B Company on patrol - 1967 (Courtesy of Army Public Relations)
Of the 50,000 Australian troops who served in Vietnam over the 10 year period, only around 18,000 (including reinforcements) were infantrymen. Of these only about 10-12,000 actually went out on 'search and destroy' patrols into the jungle, mountains, ‘rubber’ and rice paddies.
There is a popular myth circulating that there were no front lines in Vietnam. This myth is usually encouraged by the majority who did not have to venture out beyond the barbed wire perimeter of the base camp.
The ‘wet’ season in Phuoc Tuy Province lasted from May until November. For the rest of the year (the ‘dry’ season) the rust red mud gave way to rust red dust.
This poem attempts to give some insight into conditions for those soldiers who did the hard 'grunt' on patrol seeking out their often elusive enemy, the Viet Cong.
‘ Machine gun to the left ... or high ground! Riflemen to the right! ’
- standard (Australian) infantry tactics.
“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at ... without result!”
- Winston Churchill, 1898.
An homogenous mix,
Back in ’66,
Rural and city boys both joined the queues;
Like others before them,
An adventure for these men,
Vietnam dominated the news.
Also ‘Nashos’ had gone,
If their number was drawn,
As prowling ‘Tigers’, with Kiwi support;
Relieving then 1RAR,
Up north in Bien Hoa,
Alongside Yanks, the latter had fought.
Yet, unlike all those then,
These new infantrymen,
With ‘arty’ and armour protecting their rear,
Were left on their own,
To fight all alone,
When 5RAR landed north east of Baria.
In chopper formation,
To a rubber plantation,
On the dawn of ‘Cracker Night’;
Yell of ‘Contact Front!’,
By some eager young ‘grunt’,
’Twould signal a fierce firefight.
That’s the moment just when,
‘Boys’ turned into men,
Steeling themselves to their fate, up ahead;
They’d learnt all the drills,
Possessed all the skills,
Yet that first day Errol Noack lay dead.
This province Phuoc Tuy,
A known sanctuary,
For trained guerrillas, acronymed VC;
Locals provided support,
On ox-carts some brought,
Supplies overland in from the sea.
Any village selected,
Whilst ARVN ‘controlled’ just the towns;
Central government blamed,
By Cong cadres in rural surrounds.
Constructed in haste,
A crude army base,
Around a hill, that was named Nui Dat;
In a zone called a TAOR,
5Ks out, maybe more,
Patrols looking for ‘baddies’ in black.
In paddies and bamboo,
Through thick jungle too,
On rugged ridges, up unnamed creeks;
Torrential the rain,
Daily soaking again,
An ‘op’ could extend six weeks.
So this ‘Tiger’ arrival,
’Twas a test in survival,
Hunting phantoms, as prey, their prime goal;
Five hundred thus far,
And all from 5RAR,
Stealthily searching out there, on patrol.
* * *
Pitch of night having gone,
‘Stand-down’ at dawn,
Sections ready, with all of their gear;
“Saddle-up!” drew a curse,
With scout going first,
‘Tail-end-Charlie’ would bring up the rear.
Back-packs lifted and swung,
Fifty pounds hung,
As we’d slowly move off and then out;
Signals given by hand,
Silently to the next man,
As a round was slammed ‘up the spout’.
From our barbed wire cage,
On a rubber tree stage,
‘Tigers’ performing, 30 metres apart;
From each actor no word,
And the only sounds heard,
’Twas a thumping, from each pumping heart.
A play of eerie strange scenes,
Men clutching machines,
Locked firmly in our arms and hands;
Yet the image reversed,
Was the knowledge we nursed,
If held by an Asian man’s.
And ’twas not long before,
All the clothing we wore,
Clung wet from that steamy heat;
Strange creepy creatures,
Jungle riddled with leeches,
Whilst fungus attacked bodies and feet.
A compass to guide,
Swollen streams daily plied,
Like Suoi Da Bang and Song Rai;
Often linked up by ropes,
Crawled up rugged slopes,
Platoons searching Nui Thi Vai.
At odd times we would take,
A map reference break,
A quick ‘smoko’, yet alert and still;
Against a tree propped-up,
With creek water and a chlorine pill.
Like clockwork that rain,
Pelting down once again,
Producing the usual result;
You’d curse and then grin,
Drenched to the skin,
Washing off body-sweat and dried salt.
To counter Hanoi,
Our plan ’twas ‘search ‘n’ destroy’,
In a fixed radius around our base;
Suspicious huts that we’d find,
We’d not leave behind,
Blow or torch them, just in case.
Always listening out for,
Any ‘click’ from the ‘floor’,
Avoiding tracks, both new and old;
Kept to any ground higher,
Staggered all arcs of fire,
Australian soldiers, fully alert, on patrol.