JUST A YEAR AND A BIT
by Tony Sargeant
In October 2003 I met with Paul Priems, a good mate with whom I had served in 106 Field Battery, 4th Field Regiment in Vietnam in 1970. I had not seen Paul for 33 years, and on that day as we sat and talked Paul told me of how much of what had occurred he had forgotten. My memories were still clear and vivid but I thought that one day maybe my memory will dim, and if any member of my family asked me what my medals were for or what happened to me I wouldn’t be able to answer them. As a result, I have taken the opportunity to be somewhat self-indulgent and write a short story of my memories of what was.
In 1969 most 20 year olds were pretty inexperienced in the ways of the world. I wasn’t old enough to legally buy a beer in a pub or vote but, you would read in the local paper of the war in Vietnam but you could not imagine what it was like or what really was happening. People had opinions but the Peace rallies or the Stop the War movement seemed to be something for those that lived in Sydney or Melbourne and not we ordinary people in Tasmania. The reality was that the spectre of National Service was in the back of every 20-year-old male’s mind and what would they do if called into service. I was “called up” but saw it as a way of setting out on the “great adventure” that had been experienced by other generations before. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In May of 1969 I reported as directed for a medical examination, which was little more than an x-ray, a cough and a peer up the derriere by the medical officer, an enlightening experience. A medical pass was provided and as a result a notice advising me of this and that I was required was received and a date to report for duty. The date was July 10, 1969. The notice while exciting for me brought concern from everyone at home at what could result and many tears on the home front meanwhile, I actually couldn’t wait for the time to arrive.
When the departure day arrived I packed my bag and met at the bus depot as ordered all those other conscripts who were about to embark on “the adventure of a lifetime”. Goodbyes were said, parent’s tears flowed and very quickly we were off to Hobart to join others from around the State to prepare for the trip to Puckapunyal Army base 2RTB. That night in Hobart we were accommodated in the St Ives Hotel and drinks and food was laid on. Many military personnel attended the function and all had a great time. Unfortunately for some there were hangovers the next morning, which was not a good thing for your first official day in the Army. Later in the morning everybody mustered at Anglesea Barracks where we were assigned our Platoon and Company for when we arrived at 2RTB in Puckapunyal. For some reason the military personnel on hand did not seem to smile a lot, not like the night before and the Corporals that had come from 2RTB to accompany us back there were not a pleasant lot at all. Still, many new friendships were formed between the recruits and we were ready to go.
A slow plane trip from Hobart to Seymour was experienced in an old DC6 propeller driven plane which gave us time to talk and ponder about what laid in front of us for the 12 weeks at recruit training. We knew that this period was going to be the most difficult and toughest part of our Army life but, if we can get through this the rest of the 2 years would be easy, or so we thought. On our arrival in Seymour the mayhem began with Drill Corporals yelling at everybody to get into the waiting trucks instantly or they would rip off your arms, stick the f….g soggy ends in your f…..g ears and ride you around like a f……g motor bike. To make things worse you did not dare laugh at any of these comments on the risk of being singled out for a dressing down. We experienced much of this colourful language in the coming weeks and much more was to come.
The first day was one of the most depressing days of my life. After arriving at 2RTB, Puckapunyal we were assigned huts, marched to the RAP, inoculated with 4 needles for diseases and afflictions I had never heard of and which were only the first of many needles to come, had your hair cut almost to the scalp and then over to the Q Store and provided with all your clothes and equipment, much of which fitted badly. We were ordered to line up between the huts, empty the contents of our duffle bags onto the ground and piece-by-piece, as each item was called, you put it back in the bag. It was a freezing cold day and the wind blew hard between the huts. If ever there was a day I wanted to cry, that was it. I was home sick already and felt cold, lost and alone despite being surrounded by others who probably had similar feelings. However, worse was to come and over the following 12 weeks we learnt, often the hard way, military discipline, to use weapons of various kinds, march, make our own beds, wash our own clothes, all in the manner of the military and generally be responsible for ourselves as the Army gradually broke us down as individuals and transformed us into what was required to be a soldier and part of a unit. We were driven to the limits of endurance both physically and mentally.
It was quite normal during this period to be turned out in the dead of night, have your bed turned over and or water poured over it because it was not made properly or alternatively all your clothes would be thrown out of your locker because something was not folded correctly. A 20 mile route march left you sore, tired and with masses of blisters on your feet. Still, this was all supposed to be character building and it certainly taught you self-discipline. At least after 6 weeks we were given a weekend pass and were allowed to go home. Finally after 12 weeks the Passing out Parade was conducted, we were assigned to the Corps of our choice in most cases, and then the time came for the training platoon/company members to go our separate ways. I was posted to 123 Training Battery as part of 8 Medium Regt at Holsworthy Barracks near Liverpool in Sydney, an Artillery Unit and something with which I had some experience, albeit for a short period in the CMF. I was no longer a recruit, but the rank of a Gunner.
