MEMORIES OF WAR: Ian Felton with the book in which some of his Vietnam war experiences are chronicled. 

Sunraysia paused momentarily on Monday to honour, remember and acknowledge those who have served this country in times of war. Our region has been, and continues to be, home to some incredible ex-soldiers, one of whom, Ian Felton, has recently been featured in a book on the Vietnam War. Here is Ian’s story…

 

By JOHN DOOLEY

TWENTY-year army veteran Ian Felton has a footlocker full of memories and fascinating life stories – in fact, he could fill several books!

But none more engrossing then when, as a 20-year-old, he was thrust into the midst of the Vietnam War to serve his country’s interests.

The year was 1970.

It’s therefore unsurprising that the story of his deployment to Vietnam is included in a recently published book ‘Vietnam Our Stories – Memories of the War’ written by Kevin Childs and Ken Foster.

“I was there with the Australian Army Training Team – the unit that was awarded four Victoria Crosses, and we were spread throughout Phuoc Tuy,” Ian said.

“I started out at a place called Hoa Long, just down from the base at Nui Dat, and was part of the Mobile Army Training Team, which was of a group of six people, two Warrant Officers and four Corporals, and the Corporals were either signalmen, or infantry, artillery and a medic, and we worked and ate with the Vietnamese behind the frontline.”

Before going to Vietnam, Ian said he had spent some time in the New Guinea highlands.

“I was up there inoculating the ‘Kuku kuku’ tribe – they were a former cannibal tribe, and there was a flu epidemic going through the highlands,” he said.

Ian left the Army in 1988, and in later life, married a Chilean senorita, and today he travels to Chile every year, spending three months in the country, where he visits a variety of fascinating locations to take photographs and gather information for his online writings.

Writing in the foreword of Vietnam Our Stories – Memories of the War, author Kevin Childs said: “After the ‘fog of war’ cleared, it was time to hear the voices of those who went, to learn how they felt, and what they saw and heard, and how the war changed them.

“Like so many before them, young men and women from farms, towns, and suburbs were often eager for adventure and a chance to ‘see the world’.

“Their immersion into a fearful, steaming, often fetid war zone, with its brutality and barbarism was to be leavened by Aussie humour, unforgettable ‘R and R’ jaunts, and even the occasional kick of a footy or cricket match.

“The wry or funny, irreverent or bawdy stories told in the book are balanced by poignant and often painful memories of lost mates and times of terror.”

Ian’s story is first cab off-the-rank in the book, and makes for fascinating reading, and has been maintained in Ian’s first-person narrative.

 

The silence of the grenade

Late in the afternoon of November 19, 1970, a Qantas flight from Sydney began its descent into one of the busiest airports in the world – Tan Son Nhut, Saigon Vietnam. 

At the height of the Vietnam War, a plane was recorded landing and taking off every two minutes.

My tour of duty as a 20 year-old soldier was about to begin. Now, I never could understand why serving in a warzone is called that, there are certainly no tour guides, and many places were out of bounds, no-go zones.

Let me just say that the battlefields of Vietnam were a far cry from the battle training grounds of Canungra, Queensland.

The flight bore an assortment of servicemen, all carrying their weapons on board and backpacks in the overhead lockers, and personal equipment was in the cargo hold.

Qantas, being a civil airline, there were stewardesses serving drinks and meals, and smoking on flights was still allowed, sending a blue misty haze through the cabin.

Of the range of troops, some were old-timers back for second tours, and in some cases, third tours, others were young, regular soldiers like myself, but most were national servicemen, their numbers drawn from a barrel, just as in Lotto.

As a way of choosing conscripts, it had a lot of criticism, causing unrest in Australia, demonstrations and the burning of draft cards.

We had one stopover in Singapore, and were told we needed two things being a passport, which we had, Army issue and marvelously stamped, Not Valid for North Vietnam. The second item was a civilian shirt for landing in Singapore, a neutral country that didn’t want to advertise its safe passage for soldiers.

