Regular soldiers were backbone of units in Vietnam
Name: Graham Sherrington
Unit: 6 Platoon B Company 5RAR
Location: Nui Dat
Graham Sherrington was not your typical regular soldier. He had had more than his share of run-ins with the Army authorities but there was more to it than that.
He didn't fit any of the moulds, felt that 'square bashing' and all forms of ceremonial activity were a waste of time and effort, and lived for the times he had a gun in his hands.
He may have been hard for the authorities to take but he was a good man to have on your side in a fight.
Looking back on his time in Vietnam, he feels that the role of the 'Regulars' with their greater experience and training has not received as much attention as it should.
"Much has been written of the Nashos - the National Servicemen who were drafted into the Vietnam conflict. Plenty has also been written about the AATTV (The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam) and the various other units, Graham Sherrington said. "Not so much has been penned about the thoughts of the trained cadre of Regular soldiers who formed the stiffening backbone of the various units in the junior ranks."
"I was a Regular soldier, but my feelings and viewpoints may differ markedly from other Regulars in places. You'll note I capitalise the word 'Infantry'. Most Infantry soldiers have earned that capitalisation. I believe that the troops who went to Vietnam were some of the best trained and educated soldiers we've ever had in our army, both the National Servicemen and the Regulars.
"How did I become a private in an Infantry company? I'd had a good education at a grammar school and a high school, but I'd always wanted to soldier and I had a strong interest in firearms. I'd been in the school cadet corps, a nursery breeding ground for professional soldiers and had become quite proficient with various bits of WWII vintage weaponry. I was a keen rifle shooter, hunting most weekends and getting out to long range shoots at up to 1,000 yards with a Military Rifle Club. I was taken there by a kind neighbour from the age of 12. I also owned a couple of rifles and a pistol or two, such things being much more common in those days and in my last year at high school I joined the CMF, the predecessor to the Army Reserve, where I was posted to the 31st Battalion the Kennedy Regiment as a 3.5" rocket launcher operator,
"At 18, with poor school results through laziness and boredom, I told my parents I wanted to join the Australian Regular Army. As I was under 21 and needed parental permission, father, who'd been in the RAAF in WWII, refused to sign the documents because he didn't want me to become an Infantry soldier. Mother, thinking they'd never take me because I was too skinny and wore spectacles, signed the papers, but this was a mistake on her part.
"In 1963, with plenty of jobs about in civilian life, the Army was short of soldiers and they probably already had indications that a war was likely.
"In recruit, and the more specialised Infantry corps training, I was tagged as a potential officer, an opportunity that I turned down as I considered one couldn't be a good officer without experience in the ranks. This was to cost me dearly later on, as I went deaf from shooting and this precluded me from officer status on medical grounds. Throughout my military training I often top scored with various bits of weaponry, with the exception of hand grenades, which I loathed as they're an indiscriminate, imprecise area weapon.
"After lots of training in the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and more specialised training under Major (later Colonel) Kahn in the 2nd Battalion RAR, where I fired off many thousands of rounds of ammunition through GPMG M60s, 9mm Owens and 7.62mm SLRs, also doing courses for NCO, mine-warfare, sniping, radio operator, map reading, forward scouting, endless ambush drills, 30-mile route marches and booby-traps courses, I was posted to 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka as a Regimental Duty NCO, basically as a recruit instructor. Because I'd been classified as a bad soldier and immature, probably because of heavy drinking and a tendency to insubordination, I was not promoted to Corporal. Instead I was placed in the Rifle Team, a small but elite group who ran all rifle range practices and gave shooting demonstrations and marksmanship instruction. Talk about being thrown into the 'Briar Patch' like Brer Rabbit. I loved the job!
"So there I was and I wanted to go to war. It's a bit like being an A Grade squash player and never playing a championship. Luckily my time for re-engagement had come up and I used this to leverage a posting to the 5th Battalion RAR where I was posted as an Intelligence Dutyman. No one bothered to tell me this, so I found myself there as an ordinary infantry soldier. My personnel records show that some officer had written the comment on my records: "This soldier is of the type who would be more suitable to an Infantry battalion than a training unit" - or something similar. For once I happened to agree with an officer. I wasn't big on parade ground bullshit. I believed all brass should be blackened, we should all wear camouflage uniforms, always carry weapons, all ceremonial activities should be ditched and the time and money saved spent on realistic combat training and fitness activities. I still believe it, and the Israelis are a good example of an army which operates fairly successfully in this way.
