On the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Australian Air Force, Shepparton’s Darryl ‘Tank’ Macarty talked with Charmayne Allison to share his experiences of brotherhood, bravery and bloodshed, fighting with the RAAF in the Vietnam War.

In 1969, Darryl Macarty’s world – his life – was confronting death. Such as the day, 6000 km from home, when he was staring into the eyes of the Kiwi soldier he had just pulled into his helicopter, certain he had saved him from the jungle below. But when he looked into the man’s eyes they were wide, staring. Empty. And it was only then he noticed the bullet hole in his forehead. All Darryl had done was rescue a body. ‘‘It was like he was looking straight at me,’’ Darryl recalled. ‘‘For ages, every time I’d lift my can to drink, I’d see him. ‘‘That was my first big shock.’’ But it would be far from his last.

As an air gunner in No. 9 Helicopter Squadron, fighting in Vietnam, in a war where there was no frontline, every take-off was a roll of the dice as to who died and who didn’t. The 20-year-old from Shepparton had stepped out of the warmth and safety of a First World life and into a brutal, bloody, civil war.

It was Darryl’s first fulltime job and he was in the business of life and death. Some of those deaths he will never forget, too many of those faces still haunt his dreams. Like that dead Kiwi, whose name he never knew; the face of his mate, lost in an extraction mission; the faces of his friends who made it back home – but never really did, because they brought the war with them, and, unable to escape their nightmares, they chose suicide as the ultimate last step to freedom.

Vietnam had been a French colony, but its real war started when the Japanese arrived in 1941. When they were gone, the French tried to pick up the tattered remnants of their empire as though nothing had happened, and for the next eight years fought a savage war against an implacable enemy fighting for its homeland.

In 1954 the French were gone – but by the early 1960s the United States military was escalating its support from advisers to frontline troops. And Australia and New Zealand went with them in a war that would drag on another decade. ‘‘I wish to Christ war didn’t happen,’’ Darryl said. ‘‘Because in war, there’s always death.’’ Darryl’s own family had already paid its dues – he already knew what collateral damage meant. ‘‘My father fought in Papua New Guinea on the Kokoda Trail,’’ he said.

‘‘Unfortunately, his condition following the war separated my mother and father.’’ But like any starry-eyed young man, listening to old soldiers around Shepparton sharing theirwar stories of courage under fire, Darryl too began to dream of serving his country.

‘‘I said, ‘Gee, what am I doing here?’,’’ he said. At last, in 1965, at the tender age of 17, Darryl volunteered as a soldier in the Royal Australian Air Force, just three years into Australia’s decade-long involvement in the Vietnam War.

Completing a year of gruelling soldier and prejungle training, Darryl kicked off his military career with three six-month postings at the RAAF’s Base Ubon, in Thailand. His main responsibilities were patrolling the perimeter, guarding the gates and keeping an eagle eye on the No. 79 Squadron’s Sabre jets.

Finally, on May 25, 1969, he was posted to Vung Tau and Vietnam’s frontline. ‘‘When I got there, I just wanted to get on the helicopters,’’ he said. It only took an interview and Darryl was assigned an air gunner position in the No. 9 Helicopter Squadron, where popular legend has it the life expectancy of an air gunner was a chilling five minutes. That was obviously an exaggeration, just not much of one. 

Often hanging out the open cabin doors of helicopters and gunships, at times restrained by nothing more than a monkey harness, the role was painfully exposed and highly dangerous.

When assigned to troopcarrier helicopters, Darryl and his crew – two pilots, two crewmen – would fly behind enemy lines, dropping troops for intelligence operations.

But on the gunships, they’d be heading to battles, supporting troops on the ground in a ‘contact’ – fighting the enemy. ‘‘We had miniguns with six barrels each, 14 rockets, seven a side, and twin M60 machine guns, also on each side,’’ he said.

‘‘They could fire 4200 rounds a minute. The pilots operated those, and the rockets as well, but we’d do the settings for the rockets in the back. ’’There could be some ‘‘very hot’’ times. ‘‘The radio  operator on the ground would say, ‘They’re into you too, they’re into you too’, which meant they were trying to knock us out,’’ Darryl said. ‘‘There were times we’d go to extract the SAS after they’d done a patrol, and we’d be firing and they’d be firing.’’

