Copyright 2002.  Graham Sherrington (Sherro).  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.  



Abstract: A visit by Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky  goes slightly awry when he fires an 81mm mortar from the  Australian Army’s 5th Battalion  base at Nui Dat.


Marshalling the Marshal.



There was a bit of a buzz around Battalion headquarters at Nui Dat. The President of Vietnam, Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was coming to visit. For some of my sins as a grunt  -- something to do with bailing up an NCO with the wrong end of an M16 after he’d annoyed me -- I’d been temporarily moved to the Battalion  Intelligence Section as an Intelligence Dutyman, a position which I found out thirty years later I should have been posted to in the first place, rather than the Army having the VC try to kill me off  as I worked as a Forward Scout an M60 gunner and a Rifleman.  That’s another long story too.


Battalion headquarters was mainly double-layered, sandbagged six man tents with one or two prefabricated steel huts, it had a main street, a flagpole and  flag and it was right next to the 81mm Mortar Platoon of Support Company, who had a series of well-dug in mortar positions in an enclosure. In the wet season it was regarded as light amusement to watch them furiously bailing the bunkers out before a fire mission. They also had the bad habit of firing the damned things at night on the few times when we were in base and trying to sleep off our massive hangovers.


Over the previous few weeks they’d also had a few drop-shorts, with the charges not igniting properly.  In the mortar world this is not a desirable activity, in fact it is regarded as extremely dangerous, particularly if the mortar bomb gains enough velocity to arm itself.


Suddenly there was  a  flurry of excitement, a throng of  people were shambling up the road towards Battalion Headquarters and the mortar pits.  Every shiny-arsed base person in Saigon and the Task Force  who could be there was there, all polished, starched and clean,  as well as some of the press people wearing mixed military and civilian attire with bandoleers of film,  a movie team with a camera and a soundman attached by a cable and various embassy civilians and spooks rounded out this bizarre assemblage.


Even more interesting were the bunch of cutthroats who were the good Marshal’s bodyguard, they carried an assortment of weapon collector’s wet dreams, Thompsons, Swedish Model K’s (suppressed and unsuppressed), M3 Grease guns, Mauser M96 pistols, Browning 9mm pistols, .45 Autos, .357 Magnums, Car 15s and those sawn off  little survival M16s with a stubby barrel and a truncated butt stock. It was all there.


They also had amazing uniforms, Tiger Stripes, Leopard Spot  camo,  helmets, big French style cloth military hats turned up at the side, highly polished helmet liners, berets worn at strange angles and of course, a variety of various coloured scarves. The Marshal was wearing his black cat suit and a black flyers cap. It was a complete clusterfuck.


In their wisdom some idiots decided that Marshal Ky would fire a symbolic mortar out at the VC, so they all herded over to the mortar pits, making lowing noises like cattle. I and many others  all around the mortar area observed this from a safe/danger-close distance. First a mortar team swung into action, smoothly and slickly aligning the mortar and throwing a mortar bomb down the tube. WHOMP! The camera people were dribbling with excitement, this was REAL WAR! Just where this projectile went I don’t know, nor I think did anyone else, but it thumped nicely and went OUT THERE.


Now it was Ky’s turn. With all cameras on him, he was handed a live HE mortar bomb.  I turned to a friend next to me and said:


“Wouldn’t be funny if they got a drop…..”


There was a puny “WHAP” and the mortar bomb wobbled into the air, quite visible to the multitudes. Someone bellowed: “DROPSHORT!” All combat soldiers within earshot -- especially the mortar men -- disappeared completely as if they had never ever been there, the  mortar men popping into their bunkers like gophers.


Ky’s party and those of the shiny bottoms stood around with mouths agape wondering what was happening.  Was this a new sort of game being played by those nasty, rough Infantrymen? The smoking mortar bomb plopped down on it’s side, in front of a soldier who was sitting in the entrance of his tent, polishing his boots and preparing to go on R&R.  I’m told he fainted.


Suddenly Ky’s bodyguard realised he had been in danger and they all rushed over, knocked him down and piled on top of him like a bunch of toads on heat. By this time there was little chance of the mortar bomb exploding. The grunts had now reappeared and were watching this circus with interest and taking photos.  The camera team had been too busy eating dirt after being trampled in the rush and hadn’t got this all on film, SO THEY MADE THEM DO IT AGAIN. He stood up, the cameras got ready and then  his bodyguard rushed over and toad-clustered him again.


This caused vast amusement for the  rabble around the Mortar Platoon fence and they cat-called and whistled. Rather abruptly they were ordered from the scene by officer types who were more sensitive and attuned to the nuances of diplomatic matters. My enduring memory is of a sound recordist in tears with red dirt all over himself  trying to untangle his tape spools which had spilt everywhere when he took cover. It didn’t matter much, he would have re-recorded it ‘live’ back in the bar at the Caravelle in Saigon anyway.