Vietnam: A battle.

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Brian (Chick) Hennessy. Vietnam veteran.

Operation 'Portsea'. Vietnam.

Vietnam: A battle

He is relaxing in his company lines in Nui Dat, the base camp for Australian troops in Vietnam. This is home. And this is a rare day off from patrolling outside the wire, the barbed-wire perimeter surrounding this small piece of Australia in Phuoc Thuy province.

Although he must do his share of guarding the perimeter, life here is better. There is a cook, a boozer, a shower, and a thunderbox (toilet). He doesn’t have to carry his heavy pack and webbing, and he can socialize. He takes his weapon with him everywhere though. Sleeps with it in fact. Ready to react immediately to any threat. Nui Dat and its comforts offer a false sense of security in a part of the world that is culturally mysterious as well as militarily dangerous to a young Australian digger.

The recent history of failed French imperialism is unknown to him. Worse still, so is last year's history of the US 173 Airbourne Division's attempt to pacify the immediate area around Nui Dat. This unit suffered heavy casualties in Long Phuoc, a couple of kilometres south of our perimeter.

Old Bill is a veteran of the Korean war. He is the Company cook and he does impossible things with the canned rations that he has to work with. He understands the old adage: an army fights on his stomach. With no female company around, a young soldier’s stomach is his main concern. Good food = happy soldiers. Thus, whether he knows it of not, Bill is in charge of morale. It is good to have old diggers like him still in uniform.

It is after one of Bill's morale-boosting lunches, while relaxing in his tent, that he and his mates get the news: “Saddle-up boys, a big one. 'O' (Orders) group in five minutes.” Dammit, he complains, this was supposed to be a rest-day.




We live in anticipation of these moments and our responses are always measured and precise. My weapon is always within reach, and my webbing has ammunition pouches containing extra magazines for and water bottles which are always full. A small pack hangs from the back of the belt containing personal items, extra socks, and perhaps a spare set of greens (clothing). My backpack has three or four days rations stowed inside, and my groundsheet (or hootchie) is stuffed under the flap on top of the rations. It’s the dry season, so my machete is discarded from the belt to make room for another water-bottle.

I re-check my weapon, and am issued with grenades and extra belts for the section’s M60 machine gun. Other men carry extra rounds for the M79 (a grenade launcher). Two riflemen get lucky and are each asked to carry a heavy claymore mine as well as their usual load.

The skipper gives the news quietly. Main Force VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars have attacked a government outpost at Hoi My, a small village southeast of Dat Do, hoping to draw us out by road. This is their classic tactic of ‘Luring the tiger from his lair’ so that the relieving force can be ambushed and annihilated. South Vietnamese Army troops go instead, and have suffered over 300 casualties. That ambush was meant for us.

Our platoon commander reports that the VC will probably retreat northeast to his bases in the Nui Mai Tao Mountains via the Long Green, a ten by two kilometre corridor of thick scrub and jungle providing camouflage and protection. Our task is to set up a blocking force and cut off their retreat.

We have 10 minutes to kill before the choppers pick us up. There is no fear, and I don't waste time on introspection. Instead, I focus on being prepared for action. I turn the gas pressure on my weapon down another notch to make sure that it will fire because the choppers are sure to send a lot of dust flying when they pick us up. If dust gets inside my weapon it might jam and refuse to fire, so a little more gas pressure will ensure that the bolt will do its job of sliding a 7.62mm round from the magazine into the breech despite any hindrance.

I adjust my pack so that it is nice and tight on my back, and re-check my webbing. Two belts of ammunition for the M60 are slung across both shoulders, criss-crossing in front of my body like a Mexican bandit. They need to be secure also. I am ready.

I can’t recall the chopper ride from Nui Dat to the Long Green. I remember the reception though.

The Landing Zone (LZ) is hot. The enemy is dug in and waiting for us. Alpha Company has landed first and is taking casualties. A ‘Dust-off’ (medevac chopper) braving the fire in an effort to extract the wounded. Our chopper swooping into the LZ and taking fire. The pilot telling us to, “Bail-out. NOW!”

