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John Chandler JP

John Chandler JP

Leading Aircraftman, Royal Australian Air Force


Leading Aircraftman John Arthur Chandler

No. 35 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force
Service number: A222178
Rank on discharge: leading aircraftman
Honours/awards: JP

"Vietnam, to me, in the air force, was slightly different. You were always aware you were in a war zone, but we went downtown. We mixed with the locals, drank at the pub, went to the clubs, all of this with your friends.

Friendship means looking after one another. And that’s what we did.

When I got back, a lot of the little things I learned came back with me. Watching exactly where I was walking, always watching the people around me, eyes in the back of your head, that kind of thing. Outside of your friends you were serving with, you didn’t trust a lot of people over there."

John Chandler joined the RAAF as a Regular. He completed mechanics’, fitters’ and later electronic courses and was in Richmond with 38 Squadron on standby for deployment to Vietnam. He was quickly posted overseas, joining 35 Squadron in Vietnam in August 1967.

The Caribou squadron was based in Vung Tau. They flew cargo, passenger, and medevac flights throughout South Vietnam for the Australian, South Vietnamese and US forces. The squadron was nicknamed Wallaby Airlines.

As a leading aircraftman and airframe fitter with Wallaby Airlines, John went out on the milk runs. He said, “They always took a fitter tradesman, as extra to the ‘Crew Chief’, with them so if something went wrong with the plane, we had an opportunity to fix it. Some of the milk runs got a bit hairy, but the bases that we stopped at were reasonably safe.”

Despite the relative safety, John said that being in the Air Force in Vietnam he was always conscious of it being a war zone. He said, “When you first got there, you learnt what you should or shouldn't do. Never run over a paper bag on the road as you don’t know what's in it. If you have an accident with locals, don't stop.”

“You were always very careful. You always watched where you were walking. Always watched the people around you. You had eyes in the back of your head.”

In Vietnam, John said he learnt a lot about mateship and working with other people, and about being respectful to the officers. “I was learning things because it was just you out there. There wasn’t a sergeant or a corporal or somebody else that could help you.”

“This particular day, I was on duty crew when I got a message from the Saigon courier that there was a problem with the nose wheel. Now, you couldn’t fly at night, and they really didn’t want to get caught there. So, I got a spare part, and another plane flew me to the damaged plane, and then it returned home.”

“Well, it was the wrong part. I explained that to the pilot, but he just kept saying, ‘We’ve gotta go. Get me out of here.’ We were still leaking oil, and I couldn’t do anything about it. The only thing I could suggest was locking the nose wheel down and flying the plane home. He said, ‘Do it!’”

“So, I locked down the nose wheel, and I’d finished up and was picking up my tools to go, and the pilot was already taxiing out. I had to run behind the airplane to get on. He was so keen to get out of there he nearly left me behind.”

John described another memorable incident. “Caribous try to fly pretty high but nearing the airports they slow down and can drop pretty hard; and you have the jungle all around and the Viet Cong hiding in the jungle and taking shots at you. One day I got a message that a shot had gone through the engine of a Caribou. It had gone up through the cockpit, hit the steering wheel, and ricocheted onto the pilot’s shoulder and the side of his head.”

“The pilot was okay, and the co-pilot was able to fly home, and I was told to get the ambulance on standby then clean the plane up and get it ready to fly the next day. The amount of blood was just unreal, and I had to pull everything out of the cockpit and get it all cleaned up. That was a massive job, and one that sticks in my mind.”

John said there was plenty of time to enjoy yourself. “Work was twelve hours a day, six days a week, but when you got your work done there was Sunday and other free time. We had a good time and we lived it up. It was innocent sort of stuff, but we were young fellas.”

“We had so many entertainers come. Americans, Australians, whatever nationality … travelling over there for concerts. Nancy Sinatra and so forth. They were always good.”

Nearing the end of his tour, John recalls doing a very stupid thing. “I got caught out after curfew and picked up by the MPs. I was due to go home the next week and if you’ve got a charge against you, you don’t go home. They put me in the brig, woke me in the morning, and they asked me if I’d learnt my lesson. I was lucky, I got let off.”

John said he would have applied for another deployment if he was single, but during his time in Vietnam he’d been writing to a lady. “She came to the airport when I came home and that was the end of that little story. She is now my wife and we’ve been together ever since.”

“When I returned home, friends would ask me what I’d been doing, and when I told them I’d been in Vietnam, they’d say, ‘Why would you wanna go there?’ That sort of stuff lived with me, but it’s just about gone now. People want to hear about it now, which is good.”

John doesn’t think Australia learned anything from the Vietnam War. “We've been through another one, the same but slightly different. And we decided to shut down and just move everyone out and leave everything alone. We let it all happen again.”