Archive number: 2105
Date interviewed: 20 July, 2004
Airfield Defence Guard
383 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron
You are listening to the interview audio
So Victor can you give me a summary of your life up to this point?
Yeah sure. Look I was born in ’48 in Fremantle, Western Australia. My father
was serving in the army at the time. He had had air force service and at that stage he was qualifying as a surveyor. We moved to Victoria for a couple of years when I was about two. My brother and sister were born there and we moved back to Western Australia when I was about four and half and my younger sister was born there. I went
to school at a place called Pickering Brook, that is up in the hills in Western Australia about twenty-five mile from Perth. And I went to high school at a place called Kalamunda, again in the Darling Ranges. Did a little bit of work initially as a wood cutter in ’64, ’65 and started to think, “What am I going to do with life?” Got interested in the air force and basically joined as an airfield defence guard,
which is air force infantry. Did that for six years got out for another couple of years, went back to WA [Western Australia], got involved with the sports club, had various jobs and enjoyed myself but got itchy feet, wanted to travel and get paid for it. So I joined up again in ’75 as a supplier, basically that job has taken me all around Australia, to overseas places
such as Butterworth, Bougainville, Timor, and then the previous six years had taken me to South-East Asia to places such as Thailand and Vietnam. And now whilst in the supply days served in the Northern Territory amongst other places and had remote locality leave travel which we utilised to go across to the [United] States [of America] and had about three weeks over there.
Had quite a number of postings and that took me to places in Victoria, Canberra, where did I go? New South Wales and Katherine and of course to Amberley where I have spent the last five years of my permanent air force career. I am still located at Ipswich and I now a member
of the air force reserve and doing some work with the 23 Squadron at Amberley and more work with a joint movement control organisation at Enoggera. Fairly short and sweet.
And children, yeah?
Children, yeah, I met and married Joyce my wife in Malaysia. In fact we met at an archery field where I promptly left her. She had
come to have a look at what we were doing and asked me a question about somebody else’s car and that is a big turn, down so the guy I was shooting arrows with decided we were going to get some breakfast, and my darling beloved had some how got my phone number and she rang a couple of days later and the rest is history. We married in a civil ceremony at Butterworth and
our son Darren was born at the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] hospital in ’79, ’80 I think, yeah ’80. How time flies! And I have got a daughter who is, she is a Mexican – born in Victoria, south of the border. And there is seven years between them, almost to the day – both born in April. My son is doing his own thing and regretting that he didn’t finish high school and
our daughter is doing well in high school in Year 12 and has just been offered a scholarship with a TAFE [Technical and Further Education college] through the Minister for Employment and Training. I am quite happy she is going to go to uni [university] though. But it is a great kudos for her, though.
That is a great summary too.
I am just going to stop there for a second. So Victor can we go back to your childhood, can you tell me some of the strongest memories you have from your childhood?
of them aren’t very pleasant. As I said, my father was ex army and at the time he was a serving army officer who had also spent time with the RAAF. He in fact had qualified as an air gunner but didn’t see operational service, qualified just before the end of the war. Now I don’t know the circumstances but at some point in time he and Mum split, as things tend to happen.
So from about the age of five I was I guess the man of the house, and that has a bit of an impact on a young fellow. So the place that we were living in initially was without power, without indoor toilet facilities all that sort of stuff, and in fact when it came to that sort of stuff, if it had to be done, I had to do it. So go down the yard and dig the hole and bury the stuff. Yeah that was good for a five-year-old.
I initially went to primary school at a place called Beaconsfield in Western Australia and went from there to another primary school at Jandakot when my Mum met and got involved with a prison officer who was living at a place called Bartons Mill, which is up in the Darling Ranges, so we went and lived in the married quarters of the prison farm.
Did they actually marry?
Probably about a year after they got together, cause Mum went initially as a housekeeper I guess and cause he had three kids of his own and Mum had four of us. So between his, hers and ours, when they got married there was nine of us in the family at one stage. Nine kids I should say, so you can imagine what it was like. Very rough. The eldest one of the lot, my stepsister was a year older than me
and in the mid sixties she went nursing so she was out of the house most of the time. A couple of the houses that we lived in were fairly rough and ready and the old place was a former timber mill that had been converted to a prisoner of war camp and then to a prison farm. The houses were old and decrepit but we got by. And we had buses to take us to school and sorts of stuff. We were fairly free,
we kids, used to get out on our bikes and just go for miles out in the bush and take this road and that and get back never get lost, never get worried by anything. And we would get involved with the prisoners in their sports afternoons or their cricket matches or whatever. And you’d be down watching a game of football and the guy next door to you might have been a murderer or something but you were prison officer kids so it didn’t worry us.
And yeah, different lifestyle. And in the area we were at, lots of orchards just down the road from us and there was always fruit, and in fact in the married quarters area of the prison farm, we had two different types of grape vines on trellises. So you can imagine what it was like for a kid, one family had big fig trees, another had loquats and another one had apricots so as kids were always knocking on doors saying, “Excuse me, can we get into the loquats?” or, “Excuse me, can we into the figs?”
So it was good fun.
How did you get on with the stepsisters and brothers, did that all work out?
I think the worst relationship I had was with my stepbrother, or one of the stepbrothers. He was a couple of months younger than me, and of course boys of that age tend to argue and fight and I think my stepfather was somewhat more protective with me than he was with his own son. I didn’t understand that he was,
my stepfather was a pretty good fellow. Regrettably, both he and that stepbrother had heart attacks and passed away some time back. In general as a mixed family we were pretty good.
So you got on okay with your stepfather?
Did you ever see your father?
I vowed and declared when I was a kid that I would bop him on the nose when I ever met him.
And I kept in contact with my grandmother, his mother. She used to live in Victoria at that stage at Carrum Downs, and after I joined the air force I was on course and I had dropped in on transit to visit her and told her where I was going and what I was doing, and we were in the middle of lectures one day and I had a message to
go and answer the phone and it turned out it was my father. He had tracked me down. And I visited he and his new wife and had some additional half brothers and half sisters that I hadn’t known about too much and we got on all right. They still live in Queensland. I haven’t been in contact with them for quite some time, but that’s me. I guess I never really
did forgive him for separating. It wasn’t my business, but you know, I guess that is something that I have got to work through.
Was it something that he initiated, the separation?
I don’t know. I never did ask and maybe one day I will get the guts to ask Mum and find out. I know it made things tough for her at one stage.
Yes, very difficult.
Particularly with four of us.
Absolutely, did you know anything of his war experience?
Only from photos, and he had bought various books that had been published by air force, army and navy and we had a swag of them, and we had a couple of old photographs of him in his air force uniform. One was by a dormitory block
and he had his dog with him and all that sort of stuff. But I didn’t get a great deal of information about it. And in fact my stepfather had also had military service with an anti-craft unit up in Darwin during the war.
And what do you remember hearing from him his experiences?
Not a great deal. I think he was primarily listed as a cook or something like that.
But he did serve in Darwin at some point in time but I don’t know too much about it.
Did you take an interest in the Second World War when you were growing up?
Not a great deal at that particular point in time. I am still not very much interested in it, although I do read and have read books about Rommel and Patton and about Operation Overlord and stuff like that.
What about school, did you like school?
I didn’t mind school. But I was probably a damn site lazier than I should have been and if I had have been a bit less lazy maybe I would have got more than two passes in Junior certificate. And they were French and English – what a combination. Didn’t do me much good, but there you go.
Do you actually remember when
the two families joined and what you were… That is a really huge experience for a child. What were you thinking about all that?
Look, I didn’t know how it was going to go. It would have been at Bartons Mill. That would have been, oh I don’t know, ’55 or something like that, ’54, so it is quite a while ago now.
We were living under the one roof when they got married. And I was quite happy that they did get married because even then I understood I guess the stigm if you will, because unmarried couples living together was very much a no-no. And even though it happened, as you all know, everywhere, it was pretty much still frowned upon. It worked out all right I guess.
And did you go to
high school in Beaconsfield?
No I went to high school in Kalamunda. Initially there was no high school in that area and in fact my stepsister as I said was a year old than me, so when she started high school they had to travel to Midland, and I think she did that for a year or maybe a year and a half, then Kalamunda High opened initially as
year one and year two of high school and then became a third year high school and then subsequently went to a five year high school. That took a couple of years because they had to get their student core built up. Yeah it was quite a good high school. Have some memories of it.
Well you moved around quite a bit, did you…
Where did you make the closer friends in that?
Probably, not that I am in contact with any of them, would have been as growing up in Beaconsfield, the kids that grew there you know. Oh the last of them that I contacted would have been when I was doing an air force visit to Western Australia quite a few years ago now and I caught up with a mate and his wife who I hadn’t seen in a while. But you know,
in between air force stints I went back to live in that general area and had some contact with quite a few of them. But it has been a while now.
And what sort of, were you involved in sport or what was your thing growing up?
I was never very good sportsperson but I played junior football, Aussie rules type. In fact I played
with Kalamunda junior football. And we were involved in a competition where we had to travel around to places like Midland and Redcliffe, which were down below the hills. And quite often I would either hitch a ride from Bartons Mill to Kalamunda, and that is about fourteen miles, or even ride my bike to and from the football ground just to get there to play the game. And that was a bit of a challenge sometimes but you know it had to be done.
And did you support a VFL [Victorian Football League] team at that point?
In the West Australian competition, East Fremantle and later on when I joined the air force I got posted to Victoria I followed North Melbourne cause they had the same colours as East Fremantle and they also had a couple of good West Australians playing with them who were both Sandover Medallists.
That was Graham Melrose and Barry Cable. And then when the West Australian teams got involved in AFL [Australian Football League], the West Coast, I shipped camps again and started to support them. I am not an active supporter; I used to remain interested by watching the occasional game, when I am allowed to at home. You know, domestic management, “Why are you watching football again?”
I think that happens in every house.
I swear I am going to get my own dog house with my own good TV [television] set up outside.
Yeah, well multiple televisions now make that a lot easier.
And what other things did you do for fun growing up? Were there dances or…?
Yeah, look in the prison farm we quite often… Just across the road from one of the houses that we lived in we were just opposite the
prison office and the prison hall and the hall was where all the visitors used to come on weekends. But it was also there for concert parties and film evenings which were open for the prisoners themselves. But also to the families. So we used to go along to the film nights and in fact I saw, I can’t remember some of the films
with Geoff Chandler and people like that in it at that theatre. Now that hall had been decorated by one of the inmates who was doing an arts course, and he was given approval to do the arts course on the basis that he decorated the hall. And he was sort of I guess an impressionist style if you will, or sort of what do you call it,
where the characters are all angles and that sort of stuff. And he did a lot of good work. Now I think he was, from memory he was in goal for murdering another crim [criminal], and eventually he got released and I last heard he was working as an engineer on a fishing trawler up north of Western Australia. But going back to his art, most of it reflected life of a prisoner in some degree or other,
and the prison officers were depicted as rats and things like that and it was quite interesting. There were a lot of religious connotations in it and things like that. And this same guy was a trusty who looked after the water wells for the prison and quite often at ten or eleven o’clock you would see a light bobbing through the scrub down below and it would be Herman, going on his
rounds and checking on the pumps for the prison. In those days the prison didn’t have an electricity supply from the West Australian grid so we had, they had generator sets, so somebody else was looking after those. And when TV first came on, we got a TV set but to run it we had to have an adapter set up out the back to convert from one current to another.
Yeah it was all fun.
So it was a prison camp? Which meant, was it a prison camp?
So it didn’t have the wire and fencing?
It had wire and all that sort of thing and they were locked in, but they could walk through it as easy as they want. Now as I said at one stage it had been a prisoner of war camp, prior to that it had been a saw mill camp. But it certainly had the barbed wire around it, had the watchtowers and all that sort of stuff. And they did have to get locked
up. And as I said there were a number of trusties who had tasks that meant that they would go out. The main task though for all the prison was providing firewood for the hospitals and what not around Perth in either foot logs or three foot logs, and my stepfather used to supervise the work gangs on those. And they’d go out with maybe thirty guys and they’d set up camp and
clear firewood and cut it up and bring it back, stack it. And at some point in time a truck would take batches of it down to Fremantle and to Perth to the various hospitals and whatnot. We had three different houses at various points in time at the prison farm, and of course with a reasonably large family. There was a reasonably large house at the time that was being occupied at the time, was being occupied by one prisoner officer and his wife.
When they moved on, we got the house and there were twenty-two single bedrooms. So we were quite happy. My stepfather wound up getting half of the hallway blocked off so we only utilised eleven of the bedrooms. But it was still bliss. You got a single room to ourselves. In the other houses he had adapted verandahs and things like that to provide sleep-outs and might have been a little bit snug and cold but.
What sort of things did you eat as a family?
Mum used to do a pretty good turn of spaghetti. You know, just all sorts of things. I remember coming home from school and being a bit hungry and one of my favourites at those times was bread and dripping with salt and pepper on top. Which was either that or a big slab of bread with Vegemite or Golden Syrup on it. And in fact our bread was provided by
the prison bakery and quite often I would be home when it was delivered by the trusties and Mum had to watch because if she didn’t I would grab the loaves and break em in half and rip out the hot bread. Good fun.
How did the rest of the local community respond to the prisoners?
Look, I don’t think it worried them too much.
And in fact when the prisoners did from time to time break out and abscond they didn’t do a great deal. They might nick a car or something like that. But they’d be getting away from Bartons Mill as quickly as they could so yeah, didn’t upset from my point of view anyway the local population very much at all.
And what about your stepfather, how did he talk about the prisoners?
I can’t really say too much about that. He had his… I guess he had his troubles with them. But then he had been a bit of a boxer at one stage or another and he was a reasonably solid sort of fellow, and in fact I guess he was the man that they tapped on the shoulder if Joe Bloggs was playing up a bit. “Merv, take this man around the back and teach him the error of his ways.”
I mean those sorts of things don’t happen, do they? But he was always there if something was called on. In fact he was the man to go to if anything happened, even if he was crook as a robber’s dog [unwell], he was called on. And one of the prisoners in the prisoner workshop one day, my stepfather was on sick leave – he had contracted a recurring bout of malaria or something like that – and he was
pretty bloody crook. Excuse the French [swearing].
That’s fine, really.
This guy working in the workshop with a circular saw cut his fingers off and there was no prison vehicle available and no officer available. And so my stepfather was called upon and they bundled this fellow into our car with another prisoner to sort of look after this crook guy and they
took off. I think it was a Vanguard in those days – probably went as fast as it had ever been. And they got to the hospital in pretty damn good time, about twenty-five minutes, which you would normally take even today to make that trip, so he must have been fairly flying. The trusty who was in the car to help, my stepfather had said to him to try
and get attention of any police that he saw and try and get an escort and sort of. They went past at least one copper who sort of waved at them and let them go on their way. They never did get their escort. But they got to hospital and the guy got sorted out.
And what happened for you after school?
We had… As in when I finished school, you mean?
Yes. When you finished school, first jobs I mean.
Look, I didn’t know what I wanted. I probably still don’t know what I want. But I became a woodcutter. And as a side line I was working at that stage for a timber contractor so my stepbrother and I were cutting firewood for him, had our own chainsaws and whatnot. We had an old Hillman, a 1935 square back Hillman that I had learnt to drive in. Got my licence in a
three ton truck – beautiful.
What’s a Hillman, a three ton truck?
No, a Hillman was basically a sedan but it was the old style – you had to crank the handle. It had two methods of starting, crank handle or pull start. Running boards and all that sort of stuff. It was a good car but we treated her unmercifully.
So I did that for probably eighteen months, two years. As a side line we’d go with him up to the wheat belt areas and help him to bag sheep manure. Quite often we would be literally under the shearing shed or the holding pen or whatever with the merino rams still upstairs doing what they do all over you so to speak. You’d be down on your belly
shovelling sheep poo into bags.
Oh well it’s just one of those things, and did that for quite a while.
Did you ever have any idea of what sort of job you would ideally love to do when you were growing up?
Very not interested I guess.
The work experience whatever or the work advisers that came and saw us at high school weren’t much chop [were unhelpful] and I think in fact the biggest emphasis was on military and all that sort of stuff. I didn’t have any real idea what I wanted to do.
Do you remember some of the guys that came and talked to you about joining the services?
Not particularly, no.
But they didn’t bring representatives in?
Yes, they certainly did in the high school. But that is a while ago now.
And what about girlfriends? Any girlfriends?
No, no, I think I was in that aspect fairly timid and not sure how to handle you ladies, and…
We are a confusing mob.
Well there were a couple of
girls of my age in the prison farm area. But nobody that I really wanted to sort of pursue anything with, yeah.
What about sex education and that thing?
Fairly limited. I think the girls got more of that sort of education than we did. I think when it came to that we were brushed off to the carpentry
shop or whatever, yeah right.
So you learnt with your mates or…?
You learnt with talking to your mates?
I don’t think I learnt too much of anything at that particular point in time. I was very naïve, you might say, when I joined up.
So how did you come to join up then?
I think I was just at a loose end. I needed to do something
and saw that maybe the air force could give me something that I wasn’t getting as a woodcutter, obviously. I this was sort of in the early stages of Australia’s involvement with the Vietnam situation and nothing that I was offered because of my educational grades – I was offered clerk supply, supplier, and cook’s assistant –
none of those particularly sort of grabbed at me. And airfield defence seemed to be something that I could do. And my stepfather was with me at the recruiting office and said, “Well why don’t you join the army?” I said, “Oh no, no, no, I don’t want to join the army.” Essentially I became an air force soldier for six years.
So you joined the army?
No I joined the air force.
No you joined the air force, but you were air force solider?
Airfield defence guard. Which is initially, an airfield defence guards gets you might say the equivalent training as an infantryman, and as they go through they probably get as much or if not more than better training than the average infantryman would, particularly these days – they have some pretty flash kit.
Why were you interested in joining the air force?
Possibly because of my father worked with the air force. Maybe I thought at one time that I might go flying too.
Had you been on a plane to that point?
Only not that I could remember, yes. One of our trips I think back from Melbourne was on board a Super Constellation. I don’t know whether it was
Australian Airlines or what aircraft but. Mum told me a couple of things about that but apparently I was given a magazine to look at which had pictures of pretty girls and I was going hubba hubba and things like that. And the hostesses reckoned I was quite cute, but I don’t remember that at all.
Don’t remember anything about the flight?
Oh look, I would have only been two and half, three or something like that.
Right okay, yeah. What about other friends, did you have other friends join as well?
Not that I can recall. My brother eventually, younger brother was called up and in fact at one point in time I waved goodbye to him out of helicopters in Vietnam. But he was basically with Headquarters Company at Nui Dat and so generally speaking fairly safe.
And the areas that he worked in were generally speaking fairly safe. But I have also walked through the same areas of jungle, and generally speaking fairly safe. But you still wonder when you hear the twigs cracking out in the scrub and you hear the rounds rattling overhead and you think, “Hmmm, where am I and what am I doing?”
So what happened after you joined, what was the next step?
Went to Edinburgh in South Australia
for initial recruit training. Had to wait for about three weeks in what they called pool because we had a lot of people being trained at that particular point in time. Got through our course, which took about eight weeks I think, graduated from Edinburgh.
Can we talk a little bit more about Edinburgh?
When you first got there, what were your initial impressions of the base?
You know, like all recruits you are awestruck. You have got people yelling at you and being given clothes that don’t necessarily fit properly, but in fact in those days they still had lots of, lots and lots and lots and lots of stuff from World War II. And our PT [Physical Training] shorts that were given to us were what we called Bombay Bloomers, that were a khaki sort of thing
that went from there to about there and with buckles on them. Oh yeah, just what you want. You learnt a lot. You had to learn how to make bed rolls and things like that, and your bed was made in just this particular way. And your cupboard was laid out in just that particular way. And if the staff
said, “Jump,” you didn’t stop to ask why or how high, you just jumped. It was different, it was cold and it was wet too and I was a long way from home. I guess it was a bit of a challenge. And in fact at one stage I got pretty crook with pneumonia. It wasn’t quite pneumonia, but it was close to it. But we got around a bit and saw a bit. Went out on
exercise on the course, and in our spare time when we were allowed to go off base we went and saw the sights of Adelaide and I started to develop a liking for Chinese cuisine and stuff like that. The normal thing for a recruit course, graduating in a big graduation parade. In our particular case that didn’t happen because Edinburgh and Wagga and Point Cook and a
number of other training units, including army units, were closed to inwards outwards sort of stuff because a bout of infectious meningitis I think it was, so our graduation parade didn’t happen – bugger. We had trained hard for that and it just didn’t happen. It was just one of those things.
That was really disappointing.
What did your mum think of you joining?
I think she was a bit concerned. I don’t think she was overly anxious. I never really did ask her. I just did it.
And your stepfather?
Yeah, I don’t think he was too upset. He could see that there was something there and yeah.
And can you describe a little bit of the base of what you can remember from Edinburgh? If you were walking through the gate, what would we see?
Oh bugger. Oh sorry.
We looked, you’d go through the gate as it was then. It has probably changed now but it there were a lot of bunker type areas where they’d stored ammunition and stuff like that in previous days and were not storing ammunition any more, so you could see these all over place. Now you’d have a road going off to the left
which took you down to places like the clothing store and equipment store and things like that. A road straight ahead that went to the messes and to the accommodation areas and another road that went further off to the actual airfield side of the base. And they had operational aircraft there at particular times. I can’t remember what aircraft types were there. And at that stage in ’66
the Royal Air Force had a considerable number of people operating out of Edinburgh and I think transiting between there and Woomera. So you saw Australian air force uniforms, you saw army uniforms and you saw RAF [Royal Air Force] uniforms. And for a young recruit trying to think, “Who the hell am I saluting here?” You’d be wandering down the road, sorry, marching
down the road in your boots and you got these metal bloody studs on the bottoms and to make the noise and it’s raining and you slip on the concrete and fall arse over apex – good stuff. It was all a bit of an eye opener for a young bloke.
What did you most enjoy about that? I might just hold that question.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 02
What did you enjoy about recruit training?
Not sure that I enjoyed too much of it, although handling weapons was something that I’d… I’d shot a couple of .22s and things like that and air rifles and things like that but and I am still not the world’s greatest shot, but yeah, that was all right.
Obviously fitness, getting the jogging and that I didn’t mind too much, and I guess meeting people. Met a lot of people over the years and that was the start of a lot of it.
Do you remember some of the first blokes that you met on recruit training?
Yeah I do. I haven’t been in touch with a lot of them for a very long time.
But yeah, in fact the guy that ran our DI, drill instructor, I caught up with him at Amberley about three years ago when he came to visit his son I think, and it had been a long time since I had seen him. And in fact he and I, he was a drill instructor but he became an airfield defence guard after I had joined up,
because drill instructors, airfield defence instructors and ADGs [Airfield Defence Guards] were all merged to become one. So he became part of my mustering subsequent to my course finishing. The fellow that was our course orderly, he was like a… A course orderly is a senior member of the course who may have had previous experience, who’s trusted to provide all the course admin [administration]
and provide info [information] to the course members as to when and where they are supposed to be and all this sort of stuff. Well our course orderly was a bloke named Arthur Mackenzie who had been a drill instructor himself, and he’d been out for a couple of years and come back in and become the course orderly. Well Macca, I lost track of him for a long time, too, and he’d come back in as a drill instructor but also became a airfield defence guard when the merge
happened. And I lost touch with him until late last year when I caught up with him briefly at somebody else’s funeral, and then regrettably early this year he passed away too. Damn. At least I had a chance to catch up with him. Some of the other fellows I met again at various places over the years but the last of them would have been when
I was at Richmond back in the ’80s and a couple of the fellows that had been on my course – one was at Richmond working in a hangar next to me – and I talked to him briefly. He has gone back to Western Australia. And another fellow that I sort of hung out with I think wound up in Darwin and I haven’t seen him for a very long time. I didn’t have a great deal of association with a great lot of them.
What sorts of aircraft were big at that time?
Oh hell. The RAF had operational at that stage had Sabres as a fighter aircraft, Neptunes as maritime reconnaissance, Winjeels. I don’t know too much about what other aeroplanes
they had at that stage. I have just forgotten it.
Yeah, yeah sure. So what happened after Edinburgh?
