"Rifleman Down!"

by Mike Subritzky
Senior GSI Royal New Zealand Airforce

In 1986, I transferred from the Royal New Zealand Artillery where I worked as a Gunnery Instructor at the School of Artillery, to the Royal New Zealand Airforce, when I was employed as a Senior instructor at the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) General Service Training School. 

My new appointment saw me teaching basic Airforce recruits drill, weapon training, shooting, first aid, rescue techniques, map reading, bushcraft, mountain craft, survival, and a host of other skills required in the New Zealand Armed Forces. Though I preferred to teach weapon training and shooting, I was usually employed as a Drill Instructor. 

The winter months, in New Zealand, are June, July, and August; and at about the end of June our unit received a Squadron's worth of Australian Airfield Defense troopies who were from the Airfield Defense Squadron which was based at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in Richmond (Sydney) and the RAAF in Williamstown (Brisbane). The Airfield Defense Guards (ADG's) were considered the Elite of the Australian Airforce. Virtually all of them were para-trained, and had other skills, such as dog handlers and door gunners on choppers. They were highly trained and fit, and I was impressed by their professionalism. 

They were with us for about a month, and during that time, we trained them at RNZAF Camp "Dip Flat," which is at the base of the snow covered Saint Arnaud mountain range. For the final deployment, I was required to take a stick (chopper's worth) of ADG's up to the "tops (mountain tops), and spend the day teaching them how to build snow caves, pack igloos, and wind trenches. A snow cave simply means that a snow drift is found, and it is then dug into using entrenching tools. These "caves" would have a small entrance and then it is widened to accomodate as many soldiers as is required.  

Pack igloos require a little more skill and planning. Everyone's pack is pushed together to form a hump, and then this is covered with a thick layer of snow, which is then pounded together until solid. The smallest person, in the stick, then digs his/her way into the centre and gently removes all the packs. All members of the stick are then below the level of the snow, since the wind at this altitude can be a killer. 

My stick was choppered by a Huey (UH1D) up to the mountain range at 6,000 feet early one morning, and I spent the next several hours instructing the Aussie ADG's with me on survival above the snowline. I loved riding in choppers. I had flown in them many times all over the world. Usually this was with an under-slung 105mm L5 (Pack) Howitzer, an Artillery field gun. This time was simply for a survival course. Most of the Aussie's in the stick, had never seen snow before. So, once the lectures were complete, they spent the rest of the morning making snowmen and throwing snowballs back and forth, at each other. 

At about 1400, we had a meal of freeze-dried rations and snow was used as our source of water. I had been in the area many times before and knew that the walk to Lee's Creek was a leisurely four hours. This meant that we should arrive, at the hut, just after last light. Thus the Aussie ADG's would learn a little about night navigation in alpine New Zealand. 

At 1500, we saddled up and began the slog down and off the mountain. Although I knew the area, I still had one of my Corporals act as Lead Scout, but rather map reading using my spare map. It was then that I learned that one of the men, in my stick, a Sergeant, was not an ADG, but rather a Fireman from RAAF Garbutt, in Townsville. His name was Dan Petty. When I asked him how much jogging he did, I was surprised to learn that he had recently had a heart operation, and was still recovering. With this knowledge, I informed the stick that we would move below the snowline, and spend the night camped at a hut in a place known as Lee's Creek. We were all in full battle order, complete with rifles, basic webbing (belt order), packs, and a radio plus two spare batteries. 

I had Dan walk in front of me and I was in the centre of the stick of seven men. For the first three hours Dan was fine, but with one hour of our slog left, it began to snow, and the temperature dropped dramatically. We took Dan's webbing, rifle, and pack and this we distributed amongst all of us, and as well we gave him some "sparkles" (a bag of energy and sugar). With only 30 minutes of our journey remaining, Dan began to show the first stages of hypothemia, and began to shiver uncontrolably. We were now off the mountain and in amongst beech trees. These trees were clearly blazed, on the side of the track, so I pulled out my poncho liner and wrapped it around Dan, this seemed to help. He said he was starting to feel warmer, so we continued on towards the hut. At this point, I was concerned that we might be caught in the open in a snow storm. 

About 500 metres from the hut Dan began to stagger, and he was on the verge of collapse. I halted the men and explained that the hut was only a few minutes walk. If we carried Dan we could get him to bed, shelter and a fire. Five of us carried Dan and the sixth man, the Corporal, and our map reader, ran on ahead to the hut. Inside, he lit some candles and got a fire started. He took Dan's pack, and by the time we got there, he had placed both sleeping bags, one inside the other, on the largest bunk, as I had instructed. On our arrival, at the hut, Dan was deeply unconscious, and we placed one of the ADG's into the sleeping bags, and then the unconscious Sergeant. I took out my survival blanket and tucked it over both men. 

