Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Jungle Liturgy

Given that yesterday was Vietnam Veterans day, it's probably a good time to post this recollection.

Enjoy -

Jungle Liturgy

Infantry battalions were supported in country by a range of people and structures. One important element of this support was the padre. He rejoiced in a variety of nicknames, including “sky-pilot”, “god-botherer” or “bible-basher”, but these nicknames, like the attitude of most soldiers, were generally benign.

There was a grudging respect on the part of most diggers for anyone who was prepared to share the privations and dangers that were central to the daily life of patrolling as an infantry soldier. I encountered a few padres during my service, and was generally impressed. I don’t know if there were any poor quality padres in Vietnam, but if there were, I didn’t come into contact with them. I guess anyone who wasn’t genuine would have been given short shrift by the diggers.

We were fortunate as a unit to have a Father Keith Teefey as our padre, and he was well respected by most of us. I got to know him during April on our second battalion operation, when he traveled with B Company.

During the operation I did a stint as LOB (which meant I was back in base for a week – a job that was rotated through the rifle sections) and I traveled with Keith Teefey back to Nui Dat on an APC. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversation on the APC – they’re much too noisy, but we moved on to a truck at FSB Anne, and I was able to talk to him then.

He had worked in the Darling Downs and this gave us something in common, as I knew the area.

He talked about some of the civil affairs work that he was involved in, and this raised my interest straight away, as it sounded preferable to tromping around the scrub in a rifle platoon. Most things sounded better than what I was doing at this time.

Besides, I was a teacher, and would have given my eyeteeth to be working in Civil Aid, where my expertise was. I began to harbour thoughts that I would get myself – somehow – into civil affairs, and when I got back to the Dat, penned a letter to the CO requesting a transfer to a unit involved in this work. (It was this letter that was partly responsible for my posting to Q platoon later). The response to this was predictable. The company commander made a point of letting me know that he thought this was my way of escaping operational duty, by calling the letter “a load of bullshit”.

He was right about me wanting to get out of a rifle platoon, but wrong in calling what I’d written “bullshit”. I really did have altruistic motives. Incidentally, my platoon commander was supportive. On reflection, it may have been simply that he wanted to get rid of me.

Earlier in this operation, we had moved into FSB Anne after what seemed like months of patrolling. In reality, we had been “bush” for about five weeks. The best part of getting back behind the wire, in a slightly more secure situation, was enjoying a field shower, which removed several layers of sweat and filth, and made us feel human again. When you haven’t had a proper cleanup for five weeks, you become very appreciative of this kind of opportunity.

We set up positions within the relative safety of the base, and began to clean our gear and deal with what the army called “personal administration”. This was code for getting all our paraphernalia back into best possible nick, trying to repair or replace lost or damaged items, and getting stuck into weapons maintenance.

This last aspect was treated with almost religious fervour, because apart from the fact that we had been drilled since the first day of recruit training into looking after our weapons, we knew that in a real sense, our lives depended on weapon reliability. Generally, the SLR was reliable under the worst of field conditions, but the M-16 and M-60 were less so, not tolerating sand or grit. The belts for the M-60s had to be kept clean, or the result was a stoppage, possibly at a very inconvenient moment when the rest of the section was relying on the gun.

There was also time for a different and more conventional variety of religious observance – that of a “church” service. Easter was coming up, but this was to be a simple communion service for all ranks. The place chosen was in the open to one side of the FSB. It was made clear that religious denomination wasn’t an issue and everyone was welcome.

I went along, as did the bulk of the platoon, and was amazed to hear Keith Teefey announce at the beginning of the service, that communion would be taken, and everyone, irrespective of denomination, was welcome to join in, providing they did so in the right spirit. Quite a few of my non-Catholic mates did so, and whilst we didn’t discuss it (soldiers generally don’t comment on liturgical matters in the field), seemed to show due reverence in the situation.

