Story 13 - Service in Vietnam

By Graham Lee


Late January 1968, Vung Tau, South Vietnam

HMAS Sydney off Vung TauAt approximately 0300 hours in late January 1968, the troops assembled in full battle gear on the lower decks of the Aircraft Carrier, HMAS SYDNEY.   The ship was moving at low speed; all hatches battened down, running lights to a minimum and sailors at battle stations.

There was a deathly silence on board.  Neither soldier nor sailor conversed.  The look in the eyes of the sailors appeared to reflect sadness and yet respect.  One could be excused for thinking that after 17 days together in which some very close friendships had ensued, this would be a normal parting gesture.   However, the reality was that the sailors had undertaken many crossing with troops fresh from Australia to South Vietnam and conversely battle weary troops on the return voyage.  They had experienced first hand that most of the soldiers would return significantly changed by their experiences.  They also knew that some would never return.

With the exception of the sailors going about their duties, there was very little movement on board ship.  A short briefing on the order for disembarking from the ship was given.  At approximately 0430 hours the HMAS SYDNEY slipped into Vung Tau Harbour.  Most of the soldiers were somewhat bemused, as the shipping in the harbour was lit up like Christmas trees.  The HMAS SYDNEY appeared to be the only vessel that was ‘battle ready’.  Never the less, the sailors were extremely sincere and professional in their duties and their actions had an extreme affect on making the troops take account of the seriousness of the situation that now confronted them.  For many of the soldiers, it was the first real feeling of panic; the final realisation that as from this moment survival depended on keeping your wits about you.

ChinookFinally the ship came to a stop and dropped anchor.  At first light, selected small groups assembled on the flight deck. Almost immediately two Chinook Helicopters appeared out of the sun and landed on the deck. Without undue delay the troops scrambled on board and were ferried to the Australian Compound at Vung Tau.  It took only 5 minutes before the small groups were reunited on terra firma.  Whilst it was anticipated that the Chinooks would ferry the remaining infantrymen within a short time, no further flights occurred.  It was not long before word was passed along that Viet Cong had been sighted in the Harbour and it was decided that the safest strategy for disembarking the remaining troops would be to use landing barges.  This was duly carried out without incident. It again reinforced the seriousness and reality of the situation.  By now, even the newest of the soldiers realised that they had arrived in the combat zone.

Later that morning the troops were advised that they might as well relax as much as possible as those going to Nui Dat would not be airlifted until approximately 1600 hours.  It had been reported to the troops that Nui Dat had been under attack the night before and had received some direct hits from enemy mortar fire.   It was suspected that the enemy was still in the area and, as a consequence, low flying aircraft such as helicopters could not be used.  Caribou aircraft were therefore requested as these could fly at an altitude necessary to avoid any likely enemy ground fire.

Sky Crane The rest of the day was spent in sweltering heat in fairly barren buildings on the edge of Vung Tau Harbour. Refreshments were made available from an Australian run canteen.  The usual Army sandwiches were provided for lunch.  An American ‘Sky Crane’ helicopter was working nearby; watching it helped to pass some of the time.  It was continually picking up 3 to 5 tonne trucks, lifting them to a height of approximately 100 metres and then dropping them on top of each other. It appeared to be such a waste of perfectly good vehicles.  The troops, in response to their bewilderment to the destruction were informed that once a vehicle had reached its ‘useful life’ it would automatically be destroyed.  There appeared to be an endless supply.

Australian Task Force - Nui Dat (Phuc Tuy Province)

 Not many of the troops appeared to really relax.  Most of them talked nervously, spoke of mates who were already in South Vietnam and of those at home whom they missed already.  The news that Nui Dat had been attacked the previous night did little to assure the troops who had been posted there.  It was perhaps the final realisation that it was too late to change their current predicament.  The reality was that, whatever time was required to complete a tour of duty started in earnest right now!

Australian Caribou (Callsign Wallaby) at Vung Tau AirfieldAt approximately 1600 hours, those troops for uplift to Nui Dat were transported to the waiting Caribou Aircraft.  Without delay the troops were at 6,000 feet flying over the paddy fields and patchwork of plantations, roads and villages.   The view was to become a common sight for the troops during their tour of duty as many operations necessitated the movement of troops by helicopter.

It was almost dusk when the Caribou touched down at Luscombe Airstrip Nui Dat.  The encampments of 7 RAR, Special Air Support Squadron, Luscombe Bowl (entertainment area), 2 RAR and plantations surrounded it.  There was some movement around the airstrip but little around the Battalions locations.  A Land Rover was waiting to take troops to their respective units.

Caribou at LuscombeOne of the soldiers who will be referred to as Joe was picked up for transport to the 104 Signal Squadron.  What follows are his general reflections and a brief account of his experiences of his tour of duty in South Vietnam.

It took no longer than 5 minutes to reach the Squadron encampment, being given a ‘quick guided tour’ of the various Units locations along the route.  After being introduced to the Squadron’s acting Commanding Officer Joe reported to the Signals Staff Sergeant for instructions.  It was at this point that Joe actually requested to be placed on detachment with 2 RAR as this was the Unit in which his half-brother was serving.  The Staff Sergeant was fortunately sympathetic to his request and felt that as Joe and his brother had different surnames no one would be the wiser.  Once this was approved , Joe reported to the ‘Q’ Store for the issue of a firearm, ammunition and associated equipment.

