1

The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. 58,148 were killed and 304,000 wounded out of 2.7 million who served. Although the percent that died is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II. 75,000 Vietnam veterans are severely disabled. - Vietnam War Facts, Stats and Myths

It is remarkable that 10% of soldiers who served in the war were casualties. This number must contain soldiers who were not serving on the front lines, but as engineers, logistics, cooks, and other roles. This lead me to wonder what the casualty rates were like for soldiers serving as front-line troops, particular those serving in the hotter areas of the conflict.

Whatever the rate of being wounded among such men is, divided by the 240 days of combat a year it would likely be very high chance of being wounded every day.

  • Large numbers of support troops were stationed at the various fire support bases, with the combat troops. These bases were frequently the subject of sustained bombardment by NVA troops, evening out the casualties between the two groups. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 30 '17 at 14:39
  • 1
    What basis, other than personal incredulity, do you have for doubting these statistics? – Pieter Geerkens Dec 30 '17 at 14:41
  • ? I did not think I had said anything to doubt these statistics? What are you referring to? I was curious what the statistics were like if you factor out support troops. @PieterGeerkens – Johnny Dec 30 '17 at 14:52
  • A question with "front line" in context of Vietnam War looks like a joke. – Marian Paździoch Sep 26 '18 at 7:38
4

At the risk of not answering the question directly, I think it's more interesting to put the stat in context than it is to try to figure out the precise number.

In the event you haven't seen it already, I can only recommend spending a few hours watching Ken Burn's The Vietnam War. The most vivid recollection I have from it, besides the political scheming, was how the US troops were constantly instructed to capture hills throughout the conflict. They'd come out victorious, of course, but would then be instructed to abandon their position days or weeks later instead of holding the hill - with the enemy settling back in shortly after.

That is, I would surmise, the reason the casualty rate was so high: in addition to the day to day ambushes and soldiers never really knowing who they can trust in the civilian population, in open battle the US was often fighting uphill battles - which is the exemplar unfavorable battle position.

With respect to the casualty statistic proper, this source holds that:

Of the 2.6 million, between 1 - 1.6 million (40 - 60%) either fought in combat, provided close support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.

So you're looking at somewhere between 22% and 36% casualty rate among the soldiers who were exposed to fighting. (It's likely more interesting a stat than infantry vs support, since infantry can also mean guard duty at some safe place, whereas support can occur under artillery fire.)

  • That implies something like 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 troops were casualties, if we assume the vast majority of casualties were from combat. Thinking of Justcal's statistics from before, it was about 58,000 casualties, 48,000 from battle. So, if we assume non-combat casualties were involved with the first statistic (questionable assumption) that's about 1 in 12 are combat casualties. Then 1 in 7.2 to 1 in 5.2, for combat troops, using those estimates. – Johnny Dec 31 '17 at 2:31
1

Based off Denis and justCal's data, I come up with this estimate:

Of the 2.6 million, between 1 - 1.6 million (40 - 60%) either fought in combat, provided close support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.

That implies something like 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 troops were casualties, if we assume the vast majority of casualties were from combat.

Thinking of Justcal's statistics from before, it was about 58,000 casualties, 48,000 from battle. So, if we assume non-combat casualties were involved with the first statistic (questionable assumption) then about 1 in 12 are combat casualties.

Then 1 in 7.2 to 1 in 5.2, for combat troops, using those estimates.

Calculating the Daily Odds

Now, if we assume this is at all accurate, we only need to do a little math to get the daily chance of being wounded or killed. I'll only go through the higher estimate, 1 in 5.2, for now, a 19% chance of being a casualty.

The Vietnam war lasted about 20 years for the USA, and our numbers are on a per year basis. However, this doesn't matter, so long as we assume our soldiers only served one tour of duty for simplification.

In a tour, the infantryman saw about 240 days of combat, so 1 - 0.81 ^ 0.0041667 = 0.08% per day

Conclusion

So, the odds on a daily basis are pretty low: 0.08%. And that's with the high estimate. Having less than a 0.1% chance of being a casualty sounds pretty good. But over 240 days... it stacks up to a 19% chance, which is not comfortable odds for risking life and limb.

1

In all wars the risk very much depends what unit you end up in. Consider the British Army XXX Corps: El Alamein, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, Market Garden, Ardennes, Rhineland. So to speak of risk as if it is even across an army is deeply misleading.

The Pacific War was, as it's name suggests, dominated by the ocean and thus sea and air power. The ground forces were engaged in short vicious battles for small islands. It's not surprising that the absolute number of days in combat were low. Conversely, the number of days in theatre were high: in a ship in the middle of the Pacific you can't take a weekend's leave. The Pacific War is an outlier and comparisons are not really informative.

You mention helicopters for delivering soldiers to battle without also considering that they rapidly extract the wounded from battle. Prompt and excellent medical treatment for US troops lead to fewer deaths than previous conflicts (eg, compare with the Casualty Clearing Stations of WWI). The corollary of that improvement is a higher proportion of wounded.

How do you classify "soldiers serving as front-line troops"? Consider that guarding the US Embassy in Saigon was a soft posting. Right up to the day of the Tet Offensive, upon which it was the "front line".

Finally, there was a emphasis on wounding US troops, and the statistics show that this emphasis had effect. Around 30% of all wounds in Vietnam were due to low technology improvised weapons: pits and traps with bamboo stakes, repurposed grenades and bullets, car bombs outside hotels. This was low risk warfare on the cheap, but still effective at removing experienced troops from the field.

  • While this is true, we seem to be having difficulty narrowing down the data. I made an attempt to narrow it down somewhat, in the answer above. Being able to work out the average casualty rates across the battles may be more useful. – Johnny Jan 2 '18 at 17:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.