Vietnam War Music – Top List

The Vietnam War was the first Rock ’n Roll war. The 60s brought massive change and upheaval in the U.S. and around the world and music was a major part of it. Bands and artists like The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Bob Dylan completely changed the sound for the generation growing up.

Putting together a list of the best songs from the war years has been done many times before and Hollywood producers in particular delight in choosing the soundtracks of the movies about those times. What would a Vietnam war movie be without the requisite Rolling Stones or Clearance Clearwater Revival song

But what did the soldiers on the ground, and in the air and on the water, listen to? Well, we decided to ask them, or at least a few friends of our website. This was exciting because it’s not only about the songs, but their thoughts on how they associate the music with their service in the Vietnam war. These are personal stories with personal memories told in a personal way. We hope you enjoy the read.

Which song is your favorite from the war years? What do you think about this particular list? Leave your comments below.

The Doors  – The End 

The most prominent song from my tour in Vietnam for me most assuredly would be “ The End “ by The Doors. Just because it fits so well with the times and my experiences there. As grunt Marines we were always out in the bush and were rarely in a rear or base camp area. I was only in our Regiment rear base camp in Quang Tri four or five times. The only times that we would stop for any amount of time would be when we would set in on some unnamed hilltop for a few days and run sweeps and patrols from there.

Most of us carried no transistor radios so we couldn’t tune into AFVN radio or even Hanoi Hannah broadcasts. What we would do was to get on our PRC 25 military radios and search the frequencies until we would find one where there would be guys playing great tunes that they had received from the states.

Cool songs, album cuts from Hendrix, Doors, Cream, Canned Heat, etc. Songs that you would never hear from AFVN. It was totally against regulations to use our PRC 25s in this manner but what’s the Brass gonna do, send ya to the Nam? Ha! My call sign was Radio FreeOz Actual.

Randy Ware
Golf Company
 2nd Battalion, 9thMarine Regiment
3rdMarine Division
68/69

Songs I listened to in Vietnam

There was a lot of incredible music produced in the 1960s and early 1970s and there are four or five of those songs that were especially meaningful and powerful to me because of their associations to the 19 months I spent in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

We didn’t always have ready access to music where I was, but I was generally able to keep up with the more popular music that was out there through AFVN and people I met. It was pretty powerful to me, mostly because of the circumstance I was in at the time. When I think of my time in Vietnam there are a few songs that brings me back more than others.

“Green Green Grass of Home” and “Detroit City” with Bobby Bare still arouse strong emotions. Those songs were back then considered country music, but keep in mind that I was raise in rural Kentucky. Actually there are many aspects of the serene places in which I grew up that reminded me of Vietnam — except for when it would explode into violence and death when you least expect it.

Of course there was “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” with The Animals. It was meaningful then and is memorable now for obvious reasons. I think almost every veteran will mention this song when asked about music and the war. Sometimes when I here it, I can remember sitting in the late afternoon as the sun was going down over “Charlie Ridge”, watching out over the “Arizona Territory” thinking about the Marines that were still out there doing their job on the firebases and landing zones.

Another song I associate with Vietnam was “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — also a great tune and because the guy who sang it the song died shortly after recording it. Lastly, “Hey Jude” with The Beatles comes to mind — again because it was a great tune and great to sing along with.

Sam Lawrence
Field Interrogator
1stand 3rdBattalions, 7thMarines
April 1968 to November 1969

The songs of the war

When the Monsoon season came and the heavy rains set in, day after day, the natural open spaces in the Rain Forest that we used as LZs became jungle sumps with boot sucking mud, and overhead canopy of the jungle became poor umbrellas, the songs like “Have you ever seen the rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival took on new meaning in the war. 

 It may have been written about Woodstock but it was a song we 11-Bravos well understood as well.

Read Kregg’s short story also on our website by clicking here>>>

Kregg P.J. Jorgenson
1st Cavalry Division
H Company- LRRP/Ranger
Apache Troop, 1st of the 9th CAV ‘Blues’

Three dog night – Joy to the world 

I spent the second half of my tour in Vietnam as a Huey door gunner then crew chief after the first half as a grunt. Flying was for the most part great and certainly beat 24/7 beating the bush. I flew both daytime and nighttime missions.

