At about 2am, Alpha Company lifted off in a Qantas jet bound for Saigon.
We seemed to be taxi-ing for a long time. Sum Wun said that the runway at Townsville is just long enough for these jets – a 707 – to take off, if we were not heavy loaded.
Heavy loaded? We were only allowed two bags each and the total weight could not exceed 50kg. I, like many others, wrote 20kgs on one bag and 25kgs on the other. I had no idea what they weighed.
The old girl was creaking and groaning as she barrelled down the airstrip. The panels above our heads were rattling, the engines were roaring, TAA was never like this I thought; and then we lifted off. Phew! They said going to Vietnam would be dangerous.
I dunno if they allowed us to have a beer on the plane, I don’t think so. It was late and none of us had had any sleep. The mood in the aircraft was sombre, there was no laughing and joking as everyone tried to get some sleep. We were dressed in our polyester uniforms, they would look a mess after a few hours.
Davo did well – he threw a BBQ at his place for the section – a sort of final party in Australia. Who knew what was going to happen to us on our tour? One thing was clear, we all wanted to get back in one piece. We got to meet his wife, Carol. She was the brains of the outfit. Davo had a mini keg of beer which I had never seen before. Attached to the keg was a pump, similar to a bicycle pump. You simply pumped air into the keg and the beer flowed. It was XXXX unfortunately.
Two hours later we stopped at Darwin to refuel I think. I got out of the plane to stretch my legs. Shit it was hot. I was feeling tired and uncomfortable, you know, when you are travelling and you start to fidget a lot in your seat. We lifted off again and headed for Singapore and we arrived there about 6am. I had a window seat but it was cloudy with some rain so I didn’t get to see much. We got off the plane again and went into the terminal for breakfast. Because Singapore wasn’t involved in the war they said we couldn’t wear our uniform, so we each had a civilian shirt to put on. Some blokes had garish Hawaiian style shirts.
We were herded to a dining area with us in our shirts ridiculous and we were given a reasonable feed. I didn’t really feel that hungry. Lots of blokes ordered a beer so they could sample the local brew. It was called Tiger Beer. I had a swig, it tasted like beer. After the meal we wandered about a bit. We had strict instructions not to leave the vicinity. Me and a mate walked towards the terminal entrance to get a glimpse of some of the local cars and stuff, just to see what was there. A big security guard stepped in front of us. What did they think we would do? Do a runner?
A couple of hours later and we were on the ground at Saigon. I’d tell you the name of the airstrip if I could spell it. We sat in our seats while they served us a meal. It was a typical Ronnie RAAF meal – which meant it was pretty good. Outside the aircraft we could see Vietnamese people hanging about, many of the women were in coolie hats. Hey did someone search these guys? Are they armed? How dangerous are they? Where are our weapons and ammo? We are sitting ducks!
The doors opened and we stepped out into an oven. The heat hit us like a sledge hammer; we were sweating profusely before we even got to the bottom of the stairs.
“Shit it’s hot!” Dumb grunts are always able to sum up the obvious, succinctly.
We flew onto Nui Dat which would be our home for 364 days and awakie. As soldiers passed us they told us this, “364 days and awakie, eh boys?” They would then burst into laughter.
“What’s this 364 days and awakie shit?”
“It is your time left in country. You are going to be here for 365 days, so you count them down.”
“So what’s awakie then?”
“Awakie is your last day in country. Awakie is when Sum Wun wakes you up and tells you to go home. It is not counted as a day. So you guys don’t have 365 days before you head back home, you have 364 and awakie!”
Aha! So Sum Wun is also in Vietnam! I hope he knows more than his cousin back home.
The flight from Tan Son Nhat Airport Saigon – reported to be the busiest in the world at the time – to Nui Dat was by Wallaby Airlines. There were no hosties, no meals and no drinks; just a C123 aircraft (baby Hercules) flown by Ronnie RAAF.
We are herded onto trucks and taken from the airstrip at Nui Dat into the rubber plantation where our accommodation is located. There waiting for us is the Red Rat, our company commander. He flew over earlier with the Advance Party.
The Red Rat took a packet of cigarettes out of his top left-hand-side shirt pocket. He withdrew a cigarette from it, hit it twice against the packet and placed it in his mouth; and returned the packet to his left-hand-side shirt pocket. He took a Zippo lighter from his left-hand trouser pocket, flicked it open, thumbed the flint wheel and lit his cigarette. He closed the Zippo lighter with the flick of his wrist and placed it back into his left-hand trouser pocket. He took a long drag on the cigarette, removed it from his mouth and exhaled; an action that seemed suspended in time.
He speaketh – “Gentlemen, welcome to the war!”
Tom Cruise couldn’t have done it any better.
I tuned out after that.
Our accommodation lines were set in the rubber plantation. We were located in platoon groups about 100 metres from each other. That should keep the fights down. Each platoon had three rows of tents, a section to each row, four men to a tent. The tents were old, dark, dank and dusty. They were surrounded by sandbags. They were in disrepair. There was no air conditioning or TV. It was very depressing.
The first order of the day was to get it all ship shape, so to speak. This meant cleaning up the area and winding up the tent flaps to let in more filtered light from underneath the rubber trees. We had beds with inner spring mattresses. We had electricity connected with a 60 watt heater hanging from the centre of the tent. Sum Wun said it was a light, but it didn’t give off much light, it was hot to the touch, so I rest my case.
If you have a weak stomach you had better not read what follows.
The ablutions were, well, they were there. If you wanted a piddle there was a pissaphone at the end of the rows of tents. When you had a piddle everyone could see you. You were only allowed three shakes of your dick to loosen the remaining drips. More than three shakes was considered to be a wank. The pissaphone was full of water or something and there was some engineering feat going on that kept the mosquitoes away.
The toilet was great. It was enclosed in a fly-proof structure that wasn’t quite fly proof. Inside were six pedestals with no privacy screens. You had to lift the lid and take a seat real quick. If you lifted the lid and lingered a bit, the flies would be attracted to the light and they would tickle your arse while you are trying to have a crap. You get used to it. The best thing about these communal toilets is that you could put shit on your mate, figuratively speaking, while actually having one.
I did warn you not to read this, but wait there’s more.
There were two problems faced by the intended user. First there was the problem of condensation which made the seat wet; or maybe your mate left his calling card like dogs do to trees. The second is when blokes were finished, they slammed the seat down real hard. This resulted in a rush of air up your back side. You get used to that too.
The best time to go was at night when it was dark. The flies were less active then and it also gave you an opportunity to check out the pit’s contents before you feed it some more, especially if you had one of them Big Jim torches.
The showers were great too. The water was gravity feed from an overhead tank that some poor bastard had to come around in a water truck and fill up. “What did you do during the war, daddy?”
“Why I filled up water tanks for dumb grunts so they could brush their teeth and wash their arses son, it was dangerous work but somebody had to do it.”
I’m nearly finished, honest.
There was a system whereby the water could be heated. It had something to do with diesel fuel being lit and a drip system to keep the fire going; and the water hot. In the 12 months we were there none of us figured out how to get it working.
Inside was a number of showers and some of them even had those fancy roses that distributed the water just like a proper shower back home.
Oh, I don’t have to tell you that there were no privacy screens so we could easily compare our muscles with each other.
Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.
Hi 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.