|© Bob Cavill
C Company &
16th October, 1966.
Pioneers watch as cloud shadows
move easily over the dark green flat canopy
towards that peak. The sound of rotating
blades, beating on the humid river air of
the Rung Sat, had slowly given way to the
rhythmic but intermittent pulse of insects,
unknown and half heard. The cloud
shadows moved like the sun's curtain off the
mountain, so as to menace with the full
reality of its leering, steep southern face.
High, glittering, wet rock reflections
hinted at a slippery green and sinister
place. It reared from the flat coastal plain
1,600 ft. Filmy remnants of a morning mist
now become drifts of cloud, pulled and
trailed at its peaks.
"It's about 3 mile I guess," said a voice, " and 3 in I."
"We have been there before," said another, "That's Nui Thi
The name brings fleeting recent memories of
F100 Super Sabres, and jaw clamping
impacts of 500lbs bombs; the crimson whoosh
of napalm drifts through the mind. "Yeah!
Anti-Tank at point, we're covering Wingie's
In an early morning shakeout the companies
in single file plunged into the forest, arrow- straight for
that mountain on a sandy track. At the foot a single path 45
degrees like a ladder to the clouds, with a hundred pounds on
your back and occasional rain just for interest sake. Round rock
and tree, and tangled vine, up only up, you struggle for the
first hour often looking up, but after 3 hours only down;
'37' packs are chafing shoulders, webbing cutting into your
hips. Should you drink your water? Is there any at the top?
Slowly the single file ascends, you find you're often stopped.
You note the leeches moving towards you waving their little heat
sensor about, must remember to check the crutch later, can make
a mess that. Your shirt looks black, it's soaking wet. Hot and
still, you note vapour rising from the man in front, sweat bees
and midges cover his back, and fly in clouds when he flicks at
them around his face. The air feels saturated, nothing is dry.
Incessant sun showers make the path slippery. You look at your
hands; the skin on the fingers is crinkled and soft. Sweat drips
from the tip of your nose when you lean forward to ease your
shoulders while you wait. The air is so humid your lungs feel
like they're breathing steam. It's like climbing a mountain in a
plastic bag. Because of spacing you can rest only where you
stop..... often only hanging on. If one leans forward for better
balance, all you can see is the path. To ease the shoulder pain,
on this grade, lay on your side and you will still be standing
up. Long, climbing, sweating hours have passed, and its getting
cooler at this height, but your knees are burning hot. 1,300ft ―
Anti-Tank is nearly at the top.
Looking up you notice a small window of blue
though the canopy. Wisps of cloud swirl about up high, as if to
tease you with the flavour of that, cleaner and cooler other
world. The sound of a flight of jets, like distant thunder,
passes though the still and quiet minutes. High, going towards
the west, perhaps into "Bien Hoa." Theirs is a
different war. A pilot's war. Cotton gloves, clean sheets, and
showers in the afternoons. A quick death, "if death it must be,"
a 1,500 mph surprise! Not for them a death clutching their
chest, face in the mud, and most likely anticipated, in the
gloomy half-light of the forest floor. Its simple for
them." No chute?" Then no plastic bag! Perhaps that high school
teacher was right. Maybe you were a fool. Tonight they'll be in
Saigon "The Grand Hotel." It will be crab omelette, clean
civvie's, bar girls, and rum 'n cokes all round. Tonight? What
do you mean tonight?" Shit," they're already there!"
Standing still again, leeches and mossies are busy, WHAT! Can be
holding things up? WHEN! Can you get a smoke? Signal that fellow
ahead, a flat palm up with fingers spread. Smoko take 5? It's
passed up..... but comes back denied.
