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Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Petty Officer, Royal Australian Navy


Provisional Petty Officer Air Mechanic Weapons Peter Thurston Jones

RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, Royal Australian Navy
Service number: R54863
Rank on discharge: petty officer

"I was working on an airfield with the Americans, flying missions as an armourer and door gunner. Just outside our part of the airfield, there was a huge field where they would stage all these resupply pallets to go up country. It was all wrapped up in cargo nets, with the ammunition and explosives on top.

One windy night, one of the perimeter guards thought he saw something and sent up a parachute flare. The flare drifted with the wind and landed right on top of one of these pallets.

It was the best fireworks show you’ve ever seen. But you had to watch it from behind the sandbags."

Peter Jones had been in the Navy for 12 years when in 1967 he was posted to Vietnam as a Petty Officer Air Mechanic Weapons (POAMW). “In the Navy, they put you on a waiting list till they need your rank on a certain ship. I was on the top of the list to go somewhere, and I was hanging out because I knew the Melbourne was going to Hawaii to pick up our new aircraft, the Skyhawks and Trackers. When I wasn’t listed for the Melbourne, I was so disappointed. But within a fortnight I was one of 53 men, of all ranks, posted to Vietnam to work with the US Army flying helicopters. I thought, wow, this will be good.”

Peter deployed to Vietnam in October 1967 with RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam; a unit attached to the United States Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company. The integrated unit was nicknamed, EMU.

“I didn't realise what our job was going to be, till we landed in country. We’d never seen the American weapons before, and I’m an armourer and my first job was to maintain all these weapons. It was a matter of look and learn and remember.”

“The mini guns were very dangerous. When you stopped, the barrels could rotate and fire shots. We made little metal forks to stop it happening, but the odd round would still go off. The M-60s were basically machine guns, once you got the hang of them, they were a piece of cake to look after, and they didn’t break down. The only thing that happened with the M-60s, was if you were using really heavy fire, your barrel could heat up and bend. We had gloves to replace the barrels.”

“Some of the American crew were flying 10 and 12 days’ straight. To give them a break, I initiated some Australian sailors as door gunners, but I realised they ended up doing the same thing, flying 10 and 12 days without a break. So as a last resort, I put myself as a door gunner as well.”

“We had a flight of four aircraft every morning. That would mean getting the crews out of bed and over to breakfast, getting the C-rations for the day, doing a pre-flight, and being ready to take off at five o'clock. Depending on the day's work, they could be gone 10-12 hours.”

“You’d have to study a bloke to work out if he could do another day, or whether you needed to replace him. That was initially done by an American platoon sergeant, but he got shipped out and there was nobody to do it but me. So, I had to learn how to read people, and look after people, and discipline people and stuff like that. It was quite a heavy task. I wasn't a psychologist by any means, but I had to look at people and decide whether they could do another day’s flying.”

“The Australians seemed to take it in their stride, if they had to work 12 days, they’d work their 12 days. The Americans were a little bit different. They'd say, hang on a sec, I've just done three days straight, I need a break.”

“The Americans had a different discipline to us. We called all our officers, sir, we called our sergeants and petty officers or whatever by their rank. The Americans would call their officers by their Christian names. And to my way of upbringing in the Navy, you didn't do that. The American discipline left a lot to be desired as far as I was concerned. But then I’d been in the Navy for 12 years. So, I was sort of inground Navy where the Americans weren't, they were nearly all 12-month Army draftees.”

“Overall, the experience I had over there was very good. I enjoyed the experience, but there were a few frightening times. One night an aircraft came in late, and I had to find a crew. So, I went to this American bloke, ‘you’re flying tomorrow morning, the six o'clock flight,’ and he said, ‘not me. I ain't flying.’ And I said, ‘we'll see about that in the morning. I'm gonna wake you at five o'clock to be ready for the six o'clock pre-flight.’ And he said, ‘goddamn you, I ain't flying.’ So, the next morning I woke him at five, and he said, ‘go away. I told you I'm not flying.’ And I said, ‘I'll give you five minutes to think about it and I'll be back to I'll wake you properly.’ And he said, ‘if you come back, I'll shoot you.’”

“I checked on the other couple of fellas and came back and he was laying on his right side with his right hand under his pillow. And I said, ‘come on, out you get,’ and he said, ‘I told you I would kill you.’ And I heard click. I said, ‘uh, okay, I'll get somebody else’ – discretion being the better part of valour.”

“I said to our platoon commander, ‘I didn't see any gun, but I used to carry a .38, and I know what they sound like when they’re cocked.’ And I said, ‘the ball is in your court, I'll leave it up to you.’ He said, ‘this man's a hero, he has a chest full of medals. we can't charge him and send him to jail. Leave it with me.’ The next morning, he wasn’t there at muster, he got shipped out on the five o’clock plane. Our platoon commander made him disappear into the night, which solved all our problems.”

“When the aircraft landed at night, as platoon sergeant I'd have to find out which aircraft were serviceable, which had to go to maintenance for repairs or service, and how many aircraft were needed the next day. If I didn't have enough, I had to run around and find another aircraft, and I had to supply the door gunner and the crew chief, the pilots had to organise their own pilots. Finally, I had to find out which aircraft were flying, who was flying them, what time they were taking off, and then tell my crew chief and door gunner, so there was no confusion. If they took off at five, they might be needed at Nui Dat at quarter past five to escort ships lifting the troops out somewhere, being late was definitely not good.”

“Gunships were always air support, and the slicks inserted or removed troops from areas which were either hot or cold. Sometimes you could fly in, land four choppers together, start dismounting troops and not a shot’s fired, and they'd take off and another four choppers could come in and all hell breaks loose. That was the way the Viet Cong used to work; they were a lot smarter than we gave them credit for. If there was even one round fired at the troop ships on the ground, we had to suppress. Even if you couldn’t see them, you had to fire in that direction to make them keep their heads down.”

“One thing, I found terrifying was being shot at at nighttime with tracer coming at you. You could see one tracer, and there's probably four rounds in between that you couldn't see. You think, Jesus, if one of these gets me, I'm dead. Thank goodness they missed me till they ran out of ammo or something. I don’t know what happened, I might have had my eyes shut.”

“Next to our area at Blackhorse Base Camp, about 30 miles north of Nui Dat, there was a main road and a big open grass area, probably 100 metres wide. When the Americans were going to resupply a base upcountry, the day before they would lay out all the ammunition and stores on cargo nets. One night one of our guards wanted to set off a flare because they reckoned they could see movement on the perimeter. There was a wind blowing quite strongly and the flare drifted with the wind and landed on top of one of these cargo nets full of ammunition. There was a real good firework show. A lot of that ammunition was big stuff, .50 caliber and 40-inch mortar rounds. That was exciting. Every cracker night takes me straight back to that night.”

“I would have been 26 when I was in Vietnam. Being a petty officer in the Navy carries a bit of biff, but I hadn’t been a petty officer very long when I got posted, so I really didn't have any experience whatsoever. I definitely got some.”

“When it comes to Vietnam, I know two different types of people. The people that just say, ‘oh, you went to Vietnam, so what?’ Then there’re the others that look at you and say, ‘you did a good job over there, let's hope there's not another one.’ A lot of them remember that there were over 500 killed, which amazes me. They sort of look upon you in a different light once they realise that you fought in Vietnam.”