There is a narrow strip of Vietnamese coast separating the Long Hai hills from the South China Sea, where the grandeur that once was the French Empire lies in ruins. The villas of the bourgeouisie can still be recognised by their multi-coloured tiled floors and the remains of white-washed walls. Behind them stand the Long Hais, a range of mountains whose beauty was difficult for young soldiers to appreciate while patrolling among the minefields and tunnels concealed among their rocks and jungles. In front is a beach whose sand and surf would stand comparison with those back home in Australia.
The ruins provided a temporary base for my platoon while we conducted our patrolling activities into the hills. One building, the one which had more of its walls intact than any other, acted as platoon headquarters. It was here that the platoon commander gathered us together one morning to inform us of our latest mission, a long-range reconnaissance and ambush patrol with a difference.
"Men, we're going to follow the beach around to the very limit of the battalion's area of operations. When we get there, we're going to set up an ambush on the beach. It's a free-fire zone, so anything that walks into our ambush is fair game. What makes this patrol different is the need to make sure we reach our objective unseen. To make absolutely certain of this, we will be moving only at night. We move out after last light tonight, and before first light in the morning we will reach another group of ruined villas on the beach. There we will shelter all day tomorrow, staying out of sight, and after last light we move into our ambush position. Today and tomorrow we rest in shifts. Section commanders organise rosters."
After the "O" group I was playing cards with my mates Benny and Jacko, and discussing the coming patrol. As usual, Benny was the philosopher.
"You know", he said, "it should be easier than ever before to tell the good guys from the bad guys in this war. One side mostly wears black and does its dirty deeds at night, the other side operates mostly by day and plays strictly by the rules. So it's us, the forces of light, against Charlie, the forces of darkness. Light, dark; day, night; us, them. Simple. So now what do they do? they send us out at night, just to confuse the issue."
"Well, I reckon it's a good thing", said Jacko, "it's about time we took them on at their own game. After all, it's our game too. We're well trained in guerilla warfare, it's what we're good at, ever since our fathers took on the Japs in New Guinea. So why should we leave the night-time to Charlie?"
As soon as it was dark enough we moved out. As radio operator I was with the platoon headquarters group, just behind the first section. There was no moon. I followed the platoon commander, close enough to be able to reach out and touch him. The platoon sergeant was a similar distance behind me. I couldn't believe the pace at which we were moving. My infantry training told me that on a night as dark as this I should be moving slowly enough for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and focus on the trees, the ground, everything around me. Instead I was stumbling along just trying to keep up. The forward scout was Mick, a national serviceman from Adelaide. The experience of our first few months in country told me that he knew what he was doing, so I just kept going, trying to make as little noise as possible. I could not help feeling that I was in an alien environment. As a teenager I had often dived in the ocean and waterways around Sydney and, however much I enjoyed the experience, I always felt that I did not belong there. Among the fish, the rocks and the sand my presence was somehow unnatural. The darkness of this night gave me the same feeling, in a much less benign environment. Somewhere, perhaps not far away, there would be Viet Cong patrols, who would regard the night as their friend. To me it felt like the enemy.
We reached the ruined villas a couple of hours before dawn, which gave us time to move in and settle down before first light. The next day was one of the longest I have ever spent, though anybody who has spent a day waiting in an airport departure lounge will have some idea of what it was like. We could not speak, move from our positions, or light fires. So we ate cold C-rations for breakfast, lunch and dinner and drank only water or the powdered cordial that comes in the ration packs. And we waited.
When night fell at last, we moved out. After about an hour we found a suitable ambush position on the sand dunes overlooking the beach. We settled in for the night, taking turns to sleep, and we waited.
On the roster I drew the first watch. After two hours I turned to Benny and tapped him on the shoulder. He was already awake, so without a word I made myself as comfortable as possible and tried to sleep.
I could have sworn I had just closed my eyes when a tap on the shoulder woke me. Benny put a finger to his lips, and pointed to the beach. Two shadows with human form were approaching our ambush. They were not walking on the sand, but about ankle-deep in the water. While I was asleep my rifle barrel had buried itself in the sand. I lifted it to my shoulder, took aim, switched the catch from "safe" to "automatic". "Goddammit, don't jam up on me now" I thought. It would be just my luck to be caught in a fire-fight with a barrel full of sand and a rifle that won't fire.
The two figures were getting closer. My hands began to shake and I was sure the sound of my heartbeat would give us away. I tried to take deep breaths and recite the Lord's prayer to myself. This was something I had learnt to do as a child, whenever I wanted to calm myself down or take my mind off something I didn't want to think about. Closer ... closer... ... come on ... come on ... I knew I must not pull the trigger until after the first claymore had been fired. But in the dark I could not tell whether everybody else was awake. What if the bloke who is supposed to fire the claymore is asleep? What if Benny and I are the only ones who know that these two are walking into our ambush?
No matter how much you expect it, the first shot always comes as a shock. When the claymore exploded I felt like I had jumped six feet into the air and landed back in my firing position. Then my finger squeezed the trigger and the nerves disappeared. The whole platoon opened up in unison, M60s, SLRs and Armalites. I thought I saw one of my tracer rounds hit one of the figures before both fell into the water. Amidst all the noise there were a couple of screams, then silence. The ambush broke off as suddenly as it had started.
If you want to know the definition of the word "vulnerable", just feel the silence that follows a short, sharp contact at night, when your platoon is sitting on a beach, miles from the rest of the battalion. Were those two alone? Will their mates come looking for them, are they forming up right now to attack us? Is there a mortar platoon out there somewhere locking on to our position and preparing to fire?
There was nothing we could do except maintain our position and wait until first light. Then we could go out and check the bodies. This was standard operating procedure for ambush patrols. So we stayed where we were, and we waited.
It seemed like forever, but was actually only a few moments before we heard a moan coming from one of our victims. The moaning continued, getting weaker each time, for perhaps an hour. Then the silence, with all its tension, returned. It was a little after midnight, and first light was more than five hours away. None of us would be able to sleep. So we waited.
The first rays of sunlight revealed one body at the high water mark on the beach. The waves had been washing over it during the night, until the tide had turned and left it on firm sand. There was no sign of the other body. My first thought was that it must have been washed out to sea.
We broke from our ambush position and moved out to inspect the body. Mick tied a rope around one of its ankles and dragged it a short distance. This was standard procedure before a body could be searched, to make sure it was not booby-trapped. Mick and the sergeant conducted the search.
At this point a number of things happened at once. The sergeant called out to the platoon commander: "Well boss, it looks like he's unarmed, and he looks quite old." Someone called out: "There's a basket over here", and from somewhere else came: "There's a blood trail here, a real thick one too, heading back where they came from."
"Right, what's in the basket?" the boss asked.
"Nothing much, sir, just vegetables and fruit. There's some dead fish here, they were probably in the basket too."
"Well boss", I said, "Battalion will be waiting for a report, what do we tell them?"
Mick was the first to offer a suggestion.
"We can't just report that we ambushed an unarmed old man, we'll be the laughing stock of the Task Force."
"Well, what else can we do?" the boss asked.
"How about if we put something in the basket to make it look like he was armed" said Mick.
"Okay, wait a minute, let me think" said the boss. Our platoon commander was 23 years old, a regular soldier at the start of his army career. He and his fiancee had held their engagement party while he was on pre-embarkation leave. He would be married as soon as he returned home. The last thing he would want to do at this moment would be to decide what to do with the bullet-riddled body of an old man on a beach.
"Okay" he said at last, "Put a few grenades in the basket. Four should be enough. Make sure they're the American 'pineapple' type." He turned to me, wrote down the details in the coded format of a contact report, and handed it to me. "Send this in" he said.
I sent the report, including the details about the grenades in the basket, and we sat down to have some breakfast before moving out to follow the blood trail. After all, the blood was so thick that we expected to find the other body a short distance along the beach.
Out of curiosity, I had a look at the body of the old man. He had bullet holes all over him, but the one I noticed was a tracer round sticking into his thigh. From its size I could tell it had been fired from an Armalite. Tracer rounds have a weaker charge, and therefore less penetration power than normal bullets, and this one had only just broken the skin. As far as I knew I was the only one in the platoon who had been firing tracer rounds from an Armalite. "So I did hit him" I thought. I went back to my breakfast.
As I was tucking into my cold turkey, Mick approached me.
"Hey mate" he said, "can I borrow your bayonet for a minute?"
I gave it to him without question. Mick and I both used Armalite rifles, but he apparently didn't carry a bayonet.
It didn't occur to me to ask what he wanted to use mine for. I soon found out. I looked around to see why some of the guys had started laughing. There was Mick, posing with his foot on the dead body, thrusting my bayonet into its belly while one of his mates took photos.
I turned to Benny. "My God" I said, "What's going on here?"
"What did I tell you mate?" Benny said.
At that moment someone yelled out: "Hey, boss, look at this".
We all looked in the direction he was pointing. A couple of clicks down the beach we saw what looked like a crowd of people, hundreds of them, coming towards us.
The boss turned to me. "Call this in" he said, "See if battalion knows anything about it".
We took up positions, ready for whatever might happen, while the crowd kept coming closer, seeming to grow bigger by the minute. A message came on the radio that they were civilians from a nearby fishing village, and they should have an American interpreter with them. Again we waited.
The crowd arrived, certainly hundreds of them, probably the whole population of their village, with the American among the leading group. There was a lengthy conversation between the village headman, the American, and our platoon commander. Eventually we learned that the man we had killed was an old fisherman who had been walking on the beach with his wife. She had been badly, probably mortally wounded, but had somehow managed to crawl back to the village.
"Well what were they doing in a free-fire zone after curfew?" the boss asked.
The American put this question to the village headman, and another lengthy conversation ensued, after which the American reported that the old couple's son was suspected to be a V.C., hiding up in the hills. The headman admitted the possibility that they had been taking food to him.
The villagers took the body of the old fisherman back with them, and we made our way back in the other direction. Around lunchtime we stopped to do some grenade fishing, throwing grenades into the water to catch fish for lunch. While this was happening I asked Benny what he had meant when he said "what did I tell you?"
