Image for Keeping My Hat On: A night, a day and another night in the life of an infantry soldier

Peter Cundall, front line Korean war; poised with Vickers machine gun

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Peter Cundall, before deployment, 1951

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Peter Cundall, front line Korean War

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Famous as a gardener ... Peter Cundall as he is better known. Photo: Alastair Bett ( f8photography.com.au ) organicgardener, here . TT earlier: What is organics?

Peter Cundall has been involved in three wars, mainly as an infantry soldier. After serving as a 14 year-old air-raid messenger boy during the Blitz, he joined the British Parachute Regiment in WWII, serving in Europe as the war ended, mainly guarding Nazi war criminals awaiting trial. In August 1946, after accidentally crossing the frontier into Yugoslavia, he was captured by Tito’s partisans, charged with espionage and sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment. After 6 months total solitary confinement in a lice-infested cell he was finally released in 1947, as a result of British Government pressure. Shortly afterwards he was posted to Gaza and other parts of Palestine during the Palestine War during which 233 British soldiers were killed. He returned to the UK for demobilisation in April 1948.

In an attempt to by-pass the 2 year wait to migrate to Australia, Peter enlisted in the Australian Army in London as a fully-trained infantry soldier in November 1950 and was soon on his way to Australia. A few months later in 1951 he was sent to join Australia’s 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, then in action during the static trench warfare and massed artillery barrages, typical of the Korean War. He became a member of the Machine-gun Platoon, then under the command of Australia’s first Aboriginal officer Capt. Reg. Saunders. During this period as a front-line infantry soldier he was promoted in the Field to machine-gun Section Commander, remaining in the Line from June 1951 until August 1952.

This true experience is a brief attempt to describe the horror and stupidity of war from an infantry soldier’s viewpoint. 

Already it is after midnight. Another full alert. Half-crouched in our weapon pits we peer into the gloom, listening to the faint sounds that dragged us from our sleeping bags. A digger slips over the parapet and creeps down the slope, closer to the wire. He confirms the distant whining to be heavy vehicles on the move. Now we see them. Far to the north, long columns of drifting, pin-point lights float towards us. Chinese bringing in supplies, we whisper. Or more troops. Yawning and shivering in the November chill, we listen and wait.

Far to our left, four parallel searchlight beams aim directly upwards, splashing the clouds. Each marks a corner of the Panmunjom Neutral Zone. Peace talks have been intermittent for months yet these gleaming beacons of hope appear every night, a constant reminder that this war could soon come to an end. Gradually the muffled lights disappear and sounds fade. Silence. The company stands-to for another hour, slowly relaxing. Frost gleams on parapets. Finally a whispered command. Stand-to reduced to fifty percent - two hours on, two off – until the usual full stand-to at first light.
 
Heavy-eyed at dawn we watch sunlight slide from mountain tops to disperse valley mists. Over the previous month every paddy field, hill, re-entrant and ridge to our front committed to memory. Field glasses slowly, carefully rake across hillside and paddy. A rush of uneasiness. Something new has appeared. Everything appears the same, yet there is a subtle, worrying difference. What is it?

There it is! Mouth drying quickly. To our front a broad ribbon of newly-flattened grass across part of the valley. Not there yesterday. The new track emerges from behind a low spur, cuts across a paddy-field and disappears behind a hill.

During the night, large numbers of Chinese troops have silently moved into positions directly ahead. Something is about to happen. They usually attack in darkness guided by brightly-coloured flares. Perhaps tonight.

I estimate the new track to be 550 yards away. Aim Vickers machine gun at its centre and lock on.  Screw on dial-sight. Register bearing on the aiming stick, click the range. Bubble levelled. Scribble down details. Record another reading at the centre of an adjacent spur, again levelling the bubble.

Even in complete darkness the range and bearing can be re-set on the dial. The gun is then swivelled until dial-sight is lined up perfectly with the aiming stick. Then tilted until the bubble is level. Gun sight now on target.

A black plume silently erupts at the base of our hill followed immediately by the brief moan of an incoming shell and an abrupt, menacing crump. Sound always lags behind vision unless the explosion is worryingly close. Now two more. Spasmodic shelling has been occurring several times a day for weeks. Angry, searching clusters wailing in every few hours. Almost aimlessly. We crouch and watch. Retaliation is an absurdity. Attempts to return fire reveal positions. Why draw the crabs?

