Rafe Hart

Thoughts on security, privacy, and building software.

Lest We Forget

24 April 2008

Well, the ANZAC day weekend is coming up in Australia, and for most people means relaxing.

But that being said, we often ignore why ANZAC day is observed, and why the long weekend is actually there. For overseas readers, ANZAC day is our version of Remembrance day. We’ve never really observed anything on that day in my family, in part because we were travelling, but also in part because my father is a veteran, and until returning home to Australia, didn’t really want to think about it.

That changed on our return, and he was asked to give a speech in Strath Creek, a small country town near my folk’s farm, an area which later was pone of the epicenters for the Black Saturday fires. With his permission, I’m posting it here, because it is worth your time reading.

Thank you. My wife Sue and I are newcomers to Strath Creek having arrived three years ago, and it is a privilege and a pleasure after so short a time to be asked to address this gathering. In the years we have been attending this occasion it has grown and that is a credit to the organisers, and to the people of this community.

Australians all over the country, like ourselves, use ANZAC Day to honour those that served in time of war, especially those that did not return. I want to dedicate my remarks today to eleven men with whom I served: New Zealander Terry Groom; Australians, Peter Ward, Tony Huelin and Noel Shipp and US Serviceman Genchi, Pool, Starr, Whitlatch, Phillips, Martin and Bowden. Terry Groom and Peter Ward died during Australian Navy work-up activities for Vietnam in 1968 and the other nine men died in Vietnam in 1969 on active service as pilots and aircrew for the 135th Assault helicopter company. That was the Unit in which I also served.

My purpose today is to give you a brief personal account of my own experience of being sent to war, a flavour of what it was like, and how it was returning home. I also want to address the fundamental questions of why we went and what we achieved. My initial war service was during the Indonesian Confrontation of Malaysia on sea patrol. That is an interesting tale in its own right, but today I’m going to talk about being sent to Vietnam as a Navy helicopter pilot.

General George S. Patton said that the object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other poor fellow die for his.

That sort of thinking was alien to me when I joined the Australian Navy in 1965 at the age of seventeen. I was looking for an interesting career and a stable income and I never thought about going to war. I did my flying training, onshore and on aircraft carriers on exchange to the US Navy in Pensacola Florida and in 1969 I was posted to Vietnam to fly helicopters in a joint Australian Navy/US Army Assault Helicopter Company – this was the 135th Assault Helicopter Company also known as the EMU’s. If you Google 135th AHC you can read all about that unit. Having served at sea during the Indonesian Confrontation I thought I knew a little about war, but the two experiences, Confrontation and the Vietnam War, were totally different; in the confrontation our enemy was poorly trained, lacked motivation, were ill equipped and showed little resistance. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army we encountered three years later in 1969 were by contrast, highly motivated and well trained and made very effective use of their weapons. They were a formidable enemy, and of course, ultimately they won.

I was posted to Vietnam to replace a good mate, Tony Huelin when he was killed. I did my flying trained with Tony; he was a great guy, a good pilot, very bright and good fun to be with. He died when his helicopter flew into power lines in bad weather near Saigon.

Arriving in a war zone from a country like Australia was an unusual experience, and because I was a one of one replacement and not part of a group I had to be transported to our Vietnam ground base alone. A vehicle with a driver and two machine gunners was sent to pick me up at Saigon’s airport Ton Son Nhut. They established who I was, said hello, and gave me a flack vest and an Armourlite sub-machine and told me that if there was a fire fight that I should join in. I remember thinking that I preferred the QANTAS pre-trip brief to fasten seat belts and place trays in the stowed position. Anyway, we set off.

There were no armoured personnel carriers then, or at least none in this unit, and we travelled, standing’ in the open back of what the US Army called a “duce in a half” – which is like a very big Aussie Ute. We had a couple of hours drive to the north east of Saigon to the 135th’s base at Bearcat and driving like that reminded me of going out rabbit shooting when I was a kid in Western Australia, except that I now felt like the rabbit. The machine gunners were next to me manning the M-60’s and they kept up a constant patter of war stories. As we drove through bombed and burnt out areas, past deserted rice paddies and vehicle wrecks these guys kept saying – “no one has 365 and a wake up to go” – meaning that I had a year left in country and they had a lot less. In Vietnam in the armed forces everyone counted the days they had left in country. To my great relief we arrived at the Bearcat without being attacked, though I was assured that I’d soon enough experience a live fire fight.

