Chapter 44: Garth

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FSB (Fire Support Base) Garth is located on Courtenay Hill, which is in the far north of Phuoc Tuy Province.  It is near a large number of rubber plantations just south of Long Khan Province.

FSBs in the battalion are named after the wives or girlfriends of officers posted to the battalion.  No one was game to ask how ‘Garth’ got its name.

We were the last rifle company to be rotated through the Courtenay Rubber.  As you know by now the battalion commander, Johnny Three Fingers, continues to dominate our AO (Area of Operations) by a sustained presence as he swaps the rifle companies about.  The other rifle companies experienced many contacts in this area and we were worried that the enemy movements may fizzle out before we got amongst them.  The enemy, in squad size groups, were entering the villages at night to obtain food supplies and take them back to their camps in the jungle.  The rubber plantations are easy to navigate at night because there is no undergrowth.  In addition, the trees are aligned in rows.  You simply walk down a row of rubber trees so that it is impossible to get lost.  I’m sure 3 Platoon will test that theory out.

The VC are the bad guys who gave the villagers a hard time.  History shows that Phuoc Tuy Province was indeed a bad place.  The VC would enter a village, kill the village chief and demand supplies from the peasants.  Although this was true in many cases, there was another dimension that was not known to us at the time.

Imagine for a moment that you are a male teenager living in one of these villages helping your parents in a simple subsistence life working in the rubber plantations.  You are at conscription age where you will be required to serve in the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).  The officers who run the ARVN are the ‘elite’ of South Vietnamese society, many are corrupt and incompetent.  As an ARVN soldier you could be sent anywhere in South Vietnam and your chances of being killed would be very high indeed.  The alternative is to stay near your village with your family and friends and by default you would have to help out the VC. Not much of a choice really is it?  In successful ambushes, our battalion was unknowingly killing some of the young men from the very villages we were trying to protect. 

So that was our job around Garth: to stop the bad guys from killing and harassing the locals.  We would conduct ambushes by night and we would lay up somewhere in sight of the locals by day so they knew we were about.  What a bludge.  We were not on our feet all day patrolling, we would be awake most of the night; but we would try to catch some sleep during the day.  Ezy.

The Huey flight took about 30 minutes from the Dat.  As we dropped down towards the LZ, an airstrip that was secured by APCs, we could see the extent of the rubber plantations.  They certainly covered a wide area and there would be plenty of civilians moving about working in them.  We were given the rules of engagement.  No shooting unless fired upon, and no shooting near locals.  At night any movement in the rubber plantations would be VC.  Look out Nigel – 2 Platoon is coming to get ya!

FSB Garth was a pretty dismal place.  We only camped there one night, thank goodness.  It was the height of the dry season so it was dirty and dusty.  About 800 metres up the road was an abandoned house.  We used it as an early warning base and we sat around ready to take on Nigel if he decided to take on the FSB.  I never did go inside the building.  Mines and booby traps are a real problem to the Infantry soldier and one of the best ways to survive is to be vigilant and to suppress your curiosity.  If something didn’t look right, or there was a suspicious looking ‘thing’ on the ground, you stayed right away from it. I never touched anything, that’s why I still have all my fingers and toes.

We had an interpreter with us as well as the National Police – the ‘White Mice’.  We jabbered on a fair bit with them trying to find out more about them but they didn’t tell us much.  My guess is that they were asked the same questions by each platoon who rotated through this early warning task over the last 6 to 8 weeks.

One day, an old guy turned up and I managed to get a few photos of him.  We were told back in Australian that the locals may not like having their picture taken and we should be mindful of the cultural differences and respect their wishes.  But this guy who was in his 80s was posing for me as he worked on a pole with a machete, so I took a few snaps of him.  The interpreter told me he was a ‘hunter’.  Hah!  A bloody hunter?  Who was he kidding?  He was an old guy!  He was dressed in shorts and t shirt with a coolly hat on his head and plastic sandals on his feet.  I had a pair of those sandals when I was a kid.

