5ACS UBON THAILAND
By David Wilson Author Of “ALWAYS FIRST”
After the cessation of the first Indo China War in 1954 the area was in political turmoil. The forces of Ho Chi Minh controlled Vietnam north of the 17th parallel, and tiny Laos was of strategic importance. North Vietnamese supplies were routed through Laos for use by anti government forces in South Vietnam. Laos was identified as a buffer between Thailand and China. The situation in Laos remained fluid and was assessed as threatening to the stability of the region, and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), of which Australia was a member, developed contingency plans to protect Thailand. Under SEATO Military Plan 5, Australia was to contribute an infantry battalion, together with a `Sabre Squadron operating from Thailand'. On 23rd May 1962 the Minister for External Affairs, Sir Garfield Barwick announced that, at the invitation of the Thai Government, Australia would contribute forces. To meet this commitment, eight Sabre fighters of 79 Squadron arrived at the Royal Thai Air Base at Ubon, Thailand, on 1st June 1962.
Ubon is located 48 kilometres and 80 kilometres from the Laotian and Cambodian borders respectively, some two kilometres north of the town of the same name. When 79 Squadron arrived, the only unit operating from the base was a US radar unit and the squadron technical and domestic facilities were under canvas. Although the 2,134-metre runway was of concrete construction and in good condition, more permanent structures were needed. Squadron Leader J.D.G. Lessels flew by civilian aircraft from Darwin on 31st May for duty at Butterworth and Ubon. He flew to Ubon on 2nd June, but the Hercules on which he was a passenger was unable to land due to `buffalo and saffron robed Buddhist priests being on the runway' which meant that the aircraft had to stay overnight at Bangkok. After talks with the 79 Squadron commander, Wing Commander John Hubble, and his officers, Lessels completed his assessment of the situation and submitted a report on 11th June. He recommended that the type of hut to be constructed would be `a timber framed but with a timber floor on stumps about 25 centimetres above ground level. The wall will be of timber up to about three feet [one metre] from ground level, then fly wire to the roof level'. Special buildings would be built with concrete floors, and those occupied during daylight hours would be roofed with corrugated asbestos cement. This was considered cooler than the corrugated iron planned for the roof of the other buildings. It was decided that a `crew of experienced RAAF tradesmen’ who would supervise an indigenous labour force of approximately 100 would undertake the work. Lessels was, no doubt, swayed by the experience of the USAF radar unit who `had some work done by contract and [was] most dissatisfied with the results. Eg. The floor in a SAL block sloped away from the drain, also on the same job contractors attempted every possible crooked dodge with the quality of the concrete'.
As soon as the report was accepted, Lessels arranged for land to be allocated for the RAAF development at Ubon during a visit to the Royal Thai Air Force Headquarters at Don Muang Air Base. The timing of the visit was of great importance. Only days after returning to Ubon a United States Air Force Colonel from Hawaii visited Ubon to plan the development of facilities for the subsequent deployment of USAF units to the base, only to find that the area which he had coveted had been handed over to the Australians.
The construction team of 100 locally engaged civilians and contractors who were supervised by RAAF personnel did not let the monsoon rain, 82 per cent humidity and 81-degree temperature prevent them preparing over 50 huts as messes, accommodation, and recreation, technical and administrative facilities. Power and water reticulation systems were installed. Roads were constructed using equipment flown in from Australia this was the first time a D 6 bulldozer had been transported by a RAAF Hercules aircraft. There was `one scare when it was thought the base was under attack' and security considerations dictated the need for a curfew on the town between 10pm and 7am, although there was one incident when the Service Police discovered an ACS airmen in a `well known establishment' having a shower early one morning with three attractive young ladies.
After participating in `one of the most professionally satisfying' projects of his RAAF career Lessels returned to Darwin on 23 November, but the work continued at Ubon to complete the task he had commenced. 58 A swimming pool and tennis court were completed and a three-month repair program to patch the crumbling runway commenced during January.