Chapter 33: LCTs and my near death experience

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“Shit it’s wet!

The rainy season has really settled in and Alpha Company is moving on a rotational basis between the jungle, the mountains and the swamps; and our movement is by chopper.

What an amazing machine these Huey choppers are.  I could say they are pretty slick but you wouldn’t understand the extremely witty use of the word ‘slick’ I just used.  But never mind I loved riding in the choppers.

I know a little bit about Hueys.  They have a pilot and navigator, or is it captain and vice captain, who sit up front and they are protected by so much armour shielding it’s hard to actually see them.  Then there are the two gunners, one on either side.  They have twin M60s to play with and one of them gets to play with the winch, if needed be.

To celebrate I have a new pack.  It’s the same as the old one, only different.  The straps have more padding, the pack now has a strong backing plate and it has side pockets so I can carry more shit.  The backing plates is very important because when loading cans of food into the top of the old pack, sometimes the cans would dig into my back; and as the contents decreased the top of the pack would start to collapse somewhat.  The backing plate stopped this.

We flew out to ‘The Mango’ in a heavy right formation.  The clouds were really low and visibility was not good.  The Mango was the term used to describe the area where the Land Clearing Teams (LCTs) were knocking down the jungle so those D67 NVA Engineer bastards who had been responsible for giving us a few headaches with mines and booby traps would be denied access to the populated areas along Route 15, the road to Saigon.

We rotate with the other companys from 2RAR – we fly in, they fly out; and then we set about protecting the LCTs along with the APCs and Centurion tanks.  It was great inside this mini camp.  The dozers would create a wall of earth which would protect us from small arms fire and Rocker Propelled Grenades (RPGs).  We would be allocated an area to set up camp and run a roster to man the machine guns in case Nigel decided to pop in for a visit.  We would also conduct patrols ahead of the cleared areas to ensure Nigel didn’t leave any presents for the dozers that would go ‘boom!’

We used our mattress covers to make stretchers to sleep on by placing two long thin poles (branches) inside the mattress cover and jam them up against a tree, or tie two small branches together forming an ‘X’ and sit the poles on the lower part of the ‘X’; then we could pull our hootchies down below the level of the mattress cover to keep out the monsoon rain and sleep DRY!

Ian Cavanough's luxury accomodation in 'The Mango'
Ian Cavanough’s luxury DIY accomodation in ‘The Mango’

 

We would make tables and chairs out of sticks and vines just like the VC did; why, it was just like home.  In addition we had plenty of food.  Our rations weren’t increased but the Tankies often left their rejects sitting at the back of their APCs.  Because they had no trouble carrying whatever food they liked, there were some good pickings to be had by us skinny starving Infanteers.  I guess they took pity on us always asking if they had any spare food.  As an aside, whenever we got a lift with these blokes their food was better secured than their ammo!

Out in the jungle it was wet.  Sometimes we would dig a pit for the machine gun and it would quickly fill with water.  Often we would be wading in waist deep water for a couple of hours at a time, at least it was warm.  The leeches loved it too, they were everywhere.  Sum Wun (he’s been a bit quiet lately) said that leeches like to crawl up the eye of ya dick.  Clearly he had never encountered these leeches which were as thick as your finger.  There was no way one of these leeches could crawl up the eye of my dick without me knowing it!

As we paused in our patrolling I would often watch the insect life and I could see the leeches heading towards me.  If I stepped over them they would turn and follow me, imagine how dangerous they’d be if they had eyes.  I would put some of that mossie repellent from the green bottle, the one that tore your skin off, onto the tops of my boots; but they still got on and feasted on the lower part of my legg.  I searched for them regularly, but often I wouldn’t notice them until they had gorged themselves on my blood, became bloated and fell into the inside of my trousers that were bloused over my boots.  I’d curse, pull them off if need be and throw them at Wooly, the M79 guy who would turn them inside out using a stick; and then flame throw them to death by squeezing the mossie repellent bottle and lighting the spray.  Cue laughter, “He, he, he.  Take that you blood sucking bastards!”

