My first patrol
I’ve had me share of rubber trees and screamin’ sergeant majors And livin’ like a mongrel dog in those stuffed out canvas cages
Had me share of screamin’ jets and whoopin’ bloody rockets, beetles in me under dacks bull ants in me pockets,
Had me share of mud’n slush and rainin’ like a bastard And when it rains, it rains here mate a fortnight once it lasted
Had this bloody place Vietnam and a war that ain’t fair dinkum Had the swamps and chook house towns where everythin’ is stinkin’
Had me share of countin’ days and boots with ten foot laces I’ve had me share, I’ve had it mate and up all them foreign places.
Anonymous says it all.
My First Patrol
At the end of June after three and a half months as Intelligence Corporal I took over 3 Section, Reconnaissance (Recce) Platoon, radio call sign ‘six-one-charlie’. The previous time in country fades and even now I remember little of the time in the Intelligence section. The events that followed shaped all of my following days with most of it remaining clear and some real bad nights eclipsed by the brains defence mechanism only to be bought to the surface by remarks from friends or triggered memories. On the 3rd of July, after two weeks settling in, I left with Recce Platoon on my first patrol as Section Commander It can only be said that it was an exhausting day getting there. This was my first patrol as commander and it was a doozey. We had been inserted by Armoured Personnel Carriers [APCs] at the northwest corner of the Long Green and had patrolled all day through very heavy secondary jungle. Before two hours had passed I had been very nearly killed by one of my own men when the scout, traveling behind me, as we were second section in line, missed a fork in the jungle track we were following and after five paces moving by himself looked over to his right and saw a figure moving. It was me! He raised and sited his M16 only to be taken out by the machine gunner in a rugby style tackle. I made a mental note to get rid of him. He had had enough. Move on. Sweat dripping off me, blinding me, and where it drops on my hands effects my grip on my M16. The weight of my pack becomes all encompassing. It is my life and thoughts as I try to come to grips with moving quietly, watching my arc of fire and keeping contact with the man in front, all while carrying over 100 pounds on my back. My brain would like to deal with these assaults on my body, particularly the weight problem. I have to ignore it. Straps cut my shoulders and when we pause I bend over to redistribute the weight and the pack slips and cracks me on the back of my head. My bush hat falls off and this hurts more as I have to bend over further to retrieve it. We crossed high above a raging creek on a fallen tree trunk and half way over the number two on the gun dropped the machine gun. Exposed, but we are forced to hold. Get the fucking thing. It’s too deep; it’s too far to the water! Jump in you prick. He jumped, bravely clinging to a series of toggle ropes, recovered the weapon from under four or five feet of water and we went on, him thinking he had nearly drowned and I didn’t care and he was most probably right. The gun was our lifeblood, our backstop, and the most important weapon in the section. “We stopped patrolling at about 1600 and move into a harbour. The use of that word suggests ‘safe harbour’ but that’s a dream. The platoon Commander chooses the spot, indicates 12 o’clock with his hand and we start an oft rehearsed drill. At this stage we are the leading section and so we move along the indicated direction for 20 metres and then I place my gun on the ground. I brief the machine gunner on his arcs of responsibility and then lay the rest of my section around the imaginary clock face from 12 o’clock to 4. I then take position central and just behind that arc half way between the perimeter and the centre where platoon headquarters will be. As we move into this harbour sentries are dropped off at the rear to protect us against any VC who may have picked up our trail. Section Commanders are called in for Orders and the platoon starts night routine. One soldier in every pair cleans his weapon while the other keeps watch. Machine guns are cleaned rotating through sections so that at any one time two machine guns are operational and one is being cleaned. When weapons are cleaned and the orders given by the Platoon Commander are passed on to the section we start preparing evening meals. The old saying goes “If you don’t eat you don’t shit. If you don’t shit you die! Crude but my sole purpose of eating was to maintain my strength. Not for me the enjoyment of culinary delights, which is just as well as any such delights were sadly missing from the ration pack. I ate so I wouldn’t die! I lived on one meal a day. Each evening I would prepare instant rice by boiling water in my steel mug (using the one marked ‘C’ for coffee and not ‘S’ for shaving), and then emptying the two ounces of instant rice into the mug. This was cooked on a small stove fired by hexamine tablets. Sometimes I had C4 plastic explosives. I would tear off a small piece of the plastic, like playing with plasticine as a kid; place this under the mug of water on the hexamine stove and press my lit cigarette into it. It would ignite, not explode, as it needed the force of a detonator to do that, and then burn very quickly at a very high temperature boiling water in seconds! Diggers will be diggers and it didn’t take them long to work out the advantages of C4 versus hexamine. We would stop patrolling for the briefest of times and half the platoon would have a hot brew in hand. It took the