13/10/71. Moving house, such an evocative phrase that conjures up moving trucks, newspaper wrapped glassware and new neighbours popping over with steaming dishes to welcome you into your new house. Well, get that out of your mind. Most of A Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment departed for Vung Tau around this time, leaving behind the newly formed 1 Troop Detachment. While we were out playing in the woods the remainder were packing up to go home. This made the transition reasonably smooth, well as smooth as the army could be. We stripped our huts of all the furniture which consisted of your, bed, wardrobe, chair and table, packed them into trucks and away we went. Not too far away, our nouvelle maison had been recently vacated by 161 Recce Flight, located in the rubber plantation next to the airstrip at Luscombe Field.
This picture shows our unit in the foreground, SAS Hill to the left, Luscombe Field strip and the extremely artistic red arrow shows the location of our new home. Picture: Rolly Wood, artistic arrow by me.
Picture courtesy of Rolly Wood.
I can almost see the real estate blurb that would advertise this place. Heavily treed locale with a quantity of rustic cottages, dining facilities and other amenities close to hand, especially public transport. It would be 23 days before we left Nui Dat and apparently there was much to be done. Naturally there was still a war going on and now our situation became somewhat hairier. A strange turn of phrase, ‘a hairy situation.’ it does bring to mind other things but generally it means dangerous-scary-dicey. You get the drift, yet we were too busy stripping excess gear from vehicles, sorting through the stores left behind, deciding what had to go in the pit and what needed to go home. All of this along with night ambushes. As you can see by the photo we were still a force to be reckoned with.
The 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment left behind D company and we had our ‘Spanners’ the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. We couldn’t leave home without them, they were the men responsible for the repairs and heavy maintenance on our vehicles. Plus a small contingent of Royal Australian Engineers who would look after mine and booby trap disposal. We definitely didn’t go anywhere without them. We didn’t see much of the infantry at this stage, no doubt they were out and about doing their thing by day and night. There were a few teething problems, at first. The Brass didn’t want us to go out and patrol with the Beasts, instead they were to be used as artillery pieces situated in our new encampment. This lasted for two days. I can only imagine there were many phone calls between our CO down in Vung Tau and the powers that be back in Canberra. Suffice to say that when we weren’t patrolling and ambushing we were up on the new barricade, using the vehicles for piquet duties. At night if you weren’t out ambushing you did your time in the vehicle. What kept you awake was watching the local villagers and probably a few Viet Cong moving through the abandoned sections of Nui Dat, scrounging for whatever wasn’t nailed down. Then again we did hear the screech of nails being pulled out. Naturally we couldn’t engage them and I doubt even if we were fired on that we could shoot back. It did pass the time though, watching these people through the starlight scopes, or through the periscope gun sight if a flare went up. Surreal, green tinted images moving quickly through what was fast becoming a dystopian landscape. Basically the homes of thousands of Australian troops were being stripped and carried furtively off into the night. The locals were going to get it all eventually.
You would think that spending more time in camp would be safer, that daylight hours away from ambushing would be carefree and relaxing. Wrong. One task that had to be done was the disposal of hundreds of Claymore anti personnel mines, you would have seen a picture in an earlier post. As long as there isn’t a fuse inserted and connected to a detonating device, you can juggle them if you wanted to. Besides the 700 1/8 inch ball bearings, they contained about half a kilogram of C4 explosive. There would have been about four of us who copped the claymore disposal job. First, find a comfortable chair or drum to sit on, grab an axe or machete then begin splitting the mines from the top down. Dig out the C4 and toss it into the rubbish trailer attached to the Land Rover. Several full loads of explosive had been taken to the huge pit which had been excavated next to the airstrip. It received more nocturnal attention from the locals than anything else. So everything had to be buried deep, especially C4. This would be my second trip with a full load and since I hadn’t had much car driving experience I relished the thought of going for a drive. After artfully backing the trailer up to the edge of the pit, I climbed into it and shovelled the explosives out and over the side.
It was a hot day. I remember pausing for a moment, leaning on the shovel and staring off across the strip to SAS Hill, and wondering what our elite warriors were up to. Or even if they were still there, who knew? What I should have been doing was taking notice of the smoke drifting out of where I had dumped the C4. The blast when it came was all-consuming. The sound deafening. The heat like a quick burst from a blast furnace. The force, enormous. The feeling of floating through the air, over in a split second. The landing between the gear levers and steering wheel of the Land Rover, painful. Waiting for somebody to come and help me, interminable. I wore shorts, boots and a hat and I can remember waking up and seeing my bare legs in the air, and wondering how I got there. Nobody came. I waited, dazed not knowing what had really happened. Then it came back and I gazed out through the rear of the Land Rover and watched trailing pieces of burning debris fluttering back into the pit. It took a few minutes and I managed to extricate myself from under the dashboard. On shaky legs I edged towards the side of the pit and saw the contents burning wildly. Still a little wobbly I drove back to where our smiling group of mine-manglers sat. A, “Oh didn’t the Sarge tell you, Smithy, he set fire to the last load of C4?” Wobbling over to where the billycan sat boiling on a cooker I picked up my mug and shook my head, “Nope.” There would have been in excess of 300 kilos of C4 in the pit. Luckily for me it went straight up the side of it, expending the majority of its energy upwards. Once the C4 disposal ended we went back to safer employment, night ambushing.
20/10/71. R and R. My diary reads, Left for Saigon this morning. Flying out at 2200 hours. Luckily for me Ted Beasley had returned from R and R a few days previously, he was wearing my dress shoes. He had left his under his bed and they’d been there for months, when he pulled them out only the uppers were left. The rest had been consumed by white ants. I sent him on his way with, “Let us know how you’re off for socks and underwear eh?” You can imagine the response. At least he gave them back all nice and polished. Being in our new digs it meant a quick trip across the airstrip, kit bag in hand and wait with a few other anxious souls for the Caribou flight down to Tan Son Nhut airport. I must let you in on a little secret dear readers, I didn’t want to go home. I had left it only two and a half months previously. I knew what it would be like, and I didn’t want it. My choices were: Vung Tau, well we would be there in a few weeks, Hong Kong, Bangkok or home. I wanted Bangkok, you know for the temples and scenery and such like. The kicker was you had to have US$500 at your disposal, I had $400. Talk about gutted. So home I went.
Thanks to Wikipedia.
Sitting in the departure lounge at the airport gave one an endless view of life in the military. Servicemen were being processed through the system at quite a rate, I was impressed. I can’t remember if anyone else from my unit accompanied me. So, I sat alone on a painfully uncomfortable plastic chair, kit bag between my feet, a large bottle of Chivas Regal scotch embedded in a cardboard tube used for mortar bombs on my lap, and a well-worn Playboy magazine or two in hand. I only read them for the articles though. A devastating event occurred when a US Marine fronted the departure counter, and his huge bottle of vodka slid out of its tube. Everybody jumped as it crashed to the floor, then sympathised with him as they watched the vodka spread on the cement. The flight home went smoothly, arrived in Sydney the following day and on to Brisbane.
I would like to say it was a wonderful leave, it wasn’t. My Mother tried her hardest to get me to stay, well that wasn’t going to happen. I felt hemmed in, couldn’t relax and wanted to get to a pub. Nobody wanted to hear my stories and I felt as if I were sinking in quicksand. Yet when the time came to go: Diary entry, 27/10/71, It’s hard having to go back but I think it’s harder on Mum. Anyway arrived in Saigon about 1900 hours, stayed overnight at Camp Alpha. Talk about an eye opener, the below link will give you an idea of what was on offer. This was filmed in Cam Ran Bay but is basically interchangeable with Camp Alpha.
A hoot and a holler from the airstrip, Camp Alpha served as a transit centre, especially for US servicemen entering and leaving SVN and those of us coming and going on R and R. Row after row of huge corrugated iron barrack rooms sprawled throughout the camp. You were given a barrack number and dropped off to find it. I had met one of our Mini-team Engineers on the flight coming home, he had a big last name, Lee-Gay-Brereton. Known forever after as The Gay Beret. A nice bloke we shared a few San Miguel’s at Manilla airport and were a little happy when we reached Saigon. We found the cook house and scrounged a feed. Then showered, shaved and dressed in civvies we went to the club.
You could hear the music three blocks away and the building fairly shook when you reached the door. A group of Yanks cast a not so friendly glance at us as we went inside, ignoring them we braced ourselves for the music. This is one of those moments that stick in your memory forever: the smoke-filled interior heaved with humanity, the vast majority of it male. All colours, shapes and sizes, predominately young, high, drunk and horny. Disco lights pulsed from each corner, empty beer cans crunched underfoot. TGB and I pushed our way through the log-jamb of humanity and found the bar. Barkeepers worked up a sweat supplying the thirsty crowd and at 25 cents a can it went down well. A live band, one of hundreds that toured Vietnam during the war hammered out a Credence hit, and lo and behold – Go-Go dancers. Not Asian girls but round-eyes, the name given to any white woman. A lanky blonde-haired girl danced in a cage that hung from the ceiling in one corner. Another girl, dressed in a leather bikini, long black hair in plaits wearing a leather headband and a feather, danced on a tiny stage. I can still see her: tall, with long legs, dancer’s legs, exquisitely built with full, high breasts. I think she may have been on something, life, pot, cocaine, who knows? I do know her face had a glow about it, eyes closed, the corners of her full lips raised in some knowing grin, perhaps getting off on the power her body had over the assembled men. I haven’t seen a dancer since who could shimmy and shake like she did. A definite case of look don’t touch we looked until the session finished, had a few more beers and called it a night. Our bunks were three high and we had been allocated the top bunk. Seeing nobody else appeared to be staying the night we took a bottom one each.
Our flight would be leaving early, so shaved, dressed in uniform and hungry we arrived at the mess hall. ‘Take all you want but eat all you take,’ says the sign at the servery. As an aside, I have yet to see a happy cook and the staff weren’t jolly chaps by any means. I imagine they had heard all the cook jokes, so I restrained myself from sharing any. One couldn’t complain about the food. Let’s face it, even if it were crap, by the look of the huge black cook standing behind the counter, arms folded and holding a ladle you wouldn’t complain. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, beans, toast and coffee piled on our trays we found a table. It goes down in no time and thankfully it’s a calm flight home to Nui Dat, just in time for a morning cuppa with Phil and Tony.
I don’t know who this picture belongs to, so if anyone does please let me know.
Next week: Is there no end to it and We leave Nui Dat.