Canungra is where the Army’s Jungle Training Centre is located not far from the Gold Coast. You may have heard stories about the place. Sum Wun said some Yanks were killed there during training – the place is that tough and dangerous.
We lived in old tents with a concrete floor, we slept on stretchers – real flash stuff – but it was dry and better than sleeping on the ground so there were no complaints. There was plenty of food, and plenty of hot water. It was better than being out bush.
The two weeks at Canungra was a mixture of normal Infantry type training with a couple of nights in the bush and then the real mental challengers – heartbreak hill and the confidence course. Oh and the section attack where they fire a Vickers machine gun over your head. It should be an interesting couple of weeks.
Bush work was not as hard as I thought it would be. We had been training in virgin rain forest up around Townsville some 1200kms further north into the tropics whereas the Canungra training areas had a lot of use, consequently the undergrowth was fairly well worn. Movement through the scrub was much easier.
Take the navex for example. You arrive at your checkpoint and set your compass for the next leg, check the bearing and follow the thinned out undergrowth where thousands of soldiers have trodden before. Ezy.
BTW we have new packs. They are divided into an upper and lower section. Bedding in the bottom and food and stuff in the top. The shoulder straps are padded. Sum Wun says the bigger the pack the more shit you carry, the more weight you hump, and the more you grunt.
We are in the bush for a couple of nights. On the first night, as darkness approached there was no direction as to whether there was a picquet or not, so we set up our hootchies and rolled out our farters expecting a good night’s sleep. When it was dark the order was for the guns to be manned. We have no track plans in place and we have no cord along the track plan. This is how we move silently at night in our harbour position, move to the cord and follow it along to the gun. The track plan allows the movement to be done silently.
However blokes are hootchied up all over the place and it is a battle to find the guy you are supposed to wake up. It turned out to be a big schmozzle during the night as blokes got lost trying to find the next guy for gun picquet. Sum Wun said a digger was so lost he slept with the 3 platoon sergeant because he couldn’t find his own farter. It wasn’t our platoon sergeant, Tojo. He would have told the digger in no uncertain terms where to go!
I understand why this was done, to show us that track plans, comms cord and a picquet lists as well as knowing where your replacement is sleeping, are essential elements to square away before last light. We have been doing this stuff for months. It may be a good lesson for the cooks and drivers who don’t do this stuff, but it is our bread and butter. It just stuffed us Infantry guys around. We already knew that these things were essential.
Anyway the possums are quick learners. While checking out the bloke to replace me (we could use torches because we were not tactical) I heard a noise and shone the torch on a possum that was into a packet of biscuits he just pulled from the new fancy back packs. The biscuits are sealed pretty well so they don’t get wet, so he must have a history of getting into diggers’ stuff. The biscuit bag was well and truly ripped open. The digger was sound asleep and oblivious to the night time thief so I left the possum to enjoy his dog biscuits. If I chased him away he may have attacked my pack and taken my biscuits.
The one thing we were all dreading at Canungra was the confidence course. It was a series of obstacles that you negotiate through, under or over. They walked us through the course from the finish back to the start to ensure we understood what each obstacle looked like and to figure out the best way to tackle it. Take for example the bear pit. It was a high wooden wall and a pit of water. Because the wall was so high you needed to attack it at speed, place one foot on the wall and leap into the air, grab the top of the wall; and then swing over and drop down into the bear pit. The instructor asked for a volunteer to jump in to show everyone how deep it was. Someone obliges. The water is waist deep.
The rope obstacles are better suited to someone with gorilla arms, that’d be the Artillery guys; I bet they had no problems with the obstacle course. Some really warped bastard designed this course to ensure every muscle in your body gets a complete workout. Soon we are at the start and a couple of us get released every 30 seconds. It’s game on.
I soon discovered that once a couple of diggers go through the obstacles before you, everything is wet and slippery. This makes most of them really hard to negotiate and it quickly saps your energy. Soon you are covered in mud and breathing hard. You must run all the way, walking is forbidden, and you can’t zip around any obstacles – there are plenty of NCOs to make sure you don’t cheat and they offer plenty of words of encouragement; most of them swear words.
ADF file photo by Corporal Mark Doran, digitally altered by CONTACT
Half way through I’m ringing wet and covered in mud. My heart is pounding and I am breathing heavily. My arms have no strength left in them. In fact I’m rooted.