"I flew over to Vietnam by Qantas, via Manila, in May 1966 and I can still remember the steward (no female hosties on these trips) breathlessly telling us that he was getting danger money for the trip.
"The trip from Saigon to Vung Tau where we had our rear echelon base was on a C123 Provider, an already aging aircraft which looked a bit like a two-engined Hercules transport. It was so grossly overloaded with us and our gear that it took the whole of the jet strip to get off the ground, achieved by bouncing it several times off the runway. We then flew over the Mekong Delta to Vung Tau at low level because the pilot couldn't get up to any normal altitude. Welcome to Vietnam!
"After acclimatisation for a week or so at Vung Tau, we flew off by 'Huey' (HU1B or D) helicopters to start Operation Hardihood.
"As I looked over my companions on the helicopter flight I wondered who was going to make it out alive. There were plenty, Nashos and Regulars who didn't have a clue about real soldiering, and some, a minority who were very, very good. We were about to sort out the sheep from the goats. Worse, I hadn't trained with them very much, so to them I was an unknown quantity, an interloper with a suspect history and possibly quite mad. (With permission, I'd taken my personal rifle with me, a Parker Hale Sporting rifle in 7.62mm NATO calibre with a good Pecar Scope on it.) On top of this the dodgy sanitary conditions and water had given me a dreadful dose of the trots. I felt awful and smelt worse.
"We landed and the 173rd Airborne were holding the LZ (Landing Zone) for us. They were there in strength and they'd had plenty of clashes with the local VC regiments and been chewed up a bit. As we were getting organised I noticed a Vietnamese in 'black pyjamas' in the tree line about 150 meters away. Suddenly all hell broke loose as every weapon the Americans had was turned on to him. I could see tracer bouncing around well away from him and he escaped apparently unscathed. Not a very impressive effort by the much vaunted 173rd. I and quite a few of my companions could easily have hit him with a maximum of two or three shots at that short range.
"On my first night on machinegun piquet in the rubber plantation, one of the company HQ people sleeping behind me sat up in the pitch black and screamed like a banshee in his sleep. It was the first and probably the last time he was sent out into the field. It was also almost his last breath because I thought someone had stabbed him and I swung the machine gun towards him and took up the slack in the trigger to kill the non-existent VC attackers.
"Soon we were into the real thing. The VC hadn't cottoned on to the fact that the military situation had radically changed in their area. We were totally different in the field to the Americans. Even in our relatively inexperienced state we didn't make very much noise, we stayed off tracks and we ambushed the hell out of the place. Ambushing was the VCs own favourite tactic and they never really got accustomed to us turning the tables on them time and time again.
"Two incidents in the early days stand out. In one, I and another digger in my section were sitting in a U shaped ambush in an overgrown banana plantation. We were on one tip of the U. Visibility was lousy and I could see about six feet [1.8m]. It was a bad ambush position. A banana leaf obstructed our view. The other fellow was reading a Commando war comic. I was watching what little I could see in front of me. A VC who'd either been there already or had crept up on us, fired a full magazine at us in full automatic and shredded the leaf in between us - we were about three feet [0.9m] apart. The VC had got greedy trying to kill both of us with one burst instead of aiming at each of us separately and he probably paid for it with his life.
"I slid sideways, dumping a full 20-round magazine one handed at where the sound was coming from with my mouth open, facing the sound, firing with my second finger, pointing the weapon by instinct and feel with my index finger and deliberately aiming a bit low. (These are also night shooting tricks to assist in hitting an unseen target in the dark.)
"This precipitated a firefight between our people in the two tips of the U shaped ambush as stray bullets bounced everywhere until our NCOs brought it under control. One soldier was wounded by shrapnel after he'd thrown a hand grenade and it had bounced off a banana tree back on top of him. He was taken out by a Dustoff (medical helicopter). A dead VC was found there a few days later under a shredded banana tree by another platoon, possibly the same VC I'd shot at.
