|Tour of Duty '71|
This could be a few days in the life of any Australian combat soldier during the Vietnam war. These experiences or similar ones all happened to me and if you try to put my thoughts and words into images, you will see what I saw and think what I thought back in Vietnam in 1971.
Now let your mind soar, give your imagination free reign and go back in time to a far distant country, to a time of turmoil, a time of confusion and to a very small, but significant part of my life.
In the distance the grey undulating mountains rise to pierce the clear, blue sky. Closer, the broad expanse of rich flat paddy fields stretches for miles, dotted here and there by the local peasant farmers, some as young as 10 years of age, following methodically behind the huge lumbering water buffaloes as they till the rice paddies in readiness for the next crop.
The hot, searing sun beats mercilessly down. The dry wind quickly dries the sweat that constantly soaks my clothes, drips from my face and runs down my exposed arms. The dust sticks to everything, including me, so that my once jungle green clothes are now a dirty, rusty brown. My exposed skin is caked with a sweaty mud, making me look like a naughty boy who's been playing in the dirt.
All I can hear is this tremendous steady, clanking of steel as I am gently jostled into that place of contented relaxation reserved for the truly weary. I turn my head and look back over the long dusty road and spaced out as far as I can see, there are APC's with young soldiers just like me packed on top, all staring into their own distant solitude somewhere in their mind. I know that if I could see in front, through the clouds of dust that billow into the air, then I would see the same thing. Occasionally someone will point to something that looks unusual or interesting, but mostly, we are all too engrossed in our own private thoughts to care. I start thinking that by now the "pogos" back at the "Dat" will have stoked up a huge fire under the 44 gallon drum of water that we use for our shower, and the thought of feeling warm soapy water washing away weeks of dirt, bugs and sores is very comforting. I wonder if we'll get back in time to visit the mess tent and maybe get some meat that can be chewed, a glass of orange juice or perhaps even some fruit and icecream. A plate of fresh food and juice will be a welcome change from eating out of a tin or a plastic bag and drinking stale, plastic tasting water. I'll even get to sleep on a real mattress with a real pillow for a couple of nights.
I'm a 20 year old infantryman who is part of A Company/3rd Battalion/Royal Australian Regiment. My company is returning to 1ATF by APC's after a 3 week combat operation in the jungles of South Vietnam. We are sitting on top of a troop of Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's), we don't sit inside them because we would all pass out very quickly from the heat and they only offer protection from small arms fire anyway. An RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) would easily pass through the armour plate and make jigsaw puzzles out of anyone inside. We are "veterans" of jungle warfare, having been "in country" for several months and completed enough combat ops to be at home in this place. This is our home now, the thick jungle vegetation, the sparse open paddy fields, the soupy green rivers and the sweltering humid heat are a far cry from Australia's concrete hustle and bustle, the crystal clear sandy beaches, or driving along an open road with not a care in the world. The reality of this place is that over 90% of our time "in country" has been in the jungle, we live out of the packs we carry, our beds are the jungle floor, our roof is the jungle canopy, our kitchen is the metal drinking cup we each carry, our entertainment comprises the thoughts in our minds, our lives are our implicit trust in each other, and now we are returning to Nui Dat for a couple of days rest.
Nui Dat or "The Dat", is where all of the Australian fighting forces are in South Vietnam. This is the place that is our "home" while we are here, although the only time we see the place is on the brief stays inbetween going on ops, but to us this is like living in luxury compared to the "J". The clerks, cooks, supply etc who stay in the Dat permanently, have made themselves a fairly comfortable place to stay and generally have good beds, sheets, tables and chairs, movies, good food, plenty of sleep etc. But even though we don't have most of these things, it still seems luxurious whenever we're back, after the harshness and filth of living in the jungle.
The Dat is males only, there are No females here at all, the only time there are any females here is when an entertainment group comes here, but then they only get to go in certain areas, and then under strict supervision. Spaced all around the Dat are circular "buckets" sticking out of the ground about 2 feet across and 2 feet high covered with chicken wire, these are toilets for anyone needing to take a leak. As this is a male only environment there is no need for privacy. Each company area is made up of large, very old style military tents - these are what we call "home". Each company also has a large toilet block, this is an elevated wooden platform surrounded by sandbags a little higher than the wooden base. On top of the wooden base is a long wooden seat with holes cut out of it every couple of metres, this is our shithouse, it covers a huge hole dug in the ground and periodically covered with lime to help with decomposition and to keep it as hygenic as possible. It's not the sort of place that you'd want to drop a lighted match!
A sense of anticipation and anxiety starts to spread as we realise we are close to home. We peer anxiously through the dust ahead and it's not long before our convoy enters the "Dat".
The lumbering APC's pull up outside our company lines with the roar of a thousand lions, the constant din of the motors and clanking of armoured steel ceases and the world is suddenly filled with an incredible silence. We grab our dust covered packs and weapons and climb down onto the red, dusty ground of Nui Dat, we're home again! To the uninitiated it would appear to be a time of pandemonium as orders are given and a mass of dirty, dishevilled soldiers seem to mill about like chickens in a coop. But this is not pandemonium, this is a company of young, well-trained, professional soldiers doing what they have all done many times before.
We line up, weapons are unloaded and cleared with the familiarity that comes from what is now an almost unconscious act. We all carry hundreds of rounds of ammunition plus explosives and loaded weapons of all descriptions, and yet the ease with which we all move and handle this potential death is both frightening and a reflection of our trust in each other. There are no "accidents", no nervousness, no fumbling .. we handle these weapons of destruction as effortlessly as if we were stacking tins onto a supermarket shelf in Australia.
After our weapons are cleared we all amble over to our lines while the resident company pogos (clerks, cooks, drivers etc) stare at us with what could only be a mixture of amusement and amazement. We are tired, dirty and smelly. Clothes are rotted, ripped and torn, shirts are unbuttoned and flap openly in the warm tropical breeze, our hair is matted with thick brown dirt, faces are stained with dirt coloured sweat, discoloured ammunition belts criss-cross our chests, smoke grenades, bayonets and knives hang precariously from all parts of our webbing. But none of this matters to us, as despite the tiredness, we feel a certain anticipation for what the next two days rest will bring.
