Flat Tops: Canned Beer and Vietnam
A soldier, sailor, airman, or marine returning from combat has many comforts of home to look forward to: loved ones, a real bed, pizza, authentic barbecue, and of course, an ice cold beer. The modern military has adopted stringent rules on drinking overseas. This is in part because of cultural sensibilities in the countries where U.S. personnel are deployed, but also due to the erosion of conventional “front lines.” Military members of today are never far from danger, and must be constantly ready to react.
This wasn’t always the case however. Just a generation ago, during the Vietnam War, beer and combat went hand in hand. Marines or soldiers in Khe Sanh or Da Nang would have balked if they were told they were forbidden from knocking back a cold one.
Unlike today, where tens of thousands of civilian contractors support troops in remote combat outposts, personnel in uniform performed every support function of the Vietnam-era military. Some estimates put 75 percent of U.S. troops in Vietnam as logistics or support personnel. As such, major logistics hubs grew into sprawling compounds where the war felt like a distant echo. At Long Binh, 20 miles north of Saigon, combat seemed to be the least of the military’s concerns. Thirty-five hundred buildings and 180 miles of roadway filled an area greater than the size of Cleveland. Of course, duty at Long Binh was more 9-to-5 than the gruel of frontline combat. As such, Long Binh provided recreational outlets for the troops. By 1971, the base operated 81 basketball courts, 64 volleyball courts, and 12 swimming pools; an assortment of softball fields, tennis courts, craft shops, football fields, weight rooms, and mini-golf courses; archery, skeet, and golf ranges; and even a go-kart track.
Naturally, there was a club scene at Long Binh. Forty bars, which had a collective net worth of $1.2 million, served the base’s inhabitants. For personnel not into the club scene, the base also maintained an extensive system of retail stores, where personnel could spend their paychecks on beer, liquor, or less drinkable consumer goods. The military Post Exchange (PX) placed a vast array of goods in a single storefront, not unlike the Walmarts or Targets of today. This shocked consumers in the ‘60s, since they rarely saw such a vast array of products under a single roof. The PX at Long Binh brought in almost $800,000 a month in sales. Beer, a taste of home for many personnel on base, was a popular purchase. One estimate of total beer sales throughout Vietnam comes in at just under $4 million a month. Given that a can of beer cost a GI around 15 cents, the 500,000 U.S. forces in Vietnam probably put away close to 32 million cans of beer a month.
Troops in the field, often infantrymen and unlucky support personnel, did not go without. While out on patrol, beer was beyond reach. At even the most remote firebases, however, beer was shipped in with the rest of a unit’s supplies. Every unit seemed to have a different method for determining how the beer was distributed. Many American beer companies donated enough beer to ensure a ration for every troop. Some units would return from patrol and knock back a PBR or Shlitz as they cleaned their weapons following a mission. Other units kept the cases locked up until a designated day, when the unit could let loose. Some units even augmented their beer ration by pooling their funds and arranging for beer purchases during resupply missions to the rear.
The stifling humidity of Vietnam made cold beer even more appealing, and the U.S. military’s world-renowned adaptability allowed even the frontline troops to get some cold beer — with a little planning. Support units like those at Long Binh could simply run to the PX and pick up a half fridge to keep chilled brew at arm’s reach. Combat units had a tougher time. Units might requisition a clay water tub from the local economy, and barter with the locals for ice. By tossing the beer in the improvised cooler before a patrol, the unit could return to chilled Budweiser or Miller. When the might of American logistics faltered, U.S. forces sometimes drank the local beer, an iconic brand called “Ba mui ba” or “33.” The rumors that it contained formaldehyde did little to deter consumption.
In 1965, a beer brewed in Minnesota or Pennsylvania could have easily made its way to a remote unit in the jungles of Vietnam on the other side of the world. Just 20 years earlier, the prospect of a service member drinking his favorite beer at a remote base would have been impossible. Shipping beer to the Pacific theater during World War II was so difficult that there were actually experiments to build a beer-brewing ship. The miracle of modern technology that allowed Bud, Miller, Shlitz, PBR, and Carling Black Label to get to the troops was as simple as it was innovative: the can.
Canning foods in order to preserve them has existed since the time of Napoleon. Yet canning beer proved more challenging than other comestibles. First, beer’s carbonation meant that the can had to withstand up to 80 psi of pressure. Second, the metal of the can would react with the beer, ruining the taste. Despite this, manufacturers recognized the potential upsides of canned beer. First, cans completely blocked out light. When beer goes bad, it is often due to light exposure. This is why glass beer bottles are often tinted green or brown. Cans however, keep out light until moments before the beer is drunk. Second, cans are less fragile. Cases can be made with cardboard and still handled roughly without fear of shattering. The can is also easily stacked and stored, making shipping far more efficient.
By the time industrial manufacturing advanced enough to mass-produce a can, Prohibition stalled the alcohol business. Prohibition was repealed in the 1930s, however, and by 1934 the American Can Company believed they had a workable design for a beer can, one that used heavy gauge steel and an internal coating called Vinylite to prevent beer–metal interaction. American Can only needed a test market to prove to the big beer-makers that cans worked. The Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company, a small regional brewer, devastated by the depression, had nothing to lose and thus agreed to be the test market for canned beer. The first beer can came off the line in January 1935. The beer can exploded in popularity, and by the spring of that year, Krueger was buying 180,000 cans a day. Other, more highly prioritized needs for metal in an economy mobilized for World War II, however, restricted the use of cans for beer, meaning little could be sent to American service members abroad.
The first cans were made of steel, and lacked the pull-tabs common today. Instead, drinkers opened the cans with a small piece of steel called a “church key.” By 1958, aluminum replaced the steel can, but the flat top concept remained. As the Vietnam War waged through the ‘60s, cans evolved stateside, gaining the “pop-top” feature common today. Military personnel in Vietnam however, still received cans with flat tops. It was small price to pay to ensure that U.S. service members got their beer, a taste of home.
As the ‘70s dawned and the Vietnam War drew to a close, Long Binh continued to grow, thanks to a difficult-to-control contracting system, but it too was eventually returned to the government of South Vietnam. The combat troops withdrew, and by March 1973 only a token presence of U.S. advisors remained in the country. The stark contrast in conditions between the combat and support troops faded, as Vietnam veterans returned home and advocated for their benefits, fought against negative stereotypes, and readjusted to a civilian world that never seemed quite sure what to make of them. While some veterans’ relationship with alcohol turned negative, for many others it became a strange sort of continuity. Even today, an aging Vietnam veteran can still buy a can of the same Budweiser, Miller, or PBR that he had in his youth, in a distant land called Vietnam.
Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.
Photo credit: manhhai