Chapter 58: ‘The Sydney’

‘The Sydney’ refers to HMAS Sydney, an Australian aircraft carrier which was used to ferry Australian troops and equipment to and from South Vietnam during the war. It is often referred to as the ‘Vung Tau Ferry.’

If you haven’t seen this boat, I’d like to describe it to you.  It was a bucket of bolts.  Right now it is anchored off Vung Tau harbour with its escort ship HMAS Duchess nearby.  On board are the soldiers from the 4th Bn, the Royal Australian Regiment.  Looking after them are a bunch of ugly dumb Navy guys.

The plan was to fly us from Nui Dat by Chinook helicopter, about a 20 minute ride, drop us on the flight deck, a technical Navy term for a grey rusty airstrip on the boat, pick up 4RAR boys and drop them at The Dat and pick up another load of us 2RAR boys; and so on.  As you can imagine, it was a pretty big logistical task.

Back in our lines we cleaned them up as best we could given that the tents were nearly rotting apart.  All ammo was taken from us, including bullets and grenades.  We kept our rifles, but there were no magazines on them.  I hope Nigel didn’t know any of this.  There were rumours that when soldiers left The Dat they pulled the pins on their grenades and tied elastic bands around them.  They threw them in the pit toilets and under the floorboards of tents.  I’m guessin’ the officers’ mess may have been a big target for this.  Over time, the rubber bands would perish and the grenades would go off. A stupid act of course and I never heard of any grenades going off while we were there but we had to account for all our ammo, including the grenades, and hand them in before we left.

Each of us was given a number we had to display on our uniform.  I had two bags and an M16 rifle and staggered off to the truck which took us to a clearing at the edge of the rubber plantation.  I dunno why we didn’t use the large chopper pad, maybe because we could wait in the shade until it was our turn to board the Chinook. A good move.

So there we are waiting, waiting, waiting.  It didn’t matter, we were on our way home.  We had survived our 12 month tour (well 12 months and 3 weeks actually). You could say we were probably a bit rowdy.  But nobody seemed to mind.  What could they do? Keep us over there a bit longer?

Over on the boat was a guy from my home town of Cootamundra.  His name was Donny M.  I went to school with his brother Paul, and Donny was in a class behind us.  I heard that he was in Delta Coy.  Now 4RAR did not have an Alpha Coy.  I wondered if they may swap us over with D Coy, so I intended to keep an eye out for him.

I think we were just waved onto the chopper.  It would have been nice for someone to say, “Gentlemen can I have your attention please.  All those gentlemen wishing to go home to Australia, please board the chopper now, thank you; and have a nice day.”  But voice communication was virtually impossible because of the deafening sound of the chopper’s twin engines and the down wash created by their blades.  These things were massive – think of a bus with two sets intersecting blades on top.  They probably held about 30 or 40 men, including me with my two bags, my M16 with no ammo, a bloody big grin on my face; and my Canon camera hanging from my neck.

And lift off!

Ian Cavanough with his Canon EXEE camera. He still has it!
Ian Cavanough with his Canon EXEE camera. He still has it!

Well I dunno if you have ever travelled in any military aircraft but, they are designed with the barest amount of stuff needed to carry soldiers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Herc, Caribou or a Chook; they all have a common theme. The seats (for want of a better word) are made out of cargo straps and you can’t see out of the windows. Windows! Slits more like it! In Australia we flew from Townsville to Brisbane and I was unaware that the Herc had actually landed until it was lowering the back door thingy!

We flew south towards Vung Tau. I wasn’t going to let a chance go by so I got up and went, well staggered really, up to the door gunner, gave him a nod and a grin and poked my Canon out the door. I think my using my camera was more important than his being able to use his twin M60s. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the platoon sergeant Mick waving his arms to get me to come back to my ‘seat.’ I ignored him, just like on many occasions throughout our tour. Down there is HMAS Sydney. You could probably see it better if I had any idea how to really use Photoshop.

We hit the deck! It seems like pandemonium, or have I already used that word. The noise, the heat, and the down wash from the twin rotors all attacked the senses as we exited the Chook through the rear door and we were marshalled to the flight deck. I looked across at the soldiers from Delta Coy 4RAR who were waiting to board our chopper. Then I saw him. Donny M was waving his arm, up nice and high like a person drowning in the water. I waved back. I didn’t have time to take a photo and the flight deck descended into the bowels of the bucket of bolts.

We hurried (Army always hurries – with a sense of urgency) along a gangway and you won’t believe this bit I spied another bloke from Cootamundra. Now Cootamundra had a population of about 6000. What are the chances that I’d run into two blokes in Vietnam (well Vietnamese waters) in the space of 10 minutes? He stood aside for us and I knew he didn’t see me. I had a bag in each hand and my M16 also in my right hand, so I poked him with that. I think it’s the first time someone has poked him in the chest with an M16 judging by his reaction. He jumped about 10 foot in the air, looked at me with a startled look on his face and then recognised me. His name was Monk Kennedy.

Ian Cavanough on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney, a couple of days into his voyage home from Vietnam.
Ian Cavanough on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney, a couple of days into his voyage home from Vietnam.

Donny M, as well as Monk, were nice fit young blokes, but they seemed bigger somehow. And then it hit me. We were all skinny and pale from the rigours of combat in the jungle, often to the point of exhaustion with nothing but meagre combat rations for over 12 months; and hardly ever seeing the sun. We were actually emaciated. Here’s a picture of me on the flight deck taken a couple of days later.

It took 10 days for the boat to go from Vietnam to Townsville. During that time we did nuthin’ except sit around and drink piss. I wish! Since we left Australia 12 months ago we hadn’t had fresh milk, fresh bread, butter, lamb roast (or any roast for that matter) baked vegies and proper beer. They gave us two cans (large cans) of Flag Ale each night. I managed to drink one before handing the other to a mate. It was better than that Queensland piss we had been drinking back at The Dat (when we could get it) and that American Bud in Vung Tau when on R&C.

 

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This story is now also available in ebook format. See here for details.

Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the Vietnam War – which is now also available in ebook format. See here to order.

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ian_cavanoughHi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.
Ian Cavanough,
Yeppoon, Queensland

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