I see the wall and bear pit coming up, I increase my speed, one foot on the wall and I leap up and grab the top of the wall. My arms are shaking from the exertion of the previous obstacles. Oow, my stomach muscles are shot as well as I heave myself up with the help of my boots fighting for traction on the wet wall. I manage to scramble up. I swing over the top and I remember that the pit is only waist deep so I pull my legs up as I hit the water. The cold water hits me like a sledge hammer. As I sink down I can smell the putrid water. And I keep sinking. The bloody pit is about 10 feet deep and I’m at the bottom with no oxygen in my lungs. I push off the muddy floor and leap back up to the top. I burst through the surface sucking in air noisily. The NCO is there just looking at me. I swim away from the wall as other blokes are coming over the top. I get to the end of the pit where it is waist deep. That’s where the digger dropped in during our familiarisation, but the rest of the pit was bloody deep.
A big disappointment was the last obstacle where you jumped off a tower into the river. This washed off the mud and grime. But because of recent heavy rain the river was swollen and the jump was deemed unsafe, so it was cancelled. What a pity. We had to clean up as best we could in the showers. You can imagine what they looked like after we had finished.
The section attack was next. This is where they fire a Vickers machine gun over your head to simulate battle conditions; maybe this is where the Yanks stuffed up. Five section, with Davo as our section commander, was working pretty well as a team. We had done countless contact drills and section attacks. Davo knew his shit so all we had to do was follow his lead. There are two distinct activities when a shot rings out up front where the scouts are. Firstly we activate a contact drill. We move to rehearsed positions. I am in the gun group with Killer and our job is to get the gun working as soon as possible to return fire to the enemy. We run forward then move out to the right so we can lay down suppressing fire in the direction of the enemy without hitting our own guys. In the jungle you can’t see anything so you rely on sounds to work out where everyone is.
The second phase is when Davo takes over. He assesses the situation, and if he thinks we can take out the enemy then he starts the attack by moving the section forward by fire and movement. Everytime he calls “Gun go!” Killer and I get up and move forward a few paces and hit the deck and keep firing the gun as he is moving the other groups (scouts or rifles). The pattern is random, so we have to be on the ball and move as soon as Davo calls out. Sometimes he may move us twice at once.
For the section attack under live fire they gave us blanks, so we were harmless and the Canungra staff were safe. We patrolled along and a shot rang out. We carried out the contact drill and Killer and I moved forward and to the right, level with the scouts and started shootin’. Davo started giving his orders, and then pandemonium broke out. That Vickers gun opened up. Bullets were whizzing inches above our heads all I wanted to do was hug the ground. It was impossible to hear Davo’s orders so I had to keep watching in towards him and read his body language. Each time he faced our way we couldn’t hear his voice but we understood his gestures, Killer and I got up and moved forward. It was going OK until we hit the barbed wire which slowed us down. To add to our problems there was plenty of water about and Killer and I had to swim under the wire while trying to keep the gun dry. At least the water was warm.
All the while that Vickers gun was shooting above our heads.
Then I realised that they were shooting way above our heads. I could see the fall of shot against a cliff face off to our right. That meant they weren’t shooting at us. The bullets may well have been way up high, we had no chance of being hit, but it sounded like the bullets were inches away from us with that very unique sound: crack, crack, crack, crack, crack, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. The crack was the bullet going over our heads as it broke the sound barrier and the thump was the sound of the primary, where the weapon was actually firing.
But what a buzz! And clearly all that training we did for fire and movement needed a bit of revision because battle noise made communication by voice practically impossible. Who says you can’t teach dumb grunts new tricks?
After the two weeks at Canungra, we spent two weeks in NSW at Wiangaree State Forest doing the normal Infantry stuff and nothing remarkable happened. I can only tell you so much about patrolling and contact drills and stuff. Soon we were back at Lavarack Barracks and onto Christmas leave.
As usual I told a lie to my mother when I would be home so I could surprise her by a couple of days. I flew from Townsville to Sydney and caught the train to Cootamundra. It arrived at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night. I got a taxi to my parents place but I got the driver to stop at the corner and I walked up to the house and around the back. My parents never locked the house. We never had burglars and besides, the only thing of any value was a black and white TV set, but it was bloody heavy.
I entered via the laundry door. Jimmy the black Labrador dog slept in there and he only stirred a little bit, what a hopeless guard dog he was. I entered the house and dropped my bag at the bedroom door. Inside the bedroom I switched on the light. The room was a mess as my mother was getting it ready for me and she thought she had a few days left to do it. The bed wasn’t made so I looked around and managed to get some stuff and make myself comfortable.
Note to self, don’t surprise my mother any more and come home when you say you are coming home. It’s easier that way.
I received a Christmas card from my civilian employer, the Commissioner of Forests. I sent him a 2RAR card and told him that I had a nice time visiting Wiangaree State Forest.
And so Christmas 1969 came and went.
Christmas 1970 would be very different.
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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