Two Short Stories on Frank
Peter “PJ” Brown, 110 Sig Sqn, South Vietnam
(18 Dec 1967 - 19 Dec 1968)
Frank loses another one of his nine lives
Story 1 -
Story 1 -
Frank is a Korean War veteran. He was a large man tall and solidly built, well-muscled, fitting the idea of a bronzed ANZAC that most of us held of ourselves, true or otherwise. Encased within his slightly greying temples was the mind of a cunning barrack room lawyer. Added to those qualities Frank was a devious bastard, giving our military overlords a hard time at every opportunity and we loved him for it. Backed by years of experience he avoided more trouble that he had to explain away although having said that he didn’t rise through the ranks as fast as one might expect.
Frank and a select few of his mates were entitle to wear the colour patch of the US Unit Medal of Honour won whilst he was an Infantry man in Korea. Those that serve in that unit today are entitled to wear the patch and those that served in it at the time wear it at all the times. This for some reason seemed to get up the noses of the hierarchy. However without the skills and experience that these veterans from Korea and the Malaya confrontation, brought with them to Vietnam, we Signalers and other less combat orientated Corps may have suffered far higher losses than we did.
He and a lot of his mates were caught up in one of those cyclic `peace in our time’ episodes that afflict our political masters from time to time. The Armed forces were downsizing. Frank elected to change from Infantry to Signals and take advantage of the adult trade training schemes that were then operating. He changed trade to Technician Electronic and that’s how I came to meet him. We shared shifts and various advanced courses. I was just 21 years old and a total of four years’ experience - two of those were almost entirely full time trade training and the remaining as a shift technician looking after long distant High Frequency Military radio circuits. This experience was one of the reasons I was posted to South Vietnam. I never got to use it but that’s another story.
Frank nearly came to a premature end one afternoon and I cannot tell a lie it was I that nearly precipitated his name onto the memorial wall. The natives were getting restless, they did that, on an off, in 1968, and the powers that be decided that guards were to be doubled and outlying bunkers manned. Frank was suffering one of his periodic rotations back to Signalman, so it came about that I, in the lordly rank of Corporal (temporary of course), and Signalman Frank were teamed up to do the first shift.
It was during the briefing and whilst we were looking at the bunker that both Frank and I started to get worried. It was just after the rainy season and a few months since the bunker had been serviced. As a consequence it had been over grown by bamboo, it was obvious to us that the only clear visibility was back over the camp. Even my rudimentary grasp of military tactics worked out that this was probably not the obvious line of advance for enemy troops. We had bought with us our issue of one machete each and were quite prepared to cut the offending foliage down. Frank took the initiative and asked permission to burn or cut down the offending foliage there probably being a only few meters of it from bunker to wire and after that it should have been a clear observation line forwards and up the beach line. We considered this a hot but relatively easy task that we were all too willing to undertake. Imagine our surprise when we were refused permission! Frank expressed his opinion in what I thought, was for him, and remarkably constrained language. There followed one of those amazing officer me boss you man type exchanges that defy description but routinely litter the path of military yarns.
“Can we clear the bamboo ?” we ask
“No” they say
“Why Not ?”
“I said so”
“Perhaps if we went out and had a look and if we’re have a problem then can we then clear it ?” we try a more agreeable approach. Fat chance.
No amount of logical discussion can convince our bosses that, should we run into trouble. The opposition would be only a few meters away when we exchanged military greetings. This may well negated the point of having us up there in the first place. I mean what’s the point of having a forward observation post if you can’t see forward. And what’s the point of giving them the use of a sandbagged bunker? I hear you asking and well you might.
