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Stephen Emerson OAM JP

Stephen Emerson OAM JP

Corporal, Australian Army


(Temporary) Corporal Stephen Marsden Emerson

Detachment, 11 Movement Control Group, Australian Army
Service number: 2791956
Rank on discharge: corporal
Honours/awards: OAM JP

"Luscombe Airfield was up at Nui Dat and the RAAF that flew out of there were known as “Wallaby Airlines”: Caribous, helicopters, C-130s, all the lift aircraft.

One time, this C-130 Hercules lands and offloads all reinforcements, and he parks down on the apron with his tail pointed toward our huts. The pilot shuts down and goes to get something eat at the mess.

The tarmac was boiling hot and the C-130 sank down into that mess. The pilot came back, saw the bogged tires and fired up all four engines, ignoring us. He rev’d to full throttle and the prop wash became a storm of fly gravel, rocks and dust.

It peppered our hut full of holes the size of golf balls and leaving us with stinging wounds and seething anger towards cowboy Yankee pilots."

Stephen Emerson got called up for National Service in 1969. Stephen said, “I went through recruit training at Singleton, and I was put into Engineers for Corps training. I thought I'd be delousing bombs and things like that, but I was put in Movement Control which involved the movement of passengers, freight, and equipment, to and from, and within Vietnam.” 

Stephen was in Vietnam from October 1969 to October 1970. He said, “I spent nine months of my tour at the Task Force base at Nui Dat where the battalions were based. When I was there, it was the 5th Battalion replaced by the 7th Battalion. The airfield was Luscombe Airfield, and it was the coming and going point for C-130s (Hercules), Chinooks and Iroquois, and Caribous.”

“When I was put at Nui Dat. I got off in my greens and I was transported in the back of a Land Rover with a mate of mine, Pat, who I did training with back home. My sergeant was driving, and I was sitting in the back like a lamb to the slaughter thinking what’s gonna happen next in the ‘sharp end’ as they called it. And my mate says, ‘Hey Steve, do you want to go to the Hoa Long dance? All you gotta do is get dressed up in your polyesters and make sure you've got your tie on. You go down to the pearly gates at the southern exit of the Task Force, and you wait for the bus, and it'll take you down to Hoa Long and you'll have the time of your life there.’ I said, ‘Let me think about it, I'd rather get squared away first. I can maybe investigate later.’ And Pat says, ‘Then if you like to put a bet on, there's the Dat Do Dogs.’ And I twigged they were winding me up, I grew up in Coogee and I knew where the Dapto Dogs were. I said, ‘You’re bullshit artists.’ They went silent from the airfield back to the tents.”

“We lived in tents and quite honestly it was more comfortable than living in the billets or the barracks or the huts, or the Canberra Hotel in Saigon for the ordinary ranks. But you really couldn't make it your own, it was just a bed and a desk and somewhere to put your trunk underneath. And everything was covered in red dirt. You hadn’t been there five minutes and your Army greens would be red. Then there was the wet season and the dry season, and in the wet season you could set your watch by it. Every afternoon at three o'clock, you'd get a downpour in the wet and your washing is on the line.”

“That airfield was rocketed in the Tet Offensive, and we had that in mind because we were right near the wire. We were hyper-vigilant, watching where we were going, and being on the lookout, but I enjoyed my stay at Luscombe Airfield. It had air movements only, and it was quite a concentrated operation, there were only three of us running it. We had other unit bases at Saigon and Vung Tau, and they worked in air movements and shipping.”

“I was ground crew at Luscombe Airfield. The RAAF ‘Wallaby Airlines’ had six Caribou flights a day, in and out. If they had a supply flight, we'd have to get a forklift and unload the aircraft and also load them up and strap them down. We were the loadies’ friend on the ground. We weren't the pilots’ friend because they were hyper-stressed about being in a war zone in an operations area where they might get rocketed. They would come down through the loading area and say, ‘Get it off! Get it off! Get this unloaded!”

“The airfield was very busy from seven o'clock until sundown, every day of the week. On a Thursday, the reinforcements came into Nui Dat by C-130. The Hercs would come in and land, and they needed every square-inch of that airstrip to start and stop. The reinforcements would arrive and be ferried back to the battalions or wherever they had to go at Nui Dat. We would also see off the people returning to Australia. They'd be a happier mob than the guys coming in.”

