A Green Beret dressed in tiger stripe camouflage holds an IV bag for a simulated casualty during a joint excercize on Fort Campbell in 2019. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Iman Broady-Chin.
Dave Hall first realized he wanted to become a Navy SEAL when he saw a photograph of one taken years earlier in Vietnam. In the photo, the SEAL appeared crouched in the jungle, his machine gun at the ready, wearing tiger stripe camo and a bandanna wrapped around his head. To Hall, who was 14 at the time and enrolled in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the commando looked like the paragon of an elite warrior.
“He’s got a crisscross ammo belt, a LAW rocket on his back, a grenade on his belt casually there ready to be chucked, and his freaking machine gun,” Hall told Coffee or Die. “That hooked me.”
Hall held true to his dream and enlisted in the Navy soon after high school. He graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in 1988, and was assigned to SEAL Team 2, based in Little Creek, Virginia. Coincidentally, one of his teammates was a legendary commando named Tom Keith — the same man, it turned out, whose photo had inspired Hall to become a SEAL. Except now, instead of tiger stripes, he wore woodland BDUs.
Petty Officer Second Class Tom Keith of SEAL Team 2 wears tiger stripe camouflage while keeping watch along a stream with his Stoner 63A machine gun in 1968. Photo courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command.
While jungle green fatigues were the standard issue uniform for American GIs deployed to Vietnam, special operations soldiers generally preferred more unconventional combat attire. Members of SEAL Team 1, for example, were known to sometimes patrol in blue jeans and boonie hats. SEAL Team 2, on the other hand, adopted the fashion of their South Vietnamese counterparts and clad themselves in tiger stripe camouflage.
There are many variations of the tiger stripe pattern but it typically comprises a base color of green, brown, or silver khaki overlaid with ragged black stripes, like the jungle cat it’s named for. Naturally, in Vietnam, where tigers are native, the camo proved highly effective in distorting the silhouette of a soldier’s body.
Though its usage by US troops was relatively limited, tiger stripe camo remains synonymous with American special operations. Iconic photographs of commandos in Vietnam, like the one of Keith, imbued the pattern with venerated status and helped make it ubiquitous. Today, it’s everywhere: in action films and video games, on hunting gear and precision rifles, and in the wardrobe of just about every airsofter with ambitions of becoming the next John Rambo.
Army Special Forces veteran Bob Charest wearing tiger stripe camo in Vietnam in 1963. Photo courtesy of Bob Charest.
The first tiger stripe uniforms were fielded in the 1950s by the South Vietnamese Army. The design was inspired by the lizard-pattern camo that had been worn by French troops in the First Indochina War.
In July 1963, Bob Charest arrived in Vietnam for a six-month tour. The team of US Army Green Berets, code-named A-432, was tasked with training and advising some 200 indigenous fighters from the central highlands of Vietnam.
According to Charest, A-432 wore leopard-spotted camouflage during their first two months in Vietnam and were then issued a tiger stripe uniform similar to the ones worn by their partner forces.
“Tiger stripe became the only camo worn by Special Forces during the rest of the war,” said Charest, who was wounded in action during his tours in Vietnam. “At the time, it was the best camo available.”
Eventually, tiger stripe camo became such an integral feature of the Special Forces identity that actor John Wayne wore it in the 1968 film The Green Berets.
Green Berets from 5th Special Forces group are seen wearing tiger stripe camouflage during a training exercise in 2019. Navy SEALs have also carried forward the tradition, even wearing a modern rendition of the signature Vietnam-era attire while operating in Asia. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Iman Broady-Chin.
Tiger stripe camo didn’t fall completely out of fashion after the Vietnam War. If anything, it only became more in vogue, especially among elite operators.
Still today, American commandos often have the liberty to customize their kits and uniforms when operating in far-flung environments. According to Hall, who continued serving as a SEAL until 2007, there have been occasions when team guys deployed to the jungles of Asia assumed the likeness of their Vietnam-era predecessors and donned tiger stripe camouflage.
“It wasn’t a copy of the Vietnam clothing pattern,” he recalled, “but it was the camouflage pattern on a more modern rendition of the clothing.”
The SEALs aren’t the only ones who have kept the tradition going. During Operation Enduring Freedom, American private security contractors and CIA paramilitary officers in Afghanistan also adopted a version of the tiger stripe uniform to suit their mission needs. Instead of black and jungle green, however, the pattern they wore was composed of desert tan and beige. As in Vietnam, the uniforms matched those of their local partner forces.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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