Story 57 - A Tour Out Of This World

(From Bible to Bullets)

Part 2

 by David Murphy

A Tour out of this World - Part 2


A Tour out of this World - Part 2 - Luscombe BowlBack in Nui Dat, I stayed with 9 RAR a little longer, long enough to go to a concert put on by a group of Australian entertainers.  I’ve forgotten now who they were for sure but I think Little Pattie was one.  She wore a very short mini skirt, playing up to the men in the front rows (officers only - they pulled rank...surprise, surprise), who were trying to see how high her legs went.  Col Joye and Judy Stone may have been among the others - that style of performer anyway.  Normie Rowe wasn’t singing, that’s for sure - he was too busy driving APCs, and doing a good job of it too.

As 9 RAR was responsible for the security of its area of the perimeter, it put out ambushes, called TAOR patrols, every night.  They would move out some hundreds of metres before dark to positions on likely enemy approach routes where they generally spent fruitless but nervous nights.  Once, the other two Task Force Sigs and I were asked if we would like to be part of the ambush party.  Two of us volunteered. Our Corporal reminded us of our unit directive that none of us were to engage in any patrolling and he wouldn’t let us go.  (Many years later, I learnt there was no such directive!)

You guessed it.  That night a small group of VC walked into the ambush.  I was in the HQ when the whispered radio message came in, “Movement to our left front, 30 metres.  Engaging now.”  They were doing all right till they copped an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) for their trouble.  That got their heads down and the VC took their chance to slip away, leaving a couple of dead behind.  We suffered no casualties but I was left wondering what might have been if...

Soon after this, I was put back on the hill, baby-sitting the sets again.  It must have been the most boring posting in Vietnam as it was such solitary work.  We would follow the various operations from markers placed on a large wall map but we could only locate positions when artillery or air support was called in or a contact was reported - otherwise, all positions were broadcast in code.  There was plenty of time for letter writing.

Finally on 31st May, a vacancy came up at Xuan Loc, which wasn’t even in Phuoc Tuy Province, but Long Khanh.  It was well to the north of Nui Dat on the northern approach road to Bien Hoa, Long Binh and Saigon and was vital to the security of the southern area of Vietnam.  The 17th ARVN Division was based there, supported by US 155mm artillery and a large contingent of US personnel.

Because it was the centre of a Province bordering on Phuoc Tuy, the Australian Task Force maintained a Liaison team there which I joined.

 A Tour out of this World - Part 2

Before the war, Xuan Loc had been a centre for the rubber industry and was surrounded by rubber plantations.  Many had probably only survived because the owners were paying some kind of levy to the VC.  It would have been an attractive town originally till a flood of escapees from North Vietnam in the mid-fifties made it look like a refugee camp.

The majority were Catholics who had been forbidden to practise their religion in the north.  They grabbed whatever possessions they could carry and crossed the border before the communists panicked and closed it off, ignoring United Nations resolutions.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2In Xuan Loc, they built a beautiful sandstone gothic church which must have taunted the North Vietnamese no end.  The VC and NVA conducted a terror campaign against them from then on, threatening they would be the first killed when the war was over.

I joined two other radio operators there for a very enjoyable posting.  We lived in the US MACV compound with some hundreds of GIs.  They had no idea how to rough it.  There wasn’t a tent in sight - the buildings were divided into rooms which slept up to four in double decker bunks.  Their mess building was very elaborate, bettering anything we’d experienced in Australia.  I knew it was just the place for me.

Robroy MacGregor and another Sig whose name I’ve forgotten were the other two Aussies.  They filled me in on the routine.  The work wasn’t difficult nor were the hours long. We were allowed to close our set down between 10:00pm and 6:00am so there were only two shifts to worry about.

We drove a battered Land Rover through town to the ARVN HQ where we operated our radio from a table just inside a doorway opening out to a large parade ground.

Driving through the compound gates with Rob for my first shift, I noticed some unpainted sheets of iron on the red roofs of the buildings round the parade ground.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2“What happened there, Rob?” I commented.

“Mortar rounds,” he replied, matter-of-factly.

My dreams of a quiet, cosy little posting evaporated!

The city had been heavily attacked on the 18th of May and was within five minutes of being overrun when the gunships arrived - it had taken them twenty minutes to get there from Bien Hoa.  A small number of NVA had crawled up the stormwater pipe (through barbed wire and booby traps) into the artillery compound during the night, then started quietly killing the guards in the perimeter bunkers.  By the time the alarm was given, they had dealt with two bunkers.

With the alert sirens wailing, soldiers poured out of their quarters to be met with a hail of machine gun fire.  A whole division of NVA then attacked the town but the 155mm artillery couldn’t be brought into action.  With the main town defence out, the situation was desperate.  Eventually, somebody got to a 155, blasting the enemy held bunker with Splintex (grapeshot).  Even then, with all the 155s blazing away, it was a very close thing till the gunships arrived.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Meanwhile, over at the ARVN HQ, Rob was just about to shut down the late shift to return to the US compound when the first mortar landed on the road in front of the Shell garage.  A couple more marched the hundred metres to the main entrance to the parade ground, then a salvo hit the HQ buildings.

Rob had taken the first couple of steps down to the underground bunker when the roof exploded above him.  Shrapnel hit him in the leg, tumbling him to the bottom of the stairs, not seriously hurt.  He said a Vietnamese soldier had grabbed his arm, gibbering away for him to get down below.  That was all that saved him from being mincemeat in front of the radio.  He returned when it was safe to do so, and found a large piece of the mortar fin lying on the bunk beside the radio.  The radio itself had to be replaced.

I started looking around seriously at the security of the town.  It was appalling.  A narrow street ran down the outside of the Artillery compound, the other side of it lined with decrepit buildings used as bars.  The enemy could easily infiltrate the town to mount a surprise attack from very close range on what was such a vital position.  Even the main compound where we lived off duty was hemmed in by similar buildings.

The NVA had proved how keen they were to capture Xuan Loc by committing their regular forces in such large numbers in the previous attack.  They risked being caught in the open by the gunships, which is what happened on that occasion.  The odds were that they would be trying again whenever it suited.

Occasionally, red alert sirens went off when rockets were fired into the city.  We would all make a mad dash to our assigned bunkers, only to be stood down from the alert soon after when nothing further came of it.  It was all part of the enemy strategy to snipe away at us, keeping the pressure on.

As the weeks went by, nothing serious happened and I started to relax.

The wet season set in, turning the dirt “roads” through town into bog holes.  The Land Rover sailed on regardless, even after the back axle broke.  We called Nui Dat for a replacement to be sent in by chopper for fitting by us.  They promised one.  It never came.

We couldn’t function without a vehicle so we removed the broken part and drove it in 4WD through the front wheels.  It went as well as ever although we avoided the very worst of conditions, just in case.

The clutch failed next.  We learnt how to jump start it in first gear before throwing it into second and powering away.  The Yanks shook their heads in amazement at what we put up with.  They would have simply repaired it, or failing that, replaced it.

Somehow, we survived the worst of the wet season.

America landed Neil Armstrong on the moon as we watched live (21st July Vietnam time) on the Armed Forces Network - what a triumph for technology that was.  We had more or less put it out of our minds by the very next day, though, as our war went on.

The Land Rover was getting a lot of use.  It ferried us to and from work, raced furiously out to the airstrip when our mail chopper came in on its daily “milk run”, and we also used it around town off duty.

The brakes failed next.

Memories of that scary night drive through the forest fire with Bruce Meakins came back to me as we tried his method of stopping by using the gears for braking.

One day, the chopper called me as usual when it was ten minutes out.  The system was to close down briefly off the network, race out to the airstrip to meet it and then get back to the radio as quickly as possible.  If we didn’t get to the chopper in time, he would take off with our incoming mail but without our outgoing mail.  You can imagine how desperate we were to get there.

I got the Land Rover rolling and was fairly flying at the turnoff to the strip.  It was a gentle turn to the left which I was able to take at speed.  A little further on, it humped over a drainage ditch where there was a small blind spot on the other side.  I came over the hump to find a girl beetling along on a motor scooter on my side of the road.

My sudden presence caught her by surprise - she didn’t seem to be going to swerve or react in any way.  I couldn’t leave the road without turning over so I threw it into 3rd, 2nd (crunch) and turned off the motor.  There was still some speed on as the girl disappeared with a thump under the front bumper.

A sickening feeling churned through my stomach as I climbed down to look underneath.  There was a tangle of scooter, black panted legs, au dai (lovely white dress slit up the side), and long black hair framing the face of a very angry girl.

“You give me 5000 pee!” she shouted at me as I pulled out first her and then the scooter.  All that noise had to mean she wasn't too badly hurt!  I bundled the bike in the back, her in the front, picked up the mail (just in time) and took her home (her home).  She was still cracking up as I dropped her off but I didn’t feel bad about not paying her - the accident wouldn’t have happened if she had been on her side of the road.

Another time, I hit a Vietnamese officer as I was turning through the entrance gate to the HQ.  Again, he wasn’t looking where he was going and went under the front without being badly hurt.  He actually seemed to be apologising rather than complaining as I helped him to his feet and dusted him off.

