One summer afternoon Jacko dropped by to loan me a book. What he told me explains why war veterans rarely talk about what they’ve seen. His memories haunted him and now they haunt me.
I felt touched and saddened by the look on his face, the movements of his hands and the appreciation for the Americans on that day back in the 1970s. Here is Jacko’s story, as told to me in my kitchen one sunny, summer’s afternoon in Melbourne, Australia.
Our friend, Jacko, came to visit at lunch time and he was holding a book: ‘The Battle of Long Tan’. He placed it on my bench top and leaned against the wall oven in our kitchen with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, while I put the groceries away.
I paused to look at the book; it was about 15 x 25cm with a war painting on the cover – yuk! A tangle of soaking wet men lay with rifles to their eyes, peering through the rain. Some dead men lay in the deep puddle, which covered the jungle floor; their comrades lay alongside, fighting as if they expected to be next. The faces of the living told me the enemy was very close, and the red title of the book increased the bloody expectation of what was ahead in the reading.
‘It’s a good read,’ said Jacko, distracting me from studying the young faces on the cover.
‘Did you see action like that when you were in Vietnam?’ I asked, knowing it can be impolite to ask a returned serviceman such a thing.
Jacko’s hands lifted from his pockets and his arms folded across his chest. He looked up and to the right, as if trying to think of a way to express himself. “Yeah, um… it wasn’t Long Tan though. We were in a bastard of a place. I was in a forward party, which means I co-ordinated the other platoons to where the fightin’ was.”
His hand went to the side of his face, like my daughter does when she pretends to be talking on the telephone. “I was positioned up front and used the radio set to call in the other platoons.”
I stood beside the plastic shopping bags trying to picture this big, red headed man in such a situation. Jacko is a tough looking 50 year old whose face bears the scars of skin cancer removals; his large fingers abnormally twisted by years of working with heavy artillery; and his light-blue eyes hold a thousand pictures that, thankfully, will never be seen by anyone else. His stories are from another time and another country. They are about frightening sights, fearsome battles and from the perspective of a 20-year-old boy.
Jacko’s voice was deep and carried a gentle rumble of older age, with calmness to it.
“This book is about a place called Long Tan. It’s full of military-talk and I hope that you being a civvy, you can understand what it’s about. I took part in a similar battle.”
I shoved the groceries aside and leaned against the bench. “Can you talk about it, or is it too painful to think about?”
“I only wish I could fully recall it,” he said, rubbing his chin wistfully.
“Maybe it’s good that you can’t.”
“I do remember the funny parts,” he said, grinning. Then his face changed and his eyes took on a glassy-gaze, similar to the boy in the mud on front cover of the book. “There were dead and wounded all over the place, and I had to call the platoons in to where the action was.”
Jacko’s right hand opened and turned onto its side, and his arm straightened, indicating behind him and to his right; as if he was showing me where one of the platoons was. “I had number four coming from back there.” His left hand indicated behind and to his left… “Number six from the left, and a couple more on their way from behind. It was loud and bloody, but I can’t remember the detail.”
My civilian reply showed my inexperience in war-conversation: “That’s a good thing, right? Not remembering?”
“Yeah, a couple of blokes I knew have topped themselves over the years, but out of the original thirty there were twenty five at the reunion last year.” The brief moment of silence felt like longer and I didn’t want to be the voice to break his moment of respect.
Jacko then threw his head back laughing as he held his hand up with two fingers crossed and suddenly his face dropped to a serious expression, “We’re as close as that!” he exclaimed with obvious pride. “We’ve been through all that shit together and nobody can get closer to us than that. When we get together at the reunions, we don’t go through the bad shit, we remember the funny stuff and laugh our guts out at it.”
I laughed with Jacko, enjoying his pleasure at remembering the last reunion. I want to know one of his funny stories, but it’s all too private to ask about. Instead, the kettle was put on and I offered him some lunch.
Jacko nodded and continued his story – maybe not for me now, but for himself. A lucky sense of privilege came over me for being there on that day. “One bloke from our reunion was writing a book, and he asked me for some details. I told him that I only remembered getting there, calling the first strike in and speaking to the Americans in the helicopter.”
He looked at his feet and slightly shook his head, as if in disbelief. “Our blokes wouldn’t come in to get the dead and wounded. It was too dangerous and we were all left for dead. The Yanks flew over, and they asked if they could help. I relayed the message to the boss and he says, ‘Yeah, bloody tell ‘em what’s going on and see what they can do.’ ”
Jacko looked up. Not at my ceiling but at the visual memory of the American helicopter flying overhead. His hands raised to above his shoulders and his bent fingers spread as he described the helicopter scene, which appeared to be behind him and off to his left.
His eyes glanced behind and he continued. “The Americans were hovering above and radioed me, asking about the dead and wounded. So I said we had four dead and eight wounded. They said, “we’ll take your wounded, but not the dead,” and I was bloody relieved because they had no hope. No hope at all out there where we were.”
The relief was written all over Jacko’s face as if he was back there, and I felt my own heart-rate change. We were silently standing in the kitchen, feeling the impact of the events. There I stood, not knowing how to converse about war – and him, probably wondering if he should continue the story.
Thankfully, he continued and his face and body language continued along with the story, “That Yankee helicopter stayed until all eight wounded were winched up.”
Jacko’s eyes followed his hands, which moved in a swift reaching movement extending from his left hip to above his head. “The enemy fire onto that helicopter was amazing. You could see the tracers flying up to it; they were bombarding that helicopter with everything they had, but those blokes stayed to finish the job. After about 20 minutes it went off, but later crashed and the pilot was killed, poor bugger.” Jacko looked down and gave a small, disappointed shake of his head, like he did when he said the Australians wouldn’t retrieve the wounded.
He said, “That’s all I remember. I don’t remember the arrival of the Platoons that I directed or the actual fight. Only the funny bits, as well as the Americans who came, and our dead who had really ugly injuries. Really ugly. And we don’t talk about it at our reunions. At our reunions we just laugh about the funny bits. Only the funny bits.”
Jacko took me to the jungle in Vietnam and scared me on that day. I felt guilty for not knowing more about this war and I felt sorry for him for knowing as much as he did.
~ Respect to our veterans and peace to the world ~