What were the odds of dying in the Vietnam War?

OK, so what we have here is some simple math:

About 3,500,000 people were in Vietnam during our involvement over there (if I recall correctly). About 58,000 people died, actually a little more. So, extrapolating numbers from that, we come up with around 1.6% of all people who were over there died.

Well, then I got to thinking: in the Air Force, the vast majority of people are support personnel, thus not very likely to be killed in action. I’m sure that the percentage is about the same in the Navy, and probably to a lesser extent in the Army and Marines but still significant. This leads me to my question.

How many people who were actually in combat died, meaning infantry and pilots, not to exclude others likely to be shot at? It would have to be a much higher percentage than if you include Joe Palooka over at the Long Binh motor pool, wouldn’t you think? Not that they didn’t provide a vital service, mind you, but they were at a much lower risk than those who actively sought out and engaged the enemy.

The reason why I ask is because of something I once heard: the assumption was that you would be drafted, you would go to Vietnam, and you would most certainly die. I’m very curious to see how true that statement really is.

Any ideas? I wouldn’t even know where to start to try to whittle those numbers down.

So really what was it? You would cerainly die or you would most likely be a causuality? I can appreciate the difference!

OK, according to this site the ratio of support to combat was 17 to 1.

So we see that 5.8% of the 3.5 million troops were in combat. So we can figure that 203,000 troops saw combat. So can see that about 28% of combat troops were killed.

Of course, this assumes that only combat troops were killed, which I’m sure is untrue. But I dunno.

Anyway, it’s a start.

Unless I screwed up the math, which I probably did.

I’m shooting from the hip, first, Dave; then I’ll go and try to find real numbers. A figure I carry in my memory from some unknown source in the past is that 10% of the military during the Vietnam conflict were front-line combat troops (that would be Army, Navy and Marine ground troops plus any aircrew from USAF or the aforementioned services that flew in hostile airspace). Going on memory alone, I think some Coasties got near the heat as well.

Seat of the pants reckoning says 1.6% of the total translates to 16% of 10%. That’s very rough, and it seems high. I’ll now go and attempt to try find something more substantive.

One memory of an anomaly that sticks out is that of a Navy bluejacket who was washed overboard near the coast of N. Vietnam and wound up being the only enlisted man in a POW camp full of Air Force officers.

On Preview I see Neurotik is bringing us some numbers.

Here are some stats to help out. As you can see:

About 8,700,000 folk served on active duty during the Vietnam years.

About 2,600.000 of those served in Vietnam.

Between 1 – 1.6 million of those served in a capacity that might be thought of as “combat.”

There were about 47,000 combat deaths and 11,000 non-combat deaths (accidents, disease, murder, etc.)

Draftees accounted for 25% of all forces which served in Vietnam and 30% of all combat deaths.

Hope this helps.

I kept a diary while I was in Vietnam in the Marines Corps in 1969. From the end of February until November 11th my platoon had 15 killed and 60 wounded bad enough that they were sent home. Another 25 rotated home, got transfered, or whatever.

I’m guessing we averaged about 40 men in the platoon (Marine companies tended to be larger that Army companies, 175 or so men).

So that comes to 15+60+25+40=140 men in the platoon over that time

15/140 = 10.7% killed. Of course this assumes my experience was typical. And we were the high end risk group.

In terms of pure numbers, I think Vietnam can be counted as one of the least deadly wars we have fought. The Civil War and World War II are definitely higher up on the fatality charts. But I don’t think the OP adequately addresses the possibility of death by other means - not death in combat, but death due to faulty technology or personnel troubles.


My father served in Vietnam (enlisted in the Navy because he thought his number was up), and from what he’s described, it was no cakewalk for the low-risk personnel involved. (I’ll define low-risk personnel as branches of the military that didn’t see a lot of action, like the Navy.)

He was on a supply ship cruising the Vietnam coast as a refueling center for the vessels that actually saw battle. But as I recall, it was still dangerous on those ships, as you never really knew what would happen next.

He once told me of an incident involving some mini-helicopters. My memory of this story really is a bit shady, but I think that the small helicopters were operated by remote, and were outfitted with lots of cameras to spy on the North Vietnamese Army. Several were given to Dad’s ship to deploy, but he said that from the outset there were difficulties. They soon realized that as soon as the spy-choppers got up in the air, most of them stopped responding to the radio signals. They’d just fly off into the wild blue yonder.

The captain of the ship did NOT like this, and whenever this happened, would order that the ship chase it down (I think to recapture it and prevent it from falling into enemy hands, so that they couldn’t learn anything from the technology).

There was also a contingent of Marines on the ship, and they came across one of the mini-helicopters dead in the water - it apparently fell in after running out of gas. The captain was elsewhere occupied or just plain busy, and wasn’t around when the chopper was reclaimed. Instead of notify the captain, the Officer on Deck sent a Marine overboard with a rope tied around his waist, and had him do something to secure the chopper to the ship. (This part has me mystified. I can’t recall if the Marine was supposed to attach it to a harnass so it could be lifted on deck, or if it was supposed to be attached to his rope and lifted in, or…)

Anyways, the Marine was still working on the spy-chopper when a shift change occurred on deck. Some miscommunication happened or signals got otherwise crossed, and the new Deck Officer wasn’t informed that the ship was attached by rope to a man over the side. And since he didn’t know, and no one else on the new shift knew (that part seems a bit weird), he wondered why the ship wasn’t moving.
He ordered the engines back to work.

Thankfully, the Marine had a knife on him, and sawed through the rope before being dragged to a watery death. But he wasn’t very happy about being left alone for several hours before they figured out that he was still back there.


Well, actually, death in earlier wars was far more likely to be due to various infections that by 1968 were being treated casually with any number of antibiotics and medications.

Add to that the advent of helicopter evacuation to trauma surgery units (started in Korea but greatly improved in Vietnam) and an American infantryman had a much better chance of surviving his tour than any of his predecessors.

Draftee = cannon fodder

Black draftee = real good chance of ending up dead.

Anyone want to do the slice-and-dice on the numbers by race?

See this site which I already linked to:

Blacks = 13.5% of those eligible for the draft.

Blacks = 10.6% of those who actually served in Vietnam.

Blacks = 12.5% of all fatalities…12.1% of combat deaths and 14.6% of non-combat deaths.

I have never seen the figures broken down to specify black draftees, but here are some figures:

Overall, from 1960 to 1975 10.9 million folks entered the armed forces. 8.7 million of them volunteered and 2.2 million were drafted. A breakdown of casualties (for the army only) for the three heaviest years of fighting:

1968 -
Draftees = 42% of total army, 58% of army casualties.

1969 -
Draftees = 38% of total, 61% of casualties.

1970 -
Draftees = 39% of total, 65% of casualties.

Note that about 60% of all deaths occured in these three years and overall 65% of all Vietnam fatalities were in the Army.

Heres one for you though…30% of all fatalities were Roman Catholic while RCs made up only 24% of the population. What does it mean? Danged if I know.

Oops. I guess I lowballed it a little.

Anyway, those are striking numbers. Thanks for leading me in the right direction.

Oops again. Next time I’ll remember to use my own damn screenname. :slight_smile:

Yeah that freaked me out for a sec. :smiley: