Converging Paths

prc-25d

A few years before the US blundered in uninvited into South East Asia,  harsh lessons had already been learned by the ‘US military advisors’ when the fighting between the Vietnamese and the French finally ended and they left France’s former colony of Vietnam forever, giving the US and her allies the excuse they needed to take on the role of crusaders for democracy, to stem the spread of communism throughout South East Asia.

Despite all, there was one lesson that the ‘brass’ seemed totally incapable of comprehending; the toughest enemy is the one defending his own home.

Now the western nations allied to the US in the Pacific were back once more not only fighting the VC and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army, but also the jungle, trench foot, diarrhoea, leeches, homemade booby traps and the strength sapping humidity.

Any reconnoitre patrol the VC encountered contained two primary targets; the officer in charge and the radio operator and his equipment. Killing the officer would not stop the patrol. But kill both and the patrol was rendered impotent…

~~~

The sun was shining and yet we were all soaked to the skin thanks to the constant drip, drip, drip from the jungle canopy above us. In other words situation normal given the country’s geographical location in South East Asia. The time was the late nineteen sixties; the location was a few clicks north of Saigon.

On our last patrol up country seven days earlier, we had lost our latest officer in a surprise ambush. It was his own damned silly fault. The young fool was fresh out of West Point, gung-ho and bristling with attitude, not prepared to listen to far more experienced men like our sergeant, and therefore a liability not only to himself but to the rest of us.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense, or in our case, six months on the ground, soon realized that the non commissioned officer in charge always knows the lay of the land far better than most. Plus he is fully conversant with the way ‘Charlie’ fights, as well as how to keep his men relatively safe while getting the job done, unlike the damned greenhorn 90 day wonders sent out as replacements on an almost weekly basis.

Despite having had this simple fact drummed into the stupid jerk’s brain by his instructors back in West Point who told him and his class mates to always take their NCO’s advice in the field, he refused. Consequently he died on his first operational day.

For the purposes of this tale, I have changed the names of those involved out of my deep respect for all concerned.

~~~

Gomez was on point, he preferred it that way. Like all of us Miller was once again exhibiting the thousand yard stare. He was understandably on edge with just seven days of his second tour to go before he rotated back stateside. Greaser shifted his light machine gun from his shoulder to across his chest. Our new ‘LT’, the latest FNG to join the patrol, followed nervously behind him. God he looked like a baby compared to the rest of us! None of us wanted to get to know him. What was the point? If he survived his first patrol, all well and good. If not…

The truth was that apart from the sergeant, we were all around the same age as our new LT. Apart from everything else like all war zones this place aged you prematurely. In all cases your thankful to make it back to base after each patrol.

Sarge followed the LT with me close behind weighed down with the extra belts for Greaser’s  30 cal, plus my combat shotgun and its extra ammo in twin bandoliers across my chest. My own reason for being there was my Prick 25, or to give it its official name – the AN/PRC25 backpack field radio and battery.

For a few short months, while the US military could guarantee to send out new junior officers, it was not easy to find radio operators. So the armed forces of the US’ allies were trawled for replacements. I was fine with normal radio communication, but hopeless when it came to reading incoming Morse code. Which is why I was volunteered. At the time I was a well-built Australasian eighteen year old fervent anti-communist. That was six months ago in another time and place. Now I was muscle, mixed with a little body fat, sinew and bone held together by skin, and fighting fit.

Joe Johnson alias ‘Mutt’ was following behind me watching our six. Our hackles were rising, something was not right. With the exception of our new LT we all sensed it. Ever since we entered the jungle after being dropped off by the Huey, the insects had stopped singing and the birds had ceased their chirping.

Gomez froze. We all automatically dived to either side of the trail and crouched, safety catches off, ready for what his eagle eyes had spotted. Sarge went forward as Gomez indicated the problem ahead, something that wasn’t here before – converging paths. The original path we were sent to patrol yet again, now merged with another consisting of recently trodden undergrowth. A decision had to be made on the spot. Clearly the new path was made by Charlie. Or worse, perhaps the NVA, even though there was no unequivocal intel to indicate their presence this far South, only unsubstantiated rumours.

Where did it go and for what purpose? Unlike his predecessors our new LT, used his common sense and asked the sergeant for his advice, in the process earning himself brownie points with all of us. And so we began probing the new path. We followed it for about two hours before the Sarge held up a clenched fist, the universal signal to stop.

We all took the opportunity to drink and eat something from our K rations while Sarge and Gomez went forward to check out the lay of the land. Within twenty minutes we were once more on the move. We all stepped carefully around what Gomez and Sarge had marked out as potential traps.

Unfortunately for me, I trod on one they had both missed –  a waist deep hole full of punji sticks. To say the pain was indescribable before I passed out would be an understatement despite the morphine Mutt had pumped into both of my legs.

My right leg was opened up from knee to groin by one stick, while a second had gone through the same leg behind my kneecap, with a third firmly lodged in my rectum. As for my left leg it was sitting beside my at a forty-five degree upward angle, meaning my left hip had been dislocated. While the woven mat of vegetation and sticks covering the pit had not given way from anyone else standing on it, because I was carrying the combined weight of man, radio, its battery, plus extra 30 cal ammunition was all that it needed.

The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital. Once any and all infection had been cleared up and I was fit to be moved, I was invalided back home.

To this day fifty years later, every time I climb out of bed in the morning and put on my jeans, or take a shower, those damned ugly scars are a constant reminder of the few months I spent there, along with my permanent limp…

😦

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