Chapter 29: More of the same

After a few more days they pulled us out of the Nui Dinh Mountains, pulled is probably not the right word, we got a lift back by truck.  Still it’s better than walking.  Coming home was like returning from a fishing trip where you don’t catch any fish.  All I can say is that if I thought the training in Australia was tough then I was mistaken.  Our first operation was quite physically demanding to the point that I wondered how I could last 12 months of this shit.

The wet season is upon us.  Cootamundra gets an annual rainfall of 23 inches whereas Fuck You Province gets that amount of rainfall each day.  We put in for new hootchies as the ones we have are useless against the monsoonal deluge which revealed holes everywhere and let the rain come on down.  The CQ won’t be happy.

The rounds for the machine gun, which are held together with a disintegrating belt, are showing signs of rust.  Disintegrating belt means that the ammo is fed into the machine gun by a belt that is chewed up and spat out the other side, just like the spent cartridge casings.

As we arrive back at The Dat we get a free can of Cottee’s soft drink.  Bewdy, we are all dehydrated.  I down mine in two mouthfuls.  We call soft drink Goffas. I dunno where the name comes from but it certainly hits the spot.  There’s something to be said about quenching your thirst with an iced-cold carbonated drink that makes your eyes water when you drink it quickly.

But we have work to do.  We pack our gear straight away, ready for the next operation in a couple of day’s time.  We strip down the weapons and give them a thorough clean; and then we hit the showers.  Mail is available once all the jobs have been done, so we don’t dilly dally.

That night the cooks put on a nice smorgasbord dinner for us – steak, cold meats, salads, and even a few prawns.  Bloody fresh food, we’ll all be farting tomorrow.   About half way through my steak and I’m full.  I look around and everyone else seems to be struggling to eat more than a few morsels as well.  It seems our stomachs have shrunk from the lack of food during the operation.  But who cares about the food, they have been stockpiling the beer!

Two cans later I’m fucked.  The beer has gone to my head, so I stagger off to bed and look forward to a night of uninterrupted sleep because there is no picquet.  In the bush we are lucky to get six hours sleep.  Tonight I’ll get eight!

Our beds are single inner-spring mattresses that are full of lumps and smell of mould and a bit of body odour; but they are much softer than sleeping on the ground.  They only supply us with one sheet which goes on the mattress.  So we sleep uncovered because it is so hot and humid.  Most of us sleep naked as we don’t have any underwear or PJs and our modesty is protected somewhat by the mosquito net that covers the whole bed.  Normally I lay there for a few minutes trying to get off to sleep because I can hear those bloody mossies patrolling along the side of the net looking for a hole so that they can come in and ravage my body.  Tonight I am asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

An hour later and I’m up having a piddle.  I am up again in another hour for a further piddle. It seems there is no justice in the world. But then I slept right through ‘til six.  Up for rollcall and down to breakfast.  Even though we are between operations, our time is not our own and our whereabouts is tightly controlled.  Breakfast is OK except the bacon doesn’t have any red meat on it, just a few thin red strips and the rest is white. But it is better than ration-pack food.  The chocolate milk is great.  It is American, as is most of our food, including powdered eggs.  The milk seems thicker than the stuff I am used to.  The label says ‘fortified’.  I wonder if that is a euphemism for Bromide?

I’m quite excited as a few of us are allowed down to the PX at a time.  I’m looking forward to finally getting that SLR camera (single lens reflex, whatever that means, not to be confused with self loading rifle).

The camera, flash unit and a few rolls of colour slide film practically cleans me out money wise.  But I am thrilled to finally have a decent camera.  I eagerly rush back to our tent and open the contents of the box.  I had no idea what I was buying; I sort of relied upon the bloke at the PX.  I said I wanted an SLR camera that was easy to use.

I opened the box.  It was a Canon EXEE.  Eek!  I’ll never work out how to use this thing.  I played around with it for a day or two before I even loaded the film.  All I had to do was point and shoot, the camera did the rest, I think.  I must have read the manual a thousand times and I think I need to read it some more.  This now frees up my instamatic from being my main camera, I may take it on patrol with me.

