable reptiles. Rattlesnakes and pythons share the same type of “thermal vision” as pit vipers.
(Ephotocorp/Alamy)

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Photo of a Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) looking through foliage, Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Tigers were once widespread in Vietnam; these “big cats” hunt alone and prey on large mammals such as deer. Sadly, recent reports indicate that tigers have possibly gone extinct from both Vietnam and Laos due to hunting.
(James Warwick/Getty Images)
Photo of a full body image of a Vietnamese funnel web spider in its nest of spider webs.
The Vietnamese funnel web spider is one of many arachnids that inhabit wooded areas of Vietnam. Despite their delicate appearance, funnel web spiders can deliver fatal bites and their fangs are often sharp enough to penetrate clothing and shoes.
(Stephen Desmond/Alamy)
Photo of a Vietnamese tiger tarantula spread on leaves in Vientiane, Laos
The Vietnamese tiger tarantula is a large and highly aggressive spider that lives in muddy undergrowth, often around rice paddies. It packs a powerful bite and, unlike other tarantulas, tends to be confrontational.
(Mobrafotografie/Alamy)
Photo of black rats.
Rats are common in Vietnam and “overran” firebases. Rats carry and spread diseases aside from being pesky scavengers.
(John Downer/Getty Images)
Photo of a Lyle's flying fox (Pteropus lylei) native to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, male hanging upside down from hind feet in tree.
Most of the time bats do not bother people. However, bats do carry rabies and other diseases. This friendly looking fruit bat of a species called Lyle’s flying fox is a potential carrier of the deadly Nipah virus.
(Arterra Picture Library/Alamy)
Photo of ants in the jungle of Ninh Binh in Vietnam.
Red ants are commonly described by Vietnam veterans as having been a hazard in the bush. Vietnamese fire ants live in rotting logs and deliver painful bites, often in swarms. Some veterans have reported being bitten by “blood-sucking” ants that preyed on them when they were wounded.
(Panther Media GmbH/Alamy)
Photo of Leeches sit on the arm of a patient during a leech therapy in the Orthonatura practice group.
In terms of bloodsucking pests, nothing quite compares to the leech. It is one of the most hated creatures associated with the Vietnam War. No body part was safe from these aquatic predators, which often had to be burned off.
(DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy)
Photo of a monkey on the Monkey Island, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
While often made into pets, monkeys can carry rabies, making their bite dangerous.
(Cultura Creative RF/Alamy)
Photo of a mosquito silhouetted against on color background.
The mosquito was probably the most dangerous creature faced by troops in the Vietnam War because its bite could carry malaria.
(Pakorn Lopattanakij/Alamy)
Photo of a black scorpion Heterometrus longimanus of the Scorpionidae family is usually identified as the Asian forest scorpion, typically found in tropical Asia. Black scorpions live under logs and rocks. Asian forest scorpions are often confused with ordinary black scorpions or Malaysian forest scorpions Heterometrus spinifer. The two are similar but they are distinct species. Black scorpions' venom is usually not lethal but has a strong sting. A black scorpion is around 10 cm in length.
The Vietnamese giant forest scorpion can grow up to 12 inches long. It is an aggressive species known to kill its own kind, with a painful sting and paralytic venom.
(John S. Lander/Getty Images)

This story appeared in the 2023 Autumn issue of Vietnam magazine.

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