Story 3 - My War and What a Beauty

An extract from "My Life and Other Lies"

 By Wayne Cowan

104 Signal Squadron Enoggera

Wayne Cowan at Nui Dat 1967Soon after I were married, I was posted to 104 Signal Squadron, a unit that had just been formed at Enoggera, in readiness to go to South Vietnam to relieve 103 Signal Squadron, which had been there for about one year. Lucky me, I marched into 104 Signal Squadron on my 22nd birthday, all set to go to a war that I didn't know anything about, having been married for just over three months.

The training for Vietnam was very intensive, and a lot of time was spent away from home on various training exercises in Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton, and at other training areas around the Brisbane and south Queensland area. We seemed to live out of bags and land rovers, but it was an interesting time, as we all had to learn a lot of stuff in a short time.

One particular training area was the Jungle Training School, located at Canungra in the South East of Queensland, and a more rugged place, I have never been. The training was extremely hard, consisting of mainly infantry tactics training, jungle warfare training and the ever present physical training, and there was no time at all for anything but work, interspersed with whatever sleep they allowed us. That was not why I had joined up, but nobody else was complaining, so I just stuck in there.

Having seen a fair share of war movies (in black and white), and watched some of my clean-cut heroes do their bit for king and country, or at least for president and country, as most of the warries were American made, we thought that this lurk was not too bad, as Audie Murphy and his mates did it standing on their ear.

What a lot of crap. They didn’t have to learn contact drills. When driving along the road enjoying the scenery, some ratbag opens up on your truck/landrover etc, with a machine gun (using blank ammunition of course) we had to swing into the contact drill instantly. This involved jumping from the moving vehicle on the command of some crackpot corporal, and running to take up defensive positions beside the road before we bravely carried out a sweep to clear the area of baddies, and sounded alright in the lecture period. In fact this is a very hard manoeuver to carry out. Army trucks are about two or more metres above the ground, and when one jumps off the truck doing some 15kph, fully booted and spurred, bayonets, entrenching tools (a sort of a fold up shovel/pick combination) and machete, there is a very good chance of losing the family jewels. To add insult to injury, there was usually some big footed dill jumping after you who invariably managed to kick you in the head or land on you on the way down.

The confidence course at Canungra was also worthy of mention. An obstacle course of some 2kms in length was built incorporating narrow tunnels made of metal pipe ( filled with muddy water), barbed wire entanglements that required crawling under and over (filled with muddy water), walls to climb up and jump off (into puddles of muddy water), cargo nets to climb and fall off (into muddy water), ropes to swing across (landing in muddy water) and so on and so on. You get the picture. Canungra was a big hole (filled with muddy water) that we were expected to roll and crawl from one end of to the other. At the end of the confidence course we had to climb up onto a platform about five metres or so above the Canungra River, and jump in. This was supposed to give us confidence in ourselves. I found that it did very little other than make it impossible to get our uniforms clean without at least three washes.

Dotted among the hills of Canungra were the shooting galleries and sneaker ranges, where some of the meanest cutout targets east of the great divide lived. We would stand at the firing point of the gallery, while an instructor nominated various targets that we had to destroy with one shot each. Most of the targets had been there for years, which said very little for the marksmanship of most of us. At the sneaker ranges, we would cautiously proceed along a path, armed with a sub-machine gun, and the instructor would pull at carefully concealed ropes and wires causing a target to appear in the undergrowth ahead of or beside us. A quick three shot burst, and another baddie gets his just deserts. It wasn’t real hard, of course, to anticipate where a target was going to appear, as the trees and bushes around each target position was usually shredded from many hundreds of previous three round bursts.

Towards the end of our stay at Canungra, we carried out an exercise in the Wyangri State Forest on the Queensland NSW border. A strange fact is that the border is marked by not one, but two fence about four metres apart. I don't know who owns the bit in the middle, but it was clear of trees and shrubs and a good place for soldiers to walk after a week or so in thick jungle. Probably the two fences are to keep New South Welshmen from migrating to Queensland, because they can climb one fence, but the second one confuses them and the don't know what to do, so they turn around and go home to ask someone about it, and then immediately forget what it was they were doing, so Queensland is saved once again.

