Saigon 1967-68

At aged 21, I was a happy go lucky fellow with a steady girlfriend, great rugby mates, a Morris Minor 1000 that ran on the smell of an oil rag. Life was great!


Out of the blue, I was called down to a sub section of Personnel.

"We have selected you to replace Brian Goodwin in Saigon."

It was couched in terms "It is a Difficult Posting but would you like to go?"

Again, I am unprepared and don't know how to say no!


Well, I rang mum straight away. "That nice Paul ... where is Saigon?"

I rang a rugby mate. I think it was Rex Marre (Who is now an Anglican priest). Same response. "Where' s Saigon Tiger?"

I brought home the Saigon Post Report for my father to read.

This is a document prepared by the department for the benefit of preparing inductees for posting.

"I would not touch it with a barge pole" said Dad.

(A friend of Dad was Max Mulligan. His son had just been killed there.)


The next day I went back and said "Yes please!"

The Outward Journey

Preparation

"Great!" said a relieved staffer in Personnel.

"Fill out this application for a passport and we will get the ball rolling"....

"Eh, hello Paul, we have a hitch. Immigration cannot give you a passport

You are on the Department of Labour and National Service (DLNS) list as selected for National Service".

"But Christ, I am going to Vietnam!"

So it turns out that three departments get together:

  • I write a letter requesting permission to defer my National Service for the purpose of going to Vietnam.

  • DNLS give me permission - see attachment

  • Immigration provide me with a passport.


Sweet! Dept. of Foreign Affairs still has its "bunny"....I have about 6 weeks to get used to the idea.
The reality of going to a war zone did not dawn on me. The only military experience has been a slack "chocko" schoolboy cadet at Saint Patricks.

The only shooting I have done was with a Bren gun or Lee Enfield .303 rifle at an annual cadet camp.

We would go to a rifle range whereupon a regular army Warrant Officer(WO) instructed us how to shoot these antiquated weapons. Unbeknown to him we all conspired to snipe away at the wooden supports holding up the target to see how long it would take for them to collapse. In the meantime, the WO was despairing at our standard of marksmanship.

It did happen. The target lurched on one side after each member of our squad expended thousands of bullets.

The WO was in a rage and kicked some cadet lying in their prone position. It was, indeed, funny.

I remember doing this with Mike Williams. We were friends.

Mike came from Cooma. We both went to St Pats in Goulburn. We were in the same House "Fitzgerald"- so we played in the same football and cricket teams. Years later, I gathered from Mum that the family had a similar torrid time with the grog and recovery.

I did not know it at the time, Mike went to Vietnam as conscript with 1RAR Battalion. He was awarded a Military Medal in early 1968 defending Saigon (me) in Operation Coberg.

Mike was wounded - resulting in a metal plate inserted in his head. Yet after his service, he managed to play rugby for the ACT as a second rower.

He also joined Foreign Affairs. Our paths never met after St Pats. Nor will they. He died in 2004 (cancer).

Two days prior to embarkation, I was given a red Qantas plastic travel bag; a passport (at the 11th hour) and a Qantas wallet with my first class ticket (one way):

  • cbn/syd

  • syd/sin

  • sin/sgn


The smell of the plastic was pungent.

I thought: "Have I sold my body for these rich offerings?"...

At Canberra airport my girlfriend (Trish Rankin) saw me off on my big adventure.

We checked in my one and only suitcase. I boarded the aircraft- a Fokker f27 in the late afternoon of March 1967.

I sat down at the back of the aircraft and looked out at Mount Majura while the aircraft was taxiing.

It was the other side of the Mount Majura that I would see every day from the back yard of my home at Street Place Watson.

I started to shake uncontrollably.

The passenger next to me was concerned. I regained my composure and struck up a conversation.

I felt obliged to explain myself. Thereupon he asked the stewardess for two quick beers. I was off!...

My mother was in Sydney. The farewell there was stoic.

To this day I still wonder whether at that time she knew what was going on in Saigon.

But I was glad we had a personal one-on-one farewell.

Qantas 707 First Class

First class on Qantas for a boof head rugby buff is a culinary waste. The cutlery, linen and flowers; printed menus and magazine offerings in a Boeing 707 was all new to me.
I nearly drank the water in the silver dish that had a lemon in it. I thought it was a soup. But luckily I hung back in time to realise the dish was to wash my hands after tucking into the fresh lobster.

I declined the wine menu opting to stay with the VB.

Singapore

Many VBs latter we landed at Singapore.The cabin door opened.

In walked Gary O'Shanassy from the Australian High Commission AHC. There was an arrangement between airport authorities and the AHC staff to board aircraft in order to process the diplomatic courier.

Singapore was a prime posting. The disadvantage was that there were so many meetings and greetings of "piss heads" the likes of myself.

Gary played representative Australian Rules football for Canberra. Given his rapport with the Singaporean authorities I was whisked in and away in no time.

It was 10 pm Singapore time - two hours behind Sydney. Gary wanted to take me for a meal and a beer - but first we had to transit to the High Commission. I could not say no!

Driving along the lush growth I took in the sensory smells of Asia for the first time.

