Almost Home

On Monday, 1st February 1971, Recce Platoon had been ordered to ambush two kilometres southeast of Phuoc Buu on Route 328. En-route we stopped for a break on the very edge of the now deserted village. Phuoc Buu had been the Southern Headquarters of the Viet Minh when they fought the French in the 1950s but when we were there it consisted of ruins of buildings and men’s lives represented by the graveyard on the edge of the village. A poet might see ghosts in Kepi hats watching as we patrol though. I saw nothing. We put out sentries and manned the machine guns while Lieutenant Winter got on the radio to Headquarters to continue the patrol We had virtually hidden ourselves and were waiting for orders to move on, with sentries out and machine guns manned. The Platoon Commander remembers;
I put the platoon down in some scrub that overlooked an open old paddy area to our west and at the same time gave us good observation of the unused, single lane road running north-south through the area (Route 328). While my sig got in touch with HQ, I positioned a gun group (a Lance Corporal, the machine gunner and his number two) to cover the main track and briefed them on the most likely enemy approach from the north. At the same time I sent a young lad, who had only been with us for a few days, to cover any approach from a small track which came in from the south. I then checked out the remainder of my platoon and rejoined my sig to see if he established radio contact.
Seconds after this, Lance Corporal Shorty Godbold picked up the two-section machine gun to site it a little better. As he did this he stepped on a mine that lurked under the gun. Maurie Calanan and I were sitting under a tree, ready and waiting for the order to move from Lieutenant Peter Winters. A feeling of dread strikes as we hear a huge explosion followed by Shorty yelling. “I did it Boss, I stood on a mine” as if apologizing. The Platoon Commander didn’t hear Shorty and presumes a contact of some kind.
I was standing there with him (the Sig) checking our encoded reports when an enormous explosion occurred about tem metres from us. My sig’s immediate reaction was to call our HQ – “Contact – Wait Out”
Maurie and I move along the perimeter track to the point of access to the three-section machine gun and Maurie starts prodding with his bayonet to check for more mines. It is a sad and terrifying fact that if one mine is encountered then the tactic is to expect more mines and act accordingly. To run into the area and help and comfort the dying and wounded (which is all everyone wants to do) will only add to the list of dying and wounded, thus discipline in a minefield is the hardest of all human endeavors. Ignore the screams, ignore the inhuman grunting noise of fast-dying mates and maintain the aim of clearing a path to the wounded. Block your ears; don’t smell the death, don’t think of Shorty’s wife or Ray Patton’s dad, whom you met at a BBQ before Vietnam, just keep prodding. Maurie prods and I look to the first wounded soldier encountered, Dick Williams , the Platoon Sergeant. He had been leaning against a tree resting, when the mine detonated. He had taken shrapnel through his jaw and left thigh and was concerned about his manhood. A quick inspection reveals all secure and little in the way of first aid that could help. Small pieces of shrapnel leave small entry/exit wounds and so long as an artery isn’t severed or a vital organ penetrated, there is little risk of death. By now Lieutenant Winters had called for dust-off and help was on its way but until it does arrive we are all alone and very frightened. Morale plummets, as we know there is no good news in the mine area and while we all want to help and comfort the wounded and each other; Maurie and I are the only two who can move until we clear the area. Phil Ryan, a rifleman in two-section, is on the perimeter of the explosion and although wounded he is very aware that my priorities put him very last on the list. He isn’t screaming, I don’t even know he is wounded until later. He sits quietly, not complaining, knowing I will get to him. We have now cleared through to where Shorty lies and the carnage now becomes clearer. Shorty is on his back, in shock, with one leg blown off and laying on the ground along side him. Lieutenant Winters yells for an update and I answer, “Shorty’s lost a leg and Alan (Talbot) and General (Ray Patton) are dead”. He later criticizes me for saying out loud that Alan and Ray were dead and I accept the criticism but the men will know very soon, or they already know. I’m in shock, operating as I should, but a man can take only so much; my statement was a statement of grief for the dead and wounded, for myself and for the platoon that had just lost so much on what was our last patrol in Vietnam. The mine was most probably of Australian origin There were 64 mine incidents on this tour. The contrast with the first tour where there were no mine casualties suffered is stark. Seven soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds caused by mines, 30 were wounded. Forty-eight of the mine incidents involved M16 mines and it is highly probable that all these mines came from the barrier minefield laid by the Task Force. The minefield had become subject to infiltration and the mines dug up and used all over the province”. . Maurie and I continue to clear the area and Lieutenant Winter deals with the RAAF response to our plea for help.