Lieutenant some time to work this out and he did so on the day when he called for C4 to blow a blind [unexploded ordanance]. There wasn’t any and I had to explain why. I also had to explain why he had missed out on a lot of hot coffee. The meat supplement of this meal was a 4 oz tin of sausages and vegetables. I prepared this by piercing the can with just a small hole and then bashing it on my knee. This aggressive action was intended to dent the tin so when it was placed on the hexamine stove, now free after having cooked the rice, the dent would pop out with a small noise when pressure inside built up. When it did finally pop it was deemed to be cooked. This timing method, more accurate than the digital clock on your modern microwave had one fault. If, after denting the tin and placing it on the stove, movement outside our harbour distracted me or the Platoon Commander summoned me, then I may well miss the small ‘popping’ sound. If I was distracted, this sound was always followed by a louder sound of the tin exploding and associated steam escaping, followed by the much louder sound of nearby soldiers complaining about have been struck by boiling sausages and vegetables! This only happened to me once so the norm was to then mix the sausages and vegetables into the mug half full of rice and eat using the can opener as a spoon. Lucky if I could eat it all without interruption from the Platoon Commander or other annoyances it was small fare but it kept me alive. This was followed by a mug of coffee and then a cigarette ended the daytime routine.” You are never alone in the jungle. You might be alone with your thoughts, you may be separated from your nearest mate by some metres but the fauna is there all the time. Lay on the ground for any length of time, at one with nature and you will see nature in all its ‘horror movie’ glory. The insect life is plenty and most of it nasty. Centipedes, four or five inches long, moving aggressively through the jungle floor looking for victims. Not me I think as I take out my survival knife and traumatically amputate the fifty or so legs on one side of his body…crawl over and bite me now, you barstard. I had spent hours in my weapon pit at night at Fire Support Base Anne in the Courtney Rubber with a scorpion three or four inches long. The monsoon had filled the pit and I had been standing in water up to my waist for the hour of stand-to. I thought standing in water up to my arse was bad enough until the sun came up and I saw I wasn’t alone. He is pictured for posterity in the Battalion book ‘Seven in Seventy’ and for scale my hand is 100mm wide at the knuckles. Big enough to make the news he was certainly big enough to frighten hell out of me. In the pre and early dawn moves that infantry make we encountered Bird spiders that ambush small birds in their web in the mornings (Yep That big!). They weave a web that is hard to break and then when it bites, as it bit Ray Lawrence one morning, the pain is intense and his life flashed before his eyes. He was paralysed down the left hand side of his body for hours. Midnight (all horror stories start with the worse case scenarios) and pissing down) and I had been sleeping in a hammock in an attempt to keep dry. Flea, my scout, wakes me to take over the gun. I roll out of the hammock, placing one hand on the ground for balance. That move mentally ‘unbalanced’ me as millions (well…a big mob) of ‘chomper’ ants swarmed up under my shirtsleeve heading for the dry and warm parts of my torso. Reason and rationale departs and I loose the plot stripping in the pouring rain frantically brushing at these horrifying intruders. As a wakening moment, of all the wake-ups I’ve had, it was down there with the worse. I never told ‘Flea’ this but if he had so much as moved his lips to within a minute of smiling I would have killed him with my bare hands. Eventually I settle down, ‘Flea’ takes my position in the dry, warm hammock, (bite your tongue ’Flea’, it’s safer!) and I move over and sit by the gun waiting for dawn. It was then I hear the legendary ‘Fuck You” lizard. He starts his mating call (must be a mating call!) with ..ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah, in laughing cadence then …fuck you fuck you fuck you all….all….all. Is it a question or a statement? Whatever, the beast said exactly that, not something that uncouth soldiers translate, it was very clearly “Fuck You!” You too, I thought. That night we harbour [mostly synonymous with ‘ambush’] on the edge of a large clearing and waited for Charlie to trip over us, as he fled an ambush manned by their sister platoon some 2 clicks (kilometres) and 30 minutes removed from their time and space. We were on 50% stand to with half asleep and sentries at 12, 4 and on their clock reference for circular ambushes I stand down at midnight and drift off to sleep lying on the bare earth with a poncho liner covering me. I was tired enough to sleep anywhere. I think of home and feel relieved that I had got through the day without stuffing up or being killed. Just. I awake with a start that soon has my all my senses on overload. I haven’t got through the day at all. In war the night belongs to the soldier, not to the sleeping. My brain recoils as it takes in the screaming, the noise and more particularly, the sight of a wide-eyed Charlie lying on the ground in front of me. What my brain was trying to ignore, was that the Charlie body stopped at the breast. What I eventually saw was the bust of a thirty-year-old man, neatly severed at the breast, lying in repose and other than the wide round surprised eyes, quite peaceful in his obscene death. Kerry