Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
During 1964 the deployment of the RAAF to South Vietnam commenced, but it was not until May 1966 that 5ACS was directly involved with operations there. In May 1966, responding to the statement made by Prime Minister Harold Holt on 8 March that the size of the Australian force in South Vietnam would treble, Detachment `A' was established at Vung Tau in South Vietnam to construct and improve airfield and domestic facilities. Warrant Officer Peter J. Davern and Leading Aircraftmen C.E. Sproul and R.J. King arrived at Vung Tau on 13 May 1966 to prepare for the arrival of the members of Base Support Flight. When that unit arrived on 13 June, the men were accommodated in tents supplied by the US Army. The officers moved to the Villa Anna, an old building that required considerable refurbishment to bring to acceptable standards work, which was beyond the available resources of the US Army repair organisation. 60 The detachment was to oversee the preparation of a tarmac area, landing pad and the erection of a Bellman hangar for the helicopters of 9 Squadron. Showers and toilet blocks were erected in the tent lines, thus making living conditions more comfortable before the troops could be moved into permanent accommodation. Five Kingstrand huts to be used by technical sections of 9 Squadron were completed in August, and the Bellman hangar was ready for use on 30 September. The hangar area had, however, been put to good use previously. On 19 August it was the venue for a concert by Col Joye, the Joy Boys and `Little Patti'. The entertainment attracted the attendance and approbation of many of the American Servicemen in the area.
Peter Davern and his men (a total of 19 members of 5ACS served with Detachment `A' between March and November 1966) were supplemented by manpower supplied by Base Support Flight and 9 Squadron. Additional manual labour to barrow and spread concrete at construction sites was supplied from local Vietnamese sources. Davern followed a daily ritual with the women (the major numbers of his labour force) who insisted on following the national custom of taking a two-hour siesta over the hot midday period. He lost the argument, but was well pleased by the work ethic of the women during working hours.
The fact that Vung Tau was in a war zone was brought home on 6th August 1966 when a curfew between 9pm and 6am next day was placed on all the airmen at the base. This action was justified on the night of 9 August. At 1.45am 50 60 gunshots were heard coming from the top of the hill opposite the Villa Anna. Australian Military Police and Vietnamese police sealed off the roads to the area, but the intruders were not captured. The members of Detachment `A' returned to Australia on 8th October 1966.
5ACS Detachment `B' deployed to South Vietnam in January 1967. Squadron Leader G.P. Anderson officially assumed command of the detachment on 31st January with the task of constructing domestic, and technical facilities to enable eight 2 Squadron Canberra bombers to operate from the American base at Phan Rang, kilometres north east of Saigon. The plan called for domestic facilities (accommodation, messing, generating and reticulation of 415 volt electrical power, purified water reticulation and the construction of a septic tank system) to be built. A Bellman hangar with double story annexes and a Headquarters/Operations and Communications building were also to be erected. In addition, there was a requirement for a bomb fusing area close to the aircraft hardstanding. Squadron Leader Richard Gurevitch had been on site, discussing the works arrangements with the 554th Civil Engineering Squadron (USAF) prior to the arrival of the advance party of the detachment on 28 January.
The arrival was not auspicious. The advance party, dressed in civilian clothes, had flown from Singapore to Saigon, then by Caribou transport to Vung Tau, where they were given a meal and issued with weapons. After being ushered back into the Caribou, the group was flown to Phan Rang where they were met by the Americans, expecting to `welcome the Hussies in their slouch hats'; instead they were confronted with a group `dressed in new suits (purchased in Singapore) with rifles on their shoulders'. The bad first impression was negated by the subsequent performance of the detachment.
On 5th February Flying Officer H.S. Gordon and six airmen travelled to Cam Rhan Bay to supervise the unloading of unit store from HMAS Jeparit. Two days later, the first convoy of 28 vehicles arrived at Phan Rang, followed on the 8th by another convoy of 25. When the main body of 43 airmen arrived on 17th February they were housed in recently completed two story-sleeping quarters. Now at its full strength of 70 personnel, the detachment commenced work early in the morning and, as the 2 Squadron communications officer, Flight Lieutenant John Coomer recalls, `would knock off at dusk, the colour of their faces and their clothes the same as the ground; only eyes showed through, the whole streaked with sweat ... teams of men worked everywhere erecting buildings, working on roads, sealing some, finishing a power house'. Much of the construction was after discussion with 2 Squadron staff on the requirements of the squadron, and close liaison between the two units was maintained before (and after) the Canberra’s arrived in April.
The highlight of the work undertaken by the detachment was the provision of a unique facility at Phan Rang flushing toilets. The septic system installed in the domestic area was a wondrous thing. Some American servicemen were known to seek invitations to visit the Australians to enable them to use these examples of the plumber's art. Coomer recalls that it was common while following the call of nature to be requested by a `USAF chicken colonel on the next seat, "Say Aussie, when can I come up and use your fancy crappers?'
The assistance of the 554th Civil Engineering Squadron, the famous `Red Horse' unit of the USAF, was invaluable. This unit supplied initial messing facilities for 5ACS until the arrival of a brand new stainless steel and aluminium kitchen on HMAS Boonaroo during March. The men had access to USAF sporting and entertainment facilities thus giving them the opportunity to be entertained by well-known American artistes; on 10 February the singer, Nancy Sinatra, for donating a slouch hat to her as a souvenir, appropriately recompensed one lucky member of 5ACS. The beach at Phan Rang, where men could relax in the surf, fish, or water ski was accessible on Sundays. 5ACS personnel participated in the base sporting competition without, it must be admitted, great success. The softball team was, at least, enthusiastic. During March Anderson was to comment that `with further tuition from an American expert [they] should win their first game in the near future'. However, he was still waiting for this magic result at the end of June.
On 19 April 1967 a ceremonial parade was held on the north ramp of the 2 Squadron area to mark the arrival of the unit at Phan Rang. It was a proud moment for Anderson and his men, who began preparations to close the detachment. At the end of April the officers and men, with expectations that they would be soon be returning to Australia, arranged a series of social functions to say farewell to friends and colleagues from the `Red Horse'. But the departure from South Vietnam was to be delayed. On 13 May Squadron Leader Anderson flew to Saigon for discussions at Headquarters Australian Force Vietnam with the Commander RAAF Vietnam and the
Officer Commanding the Task Force at Vung Tau. As a result of this discussion, it was decided to postpone the disbandment of the detachment and move it to Vung Tau to complete the construction of domestic and technical facilities at the aerodrome. After transferring stores and equipment from Phan Rang, Detachment `B' moved to Vung Tau by Caribou aircraft on 21st June 1967.
The works program at Vung Tau included the construction of senior noncommissioned officers and airmen's blocks and laundry facilities, a chapel, a casualty-staging unit and a 91,000-litre water tank. To provide 35 Squadron (the Australian Caribou squadron based at Vung Tau) more office space for its Headquarters Flight and Maintenance Sections, two Lysaght huts were erected. An aircraft nose dock was poured adjacent to the eastern end of the Bellman hangar which was expanded with the erection of a further six bays. While this activity was progressing the strength of the detachment was waning. On 23rd October 13 members were repatriated back to Australia, and they were followed by three more three days later. Despite the rundown in manpower, the construction program was completed on 20th January 1968 and the detachment finally disbanded on 17th February 1968.
5ACS Detachment `B' has the honour of being the final works unit of the RAAF deployed overseas.