Murray Blake (Australian Army), Enemy Bunkers
During the Vietnam War, Australian soldiers encountered thousands of hidden underground enemy bunkers. Murray Blake recounts the dangerous work of clearing them.
When Murray Blake left for Vietnam in 1969, he was an officer commanding D Company, 5th Battalion. But his thoughts were like those of any other soldier.
"Say goodbye to your family not knowing when you're going to see them again, or if you're going to see them again. A very difficult thing to do. I always have been optimistic in the sense that nothing would happen to me, I wasn't worried so much about being killed, I mean you can't do anything about that, I think the thing in the back of all soldiers' minds was being maimed."
Murray's company took part in many operations, but attacking and clearing enemy bunker systems was probably the most hazardous.
"Always tell a bunker system because you would see trees that had been cut down and attempts at camouflage, and there were usually tracks and if they were there you could smell something and there was that feeling that just the tinging in your spine; you knew that it was dangerous territory."
The battalion contacted over 8,000 bunker systems during the Vietnam War. Each one was an unknown, underground maze. In April 1969, D Company was sent out to locate and destroy an enemy headquarters. What they encountered was a bunker system.
"We got into this system late in the evening and it was brand new, but didn't appear to be occupied. Very big and freshly dug. I went to map the bunker system, to draw a diagram so we had some notion of how big it was; I needed to report it. And they were kind of narrow these bunkers, and I used to wear a belt with my water bottles and ammunition pouches, so I couldn't get in. I was taking the thing off, get in there, put it back on.
I got fed up with this after a while so I just dropped my belt; I had my rifle, my Armalite under one arm, and a torch and a red china graph pencil and I was drawing this diagram on my hand, my left hand. And I heard a noise. I looked up and just, oh, maybe five metres away here's a guy about to take a bead on me.
So I seemed to do lots of things at once. Threw my torch away and the pen, tried to get my rifle from my right hand back over and cock it, fire, and at the same time he's firing at me. And that all kind of happened very quickly. And then there was silence. I picked up my torch, I never did find my pen, and gingerly sort of wandered in. There was a little bit of blood there, maybe I'd nicked him, maybe I hadn't, I don't know.
About this time there was an enormous amount of firing was going on in the direction I'd sent this platoon. What had happened was the platoon had run into this big headquarters we were looking for, they'd accidentally come across them and they were in terrible strife.
A search party had been sent out for me, found my webbing and thought, 'Oh.' Then heard this firing and thought, 'Oh, the boss has copped it'. So they had then reported me missing in action. So there was all this great concern going on. Anyway I eventually found my way back to the headquarters to the relief of all. But that was a very big firefight then that went on and sadly we lost two soldiers killed in that and quite a few wounded."
Over 300 men fought for D Company during that year, most notably in the Battle of Binh Ba. When they boarded HMAS Sydney to go home, it was with mixed feelings.
"There was a sense of achievement, a relief in the sense that you were going home in one piece. Some feelings of sorrow over the people that weren't coming home and those that had been maimed, no question or doubt about that. We had shared that unique experience on the battlefield; and it's a very uniting experience, in the sense that you have shared danger, you have shared comradeship.
I think I have a very clear understanding of what's important in life and what isn't. I can let a lot of trivial things go, because the battlefield's a place to sort out what's really important and what isn't."