The dry season still had a few months to go before the first monsoonal rains of the wet season. We were still enjoying our time in country. The feeling of being at the centre of pivotal world events was exciting and we were still healthy from our year in Malaysia. We had seen no real action and were consequently a little cocksure. Even the open forest we had been moving through was pleasant though the ground was rock hard and made digging in each night torture.

Water

The one problem in the dry was water. There was none of it around. Earlier in the year we had tried digging for it in the sandy soil near the coast. We got down to about ten feet and gave up. There wasn't a trace of dampness. So like every one else we had water dropped out to us in the next Maintdem. Of course it would have been good if we had struck water. We could imagine the Aussies back in HQ at the 'Dat and saying ' Whiskey Company are like camels, the only mob in the whole task force that haven't needed a resupply. How do they do it?' ‘Discipline, Sir, plain bloody discipline' would answer one of the REMF sycophants, ‘that's how Sir'.

When the Boss decided to ambush the Song Rai nobody complained. The Song Rai was a wide shallow river that drained half of the Province and even in the Dry it ran swiftly and crystal clear over a rock and sand bottom. Near where we were the River split into two and between the main river and the tributary was a high piece of ground covered with dense scrub. Here a M60 was placed looking down on the river. Just before where the river branched was a well used track where on the muddy banks were imprints of some wandering Charlie's Ho Chi Minh sandals - the ubiquitous VC sandals made from tyres and inner tubes. This crossing would be the ambush site.

Company HQ was downstream in thick scrub in a harbour where we could here the cool sound of the river. The first night was quiet but we were just about out of water. Early the next morning Morrison, Greenaway and me were given the pleasant task of going down to the river and replenishing Company HQ's water bottles. We set off with our belt kit and weapons and what seemed like hundreds of canteens wrapped in a hoochie, scrabbling through the scrub on the steep bank and onto the shingled bank. A large rock 10 foot high was where we sat as we filled the water bottles. From there a sandy spit extended out into the river. I had brought some soap so we decided to have a bit of a wash now that our task was completed. We took our belt kit and shirts off and with our rifles walked out into midstream.

Unexpected visitors

Everything was quiet the dappled sun played on the water and the only sounds were the river and the birds in the branches above us. One of us should have sat sentry, I know, but we didn't bother and we were soon lathering ourselves in the cool water. I had just pulled my trousers up when I looked upstream. There was movement in the bush near the track. I put my glasses on and saw to my horror that 3 men had stepped out from the bush and were crossing the river. Morrison heard me grunt and looked up to see me pointing at the trio and trying to speak. They were without a doubt Charlie. They had on black pyjamas, chicom webbing the whole thing. Fortunately they were even less ready than we were and they had their AK47s slung across their backs. They had seen me and the 2 others and were trying desperately to get their weapons in to a firing position. I picked up my M16 and aiming it roughly at the still struggling VC pulled the trigger and nothing happened. Greenaway and Morrison were blasting away as I berated myself for forgetting to undo the safety catch. I flicked that off put the butt into my shoulder and pulled the trigger. I had pushed the fire selection lever to full auto and got rid of 30 rounds in a second or so. About this time the M60 started first blowing apart the bush on the edge of the river then throwing up great gouts of mud and water around the VC who were, amongst other things, trying to get their weapons into position. Then our magazines empty we ran and dived behind the large rock. The booming of the M60 continued and then tapered off.

The 3 of us were laughing at our close escape saying things like, 'f**k that was close' and 'you idiot Doc, what a time to wash your balls'. "Everybody OK?" It was the CSM who had come looking for us when the shooting started. "Yeah Sir, no problems" but I was shaking and would continue to do so for a couple of hours. I felt no fear when the bullets were flying but after I was always shaky and distracted. Now I just wanted some time alone and a cup of tea.

There were 2 VC KIA we found out later and the three of us down on the river were being blamed for spoiling what could have been a classic ambush with beaucoup VC killed. We caught a fair bit of abuse but c'est la guerre.

Later in the afternoon I went and had a look at the 2 bodies. (The third VC had escaped back up the track). The 2 young men lay on the ground on their backs. They were only boys and on the ground beside one of them was that cliché of a million war movies, a wallet that had in it the photo of a pretty young girl. The only wound I could see was in the thigh of one of them. The flesh was split and fat and muscle hung out of the wound, but any blood had been washed off in the river. They looked asleep and I dredged my soul trying to drag up some feeling of pity or regret but all I felt was a sense of schadenfreude that they were dead and I was still alive. This may show some fault of character. After all we had just killed 2 human beings but nobody would ever ask us why or how they died. So this was war I thought. This is what I had read about, but apart from the shock which left me shaking it hadn't been the traumatic life changing event I thought it would be. We would bury these 2 and then in a couple of weeks kill another 2 and so on through the year until searching the bodies would be just another unpleasant, boring chore.

There are those who believe that each time we killed we built up a huge karmic debt that we would spend of our lives paying back until it is absolved. I believe it in my own way. Does this sound crazy? Is it not any more loony than the various reasons that have been floated about the reasons that Vietnam Vet has been plagued by suicide, drug addiction and misery since the war ended.

Postscript

Visit the W3 website and you will find an abbreviated version of this event written by the Platoon Commander involved. In it the three of us who went down to the river are taken to task for being where we shouldn't have been. Well Boss, xin loi but we were ordered down to fill water bottles. Sorry we messed things up, but it was a long time ago.

Reference: 

James Mitchell

How to cite this page: 'Down by the water', URL: http://www.vietnamwar.govt.nz/memory/down-water, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Sep-2013