Doing The Job - Recovery
from 6 Sep70 to 31 Aug 71
Len Stephens served with 106 Field Workshop, the Forward Repair Group that followed it and then with 102 Field Workshop. Len published his recollections of his time as a Recovery Mechanic in South Vietnam sometime after the war and distributed them to his mates. Len has since died of leukemia. The contents of his pamphlet, supplied by Peter Winter, and with the approval of Len's wife, Dianne, is published here in his memory. All the text that follows, including the "Preface", is his.
We had nothing on this day when a message came in that 3 CAV had some serious trouble about 10 klicks out. It was all panic and hurry up because 2 carriers were waiting at the main gates to escort us to the job.
We had done this before, so it wasn't a big deal. One carrier up front and one at the rear. To avoid the dust problem, the best method was to tailgate as close as possible. That in itself wasn't a problem, but the fact that the lead carrier was going flat out and you had to stay in his tracks was.
We settled into the groove and everything was going fine until we hit a rubber plantation. It was impossible to follow with the trailer on, so we started to do our own thing. We had been warned many a time, that every tree we damaged was worth hundreds of dollars. I spent a lot of money that day.
We eventually arrived at the site and started to sus it out. By this time, I was no stranger to these situations and at first glance it didn't look too bad, at least she was the right way up. Both tracks looked OK and the right side was in good nick. It wasn't until we saw the left side that the story unfolded.
One RPG through the left front side and a second had skimmed right across the front. I found out later, that this was the third time that this particular driver had taken RPGs or some sort of fire. He sustained leg and lower body damage and the crew commander copped a piece of metal and broke his leg somehow.
The dust off was long gone by the time we arrived. We had to turn the wrecker and tilt bed around so we had an area cleared, and eventually loaded up the carrier.
We were all set to go when
Nobody knew what had happened for a minute, but it was all too clear after a while.One of the Vietnamese scouts had jumped off the side of a carrier onto an anti personnel mine, no more than a foot from where the carriers had been running up and down all afternoon. We looked at each other and thought the same thing I'm sure; we had all been walking around that area just minutes before.
They cleared the area and put what was left of that bloke into a hooch and tied the ends together. For what I thought was convenience sake, we took that scout back to the Dat on the back of the wrecker and put him on a chopper. I don't know where they took him. I guess he never warranted a medivac.
It was something I never understood.
A Job To Remember
This day, a job came in that a 113 had taken an anti tank mine. The job was a long way out and in an area I had never been before. It was late afternoon when we got there, and the first thing I remember seeing, was the 113 on its side with bits and pieces everywhere.
It must have been an enormous mine to have caused such a mess. The left hand track was blown right off and the final drive was hanging out like it never belonged there. The hull was bent and distorted. There was a hole in the ground as big as a small car.
Jobs of this size were always a group decision and we decided to winch it back the right way up and onto the tilt bed trailer. Nothing new about that, except the armour plate had been blown right off.
By the time we had loaded the 113 on the tilt bed, it was getting near dusk, and the decision was made to come back the next day for the up armour plate. It was dense scrub and not a good place to be at night.
We couldn't make it back to base and we had a number of 113's and Kiwi's near-by, so we pulled back a few klicks to a cleared area; a crop of some sort I think it was. We set up camp for the night with the 113's and Kiwi's around us for protection.
I will remember that night as long as I live I went to sleep across the seats of the wrecker and my mate found a hooch on the ground somewhere. It was a restless night and in my haste to pull myself up, I accidently grabbed the centre of the steering wheel and blew the air horns. Kiwi's in a flat panic at 2 o'clock in the morning aren't a good sight.
I never slept a wink from then on and by the time morning came around I had eyes like saucers. I wasn't afraid of nogs that night.
That saga over with, and a lot of credibility to regain, we set back out to the site to pick up the up armour plate. We found the area where it should have been, but that's about it; the nogs had carried it away and there wasn't a sign of it anywhere. They most probably took it just after we had left the area the night before. We returned to base without it.
Quite an experience for a young bloke.
All Is Not What It Seems
We were making preparation for the Laundry run one day when the Adjt. came over with a change of plan. It seemed that someone had put an MK.5. over the edge out at the Horseshoe.
The Capt. was a man of many missions and was always looking for an excuse to get out with us.
