The PX Watches of Vietnam: A Survey of Non-Issued, Popular Military Watches of the Vietnam War

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Though case back markings and the famous “broad arrow” are sure to get military watch collectors’ hearts racing, there exist myriad military watches that aren’t necessarily known as such because they were never issued by the military—rather, they were purchased by soldiers at the local PX.

The PX, or “post exchange,” is a type of retail store featured on U.S. military installations for use by soldiers and sailors (technically “post exchange” is a term specific to the Army, but for the purposes of this article we will simply use the term “PX”). These exchanges, originally established as trading posts in the 19th century, offer the enlisted soldier or officer everything he or she could possibly need—from cigarettes and electronics to toothpaste, sneakers, and clothing—while stationed on base either domestically or in a foreign country.

During the Vietnam War, many of these PXs sold both Swiss and Asian-made watches, and prices were often significantly lower than what they were in a civilian store back home. As many soldiers weren’t issued watches by the government or wanted something tougher than the watch they brought with them from the States, they turned to these PXs while on leave to find a quality timepiece.

Though we can’t enumerate all of these watches, today we’re going to take a survey of some of the most popular PX-bought watches of the Vietnam War era.


For a great survey of American military watches throughout the years, check out our series, Military Watches of the World: U.S.A. Part 1 and Part 2.


 

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Glycine Airman

Developed in the early 1950s with feedback from pilots on their ideal watch for cockpit use, the Airman incorporated a true 24-hour dial, luminous markers and hands, an unusual hack mechanism, and a 24-hour bezel that, when used in conjunction with the watch’s second locking crown, could be used to keep track of a second time zone, or to time an event.

Image via Analog Shift.

The Airman was sold in PXs in Southeast Asia and become a perennial favorite of U.S. military pilots, and many from this era remain in circulation today (there is a particularly famous picture of a captain smiling and giving the thumbs up from his cockpit with an Airman visible under his left flight glove).

Zodiac Sea Wolf

Though not a household name like the Rolex Submariner or the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, the Zodiac Sea Wolf was one of the first purpose-built dive watches. These 35mm, 660 feet-rated watches were affordable and available at many PXs, and thus stories abound about their use by Naval Underwater Demolition Teams and Special Forces. Though some of these associations with specific units were no doubt concocted as marketing material after the war, it does seem that the Sea Wolf was popular in Vietnam with servicemen, and that many of them saw active use.

Seiko 6105-8000/8009

An alternative to Swiss-made offerings were the local Asian-made watches readily available in PXs during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Among them were the Seiko 6105-8000/8009 and the 6105-8119. These watches, produced from 1968-1977, featured a 41mm cushion case, signed crown at 4 o’clock, 150 meters of water resistance, and an in-house 17-jewel cal. 6105A movement. Some of these watches were hacking and some weren’t, but all featured quick-set dates and couldn’t be manually wound.

Seiko 6105-8000.

A friend of the author, Sgt. Jim Massi currently of the New York Guard, was serving as a sailor on a naval destroyer escort during the war and bought his first Seiko at the Subic Bay (Philippines) PX. He recalls that the watch cost less than $100 at the time, but that was still a large chunk of money for an enlisted man to shell out (roughly $600 today). He had seen Seikos advertised in magazines back home and understood them to be much tougher watches than the Timex he had brought over from the U.S.

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Rolex Submariner & GMT Master

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, there does seem to be a correlation between the type of unit and the robustness and expense of the watches preferred by the men of that unit; while the enlisted man in, say, a naval patrol boat might not have cared to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-new Rolex in the local PX, an enlisted man in Special Forces or in an Underwater Demolition Team might certainly have made the purchase.

Numerous frogmen and SF-types bought and wore Rolex Subs and GMT Masters in combat because, quite simply, they were the best watches available for the job. Many of these Subs and GMT Masters cost between $190-$240 in the late 1960s (between $1300-$1700 today)—this was a lot of money for an enlisted man to spend on a watch, but a comparative bargain when one considers that a new Sub today retails for over $6,000.

Vietnam-era Navy SEAL wearing a Rolex Sub. Image via Rolex Magazine.

Submariners were, of course, also popular among U.D.T./SEAL members, and, evidently, at gatherings and reunions of ex-SEALs, sightings of vintage, combat-tested 5513s is fairly common. An interesting aside is that many of these were worn on a metal cuff, called an Olongapo band, after a city in close proximity to the Subic Bay Naval Base (since decommissioned in 1992, but once an enormous U.S. military installation in the Philippines). Artisans from Olongapo began fashioning these metal cuffs with military insignia for visiting U.S. servicemen, and soon the trend caught on with frogmen and Special Forces personnel.

USN UDTs in Vietnam. Image via Bottom Timer.

GMT Masters were also popular with SF-types, and a 1675 could be purchased for less than $200 in certain PXs. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert L. Johnson of the Nightstalkers (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) shared the following account with the author:

“I was in ROTC at the University of Delaware from ’67 to ’70. The guy in charge of the Ranger program was an ex-Green Beret, a major named Don Munson, who was a typical SF guy—every badge you could get: Airborne, Ranger, SF, Pathfinder, etc. He had a couple of combat tours and a great facial scar from an exploded grenade that made him look very dashing. He was a real extrovert and fun to be around, and drove a white Porsche 911 with a license plate that said “SCAR CAR” and wore a Rolex GMT Master. Of course, I wanted one, too.

While overseas on a trip in ’69 or ’70 with the College of the Armed Forces, my father purchased me a GMT Master at the Base Exchange at Subic Bay in the Philippines for the amazing sum of $131. It made a great present and the only time it wasn’t on my wrist was when I wore the gold Rolex President I bought in the PX in Korea in 1975. My President was so famous in the 160th that I had at least one friend said he would be willing to pull me out of a burning aircraft to save it/me if the need ever arose.

Bob’s GMT Master.

Anyway, the GMT Master was with me in Grenada in ’83 and Desert Storm in ’90 to ’91. Don Munson was at Fort Benning as a battalion commander when I was there for the Advanced Course in 1978, by which time I had graduated #4 in my Basic Course, finished Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder, and Flight schools and had taken the Special Forces Correspondence Course. I also had my own Porsche 911 by then.”

And there you have it: a first-hand account from a badass American combat helicopter pilot about his battle-tested Rolex GMT Master.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this survey of some of the popular PX watches of the Vietnam War. Stay tuned for more military watch content to come on Worn & Wound! Next up, we tackle military watches of the UK.

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Oren Hartov is a NYC-based musician and writer whose work has appeared in SHIFTed Magazine, Special Operations Report and K-9 Cop Magazine. He enjoys watches, history, archaeology, militaria, SCUBA, and just about anything that goes “BANG.”

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