Now we're back in our lines we have all completely "switched off", the change in mental attitude from being in the jungle to being able to switch off and relax is a feeling to us that is as solid as the ground we walk on. It's the elation you feel when a worrisome burden is eased.
I make my way past the makeshift walls that form our shower, feeling the heat from the fire and the now hot water, and enter our tent. The walls are almost shoulder high corrugated iron sheets formed into box shapes, supported by steel star pickets driven into the ground and filled with sandbags two deep. The tent is an old dirty, but strong, thick drab brown Army tent with supporting ropes forming a complicated lattice of support. The dirty raised wooden slats that make up the floor creak and bend under my weight as I drop my pack and webbing next to my bed. The bed is a typical old steel army type, on top is a stained, dirty looking mattress with an equally stained pillow. Underneath the bed is my locked, air sealed metal trunk containing my personal possessions, dress uniforms and anything else that needs to be kept clean and free of mildew. Next to the bed is a battered steel army locker containing the two spare sets of greens (clothes) and the handful of other items that I need for day to day living.
As someone turns on the radio and we hear music being broadcast by AFVN Radio, I lean my rifle against the wall, take off my sweaty, dirt stained shirt and throw it on the floor and start to unpack. First the ammunition. I keep one magazine (the cleanest) for my rifle, the rest of the magazines, grenades, ammo belts, flares or anything else that might go bang, I gather up and take over to the armoury and hand it in.
Back at the tent I empty out my water bottles, wash them down, then put them away in my locker ready for the next op. What's left of my rations I throw onto my mattress. Sorting through it I find some good stuff that I didn't eat, a tin of pound cake, some jam, condensed milk, sugar. I stash this away, just in case I get the hungries sometime, the rest gets thrown in the trash. Toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, razor, mirror, pen, bootpolish, brush, camera, groundsheet, sleeping liner, writing pad and letters are put in my locker.
I take the empty pack and webbing outside and knock all of the loose dust off it before going back inside and stuffing it down the bottom of my locker. After getting out my cleaning kit I start to strip my rifle on the bed, meticulously taking every bit apart I dust and clean it until it's almost as clean as when it was made. The magazine comes next, eject the 20 rounds, clean inside the magazine, clean each round, reload the magazine and then I'm done.
I look over towards our "shower" and notice that no-one is using it. Quickly I take off my boots, throw my pants on the floor next to my shirt, slip my boots back on, grab my towel and soap and head for the warm water. I fill the bucket with warm water from the tap on the end of the 44 gallon drum, then pour it into the hessian bag that makes up our shower. I raise the bag, tie off the rope and feel the luxury of warm water washing away 3 weeks of jungle. I run my fingers through my hair and feel over the rest of my body for any tiny tender pimples. I feel a couple of tender spots but as I don't feel any hard bits on the outside I realise that the ticks either drank their fill and dropped off, or I must have scratched their body off at some time ... either way I don't have to worry about them. I only find one tick still sucking away so I make a mental note to get hold of a pair of tweezers later and pull the little f**ker out. In the meantime this seems like an excellent time to wash what's left of a fairly good pair of socks.
Back at our tent I throw my dirty greens into our laundry bag, these bags will be sent to one of the local towns where the Vietnamese will wash our clothes. I find a pair of tweezers and pull out the tick, taking a macabre delight in watching it squirm as I squeeze it into a tiny red blob. I put on some clean greens and socks from my locker, then clean and bootpolish my boots and look out world!! I'm ready.
The other three guys I share the tent with have been doing the same as me, one has finished and is lying on his bed asking how long until the "boozer" opens. We are allowed two cans of beer per man, per day and as we have been in the "J" for three weeks we each have about 42 cans of beer each just waiting to be guzzled down. Just as we were trying to figure out how many we could drink in the hour that the boozer stays open for, we are told that there's nothing lined up for us for the rest of the day, so the time is ours. We don't have any R&C so we can't go into Vungers (Vung Tau) and get any "boom boom" or get pissed all day and night, we're restricted to hanging around in the Dat. But this isn't so bad .. clean clothes, clean skin, good food, free time, no night guard duty, no pack to carry, no jungle and no worries!! Thank God for small luxuries!
As it's close to lunch time we decide to mosy on down to the mess tent and grab some real food. The line isn't too long, and soon we're sitting down on real chairs at a real table eating real sausages, mashed potato, peas and gravy followed up with real jelly and icecream. We finish up and wait until everyone is finished, then go back to see if there's enough left for seconds, it just doesn't get any better than this. The only downside is listening to the whining coming from the pogos who get to eat this every day and then whinge about having to eat crap food.
We go back to our tent feeling full, fat and lazy, but not wanting to waste precious time doing nothing I decide to go for a walk down to the PX and see if there's anything I might want to buy. Everything here is duty free and we don't pay any tax on our wages or on anything we buy. I walk into the store, look around and see stuff-all! The only gear that is for sale is the stuff that no-one wanted. The biggest problem we have is being in the "J" so much. Whenever the PX gets a new shipment of watches, radios etc, the pogos who stay here all the time buy all the good stuff straight away, so that by the time we get back all that we can choose from is the left over crap that they don't want. Feeling really pissed off, I go back to our tent and just laze around with the others for the rest of the afternoon.
After having another good feed at tea-time we wait around for the boozer to open. We only pay about 10-15 cents per can for the beer and there's nothing else to do so this then becomes the focal point of the day. Right on opening time we're lined up with everyone else because, after all, time is of the essence. We only have an hour to drink as many cans of beer as possible, and after three weeks in the "J" the possibility of a number 10 hangover in the morning just "don't seem important nomore", so I guzzle as many as I can in an attempt to make the Guinness Book of Records.
The boozer closed 10 minutes ago and as we all finish off our last cans we make our way back to our tents. A couple of the guys decide to go to the back of the boozer and buy up a couple of dozen cans to take back to the tent, we're not supposed to drink any booze away from the boozer and we're most certainly not supposed to take a few dozen back to the tent, but as long as there's no trouble no-one cares anyway. I think I drank one too many and a trifle too fast, I'm having trouble walking in a straight line and somehow end up in a different tent. It's dark and confusing, I manage to bump my way outside, I look around to orient myself and realise that I've somehow walked into someone else's tent, but seeing as there's no-one here I figure they must be in someone elses tent too. After several minutes I manage to stagger over to my own tent, kick my boots off, fall onto the mattress and beat a hasty retreat into a world of dreamless oblivion.
We all wake early the next morning with some not feeling quite as well as others. The fire bucket hanging outside the tent is used for our shaving water. A quick brush of the teeth, a comb run through my hair, boots pulled on and laced and I'm ready for whatever the day holds.
We're told that we'll be going on an op tomorrow morning and to go and get five days rations. There's also a group of Australian entertainers putting on a show this afternoon, so as soon as we've got our rations packed we have the rest of the day free to see the concert. This is an unexpected bonus, rarely do we get an opportunity to see a concert, especially one with real live Australian girls. One of the strange things about this place is that all of the entertainers who come over to entertain the troops, mostly entertain the drivers, cooks, clerks and other pogos who are always in the Dat. The combat soldiers like us very rarely get to see any entertainers because most of the time we're trotting around in the "J" looking for "charlie" and the entertainers go back to Australia feeling very very patriotic thinking that they've entertained the troops. We go over and get our ration packs, two days Australian and three days American.
Back at my tent I open all of the packs and empty the contents onto my bed, then with the ease of someone who has done this many times before, I pick out all of the crap stuff that isn't needed (eg "the dog biscuits" and lima beans) and throw it in the trash. What I have left is enough food to last me 5 days in the jungles of Vietnam. The American packs provide me with luxury items like tins of potato, meat, stew, turkey and fruit. The Australian packs provide me with the more necessary items like compressed breakfast cereal, high energy chocolate and condensed milk. I pack the rations quickly and precisely, leaving enough room for some additional ammunition that I may need to take.
About an hour before the concert's due to start we grab our weapons and wander down to the area where there's a small makeshift stage. The stage is a small elevated wooden one about 10 metres across, open on the sides with a sloping roof. This is where any entertainers who visit Nui Dat perform. We wander in and find a spot on the ground amongst the others already here. There are no chairs unless you bring your own and sit at the back, the usual thing is to simply squat on the ground. Soon an assortment of trucks, jeeps and even APC's roll up and park around the outside, we're packed in fairly tight and it's starting to get a trifle uncomfortable in the hot sun. The time keeps ticking by and soon it's almost an hour and a half past the time the show was supposed to start. A senior NCO eventually gets up on stage and tells us that no-one is to approach the stage unless asked by one of the entertainers. All we're interested in is him pissing-off and the girls getting on!
After waiting for more than two hours in the hot sun, the performers start their show. It seems strangely unreal to see men and women dressed in normal clothes of bright, vivid colours amongst this sea of drab greens and browns. The men make up the band and one does a lighthearted comedy routine to "loosen" us up. The girls are who we came to see and they don't disappoint us, the pleasure and enjoyment shows in our faces as all of the performers give a part of themselves that they cannot give when performing to a paid audience in Australia. After a couple of hours the show is over and now the pleasure and enjoyment shows in their faces as they all receive applause from probably the best audience any of them will ever have. They are quickly whisked away, back to be "entertained" by the officers and sergeants again, while we try to recapture the fleeting images of a distant Australia.
Tonight we have a company barbeque, this is a time when the hundred or so members of my company have the rare opportunity of getting together in one place at the same time and catching up with old friends. It's very informal and rank and position tends to take second place to having a good time. We don't drink too much tonight because we go out on an op tomorrow and having a hangover while carrying a shitload of gear through a tropical jungle isn't a particularly pleasant experience. In the evening I spend my time in our tent playing cards and listening to the radio until it's my turn for my stint at the gun. Our Company tents are near to the perimeter wire and each section takes its turn at the gun. I grab my "gat", wander over to the bunker and climb up on top to relieve whoever's there. The bunkers are like the old "pill boxes" of WWII, holes dug into the ground surrounded with sandbags and a heavily fortified roof. We don't get inside them but instead sit behind the gun on top of the roof on a foldup chair. There are two of us at a time and the guy I'm with is a more than a little pissed and ends up falling asleep after about a half an hour, but I don't mind so much.
It's so peaceful and quiet as I lean back in what is a very comfy chair. Resting my feet on the M60, I look up at the crystal clear, inky blackness of the night sky. The light from the myriad stars that bejewel the black curtain above me cast an eerie glow over the clear open ground that stretches as far as the eye can see, tiny pinpoints of reflected starlight wink back at me from the many rows of barbed wire that criss-cross the killing field to my front. Random thoughts of Australia flash across my mind and I wonder about the futility of war and whether the human species will ever grow up, and after much contemplation I come to the deeply insightful conclusion that we are all just a big bunch of kids playing with toys that we shouldn't be allowed to have.
Just as I'm about to contemplate the meaning of life, I realise that my two hours are up and it's time to get the next two guys, which is just as well because I've run out of bug repellant and the mossies and bitey bugs are starting to suck me dry. I wake up my drunken mate and tell him to stay awake long enough so that I can get our relief. As I head off I look behind and notice that he's back in his chair, all I can do is hope that no-one finds him like this before I get back, fortunately I do manage to get back in time. Then it's a matter of getting him to stumble alongside me until we reach his bed.
We're up early the next day. It's the dry season so I fill my eight water bottles and also take a "squishy" bag which holds the equivalent of another couple of water bottles, all up I've got over a gallon of water. I pack my toiletry stuff, groundsheet and sleeping liner.
We line up to get our ammunition, I'm given eight magazines for my SLR, two grenades, one smoke grenade, one claymore mine and two 100 round belts for the M60. Back at the tent I pack the magazines into the two pouches at the front of my web belt, I make sure that the ring pins on the grenades are bent securely so they can't easily be pulled out and then wrap a length of tape around the grenade so that the release lever is secured. I don't know why, but I'm shit-scared that the pins will come out and I'll get blown up, anyway it's just about impossible to throw a grenade in a thick jungle. I hook the release lever of the smoke grenade through the ring on the shoulder harness of my webbing and then tie the claymore onto the outside of my pack. Four additional water bottles are clipped to the side of my pack and the squishy bag is hung over the back.
I stuff a couple of "yippies" (books or magazines) into my pockets, pull on my web belt and harness, get one of the others to help me lift on my pack, then criss-cross the two 100 round M60 belts over my shoulders, grab my "gat" and I'm off to war!
