W3 Company - Service Stories

index of service stories

In Trouble - Jim Mitchell

Cpl Jim Mitchell RNZAMCThe dry season still had a few months to go before the first monsoonal rains of the wet season.  We were still enjoying our time in country.  The feeling of being at the centre of pivotal world events was exciting and we were still healthy from our year in Malaysia.  We had seen no real action and were consequently a little cocksure.  Even the open forest we had been moving through was pleasant though the ground was rock hard and made digging in each night torture.  The one problem in the dry was water.  There was none of it around.  Earlier in the year we had tried digging for it in the sandy soil near the coast.  We got down to about ten feet and gave up.  There wasn't a trace of dampness.  So like every one else we had water dropped out to us in the next MAINTDEM.  Of course it would have been good if we had struck water.  We could imagine the Aussies back in HQ at the Dat and saying 'Whiskey Company are like camels, the only mob in the whole task force that haven't needed a resupply.  How do they do it?' ‘Discipline, Sir, plain bloody discipline' would answer one of the REMF sycophants, ‘that's how Sir'.

When the Boss decided to ambush the Song Rai nobody complained.  The Song Rai was a wide shallow river that drained half of the Province and even in the Dry it ran swiftly and crystal clear over a rock and sand bottom.  Near where we were the River split into two and between the main river and the tributary was a high piece of ground covered with dense scrub.  Here a
M60 was placed looking down on the river.  Just before where the river branched was a well used track where on the muddy banks were imprints of some wandering Charlie's Ho Chi Minh sandals - the ubiquitous VC sandals made from tyres and inner tubes. This crossing would be the ambush site.  Company HQ was downstream in thick scrub in a harbour where we could hear the cool sound of the river.  The first night was quiet but we were just about out of water.  Early the next morning Morrison, Greenaway and me were given the pleasant task of going down to the river and replenishing Company HQ's water bottles.  We set off with our belt kit and weapons and what seemed like hundreds of canteens wrapped in a hoochie, scrabbling through the scrub on the steep bank and onto the shingled bank.  A large rock 10 foot high was where we sat as we filled the water bottles. From there a sandy spit extended out into the river.  I had brought some soap so we decided to have a bit of a wash now that our task was completed.  We took our belt kit and shirts off and with our rifles walked out into midstream.

Everything was quiet the dappled sun played on the water and the only sounds were the river and the birds in the branches above us.  One of us should have sat sentry, I know, but we didn't bother and we were soon lathering ourselves in the cool water.  I had just pulled my trousers up when I looked upstream.  There was movement in the bush near the track.  I put my glasses on and saw to my horror that three men had stepped out from the bush and were crossing the river.  Morrison heard me grunt and looked up to see me pointing at the trio and trying to speak. They were without a doubt Charlie.  They had on black pyjamas, Chicom webbing the whole thing.  Fortunately they were even less ready than we were and they had their AK47s slung across their backs.  They had seen me and the two others and were trying desperately to get their weapons into a firing position.  I picked up my M16 and aiming it roughly at the still struggling VC pulled the trigger and nothing happened.  Greenaway and Morrison were blasting away as I berated myself for forgetting to undo the safety catch.  I flicked that off put the butt into my shoulder and pulled the trigger.  I had pushed the fire selection lever to full auto and got rid of 30 rounds in a second or so. About this time the M60 started first blowing apart the bush on the edge of the river then throwing up great gouts of mud and water around the VC who were, amongst other things, trying to get their weapons into position.  Then our magazines empty we ran and dived behind the large rock. The booming of the M60 continued and then tapered off.

The three of us were laughing at our close escape saying things like, 'f**k that was close' and 'you idiot Doc, what a time to wash your balls'. "Everybody OK?" It was the CSM who had come looking for us when the shooting started. "Yeah Sir, no problems" but I was shaking and would continue to do so for a couple of hours.  I felt no fear when the bullets were flying but after I was always shaky and distracted.  Now I just wanted some time alone and a cup of tea.  There were two VC KIA we found out later and the three of us down on the river were being blamed for spoiling what could have been a classic ambush with beaucoup VC killed.  We caught a fair bit of abuse but c'est la guerre.

Later in the afternoon I went and had a look at the two bodies (the third VC had escaped back up the track). The two young men lay on the ground on their backs.  They were only boys and on the ground beside one of them was that cliché of a million war movies, a wallet that had in it the photo of a pretty young girl.  The only wound I could see was in the thigh of one of them.  The flesh was split and fat and muscle hung out of the wound, but any blood had been washed off in the river.  They looked asleep and I dredged my soul trying to drag up some feeling of pity or regret but all I felt was a sense of schadenfreude that they were dead and I was still alive.  This may show some fault of character, after all we had just killed two human beings but nobody would ever ask us why or how they died. So this was war I thought.  This is what I had read about, but apart from the shock which left me shaking it hadn't been the traumatic life changing event I thought it would be.  We would bury these two and then in a couple of weeks kill another two and so on through the year until searching the bodies would be just another unpleasant, boring chore.

There are those who believe that each time we killed we built up a huge karmic debt that we would spend of our lives paying back until it is absolved.  I believe it in my own way.  Does this sound crazy?  Is it not any more loony than the various reasons that have been floated about the reasons that Vietnam Vet has been plagued by suicide, drug addiction and misery since the war ended.