As it turned out, it came the next day.

I think all young people wonder at some stage, if they think about war at all, how they would react to being in combat. I was no exception and of course I wanted to acquit myself well and not let my companions down. But no one really knows how they will react under these circumstances and it is not something entirely under the individual’s control. Over the course of the year I was in Vietnam I saw new pilots freeze, physically and mentally; just stopped in their tracks with terror, and some had to be assigned less demanding flying and non-flying roles because they didn’t perform well under fire.

Most though, carried out their orders, because that is what we had been trained to do. We were pumped up on adrenalin and that helped, some guys were resigned to their fate. A few were actually too dull to imagine what might happen to them and treated it like plumbing, joinery or any other routine work; and some loved the whole experience of combat, and returned for multiple flying tours in Vietnam.

I’ll tell you a little about my first day flying in the Mekong Delta. I remember it well because that is the first time anyone has shot at me and it made a very strong impression in my mind. I was assigned to fly the day after my arrival with the Australian Senior Pilot, Lieutenant Max Speedy. I hadn’t slept well and I was apprehensive. We got up just before five in the morning, had an Army breakfast which was really bad and picked up our “C” rations for lunch. We briefed in some detail on the day’s operation and went to the flight line to our helicopter and to meet with our gunner and crew chief. We cranked up along with the rest of the flight and were airborne in the dark before 0600.

The 135th like other assault helicopter companies delivered ten troop carrying helicopters known as “Slicks” and four gunships – that is fourteen aircraft in total – on a daily basis. After take-off the slicks formed up in a formation of two loose “V” ‘s of five with the four helicopter gun ships following along behind at low level. They were down low and behind the flight not because of any tactical reason, they were just so heavy with fuel, rockets and mini-gun ammunition that they couldn’t climb or initially keep up with the flight. They caught up while we were loading troops later on.

I was in the Lead aircraft with Max Speedy and once we were in the cruise at 1500 feet we got an artillery and aerial bombardment briefing by radio and planned our route to the Mekong Delta. The route planning was important; if you got it wrong and flew into a free fire zone there was a fair chance you would be hit by B-52 bombs coming down or artillery shells coming up, so it was a task to which some attention was paid. Once that was done and radio chat settled down, we tuned in the American Armed Forces Radio and listened to the morning show. If any of you have seen the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” you’ll know a little about that, or at least Actor Robin Williams portrayal of it – which I thought was pretty good. Listening to the radio helped release a little tension as we flew down for a day of combat assaults. It was an hour’s flying time to the Delta; we landed to refuel then picked up a hundred fully equipped South Vietnamese troops and headed for the operational area.

That day, for me my first experience of combat assaults, happened to fall in the middle of the ’69 Tet offensive, which was a particularly active period of combat. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and assumed it was just a typical day. Our Command and Control pilot – what we called the C&C - Australian Navy Lieutenant Commander Zork Rhorscheim directed us to the landing zone by popping a canister of coloured smoke and dropping it in the rice paddy where he wanted the lead ship of the flight to land. That was the usual technique, but it was a mixed blessing. The flight lead then knew exactly where to bring the flight in to land, but of course the Viet Cong on the ground knew it as well once the smoke was billowing up.

You’ll know, I’m sure, that there was a time when Generals from opposing sides agreed a time and place for battle and both sides would show up at the appointed hour and location to fight. This seemed a little bit like that. It was a lovely morning, still surprisingly cool for the tropics because it was so early, and it seemed inconceivable that anyone would spoil it by starting a fight. We were told by our C&C, however, that it would be a “hot insertion” which meant we would take fire on arrival.