We arrived at Holsworthy in October 1969 for an 8-week course as a gun number and immediately found quite a difference in discipline. It was still strong, but not quite so much aggression and more of a teaching role. However, not all discipline disappeared and when required it was displayed and you were quickly reminded that you were still in the Army and there to do exactly as you were told. We still had to polish floors, brass and paint rocks white. During this period your evenings and weekends were free to do as you wanted unless you were assigned duties. Quite a change and we had some good times as we experienced what Sydney had to offer. It was during this period that Phil B and I travelled home for a weekend. Unfortunately, he did not turn up for the plane to go back to Sydney .It was later that I found out that he had in fact gone AWOL to go home for the weekend and tried to commit suicide while at home. No one realised that he was in that state of mind and had been affected so much by what had happened to him. It was very difficult to understand and come to grips with.
At the conclusion of this 8-week course we were proficient on the 105mm M2A2 Howitzer Field Gun and looked forward to becoming part of an Artillery Unit. In my case I was happy to be posted to 4 Field Regt in Townsville and was happy to be joining this Unit in North Queensland. However, the down side of this was that the Regt would be deploying to Vietnam in March 1970. No choices, the “great adventure” was going to happen whether I liked it or not, and at some point I was going to have to tell everyone at home.
So, in early December of 1969 we travelled to Townsville on an adventurous train trip and joined 4 Field Regt in this sunny tropical city. Interviews were conducted and we were posted to either 106,107 or HQ Battery. In my case it was to be Headquarter Battery, which I thought was a strange posting for a trained gun number. Still, who was I to argue with the military psyche? In any event we had arrived in time to go on Xmas leave so there was only two or three weeks to settle in. We were going home for Xmas.
A month spent at home was certainly a restful time away from the rigours of military life and a time to get your feet back on the ground. However, in the back of my mind was how can I tell everybody that in a couple of months my unit was going to Vietnam, would I just blurt it out or take the soft option and tell them over the phone when I returned to Townsville. I knew that once I got back to Townsville the unit had to do a 2-week course at the Jungle Training Centre in Canungra and once they knew that they would put 2 and 2 together or perhaps not. I took the soft option and decided not to break the news until later.
In mid January 1970 I returned to Townsville from leave and we prepared to go to Canungra for an intensive course in jungle warfare. The unit flew down to Brisbane by Hercules transport and transferred to Canungra. Over the next 2 weeks we were subjected to ambush training, obstacle courses that required you to climb ropes, traverse creeks, crawl through pipes and leap off tall towers into the river and physical training not experienced since Puckapunyal. Still, it felt quite an achievement to complete that 2 weeks and it made us feel quite content that we were ready for deployment to Vietnam. However, I still had to break the news and time was passing very quickly so, on the last night in Canungra I made the phone call home and broke the news that I was calling from Canungra. They did put 2 and 2 together very quickly and were fairly distraught that I was going to war. Despite all the preparation we were still looking on it as the “great adventure”. Perhaps it was our way of accepting the inevitable.
It was now late February and we were enjoying our last weeks in Townsville by travelling up to Cairns for the weekend and over to Magnetic Island. I guess we put a lot of living into that period and enjoyed ourselves to the fullest extent. Townsville was a great place but all too soon the time arrived, early February 1970 for 106 Battery to depart as the first of the 3 batteries from 4 Field Regt to go. Suddenly, on the day of their departure, the headlines in the local paper were that 5 Australian infantry soldiers were killed and many others were wounded at the base of the Long Hai hills in Phouc Tuy Province, South Vietnam during an operation when a number of anti- personnel mines exploded. It felt like we were hit by a sledgehammer as the realisation set in that this was serious stuff and that very soon we would be there and involved in a war that involved the death and maiming of people including possibly some of us. I sat in the mess that evening and talked with Dave L., a good friend who was in 106 Battery and would be flying out in a few hours to that very place.
It now appeared to both of us that perhaps all our lives were going to be changed forever, and nothing would ever be quite the same again. It was not a good feeling and one I never wanted to experience again.
Finally, after 9 months of training and preparation the time had arrived. The 3rd of March 1970 started like any other morning, we packed gear and equipment, went about the daily chores of military life and prepared to fly out of Townsville that evening. Late in the afternoon everybody lined up to make their final phone calls home to speak to those at home as we were going to be away for what seemed an eternity, a whole year to be exact and it had been made clear that once we arrived in Vietnam there was no coming home, even a death in the family was not sufficient reason. You were there to stay. We moved to the airport and loaded our gear onto the chartered Qantas jet. Those who had family living locally said farewell to them and then it was off to Saigon via Singapore.
