1971 Army in South Vietnam

Introduction

I never really knew much about the Vietnam War before I was called up to do National Service in the Army. Where I grew up there was no television and just one parochial newspaper published on a Friday. Even news about Barcaldine, another town about 70 miles away was considered a bit irrelevant. There was radio of course. The ABC and a commercial radio station, but I was more interested in what music they were playing.

But then as I was nearing my 20th birthday a letter arrived addressed to me personally. This was a bit of a turn up. Who would write to me? Looked official. Tearing it open it proceeded to give me instructions on what was required of me to register for National Service.

To cut a long story short my birth date was drawn out of a ballot box, and I subsequently received another official letter. This one with some documents to fill out and telling me to report to the local Government Medical Officer for a medical check up. Everything must have been satisfactory because I then received my travel arrangements to report to the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Singleton in New South Wales.

The Army – Recruit and Corp Training

In company with another bloke Russ Milota from Longreach, who just happened to be one of my best mates we took the Midlander Train to Rockhampton on the Queensland Coast. We were met by an officious looking Corporal who herded us onto the Sunlander Train to Brisbane. From there we travelled by train and road until we reached our destination on the 8th July 1970.

Balcombe 1970

Signalman Swan at Balcombe Barracks 1970.

The less said about that trip in a train replete with young, larrikin men with a gleam in the eye; full of beans and vigour the better. I remember our Commander calling us in individually some weeks later following a complaint by the Railways Department. But of course no one knew anything about it…. never seen or heard anything!

It was mid-winter. Not the best time to be roused out of bed in the freezing pre-dawn hours for physical training. At the mid point of the training we all got some leave for a few days. I spent my 21st birthday walking the streets of Sydney’s King Cross on a Sunday looking for a beer, after spending quite a bit of energy giving the slip to a Corporal who had been assigned to watch over us. Nothing was open.

Back at the Recruit Training we were asked for 3 choices in which area of the Army we would like to serve. I opted for Signals, Cavalry and Gunnery. Nobody wanted Infantry. By now we’d seen and heard a LOT about Infantry from some of our instructors who were now veterans from the conflict in South Vietnam. I was lucky enough to get my first choice.

In due course I was posted to the Royal Australian Signals Corp Training School at Balcombe, on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, Victoria. Just basically wooden huts built about the time of Noah’s Ark but survived the flood. I chose to be a Radio Operator which included training in Morse Code, antenna theory, basic electronics and other useful information. My thoughts were that maybe after my 2 years service was up, I might find a job in communications somewhere and thus escape a life of drudgery in the shearing sheds.

A group of fellow students studying for an examination. The space shown here is the accommodation area for 2 men.

A group of fellow students studying for an examination. The space shown here is the accommodation area for 2 men.

On successful completion of this course we each received our much anticipated postings to our first units. I was posted along with about 9 or so other fellows to 139 Signal Squadron at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane, Qld.

Pre Vietnam

The preferred method of moving people about by the Australian Army at the time was rail, so our little group spent a couple of uncomfortable days and nights sitting in economy seats all the way from Melbourne to Brisbane. It was the beginning of a skill learned through experience to be able to sleep sitting upright.

On arrival at Roma Street Railway Station we were unceremoniously bundled into the back of a truck and driven to Enoggera Barracks on the north side of the city. Here we went through the process of “marching-in” to the unit which involved a sheet of paper with a long list of places to go and get signatures. This included a trip to the Q – Quartermaster Store to pick up our DP1 field gear including all the equipment we’d need to be able to operate in the field such as a combat harness, packs, cooking utensils, blankets etc. We also signed for a rifle which was kept stored in the armoury.

139 Sig Sqn was a Field Force unit which meant it’s job was to go out into the bush and provide communications support to other units in the field. It also functioned as a reinforcement unit of personnel to replace those in Vietnam who had served their time and come home. It didn’t take long before they started putting us through our paces. Several Exercises of varying duration were to follow, both locally and further afield such as the Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

Shoal Bay Training 1971

Posed photo taken at Shoalwater Bay Training Area on exercise mid winter

I also attended a Battle Efficiency Course at the Jungle Training Centre located at the hill infested Canungra in south-east Queensland. Not an experience I’d recommend for fun and entertainment. It’s been described as the only place in Australia where you have to climb a hill to get into it and climb another one to get out. Climbing hills is something you get to know about especially with “Heartbreak Hill” – a series of long ascents with a series of false crests, being particularly well known.

But it was a necessary pre-requisite for everyone who were to go to the Vietnam Area of Operations where we were taught about our enemy, his tactics, how best to fight him and defend against him. It’s been said that no Australian had to that point ever gone to war better prepared.

In hindsight I suppose there were a few funny incidents such as spiders in boots and snakes in sleeping bags in the dead of night. The expressions of joy by those who found such items under tactical conditions of no lights, no noise and no unnecessary movements, make for some ribald comments later on. At one point I was not so fortunate to badly twist my ankle whilst on a night ambush on the slope of a very steep hill. I had to suffer through the night with it and then walk out the next day using my rifle as a crutch.

In the meantime between training we investigated the night life of Brisbane City. I must admit that at times we could get pretty rowdy with hotels being the destination of choice for many. I think most of us knew we could end up in Vietnam. It was during a daylight sight-seeing sojourn into the city one weekend that I was to meet my future bride, and my spare time now began to revolve around spending as much time as I could in her company.

There was a constant rotation of men coming to the unit and then going to Vietnam, so there was a shortage of experienced NCO’s to command the various detachments. It was common practice for nasho’s – National Servicemen, to be appointed as Detachment Commanders. This was the case with me. One day I was on exercise with my detachment out at Wacol Barracks, another Army base outside of Brisbane. One of the men with me said he’d just received a radio message ordering me to report back to HQ.

“What had I done?” I wondered as I was driven back to Enoggera.

“Had I stuffed up somehow?”

