The shoe factory
Yes we are well into our tour and our old platoon sergeant [Gary] has sadly become a casualty and is sent back to New Zealand. Barry…our new platoon sergeant is waiting for us when we return from our op. He appears to me to be a little apprehensive and this did not evoke a good feeling . Gary had been my section commander in Singapore and was my mentor. His ability to instill confidence and make one feel as if ‘you’ were unstoppable and bullet proof, as welll as his seemingly natural military ability gave me the desire to be as good as him [if not better].
So, here we were the three of us - Hank, Colin and I sitting in his tent going through the necessary details and briefing him on the idiosyncrasies of the platoon. Greg [our platoon commander] has gone back to Singapore for a well deserved break with his family.
Barry’s apprehension is having an impact on me and I am not feeling very confident with him as we sit and talk. Our platoon is away filling sand bags and assisting the Aussies at their lines. When they return [very worn out] we are summoned for a briefing on our next op. I get the boys to start preparing to deploy as we will move out shortly after our briefing. We introduce Barry to everyone and get down to the business of pre op preparation. Hank has some words of wisdom for Barry...I believe Old Man should have been promoted to platoon sergeant...but these decisions are often both political and have a lot to do with seniority in the infantry corps. So we are about to embark on a particularly difficult op with a new man at the helm. As section commanders we decide to protect Barry for his and our own good.
The task at hand is to patrol through an area where the enemy is known to be operating - hell that pretty much covers our whole area of operations. We deploy by APC's in [as usual] the early hours of the morning. Now as I write this I find remembering the sequence of events a little difficult, so I have decided to write the story as I remember particular aspects of Barry’s time with us.
The bunker system
The first event that evoked this aspect of the story was our platoon patrolling through a hilly area that had streams running down like fingers from the top of the hill. As we looked up towards the top we could make out movement and we could hear voices [although somewhat muffled]. It appeared to Old Man and I that it was possibly a caretaker group [each enemy camp or bunker system when not occupied by the main force was always left with a small group to keep it clean and in good order, they usually numbered around ten or fifteen people]. As well as this we had we a tactical problem. The first aspect of our problem was we were exposed to enfilade fire from the enemy - if we got into a fire fight we would be distinctly disadvantaged as we were on the downhill side, and no soldier likes fighting uphill. The second problem was our other platoons' were in the same area traveling parallel to us…so if we needed support fire from the guns it would not likely happen. Old Man and I decide to keep all this to ourselves…again.
We passed through the enemy area and when we feel safe we call a smoke halt. Everyone in the platoon is on tender hooks and well aware of what we have just passed through. Old Man, Colin and I move into the centre of the platoon position and decide to let Barry know what has just transpired. We tell Barry, his face turns pale. “How," he asked, "Do you know all this?” I tell Barry, “Remember Barry when certain hand signals were sent down the platoon?” “Yes", he replies. “Well did you see an RPG rocket head in the stream?” “No", he replies. “And did you see lumps of mud in the streams we crossed?” “No", said Barry becoming more paler. “Well", said Old Man, "We have just passed through a bunker system that seems to either be under construction or repair and we could see movement.” Barry is now more paler and anxious… “What do we do now?” Me speaking to Barry…“I suggest we have a smoke and a bit of a rest, report the locstat and situation and move on.”
Having recently experienced our last bunker battle we were not about to get involved in another that would mean no supporting fire…again, especially when we would be fighting uphill. Even if the bunker system was only lightly manned the enemy would still be well able to inflict considerable casualties on us - the RPG rocket nose cone in the stream was a clear indication that the area was booby trapped. We are now well into our tour and I for one do not want to lose anymore of my men unnecessarily. We have a silent vote. This day the enemy get to dig holes in the ground without our assistance or interference...we get to live. After debriefing our respective sections and reporting the location of the system to higher command we move on much to everyone's relief.
A near thing
We harbour up for the night send in our locstats and silently register targets - with not much else to do settle in to night routine. Knowing where everyone is in the jungle is paramount for obvious reasons - no one wants to start a war with each other. Therefore when we set off the next morning we are all aware where each of the other call signs are - this is based on reliable information passed on when we all relay our locstats to higher command.
Yes...well not quite. I am just behind Jumbo my lead scout patrolling along a ridge line with good visibility particularly to our right side, while the thick bush below us is relatively easy to penetrate visibly. Jumbo and I immediately freeze as we see movement away to our right and down the gentle slope. We pass back the silent signal for suspected enemy movement and get everyone to deploy and face their respective arcs of fire. I call up my gun group and point out the movement - they take up a fire position and we prepare to engage the suspected enemy.
After some time in the environment you get to know who are the enemy by their movement and characteristics [we know when our own people are in the area - some kind of sixth sense thing]. Jumbo and I observe this noise and movement and something tells us this is not the enemy! I look back and see Barry and Old Man together with Johnno our radio op...again Barry is wide eyed and pale...I indicate to him I want our call signs to acknowledge their current locstats and confirm their positions. This done there is no indication the movement is ours, as one of the call signs confirm it has not moved from its night harbour and the other is way over on the other side of the hill, a long way from this position. Barry tells me to engage, and Old Man gives the thumbs up. I am not feeling good about this at all. I ask Jumbo what he feels [not what he thinks as there is a distinct difference]. He does not feel it is the enemy, so I ask Barry to get the call signs to give the company whistle…nothing and still movement away to our lower right. However, Jumbo and I now notice the movement is or has been travelling in one direction and almost in a circle. I am beginning to think this is another call sign in a wrong grid location.