Our arrival in Singapore was a strange affair, as we had to wear a civilian shirt when disembarking for breakfast. The local authorities apparently did not want to be seen as supporting the war by assisting our troops. Therefore, no military clothing was to be seen. After that the final leg of our journey began. I recall looking out the window of the plane as we came over Vietnam and looked down on the Mekong and Saigon river delta with its vast expanses of murky brown water dotted with islands and wondered what awaited us. Finally, the moment arrived as we landed at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon and immediately was struck by the amount of bunker systems, helicopters and a variety of other military aircraft that were there. We disembarked and waited in the tropical heat for the trip by C120 U.S. military aircraft to Nui Dat, the Australian base in Phouc Tuy province. There was no doubt that we had arrived in a war zone as all the military personnel were carrying weapons of some sort, especially the cargo master on the C120 transport plane that we prepared to board. He was wearing a silver Colt revolver, something like the Lone Ranger I thought. All that was needed was a white horse, not an olive drab airplane.
As we flew to Nui Dat I peered out a small window at the back of the plane and looked at what appeared to be the moon. The landscape was a mass of bomb craters filled with water and I wondered how the hell anyone could live down there. The sight was mind-boggling and one that would not be forgotten in a hurry. The arrival at Luscombe Field in Nui Dat was pretty eventful as the airstrip was very short and the pilot required two attempts to land. When he hit the brakes the straps holding all the gear on the ramp broke and we had our baggage come tumbling down on us. Still, no injuries occurred and we all survived to stand on Luscombe Field and have our first look at this desolate dusty place situated in the middle of a large rubber plantation, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We quickly learnt that when it rained Nui Dat had a completely different face as it could turn into a quagmire, but as soon as the rain stopped, it was back to a dust bowl just as quick.
It didn’t take long to settle into our new home as our tour began and commence duties which for some of us appeared to lack purpose and not much assistance to the war effort. I guess we wondered what the hell were we doing there but, we all had our part to play and things weren’t too bad in HQ Bty. Every morning we would report to get our anti malarial tablet and mark off on the wall or tent post another day 365,364,363 days to go and so on. Sadly, the serenity was broken after 11 days in the country when a 19-year-old L/Bombardier Ross A. who was a clerk in the Battery office accidentally killed himself with a hand grenade while lying on his bunk. Bob T. and I saw an explosion in the lines and he went to investigate. I was glad I didn’t as the sight he saw and described was probably beyond belief as the mangled body of Ross A. lay on the tent floor in front of him still moving, but in the very last stage of life. The impact was probably even greater the next day as the tent was pulled down and the lockers, full of holes and covered in blood and flesh were removed. All this was happening right next to the mess and was in full view as you tried to eat breakfast. From that time on I found the smell and touch of raw meat nauseating. It was a harsh introduction to life in a war zone and what can occur if you were not careful.
A memorial service was held a few days later but we couldn’t help thinking of his wife who no longer had a husband and the child that no longer had a father. What help would they get?
HQ BTY LINES
Our first move outside of Nui Dat came when a contingent of us were assigned to guard an evening of movies for a local village on health matters and while Army medical officers carrying out medical consultations for the locals. It was our first contact with the locals and we found it amusing to see them turn up in all sorts of transport. I watched a three wheel Lambretta, which was not much more that a scooter with an enclosed passenger area on the back arrive and unload 12 people, a block of ice and a pig. It was a sight to see and as I learned not uncommon in this part of the world. The evening was uneventful but it was disconcerting to listen to distant gunfire and watch tracer bullets in the sky, along with the distinctive distant crump of artillery and mortar shells exploding. We returned to base the next morning totally unharmed but full of bullshit for those who were yet to get out of Nui Dat.
There were other sorties outside of Nui Dat in the next few weeks. One of the most notable was when I rode shotgun with the Regt Medical Officer and a Bombardier, Brian S. to the village of Binh Bha. The medical officer conducted consultations for the locals and while that went on Brian S. and I kept an eye on things. This was an eerie place as only a few months previous there had been a major battle in the village. We felt very uncomfortable as the place was very quiet and most of the locals seemed to be keeping their distance from us. The medical officer agreed that all was not right and we had best move on out of this place. We packed and left in a hurry back to Nui Dat.