I went from Edinburgh to Amberley just outside of Ipswich for airfield defence training. And I was on Number 3 Airfield Defence Course in 1966. That went from about June through to September.
There were about thirty of us on course, we were the first course to take part in an exercise while still on course and in fact we went from Amberley up to Rockhampton per the Rockhampton mail train. In those days the airfield defence mustering was very, very new and in theory we were to get
military style webbing and equipment and jungle greens and stuff like that, but we were still operating in basically an overalls and what they called boots and gaiters. So we did what we could but we really didn’t look like jungle green, we looked like air force blue. Anyway we went up to Rocky [Rockhampton] as
an exercise, carried our weapons on the train with us. It is funny, we trucked from Amberley out to Roma Street Station where we caught the train. We were assembled on the platform. Our instructor, the flight sergeant, assembled us all and we had some time before the train went and he said, “Look, I know some of you are going to drink. There is a bar down there. Go and get a few beers if you want but don’t take anything on the train.” Well some of us were delegated
to look after weapons and I did that cause I didn’t drink in those days, and the others went to the bar. And while they were in the bar some of them identified that there were some small bottles of scotch whisky that would quite easily tuck into the top of their gaiters just into the boot, so some of them quite cleverly got some of those and a bottle of Coke [Coca-Cola]. Anyway, they got these things on board and we were in little cabins – there was about four or five to a cabin –
and most of the guys developed card games. And the scotch or bourbon or whatever would come out and be filled up into a little glass or whatever with a topping of Coke and they’d be on their merry way. They’d tuck the bottles back into their gaiters and our flight sergeant would be doing his rounds and he knew damn well that these blokes were drinking but he never, I don’t think he ever did twig as to where the booze was.
But we got to Rockhampton and we did the exercise. It was an exercise called Barrawinga, and we were set up at an airfield which I think, I don’t know the name, I think it was Samuel Hill but I am not sure. It was a very dusty place, we were camped opposite an army engineers’ unit and every time a truck went past you’d
be full of dust. We had one night-time incident, we had rifle pits set up for defence of our area and we had one incident where the enemy came through our wire. And I think it was just an exercise set up to show how easy it could be done. And it was done very easily, I might add. But it showed us what could happen and how fast it could happen. On a lighter note, we
were in an area where there was availability of beer. Two cans per day per man perhaps and it was something called Max 3X. Max was subsequently taking over by Castlemaine Perkins, but it was beer – only just. And as I said, I didn’t drink in those days, and a couple of older hands scrounged beer tickets from me and other people and got their fare share. And one particular night
these two particular fellows have got their beverages and they are sitting on a log outside the back of a tent having their beer and baying at the moon because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and the orderly officer was an old warrant officer, probably much younger than I am at the moment. But he came round wondering what the heck was going on. He said, “Okay you blokes, what’s happening?”
And they said, “Well it’s like this, sir. We are sitting here having our beer and baying at the moon.” And this bloke, so the story goes, scratched his head and said, “Hmm, sounds like a good idea, Here, give me a can.” Anyway, we got through that. We went back to…
What was the point of going to Rocky for that exercise?
You see we were in… The airfield defence guard job is to provide defence to air force
assets, to the point of static patrols, checkpoint duties, tower duties and for that matter off base patrols. Now we could go up to five kilometres off a formation, set up night ambushes or whatever with the intent of stopping any enemy assets from getting onto the base. So this was what we were being trained to do and this was part of
the reason for us being at Rockhampton for Exercise Barrawinga to learn and to work with how we would be working out in the field in the overseas deployment. So it was all part of the ongoing learning curve.
And did you have people training you that were returned soldiers?
We had a variety of people. They were all air force.
Some had in fact been army, some had been Royal Air Force in the RAAF regiment; for example, some of our officers. There were… One of our NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] was an ex guardsman. So we had a variety of people. Some were just straight Australian service personnel, air force personnel who had become as I said airfield defence instructors and drill instructors
and they had been incorporated into the airfield defence mustering so they were the people doing our training for us.
Any officers that you particularly found that you really looked up to and respected?
On the initial training course I had one that intimidated the hell out of me. He was a short type of person.
There was one fellow on our course, a bloke named Pat Crimmin, who was probably shorter than this fellow so Pat did all right – the rest of us, we could do no right. Later on as I went through postings as an airfield defence guard there was a couple of guys who I did really admire. One of them was an ex RAF officer who was the epitome of an officer and a gentlemen but did know his job, so he wasn’t just
a toff so to speak; he knew what he was doing. As did most of them, but they all had their quirks and foibles and some of them you just didn’t get along with, but that was just life. We had one… On the initial course we covered all sorts of things. As you can understand we are trained to be basically as an infantryman. But we also on my particular course did things like air photo reading and just a basic coverage of
that. You have what they call a stereoscope and get the aerial photographs and line them up and look at them and you used to get a 3D [three dimensional] view. That ran for my course and another course, and I think it was subsequently discarded, but it was interesting. But one of the instructors in battle and minor tactics was a flight sergeant. For the life of me I can’t remember his name, but he had, he was rather older at that point in time.
And I don’t know what his service had been. I think he had been in the army, I think he had been in World War II. But he had a lot of tricks, you sort of got into synch and the shoulder would go up and the eye would twitch and then you were sort of waiting for the cycle to happen. Trying not to laugh or whatever, trying to sympathise with him, but at the same time it was very distracting.
Can you describe a little bit more about the Rocky experience, and what, how long were you there again?
I think the total thing on that was only about eight to ten days, so it was basically we would do roving pickets and man checkpoints and try and stop the baddies from coming in and blowing up aeroplanes.
And I think at that stage we were looking after a couple of helicopters and a couple of Caribou transport aircraft. We had to dig weapons pits and provide protection for the assets, essentially.
So why couldn’t you do that exercise at Amberley? Was the terrain different or…?
Well the terrain is different and we did do that
sort of exercise at Amberley. But this was a major exercise and I guess our instructing cicada [officer] thought that it would be a good opportunity to get us involved, and maybe there were we were assets that were available where nothing else was available. I really don’t know at this point in time. But yeah, it was a full-scale military exercise and we were on it.
And what did you like about
the Amberley part of your training?
Amberley is a cold hole sometimes. Yeah, look Amberley had its moments. I can’t remember whether it was on the initial course or a subsequent course, we went to Canungra and did some escape innovation type stuff, distinct from the army. We were doing our own thing.
Can you describe the escape innovation?
Well essentially we were put into an area for about three or four days and we had to get from point A to point B without getting monstered by the directing staff. And along the way survived on what we had available. And I think we were given a ration pack to last for about three days.
And I distinctly remember somebody in our group capturing a python and offering that around. Apparently it tasted like chicken but I can’t really say, and of course we are not allowed to do those sorts of things but it happened back then. It was fairly brief and I don’t remember a lot about it. I recall at Amberley
being out for nights on exercises where it was absolutely teeming with rain. And we would be trying to do battle craft and minor tactics at night and you’re freezing and wondering what? And Amberley hasn’t changed. And I remember not all that long ago being out there on another exercise and freezing my arse off, so yeah, it’s yeah. We had
some interesting things, we used to go into Ipswich to have a beverage [beer] or two, and when we had a chance, this might be mythical or not, we had a fairly large guy on course with us, a bloke named Pete Fiddler who was fourteen pick handles across the shoulders, and he was having a beer in one of the bars and apparently a couple of the locals decided that they didn’t like air force types and wanted to chiack him, and so
he decided to take a walk out to the gents and do his business and hopefully they’d go away. Well allegedly they followed him and started to carry on out there. And as the story goes he got teed off with this and reached up and pulled a pipe off the wall and they quickly vanished. Pete subsequently became a helicopter crewman, got shot down in Vietnam and medivacked
back with a broken collarbone and that was about the time I was flying, and subsequently died in ’74 in a helicopter crash during the floods in Queensland. He was a great bloke, he really was. What else about Amberley? I remember coming back from… We had been out for about eight days doing fieldcraft and
I had a room to myself and I remember walking into the room and thinking to myself, “Something has died in here.” And then I realised it was me. I stank. I am not sure whether it was the same exercise or not, but I had had a shower and I decided that I’d have a little lie down before tea, and like about an hour and half nap, and well I woke up twenty hours later! So you can obviously think that they kept us fairly busy
and fairly sleep deprived over the… Cause they would go out too and we’d set up night defence positions and stuff like that, and we’d be out on patrol and we’d harbour up for the night as any military formation would do, and the directing staff would harass us during the night and set off flares and all that sort of stuff and generally keep you awake. Yeah.
It was relatively new training, that area, wasn’t it?
For the air force, yes.
How was it viewed by the other departments of the air force?
The average comment, particularly when we got greens, was, “Oh hell, there’s a tree walking past,” when they saw us in our jungle greens and stuff like that. Yeah, they, most other areas of the air force thought that ADGs were not a requirement. But what the heck, we had a job
and we did it.
Because your role increased, didn’t it? That area really became quite important later on?
Yes, in fact it is. It’s had swings and roundabouts over the years. They went from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high and every mix in between over the last thirty-odd years. Fairly significantly thought of now by people like General Cosgrove and other areas. But
still there are people, particularly in the air force, that think, “Well we don’t really need you. We’ll get army units to do it.” But army doesn’t want to have to expend resources to look after air force assets and they want to be out finding enemy rather being static and looking after assets. So that is what essentially the role of the airfield defence guard was – to provide close in protection up to five kilometres out from the base.
Were there any accidents in your training time?
Over the years there had been. Nothing, yeah there was actually, self inflicted… We were living in blocks opposite the gymnasium at Amberley and in fact the blocks that we were in and the administration building for our unit
was all part of what had been either a sergeants’ or officers mess’ in days gone by. One of the blocks is… I think in fact it might have been the block that I lived in at the time. And one of the blocks is still at Amberley and is the admin area. Guys just outside us, we had a number of gum trees where we had set up ropes and whatnot
for obstacle courses and things like that, and we used to have to crawl from tree to tree and make a crawl across. Great fun, particularly when you have a rifle and webbing and all that sort of stuff. You wonder how you do it. But anyway, at least in one of those trees were mummy koala and baby koala and one of the fellows on course with me, in fact he is still in I think, he decided one night,
being substantially, one night being substantially well lubricated [drunk], that he would go and get baby koala. Anyway, so he climbed up the tree and mummy koala disagreed with him and scratched him quite severely so he wound up falling out of the tree hitting the deck and breaking his collarbone. He still had baby koala with him when he the deck. I don’t know what happened to him eventually but he got back coursed to the next course
while his injury healed, and subsequently passed and graduated with them. Eventually he re-mustered to become a PTI, physical training instructor, and I think got out last year. And one other fellow from my course, a bloke named John Hansen, he is actually still on duty as a warrant officer in training, in the training school at Amberley where
he and I had trained together, he is now the trainer. Got an age extension last year and I think that might run out this year. So he has been an airfield defence guard since 1966.
It’s a long time.
And what were some of the other punishments that they would dole out if someone did something out of line?
Look you could, you had what was called CB, confined to barracks, where and
I never did get any of that but pure luck I guess. You’d have certain things that you would have to do. You would have to report maybe to the guardroom at such and such a time in such and such a type of uniform. You may be required to go to the airmen’s mess and wash dishes or whatever for a couple of hours at such and such a time and then you would have to get back and report to the guard room and whatever. If it was a really serious
offence you probably got court-martialled followed by a time in the military correction centre. So you did, generally speaking, try not to do those serious things, but some of them did.
Did you know of any blokes that did get…?
I did, primarily one major one I know, happened in Vietnam.
This fellow, we were the armoury, and ground defence section in Vung Tao was right beside the area that was the cinema. Anyway, I was on duty, I think cleaning weapons or whatever, this particular night and this fellow came in, one of ours, airfield defence guard, and one of our corporals
at the time was rather large, probably you might say obese, and these two didn’t get along all that well. Anyway, something had gone on and the one fellow was shall I say three parts cut [drunk], but the problem was he had a submachine gun in his hot little hand and he has come into the guardroom chasing this other fellow and saying something along the lines of, “Where is that big fat so-and-so? I am going to kill him.”
And of course he has got a loaded weapon in his hand, bodies went everywhere, people went out the window and whatever. He wound up being court-martialled and spending quite a period, and I think it was two weeks, in the army corrective establishment at Backbridge in Vung Tao, and that wasn’t a place that you wanted to be. Apparently when he marched in there as a suspended soldier so to speak he was given
a very large empty large boot polish tin and he was told that that would be his mirror, and he had spit polish it so that he could see his face to shave in and he had to shave every day, so you can imagine what it was like. And I in fact saw that boot polish tin when he finished his stint and you could use it as a mirror. Allegedly while he was in there, one of the things that he had to do was go over to an area of the compound and built a sandbag wall.
And of course we were instructed to build sandbags, they had to be this sort of shape they had to be patted down and built like bricks, and you built the walls as much as you would build a brick wall, tuck the ends under and stuff like that. And he was given instructions that this wall had to be so long and so high and in such in such a position. And so the story goes he built the wall and the staff came along to inspect it and said words to the effect, “Very, very good.
However, it is six inches out of alignment. Pull it down and build it all over again.” So he didn’t cause any further troubles. And that didn’t give me any sort of thoughts of wanting to go through that sort of procedure myself. I guess I was some what of a goody two shoes [well behaved]. But as I said, I was probably a little bit timid and shy and if I came to that I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag [couldn’t win a fight] if I got into a brawl anyway – you just step back and let them
You said that you didn’t drink initially, when did that change?
Probably in Thailand, actually, I’d have a couple.
We might wait then, when we get to Thailand. What happened after Amberley?
Excuse me, sorry. Yeah. About October, September, October ’66 I got posted from Amberley on completion of
my course got posted from Amberley to Fairbairn where we set up a rifle flight, which was essentially thirty people under headquarters element, as a sort of holding area. Initially we would run the armoury and stuff like that, do our own exercises, and we did in fact do a couple of exercises out Fairbairn but initially we were there as a holding area before
orders came to move us overseas. And in those days we were posted either to Fairbairn, Amberley, Richmond, Williamtown and Darwin, I believe. I am not sure about Townsville. But certainly I got posted to Fairbairn, as did guys off the following course. Other members of my course more or less went straight from the course
to overseas but my turn came later on. We had about six months, five months at Fairbairn up until March of ’67. We did a training exercise in the hills outside of Canberra, we did a couple of training areas, in fact one was a exercise
where we did a river crossing using rope bridges and the particular creek was rather cold and it was a bugger of a day. During that training exercise one of the fellows on the course, or on the exercise with us, lost his watch, and the creek was flowing that rapidly and it was that grotty [dirty] cause there had been a lot of rain recently that he couldn’t locate the area or make out the watch, anyway. Subsequently,
we back there some weeks later to the same area and the river was much clearer and we found the watch. So he was lucky; he got his watch back. Went to another area for about a week to conduct a ground defence area and it was in an area by another river in through some private property where we had
got approval to go. And we set up camp on one side of the river and defensive positions on the other side, and in between the area that the river flowed downhill into a pool area which was quite large and then flowed down through a little sort of series of rapids. And we were using this pool area, obviously, as you do, for swimming and all that sort of stuff.
And a civvy [civilian] came in – he obviously got approval to come onto the property too – and he was setting up to go fishing just down the rapids area from where we are swimming. And we said, “Oh mate, we have been swimming here all morning. You are not going getting thing there.” And he did, well about half hour into it. He came up with a trout about yay high. I thought, “Damn, there are fish in this river.” And in fact we’d go
down the river and have a look at some log areas and you could see the trout, you know, in the shallows and whatnot, so they were definitely there, and they weren’t too worried about us. But they knew that we were there and we knew they were there. And yeah, that was just more and more exercise.
At this stage were you really keen to go overseas?
Well we knew we were going to. You weren’t sure where you were going to go. Now there were three places that we could have gone
in that point of time, in fact four: Ubon in Thailand, or Vietnam to two different areas – Vung Tau or Phan Rang, and there were a couple of people in Butterworth in Malaysia. Now that wasn’t a full rifle flight section, that was just a few people running the armoury. But out of my group probably about half of us went from Canberra to Butterworth
and up to Ubon in Thailand, and the rest from that lot went to Phan Rang in Vietnam.
Where did you want to go?
Didn’t really worry me. I was training to do a job, the job involved deploying overseas somewhere, didn’t really matter. I was hoping to get, like most of us, I was hoping to get I guess Vietnam like most of us at some point in time. Why, I don’t know, and there you go.
You know, you are trained to do a job. If you are going to be trained to do it you might as well be where there might be some trouble so you can do your job. It is no fun in roving pickets and guarding aircraft back in Australia where there is nothing happening.
What did you think of, what did you know of Vietnam?
Not a great deal. There was lots of talking about
the domino theory and if Vietnam the rest of South-East Asia goes and becomes red [communist] and Australia and America and others didn’t want the ‘reds in the beds’ sort of thing. So yeah, I didn’t have any real political opinions. I was a member of the defence force in a democratic type country, and we weren’t bludgeoned
into going here, there or everywhere and I just saw it as I am under orders and away we go. And I do my best to carry out the orders.
Had you talked to anyone who had been to Vietnam at the point?
At that point, no. Obviously I did my time there and did it again, so I could start to speak to people from about ’67 onwards, but in early ’67
there was some people coming back but they were mainly army types who we didn’t have a great deal of contact with at that point.
So how did you come to leave the country? What was the lead-up to that?
You went from Canberra to overseas? There wasn’t another stop in between?
There wasn’t another stop in between per se, apart from hopping on aeroplanes and going.
Essentially we flew from Canberra to Sydney, Sydney to Perth, had a stopover in Perth for only a couple of hours, time enough for two of my mates to do a fair bit of damage to the beer stocks in the bar and then abused me because Perth was a bugger of a place and they didn’t like it at all. And of course they’d been in the bar of the pub. And then back on the plane, we flew into Kuala Lumpur.
Before we go there…
Right, just while you are on the bar thing. Was there a lot of pressure in your training to drink, being a non drinker?
No, no, no, just, I guess no there was no pressure at all.
And who had you become really close mates with at this stage?
As best I could,
there was another fellow named Smith, he and I got on pretty well. There was another fellow named Bromley, Ron Bromley I think, we were reasonable good. Pat Crimmin as good as you could be, you know, another couple of Western Australians, Pete Alexander, he was one of them. Yeah, but.
How did the groups of friends form in training?
I suppose like minds
just sort of gravitate. I don’t know. You might become a roommate or something and the friendship develops from there. It’s hard to say.
Yeah sure, so you went from Perth to Singapore?
Perth to Singapore, we overnighted in Singapore. Now this was before Lee Kwan Yew became the Prime Minister or whatever over there
or in his early days anyway, and Singapore really was a dive. It stank, dirt everywhere, rubbish everywhere. I remember distinctly walking over a bridge over a creek/main drain, and it stunk like the dickens and it was just total filth and all that sort of stuff. So it was an eye opener to a poor little Australian who had never been anywhere, and you know
to see beggars and all that sort of stuff. And we had a night there and then hopped on a series of planes to get from there to Penang and eventually to Butterworth airbase. And we stayed at Butterworth in accommodation with not very much money. In fact we begged, borrowed and stole the money too while we were there to keep ourselves amused,
and I think we had to wait for five or six days before we could get on a RAF aircraft, I think it was a Dakota, to get from Butterworth up to Ubon in Thailand so that had its moments. We were accommodated next to a block that had I think a unit of Ghurkhas. They had a pet monkey.
I have got a photo over there actually of myself and another guy and I have the pet monkey on my shoulder. And I was much younger and much thinner than I am now. We saw a little bit of Penang, we went and did some sightseeing and saw a bit more of the base because we didn’t have a great deal of money.
I’ll stop there, actually.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 03
So just talking still about the trip over to Thailand. You’d mentioned earlier that you were pretty naïve and hadn’t had…
…much to do with girls. What did you see in Malaysia in Butterworth? You stopped over in Butterworth on the way?
Yeah, I still didn’t too much there. What can I say?
What did you see? What was going on with the bars and the girls? We have heard a bit about that.
That was a popular stopover.
Yeah it was. And in fact when I got posted to Butterworth I learnt a lot more. Some of the girls in Malaysia aren’t necessarily girls either, so. And some of then are pretty good-looking girls but you’d get a surprise if you were that way inclined. But at that particular point in time as I say I was still young and naïve and didn’t really know where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
Before you left for Thailand did the air force educate you and all of the blokes about VD [Venereal Disease] and the risks of that?
Oh yes, you went through the standard sorts of medical briefings and security briefings and you would be told this, that and the other and this is what is prevalent in this particular area and this is what is prevalent in that particular area and you are going to this particular place and these are the sorts of places that you can not go. And naturally of course that is like a red
rag to a bull. “You can’t go to this place.” “Hmmm.” So naturally like in most occasions where we couldn’t go is where we wound up being.
As a really young sort of inexperienced and naïve boy, what did you think about those lectures on VD and stuff like that?
I can’t really remember what I thought about them. But I guess they sort of opened your eyes a little bit. “Yeah right, what are we letting ourselves in for?”
And did any of the other blokes in Butterworth, while you were on the way to Thailand did any of them actually, you know go out to bars with girls and stuff?
Very likely, but I don’t know.
You weren’t aware of that?
No, I wasn’t aware of it. I know I think one particular night we were fairly short on money most of the time and in fact a couple of my mates teed up with the
financial accounts officer that he would give us an advance and we would pay it back when we got to Thailand, which we did, and it worked out to about, oh, I don’t know, about thirty pound each. Sorry, thirty dollars each. Pounds and shillings and pence had only just gone out when I first joined up. Bugger. So pretty much I did have one sort of night in Penang and in those days to get from
Penang, from the mainland to Penang, you actually had to go through a customs checkpoint and I don’t remember when the customs checkpoint was stopped. But Penang Island itself was a duty-free port. So you’d hop on the ferry from Butterworth and go across, and then coming back from Penang you’d have to go through customs and declare what you had bought on Penang Island and all that sort of stuff. So
we had a day sightseeing and riding the Penang ferry, and I have got photos of that and all that sort of stuff. Essentially, as I said, we were fairly broke so for entertainment we went to what was called the Malcolm Club, which was a canteen run by the RAF, or else we just stayed in the block and read, or in a couple of cases climbed up coconut trees and knocked coconuts down for something to do, and this was while we were
waiting as I said for the aircraft to take us up to Thailand up to Ubon Ratchathani.
You were only eighteen at the time, so you were really young and kind of just joined the air force and going overseas for the first time – it must have been pretty exciting. What were your expectations of what you would experience overseas?
Well actually I was quite looking forward to it. And I just kept remembering back to the recruit sergeant and words to the effect
when I signed the dotted line, he said, “You’ll be right, mate.” Probably a standard line he used with everyone. He said, “You’ll be overseas within a year.” And I was thinking to myself when I hopped on the plane to fly out of Australia it was ten months more or less from the time I’d first marched in to getting on that plane. And I thought, “Hmm, well okay Mr Recruiting Sergeant, I am on that plane. Thank you very much.” But it was still sort of
a wide open, sorry, an eye opening exercise for us. Because you know I am just a country boy or a boy from the close in urban areas and I don’t know too much about the rest of the world. And damn, there are beggars and there is hot and wet and sticky and all this sort of stuff, and lots of people, and what am I doing?
Had you had the chance to say goodbye
to your family before you left Australia?
From memory I think I did get a week’s pre-embarkation leave, so yeah. Went across to Perth and did that and went back and hopped on board the plane and away we went, so to speak.
Do you remember much about that sort of farewell?
No, not particularly. This is going back to
my initial training up period. And I travelled from Perth to Adelaide by train and you had to change trains at Kalgoorlie because at that stage the standard gauge didn’t go all the way through. And I remember we were at a siding called Grass Valley, or Grass Patch or something, and waiting for whatever reason and I hear this knock on the window and it was my stepsister, who knew I was on the train, and
she had come from where she’d been living to this station to try and catch up with me and by chance had found the right carriage, and so we got to have a bit of a yak at that particular stage. But as far as saying goodbye to the family for my overseas trip, no I don’t remember a great deal about it. It’s a long time ago.
Sure, that’s okay. So before you actually went over to Thailand what were you briefed
in regarding your role? What Australia would be doing there?