Reinforcements are arriving, gasping up the rear slope. They stare at our earth-brown faces and clothes. Numbers are down and every reo is welcome. Get your heads down for Christ sake! One jumps into our gun-pit, eyes shining. This is it at last, he keeps saying. Boy have I been waiting for this. The front line at last. Dancing brown eyes. Lean, clean face. Stares excitedly down the valley. Where are they? Another silent explosion erupts half a mile away then a spiteful crump as a black pall floats clear. A brief, puzzled look.

Wants to fire the machinegun. No way mate. What at? Just want to have a proper go. Twitching with excitement. Looked forward to this ever since school cadets. We stare past him without pity. He too is in his early twenties. He seems young. From country Victoria. Should be OK as number three on the Vickers.

Using my bayonet, I have carved small shelves in the clay wall of the trench. One holds a tin of precious, sweetened condensed milk. Another, a home-made oil lamp. Open C ration box. We liked American combat food at first but soon tired of it. Too salty – too sweet. Beans and frankfurter chunks. Meat and noodles. Sausage patties in gravy. Dry, salty biscuits. A sugary jelly disk. Flat sachets of uselessly sticky instant coffee. And treasured chocolate powder. 

After knocking a dent in a tin of baked beans make a crouching run across to the rear slope. Stunted pine trees dotting the ridge give some cover. Safe to stand erect back here. Below the big company HQ bunker, a shallow hole of glowing embers. Out of sight at night. Dry wood of ammo boxes produces almost no smoke. A few diggers sprawl around, already eating from tins. Toss mine into the fire. Pressure cooker method. Within minutes the dent pops out and the can raked clear before it explodes. As the top is punctured a thin red jet of scalding tomato sauce directed safely away.

November 1951. The Korean War. We are part of Australia’s 3rd Battalion. Our ridge - Don Company Hill - stretches eastwards from the steep, cone-shaped peak ‘Maryang San’ - we call 317 - a strategic pinnacle that dominates the countryside. Constant shelling has blasted the summit bald leaving it pock-marked with overlapping craters. Several close mates died when we seized this position from the Chinese a month earlier.

After eating, scamper back to weapon pit on the forward slope. Machine gun positions always sited well forward of the other pits so fire can be directed across our front.  Begin digging deeper, tossing extra spoil over the roof of our small bunker. Beyond the parapet the ground falls steeply away, down to the barbed wire.

Steel pickets driven in every two yards, six tight strands of wire. Expanded rolls of concertina tucked closely in on each side. Extra aprons of barbed wire stretched over the rest and firmly anchored on both sides. Looks great. Big mistake. Taut fences spring apart under shellfire. Wire should have been left slack. Too late now.

Daylight hours passing too quickly. Guts knotted. Strangely aching testicles. The reo expressing light-hearted disappointment. Nothing happening. Can’t wait to get stuck in he keeps saying. This is the Line kid. Ninety percent bored stiff – ten percent scared stiff. Keep digging.

Take a break and wander across to the other Vickers. Number one Grahame, always relaxed, lost in thought and quietly singing ‘Too Young’. He’d met a girl from Young just before leaving for Korea so I gather he is thinking about her. Can’t get this popular song out of my mind as I make my way back to our pit.

Number two crawls in dragging a wooden box. It contains a dozen pre-cocked grenades. Each securely wedged into a separate pocket. Levers held down by split pins with ring attached. Casually he unscrews every base plug, inserts a four-second fuse then replaces plug. The fully-armed grenades now re-inserted snugly back into the square wooden pockets. Then he carefully wriggles out every pin. Confined space around each grenade prevents levers from springing up and triggering off grenades. Pays to be ready he reckons.

A distant thump and instantly a shell explodes just below our wire. Close. Within seconds another sighs overhead. A third hits our crest 30 yards away. Ranging shells. Never hear the one that gets you they say. Something spinning buzzes past, violently flicking the brim of my slouch hat then strikes and becomes deeply embedded in my tin of condensed milk. Sticky, sugary liquid oozes around the jagged shell fragment, hissing and bubbling. Always a surprise to discover shrapnel is almost red hot.

My ear is wet. Only the tip had been sliced off. Strange, no immediate feeling of fear or relief, only curiosity. Perhaps my hat helped. Further along, someone screams over and over. Fades to a despairing whimper. Now a deep, resigned moaning. A wounded man crying like a child, crying for his mother. Stretcher bearers scuttling past, stepping over our pit. They return fast, bent low, half-skidding the dripping stretcher over scrub oak. Grey-purple, lumpy tubes dangle over one side, picks up bits of leaves and dust. The reo stands gaping. 

Hang on a minute. Move forward, lift and push tubes back. Unexpectedly hot, slippery and steaming slightly. The lower part of his stomach ripped away. I know him a little – quiet bloke. He suddenly opens his eyes. Hurt, bewildered. “I’m getting out of here Pete”. Turning his head, hand reaching down. Surprised, touching intestines, holding them in. “I think I’m in a bad way”. Such a tragic face. “I’ve never had a fuck you know – never had a fuck Pete”. Eyes already clouding as stretcher moves on. He’s gone. What a waste.

Now the reo is crouching, hugging the floor of the pit. Shaking quietly. Face ashen, mouth open, eyes closed. Took me by surprise he says softly. Then whimpering. They never said it was like this. That poor bastard. Didn’t know it was like this. Should have told us. Sorry, can’t stop trembling, can’t move.

We have lost him already. Another casualty. Not his fault. Too much, too soon. Later, someone leads him away, head down, still shaking. There are no cowards in the Line. There are no brave soldiers. Just those who appear to conceal fear and those who have yet to learn.

Sometimes, when afraid, we become absurdly superstitious. I decide to keep my hat on. Will be safe as long as it stays on my head. Pull it down firmly, tugging on the brim. Nothing can happen to me while my hat is on. The knot tightens. Continue digging. 

No more shells that day. They know the range now. Darkness arriving too quickly as we stand-to at last light, waiting. No movement. All quiet. Clip on dial-sight, locking machine gun on to new track. Two hours of silence. Still nothing. Perhaps not tonight after all. The searchlights beam upwards. Peace talks have resumed they say. Might get some sleep. Relax. Stand-to reduced to fifty-percent.

Hot tea on over in the big bunker calls the bloke in the next pit. Prise the shrapnel from the condensed milk tin. May as well use what’s left. Dribble the sticky, scorched dregs into my pannikin and stumble through the trees over the ridge.

The HQ bunker was built by Chinese troops. It is deep in the side of the hill, the roof heavily protected under a thick layer of earth. Inside, half a dozen blokes squat around a bucket of strong, sweet, milky tea. As I fill my pannikin, tell them about the young bloke’s last words. Never had a fuck. Long embarrassed silence. No-one wants to know. An ex-miner from Kalgoorlie sips his tea, looks at the floor. “You should have done the right thing by him Pete and dropped your tweeds”. We all laugh. Briefly. Guiltily. Strange how soldiers in the Line reject grief. Pick black flakes from my ear.

The first group of shells along our ridge arrive together. The barrage immediately intensifies, explosions blending into one continuous roar. So the attack is on tonight after all. The relentless booming pummels ears and the earth shakes incessantly. We remain trapped but safe in the bunker. Unless from a direct hit. Real danger starts when the barrage stops and the ground attack begins. That’s when we must leave the relative safety of the bunker and race back over the exposed ridge to our weapon pits. I watch the others. Faces pale, impassive, waiting. Pull my hat down tight. The crescendo of explosions rises. Massive bombardment. Attack imminent. Stiff with fear.

Snatches of popular song repeating in my head. Always when tired. Or terrified.

They try to tell us we’re too young,
Too young to really be in love…

Cannot hit back at shellfire. Soldiers in a state of helpless fear often appear to doze. Some already nodding. A form of escape perhaps. Close my eyes. Sleeping or fainting? Fresh smell of explosives drifting in. Dreaming. Wake suddenly. Complete silence. Listen! Listen!

Now the moment we have been dreading. Rasping, tearing bursts of small arms fire close by. The, brief, sinister burp of Chinese sub-machine guns. We’re under attack. Let’s go. My body goes rigid, mouth dry, tongue aching. Pull hat tighter. On our feet. Stare curiously at my open hands. Why are they not shaking?  Surprised.

We stand briefly, queuing to leave, then pour out, running into the open as the frantic crackling intensifies. Everywhere brightly lit. Overhead three silvery-green, brightly-glowing streaks hang in the sky. Even as they begin to fade, three more. Beautiful menacing fireworks, guiding the attackers directly to our positions.
 
