‘Choppers’ were used extensively by the West in Vietnam for a variety of tasks. They transported troops to and from operational sites; they ‘dusted off ’ the wounded; they supported the ground troops in fire fights and they carried supplies to a variety of locations. ‘The Tigers’ of 5RAR arrived at the virgin campsite of Nui Dat in ‘Hueys’ in May 1966 and they departed from that developed site in Chinooks one year later, bound for the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney lying out in the bay off Vung Tau. Between these two dates (and during the 5 years that followed) countless insertions and extractions were carried out into and from villages and towns, the mud and the dust, the mountain spurs, ridges and ravines, the paddies, the rivers, creeks, salt flats and sand dunes, the jungle and the rubber ... all of which made up much of Phuoc Tuy Province.
Today, as all frontline soldiers from the Vietnam War would acknowledge, I am sure, various stimuli trigger flashbacks to a time embedded firmly in the consciousness of each of those veterans. Yet, nothing does more to send shivers up and down one’s spine than does the unique sound of an approaching helicopter. This poem encapsulates, I hope, the images generated by that sound for those men who flew ‘choppers’, or flew in them, when going into battle. NB. ‘dust off’ is a U.S. acronym for:
‘Dedicated Unhesitating Services to Our Fighting Forces’.
♪♪ Hello Darkness! My old friend! ... I’ve come to talk with you again. ♪♪
- Paul Simon from Sounds of Silence, 1968.
♪♪ And can you tell me Doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep? ...
And why the Channel 7 Chopper, chills me to my feet? ...
And what’s this rash that comes and goes? ...
Can you tell me what it means? ...
God help me! ... I was only ... nine-teen! ♪♪
from the song I Was Only 19, by Redgum, 1983.
Photos courtesy of RAAF Museum
A cooling fan’s slow rotation,
Creates fine beads of perspiration,
As I gaze transfixed, up from my hotel bed;
This paradoxical strange feeling,
Paints vivid flashbacks on the ceiling,
As the tape reverses quickly in my head.
All such triggers begin combining,
Allow my mind to start rewinding,
And to some I’m sure that this is nothing new;
A strange phenomenon so they say,
’Twill never ever go away,
And there’s nothing anyone or I can do.
At some things I always stop and stare,
Whether just an insect in mid air,
Or at the sound of some strange motor, overhead;
When dragonflies patrol and hover,
An annoying ‘mossie’ is another,
Or it could be merely something that I’ve read.
It may be an unexpected bang,
Or chilling song that Redgum sang,
Or perhaps familiar sounds of heavy rain;
And when it’s running down my face,
Or if salty sweat I taste,
It is then those funny flashbacks start again.
A summer shark patrol at sea,
Maybe a fleeting item on TV,
It often takes me by complete surprise;
And when Channel 7’s news each night,
Captures a ‘chopper’ in full flight,
I can’t help the tears from forming in my eyes.
At their approach I’m numbed, stand gazing,
Their role in warfare quite amazing,
As I recall those panic scenes during Tet;
A fleeting glimpse before it fades,
Staccato sounds of cutting spinning blades,
A noise that I will never soon forget.
Medevac or rescue missions,
Firepower or food provisions,
From them no one could ask for any more:
Such images always haunt my mind,
From a past I can’t leave behind,
Ubiquitous, throughout that brutal Asian war.
Cargo dropped on a pitching deck,
Or a burning fiery twisted wreck,
When a rocket finds its target in the sky;
A Chinook or a ‘Huey’ loading,
Aviation fuel exploding,
Risk of death in them ’twas always bloody high.
Several mates sit crowded on the floor,
A gunner at each open door,
Around 90 m.p.h. their cruising speed;
Have you ever been on recce runs?
Seen or fired mounted spitting guns?
A rare experience for anyone, indeed!
A ‘hot’ landing zone lay up ahead,
Where tracers green returned with red,
All ‘grunts’ prepare themselves to jump ‘out there’;
‘Chopper’ hovers just off the ground,
Co-pilot quickly twists around,
And signals: “Go Now!”, his thumb stuck in the air.
These things I cannot put aside,
And you’d know why, if you’d been inside,
It’s unlike all flights in any other plane;
If you’ve flown over hostile land,
Then you’ll fully understand,
It’s a feeling that I cannot quite explain.
A helicopter’s haunting ‘phtt-phut-phtt-phut’ sound,
Skimming tree-tops, rotors spinning ‘round,
Imparts to ‘choppers’ a really strange mystique;
And I’m sure that it’s not only me,
Many others, also, would too agree,
They create these flashbacks, which remain unique.