After doing National Service in 1955, Ian Henderson decided to apply for Officer Cadet School. He was accepted and trained to become a second lieutenant. Then he did a short survey course, and then basic engineering training.
In 1959, Ian’s Army training took an unusual path. He said, “I was told I was going to an air photo interpretation course, then suddenly I was inside a bag in the back of a utility. In fact, it was a Resistance to Interrogation Course – to see how I’d stack up.”
Ian said, “I wasn’t even aware of what was going on in Southeast Asia when I did it. But I’d done the training, so I had to assume they would use me later.”
In 1971, Ian was told he was going to take over the Headquarters Company of the 1st Australian Task Force in Vietnam and that the Minister for Defence would have a letter for him to take up there.
Ian was met at Sydney Airport by the Provost Marshal, and two provosts were assigned to look after him. Right before departure he was handed a little white envelope from a locked satchel to give to the commander of the Australian Forces in Vietnam. During a stopover in Darwin, two service police took him off the plane, and in Singapore two British redcaps stood by as they waited for clearance to Tan Son Nhut Airport.
Ian said, “Five vehicles met us at Tan Son Nhut, and we drove to the Australian Forces headquarters with two in front, two behind, and me in the middle one. And I delivered the letter.”
The letter Ian delivered was the order for withdrawal.
Ian delivered the letter and then journeyed to Nui Dat to 1ATF headquarters. “By the time I got to Nui Dat it was dark and I was taken to a hut where the Task Force commander was awaiting my arrival before delivering the Operation Order for Operation Overlord. Before dawn I was on top of Courtney Hill securing it and preparing for the forward headquarters to arrive. That was my introduction to Vietnam.”
“In the following days, I had been worried about the defence. The patrols had found evidence of mortars targeting us on the hill. We were trying to move our defences further out, but it was hard to advance quickly. We had open ground with high grass and then we had jungle.”
Several days later, seven of my soldiers were killed in an explosion set off by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) hitting the Claymores on their APC as they attempted to extend the patrol.
“That day I really witnessed aerial fire power. I remember the bloke in the smaller aircraft was guiding the jets in, and the two of them were coming in nose to tail. They bombed so close to us, dropping napalm and then dropping a bomb into the napalm. I lost my eyebrows.”
“At Nui Dat I had the people whose job it was to man the defences and the people who made sure everybody in the place had water and the ice was delivered. I had whole lot of interesting things to do. I was responsible for the Officers’ Mess, Sergeants’ Mess, ORs’ Mess, ORs’ canteen. And it wasn’t just the officers, we had the Civil Affairs Unit, the padres, the public relations people; if we had visiting reporters, we had them there.”
“I was also responsible for vetting the Vietnamese who came in every day to Nui Dat to run the shops. We had barbers, a photographer … I’ve got a beautiful photo taken by this photographer. It didn’t cost me a cent. He said, ‘no, no, you just make sure we’re safe.’”
“I got to Nui Dat in the first week of June, but it wasn’t until August that the withdrawal announcement was made. I had come back from a gentle walk in the bush, and there was a camera – I think it was Channel Nine – and they asked me, ‘what do you think about the withdrawal?’ and I couldn’t answer, I said, ‘I don't think anything about it.’”
“They also me asked a question about National Servicemen, and my answer was, ‘I don't ask somebody if they're a National Serviceman, they're a soldier. I know if they’re a National Serviceman from their regimental number, but I don’t treat them any differently.”
Ian was working on the transport component of the withdrawal of Australian Forces from Vietnam. “I had started the withdrawal process unofficially, getting rid of anything that we weren’t going to bring back to Australia. Then in October, the headquarters withdrew from Nui Dat to set up in Vung Tau. They were determined they were going to protect our convoy; I’d never seen so many helicopters in the air in one spot at one time. That was fun.”
“When we pulled the headquarters out of Nui Dat, we left behind 4 RAR. They had to wait till the 3rd Battalion left Vung Tau to make space. When they finally came down, Delta Company of 4 RAR and a troop of tracks (armoured personnel carriers) stayed as our protection.”
“The night we pulled out, I went on R&R. If you went home to Australia for R&R you got seven days, if you went somewhere else you got 10. I went to Singapore, and I got my wife to come up too.”
“So, we had a few days and then I came back to my new job which was with a detachment of 30 Terminal Squadron who were concerned with getting cargo onto the planes and dealing with HMAS Sydney and the Jeparit which was the merchant ship that came backwards and forwards.”
“By this time, it was the end of October and I didn’t have enough people for the job – not a hope. I couldn’t get any more people from Australia because the wharfies had gone on strike and wouldn’t unload the Army gear coming back. The Terminal Squadron in Sydney had to do it, so they had no one to spare.”
“I looked around to see who I could find. I managed to get some air dispatchers; they’re used to lifting things and making them secure, so they were okay. I spent a week training all the NCOs in Delta Company in basic stevedoring and safety. The armoured personnel carrier drivers became my rough terrain forklift drivers.”
“I had arrived in Vietnam in June, and we had to be out by the end of March. But I managed to have us out by the end of February. HMAS Sydney was underway before midnight on 29 February with all my troops on board. A US Army sergeant was there with a limo to take me to the Grand Hotel in Vung Tau. I had to dump a Land Rover with no second gear around the back of the airfield on the way. Then technically, just after midnight on the morning of 1 March 1972, I ceased duty.”
One thing that helped Ian get through his time in Vietnam were his Vung Tau lunches. “A staff officer called Ray would ask me, ‘are you busy? How about we go to lunch?’ And he’d get a Land Rover and we’d drive down from Nui Dat to Vung Tau and go to Madame Helen’s. She was a very interesting woman whose French husband had been killed in an attack on the French Officers’ Mess.”
“We would have a lovely lunch as though we weren’t even in that world. We would chat, talk to Madame Helen, have a bottle of wine, and then pull the Land Rover hood down again and head back.”
Discover more stories of Vietnam War veterans at the Stories of the Dat Do Dogs photography exhibition open at the Anzac Memorial until 1 March 2024