CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD T Ey. Pt. 3

 

CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD Tony Ey. Pt 3

 

4. All the mountains in Australia are in the South-East of Queensland."

 

When we finally departed Canungra after a very long three weeks, I had decided beyond doubt that I had made the right decision when I had joined the Navy. Our training was harder but at least we were able to stay reasonably clean. This was the final phase of our pre-deployment training prior to pre-embarkation leave. As we sat in the airport waiting to return to Sydney, Jake made the dreaded announcement as to which of us would not be deploying with the Team. I was convinced it would be me, as Digger was most definitely going because he had trained with the previous team, Tom was a Leading Hand and outranked the three of us, and I suspected Jake had a soft spot for Blue. Much to my relief, it was to be Tom, and not me who remained behind. We all knew how he must have felt, however we were going and that was uppermost in our thoughts. It was to be a bitter disappointment for Tom as we were destined to be the last diving team to be sent to Vietnam.

 

While at Brisbane airport awaiting our return flight to Sydney, Jake spotted the then Minister for the Navy, Jim Killen. Without the slightest hesitation Jake walked over and introduced 'his team' to the Minister. We were to see more of the Honourable Jim after that as he was to visit us in our humble abode in Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1970. After the war Jim graciously became the Patron of the Clearance Diving Association. With the work-up over we all proceeded on 5 days pre-embarkation leave. We all went home with the exception of Digger. He came home with me to Adelaide. On our last night in Sydney before starting leave, there was a general farewell to the team at one of the local pubs in Cremorne with most of the Diving school showing up to wish a safe tour. We all had a little too much to drink and once again I had my big red V8 with me. On my way home I was obviously a little heavy on the foot and after crossing the Sydney Harbour bridge heading south I was pulled over by a Policeman in a Morris Mini who said he had clocked me at 80 miles per hour down the Cahill expressway and over the bridge. He said it had taken him the length of the expressway and bridge to catch me. I thought I was in a bit of strife for a while until we told him we had just attended a final farewell prior to leaving for Vietnam. Much to my relief he immediately backed off and said, "Piss off home via the shortest route at the speed limit and get to bed".

 

At home in South Australia, Digger and I made the most of our leave. We visited my relatives in the country with the highlight, in Digger's opinion, being a visit to one of my relation's winery. We proceeded to taste every wine they produced, and in his less than sober state Digger complimented them by saying it was the best "brewery" he had ever been to. We finally departed Sydney's Mascot Airport late in the evening of the 14th October 1970 aboard a chartered Qantas 707. Destination: Saigon - in friendlier times known as the "Pearl of the Orient". Our departure had been delayed by three or four hours due to some radio problems aboard the aircraft, so the airport bar remained open and the farewell gradually took on a party atmosphere. Once airborne our friendly Qantas crew opened the in-flight bar for their 120 or so Military passengers. The Stewards found to their surprise that the majority of their passengers were more interested in sleeping than drinking. Even though it was after midnight, the Naval contingent of six Divers and one Chief Petty Officer Writer were the exception. ('Googer' Gent was returning with us on our flight to Saigon from R & R leave spent in Sydney. Googer was responsible for both the Diving Team's and Helo Flight's pay and allowances). As Navy Divers we felt compelled to uphold the best traditions of the 'Senior Service', however we weren't quite up to the excessive quantity of beer that was available. By the time the aircraft landed in Darwin to refuel, we were beginning to think that sleep may have been our better option. The early morning Darwin to Singapore stage of the flight passed far too quickly for seven very tired and very hung-over sailors.

 

During the Vietnam War era, the Singapore Government allowed Australian Service flights a brief stopover at their airport whilst en-route to South Vietnam, but they insisted on keeping the visits as inconspicuous as possible because of the ever increasing public opposition to the 'War'. To remain relatively unnoticed, we had been ordered to carry a civilian shirt with us onboard the aircraft. These had to be donned prior to disembarking in Singapore. It was quite absurd to think that 120 young men arriving on a Qantas flight dressed in regular Army boots, identical khaki trousers and a variety of colourful flowery shirts would fool anyone. We were instructed not to leave the confines of the airport and to ensure we complied, Military Police were stationed at strategic exit and entry points. This ruling obviously did not apply to Naval Officers as Jake decided he would make a surprise visit to one of his old flames in Singapore, and this was an opportunity not to be missed. Unfortunately for Jake, within minutes of his 'breaking out', we were advised over the airport's public address system that our planned two hour breakfast and fuel stopover had been shortened to one and a half hours. While we sat in the aircraft watching the ground staff preparing to remove the stairs, John Gilchrist was frantically trying to invent a plausible excuse to explain why we were now only five instead of six. At the last possible moment, we saw the stocky figure of Jake sprint from the airport terminal at a speed to behold. Another 30 seconds and it would have been too late. We could hear John muttering obscenities to himself. He didn't expect that sort of stress so early in the trip. We hadn't even arrived in the war zone and his Commanding Officer was already giving him grey hair.

