By late 1966 the Confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia had slowed to an uneasy truce, with Malaysia keeping sovereignty over all the original lands that Indonesia wanted to annex.
The 28th Commonwealth Brigade, and 1RNZIR had been withdrawn from its border patrol camps in Borneo to the main base in Terendak, Malaysia.
Camp life had settled down into “Adventure Training”…
I enjoyed the bank payroll street guard duties, especially at Chinese New Year, when armed Chinese gangs liked to help themselves to other people’s money. Usually, one-day jobs in nearby Malacca or Kualar Lumpur…
Also fun, were week-long excursions of platoon sections (7-10 men) on a motorised canoe going up a river into the unmapped hinterlands of northern Malaysia. Live ammunition was carried due to the infrequent (but much anticipated) sighting of a wild tiger, or closer to the border with Thailand, armed and downright nasty, Chinese communist guerrillas.
And frequent, less aggressive but exciting, up-river patrols designed to expand our jungle knowledge and experience. On these sojourns we would seek out ancient bush tribes of Malays who would welcome us to their camp fires for a night or two.
Many inter – cultural exchanges took place that improved the appreciation of culinary, hunting and sexual customs…and who knows, my mates and I might be still there, happily married and lost to the western world forever.
But in early 1967 the NZ govt announced that they were going to commit infantry soldiers, in the form of one Rifle Company (130 men) to South Vietnam to assist the already serving NZ 161 Artillery Battery and two Australian Battalions of infantry in “pacifying” Phouc Tuy Province.
It was a very important and secret announcement. In general terms the NZ public were against NZ’s involvement in the “American” war in Vietnam, but a recent good will visit from LBJ to NZ Prime Minister Keith Holyoake had convinced NZ that we should do a little more to shore up the ANZUS treaty signed by the three countries after WW2.
Unlike Australia, we would commit only regular Army troops…and since we were trained up and already in Asia , we were to go. And we were keen.
What was the use of being a highly trained, mean, green killing machine if you didn’t have a war to go to?
The first I heard of the posting was one night down in the bars outside of Terendak Camp, know as “down below”. Our pay was given to us every two weeks and invariably by the second week, we were all broke. So our favourite barman (or Lady), who knew us individually very well, would run a credit system during off-pay week.
E.G., at the end of week one, I would buy a bottle of vodka. “John” behind the bar would write my name on it and for the next week all of my drinks would come from that bottle. Each man had their own “money in the bank” like this.
One Sunday in early 1967, I went to get my usual fresh bottle put up behind the bar…but no…John says “Wilson– you no get credit, you go Vietnam. Credit no good. Cash only for you!”
Enquiries through the boss next day elicited the verbal, unconfirmed news that, yes, one Company was going to be hand picked, trained up and sent to Vietnam in two month’s time.
It seems that all of the local population knew this before us. But now the race was on and the news afoot, as they say. The First Battalion, Royal NZ Infantry Regiment had four rifle companies and one HQ Company, each of approx. 130 men.
One new company, V Company, was to be chosen from the Battalion as our first to go to the war inVietnam. Only the best would be chosen…and it had to happen quickly because there was a new level of fitness to be achieved, new weapons to be trained on, new tactics and drills to be practised etc, etc…
V Company would be chosen, platoon by platoon, man by man, by Officers and NCO’s, selecting the best from each trade: best riflemen, top scouts, best radio men, best section and platoon commanders, etc.
The competition was intense. I was serving in D Company, 11 Platoon. When V Company was announced ALL of my closest friends except me (including about eight very close mates) were chosen along with my own Corporal, and Lieutenant. I was devastated. I was to be mixed into other groups that had also missed the cut. This went against all that I stood for…I had always been in the top performance groupings of any activity of my life, and I’d be stuffed if I was going to miss out.
Reassurances from my Platoon Commander that other, future companies were going to be chosen to follow on next year did not appease me. I needed to go to war with my mates…not a bunch of guys who I only knew from fighting with them in the bars!
I argued, showed test results, field exercise completions, fitness and conduct reports…I begged him, as my boss, as my friend (which he had become) to take me with them. I cried at one point. He was adamant. His Platoon was allowed 30 men and they had been chosen and he could not take even one more. But rather than have to stay around camp and watch all my friends launch into their new roles, he had wangled an exciting assignment for me.