"How did I feel? Strangely I had no shock, no fear, just a slight buzz of excitement and adrenalin - I was definitely 'different' in my reactions. My companion, quite justifiably, was white as a sheet after his near death experience and couldn't talk terribly coherently for a while.
"It soon started raining - in Vietnam one was always wet with either rain or sweat - and our company had a couple more contacts with VC with some VC being killed.
"My next shoot out was a doozey. The company was moving off a fairly well treed small hill after an overnight harbour and they had two platoons up in front followed by company HQ, then our platoon bringing up the rear. It was pouring with rain. As a forward scout at that time I was walking just behind company HQ when the medic in front of me appeared to fall to the ground on his back with his eyes rolling about. I bent over to look at him as he was making what to me seemed strange motions and he was waving his Owen Gun about.
"At first I thought he was having a fit, and I was mentally running through my first aid for fits, (coma position, free the tongue from the throat if he's swallowed it, or whatever) when I suddenly realised he had taken cover and was pointing his weapon down a track which ran off at right angles to us. Looking up I saw five VC jogging down the track towards us, three in front, two behind, rifles (slackly) slung over their shoulders almost like a football scrum, chattering to each other. I was caught in the open at the track junction as they saw me and scattered.
"I swung into a well worn routine. Foot towards the left hand VC runner, front knee bent, lean forward into it, rear leg back and braced, safety off, slide the rifle into the shoulder, tip of the foresight in the middle of the aperture on the largest body mass, lead on him, squeeze the trigger, count the shots, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He was still running at 50-60 meters and I stopped in astonishment. Then he dropped like he'd been pole axed. I'd been hammering him along with the bullet impacts. Cursing I swung onto the next runner and started shooting, but I couldn't see him properly and I felt was going blind, everything was hazy. I think I hit him through the upper chest from the back once and he staggered and kept running, I swung on to the next VC and now I definitely couldn't see anything except a blur and I only managed to clip a couple of toes off which he left behind on a sandal. He bolted away as well.
"Up till now I'd been hearing people shouting that they were civilians or ARVN, and 'cease fire', whilst I knew they were VC from their weapons. At this point my Corporal rushed up and aimed and fired his M16. It jammed on or just after the first shot. Then our M60 gunner lumbered up and fired - once. He'd miss-assembled the gas system on his M60. He was not the gunner for much longer after that. 'Hell,' I thought, 'I'm in a war and no one on either side knows anything about soldiering, I'm in deep trouble.' Others had come out of their trance and were now shooting and I could see foliage 20-30 feet above the VC being shredded. The mayhem was absolute! I did the fastest magazine change I'd ever done as I was still exposed to fire in the open at the track junction.
"On approaching the first VC, I found he was lying on his back, propped up by his knapsack with an American .30-06 M1 Garand rifle down between his legs pointed towards me. He had a huge hole in his chest where at least five bullets had exited and I foolishly assumed he was dead for sure. I had my rifle in my shoulder aimed at him as I walked but I was not 100 per cent 'switched on'. It was nearly my last assumption. With the last of his strength he lifted the rifle up and I had to admire his courage. I could see right down his sights and he was aiming at about the centre of my chest. He pulled the trigger and I heard the click just as I woke up and fired another seven rounds into him. His weapon must have had the breech not closed properly, a dud cartridge or a weak firing pin, because there was a dent on the primer of the first cartridge. That still gives me nightmares, I can still hear the click of the M1 Garand hammer dropping.
"My blindness? My rifle was full of oil to stop rust and it had mixed with the rain. Every shot I fired had sprayed greasy, oily water on my spectacles and diminished my vision. On my last shot I could barely see. Now I knew why Infantry soldiers seldom wore specs. Later on I lubricated my rifle with graphite grease - one lives and hopefully one learns.
