by Brian Wilson
Under orders from my wife of 40 years, I was cleaning out a box of “my stuff” in our rumpus room…
Newspaper clippings, an old water bottle (metal), a faded green web belt, a battered-looking jungle hat – and – my old bayonet, resting quietly in its self-sharpening scabbard. The twisted barrel ring still sharp, a little rusty.
Oh my. The memories.
I took it into our bedroom and placed it into my bedside top drawer. I sat on the bed. I really didn’t want to do this. The doc. said that I shouldn’t keep going over the incidents. My brow felt clammy.
And it all came back. October 9, 1967… 4.00pm
The temperature was about 33c, sweat-producing, but instantly dry. Bright sunshine out there on the grass…darker, sparkly green on the thick bush 100 yards away on the far edge of the grass…comfortingly dark in the bush that I was slowly stepping through, five or six paces behind the man in front.
Comforting, because I thought that the darker I was with sweat and the darker the bush was with shadow, then the more unlikely it was that they would see me.
“They” being the darker skinned men that I wanted to kill…mainly because they wanted to kill me.
Across the grass, dry now in the dry season, impassably wet only two weeks ago, something moved in the dark green shadow.
Oh shit! Here we go again! My girlfriend’s latest letter flashed through my mind…”don’t get shot” she said in her farewell. Shot! Bloody hell! It’s the bloody mines I worry about! My mate Morrie got killed on a mine not far from here a few weeks ago. Getting shot is the least of my worries.
In front of me, Pat stopped in mid stride. Not an easy trick while carrying a 28 pound M60 machine gun with trailing ammo belt, as well as the other 40lb of patrol gear festooned over his lean frame on belt and webbing; as well as another 40lb in the pack on his back.
Pat was two men in front of me. He was looking right, across the long green, his number two was looking left, into our left flank and I was next in line, looking right with him.
Pat was five years older than me. He was six foot tall, a Ngapuhi Maori warrior, a veteran of a jungle war inBorneo. When he stopped and looked, I stopped and looked.
“Click, click” went his tongue. We looked where he was looking…I saw movement. We dropped to one knee…rifles pointing across the open paddy field.
Beyond the “bung” half way across, an earth wall 3 ft high, three green/black figures appeared, impossibly exposed, walking slowly, sauntering really – the middle one dangling a radio from his rifle barrel – weirdly playing a program from US Armed Forces Radio – I could hear the voice of the announcer across the field.
Maybe they were ARVN (Army of South Vietnam), in an area where they shouldn’t have been, but these men looked different to the local forces that I was familiar with.
Pat raised his M60 to his shoulder and threw his left leg far forward to brace what was to come. I couldn’t believe it – I couldn’t even pick up the gun properly, and he was using it like a rifle.
CRASH,CRASH,CRASH…massive explosions, as the machine gun fired three short bursts of fire across the field. Two of the three men fell, blown backwards – the other disappeared – I dived to the earth.
I fired three, four, five rounds from my SLR rifle…all around me was chaos and noise.
Those of us who had a view across the field fired where Pat was firing.
From somewhere behind me came a call – a scream really – out of place after five days of silent patrolling in deep jungle.
“FIX BAYONETS” – a thrill went through me…………..
I reached around my waist to the knife-like bayonet hanging from my belt, tipped it upside down, wrenched the blade by its short handle downwards – and out, clear.
I pulled the barrel of my SLR back towards me (it’s HOT, it’s HOT, don’t grab it) and clipped the bayonet to the barrel in a move practiced dozens of times on training fields.
But the first time I had ever done it in action.
My hands were shaking.
I was about to take part in the only bayonet charge by New Zealand forces in the Vietnam War.
Suddenly the boss (2nd Lt. Ray) was beside me, on one knee…peering over my shoulder across the field. Sporadic firing still crackled up and down the line…and now I realised that some of it was coming into our position from across the paddy…at us!…at me!
“Wilson!” Ray spoke loudly into my ear. “Get up the front to One section. Tell them to hold their ground and give cover fire. We will charge from here.”
No need for a reply. I was up and away, my feet seemingly not touching the ground – heart pumping – rifle held forward, awkward now because of the new weight on the end of the barrel.
I sprinted past the remainder of my own section – along the bush line – no longer worried about noise, but impeded by the bush – up to where I knew Corporal Mackie’s section would be.
They had been lead section on this part of the ten day patrol.
Then…I tripped. And just like in all the adventure stories I had read, time stood still. I had reached a thinner part of the bush and had picked up quite some speed. As I tripped forward, the bayonet on the end of my rifle dug into the ground. My fiercely strong grip on the rifle turned my body up and over in a perfect somersault…and bingo…I was back on my feet and still running.
My circus feat brought me to Mac’s side. He was lying prone, facing across the clearing, firing his M16 in short bursts.
I put my lips to his left ear and yelled the order to stay put and put down the firebase while the rest of the platoon charged.
He nodded and scurried off to his machine gun, already forming them into a group that would cover us.
I turned and ran back the way I had come.
Everyone was on his feet, bayonets fixed and running forward.
