Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Thursday, 25 April 2013

A duty to remember

Coxy, Greenie & the sign

My Anzac Day post this year originally appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser in 2009.

It was written by Graham Cornes, who, like me, was a member of 5 Platoon B Company, 7RAR in 1970, when the battalion was on its second tour of South Vietnam.

Whilst I didn't really know Graham (the time when we were both in 5 platoon was brief), his recollections and reactions are very similar to mine.

It's also a very well written piece.

 GRAHAM Cornes was 21 when he landed in Vietnam in early 1970, a conscript with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. Last month, he went back.
ABOUT a dozen of us from 5 Platoon, B Company, 7RAR, were assigned to set an ambush at the junction of two tracks just north of the Horseshoe. It was an unusual size for a squad because we normally operated as a platoon - three sections, or about 30 men. But the sections of a rifle company in Vietnam were always under-strength because illness, casualties or leave reduced their numbers, so the squad was very probably two undersized sections, commanded by our platoon sergeant. As we laid out the pits, set the machine gun positions, established lines of fire and placed the Claymore mines, we noticed the unmistakeable stench of rotting flesh.
The mortar fire controller, another sergeant on his second tour, after warning us, started to reconnoitre outside our position. Within minutes he and two scouts had located the source: a dead Viet Cong soldier in an advanced stage of decomposition. He was the unluckiest soldier of all as he was obviously the victim of a random artillery or mortar shell. It's unlikely he knew what hit him as he lay sleeping in a makeshift bed between two trees.

We had to search him, unpleasant as it was, which revealed the normal VC equipment - his wonderfully simple and reliable AK47 assault rifle, a sinister garrotte, with which he could silently despatch his enemy, some meagre rations, one of those string hammocks that they all carried, and his papers. However, this time there was something much more spectacular: thousands of Vietnamese piastre, the local currency. He was obviously a VC tax collector who went from village to village extorting money from the villagers or accepting donations from the local sympathisers.
We hurriedly scraped a shallow grave in the nearby crater and gingerly lowered him into it. However, before the corpse could be covered, the sergeant leapt into the pit and, with his bayonet, prised a gold filling from the lifeless skull. "He won't be needing it," he said, as if to justify his actions. So inured were we to such barbarity, that no one thought twice. Someone even laughed.
The tracks are long gone, reclaimed by the jungle, but the question always nags me: "Is that shallow, despicable grave still there, concealing some mother's son?" It's not funny now.
There was more to the story, because all captured enemy equipment, papers and money were required to be handed to the battalion's intelligence officer. However, about an hour later, the patrol commander came to each man and handed him the equivalent of $70 Australian in piastre. Who knows how much the two sergeants kept. Given that our weekly salary in 1970 was $55, including combat allowance, nobody handed it back. Blood money!
Going back
I always knew I would go back. Even when I was weary to the point of collapse; hungry to the point of emaciation; dehydrated, filthy and angry.
Even when I was terrified - I knew I would go back.
Vietnam is a spectacularly beautiful country, and old soldiers inexplicably seek to return to their old battlefields. In the opening scenes of Spielberg's blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, the most realistic war movie ever made, the American veteran stumbles tearfully to the grave of the fallen hero who had saved his life 50 years before. We all want to go back.
However, if it was closure or absolution that I was seeking, I didn't find it.
They said we were the best-prepared and best -equipped soldiers to leave Australia. Our Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Grey wrote: "No unit to leave Australia had the opportunities for preparation that we had in 7RAR - and we had not wasted them. I knew that we were ready."
It didn't feel like that. For the first month we floundered around, sometimes with no idea what we were doing or where we were. One of our first casualties died, not of battle wounds, but of heat stroke because of the ridiculous, ill-conceived expectations of our commander.
Nothing prepares you for jungle warfare. Our equipment was appalling. The jungle-green uniforms were always heavy and wet. You threw your socks and jocks away after three days on operation because they fell apart anyway; our leather GP (general purpose) boots became waterlogged - a sodden, pulpy mass; the Armalite rifle, with its floating firing pin, jammed repeatedly; the barrel of the M60 machine gun, the most important weapon in the section, overheated, wouldn't eject the empty cartridges and often jammed. Our rations packs were shocking and failed to provide basic sustenance. In the dry season, water supply sometimes depended on which puddle in a dry creekbed you could find.
But we had been brainwashed, and so imbued were we with the spirit of ANZAC, of mateship, and of defending this oppressed country, that we didn't know any better.
Our most reliable companion was the 7.62mm SLR (self-loading rifle). It never let us down, although even that was cumbersome in close quarters.
We saw a lot of Vietnam from the air in 1970. Dense tropical jungle, stands of that horrible, spiky bamboo, mountain ranges, oceans of rice paddies, and row after row of ordered rubber plantations, a legacy of the hated, brutal French who started the whole mess. At least they left their rubber - and their bread. Vietnam has magnificent bread.
There were obvious signs of war where the landscape was pock-marked with bomb craters. Then there were the effects of defoliation; grotesque brown tracts of dead forest where Agent Orange had been sprayed. Imagine taking a knife and carving a gash across the face of a beautiful, flawless woman. It was as stark as that.

Read the rest.

Lest we forget.


Anonymous said...

You never mentioned the bread before.

1735099 said...

I didn't write this - Graham Cornes did.

Anonymous said...

Cornesy mentioned the bread and because (as you pointed out) you have similar observations, I just wondered why you hadn't mentioned the bread. I know Graeme wrote it, I was the one who brought it to your attention......duh.

Anonymous said...

"Graeme".....tut, tut...teacher missed the intentional spelling mistake.

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