It was dark, wet and steaming hot. Two busloads of V Company were to fly from Changi Base in Singapore in the middle of the night in an RNZAF C130 (probably the same one that flew us from New Zealand to Singapore, via Alice Springs, in 1966). We didn’t own many C130’s. It’s December 2011 as I write this story and there is a very old and noisy C130 that often flies over my home on Auckland’s North Shore as it comes in to land at Whenuapai. I strongly suspect it is the same plane that took us to Vietnam in April 1967.
We had been packed and ready to go all day…it was just on dusk as we rolled out of Terendak Camp, near Malacca, in central Malaysia.
We were off to war, at last. Surprisingly, a handful of bar girls stood outside the main gates and silently waved to us as we quietly turned left and headed south. I was quite moved, in that a particular girl named Susie Wong (of course it was her real name!) was in the group…
…and I learned later that a mother & daughter team from one of our favourite bars was also in the group.
The daughter was a young beauty who had fallen for one of our platoon machine gunners. Gordon was about to distinguish himself on this tour of Vietnam and receive medallic recognition of his strength and bravery in his second tour a year and a half later.
He came home to Malaysia and married the daughter and brought her to New Zealand. Today, as I write, they live in the Waikato surrounded by productive kids and beautiful grandchildren. (Mrs Gordon still cooks up a fantastic “Maakarn” for us Vets who call in from time to time. She is a happy, bubbly, living example of the Army’s sensible relaxing of strict laws around the marriage and repatriation of local brides and our soldiers.
Mrs G returns home to Malaysia each year to see her family. She has done so for 43 years.
But, I digress…
We dozed all night on the buses until, after some rather intense discussions and searching at Johore Baru, we crossed the causeway into Singapore. The British and Malay Red Caps seemed unhappy with our expedition.
They were looking to see that we had not brought any of the Bren Guns with us (as we would have done if we could). And that idea was reinforced as a good one when one of our machine gunners reported that his M60 was still not reassembling correctly and he was not sure enough of it to carry it into battle.
While we were having breakfast in Changi Camp in Singapore waiting for our noon flight to Saigon, the Boss came up to our two best scroungers (Staff Sergeant Joe Field and Sergeant Puku Parker). He gave them a huge roll of Malay and Singapore dollars and told them to find and buy at least one, good condition, M60 machine gun. Plus any spare parts!
They were back in camp later that morning with two. Our deficient one was left behind…the spare parts were soon needed as we quickly learned that the M60 did not have the front-line stamina of the British Bren.
I remember about half way through the flight to Saigon, while trying to get comfortable on the diabolical lengthways webbing seats that the plane was rigged with, that I could not move my rifle. The SLR was lying between my legs and had frozen to the metal floor of the flight deck. (I often thought of that flight years later as I travelled Business Class from Auckland to New York on the latest 747.)
One blessing of going to war when you are 21 years old is that all of life’s problems that are sitting up there in the wings waiting to pounce on you and slow you down become as naught.
The whole Vietnam experience was about to change and mould me into a human being that could handle any of life’s roadblocks, setbacks, hardships…and most importantly to laugh at their insignificance. My life was about to change forever…and for five of my mates on board that plane that day…life would end forever during the coming months. For some,this was their last C130 ride.
But these gloomy thoughts are only real years later. On the day, we marvelled at the size of Tan Son Nhut Airbase, Saigon, as we circled to land. It was the busiest airport in the world at that time…and it looked it.
We were hustled off the aircraft and marched across the tarmac. Parked and moving, revving planes of every size and description deafened us. We saw our first sights of body bags (U.S.). Groups of soldiers of every type double-timing to and fro.
Not needing any customs formalities, passports etc, we were simply moved into a tin shed and handed a full water bottle in exchange for an empty one off our belts…and ONE full magazine of live rounds for our rifles.
I was horrified…what the hell was this? I knew we were going by open truck to our new base at Nui Dat…about five-six hours through “Tiger” country. Surely we needed more than one magazine of ammo? I had been used to carrying six mags plus one loaded on my rifle.
Nope…that’s all were getting…more was waiting at Nui Dat…Yeah!..we have to get there first, I thought.
Maybe it was probably because our main small arms requirement was for 7.62mm SLR ammo…and only us and the Aussies used that…anyway…onto open trucks we went.
Its 45 years ago, but I can remember every village, every corner, every hillock and tree clump between Thon Son Nhut airbase and Nui Dat. The road had been “pacified” and was heavily patrolled by American patrols/convoys, but they had also been ambushed on it many times…in fact our first NZ fatality was on this road in the previous year – one of our gunners from 161 Battery was ambushed in his jeep.
