Story 89 - Back to the World

Rest and Recreation

By Ken Mackenzie OAM

104 Sig Sqn
R&R was normally the first time Vietnam war ribbons were worn. 
Photo supplied by Ken Mackenzie.


During the Vietnam War, the normal leave available to Australian Soldiers serving in Vietnam was: Rest and Recreation (R&R) - a five-night ‘Out of Country’ leave, and Rest and Convalescence (R&C), a three day ‘In-Country’ leave.

R&C was normally taken in groups, and spent at the purpose-built R&C Centre. This was located in the southern beach-side city of Vung Tau, not far from the 1st Australian Logistical Support Group (1 ALSG) base.

In addition, individuals could also be granted a ‘stand-down’ of not less than 48 hours at the R&C centre

As a rule, R&R was generally taken around the six-month mark of our one-year tours of duty. Although for practical purposes and manning issues, it could be taken earlier or later. R&C could be taken much more frequently, e.g., every couple of months depending on the nature of operations.

In 1971, our choices of R&R destinations were: Australia; Bangkok; Hong Kong, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan)1. US Servicemen could also travel to Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii.

104 Sig Sqn
Looking at an R&R Poster for Australia.  Internet Source.

Due to the unrelenting pace of 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion's Operations, I hadn’t been able to take R&R and was going to give it a big miss. However, by late August, we’d been in the field for three and half months. We were tightly wound; bordering on feral, and it was showing.

I needed a break away from the Battalion.

The answer seemed obvious: spend some time in a ‘normal’ environment around ‘normal’ people, again. So, I contacted 104 Sig Sqn and asked them to set the wheels in motion for an R&R to Australia.

It would also be a good opportunity to check on my recently-widowed Mother and my elderly Grandparents.

Within a couple of weeks, I was on my way.

The Journey begins

Our battalion sat astride National Route 2, a gravel road which ran north through PhoucTuy and Long Khanh Provinces.  It bisected a number of the major Viet Cong/North Vietnmese Army's (VC/NVA) east-west infiltration and courier routes.  As a consequence, this road was subject to their constant interdiction by co-ordinated ambushes, landmines and IEDs.2

The area south from Courtenay Hill to Duc Thanh was a notorious ‘hot zone’.

104 Sig Sqn
The view from Courtenay Hill, Long Khanh Province, South Vietnam 1971.
Photo supplied by Robert Florance.

Movement from Courtenay Hill to Nui Dat coincided with that of other Battalion members also moving out on R&R and R&C. We travelled down a very dusty and increasingly dangerous Route 2, sitting back-to-back in centre-seated Mk5 Trucks, eyes peeled, facing east and west; each of our weapons in the “Action Condition”3.

104 Sig Sqn
Mk5 Trucks in South Vietnam with Troops in the Motor Transport
Ambush configuration.  AWM EKN/69/0140/VN

Only days earlier, the NVA had mounted coordinated attacks against the ARVN's4 626th Regional Force Company outpost at Xa Bang hamlet and the village of Ap Ngai Giao, several klicks further along Route 2.  They'd followed up with a failed ambush of 3 Cav's APCs the very next day in the same vicinity.

Fortunately for us, the trip down through XA Bang, Ap Ngai Giao, Duc Thanh, Binh Gia, Binh Ba and Ap Suoi Nghe, went without incident. Around an hour later, we rolled into Nui Dat caked in red dust, unscathed and relieved.

It was no surprise when I later opened my secure trunk back at 104 Sig Sqn, that my khaki polyester uniform and civilian “R&R” clothes were mouldy and smelled worse than I did.

They were quickly washed, dried and ironed in a couple of hours.


During my document check at the Squadron Orderly Room, it dawned on me that I didn’t have any money. Like most soldiers in Vietnam, the majority of my pay was allocated to a bank account. We didn’t draw pay in the field and as I’d been in the field for the last three and a half months, I had a tidy sum due. So, the unit pay clerk sent me across to the Det AFV Cash office at the TFMA,5 where I was paid in US Dollars. 

104 Sig Sqn
US Dollers (Greenback).  Internet Source

Early the next morning, along with 20 or so other soldiers also proceeding on R&R, I took the RAAF ‘Wallaby Airlines’ Caribou from Luscombe Field to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. On landing, some were taken directly to flights leaving for Taipei and Hong Kong, the remainder of us were bussed around to the US Army’s Camp Alpha for ‘Out- Processing’.

Camp Alpha

Camp Alpha was the home of the US Army’s 90th Replacement Battalion, a unit whose lineage stretched back to WW2 in Europe. It was located on the south-eastern side of Tan Son Nhut Airport and was the US Army’s main Transit facility in Southern Vietnam.