We eventually arrived at the Horseshoe and without warning, the first thing the Capt. did was round up a heap of blokes to give us a hand. We hadn't even seen the job yet.
They pointed out where she was and upon inspection, we found out someone had simply backed over the edge and got hung up. It was no big deal and with all the extra hands we had, the job was done in no time.
I'm sure we gave the impression the world wouldn't function without us.
Time to head back so I jumped behind the wheel. The Capt.was the first behind the gun, so it was the tool box again for Macca. I could see he wasn't happy, but he let it ride.
We were well on the way back when something took my eye half a mile or so up ahead. I shouted to Macca and he pointed it out to the Capt. The Master Gunner hadn't picked it up yet. It was battle stations all round.
The closer we got the more serious it looked, I was having doubts myself.
It didn't make sense. There were vehicles everywhere. It was a seven truck convoy, all Yankie Five Tonners.
Orders came from the top, "pull up and see what we can do".
We introduced ourselves and the only one we could get sense out of was the Transport Sgt. Seven trucks and the first three ran clear off the road like they were joined together. One look at the drivers concerned and it was obvious what had happened, a case of too much of the magic stuff.
After the fiasco we had at the Horseshoe, we carried out the whole job with hardly a word between us. We applied rule number one, pull them out the way they went in. We snigged them out and the whole job took no more than two hours. The old Sgt. took a few photo's and it was time to go.
The Master Gunner assumed position number one and went through his check list.
I was about to jump up myself, when I had a box of goodies shoved under my arm. It weighed a bit and clanged a lot, so under the seat it went. We headed off, well satisfied with our efforts and confident that was it for the day.
MP's pulled us over on the way in. We had been pulled up before, but these guys were like angry ants. They wanted to look in everything. If they got to the drivers seat I was gone.
Up until now the Capt. hadn't said a word and it wasn't obvious who he was.
They made a move towards the drivers compartment and at that point he made his presence felt. The conversation was short and sweet, end of story boys, see you later.
I thought at the time, was he saving his own neck or was he saving mine, who knows?. As much as I had cursed him throughout that day, I was glad he was there.
He continued to come out with us now and again and we continued to play our little games. He never so much as wanted to look under that seat, the man was no fool.
Half a dozen bottles of the best went down well between Macca and myself.
Never judge a book by its cover!
We were required to do some crane work down the road this day, it was only a one man job but the boss said "You might as well tag along to lend a hand". The task itself was simple enough, and we knocked it over in quick time and headed for home.
We were discussing how well we had done the job when the next thing I knew I was hanging on for dear life. I had nearly fallen right out of the truck. We had driven right off the edge of a 3 foot culvert.
Fortunately, we had some speed up and bounced right out. Apart from my pride I was OK.
Not so my rifle, it had fallen right out the door and under the duels. The old gat was a sorry sight, she had no stock left and the barrel had a distinct bend to the right. No problem I thought, I'll just get it replaced when I get back.
I explained the situation on arrival and made arrangements for a new one.
The armourer was nowhere to be found, so I thought, "No problem. I'll do it later on".
That later on never happened, and I awoke the next day to this sorry sight leaning against the rifle rest in the corner. I cleaned it up and headed on up to morning parade with the idea of seeing the armourer first thing.
Just my luck, the powers that be, decided on a full weapons inspection. My turn arrived and it was almost a heart attack job. It was a "Yes Sir. No Sir" situation. I eventually explained what had happened and things cooled down a bit.
I copped a very long lecture about weapon care and the fact that of all people I should know the importance of being at the ready.
A Victim of circumstance.
How Not To Tow a Tiltbed
I had been given the job of washing the Tiltbed Trailer. The task itself wasn't any problem, just hook it up and drive over to the lake and wash it down.
The trailer was parked outside the workshop so I backed up until the pintle hook just touched. Someone came over and hooked it up for me, so I didn't get out. The procedure was simple and routine for most guys around the workshop. He gave me a wave and I returned the favour by a wave in the mirror. I took off and drove to the end of the workshops and turned hard left.
To my amazement, when I straightened up the trailer wasn't there. I looked back just in time to see the drawbar section disappear into the corner of an office. I jumped on the skids and ran over.
What I saw was worth a million dollars.
The trailer at one end of the office and three guys up the other, mouths wide open and wondering what the hell had happened. All I could think of saying was "Can I have my trailer back please", like a kid would a ball over a fence.
