Revved at Eenhana (14 March 1987)
2SAI Walvis Bay and Soweto 1986, rev on Eenhana 14 March 1987 and 1Mil hospital for the rest of 1987. Also some very brief camps at Wingfield.
I was a 2SAI mortarist trained in Walvis Bay and Rooikop. Nothing exceptional in the first year except for a 3 month stint in Soweto guarding schools. The basic format was to hang around the school till about 10am, then the kids would start making a lot of noise and throw the odd desk off the balcony. Occasionally a ½ brick would come our way, but not often. Their "artillery" section was amazing. They would eyeball us from the quad through the classroom windows and then lob the ½ brick over the double story and hit our vehicle a good 50m from the building. The girls would run away on their own and we would move in and the boys who were the ones doing the "rioting" would run off too. Then we had the place to ourselves till mid afternoon when the boys- the same ones- would drift back and play soccer against us. Funny how life turns out- at the very same time I was in Soweto getting bricks thrown at me, the girl I married 17 years later was throwing bricks at the army on the Cape Flats.
Second year was border and we were posted to Eenhana for the whole year. 6 weeks in we got our first- and my only- taste of action. Much of the below is compiled from stories I was told after I got back there about 7 months later, so some of the detail may be wrong or even confused with subsequent revs the guys had experienced. Eenhana base is still intact and can be found on Google Earth- just type in "Eenhana" and look for the airfield
Eenhana is usually staffed by about 200 soldiers, but on the Saturday in question there was a sports day at another base, so we only had about 50 guys in the base, and a lot of them were admin or chef types. Take out about 20 guys in the mortar pits and another 15 or so in the bunkers and the walls were virtually unguarded.
Obviously the opposing team knew this because they departed from the usual pattern of sending 10 guys with a few mortar pipes to try to hit us from 2km away then run for it, by sending about 40 well armed troops. This means that when comparing people who knew how to shoot, we were actually outnumbered. Of course we had the advantage of having a base, so to make things a bit more fair, we built them one too. Yes, really.
The cleared area North of the base was a perfect site to use as a shooting range. All we needed was a bulldozer to push up a wall of earth, and we could practice shooting into it all day long. But it was also a perfect site for a rugby field, so the mound was made just beyond the Northwest corner of the base, running North-South. This means we couldn't put fire onto the West side of the mound from inside the base, and the other guys could get within 30m of the base, walking upright. Oops. (Note: it was demolished after the rev so you won't see in on Google Earth!)
When the shooting started they were too close to hit with mortars, protected from rifle and machine gun fire, and able to lob their ample supply of rifle grenades over our walls. You don't use rifle grenades for base defense, so we had none to send back.
The common buildings in the base are all hardwired to a generator, and if we are attacked, someone's job is to shut it down. He's actually supposed to sleep next to it when we're expecting an attack (which we were) but you can't sleep next to a running diesel generator, so he was in his bed. When the trouble started there was too much stuff falling and he couldn't get to the genny.
I was in the mortar pit on the Northwest corner, just inside the ring road, right next to a toilet block. It seems to be the only pit left, according to Google Earth. The way things work is that the 4 mortars are aimed at the 4 most likely target areas, and when the shooting starts, you just fire onto your target until somebody radios you and says where you should be aiming. So the 4 guys in my pit are just running up and down pouring bombs down the mortar's throat. At this point there's a big explosion and we all fall down. Gather ourselves, and establish that nobody dropped one, nobody double-loaded the pipe, and the last bomb left in a hurry so it's long gone (sometimes the charge gets wet and it takes off slowly and falls next to you) In retrospect of course, had it been an 81mm mortar bomb we would have been vaporized. It was "only" a rifle grenade. Anti-tank one, nogal!
Then we each notice that the other guys look quite shiny so we pop to the loo for a look, seeing as it's so well lit. Doesn't look good. The shiny stuff is blood. A lot of blood. One guy has only a small wound on his leg. Somebody must have been standing between him and the explosion. The rest look a mess. Just then another grenade airbursts in the branch of the tree next to us and all the shrapnel comes through the corrugated iron walls of the toilet block. More shiny red areas appear. We realize they must be aiming at the light, and leave.
