Chapter 38: How I Became a Pogo
Five months into our tour and we are advised to start thinking about when to take R&R. R&R is a five day trip to many leading cities in the world and free travel is provided. The rest (read girls and grog) must be paid for by the soldiers. Not a bad lurk in my opinion but taking leave after only five months into the tour seems a bit early to me, I’d rather have the holiday somewhere past the half way point so that the downhill run to home would seem much shorter. But I was easily persuaded, so off I went to Bangkok.
The break would do me good as I was getting a little bit sick of being Killer’s number two on the machine gun. We had been together 24/7 for about a year now and we were having a few minor tiffs. Nothing important mind, no real arguments, just sometimes we got on each other’s nerves and I was tired of being essentially a pack mule for the machine gun ammo and maintenance items.
Our platoon radio operator, Dennis, was a Nasho whose time was nearly up and he would be heading home soon and getting out of the Army. I asked him about his job and what it was like. He told me how good being the platoon sig was. You get to know everything that is happening as you are with Moon, the platoon commander, most of the time and you are there when decisions are being made. I expressed my apprehension about the weight of the gear the sig carried and whether I could do the job effectively. Let’s face it, my track record is not exactly exemplarity; I had made plenty of mistakes in my short Army career.
He reassured me that the sig probably carried less weight than the number two on the machine gun. The sig carried a lighter weapon, the M16; and there was no need to worry about the radio as it was the boss’s radio and the sig simply carried it for him, so when the OC rang up you simply handed the radio to him or took messages. He encouraged me to have a go.
I returned from R&R and as I hopped off the truck just outside A Company orderly room the clerk was there to greet me. I was wearing sunglasses with my polyester uniform, a big no no in those days. The clerk approached me and removed my sunglasses. “Shit you had better leave them on Knackers, your eyes look so bloodshot you’d bleed to death without them! You’d better get your gear together the company is about to head out.”
“No way mate, I’m just back from R&R, I get a week back at The Dat before going out on operations.” I left him and headed up towards 2 platoon’s lines.
Mother, the CSM spotted me, “Get you gear on Pte Knackers we move out in ten.”
“Sir, I get a week off back here, don’t I?”
I run up and grab my gear which is packed ready to go. All I had to do was fill the water bottles. Mick B, a pom, had taken over my job as Killer’s number two on the machine gun while I was on R&R. He seemed to be doing OK.
Mick the platoon sergeant came up to me and asked, ”So you want to be the sig Knackers?” What could I say? I didn’t think I would be good enough but I remembered things that my father used to tell me. One was, “Son, never be frightened to take on a job because you think you may not be able to do it – otherwise they will give it to some other dickhead.” So I sorta nodded and it looks like I was going to be the next platoon sig. Dennis saw me later and gave me the nod. In the meantime I would be a rifleman in Davo’s section.
Off we headed out into the province. We meet up with some APCs and clambered on board. I dunno where we are heading but up front were Centurion tanks. Pace was slow, but at least we were safe. No one in their right mind would mess with us today. We didn’t travel inside the APCs as they were designed for us to do, but rather we threw our packs inside and sat on ammo boxes on top and hung on for dear life. The tankies liked this too; if we were on top of the APC we weren’t inside pinching all their rations.
We were having a few problems with the APCs throwing their tracks. They’d have to reverse up so they would slide back home. The cause was the difference between the Centurion track and the APC track, they weren’t the same and as the APCs followed in the tank tracks it was quite easy for a track to start sliding off.
We pulled up somewhere late afternoon and went into a harbour. Because I just returned from R&R they let me off gun picquet for the night. I laid my head down at sunset and didn’t stir until morning some 14 hours later. I was so tired, I musta had a great time in Bangkok. I’ll tell you all about it later.
It was quite different being a rifleman, going on water parties, carrying different gear such as claymore mines and C4 explosive; and being a general dog’s body. It was about this time that Davo and Leon were transferred to 3 platoon and Barry, the section commander of 4 section went to 1 platoon. Roy took over 5 section. He was about our age and he was a very keen and switched on soldier. As he came from 6 section it was up to me to set him straight about how 5 section worked. He would later make RSM, no doubt due in part to my efforts.
I worked closely with Roy up in the Nui Dinh Mountains as a forward scout. I lasted three days. The vegetation was very thick and the ridgelines were quite steep; there was no option but to patrol along the tracks. This makes us very vulnerable to mines, booby traps and ambushes. Roy asked me to be forward scout. I dunno where Smithy was, he was 5 section’s scout and he was very good at it. What does it take to be a good scout? Well first up I’d say that the men trust you and rely on you as their early warning system.
The Army textbooks say there should be two forward scouts who operate as a team, one protecting the other. As we were never at full strength, this was not an option for us. Davo used to be right behind the forward scout; then a gap back to Killer and his number two. Being out front like that meant you were very exposed to any threat. So thanks very much Roy – I was it, the bloody forward scout. One of the bonuses of being a scout is that you have an M16 and you do not carry any extra gear, but this does not compensate for the effort you have to put in.
Patrolling along the narrow mountain tracks as the platoon’s forward scout is, well, ‘exhilarating’ is not quite the right word, nor does ‘exciting’ seem to cover it, and ‘shit scared’ has been done to death. Just imagine that someone is out there with a rifle trained on you waiting for you to come closer so he can zap you; or maybe he has left a nice booby trap for you to step on. Every part of your being is on high alert, you are tingling all over as you scan the area to your front. Are there any signs of fresh diggings on the track? Are the leaves on the track disturbed at all? This may mean a mine is just under the surface. Are there any mine signs? Is there something unusual with the vegetation that doesn’t quite fit? Is that stick leaning up against a tree a possible mine sign? Why are those three rocks together on the side of the track? That place up ahead would make a very good ambush site, is Nigel and his mates hiding there waiting for you?
