Two things happened to me on this patrol that moved me to a different level of professionalism and maturity as a soldier.
I saw things through new eyes – and my mind grasped some new meanings of life and reality.
One incident concerned religion.
One incident concerned a death, close up and personal, with huge risk to myself.
As someone much wiser than me once said: “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”.
So stronger I became; but I learned not to keep the enemy quite so close.
It almost cost me my life (or at least my left arm) and also my intense friendship with my mentor, Corporal Morrie Manton.
It began with a “normal” day in Nui Dat. We had been briefed and were saddled up for a routine four day TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) patrol. These patrols took place continuously all year to ensure that no enemy could come within mortar fire range of Nui Dat base. They were critical to our well-being and produced a surprising number of contacts and kills.
We were literally sitting on the ground behind our bunker lines waiting for the order to shake out into single file and quietly slip through the wire, cross the open 200 yards of fire lanes for the machine guns in the sentry posts, and blend into the bush, as only we could. It was the type of patrolling that we were masters at…and I loved it.
Ghoul turned up his radio. “Boss…listen to this”. The call, right in our midst, riveted our attention…the background noise was an intense firefight, much yelling and shouting from the radio.
The guts of it was that an Aussie patrol up in the Long Phouc Hais (a range of high, steep hills some miles to our north) had been ambushed. They had taken some casualties and were requesting “dust-off” choppers and reinforcements.
“Dust-off” was the designation given to a Huey chopper, usually marked with prominent red crosses, used exclusively for medical evacuation from the field. It was usually unarmed.
The dust-off machines were already warming up in nearby Luscombe Airfield. We could see them.
Alongside them was a “stick” of seven choppers from the US 7th Calvary group. We had worked with them before…and I liked them. You’ll see why in a moment.
Suddenly our orders changed. The TAOR patrol was off and we were to proceed ASAP to the Aussie position by chopper and relieve them.
These “ad hoc” actions were more exciting than usual in that we had no idea how strong the enemy was, exactly how they were laid out on the ground and how close we could get to them by chopper.
As we formed up in seven- man teams to board a chopper each, we removed our hats and checked our gear yet again.
Then my first “incident” happened.
On my dog tags, around my neck, were engraved my blood type, name and initials, regimental number and the letters “RC”.
This last entry was to denote religion. The army hates any kind of a vacuum. Back in the World, in camp, Sunday mornings were designated to be “Church Parade” time. You had to specify one of the major religions. No way were they going to allow any soldier to have a Sunday morning off, while everyone else had to Parade.
I had attended Catholic schools during my childhood. During my adolescence I was a believer in the Faith. Although I was a not a regular church goer as a soldier, I saw no reason not to have RC on my dog tags. If they have to know your religion urgently, chances are it doesn’t really matter who the devil-dodger is that they send to say the magic words over you…any old Padre will do, in a storm.
And we were about to head into a shit storm.
So down the lines of our chopper “sticks” comes this hatless man, dressed in Army greens and a round dog collar.
Turns out he is a Catholic priest (Aussie) attached to the Nui Dat Task Force as one of our Padres.
He yells out: “any Catholics! Come over here and get a blessing before you go out!”
What have we got to lose? Most of us wandered over to him…Catholics, Anglican, Agnostic, Angry, whatever…
“Down on one knee”, he called out. Down we went.
“In the name of the Father etc,etc,etc…” he blessed us. No harm done.
And then he said it: “Now fellas…if any of you get killed out there today, you’ll go straight to heaven”.
I stared at him in absolute amazement. He had to be joking!
I knew guys in our group who had committed every sin I had ever heard of, including one bloke who had admitted a civilian murder to me.
What happened to the confession/absolution process that I had been brought up on?
I pushed forward…I wanted a few words with him! Bubbling around in my young, impressionable brain was the recent exposure to and knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of the local Vietnamese people. Some were Catholic, some were Buddhist, and some were a weird combination of these two religions with a very strong ancestor worship element chucked in.
And what about Charlie? The little guy in black pyjamas that I was about to head up into the hills and try to kill?
Did he have a Catholic Vietnamese padre laying the same magic onto him and his mates?
It sounded like a huge load of bullshit to me…and I had been buying it, to various degrees for most of my life, so far.
Something clicked inside my head. It WAS all bullshit. All I had to do was be true to my training and my mates. I wasn’t having a bar of any more of their superstitious rubbish.
My life’s belief system changed there, in that few seconds, crouching under the shrieking downwash of a Huey Iroquois helicopter with a large red-Indian face and headdress painted on the tail.
To this day, I have never been near a church or god-botherer again.
I climbed into the cramped cargo area behind the two pilots…and got my first look at a genuine, crazy, over-the-top, larger-than-life US 7th Cavalry chopper pilot.
He had on fur-lined flying boots (in 38 degree temp), open and unzipped.