I make my way through the thick dusty ground to the airstrip, once there I join the others who I'll be going on the chopper with. The sky is a clear azure blue, the air is warm and moist with the hint of the coming wet season, I drop my pack, lay my rifle on it and lean against a convenient post to wait for our "ride". The choppers are ferrying us out over several flights, we're in the first flight and it looks as though we may have 10-15 minutes to wait, but I don't mind so much...after all, I don't have any where else to go. Most of the ops are started and finished in choppers, the sound of the blades is constant, they're always "wop-wop-wopping" around.
After a few minutes I can hear the distant sound of the choppers, so we all start to struggle into our packs again, our chopper lands and as soon as the doorgunner signals us we slowly amble across the dry, dusty ground and struggle in, watched by the doorgunner. With my pack full I can only shuffle and wriggle until we all manage to squeeze in, usually by sitting on the edge of the seats or sitting scrunched up on the floor. Magazines are on all weapons, but there are no rounds up the spout and they are all pointing at the floor..after all, no-one wants to accidentally fire a shot through the engine or rotor blades. The doorgunner checks that we're all in and then suddenly the engine pitch increases, the chopper starts shuddering, it gently tilts forward and we lift off leaving the safety of the "Dat" behind.
The exhilaration and adrenalin is always fairly high, but tempered with a certain amount of fear and wonder at what is going to happen. None of the doors are shut and the noise from the rotor blades and wind is so loud that it's impossible to talk, as the chopper shudders and shakes. The doorgunners sit either side grimly holding onto their M60's, staring down like cruising hawks looking for their prey. I look out through the open door and see one of the other choppers with it's equally packed cargo silhouetted against a background of thick green jungle, down below the jungle canopy flashes by, and we all wonder what this op holds in store for us.
Most of the "insertions" are usually in a fairly safe LZ. This is a 'hot" insertion and I can see the gunships circling the LZ, the smoke rising from the jungle around the LZ where the rockets have exploded. I hear a change in the motor, the gunships circle higher, we start slowing down, there's an increase in adrenaline and heartrate. It's time to get ready! I shuffle around and get in a position where I can get up and jump out quickly. One of the choppers is already on the ground disgorging its human cargo as we swoop in and land about 50 metres behind it. As soon as we touch down I struggle out as quickly as I can, making sure the SLR's safety catch is on and then sliding a round into the chamber, I sneak a look behind me and see the chopper quickly lift off, these guys don't seem to like hanging around in the jungle. Quickly I follow the guy in front and head for the safety of the jungle.
Walking into the dense jungle is like walking into a sauna, there's no breeze, the air is still and smells of explosives and burning vegetation, there's no noise, we walk quietly and carefully. Sweat doesn't evaporate, it drips or soaks into my clothes, sleeves are rolled down for camoflage and protection, "bush hats" help keep the creepy crawly bitey things off. I've suddenly left the normal world and landed on another planet! Once in the "J" we walk in single file, spaced out so that we can see the person in front, even though we're part of a large group it's a solitary, lonely time as there's usually no noise and no talking except for the occasional stolen whisper.
We've only been walking for a few minutes when I see the guy ahead of me suddenly throw his rifle down, drop his pack and webbing and rip his shirt off. I catch up to him and he's frantically brushing at his left arm, he tells me to check out his back for ants. It seems he brushed against a nest of weaver ants and they didn't like it so they decided to give him a hard time. The little red weaver ants make their nest in the trees out of leaves that they "sew" together, they don't have much of a bite but they are the most aggressive little bastards that you'll ever meet and it only takes a second for hundreds of the little suckers to latch onto a passing arm. It only takes a minute to get rid of most of the ants, get his gear back on and resume our positions.
I don't know much about where I am or why (and don't really care), I just follow the guy in front. Navigation is by map and known points of reference, one person carries the "clicker", this is a simple mechanical thing that he presses everytime he takes a step, each step is calculated as a certain part of one metre depending on the type of terrain. eg two steps might equal one metre on a slight incline. So by counting the steps it's possible to approximate our position.
My shirt is already saturated with sweat and although I'm extremely fit, my breathing is laboured as the thick jungle and oppressive atmosphere takes it's toll. We've been walking for a couple of hours, if we're moving on time we might stop for a rest and food, this could be anything from 5 minutes to an hour. If we're running behind it's a matter of grabbing a quick bite while moving, from some of the easily accessible "snacks" in my pack or pocket. If I need a piss, then I do it where I stand, if more than that is needed it's a matter of choosing a time when the going is slow, signalling the guy behind me, then quickly diving to the side and being damned quick. Hygiene isn't particularly good, especially in the dry when water is in short supply.
After several hours of struggling through the jungle with nothing happening, I start to get bored and "switch off". I'm hot, pissed off, clothes soaked with sweat, shoulders aching from the weight of my pack, dirty and tired. So I hook my rifle through my webbing to take some of the weight and start to sit down whenever I get the chance. I happen to see a nest of ants in a tree, so I signal my mate to come over and we watch what they do when I squirt insect repellant on to the nest. We start walking again and now I'm more interested in looking for bugs and anything else interesting just to break the monotony. I look at the leaves and vegetation and try to figure out what's edible and what isn't, one of our Vietnamese scouts once showed me some leaves that could be eaten, but they all seem to look the same to me and I'm not game to try any in case they give me a guts ache.
Just then the word is passed down by hand signals that there are possible VC. Our forward scout or anyone else for that matter may have seen or heard something, so I unhook my rifle from my webbing, stand still quietly watching and waiting..I start to think about what I'll do if I see anything and start wondering what would happen if one of the other guys starts shooting. We all entertain these grandiose ideas of what we imagine we'll do in any given situation and we all like to think that we would be the big hero, but we're usually thinking this when we're in a nice safe place. Here I am in a stinking God forsaken jungle hoping like shit that there're no nogs around and that no-one's gonna start shooting, 'cause all I wanna do is go on walking through this jungle and be bored. Relief washes over me and my heartrate drops back to a more acceptable level as the word comes down to move on, only now I'm a little more alert than before
We've come to a river, and for reasons known only to God we have to walk down it. The water's thick, green and uninviting..pea soup comes to mind. As I carefully step into it I wonder if there are any crocs or snakes here and how deep it's going to be. The water feels cool and refreshing as it quickly fills my boots so I splash a little on my face and neck. The going is slow, the river bottom is soft and squishy with underwater branches to trip the unwary. The overhanging trees provide a shady sun mottled look to the river surface and this makes a pleasant change to the difficult terrain of the jungle ground, it's almost an idyllic scene and I could almost be fooled into thinking that this was not a war zone.
