(Fragging = the practice of exploding a hand grenade or other explosive device in the proximity of (or aimed at) ones own troops)
Three Section led the patrol through the wire that formed the defensive minefield protecting Nui Dat from infiltration. Our scouts had, once again, led us directly to the edge of the jungle in line with our own Platoon Lines in the huge, circular Task Force base.
It was 3.00 pm, Saturday 8 August, 1967. One platoon, V Company had been on constant search and destroy patrols in the Long Phouc High Hills some miles from Nui Dat for the past two weeks.
We had been working in Section groups of seven-eight men setting up ambushes, following fresh signs of Viet Cong activity, and hunting down and killing those enemy. The men followed Three Section cautiously …anxious that they did not in any way resemble an enemy patrol. We felt very exposed leaving the thick jungle and walking into the open, cleared ground that lead into the minefield.
Individual soldiers removed hats and wiped faces, showing to the sentries posted in the tree line of Nui Dat that we were indeed Kiwis…without being told to, a few sun-beaten, darker faces of Maori hue remained head-covered…it was common for a sweat-soaked Maori to resemble an Asian soldier. In bad light, a jumpy and tense sentry from our own platoon position could mistake him for a VC.
When Hank was about 100 yards from the tree-line, following the zig-zag track that was taking us safely through the minefield, he yelled to the machine gun bunker he knew was just to his front:
“Hey Fred…get that fuck’n brew going…I’m hot and tired and I’ll kick your black arse if you keep pointing that gun at me!”.
The key words “black arse” were the signal to Private Fred to ease off in the tension department and reach for his radio and report to Company HQ that that sorry pack of sad sacks, One Platoon, were coming through the wire, on time and identified.
As each soldier passed the sentry post he softly greeted the two men in the pit, but kept moving and kept silent. Noise discipline had only been broken to ensure that the sentry heard the day’s password and recognised his mates.
Fred’s eyes went beyond the last man in the rear section as he cleared the bush line and entered the exposed track through the minefield… our tail-end charlie walked virtually backwards to watch for any sign of movement or noise that might mean we were followed.
From the sentry position, the tall sentry’s eyes aided TE Charlie in this vital task. The platoon, and the entire perimeter of the sprawling Nui Dat base, was at real risk of infiltration if similarly-dressed VC troops linked on to a returning patrol.
Attention to detail and patrol discipline would not slacken until the last man was well inside Platoon lines and soldiers had peeled off to their individual two-man bunkers. Forty to 60 pound packs were dropped from aching shoulders, smokes were lit and weapons cleared and unloaded.
One platoon was home again. All bodies intact. Webbing and packs 20 ponds lighter than 10 days ago. Food had been eaten, water drunk, ammunition expended.
The patrol leader, Red, started his after-action report, even as he boiled his water for his tea outside his bunker.
Bare-bone facts first: five VC camps discovered and destroyed; map grid references noted. Various captured weapons itemised…already choppered back to Nui Dat during the patrol.
One camp had clearly been occupied just prior to our entry …tracks were followed. Four VC discovered moving quickly into the higher ground. Contact made by the lead section. All four enemy KIA. This brought the total of enemy killed for the 10 days to nine dead, two wounded. Bodies and wounded all choppered out to local ARVN units for intelligence action.
(ARVN = local Sth Vietnamese Army troops)
Red noted that the Platoon kill ratio was now standing at a strong 43:0.
He grabbed his notes and rifle and walked to the Company Commander’s bunker some yards away in the rubber trees that provided the cover for Nui Dat. The sooner the reports were done, the sooner he could clean up his personal gear and get to the mess for a cold one.
Groups take turns to fire off ammo into pits…draw new ammo rations and clothing replacements from the Company Clerk. Sit outside bunkers, clean weapons, send gear out to dohbi (wash) and begin the bitching that says it’s great to be back safely, in camp.
Some will be free for a beer or twenty before dinner…most will be spared from sentry duty tonight. The group that had stayed behind from patrol for the ten days would pull one more night on sentry duty as we rested up before the next mission.
And sure enough, before the first Pabst, Schlitz or Reches DA hit the throat, orders were out for another patrol at first light. Cold beer plans moved from twenty to two…sections met to discuss who was going out and who was staying in for the five day patrol planned.
I learned with glee that I would be amongst the 10 guys left in camp to man the sentry posts. Time to catch up with some reading, writing letters and having a few evening beers where duties permitted.
We were proving that we were extremely good at our jobs…individually, as a team, as a fighting force. Our drills, practised ad nauseam in Malaya, worked every time – they were quick, powerful, flexible…and deadly.
We were fit, motivated, excited. Our platoon was the greatest infantry killing machine the Task Force had…and the CO knew it…and used us wherever he could deploy us.
