Story 58 - Reminiscing 1971

The Final Days

By Ken Mackenzie

Ken Mackenize 
Photo:  Ken Mackenzie in South Vietnam 1971.  Photo supplied by Ken Mackenzie.

The following is neither true nor false – it is what I know…

I’d been at 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn since May 1971.  It had been an interesting time on a number of levels.   My association with 4RAR went back to 1966, when we’d both been part of the 28th (Commonwealth) Infantry Brigade at Terendak, in Malaya.

But Vietnam was a different time in a different place. Unfortunately, my working relationship with the Bn RSO1 was ‘difficult’ at best. Chief issues being his man-management and knowledge of VHF communications and equipments.  Each of which, in my opinion, were equally poor.

Two days into Operation Overlord at FSB Trish, Signalman Don Willis returned to Nui Dat. His replacement was Signalman Mick Jauncey.  Poor Mick had only arrived in Vietnam a couple of days earlier and had eyes like saucers!  They got even bigger on his first night with us, when our “12 to 3” clearing patrol had a contact right on dusk and the 3 o’clock M60 opened up with a long burst.

In mid-June 1971, Bn HQ moved from FSB Trish to Courtenay Hill at YS450905 in Southern Long Khanh Province. Our operations then spanned Southern Long Khanh (TRAC Special Zone)2 and Northern Phouc Tuy Provinces, both east and west of Route 2.

Courtenay Hill was a narrow 800ft feature that dominated the local area. The hill was solid rock; we couldn’t ‘dig in’ to it. Instead, we had to sandbag everything up above ground.  And this equated to a hell of a lot of sandbags. The Bn CP was sited in an awkward area.  In particular, it made the siting of both our ‘292’ VHF antennas problematic, as the Bn Comd Net and 104 Fd Bty ‘292s’ had to be sited close to the CP as well.  In our case, we were limited to the length of our ‘coax’ cables, as we couldn’t remote our KY-38s. There were continual problems with “Frequency Break-In” across the three nets.  We all learned to live with this eventually; though not before it caused a great deal of friction between the RSO and I.

Mick Bluey JosephIn August, it was announced that 4RAR would be withdrawn from Vietnam by Christmas.  This not un-expected news was greeted with relief by some and dismay and disbelief by others.  

After R&R3 in September, I was asked if I would like to remain with 4RAR during the 1ATF withdrawal phase from Nui Dat.  If not, SGT Mick (Bluey) Joseph would take my place at the Bn and I would take his, as Tp SGT of Radio Troop back at 104 Sig Sqn.

I wanted to stay, but my working relationship with the Bn RSO had completely disintegrated.  It was time to go.

Photo (Right):  Mick "Bluey" Joseph in South Vietnam 1971. 
Photo supplied by Ken Mackenzie

On the 5th of October 1971, I flew down to 104 Sig Sqn at Nui Dat.  And on the 6th of October 1971, the first day of Operation Southward, I took over as Tp SGT of Radio Troop while SGT Mick “Bluey” Joseph took my place at 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn.

I’d forgotten how good it was to shower every day, instead of once every week, wear clean clothes, eat three cooked meals instead of canned ‘C’s or Freeze-dried ‘LRRPS’ and sleep on a comfortable bed, rather than my cramped, sandbagged sleeping bay with hungry bush-rats for company.  But I missed the adrenalin of being out in the ‘Boondocks’ with the Bn – and whether tonight was the night that the 3/33rd NVA or 274th VC Regt, finally determined that Courtenay Hill was well worth the risk...and have a seriously good crack at us.

There was no doubt they were watching us. We’d found lots of clear sign, including blocks of Chicom PE, that they’d already closely reconnoitred our hill, right up to the wire on our western slopes. There was no quick, or easy way off Courtenay.  If they’d simultaneously hit us and our guns and mortars at FSB Debbie in force, we’d have been in a world of serious hurt.

There’d been numerous ambushes, battles, contacts and mine Incidents all round us. We’d caused the VC/NVA no end of pain and distress since Operation Overlord.  So, why they left us alone remains one of life’s mysteries to me.

[Factoid: Courtenay Hill, my home for so long, was handed over to the Vietnamese 177th RF (Regional Force) Company, from Cam My, a small Ville 2 klicks East of Courtenay Hill.  I wondered how long they’d manage to hold on to it!  If things ran to normal, they’d do what they did at Cam My; that is, pick a clear evening and fire off their entire monthly ammunition allowance at one go, just to let the NVA know they represented no opposition.]

Courtenay Hill 1971   Courtenay Hill 1971
Photo (Left):  Homes with a view on Courtenay Hill 1971.
Photo (Right):  Filling sandbags for the Courtenay Hill Signals bunker.  L-R Bob "Dustoff" Martin
doing the spadework and Ken Mackenzie holding the sandbag.  ACV in the backgound.
Both photos supplied by Nick Mazzarol.

By October 1971, 104 Signal Squadron had the latest and best VHF battlefield communications equipment in the world.  Most importantly, we had the people who knew how to use it.

