Chapter 41: Christmas in the Nui Dinh Mountains

We seemed to be in choppers every week now – and I never lost the thrill of riding in them – as the CO Johnny Three Fingers rotated his rifle companies through our various operational tasks.  It was so successful that we now dominated our AO – it was ours – the HQ of the NVA Engineering Company had moved out of the area.  The action shifted to the far north of Phuoc Tuy Province on the border of Long Khan Province but we wouldn’t be rotated up there for about another month.

In the meantime, we visited for the umpteenth time the Nui Dinh Mountains, but rather than walking up those great big bloody yammas like we did on our first operation six months ago, we flew in courtesy of Ronnie RAAF to spend Christmas and New Year there.

The Huey helicopter became a symbol of the Vietnam War and there is an earlier and smaller model Huey in  the War Memorial at Canberra.  You can hear the sounds of battle over the radio and along with the radio traffic and the downwash you can get a sense of what it was like.  It certainly brought memories flooding back for me which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

Lemme ask you this.  If you had a choice between riding in a helicopter or patrolling through the jungle, which would you choose?  The chopper right?  Unless you were in 6 section. Those guys are the epitome of really dumb grunts.  To hear that familiar beat of the rotor blades in the distance either meant they were coming to resupply you or to pick you up and take you back to The Dat; except on those couple of occasions where they were lifesavers.  Thank God for 9 Sqn.

Yep, those Hueys were great alright and they generated plenty of excitement in me and they still do. Some years ago when I was working with the Department of School Education we were holding a refresher course on the annual financial statements for school principals and their admin staff.  On this particular day we were at Shellharbour Surf Club, right on the water at Shellharbour beach.  It is a beautiful spot.  I dunno what session I was in the middle of but there I was up the front espousing my considerable financial-management knowledge in my usual erudite fashion to a group of about 50 people when I heard a Huey.  I could hear that slow woop, woop, woop sound that only Hueys can make as the chopper approached from the north along the beach.

I stopped mid sentence, a rarity for me. I paused and I listened intently.  I asked the group, “Is that a Huey?”  No response.  They just stared at me in silence.  I listened further and then I was driven by an intense desire to seek out the aircraft; so I left the group and walked over to the large double doors that were open, I stepped outside just in time to catch the Huey as it zoomed past heading south probably to Nowra.

I stood there for a few more moments as the beat from the Huey’s rotors ebbed away and then I went back inside and continued on with my session after informing the group that I was indeed correct as usual – it was a Huey.  They didn’t invite me back the following year.

The Hueys had four crew members.  Two pilots up front and two crewmen, one on either side at the back.  Both crewmen had M60 machine guns permanently mounted in front of them.  The crewman on the right also operated the winch when needed. About seven or eight of us piled into each aircraft, it was a bit squeezy.  Four fitted on the seat and the others sat on the floor. I often wondered what these RAAF guys thought of us, dirty, smelly, unshaven grunts as they transported us from place to place.

I watched the pilots enough to know how to fly the Huey.  It was pretty hard to see into the front of the cabin though.  The pilots sat in bullet-proof seats which had large side bolsters and they also wore flak jackets.  The only thing they had to worry about (apart from crashing) was Nigel scoring a direct hit between the eyes to kill them; they were protected everywhere else.  My guess was the reason they didn’t have ejection seats in the event of an imminent crash was because the seats were too bloody heavy with all that armour plating.  Anyway looking past the seat I noted that they only had two pedals so they can only fly automatics – what a bunch of whimps!

There were no steering wheels – just two sticks: one beside their leg which made the chopper go up and down and one between their legs to protect their genitals.  The pilots could multi task, I’ll give them that.  The stick on the left also had a throttle just like a motor bike and the one in the centre had buttons on it so that they could talk to their mates.

The RAAF guys had seat belts but we didn’t, maybe it was a cost cutting measure. I usually sat on the floor on the left of the aircraft and we rode with the doors open.  This afforded a magic view of the ground below. Now you may think that the combination of no seat belts and riding with the doors open may have been a tad dangerous.  Not so. We couldn’t fall out unless we were pushed. When the chopper banked for a turn and I could see the horizon nearly vertical through the pilot’s window there was no sensation of being thrown out of the open doors.  The chopper seemed to swing on an arc as if it was dangling from a rope and it swung like a pendulum and the centrifugal force overcame the force of gravity and held us in.  Geez I know a lot of stuff.

Before the choppers arrived we arranged ourselves in groups on the LZ so the pilots could see where to stop so we could pile in.  Like everything in the military there was a set procedure involved.  When the choppers were on their way they would call me up on the radio and the exchange would go something like this:
“One Two this is Albatross Zero Four over.”
“Albatross Zero Four this is One Two over.”
“Albatross Zero Four inbound your location figures five mikes, standby to throw smoke over.”
“One Two standing by over.”

