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Robert Pearson

Robert Pearson

Private, Australian Army


Private Robert Charles Pearson

9th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 2412516
Rank on discharge: private

"Our five-man tracking team and my tracker dog, Julian, were requested to patrol with Delta Company, who had discovered a bunker system in very thick jungle. Shortly after arriving, there was contact with two Viet Cong, resulting in one of them being wounded.

Julian was put onto the blood trail which he followed for approximately 150–200 metres. After this anxious track through the bunker systems, Julian collapsed under a tree from exhaustion. My cover man and I were with Julian, and the visual tracker came crawling up alongside us. We were lying on the edge of the track, looking for signs of where the enemy might have gone.

I then looked up the track, and maybe 7–8 metres away was a Claymore mine pointing at us.

We laid there, and my mind kept picturing that mine going off and killing all four of us. Thankfully, we were able to slowly crawl back out of there."

Bob Pearson joined the Army three weeks before he turned 18. Bob did three years in the Army, and eight months in Vietnam. He said, “As a teenager, I was quite keen on guns. At 12-and-a-half I was running around illegally with a gun shooting anything that moved. In those days you could run around in paddocks even in suburbia. Everyone had a shotgun behind the back door to shoot anything that might be a problem, mainly snakes.”

“I wasn't too good at being locked up in a classroom, I longed for the outdoor life. I tried to get into the police cadets, and I went to the Police Boys’ Club and started working out, gave up smoking, put on the required weight and did all the exams. But I was three weeks too old for the cadets and 15 months too young for the police. In frustration, I went down to the Army recruiting office.”

“My father was 60 when I was born, and I was three when he passed away. He was a First World War veteran and I suppose that was part of it too. I’d been brought up by my dear old mum and sister, so I really needed to get out with the boys and find out what life was like. I was a bit of a wuss, so it was a bit of an adjustment. But I was the best shot in the platoon, and I was always the fastest one up the rope or whatever.”

“I had no real want to get into the infantry, but Long Tan hit while I was going through basic training. My mother had talked about the Communist surge from the North, and it had been in the back of my mind to do something to fight the Communist insurgents. I put my name down for infantry training and did my basic training at Ingleburn. I loved it and couldn't wait to get overseas, but I was too young.”

“At that time, they were introducing dog handlers into the infantry. We always had dogs in the family, I loved dogs, so I put up my hand to join the tracking team. There were only two dogs in each battalion so there was a good chance I might not see active service.”

“I had a great little dog called Julian. Julian was a Kelpie-Labrador cross. Labradors can be a bit lazy, and they tend to overeat and oversleep; the Kelpie gives them the extra energy to carry on and the ability to deal with a wetter climate. I did Julian’s basic training, and he was coming ahead in leaps and bounds, but I was too young to take him to Vietnam.”

“Julian went to Vietnam in November 1967 with the 3rd Battalion. It was a sad day, but that’s the way it is in the Army. I got a new dog called Rufus, and we got posted to Woodside in South Australia where they formed the 9th Battalion. Now it turned out, the 9th Battalion was scheduled to take over from the 3rd Battalion in Vietnam. I flew over with the advance party to be reintroduced to Julian and have some time with him before the battalion arrived by ship.”

“We had a very good visual tracker on our five-man team, and he could take over from the dog when the dog tired. His name was Tex (Ronald James) O’Toole, and he used to work for the Tasmanian police as a tracker, so he was exceptional. Of course, he didn't point, and he didn't have the ability to give us the heads up when he had the scent of an enemy soldier in his nostrils. So that was the downside of course.”

“You could spend two to three weeks in a fire support base without getting called out, but Charlie Company liked to have us tag along. We spent a fair bit of time with them beyond the wire, and if they had a contact, they would call us out to go pick up a blood trail or something like that.”

“One particular time sticks in my mind. Delta Company had found a fresh bunker system in very thick jungle, and they called us out. It might have only been a kilometre or two from the fire support base, so we were within range of mortars or artillery.”

“While we were getting organised, we had a sentry sitting about 40 metres from our position and a VC (Viet Cong) came into view and the sentry shot him. When he got up to grab the body, another VC popped out and shot the sentry with a burst of AK-47. He was badly wounded but not mortally.”

“We waited for Dustoff (medevac) and in that time the VC picked up his mate and headed back into the bunker system. The blood trail was almost two hours old by the time I put Julian onto it. No one had been into the bunker system, so we didn't know how extensive it was or whether it was occupied. It was rather frightening.”

“The bunker systems were well camouflaged, and the vegetation grew quickly in that climate. There was no way of knowing if a bunker was 10 years’ old or three months’ old until you actually stuck your head down.”

“With this track, and every track I put Julian on, I hoped to God that he pointed and that I could keep an eye on him. He would be 20 feet in front of me on a lead and when he went round a corner, I had to pull him in so I could keep visuals on him. Every dog has a different pointing motion, whether it urinates or lifts up a front leg, or its tail goes up or wags. They all have their characteristics, and the handler has to know the dog’s point so he doesn't push him into something he can't handle.”

“We tracked for no more than 150-200 metres through the bunker system and then Julian collapsed through exhaustion. I went down with a cover man to Julian and Tex O’Toole, the visual tracker, came crawling up. The scrub was very thick with no sunshine coming through at all. We were looking for signs of where the enemy might have gone, and I looked up the track to the right and there was a Claymore mine about eight metres away, pointing straight at us. I was about to shoot the legs off it, but Tex said, ‘No, it might be a signal. They might be somewhere else.’ So, we just laid there.”

“Anyway, the word went back to the Louie (lieutenant), and he pulled us out of there and managed to get a couple of Centurion tanks to come through and destroy the bunker system. That was one tracking day, that I thought was my last.  That’s how it was. Boredom would set in for weeks at a time, and then you go out and within a couple of hours you feel like your life’s almost over.”

“Julian was trained not to bark, so one of the lieutenants from Charlie Company said it would be alright to have us on a night ambush. So, Julian and I found ourselves in the kill zone on the left-hand flank. It was very thick jungle and a very well-used track. At four o’clock we were woken by the sound of automatic fire a few feet away and I was groping for Julian. He was on a lead right next to the M16 rifle, and I was pulling him back and trying to get a burst out at the same time. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, so there was little chance of seeing a jet-black dog. It was one of those incidents when sheer terror comes over you. I don’t know how Julian dealt with it, but when the light came up the next morning, we did a clearing patrol, and he didn’t take kindly to that.”

“One time, I went on R&R and the very next night the fire support base was mortared. So, Julian had to contend with that, with somebody else to comfort him. Silly things like that used to worry me. It was only four weeks later that I came back to Australia, so they had to find a handler for Julian. After all these years, you think about these things. You think you coped well at the time, but in later years when you have the time to think, you can dwell on it a bit too much.”

“I didn’t get into any battles, I was lucky, and I feel blessed that I came away from Vietnam without any real physical scarring. I suppose we're all affected mentally by everything we do and see and hear, it's just part and parcel of wars. I think I tried to block a lot of it out over the years, because it's like a different life to me.”

“You think how fast three years in your life goes, but looking back my three years in the Army was probably the most significant three years of my life. There’s not a day that I don’t think about it. It might be simply walking the dog down a track and looking for things that anybody else walking a dog wouldn’t give a second thought to.”