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It has been a long time between drinks, but on the 10 February 2002, 3 Squadron personnel departed R.A.A.F. Base Williamtown for the tiny island of Diego Garcia and their first operational deployment since the end of the Malaysian Emergency in 1966.
I remember the events leading up to this deployment clearly. It was the 11 September 2001, and the squadron was in Darwin completing Exercise Arnhem Thunder, a live weapon bomb camp. About 20 of us were in the Rec. room watching T.V when the first news report came on, and we sat in disbelief at what we were seeing. The US Marines were also in Darwin at the time and I remember thinking that these guys would soon be off to fight another battle and also that we would not have anything to do with it. I recall saying to some of the guys "The US have enough aircraft, they donít need us!"
When news that the "Hornets" would be sent to join the coalition forces came, you could see and feel the excitement within the squadron. Most personnel realised that this was possibly a once in a lifetime chance to actually do what they signed up for, and everyone was hoping to go. This excitement was shattered when it was announced that 77 Squadron would be deploying to Diego Garcia before Christmas. I think we all felt "ripped off" and disappointed. Still, there was always the possibility of a rotation with 77 so we kept preparing for deployment up to and immediately after the shortened reduced activity period over the Christmas break. A nominal roll of who would go and who would be kept as reserves was announced and these people continued to prepare for overseas duty. Inoculations, weapons training and physical fitness tests were the go - and donít forget all the lectures!
During January we got the word that there was to be a rotation and we would be heading out in February. Sixty-eight personnel from the "Fast Flying Fighting Third" departed Williamtown for a lovely 17-hour flight to Diego Garcia. Two C130 Hercules aircraft were used to move the squadron, with the advance party departing on the 10th and the remainder on the 13th of February.
Diego Garcia is British Territory on lease to the United States Government. It is a horseshoe shaped atoll 40 miles long and about 1,600 kms south of India (7 degrees South Lat. of the Equator), literally in the middle of nowhere. The US Navy has a full time base on the island and there is also a small USAF detachment. By the time we arrived, the "small" USAF presence had suddenly grown to a very large one with the arrival of numerous bombers, refuellers and transport aircraft that made up part of the coalition force involved in this operation.
With the arrival of our advanced party a handover takeover commenced and the pilots immediately went to work getting alert certified, flying training missions and generally sorting themselves out. 77 Squadron had brought with them from Australia four F/A-18 single seat fighters to perform the task of providing air cover for the island. Once all our people had arrived on the island and the 77 Sqn guys had left for home, we got down to business immediately and commenced 24-hour ops.
Originally the ground crews were doing a 24 hour shift, which basically meant you worked until the aircraft are serviceable then go home (leaving those people rostered for alert to stay in the section overnight), so it was a day on/day off routine. This soon changed to a 12-hour shift roster but still with a rostered alert crew remaining in the section.
Over the next three months our pilots continued to train and hone their skills and also successfully completed all scrambles that were initiated by the US Navy frigates that formed the radar piquet for the island.
Stand down time was spent exploring the island and itís sea life, playing sport (including football against the British contingent) and making sure that everyone knew that we Aussies were on the island. You could guarantee that if there was a social gathering anywhere on the island that 3 Squadron would sniff it out and join in. Australian flags were flown from the tents where we NCOís lived, and also in the windows of the accommodation blocks where the girls, SNCOís and Officers lived. Not that we were jealous of those who had rooms, as we in Tent City or "Camp Justice" as the Americans called it, believe that we got the better deal.
While we were away we also had the opportunity to commemorate ANZAC Day. A traditional Dawn Service was held in an old cemetery where not only graves of some of Diegoís early settlers lay but also those of an Indian Artillery Regiment who served on the island in WW2 and a memorial to a B-52 crew that died while operating from the island during the Gulf War. The spirit of ANZAC Day and the Dawn Service created some interest among the US and British personnel, and several curious ones even managed to drag themselves out of their cots and join us. Unfortunately for some, work took precedence and they missed this unique experience and for others, the service and Diggers breakfast completed their ANZAC Day and they returned to work as normal. A few days later 3 Squadron threw a huge Island wide BBQ to which the whole island was invited. It was here that our Aussie spirit and sense of fun shone brightly as we held events like boat races, thong and boomerang throwing and other typically weird events; there was also Australian beer, music and commemorative T-shirts! The day was a great success and a topic of discussion for days to come.
Though we were on Active Duty, there could be no comparison between our living and working conditions and those that previous squadron members would have had to endure. We had weekly, well almost weekly, re-supply aircraft from Australia which carried not only spares and other goodies from home but also the mail; and thanks to the US Military (who know how to fight a war in comfort), we had an abundance of "mod-cons" including internet access, pay T.V., fully equipped gymnasiums and donít forget air-conditioned tents!
Artwork: "Macka" sleeping in tent, Diego Garcia.
The AWM has several artworks depicting this deployment, by war-artist Peter Churcher. Peter recalled, "This is one of the men's corners in a communal tent in Diego Garcia. The young man is a mechanic for the F18 Hornets and had been on night duty. I was able to work on him in his makeshift environment whilst he slept through the day. Little moments in the image struck me as poignant: the teddy bear, a parting gift from his wife; the photographs of his wife and dog along with the pin-up posters. Hanging on the locker was his uniform which he will wear again that night when he goes back on duty".
[AWM Copyright Art ART91760]
I believe the worst time in Diego, and I could probably speak for most members there, was the period of time between when we were stood down from alert duty until the day we were given a date to go home. This unfortunately took a couple of weeks while a decision was made whether we were to pack everything up, get ready to expect another squadron to rotate with us or if we were to stay an extra month or more. This period of limbo also made it difficult for people to tell their family when to expect them home and also delayed our pack up preparations as we didnít know if the jets and equipment was staying behind for someone else to use. When the decision that we were to pack up the lot and bring it back home was made, there was a mad rush to find and clean everything that 77 had brought with them to the satisfaction of an Australian Quarantine Officer who joined us a couple of days before the end. When he was finally satisfied that everything was clean (a lot of gear was cleaned several times and returned home cleaner than when it came over) the Fly-Away-Kits were sealed, palletised and readied for transportation.
The squadron said its final farewell to Diego Garcia on the 20th of May. Once again thanks to the USAF, our trip home was much more comfortable and quicker than going over as we were given a ride home in a KC-10 refueller which also kept the jets topped up all the way back.
After a pleasant overnight stop in Perth we headed off on the final leg of our journey. Upon landing back at Williamtown, the tarmac at Air Movements reminded me of a scene from a movie. As families raced across the hard stand to embrace loved ones, reporters, photographers and film crews moved around capturing the re-unions. After some official welcome home speeches everyone grabbed their bags and quickly vanished out the front gate for a couple of weeks leave.
I had only been with the squadron for eight months when we went away, but after working with these men and women, seeing their professionalism, and pride in being part of the oldest fighter squadron in the R.A.A.F. it is plain to see why the deployment was a huge success and why they say that "3 Squadron is THE squadron to be in".
3 Squadron STORIES
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