YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 24. Back to Nui Dat and A week in FSB Robin, or what do you mean we got mortared?

 Back to Nui Dat. 3/9/71. I had mixed feelings on the trip back to Nui Dat, did I fall short on my duties, could I have done better? Then on the other hand, I got down and did my bit, stayed at my post and performed my duties. Self doubt is a killer. My chest still hurt but it didn’t matter, we were going ‘home’ for a shower – oh the bliss. Actually the last entry for that day read, ‘Came back to the Dat today, thank Christ.’ I think that says it all.

My diary also tells me that 42 Bravo needed urgent maintenance, the pads had to be changed in each track link and the suspension needed work. That meant remove both tracks, undo 127 rubber pads and replace them, then remove and replace the front drive sprockets and sort out the suspension. This was besides working on our own vehicles. We interacted with the infantry now and then, carrying them around on our vehicles, working in the field out on operations and they always bitched at us about riding while they walked to where they had to be. When they returned to Nui Dat all they had to think about were there rifles and feet. Before we could even think of a hot shower we had to attend to our ‘mounts.’ Like cavalry of old our mounts were our best friend and some maintenance was required. Main armament stripped, cleaned and put back in working order, a hefty job on its own when you considered the size of the cleaning rod. (see below picture, it’s in sections on the side of the turret) The Brownings dismounted, stripped, cleaned, re-set and replaced. Radios checked, turret gear tested, ammo checked and cleaned. When I finished there it was out and help Pete with any oil and filter changes, track repairs and general maintenance and re-fuelling. Hot, greasy, dirty work and we hooked in as a team and completed it. I have to laugh at some of the stuff I wrote in this diary, ‘I went and had my haircut.‘ On reflection there could have been a million things of more interest. I know we would have made the most of cooked meals then hit the club and sunk a few tinnies. All to the ongoing evening routine of the American 155’s going off behind us. Then a nights sleep in a comfortable bed. It’s the little things in life that count.

Fire Support Base Robin. 5/9/71  Back to the daily grind of bush bashing and patrolling. As an aside if you look at my vehicle below you will see on the front left side, three track links bolted there. That’s me from behind obviously giving my valued opinion to those working hard on the track. The cover over the machine gun is a rubber poncho (probably the only rubber protection I used there) we wore them draped out over the turret so it stopped some of the rain getting in. We also became proficient at fast track repairs.

Beast 42

You may remember Robin had a rubber plantation opposite it, the below picture shows part of the Courtney rubber plantation in the north of Phuoc Tuy province . This will give you an idea of what they all looked like. It seems that the French plantation owners received compensation from the Australian government for any trees damaged by gunfire etc. We, on the other hand didn’t get a sou from them for the ravages from ants that lived in the unused sections in their millions. My vehicle was positioned at the first bund on the left as you entered the FSB, so it was protected on the left side and front. Next to the main entry and outside the wire stood our rubbish pit, quite deep, it would be bulldozed in whenever the base was closed down. The gate itself consisted of a concertina roll of wire attached to a couple of star pickets, how do I know this? We constructed this part and what a delight that was. I can still smell the tar that covered the pickets, they were  stacked on pallets out in the sun and it melted a little, then stuck to you as you hammered them into the ground. Roll after roll of barbed wire heaped next to the pallets, it would have made a cattleman drool to see that much fencing.  At least it was far better than filling sandbags. By the time we’d finished the general consensus of opinion was, that’ll keep the bastards out. How about we condense the following week of everyday events into twenty-four hours, and start with our fearless author awaking at dawn after having the last piquet for the night.