The Royal Australian Air Force operating out of Thailand had a number of Sabre aircraft, which were fighter type aircraft, and they would rotate with the pilots from Butterworth with 79 Squadron, would rotate up to Ubon for I don’t know, maybe the pilots would be two months at a time on their rotations. And
their task was to provide air defence for Ubon airfield and for the assets there, and as part of what was then I guess the SEATO, South East Asian Treaty Organisation requirements. Now bear in mind that the Americans had multiple aircraft over there. They had amongst other things a lot of Phantom fighter bombers, which were operating basically twenty-four hours a day.
They had transport aircraft, they had Super Constellation type aircraft that were fitted up as radar type aircraft. They had Hercules and mini Hercules, which were set up to provide flare droppings type things. And all the aircraft operated from one side of the airfield and the Americans had their domestic area and the Thais themselves had their domestic and fly on areas on the other side of the airfield
from where we had our domestic area, so we lived on the other side and we had basically full support services. We had, apart from airfield defence we had everything that would be taken to run a unit on a deployment, right down to a carpenter, an electrician, a padre, the cooks, bottle washers and all that sort of stuff. We had communications experts, even equipment type people,
we had a couple of locals who acted as interpreters for us. And as an ADG we worked in association with Thai air police and worked directly beside them in our tasks, and in fact for that matter linked in with the American Air Policing through their radio network and whatnot.
And how much of a briefing were you given before you went to Thailand about what was happening there?
I knew there was a question that I’d got distracted from.
Yeah, we were told pretty much what Australia was there for. And as said, the aircraft were there to provide close in protection for the base, should anything come across the borders with hostile intent. Not that I am aware of any of our Sabres getting involved in any action of any shape. There was one
particular story were they were alleged to have done some work where maybe they might have gone across a border. I don’t know that that ever happened. But from our role as airfield defence guards we were to provide standing patrols, main gate guards, roving pickets around the aircraft lines and the domestic area, and we were also permitted to work off base, up to five miles
off the base, on patrols. And we would go fully armed on those patrols and apart from the Thais and the occasional military policeman we were the only force doing that. There were some stories about American aircraft being shot at from outside the base. And I give full credence to those stories being accurate and to the point, where on a number of occasions we were tasked to go out, find a particular location
where it was believed that things were happening from and hope to stop those things happening. Well we never actually found anything but we did develop a relationship with local villagers, and on one particular occasion in our mixed pidgin English Thai conversation developed along the lines of the villager talking about hearing a helicopter type noise
some nights previously, shortly thereafter the noise of a larger aircraft and followed by the noise as he described it of as obviously of a heavy weapon firing as it, as that other aircraft passed over, and then the helicopter type thing flying away later on. So we worked out that somebody didn’t necessarily like the Americans and somebody was flying in with some sort of heavy weapon, popping off a few rounds and then shooting through.
Now who those people were, hmm, don’t know. We tried to find them but we weren’t successful.
No theories about that?
Um, no particular theories. I know on a number of occasions the American air police had concerns about unidentified aircraft flying around where their
ammunition storage area was, and in fact on one occasion I distinctly remember listening in on the radio conversation as one of the static guards was calling into headquarters about this particular aircraft or chopper or whatever it was. Whether they were Laotians or Thai communists or what I don’t know. But they were up to no good and our job was to try and prevent them
doing anything that would disrupt the tasks of the base.
What were you taught of the Thai people and their culture before you went to Thailand?
We were given some briefings on the Thais. We knew that there would be Buddhist type monks in the area, that the Thais in general were reasonably friendly to us, and that proved to be very correct, that
essentially they were, most of the village people were pretty poor. And that proved to be fairly true too. But that they would, as the monks came round for their daily rounds the locals would give whatever they could in the way of food or whatever to help the monks out. And you could see that happening every day.
And what about language, were you taught any language skills?
I learnt a little bit as I went, enough to talk in a limited way about the weather and that sort of stuff. I can still count up to ten or twelve in Thai, Mon, Song, Sum, Sar, Seehaw, but yeah. most of it has gone by the board. I know a couple of phases that you don’t want to know about.
But well I think we might like to know about those.
Oh they relate to
what immediate relatives are and how they do it and all that sort of stuff.
Believe me, we won’t be shocked. We have been told all sorts of things. You can tell us.
Oh well, there is, I can’t remember the exact, let me see, quak now mong. Quak now mong was something about what your mother does and who she does it with and all that sort of stuff.
And one of the phases had something to do with your mother and a dog and all that sort of stuff. They have got some fairly coarse sorts of things. The problems with those areas over there, you can say one word, or one sentence in a particular area, say Ubon Ratchathani Province, but you’d say the same thing in Bangkok and it has got a different context entirely so you had to be fairly careful about what you did say.
Yeah, there were some funny things that happened over in Thailand. The Americans were operating twenty-four hours a day with Phantom fighter bombers and quite often they would come back with holes in them. One aircraft took off at twenty past two one morning but as he was taking off, I was on the main gate guard, as he went past my line of sight he obviously had problems because his back end was burning.
Anyway, the captain of the aircraft was telling his navigator to get out and not getting any response, and he turned around and there was nobody in the back seat and the aircraft is still rolling, so he got out and got away from it. And this is an aircraft with a full load of bombs on board, it’s on fire, so you can imagine that it is not a very good situation. The fuel exploded and about a minute or so later the entire bomb load
blew up, and this was happening from where I was around about four hundred metres away. It wound up blowing a hole roughly twenty foot wide and twelve foot deep in the runway. Nobody got killed but there was a couple of reasonably serious injuries. One American who had insomnia had been sitting on an upstairs balcony on the second floor smoking a
pipe, and he got picked up by the blast wave and knocked onto the ground and jammed the stem of his pipe up through the roof of his mouth. And one of our fellows was on roving picket around the Sabre lines and he got picked up and thrown against a galvanised iron fence and so he had a few bruises and whatnot. But overall we were lucky. We had a couple of people who were illegally
hiring bungalows down the road from our containment area. One bloke was asleep in bed doing what you do, so to speak, and a chuck of engine went through the bamboo wall above him. Padre was going down to commune with nature and a chuck of engine landed about three feet in front of him. How nobody got seriously injured I don’t know, but that was…
That is an amazing story. What actually caused that to happen?
Well accidents happen. But in this particular case, when the aircraft starts it take off they punch in their afterburners and that provides what they call military power for takeoff, additional power. They get to a certain height and then they cut out their afterburners. They may use their afterburners in
combat later on. But anyway, what I can gather is that a fuel line fractured as these events were happening and essentially it caught fire. I mean a jet engine in motion is fire anyway, but the fire spread everywhere. The fuel line was as I said fractured and the pilot knew that he was in serious dodo [trouble] and had to get out of there.
He got out and the navigator got out and they were pretty much all right apart from having to check with mamasan about their laundry problems. I think they might have had some severe brown stains on them. But yeah, just one of those things.
But they had to abandon this plane that was loaded…
…with bombs and on fire. So there was nothing else they could do?
No, there was nothing else they could do. Now this thing blew up and our cinema
was a tin roof structure, open sided, with canvas sort of deckchairs and it was up against our far fence which was close to our runway. I guess the runway was about one hundred yards or something like that. So you can imagine what it is like trying to watch a movie with every fifteen minutes a flight of Phantoms taking off, “Right, okay,” or even longer. And we had
the support guys, or not the support guys, the techs [technicians] from 79 Squadron, the fitters and whatnot. They had been having a party and the party had been raging pretty well, and this is still twenty past two in the morning and they were still at it. Anyway this thing is burning on the runway and they are lining the fence, “Burn baby burn, come on.” Now one of them got an excellent photo of it as it exploded, it knocked him flat on his arse. Then they wanted to go through the fence
and start collecting souvenirs. But what they didn’t realise at the time was that some of the bomb load was what they called CBUs, which are a cluster bomb unit, and the bomb that carried these things had obviously shattered and these bomblets were everywhere in the grass and everything, and these blokes wanted to get souvenirs. The military police sorted them but.
So they were stopped.
Yep, our firies, we had
a group of fire fighters over there and they had an old Rolls Royce fire truck and they took pride in beating the Americans to any incidents. Now I am pretty sure that they did on this particular occasion. But as one of our duties at night, picture the scene, there is a front entrance that is open all the time and controlled by ADGs and Thai air police and there is a back gate between the fire section and the runway and whatnot which is not open all day –
it is locked at night. If an incident happens our job, get the key, get down and get it open before the firies go through it. And if we weren’t there in time they would go through it. Well on at least three occasions the fire truck just went straight through the gate because nobody had got there in time to open it. So I am fairly sure that on this particular occasion they successfully got there and did whatever they could to help out.
Yeah, but it was a bit of a hairy moment. One of the guys in the block that I was living in, because my block was one of the closest ones to the runway, Pat had had a pretty heavy night and he was well asleep and he was well pissed [drunk], and apparently the shock wave picked him up and threw him out of bed, and of course everybody had been evacuated from that
but nobody had realised that he was still there. And the following morning somebody picked him. I said, “Pat, what’s happened? Where have you been?” “What you mean? What’s happened?” “An aircraft blew up! What have you been doing?” “Come on, no, no, no, you’re kidding me.” So I dragged him out and showed him the smouldering and the crane operating and all this sort of stuff. “Ohhh.”
He’d been unconscious more or less through the whole thing?
Yes, non compos mentis through the whole lot.
And in fact how loud would that have been, what he slept through?
Can you describe that explosion for us?
I don’t know whether you have ever heard a sonic boom, but it would be a damn site louder than that. Yeah, a lot of noise. I mean you are looking at several tons of bombs going up at one time and that is fairly horrendous.
And in fact when the pilot and navigator escaped, how did they escape?
Presumably they pinned their, put the safety pins in their ejection devices, opened the canopy and got out and went. It maybe mythical that the navigator got out first, but anyway they both got out and left the aircraft to its devices and took off as best they could, and as I say, they were
How high was the aircraft when it exploded?
It was still on the runway.
Still on the runway. So it never took off?
No, it never took off.
Actually never took off.
If it had been in the air.
Did they escape through a chute or something?
No, just through the canopy.
No, just through the canopy.
So open the canopy and get the hell out.
How large is that aircraft that you are describing?
I don’t know whether you have seen RAF Hornets and F111s, it would be somewhere between the
Hornet and the F111, slightly larger then the Hornet and slightly smaller then the F111. Suffice to say that it was big enough to carry a fairly big bomb load, but all on the wings, not on an internal bay system like the F111 could do.
And these aircraft were coming in and out constantly?
Twenty-four hours a day. On average there would be a flight of at least two and probably four on average every fifteen minutes heading across to North Vietnam or wherever in South Vietnam.
They might be called out to support. They would take off with minimal fuel, they would meet up with their tanking aircraft, go out and do their mission and come back again. Sometimes they came back with holes in them. Sometimes they came back with pieces of missile in their wings and stuff like that.
And did they always come back?
No, not all.
How many didn’t come back?
That I couldn’t say.
While you were there, were there a few?
Look, there were incidents. There were certainly aircraft that came back shot up. I distinctly remember one coming back with a part of, and it wasn’t a Phantom, it was something else, but it came back with a piece of missile in one wing. Another came back and touched down and fired an anti-craft missile as it touched down, inadvertently. So you got a rocket coming down the runway. Things like that happened from time to time.
What happened in that situation when the anti missile?
I guess the investigations happened and all that sort of stuff, but it was out of my bailiwick.
No, when I say what happened, I mean like where did it go and did it hit anything?
It possibly hit a building, I don’t know. You know, sort of duck for cover when those sorts of things are happening.
I distinctly remember the Thais had a batch of aircraft of their own. And I distinctly remember one of them, I think it was a little I think a T28 Trainer taking off one day, heading out away from the base and then developing engine trouble. And I could hear it and see it and sort of watch it do a slow turning arc descending and then sort of a puff of smoke after it hit the deck.
So you know there were problems, things happen when you are doing aviation.
Sure, can I go back to when you first arrived in Thailand after being in Malaysia? What were your very first impressions of Thailand?
I was quite impressed with it. Around Ubon there was quite a lot of building happening.
and the scaffolding they used was bamboo. So you can imagine three to four storey buildings with bamboo scaffolding, “Hmm, how safe is that?” But that was quite common. I guess there were a lot of different sights that you wouldn’t see – the average Aussie kid doesn’t see water buffalo in the streets and all that sort of stuff. And you saw lots of those.
The villages were fairly grotty if you would. So it was quite different to our sort of lifestyle. From what I could see of the locals they were reasonably friendly, more so when the water festival came round and they would be very friendly, particularly if they could get you in their sights with a can of water, they would hit you with it.
But yeah, it was very, very different for an eighteen-year-old.
How did you get to Ubon? Did you…?
From Butterworth we travelled in an RAAF Dakota, a DC3 aircraft. I can’t remember how long it took, but there were certain criteria for any of our aeroplanes flying into Thailand. They had to be sort of be a little bit
evasive, oh not evasive about it. They had to be sort of politically correct because I am not sure exactly what the situation was but I think the Thais were under a bit of pressure and whatnot so they had to be seen to be supporting us, but at the same time we had to be as diplomatic as we could about it all.
And did you fly direct to Ubon?
I believe it was, but I
can’t remember that far back.
That’s okay. So you know you said that your role was to defend this airbase.
It just annoys the hell out of me at times.
No, don’t worry. No problem for us anyway. It’s a problem for you, of course. Who were you really defending the airbase against?
Well there was
at the time some degree of troubles with communist terrorists, certainly in Malaysia, definitely Laos, Cambodia and in some degree in Thailand itself in the jungles of Thailand and it was perceived that some of those people would provide a threat against the base. So that was part of what we were doing.
Now much of that would have been sniper type units coming on to disrupt central charges or whatever. Some of it would have been per standoff attacks per rocket or mortar, and in fact after my time there some of those attacks did take place. There weren’t a huge amount but they certainly did take place.
Do you know how many Australian
forces were there in Thailand at the time that you were there?
At Ubon air force wise we probably had about one hundred. As I said there were pilots from 79 Squadron and there were base support personnel such as myself, airfield defence and whatnot. A whole range of personnel, there were the ground maintenance people for the 79 Squadron.
There were photographers, there were photographic interpreters, all that sort of stuff, service police. And we worked in conjunction as I said with the, from the airfield defence point of view, worked in conjunction with the Thai air police primarily and the American air police to do what we did.
And how significant was that base in terms of
Thailand, or the American or international forces in Thailand? How significant was Ubon?
Pretty significant. Obviously it didn’t have the very heavy aircraft. The B52s and whatnot weren’t operating from Thailand but Ubon was one of four maybe five bases that the Americans were operating from in Thailand. And by the time I left there
they had a significant number of F4 Phantoms, at that stage I believe it was probably close to one hundred. Now that was a fair whack of people. Our six or seven Sabres, just small beer.
Can you describe the base for us? Exactly what was there and how it was?
come down the road you’d come into the gate, you had guard box off to one side. Off to the right-hand side was a big bunker for protection, if need be. Right beside the bunker was the guardroom, which was a weatherboard and galvanised iron place which we operated from. Initially it was fairly basic. It had office space and control room space. By the time I left
we’d incorporated bunks for the on duty section to sleep in rather than sleep in their own blocks so there would always be somebody there on call. You would work rotating shifts where you might spend a couple of hours on the main gate, you might spend a couple of hours monitoring the radio, logging events. You might do the back gate,
you might do roving picket on the Sabre lines on the other side of the base, or you might in fact be on a section doing an off base patrol. And occasionally we did off base patrols at night, going out as I said up to about five miles off the base.
Can you tell us a bit about those off base patrols and what was involved with those?
Fairly casual. It was, not casual.
That’s not the word to use. But we would go out as a fighting unit prepared to fight if necessary. We weren’t expecting that we would have to because essentially there wasn’t, there shouldn’t have been too much around. But as I said we were the only unit apart from the Thais themselves and some service and military police
that carried sidearms. But we went out fully gunned up, up to SLR [Self Loading Rifles] and M60 type weapons, and I think M79 grenade launchers. Our sections would go out as an infantry section would do, with the same sorts of equipment, the same sorts of firepower available. So if any thing did happen, we had the radio sets and we could call in our contacts
and hopefully pretty well acquit ourselves if need be.
And how long were those patrols?
Generally speaking they would be a day patrol just familiarising ourselves with the area, looking at areas where there could be trouble happening. As I said there was an area where it was suspected that aircraft were being fired out and it was basically a dried lake bed. We had scouted that area; we have had a look at it. Didn’t, as I said, didn’t find anything but did get into conversations
with villagers that indicated what we knew was happening – that somebody, some organisation was definitely coming in and taking potshots at aircraft from time to time. To this day I don’t really know, it may very well be that it was Air America, CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] whatever trying to stir up the pot and get more involvement, but that’s, who knows, conspiracy theory. I don’t know.
But there were certainly people taking shots at aeroplanes from Ubon.
And did you ever hear, I mean apart from having those stories told to you, did you actually ever hear shots being fired?
I didn’t personally hear shots being fired. However, I did personally listening in as I said, and I was on radio watch in the guardroom, when one of these helicopters was flying around.
And I had a very distressed American on duty at the bomb dump trying to find out who the devil was flying around in his area and he wasn’t very happy at that point in time. He was very concerned and to my knowledge it was not an Allied type of aircraft so. Who it was and what it was don’t know. Certainly some things did happen.
Were you actually communicating with him in that situation?
Yeah, in fact
he was primarily… We were linked up with their network and we could talk directly to their headquarters and we could call them up on an instance if we had troubles. Ditto, they could call us up on an instance if they had troubles. And I was listening in on his conversation as he was trying to talk with headquarters and work it out. And you could hear the noise in the background of the helicopter at that particular point in time. He had cause to be worried.
But I don’t know to this day exactly what transpired that night, as to who or what it was, but he was certainly upset at the time and hoping that the hordes weren’t coming over the hills at him.
Of all the jobs that you personally did there, what was the most challenging for you?
None of them were arduously challenging,
funny maybe. I mean we went on a… My section went on a patrol one day and we were basically to do a semicircular arc starting from the base and walking through the villages and familiarising ourselves with the area. And as I said, we went out fully gunned up and webbing and whatnot, rations and stuff like that, and three to four water bottles. And obviously you got to re-hydrate and that sort of stuff. At a point in
time we decided blow this, we were on a road at the time, we knew that local buses passed through and the next one that came along, we’d flag down and bum a ride back to Ubon, paying our fare of course. Anyway one came along and my section commander had got on board and said in pidgin English, negotiated with the bus driver, “Do you go up to Ubon?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So we all got on board
and paid our five baht for the fare and travelled down this dusty dirty bumpy country road for quite some time until we came to a little village. And everybody got off and the bus driver got off, “Hey, hang on! You going to Ubon?” “Yes, yes, tomorrow.” So we wound up walking back to base anyway. We had a bus ride for a while.
That’s a good story.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 04
I was just going to ask you, how did the civilian population of Thailand respond to seeing you soldiers sort of in their villages, armed and so forth?
In general they were fairly open with us. They didn’t seem unduly phased about having us around and it was quite an eye opening. Now whether there were dietary problems in some of the villages or
not, I don’t know, or whether it was results of liaisons from previous times. It was amazing in some villages the number, for example, of redheaded children running around. And I thought, “Hello, what’s been going on around here and how long ago was it?” Because you can understand that 1966, 1967 it wasn’t all that long after World War II and so who knows, some of these kids couldn’t have been results of, hmm, mixed marriages, shall I say.
But yeah. No, look, in general the population was pretty good to us. Now we understood, though, there were people that didn’t like us there, they didn’t like particularly the Americans there. It was a more or less recognised fact that there were a number of the local population who observed for, shall we say the other side, and they would pretty much every morning
they would stroll past, position themselves in a particular area up near the end of the strip and basically be there all day counting aeroplanes. So the service police and the American air police were reasonably happy to have them there, cause they figured we know where they are and we know what they are and we know what they are doing and what the hell, so as long as they are there we know nothing is going to happen here.
How did… Sorry.
How did you and the other Australians get on with the Americans?
Pretty reasonable. The Americans are dead-set suckers for souvenirs and they are pretty generous, and quite literally for a couple of Australian slouch hats or a couple of cartons of Fosters [beer] or something like that we could literally have outfitted our entire rifle flight with American equipment, and in fact two of my mates had taken major steps
along those roads when they made a phone call to the guardroom when I was on at the time and asked to speak to the boss, and sought his approval to acquire all this equipment and he gave them, he basically said, “No,” because he didn’t know how to bring it on charge. Hello. But yeah, they were, in general we worked in well with them. You know, you do, some of them are a bit overbearing
but then so are some of us. Some of them talk a bit funny but then so do some of us too.
Of course. What about entertainment? You mentioned the cinema earlier.
Well I can’t remember now how many times a week the cinema played, but I think it might have been at least two. It was an open-sided thing so if you weren’t on duty you could get up to the cinema. As far as beverages and stuff like
that, the airmen’s club was available and of course the officers and sergeants had their own particular messes. The airmen’s club had a side room that had a juke box in it. You could sit in there and read books or whatever. I distinctly remember that that jukebox had a number of Marty Robins tunes on it and one of those was in particular was forever playing, and if it wasn’t playing one of us would
walk in and put that particular song on. Probably annoyed the hell out of everybody else, but there you go.
What song was that?
There were two in particular. One was called Mr Shorty and the other was Tall Handsome Stranger. Marty Robins is a country and western singer. They were quite popular songs then. The mess, sorry the bar area some nights a week, once a week they’d run a bingo night, do raffles and all that sort of stuff,
and if you weren’t on duty you were able to go there. Even the duty section, you know, we’d be on what was called alert stand down, but if we were called up we had to be at the guardroom within five minutes, fully gunned up and ready to go. It was not uncommon to be sitting down having a coke and playing bingo and the PA [Public Address system] would come across, “Alert section to the guardroom, alert.” You know you’d be, “Hmmm, hmm,
hmm.” And off you’d go. And of course everybody in the room would, “Yeah, bloody stupid ADGs,” and things like that and away we’d go and do our thing. But at the bar they sold Tiger beer and various other, Carlsberg I think was available, Fosters and VB [Victoria Bitter] and stuff like that. Now a couple of our ADGs liked beverages and one of them liked to sleep in a fairly
unusual position when he got a little bit full [drunk]. In fact there were two places that he liked; one was on the bar when he got a bit pissed, so some wag on one end of the bar had drawn in texta a black cross and the words ‘Kiwi RIP [Rest In Peace]’, because Kiwi was the man that used to… But this same fellow would also climb up into the rafters. Now picture this, it is an open type ceiling place with rafters and fans, and
one of the fun things for us to do was when we were drinking our beverages was to build can pyramid and some of them got seriously high, as you can imagine. You are bored, you are not doing anything, and a group of 79 Squadron techos had been pretty much building a pyramid all day one Saturday, I think it was. And our friend was up in the rafters asleep and this can pyramid had gone seriously high,
it was probably about seven or eight cans, and Kiwi falls out, straight on to the pyramid, knocks it everywhere, knocks the techos everywhere, picks himself up, wanders back to bed, “Excuse me, fellows.” And then techos just looked at it all in disgust and picked themselves up and walked out. Wrecked their day for them. You did things for fun. The Americans had a
fellow named Robin Olds who was the Wing CO [Commanding Officer], he was a colonel and he became a fighter ace while he was over there – he shot down five MiGs. And his crew techs took one of the fuel tanks on, one of the wing tanks off one of his aircraft and had it mounted on a concrete plinth outside the squadron headquarters with a tin
cutout of Snoopy [dog -– cartoon character], done up with his flying goggles and his scarf because he is flying his Sopwith Camel, and this was a tribute to Robin Olds. Well a couple of my mates one night wandering around, driving around the hardstand area in the truck wondering what to do, and they drove past this thing, because it is floodlit and quite easily viewable, and they decided that it would look very attractive on our side of the
house. So they went back and got a couple of willing helpers and went over back over the flight line, lifted this thing up and put it in the back of the truck, and there was about five feet of it hanging out the other end. So they proceeded to make their way back to our place via the taxiways and runways and having to give way to Phantom jets taxiing for takeoff and all this sort of stuff. And the Americans are wondering what the hell these Aussies were doing and all that sort of stuff. Now
they set it up on the lawn across the road from the guardroom and put it up on its block and all this sort of stuff, and then got in touch with the American radio station. “Oh, g’day mate. This is the ground defence section at the Aussie side. Um, we have got Snoopy and if youse want it back, it is going to cost some cartons.” Well it was almost a
diplomatic incident! I am not sure that the cartons ever got paid, but we certainly had Snoopy for a couple of days before he went back. It was quite a hoot. And that was just one of the things that you did to entertain and amuse.