The area where we were camped was about 10 kilometres from where the trucks were to pick us up, and we had to walk between these two barbed wire fences to get there. The ground was sloping downhill all the way and there were very few places where it levelled out. About half way down, one of the men had to stop to tie his boot lace, and after doing that he decided to trot to catch up with his section - not a good idea - once he had started trotting, what with the pack on his back and rifle plus all the other junk soldiers carry, he found that he could not stop. When he passed me, he was flying, and his mouth was open wide enough to swallow a watermelon, and no sound was coming out. He could not even grab hold of the fence to stop himself, as it was barbed wire and would have ripped him up. About 200 metres ahead of me, he decided to stop himself by sitting down. What a mess. Rifle into the trees, packs and bits of uniform everywhere, spare underpants hanging on the fence, and a bleeding, swearing soldier finally stopped against a fence post. Needless to say, I didn't laugh, well not immediately, but it was the most spectacular prang that I have ever seen.

The last major exercise prior to going to South Vietnam was called Barra Winga, and was to exercise the Brigade that was to move to SVN as a whole. This exercise was held at Shoalwater Bay.

Each battalion was exercised individually, consisting of a five or so day jaunt through the surrounding hills chasing other soldiers dressed up at bad guys. and controlled by the Brigade headquarters as would be the case in a war situation.

Each battalion had attached to it two radio operators, and a cypher operator. I got real lucky, and was selected to go walking through the bush for several days with the English 2 Parachute Regiment, a mob of super fit commando type soldiers.

Loaded all of my personal gear, rations, weapon boots and various pieces of cypher equipment onto a metal device called an A frame and worn strapped to the back, and set out to the pommy HQ. The whole load weighed at least 35kgs, and it was a stinking hot day, but a good soldier never complains, so I just kept walking. The poor radio operators were not a real lot of help to me either, as they had to carry a radio called the AN/PRC-47. As a joke, the army classified this radio as a man packed radio. It also included two batteries (fairly large 12 Volt car batteries), and a small petrol driven generator.

When I arrived at the start point, the Paras were lined up with one small pack each, and a light sub machine gun. They were wearing British jungle boots, which were very like a sand shoe, only they came half way up the calf, and very comfortable and light.

The para RSM asked me if we were men and ready to go, and I said yes. He then said battalion, break into double time, and off they went, running like crazy.

Nearly killed me, because when I say I walked with them, I really meant we ran everywhere for a bloody week, and me with a great load of heavy gear. Heaps of fun, but the poms were so fit, they carried most of my gear in turns so I could keep up. Two carrying my pack, and one staying each side of me to help me if necessary (and it frequently was). I presume that the radio operators got the same assistance, but to be perfectly honest, I had enough worries of my own, and they were not getting any help from me.

Just to make my day complete, the day after I arrived back at the headquarters after running over half of the country with the poms, my CO decided that I had done such a good job that I could go out again, this time with the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Australian army. What fun, but it certainly was not boring, and at least they walked. One difference between the Poms and the Aussie battalion was the quantity and quality of holes that they dug. The Poms were happy with just a shallow scrape to sleep in overnight, and then off into the sunrise, like the scarlet pimpernel or something. The CO of 2 RAR, on the other hand, must have been a gold miner in a previous life, as he was all in favour of big holes, and lots of them. When you are a corporal, or below, attached to a headquarters, you soon learn that officers are almost always in conference, or studying maps, or making plans to win the battle, or almost anything that means that they can’t dig their own holes, and therefore guess what. Yep, corporals and below got very good at digging holes. One good thing about being the cipher corporal though, meant that I could go and hide in a corner, and work on coded messages, and the officers didn’t know if I was actually busy or just kidding, as they didn’t have a clue how I worked my magic, (and I wasn’t about to tell them).

It is the small thing that stick in ones mind after many years. On this jaunt, I remember that we climbed one hill one day, and it took us the best part of the day. When we got to the top of this hill, we looked across the valley at the next hill, just as steep and just as high, and the powers that be worked out that we should have been over there. We arrived at the top of the other hill after midnight, and pleased that we didn’t know which officer had made the stuff-up, as it saved us from a murder charge.

