People opened their daily newspaper, The Press, in my hometown of Christchurch on the morning of May 27, 1965, and read on the front page that New Zealand was at last to make a combat contribution to the escalating conflict in Vietnam.
It had been in the wind for a while. The Americans had been courting the Australian and New Zealand governments since the early sixties in their drive to secure international involvement in their action in South-East Asia. No one was that keen at first. The Australians had responded by sending a token force of ‘advisers’ along with a small amount of arms and ammunition in 1962, but then they’d had a change of heart, committing a full battalion in 1965. Soon they were to go ‘all the way,’ as the Aussie prime minister, Harry Holt famously put it, ‘with LBJ’, even re-introducing conscription.
New Zealand, by contrast, had been decidedly stand-offish. The first New Zealand service personnel to go were armed with nothing more dangerous than scalpels — a team of medics was dispatched in 1962, and stationed well away from the action at Qui Nhon. The next lot, a team of twenty-five Army Engineers who went in 1965, were tooled up with spanners, and immediately swung into action helping build bridges and schools. But the US kept up the pressure on Keith Holyoake and his National government, and we in the Army were not the only ones who thought New Zealand was beginning to look bad compared to the Aussies. In May, 1965, Holyoake caved in and announced that New Zealand would commit an artillery battery. As New Zealand possessed only one regular force battery at the time, none of us had too much difficulty working out which unit would go. 161 Battery was it.
Of course, we knew a little ahead of everyone else. The official announcement was made to us a few days beforehand, and for some time before that, the famed Army rumour machine had been steadily pointing in that direction.
We were pretty much unanimous in our approval of the step the government had taken. In fact, we were over the moon. We were, after all, professional soldiers: we had joined the Army to fight, we had trained long and hard to acquire the skills of soldiering, and here we were about to be given the opportunity to take those skills into combat. Many of us had close relatives — dad, granddads and uncles — who had fought in ‘WW1 or WW2’, and we had grown up with their war stories. Now we were going to write some stories of our own. Most significantly of all, we were young and full of testosterone. Every young man grows up spoiling for a bit of an adventure. For us, Vietnam represented the chance for the adventure of a lifetime. Thoughts of danger just didn’t enter your head.
Few of us had more than the vaguest notion of what it was all about. Sure, we knew we were going to help fight Communism, and most of us had heard of the so-called ‘Domino Effect’, which supposed that if Vietnam were to fall, the rest of the countries of South-East Asia would follow, leaving Australia and New Zealand vulnerable to invasion. But as soldiers, we were more than happy to leave the politics to the politicians. Their job was to get us into the war; ours was to win it.
There was an extra spring in every man’s step, and we didn’t need our officers yelling at us to set about our training with a will. Suddenly, even our officers didn’t seem so bad. There was a buzz in the air.Pat Duggan
I was only nineteen at the time, but it never seriously occurred to me that this would be an obstacle to my going. Army rules stated that if you were under twenty, your parents had to provide written permission before you could be considered to go. I was confident my father would grant it, and that he would talk my mother around. As far as I was concerned, when 161 Battery left for Vietnam, I would be on the plane.
Gradually, we became aware that the Battery had been divided into two groups — those who were going and those who weren’t. A series of O-Groups (‘Orders Groups’, or briefings) took place, and those of us who weren’t involved began to fear the worst. This impression was confirmed when new faces began appearing, as soldiers from other Corps and short-term recruits, who replied to advertisements in the daily newspapers, were assembled at Papakura for preparatory training. Eventually, those of us who were to be left behind were assembled and the bad news was officially delivered. I’m sure I’m right when I say we were, to a man, gutted, each of us understanding how it must have been for an All Black squad member when the test side was read out and didn’t include his name.
My morale went right down the tubes. Adding insult to injury was the fact that I was a trained artilleryman — and a bloody good one, in my humble opinion — yet here were men with little or no combat training, let alone the specialised skills of gunnery, and they were on their way. In fact, nearly half of those who went in the original contingent were from outside the Battery, and the position I had hoped to fill — Driver-Operator — was filled by a member of the Signallers Corps. For those who were chosen, there was a two-week stint of specialised training, and then a spell of embarkation leave. This was traditionally two weeks, but the precise date of departure was kept strictly secret. Just prior to taking their leave, the fortunate ones — as we rather naively thought them — were told that they were soon to be deployed to South Vietnam,.
