The Critters of Vietnam (Published in MWSA Dispatches; Fall 2017)



Sometimes, I am the beast in the darkness. Sometimes, I am the ghost.

~Heather Durham



Anyone who knows a Vietnam War veteran has probably heard many stories about the wildlife they encountered during their tour of duty. My friend and fellow author, Vietnam Veteran John Podlaski recently added a story to his website about the critters of the Nam. This is my recollection on the subject.



Vietnam, a beautiful country that even at war, teemed with wildlife.

Vietnam is a tropical country on the edge of a large continent, bordered by an ocean. It has a diverse topography along with many flowing rivers and streams. And there are critters…..many critters.


One thing that constantly amazed me during my tour of duty in Vietnam was the number of critters that were able to survive in that deadly war torn environment. Back home; you crack a twig and every deer within earshot takes off like a rocket. Somehow the wildlife in Vietnam managed to survive, and in some cases thrive; while tens of thousands of firefights, bombing sorties, naval bombardments, artillery missions and chemical defoliations took place. How did they manage?


The place was noisy, very noisy…..and dangerous; nonstop. Yet tigers, leopards, vast troops of monkeys, elephants, too many snakes to mention and even rhinoceroses survived in that toxic environment. It wasn’t surprising that the insects survived….they’re designed to survive under any condition. And hordes of insects occupied Vietnam. Immense rice beetles, mounds of stinging ants, scorpions, spiders of every make and model….and of course the mosquitos that tortured every GI who ever set foot in- country.


Those mosquitos, ever present day or night, rain or shine; would swoop down in hordes getting into your mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. The military doled out mosquito repellent that could strip paint, but it barely slowed them down. After a month or two you just took them in stride. Of course the grunts in the bush all day had it the worst; but the mosquitos spared no one because of rank or station.


My experiences with the “critters of the Nam” are similar to others who served during the war. Although to this day I am not overly pestered by mosquitos, they certainly cramped my style in Vietnam. Sleeping was the worst; some guys obtained mosquito netting to put around their bunks. I found the netting to be very bothersome. (And someone stole mine early on)



The area was infested with these

All the hooches, and buildings on the Phu Cat airbase were occupied by hordes of large hairy spiders. They looked like a small tarantula and were everywhere. I waged war on them constantly, dispersing the deadly Military grade insect repellent like Agent Orange. It didn’t put much of a dent in their population; but I wasn’t going to let them roll me over.

Rats were another problem. HUGE rats. They also occupied most buildings and structures everywhere. One ran over my chest one night when I was laying in my bunk. No sleep that night. Always short of protein, the ever practical Vietnamese added them to the menu. (Another reason I never dined with them)


Many American GI’s made pets out of the local monkeys. They looked cute, but most of them were meaner than a mother-in-law without a grandchild. They would savagely bite anything other than themselves and I avoided them like the plague; which, by the way, was also present in that unfortunate country.


Cobras preyed on the huge rats that ran amok.

Snakes were ever present in Vietnam. Cobras were frequently found on base and shot on sight. In one incident I witnessed a hapless perimeter guard trying to shoot a cobra that was approaching him aggressively. He kept trying to shoot the snakes head, but the snake, dodging like Muhammad Ali, kept on coming. Finally a well-seasoned guard casually approached the snake and lopped off it’s head with a small machete. A nearby Papa-San snagged it for a later meal.


Our hooch dog “Noah”, a feral dog we had adopted, became an overnight hero because of a cobra. He had supposedly killed one that had entered the barracks one night, and was heaped with lavish praise. It had been my opinion that Noah found a dead cobra and dragged it into the barracks to eat; but I wasn’t going to rain on his parade. Good for Noah.

The “two stepper” terminated many Vietnamese

Another snake of note was the Southeast Asian pit viper. A small snake of various colors it was referred to as the “two-stepper” because supposedly once it bit someone they took two steps and dropped dead. This snake was more of a problem for the Vietnamese who wore skimpy sandals or went barefoot. American GI’s, with their heavily canvased jungle boots, were protected from bites to their feet and ankles.