Your body is really alive to any nuances around you, the pressure makes you sweat profusely as the continual alertness takes its toll on your body. Etched into my brain is a vision of the track which I can see up to 50 metres where the vegetation is really closing in. This would make a great ambush site. I thought I heard something behind me but as I was concentrating intently trying to ‘look through’ the jungle left and right off the track, I failed to look behind me. As I moved into the dark shadows caused by the thick jungle I glanced back at Roy. He wasn’t there! I fucking had a huge dummy spit! Roy was about 50 metres back! I raced back down the track to where he was and bashed him over the head repeatedly with my bush hat.
Apparently he had signalled me to stop and he didn’t check me. I can’t believe how upset I was.
Later when thinking about it I was upset because I realised how vulnerable and exposed I was and without any back up. Anyway both Roy and I agreed that I wasn’t really scout material – I couldn’t handle the pressure. Three days was my limit, I couldn’t handle more than that. I had tons of respect for Smithy and Browny who were our top forward scouts for the whole tour of 12 months!
Well how am I going to go with the radio? I seem to stuff up a fair bit so I’ll really have to smarten myself up. I knew what most soldiers did about the radio, you know, how to set it up, how to change frequencies, how to send and receive a simple message; how hard can it be? To train a proper signaller takes months, I did a three day course – that seems about right in a war I guess.
Every hour when patrolling we send our location back to company headquarters in a coded message called a locstat. Moon, the boss, gives the signal for the platoon to come to a short halt, the section commanders come into platoon headquarters where Moon and them argue about where we are. Moon gives me the grid, I code it up and I send it to company HQ. For three days it was going swimmingly, then on the fourth day I couldn’t raise Coy HQ. This went on for about four hours, we would halt, work out where we were and I’d attempt to get Company HQ on the radio; all to no avail. Then, in the distance I heard the CO’s chopper, each type of chopper makes a distinctive sound and the CO travels in a small Sioux helicopter. I switched over to the Battalion’s frequency, listened for a while and then I called Johnny: “Hey Johnny, this is the guy who didn’t salute you back in Townsille, can you take our locstat?” Well maybe I should have said that, but this is how it really went: “Niner this is one two, over”
“Niner, niner, this is one two, over.”
He came on net, I could hear his carrier wave and the chit, chit, chit of the helicopter in the background, “Ah one two, this is Niner, wait out.” His voice sounded as if he was a little puzzled, and no wonder – I can’t just call up on any net unless I am authorised, or I must be authenticated first – there’s a procedure to follow; but I didn’t have comms with OA the net controller so I just winged it, and besides I didn’t really know this at the time. It wasn’t long before the CO came back to me.
“One two, this is Niner, over?”
I took a deep breath and said, “Niner this is one two, I have been unable to raise callsign one for many hours, can you relay our locstat to callsign one?”
There was a pause for a few moment.
“This is Niner, send, over.”
“This is one two, Locstat. I set alpha tango, grid juliet Xray foxtrot, bravo golf yankee. Moving north. Over.”
“This is Niner, I read back. Locstat callsign one two. I set alpha tango, grid juliet Xray foxtrot, bravo golf yankee. Moving north. Over.”
“This is one two, that’s correct thank you. I will now go back to my means. Out.”
For the next few moments before I switched back to Alpha company internal frequency I could hear him trying to raise callsign one on his net; if you can underconstumble all this.
What impressed me about the CO is his radio procedure was spot on.
Moon couldn’t believe what I just did, calling the CO up for a locstat. It went around the battalion like wild fire too, especially amongst all the properly trained signallers who spent months training on this stuff and here I was, a three-day wonder hassling the CO for a bloody locstat. But I believe I did the right thing, we established comms after four hours of nothing and advised them of our location. This was unorthodox and against ratel (radio/telephone) rules and procedure, but none the less it was a successful way of getting a message through to Alpha company HQ advising them of our location, no doubt about it.
This incident actually gave me a lot of confidence to do a good job as platoon sig, a bloody pogo!
I should explain what a pogo (sometimes referred to as ‘a poge’) actually is. A pogo is someone who goes off to war and isn’t involved in actual combat with the enemy and he is in no direct threat. You may be surprised to know that this is about 80% of the Army personnel during war, such is the strength of the administrative tail to keep soldiers adequately maintained in the battlefield. For every combat soldier there are at least another five soldiers supporting him in the rear.
So this is the story regarding pogos in Vietnam. The pogos are based at Vung Tau while the fighting arms are based at Nui Dat. But there are pogos at Nui Dat who stay back at the base and don’t engage with the enemy – cooks, drivers, clerks – that kinda thing; it is the infantry battalions that do the fighting. But there are pogos in the infantry battalions who stay back at HQ and look after pay and administration and leave the rifle companies to fight the war. But there are pogos in the rifle companies who look after admin like the Q and clerical stuff leaving the platoons to fight the war.
Now this is the important bit. The fighting in the platoons is done by the sections, as platoon sig I am in platoon HQ, I am now 25 yards further from the battle than I was as a number two on the machine gun; so I am now a pogo in platoon HQ.
“Yep, Knackers is a fucking pogo now.”
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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