L1A1 (Self Loading Rifle (SLR)) - Australian - 7.62 Cal (308)A Self-Loading Rifle (SLR) was duly signed for, still heavily packed in grease.  Its bolt, complete with firing pin was wrapped separately also encased in heavy grease.  A can of petrol and rags were supplied along with a fully equipped cleaning kit.  By this time it was getting quite dark.  Joe had a splitting headache, which he put down to the immense tension that had been evident since 0300 that morning.  He was feeling quite uneasy about the next day’s events.

Other than essential personnel manning gun and observation posts around the perimeter at the Nui Dat encampment, the remaining troops were stood down.   Joe was driven to 2 RAR’s location and directed to the Support Company tents, one of which was the domicile of the Signalmen from the Corp of Signals.  It was the duty of these Signalmen to provide communication between the Battalion Headquarters and the Task Force Command and maintain the integrity and security of the radio networks.   They were also required to provide expert advice on, and assistance with, all Battalion communications including Morse code if required.

New Zealand Flag - ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp)The 2nd Battalion was known as the 2nd ANZAC BATTALION because it also encompassed two New Zealand Infantry Companies - ‘Victor’ and ‘Whisky’.  The various companies were located amongst rubber plantations that had not been harvested since the Australian occupation.  Each tent had its own six-foot mortar pit and with the exception of the entrances to the tent, they were surrounded by sandbags some 3-foot high.  It was mostly deserted as the Battalion was out on an Operation.

Joe had no idea how to see what was inside the tent, he did not even have a torch.  On entering the tent he found strung between the tent posts a crude two-strand wire that turned out to be the lighting and power source.  A light globe was ‘borrowed’ from a neighbouring tent and after screwing in a light globe Joe sighted an empty bunk pushed up against the sandbags, there were no tent walls.   There were a couple of bare shelves made out of a packing crate that made it look a little more inviting.  The other three bunks had shelves that housed photographs and other personal effects, which tended to greatly improve an otherwise drab interior.   There were a number of wooden duckboards on the floor so at least there would be dry feet in the wet season.  It would enable the floor to be swept, which would ensure that some cleanliness could be maintained.  This was ‘home’ away from home and a location Joe was going to cherish, especially after being out in the field for three weeks at a stretch.

Joe pinned up a photograph that he had managed to keep reasonably intact during the voyage.  It was a photograph of a Jenny , a girl he had met in Bundaberg, Queensland, during an Army exercise.  She was all decked out in her Nursing Sisters uniform, complete with veil.  It added that personal touch and helped to at least make the existence of ‘home’ more of a reality.

He realised that with the intensity of the day’s events he had scarcely thought about his personal ablutions and felt the sudden urge to find a toilet.   Conveniently placed not more that thirty paces from the tent was a small building which housed some three neatly arranged ‘thunderboxes’.  You certainly did not need to get directions, all you had to do was to follow your nose.  However, it was quite chic as there was a fair amount of privacy and real toilet paper on the hangers.   He felt quite relaxed as he sat down on the wooden seat which was still warm - it had obviously supported someone not too long before.

Suddenly there was a loud bang followed about one second later with a similar sound and then a powerful gust of wind lifted Joe physically up off the toilet seat.  Joe with his heart in his mouth and fearing Nui Dat was again under attack, bounded out of the door forgetting all about the pants around the ankles.  A soldier who was passing by and had obviously seen this reaction many times, just commented, "You’ll get used to it, ‘fire missions’ are usually scheduled for this time each night, so adjust your throne time".  A much relieved Joe re-entered the block to continue where he had left off only to hear the same loud bang again.   Joe lifted a cheek the seat and moved to the right to allow the blast of air to pass.  He was somewhat amused at his initial reaction and now that the initial shock had subsided the whole act he imagined was like riding a horse at a slow trot.

On returning from his ablutions Joe found a Jerry can of water and had a "Pommy" shower and cleaned his teeth.  He put up his mosquito net and laid out his bedroll on the canvas stretcher.  He threw off his boots hung up his greens on some wire and slid underneath the mosquito net donned only in his drab green underdaks, military issue.  He could not fall asleep no matter how much he tossed and turned.  The fire missions continued for some time and some small arms fire could be heard some distance away.  He could not believe that he was here, in this place alone.

At 0600 the next day, a parade was called for all those soldiers left in the Support Company.  Many of these were Cooks, Armourers and some returning from R & R.  Each soldier was handed a small white paladrine tablet to ward off the effects of malaria.  It was very difficult to swallow without water and tasted like bile, but the NCO’s insisted that you take it then and there.  Some of the troops managed to slip the tablet under their tongue and get rid of it after parade.   Joe tried this only once but felt it was better to try and swallow it than to be subjected to the vile taste.  This tablet parade was to continue throughout the tour of duty.

After being dismissed from the parade, Joe was called over by the Sergeant Major who directed that he collect three days rations.  These rations were American issue and Joe was not familiar with the contents of the ration packs.  As a consequence he packed nine boxes, one for each meal.  This amounted to a full number 37 backpack.

To be continued .....

Footnote:  Graham Lee how lives with his family in Brisbane, Queensland

Back   |   Story Index   |   Next
If you would like to add a story to this Web Site, please email with details.