Perhaps the locals were conditioned to expect a few accidents because of the way they and the Yanks drove.  I cringed once, going through a little hamlet in the back of a truck (probably on the way to Vung Tau with 9 RAR).  The driver never attempted to slow down - he simply leant on the horn and counted on all the bare-bummed kids jumping out of the way.  That showed a poor regard for life.

Those few “hits” of ours and a number of near-misses forced us to do something about the Land Rover.  There seemed not a hope in hell’s chance of getting it repaired, nor could we count on it being replaced.  The three of us decided to steal a Jeep!

The Yanks were very lax with their equipment but pinching one of their vehicles from Xuan Loc itself would be chancing our luck too much.

The unknown Sig and I drove down the Bien Hoa highway for about half an hour to a small town where we found a Jeep parked outside a bar.  It seemed to be in good condition and not wearing the colours of any unit we recognised so we drove it home.  The Land Rover is probably still standing in our car park.

We drove the Jeep from then on as if we’d been issued with it.  Nobody ever questioned our right to it although it couldn’t possibly have fallen into our hands by any legal means.  Perhaps they just thought we’d swapped a couple of slouch hats for it!

The Yanks may not have looked after their equipment seriously but they knew how to take care of themselves.  They employed maids to wash and iron their clothes, polish their boots and clean their rooms.  These were Vietnamese women of course.  They came into the compound in the early morning, each of them assigned to particular rooms and men.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Our “mamasan” was Ba (Mrs) Ut who may have been in her 40s but looked about 60.  She had lost most of her teeth which left her with a very gummy smile, not that she was shy about smiling.  Her few remaining teeth would be busy chewing beetle nut which was the source of streams of red juice she was forever spitting out.  She and the other women would group together first up washing clothes on a slab of concrete in front of a tap.  They chattered away a mile a minute, still finding time to spit as they spoke.

It seemed a very primitive way to wash clothes yet they came back to us better than they ever had back in Australia.  They were crisply starched and beautifully ironed.

Ba Ut also polished our boots which were very much the worse for wear from months of ill treatment.  She brought them up to a shine better than any we had achieved at Singleton!  For all of that, she was paid 100 pee/week by each of us which seemed a paltry amount to me (officially US$1.00).

I tried talking to her while she was working.  She was very shy.  Eventually, she opened up and we stumbled along with the language barrier as we talked about our lives.

She told me how she had fled the north with her husband and young family; how, as an ARVN soldier, he had lost both legs to a landmine and was housebound.  She was the provider, struggling to put basic food on the table.  She was very grateful for our help in fighting the Northerners.    Here are some thoughts she inspired me to write:


Black shirt, au dai, pear shape, wrinkly face,
beetle nutted gap-toothed smile, war can't erase.
Legless ex-soldier husband to feed,
six hungry children and all they need. 

You left your possessions behind in the North,
you took up your loads and ventured forth.
Why did you leave it all when the sign
said, “Ho Chi Minh on your future will shine”? 

Was it you so mistrusted the man
loved later by those trying the war to ban?
Could you see the danger posed so clearly
to all your dreams of living life freely? 

Down to Xuan Loc with thousands you came,
followed soon by threats, killings and efforts to maim.
The VC promised you a slow painful departure.
“Why such a penalty for free choice?” I asked ya. 

You were my mamasan for half of sixty nine,
cleaning up after me, polishing boots to a shine,
washing clothes on bare slab, ironing creases so sharp,
working through the days, sing-songing like a harp. 

I risked my life happily for you, Ba Ut
even when often the conditions did not suit.
But our do-good traitors killed you all in '75,
and now my memories are all that keep you alive.

There were times when I asked how to help her.  Eventually, she suggested that we sell her some cartons of beer and cigarettes which she could then on-sell to the black-market.  The three of us talked it over and decided to do it.  We had been warned that the VC benefited from the black-market by getting hold of military currency which they then exchanged for US dollars to buy weapons.  That idea seemed farfetched unless China and Russia (their arms suppliers) were also after dollars.  More likely, the bad effect would have been on the local currency which struggled along, with the black-market rate three times the official rate.

The PX store carried beer, cigarettes and many other small items.  Co (Miss) Ahn, a beautiful, confident girl, was the manager - she showed off the au dai better than any other girl I’d ever seen.  All the men on the base fancied her so the PX did a roaring trade - she showed not the slightest romantic interest in any of them.  Perhaps to hold that sort of position, she first had an arrangement with somebody in authority?

Each man carried a PX card which entitled him to a set ration of goods per month.  This card had to be presented and adjusted with each purchase.  We told Co Ahn we were buying for Ba Ut.  She then allowed us to buy whatever quantities we liked.  We would stash six cartons of Budweiser and a dozen cartons of smokes in the back of the Land Rover, throw a tarp over the top and drive out through the gates to meet Ba Ut.  Theoretically, the guards could search our vehicle any time they wanted.  They never did.

We made 100% on each deal, Ba Ut then made a further 100% selling to the bars, then they made some phenomenal amount selling the grog and smokes back to the GIs.

After some months, Ba Ut had enough to buy herself a fridge.  Our PX didn’t stock that sort of item so Rob and I drove down to Bien Hoa early one morning to find one for her.  She agreed to pay us $100 above the purchase price.

The road was swept for mines each morning and was normally considered safe for the rest of the day.  Even so, our rifles were right beside us with a round up the spout and the safety on.  The trip was uneventful, except for two incidents which give a good insight into the brutality and fickleness of the war.

Passing through a small hamlet, we noticed a crowd of villagers gathered round the most substantial building.  Some of them tried to wave us down.  We stopped.  A skinny old man was sitting on the front steps, hands clasped across his stomach to stop his guts falling out.  He was barely moaning, yet the pain must have been unbearable.

Just before daylight, the VC had tossed a grenade into the one roomed building where the village headman, his children and all his grand-children were sleeping together.  It was a reprisal for past lack of co-operation in providing food and shelter, a normal procedure for the VC.  The old man had been the slowest to move and consequently copped a large piece of shrapnel to help improve his loyalty to the cause.  We reported the incident in Bien Hoa and a medical team was sent to bring him into hospital.

A few drinks were necessary after seeing that so it was later in the day before we returned with the fridge in its carton lashed down in the back.

Just short of the little hamlet, we noticed a jeep overturned on the left of the road.  Later we heard that it had been ambushed only half an hour after we’d passed - an officer, travelling on his own, had been killed.  Fate was on our side again!  We were still driving the Land Rover at that stage - perhaps the VC allowed us to pass, waiting for something juicier than a couple of lousy Aussie Sigs!  It was probably the same group which had hit the hamlet.

Another time, Rob and I did chance our luck carelessly.  We were told about a small rifle range out in a rubber plantation on the southern Highway 2 where we could give our weapons a good workout.  It seemed like a reasonable idea until we turned off the bitumen and, in deathly silence, crawled through the trees.  The canopy above restricted light to a gloom.  If ever there was a good place for an ambush, that was it - there could have been a squad of VC within twenty metres for all we knew.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2We were too far in for turning back so we continued on as though we were out for a Sunday picnic.  The range couldn’t be much further, could it?

It wasn’t.  We blasted away there with our SLRs and an Armalite Rob had borrowed, threw a couple of grenades each and called it quits within ten minutes.  The noise of it all would have attracted the attention of anybody in the area so we decided to head for home “toute suite”.

Back we drove through the eerie rubber, tree trunks standing up in the gloom like rows of silent soldiers.  None objected to our passing.  We paused at the main road to make a right turn back to town and saw a neatly manicured driveway leading off through the trees opposite.

Curiosity got the better of us so we took another tour through rubber to see where it led.  In no time, we came to a country club - sumptuous buildings set in landscaped gardens.  Finding a place like that hidden away in such a dangerous area left us speechless.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Eventually, Rob said, “Right then, let’s have a gander inside,” and before I could stop him, he strode up the wide front steps into a lavish bar decorated in rich red and black.

No one was there.  We called out.  That brought a pitter patter of steps on the tiled floor off behind the bar and a girl came into view.  It had been a day for the unexpected but nothing could have prepared us for that sight.  She should have had jet-black, waist length hair, slant eyes, and been wearing an au dai over black pants.

She was blonde, blue eyed and wore jeans!

I dredged up some Grade 10 French, hoping by some miracle to make myself understood.  Laughing, she replied in English.  She was a New Zealander, the governess for the property manager’s kids and was delighted to spend some time with us over a few drinks.  She must have been crazy to take on such a job and I wouldn’t have thought the Government would let civilians into the country for such work, yet there she was.

No doubt we would have been welcome to return but it would have been risking an ambush on that ten minute drive every time.  Except for when we stole the Jeep, that was the last time we ever left the town limits.

Our free time was normally spent writing letters, listening to the Armed Forces Network radio or watching the latest gridiron matches on colour TV.

Our base also showed fresh movies every night in a large outdoor theatre where we could sweat in relative comfort as we downed our cold Budweisers. Marijuana was openly smoked during the movies.  None of the Aussies was at all interested in smoking the stuff although our Sergeant tried his best to be an alcoholic.  (He later had to spend some time in Vung Tau hospital with blood poisoning because of his problem.)

