Why you should care
Because when Australia moved into East Timor to help the U.N. reestablish order, all kinds of hell broke loose.
He wore a black Stetson cowboy hat, carried a G3 battle rifle, and when he prowled the jungles with his men, he wore soccer shoes. Shoes with a unique tread pattern that let everyone know he was there. In a world of grass huts and bows and arrows, he had become a god. Or a ghost. And it was rumored that he lived in a concrete house with 13 people buried in the front garden as a reminder to all about what would happen if you crossed him.
In 1999, as an Australian Infantry visual tracker, I was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with this man and his crew. Because back in my day there were no desert wars. My teachers had all been Vietnam-era guys. So I learned from them how to track guys while trying to stay hidden. See, I was a sniper by trade, but the jungle limited the range of my long rifle. Which means I used other skills — and keen eyesight — to hunt. People, exclusively.
… they got hit with approximately 800 rounds of rifle and machine gunfire and six to eight hand grenades. They were in bed at the time.
Australia had invaded the island of Timor as a part of the U.N. and was in charge of the task force that drove the Muslim Indonesian Army across the river that divided the country and became the new border. The Indonesians were on the west side. We were on the east side. Their side was Muslim. Ours was Christian. The wet season began. A pause in gunfire ensued. Until the rain stopped. Then the river went down so it could be walked across.
So walk across it they did. With rifles. With machine guns. With hand grenades.
We were in their old backyard. Where a lot of the pro-Indonesian militia had grown up hunting wild pigs. They knew the tracks and they knew the jungle. They were small and light. We were big and heavy. They had the advantage.
One day an old man comes into our compound. He’s in a panic. He keeps yelling “Militia, militia!” He speaks no English other than that word. The local language was Tetum so I pulled out a phrase book and tried to work out what had happened. He told me that he had seen six guys fully armed in uniform in the jungle on our side. I asked him if he could take me to the spot where he saw them. An armored vehicle arrived and I got him to take me to the spot.
He showed me where they were but stayed inside the vehicle. Afraid.
My No. 2 and I patrolled to the spot and quickly found boot prints in the mud on the side of the road where they crossed it. Six sets of prints. All army boots but one set. I couldn’t believe it. One set was studded like soccer shoes. It made no sense. But it was close to dark by then so I took photos, recorded the spot on my GPS and went back to our compound.
After thanking the old man, I sent my request in to HQ to be able to begin tracking the enemy patrol at first light. It was approved. A section was sent to me at dawn. Only this time a lieutenant was with them. They wore backpacks, which I asked them not to wear because they created noise. I was outranked, but I wouldn’t let that stop me and so we set out. The pursuit had begun.
The first thing I noticed was a tactical awareness unlike normal militia: These guys were trying to stay hidden. They moved from cover to cover. They used stealth.
The jungle was full of lantana though, a vine-like hedge that had grown wild and was almost impenetrable. I followed them into some swamp, then onto the other side where they apparently walked into a wall of lantana and … disappeared?
These guys had vanished. But I got down on the ground and lifted up the lantana vines. Underneath was a cut. A machete cut. What they had done was hold a machete in front of their faces, blade uppermost, and burrowed under the vines. Like rats. After they passed through, the vines fell back down perfectly covering their tracks like they were never there. But they were. I was impressed. I went in after them.
My No. 2 and I were dressed light. We had no problems. But the guys following us had packs. They got hooked up. They struggled. They got too hot. They started to come down with heat exhaustion. They were slowing me down and making too much noise. I pushed them back 100 to 200 yards behind me so that they wouldn’t give me away.
I found where the enemy had spent the night. In a creek. They had stayed spread out. They had eaten cold ramen noodles. They had left the wrappers on the rocks where they sat. Another anomaly. When you are being sneaky you don’t leave trash clearly visible behind.
The enemy crossed the creek and headed up to a hilltop. I went up after them. When I got to the top, the hill flattened out. I needed a breather. The sign I was following was under two hours old. They were close. I waited for the guys who were following. My protection.
When they arrived, they were exhausted. The lieutenant was ranting. I tried to explain that the enemy was just up ahead, but they were having none of it. The lieutenant called his superior to ask that the patrol be canceled and return to base.
But we had just started to hear voices. Voices and chopping noises. I asked the lieutenant if he and his men could come with me to investigate.
He refused. I saw fear in his eyes.
I told him that I was going with my No. 2 to see what was ahead without them. He slumped down on his pack, poured a water bottle over his head and stared at his boot laces.
My buddy and I headed forward. Slowly. We were two guys against six enemies, and we were in their backyard. We heard voices again. I signaled to drop down and we crawled under the brush toward them.
We got to maybe 50 yards away but had no way of seeing them without standing up and exposing ourselves. I had no idea where their sentries were. It was crazy. This was the exact purpose of the 10 guys back behind me on their packs. They were the gunfighters. I was the tracker. I looked at my buddy beside me. He was just a kid. If I stood up and got hit, he would die trying to protect me. It was my call. I made the decision to turn around and go back and get our protection party, then attack.
When I got back to our camp, they were packing up to leave. They had received orders to call off the patrol. I called their boss and asked why. I was told that the lieutenant had told him that “there was no enemy” and that he said my imagination was getting carried away.
I lost it. I refused to leave the track. I told them that these guys were aggressively setting up for something. I rang up my HQ. I told them to at least send a patrol to follow them if we couldn’t.
My concerns were dismissed. So we left. We walked back to the road, then drove back. I was gutted.
Around midnight, the jungle exploded.
Only a few hundred yards from our position was a large village called Aidabasalala. There was another friendly position there with about 10 men. In the space of about two minutes, they got hit with approximately 800 rounds of rifle and machine gunfire and six to eight hand grenades. They were in bed at the time.
I sat up on my sleeping bag when it erupted. The noise was deafening. It seemed to just go on and on. Then suddenly: silence. Our eyes were like dinner plates. We were scanning the dark, wondering if we were next. If anyone survived the attack.
Then the radio started going off. HQ was on one end. The commander of the attacked outpost was on the other. No one knew what had happened. Total chaos. Guys were wounded. What now?
I chose that moment to drop the biggest “I told you fuckers so” of my career. I picked up the radio, called HQ while the whole country was listening and told them that it was the guys I tracked earlier. The same six guys. They had come down from that hill and attacked the position. It was their plan all along. They just snuck in the back way with me in pursuit.
I was shut down and ordered to get off the radio. I was told directly by the second in command that I was out of line. I threw down the handset in disgust and raged at their stupidity.
Then a voice came on the radio. The task force commander. He called the guys who were hit and asked what the situation was. He then told them to hold on. Then he called me. He asked how I knew it was my guys. Who they were. What had occurred that day.
I had given all that information in a detailed report earlier, but HQ had lost it. I explained everything again. He then asked me what I thought they would do. I told him they would split up and run for the river border. He asked me which way. I told him the truth: I did not know.
But I knew which way they wouldn’t run. Back the way they came. That’s why they had left the wrappers. They knew they wouldn’t be back.
Other enemy patrols would come back though. Emboldened by the first success. They would find out that Australian Infantry rarely made the same mistakes twice. They paid with their lives.
We found out lots from searching their bodies. That they were on amphetamines. That they carried pouches around their necks with lucky charms to make them safe from bullets. That they were regular and special forces Indonesian soldiers dressing as militia but fully trained. True covert infiltration tactics.
In the end. We won. They stopped coming.
East Timor is free.