In April 1970, in an area about 50 kilometers from the Cambodian border near the famous “Parrot’s Beak”, a sound like distant thunder woke me from an uncomfortable daylight doze.
My platoon was resting from patrolling and ambushing near the border between Phuoc Tuy and Long Khan province. This was well to the North of our usual area of operations and my second operation in the country. The rumbling sound continued unabated for thirty minutes or more. Although at the time we didn’t know it, we were within earshot of the bombing of Cambodia. Scores of B-52s were carpet-bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations many kilometers to the north-west across the border with the ruthless efficiency developed by the Americans after years of practice in a wide range of conflicts.
More than thirty five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of this incident. It also reminds me of my sojourn as a conscripted soldier in an infantry battalion on active service in South Vietnam. I was called up as a young teacher who had lived most of his life in the Queensland bush.
Much has been written about this conflict. Many veterans have described the sad effects of the war on themselves and their families. I'm probably more fortunate than most in that I seemed to have wandered through the experience without too much psychic damage. I've tried to capture some of the lighter moments that I remember in this story, mixed as they were with some incidents that I would rather forget.
The Australian War Memorial record shows 521 Australians died as a result of the war in Vietnam. I don’t know how they or their loved ones would view an account attempting to show something of the lighter side to the war. My belief is that they would regard it sympathetically. This is written with that conviction.
One of the enduring qualities of these men was their collective sense of humour, and their capacity to use it to make sense of the mad contradictions that characterised much of this particular conflict. It was an honour to have served alongside them, no matter how unwillingly.