 

We were met at Saigon's Tan Son Nhat Airport by the Senior Australian Officer (RAN), the ever smiling Commander Rang Hall. CPOCD John Dollar, the Chief of the diving team we were to relieve, had flown down from their home base in Da Nang to organize our first few days 'in-country', and arrange our subsequent movement north. After being welcomed by the U.S. Navy's Saigon based EOD team at their villa in Cholon (the old Chinese quarter of Saigon), we were completely kitted out with US gear, including 'Cammies' and the famous and much sought after 'K-Bar' . We were then invited to participate in the traditional EOD welcoming ceremony which consisted of skulling a very large boot shaped glass filled to the brim with Budweiser beer. The earlier stress of Singapore had obviously affected the Chief as he alone failed to make the grade. He was obviously distracted by the thought of "what if" the Boss had missed the flight. Narra was conned into an American EOD ritual new to us all. After we had consumed several cans, one of the US Chiefs asked Narra if he was "pretty strong" and if he had "heard of the 3 man lift". Naturally Phil hadn't, but when he confirmed in the positive regarding his strength, they knew they had him hook line and sinker. The US Chief said one of his fellows could lift three men with one hand. Narra naturally replied "bullshit" and numerous beers were bet on the outcome. To allow the Yank EOD strongman to perform the lift, Narra was told to lie on the floor with arms and legs spread. Two Americans were to lie on either side of him with his arms under them and their legs extended over the top of his. The process was explained to Narra that he was to hold them very tight so that the US 'superman' could lift Narra by his belt with one hand, and Narra should subsequently lift the other two, thus lifting three men with one hand. After this detailed explanation, Narra was all ready to go. It didn't occur to him that in this position he was in effect pinned to the ground by the two big blokes on either side of him. After much ado, with the Yank standing astride Narra deep breathing while giving instructions for him to grip the two accomplices very tightly, the lifter as quick as a flash undid Narra's belt, unzipped his fly and pulled down his trousers. The rest of the Americans, waiting in the wings and ready with copious quantities of iced water, proceeded to pour gallons of very cold water over Narra's bare crotch. It gave him such a shock that he actually lifted the two other blokes clear of the ground as he tried to struggle clear. When we had all finally stopped laughing, the Yanks announced that he was in fact quite strong, as he had managed to lift two 200 pounders off the ground. He was considered a worthy member of the EOD community.

 

 


Three of us on our return to Da Nang after a week or so on site at Tan My.
Note the borrowed uniforms. We had been sleeping on the beach in hootchies for the duration.

 

Our American counterparts decided that time was not to be wasted sleeping, and we should visit the hot spots of downtown Saigon, beginning with that very infamous bar area, 'Tu Do" Street. Larry Digney, 19 years of age and on his first trip beyond Australia's borders, did his utmost to buy every bar-girl in Tu Do Street a 'Saigon Tea' (very expensive coloured water). The following morning, John Dollar advised us that Typhoon 'Louise' was intensifying over the Central coast near Da Nang and we would have to remain in Saigon until it had blown over. This unexpected bonus enabled Larry to revisit Tu Do that evening and catch up with the bar-girls he had missed the previous evening, and gave him the opportunity to buy all their sisters, mothers, daughters and cousins numerous drinks as well. It was an expensive introduction to Asia for Larry but I'm sure he thought it a very enjoyable lesson. We certainly had a laugh watching him. I managed to lose my beret in some dark and seedy bar. Probably souvenired by a Yank. The remainder of us old "Asia hands" kept our hands in our pockets, and the bar-girls noting this, gave us our first introduction to the infamous ditty sung by all Saigon bar-girls when referring to Australian soldiers:-

 

 

"Uc Dai Loi , cheap Charlie,
He no buy me Saigon tea,
Saigon tea cost many many Pi,
Uc Dai Loi, him cheap Charlie."

 

 

After our hectic but enjoyable few days in Saigon, we finally boarded a U.S. Airforce C-130 Hercules and headed north to a waiting reception from the team we were about to relieve. With a welcoming barbecue of Ribs and Steak complete with endless quantities of icy cold Victoria Bitter beer, we were all beginning to assume that our tour of Vietnam was going to be somewhat of an extended round of social functions. This early complacency was quickly shattered rather dramatically. Within three days of our arrival in Da Nang, the new team experienced its baptism of fire. As part of the hand-over procedure,