I then had the radio turned on, and it was set on the Unit Emergency Frequency. At this point, I began to transmit: 

"Charlie, Charlie One, this is Mike Sierra Five, No Duff - Rifleman Down! Over," 

In New Zealand military jargon, "No Duff," informs all calls-signs, on the net, that your message is factual, and NOT part of any exercise scenario.  

There was no reply. 

I tried several more times, on both our primary and alternate frequencies, but there was no response. Due to our location, and the height of the mountains, it was impossible to transmit to anywhere. We had to tough it out for the night. While serving with the New Zealand Airforce, I had seen many cases of hypothemia, both mild and serious. I knew that we had done everything right, and that Sergeant Petty's life should be saved. We just had to wait and see. It was a long, long night. 

At 2300, Dan began stirring and about 30 minutes later regained consciousness. His first words, in true Aussie fashion, were: 

"Hey Kiwi. I could murder a beer mate." 

The SOP's for hypothernia are very simple: no food or drink for several hours, while the patient is monitored. Thereafter, only sips of a warm, sweet liquid...usually a tea. Once a member, of a stick, drops from hypothermia, no one moves from that location for a period of 24-hours. The patient, even though they think they feel good, is in a severely weakened state. I have seen cases where a patient, who was not monitored, would go down for a second time, and usually in a much more serious state. 

The next morning I was outside the hut attempting to rig a long-wire antennae. Another instructor, Flight Lietenant Ken Cunningham, moved through my loc with his own stick. When he asked why I wasn't moving, I explained about the problems we had encountered with Sergeant Petty, and informed Ken that we would not be moving until mid-day next. This did not please him, as his entire squadron was required to be back at Woodbourne Airbase, for a parade later that day. The drive from the training area took about two hours. When I gently reminded Ken about the SOP guidelines (Standard Operating Proceedures), and the Sergeant's heart condition, he had to agree with me. He then moved off with his own stick.

I was still fumbling with the long-wire, when in the far distance, to the east of me, came that very distinctive "waka! waka! waka! of a Huey in flight. In New Zealand, the jargon call-sign for a Huey is "Waka." Waka is the New Zealand word for war canoe. 

Hidden somewhere around my neck, and under about four layers of clothing, was my issue heliograph (a mirror with a hole in the centre, used for shaving, annoying snot nosed young officers and signaling). I scratched around for it, and then moved to a flat, clear area not far from the hut. The chopper was still a mere speak in the distance and was flying into the valley following the line of the river, and unbeknown to me had just completed an SAS insertion. I put the heliograph to my right eye and caught the sun's reflection. Then I dropped the reflection down at my feet, and moved it along the tussock and speargrass, and then up to the index finger of my left hand. This I then aligned with the chopper. I began flashing the light, then the da-da-da/dit-dit-dit/da-da-da of the SOS in Morse Code. I had only begun the second signal when the chopper banked slightly to the left and headed directly towards me! I dropped the heliograph and began to yell to the troopies beside me to saddle up and get Dan Petty ready for the Medivac. The chopper was now inbound. 

I then stood with my back to the wind, and raised my arms above my head, in the classic V. This was the "I am the Marshal" sign. A few minutes later, the chopper was overhead and flared above me. It was from 3 Squadron RNZAF. On the landing, I waited for the "thumbs up" and then ran towards the crewman. He removed his helmet and I was surprised to see that he was an old mate of mine, Barney Bevan. Barney was a Vietnam Veteran who I had served with in the 161 Battery. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I put his helmet on, so I could communicate to the pilot about the sergeant's hypothermia. He then understood that we needed to get him back to Dip Flat base camp, so that the medics could monitor his condition. The pilot then asked me how the rest of us were getting back. I told him were were "walking." He turned and grinned at me and replied: 

"It's tuff walking Mate, grab your shit and we'll fly you back." 

Minutes later, we were onboard the Huey and airborne. We went up over the beech trees and followed the river back down to the Rainbow Station Road. 

I received a commendation, from my Squadron Leader, for my actions during this incident, but I don't think that Ken Cunningham ever forgave me for taking the easy way out and flying home. 

(Post Script)

Several weeks later, I was called to my unit's office and was given a package by our Chief Clerk. When I opened it up, it was a hard-covered book called Henry Lawson's Images of Australia. Henry Lawson was a famous Australian poet. It was widely known, within my unit, that I liked poetry. 

The inscription on the inside cover read: 

To: Corporal Mike Subritzky
Senior GSI
RNZAF Garbutt 

"In appreciation of assistance performed on the night on 17 June 1986 at Rainbow State Forest." 

With thanks, Dan Petty.