Rules of Engagement
Once we were soldiers

 

 

australian infantryman's combat badge
rules of engagement

© Trevor Cheeseman
1966-67 1969-70
author: Trevor Cheeseman

 

Patrolling was our hardest task in Vietnam. You're on the go all day carrying your personal load, plus ammo; just being alert stresses and saps you of your strength and energy when it is assisted by the oppressive humidity that left you virtually with nothing left physically. Mentally you struggled with yourself to keep going, and all the time it was only anger that powered you on. It was not about the enemy you gave any thoughts to, but fighting the jungle that tried very hard to stop you moving forward to carry out your patrol tasks. Bashing your way through the jungle meant literally driving yourself forward, falling on the undergrowth with all your weight behind you like a steamroller, lifting your knees weapon across your chest, pushing the thick undergrowth out of the way, trying to flatten it rather than cutting it down; then pulling yourself up, and doing it all over again. A machete was no good as it was too thick to cut and soon blunted. Use of the machete was too tiring and you got so exhausted. It was slow, as the need to search ground for the enemy was the most important thing. You never knew what was on the other side of the scrub either, you could not see through it, and made so much noise. It made it easier for the enemy to take tactical advantage of all this. The enemy could move off out of your way, or ambush you.

On many occasions we did not have a forward scout, as the sections were too small (6-7 men). Soldiers feared at being forward scouts, as it was not popular because of the danger. The workload was too heavy thrashing your way through, and you could only last out for ten minutes. It was difficult for me also as section commander with the compass in hand, and weapon in the other to take the role of the scout, which I did on many occasions.

This day we travelled as a company searching in strength, as we believed from intelligence that the enemy were also in strength and operating somewhere but they were too illusive, and so difficult to locate and the area was large.

Company Headquarters decided to pull up, and send out patrols from the platoon's. One section from each going off in different directions and coming back on a reverse bearing, or rather it was called a back bearing.

Sometimes we went out and done a fan type patrol where you would go out on a bearing do a right or left handed turn, go a certain distance then a bearing back to where you started.

Our section was nominated while the other sections rested; and off we went leaving behind our packs and claymore mines so as to travel light. The requirement was to travel only 500 metres out, and 500 metres back.

Some sections from the other platoons left a little early and planned to get the search over and done with, and return as the company planned to stay in its present location for the night.

We were only about 400 metres out, when a small grassy area bathed in sunlight appeared in front of us. We propped and listened, before moving on again. There was no need to change formation, as the clearing was very small.

The whole section was in the clearing when we heard noises, someone bashing through the scrub 50 metres away. I thought there should be nobody this far across. With a hand signal the section went to ground, turned in towards the noise and waited for who it was to bust out into the clearing.

No safety catches were on at this time, because the rules of engagement are that we had to see whom it was before we opened up. We needed to see faces, dress, weapons carried; and to look for that coloured band twisted through bush hats (Gold) our Battalion colours, which would have identified our own troops, as the enemy dressed very similarly to us before we could do anything ...recognition was paramount.

We had the surprise, we were on the ground, and they were still moving making a lot of noise. They were coming straight at us, they could not see more than a few feet in front of them. I told the section to fix bayonets, this would give the section added courage, that extra strength to deal with the problem that was about to happen. We did a lot of bayonet training, and everybody was good at it, and so settled them. The last thing I said was not to open up until I do. No one would walk away with all the fire we could bring down on them. Everybody was ready.

When out they crashed, and to our surprise it was other members of a section from another platoon, they were very surprised to see us and very lucky that our fire discipline and rules of engagement stood the test.

To this day it still plays on my mind and think of it often, it still fills me with dread and troubles me to this day.


 

ONCE WE WERE SOLDIERS | BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE