YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 21. Sunday in a rice paddy.

The following video is NOT mine, I found it on YouTube and it will give you an idea of what landmines do to armoured vehicles, and you’ll see the running gear. Keep these in mind for future posts when I talk about replacing tracks and drive sprockets. The armoured vehicles are M113 APC’s with a couple of variations, you’ll see a recovery vehicle and a command vehicle. The footage isn’t top-notch but it’s real, at the end you’ll see a lighter take on life at the beach.

Rain. There are many types of rain: gentle, misty, showers, hammering, cats and dogs and then there is the Monsoon in Vietnam. The clouds advance over the horizon, black, foreboding, heavy. Pregnant with life-giving rain and like the trains in India, on time. Almost every afternoon at 1600 hours, whoomph! Water fell out of the sky. The mud became muddier, the air wetter – it was like breathing H2o. One would have been better off with gills. Then it would stop suddenly as if it were switched off at a tap. If you were caught in it, there was no use changing. The humidity was 100% and the temperature around 110 degrees, so it made little difference. I imagine that is why rice is the staple diet in Asia, there’s so much bloody rain.

220px-Farmer_in_Vietnam[1]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice_production_in_Vietnam

This brings us to the subject of rice paddies, which look great in photos but aren’t the place to be for those in the Infantry. In places they were heavily booby-trapped and in my experience we rarely took our armoured vehicles into them unless absolutely necessary. Our task for the Sunday was to travel north of Binh Ghia on route 327 and give protection to a group of Army engineers working on a roadway across the paddy fields. We also had to drop a small contingent of Artillery personnel off near where an old Fire Support Base was being reactivated. Before any of this could happen we had to test fire our main armament, the 76mm QF gun. It had three main types of ammunition: High Explosive round for hard targets, a High Explosive Squash Head round, this had its fuse in the rear. When it hit anything hard the round flattened out then ignited. This caused the area on the far side of the impact zone to fly off and act as shrapnel. Then the Canister round, as its name suggests it acted as a container for sectioned steel rods about the size of the first joint of your thumb. Imagine a *huge freaking shotgun round* and you get the idea. I took this picture while we performed the test fire. The canister round is designed to repel massed infantry attacks or for shooting the crap out of a defenceless tree, and is very useful for clearing thick scrub. One tree died in the filming of this incident. As you may notice it gets a tad smoggy in the turret. Most of the smoke is from the main armament and tastes like shit, leaving you with a burning sensation in the gullet. You can taste it for days afterwards. A couple of quick bursts from the Browning .30 cals and we were ready to roll.

The Beast

 Early Monday morning after a quick breakfast, it’s stow our weapons, baggage, rations, American ones this trip, carton of soft drinks (sodas), plus our extra delicacies like sauces and stuff from home, (War is definitely Hell) biscuits, spices, sardines, nibblie’s – come on it’s a huge vehicle, it can handle the extra load. Our vehicles are strung out in a line outside the compound, the bunker piquet’s are back inside and the camp is stirring. Six Beasts or Fire Support Vehicles (see above pic) and six M113 APC’s. My vehicle, call sign 42 is carrying the Artillery Forward Observation Officer, a young Lieutenant who is tasked with sitting out in the bush and plotting the fall of shot for the Artillery. He decides that he wants to sit on the driver’s hatch lid and leans back against the turret, resting himself on my Browning machine gun barrel where it sticks out next to the main armament. I advised him it may be hazardous and he gives me one of those looks. Leaving him to chat to my Boss, I begin the radio check between our vehicles then ØCharlie, the main command post.  Peter Fischer, the driver starts our vehicle check on the engine while I check the tracks and running gear. The Boss still chats on, then it’s into the turret again, nothing is loaded yet, we’re still behind the wire. I check that all the main armament rounds are secure and that the safety clips are fitted over the bases. They are kept nose down in the racks and when needed the Crew Commander pulls them out by the webbing strap on the clip, flicks it off and shoves the round in the breech. The clip also acts as a cover so the percussion cap can’t be struck in storage. Then check the link belts of ammo for the Browning’s, make sure they are running freely and that nothing is in the boxes to impede them. A visual check of the controls and radios again and we’re ready to go. The Boss is now having a quick chat with the other commanders then we’re ready.

