Anthony W. Pahl


Duncan McNair - One of the 504!
Cpl Duncan G. “Mother” McNair. Royal Australian Air Force. One of Australia’s 504 Vietnam KIA
The day I left for Vietnam? How young I bloody seemed.
(At nineteen, the adventure and the medals that would gleam)
But dressed in civvies (civilian clothes) was strange attire for war,
But we all knew we had to land and refuel in Singapore.

We embarked on our adventure from Sydney with the sun.
The grog was cold; our voices bold – we bloody well had fun.
But deep inside our churning guts, the trepidation sat.
The flight was only twelve short hours from a place called Nui Dat.

The sun was up when we embarked. It was up when we arrived.
(Imagine travelling all this way so some of us could die)
But strong of heart and young as hell, we didn’t think of that.
All we thought of was that place that base called Nui Dat.

We landed at an airport; a place called Ton Son Nhut.
We were told it was in Saigon but we couldn’t give a hoot.
We landed to be greeted by the evening sun and dusk.
Three hours we sat and waited for Yankee airborne bus!

It was dark when we finally landed that base they called the Dat.
The strip was short and narrow – I thought, “We can’t land on that!”
I don’t know how we made it but the engines roared to stop.
“Bluddy hell,” I thought with dread, “I’ll be killed before I’m shot!”

The ground-pounders disembarked, but I was told to stay;
the RAAF was based in Vung Tau – somewhere down the bay.
Little did I realize that I’d be back at the Dat real soon,
training with the army learning how to shoot a goon.

Sure enough, a few days went by then I was on the move
with the reinforcement unit until all weapons I could prove.
Two weeks we slogged it out in the sticky dirty mud;
never clean ‘cos we lived in clay – clay as red a blood.

“Not for me!” I swore inside. “There’s gotta be something better.”
So I applied for chopper gunner as per the CO’s letter.
I figured flying above the war would be easier than the walk.
We’d outrun flying bullets faster’n charles could talk.

But all is never as it seems, as I was soon to learn.
My mate was in a chopper; it was hit… and it began to burn.
He died in Tokyo hospital; he’d swallowed burning JP4.
“Damn this bloody country and the stinking bloody war!”

The reality of war rammed home the night we got a call.
A patrol has caught an ambush and was really badly mauled.
One dead – two shot and wounded, so a dust-off was required.
We hauled the meat and wounded out a winch job under fire.

The tracer flew around our ship as we hovered overhead.
The thwacks into the chopper skin all added to our dread.
… I survived that nightmare dream but just before he died
one digger said to me, “Thanks mate!” The clouds burst as I cried.

At nineteen when I went to Nam my mind seemed pure and clean
but at twenty when I came home again the things that I had seen!
Eighteen years have passed me by, and I still have those dreams.
The day I returned from Vietnam – how old I bloody seemed.

Author’s Note: The chronology of the poem is somewhat skewed to facilitate poetic imperatives. It is nevertheless based on absolute fact and encapsulates my entire tour of Vietnam. Many of my subsequent war poems have their genesis in this piece.

“Mother” was older than most of us; I think he was 21 or 22. We called him Mother because he was in charge of the gunners and was our mentor, always teaching and talking us through many difficult situations. He died on July 20, 1970 in hospital in Tokyo from pneumonia as a result of damaged lungs caused by swallowing and breathing burning helicopter fuel (JP4) when his helicopter was shot down on 3 July 1970. This happened a month after my return to “the world”. We were mates, and I flew with Mother on many occasions. His death knocked my socks off.

In October 1992, at the Dedication of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Canberra, I met Mother’s wife, son, and daughter and formally presented a dedicated copy of the poem to them.

Now, in the year 2009, thirty nine years have passed me by, and I STILL have those dreams.