Beach parties? Surfing? What’s war coming to I hear you cry, well there wasn’t much in the way of war going on at all. In fact we were celebrating Cambrai Day, (two days early) in commemoration of a WW 1 battle on the western front in France, Nov 20 – Dec 3 1917, where tanks were used, perhaps not so effectively but used nonetheless. The Royal Tank Regiment, U.K. took it as a day for celebration of the birth of modern armour and other Commonwealth countries followed suit.
My diary entry for 18/11/71 reads, Cambrai Day today, had a parade then a feed, booze and a swim. Went into town had a steam bath, massage and 3… Hmm, it must have been all the fresh seafood at the BBQ on the beach and what a BBQ it was. There were 44 gallon drums with the tops cut out, filled with ice and stuffed with cans of beer. Other drums had huge crayfish in them, it took me a while to figure out what to do with them. I’d never eaten one prior to this party. We were all dressed in our beach going gear, relaxed and miles away from any bother. We had Corporal Ike Ihaia Robin a Maori who didn’t seem to go anywhere without his guitar. Corporal Jimmy Canuto on the bongos and a raucous, willing audience. Naturally we sang, ‘We’ve got to get out of this place.‘ Plus a hundred other songs that seemed to pop up from the drunken depths. Our cooks, bless ’em put on a huge feed of sausages, steaks and hamburgers, plus the trimmings. We went through it like Burmese white ants.
This brings me to the question of, after: 4 crayfish, 2 hamburgers, a steak, salad, chips, sausages and 6 cans of beer, how many days is it before you can go in for a swim? We were quite a walk from the beach club house so body surfing had to suffice. I think I ingested half of the South China Sea before I got the hang of it, and I had plenty of body to surf with. Like any party this one began to wind down, there was one thing missing, the ladies. After a long shower to remove two pounds of sand from my bum crack, I felt ready to hit the town. Don’t fret, I’m not going to belabour you with my nocturnal tom-catting. I only want to say that after a little bar hopping the girls tended to keep an eye on you. Then when you sat down in a bar for a beer they had the hide to give you a lecture on promiscuity. “You Uc Da Loi number ten, you go and boom-boom all the girls. Give everybody VD, you crazy.” Go figure.
There are some fools. Now life wasn’t all beaches, beer and birds. We had been busy and up until the 18th Nov, my diary showed me either working, on piquet or on the town, at night that is. There were numerous tasks at hand, naturally there were vehicles to be stripped out, steam cleaned, painted and stored ready for shipping home. A section of vehicles had to be cleaned out and set back up for ready reaction duties. Every morning after breakfast we paraded down at the compound office, were given our tasks and sent on our way. One day you would be painting turret interiors, the next hauling rubbish. You don’t need to stretch your imagination too far to realise one thing, these vehicles were full of crap: spare bits, loose .30 and .50 cal rounds, emergency flares, a tear gas canister found under a driver’s seat, smoke grenades, maps, rations, bugs, bits of uniforms, and when you ripped the flooring up, mulch. It all had to come out.
I don’t know whose picture it is, so please let me know.
Naturally the maps, which wouldn’t be used again needed to be destroyed. There were several 44 gallon drums with holes in the sides placed at strategic positions behind the vehicles. Anything flammable was to be thrown in and lit up. Some people’s ideas of what needs to be burned isn’t the same as normal people’s ideas. A hot morning, dusty, bright the air is full of laughter and banter as we go about our allotted tasks. I’m at the end of the line of vehicles collecting rubbish in a sandbag. I notice that one of the drums is burning fiercely, flames shooting several feet into the air. Then it starts, a rolling cracking bang of .30 cal ammunition, several flares shoot into the air, and about a dozen rounds of .50 cal go off. A quick ammunition 101 is needed here for those who aren’t familiar with the stuff. When a round is put in the breech of a weapon and the bolt is closed, it is ready to fire. The firing pin strikes the primer in the base of the cartridge, it ignites the propellant and the released explosion having nowhere to go, forces the projectile through the barrel. The solid, closed nature of the weapon’s chamber stops the brass cartridge case from rupturing.
You can throw a cartridge in a campfire and when it heats up enough, the propellant will go off and the cartridge will rupture. The round doesn’t usually go anywhere. In this case quite a bit of heavy rubbish had been thrown on top of the ammo, so when it went off the rounds shot out all over the place. I can still see everybody diving for cover, hiding behind huts (me) diving under trucks and jumping into APC’s. Those fifties blew huge holes in the drums and they flew overhead in all directions. Oh come on I thought, let me expire in a steam bath under a sweating Asian beauty, not be shot to death by a piece of rubbish. Like Guy Fawkes night winding down, the banging and cracking stopped and the yelling began. Our officers and sergeants weren’t particularly happy at all, their questions were answered by a chorus of ‘Not me.’ That little fellow seems to follow you everywhere.
These anecdotes may not run in sequence but they do by category. Some people should not drink and be in charge of a Thompson sub-machine gun. You would have seen this gun in nearly every cop and gangster show up to the 60’s and every war movie until then. They were known from the start as a ‘trench clearer.’ A fine piece of weaponry indeed, .45 calibre with a 20 round magazine, you couldn’t help but be impressed by them. Until a particular person drinks too much and has a meltdown. Believe it or not I used to like to lie on my bed, chuff up the pillow and read a book on some nights. Usually when I was broke. The huts were laid out in two rows of about six on both sides of the ablutions, and next door to the Military Correction Establishment, For those not in the know, jail and where the Military Police worked. Some of the blokes had captured Viet Cong weapons, mainly US manufacture and hung on to them. I imagine they were thinking of bringing them home.
