the jungle or 'J'
Once we were soldiers

 

 

australian infantryman's combat badge
The 'J'

© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers
1st Tour

Author: Robert Cavill

Contrary to popular belief, Phuoc Tuy Province was not all forested, as much of its central south was cleared. However, the enemy, and in particular the NVA, (North Vietnamese Army) utilised the heavily forested areas north and east for their own secure base areas. These forests then are the areas that mean the most to the RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) infantry veterans of this war. Because due to the nature of the topography, they were almost the exclusive reserve of the combat infantry. These often mountainous forest areas, to the Infantry, were euphemistically known as: "The J!"

Though all combat active platoons within the 5th Battalion had nominated scouts on any day, a soldier within the rifle sections' other than the machine gun group, and the section commander himself might be nominated to give the regular scout a break. Some men actually preferred this role, they either enjoyed the challenge of pitting there skills against the enemy, or perhaps they were excited by the extreme adrenalin rush that could be experienced in a contact, the change that came in what seemed a millisecond of time.

For the first weeks of June and July 1966, the Viet Cong probed the base perimeter to see if these "Uc Dai Loi Dai Loi" could fight ... but they did not do this for long!

T.A.O.R. Patrol (Tactical Area of Responsibility)

From a crystal silence to the sounds of 'Crack Crack' and a cry of "CONTACT!" The tearing roar of your own machine gun as it crashes in on your right, and opens fire in reply. And fear! As the section commander prepares to move, indicating he will move left, he turns to face you, puts his hand on top of his head and yells "RIFLE SECTION ON ME!" Now he moves, but as you get up to follow, the full impact of your 70 lbs of equipment hits you! Feeling yourself moving in slow motion you desperately try to move faster; you don't want to be a target!  Within metres you are winded, a further 100 metres you are totally exhausted, a glimpse of running figures in the distance, and it's over ... 'hit and run again'!

It was an aerobic rush that could leave you breathless and literally shaking with nervous excitement; probably less than five minutes, but they were the longest minutes of your life, for "this! is the ultimate most dangerous game."
 
It took men with great skill in field-craft, tremendous courage, and immense self confidence, to survive as a scout.  I did not count myself among the number. And though often in the mornings after Stand-To, like other's in the section, I would avoid eye contact with the section leader. I glumly moved to 'point' when given 'the nod' ... I did not enjoy the experience. 
 
For the first six months when on patrol, tracks or creeks within "The J" were always treated as a major obstacle. After six months even a blinking ray of light, striking the ground though a tiny gap in the canopy would be avoided like poison! It was a steep learning curve, especially as in most platoons sooner or later you would probably have to take a turn as scout. This was the most dangerous position during the Vietnam War any infantryman could possibly be placed in. If you wanted to survive this, you had better lean quickly. As a scout, when in "The J" you must i.e.,  never walk from cover into a clearing; never walk out of heavy shade into bright light; always go 'round the light and or clearing if you can. Make it slow, give it time, 'listen; never follow on a track; if you must cross a track, watch, observe, then cross briskly! Never idle in light, and when you stop always kneel, or, if you are standing you are slowly moving, if stopped you are kneeling. Don't be preoccupied with distance, look close every five paces or so, cover the close 5 look and cover 5 (booby traps).  remember 'his' sight and hearing will have advantage when you are moving, and 'he' is not, etc. Now imagine how hard it would be, to actually carry out the above, when you have a platoon or section commander behind you, constantly indicating that he wants you to go in a certain direction, (usually a compass bearing) and not only that! "What is this hold-up!" he needs to get the patrol unit into a particular location, sooner rather than later!

To be successful as the platoon/section scout everything depended on, 'you seeing the enemy before he saw you'. This would give your platoon/section commander the initiative, thereby maximises his options and was also your own best chance for survival.
A scout's purpose is not to 'seek and destroy' the enemy, but 'seek and find' so the platoon or section can destroy the enemy.

Fangs 'n' Vines 'n' Spines 'n' Mud 'n' Spooks 'n' Spiders.

We saw trees, the trunks of which were so covered in what looked to be huge rose thorns it was hard to put your finger any place between them. There were vines with poison sap, get it on your leach gorging itself on an armhands and it could blind you. The creeks and rivers were infected with a type of fluke that could get into your heel, whence it would travel via the blood stream to your liver. The whole country seamed to be pock-marked with bomb craters, never more obvious than when flying in a 'chopper' 'cross-country in the late afternoon, when you would sometimes see the sun's blinking reflection in them. During the wet season they filled with water and became the breeding ground for untold millions of Anopheles mosquitoes rising at dusk in clouds. They sounded like a jammed engine pulley belt come to torture and perhaps inoculate with Dengue Fever and Malaria. At night, you had to lie like the dead, arms to your sides in a two man 'Hootchie' tent, and avoid the curtain mesh of the mosquito net or be bitten; and if this wasn't enough to torture you in this God forsaken place, There were 25 centimetre long, blue-green centipedes with orange legs and mouth parts that could crawl into your kit in the dark, and bite with a sting that felt like a blow-torch. In September '66 Pte A "Tony" Redding, Assault Pioneers was attacked at night while sleeping by this creature; he was bitten on the forehead, arm and shoulder, before he could get out, describing the encounter as an 'agony'!