Richards, the sentry, had seen at least two VC approaching our position. Following textbook tactics for sentries, he waited until they were only one metre in front and aiming for the centre of seen mass of the first VC fired his Self Loading Rifle. (SLR). The 147-grain bullet, moving at 2751 feet per second acted as a detonator when it struck the plastic explosive that the VC was carrying in a satchel on his chest. Military Plastic explosive expands at 27000 feet per second causing the lead man to ‘spread out’ while his comrades behind him went to ground using whatever limbs they had left to do so. “Throw a grenade out to your front, Kev!” came the order. I try to put on my webbing and after some seconds of difficulty give up. I roll forward with a grenade and then have trouble undoing the tape that secured the lever down. If I was going to die in Vietnam it sure as hell wasn’t going to be because the pin was pulled out of the grenades I was carrying by the ever-intrusive fingers of jungle vegetation so I had insulating tape wrapped around the grenade levers, as did every one in Recce Platoon. I can’t find the end of the tape, for some reason I’m not functioning at 100% efficiency. I roll back to the mess that is my webbing and retrieve my survival knife. I again try to put on my webbing but still can’t, now there seem to be more straps than normal. Again I give up, retrieve my survival knife and roll away. I cut the tape and toss the grenades to where I thought Charlie would be whilst lying on my back. No response, no noise of wounded enemy, just the ringing in our ears of the explosion. The artillery by now is putting up large bright flares and we can see the carnage more clearly, mores the pity. I can see the bust clearly now and idly wonder if he lived long enough to see the look on my face as I woke up. Unfortunately I can also see why I had trouble getting into my webbing. The first VC had ‘spread out’ all over my webbing and myself. His entrails were wrapped in my webbing straps giving rise to “too many straps!” His soft tissue had eviscerated all over me. My face, hair and body were covered in a red mist with accompanied small pieces of flesh. It wasn’t pleasant! I very nearly gagged but continuing demands shadow my disgust and physical discomfort. My next orders were to take my Section and clear the ambush area to ensure all the enemy were either dead or accounted for in some other way. This act of clearing the killing ground at night redefined fear as we always imagined wounded, pissed off VC laying in ambush hidden in the grass while we, by necessity of the task at hand, stood upright, silhouetted by the flares, waiting to be gunned down. That night was not the time. What we did was search the area looking for bodies or part there of. The total human parts we found were the bust and entrails, two left legs and one un-circumcised penis, neatly severed (the black humourists in the platoon suggested we should search for the other three quarters of it!) The Battalion History records two kills being awarded to Recce Platoon in a brief incident in the Long Green, one to the grenade and one to the sentry. Casualties are described as light but the historians ‘light’ is the soldier’s trauma and the perception of the passage of time varies with the amount of adrenalin in your body. The next morning, after about an hours sleep, we awake and start morning procedures. We talk among ourselves and question life or death. There is no way I can reconcile religion and a human’s soul with what I had witnessed. The bodies I had buried were no different from the bodies of kangaroos I had dissected as a youth. I believed that religion was a drug to be enjoyed by people who were never forced to see the savagery of life and death that us soldiers were witness too. The souls of both our friends and enemies who died in the jungles resided clearly in the consciousness of those left behind to struggle though another day. Those who knew and loved them, or simply those who knew them. The Commanding Officer (CO) visits the platoon and on the evidence of two left legs, we are awarded the two kills. I bury the two men in a hole approximately one metre cubed As this was happening, on a parade back at Nui Dat, a Lieutenant at the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit was calling for volunteers. The first time that reinforcements had been used to bolster the platoon rather than seasoned battalion troops from the rifle companies. Four were selected, all regulars, and their life was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Not for them the security of the hundred rifles and ten machine guns of a rifle company. Instead, due to the lack of knowledge of exactly what the word ‘Recce’ meant they had condemned themselves to a much lonelier roll. They arrive by UH1D choppers and the Pl Commander allocates them to various sections, two are allocated to Three Section. These two are introduced to me as I stand there looking somewhat worn (“demented” one of them later recalls) and completely covered in dried blood and bits of flesh. They can’t believe their eyes and of course I’m not aware of the visual effect I create. When one is appointed as my forward scout, replacing the man who nearly killed me the day before, his introduction to the war is about as unpleasant as you might get. This appointment of a reinforcement as my scout precipitated a yelling match between my section 2IC and the platoon commander that predictably ended with no change. My 2ICs point was relevant but I chose not to join the fight, as there was no other answer. We were going through soldiers, and