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History

View 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.

Then LAC Neville Wiggins photographed in one of No. 9 Squadron’s gunships, Bushranger 71, the day
after he celebrated his 21st birthday.

Then LAC Neville Wiggins photographed in one of No. 9 Squadron’s gunships, Bushranger 71, the day after he celebrated his 21st birthday.

Maj Wiggins today

MAJ Wiggins today.

DURING 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 disc.

We 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.

We 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.

Sometimes 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.

Flying 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.

I 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 job.

After 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.

Putting 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.

About 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 display.

A 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.

Our 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.”

Tracer 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 been history.

FLTLT 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 protected.

My 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.

 

 

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