When the rainy season came, it rained with an intensity only ever seen in the tropics. it was a 'deluge', short in duration but intense -- 25 cm or more could fall in 10 minutes! Usually the patrol was forced to stop, the noise of the water falling though the tree canopy prevented you from effectively hearing anything else, and the mist from the pulverised water droplets leaves andPte Walden through jungle falling detritus, cut down visibility to a few yards. When scouting it was wise to stop, wait! For it would be foolish to continue. A patrol unit is a structured thing, each individual has his place and must keep it. When stopped you could not move too far, old hands went down on one knee With a 40 lb (18 Kg) back-pack you would automatically lean forward to ease the shoulders and peer out from under the rim of your bush hat though a waterfall at this dull green water world crashing down. Sometimes the air was so saturated it would catch your breath. Slowly as the minutes passed, the chill water would work its way down the small of your back, then the belt line and though the valley of the 'blind mullet', down the back of your legs, to finally fill your boots to the brim!. Then the rain would just stop. Of course not long to Stand To ... and you're wet all night again!
 
Once when on patrol I was standing still on flat ground during one of these drenching afternoon downpours. Water quickly came up to our ankles, driving all sorts of creatures out of their flooded burrows when I noticed a spider as big as a tea saucer suddenly appear on top of the soldier in fronts back-pack. Unable to call out, I watched its slow progress upward, until eventually I was forced to move forward five or six paces and knock the beast to the ground with my hat. By this time, it was about to step from his pack, to the back of his head! His surprise at this unexpected assault was nothing compared to the look of absolute horror on his face as I pointed to the 'mother of all spiders' ,,, now struggling in the swim!
 
We were told by others there were ground wasps, yellow and black things that lived as the name the author with one of the kids from the village of Xa Binh Basuggests in a hole in the ground and could fly out when they felt your presence and sting like flying bull ants; and green tree ants that appeared to be more a golden yellow than green, they lived in a nest of folded leaves. These were a torture when riding on top of APCs. The first vehicle in the column would strike their nest hanging in the low branches, the next would have them primed for attack and they would then leap in their hundreds all over arms and heads bite furiously those soldiers riding on top. What a sight for the locals, all those 'Uc Dai Loi Cheap Charlies' riding along, flaying their arms and beating themselves like some modern version of those medieval religious fanatics. There were other ants to, Muncher Ants who specialised in 'stealing by stealth'. They would move into your pack during the night make a small hole in all the paper or plastic packets in your ration pack, and silently make away with all the contents. They would break your spirit by taking the last small container of sugar you had been saving for that morning brew. You would almost cry when you found they had stolen the biscuits also.
 
In April '66, we were informed by the First Battalion blokes when we arrived, that there were snakes in the leaf litter called 'two-step snakes'; you were supposed to take two steps and drop dead! We all laughed it off! "It's just an army rev-up"  we said, but always there was that doubt, when you heard that movement in the leaf litter, in the inky black dark, as you watched the strangely hypnotic dancing lights of the fireflies playing at midnight, unconcerned about us laying there in the mud and rotting vegetation; being eaten by mosquitoes' and giving blood to leeches. Waiting, sleeping,  waiting, in that ... 'static ambush position' -- "The J" -- what a place!

Postscript

"All of Us"

"The J" and the experience in it changed the lives of all those who lived it. All of us had been conditioned to see the world differently. It was as if from then on, we stood at a different window onto life than those who had not seen, and thus could not see. Before "The J" one saw nothing, but now as we travel late that lonely forest road, silently to ourselves we see clearly that wall that defines the darkness and the bright. And where he just sees bush, is not the bush but cover, and that track is not a track but a gap. And look there! Along that edge, he sees nothing, but we see the line, that ragged defining interface of shadow into the light. Or in "The J" perhaps one deadly step, from day unto permanent night.


Static Ambush To hide and wait as opposed to mobile.
Kit Equipment, Gear.
Rev Up A Joke.
Uc Dai Loi Vietnamese word for Australian
Cheap Charlie Reputation Australians had for under-spending


 

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