THE BACON AND EGG AWARD
About two months into our tour, after weeks of non-stop TAOR patrols (Tactical Area Of Responsibility), fighting patrols and search & destroy missions, the planned move to the Horseshoe was a welcome one.
Of the three rifle platoons in V Company, my platoon, 1 Platoon, seemed to be getting all of the patrols. I know from my mates in the other two platoons that this was not factual…it just seemed that way to me. It was usual for us to be out in the bush for seven-ten days, then return to Nui Dat about mid-day. We would have that afternoon to get re-supply of ammo, clean clothes, do repairs to gear, and test fire any weapons/magazines that had not been used on the last patrol.
We would attend a briefing 40 min. before stand-to (a half-hour of alert attention to the exterior wire around our perimeter. It happened at each dusk and dawn and nothing moved until stand-down was ordered).
The briefing would be for the next patrol. Some of the guys (one section) would sometime be rotated to stay in camp to man the perimeter bunkers while the rest were out on the mission.
Then we would pack our gear ready for a first-light chopper ride or walk-out patrol the next morning, depending on the geographic target of the mission.
Then we were free to go to our mess and have a few beers and some cooked dinner. The beers were free and consisted of icy cold US Budweiser or Aussie Reschs DA. I loved them!
By nine p.m. we are tucked up in our bunkers asleep and resting for the new day.
This pattern was continuous for our platoon, with no time off of any sort. We were getting results (our end-of -tour kill ratio was 80:1) but we would pay a price in tiredness and morale. (But more of that in “Fragging is Murder”.)
So a chopper ride out to the outskirts of a coastal town called Dat Do was a terrific boost.
The Australians had made a base on a hill feature (The Horseshoe), 12 miles from the sand-dunned coast. They then built a series of two, 10ft high wire fences from The Horseshoe to the sea…and heavily mined the ground in between with m16 anti-personnel mines. These were the modern version of the WW2 ” jumping jack” mines. When triggered by foot they jumped up to waist level and blew apart anyone within a radius of 20 yards.
(This minefield is the subject of huge controversy to this day. It cost 12 Aussie lives laying the thing and three years later they had to lift the mines – another 15 men died doing that.) It was supposed to keep the Viet Cong out of the cultivated fields that belonged to the villagers, and inside an area we called the “Long Green” so that we could hunt them down. On many occasions, Charlie (VC) would come in at night, snip the wire somewhere along it’s huge length, probe for and find a mine, carefully dig it up, secure it with a pin, like a hand grenade, and bingo…a free mine for their own use in their own camps.
The engineers had an “aha” moment after this happened a few times and dug up about 20% of the mines and laid a hand grenade under the mine with its pin removed. So when Charlie raised the mine for stealing, the grenade would go off! It probably worked once or twice…but then Charlie had a ready supply of mines AND grenades by just digging a little deeper!.
We settled in to the horseshoe, building ourselves bunkers around the top of the round hill. We set up a wire and minefield on our forward slopes and had good fields of fire. The trouble for V Company was we were the first semi-permanent occupants of the Horseshoe and the bunkers had to mainly be built from scratch. I still marvel at the “bush engineering” skills of the average Kiwi soldier.
These bunkers were built into the dirt and rock ten feet deep and sandbagged/stepped up another ten feet. Two men had cots and reasonable comfort as well as being able to stand-to from their bunker and have an effective field of fire.
It was on these mined slopes that I had my first brush with Agent Orange. I’ll tell the AO stories elsewhere on this site.
One dark, cloudy (and therefore even MORE dark!) night, we quietly slid through the marked track through the mine field and down into the Long Green. The idea was for us to get several thousand yards into enemy territory before daylight.
This was an often-used tactic that was unique to Kiwi infantry. We could move through thick jungle without making a sound. We would go days and nights without uttering one word to each other, except for SITREPS (situation reports). These were whispered lists of our map grid references to HQ at key points of the patrol so that our artillery and back-up choppers would know where we were.
By day three, our platoon-strength patrol had reached an area where a suspected gathering of Viet Cong had been reported. The patrol was led by our Platoon Sergeant, Kevin. Like all of our NCO’s he was an experienced and trusted leader. Our regular leader, The Boss, was away from the Horseshoe on some Company business. He had, though, been at the Horseshoe to brief us on the night patrol (see photo).
(The Author standing, top right)
We found definite sign of recent activity in the area (bunker systems) and after this was reported to HQ, a small team of engineers was sent out to be ready to help us explore any bunkers/tunnels that we thought worth the risk.
Sergeant Kevin engraved his name in platoon history that day, quietly dropping a hand grenade down a bunker hole that we thought we heard movement in. We waited, excitedly, for the explosion and subsequent action…but nothing happened.
All eyes went to Kevin. He looked at the other grenade that he had in his pouch. His dismay told the story. Around the firing handle was a piece of duct tape that we used to secure our grenades while we were in camp. One of the many preparation drills that we do before a patrol is to remove all these tapes.
He had forgotten. Much silent laughter.
We radioed back to the engineers and warned them of the bunker (and, much to Kevin’s embarrassment, of the unexploded grenade).
About thirty minutes later our lead scout saw signs of an encampment. We spread out and watched for any sign of occupation or activity. There was none. We moved into the camp area, watching every footfall and possible hiding place.