The leg guy goes back to his tent, bandages himself, and comes back looking for us. Didn't find us. We went to the pit next door- to help out there (isn't adrenaline wonderful), but they took one look at us and pointed out the sickbay.
The other 2 guys both took a lot of shrapnel in the gut and had a few operations each, but at the time seemed to have no lasting damage. Maybe 22 years later that isn't the case, but I have no way of knowing. One of the guys was face down on a mattress on the floor getting shrapnel tweezered out of his back when he mentioned his chest was very sore. They rolled him over, poked and prodded, and he seemed fine, but now his back was sore. After a few repeats they found the medic's rifle on the mattress under the sheet.
I had a matchbox full of shrapnel pulled out of me (damned medic kept it) but I've still got at least as much left in me. They don't bother to take it out if it's under the surface, cos it's red hot and therefore sterile when it goes in. I set off metal detectors. I took a big one in the nuts, which hurt like hell but didn't do any damage. Many years later I had an x-ray taken of my left forearm after a bike accident, and counted 16 bits of metal from elbow to wrist. Both arms and legs got a lot of shrapnel but very few in the torso and only one head shot which was my left eye, only discovered after 2 days.
Our lieutenant arrived with the tailfin of one of the rifle grenades that got us. Grinning like a Cheshire cat. He was so happy with his trophy he forgot to look upset about us. It's an anti tank one that's supposed to have a killing radius of 6m. It landed 2m away from us on concrete. The second one in the tree was about 5m away but the shrapnel was slowed by the toilet walls. I don't think the Russians were too hot on QC, but I was quite happy to receive substandard goods that day. Damned Lieut. kept the fin.
During the attack the Commandant walked around the base. When he got to our pit it had been occupied by the crew from next door who had used all their ammo, but they were digging our ammo out of the pile of shredded sandbags that used to be our ammo pit. He asked what had happened and when told, apparently lost it for a few seconds and kicked the shit out of the sandheap, which probably wasn't too clever. Then he came straight over to see us. He did look upset.
Koevoet were camped out nearby and joined in the fun, only to be mistaken for the enemy by some guys in the base, as well as our guys at the water tower in town. None of our guys took friendly fire from them- I think they knew where we were- but they took some casualties. No idea which side shot them, though.
Our hard drinking sergeant had managed to get himself a rare folding-butt R1 rifle which was his baby and probably the cleanest R1 in the world. When the pub was closed he cleaned that rifle. He was very eager to try it out in anger. So eager, he tripped on his way to the wall and dropped it. R1's jam if they get one grain of sand into them, so he cocked about 3 magazines through it without getting a shot off, then ran back for a patmor (patrol mortar. Portable 60mm).
The aapkas (tower) was manned by a lookout, not a spotter. The plan is that the spotter goes up and relieves him when the attack starts, but the aapkas is a nice target. He was crouched under the plotting table with tracers going past over his head but under the canopy, and below his feet, where the ladder was. I think they tried to get him with an RPG as well. Took a while to change the watch. In fact I think it was only when Koevoet got the SWAPO guys running that things became normal, and the mortars could do something about them. There was a minor base invasion via the chopper pad, but fortunately we didn't get overrun. The shooting range wall was in the cleared area outside the base, the invasion came via the chopper pad. Without Koevoet I believe we would have lost that base.
When things calmed down they choppered us out to the field hospital at either Oshakati or Ondangwa- not sure of my facts here, where we stayed for a few days. I got an eye patch and some drops to clear up the "arc-eye" I'd gotten from the first explosion, which had gone off exactly where I happened to be looking. We were "adopted" by a group of very black guys from 32 Battalion who fed us all their rat pack energy bars and were generally extremely nice to us. Despite a language gap, they tried very hard to reassure us- we were basically just frightened boys, but they were hardened soldiers. We were, of course, trained racists so made no effort to get to know anything about them as they were black and therefore subhuman. Sorry guys. I'm ashamed of who I was.