The next morning we were to be picked up from the hilltop, and carried out by helicopter, and naturally, our luck ran true to form, and a bushfire was burning up the side of the hill, and the air force pilots wouldn’t come anywhere near it, so up sticks, and walk. What a way to treat a fellow who was trying to be a hero, and save his country from the hordes.

After Barra Winga, most of our time was taken up with packing up all of the unit stores into boxes and trunks in preparation for the move. Everything had to be packed, labelled, and marked with a colour code to show which unit it belonged to. It looked like a shambles, but when we arrived in SVN, so did all of our gear, so something must have went right.

Just prior to departure, the whole unit was given seven days pre-embarkation leave, and then it was off.

South Vietnam

The history of the Australian involvement in South Vietnam has been told many times, and by better scribes than myself, therefore I do not intend to try to retell it here.

It is sufficient for the purposes of this narrative, that during the period 1962 to 1973, some 59,000 Australian servicemen and women served in that theatre, and approximately 42,000 of them were from the Army.

What I have attempted to cover here is a shortened version of my very small part. I will say here, that up until I left South Vietnam, the goodies appeared to be winning. After I left, things rapidly sprang from bad to worse, and I firmly believe that this is as a result of my going home.

104 Signal Squadron South Vietnam

On 25th April 1967, I departed Brisbane by plane to Darwin, where we spent the night, and then on to Nui Dat, in South Vietnam the next day.

Leaving Australia to go to a war on Anzac Day was a bit newsworthy in the early days of the war, before it lost popular support at home, and the TV cameras were pretty much in attendance. What an adventure. I was not real keen on leaving my new wife, but the excitement for a young man of having his very own war is something that I cannot now understand, but at the time it was pretty good stuff.

We travelled from Brisbane to Darwin on a civil airliner, and the poor stewards and hostesses were ran ragged trying to keep the beer supply up the a bunch of thirsty diggers and the hostesses also needed to keep away from the hands of the randy ones, but they certainly did a good job and sent us off well. When we arrived in Darwin about 7pm, it was the hottest I had ever felt and the humidity was terrific, but little did we realise that that was what we were to look forward to for the next year. We stayed overnight at the Air Force base there, and left at daylight the following day for Vung Tau in South Vietnam. This leg of the journey was by RAAF C130 Hercules aircraft, and these are not built for comfort. The noise is horrendous, and the prospect of eight hours of this was not real good. Walking around was not encouraged, as we were seated in netting seats along each side of the plane, and the centre was filled with our personal equipment and cargo. The windows were very small and set high in the wall behind us, so sightseeing was out of the question. No plane went to Vietnam with less than a full load, so to move meant stepping over or on someone's feet, and the pilot was not amused because movement also meant upsetting the balance of his plane. All in all not a bad flight, but not a great one.

C130 HerculesA couple of memorable things happened to me on this flight. I had never been on a plane that went backwards before, but on landing we reversed into a sandbagged revetment. This was to protect the plane if anyone of the nasties got a bit over enthusiastic with mortars or the like. Secondly we had been told during our training that all Viet Cong THE ENEMY wore black pyjama type clothes and conical hats. Imagine our delight when the back ramps of the plane opened and there stood at least fifteen Vietnamese dressed in, you guessed it, black pyjama type clothes and conical hats, and each one had in their hands a very wicked looking broom. Our weapons were stowed on a pallet with the rest of our gear, and we were completely at the mercy of these ferocious looking people. How ignominious, I thought, ten minutes in the country and I am about to be swept away by a bunch of THE ENEMY armed with brooms. The thought flashed through my mind that I hoped they lied on my tombstone, as the shame would be more than my poor departed soul could bear. What the brilliant buggers who were in charge of preparing us for this adventure forgot to mention was that just about everyone in Vietnam wore black pyjama type clothes and wore conical hats.

Australian Caribou's at Vung Tau - Note VC Hill in the background From Vung Tau to Nui Dat was by Caribou aircraft, again RAAF planes. To avoid getting embarrassed by a bullet in the bum or something similar, these planes would leave the runway and immediately rocket as near as possible straight up into the air to get plenty of height before we reached tiger country. Good idea, I thought, but would have liked it a bit more if the pilot had closed the ramps at the back of the plane, but no, these had to be left open so we could get out in a hurry if anything went wrong. This is a great theory, except sitting on a netting seat along the side of a plane looking straight down at a lot of what looked like dolls houses populated by ants is not exactly good for the old ticker. Bugger this I thought, and I started the trip at the back of the plane, and finished it at the front, as far from the doors as the limited space allowed. Let the heroes sit and look straight down at the earth which looked a bit like a tennis ball from where I was sitting.

