I was the officer in charge of HQ NZATGV (AKA HQ NZ V Force) during the withdrawal of NZ forces from Vietnam. I boarded a Malaysian Air aircraft immediately after the commander of the Australian Military Forces who sat up front in business class. I had been chastised by a Malaysian steward who was concerned about our tardy arrival due to a farewell arranged for us by the Vietnamese Forces. A number of NZ Diplomats were present, and I was able to pass over some recreational gear for the Embassy before our departure on 23 December 1972 for Singapore and then on to Singapore and subsequently Auckland.
I had earlier been involved in packing up the remaining files held by HQ NZ V Force as we were called at that time. During the final days, there were some different things that I had to deal with having farewelled Lt Colonel Val Brown and his lovely wife who had done so much for the orphans in Saigon. One thing was that at Chi Lang, were the last four Kiwis who were hanging around waiting for the word from Wellington about what to do with the remaining Land Rover vehicles held by 1NZATTV. Earlier I had watched the destruction of the remaining ‘warlike material’ by a bulldozer, as we were not permitted to turn over any such material to the SVN military as a direct order from Defence HQ following the change in Government in NZ. The soldiers and officers at 1NZATTV were not impressed, nor was I. Subsequently our team's area was subject to ‘friendly fire’ from the ARVN battalion located next door. I had been told by Wellington to take the remaining vehicles from Chi Lang to Saigon and put the vehicles up for sale by tender under GSB Regulation 23 (?). I told Wellington that I was not about to ask the US to allocate a Regimental Combat team to fight through the 1st NVA Division between Chi Lang and Saigon. Instead, I would handover the clapped out Land Rovers to the ARVN HQ at Chi Lang so the last four soldiers, including the commander of 1NZATTV, could be extracted by Air America.
Earlier, I had farewelled 2NZATTV who had been at Dong Ba Thin. We had to search their baggage as the US Command had told me that a specialist firearm was missing and they suspected that a NZ NCO responsible. Therefore, we had to search all their baggage but found nothing at all. We also withdrew their ID cards for entry to the US Canteen type organisation, which allowed recognised holders to purchase duty free goods like booze, TVs etc. Hey, they had real black-market value. I had to obtain sworn statements for the loss of a number of these cards. I maintained copies of these statements on file, but in the end for circumstances beyond my control lost them.
One thing, which really upset me as a commander, was that we had been sent a number of very valuable weapons 'found' by NZ soldiers in Vietnam and which had been used to thicken the defences of our training teams as presents from their predecessors in the various Victor and Whiskey deployments earlier. We had obtained heavy machine guns, 81 mm mortars, a crew served starlight-scope complete, and GPMGs sufficient to arm a Kiwi battalion effectively. My estimate of the value was near $1 million. As a former Director of the NZ Army Museum in Waiouru, I thought these prizes of war should be gifted to the Museum, and accordingly requested approval to repatriate them to NZ. I remember receiving a return message telling me off for putting Defence HQ in an embarrassing position and that I was to turn the gear in to the US former owners or get a receipt donating the gear to NZ. So I asked the US liaison officer at our Free World HQ what to do. He turned a shade of white and said, “For God's sake don't turn them in as they have serial numbers on them and some poor soldier will be court-martialled.” I really was in the horns of a dilemma. Fortunately, I discussed my problem with a very senior US SEAL Warrant Officer who said, “No problem, sir, turn them into us and I will give you all the official papers needed to satisfy both the NZ and US authorities.” Which I did.
I left Saigon two days later on the 23 December 1972 having witnessed the lowering of the NZ flag at Free World HQ and signing the border of the last flag used which was sent to the Army Museum. I then made sure all of the remaining staff were sent back home and boarded the flight out of Saigon to be home by Christmas as directed by the NZ Prime Minister. When I eventually arrived in Auckland on Christmas Eve, there was not a single member of the NZ Defence Force there to welcome me home. I recall walking into the exit area and seeing a young woman who I did not know looking at me. She said, "Welcome Home soldier" and burst into tears. I also wept. Getting into my brother in law's VW, I noticed a small toy dog in the back window. When I sat down, ready to enfold my darling wife Phyl in an embrace, the bloody dog yapped at me and I tried to stand up such was my conditioned reflexes. It remains a family joke.
Reception home -23 December 1972
Brian mentioned that no-one from NZDEF was present to welcome him home on 24 December. Maybe it was because he travelled civil air rather than the RNZAF? Members of 1NZATTV & 2NZATTV had arrived home by C-130 Hercules at Whenuapai the day before, 23 December. We were four hours late due to a serviceability problem on the C-130 and thus landed about 2300, rather than the planned 1900. The CGS, Maj Gen Les Pearce, and the new Labour Government's Minister of Defence, Arthur Faulkner, were present along with TVNZ and a couple of newspaper photographers. After a bit of grandstanding for the cameras, they left. Leaving us to the vagaries of the NZ Customs officers who went through our baggage with a fine toothcomb. It took them about three hours - they found nothing. Why they acted in that way is a mystery. I remember leaving Whenuapai about 0200 feeling angry and disappointed at what they had quite unnecessarily put us through after such a long journey. We surmised they were annoyed at having to hang around on a Saturday evening until we landed at 2300 and so decided to max their overtime. Who knows? But it was hardly a befitting RTNZ for the last military returnees from a theatre of war that New Zealanders had served in since 1964.