CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD T Ey Pt. 9

 

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CDT Ops Vietnam CPOCD T. Ey Pt 9

 

us. I often sat next to stony faced Yanks in civilian clothes. Presumably they were CIA on their way to subvert somebody. Air America also very kindly brought in our mail twice a week from Saigon.

 

The U.S. Airforce operated shuttle services between all major bases and during the late 60's, Saigon's Tan Son Nhat airfield was the busiest airport in the world. All one needed for travel was a set of written 'orders' from your CO and it was then a matter of waiting in line. When one aircraft was full, it departed and another moved in to take its place. For an Australian Serviceman, it was awesome to see the sheer size of the American Military Machine in operation. In a country, less than the size of Victoria, large transport aircraft had a choice of 75 tactical airfields.

 

We maintained a 24 hour a day radio contact with 'Derringer', our local operations centre, and when we heard our callsign 'Cliffside' on the net, we knew it was time to hustle. There was a Helo pad within 200 metres of our hootch and the Americans could usually supply a chopper at very short notice . Most helicopter flying was done either above 2-3,000 feet and out of small arms range, or at treetop level, to reduce the risk of taking ground fire. By the time the VC heard the chopper, it was over the top and out of sight. This was not always successful. Once, when returning to Camp Tien Sha at night, we took small arms fire through the aircraft whilst overflying Da Nang city. 'Charlie' was everywhere.

 

After observing at length the attitude of the ARVN, (they avoided fighting, working, patrolling and everything else if possible) it was almost chilling to see the ruthless efficiency of the Korean soldiers, known to everyone as 'ROK's'. Their vehicles, weapons and uniforms were always immaculate. They were without a doubt the most disciplined troops I have ever encountered, and the Vietnamese were petrified of them for good reason. The ROK's regarded the Vietnamese as an extremely inferior race and treated them accordingly. Once, when heading for the airfield to pick up the mail, I was halted by a roadblock which had been set up by ARVN veterans on the main road outside of their compound. They were protesting against their appalling pensions and living conditions, with very good reason. They had moved onto the road enmasse on their crutches and in their wheelchairs and refused to budge. After negotiation followed by threats, the ARVN MP's could not move them, so the American MP's were called for. More negotiation followed by more threats and still they refused to move. This 'Mexican standoff' continued until someone had the bright idea of calling in the ROK MP's. As word passed around the vets that the ROK's were coming, they became visibly agitated and I could see a genuine fear growing in their faces. At the mere threat of ROK intervention the Vets disappeared back into their compound as if the Devil himself was after them.

 

In the interest of keeping our souls pure, we had two brief visits by R.A.N. Chaplains. One, the Reverend P. Ball, presented us with a hymn composed by members of the Ship's Company of the Australian destroyer HMAS Perth, at that time serving on the Gun Line off the coast of Vietnam. It read:-

 


"O God in Heaven, hear our plea,
for Clearance Divers 'neath the sea.
While in the Ocean's dark embrace,
keep us Thy sons within Thy Grace.
And hear us Lord, o Thou who saves,
for us Thy servants 'neath the waves."

 

During the final weeks of our tour, Jake and I visited the Australian Army bases at Nui Dat and Vung Tau, both of which were located far to the south in III Corps. Hoping to make some duty free purchases from the ASCO canteen at Nui Dat, we were advised by the canteen manager that they had only just re-stocked with goods recently arrived from Australia (courtesy of the Navy's troop carrier HMAS Sydney) and he informed us that the canteen was only open to Colonel rank and above on that first day. Even after explaining that this was our first and only opportunity to take advantage of Australian canteen privileges during our entire tour, this tiny minded REMF would not bend his pathetic little rule. I cursed myself for not bringing our box of collar devices.

 

We were extremely disappointed to hear the news that our relief team would not be coming. Our Team was in fact one of the first token Unit withdrawals (albeit 6 of us) from South Vietnam by the Australian Government. Jake made a last minute effort to have us return to Australia via Hawaii to 'hail and farewell' the US Navy's EOD Group which had responsibility for us while we were in Vietnam. Of course the Canberra paper shufflers rejected that idea out of hand even though the Americans would have provided the necessary transportation and accommodation at their cost.

 

Mama San was particularly upset to find that we were leaving and that her employment was coming to an end. We dug into our slush fund which had been saved from our beer sales over the bar and gave her a substantial parting cash gift, although even this failed to cheer her up to any great degree. Perhaps she sensed that things were probably only going to go downhill for the South from that point on. She had agreed to take Dog to her home and look after him but we all felt a little sad about leaving him as we knew life was going to be particularly tough for him. On the day we finalized our packing, Dog was quite noticeably agitated. By the time we arrived at Mama San's house, he was yelping and physically shaking. The poor old fella knew we weren't coming back.