A small group of Kiwi soldiers were to be sent to the Thai border for three weeks. They were to break into five-man teams and act as “enemy” to the battalion of British Ghurkas that were exercising there.
It was a very risky and challenging job and would earn me lots of brownie points at Battalion level that would stand me in good stead when another Company was being chosen for Vietnam. You can’t fight city hall all the time …especially when it’s the Army’s City Hll…so I bid an emotional farewell to the boss and my mates and was whisked away by truck and British helicopter to the ancient and untouched highlands of the rugged jungle valleys that link Thailand and Malaysia.
I carried blank rounds in some magazines for our work as “enemy” and one magazine of live rounds for the possibility of a tiger or an aging, lost, but nasty Chinese Communist. We naturally hoped like hell that we would run into both.
The next few weeks are a blur of night patrols, day and night ambushes, camp assaults and head down, bum up scampering over hills and through rivers…out-running some very annoyed Ghurkas. Whenever we were judged, by the Marshalls,to have “won” an engagement with the tough little Nepalese fighters, we learnt very quickly that they did not want to sit around over a cup of tea and discuss the finer points of our superior jungle and military skills.
They made it very clear that they wanted to carry on the battle without the moderators! We were under the command of a Sergeant who had dealt with the Ghurkas before. “Don’t confront them, one-on-one. Their pride won’t let them end the encounter in a friendly ‘draw’.
If they reach for their fearsome knife the ‘Kukri’, run like hell”, he said. Once drawn, the Kukri had to draw blood. My mission in life was to develop skilful craftwork in getting close enough to attack…then having a well planned, fast exit route.
I had operated as a specialist rifleman in all of my training roles since joining the infantry. But it was against the Ghurkas that I was given the role of lead scout for the first and only time. I literally had a small accident in my jungle greens when a bunch of wild monkeys leapt from one tree to another right above our heads…we had been creeping forward an inch at a time, when they decided to stop watching our antics and split the silence with their screeching and crashing. I was a nervous mess for many minutes.
It was to be my only formal patrol in this role and I did not enjoy it. I have had the greatest respect for our specialist lead scouts inVietnam. They had a spiritual awareness of the land and bush around them. Their unique personal skills kept us safe on dozens of occasions.
Some time in the third week of this carry-on, our routines were interrupted by two incidents. As we crossed a small creek in dense bush one sweaty day, we came across a huge cat’s paw-print in the mud. It was a tiger and it was not far away given the fresh water around the mud and leaves nearby. Magazines were swapped on rifles and high alert and excitement gripped us. But, nothing to report…our tiger was more afraid of us than vice versa and we did not see him.
The Ghurkas were very lucky that they were a good day’s march away from this small band of over-armed, hyped-up Kiwis. It brought home to us the excitement that we were missing out on by being left out of V Company. But before I could get despondent, incident number two occurred – my Sergeant received a radio message ordering me (only) to be at a certain grid reference for chopper pick up and return to base.
Not wanting to have me think that I had a family problem, the signal kindly said that I was ordered posted to V Company. The pick-up point was about 15 hours’ hard slog from our present position. The Sergeant could not spare anybody to go with me. He did ask if there were any supplies to be brought back to our group, but since there were not, he gave me a compass and map and wished me bon voyage.
Now, we had all trained extensively in map reading in the hills and bush of Waiouru and Tekapo and various bush in between. But we were in groups where your individual lack of skill or understanding was easy to hide…there was always a natural in the group who led the way.
Suddenly I was on my own. Alone. In tiger country, daylight and dark, rivers and high hills, plains and thick bush. The three hours’ sleep during the trek was my epiphany (the first of several to come over the coming year) moment. I stopped my trek that first night as it got too dark to see ahead.
I lay down on some drier patches of leaves and scrub on a small rise, made myself comfortable and told myself that this was no place to go to sleep… I’d just rest here for an hour or so and move slowly on. I had worked in the bush in the dark before, but not completely on my own.
My main concerns were, one: the Tiger (and his mates) and two: The Ghurkas, who were entirely capable of tracking me and teaching me a lesson for our small victories over them. But I went to sleep. And slept for two hours. The usual ants and insects had crawled all over me and finally got my attention. I made the hilltop clearing with an hour to spare and had never felt such a feeling of exhausted achievement.
