On 'The Gun'
title: once we were soldiers
 


 
 

Australian infantryman's combat badge
On the Gun

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

Foreword
During operations and patrols there was a requirement for the section machine guns' to be manned from sunset to sunrise. Infantry sections were rarely at full strength, some a little more than half strength (five or six Diggers). With the requirement for two men to man the gun at one time meant, that for most, sleep would be no more than 4 or 5 hours duration. Over time, exhaustion and fatigue suffered at the end of the day coupled with sleep deprivation at night created a dangerous situation. Wakened by the sentry he is to relieve, the mind numb through exhaustion and lack of sleep, disorientated, in pitch black, one ran the risk of wandering away from the gun to somewhere out front and the possibility of being fired on by your mates..... It sometimes happened.


Silently, cautiously, under a moon-lit forest canopy, a sentry approaches his two hour companion. Something sinister, it pervades the air about with a hint of gun oil on damp cold steel. It draws moisture from the dark tropical night. Familiar to his hand, and yet like some ancient primitive reptile, it is still but does not sleep. Cocked, pregnant, with lethal intent it lies prone, silent, waiting for its chance to speak. Dull black and indifferent, it kills all without conscience, and obeys without question; with no appeal. There it stands as if 'at ease' on its two stubby front feet It casts a ghostly shadow. Betrayed by a tropical forest moon caressing the links on its left feed serpentine belt. It is known simply as, 'The Gun'.

As if from the earth itself a shadow rises beside him and passes into the darkness behind. There was no need to speak. Alone with the gun, he feels its familiar shape. How shall he pass these long still hours.....shall he reflect on why he is here? Why is it he? Alone in this place shall he contemplate the 'If Onlys' of his life? The face of his wife. The smell of her hair.....no! best not go there. Then what should he listen for, the crack of a stick or a metallic click. He cannot smoke, he cannot speak, a little anxious he looks behind, but there is nothing there. Lying prone looking forward is hard on the neck. Carefully, he rolls quietly onto his side to better see behind. Still nothing moves.

Slowly a moon shadow passes, and he becomes aware the darkness is complete. Like a man suddenly plunged into a dark room, the senses are confused. Only 'The Gun' can now orientate him. He reaches for its familiar touch. Other senses must serve him now. He becomes aware of the musky smell of rotting leaves and the sound of insects moving about. Who was it that said, "one fears what one cannot see." Once again he strains to see behind him; only an inky black stillness. It brings on a momentary attack of vertigo, and he reaches once again for 'The Gun' to steady himself.

From 2300hours (11 p.m.) to 0100hours (1 a.m.). This is the worst shift for it divides the night, and means less than a straight five hours sleep. Still wet from an afternoon storm, the cool of the late night and physical exhaustion makes him shiver, he eventually breaks into a mild imperceptible trembling.

Slowly the grey light of a bright quarter moon returns, it peers through the sparse rubber tree canopy. He becomes conscious of the 'tap, tap' of dew drops on fallen leaves, and realises he had not been aware of this before. Only the desert can be truly silent. Low mist hangs suspended; drifting through and around the pale grey trunks that march away in perfect rows; disappearing into the distance as if he were in the centre of a spoked wheel. As if by design 'The Gun' owns those spaces between. The moonlit mist breaks and distorts their shape; it gives the scene an eerie feel.

He brings the faint hands of his watch up to his eye.....only five minutes have passed. Once again he turns to peer intently behind, worried, into the misty moonlit silence. A sound..... faint.....not identifiable, but? Yes! Something is moving behind him. He strains his eyes and ears, and.....now a movement, yes! A sudden stab of fear grips him. He flashes a look at 'The Gun' to ensure the movement 'is' behind him; that tricks of night and time have not conspired to deceive him. He can see a figure now, moving towards him ... closer ... slowly it closes on him. Annoyed but relieved, he whispers though clenched teeth "where the F**k! have you been?" The figure whispers ... sorry mate, the moon went out I couldn't see." Still angry he answers, "but what if you had wandered out in front!"