Davo briefs us on our next operation – it’ll be a bit of a swan.  It seems elections are to be held by the South Vietnamese and our job is to park close to a settled area and be seen hanging about just in case somebody may want to do something.  As long as there are no hills to climb I don’t really care.  We are all packed ready to go by truck, so a couple of us saunter off to see a movie.  That’s right we have a movie theatre!  But you have to take your own chair.

We stroll down and there are a few blokes seated in front of a big white board with nothing else except a bit of a stand where the projector goes.  We set our chairs down and wait for the movie.  What a great way to see a movie, in the open air.  I dunno what movie is playing but it’s not about the movie, it is about the experience.  Where else can you speak up and give a commentary on the film?  Where else can you throw a goffa can (soft drink) at the screen if you don’t like the bad guy?  And where else can you give encouragement for the leading man to shag the leading lady?

You know the scene – guy meets girl but they have trouble getting together. Then finally they kiss and stare into each other’s eyes.

“Give her a tonguey!”

“Let’s see her tits!”

“Go on give it to her!”

Then when the good guy decides to leave without doing the deed…

“Boo hiss!”

“What a pissweak bastard!”

You get the idea.  The movies are even better if you’ve had a couple of beers beforehand.

Next morning we load up and head out on the trucks, south down route 2, and, after 10 minutes or so we stop and debus (Debus?  Is that the right term for getting off a truck?) We patrol to an old orchard and harbour up.  This is to be our base for a couple of days.  Killer and I are set down facing the road, we seem to be within grenade throwing distance of it and I am a little concerned.  How easy would it be for Nigel to lob a grenade, satchel charge or RPG (rocket propelled grenade) in our direction?

The point is, we are supposed to be seen.  So we dig a pit just in case. So do most other blokes.  It is quite hot and steamy and we don’t have much shade as the trees are spread out a fair bit.  Soon our shirts are off and we are digging in.  It is hot, thirsty work.  Water discipline is not really a problem as we can be resupplied easily from The Dat.

We get a warning order for a night ambush. Later Davo gives us the orders.  At last light we are to patrol to an ambush site. But there is a problem.  As we are near a village we can’t just shoot anyone, people will complain.  Sorry – I made that up.  Civilians are in the area and we can’t fire unless: we are in danger; we are fired upon or attacked; or they can be easily identified as enemy.

This isn’t going to be much fun.  If someone is in our killing ground at some god forsaken hour in the middle of night in the middle of nowhere do we shine a torch at them first?

Late afternoon and we are on the move across the paddy fields.  We see a farmer tilling the soil with a water buffalo.  To respect his work we change formation and confine ourselves to the bung around the rice paddy.  This is dangerous as they could be booby trapped.  We are moving at right angles to the farmer and he is drawing nearer to us.  When he is about 50 metres from us he stops, or rather the water buffalo stops; and it keeps raising its head into the air as if he is trying to analyse our scent.  Suddenly the water buffalo bellows and takes off across the paddy field with the Vietnamese farmer hanging onto his tilling equipment for dear life while muttering and complaining in his native tongue.  We can’t help but laugh our heads off.  We are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of these people but I get the feeling we are failing it at this very moment.  But it WAS funny.

We are ambushing the waterways.  This is one way to get to the village, so we have it covered.  The problem is we are out where there is no vegetation, like shags on a rock.  We cannot use a hootchie so we just lie down in the rain.  It is not very pleasant.  You can wrap yourself up in the hootchie but you have to breathe.  I manage to leave my head exposed but I keep my bush hat covering my face.  I managed a few hours sleep. This is testimony to the fact that infantry soldiers can sleep anywhere.