This was idiotic however we had reached the `me boss you military peasants” stage and the `book’ was being mentioned. You know the one `failed to obey a lawful command’ edition quite a good read if you have time. Frank indicated to me that we should shut up and push off. We started off across seventy or so yards of clear sand to the bam-booed in bunker. He may not have been as unobtrusive with this signal as we thought and this probably contributed to Franks continuing woes and legal discussions. (The bring your own mat type)
We took with us a `K’ phone to connect the `Don 10’ line through to `EMU’ switch assured as we were that every call would be given absolute priority. Yer right. Well considering what we were doing they may well have given extra consideration to our buzz. A box of 7.62 millimeter ammunition in canvas ready to use bandoleers, ten rounds in two five round clips in each canvas holster. Speed loaders would have been handy but can’t have every thing. And finally two extra magazines each. This being the generous contribution of the Q Store who, if one had a suspicious mind and I did, may have worked out that if push came to shove they would have had to bring it out to us under fire. Incentive and self preservation being the mother of all invention they were getting in ahead of time. A few hand grenades were included. Well maybe the grenades fell off the back of a truck.
Frank and I definitely did not have incendiary devices of any sort, I swear. But I admit we were not happy vegamiters. They watched us all the way across which I thought was jolly white of them. Until I found out that they were not watching over us but checking to see if we had machetes with us. We didn’t but only because they had made it plain that that would have been considered disobedience. (We may have remarked, later, that you can’t actually have disobedience until there is an act of disobedience. I notice that some of the older men still seem to pine for the dumb insolence days they probably think things went down hill when the whipping triangle went out).
As we started across I said to Frank “from here on in you’re the Boss”
“understood” he replied
“put a round in” I asked?
“yer” he said “I have a bad feeling about this”
Having already put on a full 20 round magazine we both grasped the cocking handle pulled the working parts to the rear and released. Allowing the bolt and slide to snap forward under return-spring power. This action cocked the trigger hammer and on returning, lifted from the magazine a live round fitting it into the chamber and locking it in place. Basic training required that all soldiers check that the safety lever is on safe before and after this action which we both did. This, of course, did wonders for my normally pessimistic state of mind. However we arrived at the bunker without incident and I hooked up the phone using the two wires that had been left there for that purpose. Wonder of wonders it worked and I reported the bunker manned. Meanwhile Frank took a look around and I joined him. Therein we discovered that visibility was worse than we had feared. We could not see any thing in the forward direction at all. It was bloody hopeless. Frank said he was going out side for a look to see how far the wire was away from our position using these fateful words.
“Cover me Brownie I’ll go out and have a look”. Hey he should have known better. Every where you looked, inland, was either covered in smoke or had green and yellow tracer rounds floating up from invisible and obvious clashes with the enemy. The sounds and sights of battle were all around us and I was still as green as horse dung. Here was frank a very experienced soldier asking me to cover him whilst he went forward. One or both of us had lost sight of sanity. It was Frank and he was about to pay for that.
He struggled out through the bamboo found the barbed wire and followed it to the corner and around for about five meters and discovered that it was only this few square meters or so that was causing us grief. He started back and all his previous trials and tribulations faded into insignificance. He found a trip fare, one of the few that the monkeys hadn’t set off, he found it the way the enemy was supposed to, the hard way. By stepped on the wire trip. In the movies these things just sound like a tupenny bunger. In real life they sound like a howitzer shell.
A trip flare is basically a tin can full of magnesium designed to provide a bright light for a short duration. It is set off by an unwary foe or friend or animal or anything heavier than a spider and sometimes the bigger spiders will manage it. They encounter a very fine wire tied at one end to a fixed object and at the other end to a safety pin. Which when it is withdrawn (by the said unwary encounter) releases a spring loaded firing pin creating a spark thus starting off the proceedings. Or in other words it is a very efficient bright fire.
Fire? In a bamboo thicket I hear you saying isn’t that a bit dangerous? You bet. The flare starts the bamboo on fire, quite a good fire as it happens. In a later life I spend some time with the Bush Fire Brigade and learn to appreciate the finer sides of fires. The bright yellow and burnt orange colours, blending in a shimmering heat haze with boiling grey black smoke. These were not characteristics, I suspect, properly appreciated by Frank at this particular time in his life. Picture for the moment what has occurred, Frank has just caused a tremendous explosion . (I am sticking to that). We are invisible to one another. He knows what has happen but I don’t. From my point of view he could have just been killed and I’m next. From his point of view all is hunky-dory except for the fire and me.His choices are obvious and limited. In normal circumstances he could just step out of the fire to safety. He correctly reasons that this path will led him onto a very nervous mate and possible death by multiple gun shot wounds.
