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Robert Billiards

Robert Billiards

Gunner, Australian Army


Gunner Robert Allen Billiards

Detachment, 131 Divisional Locating Battery, Australian Army
Service number: 2785702
Rank on discharge: gunner

"The third week of my posting was the first time I was shot at.

I said to the bombardier in charge of us “I have butterflies in my tummy.” He said, “You will get used to it.” Not sure I did.

I was attached to an American unit, and at my first breakfast mess, I saw all the tables had red-and-white checked tablecloths and chocolate and strawberry milk. Once I got to the head of the queue, I was asked, “How would you like your eggs?”

And I said, “Pardon?” He said, “You know, scrambled, sunny side up, or over easy?” I said, “Oh, I don’t like sunny side up, so over easy.” We were spoilt as the bloke who ran the mess was a US Italian draftee who owned a restaurant in New York."

Bob Billiards’ birthdate was drawn for the seventh National Service intake. Bob said, “I was actually in the Navy Fleet Air Arm and would have been going to the United States to learn to fly Grumman Trackers, but I was knocked back as a pilot because I was slightly shortsighted. I decided I better do something, and I started doing accountancy. So, I could have deferred National Service, but I thought I’d get it over and done with. We have a tradition in the family of people going to war, so I sort of felt it was my duty.”

“I did my recruit training at Puckapunyal. We had it easy in 4 Platoon A Company. Our platoon sergeant told us, ‘We are all adults so every morning, you don’t have to get dressed in your sandshoes and PT gear, you can come out on morning parade in your pyjamas and then get dressed. So, the rest of the company would be in their shorts and 4 Platoon would be standing there in our jarmies.”

“I was a shooter before I got into the Army. I’d only fired 22s, rabbiting guns, but I was a good shot. On the rifle range during recruit training, the officer came over and said, ‘That’s good!’ And, I thought, oops, I don’t want to be infantry, so I pulled the next five rounds.”

“I wanted to go to artillery. I had an uncle in artillery in the Reserve Forces, and I’d been to a live fire and been up against the guns and thought that was pretty cool. So, I went to artillery and two weeks into the Corps training I was posted to 131 Battery.”

“They wanted us to do an artillery signallers’ course. I did the six-week basic course and started the six-week advanced. Just before we finished, the sergeant called four of us out and asked us to report to the commander of the School of Artillery. They needed a couple of people to go to Vietnam, and did we want to volunteer. Two of the blokes said no, and I said, ‘I'm easy. If I'm required to go, I'll go.’ My mate said the same thing.”

Bob arrived in Vietnam in September 1967. He said, “I was in 131 Divisional Locating Battery which was artillery, but it was surveillance and target acquisition. We were perimeter defence for the Task Force base at Nui Dat or the fire support bases. The battery had 70 per cent National Servicemen, more than any of the other units and detachments in Vietnam. We were all fairly well educated.”

“My first posting was seven months with the United States Army 1st Battalion 83rd Artillery (1/83rd). We were about a kilometre south of Nui Dat on the western side of Route 2 to Hoa Long. We were in luxury compared to the Australians. The guy who ran our mess owned a restaurant in New York. He was Italian so the tables had red and white check tablecloths, serviettes, and salt and pepper.”

“We had four listening posts, three at Nui Dat and one at the Horseshoe near Dat Do. We had four people per post, though we were supposed to have five and occasionally did. We worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We had six shifts a day and we had it all worked out, we knew who had to be on duty when. The boring thing was nothing much happened until Tet.”

“Our job was to listen and look for any incoming rounds. We had listening posts and we had mortar locating radars, which rarely ever worked. If we saw lights or heard mortars firing, we would take a bearing and triangulate onto a target. Any time we engaged the enemy, it was mainly through the listening posts.”

“The Viet Cong had 82mm mortars with a six-kilometre range. If they were firing on the fire support base, they'd normally be firing at maximum range, so you knew they were about six kilometres from where the rounds were coming in. We would give an approximate location, and they would call in a fire mission and blanket fire with 155 mm howitzers. Basically, it would scare them off.”

“In November 67 we did a three-week operation, Operation Santa Fe, it was my first actual operation, and there was nothing around. Then we moved to another location further north, for another three weeks, and we met up with the 1st Calvary who came with tanks and APCs (armoured personnel carriers). One of the APCs had been hit with an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and a second lieutenant was killed; but they were travelling at night in tanks with great big searchlights basically saying, ‘Here I am, come shoot me!’”

“While we were on operation our listening post was fired at by a couple of AK-47s and mortared, but when we got back to Nui Dat, everything was quiet. The infantry was out patrolling all the time and there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing until Tet.”

On 31 January 1968 the North Vietnamese forces staged a series of simultaneous attacks on military installations and South Vietnamese cities, towns, and villages in an action known as the Tet Offensive.

Bob said, “I was on duty at the listening post for the 1/83rd during the Tet Offensive. I was on the morning shift from 2am till 6am and I heard something that sounded like a rocket launch. Whatever it was, it flew overhead, and I heard it go, ‘brrrp’, and then ‘pheew’ but there wasn’t a bang. Anyway, there were three of these and I called the duty officer at Artillery Tactical HQ and I said, ‘There’s something strange, I heard them firing overhead but there’s been no explosions.’ And as I’m talking to him, there are mortar rounds going off being ‘walked in’.”

“We have two radio sets, one for communicating and one for listening. And I heard them call in the fire mission and the guns fired, and the mortars were coming in closer. The American gun post was below the listening post, so I went down there.”

“So I was there for Tet, and I was at Fire Support Base Coral-Balmoral during the battle in May 1968. When they hit Coral-Balmoral, I was at Fire Support Base Coogee, about 1500 metres from FSB Coral and we just sat there. That’s all we could do as a listening post, sit there, and listen and do nothing.”

“When I returned from Coral in June 1968, the 1/83rd had moved up to the DMZ (demilitarised zone). We stayed on at the compound with the American meteorology team and a company of infantry. Sometimes the infantry would move out and there’d be just two dozen people left in this great big compound. I cocked my rifle at night when I walked outside because there was not a soul around. It was very tense, especially at night. During the day it was easy, I'd sit and write letters.”

“They decided it was too difficult to man and defend the compound permanently, so they were going to hand it over to the ARVN and we deployed back to other listening posts. I went to a survey group for three months, doing their radio communications. I did lots of helicopter flights, which was really nice.”

Bob returned to Australia in September 1968. “We arrived after 11 o'clock at night and they said, ‘Here's your leave pass, see you in four weeks.’ We weren’t debriefed or anything. It was really hard because that morning we handed our rifles in and we were in a war zone, and that night we were home, and nobody says anything.”

“About two or three days later, I thought, what am I doing here? I don't want to be here. I want to be back with my mates in Vietnam, it was just so surreal. When I was there, all I wanted to do was get home, when I got home, all I wanted to do was go back. It was really strange.”

“I went back to work in the same place I’d been before I went into the Army. It was as if I'd been away for a weekend, and I'd just come back to work on Monday. We never mentioned Vietnam, we never spoke about it, not even to family.”

“After about three months in Vietnam I had thought, no way should we be here, we're just not doing the people any justice at all. I thought they could be better off under a Communist regime, which has proved to be correct. It's a beautiful, peaceful country now.”