104 Sig Sqn
Camp Alpha, Tan Son Nhut Airport.  Interent Source

We were greeted by a US Army SGT who checked our Army ID Cards6, International Health Certificates (IHCs) and confirmed each of our destinations. He gave us our various report-in and departure times. We were briefed on the Camp layout and Open Mess location, allocated bed-spaces in a double story barrack block, and left to our own devices.

Camp Alpha was an absolute eye-opener. It was over-flowing with US Army soldiers; those arriving as replacements from the USA, those rotating back to the USA on DEROS7, US Army slang for ‘going home’. Or going on, or returning from, various R&R destinations.

Their huge, Open Mess was simply incredible: Fresh Fruit, Fresh Bread, Fruit Juices, Cereals, Milk, Ice-Water, Ice-Tea, Ice Cream, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dr Peppers, Steak, Roast Beef, Pork, Bacon, Ham, Chicken, Turkey, Salads and Vegetables. Incredible food cooked to order and you could eat as much as you wanted. Prominent Signs posted throughout the mess hall read “Take what you want. But eat what you take.” There were three cooks just doing eggs. Scrambled, fried (sunny-side up/over easy), Poached – all done to your fancy whilst you waited.

I have never seen anything like it before, or, since.

Camp Alpha operated around the clock. However, you could feel a tension in air. Heroin use amongst some US Service men had become a serious issue and an escalating problem. It was dirt cheap and readily available in Saigon and major base areas. In an effort to reduce the numbers of addicted servicemen returning to CONUS (Continental United States), all DEROS personnel had to undergo a Urine Test. Those who passed, boarded planes home.

Those who failed were refused exit and confined to the Base Stockade, where they were held until such time as their follow-up urine tests returned negative results.

This did sit well with many of the US servicemen whose tours were over and who just wanted to get the hell out of Vietnam.

As a consequence, there were a lot of very angry men in Camp Alpha.

One of the interesting things I noticed at Camp Alpha were the elaborate greeting rituals practiced by many Black US Army Soldiers. They called it the “Doing the Dap”, or simply “Dap”. It was a very involved system of hand and arm movements which could take several moments to complete. Two fellas who tried to teach me dissolved into laughter at my attempts to pick it up. “You need to hang out here longer, then you’ll be cool, man!” I was told.

 Later that day I reported back in as ordered, joined a long queue and boarded a US Military Airlift Command (MAC) DC-8 Charter Flight to Sydney.

The plane was full of US Servicemen. As I recall, there were only a handful of Aussies on board.

Welcome to Sydney

We touched down at Mascot around 2230hours. As we pulled up at the terminal, we were ordered to remain seated. Moments later, two very big Customs men entered the plane spraying cans of aerosol insecticide right and left as they walked the length of the centre aisle. This didn’t go over well with some of the yanks, who took it the wrong way. None the less, it was ‘standard procedure’ for all arriving international flights, regardless of country of departure.

104 Sig Sqn
USA Military arriving in Sydney during the Vietnam War.  Internet Source.

Once we’d deplaned, the US Servicemen were ushered away for further briefings. We were quickly walked away by Army Movements NCOs who checked our movement documents, navigated us through Customs and into the terminal proper. As we emerged, we were greeted by a very small, but vocal group of anti-war demonstrators. They were waving signs as they chanted slogans, and yelled various insults at us from behind a single rope barrier, watched over by a couple of bored looking cops.

We fired back threats and gestures of our own, only to be berated by an overweight, ‘ribbon-less’, Movements Warrant Officer for being ‘ill disciplined’.8

Each of us were escorted away to our various terminals for further travel. In my case, the TAA terminal and boarded a flight to Melbourne. 

My brother Ray9 was waiting at Essendon airport for me and drove me home.   

Back Home

I was surprised to find our house crowded with young male and female American School Teachers.

In the early 1970s, Victoria experienced a severe shortage of High School Teachers. To ease this shortage, the Victorian Government had recruited heavily in US Colleges.

104 Sig Sqn
School Class in the 1970s.  Internet Source.

They promised graduating Mathematics and English teachers’ minimum two-year contracts, with excellent conditions and generous ‘no tax’ salaries (The Victorian Government paid their US tax, as I recall).

Ray was dating one the said young ladies (whom he later married) and a crew of them decided to call my mother’s place, ‘home’.

Most were staunchly Anti-War and would have been drafted if they’d stayed in the USA. We had some lively discussions about Vietnam. Regardless, they were upstanding people and great ambassadors.

