Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 14 March 2015


The Bone is almost in the centre of the map. Look for the centre and move your eyes to the left and up.

The older you get, the more anniversaries you accumulate.

Yesterday (Friday 13th March) is an anniversary of sorts for me. The last Friday March 13th I lived through was in the year 2009.  

The one I remember best however was Friday 13th March 1970.

If you will indulge me, gentle reader, I will tell a short war story, triggered by this anniversary.

On Friday 13th March 1970 my rifle platoon was patrolling near the Song Rai (a small river) in Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam.

We were tromping through decayed paddy and bamboo, interspersed with light scrub, the kind of country depicted in light green in army ordinance maps. Our formation was single file, and I was third last in line in the platoon, as my section was trailing, and there were two diggers behind me.

There was supposed to be a fair gap (over 500 metres) between us and 4 platoon which was bringing up the rear in a company move. We were on our first long operation in country – Operation Finschhafen.

We had been resupplied by chopper that morning, so backpacks were full and heavy.  It was stinking hot, we had been on the move all day, and water was being consumed at a rate threatening our meagre supplies. It was about 3.30pm.

I had a specific job to do, and was the only digger in the platoon doing it. I have no idea if other platoons followed the same practice. The practice I’m referring to is counting paces. This was achieved by clicking a sheep counter which was taped to the stock of my SLR. I would, every 500 paces, pass a signal up the line to the platoon commander (we called him the “skipper”).

This was used to assist with navigation, something not straightforward in this terrain, although it was even more difficult in jungle with lots of secondary growth.

I have no idea why I was singled out for this task. Perhaps because I was a teacher in Civvy Street, the skipper had assumed I could count. The task was not a burden, and it helped me maintain concentration, or in army parlance, staying “switched on”.

We had just traversed a small clearing (I think it was called the “bone” because of its shape on the maps), when all hell broke loose.

Rounds were landing amongst us, and the vegetation was being chopped to pieces by this small arms fire. You never forget the distinctive angry snap of incoming fire. I recall it as clearly and sharply as if it were yesterday.

Instinctively, I went to ground, dropped my back, and found what cover was available. There wasn’t much in this spot.

The firing stopped as quickly as it had started. Company headquarters had heard two almost simultaneous transmissions – “Contact front” from four platoon and “contact rear” from five platoon.

It didn’t require much imagination to realise that this was a “friendly fire” incident, and the command “cease fire” was transmitted and shouted up and down the line.

It was quiet for a second or two, and then I saw our West Indian section commander make a crouching run past me and towards the rear of the section. He’d heard our tail end Charlie saying he had been hit.

Indeed he had. A round had opened the left side of his face, creating a wound which would require 76 stitches. He was a very lucky digger. To a lesser extent we were all a bit fortunate given that about 200 rounds of M60 had been sent in our direction by the gunner in the lead section in four platoon.

Their forward scout had seen a figure dressed in what appeared to be black pyjamas, wearing what looked like a headscarf, and assumed be was VC. The reason his greens looked black was that they were soaked with sweat. This particular digger had been part of a squad that had unloaded the resupply choppers earlier and had been sweating profusely. I’m not sure why he had substituted a sweat scarf for his bush hat. 

The wounded digger was choppered out on the CO’s Sioux. We found out at the end of the operation that he had made a full recovery.

We dug shell scrapes that evening for the first time in country. This incident had concentrated our minds wonderfully, as they say in the classics.

I didn’t discover until 2008 (thirty-eight years after the event) that I was not responsible for the the loss of separation between four and five platoons. I had assumed that I must have miscounted the paces.

Talking to my now ex-skipper in 2008, I was relieved to hear that there was a lot of iron in the soil in that area, and the problem was unreliable compass readings caused by this, and not my count.

I remember wishing he had told me this at the time.

An interesting sequel is that if you take the trouble to read the after action report in the AWM archives, the incident is reported as “overshoot” on the basis that enemy were seen.

They weren’t and it wasn’t.


Anonymous said...

In 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour.1

73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds in 2010.2

Anonymous said...

more than 60 percent of the deaths attributable to firearms in 2010 were suicides.

Anonymous said...

Gun deaths account for fewer deaths than vehicular accidents and the US is eleventh nation in the world for gun deaths per capita.

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