I have a suspicion that my new Boss doesn’t like me, I may have upset his plans by not taking on the Crew Commander’s job I was offered, I don’t know. But what the hell, I’ve been disliked by experts. The sun has only just peeked over the tree line and the sky is still heavy with black, menacing clouds. The only sounds have been the clunk and clank of hatches opening and the muffled voices of crewmen sorting out their mounts, then, ‘Start Up!’ The morning calm is split with the sound of a dozen Detroit diesel engines roaring into life, ramps are raised and clump into position. The creak and groan of tracks takes over as the vehicles begin to move. The Boss flicks his radio switch, ’42 to 42 Charlie, take the lead over.’ – ’42 Charlie roger over.’ – ’42 out.’ We all knew the real response, ‘Fuck it, not lead car again.’  Understandable considering that lead vehicles usually hit land mines first. If mines were command detonated they would take out vehicles in the middle.

As soon as a vehicle passed out through the gate weapons were loaded. First the Browning, lift the top lid on the receiver, grab the tab end of the ammo belt and drag it into position on the belt feed slide. Make sure the first round is up against the cartridge stop and close the cover. Pull the cocking lever back and lock the safety lever onto the bolt handle. The Boss loads his Browning, then puts a canister round into the main armament and it automatically closes the breech block. I make sure the manual safety is on and switch on the electric firing switches.

You only need to watch the first twenty seconds of this clip to get the idea of the weapon. This one is using a cloth belt for the rounds.

Up in the turret now, headsets firmly on over the beret, I check my radio junction boxes everything is fine. The sun has made its way higher up over the tree line, which is a thousand metres away from the road. No worries about dust in the eyes, you just have to dodge the mud being flung back at you from the tracks of the vehicle in front. I’m a little mesmerized by the whole thing and it gives the Boss another excuse to get up me. Oh it’s going to be one of those days. Try checking for movement across a kilometre of broken, bulldozed, devastated expanse of ground at about forty kilometres an hour. It took a little practice but I got the hang of it. Look out, a creek crossing it’s flooded and having been navigated by other vehicles the previous day we slow down and 42 Charlie looks for an alternative crossing point. The Viet Cong would mine well-worn paths and crossing points. So it paid to look for unused ground. Back to our Artillery officer. We knew what was coming when it came to entering creek crossings. Steep banks meant that the nose of the vehicle drops quickly and the arse end comes up, and the vehicle invariably slides into the water. We braced ourselves and he tried to hang onto my Browning barrel with one hand. I can still see him slipping forward wearing his flak jacket, helmet, pack and carrying his Armalite he began to pick up speed. By the time I lunged forward to grab him he had already gone over Peter’s head forcing it forward onto the driver’s hatch ring. Peter wore a helicopter crewman’s helmet and it smacked into the metal. The FOO slowed slightly, I hate to think what he snagged himself on. I managed to grab the collar of his jacket with one hand and hang on. I became caught up by my manly bits on the protective hood that covered the periscopic gun sight, the only thing stopping me from going further forward. Then we hit the water faster than we should have.

FOO got himself drenched, Peter was still seeing stars, my knackers were feeling genuinely unloved and the rushing water began pushing us sideways. The ordinary M113 could swim, our vehicle could, to the bottom, if the turret was shifted left or right. The Boss leaned over and grabbed the FOO and between us we managed to pull him up off of Peter. He pushed the trim vane out in front which helps when you are navigating water and manoeuvred the vehicle back onto a straight line against the current. Doing a great job he managed to get us up and onto muddy land. If FOO had slid off he would have undoubtedly been crushed under the tracks, drowned or both. Crikey, who needed the Viet Cong, we could kill our own much easier. Back to work, everybody is over the creek and we head north on route 327 through Binh Ba then on to Binh Gia which was situated off the main road. I think it was Binh Gia which had the Local Forces garrison, manned by soldiers drawn from the area, some ARVN troops and American advisors. Binh Gia was a busy village, it must have been market day. There were many women of all ages, old men and children. The young men were either away in the regular army, local forces or fighting with the Viet Cong. Children are everywhere and come pestering for lollies and chocolates. Although these girls were very polite.

Vietnamese girls.

Some of the more truculent children waited until we drove off and ran between the vehicles yelling out for chocolate. A couple of packets of M&M’s sailed through the air and the scrum was on. The old people stared right through us. They had the French then the Japanese in WW2, the French again then when they went the Americans and her allies. We were nothing to them, old hat exactly like the weather – there to be endured. I’ve been looking at the small diary I kept, I was definitely no Samuel Pepys and only wrote down the bare essentials. For this particular day I wrote a brief rundown on where we were going and this gem; ‘There’s plenty of good-looking Chicks around.’ How crass is that? Yet my thoughts had merit, the younger women were beautiful. I had a close, brutal, almost sexual encounter with my periscope and these things were uppermost in my mind. My thoughts would have been no different back in Sydney on a Saturday morning. Contrary to what some women believe not all men in war are rapacious animals, living only for plunder and rapine. Being in a war zone doesn’t mean you lose your personal morals and self-respect. Yes you are there to engage the enemy and people get killed. That is another kettle of fish which I won’t go into here. I will say that yes, men do fantasize, look at women and think about what they could do. It doesn’t mean that they act on those thoughts against unwilling recipients. We were in someone else’s country, invited there by the government of the day and we treated the people accordingly.

