Vietnam's quiet tigers and grey ghosts

Between 1963 and 1975 some 3,500 Kiwis served in the Vietnam War as others protested at home. This edited extract from Claire Hall’s new book, No Front Line, tells the grim reality of jungle warfare

NZSAS troopers returned to Landing Zone Nadzab after a seven-day patrol. Photo 
Trevor Sexton / NZSAS Trust Collection
NZSAS troopers returned to Landing Zone Nadzab after a seven-day patrol. Photo Trevor Sexton / NZSAS Trust Collection

In a five-year period, nine New Zealand rifle companies rotated through Nui Dat in South Vietnam. As veteran Richard Mountford explains, the early infantry personnel were highly skilled, well trained and experienced in jungle warfare. This reputation won New Zealand troops the nickname "grey ghosts".

"On one operation, up in war zone D to the east of Saigon during the latter stage of my first six months in Vietnam, there were 100 men in the jungle — scrubby, rough jungle.

"At breakfast time two Viet Cong, one an officer, came walking down a track. One was blown away and the other escaped. Had we been unskilled and noisy, they wouldn't have walked into us. But we were so quiet they didn't even know we were there. That was good training — all the guys were so switched on.

"We talked in whispers. We didn't chop wood, we sawed it. We cleared it aside by hand. We smelled like rotten leaves because you just wore the same clothes day in, day out."

Such professionalism was a stark contrast to the incompetence Mountfort observed when taking over a United States base on the same operation. "It was filthy. There was no wire. They were screwing Vietnamese women in the guard posts. They had no toilet and there was rubbish everywhere. We just waited until the Americans got out of it, got the Vietnamese out, and set to cleaning the place up."

Staying awake on sentry duty in jungle operations could mean the difference between life and death, and combat fatigue was as much an enemy as the human foe.

George Babbington recalls the furore after a Whiskey Company sentry fell asleep during Operation Duntroon in January 1968: "Around one o'clock in the morning we heard this almighty bloody shooting. One of the sentries had fallen asleep and some Viet Cong had walked straight into our company area and started firing.

"We were taken by surprise and they were as well. They didn't know we were there; it was just flat terrain. There was a big bamboo thicket inside our company area and some of the Viet Cong ran in there, maybe five or six. The company decided to start firing to get them to come out. They wouldn't come out, so we started throwing phosphorus grenades into it to try to burn them out.

"But they weren't bloody coming out for anything. So we left it until daylight to see what would happen. In the morning the three that were still alive came out. When they came out there wasn't this instinct to beat them to death because they were the enemy. They managed to survive the night so they should be given a chance. Our commanding officer's batman made them coffee, made them a proper meal.

"The looks on these guys' faces: they couldn't believe that was how they were being treated.

"I don't know whether it's a Kiwi thing, that we'll do things one way under fire. But when a man's got nothing, he deserves respect."


Lance Corporal AW Rakuraku treating a wounded Viet Cong soldier.

Victor 3 platoon commander Bill Walker felt great empathy for one dead Viet Cong soldier early in his tour. "We had quite a large platoon ambush in which we killed a number of enemy. My role was to clear the kill area and search the bodies. The young fellow who was the first one I checked was obviously very dead, and when I looked at his wallet I saw that, like me, he was a corporal, and a married man with three children. That had an effect on me for some time — it still does. In my mind that was me lying there. The risk of being in Vietnam really hit home."

In September 1968, the Government added an SAS component to New Zealand's commitment. Jack Hayes, 4 Troop's last commander, describes the difference between the SAS' and the infantry's operational approaches: "When infantry go out on operations, they need sentries. They are big and noisy and crash around and bang and leave lots of tracks behind. SAS should be able to go into an area and there's no sign that they have been in the area. No footprints, nothing."

Demand surpassed capacity for SAS reinforcements. Many troopers completed more than one tour. A number of veteran gunners and infantry grunts retrained to return to Vietnam with the SAS before the unit withdrew in February 1971.

Babbington returned to Vietnam in 1970 as an SAS trooper. About 100 men embarked on the selection course with him; seven remained when it finished 10 days later. "The selection process was legalised brutality and mental torture. I have no problem with that, even today. The whole point of the course was to find your weakness and to make you quit. If you didn't, they had a good soldier.

"They used waterboarding. They stripped you naked, tied your hands up and threw a tea towel over your face. Then they kept tipping water on it. You virtually drown.

