YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 28. I’m given a responsible job and it’s a mixed bag at Duc Than.

30/9/71. A responsible job.  An obscure entry in my diary states that, we scrub bashed all morning, then I was given the job of escorting 9A out to find the Mortar APC section. 9A was the vehicle used by the Squadron second in command when he moved into the field. Memory is a strange thing, I can remember being in command of my Beast for a change and emerging from a thick wall of jungle. A vista opened up before me of a long sloping hillside descending into a small green valley below. Three APCs nestled in the long grass, and the Mortar Carriers had their top hatches open.

I took these pictures in Townsville, after the war. It gives a good look at the difference between vehicles.APC mortar car and crew.

Jock Taggart sent me this one, a much better view of this unique armoured vehicle.

APC Mortar Carrier.

The 2IC spoke with the crews while I waited with my vehicle. What has astounded me is that I was picked for the job. I didn’t complain about commanding the vehicle. Nor do I remember who sat in the gunner’s seat. The entry continues, we came back when it was dark, a hell of a trip and stayed in FSB Maree for the night. I am recalling as I write and feelings emerge of the tension, that I’m sure everyone felt while traipsing through the jungle, in the dark. Wet, slippery trails, no lights, eyes straining to see ahead. It’s bad enough in daylight, the Stygian darkness puts the willies right up you. Along with all the prickly vines, snakes, spiders etc that fall onto the vehicles. Plus the need to be aware of any enemy in the vicinity.

A stylised view of travelling in the dark. Original photo courtesy of Jock Taggart.
APC in the dark

The miracle out of all of this is, we didn’t lose a track, now that astounded me. We rumbled and clanked up the open road leading to the fire support base. Once inside the 2IC went to the command bunker and we parked back in our bay behind the bund. Home is where you hang your hat. A meal, get washed and changed then attempt to sleep. There wouldn’t be much that night, the last entry reads, the artillery fired for most of the night. I felt sorry for those blokes, all night fire missions were rare. What I can deduce is that they were firing back to where we located the Mortar Carriers. It’s obvious now that the vehicles had to be moved from there and that no radio chatter, even coded would be used. The NVA and VC monitored our radio calls and would at times have access to our codes. If anyone reading this has any other information then I would be happy to hear it.
This address will take you to a site where you can play with a cipher wheel, similar in design to what we used, except ours was made out of paper and plastic.
http://inventwithpython.com/cipherwheel/

01/10/71 to 08/10/71. A mixed bag at Duc Than. My tiny diary also tells me that FSB Maree got pulled down today. Another day of sitting on our bums and driving willy-nilly around the place. A quick trip back to Nui Dat, fuel up, have a feed and head out to the area around Duc Than for more ambushing which would be going on for the next seven days.

Not your usual service station, no car wash or hot coffees here. Photo: courtesy Jock Taggart.
APC's and a Beast refuelling

The village of Duc Than had a Local Forces compound manned by villagers under the direction of US Advisors. Our brief for the week was to split the Beast section up and have them join a section of APCs. We would patrol various areas by day, one section would stay out and ambush and the other would stay in the compound at Duc Than. The compound had all the comforts of home, a canteen and mess, a small movie theatre, and a huge field piece mounted in a watch tower. Everything a man could want, well almost everything. I have mentioned at odd times through this blog how much one appreciates the little things in life. An army bed, a hot meal, dry clothing, a cold drink, a Viet Cong who can’t shoot straight. It all adds up to living in the moment and realising that there are others who are much worse off than yourself. Like the VC prisoner huddled in a cage at the rear of a hut. I had been feeling happy with my lot until then. I was fed, had a cold can of coke and was due for an early R&R back home in a fortnight. What more could I want? I have never been looked at with so much hatred before or since. Not that I could blame him. Squatting down, unable to lie, stand or sit his eyes blazed. He wore black pyjamas, Ho Chi MInh sandals, his greying moustache drooped on each side of his mouth. No part-time guerrilla here, no farmer by day freedom fighter by night, this was a fair dinkum enemy soldier. I didn’t feel too much sympathy for him, knowing that if I fell into their hands I would be dealt with in an equally inhumane way. But it still stuck in my craw that we supported a government that treated its POWs like animals. I imagine he would have been sent to one of their POW camps, and somehow I don’t think he would have grassed anybody up.