"I hated mines, every soldier does, and we had plenty of them to contend with. In building our huge minefield we'd given the VC a treasure trove of M16 'Jumping Jack' mines and 'Toe-poppers'. There were also the old military minefields laid by the Japanese, the French, the ARVN's sloppily marked fields and those laid by the VC. One mind-numbing incident was when our company received a replacement Lieutenant whilst we were helping build the minefield. We'd lost a couple of people the day before in the same area with mines and we were not too keen on starting work until the engineers arrived with mine detection gear, in fact we were downright mutinous.
"Being new and young and trying to set a good example he said something like: 'Come on chaps, let's get to work.' He stepped off the padi bund on to a VC-planted mine which killed him fairly quickly. I felt guilt for many years about his death because I had never even had enough time to find out his name. It was also more traumatic than usual because it happened in an open field in broad daylight with most of us watching, unlike many other casualties in the bush where visibility was poor.
"I did a fair bit of forward scouting. If you were good at it or liked the job you tended to stay out there in front. Basically it entailed walking some distance in front of everyone else and trying to see the VC before they saw you. Having very sharp eyes and the ability to spot tracks, mines, snakes, stinging ant nests, wasps, huge spiders, booby traps and trip wires was a definite asset, as was a good sense of direction. Being a very fast snap shooter was essential. It was a lonely, stress filled job and one of great responsibility.
"If you made a mistake it could cost not only your life but the lives of many people behind you. The myth was that the VC would let the forward scout through and then ambush the main party. Battalions in later tours found that when they bumped the NVA, the first thing that would happen would be the forward scout being killed or wounded by an RPG rocket or a burst of fire.
"We had one Nasho who was a forward scout and he kept tripping over stumps and vines. One day he got a little cardboard box in the mail containing a pair of spectacles as thick as coke bottles. When chided about not telling anyone he was functionally blind he said: 'I just wanted to do my bit.' His courage was appreciated, his common sense was not. No more scouting for him. Another was found to be very deaf and we had to attract his attention by throwing sticks at him. The normal method of attracting attention was to snap fingers or lightly tap a rifle magazine, but he couldn't hear that, though he still served the full 12 months tour in combat. He shouldn't have even been there.
"We did a lot of ambushing, tracks, creek lines, natural feature where people would walk, near villages, basically whenever we could. A well-laid ambush is fairly final, and one has to be lucky or very fast to escape one alive. Because we almost never walked on tracks like the Americans the VC had a terrible time trying to ambush us. The format usually was to move within a few hundred meters of the chosen ambush site until dusk, then move in to place. Along a track we'd put the best part of two sections from the platoon with as many automatic weapons as possible along the ambush. The rest of the platoon would cover the rear of the ambush. There was usually a machinegun (GPMG M60) on each end of the ambush and they triggered the action. As soon as enough people had walked in to the killing zone the machine gunner triggered the ambush and everyone else opened up. If claymore mines had been placed they were triggered as well. Sometimes it was triggered by the claymore mines being fired. Firing continued until all resistance had stopped and then any noise was silenced by hand grenades or M79 grenades. Quickly the kill zone was searched, any weapons picked up and the bodies searched for documents and identification. Then we'd move back to another ambush site or a safer spot until morning, when we'd come back and check out the area and bury any bodies. It was a scary business and very dangerous.
"We had one ambush where we were still settling in to our night ambush positions when three VC walked into the kill zone in the front of the ambush. It was pouring rain and we couldn't hear them and they couldn't hear us. No one was looking at the kill zone and the VC saw us first. One opened up with a .30 M2 Carbine at one of our men at point blank range - and missed him. All hell broke loose, with an initial stuttering blast of fire from an M60, which rose to a firestorm as everyone else got organised and cut loose. I was actually in charge of the rear party but we were unusually close to the ambush sections with our feet almost touching their feet, and when I went to ground I ended up facing the ambush.
"I could see a VC in front of me but I'd landed next to the muzzle of an M60 machinegun and I was being buffeted by the muzzle blast, with my ears ringing and the hair on the side of my head getting singed. I could see the gunner's tracer going through the VC and bouncing out the other side as I dumped a full 20-round magazine of M16 ammo into him at the same time and also hit him. I couldn't see the other two VC. The VC we'd shot at went down and we turned our attention to the others, when he suddenly got a new lease on life and took off, crawling away rapidly on hands and knees. He was shot again. Then he started to leopard crawl away and my Lieutenant took my M79 grenade launcher and fired it at him. The VC was quite close and the thing only just armed in time and went off. The close concussion stunned and blinded us and the other two VC escaped in the darkness.