The new boss, John W, worked us very similarly to Pat as he too ensured we did things right.  He was big on wearing our hats as many of the guys took them off when they became sweaty, which was most of the time.  I was nearly charged for sleeping on picquet.  There’s an old saying, fix the problems in training otherwise you will repeat them in war.  We had been sprung sleeping on picquet during Corps training where three of us in one pit were found asleep.  Well I’d better explain.

We were patrolling fairly long and hard with little food; and the continual wet weather was wearing us down.  One morning as I was getting ready to patrol for the day, I reached into the side pocket on my pack to get my toothbrush and toothpaste.  I kept them there in a small plastic bag.  I also had some other stuff in the pocket including a smoke grenade.  I would check my pack each morning because the ants often made a nest in my gear overnight, but this time I reached in without checking and felt something sharp against my thumb.  I thought it was the pin on the smoke grenade.  When we store them in our gear we bend over the end of the pin so that it can’t fall out and set the smoke grenade off in the pack. So I pushed it aside and went to grab my bag containing my teeth cleaning gear; and that’s when he struck!

I felt a searing pain in my left thumb.  Now I’ve been stung by ants, bees and wasps; this was ten times as worse.  As I grabbed my thumb with my right hand I looked into the pocket of my pack and I could see a large black scorpion retreating further into the pocket, his stinging tail still protruding well above his head.

Shit!

I instantly recalled a movie I had seen where a bloke was in the desert.  He was dying of thirst and he had collapsed onto the ground.  A scorpion crawled up his trousers.  In the next scene two guys were looking down at him, one said, “By the look on his face I’d say he died in agony!”

Died in agony?  I was in agony, my thumb was throbbing and the stinging pain was unbearable.  The Doc came over as Wooly leapt on the chance to play ‘get evens’ with another insect.  There wasn’t much Doc could do for me.  No ice, no magic potion, no nuthin’.  We rubbed a bit of toothpaste on it.  Meanwhile I forgot about Wooly and the get even plan and I totally missed the death of the scorpion; or maybe he let him go!

A radio call confirmed that it wouldn’t kill me but that I should rest for the day.  Rest for the day?  That’s it?  Doc had a bag of stuff and he produced some pills from it, “Take these Knackers, they’ll make you feel better.”  Then I sat around for the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself while the other blokes went on small recce patrols.  Later in the evening Doc gave me some more pills.

It rained most of the night and Killer and I hootchied up right behind  the machine gun.  The blokes on picquet therefore are just at our feet.  Just before first light I stirred as I heard someone approaching.  It was John W.  I sat up, no one was at the machine gun!  He came up to me and asked, “Who’s on picquet?”

My mind raced, something had gone wrong, someone had stuffed up and remembering what happened back at Corps training, one in all in, I replied, “I am.”

“Can you see down along that way?” John W asked, as he pointed to our front.

“No.”

“Wake the rest of the section up, the platoon sergeant will be down to see you at stand down.”

I dunno why I said ‘No’.  Maybe I wasn’t properly awake.  Anyway it was still dark, so maybe I was answering truthfully because of the lack of light.

The platoon commander went back to platoon headquarters and I overheard Mick the platoon sergeant say, “Charge the bastard!”

He never did.  Apparently Doc came to my defence.  He advised Mick that the pills I had taken could make me drowsy, and in the platoon commander’s words, “Yes he was there.”  Meant I was there behind the machine gun so I was indeed on gun picquet.

I never did tell Mick I just woke up.

Someone in 5 Section owes me a big favour, if only I knew who, but I never brought it up.  But I will next time I see the boys, someone owes me a beer!

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This story is now also available in ebook format. See here for details.

Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the Vietnam War – which is now also available in ebook format. See here to order.

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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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