In the skies above Vietnam in October 1965, something rather unusual is happening. A strange object plummets to Earth, but this isn’t a UFO or a meteor hurtling to the ground. Rather, this flying object is all too familiar. Made of smooth, white porcelain and slightly oval in shape, it is, in fact, a toilet. Yes, you read that right. A toilet. And the reason it’s there is more sinister than you might think.
So, where did the toilet come from? Originally, it formed part, presumably, of the bathroom facilities on an American aircraft carrier. Found damaged and ready for the trash pile on board the U.S.S. Midway, the discarded porcelain was snapped up for a peculiar scheme. And it was a plan that involved several departments on the ship.
The Midway itself was sailing the South China Sea, deployed on operations during the Vietnam War. And it was during this mission that the toilet ended up strapped to an A1 Skyraider plane. The craft, flown by Commander Clarence Stoddard, was key to the success of the scheme. And to make sure their plan was recorded, they used a second Skyraider with a little something extra attached.
In fact, to ensure the success of the plot was chronicled for posterity, Stoddard’s wingman and fellow pilot Lieutenant Commander Robin Bacon flew the mission in a Skyraider with an old World War II camera attached. As a result, the pair were able to show the Midway’s crew the fruits of their labor. But to understand the plan, we need to take a look at why America was involved in the Vietnam War in the first place.
The history of the conflict in Vietnam is both complex and deep-rooted. While America’s involvement can be traced back to the end of World War II, the origins of this war actually took hold during the 1800s. At that time, the country became a French colony, under Gallic rule. And this was a situation that stood for nearly a century.
During World War II, however, Japan invaded Vietnam. They then occupied the country until their surrender at the end of the conflict. After the Japanese withdrawal, the French once again took power. This situation, however, left many Vietnamese wanting an independent homeland, all of which led to the beginning of the fight for a free Vietnam.
Originally created to defend the country from the Japanese, the Viet Minh instead began to fight for independence after the war ended. Led by Ho Chi Minh, the forces took their inspiration from Soviet and Chinese communism. And as a result of this post-war uprising, things in the country began to change.
The Viet Minh soon took control of Hanoi, the country’s capital, having deposed the French colonial ruler, Bao Dai. They then declared Minh the President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But Dai didn’t just give up. With France’s backing, he set up the separate state of Vietnam in the south of the country. And in July 1949, Saigon became its capital.
Despite the conflict, however, it seems that both Minh and Dai actually had the same aim: a unified Vietnam. The difference, though, was that one side wanted a communist regime, while the other preferred closer links with Western cultures. And the resulting ideological and civil war ultimately led to America’s involvement in a conflict thousands of miles away.
Before the U.S. put boots on the ground in Vietnam, though, the French experienced an enormous defeat. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 ended in an overwhelming victory for the Viet Minh. Indeed, it marked the end of colonial rule in the country after nearly 100 years. And this triumph resulted in the country effectively being split in two. The communists controlled the northern half, while those loyal to Dai held the south.
After the French ruler was toppled in 1955, a nationalist, extremely anti-communist government took power in South Vietnam. That same year, American president Dwight D. Eisenhower threw U.S. support behind the new regime. Why? Despite having been allies during World War II, political tensions between America and the Soviet Union had risen following the end of the conflict.
As a result, America became increasingly hostile to nations sympathetic towards the Soviets. And that list of countries now included North Vietnam. American support of South Vietnam at the time included providing military equipment and training by the U.S. armed forces. No American soldiers, however, were involved directly in the growing conflict. Within a few years, though, that would all change.
Over the next few years, American troop numbers in Vietnam would increase exponentially. Just 500 military personnel were stationed there during the ’50s; by 1962, that total had grown to around 9,000. And although then-president John F. Kennedy approved that swell in numbers, they were there for support, not a military intervention.
In 1964, however, an incident occurred that meant that America could no longer stand on the sidelines of the war. Following the successful North Vietnamese targeting of a pair of U.S. naval craft, the Americans officially began a military campaign against the Viet Minh. In the early days of the conflict, though, that mostly involved heavy bombing raids.
