“What did you do in the war, daddy?”
How many children have asked their fathers this question for thousands of years? Most could answer truthfully. But the Royal Australian Air Force ghost warriors who fought a secret war in Thailand to support the troops in Vietnam have had to be silent for more than 40 years.
They each served a minimum of 6 months in Ubon, Thailand, near the Laotian border. When they arrived back home it was to find that no one was interested in their war. Many Australians didn’t even believe they had troops in Thailand. Yet more than 2,400 personnel served there between May 1962 and August 1968.
The Australian Federal Government insisted until the Mohr Review in 1999 that the Ubon base in north-eastern Thailand was part of the Far East Strategic Reserve, which was only active before 1963 in Malaya. Therefore, they claimed, that the vets who served in Ubon were not entitled to war support benefits. When the vets started submitting petitions to the government for recognition and benefits, they pointed out that Malaya was a long way away from Ubon, and in another country. But we had to shout long and hard to get our elected Federal representatives to hear us and do something about it.
Malaya did not want anything to do with the Vietnam War either. It certainly didn’t want to have the Sabre fighters based in Butterworth involved in that war. For that reason, the Sabres flew tucked under the wings of the Hercules Transports that took us up there so that they could not be detected by radar. Deceit has been a constant feature of the Federal Government’s policy throughout the years.
Returning RAAF vets have suffered various disabilities since returning home. But the Federal Government refused to recognize for many years that these troops qualified for medical help. Many died as a result of being ignored and neglected before the Feds relented.
When the statute of limitations ran out on the Freedom of Information act, surviving veterans unearthed files to support petitions to the government for benefits and recognition. The vets claimed they had been denied equal recognition for their service. They were not the only ones who were ignored either. Australian Defense Force (ADF) troops who took part in Malayan Emergency operations, and others who were on active service during the Indonesian Confrontation, returned home to an ungrateful country.
In 1999 the Australian Federal Government commissioned an independent commission to review these petitions. The Mohr Review, headed by Judge Robert Mohr of South Australia, reviewed anomalies in the service entitlements for ADF troops who had served in Asian war zones. This was the 4th commission set up to review the vets petitions. The 1992 CIDA report ruled that RAAF vets in Ubon qualified for warlike service benefits. The government refused to act on it.
Judge Mohr found ample evidence to support the vets claims and wrote a strong recommendation to the Federal Government. This finally convinced the Australian government to honour them with a package of benefits, including medals and pensions to the survivors.
Although the Australian government has awarded the Australian Active Service Medal to those who served after 1965, it seems the award may actually be invalid for the Ubon veterans. The laws that govern who can be awarded that medal state that it is only awarded after receiving a campaign medal. The Ubon vets have not been awarded a campaign medal.
In addition, the vets are fighting to get the Vietnam Logistic & Support Medal. By awarding this medal, the Federal Government would at last acknowledge that the Ubon vets were supporting active service troops in Vietnam.
Compare this to the attitude of the Thai people. Recently, His Majesty King Bumiphol Adulyadej heard about the plight of the RAAF vets who served bravely to protect Thailand during those dangerous years. To show the Thai nations gratitude, His Majesty gave permission to the Ubon veterans to cast a 40th Anniversary Medal. The medal can be worn with pride by all those who served at Ubon Ratchathani between May 1962 and August 1968.
Despite the awards and benefits the Australian government has grudgingly given since the Mohr Review, the vets feel there is still much to be done. For years the Australian government was reluctant to acknowledge that their service in Ubon was in support of the Vietnam war. Was it just because they didn’t want to spend taxpayer’s money, or does it go deeper?
WHAT WENT ON IN UBON
The Ubon base was there for 2 reasons: To gather SigInt (signals intelligence) and pass it to Canberra where it found its way to CIA communications centers in the Pacific and the USA, and to support USAF aircraft and the air and ground defense of Thailand, which released more USAF aircraft for use in bombing operations like “Rolling Thunder”, the bombing of North Vietnam. This was not what the Australian Federal Government said officially, but that is certainly what RAAF boys were doing there. Nor would the Thai government at the time admit that it gave support to RAAF and US forces based in Thailand for fear of reprisals from the NVN and possibly China.