After 2 days my "arc-eye" hadn't cleared up so the Doc took another look and found a bit of shrapnel. Instead of back to Eenhana on a DC3 I got a C130 ride to Pretoria. In the jumpseat, with patches over both eyes and instructions not to peep- for my eyes sake, not secrecy or anything. I peeped a lot- quite a fun flight actually.
The shrapnel had penetrated about 2/3 of the way back and had ruined the lens. Had an op a week later to remove shrapnel and lens. Spent my 19th birthday alone in a dark room with patches over both eyes a few days later. After the patches were off I could move around a bit and meet some other guys. One was 19 and had lost both eyes. They had been out on patrol, bedded down for the night and somebody had lit a cigarette. He was learning Braille and getting around with a cane. Later he got given tasks like going to town to buy something and then getting the right bus back. The smoker was uninjured.
One day we noticed that the red handwash at every washbasin was 96% alcohol. No, we didn't drink it. A group of us took some into the bathroom and put a little in a 2 litre Coke bottle, then pricked the lid (metal ones in those days) with a Bic and held a lighter at the hole. It took off like a rocket in a small space full of people. We poured out into the passage full of bruises with tears of laughter running down our cheeks. If you're going to try this at home, use a big area. After that we used the main corridor of the ward to send our rocket up and down, then when we got bored with it we launched it out of a 7th story window into the car park. We also used rubber gloves as water balloons and threw them out.
Military hospital is interesting. You're still in the army, so you get woken at 5am every day and told to get out of bed and make it. Then because it's hospital, you can get straight back in again. Soon we perfected pulling it straight without getting out, and then just nodding off again. Our ward had a fat two-stripe nurse who was a bit of a Rottweiler and enforced the bed-making thing very strictly. One day a guy arrived- his rank was scout, which was the same as a rifleman or private- zero. But his card over his bed said "sct" which she misread as "sgt" so every morning she woke him up and very sweetly asked "the Sergeant" to vacate the bed for 2 minutes so she could make it, while barking at the rest of us. She found out the day he was discharged.
At night there is one matron in charge of the whole place with junior nurses in every ward. They called each other whenever she visited their ward so they could track her movements and plan their snoozes. We also stayed up at night and had wheelchair races or wheelie competitions. I could sit in the wheelie position as if I was in a recliner, reading a book and controlling the chair with one hand, for hours. Every few minutes you need to go no-hands to turn the page. I still have difficulty walking past a wheelchair without hopping in and taking it for a wheelie.
Spent about 7 months at 1Mil as inpatient and outpatient living in the old DB (Detention Barracks, i.e.: jail), with a fair amount of recovery leave thrown in. At first after the op you see the Doc every day, then every 2 days, then once a week, etc. By that stage you're at the DB. Pop down to the hospital for 8am and the Doc is finished with you by 9, so you wander down to town. Eventually you reach the stage when he only wants to see you again in a month. He opens his drawer and pulls out a book of leave forms, a book of train tickets and a book of bedding tickets and writes everything out. Back a month later, overnight in the DB, 15 minutes with the Doc, a day in town, overnight at the DB again and the next morning and you're back on the Trans Karoo.
Eventually they discharged me sometime in November. I was supposed to be have been reclassified to G3 or G4 but I only had a few weeks left so they said it wasn't worth the paperwork. I reckoned that was fine- it was too late to retrain me and redeploy me anyway, so I went back to Eenhana and back into my mortar pit, but was otherwise on light duty. Everyone was happy. As it worked out I was hardly there- I got back to base just before 40 days, but they owed me a lot of leave so I turned right round and went home. Got back again for 2 days before trucking back to Walvis and going home.
