The first heavy downpours of the new wet season had just set in…I was drenched…and cold …and miserable.
I leaned out of the side door of the chopper and watched the trees flash past the runners of the Huey…we were at tree top level and hightailing it back to Nui Dat.
Why was I miserable? My mate, my mentor, my friend, my teacher, was dead.
Morrie Manton was our first killed in action. It was a mine on the outskirts of a VC camp.
We had loaded his body, what was left of it, into a lowered stretcher cradle and added the pieces of legs and guts that we could find.
Marsh, one of our scouts, had leg wounds…he was also winched up and taken off on the dust-off chopper. This was before the rain started…it was just after midday…and our oldest and most experienced NCO had stepped on a land mine.
What I was really upset about was my own attitude and thoughts…I couldn’t get it out of my head that it could have been me. NO…it was more than that…I was not sorry for poor old Morrie…I was leaping for joy (internally) that it was not me.
It bothers me to this day that this was my over-riding emotion, as we flew back to safety…selfish, self-centred…thanking the gods of war that it was not me who died. So much for honouring the fallen.
Clichés galore bombard me. Old adages jump all over my mind. “Tried and true” is a phrase that is law and lore in the profession of infantry soldiering.
So why was Morrie waxing lyrical to any of us who would listen the other night in the mess over a few beers…?
He was worrying about our habit (successful) of infiltrating a VC camp in the same single file that we travelled in while on the patrol that found the camp. “We probably scare off any Charlie that might have been there, no matter how quiet we were in the approach,” he had said, nodding his large head, wisely.
He may have been correct. We often found signs of very recent occupation…fires not put out properly, food prepared but not finished, gear left scattered that Charlie would normally have taken. We learned a lot about how Charlie lived using this method, we argued. “Yeah…but maybe we are letting him get away more often than he should”, Morrie had said, glaring at his dissenters.
“So here‘s a better plan that I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “How about when The Cli (his lead scout) spots the first signs of a camp, we bring up the section in a left or right flanking line so that we are ready for a camp-wide sweep when the contact is made – instead of a one-on-one firefight with their tail-end Charlie as the rest of them bug out? Huh? What do you say?”
“Yep,” we said…”could be something in that”…knowing that changing an engrained battle drill after a discussion with just us few over a beer was most unlikely.
Three days later we were back in the Long Green, the platoon stretched out in single file, four sections long. The only excitement so far had been a turn in the patrol that had me pause and watch in suspicion as the man in front of me suddenly veered hard, 45 degrees left.
When I got to his turn point I could see that he had already turned 45 degrees right and was continuing in the same direction as our original line of march.
I followed him.
He then turned 45 degrees again…first to the right, then after about 6-7 paces, left again. We were back on the same line of march.
And so was the patrol behind me. We were all achieving a square loop-around a particular tree, that now became obvious to me.
I saw a thick brown/green vine that wound around the trunk of this tall tree. My eyes followed it upwards…it got thicker and thicker…and then started to writhe and move!
The scouts in Morrie’s section (he was travelling as No 3 as usual) in the patrol had cleverly moved our entire line of march smoothly and silently around the largest fucking python I had seen up until that point in my travels in SE Asia.
It was a detour we all enjoyed and appreciated.
(This was especially appreciated by those of us who had been on an earlier patrol being led by a scout and section commander with a different sense of humour. On that occasion the scout had spotted a tree seething with red ants which attack when threatened and sting like hell. Having got the two scouts and himself safely past this tree, his NCO gave the last branch a heavy swipe with his hand and quickly moved on.
Our boring patrol leapt into life as man after man passed under the tree and was pounced upon by thousands of angry red ants. It took a 30 min. rest halt away from the tree, with full deployment of security posts and small patrols for the worst affected to get their clothes off and get clear of the damn things.
Most of us saw the funny side…although after that patrol, promises were extracted from those responsible never to do it again. Years later, I saw it as an amusing way to keep us on our toes).
But this particular day, 2 September 1967, things had not been boring, and were about to go downhill.