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William Stewart McAlister MBE

William Stewart McAlister MBE

Group Captain, Royal Australian Air Force


Flight Officer William Stewart McAlister

No. 35 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force
Service number: O17860
Rank on discharge: group captain
Honours/awards: MBE

"I used to fly support missions for the American special forces units all along the Cambodian border in a Caribou. The special forces commander of one of these camps along the border was killed, and I was flying the new guy in, and I asked, “What do you reckon your life expectancy is?” And he said, “Oh, it’s six weeks.”

I didn’t realise it was as short as that. Six weeks later, I didn’t fly him out, but somebody else did. It was almost like a death sentence getting sent there. Dak Seang. It was a very hot place."


When Stewart McAlister finished secondary school at Ingham in North Queensland, he hoped to become a dentist, but he wound up as a pilot in the Vietnam War. “I had hoped to get a Commonwealth Scholarship to do dentistry but my marks weren’t good enough so my father said I should go and get a job. In 1959 it was relatively easy. I got a job with the ANZ Bank in Ingham and 12 months later I moved to the ANZ Bank in Lae, New Guinea where I became interested in flying.”

“I was trying to learn to fly at the South Pacific Aero Club (Port Moresby) but that was going to take a long time, and I saw an ad to join the Royal Australian Air Force where they would teach you to fly and pay you at the same time. I put my name in.”

Stewart completed his pilot training and went to 34 Squadron as the first officer, co-pilot. “We were the VIP transport squadron. I flew DC-3s, then Convair 440 Metropolitans, and then Viscount 800s. At the end of that tour, I asked to go to the C-130 Hercules, but they said, ‘No mate, you gotta go to Vietnam.’ They gave me a choice to go on helicopters or Caribous. So, I asked the training flight commander at No. 9 Squadron if I could go for a ride in a helicopter.”

“We went out in an Iroquois to the training area. I was terrified. I was sitting in the back watching the rotor tip on a slope only two feet above the grass. I said, ‘I’ll go Caribou.’”

“I did a three-month conversion onto the Caribou and came off that as an aircraft captain. Then I did about a month of firefighting work down in Tasmania, transporting fuel for Iroquois. Then I went straight to Vietnam in February 1967.”

“I was in Vietnam for close to a year. I was flying throughout South Vietnam a lot of the time in support of the American Special Forces Camps. We flew all along the Cambodian border and as far up as Quang Tri where we had an Australian Army Training Team. Once a month we had an aeroplane go up there with a load of beer and some other excuse to take some letters up.”

“We had seven aircraft, two were used by the Australian forces, two were in maintenance, and we had three wandering around working for Special Forces, flying freight essentially out of Vung Tau throughout Vietnam along with the American’s Caribou Squadrons. Vung Tau was a major port facility with a lot of ships coming in and offloading everything. We also ran scheduled couriers north and south of Vung Tau and carried a lot of passengers on those.”

“When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was appalled at the lack of physical security for us. We didn't live on a base or a cantonment with a bunch of military guards. We lived in Villa Anna beside the main road which goes along the sea. People passed the villa when they were walking along the beach, and you could come in by boat, and you could come in by road from behind us. There was one ‘white mice’ (South Vietnamese policeman) on guard on the front gate. On top of that we had an entertainment area at the backyard of the house, with all the chairs set up where we watched movies. One or two hand grenades over the fence and you could blow the lot away.”

“When I asked what was going on with the security, they explained that Vung Tau was an R&R Centre, not just for the Americans and the Australians, but for the Viet Cong too. And there was unwritten agreement that we wouldn’t touch them, and they wouldn't touch us in Vung Tau. I could hardly believe it, but that was the way it was. And Villa Anna never had so much as a hand grenade thrown at it all the time we were there.”

“The first month I was in Vietnam, I was flying with another captain and acting as co-pilot some of the time and captain some of the time. One of the trips I did as a co-pilot was a scheduled service to Quan Dao An Thoi, an island at the bottom of Vietnam. It was a prisoner of war camp where we put all the VC and so forth. When we landed there, we found that a part of the exhaust system was gone, and the captain said we would stay there till it was fixed. We contacted Vung Tau, and they said they would fly down the spare parts and the people to do the job, but we would have to stay there the night. The captain said we would guard the aeroplane, which was news to me.”

