Hercules flies Vietnam War veterans down memory lane

About 90 New Zealand Army veterans and their families holding their 50th reunion at Burnham Military Camp were flown to Christchurch today on NZ7002 — the same Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft that flew them to the Vietnam War on 8 May, 1969.

New Zealand Army veterans took a trip down memory lane today when they flew to Christchurch on the same Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft that flew them to the Vietnam War 50 years ago.

The veterans, former infantry soldiers from the Victor 4 Company that deployed to Vietnam on 8 May, 1969, were accompanied by their families.

Flight Lieutenant Tim Leslie, an aircraft captain from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s №40 Squadron, said about 90 veterans and their families were flown from Auckland, Tauranga, Ohakea and Wellington to their 50th anniversary reunion at Burnham Military Camp.

Veteran Geoff Dixon, 70, said for wives, children and grandchildren to fly in the same aircraft that flew their husbands, dads or grandfathers to war was a very emotional trip.

Fellow veteran Phil O’Connor, 71, said the flight on NZ7002 — the Hercules that flew the 120-strong contingent from Singapore to Vung Tau in southern Vietnam 50 years ago — brought back a flood of memories.

“What nostalgia! It could not get any better,” he said.

Mr Dixon had just turned 20 when he went to Vietnam and was second in command of a rifle section comprising 10 soldiers.

“It was physically and mentally challenging. You had to carry heavy loads of ammunition and spent each day on edge,” he said of the year-long deployment.

During their first operation, which Mr Dixon described as their “baptism of fire”, they came under heavy attack from the Viet Cong and suffered their first casualty — his best mate Jack Williams.

“I saw the flashes from the muzzles of the enemy’s rifles. That was how close and intense the gun battle was,” he said.

“Initially, it was nerve-wracking for all of us. But after a few weeks we became attuned and learnt from our experience.”

Apart from the threat of landmines, operating in a tropical jungle meant the New Zealand soldiers also had to deal with venomous snakes and scorpions, leeches, termites, mosquitoes and red ants, he said.

Operating as part of a combined Anzac battalion with the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, the New Zealand troops went into the jungle for a month of operations, tracking down hostile forces, and then returned to the Australian base at Nui Dat for a respite.

During their week-long breaks, the soldiers either went to the Australian base in the seaside city of Vung Tau or the United States base in Saigon, where they would then have the option of flying to Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong or Singapore.

“We would have beer or lemonade and have a sing-song at ‘The Never Inn’ bar in Nui Dat,” Mr O’Connor said. “Or watch the occasional movie shown on a Bell and Howell 16mm projector in a tent.”

“There were no emails, Skype, Instagram or tweets in those days, so all letters were written by hand.”

Sometimes there were outdoor concerts featuring entertainers from Australia and New Zealand, such as the Maori show band Quin Tikis.

The New Zealand Government sent troops to Vietnam from 1964 to 1972.

Only half of Victor 4 Company’s 120 personnel remain. Seven died in combat or from sickness while in Vietnam, and 57 others have died over the past 50 years.

Flight Lieutenant Leslie said it was a great honour to fly Victor 4 Company personnel and their families as they commemorated the 50th anniversary of their deployment.

“Together with thousands of others who served in Vietnam and other theatres of conflict, they made a contribution to the freedom we enjoy today.”

Some of the New Zealand Army veterans in front of NZ7002 — the same Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft that flew them to the Vietnam War on 8 May, 1969.