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Mar 12 2012

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Australia’s Vietnam war ghost soldiers

 

“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.

Aerial view of Ubon air base

Aerial view of Ubon air base

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.

Bob Hope Show December 1967. Photo by George Knowles 1967-68

Bob Hope Show December 1967. Photo by George Knowles 1967-68 – I was there

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.

Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertaining the troops – Ubon, 1967.

Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertaining the troops – Ubon, 1967.

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.

Australian Active Service medal 45-75 reverse

Australian Active Service medal 45-75 reverse


Australian Active Service medal 45-75

Australian Active Service medal 45-75

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.

Commemorative medal issued by Thai King Adulyadej in appreciation of the veterans who served in his country during the Vietnam war

Commemorative medal issued by Thai King Adulyadej in appreciation of the veterans who served in his country during the Vietnam war

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.

Sports & Spinal physiotherapy centres

Sports & Spinal physiotherapy centres

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.

F-4 Flightline, 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS). Photo by George Knowles 1967-68

F-4 Flightline, 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS). Photo by George Knowles 1967-68

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.

Agent Orange victim in Vietnam.

Agent Orange victim in Vietnam.

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.

US troops hooches were luxurious compared to the RAAF huts we suffered in -- Hot corrugated steel roof and sides, useless fans that circulated the hot air if you stood right under them

US hooches simlar to the RAAF huts we suffered in — Hot corrugated steel roof and sides, useless fans that circulated the hot air if you stood right under them

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

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.

This is an F-4C landing on Runway 5 at Ubon in late 1967. Photo by George Knowles Ubon 1967-68

This is an F-4C landing on Runway 5 at Ubon in late 1967. Photo by George Knowles Ubon 1967-68

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.

SECURITY CONCERNS

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.

Does anyone recognize these blokes? Probably taken outside the Comm Centre in the early days of Ubon

Does anyone recognize these blokes? Probably taken outside the Comm Centre in the early days of Ubon

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?

On parade, Ubon 1967, courtesy of The Electronic Blue Beret

On parade, Ubon 1967, courtesy of The Electronic Blue Beret

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.

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About the author

Mike Holt

Served at Ubon, Thailand, 1967 with the RAAF as a telegraphist. Started working with computers with the RAAF, and continued throughout my working life. I am an experienced business application programmer, systems analyst, database designer, online communications specialist. Retired, but still keeping up-to-date with the latest technology.

Permanent link to this article: http://vietnamvetssc.org.au/australias-vietnam-war-ghost-soldiers/

17 comments

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  1. Heidi Abbey

    Hello there,
    I am the daughter of Russell Abbey, known as ‘Hank’ who was in Ubon in 1967 as an Adgie. I was wondering if you knew him at all. He passed 5 years ago yesterday.
    I came across your website while researching PTSD.
    I hope all is well with you.
    I look forward to your response, if you find it appropriate.
    Kind Regards,
    Heidi Abbey

    1. vvboss

      Hello Heidi, sorry to hear that Russell has passed. I’m not sure if I met him or not…it’s so long ago and I’m terrible with names. If he was there in the first 6 months of 67 I would have met him.

  2. greg martin

    Hi, I’m in a group on facebook called Ubon Vets. I was allowed to join because of my relationship to Denis Hardy who served there as an armourer. They are all Americans from the 8TFW. I’m not a vet but they ask lots of questions. One question is “are the Australians who served there being compensated for exposure to Agent Orange?” Can anyone tell me the answer? I know Denis ended up with a Ubon Service Medal issued to him not long before he passed away.
    Thanks
    Greg Martin

  3. Wayne West

    In your illustration in the above text of the Australian Active Service Medal ,you are displaying the incorrect medal and riband,The one shown is only applicable for active service after 1975, also in your F4 crash description be informed that F4s didnt carry gunners in their rear seats,only RIOs (Radar intercept Officers) Whenever approaching the government, you need to supply facts without silly mistakes. Any how, good luck with your on going claims

  4. vvboss

    Thank you for pointing out the error of the medals. I have corrected it.

    The error about the rear seat occupant is mine. I wasn’t paying attention to what I wrote. One of my friends was a bombadier flying in the rear seat of Ubon-based F4C’s. He never mentioned being an RIO, so before I correct it I’ll do some research to confirm one way or the other. But thanks for taking the time to point out these errors. As a writer, I do try to confirm everything, but occasionally it is easy to rely on memory and thus make mistakes.

  5. Jerry Musialowski

    Was at Ubon in 67-68 assigned to the crash fire crews next to the Aussie maint sheds. Had a ball with the Aussie fireman they were alot of fun to joke around with. Have some photos of your trucks and ours, was there when your 86 went down You guys are right, we went we served and now they try to deny benefits. Amazing how agent orange wasn’t there but nothing ever grew between the taxi ways and runway, remember the mosquito spraying….Still remember when you left, you guys painted a red Roo and RAFF on everything. My dad was in Australia before they went into New Guinea, it was the one place he always said he would have liked to gone back to.

