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Once We Were Soldiers


 

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© Alan Miles.
C Company Radio Operator, 2nd Tour

Author: Alan Miles

I joined the army in 1968 with no idea what I was going to do except be a soldier. To cut a long story short I went through the usual ritual of Kapooka, Ingleburn and then
5 RAR.

I remember lining up outside CHQ (Company Headquarters) with everyone else who had been posted to 5RAR to have a (very short) interview with Major D.D. Graham, the then OC (Officer Commanding) of Charlie Company. This was to assign us to a job in the Company. I still remember the words of Major Graham when I fronted him. “You are English so you should be understood on the radio—Radio Operator 9 Platoon.” No, I don't know how he worked that out from my (then) thick Liverpool accent! I thought that was it and I spent a very enjoyable period of training with Roger Lambert, Platoon Commander 9 Platoon and “Taffy” Cheeseman, acting Platoon Sergeant. (Good actor was Taffy, sorry Taff'. Actually Taffy was by far the fittest man I have ever seen, before or since). We developed an excellent rapport and I was very happy in the position. But, as fate would have it, Company HQ suddenly needed a radio operator and I was recommended for the position. I wasn't happy and neither was Roger. But to no avail, Company Radio Operator I was.

So that was how I went to South Vietnam, "C" Company Radio Operator. And that was
how I came home, C Company Radio Operator. I spent the whole 12 months “working in the middle”.

Working as the Company Radio Operator had one big advantage. The most protected man in the Company was the OC. Right next to the OC was the Radio Operator (Me). We never had less than a Platoon of the best soldiers in the world around us. That was very comforting let me tell you, although we did have our moments.

My stint as Major D.D. Graham’s operator was brief. Two or three operations and Don
Graham was injured (back injury I believe) and that was it for him. Then came Claude. I
can now use the first name but back then Claude was Major Ducker or sir and woe
betides anyone who thought different...

Claude was a bit of a culture shock for me. Claude was Army with a capital “A”. I didn't
know what hit me at first. He was a stickler for protocol and everything had to be done
exactly by the book. At first I resented this and was a very discontented puppy. But
things changed and I will try to explain how.

I carried the radio for four different OC's in Vietnam. Don Graham and Claude Ducker I
have mentioned but also there was Bill Titley (Captain Titley the Company 2IC (Second-in-Command) and Dave Wilkins (Battalion Adjutant before joining C Company). They all had the same onerous responsibility. To take a Company of young Australians into harms way in a foreign land, be successful in those endeavours, and most importantly, get those young Australians safe home again. And during those times I was as close to the OC as I am now to this keyboard I am typing on.

As the majority of my time was as the radio operator for Claude Ducker I will stick to
my experiences with him for the time being.

It took a little time for me to realise just what that responsibility entailed for the OC.
At first it was all a big adventure, spells of interest and wonder interspersed with short
bursts of sheer terror. All reading this will know what I mean. And it all started at the
Company “O Group" (Orders Group) before going out on operations. As the Company Radio Operator I attended the O Group to check all the radio procedures, codes, frequencies etc... Mostly I just sat there and stayed quiet and listened. Believe me Claude’s O Groups were meticulous. Every detail was gone over and then checked again. I had to walk out of there and know intimately every aspect of the Radio Communications for the upcoming operations, and I did. I was too bloody scared of the consequences if I didn't!

Out on operations was the same. The OC had enough on his plate to worry about
frequencies, radio pickets, or whether communications with the Platoons was established and clear. That was my responsibility and one I took very seriously. I can remember after settling into a harbour or an ambush position with one of the Platoons I would set up the radio with the appropriate antenna for the position, work out the picket and then settle down myself. Claude would be studying the map using a torch with a pin prick lens. There would be an O Group with the Platoon Commander, the 2IC, the Artillery FO and the CSM after receiving any orders from BHQ via the Battalion Radio Operator. Often I would get aroused at some deathly hour to do my turn on the radio and look across to Claude's position to see the pinprick of light still hovering over the map — Meticulous.

Of course more went on in CHQ that just Claude and me. The Artillery FO (Forward Observer) and his Radio Operator had to set up their comms and do whatever it is they did. I was usually too busy to worry about what they were doing, maybe one of the FO's out there could do a small article on just what being an Artillery FO with an Infantry Company entailed. Jack Lake and Bill Titley would be busy on the admin radio arranging for re-supply drops and any other administrative tasks that had to be done.

When the stuff hit the fan a series of actions was precipitated. Usually, unless the
contact was with the Platoon with CHQ, it would start with the noise of gunfire from a
distance. Both the OC and I would tense waiting. Then the message would come from the Platoon involved, “contact”. That short terse message was then relayed to BHQ. After a short period while the Platoon in action sorted things out a contact report would come over my radio. No code, everything was sent using a pro-forma and the map references were sent in plain language so as not to compromise the codes being used on the operation. Then the wheels really went into motion. Organise artillery and air support, ground support if possible, liaise with BHQ, organise resupply of ammo and supplies if needed and of course action the radio message no one wanted to hear, “stand by Dustoff”. All done automatically, no time for procrastinating; everything had to run like a well oiled machine, just do the job you were trained for and woe betide anyone who asked “how do I do......."

And so it went. Month after month. The initial excitement went and boredom set in (still
interspersed with the moments of sheer terror). But the meticulous planning that Claude started with never waned. I lived and breathed within a couple of metres of Claude. Close enough to hand him the radio handset immediately when needed. Even so I never thought of Claude as a mate, at least not in Vietnam. Claude was a Major and I was a NCO and although I now think of Claude as a mate then it was always an officer and NCO relationship, as it should have been. I do think that Claude and I melded into a good team after we got used to the way each other worked.

If Claude was the authority then Jack Lake was the hammer. Jack was the CSM (Company Sergeant Major) from training through to coming back to Australia. Jack was a man not to be underestimated.

I remember an incident in a bar in Vung Tau when a digger, big bugger too, decided to
“get even” with Jack and offered him outside. Jack came back a few minutes later and
the digger was not heard of again that night. Jack was the glue in Company HQ, bloody hard but fair. For all of us that got home relatively unscathed we owe a lot to our mates, Section Commanders, and Platoon Commanders but, although I think that a lot of the Company members did not really appreciate it at the time, I do believe that the efforts of Jack and Claude, along with Bill Titley and Dave Wilkins, went a long way to getting the Company safely home. Gentlemen you have my deepest admiration and gratitude. And so there it is. CHQ was a lot more than the above but my memory is shot these days. Brain cells dying rapidly! But for those who did not ever get a look in to CHQ those are my very brief recollections.

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