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War Story Ubon – 1967

  • Written by Marc Holt
  • July 7th, 2007
  • 6 min read



Where was I?

Oh yeah. I was reminiscing about my war days in Ubon in 1967.

My father told me tales of his Second World War experiences. No matter where they sent the troops, they always went by train or boat.

Not us.

By the time the Vietnam war rolled around we’d gone modern. We rushed to war. No hanging around. Jump on a plane, and away we go.

That was the theory, anyway. The reality was a lumbering, slow Hercules C-130 transport plane, affectionately called a Hercy bird. We trooped aboard at Richmond airbase west of Sydney with our duffel bags over our shoulders. We squeezed between a helicopter, a couple of jeeps, and assorted other machinery to our webbing seats along the wall….sorry, fuselage.

We strapped in, the rear ramp was raised, and those huge noisy engines started up. Can you imagine sitting in a long metal tube for about eight hours? You couldn’t talk to each other. The noise was deafening. Besides, we were too busy shivering to talk. The air-conditioning was super efficient. They lowered the ramp at Darwin and I swear they had to pile us up outside like cord wood to let us thaw out.

We stayed overnight there, and the next morning we repeated the torturous process flying up to Butterworth air base in Malaysia. My father had been stationed there a few years before and I went to high school on Penang Island there. Now, here I was back again. Nothing had changed. Butterworth was a typical air force base. Squat round accommodation huts. More substantial base administration buildings. And a long runway, of course. We saw a dozen or so Mirage Saber jets lined up next to us when our plane rolled to a stop. There were also a couple of other small planes; a twin pioneer, a few helicopters, another small plane I couldn’t identify. Standard stuff.

The next day, we trooped back onto the Herc and took off. This time, we had an escort; two Sabers dogged us up to the Thai border. As we crossed into Thailand they tucked themselves under our huge wings and we flew all the way to Ubon like that. As long as the Thais didn’t see them on radar they weren’t there.

We hid the presence of the Saber fighters because over the ten or so years the RAAF had a presence in Ubon, about 2,500 personnel served there. All of us were sworn to secrecy. The Australian public had no idea we were up there fighting the Communists for them. I wrote about the politics behind this secrecy policy in my story, “Australia’s Secret Ghost Warriors”.

So, as we swooped into Ubon airbase, we were all wondering what we were headed for. As it turned out, the reality was much better than the myth.

I worked in telecommunications. I’d had a variety of assignments before arriving in Ubon. I’d worked at an aerial farm keeping Australia’s most powerful and secret radio transmitters tuned. I’d also worked at a small relay station transmitting and receiving Morse code messages. Sending and receiving Morse code at about 32 words per minute really keeps you concentrated. If you don’t listen very carefully, the code at that speed sounds like a fast brrrrrrpp!

I also worked on encryption machines, descendents of the famous Enigma machines from WWII. We had to program them by setting small levers. Real primitive stuff by today’s standards, but cutting edge technology back then.

When I arrived in Ubon, I entered the communications center and looked around. It was a small tin hut surrounded by sand bags outside. Inside, we had a couple of radio transmitters, Morse keys, and not much else. My job was to monitor the communist broadcasts and record them. I found out later that these recordings were all passed on to the CIA located on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

The job I really enjoyed, though, was jamming the commies’ broadcasts. We’d play chase all over the frequencies. They would start broadcasting. We would jam. They would move to another frequency, and we had to hunt them down and jam again. They were doing the same thing to us too, so it became a deadly serious game. These days, they have sophisticated machines that automatically jump all over the frequencies. The sending and receiving machines are synced and encrypted. It’s almost impossible to jam one of these systems. But back then, we were still doing most of our work by hand.

Us telecoms boys worked 24 hours on and 48 hours off, leaving us plenty of time to pursue our liaisons, as the brass liked to call them, with the local girls.

Each payday I would treat myself to a full-on massage. This consisted of a soak in a bath with two girls soaping and scrubbing the red dust out of my pores. Then they would get either side of me and massage me from head to foot – or was it foot to head?

It doesn’t really matter.

During the performance, one of them would stand on my back and walk up and down while hanging onto a bar set into the ceiling for the purpose. Those toes and heels were great for pushing backbone discs back into place.

Then they would turn me over and massage me top to bottom again, with a pleasurable sojourn half way down. By the time I walked out of there I would be jelly. You just don’t get a massage like that these days, not even at the big massage palaces in Bangkok. Those girls back then really knew how to look after a man!

Paydays were always fun and we made the most of them. Sometimes, we would go over to the US air base for a decent meal. The Yanks always had much better food than us. And their messes were open 24 hours a day.

After a good meal I would play the poker machines, or sit in on a game of Blackjack. I don’t know why, but I always managed to walk out of a game richer than when I sat down. I wasn’t a particularly good gambler, but I was obviously better than most of the Yanks I played against.

When I got back to Australia some months later I walked into an outback pub somewhere in mid-western New South Wales in my Air Force Blues. At first, the card players scrambled to get the money and cards off the table. They thought I was a cop! But I reassured them that I was just an airman, and could I join the game? We sat down and began a six-hour game that ended very profitably – for me. By the time I walked out of there I had won more than $3,000; not a bad sum back then.

The boys were reluctant to let me go at first, but I explained that I was a vet just back from the war and I had to report to my base. They wouldn’t want me to go AWOL would they? Good, loyal Aussies that they were, the let me go with my loot. Ah, the joys of being a vet!

Stickman's thoughts:

Another very nice series, fascinating stuff. You wouldn't happen to make a living playing poker online, would you?