There is a certain amount of pleasure to be had in snoozing while others are working around you. The hum of voices, the clatter of utensils as Peter puts breakfast on – it’s his turn and I hope it’s franks and beans again. The feel of tender fumbling at your fly buttons and an insistent tugging at your pants, hmm, this feels good. The mind wanders and conjures up images of some fair maiden with an itch that needs scratching. Then the fogged up conscious mind says, ‘Hang on Mate, no fair maidens here just the blokes.’ Another Hmm, then who can it be? I dismiss the thought until something warm and insistent nudges at my groin (I went commando). I open one eye and raise my head, ‘Holy shit Batman, it’s a bloody rat.’ Not your cute little rat that lives in laboratories, or the teeny-weeny ones your kids want you to buy them, ‘Hell No.’ This was a rat on steroids. Not your average Rattus rattus that loves cheesy bites and the occasional club sandwich. This type of rat lived in the jungle and loved eating the dead from the inside out, via the groin or lower abdomen. I mean I was asleep but crikey not dead. When I raised my head it sat up, had a lick at his paws and washed his whiskers. Did I tell you how big it was? Anyway he sits up and gives me this, ‘Oi you’re supposed to be dead’ look, Then runs up my leg and sits on the toe of my boot. I’m not impressed, I’m also glad I can’t reach my rifle because I probably would have shot my foot off. He twitches his whiskers again, gives a ‘Chee, chee, chee,’ and leaps out on the ground. All I can do is think the worst, Oh shit, did the bloody thing bite me? They carry rabies and their fleas carry plague and thank God for my inoculations. Putting my finger gently into the hole in my pants I feel around carefully, nothing is amiss. Actually it all seems to have become tucked away somewhere. Regaining some semblance of calm I leapt out, stood on the bund and began yelling, ‘Rat, bloody great rat, shoot the fucker, rat.’ Of course everybody laughed, what else could they do? If it did bite me I could only hope it had a nut allergy.

Thanks Peter, he’d stirred up franks and beans then our work day began. Let’s go and patrol through the rubber. 42 Charlie takes the lead again. The long aisles of rubber trees made for great fire lanes in ambush situations on both sides. Trip wires could be hung high so our antennas would strike them and let off the booby trap. Anti tank mines would be laid hither and thon around the place. There would be no exploding ordnance today. ’42 to 42 Charlie drive forward and check out that huge amount of vines hanging from the trees to your right over.’ ’42 Charlie, roger that over.’ ’42 out.’ Now we all know what Charlie was thinking. The section sat back and watched as the vehicle slowly disappeared into this twenty metre tall, fifty metre wide curtain of vines. Oops, did I say vines? It was a collection of green tree ant nests. Groups of a few hundred band together and with their saliva stick half a dozen leaves together and form a pod. These pods are then glued to other pods. I’ve never heard such high-pitched, strangled screams in my life as what came over the radio. Johnno’s voice yelling for the driver to back up, there was a pause, a roar of the engine and the Beast shot out. it came to a sudden halt, engine spluttered and stopped and the crew leapt out into mid-air. No tumbling rolls here, splat, splat, splat they hit the deck. You couldn’t see their faces and arms for ants. Several other crewmen leaped from their vehicles, cans of DDT in hand and began spraying the unfortunate trio. By the time the spraying had finished there was that much DDT spray in the air the place looked like a 1960’s apple orchard. To say the crew had lumps would be an understatement, they were stripped off, ants removed and while they picked at their uniforms the DDT brigade descended on the vehicle. We moved on, 42 Charlie fell in at the rear and whenever you turned around to look they were still swatting.

Rolly Woods’ pic of the Courtney Rubber Plantation.

courtney-rubber

All of this adventure and getting to know the local wildlife gives one an appetite. A quick patrol to a village called Xah Bang seemed appropriate. The below picture is another one of Woody’s, although it shows a scene from a Vung Tau market you may get the idea of what they looked like. We were after ice and some Heppo rolls, these were rice flour rolls which tasted very nice. Heppo is short for hepatitis, which is what you would supposedly catch if you ate them. There were dried shark fins, strange cooked small animals and even stranger fruits. ‘No thanks Mama San, I’ll just go with the Hepatitis.’

VTMarkets

We had mini-gun ammo boxes to use as Eskies for our cold drinks. The mini-gun (see below) was a Gatling gun mounted on a variety of aircraft and vehicles by the  Americans. It fired 4,000 rounds per minute and needed a large container for the ammo.

