Peter was posted at age 25 as a replacement pilot to 161 Independent Recce Flight in Nui Dat Vietnam in late 1968
Interviewee: Peter Rogers (PR)
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Date of Interview: Wednesday 23 May 2001
Place of Interview: Coolum Beach, Sunshine Coast
Transcribed by Laura Manasserian: 23 January 2002
Corrected and edited by Gary McKay: 3 March 2002
Final edit by Gary McKay & Caroline Foxon after interviewee perusal: 23 August 2002
Peter Rogers was born in Fiji in 1941 to Australian [PR: British] parents. He was a direct entry officer who applied for pilot training with the Australian Army. He was sent to the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, NSW where he underwent a six-month officer cadet course and graduated as a second lieutenant into the corps of Australian Army Aviation. After successfully completing his basic flying training, he attended a helicopter conversion course at Amberley, Queensland before being posted at age 25 as a replacement pilot to 161 Independent Recce Flight in Nui Dat Vietnam in late 1968. He was married, with a pregnant wife when he deployed to the war zone. He served 18 years in the Regular Army after gaining a permanent commission. He is now retired and lives in Bli Bli.
Subject of Interview: Australians in South Vietnam, the Vietnam war 1965-72 (the years 1968 and 1969 in particular), training for war, training courses, deploying to Vietnam, tactics, combat and battle, the enemy, helicopter operations and techniques, casualties, morale, demonstrations, return to Australia. Allies, R & R and R & C leave.
Peter Rogers oral history - part one [29.4 MB]
Peter Rogers oral history - part two [20.7 MB]
GM This is a recording of an interview with Peter Rogers recorded at Coolum Beach on Wednesday 23 May 2001. Recorded by Gary McKay for Maroochy Libraries’ Veterans’ Voices project.
Firstly Peter, thanks very much for being here today. Just as a warm up question, could you tell us how you came to be in the Army?
PR Right, I was a pen pusher, a clerk in Papua New Guinea - Territory of Papua New Guinea - as it was before Independence. While I was there I joined the then-CMF and rose to the dizzy heights of Warrant Officer Second Class in the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. Got such a thing about the Army that I wanted to continue with it. I applied for and was accepted to the Training Team and actually did a Training Team course at the Infantry Centre at Ingleburn, as it was then, for six months, or four months rather. At the end of the time, they had a re-think and half of us were offered battalion jobs and I was offered a CSM of a battalion and I said ‘No, I want to go to The Team or nothing.’ So, I went back to Papua New Guinea; put in for Army aviation. Got accepted for that and never looked back.
GM What year did you do that? The course?
GM Okay. Now, you hadn’t had, you weren’t a pilot before then?
PR No, no I learned to fly after I joined the Army.
GM Just seemed like a good idea at the time…?
PR Yeah, but I’ve always been keen on flying.
GM Right. Okay, so you then applied for pilot training. They said yes; they sent you to the Officer Training Unit at Scheyville.
PR That’s right.
GM Near Windsor in New South Wales. What year was that?
PR That was the end of 1966.
GM End of 1966.
PR I graduated in December 1966, started at Point Cook RAAF in January 1967, graduated from there in August, went to Amberley, where the Army Aviation Regiment was, and did my helicopter training with the Army, and got my wings in December 1967, 1967, yeah.
GM Okay so, what sort of experience had you accumulated before you went to Vietnam in November 68?
PR Not much.
GM As a pilot.
PR Not much. After I got my wings, I did several tasks in the south east Queensland area, I did three exercises in Shoalwater Bay and I did a survey in the Northern Territory and one CMF exercise at Singleton. I was only averaging about ten to 15 hours a month until I went on a survey when I got about 60 hours. But in the seven weeks before I went to Vietnam I was, I didn’t fly at all. So I was pretty raw.
GM That’s, that’s not a lot of hours is it?
PR No, I had…
GM I mean ten hours a month…
PR I had 540 hours total of which over half was basic training. So I mean you could say in the First World War, the pilots went to the front with ten hours; but they didn’t last very long.
GM No they didn’t, they crashed and burned early. So you had no qualifications either?
PR I was Provisional Category C helicopter pilot which meant I could do unsupervised tasks under an authorisation from my operations officer or CO, but it was provisional; I was under sufferance.
GM So, who was giving you all the training, you know, to do the sort of job you’re going to do in Vietnam?
PR I did precious little training. I remember I did a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare course, which is…
GM That’s really handy.
PR Which is really handy. But I did almost no artillery observation, which was the bread and butter in Vietnam. I had nothing to do with forward air controllers. I knew nothing about close air support for troops on the ground. The time that I spent at Shoalwater Bay was excellent, because we were working with units, battalions that were working up to go to Vietnam, so that was very good training; but aside from that as I say, I wasn’t getting much hours, ten to 15 hours a month.
GM Were they recce tasks or were they mainly command and liaison tasks?
PR Mostly command and liaison, yeah.
GM Okay righto.
PR But at least we got to see how the battalions operated.
GM But really you had no qualifications before you even came in the Army?
GM Okay. Now what did you know about Vietnam, the War, before you went there?
PR Precious little. I’d read a couple of Bernard Falls’ books and I’d spoken to some air force pilots who had come back from there. And at OTU Scheyville of course it was all directed towards going to Vietnam, so they were fairly heavy on what Vietnam was all about or what the thinking was at that time, the political thinking was. And when I did my Battle Efficiency course at Canungra, before leaving - and The Team course - that was heavily oriented towards telling people what was going on. And I must admit the time I spent at the Infantry Centre with the Training Team was very helpful. They were very much into that too.
GM Your aviation instructor in Scheyville, did you have one? I mean did you have a bloke with a blue hat?
PR No, not while I was there.
GM Ok. That would’ve been handy.
PR I’m sorry… Tony Hammett, but at that stage he’d already transferred back to infantry.
GM Oh right.
PR So, he, yeah.
GM But you didn’t have any one in a powder-blue beret to sort of give you those…?
PR I can’t, I think Tony was still wearing his blue beret at that stage, but he seemed to be always off flying his Tiger Moth.
GM Yeah, he did that. Okay, now, you married in May ‘67.
PR Yep, while I was at Point Cook.
GM And here you are in 1968 going to go off to Vietnam having only been married a short period of time. What did you wife Susan think of that?
PR Not much I suppose, but she was very supportive anyway. The big problem was of course leaving her and she was, she found out she was pregnant about a month before I left.
GM I noticed because you came back in November 69. When was your daughter Wendy born.
GM Oh, God, so there you were off, that must’ve been, must’ve been hard to handle?
PR Yeah, it was. It was difficult because when I was in Vietnam and she was going to have the baby in the next couple of weeks, I didn’t know what was going on because if you recall our friends in the postal service were holding up the mail quite often and we’d be hanging, waiting for letters which often came a week late if we were lucky. And I was just looking through a couple of my letters from that time and I was pretty savage about the whole deal because I had no idea what was going on. Fortunately an ex-Army aviator, Henry Swales, who was at Saigon, in Saigon, based there at Free World Forces headquarters, he actually came down, as soon as he heard the news and he came down to Nui Dat and told me. So I appreciated that.
GM Yeah, tough time. How did you, by what means did you get to Vietnam?