He wore twin, pearl-handled Colt .45’s.
A Playboy garter hung from the .45 facing me.
He wore a fleece-lined, leather flying jacket with an Indian chief’s face and headdress on his shoulder.
He had a huge brown cigar (unlit) protruding from his mouth.
He turned to us, removed the cigar from his grinning lips and yelled “Fuckin’ Kiwis, eh! “Where’re we going boys? “Lets go get some!”
We stared in absolute amazement as he skilfully lifted off in unison with the five other choppers and headed off towards the range of hills in the distance.
We flew high over the ground – choppers with us on board were always going as fast as possible from A to B. Always way up above small arms fire, or at tree-top level. No reconnaissance, no sight seeing. No mucking around.
The first five choppers started to circle lower and head down toward a dusty clearing at the foothills of the Ranges.
It was obvious that there was shooting going on down there: dust, smoke, the odd explosion.
Our man kept us up circling above his mates as they came in fast, dropped the grunts while still off the ground and moved on, away downhill away from the firefight.
Then, when all five had cleared away, our madman yelled “YeeHAR!” He put one booted foot up on the dashboard and threw the collective stick all the way forward.
Our chopper dropped, nose first, like a rock. We in the back fell forward and hung over the webbing fence between us and the two pilots. I swear I was looking straight down at the ground as we hurtled towards it at a massive speed.
Just as I thought that this was it…one grunt omelette coming up…Our Calvary Captain yelled to his “horse”…”C’mon boy…up…up…up”…and he pulled back on the stick, coaxing the machine out of it’s death dive .
The chopper flared in a nose-high hover. His co-pilot turn to us and screamed “Go…Go…Go!”
We needed no second urging. I didn’t care what sort of a reception Charlie had for us…I wanted out of this madman’s chopper.
We were out in seconds…and he flew at grass level away down hill, safely.
We scrambled amid firing from all directions. In these circumstances, the first priority is to find cover and get behind it and regroup.
This we did.
Before long we were in section single files again moving fast through bush. Chasing Charlie who had high-tailed it back into the hills.
Then came my second life-changing incident.
The next couple of hours are a blur in my memory until at some point I had chased two VC up a slope lined with large trees that provided good cover. I had shot one and the second one was disappearing over the ridge curve.
I crawled up to the wounded VC and kicked his AK47 aside. He looked at me calmly. I couldn’t see where he was wounded but there was a lot of blood on his legs and the ground around.
I could hear my mates coming up behind me. “I’ll check him”, I yelled.
Morrie Manton’s voice came “Carefully,Wilson”.
I sat Charlie up as best I could. I put my left arm around the top of his shoulders and started to inspect his legs where I thought he had been hit.
Suddenly, my head seemed to explode! A massive burst of shots crashed near my right ear – a burning weight fell on my right shoulder…and my VC’s chest exploded into a bloody mass of flesh and cloth!
An M16 was leaning on my right shoulder, smoking, burning me.
What the fuck! I screamed. I knocked the barrel away from me and spun around…
Morrie was standing there, pointing his rifle away from me, but still towards the crumpled body.
“He was going for a weapon, you stupid bastard. His right hand …he went behind his back…he would have killed you”.
“What about my fuckin’ arm you bastard”. I was mad as hell. I had never talked back to Morrie like this. He was my mentor, my leader, my superior friend.
He had fired a burst of several rounds through the VC’s chest, stitching a line below my arm which lay across the top of his back.
No need to check him now; he was obviously dead.
I hadn’t checked for other weapons in his right hand which I could not see, behind his back or anywhere else, for that matter…I was shaking and mad, and upset at Morrie, and myself, for getting that close to an enemy while he was still alive and dangerous.
And I had good reason to be mad at myself…in the VC’s right hand was a knife. I had really fucked up!
Implied, but not said, in Morrie’s words was the censure I deserved for risking all our lives by not making sure he was dead before I went so close.
We were not in the prisoner business.
We were in the find and destroy business.
These guys had ambushed an Aussie patrol and we were there to get them out of it.
We did so. We killed another 12-13 VC’s that day and the choppers had us back to Nui Dat, in the Mess by 6.00 pm
I had a couple of beers with Morrie. We were OK. He apologised for risking my arm. I apologised for not being more careful – and for swearing at him.
We weren’t blood brothers, but we were mates. But he was a Corporal and I was a grunt…so he went back to his group…and I went back to mine.
There was another patrol in the morning…time to get drunk, get a feed and a sleep.
Our Company clerk was organising re-supply magazines of ammo and rations to be delivered to our bunkers while we drank and ate.
All I needed to do was get clean clothes from my trunk, repack my pack and ammo pouches and pull on the same, comfy boots for stand-to in the morning.
Not once during my tour did I think of the men we had killed during a given day.
Which means that we were what we were supposed to be – professional infantry soldiers.
I was comfy with that. I was proud of that.