Back to the villagers, there were old women dressed in black PJ’s wearing straw hats. Young women in Ai Dao’s, Catholic schoolgirls in uniform heading for church. Everybody going about their business. Pete almost ran an old woman over as we crossed a wooden bridge outside the village. A temporary, narrow structure it had tarmac over the wooden decking and it was patchy. Pete saw the green metal, round object the size of a small dinner plate embedded in the tarmac, I saw it, the Boss didn’t. Pete did the right thing and swerved to the left to avoid the track running over it and all the Boss saw was the extremely agile old woman leaping out of the way in horror. Now Pete was in the shit, between us we couldn’t convince him of what we saw and that Pete had avoided what he thought was an anti tank mine. It turned out to be a large ration can used to plug a hole up. Struth, you can’t be too careful. I dare say we knocked a good ten years off that old woman’s life span.

We managed to get out to the paddy fields in time for our task for the day. We formed a large defensive position, perched on our turrets with hot cuppas and guarded the engineers while they did their thing. Secure in the knowledge that these fine men of the Cavalry had their arses covered while they worked on repairing roads. The day wound on and except for the clank of bulldozers and the screeching, grinding of grader blades over rocks you could have been anywhere in the world. The air hung heavy and damp, the clouds bunched on the horizon waiting for the call to advance. The engineers finished their work for the day, loaded their machines on large trucks and made their way back to wherever they camped for the night in Binh Gia. We packed up our bongos and umbrellas, cooked and ate our evening meal and packed our portable stoves away. Then drove a kilometre away from the paddies and performed our ablutions, changed into flying suits and joggers, checked our weapons, unpacked the claymore mines and trip flares. The Boss and Commanders had a little conference, decided where we were going to set up the night ambush then he gave me all the coordinates to encrypt and radio in to ØCharlie. These had to be right, there were coordinates for artillery fire if we were attacked. It would be called in to land several hundred metres away around the site. The encryption device was quite simple, a circular piece of cardboard with two other circles attached. There were numbers and letters around the edge and you picked a set of two letters to start with and worked the grid reference form there. So ref 187965 could end up as: BAGSPTRU. This was done for about four grid coordinates and a brief message to the commanding officer. Of course it all had to be spelt out in the phonetic alphabet while the evening rain hammered on the turret. I was finally at war and loving every minute of it.

Next week: Artillery and a Fire Support Base.

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12 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 21. Sunday in a rice paddy.

  1. olganm

    I agree with Theresa. (Although for some reason today WordPress won’t show me the like buttons). It is good to read personal accounts of such events and remember that somehow, whatever the circumstances, life goes on.

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  2. Theresa

    Laurie – I hate to click on ‘like’ after reading these chapters, but subject matter aside (‘war is hell’), I thoroughly enjoy them. Your writing drops me right there, next to you…no filter, humor amidst the pathos. Thank you for taking us with you.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Theresa, it’s not a subject everyone likes but it’s been around for so long. There are many dry, statistical writings on war that I thought a fresher approach seemed the way to go. Filter-less is the way to go, I find it flows easier if I write it as it is (you’ll like next weeks). There’s humour to be found in many situations, you just need to stick a knife point on it and dig it out. It’s been my pleasure to take you all along on my journey.
      Laurie.

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  3. Raani York

    Another amazing part of your life, Laurie. If I weren’t hooked to your blog already, I’d be within minutes after starting to read this!!

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  4. rayjamieson

    Hell of a place to grow up Laurie! I knew a couple of the SAS guys (brothers of a family friend) and they had some horrific tales to tell. Messed them up big time for later in their lives… But other than the war going on, probably a nice place to visit! Great post!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Ray, yeah those SAS boys did it tough, I only ever saw two of them while I was there. Look it’s a lovely country and I believe a nice place to visit now. I just don’t think I’d want to go back. All you have to do is read my last Turnkey’s Tribulation post to see why I wouldn’t hack it. 🙂 Thanks for commenting Ray.

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      1. Pagadan

        Laurie, you are so good at recreating the atmosphere (I could swim: quote from Men, Martians, and Machines), the grit, the mud, the conditions and hard work, the people, the tension, …

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Thank you Joy, I like to take my readers ‘into the turret’ and show them what I saw. They will get wet, bitten by strange things, shot at and tangled in jungle. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. =-O

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