YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 30. Is there no end to it? and We leave Nui Dat.

Is there no end to it? 29/10/71. Diary entry reads, Nothing much to do, just sitting around doing nothing. Boredom is a killer, it leads to people getting into mischief and losing their edge. We were in a funny situation, still in a war zone and yet here we were moping around the place. The only good thing, we had a new boss. I have no idea where the other bloke went and I didn’t have too much to do with this one. All we wanted to do was get out and patrol, or ambush or even go and get bogged somewhere – even a thrown track would have been welcome. No! We hung around, the sad thing was we had finished disposing of all the excess Claymores. It felt like being in a prison camp. The brass must have sensed the disquiet and on the following day we patrolled down to Ba Ria, the province capital and back. It blew the cobwebs out and gave us all something to do. Getting back into the turret again and feeling the wind rush past, the sheer thrill of rattling down the main road, ah – the bliss.

My diary entries up to the 7/11/71 are devoid of thrilling anecdotes and tales of daring do. Unless you count a vehicle service, okay we won’t count that. The words NTR are prominent, nothing to report, oh except bored to death. I’ve mentioned before how the memory is a funny thing and how stressful events can be buried deep in the subconscious. Well, this one came fully to mind as I wrote preceding blogs and if not for the skill of a pilot I wouldn’t be here. It was definitely in this time period that the event occurred, I had taken to wandering around the place trying to look busy and or keeping out-of-the-way. As you know we weren’t far from the airfield and on this day I could hear a light aircraft coming in to land. It didn’t sound healthy at all, coughing and farting away. The engine spluttered and roared and I, mister curious had to go and have a look. A quick jog and I found myself standing between the rubber plantation tree line and the edge of the airstrip, at the northern end. It wasn’t too hard to spot the plane, its starboard wing was on fire and white smoke streamed out of the engine cowling. Hmm, I thought, this is going to be interesting.
A view of Luscombe field from where we were living at the time.

Luscombe field

I don’t know if anyone else saw this event unfold, or even came out to watch. The plane, I think it was a Pilatus Porter, or it could have been a Cessna made its way slowly north along the far side of the strip, about 30 feet off the ground. The plane had a rocket pod attached underneath each wing. These usually contained white phosphorous rockets, for marking targets and 2,75 inch rockets (that’s calibre, not length) the type that go boom when they hit the ground. You have heard the term, like a deer in the headlights, or rooted to the spot, well I covered both of them. Reaching the end of the strip where I stood, the pilot turned his plane and it pointed straight at me. Remember, he wasn’t that far off the ground and all I could see was this pod underneath the starboard wing burning merrily away. Bright orange flames licked the underside of the wing, white smoke poured out. I have no idea if he saw me or not, all I do know is he banked that plane hard to go back the way he ‘d come and then those rockets let loose.

Guy Fawkes Night had nothing on these rockets, they went off like, well a rocket. A huge whooshing sound repeated over and over again, as they sailed down the strip. For the life of me I don’t know where they ended up. Wherever they went I’m sure they scared the crap out of somebody else. The plane dropped down to my head height and thankfully landed at the southern end of the strip. What happened to the pilot, was he okay? I don’t know, what I do know is this. I turned around and walked away. The image of several rocket heads pointing at me from where they nestled in their individual tubes, was still visible in my mind’s eye. By the time I reached my hut and sat down the imagery began to fade. The memory flared briefly over the years but this is the first time I’ve recounted it in full. There are probably more questions than answers here, I would still like to know who he was, (American or Australian) where he came from, was he okay? So if anyone reading this remembers the event then please contact me.

Today we left Nui Dat, 07/11/71, I penned that entry into my diary, followed by, arrived  Vung Tau at 1500hrs. A small entry for a big day indeed. Jock Taggart sent me a copy of the movement orders last week so I could get an overall idea of what transpired on the day. Nothing too exciting, except for the… we’ll get to that. No it was business as usual. An early rise, actually we were up way before sparrow fart, there were places to be by 0715 hours. Our place (42 section) turned out to be an area along route 2, north of Ba Ria opposite a bus stop.

