History of 55 (1968 to 1969) by Keith Tomkinson
Let me begin by admitting that my ability to accurately recall events and particularly personnel from twenty seven years ago has diminished somewhat.
I arrived in Vung Tau in November 1968 to assume command of 55 EWPS from Eddie Albrecht. Mike Steel (replaced by Doug Laver) was the deputy, Les Scott (WO Stores) was the Depot SM, Terry Cox the WO Control and George Townsend (replaced by the 'Old Bastard' Hinson) the WO Workshops. Replacement of personnel was on the trickle system and so the staff came and went at regular intervals (always plenty of hail & farewells).
The depot had been up and running for some time and so was well established and performing its role smoothly and efficiently. The end of 1968 marked a bit of a watershed for the unit. The emphasis for stores swung towards supporting the major civic action program, and more and more the depot was required to adopt peace time accounting (the bean counters in Canberra had struck!).
The first task in this new accounting initiative was to produce an accurate stocktaking and to establish a cyclical stocktaking program. Although the first 100% stocktaking had been conducted in mid 1968, the results were subsequently returned by Canberra as being unacceptable. So we virtually had to start again. Over the next several months the Control and Stores staff had to expend a lot of extra time, energy and effort to achieve a stocktaking result which eventually satisfied all concerned. Perhaps the biggest task in the process was getting the documentation correct.
What this overall exercise did show was that the depot was holding a huge quantity of stores and equipment which was either not needed in country or was in such a deteriorated condition that it couldn't be issued. Examples on the surplus side were some twenty odd Lysaght huts (badly deteriorated also), several thousand lengths of Armco culvert, electrical and plumbing fittings, and numerous spare parts belonging to equipment either destroyed or returned to Australia. The non-issuable group included over twenty thousand coils of concertina wire (rusted to powder), a huge quantity of softwood timber (over four hundred thousand 'board feet' of 4 by 1 alone) eaten away by dry rot, and dozens of leaking drums and rotted bags of water supply and other chemicals.
Hence began a major outscalling program which subsequently I understand was to turn a large area of the Penrith Depot into a huge junk heap. It was something akin to an archaeological dig once we started to move the Lysaght huts from the sand hills. All sorts of items started to be found, most of which had previously been written off. A couple of very large rubber pillow tanks were found. For those still wondering where they went, we burnt them like the Board of Survey documentation said (they were perished). The return of the Armco also had a moment of drama. Because of an oversight in Canberra, the issue voucher for return to Australia was read as a 'normal' issue and so replacement stock was shipped on the next HMAS Jeparit resupply run. The look on the face of the COMAFV ( Maj Gen MacDonald) seeing Armco being discharged from the ship as well as being loaded onto the ship - at the same time - was something to behold. I must say that his comments were a bit sharp.
Resupply by the Jeparit became our saviour as the American system started to deteriorate, particularly as their Vung Tau depot scaled down. Since we always had some supplies there was a growing trend for the Americans to come to trade. Some good deals were done and on many occasions our supply of steak was enhanced.
Two of the more interesting stores requests which were satisfied that come to mind were provision of non-glare paint for the surface of the cement tennis court (a COMAFV request), and the provision of an 80 ft wooden pole to be used as a radio mast in Nui Dat. The pole was eventually found in Long Binh and subsequently delivered by Sky Crane helicopter as it was too long to be sent by road. The only problem was that it took most of the Task Force monthly operational allocation of flying hours to do the job. Much gnashing of teeth !!
Enough from the stores side. The Workshop staff and tradesmen worked extremely hard keeping equipment serviceable. The major concern always seemed to be upkeep of generators and the repair of construction equipment stuffed up by 17 Const Sqn. The other depot tradesmen, particularly the electricians, were always busy keeping the power station operating as well as the hospital functioning smoothly.
Just as well the hospital was well looked after, as a large number of the unit had need of their services after a 'crook' seafood night (I have never seen such a sick and sorry sight). Apart from that one occasion the seafood nights were a great hit and overall the cooks did a marvelous job in both the OR and Sgt messes. I know the Sgt Mess was the envy of the area; all you had to do was count the number of visitors.
I guess one of the problems of being a successful unit is a desire by others to get 'a piece of the action'. Many battles were fought to prevent a certain OC 17 Const Sqn (Dutch sounding name) from taking the depot under his command. Only the good sense of the Commander 1 ALSG prevailed, until the problem passed when 17 Const Sqn was moved to Nui Dat. Thank goodness we maintained our independence.
The unit was widely respected for its service, competence and hard work. There were many outstanding contributions by members (both ARA and National Service) and of course the usual moments of drama and mirth. I must also pay tribute to the efforts of the local civilian staff.
It was a pleasure to serve with a great bunch of guys and to command such a proud unit. I wish them all the very best for the future. Jim Powell replaced me in November 1969.