Chapter 46: A big day

We lost count of the number of ambushes we set around the Courtenay Rubber, which were all to no avail – and the strain was starting to show on the men.  Well I was fucked anyway.

They gave us a Starlight scope.  This was a thing that looked like a telescope except it enabled us to see in the dark. The image was green and a little bit snowy, but it was a great piece of kit even though we couldn’t keep the batteries up to it.  All night blokes were looking for Nigel in the dark.  It emitted a high pitch whine that seemed really loud when you were sitting in the middle of a rubber plantation at night.

It wasn’t the first time we had used technology.  Some weeks before they gave us motion sensors.  The idea was to place two along a track at one end of the ambush site and another two on the other end. The kit came with a headset that fitted over one ear.  If anyone moved near the sensor it set off an electronic signal which we could hear in the head piece, if the second sensor went off in sequence it would indicate that Nigel was coming down the track.

But all it did was give us heart palpitations every time the damn things went off.  They were never in sequence and there was a lot of ‘falsing’.  Stray artillery in the distance or swaying branches in the wind set them off.   Sitting there in the dark when the sensor went off sent my heart thumping so hard I thought it would end up in my throat.  Is it any wonder that I have blood pressure problems today? We used them for a week and gave them the flick.

But these Starlight scopes could be useful in the rubber.  One night the group of four I was with were behind a slight mound.  The machine gun was on top as we were still using the three group triangle method of ambushing.  It was before 10pm so we were all awake when I noticed Ashes checking out something with the scope.   His body language indicated that he had spotted someone as he settled in behind the gun.  The others craned their necks to have a look while I looked to my left.  I was on the end and the others had some cover behind the mound whereas I was sitting out like a pimple on a bum.  I started to slink down behind the radio, I dunno if it would give me any protection but I had nothing else.

I stared out into the gloom but I could see nothing.  Ashes was now crouching up a little bit higher.  He was whispering “Yes, yes!”  He had the scope locked onto the enemy.  I opened my mouth so my heart could beat more freely in my throat.  Then I saw them, moving towards us, about 25 metres away.  Fuck me.  Blow the fucking Claymores!  They came closer and closer, Ashes still had the scope trained on them when they stopped and snorted, smelling the air.  Fucking pigs, you fucking bastards!  I’m having a heart attack here! I got up and bashed Ashes around the head with my bush hat.  It transpired that he wasn’t saying yes, yes at all – he was saying pigs, pigs; and I was the only one who didn’t hear him properly.  Pricks.

The next day I’m back with Mick and as we were moving to our ambush site I monitored the following on the radio: “One Two Plus, this is One Zero, Dustoff request sent over.”


There must be a problem with Moon and the rest of the platoon.  Some bastard must be hurt!  Radio discipline meant that I couldn’t ask One Zero what was happening.

“One Two Plus, this is Dustoff, inbound your location in 10 minutes, standby to throw smoke over.”

I mentioned to Mick that something is wrong with Moon’s group as we continued on our task.  It was very frustrating not being able to hear what Mal was saying on the radio.  If we stopped I could attach a bigger aerial to my radio and listen in.  But this would compromise our ability to reach our assigned position before dark.  We kept moving and I kept the hand piece pressed to my ear.

“One Two Plus, this is Dustoff, throw smoke over.”

“Dustoff, I see green over.”


I waited and waited, anticipating enough time for the chopper to land, pick up whoever was wounded; and then head back to the hospital at Vung Tau.

“One Zero, this is One Two Minus, over”

“One Zero over.”

“One Two Minus, we are anxious to find out what is happening with One Two Plus over.”

“One Zero, roger, Dustoff picked up the following paxs.  KIA 173….”

My heart leapt!  It was Killer!  Even before he had finished saying his Army number I knew it was Killer.  He was KIA!

“……KIA 1735712 callsign K.   WIA 2792250 Callsign C, over.”

Shit! Killer is dead and the other bloke must be Ian C, the guy I drove home from Townsville to Cootamundra with on our pre-embarkation leave.

I stopped in my tracks.  Wooly caught up with me.  I stared at him and said, “Killer’s dead!”  He looked at me in disbelief!  Mick came up and I told him also; and word went around the group.  We all said nothing.  Some guys were just shaking their heads.  Nobody said anything.  We just got on with our task.  We set the ambush and waited for Nigel to pay us a visit.  Nigel had better look out tonight!

I don’t think I got any sleep that night and Nigel stayed away as well.  Next morning we joined the rest of the platoon.  They were all very subdued. It seems that Ian C stepped on a mine and Killer was right behind him.  He staggered back and set off a second mine.  They were unsure if the mines were command detonated or just buried in the earth on the track and set off when someone stepped on them.

I went over to Digger and sat with him.  He was Killer’s best mate.  He made a brew.  We sat there together side by side.  We said nothing, we just sat there sharing the brew.

8th February 1971

KIA 1735712 Pte Peter Kowalski
WIA 2792250 Pte Ian Crisp 
MAIN PHOTO CAPTIONPeter Kowalski (KIA), Ian Cavanough (author), Ian Crisp (WIA) and Digger at Lavarack Barracks, Townsville, 1969.


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.



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,
Yeppoon, Queensland









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