Caution! He is the bravest who does not fire
Once we were soldiers
 


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
caution! he is bravest who does not fire

© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers
author: Bob Cavill

For many of us, there are images that swirl about in the ether of the mind's old memories section that can unexpectedly push into consciousness often prompted by innocent comment or a seemingly unrelated incident. Other times they can come forward in the quite reflective moments one often finds when alone in those high quiet places

For some it may be echoes of the sound track that often accompanied incidents experienced by infantry; brief seconds of violence stamped and reinforced by sound, the sudden shift from silence to chaos turmoil and rapid action. Sound levels that must be experienced for they cannot be described. Sounds that are not so much heard as felt.

Others re-live the distinctive flash and rippling impact of falling shells—that unconquerable urge to go down, down to find the comfort of the red damp clinging clay. Or the slow creeping crump of the mortar; its sinister searching advance, both can bring an intense feeling of helplessness, a sensation best known and only truly understood by the infantry.

But I will give you the image of a figure in dim light and low mist, an image that has returned to me often down through 40 years. Sometimes when driving alone at night on dark country roads he comes... or at that drift point on the edge of sleep he returns, always the same.... I step forward he backs then turns. Runs, swift and small into the mist and a little prickly heat of fear takes me again. Less often with the years, almost like a friend he comes now ...not the bare legged spectre he was in the early years when he first appeared before me in July 1966. For in those 30 seconds I was twice reprieved.

Operation Sydney Two: The cordon and search of Duc MY

The morning 19-20 July C Company The 5th Battalion having left its assembly position (west) to approach the Village of Duc My. The platoon roped together by toggle ropes, or hands on shoulders to overcome the pitch blackness arrived at its intended jump-off position sometime before first light. 8 platoon with my section (6) were placed into a blocking position west of the village boundary. In line abreast (a skirmish line) we were signalled to rise and advance foreword some little distance closer to the edge of the village. We rose and drifted though the grey light and dripping forest. A ground hugging mist had formed as moisture found its dew point in the cool moist tropical air. In silence, ghost like, we moved as though born out of that grey foggy silence. It must have been a fearful sight for those with a need to escape, as we closed the last door out of 'Duc My' that day.

After we had moved some little distance in this line abreast formation and due to the poor light and not paying attention, I started to lose contact with the man on my left and got to far forward of the rest of my section. On finding I had to move left to avoid an obstacle in front of me I stepped sideways and then became aware that there appeared to be the shadowy outline of a figure in front of me. I thought to myself someone has stuffed up here! Someone has obviously lost his spacing in the line and has got into position in front of me. This decided, I attempted to move further left in order to pass but the figure jerked backwards and I realised he was facing me with the outline of a weapon and the distinct shape of what looked like a thin bladed bayonet quite high to the left. I could see its outline clearly against the dawn light of the eastern sky (as I can see it still to this day). It was only at this point that I realised this figure was not one of my own section! He ran and I yelled out "VC!" and went to ground but, I did not fire for he was rapidly out of sight and I still could not quiet believe what had just happened.

I yelling VC had put my section or platoon To the ground in an extremely nervous condition. In fact they were now in a state of mind to fire on anything that moved in front of them. At this stage either the Section Commander Cpl Curly Koblitz (or the platoon commander I cannot remember who called out "who called out— what's going on?—who called out!?" I answered, "I think I saw one enemy moving away to my front." Curly Koblitze then said. "Did anyone else see anything!?"

My position within the section normally being next behind the gun group (Number 1 of the Rifle Group), my section Gunner (Probably J D Allen) was near me some 10 metres or so away, then answered saying, "Someone went down there!—I am covering someone just there to my right front!" (In my mind the image puts the gunner on my left he should have been on my right!) The voice of authority then called out "where are you? Put up your arm." I raised my arm, only to be told later (at Duc My) by the gunner  "Jesus Bob that was close, how did you get so far foreword—I almost let you have it back there Cavill!" A little while later we heard firing from the village, it would seem one enemy soldier had jumped down into a trench in front of a B Company soldier and had not been so lucky as when his comrade found himself in front of me. Several other VC, finding themselves trapped, had then surrendered.

I have been told since by a another member of 8 Platoon that he thought I had ran back a few paces before going to ground. If this was so it would have made J D Allen even more nervous because he would have distrusted any figure suddenly moving out of the gloom towards him from his front. For the combat soldier whether it is in town, field or forest, the unconfirmed target is a terrible conundrum. If he does not fire and the target is the enemy, he may live only just long enough to regret it for in close quarter fighting the law of the quick and the dead still applies. Simply put, in order to give the target the benefit of doubt, you must in fact risk your own life. I did not thank J D Allen for not pulling the trigger and ending my life that day at Duc My ... for he lost his own some months after the battalion's return in a car accident 1967.