As a Catholic brought up in a fairly conservative tradition, I was impressed by what I regarded as a rational and ecumenical approach to pastoral care in the field. A letter to my parents, written that afternoon after the morning service, explained what I had seen. I knew my father would be interested, as he was something of an amateur theologian, and had a keen interest in liturgical reform, originating about the time of Vatican II.

My dad told the Parish Priest in Texas at the time, and all hell broke loose.

This priest, a very conservative Irishman, reported Keith Teefey to the Bishop of the Diocese, much to my father’s dismay, which began a long-running feud. (The bishop, who didn’t have any jurisdiction in this case, had enough common sense to ignore the report, but it made my father very angry.) This feud culminated in a denouncement of my family from the pulpit. This made dad even more upset, because the priest cast aspersions on one of my sisters who was obliquely accused of giving bad example, because she was enjoying a busy social life in Warwick. My father refused to have anything more to do with the priest.

This was a local issue, as dad was principal of the state primary school, and had at this time two children (my youngest brother and sister) attending the convent school. Looking back, the situation was a good example of the power of ignorance.

To some extent, it was also indicative of the attitude of some Australians to the conflict, an attitude born of ignorance. I remember thinking that the whole episode had elements of farce. I never told Keith Teefey about it. Later in my tour, in Admin Company, I had the chance to travel with Keith Teefey to the Baria orphanage, which had been adopted by our unit. I enjoyed the contact with the children immensely, some of whom had obviously been fathered by American servicemen. The conditions in the orphanage weren’t wonderful, as it was overcrowded and understaffed, but the kids seemed full of life, bright, and very pleased to see us.

We would scrounge all sorts of useful items and give them to the staff, who were very grateful. The diggers were very generous, and would scout around for useful items if they knew they were going to a good cause. It was pretty clear to me that there was an enormous amount of goodwill between the average digger and the ordinary Vietnamese, and I’m sure that we would have spent our time much more profitably in South Vietnam if we had been engaged in civil affairs work, and left the fighting to the Yanks.

There may have been a better long-term political outcome if we had done so. Mind you, one of the reasons for the relative security enjoyed in Phouc Tuy was the superior tactics and field craft exhibited by 1ATF. If the security had been managed by the Yanks, it would probably have been a very different story.

There were a number of diggers who professed to despise the Vietnamese people, but I’m sure this developed out of fear, and was not a typical reaction. The major issue was always that of being unable to trust anyone, as there was no front line, and security was never guaranteed.

Despite this, Phouc Tuy was more secure during my time in country (1970) than most other provinces, and this was certainly due to the superior tactics adopted by the Australian units, as it had been a VC stronghold. As far as I can see, we were light years ahead of the Yanks in this aspect of the conduct of the war.

I was very pleased (and surprised) at the end of June to be posted to Q platoon, Admin Company. Some vacancies had occurred there as a result of Nashos completing their time in country, and I’d always been honest with my superiors about my discontent at my posting, so the recommendation was made, and my transfer came through. This meant that I would live behind the wire in a tent, and would not be spending the rest of my tour (about six months) tromping through the jungle. I had made some great mates in B Company, and felt some guilt at moving into the relative safety of Admin Company, but in the end was relieved at the less dangerous posting. It sat well with my major goal of getting home in one piece.

As it turned out, in short order I was posted out to the Horseshoe to run the Q unit out there, so I didn't stay in the Dat for long. When the QM discovered I was a teacher in civvie street, and could operate a 16mm projector, I also took over showing late run films to the diggers.

I got to see a lot of movies.


Boy on a bike said...

I got to meet a number of sky pilots. Most were very good - quite robust, and able to handle young diggers, but one was as wet as a fish. He didn't last long.

As for the M60 and grit... I carried a 2nd toothbrush in my webbing and religiously (no pun intended) scrubbed the belt and feed area of the gun at every opportunity. The belts though seemed to be abnormally proficient at sucking up gum leaves, and one had to keep one eye on the belt whilst firing from the prone position. Battle drill should have consisted of "up, run, down, crawl, sweep area clean of gum leaves and twigs, fire".