One night, a Yank I was with puffed away on the sickly smelling stuff as I drank my couple of cans of beer.  He pestered and pestered me to “have a joint” and eventually I did.  In saying that, don’t get the idea I am in favour of smoking or snorting or sticking drugs into myself or that you should do the same.  Far from it!

I took a delicate little puff, then a big drawback which made my head start spinning within seconds.  If people think that’s a great feeling then they can keep it for themselves.

As my luck would have it, within minutes the siren sounded a red alert, the screen went blank, the camp lights went out.  We blundered off in the dark to find our assigned bunkers.  Hundreds of people were running in every possible direction, over each other, into chairs, buildings, trees.  Marijuana often has that effect on people, I understand.

A tree under the influence of two cans of weak Budweiser and a puff of marijuana ran into me, knocking my glasses off and breaking them.

I may have said a few angry words but they didn’t stop the certain knowledge that there’d be no more clear vision for me for some time.

Somehow, I headed in the right direction and fell into our bunker.  The air was very tense as we all listened silently for the first sign that it was to be more than a one hit wonder.  There was the sound of automatic fire in the distance, some explosions, and the wailing of Jeep sirens as the MPs raced round town picking up stray GIs.

We started relaxing (some were still clutching cold cans in hand), then a pitiful cry came from down low in one corner.  Torches flicked on showing a bundle of quivering, miserable, camouflage greens whimpering, “I don’t want to die...” over and over.  Shell shock they would have called it (PTSD is today’s fancy name) but I remember thinking he could have at least waited for the shells!  I would hope to be more understanding now but at that time I didn’t appreciate the many different ways people react to fear.  Somebody did show him some sympathy which only increased the cries and tears - the rest of us muttered about the “poor silly bastard” and left as the "All Clear" sounded.

That was the end of the night’s movies but nerves were stretched a little taut for sleep just yet so we settled down with some more cold cans.  A few hours later, the Budweiser began to taste like "XXXX".  That was sign enough for me to hit the sack.

Wearing anything in that heat and humidity made sleep uncomfortable so most of us slept naked.  I sprawled out there on the top bunk with only a mozzie net for privacy. Soldiers don’t have a problem with naked bodies and we were always up before the mamasans arrived in the mornings so they were never exposed to possible offence either.

There has to be an exception to the rule, doesn’t there?  Next morning, I slept in.  Part of me very visibly stood to attention.  My roommates thoughtfully didn’t disturb me, hoping to have some fun with the girls.

I woke to a pleasant giggling sound which must have fitted neatly into my dreams because it was some minutes before I realised that every mamasan in the camp seemed to be crammed into our room.  My Ba Ut was there in the very front, giggling away with the best of them!

There was no top sheet - my only defence was to roll over and present my backside. That brought even more hysterical laughter.  About then, I started shouting and they left.  I never would have believed my sweet, innocent Catholic girls could have acted like that and was too embarrassed to speak to Ba Ut for a couple of days.

(Ever since that incident, Doctor, I've suffered severely from recurring flashbacks!  It comes up night after night in my dreams and no matter how hard I try, the girls always leave laughing, with me lying there completely unsatisfied.)

My broken glasses were another problem caused by that night.  The Army had left me with just the one pair although my pre-embarkation check list was noted that another pair would be supplied before leaving Australia.  My night vision was RS.  I checked with our Nui Dat HQ to be told it would take a month to get me a new pair. The Yanks could do it within 24 hours of receiving the prescription.  (For some unknown reason, they could make the glasses but could not test my eyes to arrive at the correct specifications.)

I sent Mum an urgent letter to have my optometrist rush the prescription over.  It arrived in a surprisingly short time.  The next day, I had a new set of specs, set in the ugliest frame you’d ever see.  That fuelled my anger at the Army’s lack of assistance.  We’ll talk more about that later but the "used, abused and refused" syndrome had already started.

August came round, finally bringing my R & R in the last week.


104 Signal Squadron must have been desperately short staffed because those few days off came when there was less than four months of my tour left - my only break up till then had been the three days in Vung Tau.  Our work in Xuan Loc could hardly be compared to jungle patrolling but even the donkey grinding the wheat needs a day off occasionally.

Army regulations governed R & R, of course.  It could be taken in Sydney, Bangkok, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and probably a few other places I’ve now forgotten.  The temptation was to opt for Sydney especially since a relationship had developed (on paper) with Mary Smith (the girl from Tasmania).  However, the word was that many Diggers couldn’t face going back to Vietnam once they’d been home so I decided to chicken out on that idea.  As well, there might never be another opportunity to see one of the exotic Asian cities so it would have been foolish to run for the safety of the home port.

I chose Hong Kong, for the shopping possibilities as well as the fact that English was commonly spoken there.  The Army paid for the airfares and the black-market operations paid for everything else - I spent $650 all up.  The money almost disappeared just before my leave too, which would have been a disaster.

As they periodically did, the Yanks called a sudden currency change to catch such black-market operations.  New MPC notes would be exchanged for old up to a certain limit - after that, the old notes wouldn’t even have been good for wiping your bum.  Luckily, a few of our Yank mates were willing to do us a favour and helped us out.

That cost me my slouch hat - swapped for a camouflage poncho liner, a deal which I’d been unwilling to go through with till then.  The liner has turned out to be very useful, putting in an appearance every winter for many years after, even still.

Coming back into Nui Dat from our outposts was always a bit of a culture shock for me.  For starters, it was too regimented, too much like the Army after the easy going routine off the base.  Why, we even had to appear on parade each morning for the pill swallowing and rifle inspection routine!

It was a good idea to at least have a couple of practice runs through the drill procedure of presenting arms for inspection.  It was a simple little drill, done hundreds of times by then during my army career but I wanted to be dead sure of it after months away.  It is always done with an empty magazine on the rifle - live rounds and drill procedures do not mix.  Normal practice in Nui Dat was to carry an empty magazine on the rifle, keeping full ones close by.  Away from the base, magazines were never empty.

Between breakfast and the parade, I stood in the middle of our tent beside the big box of cigarettes, watched by two or three others and went through the motions.  Part of the procedure involved cocking the weapon so the barrel could be checked.  Inspection over, the cocking mechanism is released by pulling the trigger.

However, I had forgotten to remove the loaded magazine...which meant that a bullet was cocked up the spout and when I pulled the trigger, it went through the roof of the tent…with a very loud bang.  We all stood there paralysed, cordite filling the tent with its telltale smell. 

Cries of "Shit, shit, shit" and other unprintable variations filled the air. I could picture NCOs and Officers running towards us from all directions, determined to catch the culprits.  An “Unauthorised discharge” was a chargeable offence.

Frantically, I pulled the rifle down to clean the barrel.  The others waved the smoke outside, sprayed some deodorant about and put some tape over the hole in the roof.  All that time, we were waiting to be sprung.  It could have been a catastrophe.  My R&R could have been spent in the lock-up - worse, somebody could have copped a bullet in the head.  Fortunately, nothing like that happened and nobody came to catch me. 

That didn’t stop me from feeling a proper dill.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2So off I went to the big city - five days alone among 4 - 5 million Chinese.  It wasn’t a happy time because solo holidays aren’t much fun.  I stayed in a middle-of-the-road hotel, in a room out the back overlooking some buildings being demolished.  Most of my time of course was spent around town.

First off, I hunted around to fill my shopping orders.  There were presents for all the family, Mary, and best mate, Jolly Joe.  I even bought some sound gear for myself.  It was probably the first time I’d ever bought anything like that, especially for myself and I didn’t enjoy the bargaining much - the Chinese practically live for it.

The shopping took a surprising amount of time, spread out over a couple of days.  At the same time, I did some sight-seeing, alone and also on conducted tours.  Hong Kong proper is a beautiful but very small island separated from Kowloon (on the mainland and the largest area of the Colony) by a short stretch of deep water.

Huge modern ferries compete with tiny Chinese “runabouts” to link the accommodation of Kowloon with the business districts of Hong Kong.  I stuck with the big ships and marvelled at how quickly thousands of people could disembark and disappear on waiting buses.

Many high-rise buildings cluttered the steep hillsides of the capital.  Space was obviously at a premium with such a crush of people trying to live and work there so it was still a surprise (but shouldn’t have been) to find a large section of hillside covered with derelict shanties within metres of multi-storied buildings.  Refugees were squatting there in terrible conditions as they had nowhere else to go.

Each year, violent typhoons would sweep in on the island, blasting the shacks apart, filling the air with slashing sheets of metal, then sweep the carnage away with mudslides.  The shacks would be rebuilt each time.

The Government had an ongoing program to resettle all those people in high rise accommodation on the island itself and also on the mainland.  Apart from saving many lives and improving living standards, it had the added benefit of freeing up some very valuable real estate for business development.  Cynics would say perhaps that was the real reason for such a benevolent approach but the Government did seem to have the welfare of the people at heart.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Many people also lived on boats in a sheltered harbour on the other side of the island.  These were all linked together so it was possible not to ever have to set foot on dry land.  This area had become a tourist attraction with a number of floating restaurants and knick-knack shops although the smell coming off the water was more than a little off-putting.  The Government was trying to resettle those people too, without much success.

