Lex McAulay – ANZAC Portal
1st Battalion, RAR, 1965-66; Military Attache Staff, Australian Embassy, Saigon, 1967-68; AFV Provost Unit, 1970, and Detachment 1st Division Intelligence Unit, 1970-71
Lex McAulay served in the Australian Regular Army for 22 years. He has written more than a dozen books including Battle of Long Tan, Battle of Coral, Fighting First (1RAR) and In the Ocean’s Dark Embrace (Clearance Diving Team 3). He and his wife Josephine operate Banner Books, publisher of his most recent book, Blue Lanyard, Red Banner, about 1RAR’s capture of the Cu Chi tunnels.
In early 1965, I was in 4RAR on exercise near Townsville when my commanding officer assured me that Australia would not become involved in the ‘losing’ war in Vietnam. Ten weeks later, I was standing in the long grass at Bien Hoa airbase, in the advanced party of 1RAR, and like everyone else wondering how to put up my hoochie without any trees nearby and no stakes of any kind. We had come by overnight jet flight from a Sydney winter to monsoon season. The humidity was oppressive and we watched dark curtains of rain circling us. Inevitably, a storm hit and our introduction to the climatic conditions of Vietnam was almost complete.
At dusk we ‘stood to’ wearing our webbing, weapon in hand and watching our assigned sectors, to the puzzlement of our American neighbours who made no concession to being in a war zone: radios were blaring, lights blazing, vehicle doors slamming, conversations shouted, and men casually walked into town looking for entertainment. The Australian position was silent and dark. Within days our patrols dominated the area assigned to us, much to the relief of the US district advisory team in Tan Phu. A few days before, they had watched a squad of Vietcong put to flight a South Vietnamese company outside the village.
First impressions were of the unimaginable power of the US military that made our puny Australian contribution insignificant. Standing on the airbase perimeter we saw more military aviation activity than in all of Australia. Fighters, transports, liaison aircraft and mass formations of helicopters came and went at all hours. A C-124 Globemaster arrived daily with salads from Okinawa, something beyond the comprehension of our catering warrant officer. While waiting for HMAS Sydney to arrive with the rest of our battalion group, we ate in US messes. Unlike the parsimonious Australian rationing system, cooks placed food on the soldier’s plate for as long as he stood there. Their only statement was, ‘Take as much as you want, but eat all you take!’
Another culture shock was showering, US military fashion. Australians used individual canvas shower buckets but before these arrived on the ship we were sent to an American shower point. Each rifle company entered an enclosure and stripped off together, then on command entered another area around which ran pipes and shower nozzles. Water flow was controlled by an operator who allowed thirty seconds of water to run so that each man could wet himself, then turned it off while we soaped ourselves, then on again for thirty seconds, then off. Too bad if you had not rinsed off all the soap!
Being Australians, we believed we were superior to any other nationality, and first meetings with paratroopers of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade did nothing to change that. We ignored the fact that we wore a variety of uniforms and boots dating back to the Second World War, with much of our equipment of the same era, while every American wore good quality field uniforms and tropical boots better in every way than ours. We blithely overlooked their far greater experience in all aspects of deploying and supplying forces overseas, and stated that they knew little about counter-guerrilla warfare, which we specialised in. This did not please the Americans, who declared that they knew how to defeat guerrillas because they had beaten the Indians. This caused some mirth and the sarcastic Aussie reply was that the Vietcong did not rely on buffalo and horses and it would be a long wait for the winter snows when their camps could be surrounded by the US cavalry!
Private Lex McAulay, 1RAR, 1965 (left) and Corporal John Henderson inspect an Armalite rifle. AWM DNE/65/0335A/VN
No one denied the Yanks’ bravery and aggressiveness, and there were officers and NCOs who were masters of their profession, leading troops keen to show what they could do. But it also seemed there was only one way to do things – theirs. They believed that air mobility, communications and firepower would achieve victory in a few months, and everyone could go home and get back to preparing for the big league against the USSR and China. As time went on, it seemed to me that an historical wheel had turned full circle; when American colonists had rebelled against English rule, it was the redcoat regiments that plunged into the forests and were harassed by the locals who did not fight according to the rules of warfare; now it was the Americans who sent formations into the jungle after an elusive enemy who did not follow the rules.
Nevertheless, in those early days there was a distinct feeling of being part of a great force that would win the war and bring peace and prosperity to South Vietnam. It’s difficult to recall when the glow died but when I served my third tour in 1970-71 numbers of US troops refused to go on operations, some threatened or killed their superiors, and many wore peace symbols and love beads and had anti-Army slogans on their helmet covers.