Ethnically Singapore consisted of Chinese (two thirds) Malays (23%) Indians (10%) then the rest. The atmosphere was balmy; there was a pervading smell of rotting vegetation (pleasant) and there were smells I only experience when I was sober in a Chinese restaurant in Garema Place, Canberra. But now I was introduced to the Indian and other smells - the curry and the fried food in coconut oil.

We drove into Orchard Road where the High Commission was located within the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building.

This building was about six stories in height. In 1967 It was one of the larger buildings of Post Federation Malaysia. The other buildings were in blocks of combined godown/accommodation quarters no more than two storeys. The roof lines were either clay tile or a grass/thatched matting. The occasional shop front would replace a godown. The British had endowed the city with magnificent parks and gardens and there were lots and lots of colonial bungalow mansions on acreage all with walls and a gated entry. This is how I had imaged Singapore steeped in its colonial history.

After a short stop at the High Commission we went down Orchard road a little further and drove into a car park full to the brim with people, stalls, umbrellas, canvas tents carts and cooking appliances. There was no electricity - everything was lit by kerosene lantern. Everybody was jabbering away, cooks were entertaining crowds by swirling food into the air throwing ingredients into woks; squirting sauces and generally having a happy care free time. I could not eat a solitary thing and left a beer half empty - I was still bloated from the Qantas experience.

Gary dropped me at my hotel and made arrangements to pick me up the next day for an appointment with a tailor and then to Peter Chew's all in one shop.

The Cockpit Hotel was a converted bungalow mansion in the heart of the city. It was colonial and sumptuous - something I had never experienced before. I was taken to my room by a bell boy who enquired whether I would like to have a woman for the night.

"Yeh right!" after the emotional farewells the over eating and drinking in first class and the forced transit at the all night food stall, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

The appointment with the tailor was a new experience. Everything was to be ready in 24 hours.

I ordered two x two piece cotton blend suits and several pure cotton short sleeve shirts and a few silk ties. The price was very reasonable. A visit to Peter Chew's Emporium was initially a disappointment. Rather than a large department store it was another in a row of two story strata complexes in a block.

"Good morning would you like a beer" was the introduction. On advice, I purchased a large short wave radio to listen to Radio Australia for the sport and Australian news; I also purchased one of those new fan dangled wrist watch that worked on a lithium battery. I could not believe that, never again, would I have to use the winder.

That night I stayed in the hotel - I was burnt out from the day before and from a tropical heat the likes I had never before experienced. The hotel bar was exquisite. Polished teak was ubiquitous with blinds and soft furnishings made out of rattan and bamboo. On the wall was lots of memorabilia. I remember one picture frame. Inside was a napkin. On it was written "IOU one bottle of Johnny Walker" and date 14 February 1942. This was the day before the surrender of the British to the invading Japanese forces.

Arrival

Dressed in my superbly fitting attire, I flew on a Pan Am 707 from Singapore to Saigon. The flight took about three hours. It left about 7 am and I was served an American breakfast.

The pilot made an announcement over the intercom about 15 minutes out from Saigon. Luckily I was positioned on the left hand side of the aircraft and saw the South China Sea meet the Mekong Delta.

Instead of apocalyptic black smoke, all I saw were green paddy fields, villages and small craft plying the brown tributaries. From such a height it looked so peaceful. The closer we got to the ground the more distinctly I realised that it was a city under siege. We lumbered in over the outer perimeter of the airport. There were hundreds of troop barracks; godowns; compounds etc all protected by barbed wire. gates, sentry points, wooden towers sand bagged pill boxes with strategically designed arcs of fire.

Tan Son Nhut Airport

I landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base which was both a military and civilian airport.

I was amazed at the amount of ground traffic and planes sitting idle on the tarmac; being serviced by teams of mechanics; planes taxing to and fro and trucks utes; semi-trailers and motor bikes zooming around the inner perimeter. It was controlled chaos.

"My God if there was so much traffic down here - what did we just fly through."

I learnt later that TSN was the world's busiest airport. Planes were kept in holding patterns and had to approach by marker beacons that emitted an audible beep. The correct beep meant the pilot was on track. The trick was when jet fighters had to be scrambled. These aircraft had priority.

I am jumping ahead of myself here but my job at the Embassy included meeting and escorting diplomatic couriers to the Embassy. We could not ring up the local airline for an Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). This was because either the phones would not work or it was a normal day at the office of Air Vietnam where because of the military situation chaos reigned supreme.

So, accompanied by Sergeant Ray McCabe (Australian Federal Police) we would leave the Embassy at time to allow for traffic and meet the scheduled arrival of a plane. This meant waiting hours and hours in the heat at a non air conditioned cafe drinking beer or soft drink that have been cooled by ice.

Once the warm liquid hit the cold ice, it frothed all over the place. With beer you were only drinking a gaseous result. The water in the ice came directly from a tap hence full of bugs, parasites and amoeba.

Never a dull day - but you got used to it:

  • Jet fighters would be using their afterburners to quicken take off.

  • At twilight or in the evening this was spectacular.