 

With mixed feelings of regret that it was all over, and relief that we were all going to make it home in one piece, we departed Da Nang on the 21st April 1971 courtesy of a 'Wallaby Airlines' Caribou. Our first stop was Pleiku in the Central highlands, where we landed for fuel, and then it was on to Saigon. A South Vietnamese team was assigned to take over our responsibilities in I Corps, but they had failed to materialize by the time of our departure from Da Nang. In hindsight, our withdrawal coincided with the beginning of the end of the war as 'Vietnamisation' was proving to be a dismal failure as subsequent events showed, culminating in the fall of Saigon to the Communist Forces on April 30, 1975. Less than a fortnight after our departure, we were informed that the only Vietnamese EOD technician whom we had regarded as being anywhere near professional, had been killed by a 'Birdcage' mine in the Cua Viet river. Our departure left I Corps with very little surface EOD capability and without any underwater EOD capability whatsoever. Before we departed from Da Nang, the US Naval Commander in 1 Corps awarded a number of individual U.S. Navy Citations to Team members, including the following Unit Citation:-

 

"For meritorious service during the period October 1970 to April 1971 while attached to and serving with the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving Team 3, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit, Pacific Team 35 at the United States Naval Support Facility, Da Nang.

 

You provided an invaluable service to all branches of the United States Armed Forces and other Free World Military Assistance Forces in Military Region One by engaging in explosive ordnance disposal, channel clearing and salvage operations. Your exemplary professionalism, endurance and devotion to duty were particularly evident during the extremely hazardous salvage of a United States Army logistic craft which had capsized with a full load of explosives aboard.

 

Your consistently outstanding performance of duty contributed to the successful accomplishment of the mission of United States Naval Support Facility, Da Nang in support of Free World Military Assistance Forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Your exceptional achievements under arduous working and living conditions and constant threat of enemy rocket and small arms attack were a credit to the Royal Australian Navy and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service".

 

We spent two weeks winding down with the U.S. Navy's EODMUPAC Team 33, located in Cholon. They lived in a delightful old French villa that had a very pleasant and well stocked rooftop bar. Tu Do street was revisited and on one occasion Narra and Blue arrived at one of our favourite bars to find it ablaze, flattened by a bomb only minutes prior to their arrival, courtesy of the local Viet Cong. After Da Nang, Saigon was a wild town, and we thoroughly enjoyed driving down the tree-lined boulevards in tiny old French Renault and Peugeot taxi-cabs looking for new bars to explore, preferably ones that didn't attract the attention of VC sappers. As we were in Saigon over Anzac Day, the Australian Embassy took the opportunity to hold a formal dawn service with a member from each of the three services conducting the Cenotaph ceremony. I was detailed to represent the Navy and spent several days practicing for the ceremony at 'Free World Headquarters' in Saigon. After the formal service was over, we mixed with the dignitaries and enjoyed a traditional Anzac breakfast complete with Bundaberg rum and Australian sausages freshly flown in from the Land Down Under.

 

Prior to leaving Vietnam we received the following signal from the Australian Naval Board:-

 

"On this, the eve of the withdrawal of Clearance Diving Team 3 from the Republic of Vietnam, the Naval Board congratulates all who have served in the team since its inauguration and also all those who were instrumental in the training of the team members for service in Vietnam. Throughout the four years of deployment in Vietnam CDT3 has done extremely well. Their dedication to duty in trying and hazardous circumstances has brought great credit to the Royal Australian Navy and to Australia."

 

This was the first occasion that a unit of the RAN has been employed on extensive land orientated explosives ordnance disposal tasks and the success of CDT3's operations and the lessons learned there from have been invaluable to the Clearance Diving branch as a whole."

 

Finally, on the 5th May 1971, after almost four and a half years service in South Vietnam, the RAN's Clearance Diving Branch closed the chapter on its first exposure to Active Duty. With mixed emotions, the last Team boarded a Qantas 'Freedom Bird' and departed Saigon towards the south, back to the 'real world'. A total of 49 Clearance Divers had officially served in South Vietnam during the period February 1967 through to May 1971. Many years later it was revealed that six members of CDT1 had made a brief visit to the Saigon/Nha Be area during May and June '66. Their short 'visit' has never been officially acknowledged by Government authorities. They were:-

L/CDR Alistair Cuthbert
POCD John Kershler
LSCD Harry Brankstone
LSCD Derek Bartholomai
ABCD John Pocklington
ABCD Paul Wright

 

A Summary of CDT 3 Statistics 1967 - 1971
Ship's Searched: 7,573
Major Diving Tasks: 153
Explosive Devices removed from Ships: 78
Ordnance destroyed (unpredictable explosive items): 42,000
Special Operations: 68
Casualties: 1 killed - 1 wounded

 

 On arrival back on Australian soil, Clearance Diving Team 3 was officially disbanded, with the proviso "to be reformed again at the discretion of the Australian Naval Board".