The rain had finally stopped as Private John Gardiner made his way back to B Company’s tent lines among the rubber trees at the ATF base at Nui Dat. He avoided as many of the puddles as he could, but the stinking muddy road grabbed at the soles of his combat boots, threatening to hold him fast in its clutching coagulated muck.
“Fuck,” he mumbled to himself. Six more months, he thought. Six more bloody months. “Three hundred and sixty-five days and a wakey”, they had taunted when the Battalion first landed at Vung Tau and clambered into the trucks for the drive to the Dat. Now half way through the tour it still seemed like an eternity to go.
He sniffed the air. He had never got used to smell of the place, whether here inside the wire, out on patrol or on leave in Vung Tau.
He trudged his way to his tent. When the Battalion had first landed in country, it had taken John some days before he could walk directly to his tent. They were all the same, with a half-wall of sandbags surrounding each one, each green, a dusty green in the dry season, a mouldy dark green in the wet, with duckboard floors, hot and humid, and leaky in the heavy rains. Somehow he followed the pathways which were outlined with stones. The stones helped identify where you were on extremely dark nights, when you needed to move to or from piquet posts. He went into the tent that he shared with Bluey and Nugget and flung himself onto his cot, one of the four in the tent. Once more he took the letter from Pam from his pocket. He must have read it a thousand times in the past month.
Shit, he thought. I’ve had enough of this. And he screwed the crinkled paper into a ball and threw it at the canvas wall. Bluey was right, I should have done that weeks ago. Forget her, Bluey had said. Just get on with it. Carry on.
He closed his eyes, hoping to get a little shut-eye and a little piece of peace before Nugget and Bluey came back from having a quite smoke in the Bat Cave they shared with a couple of Bucketheads.
He was just dozing off when he sensed someone coming into the tent.
“Hello, anyone home?”
John looked up into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. The young soldier standing in the doorway was about the same age as John – they all were – somewhere between nineteen and twenty-two. He was tall and good-looking, and when he took off his giggle hat his blond hair managed to somehow maintain its beachside surfie look despite the humidity and the Army haircut.
“G’day, I’m Mike Travers, just got in. CHQ said I was to bunk in here, some shiny-arse just showed me the way.”
“Um, h-hi,” John stammered. He recovered, dismissing unbidden thoughts, “I’m John, John Gardiner. The fellows call me Johnno. Um, that’ll be your cot there. And that’s your locker. They were Smithy’s.”
“Oh?” Mike began cautiously. “Oh? I’m sorry¾”
John laughed, “No, no, not that. Stupid Smithy lost his fingertips under a Land Rover he’d pinched. Thought he’d drive himself home. Got a flat, tried to fix it and the jack slipped. Got his wish, though!”
Mike laughed, a deep infectious laugh, which soon had the two of them cracking up.
“Hey, what the fuck’s going on?” a voice asked as two other grunts appeared at the tent entrance.
“Oh, hi fellas,” said John, instantly subdued. “This is Mike Travers, just in.”
“Ah, Christ a jube. Just what we need.” grumbled the redheaded one.
John turned to Mike and smiled, “Ignore him. He can be a mean bastard. That’s Bluey, and the little bloke’s Nugget. Fellas, this is Mike, um, what was it? Travers?”
“Yeah, Travers. Good to meet you, fellas.”
“Welcome to Paradise, mate. Don’t take me seriously, we were all jubes once.” Bluey smiled and held out his hand.
Next Nugget completed the formalities and shook Mike’s hand. As he did so, he glanced at John. “You two seem to have hit it off, Johnno. What was cracking you up?”
“I was just telling Mike about Smithy.”
Bluey shook his head, “Stupid bugger, wasn’t he?” Then turning to Mike, “Come on, sport, leave your kit there, sort it out later. Just grab your dixie and eating irons, it’s nearly nosh time.”
* * *
Later, the four of them, Johnno, Nugget, Bluey and Mike, were sitting on some logs in an area near the Battalion Lines that the troops called the “Sty”, a small clearing amongst the rubber trees, surrounded by sandbags, where the Diggers would have a smoke and a chat. They were shirtless in the heat and occasionally Mike would notice Johnno watching him, and he would flash a quick bright smile at him. Johnno would turn away quickly, blushing.
Bluey was lathering his lanky frame in sunscreen, grumbling about the heat and his pinkening skin while Nugget and Johnno were debating the relative merits of VFL and Rugby League. Mike sat silently taking it all in, weighing up the personalities of the group.
Suddenly Nugget looked up, “Oh, hi Skipper.”
“How’s it going, Nugget? Don’t get up fellas.”
“Hi, boss,” Johnno and Bluey echoed.
“Ah, you must be Travers. I’m your Platoon Commander, Second-Lieutenant Peter Innes.” The Lewie was a tall imposing junior officer, about twenty-four years old, with the self-confidence and bearing gained from private schools and OTC. He had deferred his National Service until he completed his law degree, and had been chosen for officer training on the day he turned up for basic training. All the Diggers in his platoon thought he was a “good bloke”.
