I could rabbit on about day-to-day events but as I mentioned in last week’s post, I’ll go by happenings and characters. Which brings us to:
You’ve got to be bloody joking? No we won’t be talking about comedy routines here, or funny gags. By now you will be fully aware of the main form of entertainment in Vung Tau, visiting bars. This pastime wasn’t exclusive to the other ranks, our officers and senior NCO’s attended venues dedicated to a more, upmarket clientele. The Grande Hotel comes to mind, I actually went there one night for a steak dinner. They served steaks on cast iron plates in the shape of cows, these were on wooden platters for one obvious reason – the steak was actually cooked on the plates and they were bloody hot. I had never experienced such wonder and worldliness before this night. Which is why I went to move the plate with my fingers. Ouch. It’s okay, using all my couth and culture which had set me in good stead up until then, I stuck my fingers into my glass of beer. Ahh. The steak tasted very nice and the non too subtle glares from the officer class seated around the place didn’t faze me. It was rumoured that the notorious Ted Beasley attended the hotel one fine evening, fired a shot into the ceiling from a .38 cal revolver and departed post-haste. I’m getting to the point, one of our officers met up with an Australian Air Force squadron leader one night. In that air of camaraderie, found when one has imbibed too many beverages, he invited said squadron leader over to take part in a morning patrol.
I took these pictures on that morning patrol, now they look a bit crappy I know it’s because I made them that way. They came off slides that had begun to deteriorate, so I cleaned them up the best I could, put in some new sky then tore them down to a bare picture. Throw in a little antiquing, some vignetting and here we have it.
This one is almost a painting and seeing the Huey flying up there reminded me that it dropped the Squadron Leader off. Now I remember that it followed us for the whole patrol. Obviously the crew didn’t trust the gentlemen of the cavalry to look after him. That’s a bunker in the background on the beach. I love playing with pictures and I think this one has a real ‘war torn’ appeal.
He arrived bright and early two mornings later, decked out in his flying suit, boots, shoulder holster and 9 mm pistol. From what I remember he seemed to be a nice bloke. The word from our officer was, ‘Give him a ride to remember,’ and we did, nothing scary just a fast hard ride. The usual three car patrol went out: up the beach for a few kilometres, back through the waterline, over sand hills, around the beach near the club and up to the wire, then back around the base to our unit. To say he was impressed is an understatement, the man glowed. He had a quick chat with our officer and the word went out, ‘We’re getting helicopter rides tomorrow, over Vung Tau for photo opportunities.’ Whoo hoo, I never had a chopper ride when we were at Nui Dat, now here was my chance. Now I’m a little vague on the origins of this helicopter, it could have come from our army aviation unit, I’m not sure. I don’t believe our air force operated them. Irrelevant, back to the story.
Right on time the following morning a Kiowa helicopter landed down from our unit and the fun began. Three at a time the pilot and co-pilot took us up for a ten minute flight. Along the beach, back over Vung Tau, out over the light house on the cape and back again. I was one of the last three passengers and anxiously boarded the chopper. I sat against the door on the pilot’s side. Up we went and zoom, the ride was on. I took copious amounts of photographs with my Yashica, most of them crap. Although one or two are here on the post. I can tell you that going along above a beach tilted over on one side, looking straight down to the water is fabulous. We headed over the town, out into the bay and climbed up a couple of thousand feet.
There are many things that can go wrong with a helicopter in flight however. Fuel leaks, oil leaks, running out of said fluids, bits falling off, getting shot at, pilot and co-pilot succumbing to mysterious illnesses. No, nothing so elaborate or involved on this day, what went wrong I hear you ask? Seagulls, a flock of seagulls to be exact. Lots of seagulls. Seagulls everywhere, it looked like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Birds. That is if they were all run through a blender. Mangled, bloodied and torn they splattered against the windscreen. Caught along the rotors they sailed off into the blue, balls of busted feathers and no longer aerodynamic. When you come to think of it, neither were we. I don’t believe as some have suggested since, that perhaps the pilot put on a show for us. Or went into a calculated manoeuvre by switching the engine off and going into auto-rotation. If he did then he just wasn’t a good sport, and I pray his armpits become infested with lice. I have countered this argument with what I believe to be an obvious answer: where the bloody hell did he find the seagulls?