It was madness – we had no idea how many enemy were firing at us from across the paddy field.
I joined the line at a gap that opened up in front of me and charged across the open ground.
Lower the rifle…fire four or five shots from the hip…rifle back to the “high port” position…legs pumping…sprinting as though from starting blocks…as though I was not wearing a belt with gear weighing over 30 lbs.
I seemed to have lost my heavy pack from my back. I vaguely remember releasing it in the bush after the first shots were fired.
I’m at the bung. I throw myself down, hugging the cover. I peer to the now very close tree line…there, and there…I see at least three separate positions of movement and fire coming towards us…at us…over us…cracking like no other sound.
They are firing too high. Make sure I don’t.
My rifle has stopped firing. I pull the trigger repeatedly…panic…it’s only an empty magazine…I have already changed to a new full one once during the madness. I reach for another from my pouch…no mags…only two grenades…try another pouch…yes….still three full ones in there.
I pull out a full magazine…push the release catch on the underside of the rifle. Push forward on the empty magazine…drop it to the ground…snap in the new one…pull the cocking lever on the left side of the rifle…a new round is chambered.
I fire two shots…and watch with satisfaction as the second round, a tracer, snaps into the base of the tree line…low, where I want it.
“Up on the right, back on the left”…the cry is carried up and down our line…suddenly a new, powerful noise drowns out all others…a chopper has descended from directly above us…hovering only a few feet above my position…stupid bastard! Can’t he see he’s in our way…and he’s attracting fire from the Viet Cong.
He jerks as rounds crash into the machine…dances sideways, away and up…helped on by a few shots from me and the guy lying alongside me.
Now we are up and running…straight at the tree line…I fire…then return my rifle to the high port, allowing me to run faster…something smashes into my barrel, almost wrenching the rifle from my hands. I look up. Have I crashed into a tree that I didn’t see?
No – I’m still out in the open…yelling…firing at the trees…seeing figures to fire at now…empty my magazine at a bunch of people crouching on the ground just inside the tree line.
I notice my bayonet is gone. Don’t worry about it…reload!…keep firing!.
Suddenly we are there…jumping over five, six, seven bodies…blood, smashed heads, open mouths, mess…no-one moving…sweep through…go to ground, facing into the trees……..
“Blood trail”…someone yells…3 section! Follow it…the rest of you…close up and cover!”…Kevin Thomas, platoon sergeant is tidying up matters.
We are now behind the positions that we have been firing at. I’m lying in light bush, quite open, but good cover from the tree trunks. I’m sighting on a mound out in the open about 50 yards to the left of our new position. What is it? Is it a man? Did I see it move? My rifle stays sighted on it…I’m fixated on the mound.
Crashing in the bush to my front. Some VC have survived the massive firepower of the charge. Some idiot yells “grenade”. I turn and see him throw, from the prone position, a hand grenade into the trees where the commotion came from…
Bloody idiot…we all know not to throw grenades in thick bush…sure enough, it bounces off two, three trees before exploding with a dull crump. Shrapnel “pings” everywhere…
“No more grenades” comes the yell from somewhere…bloody right too.
I return to my suspicious mound. It’s still there. The whole area had been covered in gunsmoke. It’s now cleared. The mound is only a clump of tussock. I keep watching it anyway. It’s to my front and I’m slowly settling down.
My hands are not shaking now, but boy! Am I sweating!
Corporals are running from man to man…checking for wounds, ammo check.
I tell him with horror that I have fired all my ammo except what is on my rifle. He grins…”you too, eh? Stay put…we’re getting some more…”
“No! Don’t stay put…any movement to your front since the grenade?
“Right…rejoin two section and get back across the paddy and retrieve our packs”.
It takes three trips for the seven of us to carry the scattered packs from where they were dumped.
I found myself covering the same ground that I had charged over only 20 minutes ago…and there, in front of the bung, is my missing bayonet. Overjoyed at avoiding a charge of losing equipment on patrol, I return it to my scabbard…and cut my hand on it.
But not on the blade – on the ring that attached it to the rifle barrel…I check my rifle barrel….and sure enough, there is a gouge running up the barrel.
A round from one of the machine guns that we now know we foolishly charged has hit my rifle barrel and flicked off the bayonet.
Four days later, I’m back in the relative safety of my bunker in Nui Dat, sorting out my gear. I report the bayonet as missing in action, shot off my rifle during the bayonet charge.
The Company clerk likes the action-oriented words and approves a replacement – no worries.
The bayonet with the bullet hole goes into my personal kit and gets smuggled home with me a year later.
I remember back in my basic training not being very keen on sticking my bayonet into an enemy. I was told that it hardly ever happened in modern warfare.
The one time that I may have had to do it, I would have done it, with much relish and gusto…
Now, in 2009, the bayonet still brings back the excitement, the fear, and the noise of battle. I pick it up – it feels heavy, deadly. The smell is of rifle oil, even after all of these years…the smell is of jungle, of heat, of death…
I love and I hate that bayonet.
It was ready to do its thing on that day back in 1967…but it got shot.
And I didn’t.