Mar 12 2012

War in Ubon — Mike Holt

Ubon 1967

“This is a chancre,” the medical officer said, pointing to a gruesome picture on a flip chart at the front of the room. “If you go unprotected with the local girls, this is what you risk catching.”

He went on. “This is gonorrhea, another nasty disease that is prevalent here. There is a new strain called the Black Widow that is impervious to our antibiotics. Catch that and you will rot to death…slowly.”

I was sitting in a hot corrugated tin shack in the middle of who knew where. It was 1967 and the Vietnam war was raging just north east of us. At least, that’s what we liked to think. The reality was that the war was right there with us.

On the day my small contingent of RAAF personnel flew into the dusty US air base a security patrol found six mortars set up at the end of the runway in the jungle. They were aimed at strategic targets like the fuel depot, the staging area, the officer’s mess. All Victor Charlie had to do was sneak up to them any time, drop in their little mortar bombs, and they could disappear back into the jungle before the first one hit its target.

The Ubon US air base was a huge sprawling collection of huts and a runway. The RAAF base was a small pimple on the outer perimeter. Every ten to twenty minutes a flight of seven F-4C Phantom jets would take off loaded with bombs headed for Hanoi or other targets. Off they would go, taking their loads of death and destruction. The deafening roar of their afterburners was a constant reminder that the war was right there among us. We didn’t realize it at the time but those afterburners would cause just one of many health problems for us later on.

Of course, Murphy was there too as the death and destruction came home with the returning planes. Those flying buckets of nuts and bolts had a terrible habit of falling apart just when you didn’t want them to; especially if the Viets had hit them in the right places.

One night we were sitting around a table playing cards at 3 am. It was a pay night. It had to be. That was the only time we ever had any money spare. Suddenly, our world rocked. The hut we were sitting in was buffeted by a shock wave. I was almost thrown onto the floor. Some blokes did hit the floor.

Then the rain started. Pieces of shrapnel, bits of destroyed aircraft, slivers of steel from exploded ordinance rained down on the roof. Burning hot bits of metal sliced through the tin roof and started smoldering on the rough wooden floor. I found out later that one piece, about a foot square, pierced the doctor’s roof and sliced into his pillow. If he hadn’t already sat up at the huge noise, he would have been decapitated.

An F4-C Phantom had come in with a hung front wheel. It had careered down the runway and ploughed into the base rocket dump. The explosion rocked the base and could be heard miles away.

Anyway, getting back to the welcoming speech from our soon to be almost decapitated medical officer: Why were we sitting in that hot hut listening to a lecture on the horrors of sexually transmitted disease just after we had got off the plane?

That was part of our orientation talk. The base medico was there to warn us of the dangers of sex, especially unprotected sex with the local girls. This lecture was designed to scare the pants of us, not literally of course, and make us refrain from the wild delights waiting for us in town.

His speech reminded me of the day when I was a young teenager in Penang, Malaysia, where I was living with my parents at the time. One day we were driving down a back street in Georgetown. My mother pointed out an ordinary looking building and told me never to go near there. When I asked why she told me it was a house of ill repute.

I had no idea what that was so of course my curiosity was aroused. As soon as I got home I dived for the dictionary and learned for the first time that there were girls available for hire. Wow! At my age, a mere fourteen, this was a revelation indeed. My hormones were in full rage.

It didn’t do me any good though. I never plucked up the courage to go to the house of ill repute to see what pleasures it might offer. But at that age I couldn’t help having a few unsettling dreams about it.

Now I was sitting in a hot tin shack in another hot tropical land learning that these delights were available just outside the gates of the air base. Never mind the gruesome pictures up there on the flip chart. We were young. We were horny. And we just knew we would never get any of those horrible diseases. Nope. Not us.

Next, the base chaplain got up to tell us that God was watching over us and he would not approve of us consorting with women of ill repute. That must have been a favorite term for the God-fearing and pure of heart. I guess it’s hard for the moralists to call a spade a bloody shovel. I remember sitting there thinking that if God really loved me why had he sent me to hell already and provided such delights into the bargain?

The local Indian tailors in Ubon town even sold a beautiful black satin bomber jacket embroidered with a devil’s face, or perhaps a roaring tiger, or a rampant dragon. Lettered at the top and bottom of the picture were the words, “When I die I’ll go to heaven — because I’ve already been to hell in Ubon”

But the real warriors wore another jacket embroidered with the immortal words, “Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…for I am the evilest bastard here.”

We were at war and almost anything would make us laugh. With the horrors going on around us laughter was the only way to cope. Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding just when you don’t want it.

Yeah, we were in hell alright. Looking outside the windows of our tin barracks, the red dust swirled around, painting the sky and the buildings this dull, awful red color. The dust got up your nostrils, down into your lungs. It permeated everything. Even the seams in your clothes took on a red lining.

We were billeted in corrugated iron huts, about 30 men in each one. We were hot all the time. The sun beat down onto the hot tin roofs and into our heads without respite. Our huts were a divinely inspired heat torture instrument. The few rotating fans attached to the rafters merely circulated the hot air, but never cooled you down. We would lie there, panting from the heat. Until someone would say, “F**k this! Let’s go to town and find a cool bar.”

That was the cue we had all been waiting for. We piled out of the main gate into the waiting trishaws, and told the Thai drivers, “Bai bar lao, lao!” We didn’t know how to speak much Thai, but that phrase was essential.

