Alastair Bridges - Vietnam War veteran (RAAF)

Running time
12 min 48 sec
Place made

Department of Veterans' Affairs


Motivation to join the Air Force

I used to play rugby down there in Melbourne which is unusual, of course, and one of my mates, and I can still remember sitting on the tram with him and we were talking about what we would do and I said "I'm thinking I might be a pilot one day" and he looked at me and said "Yeah, I think you'd be a great pilot".

Why I thought that I've got no idea. Eighteen or nineteen then, yes, so for some reason or other I then applied to the Air Force. People have asked "Is it Dad's influence?" Well not really, he was only there for a couple of years in the war.

Really, before that, down in Hobart, so I guess it went back a bit we had the local newspaper down there, the Mercury I think it was called, it had a promotion for people who might want to fly and I said "Yeah, I'll go" and we went out to Hobart airport, Cambridge airport, and I had a little fly in a light aircraft there and that's when I started talking to my parents, "I need to learn how to fly" and they said "Well we certainly can't afford to do that"

I think from there on that maybe Air Force, they'll pay me while I learn to fly as well and I think that might be where it was at the back of my mind. Look the intention was to learn how to fly and then go to the airlines and earn the big money. I never did that. I stayed in the Air Force well over twenty years.

I had mates go to the airlines and I used to think, "Now I could get in a 747 and take off out of Sydney and fourteen hours later be in Los Angeles. How boring." The Air Force flying we used our aircraft to the maximum of their capability, and I loved that. That's what I loved doing so no, I wasn't joining the air force so I could join the military and go fighting things, that wasn't my interest at all. So, when Vietnam came it was a bit of a shock.

Helicopter training

Learning to fly a helicopter initially is difficult there's no doubt about it. You've got to be able to coordinate two arms and two legs doing different things all at the same time. So we used to quite enjoy being there at Fairburn watching our mates trying to land these things on the concrete pads and putting them down on the concrete pad if you weren't really good she'd start to scrape and jump and you'd see the trainee pilot pulling the collector putting a bit of power in and she'd leap back into the air again.

Once you got the hang and it didn't take too long, Once you got the hang it operates from your hand and feet type, you know, the way of looking at it, much like any other aeroplane. If you want to go left, you move the stick to the left and that type of thing so it was nothing really different in that. The more difficult thing I suppose is hovering and if you want to we can have a quick look at the training here compared with what we were going to face in Vietnam.

Training here was all about learning how to fly a helicopter in Australia. It had nothing to do with combat conditions in a totally different country. In the jungle when you are going down into a pad not much bigger than the helicopter, about 30 foot-high-trees all around you and somebody shooting at you. That was never covered at all here. We learned how, just over, I'm looking out the window because I'm looking at where Delta 42, which is our training area out there. Aussie bush, quite different, different trees, well dispersed and plenty of room and I look back on my training now and, you know, it was a waste of time.

Under training you never talked about, well, I have to think about that a little bit, I think that some of our instructors had just come back, well they'd certainly been to Malaya, perhaps come back from Vietnam but there weren't too many because it was very early on in our time there. Nobody really talked about, nobody ever talked about what might confront you when you got up there. And when we got there, for some reason these veterans never told us anything at all either. "You just sit there you're the co-pilot. Just sit in the left seat and we'll do everything."

First impressions of Vietnam

It was pretty warm I remember at the airport itself. The flight from there then to Vung Tau where we were based was about half an hour, 45 minutes, from memory over jungle, which looked a bit alien. Pretty flat areas around there, a lot of water. So I was looking into a lot of that.

The crew weren't saying anything to me at all which didn't help, and then into Vung Tau where we landed. And it was quite obviously not a civilian place at all. I think the first impression I got was all these amazing different types of aeroplanes and helicopters that were there, American ones in particular, some of which I've heard of some of which I've never heard of, and “I wonder what they‘ve got all these things hanging off them for and what do they do?” And so it was, it was an amazingly interesting place. It did grab your interest right away.