Some time later he returned with a mongoose he had trapped.  He was quite proud to display it for me, just like a cat that brings a dead bird to the front door for you to see and tell him what a good boy he was.  So he was a ‘hunter’ after all.  He said he was going to take it home and cook it up.  You could imagine my surprise when he turned up later with a plate of mongoose stew.  To my bitter disappointment to this very day I regret not tasting his mongoose stew.  It looked good.  It smelled good.  But I shook my head when he offered me some.  I suppressed my curiosity as to what mongoose would taste like.  I didn’t want to eat the local food and then heaving my guts up for the next two days from some exotic tropical bug that my immune system had never encountered before.  So no strange food for me.  I was consistent in this area, I never tried the ice blocks we were offered near one of the villages down south and I never ate any Vietnamese food.

Oops, I tell a lie.

In Vung Tau I was getting a haircut and Burkey was with me.  Burkey you may recall was the bloke who had the girls from the Hong Kong Restaurant in Townsville trained to perfection so that when he entered the Chinese restaurant they served him his beer and sweet and sour prawns with fried rice 30 seconds after he sat down.  Burkey, from South Australia, had a gift of the gab.  His hair had already been cut and while he was waiting for me he decided to have a look around.  Through the hallway, the barber’s family were sitting on the floor around a number of small food bowls having a meal.  Burkey decided to check them out.

When the barber was finished cutting my hair, I got up from the chair to look for him.  I went through the doorway out the back and there was Burkey sitting down on the floor, chopsticks in hand, chomping in with the family of about four or five people.  Mama San smiled at me and I could see she had plenty of teeth missing as she motioned with her hands for me to sit down and join them – so I did, smiling and nodding a lot as I unsuccessfully tried to use the chopsticks. The laughter and banter from the family was at my expense I’m sure.  I dunno what I was eating but it was sumptuous. But then again I had a few Budweisers under my belt, so my judgement was a little cloudy that day.

Lemme answer the question you haven’t asked.  Is it better to walk or ride on an APC?  The answer is I dunno.  Each has their respective advantages and disadvantages.  The APC was designed to carry soldiers into battle by closeting them inside the vehicle safe from small-arms fire.  They are quick and agile. But.  Looking at it from a dumb grunt’s perspective they leave a lot to be desired. They are extremely uncomfortable, they are hot and noisy, the grunts get thrown about inside like rag dolls trying to pinch some of the tankies’ rations in the dark; and when the vehicle stops the grunts are expected to leap out to start fighting the enemy while suffering blindness from the extreme glare after being in total darkness, as well as suffering from a combination of motion sickness and poisoning by diesel fumes.  Who in their right mind designed these things?

They are only safe from anti personnel mines.  A good tank mine would squash all the grunts inside.  That’s why we ride on top.  But there are no seats.  The tankies, in an effort to protect their rations from us thieving starving grunts, placed ammo boxes in a row along each side of the APC.  We sit on these ammo boxes as the tankies give us the ride from hell and we have nothing to hang onto.  Imagine doing 40 kilometres an hour through a rubber plantation, sitting on nothing but ammo boxes.  The APC neatly fits inside each row of rubber trees.  A real hazard is the ground which is sometimes banked to divert rainwater.  Consequently the APC is riding up and down over each of these little banks.  Then there are the 10-foot aerials above the APC that form a whipping motion as it rides over the bank.  The aerials slice into the foliage dislodging leaves, sticks, spiders, biting ants and the occasional sniper.

Sorry, I lied about the sniper bit.

And this is the bit the tankies really love – to see us grunts hanging on for dear life on top of their APCs beating off biting ants and spiders as we ride over each earth mound looking like cowboys riding a bucking bull at the rodeo.  In addition the ammo boxes we sit on keep moving and pinching our arses!  Bastards.  All because we borrowed the odd can of ham and lima beans from their ration stash inside.

To answer the question you didn’t ask, I’d rather walk.  Except when I am hungry and tired and we have a long way to go.

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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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