Only the sound of insects, and your heart beating blood in your
ears, while sweat keeps blinding your eyes. You watch the
Chomper ants as the minutes pass, some going up and others down
the trees. They'll be in your pack tonight, eating anything not
in a tin. "GUNFIRE" rings out over the face of the mountain. For
a split second you are shocked. You crash dive rigid to the
ground; Instantly every nerve and muscle waiting for
instruction. This is as alive as you will ever be, your mind
instinctively determining what direction is safety. Instantly
decided you move. Large rock, big tree, (once it was a
gravestone!) or dead ground, it always seems to be too far away.
Remember don't go for the obvious place (booby traps!).
The first thing learned in the infantry is, "get off the track"
and he who hesitates "dies." Crouched low, legs pumping, or
rolling sideways (difficult with a back pack), you get there
fast and hurl yourself in..... irrespective of who else is going
there. At this time you are oblivious to pain, grazed knees
sprained fingers, you can pay for that later. Now machine gun
fire, and sound levels rapidly intensifying as a fire fight
develops between the enemy and the Anti Tank platoon up above.
You focus on the section leader. He waves left and right take
cover, face flanks.
In time cracking sounds above indicate fire coming down is high
and of no immediate threat. The amount of machinegun fire
cracking overhead is unsettling until informed that it is ours,
coming from the plain below. After some time information passed
back down the line from above mentions one dead one wounded; but
of more immediate concern to yourself are the words air support
Hard wired by previous experience the mind reads a situation
change, a vision of American choppers firing 2' 7" rockets,
roaring into the mountain above, into the forest and rocks. The
thought of metal and broken rock, tearing about the huge rocks
scattered about is disconcerting. What if they get it wrong? It
would not be the first time.
You notice some of the Pioneers looking nervous, for some are
packing plastic explosives and others, TNT. Fear always shows
first in the eyes. 2' 7" rockets, like all such air delivered
weapons, are indifferent to friend or foe, and will take no
prisoners. The machinegun fire drops away to the distant
tell-tale humming chop of approaching helicopters. You look
about for something to get under or into. But there is nowhere
to run and nowhere to hide; a rock ledge looks to offer some
promise. The aircraft come in, singing over the mountain with
that familiar sound to "eyeball" the target. They indicate by
radio to "ID" with coloured smoke. Now the Doppler sound effect
tells you they are going out, and will return on their first
attack run. That familiar chopping sound again. They're coming
in. Anticipation is intense; you press yourself hard against the
mountain every muscle is tight. Though not aware of it, your jaw
is clamped so tight, later your teeth will ache. You know what's
coming but you can never really get used to it. The rockets come
in with a tremendous roar, going in almost horizontally above.
You hope they are above the treetops an airburst might bring
discomfort. They crash into the rocky caves above. The sound
echoes and reverberates around the mountains so each impact is
drowned in a cacophony of repeating crashes, each one makes you
flinch. The sound bounces off the mountain to the east of Nui
Toc Tien. Sticks and leaves rain down. Somebody in a momentary
interval after one particularly loud report, invites a sexual
assault upon himself from nobody in particular. How can you not
love these blokes!
As the crashing and banging dies away, those singing jet
engines, accompanied by a more pronounced 'whack' whack'
sound, indicates the choppers are laid hard over, turning hard,
to go back out for another attack run. If before you were
showing some bravado, NOW you have lost all inhibitions. You
scramble, grunting and pushing to join those in that rat hole
rock ledge, for Gunships carry about 38 (19 a side), rockets
each, and they have only just served the first course. One thing
you know for sure, though! It's no picnic down here, but it's
better than being up there. For you, this has become your world;
this tiny ledge; and you will always remember that ledge. A tiny
place in time and space, shared with the Pioneers that day
on"Nui Thi Vai." The 17th October, 1966 when Normy Womal died;
and the next when Gordon D'Antoine died and the next when ...
but that's another story ... you know what I mean.
Hollow or below crest. A piece of ground that can't
be directly fired on by the enemy
1937 British Army issue back-pack adopted by the
Nick-name for our CO (first tour) (Affectionate).
Given, due to a war injury (Korea) by his soldiers
with the greatest respect
effect of pitch changing when sound waves move away
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