The Lewie reached out his hand to Mike as Mike stood. “No, no, sit down. Make room for me. Easier to find you fellas here than to send out messages for you to come to me.” He laughed, took a cigarette from his pocket and offered the pack around.
Contrary to the war movie portrayals that Hollywood contrived, officers didn’t wear their "Pips" in the field. and the troops certainly didn’t salute them. In the field, to do so would certainly signal to the enemy who was the leader. They might as well wear a big red target on their chest.
The informality of the Aussie troops with their officers was a constant wonder to the American soldiers that came into contact with the Aussies, but that basis of informality built a foundation of trust, teamwork, and in no way affected any form of military discipline. Well, not in the field anyway, but like soldiers everywhere where there was an opportunity to put one over the army, it was taken with alacrity. Pranks, high spirits, and the right to grumble about officers and non-comms were an Aussie Digger’s right.
“I thought Sergeant Blake and Corporal Turner would have already found you.” The Lewie continued as he took a place on the log. “Hang on, here they came now.”
“Fuck, are we in the shit?” Nugget whispered to Johnno.
“Dunno, mate,” Johnno whispered back. “Unless they found out it was you that emptied that piss-a-phone in that Ginger Beer dick-head’s bunk.”
“Ah, he was a prick, wasn’t he?”
“Shh, “ Johnno hushed. “Here’s the Sarge.”
The sergeant and corporal approached the group, “G’day fellas. And you must be Travers. Welcome to the Dat. Lucky you arrived on a rest day, eh?”
“Yes, Sergeant, good chance to get to know some of the blokes.”
“To be honest, Private, I don’t like changes to a platoon in the middle of a tour. But the whole Battalion has sent too many home, one way or the other, particularly Bravo Company. But we’re lucky to have men like you on their second tour. I know your mob did a good job when they were here, but we do things our way, no better, no worse, but every unit works out its own best methods, eh?
“I’ve put you in with these reprobates because you’ll be the fourth rifleman in Corporal Turner’s section. In fact, with your experience up front, I would have preferred you up on point, but we’ve settled into an efficient team, and I’m not changing that. You’ll take up tail-end Charlie.”
“Yes, Sarge,” again Mike nodded his assent.
“Good to meet you,” the Corporal said, extending his hand to Mike. “I know you’ve been down the two-way shooting range, and I hear you’re pretty good with a Slurr, but tomorrow morning we’ll see you on the range here at the Dat. Oh-eight-hundred, okay? And don’t forget, we have a morning parade for your malaria tablets.”
“After parade I’ll run through the SOPs with you,” added the Sergeant.
The Lewie stood, “Right then, fellas. Charlie Company’s back in at the end of the week, and we’re heading out. We need to bed the new blokes in, so the CO’s given us the okay to do our own little exercise over the next few days. We’ll just go a couple clicks south, off the Vungers road, where it’s pretty safe, and run through things so everyone’s au fait with the way we do things in 1 Platoon. Okay?”
The officer and the non-comms walked back towards the lines, leaving Nugget, Bluey and Johnno staring silently at Mike. Then they all began to talk at once.
“You’re a Reg? - Why didn’t you tell us? - This is your second tour?”
“Well, I didn’t see the point.? Nasho or Reg, doesn’t really matter does it? We’re all here to do the same job, aren’t we?”
“But your second tour? Why?”
“Well, sitting back in Sydney wasn’t why I joined up. They asked for volunteers to change Battalions and join you lot in country, and well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. They chose a few of us who had been here before, and so after doing a quick refresher at the JTC, here I am.” Mike flashed another of his quick grins at Johnno. “I take it then that you’re all Nashos?”
“Yeah, we are,” Bluey replied. “It’s about 50-50 here.”
“Yeah, it was the same in my mob.”
“Bob and Fitter are Regs, of course.”
“Bob and Fitter?” Mike queried.
“Bob’s the Sergeant. Sergeant Blake.”
“Yeah, figured the Sarge was Reg. Not too many forty-year-old Nashos,” Mike laughed.
“The Skipper’s a Nasho, though. Out of Scheyville.” Bluey continued.
Nugget chimed in, “And Fitter, well ‘Fitter and Turner’, get it? Corporal Turner. His first name’s Tom. But Tommy Turner is just one of those names you can’t help laughing at.”
They all chuckled, and then Johnno asked. “So you’re a Reg, eh? So why did you join up?”
Mike laughed and said, “Where else could I meet so many good looking men?” And he winked at Johnno. Again Johnno blushed and turned away.
“Oh, good one, Mike,“ Bluey laughed. “But anyway, I’m as dry as a dead dingo’s donger. I’m heading to the Boozer.”
“Me, too,“ echoed Nugget, “Better put your shirts back on, fellas, the mossies will be coming in soon.” They stood and walked back towards the lines, leaving Johnno and Mike alone on the log.
They sat briefly in an uncomfortable silence before Mike eventually cleared his throat.
“Um, look, mate. When I was clearing away my kit after lunch, I found this down beside my cot.” He pulled a crinkled folded piece of paper from his pocket. “I know I shouldn’t have read it, but it was crumbled up, and I didn’t know what it was.”
Johnno looked at the paper in Mike’s hand. “Yeah, I threw it away,” he said solemnly. “Doesn’t matter that you read it.”