US BASE US TROOPS
A major operation occurred in April when the Task Force set up two fire support bases near the village of Xuyen Moc in the western part of the Province. They were called Bond and Discovery and this was my first taste of life in a fire support base. On moving into the designated area for FSB Bond the first task was to set up the defences, which involved the filling of thousands of sand bags. This was back breaking hard physical work from which grew a hatred for sandbags, quickly followed by the digging of your own hole in the ground where you would live for the duration of the operation under a corrugated iron and sandbag cover. It was while carrying out this work that we heard an explosion on the road. An Armoured Personnel carrier had hit a mine resulting in the driver losing his legs. We were learning quickly that this was no game, but very serious stuff. Fortunately the time was not without some humour, particularly when a visiting CMF officer on a fortnight visit to observe, Lt Peter A. arrived from 6 Field Regt in L’ton. I remembered him from my short time in that unit. I was ordered to ride shotgun for him when he went over to inspect FSB Discovery and while there some enemy action occurred on the road that we needed to travel on to get back to FSB Bond. When told Lt A. was alarmed at what could happen if we are attacked on the way back. My response was not appreciated as I suggested that as he was the officer they would go for him first so the driver and I would probably be ok. With a white face and a very alarmed look he protested that he was only here for 2 weeks. We were given an escort by APC’s and he managed to go home safely after his 2-week visit. The operation complete I was due to go on leave for a weekend.
CONVOY TO FSB BOND HOME – FSB BOND
ON THE ROAD TO VUNG TAU ON THE ROAD TO VUNG TAU
R in C (Rest in Country) leave was welcome and every 3 months or so gave everyone in rotation an opportunity to have a weekend at the Peter Badcoe Club in the Australian base, 1ALSG in Vung Tau. I had 3 periods of this leave during the tour and it was here that you could stay in barrack room accommodation, swim in the pool, have a barbecue and generally relax.
However, the war was never far away as you could watch the air and artillery strikes on the Long Hai hills which were clearly visible across the bay. Alternatively you could go into the town and visit the bars to experience the local hospitality of the bar girls. However, while they were very friendly and fun to talk too they were always after money and those who enjoyed their hospitality to the maximum often regretted it shortly after. A visit to the RAP and a course of needles or pills waited. The medical officer often lectured the troops about the venereal diseases that were rampant in Vung Tau. It was often said that if anyone caught one they may have to be left on a desert island with a cut lunch and a pistol with one bullet as some types couldn’t be cured. With some, his comments did not sink in. It was best to keep your pants on and zippers done up. However, Vung tau was not just about bar girls, it was a melting pot of Americans, Koreans, Thai’s, Vietnamese and Australians. It was a fun place in which everybody wanted to relax and just mix and have fun for a couple of days.
SHOW AT BADCOE CLUB VUNG TAU BARS
BARS IN VUNG TAU
It was shortly after the Bond and Discovery operation that I decided I wanted a transfer to 106 Bty, as I was getting very bored at HQ Bty and the time was going painfully slow. My request was accepted and in May 1970 I transferred to echo gun based at FSB Horseshoe near the village of Dat Do, overlooking the infamous Long Hai hills and renewed old acquaintances with Dave L. and many others.
ECHO GUN AT THE HORSESHOE ECHO GUN AT THE HORSESHOE
I quickly learnt that life on the guns was not easy but you made it as comfortable as possible even though the place was infested with rats that would run over you at night and destroy anything that resembled food. The odd snake would also make a visit and crawl into the living area, which livened things up a bit. There was a lot of construction work to be done which assisted in passing the time. There were numerous times we were called to provide fire in support of units of 7 RAR infantry battalion whenever contact was made with the Viet Cong. This could occur any time of the day or night and could last an extended period of time. It was physically demanding work but good to know we were doing something useful. Up until this time we had not seen the Viet Cong but we were to see our first enemy dead after a firefight outside of Dat Do village during the night. From our position we could watch the battle as it took place. The next morning as we drove past on the resupply truck for a day back in Nui Dat, there were 6 Viet Cong dead on the side of the road. It was not a pretty sight as they had lost legs, heads and arms. I sat on the truck without any feeling for them and realised that I had become very cold and indifferent. Indeed, I along with the other blokes there we had without noticing it, changed.
THE UNWELCOME VISITOR AMMO BAY AND LIVING AREA
Our next deployment was with 3 guns to Xuyen Moc where we set up on the local airstrip to support an operation to the West. We watched as the armoured corps moved up the road beside the airstrip and travelled out of Xuyen Moc, next thing a large explosion was heard. We waited and after several hours back came one of the APC’s on the back of a recovery vehicle. It had a large hole blown in the belly plate. Clearly it had run onto a mine in the road but luckily, no one was seriously hurt in this incident. To pass the time at night Paul P. and I would sit on the boxes of ammunition and look for falling stars and talk about home or during the day watch as passenger planes (freedom birds) travelling up very high flew over and off to distant places. Anywhere but here would have done us. A couple of times we were visited by an American Chinook helicopter picking up empty water bladders or spent ammunition cases to be carried off to be refilled. On one occasion during this operation we provided fire in support of the infantry when over the radio we received a cease-fire as 3 prisoners had been captured. The next call said only 2 prisoners alive and then, no surviving prisoners. Their fate, we didn’t know, or in fact cared by then. Not long after the operation was over, we left Xuyen Moc to return to the Horseshoe and rejoin the rest of the battery. Not long after we left Xuyen Moc the local ARVN (Sthn Vietnamese) base at the other end of the airstrip was over run buy a force of VC, quite a few of them were killed and many weapons were lost to the VC. That event made us think about what could have happened if we had still been there.