particularly scouts, at a rate too fast for us to enjoy the luxury of selecting scouts from our own pool of experienced rifleman. Due to enemy action and in some cases debilitating tropical diseases, riflemen weren’t staying long enough to get “experience”. One of the first lessons of the Vietnam War was how to live without a frontline. In previous conflicts there always existed a ‘frontline” that marked your area from his. In your own area you could pull back to a rest area behind the battle lines. Here in the jungles the frontline was a three-foot circle surrounding you and each of your mates. The enemy were behind you, in front of you, or to either flank. In short you were well and truly in his territory. We operated for our entire tour behind enemy lines and it wasn’t good. The patrol continues at a lower level of intensity. Now, instead of only having the responsibility of leading a patrol I also had to teach my scout with ‘on the job training’. The reality of war bites as it has one thousand times before. The units reinforcement rate doesn’t keep up with the casualty rate and we have inexperienced troops scouting in circumstances where lessons missed are potentially fatal. The good news? Rob Edgell, the scout in training, was very switched on, intelligent and knew that we only had days to get it right. By day four we are comfortable, communicating without talking and moving onto other problems. I’m starting to hit my straps as old lessons come back to mind and I try and pass them on. The words and example of men who had been my tutor prior now meant something. All those years training in Australia were now paying dividends. Patrolling is a skill and loss of that skill can mean death. We always had to keep this in mind. Don’t go near clearly defined tracks, they could be mined. If someone suggests they could be mined then assume they are! Watch your arc; look through the foliage not at it. When the jungle is wet look at the leaves. Is the raindrop pattern standard and undisturbed or has someone brushed by recently. Look for broken twigs and small saplings that have been cut and mud placed over the fresh scar to hide it. Stop regularly, freeze and listen for non-jungle sounds; indefinable but when you hear them you know they don’t belong. It’s not natural; if it’s not you then it’s him. A bit like hunting – but in this case you are being hunted.Learn to recognize likely ambush positions and signal to the gunner to concentrate on them as you patrol past. Mentally assess the scrub and continually have a position to dive to for cover. An abbreviated process of “If I was ambushed now, I would dive for cover there, put my gun over there and the riflemen here. Watch where you put your feet and avoid dry twigs and leaves. Look for perfection or patterns in nature that are always a contradiction. The only noise should be your heart beating and your lungs gasping for air as you move through the steamy tropical jungle. You need to be able to hear the enemy move before he hears you. It’s your only chance of ambushing him and not being ambushed. Don’t talk. Live for months at a time with the loudest communication being a soft whisper or the click of a finger. Learn to communicate with body language. Raise your eyes, move your hand, lift fingers and point. Hold your rifle in your master hand ready while you navigate with a compass and map in your left hand. Use your left hand for hand signals; don’t move your rifle to your left hand and signal. In that second you are unprotected and the difference between life and death is measured in parts of a second. Do all this while the prickly heat on your back, under the 100 pound pack, demands ointment, your body is 20% dehydrated, the tropical ulcers make every touch of rough cotton a stab of agony and you haven’t eaten, drunk or slept properly for days. One of the greatest skills required for a professional soldier is navigation. It is an oft-used military quote that the most dangerous man on the battlefield is a Second Lieutenant with a map and a compass. I guess it’s a bit unfair picking on junior lieutenants as in their early training they haven’t had sufficient time to master either the that art of handling such snide comments from the diggers or the finer points of navigation. The skills are many and we devoted a large amount of our training to ensure that we knew where we were at any given time in the battlefield. The basic tools for navigating were obviously a map and a compass, protractors for transcribing the magnetic bearing to the map with some degree of accuracy, lead and china graph pencils for notation and sheep counters for pacing. Our maps were generally covered with clear contact or encased in a clear plastic pocket. In the wet season care of the map itself became a problem with the incessant rain. To transcribe a compass bearing to a map one must first come to grips with a basic premise. The world’s magnetic field is anything but static. It advanced east or west each year at a programmable rate. In the margin of each map there was a magnetic variation indicator, which would be given as so many degrees and minutes east or west per year. Look up the year the map was produced; multiply the magnetic variation by the number of years and then, when applying a magnetic bearing taken by compass to the map – offset east or west by the answer to the first calculation. Put simply, if you took a bearing on a hill, plotted that course from your known location and didn’t add or subtract the magnetic variation, you would miss the hill by exactly the calculation you should have applied. If the hill was ten kilometers away then