I re-enlisted in the army in Wellington, which was a mistake because I was immediately posted to the Defence Communications Centre in the Defence HQ building. To cut a long story short I hated the politics of the place and was always applying for postings elsewhere. As I watched younger guys get posted to Field Force units or to Singapore in desperation I applied for a Vietnam posting to show them how much I wanted out.
There can’t have been much of a short list this time because quickly I was posted to a Field Force unit – you couldn’t be posted from a static unit to South Vietnam. Once all the medical and other paper work had been completed in November 1971, I was back in a C130 with more personnel and supplies for Singapore than South Vietnam. There was no Kiwi Sergeant accompanying me this time.
On arrival back at 110 Signal Squadron, there were numerous changes from my earlier tour. The clerk said I should start my anti-malaria pills; when I ask where the other one was, he looked at me sideways. He offered to show me around, but I said I would have no trouble finding my way.
I found Cpl Mike Roach RNZSigs who I was replacing and probably received a better brief than I had given Randall a couple of years earlier.
Another change was 1ALSG had been replaced by 1ATF.
On a Command Post exercise back home years earlier I had witnessed what was meant to occur during a military withdrawal, with the combat arms retreating through the empty support arms locations. What I found in South Vietnam was all the support arms were still there and the combat arms remaining had been reduced to detachments, many of whom were destined for early withdrawal. Not much of a confidence builder. This was further influenced when I went down to the Vung Tau airbase within weeks of arrival to say goodbye to those RNZSigs personnel I knew in the last NZ Infantry Company to have served in South Vietnam.
One of the tasks on my earlier tour was ensuring that the weekly summary of New Zealand newspapers by the Public Relations people in Wellington was forwarded in as complete a copy as possible within the circuit hiccups. Now I wouldn’t have the luxury of proof reading them.
Later on, I can’t remember the timeline, there was a US Marine landing exercise on the back beach at Vung Tau as part of defence measures for the town if things got nasty. I was on shift that day but the word got back that some Aussies who knew the holes and sand bars were dragging people out of the water. It was after that people started acquiring knives to add to their personnel protection.
But there wasn’t time to dwell on the potential future because from that point I was a useful extra body in a unit that was decreasing in strength. I was initially posted to the Minor relay centre which to my surprise was has been removed from Saigon whilst I was away. I don’t know how much this was a result of the US Signals change from torn tape to punch cards releasing extra auto heads to those who wanted them.
One advantage of having been posted to DCC in NZ was the Commcen there had Creed teleprinters with narrow tape and no print head necessitating familiarity with the Murray Code, which was not taught to a number of the operators in the 110 Minor Relay Centre where print head problems appeared to be common.
Another change was Cpls were now a part of the piquet and the unit was conducting its own clearing patrols.
All this extra work had to be completed in addition to packing equipment for RTA and maintaining communications.
Another task was added to the unit. This was to provide a security detachment during the loading of HMAS Jeparit. In the haste to reduce the numbers in South Vietnam, the RAN Clearance Diving Team, with their unusual bar cum orderly room table, had been withdrawn and security was simply people throwing percussion grenades over the side of the ship during the nights it was in harbour.
When we arrived at the port I was hoping we would be tasked with driving the forklifts, which looked like an easy task but I was deflated when it was explained what was required. I went back to the unit the next morning with ears ringing. It would be three decades later that a specialist would declare my hearing problems were more probably a result of explosives and that the mostly likely culprit was that security task foisted on the 110 Sigs by 1ATF headquarters.
By December 1971, it was clear that the Minor Relay Centre would be returning to Saigon. Also out of country circuits appeared to be less reliable than during the previous tour and the outages were frustrating.
That month there was a show at the Vung Tau airbase with a NZ Maori contract band playing. I stayed to talk to them and they explained how they had been coerced into a draconian contract and would rather be home for Christmas. With the number of Kiwis left in Vung Tau reducing every day I was starting to feel homesick as well.
Again, there wasn’t time for that. A detachment from an American unit called Communications Assets Recovery Agency (CARA) was attached to the unit to help with packing equipment for RTA.