At what point were you introduced to alcohol?
Oh, probably, I had my very first serious
bender and that was Singer beer in Ubon Ratchathani probably mixed with some bourbon and stuff like that. I should know better at that stage, didn’t, but I certainly do now. And I tell you what I was a very, very crook boy. We had guys that were employed to do our laundry for us, hut boys, they were paid so much by us each week. Hut boy was not
impressed with me the following morning – I was one crook puppy. And there were certain elements of my life that I do not remember a thing about from that particular night. So eighteen, I think it might have been around about the time I had my nineteenth birthday. But I got seriously pissed and that was on Singer beer and that was the first time ever.
Was that a sort of conscious decision that you made?
No, we were just going out with mates and we
were going to have a beer and have a look around and do a little bit. Have a samlor race, a samlor is basically a trishaw type thing and they were used a lot up there. We’d take a samlor into town, five baht or whatever. A baht was equivalent to five cents. So five baht was twenty-five cents for this fellow to ride his bike and take you into town. Quite often the boys would put the samlor rider in the seat and ride him into town.
They’d have races.
Can you tell us about celebrating your nineteenth birthday in Thailand?
Oh, honestly I can’t remember it. Oh dear, it’s gone.
Not a great deal, it was just another day apart from the fact that I probably got pissed.
So sometime before that you had started drinking?
Yeah, not hugely but I did enjoy a Tiger or Carlsberg or whatever in the airmen’s club and sit down and have a beer or a coke or whatever. I drank a fair bit of coke in those days. We also had in the club a couple of pool tables so know you’d play a bit of pool, maybe some darts, just to while the time away if you weren’t on duty. Or else you’d be wandering around you’d go into Ubon
and go to one of the little restaurants and have something to eat. Now for a young kid just out of Australia, it was unusual to walk down the street and see the local butcher on the sidewalk with his, you know, with all his chopping blocks and whatnot. Not airconditioning, no freezers or anything, ugh.
What was the town of Ubon like?
It is very hard to recall it now,
but it was reasonably large. But there was, as I said, as I mentioned earlier, there was bamboo scaffolding and all that. There was a lot of construction happening. It was situated on the Moon River, which I think becomes part of the Mekong system. And the Moon, as it flowed through Ubon Ratchathani the Moon was fairly
wide. Now I really can’t remember, but probably more than a hundred metres wide, you know, where the road bridge went across. Ubon… Obviously Australia had been involved in there from about ’64 through to ’68 and I was there in ’67, so Australia had a
fair bit of a presence there but nothing in comparison to the Americans. And the town itself, sort of a lot of the business aimed at getting money from the Americans. You know, there were places that would sell jewellery, places that would sell watches and stuff like that. And you could always do a little bit of haggling to beat the price down. You would never get a real good deal but you knew that you could knock off a few dollars here and there and
maybe you bought a watch that didn’t have bamboo springs and whatnot. There were a lot of photography shops that people would get in and get all their picky [picture], taken and a couple of them were developing a trade in I suppose black market photographs, photographs that had been provided by, developed for pilots who had been over North Vietnam or whatever, and
I have got a number of photographs there of Phantoms dropping bombs over North Vietnam and stuff like that, and these were just readily available for sale at the photograph, photography shops. Whether it was kosher or not, I don’t know. What the hell.
So these were the Phantoms that were taking off from Ubon?
Dropping bombs on North Vietnam?
The pilots would take photographs and whatnot. What else? There were barber shops, you’d go in for a
barber, hair cut. They’d come and say, “Mister, do you want a beer?” “Oh, I am here for a haircut. Oh yeah, I’ll have a beer too. What the hell. Why not?” There were other places, massage parlours and whatnot, that I didn’t toy around with at that particular stage, but that’s another story.
But do you remember seeing the brothels there and what they were like?
Yes, I remember seeing them.
What were they like, of what you observed?
Generally speaking clean I suppose. What can you say about them?
Well I mean just in terms of the conditions? Or what type of building that they were located in? What sort of women were working there?
Most of them, most of the women were young country girls that had been offered jobs and didn’t know what they had been offered
until they found out where they were. I guess a trade developed and it was only primarily the Americans, and of course Aussies being Aussies, with something happening, well we made use of it too. I mean…
These are very young men who are alone and don’t have their girls or girlfriends?
In some aspects you’re right. And
in some cases although they did it illegally. At least five of my mates hired bungalows and shall I say hired girls that lived with them for a time that they were there as housekeepers, if you will. Whatever went with the housekeeping. Now technically they weren’t supposed to be off base doing that but everybody knew they were. And quite often we had curfew hours you had to be
back on base, but if you were on shift and you had to get back to your room and your curfew was past, well tough, so you just walked down and went to your house. But so there were quite, four or five who that did that.
They were from the ADG?
Hmm, and I think there was a couple of techos that did the same thing too.
And that was sort of generally known?
Generally known, but whether it was officially known
I don’t know. Certainly amongst the ADGs it was known.
And they were Thai woman they were living with?
And did you become close with any Thai people when you were there?
In that aspect, no. I developed a sort of friendship but it was very loose with one of the local Thai air policeman, but I think it was mainly developed around the fact
that he knew I was an Australian who could get things and, “Mister, you buy me watch?” or something like that. So a couple of times I did things like that. They were friendly enough but in some cases they were only friendly because they wanted to get stuff out of you. I mean, that’s fair enough.
When you said before that technically it was illegal to live in… Was it illegal to be living off the base or illegal to be living with a Thai woman?
Let’s put it this way, I think it was probably frowned upon. I don’t really know whether or what if anything the headquarters personnel knew about what might be happening. I suspect they had a reasonable idea, but of course you wouldn’t go blabbing it around. Your mates you might know about. We
had restrictions on us where they, a curfew existed from about 2200 to 0530 or something like that were in theory we shouldn’t go off base. But as I said, some of them had hired bungalows and if they came off shift at two o’clock in the morning they just wandered down the road to the bungalow. They shouldn’t have been off base, maybe,
but that’s where they were.
And you knew about this because you knew these blokes, or you were friendly with these blokes or…?
A couple of them, one of them in fact I am still, he lives out at Happenbar [?] and I know him well. I don’t know that his wife knows what happened over there, I am sure she does, but you know, he didn’t know her at that particular point in time. He and she met when we came back from over there, so.
Sure. How was your CO while you were in Thailand?
My OIC [Officer in Charge] of the section was in fact a bloke named Glen Honch, who was at that stage a flying officer who had been at Fairbairn with us. And we went across to Ubon as a formed group and from memory there was about twenty of us in that particular push from Fairbairn, and the rest of them that were at Fairbairn
went to Phan Rang in Vietnam.
And how did you like him, the OIC?
Glen was reasonable. He had his moments, as all officers and supervisors do. And yeah, I got on all right with him. I mean he’s the boss and I’m the troop and I do what I am told, basically.
And were you particularly friendly, did you become more friendly
with anyone while you were Thailand?
I think it’s swings and roundabouts. There are a couple of people over there, who at the time were from other courses that I don’t necessarily remember. In fact one bloke that I met at a reunion on Anzac Day at Newcastle, who was up there at the same time, he hadn’t come from Fairbairn
with me, he was off another course. But I don’t specifically remember him being there at the time. I know he was there but there were members from about four different courses were at Fairbairn at the time. And course you know when you are going through a training course you tend to stick with the guys that are on that course. You might get a little bit of acquaintance with the guys on the previous course as you are waiting to go on
and you might get a bit of acquaintance with the guys coming through on the next course or maybe even the one after that, but it is not a real friendship type thing. You are talking maybe a hundred people floating around. It’s not hard… It’s not easy to get to know everybody, so.
I, as I say, don’t necessarily remember this bloke. He had got the same photos as I have, so okay, yeah.
When you look back on your time in
Thailand, what is your overriding sort of feeling about it now?
Certainly an eye opener for a young fellow coming out of Australia. You know, about four miles away from where we were based was an area where there was a dam, or a weir if you will, and on the banks of the weir
there were obviously paddy fields and all that sort of stuff. And the farmers, the local farmers, were letting the water buffalo drink and wallow and all that sort of stuff in the weir. And the locals would also catch little fish from this weir. But right beside the weir on the banks was the local Mekong distillery, and Mekong is like a rice whisky or something like that. And they used
to make the whisky, they used the water supply from the weir. Allegedly they employed a guy to go round to the Mekong whisky vats and pulled the dead rats out before they bottled it. Now obviously that sort of thing wouldn’t happen in Australia, generally speaking. So looking at how they lived and their lifestyles and whatnot is so vastly different to how the average young Australian grows up.
But you just don’t sort of believe it, but it is there. This is how people live. If they need a leak [urinate], they do it right there. In Malaysia, it wasn’t uncommon to see men and woman dropping their dacks [trousers] in a main drain and defecating. “Oh okay.” And just walk on and ignore it. It is so totally different it is hard to describe.
So it was a bit of a
culture shock for you really?
Oh yeah, oh yeah, that is dead set.
And how did you enjoy the food?
Look, I started a liking for Asian food when I was in Thailand and certainly in Vietnam I furthered that, I experimented a fair bit, and ditto in Malaysia and whatnot. I enjoy to this day noodles and stuff like that. And there is a particular Vietnamese
restaurant in Darra that I go to all the time. I don’t mind noodles and stuff like that at all.
I will have to get the name of that one?
Camray, Camray. It is nothing to look at, trust me.
No, that’s all right. It’s the food that counts.
Railway Avenue, in Darra.
And it is, if you like noodles then it’s a place. It’s nothing to look at and the owner that was there when I first started going there
has sold out. But the fellow that has taken over has taken on his mannerisms because he was sort of an apprentice, but that is sidestepping the issue.
That’s all right. So how did you come to be selected to go to Vietnam?
We were called up one morning. This flight lieutenant, the flyer officer, Flying Officer Honch, called us all up, the entire flight of us, out to
the back of the guardroom, assembled us there and he said look he wanted volunteers to go to Vietnam at the end of our Ubon tour and basically asked for volunteers to step forward. And from that about ten or so of us did. Now I honestly can’t remember the flight from Ubon to Vung Tau, except getting to Vung Tau, except getting to Vung Tau, sorry, Saigon airport
and realising that it was a whole lot different, but that was it. He just wanted to volunteers and we were to go to Vung Tau and augment the rifle flight there.
And why did you volunteer?
Part of my job. I knew that at some point in time I would go so might as well get it over and have a go at it and see what was happening.
What were you briefed about Vietnam before you went,
in terms of what you might expect to see or experience there?
Well again we were getting into an area where people were seriously angry at us to a point where if you travelled in buses you’d generally have chicken wire or something up on the window so if grenades, if they were thrown, bounced off and blew up on the road instead of in the bus. Things like that.
We knew that you might look at somebody wandering down the street or you might have a haircut from the base barber and they base barber might in fact be a Viet Cong at night. And as subsequent things happened that was proven on a number of occasions, particularly at Phan Rang base where the base barber by day turned out to be a Viet Cong sniper at night and was killed doing an on base raid one night. So,
strange. We there with the expectation that we were helping the South Vietnamese in their defence against the communist hordes, so to speak. How many of them actually wanted to defend South Vietnam and how many didn’t want to was another matter. But it wasn’t,
it didn’t work out in the long run, did it? Certainly not for us.
So going back to when you first arrived, can you describe your impressions of Saigon and what was happening there at the airport when you arrived?
We came in on, I think in fact a Herc [Hercules] on that first trip. I honestly can’t recall now. For whatever reason it is gone.
But Saigon, Ton San Nhut airport in those days was a takeoff and landing every three seconds, twenty-four hours a day. Now they had at least two parallel runways north and south and I think they had a couple east and west type of thing. And they had every type of aircraft that you could possibly imagine from civilian chartered 747s of about seven different
airline type organisations up to and including Qantas, Pan Am and all that sort of stuff, to light observation helicopters, Phantom fighter bombers, Star Fighters, you name it. And quite often there was bombing and strafing happening right at the outskirts of the airfield while your aircraft was taxiing down the runway, so it was a bit of an eye opener. And then of course
you’d get off the aircraft, you’d been in an airconditioned cabin, same in Malaysia and Thailand, and the heat just knocks you for six. And you think, “What in the hell are we doing here?” And then of course all the noise and the confusion, people not knowing who the hell you are and you not knowing where you are and who you have to see, and until somebody marches over and says, “All right, you blokes need to be over there get to that bus. Get to there and we will get you where you are going.”
What were your thoughts when you arrived in Saigon and saw this happening?
Too different. I didn’t see and never did see much of Saigon. You know, you saw the standard sorts of things. One of the more popular types of vehicles over there in those days was a three-wheeled motor scooter which came in all sorts of different versions.
Some of them were used as taxis, some of them were used as utes. In fact I saw one of them in Vung Tau at one time with about nine 44-gallon drums on it. Now how the hell… It must have been empty, but how the hell they got them on there I don’t know. Now you see that, you see people on bicycles, you see people in all sorts of dress, military personnel, people, civvies wandering down the streets in black pyjamas with straw hats and you think, “Hmm, Viet Cong?
No, I don’t think so.” Yeah, so you just didn’t know who was what. The kid polishing the shoes on the sidewalk could have had a hand grenade in his shoebox and quite often did. So you know, sort of watch yourself and get used to it.
So when you first arrived, I mean it sounds like a pretty dramatic change from what you were experiencing in Thailand?
I mean what went through your head at that time?
I think I just wanted to basically get to where we were going, get settled down and get the briefings and get on with the job, pretty much. And learn a little bit about it or, yeah it was certainly an eye opener with all that aircraft traffic. People gunned up all over the place. And often in the background you’d hear
artillery arcing up or you’d see tracers going up in to the air and you’d think, “Hmm, hmm, we are in the dodo now.” And in the Saigon streets life is just going on, you know. “What’s going on here?” But then I guess life had to go on, didn’t it.
So where did you go after arriving at Saigon?
from memory we got a ride on an American aircraft called a C123, a Provider, which was basically a small version of a Hercules, so that is a twin-engine jobby. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it because it leaked oil like you wouldn’t believe and it didn’t make me too happy. And we marched on and we were sat on the floor and told by the load master to grab hold of a
tie-down strap and hang on. And that is quite literally what we did, sit on the floor, grab a tie-down strap and hang for the takeoff and landing. And it took us about I don’t know about forty minutes I suppose to fly from Ton San Nhut to Vung Tau. And yeah.
What did you see along the way, do you remember? Were you observing anything?
No, observed a fair bit later on in the chopper and whatnot.
So once you got to Vung Tau how were you allocated to your work? And what was the process?
We had to… We had a ground defence officer who was responsible for the tasking of us and he worked in accordance with what the base, our detachment commander, wanted done, and they worked in conjunction with the overall commander of the base. Now in the early stages
of the RAAF involvement, they were not necessarily accommodated on the base proper. So we had an area we called a containment area which became our domestic area within the base perimeter. But initially we had people living in what was called the villa which was in Vung Tau itself
just off, just beside the harbour. It was a great place to be. But one of my jobs was as a main gate guard for that, and also a roving picket. There was another place called the annexe which was down a lane and was basically a series of bungalows that had been occupied, and again we had roving picket and main gate guard control duties for that. We also used to provide
convoy escorts and whatnot for people going into town on the bus, and we would provide convoy escorts, watchtower duties and whatever else, roving pickets around the aircraft lines at the base itself. Now I think the villa and the annexe, we ceased operating them some time in ’68 and everything moved out onto the base at Propantaw [?] we had our own base set up.
The blocks were basically two-storey high buildings of galvanised iron and weatherboard. Again we had the mess facilities. I think from memory everybody ate in the same mess. Lots of frozen chicken cooked up by the cooks, lots of dehydrated eggs, “Dehydrated eggs, hmm.” You’d get
bacon, tomatoes and whatnot for breakfast in the morning. We ate reasonably well. But you still went into town from time to time and had a helo [helicopter] ride or whatever from time to time just to ease the boredom.
Were you still with the ADG?
Okay, so what do you remember of your first sort of significant operation or patrol that you did there?
most of our stuff was main gate guards and watchtower duties and roving pickets around the aircraft lines. The other things that we did would be convoy escorts. And we might have, for example, somebody who might need to go from Vung Tau to Bien Hoa, which was roughly speaking forty miles. Or they might have to go to Nui Dat or something, yeah Nui Dat to the Australian
Army unit. So our ADGs would escort them and we usually had a Land Rover, there would be maybe three of us in the Land Rover, one driver, obviously, one sitting shotgun and somebody sitting up with a twin mounted M60s at the back as the gun baby. So we would provide a reasonably amount of protection. And I remember I think I was on the M60 one particular day we were going to I think Bien Hoa
and driving down past this paddy field, and somebody off in this paddy field was firing an AK47. I think he was only firing it up in the air but we didn’t stop, we just went hell for leather. We didn’t take any rounds so we just kept on going and didn’t do anything about it. I presumed at the time that he was a South Vietnamese army type because they had all their little guardhouses and whatnot around the place. So there were a lot of them around
but you never really knew, and in fact it wasn’t uncommon if the South Vietnamese unit members didn’t like necessarily like Aussies they could sort of pop off a stray shot at us cause they had sympathies with the Viet Cong or NVA [North Vietnamese Army]. Quite often over there one brother would be a Viet Cong sniper
and the other would be in the South Vietnamese army, crazy.
So what were the significant differences for you in terms of your work and the general experience when you got to Vietnam compared to Thailand?
Gee, the significant difference was that we knew for sure that in Vietnam at any given time somebody might be taking potshots at us.
In Thailand there wasn’t that expectation. Thailand was reasonably relaxed, reasonably carefree, although we knew there was a possibility that somebody might dislike us and take action, but to a large degree it didn’t happen. It certainly did from time to time but that was mostly from a standoff type of view where they would lob a few mortars, few rockets. Now in Vung Tau, not necessarily in Vung Tau
but certainly in Phan Rang and other areas, that action would be not just necessarily just standoff rockets and mortars, but sniper patrols coming through the wire and taking out aeroplanes through satchel charges and things like that. So you had to be a damn sight more aware. And as I said earlier on, the base barber could be that sniper coming in at night, and in fact at Phan Rang he was, so.
Part of the ADGs’ duties were to defend the base. And in certainly in Phan Rang those duties did include going off base, setting up night ambushes and being in position to prevent those incursions or certainly prevent incursions in their area of control. And again they were linked in with the American air police and with their security
network, and we just looked after a small section of fencing. Imagine for Phan Rang you are looking at…
Oh, I’ll stop you there because we are…
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 05
All right, yeah, look the differences from Thailand as I said there was a possibility, but in Vietnam it was a probability a real probability. And in Vietnam it could have been anybody. It could have been the taxi driver who doubled as a sniper at night or whatever. You didn’t really know. And it is a strange circumstance but families did have
brothers who were on opposing sides and it made if awfully hard to know who the hell was doing what. Just going to back to our situation there, we had a number of ADGs had both Phan Rang and Vung Tau providing airfield defence. And in the latter stages additional ADGs at Vung Tau to act as gunners
for the helicopters, and in fact at Vung Tau the establishment of ADGs was increased for that purpose. And some of my mates went back to Vietnam as crewmen, they volunteered to become crewmen on helicopters – they remained ADGs but were on flying duties. Going back to Phan Rang, in both my tours to Vung Tau I had attachments
to Phan Rang and I had attachments to army units at Nui Dat or the Horseshoe. I spent a month at Phan Rang and it was just as the Tet offensive was happening in ’68. Now the boys at Phan Rang, Australia was operating Canberra bombers out of Phan Rang in conjunction with Americans and they were used over North Vietnam, they were used
anywhere in South Vietnam where they were directed to go and drop bombs, and for the two squadrons, the history, their strike rate was exceptionally good and in fact they had the best strike rate of any unit under the American wing at that particular time. Lost two aeroplanes, shot down, and in fact…
In the Tet offensive?
No, no just over the course of their time there.
And in fact two pilots, pilot and navigator were missing in action – never been found. Back to the ADGs though, again they would man watchtowers, they would do roving patrols and they would do off base ambushes. Now during the day Australians the RAAF manned two watchtowers over a section of fence line
about probably a kilometre. At night they would man an additional one and so you would be manning this thing for about eight hours at a time, on your own, which is enough to give you the heeby-jeebies. Every shadow out there had got an AK47 pointing at you. So you can imagine what it would be like. But the boys would also go and do off base patrols. There was a low lying set of hills just out the fence line,
and quite often they would do a patrol out past those hills, set up a night ambush and on at least one occasion and a several others I believe they had contacts. One of those contacts was with an NVA engineer unit that the guys were sappers that were coming in with satchel charges to blow up aeroplanes. Well they didn’t make it because our guys bumped them.
One of my mates was a machine gunner on one of those patrols and he had distinct impressions of action about to happen before it happened, the hairs on the back of his head stood up and all that sort of stuff before anything was happening, and then of course the contact happened. And as things do, things got messy. But nothing like that happened to me on an active patrol, whether I am happy about
that is another matter. But it certainly was an experience for some of them. Things got down right hot and messy and very, very scary with rounds going both ways and people getting hit and hurt and all that sort of stuff. Some of our casualties were casualties caused by the Americans. One patrol coming back actually got artillery rounds called on them because the guy, the American
on the watchtower, was not doing his job and forgot who the hell was where so he called in shots on our guys. Another fellow coming back from a patrol hit an unexploded M79 grenade and basically blew the top of his toes off, but the GP [General Purpose] boots that we had, boots general purpose, they had a steel plate in them and the fact of a steel plate at the sole wound up saving this guy’s foot more
than if he hadn’t had this he would have lost half his foot rather than just a couple of toes. Accidents are war. But Phan Rang was as I say different. One of the biggest problems for ADGs in Vietnam was boredom. There were stories about one bloke who would unofficially cam up [wear camouflage paint and uniform] and go out seeking the Viet Cong you know by himself. He was a bit of a nutter
and subsequently spent time in a psychiatric ward anyway. Came back to Amberley and he was on parade and air officer commanding this parade, and you can imagine it’s a big deal, and all of a sudden this voice comes out from the crowd, or the people on parade, “Help! Get it away from me!” And all eyes focused on this fellow and there he is with one hand around the other, “Get it away from me!” You know, they marched him off
to a psychiatric ward. I don’t know what happened to him subsequently, whether it was all an act to get out of the air force or not I don’t know. So Phan Rang, while I was at Phan Rang on that first trip the Tet offensive happened and that was a sort of scary timeframe. But most of what I knew about it was what you read or saw in the papers because quite frankly Vung Tau and Phan Rang didn’t get hit. Vung Tau probably because
it was used as a resort by all sides. So you know, the NVA and Viet Cong didn’t want to dirty up their own little nests.
How close to the Tet offensive was Phan Rang?
Look the Tet offensive hit lots of bases. The most of the action was centred around Saigon itself and I am not really sure how far away the nearest major stuff was happening from Phan Rang, but they had
certainly have been involved with it because they had had their jets called out to support units under trouble so. As I say that was a scary time. We didn’t know what was happening and who was doing what, but we got through it.
What did you know of the VC [Viet Cong] and how they operated?
We knew that
there were a lot of them. That a lot of them would be getting trained in, sort of NVA being trained in North Vietnam and then walking down the Ho Chi Minh trail and being sent out to the areas to fight, that the local villages might be a… Viet Cong cadres would be supporting them, guiding them where they had to go and all that sort of stuff. If they were
positioning for a battle with an Allied unit, particularly at night, they might use tracers, green tracers as a sort of a signalling device to guide their people to where they need to fire up and all that sort of stuff. But we didn’t get a great deal of info but you just picked up as you went, so to speak. We did have some lectures before we went
about the sorts of village layout and how the Viet Cong might use the village well and the river and all that sort of stuff for their tunnelling systems and things like that. And in fact as I understand it the tunnels of Cu Chi were very close to and if not in some cases under Bien Hoa airbase, so they may well have reached out and been able to get into Bien Hoa, I don’t know for sure. But they did a lot of work
and a lot of tunnelling. You got to admire them.
