Recollections of Brian Kennedy OC 1ATF det 131 Div Loc Bty 27th Aug 1969 to 27th Aug 1970


Trying to remember events of 45 years ago would try anyone’s brain so I must beg some latitude for errors. Most of us remember events as they impact ourselves, not how others see things. Eye witnesses are generally poor witnesses on the details. Since I returned I have only met three past members of the unit so my memory for names is pretty well shot. For that I apologise. I follow the format requested by Graham Dignam.

I enlisted in the ARA in Feb 1960 and after the normal recruit training was allotted to infantry and posted to 3RAR.  In 1962 I attended OCS Portsea and opted for artillery. After YO training at the School of Arty in 1963, I was sent to 111 LAA Bty, where I remained until Jan 1967, (this included 2 years in Malaysia deployed at RAAF Base Butterworth). Next I went to AGWTU at Woomera for 2 years.

In Jan 1969 I was posted to 131 Div Loc Bty and attended the Regimental Officers Gunnery and the Arty Int courses at the School of Arty. I was then supposed to work up with 4 Fd Regt for deployment to SVN in early 1970. That training would have seen me go to Shoalwater Bay and attend the BE course at Canungra. But I missed those as Tony Eaton had to RTA on emergency grounds and I was told that I would move as soon as Canberra agreed to my not having to go on the BE course. I believe my previous service in 3RAR both at Enoggera and also detached to them on the Thai-Malay border in 1964 helped there. So I left about a week later. My family and I had just moved into a married quarter at Holsworthy village. I could only wish them good luck.

I went to SVN as a one for one replacement. We had a stopover in Darwin to refuel. I remember the International bar was open and as I had been made the OC for the flight, I spent my time trying to keep the mob together. It was a bit like herding cats. But no one went missing. The next stop was Singapore where a plane load of supposed young male civilians all wearing khaki trousers and black GP boots with civilian shirts and short haircuts went to breakfast. I have no idea what happened to that shirt.

Next stop was Saigon. I had passed through there in Mar 1965, when on my fortnight observer tour from Malaysia to II Corps in the highlands (most ARA officers in Malaysia did this tour; as did many ARES officers later) and I could not believe my eyes at Tan Son Nuit. The number of planes and the equipment was awesome compared to four years before. It was like going from Bankstown airport to Kingsford Smith on steroids. I was impressed. Then we all set off towards Nui Dat or Vung Tau on several C123 Provider aircraft; sitting strapped on the floor as I recall it.

The detachment was in good shape considering it appeared to be strewn all over Phouc Tuy province and up as far as Long Binh, where one of the radars was still in the anti-mortar anti-rocket belt. I was told it had been there for some time as I recall. I also found a US Army white light/infrared searchlight from the 5/2 Arty perched on top of the LP on Nui Dat Hill.

My first business was to meet my officers and NCOs as there was no handover, Tony Eaton was already home in Australia. All were experienced in country so that made it easier. The sections were under the watchful eyes of my officers: Survey under Andrew Overall, soon to be replaced by Michael Boyle, and Radar under Paul Tys. George Addison seemed to be the king of the sound rangers. The unit was coordinated by the BSM Alan “Clacker” Cleasby, soon to be replaced by Geoff McCauley, together with a lance jack in the orderly room (who, like Radar, seemed to know where everyone was and when they would come back to base). As I remember the Q store was basically a self-service arrangement; you went in and took what you needed and the storeman put in for another one. There were several people I knew from Malaya, Jim Ritchie and Lofty Hayes come to mind. Soon my driver was replaced by Ned Webb, another old acquaintance from 111 Bty; on that basis I gave him his first stripe. The regulars of the old 111 Bty had been scattered to the four winds as junior and senior NCOs to all parts of the Corps on our return in 1966.

My biggest problem was that since I had not been part of the workup with 4 Fd Regt I had never seen, let alone worked in, an Arty Tac HQ. This caused some concern both to me and the other officers rostered there. I had to learn quickly but was not really regarded as part of their team, for they all had trained together in Australia and had now been on operations for some 6 months. I therefore did a lot of late night shifts to learn the trade. I gravitated into friendship with the US Marine Corps officer in the air and naval gunfire liaison detachment, Ken Phipps, and the 1 Fd Regt doctor, Ian Elder. We were not really seen as part of the regiment and so we formed a trio like something out of MASH.

Out of the blue one day I was told to report to the 1ATF Deputy Comd. He informed me that the CO of either 3RAR or 8RAR was complaining of a dismantled tower lying on the ground in his area. I confirmed that it was ours but explained that we didn’t have enough high tensile bolts to erect it. He asked where it came from; I explained that a previous OC had liberated it from the US Army. I was ordered to give it back. I then asked if I should return the other one as well; he asked where the other one was, I informed him that presently it was being used as the control tower at Luscombe Field. He ended the audience with an order that involved sex and travel.