Now Barry is getting impatient and indicating that we should open fire. Our platoon is well placed to cause a great deal of harm to this particular group of 'enemy' as we are enfilade to them and our fire would fall all over them. I crawl back to Barry and Old Man and give them my feelings on this situation. They agree and we request the call signs to whistle out their location - in the radio message we also tell them our situation and what is happening.
Now below us the movement has ceased and everything is silent even the jungle noise has hushed. It is almost like the calm before the storm - all unknown and unseen elements are holding their breath in expectation of what will be a dreadful event. Then suddenly no whistle but a loud call from the centre of this group of people, “Hey! It’s us don’t shoot!" Ben M the platoon sergeant had been moving around platoon issuing paludrine [anti malarial tablets] tablets to the platoon and the circular movement was him going from section to section.
Almost to a man we breathed a sigh of relief - then anger replaced relief. I went back to Barry and Old Man, “What the f**k is going on? Why are they in the wrong grid reference?” We look at each other. Barry almost threw up - the implications of engaging our own were unthinkable. We radio the call sign for their explanation, but none is forthcoming. All this will have to keep until we finish the op and return to base.
Why did this happen? Well the platoon had settled in for the night on a slope of a hill, and sent in their tin trunks [artillery silent targets] and locstat. Then the platoon commander [who had arrived with Barry as a replacement] decided he did not want to be uncomfortable sleeping on the side of a hill and so moved the whole platoon without telling command he had done so. Ben M was unaware of his new platoon commander's neglectful error until he returned to the platoon commander's hootchie and heard our radio message - to which he immediately reacted. Incredulous of his new platoon commander's stupid act he [unbeknownst to us] sorted him out there and then. Sadly like a lot of our men Ben M recently passed away, and I along with many other soldiers had a great deal of respect and affection for this truly superb soldier.
When we returned to Nui Dat Barry had a talk to the platoon commander as well. We were all very relieved and even now as I write this the same feelings return. F**k you Orgy you little b*****d [that was the platoon commanders nick name and from that day forth he would be carefully watched to ensure he did the right thing].
Yes I know this story is titled 'The Shoe Factory' and I guess you will by now be wondering when I will get to tell this...soon.
But first we patrol on around our AO and that evening we find ourselves on the side of a hill. We do not look for level ground...there isn’t any. In the meantime one of our other less fortunate platoon's is still laboriously plowing their way through swamp and as it is now pitch black they are in need of some illumination. They call for the artillery to fire illumination over there area...we hear the report of the guns way in the distance, then the whooshing of the round as it...wait for it...travels over our heads. Pop! The casing starts to rotate in the air as it separates from the illumination flare...we are all awake and looking upward as the light illuminates the area...we can hear the distinct sound of the empty aluminum casing travelling at breakneck speed towards us! Whoop, whoop, whoop...thud, as it hit’s the ground almost on top of us.
Barry is on the radio, “Can you adjust the fire away from us?” Well no they can’t as the other platoon is not far from us and they would be as vulnerable as us!!!! Now we are all wide awake and praying that none of the impending adjustments will bring the empty cases on our collective heads. This goes on for an hour until the platoon has found its way out of the dreaded swamp. At last the fire stops and we finally relax into our night routine.
The following morning we get see how near these casings were from us...not far at all. One of the boys pick up a casing as a keepsake. We continue on over the hill and down into s**t jungle and bamboo...the day wears on and the weather turns foul. For an infantry soldier patrolling through jungle noise can be a blessing or curse. In this case it is fast becoming a curse as we are having enough difficulty navigating our way through the bamboo and we are all very tired - this op has once again been long and difficult.
Imagine if you can...strong winds blowing through the bamboo causing loud cracking like rifle shots. This wind is the prelude to monsoon rains, so we are now looking for a likely harbour position for the night and time is running out. All of us start to smell burning rubber - the smell is very strong which means the origin can’t be too far from us. Now the wind really picks up and Old Man and I confer as to how we will cross an obstacle where the ground under the bamboo is clear and open to defilade small arms fire.
I am determined once again not to lose any of my men to the enemy. So, having discussed with Old Man how we will proceed if we come under fire, I move my section into a defensive position and slowly start the process of moving through this awful area. We cross one at a time and as I move through the obstacle I look in the direction of the rubber smell and see movement. I indicate to Old Man and he gets Colin's section to move around to our vulnerable flank, but the enemy somehow gets wind of us [pun intended] and take to the hills.
We carefully follow up and discover a small shoe factory. Yes folks the Viet Cong were way ahead of us, all those years ago - they were converting old tires into very effective footwear. And today as I look at my comfortable sandals I always reflect on this event and recall this particular incident and the others written in this chapter. Again if I recollect correctly one of the boys kept a pair of shoes as a souvenir.
Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.