5RAR on operations on the Nui Thi Vai Mountains
once we were soldiers
 


 

 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Nui Thi Vai Mountain
 

© Bob Cavill
C Company &
Assault Pioneers
Author: Robert Cavill

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 Vai." 
The name brings fleeting recent memories of ear splitting 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 arse."

17th October, 1966.

In an early morning shakeout the companies in single file plunged into the forest, arrow- straight forNui Thi Vai Mountain being shelled by artillery 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 "Gunships."

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.
 

Glossary

Dead Ground

Hollow or below crest. A piece of ground that can't be directly fired on by the enemy

'37Pack'

1937 British Army issue back-pack adopted by the Australian Army

'Wingy'

Nick-name for our CO (first tour) (Affectionate). Given, due to a war injury (Korea) by his soldiers with the greatest respect

Doppler Effect

The effect of pitch changing when sound waves move away or approach.


 

ONCE WE WERE SOLDIERS | BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE