My first ambush is over, Murphy has had his way and we now begin the after match recriminations and analysis of ‘what went wrong’ and of course how we can save the NZ tax payers money. Our intrepid leader with Old Mans’ section as escort arrives and spends some time remonstrating with me over our failed attempt to kill the enemy. He need not have bothered, as like all the sports teams today that lose the game, the reasons were well and truly etched in our minds – the difference between modern day sports teams and us was the ability to watch the after match video and analyze the sighted mistakes. I don’t think we would have benefited from a video as the results spoke for themselves, our team nil…VC free to roam still.
Whilst the platoon commander spoke to me Old Man was busy scouting around for ground sign of the enemy. This did not take long to pick up and like a hound dog hot on the trail of fresh scent we set off following the tracks of an obvious hasty retreat that would eventually lead us to a small illegal hamlet or cluster of huts. Our arrival was causing quite a flurry of activity and loud female shouting in the local language. We discovered a large number of females varying in age from the very young to elderly ladies with smiles that revealed beetle nut stained teeth – what was left of them…the teeth that is.
We begin a systematic search of the dwellings and the surrounding area. We discover a small number of very sick young men, mostly with chest infections possibly TB or pneumonia. Whatever their illness was their faces where drawn and gaunt – their eyes spoke volumes and their whole demeanour was pathetic and sad. We suspected they could only have become ill in this manner through long periods of deprivation in the wet jungle [the rainy season had begun in earnest] and now here they were recovering in what was obviously a recuperation post for the local Viet Cong.
We also discover large caches of food and rice – knowing that each home is allowed only a certain amount of food and rice per family member we decided to radio for specialists to be sent in, namely intelligence people accompanied with a local South Vietnamese interpreter.
We spend most of the day searching this hamlet for the possibility of hidden weapons. We should have called for metal detectors as we had Buckley’s chance of finding weapons in this haystack! I say we should have called for a metal detector because we were later fired on from this same hamlet.
The day was at an end and we need to leave and return to our platoon harbour. We are informed that all is in order and the excessive food and rice as well as the sick men have valid reasons for being there, all is plausible…keh? All this according to the local Vietnamese interpreter…we smell a rat! We are not satisfied with the explanation, particularly after my unsuccessful night ambush and the painfully bleeding obvious evidence we had gathered.
I feel the need to add this comment as a personal observation, at no stage of this episode did any of us feel animosity or hatred towards the local’s…as, truth be known they were more likely the unfortunate recipients of VC threats…namely ‘serve us or you and your family dies’. They [the sick Vietnamese boy’s] did not appear to have the professional soldier's demeanour, nor did they seem to have a heart for this kind of conflict. Having said this my comments are directed to the immediate people we encountered when we first went into the hamlet, as later there would be a different kind of enemy reaction as they made a rapid departure out of the hamlet.
We also decided we could no longer rely on the Vietnamese interpreter; he had most definitely blotted his copy book that day. Some months later we heard he had fled Nui Dat Camp and disappeared.
We decided a surprise visit back to the scene of the crime might be the order of the day. So arrangements are put in place and the decision to proceed the next afternoon is made by the platoon commander. The reason for a late afternoon visit [I hasten to add here] was that we believed any comings and goings were more likely to occur at this time of the day. We departed in half platoon strength in light order; the remainder of the platoon would once again look after the harbour position. We approached the hamlet from the south, the topography of the area allowed us reasonable cover [so we thought] as the ground was slopping away from the huts down into a stream bed before climbing up towards the crest of another slight hillock.
We were now travelling along the side of the stream bed in single file in what we thought was ‘a low profile’ [unlikely to draw too much attention]. Suddenly, twelve young and very fit men burst from the eastern side of the hamlet, sprinting away in single file silhouetted against the setting sun. These men should have been in the Olympics – I have never seen anyone run as fast as these men.
During our days of training on the rifle ranges at Westmelton, Nee Soon in Singapore and Pulada in Malaysia we would practice firing at moving targets. I had achieved many awards for shooting and considered myself a pretty good shot. Nothing had prepared us for this display of athletic prowess; these men were travelling at speed. I laid my sights on the front runner and discovered [apart from the difficulty of hitting a rapidly traversing target] the sun was directly in my sights and almost obscuring the targets. I lowered my weapon and let others engage the fleeing enemy. I doubt any of us hit them as they never broke stride and disappeared. The whole incident was over in seconds. As I write this [I recollect] we all looked at each other in utter disbelief and shear incredulousness. Gob smacked is what we were.
We were now in somewhat of a quandary as our well laid plans for a sneaky approach were well and truly in tatters and we were compromised into the bargain. What to do? We decided to head back to our platoon harbour travelling away from the hamlet up towards the crest of the hillock. At this stage there was little point trying to go back to the huts and confront those remaining there as they would once again be the same group we encountered the day before and evening was rapidly approaching…rapidly is the operative word.
Caught out in the dark
You may recall my alluding to the sun sets in South East Asia – when the sun goes down in the jungle all you can see is total darkness. This was about to happen to us. Not that we were unaware it would happen just that we should have been in a better position - static and able to observe activity near the huts. Murphy not being satisfied with events so far…allowed for the enemy firing [what would later be referred to by the intelligence people as] ‘non directional mines’. These came from the vicinity of the hamlet. We hear a popping sound and then the whooshing of the projectile over our heads as it lands in the area we were heading to. A few more are fired at us for good measure.
Darkness is a two edged sword and fortunately for us the enemy must have observed our direction and time of travel and estimating incorrectly had let off the rounds too early allowing them to fall on the crest of the hill. So…Murphy not everything goes your way after all.
We decided to abandon plan B and immediately went into a hurried and shortened version of our night harbour routine – we would remain there until dawn. Blast! A night out without cover of tent, shell scrapes, perimeter tracks, early warning flares, a story from mum and my favourite teddy bear to cuddle; light order will do that. I placed claymore mines to the front of my section and arrange our formation so that we can easily touch each other for communication purposes and sentry duty.
The jungle floor has a unique smell like a bag of freshly opened potting mix and as I wrote this story my thoughts drifted back to that night and I recalled the smells and moment as fresh as ever in my memory. The rotting mulch when disturbed causes a luminous glow and this gave me the strangest sensation; as I placed the claymore out to our front I felt like I was floating in space. I returned to my gun group placed the plug from the claymore into the clacker, touched Mac to reassure myself and with nothing else to do looked into the darkness and wondered at the very marvel of creation with the soft luminous patterns all around us and many fireflies floating through the darkness. This mood of course was quickly broken by the annoying presence of bloody mosquitoes. To say we were on a steep learning curve would be an understatement; despite our extensive training prior to active service these events were both unusual and unexpected.
We had decided if there was anymore incoming from the hamlet, women and the infirmed would not stop us from calling in the artillery. Fortunately there were no further attempts on our lives. The following morning we again called in the intelligence boys as well the local South Vietnamese military. The hamlet was destroyed and the remaining occupants were relocated to another very large village where an eye could be kept on them.
I felt great compassion for these people and their predicament as many of them had little or no choice from those they were forced to serve. Even those who were away fighting for the South Vietnamese Army found their families [left behind] would be forcibly made to assist the Viet Cong on pain of death. This meant whole families caught up in this unfortunate conflict with no other option but to serve the communist cause.
We returned to our platoon harbour; what an eventful introduction we had to our first operation in Viet Nam. Oh yes to top it all off our ‘haka boogie’ boys [the Maori Cultural Group] were extracted from the op and flown to Saigon to perform for some dignitaries and then flown back to us in the bush. One minute they were in jungle greens fighting the VC the next in grass skirts with the spear and taiaha. Go figure.
Our company was withdrawn from this our first operation only to be redeployed a few days later further north and our platoon would be credited on this operation with the company’s first kill, another story…
The VC barber
Much later on in our tour and whilst in Nui Dat we discovered the enemy were using a group of children to map the perimeter of camp. They had been doing this for some time. Apparently the enemy’s intention was to have a go and attack the camp…when this was to take place was a mystery as the numbers needed to mount an attack would need to have been considerable – the battle of Long Tan bore testimony to the numbers needed.
These children were from local families in the villages near our camp. They had little option as their parents were told ‘do it or die’. A great deal of intelligence was gathered as a result of their capture, including a very clever piece of infiltration and intelligence gathering on the part of the local Viet Cong [in my opinion of course]. When we were able we would go down to the local barber shop and have our hair cut, as would all those domiciled in Nui Dat camp. It occurred to me that this would be the ideal position to gather information on our activities. As I sat there waiting for my turn I listened to the conversations about families, operations and the like being discussed by the waiting soldiers.
Yes you guessed it – the head barber turned out to be the local area North Vietnamese colonel and had been gathering information for some time…how clever was that possums? Which of course raises the question, how did he manage to become the head barber; an obvious position to gain such information? I would like to think the intelligence people knew what he was up to and were waiting for the right moment to pounce on him.
Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.