Vietnam 1966

Vietnam 1966

Imagine you are in a darkened tunnel, eyes robbed of sight and your ears finely tuned to gain some measure of safety. Your breathing is laboured, your pounding heart registering the fear of the unknown. On your haunches, with a bayonet in one hand and a pistol in the other, you inch forward. You feel your shoulders scuffing against the clay walls. Phantom adversaries flood your brain. Each pained movement forward is dulled to conceal your presence. The air you breath is stale save for faint traces of smoke. The wafting signs of human habitation ahead send voltages of fear flooding through your senses.

Welcome to the world of a tunnel rat in Vietnam in 1966. These extraordinary sappers, part of the 3 Field Troop of the Royal Australian Engineers, would have faced these dangers on a daily basis. They parried with these imaginary phantoms and devilish realities in their attempts to flush out the Viet Cong who made these subterranean fortresses their home.

The Viet Minh who fought to oust the French in Indochina employed tunnels to conceal and house their embattled troops. Some of the tunnels were located north of Saigon in an area known as Zone D. When the French were finally defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, the world of underground fortresses was forgotten.

This may well have continued if not for the 7th Cavalry bravado practised by General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn, being exercised by the American military machine in the steamy jungles of South Vietnam. Both ended in defeat. If the Americans had cared to examine the defeat of the French, even with the battle-hardened efforts of the Foreign Legion, they might well have paused and rewritten their history books.

The Viet Cong, like their predecessors, the Viet Minh, saw the need to fight the Americans in a non-conventional way. The tonnages of bombs from B-52 bombers, the napalm firestorms dropped from Phantom jets and the ravages of Agent Orange which defoliated jungles, pushed the Viet Cong into habitats that provided a measure of protection.

The most infamous of these underground villages was the Cu Chi tunnels, which at their peak, threaded through 600 kilometres of ground east of Saigon. They were at their most effective during the Tet Offensive in 1968. They were part of a network of tunnels that provided solace for combat troops, as well as serving as communication hubs, hospitals, and food and weaponry storage depots.

Below is a map of the Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City district and the general area in which the Australian forces held sway. Nui Dat, the Australian base, was located slightly south of the centre of the map.

1966 Vietnam Map

The actual tunnels were marvels of ingenuity and perseverance. The tunnels have been hollowed out to accommodate obese Westerners too used to snacking on their fourteenth McDonalds burger!! The original tunnels were .66 of a metre wide, .8 of a metre high and most rooms had the dimensions of 2m (high) x 1.3m x 1m. The trapdoors on the surface (see photo below) were of the dimensions 7 cms x 5.6 cms. For those suffering from any form of claustrophobia, they were not ideal.

Vietnamese military leaders, who were interviewed, claimed five to ten thousand combatants made these labyrinths their home. There were as many as six levels to house, train, store or hospitalise the Viet Cong. There were classrooms for weapon instructions, field kitchens and the entrances were carefully spaced apart so that discovery of one wouldn’t lead to uncovering the other rooms. Air vents were concealed under bushes and behind rocks.

However, accommodation was slightly below the standard of the Ritz. The tunnels were infested with poisonous scorpions, centipedes and spiders. Viet Cong documentation showed that one third of the inhabitants had malaria and virtually all of them had intestinal parasites. To ensure you could see the scorpions and spiders, pedal and hand generators provided some electricity and lighting. The smoke from fires was dissipated by containers of water and lengthy corridors.

To give you a sense of the size of the entrances, the photo below has been included. I am of average size and girth.

1966 Vietnam Underground Entrance

The Viet Cong showed great skill in devising new and interesting ways of maiming and killing the enemy. Punji sticks, sharpened spears of bamboo, which were dug into pits and covered with light vegetation, were designed to puncture rubber boots. Manure, to aid infection, was amply spread over the spikes. When steel soles were added to combat this problem, the Viet Cong merely slanted the punji sticks so they would gouge into the soldiers’ calves and shins. The manure was a complementary addition.

Australian tunnel rats had to attach silencers to their revolvers. The blast from a shot fired in the confines of the miniature tunnels would have perforated the eardrums and done permanent damage. As well, they had to ensure that their level of personal hygiene matched the inmates of these underground villages. Having a shower before descending into this black Hades would have placed you in a perilous position. Your fresh body odour would have wafted ahead to warn the enemy of an intruder. Miners’ lamps had to be worn on their helmets which were to be used only in exceptional circumstances. When tear gas was used to flush out the recalcitrant combatants below, gas masks had to be worn. This would have added to the level of discomfort.

This friendly looking implement of war gives you a sense of the danger troops faced.

