Walkabout: In Country - Regional

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Wallaby Airlines

Wallaby Airlines is a nick name for a squadron of RAAF Caribou aircraft operating in Vietnam 1964- 71.

Flying in these aircraft had their element of excitement as the Caribou is a Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) craft.

My initiation was on a trip Tan Son Nhut - Nui Dat - Vung Tau and return. Taxiing at TSN was amazing. Planes of all types.(fill)
We were in the air for only about 25 minutes when the pilot announced that we were about to land at Nui Dat (Luscombe Airfie

RAAF Caribou - at Nui Dat

Nui Dat

Nui Dat was the base camp for the Australian Task Force of about 5,000 solders. It was located within a group of rubber plantations on gently undulating ground where 4 miles to the west, D Company of the 6th Battalion a few months earlier was involved in the Battle of Long Tan.

It was a war zone and war time flying conditions prevailed.

The Short Landing was exhilarating. The back door opened and then we went into a steep dive from our position almost on top of the airstrip. The g-force was intense. The noise of the engines in reverse thrust was deafening particularly as the back door was open. As soon as we touched the ground with a heavy thud, two load masters were throwing out padded freight. You could see troops in slit trenches on either side of the tarmac scurrying out to fetch each individual item hence clearing the strip. The aircraft did a U turn where at the apex passengers jumped off and other passengers jumped in. The plane hardly stopped. Its engines were at high revs all the time creating a whirlwind of red dust and took off as quickly and as steeply as it had landed. Amazing!

(Early in 1970, after my time, aircraft No.293 was lost during a fuel run to an American base close to the Cambodian border. The base was under siege at the time by Viet Cong troops and the aircraft received a direct mortar hit in the wing whilst taxiing)

Route Flown & Terrain of Phuc Tuy and Bien Hoa Provinces to the East/ South East of Saigon

Cambodia – First Visit

In 1967, I was sent to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia as a Diplomatic Courier - something to do with a mix up of flight plans and we had to make alternative arrangements for the Safe Hand mail to get through. The distance was only about 100 miles as the crow flies. But it was Viet Cong territory hence travel was by air. I flew there on a Friday and came back on a Monday. Air Cambodia was the carrier. It used DC 3 planes- see picture. Neil Manton (Consular and Administration) picked me up me at the airport.

Phnom Penh was in its glory days. It was supposedly non aligned and had just hosted the Asian Games wherein a huge stadium donated by the Russians was the talk of the town.

The boulevardes were clean and orderly - just as the French had left it some 12 years earlier. Everything had a French influence: motor vehicles; buildings; cuisine; motor scooters, shops and parks.

I drove down to the Embassy's weekend vila at the seaside village of Kep with a girl from the Embassy. I cannot remember her name but she was an ASIS spook. It was the first time that I could go for a drive in the country side without fear of getting attacked. Every local utility/taxi we passed was full of beaming peasants taking their produce to market. They truly lived in a land of Shangri La - not affected by the war.

Within the bayside area, the roadside would wind around and cut into a mountain. Cliff on one side , the sea on the other. Carefully sculptured stone traffic pillars with chains linking each pillar were adornments and chain guides rather than safety barriers. The whole countryside in contrast to Vietnam was idyllic and surreal - like out of a National Geographic magazine.

On my return trip to Saigon, I was the last person to get on board because I wanted to take a photo of this aging DC 3 - a relic of the past. This was to be my disadvantage. There was a large wooden coffin on board. Someone wanted the body interred in Saigon. The only seat left was that next to the coffin. Although it was a relatively short return flight the monsoonal storm whipped up a lot of turbulence so much so that the everything was moving about inside the cabin and I spend most of my time trying to steady the coffin so that it would not slip and fall on top of me.

Cambodia Second Visit

My second trip to Cambodia some six months later was a naughty one.

I was met there by Ted P, the deputy HOM. There was a nice little bar at the airport so we plonked ourselves there and caught up on news. I asked what was on the social agenda for the evening. Ted said "a few more beers here, then dinner then to an opium den and then to a brothel".

"Sounds OK to me" I replied willing to try anything - once. (I had never before been exposed to anyone taking drugs; and anyway it was the 60's).

So we had a few more drinks and a few more until I got befuddled with sequence of the entertainment. I had it in my mind that we were going first to a brothel - not the opium den. So we turned up to a traditional opium den (one that you see in the movies) and went through the protocol of picking a female. Her role was to keep the opium pipe alight while you were lying down in a euphoric stupor.

These addicts looked aged and wrinkly beyond their years, due over indulgence. Thinking that it was a brothel and these females were the offerings, I baulked and said "No thanks".

For several minutes we were talking in cross purposes. "Come on Paul, these girls will look after you". "No Way Jose!".

Soon the misunderstanding was resolved ...

Unlike Bill Clinton I inhaled.

I inhaled too much too quickly of a very powerful narcotic.

The result was that I was violently ill for a week. (Opium was not for me - Never again).

The visit to the brothel was also a disaster. I was in this daze and did not know where what when and how. We went out of town to a thatch roof hut that was abutting the road where both were raised about 3 meters above the surrounding rice fields. Poles supported the house. It was a typical rural hut where a space was hued out in the floor boards so that it would facilitate as a “crapertorium”.

I fell through the orifice. As well as being sick and sorry for myself, I was now wet and hurt - more my pride than anything really physical. So that was Cambodia - lesson well learnt about drugs!

Hong Kong

I went on RnR to Hong Kong in December 1967.

