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.  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.
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 hotel, 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 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 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 mingling through the crowd 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 money 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, Uc Dai Loi cheap charlie.
Translations: Uc Dai Lai (pron incorrectly Australian oock as in “took”, dah, loy) – common name for Australians.  Cheap Charlie – self explanatory I think.  Pee – Piastres, the unit of currency.

Some scenes around HQ 1 ALSG:

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 Amber – 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 bright, white target headgear in shadow, I can see several black pyjama clothed people moving around and waving rifles about. Shit!

One of the Rules of Engagement basically states that black pyjama people running around after dark carrying and shooting weapons could 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 obtain 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 Amber 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.

For the morsies:  BT  ii   B   ii   K  


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