Water Skiing in Vietnam – Circa 1970
Vung Tau, South Vietnam
What possessed me to get into a speedboat with four mates and head out into the murky waters of Vung Tau Harbour is something I still question, thirty-five years later. Who would want to water ski in water that looked like and smelt like raw sewerage, let alone learn to ski! This was not the pristine waters of a South Pacific Island, nor the crystal blue water of a European lake, or even Lake Macquarie just south of Newcastle where many people water-skied. No, this water was a sinister colour somewhere between brown and grey.
I have put it down to adrenaline, a continuous rush of excitement, danger and adventure and heroic stupidity, a condition many of us were in for a memorable twelve months of our lives, while serving with the armed services in Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam, circa 1969-70.
My personal involvement was as a helicopter crewman in the Royal Australian Air Force – 9 Squadron in particular. We flew in a squadron of Iroquois helicopters, supporting our army and navy counterparts with supply, troop insertions, medivac, gunship support and so much more. A lot of the time it was plain scary and painful for obvious reasons, but there were definitely times when there was a lighter side to the war that made us laugh, and makes us laugh even more now.
Take the event one Friday afternoon when the whole squadron was waiting at the hanger for the last choppers to come home. You see, Friday was our BBQ day; the one day of the week we would get a decent feed with real steak and salads to die for (no pun intended). The food was usually flown in from the army base at Nui Dat and was always accompanied by the army cooks, who would catch a ride down to Vung Tau for a night off.
This particular day we were all waiting for the salad to arrive when word came in that the chopper had crash-landed on Long Son Island just across the bay. Bloody hell, what to do? All the crews were back and we had all had a few beers by this time. But a rescue had to be mobilised quickly as the Viet Cong were known to be in the area of the crash.
A makeshift crew was found, from the less-than-inebriated, and they took off as quickly as we could get them into the air. There was little known as to the fate of the crashed chopper’s crew and the mood was less than Friday night party time. All we could do was wait and drink.
Less than thirty minutes later the rescue chopper was back! This could mean one of two things, the other crew could not be rescued or everyone was okay. The chopper landed, the crew climbed out along with two army cooks, carrying three hot boxes (insulated food containers like eskies) with them. Oh God, was the crash crew so messed up they fitted into three hot boxes? What a tragedy! But when the pilot walked up to us he had this huge grin – was he in shock or what? Whatever it was, we all felt it was a little insensitive.
“Well, where’s me beer and are the steaks cooked yet, I’m staving!” A fairly audible murmur went around the group of guys before someone asked, “What about the others crew members? How bad was it?” The pilot looked at us as if we were insane. “Crew? Was I supposed to rescue the crew? What for, they’re all right. I was more worried about the salad for the barbie.” We just looked at him incredulously. The groan of approval from those standing around verified that the salad definitely had precedence over a flight crew and a crashed aircraft on a Friday night! The other crew were all okay and had decided to stay with the aircraft until it could be lifted out. They actually landed in mud so the landing was softer than it could have been.
As you can see, we valued our time off no matter what. It should not be surprising, then, that we had a social club that owned a ski boat. Not the best or most sea worthy one, I hasten to add, but that just added to the excitement. It also happened that one of our pilots was a water ski instructor from Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast in a previous life and he talked a few of us into going out with him when we all had the day off. I was keen, as I had never skied before and was itching to learn. My older brother skied and I thought it would be great to get home and be able to go skiing with him.
We launched the boat among the landing craft that were bringing in Australian troops from the HMAS Sydney, anchored out in Vung Tau harbour. Here was this group of Air Force guys in swimming gear and floatation vests and carrying water skis to the boat, and right beside us were new troops from home, just landing in country with their packs and rifles at the ready. How I wish I had photographed their faces as they watched us prepare for a day of water skiing!
We headed out into the bay, which took us in the general direction of the Sydney, sitting about three miles off shore. We were about a mile from it when we were surrounded by two-man rubber dinghies with frogmen sitting in them. In our usual friendly manner we waved our rifle at them in greeting, well, they went in every different direction. Chris, the pilot, said, “What the hell was that about?” He then looked around at us; one eyebrow raised and said, “Alright, who gave them the finger?”
Before he had time to repeat the question, this rather large speed boat, grey in colour and a 30 calibre machine gun mounted on its bow, was bearing down on us, a little too fast for my liking. They were on top of us in a flash, armed soldiers pointing an arsenal of weapons at us and screaming at the top of their lungs for us to “GET DOWN. GET DOWN NOW!” We just looked at them wondering what the hell they were smoking. I mean, it was only 9.00 AM. A bit early for a reefer even in this country.
It appears that the waving of our rifle was seen as a hostile gesture and our life vests were mistaken for flack jackets so, for all intents and purposes we were going to attack the HMAS Sydney!! I think we had forgotten, momentarily, how quickly paranoia sets in during armed conflicts. We felt quite safe on the water; they saw us as enemy divers with limpet mines. Try talking your way out of a situation like this by telling your so-called captors, “But we are only going water skiing Sir!” Half an hour later and after some frantic radio calls, they shoved us on our way and were told we could only ski up the river and not in the bay.
The river. How would one describe the river that flowed down through the villages and saltpans and rice paddies of Phuoc Tuy, one that carried anything and everything from wherever it was thrown in, deposited or seeped? While much of it could not be seen (too much silt), there was still quite a bit that could be, and that was enough for me to get up on the skis as quickly as I could be pulled out of the water. And that is where I stayed too. I was not falling into that, no matter how many injections I had been given before arriving in country. The hardest part was holding my breath while putting the skis on, while treading water and finding the rope. I think two and a half minutes was the record that day.
Our excursion took us past several small fishing villages. Unfortunately, some of the locals either didn’t like the speedboat or those in it. On several occasions we found ourselves under attack from foreign missiles being launched from the banks of the river, things like vegetables (rotten), half bricks and stones, a bike wheel and assorted nuts and bolts. We decided to use a deterrent. While one of us drove the boat, one observed, one skied, two others would sit, one in the stern and one on the bow complete with flak jacket under a life vest and standard issue combat helmet, clearly displaying an SLR rifle and a 40mm grenade launcher! Didn’t have much trouble after that. Maybe the only armed water ski boat in the world.
War is hell and I will vouch for that and for many participants that is all it was. But there are many who, when gathered for a memorial service on ANZAC Day, or Veteran’s Day, or Armistice Day, will be hard pressed to talk about the bad times but man, don’t the fun stories flow thick and fast. I would be the first to agree that many of the stories have been more than slightly embellished over the years, but I also know that these stories are the ones that keep many of the guys going because they know the majority of those stories did happen.