In 1965, however, those air raids were backed up by boots on the ground. In July that year, some 82,000 military personnel were deployed to Vietnam to help the south win the war. This marked the beginning of one of America’s bloodiest conflicts. The Viet Cong, as they’d become known, refused to give up and just kept fighting.
The Viet Cong was able to do that thanks in part to support from its Soviet allies. Helping to bolster the North’s air defenses, the resulting escalation led to U.S. military leaders calling for a further 175,000 troops to fully aid the south Vietnamese. That number would ultimately increase far beyond even that figure.
In fact, in 1967, about half a million U.S. troops were stationed in South Vietnam. But despite what would seem to be overwhelming numbers, along with superior firepower, America was losing soldiers at an alarming rate. During one particular battle that year alone, more than 1,800 U.S. casualties were recorded.
By the end of 1967, after roughly two years of fighting, U.S. casualty numbers had reached enormous levels. The death toll had climbed to over 15,000, while the injured numbered more than 100,000 Americans. Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, however, the U.S government insisted that they were winning the war.
Things did not improve for America as the war dragged on. In addition to heavy fighting, in 1968, a significant number of U.S. troops, along with Southern Vietnamese fighters, were held in a siege. Trapped for a total of 77 days by the Viet Cong, the troops at the Khe Sanh garrison managed to hold their ground, despite North Vietnamese efforts.
But while Khe Sanh ended in victory for the U.S., elsewhere, other troops weren’t quite so successful. Just days after the siege began, North Vietnamese forces launched a series of coordinated operations in the south. Attacking over 100 targets, including the U.S. embassy in Saigon, what was dubbed the Tet Offensive took U.S. forces completely by surprise. As a result of this show of power, American military leaders requested another 200,000 troops be deployed.
That same year, intense fighting saw America lose its biggest number of soldiers in one week. A total of 543 military personnel died in Vietnam during the seven days between February 11 and 17, 1968. With the death toll so high, more and more men were needed to fill those combat roles. As a result, then-president Richard Nixon made a critical decision.
In 1969 Nixon introduced a military drafting policy, conscripting men into the armed forces. The first draft since World War II, it meant that any man born between 1944 and 1956 could be forced into service at any time. And as you might imagine, this policy was incredibly unpopular, particularly among the young people it targeted.
The draft, alongside television coverage of the war, eventually turned public opinion. Having once been in favor of intervention in Vietnam, the American people now showed their anger about the situation. A series of public protests against conscription and the war in general took place across the country, the largest of which took place in Washington, D.C.. There, more than a quarter of a million people gathered in the capital to demand America pulled out of the conflict.
Protests against the draft, however, also took a slightly less public form. About 40,000 American men, rather than risk war or prison, simply ran. Many moved to Canada, where there was no draft. Others, however, weren’t quite so lucky. Indeed, conscription reportedly brought up to 35,000 men a month into the military.
And it wasn’t just prospective soldiers that were unhappy with the situation. Troops on the ground in Vietnam were also frustrated with the long-running conflict. In fact, over the course of the war, roughly half a million U.S. troops simply deserted. And who can blame them? Many of those who stayed suffered long-lasting psychological trauma, and mutinies were not uncommon.
Perhaps in response to public pressure, Nixon finally ended the draft in 1973. Over the course of its existence, more than two million men were conscripted, although not all of them went to Vietnam. And America officially ended its involvement that same year, after signing a peace treaty with North Vietnam.
That peace treaty finally put an end to a decade of bloody conflict. At its close, America had lost over 58,000 military personnel to the war. The death toll in Vietnam, however, was far greater. In total, more than two million Vietnamese were killed, over half of whom were civilians. And a further three million were injured during the fighting.
The signing of the peace treaty closed the book on one of the darkest chapters in American history. An ideological war that neither side had really won had cost millions of lives. But it wasn’t just close combat that led to so many deaths. America, in fact, continued its aerial bombardment of Vietnam throughout the conflict.