"There was a lot of physical abuse. There was electrocution of the testicles. They would throw you in a bathtub full of water in the cold during winter ... They had a telephone, a little generator, and these two cords, a positive and a negative with clips on. They would clip it on to the sensitive parts of your body and then wind this bloody thing up. You're screaming your blooming head off. Meanwhile, those left on the selection course could hear you screaming. When it was your turn for this treatment, they'd say, 'Did you hear your mate? Did you hear your mate screaming? You're next. You know what's happened? He's dead, he's just died.'

"The price on an SAS soldier was so high because we were feared by the enemy. They were only there in small numbers, but the amount of damage they were able to do got through to the enemy. In the Phuoc Tuy province, they used to call us 'quiet tigers'."


Brian Wilson checks an identity. Photo / Wilson Collection

Thirty-seven New Zealand military personnel and two civilians died in the Vietnam War. Another four Kiwis died serving with Australian and US forces. In January 1969, New Zealand's only Maori helicopter pilot was killed during flight training.

Fighting was at close range, in jungle terrain negotiated inch by inch. An elusive enemy demanded constant vigilance from soldiers.

New Zealand's first two combat deaths came during Operation Ben Cat 1, mounted by Kiwi, US and South Vietnamese troops. The mission aimed to subdue enemy forces in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold 30km northwest of Saigon. On September 14, 1965, Sergeant Alistair Don was driving a Land Rover in convoy; Bombardier Robert (Jock) White was sitting beside him. The vehicle was blown apart by a Viet Cong landmine. Both men were killed instantly.

NZPA journalist Chris Turver was in the heavily sandbagged back of the Land Rover with Lance-Bombardier Rodney Edwards. The blast blew both men 6m in the air. Turver blacked out for a few minutes, waking in roadside rubble.

"I slowly came to with a slashed forehead, smashed spectacles and worrying about finding my portable Olivetti typewriter and camera."

The incident made everyone aware they were not bulletproof. "Suddenly, you took war very seriously. But life just went on. You couldn't escape the fact you were there to do a job."

Victor 5 Company scout and tracker Ruka Hudson lost both legs after stepping on a landmine in the Nui Thi Vai hills in July 1970, 10 weeks after his arrival in Vietnam.

"I came to a place where a low branch crossed my path and to get to the other rock I would have to stoop quite low down and jump across. I adjudged that would be difficult and that there wouldn't be a mine down there. So I stepped down and the rest is history.

"I felt myself flying through the air and landing with my head inches from the trunk of a large tree. I faintly heard my section commander screaming at me, 'Huddeee! Huddeee! Are you all right?' I immediately started cursing in the most foul language imaginable. Then I smelled the stench of burning flesh and my legs seemed to curl up my back."

For many years after his return home, Hudson lived with flashbacks and dreams of Viet Cong that left him "sweating like a stuck pig". At the age of 44 he learned to paint, and six months later staged his first exhibition. "Life is not easy, but it's only as hard as you make it."


Even though naked, Kiwi soldiers took care of their feet. Photo / Supplied

Kiwi troopers earned a reputation as confident, efficient soldiers who demanded precision. They also gained renown for their lack of personal hygiene. As Jack Hayes explains, 4 Troop quit soap and showers a day or two before heading out on patrol and didn't get clean again until it was over.

"We could tell we were smelling right when the flies would fly straight past us. Your sense of smell became really strong. When we jumped on the helicopter to come back out you could smell the aftershave and toothpaste on the crew."

Soldiers made the most of their downtime because tropical jungle life meant constant discomfort. The combination of heat and damp was a perfect breeding ground for what Hawea Grey calls fungal "footrot".

"You looked after your feet religiously. If you stopped for any length of time you'd take your boots off. None of us wore socks because they'd rot. We shaved in coffee, we washed and brushed our teeth in something akin to a bottle top. You didn't want to waste your water."

Victor Company's Richard Easton patrolled with feet and thighs chafed raw, and his standard-issue footrot rapidly spread to other parts of his body. He was also plagued by ticks and leeches.

"It rained every day. You were soaked. I had no skin on my thighs from where my webbing chafed and used to rub oil on them.

"You didn't wear underpants: they rotted off. Your socks rotted. You'd spend three weeks out there in the same clothes.

"You stank, you didn't shave. The philosophy was to smell like the enemy. You ate their food — rice and chillis — so you'd smell like them."


Front Line: Inside Stories of New Zealand's Vietnam War by Claire Hall, Penguin Group NZ, $45. Available from July 25.

- Herald on Sunday

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