The Bayonet

The image of the bayonet troubled me for over 20 years. It seems counter to common sense that an enemy soldier while trying to escape would encumber himself by placing a bayonet on his rifle .I have constantly asked myself did I actually see this bayonet!, or was it just the effect of fear and imagination, were my eyes playing tricks in the dim light, was the bayonet folded along the barrel etc.

Real or imagined the image of the bayonet had come to represent all my negative experiences of the war. Survivors guilt, pain for the loss of a close friend and the consequent accumulated feelings of betrayal common to the Vietnam Veterans' after the war. All these feelings were now concentrated—were focused on this image of the SKS, (or possibly Garand) bayonet. Controlling and learning to live with this image was the key to my recovery and the return to my former positive thinking, self reliant and extraverted character. That young man that had rightly marched proudly through the streets of Sydney in 1966 simply to help stop one group of people forcing their will upon another.

Uc Dai Loi Stoush on the Sui Da Bang!

Of course all will have memories from their respective tours where they believe fate or luck must have given them a hand. In the case of 8 platoon many of us were fortunate to survive what today would be called an 'incident'. When my own section (6) was separated from the platoon and caught on the opposite side of a creek during an accidental clash with another 5th Battalion platoon, (Possibly D Company). Recent information has placed the incident around the last two weeks of August 1966.

During a patrol, 6 Section 8 Platoon, were ordered to secure the opposite bank of a platoon re-supply water point on a creek probably the Sui Da Bang (Sui means creek), somewhere east of Binh Ba. Which is located some five kilometres north of 1ATF (1st Australian Task Force). The area was scrubby with low small trees and a thin canopy. Country that was always uncomfortably hot .The rifle group having crossed this fairly deep and wide creek around1. 5 metres at this point.
 6 section's gun group—L/Cpl M Claydon and J Lehman, also having followed Darryl McCombe and myself, were ordered to go further forward as pickets (sentries). On doing so we heard movement in front of us. Moving up nervously through the thick cover we saw and recognised two of our own people. (I believe D or possibly B Company setting up!) About 30 metres or so away they looked relaxed just sitting there. I think I remember an M60 machine gun grounded on its bi-pod. Puzzled by this and thinking they must be from another platoon of my own company, the question was 'how was it they were here on this side of this creek? In hindsight—and given their proximity, I should have made them aware of our position but yelling or calling out was so alien to me by this time I thought I would just withdraw and report the situation to Sgt Mavin who was, at that time, in command of 8 Platoon.

Darryl McCombe and I started slowly to withdraw but we had gone no more than about 20 metres or so when they (or other D Company soldiers that we may not have seen), must have either seen movement, or heard us. Suddenly hearing something metallic (perhaps the cocking of the M60) I immediately went flat to ground. Pte McCombe had not heard anything but observing my rapid movement to the prone position he promptly went down to one knee. This decision probably saved his life because at that instant the M60 opened fire from about 60-70 metres or so behind us. The machine gun raked and tore at the surrounding shrubbery as it determinedly swept the area that we and our section were in for what seemed an eternity but was probably only about 5-10 seconds or so. This might appear a short period of time to those not familiar with such things, but believe me, this is a 'lifetime.' Suddenly the machine gun stopped. I have since been informed by R Quinn of C Company, that the D Company gunner had a stoppage! Though at least section strength rifle fire continued, we were badly exposed and the platoon being split by the creek along with our machine gun group it was decided to make a rapid tactical withdrawal back across the creek to link with the rest of our platoon. It would appear the D Company platoon, no doubt thinking they had the bastards' on the run, (and they did!) aggressively started to move up because bullets soon started coming into the creek area. Though we tried to cover the gun group from the opposite bank as they crossed L/Cpl Claydon being almost the last across was badly exposed and ducked or fell beneath the water. On exiting the creek and returning fire his rifle suffered a water hammer and exploded in his face slightly damaging his eyes. Neither side could see each other. 8 Platoon being now united, the two platoons began to exchange very heavy fire. During the contact and finding myself near Sgt 'Shorty' Mavin, I tried yelling at him that I thought we were in contact with our own people. However being under tremendous pressure and unable to hear me due to the two platoons horrendous exchange of fire, he just kept signalling me to return fire using the M79. I did not obey the order shaking my head in refusal. He, not knowing the reason why, frustrated him immensely ... he was not impressed! At about this point the D Company platoon, no doubt finding its foreword elements running into very strong resistance, attempted to hold us in position while, with probably two sections, started moving to our left flank. (these were an aggressive pack of Ds) As they come round to our left Sgt Mavin ordered all three sections of 8 Platoon to withdraw and take up positions along a nearby cart track some 30 to 50 metres or so away to our left. I remember most men rolling sideways or crawling the last 10 metres or so into the drain. (to stand at this stage would have been unwise!) He quickly put two sections up to face directly what he thought was this new direction of attack. As many in the platoon would know, Shorty Maven and myself were not too fond of each other but I do remember him standing up firing and waving his arms directing his men effectively during this withdrawal to the cart track. Both sides of the track were relatively clear, so anyone breaking out into the open area along the edge of the cart track would have been met by a withering fire from the two sections now facing them.