It was lunchtime by the time I got back and the Orderly Room at SHQ – Squadron HQ was almost empty except for one bloke, who didn’t know what it was about. So I waited in anticipation until the OC – Officer Commanding and SSM – Squadron Sergeant Major arrived and was marched in to front the OC.

With no preamble he said, “Do you want to go to Vietnam?”

“Well … yes…” I said somewhat surprised.

“Good. Then we can have you on a ‘plane tonight. You can march out.”

Slightly stunned I saluted, about-turned and marched out. Back out at the front desk I was relieved to be told by a colleague in the Orderly Room that the OC had only meant for me to go to Sydney, not Vietnam. Seems that reinforcements to Vietnam were sent by charter flight from Sydney and I’d have to wait there at the 1st Signal Regiment Barracks until I could be allocated a flight. My Orderly Room friend got me onto a flight for the next day to Sydney so that I’d have some time to say my goodbyes to my girlfriend.

At this point I’d like to digress a moment and reflect on my decision to go to war. I believe my reasons would have been much the same as many others, if not most of the men who volunteered to serve in South Vietnam. First I was young and adventurous. The expression 10-foot tall and bullet proof comes to mind. But there was also another very real threat to our country, at least to me.

We lived in an era when the communist doctrine was actively spreading across Europe. The so-called Cold War was at its peak. We were taught our prime enemy was communism. As radio operators we knew about Russian fishing trawlers bristling with antennas hugging the Australian Coastline gathering Signals Intelligence, especially when American forces were involved in training with us.

We were taught about the Domino Theory which explained to us how the communists spread their doctrine into other countries by stealth through the grass levels of society, such as trade unions and universities. We were seeing agitation by socialist factions in our own trade unions and universities. We saw it had already happened to some of the Baltic Countries. Australia had been involved in several anti-communist wars and insurgencies such as Korea, North Borneo, Malaya and Indonesia. Now North Vietnam was trying to take over the South. It seemed to me that if it needed to be stopped, then it would be best to do it over there than in the streets and countryside of Australia.

I haven’t intended to get off sounding noble in this. But it was a real issue at the time and I think that is how most of us, at some level thought about things.

Now to get back off the soapbox….

As it happened there were several of us on the waiting list being posted with me to 104 Sig Sqn at Nui Dat including a new mate Dave Edwards, a fellow Radio Operator. We didn’t spend too long at 1 Sig Regt before being bundled off to Sydney Airport to board a chartered Qantas aircraft for the long flight to South Vietnam (SVN).

Embarkation

The International departure lounge at Sydney airport was full of uniforms of all ranks. My mate Dave and I plus a couple of others were able to indulge in a couple of cold beverages while we waited, and we made good use of the time. The flight to Darwin was unremarkable. We stopped there in the middle of the night for refuelling. No one was allowed off the plane of course. Couldn’t see much outside the porthole anyway except for a singe weak lamp-post light.

US Military Zones in SVN

US Military Zones in SVN. Phuoc Tuy Province is ESE of Saigon

Early in the morning we stopped at Singapore to change aircraft, our first introduction to heat and humidity. Before we could leave the aircraft we were required to change our uniform shirts for civilian ones. Seemed the Singaporean Government didn’t want to be seen overtly supporting Australia in her war against North Vietnam. Looked a bit ridiculous though, all those men wearing different shirts but the exact same khaki trousers and shoes or boots.

After 2 or 3 hours with nothing to do but wait we were boarded onto a Hercules C130 aircraft for the journey to Ton San Nhut, the major airport of the capital city of Saigon, South Vietnam. Shirts were changed again.

Phouc Tuy Province for which Australian and NZ forces were responsible.

Phouc Tuy Province for which Australian and NZ forces were responsible.

As to be expected there was a huge US presence here with various types of aircraft and personnel. We were given lunch on a metal tray though not sure now what was on it. True to the old Army adage “Hurry Up and Wait” …. we waited … and waited. Finally we were sorted out and those of us bound for Nui Dat were directed towards a Caribou aircraft.

HQ 1 ATF Area Map. 104 Sig Sqn was located adjacent to Kangaroo Pad.

HQ 1 ATF Area Map. 104 Sig Sqn was located adjacent to Kangaroo Pad.

Onboard as we flew along in the noise filled aircraft it was pretty hard to talk, so we were mostly left to our own thoughts. It wasn’t too long before the aircraft began to bob and weave about slightly. I looked out the window and was taken aback to see a short airstrip rising directly towards my window! The aircraft dropped quickly at an angle to the airstrip before straightening out and immediately the pilot sharply hit the air brakes. We lurched to a stop.We’d arrived at Luscombe airstrip at the 1st Australian Task Force – 1 ATF, located in a rubber plantation within Phouc Tuy Province right in the middle of hostile Viet Cong territory. But it was also home to around 5,000 Anzac troops, many of whom would be deployed on operations at any given time.

A Caribou aircraft landing at Luscombe airstrip.

A Caribou aircraft landing at Luscombe airstrip.

Strange to think that about 24 hours ago we were at home in a country at peace. Now we stood in a place where outside the wire in the distance were people who seriously want to kill us.

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Personnel disembarking from a Caribou aircraft at Nui Dat

Nui Dat

Nui Dat Aerial ViewLeft:    An aerial view of Nui Dat showing “The Hill” at
centre, Kanga Pad top left and Luscombe airstrip to right. Note the  foliage denuded by the herbicide Agent Orange around the camp. Outside
perimeter of the camp was about 12km.
  Nui Dat Location Map
Right:   Nui Dat is situated to the NE of the then and now city of Ba Ria  in the heart of Viet Cong territory. Other Australian forces
were located at a logistics base at Vung Tau on the coast to the
SW.

The rest of the day is spent doing our march-in procedures and getting settled into our tent accommodations. They’re simple but they keep the rain out and let whatever breeze is available through.  Sandbags have been stacked around every tent as a precaution against mortar attack, and a covered trench is situated just outside the entrance for extra protection. It would have to be a dire circumstance indeed to want to get down into one of them though. Who knew what was living down there in these things!

 svn07Left:  Tented accommodation at Nui Dat. Sandbagged walls are lined with  corrugated iron. A sandbagged overhead protection pit can be
seen at centre left.

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Right:  Home Sweet Home.

 svn05Left:  The old neighbourhood. 

My mate Dave “Eddie” Edwards and I change into our field green uniforms, already profusely sweating from the heat and humidity. We then start assembling our DP1 field webbing, field gear and taking a good, first inspection of our rifles.

Some of the older hands drop by to say g’day, introduce themselves and give us a couple of tips. The main points are meal and boozer times. As we work the regular throb of helicopters coming and going from nearby Kanga Pad was to become something of a feature we’d have to get used to. We were also to get used to the sharp cracking noise as nuts exploded off the rubber trees in their bid to propagate more trees. If one hit you it could cause a bit of a sting.

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The main track leading up from the Radio Tp Lines to the OR’s – Other Ranks Mess seen at left, through the rubber trees.

After the evening meal Eddie and I make our way to the boozer. It had been named the Abraham Club after one of the men in this unit who had been killed in action. All up 104 Sig Sqn lost 4 soldiers killed during the war. There may have been 8 or so others from the Royal Australian Signals (RASigs) Corps killed. In 2013 the unit still exists and it’s nice to know that the name for the soldiers boozer is still called the Abraham Club.

Alcohol consumption is supposed to be limited to 2 cans per man per day. But someone is always on duty somewhere so those not on duty can often squeeze in another can or two. The night is rolling along quite well. Eddie and I are beginning to get acquainted with some of the men when suddenly some sirens start. Out go the lights.One of our newly met brethren Barabas calls urgently, “Stand-To! …… follow me…. quick!”. Not being totally new to the concept of what a stand-to was we dutifully follow him as he ducks and weaves his way down to the tent line in total darkness, jumping from tree to tree with us following his example. I wonder briefly what on earth we are getting into and neither of us yet had a clue where the perimeter trenches were, but eventually we reach them.

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The Abraham Club

Barabas dives into one of the trenches urgently whispering, “Get in here…quickly .. Quick …..!” Eddie in his haste jumps into the nearest trench a little too quickly, badly twisting his knee in the process. Under the circumstances it might have been acceptable except everyone nearby starts guffawing. Some ribald comments about reo’s (new reinforcements) and sniggering keep coming as they start climbing out of the trench to sit on the edge and commence lighting up cigarettes. We’d been set up.

A warning hiss comes along the line. Smokes get snuffed out and blokes get back into the trenches as one of the Sergeants came along the line. After he’d left we all sit back up on the edge of the trench, listen as the artillery blasts out next door to us and watch the glow of parachute flares floating down to earth in the distance.

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Standard perimeter fighting pit with discarded helmet on the bottom.

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Russ returning to tent

Over succeeding days we reo’s are soon allocated to various detachments. I had hoped to get into one attached to an Infantry Battalion but it was not to be. I found myself reporting to the Comsec – Communications Security Bunker for comsec monitoring duties. Corporal Graham Woodfield was my Det Comdr – Detachment Commander. My job was to listen across friendly radio frequencies and report any breaches of voice security or radio procedures. I also had to maintain a watch on an encrypted voice radio link to our American allies. We knew the enemy were always listening in to our transmissions, so altogether it’s a necessary job which might help prevent someone getting killed, but pretty boring stuff actually.

Another combat patrol departs.

Another combat patrol heads out to the jungles.

Washing day.

Washing day.

Eddie in the meantime gets tasked to do an SDS – Signals Despatch Service run. He reported to the Commcen – Communications Centre, picked up a bag of signal messages and then boarded an Iroquois helicopter to deliver them to some outpost or other. The chopper was full so the Loadmaster told him to sit on the floor. During the journey at one point the pilot for some reason maybe known only to himself laid the chopper steeply over onto it’s side. Eddie’s rifle which had been sitting comfortably on the floor, to Eddies chagrin immediately slid out the door and disappeared from view.The Loadmaster informed the pilot who circled around the paddy field below before flaring down to just above the water so that Eddie could jump out, search for and retrieve his weapon.

All good so far… except that as soon as Eddie hits the water the chopper takes off leaving him to take new stock of his situation, unarmed, alone in a paddy field, potential hostiles around. The chopper continues to circle the area though. They are highly vulnerable to ground fire while stationary, and can give cover to Eddie should he have needed it. But the rifle was found, Eddie completed his SDS run and had a story to tell that night in the boozer.

I’m not sure but I think Eddie was eventually sent to the Artillery unit where among other duties of manning the radio on the Task Force Operations Net, he also had to man the telephone switchboard for that unit. Things settled pretty much into a routine. No days off. You are either on duty or resting. Spare time is filled with washing clothes, reading or grabbing a can or two at the boozer when you can, and spending a bit of time in the perimeter trenches when the Stand-To sirens go off.

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One of the machine-gun posts centre photo.

Occasionally I’d pull shifts manning one of the unit Machine Gun Posts overlooking Kanga Pad. To pass the time I’d watch the twinkling lights of fireflies in the nearby bushes. Now and then I’d toss a pebble at the bush and the lights would all blink out before tentatively coming back. Somewhat odd to be distracted by such pretty lights and thoughts of nature while the guns of the artillery would often crash out their song of death to people out in the darkness. Nothing to complain about though compared to the poor buggers we often saw taking off in the choppers from Kanga Pad heading out into the bushes. Although having said that, there was always the chance some of us would be selected to go out on a Task Force Patrol.

