I enlisted in the NZ Army in Auckland in 1966. Wanting to increase my skill set my preference was for Engineers but was directed to my second choice of Signals.
Quickly I was on my way to Waiouru for soldier and Corp training.
After which I was posted to the relatively new 1st Communication Zone Signal Squadron at Papakura which had moved there from Sylvia Park in 1964.
The large divisional structure of World War Two had been reduced to a Brigade and the NZ Army was structured into a Combat Arm, Logistics Arm and Support Arm. Although some of the old uniform components remained. Blancoed puttees and web belts continued to be issued with brass fixtures that required regular cleaning. Calf length boots for Logistics units remained on the horizon.
1 Comm Zone was an element of the Logistics Arm providing communications from the rear area of the battlefield to the units at the forward edge of the battlefield who were serviced by the next door Combat Arm signal unit at Papakura the 1st Infantry Brigade Group Signals Squadron. Because their role was mainly over short distances much of their equipment was in the very high frequency range whist the Comm Zone as well as providing communications forward had to provide links back to New Zealand requiring additional high frequency equipment and radio relay capability.
It also had to provide communications within the Northern Military area of New Zealand. This required switching roles from field exercises to static locations such as the Papakura Camp Communications Centre or to the Northern Military District torn tape minor relay station in Auckland.
These contained the Creed tele printers with squashed up keyboards unsuitable for Kiwi blokes’ splayed fingers. When the Field Force units acquired Kleinschmidt tele printers the words per minute’s rate magically increased for male operators.
It wasn’t long before I was promoted to Lance Corporal and this required a visit to Wellington to learn the new National Security Agency’s encryption systems. Later I would return with a Sergeant to uplift the unit’s new KL7 encryption machines. Because of their Secret classification, this required an armed escort at all times. I parked outside Defence Headquarter whilst the Sgt went inside to sign for the equipment and have it delivered to the vehicle. Quickly he came back with a plain paper bag and asked me to stow it behind the seat. He had forgotten to remove his pistol and the powers to be were not impressed with armed troops in the Capital.
In 1968, an expression of interest was posted on the unit notice board.
The call was for a Corporal, my new rank, to be seconded to 110 Signal Squadron Royal Australian Signals an Australian logistics support Communications unit.
I should elaborate that there were very few corps badge postings in South Vietnam for RNZSigs personnel. The majority served with either 161 Battery FO's or as radio operators for the infantry companies and wore those units corps badges.
For personnel from the Logistics Signal Squadrons in New Zealand the opportunities for Vietnam service were few.
On being informed I was on the shortlist, I started visiting the Papakura Camp library for anything on Vietnam. I felt sorry for the librarian who had to shuffle the small number of books between 161 Battery personnel and others also destined for South Vietnam.
By the time I had read those and with the Signals advantage of been able to proof read intelligence summaries before I forwarded them to the intended recipient, I believed I had reasonable understanding of the risks.
On 2 October 1968, I along with a Kiwi Sgt arrived, after a laborious flight on a RNZAF C130, via Alice Springs and Singapore, to commence a 12-month tour. We were the first to fill the two positions available at 110 Signal Squadron.
After the usual paper work it was over to the Q store for issue of Australian uniform including their fantastic Seal brand vulcanised boots, a marked improvement over the NZ clodhoppers with screwed sole of British design.
Vung Tau wasn’t what I expected. The unit was built on sand dunes near a beach and it was more like desert service than jungle.
I was told the accommodation huts had been built fairly recently but with the incessant wind-blown sand they had prematurely aged look.
The next day I started work on one of the four shift rosters at the 1ALSG Communications Centre as an Operator Keyboard and Cipher.
Fitting in with the Aussies
Within a week, I had my first set of New Zealand shoulder flashes stolen and didn’t bother wearing the remaining pair allowing me to start blending in with the Australian members of the unit.
‘Gidday’ and ‘mate’ soon entered my vocabulary. I quickly picked up the differences in parade ground instructions and drill cadence, which was slower than ours and was more suited to the hot conditions.
Although I had quickly picked up the differences, the New Zealand Sergeant had not.
When it was his turn to take the parade, he called “Squadron Shun”. To his surprise, no one moved except me. He said it again with the same result. I whispered to him “they say attention” and after that everything went smoothly
I must admit when we had to practice drill on the back road when it was my turn to give commands I got some Aussie stick, I enjoyed marching the squad off the road down the sand bank in front of the High Frequency radio shack. One thing I learned quickly was that Aussies throw a lot of verbal shit around and if you don’t return it in kind they will continue to point out the differences between our countries.
There was one time when I was stumped. There was a knock on the Commcen door and when I answered the soldier outside asked for a “goffer”. I said what unit are you from and handed him the clipboard with a couple of signals to sign off. He said, “It’s hot out here” and placed some money on the clipboard. I wasn’t sure whether the Australian military had a cash accounting system for signals so I went back and asked the Signals Despatch Service driver what I was missing. He said, “He wants to buy a soft drink that we have in the little fridge out back”.
As an OKC, I had to encrypt and decrypt using the KW7 equipment in the back room. I could break New Zealand eyes only, of which I don’t remember receiving any, and Aust/NZ eyes only which was by far the most traffic. If it broke Australian eyes only I was to stop and call for an Australian operator. Yeah right! At 2 o’clock in the morning?