  • In the distance one might see aircraft getting out of its path

  • The night skyline would be converted to instant daylight as a result of flares being dropped by military support DC3 aircraft.

  • The flares would last for a few minutes and be replaced by another and another until ordered to stop.

  • Fighter jets would appear as tiny black dots in dive bomb formation They would get bigger and bigger and you would see them release their ordinance.

  • Several seconds later you would see flame and dust clouds of varying colours. Depending on how close you were you for first experience the sight and then seconds later hear the dull thud(s)

  • Operations involving paratroopers would be underway whereby in the distance the sky would be dotted with clumps of parachutes gliding to the ground in the direction of black smoke.

  • Semi-trailer loads of aluminum hermetically sealed coffin/caskets would be coming from the port of Saigon to the central morgue within the perimeter
    The empty coffins were loaded four high by 20 to 25 deep - See photo (net few pages)

  • Busloads of American troops were being ferried to or from a barracks either for return home or Rest 'n Relaxation (RnR)

  • For every one aircraft on the ground there would be countless auxiliary vehicular traffic.


The whole shebang was surreal - until it was brought home to me with the Tet offensive - see later. There was a curfew 9pm to 5am. Planes would be turned back from destination points if they could not meet the curfew. We would have to return to the city empty handed or risk being machine gunned by a nervous sentry in a pill box.


But I am digressing.

Brian (Snakes) Goodwin met me at the airport. I was his replacement. Brian was a few years older than me and Saigon was his first posting and he was very affable. He had met and married Janine. She was three quarter Vietnamese and one quarter French on her father's side. As such, she was a French national. Janine worked in the Australian Embassy. Brian was being posted to Brussels. Lucky bastard - I thought.

We drove into the city. I was now experiencing at street level what I had seen from the air - fortress Saigon.
Instead of being the tour guide, Brian lapsed into a self-imposed trance as we inched our way in traffic that can only be described as ...
indescribable. We were in a chauffeur driven black Peugeot 404 with diplomatic plates surrounded by Kamikaze students on Japanese motorbikes; whole families on Vespa scooters; damsels on French Velo solex engine driven bicycles; military trucks with local sole single drivers ubiquitous yellow and blue Renault taxis; hawkers on bicycles balancing wide loads; police cars with sirens; military police with sirens; government official vehicles with sirens all accompanied by a constant cacophony of horns beeping, brakes screeching and tail pipes belching noxious fumes.

Peugeot 404

In about an hour we arrived at the Embassy in Tu Do Street.

The white building was the National Assembly (Parliament). It took a direct hit from a Viet Cong Mortar - which blew out every window of the facade buildings. Embassy 7th floor of building on the right.

Caravelle Hotel

The Chancery

The Embassy (Chancery) was located on the seventh floor of the Hotel Caravelle. At the time, the hotel was one of the tallest buildings in Saigon where years earlier the Australian government had purchased the entire seventh floor.
It was an L shaped building serviced by two adjacent lifts and a single set of stairs that served as a fire escape. The reception area/lounge was on the ground floor; a bar was on the eighth floor. Above the bar was a ballroom restaurant area and kitchen.

On the very top was a viewing platform. In the picture (left) Tu Do Street started at the point where there is traffic and continued down about a kilometre until it met the river/docks area of the Saigon river. Beyond the river were open mangrove swampland.

Looking at the building the consular, administration and aid staff were housed in an unsecured area on the facing facade. Then a grill door separated the former from the Ambassador's suit corner, the registry, typing pool and the individual offices of the military attaches and political staff.

There was a rumour (for which I put every faith in it) that the owners of the hotel were paying the Viet Cong NOT to bring the war to the building.

This was exemplified by the fact that the entire plate glass facades on the ground floor were not cris crossed with vanilla masking tape as was our seventh floor. Some eighteen months earlier the VC drove a truck full of explosives into the compound of the United States embassy located across the street and blew it up. Many occupants were killed more by the collateral damage of shrapnel hitting glass windows and doors and imploding with the force of the detonation. My office was in the Registry. I looked out onto Cholon which was the twin City to Saigon. Depending on heat haze and given the hindrance of the taped windows, you could see for miles and miles in this direction.

The smell was nothing like Australia - but it was pleasant.

My Job

I was introduced to the Ambassador Lou Border - who had only arrived that week also.
In the pecking order, I was the lowest of the low - but I was still only 21 and thrilled to be there - so who cared?

I was the Registry clerk. I handled all official correspondence coming into the Embassy. This would be in the form of opening local mail; unclassified air and sea freight diplomatic bags, Safe Hand bags, secure telecommunications and liaison with the Australian army courier base at Free World HQ. I had to account for all classified correspondence, folio number it on the relevant files and record their specific location within the Embassy.

I shared the registry with the communications staff - Geoff Williams and Mary Buust. It was actually two people because Geoff and Mary rotated with early and late shifts. The room was one window frame in length (see photo above) and looked north west. A large vault on the inner side of the room house the classified communications equipment and filing system

The filing system plotted diplomatic and military progress. A precise details the issues that would be current and occupy the mind of a Head of Mission at any particular time. As it turned out, my posting was at the most intense and peak period of the war. Given my prior experience in the Defence Liaison and Intelligence Coordination

in Canberra I was quite familiar with the clandestine operations that underpinned standard interventions. It was rather surreal to look out the window and correlate what was happening with the real situation verses what was being written in Washington and Canberra - sometimes "Spot On", sometime "irrelevant".

I used to jump out of bed every morning and could not wait to read and process the diplomatic dispatches.

Spooks Galore

The Americans had so many "operatives" in Saigon, it was absurd. It now reminds me of the TV MASH series where the doctors took the piss out of Lt Col Flagg, a paranoid intelligence officer.

Almost every American civilian I meet was a spook. Australia also had its covert operatives - paid for by the US government. It has only recently been published as to what they got up to.

Even I did not know at the time. Until 1968 an Australian Colonel (Ted Serong) headed up the Australian Army Training Team that commenced in 1962. They were small teams of Australian Non Commissioned Officers experienced in jungle warfare (Malaysia) engaged to sharpen the military proficiency of the Vietnamese armed forces.
All four Victoria Crosses awarded in Vietnam went to AATV members.

In 1968 Serong resigned from the army and was immediately recruited by the CIA to set up a Counter Insurgency training program that met fire with fire.

He and other civilians ( namely Mike ? and Laurie ? ) were tasked to set up Death Squads within the Vietnamese police force that would covertly go about assassinating Viet Cong Cadres.
It was not a role that the Australian government condoned nor sponsored.

I knew the latter two gentlemen quite well - chatting and joking at parties.
Of course this way of relaxing must have been an escape for them.

Diplomatic Couriers

My job also involved escorting diplomatic couriers to and from the Embassy where we exchanged Safe hand Mail. It seemed that these were the days of thrift and economy in the government. Couriers were chosen on the basis of a need to liaise overnight or during the scheduled stop over time. Most were from the armed forces.
It was interesting to talk with them about their particular mission. For example one guy was a veteran of WW2 and still in the service. There was a report that soldiers involved in a skirmish would blast away at targets where as his mission was to induce the discipline of firing single shots. The rationale being that the enemy would be more prone to keep the head down because single drawn out shot is an indication that deliberate aim was being taken whereas a volley of shots indicated panic and were counterproductive in terms of gaining strategic advantage.
Another courier was
Eric Hanfield. He was to be my boss (a) Canberra 1972 and (b)Cocos Islands 1982-84. (more on Eric later).

Couriers with time on their hands would want to be taken to bars, nightclubs and other places of interest during their short and first sojourns. Only Pan American and Air Vietnam would be game enough to fly into Tan Son Nhut (TSN). Flights would be delayed or in Air Vietnam's case cancelled without notice.

This meant a lot of waiting around inside the perimeter of the fortified air base - because we were now carrying safe hand material. We would drive the vehicle right up to the plane and decant our diplomatic bags either in the planes storage compartments underneath or on the seat space within the actual cabin.
If the latter was the case we had to secure the bags for possible air turbulence. If it was the former we would have to put the courier on board and wait around with our eyes on the locked fuselage.

If it was not either hot and sticky it was in pouring monsoonal rain that we waited for the planes to either arrive or depart.

Visualising the Human Cost of the War

As described earlier something was going on all the time at TSN.
Closer to the scene it was a common event to watch C130 transports loading/offloading coffins.
American KIA casualties had skyrocketed from 216 in 1964 to 16,899 in 1968.
Hermetically sealed caskets were used – Not to protect the bodies – but more so the caskets so that they could be re used.
The protocol of not placing coffins on top of each other as a mark of respect for fallen comrades was difficult to implement.

Logistics Officer

Apart from being a filing clerk, I was responsible for the logistics of aid materials getting to their intended destinations within Vietnam. Australia's aid was in two components:

  • The Colombo Plan Aid

  • Civilian Aid example Water Supplies to cities; scholarships for students

  • SEATO Plan Assistance.

  • Military allied Assistance such as medical surgery and operating theatre staff

It was a cow of a job. It involved large portions of my day going to a customs clearing house with an Air Way Bill (AWB) in order to get materials out of customs. The protocol was for the AWB to be sent at the same time as a consignment. On receiving the document we would prepare a covering diplomatic letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs MFA claiming the waiver of customs and excise in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by Australia and Vietnam. Given the Chaos in the city a MFA stamp and accompanying signature would delay the process - hence we were liable for storage fees.


I would be out in the heat dealing with a single frazzled customs officer climbing over hundreds of packages and parcels trying to find the corresponding AWB number. There was no order. Parcels were dumped spasmodically. He would return triumphant with one parcel only to be mobbed by dozens of locals and myself jostling for service. The locals would be holding AWB's together with large denomination currency notes (Piastre) in their waving hands hoping to get served. My larger and taller hand was the one without the Piastre. The waiting was often tortuous.


The good part of the job was the on forwarding. For example we had SEATO Aid surgical teams in Ben Hoa; Vung Tau and Long Xuyen (Southern delta provinces). If a consignment was relatively urgent I was tasked to deliver it personally. It was relatively safe to travel 25 miles to Ben Hoa as the road was bumper to bumper with military vehicles armed to the teeth.

