“Righto men, all here?” said the platoon commander, “Follow me.”
We exchanged glances, shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes and followed him. I knew where we were going, up towards that hill in the distance. It was easy going at first along a disused fire trail and as the incline increased so did ours. We hunched over so that our chins were now closer to the ground then before, a bit like a motor cycle rider tilting against similar but different forces of nature. Although we thought our packs were heavy I hadn’t experienced ‘heavy’ yet.
We’d stop every now and then and just stand there for a while, then we’d take off again. I was simply following the guy in front. I had no idea how long this trek was going to last, it just seemed to go on and on. Then as we gained height we stopped again, this time for what seemed to be quite a long while. I decided to sit down and take the weight off my back. In front of me, to the left of our direction of travel, I could see down the hill along a little valley; it looked quite nice and peaceful. Off to my right I could see a couple of guys up ahead, they too were sitting just like me. It was hot and the ground was dry sending heat thermals up towards my face. I took my hat off and mopped my brow. I noticed cam cream on my sweat rag so I wondered how much was still on my face. I heard the platoon commander‘s voice as he spoke to the bloke next to me.
Then he was at my feet. “And the same goes for you too, Private Cavanough!”
“What’s that sir?” I asked. I must have seemed surly, the platoon commander responded with a threatening gesture, he was standing in front of me, slightly bent over, his feet were apart and he was gesturing at me with his finger. His face was contorted.
“You are a big target if anyone was down there,” he said as he pointed down the little valley. “Get down on your guts and take up a firing position.” I rolled upwards, stepped forward to the edge of a small cliff and adopted the prone position, my rifle was pointing down the valley. “Get back from the fucking edge, you idiot!” he shouted.
“Sir, if I move back from the edge I won’t be able to see down the valley, I won’t be able to see anything.”
“Just once, just once more Private Cavanough….” His voice trailed off as he stepped away and took his contorted face with him to berate the next soldier down the line. Where were the corporals, I thought, the guys with combat experience? This was turning out to be a circus.
We had form the platoon commander and me. Maybe he was still upset with me over a rifle range incident. We were doing a shoot where we had a few magazines filled with a certain number of rounds. The idea was for us to listen for the fire control orders and fire the required rounds into the targets. Sometimes the target went up and down a few times, sometimes they were exposed for a set time. The idea behind this was to ensure that we had a stoppage during one of the set exposures, that is the weapon would not fire because the magazine was empty, we had to carry out an immediate action drill where we replace the empty magazine with one containing rounds and continue firing. It was a good idea to put a bit of pressure on the firer to get the weapon working again as fast he could.
Well during the practice, I ran out of ammo and I carried out the unload and laid my weapon down. This is normal procedure at the end of a practice. Somehow I had ran out of ammo while the others were still firing. Audey noticed me and he turns towards me with the megaphone and says, “What’s the problem with you Private Cavanough?”
“Out of ammo sir.”
“Did you carry out my instructions and only fire the required number of rounds?”
He gave me THE LOOK as he turned away. You know THE LOOK, the slight smile, the lips stretched open across clenched teeth, the head turning from side to side and exhaling of breath so the chest and shoulders give a kind of shrug.
After that practice we moved forward to another mound. “During this practice you will fire two rounds each time the target appears.” He turns and aims the megaphone in my direction. “Have you got that Private Cavanough, two rounds each time the target appears?”
I give him a wave and a nod my head. He knew what I was thinking, bloody dickhead, because he was think the same thing.
But I digress.
Soon we were at our night location, a platoon in all round defence and still no corporals. We were set down in pairs and told to face out. I was paired with Smithy, the larrikin from the Central Coast of NSW. We had to prepare our position: put in track plans, man the machine gun, post sentries and dig in.
Smithy showed me the best way to dig a shell scrape (essentially a trench) – to protect you from being hit by small arms fire. First dig out enough for your feet, then stand in the hole and dig out the trench by using the shovel (the Army call them tool entrenching) as a pick, breaking up the soil easily as it fell in on your feet. Pretty soon we were down about a foot and then used the same procedure to go another foot deeper. I was sweating profusely, this was hard yakka. Gloves and a proper shovel and pick would have been nice.
Our digging was interrupted by us having to spend time at the various duties of sentry, gun and work parties for the platoon sergeant.
It was getting dark. Just before dusk we stand to and change to night routine and roster blokes behind the machine gun. I managed to get a bite to eat but Smithy was out on sentry duty. He would be brought back at stand to, so I got into his gear and got a meal going for him as well as a hot brew. At stand to the platoon commander usually comes around and checks up on us. Luckily Smithy was able to have a brew and a meal without being sprung as all our gear should have been packed away. The shell scrape is great for hiding stuff.
Thus began a friendship between me and Smithy. Me a simple naive country kid and Smithy a seasoned larrikin. Did I tell you he was a bikie?
A list was prepared showing our turn on the gun tonight, I knew where the gun pit was and I knew whom I had to wake and where his pit was; it was next to ours.
At stand down I just sat there, in my farter spot, motionless. I was fucked. The nauseating truck ride, the hump up the hill and then the digging really took its toll on my body. No sooner had I laid down and someone was prodding me for my turn on the gun. I stagger up, wrap the horse blanket around me, grab my rifle and head to the gun pit. I sat there for the next two hours and talked in whispers to the two other guys who were on the same time as me. The shifts are staggered. When I came on picquet the other guy only had an hour left of his stint and gets the other guy who then does two hours, one of which will be with me.
