Science Matters →

High-Tech vs. Low-Tech Equipment in Vietnam

single-engine spotter plane
Cessna O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft.

When Richmond native Bill Harrison was issued a new flight suit in Vietnam he didn't realize that the fire-retardant fiber in the clothing was made by the company that would become his future employer. “It felt strange, not like the nylon that other flight suits were made of,” said the tall, lanky sergeant who served in the central highlands of Vietnam near the Cambodian and Laotian borders. “I saw a label in it that said Nomex, but I didn’t know what that was.”

After leaving the U.S. Army, Harrison eventually worked as a graphic artist and photographer at DuPont's fibers plant in Chesterfield County, where Nomex is made. The high-tech fiber, originally manufactured only at the Chesterfield County plant, is used in clothing worn by those in jobs with a high risk of fire, including astronauts, fighter pilots, racecar drivers and offshore oil-drilling platform workers.

Bill Harrison stands next to a bunker at his base camp.

As an aerial photographer and image interpreter in Vietnam, Harrison flew behind the pilot in a single-engine spotter plane. He photographed suspected enemy locations and ordered air strikes and other operations against enemy positions. A close call made Harrison realize how critical the flame-retardant clothing would be in case of a fire. “Something was making holes in our plane,” Harrison noticed during his last mission. “We’re getting shot at,” he recalls yelling. The plane could have caught fire or crashed and burned. When Harrison and the pilot returned safely to their base, they found five or six bullet holes in the plane, one between him and the pilot.

The Viet Cong had weapons and equipment that was much less sophisticated than what was available to U.S. soldiers, Harrison noticed. "They whipped us with it. I was always amazed at the inherent genius of those people," he said. "The Viet Cong could hit anything on our base camp." Using three bamboo sticks as tripods, they would line up a trajectory by eyesight, then fire accurate mortar rounds. "We had sophisticated mortar-seeking radar to determine their location," Harrison noted. But the radar required that three rounds be fired in succession to zero-in on the source. "They learned quickly only to fire two. They knew more about what we were doing than we did. It was awfully frustrating," he said.

U.S. soldiers in Vietnam carried highly accurate M-16 rifles. "The accuracy didn't matter much. The Viet Cong were all in the jungle and you couldn't see them. All you could do was spray rounds in their direction," Harrison said.

The Viet Cong effectively used various forms of booby traps, such as sharpened bamboo sticks buried in the ground. "Those caused a lot of casualties."

Harrison said enemy soldiers usually developed their own propaganda materials, such as posters with detailed hand-drawn illustrations. He returned to the U.S. with a poster and a propaganda notebook filled with poems and drawings. Harrison also brought back a Happy New Year greeting card from Ho Chi Minh that was to be used as propaganda against the people of South Vietnam.

Before leaving the Army, Harrison was awarded the bronze star, two air medals and the Army commendation medal.

Since retiring from DuPont, Harrison and his wife, Bettyanne, have moved to Reedville, Va., where he enjoys photography, boating and playing bagpipes.

The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18-hour Ken Burns documentary, will premiere on WCVE PBS and WHTJ PBS, at 8:00 p.m. September, 17.

For more on the Top 5 Technological Developments of the Vietnam War, watch this video from the History Channel: