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Richard Jones

Richard Jones

Flight Lieutenant, Royal Australian Air Force


Flight Lieutenant Richard Keith Jones

RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam; No. 35 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force
Service number: O221179
Rank on discharge: flight lieutenant

"We lived in an old French building called Villa Anna in Vung Tau township, a few kilometres from the airfield. It was a two-storey building with marble floors and in quite good condition.

There were a large number of bats living in the ceiling that each evening would come down through an open manhole, fly along the hallway and out a window to feed up on the hill behind. They would come out in three waves which we called A Flight, B Flight and Training Flight. The first two were well organised, but the last one was somewhat straggly.

We cooked for ourselves after long hours on duty but employed local Vietnamese civilians to do the cleaning and washing. I made very good friends with a number of the local Vietnamese people. I felt really bad leaving at the end of my tour, because I was going back to a good life in Australia, but they had put up with the continuing war surrounding them.

In the end, we just left them."

Dick Jones was a flying officer at the RAAF Base Richmond. “I got transferred to 38 Squadron when it was formed to take delivery of the Caribous. I remember when they arrived from Canada, they had that new car smell. It was about the time our squadron found out we were going to Vietnam from the ABC News. People were raging, ‘I’m not going in this war.’ But they did eventually go with the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam.”

“They were nine-month tours then, and I went on the third tour in 1965. I was 24 years of age, and I was a flight lieutenant in charge of the maintenance of the Caribous at Vung Tau. Major servicing was done at Tan Son Nhut near Saigon.”

“When I went to Vietnam, we still weren't advertising the fact. I went with the new commanding officer by Qantas 707 to Singapore first class, and we overnighted in Raffles Hotel in these huge rooms with punkah louvres to keep you cool, and then we went by Pan Am into Saigon. I remember when I arrived at Saigon, the commanding officer went off to speak to the people in the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, MACV, and left me on the tarmac by myself with all these bomb-laden jets taking off in formations, and all sorts of aircraft taking off with their afterburners going. I thought, what on earth do I do if we get attacked? I had no idea. And then the Caribou came in and we went down to Vung Tau where I spent the next nine months in the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam.”

“The Vung Tau airfield was attacked around May 1966, when the Task Force at Nui Dat was being formed. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were well travelled, and were well ensconced in the Long Hai Hills, it was probably a practice attack of some sort. One mortar went through the roof at the end of our hangar, another landed on the PSP steel plating tarmac and made a mess of some of the aircraft. No one was hurt, it only caused us inconvenience.”

“In my time at Vung Tau we had four Caribous online every day. There was a fifth one having major servicing, and another one which had crashed at Hai Yen in May 1965. The airfield was being attacked at the time and a pallet of ammunition for resupply had landed on the wing. The damaged Caribou was sitting there at Vung Tau, and it was being what we call a ‘Christmas tree’; if you were short of part, you got it off this aircraft.”

“The previous commanding officer had formed a lifesaving club on the Back Beach, the ocean beach on the South China Sea. I'd been in Long Reef Surf Lifesaving Club in Sydney, so I took over when I got there. We would do our practice rescue and resuscitation using a reel and line on a belt. You’d swim out and you’d get pulled back in, and then you'd resuscitate and whatever. I have photographs of crowds of Vietnamese standing around watching us.”

“The first commanding officer didn't like the accommodation the Americans gave us on the base, so he rented an old French two-storey villa in town. It had bougainvillea, marble floors, and barbed wire fencing all around. We had the Vietnamese ‘White Mice’ police guarding us, and we had sandbag gun positions set up in case someone decided to attack us. But I believe at that time, the Viet Cong mingled freely in the town just gathering intelligence. Occasionally there'd be a hand grenade dropped on the street, and you’d hear it go, ‘boff’.  Fortunately, I was never near one of those.”

“We had bats living in the roof of the villa, and they’d come out every evening. The first lot would come out, fly along the hallway, out the window, and up the hills behind to feed; that was A Flight, and they were pretty good. The next lot would come out, they weren't quite as good and they were called B Flight, and C Flight would come out and they'd be crashing into the overhead fans and the windows. One night, I was in my room looking out over the bay having a cigarette and I thought this is probably not very smart because someone could take aim at the cigarette and shoot me. At that moment, this thing hit me in the chest; it was one of these bats, it must have been C Flight.”

“It was a strange mixture of normal life and dangerous life. The International Control Commission had a place in Vung Tau, and we were invited to a party. They had a Canadian, an Indian who was neutral, and a Pole who was representing the Communist Bloc. The young Pole came up to me and he said, ‘I've heard you shoot kangaroos in Australia.’ And I said, ‘yeah, they're a pest on the farms.’ He said, ‘that's awful’. He abused me for thinking it was alright to shoot kangaroos, but their own people were torturing our side.”

“The air crew worked very long days, usually eight- or nine-hour days, sometimes flying in very difficult weather conditions in the wet season, and in very dangerous situations, and getting attacked when they were on the ground and having to run for bunkers and so on.”

“It was an interesting experience when I was up at Tan Son Nhut Airport seeing how they were going servicing our Caribou. You’d see aircraft go through with no registration; you’d see CIA aircraft which were civilian registered. You had airliners, you had little Cessna bird dogs, and bomb-laden supersonic jets. Sometimes there would be up to 20 or more aircraft on the ground queued to take off, and 20 or more in the air waiting to land. The Vietnamese controllers who were under training would come on at a certain time of day, and at that time the air crews on the aircraft would arrange amongst themselves who was going to land and who was going take off and in what order.”

“Being brought up in Australia, Vietnam seemed like total anarchy. There seemed to be no effective government, the family unit seemed to be the biggest level of government that worked, and you had South Vietnamese fighting South Vietnamese; like you had Montagnards fighting the coastal groups. So, you were never safe. I always carried a pistol in my little Qantas bag when I went up to Saigon.”

“I had a weekend in Penang, and this was before the American R&R went there, so it was still pretty much a civilian holiday place, very nice. That was like heaven compared with Vietnam, and then coming back to Australia, was like a next-level heaven. I realised then how lucky I am to have been born here in Australia.”

“I became very good friends with the Vietnamese people because we had them working with us in Vietnam. I felt really bad leaving them because I was going back to a good life, and they had to put up with what they were putting up with then and what was coming, which was really awful.”

“I went back to Vietnam with a group of veterans in about 2015. We were at a temple carved into the limestone cliffs, and there are all sorts of tourists there, and this Vietnamese fellow came up next to me and started singing a song called Cheap Charlie. It was a satirical song made up by some Australian troops about how they would use various services of the Vietnamese and not pay; it was like a badge of honour, taking advantage. I asked him where he’d learnt the song, and he said he was working with the Australian forces in South Vietnam during the war. And here he was, he appeared to be a relatively free man, just wandering around.”

“The North Vietnamese guide who took us around on that trip, his father joined the South Vietnamese forces during the war acting as a spy for the North. His whole family thought he'd been killed because they didn’t hear from him, but when the war was over, he turned up in the middle of the paddy fields. This Vietnamese guide was a very nice bloke, and when we were travelling on the bus at night, he kept us all entertained singing in an operatic tone, he had a very good voice.”

“When I went to Vietnam, I went to help the Vietnamese people. If I'd known more about Vietnam and its history before I went, I wouldn't have been happy. I’ve read a lot about the history of Vietnam since, and in fact, at the end of the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh wanted the allies to allow Vietnam to be a self-governing state. The French said no, the Americans said no, and the British said no. I mean Ho Chi Minh went to university in Paris, but in those colonial days, that's the way it was.”