Leopards occasionally preyed on the villagers

The Phu Cat airbase had a large “open” area which was occupied by many creatures; some four legged, some two. A leopard from the area appeared one day and got itself backed into a storage bay at an outside warehousing area. People tried to drive it away but it just sat there snarling and screaming. I was able to see it, and the ferociousness of the animal made an impression on me. Unfortunately it had to be shot, after which many GI’s posed for pictures with the dead body.


Another animal I saw, right on the Phu Cat airbase, made a lifelong impression on me. Three of us were walking down a small road, heading back to our hooch one evening around dusk.  A jeep came along and we made way so it could pass. Soon we saw the jeep stop for a few minutes. Then it backed up to where we were. The jeep driver told us to get in. We declined, but he insisted. We got in and he drove to the spot where he had stopped a minute before.

Though beautiful to see, tigers were a threat to Vietnamese and Americans alike

There, hunkered down in some thick brush sat a tiger. With a low growling it just sat glaring at us. We watched it for several minutes. The driver wanted to drive it off so it wouldn’t ambush anyone. (There were twelve confirmed cases of American GI fatalities during the war as a result of tiger attacks)


The driver leaned on the horn of the jeep, after which the tiger let out a blood curdling roar and then quietly backed off, slipping away into the night. We reported the incident to the Apes (air police) who casually brushed it off. They said there were a couple of tigers that traveled on and off of the base all the time, and if they shot it another would just take it’s place. Besides, it had a taste for VC, they told us. I was glad that no one came to harm that night, us or the tiger; it was a beautiful animal.

Nothing was safe from them

The critter incident I had in Vietnam which rattled me even more than the tiger event, involved ants. The ants in Vietnam swarmed like bees, and bit like mules. They were worse than the mosquitos. At Christmas time my Mother sent me a care package. In it was a small tinned ham. Two buddies and I quickly devoured half of it, after which I left for about fifteen minutes to attend to some duty. When I returned, the ham was a living mound of ants, now twice the size of the ham itself. I cussed and roared and dispersed the ants with fire, but alas…the ham was ruined. I groused about that for at least a week, and harbor it to this day!  🙂


Send me a note about your critter experience, in Nam or out!





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About the Author

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo, Jr. is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War Veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war and many other topics. See the "Author Page" of this website for more information on Joe. Guest writers on Joe's blogs will have a short bio with each article. Select blogs by category and enjoy the many other articles available here. Joe's popular books are available thru Amazon, this website, and many other on-line book stores.


  1. Every third night on ‘Outside Perimeter Guard’… I would see what had Crawled under the bedding on the floor of the Bunker…It was usually a Scorpion or Two and a Spider of some sort…Sometimes there was a Foot-Long Centipede with them…Semper Fi… (1965-66)

  2. Hi all; “The Critters” has been read by over two hundred visitors in just a few short days. Thanks for visiting my website, glad you enjoy the stories!
    Many folks have messaged me reminding me of the lizards. Sorry I didn’t include them, I didn’t forget them, but other than the constant racket; the little rascals caused me no grief. Nevertheless…here’s a shout out for all those noisy little buggers, and thank you for eating as many mosquitoes as you did!!
    (I’ve also been reminded of the plethora of leeches, how could I forget those blood suckers?!)

    1. Thanks Richard, glad you enjoyed the story. All the critters in the Nam (including the two legged ones) kept us on our toes!

  3. I remember one morning I was about to get in my duece and a half down in the ammo dump. I took one step into the cab when I noticed a green bamboo pit viper hanging on to the straps that held the canvass top up. Needless to say I exited the vehicle very quickly. A CWO that was standing nearby got a stick and rustled the snake out of the truck and shot it with his 45. I didn’t know at the time how deadly they were.

      1. I was in a hammock about 1 foot above the ground when I heard a loud crunching noise. I put my hand down to roll out of the hammock to investigate and was immediately stung by about 20 times. Turned on my red filtered flashlight and saw a huge trail of ants/wasps eating everything in their way to include my hand. They were very large and looked more like wasps without wings than ants. Can anyone tell me what these insects were?

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