“Sorry, mate. Sorry about your girl. I guess you loved her if you were going to get married.”
Johnno looked into Mike’s blue, blue eyes, “To be honest, I don’t know. It was just what was, um, expected of me.”
‘Yeah, my dad and Pam’s dad are business partners. They own a trucking company. Dad and Doug started it up years ago and built it up so now it’s national. They’re talking about floating it next year. You know, going public, listing it on the stock exchange.”
“Must be worth a bit then.”
“Well, yeah, millions, I suppose, and I guess Dad will be even richer when it goes public. Not that I care.”
Mike laughed, “You don’t care about being rich? Come on, mate, not every one can be as lucky as you.”
“Lucky? Me? I’m sitting here in fucking Vietnam, scared shitless. My dad’s got my whole future mapped out for me when I get out. ‘When the war hero gets home’, he says. My fiancee is fucking some other bloke, which shits me, but I didn’t even want to marry her. It was more both our dads’ idea. I don’t think I ever even loved her. How fucked up is that? Lucky? Ha!”
“Hey, mate, we’re all scared here.” Mike’s voice was soft and soothing. “Anyone who says he isn’t is a bloody liar. Look, we all get confused at times. I guess your dad just wants the best for you.”
“No, he wants me to be him. He was a truckie, a tough bloke from the Western Suburbs. He’s what they call a ‘Man’s Man’. He’s built up this empire, and he wants me to one day take it over. You know he dropped me back at the barracks after a weekend leave in his bloody Bentley, for Christsake. What do you think the fellas said about that? Then he gets into a blue with the MPs about parking across the gates, and so he punches one of them out. Jesus, and he wants me to be like him?”
Mike put his arm around Johnno’s shoulders, “Well, just be yourself then, hey?”
Johnno hung his head and studied his muddied boots. Finally he turned his head to look directly into Mike’s eyes. “You know, I don’t think I even know who I am.”
* * *
The next few days were spent on exercise, bush-bashing in what the Skipper called a “safe zone”. Well, as safe as anywhere in Nam could be. Johnno was always nervous went they went outside the wire, even in the truck on the road to Vung Tau for a couple days of R&C.
Johnno watched as Mike fitted into the Section like the seasoned soldier he was. He would watch Mike as he almost jauntily filed along, sucking on a tube of condensed milk that he broke from his C-Rations. They shared a hoochie at night, and Johnno would lay awake for a while listening to Mike’s gentle breathing. One night Mike rolled in his sleep, and put his arm around Johnno. Johnno didn’t mind. He didn’t mind at all. It felt quite comforting.
* * *
In the few days before Bravo Company headed out for the long OP, Johnno and Mike often found time to just sit and talk in the Sty. When Bluey and Nugget suggested a trip to the Boozer, which they did frequently, Johnno always found a reason to sit closest to Mike. It was the same in the canteen, and together they would joke about what concoction, and what exotic animal, the tucker-fuckers had come up with for this meal.
Each morning they would walk to the showers together. The “Ablution Block” was a simple half-walled timber shed near the cookhouse. The showers themselves were camping buckets, those kind with a shower head on the bottom, strung on a length of rope. As Johnno had discovered when he first arrived, the mechanism was simple: untie the rope, let down the bucket, fill it with water, pull the bucket above your head and tie off. Then it was just a case of wetting your self with a little water, soaping up and then using the rest of the water to rinse off. The length of the shower depended on how many buckets of water you were prepared to fetch.
* * *
The sun was just rising when 1 Platoon moved out with the two other Platoons that made up B Company when in the field. The rubbertree-filtered dawn spread a spectral luminosity over the tent lines, with the shadowy outlines of the sandbagged defensive pits and bunkers, and the silhouettes of the Diggers manning the .50 calibre Browning machine guns, ethereally indistinct in the murkiness of first light.
Johnno was surprised that the Company was walking out of the Dat. He had thought that maybe there would choppers, or APCs, or at the very least some trucks to take them to a drop-off point. He turned his head to have a last look to the protected zone inside the wire, and looked right into the eyes of Mike who was following him.
Mike smiled, “Lovely day for a stroll isn’t?”
Each Platoon took a slightly different direction, each heading a few degrees apart, but all heading generally northwest. The three platoons in B Company averaged about thirty soldiers apiece. Officially Platoon strength was thirty-three, but in the field it was rare for Platoons to operate with the full compliment.
1 Platoon soon settled into the uneasy routine of patrol. They would head off for the day as a platoon to conduct “search and destroy” operations. At a platoon level, the lead section would be rotated every hour to maintain alertness.
1 Platoon would meet up again with the Company in the late afternoon and become part of a harbour position where they would dig in. They would then conduct a clearing patrol and stand-to until it was dark. When “Stand down” was given Johnno and Mike would lie on their individual hoochies that they had set out on the ground as groundsheets close by each other, their packs at the heads on the groundsheet and their SLRs by their sides. Johnno always comforted by the proximity of both his SLR and Mike.
Some nights were different though, and they would conduct a "cordon and search" operation. The platoon would set up a cordon around a village to stop all entry and exit. Then the next morning the village would be searched for any enemy or enemy weapons caches. This time out, they didn’t find anything.
