For me, today (10th December) is a significant personal anniversary. On this day, thirty eight years ago, along with other 15th Intake National Servicemen, I boarded a Thai Air Force C-123 at Luscombe Field (Nui Dat, South Vietnam). We flew to Ton Son Nuit, (Saigon).
There we emplaned on a Qantas 707 for the flight home to Australia. I'd spent 298 days in country. The 707 was very different from the choppers and Caribou that had been our routine transport for twelve months. It had cabin crew (all male), and what seemed initially to be an endless supply of VB. We left the tarmac after what felt like an interminable take-off run, and the coastline of South Vietnam quickly disappeared from view. This generated a round of applause from all on board, and the good-humoured cabin crew quickly passed around the beer.
Strangely, I didn’t feel much like drinking, as I preferred to savour the immense feeling of euphoria generated by the reality of leaving the army and South Vietnam behind. The majority of my comrades, many of whom became more than a little plastered before too long, didn’t appear to share my sentiments.
By the time we reached the coast north of Darwin, most were sleeping. It was a bloody long flight. They were woken by the captain announcing the arrival of the Australian coastline which was greeted by loud applause. We refuelled in Darwin, where the atmosphere was just as humid as Vietnam. For me, it didn't feel like home.
The Darwin-Sydney flight was long and boring, and the beer was no longer available. We were told that we had consumed every drop. I wonder whether the flight crew felt an obligation to deliver their passengers in a reasonable state on arrival, and the grog was cut off accordingly. As it was, we were a motley crew, dressed in civvies for the occasion. It was easy to develop the perception that we were being brought home in secret, almost in shame, as we arrived at three in the morning with no fanfare at all. There was certainly no brass band.
Our landing in Sydney was one of the roughest I can recall in many years of air travel, but it was greeted with loud and prolonged cheering. Perhaps the captain had been into the VB. I got the impression that even if we had come in undercarriage up, and had to slide down the escape chutes, the applause would have been just as vociferous.
There was a long delay through customs, as apparently one or two diggers tried to bring disassembled AK47s in with their luggage.
When we finally emerged from customs, my two mates and I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to the motel my parents had booked for me. They'd also bought a seat for me on a Brisbane flight next day. What followed was my first surprise – the cabbie simply refused to take us, saying it was out of his area. Appealing to his better nature by pointing out that we were infantry soldiers returning from a tour of duty in South Vietnam cut absolutely no ice at all. He took us to a different motel, where he seemed to have some kind of enduring relationship with the proprietor. Home was a new reality.
This was my small introduction to an understanding of how those at home viewed our service. To be honest, I had no illusions about how we would be received, but it was apparent that many of my mates were expecting to be treated like conquering heroes. My parents lost their booking deposit, but this was the least of their worries – they were just happy to see me home. The army had issued me with rail vouchers that would have seen me board the Brisbane Limited to get home, but my parents chose to pay the extra for a flight to Brisbane.
It seemed ironic to me that I'd flown free from Brisbane to Williamtown two years ago at the beginning of my army training, but after twelve months of service in a war zone wasn't considered worthy of a flight home. It was a long time ago now, but this particular journey, is, on the whole, fondly remembered. This was RTA day, and for me has been ever since.