This style of bus was common in Vietnam, I actually took the picture as it drove past our position. It was called The Crab, because its front left wheel stuck out at an angle after hitting a mine.Bus

The bus failed to stop and pick up these Regional Force soldiers so the one on the right decided to shoot at it. No consideration for the young girl standing there, or for the ever aware, men of the cavalry relaxing across the road.

Regional Force soldiers Vietnam

I was in my turret and had taken the bus picture, Ted Beasley and Rolly Wood sat there looking for all the world like country gentlemen when the idiot started shooting. Boy, didn’t they leap out of their deck chairs. Yes it was funny, sort of, the umbrella went one way, the chairs flew over the sides.

Beasts, near Ba Ria

After reading the ops order it gave me a different perspective on the day. Nothing was left to chance, and as the various units moved out from Nui Dat, Regional Force personnel moved in and took over. In effect it was a leap-frog type of manoeuvre. Now I have an idea of why we had the Beasts, they made for a formidable sight patrolling route 2 or positioned opposite bus stops. Or maybe not. It seems that all the real work was happening back at base with the movements of various units. A company of our infantry and APC’s secured the base, while two company’s of infantry flew out to Vung Tau. The more I read the report the more I realise how much I didn’t know what was going on. For instance: the Special Air Service, our elite soldiers – had gone. Was it something we said boys? You could have popped over and said cheerio, put on a few beers and a BBQ and thanked us for all the free armoured car rides. Did they really leave? Perhaps they sneaked off in the night like the shadows they were. Who knows but they did a great job. Then we have the 2/43 ARVN Infantry Group. (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) They’d been there since we moved house the first time, and were more than likely the ones trawling through our old huts and such. By 0800 a Regional Force unit moved onto Nui Dat hill, where the SAS used to live. I’m not sure what command expected but we had 104 field battery (our artillery) at Ba Ria, a US field battery on standby and one of our Mortar platoons. Man, now I’m feeling the love.
I do believe this is a picture of our battery. I can only apologise for the condition of the pictures, perhaps the grittiness adds some realism, I don’t know.

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Indeed it was a leap-frog affair, once the main part of the unit passed us we followed and set up at the next location.

A sqn # cav regiment, heading for Vung Tau

We moved on to Ba Ria and set up camp on the outskirts of town. It must have been lunch time because Snowy Marshall came over and made himself at home by my vehicle. He may have been trying to look nonchalant, I think he was calling out for a cuppa. You may notice that the sky is blue, yay, the wet season had ended a few weeks earlier.

Beasts

This is not my picture, it came for Ken Johnson’s disc, so it could be under copyright somewhere. If so please let me know.

 BeastsI have a feeling that is my vehicle in the rear. A Vietnamese policeman stands on the left and the locals on their scooters couldn’t give a fig. The following picture is definitely mine, we were the last vehicle through the gate and didn’t we stir the possum. The military police escorted our convoy in and then we received a hurried radio message to unload our main armament and Browning’s. It seemed a little too much for those who lived here at 1 ALSG, our new home for the following three and a half months. Although our soldiers based here had personal weapons, the magazines couldn’t be carried in the weapon and had to be taped to the butt. There we were bristling with weapons, I guess one can understand their discomfort.

Beasts

So ends a huge chapter in my life. It may not have been a long one but it was an interesting one. I had been scared, elated, educated and in a way transformed. Looking back from my lounge chair as I type this I can say, “Yes, I would do it again.” Even though my body doesn’t want to work like it used to, I now have severe issues with my neck and thoracic spine. My brainstem is damaged and I suffer daily with the effects of PTSD. Yet, I am luckier than most, there are the dead, wounded and those suffering from far worse ailments than me. My favourite saying is, You wouldn’t be dead for quids. (For my US readers, a quid is a pound, our old currency).

One chapter finishes and another begins. Vung Tau gave me a deeper insight into human behaviour, a consummate people-watcher I soaked up the experience of being in a garrison town. I revelled in the availability of cheap sex, and lived my life as if there was no tomorrow. I gave no thought to consequences and started to become something of a loner. In retrospect I believe the symptoms of PTSD had started by then. Nothing outstanding at all, almost everybody else behaved the same way. This series isn’t over, there are still a view adventures to relate, and I come the closest to death until my drowning in 1978. There will be bargirls, yanks, racism, porn, fights and general mayhem. Hard work and agent orange, soldiers going crazy, days on the beach, and my first taste of – love?

Next week: Settling into our new home and I hit the town.

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23 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 30. Is there no end to it? and We leave Nui Dat.

  1. bgbowers

    “Looking back from my lounge chair…“Yes, I would do it again.””
    It’s interesting that you feel this way, Laurie, considering the side/after effects. But, like you say, without that experience you wouldn’t have learned and experienced all that you did. Also, you are blessed because you made it out of there alive – many didn’t. t have enormous respect for you and your fellow soldiers; living with PTSD is no picnic in the park.
    In retrospect, and once we’ve identified the lesson and evolved as a result, it is easier to say that we would relive a challenging/painful life experience. I’m greatly appreciative that you are here today and willing to share your story/stories. We can all learn a lot.
    I’m also sorry to hear about your son.
    Bianca x

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      The thing is Bianca I continued to put myself in the line of fire as a police officer, not all that different. Every experience has made me who I am right now, for better or worse. I still tend to stick my head out when I should know better. 🙂 I enjoy sharing my stories Bianca, it’s beneficial for me and hopefully I might say something that helps somebody else. I don’t know if you have read my Police series. there are events there , dangerous and horrible that I would go through again and hopefully do it better. It’s not regrets only wondering what if?
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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  3. Theresa

    I’m wondering if your PTSD didn’t start much, much earlier, and the war exacerbated what was already present. Irregardless, I send my blessings for the daily reminders.

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  4. Raani York

    I’m still kind of diving into your past, Laurie… trying to re-awake your emotions during your time there… Of course this is written in such a special way that my phantasy is taking me to a hell of a trip… Now I’m curious though: “first love?” 🙂

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      It’s a murky dive Raani, put on your deep sea helmet and jump in. The ride is interesting and I’m sure you’re going to find something to be astounded by. First love? You’ll be surprised. 🙂
      Laurie.

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  5. Owls and Orchids

    Thanks for another incredible post Laurie. I know, deep down, that I still have this insane idealism that says “I would have liked to be given the chance to fight for Queen and Country”, even as a woman, because I am just as good as any bloke, but we’ll leave that one alone for now.
    I admire you tremendously for what you had to go through and still feel intensely angry at what they did to you guys. There’s no explanation that comes close to being acceptable and they should all be lined up and handed to whoever is “questioning undesirables” – there’s that old warrior spirit!
    If anything I am so sorry that your family suffered too, if not, or perhaps as much as you.
    You remind me of the “stiff upper lip” at times, but I know that you are a soft hearted guy too, so you’re a real gem 🙂
    I’m away for 2 days but I think I need a catch up chat…missed that.
    Beautiful, sad, horrifying and despondent, incredible writing. Love ya… Susan x

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      So, I’m stirring your patriotic soul Susan? I’m sure if world politics and war was left up to women it would be solved far quicker than normal. The warrior spirit trapped inside a woman’s body, now that’s got to make you cranky, especially when modern society doesn’t appreciate Amazons or Boadiceas. I’m sure you’ve let it run free over the years though. 🙂 One tends to ignore what PTSD does to a family over time, because the sufferer doesn’t tend to acknowledge much at all. You’d know being in the job that you have to keep that upper lip stiff most of the time. I’m soft hearted, at times but being called a gem, now is that a well cut, highly polished one, or rough and straight out of the ground?
      We’ll catch up. Thanks for your compliments on my post.
      Cheers
      Laurie. xox