HH-3-minigun-vietnam-19681710[1]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HH-3-minigun-vietnam-19681710.jpg

You would never use the ice in drinks or to eat, the proprietor kept it wrapped in straw complete with water buffalo shit and other odd things. It looked tempting on a hot day though. No, into the liner, put the cans of coke in and return to Robin. Now that is hell, having ice you can’t eat. Back at base it’s time for lunch and with my cold drink and fresh Heppo roll I sit on a drum on the ramp and lean back against the jerry can. Peter is on the other side of the ramp and Snow Marshall has come over to sample our lunch. That coke is going down a treat and we have some bully beef mushed up on the rolls and tinned butter on them. Yum. I’m munching away when first Snowy then Peter stare at me opened mouthed. Come on fellas, I only shaved my moustache off today, I’m not that good-looking. For once Snowy is serious, ‘Smithy don’t bloody move.’ ‘Why would I move?’ Then I felt it, a tickling, crawly sensation on the back of my neck. Hmm, this isn’t good. Then I see it in my peripheral vision.  A centipede on my left shoulder, dark green, yellow-bellied, large fanged, scorpion killing centipede. I’ve never lost interest in food so quickly.

You know those spaghetti westerns where they show close-ups of everyone sweating? It stands out in huge drops with beads oozing out of furrowed brows. You get the picture, that was me. Heppo roll inches from my mouth, coke can shaking in left hand I sat there. An inquisitive overly large specimen, it stopped on my shoulder and extended itself out to my lunch, then flicked back and looked at my face. Satisfied, he crawled down my chest and I leapt up. Snowy grabbed a shovel and flicked him off my leg, then mushed him up on the ramp. Crikey, it was an ugly bloody thing. We worked out it was about eighteen inches long and had been hiding up on the decking amongst the leaves. ‘Peter, get the brush we’re cleaning house.’

Late in the afternoon, the officer in charge of the artillery came around with a Land Rover and trailer dispensing sandbags and corrugated iron sheeting. The sheeting was bent into a half-moon shape, ‘Okay you lot, grab yourselves some roofing and sandbags, there’s a possibility we’ll be mortared tonight.’ Me not liking the thought of filling sandbags, ‘I’ll be right, I’ve got about thirteen tons of metal to sleep in.’ Humph, he wasn’t impressed. the other blokes grabbed one each and began digging. About 2200 hours I’m up in the turret and the trip flare goes off on the gate, I swing the gun around and there’s a wee black piggy scuttling through the barbed wire from the rubbish pit. I’m not wasting rounds on him. Picking up a flare I stretch my arm out and bash the bottom hard on the turret, whoosh up goes the flare. It hangs for a moment in the air and floats slowly down on its little parachute swaying from side to side. The harsh white glare casts eerie shadows on the wire entanglement and rubbish pit in front, nothing. Five minutes later a pistol shot comes from inside the rubber plantation. The piquet on the APC situated on the other side of the gate opens up with his .50cal (that area was out of my fire zone) and a dozen or so trees bleed rubber. I hear a Honda scooter in the distance and realise it’s the overly friendly ARVN soldier who visited a couple of days earlier trading for cigarettes. The bastard was obviously a VC. Everything settles down and I go to bed. My dreams are filled with strange sounds and images, someone is grabbing me, calling my name then fading away. I wake up, yawn, stretch and climb outside. Hello, why is there smoke coming from the command bunker in the centre of the base? More importantly where is the bunker? Oh, it’s all crumpled in. There are small craters here and there, people are looking ticked off, yes indeed the base was mortared after I went to sleep. A couple of the blokes tried to wake me and couldn’t once the mortaring began. When a few rounds hit close they dived into their little steel topped bunkers and waited it out.

The score at the end of the week: Johnno and crew nil, green ants about a million. Laurie one, centipede nil. Viet Cong one, bunker nil. French plantation owner after he finishes talking with Boss Man and waving his arms everywhere, is quite well off with reparations. Australian government pissed off with men of the cavalry.