On arrival at Nui Dat, we landed at Luscombe Field, the Task Force airfield, and then proceeded to do what the army does best, we waited till someone thought to arrange some transport for us to get to where our tent lines were located. Standing out in the open of the edge of a great big cleared place like an airfield is not the place for a fully trained jungle fighter to be, especially as by now we had our weapons, but had not yet been issued any ammunition. Probably worried that we would shoot ourselves in the foot or something.

When we reached the 104 Signal Squadron area, which was located directly opposite the Task Force Headquarters, I was met by a mate who had gone over earlier, Blue (Len) Keynes, who had arranged for me to share his tent, so I had a prepared place to prop, unlike some of the soldiers who, before they could occupy a tent, first had to erect it.

One of the first things that happened on arrival was the issue of extra clothing and equipment, as well as unlimited ammunition. During my whole time in the army, while we had personal weapons issued to us most of the time, ammunition was always, without exception, kept securely locked away, and when issued was counted, and the empty cases then counted after use, to ensure that none was lost, or stolen. Here the issue procedure was more like come and get it. A corporal came into my tent, asked me what sort of a weapon I had, and said to go out to his land rover and take what I needed. Naturally, most of us having seen Audie Murphy in action at the movies (in black and white of course), took far more than we needed, only to find out that we were expected to carry the stuff with us wherever we went. Ammunition is very heavy for its size, so the second thought was to hand it back to the Q Store. Wrong choice. Q Stores issue stuff, not take it back, so most of it spent the war lying under bunks and floor boards. How a lot more soldiers didn't shoot themselves I will never know.

The first day there, we were taken on a tour of the Task Force area in a rather large American truck. Apart from the occasional trip to the post office, and two concert parties, I very rarely left our own area, as there really was not a real lot of interesting things to see there, only more of the same.

Defence work - Wire and sandbagsThe first couple of weeks in Nui Dat were very hectic, as our Squadron Sergeant Major (SSM), who was responsible for our share of the perimeter wire and local defences came to the conclusion that just about all of the fences and defensive positions were inadequate, so he decided to allow us to build miles of barbed wire fences and entanglements, build stacks of sandbag blast walls and dig enough holes to bury half a good sized town in, as well as working regular shift work in the communications centre, which was my primary role. While the work was hard and heavy, and the hours were long, this helped us get acclimatised to the hot humid weather, but I finished that phase of my life with a strong desire never to see barbed wire again.

F4 Phamtom - This aircraft had ballsDuring the first week of our arrival, an American fighter pilot decided to say good day to the new Australian troops. He came drifting quietly up on our camp, pointed his fighter plane at the sky and opened it up, afterburners and all. The noise was terrific, and rumour has it that the newly arrived Task Force commander, a Brigadier General, ended up under his table. Not good for the image of a general. Not too good for us either, as I am sure that at least someone wet themselves. The General complained, and we heard that that pilot got sent back to the US soon after, pity really, as it certainly got us awake that day.

A normal offer made to all newcomers by the old timers was a trip to the Wha Long dance. This offer was usually made on the first Saturday in country. New boys would be told of the dance, held every Saturday night in the village just down the road, about 2km from the Task Force perimeter, and the absolute beauty of the local girls. They would be informed that a truck would leave from Squadron HQ at 6.30pm, and return at midnight, and to be allowed to go, they must parade at 6pm in full dress uniform. Much laughter was had at the expense of the poor dummies who fell for this trick. Wha Long was, for the duration of the war, controlled by the Viet Cong during dark, and most of the villagers supported the VC, so it would be a pretty nasty place for a bunch of inexperienced diggers to be going for fun.

