Tan Son Nhut Airport. Over the years I have seen a few busy airports, Heathrow, Sydney, LAX, none of them could compare to Tan Son Nhut. At the height of the Vietnam War it was the busiest airport in the world. Coming in to land, everyone who had a window seat gawked at the scene below. Not many airports had a huge collection of jet fighters, bombers, cargo planes, helicopters, light planes. I won’t name them all, I’m not really into aircraft but be assured if the US forces had it in the air then it lurked around this air base. Every aircraft seemed to have its own parking bay with high corrugated iron revetments filled with sandbags. This protected aircraft, to a certain degree from rocket and mortar attacks. Once we landed it was off the plane and over to the ‘lounge’ area, a large hut not unlike dozens of others that faded into the distance. The air-conditioning groaned and creaked fighting a losing battle against the heat outside. Early August was summer wet season and one of the endearing memories is the smell. The only other place I remembered having a unique odour was Port Said, in Egypt. Then we were anchored offshore on our way from England to Australia, and the aromas of people, camels, donkeys, and whatever hid in the desert wafted in. Here it was the odour of badly drained sewage, damp, vegetation all mixed in with aviation fuel and carbon monoxide. I love the smell of pollution in the morning.
I flew in with another Cavalryman; I forget his name so I’ll call him Grant. We waited for a few hours in the lounge drinking cola and reading books. A good soldier doesn’t go anywhere without a novel. The call came and we were directed to our flight, a Caribou from ‘Wallaby Airlines’ waiting in the taxiing area. Bags over shoulders we went up the ramp and found a canvas web seat, ‘Excuse me Hostess, where are the buttons to recline these? While you’re at it a white tea would be lovely. ’ Some mail and general cargo were loaded and we were off. This was a great experience; the Caribou could take off and land on the shortest runways. Once we’d levelled out it was time to have a look at what we’d gotten ourselves into. I have never seen so many bomb craters, ever. (I had only seen two before: one at the back of my Aunt’s farm outside of Lancaster in England. Give a Smith a bomb crater and they turn them into a duck pond. The other one was at the end of a row of houses one street over from where I lived.) There were places where the edges touched the next one and so on. Vast areas of jungle had been defoliated, being the wet season most of the craters were full of water. It all added a gloomy perspective to it and I’m not totally sure how I felt, this was something I wanted badly and now I was here. No going back, my stomach did a tiny lurch reminding me that I was now ‘in country.’ Good Morning Vietnam.
Coming in over our new home, Nui Dat, had us eyeballing the scenery. We had flown west to east and the strip ran north south so we had a good look at the base as the pilot brought us in to land at Luscombe Airfield.
No messing around no, ‘Thanks for flying Wallaby Airlines, please fly with us again.’ These blokes were fair dinkum: hit the deck, we bugger off they pick up the mail and vroom, they’re gone again. A totally disinterested Corporal was parked next to the little tin hut shelter in a cut down, left hand drive Land Rover to pick us up, ‘G’day Corp, how’s it going?’ – ‘Huh!’ Right, obviously not the chatty type. First stop the Orderly Room, ahh a familiar face. The Corporal there was Terry, who used to be in 2 Cav. We exchanged G’days and I noticed the emblem on his shirt. It had a pen and a sword crossed with, ‘The Penis Mightier than the Sword.’ I took another look and mouthed out the words and snickered. Oh he wasn’t impressed, the Vietnamese seamstress who had made them at the PX either A: had a sense of humour. B: couldn’t sew straight or C: wasn’t conversant with the writings of Edward Bulwer Lytton. I made an enemy of Grant in the next five minutes.