On many of the day time missions we had an aircraft commander, a young warrant officer, who loved the Three Dog Night song “Joy to the world”. So each morning I flew with him, he would play it somehow over our intercom system during our take-offs. Take offs were exhilarating and fun. We’d get the bird picked up off the ground into a hover. Then hover over to the main run way which paralleled the beach and ocean adjacent to Chu Lai. Then nose over, pull up on the collector and gain ground speed until we hit 80 or so knots, accompanied by SINGER THREE DOG NIGHT shouting out “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!” this was our cue to get ready for action. Then more collector and a little back on the cyclic and we were airborne looking for 500 ft of altitude.

500 feet plus was above the safe zone, because we had enough altitude at that point to deal with a sudden engine failure. So there we were cruising down and above the runway at 80K listening to this kick butt rock n roll song. Pilots happy and us back in our respective gunwells sitting behind our M-60 machine guns. Our ammo cans wedged into the gun mount held up to 2000 rounds of ammunition so we were all set for the day.

We’d always turn out and head toward the sea then another turn and over water head back up to the direction we came from paralleling Chu Lai’s coast. We took this opportunity to always warm up and test our machine guns. We’d fire bursts of different numbers of rounds and until we’d fire 100-200 rounds and were satisfied we had working guns. Our targets were sharks who were always swimming in the shallows that time of morning. We found if we aimed at them we would always miss. Our intent was not to kill the sharks, just use them as a reference point of aim to warm the guns up. By the time we got all this done the song was over and we were off to start our daily missions come what may. But at least the day started out fun.

Larry Gates
Crew Chief and door gunner
A Company, 123rd Avn Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, The Pelicans. Americal Division. 

Peter, Paul and Mary – Leaving on a jet plane

During the war I spent a part of my service at the Special Forces Camp in Mai Loc as a member of a Duster unit that provided fire support and cover for the camp. At the camp, the Special Forces Command Post bunker became a gathering spot for us when duty allowed.

I remember one evening listening to an engineer playing guitar and singing. The sun had set over the mountains in the west. Somewhere out there was Route 9 where we regularly would provide escort for convoys going west. It was the road of death and destruction. Staying in the relative comfort and safety of a camp meant we could relax for the moment. The engineer was part of a five man detail drilling a water well for the refugee village just outside of the compound.

Inside the bunker there was a radio powerful enough to get the AFVN radio broadcast. Just after he had finished the song, I heard a newscast saying a classmate from school, Freddie Steinmark, had lost a leg during his battle with cancer. He was a star athlete at a Texas university and two years later died of the disease. That same newscast also reported of an F-111 crash in Nevada that killed the pilot, whom I later learned was my cousin.

The song the engineer played that night was the old John Denver tune “Leaving on a jet plane,” immortalized by Peter, Paul and Mary. Often when my memory drifts back to those long quiet evenings at Mai Loc, this melancholic love song is what I play in my mind. A beautiful song that holds such a haunting memory.

R.B. (“Rick”) Liebendorfer
C Battery, 1/44th ADA
Track 221 69/70

Procol Harum – A whiter shade of pale and others

Reflections from fifty Years Ago. In Vietnam, the warring parties had agreed on a truce, which for the most part was abided by. I had been in Vietnam less than a month, and spent the night of Christmas Eve in the Dau Tieng observation tower, a much quieter night than one a month later when my turn came again.

There in the quiet, I mused on the waxing crescent moon where three men were about to orbit. As the tumultuous year of 1968 was drawing to a close, I reflected on what had transpired over the year. – The North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo – The multifaceted impact of North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive. – The withdrawal of LBJ from the Presidential Race – The assassinations for Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy – The spread of the anti-war demonstrations throughout the US and worldwide. – The racial protests – The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August – The Olympic Protests – The Chicago Riots during the Democratic National Convention – And the election of Richard M. Nixon.

For me, most of the year had been stateside finishing Army Flight School at Mineral Wells, Tx & Savannah, Ga and then Cobra Helicopter transition, also at Hunter AAF. It is difficult to relate my conflicting emotions and those of my fellow flight-school mates due all the turmoil of that year. Sense of duty, honor and the lure of flying prevailed over fleeing to Canada & offers of transport to Sweden. 

On a few occasions after leaving the club late in the evening with a pocket full of quarters & half shit-faced, I attempted calling the White House from a pay-phone outside our barracks to express my displeasure and opinion on how LBJ was half-assed-ly prosecuting the war. 