What we didn’t see was a creeping morale problem, brought on by fatigue, lack of recognition of achievements – compounded by the usual “jungle fever” problems of men at war – no women, no rest and recuperation away from the constant threat of immediate death.
If we had been asked how things were, we would have answered “fuckin’ fantastic SIR!”
But two incidents over the next three weeks showed that things were not all good.
FRAGGING INCIDENT 1.
The first happened during the current patrol…not out in the bush, but back in our Lines in Nui Dat.
We were staying off the beer (most of us) – there were only ten of us to man the 24 hour roster on the machine gun sentry post on our part of the wire. But the odd guy slipped away for a few drinks when he thought he had time to sleep it off before going on duty…this was accepted practice because no-one had stuffed it up – yet.
On the third night of the platoon being out on patrol, five of us not on duty gathered under a raised poncho and a lantern on the inside perimeter of the platoon lines, out of sight from the camp perimeter. Our favourite pastime – cards – specifically poker. We loved it.
One of our regular players, I’ll call him M., was not with us…he had gone to have a beer with a mate from another platoon…no problem. We five had chosen not to drink that night due to pending duties.
Cards games are intense fun and rivalry – and much fake aggression and bullshit when played amongst close friends like us. Ribald, original statements are made that last a lifetime…all under the cloak of whispered laughter and shouting.
Suddenly a rifle shot crashed out a few feet away from our seats. BOOM! We fell to the ground, faced outwards, grabbing our weapons, fearing the worst – that we had been infiltrated by Charlie.
My thoughts ran riot…were our sentries dead? How many VC were there? GET THAT FUCKIN LANTERN OUT!
Silence…heavy breathing…A Corporal takes command. “Wilson, Dinga!: check on the sentries. Ghoul…get on the radio…see what’s going on”.
I had gone only a few steps when I saw the problem. I went cold all over. I had escaped some near misses so far in the tour, from both shot and shrapnel…but here was my death and destruction staring straight me – the evil, curved shape of a Claymore mine was planted upright seven yards from our card group, the business end facing directly at us.
The killing range of a Claymore if up to 60 yards on flat ground. This was mincemeat material.
I could smell the cordite of the explosion…not of the mine (plastic explosive wrapped around a thousand ball bearings) but from the shiny detonator that screws into the top of the mine. An electrical cord runs from the detonator to the person setting off the mine. He has a hand plunger that generates a small current that sets off the detonator, which explodes the mine.
We use them often in camps and ambushes. They are frighteningly efficient.
But this one had not exploded…the detonator was only half screwed into the well, half of it black and smoking – hanging out of the top of the mine. The “rifle shot” was not an attack…it was an attempt to murder all five of us.
And the cord would lead us to the would-be murderer.
Corporal M. followed the cord away from our card table and down into the nearest bunker…there lying drunk and asleep was private M. …the damning evidence of the mine “clicker” in his hand.
The Corporal ordered us all out. “Go clean up the mine. I’ll handle this… Ghoul – report an AD (accidental discharge) on the wire – no enemy activity – all quiet.” These were reasonably common…the signs of a bunch of highly trained soldiers, over extended.
We did not see what happened next, but Corporal M reported to the Regimental Aid post next morning with severe cuts and bruises to his left and right hands…and private M was sent to Vung Tau hospital for a week to recover from a fall that smashed his face, nose and closed both his eyes.
That was the last we heard of the incident…except I heard that private M had expressed regret and apologies…he had been drunk and did not know what he was doing. I never trusted him to be behind me in the bush after that. And I wasn’t the only one. I think he had a very uncomfortable tour. (In fact, elsewhere on this website, you may find a photo of my military passport showing me with a black eye…an unprovoked welcome to a bar in Malaya from Private M.)
I often wonder if it was him who carried out the next outrage on our own men.
FRAGGING INCIDENT 2.
It was during a short lull in patrolling activity for 1 Platoon.
We were all off duty for a couple of days, except for rostered sentry duties.
It was one of those nights when it seemed that everyone got “stuck into the piss”. I was sitting in our mess (canteen). This was one of two structures in the centre of our camp, well back from the wire and serviced with deep trenches running alongside by the entrance way. Mortar attacks were increasingly uncommon in Nui Dat but you were never far from your sidearm and a trench…even while drinking.
I was sitting with a rowdy bunch of the guys along one wall of the mess, quite close to the bar, at the opposite end of the room from the door. Our rifles were in a rack in the door lobby, which led directly into our trench.
There were the usual number of guys coming and going through the door, on the way to the latrines, or calling it a night and retrieving their rifles and heading back to their platoon lines.
Suddenly, a massive explosion…right next door. This second building was the Officer’s mess…and I happened to know that a few of the bosses were also having a drink that evening.