But while most of the munitions dropped on Vietnam were, shall we say, conventional, one particular bomb definitely was not. Remember that toilet plummeting to Earth that we mentioned earlier? Well, it wasn’t just any old broken toilet. It was, in fact, a specially made bomb. And how does a broken loo filled with explosives end up being dropped on Vietnam? To answer that, we have to go back to the Midway.
The toilet was, as we mentioned, broken beyond repair and destined for the trash heap. Or, more likely, waiting to be thrown overboard. Before that could happen, however, one of the pilots on board rescued it and a plan was born. From there, the munitions team retrofitted tail fins, a rack for the payload and a nose fuse to the broken loo. It was now a live bomb.
Now that the makeshift bomb, nicknamed, rather aptly, “Sani-flush” was complete, it had to be fitted to a plane. Step forward Commander Stoddard, whose Skyraider was scheduled for a mission. And to keep the unorthodox ordnance a secret, the Midway crew reportedly obscured the vision of commanding officers as it was attached. At which point, the pilot and his wingman readied themselves for take-off.
In fact, so successful were the crew’s machinations that no one in command saw the toilet-bomb before Stoddard took off. At which point, recalled Clint Johnson, a pilot who was present that day, officers asked, “What the hell was on [Stoddard’s] right wing?” The plan had worked, and Sani-flush was on its way to Vietnam.
Stoddard and his wingman, Bacon, were on their way to drop ordnance over the country’s Mekong Delta. And the toilet-bomb would form part of that mission. However, rather than just being a joke, the unusual incendiary actually had a more sombre significance as well. In addition to being perhaps the only bomb ever made from a broken toilet, it also had the distinction of marking six million pounds of explosives dropped by U.S. forces on Vietnam.
And in order to record the moment for fellow crew members, Bacon actually filmed the toilet-bomb’s journey to Earth. Using a camera attached to the wing of his Skyraider, the resulting footage reportedly showed the unorthodox ordnance almost hitting his plane. In addition, the toilet apparently whistled as it fell to the ground.
Following the drop, as Johnson told website Midway Sailor, “There were a lot of jokes with air intelligence about germ warfare.” And it seems that the resulting clip was a big hit with the crew. “It made a great ready-room movie,” he revealed. Unfortunately for us, however, the film no longer exists. As the former pilot rather mysteriously opined, “I wish we had saved the movie film.”
But while the Midway crew felt the plan had gone well, it seems that the toilet-bomb didn’t perform quite the way it should have. Indeed, according to website Military History Online, the unorthodox ordnance was discovered, intact, by the North Vietnamese. They must have thought the Americans had gone mad.
While the toilet-bomb may not have exploded, many, many others definitely did. In total, America dropped three times more bombs in Vietnam than they used in the entirety of World War II. From precision-guided ordnance to cluster bombs and beyond, the U.S. military came well-equipped. And that included using the Daisy Cutter, one of the most powerful modern conventional weapons ever deployed.
In addition to explosive ordnance, the U.S. military also used napalm. A gel-based petroleum product, it’s incredibly sticky and burns at very high temperatures. Essentially used to set fire to large swathes of land, its deployment during the war caused horrendous injuries to anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with it. And even if you were just in the area, you weren’t safe. The amount of carbon monoxide produced when Napalm burns suffocates everything in close proximity.
But perhaps the worst weapon that America used during the conflict wasn’t even a weapon at all. It was, in fact, a herbicide, a chemical designed to kill plants. In an effort to destroy Vietnam’s dense vegetation, U.S. forces sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange. Considered one of the most toxic substances on the planet, the devastation it brought about was enormous. So widespread and long-lasting were the effects, its use on the country has since been described as “eco-cide.”
It wasn’t just the Vietnamese vegetation, though, that suffered. In fact, humans on both sides appear to have borne the effects of contact with Agent Orange. These alleged effects included cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and skin rashes and lesions. Whatever its causes, and whatever was dropped, the Vietnam War has definitely left an indelible impression on the planet.