ON THE ROAD TO XUYEN MOC LIVING AREA – XUYEN MOC
CHOPPER RESUPPLY DEPARTING XUYEN MOC
Whilst the battery was based at the Horseshoe it operated with one gun crew rotated to a N.D.P. (Night defence position) called Brigid, in the sand dunes near the village of Long Phuoc Hai on the coast and close to the Long Hai hills. Our crew moved to that position for our turn of a weeklong stay. It wasn’t a pleasant place as sand permeated all your gear and made it very uncomfortable. However, it did have its little pleasures as Mick F. and I managed to exchange some rations for beer with the local kids sneaking up to raid the rubbish tip. Luckily we never got caught but the beer tasted good late at night. It was at Brigid that I got in the way of a blast from the gun, which knocked me off my feet. I initially thought that I had ruptured my eardrums but the RAP medic said no, put in some drops, cotton wool and sent me on my way. For the next few days I couldn’t hear a lot but it did recover eventually to just a partial hearing loss and some ringing in my ears, which they called tinnitus. This place also had its moments particularly when a noisy member of the gun crew, Rodney M. was riding on an APC and it hit luckily, only an anti personnel mine on the road into the base. An explosion of sand and noise erupted from under the APC, which had the effect of shutting Rod up for quite a while. A larger mine could have had much more serious consequences. We moved to NDP Brigid on two more occasions during the tour. Following this we returned to the Horseshoe and it was now July and we prepared for R&R leave. I was going home and couldn’t wait. However, I knew that on my return from leave I was on the move again. This time I was joining the F O (Forward Observer) party with “A” coy. 7 RAR and this would be tougher than anything I had experienced up to date.
L5 GUN AT NDP BRIGID RICE PADDIES NEAR NDP BRIGID
R&R leave at home in early July was great. It was a time to relax and forget what had gone on. Although even if you wanted to you couldn’t talk to anybody about it because they simply wouldn’t understand and mostly they just didn’t want to hear. That week went all too fast and it was time to return. All those that had come home mustered in Sydney at the depot which was for Americans and Australian troops. We watched in amusement as the Americans with their good time girls in tow arrived at the depot. Terry C. antagonised some by telling them that their girl wouldn’t be lonely for too long, as she would meet the next plane in. Some didn’t like it but Curl couldn’t have cared less and just laughed it off. Pretty soon we were away and as the doors of the plane opened in Saigon the smell of this foreign land swept in on the breeze. We were back.
I moved across to HQ platoon, “A” Company 7 RAR and joined the FO party. I met the F.O. a Capt David B. who immediately opened my eyes when he told me that my role was to protect him and if there was any action I was required to position myself between the enemy and him. He did grin as he said that he was important and I wasn’t. It was a statement that was true but thankfully not required. We initially spent a week at NDP Brigid and it was here that I met two “Bushman Scouts” who were in effect former Viet Cong who had changed sides. I quickly realised the stupidity of this war when in a discussion one day one of the scouts Tung, as he was known was asked by Kerry “Jed” T. the FO’s sig. what he would do when the Australians left Vietnam. His response was that he would rejoin the Viet Cong as in the end they would win. Jed quickly pointed out to Tung that he should keep that to himself as it could be misinterpreted if picked up by the wrong people. I don’t know if he ever did rejoin them. In late July we prepared for an operation that would take us north of the road to Xuyen Moc, across the Song Rai River and a sweep back to the Horseshoe over a period of about 2 weeks. It was during this time that I grew to respect the role of the infantry soldier and what hardships they had to endure. As I packed my equipment I soon realised that the load I was to carry included rations for about a week, ammunition, a claymore mine, 4 water bottles and a water bag, a grenade launcher and sleeping gear such as a ground sheet, a blanket, a hutchie and of course my rifle plus a machete. All up about 40 kilos of weight under which I groaned just standing there without having to carry it all through jungle, muddy rice paddies and blistering heat and energy sapping humidity for the entire operation. If you sat down with that equipment you needed someone to help you back on your feet and that did occur every time you stopped for a rest. We loaded our gear into the APC’s that would take us to the starting point of the operation, climbed up on top and we were away.
