I was lying on my back in a weapon pit. My rifle was across my left arm and my basic webbing – ammo pouches and water – were within easy reach.
My groundsheet was underneath but nothing on top; it was a warm night in a jungle setting east of Nui Dat, the Australian Task Force Base in South Vietnam. The year was 1969.
It was early in my 12-month tour and as such, I was still a bit watchful and found it hard to sleep this particular night.
Clear sky and moonlight
It was a moonlit night, perfect for an enemy to sneak up on us but we had three machine gun posts guarding the tracks nearby and each gun was manned by two diggers who were changed every two hours.
Our company was patrolling this particular area seeking out Viet Cong (VC or ‘Charlie’) bunker systems and caches of foodstuffs, ammunition or other equipment and ambushing any used tracks at night.
We’d had one contact earlier on this day and had received some rocket fire the day before with no casualties. I thought I had every good reason to be a little concerned because the enemy knew we were in the area, they just didn’t know where.
Amazing sounds in the jungle at night
As I lay on my back listening for any sounds which might indicate movement, I heard a rustling in the trees not far from where I lay. To my knowledge, ‘Charlie’ didn’t use trees to attack, not even for snipers but what would I know anyway?
I lay dead still and slowly moved my rifle to where it would be the most useful if something happened.
The rustling in the trees became louder but no voices could be heard. I gazed up through the trees just waiting for the ambush to be initiated – surely others had heard the noise and I could feel my heart beating, ready to go in an instant.
It was then I saw what I thought was a man right above me in the tree and looking straight at me. Was it ‘Charlie’ using another trick to get to us? My rifle moved slowly to where I could pull the trigger and knew I had this ‘man’ well covered if indeed he could see me.
Why didn’t someone start shooting?
Waiting, ……, waiting,……., was someone going to shoot? I didn’t want to be the first to shoot, an ambush is supposed to be initiated by the machine gun group.
Waiting, more waiting, it felt like hours when in fact it was more like seconds.
Then there was move movement in other trees and against the moonlit sky I could other, smaller ‘men’ in the trees, swinging around like ….., like monkeys!
I looked more closely at the ‘man’ right above me and realised he had a big chest and ‘wonky’ looking legs. A big male monkey, probably the patriarch of the group of about 20 on their way past us.
I’d nearly wet myself
Almost immediately he moved through a few branches and into another tree – what relief! I almost wet myself – and as I looked around, I saw some of the boys also watching what was happening.
I could have given the whole ‘game’ away if I’d shot the big fella and I’d been close to doing so. Who would have criticised me?
Then I thought how much the boys would have laughed at me, lying there screaming with a big half-dead money bleeding all over me. I turned over and tried to go back to sleep and it was only much later I admitted my folly.
It was a bit like admitting the wrongs we’ve done.
Who among us has not done something to be ashamed of?
We don’t admit it because we’re ashamed, we don’t confess do we.
God is willing to forgive us for even the most stupid errors we’ve made, all we need do is confess and ask for his mercy and forgiveness.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.