We’re going home. Home is such an evocative word, it conjures up myriad images of family, safety, comfort and security. My feelings were mixed on the issue, being in Vietnam, a war zone fuelled my desire for adventure. Even as a small child I craved the feelings that came with exploring old ruins, WW2 bunkers and the woods. When I turned five my teddy bear stayed at home. Taking up either a wooden sword, rifle, cap guns or all three I would head off after breakfast and come home when I felt hungry. I remember watching a war movie where the hero received a head wound. I dug around in a cupboard and found a bandage, wrapped it around my head and smeared tomato sauce on it. Mum sent me to the corner shop for something and the grocer nearly fainted when he saw me walk in. Yes, I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. So the thought of leaving Vietnam caused some inner turmoil. Naturally we had no choice, no conversation would ever have gone like this, me: “Look Sir, I kind of like being here. What say that I stay behind and shack up with my lady? The army can send my pay over monthly and I’ll keep an eye on things for awhile.” Him: “Sure thing Corporal Smith, we’ll even find a little une petite maison for you and Suong, set you up with some transport. Just come home when you’re ready.”
The reality was far different. Working parties were formed, plans were outlined depending on how far up the chain you were and the green machine swung into action. Several blokes were given the job of security for the HMAS Sydney, the aircraft carrier that would be taking us back to Australia. Their job involved sitting at various places around the flight deck and dropping hand grenades into the water at intervals. This would hopefully deter Viet Cong sappers from trying to mine the hull of the ship. Now that is what I call a great job. As a slight aside, one of these blokes nicked a hand grenade, wrapped it up tight with a thick, red rubber band, pulled the pin out and dropped it down our communal toilet. Now I happened to be sitting on the next one, I couldn’t believe it: “What the…?” “Don’t worry Smithy, it’ll take a little while for the rubber to rot, then…Boom.” If ever one needed a fast acting bowel cleanser then that took the cake.
For most of us, leaving day involved a quick tour of the camp making sure we had everything. Checking that our APC’s were fuelled and that our personal gear and weapons were stowed away. Then we waited, and waited. There is a term in the army called, greatcoats on greatcoats off. In other words, hurry up and wait. This is why many former soldiers have a great knack of being able to lie down anywhere and sleep. We’re trained. I took
dozens a couple of pictures on the day to commemorate the event.
Moi and my driver for the day, Trooper Cox.
We drove our vehicles out of 1 ALSG for the last time and headed for Vung Tau docks. The harbour is huge and deep, even the Russian navy used to harbour some of its fleet there after the war ended in ’75. The dock seemed to go on forever, with huge derricks bristling along its length. I think the most dangerous thing we came across were Vietnamese forklift drivers, they were worse than Lambro drivers. Who knows, they could have driven them after hours.
Once we parked the vehicles we were trucked away from the dock and left on a small beach. They didn’t want us boarding the ship like normal people, no sir. We were to be taken from the beach, to the ship’s portside and get on from there. In, wait for it…… a landing craft. Yes indeedy a real life landing craft. Besides the gentlemen of the cavalry, there were infantrymen, engineers and everybody else who stayed behind. Most of the officers were already aboard, obviously squabbling over staterooms. I digress. We sat on the beach and waited. Did I tell you we waited?