1966 Vietnam Spike Pit

At the end of the tour of the tunnels, there is a distinctive aural vibe. You can hear the thump of rifle fire. There is a shooting range where tourists can sample AK 47s, M60s and M16s. For as little as 340 dong or $1.75, you can purchase 10 rounds. The weapons are bolted to a stand to prevent the massacre of innocent tourists. It was a strange feeling. When I visited in 2013, I watched tourists dressed in Hawaiian shirts trying to manhandle an AK 47. Here was the best assault rifle ever produced being tamed, neutered for indulgent Westerners. The world is a strange place.

Molly Meldrum wouldn’t mind the misquoting. Do yourself a favour and visit the Cu Chi Tunnels when you tour Vietnam.





Timor 1942

“Speak to your Uncle Jack,” Alf added as he left to go to his weekly Sunday School visit (code for the two-up game some seven kilometres from Kalgoorlie) on Sunday afternoon. His slightly curtish reply was in response to my query as to what he did in in World War Two. I found out later than he was unable to join the armed forces because the army misdiagnosed a prevalence of sugar in his kidney as diabetes. I should be thankful for this small mercy. Here I am, enjoying the fact that medical science made an error and gave Dad a chance at a normal life untainted by the dark malevolence that engulfed the world.

His cryptic comment opened up the door to Uncle Jack’s world. He was a tall man, being 187 centimetres and muscular. I thought his fitness and strength was due to the woodchopping he did with my father. Far from it. He was a slow speaker who was given the nickname Dave because of the radio show “Dad and Dave from Snake Gully” (1937) which was popular at the time. Dave spoke very slowly, hence my uncle’s epithet.

Uncle Jack’s exterior disarmed people. He was a bit like the detective Colombo of the TV series of the same name. People let their guard down, thinking the slow speech reflected an equally sedate mind. But he possessed a keen and discerning intelligence.  I visited him in the St John of God’s hospital in Kalgoorlie just before he died and the memory is indelibly etched on my mind. He lay on the bed, ankles swollen from arthritis, wincing from the pain that cancer delivers and said in a barely audible voice, “the woods are burning.” It perplexed me. I thought about that comment for years and it was only after reading a Henry Lawson story that it made sense. In the story, the main character’s life is endangered by a bush fire encroaching onto his mining claim. Uncle Jack could see the danger. His life was in peril.

His muscularity, I later found out, was due the training regime involved in being the heavyweight boxing champion of the Murchison. His wife, on many occasions, said that he feared no man. When he joined the army in 1941, he volunteered for a secret unit which later became the 2nd/2nd Independent Company. The commanding officer interviewing my uncle commented that he was possible too old for the specialised unit. He was 32 at the time. His response was interesting. In his slow but measured voice, he replied, “With respect, sir, if you would care to step into the boxing ring outside, we’ll see who is too old.” The Captain merely said, “That will be all Private Sheehan.”

When my uncle exited the tent, the Captain placed a tick next to his name.

He was sent to Timor before the Japanese attacked on 19 February, 1942. Prior to the invasion, the Australian force of 300 men was decimated by the effects of malaria. Their camp was close to swamps surrounding the airport. Fortunately, the commanding officers decided that they should regroup and set up their camp in the mountains outside of Dili, the capital. The absence of mosquitos and regular doses of quinine brought them back to a semblance of a fighting force. On the night of 19 February, 1942, the Japanese invasion force attacked Dili. Many of the soldiers heard the explosions but assumed that the thunder of a tropical storm was the culprit.

A truck descending into capital the next morning was ambushed by a Japanese patrol and all but one, a diminutive Keith Hayes, were killed or shot before a firing squad. His story of survival will be told in a future blog.

The Australian soldiers were incensed by the actions of the Japanese patrol and wanted the score sheet altered in their favour. Enter Uncle Jack and three other men.

Uncle Jack, Doc Wheatley, Corporal Bill Taylor and Andy Smeaton decided to set an ambush at a place at the foot of Bo Hak Mountain. They arrived at the location the night before the ambush was to occur. They set up camp at a large village three hundred metres above the road. They knew a truck came along the road at eight every morning. They slept fitfully with each taking turns at guarding the compound.

They had surveyed the geography surrounding the road and decided that Doc Wheatley, an crack shot would be positioned above the road with his sniper’s rifle. He was credited with shooting sixty Japanese in his year long campaign in Timor. He was especially good at hitting moving targets. He acquired this prowess while shooting kangaroos in the Murchison. A disease had spread through the kangaroos in the area and it rendered their meat and skins unusable. The sick kangaroos lay under trees convalescing while the healthy ones bounded around until they collided with a lead .303 from Doc Wheatley’s gun.