Entertainment was provided by an open air theatre in each unit area, and when it rained, and the movie was a good one, you watched it in the rain. At least it was not cold. Movies were screened every night except when the Task Force was in a state of readiness for some expected nastiness. Sometimes the army supply system doesn’t work quite as smoothly as it should, and we would only get part of the movie, for instance reels one, two and four. It took a fair bit of imagination to fill in the blank spots, but that was better than not getting the last reel, as the whole plot went out the window without an ending. On good weeks we might get the missing bits a couple of days later and then the projectionist would play them for us, hoping that we could remember where that particular bit of the story fitted into the plot of something that we had seen previously.

Being shift workers, the signallers were usually working two nights out of three, as well as doing two hour shifts, every second or third night, on the gun pits which were situated on the perimeter wire to provide defence, and were manned all during the hours of darkness. At any given time the defences around the task force area were manned at such a level so as to allow any bad mannered people with nasty minds to be held at bay until the rest of the troops crawled out of bed.

Each unit also had a canteen where you could buy soap, toothpaste, soft drinks and of course beer and cigarettes, all at pretty cheap prices, so all the basic comforts were readily to hand. Russ Martin was the canteen manager, and a very congenial publican he was.

During the early part of our tour of SVN, the powers that be tended to think that it would be a good idea to keep a bit of order in the ranks by holding parades and weapons inspections every morning. Sort of remind the diggers of home and more civilised times, and they would feel more at ease. The process of inspecting rifles involved the owner cocking the weapon and locking the firing pin away, holding a thumbnail inside the breech, and reflecting light into the barrel so that the inspecting officer can have a look down the business end to see if any mice, spiders or other riff raff had taken up residence. This is a good theory, but in fact, we had semi-automatic weapons, and if the magazine was actually left on the weapon during the process of uncocking the weapon and releasing the spring on the firing pin (by pulling the trigger) a loud noise resulted, and the inspecting officer who was usually just past the end of the rifle heading towards the next victim usually messed his pants. After nearly losing two or three inspecting officers, the practice of inspections and bullshit parades sort of died off a bit.

It is surprising in hindsight, but the amount of carelessness with weapons shown by supposedly trained soldiers in SVN was frightening, and in fact one member of our unit did accidently blow his head off while he was waiting for a parade one morning, which has to be the height of stupidity.

Pit dunnies and pissaphones were a feature of Nui Dat. The pit dunny consisted of a hole dug about two meters deep one meter wide and about 20 meters long. Over this was layed a cement floor with seven or eight holes, each covered by a metal toilet seat, surrounded by a building with waist high walls and fly screens to the roof. This allowed the user to sit in company, swap books, talk , admCommunal crapping arrangements at 104 Sigs - Note the squadron of blowflies moving in for a feed.ire the view and generally relax while taking care of any necessary functions. It was also great for swapping books. Of course communal crapping is not something that one easily adapts to, and it is usually some days before one can enjoy the full benefit of this arrangement due to embarrassment. This is eventually overcome, especially since the showers were out in the open, with no walls at all, and any little niceties are soon forgotten, and any necessary comparisons are got out of the way early in the tour.

Communal crapping in a pit type situation also had a not so good side. Little flying insects seemed to find this environment very acceptable, and they lived in the dunny in their millions. This helped one concentrate on ones book a real lot. To help keep the insects down, the unit hygiene man (known universally as blowfly) was responsible for putting approximately 10 litres of dieseline, mixed with about one litre of petrol to get it started, into each dunny about once a week and chucking a piece of burning paper down a handy hole. It has been said, that the smell of gunpowder in the morning personifies war, well, to me, the smell of burning crap is a memory firmly embedded in my mind.

Of course, the blowfly needed to be a bit smart on his feet. When a mixture of 10 to one dieseline and petrol is poured evenly along the length of a pit dunny and allowed to sit for a couple of minutes while the blowfly got up courage, the heat generated by the contents tended to evaporate the lot, and leave a very very explosive mixture of gas and liquid. One memorable occasion is still talked about today, when the blowfly at the camp at Vung Tau got a bit confused with the recipe and used 10 petrol to 1 dieseline when he was doing the honours at the officers dunny there. The resultant explosion blew the dunny house down, and he was picking toilet paper out of the surrounding trees for hours. Just as well this procedure is carried out when the seats are unoccupied.