Eventually we leave the river, I do a quick visual check of my boots and legs for any unwanted hangers-on (leeches) while we continue on through the jungle with the cool feeling of water now turning to an extra weight of water soaked boots and clothes. It doesn't take long in this heat to dry out and soon the only moisture on me is my own sweat. Later in the afternoon we come across a huge crater left by a bomb, there doesn't seem to be any others and I can't help but wonder why a plane would only drop one bomb. The crater is about 20 metres across and I can only try and imagine what it would be like to be anywhere near here when it went off. The most amazing thing of all is to see fish swimming in water at the bottom of the crater, this country is really something else.
We always find a spot to harbour for the night by late afternoon. Each platoon and section commander is given their position in the perimeter and then we in turn are shown ours and given our arcs of fire. Gun positions are manned, mines are set out, perimeter paths are cleared joining all perimeter positions, the "shitpit" is dug, this is always towards the middle of the defensive position and most times fairly well covered (none of us wanted to watch anyone else dropping a load!) and we all get ourselves set up for the night. Everything goes like clockwork, we all know what to do and we all do our jobs efficiently, with the confidence and assuredness of being completely at home and familiar with the jungle.
We are placed in the perimeter in twos, if one of us has to stand the gun or dig the pit then the other one clears our position to make it as comfy as possible and then starts to cook a meal. My mate and I clear a perimeter path to the next position on our left while the two guys on our right clear a path to our position, this way all positions in the perimeter are joined and we all know where the positions either side of us are. The most important things I do are to clean my weapon, clear my position, organise some food, comb my hair (this removes any bugs and crawlies that got in during the day) and check my feet. Wet feet and rubbing socks can very quickly make a nasty mess, leeches in the boots can also leave a nasty sore. I clear the ground as much as possible of stones and branches etc and try to gather up some soft leaves to put under my groundsheet. This is also a time to write a letter home or simply get a few extra ZZZ's. During this time I am given my times for gun piquet at night, shown where the M60 is and where the next person is who I have to wake up. The stints on the gun are for two hours at a time for two people at a time with staggered shifts (one from 8pm-10pm the other one from 9pm-11pm etc), this way there is always one who is "fresh".
Just before last light everything has to be finished and everyone "stands to" at their position for about a half hour, as this was the most likely time for an attack. This means that everything except my groundsheet and hootchie is packed up ready to go so if there's a contact then I won't have to stuff around trying to find anything. I lie on top of my groundsheet next to my mate as we both gaze out into the ever darkening jungle, the unearthly silence broken only by the occasional rustle of small animals on the jungle floor. We stay like this until the dim light of dusk fades into the black of night, then the words 'stand down' are whispered and it's a matter of raising up the hootchie and getting as much sleep as possible. Sleep comes easily as physical tiredness quickly empties the mind of any problems. I carry a groundsheet and use a thin cotton sleeping bag liner as a sheet as it sometimes becomes quite cold at night. I quietly slip my boots off, placing them next to my pack (that's the pillow), lay my rifle next to me, wrap myself in my liner and in five minutes fall into the sleep of the weary.
It seems like I've only just gone to sleep when I feel myself being gently shaken and hear my name being whispered, I realise immediately that it's my time for gun piquet, so I quietly whisper "ok" and sit up. Waking up quickly and alertly comes fairly easily in a warzone. There's no moon tonight so it's pitch black under the jungle canopy and I can barely see my hand. I quietly feel for my boots, turn them upside down and shake out any unwanted visitors, slip them on but don't bother doing up the laces, grab my webbing (ammo) and rifle, then quietly and carefully follow the guy who just woke me as we feel our way along the perimeter path to the gun position. I sit down next to whoever still has an hour left on the gun, take the watch from him (we call them "Mickey Mouse" watches, wrist watches with luminescent numbers and hands) and quietly whisper to him to grab a half hours sleep.
For the first half hour I'm wide awake so I do up my bootlaces and grab some food to munch on. I then sit quietly in the dark, peering into the blackness of an alien jungle wondering what everyone back in Australia is doing, their faces seem blurred and the thoughts seem somehow uninteresting, more immediate thoughts of sleep and hot food in the morning are far more demanding. I am now responsible for the rest of my section and more, they all sleep trusting in me to watch over them. The blackness of the night closes around me like a thick blanket, but even at night the jungle never sleeps, the deathly silence is constantly interrupted by the scurrying of the insect and animal lifeblood of the jungle. I need to constantly separate the normal jungle noises from any abnormal noises which could be the VC moving at night. This is a lonely and melancholy time, several times I hear noises that could be someone moving but I feel a little afraid tonight, so I don't fire but wait, I keep telling myself that if I wait a few more seconds the noise will stop. I do this all the time and fortunately for me they always do stop, maybe one of these times they won't. I don't feel too tired tonight so I let my offsider sleep longer and wake him in time to go and get his relief. When his relief gets here, he stays awake while I grab a few extra zzz's. Then comes my time to go and get my relief, and I can go back to my 2 square metres of dirt and grab a couple more hours sleep.
It seems that no sooner do I fall asleep than I am woken up by the sound of M60 machine gun fire and exploding Claymore mines. Without even thinking I am instantly awake, pulling on my boots, grabbing my rifle and rolling over face down facing out into the blackness. Off to my right I hear the slow chatter as the M60 lets fly with another couple of bursts and I hear the sound of a couple of S.L.R.'s as others start firing, then there's a deathly silence. No words have been spoken by anyone, no orders have been given, yet everyone else has done exactly the same as me and everyone is peering into the blackness, alert, nervous and listening for the slightest noise. It's really dark and I can just make out the outline of my mate, lying down just a half metre to my right, we both wonder what the f**k is happening when we hear one of our guys way over to our right yell out "Where are they?", instantly a voice comes back with just two syllables, "SHUTTUP!".