As for your mad Catholic experience, Mum's Mum was a complete anti-papist, and would cross the street to avoid meeting a Catholic (spawn of the devil etc etc). Mum shuddered when our kids were baptised as micks, imagining how her long deceased Mum must have felt about that! Attitudes were so very different back then...

Almost all my instructors and senior officers and NCOs were Vietnam Vets. They were rabid about ensuring that we never picked up any bad American habits. Their opinions of Yank small unit tactics and discipline were quite unprintable.

1735099 said...

There were some very good American units - but they were in the minority.
On the whole, we felt sorry for GIs. Most of them seemed to be draftees, and some of the training and leadership was woeful. Their morale was also poor and there was a problem with smoking grass in some units. Our unit commanders gave them a wide berth.

Pedro said...

It is a bit hard to even start to refute your ignorant opinions of the US Army's method of operations in Vietnam.
You have absolutely no idea of their tactics or strategies because you were a short term junior soldier. Your knowledge of tactics extended to one visual distance in front of you, as much as you needed to know.

US operations at the time were based on overwhelming firepower, tactical superiority based on multi facet support from artillery, tactical air like helicopters, fixed wing, fast movers, high level bombers, even naval gun and ground/air support.

It irks me no end that so called "experts" claim that they know far better than a generation of career officers who prosecuted the Vietnam war to an unprecedented degree of success. I make no comment as to the venal politicians who attempted to micro manage the war, as that would be meaningless to you who believe that the US military is a pack of incompetent bumbling fools.

Have a read of the official history of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam (AWM- Ian McNeill and Ashley Ekins) and see why Australia picked Phuoc Tuy as their AO. It is illuminating, even to the most junior digger, as to why we went where we did, and the political BS behind the decision to go to Phuoc Tuy in the first place.

I never yet heard of a Austalian unit commander who was not delighted to access US air, artillery, or ground support when he needed it, yet you slag off American soldiers even though you had no involvement with them, no experience or knowledge of their tactics and base your opinions on, at best minimal contact with rear echelon units, or at worst rumour and hearsay.

Forty years down the track, it is galling in the extreme to read ignorant and unsubstantiated bullshit about the US military in VN.

I don't know how much time you spent in the weeds or how many shots you fired in anger, nor do I care, but I suggest that you would not be sitting behind your keyboard spewing such vile garbage without the direct support of much of the US military both directly and logistically, you may well be pushing up daisies.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and you are a classic example of why we should never again resort to conscription.

Daniel Mannix had it right, but not for the reasons he espoused.

1735099 said...

