The air was dense with smoke from burning buildings and slum areas that we could not see.
Helicopter gunships were buzzing overhead in a low level flight path towards this area. They were so low the noise drowned everything else out. Not that they were cars in the street as the curfew was now 24/7 and the city was in lock down.
A few of us were in an upstairs room allocated as a bar. Dennis Milton, myself and two transient aid personnel - George Wilson, Medical Aid Team Administrator (Vung Tau) and a nurse from one of the surgical teams.
The bar was located in the upstairs area of the villa. It was a large room with French louvre windows that looked down on to the street and a neighboring house of the same style and vintage. I was sitting on a high stool at the bar with my back to the window and Dennis Milton was standing acting as the barman.
From his position he could look out down onto the street.
As he was speaking to me, he suddenly went white. He said he saw someone in the house across the street open the French Window and get off a fusillade from an AK47 rifle at an overhead chopper and then just as quickly closed the louvres.
Because of the noise you simply had to see it to believe it - otherwise you would have missed it.
"Christ Dennis when are you going to stop joking" we said.
The perpetrator was either Viet Cong or he too was suffering from a head ache and did not appreciate the noise.
Seriously. this shooting incident was a cause for concern. We held a meeting headed by the most senior ranking Chancery member Laurie C. He was the Councilor (Aid).
His decision was for us to do nothing and continue to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Someone asked what if they decide to raid us.
This Councillor gave us some bad counsel.
He said: "We will hold up our diplomatic passports and claim Diplomatic Immunity".
It was a nonsense. In the chaos - who had thought to bring along their passport. We were a contingent of 10 refugees. I think only the counsellor had diplomatic accreditation.
This same person used to hear noises at night in the garden and would ask George to go out and investigate. I would accompany him.
"Why doesn't the boss bloody well do this himself."
George was a WW2 campaign in New Guinea. He was jockey size and smoked profusely.
He was shot in the shoulder by a Japanese sniper which left with permanent limited use of his arm. He used to proudly show off his scar. He had recovered by time enough to serve in the Occupation Forces in Japan and married a Japanese. Her name was Chick. At the time she was on holidays in Japan.
After a long stint in Vietnam, George was recruited as an aid administration officer for the Australian Telecommunications Mission in Bandung, Indonesia.
I was responsible for the ATM 1973-75 and I visited George in Bandung quite often and he vice versa in Jakarta. He also joined up with me in Canberra in the late seventies in AIDAB , the aid arm of Foreign Affairs. We would reminisce about Saigon Days but never brought up that ridiculous statement because months later, four western journalists were caught going down a wrong street in Cholon when out came a Viet Cong patrol leader and calmly shot three of them dead as they were screaming Bao Chi Bao Chi (Journalists)
Click here for article in the Australian Newspaper.
So what chance would "diplomats" have had being seen to being aided and supported by military provisioning. We would also laugh about how we would go outside the Aid house at night to scout around. It was not at this person's behest but simply to have a smoke then come back in and tell him everything was ok (George died of emphysema in the early 80's.)
By January 1968 Australia had a new arrived third Battalion at its Task Force HQ in Nui Dat.
American intelligence had forewarned a buildup of enemy troops around Saigon and asked and received Australian assistance to establish a Fire Support Base outside its area of Operation 34 miles away near Bien Hoa a satellite city to the northeast of Saigon.
It was called Fire Support Base Anderson.
It was set up too late to stop the movement of forces into Saigon (pre 31 January) but turned into Operation Coberg which inflicted serious losses on North Vietnamese and VC regulars as they were leaving.
Australia lost 20 dead and 70 wounded including a school chum friend of mine - a conscript called Mike Williams. Mike was awarded the Military Medal.
We had much in common - Same School House (Fitzgerald); he was from Cooma, he also had an alcoholic parent; he joined Foreign Affairs after conscription and had a few postings. As well he went on to represent the ACT in Rugby even though he had a metal plate inserted in his head as a result of his war wound.
After a week of intense fighting, the South Vietnamese with the help of the Allied Forces gained the upper hand.
There were still pockets of local resistance from Viet Cong in the Cholon Area - where many Australian citizens lived - and the racecourse.
Australians living in any country are advised to register with the nearest Australian mission for consular and administrative reasons. We had a list of registrants who had given Cholon as the district in which they were living.
It was incumbent on the government to check on the welfare of its Australian Citizens.
Dennis Milton recruited me from the Registry to the Consular Section - Wow!
But my job was to go downtown to Chinatown for the above purpose "Shit Why me Dennis? "
He didn't answer. He simply said If I feel in any way exposed tell the local staff driver to abort and get the hell out of there.
I made three trips - at least there was no traffic as the roads were clear except for a South Vietnamese road block every 200m or so where the driver would enquire as to the status of the road ahead. The chauffeur would then relay this information to me - in French.
It was at this time I regretted non advancing my schoolboy French. I was not sure as to the specifics of what was translated and it takes a lot of experience to grasp the idiom and local expressions. But I reckoned that if the driver was game enough to go ahead, who was I to argue.
I got to some of these listed addresses. On each occasion the servants would look at me incredulously as If I was batty. They would all tell me that their employees had pissed off days ago! "What the hell are you doing in this dangerous place you fool".
So we stopped this waste of time.
One night when I was guarding the Embassy. The After Hours door bell rang. The buzzer was positioned on the grill of the entrance foyer.
I cautiously peered around a hallway corner and saw it was Keith Hyland. He was a well know wealthy business entrepreneur who owned a duck feather processing factory on the outskirts of the city. He said he tried to get down there to his factory but was stopped by the South Vietnamese roadblock time after time.
He wanted me to get in an Embassy car and use this to get him through the roadblocks.
"No way Pal!" was my polite response.
Testily he then asked If I could provide him with a letter on Embassy headed paper stating that he was an Australian citizen and any help in getting through the blockade would be greatly appreciated.
He was caught by the Viet Cong on a back road not far from his factory and spent the next eight months in captivity while a ransom was negotiated.
The Australian government was not party to the negotiations but his predicament was reported in diplomatic correspondence which I avidly followed given my initial involvement.