When the contingent members reassembled after leave, the Battery was placed on permanent standby. Twenty-four hours before they were due to fly out, they were at last notified of their departure time. Even now, they were instructed to keep the details secret: perhaps the government was sensitive to the very vocal anti-Vietnam protest movement which had arisen subsequent to the announcement of New Zealand’s pending deployment, and wished to avoid any unsightly confrontations; perhaps it wished to prevent television carrying the heart-wrenching scenes of farewell which would remind the nation that we were getting involved in a war. Whatever the answer, those departing weren’t even permitted to tell their families. One Bombardier I knew, Don Donaldson, had pre-arranged a signal with his wife. He would post her a pair of Army gaiters when he was due to leave. When she received them, she would know he was in South Vietnam.
Like the rest of the overlooked, I got on with my job, consoling myself with the thought that this war was unlikely to be over in a hurry: if I worked hard at impressing the bosses, my turn would come. The Battery was to be relieved by the ‘trickle’ system, individual by individual, that is, rather than by the replacement of whole companies as in the Infantry units which were deployed later. Every one of us was anxious to be the next gunner on the plane. Meanwhile, the base at Papakura was re-designated Battery Depot, and life went on around the bunks vacated by the combatants.
Going to Vietnam
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait too long for my chance. In February, 1966, when the Flight List went up on the notice-board, there it was, in black and white: Patrick John Duggan. I felt an enormous surge of pride and elation: elation, because my name was finally there for all to see, and pride, because at last the powers that were had judged me to be good enough to go.
I immediately phoned my family in Christchurch to tell them the great news. I spoke to my father first. He was pretty quiet, and said he was really looking forward to seeing me when I visited on embarkation leave. Mum, too, was fairly subdued. I’m bound to say I didn’t really give their feelings much thought: all I could think about was the adventure ahead. I was young.
Once you were on the list, you were caught up in a whirl of pre-embarkation preparation. This involved medical inspections, dental checks, inoculations, documentation and advanced specialist training. Most of the specialised training consisted of practising what we already knew: I was already thoroughly well-qualified as a Signaller, but the Army’s attitude was that I should practice until the skills were as natural to me as breathing. This was fine by me. Some of it was intended to help me to operate with the Americans: 161 Battery had been assigned to support the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the US Army, and I had to get used to their signalling procedures. Other than that, we practised ambush drills and the skills of jungle patrolling.
Our training was also intended to prepare us for Vietnam. Vietnam, we were told, was in South-East Asia. It was about twenty-four hours’ flight-time away. Any questions?
By now, of course, the Battery had sustained its first casualties. Sergeant Al Don and Bombardier Jock White had been killed when their Land Rover was torn apart by a command-detonated mine on September 14, 1965, the news received with a fair amount of shock and sorrow at Depot. Most of us knew the dead men well, and this brought home something of the reality of war. But no way did it put a dampener on our eagerness to go and do our bit.
Meeting the protestors
One Friday night, for a bit of a diversion, a group of us thought we would go and have a look at an anti-Vietnam protest that was taking place in Queen Street. By the time I was getting close to leaving, Vietnam was very much in the news. The protest movement was gaining momentum and was generating a fair bit of publicity. They used all sorts of gimmicks. A group in Auckland started a hunger strike, camping out in full public view in Queen Street and, of course, the media loved it.
Well, a group of gunners (including me) decided to go to town and give these people a run for their money. The agreement was that we weren’t going to let them know who we were: it was purely a ‘s**t-stirring’ exercise. It didn’t take us long to locate them and it also didn’t take us long to get into our first argument. There were about five of us and we were spoiling for a confrontation. Of course, the cat got out of the bag in pretty short order and they found out who we were, but apart from a fair bit of verbal abuse, not much else happened.