"You have absolutely no idea of their tactics or strategies because you were a short term junior soldier."
I know what I saw and how it affected the soldier in the field. I have the right to hold an opinion and share it. You are also entitled to an opinion. How did you derive yours?
"US operations at the time were based on overwhelming firepower; tactical superiority based on multi facet support from artillery, tactical air like helicopters, fixed wing, fast movers, high level bombers, even naval gun and ground/air support."
Perhaps these methods of war-fighting were a mis-match in a counter insurgency. Our encounters with American artillery and air-delivered ordinance were fraught. On the few occasions we called on them for support they did no harm to the enemy, and went very close to cleaning us up. Our artillery was much more accurate, and the Australian mini fire teams (Bushrangers) were much more effective.
"It irks me no end that so called "experts" claim that they know far better than a generation of career officers who prosecuted the Vietnam War to an unprecedented degree of success."
I don’t claim expertise – just lived experience. One of the hard-won lessons of Vietnam is that destroying the large numbers of enemy doesn’t necessarily win the war. It has to be fought politically as well, in theater, and at home, and by no stretch of the imagination was that aspect of the conflict an “unprecedented degree of success”. The American voters eventually withdrew their support of the war, and the same thing happened in Australia. With squareheads like Westmoreland trying to out-politick the politicians this was probably inevitable. Perhaps these same voters became tired of seeing their sons come home in body-bags, or maybe they grew tired of hearing about body counts and disgusted by some of the images that came out of the war. Remember My Lai?
"Have a read of the official history of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam."
I’ve read this, and just about everything else that’s been written on the subject since 1975. I studied Asian History (specifically the history of Vietnam) as part of some post graduate work I did in the mid seventies. This, together with material I’ve collected since (after-action reports and discussion with fellow veterans) has given me a reasonable understanding of how we got to be there, what we did there, and the aftermath. I’ve also been back to the country on a number of occasions, and become involved in project work in SVN. If my conclusions are different from yours, that’s OK.
Here’s a brief reading list that might broaden your perspective –
Vietnam – The Australian War – Paul Ham (Painstakingly researched, and reflective of the soldiers’ experience).
Ashes of Vietnam – Stuart Rintoul (Will no doubt cause offence – but based in interviews with diggers)
Vietnam Task – Robert O’Neill (I read this prior to my tour. It was probably the best written preparation I had).
Long Tan and Beyond – Charles Mollison (Unique because it is a simple tribute by a commander to his men).
The Minefield – Greg Lockhart (Bumbling wasn’t confined to the Yanks – The sad story of the barrier minefield).
And in reference to my unit –
Conscripts and Regulars - Michael O’Brien (An honest soldier’s account)
The Year I Said Goodbye – Peter Winter (Diary of a Nasho Officer. For a while he commanded a platoon in my company)
Contact – Wait Out – Bruce Ravenscroft (Rough and ready, but again an honest account from a digger in my platoon)

1735099 said...


"...base your opinions on, at best minimal contact with rear echelon units."
The contact I had (like other members of my unit) was minimal, only because we kept as much space between ourselves and the Yanks as possible. The saying at the time was that the Yanks “drew the crabs”. The units we did have contact with were not rear echelon. An example was the pilots of the Dustoff choppers who, on the whole were great, although cynics have suggested that they came across as gamer than the RAAF crews because the Yanks wrote airframes off with abandon. I am not critical of the GI as an individual. Given the prevailing culture of the US military of the time, they displayed courage simply by rolling up each day. They were cannon fodder and they knew it.
"I don't know how much time you spent in the weeds or how many shots you fired in anger, nor do I care."
OK – you don’t care, but FYI I participated as a rifleman in Operations Finschafen, Concrete 1 and Concrete 2. From memory, the longest period we were in the scrub without a break was six weeks. Whilst by this time (1970) the VC were for the most part waiting for us to leave, and we operated progressively ambushing and patrolling in smaller and smaller squads, we did encounter them from time to time. For example, we hit a bunker system on 22nd April and took one KIA and a couple of wounded, and had to call up Centurions to destroy them. I can’t speak for the Nashos I served with, but my priorities were looking after my mates, doing my job, and getting home in one piece. I managed all three.
This is my reality – if my opinion irks you, you’re gonna have to stay irked.
"....you are a classic example of why we should never again resort to conscription."
I’m not offended, but it’s just possible that the friends and families of the 185 Nashos who were killed or died of wounds in Vietnam would be. Wasn’t it CMF Militia units that slowed the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Track?
I’ll give you some advice for free – don’t let your opinions colour your judgment of individuals. If my two years in the army taught me nothing else, I learned to respect my fellow man, no matter how different his opinions. One thing I will agree with you about is that conscription is an abomination.
"Daniel Mannix had it right, but not for the reasons he espoused."
Now there was a great Australian. Anti-Catholic bigotry (especially in Melbourne) was a feature of his time. He took it on head-on, as did T J Ryan, Premier of Queensland back then, who enjoyed tweaking Billy Hughes’ whiskers. Interesting, isn’t it, that the people of Australia rejected conscription twice during WW1? The coalition didn’t have the guts to take it to a referendum in the sixties.

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