23/9/71. Some people say we make our own luck, others say it’s nothing more than random events thrown at you by life. Patrolling is a lot like fishing, if you catch that big sucker in your new fishing hole one day, well you go back and have another try. Operation Ivanhoe wouldn’t be ending until 2/10/71 and we were still effectively out of the firing line, through no desire of our own. Somebody must have been thinking of us because we received a resupply by one of our APC sections. We met them about half a click away from the earlier contact, went into a laager formation and began to offload our empties. Peter stayed in the driver’s seat and I carried empty jerry cans, empty main armament shell casings, bags of .30 calibre shell casings and links in sandbags to the resupply vehicles. Then returned to our vehicle with new ammo, ration packs and full jerry cans of water. The Boss had other things to do, naturally, he was in charge. Our vehicles weren’t too far apart and on my last trip back to pick up four HE rounds for the main armament I left my rifle leaning against the bulkhead in our vehicle. With everything stowed away and in its proper place my bladder decided that it needed emptying. We would be leaving shortly and not wanting to let a chance go by I stood on the left rear side of our vehicle. It faced the jungle which was about 30 feet away. The 3 section vehicle on piquet stood about 80 feet away to my left. Some vehicles were behind, and the rest were strung out along the track.
A silent, tender moment with your best friend in hand can be a beautiful thing to behold. The feeling of bliss when you void your bladder is only second best. Naturally one tends to look down, mainly to make sure ones boots don’t get wet. I don’t know what made me look up. It couldn’t have been a sound as a steady hum of voices wafted over from the centre of the laager. Perhaps a part of the mind is on watch, a basic hunter’s instinct from ancient times. Whatever it was I looked up. Sitting here in my lounge room tapping away at the laptop I can still see him clearly. He seemed to float out of the thick foliage and appeared to be quite tall for a Vietnamese. A classic straw conical hat sat on his head, it didn’t hide his face and I think he was more surprised than me. He wore full webbing across his chest, consisting of long khaki pouches for his magazines. When people say that their world went into slow motion, believe them, mine did. He held in his hands an AK 47, a fine piece of craftsmanship indeed. Developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov at the end of WW2 it is rugged, durable, has a high rate of automatic fire, accurate and the preferred weapon of armies world-wide. In my hands I also held a fine piece of craftsmanship. Developed at the end of 1951 it was rugged, dependable, had a high rate of fire but by the way it was pissing on my boots I doubted the accuracy.
AK 47, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Fortunately I don’t have a picture of mine.
Remember in an earlier post when I arrived in Vietnam, my weapon should have been a Browning pistol? The orderly room sergeant had it, so I was stuck with the rifle. Well this is the moment when I badly needed that pistol. Feeling naked, vulnerable and terribly unloved I began to move backwards. My feet felt as if they were stuck to the ground, and then the air began to buzz around me. He had pointed the AK at me and began firing. The muzzle flash reminded me of a fiery flower blossoming at the end of the barrel. Rounds pinged off the side of the Beast, tugged at my shirt and whiffed past my ears. Peter started the vehicle and began raising the ramp. I went to grab my rifle and stopped, I would have lost my arm otherwise. The .30 and .50 cals on the piquet vehicle started, a quick glance showed the crew commander firing at something on his right front. Definitely not at the bloke in front of me. Adrenalin, fear and a great love of life lends you wings. As a boy I excelled at gymnastics, at 19 years old and a tad heavier I excelled at getting the fuck out of there. Taking a quick step back, I jumped to my right and then leapt up onto the end of the ramp. One more leap and I stood at the Boss’ pintle mounted .30 cal Browning.
For those who have been following my bog you will realise by now that I’m an easy-going bloke. A temperate man, who is not easily stirred or has cause to vent his anger. Right then I was beyond ticked off. In the period of several heartbeats I had been shown the ease in which one can be taken out of this life. Your mind recognises this and I believe that something shuts down in it forever. Another part of my psyche died that day and I felt dead in that tiny frame of existence. It is as if your soul instantly prepares you for the inevitable death that is coming, there is a release of self then back to ‘normal.’ My normal was still shooting from just inside the wall of jungle, knocking down the safety bar I began shooting back. It is hard to describe the feeling of wanting desperately to take another human being’s life. All sense of humanity, morals, sanctity of life had well and truly disappeared. I wanted to nail the bastard. The Boss leapt up beside me and took the gun without a beg your pardon. I dropped down into my seat and fired a canister round off. Now we’re talking. Ignoring Boss man’s yells, I loaded a high explosive round and fired it at a the base of a thick tree about a hundred and fifty feet in. Boom, crash, take that ya bastard. Before the smoke had cleared I loaded and sent another one in, off to the left of the tree and then began spraying the area with the .30 cal. A whack on my shoulder and I stopped, Sticking my hand out of the turret I pointed in the general direction and the conversation went like this: Me, ‘What did you stop me for, the bastard went in there.’ Him, ‘There’s nobody there.’ Me, ‘Fucking bullshit, err Sir. what do you think I was shooting at?’ Peter’s voice came over the intercom, ‘He’s right, I saw him right in front of me.’ Him, ‘Bullshit.’ Me standing up in the turret, pointing, and letting my anger out, ‘Jesus Christ Sir, there.’ I pointed at a spot half a vehicle length from Peter. ‘He stood right there, and now he’s back in the bloody bush.’