The leader of our push was a fellow named Danny McCort. Danny did a bit of snooping while we were keeping the demonstrators occupied and he found that the supposed ‘hunger strike’ was a farce. Around the back of their campsite was a pile of containers from a local bakery, all of them empty. Needless to say, that started us. Here we had a group who were taking the moral high ground against us and they didn’t have the enough of the courage of their convictions even to go hungry for a few days. Up until that point, we had tended to go along with the view that everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but after this episode, the anti-war movement lost its credibility for us in a big way.
Incidentally, while I was in South Vietnam, my mother apparently had her own run-in with the anti-war crowd. She was walking through Cathedral Square one day when she was confronted by a protestor who, never guessing she was the mother of a serving soldier, started haranguing her about New Zealand’s involvement.
He was, by all accounts, playing to a bit of a crowd. She apparently let this fellow have his say and then, raising her own voice for the benefit of the onlookers, floored him by announcing that her son was serving in Vietnam and that she was proud of him. The crowd, I am told, applauded.
After the paper war had been won — the amount of documentation to be tackled had to be seen to be believed — and just before my departure, I was given leave, and like most of my comrades, I chose to go home. Dad, I quickly saw, was experiencing conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he was desperately proud of me. On the other, he didn’t want me to go, and the imminence of my departure was, I think, bringing back memories for him.
There was nothing mixed about Mum’s feelings. She gave me both barrels, and was very weepy. She told me she knew there was nothing she could do about my going to Vietnam, but she didn’t spare me her grief. Every son’s mother has to deal with the severing of the apron strings, with seeing their boy all grown up and making decisions for himself. But it was probably harder for my mother than for most of her generation, because the decision I had made could quite literally prove to be one of life or death. She resented the fact that I hadn’t asked for her approval for my volunteering — I think there are still traces of that even now, thirty-six years later — but she wouldn’t have given it anyway. All I could do was assure her that I was planning on coming back and promise to duck when occasion demanded it. Marilyn, my fourteen-year-old sister, probably sensitive to Mum’s emotions, was disapproving. Kaye, the youngest at eight, was too young to have much idea of what was going on, although she tells me these days that she remembers me leaving very clearly.
The two weeks of my leave flew by, but there was time to get really close to my father for the first time. Having served himself, he was obviously very proud of me. He enjoyed telling his mates that his son, the soldier, was about to be sent to Vietnam on active service. He also quite enjoyed telling non-military people of the trip as well. On one occasion he got into a wee verbal altercation with a small group of university students who were drinking in the Blenheim Road Motor Inn. They’d spotted me for an underage drinker and were commenting on the fact. Unfortunately for them, Dad overheard them and he let them have it. He proceeded to fill them in on the shortcomings in their pedigree, and announced that I was off to Vietnam on active service.
‘If he’s old enough to go and bloody well fight for his bloody country,’ Dad proclaimed proudly (and loudly), ‘then he’s old enough to have a bloody drink!’ Never mind that the letter of the law was on their side: I was, after all, still only nineteen and the legal drinking age then was twenty-one.
Finally the day came. We went as a family to the airport, where I was to board an NAC Friendship bound for Auckland in order to rejoin the Battery. My departure for South Vietnam was a matter of days away, and I had little emotional room for anything other than raw excitement. Mum, of course, was inconsolable, and Marilyn cried, too, with Kaye looking on solemnly. Dad, on the other hand, just shook my hand very firmly and wished me all the best — a hug between men was out of the question in those days. I looked him in the eye as we shook hands and that was the first time I’d ever seen him show any real emotion. Then it was time to go.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane that the whole thing hit me. I was going to war and might not come back. Those farewells could quite easily have been the last time I would ever see my family. Things that I’d left unsaid came flooding in. It looks melodramatic written down, but it was the first time that it occurred to me that I had no idea what lay in wait for me in Vietnam.
Back at the Depot, however, all such qualms vanished. I had been hoping I would be deployed as a Driver-Operator, and I was informed that my wish had been granted. The job of the Driver-Operator in an artillery unit is essentially the same as that of a Signaller in the Infantry: you carry the radio and are responsible for your unit’s communications with the rest of the world. The New Zealand Army’s strategies and protocols were developed for conventional, open-ground warfare, needless to say, and the nomenclature reflects this. In World War Two, when much of our involvement was in the desert, artillery signallers drove everywhere, so the job was as much that of a driver as of a radio operator. Jungle warfare, of course, was a horse of a different colour: artillery Driver-Operators lost their Land-rovers and had to foot it with the rest of them, but the name remained.