It was good to see my mother again. She was an AWAS10 Operator in Signals up on the Atherton Table Lands during WW2 and tough as old boots. Not much fazed her. And I could see my brother was taking good care of her.

I asked Mum why she didn’t tell me about the American School Teachers – “I wanted to surprise you, dear”, was her simple reply. Mum had a soft spot for anyone from the USA.

It was extra bloody good to lay down in my old comfortable bed again, too. However, I couldn’t get settled. Sleep only came in short, restless patches. Deep sleep completely eluded me.

The next day I went to see my Grandparents. They were ‘salt of the earth’ people.

My Grandmother was a wonderful woman. She had waved goodbye to her husband in WW1, waved goodbye to my father and his brother in WW2 and hugged me tightly before I left for Malaya and later, Vietnam. She sent my dad fruit cakes in WW2 and sent them to me in Malaya and then Vietnam, too. They were always perfectly baked, wrapped in brown paper, placed into a round, dimpled, “Willow” cake tin, the lid of which was then sealed. The tin was covered in a tightly-sewn, thick white calico cloth. My address was written on the top and bottom in indelible ink.

She wrote me two letters every week for the entire time I was in Vietnam.

Next item on the agenda was to retrieve my car, which I’d stored in their garage, the previous year. My Grandfather had taken good care of it for me. And it was great to drive it again, but I had to concentrate hard, because out of force of habit, I kept drifting across to the right-hand side of the road.

I’d been corresponding with a girl I knew in Melbourne. She was midway through her teaching degree. So, just on spec I called her up. She seemed pleased to hear from me and invited me to a teacher’s college party in South Yarra. However, I was asked not to mention that I was in the army, and most especially, in Vietnam.

Against my better judgement, I decided to go.

The party was going extra well and my prospects were looking extra good. That was until I made the mistake of remarking that I was home on R&R from Vietnam. You could have heard a pin drop. A particularly obnoxious anti-war idiot and his long-haired offsider, got right into my face and it was on.

As fortune would have it, a Navy CPO11 by the name of Mick, was also at the party.

Between the both of us, we sorted them and a couple of others out. But the party had fallen as flat ‘as a shit-carters hat’ and nobody wanted anything to do with us. Least of all the girl who’d invited me to the party. Mick and I left, shook hands, and went our different ways.12

The other boot hits the floor / The penny finally drops

Anti-War sentiment was ‘over the top’ obvious and along with daily news reports from Vietnam, was widely reported on radio and TV.

104 Sig Sqn
Save Our Sons Woman Marching in Meibourne.  Internet Source.

Victoria was notorious for its huge Vietnam moratorium protest marches. And was the home of the “Save Our Sons” antiwar movement.

It was the undisputed protest capital of Australia.

I travelled into Melbourne and walked around the city. The centre of town was packed with bustling crowds. The hair on the back of my neck constantly prickled.

A mob of Vietnam Moratorium demonstrators, sprouting VC/NVA Flags, were congregated on the steps of parliament house, eagerly soliciting donations of money from passers-by.

104 Sig Sqn
Vietnam Moratorium demonstrators in Melbourne during the Vietnam War.
 Internet Source.

These ratbags were blatantly stabbing us in the back and getting away with it. I wished I could gather them all up along with Bob Hawke, Jim Cairns, Bill Hartley and Albert Langer, dump them all in the middle of the De Courtenay Rubber Plantation, or down on Route 2 at Xa Bang, and see just how long the bastards survived.

From what I could gather, people seemed either totally oblivious to, or completely fed up with, the war we were fighting a mere seven flying hours away.

Didn’t they realise what we were doing for them? Did they even care?

Something had definitely changed here. Maybe it was me. I felt completely out of place. Like I’d landed on a different planet.

And the colours. Everything was a palette of wild, vibrant, colours. I was used to olive drab, shades of green, dull browns, blacks and red oxide dirt.

And maybe I’d been away too long, but things seemed to be more expensive. A packet of Marlboro cigarettes and pack of chewing gum cost me 52 cents! 

It was a totally and completely different world to the one I’d just come from. I was a stranger here. Waves of guilt, anger, and disappointment washed over me.  I felt terribly guilty for being ‘back in the world’.  And worse, for leaving the Battalion and Vietnam.  I constantly worried about them and how they were faring.

Coming back here was a big mistake. It quickly dawned on me that I’d come back for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t really feral at all. I’d merely adjusted to my environment. If you didn’t adjust, you simply wouldn’t survive. We were all ‘tightly-wired and switched on’. It was that kind of place in that kind of time. And I couldn’t wait to get back there.