PissaphonePissaphones are very necessary part of the camp layout. Because it was a fairly large place, often the dunny was too far away to get to in a hurry just for a leak, so at strategic places around the camp a piece of waterpipe fitted with a funnel is buried in the ground into a pit of sand or gravel, and this is used for short nature runs. Of course being an all male environment, modesty is not of prime importance, and these facilities are placed in the open. One such phone was situated beside the path that ran from the Task Force Helipad to the Headquarters. This was a path enclosed by barbed wire, and the only access from the helipad to HQ. The traffic was usually fairly heavy, and no one took any notice of the passing trade until the day the concert party came. One of the diggers was standing blissfully at the phone and getting rid of a load of last nights beer when he heard voices and a gasp. He looked up, and there was a concert party that had just arrived from Australia, and consisting of both men and WOMEN. Well, as he said at the time, what can you say. He just carried on and smiled at the ladies and said Good Morning. The officers with the concert party were not amused, and wanted this soldier charged with everything including treason, but as our CO said, what could he do, no one had told us that there were to be women in the area. That pissaphone immediately had the distinction of being the only facility of its type in the Task Force area to be shrouded by hessian. The diggers believed that it was really because the officers using the path got jealous when they seen how big the diggers were, but I don't think that this is the case.

155mm US Gun at Nui Dat 1968Located about 1km from us was an American artillery unit, which had very large guns, bigger than anything the Australian Army had, so they were a new experience for us. Harassment and Interdiction fire (H and I) was carried out at all times of the day, but especially at night. H and I is a process of firing off the odd shot at irregular intervals onto targets or paths known to be used by the enemy. This served the purpose of keeping him on his toes, and giving him a feeling of insecurity, as he never knew when a surprise was about to arrive on the camp he was using that night, or the path he was travelling along. It also served to get rid of old ammunition, as in the humid conditions, they would deteriorate fairly quickly.

A side effect of this H and I, of course, was to scare the crap out of any new arrivals in the Task Force area, especially when they fired overhead. The sound of the round going through the air was very distinct, and newcomers thought that this was it, a heroes death, but of course, that was not to be, as most of us were relieved to find out.

Another side effect was the concussion these brutes caused and the reaction in the pit dunnies. It would be felt as a puff of breeze up the Khyber, and there is not much more disconcerting that a puff of air up the bum when you are in the middle of a good sit and think. The effect at night time was more pronounced, as with the other seven or eight lids closed, if you were using the seat furthest from the guns, the effect was ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, puff, as all the other lids lifted and dropped and then you got it. It also stirred the perennial insects up and made them more active.

On one occasion, the engineers came and dug a new pit dunny beside our canteen. The open pit was of course not lighted or fenced, as everyone knew it was there. All except Harry that is. Harry walked out of the canteen on his way to the gun pit for duty that night, not knowing it was there, and walked straight into it. His rifle ended up sideways across the top of the pit and Harry didn't let it go. That rifle ended up bent at 90 degrees, and the boss was not real happy, but hardly Harry’s fault, as he didn't know the new pit was there. The strange thing about this event was that Harry was about the only person in Nui Dat who did not have any alcohol before going on pit duty, as he was pretty conscientious, and couldn’t even blame that.

After I had been in Nui Dat for about two months, I was given, on loan, to a another signals unit there, 547 Signal Troop. This meant more hours, as this unit only had four operators to man the communications centre 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We also had to cover periods when someone was sick or on rest and recreation leave, as well as do gun pit duty every third or fourth night, and various work parties improving the defences and carrying out maintenance in the camp area, so this meant something like a 10 or 11 hour day on the average. This is not really as bad as it seems though, as there was nothing else to do, and at least working kept us occupied.

Wayne Cowan's Tent at Nui Dat in 1967 (front) - Note the sandbag blast walls - Motar pit at rear entranceSandbags were a very popular item in Nui Dat. They were used to build a wall around every office and unit building, as well as around each tent and weapons pit, so many thousands were used in the Task Force area each week. They were picked up as required by individual units with trucks, from the Wha Long sandpit, which was located just the other side of Wha Long which was mentioned previously. A work party of six or seven soldiers would climb onto a big American truck and away we would go. The filling of the sandbags was done on contract by local people, and we just had to pick them up, bring them home and build walls out of them. A great way to spend a day after working doggy shift from midnight to eight in the morning.