Getting to Vung Tau and Long Xuyen meant travelling on Wallaby Airlines. (a designation for the RAAF's No 35 squadron that operated several Caribou aircraft on daily Milk Runs that criss crossed the whole of Vietnam).

Life in Saigon

Chez Paul

My head maid was the most beautiful Vietnamese I have seen.

Her name was Hao and she may have been in her mid twenties. She brought along her sister Bao, her husband and three children aged six to two - instant family.

She was slim yet highly pregnant with child number four; lovely jet black hair, clear skin and perfect teeth. She wore the traditional black silk loose trousers and white chemise.

She spoke no English or French and she could not cook.

I did not care. Although I did not need such attention, for the sake of stimulating the economy it was standard practice for foreigners to mass employ. I had to engage Hao as No 1 Servant; Bao as no 2 Servant and the husband as the Night watchman - who was hardly - if ever - there.

With Lucy, Linus, Pig Pen

The Maid’s Kids

The kids were gorgeous.

I called the boys Linus and Pig Pen and the little girl Lucy - after the Charlie Brown comic strip.

Fortress Saigon had few amenities or distractions and often life, if not at work, was boring and relentless. It was nice to have the company of innocents who were equally captivated. When I came home they would run to the gate to greet me. We used to play ball games and I used to play magic tricks with them. Hao had them well trained. They were not allowed upstairs and if I wanted to play with them I would come down to the courtyard.
When I had had enough I simply retired upstairs.

My Residence

My quarters were not that flash. The street was called Duy Tan - within walking distance to the Embassy.
(After the war the Vietnamese renamed it to
Pham Ngoc Thract)

It was a battle-axe block where entry was a lane way that ran past the landlord's house. The landlord was a doctor who spoke French. But he and his family choose to politely ignore my existence. Rather xenophobic I thought. I was glad the house was off the street.

It was not a main thoroughfare but still the traffic was horrendous - particularly the motorbikes and the Renault taxis belching noxious exhaust fumes. I was also less of a target in terms of burglary and other.

The house was two storeys and single standing.

Downstairs was the dining room with on internal stairs. In the middle was the stairwell to my upstairs quarters (minus the dining room) and servant's toilet. To the left was one room which served as a bedroom for the six people. Then there was a small storeroom and then the kitchen/laundry. Bars were on all the windows. Upstairs was an open balcony stretching the whole length of the building. The far end door would take you to my bedroom a large air conditioned room with a connecting on suite to an even larger lounge/entertainment room. A tiled shower room was an adjunct. Again there were bars on all windows.

It would have been built in the 1950's the tiles were archaic and there furniture was harsh and Spartan.

There was running water for the showers. But no hot water.

Hotel Canberra - Chinatown

Given my liaison with the Army courier service to the Embassy, I became mates with several soldiers. We would get together for a bar crawl and end up at my place.

They were billeted at a dodgy place called Hotel Canberra way down in the Cholon (Chinatown) district on a main street.

It was nothing like its namesake. There was the constant cacophony of horns blowing, screeching tyres, dragster motor bikes and fumes fumes fumes. The nightly curfew 12pm to 5am meant that often they stayed Chez Moi.

Compared to their lodgings my place was a palace. Theirs was a five-six story building, no lifts in a crowded tenement area wherein the shared four to a room with fans and constant noise. The front was protected 24/7 by Australian sentries in sandbagged and pill box type fortifications with barbed wire and mesh everywhere. They were allowed to stay out all night as long as they obeyed the curfew and turned up for work the next morning.

I am jumping ahead but it deals with Australian soldiers camping in our quarters. White Mice, a derogatory name for the South Vietnamese police whose nickname came from their uniform white helmet and gloves, were posted at the lift entry to the Chancery.

During the Tet Offensive male staff were asked to guard the chancery at night time - see In Harms Way.

This was because the grounds of the American Embassy were breached by the Viet Cong as was the Taiwanese Embassy who had troops actively engaged in the war.

Two Third Secretaries refused outright. But we, from memory, about six volunteers worked in pairs rotating a one-in three-night stint. The ambassador's couch was lovely to sleep on.

Well anyway after the crisis was over, the government thought that it would be a good idea if Australian troops took over from us "vets".

The powers to be came up with the idea of rewarding battle hardened troops in the field with some R & R in Saigon.

The schedule was a week of night duty at vantage points inside the chancellery and then a few days at Hotel Canberra bivouac and then back to ATF Nui Dat and jungle patrols.

Protocol required that they wear their best uniform. Slouch hat; polished brass; spotless starched shirt and trousers; parade webbing and boots so shiny you could see your face and of course their 7.62mm SLR rifles (locked and loaded).
The normal soldier you would see in the street did not have to be this spick 'n span so it was with a sense of pride and admiration to know that these guys, my own age were looking after our interests.

They were polite and well mannered and somewhat bemused and inquisitive as to my presence. It seemed a question as to who envied who.

They would start at about 4pm and stay until they were relieved by the White Mice at 6am.

One day, as I was coming or going in a corridor, one of the soldiers called out "Tiger!"

It was Gary Butt, a former St Pat's boarder - a year below me.

We sat at the same dining table for two years.

You meet people in the strangest of places at the strangest times.

Who would have known just five years earlier we would meet like this.

My Routine

The morning would begin with the maid waking me. I would go downstairs have breakfast - baked beans on toast, fresh orange juice and a couple of Baroka or a glass of Enos.

My clothes would have been ironed and neatly put away and then I would dress and wait for the Embassy Peugeot to pick me up. By this time the vehicle might have 3-4 staff In it and we would proceed to pick up another passenger along the one kilometer trip to the Chancery.

About every second day was a normal day in the office - the rest were outside in the heat. Work was pretty full on and there was little time for tom foolery. I did, however take some time off to woo our local staffer Le Thi Chin. She was the cleaner/sweeper in the Chancery. She was very young - about 16. Again she spoke no English nor French and would look at me and sigh whimsically. It was pretty obvious. While I had no intentions I played to her fantasies. I would kiss her hand and make public gestures that she was the heart of my heart. She would beam - which in a sense also made my day.

Lunch time was 12:30 sharp. Everyone would tumble into the assemble vehicle and return home for lunch - baked beans on fresh bread. After that Siesta - which would last until 2:45 and then back to the Chancery.


Knock off time would be 5:30pm. I habitually worked overtime as I was always in catch up mode due to the fact that I was out delayed in traffic for half of the day. I would walk home or take a cyclo or a taxi. Generally I preferred to walk haggling a price while a game for a Vietnamese was not so for myself. It was a turn off.

Walking had its dangers. There was no Right of way for Pedestrians. The unwritten law was "Chacqun pour Soi" - Each one for Himself.

Two person VC hit squads operated. One drove a motor bike and the passenger on the back would do the shooting. Generally they targeted lone GIs in uniform. They would drive up beside him and ... bang! Being in civilian clothes mattered little. I made sure that when walking anywhere I would get as far away from a curb as I could and hug the facade of the building. I still do this today out of habit. I still go funny when a car back fires.

Friday and or Saturday evening would be party time. They weren't parties as such . But just an excuse to convene somewhere to have a drink. They were organised by Embassy Staff mainly for embassy staff. It was a way of passing the weekend so that you could get back to work on the Monday. Saigon was a hardship post. You could not take trips to the countryside, there was no exhibitions or visiting entertainers, art galleries, museums or anything to occupy yourself. Getting anywhere was a nightmare due to the amount of military traffic and convoys transiting a city whose road grid had not been upgraded since the French adopted its master plan in the previous century. Besides the heat, walking around town was dangerous. Home was a place to relax, get over your hangover and listen to music from HiFi appliances that you purchased when on RnR.

Relaxing at Home

Embassy Receptionist at a Party

Le Thi Chin - Cleaner

Gorgeous - Slim; jet black hair; White Ao Zai Dress

Invitation due to lots of time spent processing Aust Couriers

Going to the Horse Races

On one occasion we went to the races. Phu Tho Racetrack down near Cholon (Chinatown). The infrastructure was run down an antiquated. There was, however, a new Australian built and installed Totaliser betting system.

We considered that betting in Saigon would probably be the fairest in the world. This was because everybody would have been trying to cheat.

But our group did have an advantage. Peter Wilenski Third Secretary (Political) and his wife Gail were part of our party. Peter was a medical doctor and Gail was a veterinarian. Our system was to bet on the best combination of the appearance of both man and beast based on Peter and Gail's combined opinion.

(Peter went on to become the Secretary of DFAT. He retired due to ill heath and died shortly thereafter of cancer.)

Fast Forward to Feb 1968 -


The Black Market

By 1967, the Americans were omni present. They had commandeered building after building for their military support, the Embassy and its various arms USAid, CIA Information - thousands and thousands.
They had supermarkets called PX (Post Exchange) where they could purchase booze food stuffs and Duty Free HiFi, radios cosmetics perfume etc. While on the same side as the Americans, Embassy staff were declined access to the PX. This created a thriving black market because all this non essential material came in on the ships and the Vietnamese were the stevedores.
If you went for a walk in the local markets all this contraband would be blatantly displayed and would sell for about double the PX price. So if my maid wanted a tin of baked beans she would have to purchase it on the black market. If she paid by US dollars the price would still be the same.
If she attempted to pay by Australian dollars she would be laughed at. US Dollar/Military Payment Certificate MPC/Piastre - that’s alls!

All the Comforts – for Some

Because of the black market, the Americans introduced the Military Payment Certificate MPC system.
The MPC system was used in occupied Europe to reduce profiteering and reduce the impact the US military and diplomatic impact was having on the Vietnamese economy.
Many commandeered buildings were used as either Bachelor Officers Quarters BOQ or Bachelor Enlisted Quarters BEQ where because of the numbers they were open 24/7 with bar service, poker machines, restaurants serving American size steaks; weeni roasts, grits, draft beer; apple pie, ice cream shakes with fresh milk and soda pop all imported from the good ole US of A. Entertainers from the states were paid to sing and dance and life was a hoot for these non combatants.