And after five years in Vietnam, Radio Troop had more equipment than was on our Authorised Equipment Table.  This was because over these years, our role had expanded exponentially and the unit’s equipment table had never managed to catch up.  The US Army, God Bless them, had given us whatever we’d needed without question.

Nor did they want any of it back.  And nearby US Army units rotating back to the United States were still trying to give us more radio equipment in the weeks before we left Nui Dat!

We had more AN/PRC-25s, AN/PRC-77’s, AN/GRC-125s, AN/GRC-160’s, MT-1029 mounts, AN/GRA-39s, RT-524VRC’s and accompanying CES, than you could poke a stick at.  Along with KY-38 VHF Speech Security Equipment, AB-577 Masts and the magical AS-2236GRC VHF Antenna.

Yet, with the exception of exactly one AB-577 Mast, our Army in its infinite wisdom, wouldn’t let us bring it all home.

So, what equipment we couldn’t give away to units like the AATTV’s JWTC4 at Van Kiep, had to be taken to the Nui Dat Tip and destroyed.

 What an absolute waste!

[As an aside, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the Army finally obtained more of the same equipment that we’d been forced to destroy and dump at Nui Dat tip.]

With the planned withdrawal of 1ATF to Vung Tau, the JWTC increased their throughput of Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers.  However, they would no longer be able to rely on 1ATF for direct support and assistance. One solution was to install a VHF Net, which would allow them to talk to directly to AATTV HQ in Saigon, as well as their training staff in the field.

So, with Signalmen Clive Browne and Don Mackeson in tow, I drove to Van Kiep through what once had been C Sqn, 1 Armd Regt’s lines. There, with hearts in mouths, we carefully climbed to the top of a very tall, and very rickety Water Tower and installed an AS-2236 antenna. Comms with Saigon were 5x5 on both an AN/PRC-77 and RT524-VRC.  Although, if that water tower came down, they were on their own!

The last two Operations conducted by 1ATF in South Vietnam were: “Valiant” and “Southward”.

Operation Valiant ran from 03 October to 06 October 1971.

It involved 4 RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn’s Bravo and Victor (NZ) Coy’s moving south, clearing east and west along both sides of Route 2 down to Nui Dat where they were to arrive by 06 October.

On the 6th of October, 3RAR departed Vung Tau on HMAS Sydney and 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn was complete back in Nui Dat. Delta Company moved onto the vacated Nui Dat Hill shortly after.

Operation Southward ran from the 6th of October to the 7th of November 1971. This was the 1ATF’s relocation move from Nui Dat to Vung Tau.

LO Detachments: I can’t say for sure now, but I think the local LOs: Duc Thanh, Dat Do, Xuyen Moc, Hoa Long (Long Dien had been closed months earlier) were back in Nui Dat by the 6th of October. And I can’t recall when our Dets at the 2/25th Inf Div at Xuan Loc, 3rd Bde, 1st Air Cav at FSB Mace, and RTAVF Bearcat, returned, either.  Although I believe our Dets with 161 Recce Flt and 1 Fd Engr Sqn had RTU.

One of the least publicised activities that continued unabated until we departed Nui Dat was the flying of ‘phantom’ SAS Patrol Insertions and Extractions across Phouc Tuy Province.  This was a particularly dangerous task at the best of times, but more so now.  Our 1ATF CP Operators were an integral part of this program, riding “Shotgun” in RAAF 9 Sqn UH1H ‘Hueys’ during each ‘Insertion and Extraction’ mission. Signalmen Pete Bird and Neville Williams flew many of these missions.

The Sqn also dispatched an advance party to 110 Sig Sqn at Vung Tau, to amongst other things, ensure our arrival went smoothly. Meanwhile, sorting, packing and preliminary cleaning of unit and personal equipment went on at an unabated pace.  At the same time we continued to man and maintain 1 ATF’s radio, line and switchboard communications.

Our last morning at Nui Dat was a bloody shambles. Without reference to anyone, SGT Ken Casey, the Line SGT, took it upon himself to attack the Main Distribution Frame with a Fire Axe, immediately severing all communications between the 1ATF CP and the radio bunker on Nui Dat Hill, putting the 1ATF Command Net off the air – I could have choked him!

Thankfully, we were able to get Step-Up on air in record time.

1ATF ACV Preparing to move to Vung Tau 16 Oct 1971
Photo:  Convey with three HQ 1ATF ACV's preparing for the final road trip to Vung Tau on the morning
of the 16 Oct 1971. 
Photo supplied by Nev Haskett.

However, my ever-lasting memory of that awful day is sitting in our convoy at Nui Dat’s Main Gate, looking at an enormous queue of ARVN soldiers and trucks of all shapes and sizes, snaking right back along the Route 2 Bypass.

They were waiting to fall on our base and strip it bare.

Signalman Pete Bird, one of our 1ATF CP Operators, was atop one of the ACVs at the front of the convoy and shot what are probably the penultimate, defining images of our pending departure.