Every tent had a bunker built beside the door. This was a hole big enough to hold five or six people and covered by about one metre of sandbags, and was to protect us in case of mortar attack. In all my time in Nui Dat, I never actually seen anyone go down one, what better place for a big cobra or some other nasty to shelter from the odd mortar round. Bunkers were also extremely handy for disposing of any empty cans (beer or soft drink) in the area, as no one in authority is likely to venture down into them to check what is there for the aforesaid reason.

Concert at Luscombe Bowl, Nui Dat in 1968Concert parties at Luscombe Bowl, an old quarry with a stage built in front of it forming a quite acceptable amphitheatre, were a very popular diversion, although they didn’t occur anywhere near often enough. There were about four while I was there, but I only made it to one, as the other times I was either working or sleeping. During the course of the one that I attended, one of the officers made an announcement that the soldiers of his unit were to report back to their lines immediately, so the members concerned got up from their positions and headed home to find out what was happening. The look on the faces of the performers was worth seeing, as in the distance, there was quite a bit of banging and crashing going on as someone had a bit of a dust up. I presume that the soldiers who were recalled were going to go and get themselves involved in this mess, but it didn’t bother us, as loud noises were part of our life, and as long as they stayed far enough away they didn’t worry us too much. We just wanted to watch the concert. On reflection, I suppose that this is not a normal reaction by the standards of the concert party, and undoubtedly, they probably thought that they were all about to be raped and pillaged, or something worse. To their credit, they manfully soldiered on, and finished their act, but I suspect that they were pleased to get back to Saigon, where it was civilized. Little did they realise that they were probably safer where they were with about 8,000 soldiers and assorted heavy weapons to look after them.

Saigon - Australian soldier guarding the accommodation Hotel in 1968I had the opportunity to spend one night in Saigon during my tour, and I travelled up by air in the morning, and returned the next afternoon. That was enough for me too, as Saigon was a bit of a risky place in my opinion. The building occupied by the Australian army in Saigon was called the Canberra Hotel, and was three or four stories high. Out the front were 44 gallon drums filled with cement placed along the roadway, to stop people parking there, and a sentry position was manned 24 hours a day by soldiers from the battalions at Nui Dat, each bunch spending a week or so on guard duty. The reason for the parking restrictions out the front was to stop people parking truck loads of bombs there and damaging the paintwork, and if some Vietnamese did stop his vehicle there, or over the road, the sentry would fire a couple of shots into the air, and they would usually move off.

Most of the troops in Saigon went to work by bus, with mesh over the windows to stop baddies riding motorcycles up beside them, and lobbing hand grenades into the bus. In the early part of the war, this was becoming a very bad habit that they had, thus the mesh. The only problem then was that they would ride up on their motorcycles and hand a bomb on the mesh with a wire coat hanger or something, then speed off. This sort of behaviour was not good for my complexion, so I was very pleased to get back to Nui Dat, where we only had scorpions and cobras, and mud.

The Flags, Vung Tau 1968 Occasionally we would get the opportunity to go to Vung Tau, which was a beach town to the south east of Nui Dat, where the Australian Army had its logistical base which handled all resupply of equipment and material to the Task Force. These were pleasant trips, because we were not required to carry weapons in Vung Tau, and the opportunity to get rid of the gun was not to be sneezed at, as it was a downright nuisance most of the time. To get to Vungers involved a bit of bother, but then again so did most things in the army. Firstly, we were not to go in a vehicle without at least three members in it. One driver, and two shotguns to watch for baddies, and a minimum of three vehicles had to travel together to provide mutual defence if the excreta hit the Westinghouse. We travelled through Wha Long to Baria down national route 1, and joined another major road there to travel through miles and miles of swampland on each side of the road to get to Vung Tau. There were several fishing villages on this road, and the smell of fish drying and rotting was horrendous. There were quite a few red headed people living there, a result, no doubt, of the time the French had controlled Vietnam. There were also several colonial forts built near bridges and crossroads during the French times, and now occupied by soldiers of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). It was always a good idea to go past this mob waving and smiling like mad, because just occasionally they were known to have an accident or two, but it never happened to any of our people.