PR The usual 707, left Sydney Airport and flew via Singapore, and the extraordinary military or political thinking at the time was that we had to wear uniform - polyester trousers and uniform black shoes - but we had to wear a civilian shirt to give the impression to the Singaporeans that we weren’t really combat troops and…
GM Didn’t work. All these guys with short hair.
PR The absolute stupidity, I wonder who thought that one up?
GM Yeah, it’s, now, so you went over as a planned reinforcement, replacement as opposed to a reinforcement?
GM Okay, because you were headed for 161 Independent Recce Flight.
GM And were you just going individually or was there you know, a bunch of guys from a flight or a section or…?
PR No, I was the only pilot going over at that time.
GM Okay. Anything memorable about that trip to the war zone?
PR No, no apart from the arrival.
GM Apart from the ruse that didn’t work in Singapore.
PR No, the arrival was interesting. I think everybody that went to Vietnam says the same thing - soon as the aircraft door opened, the heat and the smell hit you. It’s the smell of South East Asia; I’ve got used to it since. What several things at Tan Son Nhut airport amused me in retrospect. One was my naiveté; I saw all these guys carrying guns of every shape and description and I wondered if they were loaded because I still had a peacetime mentality. I was really sad to see the local Vietnamese digging through the rubbish bins right on the airfield and obviously they were starving and poor. And the other thing I do recall is getting on a bus which had grenade wire all over the windows and I thought, hmmm, we’re at the end of it now, wish I had some sort of weapon with me.
GM Welcome to the war zone.
PR Then when they put us on the noisiest aircraft that I’ve ever flown in, which is a C-123 Provider, and flew us down to Nui Dat. And the big thing I remember about that day was they had a B-53 [PR: B-52] strike just to the north of Nui Dat and having been 6 and a half years in Papua New Guinea, I thought it was an earthquake! Because I was in the bar having a welcome drink and the, everything started shaking and all the glasses and bottles started shaking and I thought it’s a ‘guria’ or earthquake, earth tremor, and I speedily was made aware of that. And then I felt really cold thinking that crikey, if that’s, that’s what it feels like from here, what’s it like being underneath it?
GM Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you arrive at Luscombe Field?
PR Yep, Luscombe Field.
GM And named after the first Army aviator killed…
PR Killed in action in Korea.
GM In Korea yeah. So you arrive at Luscombe, get picked up from the strip and taken up to the unit lines, I imagine.
GM What was it, what was it like walking into this unit that’s at war as a new boy on the block? Daunting?
PR No, I, it was pretty much what I expected. I knew we’d be living in tents, sandbagged tents. The guys were, made me feel very welcome which is, which is good, because I heard of the treatment some of the new guys, other guys got where one fellow was still in his polyesters was given a weapon and was told to stand to in a weapon pit.
GM Oh Jesus.
PR And he sat there by himself for a couple of hours, until he woke up to them - they were having a lend of him, as we didn’t stand to of a night time. But, yeah, no, they made me feel very welcome and straight away started a training program to bring me up to speed which I desperately needed.
GM And how long did that program take?
PR Really about a month.
GM I was gonna say, I thought it might’ve been 12 months.
PR No, no, no. We had actual formal lectures. The guys were briefing me on, on what to expect and briefings on how to use artillery, how to fly tactically, and then I went out with a number of people who, as just as a passenger, and saw how to, or how they conducted reconnaissance.
GM Now this whole time you were going to be a rotary wing pilot and the aircraft you flew was the…?
PR The Bell-47 Sioux.
GM The Bell-47 Sioux, which is a light observation helicopter.
PR Yeah, it was a piston engine helicopter, it was actually. The Bell-47 was the first production helicopter in the world and oddly enough it was first produced in 1947 and it had that technology; it was nearly 20 years, well, over 20 years old at that time and it was very slow, and so struggling to maintain a hundred, 110 kilometres an hour and every bit of weight that you added to it slowed it down even further. It would just, would not accelerate which got quite exciting at times if somebody started shooting at you. It wasn’t very manoeuvrable, so you had to adapt your flying to make sure that if somebody did shoot at you, they had a minimal chance of hitting you. And fortunately the enemy wasn’t very good at shooting at aircraft. They had no idea of lead and …
GM Thank God. Now, what was the greatest thing you had to adjust to between flying in Australia and flying in Vietnam?
PR The fact that there was a no-go zone, if you like, from tree top height - or as close to the ground as far as possible - to 1500 feet. At fifteen hundred feet it was considered highly unlikely that somebody would hit you with small arms or the threat that we were facing. And if you were low and moving above the trees, it’s very hard to see you and acquire you long enough to get an aimed shot, so our concept was you keep moving at low level. If you’re over open ground, you go as fast as you possibly can and you weave if you have to; otherwise you fly high.
GM Okay, now, what sort of jobs were you going to be doing? Were they all going to be just recce or were you going to be doing all different types?
PR No, no, you got a whole bunch of jobs and I’ll go through them if you like.
PR The reconnaissance basically was … we always flew, as a rule, two aircraft to a reconnaissance. It was a two-hour mission, two helicopters; one would fly low level, the other would fly high level and do all the radio calls and monitor the progress of the aircraft on the ground, note down with a map reference what you saw on the ground and generally take care of you. After an hour you would swap around. About two months after I got there, we started using the forward air controllers from Vung Tau, the ‘Jades’ to fly top cover for us, so we’d fly two hours reconnaissance, about three grid squares of close country in a two-hour reconnaissance, so it was very detailed.
GM So this was really getting down in the weeds isn’t it?
PR Yeah, yeah.
GM So, when they, the FACs were doing it, what sort of aircraft were they using?
PR Oh, they had Cessna 02s, which is a military version of the Cessna 336; it’s a twin-engine with the engines placed fore and aft, one pulls and one pushes.
GM Oh, this is the push-pull thing.
PR Push-pull system, yeah.
GM Right, single boom?
PR No, twin boom.
GM Twin boom at the back yeah. Okay. And that’s the…
PR But obviously if you didn’t have top cover you were right in the soup, because if you’re out in it by yourself and somebody shot you down, no one would know about it, you wouldn’t have a chance to get out a radio call, and get in pretty grim territory.
GM But you’re by yourself in the aircraft, you haven’t got an observer?
