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Once We Were Soldiers


 

Australian infantryman's combat badge
Fighting to keep the sand out of my beer

By William R.Cutler
Published in the Newcastle Herald, December, 1968.
Winner of the AJA Prodi Award for Feature Writing, 1969.  

DARKNESS is falling. High above the thick Vietnamese jungle a lone helicopter is punching its way home. Three thousand feet below, a Digger finishes his last cigarette before night and listens to the sound filtering through the trees. Enviously he thinks of the crew of the unseen 'chopper. He sees them sitting back comfortably, cracking jokes over the intercom as they speed at 75 knots-plus towards base. He can see them happy at the thought of a night on the town - in the messes and bars of the nearby cities of Vung Tau, Bien Hoa or Saigon. He wonders what the night could bring for his infantry company, spread on the ground in an overnight position. Already the gloom under the canopy is thickening. The figures of others merge with the background of thick bushes and vines, as visibility decreases. The critical period is approaching. A low whistle sounds and the company is called to stand-to. The slight rustle of 100 men moving to their perimeter posts seems to scream in the stillness. Each man lies in his shallow shell-scrape and prepares to face the night.

In the distance a flock of birds takes to the air, protesting. Have they been startled by men in black moving below them? Has there been a silent pyjama-clad spectator to our stopover? Is he even now leading his unit back to our camp to wait for dark before attacking? Will the VC presence be announced in a few minutes with a murderous burst of automatic fire and a hail of rockets? Or will it be another night when the only sounds are birds and animals and from sleepy sentries stumbling to their posts? Nights are long in the Vietnamese jungle. The combination of tension and hard earth can make sleep difficult.

THREE weeks or more patrolling through the undergrowth, carrying a 60lb pack, takes its toll. No wonder the Task Force base at Nui Dat is regarded as a haven by the infantry soldier. Here he can relax several degrees behind rows of barbed wire and deep fighting pits. It is far from his "other world" - the dank, still jungle. At Nui Dat there is plentiful water for washing and shaving, a can of beer at the company canteen, and a game of darts or even a movie. Not much by Australian standards, but a far cry from the bush life where entertainment is restricted to picking off leeches or killing scorpions. Life at Nui Dat comes second on the scale of living standards for Australian troops in Vietnam. The base, about two miles long and half a mile wide, is home to most of Australia's 7000-man contingent. The area draws its name from the small, scarred hill in its centre. It was established in 1966. It is the base for all Australian unit operations. The skies above are crowded with helicopters, transport planes and artillery shells flung from nearby support batteries. Patrols daily snake across the broad swathe of cleared ground surrounding the base, to be swallowed up in rubber plantations and patches of jungle at its border. Hours later they will be disgorged, sweating and dirty, thankful for the sight of the rows of sandbagged tents which are home.

PATROLLING of the TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) is a routine task carried out with the minimum of fuss There is no guarantee, though, of the area remaining free of guerillas. This is one of the worst features of Vietnam service. At times it is hard to believe there is a war going on: at other times it is hard to believe there is anything else. Operations in Phuoc Tuy Province are mostly clear-cut. Troops move into jungle areas where civilians are forbidden to live and where an innocent Vietnamese has no reason to go. In the other phases of the Australian activities, the issues are involved. The areas to the south of Nui Dat are densely populated. It is here the VC are entrenched. The major towns like Baria, Long Dien, Dat Do and Hoa Long have guerilla units drawn from their townspeople. These units are content largely to restrict their fighting to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) whose small, fortress-like camps can be death-traps. The Australian bid to reduce the strength of these guerilla units centres mainly on snap village searches, ambushes and harassing artillery fire often directed by spotter planes. Village searches are frustrating and usually fruitless. It is hard to believe that a unit of, say, 150 is drawn from a quiet little town. Diggers move from a cordon position in line abreast, prodding, overturning and digging. The villagers watch them blankly while their children rush among the soldiers, cadging cigarettes and food. Buffaloes, kept in flimsy pens, show the only overt hostility. They will break free of their restraint and charge thunderingly, even without provocation.

THE village search is the Nui Dat soldier's main source of contact with the Vietnamese. Apart from this he will spend only four days' leave in Vietnam, at the rest centre in Vung Tau. For the 1000 or so Australians stationed at the logistic support base at Vung Tau, service in Vietnam is comparatively a Cook's tour. Their sprawling compound on the beachfront of the peninsula city is only two miles from the hundreds of bars and messes catering for servicemen. Vung Tau is neutral ground, apparently because of the VC share of the bar profits, and there is little risk of fighting. A narrow road built up from swamps is the only access.

ARVN outposts guard the neck of the peninsula. US launches patrol the South China Sea coast. For the Australians in Vung Tau and the small group at US headquarters in Saigon it is a good life. For the less fortunate Diggers at Nui Dat, about one-third of whom are combat troops, there is dull routine punctured by bursts of violence. The "bush Digger" feels strongly about the difference in state of his counterpart. A favourite joke in Nui Dat sums up the feeling. "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" "I was in Vung Tau, fighting to keep the sand out of my beer."

 

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