Story 6 - Albatross Zero Four


'An Anecdote'

by Robert Parkyns

Robert 'Bob' Parkyns

Many Vietnam Veterans have feelings of dread when they hear a helicopter, caused understandably by their experiences in the conflict.  The sound of the Iroquois helicopter remains the most distinct in my memory.  It's not really the sound that gets you, it's the pressure that resonates against the eardrums a short while prior to the actual hearing. That dull 'wokka-wokka' triggers many thought and feelings.   'You bloody beauty', is always my first thought.

I was a lance corporal with just a couple of months left before returning to Australia, and like most twenty year olds, I thought myself pretty good at my job.  Radio operators in 104 Signal Squadron found themselves on a variety of tasks throughout Phuoc Tuy Province, and on this particular jaunt the Australian battalions were patrolling the edge of their 'Tactical Area of Operations' which placed them adjacent to battalions of the South Vietnamese 18th ARVN Division.  In cases such as this, a liaison officer along with one or two signallers were sent to the allied force to alleviate accidents.  Myself and Bob (Skid) Rowe were teamed up with a friendly young artillery officer from New Zealand, who had been in-country only a matter of weeks and was on his first operation.  We were choppered around until we found an obscure Vietnamese Battalion HQ that didn't seem to mind us tagging along. Liaising wasn't easy.

Being a signaller meant that you could carry twice as much gear as anybody else and still find room for batteries.  When we saw the typical Vietnamese soldier with his basic webbing strapped on, a live chook or bag of rice draped over the left shoulder and his rifle nestled in the crook of the right, we began to suspect that this might be a tough operation, physically at least. By the fifth day, we were exhausted.  The battalion had been on the go continually and the VC were lapping us up.  We were being mortared on a regular basis, just two or three bombs, and a quick move to their next prepared mortar base plate.

155mm GunThe Vietnamese were jabbering away at us to let them go into the Aussie area where the mortar bombs seemed to be coming from. No way, of course.   We even managed to be blown off our feet by American 155mm Howitzers.  The impression was that someone was out to get us. Our artillery officer finally took the hint that this was all infantry shenanigans and we should be co-located with a well defended Vietnamese artillery battery, where best use could be made of his tax payer funded skills, but we were due a resupply, and after sending the time honoured signal, "Send Fresh Batteries, Over" , we settled down to wait, and our relocation plans had to be put on hold to a more fortuitous time.

HueyIt was soon after that that I heard the 'wocka wocka' on the eardrums.  The radio squarked to life, "One Niner Alpha here is Albatross Zero Four, in-bound your location with resup on board - copy over"? That was a good start, I thought, it was an Aussie voice.  "Albatross Zero Four, this is One Niner alpha, swing to your right a couple of degrees and watch for smoke over. I'd just picked him up visually and he was a little off course.  'Skid' popped a canister of yellow smoke with his usual way off beam throw, so that the smoke blew straight back over us. "Thanks mate". "Smoke thrown - over".  Helicopter pilots didn't like it if you stated the colour of the smoke in case there appeared a number of puffs of the same colour. Those VC could be quite sneaky.  "One Niner Alpha here is Albatross Zero four, tally ho banana."  Well you could have knocked me over with a feather, I was from Coffs Harbour, and that staccato voice sounded really friendly.   "Roger Albatross Zero Four, you have it correct, come on down."

HueyDoubling back and forth across the undefended clearing just about exhausted our last reserves of sweat and we were quite happy to stand on the edge of the bush to try and catch some of the down drought from the rotor blade, but not so happy when the pilot wouldn't take off, as helicopters are quite noisy creatures, and it was not desirable to have one hanging about too long in ones locality.  I could see the pilot beckoning me and was wondering what he was on about, we had a lieutenant that he could chat to, why pick me. Once again, I ducked out to the idling Iroquois and stood up on the running board.  Yep, I said, waiting to be chipped for not saying sir.  The pilot carefully pulled at the fingers of his right fireproof glove until it came off, just as carefully he unbuckled and removed his helmet.  He then turned towards me, stuck his hand out of the window and said, "G'day Bob, John Landale, remember me"? I was completely dumbfounded, John lived around the corner from me at Sawtell just south of Coffs Harbour. He was a couple of years older and school a prefect.

Thinking back, I can clearly remember my mother saying, "Why can't you be more like that nice young Landale boy, he's going places".

Once again I stood on the edge of the clearing and watched as the woosh of the blade increased to its normal 'wocka-wocka' and the skids reluctantly left the ground taking John and his crew 'places' without me.

I haven't seen John since that day in '68, but suffice to say we relocated to our artillery battery and spent the next couple of weeks slowly going deaf.

Bob Parkyns
June 1999

Footnote:  Bob returned to Coffs Harbour after serving 20+ years in the Australian Army.

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