In 2006 I received a phone call from a bloke in Sydney, who was compiling a book about the army unit I was with in Vietnam. He had been given my name by a mutual acquaintance and asked me if I would write an account of my time in National Service and Vietnam for his book. I really enjoyed the exercise of revisiting my memories of the time.
Recently I showed the document to a few friends and they enjoyed it so much I’ve decided to add it to my blog collection. It may appear a bit inconsistent with the theme of previous items but will provide some insight into my earlier years for those who may be interested. Here is a slightly updated version.
Bob Helyar – National Service January 1971 to July 1972
National Service couldn’t have come at a better time for me. A couple of years earlier I had badly failed first year Agricultural Science at the Queensland University. This meant my planned career path had immediately vaporised and I was struggling to come up with a Plan B. I went back to my home town in south west Queensland, Tara, where I spent about six months driving tractors for various local farmers while I pondered my future. In October 1970 I took up an opportunity with the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra, where I quickly discovered that I hated clerical work. Therefore I was looking forward to the plan the Australian Government had for the next two years of my life, knowing that it would be two years during which I wouldn’t have to worry about what I was going to do.
I have very clear recollections of the day I met up with about thirty blokes at the bus depot in Canberra heading for Kapooka (Recruit Training Battalion). Over the next hour in the bus to Yass and then about four hours in the train to Wagga, over numerous cans of beer, those thirty complete strangers got to know each other very well. The sobering up process was rather abrupt as the army bus, which picked us up from the train in Wagga, approached the gates of Kapooka. The sergeant who was escorting us on the bus eventually got sick of trying to explain things to us over our drunken frivolous efforts to ignore him. He raised his voice and let fly with some very colorful phrases that suddenly made us aware that the ranks of sergeant and corporal were very similar to that of God, so we all immediately became very attentive from that point on.
I occasionally still revisit the photos that were taken of the various stages of recruit training. I was reasonably fit at the time so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the physical challenges. I remember the whole eight weeks being fairly physically and mentally exhausting, but the main thing I remember is how much we laughed. Most of the blokes in our platoon were nashos and accepted that we were in this deal for a couple of years, so may as well make the most of it.
I completed my Corp training in the Ordnance Corp at Albury – Wodonga. What a great place to spend winter – one of the coldest parts of Australia. I had a fibre glass beach buggy at the time and a few of us made the most of the weekends discovering the local country side, including the large number of wineries in the area. While I was there I did some really mad things with a couple of mad mates. One of the more memorable events was spending a Saturday night camping on the shore of Lake Hume in the middle of August. After several flagons of red wine we all ended up swimming in water that was only a few degrees warmer than freezing.
While I was doing my first posting in Bandiana, my boss was Major Bob Phillips. He was a great bloke and believed that anyone who had to do national service deserved to be given any opportunity he asked for. Consequently, when I told him that I was interested in going to Vietnam, it was only a couple of months before I found myself in Canungra (the Jungle Training Centre) where I discovered that Kapooka had been a comparative picnic. However, I got through it and after another month or so I was in Sydney getting ready to board a QANTAS 707 to Saigon. An interesting milestone occurred that night. About an hour before we left the army base for the airport, we were informed that the government had just announced that national servicemen would only be going to Vietnam if they volunteered, so we could have chosen at that point not to go.
Arriving in Saigon we were transferred to a Caribou to get to Vung Tau. I remember as we were cruising up the runway, wondering if the pilot realised that the tailgate was still down. It wasn’t until we were almost off the ground before it closed (perhaps he was just testing us). The first thing I noticed as we took the bus from the airport at Vung Tau to the base, was the smell of the drying fish that seemed to be hanging on every fence. After five months that smell had become the norm, together with the fumes of Lambrettas and motor scooters. The first week I was there it rained continuously – very depressing. After that, the dry season started and it hardly rained again for the rest of my time there
Within a week of me arriving, Nui Dat was evacuated and most of the combat activity ceased. I remember being on the beach, my second week in the country, and seeing about ten choppers come in. They were bringing the 4 RAR troops back from Nui Dat. Before they landed I recognised a bloke sitting in the doorway of one of them. We had been through recruit training together and it was good to catch up with him briefly to hear some of his experiences.
My work there was mainly involved in the outscale, doing stocktakes and preparing equipment to be sent back to Australia. I took a great liking to the Vietnamese people and greatly admired their humility and good nature, in spite of the tragic history they had all witnessed. So my memories are all good ones, many of which are captured in my collection of slides, taken with an instamatic camera I bought second hand off someone for $4. The memories include the beach BBQs, the lunchtime surfing, wild nights at the Arnold Club and the nightclubs of Vung Tau, various Australian Concert Parties, and forming some of the closest friendships I have ever had. I became a fan of Lorrae Desmond at one of the concerts and had the privilege of meeting her on a couple of occasions in later years when she performed at a hotel in Canberra where I was working. Like everyone else, I’ve got entertaining memories of my last night in the Arnold Club before returning to Australia – the usual primal ritual – skulling 20 oz of beer and then getting my gear ripped off.
One of my favourite slides is the movie theatre beside the club. After the tent had been removed so that the aluminium frame could be sent back to Australia, for about the last month we just watched movies under the stars. The slide shows a mass of very worn chairs between the projection box and the screen and a 44-gallon drum in front of the screen to catch the empty beer cans that were thrown from every seat. (The front row of seats was not a good place to be.)
Another memorable slide shows a few of us sleeping in hammocks, strung up between the protective blast wall around the hut and the barbed wire fence surrounding the compound, the morning after a long night of drinking.
I enjoy reflecting like this. However, I’m reluctant to make too much of a big deal of my great time in Vietnam because I know that for many other soldiers, their tour of duty holds some of their most devastating memories, which form one of the darkest chapters of their lives.
I had the privilege of flying back to Australia in a Hercules. What a great experience – no sleep for twenty hours of deafening vibrations. I spent most of the night drinking cans of Tooheys on the tailgate where it was coolest.
My last few months of army life were at Moorebank, Sydney. Quite a few of my best mates from Vung Tau ended up there with me. This meant that I wasted a lot of money at pubs and horse races.
I was extremely restless after being discharged and it took me years to settle down. I tried a wide variety of careers over the subsequent eight years, including Real Estate sales, various positions with the Lakeside International Hotel, and working with young people who had problems with alcoholism, drug addictions and homelessness. Eventually I found a suitability working with people with disabilities and worked in that field for many years.
Through my eighteen months in National Service, I grew to value and respect the adventurous spirit within me. Over the past thirty years I’ve developed a wild missionary heart and I now exercise this adventurous spirit doing things like trekking around remote villages in PNG, and smuggling bibles into China.
At the age of 63, I am very thankful for all the challenges and events that have contributed to who I am today. I have been blessed with a wonderful wife for 31 years. I have two great stepsons, two beautiful daughters, three grand sons and two granddaughters. Since 1985, we have been living in Logan City where we love the climate and the close proximity to the Gold Coast.
On a couple of occasions over the past thirty years I have caught up with a few of the blokes whose company I greatly valued in the 1971-72 chapter of my life. It would be great to stumble across a few more sometime.