The second choice is over the wire, trying not to get caught in it and consequently fried by the radiated heat. This is of course the design intention of a barbed wire entanglement and if Murphy’s first law is to be invoked then it will probably work right about now. The second law was automatically invoked under these circumstances. At other times the wire is merely an impediment to soldiers returning undetected from a sojourn in town without the (obviously misplaced) good wishes of our betters. Also this choice would leave him on the other side of the wire and in sight of a lot more and possibly trigger happy Signalers.
The other path, around the back is now blocked by the rapidly expanding fire. To stay is certain death to move to escape is certain death
He is in military parlance a soldier returning from patrol towards friendly lines about to make contact with the forward sentry. This is one of the more hazardous periods in a soldiers life. One where a clash of friendly forces is most likely to occur and one in which an alert enemy can gain a serious advantage. There are, of course, well tested procedures that make this action as safe as possible, none of which we had thought we would need at the time. The returning soldier or patrol has to establish that he or they are friendly by following an agreed set of actions and then after being positively identified they are allowed through. All of which takes time.
In this case he has to convince me that he is who he says he is and appeal to my better instinct not to shoot. And do it very quickly fat chance. He approaches this tactical problem with unique optimism
“B B B Brownie” he calls. This is not as silly as it sounds. I may have bugged out, It’s happen to him before. The problem would then be solved however as luck would have it I wasn’t going to desert a mate in need. (it’s still my story). I am stunned to hear my name being called having assumed Frank was dead or captured.
Thinks. `This either a ghost or the enemy tortured him for my name. It was a very short torture session.’ Oddly his voice didn’t sound the same, there was a distinct nervous quality to it and it sounded a few octaves higher than I recall. “yes” I reply firmly and confidently. Contact has now been established.
“OK” I call rather redundantly as Frank rolls out of the smoke like a rotund apparition sort of haeloed in light and smoke. The friendly patrol has returned.
“Shit” he says “it’s bloody hot out there”. He rolls horizontally across the sandbag wall and falls into the bunker where he collapses onto the floor in a coughing fit. The two parties have now joined forces and combine their collective firepower.
All of this probably took no more that thirty seconds from flare to return but seemed much longer to me. I neglected to ask Frank what his observations were.
I thoughtfully, hand him my water bottle and say “have a drink cobber you look a bit hot”. Which was probably the understatement of the day. Smoke was definitely in the air. The fire started to gather strength and move towards the bunker. It got hotter and hotter our eyes watered and it was hard to breath we recognise the initial symptoms of asphyxiation. So throwing caution to the wind we leave and set up our position outside.
Frank inquirers “you got the safety on” indicating his experienced expectations of events as they unfolded. “yes” I reply sereptishisly shifting it back from ‘fire’ to `safe’ whilst making out that I am overtly checking safety.
We both glance back towards camp and are startled to see large numbers of men taking up firing positions and looking in our direction. We also hear the phone for the first time, it is ringing and probably has been for some time. I crawl back in side pick up the handset and answer “bunker”.
“What the F*%#$ hell is going on up there” a voice shouts loudly. At this stage in Australian swearing evolution the F word is not used very often so one can conclude they are seriously worried. “It’s fine were OK” I reply facetiously “ stepped on a trip flare and started a fire” I continue. “Well why didn’t you ring and say so” was the not unreasonable question in the circumstances. It seems that the entire camp was being turned out in the face of an enemy attack. In truth I hadn’t thought of the bloody phone or what the rest of them may have thought of the sight of us, and say so. Although somebody could have popped across and asked. It wasn’t far and it wasn’t unusual for the phones to fail. A lot of angst for the rest of the camp may have been avoided. Pigs have been known to fly.
We wait for the fire to burn itself out and return to the bunker to continue our four hour shift. When the smoke clears, and it does rather quickly, we observe that we can see a lot further and that is obviously why the bunker was sited there in the first place. We are pleased with the unexpected outcome. Every shift that comes up comments that we did a good job. They obviously think we engineered it that way and so do others of not so reasonable ilk.
