It was late in the afternoon of the 19th November 1970, when the Qantas flight from Sydney began its descent for landing, into one of the busiest airports in the world, at that time. Tan Son Nhut, Saigon Vietnam. At the height of the Vietnam war, it was recorded a plane landing and taking off, every two minutes.
My Tour of duty, as a 20 year old soldier in Vietnam, was about to begin, I never could understand why serving in a war zone is labelled, Tour of Duty, there are certainly no tour guides, and many places were out of bounds, no go zones.
The battlefields of Vietnam were a far cry, from the battle training grounds of Canungra Queensland.
The flight over, apart from being long, carried an assortment of servicemen; all carrying their weapons on board and back packs in the overhead lockers, other personal equipment being stored in the cargo hold. To a casual observer it would have appeared as a normal holiday flight, Qantas being a civil airlines, there were stewardesses on board serving drinks and meals, smoking on airline flights had not been banned in those days, so there was a blue misty haze throughout the cabin.
There were a variety of servicemen on board the flight, old timers who were returning for second tours, and in some cases, third tours, young Regular soldiers like myself, and the biggest proportion being National servicemen, whose numbers were drawn out of a barrel, exactly as in a Lotto draw. This method of selecting National servicemen, was the cause of much unrest in Australia, and gave rise to demonstrations and burning draft cards.
The only interruption on the flight was a stopover at Singapore, we were advised in advance of the need for two things, one being a passport, which we all had that was issued by the army, ironic that they were all stamped, Not Valid for North Vietnam, the second item was a civilian shirt for landing in Singapore, as Singapore was a neutral country, and couldn’t be seen as providing safe passage for soldiers to Vietnam. The colour of the top half of the army green shirts began to change, the Australian humour was evident, there were Hawaiian shirts with dancing girls, some white shirts with ties and cravats, and some shirts that looked like girls blouses, departing Singapore the mood soon changed, as we changed back into the army green which was to be our colour from then on.
The wheels touched down on Vietnam soil, and we commenced the roll to the terminal, the runway seemed to never end, there were runways in all directions, some with planes landing, some with planes taking off. There were military cargo planes, Civilian planes from all countries, small planes, Helicopters of all sizes and descriptions, and everywhere vehicles dodging in and out of planes. Gazing through the plane window I saw many planes lining the runway that were parked in concrete and sandbagged hangers or revetments, then I saw my first glimpse of war, burnt out planes pushed to the sides of the runway, a stark reminder of the 1968 Tet offensive, that saw Tan Son Nhut attacked as well as major facilities in and around Saigon.
We rolled to a stop at the terminal, the cabin doors were opened and I felt the first rush of Vietnam, the heat was like a fireball; it rushed through the cabin erasing any memory’s of the air-conditioned flight over.
Descending the steps, our normally green shirts quickly began to change to black, as the oppressive heat began to have the sweat pouring from our body’s.There was no cooling breeze, just a dry humid heat that seemed to suck the air from our lungs.
My nostrils were assailed by the smells of gasoline and oils, and yet a pervading scent of humanity trying to survive, sweet and aromatic, yet tainted by a decaying aroma seemed to hover in the oppressive heat.
I stood on the tarmac that stretched for miles in every direction, waiting for further directions to where our buses were located, and buses that were to convey us to our initial Vietnam base.
Activity was happening all around us, troops embarking and debarking in every direction, maintenance vehicles and refuelling vehicles scuttling like ants, armament vehicles loading their deadly fire power, and everywhere I saw the ever presence of Military police.
I stood on that sweltering tarmac, and watched as a massive flying bird, the C130 cargo plane was being loaded, an endless file of soldiers were loading large wooden boxes on board, much like a conveyor belt, suddenly I felt an arm on my shoulder, I looked around and saw its owner, a very large African American soldier, skin so dark it appeared purple in the shimmering heat reflecting from the tarmac. Don’t you go praying for them there boys Aussie, he said, keep your prayers for yourself, they are the lucky boys, they are going home.
To Be Continued