An Australian souvenir from Operation CRIMP, South Vietnam, January 1966.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam during the period from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 17rd Airborne and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was serving as a linguist with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

One of my collecting interests is Australian cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War. In recent years I have tended to reduce my focus to (predominantly) Zippo lighters related to the Australian Special Forces units and the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). However, I do still collect some that are from other units or have interesting provenance. This Australian Army issue lighter, which I obtained from noted military author and historian, Lex McAulay OAM, is one of those unique objects that makes collecting interesting.

Personalised WW2 period Australian Military Forces issue lighter carried Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with 1RAR in 1965. Collection: Julian Tennant

Personalised WW2 period Department of Defence issue Mark III  lighter carried by Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in 1965-66. Collection: Julian Tennant

The marking’s on the lighter’s base indicate that it is the Department of Defence issue Mark III, which was one of the 96,000 made by the munitions factory in Footscray, Victoria, just before the end of WW2, in July 1945. These lighters continued to be issued to Australian servicemen for several years, including during the war in Vietnam. This personalised example is one of two lighters that I acquired from Lex, the other being a Korean copy of a Zippo (also shown below) which he picked up in Saigon during one of his later tours.

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Lex McAulay joined the Australian Regular Army in June 1960 and trained as an infantryman. In 1962 he volunteered for language aptitude testing and was subsequently accepted to the RAAF School of Languages, where after completing a year-long Vietnamese language course, qualified as a Vietnamese linguist. Lex was subsequently posted to the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment but when Australia committed ground combat troops to South Vietnam in April 1965, he was immediately transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR).

The battalion departed Australia in May 1965 and upon arrival in Vietnam was attached (as a third battalion) to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) which was based at the Bien Hoa Airbase 25km North East of Saigon. 1RAR was initially restricted to operations protecting the airbase until, in September 1965, the Australian Government lifted these restrictions and the battalion was expanded to a battalion-group, with the addition of supporting artillery, engineers, aviation, medical and logistic elements. The battalion-group now began to undertake operations in the Viet Cong dominated areas of War Zones C, D and the Iron Triangle.

The battalion performed extremely well on operations with the American Brigade, most notably during Operation CRIMP in January 1966, when the Australians breached the extensive Cu Chi tunnel network. This operation is described in detail in the book, First to Fight, by Bob Breen and is also the main theme of Lex McAulay’s book, Blue Lanyard Red Banner. The US military policy of the time was to destroy tunnels and bunkers, but the Australian engineers of 3 Field Troop RAE began searching them, capturing large stocks of food, weapons, equipment and documents. It was during one of the tunnel clearances that the Viet Cong lapel badge that is attached to the lighter was discovered and in a note that Lex sent to me with the lighter, outlining its provenance, he writes,

During the operation, a small box, about the size of an old matchbox, was found in one of the tunnels being investigated by 1RAR soldiers. The matchbox was filled with these Vietcong badges. Corporal McAulay was the only linguist available to 1RAR for this operation and was responsible for sorting and sending back all captured items. His unofficial but personal policy was to send items of intelligence value back to higher headquarters but return everything else to the capturing sub-unit for use as souvenirs and keep the soldiers motivated to send captured items to him or other members of the battalion intelligence section.

McAulay goes on to note that he kept one badge and returned the rest to the platoon. The text on the Vietcong badge is: Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam which translates as South Vietnam People’s Liberation Front. The 173rd Airborne Brigade badge was acquired and attached by Lex sometime after the operation.

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that affixed to Lex McAulay's lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with 'MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG' written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with 'MIEN NAM VIET NAM' written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation Crimp in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same matchbox of badges given to Lex McCaulay during the operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that is affixed to Lex McAulay’s lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with ‘MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG’ written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with ‘MIEN NAM VIET NAM’ written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation CRIMP in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same box of badges given to Corporal Lex McAulay during the same operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Whilst Operation CRIMP failed to achieve its objective of destroying the Communist Committee Headquarters that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District, the performance of the Australians in entering the tunnels, capturing valuable resources and intelligence information, led to a change in American policies and subsequently all American units throughout Vietnam were ordered to enter and clear tunnels before destroying them. The operation also highlighted the differences in doctrine and tactical principles between the Australians, who had brought years of counter-insurgency experience from Malaya with them and the Americans whose strategy was one of attrition, with ‘body counts’ being their measure of success. In 1966 as the allied build up in Vietnam grew, the Australian units were placed under direct Australian operational command with the formation of the 1st Australian Task Force in April 1966.

