My view on jungle warfare was 99% anticipation and 1% ‘Holy Crap.’
Laurie’s diary, 17/9/71 reads: Resupplied with ammo and rations today, going out on a 12 day patrol, 31 section are with us. I believe someone in Intelligence picked our area of operation on the sole basis of bogability. I like creating words but fair crack of the whip it was a massive swamp. Our first day involved becoming bogged on numerous occasions; we were used to it by now. The second day no better, the third we came to a location for FSB Maree. The previous base hadn’t been shut down properly and the grass had taken over the barbed wire entanglements, naturally they were hidden from view. One vehicle became that entangled we had to enlist a US engineer and his excavator to rip the wire from the tracks. The place resembled a dystopian view of a world gone mad. We overcame the difficulties and a small bulldozer was delivered to create the base, minus an operator. Snow Marshall came to the fore and spent the afternoon doing a wonderful job of excavating and building bunds. Actually I think he was having way too much fun.
If you go down to the jungle today, you’re in for a big surprise. 20/9/71. Mid-afternoon and the time had come for finding an ambush site. Our vehicles were strung out in a long line; the front vehicle from 31 section carried the Mini-Team engineer. He spotted footprints in the mud, heading off into the tree line. We came to a halt and waited while he took a closer look. He came down and spoke to the Boss, ‘Well Sir, they’re fresh. One person wearing Ho Chi Min sandals, one is off a cross ply tyre, the other off a Jeep maybe, and he has a dog with him.’ This put a new light on things; two questions were uppermost in our minds: 1. Was the dog going to be dinner or was it being used to carry supplies? 2. Were the sandals made from re-tread tyres? The decision was made to set up an ambush down from where the tracks went into the jungle. No messing around, a fresh track meant one thing, the Viet Cong were nearby. The night went quickly and we were all happy to see sunrise.
Pic of Ho Chi Min sandals courtesy of Wikipedia.
21/9/71. Returning to where the track was discovered, the Boss picked a Sergeant and four troopers to make their way into the jungle and see where it led. Naturally I put my hand up, the old pick me, pick me. ‘Nope, stay where you are Corporal, Pete’s going. I can get a driver anywhere, gunners are harder to find.’ It made me feel a little special. I can’t remember the names of who went other than Pete’s. Our vehicles were lined up and facing into where they were heading. Armed with their SLR’s and Armalites, carrying extra ammo and a 25 set radio, one after another they disappeared into the foliage. Making sure my headsets were on I listened in on the radio. The sergeant’s voice, barely discernible came over the air, ‘There’s bloody dozens of them moving around. I can see one over behind a log, he’s in a trench. there are fire lanes everywhere. We’re coming back out.’
They emerged into the sunlight, all changed men. They had been up close and seen the enemy, well within reach. It was written on their faces, the knowledge that the enemy, if they had seen them, could have had them right there. I cyphered the Boss’ message and relayed it back to the ØCharlie. What’s this, NVA, dressed in green? We pulled back into a laager position and waited. From above we would have looked like a wagon train circled up to repel the Indians. A piquet was set on the vehicles facing up and down the track. With my vehicle nestled in the middle I took the opportunity to give our weapons a quick check over. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the pic)
I had the Boss’ M79 grenade launcher in my hands, wiping it down with an oily rag, and a bandolier of 40mm grenades beside me. The next thing I knew he scrambled up on the vehicle, ripped the launcher from my grasp, loaded it and fired at the barely discernible figure walking towards us. I just caught a glimpse of a green clad figure, holding an AK and carrying a pack before it disappeared in a cloud of smoke. (My vision hadn’t been the best since I had been knocked out in the back blast from the claymore mines.) Our standard operating procedures were simple, when a contact is initiated all vehicles are to fire into each side of the contact area. Pete started the vehicle, and I brought the gun to bear and fired into the jungle. The Boss loaded another two rounds of canister I fired them off then gave short bursts from the Browning into the now neat opening amongst the trees. A couple of crew commanders took the opportunity to vent and fired off more than they should have. The Boss called for a cease-fire over the radio. Silence. I stood up in the turret and looked across between a Beast and a car from 31. The North Vietnamese Army soldier, his AK raised in the air began firing. I’m not sure of the name of the crew commander who jumped from his vehicle, Browning HI Power pistol in hand. I know that he jammed the pistol on the centre of the soldier’s chest and kept pulling the trigger. I can still see it all plain as day: the muffled reports from the pistol, the body jerking from the impact of the rounds. The commander stood back and leant against his car, chest heaving as he changed magazines. Corporal Ted Beasley from 42 Bravo gets down and picks up the AK, it’s a Chicom model 50, badly maintained and rusty. Holding it high in the air he pulls the trigger, it still works beautifully.
Satisfied that there are no more enemy in the vicinity a burial detail is picked. Ted goes through the man’s pockets removing all personal papers and belongings. Someone else searches the pack: it contains two fresh fish, several kilos of rice, some 7.62mm ammo for the AK and a tidy swag of documents. We came to the conclusion that our man must have been in charge of rations and also a messenger. Ted kept the man’s blood stained photo and showed it to me later. It was black and white and depicted a woman with a small boy and girl on her lap. A building of some description is behind them. He tucks it in his shirt pocket and walks away. (I spoke with Ted about this incident over a beer, a few of years before his death in 2012. He told me then that he couldn’t get the incident out of his mind and felt deeply for the loss that the family had to endure. He took the picture out and showed me again, he’d had it laminated and carried it everywhere.)