Unbeknown to us the story of our disagreement with the leadership had traveled around the detachment and probably been enhance a little each time it was told. As I head back to the COMMCEN to complete my normal shift I can see Frank in the Troop OC’s office. I can’t hear what is being said however he doesn’t look happy. Later he explains that his explanation of the trip flare being accidentally stood on is not believed and he is accused of deliberately starting a fire contrary to explicit dick headed instructions. Since I told the original story and he backs it up it is apparent that a formal Military hearing is pointless however there are ways and means to even things up and we are definitely on the bottom of the food chain. Why him and not me is a mystery best left to the leadership manual. Frank is not pleased and the above story may help explain the following stories but then again may not, Frank had his moments and it was best not to inquirer to closely.
How did Frank lose one of his nine lives? Well if you look through the rear peep sight of the 7.62mm L1A1 rifle (AKA SLR), down towards the front leaf sight which has been protected by two offset steal braces. Then, with smoke highlighting a target, it creates a nice halo effect around the subject matter. Quite pretty really, in an artistic sort of way. Make a nice picture?
Story 2 - Frank and the case of the disappearing Pistols
Now as has been previously explained Frank had taken exception to some members of the hierarchy or was it all of them on principal, possibly all of them. Anyway things had been quiet for a while and the boys had slacked off a bit, in the military discipline department, that is. This naturally caused great consternation at the regular gatherings of our military leaders. Or so they would have us believe. There followed a series of equipment inspections and lo and behold some of us were carrying weapons that belonged to other soldiers, by serial number that is. How that should happen to sober well behaved bunch of Australian manhood is a mystery to this day.
We were all issued our weapons from the `Q’ store and any thing that had a serial number were signed for by serial number and became the soldier’s responsibility until it was handed back. There were also other signs of obvious slackness which in retrospect we should ,just slightly, feel guilty over. And that was the boys were not carrying weapons at all times. Still give the bastards a yard and they’ll take a kilometer. So it came to pass, that various warnings on parade and in the work place did not improve matters.
Thus began a series of Military charges (AAF A4 pages were considerately provided by a concerned military administration in books of about one hundred. God knows how much essential beer was diverted from the supply line to put this crap on board). Officially these actions were designed to get moral and discipline back on schedule. The wording on official correspondence goes something like this. You are charged under AMR&O 203 paragraph XXIV, in that (insert your serial number and name in the space provided) did `whilst on active service’ at Vung Tau on (insert date) `failed to obey unit routine orders’. In that you failed to carry a weapon as required in unit Routine Orders (insert RO number and paragraph). The bit about `on active service’ gives a Company Commander or a designated responsible officer roughly double their normal peacetime powers of punishment. This charge usually earned 7 days `confined to barracks’ a punishment designed not only to restrict normal leave (if any) but to put the defaulter on extra work parties. Thus freeing the more well behave soldiers from these tedious house keeping tasks. Well behaved?
As time moved on there was no improvement so the Camp Commandant decreed that this was now a prevalent offence this gave Company Commanders access to the to the much feared `Field Punishment’ and up to 7 days in the Military Correction Prison (MCE). Those that know say the MCE was preferred to field punishment, I guess the ministrations of professionals were better than that of rank amateurs.
However our bosses were as slack as we the workers, and were silly enough to let us see this. Them that considered themselves a `boss’ had the luxury of being issued with a pistol, a considerably easier weapon to carry than a rifle although bloody useless if push came to shove. Still it was observed by the various work crews that Officers were leaving their weapons in the office after departing. This naturally irked us as here we were getting screwed for doing the same thing and they were just ignoring the rules. Or one rule for us and another for them. So in finally came to pass that one of the pistols was confiscated by the duty piquet (one of us) and written up in the log book.
