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If they were going to be allowed to move on unmolested, then it was important these people did not see the platoon. It would not be the first time ‘Victor Charlie’ had used such apparent innocents to flush a patrol so as to arrange a more effective reception committee! Further up the track.

This was a standard tactic for the North Vietnamese Army when dealing with the big beefy American 'Capitalist Pig Dog soldiers'. However both the NVA and the VC were to find this was a very different foe, the ‘Running Dogs’ did not give away their position so easily. It would prove to be rare indeed for the VC to see or hear the ‘Uc dai Loi’ (Australian) soldiers in the field. Being extremely difficult to predict their movements, it was therefore impossible for them to lay effective ambushes against them. This, and a reluctance to ever move out from under their accurate and efficient umbrella of artillery, meant only the dumb eternal patience of the hidden mine or booby trap, was to prove a tactic effective at ambushing the Uc dai loi .

Now less than 50 metres away as she passed by he could plainly see her wide conical straw hat or 'Non La’ held by a flat silk strap under the chin. This ultra light universal south Asian hat was admirably suited for the purpose, being wide enough to keep both the sun off and the face and dry in the heaviest of monsoon rains; it could also serve as a fan or a basket.

Vietnamese villagers wait and watch while soldiers from 5RAR search their hutsThe Non La is the quintessential image of Vietnam. The Vietnamese say that while you hold it, you hold a part of their homeland in your heart. In the years to come it could form part of a montage of images that would drift oft times uninvited, unexpected, through the ether of his mind. Something as a simple as a lamp shade could bring back rows of black clad figures bent under their cream coloured straw hats. Again he would see them knee deep in the mud leaning forward to their labour, leaving perfectly spaced rice green pattern across the paddy fields, the sing song voice of Vietnam would come drifting out of the heat haze. They are images that probably go back 3,000 years to the twilight of civilised humanity.

He reflected on how the village girls always look so clean! Unlike him, 18 days in the field soaking wet every day until he could hardly smell anything but himself, it was amazing she could not detect him, even now, as she passed.

How did they manage? Most of the villages were poor ― thatched huts and dirt floors, well-water, a long hard pull with bucket and rope. Many of the village women were quite attractive, could sing beautifully, they were gentle, feminine and graceful in their movements.

As the first girl moved past the second followed each shuffling step giving a hint of pale skin above her rippling black cotton trousers. Younger than the first, her hat slung onto her back, a thin yellow ribbon holding her long black maiden’s hair in a tight bun behind the neck. They shuffled on unconcerned, unaware, oblivious to the fact that death hovered but a finger's distance away.
Moving with that same busy and familiar bent knee bouncing gate, arms braced above the balance pole ... they went on, unknowing, unmolested ... their lives intact

A Thatched Hut in Phuoc Tuy ProvinceHis thoughts drifted back to a recent village cordon where he had watched three young Montagnard girls pole grinding grain in a stone quern. The Montagnards are the Aboriginal people of Vietnam. Small in stature, they were tough, brave and immensely resilient. For hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years hidden in their mountain jungle fastness, they survived competition from waves of invading tribes out of southern China. All the while fighting nature in the form of typhoons that often came crashing into their forest home, out of the South China Sea.
 
The girls had kept perfect time. Their ancient rhythmic musical chant and the dull triple thump used to time their strike had distracted him until eye contact with the 'skipper' (Lieutenant) had brought him quickly back to the war. How sobering to think these same small slim girls when recruited by the VC were often used as scouts ... they could kill in an instant!

Minutes have passed... the faint muffled sound of their rubber thongs, had faded away only the strange pulsing rhythm of Asian cicadas now gave comfort as they sent their message through the sticky humid air. He turned his head to make eye contact once again with the section commander . and got the signal to move on ― an open hand held vertically before the face, with an axe chopping motion indicating the required bearing to proceed.

The two women never knew they were being observed by the Uc dai Loi. Though technically they were within the Free Fire Zone, the platoon's priority that day was to get to Binh Ba as soon as possible .

Being in the FFZ, they were indeed in great danger but fate had given them their best chance for survival. For the truth is the soldiers of the RAR were always held ‘close leashed’ by the highest degree of professional leadership and decency, and it is this above all "that guarantees the chain of strict discipline."

Through the heat haze down along the creek line, gum trees stir to the promise of a cooling sea breeze. He lifts the can to his mouth, but the beer is warm. At his feet frantic ants surge along the grooves of the sun baked white Cyprus floorboards of his father’s bush hut veranda. He sees a dusty white ute has pulled up at the gate, the driver waves, its’ 1993. For some, war goes on.


Foot note

The incident above was related to the author by a soldier who served in the 5th Battalion and wishes to stay anonymous. I have left out and changed some details in order to respect this. Incidents such as the above were not unusual and every combat soldier who served can relate similar incidents as they happened almost on a daily basis.

The goal of the Task Force was to win the people. Whenever possible the RAR always tried to give the benefit of doubt. We maintained our humanity despite the knowledge that information regarding our position and direction might then be forwarded to the enemy, and within hours be used to set mines, booby traps, and/or ambush against us.

There is no bitterness evident today in the heart of the Vietnamese people for those they referred to as the Uc dai loi soldiers. They, at least have always known he was not the mindless killer portrayed by political interests that manipulated the Australian media during the war. In this pursuit of their own political interests, they showed a criminal disregard for the long term damage it might do to the pride and self esteem of the nation’s armed forces.

They encouraged their fellow Australians to focus their rapidly increasing disaffection with the war on the ordinary soldier. To hold him in contempt for the nation’s decision to enter the war ― a decision in which in truth ― he’ had no say.

It was not the soldiers who had dishonoured the spirit of the Anzac’s, it was they who ignored the maxim ― ‘Truth is first casualty of war”.


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