History of 55 (1970 -1971) by Tony de Bont
Well here we go. My chance to put the record straight and have my version of history recorded. I just wish I had a clear memory, or even some notes to refer to.
My contribution is likely to be short on official history and longer on 'stories' which may or may not be totally true. But we'll start with the boring bits first.
I arrived in Vung Tau around mid October 1970 and was met at the airport by Jim Powell accompanied by 2 or 3 soldiers wearing helmets and flack jackets. I think he was trying to intimidate me. I can't remember what I was thinking, it had been a very long day. Jim showed me around the unit and then seemed to just vanish off the face of the planet. I believe he caught up on some R in C down at the Badcoe club.
My lasting impression of those first few weeks was one of feverish activity. There was a constant stream of trucks and people visiting.
I had to learn a whole new way of getting phone calls through. Do you remember them ?? Then there was the meeting of all our customers, both official and the back door variety. Talk about a culture shock.
It wasn't long before I got indoctrinated to the hearing of charges (the dreaded A4). This may come as a surprise to some, but in the 6 years that I had been an officer I had never so much as charged a soldier and had certainly never been in a position to hear charges. What an education !! I think I was far more nervous then the 'accused' at my first orderly room.
During this time Dave Morton provided me with a lot of good advice about how things were and were not done. He taught me the value of a pallet of cement and a bundle of 'two by four'. I'm sure I would have discovered many of the 'shonkies' in time but it was good to be eased into them by that smooth operator. In time Dave left for home and Keith Love took over 'F Troop' and the lovely 'Miss Tri'.
After a while the routine developed, get a backload ready for the 'J', unload the 'J', sort out what had arrived and what was still to come, get the indents filled for Nui Dat, have a week or so to get over it all and then start again.
The routine was broken by such things as 'Project 399' and the stream of bizarre demands from 17 Const Sqn in support of that project. Do you remember the 'brick making machine' you guys built ?? It looked awesome but never did get off the ground. What about the threaded re-bar for anchoring the roofs to the concrete slabs ?? I still wonder at how you guys managed to work one miracle after another.
Then there was the time we were short of 'two by four'. Someone had the bright idea to set up the 'Forest Mill' saw and rip down some 16" by 16" bridging timbers. It certainly kept the Workshop busy for a week or so. How I'd love to have that setup in my back yard now.
Then there were little episodes like the digger who was AWOL for some days, he had been on R in C and hitched a ride with a Yank convoy - all the way to CAMBODIA and couldn't get back in time. Finally arrived in some Yank's staff car all the way from Long Bhin. Oh, and the fridge in the Sgt's mess in the Provost Coy that couldn't get fixed. It was explained to me that because the 'Meat Heads' were enforcing the speed limits, the 'fridge' mechs couldn't get all the work at the Hospital done, so there was no time to attend to the 'fridge' in the 'snake pit'. I must admit there had been an upsurge in the number of speeding reports on my desk.
Just to keep the grey matter ticking over, there was the almost weekly 'Stocktake adjustments'. The challenge was always to 'price' the items in such a way that the total adjustment stayed under my delegation. I can't remember what my delegation was but the price of a 1" to 2" BSP Stock and Die set was brought on at about $1.50. Later we discovered that it had been previously written off at $5. But that had been a much smaller discrepancy list. Towards the end of my time I seem to remember being asked to write it off again !!
Now who could forget the time the 'J' brought us 1500 tons of cement from Singapore ?? Those AB&T trucks kept arriving day and night !! Vaguely recall some little game around midnight, when the drivers knocked off for a meal. We, including I, tried to set time trial records to get those rigs from the Traffic shed, around the mountain of barbed wire, past the pile of Armco culverting, dodge the stacks of timber and try not to hit anything !! Absolutely crazy.
While on this nostalgia trip, who was it that asked to give evidence under oath during an Orderly Room ?? Must have been a Nasho !! There wasn't a bible anywhere in the Unit, the SO3 Legal at 1ALSG couldn't help either. We finally conned the padre into lending us his copy. I was so cranky, I gave this guy twice the CB for being a smart arse. An hour later I knocked it back to the regular number.
It took me about 2 months to figure out that my diggers were getting better tucker in their mess than what I was eating in the Officer's Mess. From then on I made it a habit to 'inspect' the kitchen on a very regular basis. Another advantage was that I didn't have to get dressed up !! The cooks at the time were Jim Breeze and some guy called Ben ?? I think he was replaced by Marcus Gosling and died not long after returning to Australia, not sure about that though.
With the weekly replacement of soldiers there was a constant demand on me to attend these farewell 'parties'. One of the more memorable ones was for someone from the bottom yard. it might have been Spud Murphy's but I can't be sure. I do remember that 'Loui', the local, acted as our tour guide to some of the more questionable areas of Vung Tau. I believe everyone had a good time !!!
To my knowledge, everyone who left the Unit was presented by a hand made wooden plaque. Lovingly produced by the lads in the workshop each one of them a work of art. I'm sure that the rumour, which suggests that one of the Viet carpenters did nothing other than turn out plaques, was totally untrue. One of my big regrets is that I didn't get one !!
One of my more vivid memories is being called into Col Joe Hooton's office and I was asked to explain why my Unit (the Fighting 55th) bought three times as much beer (per capita) as the average for the ALSG. We had the dubious honour of being the booziest bunch in the ALSG !! I hastened to assure him that our figures were dramatically skewed because we had so many visitors. I don't think he trusted me. I was instructed to keep a visitor's book in the OR boozer to justify my claim. For a month or so the barmen kept a full and truthful record of everyone who visited. It didn't matter whether they drank anything or not, they signed the book. Entries by 'Superman', Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck didn't do my credibility much good, but there were enough 'real' names to get preacher Joe off my back. A belated thanks to those who cooked the book.
I think there is one thing for which I'll be remembered, and perhaps not with any fondness. I built the Villa de Bont. When I arrived the OC & 2IC shared a roughly partitioned space next to the OC's office. It was one of the roughest officer's quarters in the ALSG. As I travelled to other units I could see Engineer Stores having been put to use to make the lives of many a lot more comfortable. With the vast resources at my disposal I embarked on a construction project behind the machine room. You know that room where two lucky sappers sat all day in air conditioned comfort and operated the Accounting Machines ??
There were many who helped with the construction and a grand job it was too. From the tiled bathroom (well shower at least) with an electric hot water service to the timber (solid flooring) walls and stained plywood floors. There was a picture window, overlooking the bottom yard and a small veranda out the front overlooking the Badcoe Club. A two bed bedroom with built in wardrobes and an air conditioner made for a very nice retreat.
There was a small problem with the power but some ingenious sparky either jury rigged it, or bribed someone to do it officially. I didn't ask. The fibro outside made the whole thing stand out a bit. Add to that it wasn't on the Register of Assets, there was no paperwork and not likely to be any. So someone came up with the bright idea to paint it with Paint, Olive Drab, 5 gallon. I think it took two or three drums but from then on it blended right in with its surroundings.
As they say in the classics, all good things must come to an end. I hadn't long finished my grand project when it was announced that Maj Jeff Davis would be arriving to take over the Squadron and I would serve out my time in Saigon.
The next OC in the sequence would be Jeff Davis but I don't think he's up to it. Perhaps Bert Brown could give us a burst on what happened when 55 became a full Sqn ??)