Over the next 10 days I experienced heat, rain, mud, leeches, snakes, extreme tiredness and fear I never thought possible. You were continually wet from the dampness and rain and only dried out at nights when under cover. The crossing of rivers and rice paddies always resulted in masses of leeches attaching themselves to your legs and body. To remove you lit a cigarette and burnt them off but plenty of blood would still flow. Contacts with the VC were minimal but there is nothing to prick the senses like fear and to know that late at night, when you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face as in the jungle it is totally black, and noises of movement indicated that Viet Cong were very likely probing the platoon position. You lay very silent with your heart pounding, senses tingling and realised what it must be like to be blind and only relying on your hearing. Then the rain would start and you simply lay in the mud. It was very difficult to stay quiet as sometimes you could feel the leeches crawling on you and couldn’t do a thing about them. One contact during the day happened so quickly it was all over before you had time to think. A few bursts of gunfire rang out and everybody dived for cover but then it was all over. Later that day we lay silent in the scrub as an unknown nog (Vietnamese) walked across the front of our position. He was not challenged as our presence was not to be known in case there were more of them. He went away unchallenged and whether he was Viet Cong or somebody in the wrong place we never knew. Either way he was very lucky not to be killed. For some reason I could never understand why that night as I lay trying to sleep I trembled, probably with fear and held my SLR rifle close by my side.
It was on the Saturday of that operation I looked at my watch and realised that people at home would be at the footy. It was winter at home and I wished that I was there as I really wanted a hot dog and a cup of tomato soup, funny to think of that in the humidity and heat but, it would be almost 9 months before I would get to have that experience. It was at the suggestion of the F.O. that I went out on a reconnaissance mission with four of the infantry guys. It was an interesting experience to be part of a 5-man patrol way out in the middle of nowhere and a long way from support. The recce patrol took the best part of the day and light was fading when we finally got back to the main body of troops. It was a relief, as you feel very vulnerable in that situation.
The end of the operation came very quickly as orders came to head back to the Horseshoe. It required an 11 km walk with all our equipment through rice paddies with mud almost up to your knees, thick jungle and open roads, but we made it. We arrived with clothes rotting of our backs, hot, sweaty, and very tired, smelling bloody awful and looking for a shower, some clean clothes a decent meal and a good rest. Thankfully, on this operation no one was killed or wounded but that wasn’t always going to be the case. After a couple of days at the Horseshoe and some night ambush operations we returned to Nui Dat and had a great party that night in the mess as the beer flowed freely and everybody relaxed. Even the CSM bought me a beer and as I had volunteered for the recce patrol whilst on the operation said that for an artilleryman I should be in the Infantry. I think that was his way of praising you as he didn’t like the artillery and even later when Jed T. and I stayed overnight in the Kiwi sector and missed roll call conducted by the CSM the next morning, a mortal sin and for which Jed got kitchen duties for a week, I never got a mention which pissed Jed off completely. No doubt going on the recce patrol last op. had put me right on the CSM’s good side. Unfortunately, a few days later I wasn’t feeling particularly well as an abscess had developed under a tooth and my face had begun to swell. As a result I wasn’t allowed to go on the next operation, as I needed a course of antibiotics and the tooth removed. Rodney M. replaced me in the FO party and I went back to 106 Bty on Charlie gun. I never rejoined A. coy but I never missed it as being part of a gun crew was frankly a welcome relief and pretty easy after that experience.
APC’S AT THE HORSESHOE LOOKING ACROSS THE HORSESHOE
Time passed slowly as the days went by and turned into weeks. We even took to running around the top of the Horseshoe for fitness and would stand at the top and look over Long Tan where a large battle had taken place in 1966. Many missions were fired in support of the infantry operations along with harassment fire at night to keep the VC from getting a rest. We amused ourselves by trapping rats and general horseplay. The boredom was livened up one evening when a burst of gunfire from outside the horseshoe lit up the sky across our position and resulted in Jock C. a very staunch Scotsman believing we were about to be attacked pull on his boots, webbing, helmet and grabbed his rifle ready to meet the enemy. The only problem was that Jock had nothing else on and looked a frightening sight with his rotund figure and very white Scottish skin. All we could do was laugh and tell Jock to put some clothes on, as he would only scare the poor little noggie bastards to death looking like that. Jock didn’t have much of a sense of humour and never saw the funny side of it.