"Next morning we came back and searched the body. He had an American gold Waltham watch and there was a terrible argument over who had shot him first and got the 'kill' - and the watch - as he was full of all calibre holes. It turned out the watch was engraved with the owner's name and it went back to the US Army. It was extremely dangerous to search him because he had been ready for instant action and he had hand grenades hanging on his belt with the pins pulled out and held only by rubber bands around the bottom of the grenade handle. We buried him in a shallow grave and moved on.
"Life wasn't all rain, VC and misery, occasionally we got a couple of days leave in Vung Tau (R&C) or at least one R&R inter-country. At that stage Sydney was not a permissible R&R destination for Australians for fear of possible desertions. Vung Tau and Saigon were the usual destinations for R&C. Saigon was a truly amazing place.
"The Vietnamese women were lovely and friendly and I had a soft spot for them. They were quite capable of falling in love with you if you were a half-way decent human and the Vietnamese in general had a good sense of humour - similar to our own. It is probably why most of them have made such good immigrants since. Vung Tau was originally a very attractive French Riviera-style resort area and it was a great place in which to relax. As Infantry soldiers, we didn't get there too often and when we did the Viet Cong were often also there in the same bars and shops. There was a sort of unofficial truce because, 'business is business', and it was a good intelligence gathering spot for the VC. Even so, incidents still often happened, shootings, grenading of bars, stabbings and brawls.
"Rest and Recreation was to various places in Asia and the Pacific. One could go to Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Hawaii.
"I went to Hong Kong at Christmas for R&R and it was mind-bending, to go straight from a lethal, vicious war in the bush and padi fields to a Christmas fairyland. All of the shops were beautifully lit up, decorations were everywhere and Christmas carols were playing. The Peak was covered in mist and it was cool and rainy. I submerged in the Moulin Rouge Bar only coming out to refuel with food at my hotel and to go on tourist day trips around Hong Kong. I didn't sleep for five days and passed out on the Pan Am flight going back to Saigon. I'd spent $US1000 and all I had to show for it was a Zippo cigarette lighter, a shiny Hong Kong suit which I'd sent home and terminal exhaustion. Needless to say I was put on the first re-supply chopper back out to the bush and went ambushing the same night where I promptly went to sleep - a cardinal sin. I can remember my Corporal throwing a stick at me for snoring and whispering: 'You're supposed to be rested you mongrel'.
"Towards the end of our tour we were very 'tight'. We all looked after each other and understood each other's strengths, weaknesses, fears and home worries. I think it made me more tolerant of people in the long term. Sometimes men would get a "Dear John" from the wife or girlfriend. When this was spotted - and it was fairly easy to spot a grown man crying or deathly pale after reading his mail - the therapy was fairly basic. We'd put up the 'Dear John' on the notice board and everyone would append comments: 'What a bitch!' etc. I'm sure the shallow, selfish women who sent them never imagined a hundred men would mock the letter, or many of them would never have been mailed. Next we'd get the recipient drunk. It seemed to work fairly well. Pain shared is pain eased. One young man in another company shot his 'Dear John' in the bottom of his weapon pit with a submachine gun - scaring everyone.
"Finally we got on to Chinook transport helicopters and flew out to HMAS Sydney, the old aircraft carrier, now unofficially relabelled the Vung Tau Ferry. We just wanted to get out of the harbour and out of Vietnam and there were RAN sailors with ancient Thompson submachine guns and TNT scare charges sitting on each end of the thing keeping VC frogmen away by detonating the TNT in the water. Not a reassuring sight at all.
"We sailed soon after. We'd survived."
The material for this article was supplied by Graham Sherrington of Queensland. Other photographs were provided by Bob Meredith, Bob Harbourd, George Wills, Jeff Cappler, Ivan Kustreba, Peter Woods, Bill Jarrett, Brian London and Colin Bruce
8/01/2002 10:22:12 AM