YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 22. Let’s build a Fire Support Base and We get sent into a bunker system.

Let’s build a Fire Support Base. 22/8/71 to 30/8/71. We moved back to Binh Bah after breakfast and a quiet night of not a bloody thing happening. Ambushing is one of those hit and miss affairs where you sit up in the turret and stare out into the darkness wondering what the bloody hell is moving around out there. Usually it was wild animals with the occasional Viet Cong thrown in. The disturbing thing was when you went out to bring in the claymores and they had been turned around sometime through the night. It takes guts to sneak up on an ambush and turn mines around. When you weren’t on piquet you slept in the vehicle. This is an inside look at a Beast, I’d like to thank Rolly Wood for the picture but he’s no longer with us. He took this at some stage after we returned home, the vehicle is all pristine. The seat on the right is the Crew Commanders and on the left of the ammo boxes is the gunner’s. We used to have a protective cage around the back and sides, leaving enough room to clamber in from your sleeping position. The picture is taken from the access door in the ramp.

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I slept on the passenger seat that was fitted along the inside left, it’s been taken out of this vehicle, with my feet pointing at the access door in the ramp. The Boss slept on his side of the turret and Peter slept across the width of the vehicle at the back in his hammock. Very chummy indeed and amazingly enough you slept, mainly from exhaustion. Being on the alert all the time does something to your system, the adrenalin is always bubbling slowly under the surface. You don’t feel it but it’s there.
This was a typical ambush setup when working with APC’s. I think this is one of Ken Johnson’s pics. We shared our pics around a few years ago, as many of us had lost a lot of our own. My first two rolls of film were stolen.

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It had been decided to put a fire support base next to a dirt airstrip outside of Binh Bah. The artillery were moving in and setting up a Battery. This involved the engineers popping in and bulldozing a perimeter of bunds for our vehicles to park behind, a central command bunker and areas for the guns to be set up. Naturally we had more important things to do, traipse around the countryside looking for any trace of VC, while the Arty boys filled sandbags. This meant bush bashing, lots of bush bashing actually there was enough bush for everybody to bash. There was a rubber plantation across the road and the rest of the area was regrowth rainforest. Of course everything that flew, crawled and bit lived in the regrowth. Our antennas were quite long and whippy, high enough to hit the green tree ant nests that hung like large, venomous fruits. They’d be knocked loose from where they hung and crashed down onto the turret or decking. Of course each and every one of them had anger issues and they came looking for you. We had spray cans of DDT (not good for you) and sprayed the blighters, it only made them angrier. You certainly knew it when they stung you. So we drove around in circles for most of the day, knocking down greenery, looking for tracks and checking out an old village that had been destroyed years previously. One of the crews struck it lucky and found a banana tree with a huge bunch of green bananas on it.

Grunta 42C

Huey helicopters are a well-known symbol of the Vietnam war, whenever I see or hear one (I’m a touch deaf yet I can hear them before anyone else) I go straight back there. On this day we had one land near the FSB then took off only to come under fire from the VC a couple of kilometres away. A fire mission was called in and the artillery boys had a job before they had set up. All we could do was sit and watch as they set to the task. They worked like a well-oiled machine and the thump thump thump of rounds being fired rolled over us. One hundred and fifty rounds later they went back to work. Of course we were all champing at the bit to get going but in what became a common theme where our section of Beasts was concerned we were held back. After some thought and talk with others over the years we came to the conclusion that we were like Koala Bears, a protected species. I’ll write more about this in future posts.

F S B on Air Strip

Naturally after the artillery finished it rained, all night. You will see in the photos we have hootchies fastened onto the rear of our vehicles, these gave some protection from the weather through the day. At night they would be taken down and the ramps raised and the access doors opened. Not all the vehicles would be used for piquet, perhaps every third one. A roster would be drawn up and three crews shared the duty through the night. Of course all of this is very exciting – almost. My diary tells me very little about this period: we patrolled daily and it rained often, Pete and I managed to service the vehicle and guns, we made a quick trip into Nui Dat picked up the mail, put new tracks on the vehicles and came back. On the 27th Brigadier McDonald (our big boss) paid a visit. Not much in the way of spit and polish now, we were mainly red from the mud. He looked around, nodded a lot, we said Sir and he buggered off. Just how it should be. The next day we moved out to FSB Debbie, rumour had it we were to be mortared by the VC that night. Didn’t happen, so back to more bush bashing.