TANKS AT HORSESHOE A VISIT FROM THE AMERICANS
A new mess was built behind the gun positions and the Sgt. cook Mick O’S. an Irishman, would play cards with the American 8 inch gun battery cooks stationed behind 106 Bty. If he won the winnings were steak and ice cream. Luckily he won a lot so we ate well on many occasions. However, when the Americans left to go to Cambodia it was left to us to help clean up their area. It was noticeable that the white guys sat on the vehicles waiting to leave while the black guys were on the shovels and brooms. A bite of racism we thought especially as they were flying a Confederate flag. We found that they left behind boxes of fuses and one very large bag of marijuana. That explained a lot. To help with entertainment an area was cleared behind the guns and a screen put up to show the occasional movie. On opening night we rolled up and sat in the rain and mud, soaked to the skin to watch the most boring and awful black & white movie we had ever seen. But funny enough we watched most of it, simply because we hadn’t seen a movie for a long time.
Occasionally you had the opportunity to go back into Nui Dat for the day on the resupply truck. On one of these trips I was cleaning up in the tent and found the claymore mine I had thrown under my bunk after finishing with ‘A’ Coy. 7 RAR. We thought that as nobody was around we could put it down the long drop toilet and set it off. Unfortunately, or fortunately for us we checked to see if it was ready to go but it was pointing up and to let it off would have resulted in us blowing up the toilet and discharging a ton of crap into the air. We thought, maybe not and dropped the firing mechanism down into the toilet. A wise decision but we did think that someday a local farmer was going to get a big surprise if he was digging around that area.
Christmas was approaching and a film crew arrived looking for Tasmanians to send home a message for Xmas day on ABC television. I got to send a message to everyone at home telling everyone that there wasn’t long to go and to have a beer for me. On Xmas day a dinner was put on in the mess and we all enjoyed a terrific time. It was quite a change. After that it was back to normal and shortly after Xmas the advance party for our replacement unit 12 Field Regt arrived and settled in to experience the daily goings on. One of their Officers was a Lt. Ian M. who was a friendly bloke. He wore thick black plastic framed glasses, was very skinny but always managed to wander round at night to have a chat and share the chips and Twisties he seemed to always have. We all liked him as he wasn’t like some of the Commissioned Officers who seemed to act a bit superior and he freely admitted he was green and had a lot to learn.
Over the next few weeks we were involved in many support operations again including one that required the firing of 1000 rounds in support of 7RAR. It was quite a sight as helicopters kept bringing in resupplies of ammunition and even the cooks had to come out and unpack it all. It was a very busy and noisy day. After this things seemed to quieten down a bit although at night you could watch helicopter gun ships firing tracer rounds at the Long Hai hills. A bit like watching a fireworks display. At one point one of our own spotter choppers was shot down near the bottom of the Long Hai hills. No one was injured and the helicopter was recovered okay so, no drama except when it was announced that Sgt Brian R. was on board and a cheer went up. Many didn’t like him.
WHO IS THAT?
Time passed and by February 1971 we were close to going home. Things were winding down but unfortunately for me I contracted a gastric complaint and was transferred back to HQ Bty. This meant a delay in my departure as I hadn’t gone over to Vietnam with 106 Bty and would only have come home at the same time if I had stayed with them. A pretty depressing outcome as 106 Bty left for home shortly after. I quickly wrote home to advise of the new arrangements. The last few weeks were quiet and pretty easy as I really had nothing to do but ride around as shotgun for those that needed to travel outside of Nui Dat, and when not required I lay around reading books and working for the Q Store. At night it was sit around listening to music, talking and passing around the flagon of claret and the smokes. Unless of course, you had scored a guard duty on the outer perimeter of the base in which case a tiring night lay ahead.
HIM AGAIN MY BOOT
THE LAST HOME – NUI DAT
One of the trips outside of Nui Dat required me to accompany Major Q. and Bob T. his driver to the Peter Badcoe club in Vung Tau. It was a great day, Bob and I sat by the pool while waiting and lapped up what to us a last little bit of luxury. It was here that I heard someone call my name. On looking around there was Lt. Ian M. on his first R in C leave to Vung Tau. We chatted about what was going on and he asked me the ropes as to going into town to the bars and visiting the girls that inhabited them. My response was that it was not a good place and it was best to stay away from them or at least go, but to keep his pants done up. He laughed and said that he would at least have a look and set off down the road to catch some transport. I never saw Ian M. again.
In July 1971 Ian was killed in action in the northern part of the Province.
