Chapter 43: Route 2 to the Song Rai River

That thin vertical line in the west is Route 2.

The Song Rai is the wriggly blue line to the east, it is a river.

The distance between the two is 12 kilometres.

We roughly followed the third set of grid squares down from the top – it took us nine days to complete the patrol!

Our food supply had to last nine days whereas our normal food supply was for six days.

Water wasn’t a problem, there was a stream every couple of kilometres as you can see on the map, so they gave us dehydrated rations.

Forty years later just the thought of these dehydrated rations nearly makes me dry retch.

Did I tell you they were New Zealand rations?

I dunno which was worse, the VC or the NZ rations.

Read on to see if I survived….

 

We were up at sparrow’s fart, packed and ready to go.  I was always apprehensive on the first day of an operation.  I’m not sure why.  I had on clean greens but no jocks.  These would last me the whole of the operation, which was usually about four weeks. I had new socks which would last me two weeks when they resupplied us with new ones.  I rarely took my socks off in the bush even though I slept with my boots off.  Replacing ones socks was a serious occasion.  I found that the socks stuck to me feet after about three or four days, so I left them until the resupply and then I peeled them off and threw them away.  I’d give my feet a wipe and put the new socks on.  For the next couple of hours patrolling, my feet would be sore. That’s why I never took my socks off – it hurt too much.

But, back to my apprehension. I think it was the combination of a full pack containing maximum food and maximum water – oh and maybe the few beers I had the night before.  In addition I didn’t sleep too well before an operation.

It was one of those mornings where the humidity seemed worse than usual. We marched down to the company admin area to board the trucks.  It was about 100 metres, and when we arrived there I was already sweating profusely.  In a matter of minutes we boarded the trucks and headed out onto Route 2 and sped north.  There was no canopy on the trucks and the moving air was very refreshing.  This would be our first time in this part of the province (east of route 2) and I was a little concerned at what may lay ahead.

Twenty minutes later we dismounted and started patrolling east.  In the distance we could hear the sounds of APCs.  Whenever we were near tankies we always sought them out.  That way we wouldn’t surprise them, as they had 30 cal and 50 cal machine guns and we didn’t want to spook them.

Amazingly, one of the crew commanders was a guy I was with in 22 platoon at Kapooka some 18 months ago!

“G’day mate, howyagoin’?”

“Hey Cav!  A grunt huh?  Whatsitlike?  Tough?”

“Yeah mate. Crew commander eh? Not bad!”

“Yeah, good job.”

“OK mate, catchyalater.”

“Seeya Cav!

And off we went in search of the VC….

On day two we made an amazing discovery.  Browny, the forward scout, was told to move to the edge of a rise and to check it out.  He came back to his seco and said, “Nothing there but an ambulance.”

“A fucking ambulance?”

“Yeah, it looks like a VW.”

“Fucking bullshit Browny!”

But sure enough, there it was – an ambulance in the middle of nowhere.  It was a VW Kombi.

I waited until the boys checked it out until I approached it, as it may have been booby trapped.  The one thing I learned was never to be inquisitive.  If something looked different or unusual I never went near it.  I still live by that rule today. Even though I kept my distance from the Kombi, I did notice that the tyres were all cut away.  No doubt the rubber was used as footwear.  Nigel probably made a few pairs of Ho Chi Minh sandals.

We patrolled on to our night location.  We were following a track and it turned south and crossed a creek.  A track and a creek!  Jackpot!  I’ve mentioned this before – a creek and track is an excellent place to lay an ambush.  After the Claymores were set, we settled into our night routine, manning two machine guns covering the track and a third at the back – a sort of triangle-shaped harbour with a machine gun at each point. I was in the centre with the boss in platoon HQ.

The track ran north/south.  It was an old tank track which was then used as a foot pad by the VC.  We were in an area classified as a free fire zone, that is, there were no civilians or friendlies in the area, yet the foot pad was well defined, although it had not been used in the last day or so.  Still it was worth a shot, so to speak.

The night was uneventful.  Next morning the clearing patrols went out and we stood down to have breakfast.

Now’s a good a time as any to tell you about our NZ dehydrated rations.  The rations were in a green satchel.  We could heat them up two ways – by filling them with boiling water and allowing them to stand; or by mixing cold water in the satchel and placing the satchel onto a hexi stove.  A hexi stove was a little metal fold-out stove and the hexamine tablets were stored inside the stove.  One tablet was enough to heat the satchel and maybe enough for a brew.  We had to be careful though as our supply of hexamine had to last nine days.  But we hand some other stuff. We also carried slabs of C4 plastic explosive.  Sum Wun discovered that by breaking off a small piece of C4 and setting it alight it really generated a lot of heat; it was much better than hexamine.  It was great for heating stuff although the light it emitted almost blinded you.  I dunno who was the first idiot to discover this, but it sure worked a treat.