At a long stop during patrols Johnno and Mike would get themselves a brew, usually just mixing coffee, sugar, condensed milk and water together in a tin cup and warming it on their hexies.
As they sat sipping the coffee, Mike would always whisper, “How ya travelling, Johnno, old mate?”
“Doing fine, Mike, I’m doing fine,” Johnno would always reply, and always he would think, “Thanks to you.”
Johnno relished these brief whispered words, for mostly outside the wire, it was a world of silence. The Platoon would move as quietly as possible, with even the dog tags about each Digger’s neck taped together to stop them clinking. Any communication was done with hand signals, looks, nods, and finger clicks. For many hours each day Johnno would live quietly in his mind without a word spoken aloud.
The platoon carried only five days of rat packs, with the resupply chopper dropping supplies tied in sand bags at the arranged DZ. The Diggers would quickly unload and the chopper would disappear over the trees. It was always a time of concern for Johnno; the loud clattering of the chopper must attract the attention of any VCs in the area. Crouching back behind the tree line, Johnno packed away his five days of rations, swapping anything he didn’t like for something better. Then what was left was burnt and buried to prevent the enemy from using any of it.
The operation was routine, nothing to write home about; three or four contacts, both small numbers of VC with a body count of three when the platoon came up onto the kill zone of the first contact after the enemy had hightailed out. 1 Platoon tracked them for a while, but they disappeared in the thick bush. During the second contact, the Lewie called in an artillery fire mission. The resultant mess of vegetation didn’t reveal any sign of the enemy. The third was a protracted contact, with both other platoons joining 1 Platoon after about half-an hour. Three wounded in those platoons, but all accounted for in 1 Platoon.
The Platoon had ranged over a variety of terrains. Mostly it was heavily vegetated jungle, where keeping to the tracks meant the possibility of stumbling into an unexpected ambush. Many of the contacts that the Battalion had engaged in during their time in country occurred as units drew near to well-worn tracks. Despite platoons and sections only using hand signals, any VC travelling along a track would hear them approaching, so often the Aussies would just go “bush-bashing” using their machetes. But on the first patrol off track, Mike produced a pair of ordinary garden secateurs.
“Here use these,” he whispered, passing them to Johnno. “They’re quieter and easier to use than that tree basher. Charlie’ll hear you coming for miles if you keep that up.”
Johnno always felt more comfortable when moving, it was the laying in wait in ambush positions that really made him anxious. The Boss would make a decision to ambush a likely looking track and the platoon would go to ground. The long hours alert and on edge, particularly at night, were nerve-racking, but Mike would always be there, giving Johnno a smile or an encouraging thumbs up.
Frequently, as they patrolled through the dense foliage, Johnno would look behind, and there would be Mike, smiling that bright smile, and protecting Johnno’s back.
When they came upon a rubber plantation, a shadowy and perilous place of uniformly sited trees that offered clear fields of fire for any hidden VC, there was Mike off to Johnno’s left and slightly behind. Whenever Mike caught Johnno’s brief turn of the head to check Mike’s whereabouts, he would again smile, or just nod his head grinning.
Occasionally they would need to cross a rice paddy. Open and exposed, and yards from any real cover, rice paddies scared the crap out of Johnno. The Section would usually cross in an arrowhead formation, and as Johnno looked across at Mike, Mike would give him a thumbs up.
At the end of the OP they made it to the LZ to Johnno’s relief, and waited for the choppers to extract them. Finally back home, inside the wire at the Dat, Johnno and Mike walked back from Eagle Farm to the Battalion lines.
“Well, that was fun wasn’t it, sport?” Mike said, slapping Johnno on the butt.
* * *
The next few days were spent in cleanup, which was always a chore, but this time it was a little more difficult as it had rained heavily while the Company was on patrol, and the support company hadn’t done a great job on replacing sandbags, torn tarps or drying out now mildewed gear around the lines. So, as well as sorting out all the kit from the patrol, there was extra work to do around the company lines. However the promise of some R&C in Vungers kept the platoon on task.
On the morning they headed into Vung Tau Johnno made sure there was an empty space next to him on the seat in the truck.
“Hey, Mike! Up here!” Johnno called.
“Hey thanks, sport.” Mike said as he settled himself in place, and flashed another of his brilliant smiles at Johnno. Johnno smiled back.
As the Dat escort passed the convoy onto the Vung Tau escort at “Checkpoint Charlie” on the half way mark of the Vungers Road, Mike studied Johnno’s face.
“You look a little nervous, mate. How ya travelling?”
‘Um, I’m okay.” Johnno stammered. “Um, I mean I always get a little nervous outside the wire.”
“What say you and I dump the others when we get to Vungers and just spend a little time, just the two of us.”
“Yeah, um, yeah, I’d like that.” Johnno smiled timidly.
* * *
After dropping their kit at the Peter Badcoe Club, the R&C Centre at Back Beach, they tried to ditch Nugget and Bluey, but were coerced into exploring the shops, markets, bars and possibly the brothels of Vung Tau with the other two riflemen. However in the crowded streets, Johnno and Mike managed to lose them, and circled back to the Badcoe Club, grabbed their towels and headed for the beach.