Below are some scenes taken around the Nui Dat army base:

 svn19Right: Bell OH-58A Kiowa helicopters used by the Australian Army for a variety of tasks including observation, liaison, recon and target marking to name a few.
 svn20Left:  Bell UH-1 (Huey) Iriquois helicopters on Kanga Pad. These were the workhorse of the Australian Army for tactical movement of troops and supplies.
  svn22Right: A casevac – casualty evacuation Huey sitting outside the Field Ambulance Medical Facility next to Kanga Pad. The average time between getting wounded and getting medical attention was one hour. Huey’s could carry 6 patients.
 svn23 Left: The main function of the Nui Dat medical centre was to provide emergency medical treatment before further evacuation to the Field Hospital located at Vung Tau.
 svn25Right: The “Dust Bowl” at Nui Dat where concerts for the troops were occasionally held by visiting entertainers. A concert was being held when the Battle of Long Tan started.  The noise of the battle could be heard from here.
 svn28Left: The Luscombe Swimming Pool.
 svn30Right: Cannot remember now but this may have been our Radio Tp HQ of 104 Sig Sqn.svn34Above:: Yep…. even a volley ball court.
 svn31svn32Left & Right: Several ancestor or family monuments throughout the area. The families lost their ancestral land and these were destroyed after the communists took over.
 svn36svn38Left: Some of the 104 Sig Sqn antennas on top of Nui Dat Hill.Right: Pensive moment looking out over the countryside. Very pretty. But hundreds of diggers have been killed out there.
 svn37Left: Head up to the top of Nui Dat Hill.
 svn39Right: Kanga Pad.  On other side of the pad to the left is the medical centre. In the trees to the right are the 104 Sig Sqn lines. I understand the mountains at the back are the Long Hai’s, scene of several military operations over the years.

Saigon

In due course I’m selected to go to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as part of a Guard Detachment.  We are to guard what is colloquially known as the Hotel Canberra, which accommodates Aussie soldiers who work in Saigon. This task is apparently shared by most units at Nui Dat and now it’s our turn.

For this job we’ll need our best ceremonial greens, so we pull out our best green uniforms and iron them up. Also locate and polish our mouldy black, web belts from the bottom of the storage trunk, clean the brass buckles and spit polish our best boots. If I remember rightly we had two sets of boots and always kept a good set of “greens”.

The day to go soon comes and we dutifully climb into the Caribou aircraft arranged for us, and take off for Saigon.

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Above and Left: Views of the country from a window of a Caribou aircraft.

On landing at Ton San Nhut airport we are taken by bus through the city in the rain to some Headquarters or other.  We are required to wait …. and wait…. in true Army fashion, at the back of the building.

svn53Right: Street scene in Saigon. Motor cycles are the most common form of transport. Typical civilian accommodation in the background.
svn54Left: One of the many monuments showing an heroic Army of the Republic of Viet Nam – ARVN. They were all destroyed by the communists at the fall of Saigon.
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Right:
A pagoda at centre photo.
svn56Left: Typical Saigon street scene. The ubiquitous white-topped taxi at right, street stall on footpath a pedi-cab and crowded housing behind.
.
.Below Left: Waiting to be taken to the Hotel Canberra, where we will begin our guard duties.
From Left: Don Mackerson, Lourie (unknown), Russ Swan and (unknown).
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Right: Don standing at the back fence in front of a row of apartments behind the wire.Left: From left: Don Mackerson, unknown, Russ Swan, unknown.
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Left: Grabbing a quick drinkRight: Unknown fellow guard member.

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Part of the Canberra Hotel where Aussie diggers working in Saigon were accommodated.

Eventually we arrive at the so-called Canberra Hotel. We are confronted with a building protected on the outside with a wire cage which extends to either side, and up to the second floor. The purpose of this I guess is to stop any thrown explosive such as a grenade or satchel. The driveway entrance was closed and sandbagged with the only access being through a pedestrian side gate. This would be home for the next week. We are told to find an empty bunk upstairs, then report back downstairs for a briefing.
At the briefing we received detailed instructions on what we are required to do, guard rosters and meal timings and local leave whilst off duty.Our task is to make sure nobody lingered out the front of the premises. If anyone stops we are required to give them a blast on a whistle. Sometimes they stopped.  Perhaps deliberately.  Usually the sound of cocking the gun gets them moving again.At least one or two women squatted on the road before me and left behind little puddles.  Their modesty was preserved by the length of the shirt-tops they wear.  Perhaps they were VC – Viet Cong sympathisers.  Perhaps they just needed to pee.  Who knows? You can never tell who the enemy is in this war.
There were two machine gun posts.  The guns are just a modified version of our standard 7.62mm L1A1 SLR – Self Loading Rifle, which can be set only on semi-automatic mode. This version allows the weapon to to be set to automatic to enable short bursts of fire. It’s also fitted with a bipod on the barrel to steady it.

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Cinema before it was bombed.

I learned why the front of the hotel had a wire cage. A couple of days earlier I’d taken this photo of a local cinema with it’s typical display of billboards announcing current movies.  It’s just 50 metres or so along the same road at the Hotel Canberra.I was now off duty and just returning to the Hotel Canberra across the street and on the corner, when a motor-cycle drove past the cinema carrying a female pillion passenger. I didn’t take any particular notice until I saw the passenger throw something up onto the second floor, and they took off down the street.The blast takes me by surprise.  Lots of screaming. Rubble over the road. Immediate thought is that there might be some kind of follow up attack, either by more hand thrown explosives or gunfire.

Run across the road as quickly as I can. I’m conscious of my civilian cloths so take care to draw attention and identify myself to the gunners at the front of the hotel, who are now on higher alert.Nothing else happens. Not much more to see.  The screaming dies down and I go up to my room. The civilians seem to just take this sort of thing in their stride.

DSC_1071Right: The Hotel Canberra in 2008 at left.  Just to the right is a KFC shop.  This is where the cinema was.