As our departure grew imminent, the excitement ratcheted up. The only people who were showing any misgivings were the ‘marrieds’, many of whom had young families. Interestingly, the Army extended to married men a rare mercy: their tour of duty was nine months compared with the eighteen-month tour upon which single men embarked. I could never really see the justification for this, but didn’t say anything about it at the time. In the event, the single man’s tour of duty was decreased when I was about two-thirds of the way through my stint, first to fifteen months, then a little later to twelve.
Then, after all the waiting, after the disappointments and the anticipation, the day finally arrived. In the early hours of February 25, 1966, we formed up on the wet tarmac ready to climb aboard the three-ton RL Bedford transport trucks which were waiting. It had been raining, and our breath was steaming in the air. We were dressed for the tropics in our jungle greens, and most of us were shivering a bit
Once we were aboard the trucks, the canvas flaps at the back were rolled down so that the general public wouldn’t know what — or who — was being transported, and at 0500 hours, we rolled out of the Depot gates. The drive to Whenuapai airbase took a little over an hour, during which we alternately chatted excitedly and joked, or brooded. The odd beam of light from the streetlights illuminated our faces, excited, preoccupied, and nervous. The ‘marrieds’ were conspicuously quiet. I could hardly sit still.
At Whenuapai, we jumped out of the trucks and were herded across the tarmac to the great, hulking shapes of the waiting RNZAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. We boarded through the ramp at the back. Once aboard, you found a place — one of the red webbing seats on either side of the plane, facing inwards — and strapped yourself in. Window seats were out of the question: there are one or two little portholes in the fuselage, but little could be seen. After a fair wait, during which there were the various thumps and rattles of gear being loaded, the door was swung shut and bolted and the engines fired up. With a jolt, we were in motion, and after a short pause at the end of the runway, we thundered forward and lurched into the air. I looked around at the others, their eyes shining, their mouth’s, I’m sure, as suddenly dry as mine. We were on our way.
Conversation was impossible over the roar of the engines. If you wanted peace and quiet, you had to put on an oversized pair of headphones which made you look a little like Mickey Mouse. Quite soon, the excitement had been replaced by tedium, and most dozed, or tried to. The only thing that broke the monotony of the eight-hour flight was the meals, and if you’re one of those people who have a tendency to complain about the quality of airline food, I suggest you avoid the Air Force. We were given small, cardboard boxes containing cold dry chicken and wilted lettuce: one or two shouted that the box was the most appetising part. And as for service with a smile: the boxes were more or less biffed at us by a surly loadmaster.
Papua New Guinea
Excitement mounted again as we began our descent, and soon enough, we thumped onto the airstrip in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, where we were to stop overnight. The door was opened, and we stepped one by one down the ramp and out into the tropical heat, for most of us, our first experience of it. From the moment that moist, hot air enveloped me, I loved it.
The Australian officials processed us quickly and we were loaded aboard trucks and whisked into town to our accommodation, the Papua Hotel. We all stared curiously at the locals we passed along the route — the men small in stature, and in an array of western clothing and traditional dress, some of them quite naked apart from a pointed gourd worn over the genitals, and many of the women naked from the waist up — at the poor, thatched-roof housing, and (for most of us) our first coconut palms.
The Papua was comfortable and we got to see the locals from close range. They were very friendly: even those who were obviously straight out of the bush were friendly. This group tended to be easily recognised by their traditional garb and — I kid you not — the bones through their noses. During the evening in the hotel bar we had the good fortune to meet a rather dilapidated Frenchman, who turned out to be an ex-soldier who had served with the French Foreign Legion in Indo-China. He confided that he had actually served at Dien Bien Phu, and nodded significantly at us. I signalled that I was impressed, but at that stage, I knew nothing whatsoever about the French involvement in South Vietnam, so the importance escaped me. It didn’t help that his English was as limited as my French, but he managed through hand gestures, facial expressions and a smattering of words to convey something of the adventure. We oohed and aahed at the appropriate moments in his story, drank Australian beer and enjoyed the moment.
