9 Pl, C Coy, 5 RAR, 1969/70
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
makeshift seating made it difficult to stop
sliding towards the nose of the aircraft as we
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.
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.
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 to the cumbersome
Starlight Scope. I wasn't impressed but
that's another story.
ONCE WE WERE SOLDIERS