Tales From the Tiger

Sapper Attacks HQ

As 'Tunnel Rats' in Vietnam we led an odd life, being attached in small teams to other units instead of working together as a whole troop or squadron.

Occasionally, if you were lucky you'd get attached to the Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's) for the operation. There may have been endless arguments of sleeping space and 'Jack Rations', but at least you never had to walk. If you were really lucky you'd spend an operation on 'Ready Reaction' (on standby. sic) at the fire support base. This was a total 'Swan', (easy as) with regular showers, mail and meals. Mostly though you'd end up walking with the 'grunts'.  We usually worked as a team of two Sappers, known as a Splinter Team, attached to a company of infantry for the duration of each operation.

In addition to our mine, booby-trap and demolition duties, the 'Grunts' also allowed us to act as honorary infantrymen. This had more to do with filling the roster on the gun each night and the amount of C4 (Plastic Explosive) we could dish out for cooking purposes than any admiration of our soldiering skills. Had the grunts been aware that our total infantry training consisted of the real basics at rookie camp and the crash course at Canungra, they may not have welcomed us so openly. But this story is more about my skills as a Sapper coming under a serious cloud of doubt.

I was attached to A Company 5RAR for 'Operation Kings Cross' in late 1969. It commenced with a rather gung-ho Caribou landing at Phu My. It was an extremely arduous operation where we found lots of bunker systems, all of which had to be searched and then destroyed.

One bunker system we came across was very well camouflaged. Fresh grass clippings were evenly spread across the entrance trails. It contained heaps of medical supplies and equipment, mostly of French origin. As we swept through the bunker system we threw grenades into each bunker. I liked this bit because it got rid of the bats and spiders I would otherwise confront when I went down to search the bunkers and set up the charges. Unfortunately one of the grenades failed to explode.

The Company Commander (Major Sutton) made the decision that we would harbour up in the bunker system area to see if 'Charlie' was going to come back for his medical supplies. This postponed the task of blowing up the bunkers, but I was given the job of getting rid of the unexploded grenade inside the bunker.

Not wanting to move his men or to make undue noise, Major Sutton said I should make the explosion as minimal as possible. he also wanted my assurance that he and his men would be safe from the explosion in their present positions. Major Sutton and the rest of the HQ group were situated right along side the bunker containing the grenade.

Calling on my entire ten weeks of Corps training and subsequent in-country education, I gave the 'Thumbs up' and headed into the bunker.

The last thing I wanted to do was touch this grenade in case I loosened something that would set it off. I figured half a stick of C4, gently placed beside it would do the trick. I came out to make up the charge, at the same time suggesting to Major Sutton that everyone can stay where they are, but 'to be safe' they should lay flat on the ground. I put the charge in place, lit the fuse and exited the bunker with the traditional cry of "fire in the hole!"

Perhaps as a show of confidence I took my position flat out on the ground, right beside Major Sutton. Waiting for a demolition charge to go off is always a weird mix of tension and excited anticipation. With my high ranking superiors gathered about me, this one was especially tense.

Suddenly the earth shook. The ground rumbled and tossed beneath us. I caught a glimpse of Major Sutton and the others, their bodies flapping like fish freshly landed on a river bank. This was not good. Leaves and twigs shaken from the trees rained down on us and a cloud of dust engulfed the whole sorry scene. My first thoughts were of a life on 'the hill' polishing belt buckles.

I prepared myself for the worst as Major Sutton rose, brushing the debris from his greens. He threw me a cruel stare that could have cut through steel, and said; "back to the drawing board Sapper". I began to mumble about there maybe being a cache of explosives in the floor of the bunker beneath my C4 charge, but I could see my defence was going to gather little support amongst this shaken and dusty gathering.

'Charlie didn't come back to the bunkers so I eventually set up the charges and blew them, using a particularly long fuse to enable us to get a 'very safe' distance away before the big bang.

I must have been forgiven by A Company because they had me back with them on Operation Bondi, and even took me on leave with them to Vung Tau...but that's another story.


© Jim Marrett served as a Sapper with 2 Troop 1 Field Squadron. He was attached to 5RAR.

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