Not many words passed between them as they walked down to the beach and swam in the tepid surf. Afterwards Johnno layed down on his towel and closed his eyes against the bright sunshine. As a shadow passed over him, he opened his eyes to see Mike standing over him.
With the sun behind him, the glow around Mike’s head turned his blond hair a shimmering gold and created a dazzling halo that made Johnno squint. Johnno shaded his eyes and lay there on the sand transfixed, mesmerised by the bronzed apparition that stood over him. He watched, hypnotised, as a rivulet of seawater trickled down Mike’s chest, over his taut stomach, and snaked its way towards his brief black Speedos.
Mike dropped to his towel next to Johnno. Johnno sat up and they faced each other.
“Mate,” Mike began. “I think we need to talk.”
“Well, let’s see. Where to start? Look, let me ask you this. Do you like girls?”
‘Um, yeah, I guess so.”
“Mate, I think you were actually glad your girl called it off. You once said to me that you don’t know who you are. I think you do know, so I’ll ask you this, do you like men?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, I’ve noticed you watching me in the showers, and doing little things like making sure there’s always a seat next to you. I was awake, you know, when I put my arm around you in the hoochie on that first exercise. You didn’t seem to mind.” Mike smiled at Johnno and looked him in the eyes. ”I like you, Johnno.”
Johnno blushed and tapped him on the biceps with a fist, “Well, mate, I like you, too.”
”No, John, I mean, I really like you. Look, I’m sticking my neck out here, but um, have you ever had a… well, a sexual experience with a man?”
Johnno again blushed, and studied his toes. “Well, to be honest.” He said softly and slowly. “There was some mutual masturbation at boarding school. You know, just kids’ stuff.”
“Johnno, I think you’re beautiful, and I think you’d like more than just kids’ stuff,” Mike glanced around. There were Diggers in the surf, some on the Club’s surfboards in the meagre waves, a few scattered along the beach, but none were paying any attention to Mike and Johnno. Quickly Mike cupped Johnno’s cheek with his hand and kissed him hastily on the lips. Even in the hot, humid air, Johnno shivered. And he liked the feeling.
“Come on, love,” Mike stood up. “I know a place we can go.”
* * *
Mike led Johnno to a side street not far from Back Beach, and as they were about to enter the shabby single story building, Johnno grabbed Mike’s arm. “Hey, this is a brothel. What are we going to a brothel for?”
“It’s okay, mate,” Mike laughed. “We’re not here for the girls. I know someone here, and we can get a room for ourselves. Look, we can’t get caught, you know that. But two Aussie Diggers going into a brothel, who’s going to question that?”
“Mister Mike, it’s you!” a middle-aged Vietnamese woman called as they entered the front room. She giggled like a schoolgirl as she gave Mike a hug and a kiss full on the lips. “Long time, no see. I think you go home.”
“I did, Kim-Ly, but I came back.”
“You come back for me, Mister Mike? You Aussie Number One.” Kim-Ly giggled. “Or you come back for one of my number one girls?”
Mike laughed, “I thought you knew me better than that!”
“Oooh, I know, I know. So who is handsome man with you?”
“Kim-Ly, this is my friend Johnno. Say, can we have a room? And no, no girls.” Mike slipped the woman a handful of notes.
“Sure, sure, Mister Mike. You come this way.” And she led them along the corridor towards the bedrooms at the rear.
Mike took Johnno’s hand as he opened the bedroom door. They paused at the threshold, smiled at each other and went in.
* * *
They got back to the Club just before curfew, and as they approached the front steps, they heard voices calling from the top balcony above to their left.
“Hey, where’s ya been?”
“Shit, it’s Bluey and Nugget,” Johnno whispered to Mike.
“It’s alright, just act normal. Just carry on.” Mike slapped Johnno on the back.
“Do youse all wanna beer?” Nugget called.
“Yeah, mate, we’re coming right up.” Mike shouted back, waved, and jauntily ran up the steps into the Club.
* * *
A couple of days after their first intimate time together in the back room of the Vung Tau brothel, Mike came to Johnno with the news that he had found a place for them.
“A place for us?” Johnno questioned. They had been surreptitiously scouting around to seek out somewhere private. The Battalion area was like a small village with its own CHQ buildings, canteen, boozer, store, post office, cinema, helipads, even a Salvation Army tent and chapel. But until now they hadn’t been able to find any place where they would feel safe from prying eyes and inquisitive Meat Heads.
“Yep, I’ve got a way into the Q-store.” Mike beamed. “You wouldn’t believe it. I just picked up some new webbing, you know my old lot was falling apart, and well, as I was leaving, the Quey was locking up, and¾” Mike burst out laughing. “He bloody put the key under a rock near the door! Fair dinkum!”
“You’re bloody kidding? What are those Pogos thinking?” Johnno was incredulous.
“It’s God’s Honest, love. I guess they leave it there so different rostered Queys can open up. But it’s great for us. Piles of lovely soft camo nets. How about we slip away after nosh tonight?”