We could usually hear them coming by now.  They would be flying in formation high up in the sky.

“One Two this is Albatross Zero Four throw smoke over.”

The section up front where the lead chopper would land was tasked to throw the smoke grenade.  The choppers land into the wind and we would be sited appropriately and the smoke grenade also helped the pilots to gauge their angle of approach.

I yelled out to the first group; “Throw smoke!”

I waited until I could see the smoke and then I said, “One Two smoke thrown over.”

“Albatross Zero Four I see yellow over.”

“One Two I confirm yellow smoke thrown over.”

The choppers would then drop down out of the sky and magically appear at tree-top level at our LZ.  I got on the last chopper because I had the radio.  This ensured I had the best ride.  Being in the last chopper, the last to leave the LZ, meant that it was the most vulnerable to enemy fire and the pilots gunned the aircraft to catch up with the rest of the formation.

One day I thought we were going to ditch!  The pilot gunned the engine alright, the whole aircraft seemed to vibrate more than usual as the revs came up. He twisted the stick thingy with his left hand remember.  We rose only a couple of feet and stayed there while the revs kept increasing.  The crewman to my left was leaning out and looking to the rear checking the tail rotor.  I guess that was his job, to ensure it was still there and that it was clear of any vegetation.  The pilot dropped the nose and we started forward across the LZ, the motor still screaming and the aircraft shuddering so much it was about to fall apart.  He gunned it across the clearing still only a couple of feet above the ground, then he lifted, but only enough to clear the trees, we were then skimming along the tree tops.

I was a bit concerned at this stage (OK I was scared shitless!). I looked out and saw the trees only a couple of feet below.  I looked at the crewman who was also looking down and back at the trees. The Huey was bucking and shuddering and the engines were screaming as I looked at the pilot.  He was sitting hunched slightly forward. Just beyond him I could see the instruments which were all shaking just like you see in those airline disaster movies when the plane is about to crash, violently.  Up above the instruments and out through the windscreen I couldn’t see daylight.  All I could see were tree tops blurred by our forward motion.

The pilot then pulled on the left stick and up we went racing ahead to catch up with the others and join the formation.  Thank heavens for that.  That was scary and thrilling at the same time.  From then on I always got on the last chopper.

That wasn’t the only time I got a big fright in the choppers. We did a couple of ‘hot insertions.’ I didn’t really know what these were except that there was no one on the ground to secure the LZ.  Big deal, Nigel can’t be everywhere.  So there we were high up in the air approaching our LZ and I could see where the artillery shells were pounding the jungle clearing.  Also down low was a small chopper where the FO (forward observer) was directing the artillery fire.  The chopper was quite distinctive against the green jungle canopy because one of its rotors was painted white.  This made it very distinctive and we could see it easily from high up above.

Suddenly we dropped down to tree-top level. My stomach was moving around just like it does in a roller coaster ride and the chopper was shaking and vibrating just like a clapped-out Holden, or a new one for that matter.

We were approaching our LZ at breakneck speed and then we dropped down below the tree level into the clearing and we were still going flat chat.  Suddenly the door gunner to my left opened up and he was firing into the tree line.  I assumed he must have spotted some enemy so my next thought was surely they are not going to drop us if Nigel is shooting at us?  Then he had a stoppage – his gun stopped firing and he was unsure what to do next as he grabbed hold of the cocking handle and did nothing.  Maybe mental telepathy would get it working again.

“Cock, lock, look, dickhead!” I wanted to say to him but I didn’t get the chance as the chopper raised its nose then dropped to the ground.  In an instant I was out and the chopper took off.  We lay there for a second or so, there was no incoming fire, so we up and moved into the tree line.

Note to self: during a hot insertion the door gunners fire into the tree line as we land.  Don’t panic!

Hey the chopper stories are flooding back so I’ll keep at it.

If a chopper was dropping off some supplies, Mick the platoon sergeant would stand in the LZ with his back to the wind and with his arms extended above his head.  This told the pilots where to land although sometimes they ignored him.  We had a chopper coming and I said to Mick that I’d like to do the hand outstretched bit.  The LZ was an old rice paddy and the guys were over in the treeline protecting the LZ. The chopper was coming.  This was my big chance at a starring role.  I stood there with my arms outstretched just like you do when you are going to do some star jumps.  The Huey was coming straight at me just skimming the tree tops.  He dropped onto the LZ and made a beeline straight for me.  I stood there trying to show that I had done this a squillion times before and he kept coming at me at a great rate of knots.  I stood my ground.  When the rotor blades were six inches from my face he raised the nose and dropped the chopper on the ground.  I went to pieces at the last moment.  When he raised the nose I was not expecting such a blast from the downwash and he literally blew me away.

Huey one, Knackers none.