It remains quiet for a few minutes, then I start to hear a noise to my right sounding like it's five or six metres to my right front and moving across the front of our position. My mate hears it too because I can see the vague outline of his face as he looks towards me and points towards the sound.
All the shooting came from the gun position on our right and the noise is getting louder and moving in our direction, it sounds to me like someone dragging something or someone dragging themself through the jungle. I think that if an animal had been shot it would be making a lot of screeching or bellowing of some sort, but the only noise is this slow dragging rustle. I am experiencing both fear and indecision, fear because there could be someone about five metres in front of me who could have the capacity to either kill or badly injure and mutilate me - indecision because there's no-one to ask what to do, I have to decide whether to shoot or not. I find some consolation in the fact that my mate seems to be experiencing the same thing, because he's not firing either.
The dragging noise seems to come closer, I would guess it's about three metres in front - f**k it's hard to pull this trigger. Just when I think I have no choice left, the noise seems to be moving away. I listen so hard that I can imagine I can hear the air move - gradually the noise moves away from our position and I look at my mate knowing that he feels the same sense of relief that I do. We stay in our positions, just lying quietly and listening for up to a half an hour, until the words we all desperately wait to hear are whispered around the perimeter .. "stand down". I turn over and go to sleep hoping that no-one else fires the f**king gun tonight.
In the morning before first light we are quietly woken up by whoever is last on gun piquet, we drop our hootchies to the ground and stand to for another half hour. After stand-to when it's light enough, a clearing patrol is sent out to check on the nights shooting, but as usual nothing is found.
The early morning dew glistening from the green leafy vegetation gives a surreal look to the jungle, the peaceful buzzing and scurrying of a thousand insects is a sign of the jungle coming alive. I pack up my groundsheet and liner, light up my "hexi" stove to heat some water for tea and cereal bars. While the water's heating I comb my hair, have a quick shave with a little soap and cold water, brush my teeth and put some bootpolish on my boots. By now the water's boiled, so I tip half into my spare steel cup along with the two rock hard cereal bars, half a tube of condensed milk and a squeeze of jam. In about 5 minutes this will all turn into a soft mushy jam flavoured cereal. The other half cup of boiled water is used for a hot drink. While I'm doing all of this our section commander does the rounds and gives us all our daily Palludrin tablets (to prevent malaria).
My mate and I take it in turns to clean our weapons, I take my rifle apart one piece at a time, clean that one piece, replace it and then do another piece. This way it only takes a couple of seconds if I suddenly need to use it. As soon as I've finished mine, my mate cleans his. Within about 30 minutes we're packed and ready to go, but as there doesn't seem to be much of a rush this morning we both stretch out on the ground with our packs as pillows and catch up on reading some "yippies" until we're told it's time to move out.
Today turns out to be an uneventful day, with lots of walking and nothing much happening. It's starting to get towards the wet season and the sky suddenly becomes black and gloomy, the rain in this country is fast and fierce and today is no exception. It's not long before the heavens open and the rains come down. We simply don't get rain like this in Australia, it's as if I'm standing under a giant tap that's been fully opened. It hits me suddenly like a wave on the beach...I'm instantly drenched from head to toe, the water feels icy cold against my hot sweaty skin...I find I can't breathe for a few seconds as my mind and body react with a mind numbing shock from the extreme of heat to cold. It becomes very hard to see much except the grey mist of dense rain. The downpour only lasts for about 10 minutes, but is sufficient to completely wet everything around..as quickly as it started, it stops and the skies clear to reveal the hot yellow sun and a steamy, jungle that looks like a sauna but within an hour I'm almost dried out. Later in the day the word is passed down that there's been a contact with some "nogs" at a bunker system and we'll be heading over there for tomorrow. We eventually harbour for the night and the perimeter is set.
Two of us are given the job of setting up the claymore mine in front of our gun position. I grab the claymore while my mate grabs the detonator and wire that will be connected to the clacker (that's the trigger device for the claymore that's sitting next to the M60). We make sure the wire is disconnected from the clacker and then tell the guy behind the M60 that we're going outside the perimeter to set up the mine and not to get too trigger happy. I walk straight out from the gun position, ahead of as my mate unrolls the wire, then when we get about 15 metres out and find what looks like a good posi to set up the mine, I give my mate the mine and walk several paces ahead as lookout while he drops all his gear to set up the mine. The claymore is a concave shape about 12 x 6 inches on a moveable tripod that is pushed into the ground, you then sight through a small square on top to see the area covered by the explosion.
After a couple of minutes I hear a whisper that he has set the mine and that we can go back, I turn around and take a look at the mine and can't help but stifle a laugh as I say 'Don't you think you should face the mine away from our gun position, you'll probably kill more Nogs that way!'. He had been concentrating so much on sighting the mine to cover the most vulnerable area that he had faced the explosive face towards our gun position. One of the big problems was that we used to have so much different stuff that went bang, it was hard to remember how everything worked, and with this stuff you don't get any second chances.
Just after midday the next day we arrive at the location of the bunker contact. We're in a huge clearing with gigantic bamboo clumps as big as a house, dotted on the sparse dried up ground. There are tanks everywhere, centurions, mineclearers and landclearers. It seems we're supposed to be ground support for the tanks while they demolish the bunker system. After a fair amount of discussion amongst the bigshots, we're told that we'll be sitting on the back of the tanks as support while they do their thing on the bunkers. Maybe we're supposed to shoot any 'nogs' that try to run out of the bunkers, who knows and who cares, as long as we don't have to walk!
I climb up onto the back of one of the Centurion tanks along with a few other guys, the tank commander tells us to hang on and away we go. The sound of the huge motors is deafening and the blue/black smoke creates a haze of exhaust fumes as we slowly clank and crash through the jungle until we reach the edge of the bunker system. The tank commander is standing up in the gun turret giving commands to the driver and soon we are over one of the bunkers, the left tank track is locked in position as the driver gives full throttle to the right track. The tremendous weight of the Centurion tank is pivoted over the locked left track as we spin around collapsing the bunker and crushing anything inside. Once this one is done then we move onto the next one to repeat the same process.