* * *
The next few months flew by for Johnno. There were the regular patrols and operations that Johnno no longer feared so much as Mike was always behind him, smiling, encouraging, winking and occasionally blowing a sly kiss. Still it was never fun beyond the wire, and there had been some casualties throughout Bravo Company. Johnno’s own section lost Shorty Jones, one of their two scouts, in a heavy company engagement that also left three wounded in the other platoons. The Sky Pilot said a few words about Shorty at the Parade when they were back behind the wire, there was a prayer or two, and after the CO had dismissed the Company Sergeant Blake called Fitter’s Section together. He told the Section what a good soldier Shorty had been and how he would be missed, and that was it. He dismissed the Section with the words, “Carry on.” And so they did.
Inside the wire there was numbing routine of inspections, paludrine parades, perimeter patrols, piquet duty, and range practice. There were the lighter times with beers at the Boozer, often a barbecue dinner, sometimes a movie, or even a concert at Luscombe Bowl. There was the occasional excitement as some animal set off a landmine outside the perimeter or the intermittent artillery fire from the field regiment in support of operations. And of course, always, there was Mike.
As often as they could, they met at the Q-store, arriving and leaving separately. After their passionate love-making they would lay back on the camo nets and talk until it was time to get back to their tent.
One night as Mike tenderly trailed his fingertips along Johnno’s stomach, he looked intensely into Johnno’s eyes and whispered, “I love you Private John Gardiner.”
Johnno felt tears well in his eyes and replied, “I love you, too, Private Mike Travers.”
“We need to talk, love,” Mike’s mood changed to one of seriousness. “We’ve been lucky, we haven’t been sprung. We’d really be in the shit, if we had. But we can’t carry on too recklessly. Look, there’s only a few weeks of our lot’s tour to go. We need to be careful.”
“Yeah, Fitter reckons the patrol coming up next week is the last one for us.”
“Get through that, love, and we’re home.” He gave Johnno a hug. “But you’re out of the green machine when you get back aren’t you? Whatcha going to do? Go back to work with your Dad?”
Johnno sat up. “No, I’m not. I’ve been thinking that you’ve still got four years to go, so I’m going to sign on, too.”
“Really, love? That’ll mean we can still be together.”
“Yeah, maybe we could live off base, and get a flat together.”
“I’d like that.” Mike smiled, and kissed Johnno on the cheek. “I’d really like that.”
* * *
Bravo Company moved out for their last operation, a sweeping patrol east of the Dat.
The first few days were uneventful, but on the afternoon of the sixth day, as the Platoons were patrolling apart from each other heading generally eastward, 1 Platoon approached a large abandoned rubbertree plantation.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the jungle was beginning to reclaim its own with new vegetation filling in the cleared spaces between the rubber trees. At some time it had obviously been the scene of an artillery bombardment with fallen logs and splintered trees, with the thickening undergrowth tangled about them.
The sky darkened as a thunderstorm threatened. Second-Lieutenant Peter Innes called a halt on the edge of the plantation and scanned the area as thoroughly as he could through the gloomy shade. He posted two piquets at the edge of the undergrowth and the remainder of the Platoon retreated a few metres back into the thicker foliage for a well-earned break.
Like the others in their section, Johnno and Mike quickly got their hexies alight and as they prepared a brew the Lewie came over to them followed like a faithful puppy by the Platoon Sig, “Macca” McNeill, the Lewie’s radio operator.
“Make it quick, fellas. We’re not staying long.” The Lewie said quietly.
“Like to share, Boss?” Mike asked. The Lewie smiled, took the offered steel cup and sat down with them.
As he took a sip the Sergeant came up to him. “Boss, just checked up front. The piquet reported some movement about seven hundred metres along on the south side. I’ve confirmed though it’s 2 Platoon. They’re moving through the plantation heading north-east.”
“Righto then, Tom.” The Lewie looked at his map. One of the most important skills required of the Platoon Commander was accurate map reading to ensure access to backup, artillery fire and air support, casevac, and reaching RVs and LZs on time. “Ah, I see what they’re doing. They’re coming back on track for tonight’s RV. Once we cross the plantation we need to head north-east, too.”
Johnno said to the Lewie. “So Skipper, only tonight to go and then to the LZ. And then it’s all over.”
“Yep, be back at the Dat tomorrow night, then a fortnight’s pack up, and back to good old Oz. But now’s not the time get complacent, fellows. Keep sharp, eh?”
Just as they settled into a comfortable silence sipping their brew, the sound of shots echoed across the plantation, and Macca’s radio crackled, “Contact. Dust-off.”
“Christ, it’s 2 Platoon,” Lewie shouted. “Come on, fellows, let’s move.”
“Move! Move!” the Sergeant shouted. Johnno dropped his brew, picked up his pack and SLR, and followed the rest of the platoon into the plantation. 2 Platoon was now almost a click ahead, but Johnno could clearly hear the ratta-tat-tat of 2 Platoon’s M60 machine guns, the crack-crack-crack of their SLRs, the thump of a grenade and the answering thwacks of VC AK-47s.