On another day Eddie and I are exploring one of the local vegetable markets.  Lots of people mingling around and it’s difficult to move due to the congestion.  Even though we’re in “civvies” we stick out among the local people like sore thumbs. Out of the crowd in front emerges a man holding a wicked looking knife pointing at us.  He’s not happy. Starts volubly giving us an earful, punctuating his points by waving his knife around. I get it. He doesn’t like us behind here.

Looking around I think I see others moving around the stalls to either side so it’s high time to retreat. Eddie and I about turn and get out of there as fast as we can.  I can hear the man still yelling but his voice drops back. We decide to just get out of the area anyway since we’re not at all sure whether anyone else wants to play pin-the-digger.

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Left:
 Onboard (I think) a Pilatus Porter aircraft for the return flight back to Nui Dat. Sitting on the runway waiting for a Caribou to take off.
.
Right: This is no joy flight. The rockets on the wings aren’t there for decoration.

War’s End

Comsec Bunker 104 Sig SqnLeft: The Comms Con Bunker – 104 Sig Sqn, Vietnam 1971. The Comms Con Bunker was ‘dug-in’ against the west side of the Sqn HQ Bldg. It contained the alternate 1ATF Command Net, the 1ATF Defence Net, and other 1 ATF Radio Nets. It mirrored our Radio Bunker on Nui Dat Hill. Should the ‘Hill’ ever go down, we could switch straight over. All 1ATF radio transmissions were continuously monitored from here: both for potential problems and security. Pictured is Radio Troop’s Brian Duncan keeping track of comms. Note the radios: both left and right RT 524VRCs have T-SEC KY/38s attached, as does the AN/PRC77. Also shown are AN/GRC 125s and 160s, AN/GRA39s, spare MT-1029 mount, and an LS166-U speaker on Brian’s left. Boxes of spare BA4386 Magnesium Batteries are underneath.

Photo and text courtesy of Ken McKenzie, ex 104 Sig Sqn.

Back at Nui Dat I resume my duties in the Comsec Bunker but it’s not long before I’m told I am to be part of a Task Force Patrol, and that a group of us from our unit would be reporting to TFHQ – Task Force Headquarters early next week to begin preparations. This will mean briefings on the aim of our mission and practices in patrolling as a group, and enemy contact drills as a patrol formation.From what I understand these patrols are Recon patrols, not Combat patrols.Basically our job will be to go out beyond the wire and wander around the countryside to see if we can find anything.  However this may, or may not involve actual contact with the enemy, so we have to be prepared for that.  I am kind of looking forward to it.  I mean this is what we’d trained for – to go out into the bush where the enemy lived.Yet at the same time I admit to a little bit of trepidation, never having been on a “live” patrol before.  It hasn’t been unknown in the past for similar patrols to run into the enemy and become involved in a fire-fight. And I’d heard about a patrol composed of Sigs who had once spent a night dodging a battalion of Provincial VCs.I wondered how I would conduct myself.The week drags by and I hear no more about it.  Then the word comes that all active operations against the enemy are cancelled.  What does that mean?  It means for a start that we will not be going out on any patrol. I don’t know how to take this news, whether to be disappointed or relieved. And for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be able to rationalize it.In later years I was to learn that by 1971 that most of the Provincial VC in the province had been pushed back to the boundaries of Phouc Tuy Province – the only place in the whole of South Vietnam where this had happened. Allegedly the top-brass had thought the VC and NVA – North Vietnamese Army might mount an attack to take over Nui Dat as we withdrew.  Perhaps this was why that last patrol was being planned. If so then maybe they got some new intelligence to infer that an attack wasn’t going to happen anyway.All existing patrols come in out of the bush and the voice-radio TF Command Net becomes relatively silent. I am now removed from the Comsec Bunker and Cpl Woodfields detachment, and re-assigned to “clean-up” tasks under the direction of the SSM – Squadron Sergeant Major and my Radio Tp SGT.

svn74Left: A truck moves through the rubber trees carrying a load of discarded items for burning.
svn75Right: Choppers left idle on Kanga Pad.  Heavy rain soaks the ground making movement around the area quite muddy.
svn79svn81Left: Something explodes at the tip as discarded waste and other rubbish is being burned.
Right: A Caribou flies above the drifting smoke from burning fires.

We learn that ARVN forces will be moving in to take over our camp. Most of the pre-fab buildings we used are either pulled down or left standing, I guess depending on their state of repair.  In any case all buildings are stripped and whatever can be taken back to Australia is stored away.  There doesn’t seem to be too much left.

Those of us who are not involved in driving the unit’s vehicles down to Vung Tau in convoy, or in communications tasks escorting other elements of the Task Force, will be flown down to Vung Tau by Iriquois helicopter.

On the day our unit is to move I am sent up to Nui Dat hill on some task or other with a man we called Tarzan. A monkey had jumped on his head and the antics to remove the beast, and the monkey’s equally grim determination to hang on earned Tarzan his nickname.  Or so I’m told.

svn82Left: Iriquois helicopters start lining up to take troops to HQ 1 ALSG Vung Tau.
svn85Right: ARVN vehicles begin to line up at one of the gates to Nui Dat camp – at centre left on the roadway.

As I look at the ARVN vehicles lining up at the gate.  No doubt in my mind that the VC, probably supported by the NVA – North Vietnamese Army will hit them pretty hard once we are gone.  I never got over the feeling that we were letting them down – were running out on them. And so it proved.  The camp was overrun by the communists once we’d left.

Back down at the unit we are allocated to “packets” and line up next to Kanga Pad to climb aboard one of the choppers and take off.

svn86Left:  A packet of soldiers climbing aboard an Iriquois chopper at Kanga Pad.

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Right: A signalman working with the chopper pilots, co-ordinating takeoff and landings.

svn88Left: Choppers taking off from Kanga Pad headed for Vung Tau on the coast to the SW.
svn90svn92Left & Right: South Vietnam countryside taken from an Iriquois helcopter.
svn91Left: Rice paddy fields.
svn93Right: One of the few photos in colour and not too badly affected by mould.
svn95Left: Coming into land at HQ 1 ALSG – Army Logistics Supply Group. Part of the sand dune systems along Vung Tau beaches.

Vung Tau

On landing at 1 ALSG we are soon bundled into the back of an open truck to be conveyed to the R & C – Recreation and Convalescent Centre.  This place was a kind of home away from home for soldiers who had been out in the field for a while.  Typically the infantry for example,  might spend several weeks weeks in the bush then come down here for a few days of rest and try to unwind.

svn96Left and Below: Part of HQ 1 ALSG among the high sand dunes.
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svn98Left: Barbed wire is a common sight to prevent or control movement of people.
svn99Right: Typical scene around the outskirts of Vung Tau.
svn100Left:  The R & C Centre, Vung Tau where the main body of 104 Sig Sqn were located pending withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1971.

We pull up outside what might have once been a 3-story block of units, dismount and file inside. Once established into our respective rooms we are given a briefing on what we will be doing in the forthcoming weeks, and details about security piquets, local leave and meal timings are notified.  Of note there will be a curfew on local leave meaning we will have to be back inside the front gate by 2300 hrs.  We are told the operational state at the moment is Condition Green – meaning no immediate enemy activity is expected. Amber is expected and Red means imminent.

Lists of work parties and security piquet duties are soon posted for the next week, and we spend the rest of the day getting settled into our new “home”.  Taking a look out the back window to my room I’m a little surprised just how close the civilian houses are.  I mean anyone wishing to penetrate this building wouldn’t seem to have much trouble doing it.

svn104 Left:  Civilian houses immediately below my window in the R & C Centre.
svn101 Right: Just a jump across the gap.
svn103 Left: Density housing.
svn100a Right: The suburbs.

Over the following days and weeks we are to be sent out on various work parties. My jobs are generally laborious and tedious, cleaning and steam-cleaning all traces of Vietnam from the unit’s stores including such things as tent poles, canvas, vehicles and equipment.  Other parties are probably crating stuff, conducting audits or whatever else the SSM can think up to keep us busy.

svn105Left: A group of shops off to the right, out the front of the R&C Centre. The little Lambretta taxi’s carry as many people as can fit in the back, are a popular means of transport to or from downtown.
svn106 Right: A work-party mounts a 5-ton truck out the front of the R&C Centre heading out for a days work somewhere.

One day Eddie and I are standing at the front balcony looking out at the goings-on down below. Casually I notice an ARVN soldier riding a bicycle down the centre of the road down to our left. Coming up behind him is a big front-end loader that stands much higher than a 5-ton truck as shown in the above photo.

The ARVN heard it, looks over his shoulder and moves to one side of the road. The loader driver has already anticipated going around the bike and also moves to the same side of the road. Alarmed, the ARVN quickly moves to the other side but the loader by now is doing the same thing. The ARVN quickly changes course once again.  But it is too late.  The loader drives straight over the ARVN and pulls up about 10 or so metres further along the road.

Eddie and I dash down to see if there is anything we can do – direct traffic or something.  By the time we get down there a large crowd has already gathered. We rush to the man to see if we can give him first-aid but he’s way beyond it.  The huge truck tyres have run clean across his middle section effectively cutting him into three pieces of legs and torso.  Someone has already put a sheet of paper of his face.

But what disgusts me are the local civilians.  Some are gawking at the poor man standing in his blood and entrails and spreading them around with their movements.  Others, most likely from the nearby shops are already out hawking soft drinks and candy.  Attempts to establish some kind of perimeter around the dead man are futile as they push back against us trying to get a look, and we have to just walk away.

svn118Left: A mechanic shop directly across the road in front of the R&C Centre, and one of the “Lambro’s” dropping off some diggers.
svn107 Right: On the way to a day’s work at 1 ALSG.  A group of civilians in the background have excavated a fuel tank by hand.  It’s the way a lot of the heavy work is done in this country.
svn108 Left: Typical back street showing a variety of accommodation types including hovels.
svn119 Right: Some of the ubiquitous and notorious bars downtown Vung Tau.  Contracting VD was a very real possibility if one engaged in intimacy with the bar girls.

Downtown Vung Tau is an eye-opener for first time visitors like us.  It’s not long before a young boy would offer “cigarettes” – probably pot; or offer his sister for “boom-boom”.  The bar-girls rate bar customers on a number system.  Number 1 for a good bloke or Number 10 if they consider you a bad bloke. If you don’t buy a “Saigon Tea” – supposedly alcohol but actually soft drink, then you’ll no doubt be a Number 10.  The buying of a Saigon Tea is the introductory pathway to obtaining sex. The “house” has to earn some dollars off you first before you can negotiate a price for a ladies favour.

All pretty sad for a society that has to try and live as best they can in a country torn and divided by war for so long. It’s pointless judging them by western standards. There are no social services.  People have to work or beg in the streets.

The following song was quite popular among the diggers:
Uc Dai Loi cheap charlie, he no bring me Saigon Tea. Saigon Tea cost many, many Pee, Oc Dai Loi cheap charlie.
Translations: Uc Dai Lai (pron incorrectly Australian fashion ughk, da, loy) – common name for Australians.  Cheap Charlie – self explanatory I think.  Pee – Piastres, the unit of currency.

Some scenes around HQ 1 ALSG:

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Above Left: Unlike the HQ 1 ATF base at Nui Dat, civilians are permitted into the 1 ALSG base to work. Above Right: Unknown heavily sandbagged building.  Must be important.

Word comes down from above that Condition Yellow – enemy activity is anticipated (or something like that).  Local leave is cancelled and it’s my turn to mount piquet duty.  On reporting I’m handed a helmet liner painted white. A helmet liner is normally placed inside a steel helmet to help keep it on your head.  Am a bit taken aback at having to wear this excellent aiming point for someone wanting to take an opportune pot shot at an Uc Da Loi.