I had finally proved to myself that I could do it. I really was a soldier. I felt ready to join V Company. The British helicopter flew me down to Butterworth and from there I grabbed a truck to Terendak. Three days after getting the message, I was back at camp. And within an hour I was made aware that I had three days of weapons and tactics training to catch up to the V Company boys. And who stepped up (volunteered) to take me under his wing? To train me?
A man I did not count in my small circle of friends but who I had admired (and slightly feared) – Corporal Morrie Manton. We started with the new weapons. The M16, 5.56mm calibre, US rifle was new to me. I would keep my NZ-owned SLR as my personal weapon, but as 10-12 men in the platoon would carry the M16, I had to be just as familiar with it.
Next, there was the belt-fed M60 Machine Gun. It replaced our much-loved and trusted British Bren, which was magazine-fed and used the same 7.62mm round as my rifle.
But the British (who, it turned out, owned our Brens) would not let us take them to a war that they had not committed to. So our vital infantry, pivotal cover fire weapon, the section machine gun, was a huge change for us…from weight and operating procedures to ammunition supply.
With the Bren Gun, magazines were carried by all in the platoon and could be easily reloaded from rifle ammo supply.
The M60 is belt fed and although the calibre was the same, the rounds were fed into the gun in a factory-produced belt with rounds linked by metal clips. These were not easy to reload in the field. So the main gunner and his No. Two carried multiple belts, and each rifleman in the platoon carried two belts on top of our huge load.
Claymore anti-personnel mines were new to me and so were the two new hand grenades that we had to carry.
This new infantry weaponry would have taken 3-4 weeks to become familiar with back in training. I had three days of intensive work with Corporal Manton. He became a close friend in those three days and did a great job on me. I was ready to go when the rest of the team boarded the overnight buses to Singapore to meet our RNZAF C130 flight to Saigon.
I also added intimate knowledge of how/where to place Claymore mines and I practised with the two new hand grenades: one a traditional “pineapple, fragmentation” grenade; the other a “piano wire” concussion grenade. I would see and use all of these weapons in the months ahead…and to this day I feel huge gratitude for the disciplined education that Morrie gave to me…to the omission of other work or personal things he wanted to do over what was to be our last three days in our Malay Camp…and as it turned out, his last three days there – ever!
Nowadays, when I visit his grave in Waikemete Cemetery, I go over with him, the numerous times when his drills and words of wisdom kept me safe…and made me a very effective soldier. The irony of these one-sided conversations is that it was to be a lapse from his usual regimented procedures on patrol that led to his death in combat (more of that in “Death at High Noon”).
My Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Ray, was delighted that his “business case” to get me added to his platoon in V Company had been approved. Although his ranks were full, on paper, he discovered in a very old British Army Operational Procedure Manual that as an Officer going into the field on active service he was entitled to the personal attentions of a “Platoon Runner” (A throwback to the days before radio).
He also discovered in the same manual that when on active service, all of his men were entitled to two “tots” of rum per day. We gleefully enjoyed this order later in the tour.
The plus for me was that I became a “floating” rifleman in the platoon…on some patrols travelling alongside the boss in order of march; on others, attached to one of the other three sections of men.
It meant that I grunted with the grunts, but also attended most briefing meetings in the bush…and therefore had a much better understanding of where we were and what we were doing…as opposed to my mates who sometimes knew very little other than what was just in front of them.
Back in Camp in Vietnam (Nui Dat) I shared a bunker with Ray and a lifelong friendship was formed.
So, thanks to Morrie Manton’s unselfish gift of his valuable three days, I was an efficient rifleman, ready for deployment.
It was up to myself to use the evening “down time” to get up to speed on such things as radio protocols, the new webbing
that were wore,
and the many bush “tricks” that the old Borneo hands had passed on to us all before we went up top (as being posted to Vietnam from Malaya was called by later companies).
The evenings up until that final week were sacrosanct in Terendak Camp in that we were in our own mess drinking cheap beer immediately after dinner…and then “down below” in the bars outside the Camp until all hours…every night.
Not now. We were totally focused on skills and fitness. It was an attitude that did not ease off until our tour was over and we had returned to Terendak Camp. No more “friendly Ghurkas” as enemy. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese had yet to meet a motivated Kiwi Infantryman. But they soon would.
We were fit. We were strong. We were confident. Last letters were written, non-Vietnam gear stowed away. There was a spring in our step. A glint in our eye.
We were ready.