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when the party picked up the body. I had seen violent death as a child in England, on the ship coming over to Australia and the dead from a plane crash in Botany Bay. I hadn’t seen what a 40mm grenade could do to a man’s abdomen. It had completely removed his organs, leaving a gaping hole you could see right through and left his spine intact. I had to admire his determination; he was basically an upper torso who could still fire his weapon. I wrote a poem entitled ‘Where were you’ about this incident. After the last shovelful of dirt had been placed on the grave we drove off, back towards where the encampment had been located. Blood soaked the ground around the grave. My final view was that of dozens of little yellow butterflies dancing above the disturbed ground, before they descended en masse to gorge themselves on the salty blood.
A picture tells a story, the one above is of the NVA soldier being buried. The trooper minus his shirt was taken out on a medivac chopper soon after. He had been down inside his vehicle when the contact occurred and dozens of extremely hot .30 calibre Browning cases went down the back of his shirt. He received some nasty burns. You can feel the solemnity of the situation, even Snow didn’t have a snappy comeback.
Tracks in the mud, enemy contact and a large collection of enemy under the bushes meant one thing, a stand to – all night – everybody up ambush. We lined our vehicles up facing the wall of jungle where the village had been discovered. The below picture will give you an idea of what we were up against.
Unwashed, sweating, a hastily eaten meal gurgling in our stomachs we waited. Darkness comes quickly and every creature that lived in that tangled mess of trees, vines and bamboo kept up a steady chorus of squawks, screeches, growls and grunts. Each man sat in his designated position in the vehicle. The night dragged on and eyes grew heavy, the only stimulus keeping us awake was the knowledge that the village under the canopy was still occupied. The information taken from the dead soldier indicated that the 3rd Battalion of 33 NVA was in the area. We had a term for ourselves in the army, we were ‘Mushrooms’ fed on bullshit and kept in the dark. I’m stepping back from remembering this night for a little while so I can share my anger with you.
While going through Rolly Wood’s photos for the one above I found a copy of a map, for Operation Ivanhoe. I checked the dates for the event and thought, Hmm, this looks interesting. A quick check of my diary and what do I find? We were on the edge of the operation playing bloody Mushrooms. Obviously the Boss and section Sergeant knew of the severity of the situation. The troops were a bit mystified as to why we were getting NVA and the $64,000 question was, ‘Why are we pissing around in the swamps while companies from our 3rd and 4th Infantry Battalions are in contact with the NVA a matter of kilometres away?’ The below newspaper report gives an idea about what happened. I’m livid at the thought that our Beasts could have given the heavy fire support needed in the many contacts. Five Australian soldiers died and over twenty were wounded. One New Zealand Company soldier suggested that they would have had an easier time of it if they had tank support. We had been posted there to take up the slack for when the tanks were sent home. The story also states that A Sqn, 3 Cavalry Regiment left Vietnam in November, nobody seems to remember that section 41 and 42, The Beasts were there until we moved to Vung Tau and volunteers stayed behind manning APC’s until February 1972. It seems obvious to me that the powers that be must have forgotten about us as well. Whinging over, back to the story.
The night drew on, fireflies danced in front of us. The jungle floor, moist and full of life glowed with a whitish phosphorescence. It drew your eyes out, already heavy and tired they actually ached. If you stared at the trees they appeared to move towards you, if you looked away and back at them they stood still. Crazy I know. With that many vehicles – we had been reinforced earlier, you are bound to get noises. Cooling engines, the clank of tired feet looking for purchase on metal floors. The occasional head bumping forward, connecting with a metal bulkhead. I don’t think so many men were glad to see sunrise as our ambush party was.
22/9/71. Pulling back up the track we awaited orders, the usual occurred, breakfast, checking weapons, more waiting. The general consensus was we were ‘going in.’ The orders came through and even the Boss was livid, we were to stay put. It seemed that someone in HQ in collaboration with a numerologist worked this one out. They wanted a company from 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, being supported by 3 Troop of A Sqn 3rd Cavalry Regiment to go up against the 3rd battalion of the 33rd NVA. Phew. Somebody must have pulled that one right out of their arse.
It appeared that the NVA had withdrawn from their little nest at some stage through the night. All the threes got together and went a hunting. We had the job of going on foot into the, hopefully empty village. The engineers went in first and checked for booby traps, when we received the all clear we followed. Talk about clever, the place had to be navigated bent over. Even for the North Vietnamese it would have been uncomfortable. There were trenches crisscrossing the whole area: huts for sleeping, eating, a small classroom and a hospital. I had to search a trench where the barber had his little shop set up. They had left in a hurry, I found his kit: scissors, clippers, comb all in a ammo tin. The place had been there for a while. When you looked up the jungle canopy had been used effectively to hide them from the air. If it wasn’t for an eagle-eyed engineer we would never have found the place. We spent the day taking everything out and feeling a little unwanted.
Next week: Luck is just another four letter word: How many times must an APC fall in a bunker?