Postscript

there is an an abbreviated version of this event written by the Platoon Commander involved.  In it the three of us who went down to the river are taken to task for being where we shouldn't have been.  Well Boss, xin loi but we were ordered down to fill water bottles.  Sorry we messed things up.

'I Was There' - add a comment

 

Small Beginnings and Baria Orphanage – Bruce Young

This story is offered as balance to the perception that back home in 1970 the country was overcome by wanker’s anti-Vietnam war protesters.  President Nixon used the term the ‘silent majority’ to describe supporters who did not take to the streets but who backed the war, and this story shows that this ‘silent majority’ also existed in New Zealand during the years of the Vietnam war.

 

Cpl Bruce Young & orphan, Baria Orphanage 1970 [Young]

The story starts in a small way with a letter I wrote home to my youngest sister Julie, then 14 years of age.  I had been invited by Jack Morris [Coy HQ driver] to ride shotgun for a visit to the Baria orphanage and attached school and had observed the less than ideal conditions the orphans, mostly of mixed race [American father – Vietnamese mother], were living under while being cared for by a Roman Catholic order in the midst of a Buddhist community.  For something to say in the letter I suggested she and her friends might like to ‘do something’ for the orphans.  Julie in turn asked my mother, who as an officer of the 21st Christchurch Girl’s Brigade Company decided to ask the 46 girls in the Company if they would be willing to help the orphanage.  These girls in turn asked their parents who joined in. 

 

Cpl Bruce Young and orphan, Baria Orphanage 1970 [Young]

 

I had been a member of the St Chad’s cub pack so my mother also approached their leader who thought it a great chance for his Cub’s to help others and bought it up at a Mother and Son evening.  The Cub mothers agreed to help and enlisted the help of the local Ranger’s.  With more than 200 people now directly involved my small throw-away suggestion to my sister had grown into a community-based initiative to do something for the orphans, and by association, something to acknowledge the efforts of the New Zealand soldiers.  The group of motivated children and their mothers started to collect things, make things, and buy things, with the group making a decision not to send worn-out cast-offs.  Finally four 2’x18” boxes were crammed with new dresses and boys clothes, underwear, towels, soap and all other toilet materials, bandages and plaster, sewing gear, toys of all kinds, sweets, colouring books, scrapbooks, pencils and so on.  A comment was made that the people involved based their help on physical necessities but remembered that everything was intended for little children.

 

The group realised they had no idea how to actually ship the boxes so the Cub leader approached the Army at HQ Southern Military District and the Army arranged for the supplies to be flown to Vietnam on a scheduled RNZAF flight.  I was in the bush with 2Pl when Jack Morris advised me that a number of parcels with ‘Baria Orphanage’ written on them but addressed to me were in the W3 CQMS store.  He happily joined the effort and when I was next out of the bush took me and Baden Ewart [NZ Component] to Baria to deliver the boxes. 

Afterwards I wrote a very fulsome letter back to my family: “I’ve had a wonderful thrill this morning, when I took the parcel’s I’d received down to the orphanage.  I spent an hour there and was shown around again, this time visiting each classroom….  Since the last trip the number of orphans had changed little with 40 girls and 37 boys in residence.  Their pet monkey had unfortunately died just after my last visit…     Three nuns helped me unpack the big box and the other pillow cases.  One nun and four helpers started ironing most clothes and used some of the buttons to repair some of the children’s [existing] clothing….”  Then came the bit which kept the project going:  “The chalk in the parcel was one of the most appreciated items they received.  The reason [I didn’t realise either just how desperate] is that the orphans in school are short of school books, coloured pencils, lead pencils and chalk.  The kids are writing arithmetic in the front of a book, geography in the middle and in some cases biology or science in the back.  There are 30 classrooms suffering from a shortage of the above mentioned articles.”

 

Mother swung into action again, this time by writing to the local paper and quoting from my letter.  The ‘Christchurch Star’ ran the article with a request for people to help the Baria Orphanage and offering Mum’s address for donations of lead pencils, books and other school stationery.  Mum records that the response was ‘magnificent’.  The Star later reported that “Young school children, parents, older people from all over Christchurch and the outlying areas contributed a grand total of 2113 exercise books, pads, notebooks, jotter pads, rubbers, crayons, paints, chalk, pencils, ballpoints, pencil sharpeners, sheets of loose paper, and paint brushes.”  Again the Army was asked to help with movement, and again the RNZAF delivered to Vietnam, this time to NZ Component as W3 Coy had departed theatre.  Baden Ewart and other NZ Component staff then delivered the parcels, receiving a similar welcome and response from the nuns asCpl Baden Ewart with orphans & nun, Baria Orphanage 1970 or early 1971 [Young] experienced with the first donation.

 

Cpl Baden Ewart with orphans and nun, Baria Orphanage 1970 [Young]

 

Baria Orphanage was, I discovered later, well patronised and supported by 1ATF units, primarily because it was in a safe urban environment on the way to Vung Tau, and was a regular stop for the 1ATF Catholic padres.  The general support shown from the ANZAC soldiers kind of rebuts the urban propaganda distributed by the New Zealand anti-war movement that the soldiers were baby-killers and dehumanised by their operational tours.  It also goes some way to rebut the theory that there was little support for the war effort among the general population.  Small though it was in the scale of things, I believe my mother and the others involved did more for the well-being of the Vietnamese people than any amount of protest by stay-at-home wanker’s all talk anti-Vietnam war protesters. 

 

[I have nothing but distain for the anti-war protesters]

'I Was There' - add a comment

index of service stories