Lemme see, ham and eggs for breakfast, that’ll do.  As I balanced the satchel on the hexi stove Glenn’s machine gun opened up with a couple of very long and sustained bursts.  I dunno if the claymores were let go at the same time; they may have been, but one thing is for sure that M60 rattle sure gets the blood pumpin’!  As I radioed ‘contact!’ to One Zero, a sudden burst of incoming fire from an AK47 cracked inches above my head, leaves and debris were falling down on top of me as I hugged the ground using the radio and my pack as cover.  I’m sure seven or eight days supply of NZ dehydrated rations would stop a 7.62 round from an AK47!

Glenn was about 20 yards from me and I could see smoke coming off the barrel of his machine gun as he engaged the enemy.  Another burst of AK rounds came in and I decided to turn my head side on to make my profile even lower.  Debris was still falling on me.  Grunt’s machine gun opened up as well.  He was over to the left, closer to the stream.  Grunt was the guy whom you may remember was the sentry up in the Nui Dinhs – he heard Nigel coming that day we were working with the SAS.

It’s a strange feeling being shot at.  You can hear each round as it passes overhead, crack, crack, crack, crack, crack.  You then hear where the rounds are coming from as a thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.  You know exactly where the shooter is even though you can’t see him.  In addition, all weapons have a distinctive sound signature so you are able to identify the different types from the M60, SLR, Armalite and AK 47.  Even though you can’t see much it’s the sounds that help you make sense of what’s happening, although it is chaotic.

I realised how exposed I was because the ground sloped upwards from the track; I had very little cover.  There was no way of telling how close those AK47 rounds were to my head.  They could have been ten feet above my head, but that sound, crack, crack, crack, crack, crack sounded only inches away.  With the debris falling on me I realised that the VC was shooting way too high.  The rounds were going up into the trees.  My mind went racing back to what Pat Cameron taught us back in Townsville – make sure the machine gun rounds hit the ground in front of you then walk the bursts up to the enemy.

The firing stopped.

Silence.

A couple of blokes moved forward.  There was a quick exchange of fire and then voices yelling – “All Clear!”

I started breathing again.

A clearing patrol went out and found only one enemy with an AK 47, a pack and some other gear.  Grunt would later say that he only let off a few bursts to his front so that he could get new ammo as some of his links for the M60 were getting a bit rusty.

I photographed the enemy as usual for identification.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight as he was shot in the head and it was kinda crooked.  The photos, his weapon and his gear were sent back on the chopper.  This guy had put up a good fight.  He took us on even though he would have known by the two machine guns that we were at least platoon strength.  I can’t understand why he continued to return fire rather than bug out.  His firing at us allowed the machine gunners to pinpoint his exact position.  Maybe he was shot in the leg or something, I dunno, but he stayed and fought us – and he paid the price with his life.

The VC was given a proper burial just off the track and the location (grid reference) was sent back with his belongs.  A few weeks later another patrol was in the area and they discovered two more bodies down near the stream.  Our clearing patrol had failed to locate them.  They did not return fire so they were either hit very early in the contact or they were not armed.  The other bodies were added to our contact report by GHQ.

Later, when everything calmed down, I managed to salvage some ham and eggs – but I had lost my appetite.  Still I knew I had to eat something.  It tasted like shit.  I tried a number of ways to heat this stuff but it all ended up the same.  In the end I couldn’t eat ham and eggs and I never have scramble eggs to this day.

It wasn’t all bad.  The chilli con carne was OK, but that was about it.  I thought about breaking off a bit of C4 explosive to see how that tasted – it surely had to be better than these dehydrated rations – but I never did.

Moon crossing the river.
Moon crossing the river.

We soldiered on heading east towards the Song Rai River in our usual patrolling technique – we’d set off for a couple of hours, then prop.  Half the platoon would have a look in one direction and then return for the second half of the platoon to check out a different area, and then we would decide where to head for our night location.  We were making steady, but slow progress.

We didn’t come across any more VC. Maybe we should have stayed back at that track for the nine days.

We crossed the Song Rai on an old tree that had been felled.  Still no VC.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I managed to get this great shot of Moon the platoon commander crossing the Song Rai.  It is one of my favourite photos from Vietnam.

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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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