We awaited the outcome with more than usual interest. As expected the whole matter was white washed and swept under the rug. Our anger at this must have reached official ears and to ease back on the pressure they decreed that all was forgiven and this was to be sealed with an all ranks games night. Kissing and hugging amongst solders was still frowned upon under the said AMR&O’s. The actual mechanism for this was to be an Officers Sergeants versus the rest games night in the Sandbaggers Inn. A not too fowl a stratagem and one that we approved of. It is difficult to order a soldier to be happy but that doesn’t stop the occasional fool trying this was a better method.
The games night took place after work ceased and the dinner parade. Mostly this was play darts or skittles and drink beer and or spirits. The night progressed without incident and as closing time rolled closer both parties seemed to get more inebriated than normal and regressed into human beings. The duty officer finally convinced all and general that it was past lights out and we should all leave. He did this by the simple act of shutting the lights off. We depart towards our various quarters when I discover that Frank is not as pissed as he had appeared earlier on in the night. We and a few from my hut had lurked back to see if we could scrounge one last drink. And that’s when Frank discovered that our bosses had departed full of liquid bohemia minus their pistols which were still draped over the gun rack at the entrance to the Sandbaggers. A few guys said they would take em over to the Sergeants Mess and one slyly suggested that we take them to the duty officer. It was probably this that set Frank off but nobody guessed that for some time. We had a general discussion, there’s lots of generals in a war, far too many if you ask me. As things happen the discussion waned, we wearied and pushed off towards our beds which most of us reached. Those that didn’t just made themselves comfortable in the sand and hoped they didn’t get eaten alive by the local bugs.
It was at the morning parade that we noticed something was amiss. The normal parade leaders were missing or at least seen to be hiding out of sight. A few Sergeants were seen to appear from behind the Recreation hut, quickly tip toe across the left flank of the parade into the Sandbaggers and just as quickly disappear back the same way. We were a bit dry tongued and didn’t take much notice until a Junior NCO was designated to take the parade and told to march us off to normal work. This was achieved by a voice from inside the orderly room hut or, out of sight. The actual tasking of a junior NCOs to take the parade was not all that unusual and we attached no particular cause to it other than to speculate that our leaders were a bit hung over and to that we were not unsympathetic. The pistols had slipped from memory like an empty beer can.
It was about morning tea time that we noticed that our buddies of the night before were getting agitated and appeared to be missing all signs of personal weapons. Finally they broke the silence and confessed they had misplaced their weapons. Those that had suffered under the weight of righteous military justice were seen to disappear around behind buildings. From which the sound of non to disguised laughter could be heard. We who had an inkling of what might have happened kept our council. Later we asked Frank who, in a voice of `butter wont melt in my mouth’ claimed that he had just gone to bed with the rest of us. And in all honesty who could say otherwise not I that’s for sure. Lunch came and passed still no weapons. All through the morning our leaders can be seen lifting and poking into things that they would not normally have lowered themselves to be seen at.
We assume that they came back picked up their pistols and once again misplaced them probably in the sergeants mess. We send a volunteer to observe the mess and see if he can solve the problem for them, no they were nowhere in plain sight at least. Afternoon tea rolls around the quiet is becoming deafening. Finally a luckless emissary chosen from the bosses admits that they have misplaced their weapons and if anyone has seen them to please indicate where they might be. Nobody has or more to the point is willing to confess. This is getting serious. Knock off parade comes and passes with no further inkling as to the whereabouts of said guns. The sandbaggers Inn opens on time there being no movies that night the topic of conversation, of course, was the missing weapons. Frank maintains his innocence and since it (the discovery of the weapons) was after lights out nobody actually knows what had happened. One of the troops pipes up and explains that he overheard them discussing closing the sandbaggers until the missing weapons are found. We discuss this startling information and couple it with the fact that we had been hassled for the last five or so weeks about weapon security. Here were our high and mighty bosses asking us for help to find their weapons and no doubt wanted us to keep quiet about it. We were unimpressed!. The night wore on and we resolved to be unhelpful even if we could.