As it's getting fairly late in the day, it's been decided that we should move off a short distance with the tanks and harbour for the night. The tanks start up and head into the dark oblivion of the jungle. When we move in the 'J' we usually do it very slowly and carefully so as to not make any noise and to disturb as little as possible in order to try and conceal our movements. However the tankies have a completely different philosophy on jungle warfare, they simply make their own highway with a complete disregard for concealment or noise. This of course makes a very pleasant change for us, as we simply follow along what is now a 5 metre swarthe of mangled, crushed and flat vegetation.
After about an hour the tanks form a perimeter, we are given our positions spaced out between the tanks in the perimeter. There's still quite a bit of light left, so we have plenty of time to get set up for the night, which also makes a pleasant change.
My mate and I are positioned so that we can see one of the tanks through the undergrowth not far to our left. As infantry soldiers it is second nature for us to talk in quiet whispers, to keep movement to a bare minimum and to be as quiet as possible, but all I can do is stand and stare in amazement as the tankies clang the hatch covers, throw metal jerrycans and make enough noise to wake the dead.
While getting myself organised for the night I keep one eye on the tankies and can only watch in disbelief. I must carry all of my own water and ration it accordingly, the tankies have a huge amount of jerrycans of water..enough to fill a large bowl and wash the days dirt away, while I wipe my face with the sweaty part of my shirt. I start my hexi fire to heat a cup of water while the tankies set up a camping type petrol cooker with a large cooking bowl on top. I open a tin of lima beans from my pack while the tankies sort through several boxes of tinned food and fill their cooking pot. I lay out my groundsheet on a roughly cleared area of the jungle ground while the tankies set up their camping stretchers under a tarpaulin stretched from the tank to the ground. But, I suppose they would look at us with an equal amount of amazement at the way we live.
Everything is done fairly quickly and we all have a bit of spare time to catch up on a yippie or a gonk (sleep). I happen to be staring at nothing in particular when I see the biggest spider I've ever seen, surprisingly enough, we don't see very many large spiders here as they are mostly just the small irritating ones and this one was about 3-4 inches across. Here's an excellent opportunity for some prime time entertainment. I quickly grab my steel cup and with a stick, scoop it into the cup. Now that I've got it my mate and I wonder what the f**k we're going to do with it, we poke it a few times with the stick but it doesn't seem particularly interested. Then we have a brilliant idea (which just about everyone who ever went to Vietnam ended up doing at some stage), we decide we'll find a scorpion, throw it in the tin with the spider and see which one wins. Since I caught the spider, I stay in our position while my mate goes poking around for a scorpion, it doesn't take long before he comes back with a small, but acceptable opponent.
It was time for the showdown, we drop Scorpo the scorpion into the tin with Sammy the spider and watch in eager anticipation. We almost feel like asking for our money back, they both just stay motionless, perhaps they just need a little motivation. So we poke them a few times with the stick, and after a while Sammy happens to walk over the top of Scorpo. Scorpo doesn't seem to like the idea so he stings Sammy right in his fat underbelly. In just a few seconds sammy rolls over onto his back, curls up his legs and goes to the big spiderweb in the sky. And so ends the fight of the gladiators. Scorpo was such a wimp that we empty him out onto the ground and use a size nine army general purpose boot to send him off to join his fellow gladiator, Sammy.
It all to soon became time for stand-to, then a few hours of well deserved sleep.
The sound of an exploding cannister round fired from the tank to my left brings me instantly awake, but still confused. As I pull on my boots and grab my rifle, I hear the sound of some small arms fire and the slow, deep toc-toc-toc of the 50 calibre machinegun spewing it's steady rain of death into the nearby jungle. I can see the flash as the steel missiles spurt from the barrel. I hear the whine and rumble as the centurion's turret turns, then another deafening blast as the inky blackness of the night lights up in a momentary flash like a supernova. The deadly cannister round spews forth from the centurion's barrel, like an oversized shotgun shell peppering anything within it's path with thousands of life taking shards of steel and the toc-toc-toc of the 50 cal starts up again. In my half awake state I forgot to close one eye, so now my night vision has been lost and the noise of the explosions has left a constant loud ringing in my ears that blots out just about everything else.
All of a sudden there's a silence so deep, so quiet that it can be felt. It's like a heavy weight of darkness with a pressure that I can feel, and at the same time my ears are still ringing with the sound of explosions. I'm scared shitless and wondering what the f*ck is going on, but all I can do is quietly lie in the darkness and wait. After a while the word comes down to stand down, sleep doesn't come quite as easy this time!
In the morning there's a sweep of the area but from what we hear once again nothing is found. While packing up I happen to notice one of the trees over my position has some new looking gouge marks in it. All that day I try to figure out how they got there, we certainly don't shoot backwards and I didn't notice them when we got there yesterday. Life is just one great big puzzle, isn't it?
This morning we leave the tanks and go off on our own, the tanks provided a feeling of security and power, but I much prefer our own quiet jungle ways. The going is fairly tough, it's hilly and the vegetation is thick. One of the platoons comes across an unexploded 500lb bomb, this is left over from one of the US B52 Bomber raids. It can't be left, if the VC find it, they'll take it apart and use the explosives against us. The platoon forms a defensive position and waits until we arrive. The section I am in is the support section for Company Headquarters and we have the two engineers with us. The OC decides to blow it up, so the rest of the company continues on while my section stays behind with the two engineers.
We spread out forming a defensive position around the bomb while the engineers get to work. One of them fixes the C4 high explosive to the bomb while the other lights and tests a length of fuse to determine the burn rate. The C4 is an extremely stable explosive that can be dropped, burned, moulded and generally treated the same as putty until you put a detonator in it. We figure out the order that we'll leave in, then the detonator and measured length of fuse are connected.
We're all ready..the fuse is lit and we take off as fast as we can to catch up with the rest of the company. The engineers keep their eyes on their watches, we're running behind time because of the difficult terrain and we need to try and push up the pace otherwise we won't be far enough away when the bomb goes off. We're gasping for breath, the packs weigh heavy on our shoulders and backs, our shirts are soaked with sweat, It's impossible to run in this god forsaken jungle. I'm walking so fast that the backs of my legs feel like wood. Suddenly one of the engineers yells "Down!". We all instantly drop where we stand, gasping for breath, facing away from the soon to be explosion, feet together, mouth open and hands over our ears.