Since that was the case, our light fire team, those four helicopter gunships I mentioned earlier, prepped the landing zone, or LZ as we called it, by laying down a continuous barrage of rocket and mini-gun fire on each side of the LZ. This meant there were two highway width strips of fire either side of the LZ . As was usually the case the LZ was a rice paddy with nipa palm and trees on either side, the earth was soft and ideal for digging of tunnels and the trees and palms perfect for concealment. We couldn’t see any enemy at this point and the gun ships were pumping ordinance out as hard as they could so that the LZ was like an oasis of calm between two bands of explosions, red tracer fire, phosphorous grenade smoke and flying dirt and green matter.

Our job was to fly into the eye of that storm. The gun ships kept firing until they couldn’t go on for fear of hitting us; our machine gunners then open up on either side of every helicopter in the flight, just feeding through continuous belts of ammunition through the M-60’s. It is noisy and confusing and before you got used to it, wound you up as tight as a spring.

Flying with Max Speedy was – and I can say this now because he is a friend – was a bit like flying with Bruce Willis or if you prefer Chuck Norris – what I’m trying to say is there was no casual conversation. Since I was getting no verbal signals, I kept looking across the cockpit to see if I could read anything in his face. I was thinking that if he was worried, I should be worried; if he was calm, I could be calm. I wanted to see if he was biting his lip or whistling his favourite tune. He didn’t show any reaction at all. Not a twitch. He just gave clear instructions to the flight, and to our own Crew Chief and Gunner and calmly instructed me to fly a slowing descent towards the smoke in the LZ. So that is what I did. I found his attitude quite reassuring. He was treating it like a Sunday drive.

Just by way of explanation, helicopter assaults are not like other forms of aerial combat. There is no low level manoeuvring to avoid fire or darting into clouds or climbing to safety. You have to maintain formation, point towards the smoke, descend and slow down and land right where instructed and that is invariably where intelligence believes the enemy to be. The plan is that your gunships keep the enemy’s heads down for as long as possible, then the machine guns in the flight take over that job until the flight is on the ground. But then there’s a catch. Once you come to a hover and land you have to stop shooting and offload troops, so that becomes the Viet Cong’s turn. They waited for that moment and then opened up with everything they had. That, of course, is what they did on this particular day.

This was not an arms length sort of experience, it was up close and personal. We were near enough to see the faces, and the expressions on the faces, in the tree lines and that first time it was a very odd feeling to have some stranger shooting at us and to be shooting back at him – just because that was his job and this was ours and we’d come to the agreed place in order to shoot at each other. I could see they were young, fit blokes dressed in black outfits and they weren’t fooling around. On that first assault three helicopters were damaged to the point that they couldn’t lift off and we left them on fire in the LZ and carried the crews out with us. When we made our second assault, C&C didn’t waste any more smoke, he said over the radio – “Lead, land short of the third burning helicopter”. That’s when I got a reaction for the first time on Max Speedy’s face. He thought that instruction was really funny and he broke into a big smile and turned to me and said “Welcome to Vietnam, Jed”.

After the day’s flying I thought of using the Groucho Marx line, “Max, I’ve had a perfectly wonderful day…..but this wasn’t it”, but you don’t address your Senior Pilot like that. I was pleased to have survived that day, and later other days like it.

I’ll say one more thing about those early days. Everyone had to make an adjustment. No one wants to spend a year of their life fearing death and inflicting injury and feeling terrified and confused and bad about it every minute of the day, so you needed a philosophy. No one told you this of course; there was no prior briefing that suggested that this might be more stressful than a normal day in the office. No one talked about any of that. So everyone made their own adjustment. After three weeks, and bear in mind I had arrived in the middle of a very busy Tet offensive, I decided I was going to be killed before the year was out. I wasn’t dramatising the situation, it just seemed the most likely outcome. I realize now that many others came to the same conclusion. Funnily enough, once you had faced up to that, the flying was really enjoyable. My fellow pilots and crewmen were good company; we had very versatile helicopters at our command and a really demanding job to do. There were fellows who believed they were invincible and that’s what worked for them but you didn’t want to fly with them, and some guys never adjusted. For me the trick for me was to learn fast, do the job well and adjust to the accepted ways of the Vietnam war. I wrote a “dear John” letter to my American girlfriend, sent some very untruthful letters to my parents about being in a safe place and not to worry, and forgot about ever returning to the free world.

