Pre Vietnam

Standard

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 Servicement, 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 Orderley 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 Orderley 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 disgress 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).

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