  6. Alan Johnson

    The persons in the photo outside the Communications tent in the early days of Ubon (June 1962) are from left to right……Jimmy Braybrook, Don Sewell…and my self Alan Johnson

  7. Alan Johnson

    In addition, The rifles were 303 lee enfields, 5 rounds in the magazine, bayonet and scabbard, and no other webbing. We signals staff also had colt 45′s which were to be used to destroy our crypto machines if under attack. And, Yes we were on active service. As a point of interest, we were never told where we were being deployed until we actually landed at Ubon, On arrival we then proceeded to our camp site where we were told to erect our own tents. Oddly enough Radio Peking broadcast a warm welcome to the Australian airmen in Ubon and wished us a pleasant stay, this was a few days after our arrival..SECRECY was supposed to be the key word………after 51 years, our active service has been recognised.

    1. vvboss

      Thanks for that information Alan. By the time we arrived in 67 we were issued with SLR’s, with bayonets…and yes, I remember the 45′s although I wasn’t issued one. Same with the secrecy. We knew we were going somewhere north of Butterworth, but we didn’t find out where until we got off the plane.

      We also played games with the ChinComs…recognizing their morse ‘hands’. I used to try and vary my hand as much as possible so as to make it hard for them to recognise who was on the key.

  8. Lawrie Wilson

    Interesting essay on Ubon. I was at Ubon in 1962 and again in 1967. The mention of tent accomodation in 1962 reminds me of the rain storms that used to sweep Ubon. You could hear it coming, then everything would go grey and a wall of water would fall. You would then be ankle deep in water. If you were at the outdoor movies you had to hang on to the marquee, else it would blow away. A couple of times the projector blew over. Luckily, we didn’t have to man the trenches, as they quickly filled with dirty yellow water. The place abounded with snakes. We had to shower in a cubicle with chest height hessian walls, near the edge of the passing road. We used to wave at the locals often as they passed by while we showered. The kids were great, they often met us as we walked up the road to our mess tent and gave us flowers they had picked.

    1967 the accommodation had moved up the road to a new location. Well I remember the Phantoms taking off and landing, the heat of the huts and working places, and the change in the attitudes of the locals after the invasion of thousands of Americans. I always suspected Dioxin and Gamalean were used around the base. I am sure they used it in Butterworth too. They are a great Carcinogen.

    Thanks for the memories.

  9. Janet Cross Harradine

    My father Bob “Bodgie” Cross, served in Ubon Thailand but did not speak much of it. Would love to hear from anyone who may have known him there, and am interested to hear tales. Dad passed away in Feb 2000. Mum lives on the Gold Coast.

  10. RCB veteran

    Hi

    An interesting service of those who served at Ubon, there is currently a push for recognition for those who served at Butterwoth Air Base – Malaysia as Rifle Company Butterworth 1970 to 1989 during what is now known as the 2nd Malaysian Emergency. An interesting aspect of this service is that up until 1975 Butterworth Air Base was used as a transit base for vietnam in terms of troop movements and logistics.

    The 2nd Emerergency was fuelled by both China and Nth Vietnam in their push for domination of SE Asia.
    The vets of this service are facing the same hurdles in terms of recognition due to lack of government records.

    more can be found at wwwrarassociation.com. Click on the SA Branch / advocacy tab/ rifle company butterworth.

  11. David Hadfield

    Notwithstanding the long overdue official recognition and approval to wear the RAAF Ubon 40th anniversary medal instituted and approved by His Majesty The King of Thailand, I am extremely disturbed to learn that Australia’s only operational casualty in Thailand, PLTOFF Mark McGrath RAAF has no memorial, plaque etc. in Thailand. Who in DVA wants to run with this? Lest we Forget.

    David Hadfield
    Thailand

    1. vvboss

      Thank you David. As a Ubon veteran I applaud your idea. Please call DVA and talk to them about it. I think you will find a very sympathetic ear over there.

      Cheers
      Mike Holt
      A111874 RAAF

  12. Mal Barnes

    Mike,

    You’ve done it again….good story…put together from a lot of work done by others (I,m talking about me).

    Ubon Vets now have
    ASM (early period)
    AASM & VLSM RAS Badge (June 65 onwards)

    AASM (May to July 1962 blokes)

    Push from RVNC Medal is in progress….we wait again.

    P/O M McGrath & LAC J Kirkwood both have their names engraved on the ‘Honour Roll’ in the War Memorial in Canberra (thanks to one Mick Morrissey….

    Regards,

    Mal B

    1. vvboss

      Very true Mal. I couldn’t have written this article without the input from many people, yourself included. Thanks mate.

  13. Maverick@ExpertRemovalist

    I hope there will be no more wars to come. I was born after world war II even in pictures i can see the difficult situation of the people and most of all the soldiers. That’s why i highly respect all the veterans.

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