Privacy was almost unobtainable in such a place of wall-to-wall people.  I went to a picture theatre one day expecting to sit in rows of seats in a large space in front of a screen, just like the theatres at home.  The first clue that it was no ordinary theatre was when the usher pushed me into a lift!  People got out at each floor on the way up.  My seat was in a lounge about four levels up from the bleachers.  The building was maybe half the width of a suburban theatre back home but they squeezed in many more people by layering them on so many levels.

As if that wasn’t enough of an experience for me, the movie itself was.  It was spoken in Chinese naturally, with English and another Chinese dialect in subtitles!  Keeping track of the action was hard going as you can imagine, especially since it was so fast paced.

Another example of sharing experiences with a crowd was the day I decided to stop off for lunch while window shopping.  The eatery looked very basic, nothing fancy to attract tourists, but there were plenty of Chinese going in and out which was a good sign.

I went in to find myself alone among 5000 Chinese in a huge factory-like space.  Jesus fed this kind of a crowd but I don’t know how any normal person could be organised enough to do it.  Many people seemed to be serving themselves cafeteria style but waiters were everywhere too.

Sitting on a vacant seat listening to the Chinese chatter and the curious sound of 10,000 chopsticks hard at it, I lost my appetite, replaced by butterflies in the stomach.

“No worries,” I thought, “it’ll be ages before a waiter turns up.”

The young bloke beside me grinned, spilling half a mouthful of rice just as a waiter arrived.  He couldn’t speak English.  Worse, the menu he offered was in Chinese!  Somehow, he understood that I would eat whatever he decided to give me.  The meal was already showing signs of being one to remember and the food was yet to appear on the table!

I can’t say it was delicious but it was different.  I didn’t have a clue what was on the plate - it tasted and looked nothing like the Chinese food we eat in Australia but it was edible.  (Compared to Nui Dat food it was a banquet fit for a king!)  I laboured over it for quite a while as others came and went from my table.  They ate at a furious pace as if they were being charged by the minute.

Just past the next table was a large fish tank with a number of sizeable fish swimming round and some crabs lazing on the bottom.  Considering the layout of the building, I wondered why the owners would bother to have an aquarium there for the enjoyment of the patrons.  Then a diner stopped in front of the tank, pointed out a particular fish which was scooped out with a net and a few minutes later he sat down to eat the fish of his choice.  Fresh is best, naturally.

Somehow, the bill arrived for my meal - the whole system ran very sweetly.  I found they had charged me such a ridiculously small amount it was close to embarrassing, even for a Murphy!

The days and nights sped by quickly and on the 29th August, I caught the jet back to Saigon.  Behind me, millions of people were able to organise themselves to live peacefully in each other’s pockets - where I was going, millions more of the very same people were hell-bent on doing away with each other. 

A Tour out of this World - Part 2 - Ticket

Going back wasn’t hard though because life at Xuan Loc seemed relatively safe and there were only four months of my tour of duty left.  The war would be over for me soon enough.


However, other plans had been made for me.  No longer for me the "pampered" life of Xuan Loc but instead the danger and uncertainty of being part of the Liaison Team attached to the 2/52 ARVN Battalion.

They were patrolling an area in the north east of Phuoc Tuy, up from Xuyen Moc.  Our job, as usual, was to call in air, artillery, armoured support and Dustoffs when required.  The Senior Advisers were a couple of Americans but our immediate superior was Warrant Officer Eddie Nervo (not his real name) from 9 RAR.  Bluey Hopper and Tony O’Dowd were my fellow Sigs.  We worked the usual eight hours on, sixteen off but were flexible about that, covering for each other whenever it was required.

The work was much the same as with 9 RAR.  The tension was worse because of the lack of firepower around us (no 105s, few APCs), the tightness of the Fire Support Base (too bunched up) and the fact that we were very dependent for security on South Vietnamese troops who inspired little confidence. We slept in slit trenches beside the mortar emplacement, dozing to the gentle blast of those weapons being fired.  When we were awake, we often talked among ourselves about how we should react to an attack on the base, Nervo specifically reminding us that we should stick close together, unsure as we were that the ARVN troops would stay and fight.  We kept our rifles with us always and cleaned them every day.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Eventually, the battalion was moved right over to the west of the province.  We drove in convoy down the “Red” road towards Xuyen Moc, expecting to be hit at any minute.  That “Red” classification meant that land mines could be expected anywhere along it and the road was generally dangerous because of regular enemy ambushes.  Vegetation grew very close to the roadside whereas it was always cleared back perhaps 2-300 metres on safer roads.  The trip was to take all day, through drizzling monsoon rain in the afternoon.

We hadn’t been driving long when an M60 opened up just in front of our Jeep.  We jerked to a stop, Bluey dived into the ditch and started firing blindly with his SLR.

“Good reaction, Bluey,” the senior adviser called down calmly from the passenger seat, “but the ARVN are probably just trying to knock over some wild life!”

Hard to believe, but true.  How they could even consider giving away our position like that on such a dangerous road is beyond me. Besides, anything hit by that M60 would only have been good for mincing.

Bluey got up gingerly, still uncertain.  He was my age but a newly married man.   "Be buggered if I’m gunna go home in a body bag without getting at least one shot off," he said.  He didn’t even know what he was shooting at.  “Shit,” he muttered to himself, “that’d put the wind up anybody!”

All through the day, we passed through little villages, and larger towns like Dat Do and Baria etc until we were well up Highway 15 towards Saigon.  In fading light, we pulled into our new Fire Support Base Doody, no more than 50 metres off the road in a rice paddy.  The location was meant to be a secret, at least until some basic defences had been established yet it would have been a piece of cake for the enemy to track us there.

It was even easier for the ARVN Colonel’s wife.  She drove down from Saigon with her kids just before dark to see her husband and bring him some treats.  Found us without any trouble at all.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Bluey was a bit of a hit with the Colonel’s little boy, swinging him round and chucking him in the air, disregarding the potential dangers of his bare bum (what’s that after facing the possibility of a face full of lead?).  I suppose Saigon was no safer in those days than where we were but we did wonder at a system which allowed wives and families to join their husbands in a battlefield situation.  Fortunately, for our peace of mind, she took the kids back home the next morning.

The first truck unloaded was the one which carried a young steer.  It was quickly killed and butchered on the ground to supply the men’s meat for the duration of the operation.  That amount of meat wouldn’t have gone far with our troops but it formed only a small portion of the average meal for the Vietnamese.  They ate plenty of rice, with a number of little side dishes (such as meat, fish, chook, monkey, dog, etc) providing the flavour.  The Colonel received an allowance personally from the Government, using it to pay for all his battalion’s supplies - a curious way of running an army.  A crooked man would take that as a chance to line his own pockets and feed his men as poorly as he could get away with.

We found ourselves responsible for our own food too.  The Vietnamese were quite happy to feed us but their food wasn’t quite to our liking on a long term basis (not too hygienic either).  The Americans must have operated on some sort of food allowance also and were willing to share it with us so we ate whatever food was choppered into us or whatever they could buy in the nearest town.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2Our base was sited in a rice paddy which the steady rain was starting to make spongy.  We tried digging our trenches but gave up when they immediately filled with water - we were going to need a snorkel to sleep in there.  In the end, we lay some sheets of corrugated iron on the ground, put some curved sheets over the top and there we had our own version of the igloo.

It didn’t offer any sort of protection from mortar or rocket fire.  We felt very exposed stuck there in those flat paddy fields.  Watching Tom, Dick and Ho going past on the highway, able to check out every little detail of our layout, we were spurred on to fill and lay as many sandbags as the structure would take.

A few days went by.  There was the occasional light skirmish without too many casualties.  Except for the rain and mud, our conditions were comfortable.  I mixed with a few Vietnamese from the HQ, trying to learn a little of their language.  They taught me to count to 20 and to say “Em dep lam” (You’re very beautiful) and “Anh eu em nieu lam” (I love you very much).  This might have come in very handy if I was captured, interrogated by and fell in love with a beautiful VC!  It certainly hasn’t impressed anybody else in the years since.

Normally, when the rain allowed, we sat around a cooking fire, yarning about the day’s events.  The senior US adviser was an easy-going character, good company in those circumstances.  WO Nervo, on the other hand, was moody and a real wet blanket.

One night, we all sat there for a couple of hours discussing how to get hold of some more food as stocks were running low.  It was finally agreed that the senior adviser, Bluey and I would drive into Long Binh the next day.  It was about forty minutes away.

Nobody disagreed with the decision!

Our shopping trip went well and we returned just after lunch with a Jeep full of good stuff.  There was even a cold carton of Budweiser to freshen up those left behind.  Tony met us as we pulled up.

“You’re in trouble, you blokes,” he said.  “Nervo has reported you both to the Boss in Nui Dat for desertion in the field in the face of the enemy!”

We just stood there, stunned.  It was too serious to be a joke. 

The ARVN troops had come into contact with a large force of NVA, quite a fight had developed with artillery and air support being called in.  Tony and the junior US adviser handled all that by themselves with no problems.  They had to: Nervo stayed in his tent till the action was over, only then strolling into the HQ asking, “How many of the *&*&ing little gooks copped it this time?”  In front of the Colonel and his staff, mind you.

He had cracked up about the way we had decided to get resupplies, feeling left out, I guessed.  He was unbalanced enough to use the morning’s action as an excuse to call our CO to demand a court martial.

