It was the dry season - long, hot cloudless days and cool nights. Though we didn't know it at the time in a few months when we would be wet almost all the time and our foul uniforms would be rotting on our backs and everybody's crutch would be a mass of itchy, pungent Tinea cruris. Then we would look back at these first few months in country, and the dry season as a halcyon time.

Company HQ was ambushing a cart track that showed signs of being well used. We were harboured in a triangular shaped piece of scrub that poked out from the thick bush behind. The apex of the triangle came right up to the track and it was here we put the Claymores and one of the M60s. With great difficulty we had dug a gun pit in which we sat while on sentry. Around the gun pit were clicker switches to detonate the Claymores, grenades, a few belts of M60 ammo, and a M79 grenade launcher with a few of it's fat golden rounds. After digging the gun pit we dug a bunker for the Company command centre. The ground was rock hard and after finishing the Command Post we had no energy to dig shell scrapes - something that we would later come to regret. There were no trees of sufficient size to sling the hammocks we had liberated from the VC we had contacted and killed, so we lay on the hard ground. Roger Greenaway and I were only a few metres behind the Claymores which we had put in the long, pale yellow grass facing the track.

Monotony

The first few days were pleasant but monotonous. We sat bare-chested and talked quietly or read. At dawn there was stand-to that lasted an hour. This was the time supposedly that an attack would occur, at first light. Unfortunately no one had told Charlie because he obviously was still in bed and couldn't be bothered attacking the Tan Tay Lan (New Zealanders) that early in the morning. Then breakfast and maybe a small patrol or a couple of hour's sentry duty on the M60 that covered the track if you stayed in the harbour. Then lunch and perhaps radio watch in the afternoon, or perhaps trying to find a stream or river to fill Company HQ's water bottles. There would be one or two people from one of the Company's platoons that were travelling with HQ so that I could change dressings on minor wounds or boils and abscesses. Sometimes people who had caught the clap travelled with us so I could give them their antibiotic injections. Ears had to be syringed, lacerations sewn up. A myriad of skin disease from Tinea to migrating larvae and heat rashes had to be treated and kept me busy through the day. Then a C-ration meal for dinner; spaghetti and meatballs perhaps, a pound cake for desert, followed by a cup of tea and some chocolate. Then it was dusk and then it was dark. Those soldiers not on sentry took their boots off, rolled themselves in quilted cammo blankets if they were lucky enough to have them, lay their weapon on the ground beside them and tried to sleep.

The night was full of activity and sound. The distant, sullen boom of gun followed seconds later by the even more distant boom of the shells crashing into the jungle. Overhead, choppers flew back and forth overhead blotting out the stars as they passed over our position. Sometimes we would hear and maybe see 'Puff the magic dragon' - a gunship with miniguns poking out its side firing a wobbling stream of red tracer with an obscene farting noise towards the ground. Death from above. An artillery flare might light up the distant sky with incandescent white light as it floated beneath its parachute.

On radio watch you sat for 2 hours by yourself struggling to keep awake listening to the hiss of the radios. Cryptic snatches of conversations between other units in the field and their HQ - laconic American fighter jocks, the flat nasal twang of the Australians, and the excited gibbering of the Vietnamese. The hardest struggle was staying awake but eventually you were relieved and crept back to your patch of rocky soil to try and go back to sleep.

Sentry duty was also for 2 hours. This was a bit more nerve wracking. Usually you had company for your stint of sentry so it was easier to stay awake. Sitting in the gun pit on a dark moonless night you eventually started to hear and see things that weren't there and the sudden noise of a branch snapping off a tree would cause your heart to lurch and your pulse to shoot up. When we were on Long Song Island we did sentry solo. We knew there were a lot of VC on the island and sitting in the dark alone, out at the back of our position I found particularly terrifying. There was a sense of dread over the whole of the island. Unhappy revenants I suppose, the victims of 40 years of different wars wandering around that unhappy land looking for peace.

Strange noise

In the morning we were up again in the pre dawn dark standing to and looking forward to another in ambush. We had been ambushing the track for about five days and there had been no sign of the enemy. On the Wednesday night "Grunter" Greenaway and me were lying asleep on the ground. It was about 8pm when my sleep was ripped apart by an enormous blast that blew us both a foot in the air and temporarily deafened us. Shredded foliage drifted down on us as we grabbed our rifles - me with difficulty as I was shaking with the shock of the force of the blast and being dragged out of a peaceful sleep into to what had become a night full of the staccato rat-tat-tat of the M60 firing in long bursts and people banging away with their rifles, at what I don't know as it was pitch black.

Over the sound of the machine gun we heard "Bwana" the CSM yelling out to stop firing. The M60 stuttered to a stop and the night became quiet again. Grunter asked me, "What the f**k was that?" "I dunno", I replied still shaking like the proverbial leaf, "Charlie, maybe?" Then suddenly out of the night from the direction of the track the claymore had blasted came a loud, clear sound - a series of distinct clicks, as if linked rounds were being dragged over the barrel of a machine gun. The M60 started up again, occasional tracer rounds hitting the ground and flying up into the jungle on the other side of the clearing. The gun stopped, silence again fell upon our small group. Then again from the area in front of the gun a series of loud metallic clicks - the only sound in the dark night. What in Christ's name were they? Again our M60 brassed up the track in front of us then stopped. All was quiet. We held our collective breaths and then slowly and distinctly the loud clicking recommenced. Grunter said, "That guy must be superman." "Yeah", I replied, "You know what it might be? He's clicking through his rosary beads." Grunter laughed, "Sure, he's a Catholic communist - he's got all bases covered. Don't be so bloody silly." The CSM and the Boss were talking to the guys on the M60. The clicking continued but the M60 stayed silent. Eventually the CSM came over. "Just to let you know what's going on. We don't know what that noise is but no one is going out to look till first light. If we put a flare up we'd stick out like dog's balls and if it is Charlie out there then we're history. We aren't getting any return fire so I've told the gun team to keep an eye out but not to fire. OK?"

Con nhim

The rest of the night dragged by, the clicking continued but became quieter and became less frequent. When the sky started to turn grey in the east it had stopped. All night we had theorised about what it could be. Whatever it was it had us all spooked and I am sure everyone was as glad as me to realise dawn was breaking. After we stood down we put on our belt gear, picked up our rifles and tentatively walked out to the track. In the middle of the tack was a smear of blood that led off through the grass towards the gun. We couldn't see a body and when the CSM went towards the gun he kneeled down and started to laugh. "Come and look at this," he said waving us forward. There almost under the barrel of the M60 lay a fat, large and very dead porcupine. Years later I found it was one of the Old World porcupines - Hystricidae, which can be found in most Asian countries.

We picked up the poor dead thing and I headed off to bury it. Nigel our bushman scout - an ex Viet Cong who had got sick of a Comrade life living on rice and rats heads, saw me with it. "Hey Jeem, con nhim thuc an ngon", which after a lot of too-ing and fro-ing and misunderstanding found out meant, ‘Porcupine, delicious food'. "Yeah, numbah one yum yum", he said. I offered it to Nigel but the logistics of cooking it put paid to that idea, so I grabbed him and off we went to bury the poor creature who had given us one long and surreal night. When I was in Saigon getting a new pair of glasses I went to a restaurant and sure enough there on the menu was con nhim - the Old World porcupine.

Reference: 

James Mitchell

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