Leaving Nui Dat, 16 Oct 1971Photo: Three of the HQ 1 ATF ACV's (Callsign 85, 85A and 85B) ready to lead the convoy out of Nui Dat on the 16 Oct 1971.  Vietnamese vehicles line up on the outside waiting to help themselves to the goods being
left by the Australians.  Photo supplied by Pete Bird

I was extremely angry and very upset that we were leaving like this.  We had it won!  For ten years, we’d given the NVA and VC more than they could handle.  And here we were, cutting and running when we had them beaten!  I was angry for all the guys who’d lost their lives here – and all those others whose lives had been forever ruined.

What was it all for, then?  Why the bloody hell had we bothered?

[Even now, 43 years later, I still get angry about this.]

And to add insult to injury, the locals were lining up to ransack Nui Dat!

Several hours later, I drove out of the main gate at Nui Dat for the last time in my life.  Past those eager, impatient, ARVN vultures and their trucks. My trigger finger, along with a lot of others, itched uncontrollably.

 1ATF Road convey to Vung Tau, 16 Oct 1971
Photo: 1ATF Convey on the way to Vung Tau with ARVN moving to Nui Dat on the 16 Oct 1971.  APC protecting the convey on the left and Army Bell 206B Kiowa flying air cover.  Photo supplied by Nev Haskett.

The drive down to Vung Tau was an emotional blur.  Eventually we arrived at the R&C5 Centre, which was to be our home for the next couple of weeks.

Each day thereafter, we trucked across to 1ALSG6, cleaned our stores and equipment, each piece of which had to be inspected and approved by onsite Australian Quarantine Officials, prior to it being packed into Connexes with lots of ‘Rat Blocks’.

1ALSG lived in a different world all together to Nui Dat. The war didn’t exist down here.  The air and the attitudes were different, too. 110 Sig Sqn was different as well. As I recall, in those last weeks in Vung Tau, we were never invited into their SGTs Mess.

We ate really well in those final weeks, too.  Ian Becker, our amazing SGT Cook, seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of fresh seafood allegedly sourced from the fishing village of Long Phouc Hai, which legend has it, was also the home of a very close friend of his.  It was also the first time I’d ever tasted Tartare Sauce.

And Rod Stewart’s Maggie May was a big hit on AFRVN7

Our last meal as a Sqn was a farewell dinner. The OC, MAJ Tony Roberts, spoke about his pride in 104 Sig Sqn’s achievements, and how we were now part of Australia’s Military History. He thanked every one for their efforts and wished those remaining behind and those leaving the unit on RTA good fortune.  It was only the second time in a year I’d seen the majority of our unit in one place!

 Farewell Dinner in Vung Tau
Photo:  104 Sig Sqn Farewell Dinner in Vung Tau early Nov 1971.
OC, Major Tony Roberts addressing the Sqn.  Photo and insert photos supplied by Nev Haskett

In November 1971, I rode a UH-1H ‘Huey’ out of the Republic of Vietnam to the flight deck of HMAS Sydney, in the South China Sea. My heart was beating in time to the ‘thump’ of its rotors.

  104 Sig Sqn, 1971
Photo:  Members of 104 Sig Sqn deplaning from a Huey on the deck of HMAS Sydney for the voyage
home on the 6 November 1971.  Ken Mackenzie just stepped onto the flight deck at the Huey left door.
Photo supplied by Ken Mackenzie

Postscript:

I was at 2 Sig Regt Watsonia in early 1972, when a call came through from Australian Customs in South Melbourne. They had my steel trunk and wanted me to come and open it for inspection.

I went home, collected my green field notebook and drove into South Melbourne.

A Customs Officer took me to my trunk. As he cut off the metal banding, I recalled that when we packed our trunks at Nui Dat for the trip home, we were ordered to ‘band’ them only – not padlock them. This was so they could be inspected for “Contraband” i.e. weapons/explosives/drugs, at Vung Tau. They would then be re-banded and dispatched to Australia.

Many of us were extremely unhappy about this and warned it would lead to theft. But our concerns were ignored.

I opened the trunk, pulled out my notebook, turned to my packing list notes and into a slow, angry burn…

Gone were my Diaries, Transistor Radio, spare pair of GP Boots, new Socks and Greens, SAS Ammo Pouches, Karabiners, all my US Army Gear: Compass, Torch, Strobe, Jungle Boots, Sleeping Bag, Ponchos, Poncho Liners, both my Lightweight Rucksacks, 2x2-Quart collapsible canteens and my prized survival knife. Only odds and ends were left.

Some 1 ALSG pogo bastard at Vung Tau had ratted my trunk and stolen my gear.

[I was just one of many 104 Signal Squadron members this happened to]

It was the final insult.

Ken Mackenzie

Notes:

1.  RSO – Regimental Signals Officer
2.  TRAC – US Army’s Third Regional Assistance Command
3.  R&R – Rest and Recreation. A five-day ‘Out of Country’ leave break, plus travel time
4.  JWTC – Joint Warfare Training Centre
5.  R&C – Rest and Care; A three-day ‘In-Country’ leave break
6.  1ALSG – 1st Australian Logistic Support Group
7.  AFRVN – US Army’s Armed Forces Radio (Network), Vietnam. Their ‘on-air’ slogan was “AFRVN”, “From the Delta
     to the DMZEE!”


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