Benny was a dog handler in the tracker team. Private Benson - I'd be flat out remembering his first name, and I doubt that he would ever have known mine. That's the way it was in Vietnam, everybody was known by a nickname. Benny was a pleasant, jovial young bloke, about nineteen or twenty, well liked by everyone in the platoon. That was all I knew about him until we were hootchied up together at a fire support base near the village of Trang Bom, in Bien Hoa province. I was the radio operator, and because the dogs were not needed on this particular operation, Benny was temporarily a member of the platoon headquarters group as acting batman.
The base was built by the Americans, which meant that it resembled a lunar landscape in the middle of the green Vietnamese countryside. Had it been an Australian fire support base it would have been built to blend in with the surroundings as much as possible, using camouflage and leaving as much of the original vegetation in place as we could. Not so the Yanks. They would just go in with bulldozers and flatten everything in sight, then they would build their base on the bare red dirt that was left. They may as well paint a huge "X" on the ground and say "Here we are, come and get us".
Being hootchied up together meant that our sleeping pits were side by side, joined by a shared weapon pit so that the three pits together made a "U" shape. Our platoon covered a sector of the perimeter and also guarded the battalion headquarters command post, situated close behind us. I had a double duty as radio operator for the platoon as well as doing shifts on the radio in the CP. One night I finished in the CP at midnight and returned to my pit to find that Benny was awake.
"What are you doing up at this time of night?" I asked him.
"Just came back from picket" he replied. This meant he had been doing a two-hour shift manning a machine-gun post on the perimeter.
Instead of going to sleep we sat in our weapon pit and talked. Though when I say "talked" I actually mean we whispered, since after a couple of months in country we were well and truly accustomed to the infantry rule that after the sun goes down nobody speaks above a whisper until the sun comes up again the next morning.
Benny talked that night like I had never heard anybody talk since I had joined the army.
"What are you doing here?" he asked me. His question took me by surprise.
"The same thing you are, I guess, doing a job, fighting a war" was my reply.
"I mean why are you in the army?" He said. "When I left school and went to work in the Post Office sorting mail, joining the army was the last thing on my mind. Then things started happening that I couldn't understand and had no control over. I started arguing with my parents. They're good people, but I just couldn't spend a single night in that house without having a fight with them. You know, I can't remember what any of those fights were about, just stupid little things. I just had to get out."
From parents the conversation progressed to Benny's former girlfriend.
"She dumped me," he said. "We'd been going together since high school and then she told me one day it was over. Made me feel...I don't know...worthless, like life is empty and pointless. Still does. I tell myself I'm over it and there are plenty more fish in the sea, but at night when I'm trying to get to sleep, it still hurts."
This was something I had never encountered before. A soldier actually admitting he had feelings, feelings which could be hurt by his girlfriend or his parents. That kind of talk was unheard of in the army! Unhappy love affairs were laughed off with a show of bravado, you never told your mates you'd been hurt by a woman!
There are some questions which most of us ask but few of us ever find the answers, such as: "What's it all about?" "What does it all mean?" Benny asked all of these questions that night, and I had no answers for him. I was no older than he was, nor any more experienced. It became apparent that we had both joined the army at a time in our lives when the future seemed uncertain and we needed to find a direction. The direction we both found had led us to share this hole in the ground thousands of miles from home.
We'd been talking, or rather I'd been listening, for about an hour when we saw a green flare go up in the sky somewhere to the left of Trang Bom. Then almost immediately there was a distant sound, something like "chung, chung, chung, chung".
"What's going on?" Benny asked.
"Blowed if I know, must be something happening in the village."
Then the whole world seemed to explode. Flashes of light attacked not just our eyes but all of our senses. They were accompanied by explosions that seemed to start in our hearts and shoot straight to our nerve ends, jerking our bodies like we were puppets.
"Holy Shit!" Benny yelled. I couldn't have put it better myself!
At that moment our platoon sergeant appeared, yelling to be heard above the noise: "Mortar attack! Stand To!"
To which Benny replied: "Believe me Sergeant, I will never be as stood-to as I am at this moment!"
"Well, keep your heads down till the mortars stop, then watch the tree line to your front, because there'll be a ground attack for sure. Keep your eyes on your field of fire!"
