Vietnam veteran's story of life and death in jungle tunnels
OVER a 10-year period, more than 50,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War.
Many didn't make it home but one who did was Sunshine Coast man Alan Christie, who was a teenager when he first went away.
Like everyone who served in the war, he came home with a story to tell.
Alan's involved a Czech-made rifle and a North Vietnamese soldier he encountered during Operation Crimp in January 1966.
AS a 19-year-old sapper, I was not privy to the larger picture of what was happening. I can only recount what happened to me directly. However with the passing of 50 years, I have trouble recalling the exact time-frame in which many of events occurred.
To the best of my recollection, we had been involved in another operation prior to Operation Crimp and were looking forward to going beck to our base at Bien Hoa Airfield.
As we were preparing to head back, we were informed we were going directly into another operation somewhere close to Saigon.
Our "slicks" or "Hueys" dropped us off in the initial landing zone supposedly, followed by the 2nd, 3rd etc chalks of infantry.
Deployment was well disciplined without any enemy fire and we moved off the landing zone, then took cover.
There had been a last minute change of the landing zone but unfortunately this had not filtered through to everyone involved. When the second wave (or chalk) neared our position we were mistaken for enemy troops and were fired on with rockets, grenade launchers and machine guns.
Even though there were about 90 of us on the ground in a relatively small area, there were no casualties. I remarked to Peter Ash "I wonder how many Viet Cong actually get hit".
Having landed nearly a kilometre away from the original landing zone, we advanced through a huge bunker complex towards where we were supposed to land originally.
Two infantrymen were ambushed and killed from a bunker hidden in the walls of a gully.
When this was broken into, it opened up into a tunnel complex. Engineers were assigned to probe this and ultimately large caches of stores of weapons, ammunition and paperwork were discovered.
The weapons included 50 calibre machine guns set up in anti-aircraft configuration.
With infantry supplying protection, more than a kilometre of tunnels was searched, revealing different level and exits. While operating just outside the complex, the infantry found another tunnel entrance.
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Corporal Bob Bowtell was called to investigate.
Bob was a tall, well-built man and had to force himself to fit through the small trapdoors, which were set in concrete at the entrance.
The air quality inside was very poor and Bob became aspixyated through a lack of oxygen in the second level.
Peter Ash and I were rushed to the site to try and rescue him. At different stages we both were overcome by the lack of oxygen in the air.
Bob had squeezed himself into the lower level and when he became unconscious, his body went limp, making it impossible to drag him back to the entrance.
Finally a vertical shaft was dug to him by hand and his body retrieved. In hindsight Bob was probably deceased before our arrival.
The following day, Peter and I were given respite from working underground and sent on patrol with 5 Platoon B.Coy. The battalion was being harassed by sniper fire that was inflicting casualties.
While conducting clearing sweeps outside the perimeter, another entrance was found. Peter armed himself with a torch, bayonet and 9mm Browning pistol and went underground.
Within a few minutes gunshots came from below. When Peter re-emerged he was stone deaf from the noise of firing his pistol in such a confined area.
Peter had spotted an enemy, switched off his torch and opened fire. He could not hear a thing for the next 36 hours.
As the patrol progressed, the sniper was finally sighted. The infantry wounded him and he was trying to escape but he was leaving a large blood trail. He led us to another hidden trapdoor.
After Peter's encounter, I decided I wanted more firepower than a 9mm Browning so I took a butt off an Owen gun and went after him, armed with 64 rounds in two magazines taped together.
It seemed like an eternity but I could hear him moving in front of me. Trying to be as quiet as I could, I chased him and was gaining on him. Suddenly his pace increased and eventually I could not hear him any more.
I moved forward again for about 30 to 40 metres and found his rifle abandoned. I decided I was not going any further as I had been underground for nearly 30 minutes.
Besides, what a great trophy the rifle made, in a beautiful leather case.
On reaching the surface and inspecting the rifle thoroughly, we identified it as being Czech-made 7.62 rimmed bolt action.
With the prospect of it being taken off me, I used my bayonet and totally vandalised the wooden butt, carving 3FD.TP on it.
As with all finds, it was passed back to intelligence and was never seen again.
I had hoped it would come back to us so I could at least test fire it.
I went through all the ammo that had been retrieved and found approximately 3000 rounds to suit. I carried them for the rest of the operation and then stored them in my tent for the remainder of our deployment at Bien Hoa.
Just prior to returning to Australia in September 1966, I realised I was only alive because the tunnel was too small for the sniper to turn the rifle around and fire at me as I followed him.
Some weapons came back to the school of military engineering and others were sent to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, as well as various military museums.
But the sniper rifle was never seen or heard of again, until about eight years ago when Sandy McGreggor, our 3FDTP Commander, discovered it in the Infantry Museum in Singleton, NSW.
Sandy led a push to have the weapon placed at the School of Military Engineering in Moorebank, NSW.
The curator from the Singleton Museum contacted me and explained his case for retaining the rifle with him, saying that only a handful of the weapons in a sniper configuration were left in the world in actual good working condition.
To hand it over, it would have to be rendered inoperable, thus destroying its uniqueness and value as it is the only one of its kind in existence, in full working order, outside of Europe.
He also pointed out that the museum was open to the public, with the display acknowledging it had been captured by 3 Field Troop engineers on Operation Crimp.
I don't know whether agreeing with the curator actually helped the Infantry retain the weapon or not.
There was a bit of hostility towards myself at the time and I pointed out that I only saw infantry when I came out of the tunnel back then and that I was pleased to see them - protecting me.
However situations change. With today's high alert status, regarding the threat of terrorism, all workable weapons have been withdrawn from any public display and securely locked away in the Singleton Army Base Armoury.
Sandy McGreggor has started another push to have the Engineers recover the rifle and put it on public display, in an inoperable condition, at the School of Military Engineering.
The irony is, even after 50 years, I have not seen the weapon.
If it is relocated to the Engineers I might actually get a chance to hold it again and have another photo taken.