Next week: It’s off to Vung Tau for two glorious, naughty days.

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36 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 24. Back to Nui Dat and A week in FSB Robin, or what do you mean we got mortared?

  1. Theresa

    I can’t help it, Laurie – I’m laughing at the Heppo Rolls, the rat on steroids smart enough to know when you went commando, and the 18 inch long dark green, yellow-bellied, large-fanged, scorpion-killing centipede. But then again, I can laugh since I wasn’t there, thank goodness. Who said war was hell???

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      General William Tecumseh Sherman, Union Army coined the term War is Hell. Then Hawkeye Pierce in MASH came up with War is Heck. I like to use that one. 🙂 I’m glad you’re laughing Theresa, it means my work is done. There are a few serious moments coming though.

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  2. Raani York

    Holy Macro, Laurie…. it’s getting more and more dangerous: centipedes, scorpions, ants – and rats!!! You’ve been in so much danger – but still you manage to tell it just like “some story”, humorous and with some kind of joy. I love the way you’re writing about it – and still I try to imagine how it really was – and it scares me a little.
    You’re such a special writer!! But I figure I’ve told you that before, didn’t I?

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      The worst/best is yet to come 🙂 although some of those crawlies from the jungle and plantations could inflict some nasty action on you. I haven’t even talked about the mosquitos yet. 🙂 At this stage I’ve managed to keep myself aside from the story, it gets a little difficult. Yes you’ve told me but don’t let me stop you. 😉

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  3. Jane Risdon

    Wonderful storytelling Laurie and so vivid and entertaining as ever. I always enjoy your stories and this one does not disappoint. Hoping you are a lot better than last time we exchanged chat. 🙂

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  4. hitandrun1964

    OMG. Rats, ants, fires, mortar attack, which you slept through…horrific insects…no ice and hepatitis rolls. Another day in Paradise. Hot, humid, sweaty, broken machines, trucks, etc. Glad you write with a wry sense of humor…that way we can’t hear the screaming in your head. LOL Never a dull moment. We have huge rats in downtown Chicago. I saw one once and thought it was a cat. I’m assuming that’s what your rat looked like. I think the ants were the most terrifying…I know it should have been scorpion thing but all those ants. Hope you are feeling much better by now. Thank you for your comments:) Looking forward to the next chapter.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Some days I hate WordPress. I had a nifty reply, posted it and it vanished. The screaming in my head is drowned out by the pecking and clucking of chickens. 🙂 There was never a dull moment, always something to write about. I wish I had made better diary entries at the time. The ants were fierce, the stings were quite painful, I had the odd one or two nests fall on me at times but not like poor old 42 Charlie. Infection clearing and back to doc on Friday, fingers crossed. More interesting chapters to come. 🙂
      Laurie.

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      1. hitandrun1964

        The ants really creep me out. Argg. I’m so happy that you are getting better:) You have been ailing far to long so it’s good to know you are getting back to normal (whatEVER that may be for you…we need to find out what your wife has to say about that). LOL Anyway, too many icky bugs and things where you were stationed. Get busy with the next chapter. Hope the doctor had good news today:)

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Ants have that effect, it’s that mechanical, mindless aspect to them. Millions of the things moving as one. Yeah my normal may not be everybody else’s normal. 🙂 the next chapter is festering away on the computer, waiting for Monday morning and I’m heading off to the Doc now. Talk soon.
        Laurie.