With those parting words the sergeant moved on to the next pit, spreading the word to the rest of the platoon.
After those first few rounds which seemed to land right amongst us, the remaining explosions moved further away, some seeming to land over near "A" Company and others over towards the Yanks. But they seemed to go on forever.
Then they stopped. Later some of the guys said they saw another flare when the mortars stopped, but I must have missed it because I was obeying instructions and keeping my head down! Gradually we realised what was happening and heads began to pop up from weapon pits along the perimeter, trying to find human shapes among the shadows in the clearing between us and the tree line, about four hundred metres away across an old rice paddy.
From this point on, everything seemed to happen at once. Maybe we saw them running between the paddy bunds, maybe they started firing rockets at us, or maybe our own flares started popping and lighting up the sky. I really couldn't say in what order it all happened. Benny and I were straining our eyes to see the shapes, firing whenever we saw them. A rocket came straight at us and went whooshing over our heads. A truly awesome sight. Under less lethal circumstances I would like to have been able to sit there and watch those things all night, it was like the greatest fireworks display you've ever seen, but there was no time even to think. There was an explosion behind us as the rocket hit an American truck. The truck must have been a fuel tanker because it exploded into a ball of flame, and smaller balls of flame shot out from it in all directions.
"Did you see that?" I yelled. By this time the noise was not just something you heard, it pulsated through your whole body.
"It came from that tree". I fired a short burst which included a tracer round. "There, see that? Jacko!" - I called to one of our machine gunners - "Follow my tracers! Put a few bursts around that tree".
Not only Jacko, but it seemed half the platoon opened up and within seconds the tree had been cut down. Later that morning the clearing patrol found an RPG2 rocket launcher on that spot. They also found bloodstains and drag marks, but no body.
The battle lasted about four hours, finishing at dawn, but to me it was all just one adrenalin-charged moment. We fired until it seemed our barrels would surely melt and then we kept on firing. Support arrived in the form of American Cobra gunships to give a display of firepower which none who witnessed it will ever forget.
After the battle, with the smell of cordite still stinging our nostrils and the noise still throbbing in our ears, Benny and I slumped back into our weapon pit and grabbed a moment's rest.
"How do you feel?" he asked me.
"Tired" I said, "but there's something else too, I feel quite elated."
"I know what you mean" he said, "and the funny thing is, I wasn't scared. It was exciting. It's like when I played soccer at school. Whenever I scored a goal I felt elated, not because it was good for the team, but because it was like I, personally, had proved something about myself. I feel that same elation now. You know mate, we have just come through one of the toughest tests the world has to offer for young blokes like us, and we've done it!"
I could understand what he was saying, and it seemed there was a new bond between us, the easy camaraderie of people who have shared an important moment in their lives. Benny looked down at my right arm and said "What happened to your sleeve?"
I looked down at it and discovered that my shirt sleeve had been burnt away from the elbow down. I knew some of the fireballs from the exploding truck had come close, but I could not remember being hit by one.
"Couldn't have happened to one of your old shirts," Benny said, "It had to be one of the ones we got from the Yanks.
He was right. The previous day we had met some American radio operators. They could not believe the spartan life we diggers led, sleeping on the ground and wearing the same clothes day in and day out until they rotted away from our bodies. One of the Yanks, a Navajo from Arizona whose name was Slowtalker, gave me three sets of greens, shirts and trousers, and I was wearing the first set for the first time.
I suggested to Benny that we go for a walk over to the American sector and have a look at the damage. We walked past the wreck of the truck and stopped at a cool drink dispenser.
"These Yanks are incredible!" I said to Benny. "There we are, living on the rations we can carry on our backs, and they're over here with soft drink machines".
I pulled a paper cup from the machine and started to pour myself an orange drink. At that moment something caught my eye, something on the ground next to my foot.
"Have a look at this", I said.
"What is it?" Benny asked.
It was a thumb. Thick, much larger than my own, but quite definitely a human thumb. Benny picked it up for a closer look. He looked at me, looked back at the thumb, and dropped it back on the ground. There was nothing to say.
We strolled over towards the American radio communications truck. Slowtalker came running over to meet us.
"They got inside the wire" he said. "Four of them. You want to see the bodies?"
