“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 because of the security blackout the government imposed on them, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) ghost warriors who fought a secret war in Thailand to support the troops in Viet Nam have had to be silent for 40 years.
Each airman 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 our troops were 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 was part of the Far East Strategic Reserve, which was active before 1963 in Malaya.
Because of this, the government claimed that the veterans were not entitled to Vietnam 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 from Ubon and in another country.
Malaya, or Malaysia as it has since been called, 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 the war. For that reason, the Sabres flew on changeover from Butterworth to Ubon and back tucked under the wings of C-130 re-supply planes so that they could not be detected by radar. Deceit was a constant feature of the federal government’s policy throughout the Vietnam war years, and ever since.
RAAF vets who served in Ubon have suffered various disabilities since returning home. But the federal government refused to recognize for many years that these troops qualified for medical help. Some even died as a result, ignored, unacknowledged, and neglected.
Surviving veterans unearthed files to support petitions to the government for benefits and recognition when the statute of limitations ran out on the Freedom of Information Act. The vets claimed they had been denied equal recognition for their service in a war zone.
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 the same treatment from 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 vet’s 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 vet’s claims and wrote a strong recommendation to the federal government. This finally convinced the Australian government to honor 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. 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 yet 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 Viet Nam.
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 nation’s gratitude, His Majesty gave permission to the Ubon veterans to cast a 40th Anniversary Medal. The medal is 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 Viet Nam war. And by ignoring our plight it was obvious the politicians hoped we would all die off before they were forced to act.
But was it just for the money involved, 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 and to CIA communications centers in the Pacific and the USA, and to support USAF aircraft and the air and ground defense of Thailand. This support released more USAF aircraft for use in operations like “Rolling Thunder”, the massive, continuous bombing of North Vietnam during 1967.
This was not what the Australian federal government said officially, but that is certainly what the RAAF boys were doing there. Nor would the Thai government at the time admit that it gave support to US and RAAF forces based in Thailand for fear of reprisal from NVN and possibly China. Yet, there were several huge USAF bases dotted around the country, mostly in the north east. The CIA also maintained a base at U-Tapao on the Gulf of Siam. All were involved in supporting the war in Vietnam.
The RAAF base at Ubon was a tiny, but vital cog in the war machine.
Officially, the Australian government to this day insists that the RAAF was in Ubon only for the ‘Air Defense of Thailand’!
It seems that after all these years they are still afraid of having embarrassing secrets revealed about their involvement in the Vietnam war.
A DANGEROUS WAR
Life on the base was hell. The US Air Force was sending off several F4C Phantom fighter bombers to bomb Viet Nam at least every 20 minutes around the clock. The Australian base was about 200 meters from the runway, so all RAAF personnel were deafened by the roar of 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. Many Ubon vets have suffered slow chemical poisoning as a result of the poor controls on how chemicals were used around the base.
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 cargos 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. Some have even died as a result. 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 the 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. 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 site 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.
All the RAAF troops were called to action stations whenever flights of communist helicopters approached the base. They were usually chased off by the US Air Force. 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.
In 1967 the communists set up an artillery gun a few miles away outside Ubon town in the jungle, ready to start pounding the bases. 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. — AAT Riley, para 7
Damaged aircraft were a danger too. In 1967 during 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 befor the plane caught fire, trapping the crew inside. A few feet higher and the plane would have crashed into the fuel farm with disastrous results for those on the RASF base.
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 RAAF 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 they 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?
It appears that some identities have been erased as well. There is the case of one vet (the writer of this article) who had a top secret clearance for his work in the Ubon communications room. Years after his service he wrote to 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.
He thought it was strange that they could supply details of his examination results, but not his education records. Why would they destroy records just because they were moving locations?
When this same veteran left the RAAF a few years after serving in Ubon the Federal Police followed him everywhere he went.
About one year after he got out his girlfriend got a job in Darwin. They decided to hitchhike up there from Sydney. They used cash during the trip so there was no paper trail. This was not intentional. They just didn’t have credit cards.
The Feds lost the veteran and went frantic going to his friends, neighbors and family trying to find out where he was. When he returned to Sydney six months later his friends were not too happy with him. They were tired of being harassed by the Feds.
Shortly afterwards the couple went to New Zealand. When he returned four years later he realized that the Feds were still watching him. He was grilled at immigration control about what he had been doing in New Zealand. Was this security, paranoia, or harassment?
Veterans searching for information that could be used to bolster their claims cases often 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 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 veteran’s 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 Australia was not officially at war with. These are all shameful acts that must be rectified and paid for. It’s the least the brave men and women who served in Ubon deserve after all these years.