I last spoke about Digger and me sitting and sharing a brew after Killer’s death. It took a while for him to open up and explain to me what happened.
He spoke slowly and deliberately, not looking at me, but staring down at the ground. I knew he was suffering badly. He said they followed a track not far from a village. There were two explosions. He said that Killer was still conscious after being badly wounded although he seemed bewildered and he did not seem to comprehend what was happening. His wounds were horrific. The Dustoff chopper was there in 30 minutes. Killer was still alive when they put him on the chopper.
Crispy too was badly wounded. You know that saying, never volunteer. Crispy (I referred to him as Ian C previously, but we called him Crispy) was due to go home. His time as a Nasho was up. When time is short, blokes spend their last few days safely back at The Dat. It seems the company was down a sig and Crispy volunteered to carry the radio. I recall his ranting and raving; and then volunteering to go on his last operation. I think his words were, “All right youse pricks, I’ll carry the flamin’ radio!” Poor bastard he volunteers and then gets blown up. His first objective when he went down was to try and get his radio working. But it was fucked. How’s that for commitment to task? Although he was probably in shock; he was still focused on his job.
Crispy’s legs were in a bad way. We had a great medic in Doc Lindmark. I never saw him panic; he was quite methodical in his work. When tourniquets are applied to soldiers’ limbs, the time is written in red on their forehead. Crispy calmly pulled a pen out of his pocket and handed it to Doc. When he and Killer were aboard the Dustoff helicopter, Crispy propped himself up on an elbow and waved to the blokes as they took off.
They were in Vung Tau hospital within 30 minutes, but Killer died on the way. Crispy lost a leg and had a lot of fragmentation wounds over his body. There was a worry about his manhood, but I can tell you that he married a local girl in Rye Park and they went on to have two kids; and no they are not as ugly as he is!
Before Nashos he drove trucks for the local shire council and on his return they acquired an automatic truck so he could still do his old job. Not a bad effort considering the bad rap Vietnam Veterans were getting in the 70s and 80s.
I got a lot more information from Browny, the forward scout. He blames himself for leading the men into an ambush. Browny was the best scout in the battalion, no risk. The blokes would have followed him anywhere. I know I trusted him completely.
“We fucked up Knackers!” he said to me. “They told us not to use tracks unless it’s absolutely necessary and using the same track twice is a big no no. Digger and me and another couple of blokes went on a recce for our night ambush. We had to go between a plantation, a swamp and a barbed wire fence. A tank track went straight through it, so we used that track and then used it again on our return. After we had a brew we set off again. As I got to a rise I stopped because something wasn’t right, it was too quiet. Barry came up and asked how far the ambush site was and I told him about 200 metres so we kept going. It was then I heard boom, boom – one after the other The first explosion was much louder than the second.”
The next day the engineers came up and checked out the whole area. There in the mud was the cable from a claymore mine, so one was command detonated and the other was set off using a bamboo pressure switch. A bamboo pressure switch has slits cut in a piece of bamboo. Electrical wire is attached to a nail and a battery. The nail is pushed into the bamboo with the nail near the second wire. The weight of a person stepping on the bamboo forces the nail against the second wire completing the circuit and setting off the mine. Crude but effective.
The OC and the Padre came out and we met them on Route 2. The road was being upgraded by Australian engineers as part of the civil program to support Phuoc Tuy Province. Gee the Padre and OC looked really clean while we were dirty, grubby and unshaven from living in the field for a couple of weeks. We probably stunk too.
CAPTION: The Padre, OC Capt B, Mick the platoon Sgt, Big Julie, Ashes and further back on the right AB Morris. Russell is near the APC.
They brought us mail and the Padre moved around our platoon having a chat – simply just saying hello and shaking our hands. He was a Roman Catholic priest and he was well known to us; and highly respected – I guess you could say he was a good bloke. It makes a difference that someone is prepared to travel out and say g’day just to make sure we were getting on OK after the loss we suffered.
Digger was sent out as he was not coping well and the rest of us remained in the area for about another 10 days before returning to The Dat. We did spring a successful ambush but it is all a bit of a blur to me. I think most of us were operating on auto pilot. When we got back to The Dat, all Killer’s gear was gone. It was as if he was never there. I always thought the Army handled deaths very badly. When a soldier is killed it should be his mates who pack up his gear and make sure his stuff gets to his family. This would give us a chance to grieve.
Moon organised a vehicle to go and see Crispy who was still at the hospital at Vung Tau. Only a limited number could go so I missed out on seeing him.
Even though he was in pain he was in high spirits. I was glad to hear that.
The battalion had a parade a few weeks later for all members in the battalion who were killed. Someone probably thought it was a good idea but I didn’t think it was appropriate, basically a march on, march off affair with some words being said in between while we stood around in the hot tropical sun. We weren’t used to it as we were always in the jungle and didn’t get much sun. A few guys started to feel faint. If operational requirements allow it I think a platoon should be given time to grieve for their mates as soon as it happens, not weeks or months later.
We completed nine months of our tour so far – three months to go and we were home. I could see the changes in us, especially when we got new guys.
New guys. Boy did they have it tough. They were assigned to a platoon then they didn’t see anyone else except 20-25 men in their platoon. That was their war, just the platoon.
When you first arrive in country your attitude is – well, if ya times up, ya times up. But after a while you begin to change and you actively ensure that your time won’t be up, that you will survive and head home. So you don’t take risks, you move silently through the bush, you only talk in whispers, when on the move and progress stops for a moment you melt into the trees – stuff like that. We often had to pull the new guys aside and explain the facts of life to them.
Killer and Crispy’s loss really hit us hard as we endeavoured to soldier on. We were dumb grunts and aside from the physical strain on our bodies we were also suffering from grief, a disabled flight/fight response; and survival guilt. It would stay with us for the rest of our lives – except we didn’t know it yet
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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