Jim Beam and the Vietnam War

1975 U.S. military themed decanter of 100 proof Jim Beam bourbon.
As a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial once a year with my dad, a 1970s Air Force guy. The image of Vietnam vets scattered along the wall, their blurry reflections keeping them company, is something I will never forget.

Now that I am older and a war veteran myself, I like to read positive stories about soldiers during Vietnam. And because I love whiskey, I gravitate to stories like the one Steve Ury posted to his blog a few weeks ago. A gentleman named Bill Cowern shared this:

“In 1967-1968, I was a Marine helicopter pilot in northern I Corps, South Vietnam. I was fortunate enough to get R&R to Hawaii in February of ‘68, to meet up with my wife. On the flight back to Vietnam, we stopped to refuel in Guam and I bought a bottle of Very Very Old Fitzgerald for $15 or $20 in the duty free shop there on base. I had always remembered it as being labeled 25 years old but it could be that 50 years has dulled that memory. Regardless when I returned to the base I was assigned to, in Dong Ha, I opened the bottle when we were under mortar attack one night and could not believe what a smooth soothing whiskey it was. Like nothing I had ever tried before, or since. We had slit trenches under our wooden hooches and trap doors in the floors to allow us to be below ground during attacks. It became a routine for four of us that we would have a half jigger of the bourbon whenever we were under attack. After a while we used to joke about how we wished they would attack. The bottle lasted about one month, but I, obviously, have never forgotten it.”

I've spoken to Bill Cowern since he shared that story, and I learned he drank the Very Very Old Fitzgerald with comrades- a fellow pilot, a dentist, and a lawyer to be exact. I also learned that his CH-46 helicopter was shot down three times, that a .50 cal round glanced off his chest plate, and that the enemy shot his helmet visor off, turning the plexiglass covering his eyes into shrapnel. Unlike many of his USMC aviator friends, he survived the war. Today he runs a tree farm in Hawaii.

As other whiskey writers have documented, American soldiers are practically responsible for keeping the bourbon industry alive during the Cold War.

Mike Veach wrote in his book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey:

"As the cold war heated up, the market for bourbon became international. Just as Scotch whiskey went global by following the armed forces of Britain to every corner of its empire, so too bourbon whiskey followed the U.S. military to its bases in South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Italy. Initially available only through base exchanges, bourbon was soon among the standard offerings of local bars catering to servicemen, giving the locals a chance to develop a taste for it as well. American distilleries began marketing their products internationally."

Veach also pointed out that "Jim Beam...is the singular success story when it comes to international marketing. It had an initial advantage in that Jim Beam was one of the whiskeys made available by the U.S. Army in its base exchanges, and American soldiers became its unpaid salesmen."

At home, however, the drinking public turned to white spirits like vodka and gin, neglecting straight whiskey. As Reid Mitenbuler, an Air Force veteran, wrote in his book Bourbon Empire, “[b]ourbon became a symbol of the patriarchy and the Establishment…as Vietnam fell apart, boomers protested the war that was being led by all those colonels with bottles of Jim Beam on their desks.”

Jim Beam really was everywhere in Vietnam, from the colonel's desk to the private's pack. Inspired by Bill Cowern's war story, I spent an afternoon perusing the internet for Vietnam vets' memories of Jim Beam. Here are a few I hope you'll enjoy. Each number is hyperlinked to the source.

"Lt. Brian O'Connor was my platoon commander (2nd Plt., Hotel Co., 2nd Bn 1St Marines). He had an aggressive fighting spirit and at the same time a deep concern for his men. Christmas Eve of 1966 was rainy, cold, and generally miserable. Our platoon stood perimeter watch (three men to a fighting hole) with no other comfort than a shared blanket. At midnight, Lt. O'Connor visited each fighting hole with a bottle of Jim Beam to let each one of us have a "taste." No other officer did the same that night and it left a lasting impression on all of us. Lt. O'Connor expected a lot from his men, but gave his all to us. He led from the front and demonstrated care and concern for the members of the platoon. His loss was particularly hard to take because he disregarded his wounds to insure the care for other wounded and lapsed into unconsciousness attempting to get off the medical evacuation helicopter to be with his men. It was an honor to serve with him."

- Timothy Dunn 

[Second Lieutenant Brian Richard O'Connor was killed in action in late January 1967. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star].

 "Right, and then I got sent as an umpire over to the 7th Infantry Division. They were doing winter exercises in the Chorwon Valley, and I was assigned to a Company who had a platoon of Thailanders, Thai-Landers, from Thailand. We were all in a, this is a United Nations force. This is all a United Nations operation, probably the only good one they ever had, but I remember this Thailander Officer. I had a bottle of Jim Beam, they were sleeping outside in sleeping bags in the winter, and he had this bottle of Thailander whiskey. [H]e conned me into trading my Jim Beam for Thai whiskey and the Thai whiskey is like Log Cabin Syrup. What a mistake."

- James Mulvaney

"A young Vietnamese lady, only known as Tri (on the left), would help us around the meal times.  She was very pleasant and always with a smile. She took an old bus to and from her home to Hill 55 every day. She was a waitress at the Officer’s Club and well liked by all. On a quiet day I took a jeep (with driver) into Danang to meet Tri’s family. Later Donna tells me this was a dumb thing to do, and looking back it probably was. But Tri was very pleasant and her father opened up some Jim Beam bourbon that we all enjoyed. They were very courteous and kind people and my driver and I drove back to Hill 55 with no problems. I never asked where the Jim Beam came from, but suspected it was once at the Officers Club…"

- Dave Sierk

"At Christmas time, I remember that my mother would send our hooch a care package containing garland, chocolate chip cookies, salami & cheese and a plastic quart bottle of Jim Beam (yum). We decorated our hooch & we'd sit & talk about families & girlfriends. RD Stepp would play guitar & Gregg Lappan was Dynamite on his borrowed drums."