The night was uneventful. No probing enemy, no checking from the platoon staff, no possums, no nuthin’
The next morning after our morning routine we fill in our pits and move off. The day is filled with normal Infantry shit, patrolling, contact drills, patrolling, contact drills, that kinda thing. At 1600 we harbour up and do exactly what we did the previous night, at least the ground was softer and the digging was easier.
Everything was OK until I stopped. It was then I realised how wet I was from perspiration, how my legs and feet were sore from walking and worst of all my hands were blistered from digging.
At some time after midnight I am sitting in the gun pit. I have Smithy to my right and another digger to my left. We are doing single picquets because we lost a few blokes due to injury and fatigue. I have the horse blanket around me and I am sitting there quietly. Strangely enough I was enjoying the solitude. My aching body is testament to the fact that we have been working hard and I get a certain satisfaction from knowing that I am handling this OK. The air is quite still, there is no breeze, I can’t hear any animals let alone see much in the dark.
Then I spot him. No not the enemy you dickhead, the platoon commander, Audey Murphy. He is walking slowly along the track plan. I recognised him instantly.
Bloody hell, I know it’s him but I guess I had better do the challenging procedure otherwise I’ll be in more shit.
“Halt, hands up, who’s there?” I say in a low voice. Audey freezes mid stride, his legs are apart and his hands are stretched out slightly to his side. He is not carrying a weapon, as a matter of fact I never saw him with a weapon, maybe he was too young to have one.
“Platoon commander,” was his response. My guess is he said it with that smirk he gets on his face as he speaks with his head moving slightly to the left and right. I can’t see if he is wearing his cravat though. Next is the password bit, but I was feeling a little tired and I couldn’t be bothered, after all I knew who it was.
He comes up to me and with his finger he shoots me. “Bang. You are as good as dead Private Cavanough. Why didn’t you use the password?”
“I recognised it was you sir.”
“Bullshit, you’re nothing but trouble Cavanough, switch on man. Do you want to get your mates killed? Do as you have been trained to do.”
Maybe I should have thrown a rock at him rather than botch the challenging procedure.
“Yes sir!” And off he stumbled to annoy the blokes in the other gun pit.
Things are not going well and they are about to get worse. Later that night the platoon sergeant is hollering at us, I look up and he is shining a torch into my eyes.
“Who’s on picquet here youse cunts?” It took me a couple of seconds to realise that we were all asleep, no one was awake behind the gun. I can’t recall if I woke Smithy or not. The watch and picquet list is on the ground between Smithy and me. We’ve fucked up, we were asleep on picquet, a chargeable offence. I may have gone to sleep without waking Smithy, but I have no recollection. None of us say anything except give old ginger head some blank looks, we are good at that.
“From now on, all three of you will stay awake until stand to. Is that clear?”
“I’ll be checking on you, fuck it up and youse cunts is on a charge!”
So we stayed awake the rest of the night. No one complained, no one blamed anyone else. We took the blame as a group because the group fucked up, it was as simple as that.
It was such a stupid punishment, caught asleep so stay awake. But the platoon sergeant was a strange fellow. He was always telling warries which is unusual for a combat veteran. They know what combat is like, they don’t feel the need to big note themselves. None of the corporals say anything about their combat experiences except to tell us the funny stuff. But the sergeant was different. His definition of the role of the Infantry is to ‘kill cunts.’ He is unpredictable, dangerous even. He carried out a dangerous practice involving a mortar simulator. We were out bush doing some night training when we were called by the sergeant to gather in close. Suddenly I heard a whistling sound just off to the right. As I looked towards the sound there was an explosion. Everything stopped. I was stunned. My ears were ringing and my night vision was gone because my retinas were seared by a full view of the blast only a few feet away. In addition there was a lot of yelling, “Get down youse cunts, hit the deck, you’re under attack!” I dunno how many simulators he used, maybe two or three, but it was chaos, chaos that he wanted and which he created by being irresponsible with the mortar simulators.
It took a good five minutes for us to calm down. We knew he had fucked up, badly. He put the soldiers at risk by this stupid stunt. The man was a loose cannon. It was very bad, one of the corporals was wounded by the blast. This corporal had served as an Infantry soldier in Vietnam, he was due to be promoted to sergeant soon. We liked and respected this man and we would have followed him anywhere and here he was lying on the ground. A piece of shrapnel from the simulator had hit him just above the left eye. He was very lucky not to lose an eye.
I don’t know if there were any investigations into this incident, I think it was all just left be, just like our going to sleep on picquet I guess.
Things picked up over the next couple of days and they were without incident. No incident apart from no sleep, very little food, limited water and intense physical activity. Soon we were on the racing trucks heading back to Lavarack Barracks.
Whilst waiting for the trucks I finished off the last of my rations, a can of camp pie. It wasn’t long into our journey when I thought the camp pie was taking on a life of its own and wanted to depart my body. The rear flap of the truck was rolled up so I edged my way to the tail gate. I signalled to the other blokes that I felt sick and they cleared a spot for me. I sat there waiting for the big chunder. It never came. Not chundering is worse than chundering. At least when you release the contents of your stomach, even when it comes out through your nose, you tend to feel better afterwards. I felt sick all the way to Lavarack Barracks.
Later when we got stood down, had a shower and changed into civies, we felt better even though we were knackered. We were pleased it was over and soon we would join the battalion. We had a couple of beers at the canteen and had an early night. We slept like the dead. Most of us lost half a stone in weight and I never touched camp pie again.
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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