On Active Service

The 'Other Man'

My memories of the days I stood beside 'the other man' are like an old jumbled disjointed film, only parts are intact, but some small sections are as intense with detail as on the days the images were burned for ever into my memory. There comes a day in a soldier's life when he may be forced to face the 'other man'. These memories are with me still today and sometimes without warning these faces can burst across the mind's eye — they are the faces of the other man.

Down through the darkest pages of history, of man against man, it has ever been so. Those who must move up feel the pressure of the enemy's shield-wall, know in their soul that some will die. But they believe there must be hope, that in the Australian vernacular, it will be the 'other bloke' — others will be the ones that fall. It is the mantra of the warrior, thought but never said, for how could it be otherwise, only the foolish go willingly to the absolute certainty of death.

October 1966, Nui Thi Vai

A mountain steep. High above a flat plain, in the blinking dappled light of its verdant green canopied slopes hides a bloody struggle among the lichen covered boulders vines and rotten logs. The humid heavy air carries the jack-hammer sound of 'The Gun', two and three round bursts, each carry the potential of death ripping the air at twenty six hundred feet per second. They smash tiny particles of rain into a trail of vapoury mist that connects the gunner to his target. The hammer sound tears at the air like a madman ripping sheets; it comes in waves, bouncing off the mountain, echoes and repeats and in return the enemy plays his part, and a sniper finds his mark ... it is a symphony of war.

"You there! ― I want three men! over here NOW! ― Form a stretcher party and get this man back down to the pad at A Company's position."

"We can't get him out here! it’s about 300 metres down, quickly now!" You! — scout and rotate with the men on the stretcher — watch yourself and take care making contact as you approach their position! We will warn them ahead of your ETA ― get moving!"

So here he is — "the other man," lying on his back. I kneel before we lift and stare into his ashen grey face ... bluish lips and gaping mouth, I know this man, his laugh, his voice ... why! I heard him speak but only a few minutes ago ... that’s right' he said ..."I'll go!"

Light rain drifts down, dripping off my bush hat, running down his pale and familiar face it pools in half closed eyes that stare into infinity. An intense pity overwhelms me as we lift his arms onto the canvas, then look up into the eyes of a medic ... and there ... in that instant of time, find the truth.

He was indeed, one of the "other men." He was but one that stood beside us and now, like all who have served, and saw the loss of "The other man" we must live on ... with the guilt of that unspoken mantra.

"The Silent Seconds"

...A Footnote...

Though not in my section, Gordon D'Antione was the forward scout of 2 Section, Assault Pioneer Platoon and though he and myself never shared a shell scrape, we often shared a beer together.

Gordon was a private and quiet sort of bloke, who kept himself and his pre army life private. Once you got to know him though, you soon found him to be in the army parlance of the time, a "good bloke." Honest, trustworthy, reliable and as is common with many quite men, possessed of an immense courage.

This last and most important of human character assets was probably his undoing for when Lt MacAloney asked for a volunteer to accompany him on what was obviously from the start a very dangerous tactical movement ― to advance and disarm a booby-trapped mine in front of a defended enemy position which was preventing the platoon's advance, there was suddenly a few ... silent seconds.

These silent seconds are something that the combat infantry know only too well. This is the moment in time where words ― if you can speak them, may have very real consequences. These are the seconds that define the essence of courage.

Every man there, was aware that from this same enemy position in an action the day before, one man had already been killed, (Corporal Norman J. Womal) and one badly wounded (Captain Brian LeDan) by very accurate sniper fire and it was obvious there were mines and/or booby traps set in front of us. Gordon D'Antione answered Lt MacAloney just loud enough in those silent few seconds for many of the Assault Pioneer Platoon soldiers to hear, saying, "I'll go sir!"

Gordon was killed in action less than 3 to 4 minutes later ― being shot without warning by a sniper who had managed to get behind him. The sniper himself, being killed by the platoon in an exchange some minutes after.

Gordon D'Antoine was an excellent scout, he was a good soldier... and his voice alone in the silent seconds, proved him the bravest man there.

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© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers 1966-67

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