I got my trailer back alright, with a lecture from more than one person on how to hook up a trailer. I had never had that problem before, but the funny thing was, I didn't hook it up in the first place. A valuable lesson was learnt and nobody got hurt.
I think I was blessed that day!
A Night Spent In A Ditch
We were having a lazy afternoon, when we got the message that a rover was bogged not far out of the Dat in one of the small villages.
"No problem" I thought. "Just a routine job".
Always one to take an opening when I saw it, I thought "Good opportunity to do some business on the way back.". We stocked up with cartons of smokes on the way out in preparation.
It was in the Wet season and the water table was right up, but it didn't seem too bad.
We found the rover and all that belonged to it. We couldn't get near the rover, so it was a simple job of laying out the winch and dragging the whole lot back to the wrecker. The road was narrow but all looked well.
Some old bugger in a cart wanted to get past, so I fired up the old girl and moved over a bit, no problem.
Surface of this type was always a decision between experience and necessity. When I tried to pull back onto the centre of the road, she started to go down. We decided to study the situation with a bit more care. The whole side of the road had started to give way.
I made a decision to have another go. I gave her all she had, but all that did was break the crust and down I went. It was evident that I had committed suicide.
The whole thing was sinking before my eyes. I watched it sink right up to the diffs. The left wheels were three quarters covered and I stepped straight out level with the ground. I knew I could not get myself out, so I got on the blower for help.
The other wrecker was still an hour away.
By the time they arrived it was getting late, so we got into it straight away. We put our heads together and figured being stuck in the mud, it had to be around a 40 tonne pull.
No problem, just lay it out and get on with it. We couldn't anchor into the ground because of the water table and there wasn't anything big enough to hook on to.
Someone came up with the idea of using the Fitters track for an anchor, we organised it over the radio and they showed up in due course.
By the time we had everything set up, we only had two hours of daylight left. We had a go, and for a while the whole thing held together. By this time they had pulled me about 30 metres and things were looking good. She just wouldn't come out of that hole.
Someone called a halt on account of the light. We had radioed to base and they decided to arrange protection. In the end we had 113's everywhere and more personnel than you could shake a stick at. I thought at the time "I hope the boss isn't keeping notes on all this lot."
I'd blocked the entrance to a few houses, and they were carrying on about the big ditch out the front and creating quite a fuss about the whole thing. I wasn't too happy either and we all started blueing; nobody slept well that night.
The next morning we hooked up three 113's together as an anchor and chained the lot to the 2nd wrecker. The plan was for the 113's to hold in reverse at the same time as the wrecker winched me out. The plan worked beautifully, and we eventually got the job done.
When everything was over and we were all packed up, I looked back at the mess I had created. The ditch was 50 metres long and 2 metres deep. The road was totally destroyed. What a disaster!.
We ended up sharing all the smokes among the people we had upset and things calmed down a bit.
To this day, I don't know if they ever restored that road. I never ever went back again.
When we got back, the Boss was fuming. I got the message quick smart.
We let things settle and went and saw him. At this stage my reputation wasn't worth a cracker. He got up me for not using proper radio procedure and the fact that I put so much machinery and people at risk. He went on a bit, but in the end just wanted an explanation for what had happened.
As cool as you like, all I said was "I got a bit stuck in the mud".
With that, he put his head in his hands and muttered something, pointed to the door and said "Out!"
He never spoke to me about it ever again and I still don't know if he ever really knew what happened.
We were well on the way to a job one morning and the weather wasn't too flash. The rain was coming in the side door and it was just as wet inside as it was out.
We arrived on site to find a Carrier with the engine hatch open. A quick look and sure enough the old jimmy had dropped her guts in a big way. We lined up the trailer and winched her on.
We had been advised to have our weapons handy so I had mine resting behind the wrecker. It started to bucket down, so I just slipped it down under the side of the carrier.
We finished chaining down and as always checked the area for anything we might have left behind. Confident we had everything, I jumped up on the gun, slipped on the headphones and we were on our way.
When we arrived back the instructions were to take it straight down to the workshops and unload.
I was about to jump out when I noticed my rifle was not hanging by the door, I couldn't believe it. All sorts of things went through my mind and I thought, I've cooked my goose this time. I was positive I had it just before we left, but after that it was a complete blank. I thought, "How could anybody lose their bloody rifle". At this stage, I was quite concerned about the whole thing.
