Ya know, there’s a distinct disadvantage by being the middle platoon in Alpha Company.
At the end of an operation they pull the platoons out of the jungle in the following order: One – Two – Three.
To mix it up a bit they vary the order to: Three – Two – One.
CAPTION: The author, Ian Cavanough, talks to the dust-off the helicopters. Photo by ‘Big Julie’.
Us Two Platoon boys are not happy. We never get to go first. Being first back at The Dat means you get that Cottees cordial first. You get to pack ready to go again first. You get to have a shower first. And, more importantly, you get to read the mail first, lying back on your bed while the rest of the company is returning from the operation still all hungry, thirsty and dirty.
We never get to go first.
This is not fair.
So we whinged and whined and ….. “tomorrow 2 Platoon will be extracted first, at 0900 hours.”
Woo Hoo! First. We’ll be back at The Dat by 0930 and have all our jobs done, shaved, showered, clean greens – and be reading our mail by 1030 at the latest. Sweet.
We were well prepared in our night harbour. Just 100 yards away was a nice large clearing where all the choppers could land at once. There was a fair bit of spiky bamboo about so we should be nice and safe tonight as the bamboo was hard to negotiate by day, let alone by night. Nigel wouldn’t bother us tonight. Our moral was high and I wuz feelin’ good.
So good in fact that I ate all the food I had left and I also had a delicious guzzle of water. We were always short on water and practised water discipline continuously. This meant that we only took our water in sips, we never drank when we were puffing and sweating as it just sweated out onto the body making you just as thirsty again. But some nights it was great to have a guzzle and I was looking forward to guzzling the rest of my water in the middle of the night. I could easily last until my next drink at 0930 no risk.
“One Two this is Albatross Zero Four, over”
“One Two, over.”
“Albatross Zero Four, inbound your location, figures five minutes, stand by to throw smoke, over.”
“One Two, standing by, over.”
We were in the clearing now set out in little groups that Ronnie RAAF call slicks. Upwind is the first group where one of the blokes has been tasked to throw the smoke grenade when I give the signal and the rest of us are in little groups so that the pilots know where they are supposed to land.
“Albatross Zero Four, throw smoke, over.”
I signal to the guys up front to throw smoke.
“One Two, smoke thrown, over.”
But there’s trouble up ahead. A fire has started near the first group. It must have been from the smoke grenade, which works like an ordinary grenade – pull the pin and throw. It ignites and starts spewing smoke. However we were standing in chest high grass that was as dry as a …. well it was very dry. What the thrower should have done was pull the pin, let the grenade ignite while still in his hand (not terribly dangerous); then throw it on the ground. I betcha it was that dumb bastard KR. That’s something he’d do.
I could see the boys trying to bash the flames but it was taking off big time and I could see them jumping and dancing around the fire all to no avail as it was spreading fast and, being fanned by the wind, it was heading to the rest of us standing in the clearing. We had no escape. The clearing was surrounded by spiky bamboo which is virtually impenetrable; you have to cut your way through with secateurs.
“Albatross Zero Four, this is One Two, we have a slight problem here at the moment, stand by, over.”
“Albatross Zero Four, roger over.”
The fire was raging now, the first groups had scattered down towards us; the fire which had flames leaping 10 feet into the air was now funnelling smoke up into the sky. There is no way the choppers could land and we needed to get off the clearing and away from the flames as quickly as possible.
“Albatross Zero Four, this is One Two, we have a problem with a fire on the clearing. It is impossible to land here until we make other arrangements. Suggest you move on to pick up the others, over.”
“Albatross Zero Four, understand you want us to abort?”
“One Two, roger. Delay our pickup until the area is safe over.”
“Albatross Zero Four, roger, over.”
“One Two out.”
Shit, that orange Cottees cordial would do the trick right now, but we have a serious problem at the moment – the fire is heading towards us. Moon makes the decision for us to jump through the flames. He’s got to be kidding. Right? I mean we are carrying ammo and stuff. We could get blown up!
That was our only way out, to move to where the clearing was already burnt.
Have you ever stood in front of a raging bushfire watching it flare up in front of you to 19 or 15 feet with the grass making multiple exploding noises while you are waiting for it to die down to just a couple of feet so that you and your ammo can safely negotiate your way through the flames?
No, neither have I.
There was a lull in the flames, so we rushed it. I ran full pelt, jumped at the right time, I sailed 25 feet above the flames and landed upwind of the fire where the air was clear but the ground was jet black with burnt vegetation still smouldering under my feet. I seemed to be on a barren black plain, standing out unprotected. If Nigel was about we would be a goner for sure. He would have us trapped in the open with no cover and the fire would cut off our only escape. In essence we were sitting ducks.
Well so much for being the first platoon back at The Dat. I hope KR is happy with himself (assuming it was KR of course, cough, cough). Now here we are sitting in a black moonscape with no water, no food; and we would be in big trouble if Nigel showed up.
A couple of hours later……
“One Two this is Albatross Zero Four inbound your location figures five minutes, over.”
“One Two, roger, do you need us to throw smoke, over?”
“Albatross Zero Four (laughs) we know where you are, over.”
“One Two, roger, over.”
I can see the choppers high up in the sky flying in formation. They usually confirm our position visually then drop down out of sight and then reappear at tree top level downwind of the clearing. Everything was going OK until they flew over the burnt out vegetation. The down wash from the choppers picked up all the cinders creating a black fog. I couldn’t see anything. I had to clamp my hands over my eyes to protect them from the flying debris, surely they couldn’t land in this chaos?
Well they did. I am usually at the rear of the slicks, on the last chopper out. I was crouched down covering my face when I heard above the normal din of the choppers a swish, swish sound. I looked up and a chopper was coming down on top of me. I scooted out of the way, the chopper landed and I hopped on, unable to see much through the black blizzard.
We lifted off, hurtled down the clearing through the black fog and then suddenly rose above it. I looked back down. We left some blokes behind!!!
And we never asked to go first again.
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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