But, back to our trip to the Nui Dinhs.  Someone would be tasked to collect the mail whenever choppers were about.  If it was a resupply chopper the mail would be handed to the door gunner, on this occasion we were being picked up in the jungle and taken to the Nui Dinhs and Big Julie was the mail man. As soon as we were in the air he tapped the left pilot on the shoulder who turned around with a surprised look on his face.  He had a rather large nose and a moustache that cartoonists would make a field day out of.  Big Julie handed him the mail, he nodded and shoved it down the front of his jacket.

Over in the distance we could see Nui Dat, our base camp.  Big Julie tapped him on the shoulder again and got the same surprised look.  Big Julie pointed to The Dat and motioned for us to go there.  The pilot looked, saw The Dat, then extended his hand and rubbed his fingers between his thumbs and mouthed the words “You give me money.”

The last time we were in the Nui Dinhs we secured an LZ for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  The LZ was on a saddle feature and I was on the edge of the clearing guiding the choppers in by radio and smoke grenades.  The RAAF were giving the ARVN boys the ride of their lives.  The choppers would come in flat chat, pull up their nose to wash off their forward speed then bang down hard on the ground.  The ARVN couldn’t get out quick enough!  One time the rear of the chopper hit the ground first.  The chopper shot up in the air about 15 feet then crashed back down.  Inside were about 20 ARVN soldiers, all you could see were their eyes as they desperately clung to their weapons.  I could see they were terrorised by the ride-from-hell courtesy of 9 Sqn.

The side door gunner spotted me and made a laughing motion as he waved his arm imitating the chopper bouncing on the ground and the poor tiny ARVN soldiers who had the body size of a normal 12 year old Australian boy pored out onto the ground and ran for their lives.  They all looked deathly white, the poor bastards.

Ooops sorry about all the chopper stuff but that’s how we got to the mountains over Christmas and New Year. We had been here many times now and I began to enjoy the place as Nigel was nowhere to be seen.  History was right – aggressive patrolling allows us to dominate the area.

From these mountains we got a tremendous view of the province.  We could see the traffic on route 2 heading north/south and the incessant sounds of car horns drifted up the mountain.  We could see Vung Tau and the ocean.  It sure beats sitting there in thick jungle staring at ants.

Night time was even better.  There was no traffic on route 2 because of the curfew. But there was plenty of stuff happening in the sky.  Tracer rounds were floating about from many locations although I couldn’t hear anything.

I got to see “Puff the Magic Dragon”.  This is a DC3 painted black [bristling with weapons] and they fired at targets into the jungle where there were suspected enemy.  I could see lots and lots of tracer fire being directed downwards but I couldn’t see the aircraft nor could I hear anything. I dunno what guns they had on board but there certainly was a high volume of tracer rounds.

I awoke on Christmas morning to a beautiful sunny day.  The air was clean and I could see for miles.  There were no sights or sounds of warfare.  It was a great day.

Just after stand down, Moon approached me with a cheeky look on his face.

“Gimme the radio Knackers.”

He put the handset to his ear, pressed the send button and sang in his best sounding pirate voice….

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, Jingle all the way. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh.”

He may have done a second verse as well.

He handed me back the handset.

“Thanks Knackers.”

“Thanks boss, nice one.”

We were very high up and our transmission would have gone far and wide but nobody came back on air.

Ronnie RAAF also dropped in on Christmas day.
Ronnie RAAF also dropped in on Christmas day (plus main photo).

I told you Moon was a larrikin.

I picked up other transmissions on the radio.  I heard a yank who was talking to his mate about a Bob Hope USO Show that he was going to see that afternoon.  Later he called up again and in the background I could hear the music.  I have no idea where it was but  I can say I heard a yank USO show on Christmas Day.  How about that?

Overall we had a pretty quiet run in the mountains this time. Nigel must have been off celebrating somewhere else.  About the only exciting thing that happened to me is the handset fell against my face.  I slept with the handset against the side of my head.  During the night it fell onto my face.  I picked it up then I realised I had an enormous frog in my hand so I threw it over towards the boss hoping it would annoy him!

A few days after New Year we flew back to The Dat.  Sum Wun said the officers and senior NCOs would serve us Christmas lunch so we were looking forward to that and a couple of beers of course.

You could imagine our surprise/anger/frustration when we arrived back at The Dat to find that the camp was dry!

No alcohol was permitted because some bloody pogo took a few pot shots at blokes in the Sergeants’ Mess on Christmas Day.

There’s going to be trouble….

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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,
Tumut, NSW

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 41: Christmas in the Nui Dinh Mountains

  • 29/01/2018 at 10:42 am
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    Good read Ian. In fact I the get the Jollys from all of your submissions. Keep up the good work Mate.

    Reply
  • 28/01/2018 at 1:55 pm
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    Mate, The chopper in the War Memorial is your standard Huey although it looks smaller because it may have been a gunship at some time. There were no smaller earlier models as far I can remember.

    Reply

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