To a rousing chorus of cheers the landing craft finally arrived, with a thumping clunk of its ramp onto the beach. A minor stampede occurred and it soon reached capacity. A roar of engines and the coxswain went to raise the ramp….. nothing, zilch. So we waited and waited. The front end loader stayed with us and went into operation for the duration. Now a situation became evident and that was a jockeying manoeuvre to be the last one off the beach. Let’s face it we were part of an historic event, even though the general consensus is that all Australian forces left Vietnam in November 1971. The last servicemen were those who guarded the Australian embassy in Saigon. The landing craft chugged back and forth and the crowd dwindled, when it came in on its last trip I ducked behind some stacked timber and had a pee. Once the loader started up I came out and there we had a couple of officers and two Military Policemen. I hung back, whistling a little tune and everybody had boarded except moi and the coppers. I dawdled a little and stepped behind them. They obviously had visions of grandeur too, turned around and said, “Time to get aboard Corporal.” Well I didn’t fancy spending any time in the brig on the journey home, although when you hear what job I landed it may have been preferable. I walked up the ramp and the coppers, both smiling, were the last to leave. The trip to the carrier went well, the ramp didn’t leak, too much. We pulled alongside and with some deft scrambling and timing we all boarded what was affectionately known as ‘The Vung Tau Ferry.’ A little history here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMAS_Sydney_(R17)#Construction_and_acquisition
After being on board for half an hour I realised why most of the blokes were eager to get away. They took on positions in several education courses, some excellent short term jobs and I found myself in the galley, doing…. wait for it….. bashing dixies. Yes readers my working hours were spent at a huge sink, beneath a porthole with a view of the ocean. A sea cruise indeed. One couldn’t really complain, the food tasted great, you could get soft serve ice cream cones, (a sailor’s life is hard) and there were several cold drink machines around the place.
Settling in to shipboard life didn’t take too long, we had a beer issue. Two cans per man, per day. After the evening meal you lined up and were issued two LARGE cans of Australian beer. In effect you were getting the equivalent of four cans. The only trouble was they were opened there and then, you couldn’t hoard them. Now some blokes didn’t drink and gave theirs away, so many a happy night was spent in our mess decks. We didn’t really listen to the briefing about what happens on board, we couldn’t put our hammocks up until after Captain’s rounds. There we were, playing cards, swinging in hammocks, guzzling beer, your typical soldier at play. Then a bugle sounded outside the door. It swung open and a sailor came in tooting away, followed by a very short officer. Dressed in ceremonial whites, lots of gold braid and wearing a huge cutlass. Now you had to be there, all chatter ceased then the laughing began. Naturally the officer of the watch didn’t take to kindly to this at all. He moved on and ten minutes later one of our sergeants turned up and gave us a bollocking. The Sydney sailed on through calm seas with its happy troops looking forward to journeys end.
One unhappy chappy learned one thing and that was, you can’t masturbate in a hammock, without a LOT of practice. You need to remember gentle reader that we had spent a few months living a normal life of wine, women and song. Perhaps not a lot of singing but you get my drift. With the last two weeks stuck in camp, then the gentle rolling of the ship one’s hormones tend to get *riled up.* There is a knack to getting into a hammock and then you have an even harder time staying there. Vector in the roll of the ship and you get an idea. Now the hammocks were strung close together and when you were inside you tended to sink deep into them. No matter how hard you try to be quiet, you always tend to make some noise in the throes of self love. Well he woke us up and became quite carried away, there was a muffled unghhhh, a startled arrgh and a huge KABONG as he hit the steel deck. He lay there for awhile groaning, while a chorus of snorks and giggles filled the mess. Sorry old son, no sympathy.
After stopping at Townsville in north Queensland to drop the infantry off we kept going south for good old Sydney town. The picture below may not be the best but it was our first view of Sydney Heads, which takes you into the best harbour in the world.
See what I mean? The skyline has grown since march 1972 though, we didn’t care what it looked like, we were home. The further I travelled away from Vietnam, the more I thought about being home. I imagine separation and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be going back tended to dull the feelings.
As the ship sailed into harbour an announcement came over the loudspeaker to the effect that, if anyone was found with weapons or other contraband, the whole ship would have to be searched and nobody would be allowed off until they’d finished. I can still hear the splashing of souvenir weapons and other unknown objects as they hit the water. The time drew near and we finally anchored. The press boarded the ship and interviewed the Boss and some other officers while we waited anxiously to get onto dry land.
We were finally home, an hours flight from Sydney’s Mascot airport and I stood in the steel barn that was Brisbane airport. My parents were there to meet me and we drove for nearly three hours to a place called Moore, where they were renting a farmhouse. Yes Laurie, I thought, you’re home safe and sound. How wrong could I be.
Next week: Not hospital again.