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  6. hitandrun1964

    Yaks? I look forward to that one:) I’m sorry to hear about the problems you have had and are having. Agent Orange was…well, you know what it was. Defoliate the area but at what cost. In the US the government didn’t want to admit what it did to the soldiers, didn’t want to pay, when they came home and started getting sick. I know you would go back. A lot of people would. I’m happy that you have good memories of the time you spent there, stories and photographs, etc. because you paid a price for those things. Every time I see a Viet Nam vet I talk to him. You can recognize them by the caps they wear. Some other ways as well but the caps always catch my eye. I hope you are feeling better. The chickens send their love, as well as their clucks and chirps. Looking forward to the rest of the stories you mentioned.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Gigi, good to hear from you as always. Thanks for your thoughts, I don’t usually talk about the bigger issues with my health but I think it’s good to let people know that one doesn’t always get away Scott free. My son came into the world with birth defects that plague him to this day, not fair. I have a few things to say about agent orange as we go along, so I won’t talk here about it. 🙂 I’ll be recounting the good memories from now on, there are still a couple of icky things but the good reigns supreme. I miss the chickens, bless ’em. Talk soon,
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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      1. hitandrun1964

        I’m so sorry about your son. And Agent Orange and all the wars. I look forward to your next story and some new and wonderful photographs of the amazing place you live. Sometimes life sucks sometimes. The chickens are clucking softly and sending their love. They are getting ready for xmas and sending early good wishes your way.

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Thanks Gigi, the next story is simmering away, somewhere. 🙂 and haven’t I taken some pictures you will love. Tell the chickens they’ll love what I’ll be putting up, and xmas greetings will be heading their way.

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  7. Pagadan

    I’m gald you kept a diary; the entries add a nice touch, and the photos really bring it to life. Getting to see the over-all picture as you later did helped you put it more into perspective, of course. (That would be helpful for your book. Background n brackets perhaps.) Pity they kept the soldiers in the dark so often. The scene with the plane and the rockets really gave me a feel for the adrenaline and the danger. You’re good!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Joy, my biggest regret is that I didn’t write more in my diary. It wouldn’t be the same without the photos, they do add momentum to the post. I may have mentioned we called ourselves mushrooms, fed on bullshit and kept in the dark. I had something of a restless night after writing about the plane. It’s not only the other side you have to worry about. 🙂

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  8. rayjamieson

    Powerful reading Laurie. Personally though, I’m glad I’m reading your story and not recounting it as mine… I never wanted to go there, and I’m still glad I didn’t. I have enormous respect for the guys who did, for the ones I knew and those who came back damaged especially. I think seeing how they came back was what changed my thinking on it. As kids, we read the war comics and the glorified versions of it, but talking to Georgie Mac (Special Services) put a whole new perspective into it and the glory took on a whole new meaning.

    Regardless, I also understand you saying you would do it again. The learning experiences were obviously huge, and the life experiences not available anywhere else. We all owe guys like you so much for what you have done for us, and for making it so we didn’t have to go do the same…! Thank you.

    Ray

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Ray, it’s a case of each to his own. If my life was more settled and I had an education things could have been different. The again I wouldn’t be me. I loved those war comics, they were great. Sadly I had been introduced to just how bad war was as a small boy. No fancy talk or hiding anything, it was all out in the open. I’d learned three or four ways to kill a person with a knife by then. Sad.
      The learning experiences overseas were HUGE, fodder for novels indeed and life. Although my options for putting some things to good use were limited. 🙂
      You’re welcome Ray.

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  9. kelihasablog

    These pictures and your diary are amazing Laurie. They remind me of so much we saw on the TV and in “Life” magazine during that time. Wonderful that you wrote in a journal and that you kept it so you can share with us all. I had many friends who went to Vietnam, some came back, some didn’t… long story. 😀

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