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Ronald Slater DFC

Ronald Slater DFC

Flight Lieutenant, Royal Australian Air Force



Flight Lieutenant Ronald Alexander Slater

No. 79 Squadron; Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (RAAF Element), Royal Australian Air Force
Service number: O61240
Rank on discharge: flight lieutenant
Honours/awards: DFC

"I remember flying into Tan Son Nhut airport and getting a flight out to join the Big Red One [US 1st Infantry Division]. We were flying over the jungle, and I remember seeing all these bomb craters; it was like we were flying over the moon. This lush, green canopy of jungle with these huge, round divots in it … everywhere.

And I remember thinking, “If we can’t win with this kind of firepower, we cannot win this war.”

That was my first day in country."

Ron Slater was a squadron pilot flying Mirages with 76 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown when he was sent to Canberra to interview for the role of the Governor General’s aide-de-camp. A week or two later he got a call to say he was unsuccessful, but where would he like to go. Ron said, “A lot of my friends had gone up to Vietnam to serve in the Air Force, so I said I’d like to join them and become a forward air controller up there, which was what I was trained to do.”

“I went up to Saigon for an interview and I did two weeks’ training at the 504th Theatre Indoctrination School at Phan Rang where they trained the forward air controllers who hadn't flown the OV-10 Bronco. Then I was posted to 504th Tactical Air Support Group, United States Air Force, 7th Air Force in Vietnam. My first mission was a training mission on 1 September 1969.”

“The primary role of forward air controllers in Vietnam was to coordinate support for the Army people on the ground. I could call up any ordnance from the United States Air Force and use it tactically to support the troops on the ground. We had three different radios in the cockpit, and I was monitoring and talking on those radio services. So, I was the intermediary guy, and I was also directing where the fire power was going to go on the ground.”

“I didn’t support the Australian Forces, I lived and worked with the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division, ‘The Big Red One’. Wherever ‘The Big Red One’ went, we went. We had three aeroplanes and six pilots to do any of the support work they wanted. So, I had nothing to do with the Australian troops at all really.”

“We were based at a place called Di An which was just west of Bien Hoa, Saigon and we operated in III Corps Tactical Zone north of the Mekong Delta. Towards the end of my posting, we did a bit of time around Cu Chi where all the underground tunnels were.”

“We lived in a very small barrack attached to the Army unit. We shared meals with the Army people, and toilets of course. But we had our own bunks and our own little bar. So, we were part of them, but we had our own little enclave on the bases. There were two Australians, myself and another guy, and the other six or so pilots were USAF. We had some good times, and we formed some very good friendships.”

“You build incredible camaraderie; your friendships are so tight and important. Your life could depend on your mates. It's very important that you have these friendships and they’re there for life.”

“I did 460 hours flying in Vietnam, about 70 or 80 combat missions. Basically, you’re on call seven days a week. Some days it was fairly quiet, and there’d be only a couple of missions for the whole outfit, but other days would be intense, and you could fly a couple of missions. We organised between ourselves to give each other a day off, and about every four months you had a break. I went across to Penang and up to Hong Kong for a few days R&R.”

“From an Air Force point of view, you weren’t scouting around looking for the enemy. Most of them were underground and well camouflaged, and hard to detect even at low altitude. But when the US Forces on the ground came in contact, they would radio us and us and give a position on the ground that we would correlate with the map. Then we’d head to that position to see if we could see anything. In some cases, you wouldn't be able to see anything, but they would give you a position to drop some ordnance that would help the ground forces.”

“We were flying the OV-10 Bronco, a lovely aeroplane to fly. It was a 2-seater, and the backseat was mainly for an observer, but we didn't offer too many observer trips because the guys used to get very sick. Unless you’re used to flying around and doing funny things in aeroplanes, you tend to get a bit nauseated.”

“On my first flight across country, I looked down and all I could see were bomb craters. It reminded me very much of the moon. The whole place was decimated. A lot of it burnt out and destroyed by chemicals or whatever. It was a miserable sight. And I thought, if you can't win a war with all these bomb craters, you'll never win a war.”

“At any rate you soldier on, you keep going, but it's hard to stay on top of things when you don't know when the next bit of action will be. The action used to come very suddenly. The enemy would just pop out of nowhere.”