Bill Taylor’s Bren gun was positioned on a wall overlooking the road. Uncle Jack and Andy Smeaton had Thompson machine guns with magazines of 50 rounds. Only the strongest of the troops were given access to the Tommy guns ( yes, the same ones used by Al Capone and his henchmen in America in the 1930s). Thompson machine guns had a tendency to shoot upwards and to the left when fired. Only the strongest could nullify this idiosyncratic behaviour. Uncle Jack was right handed and so he was positioned on the right hand side of a tree some thirty metres from the road and Andy left handedness complemented the juggernaut behind the tree.

The stage was set. It was 8 p.m. A truck rumbled around the corner and Uncle Jack fired a salvo into the truck’s radiator. Steam and water gushed from the puncture. Panicked Japanese troops poured from the truck and to the Australians dismay, from the other six trucks they had not anticipated greeting. The ambushers had become the ambushed.

Uncle Jack zoned in a Japanese soldier heading for a thicket of trees and fired a burst of .45 calibre shells across his midriff. The soldier momentarily stopped, frozen and gradually the top half of his body fell away from his lower half. Uncle Jack was transfixed by this ghastly image. He stopped firing, despite energetic urgings from Andy. He yelled, “for Christ’s sake, pull ya finger out.” A period of three to five seconds elapsed until Uncle Jack threw off his paralysis and began firing. He would often muse on that terrible moment even through to the latter stages of his life. So much for hardened men inured to the trauma of nightmarish, private thoughts in their post war lives.

Scott’s Bren jammed but eventually he changed its port and finished his second magazine of 28 rounds. Wheatley was busy picking off stragglers. His sniper’s rifle only held 5 rounds but he had an ample supply of rounds ready for easy insertion. He was downing fleeing soldiers running beside a picket fence. He was slotting in bullets in the gaps. He claimed to have shot as many as ten of the enemy.

Uncle Jack escaped with Andy, dodging bullets as they escaped through the dense undergrowth. They eventually found their creados (young Timorese who befriended and helped the Australians). They were loyal, with a keen knowledge of the trails to elude the Japanese. Their help was invaluable in surviving a full year on the island.

Doc Wheatley’s escape was cut off by mortars so he ran blindly to the edge of a ravine. Japanese bullets peppered the trees and leaves guarding his escape. He decided that the 45 degree angle slope was a far better option than the Japanese bullets whistling past his ears. He jumped, tumbled head over heels to the bottom, destroying the sight on his rifle, until he reached the bottom. He scrambled to his feet and ran through head-high kunai grass to safety.

In their year long stay on the island, the Australians had to contend with an initial 3000 Japanese invasion force which eventually ballooned to 15000. They employed guerrilla tactics to keep the Japanese at bay.  They lost only 40 of their own but they managed to kill 1500 of the enemy. Their exploits became the formative lessons for SAS troops in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a story that deserves the accolades meted out to troops involved in Gallipoli, Kokoda and Long Tan.

Uncle Jack did speak to me in those impressionable adolescent years and I continue to hear his voice slightly muted by the passage of time, but still powerful, a compass where I can find true north.

Alf’s Stories

Alf’s Stories


There it was! Almost exactly as he had described it! Back all of those years ago as we sat at the blue laminex table eating the 5000th chop, potato, peas and carrots meal of that winter, Dad’s words had shaken the foundations of an ever-distracted adolescent mind just a trifle. It was only a slight tremor back then but the fissure stayed.

His exact words echoed through the years: “ They looked like spacemen’s houses.” Before me in the greening wheat fields outside of Merredin were those Martian abodes. To be factual, there were 46 concrete igloos in the vicinity of this farm.

Well, I’ll be blowed. Who would have thought that in 2016, these relics of the past would tell an intriguing and powerful story that captured the harrowing and dark times that Australia faced in 1942-3.

Our safe and secure land of sweeping plains, of long smokos and billy tea in enamel cups was pulverised when Japan launched its attack on Darwin on 19 February, 1942. An earthquake of bombs that floated from the 188 aircraft strafing Darwin killed 243 and wounded 300-400, destroyed 20 aircraft, sunk 8 ships in the harbour and damaged civil and military facilities beyond repair.

What a pleasant and idyllic introduction to the Japanese war machine!

Not that the bombing on that fateful Thursday morning was a complete surprise; in fact, John Curtin, our Prime Minister, had declared that, “The enemy thunders at our very gates” on Monday, 26 January, 1942. He later added in a rousing speech on the Kalgoorlie train station platform, ”There has never been a time when the challenge to our occupancy was so direct and menacing.”

