|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.
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.
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!
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.
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.