Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.
That was the sound in my brain. It was from the pounding of our boots on the hot asphalt running at double time along the back road of Lavarack Barracks. We had been running for 20 minutes nonstop, it was late morning; the heat and humidity were oppressive. My feet were burning up. Was it the metal plate in my GPs heating up? My brain had switched off, just dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.
We were minus our shirts and we were carrying our weapons. To ease the burden on the machine gunners, every few minutes the NCO would call ‘change’ and the three blokes at the back had to sprint forward, swap weapons and keep running at the same pace. Machine guns up front, all we had to do was keep in step and keep up.
The NCO called “right wheel…… continue the wheel.” Bewdy we are heading back. About 100 yards down the road was Ian C, even at that distance I could tell he was buggered. He was expanding his chest trying to get more oxygen into his lungs as he would bend over and straighten up. He was staggering more than he was walking, but he was still moving forward. We ran past him. Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.
“Right wheel…..continue the wheel.” Ian C was now up ahead, still trying to recover. We all knew what was about to happen. If he didn’t join on to the end of the platoon as we ran past we would run another hundred yards and wheel around again and we would keep doing this until he joined the platoon.
As we got level with Ian C someone grabbed his rifle. A couple of others grabbed each arm and helped him back into the group assisting him with the run. We ran another 100 yards or so and the NCO dropped us back to quick time. A little further on and we took a break in some shade. We had no water. This was part of our training – water discipline.
What I’d give for a nice cold chocolate milkshake right now. One that is so thick that it makes your cheeks ache as you suck it up through the straw.
It was a mental thing like most of our training now. We were superfit, we recovered quickly from any exertion, but there was still a bit of apprehension on my part.
Sum Wun said that before Christmas we would complete an exercise up at Mt Speck (read thick jungle) and four weeks at Canungra (read holy shit!). It seems everyone else does two weeks at Canungra, but Infantry Battalions do four weeks.
It wasn’t so much the training that worried me, but rather how I would react to actual combat with the enemy. I was a little uneasy thinking about it as our deployment was six months away; not a lot of time for us to get our shit together.
A few days later we were heading to Mt Speck in those bloody racing trucks. I found it was better to get near the rear of the truck. That way I could see out with the back flap rolled up. The only problem was sitting just above the rear wheels and the ride seemed especially harsh. There were no padded seats just timber slats to sit on.
Mt Speck was covered in bloody thick virgin rain forest and we were expected to negotiate our way through with webbing rifle and pack. The jungle fought us every inch of the way and the design of our gear also assisted the jungle in its fight to impede our progress. As you moved forward every vine in your vicinity came over and latched onto your gear, you dragged this stuff with you as your gear snagged each and every vine. The ground was uneven because we were moving uphill, the earth was soft. You held your rifle in one hand and wrestled with vines, branches and rock ledges with the other. To release the snagged vine you had to dip down, bend your knees and rotate your upper torso back at an angle so that the vine would slide off. Sometime you had to back up to release the tension on the vine. There was plenty of grunting going on.
Branches were another matter. As you pushed forward the branch would bend with you until you passed by its ability to impede your forward motion. This would release the pent up energy in the branch and it would snap back into position taking out the guy behind you in the process. The solution was to push down on the branch so that it didn’t spring back and flatten your mate.
If it was raining the rain water would collect on the branches, so you would gingerly bend it back as you moved forward and then let it go, releasing the water and drenching your mate. This was good fun.
Another good trick was to release rocks with your feet when climbing steep inclines and watch them hurtle down towards your mates.
Some blokes coped with this environment better than others. John H from Victoria was hopeless. He didn’t earn the nickname ‘Tangles’ but he should have. If there was a vine at foot level then John H would find it, trip, stumble and cartwheel to the ground. He was normally a quiet softy spoken type of bloke but the vines turned him into some sort of monster.
On one occasion we were told to be on our best behaviour as the Army brass were going to be on some rocks to watch us move through the scrub. John H must have forgotten about this. In full view of the Army brass, and on cue, John H cartwheeled for the umpteenth time. He had had enough at this stage. He got up, grabbed his rifle by the barrel and started to attack the scrub with it. He then threw the rifle a few yards in front of him, muttered some words (he never swore) picked it up again and continued on his way. Nobody said anything.
John H didn’t make it to Vietnam. He was the eldest child in the family and his father was quite ill. His mother was determined to stop him from going to Vietnam. She contacted her local politicians to have John H remain in Australia due to family problems. Then a couple of months later a request was made for him to take leave to attend to a family crisis, his father was to have major surgery and he may not survive. Leave was not granted. I’m not sure who refused his leave application, maybe it was the company commander, Red Fox. Yes that’s right another red head person in authority. Red Fox was a Major. He had bandy legs. Sum Wun said he was a desk Johnny.
One night when Pat our platoon commander was the duty officer and I was battalion runner, an urgent call came in from some high ranking Army guy in Victoria. The directive was to get John H on a plane pronto. I think his father had died.
Previously, John H had expressed his frustration to me. He said his mother was putting a lot of pressure on him to get a posting in Victoria but he also felt compelled to stay with his mates, he didn’t want to let his mates down. I remember him asking me, “What should I do, Knackers?” I did what any dumb grunt would do, I shrugged my shoulders. I really felt for John H, he was such a nice bloke.
He was despatched south very quickly and I never got a chance to say goodbye. We never saw him again. Maybe I’ll catch up with him one day to see how things turned out for him.
In the meantime we were busy with our lead up training to Vietnam.
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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