PR Initially, I wouldn’t take observers because they’d get sick. See the way we flew was round and round in a circle. We sat on the left hand side of the aircraft, the pilot did, that meant that if you did take a passenger he was on the outside of the turn and invariably got very sick very quickly because he’s, because of the motion in the fluid in his inner ear and the fact that he’s looking down all the time, like the pilot was. As time went on and some of our ground crew were very keen on flying, so we’d take them along; but it slowed us down and they also used to love to take an M-60 along with its ammunition and their weight slowed us down even further and there’s a couple of stories about that, but we’ll get into it later. Invariably, if you had mates who wanted to come along for a flight, or in several cases we took fighter pilots from Bien Hoa who used to work with us quite a bit and we would take them; but usually they didn’t come back for a second go. They thought we were stupid. That was the reconnaissance; that was probably about nearly 50 percent, 60 percent of what we did over there. The next, if we found anything, we would do, we would put artillery on it so we had to be extremely proficient in directing artillery and you had to be quick, accurate and safe with artillery. We also might go out to a previously discovered target and direct artillery on that, right, under direction from the Task Force usually. We also marked the target for air strikes and worked in conjunction with usually the ‘Jade’ forward air controllers and we would go out together with them to the target area. They would line up the fighters; we would fly into the target area while they were getting set up, we would assess exactly what was on the ground, and refresh our memories if we’d seen the target before. Then, when they were all ready, we’d put a smoke or a white phosphorous grenade usually onto the exact spot where we wanted to bomb and then we’d get out of there. And they’d drop a bomb, we’d go back, see what had been done and keep on doing it until they were out of bombs. The advantage of that was, normally in Vietnam forward air controllers used to fly at a safe height, 1500 feet; and they were trying to see what was on the ground from 1500 feet usually through canopy, and it just wasn’t on. When they fired, or when they marked a target, they marked it with white phosphorous rockets which might themselves miss the target, so you had a double error, whereas we put a, we knew exactly what was on the ground, because we were could see it from a few feet away, 50 feet or whatever. We’d put a marker exactly where the bomb was supposed to go and it was then up to the fighters to put it there. And also, we would get an accurate BDA, or bomb damage assessment, whereas the FAC at 1500 feet was making wild guesses as to what it hit on the ground, we could tell him exactly and we could even describe cooking utensils and clothing and stretchers and beds scattered round. It used to blow the fighters’ mind, the fighter pilots’ minds because they’d never had BDA’s like that. Also we did not make anything up, as a matter of pride. If we had a kill, two or three or whatever, we had to identify a body on the ground. It wasn’t enough, quite often we would see blood-stained clothing in the trees or on the ground and you would say, well, give you a possible on that, but unless we actually saw a body on the ground you could not claim the kill, whereas they had some creative BDAs from the rest of Vietnam as you’ve probably heard.
GM Yeah, so, did you pick up all those FO-type skills in country did you?
PR Yes. We it was almost a daily event directing artillery, so you get very good at it.
GM After a while it becomes second nature. So, so you did that, what other sort of tasks did you do besides that?
PR Okay. The other main one we did was in direct support. One aircraft was allocated each day to a battalion that was in the field on operations and that would be the CO’s, the CO’s personal taxi if he wanted to use it or if he was smart he’d allocate it out to the companies to do limited re-supply, reconnaissance for them, shuffling padres and chaplains around for Sunday, you know, anything that their imagination would give them. It was difficult to try and educate some of the battalions because they used aircraft as, just as a personal taxi for the CO, and half the time you’d sit on the ground, waiting for the CO’s pleasure. However there were so many things that we could do and once you had a good working liaison with a battalion, it was excellent.
I said we did limited reconnaissance for the battalions; for a couple of reasons, we tried to avoid it. One is, the companies didn’t like us flying over their positions if we weren’t directly supporting them because they thought it would give their positions away - which I didn’t agree with, but nevertheless. The other thing was, if you recall I said we always used to fly with a top cover and usually you didn’t have or would never have a second aircraft to look after you when you’re a DS for a battalion; and I got shot up pretty badly doing a reconnaissance out in front of a company moving up to a contact - and I thought I was doing the right thing. Fortunately I wasn’t too far away from the troops, but I was able to fly back anyway. On another occasion when there was a combined operation of Australia, United States and ARVN - the Republic of Vietnam’s troops - were putting in a cordon on a North Vietnamese Army divisional headquarters and it was a massive operation and there was a ginormous amount of fire fighting going on and I got a request to go and do a reconnaissance of the headquarters, the NVA headquarters, because the Australian troops on the ground were being pinned down and couldn’t get anywhere near close enough, and I said, ‘If your own troops can’t get close enough, why do you want me to go up there?’ So, I politely declined.
GM Now, from what you just said previously about doing a two-hour reconnaissance, it would seem that within a week you’d be racking up more hours than you would’ve back in Australia in a month?
PR Oh, I did, yeah, I averaged a hundred hours a month in Vietnam.
GM So, how many hours did you accrue on your tour of duty?
PR 1199 and 30 minutes (checks his log).
GM Sort of, close enough.
PR Well, I was offered a fly just down to Vung Tau to the PX about three days before I left just to get my 1200 hours and I said, ‘Not on your Nelly! I’m sitting here.’
GM So, was that a lot of hours, or was that average?
PR Yeah, that’s about twice the second highest number of hours I’ve had in a year, in commercial flying.
GM Oh right.
PR So, in heavy commercial flying, you get, you’d be lucky to get 600.
GM But the guys in 161 Recce Flight in rotary wing, that was, would’ve been a pretty normal sort of tour?
PR Yes, yep.
GM Okay, now.
PR We did other things if you like…
GM Yeah sure.
PR Okay, another one we did was people-sniffer missions. The helicopter was fitted with special sensing gear for the mission, which consisted of a chemical sensor which detected ammonia in a probe out the front. Again, we’d fly with a helicopter with top cover and an operator in the Sioux - the low level Sioux - and he would take readings as you flew across the countryside. We weren’t particularly keen on that sort of mission because we flew in straight lines; it’s very predictable where you’re going to fly and we tried to make the enemy guess as to where we were going to be. Also, we were low level and not very fast. But mainly because of the stupidity of the mission, and I’ll quote two examples if you like. One was, one of our pilots as he was flying over an area he saw three or four enemy on the ground with weapons. So he got the top cover aircraft to call up and request using artillery on them. And the duty officer at Task Force headquarters refused on the grounds that it would compromise the mission and none of us could understand what that was about, I mean I thought we were there to find them!
GM I mean, what Viet Cong would know what the probe was anyway, you know, sitting out on the front of it?
PR Yeah, yeah, well. The other occasion was I was flying along with the sniffer gear and there was an open paddock with just bare grass, nothing, no sign of digging, no nothing and I knew the area pretty well. Right in the middle of it was a dead tree. In the dead tree would’ve been probably 30 or 40 birds nests and we flew directly over it and as we went over it the operator said, ‘Mark 10’, which is the maximum and I immediately radioed and said, ‘No, cancel that; we’ve just flown over a tree full of birds nests.’ Too late! It went into the books. The next day they put a B-52 strike on the tree.
PR So you wondered about that sort of thing.
GM Now you…
PR We also did voice operations where we’d put a battery of loud speakers on the side of the aircraft connected to a tape recorder. We would either play ghostly music and fly around the blokes at night because the Vietnamese were very superstitious and they, they were supposedly scared of ghosts in the night. I don’t know how well it worked; I suspect not. The other one was if the, if a battalion was doing a cordon and search of a village, we would be tasked to fly around the village at first light when the battalion was in position and broadcast to the villagers to come out, assemble in a certain place and wait for further instructions. Well, just before I got there, an aircraft was tasked to do that in a village except that the Task Force duty officer had the wrong day and he sent the aircraft out the day before and all the villagers dutifully came out and stood for several hours waiting for nothing. Of course the battalion went in the next day and couldn’t find anything.
GM Funny about that.