It is always great to see a friendly face and the next one was Squadron Sergeant Major Lee Bonser, the very man who insisted that I clean and paint his German 88 anti-aircraft gun at the gunnery school. The conversation went like this, ‘G’day Smithy, do you want to be a Crew Commander? There’s a vacancy in the troop and you’ll fit the bill.’ Me, ‘Err, well.’ – I’m not happy about this. I had trained as a gunner and was bloody good at it. Crew Commanding as you may remember ended quite badly for me. I pointed at my left knee, ‘Well Sir, if I have a choice I would rather fill the gun position.’ Him, ‘Oh the knee, don’t blame you. Okay you’re the troop leader’s gunner on 42, we’ll sort it.’ He turned to Grant standing next to me, ‘Sorry Lad, we don’t need you. You’re on the next flight back to Australia.’ You’ve heard of pregnant silences. I felt sorry for Grant but no way was I going to change my mind. He left there a hostile and bitter young man but who knows I may have saved him a lot of grief? I didn’t do too badly at all, only in country half an hour and I’ve managed to piss two people off.
After Grant left the office Lee sat me down and explained a few things in reference to what I would be doing over the next three days. Then he thought for a moment and asked, ‘Tell me Smithy, how many people can you fit into a Lambro?’ My first thought and I didn’t voice it was. What the bloody hell’s a Lambro? The bemused look on my face said it all. ‘Right I won’t be sending you to Vung Tau to join the rest of your troop on R and C. You’ll have to wait for the next rotation.’ So I guess you are all wondering what a Lambro is?
It’s a Lambretta taxi, a motorcycle with a rear that is set up for, at a push six Australians. Or generally a family of eight Vietnamese, three baskets of ducks, a pig, a bushel bag of rice, oh and Grandma. R and C stood for Rest and Convalescence; I found out later that in Vung Tau you got very little rest and all the convalescing was done back in the jungle. That is another story.
It was like old home week, seeing many a familiar face as I did the rounds picking up my issue bedding: more jungle greens, boots, personal weapon and other such necessities of life and a flak jacket. Nobody ever wore them; they usually ended up on your seat. The idea being that they would protect your balls if you hit a mine. From what I’ve seen of mine damaged armoured vehicles I don’t think they would have made a difference. Big whinge about my personal weapon here, there was an allocation system. Drivers and most gunners received a rifle – SLR 7.62mm. Some received an Armalite 5.56mm and I was supposed to get a 9mm Browning pistol, the storeman handed over a SLR. All the images of me with my shoulder holster and Browning evaporated, ‘What’s the go?’ – ‘Sorry Mate, the orderly room Sergeant has your pistol.’ (If you ever get to read this and you know who you are, I really needed that pistol a month later.) Snowy Marshall found me and handed over a pressed aluminium food tray. You know the type on MASH, where if you’re lucky the ice cream doesn’t run into your powdered eggs and reconstituted mashed potatoes.
My first night out. I have let the years, forty-two of them cloud my memories and went to press on this blog a few days out-of-order. Perhaps because the event stood out in my mind waiting to be told. Whatever the cause the events here occurred five days after I arrived in country. So part 20 really should be read as part 19. Sorry for the confusion, and I remember this how? I found my little diary.
Tuesday 17/8/71. My day consisted of chipping stray grass and weeds around the camp. The army detests idle hands and whatever menial task can be ferreted out somebody will find it for you to do. Let’s face it they were spraying millions of gallons of agent orange around the country and nobody could spare a few litres for weed control in camp. probably just as well. Another Corporal turned up, a slender young man with a big Scottish accent, Jock Taggart. I’m almost sure he said, ‘Would you be Corporal Laurie Smith?’ Jock hailed from Kilsyth, a welder by trade who had worked on the QE2. After taking a careful look at his face I decided to keep any smartarse remarks to myself. He had a classic face, his young life up to then was etched on it and I knew that I was in the presence of a tough, no-nonsense bloke. I spoke with him recently and he said, quote; ‘Where I came from Laurie you had to fight to survive on the streets.’ He’d given and been the recipient of a Glasgow kiss or two, (a head-butt, I hope we’re still friends after this Jock?) Not wanting to upset anyone else I said yes. ‘Good, have yer dinner and meet us over at the vehicle compound in half an hour, we’re off to Xuyen Moc, with three ‘Beasts’ from 42 section.’ (Pronounced Swan Mock) Right, wherever that was. It turned out to be a village situated east of Nui Dat. A section of our APC’s were patrolling out there and one needed some mechanical attention. Our job was to take the replacement up, hand it over, stay the night and come back at daylight, piece of cake to a trained digger. I now had a new experience to add to the list. Extremely well-armed Roadside Assist.