You talked before about the differences between Thailand and your experience in Vietnam, and you said that there was that real edginess, did that hit you straight away or did it creep up on you?
I think right from the start you are on the go, you know that things are happening that aren’t going to be conducive to your health so it was
definitely more down hardened earlier than it was in Thailand. Thailand was even though we were semi, we were prepared for, we weren’t ready for. It wasn’t going to happen in time, it was too friendly, although it did happen in low key cases. But certainly in Vietnam at any given point in time there could have been something happening that you might have had shots fired at you and whatnot, so you had to be on the go pretty much
all the time.
So what happened after that initial month on the base there?
Familiarity with the base, the escort duties and all that sort of stuff, the guard duties. And then obviously downtime, you’d go in to town and have a beer or three, the massage parlours, the bars, and brothels and all that sort of stuff were there.
There were people selling souvenirs and all that sort of stuff. You could buy various types of cigarette lighters, Zippo lighters and all that sort of stuff. You could buy Vietnamese dolls to send home to your girls, you could go up to the American canteen and buy stereos and all that sort of stuff and send them home. And if you wanted to go for a swim you went across to what they called Back Beach, which the Australian Logistics Support Group area. They had a place called the [Peter] Badcoe
Club that was set up as an all-ranks entertainment area, had a downstairs area, upstairs area with a bar whatnot. And you could look out over the South China Sea and if you wanted to you could walk a couple of hundred yards and go for a dip in the sea or you could take a dip in the pool at the Badcoe Club.
What were the Thai women like compared to the Vietnamese woman?
There was a definite mark of difference
and in fact the Thais and Vietnamese don’t really like each other, I believe. That whole area there is a lot of different ethnic groups in between Thailand and Vietnam, the Malaysia ocean, Cambodia borders and whatnot. There is a whole range of hill tribes and whatnot and are quite markedly different from each other.
And you get the Hmongs and the Khmers and all sorts of other ethic groupings that really are different from each other. And there is not a lot of love lost between any of them.
Did you actually have a brothel experience in Vietnam that you want to tell us about? It’s up to you – we have heard lots of experiences.
Look I am not pure and innocent as the driven judge. So yeah, I did.
Was it a positive experience for you?
A couple of them were reasonably positive in some cases. I went in to have a haircut, a massage, a steam bath and I had those and in some cases the massage and steam bath became a little bit more.
Well it is an intense situation to be in. I guess the relief in some ways of being able to be in an experience of being relieved it must have been nice anyway?
It had its moments.
Looking back now I am not sure that I would ever do it again. But young and…
You want to have those experiences?
So what happened after that initial period? When did things start to change for you?
I don’t know that they changed over dramatically. Essentially you did the job there for six months.
I had some time at an army unit called the Horseshoe, which was a fire support base about ten ks [kilometres] from Nui Dat, it was set up in an old volcano and erosion and whatnot, it was pretty much just a horseshoe-shaped hill but it had been a volcano. Living in bunkers for the week or whatever going out
on patrol with the army guys. Mainly group clearing patrols where you would go out in the morning and just do a circle of the perimeter just to make sure that everything was hunky-dory, there had been no tampering with your fences lines and things like that. Did a couple of small duration, short duration patrols with an army unit at the time and then basically went back to Vung Tau and got on with the other duties. Applied
for, applied to become a helicopter gunner on that tour but I wasn’t able to get an extension of my time. So I basically did the six months in Vung Tau and went back. But during that first tour, I say the annexe and the villa areas were closed down and all our people went back onto the base proper to our domestic area on the base.
Now we had one area, as I said, we had main gate guard duties to do, we had own our gate guard duties to do. We worked on the main gate with the Americans, we did escort duties again, did roving pickets on the Caribou and Iroquois lines. From time to time our friends in the pyjamas would lob
a rocket from Long Son Island across onto the base. They were never expecting to do very much. Generally speaking there wasn’t a great deal of damage done, lots of noise and maybe some broken up earth or something. I think a couple of times they might have hit an aeroplane or something like that but not one of ours. Our Caribous certainly did get hit by fire from time to time. In fact one got totally destroyed but that
was flying into an operational area elsewhere, where they landed to drop supplies and got bracketed by mortar rounds and basically blew the aeroplane up on the runway. The crew got out of that. But we did lose Caribous, we did lose Canberras and we did lose Iroquois when we were over there. And that all had its sort of points, particularly on my second trip
when I became a gunner. You know, when I was waiting to go on training for them a couple got shot, and after I started flying a couple of them got shot down. And it is not a good feeling, especially when mates die and all that sort of stuff. Or when you go onto to a dust-off [medical evacuation] aircraft and pull wounded on board and stuff like that. It is a sort of different sort of feeling.
So when you were doing the patrols or on the
base, did you get to know the pilots well at that point?
Not particularly. They had their own things to do. And generally speaking we would just be off in the background doing the guard duties, manning the checkpoints and all that sort of stuff. Saluting them as they drove past. When I became a gunner, obviously got to know them better because you work as a team. You are in the crew up and all that sort of stuff and you have got to know what each other is doing.
But that was later on in the piece. That was on my second trip. Basically officers are officers and sergeants are sergeants, I am a baggy-arsed AC [Aircraftsman] or AC, and if they asked me to jump I’ll jump.
Did you miss home in that period?
Oh you are always homesick to a certain degree. I certainly liked getting the mail, and in fact Mum… For my
nineteen birthday, Mum had made me a cake and sent it to me via Ubon. Well I got that cake with a batch of mail in Vung Tau on Christmas Eve and in fact I opened my Christmas cake package before I opened my birthday cake package. And the birthday cake had been to Thailand, it had bounced back from there, it had travelled halfway around Australia before somebody said, “Oh, he’s in Vietnam.” And they redirected it to me.
And by the time it got to me it was dead; it wasn’t edible.
Yeah, you certainly look forward to the mail. You weren’t happy with various unions and whatnot where they were tampering with mail and not loading ships and things like that. So you try and do a job and you were being pissed on by your fellow countryman so to speak, and that had its moments for all of us.
Was the dissent back home
starting up when you were there the first time?
Not so much in ’68, certainly by ’69, ’70 it was getting fairly raucous and ’70, ’71, when I came back in ’71 it had been big time, very much so, to the point that people doing welcome home parades you know where they would get blood or paint or whatever spattered on them as they are marching down the streets. You’d have protestors as they did at Newcastle in one
of the parades we did where one bloke was dressed as an Aboriginal or something like that with spears and whatnot and he was intent. He wasn’t intent on damaging us but he was intent on disrupting us. And it was a real, you know, pissed off experience. We were there doing a job from the government of the day and, you know, unlike press-ganged people from other countries we were in a democratically elected country in the armed forces
of that country doing a job that you are paid to do and you would expect to get support. But some of it was really crap. And there were a lot of army types and some of my mates just haven’t forgiven some elements of civvy side of the house for what happened. It wasn’t very good. Particularly you know
as things progressed in the war, people quite literally would… The army, for example, they would be in the middle of a firefight and some of the guys would be literally pulled away, the same day put on an aeroplane back to Nui Dat, “Pack your bags, son. You’re going home.” You know, and within forty-eight hours they would be back in Australia after having being in a firefight during the morning sort of forty-eight hours before. And with the conscripts,
quite often back home two days, “That’s it. Your time’s up. Here’s your marching orders. Piss off. We don’t want to see you any more.” Hmm, it had its moments. I mean that wasn’t so bad for me because I was full time but. We felt like pariahs at times when we came back, that’s for sure. Not a good feeling.
No, not at all. How did you feel coming back the first time?
You know, it wasn’t bad. We were, we went into a, we had a big parade through Sydney with army units that had come back and all that sort of stuff and generally it was looked on pretty well. But it was from pretty much then onwards that things started to markedly deteriorate, and as I say the guys and girls that came back
got, decided to get treated like lepers, “Oh, you baby killer,” and all that sort of rubbish, you know.
Were you happy to come home the first time or did you want to stay on?
Yeah I was happy. I think I needed a break at that stage and I’d see what else would happen. And I got posted back to Williamtown near Newcastle and I spent most of my time there for the next two years, apart from doing various
exercises and courses and whatnot. Exercises that took me to Darwin about four times and to Rockhampton a couple of times. Courses that brought me back to Amberley and yeah.
Was it hard to adjust to life in Australia after being in that situation?
Ah, you tended to forget that you were back in Australia, if you weren’t careful. I mean I was taking my Mum
shopping one day back in Pickering Brook and it is a country area, fair enough, but she looked at me a bit strange and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You’re on the right-hand side of the road.” “Oh, check.” Back on to the left-hand side of the road to drive her to the shops. But fortunately for me that area there was not a great deal of traffic. But you had to watch for that sort of stuff. You’d hear a car backfire and you’d
hit the deck because somebody was shooting at you. It didn’t unduly worry me, and it never has because I didn’t have the types of activity happen to me that lots of other people did. Certainly the army types and some of my mates who did get into some heavy stuff, even with the helicopters or the guys at Phan Rang that got into those attacks up there. Now,
maybe if I had gone through some of their experiences I might be worse off. But yes, you certainly react to unusual circumstances and unusual noises by being very bloody careful.
Did you see any of those guys either when you came back to Australia or when you were still in Vietnam the first time, people that went through some of the conflicts, did you see any reactions that were difficult to deal with?
Not that I can say straight off understand. But one of my mates was on a chopper, now they were flying supplies to fire support bases and on the way back from a fire support base a hot box, an empty hot box fell out. The captain of the aircraft asked him to move from his side,
because he sat in a chair, a seat on the left-hand side of the chopper. The captain asked him to move forward and straighten up everything else so nothing else would fall out. In doing so, because the side doors of the Iroquois were pinned back because we had weapons on the side and we manned those weapons, on moving forward to straighten up the rest of this freight he fell and went over the side, and we had what was called a monkey
strap which was secured to the fuselage of the aircraft and that saved him. He was essentially dangling by the skids. One crewman and I think the co-pilot, the co-pilot got out of his seat and came back and helped the crewman pull him back on board. And I saw him in the airmen’s club later on that night and it was like about six hours later at that stage and he was fairly well pissed at that stage and you could understand why. But he was still white and he was still shaking. Now
I believe from that incident the he got a stress fracture of the spine and stuff like that. That he may not have realised at the time, but certainly manifested later on down the track. While I haven’t seen him for a long, long time, I have spoken to him or emailed him, I believe that he was certainly affected by that incident and certainly on the day, he was definitely a mess,
you know. Had blokes that got shot at, a couple of blokes got wounded, aircraft went down. Again this was in my second trip. I in fact was on a chopper that had a what they call a chip detector, warning light came on, and if one of those came on, you get
somewhere and land as quick as you can. Well we landed in a paddy field or something. Fortunately for us it was a relative secure area and even more so that there was an Australian Army patrol close by. But the crewman and I had to be extra vigilant until those guys came into situation. And yeah, that has it moments when you are sitting there expecting that the sides of the paddy field, the bush is
going to open up on you and you can’t go anywhere because your aircraft is broken. And as it turns out nothing happened and the army guys did get to us and provided the defence force while we were broken, but yeah. I had one other aircraft that we’d come back from a mission and the captain was doing a walk around and found at least one bullet hole in the chopper. Hairy moments. But we as gunners
we would rotate through as tasked by the gunner officer and ultimately the goal was to go onto helicopter gun ships, Bushrangers, and I spent a lot of my time on those after I got trained up. But that took its time too.
Did you train back in Australia?
That happened on my section trip,
when I went back in ’70 so.
Did you train as a gunner in Australia at all?
No, I trained over there, basically on the job training. What they had done was identified the requirement for additional protection and that they needed somebody to operate the weapons on that side. And initially they took volunteers from anybody within the detachments, general hands, anybody including warrant officer discipline at one stage
and they all amassed certain amounts of hours, but somebody then made the decision that the task required skills that ADGs had and that that they would then increase the establishment at Vung Tau by about sixteen or seventeen to provide those additional gunners type positions. And that is what happened. And once a guy was posted in to Vung Tau, at certain times night squadron would call for volunteers
to be trained up as gunners and you would apply for that. And they would have a talk to you and determine whether you were acceptable for them and then you know, it wasn’t a cut and dried thing that you would get it. And if you were accepted you went under a period of training. But it was on the job training on a slick. A slick was a normal troop type carrying helicopter that was fitted with weapons, just one single M60 on one side
and one on the other with a thousand rounds of ammo [ammunition]. And you had the load master, crewman on one side, on the right-hand side you might have passengers being dropped off to a fire support base, and you had a qualified gunners and the trainee sitting beside him. And that would last as long as deemed necessary until the trainee met the criteria and got his qualifications and was approved to fly solo so to speak.
Why did you want to do that?
I guess it was a thought that my old man had got that brevet up on his uniform and it looked okay and I thought, “Well I am not a pilot and I am not a navigator, but maybe I can be a gunner.” And so he got his AG for air gunner and I have got my G for gunner. And part of it being a different task that we were able to do and a
different support capacity we could provide, and in fact particularly the gun ships of 9 Squadron became very heavily involved and the troop carrying aircraft in 9 Squadron became very heavily involved with the SAS [Special Air Service] providing them with their insertions into their patrol areas and quite often hot extractions, and the hot extraction was that some bastard was firing at you. So they’d be running for their lives to the chopper
while people were coming at them aimed with doing them not the very best of good. I didn’t see too much of that, although the choppers that I was on, particularly the gun ships, we did get involved in some action from time to time.
When you first came back to Vung Tau the second time…
…how did it feel? Did it feel at all different?
I think there was more intensity.
The Americans were doing whatever they could to win the war, but it wasn’t going to happen. Politically it was never going to happen. And the North Vietnamese were doing everything they could to military gain points at the Paris peace talks and all that sort of stuff. While the
Americans were bombing the hell out of North Vietnam and whatnot the Viet Cong and the NVA were doing whatever they could to gain more ground themselves. It was different.
And when you got there what happened for you? Were you signed up straight away for the course or did that process of applying happen when you got there?
That process applied some time after I got there. Again I went through the go to Phan Rang stage and I went to
Nui Dat I spent another week or so at Nui Dat. I went out on patrol with army units up there. But the area that I went patrolling in, that was for four days or so, was relatively secure, but who knew? You are out there on patrol you have got to man weapons when you are in a night harbour you still have to have people providing protection for you
while the rest get a bit of sleep. You have all these sights and sounds out there. You got a dark night, your leaf litter and stuff is phosphorous and since you have never seen it before in your life and you wonder what the hell it is. You hear a tiger coughing off in the distance and you hear artillery rounds flying over head and they make a sort of rattling noise and you think, “Yeah right, what I am I doing here?”
And when you are out on patrol you carry everything that you have got with you. If you need water you might have to get water from a stream, you need purifying tablets, you got to make sure you use those purifying tablets otherwise you are going to wind up with all sorts of gunky stuff happening to your insides. Typically though you might have five or six water bottles, we didn’t have camel backs in those days,
so you might have a two-litre water bottle and six, four or five one-litre water bottles or something like that. Water re-hydration in those sorts of areas you have got to make sure you keep it up to you, and if there is no fresh water available and as I say you get to the stream, you do what you can with what you have got available. By all means use the purifying tablets and taste like shit.
What else were you wearing on you?
In general the same as the
army guys. They’d have a giggle hat on, the jungle green hat, I’d have a neck band made out of scrim, just sort of green woven material, jungle green long sleeve shirt, jungle green trousers and GP boots. I’d have a pack, I’d have webbing with maybe a one hundred and twenty
rounds for my SLR and typically I’d carry maybe two hundred rounds of belted ammunition for the M60 for the people on the gun so if we got into an action, the gunner and his sort of assistants had their rounds, but they had spare rounds available throughout the section. You might also have two or three hand grenades in your webbing.
Was there a tactic to how you moved as a patrol?
it is basic infantry patrol type tactics. You’d have a scout out forward, he would be closely followed by the section commander and you’d, depending on the type of terrain, you might be travelling single file, five to ten yards apart or if you were going across paddy field or whatever you might be in an arrow head formation with a reasonable spread between first and last
and a reasonable width to the patrol. Lessens the impact of a potential weapon opening up you. You know, if you are bunched up then you are all going to get hit. If you are spread out, then…
Can you recall any funny experiences on patrol?
From my own memory, no.
I can remember a couple of things on watchtowers and I’ll go through those shortly. But my brother was a conscript and he was saying that when he was on patrol, the forward scout came up with a… Cause most of the stuff you do is done by hand signals and you have got signals for enemy in sight and skipper come to me and all this sort of stuff. Anyway, the
forward scout couldn’t come up for a signal for the problem. Anyway the section commander came up to him, “What is the problem? What is the blockage?” And up in front of the forward scout the blockage was a thumping great snake, a python that was out of sight, both sides of the track. The forward scout couldn’t work out how to describe it. Yeah, so that was a… They had tigers in Vietnam,
not tigers, sorry, lions. I was right the first time – tigers, panthers and various types of deer. And in various areas they had I think bear in some areas. The area around Phan Rang in thousands of years ago was the emperor’s hunting ground so you had all sorts of stuff there, little mouse deer and things like that. I remember being on a watchtower in Phan Rang and hearing a
tiger roar off in the distance or a panther or whatever and a obviously an American, obviously a southerner, a voice yelling out, this is two o’clock in the morning or thereabouts and supposedly on a watchtower, “Be quiet, pussy cat.” It cracked me up, oh dear.
What about smaller critters like spiders? Was there…?
Oh look there was spiders and scorpions. In fact I got stung by a scorpion one day.
We were on a task, I had to resupply smoke grenades into the chopper we had a connex that stored all our smoke grenades, and I was pulling smoke grenades out of containers that they were in and taking them across to the chopper, and this blasted scorpion bit me on the finger, and it stung like a bull ant! In fact I had the rest of the afternoon off because of it.
On a rest day we were doing some sport and whatnot down at Back Beach down by the Badcoe Club, and we were actually out in the South China sea, having a bit of a swim. Some of the boys were playing around with the volleyball and I was off on my own. I had sort of decided that I would head across and join them and sort of floating on my back and my foot touched down onto the sand
and I think it was a stingray that got me on my left foot. And it really got me, I had blood going everywhere, my foot within a matter of minutes had swelled up and was bruised from the foot right up to the knee! And I am heading off to the beach, yelling and screaming, “I have been bit! I have been bit!” and all my mates are looking off at me, “Oh, look at Smithy. The stupid bastard.”
And then they saw the blood, “Oh shit, he really is in strife.” So they bundled me into a Land Rover and got me up to the army hospital and I got treated for it. Bloody Viet Cong stingray and a Viet Cong scorpion have attacked me in separate incidents.
Only just got that.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 06
As a gunner with 9 Squadron, what are your most significant memories of the most significant events during that time?
As a gunner we were tasked on a daily basis, and day to day I may not be on the same type of aircraft with the same type of crew. I might do a dust-off, which is a medical evacuation one day. I might fly with the brigadier in a command chopper the following day,
a slick, which is a resupply aircraft, the day after and then maybe go on to a reserve Bushranger, 73, 74, 75. Or go onto the main light fire team, which would be Bushranger 71 or Bushranger 72, purely up to the tasking officer at the time. A couple of things happened. I was on dust-off, we were operating out of Nui Dat so you would spend basically twenty-four
hours there. If you had a night-time call there, you went. And we had a call during the day to an army unit that was in contact. They were in a rubber plantation, the firefight was still happening and it was actually the Anzac Company the combined Australian and New Zealand company. And we were hovering above the trees and I think it was rubber trees and we were about ten foot above them. And the crewman was winching wounded people up
and I was maintaining a guns alert over the intercom, and with the pilot talking to the people on the ground you could still hear the contact happening, machine guns rattling in the background, and on our communications channel we heard a flight of American Cobras calling in and asking what they could do. And these were helicopter attack gun ships, somewhat different to the
helicopters that we were in but very well armed. Anyway as it transpired they did a strafing run which came in from our left rear and we had totally forgotten about it because we were engrossed in what we were doing, which was getting wounded up. And they opened up with Gatling guns and rockets out to about three hundred yards away from us on a parallel with us. I think there were four sets of stained underwear that night because it scared the hoopdy-doops out of us.
And when we finally realised we sort of had a bit of a laugh with ourselves, but when you are tense, you are concentrating on things, it does, it doesn’t take much to rake you out. But everything was okay, we got onto the task and got the wounded back to Vung Tau to the hospital. In a couple of other things…
Just before you go onto other things…
Just staying with that for a minute.
When you think back to that incident, what do you see in your mind now? What are the images that you remember?
Essentially I am sort of keeping an eye out, I can’t see much because we are above the treetop level, I can obviously hear over the radio intercom what is happening down below. I am aware that the crewman is winching people up and I know that there are people hurt, how seriously I don’t know. But I can
you know just be aware of where we are, the sea of forest out in front of us and thinking that, “We are stationary, we are hovering and somebody with a weapon down there could be taking potshots at us and we are a pretty easy damn target.” Which we were. But you just get on with the job and cross fingers.
What could you hear during that incident?
When the radio
was on and the guys on the ground were communicating direct to the chopper, I could hear the background noises, the gunfire happening and the machine guns opening up. I don’t recall what I could specifically hear that over the normal clatter without the radio side of it. I don’t know if I would have heard it over the noise of the helicopter otherwise. But certainly when the Cobras opened up, we heard that, because it is a distinct ripping sound, and then of course
the high explosive rockets exploding and that is quite a distinct thumping sort of sound too. But when you get a Gatling gun, which is a multi-barrelled machine gun firing between four and a half and nine thousand rounds per minute, when they open up it has, verooommmm, sort of sound and you know all about it. It is very distinct.
At what point did you realise that it was the Americans who were
firing near you?
Pretty much when I saw them go past. I guess it would have been a different if it had been something coming towards us rather beside us because you get a different sort of cracking, sort of thumping sound with rounds being directed towards you. Don’t ask me why, but it’s so.
Why were they firing so close to you?
they were providing close in support to the guys on the ground and trying to cover any escape avenues that the Viet Cong-NVA might be using to get out of the contact and away from where they were at the time. So quite often it was close in support like that. And in fact in some instances it was very much closer, but that was the call in. Some units in
Vietnam actually called artillery fire into what was technically their own position because they were that close.
So when they were firing, you said that you’d sort of forgotten that they were coming up?
We were concentrating.
They were doing the right thing then, there wasn’t anything wrong with what they were doing?
Yeah no, nothing at all wrong with, but as I was saying we were concentrating on what our primary task was, which was a dust-off for the day, get the guys up, get them into the chopper, get them to hospital as quick as possible.
Now as I am saying that we were a dust-off helicopter, a medivac helicopter, unlike the Americans our dust-offs weren’t marked with red crosses and stuff like that. It was just a normal chopper, we went in armed, we had one single weapon on each side, so we had crewman and gunner manning those and to all intensive purposes we could have been doing any task, but on this particular day it was a dust-off task.
Why is a dust-off called a dust-off?
Yeah good question, for this particular purpose I guess because quite literally when a chopper comes in and hits the deck there is a hell of a lot of dust. I don’t know, that may be part of it but I don’t know.
You don’t know. But the operation was usually a medivac?
Yeah, yes, in fact I think for our squadron the call sign for any
medivac was Dust-Off, Dust-Off 1, Dust-Off 2 whatever, whereas the gun ships were Bushranger 71, Bushranger 72, Bushranger 70, Bushranger 73, 74, 75, if we had five or six whatever. For the troop carrying hash and trash general purposes type tasks, the call sign was Albatross and that Albatross is 9 Squadron’s emblem. Albatross 1,
2, 3 whatever.
So on that particular day in that incident was there anything that you guys should have done that you didn’t do?
Probably not, no.
So when you said that you were so scared it was really just because merely that you had really just forgotten that these guys, these Americans were coming in?
Yeah, you are tense and you as I say forget things because of where we were at and what we are doing, concentrating on getting these Kiwis and Aussies up and get them to hospital as quick as possible,
and lose sight of what is in the background.
And what do you remember of the casualties?