PR It happens. Another thing we did was radio relay either for any units on the ground that were having problems. We’d either set up a radio relay system with two radios connected to each [PR: other] in the aircraft, or we would physically ourselves relay messages. One of the main ones we did was for the SAS. Because we were flying all over the area of operations, we quite often were contacted on an emergency frequency by SAS patrols, particularly if they were in trouble and they had not time to set up an HF radio to talk to their base. Usually, you know, gasping breathless voice calling for us on our emergency or guard frequency, begging for help. And it used to mildly amuse me that on the one hand you had people who, the SAS, who’d got rid of all their gear and were running for their lives and were desperate to be pulled out of the place, and on the other hand you had a fairly bored duty officer at SAS who was asking did they really want to come out, could they wait for another day? Yeah. We did night reconnaissance, using usually Cessnas flying as top cover and dropping flares. The flares only lasted from about two to three minutes so you had, had your work cut out for you trying to find anything in that time. But they’d drop successive flares probably about, anything up to 10 or 15. They were mostly used for reconnaissance along the beaches at night or down the various rivers and swamps looking for boat traffic. And we flew artillery missions for naval gunfire for ships off the coast. There we’d pick up a naval observer, usually an officer, and he would pick a target, fairly close to the coast obviously and a ship off-shore - whether it was a cruiser or destroyer or a rocket carrying ship - and do exactly the same as artillery except that, to me, the naval gunfire was notoriously inaccurate. First time we tried it, we waited for the ranging round and couldn’t see it. Anyway, I happened to turn around and there it was the other side of us, which upset me quite a bit, because it was about 4000 metres away and we were between it and the target! The, that was borne out by the fact that while I was there, two of the naval observers were shot down by their own artillery, naval gunfire, blown apart in mid-air. One of them was a guy I used to fly with and as a matter of fact I was tasked to fly him on that day and he changed it to a Cessna at the last minute. So, yeah, these things happen.
GM Now, we’re talking about, you were talking before about when troops are in contact.
PR Oh, sorry, I’ve got one more.
PR You’ve probably heard of the land clearing teams which with…
GM With the engineers?
PR The military thinking … they had anything up to twenty D-10 bulldozers, huge bulldozers, and they would get initially into formation and just charge through jungle and turn it into level, open fields. Because they were bringing trees and branches and foliage down and vines on top of themselves, they couldn’t see a thing, directing by radio the lead vehicle. And that was interesting work too. Yeah, sorry.
GM Did they use you to sort of scout out in front of where they were going?
PR Yep, we directed.
GM Yeah, it just amazed me that they were so totally insecure on the ground with all the noise they were making. I mean anyone could’ve just snuck up and had a go at them.
PR Oh yeah.
GM Now, you mentioned before when the troops were in contact and you were asked to go forward. What scared you the most, or made you apprehensive when you were out on operations, and why?
PR I didn’t really get scared unless somebody was actually shooting at me, and it’s a few moments of sheer terror until you can do something about it. I was very fortunate that we had enough support, artillery, air strikes and other aircraft that you felt confident that you could take on just about anything. It’s a totally different story when I went to the Americans of course. Because they were fighting a different war and their techniques were totally different. And after having, in about ten months, developed to what I thought was a high standard of reconnaissance and then to find that the Americans trick, favourite trick, was to fly slowly, invite the enemy to fire at them so that they could call in the heavy artillery. And even to the extent where they would hover over a target and blow the bushes aside with their rotor wash so that they could see underneath, whereas we would always keep moving so that we presented a minimal target. They lost a lot of helicopters that way and as a matter of fact I was in that position where, with a guy who I totally disagreed with, he wanted to do a reconnaissance by fire down the Rung Sat which you remember wasn’t a nice area and he wanted to shoot at anything, just to see if he could draw fire and there was an object in the mud which we couldn’t identify and even though we made several passes at it and we finished up hovering over it and then I recognised it was a 500-pound bomb, unexploded and it was lodged in the mud. And I was thankful that I, you know, stopped him from shooting at it. We shortly afterwards, after a while you could get a feeling, as infantry men would know, you know when an area is bad and this was a very bad area and I didn’t like it one bit and I was telling him so. But he insisted on going low and slow and eventually [PR: we] got brassed up pretty badly and I got my one and only injury of the war. I had, I used to have a wire strung across the back of the cockpit behind our heads, and on it we hung every type of grenade you could imagine, M26 grenades, little baseball grenades, HE - high explosive, we had white phosphorous, we had concussion grenades which were TNT…
PR And smoke, coloured smoke, right. Which we’d just rip off the wire, pull the pin and throw it out the door depending on what the target was below us and when we got stitched up, one of the rounds went straight past my cheek, I felt it, then it hit a grenade behind me and looking back on it, of course, I couldn’t have, couldn’t possibly have, but I thought that I heard the fuse and I knew that I had four (sic seven) seconds to live and fortunately, of course, it turned it to be a smoke grenade, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Either side of it was an HE and a fragmentation grenade.
GM When you said you got stitched up, the aircraft was, what sort of damage was done to the aircraft?
PR Severe damage to the fuselage; we took a round through one of the blades, a round through one of the blade grips holding on the rotor blade, several through the floor and two through the engine. And how the thing kept flying I don’t know, but it did. The thing that saved us was, we yelled out as soon as it happened, to the AH-1G Huey Cobra which was flying top cover; and I’d also managed to get off a magazine of a CAR-15 - like an M-16 rifle, only a shortened version - and that probably helped a little bit, not much; but the AH-1G just dipped its nose and fired all 54 rockets into the ground behind us, which sort of quietened the place down a bit. They later put in air strikes, well, shortly afterwards they put air strikes in while we went, struggled back to Nha Be which was the nearest base and then they put a company of ARVN in and found 16 bodies. So I guess we had a win.
GM Now that’s when you were working with the Yanks was it?
GM And were you still flying Siouxs?
PR No that was in a OH-6 Cayuse.
GM The Cayuse, right. Okay. Now that, was that a planned exchange was it or…
PR Yes, well not an exchange I was just on detachment for six weeks. It was great because I flew three different types of aircraft. I was checked out as captain eventually, on the Iroquois UH-1 and the OH-6 and I was front seat gunner qualified on the AH-1.
GM Is that right?
PR So I flew a different aircraft each day.
GM That’s good.
PR Lot of fun.
PR But it was a whole different shooting match. Whereas in Phuoc Tuy Province our main threat was small arms and the occasional rocket, B-40 rocket, shoulder-launched fired at you, they had everything up to heavy machine guns, with anti-aircraft, heavy machine guns.
GM Where were you flying with that, whereabouts was it?
PR Down the delta, based out of Tan An and Canh To south west of Saigon and as far north as the Cambodian border, Parrots Beak, where the canals were used by the North Vietnamese Army to bring troops and supplies in from the Ho Chi Minh trail. So everyday was a …
GM Something was going on.
PR Something was going on.
GM Okay. So when you look back on your time there, who’s the person that most stands out in your memory?
PR Yeah, I thought about that. Barry Donald, was one of the pilots, fixed wing pilot. He took me on my first mission in country and showed me how to do a reconnaissance or he tried to. I will never forget us flying around a base camp on the ground above 150 foot-high (50 metres) teak trees and telling me I had to look through the trees to see it. The Cessna he was flying - and he was in a, about a 60-degree bank turn and right on the edge of the stall, with the stall warning going continuously and the thing shaking like crazy and I’m pretty sure I had my eyes closed. He was probably the best fixed wing pilot I’ve ever flown with and he had a real, ‘go-get-em’ attitude. Got commensurate results. Unfortunately, he went home, after a few months, just about two months after I got there and came back before I left and I had a premonition and I said to him on my last night, in the country, you know, ‘Be careful, because I can see something,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, she’ll be right.’ And a month later he was killed. Shot down (3 December 1969) with my tent mate who was Al(an) Jellie.
