These are a few of my favorite things; remember these words from the Julie Andrews song in the Sound of music...we all had ‘favorite things’, stuff we could hang onto, to keep us going to the next halt, the next mile-stone in our daily lives in Viet Nam. I recall one night in Malaysia we were discussing [in the dark of the jungle night] what things we missed the most away from home, each one of us talked about food mostly...you would think we would have missed women the most, but no folks it seems food was the order of the day. A consensus was reached that night...the item of food most of us wanted to taste first when we returned to Godzone was milk, cold fresh milk. Not beer or fish 'n chips or anything else - just plain old milk. Quite a revelation wouldn’t you say?
The point of this story is how very simple things can have a great impact on the larger picture particularly in Viet Nam. We are now on our second op and this one has us in very undulating jungle [Agent Orange hasn’t stuffed up this area...yet] we can see reasonable distances and there is a great deal of enemy activity. So much so that for the first few days we find a number of very heavily used trails, the VC are carrying heavy loads as both the tracks left behind and the scrape marks on the trees indicate very large troop movements. We spend some time ambushing likely areas they [the enemy] may use again. This particular op had some strange events occur, however I shall stick to the fruit salad story for the time being.
The MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual), was a US-designed combat ration issued as individual meals or in multiples of three as a complete ration. Each MCI contained: one M-Unit can (meat-based entree item); one B unit (bread item); one D-unit can (dessert item); and an accessory packet containing cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream, sugar, and salt, and a spoon.
All armies march on their stomachs, metaphorically speaking of course, and had we marched on our bloody New Zealand ration packs [rat pac] as fuel for the whole time we were in Viet Nam we would not have marched far. How fortunate we were not to have to put up with our crappie New Zealand rations for the entire tour...I won’t go into the details of the crap that was in the tinned food suffice to say a tin of meat would generally consist of waste animal flap with fat and loads of juice. About the only useful foodstuffs were chocolate, condensed milk and tea, oh…yes, baked beans and sausages if you got the right rat pack. So thanks Pools and the b******s who arranged the contracts to purchase this stuff we did not appreciate our bloody ration packs at all. However what we did look forward to was the tins of fruit in both the Australian rat pac and the American C-Rations.
Oh! what joy when these came out to us in the field, particularly the American pack as they would have a huge variety of food arranged in order breakfast, lunch and dinner.. . with fruit salad as my most favorite, oh yes not forgetting the cigarettes, each meal would have four cigarettes in a packet...as I wrote in the story ‘It’s time the Company gave up smoking’ these smokes tasted like crap most American cigarettes are toasted and take some getting use to. So rather than throw them away I would stick them at the bottom of my pack and save them for a ‘rainy day’...that day eventually arrived but that’s another story.
So...here we were patrolling, ambushing and generally doing the things we had been trained for, hunting the enemy. And of course to make ‘our’ lives more enjoyable I [in particular] had this thing going for myself where I would save these cans of fruit for a particular day or special [made up] occasion - whatever the whim was it gave me a ‘thing’ to aim for. Such a simple person I know but then.. . such was our lives. On this particular day we were hot on the trail of the VC and figured they weren’t far away as their tracks were very fresh.
We stopped for lunch and at this particular lunch halt I had decided it was time to eat my cherished tin of fruit salad. Collins section were to cover our front with the gun group forward and all their claymores covering the contours of the track so if the enemy did approach our sentry on the gun would only have to wait until the majority of the enemy were in the kill zone and blow the claymores. My section were in the rear covering our move into the area whilst Old Man’s section were spread up the right flank.
It was not the ideal formation to allow for maximum fire on all flanks however we were expecting the enemy to approach from Collins forward position so we were not too fussed about the lack of tactical correctness. Old Man came down to talk to me and I produced the piece de resistance. "Ah" said Old Man, "Just the thing I have been dreaming of." I ceremoniously opened the most treasured can, and just as I was about to offer Old Man first taste.. .the machine gun on Collins section opened up...then shouting, "Fire the claymores f**k you!" "Can’t find the switches"...Then the whole of Collins section opened up...what a noise, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up...actually it sent chills down my spine. Old Man said to me, "Rob we’ll have to finish this another time" and immediately grabbed his rifle and ran back to his section.. . The next thing I hear is "They are coming around the back!...Robby take your section up to the top of the hill and sweep around the flank and see if you can cut them off!" Ohhhh, f**k...Ok what am I going to do with my beautiful can of fruit salad? I can’t just leave it here opened... something may happen to it and I have carried it so far. Naughty VC why couldn’t they have come after I finished the can?
A voice is heard again calling out for me to get the f**k up to the top of the hill and sweep around with my section! I sit there for what seemed eternity contemplating what to do with my can...you see how important these small things in life become. Now I am really being summoned and I still haven’t decided what to do about my can of fruit salad. Some of my section have moved up to the hill leaderless of course, then suddenly Old Man calls out to me "Don’t worry Rob I’ll sort it out!’ But you had better save me some of that fruit salad or I’ll kick your f****n a**e!" I dug a little hole in the ground and placed the can in and then covered it with my claymore bag, it is funny the things we recollect after all these years. I then grabbed my kit and rifle and raced up to the top of the hill to join the rest of the platoon.
What a cacophony of noise...shouting, so much shouting, orders were being given to direct fire towards the fleeing enemy...this contact was turning into a small battle I imagined as I caught up with everyone there were heaps of VC... nay, screaming hordes at least a-coming over yonder hill. If nothing else the weight of small arms fire would make the enemy think we were a much larger force that just a platoon of thirty-odd men.
I stopped my section from advancing any further [as Old Man had returned to his section] and began to bring things under control. I was getting the distinct impression things were getting a little out of hand and I could not see let alone detect any sign of enemy activity coming back at us. I began to discern the forward topography for what it was; the track ran along the line of the hill Collins’ Section had been observing and carried on down into a gully and then immediately climbed back up another ridge line which is why the initial call went out to say they were sweeping around to our flank. Actually what the fleeing enemy were doing was going back the way they had just come thus giving the impression to Collins gun group they were trying to outflank us.
Things started to quiet down and order began to return, I gathered up our section and we swept over the ridge line and down the other side of the hill. We found the tracks of the fleeing enemy obviously moving away from us, and so I placed a sentry overlooking the scene of the crime from a high vantage point. And then I returned with the remainder of my section to our lunchtime positions...my little heart had been racing throughout this entire episode as the contact had been totally unexpected, a total disruption to the natural order of things - particularly a quiet lunch with fruit salad - and in the ensuing flurry of fire and frenetic activity the adrenaline had been pumping in the extreme . . .after all isn’t that what war is all about.
We would be credited with the Battalion's first kill, or was it the Company's first kill?...Whatever it was we were the match winners of the day, us one, the enemy minus one.
Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.