No amount of dissention removes the requirement to wear the bloody thing.  It’s late at night.   Suddenly shots ring out from the main road down to the left. Peering down there and being careful to keep my beautiful white target marker headgear in shadow, I can see several black pyjama clothed people moving around and waving rifles about. Oops!

One of the Rules of Engagement basically states that black pyjama people running around after dark carrying and shooting weapons should be shot at – as opposed to shot by. But we’d stopped active operations now hadn’t we?

Quickly moving inside to report to the Duty Sergeant I find he’s already on the phone to somewhere, while I stand itchy-footed wondering whether I should go back outside and start shooting at something myself.  He’s STILL on the bloody phone so I decide to go back out and watch to see what’s happening … I mean the buggers could already be climbing over the bloody FENCE!

Outside the suspects are now moving through a vacant allotment across the road and away from the building, still firing off the odd shot or two.  Well … that’s okay then.  They look like they’re firing into the air having a bloody party!

Back inside the Sergeant has gotten off the phone and seems to be sitting back all relaxed.  I’m wondering if he’s willing to tell me his good news when he mentions, in an off-hand way that these people are Territorial Rangers.  At least I think that’s what he calls them. Seems these boys spend their time hanging out with the VC to provide valuable intelligence, and then come to town to let loose for a while.  “They’re just blowing off steam and you aren’t to shoot them”, he says.

Okay.  I can handle that. Going back outside I find my white helmet where I’d thrown it into some boxes, and resume my sentry duties.  Nothing else happens that night.  Condition Yellow is cancelled a day or two later.

Eventually the OC decides to hold an all ranks luncheon. We all assemble on the balcony of the top floor sitting around a row of trestle tables. Speeches and toasts are made. And we are told that very shortly we will be returning to Australia on the troopship, HMAS Sydney.

104 Sig Sqn Comes Home

HMAS Sydney was an old girl. She’d been built by the Brits in 1944 and commissioned by the RAN – Royal Australian Navy in 1947. She’d seen active service but was now being used for supply and troop transport for the Vietnam War, and was affectionately known as the “Vung Tau Ferry”. Without local leave the men anticipated the arrival of the ship that much more keenly. Finally the day arrives and we’re all sorted into groups and taken out to the landing pad. We’re to be carried out to the ship by Iroquois helicopters.svn120Left: A group of men waiting for their turn to fly out to HMAS Sydney.

svn121svn122Left: Frank Edwards and Dave Edwards stand with their personal “cricket” bag and rifle. Not related.
Right: Good mate Dave Edwards.
svn124Left: An Iroquois helicopter lands to take the next party out to the ship.
svn126svn131 Left: The “back beach” at Vung Tau facing the South China Sea.
Right: A RAAF helicopter pilot takes us out to the ship. Any group of people carried on a chopper were called a “stick”.
svn132a svn132b
Above: On the flight deck of HMAS Sydney waiting to be met by our guide. From left: “barabas” (surname not known), unknown at rear, Don Willis front holding rifle, Ray Jenkins front behind “cricket” bag, Russ Swan background holding a camera, Dave Edwards hands on rifle muzzle, STT Ron Stefan at right. Above: Going below decks on an aircraft elevator. Fellow at centre front with white shirt is a member of an Army team posted with the ship. From Left: Don Willis, Bob Petch, “Barabas” at rear, unknown in front of Barabas, Ray Jenkins at front hand on hip. Geoff Staunton with 43 tag, unknown behind him, Maurie Lazarus with blond hair holding rifle. Russ Swan at right rear, Dave Edwards in front of Russ, STT Ron Stefan at front right.
svn135 svn136
Above: Navy clearance divers circling the ship.
It’s their job to make sure no mines
or explosives are attached to the hull of the ship.
Above: Armoured Personnel Carriers – APCs are lifted aboard.
svn140 svn138
Above: US Destroyer escorts guard HMAS Sydney. Above: Last view of Vung Tau and a democratic South Vietnam
svn137 svn133
Above: Riggers being winched back aboard the ship. Above: Choppers continue to bring personnel aboard even as dusk fades.
svn141Left: The last day. Dusk on the South China Sea closes a chapter on the 104 Signals Squadron operational deployment to South Vietnam.
svn144 svn143
Above: When not required for duties such as sentry or gelley, the men are left pretty much to laze away the days. Sunning on the flight deck is a popular thing to do. Above: The Australian flag flies proudly at the bow of HMAS Sydney.
svn148 svn146
Above and Below: Photos around the ship.
svn145 svn147
svn150 svn151
Above: An RAN ship meets HMAS Sydney off Darwin in the NT Australia.
svn158 svn155
Above: First view Australian coast. Above: An Australian boat passes close by to give us a wave.
svn156 svn157
Above: This may have been somewhere near Townsville. Above: The Landing Crafts are lowered for the troops to take a dip on an island somewhere along the Great Barrier Reef.
svn156aLeft: Another load is taken for a swim.

The Trip
In all the trip took about 14 days or so. The “pussers” were very good to us. Mostly we didn’t have much to do and just needed to keep out of the way of the sailors as they went about their daily jobs. Some of my memories include games of badminton in one of the aircraft hangers, now empty of aircraft of course. There was a large map which displayed the route being taken by the ship. The pussers kept updating it with pins every day to show our progress. At times it was astonishing to see small native canoes with a sole occupant in the middle of nowhere. Where did he come from? What was he doing way out here?

We slept in wardrooms which were normally used as crew quarters. Apparently the sailors slept in the hangars. Every morning we would be required to fold away our hammocks and stand by until one of the ship’s officers came by on rounds to check everything was neat, clean and tidy. At night we’d string the hammocks up again. There was usually a rush to get in early so you didn’t end up with a daggy one.