So we arrived safely at the red clay, rubber trees, and mud road paradise of Nui Dat…home of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) with one of the Aussie Battalians (6RAR) now designated ANZAC as our rifle Company joined it.
My platoon was quickly shown it’s new “lines”…a stretch of rubber trees and open ground to the front that was to be our sector. Some bunkers were completed, but not enough for our three platoons plus HQ section.
The left hand bunkers of my platoon butted up against those of 11 Platoon, 6RAR…who a few months earlier had won a massive firefight with NVA and Vietcong a short distance from our wire (Battle of Long Tan). They had lost 18 men from their 30 man platoon and were looking forward to going home in a couple of months. They were replaced by 2RAR. Both units were terrific guys and we got on well with them on both sides of the wire.
In fact they had a resident front-end-loader that had a narrow shovel which was ideal for digging crawl and walking trenches…our new platoon lines needed many of these, between bunkers and especially from our living bunkers out to the sentry bunkers on the wire.
Our Boss, Ray, was very busy getting our settling-in organised, so I “borrowed” his wrist armlet showing his two Lieutenant’s pips and his Colt Auto .45 side arm belt and weapon, left my rifle in our bunker and strolled over to the Oz lines.
“Hey…Driver” I yelled, with authority, to the sweating driver of the FE Loader. “Follow me to the Kiwi Lines and dig a few trenches for them, will you?”
“Yes Sir”, he said. He spun the loader around and like a nodding and lurching dinosaur, followed me slowly back to our lines.
The guys saw me coming, put down their muddy shovels and started with the standing order of the day: “over here, Sir,” they would yell to me. I would direct my compliant Aussie to the required trench area and away we went.
By plying the driver (and his sidekick) with many Kiwi beers that evening, we had his services for the following day as well.
The hard parts of all our trenches were done…all we had to do was manually link them up and reinforce them where they met up with the bunkers.
The Boss was most impressed with my leadership skills (and lying ability) and muttered something about capital charges for imitating a commissioned officer while on active service…and then seeing that I would get onto a Regular Officer Selection Course as soon as our tour was over.
He repeated this when he discovered in the coming months that I was the only one in his platoon that could read/speak a little French and play chess. (But as fate had a way of working out, a career officer I was not to be.)
By the first weekend, excitement was building…we were going to go out on our first fighting patrol.
It was to be a four day, three night rectangular-path patrol that would take us just out of the TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) areas and into a Free-Fire area. These areas were designated as “unpacified” and could contain elements of enemy activity…but key to the designation was that there was no legitimate civilian activity in the zone.
Any movement/activity was designated as “enemy”, and, as such, could be fired on.
This being our first operation, we were encouraged to try out all available field rations in camp before we packed. This would enable us to select to carry only those items that we liked. The choices were surprisingly good. We had a choice of US Rat. Packs – canned goodies like Ham & Lima beans, spaghetti & meatballs, Chilli (mince) and even a small loaf of canned bread and cake.
Also on offer were British-issue packs (from Malaysia) – mainly dehydrated meals – these were no good in the dry season, when the only water in the bush was what we carried on our belts – and that was needed for drinking. But also included in this Brit. pack was a small, silver can of ham & egg omelette. I declared this to be my favourite and packed six of them into my pack, at the expense of other items.
We had our briefing, packed rations/ammo etc. saddled up and headed out through the wire for the first time.
The weather was hot and dry and even at our slow, careful patrol pace, we had cleared the heavy bush/rubber mixed growth by midday and were getting into more rolling country, with some sparse cleared areas,
Heat shimmers and occasional dust made clear vision difficult, but we had great faith in our lead scouts.
During the middle of the second afternoon, we were stopping for a drink stop every hour and starting to ration ourselves as the streams and rivers showing on the map were all coming up dry.
I was travelling in the platoon HQ section behind our radio operator, Ghoul, and decided that I was still a bit hungry, not having had much to eat at the lunch stop. I had had to carry a message to each of our quickly posted sentries. These groups of two men were set in a rough circle around the main body of the patrol when we stopped for any length of time longer than the hourly rest break of three-four minutes.
So while we simply went to ground and rested, each facing outwards in our order of march, I quickly and soundlessly whipped out a can of ham & egg omelette and spooned down a couple of mouthfuls of the delicious mixture.
Earlier than I anticipated, the “click click” tongue signal of “move on” came down the line and I saddled up my pack and put the half eaten can into a side pocket of my jungle green trousers…”later” I thought..