Jumping a metre or two to the dry paddy below because our aircraft is taking ground-fire and the pilot can’t afford the time it takes to land. He is too good a target. Running clear then going to ground. Assessing the situation. The LZ is surrounded on three sides by the Long Green scrub and we continue to attract attention from enemy gunners. Bullets flying everywhere as the choppers disgorge their human cargo metres above the ground before pissing off out of here. As fast as their rotor-blades can lift them.

My platoon in an exposed, vulnerable position. Moving towards the scrub in arrow-head formation.  Getting too close to my mate Bozo and earning the response, “Piss off Chick, I might get a bullet meant for you”. Making it to the cover of savannah scrub surrounding the LZ and going to ground again.

Being fired on. A sniper in a tree taking pot-shots. One bullet hitting the stock of Felix’s M16 sending a piece of bakalite into his forehead. Drawing blood. Felix shouting, “Medic”, thinking he has been shot in the head and given a ticket home. Doc Dobson, the Company medic, telling Felix to get back to work as it’s only a flesh wound. Life can be cruel sometimes.

Although I can't see them, I can hear them. They are moving. Heaps of them. Shuffling past. About 15  metres or so away behind the thick low bushes underneath the savannah canopy above. Bracing for an attack that does not materialize. Bravo Company landing and moving into the scrub to relieve Alpha Company. Guarding the flank , tolerating that sniper, making sure that the enemy in front of us don’t swing around in a flanking attack while Bravo Company deploys. Their orders are to assault the enemy position.

Bravo Company's OC reported later as saying, “We’re dead” to his second-in-command when he assessed the challenge ahead. The CO (Battalion Commanding Officer) not appreciating the perilous situation he has just placed Bravo Company in. He and the Task Force commander are distracted by a concern for Nui Dat's security. Wondering if this local battle is part of a larger operation against Australia's base-camp in Phuoc Thuy Province.

The enemy is here in force however. He is dug-in and prepared. He calculated that the Australians would use this paddy as their LZ, and has prepared bunkers with overhead cover. Gunpits have been dug in the soft sandy soil and fire lanes have been cleared underneath the cover of the bushy scrub beneath the trees. We can’t see these defences until we are on top of them.

The lead platoon from Bravo Company being told to move into the Long Green, and to keep moving until contact is made with the enemy. Being hit almost immediately with machinegun fire from unseen gunpits. The scout going to ground, and the rest of the platoon doing likewise. The OC radioing, “I told you to keep going until you have heavy contact with the enemy.” The scout responding to the relayed message, “I know they’re only little bullets, but there’s a fucken lot of them!” That guy winning the prize for the best one-liner of the afternoon.

Pinned down. The enemy moving his forces up close. A desperate situation requiring a desperate response. A platoon commander yelling, “fix bayonets!”, followed by, “Attack!”. Men standing up to rush forward, and being mowed down in the cross-fire. Immediately. All of them. The skipper having his platoon shot out from under him.

The CO pulling troops back, ordering artillery and air-strikes. Whispering, whining, oscillating shells splintering the trees and exploding with a sickening crack, spreading death everywhere. The enemy withdrawing under his overhead protection. The US airforce dropping napalm. Just over there, no more than 50 metres away. One afternoon taking a lifetime to get to sundown. I am thankful that my family back home in Australia don't know what is happening here as I bargain with God for another weekend at my favourite beach on Stradbroke Island. Just one more weekend, God. Not two. One will be enough.

Dusk intervening. Harbouring up in a protective circle, and digging shallow shell-scrapes for protection from shrapnel and any attempt by the enemy to go over the top of us. An RAAF transport Caribou dropping flares all night, and the US Air force bombing the enemy position in front of us. The enemy sending the occasional rocket into our perimeter in return. Years later I still can't remember much of that night.