I awake to find myself completely wet. I am actually laying in a puddle of water.  The ground is so soft that my body has made a depression in the soil which has filled with water that is warm: it has been warmed by my body heat.  Sum Wun said that if you place the elbow of a sleeping person in warm water they will wet themselves.  Well that is something I may write to Myth Busters about because, as I started to dry out, I noticed that my greens smelled of urine.  That means that either my mates pissed on me during the night or I piddled myself while I was asleep.

“Did any of you bastards piss on me last night?”

You could imagine the responses if I asked that question, so I said nothing and hoped that no one would smell urine on me.

During the day we would head back to the old orchard and flop about doing nothing but catching up on some sleep; oh, and protecting the local population from the marauding enemy.

Davo, John S, Wooly, John L, me, Killer and Digger – 5 Section, 2 Platoon, 2RAR on Route 2.
Davo, John S, Wooly, John L, me, Killer and Digger – 5 Section, 2 Platoon, 2RAR on Route 2.

You can see in the photo, near Davo’s elbow is the tarred road and how close we were to Route 2, and you can see the pit behind Davo.  We would fight over it if Nigel threw a grenade at us.  This picture is a stark reminder of how skinny we all were – and this is at the start of our tour.

I should mention Wooly, who is the guy with the M79.  He never went anywhere without it.  This was a great weapon that could fire rounds just like a shotgun, or it could lob 40mm explosive rounds at the enemy and do tremendous damage; or it could fire an illumination round to light up the killing ground at night.  I dunno what type of round he carried in it.  This guy talked about filling an SLR with 20 rounds of tracer so the enemy would burn when he shot them.  He was probably joking but I wasn’t game to ask him what type of round he had in the M79 waiting to unleash upon the enemy.

Killer took advantage of one daily monsoonal down poor.  He stripped down, grabbed a bar of soap and stepped into the rain.  It was not a pretty sight but it gave us all a laugh as the rain pelted his body and, once lathered up, he had to stay being bombarded by the monsoonal onslaught until the soap washed away.  He never tried it a second time.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention our giant scare.  We were in the mud again and just near a pier a couple of 100 yards from Long Cat.  We moved into the ambush site at last light.  We could see the lights of the village from our ambush position.  Killer and I had the machine gun facing along the channel that led to the pier.  We could see about 80 to 100 yards up the channel.  It was a terrible night with plenty of thunder and lightning only the tropics can supply and we had no shelter except for wrapping ours selves in our hootchie.

At around 11pm a woman and a couple of kids came to the pier. They were distressed and obviously feared for a family member who had not returned.  About 10 minutes later I spotted him.  About 80 yards up the channel, each time the lightning flashed, I could see a canoe being pushed by a person in a coolie hat.  My heart started racing as Killer and I inched down behind the machine gun.  The rules of engagement meant that we could only engage this person if we could identify him as enemy.  I told Davo who came up and had a look.  I pointed towards the guy as the lightning flashed, my hand was shaking.  As he got closer we could see that the tide was out and he was pushing his canoe along the mud.  It was obvious that he was very tired as he slid the canoe forward.

Davo asked me to cover him as he signalled the guy.  It was no good Killer covering him because of the nature of fire of the machine gun, if Killer aimed at the canoe guy Davo would get hit as well because the machine gun sprays the bullets out in a cone of fire.

I pulled the SLR into my shoulder and flicked off the safety catch.  My finger was still outside the trigger guard as I aimed the SLR at the guy’s chest.  Davo motioned for the bloke to show his ID.  The guy produced some papers wrapped in a couple of small plastic bags.  I was very alert and I thought to myself if he makes any wrong move I would have no hesitation in shooting him.  I’ve seen films were soldiers freeze at that very point, but I was amazed at how calm I now was as I focussed on my job of protecting Davo.

The guy was OK and his canoe was searched for weapons and ammo and stuff.  It was all good.  Boy it was a bit of excitement.  I wonder what I’ll  be like when we strike the bad guys for real?

Unfortunately over the next couple of days no enemy showed up.

The operation was a complete success, we prevented the enemy from disrupting local elections.

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Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.

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ian_cavanoughHi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.
Ian Cavanough,
Tumut, NSW

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