“I received a call from an Australian casevac helicopter that was inbound and he indicated that he would be in our location within minutes but would be unable to land unless I could assure him that there was no enemy in the area and all mines had been cleared”.
Lieutenant Winter gives the RAAF some crude advice and is relieved when a Yank chopper comes on net.
“His drawl was music to my ears”, he recalls.
The dust-off choppers, now on-site, add to the noise and comfort levels as we recognize help is here. A stretcher comes forward and with help from others, now free to move along the cleared track, we load Shorty, and then, almost as an afterthought, place his leg, still protected by the GP Boot on the stretcher with him. The Yank chopper touches down and we load Shorty, ‘General’ Patton and Alan Talbot into the care of the on-board medics. The RAAF chopper, embarrassed into risking his life and chopper lands and we place Dick Williams and Phil Ryan aboard in the aero-medic’s care and in doing so, refuse to acknowledge the pilot. That mine incident, on 1 Feb 71, was the last involving 7RAR in Vietnam. We conduct battle field clearance ensuring we have left nothing of value, including weapons of the wounded, and move back about two kilometres to rest and hide. Lieutenant Winters conducts a weapon check and notes one M16 rifle belonging to Ray Patton is missing! What followed left a bad taste in my mouth that stays today. The company commander ordered Lieutenant Winters to send in a patrol to secure the weapon. The fact that we had left the mine area after having searched for weapons and equipment and had brought out all we had found should have indicated that the missing weapon was well and truly lost, either blown far away or destroyed by the explosion. Lieutenant Winter appealed but the order stands. The surreal circumstances now exist where I am obliged to re-enter the mine-field and search for and secure a $90.00 rifle that if found would be damaged beyond repair and useless to the enemy. Even if it wasn’t too damaged to use it wasn’t worth my life or legs. I switch on to “positive” and take a three-man patrol back to the area. I order the other two men to wait about fifty metres from the exact site with orders to watch out for curious Viet Cong attracted to the sound of the dust-off choppers and most importantly, to be available to handle my evacuation should I stand on a mine. I moved forward alone and feeling it. I followed the path that Maurie and I had cleared only hours before to the point where we loaded Shorty on a stretcher and then placed his leg there as well; onto to the point where Ray Patton had lain, mortally wounded and dying as I kneeled along side looking for hope or life and finding none; to where Alan Talbot’s already dead body lay in obscene repose and nowhere could I see a bloody rifle! I stood and looked in the near distance for signs of damaged scrub where a rifle might have been violently blown by the mine. I saw nothing. I withdrew and taking the soldiers with me, went back to our harbour reporting failure with some emotive comments about the value of lives now being set at $90 or less. Point made, not noticed or not acknowledged. Later in Nui Dat the Quartermaster takes a captured M16 rifle to the range, places it in front of a Claymore mine and presses the clacker. The resultant mess of metal and plastic, with number obliterated, is handed in as Ray Patton’s weapon and the Army is happy. I’m not! Two months later, on ANZAC Day in the City of Sydney RSL, I met Ray Patten’s dad and he asked me about his son’s last moments. I told him that I knew that there never can be any solace but that at the very least Ray was loved by us all and died instantly. He sobbed convulsively and I held him as we both shared the reality of the dreadful, mind numbing loss. Words failed me but my memory didn’t and still doesn’t. Unfortunately.

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