They were giving us the hurry up, so we started to unload. We took the chains off and hooked her up and she was ready to go. I leaned over the front of the trailer to release the catch and there it was in all its glory.
Somehow my rifle had managed to stay on the trailer all the way back. It was exactly where I put it when it started to rain. I hadn't picked it up after all. It wasn't any worse for wear so I put it aside and cleaned it up when I got the chance.
I had a perpetual smile for the rest of that day and only one other person ever knew why.
One particular day, we were handed a job that required a tiltbed trailer. It just so happened that one was out and the other was being serviced. I enquired at the workshop and they said,
"She's right. Just finished".
We had been having trouble with the brakes on and off, so they checked that out when they had the wheels off. No time for a road test, we were in a hurry. They assured us that it would be OK. We set out on our job, confident that our problems had been solved.
It was around the middle of the dry season, and the dust was as thick as ever, you couldn't see 100 metres behind at the best of times.
We were about an hour from base when I noticed the old girl was losing a bit of power. She wouldn't hold top gear on the flat and things were getting worse. We decided to stop and sus it out. When the dust had settled, I climbed up to check the donk, while my off sider checked the wheel hubs and the hand brake.
She didn't want to start that morning, courtesy of some bad fuel; we had a problem with water a few days before. The boys in the shop checked it out but not too many of them had seen inside the carby of a continental six. She seemed to be running sweet enough, so we started to look elsewhere. We reckoned it must be the trailer; sure enough, there it was.
You would not have believed it in a million years.
- 3 of the 4 end caps on the hubs had the centres cut clean out. What had happened was, when they serviced the bearings, they didn't bend the split pins over far enough. Being made of alloy, it didn't take long for the split pins to chew them out.
- Problem number 2 was the bearings on two axles had seized up and the others looked pretty crook. The dust had fixed them right up.
- Problem number 3 was, we didn't really know where we were other than between point A and point B.
- Problem number 4 was how we were going to tell the base what had happened without giving the game away, considering we were by ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
I got the message across using the pretext that the other trailer needed the work and where we were going in a day or so.
Eventually a chopper arrived with a full set of everything and VM's to fix the problem.
The only thing that was not available was the end caps, they solved that by putting plastic over the hubs, then the old caps back on. It worked and we made it back without any more trouble.
Moral of the story, Never hurry a V.M.!
UD and CB
I learnt one morning how easy it was to have a U.D [Unauthorized Discharge...weapon fired without approval] with a M16.
I had a late job the night before and hit the sack in the early hours. The next morning I picked up my rifle as usual and "Bang" right through the roof. I was stunned but the other three blokes hit the deck. I realised what had happened and as quick as a flash I put my head out the front of the tent and yelled to the guys next door. " What happened?" Nobody knew or realised it was a U.D straight away and I played along.
Everything went quiet for a while except for one bloke I will never forget. He dobbed me in like there was no tomorrow. I was fined $40. 00 and 10 days C. B.[Confined to Barracks]
Being an enterprising Rechy Mech, I had the charge beaten within a week. The armourer fixed the M16 up so it cooked itself and fired with the slightest bump on the end of the butt. The C.O. was no fool and was a wake up to what was going on, but accepted what the armourer had to say. The charge was struck off and my records set straight. The armourer copped a bit of flack for a while but in time everything was alright.
Bad luck about the C.B they said, "You're not getting any credit". The C.O. said I probably owed him anyway.
I don't know why, but I kept that round and I've still got it today.
Laurie [Tag] Taggart, Armourer at 106 Fd Wksp in 1970/1971 comments
I can vouch for the above story as I was that armourer.
I happened to meet up with Stevo at the opening of the Viet Vets Memorial in Canberra. His first words to me were: "G'day Tag, I still owe you a beer mate for what you did for me with that U.D."
A wayward water buffalo had fallen down a disused water well in the middle of an old rice paddy and after receiving a request for help the workshops decided to send a recovery crew accompanied by a fitters track for back up.
Recovery had done its share of civil aid over a long period of time and it was always a case of 'expect the unexpected'.
This particular day we arrived at the site to find a group of locals, young and old peering down a well with the elders all in some degree of panic. We thought this strange, but buffalo were a beast of burden and an important part of the family unit. A young woman informed us there were two children involved and still down the well with the buffalo.