Each establishment was heavily fortified by a barbed wire perimeter; pickets sentries pill boxes and the rest. Viet Cong would drive past on motor bikes and toss a grenade into the fortification.
The response was to enclose the area with chicken wire. The VC were innovative and adaptive. They began throwing grenades with fish hooks. This was more lethal because the explosion was above ground. The chicken wire came down. Access to BOQ was by authorised ID. As much I would like to get in and gorge myself on a steak or two I could not get past the sentry or service would be declined if I was not wearing my a photo ID.
The final challenge was that payment had to be in MPC - which I could not secure. So near yet so far - I would have to wait until RnR in Hong Kong to once again savour these culinary Western delights.

By contrast, the Australian contingent at Free World Headquarters operated a small commissary.
We were entitled to purchase there and payment was by cheque in Australian dollars. We could only purchase beer & spirits and cigarettes and the odd duty free item. Beer was ten cents a can - you could get pissed for a dollar. Americans loved our beer. Our strongest alcohol beverage was usually twice as strong as a US brand. The can itself was also strong. It used to be funny watching a yank associate getting pissed quickly and then performing his "gung ho" action of crushing the can and jettisoning it on to the growing pile of crushed empty cans. It just didn't work for these green tins. The Yank would walk away looking rather stupid - true!

Our beer was gold. We would trade. I swapped two x 24can cartons for an M30 carbine rifle and 1000 rounds of ammunition. This was a very handy trade when the Tet Offensive was upon us. Another time, I swapped one carton of beer for a fighter pilots battle dress - pockets and zippers were everywhere. The in thing was to have a zippo lighter which were purchased at the Duty Free. Everyone smoked. By the time I left I had a large collection of war time memorabilia. Sadly in the course of time I gave it away.

A Close Encounter

Getting to the commissary almost killed me. Together with other staff we took an Embassy car and drove there one day. Free World HQ was a five or six story building for the troops allied to the Americans and Vietnamese - Korean; Taiwanese; Thai; NZ and Australia. It was protected in the usual fashion. A building site was next door. It looked innocuous. The Viet Cong, however, had rigged a Claymore Mine on the wall of the building aimed at the alley and opposing building.

It detonated five minutes after we drove passed.


Free World HQ

Cercle Sportif

Sport

I played tennis at the Cercle Sportif where I had membership.

The club was a relic of past colonial times. It had a swimming pool and restaurant and sponsored a rag tag rugby team consisting of French colonials.

There was no space for a playing field, hence we needed to travel about 20 kms out beyond Ben Hoa to a field within a rubber plantation managed by French expatriots.

As a group members were all ex patriots with whom the Viet Cong had no quarrel nor interest as long as they probably paid secret taxes as an impost to remaining in the country un touched. The Vietnamese had defeated the French at the battle of Dien Ben Phu

The Language

French

Schoolboy French gave me a head start as to cultural awareness with the locals.

French was the language of the Vietnamese elite. It was understood by waiters and medium rank officials. For many, it was the medium to speak to domestic staff who basically knew verbs, nouns and adjectives.

My head maid had zero French but I could not refuse employing her because it would have been a Loss of Face for her friend - another maid of a Embassy colleague did me a favour of trying to secure household help. So we struggled.

I grasped very little Vietnamese. It was simply too hard because it was a tonal language.

The north Vietnamese were culturally different to the south. During the great divide of 1955 at the 17th parallel prior to elections southerners went to the north and northerners went to the south all depending on their politics. So if southerners could hardly understand the northerners, what chance did I have getting someone to understand my tone.

This was particularly frustrating getting around. For example I lived in a street called spelt "Duy Tan" A northerner might pronounce it "Dzui Tan" whereas a southerner would pronounce it as spelt.

It was uncomfortable if you were in a taxi or a tricycle in the black of night completely lost and not being able to explain yourself.

(Oddly enough, on my return to Vietnam as a tourist in 2015, I was in a much better space to learn some basic Vietnamese and satisfactorily converse)

Assassination of Journalists

Viet Cong assassination squads were everywhere in the city.

For a while I had adopted the strategy that if ever accosted I would blurt out "Bao Chi" "Journalist". But I soon revised this strategy when during the Second Tet Offensive (May 1968) four journalists drove into an ambush in Cholon (Chinatown) and were shot dead at point blank range as they kept on saying from their mini moke "Bao Chi" "Bao Chi".

I quickly learnt a new word "Falang" French.


Ambush of three Australian and one British journalists. One escaped while the Viet Cong officer was reloading his pistol. Occasionally, I drank with the journalists at the hotel Caravelle bar which was their "office".

Other words I learnt were

1-to 100;

Ba mui ba - which meant "33" but was the common name for a local beer.

Cam on Ong - Thank you sir

Uc Dai Loi - Australian

Uc Chao Uc Dai Loi Australian Ambassador

Di di - go quickly

Di di mau - go away quickly

Cut di - go away and have intercourse with the matriarch in your family.