The next morning on parade a chastened SSM explains on behalf of all the bosses that he understood that it was a good joke to nick the weapons but it had gone far enough and if they were left somewhere obvious nothing more would be said. He missed the point, some said deliberately but I ‘m not so sure, he could have been thick. We had been hassled and hazed for weeks over this very same thing. Now, they, our leaders whom we look to for leadership and as an example of good soldiery were committing the same offence and expecting us to help cover it up. We notice that a weapons inspection had been missed from both morning parades. I suspect that if you looked at us from the front of the parade there would have been a few smiles to be seen. It had not escaped our notice, either, that we had not had any visitors from senior officers of the Camp Commandant variety nor was there any scheduled conferences.
This of course had enabled our weaponless bosses to escape detection but their luck must be running out, they knew it and we knew it. Our mirth increased in leaps and bounds. The day moved on and the tension was increasing it was now obvious to all that the weapons had been hidden or stolen. The most obvious culprit was Frank and it was obvious from their body language that they thought so as well. Frank maintained an outwardly calm facade of injured innocence one possibly honed by long practice. We are paraded at knock off time and told the boozer was closed until the weapons turned up further if they did not and an investigation was carried out the guilty parties would face charges of stealing weapons. This carried some weight with us as all Australian soldiers had been indoctrinated to expect harsh punishment for any loss of weapons offence. We started to worry a bit, if the weapons had fallen into the wrong hands then we probably contributed to that by not securing the guns when we first found them.
The discussions continued over a quiet beer, we had our own extra keys. Good heavens these minor inconveniences to the drinking man had happened before and contingency plans had long been in effect. And provided we didn’t make too much noise nobody would know or so we thought. The real problem discussed, and nobody doubted that the weapons must be returned. Nobody doubted that one of us was probably responsible. The problem was the location of said weapons there not being a lot of truly good hiding places and even less that we did not know about. No the really disturbing possibility was dawning on us; there was only one place that had not been considered or searched and that was that they had been dumped down the dunnies. There was not one person that was in any doubt at all as to who was going to get the job of searching these places. That was if or when it dawned on the leadership that this was a likely place for dumping these things.
Dunnies, you recall, are not those pristine porcelain palaces of pleasure that mummy keeps clean for you. No! They are not, or in any case not with our army in the field. They are large holes in the ground. You do get a place to sit even the army can think of that, probably because every one gets a reminder once or twice a day, officers included. You may also recall why the tropics are called the tropics. It’s because it’s bloody hot about 38-40 deg. C, for most of the day and half the night. These things respond to temperatures such as this by emitting a truly revolting smell. If you were just a little off colour then a visit to the dunny finished you off as most of us had found out. The thought of delving into the bowels (sorry couldn’t help myself) - of these wonders of modern building technology put a severe dampening effect on the euphoria of having a beer when we shouldn’t have been able to. We slip away into the night unfortunately we have forgotten to empty the garbage can into the dumpster. An over active senior discovers that last nights empty has been filled with pre-loved beer cans, a serious oversight on our part. One which we find difficult to explain since the inconsiderate bastards question us before sober up time.
We get alarmed when one of the seniors is seen in the riggers hut getting lengths of stiff wire and disappearing into a dunny. We surmise, with all of our engineering experience, that this is a probe and could only be used for one purpose. Our suspicions are confirmed by a senior who explains with a certain amount of malicious pleasure that work parades will be formed from selected volunteers. The object of said volunteers would be to spend all off duty hours searching the dunnies for lost weapons. There being no ration of beer and under the close eye of the duty officer to ensure there really is no issue of said coldies. We discuss the downward turn of events with some enthusiasm. We are in general agreement that the situation had to change; we were in danger of sobering up. And the thought of the next mornings work parade was too awful to think about. We put the word around that either guns turn up or if we have to search and in the process discover who let us in for this and that they in turn would find life difficult.
Next morning, at the work parade, we are left in no doubt that after a short break for real work, we volunteers would be delving vigorously in the shit for the missing pistols.
The deliverance from this task was not due to any loss of resolve, well it might have been. Somebody was walking past the recreation hut and looked in through the window. There’s no glass so there’s no reflection problems. Layout on a table in the middle of the hut was all these pistols, holsters and web belts! How could we have missed them I hear you ask as well you might?