5RAR Association Website
Once We Were Soldiers

 

Australian infantryman's combat badge
5RAR Advance Party - 2nd Tour
 
© Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Pl, C Coy, 5 RAR, 1969/70
Author: Roger Lambert

Mascot (Kingsford Smith Airport)

January 1969. Friends and family are there to see off the Advance Party of 5 RAR. The overseas departure area was a far cry from that which one sees today at Kingsford Smith (the new international terminal was not opened until mid 1970). At the allotted time, final farewells are made and we board the Qantas Boeing 707 V-Jet. First destination - Darwin.

Darwin

 Arrival in Darwin. Time for a couple of Crown Lagers in the old terminal building before re-boarding the B707 for the next leg of the journey. It's evening but it's hot.

Singapore

The Qantas 707 touched down at Singapore's Changi Airport for breakfast en route to the then Saigon Tan Son Nhut airport. It's hotter.

5RAR soldiers in summer dress at Changi AirportWe all change into a civilian shirt before traipsing across the tarmac to the terminal for brekkie. All these young blokes and some not so young blokes, all wearing the same khaki polyester trousers and black shoes but importantly, all wearing different civilian shirts. That'll fool the casual observer into believing that a bunch of Aussie tourists had just landed rather than a bunch of highly trained, chomping at the bit, diggers. Why the civilian shirts? Singapore was an essential refuelling stop but the Republic of Singapore, officially, withheld permission for troops in transit to land.

Here the memory is a bit dim as while I'm confident that Qantas flew the Sydney-Darwin-Singapore leg of the journey, I'm reasonably sure that we then flew with Qantas into Tan Son Nhut. There was a time where Qantas only flew the Sydney-Darwin-Singapore leg and Pan Am flew the Singapore-Tan Son Nhut leg of the journey.

Tan Son Nhut

Touch down Tan Son Nhut. This time we all keep our khaki shirts on and look like soldiers. Oh that's right, we are in Vietnam at long last. It's very hot - and smelly.

What sort of place is this? There's civil and military aircraft coming and going, GIs all over the place and Vietnamese all over the place as well. Hang on, isn't this supposed to be a war zone? And I don't even have a weapon...

With the usual administration tasks out of the way with Air Movements, we're marshalled towards a weird looking aircraft in camouflage two greens and brown and US markings. It's not a Hercules as it's only got two of what appear to be radial engines and a jet pod under each wing. This 'baby Hercules' is actually a Fairchild C123 Provider.

Fairchild C123 ProviderTramp up the ramp and - wait a minute - where's the seats? There aren't any! Our trusty green carryall bags were placed in rows across the floor, we were told to sit down on them facing aft and tie-down straps placed over the thighs from one side of the row to the other. Welcome to Vietnam! And people complain about cattle-class these days.

It's funny how some things remain vividly etched in the memory after so many years. The prop on one engine began to turn slowly before the engine fired up and then the second engine. Noisy beast. Taxying out, the thing rattled and shook, and the brakes squealed alarmingly (at least I assumed it was the brakes) as we trundled out to the active runway. The whine of the under-wing jet engines turned into a deafening roar, and though this didn't actually seem to give us enough forward momentum, the 'baby Hercules' was airborne in what seemed to be a relatively short take-off.

A few minutes later, the high-pitched whine of the jets ceased and the aircraft settled into what's best described as a wallowing cruise under the power of the two piston engines. The thing rattled, shook and creaked to the extent that I thought it would start popping rivets! The noise in that stripped out cargo hold bore no resemblance to anything I'd experienced before. This thing flew far worse than a Caribou and that was bad enough travelling sideways up to Gospers from Bankstown on exercise with birds (feathered variety) overtaking us in the air (well, not quite).

Luscombe Field, Nui Dat

Approaching our destination, Nui Dat, the pilot pulled back the throttles and the aircraft adopted a nose down attitude. This guy was doing a combat approach to the runway as the angle of descent rapidly increased.

The thing began to rattle and shake more so than ever, dust and dirt began to fly up off the cargo bay floor as the entire airframe seemed to resonate in synchronisation with the revolutions of the engines. You could hear the rush of the slipstream above the noise of the engines as the flaps and undercarriage were lowered (at least I hoped that's what it was).

Luscombe Field, Nui DatOur makeshift seating made it difficult to stop sliding towards the nose of the aircraft as we began  our descent into Luscombe Field. As the descent became steeper, the tie-down strap was the only thing preventing all of the human cargo from joining the aircrew in the cockpit!

The arrival at Luscombe Field was just that - an arrival. This 'baby Hercules' slammed onto the deck. I can only assume that the pilot had done this many times before but to my mind, he had just managed to flare the aircraft before we met terra firma. Moments before I was thinking that we're all going to become casualties before we've even seen combat!

We disembark at the end of the runway and are greeted by members of 1 RAR whom we were taking over from in country. It's very hot, dirty, dusty and smelly. Welcome to Phuoc Tuy Province.

Nui Dat

Welcome to your new home for the next 12-13 months. It's stifling hot, dusty and smells like rotting vegetation. Tents, canvass, troops for the use of with sandbag walls - home sweet home.

9 Platoon LinesI'm fortunate enough to be hutchie up with one LT J.J. Smith. MC (later CAPT J.J. Smith, MC and Bar). I was able to annoy the crap out of him by asking as many questions as I possibly could to draw on his experience and insights into operating in country. In fact, that was the pattern over the next couple of weeks - glean as much information as possible from our 1 RAR counterparts before the main body of 5 RAR arrived in Vung Tau and then Nui Dat.

As part of the learning curve, I accompanied my 1 RAR counterparts on a night ambush. We trudged down to the Pearly Gates and out along the road towards Hoa Long. At one stop before the ambush position, I was roused from a nap with a gentle nudge. "How laid back is this dude?" I hoped they thought. "Heading out on a night ambush and he can catch a spot of shut-eye". The truth of the matter was I was knackered; the enervating climate had already got to me.

The night ambush passed without incident although I was introduced the cumbersome Starlight Scope. I wasn't impressed but that's another story.


 

 ONCE WE WERE SOLDIERS |  CONTENTS PAGE