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Do not interfere with an army that is returning home. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.
-- Sun Tzu
On arrival in Vietnam in 1966, the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, (5RAR) found the enemy moving freely throughout Phuoc Tuy Province during the night. The Viet-Cong and NVA were not used to being attacked during the dark hours, as the Americans' basically fought during daylight hours.
The Americans had a saying, 'We own the day, and Charlie owns the night'. For the first six months after our arrival, the Viet-Cong suffered serious losses from Platoon night ambushes, set by both 5 and 6 RAR's. They had yet to learn, we were not Americans, and we intended to deny the Viet-Cong and NVA any movement in Phuoc Tuy province, by day or night, without paying a heavy price. 5 battalion had trained hard for six months prior to embarkation, in the Border and Mt Royal Ranges of New South Wales, in order to specialise in night ambush tactics. This, and the actual experience in action, honed the rifle companies into a silent effective night fighting force. Second only, at the time, to the British and Australian SAS. The tiger, was chosen as a mascot by Lieutenant Colonel Warr, Commander of 5 RAR, in 1965, as it represented, to him, how the Battalion should most effectively counter the guerrilla tactics employed by the Viet-Cong (VC) and NVA.
FROM THE FRONT AND BY THE BEST
Included in night fighting was the night cordon operations. They were carried out by 5 RAR during the full twelve months -1966 - 67. They were difficult to implement and required the highest degree of navigation and organisation skills by the Battalion's Officers. There was always the ever present danger, in the dark, of a two company clash, or an encounter with a large enemy force, at least prior to August 18th. The night cordons were eminently successful, capturing over seventy  VC in one operation alone - Binh Ba 7-8th August 1966, and often pulled-off with little or no fighting. The application of overwhelming force and surprise at dawn left no choice, for the VC, to surrender or die. With escape being impossible, most VC, though not all, chose to surrender, thus saving their own lives, and many of ours as well. We of the 5th battalion OR's (Other ranks), owe a debt to the Commissioned Officers, for they were careful to husband our lives. For the night cordon operations the Officers tried something new; they were thinking outside the square. During the twelve months, on several occasions, units of the battalion were discreetly withdrawn, to prevent a clash with superior forces, and the use of air power was made to reduce the risk of heavy casualties to ground troops. This may appear as commonsense, but in other wars the soldiers' lives have not always been so valued. I know I can speak for 100% of the OR's of 5 RAR, who served during this period, when I say, the Commissioned Officers of 5th Battalion 1966-67, 'We were led from the front and by the best.' The number of Commissioned Officers KIA '66-67 were two  Majors; one  Captain and two  Lieutenants.
THE TIGER HUNTS IN THE NIGHT
Misty shafts of light, angled, as if from the leadlight windows of a city cathedral, pierce the vaulted green canopy. Raindrops glint like diamonds, as they fall from the tree tops higher than is thought possible to grow, and they answer rays reflected on a muddy wet forest trail. The glittering remnants of a hot afternoon storm, where god played a prelude for this coming symphony of man's insanity. Soon, the jungle day song is giving way to the night, and crickets pulse their call. For nature is indifferent to mans' purpose here. Twilight now heralds the wailing hum of the mosquito. It fills the ears of those still, sinister, silent, watchful green figures, being slowly swallowed by an incredible dark. Night frogs hesitate at first, like a faulty engine start, but soon they too fall into a rhythmic comforting chorus. Soon, darkness so intense, that eyes are made redundant, balance becomes difficult, and a man cannot stand, but must crawl with hands outstretched, like the ants in the leaf litter beneath this forest floor. Vertical becomes almost impossible to define.
The tiger knows his ground
Where the victim must pass
And if the quarry be hesitant
Watchful, suspicious, the tiger waits
For time is his ally.
At Stop-Group-Left, the Gunners crinkled, wet fingers pass time and again, over the belt to confirm location and angle of feed. His orientation to the killing-ground must not arc more than twenty degrees to the right, or he will kill his own rifle -group. He checks the position of the spare 200-round belt again, for the twentieth time. He knew it would be there, but he will check it again, and again five minutes after that. He runs the flat of his hand along the trigger housing, and in his mind he goes over the stoppage drills.
