The 106 Field Workship in Vietnam
Name: Claude Palmer
Unit: 106 Field Workshop, RAEME
Location: Long Tan, Vietnam
Units of the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) have served Australia well in many conflicts and Vietnam was no exception. Their skill and dedication to keeping essential equipment repaired and in good working order have been well documented. The 106 Field Workshop was one of the few Australian units to be raised in theatre of war.
In 1969-70 Major Claude Palmer was Officer-in-Charge of the unit.
He said that while the first priority in Vietnam was fighting the war, an essential element of Australian operations was the winning of hearts and minds of the local Vietnamese.
"Since the earliest deployment in the Sudan, the Australian Digger has always opened his heart and his wallet to the local children - "especially those disadvantaged by war,"
"So members of 106 Field Workshop readily adopted the Ba Ria Orphanage and, later, the Long Tan primary school. There were regular runs with "surplus" rations, sweets, building repairs, well cleaning, and even playground equipment."
These activities were gratefully acknowledged by the local populace.
At Christmas 1969, Major Palmer received a card from the local school.
We. All the teachers, wish you, the benefactors of our school, A MERRY CHRISTMAS and A HAPPY NEW YEAR.
Representative Nguyen van Huy.
Claude said 106 Field Workshop was extremely proud of its work in the field. It not only repaired damaged vehicles such as tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), often under extreme conditions, but worked on making improvements to existing equipment.
Concern about casualties caused by vehicles hitting mines led to 106 Field Workshop being asked to design and construct armour kits. After a number of trials using VC mines and damaged APCs, their modifications were approved.
This additional armour became a universal modification for Australian APCs and proved so effective that it saved many young soldiers from death and serious injuries.
In 1977, Claude Palmer, was a member of a Duntroon Entry Selection Board convened in Sydney, and accommodated in the Kings Cross area. The Board had adjourned and members were walking to dinner along Darlinghurst Road, near the famous El Alamein fountain, when a young man rushed up to Claude.
"I know you - your unit designed that anti-mine kit that was fitted to my APC in Vietnam," the young man said. He then shook Claude's hand firmly, saying, "I've wanted to thank you personally for years. Soon after your boys rearmoured my APC, it hit a mine. Thanks to your work, my mates and I survived in one piece."
On one occasion, a Centurion tank was badly damaged when it struck a Viet Cong mine during clearing operations near Nui Dat. It was essential that the tank be back in operation as soon as possible. Following closely behind the tank were members of the 106 Field Workshop, travelling in their specially adapted armoured mobile repair unit. The tank's track assembly was a complete write-off but the team managed to repair the tank, replacing the complete front suspension unit, front idler wheels and track in only eight hours.
Claude said there was intense but friendly rivalry between the various units and this manifested itself in many ways.
"The Centurion tank being used by the Australian Army was powered by a V 12 petrol engine originally designed and built by Rolls Royce for the Spitfire fighter aircraft. Tanks repaired by 106 were adorned by a stencil which read: Serviced exclusively by Vietnam's Rolls Royce dealer, 106 Field Workshop".
Not to be outdone, the APC Repair Section somehow obtained Detroit Diesel insignias and attached them to their overalls. (The M113A1 APC had a Detroit Diesel engine matched to an Allison transmission.)
Australian soldiers have always had a strong sense of humour under the most arduous conditions. The Task Force rubbish dump some 500 metres distant received much daily traffic. The local VC observed this, and logically, but wrongly, assumed that the Headquarters must be there, and so launched a rocket attack at what they thought to be a prime target. When it became apparent that 106 was not the target, 106 soldiers within sight of the dump could be heard cheering at each impact, rather like a crowd at a darts game.
Officially unacknowledged though it may be, Diggers of the first and second AIF were known to creatively interpret regulations to achieve what had to be achieved.
Following in the great tradition, men of 106 did likewise, and to this day, no one will reveal the true identity of a certain Sergeant E. Kelly whose signature is said to have appeared on certain requisitions at the US Depot at Long Binh.
Resourceful 106 craftsmen would often scrounge unserviceable equipment, which had been written-off by the US Army, from salvage dumps, and then repair it to operational use, thus saving the Australian taxpayer many thousands of dollars.
Claude was full of praise for the work of voluntary organisations such as the Salvation Army.
"Australian forces are fortunate in always having the Salvation Army and/or Everyman Organisation representatives. These courageous philanthropic souls provide welfare and spiritual advice, cold drinks, hot beverages, and biscuits to troops in action - sometimes literally," he said. "The local "Sally" as he was affectionately known, had a rather battered Land Rover. When he was due to return to Australia for his well-earned week of R&R, he asked if 106 could perform an oil change on his vehicle while he was away. The men of vehicle and general engineering platoons voluntarily completely rebuilt and repainted the vehicle so well that when he returned, the owner could not recognise his Land Rover which was waiting for him at the airstrip."
The unit adopted its own mascot, a young monkey known as Charlie Goloski. He spent much of his "working" day in Recovery Platoon and would often go on recovery missions. In the evenings he developed a taste for certain beverages and was seen to swoop from the rigging of the mess tent to swipe an unattended can of beer which he proceeded to drink.
He met an untimely end when he discovered a bottle of sleeping tablets which he promptly opened and ate. Despite desperate efforts from a US Army vet, Charlie never recovered. Later, he was replaced by another monkey, a female known as Suzie Goloski. She remained with the unit until it returned to Australia, at which time she was given to the children of the Ba Ria Orphanage.
So 106 Field Workshop continued the proud tradition of the RAEME throughout its tour of duty in Vietnam.
The material for this article was supplied by Claude Palmer of Queensland.