We had gone ahead a few dozen yards when two rifle shots rang out…then a flurry of several more…we dived to ground, facing outwards….looking for any cover.
“Contact front” came the cry…This meant that out scouts and the lead section had fired on, or had been fired on by, an enemy element.
“Holy shit!” It’s our first contact…we all try to crawl forward to get closer to the action, but cover was sparse. “Stay where you are”… A yell from somewhere…more firing up front…some yells…then silence.
One of the guys in One Section comes running down our line to the Boss who is on one knee with the radio in hand, telling Nui Dat base that we are in enemy contact and to stand by for further info.
“ Three of them…we got three of them Boss…but two more have taken off over the hill on the right. All three are dead…”
“Anyone hurt? (meaning us) yells the Boss. “Nah…all Ok.
“Right… stand fast”.
“Two Section”, he yells (no need for patrol silence now)…”Go left flanking and form a perimeter with one section…Fast”.
The seven men in two section scurry to the front and fan out..
Things settle down…we are all itching to get in on the action but know our jobs are to hold our positions and cover our immediate fronts. Who knows how many more of them are out there…especially as two were seen running away…they might be getting reinforcements and getting ready to attack our flank at any moment.
Excitement buzzes all around…weapons are gripped in sweaty vice-like hands…all eyes on the open ground and treeline 30 yards away.
Just when I’m starting to think that we don’t have much cover here, and maybe we should be digging our usual shell scrapes… the section commander from the front section runs to the Boss, kneels down and says “we’ve done a sweep. No sign of the two that got away…but we must have wounded one…there’s a blood trail”.
“Right…follow it for two hundred yards only… take the whole section… go slowly. Cover each other each step.”
“Right boss”. He runs back up front.
Meanwhile, Ghoul reports that HQ has advised that they want us to return any prisoners and bodies to them ASAP. This being our first contact, and one that was so close to the large base of Nui Dat, they wanted to get the Intelligence reports done first hand…and fast.
“Wilson…Tell Middy (Two section commander) to bring the dead VC back for chopper pickup.”
(For these first few weeks of patrolling, HQ sent choppers to our contact sites for body/captive pickup. As the weeks went on, this practice was dropped…presumably because the numbers of our “kills” became too large. We soon adopted the practice of burying our enemy dead where they lay after each action.)
I ran, crouching, up to the front of the patrol. Two of the guys were preparing to lift a body, tied to a pole, onto their shoulders, for carrying back. Two other bodies were already trussed up ready for travel.
As they came past me, I looked in horror to see that one entire shoulder and arm was missing, and the stomach was torn open by what must have been a tracer rifle round…smoke from burning flesh was still drifting from the gaping wound, along with steaming, bleeding entrails.
One arm and both legs were tied to the pole…but in the absence of the other arm, the guys had tied the long, black hair to the pole to balance the load.
Yes…long black hair…it was a woman…and two, 7.62mm SLR rounds (one a tracer) had made a complete mess of her body.
I stared at my first battlefield wounds…none of the dozens of similar sights to come in the next few months would had this effect on me.
The ham & egg omelette came straight up, out of my mouth and all over the ground and my boots.
The bodies were carried back to the designated landing zone for the chopper…we regrouped and carried on with the patrol.
The rest of the next two days are a blur. We did not talk about the contact. We did not meet any other enemy. Our firing probably scared off any enemy presence for miles around.
We seemed to be back at camp sooner than expected.
It slowly came out that our lead section had surprised a mixed group of itinerant civilians and Viet Cong locals gathering wood and materials. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered if they knew that they were in a “free-fire” zone.
They certainly didn’t return fire. I was to learn that was a rare occasion.
A report in a NZ newspaper that I saw years later, dated that week in 1967, carried the headline “Kiwis get first Kill inVietnam”. It called the action a fire-fight between us and elements of a local VC Battalion (D445) who we met up with many times, later).
I learned that we were not the big tough jungle fighters that we thought we were. We quietly felt bad about the whole incident.
A close mate (to this day) of mine was one of the three riflemen who fired that day on the group. We are well over the “unarmed woman” aspect of the action. At the time he was only worried about getting into trouble with the Boss because he thought he missed with his first shot.
We knew that we would have far more contested actions against a well-armed and determined enemy to come. And we proved ourselves.
We also had no qualms about returning fire on both men and women in this violent war against guerrillas who were a match for our jungle craft.
I never ate or took into the field again a can of ham & egg omelette.
And I will never use, nor approve of, the current casual use of the term “gutted” in conversations.