Gordon Keelty rose to the rank of Lieutenant while serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, having trained at Burnham, south of Christchurch. He served in Vietnam in 1969, following his posting to Malaysia in 1967.
He has images in his mind of his arrival into Vietnam. “We flew into Saigon from Singapore in a Bristol freighter, which has been described an old bucket of bolts. They were a bit of a source of amazement to the Americans, when they saw these planes and thought they couldn’t possibly be still flying because they were that old...
“They were basically a cargo plane and instead of having a ramp at the back, like the Hercules and so on, the front, the nose opened up, and then you drove out the front or got off the plane out of the front of the aircraft... there was a big sort of bulbous thing at the front.
“And it had a small window, and I recall that lying down on this nose part where the window is looking down over the Mekong Delta as we were flying into Saigon and the sun was shining off all the water on the Mekong. The delta was amazing,
“We landed in Saigon and then I actually spent some time in Saigon in the headquarters and we were living in what had been a hotel in Saigon. It was run by the Americans, so it was like living pretty austere, not five-star or anything.”
He motored down to an operations base Nui Dat, to the east of Saigon, and also close to Long Tan, which had been the location of a famous battle in 1966 involving Australian troops. New Zealand had two rifle companies as part of the ANZAC battalion forces stationed in Nui Dat “They were large tents we lived in, sand bags round the outside... That was in the middle of an old rubber type plantation, which was quite different.”
The Anzac troops were there to make forays into Vietcong territory setting up in camp in their hoochies (small tents). Gordon says rendezvous times, for example for water resupplies, were dangerous. “Of course, helicopters coming in was a sure sign to the enemy of where you were... you’d get off out of that area as quick as you could.”
You would undertake patrols that would last 28 days. You didn’t shower in that time of course. You had to be particularly careful operating in the bush and had to be careful of your hygiene...“You had two sets of clothes which were just light denim, so you’d wear one set during the day and you’d be sweating in the heat of Malaysia and you had another set in your pack. At night you’d get into your dry clothes to sleep in and then get up in the morning and get back into the wet clothes.”
After he left the combat zone, two good friends he served with were killed as a result of enemy fire.
It was overseas in September 1968, at Terendak Camp, he says he met his lovely wife Marjory. She’d come from England to teach in the British army secondary school. He and Marjory had a subsequent posting to Singapore from 1976 to 1978.
Gordon stayed in the forces until the early 1984, retiring as a Major, with his last posting being to Whanganui where he and Marjory still live.