The civil police in Vietnam were a different lot again. They were dressed in white, and consequently known as white mice. It appears that they were issued with a pistol and a whistle when they joined up, and were required to use these in equal parts. If you heard a whistle while driving or crossing the road or something, you stopped, or you might just end up with a 45 calibre haemorrhoid operation.

In Vung Tau the Army had built a beach club where we could sit and have meals, drinks and generally relax. Concerts were frequently put on there on a specially built stage near the beach. These trips gave an opportunity to get any unpleasantness out of the systems of those that needed a break, and generally provided a welcome change from being in a situation where we worked, slept, played and lived in each others pockets, which often caused flare ups among the troops. Sometimes, even best friends would get to the stage where they could not stand the sight of each other, and end up fighting. This was not pleasant, but is a fact of life where people have no escape from each other for long periods at a time.

During all of my time with 547 Sig Tp, I shared a tent with Peter Ashton and Chick Hanks. Both these men were employed in the Communications Centre with me, and in fact, we were the total staff. This meant that at any given time one of us was on duty, and often another might be on guard duty, so we had a fair bit of separation, and not a lot of time to get on each others works.

One day, I was resting, and Peter was asleep after working nights, and someone came in to pay him some money that they owed him. I said, "no worries, just drop it in his boot, and I will tell him it is there". Came time for me to go to work, Peter still asleep, so off I went and clean forgot about it. A couple of weeks later he said to me, "did so and so give you some money for me a week or two ago", and it clicked. I said take off your right boot, and there it was, bit brown and worse for wear, but still spendable. Don’t know how he didn’t feel it when he put his boots on, as we were always conscious of scorpions and other things that like to get into boots, or at least I was.

Each unit had a test firing pit, which was just a hole in the ground where we got to fire a magazine of bullets each week to ensure that our guns were working properly. It also served to keep the rust in the barrel at a controlled level. Because of the frequent rain, and the continual stirring up caused by the bullets, these pits were pretty slushy. One day, I had the opportunity to try out an American armalite automatic rifle. These guns could fire a full magazine in the blink of an eye and were pretty spectacular at the time. The yank who had it asked me if I wanted a go, and of course I said yes. What he didn't mention, was that when you are putting that many bullets into a slush hole in such a short time something had to give, and I spent the rest of the day getting the mud and slush out of my hair and clothes.

Kangaroo Pad (Possum Field)In addition to the airstrip at Nui Dat, there was a fairly large helicopter landing area, called Possum Field, which was located directly in front of our perimeter wire. The helicopter movement to and from this field was extensive, especially when there was an airlift of a battalion or more to an operational area. Anything up to fifty helicopters might be employed ferrying troops and supplies, and the result was lots of noise and dust, but a pretty impressive sight, just the same.

Cobra at Nui Dat 1968Several Cobra gun ships were usually based there during the day, and they would return to Saigon each evening. If any work came up, out they would go and do their thing and then come back and wait for another job. What a life. Most of the helicopters involved belonged to the Americans.

Every day, a helicopter courier run was carried out leaving Nui Dat in the morning with several bags of official mail, and doing a trip consisting of Nui Dat, Ton Son Nhut airfield in Saigon, the US Embassy in Saigon, the Australian HQ also Saigon, on to Vung Tau, back to Nui Dat, on to HQ Saigon again, and finally return to Nui Dat. This trip took the better part of a day, as at each stop, the courier had to walk from the helipad to the headquarters area, make the necessary deliveries and pickups, then back to the helicopter and on again. The pilot had to stay with the helicopter and look after whatever other dispatches were being carried. It was a great day out, and volunteers were never short for the trip, so we usually only managed two or three trips per year. Of course, one did not even think of the consequences of the chopper had to land anywhere, as all the weapons that the pilot and courier carried on this trip was a pistol each. About as effective as a popgun.

I served 11 months in South Vietnam, all of it based at 1st Australian Task Force, Nui Dat and after my time was up, I returned to Australia on 21 March 1968, and was fairly pleased t be back.

Wayne Cowan

Footnote:    Wayne now lives near Coffs Harbour in NSW with his family.  

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