It’s funny what goes through your mind in the confines of a helicopter when the blades have stopped but the craft itself is spinning wildly. I know I didn’t take any photos, Hmm they could have been better than the others. I remember looking at the bloke next to me, I think it was Jimmy Canuto, now Jimmy was an Aboriginal and the colour of dark chocolate. I swear his face turned white. Nobody yelled, screamed, shat their pants or any of that. The atmosphere had a, *This will all go away very soon and we’ll be fine feel to it.* It didn’t. I can recall seeing the lighthouse flashing around underneath us, too many times to count. The sea became one continual blur of blue. The crew was great, (that’s if it wasn’t on purpose) calm, steady professional. At one stage I met Jimmy’s gaze and if the look on his face matched mine then we were both terrified. I don’t remember the third bloke, only that his hands were white where he hung onto the strap above him.
There should be noise, you know, from a turbine engine. Nothing. The sea came closer, the windscreen cleared, the sea came even closer. Then the most beautiful noise I’d ever heard, cough, cough, fart, splutter whine. YES. The engine burst into life with a consequent jarring stop to the chopper and the sweet, whop whop whop of the rotor blades. A crackle on the headsets then, ‘Are you blokes okay back there?’ A grunted yes and a lot of head nodding. ‘Sorry about that, let’s go home.’ Mate you won’t get any arguments from us. We landed softer than a shredded seagull feather, and leapt out of that Kiowa like our pants were on fire. Trying to keep some dignity we avoided prostrating ourselves on the grass and kissing it. Instead we squared our shoulders, gave a cheery wave to the crew and walked purposely back to our Land Rover. The crew decided to end the joy flights and I would say spend the afternoon scraping seagull guts and shit out of their engine. I’ve flown a few times since, in a Pilatus Porter, Huey, etc yet that ride in the Kiowa springs to mind every time. As a footnote, several years ago I went for a ride on the Batman ride at Movie World here in Oz. You spend most of the time suspended upside down at speed, while whizzing around at dizzying speed. Extremely ho-hum indeed.
Do I look like a tree? I believe up until 30/12/71 aerial spraying of agent orange still went on around the base at Vung Tau. Our new home was on the north-western perimeter and there were some areas of foliage on the barbed wire entanglements. Besides a Land Rover travelling around the base on a weekly basis, with a tank on the back spraying out a huge cloud of insecticide mist for mosquitos, we had to take Dapsone and Paludrin tablets for malaria. Add on copious amounts of grog and our tender bodies were definitely being abused. I won’t go into detail about agent orange, massive volumes of information are available online. What I will say is, the area around Saigon and the Mekong Delta were the most heavily sprayed area in Vietnam. Vung Tau also copped its fair share. The drinking water and the water our uniforms were laundered in was contaminated, hell the whole country had been contaminated. We weren’t aware of this at the time though.
Another night on ready reaction and I couldn’t sleep. It was hot. Steamy, crotch rotting hot and I left the dubious comfort of the guard hut and wandered outside. Tropical nights can be beautiful, lights from the shore reflected in the blackness of the sea. Stars fat and bright competing with the warning lights of a helicopter flying near the beach. The air so still and heavy the mosquitoes are too tired to annoy you. There is something I’ve always enjoyed about being awake late at night while everyone else sleeps, the peace and quiet has a certain allure to it. Climbing up onto the APC I sat on the turret lid and took in the scenery. The chopper came closer and flew overhead, I looked up and felt a fine spray of sticky liquid drift over my head and face. It ponged, I brushed it off my face and wiped my hands along my trouser legs. My uniform was damp but hey, I had already spent a couple of months wet through.
The following morning you were allowed a late start, shower and breakfast then back to work. I walked down to the compound with one of the sergeants, we reached the downhill stretch on the road when my bowels opened. We are not talking a delicate, elderly lady fluff here. I wore the usual shorts and boots to work and my bare legs had turned green. It felt like a tap had been turned on. Sarge gave me an odd look and held his nose, I turned and walked sadly away. It took some cleaning up and I put it down to something I’d eaten. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. In retrospect I’d probably been poisoned by the spray. I never felt quite the same for a long while after. This particular story will continue when I write about going home.
Until next week: