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11 September 1952
by Larry G. Francisco 6400084 3RAR
14 June 1952 - 20 September 1953
1 Platoon was on a knoll in front of 187, a new position that had to be dug. Lovely autumn days, things pretty quiet in the valley, some hard physical work to keep us occupied and low causalities - pretty good soldiering. Plenty of shelling but nothing directed at us, so that was all right. At night, we dug fighting pits on the forward slope, in good text book style carting the spoil away for disposal on the rear slope - very hard bloody work - then we laid miles of tanglefoot wire. Not a bad position. We dug pits for water, ammo, latrines but had only just started on hootchies. 1 Section had dug one, put logs and a layer of sand bags on, and also found an old Chinese dugout.
In the meantime, the rest of us were sleeping in pup-tents. We even had a fresh meal sent up, the first since we'd been in the line; meat balls and potatoes. We collected our grub, settled in little groups in the hollows, and in came a couple of whizbangs. The air was thick with flying meatballs and boiled potatoes. In an instant we were gone like rabbits. Not a soul to be seen and dinner was still floating back to earth.
Those two shots were the sighters.
Stood down in the morning. It was my birthday the next day. Half way through a C ration breakfast, the first one came in. Charlie started on the forward slope casually knocking out our carefully concealed pits. The OP came tearing over the hill before they got round to the one he was in. We went to our incomplete hootchie, a bit uneasy. The head cover we had wouldn't stop a grenade. A few shells came over but weren't landing too close. Freddie Williams was trying to get a close up photo of a shell burst. The rest of us were getting pretty apprehensive. Half decided to get into the Chinese dugout, the remainder stayed in the uncompleted pit.
Then Charlie got on the ball. He really plastered the place, nice and easy. It went on all day. He blew up the tents, the water, the ammo, the shit house. We were getting peppered. I remember thinking, "I'm 21 and I'll never be 22."
Our Lieutenant, Geoff Smith, came around to check on us, got blown over and said a few choice words. The Chow dugout took a hit, the entrance collapsed and we had to dig those inside out. They came coughing, spluttering and very dazed. By now we were in a trench, just waiting to cop it or for it to stop. It was a very long day.
Around sunset Charlie called it a day by taking a couple of shots at a nearby Centurion tank, which was behind us to the right. [The tank was from the British Tank Regiment and was dug in on the ridge line]. We presumed these were sighters because they would be able to see the sparks as the shells exploded off the 10 inches of armour. Some of the shrapnel started a little fire which spread to the tank's machine gun ammunition. One of the troopers jumped out and very gamely started shovelling dirt on the exploding ammo. That was when the last shell of the day went down the open hatch of the tank. There was just a muffled boom. That was it for the Centurion and its crew.
We came out in the dusk. The position was devastated. There were shell holes everywhere and our gear was in rags. I had the crown of a brand new slouch hat blown out. (Fortunately, I was nowhere near it at the time). I couldn't believe that the platoon was not wiped out, let alone had not taken a casualty.
I went back to the Ridge that night. The tank was being hauled out. Ray Simpson's section was taking care of the surviving trooper; they had the poor bugger well drunk and just about calmed down. Start off a hero and kill your pals. About a week later we got issued with tin hats, as if that was going to make any difference.
First published in The Voice, December 1997. This is an edited version.