Of course Darryl has repeatedly faced the burning question on everyone’s lips: Did he kill anyone in Vietnam? ‘‘I’d say, ‘I don’t know – but I was up there on a gunship, and we’d fire into where we thought the enemy was’,’’ he said. ‘‘There were a lot of blokes who felt a lot of hate towards the enemy. But I just took it as it came – I had a job to do, they had a job to do.’’ In the subsequent 12 months of his Vietnam posting, Darryl spent more than 500 hours in the air. ‘‘It was just awesome,’’ he said. ‘‘I knew I was actually doing something to help.’’ But there was one job Darryl always hated – dust-off. Collapsing on their bunks each night after a draining day of cat and mouse, of life and death, Darryl’s unit would be on edge, praying the phone wouldn’t ring. Because when it did, that meant someone had been injured or killed on the field. And Darryl and his team would be sent out in the dead of night to retrieve them.

‘‘One night we picked up this bloke – he was on the radio and the lightning hit the aerial,’’ Darryl said. ‘‘It went right through to his brain. And all he did was scream and scream and scream as we transported him back to the hospital.’’

After a year in Vietnam, Darryl was discharged and sent back home in January, 1971. ‘‘I thought I’d had enough,’’ he said. ‘‘But the problem was, when I got out, I couldn’t settle down and transition back to civilian life.’’ This stress was compounded by the ugly reception he and other veterans had received when he arrived back in Australia.

By 1971, the anti-war movement in Australia had escalated dramatically after 200,000 took to the streets for the first moratorium march in 1970.

Vietnam veterans were being treated with disgust, spat on in the streets – and branded baby killers. ‘‘Here in Shepparton, I was having a beer and this bloke came up to me and said, ‘What was it like killing women and children?’,’’ Darryl said.

Missing his mates and the camaraderie of the RAAF, his mother said: ‘‘For goodness’ sake, go back in.’’ Darryl didn’t need any more encouragement – he phoned the RAAF.

‘‘I volunteered for Vietnam again as a gunner, but unfortunately they’d frozen all postings,’’ he said. At that point, it was clear Australia’s position in Vietnam would not change any time soon.

And in December, 1972, the Labor victory ended Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam. But Darryl wasn’t ready to step down fromthe RAAF – and for the next 14 years heserved as a soldier, spending time on every major base in Australia.

‘‘My last job was teaching RAAF recruits for six years at the air base at Edinburgh, South Australia.’’ While Darryl never returned to a battleground, life after war has been a battleground of its own. Several of his friends, fellow Vietnam veterans, have taken their own lives. In the wake of these losses, the RAAF deployed a team of psychiatrists to its bases, hoping to address the growing epidemic of posttraumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans – including Darryl.

‘‘I had a problem,’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t know at first, but it was sitting there, in the back of my head.’’

He can now trace it back to an extraction mission in Vietnam. Darryl’s crew had been sent out to rescue six SAS soldiers who had been chased through the jungle for days.

Hovering over the extraction site, they dropped down ropes, giving the soldiers time to latch on before taking off and carrying them to a safe pad.

‘‘We were about 1.6 km in the air and the next minute, they said, ‘You’ve lost one’. And I looked and saw the rope dangling,’’ Darryl said. ‘‘Turns out it was a friend of mine. ‘‘He bothered my dreams for a long time. I still have nightmares, bad ones sometimes.’’

On June 5, 1985, Darryl was discharged from the RAAF due to knee injuries. He has since lived in Shepparton, working at the cannery, various pubs and as a security guard at Target before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs placed him on the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Pension in 1994.

As a member of the Shepparton RSL, Darryl, now 73, has found ongoing comfort in his friendships with fellow veterans – men who truly understand all he’s experienced. While he stills bears scars of the war – both mental and physical – Darryl has since moved forward by processing his experiences practically.

‘‘It happened, I was in it,’’ he said. Looking back, Darryl still feels the Vietnam war was justified, although he dearly wishes war never had to happen.

‘‘It was all to do with democracy and freedom. We were there to help them get that freedom.’’