One of their practices was to place smaller items in a cardboard box and set off two chemical agents to manufacture foam and fill the box. One Australian used the same practice in a couple of toilets at one of the hotels in Vung Tau and was not popular. In addition, I think an American jeep parked outside the Sergeant's Mess was also foamed but the heat in the reaction caused some damage.
The CARA people said they were going back to Long Binh for the day to watch the last Bob Hope Show. I and another unit member who was on the now sparse days off decided to accompany them.
In civilian dress, we climbed in the back of a Duce and a half truck and drove unaccompanied over the roads that in 1969 had required armoured escorts. We were armed. My Aussie mate and I with American M16’s whilst they carried our SLR and an F1 submachine gun.
There was something strange about the approach to Camp Camelot. Then it struck me the low land jungle on the perimeter was now just a wasteland. It would be over two decades later that I would be given a copy of a log of the US Army Surgeon General’s Office identifying knowledge of a proposed defoliation mission. They could have conducted the first epidemiological study of exposure to Agent Orange if they had not been deflected by advice from Washington after they could not obtain any data from units in South Vietnam after an earlier operation over the potable water supply.
So that’s why the eyes watered so much. 24D in those concentrations was a severe eye irritant.
Winding up at Vung Tau
The mast and aerial used for the back-up radio link to Melbourne, next to the High Frequency shack at Vung Tau was eventually pulled down. Story has it when the riggers got up to dismantle it they found everything corroded to such an extent that they would have to hacksaw off the bolts or use cold chisels. To me that has always stood out as a metaphor for the war in South Vietnam. Starting out with fine intentions and ideals yet they were to be corroded over time. One of the WO's made a deal with the Skycrane pilot at Vung Tau airbase and he apparently “did some training over the antenna” and “inadvertently” hooked it up. The noise got everyone out of the barracks. Don’t know what brand of beer was used in the deal but hopefully it was something unwanted like XXXX or Fosters.
By the middle of January 1972, the Minor Relay Centre had been closed and that responsibility ceded back to the Saigon detachment. But that just monumentally increased the about of cleaning and packaging as no further personnel marched in and others continue to RTA.
Before The Sandbaggers, the OR’s wet canteen, closed down there was a last party for those returning to Australia. Nasho's were prominent with their ripped clothing signifying they were leaving the “green machine”. It was my understanding that canteen sign with the two AK47’s was to be crated up and sent back to Australia. Perhaps it is sitting gathering dust in some Signals store somewhere in Australia.
As people left those remaining were spread amongst the accommodation to give the illusion there was a much larger force still around. Because I was now a general dog’s body and not allocated to a shift I woke in the morning to an empty building with bed frames stacked at one end and four or five made beds of those still on shift. One night I woke up and saw something standing by the open window. For some time it didn’t move so I reached out and withdrew my rifle from under the bed.
It turned out to be a monkey sitting on the sandbag wall. They had never ventured near the camp on the first tour and you would lucky if you saw the odd one scampering about in the scrubby dunes far in the distance.
There was a rumour that one item that never made it back was the Australian Signals Association donated Squadron boat. Story had it that when the inventory was prepared for RTA and BER equipment, of which there was eventually heaps of the latter, the boat was found to be missing. Rumour in the lines was the “Q” of the day had sold it to the local police chief. All I could think of when I heard it was that geez this was the tosser who wouldn’t replace my boots so I could have an unscuffed pair to go home in.
Off to Saigon
I think it was around the end of January when there was nothing further that I could contribute that I moved on to Headquarters New Zealand Army Training Group to fill a number of positions vacant after the change from combat to training.
But I didn’t totally sever by contact with RA Sigs. Twice a week I would arrive at the Saigon Commcen with long encrypted messages for Wellington. On one occasion, the operator rolled his eyes and said, “that’s all I need”. I did offer to type it up for him but he was someone I had never worked with before and didn’t take up my offer.