On that particular one, not a great deal. On others pulled dead bodies on board at times, pulled one injured guy, an Australian, who essentially had been, he had been scalped from the chin up, so his face had been pulled back
by shrapnel. He subsequently lost the sight of his eyes and all that sort of stuff, which led to, this was later in the piece and we were coming to closing down, and when we wanted to work out what we were going to do with assets of the airmen’s club, the financial assets, we thought of providing them to the Guide Dogs Association and I am fairly sure that a fair bulk of money went to them. We were hoping that
it would go to this particular guy, but that couldn’t be specified. So we did think about these guys and what had happened to them. As I say there were people who’d had legs cut off, blown off and arms blown off and stuff like that, shotgun wounds whatever. Not good. We had to do a dust-off one day to a place called Courtney Rubber, where one of our armed personnel
carriers, they had been patrolling down a track and they had a group of soldiers inside and on top of the APC [Armoured Personnel Carriers] they had the usual stores but they also had some supplies of Claymore mines and stuff like that. Well an NVA or Viet Cong sniper threw a satchel charge, it landed on top of the APC and just blew the roof in and killed about five people on board that. And we got involved with a dust-off for that.
Saw another APC that had an armour-piecing rocket go through its armour on the side and essentially the rocket, the warhead had circulated around in the inside of the thing, cut off a bloke’s arm, another bloke’s leg and that sort of stuff and then caused damage that way. Not good, but these things happen.
Do you remember how you first reacted to seeing perhaps the first dead person in Vietnam? You hadn’t see anything like that?
I tried, I don’t know, I tried, I guess, not to look at him. I think in fact in this particular instance it was a Vietnamese civilian, or maybe a Viet Cong, they had been in an area where they won’t supposed be, and in what was essentially called a free fire zone and
where generally speaking the only people would have been Viet Cong or North Vietnamese and they just happened to bump a patrol. And paid the price for it. So we, I think one was dead, the other was wounded. We took one of them at least to hospital and I don’t know what happened to the other guy, but he was loaded on to the chopper. Yeah, get it on board and get on with the job.
You said you tried not to look at him?
And what about when you started seeing Australian soldiers with these terrible injuries that you were talking about, how did you react to that?
Very, I guess, sympathetic toward them. As I said, with the guy that had had the shrapnel injuries that really sort of brought it home – these guys are doing it tough and this is what could happen to them.
Was there a way… Were there some sort of coping mechanisms that you had to deal with being in that sort of situation?
In general people I think talked with their mates. If they couldn’t or weren’t able to talk to their mates maybe they had a beer or two to try and forget. Now you have got to get to sleep and all that sort of stuff, and
maybe the beer or two became three or four. Can’t say that’s what happened with me, I don’t sleep well at the best of times, and I still don’t. Whether it is attributable to that or not I don’t know.
You were going to tell us about a couple of other incidents in Vietnam?
Yep, I got involved in late in the piece in the September
or October ’71 initially with what I had seen as the biggest operation that I would get involved with and it was. It was called Operation Overlord. It was the same name as the Dunkirk landing but the planners decided to use that name. And it was a big operation for the Australian Army in Long Khanh Province where basically two to three battalions of Australians were out and about in the reeds and seeds,
were around Long Khanh Province. And they were supported by every helicopter we had available and I think from memory we either had four or five Bushranger helicopters up for that particular operation and the rest were either medivac or slicks. So at the time I think we had sixteen Iroquois helicopters available and I think every one of them was available for the task that day, so that is a fair bit of helicopter. But
in conjunction with it. The Americans were providing big heaps of helicopters for support, everything from two-man Hueys, observation helicopters which were called a Roach and they used to just fly just about the treetops with a pilot and with an observer hanging out over the side ready to initiate a contact, Chinooks, big Sky Cranes, there were more helicopters that you could poke a stick at
and it was just unbelievable the amount of stuff that was flying around Nui Dat that particular day. It was a hectic day for us, obviously, but even more so the guys going out into the field. You know I think, in my six months on choppers I think the longest working day I had was about thirteen hours of actual flying time, and in a helicopter that is a lot of hours in a day. You have got to come back and refuel and all that sort of stuff. So you can imagine the sorts of pressures the crew were under.
And I know of at least one pilot that didn’t have a break for something like three weeks. So you know you do what you can, you have got tasks to do and they need to be done. The other one was it had been October ’71 and I was coming to the end of my tour. And we were loading a battalion from Nui Dat and flying them out to HMAS Sydney in Vung Tau harbour
and the bulk of these guys, half of them would get on board my side of the helicopter and half of them the other side, and as they’d get on, everyone would say, “G’day mate, have a beer a for you in Sydney.” I didn’t have the heart to say to them well I would be having a beer for them in the seven hours I flew over there in following week because they would still be trundling down in HMAS Sydney. But saying goodbye, waving goodbye to my brother a couple of times, out of a chopper. He was with Headquarters Nui Dat as a Nasho [National Service soldier]
and he went down on operations a couple of times. He was all right, his experiences, not that he got into any heavy stuff. But his experiences set him back a little bit. But we both came out of there alive so. But it was a bit of a trying time you know, there is your brother going out in the chopper and you are here, what is going on? What else?
Just going back to that
operation that you were talking about, Operation Overlord.
Now what was the main purpose of that operation?
Essentially to give the task force a full and clear control of the province, just to remind the Viet Cong and the NVA that we were there and if they wanted to play in our backyard so to speak, that
Big Brother was there.
And what was the outcome?
I have read a bit about it. There were significant contacts in various areas by different army units. I don’t recall too much happening as far as 9 Squadron is concerned. I know that there was some action happening, but I think at that particular occasion I was on one of the reserve gun ships and I think if anything was happening
we were flying around in a holding pattern waiting to be called in. In the helicopter gun ship world they had what you call the light fire team and the heavy fire team. A light fire team was two helicopters, two gun ship helicopters. A heavy fire team was three to four and generally speaking we operated with a light fire team of two. And in this case as I said, we were just stooging around as a back up to the light fire team
and not getting very much happening at all.
So you didn’t really observe much of that?
No, not of that particular one. There were other incidents. There was a place called the Long Hai Hills, which was granite rock sort of stuff full of caves and tunnels that we got called upon to provide support to from time to time to units that were in contact. We would have to go in and provide suppressing fire so. My job was as a gunner
if we were doing something like that if we were coming into say a landing zone or something and it was a hot contact sort of area, I would be providing suppressing fire, keeping the heads down of anybody that might be trying to shoot back at us. Hopefully keeping them out of the way. If we were doing a firing pass in a gun ship, I would be providing tail-end protection as we came out of the firing pass, laying a few rounds down on the ground
as we came out of the attacking run.
Could you ever see the enemy when you were firing your gun?
I didn’t personally but certainly on a number of instances our fellows did see the NVA gunners or whatever at the side of LZ [Landing Zone]. Particularly with the SAS patrol where they had been in a hot contact, they were called in, their choppers were called post haste to get them out and essentially running
gun fights developed until they got on board the chopper, and quite literally the gunner and the SAS guys would be putting return fire back down while they were bugging out. And yeah, that sort of thing.
So when you were firing your gun as a gunner, mostly you were firing to into bushes or into…?
Pretty much providing what they’d called suppression fire – just making sure that if there were any heads down there, they were ducking for cover.
And would you have ever
known if you had successfully hit any enemy?
Battle intelligence, battle damage intelligence statistics were provided by other areas. But on a number of occasions certainly RAF helicopter crews were deemed to have had
so many killed, so to speak. That had been in firefight supporting the army or whatever and laying down suppression fire or whatever. And yeah, having said that, Charlie [Viet Cong] or the NVA took a couple of our choppers out so.
Oh sure, it’s a war, that’s what you are doing. Were there any kills attributed to any of the operations that you were involved?
Yes, but not to my particular chopper that I am aware of.
That is just the fortunes of how you get tasked for the day. One of the guys I was on course with, Peter Vidler, he was over there at the same time I was. He had a pilot who was in his fourth air force, sorry his third air force and his fourth different war, he was a South African.
They were called in to supply a resupply to a unit in contact. At some point in time the aircraft went in. Whether Lofty was, Lofty Lance, the pilot, was hit by a round and killed and subsequently crashed or whether they misjudged and flew into a tree or what, I don’t know. Pilot and gunner were killed and crewman and co-pilot were seriously injured and medivaced back to Australia,
and Pete the crewman had a broken collarbone from that incident. But he subsequently died in a chopper crash in ’74 in the floods in Queensland. So you know, when your time’s up, your time’s up. But he, Lofty Lance, had been in as I say four different wars and got shot down in Vietnam for his pains.
How did you come to grips with the concept of the potential of you being killed or seriously wounded
and having to kill other people?
I guess, look that’s a hard thing. I was a member of a defence force unit where I was relatively highly trained and my task was to provide protection for my crew members
and to go on with tasks as required. Now if it had come to the fact that some bastard was shooting at me, I am going to be shooting back at him. I am going to be hoping like the dickens that I am right. And I have got a, I am wearing a chicken plate, which is an armoured vest, I am sitting on piece of armour and I have got a piece of armour down by my foot to stop any rounds that might come through my seat or the floor of the aircraft. But there are no guarantees.
And in fact one of our helicopters came back one day with about twenty-two rounds that had impacted, including one that had passed through the co-pilot’s side, knocked out his survival radio and exited through the roof. So you know, he said a couple of prayers that night and maybe had a couple of stiff whiskies. You know, it is all relative. One of our choppers just about the time I started on them was called out to support a Vietnamese unit that had Australian Army
advisers with them including a radio operator. And this was in the Long Hai Hills and they got hit by a round or a rocket as they were winching, or as they were about to start winching, and basically the chopper crashed. And I think one person on board was killed and the radio operator, the Australian Army radio operator down below was trapped by the wreckage and he was also killed. Your number’s up, your number is up. I don’t think on that particular one,
the pilot and co-pilot and almost everybody else got out except for the two guys.
You said earlier today that, you know, in Vietnam you watched friends be killed, did you lose anyone who was quite close to you?
I didn’t lose any one that was particularly close to me at that stage, but as I said, Pete Vidler subsequently died in a crash after he had been medivaced back from Vietnam.
A couple of ADG mates were shot down either wounded or killed. Another couple of ADG mates were accidentally killed over there by just anything you could do here. Just a road accident, like that. One was accidentally killed unloading his M60 when they came back from a mission. So particular procedures were implemented from that time on that hopefully would stop that sort of accident
What happened in that accident?
They had to disarm the weapons before the got into back into Vung Tau. And at the time I was doing it, you would pull the covers off the aircraft, clear the weapon, and when it was cleared you would pull the trigger mechanism off and
then when you got back to base you would dismantle it, unpin it and take it to the armoury and clean it and all that sort of stuff. On this particular occasion or earlier in the piece they didn’t take the trigger mechanism and things off and the weapon apparently was not cleared properly, there was still a round up the spout, and as he was getting out of the helicopter he put the butt of the machine gun on the ground and a round fired and took him out.
Just a pure dumb piece of bad, bad luck. Ah but those things happen.
You said earlier that someone probably said a few prayers one day. Did you ever pray?
Well I am not overly religious. I go to church very rarely, usually for weddings or funerals. Earlier on in the piece
when I was a kid I went relatively regularly, but I do from time to time try and talk to the man up there. Whether there is a man up there, or lady up there, whether it had done me any good or not, is another matter.
Were there moments while you were in Vietnam where you felt the need to do that?
Probably once or twice, but couldn’t sort of step back now and say on this particular occasion
I did that.
And what sort of direct contact did you have personally with any Viet Cong?
The closest contact for sure, that I am aware of is at Nui Dat I think in my first trip over there. We went up and as part of our in country training and whatnot on base at Nui Dat they had a batch of former members of
445 Viet Cong Regiment who had surrendered, who had become Chu Hoy as they called them, and had basically come over to us. Now these guys wore the black pyjamas and the hats of the Viet Cong and essentially they were teaching us things about the AK47 and other weapons that the Viet Cong used in conjunction with the South Vietnamese army personnel around at the time.
That is the closest that I am aware of. There my have been unknowing times when Viet Cong and I met
Was that the situation of that photograph that you showed us?
And what did you actually think of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army?
Look they were fighting for their own beliefs. I believed
that we were doing the right thing insofar as we were supporting the South Vietnamese. How right that thought may or may not be is another matter. I guess even at that stage it is political. But by the same token, it was Vietnam, the NVA and the Viet Cong were Vietnamese and they had their own beliefs so. Which side was right in the long run? Well they won, so I guess they were right.
But there would be a lot of Vietnamese in Australia who would say that they weren’t right and they were just abandoned at the post, so to speak.
And in terms of an enemy? How did you view them as an enemy?
Just hoped that they were shooting less accurately than I might be. Look I have read a bit about the French Foreign Legion and whatnot at Dien Bien Phu and places like that and
I knew that they were quite capable of providing surprises and fighting a battle and they weren’t just a raggedy bloody peasant army. And yeah, I knew that they could fight and that they would fight, so they did.
So can you tell us about how you came to leave Vietnam?
Just going back to my first arrival there and
I said I wasn’t terribly sure about it. But my memory is telling me that in fact I travelled by Herc from Thailand directly into Phan Rang, sorry, to Vung Tau, and that we landed on what was called a perforated steel platform runway which was just metal planking, and my second arrival there was via Manila on a chartered
Qantas 707. But yeah, going back, on both times we flew out civvy. As distinct to our army mates who either went by ship or noisy Hercules, we got the 707. Some army people got on the 707 but generally speaking we flew out on the 707.
You were in Australia for how long before you went back for the second tour?
I got back to
Australia in March ’68, yeah, and left again in October ’70. I had been doing at Amberley; I had been doing a section leaders and general service instructors course prior to going the second time and I wasn’t doing extremely well. There were a lot of instructional techniques involved and a lot of drill and all that sort of stuff, and I was losing my voice and I wasn’t confident in what
I was doing. And the chief instructor, who coincidentally was Glen Honch who had been my OC [Officer Commanding] in Canberra and Thailand, he was the chief instructor and he came up to me one day, “Smithy, look, you know you are probably not going to pass this course?” And I said, “Yes sir.” He said, “You can stay on and probably fail or you can take the posting that I am going to offer you.” And I said, “What is the posting?” And he said, “Well, you can go to Vung Tau.”
And I said, “When?” He said, “You’ve got to be there next week.” And I said, “Okay, I’m going.” In fact I didn’t even have enough time to go on pre-embarkation leave. So it was basically, pack my duds [clothes], arrange for my stuff at Williamtown to be stored for the duration and hop on a plane and go and that’s what I did. So I was away for another year. And I got posted back to Williamtown from Vietnam and I had done the same sort of thing in Vietnam the second trip –
go to Phan Rang for a month, go to Nui Dat for a week or so and those sorts of things.
So you were really happy to go back the second time?
I was eager enough to do it. I mean it was part of our job. Sitting at home manning gate guards and doing exercises is a whole lot different to being out somewhere on operational deployment, and you can get very stale manning gate guards and teaching people to march and stuff like that.
By the time you went back the second time there were a lot of
protests going on and stuff like that.
How did that affect you at all?
I was pretty pissed off at the protestors. I thought, you know, “We are here doing a job, as directed by the government of the day. Why protest at us? Protest at the people that are sending us there, or whatever, but leave us alone,” which regrettably people wouldn’t do. A lot of people that were fairly upset
about all that sort of stuff. Needless in my point of view. But you know there is a certain element that is starting to wind up again now because of Australia’s involvement in Iraq and yeah, well we got rid of Saddam Hussein. What can I say? You know, it’s different circumstances but.
So when you came to leave the second time, were you eager to come back to Australia then or would you have preferred to…?
I think I was getting to be a little bit tired at that stage. I had racked up, in six months on choppers I had racked up about four hundred hours flying in six months and that’s a fair swag of time. That is quite a few hours a day, every day. Not that I worked every day, but you do get a bit tired and I needed a break. And I wound up with about fifty-four days straight where I did nothing but eat, sleep and go out and have fun and catch up with my mates and things.
So how would you describe you mental and physical condition when you came to leave Vietnam?
Fairly lean, fairly tired, and happy to be leaving and just wishing that I don’t know, honestly, don’t know where I am going with that.
you had been happy to go back that second time but you were really, you’d had enough by the time…?
Yes, I think I had had enough at that stage. Yeah.
What was it do you think about Vietnam that made it different to other conflicts or other situations that you had been involved or would be involved in, in the future?
Well what is happening in Iraq at the moment,
you don’t necessarily know who your enemy is. Certainly over there anybody could have been the enemy. I mean in general we are wide eyed Aussies or Americans or whatever and we are fairly distinctive. Vietnamese as a rule, one Vietnamese is one Vietnamese. My
wife says, “All you wide eyes look alike,” you know. You didn’t know whether the shoeshine boy was a potential grenade in his shoeshine box or the cab driver was a potential sniper at night, as I said, or the barber or whatever.
So what impact did that have on you?
I think sensible precautions most of the time, you know what I mean. Or sometimes you just totally
forget about it, “What the hell. If something is going to happen, it is going to happen.” So you just had a beer or three and got on with it. Other than that, you certainly don’t go looking over your shoulder all the time but you still get a bit toey [anxious] and a bit cautious.
How did you adjust when you came back to Australia after the second tour?
Probably didn’t sleep very well. Certainly
had to be careful how I was driving on the roads, because over there we drove on the right-hand side, not the left-hand side. So if I was driving anywhere I had to make sure that, “Hey, come on. You are back in Australia, Sunshine.” Loud noises could upset you, dive for cover you know, thinking that somebody was firing a shot. Probably not as bad off as some of the army types but it certainly did impact that way.
By this time in your life,
had you had any girlfriends?
I had had one girl that who I was interested in at Amberley when I was on a course but it didn’t go very far, it didn’t evolve into anything. I thought I was in love shall I say, but it was you know, only sort of distance if you what I mean.
Where you still together when you left for Vietnam?
Insofar as the particular friendship was concerned, yes, but certainly by the time I got back we weren’t. She went her way and I went my way. We never got any physical closeness but I still remained, or at that stage I still remained fairly
unpracticed, shall I say.
That’s a good word.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 07
Victor if you could give me a summary of the rest of your war experiences, then we will talk about some of the experiences that you had with them?
Right, I got back from Vietnam in ’71 I went to RAAF Williamtown, late in ’71. I had about fifty-one-odd days’ leave and then I went back to Williamtown, where I decided in about March that I would discharge and become a civilian. That
threw the orderly room into a flap because they hadn’t thought that I was getting out. Anyway I wound up going over to Pearce in May of ’72, discharging from there – Pearce is in Western Australia – and basically becoming a man of leisure for three months. I was at a local sports club, got offered a job for a plastering contractor, and took up that job worked with him for a while. Worked as a builder’s labourer
for a while converting a restaurant, sorry, a grocery shop to a wine bar restaurant. Worked at the wine bar as a wine waiter for a little while before I sprayed wine all over the owner’s daughter and got fired not too long after that. Went to work for a place called Jason’s or Lazy Boy International making sub assemblies for Jason recliner rockers, did that for about eighteen months, got itchy feet and decided
to travel and get paid for it and so I joined up again into the air force and became a supplier, which is in the logistics sort of area. And essentially as a supplier I have been all over Australia with the exception of Tasmania. The job has taken me to a whole lot of areas, but probably the most meaningful experiences I have had have been in relation to what they call air movements, work where
essentially the teams that I have worked for, or have been part of or have led have been what you would call the ramp supervisors and loading coordinators out of civil airport for example. Where any freight, baggage etc., is loaded on it is controlled by your team, and in fact for our military purposes we also initiate all the weight and balance paperwork for the aircraft. So I have spent twenty-
eight years as a supplier, and probably about thirteen or fourteen or more of those as being involved in the air movements organisation at Richmond in New South Wales, at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, at Katherine in the Northern Territory and here at Amberley. And in the meantime I have also had two short-notice deployments to Bougainville
and an additional one in between the Bougainville trips, a six month tour of East Timor with a unit 383 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron which deployed for the first time ever with me as one of the load team leaders on that particular deployment which was six months in the year 2000 the last June to December of 2000.
So what were the significant experiences at Bougainville?
Bougainville I was operating as part of the peace monitoring group under Operation Belisi. We were an unarmed organisation. The only weapons of any type that we had for our protection were, would you believe it, pick handles and axe handles and things like that. So we had no rifles, pistols, shotguns, and now that is a fairly unique situation for a military organisation. Now we had elements of navy, army
and air force operating there, elements of reserve units, and then we also had on my first tour, it was a fairly big operation where we had teams right through out Bougainville Island and we had a number of different civilian, sorry, governmental organisations including federal police and other government units who worked as part of our peace monitoring group.
And just the looking at the structure of the island, what had occurred during the years of conflict and you are looking at eight to ten years or so of conflict between the Papua New Guinea government and the people of Bougainville who had a grievance against the operators of Panguna Mine, and the traditional owners essentially believed that they were getting robbed and not getting enough money coming back.
You went from… Although having said that, the island, and in particularly our and other areas in Bougainville, they had good health services, they had good schools, they had a reasonable level of education. And it went to hell in a hand basket [was ruined], essentially, where over the years of the conflict just about every government building, school, lots of shops and things were totally destroyed. Especially around the Arawa and Loloho areas and
lots of other areas in Bougainville. Lots of locals got killed over the time of the conflict. The New Guinea government used helicopters that had been donated by Australia as helicopter gun ships so because they were in camouflage colours, so once the truce happened and then peace monitoring group took place and started to fly people around in helicopters
because the Bougainvilleans associated camouflaged helicopters with gun ships that would shoot them and kill them, our helicopters were unarmed and they were painted jaffa orange, would you believe? So there was no way in the world that they were anything other than an unarmed helicopter just supporting the mission. Very disturbing to see everything just totally destroyed. The kids with no schools to go to and all that sort of stuff. And very
similar with the sort of destruction that was imposed on Dili by the militias and by the Indonesian Army and whatnot so.
How did the locals respond to the Australian peacekeepers?
Look, the locals initially and for a long time were very wary of us because Australia had
blotted the copybook by providing those choppers and weapons and ammunition to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Now Bougainville natives are very dark skinned, they are very proud of it, they are black. Mainland New Guinea natives are much less so. So the Bougainvilleans tend to refer to the Papua New Guinean natives as red skins. True,
true. In fact I was at a house with some guys from the Arawa Hospital, one was a Papua New Guinean native and he was reasonably lightest skinned and the other was a Bougainville native, and they were chiacking each other around about red skins and all that sort of stuff. They are very conscious of their colour and they are very proud of how dark they are over there. But they were very suspicious
and as things wound up they grew to know that we were doing something for them. But if they thought there was an opportunity to acquire something, they would do it. And that quite happened quite often so we were constantly having problems with stuff being missing. If we employed people for security and they were being threatened by other people with big machetes, then they’d go to water [give in] and say, “Oh take it, it’s not worth it.”
And it is not uncommon in Bougainville, everybody carries a machete, even the three-year-old wandering down the street has a machete that is as big as him or her. Quite happy, it’s just cane cutting or whatever just to clear the road. But they have all got machetes.
What were the difficulties of trying to carry that out, because that is quite a complicated job I imagine in those conditions?
Yeah, look the task on my first trip
Loloho, which was where I was based, was the port facility that had been set up for the mine. And we were operating, we were living in fact in the old storage shelter for the stockpile copper ore which had obviously been cleared out, and we were in tents underneath the main roof. Very uncomfortable, very hot, very humid when it rained, and when it rains in Bougainville, it pisses down and that brings a story to mind. But we had support through the navy,
through the navy through the LCHs, landing craft heavy, and stuff like that. There was always at least one or probably two LCM-8 [Landing Craft Medium] or LCHs around. The LCM-8s were operated by the army, the LCHs by the navy. And the difficulty from an air point of view and from my point of view as an air moveo [movements person] was that the airfield was forty minutes’ drive away, over extremely rough road
and everything had to be freighted out to the airfield. The aircraft would be loaded, unloaded, everything loaded back onto trucks and then freighted back to our operating base at Loloho and you couldn’t leave anything at the airstrip. And in fact when I first got there, the old terminal buildings and whatnot were just ruins. There were no toilet facilities. If you needed to have a piddle you
found a blank corner and did it. Subsequently they built what they call a sack-sack which is just a sheltered type area where people could just sit and relax but initially you relaxed on the grass underneath a tree and hoped that the ants didn’t get you and stuff like that. And eventually they actually refurbished one of the old toilets in the wrecked terminal so that people could use that. We still had to provide water for it and stuff like that, but at least we still had some
degree of comfort. That was in my second trip.