Finally, the time had come and after 11 months 2 weeks I left Vietnam. At last the constant sound of gunfire & helicopters would be behind me. I said goodbye to all those with whom I had shared some unique experiences. There were some sad times and some tough times but there were also times we had a lot of laughs and fun. I would miss the mateship, which was the only thing I would miss about this Country. Most of us said we should keep in contact but I think deep down knew most of us would probably never see each other again as we went our different ways. The morning that I left Nui Dat I crawled off my bunk that had been sabotaged with shaving cream the night before by the sods in my tent, quietly said goodbye leaving them asleep and headed for Luscombe field to fly out to Saigon. We left Saigon late that day and arrived in Sydney in the early hours of the morning and were shunted through Customs. Army personnel were waiting for us and handed us our pay book, some pay and an airline ticket home. They directed us to a bus to take us to a hotel for the rest of the night. Terry C. and I shared a room but I couldn’t sleep. I had rung my very excited parents at about 2 am and let them know that I was in Sydney and would be home the next day. At Sydney airport next day Curl and I said our goodbyes. I flew to Tasmania and as the plane flew over the Coast I looked at the hills and shed a tear, it was a magnificent sight, everybody would be at the Airport to greet me and I couldn’t wait.
After all the experiences of the last year I wondered if anything would ever be normal again but in reality, I didn’t think anything could be, as in my mind the events of the last year would remain with me for the rest of my days. For me the war was over, I was now 21 years of age, a war veteran and finally old enough to go into the pub and buy a beer.
But at last, I was home.
In May of 2003 I returned to Vietnam with my wife Peggy and our friends Barry & Lindy. I wasn’t sure why I really decided to go and didn’t know what I expected to gain from re-visiting this place. My memories were very strong of what had occurred here but I wondered if time had distorted those memories. When we landed at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon some of the buildings were instantly recognisable beside the airstrip but that was all that was left of what was once a very large airbase. This place had changed dramatically but after all it was over 30 years since I left. A few days in Saigon and after doing a lot of the tourist things like the Cu Chi tunnels and the Presidential Palace it was time to head for the old Nui Dat base area and Vung Tau. The first thing noticeable was that the road from Saigon down to Vung tau was now a four-lane highway and buildings were both sides of the road all the way. This area was once a narrow road, rice paddies and the area of many clashes. As we drove into Baria, the provincial capital I looked at the old picture theatre that had now been patched up and looked as if it had never been touched, it was noticeable that again some large changes had occurred to this provincial capital of what is now Baria-Vung Tau Province. New roads and buildings had been constructed where once nothing had stood however, the poverty of the ordinary people was still evident everywhere. We drove up to the old Nui Dat base area and as expected nothing was left of the old base. Nui dat village now stands on the side of what was Luscombe field, which is now a small straight piece of road through the village. I stood on that road and the memories of this place flooded back. What was known as SAS hill, because it was the area that the SAS regiment occupied has been quarried along with the area that 106 Bty used as the home base. I smirked as I thought of that Claymore we left in the long drop toilet. Did some poor bugger dig it up and get blown to kingdom come, or was it still there somewhere? That day was very wet and as I stood in the rain my thoughts went back a very long time. I thought of friendships formed, and of those whose tortured spirits probably still drifted through the area today looking for peace. I half expected to see old mates come strolling out of the rubber trees after an operation in the bush, tired, dirty, dishevelled and grizzling about what a prick of a place this is. After visiting the Nui Dat area and the Horseshoe, which has virtually been quarried away for the stone to build a road through the Long Tan area it was time to head to Vung Tau. Perhaps this place hadn’t changed at all. How wrong, Vung Tau is now a vibrant area with many resorts for tourists and a six-lane hwy through the old 1ALSG area including the area of the Badcoe club. All that is left is a crumbling old concrete swimming pool, which held many memories of the fun we had had in this place. As we wandered the streets the bar area looks very different, gone are the bar girls of course and the area is now inhabited by families running small shops in the old bars plus of course, a lot of poverty. People openly begged for money, which was quite depressing really to realise that whilst a lot of this country has gone forward, much is still the same.
As we left Vung Tau and headed back to Saigon for the rest of our holiday I looked back and wondered what was I doing here. I felt like someone who had gone back to re-visit their old school or the play area of your childhood only to find it had been subdivided and dug over for a market garden. I recognised landmarks such as the Long Hai hills, the Horseshoe and the beaches of Vung Tau but the rest of what I remembered no longer existed and has changed forever. I wondered if it ever existed at all and perhaps I was just dreaming. For the local Vietnamese it’s all in the history books. They don’t talk about it and the young people have simply got on with their lives.
I was pleased that I had gone back but did feel that something was missing, and the answer to that was easy. It was those blokes that had gone through the experience of this place with me all those years ago. They weren’t there and quite frankly for a short period I emotionally felt alone and vulnerable. A strange feeling really as I was with my wife and friends, but then they were looking at the place like tourists and not the way I was looking at. For me it was something of a sabbatical. However, it did reinforce my views that the past cannot be re-lived nor should you hold any regrets, life goes forward never to be repeated or changed, no matter how much you wish it could be.
Overall, something of a surreal experience but not one I will rush to repeat.
Used with the kind permission of Tony Sargeant