Yes I saw my first woodpecker in Vietnam. I knew what they looked like because of the cartoon character. He looked just liked the cartoon version except that the feathers on his head were yellow instead of red. There he wuz, hammering into a tree in the middle of the jungle somewhere in South Vietnam. What a sight! I dunno why but we didn’t see many birds in the jungle, but we saw everything else known to mankind that stings, bites and shits on you from a great height.
In the 60s I got my information about jungle wildlife from the flicks (movies to you guys under 40). Those black and white movies we saw on Saturday arvo showed blokes going on safari and shooting everything in sight – it didn’t matter what it was, if it was big and it moved, they shot it. The jungle was a place to be feared where your life was constantly in danger from carnivores and rampaging elephants.
You wouldn’t catch me in the jungle, I was scared of the dark and doubly scared of spiders. As a kid in the 60s my parents were worried about my, ah, I was going to say phobias, but I never heard of that word then. I was just scared of certain things.
I think I know why I was scared of spiders. I was the youngest of four boys and I do recollect my eldest brother waking me up one evening and dangling a fake spider near my face. A couple of nights later a spider was on the sheet in front of my face. I saw the outline of something moving. It was backlit by the light coming through the doorway. I leapt out of bed and went running to my mother. I was screaming and yelling a bit too but I think I’ve always done that.
She tried to calm me down by coming straight into the bedroom I shared with my brother and rolling back the blankets to show me that there was no spider – but there on the sheets was a bloody black spider! I’ve never recovered. Every night for a week I searched my bed before going to sleep with the light on.
Our toilet was outside and we didn’t have an outside light, so my parents got me a nice lantern style torch that I used as I rushed from the laundry door to the toilet. It kept me safe. No one attacked me. I needed that torch in Vietnam.
Queensland has vicious ants. They were angry bastards about an inch long and they tracked you as you walked past their nest. But I don’t recall anyone getting bitten by them. There were ants that lived on a gravel heap. Blokes walked near them and dragged their boots over the top of the nest where hundreds of ants would swarm out and try and attack your mates behind you. Living in the field for extended periods meant that we knew about ants, but nothing prepared us for the ants in Vietnam.
Where do I begin? The worst were the biting ants that lived in trees. They formed a nest by gluing leaves together into a tight leafy cocoon that appeared as a blob in the tree. If you left them alone they left you alone; but brush against their nest and you would be mauled by these small orange biting ants. They weren’t all that big but gee they could bite. Most of the colony lived inside the leafy structure, but the soldier ants waited on the outside protecting the nest. Their job was to attack and bite; and they did. The worst case was on the APC as I mentioned previously, where we looked like cowboys at the rodeo as we held on for dear life with one hand as the APCs roared through the trees with us grunts bashing the biting ants with our free hand with our hat.
Next were the trailing ants. These were large columns of ants moving through the jungle tightly packed together in what seemed an endless stream of ants about a foot wide as they meandered their way along the jungle floor. The ants were carrying pieces of leaves, maybe they were going to a party or something. They seemed to ignore us as they continued on. No one was game to test what they would do if you laid down in front of them. Would they go around or over you? I should have suggested to the 3 platoon blokes that they give it a try. On the outside of the moving column were the soldier ants. They were about an inch long and their heads were half an inch long. They were evenly spaced along the column ready to defend the colony. Gee they had bloody big heads, I was thinking of posting one home to show my parents.
At night if you moved near their column they would emit a shimmering noise that would raise and fall in volume, so we piddled on them.
Ants were so prolific that we had a field signal for them – making a sign with your finger and thumb imitating their pincers. They weren’t terribly dangerous, they were just annoying. One time the field signal came down and I started looking for the ants, especially those ones in the trees. As I got to a slight clearing, about 20 metres ahead of me were blokes belting their trousers with their hats, I assumed they were hitting at the ants on their legs.
Between us was a barren scene with no vegetation, it was stripped bare. It was a jumble of naked vines, and I could smell honey. I then saw the ants crawling all over the vines. There was a kinda tunnel though the vines so I ducked and ran through the tunnel. I covered the 20 metres very quickly. The honey smell was very strong and I didn’t get bitten. Bewdy. I looked down and there were a lot of ants attached to my trousers, so like the others I started to belt them off with my hat. It was then I realised that they were hooked onto me, all their legs were free and they weren’t trying bite me. They were attached to me by hooks on the back of their bodies. The hooks were in the shape of an anchor. Navy ants! They seemed just as dumb too.
While termites often built nests in our packs overnight, at least they didn’t bite and only once did Killer and I get chased out of our farter by ants. Often things crawled over you at night and as Killer used to say, if they crawl on they’ll crawl off. But this time they were biting my face. I would grab them and throw them across in Killer’s direction. Pretty soon we were both awake and decided to move, only there was no where to go at night in our harbour. To sleep we had to clear a space and this was not possible in the middle of the night, so we settled down on the track plan. We told the guys to watch out for us but every hour on the change of picquet we’d get walked over. Bastards.
Next morning we saw the reason for the ants’ movement. The gun was placed near a termite mound and some bored bastard started to dig into the mound with his bayonet. This upset the termites, but something else happened. A colony of black ants started moving into the termite mound starting WWIII in ant town. Killer and me were sleeping in the path of the black ants.