One of my new roles was Operations Clerk and my sparse intelligence reports were so full of blood trails and nothing very substantive that I regretted complaining about those long reports on the first tour where good structured intelligence was derived from so many sources from captured documents and personnel to 547’s Signals Intelligence. This role was amongst others including at times commander’s driver, postal clerk, Bristol freighter loading and unloading and signals officer for the New Zealand Embassy.
Life in Saigon was hectic. It took me a little time to realise that there was a sinking lid on remaining personnel in South Vietnam, explaining why when my time was up with the Australians the NZ Liaison Officer was nearly pleading with me to stay and take up an appointment in Saigon.
I think the penny dropped when we asked for an issue of Dacrons on which we were prepared to have final tailoring done in South Vietnam at our own expense, to replace the ad hoc uniform of Aussie Service Dress trousers, US belt and Aussie shirt with NZ Rank insignia, but we were denied.
Later when the unanticipated Easter Offensive hit we were also denied weapons.
This was overcome after a discussion group of OR's established there was plenty of 45-calibre ammunition available and it was only necessary to find the weapons.
This was achieved by a clerk, who was also an RNZEME armourer resurrecting a number of old WWII vintage weapons from the safe that had been captured earlier from the VC and were awaiting a decision on their future.
There were also a number of AK47’s there as well but it was considered prudent to destroy them after a New Zealand captain of a US barge was arrested by the Vietnam National Police when he was found with four weapons and heaps of ammo on his vessel. His claimed reason was for the defence of himself and his crew but that did wash with the white mice and it was protracted process required from the NZ Embassy to get him released.
There was never enough money in the petty cash and the inflation in the US and hyperinflation in South Vietnam was never covered by the living allowance.
The Ambassador gave me his old Ford LTD, which had a busted transmission and was missing a battery to use instead of taxis. The battery was easy. The Navy construction people had hundreds of them stacked on their pier but getting the battery acid was a mission.
I towed the vehicle to Mekong Ford and arranged a repair by the Vietnamese mechanic by trading a cassette recorder from the PX. On the first tour, it would have been a reel-to-reel recorder. However, I never did learn the lesson that technology products had a real short life span.
It was bitter trade. He just wouldn’t believe how the US prices had increased. Joe Vietnamese were hurting.
One day another signals Corporal arrived in Saigon. He said he was from 31 Squadron at Christchurch but I wasn’t familiar with the unit. Later I would learn that its unofficial insignia was a suitcase. They were to be the first in and last out communicators.
End of tour
The CO asked me if I wanted to return to NZ. I told him I was only half way through the files for archive, another task I had been given. Besides, I would like to finish my 12-month tour.
Wellington didn’t see it that way and I was eventually ordered to leave.
That was a sad time. It meant visiting the many South Vietnamese I had gotten to know, especially those who could fill in more accurate intelligence than what I got from the MACV conjecture summaries. At the end of the Easter Offensive, there was an unsure feeling amongst many South Vietnamese in Saigon. Which didn‘t make leaving for me any easier.
I was delivered to the airport and went through all the formalities, there wasn’t that many because most had been pre documented by the NZ Embassy. The last person to see was the biggest Vietnamese police officer I had ever encountered at the “not to leave South Vietnam” ledger desk. He asked for my passport then said there was another payment required. I said no the Embassy had paid all fees. He was adamant and released the catch on his holster to make the point. I had given all my remaining money to the old couple who kept the Headquarters clean.
Geez I thought, I cannot go through all the goodbyes again and rushed outside and just caught the people who had delivered me to the airport. I explained my dilemma and one gave me the bribe money. Later when I arrived back in New Zealand and uplifted my trunk there was sufficient Military Payment Certificates in there to pay three times over.
I rushed up the steps to the aircraft just as they were been readied for removal.
The Air Vietnam flight attendant pointed to my seat and I dove into it.
After we were airborne, she asked me if I wanted US beer or Vietnamese.
I sat in the seat looking out the window at the China Sea drinking my last 33 beer…and then I started to cry.
When the duty driver in Singapore picked me up, he remarked on my red eyes asking if I wanted to visit the Regimental Aid Post. I said no there was no remedy for the cause.