I missed the heat and humidity; the earthy, mouldy smell of my bunker’s sandbags; the pungent odour of burning diesel/petrol mix; sweat-stained clothes and unwashed diggers; the language and the constant radio transmissions; the thump of Huey rotors; the spectacular electrical storms; the ever-present and ingrained red dirt; dust and mud; the Vietnamese bush bee swarms; the artillery and mortar contact missions, gunfire and explosions; the mad minutes; the nightly fireworks; the incredible sunrises and sunsets; the eerie, white ground-mist stand-to’s; the closeness and the camaraderie; and the pure adrenalin of living in the boondocks.

These were elements that formed my world.

As I look back now, that’s probably why I was so angry. I was angry with myself for being so stupid. Angry for thinking it would be any different.

I should have gone to Bangkok, Hong Kong or Taipei, where I’d have been amongst my own kind, comfortable in the company of fellow soldiers on R&R. And could have lost myself in an alcoholic haze for 5 days and nights. 

I split the remainder of my R&R between home, my grandparents and the bar of the Croydon Hotel.

Back to the War and Back to Reality

We flew back to Vietnam on another MAC DC-8 Charter, this time via the Philippines. There was a welcome stopover in Manila. I spent a very pleasant sojourn drinking ice-cold San Miguel beer in the transit lounge, smoking excellent, thin, cheap, local cigars (liked them so much I bought a box), yarning with our American Brothers-In-Arms, several of whom I’d met on the flight down.

104 Sig Sqn   104 Sig Sqn
Manila International Airport in the early 1970s and San Miguel Beer
Both photos from internet sources.

They raved about just how well they were received and treated in Sydney. Many were making plans to go back there permanently.

They absolutely loved the place.

Consequently, I was a tad the worse for wear when we finally landed at Tan Son Nhut. However, a couple more San Miguel’s, and a ‘Heppo’Roll13 from the cafeteria and another cheap cigar, seemed to do the trick.

Two Sappers equals Double Trouble

Amongst the passengers at the RAAF Movement Control Section waiting to catch the RAAF Caribou to Nui Dat and Vung Tau, were two drunk and boisterous engineers. I’d noticed them sky-larking in the cafeteria earlier.

There was also a rather officious-looking Army Ordnance Captain who, it seemed to me, regarded us with some distain. In stark contrast to our crushed, sweaty polyesters, scuffed boots and rumpled slouch hats, he was immaculately dressed in perfectly pressed polyesters, khaki cap and wore highly-polished shoes, which he sporadically dusted. His demeanour, dress and pallid complexion, screamed ‘Saigon Commando’.

I wondered what sort of pittance he paid his Vietnamese laundry maid to do all his gear.

He kept looking at me, nodding his head towards the two engineers, obviously expecting me to quieten them down. The sappers weren’t doing any harm, so I ignored him and stared off into the distance.

The captain gave me another dirty look then loudly braced the sappers up and threatened to charge them if they didn’t quiet down and behave.

Both settled down somewhat, and moments later we boarded the Caribou. We sat at the back of the aircraft, just up from the loading ramp.

I was closest to the ramp. Next to me were the two engineers, who were sitting directly opposite the captain. He was still scowling at the two sappers, who were becoming a bit ‘chirpy’ again.

To aid internal air circulation when carrying passengers (in good weather), Caribou generally flew with the top half of the loading ramp fuselage in the raised position.

About ten minutes into the flight, we hit some rough patches of turbulence. Without warning, the Caribou suddenly yawed, pitched and bumped as it fought its way through the air.

The violent movements proved too much for one of the engineers, who suddenly heaved-up the contents of his stomach which splashed onto the shiny shoes of the crabby Captain opposite him.

104 Sig Sqn
Ken's Caribou moment in time.  Cartoon supplied by Denis Hare.

I awarded the sapper a mental ‘A’ for effort.

Unfortunately, the sight and smell set his mate off next to me. He heaved-up and got the captain, too. This sparked a chain reaction along the aircraft. Several other passengers also began dry-retching. At least one of whom, a female nurse, vomited as well.

The RAAF Loadmaster, who was going to have to clean it all up, was doing a furious sick bag, arm-waving, war dance. But it was too late.

The captain sat frozen in his webbing seat; jaw dropped in horrified shock. All I could do was try not to laugh and hold my San Miguel’s and Heppo roll down, too. God knows what the sappers had been eating, because the smell was bloody awful.

Audible groans of disgust and revulsion marked the billabong of speckled vomit’s passage backwards and forwards along the Caribou’s floor in time with the pitching, bumping and yawing.