These sudden finds in the bush were more nerve-wracking than an actual contact where fast action relieves the tension and resolves the outcome usually quickly.
After a clear sweep through the camp, which showed signs of five – ten VC having lived there for some time, a stone urn containing plastic explosive was discovered under a wood pile.
It was about two feet by two feet round and quite heavy. Certainly enough explosive to make a decent hole in our lives.
Then, a shot rang out. One single shot from some higher ground off to our left. The round hit the ground amongst us, missing everyone. We all dived for cover. I found myself lying alongside Sergeant Kevin.
“Wilson”, he whispered. “Get this fuckin urn out of here before it blows us all up!
Get it back to the engineers –fast”.
I cradled my SLR across my arms in a crawling position, awkwardly lifted the urn in my hands and headed off the way we had come into the camp. I knew the engineers were waiting a few hundred yards behind us.
Sweat poured off me. The weight of the explosive and stone urn was painful on my arms and shoulders – I longed to stand up and carry it properly – but the lone shooter was still out there somewhere and I chose to stay on hand and knees and make what progress I could. In fact I had assumed that one of the guys would come along with me, so maybe he could help? No such luck. Everyone was fanning out to hunt down the shooter on the thickly bushed hill.
I was on my own. I was sure, though, that the engineers were not far away.
Then my world shattered. Another shot rang out, the round pinging a few feet away from me. Holy shit! He was following me. And I was crouching behind a fucking great urn of explosives! I fired a double tap up to the hill, having no idea where he was. He returned fire – a single shot again – and this time I saw where he was!
He was only 20 yards from me and was obviously trying to come closer!
I dived to a large, thick-trunked tree that was roughly between him and me – waited a few seconds and looked around the trunk. There he was! A black-clad, hatless VC, cradling a small submachine gun of some sort.
I fired another double tap. Direct hit. He went down and stayed down.
I raced back to my urn, picked it up standing, and staggered through the bush towards the engineers. I shouted out that it was me coming. “Hold your fire. I’m a Kiwi!”
They were anxiously training their weapons on me as I came into their area. I dropped the urn. “This is for you to look after. I have to get back. The shooter on the hill is dead (I hoped).”
I retraced my path and saw that my mates had followed up on my trail and were examining the body of my VC.
I got back to Kevin and told him what had happened.
“Wilson” he said, “that was extremely brave. I’m going to put you in for a gong for this!”
High praise indeed, from the platoon sergeant who I thought did not have a very high opinion of me – I was the “newcomer” to the platoon and looked about 16 years old (didn’t we all?). Anyway, I was quite chuffed.
The guys returned to the camp with the weapon that my VC had been firing at us. It was a Chinese imitation of a British Sten, or Stirling sub-machine gun. He was bloody silly trying to take long range shots at us with it. It is designed for close quarter work. And why the single shots? It is best fired on automatic.
Then it was clear. He must have been having trouble with the feeding from the magazine. It was probably only getting one round into the chamber, firing it and jamming. There was a bent round half-in, half-out of the chamber when I shot him. I had that round as a souvenir for years…lost now somewhere.
A salutary lesson to all of us riflemen the keep our magazines in good condition…not just our rifles.
So we left the engineers to their work and, having blown our presence in that area of the Long Green, headed back to the Horseshoe.
It was a few days later, early morning. I had gotten up for stand-to and had gone back to my bunk to read. I wasn’t on duty in our bunker until after lunch, and breakfast wasn’t ready yet.
Next thing Sergeant Kevin comes in with a couple of the guys – large grins all round. He was carrying a huge plate of steaming bacon & eggs, on toast. A rare treat!
The other guys had a couple of NZ newspapers, stolen from somewhere.
“Stay in bed,Wilson” he said. “You are off duty until tomorrow. I hereby present you with the Bacon & Egg Award”
“What…What the hell is all this?” I stammered.
“Well, I wrote up your heroic actions in a citation for sending up the line for you…but the engineering report that you rescued us, under fire, from a stone urn of ROCK SALT did not have the right “ring” to it.
So the Boss recommended this. Congratulations!”
So that was my moment of glory…I enjoyed the eggs & bacon…and the newspapers!
I often think of that VC that I shot. I later experienced the same horrible feeling as he must have done when his weapon would not fire properly (see “The Bayonet”).
Its only now, 45 years later, that the fact that I killed a man matters a lot to me. I had no choice at the time. But what was I doing there in the first place? It wasn’t the last I would kill.
I was young and brave and bulletproof and highly trained…so what use was I if I did not have a war to go to?
But did I really need to go to his country and kill him while he was defending that land from us “invaders”?
We don’t talk about such things to each other. We were an extension of Government Policy of the time. True.
But when I look at my family, children and grandchildren, wife of 43 years and creature comforts, late at night I tell myself not to sweat the stuff I can’t change. Enjoy what you have.
It won’t be for long. The body is showing signs of the stresses and strains and exposures that happened in that hot and sweaty jungle all those years ago.
I think fate will square up the books soon.
A close mate…one who shows up in many of the photos that I have, committed suicide a couple of years ago just a few miles from my home…in his own garage.
Why? said his distraught family. Why? said some of his old army mates.
Some of us look at each other, quietly, sometimes over a beer. No words. Just a look, in the eyes.