But that wasn’t the only thing. Where I slept on the track plan was a giant bloody spider suspended above me. You know those guys that sit in the middle of their web hanging upside down. He could have been sucking blood outa me all night. Although my fear of spiders was still there, this guy raised my curiosity more than my fear, probably because he didn’t have hairy legs. We studied the web. There was a white zig zag pattern on the web above and below the spider. This guy was pretty docile even if he was about as big as my outstretched hand. He didn’t move when we took a closer look. I also noticed that there were other smaller spiders on the web. They seemed to be cleaning the web of the dead insects and placing them together on the side of the web. Amazing.
What was really amazing is that I didn’t kill him.
We were often sitting in the jungle just listening. This gave me plenty of opportunities and time to observe insects. I noticed a spider on a leaf. He was on the underside of the leaf, not moving. Then I caught the trail of silk as it reflected the light. The silk was streaming out from his body and floating away on the air current. Aha! So this is how they string their web between branches. Well that’s what I deduced anyway.
There was another insect with hairy legs. We only saw them on a couple of occasions. Just after it rained, they would be running around on the forest floor. We called them front-end loaders because of the way they moved. They moved slowly and their bodies were soft as we squashed them under our boots. Sum Wun said they were RTA (return to Australia) bugs. Get bitten by these guys and they have to send you home. They were brightly coloured, orange and white. Killer and I were stripping the gun down when one appeared in front of us. He was about four inches long and he was crawling slowly along the jungle floor with his front legs pushed out in front of him, hence the nickname of front end loaders.
I prodded him with the guide rod from the machine gun. The guide rod is about a foot long and as soon as I prodded him he reared up exposing his underside and beak. The beak was grappling with the end of the rod and I could feel the vibrations along the rod. I can’t recall how it ended but let’s just say he didn’t get me. A couple of years later I saw a funnel web spider for the first time. It was then I realised that these guys were spiders and that beak was in fact his fangs. The RTA bug was more than twice the size of an Australian funnel web and I was teasing him with the guide rod from the gun just inches away from me. No wonder they call us dumb grunts.
I only saw a couple of snakes, which is good, I think. The first occurred when I was sitting there quietly in the jungle when I heard a rustle in the bush in front of me. Then I spotted him, a small snake with a black head. He was slowly moving through the bush when he got level with me and popped his head out to have a gander at my youthful good looks. I wasn’t concerned, I just kept observing him although I was ready to bolt if he moved towards me. We gazed into each others eyes. I’m sure at another time at another place we could have developed a relationship – I certainly hope it was female. She then decided to move on.
The second snake encounter was quite different. We had a signal for snakes and when it came down the line I was once again looking up in the trees because those black and white jungle movies showed me that snakes just drop on you at any time. They wrap themselves around your neck and strangle you to death. Up ahead was an area where some filtered sunlight came down through the jungle canopy and sunbathing in the centre of a pool of sunlight was a snake, not just any snake, but a fucking big snake! He was 15 feet long and as thick as my thighs; and he had a diamond pattern on his back. I’m pretty sure he was a jungle python. He was not curled up but rather he was strung out in a straight line. Because of the thick jungle we had no option but to tiptoe past him only a couple of feet from him.
I was walking beside him as if I was on eggshells, I didn’t want to wake him and have him going for my throat. As I got to the end near his tail I tried to stir him up for the rest of the blokes coming through by kicking some dirt on him. He didn’t stir. Maybe he was dead, or dumb, just like the guys in 3 platoon.
It didn’t take much to stir up some wasps let me tell you. You only have to go near their nest and they attack – and in numbers. They dart out, sting, and dart back to the nest – plenty of them. Killer and I got caught in a blitzkrieg by a squadron of wasps. Killer got hit first and I managed to cover my face as I started going backwards through the scrub. They must go for the soft tissue areas on your face because Killer got stung a few times in the fleshy area just above his eyes. I got stung on my ear lobes. We both managed to survive OK with very little sympathy from the blokes, who were actually laughing at our antics as we were being attacked. Bastards.
And lastly the fireflies. Sum Wun said if you put them in a jar you can use them as a lantern. We never tried it though so I can’t tell you if it works. The fireflies were about the size of a bee and they flew very slowly through the jungle. Their abdomen was the light source – two little rectangular patches that emit an intermittent green light that pulsated as they flew along. The light was bright enough to light up a person’s face so maybe the jar thing would work.
Oops, I haven’t mentioned the fuckoff lizards, which were really entertaining when you were sitting in the jungle watchin’ and listenin’ for Nigel. Suddenly from outa nowhere: fuckoff, fuckoff, fuckoff, fuckoff, fuckoff. Now let me be clear, I never saw one so I dunno if it was indeed a lizard. All we heard was their call: fuckoff! They would do this a number of times in succession. We’d have bets as to how many times they would say fuckoff.
And finally, I have to tell you that I was very comfortable living in the jungle – the thicker, the darker, the denser the better. Living in the jungle for 318 days on operational service in a war zone was a place that I found very peaceful and I felt safe most of the time.
Yeah, I know what ya thinkin’ – bloody dumb grunts!
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.
Hi 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.