We spoke to our Major Morel over the radio to explain what happened.

"You can have your say back in Nui Dat,” he replied.  “A chopper’s on the way in with your replacements.  The two of you and the Warrant Officer are to return on it and report to me immediately you hit base.”

Nervo didn’t come near us as we got our gear ready to leave.  Bluey was a Nasho too and knew nothing about what we should do.  Tony had nothing to offer either.

I spoke to the senior adviser who thought the whole thing was unreal.  Just in case, he wrote down his version of the events, gave it to me and said, “Tell your CO I’ll be happy to give evidence in person.”

The chopper clap, clap, clapped its way at treetop height to Nui Dat.  Conversation was impossible over the din.  We sat there, looking at each other, wondering how it could all be happening.  Nervo sat opposite, our rifles between his feet.  The mongrel!  He must have loved putting the boot in by taking them off us but I bet he would have been thrusting them back into our hands quick smart if the chopper had to make a forced landing.

It’s a terrible feeling to be wrongly accused.  I felt humiliated, degraded.  Desertion, would you believe?!  I couldn’t.

Back at base, we cleaned up, dressing in our best greens as preparations were made for the hearing.  It was the 18th of September - only three weeks before, I had been enjoying the good life of Hong Kong.  I suddenly remembered I'd missed my birthday, 3 days earlier.  How could it have gone so wrong, so quickly? 

We marched into the orderly room.

As we waited a moment, the clerk helpfully offered, “You’re in for it now, boys!  The maximum penalty for desertion is still death by firing squad!”

We fronted the Major, feeling very tense - it was like some nightmare.

Then the first good news came.

“The court martial won’t proceed,” Major Morel started.  (He’d probably figured out for himself what had really happened.)  “Instead, I’ll hear a charge of being absent without leave.”

Neither of us breathed any easier.

Nervo had his say first while I thought about what the clerk had just said to me outside: “In the Army, you are guilty until you prove your innocence - it’s the opposite of a civil trial.”

He could also have said that the Army will always believe the evidence of the senior rank if it contradicts that of the junior.

I wondered if we would even be listened to - from what had happened to us so far, that didn’t seem likely.

However, Bluey and I were each given our say while Major Morel seemed to listen very carefully.  He also took his time reading the statement given to me by the US Adviser.  There was dead silence while he did that and for what seemed a long time after he finished.  We stood stiffly at attention...waiting.

“On the evidence, I have no option but to find you guilty as charged,” he then said.

Our hearts sank.  How could that be?  The evidence proved that we had left FSPB Doody with the full knowledge of WO Nervo - not only that, he had every opportunity to simply order us not to go, if that had been his wish.  Top stuff, that Army justice!

Fortunately, the Major wasn’t quite finished.

“However,” he went on, “the circumstances are such that the charge will not go on your records.  I suggest that, in future, you formally ask permission from whoever is in charge before leaving your post.”

“Yes, Sir,” we said together.

 (The charge appears on our records all the same - found guilty “of leaving his place of duty without permission, just cause or excuse”!)

Turning next to Nervo (who was looking less than happy), he said, “I am not at all pleased with your conduct throughout this affair.  You will never again ever have any authority over men in my command!  Dismissed!”

That night, we helped ourselves to more than our ration of two cans per day.  The day’s experience had been a killer but we agreed there wasn’t much else we could have done to avoid it.  Nervo had given us no inkling of his feelings, otherwise we would have quite happily asked his permission to go.  I mean, you can’t avoid falling off the cliff if you don’t even know it’s there, can you?A Tour out of this World - Part 2

We talked about the bloke, trying to work out why he had acted as he did.  Eventually, we decided (with the help of a few cans of Swan Lager) that he was just plain “psycho”.  That judgment was probably right on the button too although these days he would be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD.  He may even have cunningly contrived the whole thing simply to get away from the dangerous posting and back to the relative safety of the 9 RAR Q Store. 

We were without a job for a while so we resorted to leaning on rakes waiting for rubber tree leaves to fall.  No, not quite.  I found myself back up on the hill again. Chris Bonython was up there too.  The son of an Adelaide high flyer, he could have avoided his call-up without any trouble at all. A cross between John Farnham and Tom Cruise in looks, he was one of the nicest blokes you could meet and a good steadying influence on me at that time.  (I was still smarting over the treatment we’d copped.)


God smiled on me once more.  I was dragged kicking and screaming off the hill and sent back to Xuan Loc.  (Major Morel must have known how much I hated that place!)

Nothing had changed.  The enemy were still “out there” threatening us and the good people of the town.  Ba Ut and the other mamasans still fussed over us.  We still bought and sold on the black-market.  I tell a lie, though - something had changed.  Ric Hocking had arrived to take Rob’s place and it was a pleasure to be around him again.  The last hundred days “in country” were going to run out without drama in such good company. How could I have been so fortunate to fight a war in those conditions when many others risked everything out on patrol for many weeks on end?  Luck, I guess.

Well, my luck was about to change again.

Within a few days, we received a message calling me back to Nui Dat urgently. The milk run chopper diverted to pick me up, leaving no time at all for goodbyes except with those who happened to be handy.  There was no time to find Ba Ut which I regret to this day. I rushed to pack my gear together, pull the black-market money out of its hiding place and make it out to the airfield.

That was the end of a wonderful period among some ordinary Vietnamese people who knew their days were numbered.  Six years later when Xuan Loc was one of the last towns to fall before Saigon, I had fearful thoughts of the ordeal they were going through.  Those thoughts made me choke on the glee of the anti-war crowd who were deliriously happy to win “their” war while everybody else lost.

Unaware of that unhappy future, I was carried away, with many happy memories, back to Nui Dat and a posting still unknown.  What was all the urgency about?  My mind was trying to sort out the possibilities without being able to come up with anything that remotely made sense.  If they wanted an operator for a particular job, why didn’t they just take one from the base itself?

The chopper pilot did nothing to help keep my thinking calm and clear.  We were racing along at just above treetop height when he suddenly tipped us over on our side to fit between some taller trees.  Before we had gone much further, he had started weaving in and out of the trees.  Whether he was wary of enemy fire or he was just taking low flying orders literally I never found out but he put the wind up me.  Thoughts of my pending posting stopped bothering me anyway, as I concentrated on staying with the chopper.

An orderly met us at the chopper pad and escorted me over to our headquarters under the rubber trees.  He could have told me what was going on but, in true Army fashion, he let me stew till I was standing formally in front of the OC.

My mind started playing tricks on me because I couldn’t help remembering that the only other time I had set foot in that office was on the court martial charge a week before.

“Am I in trouble again, say, because of the black-market operations?” I thought, pockets bulging with hundreds of MPC dollars.

“At ease, Sig Murphy,” Major Morel said quietly, aware that I was anything but at ease.

I started to relax just for a minute as he began explaining what my special posting was. 

SAS had lost a Trooper, David Fisher, that day (27th September) during a hot extraction when he fell off a rope dangling from a chopper.  In theory, he couldn’t have been shot off and it is thought he must have latched onto the rope improperly.

Anyway, all hell broke loose in Nui Dat.  A large SAS force was rushed back to the area to search for the missing soldier.  Next day, an infantry company was also sent in as the Prime Minister assured the soldier’s family that every effort would be made to recover him.

No trace was ever found.  As far as I know, he was the only member of SAS to be killed in action in Vietnam to that date.

Huge rewards were posted by the enemy for the capture or death of any SAS soldier.  Rumours went around of the fearful tortures to be dished out if they did get hold of one.  In Fisher’s case, it’s almost certain he was dead before he hit the ground.

That incident resulted in our posting to the mountaintop.   

SAS patrols were to be dropped back in the area at the north eastern edge of Phuoc Tuy province.  They would carry everything in with them, including enough food for two weeks, expecting no further aerial assistance until their “extraction” at the end of the mission.  No lightweight radio at the time was capable of handling the distance back to Nui Dat so three of us Sigs were to be attached to an American post on a mountain top to act as a relay station.

The catch was that the distance was still too great for voice transmission from the depths of the jungle so SAS would be sending Morse over a tiny high frequency radio! There you go - we understood, at last, why we had been trained in Morse. 

I hadn’t touched a Morse key in more than twelve months nor had I heard so much as a single dot or dash...except in my dreams sometimes.  Standing in front of Major Morel, skin tingling from the thrill of the important posting, those symbols came flashing back.

“By the way, Sig Murphy,” he asked with a smile, “what’s your Morse like these days?  You topped the course at Ingleburn, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Sir, I did but it’d all be a little rusty now.  Nothing that a little brushing up wouldn’t fix though.”

So that was it.  They’d actually looked up our records to find the best Morse operators in the country and pulled us in from wherever we were.  That had to mean this was very serious work with no room for the slightest mistake.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2 - John "Din"g BellI met the other two operators that day and we were given time to prepare for the mission.  John “Ding” Bell was one.   In 2009, we found that Rick Male was the other.  We were to use voice ourselves, not Morse, to talk to the patrol but they would be sending to us at about ten words a minute.  We practised by reading messages to each other in “dits” and “dahs” as we had no equipment to do the job properly.  That speed is very slow for a competent operator but could be impossible to receive if the sender was hopeless.  We weren’t able to meet the SAS operators but we were confident of their ability to do anything

The mission was so important and so urgent that a special chopper was laid on to drop us on the mountain top.  It was Sunday, the 28th September. The flight took as long as the Xuan Loc one but as the drop off point was at a height of about 1000 metres, we were able to fly at that height all the way.  That lessened the tension a little.

