from the door
The recent retirement of the Bushranger gunships
brought back memories for MAJ Neville Wiggins, who served as a
door gunner on slicks and gunships for six months during a tour
of Vietnam in 1970-71.
LAC Neville Wiggins photographed in one of No. 9 Squadron’s
gunships, Bushranger 71, the day after he celebrated his
my fi rst two weeks as an Aircraftman with the Air- fi eld Defence
Guards at Vung Tau in Vietnam, there was a call for volunteers
to train as helicopter gunners with No. 9 Squadron.
main criteria for selection was that you could speak clearly and
had a driver’s licence. I could and I did, and was told that in
two weeks I would start gunner training.
day I reported to 9SQN I was issued with my fl ying kit and weapons.
The kit included a chicken plate, an armoured vest worn under
a survival jacket that would stop small arms rounds at 25m; I
hoped they were right and hoped I never had to fi nd out.
next day I went with an experienced gunner to be taught the job.
There was a high-pitched whine as the Emodel Huey started up and
we watched the rotor blades spin until they became a smoke-like
fl ew to Nui Dat, the main Australian task force base. In the
middle was a large asphalt area for helicopters known as Kanga
Pad, where we landed to top up the fuel. Then we went to a free-fi
re zone and two coloured smoke grenades were dropped 100m apart.
We fl ew past them at about 500ft and I was told to fi re at the
green smoke. I did not even get close. The trained gunner said,
“Watch the tracer rounds, steer them like a hose, walk them to
the target and keep it there.”
By the time we left I could hit a target and even change targets
without shredding too many trees. At the end of the eight days
I was a fully qualifi ed gunner.
did “hash and trash” missions – take in supplies and troops, bring
out the rubbish – to the fi re support bases around the province.
The call signs were Albatross 01 to 08 and the Squadron also had
four gunships with call signs Bushranger 71 to 74.
we did hot insertions or extractions. With the latter, I could
not use the door gun until the grunts were on board and then I
let it rip. None of these three to fi ve second bursts; hose down
the tree line and keep Charlie’s head down while we got away.
Then the gunships would roll in with rockets fi ring and twin
side guns rattling.
at night to extract wounded after a fi refi ght was always hairy.
Sometimes we had to hover over the trees with only a strobe light
to provide a reference. We could get a wounded Digger back to
the hospital in about 10 minutes fl ying time from anywhere in
the province. I could never understand why we did not have a similar
system for road accidents back in Australia.
was just glad we had the best pilots in the world. The Huey was
a very reliable aircraft, and the maintenance crews did a superb
one mission, I was informed my apprenticeship was over and I would
be put on Bushranger 73 for training as a gunship gunner. The
aircraft had 14 rockets, seven each side, and a mini-gun on each
side, all fi red by the pilot. The gunner and the crewman’s two
M60s could fi re 500 rounds a minute and we carried 1000 rounds
for each machinegun.
the rockets in and connecting them to the electrical fi ring circuit
was relatively straightforward. The backbreaking work was replacing
all the link ammunition for the mini-guns. All the crew helped
– there was no class distinction in a helicopter. After the aircraft
was secured at the end of the day I had to get the landrover with
the gun trailer (this where that licence came in handy) and take
the guns to the armoury.
10 o’clock one night a call came over the theatre PA system for
gunship crews to report to their aircraft. At a place called Xoi
Moc, a South Vietnamese outpost had been overrun. We were asked
to suppress the area to the east of the town. This was the fi
rst time I had seen gunships fi re at night.
The mini-guns carved a thin red line through the air and the rounds
ricocheted in all directions to make a spectacular fi reworks
few weeks after this event we were inbound to Nui Dat when we
got a call to say a 7RAR platoon was in trouble about 20km west
of Xoi Moc. They had walked into a VC bunker system and were taking
heavy fi re.
approach to the enemy position was directly over the top of the
platoon and we dropped our rounds to within 10m of their position.
“Check fi re, check fi re,” came the shout, “you’re hitting our
guys!” Our hearts sank through our fl ying boots. Seconds passed,
then the call came, “It’s okay Bushrangers, it was just your hot
spent cases falling on our blokes.”
fi re was clearly visible from the enemy bunker system. Bushranger
72 was hit some 22 times and looked for somewhere to land. We
could not cover them and help the grunts, but fortunately Bushrangers
73 and 74 arrived.
We raced back to Nui Dat to refuel and rearm. On the refuelling
point we could see the damage to our own aircraft – a large hole
near the fuel tank. A couple of centimetres and we would have
Francis Clough, the captain, examined the damage and made the
decision to return to the contact. He was later awarded the Distinguished
Flying Cross. By the time we returned to the action armoured personnel
carriers had arrived on the scene and had Bushranger 72 fully
tour with 9SQN came to an end after six months, 1154 sorties and
423 hours and fi ve minutes of fl ying. The last day I was on
Bushranger 71, it was quiet. The highlight was tying smoke grenades
to the skids and fl ying over the compound to indicate it was
the last day for two of us. There was a party that night, followed
by a day off to get my gear sorted out and move huts, then back
to doing bunker duty on the base perimeter.
MAJ Neville Wiggins is Deputy Commandant, Australian Army Regional
Training Centre at Darwin. He retires in November after 35 years
in the ADF.