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The Bunker system. 31/8/71. We are called back from annoying the wildlife late in the afternoon and made a run to Xuyen Moc (pronounced Swan Mock) arriving at 1750 hours in the rain, naturally. A large amount of 76mm ammunition is waiting for us, hmm this looks interesting. The Boss gathers us all together and announces that we are going into a bunker system early the following morning. It appeared that an Infantry patrol had stopped for a break on the side of a hill. The forward scout and his mate sat on a log and were having a drink of water when they heard voices in Vietnamese. It would have gone something like this, Scout, ‘What did ya say Bruce?’ – ‘Nothing, not me Mate,’ he looks down between his feet and sees a machine gun barrel sticking out from under log, ‘I think it might be the Noggie who owns this gun.’

Here’s one with the camouflage removed from the front. (Woody’s pic)

VC Bunker

Yes indeed the system was that well camouflaged they’d walked right into it. When the rest of the platoon began spotting bunkers along the hillside they realised they were in an extremely large system and pulled back. Bigger brains than ours surmised back at The Dat that something was afoot and they organised for an airstrike the following morning. The plan would go like this: The Fourth Infantry Battalion, actually one of its companies would be on our left, waiting for the strike to finish before moving. Our force of six Beasts, bristling with arms and an extra twenty rounds of 76mm ammo would go in and line up for the push against the system. We would move through and rout the enemy, beautiful. I didn’t know about anyone else but I was excited, apprehensive, a little scared, excited again, got an erection several times through the night and hardly slept. (I believe the term is a combat chubby, brought on by all the above, thankfully no pictures have survived of it.)

The following morning, 1/9/71. It’s quiet, the rain stopped early and now the air is heavy with the restrained tension of men going to fight. No jokes from Grunta Wales, about tall cold glasses of Victorian beer with a little froth on top, or the urgent need for long white, slender female legs to be wrapped around him as he woke. Bloody hell Grunta we all wanted that but not today. Today we wanted to get stuck in and do what we were there for, fight. So it’s check the vehicles, engines, tracks, guns. While the drivers finished dipping engine and transmission oils, the gunners sat in their seats waiting.

I took this picture at a reunion a few years ago, don’t worry it is a practice round. It will give you an idea of what it would be like to carry five of these on your lap.

76mm round

I had an extra five rounds of HESH on my lap, ideal for bunkers, extra canister rounds lay in the sponsons with our gear. The radio crackled and we received final orders from ØCharlie. Even the Boss was quiet, he couldn’t fault his crew today as the section rumbled out of Xuyen Moc and headed bush in the pre dawn. We pulled up a kilometre short of the system and waited. A heavy wall of what seemed to be impenetrable forest stood in front of us, monkeys screeched and gibbered amongst the vines and birds flew madly from treetop to treetop. They could hear the F4-Phantoms before we did as they screamed in across the tree tops like avenging angels and disgorged death, 500 lbs at a time. Yes, the earth moved and it shook and the shock waves from the bombs although muffled by the forest could still be felt. Then it was quiet, we all seemed to be mesmerised by what had just happened, ‘Start-up!’ The roar of engines seemed pitiful after what we had heard, still they powered us forward as we crashed through the tangled undergrowth.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the image.

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My vehicle was on the right flank, the rest were spread out in line to our left, the jungle opened up to a clearing that wasn’t there 15 minutes previously. Smashed trees lay about, splintered and torn. The ground looked to have been ploughed up, not by some biblical sword into a ploughshare but by dozens of six-foot long lumps of metal, eleven inches in diameter containing 192lbs of high explosive. We edged forward, I hunkered down in my seat. Knees up keeping the shells in place. Eye pressed against the soft rubber eyepiece of my periscope. Right hand on the elevation gear, finger hovering near the trigger. Left hand on the traverse handle while scanning the long sloping hill in front of us. I could see at least two bunkers, the fresh-cut logs smeared with mud were visible through my sight. The Boss had his head stuck out of the turret, scanning the front with his binoculars then, clunk. The car immediately to our left came to a grinding halt. The Boss yelled into the radio, no answer. The whole section stopped and 42 Bravo (I think) sat nose up on a large mound of earth. The troop sergeant jumped out and ran up to the car, the Boss joined him and I peeped up out of my hatch and saw what was sticking out from under the mound. An unexploded 500 lb bomb. I could see the nose cone and the lettering on top of the bomb, we were that close. If it went off it would be goodnight Irene for most of us. A little piece of my psyche died that morning.