“We would have one day off every fortnight where you could go down to Vung Tau and have a drink or get a girl or whatever. I chose to stay away from it because I wanted to save up for a block of land. I said to our Commanding Officer, ‘I'd prefer to stay in Nui Dat, if that's okay with you.’ 

“Whilst my area wasn't out looking for a fight, we did patrols of the perimeter and that was scary enough for me. I did go out on one sniffer patrol with three helicopters and two gunships, one full of electronic equipment. I was in the first gunship and the lead helicopter went down low and sniffed out areas of body heat and radioed up to the helicopters that had all their armoury. And then they'd go down and take turns, with the door gunners out there with twin M-60s and Miniguns. There were rocket pods on each side, and the pilot would pull the trigger and the helicopters would be rocking and rolling, and there’d be hot brass coming through the cockpit. I wasn't seconded to go out there, the guys just said I could go for a ride. I got more than I bargained for really.”

“On a few occasions I had to take a Land Rover down to Vung Tau to the garage for servicing. I had to drive on my own through enemy territory. It was in the daytime, but that’s not to say you wouldn’t get pot shot. I went as fast as I could.”

“I had an experience with one of the American pilots. He parked his Herc on the apron, shut down the plane and went off somewhere for lunch or whatever. When he got back the heat of the day had sunk the aircraft into the tarmac which was just a layer of tar over red dirt. He was well and truly bogged. He should have done a walk around so he could see what was holding him up. But no, he puts one engine on and the other engine on … and he’s ended up with four engines at maximum throttle and he gets out. But the prop wash blew our hut to hell. We had pieces of gravel the size of golf balls around our little hut, and we were pockmarked with gravel. It was like a contact. The pilot got himself on the main strip and took off with a curt apology through the tower, ‘Sorry about that, boys, we got bogged.’ The construction engineers built us another hut and they put perforated steel plate as an entry off the airstrip and in the taxiing area. But that experience traumatised me so much, I was having nightmares about Hercs coming at me and crashing.”

“One night in the middle of a fire mission, I had a tentful of guys playing cards and I didn't play cards and I didn’t want to watch, so I went for a little walk up the road whilst these guns were going off. I was used to them. In the end once you got accustomed to it, you could sleep through them. Anyway, I walked up the road and it was a clear night in May. Up on the rise of the hill, I could look out over the darkness and there was still a little bit of light on the horizon. The stars were just out and away from all the lights they became so vivid. I picked out the Southern Cross and I thought, in the middle of this war zone with all this action going on there’s the beauty of the Southern Cross. I got a bit homesick, but it was beautiful just looking at it. It was a great experience, and I often took time to do things like that to get away. There was a lot of natural beauty there.”

“While we were over there, we sent tapes and letters every day, and you'd always get letters back from your loved ones and friends. You’re in a hell and you conjure up an image of what life will be like after you get home. Everything will be fine. Everything will be wonderful. And it's all exaggerated because of the hell that you're in.”

“I remember the first beer I had on the plane going home and the cushion of the seat and how luxurious it felt. It took us about eight hours I think on the 707. When I got home, I started to hear things from the moratoriums, and they were talking about Vietnam veterans and generalising about them being baby killers.”

“It was a pointless war in hindsight, and I've become a raging pacifist over it. And many of the guys that came home copped out once they realised the hostile environment they came home to. They went bush and lived in caves and caravan parks or whatever, so they could be alone. We weren't made to feel welcome, we were abused and spat on. And there were protestors with red paint down at Circular Quay when the Sydney came home with the battalions. That was traumatic for the guys coming home. We were treated that way all through the seventies and the early eighties.”

“In 1987, there was the Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam veterans. It was a big release. There were a lot of tears shed on that day. When the guys were marching along George Street, crowds came from nowhere, and it was like, ‘Sorry, we treated you like that, welcome home. That's the welcome you should have had when you first came back.’”

“I've been back to Vietnam twice since coming home. I always tell people the first time I went over there, it didn't cost me a razoo but then they were trying to kill me. The second time I went over, and they were trying to rip me off in the street.”