Australian experiences in the Vietnam War: In Their Own Words

Exhausted members of 6RAR push through the scrub

Exhausted members of 6RAR push through the scrub searching for retreating Viet Cong on the morning after the battle. AWM CUN/66/0693/VN

Experiences in the Vietnam War

The Australian veterans in this series recall their stories of service during the Vietnam War. The series is not designed to retell the history of the war. Instead, it gives you a deeper insight into individual experiences through oral history.

While listening to these personal accounts, you'll gain an insight into how serving in the Vietnam War has affected - and even shaped - the lives of Australian veterans.

The Vietnam War was the longest conflict in the 20th century that involved Australia.

Most of the Australians in Vietnam were regular members of the armed forces (navy, army, air force). However, many of those who served were conscripts who had been inducted into the Australian Army under a compulsory national service scheme.

In the early 1960s, Australia's participation in the Vietnam War was not widely opposed. Public opposition grew as more national servicemen were deployed to Vietnam, and they began to make up a large percentage of those being killed in action.

More than 200,000 people marched in the streets of Australian cities in the early 1970s, to protest against the war.

By early 1972, the last Australian combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Some 60,000 Australians had been involved in the war by then. Over 500 Australian personnel had lost their lives, including more than 200 national servicemen. Some 3000 Australians were wounded and became sick during their tour of duty.

Patrick O'Hara

Patrick, 18, was working in the Australian Public Service when heard he had been conscripted for 2 years of national service in the Australian Army. The news came as a huge surprise.

While some people were objecting to national service, Patrick regarded it as an opportunity for adventure. He thought it offered him the prospect of new and exciting experiences. At the time, Patrick didn't even know where Vietnam was.

Patrick talks about finding out he had been called up for national service and his family's reaction.

Watch these 2 videos:

Hear more of Patrick O'Hara's story.

Do the activity

  1. How did Patrick find out his birthday had been selected in the ballot?
  2. How did Patrick's family react when he was called up for national service?
  3. What punishments applied to men who did not register for national service? (See Conscription and the birthday ballot.)

Bonus activity

The Vietnam War was not the first time conscription was introduced in Australia. Conscription provoked debate across the country between those who supported national service and those who were against it. Using our Moratoriums and Opposition web page and your own research, explore the reasons why society was so divided at the time. If conscription was re-introduced in Australia today, list arguments for and against.

Colleen Mealy

Colleen worked as an Australian Army nurse in Vietnam.

Colleen talks about working conditions in the 8th Field Ambulance and the spirit of the wounded Australians.

Watch the video:

Colleen Mealy worked as an Australian Army nurse in Vietnam. Conditions were basic, but they were dedicated to their patients.

Do the activity

  1. What conditions did Colleen experience while she served with the 8th Field Ambulance in Vung Tau?
  2. How did Colleen describe the ‘Aussie attitude' of her patients and how it affected her?
  3. How many women like Colleen served in Vietnam between 1966 and 1973? What were some of the roles they served in? (See our online book, Australian Women in War: Service, Courage and Care.)

Bonus activity

The role of Australian service women has changed significantly with each war, conflict and peacekeeping mission since the First World War. Using our book Australian Women in War: Service, Courage and Care and your own research, explore how roles for women in the navy, army and air force have developed over time.

Francis Adrian Roberts

Among military historians, Adrian is well known for his courage and leadership during the Battle of Long Tan. He received a Mention in Dispatches, which is a considerable honour for service personnel. Adrian served 2 tours of Vietnam before joining United States Special Forces to help train Cambodian troops.

Adrian talks about making difficult decisions as an officer, returning home to Australia after a tour of duty, and his feelings towards Vietnamese people.

Watch these 2 videos

Hear more of Adrian Roberts' story.

Do the activity

  1. What are some of the advantages and dangers of being an officer that Adrian describes?
  2. Why didn't Adrian feel comfortable in Australia after returning home from a tour of duty?
  3. What does Adrian say about his relationship with the Vietnamese people? Do you think all veterans would have felt the same? Give your reasons.

Bonus activity

The Battle of Long Tan was one of the most significant engagements for Australian forces during the Vietnam War. Using our Battle of Long Tan web page, research the battle and list 5 facts about Australia's involvement you didn't know before.

Alastair 'Al' Gordon Bridges

Al was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated with his family to Australia when he was 2. Growing up, he developed a keen desire to become a pilot and fly aeroplanes.

At 21, Al joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He flew helicopters to recover wounded Australian soldiers, civilians and Viet Cong prisoners of war. Flying in a war zone was a difficult and dangerous job for pilots and their crew.

Thinking back on his time in Vietnam, Al was impressed by the dedication of the Australian service men and women in Vietnam. A determination to look after others and get the job done are lasting memories.

Watch the videos

Hear more of Al Bridges' story.

Do the activity

  1. How did Al's interest in flying lead to his decision to join the RAAF as a career?
  2. How did Al feel when he learnt he was going to have to fight in the Vietnam War? Do you think those feelings changed when he was in Vietnam, inserting SAS patrols in jungle landing zones?
  3. What were some of the sights, sounds and dangers that Al encountered on these missions?

Bonus activity

Watch some more oral history videos in Vietnam War Stories. What are the similarities or common themes experienced by Australians who served in Vietnam?

Value of oral history in the classroom

Oral histories bring historic events to life through the voices and memories of people who lived through them.

Listening to the stories of Australian veterans helps us understand the experience of military service and war. Hearing from their family members gives insight into the hardship of service on homelife.

By gathering oral histories, we can avoid stereotyping and generalising military service. We can identify the similarities and recognise the diversity of their experiences. Two people who have served the same theatre of war will have different memories and bring their own insights to the broader story.

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