The swamp patrol... someone has to do it.
Someone shouted, ‘Where’s the bloody barrel?’ Another called back, ‘What you mean, "Where’s the barrel?" You didn’t bloody lose it, did you?’
‘It must have come off when he went under,’ someone else suggested.
I had been listening to the frantic voices, not to mention a fair amount of swearing that is the norm in the way of life of any soldier in the world, and the Dutch Colonial Army was no exception. Albeit for the “Cold War” era, the colonial army was considerably more disciplined than was the norm at the time, mainly due to the fact that this was an all-volunteer army; people wanted the experience of being in the tropics.
‘All right, all right,’ I said at last, looking around where we had come out of the water. ‘If it isn’t there, then it’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it, don’t get your knickers into a knot about it now; it’s gone, end of story. I’ll write a report later.’
The barrel the distressed soldier was worrying about was a spare barrel for one of the Bren guns each group carried along during the many lengthy patrols through the Amazonian jungles of Surinam.
As usual it all began at four in the morning in the advanced jungle camp close to the airport. Wash, get dressed, then a last decent breakfast, and then lug our packs into the three tonner trucks was all routine. The trucks were called “three tonners” for the load they could carry. Apart from the blazing lights in the camp, all of this happens in the dark and mostly in silence since in general, apart from a few funny remarks or the usual loud mouths, no one feels particularly inclined to talk at that time in the morning unless fuelled by a rather large cup of coffee. The timing was usually quite exact and by the time the trucks reached their destination point with their slumbering cargo, daylight would just about have appeared which would be somewhere around six in the morning. You could nearly set you watch to it because this far south into the tropics, give or take ten minutes allowing for the seasons, daylight would break at about six, fast and practically without a proper dawn the way we like it up north; it’s like someone throws a switch and says, “Ok guys, daylight now until six, maybe quarter past six at night and then I’ll pull the plug.”
The trucks dumped us along the orange coloured bauxite road near the old rail road track surrounded on all sides by dense triple canopy jungle. The lieutenant approached me and we consulted our plastic sealed maps. ‘We’ll begin here’, he said as he plotted out a heading towards who knows where or what. The maps were in fact mostly white only interspaced with lines, names of patches, streams, swamps, the occasional hamlet and headings, for the rest the charts were frightfully bare, full of uncharted territory.
‘This is where we’re going for today.’
‘Is that a swamp lying in our way?’ I asked, already knowing the answer.
‘Yep… and it’s too big, we can’t go around,’ the Lieutenant said, not quite known for using too many words especially not after a night of drinking beer and Bols Jenever.
Without any doubt, knowing myself, I will in all likelihood have said something like, ‘Isn’t that lovely.’
A staff sergeant looked at me and rolled his eyes at the now rapidly brightening sky.
One of my young NCO’s had disappeared into the bush, throwing up – obviously the result of a few beers or whiskeys too many the previous short night.
‘All right, here’s your heading,’ the lieutenant said quietly. ‘We’re wasting daylight hours… let’s move.’
I told the sergeant who had just been emptying the remainder of his breakfast to stay in the rear with his group, and moved the alpha group into point. Without wasting time they began hacking their way through the dense foliage.
In the early seventies, contrarily to the regular army in the Netherlands, the remainders of the shrinking Colonial Army and Marines were an all-volunteer army. After several months training in the Netherlands, volunteers – if they passed the rigorous selection – signed on for a minimum of twelve to fourteen months. People didn’t bitch much; they simply got on with it. In fact for most, charging through the Amazonian forest was more like the adventure of our life, so finding soldiers to go up front and hack their way through with machetes was never a problem.
I remember this was the sort of thing talked and fantasized about when we were teenagers still at school. During the sixties, in the town of Lausanne, Switzerland, where I grew up, there was this bar called the “Explorer”. We would have a drink there after school and look at all the pictures on the wall of real explorers thrashing through the jungles in Africa and South America, discovering hitherto unknown tribes, animals or plants. Living in the perfectly clean environment of Switzerland, where not even the branch of a tree would dare to be out of place without permission, we always wondered what it would be like to in a place of uncharted territory, wild and dangerous. And then one day, some five years later, quite unexpectedly, I found myself standing right there, in the middle of that vast forest without end, they call the Amazon. And truly, it is an amazing experience.