As to our readiness in meeting the rising sun juggernaut, Curtin warned Churchill, the British PM, “It is clearly beyond our capacity to meet an attack of the weight that the Japanese could launch.” In late January, 1942, Australia had not one aircraft that could compete with Japanese Zeros, the vast bulk of our experienced fighting infantrymen were overseas and many training at home did not have rifles. The Arnie Schwarzenegger of oriental persuasion was not only going to kick sand in the face of the scrawny Aussie, he was probably going to bury him and play soccer with his dismembered head.

Back to the greening pastures in Merredin.

Merredin Munitions Storage

Dad was right. By stretching our visual imagination (because none of us have ever seen a Martian 4×2 suburban equivalent), they could pass muster.


To prepare for the Japanese onslaught, the Australian military set up Fortress Western Australia around Nungarin and Merredin.  Nungarin is a sleepy farming hamlet some 294 kms east of Perth and 40 kms north of Merredin. In September, 1942 this Rip Van Winkle of a town was jolted out of somnolence when 1720 acres (696 hectares) of land were acquired, 12 large warehouses with a floor space capacity of 170,000 square metres were built and 1200 servicemen moved to the area. Its official title was No 7 Australian Ordnance Depot. It was developed as part of a supply line for fuel and munitions which stretched from Wyalkatchem to Ardath. It became the largest storage facility for ordnance in WA at that time.


 Nungarin Mess Hall



Nungarin Map

Nungarin was chosen because it met a number of criteria deemed important by military planners. Mindful of the havoc wreaked on Darwin earlier in 1942, Nungarin was a bridge too far for Japanese warplanes launched from aircraft carriers off the WA coast. They would have sufficient fuel to reach the target but on their way back, the Zeros would be landing/crashing in the main street of Northam competing with the likes of Dodges, Malvern Star bicycles, and mothers with prams doing their shopping.

Secondly, Nungarin was on a rail network which connected Carnarvon (north) and Albany (south). Cunderdin, a regional airport, would provide some support if required even though many of the aircraft were reminiscent of the Sopwith Camel biplanes of WW 1 vintage.

Merredin was set up to complement the military preparedness of Nungarin. Two igloo shaped hangars were built in 1943 to house radar and radio spares, ammunition for .303 rifles and .50 calibre Browning machine guns and other pieces of equipment vital to the war effort. Sheets of tin were placed on the ground to help camouflage the site as a salt lake. It sounds a little implausible in 2016 but remember the pilots would have been unaccustomed to the terrain, especially if they had supped on sake to steady their nerves. Its official title was No 10 RAAF Stores Depot.


Merredin Munitions Storage


The hangars are now used by Philborne Engineering for the manufacturing of farm equipment and Co-Operative Bulk Handling which services farms in the region.

A hospital was set up to address the needs of casualties in the event of an invasion. The 2nd/1st Australian General Hospital had an impressive pedigree. Its first locale was the Gaza Ridge in Palestine in 1942. Then it was shifted to Guildford and finally Merredin in July, 1942. By November, it had 5 medical officers, 9 other officers, 34 nurses, 134 other ranks and 264 beds. It had over 600 patients at one stage. As the threatening tide of invasion via WA receded, the hospital was relocated to Papua New Guinea to serve the needs of servicemen brutalised on the Kokoda Track. The focus of the war had changed.

Two fuel tanks with a six million litre capacity in total were sunk in Merredin. One would provide standard fuel and the other smaller one would cater for aviation requirements for the airport at Cunderdin. The tanks can be viewed from the car park of the BP garage on Great Eastern Highway provided you have a giraffe-like neck.

Post-war Merredin was the setting for numerous auctions involving the military hardware. General Grant tanks were sold to farmers to plough the uncultivated bush and anti-tank guns were used as trailers. Tanks were sold for 25-50 pounds.

Back to our alien structures on the farming lands outside Merredin. I can see you’ve been waiting with baited breath.  Officially, they were part of the No 6 Central Reserve Munitions Depot.  They stored everything from 250 kg aerial bombs to small arms ammunition. The igloos were guarded by personnel who lived in 40 timber-framed buildings set among the trees. They have long disappeared, swallowed up by the encroaching demands to extend crops under cultivation.

The Federal Government bought the land from the owners for the war effort and they had to repurchase it after 1945. The current owners found it too difficult to remove the concrete structures so they remain as reminders of rich military tradition that can be traced back to the Nek assault at Gallipoli and the Somme.

So, next time you drive through Merredin on the way to Kalgoorlie or, for the more adventurous, the meccas of Melbourne or Sydney, remember that Alf said there are some spacemen’s houses in the vicinity.