"Show me your hands" Benny said to him.
"What? Whaddaya wanna see my hands for?" he asked.
"You're not missing a thumb, by any chance, are you?" Benny said.
"You Aussies sure are some crazy sonsabitches. Let's go look at the bodies."
Inside the American sector there were four Viet Cong bodies. Two on the perimeter wire, two just a few metres inside. The one that was attracting most interest had copped a direct hit from an M79 grenade launcher. His head was completely gone. We looked at them for a minute or two, but again there was nothing to say. It did occur to me to wonder why I didn't feel anything, but it was only a fleeting thought. Finally the silence was broken by Slowtalker:
"The only good VC is a dead VC" he said.
"That's big talk coming from an Injun" said Benny, doing his best John Wayne impression. That broke us all up and we walked away from the grisly scene laughing.
We left Slowtalker and walked back to our own position. Our platoon commander was organising a debrief for the platoon. We listened to the details of last night's battle, and when he came to the part where the casualty figures included seven Australians and two Americans killed, the words seemed to drift past me as if they were carried on a passing breeze. I wanted to grab them and drag them back - "Hang on", I thought, "there was something important there and it's just slipped by among all of the other trivia in the after-battle report." Seven dead? That's seven of us! Maybe even seven of my mates!
As I walked away from that debriefing session I felt that somehow my whole life had undergone a crucial change. I sat down with Benny for the ritual cleaning of weapons. We stripped them down to their component parts and gave them a thorough scrubbing and oiling. But I was working on remote control, my mind was somewhere else.
"You know Benny" I said, "Something pretty weird is happening here. Just a little while ago we were sitting here, blazing away with our rifles like kids in a shooting gallery at Luna Park, having the time of our lives, high on adrenalin, and now, when the fun's over and the dust has settled, we find that seven of our blokes and a couple of Yanks are dead. What does that mean? What are we supposed to feel?"
"Don't ask me", he said, "I feel like a football that's gone flat. You could give me a good hard kick and I'd just drop to the ground. I feel robbed, too, like the excitement of last night has been taken away from me. Have you got a book you want to swap?"
Benny was developing a habit of asking questions which took me completely by surprise. Book swapping was another infantry ritual. Whenever you finished a book you looked for someone else who had just finished one and you swapped. That way a book would do the rounds of the whole platoon. I had a cheap-and-nasty sex and crime shocker that I couldn't be bothered finishing. It had passed through quite a few hands, and all of the more titillating pages had their corners turned down so they could be easily found. I fished it out of my pack and tossed it to Benny. He threw me a paperback with a red cover.
"Here", he said, "I think you'll like this".
I looked at the title: "Catch 22".
After we'd finished cleaning our weapons we brewed up some breakfast, had a mug of coffee, and it was time once again for my two hour shift in the CP.
When I came back to my pit, Benny was asleep. So I made myself another mug of coffee and started to read "Catch 22". By the time Benny woke up I was completely engrossed. The book seemed to match my mood perfectly.
"Mate, this is fantastic!" I said. "It seems like on every page you get a real good laugh, yet on every page it also seems like some character you've just been introduced to gets killed. That's it! That's it exactly."
"I thought you'd like it" Benny said, "whose turn to make a brew?"
This book would not be passed around to the rest of the platoon. It would become my own personal bible and I would read passages from it every day of my remaining months in country.
By the time we got back to base camp after that operation Benny and I were firm friends. Most evenings at Nui Dat Benny would come over to my tent and we'd talk or listen to music on the radio. Benny shared my interest in the rock music that was happening at that time, and AFVN radio (American Forces Vietnam Network) was playing a lot of the new sounds coming from San Francisco. There wasn't a whole lot more you could do in the evenings at Nui Dat. I shared a tent with Jimmy, the storeman, who usually went to the boozer at night. The rest of the platoon slept four to a tent, but I only shared with Jimmy. Not the most popular person, the generally held opinion being that he was a bit of a bludger who took the stores job to avoid going out on patrols and operations.
We were only back in base camp for a week before our next operation, which turned out to be a particularly harrowing one. We spent about seven weeks in and around the Long Hai Hills, where we had our introduction to minefields, tunnels and booby traps.