Not long after I started work I transmitted a signal, which was to stay in my memory forever, and prompted my investigation of the subject years later.
An Australian doctor whilst visiting the Vung Tau markets noticed some tins of Paludrine and brought one with the limited money he had. It was probably the same value as a black market pistol. By the time he had rounded up the Australian MPs and Vietnamese police the other tins had been removed.
The one tin he did get was traced back to Nui Dat but it was never established who made all that green. However, that was the least of the authorities concerns. Unknown to me there had been discussions on the possibility of malarial resistance to the standard Australian Paludrine preventative, at a time when the US military were testing new preventative agents and had settle on one called Dapsone.
The rest as they say is history but I have never fully accepted the official version written by a senior medical officer who never set foot in South Vietnam. Nor other official claims that Dapsone use was simply a response to a worsening malarial situation. In addition, there was no reason for Vung Tau unit personnel to be given the drug. Some years earlier, the US authorities had conducted an epidemiological investigation in Thailand and found that Dapsone added nothing when there were good anti-malarial measures, which were provided in abundance by PA&E contractors at Vung Tau.
Perhaps we were just making up the numbers for the investigations into side effects, which required a large cohort that had shown up after the earlier small unit trials.
All New Zealanders who served in South Vietnam were regular army. We had no conscription.
Australian Nasho's from my recollection fitted in to two types. The “I’m in for the duration and will have to make the most of it” and the” you drafted me so you will have to put up with me”. It was the second group that I had some difficulty with and once I got so annoyed I suggested to one of them to go to Thailand on R&R and from there should be able to make his way back to Aussie without been noticed. Not only was I promoting desertion but was I also promoting the first boat person? Later, after I had talked to him, he identified why he was so aggrieved and we became good mates and my attitude to his ilk changed. On reflection, given that they didn’t have anywhere near the experience of the regular signalmen they did a remarkable job.
By January, there was another medical concern with a number of unit personnel hospitalised with suspected dysentery. From memory the source was never established, although the Vietnamese mess staff were sent home as a precaution. Nonetheless, I always looked sideways at the food stalls when on local leave in Vung Tau.
However, looking back it was never 100% proven that it was dysentery and perhaps they should have looked a little closer. They should have included those other minor complaints that appeared at the same time and this would have enabled them to realise that perhaps there was more at risk using the Dapsone regime than simply the occasional case of agranulocytosis.
By February, I was no longer a part of Operational Troop, changing to the Deployment Troop. On the 17th February 1969, we left Vung Tau for Camp Camelot at Long Binh in support of the 1st Australian Task Force’s two battalion deployment to Bien Hoa by providing a step up Commcen with links back to Vung Tau and Nui Dat. This was probably the first deployment of a truly ANZAC forward detachment of 110 Sigs, consisting of an Australian Officer, Kiwi Sgt and Cpl, and Australian L/Cpls and Sigs.
The military operation was designed to saturate the “Rocket Belt” with troops to prevent the NVA and VC from delivering rockets on Saigon as had occurred during the Tet Offensive. Whilst it was successful in that regard, I wasn’t impressed when the camp was targeted instead. I was less impressed two days later when preparing an after action report for transmission and read that an attack had been anticipated but no accurate date was available from the intelligence source.
That is countered by the thought of the sight of the Sergeant who was having a very late shower arriving in the doorway with only a small Australian Army issue towel around his girth. I was laughing so much I had trouble getting my boots on. However, the next incoming rocket changed that.
When I was returned to Vung Tau and was informed by the NZ Liaison Officer that my mother was very ill and they were trying to affect my return to New Zealand. It seemed like a very short time later when I was informed she had died and I would be completing my tour. I returned to the Operating Troop.
This must have affected me more than I thought because not long after I picked a fight with an MP down in Vung tau town well after curfew and was charged with breaching 110 Sigs routine orders and drunkenness.
Since the 110 Sigs OC couldn’t charge me and I was told to catch a Wallaby flight to Saigon were I eventually faced the CO of NZ V Force.
Ironically, I got away with only two entries on my Regimental Conduct Sheet after many years in the Army. The first for this offence and the second the writing up of a South Vietnamese commendation I received on my second tour.
For some reason I was employed at the Minor relay centre in Saigon for a time, perhaps to keep an eye on me, but my recollections are hazy for the rest of the tour.
One thing I do remember is that the Kiwi sheep shagger and other such comments from the Aussies stopped, as I was now the subject of some sympathy.
I must have been then sent back to Vung Tau at some point because I left from there in October 1969 to return to NZ. I passed my replacement Cpl Randall Todd RNZSigs on my way into the C130 and don’t remember giving him much of an informed briefing. I think my only advice was “don’t volunteer for anything.”
On arrival home, I quickly left the Army. I wandered around New Zealand for job to job. In fact, I had more jobs in 12 months than at any other time in my life.
PTSD didn’t exist as a diagnosis back then. Today such listlessness would be cause for concern.
It would more than three decades later that I would be diagnosed with PTSD.
I enjoyed this
Noel writes well with a touch of humour. I enjoyed what he has written. The biggest problem I face now is I still seem to be living in an enemy country and making forays into the outside world. This is still my problem after working through my past after, like Noel, of living with PTSD for over 30 years. Rejection attached to PTSD is what has damaged me. I have forgiven NZ but I still have isolationist problems that prevent me from becoming part of the human race again. Thank you Noel for sharing.
Dennis Griffin Victor 2