CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD T Ey. Pt. 5

 

CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD Tony Ey. Pt 5

 

ineffective due to its low level of competence and difficulty in retaining personnel. Vietnamese team members would disappear without trace for weeks at a time without explanation and reappear when it suited them. We would not have been surprised if they were part-time VC. The U.S. Advisers rotated in pairs between Cua Viet and Da Nang. Most of their off time was spent at our 'hootch'. One of these Advisers, W.O. Gerry Dunn was quite an odd personality. He would spend his spare time (and he seemed to have a lot of it) reading paperback Westerns with a cigarette in one hand, alternating between sips of hot coffee and cold beer, and carry on a conversation, all without ever lifting his eyes from his book.

 

Jake became a particularly close friend of the Boss of the Marine EOD team and we consequently spent some quiet times socializing at their hootch. I have crystal clear memories of these two connoisseurs standing at the bar smoking huge American cigars and drinking generous helpings of Chivas Regal whiskey. Another frequent visitor to this mess was a US Marine Padre who had a very puzzling approach to what was normally expected of a man of the cloth. His constant stream of foul language was disconcerting to say the least and I believe even our Instructor Sergeant from Canungra would have been embarrassed by this man's incredible behavior and language. The war certainly affected different people in different ways. Team members took every opportunity to gain additional experience by working with other EOD units. We all rotated through Cua Viet, a very busy place indeed, being one of the closest friendly outposts to the DMZ. 'Birdcage' mines were a constant problem in the Cua Viet River with both civilian and military craft being sunk regularly with considerable loss of life. During December 1970, five Birdcage mines were recovered and 22 NVA/VC Sapper swimmers were killed in one operation. Sleep was always hard to come by at night because of the constant outgoing 81mm mortar rounds.

 


Back Row: Digney, Ey, Furner. - Front Row: Narramore, Linton with "Dog", Gilchrist.

 

The trip north to Cua Viet was particularly interesting as the road passed through the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hue . During the Communist's 'Tet' (Lunar New Year) offensive of February 1968, Hue, surrounded by an ancient citadel and located on the Perfume River, was overrun and held by North Vietnamese troops and local VC for 26 days, before being recaptured by U.S. Forces. It has been stated by the Americans that during this period, approximately 5,800 civilians, including a multi-national medical team, were executed in reprisals by the Communist troops.

 

Further north, beyond Hue and Quang Tri, the road to Cua Viet became a very rough bush track meandering through small villages, rice paddies and finally sand dunes. This was a journey which we would undertake only during daylight hours due to the constant threat of ambush. During one trip, Jake was actually fired upon by ARVN troops in broad daylight. Choppers became the preferred method of travel.

 

Other detachments included Phil and Larry spending time with the U.S. Airforce EOD team at Da Nang airfield, Speed with our friends at Marine EOD and Larry, Blue and I with the U.S. Navy EOD team in Cam Ranh Bay. This superb harbour proved to be quite a different operation from Da Nang. During the day, the team played beach volleyball, followed by an afternoon of diving for lobster, which we barbecued fresh that evening for dinner. At night, we conducted boat patrols during the curfew hours to try and catch boats running VC and weapons across the Bay. Heavily armed, and using Starlight scopes, the team averaged several kills on most patrols. 'Charlie' could not understand how we could see him so clearly on the blackest of nights. As the sun was rising it was usual to pull into one of the 'bars' on the beach for a few beers before heading back to bed. A vivid memory of their hootch was the massive python snake they kept as a pet. He lived in their darkened pantry and was fed about once a month. The Yanks would just throw a live duck into the pantry and close the door. The U.S. Navy also had a secret Dolphin training program in Cam Ranh Bay where EOD divers taught Dolphins to attack underwater swimmers and recover ordnance from the seabed.

 

Another interesting deployment for me was with the 51st ARVN Regiment in Quang Nam Province, North West of Da Nang. This unit had an Australian Army Training Team Adviser, WO2 Vic Pennington, who was based in an old triangular shaped French built fort located on the high ground above the village of Dai Loc. Several large units of NVA regulars were dug in on the nearby ridge-line and one night with beer in hand, I clearly recall relaxing with Vic watching a firefight with the resultant tracer rounds cris-crossing the surrounding countryside. Only days prior to my arrival in Dai Loc, an American Adviser to the 51st had stopped his jeep on the outskirts of the village after a group of children had flagged him down to scrounge cigarettes and candy. While he was obliging with the candy, one of the children threw a hand grenade into the back of the vehicle, killing him and his South Vietnamese counterpart. The burnt out wreck of his vehicle served as a grim reminder that not all VC wore black pajamas and carried AK47's. This part of I Corps was referred to by the Advisers, rather sarcastically, as 'Marlboro country'.