And what is the story about it pissing down?
When it rains in Bougainville it rains and on my first trip over there, I had what might be a unique experience in that we had three to four days of rain and there had been… In fact we had had several weeks of rain but it was sort of a day here, a day there. The road between Loloho airfield and Arawa is
is and Kieta airfield I should say is in some places very hilly and prone to landslides and we had had thumping great rocks on the sides of the road. One day you’d drive past and there would be nothing there and the next day half the road is blocked. Anyway, this particular day we had had three to four days of rain and I had an aircraft coming in in a couple of days time and I was concerned. So we got approval to grab a radio and drive out as far as what was called Kieta wharf, which was where
it had been a port facility for loading copra and stuff like that. Anyway, I got about a kilometre away from there heading towards the airfield and the road was totally blocked. I had a landslide that was about two hundred metres long by about ten metres tall. It was full of rock, mud, rocks, trees and all that sort of stuff.
So essentially for the two aircraft that I had that particular week the passengers and freight and forklifts and whatnot had to be detoured around that per loading them onto LCM-8s and then doing a beach landing further down towards the airfield. So that was working out. We had to do a site survey, go for a ride on the LCM-8 and work out where we were actually going to land and how we would do this. And at that
particular time I was having trouble with one of my knees and before I had had an arthroscopy and I had in fact been given a crutch to utilise, and so here I am doing a beach landing, jumping onto the sand with my crutch in my hand sort of stuff. And that’s fun yeah, but then it is even more fun when you have got to load your passengers and your aircraft pallets and your forklifts and trucks and whatnot onto these
vessels to get them to the airfield. Yeah, I don’t know if any other supplier or air movements type has had that experience. But it was a one day we had this beach that they decided to use a landing one of the army types that’s part of the ship’s crew. He’d gone across the side of the road, and the road ran very close to the beach’s edge and he had a tree that he was going to put some marker panels up in,
just basically painted triangular pieces of tin and he had gone up into this tree and he is hanging there sort of halfway upside, he is wiring this tin into position so it is there as a landmark for him and he is spray painting it red, and as he is doing this a hornbill flies along and landed in the tree on top of him and, you know, looks down, you know. That is priceless.
You wouldn’t see that happen anywhere. This bloody hornbill, “What’s this bloody stupid person doing down there?” Quite a funny sight.
How did the navy, army and air force communicate in that Bougainville situation?
Well we all worked and lived together, essentially, so we were all part of the group. And the tasking orders came through from the same area, obviously. We all had our own different roles to play, but
if something went wrong or if an LCM-8 or something needed unloading or the cooks needed a hand to fill the freezer because something was broken and they needed to maybe change some stuff out of into another, then people just got on and did it.
So it is really a different situation from most of the other situations where everything is so defined?
Yeah pretty much. You had to work in together. On my first trip over there we had
chopper support provided through the Australian Army, refuelling support was providing through the Kiwi [New Zealand] air force. So we had Australian Army, Australian navy, Australian air force, we had defence civilians, we had government civilians, we had Kiwi army, Kiwi air force and Australian Army aviators so plus Australian Army sailors plus Australian navy sailors so.
You know, what a combination! And most of us living and working… And in fact we also had Australian SAS who were providing protection, but as I said they weren’t armed and they were looking after what was called ground maintenance, and I wondered for the life of me what the hell ground maintenance meant when I first got there and then somebody said, “Listen, this is the guys and they are teaching us how to defend ourselves, if ever…” And occasionally
there were things that happened that led to the ground maintenance and self-defence teams being called out, maybe over a hostile situation, and they would go out. Certainly in the latter stages they were getting all the good sort of armour-plating protection and stuff like that. And there were instances from time to time, even on my second trip over there, where choppers were shot at by the locals. Where one vehicle going
from one village passing through an area of very high elephant type grass they had a round of some sort go through the vehicle behind the driver, exit – come in one side and exit out the other. It was obviously a high-powered rifle of some sort that had been used. But they just got on with it and did the job. What can you do?
How long were you in Bougainville the first time?
Both tours were four months
and both ran from the late November to end of March period.
So what was most satisfying about the Bougainville experience do you think?
Look I think that the fact that we were helping to get a struggling group back on their feet. And as a military organisation we did that in a most decidedly
unmilitary fashion because we didn’t have any weapons. I mean we are not going out and saying, “You will do this.” We are going out and saying, “Brother, we think…”
Is it hard, though, to be trained for so long, to be trained with the intention – I mean, you have talked about it too – of going out to defend the country or fight in a war or whatever? Is it hard then to withdraw part of your training and become peacekeepers?
we like to think of ourselves I think as training for peace but prepared for war, if you will. And quite frankly if the normal average person whether he is Australian, Mohammedan, Indian or whatever, male or female, you really don’t want a war unless you are an out and out raving lunatic.
You have got your own sort of goals and you want to do this, that and the other and you absolutely detest your next-door neighbour then you don’t want a war. You want to try and live peacefully and in harmony. And there had been a hell of a lot of trouble in Bougainville and hopefully we helped to redress some of that trouble. How successful that may have been, who knows – the future will tell. There is a lot of potential in Bougainville but there is a lot of work
required to get it back to where it could be. There are a couple of active volcanoes on Bougainville. You fly past a volcano and you think, “Hmm.” There is lots of potential eco-tourism sorts of stuff, there is lots of potential dive tourism sort of stuff but it takes money. And they have got to start somewhere. And they were very badly done by, partly by their own stupidity because inter-factional or
whatever a lot of damage was done, a lot of damage. You just can’t understand why, but it was.
In the first time that you were there, the first four months, did you see a change?
Yes, towards the end of it. Particularly on the road out to airfield it was obvious that the villages were starting to get back to clearing the rubber plantations and the coconut plantations. A lot of copra, lot of
coconut grown over there for the copra products, and dried meat and that all that sort of stuff. But it was all slow, it all takes time. And one of the big problems over there is traditional owners may have disappeared and there is a reluctance from anybody else to take over because the traditional owner may take over and say, “Well this is my place, what are you doing here?”
So it is hard to find people to negotiate
And yeah, take from Kieta airfield out to Loloho, there was something like eight or night different villages, and if we wanted something as simple as some road clearing done, you had to negotiate with every headman in every village. And in fact if you stopped just as a visitor into a village, as a politeness you should be going out and seeking
out the headman or head woman and getting approval if you wanted to have a look around the place, and that is a common courtesy. Lots of people don’t do it. But for our purposes they were quite emphatic that these sorts of things would happen and they would deliberately find out the head honcho. All the places on Bougainville that we couldn’t go, and one of them in particular was Panguna Mine, which was held by the leader of the BRA, Bougainville Revolution Army,
and he hated Australians. Whether he still hates Australians or not I don’t know. But it was a dedicated, no go, and no fly zone. I think there were one or two others like that, but in general our people went everywhere, but if they did they would negotiate. And as I said, if they wanted work done, they negotiated with the various people involved, and in fact the people who provided security and grass
cutting and whatnot for the airfield were allegedly ex BRA members. One of the guys that used to regularly come out to see the aircraft come in as I am told was a former school teacher who was the BRA historian. He lived by road, by walk, about two hours away from the airfield. But at one stage when I knew him
he could tell you every time that one of our Hercs had come in, how many times that particular tail number had been on the deck and if something came in that he hadn’t seen before, he said, “This one has never been here before.” You know, amazing. And they are ignorant savages! No, I don’t think so!
Did you get time to have fun in Bougainville? What sort of things did you do there for recreation?
Most of what we did,
it was a dry camp so some people got around that, particularly the Fijians, especially with kava and stuff like that.
Why was it a dry camp?
Because there is a big alcohol problem on Bougainville and the initial head of the Peace Monitoring Group first time round, said, “Okay, we will have a dry camp, and we will teach the Bougainvilleans that you don’t need to use alcohol or whatever, and we will set an example to them.” So it was maintained like
that. Nevertheless, people did from time to time. But if they were found out, they were on the next plane out, and that was how strictly it was viewed. But look the LCM8s and the LCHs, if there was a Sunday spare you might go out to one of the little islands and have a barbecue. In fact in one of the little islands about
forty minutes by LCM8 away around the harbour, it had been a resort and during the days of the conflict… It was like a Club Med type of situation and it would have been absolutely spectacular. But during the days of the conflict it was just totally destroyed, absolutely, unbelievable. And there was a lot of stuff like that, why?
When you say destroyed, what would you see?
You went there then?
Yeah I browsed around and all that’s there is these days is bits and pieces of wall sticking up out of the jungle, the jungle has overgrown it. But you know so needless sort of stuff, you know. In Arawa town itself the provincial capital businesses, factories, or not so much factories,
car dealership and things like that, the whole administration block, the big sort of Woolworths equivalent, the bank buildings, they are just all totally destroyed. When I first went there the PNG [Papua New Guinea] police had a presence on the island and the PNG army and they basically lived in blockaded style. And the police in particular had
was called Fort Apache, which had been the old courthouse-police station. Across the road from it was a walled, what had been an garden area with walls around it which was the execution site, so when the BRA or whoever was caught they were taken to the courthouse and tried, and some were sentenced to death and march across the road and shot. And you could still see the bullet holes and whatnot. And I don’t know how many times that happened, but it happened often enough because there are a lot of bullet holes in that bloody
wall. And the in the first trip there, the PNG police that were manning that place, they had it all fenced in with barbed wire, they had generators running floodlights at night and they really didn’t travel out very far around the place unless they had some Aussies with them.
So did you ever feel under threat while you were there?
The only time that any of us felt under threat was by people that were
drunk. Generally speaking if they, some of them might have had some resentment to us, but if it did manifest it was when they were under the influence. And I didn’t particularly feel threatened, but a couple of the girls and whatnot. But we got on with life.
When did you… You were part of the Malayan Emergency as well?
I got posted to Butterworth in 1978 as a supplier, and essentially Butterworth was treated as a normal posting. However, I spent two and a half years in Malaysia as part of that normal posting. I met and married my wife there, our son Darren was born in the RAAF hospital there. We had a full air force type hospital over there, a maternity wing and all that sort of stuff.
After I got married, we lived on Penang Island in a married quarter.
Can you tell us about meeting Joyce?
I was a member of the RAAF Butterworth Bowmen’s Club and we were affiliated with Penang Bowmen’s Club, and Saturday mornings we would have a meet at the Penang Youth Park and fire arrows and have competitions and stuff like that.
And I had gone there with a mate one morning to shoot a few rounds and hit a few targets and mostly I missed them rather than hit them. But this lass came up and asked about a mate’s car. A mate was going home and he had bought a new Citroen and he was able to take it back to Australia because of the rules that were in place at the time. Anyway she started talking about his car and that sort of turned me off because it wasn’t my car and
I thought she had designs on somebody else. So bugger that. So anyway we had finished our shooting and packed up and my mate said, “All right, let’s go and get some breakfast.” Saturday, in fact I think it was Sunday morning. So we went to get some noodles and I left her there. But the silly bugger had found my telephone number and contacted me a couple of days later and well the upshot was that I went over a single and came back as a married.
And what was she like when you first met her?
Joyce, her Dad worked for the RAF and then the RAAF for many, many years. He didn’t want his daughter getting involved with an Australian, unless that Australian was at the very minimum a squadron leader or maybe a doctor not a baggy-arsed corporal as I was at the time.
Anyway Joyce ignored him. I didn’t ever go round to their house because I would have met a shotgun, I suppose. Her brother, or one of her brothers was working at the time for the RAF and did so up until just a couple of years ago. I get on reasonably well with him, I get on reasonably well with the other brother, and in fact I saw the other brother… He still lives in the family home and
we visited them just a couple of weeks ago on return from overseas. But yeah look.
Is their origin Malay?
They are actually Hokkien Chinese by background. Now one brother-in-law has married a Malay girl on his second marriage, so he has basically transferred to being a semi-practising Islamic.
But yeah, ethnic background, their origin is a little island group of China. And the Hokkiens as they call them these days are all round the world so and I met one of them in Malaysia and she is now my wife.
And how old were you then when you got married?
That was in ’70,
bugger, when did I get married? ’78, ’79, ’79 so I must have been 31-ish.
And was it difficult to adjust to married life? You had lived pretty much a military sort of…
I think I still lived a military life even though. In fact my son has from time to time referred to me as a Nazi militaristic thug so.
I think most sons at some point say something like that to their father.
But yeah, look my son was born in a RAAF hospital. He lived in Malaysia, obviously born there, he has lived in Richmond in New South Wales, and he has lived in Sunshine in Victoria, in Canberra, in three different houses in Canberra. In Katherine and now in Queensland. Jessie is, my daughter is seven years younger than Darren,
by seven years and a couple of days. And she is a Mexican, born in Sunshine in Victoria, so south of the border. And she has travelled everywhere we have gone to so.
How did your officers feel about you getting married at that point? Was there a problem at all?
No, I had to get approval to do it, but essentially there were no real traumas. We had
had some briefings certainly in the early days about the problems that might be inherent in a mixed marriage, but it became more and more commonplace and well whether you set a trend or not there is a hell of lot of, if you will, mixed marriages in and around Australia these days. What the hell.
And what was the marriage like? Was it more Malay than Australian or…?
We had the actually wedding ceremony very informally. It was sorted of a civil celebration performed by a RAAF chaplain at the time, who subsequently became an administration officer, got out of the chaplaincy field, don’t know why but there you go. And then we held a sort of reception type thing. The wedding was held on the base at Butterworth and we had a reception on Penang Island and invited
family and friends to that. And then went to Phuket in Thailand for our honeymoon.
And were there problems with the cultural differences?
Yeah, she still swears at me in Hokkien Chinese, not to mention Hindu, Tamale, Bahasa, yeah so.
It’s good to have that kind of…?
The biggest culture problem was for a long, long time was that we had her mother living with us and
her mother is in about her childhood at the moment. Insists on doing our laundry at whatever time she wants to do it, and doesn’t matter whether she wakes up the whole household, she is going to do it, come hell or high water. If I do some laundry and hang it out on the line, before I know it has magically altered itself to how it should be hung and all this sort of stuff. And it drives me bats to the point where I sometimes go back and hang the way I hang it.
So that is more a kind of an extended family issue than any culture issue?
Correct. Well it is cultural because she is a superstitious Hokkien. But yeah, so. And I did that more or less successfully.
And how have you enjoyed being a father?
I would like to have done some things differently, and I think I have more or less succeeded with Jessica in bringing her up as reasonably stable. Not too sure about Darren, we have got issues, but we are trying to get around that. He lives separately these days and he regrets that he didn’t complete his education and all that sort of stuff. But tried to tell him years ago, but he was too smart.
Does the RAAF impact, do you think, on family life at all?
I think the posting from Canberra to Katherine impacted on Darren on his high schooling because he was in first year of high school at that point. But mind you if he had wanted to succeed he could have done it wherever he went. But he just developed a bloody-minded streak and said, “Well stuff you,” and, “This is the way I am going to go.” And then he did a few stupid things
from here and there and a couple of things that he lived to regret and came very close to spending time behind bars, but most of that was averted because maybe I stretched the truth a little bit or whatever to keep him out from behind bars. Who knows?
Ups and down?
Ups and downs, very much so.
How did you come to be in Timor then?
I got posted from Katherine to
Amberley in ’98. And in fact in Katherine I had been involved as an air movements officer for two years and became a stores officer for a year. And that was at the year of the Katherine flood, so I got involved in the Australia Day flood of Katherine, in sandbagging Katherine town and all that sort of stuff. And you sandbagged the streets to the one in one hundred flood level and it goes to the one in five hundred flood level, which goes from being knee high to
over your head high. And you think, “Well okay.” Anyway, we got posted to Amberley in July of that year, in the August, sorry in the November, October. November that year was when I got my first notification of going to Bougainville, which she objected to initially because, “You just got here. You can’t go. I don’t know my way around this place.” Anyway I went. She learnt how to drive herself around
Ipswich and when I told her I was coming back in April, March April. She said, “You can stay there, you bastard. I know how to get around.” Anyway when Timor happened, I had been posted to Amberley in an air movements capacity and at that stage I had an air movements officer… As the senior movements officer I was heading one of the loading controls, sorry, one of the air loading teams
and had a flying officer heading up the second load team. We had a major exercise happening which was Crocodile ’99 and the bulk of our people had deployed to Townsville for this exercise, and then all hell broke loose and people decided that well we need people over in Timor.
So from a seventeen man section I wound up with myself and four others for quite some time running the show while everybody else had gone across to Timor from my team. They went to various places in Timor, primarily to Dili but also to Suai, Baukau, and to various other areas to do the air movements type tasks, loading and unloading any type of transport aircraft up to and including chartered civilian jets and things like that, cargo freights and things
Just going to stop.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 08
Right, back to the lead up of Timor. It all… As I said, it all happened in ’99. Now when they finally resolved that they would go across, they needed people in this spot to unload and load aircraft and all that sort of stuff. So the people that had gone to Townsville and whatnot for Exercise Crocodile ’99, a lot of those just went straight across to East Timor
in various roles as an expeditionary combat support squadron member for the air force including all those guys and girls that had been working with me and guys and girls from other areas. And just putting it back into… In ’99 a new unit had been formed in the air force. It was called Number 1 Air Terminal Squadron, which handled all the air movements types of things.
Now the unit was tasked to provide air movement support and so essentially I had gone from being a member of one particular unit doing the same job to controlling, being controlled from another base but and with a different squadron title. So I became the OIC of the squadron, sorry of my detachment, at Amberley and essentially
supported all operational taskings out of Amberley which were continuing to support Operation Belisi but also we were providing a lot of support through to the people in East Timor, as were the people in Townsville, the people in Richmond, people in Pearce and people in Darwin. So lots of activity, lots happening and lots of activity happening overseas. And we were all, or the majority of us anyway, in the air movements organisation
were maintaining a deployability status where we would fire weapons at least twice a year, where we would be physically fit and we would be medically, dentally and all that sort of stuff ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And in fact most of us had twenty-four hours’ notice to move for a long time, or forty-eight hours’ notice to move for a long time. And certainly we all had twenty-eight days’ notice to move requirements to meet. I knew at some time in time
if it lasted that I would go across, and I was looking forward to it. I believed that as Australians we owed the East Timorese a lot, particularly from World War II because they supported our soldiers and in some cases laying down their own lives. And I believed that in ’75 or thereabouts when Indonesia took over that we had done them a severe disservice, and I was quite happy that action had
panned out the way it had. Mind you, if Indonesia had decided that they didn’t want Australia coming in then we could have been in a lot of strife. Anyway, as it turned out, various other people went and various other units deployed and until such times as I was told, “Okay, you are going to go. You are going to head up a load team as part of Number 383 ECSS [Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron]. E383 was
based at Amberley, initially. It had a skeleton structure with basically only about twenty or thirty full-time people to run it, and initially the bulk of it was formed together as a cohesive unit for the first time at Townsville prior to deployment. So we did some pre-deployment training at Townsville in May 2000 and we deployed from Townsville across to East Timor where we arrived
as a formed unit operating for the first time in June 2000, and we operated as a unit there until mid December 2000. My job there was heading up an air loading team and we had two teams under the control of a flight lieutenant, John Deally and we basically worked
morning shift or afternoon shift. We’d get some time off from here and there. And it was essentially loading personnel baggage and equipment onto whatever task was happening. Where it was the UN [United Nations] chartered civilian version of the Hercules, the old 100, going and bringing people to and from Darwin, or choppers or Caribou aircraft of 35 Squadron,
whatever was required. From time to time we got involved with loading and handling bodies, which is always a bit of a problem. And we also supported the medivac choppers as they did their tasks to the point of assisting the medics to offload patients quite often. One kid had been
gored in the throat by a water buffalo, ladies with pregnancy problems where there is lots of blood and gore, people from accidents, lots of blood and gore, and the quickest available thing was get them on a chopper and get back to Dili and get them to the hospital. So you see lots of things, but you get on and do it.
What was the political situation when you arrived there?
East Timor was still in a state of flux. After we arrived they got the administrative side of things going and they were starting to head in the right direction, but they had a long way to go. There was still a severe state of destruction around, buildings that had been totally destroyed and whatnot whether by militia or by the Indonesians
or whoever. It was quite depressing in the initial stages. Things started to clean up as I spent longer and longer in Timor, but it really was chaotic. One of the things we did, as a unit we provided support through food supplies and material goods to a group of mums itself in Dili
and to an orphanage up in the hills outside of Dili where we would provide them bread and various types of packaged foods and stuff like that, or clothes and things like that. The orphanage, the stuff we provided weekly for the orphanage, they would actually have a mass feeding of the orphans and whatnot from the local villages and it was probably the one good meal a week that those
kids would have. And then they would be out on their own trying to track down food and whatnot. So I think we were doing a little bit of good in some areas.
Can you describe that orphanage for us?
It was up in the hills above Dili, Dare, was the name of the place. I can’t recall how far out it was, but close by. You could look down over the escarpment and over to Dili itself.
But essentially it was run by some nuns and they had a series of buildings that they had available as classrooms. They had one or two open-sided thatched roof type buildings that they used as a central sort of area where they could feed the masses, so to speak – where we would bring our goods and they’d do what they could with what we had provided.
Were the children victims of the conflict?
For the most part yes, yes.
So what happened to their parents?
Shot by the militia, shot by the Indonesians, shot by factional fighting or just plain disappeared.
And what sort of age group were they?
Everything from two years or younger
up to fifteen, sixteen. Yeah, lots of kids with not much help other than the nuns and those that were able to get to them.
As a father, how did you find dealing with those children?
We used to take along packets of lollies, snakes [confectionery snakes] and things like that,
and try and distribute them and make them a little bit happier. If they had a volleyball game or a soccer game we would get involved with that while we were not doing anything else. Just try and be a bit friendly and do what we could.
It must have been quite tough…
…to see those kids as victims of a war?
Yep, it was quite tough to see what had happened throughout the whole area, which
you wonder why people do those sorts of things. Okay, so there is a difference of opinion, but do you really have to go out and vandalise, burn, destroy, loot and pillage, all that sort of stuff? It happens all round the world, I know, but it is still depressing to see it. But there for the grace of God… We could be in the same boat. Or whoever is up there, whatever, you know what
I mean. We are so lucky. The average Australian kid just has no know idea at all, they moan and complain and say, “Oh, life is so tough.” Be buggered it is, they have no idea.
How had that experience in East Timor differ from what you had experienced in other countries in terms of the destruction that you were seeing?
Bougainville was on a par with it. The difference of course between Bougainville and Timor was in Timor I went everywhere fully gunned up, tight down to even if we were going to one of the local restaurants, I had a nine mill [millimetre] pistol and a Steyr rifle. I took them everywhere. The only time I didn’t have my Steyr was when I was out on an aircraft. I’d have my pistol with me, though. Now we’d lock our…
When we were working on the airfield we’d lock our Steyrs in the office on a weapons rack but we’d all still have pistols with us. So in the terms of that, the destruction – fairly similar and fairly pointless, but as I said Bougainville was deemed as, well we were unarmed, but East Timor people could have been shooting at
us. And in fact army units were shot at while I was there. And in fact while I was there, one, you might have heard of it, one of the Kiwi soldiers was beheaded in a contact. Now that does sort of tend to make you sit back and think, “Hmm, some people don’t like us.” Yeah, and then you have to deal with from my point of view, I was an air load team member, I dealt with that man’s body when it came through
and we had to do formal ceremonies and all that sort of stuff. And we did that with some Portuguese that got blown up in an accident. And there were the civilians that were massacred in Oekussi I think it was. We saw all these guys and girls, their bodies coming through, and at some point in time handle them. So some of the boys and girls had some problems with that. Some of the boys and girls had problems with the accident victims.
The kid with the throat that was gored. The ladies that would come back with medical problems, pregnancy problems and things like that and bleeding everywhere and stuff like that. And then when you put them onto ambulance and then take the stretcher over to the side of the hardstand and find some water and wash it down. You know it can be a bit unsettling for some people.