And then, there were the songs! Angel of the Morning, Wichita Lineman, Whiter Shade of Pale, Love is Blue, Sittin’ on The Dock of the Bay, and Abraham, Martin & John are a handful that come to mind. “Hey Jude” still strums an emotional chord every time I hear it. Does anyone recall the flipside? Not by choice did I think of them and many others as gun-songs, but they all fit perfectly in. 

Most if not all aircraft had an AM ADF (Auto Direction Finding) radio ostensibly for navigation use, for which it was seldom needed. I thought it bizarre flying along in our helicopters in the process of making war while listening to songs being broadcast from the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS Saigon). There in the watchtower, as Christmas songs wafted up from a barracks below, the absurdity of listening to Silver Bells, Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night while flying a gunship struck me as tragic irony.

Richard Magner
Cobra pilot Tiger 38, D/229th (Smiling Tigers)
1st Cav 68/69

Song for my father

Hey y’all, Mike Elam here. I started Basic at Ft. Ord (lucky me – I was 19 and from Long Beach, CA) on 3/7/66 and then had AIT there as well. Around mid-July ‘66, after AIT, I was assigned to a newly established unit, HHC 58th Field Depot, which was stationed at French Camp, CA and attached to Sharpe Army Depot in Tracy, CA. HHC 58th Field Depot then left Oakland for Qui Nhon on November 22, 1966 aboard the USNS General John Pope. There were around 3,000 troops total on board and there were around 130 of us. 32 officers (7 from California), 36 NCOs (3 from California), and 62 enlisted men (23 from California and most of those had done Basic/AIT at Ft. Ord).

I on the Pope was lucky enough to meet the Steward Yeoman the first day out. Since I knew how to type, he set me up the next day working for the Chief Steward and typing up the menus for the Officers! The Chief Steward gave me my own small office mid-ship with a typewriter, mimeograph, etc., and, as another perk, I got to eat all meals with the crew! They had waiters and the menu selections were great – beat the heck out of standing in line for an eternity with a couple of thousand troops and then having to also stand up to eat! We “hit the beach” (more like hitting the mud) in Qui Nhon on 12/16/66 and I stayed there until 10/7/68. I was quite lucky there too, but that’s another story.

Ah yes, “Song For My Father”!! I had somewhat of a musical background (piano since 3rd grade, sax since 7th, played in rock bands all through high school – oh, and my Dad played mandolin). Aside from eating with the crew on the Pope for 23 days and having pretty much unfettered access to ice cream, fruit and liquor (for me and friends) I also had access to some musical instruments! They had an alto sax, a drum kit, and an upright bass that none of the crew were using.

Joe E. Lee

One of my friends, Joe E. Lee, was a jazz drummer from Baltimore but no one we knew played bass. No problem though, one of our friends, Steve Plake from Hayward, CA, wanted to join us if we showed him what to do. As it turned out, all three of us were familiar with Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” so that’s the first thing we did. Joe and I showed Steve how to do the bass line, which luckily wasn’t too complex, and we had a blast! We did some other stuff too, but “Song For My Father” is one song that I’ll never forget. Joe and Steve were good friends of mine and I’ll never forget them either! RIP brothers.

Mike Elam

Music in the jungles of the central highlands

I was not to carry anything I didn’t need, but there was always someone who had a radio or a cassette player. The cassette players served us in two ways. Firstly,  guys would get recorded messages from loved ones, and would record messages to send home. They also would have tapes of songs to play. If we were on a hilltop and the mail came we would get a break from the heavy humping in the steaming jungle. I remember when someone got a tape of the Iron Butterfly with ”In-a-gadda-da-vida”.

In this instance the heads immediately went to a bunker to get high. The AFVN didn’t play heavy music like that though. AFVN played Neil Diamond, Elvis, The Supremes, more or less soft rock. I personally liked The Beatles, and sometimes wondered what they thought of the war.

Sometimes I would hum to myself the song ”500 miles” sung by Bobby Bare, thinking how far I was from home. A song that ran through my mind often, was “The Letter” by the Boxtops. Again the theme was getting home. That was one of the songs that AFVN sometimes would play.

Tom Lacombe
4th I.D.
Author of ”Light Ruck, Vietnam 1969”

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