Leaving the original position along the creek bank was a smart move on Shorty Mavin's part, it left the holding force now firing ineffectively into our vacated old positions along the creek edge. The cart track on the other hand afforded dead ground in the form of shallow dish drains. From these muddy banks and gutters we waited. Most were firing but within half a minute or so were ordered to cease fire! Then we heard the other platoons' orders to 'cease-fire' being shouted. Fortunately some moments after that they stopped .... the silence was deafening. It had stopped as quickly as it had started.

It was "all quiet on the on the Sui Da Bang"

HARD TIMES

The cease-fire was apparently prompted via both units thinking they must be in contact with a main force enemy unit and requesting "Sheldrake" (Artillery support) while giving the same map co-ordinates! Amazingly with the exception 8 Platoon's L/Cpl M Claydon who's SLR Rifle exploded in his face slightly damaging his eyes, there appeared to be no other injuries to both platoons. We were somewhat shaken by the experience of being on the receiving end of a platoon strength assault and particularly the M 60Machine Guns. It was by some miracle that Pte McCombe was not hit in the initial contact as both he and I were initially the most dangerously exposed to the initial machine gun. He the more so for not going down to the fully prone position. Cpl Claydon and the 8 Platoon Gun Group were also fortunate not to be hit while crossing the creek. Fortunately my impending Court Marshal for 'Conduct Unbecoming', for refusing a direct order to engage the 'enemy' was at that stage cancelled .

Strangely enough after the event the men of 8 Platoon were not that angry about what they referred to as a stuff-up. There was more a feeling of embarrassment along with an immense relief that no one had been killed given the amount of ammunition that had been expended, and many lessons were no doubt learned from this. These were early days in the Australian commitment to the Vietnam War but the rapid speed and aggression showed by the D Company platoon against what they supposed to be a strong enemy force was in the best traditions of the Australian Army. It shows the reputation for élan in battle their fathers and grandfathers had gained and were renowned for in over 100 years that these men intended to uphold. 8 Platoon in their turn had manoeuvred as a cohesive unit and showed great tactical flexibility along with a determination to face what they saw as an aggressive attack by what was most likely a main force NVA unit. This aggression allied to high degree of field craft and tactical discipline is why, in a very short time the VC and the NVA came to regard the Uc Dai Loi soldiers as being a very effective and extremely dangerous opponent in the field.

I believe D Company carried no fault in the incident above, the error was probably in 8 Platoon crossing the creek, it would appear the Sui Da Bang was selected on the map to divide the two platoons patrol areas, not taking into account the necessity to secure both sides of a water point (this a standard tactical necessity at water-points) Three things are learned from this particular incident. It reinforces the critical importance of map reading and navigational skills within patrolling infantry sub units. And training in these skills down to platoon and section levels cannot be over emphasised ... and don't go sneaking up on D Company!

In the two incidents above can be seen the effects of caution. In the cordon of Duc My, my own caution most probably allowed an enemy soldier to escape. In the 6 section Gunner's caution, at Duc My (Probably J.D.Allen) given the range, my own life was undoubtedly saved. In the clash with the D Company platoon my caution in refusing the direct order from Sergeant Mavin to return fire with the M79 prevented the possible death or injury to D Company personnel. And by not recognising the possible implications of not indicating my section's position to the D Company soldiers when I sighted them I endangered both platoons and showed a lack of caution.

However it is the figure in the mist that has been particularly troubling to me over the years, because there were two distinct possibilities here:

(1) the figure in the mist could have simply fired as I stepped in front of him

(2) and what is probably the most troubling and far from unlikely as many of us would know, the 8 Platoon gunner could have simply taken the option of self preservation—pulled the trigger and that would have taken care of that. So in some instances, he is the bravest man who does not fire.

During this period Lt R Wainwright was temporarily out of action with a foot injury. I believe command of 8 Platoon had been put into the hands of our platoon sergeant, Sgt Mavin so this incident in no way reflects on the navigational abilities of our erstwhile platoon leader and association president. In fact I believe his absence may have led or at least contributed, to the navigation error on 8 platoon's part. We in 8 Platoon were never told the identity of the platoon in opposition. I believe the main reasons for the lack of casualties were at no time were the two forces within sight of each other, or within 100 metres of each other and each was firing only at the direction of incoming fire In the early days we tended get a bit exited, fire high and last but not least...just pure unadulterated good luck!

I have made every effort to determine the exact date of this incident and identity of the opposing platoon via the daily battalion situation reports now at the AWM but without success. I also made a determined attempt to locate a diary. This diary was kept by the former 8 Platoon 6 Section Commander former Cpl Holger 'Çurly' Koblitz supposedly held at the Vietnam Veterans' Museum on the  Mornington Peninsula Victoria. But alas, so far it has not been located. Any information from 5th Battalion members regarding the identity of the opposing force in this incident would be appreciated and can forward to the author via the Webmaster. This information conditional for publication or not as required.