Not every day was like that first one of course, some of the flying was very routine – hot, boring, tedious and very long days. Without really recognising it you gradually became fatigued and a little jumpy as the months went by. Our gunners and crew chiefs sometimes slept in the aircraft; they would return from a days flying, pull maintenance until late, sleep in the aircraft and wake up as we flew down to the Delta. The pilots weren’t always much better off. We had one R&R break in the year which was a five day break outside Vietnam and one break of three days in country. The rest of the time we flew – dawn until late afternoon usually, but sometimes at night and sometimes on special operations both inside and outside Vietnam. Night flying was interesting because you could differentiate between friendly and enemy fire because the Russian tracer was green and the American tracer was red – we learned that we took a lot of nervous friendly fire.

The worst days were when people were hurt or killed. Noel Shipp was a bloke I had served at sea with in HMAS Anzac and he died of gunshot wounds. Many of our American friends were killed. In the days after one of those fatal events the mood in the flight was different and crews were very jumpy and ready for action. To put it simply guys wanted revenge and had the means to get it. Throughout those days, and the routine ones, we tried to stay professional and the Australian pilots were well regarded for the work they did. Personally I also had great respect for both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Years later when I went back to Vietnam on business I met some of those former Vietcong and NVA in Vung Tau. I thought they were good humoured, principled men – I liked them and we were able to deal well together.

Over the course of the Australian Navy involvement with the 135th AHC one in eight of the pilots were killed and one in four wounded. I think all were shot down at one time or another and all carried some emotional baggage away. Some of the lessons learned were good ones; picking up your mates when they went down, being resolute during difficult times. Others weren’t such good lessons, striking back too hard and too fast when under attack, striking first and not waiting, living by rules that don’t belong in a civilian world. Some of those attitudes and lessons were very hard to break on return to Australia. Our servicemen returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor will find the same thing and they will need help and understanding to return successfully to civilian life. Most will think it is the other guys that have the problem and they are OK, but they will be wrong.

I became an Aircraft Commander, then Flight Lead and then Command and Control Pilot and I celebrated my 21st birthday in Vietnam. The last day I flew in country the flight was mortared on the ground and we lost seven ships out of ten. We logged thirteen flying hours for the day, and that was the end of my flying tour.

We returned to a frosty reception in Australia. It was the height of the Vietnam War protests and good, well intentioned people were trying to stop Australia’s participation in an unpopular war. We were caught up in all the emotion of that time and while it is true we Vietnam Veterans should not have been singled out and criticised for serving our country, the community was polarised on the issue and veterans and their families were simply assumed to be aligned with supporters of the war and therefore not to be coddled or supported in any way. I was assigned to a Navy desk job in Nowra, and was bored witless shuffling what to me were meaningless bits of paper. I decided to resign my Commission and try my hand at being a civilian. I married Sue, my wonderful wife, in 1970 and we started a family and headed off overseas for twenty years. When we returned to Australia in 1990 views on those who served in Vietnam had changed. I marched on Anzac day and people in the streets thanked us all, and for me that is more than enough.

So, why did we go to war? What did we achieve? Australia is a small country and we can’t pretend to major influence in international politics, but neither do we stand on the sidelines in world affairs; we play a strategic regional role; we are dependable allies and we back up our words with action. Sometimes that action involves commitment of armed forces in global and regional conflicts. That wins respect and earns us a voice, so that when we have our say in shaping this part of the world, more powerful countries and regional partners listen. Australia and the region is safer and more stable as a result.

I don’t know what the experience of young Australians going to war is like today, but I imagine that some of the elements are the same. We all have our opinion of the conflicts in which Australia is involved, but you don’t have to support the war to support our service men and women, and that is what you do by being here today. I know the families of the eleven men that I named at the beginning of these remarks would want me to thank you for being here today, and I do to. Thank you.