I took my two most enthusiastic bush hackers up front and one soldier behind me to keep track of the amount of paces while I kept track of our magnetic heading on the compass. But even then I always had to hack with my own machete at the encroaching branches. When the jungle gets dense there is no space for anyone else up front except for the boys on point which means everybody stays behind for hundreds of meters and does nothing but wait. When they are finally called forward to continue on, one can hear the sound of numerous machetes in an almost futile attempt to widen the path. After an hour of slow progress we changed the “pathfinders” and the four of us moved all the way to the rear letting someone else have the fun of penetrating the wall of virgin vegetation.
I can’t remember if it was three or four hours later but suddenly we heard agitated voices coming from the front. The forest began to open up considerably and within minutes we found ourselves standing in a wide semi-circle in front of… the dreaded swamp.
It stretched out wide and long surrounded on all sides by thick forest. Going around would not only by costly in time, probably at least a day, but it carried the risk of losing track of our position. I looked at the sky above and noticed that during the few hours under the triple canopy of the silent forest, the sun was gone. It had now been replaced by a thick overcast with already faraway dark edges that surely would foretell a spell of tropical rain.
One of the young men dressed as a soldier was in fact one of the native Indians that sometimes were hired to come along on more risky patrols for their knowledge of the forest.
Looking down at the reeds and even thicker vegetation sticking out of the dark water I asked, ‘So what kind of lovely creepy crawlers can we expect in this wonderful… swamp?’
He did not look up when he answered, maybe as apprehensive and weary as everyone else, ‘Boa Constrictor and maybe an Anaconda or two lurking around. Bloodsuckers probably and the occasional Cayman and Stingray, but they’ll probably keep their distance with all the noise we make. ’
Without any doubt I answered something cynical like, ‘What incredible luck… I always wanted to see a Boa up close and personal.’
With the distinctive clang that only a Remington riot gun makes, the Indian scout slid the pump action of his shot gun back and let a cartridge slide into the barrel; clearly he wasn’t taking any chances.
First lieutenant Baker broke open a pack of ammo. ‘All right, listen up everyone: every fourth man, take five bullets. You keep an eye out for each other and only use one in extreme need. It will be alright guys, don’t worry.’
Slowly and reluctantly we began to wade into the dark forbidding water that lay before us, holding our World War II M 1 jungle carbines in both hands, ready to keep them above our heads, high and dry. Everyone had come out here of their own free will, for the adventure, and now was the time to prove it and just get on with it.
Within minutes I had water up to my waist, water of an impenetrable colour, like Coca Cola. All around reeds of various heights peeked out above the surface making it difficult to see where the end would be, if there ever was going to be an end.
A long line of soldiers were working their way forward, from time to time stopping, searching for a better or shallower passage. A soldier close to me pushed an ammo box in front of him, floating it like a toy boat. He smiled and said something like, ‘It’s easier like this, I don’t have to carry the bloody thing.'
After half an hour the comments began flying back and forth as fatigue began to set in and the bitching began. Some, especially up front, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the adventure. I could hear their animated conversations over a long distance. Another half hour and the water became deeper, reaching up to our chests, and some faces began to betray fear, especially among the smaller boys.
With nowhere to sit, rest was not possible. ‘How much longer, Warrant?’ a worried face asked.
‘We’re nearly out,' I answered. 'Listen, I can hear guys who have reached dry land.' It was true, but we first had to cross a patch of tall overgrowing reeds while keeping track of our heading. The reeds and other vegetation began to become oppressive, hanging over us and then the water became even deeper. I yelled, ‘Hold on to each other; no one goes under.’ I took the smallest one and held him under his arm, but then we did go under. I moved as fast under the dark water as I could, pushing the boy in front of me, and then just as suddenly as we had gone under, we popped up again and simultaneously broke out of the reeds. Voices encouraged us along the last few meters and then up the steep embankment. Everywhere soldiers were lying among the shrubs exhausted, mostly silently staring at the sky above. Some, however, never shut up and were enjoying the adventure of their life. Helping hands dragged the last stragglers out of the menacing water and then we began calling out names making sure no one had been left out there on their own.
When we were certain everyone was accounted for, Lieutenant Baker had a morale- boosting surprise in store when he pulled a plastic heat-sealed bag out of his backpack and began to distribute the mail with a grin on his face. ‘Well done, boys… no one panicked… really well done.’