And then I was told we were lodged in the Villa Anna, which was an old French villa, and I thought, “Oh this sounds alright”. Well, in fact, my room was two people in one passageway. That was the room for the rest of the time but it didn't matter, you didn't spend much time there in any case.

So when you walked out the back of that, to the back beach, front beach, it was front beach, it was filthy dirty. Rotting stuff everywhere. Smelly. Yeah, it wasn't nice. So that's really why I didn't want to spend much time. Yeah, it was very different. I'd never been to any Asian place in my life at that stage. I'd certainly never been in a warzone at all. And I just didn't like it at all.

SAS insertions

The SAS insertions were the ones that really got us uptight. And I think about those you, and yes, you'd be feeling pretty uptight about it when you were flying in there. We'd fly one helicopter at treetop level with the troops and another one high and behind it so he could actually give directions to you while you're down at treetop because you cant see the pad at that height and you'd be uptight until you were told "You've got a hundred metres to run" or whatever it was, I can't remember what they used to work on now.

And then you started to concentrate on the job and you're not really thinking about the problems at all which is why, if we went in there and there was VC on the ground and opened up on us, the troops behind would also open up and because I'm concentrating on flying that was always a fright to me. I just wasn't expecting it. I wasn't thinking about it at all. So you're pulling full power and get out of there as quick as you can, which is pretty slow because a helicopter going down will keep going down until it gets near the ground and then it takes its time to get out and we're working hard because the co-pilot is looking at the instruments making sure I'm not pulling too much power.

I'm looking at the edge of the trees to make sure we can get over those and clear those alright and once you were clear them, time and time again you just looked at each other and break up laughing, "Woo hoo We made that" sort of thing. The other difficult one then was when we did get them in then we'd go off and loiter for half an hour to see if they were okay and time and time again they'd have contact and call up and then you'd, again, concentrating very much on getting into there and getting the job done and it was afterwards that you'd start to sort of feel "Phew".

In my mind's eye I can see machine guns sitting over here firing at us on the ground. I just don't know why they didn't hit us. Definitely, I've got an extra hearing aid on here. The SAS just right behind you when they opened up, that was an ear-splitting noise, yeah. From the ones outside, the VC shooting at you, no I don't think I could never pick them, you'd just see the puffs of smoke but the other one you would hear was when the American, fasties we would call them, the jets would come in and drop their bombs that came in and dropped bombs and they were pretty close to us. We talked to them as well to make sure they didn't hit us. And you'd hear those things going off and you could feel the blast from them, so they were pretty close.

Returning home

It was fabulous. Saigon, there's the big Qantas V Jet waiting to take you home. We got on board. I think I was the only air force pilot, I don't really know, I had a couple of young army soldiers with me and we chatted all the way and drank lots of beer, passed over Darwin at midnight and the captain said, "We're now in Australia" Woo hoo. A big cheer went up.

Landed in Sydney about sixish in the morning and there was nobody there really. You know, you're on leave sort of thing. Went off with the family and had a couple of weeks leave and there was never any acknowledgement that you'd been in a war zone. They didn't… and that's part of the reason why I think I ended up in Darwin because I was still flying round like I was in a war zone and that's not really acceptable down here.

Yeah, there was no preparation for returning to civilian life. A lot of the guys were doing that I still had years and years to go. I just loved the Air Force and the flying.

Post traumatic stress

When I was actually diagnosed about two years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder, I had two of my local doctors say "I think you might have had this for a while."

Then I had friends and family people saying, "Oh yeah you had all that problem".

I didn't know I had it so I hadn't been aware of any real changes in me at all and when I came back, after helicopters, I flew fixed wing aircraft, Caribous, 748s, all sorts of things and loved doing it but never did anybody ask me about Vietnam or what I was doing.

It's only now that I realise, of course, that I have a couple of ribbons up here that said I'd been in Vietnam and there weren't too many young people who had those then. So, flying with some of these other pilots nobody said, "What was Vietnam like?" or "What were you doing?" It was sort of like you got shoved out of the way and I never gave it any real thought at all. I guess it wasn't until after I left the Air Force that I started to think about it.

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