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  5. thisisnotbangkok

    As always, it is the feeling of immediacy and all the little details that draw me into your posts. I mean I always get the feeling and emotions of being there. It really takes incredible talent to draw the reader in like this. Every post I read gives me a strong visceral feeling like I am right there, yet at the same time, always glad that I’m not.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Why thank you Michael, I appreciate this comment. I aim to entertain in writing about my experiences for some future bio. I’ve read a few war histories and they tend to be a little gloomy. Here I want to get down to the everyday and what would be termed mundane by some historians. I guess it’s like panning for gold, you can get just as much pleasure out of the flecks of gold, as you can out of the nuggets.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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      1. thisisnotbangkok

        Yes, you must…once again, I will tell you when I am done with the same of the Mountain Death book. I have been overwhelmed with so much lately. But I look forward to it…

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      2. thisisnotbangkok

        oh boy. You got that right. FYI I am also on meds for what I call “anxession” — depression and anxiety–so a lot of times things are out of whack, if you know what I mean. I do not want to be on these meds forever…..

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      3. laurie27wsmith Post author

        I empathise with you Michael, spent four years on antidepressants. they worked but are extremely hard to get off. I take a herbal spray called ‘Rescue Remedy,’ it’s a Bach Flower mixture and it calms me down. Plus a mineral called PPMP, it’s potassium phosphate and magnesium phosphate in pill form. They work wonders on the nerves. Something to think about.

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  6. Jane Dougherty

    Laurie how do you manage to write about such apalling things in such a comic manner? You had me laughing when I should have been shuddering with horror. You have a natural talent as an entertainer.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Jane, if my reminiscence’s were are dark as my poetry people would run screaming into the streets. 🙂 I look back and pull out the bits that entertain and the ones that get a laugh out of my readers. Sometimes laughing at adversity and horror can be the only way to mentally survive a situation.

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      1. Jane Dougherty

        I know old soldiers are supposed to give such funny accounts of what they got up to in the War that their kids end up thinking they had a whale of time. It’s to protect their families from the horror of what they went through, no doubt, but also themselves.

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  7. Owls and Orchids

    You paint an eloquent picture Laurie – but you can keep the damned insects…YIKES, rats and centipedes… you either looked a tasty piece of meat or he was confused? And ants! Then mortars. I’d ask the obvious – how the hell could you sleep through it, but you did so question answered.
    The more I read and learn the more I understand the ideology which says…”don’t interfere in someone else’s fight, you just can’t win.” I used to dislike the “isolationist” ideals but after Nam and Korea – why are our people fighting overseas???
    Anyway – can’t see worth a dime today, correcting spelling mistakes takes longer than the typing.
    Great to hear about the real story, but glad I wasn’t there. Glad you’re here to tell me about it.
    Cheers old chap! Susan x

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    1. Pagadan

      War is just one damned thing after another… Your adventures in camp and on the trai–and everywhere!–are amazing. And the creatures you meet keep you hopping… A soldier learns to sleep through a lot, I’m sure–and with a giant flyswatter and a rifle.

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    2. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Ah Susan, you’ve seen the photos of me as a young man, what discerning insect or rat wouldn’t want a piece? As to the mortars, in the previous post when I was affected by the mine blast I think it did something to me then. I know my vision wasn’t all that good for a while afterwards, When I slept it was deep so who knows what it did? The thinking with Korea and Vietnam was simple, the US and allies were actually fighting against a de facto enemy, communist china. They supplied arms and troops in both wars. So it was fight communism there instead of here or the US. it’s the same with Afghanistan today, root out the extremists there instead of here.
      You’re welcome Susan, hope you’re feeling better today.
      Cheers
      Laurie. xoxo

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  8. rayjamieson

    Vietnam was a bit of a precursor to what happened in Iraq and with the Afghans – you can’t tell who is on your side! And they are happy to take advantage it it, knowing that with our western cultures and beliefs, we will ask questions first, to make sure we don’t harm an innocent. They don’t – different culture and beliefs – shoot first and don’t worry about the questions and they consider our consciences and ethics a weakness… It’s hard not to feel very different when there is that fundamental divide in ethics and the value of life.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Oh so true Ray, you’ve hit it on the head. You just didn’t know who the enemy really was until they were there shooting at you. Even children were a threat, sad to say. Nothing changes in the world, conflict seems to still be the only answer to the differences between beliefs, cultures and religion. All very sad.
      Laurie.

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