Patrolling in rubber plantations is dead easy. The lack of undergrowth makes it a breeze but there is a downside – you can see a couple of hundred metres one way and only a couple of metres another because of the way the rubber tress are aligned. That means the enemy can spot you and take a potshot at you from a couple of hundred metres away and quickly disappear; so your gaze shifts into another gear scanning the area a couple of hundred metres away.
This means you spend less time looking to your immediate front for mines and booby traps. So while the physical effort may be reduced by patrolling in rubber plantations, the mental effort can be very acute indeed.
We didn’t move much during the day. We tried to pick a nice shady spot where the locals could see us as they went about their work in the plantation and fields. Sometimes if we were bored we’d set up a bit of a checkpoint near a track, stop the locals and check out their papers even though we didn’t know what we were looking at.
Big Julie was out on the track and he was surrounded by a few kids. Usually they were after lollies or whatever else we could give them. They were a nice distraction for a while but soon they became a pest. That’s when one of the machine gunners would pick up his M60 and run screaming at the kids who would scatter in all directions. The poor bastards probably have nightmares about this. But soon they’d be back again with their cheeky grins.
So anyway, Big Julie spots an old woman riding her bike towards him. He moves to the centre of the track, he is standing tall with his chest puffed out, his SLR is by his side pointing downwards; he holds his left hand up high as a stop signal and he calls out to the old woman, “Dung Lai!”
Mama San completely ignores him. She didn’t even look at Big Julie but simply rode her bike around him as he rotated around and watched her ride past him with his hands on his hips looking like an idiot. The platoon, sitting about bored senseless in the shade, erupted into laughter and spontaneous applause!
At last light we were on the move. The platoon split into two groups and headed off in different directions to lay an ambush in the rubber plantation. Each patrol was of about 12 men. I usually went with Moon the platoon commander and our callsign was One Two Plus. The other group with Mick the platoon sergeant, was One Two Minus. I dunno who thought this up, but we were both on the Alpha company net who were back at Courtenay Hill at FSB Garth. Comms with company HQ, callsign One Zero, were very good as they were on the high ground and our radio signals were line of sight so to speak. Often therefore we had comms with One Zero but not with each other.
Things were pretty quiet. We set ambushes a couple of nights and nothing happened. Maybe Nigel had given up and moved elsewhere. Somehow I started heading off with Mick the platoon sergeant and Mal filled in as sig with Moon. Mick and I got on quite well together. He tended to panic a bit at times but his heart was in the right place. The ambushes were set very quickly. Because we were not ambushing tracks, we would simply pick a spot in the rubber plantation between the jungle and a village and wait. The 12 men were divided into three groups and set in a triangle pattern all facing out. Claymores were placed out front of each group and we settled down for the night. We would all stay awake until 10pm and then one person in each group would be awake by themselves for an hour then wake up the person beside them, and so on. Noise had to be kept to a minimum. A few nights of this and we were all fucked.
I normally laid out a groundsheet and placed my pack and radio beside me. My M16 was on the ground in front of me. We were all laying on our guts peering into the darkness. Listening was more important and gave us more information than our eyes ever could. I was in the centre of the group of four. Mick was on my right and two others were on my left. A machine gun was forward of the centre of the group along with the clacker (firing device) for the Claymores. Even though it was dark I could see the other two groups behind us about 50 metres away.
Mick prodded me in the side.
“What’s up?” I whispered.
“You’re fucking snoring Knackers!” Mick whispered back.
“How the fuck can I be snoring with my eyes open, Mick?”
I must have dozed off.
After 10pm the person on sentry would sit up, but I’m sure we all lapsed into sleep at times.
BOOM! I jumped about 10 feet into the air. The sound of the Claymores exploding behind me followed by a sustained burst of machine gun fire had me instantly awake. Mick grabbed our machine gun and turned it around towards the rear group. They were silhouetted by their muzzle flashes and Mick started firing into the gap between the two rear groups. All three groups were now firing into the rear killing ground. I radioed ‘contact, contact’ and I immediately went into machine gun mode, something I had done for 12 months. I grabbed the linked belt and started feeding it into the machine gun as Mick fired off towards the killing zone. The tracer easily showing his fall of shot which he was keeping nice and low.
But there was a problem. When Mick grabbed the M60 and turned it around, the linked belt attached to the gun hooked onto my groundsheet and it was now being pulled closer to the feed plate. I doubt if the gun would work with my groundsheet wrapped around its working parts. I tried to pull it back but that jerked the gun to the left, closer to the rear group. Mick was not happy as he mouthed something that I couldn’t quite hear over the noise of the battle. In the end I broke the link belt just as Mick stopped firing.
It was quiet. We laid there and waited, listening for any signs of the enemy. There was none. A couple from the rear group got up and checked out the area. “All clear!” We were talking loud now as whispering was pointless as our position was given away by the noise of the weapons. “The killing ground is empty!”
Did we all miss them?
Mick went over and had a chat with the rear guys. With us was a new FO, an artillery corporal. It seems he panicked because he thought someone was approaching them so he set off the Claymores. That was the signal to engage the killing area which we all did. Mick radioed to One Zero that it may have been a false alarm and we would check it out at first light.
At first light there was nothing to show for the ambush. No bodies, no gear, no blood, no nuthin’! The FO was very apologetic. The rubber trees bore the brunt of the weapons. The ball bearings from the claymores hit the trees way above the height of a man. We would have to sight them much lower in future. Mick was boasting his prowess as a machine gunner by pointing out to me how low the rounds he fired were hitting the rubber trees.
A bloody false alarm.
And boy did we cop some shit from One Two Plus.
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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