Officially, the Australian government to this day insists that the RAAF was in Ubon only for the ‘Air Defense of Thailand’! It seems that even after all these years they are still afraid of revealing embarrassing secrets about their involvement in the Vietnam war.
A DANGEROUS WAR
Life on the base was hell. The US Air Force was sending off seven F4C Phantom fighter bombers to bomb Vietnam every 4 to 15 minutes 24/7. The Australian base was about 100 meters from the runway (measured on Google Earth), so all RAAF personnel were deafened by the roar of 7 afterburners at full throttle every time a flight took off. Nervous disorders and hearing problems are common among the vets as a result.
These are not the most serious illnesses that can be attributed to serving in Ubon. Slow chemical poisoning can be directly attributed to poor controls on how chemicals were used.
For example, one of the troops assigned to fill a water tanker with drinking water for the troops reported he was ordered to use the same tanker to transport insecticides. Even though the tanker was supposed to be cleaned out before changing cargoes it was extremely difficult to remove all traces of the chemicals. Using the same tanker to transport drinking water was an irresponsible act, and a clear health hazard for the troops. But no one in the Australian government at the time cared.
Since then the vets have had a hard time persuading the Federal Government to accept that the disabilities some of them suffer today were caused by these dangerous chemicals despite a much higher proportion dying of chemical induced illnesses than the general population. Illnesses include cancers, palsy, diabetes, and abnormal births, to name a few.
A number of veterans, both US and Australian, are on record as having seen drums of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D in the distinctive banded drums that were used to store a rainbow of defoliants and herbicides. Subsequent scientific research has confirmed that these chemicals are responsible for deaths, deformities, and diseases in Vietnamese and among veterans, like the lady pictured on the left.
Add to this living huts, or hooches as we called them, made of corrugated iron. WW II Japanese POW camps would have been more comfortable in comparison, as they were mostly made of bamboo. We sweltered inside the tin ovens during the hot season, or we were kept awake during the wet season by the rain belting down on the bare tin roof. The weather was typical of north eastern Thailand: A relentless hot sun that beat down on the tin roofs making it impossible for night shift personnel to sleep. There was no air conditioning, just a few feeble fans hanging from the ceiling. Add the torment of not being able to sleep because of the almost constant noise of flights of F4C planes taking off and landing, and life was hell. The only people on the base who enjoyed any comfort were the guys in the communications hut, which was sandbagged and air-conditioned.
The hooches were regularly sprayed by fogging machines containing Dioxin and Dieldren diluted with diesoline to keep the mosquitoes down. The Thais doing this job thought it a great joke to fog unsuspecting sleepers. Some troops have suffered various disabilities as a result.
Sandbags were essential around the communications center and other important installations. The communist forces knew the RAAF boys were there and often tried to put them out of commission. One of their favorite tricks was to bury half a dozen mortar tubes in the jungle near the base aimed at strategic areas. It was easy for them to wander by any time with a few shells and drop them in. They could disappear long before anyone got there to investigate.
The troops were called out on “Red Alert” whenever flights of communist helicopters approached the base, or when there were reports of attempted infiltration attacks by VC. The helicopter attacks were usually chased off by the US Air Force each time. But in 1969 when the RAAF had already evacuated their base, a communist attacking force actually made it through the air defenses and flew over the area where the Aussies had been to attack the US base. At other times VC ground soldiers tried to attack the base. At least one team managed to cut through the perimeter wire before being intercepted by US guards.