One memorable day an RAN frigate I think it may have been, came alongside the HMAS Sydney running parallel at the same speed. A line was sent across and someone was passed across on a boson’s chair between the ships. After that another heavier line was passed and so on until a fuel pipe connected the two vessels. It was all professionally done even to my eye, considering there was a bit of a seaway running at the time. It was amusing to watch the frigate’s crew at work but I had to admire their seamanship. As the bow of their ship plunged into a wave the line crew would bustle into the safety of a nearby doorway while the resulting wave swept over. When the ship started to rise again they’d bustle out again like little manikins to resume what they’d been doing. This was repeated time after time.

Then as I was walking along one of the passageways I saw an open room. Fairly small inside but two burly, sweaty sailors were in there behind a large wheel working it for all they were worth. All they had for guidance was a compass. No windows in the room and they certainly couldn’t see the frigate outside. It was fine work to keep the ship tracking perfectly straight in the conditions.

Sometimes at night a movie would be played in one of the hangars. I often sat there looking at the stars as they gyrated about through the open elevator hatch above. One can of beer per man per day was the rule. We were happy to see they were large cans but it was difficult to cadge someone else’s ration since there were few duties to be done. I think I scored a couple of piquets, one of which was to sit at the stern and watch in case anyone fell overboard.

The March
Finally we disembarked in Sydney, New South Wales. Customs came aboard and went through everybody’s gear but I don’t think they were overly concerned. Afterwards we dressed in our ceremonial greens with polished brass and spit polished boots and assembled on the quayside. Here we were sorted into various columns and given a brief as to what was going to happen. We were to march through Sydney and give a salute somewhere – probably the Town Hall.

We knew about the animosity of certain sections of the Australian public. One incident we understood had happened at a previous march was that someone in the crowd threw red paint over some of the marching diggers. Whether that happened in truth or not it was widely believed something similar could happen again. We were officially warned as we stood there at the start of the march that no-one, NO-one was to break ranks and retaliate under sufferance of severe consequences.

Along the way I noticed marching across a couple of small wet patches on the roadway. We were later told water had been thrown at one of the columns ahead of us. Maybe it was just a rumour. As we marched we received some desultory clapping among rather thinly lined streets. There was no ticker tape not that I actually expected it. Occasionally a bored sounding voice would say something like, “Good on yer boys”. I don’t know what I was expecting but it all seemed a little lame to me. Perhaps the public was just a bit too jaded with all these men coming home. Perhaps they’d seen it all before just once or twice too often?

In any event we handed our weapons in for the last time. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that, where we went or or how long, but I ended up travelling to Brisbane to report into HQ Northern Command Personnel Depot for the purpose of being discharged from the Army. This had really taken me aback since I had planned on doing my 2-years National Service including the 12 months in Vietnam. I had hoped to be able to find a civilian job rather than return to the shearing sheds in outback Queensland. Suddenly I was looking at unemployment!

Post Vietnam
First order of business was to meet up with my girlfriend – later wife Delma, and promptly overstayed my disembarkation leave by 5 days. Upon returning to duty I was charged but since I was to be discharged the penalty was quite light – 5 days loss of pay and a small fine. I hadn’t told them I was going to re-enlist. To do so would have meant a more severe punishment I’m sure, so after the hearing I went around to the Orderly Room and signed on for 3 more years. I figured this would give me time to look about for a civilian job. On application I was given three choices of posting area. I asked for Singapore, New Guinea or Townsville. They gave me the 1st Signal Regiment at Ingleburn, New South Wales. So much for choices.

I was to spend those next 3 years at 1 Sig Regt during which time Delma and I married and had our two children. We both found we enjoyed the life and so I continued until I’d reached 20 years service. At this point it was generally viewed by most servicemen and women that the superannuation benefits had maximised at 20 years and was a good time to retire from service. We were in Darwin at the time and that’s what I did.

Public Antipathy
I suppose to some extent having stayed in the Army I was shielded from fairly commonplace civilian attitudes towards ex-Vietnam servicemen and women – antipathy or apathy. It was there in almost any gathering where there were civilians. For the most part I never volunteered information about my service or the war generally. It too often ended up in an unthinking quip or barb. For at least the next two decades we bore the brunt of the spineless political decisions and a sensation seeking press during the war years. Unfortunately for us the Australian Press never served us well towards the end or after the war, and I believe was much of the reason why animosity was so widespread through the Australia public.

One other incident soured me when I applied for membership at the Gaythorne RSL in Brisbane. There was some resistance in that Vietnam was not considered a war because it had never been actually declared. There was a belief that it was only a Police Action despite that around 500 Australians died, rightly or wrongly in hindsight trying to keep communism out of this country. With obvious reluctance I was accepted as a member. I never reapplied or signed on with any other RSL since. I couldn’t believe that as a returned serviceman I would have to fight so hard to join that organisation.

One of the common myths of the time was that National Servicemen were being sent to a war against their will. Of the 50,000 or so that served in that conflict the majority would most likely have been mostly volunteers. There is no doubt that in units which rotated as a whole such as Infantry Battalions there would have been individuals put under pressure to go. To serve in such units and not go to war with them would have been seen as cowardice. But to my knowledge anyone who went an individual replacement were volunteers. They would have been asked if they wanted to go in much the same way as I was, and then sign the dotted line. And that was the majority.

Unfortunately this myth may even have been perpetuated by some diggers as a way of shielding themselves from hostility or remonstrance. I don’t blame them. There were times when I was tempted to exonerate myself this way too but thankfully for my own peace of mind never did.

Today attitudes have changed. The Australian public recognises that their countrymen who go to war are doing so primarily for patriotic reasons. The Australian Press and other media are also supportive of our troops and direct their attentions to where it belongs – the political and military leadership. And there is a wider understanding that operational service means not only possible physical injury or death, but also that it often leaves unseen scars to the soul and mind.

END

3 thoughts on “1971 Army in South Vietnam

    • Congratulations on a very well presented article. I too was in SVN 1970/Sep 71. I was impressed by all the photos that you were able to put into your memories. Very well done.
      Bert Bowman

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