Vietnam: The Horseshoe.

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Brian (Chick) Hennessy. Vietnam veteran.


Vietnam: the Horseshoe

He sits, rifle across his lap, webbing beside him, and his body leaning against the trunk of a small tree. He is exhausted but alert. Ever ready to grasp his weapon and adopt a firing position. He is in the Long Green, a narrow strip of savannah scrub running parallel to the South China Sea in Phuoc Thuy Province, South Vietnam. 

It has been a hard morning. A fighting patrol. An early start, followed by hours of tracking and searching. Senses tuned to his immediate environment and its hidden threats.  In hot pursuit of Viet Cong (VC) guerillas who blew their way into Dat Do village during the night and who murdered some school teachers and government representatives before bolting for the familiar safety of the Long green. Cover for their quick withdrawal to the Long Hai Hills and its booby-traps and tunnels further south.

A fruitless morning. The VC have a couple of hours head start. Nevertheless, he and his platoon track them as far as possible before the signs are lost. Lost among the scuff of soft-sandalled foot-traffic along one of the tracks that criss-cross this dreadful place. Mines are the worst enemy here.

It is hot. Energy sapping, sweat drenching, southeast Asian swelter hot. It will be another two weeks or so before the oppressive monsoonal buildup climaxes into its typical afternoon deluges. Those billowing, tumbling storms which rumble in from Cambodia to the west – drenching everything as they traverse this sad, tired, war-torn land, releasing the baked earth from its annual purgatory of scorching, stifling heat.

The rice paddies are cooked. Caked brick-hard by a cruel merciless sun. They are easy to walk across now. No mud means dry boots and clothing. Easy to be seen if he does so however, so he sticks to the scrub, blending into the mottled camouflage of the Long Green. Taking a surreptitious sip of liquid gold from his water bottle every now and then when he props and waits for a signal from his scout that it is safe to move forward again. That guy keeps us alive with his sixth sense and caution.

On his feet again. Giving up the chase now and heading back to the safety and relative comfort of his hootchie on the rim of the Horseshoe feature, the remains of an old volcano on the northern approach to Dat Do. A scrubby red-earthed sentinel commanding a 360 view of Phuoc Thuy and its jungles, mountains, and paddies. A  forward base of static defences. A haven of comparative safety in a foreign hostile land.

He returns via the edge of the scrub around the paddies between the Long Green and Dat Do. Safer that way. Working his way slowly, maintaining tactical discipline and resisting the urge to switch off as he sights the familiar outline of his temporary home above the sparse brown-green canopy of savannah scrub. Remaining alert and ready for any contact with the enemy.

The Horseshoe is a good place. A hotbox meal is choppered in every evening from Nui Dat, and there is a ration of two cans of beer per man per day. Comforts of home. His hootchie is erected low under the shade of a small spreading tree, and has sandbag protection from mortars and rockets. And, most importantly, there is the luxury of a low-profiled collapsable canvas stretcher. No sleeping on the hard earth there. A little piece of heaven in the big hell of war.

Barbed wire defences coming into view. A  looming Horseshoe blotting out the late afternoon sun as his patrol warns the sentries by radio that friendlies are coming in. Negotiating the zig-zag path through no-mans-land then switching off, looking forward to a meal and a cold beer up there in his platoon’s area of responsibility – a narrow sparsely occupied section of the perimeter on the northwest slope of this fragile outpost.

Lowering his semi-automatic rifle, checking the safety catch, then wiping his sweaty brow with his soft floppy green bush hat. Allowing himself the luxury of a few spoken words to his mate beside him. Hand-signals had been the order of the day.

Then he sees them. Two yanks in a minefield – our minefield – and one crazy-brave Australian medic in there with them, doing his best to tourniquet the stumps of two legs belonging to a flailing US artilleryman. Still alive and screaming. The other guy already dead and us yelling to the survivor to stop thrashing his two good arms around or he’ll set off another mine. The medic doing his work calmly. Doing his job. Saving a life. In the middle of a bloody minefield.

I say again: our minefield. Part of our protective perimeter. Because we don’t have enough boots on the ground to defend our perimeter around the Horseshoe, our engineers have mined the gaps and constructed dummy gunpits and communication trenches to make the place look lived in. The yank artillerymen had arrived in our absence during the day and, lazy buggars that they were, decided to pinch some of our sandbags for themselves – as you do. In their hurry, they failed to notice our warning signs.

This is Vietnam. Sudden death at any moment. One second allowing oneself to switch off, the next second someone getting killed. This is the way it is here.





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 vn007       Vietnam. Near the 'Horseshoe.'       vn020


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