We left New Guinea early the following morning bound for Singapore, a twelve-hour journey this time. We were told we had to fly around Indonesia: there was a ‘confrontation’ underway there, and their airspace was considered either too dangerous or too politically sensitive to traverse. If the novelty of the C-130 experience was wearing thin the day before, believe me, it was altogether gone an hour or two into this flight. Singapore couldn’t come soon enough.
Finally, however, we touched down on the north-east side of Singapore Island at the RAF base at Changi, which was then one of the main British bases on the island and in fact the main allied military airport in the region area outside Butterworth in Malaysia. Billets had been arranged for us at the RAF barracks. We settled in as quickly as we could and then took our leave of the base to go in search of some fun.
After the torpor of our long flight, we were raring to go, and although we only had one night in Singapore, it was all ahead of us. We’d heard vague rumours about Singapore from some of the old-timers who had served in Borneo and Malaya. Places such as Bugis Street were firmly entrenched in Army folklore.
For a fresh-faced Kiwi whose only previous experience of the Orient was buying fruit and vegetables from Chinese greengrocers in Christchurch, Singapore was a full-scale culture shock. The streets were packed with people on foot, on bicycles, hauling handcarts or leaning on the horns of cars. Compared to this bustle, Christchurch — even Auckland — were ghost-towns, and the only times I’d ever seen such concentrations of humanity were at All Black tests. Adding to the spectacle was the fact that the streets were strewn with drifts of red paper: we had arrived during the Chinese New Year, and firecrackers were going off everywhere.
Nor were we left to our own devices. It seemed everyone had something to sell and meant to sell it to me at any cost. We had been warned that we must bargain for everything, and that we must keep our money safe in our pockets at all times. We were even told that it was a good idea to keep a few bucks hidden just in case. I stashed mine in my shoe.
But even the haranguing of the various salesmen, hawkers and vendors couldn’t dampen our spirits as we pushed our way through the crowds. This was my first experience of the outside world, but I felt that it was my oyster. I’d never fired a shot in anger, but I felt like a conquering hero — Gunner Duggan, defender of the Free World, Liberator of Red South-East Asia.
We were practical enough to recognise the value of experience, and about ten of us attached ourselves to a man named Ray, who had visited Singapore when he was serving in Malaya. I stuck to this ‘expert’ like glue. Ray directed our taxi to the Britannia Club, which was a services bar and hotel run by the NAAFI. The taxi left Changi and took us through Chinatown. The fireworks were awesome, especially when someone threw one the size of a thunder flash under our cab. The ensuing explosion shook the s**t out of the vehicle and caused the driver to swear in two languages, one for the benefit of the locals who had thrown the cracker and the other for ours.
Arrival at the Brit Club was an experience in itself. A group of locals standing outside reckoned they could pick your nationality before you even opened your mouth. The trick here, Ray told us, was to try and b******t them into thinking you were from somewhere other than New Zealand. They picked us as soon as we got out of the cab, calling out ‘Kiwi! Kiwi!’. No one fooled them, to the best of my knowledge: perhaps this is where Alan Pease learned all about body language.
After a couple of quiet beers in the Brit Club, we moved on to another NAAFI-run outfit, the Union Jack Club. Ray didn’t let us settle into the UJ for long, however: with only one night in Singapore, he reckoned we should pack in as much as possible, and we needed little persuasion.
We began crawling through the pubs, sampling the infamous local brew, ‘Tiger’. Then, when the pubs closed, we decamped to the legendary Bugis Street, which didn’t open until midnight but really jumped when it did. Most of the patrons were servicemen from New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, and the atmosphere was sheer magic. Inevitably, Ray suggested we visit a ‘knock-shop’, and of course, as it was all part of the experience, I went along to see what it was all about. My only qualms came later, when I discovered I’d left my blue beret there. I was sure I’d be punished for losing it, and in disgrace if the Army ever found out where.