Then we saw our base.  It was on the very peak, the top five to ten metres, of a steep mountain, Hill 837 (Nui Chua Chan).  There could never be a road built up it - the only way to resupply the place was by air.  The jungle stretched away from the bottom as far as the eye could see.  In that war, the sight was pretty awesome.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2 - Hill 837The Yanks had blasted away parts of the mountain top as best they could, sprayed some Agent Orange around, squashed in a company of infantry, however many operators and technicians they needed, and installed a forest of aerials and towers of microwave dishes.  They then called it a communications base.  We’d never seen one of those but I doubt if they were meant to look like that place. Our Task Force commander must have had a good relationship with the Yanks to get their agreement to fit us into their base - there was absolutely no room for us. We squeezed our equipment into a radio room already bursting at the seams (although the Yanks had managed to fit a colour TV in).

Meals were taken in shifts so that wasn’t a problem.  Sleeping was.  Nobody minds sitting on a chair that others have sat on too but we had to share beds.  There were times when I came off shift dog-tired to find the Yank I hot-bedded with oversleeping.  Since we were guests, I could hardly complain so I sat there till he stirred and hopped out.

It never occurred to me really that there could be a problem in getting into a bed somebody had just left.  I mean how many times in your life would you ever have to do that yourself?  It had never happened to me before, except at home and that’s family, isn’t it?

None of us ever got off the mountain during the posting but the Yanks had regular days away.  My bed mate brought some “crabs” back with him and infested me.  The doctor told me they were often shared around but it would have been only fair to warn us in the beginning.  I got hold of my own bedding after that and slept on the floor, a little less comfortable but less exposed to the wildlife.

Back in Australia, crabs were the last things on people’s minds.  There was a Federal election to worry about with one of the main issues being National Service and the war in Vietnam.  Although it was the first election most of us had voted in, we couldn’t have cared less who was fighting over us at home even if there had been some way of following the campaign.  The milk run chopper made a special trip that day (25th October) carrying a locked ballot box and some paperwork to help us decide which candidates belonged to the party of our choice.  It also brought and took away our mail which was probably more important to us.

There was little chance of relaxing up there - too many people were crowded together.  A basketball court had been set up on the larger helipad but time on court was restricted to those who were black and over 1.8 metres tall.  That qualifying standard was beyond us (John Bell was barely 165cms and I wasn't much taller than that.)  We kept to ourselves most of the time as the Yanks were almost unfriendly and mostly stoned.

Marijuana was smoked as commonly as Camels.  It reached the post on every incoming chopper, its reeking fumes competing thickly with the clean mountain air.  The men slobbed around like dazed hippies, seemingly without any attempt by the commander to whip them into shape.

A story was told (confirmed recently by a Yank over the Net) of a commander in the recent past who had searched every chopper and every man arriving, confiscating the stuff.  The supply ran out, the men went crazy.  One day, he was catching a siesta in his hut when a grenade came through the window and clattered on the floor.  He managed to chuck it back outside, following it up with his Armalite on automatic.  The GI druggies fell about among the rocks, unhurt but disappointed that they hadn’t bumped him off.  He decided to have second thoughts about making soldiers out of addicts, hence the hopeless situation when we arrived.

How could a mob like that ever hope to win the war?

We started thinking about the consequences of an enemy attack.  The soldiers wouldn’t be able to fight but at least they wouldn’t be able to turn tail either, hemmed in as they were.  There was no escape from the mountaintop - it was like being caught on an island. We knew we should stick together in an attack though and not be split up in different bunkers.

Rumour was, an NVA regimental hospital was dug in lower down the slopes. The Yanks were supposed to know about it but turned a blind eye provided the enemy kept away from our communications set-up.  No patrolling of any sort was done lower down than the fields of fire which had been cleared for a hundred metres or so all round the perimeter.  I didn’t believe the story, especially the bit about the enemy sticking to an agreement to leave us alone.  The base was strategically vital to the Yanks, and its defence was a joke.  If I had been Ho Chi Minh, its destruction would have been a priority.

We were permanently edgy about our safety - the feeling was even worse than when I was with the 2/52 ARVN Battalion.

Meanwhile five SAS troopers were somewhere below us in the jungle, keeping tabs on enemy movements down a track.  An Iroquois had briefly hovered over a grid reference while they abseiled down through the canopy with their equipment and disappeared into the jungle.  We were their only contact with help, should they get sprung.

Our slight doubts about the quality of their Morse transmissions disappeared with the very first message.  It came as smooth as silk, as good as the machine we had trained on.  The trooper was sending it on a keypad strapped to his knee, hardly ideal conditions.  Messages came coded in groups of five letters, tapped out at times decided by the patrol leader.  The code was not known to us.  We merely had to read it back to the patrol for confirmation, then send it on to Nui Dat.

The information was evidently quite detailed about numbers of enemy and the quality of their equipment.  Planning was then commenced to counter his movements later on some distance down the track.

The first patrol survived its two weeks as war-time peeping toms to be replaced by another patrol.

We manned the sets around the clock although the messages were coming through at regular times.  There was always a chance of the patrol being spotted though which would have required urgent action to get them out.

The only excitement to be had really was when the resupply choppers came in.  Heavily loaded Chinooks, slings hanging below, approached warily with their heavy thump-thump sound.

“Throw smoke,” the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker mounted beside the pad.

“Smoke thrown,” the base operator called as the smoke canister was set off and thrown to the side of the pad.

“I see GREEN smoke,” the pilot replied, as the smoke billowed away, also indicating wind direction.

“Roger that,” came the confirmation as the chopper swept in for a landing.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2This may seem like a rigmarole but it was a very necessary procedure wherever there was a possibility of enemy presence (virtually anywhere in Vietnam).  There had been many cases where the enemy had thrown smoke close to the actual landing site, enticing the chopper down to them for destruction.

One day, some clown threw RED smoke which was the universal warning that the enemy was in contact.  The pilot was already on his final approach, lulled into slackness by the monotony of his job.

Suddenly, the frothing red stream registered and he veered his huge machine away in a screaming uuey.

“What the *#*&’s going on?” he yelled.

Sorry, we’ve run out of all the other colours,” came the weak reply. 

Didn’t the pilot go off when he landed!

Another time, the chopper was carrying the week’s beer ration in the sling.  The pilot must have been new to the run and was much too high as he approached to land.  He cut power to lose altitude but the machine plummeted in the thin air towards the ground.  He frantically pulled on full power without any noticeable effect.  Fortunately, I had my camera out and was snapping shots as fast as I could advance the film.  (Unfortunately, I was to find out later that the film had not been loaded properly!)

Just when a crash seemed inevitable, someone pulled the lever to jettison the sling.  The chopper came to a hover almost at our eye level as our beer ration of Budweiser hit the ground, bursting open, foaming and frothing down the gully in concert with us. 

Not to worry, Yanks being Yanks, another beer supply arrived safely the next day.

They never lacked any of the luxuries of home.  Late in November, Americans everywhere celebrate one of their special holidays - Thanksgiving Day.  Even on that rotten mountain, turkeys and cranberry sauce were trotted out, along with a lot of the trimmings we only ever see at Easter and Christmas.  A few sentries were left in every third bunker, a skeleton crew manned the communications and the rest of us squeezed into the mess hut for the feast.  I can still remember the unpleasant taste of the sauce but I ate every bit on my plate.

During those weeks, my romance was reaching fever pitch with Mary.  She was in love with a big bronzed Anzac although she knew I was nothing of the sort.  I was in love with the sparkling girl she was.  Our letters flew back and forth, overlapping frequently so responses would come to statements or questions that had been forgotten.

In spite of the local difficulties, I was happy.  My time in Vietnam and Army career were almost over and Mary was making arrangements to holiday in Brisbane with me on my return to Australia. The days couldn’t pass quickly enough.

Then the SAS patrol’s mission ended.  They asked permission to lay on an ambush before being lifted out.  This was given because there would only be danger if they mistakenly took on a force too big to handle.

Nui Dat advised us that once the patrol was in contact all further transmissions would be in clear and we were to act on them immediately.  The time of the ambush could not be planned as it depended on when the right sized enemy party reached the ambush point.  It was simply a matter of us waiting for it all to happen.

It happened during daylight.

The message came, tapped out calm and clear as though the trooper was sitting in a lounge chair sipping a beer:


I couldn’t believe the steady rhythm of his key work.  We relayed the message immediately on the SAS network.

A Bushranger Light Fire Team and an Iroquois were sent in after the patrol. The flight took some time to arrive but they found them intact.  An estimated battalion sized NVA unit was hot on their heels as they retreated down their prepared route.

With the gunships blasting away in cover, the Iroquois hovered over the treetops, ropes lowered with loops on the ends.  The troopers had slipped into their harnesses which they attached to the ropes.  They were lifted away, still firing at the enemy.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2We sat there, communicating with further patrols, thinking about the trooper who’d lost his life and of his family mourning him back home.