The Army green shirts vanished, replaced by Hawaiian dancing girls, white shirts with ties and cravat, and some shirts that looked like girl’s blouses.

After Singapore the mood soon altered, as we changed back into the Army green which was to be our colour from then on.

The wheels touched down on Vietnam soil, and we commenced the roll to the terminal along a seemingly endless runway.

Other runways went in all directions, some with planes landing or taking off, military cargo planes, civilian planes from all countries, small planes, helicopters of all sizes and descriptions, and everywhere vehicles dodging in and out of them all.

Through the window, many planes could be seen parked in concrete and sandbagged hangers or revetments.

Then I saw my first glimpse of war, burnt out planes pushed to the sides of the runway, a smack-the-face reminder of the 1968 Tet offensive, when Tan Son Nhat was attacked, as well as major facilities in and around Saigon.

We rolled to a stop, the cabin doors were opened and the first rush of Vietnam was like heat from a fireball – it seared through the cabin, erasing any memory of the air-conditioned flight.

Descending the steps, our shirts quickly turned black, as the oppressive heat sent sweat pouring from us. There was no cooling breeze, just a dry humid heat that seemed to suck the air from our lungs.

 

The scent of war

My nostrils were assailed by the smells of gasoline and oils, and yet a pervading scent of humanity trying to survive, sweet and aromatic, but tainted by a decaying aroma seemed to hover in the oppressive heat.

I stood on the tarmac that stretched for miles in every direction, waiting for further orders to our buses to carry us to our initial base.

All around was activity – troops arriving and going, maintenance and refuelling vehicles scuttling about, armament vehicles loading their deadly firepower, and everywhere the presence of military police.

On that sweltering tarmac, I watched a massive flying bird, the C130 cargo plane, being loaded.

What looked like an endless file of soldiers were loading large wooden boxes on board, much like a conveyor belt.

Suddenly there was an arm on my shoulder. Turning, a very large African-American soldier, skin so dark it appeared purple in the shimmering reflected heat.

“Don’t you go praying for them there boys Aussie,” he said. “Keep your prayers for yourself, they are the lucky boys, they are going home.”

My role was with the Australian Army Training Team, specifically the Mobile Army Training Team element. We were in teams of six throughout Phuoc Tuy province to help and train South Vietnamese troops. 

Later, four of us went with the South Vietnamese by ferry about 12km to Long Son Island off the coast of Baria, Phuoc Tuy province, for reconnaissance and surveillance.

Our campsite is a high mountain hilltop overlooking the whole island. We spotted Viet Cong in the mangroves along the shore, miles away.

We tell base for follow-up action. Then we are ordered to advance further up the hilltop to check activity there. Moving in platoon formation, we climb.

 

Lost in time

Here my story loses time. Gunfire opens up all over us from up the hill.

I hit the ground and try to work out what is happening. A hand grenade lands about six feet from me. I freeze unable to move.

Everything goes quiet – I know how long it will take to explode. I count the seconds, smelling the earth, hearing the wind and feeling the calmness of the blue sky above. 

Still I can’t move. I get to 15 seconds in my mind and realise the grenade is not going to explode.

“The shadow that had swallowed up the earth and the sky, that had blotted out the past and cut short the future, faded away,” writes Russian author Vasily Grossman of a similar moment.

As this realisation hits me, all the noise returns the shouting and gunfire. I run up the hill firing – there was nothing to fire at.

I learn later that in a firefight it is a natural instinct to fire, even if there is no enemy to see.

We reach the summit of the hill and find freshly vacated VC campsites. The pursuit is called off. Documents and cooking utensils are recovered. We also come across an old French fort which we lived in for a time, which today is a temple.

‘Vietnam Our Stories – Memories of the War’ by Wilkinson publishing is available from Angus and Robertson (www.angusrobertson.com.au) and over the counter at Collins Booksellers Mildura.