The port of Vung Tau was the main shopping area for equipment not normally available through the ordnance system. Air conditioners, cement and other novelties were just sitting there waiting for their new owners. The USMC sometimes provided the means and personnel. Ken Phipps and I would drive to Vungers with his gunnery sergeant, where we would brief him and hop out. Gunny Vincent would then enter the docks with Jeep and trailer, giving a casual black power salute to the US Navy guards. He would return the same way after his shopping. Easy.

As we sat at the end of the runway in our Qantas freedom bird my survey sergeant, Karl Doerhmann, whose year was also up, turned and said to me “We will have to have another war, skipper!” Since we had not even left the ground from this one yet I asked him why. I knew that Karl had been in the Hitler Youth and after the Americans caught him for the second time in uniform they prudently kept him and didn’t send him home to his mother again. Karl replied to my query; “I have been to two wars now and I would just like to be on the winning side one time”.

On the way up to SVN I sat next to an infantry officer, Peter Shilston, who I knew from tactics courses at JTC. Peter was to be the next Staff Captain Admin at AFV in Saigon. He was not pleased at this career move. A year and a day later we caught the same plane home. This time he was sporting sunnies, a Training Team green beret and an MC. It seems he did not make much as a Staff Captain but was a very good Montagnard battalion commander.

During my time the radars were deactivated. Nui Dat was not mortared or rocketed in my year although the Horseshoe and Dat Do were, along with Hao Long. The re-jig of the detachment saw some radar and arty int operators meshed and together we attended a US  Army course in Vung Tau to learn the provision, use and deployment of unattended ground sensors. We were to be given seismic, acoustic and magnetic sensors to employ in strings in the 1ATF AO. I believe the equipment was developed for use along the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh trail. The position for the base station for the area leading from the Warbies and Hat Dich to Hao Long was obvious and the Nui Dat Hill LP gained another use.

When Paul Tys was replaced by Greg Tommasi, Greg was swapped for 4 Fd Regt’s survey sergeant, John Brewer. John ran the surveillance program and was awarded an MID as a result of some fine work in laying out the strings with the 1ATF D&E Pl providing security. Not all operations went exactly to plan as it was done in the opposition’s backyard with a relatively small force.

During my time the 1ATF HQ only deployed tactically twice to FSBs Barbara, near Binh Ba, and Bond, on the route towards Xuyen Moc. Both were to be reasonably non-eventful.


I found that the unit was unusual in that the surveyors (mainly post-uni maths national servicemen) didn’t talk much to the radar operators nor the arty int guys and the drivers stuck to their own kind as well. The RAEME workshop guys, under Graeme Leslie, were almost left to their own devices. My solution was barbeques and beer. I used to go out with Ken Phipps when the US and Australian naval gunfire ships came on line and after we briefed the officers we would present them with the odd captured AK47 for their ward room.  When asked if there was anything we wanted we would just give them our list; the list always started with 2 boxes of 76 lb weight of frozen New York cut steak.

This eventually culminated in THE CONCERT. The old boozer was transformed from the tin shed, that it really was, into a friendlier bar and cinema complex; mainly due to the efforts of George Addison, who was a closet chippie, and Marcus, the resident bartender and projectionist. I promised that we would try and arrange to get some nurses; I think we eventually got 3 Aussie nurses from Vungers as special guests, together with the Huey crew who provided their transport for the day. Some from the Fd Regt Q staff were invited, since they had the freezer and cool room to store the steaks and excess beer. I believe there was also the engineer who provided and installed the ceiling fans and other odds and sods who we had conned for equipment during the refurbishment. There would also have been the engineer who bored out the hole for the new women’s toilet; a first in Nui Dat.

For some time the boozer was rebuilt using labourers as came to hand and the band practised. The acts were fine tuned. The steak and beer chilled and the day finally arrived. The guests flew in only to be hijacked by the Fd Regt 2IC, Don Quinn, for lunch with him. Eventually the honoured guests arrived.

As I remember it; the program listed the band as “The Rumpled Threeskins”. The boys wanted to add another member to the band but I put my foot down on that because of the name. A special crowd favourite was “Petey” McCann, a humble magician of note who did an impersonation of Tommy Cooper where the tricks all went horribly wrong. I knew as soon as he started with his first trick that I was going to have to write off the Mickey Mouse watch he placed in his silk handkerchief which he then beat to death with a hammer, you could hear the pieces rattling.

 Like most of the unit, when not on night duty there were movies and movies and then for a change, more movies. It could be a bit surreal when watching college football as over the top of the screen a Shadow or Spooky fired down into the Long Hais or the Warbies.

I also was tutored in the finer points of NFL and baseball by Ken Phipps, if we were both off duty on Sunday afternoons we would watch the replays on Armed Forces TV; I still watch those sports today. 1969 was the year the New York Mets won the World Series even though they sometimes found it hard to accomplish the small things, like catching the ball.

I believe that the saddest part about arrival at Mascot was the casual way that men, who had been in harm’s way only hours before, were treated as surplus to any military need any more and were paid, and then discharged or sent on leave with a rail ticket home in uniform in what was, by then, a hostile environment. They deserved better.