Johnno’s Platoon moved quickly through the plantation, crouching, running, pausing behind the cover of a tree, or hunkering down momentarily behind a log before scampering across clear ground to thicker vegetation. All the while the noise of battle, the clatter of gunfire, grew louder and to Johnno, more frightening.
They came up on 2 Platoon, who were spread out across about twenty metres laying behind fallen logs or crouching as best they could behind the thin rubber trees, firing ferociously at the jungle edge about fifty metres in front. As they edged closer to join 2 Platoon’s firing line, Johnno could see the Platoon medic bending over a prone Digger. The bloody trail in the dust, and the red drops on the green leaves, showed where the medic had dragged the Digger to this more protected cover. Johnno looked again and saw two other slumped bodies in the open space.
“Down! Get down!” Mike was shouting in Johnno’s ear, the clamour of the firefight resounding in his head, making even shouted words hard to hear. Johnno dropped behind a log, then raised himself up on an elbow to peer beyond the edge of the plantation into the thickening jungle where the VC lay hidden. He saw 2 Platoon’s Commander, Second-Lieutenant Thompson, stand with field glasses raised to his eyes and a plastic covered map in his hand. Johnno realised he was trying to get a better sense of position and coordinates to call in an artillery fire mission. Then Thompson’s head exploded, and pieces of skull and brain splattered into a rubber tree.
“Oh, fuck! Shit!” Johnno ducked down.
Mike was a few feet from Johnno leaning over the log firing his SLR. “You right, Johnno?”
Johnno nodded and again peered over the log. He could make out some movement in the vegetation at the edge of the plantation, raised his rifle and let go a few rounds. They were immediately answered. Johnno could now make out some figures within the foliage, and from the amount fire being directed at the two Aussie platoons it seemed they had encountered a force of about the same size as their own. Their latest intelligence briefing had suggested that there were few North Vietnamese regulars in this sector of Phuoc Tuy. But that didn’t matter much, the Viet Cong were well trained and just as dangerous. Johnno hoped that the VC had been moving through the area when they had stumbled on 2 Platoon, and not that 2 Platoon had stumbled on a VC bunker system. He hated those. “Fuck!” he muttered to himself, and continued to fire at the shapes in the foliage.
Just then Fitter crawled along the line. “The Lewie wants us to spread out to the right. Get going.”
“I’ll lay some cover while you cross over, Johnno, “ Mike said. “Then I’ll follow.”
Johnno ran across the open ground and dived behind a log about thirty metres away. Even above the general noise of the firefight he could identify the sound of Mike firing at the VCs position. As Johnno briefly lay there catching his breath and then began to fire his SLR, emptying his magazine, to cover for Mike. But Mike didn’t follow.
Johnno looked around desperately, but couldn’t see Mike anywhere. “Where the fuck are you, Mike?” he whispered hoarsely under his breath. He changed magazines and began to fire again. Time lost all meaning, and if you had asked him how long he was firing he would not have been able to tell you.
After a time, the whistling-whoosh of an artillery round above his head caused him to instinctively hug the ground and a fraction of a second later the thump and crack as the shell exploded on the VC position. Then there was another, and another. The battery at the Horseshoe Fire Base had ranged in and now a full battery fire mission was raining down.
Johnno’s face was buried as far as he could into the earth. The thump of the artillery barrage reverberated through the earth and vibrated through his chest. The whole earth was shaking. The explosions like rolling thunder assaulted his ears. Then a boom that felt like it was either right on top of him or right underneath him. He couldn’t tell.
“Bloody hell, that was close.” Johnno desperately prayed that the gunners kept on target, and the shells didn’t fall short. “Drop-shorts,” he thought. “Christ, they call gunners ‘drops-shorts’. Mike, Mike, where the hell are you?”
Somehow, sometime, Johnno realised the fire mission had stopped, there was a burst from an M60, a single crack of an SLR, and then silence. He lifted his head from the ground, and hauled himself up on one knee, fitted the butt of his SLR to his shoulder and scanned along the sights as he panned the rifle the length of the jungle edge.
The place was a mess, as if ravaged by angry giants. Trees were snapped in half, bamboo shattered and shredded, with bushes, shrubs, foliage strewn furiously about in a chaotic jumble as if a dozen garbage trucks had been lifted upside down by those angry gigantic hands and their putrid vegetation loads dumped wrathfully on the pitted, pock-marked ground.
A thin haze of smoke and dust hung lazily in the thick humid air, and through it Johnno could dimly make out the Aussie Diggers cautiously making their way forward towards the tangled shambles of the VC position.
Bluey came up behind Johnno, “Come on, the Lewie wants our section up front. The nogs that survived that shitfight have scampered, but we’re going after them.”
“What about Mike? Have you seen Mike?”
Bluey could hear the desperation in Johnno’s voice.
“Settle down, mate. Listen, he’s probably already heading out.”
“No, no. He wouldn’t leave me. I’m going to look for him.” And Johnno dashed back towards where he had last seen Mike. Bluey sprinted after him.
When Johnno reached the spot the first thing he saw was a boot sticking out from under a bush. He pulled the bush aside and looked down at Mike. Mike was grasping his abdomen and blood was oozing through his fingers. He looked up at Johnno and smiled.
