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Once we were soldiers

 

Australian Infantryman's combat badge
My thoughts on arrival in Vietnam

Dog Tag © Don Harrod
C Company 2nd Tour
Author: Don Harrod


This article is headed with the same information that was imprinted on my dog tags. The reason is that by the time we arrived in Vietnam, we were so regimented that I had lost any recollection of having a mind of my own, and if I dared think, I could expect the CSM to turn on me – his scowl turning into something resembling a wild animal, and his roar commencing with the words “Private f***ing Harrod!” I had even forgotten that my parents had given me another first name.

We had trained hard since joining 5RAR in May 1968, knowing that our Battalion was going to Vietnam for its second tour, replacing 1RAR. The jubilation of being told when leaving (graduating) from the Infantry Centre at Ingleburn that we were going to 5RAR, and receiving the badge of the Royal Australian Regiment, was only exceeded by boarding buses and arriving at Tobruk Lines Holsworthy, the home of the Battalion.

On Monday 3rd February 1969, the main body of 5RAR was bussed to Garden Island, Sydney, for embarkation onto HMAS Sydney. Most of the soldiers had family and friends present, but those from areas farthest from Sydney had no support. This was probably the loneliest day of my life – sitting on the lawns of Garden Island, with very few people to talk to.

Twelve days on board the HMAS Sydney, heading for Vung Tau Harbour. This was a great trip – the anticipation of serving Australia, sorting the bastards out, one can of beer per man per day (cost 20 cents), the magnificent meals, the rifle exercises on the flight deck, the ceremony when we crossed the Equator, the salt tablets, the Crown and Anchor, learning that “Heads” were actually toilets, “Goffers” were soft drinks and “Getters” were thongs. The sailors on the Sydney were a pretty good bunch, but didn’t have a lot to do with us. They were doing their jobs.

On the 15th February 1969, we finally arrived in Vietnam, the “Sydney” anchoring outside Vung Tau5RAR soldiers boarding LCMs for the trip to Vung Tau beach Harbour. We all had stupid cards with a number stuffed into the front of our slouch hat puggarees to identify us as we disembarked onto LCMs. These craft ferried us to shore, and we were immediately loaded onto Chinooks to be flown to Nui Dat. I recall that we were yelled at, covered in dust, had our full packs on, rifles loaded but in safe mode, and the flight to Nui Dat was fairly brief.

We had arrived! We were trucked into a rubber plantation called Ap An Phu close to Luscombe Field, and the first impressions were those of extreme humidity and very ordinary-looking four man tents surrounded by sandbags. We were ushered into a would-be theatrette with no walls, told to sit down and shut up by the ever-friendly CSM. There, the Company Commander advised us that if we didn’t apply our standards of training to the now wartime situation, we would be no more than dead meat.

Our familiarisation was brief: this is your tent, that building over there is the orderly room, the other one is the OR Mess, and the last one is the company boozer – and don’t think that you will be spending much time in there. There were also some quaint looking constructions – some of which were four-berth toilets (four holes in a solid long plank over a hole of some metres in depth – no privacy divisions, just four deep thunderboxes), some four-berth shower buckets in a sort of a hut – once again, no privacy, just four suspended canvas buckets which you filled with cold water, turned 5RAR Shower Blockthe shower rose on, got wet, turned the rose off, soaped yourself over, then turned the rose back on for a rinse. There were also strange looking holes in the ground with a 44 gallon drum dug into them, fly wire over the top, and a sort of a screen in front. These were called “pissaphones”, and were for the express use of urinating into. We found out later that these were not very pleasant items, particularly when a digger full of the amber liquid happened to fall into one. Falling into a pissaphone immediately cancelled a digger’s right to sleep in the same tent as his mates for a period of time. Other constructions included raised platforms, for the storage of fresh water, delivery of ice and disposal of any garbage (individually of course).

We were then shown the picquet posts – one between 7 and 8 Platoon lines, one at 8 Platoon and a third at 9 Platoon. At that point, picquets were appointed, commencing that evening, and the 1RAR blokes that we were to replace looked very relieved. The only noise that was to be heard over the excitement/enthusiasm of getting set up was the constant barking of the CSM.

5RAR Firing RangeThe next day, in-country training started in earnest, with a trip to the rifle range just outside the wire. We were in the war zone, and intended to make our mark over the next twelve or so months.

The Company soldiers’ mess was very ordinary. The cooks worked behind a fly screened area, with little evidence of even basic hygiene standards. One example was no running water. The cookers were called “Choofas” large stainless steel boxes which were fuelled by kerosene. When they were lit, or had a fault, they would make a noise similar to an explosion. The food produced, was however, quite palatable. Other “delicacies” were powdered eggs or dehydrated mashed potato. On the plus side, the American ketchups and sauces helped to camouflage the actual tastes. The mess hall comprised long trestle tables, seating about sixty men per row, and the room was deliberately kept in semi-darkness to keep the heat down.

The boozer was a tin hut, fairly well ventilated, but with no furniture. A bar was built at one end, and cans of beer or soft drinks were sold by staff appointed from within our ranks. Beer was about 15 cents per can, and cigarettes were the same price per packet. Two days after our arrival in Vietnam, our only source of refrigeration or freezing, broke down. For the next twelve months, we had to beg, borrow or steal ice, as there was no mechanism within the Australian Army to provide us with replacement refrigeration.

Then: to war operations. Vietnam had started for us, the training cut in, and it was on. Our Battalion history takes over from here.

 

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