It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And a salutary lesson in ‘Karma’.

Just three of us got off at Nui Dat, the two chirpy sappers and I.

They’d both come good and we yarned as we waited for our transport. Turned out they were a Splinter/Mini Team14 and had been through a pretty rough trot together. They were good fellas who’d let their hair down after a well-earned break.

We laughed and laughed as we pictured the officious captain walking stiffly bow-legged down the Caribou’s ramp in Vung Tau.

104 Sig Sqn
RAAF Caribou DHC-4A at Luscombe Field, Nui Dat.  Photo supplied by Alister Campbell.

I always had a very soft spot for Engineers; my maternal Grandfather was their WW1 equivalent. And according to family legend, just as wild.

That night I stayed at 104 Sig Sqn and had a few quiet beers in the SGTs Mess with Brian Fisher, Bill Bannigan, Bluey Joseph and Laurie Harbridge. The main topic of conversation was the Australian Government’s gutless decision to turn its back and run away from the Vietnam War.

Early the next morning I flew up to Courtenay Hill. By lunchtime, R&R was a memory. I was back in my own world.

It was just so good to be back.



1. Reference: 1ATF SOPS Part 2, AG Branch 1971.
2. IED – abbreviation for Improvised Explosive Device.
3. Action Condition is ‘Ready to fire with safety catch applied.’
4. ARVN – Pronounced ‘Ah-Vin’ - abbreviation for Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
5. Australian Force Vietnam Cash Office Detachment was located within the area of Nui Dat known as the Task Force Maintenance Area. As I recall, the cash office had run out of Australian currency.
6. At that time Army personnel could travel in and out of Australia, Malaya, Singapore and some other countries, on our Army Identity Cards.
7. Pronounced ‘DEE-Ross’ - US Army Acronym for “Date of Estimated Return (from) Overseas.”
8. I’ve read various accounts over the years by people attempting to rewrite history. They seek to assert that incidents such as this never actually occurred. Moreover, that the airports never had any records of demonstrators abusing returning servicemen. Well, it did happen and I saw it with my own eyes. And I wasn’t the only one by far. It was one of the reasons why our flights were deliberately scheduled to arrive late at night [1ATF SOP Part 2 AG Branch, Section 7 (10) (c) US Charter flights to Australia normally arrive at MASCOT 2230 EST” (sic)], rather than in the morning or afternoon. Interestingly, it came out in conversation at our Manila stop over, that the US Servicemen on our flight were taken from Mascot via a VIP exit which avoided any protesters. 
9. At that time, Ray was a CPL in RASigs and a Vietnam Veteran. He served with 110 Sig Sqn from 21 May 1970 to 19 May 1971. Ray passed away in North Dakota, USA in 2016.
10. AWAS – Australian Women’s Army Service.
11. CPO is the Navy abbreviation for the rank of Chief petty Officer. It is equivalent to Army Warrant Officer Class 2.
12. It’s a small world. Into our third day at sea on the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, heading back to Australia. We were issued a daily ration of two, large, 26oz (770ml) cans of beer per man. This was done late each afternoon on the carrier’s flight deck. The cans were opened in front of us and had to be consumed then and there on the fight deck. Naturally, the cans were lukewarm to ‘warmer’. I was sitting on the steel deck having just finished my second can. Felt a tap on my shoulder, looked up and there was Mick, the Navy CPO from the South Yarra Party! Turns out Mick was part of Sydney’s crew.  He took me down to the “Chief’s Mess” and introduced me to the other CPOs. Their beer was ice-cold and there were no limits. Happy Days…!
13. Hepatitis or “Heppo” Roll. Was a Vietnamese bread roll containing various versions of salad with chicken or beef (both highly questionable). The hygienic/sanitary state of the ingredients and their vendors, meant they were always a health gamble…
14. Splinter/Mini Team. 1 ATF Mine Warfare Booklet 1971, Section 2 – A Guide to Mines and Booby Traps, para 34 (a) (b).

Splinter/Mini Team. “A Team of two Sappers who are NEVER separated. One is known as ‘Number 1’ and is the more experienced of the pair. The other is his ‘Number 2. These men are equipped to travel with infantry and have an amount of explosives, detonating cord, detonators and fuse. They also carry ancillary gear for Engineers tasks such as tunnel search torch and pistol, grappling hooks, long and short safety pins and most importantly they carry in their heads a very large knowledge of all likely mines and booby traps.” “When travelling with armoured elements, they are referred to as a Mini Team, and are also equipped with helmets, flak jackets and a mine detector.”







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