The drivers didn’t need to be told where. They knew that any bar would do. There weren’t that many bars to choose from anyway. Ubon was a small town back then. The main shopping area was a square of shop-houses down near the riverside market. I went back to Ubon a few years ago and those shop-houses were still there. In fact, Ubon hasn’t changed all that much. It’s just got a lot bigger.

Sometimes, if we’d already had a few coldies at the base canteen we would tell the trishaw drivers to sit in the passenger seat and we would jump in the saddle. We’d race each other down the road, rarely getting far. Those damn trishaws are not easy to steer. We would career all over the road and fall into ditches. Or we would pile into each other laughing manically as the owners screamed in horror. Their bicycles were bent and mashed. But it didn’t matter. We would pay them for the damages and look for more mischief when we got to town. We were at war and we took what we could from life. There was no telling if we’d even be there tomorrow.

If the bars had not opened yet the local bowling alley was very popular. Now, forget the super slick alleys with all that automated machinery you see today. Our bowling alley was in a tin hut. But wasn’t everything in Ubon those days? The lanes were crude planks of wood planed to relative smoothness. Boys set up the pins at the end. When they were set they would scramble up onto a wooden bar at the back and wait for us to throw the ball down the lane at the fastest speed we could manage.

As we played we were drinking. So sometimes, just out of sheer boredom, we would send a ball screaming down the alley before the boy had finished setting up the pins. He would hear the ball rushing towards him and scramble up onto his plank of wood just in time to avoid having his legs broken. It seemed funny at the time. We were, after all, just young kids aged from 18 to 25. And we were in a damn war!

Of course, after that introductory lecture from our senior officers, we were all keen to get out into the town and sample the forbidden delights waiting for us. But the RAAF bosses weren’t stupid, so new arrivals were confined to the base for the first 14 days. Talk about priming the hormones! We were hot to go at the end of our quarantine period.

I don’t remember much about my first night out. All I do remember is waking up the next morning beside a skinny brown girl with a breath that would have peeled paint from the walls – if there had been any on her little wooden hooch. My head was thumping. My eyes were bleeding. Luckily, I had brought a bottle of the local whisky back with me. I opened the top and chugged it down until I started to feel almost human again.

Who knows how they brewed that whisky? It was vile. But it did the trick and I managed to stagger to the hong nam (bathroom) and sluice myself down from the large water jar. My companion for the night joined me and we spent a pleasurable time washing each others backs and getting to know each other. I’ll never forget her name. It was the first time I ever met a girl called Porn.

After our shower we jumped back in the sack again. I just had to find out if she lived up to her name.

She did.

That afternoon she poured me into a local taxi and I finally made it back to base.

Way back then, most of the people in and around Ubon had never driven a car before. The taxi drivers had never taken a driving lesson either, except from each other. Obviously, the first bloke had only learned how to put his car into top gear and to hit the brake. He must have passed this essential knowledge on to all his mates.

They would get going in top gear, pop the clutch, and push hard on the accelerator. If they were lucky, the engine would catch enough gas to cough and sputter and lurch forward, and we would be away. Whenever we came to a corner, the driver just kept his foot on the gas and around we went, juddering and shuddering until we built up enough speed again on the straight for the engine to run fairly normally. We tried teaching them how to change gears, but they just smiled and said, “My pen rai” (the Aussie equivalent of “She’ll be right mate”). What can you do in the face of those immortal words?

When I got back to the base I lay down in my bed to recover. One of my mates came over and asked if I remembered our night out. When I told him I couldn’t remember much he filled me in.

It seems that when we entered the mis-named Playboy Club, yet another tin shed only larger than most, we had taken a table on a mezzanine floor in the back quarter of the building. We were immediately inundated with bar girls, all demanding we buy them a drink. No problem. We were there for a good time.

I’m not sure how long it was before the ‘incident’ happened. I do know I’d had a few, so say at least forty minutes.

Suddenly, my companion sat up and stared like a wild woman. I wasn’t sure what she was going on about but that quickly became irrelevant. She pulled a long knife out of her handbag and yelled, “I kill you!” as she leaped over the railing and onto a table below. She picked herself up and ran through the crowd chasing a Yank airman.

She was still yelling, “I kill you” as she disappeared out of the door.

My mate said we all looked at each other, shrugged, and continued drinking. It takes a lot to keep an Aussie from his beer!

I was lucky that no other girl took an interest in me, because not long after she went chasing that Yank she reappeared with a satisfied smirk on her face.

After I had got her another beer and she was ensconced safely on my knee again I asked her what had happened.

“Last night I sleep with he. He no pay. I chase he. Now he pay.”

No more needed to be said. I got the picture and vowed that I would not try the same stupid trick as that Yank. Ever.

As it turned out, Porn and I got on so well that she became my “girlfriend” for my entire 6 month tour. I worked 24 hours on and had 48 off. So when I was working she was out at the bars making money too. And when I was off duty she spent all her time with me. It wasn’t exactly the kind of relationship I was used to, but what the hey! It worked for us.

Whenever I hear those old war veterans try to tell you that war is hell I have to have a little chuckle. Of course it’s true, but frankly my war was also fun sometimes. Scary hell-type fun. You sure don’t get that sort of thrill from a local fairground hall of horrors. Nope. You have to wait for your government to give you the real thing. But that’s why they call me a veteran.

Permanent link to this article: http://vietnamvetssc.org.au/war-in-ubon-mike-holt/

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