“Shit! Shit! Help!” Johnno shouted, and dropped to one knee beside Mike.
“It’s alright mate, I’ve got the kit.” Bluey knelt next to Johnno, urgently ripped open the med kit and handed him some dressing. "Get a field dressing on. The Dust Off was called when 2 Platoon called contact. They’ll be here soon. I’ll head for the clearing to guide the Medic back, okay?”
Johnno looked up at Bluey. Bluey shook his head, but said to Mike, “You’ll be okay, mate, it’s just a scratch".
“It’s so cold…” Mike’s whispered voice trailed off as Johnno bent over him, pressing the field dressing over the gaping wound in Mike’s stomach.
Even here in the middle of this shady abandoned plantation the hot, humid jungle air was oppressive and stifling. The sweat from Johnno’s brow trickled down his cheek and dribbled into the red rivulet that oozed from Mike’s abdomen, darkening Mike’s jungle greens, then to drip into the puddling red-brown earth.
“You’ve going to be fine mate, you’re going to be fine.” He urged, all the while chanting in his mind, “Oh, God. Oh, God.”
Johnno lifted his head at the sound of the chopper as it whoomp-whoomped its way over the trees. The downdraft from its rotor flattened the grasses and sent a cold breeze rushing and buffeting over him.
Johnno looked down at Mike, “It’s okay, it’s okay, they’re here.”
Mike’s bright blue eyes dimmed, and the sparkle faded. He stared up at Johnno, his eyes now cold and dark.
The Huey landed in a clearing some two hundred metres away and it was some minutes before Bluey hurried the Casvac Medic to the huddled Diggers. The medic pushed Johnno out of the way and bent over Mike, then slowly he turned and said, “Sorry, fellows, he’s gone.”
Bluey put a hand on Johnno’s shoulder. John shivered. “Sorry, Johnno, I know he was a mate.”
Johnno stood there in the clearing with the hot Asian sun beating down as his tears mingled with his sweat. He had never felt so cold in all his life.
The Platoon Sergeant came towards to the group and called “Come on, boys, we need to move.”
Bluey pointed down at Mike’s still form, “Give us moment, will ya, Sarge?”
The Sergeant came closer, “Oh, shit, another one. Sorry, boys, I didn’t know. Look, attach yourselves to 2 Platoon, they’re staying here to wait for the APCs to arrive.”
“Thanks, Bob,” Bluey said and turned back to Johnno to again place his hand on Johnno’s shoulder.
The sergeant looked from one to the other, and at the Medic and Mike, and said softly, “Alright. Alright, carry on.”
* * *
The last few weeks of the Battalion’s tour passed in a numbed blur for Johnno. He functioned mechanically, did as he was told, and in quiet times simply lay on his cot, stared at the canvas roof and waited for the world to stop.
All the packing was done, the troops had put their personal trunks in the Bravo Company HQ area for transfer and the Battalion held it’s final parade at the Dat, the Farewell Parade.
Then it was “wakey”, the day for which the Battalion had been waiting for three hundred and sixty-five days. Bluey and Nugget helped Johnno gather up his personal webbing, weapon and pack. Johnno took a final look at the empty fourth cot and thought briefly about the ninety-four wounded and twenty-six killed in the Battalion’s year in country. He pictured one Digger in particular.
“How ya travelling, Johnno, old mate?” a voice interrupted his thoughts.
Johnno turned quickly, smiled and was about to say, “Doing fine, Mike, I’m doing fine” when he realised it wasn’t a blonde haired bronzed apparition, but simply Bluey.
“I said, how are ya travelling? You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, mate.”
“Come on then, “Bluey urged. “We need to move.”
1 Platoon made their way to join the rest of A Company at the pad and the waiting Chinooks. They landed on the deck of the carrier out to sea off Vung Tau, handed in their weapons and ammo and set off to find their bed spaces for the trip home.
A few days into the trip Sergeant Blake and Corporal Turner found Johnno, Nugget and Bluey dozing in their hammocks.
“Don’t get up fellows,” the Corporal said. “Well, we’re nearly home, fellows. Plain sailing from here on for you lot. Only a month or two before you leave this man’s army. When we get back, you’ll have some leave, then you’ll probably sit around playing cards back at our barracks, maybe some range practice, an exercise to help another lot that will be going over, paint some rocks, and some guard duty.” He laughed.
“Sounds wonderful,” Bluey chuckled.
“Boring. Send ya crazy, that would.” Nugget asserted.
“Well,” said the Sergeant. “That brings up something that the brass insists I ask you. Who would like to sign up as a Regular?’
Bluey and Nugget guffawed. “You’re fucking kidding” … “No fucking way!”
“I had to ask. What about you Gardiner? You’re quiet. Going to leave us?”
Johnno simply nodded his head.
“So what are you going to do when you get out?”
Johnno pulled himself out of the hammock, took a deep breath and looked the Sergeant in the eyes. “I’ll do what’s expected of me, Sarge. I’ll work for my father and just carry on.”
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual persons or events is purely coincidental. The author acknowledges “literary licence” in regard to any military operation, method or technique and concedes to any inaccuracy in the portrayal of such military operations, methods or techniques.