GM Oh, Jellie, yeah. Do you think, what do you think was the worst time you experienced in Vietnam?
PR Well, quite simply, I was in a fire support base with a battalion and just reading a book waiting, because again I was the CO’s taxi and I’m sitting under a tree and the ops officer came running over and he said, ‘There’s a helicopter just crashed up the road,’ and I could see this great pile of black smoke coming up, so we got airborne and flew over there and it was a, I thought it was an ARVN base, a fixed base and on the helipad there was a Bell Sioux, same as we were, operated. And it was burning, and it was burning so badly you couldn’t identify the, you know, the colours or anything on it…
GM On the tail boom?
PR …and I didn’t even, I assumed, of course I didn’t know of any other Siouxs in the country, that it was one of ours and we flew round and round and couldn’t land because there were people on the pad trying to put the fire out and eventually the smoke cleared enough, just as they got the guys out. There were two of them in it and they put ‘em on stretchers. And I was trying to figure out who was on the roster for today and who might be landing you know, obviously a Task Force job to go up to that area and I was trying to remember who it could be. And they pulled these two bodies out and they were black, ‘crispy critters’. So, they were just shrivelled up like black frogs and stuck them on stretchers and then the wind shifted a bit and I could see that it wasn’t ours at all, it was a Thai one. I’d never seen or heard of another Sioux other than ours in country before or since, but it, you know, for five minutes or so, it was pretty sick, because I thought it was one of our guys.
GM Wondering who it was. Did you have a sort of a flying roster that came out a week in advance?
PR No, the day before.
GM So, so, literally you came back from a day’s flying, you came back to Nui Dat. You would naturally be debriefed I imagine and by the Ops O or something?
PR You’d write a report, a mission report.
GM Right, and so you do all your paperwork and then you’d go off, clean up and get ready for the evening. Unless you were rostered for flying that night, you wouldn’t be flying and then you found out then what you were doing the next day.
PR Not all the time, because the Ops Officer would sit down and see what tasks he had because a lot of the tasks came in only in the late afternoon or evening and you wouldn’t know how many aircraft were needed every day. You might have a day off or you might have, you might have eight or ten hours flying.
GM Did you have many days off?
PR When I first got there, we would work 28 days straight and we’d have three days off. And I was young and stupid and I used to take off up to Bien Hoa and fly jet fighters, in the back seat of the fighters, which is a lot of fun. I had a couple of rides in F-100s and a ride in a A-37 Cessna jet flying missions. That’s how we got to know the pilots of the fighters that we were marking the targets for.
GM Okay. What was the, what incident stands out most in your memory from your tour?
PR Well, there were heaps, there were heaps. Most of the stuff I did with the Americans was, was exciting to say the least. I actually flew two night missions with the Americans that have… I can’t remember what they call it, ‘Night …’, ‘Nighthawk’, I think they called it, where we’d fly an Iroquois down to Tan An and the Iroquois would be fitted with a searchlight and an M-60 machine gun on one side. Had a mini-gun mounted on a bungee on the other side. We would be in company with a AH-1G Huey Cobra and we would sit and wait drinking coffee and soft drink or trying to get some sleep and we’d get a scramble, usually, or on both occasions at 2 o’clock in the morning. The first time we went out was to a contact or a firefight that was going on between ARVN and troops on the ground. The, my pilot decided that he’d turn our lights off so we’d present less of a target and the AH-1 turned his lights off and we’re supposed to be doing an orbit and we managed to get, go in opposite directions and I suddenly realised he was coming straight towards us, so I rolled my Iroquois on my side and he went past so close we got buffeted by his rotor wash and I could see the lights in his cockpit, his instruments and we sort of said, holy smokes and we turned the lights on then. But then…
GM You’re talking about the blinking lights and things.
PR Yeah, because we were illuminating the target for the cover you see and so we turned the lights back on, but shortly thereafter we hit this, we hit, we were either hit by small arms fire or an expended canister from an artillery flare with the rotor blade and made this ginormous bang and then this vibration like you wouldn’t believe and this horrible swishing noise and then we, we flew back and hoping that the rotor blade would stay on; how it did, I don’t know. But when we landed there was this enormous hole in the leading edge of the rotor blade that took out half the spar, which is the, which is all the strength of the rotor blade so we, we were a bit lucky. So, the next night we went out again and the same deal, went to Tan An and got scrambled about 2 o’clock in the morning. This time the search light wouldn’t work, so the searchlight operator had his M-60 and it was going to be his last flight in country so he asked me if I, I was flying in the right hand seat, could he switch over to have a shoot down onto the ground along with the mini-gun. You cannot describe the noise that a mini-gun makes when it’s going off behind your head, but it’s fairly loud and the flash of course is a continuous flash. It’s firing at 6000 rounds a minute. So he mounted his M-60 alongside the mini-gun and they were having a great old time. And then I thought we’d been hit by small arms fire because there was a spray of tracer, hell of a bang, screams in the back and my window got blown in, Perspex window. It missed me by an inch and carved up the cheek of the other pilot in the left hand seat. So, when we got it all sorted out and flew back, what had happened was the M-60 gunner and his exuberance had shot the front off the mini-gun at 6000 rounds a minute and the mini-gun had exploded and wounded both the guys in the back, both in the face and we were a self-proclaimed casualty.
GM Own goal. What was the…
PR So I didn’t fly any more at night after that. I thought they were too bloody idiotic.
GM How would you compare the American pilots to Australian pilots? Is there a comparison to make?
PR Yeah, their older experienced pilots were probably the best in the world because the amount of flying that they’ve done and the type of flying that they’ve done and I’ve found, I’ve been to the States twice with Army assignments and I’ve found the same thing since. They’re excellent pilots, but their new guys at that stage anyway were absolutely hopeless, and if I could tell another story to illustrate it. I was watching outside my hut when I was working with the 3/17 Air Cav. A Huey Cobra was doing emergency landings, auto-rotations and it was new pilot, just arrived in country, and an instructor. Then, each one, each landing was getting hairier and hairier and the last one I watched it finished up at 90 degrees to the runway and I thought, well, I’d like to watch this a bit more, but I’m getting hungry. So I wandered off; I wish I’d stayed because the next time around, he overshot the runway and finished up in the ditch, buried the chin bubble and the aircraft just demolished itself. The blades thrashed around, chopped off the tail boom. Pretty sad and sorry looking Cobra when I came back and the instructor was spitting chips because he had to sit in the front seat and as, which is the gunner’s seat and you don’t have the controls, don’t have the same as the back seat, so he couldn’t override this stupid kid in the back and he said to me, ‘Pete,’ he says, ‘what would you do if you were in our situation, you just crashed?’ I said, ‘Oh gee, I suppose I’d shut the aircraft down and wait for everything to stop thrashing around and help you out.’ ‘Peter, that’s what anybody would do. This idiot, while the thing was still beating itself to death, leapt out, dodged the rotor blades, got to a safe distance, pulled out a camera and started taking photos!’
GM Oh no. Geez! Were we better rated than they were as far as you know, instrument ratings and stuff like that or…?