 

Most of our calls for diving assistance came between the hours of midnight and 3 am, usually after a sentry had reported swimmers or intruders at the nearby Deep Water ammunition piers. We had to respond immediately to all calls, and many turned out to be false alarms. False alarm or not, it is an indescribably eerie and lonely feeling to be searching a ship in the middle of the night with the knowledge that it contains around 9,000 tonnes of high explosives, and that a fanatically dedicated saboteur has recently been onboard. We all participated in the R & R program and with the exception of Jake we all returned to Sydney for our short break.

 

A memorable call occurred on my first night back from R & R. It was a black moonless night and a local watch-tower sentry had reported seeing silhouettes and movement prior to hearing explosions on a nearby beach. Creeping warily along the beach, long after the event, in almost complete darkness, Jake and I could not understand the constant squelching feeling underfoot. Having found nothing, we returned to the lights of our vehicle and examined our boots to discover the reason for the mushy texture of the beach sand. The nearby village used that particular section of the beach as their latrine and relied on the incoming tide to dispose of it. We had unfortunately arrived before the tide. The cause of the explosions remained a mystery. Probably some doped-up fool playing games with hand grenades. Our home became the most famous EOD Hootch in South Vietnam, as our hospitality extended to all EOD teams from all four U.S. services and our door was always open to U.S. Navy UDT and SEAL teams. Large stocks of Victoria Bitter beer contributed to our reputation and an invitation to stop over with the 'Aussie Divers' for a few days became much sought after. A sign over our bar announced our extremely generous 'Bar Hours':-

 


Saturday AM - 2359 Sunday AM - 2300

 

Occasionally, when a visitor had worn out his welcome, Narra changed these hours at extremely short notice. Visiting USO tours, some of them Australians, usually managed to find their way to our hootch to freeload a few beers and a meal. During our tour, the team was visited by many, but one of the most memorable visits was on Christmas Eve 1970, by the then Minister for the Navy, the Right Honourable Jim Killen whom we had last seen in the airport at Coolangatta airport. The Minister succumbed to our warm hospitality and having failed to take advantage of the bed we had offered, left us on Christmas Day with his well known sense of humour still intact but looking somewhat worse for wear.

 

Our tasks varied from dealing with booby traps through to major salvage operations. During the typhoon season in November 1970, a U.S. Army YFU carrying 150 tonnes of 81mm and 105mm White Phosphorus shells had capsized off the coast to the north of Da Nang and was driven ashore on a remote section of beach near the village of Tan My. Four team members along with U.S. Army Divers and a U.S. Navy Salvage team, all under Jake's command, were immediately flown to the site aboard CH47 Chinook helicopters to commence salvage efforts. Sadly, none of the eleven YFU crew members had survived. Conditions were atrocious with typhoon 'Patsy' still in full force. After numerous attempts in high surf conditions, tow lines were finally attached and passed to Naval tugs standing offshore . Repeated efforts to tow the craft to seaward were finally abandoned in favour of attempting to drag it further up the beach using bull dozers and tank retrievers. This too failed, so a ramp of sand was built by the dozers to afford easier access to the hull. With the weather abating, the hull was opened and the ordnance removed, and I'm sure to this day, the wreck remains, embedded in the sands of Tan My. I have a vivid memory of this task when after several days on site, we radioed for a re-supply of drinking water and rations. When the chopper arrived, it was loaded with C rations and cases of warm Budweiser beer. When we asked, "Where's the water?", the crew Chief replied with a smile, "We heard you guys needed a drink". Warm beer and cold C rations on a miserably wet day are a little tough on one's digestive system.

 

Feeling sorry for us, a friendly US Army Tank crew offered us a ride back to their base at Phu Bai for a shower and a hot meal. Riding atop a monstrous Main Battle Tank thundering along narrow bush tracks, hanging on for life and limb while trying to dodge tree branches at every turn was quite a hair-raising experience. The tracks were about half the width required for the tank to pass and as all tracks led through villages, it created a problem, although this did not deter the driver. He managed to avoid most of the huts and chicken coops on his side of the 50 tonne monster, but flattened everything on his offside. My observation to Digger was "If we ever have to come back through these villages again Mate, we're dead". As Murphy's Law would have it, the track eventually petered out to a path that was too narrow, even for this would be rally