We sat there one night looking down on “Spooky” (a DC3 fitted with extremely rapid firing machine guns) some distance away, silently arcing its pretty stream of fireworks groundwards.  There all life (human and vegetable) was shredded to little pieces.  It all seemed to be happening so far away - we were there as spectators.

I was at last a “short timer” with little more than a month of my tour of duty left.  It was a time to sit on one of the rocky outcrops at sunset, soaking in the sweep of colours, listening to the silence; a time to think of Ba Ut, her gummy smile, zest for life, her striving for perfection in her mundane work.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2It was a time to remember the little boy in one of Xuan Loc’s muddy back streets as he stared out at me through the lacing of barbed wire fronting his home, a building clad with flattened drink cans soldered together.  He had a quizzical expression on his face as if to say, “What’s this foreigner doing in my street and when is he going to get out of it?”

It was a time to wonder about the brutality of a "war" where an innocent old man and his family could be woken by the thud of a grenade hitting the floor of their sleeping hut; to wonder if the gutsy old bloke had ever recovered from his wounds.

It was not before time to think about our luck in getting away scot-free the many times we "chanced our arm" or just happened to be in risky situations.

Well, I was going to be out of it sooner than expected.  To help counter the anti-war demonstrations, the Prime Minister had requested that as many Diggers as possible were to be sent home for Christmas.  January departure dates were to be brought forward.  My countdown suddenly went into fast forward.

Notification was given to me that I would return to Nui Dat on the 4th of December. I dashed off letters home and to Mary and looked at one or two more sunsets.

Then, about 10:00pm on the 3rd, Murphy’s Law intervened.  The alert siren went off, signalling we were under attack!  Imagine how I felt!  After 331 days "in country", days with only occasional spurts of danger, it couldn’t possibly be happening.

Our mortars commenced popping, machine guns opened up from the bunkers, overlaid a few seconds later by explosions as the mortar rounds went off down the mountainside.  Flares lit the night, silhouetting our positions nicely against the skyline.  We stayed where we were in the radio hut where I put a report through to Task Force.  In the heat of the moment, I got a little carried away with the length of the transmission and the Security Officer ordered me to clear the Net.

An age later, the horrendous noise was still blasting us.

“I haven’t heard anything incoming - have you?” I asked Ding.  Nor had I heard the distinctive tinny rattle of an AK47, the enemy’s most common assault rifle.  Was it an attack, or was it all a ridiculous false alarm?

Just as we were coming to that conclusion, the phone rang.  The two bunkers furtherest from us were unmanned and the CO was calling unsuccessfully for volunteers.

Against our orders from Nui Dat and ignoring my better judgment, I agreed to go over to them with Ding.  It was a silly thing to do on my last night in the place but if the enemy wasn’t out there, the risk was minimal, wasn’t it?  If he was there, then it wouldn’t really matter where we were.  We’d all be goners!

Nerves tingling, we ran along the track snaking around the mountain and fell into the bunker together.  There we peered out of the firing slit into the darkness, wondering if we should fire a shot or two, just for the fun of it.  What the hell, a .50cal doesn’t fall into a Sig’s hands every day!  Boom-boom-boom…boom-boom-boom.

About then, the mortar explosions stopped - they had run out of ammo.  They started firing smoke rounds!  Truly hopeless.  Fortunately, the rest of the night passed without further drama, if a little slowly.

It took until about lunchtime next day for a patrol to pluck up enough courage to look for any signs of the enemy.  Ding went along for the exercise. They went no further than the bottom of the fields of fire of course.  (I filmed the patrol in action and relived the event in 2001 when given a video made from that and other filming.)

They returned to make their report. “What a hole this is,” Ding noted with a wry grin, “even the chooks wear helmets!”  He carried a dead chook and an NVA helmet with a bullet hole in it.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to stand around too long wondering if perhaps the enemy had been testing us out - the chopper arrived to ferry me back to Nui Dat.

A Tour out of this World - Part 2The medics checked us out to make sure we were fit to rejoin the human race.  They did short arm inspections, general health checks, asked a few curlies to see what our mental state was.  We were then left in peace to fatten up on Swan and VB.  Crown & Anchor games were the rage at night, generally redistributing wealth into the pockets of whoever owned the House.  It was an unreal period - we were still in Vietnam, yet already halfway home; still in the Army, yet left mainly to our own devices.

Bruce Meakins, John Bertini and Ric Hocking were preparing to go home on the same plane.  They had the same odd sensations.  Bluey Hopper happened to be in the Dat also.  He was quite happy to drink away our worries with us.

Finally, 9th December came.  Only a "wakey" left - I couldn’t believe it was nearly over.

A Caribou plonked onto the strip next day, off-loading a string of clean, fresh-faced youngsters who were quickly steered away.  In minutes, we had taken their seats down both sides of the plane.  It roared off into the air.

I looked down across the loading ramp as we swung around by Dat Do, heading for Saigon.  Ten year old girls from there used to go out at night, hunting Jumping Jack anti-personnel mines in the famous minefield laid by us down to the sea.  These were set to leap out of the ground to waist height when stood on by an adult.  The VC had found that the girls were too light to set the mine off but heavy enough for the mechanism to make an audible click.

They lifted thousands of the mines and the VC relocated them where they caused countless casualties to our troops.  The bar girls’ nasty little razor blade device we were warned about wasn’t responsible for a single Digger’s loss of manhood - our own mines accomplished that feat many times over!

The countryside looked unchanged from the dry, dusty scene we flew over that January day a lifetime before.  The future for Vietnam had changed though - very much so - and the responsibility for that rested with the civilian demonstrators in the streets back home.  All our efforts, uncomfortable conditions, casualties and loss of life were to come to nothing.  The country was doomed - some thirty years later, it was still suffering under oppressive Communist control.

We changed planes at Tan Son Nhut for the long trip back through time to home – “the World”.

There were no cheering crowds to meet us at Sydney airport in the early hours of the next morning.  I don’t know what we expected but the deafening silence as we slipped unnoticed into our own country started the bitter feelings that have plagued many of us since.  A glance at the newspapers showed us where the noisy crowds were - in the streets, demonstrating against the war where we had risked our lives all year.

We were told our Brisbane flight details for later in the morning and left to make ourselves comfortable in the airport lounge!  Would you believe, even after putting in such a year for the country, we still had to pay the difference between the cost of rail and air travel?!  So close to home though, we didn’t spare that a thought.

We looked for a feed and a drink but everything was shut so there was no chance of that. 

We needed a sleep.  No chance of that either. 

The Army didn’t need us any more - they just left us to fend for ourselves.  We didn’t realise it at the time but that was an indication, there and then, of what was to come in the years since.


My welcome came in Brisbane.  Mary and my family met me at Eagle Farm airport, normally not a warm, friendly place.  Somehow, they managed to get onto the tarmac and reached me half-way out to the plane  Mary enveloped me in a hug Madonna only dreams of giving as I looked over her shoulder at Mum, Dad and the others.

I was home.

There was much to talk about although I didn't really have the ability to say what needed to be said.  The day before, I was in Nui Dat with 12 months of war behind me; the week before, I was up most of the night manning a bunker in a very risky situation.  That was a completely different world to the friendly, comfortable, SAFE surroundings of Brisbane.

A romance with Mary had seemed so attractive from a distance - closeness to her did nothing to change that feeling.  However, actually making something out of the attraction and feeling was another matter.

We spent a lot of time together over the next six weeks or so, at home and then down the coast where the family had booked a holiday.  I thought we were doing well together but later realised it must have been only on a superficial level.

Mary had a very outgoing personality - she was the sort of person who would be the life of any party.  I enjoyed being with her but she probably needed somebody with a bit more oomph.  The truth is that life around me seemed very trivial and I found it very difficult to relax and just have a good time.

We went to Cloudland for a New Year's Eve dance where basically she danced and the rest of us watched.  That literally did happen towards the end of one bracket - I was still there as her partner, but very much the silent partner while all the other dancer's around us stood and watched.  She lapped it up.

It didn't bother me at all that she loved attention - in fact, I was intent on giving her all she could take.  One day, though, I realised that this trait could cause trouble.

My sister, Judy (just twelve precocious years old) was with us when we stopped off at Moorooka Shopping Centre to pick up something for Mum.  That done, we decided to have a milkshake while we were there.  A number of bikies came in and started chatting Mary up, mentally undressing her there in front of us.

Mary was rather enjoying herself but it was obvious where it was all going to lead.  There didn't seem to be any chance of prying her away, short of butting in on her and the boys and asking her to come.  Apart from annoying her, that would have led to a nice old confrontation with them.

A chance came to whisper in her lovely little ear (normally a pleasant sensation for us both but not so that time) that there was going to be big trouble before long and it was time to go.  She chose to ignore the advice.  The bikies could see that I didn't like what they were doing which only goaded them to stir a bit more.

Judy butted in then.  "My brother is just back from Vietnam and if you don't leave his girlfriend alone, he'll do you over!"

Naturally, their eyes lit up.  It's true that I had ridden roughshod over a few people in Vietnam but that was while sitting behind the steering wheel of a Land Rover.  If anybody was to be done over, it would be me rather than them.

Fortunately, Mary saw what was about to happen, giving them the brush off...and a good swing of the hips as we went out the door!