PR No, I think we got more intense training in country if you like. They had the typical American problem where, like the infantry units they were, they didn’t get time to form a team if you like.
GM Oh yeah.
PR They were sort of, even though they did the same 12 months as we did, they didn’t seem to have the same intensive training that we had inside our unit. Aside from my basic training, with the Americans on each aircraft I was just let out to do my own thing.
GM What was the toughest time that you experienced physically or mentally?
PR There was nothing physical or mental, we had it very easy. I used to say that if I had, if you had to go to war, that’s the war to be in as a pilot because you came back to your tent every night.
GM You wouldn’t call it boring?
PR No, it was not, never boring; it was exciting, it was doing what you’d been trained for. It was fulfilling and a solid experience.
GM Can I ask the question, you know you mentioned before that you weren’t scared. I mean, we all get a little bit apprehensive and all that but, is it because you’ve got so much to do that you don’t, you’re too busy doing your job to be scared? I mean you’re trying to keep yourself airborne and not prang.
PR Yeah, I know initially that, when I first went there I was apprehensive as to what it would be like when we made contact with the enemy. How I’d react. When I’d been there, I should add, that on one of my first recons another pilot had to go back because he was low on fuel and I was out there with no top cover. And he pointed out the target that he had on the ground, it was four Charlie with weapons sitting underneath a tree and I just flew round and round; I was thinking what do I do now. And eventually cranked up some artillery, but I think they got away anyway but because I had no top cover to monitor. But I speedily realised that most of the time, there was sort of unspoken agreement, or perhaps it was the training of the enemy. They would not shoot at a helicopter unless they thought that they would destroy the helicopter or guarantee to knock it down, or they were convinced that the pilot had seen them. If you just flew round - and again you could fly round them for ten minutes - and it happened often, and they wouldn’t shoot at you; they’d just keep their heads down. They wouldn’t move away, because they thought if they moved, you’d see them; and you could quietly crank up artillery and then once the artillery was ready just move out rapidly…
GM That sounds like an oxymoron, quietly crank up artillery. Yeah, but I know what you mean, yeah. So you actually yea…
PR The, whereas the Americans would just shoot up an area anyway and so they got it back in spades; they were often shot at and they lost an enormous number of helicopters.
GM Oh yeah.
PR I think 3,450.
GM Yeah, there were 2,000 Iroquois, I mean, but we’re talking about totally destroyed.
GM I mean, not just shot down yeah. What’s the funniest incident that you can recall that you were involved in?
PR Yeah, there were heaps but because you had to keep your sense of humour, but I’ll try and describe it. You have to use your hands mostly.
GM But you’re not a ‘knuck’ (fighter pilot).
PR When I had a day off, there wasn’t much to do at Nui Dat anyway, so I used to try and get a fly with anybody that was going and I used to go up with the ‘Jade’ forward air controllers a lot and fly as top, with them as top cover for air strikes and a fella called Phil was our helicopter pilot and he was going to mark the target so I was flying around in this push-pull Cessna and the, if you can visualise it, was a very low, overcast day, not good visibility and amazingly we had instead of the standard two F-100 fighters, we had three and it’s the only time before or since that there were three, why I don’t know. Anyway, the forward air controller was a New Zealander - no names - couldn’t get it, couldn’t visualise that there were three of them and he got extremely muddled. Now the fighters were using what’s called high-drag bombs which are, when they’re released from the aircraft, the fins pop out at the back and act as a brake which slows the bomb down very rapidly and enables the fighter to come in very low and fast, whereas normally they would have to dive bomb at a fairly acute angle. So, that sets the scene, and this guy was calling in the wrong aircraft and it was, you know, a highly dangerous situation and I kept saying to him, ‘Do you know there’s three of them?’ and he said, ‘What, what? No, no there’s not!’ and he was obviously overloaded. Anyway at one stage, Phil was over the target checking on what one of the bombs had done and this forward air controller cleared a fighter in what he thought was, I think, ‘Lead’, and it was actually Number 3 – ‘Lead’, that we were watching, was still circling at this stage - but the other fighter that it was cleared in was actually starting his bombing run! And when he realised his mistake the forward air controller said, ‘Phil, get out of there!’ and Phil said, ‘Which way?’ Because obviously the best way to go would be at 90 degrees to the angle of the attack run of the fighter… and strangely again, he said, ‘West,’ when the fighter was coming in from the east!
GM Oh no.
PR And I said, I felt, I thought to myself, you’ve killed him and Phil headed off as fast as he could go which is probably, what, 60 knots or 100 kilometres an hour; desperately trying to get this thing moving because I think at that stage he see the fighter. And the fighter released the bomb and the bomb came off and as luck would have it again the high-drag fins didn’t pop, and the bomb was still going 400 knots and it hit the canopy well plus of the target, overhead of the target and ricocheted up into the air and overtook Phil - so close…
PR …it looked like it was just out his door. And then of course just dropped back into the jungle. But for a split second, there it was in formation, I mean outside his right hand door. And I could just see Phil in the cockpit and I could imagine what he was thinking and because the fins hadn’t popped, the bomb wasn’t armed and it didn’t go off otherwise he’d have been blown into pieces. And Phil just kept going to the west and slowly started to turn and then he headed back to Nui Dat. Didn’t say another word. We finished the air strike and the FAC flew me back to Nui Dat and dropped me and then flew back to Vung Tau mumbling his apologies. And I went up to the Mess and there was Phil at 10 o’clock in the morning on, obviously, what was obviously not his first drink, a tumbler full of rum and he was talking to himself.
GM He was calming his nerves. Yeah, that’d be a near-death experience I think. Now, what did you find the most difficult jobs to fly and why?
PR I don’t think there were any really difficult jobs. No, I, they were all fun.
GM What about ones you didn’t like doing? Any ones you didn’t like doing?
PR Hash and trash got a bit boring; what we called hash and trash, where you’re just moving supplies for a battalion or for a unit just backwards and forwards, over and over again.
GM Did you ever do any casevac?
PR Yes, very limited. If a person was severely wounded of course, they would call in a Dustoff or a medevac helicopter. But if somebody was lightly wounded, they would usually put us, because we were there in the battalion area, put him onto us and we’d take him down to Vung Tau to the hospital there or back to Nui Dat if he could be treated at the RAP there. I do remember one job that I hated doing, especially after the first time, I was taking the battalion COs down to the hospital at Vung Tau where they’d visit their wounded troops in hospital. First time I went down with a CO, I walked through the wards with him and it upset me so much I couldn’t do it later on, and I used to sit and wait in the helicopter for the CO, because some of the injuries were just horrific.
GM Especially when it’s from mines.
GM Yeah I think being gunshot is one thing but mines just tore people apart and yeah. Now, in hindsight, were you well prepared for your tour Vietnam?
GM Now, are you sure you don’t want to think about that answer?
PR I was motivated because I wanted to go and, but I didn’t have the basic skills - the flying skills, I picked them up very rapidly with the intense flying that we were doing. I didn’t have the tactical skills, but they were drummed into me very quickly. Interestingly enough, one of the first things that my section commander, the rotary wing helicopter section commander, said was your biggest danger was not in getting shot down, I mean there was a real danger of that, but in having a mid-air collision. And there were so many aircraft there in 1969, ’68-‘69 that it was very true. It was an even greater danger of having a mid-air collision with another aircraft. Happened all over in Vietnam.