My Irish was up. Dropping down out of the turret, I grabbed my rifle, exited via the small access door in the ramp, chambered a round and walked towards where he had stood. All the yelling and screaming they do at recruit training must stick, ordered back I slung my rifle and wandered slowly back to the vehicle. Stopping next to it I looked up, ‘He was right there, Sir.’ I honestly couldn’t understand what the problem was. A quick check of my trousers, No my dick isn’t hanging out. The soldier was obviously a forward scout and wouldn’t have been too far ahead of the others. We had enough firepower to take on whatever was in there. I’ve had 42 long years to think about this fine and sunny September morning. A few things come to mind that I would like to share, firstly the enemy soldier. His features were Asian but not Vietnamese, he reminded me more of a Chinese. He stood about 5′ 10″ tall and had broad shoulders. His equipment looked brand new, the webbing and AK appeared to have been recently unwrapped. Such is the accuracy of the memory I can still see a gold tooth in his mouth. Secondly, I may have an idea why the Boss didn’t have us going haring off into the thickets after this bloke. Perhaps the upper echelons had us traipsing around the boonies chasing our tails so we didn’t lose any of the Beasts. A sobering thought when you come to think of it. I’ve never talked to any of the other troops in the section about this, other than to reassure Peter a few years ago that it did happen. He was even closer and would never have been able to get his rifle out in time, due to the cramped conditions of his hatch. Finally, I think I nailed the bastard. For about 20 years he kept popping into my life. Not as some fragmented memory in my sleep but as a spectre worthy of a Dickens novel. My belief is I took him out with the canister round, it would have shredded him at that distance. Seeing as I was prevented from checking the area in front of the vehicle it’s only supposition on my part.
Afternoon of 23rd to 29/9/71. So, how many old WW2 bunkers can one drive into? A lot apparently. 31 Bravo found out the hard way when it disappeared into a deep tangle of dirt, rotting barbed wire and vines. This link provides an insight into Vietnam from 1941 onwards and gives some credence to my belief that these bunkers were Japanese in origin. It doesn’t really matter who made them, they were a bloody nuisance.
You have seen the thickness of the jungle from previous photos and have an idea of how navigating it was fraught with danger. Push the jungle down, crash, the ground opens up beneath you. Deep holes concealed for decades under the wet red dirt, release hordes of ants, scorpions and snakes. Wading through the chewed up earth makes you pause to reflect on what is underfoot. Then attaching tow lines and standing by while 31 Bravo is hauled out. A quick recon by the crews and we come to one conclusion, the whole bloody area is one huge system of dugouts and bunkers. The growth is an indicator of how long the fortifications have been there. A few kilometres on and a WW2 Jeep sits amongst a small clearing with trees, feet in diameter growing around it. Move on and more bunkers, the ground is that bad even the APC’s are losing tracks.
There were other traps for the unwary or just plain unlucky. Oh that would have to be 42 Charlie. It showed that one shouldn’t become complacent about their surroundings. These pictures show what happens when you drive into a well. Concealed amongst long grass in an open tract it partly swallowed the Beast, which came to a grinding, jarring halt. No obvious injuries to the crew but they appeared somewhat stunned. We’ve had enough and return to FSB Maree for the night, only to be told we are going out the following day to find a suitable crossing over a river in our area of operation.
Rain is a wonderful thing, plants grow, rivers run, it washes dust away. Sadly we had no dust, only mud. Patrolling can be boring but when you are beyond wet it’s torture. We wore our rubberized ponchos and draped them over the turret. It didn’t stop the rain getting in your radio headsets and allowing fungus to breed in your ear canals overnight. The itch drove you mad and a touch of methylated spirits burnt like hell. The rain eventually broke through the poncho and ran in cool rivulets down your spine. Your pants became soaked, followed by your boots. Rust appeared before your eyes on weapons, and the inside of the vehicle began to resemble a wading pool.
There’s wet and well, there’s wet. Picture courtesy of Jock Taggart.
The trouble was everything that fell on the vehicle crawled, wiggled and flew inside. You hung on before deciding to change into your second pair of trousers, another wet night in wet bedding was something to be avoided. You didn’t wear socks so your feet tended to wrinkle up in your boots. We found a piece of real estate that had the thickest, nastiest, evil jungle I had ever seen, then our vehicle broke down. The drive sprocket snapped off. Marvellous, absolutely bloody marvellous. It couldn’t have been on flat ground, or even a lightly wooded area. Nope, it had to be where it was. All we could do was radio for another one and hope they could find us. The squadron C.O. came out in a Squirrel helicopter and flew around above the canopy until he found a break and managed to see us. Up went a flare and he was ready to deliver. I made my way down a small creek, rifle slung and machete in hand. The late afternoon sun didn’t reach the jungle floor and gloom prevailed. Stopping where I could look up and see him I waved, then he let go of a sandbag containing the sprocket. Being nimble helped, I jumped back, it splatted into the mud and embedded itself a foot away from my boot. A big cheery wave and away he went, I opened the sack and there was our mail. Crushed, wet, and mangled. Pete and I set to and spent an anxious hour removing and replacing the socket then the track. Wet, cold, miserable, knuckles scraped we sat down on the ramp and ate our canned rations, washing them down with a cup of instant coffee that tasted like nectar. Followed by another night spent ambushing.
We spent six days driving around scaring the wildlife, and getting wetter. Life goes on for the local fauna, we spotted a deer and her fawn. The deer had one back leg hanging off yet still she kept her fawn away from us. Tragic. We didn’t find a suitable crossing over the river. Who it was for I never found out. The only good thing, we had a helicopter resupply of fresh, clean jungle greens. Along with more mail they were dropped from the air and by the time I got to them all the pants that were my leg length had been snaffled up. I looked a bit odd with my trouser bottoms halfway up my shins and a shirt that strained at the buttons. But I was dry, blissfully, beautifully dry. For a while.
Next week: I’m given a responsible job and it’s a mixed bag at Duc Than.