5RAR on Operations
Once we were soldiers

 

 

australian infantryman's combat badge
On Operations South Vietnam '69-'70

© Trevor Cheeseman
Both Tours
author taffy cheeseman

 

The days were always hot and humid; your clothes were always full of sweat. It was the monsoon season and the air smelt of the coming rains that would fall the same time every day around four p.m. and stick around for at least a couple of hours, and drenched everything. Our feet were never dry, and rotted with the skin peeling away; like peeling an orange which left raw flesh exposed and made it painful to walk. At times throughout the day in a safe area, half  the platoon at a time, removed boots to air our feet and change and dry our socks. Anti-fungal foot powder between the toes helped only if the powder was dry. But it was mostly always damp and could not be shaken through the holes and later discarded.

Tinea was rife between the toes and around the crutch. Most of us still carry this tinea, cruris bacteria, (medical terminology) in the system today, and break out around the crutch on humid days, or if you sit around with wet or sweaty clothing on and is known as the Vietnam rash, and best treated by airing and sunlight.

The same clothing was worn for at least three weeks, sometimes less, but could be longer. Echelon bags, (kit bags) one per section, with the name of the company, platoon, and section printed on the side, and full of fresh clothing were flown in with the ration re-supply, so your change had to be quick, old clothing had to be repacked and flown out on the next chopper normally within the hour. These were all laundered back at base camp by laundry contractors, and later retrieved and readied for the next operation.

Patrolling activity would wear you down physically a little each day. Plenty of water needed to be drunk so you were always on the lookout for running water to fill your bottles. The enemy needed water too, and mostly camped not far away. Tracks followed or led to water, and we often rested across them and placed out three man sentries at each end to act as small ambush groups just far enough out to not hear any noise of the resting platoon behind you. These were changed every two hours with a fresh group. On the change the relieving group would move forward off the track which was previously cleared, to cut back any noise, and crawled in the last five metres. This only happened with a long stay in one position throughout the day.

On this particular late overcast day, we were acting as sentries, as the platoon did not intend to stay long and later to move to another location for the night. This was a track and did not show signs of recent enemy movement. It always made you feel uneasy when you straddled tracks in poor light. Shadows seemed to dance about and heightened all your senses. The track crossed a deep ditch about twenty metres wide, and dropped away out of sight momentarily. A bamboo thicket on our side, masked our view directly in front. Only the gunner with the M60 machinegun had a clear field of fire.

It was not long into the hour when two VC appeared, talking as they strolled along with not a care in the world. They were both unarmed it appeared, and only carrying small parcels. At that moment it started to rain; they suddenly stopped, shook out a black plastic sheet, covered themselves, and squatted together in the ditch out of sight of the machine gunner, who had seen them coming. We could see the two from our position. You could see them squabbling and fighting over there share of the plastic sheeting as it was just barely enough to cover both.

The rain was falling rather heavy at the time and all you heard was the raindrops crashing through the jungle canopy and the noise of the droplets hitting their plastic covering. These two were only 20 metres away, squatting in an awkward spot in the ditch, and not quite in our killing area. The rain eased and they stood up folding the plastic sheet and moved a few steps when the machine gunner opened fire. 'Lofty', not being the regular machine gunner must have closed his eyes at the same time as he pulled the trigger, missing both and I watched them scamper back the way they came at great speed. To this day I can still see the bullets kicking up the dirt all around them. The rest of us were hemmed in by the bamboo thicket and were unable to bring effective fire on the two. After that incident we moved on to another location, secured the area and stayed that night no ambushing, just normal perimeter sentries to give the platoon a rest.

The next day, on the move again, this time moving early to another location, same routine. Any high ground was always suspicious and was always investigated for enemy bunker positions. You never could see the bunkers until you walked right in amongst them..... and we did! It was an old system but still in good condition. On our search we believed the bunker system had been vacated a couple of weeks before. Sometimes a caretaker enemy group would hang around and look after the place until the enemy unit returned at a later date. Being no enemy around, the platoon commander decided we would stop and have a brew and something to eat. These long rest times we looked forward to, nothing like a sweet cup of tea and a hard oatmeal biscuit. Minutes later something caught my eye as I looked around, I saw movement just twenty metres away and noticed it duck down out of sight. I looked away to give the enemy the impression we did not notice him  so he might hold his fire; I indicated to the other rifleman that there is someone over there and I whispered "don't look!" I gave him a quick plan that we would move to fan out ... me to the left and he to the right. "Are you ready?" Lets go! and we rushed the location firing as we advanced, killing this young boy who was holding an AK47 automatic rifle. I often wondered why he did not fire on us, he could have killed us both with ease at that range, but we were a large group, I believe he did not wish to take us on. We buried him in a shallow grave on the spot.

Another day we had just been given orders from company headquarters to patrol around the edges of a fire trail. It is an area which had been cleared by bulldozers months before and was a little overgrown. It was in a 'Free Fire Zone' ..... you were dead if seen in it. Another platoon had the task to keep watch over the trail approximately 500 metres away. We were to act as the 'Killing Group' in an ambush at the other end. We knew from intelligence reports that an enemy main force unit was behind us somewhere. Intelligence,   possibly from the SAS, was that the enemy was moving through the area in small groups. The enemy may have been reinforcements, paying officers, or higher commanders moving about to give their own orders to sub units, or soldiers coming in from leave.

searching enemy deadHours later a report came through over the radio set that two enemy were on their way towards us. It took about 10 minutes to spot them coming, and when close enough shot them dead. Immediately other members of the platoon rushed out to drag the bodies out of the way, clean up the mess, mainly rice from shattered bandoliers that hung around their necks. The ground was soaked in blood and you could not avoid walking in it. "Quickly you blokes hurry up!" Another message came through ... more coming! We rushed back to our positions and again the platoon waited. Along came two more, and stopped, noticing the mess on the ground but it was too late for them and were also shot dead. Off we dashed again to drag the bodies away and clean up.

"More coming!" again whispered the platoon commander as more were sighted travelling our way. Dragging the bodies away into the bush they flopped about loosely. You ensured you did not get blood on your hands as it smelt sweet and it would stay with you for hours until you had a good wash. Other members of the platoon were scampering around cleaning up the mess in a mad panic so as to get back into position. Again the platoon waited, this time only one enemy. He was carrying a bush in his hand. We didn't notice this at first until an aircraft in the distance flew by. He stopped right in the 'Killing Ground' and held the branch over his head to camouflage himself from the air, and before we could open fire he turned and ran. We fired at him but he was too quick. We reckon he noticed the mess on the ground ...... He was very lucky.


 

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