GM You wouldn’t have called it strictly regulated air space?
PR There’s aircraft flying, well you can imagine, you’ve got jet fighters that were quite often at low level, we’ve got helicopters at all levels. If there was any action going on, that attracted aircraft from all over, would be attracted like bees to honey and yeah, I had some pretty close shaves with other aircraft too.
GM Well, I was in Vietnam five days on my Phuoc Tuy Province orientation tour in an Iroquois, and we nearly had a mid-air collision with another aircraft, not a 9 Squadron aircraft, something that just came out of the blue, you know, out of a cloud, you know. I mean, Nui Dat didn’t have an air traffic control did it?
PR Yes, it did.
GM It did, did it?
PR It had a control tower, yeah.
GM Oh, it did have a control tower so, when you were approaching Nui Dat you’d ring up and say…
PR You’d have to call up the control tower.
GM And he’d tell you what to do?
PR Yeah but I, one of the little incidents I had was at Nui Dat, where because we were such an easy-going lot, we were one of the very few airfields in Vietnam that the jet fighters could beat up. And they would come through and streak past it and make a lot of noise with their after burners, etc. I was on finals in a Sioux to the airstrip and I heard a pair of F-100s call up to do a high speed pass and the tower cleared them. And I was on the centre line of the strip and I looked across and I could see one F-100 and I couldn’t see the other one and I thought well, I don’t know where he is and I’d better get off the strip, so I moved to the side of the strip. And if you recall, it was a fairly narrow strip. As I crossed the sealed edge of the bitumen, this thing appeared beside me at 400 knots at the same level; I was at about 40 feet (13 metres) and for a split second this monstrous thing was beside me and then it disappeared down the strip, as I say, at 400 knots and it was so quick I didn’t even have time to be scared. But I went back, walked down the strip later on and paced it out and I figured that his wingtip would’ve been underneath my rotor blade.
GM Jesus. What did you think of the enemy?
PR I had a lot of respect for them. They, anybody with that amount of motivation and determination and they can work and fight on a handful of rice a day and live in the conditions that they had to, always being chased and hunted. I was glad that they were such lousy shots; and I was, it amazed me that their training seemed to leave a lot to be desired. They, we actually found documents, captured documents which described how to shoot a helicopter for example or any aircraft. And they had a formula, which I figured you had to be a university educated to understand, but basically it was the lead angle in the number of aircraft lengths depending on what speed and height the aircraft was - assuming that a person who’d never flown in a helicopter could judge all that. Their training was such that …the classic story was that a helicopter landed in a clearing and was letting his troops go. They saw an enemy with a rocket launcher. When the rocket launcher was pointed right at his cockpit and he said, I’m … you know, there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He’s sitting on the ground, and he knew he was dead and then he saw the guy deliberately move his rocket launcher and count 1, 2, 3 - he could see by the bobbing of it - three lengths in front of the aircraft and fired and the aircraft was of course, was still sitting on the ground.
GM Now, did you ever get R & R, rest and recreation (sic: recuperation) leave?
PR Yep, I came back to Australia.
GM You came back, because you had a young child. What was it like coming back? And I assumed you came back into Sydney?
PR Yes, quite amazing, I rented a Ford LTD, had lots of money. And got into Sydney peak hour traffic in the morning, having driven nothing but a Land Rover occasionally around Nui Dat at ten kilometres an hour and to get into Sydney traffic in a monstrous great wagon like the Ford …quite exciting. .
GM So, did you come back on a Pan Am or a Qantas flight?
PR Yeah, Qantas.
PR And flew into Sydney. Went up to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast here, where my parents were and yeah, then went back the same way.
GM Righto. How long did you have on R & R leave?
PR Oh, five days I think.
GM Okay. What was it like going back, how far were you through your tour when you had to do it, when you took your R & R?
PR Oh, about, I think it was about seven months, I had five months to go.
GM Okay. What was it like going back?
PR Oh, pretty sad, yeah.
GM Was it difficult to get back in the swing of it, or did you find you’d been distracted or…?
PR The workload was such that there was no time for distractions, it was only when you stopped at night when you start thinking about it.
GM Yeah. Okay. Did the next five months drag?
PR No, because, there was so much going on and then I went to the Americans and that was full on.
GM If nothing else, it kept your adrenaline pumping. Let’s talk about casualties now, did you personally know anyone who was wounded and killed?
PR Yeah, well, as I said, Barry Donald and my tent mate Alan Jellie were both killed, that was just after I left, about a month after. One of my good friends, a Kiwi, was shot down and shot through the hand and he was evacuated back to New Zealand.
GM Was he in 161 (Recce Flight)?
GM Ok. I’m trying to get, what I’m trying to pick up on here is the, what was the impact like on 161 if somebody (got wounded or killed)?
PR I understand they were devastated when Barry Donald and Alan Jellie were killed, I know we were devastated back in Australia. When Ted Booker the Kiwi pilot was wounded, we said, oh well, bad luck and good thing you’re alive. We, well we saw lots of bodies and wounded people. We were working with every day, with death and destruction so, it was nothing new.
GM I mean, you recounted the incident with the Thai Sioux burning on the pad, that must have been…?
PR Yeah, yeah, I was almost physically sick, yeah.
GM Yeah, I can imagine.
PR One other time I was almost physically sick was when I was … the Americans and I was flying in the front seat of a AH-1 and they, the Cayuse at low level was over a bunch of nipa palm.
GM A bunch of…?
PR Nipa palm.
PR Low bushy palm and he said, ‘I’ll get out of this. Can you just use your grenade launcher?’ We had a grenade launcher, fired a 84 millimetre (sic: 40 mm) grenade yeah,
GM 40 millimetre?
GM You talking about the M-79?
PR 40 millimetre, yeah, 40 millimetre.
GM You talking about the M-79 launcher?
PR Yeah, yeah it was an automatic thing, it fired…
GM Oh yeah.
PR …at about 450 rounds a minute.
GM On the chin, yeah.
PR Yes, 450 rounds a minute, and so I did. I started banging away and I cleared a great patch of this nipa palm and he went back in and he said, ‘You got yourself a baddie,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We got a body down here, and you got him, congratulations,’ and I said, ‘Geez,’ and I felt physically sick because there was a village about 500 metres away and I’d no way of telling - and they didn’t say - whether he was armed, he was probably just a guy out collecting firewood or whatever, he could’ve been a good fella, he could’ve been a bad fella. But I… just the callous way that they accepted it; they preferred to shoot people first and ask questions later. And that really, I still you know, worry about that. The other occasion was when I was, I was in a OH-6 Cayuse, we were about 150 metres from a village and a fella broke out of the bushes below us and started running for the village and I was the pilot, but I had another pilot with me who was checking me out if you like. And I had control of the mini-gun which is mounted on the side of the Cayuse and he said, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ and he’s screaming at the top of his voice and the guy was weaving his way and heading towards the village and I thought to myself, there’s no (weapon), he’s not armed, he’s, why should we shoot him? He’s running for home. If he’d been a baddie, he would’ve stayed there and this guy was frothing at the mouth saying, ‘Kill him!’ So knowing that the mini-gun, you had to hold the trigger down for at least a second otherwise it would’ve jammed, I just gave a quick blip and deliberately jammed the mini-gun behind him, and I hit the ground behind the guy, but there was no way in the world I was going to kill him.