working on the formula that each mil subtends one metre every thousand metres and a degree is equal to 16.7 mils then a magnetic variation of 4 degrees or 66.8 mils would leave an answer of ‘lost’. Our battle maps were either 1:10 000 and 1:63 630 (inch to the mile) topographic maps of a type similar to today’s road maps or Picto maps that were literally a pictorial representation of a photo taken at high altitude. The later were very good except when there was cloud cover on the day of the photo mission. When this was the case there would appear a white, cloud shaped area with the notation ‘no detail due to cloud cover’. An old army theory has it that all major battles are fought on the joining line between two maps where accuracy depends on how well some soldier glued the maps together. In Vietnam we had to deal with this as well as small white cloud shaped mystery zones. I have the map and compass in my left hand, an M16 rifle in my right. I turn to the number two on the gun and indicate, “ You check pace.” He is to count our paces as we progress and when I ask, by looking directly at him and raising my eyebrows, gives me the answer in metres by raising a finger for each 100 metres covered. Every infantryman knows how many paces he takes to cover 100 metres. He is taught this at basic training where one hundred metre courses are measured out on the flat level parade ground; another through thick bush and still others up and down inclines. He traverses them all, writes down and later remembers how many paces it took him to covert the hundred metres on all the different courses. We are issued sheep counters to help do this and we tape them to the left hand side of our pistol grips (for a right handed person) just where the thumb sits. As we start patrolling again I can hear him sotto voice – “there’s one, there’s another!” The men close by snigger and I have to look angry and whisper “stop fucking around!” The monsoon dominates all aspects of life in Vietnam from May to September each year. 1970 was no exception and as we continue the patrol the rains strikes. It just doesn’t rain, it strikes. We are ambushing alongside a creek and conditions become unhealthy as the raging run-off empties our bush latrines and the result flows through our position. Our bodies become waterlogged, our skin white and wrinkly and lumps of skin peel off and morale plummets. The only dry clothing in the whole position was a pair of pyjamas brought into the combat zone by a reinforcement. “What are they teaching at recruit schools now?” I ask as the reinforcement, (forever unnamed to protect the guilty), still mortified by my caustic comments preceding the question, tries to hide the offending articles of clothing before his embarrassment is witnessed by the entire platoon. That night I endure the most uncomfortable night of my life as I’m ordered to man a standing patrol in the middle of a lake that had once been a paddy field. Right in the centre of the 100 by 100 metre lake there was a very small pimple of land above the flood line, not high enough for myself and my patrol to be completely out of the water, just enough to have our upper torsos clear. The buzzing sound of the Divisions of mozzies that attacked, and the odd snake wanting to come ashore on the only dry land available sets new standards for terror and discomfort. I spend the whole night awake mentally questioning the need for a standing patrol in the middle of the maelstrom. After all, us Aussies do tend to take security to an extreme. I reasoned all the smart VC were warm in bed, most probably with a woman, both of them laughing at us between bouts of pleasure. The thought didn’t help my demeanour but I developed the thought to fantasize about myself being in a similar position back home. I tried to conjured up thoughts of a pleasant night in tropical Brisbane with a downpour outside of a warm and cosy bedroom with rain drumming on the roof. I quickly added a medium rare steak at the Breakfast Creek hotel, washed down with 4X lager and topped off with censored activities. It didn’t work, even the censored mental activities failed to elicit a physical response, unusual for a 23 year old healthy and sexually deprived male but I had to admit the circumstances were too severe to be overcome with mental stimulation….back to sulking. The sun restores confidence and morale and we move back to the platoon position. We stay in place for another day ambushing too no avail. We then have orders to move on and return to the old position of our last contact with the enemy. We had buried the enemy from this contact but a smell pervades all as we approach the area again. My scout, now and forever nicknamed ‘Flea’ due to his diminutive size, moves forward to investigate and reports pigs have dug up the graves, rain had spread the body parts around and I don’t really want to see the results. I didn’t either but we are obliged to rebury them. The blood and entrails on my jungle greens has been mostly washed away by sweat and the monsoon but even time can’t remove all the dark brown stains from my memory. Recce Platoon, the survivors, dressed for our farewell parade and commemorative service. I am kneeling, down the front, second from the left with my arm resting on Ken [Bozo] Eaton’s shoulder. I had just turned 24 and had endured 13 months at war with a seven day leave pass in the middle when I got married and had a honeymoon of sorts. The honeymoon was great but having to return to patrolling for another seven months put a damper on it. Still, I survived with all my limbs intact and have lived for another 30 plus years so I can’t complain.