"Think about it" he said. "Remember how this patrol was always going to be something different."
I thought about it. I remembered what Benny had said two days earlier, before we set out on this patrol. We had always been the good guys, operating mostly by day and playing by the rules. For this patrol however, we had changed tactics, moving in darkness and hiding from the light of day, using the tactics of our enemy. And what was the result? We killed an unarmed old fisherman and badly wounded his wife, Mick had gone "kill-crazy", posing to have his picture taken sticking a bayonet into a body that had been dead for six hours, the boss had falsified a contact report to cover up what we had done, and I had joined in the cover-up by passing on his lies. Somehow the differences that had seemed so clear between light and dark, day and night, us and them, had become blurred.
After our night patrol it was back to more conventional patrolling activities in the hills, including some action for Benny and his dog as part of the tracker team. With only a few days of the operation to go, Benny started complaining that the dog was sick and should be taken back to base camp. Finally, at breakfast time on the penultimate day of the operation, he approached the platoon commander.
"Sir, I've got to take him back today. He's got to be looked at by an expert" he said.
"Can't it wait until tomorrow?" the boss asked.
"No sir, I wish it could, but I really have to take him back today. You know I wouldn't do this if it wasn't absolutely necessary, not for the sake of one day".
So the boss gave him permission to fly out, and I got on to the radio and called for a helicopter. When the chopper had been confirmed, I had a chance to have a talk with Benny.
"Mate, we're all going back tomorrow, why don't you wait and come with us?"
"I'm sorry, but it has to be today. I have to go back today".
So the chopper arrived, and Benny and his dog flew back to Nui Dat. After that last day's patrolling duties were completed, our Vietnamese interpreter went out on a patrol of his own, to a nearby fishing village, and returned with a basket of fish and fresh vegetables. That evening we gathered together some empty ammunition cases to use as cooking pots, threw in the fish, vegetables and rice, together with all our remaining rations, including some leftover cans of dog food (it was no worse than the bully beef in our ration packs, especially when accompanied by a heavy dose of curry powder) and brewed up a feast to celebrate the end of an operation we were all glad to see the back of.
Early next morning, while we were shaving, preparing breakfast and getting ready to move out, a call came on the radio, for the ears of the platoon commander only. I passed the handset to him, and when he had taken down the message he handed the set back to me and turned to the platoon sergeant.
"Sergeant, tell the section commanders to leave one man per section on picket, and the rest of the platoon to come here immediately for an urgent "O" group."
Within a couple of minutes the platoon was gathered around waiting to hear the urgent news.
"Men", he began, "I have just heard some shocking news. Private Benson is dead."
The silence which followed his words made them hang in the air like a black cloud. At first they seemed to bear no relation to reality, and my mind could not accept them. Benny had left us here in the Long Hais to go back to the safety of Nui Dat, how could he be dead? After a short time words like "What" and "How" came from some of the others, but I was just not comprehending this at all. The boss spoke again:
"There is an investigation in progress, but it appears as though it was an accident, and it happened last night". He looked at me: "It happened in your tent. It appears that Jimmy bought a pistol on the black market in Ba Ria, and he and Benny were together in your tent when it happened".
"That bastard! I'll kill him!" someone said.
"No-one's going to kill anybody!" the platoon commander said. "We won't know the details until the investigation is finished, but it does seem that he was killed by a single shot to the right temple. So it is likely that he was holding the pistol himself. Until we find out exactly what happened, we must assume it was an accident."
I still could not understand. I could still see the smile on Benny's face as he waved to me from the chopper. He was so pleased to be going back a day early.
It was early evening when we arrived back at Nui Dat. I was allowed into my tent only long enough to pack my gear and move out. The tent reeked of some kind of disinfectant. If I ever encounter that smell again, I will think of it as the smell of death. There was a stain on the floor next to my bed. So he must have been sitting on my bed, I thought, where he often sat to listen to the latest from Jimi Hendrix or The Doors. It was not a blood stain, but the obvious sign of an attempt to remove a blood stain. Next to the bed there was an empty ammunition container that I used as a rubbish bin. From it I pulled out some Polaroid negatives, the part you peel off and throw away. The investigators had taken some pictures and simply thrown the negatives in my bin.
"What sloppy work", I thought, but it was an idle thought, my mind was fuzzy and not quite able to focus on a clear thought. On the negatives I could see the outline of a body lying on the floor next to my bed. I threw them back into the bin.
I gathered my gear and reported to the platoon sergeant.
"Where do I sleep tonight sergeant?"
The reply took some time to filter through the cloudy haze that was my mind:
"I'm afraid there's nowhere else we can put you except in Private Benson's bed".
I dragged myself and my gear into Benny's tent, sat on the vacant bed and with a nod acknowledged my three new roommates. They all looked as numb as I felt. Moments later I was in bed, listening to a sound that sent a chill down my spine. Just outside the tent Benny's dog was howling, pining for his master. He would keep it up all night. As I tried to sleep, one thought kept coming back to me:
"One more day, you silly bastard, we could have all come back together".