I flew via Bangkok on a DC 4. The approach to Kai Tak Airport was remarkable. The aircraft would be approaching from a gentle decent and would be flying in line with row after row of housing tenement all having washing hung out on poles.

We were so close, the saying went that extended parts of the plane would be entrapped by this washing.

It was breathtaking to be so close.

But just my luck! There was a curfew. The Red Guard after rampaging in China was flexing its muscle against the colonial British authorities in HK. The Brits sorted them out by setting the Ghurka Brigade onto them and there was an uneasy peace. It really did not matter too much as I was out of Vietnam for 10 days. It was freezing cold. Saigon was the opposite. I had to go immediately and buy myself an overcoat. Then to the bars. They were mostly managed by British ex patriots where you could drink good lager beer and eat English style food such as Bangers and Mash, Steak n Kidney pie and all that. Heaven. I did most of my shopping in one day and set out to find the bar that featured in the movie "The World of Suzie Wong".

I also spent a lot of my time riding on the public buses and the ferries. It was great to see how the British administered the Colony. There was order, cleanliness and calm.

Yet the colony was vibrant and active. It was a 24/7 town. Glittering lights and plenty plenty of things to see and entertain you. I was now a nine month "Old Hand" wisened up on bargaining and not being a soft touch. I knew which of the bar girls were gold diggers and which were gold diggers but fun girls also who genuinely liked to have a good time with the foreigners. They loved to stoke your nose admiring it because Asians has snub noses.

One hostess and I hit it off. She came back to my hotel and stayed with me for a week. We went on tours trips and sightseeing. It was money well spent. Because of her I can say that I really like the people from Hong Kong. My only criticism was that for a British colony their general standard of English was no good - compared to Singapore. I returned via Bangkok.

Thailand - First Trip

I made two trips to Bangkok, December 1967 and July 1968. The first trip was exploratory and tourist focused. The hotel organised a private car/taxi to take to the Kanchanaburi Province to see Bridge on the River Kwai.

This bridge was the theme for an epic war movie which depicted the plight of the allied Prisoners of War who were captured by the Japanese just some 26 years ago.

We got out of our car and into fast boats that took us up river to some war cemeteries and the infamous Hell Fire pass.

It was very moving and you could not leave but feeling anti Japanese.

The trip lasted a whole day.

I had a driver and a guide and the guide only wanted $US 20.

It was the best day ... he got a very good tip.

So after a two week break back to Saigon and the aftermath of the Tet Offensive

Thailand - Second Visit

I planned my second RnR trip eight months after my first. Geoff Williams, one of our two Communications machine operators deputised for me for the whole month of July 1968.

Three weeks in Thailand and a week in Malaysia and Singapore.

A day or so after arriving in Bangkok, I went to the railway station and organised a train trip to Chiang Mai.

It was a 16 hour trip that departed in the early afternoon.

After months of being "imprisoned" in Saigon, it was exhilarating to stick my head out the train window and breath country fresh air. It was nice to feel the openness of the countryside and the people.

The Thais greeted you with a smile and there was nothing nasty about them.

What you saw is what you got.

Chiang Mai, at that time, was a village wherein the population density was just beginning to breach the moat and fortifications that centuries ago were built to protect the inhabitants.

Today's sprawling expansion must seem like an obscenity to "old timers".

I chose not to stay in a hotel - but rather a university guest house lodge.

It was a cool time of the year and you did not need air conditioning - another glorious feeling of freedom. I visited the markets without fear for my personal safety.

I hired a motor bike and drove into the hills for miles and miles again with the wind in my hair and a feeling of being alive.

I did fall off a couple of times - but no matter.

At the Zoo I met four Kiwis who were transiting Thailand en route from New Zealand to London.

They had landed in Bangkok several weeks earlier and were taking a short detour north.

They were the first farangs (foreigners) I had met since I arrived and was glad to speak some English.

They were not overly curious about Vietnam both rather engrossed in Thailand - which is a captivating place.

I joined them. We were now a gang of five.

We returned to Bangkok where they showed me how to get around cheaply.

The simple trick was to hop on a bus and not pay. We would sit in a group. The conductor or conductress would approach and rattle their tin can that carried coin. The first guy would point to the second guy, the second to the third until the final guy would point back to the first guy and then on again until the hapless official gave up with a bewildered smile.

Never before had a rich foreigner declined to pay.

We did this at entry to swimming baths and other events and got away with it.

It was ANZAC larrikinism.

They were staying at a YMCA hostel for about a dollar a night. I chose to stay in a hotel.

The next day when we caught up they reported that there was a very sick Australian at the hostel who said he was refused admission by a public hospital.

I went to see him. He said he had been traveling through Cambodia and got sick there. Indeed he was burning up and could not move out of his bed.

He said he was refused admission because he had no money.

I got very annoyed. I went out to organise a cab. Put him in and actually carried him to this hospital.

I demanded that they admit him and went guarantor. As they realised that I was in no mood to argue, they took details of my passport and admitted him.

I left for Malaysia the next day.

In Saigon, several weeks later, I received a letter from the boy's mother in Tasmania.

She informed me that her son had died of cerebral malaria just 24 hours after I had left him.

She acquired my details from the Australian Embassy who got them from the hospital. The mother thanked me but wanted to ask me questions about how long I had known her son; whether he realised if he was so sick; had he seen a priest and why did the hospital initially refuse to admit him as he had plenty of money.

I responded that I just did not know. I felt so sorry for this grieving mother.