“We would wait for a message to come through the Army to their headquarters. The message would be relayed to the USAF operator, who would tell us. Then we would get the radio communications going, to talk to the Army commander on the ground. Once we talked to the guys on the ground, we would call up what we wanted. We could order up delay fusing bombs, daisy cutters, napalm … And we would put down a marker to identify the target for the Air Force coming in. We always marked with phosphorus rockets, Willie Petes. We were the intermediaries, that's why they call us forward air controllers.”

“I've got some funny memories from Vietnam. Once a month we’d got out as the air liaison officer for the guys on the ground at a fire support base. We would go out there and ask, ‘How are you going? How's the war going? If you need any assistance, here's my card’, and we'd stay overnight. And I remember one day hearing the sound of an ice cream truck, and the guys all stopped what they were doing on the base to go and have an ice cream from this truck. It was all painted up and playing a friendly little jingle. I thought, am I still in Vietnam? It was quite funny, and it cheered me up. Having an ice cream truck for the troops, that’s very good for morale.”

“Another time, it was Independence Day, the 4th of July, and they were having a big party at the fire support base I was assigned to. They said, ‘Come on, we’re celebrating tonight. Here grab one of these.’ The guy gave me a captured AK-47, and said, ‘What you gotta do, when the time comes, just shoot her up in the air, son.’ So, I had a go at shooting this thing up in the air, and I could see green tracers going up into the sky over me. We'd all had a few beers. It was hillbilly, unbelievable. I’ll never forget that one night. The next day, of course, the commanding officer wasn't pleased with his troops. He said, ‘Don't do that again, guys.’”

“Once a month at the fire support base, they would train all their guns, 360 degrees around the base, and be given an order to fire at will. And they would fire all their ordnance into the jungle all around. The noise was staggering. It was just straight into the jungle; it wasn't aimed at any particular enemy. Once a month, on one day, at this particular hour, they would fire. I think it was to relieve the tension in the fire support base, and they probably had too much ordnance built up.”

“We were told not to come back from a mission without using up all our ordnance. It was easier for the ordnance people to reload the aeroplanes completely. They didn't want an aeroplane coming back with live rockets. The rockets are semi-armed already and all it needs is a bump or something and they could go off.”

“If I had any ordnance left over after an operation, I'd do my practice gunnery and practice rocketry on a target. I found a boat underneath a tree in a river, and I used to try and sink this thing. I couldn't sink it, but I'd come back empty handed and say, ‘There you are all done, mission accomplished, nothing to report.”

“All the missions had to be reported back to Washington. Every day you had to tell the intelligence officer in the brigade, the number of missions flown, what you saw on the ground, what ordnance you used, whether you destroyed anything … Most of the time you'd say, ‘Suspected enemy base camp underground, base camp destroyed,’ or something like that. You'd have to have it documented that it was a worthwhile mission.”

“My last mission was on 11 April 1970 out of Cu Chi. I went from Cu Chi to Bien Hoa and from Bien Hoa to Tan Son Nhut Airport. Cu Chi was quite an active base, and we went straight from there to an international terminal and a big international flight. It was very rapid and hard to adjust.”

“We flew back direct to Sydney on a Qantas 707 aeroplane. The arrival was very low key, there was no one cheering or banners and things like that. You were just passengers from another place coming back, which was a bit disappointing.”

“Redeploying to Australia was a bit like recovering from a hangover. It was nice to get home, but you thought, what am I gonna do now? I'm not fighting a war, what am I gonna do with myself? I was disoriented. It was very hard to switch off the war, and it took a while. I switched off a fair bit, but some guys didn't.”

“I was lucky being in the Air Force, and I got back into flying on a high-speed offensive aeroplane, the Mirage jet fighter. So, I was back doing my thing again. But I thought I'm not going to stay in an Air Force dropping things at the occasional target in a designated range. I might see what's outside. And I started looking at the airlines for a long-term career. I didn't go into civilian life for about another 10 months. So, I had time to adjust out of the military into the civilian life.”

“You can't oppose politics, whoever the government is, that government makes a decision, and you've got to go along with it. If you sign up for the Defence Force, you are supposed to do what they tell you, that's whole idea. You could go to war, or you could spend your whole career in peacetime operations. And you’ve just got to accept that the alliances that you are with are strong and reliable. And if the worst comes the worst, you are there to help and you can get the job done.”