Morning bringing the news: Bravo Company’s assault failed. Some of our men, dead and wounded, are still on the battlefield. We are ordered to assault the position in 30 minutes. Getting ready. Saying a few prayers as I move into position before the assault. My platoon and another up front in extended line, a third following behind to take care of casualties and fill the gaps. Our orders are to assault any gunpits by section rather than platoon attack.

Moving through the dense scrub, ignoring the biting red ants defending their own territory as I approach a small clearing ahead. Bozo to my left, Dave to my right. Keeping the line steady as we prepare to cross Charlie’s killing ground.

Dave muttering, “This is it” as we break out of the cover into exposed territory, expecting to be bowled over like Bravo Company’s men yesterday. Rifle at the hip, left hand rolled over the stock a little, arm braced to ensure that my weapon does not fire high. Maintaining discipline. Focused on the job. More concerned with teamwork than individual safety.

Then I see them. Not the enemy, but our dead from yesterday afternoon. The detritus of combat. Webbing strewn around the clearing. Boots. One with a foot still in it. An APC to my left which was knocked out by a VC recoilless-rifle yesterday. The round  exploding, blowing a big black hole in the front, taking the head off the driver, and wounding some diggers in the back.

A little message left by the retreating NVA and VC : “Get fucked Uc Dai Loi (Australian).” Written in one of our men’s blood on the right-hand side of the APC. Nice. Some good news though. Finding an Alpha company digger who had been shot through both legs and who survived the night by sheltering underneath the APC. Giving everyone a lift. The good news passing along the line from soldier to soldier.

Pushing ahead through the carnage, and being confronted by what looks like a burnt pig beside the blackened stump of a large tree. Right in front of me. Bozo’s face contorted in horror. Me disbelieving. Shock. It’s not a pig, it's a human being. One of our’s. He has been hit by napalm. Shot and killed first though, thank God. Through the head. Dog tags recognisable. An Alpha Company digger.

Angry. Wanting to kill. The VC have withdrawn though. Chasing them. Finding evidence of their own traumas. Human remains stuffed into a big hole in a tree-trunk. They leave no sign behind. Picked up all their spent cartridges before retreating also. No evidence of whatever damage we may have inflicted on them. US troops from Long Khanh Province to the north arriving in APCs, relieving us and taking over the chase. Good.

Back to the battlefield and the dead. Thank God your mothers cannot see you now. Our fellows wrapped in their own groundsheets and carried into the back of another APC. Dead enemy placed on the splashboard in the front. It’s an awful job. The APC looking like a front-end loader with a human cargo. Our dead will be placed in a coffin and flown home for burial. The VC will be dumped in a village square for relatives to claim.

After a battle. It’s a terrible feeling. Someone has stuck a hand down my throat and ripped my guts out, leaving an empty, hollow shell. A dreadful feeling. Waste. Young men: Australians, NVA, and VC. All brothers in death now. Time stops here today. Surely God weeps.

I am 20 years of age. An old man in a young man's body. Everything is changed. I thank God for my survival and resolve to live a meaningful life. I will not waste it.

Choppers ferry us back to Nui Dat. That evening, while enjoying a few beers in our tent we listen to Hanoi Hannah on Radio Peking. She reports that today an Australian Battalion was defeated by the glorious and victorious National Liberation Front (NLF), and that all the Australians were killed.

"So we're all dead then," says Felix.

"If Radio Peking says it’s true, then it must be true," observes Zubba.

"So we are all dead imperialist running dog foreign devils now?" inquires Brownie.

"Looks like it, mate," says Zubba.

"That’s worth another drink,” says Felix. “Never thought I would attend my own wake”

"Cheers, fellers."


And that is how we dealt with the horror of war. We coped with it because we had to. Sucked it in and got on with it.  





See my eBook in the toolbar above. The Sharp End: my war in Vietnam





PS: That's me at the back. Without my bush-hat. Waiting for that chopper-ride to the hot LZ.

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