But one of the tasks as I said was to provide water suppliers to all the units. And one of the big assets we had there was a Russian type helicopter that was operated by the Peruvian air force and it was an MI26 which at that stage was the biggest helicopter of the world. And we would load palletised cartons, aircraft pallets onto the chopper, and our forklift would go up in the back of this chopper.
An air movements forklift doesn’t normally go into a helicopter, I mean it is inconceivable. But to load our pallets or the Caribous or whatever with these cartons it was basically chain gang sort of stuff, and these things weighed forty two pound at a time. And if you are moving six or seven hundred in a day, you are doing a lot of bending and lifting so, one hernia resulted from that. Good stuff, good souvenir, of Thailand, Timor.
Used to keep reasonably fit, lots of walking or jogging around the airfield, but even if you did that you took a pistol or carried your rifle with you. So you’d be running in shorts and a T-shirt carrying your rifle, or if you had a rifle and pistol you might leave one in the guardroom and say, “Lock it up and I’ll be back.” And say, “I’ll go for a run around the airfield and I have got the pistol with me.” So we had some funny things.
The airfield for general purposes had been a shortcut for the local population. But when we got there, there had been fences put around by the Indonesian air force or whatever, but we still had people trying to cut across the airfield and whatnot to the point where one day one locals decided to come on base – through a checkpoint, I might say – and just got on and drove down through the taxiway invert onto, or rode his bike, I should say, motorbike, down on the runway and
started heading down towards the local beach area. This is when we have got a plane about ten miles out and we had to get him out of there fairly bloody quickly. Down at one end of the airfield was an area where we used to go swimming. It wasn’t a bad sort of area, not the world’s greatest beach, had lots of sort of concrete bollards that had probably been put there to try and protect it from erosion and stuff like that. But in that general area
about halfway through my tour there, people going down to the beach one day, they found two bodies. And I thought, “Oh crap.” These guys had been executed, they’d been tied and gagged and whatever and just executed and dumped in the beach. I am not sure who did it, possibly the militia. Yeah that wasn’t fun.
It’s just a reminder call that there are other funnier things happening in this world.
They were East Timorese?
And there was no way of knowing who had done that?
Probably militia but there was no real way of knowing. And I guess if there was such a thing as a forensic pathologist he was quite busy with some much other stuff that had happened over the years, so you know.
If there is any resolution for families of those people, if in fact their families ever find out what happened to them, I don’t know.
Did you continue to go swimming in that area after that?
I went a couple of times, but it had sort of lost the gloss. Not that I went swimming there all that often, cause you still had to take your rifle with you, even if you went swimming you know, you’d obviously have to have somebody looking after the weapons while everybody else was having
fun and that tends to be a bit of a pain in the butt.
As part of a peacekeeping force, what was your rules of engagement in terms of using weapons?
Pretty much we couldn’t do anything unless we were shot at or unless we believed that ourselves, our assets or our people were in imminent danger
of being killed or severely molested and all that sort of stuff. If that was going to happen then we had the ability to open fire. There were obviously rules to abide by, but yeah, we had that capability if we needed it. Fortunately I never needed it. But certainly down around the border areas, the army guys got involved in tangles
with militia and whatnot and some close calls with the Indonesians on the border and things like that. The Caribou guys from time to time got shadowed by Indonesian jets and sort of forced to fly a bit further out to sea then they were flying and things like that. So that made it interesting.
What was the biggest concern in terms of…?
Excuse me, sorry? Sorry, I lost that.
What was the biggest concern while you were in Timor?
What was the thing that, I suppose, worried the troops the most?
The two cans, per man, per day limit. Sorry. Look as I said, my belief was that we owed the Timorese a big favour, we should have been there in ’75 rather than in ’99–2000
and I believe that we remedied some past omissions by doing what we did. I just wish we had done it earlier, you know what I mean.
But in terms of the risk factors, I guess, I was sort of wondering whether it was the militia or the Indonesians that you were most concerned about?
Well the Indonesians, they certainly rattle their swords and all that sort of stuff.
But I guess the militia still have some problems over there. And while there was no overt action from them in and around Comoro and Dili while I was there, they could have been a problem. And you did get intel [intelligence] briefs on who was doing what and who wasn’t paying the rent and all that sort of stuff. But the biggest challenges were to
get Comoro airfield back up and running as an entity. Now we went in, and 383 and the various other RAAF units operated that airfield and provided every service that you could want including firefighting capabilities, air traffic control, perimeter defence, and we had our own cooks, bottle washers and all that sort of stuff. We did a job that probably no other military unit
could have done and we did it pretty bloody well. But the biggest thing was that you had to get the Timorese back into running their own country. And to that point we were training people up even as my guys were there. We had Timorese air traffic controllers being trained up by our air traffic controllers and things like that. Timorese firefighters working with our guys and learning a
So you had a lot of contact with the Timorese?
How did you communicate with them?
Most of them spoke English to some degree and in some cases we used, I can’t think of the name of it now, but there is a Timorese dialect, some of it Portuguese but we got on.
Bulk of them though did speak reasonable English so.
What impact did it have being part of a multinational United Nations force, if you like?
Very difficult to work with something like ninety-nine different countries. And I mean at
one stage just around the airfield alone, police – there was an American policeman, there was a New Zealand customs official, there was an Australian AQIS [Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service] type person, there was Australian air force, there was Australian Army, there were Timorese civilians, there was a Russian, there were Siberians running the helicopters, there were South Africans running the United Nations chartered
jet aircraft, there was Australian civil airlines, Air North and whatnot flying in, there were Indonesian airlines flying in from time to time from Oekussi and from Bali and whatnot. So there was a mix and match. At any one time you could have had in the air terminal alone, depending on what aircraft was going out, say it was the chartered, the L100 going to Darwin, you could
have had thirty-five different nationalities on that aeroplane. And in fact one day I think we did have. Try and make them all understand, most of them speak some degree of English but it is impossible for an English speaking person to speak thirty-five different languages and get these people going. But they all had their own quirks and personalities. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, some of them are bloody arrogant. Jordanians, for example, they are bloody arrogant.
Not to mention, never mind, allegedly. But yeah, look I did a couple of deployments to a place called Baukau where we did rotations of the Thais and Portuguese and the Jordanians from Timor out to their home countries. The Thais were interesting to me because their aircraft were operating out of Ubon Ratchathani into Baukau, and I thought,
“Huh, I’ve been to Ubon Ratchathani.” And that was quite different. And watching them, because they were in at Baukau, the Thais provided security for the base and watching them play sit-back tackrour [?], it is quite interesting. I don’t know whether you have ever seen that game, but it’s like volleyball with a cane ball, but they use their hands
and they use their heads and they kick the ball and this sort of stuff and it is absolutely amazing what they do with this ball to play the game. And how they don’t kill themselves has got me beat, but yeah watching these guys play this game. We went up to Baukau and we were living actually in the old control tower because there was nowhere else for us and I heard this barking one day and I thought, “What the hell is barking?” So I went out, out in the grass just
out from the tower there is this two little deer, “raff, raff, raff.” The Thais had them as pets, I don’t know where they had come from, and I could have sworn that they were dogs but they were deer. And in Timor I got… As in Thailand, this is the first time I had heard it was in Thailand, there is a gecko called an ‘F You’ lizard, and when it barks that is exactly what it sounds like, “Fuck you,
fuck you.” I remember in Thailand trying to get to sleep and this thing arcing up in the rafters above me, “Fuck you.” “And same to you mate, now let me get to sleep.” And you’d be on watch in Timor up in the control tower just doing a night watch or whatever and you hear this thing out in the palm trees doing the same thing, “Yeah common mate.” But
fair dinkum if you ever hear it, that is exactly what it sounds like, yeah righto smart arse.
So from your observations and your experience in Timor, how successful was it to have so many different nationalities working together in that way?
Look it is… Obviously for the hierarchy it certainly poses problems. I think we overall managed
to get the job done. But maybe the UN to some degree is unruly in that fashion. Maybe it could have been done with less people. Maybe it couldn’t have been. The fact was that there were all those different nationalities involved and maybe it was a good sign for the Timorese people. I hope it was and I hope that they are getting some benefit out of what we did, and I hope that benefit will be ongoing and that it will help to build them into a cohesive nation somewhere down the track.
And in your position
were you… Did you have any observations or opinions about how the United Nations handled its peacekeeping operations?
My opinions wouldn’t be worth a crumpet as far as the overall situation is concerned. I think in general the Australians and the New Zealanders and those Americans that were there handled themselves fairly well, as would the Irishmen that were there.
Some of the other nationalities involved I wouldn’t necessarily give you twopence for because primarily all they are looking for is to fill their pocket and run so to speak, but no naming names and all that sort of stuff.
We heard some criticism of the United Nations in other situations because of bureaucratic complications. Did you have any experience of that?
Personally I had nothing that impacted on us to a large degree
but it was unwieldy and it was cumbersome and there was a perception certainly by the Timorese that lots of money was going into the country but most of it seemed to be in airconditioned UN cars and airconditioned UN office buildings and stuff like that. Yeah, there is a perception that is probably semi accurate that lots of money is being poured in but none of it going where it is needed out in the weeds and seeds helping Joe Blow the average
citizen to get back on his feet. How much, if any, of that has changed? I know there was a lot of… what do you call them? QANGO, Quasi Autonomous Non Government Organisations involved in one or another. Some with what may have been deemed as fairly radical hair-brained schemes and others with what might have been deemed as good schemes, like the Queensland organisation that wanted to send fishing boats across and in fact I think they have sent a few across.
They got some help through the RAAF and some help they didn’t get through the RAAF. But Red Cross did a lot of work and other organisations. They have been fairly beneficially, but a lot of them got hindered along the way by bureaucratic red tape and all that sort of stuff.
You had close contacts with the Timorese people, how did they view the Australia soldiers?
I think that
overall they were quite happy that we had got there. I recall seeing film clips and whatnot of our vehicles going through some of the outlying villages and whatnot and certainly the kids in general were exceptionally happy. They knew that the bad times were gone. You know, they weren’t going to get shot at. They weren’t going to get beaten up, they weren’t going to get molested and
all that sort of stuff, and that was a fact of life with control under other countries, one of which is close to our north.
You have spoken about your own opinion that Australia should have been there in 1975. Did any Timorese express that?
Not to myself, they may have to other people. But yeah look,
I never agreed with our view. I always thought in ’75-ish that we were kowtowing to our Indonesian neighbour and why the hell should we? I never agreed with it then and I still don’t agree with it now. If we had rattled our very skinny sword as it might have been even back then, they may have taken another direction. They may not have not gone into Dili in the first place and we might have saved a lot of lives and all that sort of stuff.
A lot of mights, a lot of buts and ifs and coulds – who knows?
What was the most rewarding aspect of your time in Timor?
On a daily basis, seeing the aircraft loaded and getting away. But then on a weekly basis when I could do it, getting out and helping to provide the stuff that we would
provide to the nuns in Dili and to the orphans and whatnot up in Dare. And getting out and about taking a drive up to Baukau from Dili and just having a look at the country and seeing how they live in grass huts out in the country areas. How they farm and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know if you ever
remember the poem, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, But the man from Snowy River’s horse was a part Timorese pony so, you know. So, “Okay, this is where the part Timorese pony came from and all that sort of stuff, yeah.” You pick up on things. You get on the hills outside of Dili heading up towards Baukau, the road is very narrow, very winding, very twisty and you could quite easily have an accident, and when you are on the passenger side
looking eight hundred feet straight down to the water below you and thinking, “Oh, please!” Yeah, most of it was good, but like I say just helping the kids and the nuns, they got a lot out of it. And I hope we did some good out of it.
And you have spoken about… Well let me rephrase this question.
You have had years of experience prior to getting to East Timor, you’d had many significant experiences in Thailand, Vietnam, Bougainville, etc., and lots of expert training. Is there anything in that experience and training that prepares you, even after all of that, for seeing that kind of death and destruction that you saw in East Timor?
No, I think the only thing that prepares you is actually being
there when it happens or just after it happens and doing whatever you can to get on with the task and get the task done, and if you are halfway sane you are wondering why people do these sorts of things. I wondered that in Bougainville, I wondered that in Timor. The Bougainvilleans to a large degree did it themselves, but the Papua New Guinea government had a lot to answer for through the helicopter gun ships
and stuff like that. In Timor it wasn’t the Timorese, apart from the militia types to a large degree but they continued to deny it, it was the Indonesians that were largely responsible for what happened there. And there were some absolutely shocking bloody things that happened over there. A lot of it can’t be proved but you know – when you find mass graves and all that sort of stuff.
You know, there were people whose families that have just disappeared. And why did they just disappear? Because the militia or the other occupying people had them disposed of.
Did you come across any of those mass graves?
Not personally but I know it happened a couple of times when I was in Timor. Further away from Dili there were
certainly a number that were located in that timeframe. I don’t know how many bodies were in them but then as I said, there was the couple that was found in the beach area just down from where we swam and all that sort of stuff. That was just one small isolated incident.
You had several different cultural experiences in different conflict situations. Is there
something, is there a specific thing that you learnt about humanity and all those situations that each of those situations taught you about people?
Well in Thailand I learnt that I am not going to dob in anybody for sleeping, because if I do as sure as shit the supervisor is going to beat the living crap out of the poor dumb so-and-so and that in fact happened. So I
had a different aspect on how I would handle things. You know, when you have people on guard duty you expect them to stay awake. When you wake them the first time, that is fine. When they go to sleep again and you contact their commanding officer and he comes across and literally pistol whips him and all that sort of stuff and you think, “Maybe I should have handled this a different way.” Life is cheap in most other countries, certainly in
the South-East Asian sorts of areas. People have a different expectancy on what can be done, certainly the ruling classes think that there excreta doesn’t stink and it does, sorry about that. And they believe that they have an expectancy that they can get away with a hell of a lot more. People like the Jordanians, they have got different
cultural habits, they are also very arrogant. They believe that they are right at all times, particularly the officer class, “I am an officer, you are an airman, you piss off, and I will do what I want to do,” and all that sort of stuff. You know, that doesn’t work with me. I had my differences but there you go. For the most part, the general troops that I would work with, no
matter from what culture, was reasonably okay. We might have had language difficulties but you know, if you are working together you work together. But just as you went higher up the chain of command it just proved to be more difficult.
So how did you come to leave East Timor?
My unit 383 ECSS was only assigned for a six month rotation so
we went over as a unit and we travelled back as a unit. We travelled back in fact, I think some travelled back by air, as I did on the L100 and other travelled back per the, I can’t remember what name they gave it, but the hydrofoil or whatever it was, the catamaran that was operating – the one that had been leased from the Tasmanian company, and I have just lost the name that it operated under, but it did a
lot of work and moved a lot of equipment and people between Darwin and Australia. And some of us flew back as I said and some went on the boat.
How much had changed there in that time, in that six months that you were there?
Outwardly not a huge deal but people were starting to cultivate, people were starting to clean up, and people were starting to try to make things
work again. A long way to go at that stage. I don’t know what it is like now. I haven’t been back so. There are still people going there.
Interviewee: Victor Smith Archive ID 2105 Tape 09
So when you came home to Australia, what happened after that for the next few years?
Yeah, I came back in December 2000 and essentially went back to being, after some leave, back to being officer in charge of the air terminal detachment at Amberley. I was unhappy with the structure
of the squadron. I believed that we should have additional officers and that my position should be more of a supervisor position and that I should have more senior NCO supervision around the places and that my senior NCOs were unable to do what they needed to do. So at that end I made some comments and made some suggestions about restructuring the squadron for my particular detachment.
My fifth most preferred option was the one chosen, which they elected to create a second in charge 2IC position at flight sergeant level, which is a rank below mine, and reinstate a flight lieutenant as an officer in charge. It still didn’t satisfy the requirements that I believed we needed to have but that was the way of life. So I sat in that 2IC position for quite some time,
effectively until I came back to, sorry I went Bougainville for my last deployment and then came back into that 2IC position and effectively that is the position that I was occupying up until the September of last year when I reached the retiring age for permanent air force personnel of fifty-five and
opted to get out and not seek an age extension, which can be done now. But that is only recently that that could happen. I have since however joined the active reservists, can now go through to sixty, so I continue to offer a little bit in the air movements field and I get involved in a movement control organisation at Enoggera through the army doing some work there.
I have been asked to get involved with some instruction for a modularised air movements course which is primarily aimed at reserve members and they want to teach reserve members the air movements organisation, the air movements courses. They want me as a reservist to be qualified to teach them. I need to do an instructional techniques course but I have had some involvement with that course already in assisting the instructor
type role. And that is where we are at the moment.
And how did it feel retiring?
I wasn’t ready. I don’t think anybody ever really is. I wound up with a lump sum and what was available to me, I did basically what was a fifty-fifty split so that half of it is a fortnightly pension and half of it was a lump sum. Well some of that lump sump remains for me to
build a house, which is happening as we speak. I left myself a little bit short but I have got a couple of reasonably new cars, I have just brought my wife and daughter back from a trip across to the UK [United Kingdom], and even though it was a short trip, only a couple of weeks, we have done something that we have always wanted to do. I am still doing a little bit of part-time work and there we are. But certainly I wasn’t ready.
I hadn’t done any real pre-planning so.
How did the experience in the RAAF, and I mean I know it is over a long period of time, which is unusual for us talking to people, but how did that experience change you from that young guy that was in Western Australian playing footy with the prisoners?
Yeah, that poor young kid had wondered what the hell had happened. In some ways maybe I am a bit more
broadminded, maybe I am a little bit more cynical. I am certainly a bit heavier, I am certainly a lot greyer. I have got family that we sort of love each other. Certainly I have had a very good relationship with my daughter, my wife and I we have our moments, son and I we have our challenges.
If I could there would be things that I would change, but as you and I both know we can’t go back and change it because we don’t have that time travel, and even if we did we would probably wind up with the same mess anyway so.
Are you glad that you have had your experiences in the RAAF?
Ah, look in general I wouldn’t change it. I might attempt to do it differently, you know, if I had the foresight and knowledge.
When I got out in ’72, the things that I did when I was out, I got involved with the sports club, I got involved with kids football and kids soccer, kids cricket, got involved with the senior cricket and all that sort of stuff and senior football and I got involved with the social club committee of the sport club at home. And I met a lot of people and did a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. When I joined up the second time, again, there are lots of things that I’d done,
places that I have been to. I have looked out over the Grand Canyon with my wife and kids. We have been to Hoover Dam, Las Vegas and things like that. We have been to Kakadu and around most parts of Australia with the exception of Tasmania. Joe Civilian can’t normally do that unless he is a teacher or something like that, and generally it will only be in the state that he is with. It has cost us in some cases, maybe
my son could have turned out better if I had been more stationery, if I had been a better Dad, but hard to write that pamphlet on being a Dad.
Absolutely. In the experiences… In the years, sorry, after Vietnam, have you caught up with Vietnam vets [veterans], become part of associations for it?
I am actually part of the Airfield Defence Guard Association and for a while
I was a member of the RAAF Ubon Association and that wound up. I went to a reunion in Sydney some time back for that. But I do keep some degree of contact with the ADG Association, I am still a member, I get their quarterly newsletters and they have got a website that I log onto and catch up with some of my mail. I have got
an email friend, he was an American air policeman in Ubon at the same time I was. I get some contact with him from time to time.
How important is it to keep in contact with those guys?
Look I think we worked together and we lived together in some fairly stressful times and I think it is important. I
have had since about October about seven of my working comrades, colleagues, pass away and a couple of those I never did just catch up with and I regret it. One who went to a funeral in October with us, I caught up with him during that funeral and then in January he is dead. I was happy… Because this guy had been my course orderly, I was happy that I was able to catch up with him.
You know, I can’t say that we were the world’s greatest friends but we worked together, we lived together, we did what we had to do to get on with the task.
Did you ever find yourself suffering from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] as a result of any of your conflict experiences?
I don’t know that I can say that I suffer from it. I certainly have lots of little symptoms of various other things
that are related to my service career in some way or the other. Crook back, dicky ankles, hernia, dicky knees, loss of hearing, etc. But you know, I don’t sleep well at the best of times so I might go to bed at midnight or half past one, and if I go to bed at midnight I might do a crossword or something until one o’clock or listen to the radio or whatever.
Like last night I think I turned the light off at one o’clock and my alarm went off at five thirty or whatever and even then I didn’t sleep very well at all, so, you know.
Do you dream about the war?
I have had a couple of weird dreams from time to time, not as many as some people might have, but yeah from time to time I get something that I don’t quite understand, and what impact and where it has come from I don’t know.
Do you attribute the disturbed sleep to the conflict that you have experienced?
Possibility it already exists. I haven’t bothered about it. I just try to get on with life. I was at one stage talking to a Vietnam vets counsellor, he wanted me to go on particular medications and things like that.
And well in the long run I didn’t. I don’t particularly like being on medications and potions and lotions. And he didn’t think that he could do anything for me and I am not about to go out and create mayhem and havoc.
Do you think in some ways going on and staying in the RAAF through those other experiences post Vietnam has helped you in some ways come to terms with…?
probably more so then the National Serviceman, for example, that quite literally came out of the J [jungle] one day and is back in Sydney the next and is becoming a civilian again, yeah. I mean they went through some fairly horrendous crap. And I am first to admit that I didn’t go anywhere near the stuff they did. Some of what I did over the years here, there and everywhere was somewhat traumatic, but when you talk about
people in a heavy contact situations where they are talking about seeing walls of fire coming towards them and walls of green lights and you know that every green is a tracer bullet and there are four other bullets in between, you think to yourself, “Yeah, they did it a bit tough.” And then when you read the description of what happened at Long Tan and yeah.
So what makes you happy now after all that stuff?
I don’t think that I have got anything particularly at the moment that makes me happy. I like doing crosswords and things like that.
When we can we do, we quite often just get out and go from Ipswich to Redcliffe and Maleny. You know, you might do a five hundred k round trip in the day – just it’s there and you can do it.
And that’s all right, It gets us out of the house and doing something.
And what do you think of the Iraq war?
I was in favour of the fact that we needed to… Hussein and people like that need not to be in control of any country. The fact that dictatorships
or whatever you like to call it, they can quite literally wield their power and at the drop of a hat execute even their own brothers and things like that. To have somebody like that running a country, what sort of situation is that in? I have difficulty in understanding the factional problems and it comes back to religious type factions that exist over the there. The Sunnis and the Shiites and all this sort of stuff.
In my view they are all Iraqis, why in the hell are Iraqis bombing other Iraqis as is happening at the moment? Theoretically they are aiming at the coalition partners, but most of the people that are dying at the moment are Iraqis, not Americans. Even though there is a lot of Americans that have been dying, but it is primarily Iraqis. And the people that are doing a lot of the bombing and stuff aren’t Iraqis, they are Jordanians. What the hell is going on?
Why are the local Iraqis putting up with it?
So your view on war is that it is a bit futile?
I’m not sure that it is futile. I wish we didn’t have it. But there has got to be, my preference would be that everybody lived in peace. But when you have people like Hussein, when you have people like…
What’s the goat, hoopdy-doop, over in the east who hates all infidels? The guy that was in charge of the 9/11 [September 11 2001 attack on New York and Washington] thing? You know, they want the whole world to be Islamic and they want to do it at the point of a gun. Well I’ll be buggered to that and
while I am still drawing breath in this country as far as I am concerned, if the Islam law becomes rule throughout this country then we have failed and I don’t want that to happen. I have got nothing against any religion, Jew, Arab, whatever, Islam. You can be a Calathumpian Bible-basher as far as I am concerned. Technically my wife is
a Mon, a form of Buddhist, and I have got no problems with that as long as I can live in peace and do what I want to do and that Joe Bloggs, the average Australian citizen, can do what he or she wants to do in his or her own time and don’t you dare impose your brand of bigotry on us and expect us to live with it.
So do you have a final comment that you would want to put on record about
your war and life experience for any one listening in the future?
Oh, look, thirty-four and half years in the permanent air force in two different tours and I just hope that I did it to the best of my ability. That’s all.
Well we have really enjoyed hearing you to day. Thank you so much…
Not a problem.
…for talking to us for a long time with that terrible cough you are dealing there. We both appreciate it. Thank you.
Not a problem, thank you.