Settling in for the night, notice the hootchie over the turret in a vain attempt to keep dry. Picture courtesy of Jock Taggart.
Beasts in ambush

My view of an attack on Duc Than. We set up an ambush on the edge of a rubber plantation a couple of klicks away from Duc Than. No different to dozens of others in the last few months. We knew by now that something must be up if we were working like this. Nobody bothered going to bed for the first few hours, due mainly to having a night about in a relatively safe place. The sound of small arm’s fire wasn’t unusual this close to the main road, there would always be a nervous Local Force soldier on guard somewhere shooting at monkeys. The boom of an artillery piece rumbled through the night, followed by several more made all of us sit up and take notice. The radio crackled and the call came through, Duc Than was under fire from an unknown number of VC. Now we were anxious, toey is the term used. The crackle of machine gun fire came to us, the boom of a 76mm and .30 cals going off. We stood to in our turrets and waited for the obvious to happen, air support. First cab off the rank, the Huey-Cobra gunship. We couldn’t see it but its long red line of tracer rounds arching down to earth gave us a fair idea where it was. Two multi barrel 7.62mm miniguns, and upwards of nineteen 70mm rockets. Definite kick-arse material. You can feel your heart beating over the din, anxious to get there but stuck where you are. The drone of Spooky, a DC9 aircraft comes to us followed by the long, whining scream of multiple miniguns being fired. Huge parachute flares floated down dancing and weaving above the treetops in the distance. Casting huge shadows amongst them and their sparkling white glare made your eyes hurt. Then the flares sputtered out and the deadly firework show continued.  Another radio message to decode, Move out to Duc Than.

Thanks to Wikipedia.
Ah-1cobra_1[1]
This link will take you to a 60 second video of several US aircraft, the last 30 seconds is all about Spooky, the DC9 aircraft.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=JAFVuG2KQqk#t=30

We spring to life, anxious now, there must be a real need for us if we are ordered out of an ambush position.  Six armoured vehicles, fully armed, engines roaring break out through the thick foliage and onto the rubber plantation service road. Our Beasts have spotlights mounted on top of the barrels and we switch them on. The road ahead is bathed in a harsh glow, the darkness is pushed back and the air feels cool as it rushes past. I take a quick glance behind, all I can see are metal behemoths bathed in a yellow glow. Clumps of dark mud fly up from our tracks, a strobe effect flashes through the lines of rubber trees. Looking ahead again I feel my gut churn with anticipation, it tightens, then the radio crackles again. Plain speech, Stop, go back don’t go any further. The Boss gives the order over the section net and the vehicles slow and turn back, heading for a new position. We have to pull up while a US battery fire a salvo of 155mm artillery rounds. They scream and whine overhead, each one sounding like a speeding train as it passes. I actually say a silent prayer to whoever looks after artillery men and hope they don’t drop any short. Disappointed because we are held back once again we wait until they’ve finished, and then make our way back to the rubber. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. The thought is still fresh in our minds until we find out why we were turned back. Word had filtered through that a force of VC and or NVA had organised an ambush of their own for us. They would have been armed with RPG 7’s and probably 57 or 75 mm recoilless anti tank rifles. It seems that the attack on the wire at Duc Than was designed to draw us out and into their trap. They probably would have taken most of us out, so, in retrospect it’s good to be the bridesmaid.

Snowy Marshall’s view from the inside. I spoke with Snow about this recently and he gave me the inside view of the night in question. The following story is in his own words and the language used, while fruity is how it unfolded.
Well Smithy it went like this, as you know I was Ted Beasley’s driver and Woody was the gunner. We left Ted sitting in his deck chair on the turret and went in to get a goffer (Soda) and watch a movie. There was some John Wayne flick on and we sat on those horrible office chairs and relaxed. We heard a bit of gunfire in the distance but shit Smithy you’re always hearing it. Anyway we settle back again then fucking boom. Nobody else moves so we stay where we are. The Yanks are still sitting there so we shrug and keep watching, then boom, boom, bloody boom. That bloody field gun up in the tower goes off. The movie stops, lights go out, chairs are going everywhere and the Yanks head out. Woody looks at me and says, ‘Shit, it’s on.’ Grabbing our rifles we head out the door and dodge and bloody weave our way back to the where our Beast is parked. I take about three leaps and I’m up the side and in my seat, with Woody right behind me. Then he jumps onto the turret from the outside. Now Ted had the starlight scope out and was watching something down from the wire. He calls out to Woody, ‘Jump down inside Woody and give those bastards down there a touch of .30 cal.’ Now Woody’s all het up and he slides inside and hits the foot pedal. Boom the big gun fires instead. Jesus you should have heard Ted go off. ‘Fuck me dead Woody you’ve gone and ruined the barrel sock, it was bloody new, you fuckwit.’ (A leather pouch fitted over the end of the 76mm barrel to keep rubbish and jungle out)
 Well we stand to for a while and after it’s been quiet for a bit, I hear Ted again, ‘Bloody hell, you dumb shit Woody, that sock was new. I’ll have it deducted from your pay. Find the bloody thing in the morning.’ Early next morning I get up and there’s Woody standing on the bund with this shit-eating grin on his dial. He’s holding the undamaged barrel sock in his hand and heading for where Ted’s sleeping. ‘It’s a miracle Snow, the air pressure blew it off.’ Ted’s voice booms out from inside the Beast, ‘It doesn’t make any bloody difference Woody, you’re still a fuckwit.’