GM Under our rules of engagement…
GM It was a…
PR Well, they had different rules of engagement.
GM It wasn’t a lawful engagement.
GM No, I mean, if you’re the average Vietnamese villager on the ground and there’s an attack helicopter hovering over you, I’d take off as well. You actually got injured. You didn’t get wounded, but you did get burned, didn’t you?
PR Just the smoke grenade.
GM When it all burnt down the back of you.
PR I think I got off lightly.
PR As a matter of fact they were going to give me a purple heart, but I was so incensed and I think, I’d been so terrified of what this guy was doing and when we got shot up and I was so, like, I guess the word would be ashamed, that all I wanted to was get out of there. When we flew back to Nha Be and they, the radio, the message came over the radio that the General wanted to see me, right, because the Aussie had done this fantastic thing and got these 16 baddies and I said, no, I’m not going in there, let’s go home and yeah.
GM What’s the saddest incident you can recall?
PR Well, I think the Thai pilot and his offsider burning.
GM I think you’ve mentioned what you thought of the Allies, but the Americans, what other Allies did you work with that you could comment on?
PR We didn’t have much to do with the ARVN, the Vietnamese. The Thai, we quite often used to work with their artillery. I was very impressed at how fast they could fire their artillery; they were faster than just about anybody else in the actual number of rounds. The Koreans, we only heard stories about them and not very savoury stories either and I don’t know how true they were, but they were supposed to be pretty savage people. They had different procedures obviously or different attitudes. I was doing a reconnaissance of a camp which looked pretty new and I told my top cover about it and there was another helicopter pilot, Sioux, and there was a Vietnamese Army ARVN base, fire support base, down the road with two 155s howitzers, medium howitzers, and I said they were within range, why don’t we put some of them on. So he, I listened extremely carefully to what he was saying on the radio and made sure that I heard him say ‘at my command’, which means the guns cannot fire unless the person giving the orders says so. And then lo and behold, I’m still checking out the target waiting for the artillery to tell us they were ready and I heard this karump! And I looked up and about 300 metres away there’s this grey smoke coming up above the canopy. So I got the hell out of there, obviously they were a bit enthusiastic. And fortunately they weren’t very good shots either.
GM Was it hard to adjust artillery fire, because you’re really only going on smoke coming up, grey smoke aren’t you?
PR Well usually you’d ask for white phosphorous in adjustment, smoke in adjustment.
GM Righto, Okay. Talking about coming home now, how did you feel when you came back home?
PR I felt pretty good. Glad to be out of it, but I was extremely fortunate in that I came back to a very supportive family. As matter of fact, we had a family reunion just after I came back and there were family members I hadn’t seen for years and they made me feel very welcome. I was also going straight back to a military unit after my leave and I was a Regular soldier, so I was back in the military cradle if you like. I feel sorry for a lot of the guys who were pushed straight out on the street after their service.
GM Because, you served for 18 years didn’t you?
PR Well, I signed on for a short service commission but…
GM And then did a Permanent Commission?
PR About three years after I came back from Vietnam, I signed on for a Permanent Commission.
GM And I guess, I think it was a lot easier for the guys coming back into the ‘green machine’ as opposed to the Nashos.
PR What did upset me though was about a week after I got back - still very idealistic - I went to a Moratorium parade through the streets of Brisbane and thinking, well, I’ve been fighting for free speech and the power to demonstrate when you want to; and it just absolutely horrified and appalled me…
GM We were talking about the Moratorium march and something horrified you.
PR There were all our political leaders, well politicians from the Labor Party, and Trade Union officials, university students and that, but they were carrying Viet Cong flags. They were carrying pictures of Ho Chi Minh and they were singing, ‘Ho Chi Minh, Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’. They were yelling out ‘Better Red than dead’ and various other things like that. ‘Pull the baby killers out’ and all that sort of garbage. To me that isn’t freedom of speech, that’s giving comfort to your enemy. We had Australian soldiers fighting these people who would have seen on television what was broadcast on Australian TV about these marches and must have given them a lot of encouragement. And especially the stuff that was going on in the United States. It probably contributed a large amount to why the war turned out the way it did. Probably it did and the North would never have kept going if they didn’t feel they had the, I guess the hearts and minds, of the general American and Australian public.
GM Especially after you were there, after Tet ’68?
PR Tet ’68, yes that was the turning point.
GM It was a military disaster (for the Viet Cong), but a political victory.
GM But what did Peter Rogers learn from his time in Vietnam?
PR I learnt how to be a military pilot, how to fly a helicopter – that sort of experience you just couldn’t get anywhere else. It formed the base of my flying career.
GM But what about personally?
PR Yes, to me it was an adventure. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it. I thought that I had done a good job. And I felt good. I sensed the polarity between a lot of the Australian public and the soldiers and that upset me, but okay I could live with that. Yes, so it was an experience not to be missed.
GM How many pilots did 161 Recce Flight lose?
PR Only three killed; there was Barry Donald, Al Jellie and George Constable, which was about eight months before I got there, no about six months.
GM Yes, I went back to Vietnam with his daughter in ’96 - George Constable’s daughter - and we actually took her to where her father went in. Do you have any regrets about going to Vietnam?
PR No, not at all.
PR Because I was a young idealistic fellow, I felt that I guess I could rationalise that the war was necessary, and I think that every young man has an intense desire, especially with our traditions, our Anzac traditions, to appreciate and to endure war if you like. And for that reason, it was priceless. As I say, if you had to go to a war that was the one to go to, most of the big battalions were mostly on our side.
GM Probably the hardest question of the lot is – but before we get to that one. The National Serviceman in the unit, there would have been a few in 161.
PR Yep a couple of pilots and several ground crew, yes. Not so many ground crew because in the technical trades they didn’t have the time to train up the National Servicemen. While I was there we had two National Service pilots and you wouldn’t have known they were National Servicemen. What amazes me is people say that there were differences, but we knew because they were already flying commercially before they joined the Army. And we used to marvel at that, saying, ‘Gee, you guys are experienced!’
GM Looking back on the whole thing, was Australia’s involvement worth the effort and the lives that were lost?
PR No, no it wasn’t. The old bugbear - the spectre of Communism - that they put up was just garbage. It is great in hindsight to say that, I guess; you have to look at the feelings of the day, but especially since I went back this last March (2001) to Vietnam, and I was absolutely horrified at what the country is. About 100 years of French colonial exploitation, they had been through a world war and a war with the French. Their country was already pretty much on the skids. If we had not gone there, if the Americans had not gone there, they would have been ten years further down the track towards developing and at least getting a decent economy. But the country is so desperately poor now, even though the government is building it up, we just set them back ten years. I think it (the war) was a foregone conclusion and it was just muddled thinking that got the Americans there in the first place. The bugbear of Communism: I am convinced now that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist and not a …, well he was a communist of course, but only because it suited his ends and his ambition. So no, we shouldn’t have been there.
GM Have you got anything else that you would like to mention that I haven’t touched on?
PR No, I have run out of war stories.
GM Okay Peter, well we will call it quits there and I would like to thank you very much for taking part. Thank you.
PR My pleasure.
End of Interview