After completing a 12 month stint in Vietnam with 1RAR, Lex McAulay returned to Australia in 1966 and helped to set up a short colloquial Vietnamese course in Sydney. In late 1967, Lex went back to Vietnam as a staff member of the Military Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Saigon, returning in 1968. His final tour of duty in Vietnam was in 1970 where he eventually took charge of the Interrogation and Document Translation Section of the Australian field HQ. It was in Saigon during one of these later tours that he acquired the other lighter I acquired from him, a Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of a Zippo lighter which features a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) badge on one side and the US Vietnam Service medal on the other.

Korean 'My-Lite' copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Lex completed his third deployment to Vietnam in April 1971 and was preparing for a fourth tour when the Australian commitment ended. He remained in the Army until his retirement in 1982 and has subsequently authored several books related to military history as well as managing Banner Books, which specialises in Australian aviation and military studies. In 2007 Lex was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to literature and as a military historian.

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The Mysterious Vietnam War Mary Poppins Platoon HAHO Parachutist Badge

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Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification Gold Wing with the ARVN Jump Status Indicator for comparison. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This “Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification” parachutist badge (left) is one of the more interesting unofficial/novelty airborne badges in my collection.

Two variations of the badge are known to exist. A silver badge, described as the ‘basic’ wing and a second type with a point at the apex of the umbrella plus a gold wing which is referred to as the MPP Combat Qualification Gold Wing. As can be seen in the picture it’s design draws heavily on the ARVN Jump Status Indicator insignia which was worn by members Vietnamese Airborne personnel who were on jump status. The umbrella canopy may reference the pocket badge worn by the French Indochina period 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) or it may be a reference to the French slang term le pépin, which means either parachute or umbrella.

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste - 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. Whether the connection between the two is intentional or coincidental is unknown. Bottom: Local made badge fo the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine which was raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the newly formed 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) on the 1st of August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. It is unknown whether the connection between the two badges is intentional or coincidental. Bottom: Local made badge for the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine, raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) in August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

It may be that this link to the Indochina era 1 CIP is purely coincidental and the umbrella symbolism refers directly to the fictional character of Mary Poppins as described in COMBAT Magazine’s Mil Terms dictionary, which also includes a picture of the badge and states,

“MARY POPPINS : by reference to the children’s nanny who was possessed of magical powers, which were best exemplified for High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting by her use of an umbrella to descend back to earth after whirling around in the atmosphere. Introduced in 1934 by P.L. Travers, this FICTIONAL CHARACTER could not only slide up banisters, but could walk into a picture, understand what dogs are saying, and travel around the world in seconds. Julie Andrews played the part of this nanny in the 1964 namesake film, which was shown to troops in Vietnam. An informal (and very unofficial) skill badge depicting this nanny with her deployed umbrella was adopted during the Vietnam-era as a sardonic symbol of High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting.”

I am not sure of the original source of information for that definition and I wonder if the MilTerms dictionary piece is somehow linked to the story ‘behind’ the “Mary Poppins Platoon” insignia that was originally published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter Vol. 1 No.2.

That account relates a somewhat amusing and far-fetched tale which is too incredulous to be taken seriously or believed. It attributes the badge to a combined ARVN Ranger and MACV airborne forces “Mary Poppins Platoon.”

The article, which is shown below, describes the adventures of Sergeant Nguyen Van “Stosh” Kozlowski, a Eurasian soldier of mixed Vietnamese and Slavic heritage, serving in the 32nd Battalion of the 5th ARVN Ranger Group who, after a heavy night drinking is deployed on a HALO mission into North Vietnam. Hung over and with his brain still muddled by alcohol he, inadvertently deploys his parachute immediately after exiting the aircraft and rides the canopy all the way back to III Corps and to cut a long story short becomes one of the founding fathers of the High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) concept. Promoted to captain, the now Dai Uy Kozlowski is tasked with building the “Mary Poppins Platoon” of HAHO parachutists which goes on to have a somewhat interesting combat record plagued by mishap and misadventure.

Mary Poppins VN newsletter

The article published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter and also in ‘Chute & Dagger’. Based on some of the statements, it seems clear that it was intended as a joke and not to be taken seriously and so I suspect that it does not accurately explain who made the badges or why.

 

The newsletter article was definitely written to entertain rather than as an accurate historical record of a real unit and I suspect that this insignia could simply be a novelty item rather than an actual parachutist ‘qualification’.  But, I also wonder what the real story behind the badge is. Maybe there is a connection to High-Altitude military parachuting in Vietnam, but if so, who had them made? Why? And who were they given to?