Wiki image of Thompson sub machine gun.
On the night in question, no it wasn’t dark and stormy in fact a gentle breeze blew off the sea and helicopters could be heard in the distance heading over the Long Hai hills. I heard yelling coming from the other side of the ablutions, drunken, abusive yelling. Fear filled voices and, “No, don’t, get it off him, get it….” The night erupted with the heavy thumping brrttt of .45’s going off, and the clanging as the rounds hit the ablutions, going clean through. It’s amazing how such a light weight thing as a mosquito net can tangle you up, and delay your arrival underneath your bed. The yelling came closer, more excited voices another burst, then silence. The screech of the toilet door being dragged open and the clang of a toilet seat lid. An alarming amount of noise erupted next door in the jail, if it had background music it would have gone like this.
The end result? The budding ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ was disarmed and bundled away from the scene by his mates. The Thompson went down the toilet pit, never to be recovered and the MP’s made enquiries which went nowhere. After untangling myself I made my way outside to join the interested throng, most of them in their underpants. We chatted amongst ourselves, shook our heads sadly and returned to bed.
Not again. At the end of a working day if you weren’t careful, you would be caught in the stampede for the front gate. Dressed in my best clobber and reeking of Old Spice I joined the queue waiting for a Lambro to take us into town. I remember Snowy Marshall being there and a couple of others as we piled into the next Lambro. I ended up at the end of the seat on the right hand side. Anxious to get into town we belaboured the poor old driver to get us there in a hurry. We’ve seen in earlier posts that they can carry loads way beyond their rated capacity. Although six large Aussies may reduce the speed. The civilian police, or ‘White Mice’ were stationed at major intersections to direct traffic. They stood on 44 gallon drums, so everybody could see them. I can still see a large Indian man dressed in khaki, riding his bicycle into the intersection on our right. He was a Sikh, a bank security guard . The driver slowed down as the copper directed him to stop. One of the blokes hammered on the roof and yelled at him to keep going. I know we were eager but – anyway the driver disobeyed the copper’s direction. Wrong-bad-wrong! Whump! I can still see the look of shock on the Sikh’s face as we hit him. He sailed over the handlebars and went from majestic, bearded, and turbaned, to a rolling, bleeding, angry heap on the asphalt. The last we saw as we drove past was him shaking his fist at us and trying to cover his hair. Oh, ticked off indeed.
I’ve posted this picture previously and if memory serves this is the intersection in question.
Little engine screaming, the Lambro lurched forward in a cloud of smoke, then – the piercing tweet of a whistle. A collective “Oh Fuck” resounded around the street, in English and Vietnamese. Everybody else came to a halt, except us. Someone called out, “Keep going, don’t stop.” Bang! Bang! Bang! Clang! Even the driver was terrified and he twisted that throttle wide open. Collective arseholes twitching we hung on for dear life. I looked back, nobody followed us, only the usual collection of people on bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, Lambros and jeeps. A street short of the Flags and he pulled over, abused us yet hung on for his fare. Somebody jammed a handful of Dong notes at him. I had been hanging onto the strut for support, and still gripping it stepped out and let the others scramble out. This drew my attention to the strut and the .45 calibre round embedded in it. In line with where the side of my head was when the shots were fired. The struts were one inch wide, put .45 inch of full metal jacket round into the strut and there is very little room after expansion. An inch either way and Snowy would have been wiping my brains off his face. Or even worse it would have taken him out too.
Wiki image of .45 with .22 cartridges.
To say I wasn’t feeling the love is an understatement. When the enemy tries to kill you, then that’s part of the risk you take. When some dill sets fire to C4, hmm an accident? When a pod of rockets burning madly on a plane comes towards you, unfortunate. When an idiot throws live rounds into a fire, that’s carelessness. For Christ’s sake when a copper tries to shoot you dead because you are a passenger in a little taxi then – that’s attempted murder. You may remember the cartoons were the characters disappear at a huge rate of speed through a door one after another, well, that was us. A bar beckoned from across the street, one we hadn’t been in. It could have been a gay bar, we didn’t care. We needed sanctuary. Once through the door, we ran into a heavy black curtain, ripping it aside we were greeted with images of genitalia of both sexes, ten times the normal size. The far wall glowed with a larger than life porn movie, casting its flickering light into the gloomy interior. Benches resembling pews were strung out in front of us, and there weren’t any supplicants looking for some heavenly blessing here. Patrons were strewn along the benches. Bar girls with lacquered hair and wearing mini-dresses prowled through the darkened room. Serving drinks and sitting down next to customers, they tried to entice them to go out the back for a hmm, massage. When one succeeded a huge round of applause went up, signalled by the shaft of light coming through the quickly opened back door. We bought a beer each, shooed the girls away and sat on a bench trying to watch the screen and the doorway at the same time. Expecting South Vietnam’s version of Adam 12’s Pete Malloy and Jim Reed to come barging through the curtains.
After half an hour I left on my own feeling totally inadequate and not overly aroused. Perhaps the adrenalin still flooded my system? I know I felt jittery. Everything around me seemed brighter, stark, yes an adrenalin high. I wore my trademark faded orange shirt and pink jeans, looking back I don’t think they would have had any trouble finding me. I can imagine the, be on the lookout for. All patrols watch out for an Australian wearing bright pink jeans, and orange shirt, probably gun-shy by now. Wanted for crimes against fashion. Wandering along the wide footpath I stopped outside the Texas Bar and peered into the gloom, it seemed quiet and I didn’t recognise anybody. Going inside I bought a scotch and coke, turned and saw her sitting alone in the end booth.
Next week. Pretty Woman.