I could not string it together but I wanted to learn: "Stop beating my feet I will tell you all I know". But seriously, I felt so inadequate not speaking the local language that I promised myself that if I got another posting I would better prepare myself and really try.

Going Home

That cable

Things eased off in Saigon during June, July, August and September. The intensity of living in Saigon was still there. I had seven months left to go and was resigned to lasting it out.

Geoff Williams had the early shift for the communicator one morning.

He met me with a smirky smile.

"I know something you don't know"

Protocol meant he could not tell me about a cable he had received from Canberra until the Ambassador had given his ok.

The news was that out of the blue, I was being promoted to a position in Brussels beginning October and could I be released if Canberra provided a replacement?

The posting and promotion were good news. Belgium was located at the heart of Western Europe within easy reach of any country I cared to travel/explore.

The bonus was that I would be out of here in three weeks.

I wrote to my brother Sam with the news. I asked him not to tell Mum ‘n Dad as I wanted to surprise them.

Then I had to wait out the 21 days - which was sheer torture. I was sick of the traffic, the chaos and this obscene dirty war where body kills were counted as if it was a glorious feat.

Each morning I would wake up initially thinking it was a dream.

D Day minus 7. My replacement, Peter Kossack, arrived and it was no longer a dream. He inherited my family and I moved into the Hotel Caravelle. On the last night I took some valium for the first time in my life and had the opposite effect. I was up all night.

My next memory was being on board a Pan American Boeing 707 en route First Class from Saigon to Singapore.

I had a returning aid expert for company. He was an engineer supervising the finalisation of the Ben Hoa Water Supply project. Normally one would transit Singapore that evening, do some Duty Free shopping and leave for Australia the next day.

Bugger that! We both wanted to get home so quickly we went to Qantas terminal and enquired if there were any seats on connecting flights. There was one leaving in an hour and we took it.

I rang my sister with my change of plan.

Welcome Home

My brother Sam met me at Canberra airport. He had filled out and grown taller and was a regular member of Northern Suburbs rugby team playing a combination of first and second grade as Fullback. All his mates were my mates. But he was primarily occupied with courting Rosemary whom I was soon to meet.

He drove me straight home to our home in Watson.

It was dinner time. We expected Mum to be in the kitchen. Sam stopped the car far enough up the driveway to confirm this. I got out and walked past the kitchen window and gave her a short acknowledgement knowing that at first glance she would think I was Sam. I went in the back door and into the kitchen and stood there in silence.

"What?" she said intent on mashing the potatoes and not turning around.

"What's for dinner?" I said.

There were no tears. It was a such a happy occasion.

...

I caught up with a fond friend, Pat Rankin, with whom I had been corresponding regularly.

After a renewal process we decided that for the next three weeks we would keep the platonic relationship. Play for me ... and damn good tonic for her.

It was so nice once again to smell the scent of a western woman.

Dad got wind of my home coming so it was not so much a surprise for him.

He was staying at a hostel in Barton. I don't remember where when and how we met.

I do recall visiting his one room bedroom with communal toilet/bathroom but I do not know when.

He was always very stoic with me and me likewise.

He made a specific point of taking me to his local pub in Queenbeyan and introducing me. You could see he was as proud as punch. I hoped my return had lifted his spirits.

He organised for dinner in an Indian restaurant in Hobart place. The purpose was to introduce me to my sister Babe's finance Stan White.

I also met Sam's girlfriend Rosemary Ames.

Greg, Sue and Jen were still at school. It must have been "cool" for big brother not to engage with them. Sorry kids!

I was soon down at the hotel Rex where the Northies hung out.

It was off football season but on a Friday night there were the usual suspects.

I walked in.

The first person I met said "Hello Tiger! Long time no see. Where the hell have you been?"

"Just come back from Vietnam"

"Oh! .. Well we won the grand final last year but got tipped by Royals this year - those bastards"

He went on to describe local characters and local events.

It was not so with my good mates. Although few wrote, they all knew about Vietnam and from their general demeanor and questions you could tell they were following events keenly. They banded together and had a special return welcome home function. Not at the Rex but at the Rugby Union club in Barton. Some Northies who had joined the club after I had left came along. I was very touched. I talked a little about the war but they were more interested in the birds and the brothels.

It was the same "Welcome Back" at the Department.

I was scheduled to do a week's finance course which started at about 9:30am on a Monday.

I arrived early in case Personnel wanted some pre processing. Instead everybody dropped their biros and came over to talk to me asking lots and lots of questions about "that place". The Head of Personnel personally took me to the Training Room which had been in session for about half an hour.

Throsby Zouch was the Training Officer. He still had the floor. He stopped and made an impromptu and effusive "Welcome Home" speech.

I sat down next to a pretty ginger head.

"Welcome home the hero" she said rather dryly.

I laughed. She was Penny Wensley - being posted to Mexico City as a Third Secretary.

At the time of writing she is the Governor of Queensland.

Our paths were to cross again with postings in Paris.

During my week in the department I did not make it down to the girls in External Communications Branch to see if anyone meant some of the salacious promises that had been previously made to me some months earlier over the teleprinter