Story 4 - The Ken Mackenzie Story

By Ken Mackenzie

The First 8 hoursKen and Ray Mackenzie at Dat Do - 1971

I arrived at 104th Signal Squadron at 1730 hours on Wednesday, November 18, 1970.  I was late, dishevelled and much the worse for wear – all thanks to my brother Ray, a Corporal with the 110th Signal Squadron and based in Saigon. 

Ray had met me on arrival at Ton Son Nhut airport, when I stepped off the plane from Oz, earlier that morning.  Unbeknown to me, Ray had managed to get my name changed from the 1230 to the 1630 Caribou flight into Nui Dat.

Now that I had all this extra time to kill, he took me to a very long and interesting lunch at the Capitol BEQ, in downtown Cholon - but that’s another story! 

So, the moment I set foot in the door at 104th Signal Squadron, after making my own way up from Luscome field, I was pounced upon from all directions.  The SSM, WO2 Brian Huston, a man noted for his volatility and excitability, was as mad as a cut snake.  He waved his arms around like an angry windmill and threatened me with all sorts of dire punishments.  Apparently, I had been listed as being AWOL.  So I just blamed the Movement Control people, played dumb, and, hoped for the best.

Next thing I know, I’m in front of the Unit OC, Major Neville Bergin.  I figured I was in big, big, trouble and that one wrong move or word, could see me busted back to Private.

The OC studied me silently for several moments. It was obvious that he was making some sort of decision. Finally, he said " I hope I’m not making a big mistake here..," ". .Congratulations Sergeant Mackenzie, you have just been promoted."

And with that, he shook my hand, gave me a green brassard with 3 stripes on it, and left the room.

A strangled "Thankyou , Sir," was all I could manage in reply.

The SSM, who was still seething, took me up and introduced me to the Sergeants Mess and more beer.  I don’t remember going to bed.

The Rest

I spent the first 3 weeks in Radio Troop, learning how it, and the unit, did business.  And getting a feel for the Task Force AO.  This meant I was able to get out and visit all our radio detachments and LO folks.  They were located at places like: Bear Cat, FSB Mace, Long Dien, Xuan Loc, Dat Do, The Horse Shoe, Sector HQ in Baria, Hoa Long, Duc Than, Cat Lo, Vung Tau, Xuyen Moc, Bien Hoa, the 2nd and 7th Bn’s RAR, 161 Recce Sqn, and 1Fd Engr Sqn, just to name a few.

After Radio Troop, I took over Communications Control (COMMS CON) for several months.

In April, I moved across to 2RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn.  At this time, the 2nd Bn was preparing to rotate back to Australia.  They were replaced by 4RAR/NZ(ANZAC)Bn, who were fully on the ground by May of 1971.  I remained in the field with the 4th Bn until October, when I returned to Nui Dat and took over as Troop SGT of Radio Troop.

By this time, the Task Force had commenced winding–up operations. It was packing-up and preparing to withdraw from Nui Dat down to the 1st ALSG, at Vung Tau.  Our involvement in the longest war in Australia’s history was rapidly drawing to a close.

HMAS Sydney at Vung Tau - 104 Sigs Sqn on the way homeOn October 16th 1971, We were the last of the mainbody to leave Nui Dat.  And it sure was an eerie feeling to drive out those gates for the last time – especially as the MP’s at the Guard Posts had been replaced by sullen-faced ARVN soldiers.  You just knew what was going to happen the moment we were out of sight….! 

Once in Vung Tau, we lived at the R&C Centre.  Our daily grind consisted of travelling across to the 1st ALSG area to clean, prepare and pack all the unit equipment for loading onto the aircraft carrier/come troopship, HMAS Sydney.  And commencing pre RTA medical checks.

Then, on November 6, 1971, I took my last ‘Huey’ ride in the Republic of  Vietnam.  It was from the main LZ at the 1st ALSG to the flight deck of HMAS Sydney, anchored well off-shore in the South China Sea.  Emotions raged within me.

Twelve days later, on Friday, November 19, 1971, I disembarked at Garden Island, Sydney.  I had been away 12 months - almost to the day.

Ken Mackenzie left door of Huey - 6 Nov 1971104th Signal Squadron was full to the brim of characters.   There are many, many, stories and anecdotes I could relate, some hilariously funny – some heart-breakingly tragic, but space here will not permit.

However, I think the last word should go to Major A.G. (Tony) Roberts, the last Officer Commanding of 104th Signal Squadron.  In his final report to the Chief Signal Officer, Headquarters Australian Force Vietnam (CSO HQAFV), on November 3rd 1971, Major Roberts wrote:

"Thus did 16th October 1971 bring to a close a further chapter in the history of the Royal Australian Corps of Signals.  It is to hoped that, in the years to come, those mightier with the pen than the sword find a place in their writings to allow 103th Sig Sqn and 104th Sig Sqn to at least rate an honourable mention."

Thanks for the memories, guys!

Major Ken A. Mackenzie, OAM
Melbourne, Australia
29 May1999

PS:  I believe there are now only three of us left in the Army: Bryan Panting and Pete Rowe, being the other two.      

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