Winding down. The ambushing continues, night after night of barely sleeping with only part of your mind resting, then patrolling through the day. A quick return to Nui Dat, perform a short vehicle service and back to the grind. Something different, we worked with our infantry for a day playing taxi service. It made for a change and made me realise how good it was to drive everywhere. All of this driving means more servicing and we return to Nui Dat. With our metal mounts clean, oiled, greased and ready to go again the weary crews hit the boozer. It only takes a few drinks and I’m off to bed. My foam mattress feels like heaven as I sink into it, pulling the sheet up over my head I fall into unconsciousness. Oh the bliss of a full night’s sleep.

This picture by Jock Taggart would have been taken around that time.
Cavalry and infantry

Next week: We move house and I go on R&R

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20 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 28. I’m given a responsible job and it’s a mixed bag at Duc Than.

  1. Russel Ray Photos

    I think one of the reasons why I really like this in-the-war series is because my uncle was in Vietnam at the exact time. He spent four years there. He never talked about it after he came home, but he was awarded the Purple Heart. In reading what you have written, I think I kind of understand why my uncle never talked about the war after he came home.

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  2. hitandrun1964

    Ack! I’m glad you’re writing all of this in your bear slippers, safely tucked away in your writer’s room. You really do have to be young to go to war. I’m happy you made it through all of it. I said it before…that was a really sucky war. I can’t imagine doing all that in the dark, with the spiders, etc., falling on you. Great writing. We learn nothing. Chirp.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      In one way it’s good to be writing about a war 42 years on, from the safety of my writer’s room. There are many if’s in life and I often wonder how it would have turned out if I were allowed to go to high school. A whole different life indeed and perhaps a boring one, who knows? What I do know is it made me into who I am today, for better or worse. I still dislike spiders. 🙂

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  3. Raani York

    Laurie, it’s not the first time I got scared for you, you know that… but you were definitely right: it get’s worse, week by week. Your descriptions make it so vivid, the memory let’s me feel like it’s only days ago instead of years.
    I hope you’re not having nightmares by reviewing it all and taking us there!
    I’m glad you’re safe now!
    You are such a remarkable personality!!!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks for caring Raani and for me it’s always yesterday that it happened. I imagine that’s why it is easy to remember key events. I have had the odd night or two where I couldn’t sleep but it actually gave me more stories to recount. Believe it or not I enjoy writing these anecdotes, a little piece of personal history to share with others. Again, thanks for coming along for the ride.
      Cheers
      Laurie. 🙂

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  4. Jane Dougherty

    “the Stygian darkness puts the willies right up you”
    That is exactly the kind of phrase I love in your writing, Laurie. You mix perfectly apposite classical English expressions and images with your own humorous idioms. In the same sentence!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Jane, there must be a few million word combinations running around in my head and I love to butt words up against each other. I know, it’s a gift. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by to have a read.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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  5. Owls and Orchids

    Hi Laurie,
    It seems all things come back in time, only worse than ever because ‘we’ love to improve on misery! At least the misery of those who serve. I itch thinking about all those bugs, and that’s without the idea of spiders and snakes.
    I often used to wonder at the commentary you see (ok on the tv and in books) about the ‘sniping; between the various groups in war – tank crews vs the infantry vs air support. Each seems to have had a shitty part to play and whilst I understand the trials and tribulations of a tank crew now, I have to admit you can keep the infantry for someone else. If I had to fight I think I prefer it at a distance.
    Another great piece and realistic insight into what really happened. Thank you.
    Susan x

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      I look back Susan and even though I have a bit of a whinge now it was all a great adventure. Each day lived to the full and on the edge, adrenalin bubbling away under the surface. The feeling of absolute power at times when you held a weapon that could make quite a splash. There has always been a strong rivalry between services, after all doesn’t the one you’re in do the best/most? The artillery sounds like the place to be but at times they were on the shitty end of the stick to. Thanks for your continuing support Susan.
      Cheers
      Laurie. xox

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  6. Pagadan

    Oh, the unrelenting tension and noise and misery! It makes me grateful for the quiet, a dry bed, the air conditioning, and a fridge down the hall… Thanks to all you guys for hanging in there.

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  7. rayjamieson

    Very graphic descriptions Laurie, I almost feel like putting some aeroguard on! Don’t envy you for being there; my lament is that nobody learnt the lessons from your experiences – they are still sending young guys off to fight other people’s wars…

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Ray, great to hear from you again. We couldn’t use things like aeroguard because they were scented, or aftershave. The VC would smell it. We did have an insecticide that was odourless and came in a small heavy duty plastic bottle. It kept the bugs away but if it got on your watch face it melted. We don’t really learn anything Ray, we have history going back thousands of years and it hasn’t changed a bit, oh only the technology used.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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