In 1967 the communists set up an artillery gun a few miles away in the jungle ready to start pounding the base. They never got to fire it because the USAF spotted it while they were setting up and bombed it out of existence. These were not isolated incidents, but part of an ongoing campaign to put the allies out of action. Yet, several veterans who have taken their cases to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) have had their claims rejected because the investigating company the DVA hired as ‘expert witnesses’ claimed that we never came under fire at any time, and nor were there ever any deaths! If this is so, why do so many vets from different parts of Australia continue to claim they were often called out on “red alerts” dressed in full battle gear and armed with a loaded rifle? And why do so many veterans describe various incidents, including “Vietcong terrorists were found getting through the fence to the airstrip while attempting to throw dynamite at phantom bombers” — AAT Riley, para 7
Damaged aircraft were a danger too. In 1967 during one veteran’s service at Ubon an F4C Phantom flamed out on takeoff and exploded at 3 a.m. A group of RAAF boys playing poker in their billet near the runway were knocked to the floor by the blast. Then the shrapnel started dropping on them. One piece about 2 feet square smashed through the roof of the base infirmary and buried itself in the wall just above the doctors head. If he had sat up suddenly he would have been decapitated. The piece of shrapnel was subsequently displayed above the bar for all to see.
In 1968 a USAF Cessna O-2 FAC aircraft had an engine cut out on take off and crashed into the ‘Fuel Farm’ fence about 10 meters from the Aussie base. RAAF air defense guards could not save the pilots because the plane caught fire trapping the crew inside. A few feet higher and the plane would have crashed into the fuel farm next door to the RAAF base with disastrous results.
That same year another aircraft slewed sideways off the runway into the area where the RAAF boys played soccer. It was pure luck that the plane didn’t do any serious damage. The danger was always there and very real.
Another Phantom landed with one hung up undercarriage. The pilot lost control and the rear bombardier ejected sideways into a tree stump near the runway. The pilot ejected a moment later into the runway. He had to be scraped off the cement.
Despite the overwhelming evidence from a wide variety of veteran sources, the DVA continues to deny that any deaths occurred, or that many of the illnesses we suffer from were caused by our service in a war zone.
Secrecy was tight during those years. All the Allied governments involved tried to keep their activities secret, especially from their own troops. It was only when the veterans started meeting each other at reunions and through the internet that a larger picture emerged. It’s not a pretty one. No wonder our governments didn’t want anyone to know what the were up to.
Interestingly, the veterans searching through the mountain of documents for information on their service are finding that large chunks of it have disappeared. If you want to find the dental records of everyone who was posted to Ubon, no problem. But important information like commanding officers reports and messages handled by the communications center are missing. Other documents like medical bulletins sent to the doctors serving there appear to be lost as well. The vets find this not only very frustrating, but strange too. Why are documents suddenly disappearing like this so long after the event? Do they contain embarrassing information the government would like to suppress?
In some cases identities have been erased. There is the case of one vet who had a top secret clearance for his work in the Ubon communications room. Recently, he wrote to the RAAF radio school to request a copy of his education records. They wrote back and said that all his documents had been destroyed when the school moved from Victoria to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. Yet they could supply details of his examination results, but not the original report. Was this simply stupidity, or did the Defence Department callously decide that it would be easier to deny claims if the paperwork was missing?
When this same vet left the RAAF a few years after serving in Ubon the Australian Federal Police followed him everywhere he went. About 1 year after he got out of the RAAF his girl friend got a job in Darwin. They decided to go up there from Sydney together. They only used cash, so there was no way for the Feds to track them. The Feds lost the vet and went frantic going to his friends, neighbors and family trying to find out where he was. When he returned to Sydney and learned that the Feds were still following him, he flew to New Zealand with his girlfriend. When he returned 4 years later the Feds were still watching him. Security, paranoia, or harassment?
Veterans searching for information that can be used to bolster their cases find it is doubly difficult because there seems to be no standard search criteria they can use. Documents are stored under labels that don’t seem to bear any relation to their content. Files have been put in the wrong locations. Sifting through them all is a nightmare.
Despite this, enough facts have emerged to force the Australian government to give the Ubon ghost warriors and other ADF members partial recognition and support. But the vets claim not enough has been done yet.
War is a serious business, especially when you are fighting a secret war. The Australian Federal Government denied its own veterans pleas for medical and financial support for much too long. During the war it authorized the use of toxic poisons without taking proper precautions: It also supported illegal operations inside the borders of countries they were not at war with. These are all shameful acts that must be acknowledged, rectified and paid for. It’s the least the brave men and women who served in the Vietnam war deserve after all these years.