The first helicopter pilots to join No. 9 Squadron RAAF in 1967 were stationed at Vung Tau, a former coastal holiday resort south-east of Saigon. Conditions were generally good on the base; there was a swimming pool and the Kiwis established themselves with all the usual good-natured ANZAC rivalry and banter.
For the Forward Air Controllers (FAC) on American bases, the experience could be quite different as there were greater cultural differences than with the Australians. Some also spent time at Vung Tau and, as with the Australians, the living conditions were generally good, especially at Nui Dat.
However, for the FACs and the helicopter pilots alike, these living conditions and routines provided a stark contrast with the chaos and hazards they faced each day when they flew. From the relative safety of their home bases they could be in considerable, or often extreme, danger in just a few minutes flight time, requiring them to make a rapid mental transition from the moment of take-off to prepare for imminent action. Similarly, departing an area where they may have been in the middle of hostile action and shortly afterwards having a drink or meal and relaxing at their base would have seemed surreal.
For those stationed on air bases near the fighting, there was a real danger of enemy ground and artillery attack. On his first night during FAC training at Phan Rang, about 200 kilometres north-east of Saigon, John Scrimshaw recalled:
On the very first night sirens went off and there was a general scramble. We were told there was ‘incoming’ and to take cover. I didn’t hear any explosions and the all clear sounded quite quickly. Such attacks on air bases were not uncommon and we saw significant damage to aircraft.
For all New Zealanders, security against attack by the Viet Cong off-base was a major concern, and there were also risks of hepatitis and dysentery from eating the local food. Many were prepared to accept that risk, however, as Vietnamese food made a welcome change from their normal meals. Links with home came in the form of tape recordings of messages and, of course, mail. Arranging even a simple telephone call home was complicated, and the frustrations were seldom rewarding. This was long before the era of the internet, texts, emails, blogs and other instantaneous (and uncensored) means of communication. A six or twelve month tour of duty seemed a very long time.