Then 2 years down the line I get called up for a camp at Wingfield, but I'm still G1K1. They want me to sit on the back of a bakkie and get rocks and petrol bombs thrown at me in the townships. I convinced them that this was a bad idea with me having a blind side, so they put me in the kitchen to scrub pots. Except that the wash area is actually bare white concrete in full sun, which quickly buggers up my remaining eye. I stormed off, got in my car and drove to the sickbay, but on the way I actually drove off the runway. It's not that they're narrow or anything- I just couldn't see. It did very little towards calming me down, so when I burst into the sickbay and demanded permission to go see my eye Doc, they sheepishly arranged it. I returned with a note saying I wasn't allowed to work in the sun.
Then they tried to make me a signaller but my Afrikaans was terrible as I was just a poor immigrant boy (who was actually fluent but had developed an attitude by now). They tried to get me to clean toilets but I just plain refused- I lost this f$cking eye in the war protecting these other guys who were posted to cushy bases further South. I'm not wiping up after them! It should be the other way round!
At morning roll call we were divided up by job, and I was alone as the unemployed guy. After roll call every day I got a one-day pass- I needed to be back in by midnight. After a week or so I overslept one morning and was woken by someone standing over me with a clipboard asking for my number, rank, name. He wrote it down, tore off a page and put it next to me on my pillow, then left. It was my one-day pass. Room service! Never bothered to get up for roll call after that.
Somewhere along the lines I started commuting to camp with my bike rather than the car. The tents were H shaped with the door at the middle, and just on my side of the entrance was a nice bike-sized space, so I asked everyone on my side if it was ok for the bike to sleep there, and they agreed. Pretty soon some guy from the other side of the tent has an issue, but it's about my illegally small number plate. I asked him "who the f$ck are you?" and it seemed he was regimental police but in real life he was a traffic cop. And born for it. Next day I had to leave the bike out in the rain because "he had spoken to the Captain and the Captain says it's not allowed in the tent." Next day I walk past the Captain's tent and discover he's a biker too, and guess where his bike sleeps? Dropped the RP in the doo-doo and put the bike back indoors where she belongs. The RP promises to fine me for the plate if he ever sees me on the road, which he does 6 months later, but oversteps his authority totally by removing the disk from my completely roadworthy bike and also allows me to provoke him into swearing at me (by pointing out the smooth tyre on his patrol bike) in front of my girlfriend who is "horrified" While he is writing the fine she is popping his spark plug caps off. Of course the traffic chief gets a visit from me, and disciplines him for his behaviour.
After 2 weeks they gave up and sent me home, but 6 months later they called me up again. I arranged the month leave and had to call my boss after a day and tell him I'll be back tomorrow cos they have no use for me. Turns out that every time this happens they just defer my camp for 6 months, sometimes even less, so I'm getting called up and sent home all the time. By now I just show the months' call up papers to the boss and he gives me a day off for it.
One day I rock up for my month camp on the bike, in civvies, with long curly heavy metal rock star hair and no luggage, not even a toothbrush. Doesn't take long for a purple faced sergeant major to spot me. He must have spent a good 5 minutes screaming into my face from about a foot away before he let me say anything, and then telling him that I didn't really care as I would be at home by lunchtime earned me another 5 minutes. It was a late lunch that day cos it took me half an hour to find him before I left. Would have been rude not to say goodbye.
Not long after that I visited the base commander and asked for some sanity to be applied. Surprisingly, he agreed to lose my file in a place where it would only be found if WW3 broke out, and I never had another callup.
In 1991 I had op number 2 on the eye to insert an artificial lens in the position vacated by the original lens. I now had good distance vision but as the lens was fixed focus it was useless for close work. Overall though it allowed me to have a pretty normal life.
Then 20 years on, on 30 September 2007, I am given my reason for writing this story- my retina detaches. I had been told in 1987 that this would happen. It was a question of "when" rather than "if". From then, till Feb 2009 I have had 8 operations(bringing the total to ten), totally lost the use of the eye, had 6 months off work in absolute agony, and most of the rest of the time haven't been able to put in a full 8 hours. As of March 2009, I am ok and planning a trip to Eenhana and through Angola to Luanda. Part of it is business, a lot is for healing.
The author can be contacted via Sentinel Projects, mail form at foot of the front page.