Remember the movie We were soldiers starring Mel Gibson, and the scene where the soldiers are all moving to the embarkation point to leave for Viet Nam. The departure is happening in the wee small hours of the morning. Husbands are kissing their wives and children goodbye. Lovers, doing pretty much the same and the single men? Well we didn’t have anyone to kiss goodbye. Except sew-sew. She was our Chinese sewing lady and would always be found sitting at the end of our barracks sewing our clothes. Her feet were badly damaged when the Japanese dropped her off the same balcony as part of their efforts to get her to talk. How she survived is beyond me, but there she was there everyday.
Back to the story, so here we were quietly gathering together as a coy to board our trusty white Bedford buses. These were offered to the Singapore Government when the New Zealand forces left Singapore in the late 90's. The Singapore Government declined our generous offer, after all the buses were only about 50 years old and as uncomfortable as could be. So they were unceremoniously dumped in the ocean.
Now we were heading to Changi military airport [before it became the large international airport it is today.] There waiting for us was our New Zealand Hercules aircraft sitting silver in the early dawn. A most welcome sight when we finished our tour in Viet Nam. We affectionately called the Herc the 'Freedom Bird’. Our gear and equipment along with supplies to Viet Nam was loaded on. We moved onto the aircraft and sat down in the bucket seats strapped ourselves in. No one was saying much as we were all too wrapped up in our thoughts.
Vung Tau airport
The aircraft landed and as always the heavy breaking and reversing of the propellers to slow us caused everyone to lean forward until the aircraft gained its composure and taxied to the drop of and pick up point. Pick up was the Victor 5 Company we were replacing. The rear ramp opened - the heat was about the same as Singapore so no great changes there. V5 boys were waiting and gave us all a big welcome and the usual remarks about getting away from the place. Oh yes and thanks you b******s for leaving the lines the way you did!
On our first practice stand-to [the day we arrived] we discovered the fire pits were full of crap, snakes, spiders and overgrown with weeds etc. The claymores and leads were f****d, the 50cal gun didn’t work. Most of the early warning flares were corroded so wouldn’t work. This became our major task on our arrival to get these sorted out and working.
Back to Vung Tau airport. We were all very alert that day, as all our training had been to prepare us for ‘the fighting of the VC’. Not fully knowing what to expect, we took up our positions on the Australian international trucks. These had what was known as ‘crash gear boxes’ - when changing gears the gear teeth would grate against the gear housing and cause a lot of noise. We placed our M60 gun on the top of the truck cabin and all faced out with hastily appointed arcs of fire. No one was going to get the drop on us highly trained Kiwi soldiers. Any VC that thought otherwise was in for a big surprise!
Everyone is in black pyjamas
Remember I spoke about our intensive training and being continually reminded the enemy always wears black pyjamas [every exercise we went on in Malaysia and New Zealand our enemy parties would be issued with the obligatory black pyjamas]. So this day we were looking for the enemy in their black pajamas! Well readers here we were traveling at break neck speed to Nui Dat ready for anything. When, we begin to see many local Vietnamese, yes wait for it, wearing black pyjamas! The whole bloody population was wearing them! Now we couldn’t shoot all of them. We all looked at each other at about the same time and cracked up laughing. I thought, ‘this must be a collective joke that has been played on everyone since the early days of coming to this place’.
The real enemy did wear black pyjamas [as well as the NVA’s light brown jungle uniform with the pith helmet]. However, so did everyone else, which of course made finding Wally [the gentleman always hidden in the scenery in books] very difficult. This broke the tension and helped us to relax somewhat as we headed to Nui Dat our home for the next seven months.
Lack of support
Oh yes, whilst I remember thanks must be given to the New Zealand Government for their miserable contribution to the care and upkeep of the soldiers they committed to this conflict. Apart from the now exposed Agent Orange debacle, the government made us pay tax for the privilege of the holiday in Viet Nam [money which the late Piggy Muldoon decided to give back when we returned to Singapore]. In addition to this we paid a miserable field allowance.
The government were also notable for their neglectful commitment to our needs with clothing and field equipment. As a result we had a reputation [among a number of things] for being the biggest scroungers on gods earth. Aussies and Yanks, if they knew we were in their area would screw down, tie up and guard everything they had. Why? Because the kit we needed was in very short if not non-existent supply. So we had to beg borrow and steal most if not all our field kit. A special thanks to our CQMS JR for the hard work he put in keeping us clothed, booted and supplied with sufficient field kit to enable us to remain effective in the war.
Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.