This picture was taken a few months later of Jock and I standing in front of an APC with a browning .50 cal machine gun mounted on it. The vehicle next to it is an Armoured Command vehicle. The rifle next to my leg is an Armalite, 5.56mm.
Movement at night didn’t occur that often and Jock looked as toey as I felt when I turned up with my bum-pack, tropical sleeping bag and rifle. He gave me the map, jumped in the driver’s seat, started up and dropped the ramp for me. Once everything was stowed away, I jumped in on the radio check with the rest of the section and checked in with our command post, Zero Charlie. Then we hit the road. I may have rabbited on about this before but there is nothing quite like standing up in the turret of a fast-moving armoured vehicle. The sound of a Detroit diesel engine is still music to my ears, the rattle of the tracks and the swaying, bumping ride can be summoned in a moment, along with the sore back. We were all let out through the back gate, I loaded the twin .30 cal Browning machine guns and we were off. I have spoken to Jock about this trip in the past and he remembers nothing. We remember things differently, perhaps because he had done this before. To me it was the beginning of a huge adventure. Jock was a great driver and we powered along the main road, well a gravel road with tiny hamlets strung out, rubber plantations and what you could see of the jungle 1000 yards away in the tropical gloom.
The night adds a new perspective to everything, especially when you are lead vehicle. The one most likely to hit a mine first. Even on home turf, driving to the shop or going to the next town is different. Something primal has been added to the equation – the dark – the place where anything can happen. Jock knew where we were going; all I had to do was make sure I knew where we were on the map. Over the roar of the engine and the smell of diesel fumes I took in the new smells and views. The rain had stopped after dinner and the huge cloud formations lurked on the horizon. Yellow flashes of lightning flared up deep in the cumulus clouds, they looked like Chinese lanterns for a moment and then the gloom would settle in again. I chatted over the intercom with Jock and he filled me in on what would be happening when we arrived. ‘Oh yeah, there’s a Local Forces post to get past first before the village.’ – ‘What’s so hard about that?’ – ‘You’ll see.’ Indeed I did, what an eye opener, the guard post stood at the end of a large bridge. The lights from our vehicles highlighted a metal wire strung across the bridge about two feet off the ground. It formed part of an elaborate trip wire that had a mortar bomb hanging off it, right next to where we pulled up. The part-time soldiers that manned it were recruited from the local population, and usually had an ARVN leader. Some of these same soldiers often worked for the Viet Cong. Jock leaned out of his drivers hatch and spoke to the young soldier who had been pushed out the door to disconnect the mortar from the wire. I don’t know what he said to him but another one came out. After a little arm waving and nervous looks the bomb was lowered to the ground and the wire removed. A smile, a wave, a hearty Hi Ho Silver and we were off. I won’t put Jock’s comments here, suffice to say we were both glad to be as far away as possible.
The above link will take you to Google maps, where the red A points out Nui Dat. If you go to the right of the page you will see Xa Xuyen Moc.
We located the APC’s in the bush and the crew had to unpack their vehicle and transfer all the gear over: ammo, claymore mines, spare fuel, water, all their personal gear and rations. They left the rubbish, strange insects and dust bunnies for us to take home. Back to the village where the local publican welcomed our money and we bought cans of Tiger beer. We retired to the ARVN outpost and performed piquet duty. No amount of training can really prepare you for the actuality of something. You can learn all about: the weapons, tactics, radios, procedures and codes. But until you have sat behind the guns in your turret, in the wee hours of the morning, staring out into the dark it doesn’t seem real. 0530 hours and we escorted the ARVN troops to their area of operations.
Next week it’s: Breaking rocks, Driving the garbage truck, Induction and a Night on the wire.