After several seconds there's a huge explosion, I can feel the vibration through the ground. Within seconds bits of the jungle and the bomb are whistling through the trees with some fragments dropping around us. It's all over in a matter of seconds, then we pick ourselves up, catch our breath and continue on at a somewhat more leisurely pace until we catch up with the rest of the company.
It's time for a resupply of rations. We have arrived at the clearing where we will meet the choppers. The company has been formed in a defensive position, a hole has been dug, and a small group from each platoon is ready to collect their supplies. The clearing is large enough for two choppers at a time, the first two come in fast, one is a little too fast and ends up bouncing on the skids a couple of times before he manages to stop.
The first group run over and grab the bags as they are quickly thrown onto the ground and in a matter of seconds the first two choppers are airborne and the next two are landing. As each group takes their supplies the ration packs are quickly distributed along with the luxury of a bread roll and a carton of fresh milk for each of us. We change into a pair of clean greens (clothes) and stuff our dirty old ones into the bag to be picked up and sent back for cleaning. We quickly fill our packs from the new ration packs, puncture, break or crush any food that we don't want and throw it into the hole.
The mail that came with the resupply is quickly distributed and any outgoing mail is collected. As soon as everyone is ready the excess food in the hole is covered over, a chopper quickly lands to pick up our dirty clothes and mail and before too long we're heading off into the darkness and safety of the jungle.
For the next three days not much happens. The days are spent walking and waiting...walking and waiting...walking and waiting, we all tend to switch-off and start to forget that we're in a combat zone. The nights consist of sleep interrupted only by standing watch at the M60. By the morning of the third day we're all very low on water, there are no rivers or streams nearby, the terrain is hilly and consists of dense undergrowth with tall trees so it's not possible to land a chopper for a water resupply. It's decided that we must reach an area where the jungle is less dense for a chopper resupply. This means we will have to travel as fast as possible for most of the day. We are all told to conserve our water as much as possible, I have just over one waterbottle left, this will have to last me most of the day.
The going is hard, the heat and humidity is intolerable and all I can think about is drinking what little water I have left. After about six hours my waterbottle is empty and we reach a small clearing which should be just about big enough for a chopper to squeeze into. The trees are extremely tall, but spread out.
We form a defensive position around the clearing and the choppers are called in. They cannot land, so we are being resupplied with large thick plastic bags filled with water. The bags consist of several layers of plastic and can be dropped from a fair height without bursting (most times), they're similar to balloons filled with water, only much bigger and much stronger.
I can see the first chopper dropping slowly down through the narrow opening in the tree canopy, the pilot has to be very careful not to clip the trees with the rotor blades or the tail. There's not very much clearance, and he manages to hover low enough in between the trees, staying virtually motionless while the water bags are pushed out to land on the ground. He immediately goes straight up and disappears and then the next one comes in.
After the choppers have gone, everyone's waterbottles are filled and any remaining water bags are distibuted amongst us. This provides an unexpected bonus, we take it in turns to have a "shower" by emptying the excess water over each other. The crystal clear, cool water is as refreshing as turning on an air conditioner and gives us all a much needed recharge.
The next few days pass fairly uneventfully except for one disturbing incident.
We are harbouring for the night, the perimeter has been set and I am first on the M60 while everyone gets organised. The vegetation is fairly sparse, there are isolated clumps of bamboo interspersed with a few low clumps of grass, so I have a fairly good field of view. As it's still light I am alone on the gun when I happen to see a lone figure in the distance directly in front of my position. Now, once a perimeter is set, NO-ONE goes outside for any reason without first notifying the gun position so I figure it couldn't be one of our guys.
The normal thing to do in this place is to shoot first and then ask who it is, but I'm really f**king nervous, I've never shot at anyone before. Shooting at targets is one thing, but when it's a real person you end up asking yourself, "Do I really want to do this?". The distant figure didn't seem to be doing much so I lie down behind the gun, flick off the safety and watch and wait. My hands are feeling sweaty and slippery on the hard metal of the M60. Maybe this is going to be the time I get to kill someone, in the movies they do it easily, they just point and shoot, but this isn't a movie and it ISN'T THAT EASY. I keep hoping that someone else will come along and tell me what to do, but no-one does. After a while the figure gets up and starts walking towards our perimeter, I have a sick feeling in my stomach and I've reached new heights of nervousness, but surprisingly, I'm not feeling scared. Sighting over the top of the M60 I see the figure coming closer and I soon recognise him as one of our own guys, it seems that he had been out setting up a claymore mine but nobody had bothered to tell me.
Whether I was simply being cool, calm and collected or I was just too shit-scared to fire, I'll never know. But I do know that if I had been one of those "gung-ho, I'll shoot at anything 'cos I wanna be a war hero" types then things may have turned out a lot different.
The rest of the op passed quite boringly and soon it was time for us to go back to the "Dat".
We arrive at the LZ that's to be our evac point, we are back to company strength and a defensive position has been formed around the football sized clearing. Each platoon and section is sorted into small groups and given their evac order. I join one of the first 6 groups, and we move into our position on the LZ. The 6 groups are spaced apart so that 6 choppers can land at the same time. We all crouch down in the grass waiting. I can hear the wop-wop of the choppers in the distance. The pilot radios to our sig to "Throw smoke", a smoke grenade is thrown near the end of the clearing. Our sig radios back "Smoke thrown". The chopper pilot radios back "I see green". Our sig radios back that green is correct, then the lead man of each evac group stands up holding his arms up in a V, the chopper pilots home in on each one of these men.
I can hear the roar of 6 sets of rotors and see the choppers coming in out of the sky like giant vultures swooping down. They land in unison in front of each of the lead men from each group. Once our chopper is down the doorgunner signals us and we quickly struggle in.
This was the extent of a combat operation. Sometimes this would go on for weeks at a time without seeing anyone else. We operated outside of the local villages as they were all fairly well VC free, we never followed existing paths or tracks in the jungle as they were probably booby trapped or mined, we made our own paths which made the going fairly tough and slow, but was a hell of a lot safer. There wasn't much to see, there wasn't much to do, not much ever happened and I never knew much about what was going on.
But then again ... I didn't care too much anyway, I was young and I was going to live forever!