“We broke it into two shifts, between the officers and loadmasters, and we elected to do the first shift and to change over at one o'clock in the morning. As it got dark the captain and I were left at the aeroplane, and I decided I wasn’t staying in the aeroplane or anywhere near it. So, I went over near the edge of the PSP (perforated steel planking) runway to where it was sand, and I dug myself a foxhole about a metre deep. I could stand up and just see what was going on.”

“I said as far as I was concerned, all we would do was watch the aeroplane, and if somebody came up to booby trap it, we wouldn’t go near him, we wouldn’t shoot him, we wouldn’t do anything. But the next morning we wouldn’t go near the aeroplane because we’d know it was booby trapped.”

“There was longish grass around and you could hear things going through the grass, that turned out to be dogs and little old ladies out looking for something. It was a bit nerve-wracking and by one o’clock we were ready to leave. The others came out and we swapped over, and we told them about the dogs and the ladies walking around. Anyhow, the loadmasters took over and within an hour they had started firing weapons at the dogs or whatever it was. When they started firing, the Americans opened up with machine gun fire. They weren’t shooting at the aeroplane because they knew we were there; they were just firing randomly around the place. Nobody got any sleep that night. That was my introduction to the war side of things.”

“During Tet ‘68, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) took over the main airport at Ban Me Thout, so the only airport open was this little dirt strip in the middle of the city. We did speed offloads into the airport with ammunition and so forth. We were going in there, landing, reversing into where they wanted the ammunition while the loadmasters were freeing up the load. When they said you were right to go, you would back the aeroplane back at 10 kmph and then put it on full power, and the loadmaster would push all the pallets out and they would hit the ground. We would do the checks while we were getting airborne. We’d only be on the ground for about two or three minutes maximum. We only did speed offloading when we wanted to get out of somewhere in a hurry. They didn’t like us speed offloading the rockets.”

“Vietnam was beautiful, it was like New Guinea, lush and rich with rice paddy fields and that sort of thing. But of course, the war mucked up the towns and the roads and there was barbed wire everywhere.”

“I had some difficulty with why we were actually there. Nobody had attacked us. I understood the American alliance and how we were tied in with it, but I had some reservations about it, and I just wanted to survive and get back home. And I thought if the system was not going to protect me, I would protect myself as much as I could. I bought a case of beer, and I exchanged it for an M2 Carbine. We all did. We even built racks in the aeroplane to hold four M2 Carbines. They were a great weapon for what we wanted because we weren’t going to attack anyone, but if the situation was kill or be killed – you kill.”

“When we were working for the Special Forces, we reported to American Airlift Coordination Center, ALCC, and they tasked us, and it was very satisfying work. But Dak Seang, Dak Pek, all along the Cambodian border was very high fire, and they used a lot of ammunition. The major at Dak Seang got killed and I was flying in the new guy, and asked him, ‘What do you reckon your life expectancy is? And he said, ‘Six weeks.’ And six weeks later I didn’t carry him out, but somebody else did. It was almost like a death sentence getting sent there.”

“I took a guy to Dak Seang who said the next time I was there I should stop in and have lunch. He said we’ll rattle them up a bit while you're here. So, I had an afternoon there, and they spent two hours on the ring around the camp firing directional mines and the biggest gun down into the free fire zone. They expended more ammunition than we took into them. The guy said it was suppression fire power, to let them know we’re here.”

“When we returned from Vietnam, the Returned Services League at the time wouldn't let us join. We were un-invited specifically because it wasn't a ‘real war’. It was 10 or 20 years before they actually put on a bit of a march in Sydney and said welcome home. I was in the UK for a three-year posting when they had the Welcome Home Parade. I did 33 years in the Air Force and then I worked for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority for 13 years.”

“I've never been back to Vietnam because I said I would never go back, but I know guys that have been back, and they say the country is pretty as ever and they're very welcoming.”