For some reason going over the bump had dislodged the battery in the vehicle and the earth cable had come loose. That was quickly fixed, yet no one seemed to be taking notice of my radio call, ‘Err, you’re on a bomb.’ The Infantry then went into contact with the Viet Cong who had pulled back out of the system while we were getting the car off the bomb. I still sat in my turret, Peter had gone with the Boss to help and all I could do was listen in on the radio net as the 4th Battalion blokes were in contact. I took another look through my periscope and could see a bunker 200 yards away in a gully, still manned by two VC. I yelled out to the Boss and he dismissed me. Then a call came in from ØCharlie, ‘Pull back and dispose of the bomb.’ We could still hear the contact going on over the hill and what really stank about the whole thing was, the order had come from back in Australia. The powers that be didn’t want to lose any Beasts, there were only twelve vehicles all up and we were needed for the withdrawal later in the year. Bloody hell, that wasn’t helping the grunts, or us. I can’t speak for any of the other blokes but I was shitfaced. We were there, right there blood pumping, arseholes twitching and – ready. It was akin to a boxer, trained up, sweating, fuelled and anxious then – nothing. All gone, the rug pulled out from under you.

The section, minus one car and two MIni Team engineers motored back out to our start point and waited. The Mini team blokes had nerves of steel, they were the ones who located mines and booby traps then disposed of them. We waited then couldn’t help but hear the roar as the Beast came lumbering through the jungle, appearing at a great rate of knots the engineers hanging on for grim death. They pulled up next to us and the engineers filled us in on what they’d done. All that explosive falling into the hands of the VC was a no-no. So they placed plastic explosive on the nose cone, about four lbs of it with a slow fuse attached, and enough of a time span for them to get out. We had breakfast and waited, the Boss became anxious and the Mini Team blokes definitely weren’t going back in to check on their handiwork. As the agitation level grew the bomb went off. A huge whoomph and this time we felt the shockwave, along with the monkeys who suddenly ceased chattering. You could see birds whooshing backwards, that bomb was gone!

Next week: We lose tracks in the worst of places and A rude awakening.

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18 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 22. Let’s build a Fire Support Base and We get sent into a bunker system.

  1. Owls and Orchids

    Late to the ‘party’ Laurie, but engrossing reading. I can almost feel the insects and crawlies,,, not to mentions Ants and VC…Yeah, I think if I was ‘pulled back’ after all that I wouldn’t be a ‘happy chappy’!
    Your writing and pictures just make the whole thing come back to life again… gives me goosebumps. Glad I caught up..with the story…
    Ciao, Susan.x

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      I’m still not a fan of some insects 😦 Yes I think the pictures help, some aren’t the best but they convey a sense of time and place. Goosebumps are good, my writing is working. Glad I caught up too.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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  2. hitandrun1964

    I will read this tonight. Hope your test at the hospital went easily and quickly and that the woman and spider muse helped even a tiny bit. Hope the results come back so good that you put your grizzly slippers on and dance.

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  3. kelihasablog

    I well remember the Huey…. as well as trying to sit down to dinner and seeing all of “war uncut” visualize on TV. I have friends who returned, and some that never did… Excellent post. Brought back many memories! 😀

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      1. ross

        Hi Laurie ,it was the television footage I watched as a kid that drew me to Vietnam many years later. All the death and destruction in such a scenic place,it always seemed a surreal landscape and I never got it out of my head. Glad I went and had a look.
        One thing that really surprised me was the heat and humidity .I visited some natural jungle in a park in the Mekong area a while back.. I was walking on a path alongside a small creek in sandals and shorts ,licking an icecream wondering what it would have been like carrying a pack and rifle ,and fully dressed in army fatigues through here. Glad it wasn’t me.
        But such a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        It doesn’t gel Ross does it? Great beauty and violence in one place. Hot? mate it was like a crock pot. Imagine being in a large aluminium vehicle, in greens and all wet with sweat or rain. The grunts would have had it worse of course but man, talk about heat rashes. We would have shot you for your ice cream cone Mate. -)

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  4. Raani York

    This is so scary, Laurie… I know this all happened a long time ago – and still: your blog post left me here, with a thin film of sweat on my face and nearly in tears.
    You mentioned a few dates here… 9/1/71 – at this date I was exactly 1 year and 2 days old…
    Good bless you, Laurie for going through all this!!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Raani, snakes and bombs guaranteed to scare us all. I like that you delve into the story and feel it. A little baby eh? Who would have know that all these years later we’d be corresponding?
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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