We jumped up, raced through the door and jumped into the trench…thinking “mortars” and waiting for the next round to come whistling in.
In the dark, much noise, shouting and confusion coming from the Officer’s mess.
Then, the next thing I remember is Captain Fraser, our Company Executive Officer, standing beside our trench, pointing his M16 at us and ordering us out, one at a time.
Mystified (and a little drunk) we quietly climbed out and stood around and listened to him.
We were to make our way back to our own platoon lines…leave our rifles where they were in the rack…”WHAT!? Unheard of. He was asking us to move around the camp unarmed…a chargeable offence at any time of day or night.
Other Officers were now standing around us, all armed, all ordering us away from the Mess and back to our lines. So, we went.
For the rest of the night, Captain Fraser questioned us…one at a time…sitting under the culvert that led over a small piece of rough ground at the edge of our platoon lines.
He wanted to hear exactly all that we saw, heard, thought in the time leading up to the explosion…who were we drinking with? Who had left the table? Etc…etc. It took all night. (I got to know Allan Fraser that night…and liked his manner and attitude. He was to feature once more in my tour of Vietnam…and then 20 years later when we both worked for IBM in Wellington…but that’s another story.)
So the investigation of every man in V Company who was in camp that night continued all night and through the following day.
One man had rolled a hand grenade into the officer’s mess in an attempt to kill the officers drinking there. The grenade (percussion-piano wire) rolled up to the side of the solid wood bar that the officers were on the other side of. The explosion blew out the wall from which the grenade came…but the bar absorbed all the shrapnel. The blast knocked over everybody…but except for some temporary shock and deafness, did no harm.
As far as I know, this is still an open, attempted murder case. The culprit was never found.
We had our suspicions as to who it was.
But one thing was for sure. Our higher command knew that we had a morale problem…the interview process brought this out, as I later learned from Captain Fraser.
And then one more “thing” happened to our platoon…out-of-the-blue, unannounced, and probably unplanned, three of our guys stole a landrover from near the main gate, bluffed their way through the guards and headed off to the seaside resort town of Vung Tau.
No approved leave…no permissions/orders/missions of any kind. They simply took their usual sidearms (1 x M60 machine gun, 2 x SLR’s) and went AWOL.
No-one seemed to miss them until that evening…I remember many whispered mutterings about “silly bastards”…lucky bastards”. ..much shaking of heads etc…we knew it was going to be serious…”AWOL while on Active Duty” carried all sorts of penalties, ranging from long prison terms, dishonourable discharges, and field punishment, which could include flogging and the death penalty.
The three private soldiers involved were notorious for getting into trouble in Borneo, andMalaya…but this was at a new level.
Three days later, they arrived back in Nui Dat under their own steam (landrover) and surrendered to our Company HQ.
This deal had been struck with the Australian MPs and local police in Vung Tau. “A deal” ? you may ask…yes, a deal. You see they had taken over a sea-front bar in the strip on Vung Tau beach. The landrover was parked in the sand, on the beach, so that it could not be seen by passing patrols.When they ran out of money (end of day 1) they set up sentry posts at both entrances to the bar and kicked out everyone except their chosen girls and the bar boss. He kept them supplied with food and drink.
Whenever a person of authority approached the bar with pleas of reasonableness, they were greeted with bursts of machine gun and rifle fire, fired over their heads.
Sensibly, they were left to wear themselves out.
They negotiated free passage back to Nui Dat on the third day.
After returning the landrover and giving themselves up, they were placed under arrest in the jurisdiction of our Boss.
As far as I remember they served whatever time they got out on patrols with us…although they were legends, no one else tried it out…
Another similar incident on the final days on the Horseshoe ended up with two of them being sent home to NZ in irons a couple of days ahead of our main body.
They spent the best part of the next year having a very tough time in the Military prison in Ardmore. They were then dishonourably discharged from the Army.
I was tempted to see this incident as another symptom of the pressure-induced morale problems in our Company…but knowing these guys, I think that they were going to get into bother whatever the conditions were.
Every Army has men like that. They were superb, fighting, infantry soldiers…but extreme behaviour was the norm in a jungle war. For most of us we channelled it to keep within the rules. I still think very highly of all three of these men. Two I helped bury some years ago. One is still a friend today.
As V Company was the first Infantry company to be committed to Vietnam, many of the normal admin. and support items had been overlooked …or not yet put in place…like procedures for return of our Killed In Action casualties, and R&R…we were supposed to have had a break out-of-country half way through, but because this first tour broke so much new ground (literally) and was a little shorter than subsequent tours, many “niceties” were not available to us.
We were worked extremely hard…and we would not have had it any other way…but something needed to be done.
And it was – brilliantly.
See “The brothel”. A story that I never thought I would see written…so I have written it!