- Hugh Roche
  
"Didn't realize I was that close to the river, didn't realize I had exposed some of our flank across the river. And it's just something you didn't do. So I got chewed out real, real good. And hour later he called me, when we got settled that night, he called me back. And he and I sat down and shared some of his Jim Beam he was carrying in his pack. And he let me know that that was going to happen and not to get discouraged."

- Michael B. McKeithen

"I had the honor to serve under CPT Sekata in the S-4 section...CPT Sekata was a Infantry Officer and he made sure that the line Companies received excellent logistics support so the S-4 section followed the 11B's where ever their mission took us. I remember setting up Ammo/Supply resupply just NW of Tam Ky on some hill. We were on the upper south side perimeter of the hill over looking the road (hwy 1). We took incoming fire on occasion which kept us in the foxhole. So we got pissed and made a table out of 3.5 & 81MM ammo crates covered with a white sheet from the Medics and had a Jim Beam party right there in the open one night."

- Austin Wilcox

"Our villa was at the end of an alley off Tru Minh Ky, a main thoroughfare that led to the center of Saigon alongside the Saigon River. We were about a mile into the city from the base. The six of us were evenly divided – three intelligence officers and three supply officers. My joke was that the intelligence officers supplied the sophisticated conversation and the supply officers supplied everything else. They were the ones that replaced the large drinking water container every week and brought us things like light bulbs and mosquito spray. Every couple of months one of them would bring home a case of steaks or chicken pieces. They knew an alcoholic sergeant who worked in shipping and receiving. When there was an opportunity for a case of steaks or chicken, we would get out our ration cards and someone would be chosen to go to the army liquor store and buy two bottles of Jim Beam. The downside was that when we got one of these cases, that was all we ate for two weeks because the freezer section of our refrigerator could only hold so much."

- John O'Meara

"The Corps didn't issue ration cards that allowed you to buy hard booze, if you were below the rank of SSgt. Didn't matter how old you were. The Air Force didn't issue weapons to most of it's enlisted on the big air base at Da Nang (which always amazed me, considering we were in a war zone), but they were allowed to buy hard liquor. So, We would trade them grenades, or AK's, NVA flags and clothing, even M-16's and .45's, etc., for bottles of Jim Beam."

- Richard Boyd

"After lunch, I found out that war is hell, big time.  There is a headquarters of a special forces unit at the Can Tho Airfield.  I had heard that a good friend, and a former company commander in Germany, was assigned to that unit. So, I thought I would find out where he was. So, I started at the orderly room, asking about Bill. No one said anything, except to pass me on up the line from the sergeant in the office, to a captain, to a lieutenant colonel.

The light colonel asked me why I was looking for Bill, and I told him. I told him Bill and I had been platoon leaders in B Co, 317th Engineer Battalion in Frankfurt Hochest in 1959.  Bill later became our company commander. Under his command, with four first lieutenants, some damn good NCOs and troops, we became the best company in the battalion.

The colonel invited me to sit down, and he closed the door. He pulled a bottle of Jim Beam out of his desk, poured drinks, and told me, "Bill was killed a month ago!" I know many of you reading this have been there, but this was the first time for me to lose a friend!

I guess I must have stared at him, with tears in my eyes, choking on the booze. I felt as bad as the day JFK was shot, only this was more personal. Of all the soldiers I knew, Bill was the one who was supposed to come through Vietnam with a scratch."

 - Ed St. Clair

"I know that old Ray Burns from Ganado, Texas, is here.....and I have got to tell you a story about me and Ray that goes back to October of 1965. Plei Me SF Camp was under siege by a regiment of North Vietnamese regulars. I was trying to get in there...like a fool....but after an A-1E and a B-57 Canberra and one Huey had been shot down they declared it a No-Fly Zone. So I was stomping up and down the flight line at Holloway cussing....when I ran across Ray. He asked what the problem was and I told him. He allowed as how he had been wanting to get a look at that situation and would give me a ride.

I still have a picture I shot out the open door of Ray's Huey. We are doing a kind of corkscrew descent and the triangular berms and wire of the camp below fill that doorway...along with the puffs of smoke from the impacting mortar rounds inside the camp. Hell...I can scare myself bad, just looking at that photo.

Well old Ray drops on in and I jump out...and the Yards boil out of the trenches and toss a bunch of wounded in the door and Ray is pulling pitch...grinning....and giving me the bird. When the noise is gone this sergeant major runs up: 

Sir, I don't know who you are but Major Beckwith wants to see you right away. I ask which one is the major and I am informed he is the very big guy over there jumping up and down on his hat. I go over slowly. The dialogue goes something like this: Who the hell are you? A reporter. Son, I need everything in the goddamn world from food and ammo to water....to medevac......to reinforcements.....and I wouldn't mind a bottle of Jim Beam.......but what I do not need is a goddamn reporter."

- Joe Galloway (co-author of We Were Soldiers Once...And Young and the only civilian ever awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Vietnam)

This post wouldn't be complete without a review of good old Jim Beam.


Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey

Beam Suntory
80 proof
$2 for a mini at Green's Beverages in Columbia, SC

Color: Extra light amber honey.

Nose: Wet dog out of the gate. After Fido blows off, sweet corn, caramel, light lumber, and alcohol.

Tasting Notes: Honey and orange give way to pepper and rye spice. The body has some meat to it for an 80 proof whiskey. The finish is short to medium and marked by minerality, like wet stone in the mouth.

Overall: NR. I've had so many Jim Beam cocktails in my life, this dram transported me to a friend's wedding or a beach bar or someplace. I had to stop myself from chugging it and screaming for another. It's really not that good, but it's really not that bad either.