Trees gone. Only shredded stumps remain. We lurch between them through smoking craters. Everywhere the aromatic, hostile smell of fresh explosives. The crescendo of small arms fire almost deafening.

They say that love’s a word,
A word we’ve only heard.
But can’t begin to know the meaning of…

Make it to the pit. Machine gun untouched. More green flares. Bright as day. Number two crouches over parapet firing long bursts from an Owen Machine Carbine.

And they are coming up fast. Below the barbed wire, waves of green-lit figures jerkily running upwards. Bulky quilted clothes. Two carrying a long, thick pole. Sliding it under our barbed wire. Bangalore torpedo. Packed with high explosives to blow a six yard gap in the wire. Too low to aim Vickers without unhooking rear bolt. Pull it out, lift the handles and press thumb piece. Almost half a belt. Shattering, sparking, and blasting away the parapet. Dazzling muzzle flashes light up surrounding area.

Number two now carefully lifting box of loaded grenades. Can’t wait. Upturns it and shakes armed grenades over the edge. Then the box in case any remain stuck. All roll down, release levers clicking, bouncing towards the wire. Four seconds to duck. A string of ear-splitting cracks and whining shrapnel. Flares stop.

Lock the gun back to path target. Grahame’s Vickers twenty yards away already firing. Bubble levelled. Four second bursts, timed with other machine gun. Dazzling, flickering muzzle flashes now attracting sniper fire. Sharp, head-tingling cracks of near misses. Throw groundsheet loosely over front of gun. Firing through it now. Muzzle flashes muffled, hidden. Safe. Belt after belt. Stink of burning rubber drifting back.

Groundsheet bursts into bright, revealing flames. Crab-drawing giveaway. Bullets crack past. Quick, put the fire out. Drag off flaming groundsheet. Desperately stamp out flames while continuing to fire. Steam squirting from the condenser can. Water madly boiling around over-heating gun barrel. Then slowly the mad frenzy slows as the small arms crackle fades to a stutter. Odd single shots. Stop firing. Silence. Ears ringing. Groans drift upwards. Waiting for the next wave. Pull hat down hard.

Retrieve partly-burnt groundsheet and stretch it tightly between tree stumps, two yards clear of muzzle. Can fire at set targets through it.
Retain accuracy without revealing position. Faint movements down below. We wait in the freezing darkness, staring and listening. Beyond the wire, soft, high-pitched moaning. The saddest sound of all. Furtive, dragging noises. Collecting their dead and wounded perhaps. The peaceful searchlights beam upwards, undisturbed.

And yet, we’re not too young to know,
This love will last, though years may go,
And then some day they may recall,
We were not, too young, at all…

Bright, green-glowing streaks again hang in the sky, now pointing along a ridge leading to our positions. Adjust dial-sight, level bubble. Re-aim. A full belt, then another. Our artillery called in. Non-stop rushing, sighing overhead, flickering explosions covering all parts of the ridge, flashes outline crest and curves of the slopes. Occasional mighty whams as eight inch shells scream over. Time no longer exists. Then a long, stunned silence. Smoke and warm smell of explosives drifting through our positions. One hundred percent stand-to until first light. We wait in our trenches. Numb. No-one speaks. Silence and darkness. Waiting, waiting. Gradually the vertical beams that mark the Panmunjom Neutral Zone fade as new day begins. Stand down. Keep watch. Our ridge no longer recognisable. We start digging deeper.

Some mail has arrived. We sit in our trenches reading. Daylight passing too swiftly, racing by. Someone has sent me a newspaper. Details of Manchester United match. Then on another page. Puzzling, unexpected headline: ‘WALL STREET INVESTORS GROAN AS NEW PEACE TALKS BEGIN’.

Who are these indifferent, greedy people? Perhaps the real enemies? So tired. Daylight already racing away. Lie along the bottom of the pit among spent cartridge cases. Pull hat down tighter, folding brim to cover ear scab and side of face. Thin, felt pillow. Staying safe with hat on. Stomach knot softening. Think about dying man calling for his mother. Perhaps we never really grow up. Drifting into sleep. Safe as a child now.

This piece was published as part of the anthology ‘The Penguin Book of War Writing’, edited by Mark Dapin (Viking). First published 31/10/2011.