At this point we realised the importance of it all and positioned the wrecker and track over the well and lowered a crew member down to assess the situation. He managed to snatch one of the children away from the thrashing beast and we winched them to the top.
The child was unconscious but as it turned out, it was a blessing, the little boy had been thrashed about so much. Just about every bone in his body had been broken. The bruises were horrendous. He was rushed away by one of the older women, presumably to be treated in the village, but it was obvious to all, he would need a miracle.
The next priority was to get the buffalo out because the other child wasn't visible and there was no hope of survival. The decision was made to shoot the beast through the head, to carry out the job with some degree of safety, but the men of the village objected strongly and it was made clear to us the family involved , had more children, but only the one buffallo. Incredible as it was, we had to go along with this until we gained permission from the Village Council.
We winched the beast to the surface and layed it out, the locals took charge of it from then on. Someone came up with a hook arrangement and we spent the next hour on what was to be a futile attempt at recovering the second body.
The decision to give it away was made by the Council so reluctantly packed up and made ready to leave.
Just before we headed off, I recognized the woman who took the child away and asked her if the boy was alright, she didn't say anything, but the distraught look on her face was explanation enough.
We never had a chance to follow it up, however, we did get a report that the well had been covered over, presumably to protect other wayward buffalo.
Weights & Measures
Preparation was under way for a job up North past the Courtney Rubber. The check list all so important for a successful job was all but complete, Fuel, Ammo, Water, Tyres, Rations and Radio, plus a thorough check for the ordinary.
Our destination was a Fire Support Base in an area known for trouble and not a good place to be, given the activity of late. Our objective was a armoured dozer used for claering in active areas
2 RAR were in the area and had been busy for the better part of a week, so we couldn't afford anything to go wrong especially on the way back fully loaded.
Neither of the recovery crews had been in the area while, so all we had to go on was a report from 3 CAV. 3 CAV. were there in support of 2 RAR and we had specific instructions to rendezvous at a given point.
We made haste while the going was good until we came upon a section that had a slight down hill run of about 300 metres, it was out of character and I thought it would be interesting if it rained. It wasn't all that steep, but already chopped up.
We rendezvoused as planned, and by chance the lead track was crewed by a mate of mine. Mick was his name. He informed me that they had been with 2 RAR. and chopped the hell out of the area and it would take a good eye to detect any new mines, so keep a good look out.
We headed off and took up the centre position with Mick in the lead, it was hard going and almost impossible to keep up, but taking everything into consideration, we did well to maintain our schedule and arrived with plenty of time for the return trip.
The dozer was complete with rippers and blade and extra plates welded all over it. It was huge and heavy, but Alan Lavis (my second Recce Sgt) fired her up and loaded her on the tiltbed anyway.
I did a rough calculation and came up with about 45 - 50 tons all up and I thought, "We will never make it".
It rained on cue and right then I knew we were in for an interesting run home. It was going to be a long slow trip back and we headed off with the knowledge that the carriers would stay with us for as long as was necessary.
The boggy section came into view and it was decided that discretion was the better part of valour. We stopped and chained a carrier to the front of the wrecker with about 30 feet between us.
With the aid of the carrier we got up to speed in quicktime. We hit the greasy section flat to the boards with Mick's Jimmy screaming and the old continental six on the governor. The whole time Mick was on the radio and the old girl was slipping and sliding and fighting for traction. Mick's track was going from side to side and the dozer was swaying all over the place and looking dangerous. We were almost down to a dead stop when all of a sudden the old girl dug in and we clawed our way out the other side at walking pace. We stopped and unhooked and continued in convoy until we were satisfied everything was OK. The two tracks gave us the thumbs up and we were on our own again. It was a big effort, but once again 3.CAV. had got us out of a tight spot. We dropped the dozer off to the amusement of the engineers and headed for home. Alan didn't say much, just "Well done and gave a sigh of relief, but his thoughts echoed mine I'm sure. We had just completed a job we wouldn't even consider had we known the details beforehand. What's more, we got away with it. I parked her for the night, checked her over, had a well earned shower and put it all down to experience. A week later, the whole eye section broke off the drawbar of the trailer and the clutch went on the wrecker. We found out later they usually stripped the blade or rippers off the dozer to lighten it down, sometimes both. Hence the strange look when we dropped it off. They fitted a new coupling to the trailer and adjusted the clutch but it was never right after that.