He knows this machine, this black steel jackhammer of men's souls. He sees it in the darkness like a blind man sees with his fingers. The mosquito's fury abates. The biting of hands, ears and neck eases, as the air cools. A word comes, whispered out of the gloom from the right, "Stand down!". The Gunner puts his hand exactly twenty-four inches to his left, and finds the shoulder of his No.2, to indicate he will sleep first, as agreed. First-shift until 23:59hours. Soon, the No. 2's wristwatch, strangely bright, iridescent, green hands rotate the long hours, like the fireflies, as they rise and fall, flashing their coded signal against the dark. They drift, like ghostly fish in the depths of some black and inky deep. Then all is still, as it should be, as it must be, for the purpose.
THE TIGER STRIKES
The sudden, distant, sound of a human voice comes like an electric shock. An alien sound, it pollutes the destiny of this night, and you curse all men and the fates, for 'tis safest to be still in the dark. Dim lights come closer, moving about as if competing with the fireflies, now less active in the cool of the late night. Sweat burns an eye with a salty drop, and runs down the spine beneath your stinking, mud caked shirt. Sounds, amplified now by the great vaulted canopy, make you tremble with tense anticipation. Dry mouth fear makes swallowing difficult. Your heart races until you think it must fail. Suddenly, a silent, incredibly bright light, painful to the eyes. Shimmering, dancing across the tree trunks now stark white, making leaves look like fingers reaching out. You remain still, frozen in the silent light. The jungle creatures suddenly stop, as if confused by this day that was night. There comes now, a most menacing silence, as though time itself had stopped. Then, as if by some deadly ticking, count of three! "A crashing roar", a crescendo of sound, made louder by that sudden silent three seconds just before. Claymore concussion waves wash over you, seeming to drive the air from your chest. Now the mind is engulfed by a horrendous tearing jackhammer of sound. A monstrous din only God could match, via the clouds, in a tearing sky of lightning. Images now flash; burned by light and sound, so deep they can never be erased, only glimpsed in years to come like some terrible family keyhole secret. At first, double impacts, a voice familiar, distant calling, but startling in this world without words. "Stop-Group; what?" You struggle to hear, but there is only a long ringing echo of that twenty seconds of fear and crashing fury. Soon, a single shot or two makes the jungle hesitate to start again its song of life. Moving figures exchange knowing, furtive, glances as they fumble, with equipment, in this brief island of light, within that dark cathedral of fear. Words can be heard now, low, urgent and clipped, "3-Section lead. Single file. Move out.
The tiger never sleeps where he kills
The forest has ears, now he must move
From this place to a hidden place.
They follow that strange iridescent trail of disturbed leaves seen in the jungle at night. A silent, shuffling, single file. Each man with his own thoughts; For they know, as only these soldiers can, that death stalks the night with a shimmering white light, and a thunderous, crashing roar. Strange, they make no sound after such a crescendo so recently unleashed, but they live in a world of complete contrast of both light and sound. Silence is all that is accepted by these men now. No clink or clank is heard. Each must strain to hear the foot fall of the man in front, or be lost in that immensity of lethal darkness, "out there!" Even the moan of a wounded comrade is resented in this business. In the passing of time, a sinister moaning rush is heard overhead, you count to six, there comes a ripping, crashing, staccato impact that startles you. Though you expected it, you are overcome by an overwhelming urge to drop, press yourself flat onto the earth, and get into it, if that were at all possible. For bitter experience has taught that all things from above are indifferent to friend or foe. They impact the ambush site. The shells rip and tear at the long suffering forest, hurling red-hot metal through the night, and perhaps, those laying still on that damp dark forest track, "back there!" You bump into the man in front, having unknowingly moved quicker, as if to escape the image of it in your mind; but it is still there, branded by sound and light.
On some quiet, reflective, moment in the years ahead, the rippling, dancing white light in the night, or distant rumbling of thunder, will make you quicken your step. You will strike the heel of that fellow in front. You will apologise, embarrassed, make out you are just an old fool. For what can he know, of the rippling, dancing shadows, in that pitch dark cathedral of fear. Where death stalked the blinding white silent three seconds. For he is an age, and now is a lifetime from there.
Dedicated to the memory of my mate, John R Sweetnam, 5th Battalion RAR, who died of gunshot wounds received in the rear screen of a platoon ambush position, at about 2am on the night of 8-9 June, 1966, aged 19:-
"So close, but the hour determined his fate, remembered still every day."
Note: by Bob Cavill, 5th Battalion RAR, SVN 1966 - 67
This Day in History
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The frigate USS Essex
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