She drove as fast as she lived.  I had given up on the Morris Minor and bought a VW bug (second hand).  Once, we went out to see cousin Pat and Terry at Millmerran and I made the mistake of letting her drive on the way back.  We almost made it to Toowoomba before the engine gave up with a bang.  She was a skilful, confident driver but the poor VW wasn't capable of handling her speed.  Somebody stopped to help and we found an electrical connection had come loose so we were able to continue on, more sedately, with me driving.

I'd applied for my driver's licence straight after getting home from Vietnam, not even bothering to take lessons from a driving school.  There didn't seem any need to do that since I'd gained plenty of experience running over people in Xuan Loc.

However, the Testing Officer virtually seemed to write me off when he found out I hadn't taken lessons.  Coming through The Valley, he asked me to turn right into a side street.  There was a car approaching but far enough off for me to be able to indicate and turn across in front.

The Officer sucked his breath in and noted his report.

"Bugger me dead," I thought, "the other car didn't even have to slow down but this bastard seems to have decided to fail me."

The rest of the test went off without any problems.  Sure enough, at the end of it, he said, "You failed because you didn't give way when you turned right in front of oncoming traffic!"

So I went along to a driving school for one lesson like a good little boy.  The school booked me then for another test...surprise, surprise, I passed.

Nonsense like that really made me angry.

Meanwhile, back to the relationship with Mary.  Eventually, while we were still down the coast, she told me that she would be going back to Wynyard before long.  That news broke my heart because I was hoping to have a permanent relationship and had no idea till then that she thought differently.

She had very prudently not resigned from her job, just in case we didn't match up, and she had to get back before her holidays ran out.

I never did accept at the time that it was all over and went through a period of real loss when she was gone.  She didn't even reply to the letters I wrote (not that I blame her because they were pretty angry) so there was no way of ever knowing what she was thinking.

A long time after, I came to understand that she was right in calling it quits because we would never have made a go of it.  Our attitudes to life were too different - she wanted to drive in the fast lane and, like the old VW, I wasn't up to the pace.

Before she left, the Bank's Staff Department had started writing and ringing me on a regular basis to start me back in a Branch.  While Mary was there, they had no hope of dragging me away - after she left, I was too down in the dumps to give a damn about my career.

I had leave until discharge on the 6th February and intended making full use of every single day.  The Bank people didn't seem to understand how I felt but as the Army was officially my employer till that date, there was nothing they could do about it.

The Army and I were already at odds with each other.  They ignored my request to replace the specs broken in Xuan Loc because "they were replaced with a perfectly good pair"!  There was no point reminding them that the Yanks had issued the glasses or that the second pair promised by our Medical Corps never materialised.

It was becoming painfully obvious that the Army had turned its back on us and had as much interest in our welfare as the rest of the population.  At our final pre-discharge medical, the Doctor asked if I had any aches and pains.

"Yes, Sir.  Headaches and skin rashes."

He gave me a real interested nod and didn't even bother making a note on my chart.

Years later, when the Agent Orange scare was in full swing, I remembered the day at Nui Dat when a four engines plane sprayed the base without warning with a vile, choking fog.  We retreated to the tents but couldn't escape the stuff.

The rubber trees never died so perhaps it was an insect spray as we were told.  However, was there a trace of something else in the tanks, and is that the reason for my headaches and skin rashes which have continued ever since?

At one of the interviews, they let me see some of my file.  I was so angry at the comments of the Recruit Training Report that I wrote a response dated the 25th January 1970:

...What I want to know now, after completing 2 years in the Army and 12 months voluntary service in Vietnam, is how come this junk was ever allowed to go through without my ever seeing it until now, especially since I was never given the chance of defending myself?  How come one person can muck up an individual's whole career in the Army?  I always was an enthusiastic soldier (if there is such an animal!), never hiding behind fences and around corners when work was to be done and this is what I get.  I would have jumped at a chance of promotion - fat chance I had!   No wonder there's a need for conscription!!! 

Prior to discharge, the Army fillings started falling out.  These and some holes were found during the dental check and when I asked for them to be fixed, the excuse given was that no work could be done on them once Discharge Procedures had started.  On the other hand, if I was to sign back on, they would be fixed immediately!  I complained to Lt Col Long (Co of the Dental Unit) but he confirmed that was the rule.  If I wanted to make a complaint in writing to him, the decision might possibly be changed!

Imagine how I felt!  12 months in Vietnam and already copping that kind of shit!

I wrote a letter to my local member (Jim Killen), expecting that the government would do the right thing.  The reply took until 15th April to come, set in stone and with about as much warmth:

...Mr Murphy had ready access to dental treatment throughout his Army service, including his tour of Vietnam.  However, records show that he did not seek any such treatment until discharge procedures had commenced.  Accordingly, there is no provision whereby he may receive further treatment at public expense...

None of us were aware of the cute little rule which allowed the Army to turn us out medically unfit.  When we were of no further use to them, there was no way they were going to be made to spend any money on us.  I was still in the Army when that fact dawned on me.  You can imagine how used I felt!

The documents I have are proof of what I have said, that the Army and the Government had no interest whatsoever in our health at discharge - they couldn't get us off their books quickly enough.  It proves that the Discharge Medicals were a sham.  Why would the doctors look for problems when the Army's approach was to deny any liability and treatment anyway?!

I went along to my dentist who tut-tutted at the sight of the poor job the Army dentists had done.  He replaced each filling, commenting, "These were never going to last more than two years."

The Army had not asked my permission to fix holes in my teeth - they simply did it.  At the very least, they were obliged to do the work to a standard expected throughout the community.  However, it appeared they were only interested in seeing my teeth last the length of my National Service. 


I originally titled this story "Growing Old in Vietnam" but changed it to avoid being seen as too pessimistic.  However, it was true that we did age rapidly from our experiences.  I did and saw things in Vietnam which affected me badly and permanently on their own, but coupled with the way we were all treated on our return, the damage was magnified.  I went over as a 21 year old for all the reasons explained earlier, good valid reasons at the time and nothing since has convinced me otherwise.  I came home to find violent disagreement with those reasons wherever I looked. 

That disagreement belittled all that I had done, all that every soldier had done, all the hard decisions that had been made, all the sacrifices made by our dead, wounded and their families.

Two elections ('66 and '69) had been fought, with our involvement in Vietnam as the main issue - they were both won decisively by the pro-involvement parties.  Democracy, in its purest form, had decided the issue.  That should have been enough for the country to unite behind its government and Armed Forces.

Instead, wharfies refused to load military supplies, postal workers hid bags of mail causing untold agony here and in Vietnam, the vocal minority thought democracy entitled them to a second bite at the issue and used the streets as their ballot box.

What would have happened to the nation if the “silent” majority had acted in a similar fashion at the same time?  We would have had a “democratic” spilling of blood in our streets!

The Australia I came home to had changed.  Reason and the democratic processes no longer prevailed but had been swept aside by the noisy rabble and a manipulative media.  That’s when I really aged, when I dramatically changed, when I despised the armchair critics, the do-gooders, the airy fairies with their lovely ideas for peace among all peoples.  What did they know about war?  What did they know about peace?  About the fact that you don’t just wake up each day to find peace settling down on the country like a warm mist.  Peace at times has to be defended, has to be earned, has to be won.  Blood does have to be spilled to prevent the aggressor from taking all that we have.

Australia, in 1970, was a place where red paint was thrown over returning troops, where the military was forbidden to go uniformed in public for fear of provoking an incident, where a citizen rabble showed support for a violent, oppressive nation which had invaded its neighbour, breaking agreements with the United Nations.  They displayed their most traitorous behaviour even as our troops were still in action!

I fought the issue for a few years with letters to the Courier Mail editor.  Some were printed, most weren’t.  The pendulum had swung, it continued to swing.  My views were no longer printable, the war was going to end with the enemy the victor.  That proved without doubt the rightness of their cause, didn’t it?

It was time to retreat into my shell.  Others could think what they liked, do what they liked, I would go my own way, do my own thing.  The bitterness grew inside against the public, the media and the government.  The passing years fed it.  Mellowing public sentiment towards Veterans may have dampened the raging hurt but scratch my thin skin and the roaring anger will flame out.


Stepping through jungle, eyes everywhere
those bloody mines could jump right there.
Ambush front, left, right, rear,
predominant smell in the air is fear.

Demonstrating democracy in the street,
know-all airy-fairies are on the beat.
Loudly, they support our enemy,
stabbing our backs there in Gethsemane.

Young men prepared to die for each other,
closer now than to any lover,
coiled to react to any common threat,
together confident it can be met.

Governments, media, unions, students
know all the answers to our torments.
“Read it in the paper, seen it on TV -
it’s on the news, so it must be true, you see!”

We were young, brave and very fit,
trained, equipped, and ready for it.
We fought the bloody Cong to win,
came home to find it was all a sin.

Well, it always takes two to make a fight
but when one starts, it’s just not right
to walk away and let that aggressor
move on in and become the possessor.

So those who handed victory on a plate
and abandoned innocents to their fate
can rest assured, when their sun has set,
that decision will be their biggest regret.


A Tour out of this World - Part 2 - David's Dog Tags

Click A Tour Out Of This World (Part 1)

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