Ambush in Phuoc Tuy

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Brian (Chick) Hennessy. Vietnam veteran.

Ambush in Phuoc Tuy

They were nearly on him. Padding slowly along a track leading from the Nui Dinh Hills towards Binh Ba further north. Sandals treading softly on the blood-red clay path, carefully avoiding the leafy decay on the fringes. Rifles at the ready. Faces peering into the night. Bodies tense with anxious anticipation.

A lot of preparation has gone into this moment. The platoon ready to ambush any Viet Cong (VC) who might be travelling through. The killing ground covered by two M60 machine guns, a couple of command detonated claymore mines, and a dozen riflemen.

The site has been well chosen. The high ground on one side of the track offers enough undergrowth to camouflage the platoon’s presence while affording enough visibility for a clear line of sight. The riflemen and one M60 are situated here, parallel to the track. There’s a slight bend in this narrow pathway and the other M60 covers the length of it from that perspective.

It’s 2:00 am and any dozing grunts have been alerted by a tug on the communication cord. This cord connects each man to the bloke next to him. Safety catches are off, weapons are aimed at individual VC, and the air is electric with an adrenaline charged mixture of professionalism and tension.

What am I doing here, he asks himself?

A flashback to the Catholic ghetto of childhood.  Honour thy father and thy mother…thou shalt not kill…the Ten Commandments. The Catholic catechism. Sister Patricia drilling its contents into forty five grade one students at Guardian Angels Primary school in suburban Brisbane.

Father Aurelius, a Czech refugee from communism, and Father Albert, a saxophone playing Bostonian, husbanding young children into mother church.

Mother church. Protecting us all from the evils of communism, the Yellow Peril, and those misled protestants down the road.

Life was simple then. At least you knew who and where your enemies were in those days. They are everywhere here in Phuoc Tuy province.

Are these soldiers atheists or Buddhists? A small proportion of Vietnamese are Catholic. Maybe one of these fellers is a Mick. A Tyke. An Asian Molley Duker.

Nah! They’re just soldiers like me. Doing what they have been told. Military law rules. Your country expects you to do your duty, and by God and/or Buddha your country will make sure that you do it.

He feels a close affinity to his brother infantryman in sandals. The VC is doing his duty, and he is about to meet his ancestors. Or perhaps his God. My God.

Father Aurelius, was a holy man. And the mark of suffering was on him. Even us snotty nosed brats could see that. There was pain in his eyes. He was gentle. He was prayerful. Wandering slowly around the playground, smiling at children, fingering his beads while he said the rosary to himself. One Our father followed by ten Hail Marys. Five decades of the joyful mysteries followed by five sorrowful mysteries, concluding with five glorious mysteries.

He’d had a chance to say five decades of the sorrowful mysteries before that assault against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and their local VC proteges near Hoi My. A lot of men on both sides had been killed that day, but he had survived that battle. In fact, he had experienced an unusual calm as he advanced through the secondary growth towards the enemy in their well-prepared gunpits. A feeling of being protected by the Virgin. Perhaps he had been dissociating. Perhaps his mind had been protecting him from the horrors around him.

Who cares. He did his duty that day, and he lived to lie in wait here beside this Phuoc Tuy path. For tonight anyway. There are no tomorrows. There are only todays. Nows. He could be dead in a second, so what’s the point of thinking too far ahead?

Hail Mary full of grace the lord is with thee. If he’s with me, then what about the other poor buggar? The Buddhist. And what if Nguyen VC is a Catholic?

Not much chance of that. The Catholics would be in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), fighting the communists like himself. Nguyen is probably an ancestor worshipper.

Sister Patricia used to tell us to pray to Saint Anthony if we had lost something. “Saint Anthony will help you find it”, she would say. There was a plaster cast of this saint in the church. Not up the front with the high flyers; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but along the side wall, perched perilously on a little stand screwed to the tongue and groove wall above the confessional.

“Dear Saint Anthony, I have lost my faith. Can you help me find it again?”

Saint Patrick had the opposite wall where he kept an eye on us poor sinners waiting for our turn to go to confession. Him with his outstretched hand and his solemn and imperious glare.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession…” followed by an unburdening of my conscience: “I have been disobedient to my parents on three occasions. I have teased my brothers and sisters on four occasions…”

“For your penance, say five Hail Marys…now say an act of contrition.”

“Oh my God I am sorry for my sins…”

He always felt good after going to confession. A fresh start, a spotless soul, and a chance to aim for sainthood again. Help me to resist temptation, God. Help me to be good. I want to be like Saint Francis of Assisi. Humble, pure, and full of love for all of God’s creatures on earth. An animal and leper lover. A man of peace in a time of medieval internecine warfare: “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is…”

He sights along the barrel at the first VC and waits for the platoon commander to trigger the ambush by detonating the claymores. That’s when everybody will open up.

He can hear the soft padding shuffles of exhausted but alert VC. Their scout carries an AK47. Their webbing and heavy packs identify them as Main Force VC. Professional soldiers rather than local guerrilla VC. What are they doing here? They don’t wander around the place in small groups. They operate in strength.

Something’s wrong. I hope the skipper is on to this.

He is.

He lets them through.

A good call, skipper. Too many of them for our tiny trap. Company size for sure. Nguyen VC is leading a large group of heavily armed soldiers who outnumber and outgun us.

Not a move. Hardly a breath. Heartbeat tripping over itself in a panicked reaction to this emergency. Intellectual effort to calm a body wanting to jump out of its skin. Survival depending on a disciplined response to this unexpected circumstance.

Ready to spring the ambush as a defensive rather than an offensive tactic followed by a quick withdrawal to avoid a flanking attack by the rest of the VC Company not caught in the killing ground.

Talk to you later, God, I am busy right now. Might even see you soon eh? Depends on the alertness of Nguyen and his trailing Company of VC as they head through us towards Binh Ba. One sound from us and we are toast.

Another night in Vietnam. Another ambush. Waiting for the dice to roll and the chips to fall.

Christ I am sick of this.





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