Denis Gibbons: Photographing Australia's Vietnam War

Running time
58 min 18 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Copyright Commonwealth of Australia 2024

The story of Australian photojournalist Denis Gibbons and the experiences of service personnel and Vietnamese people that he captured during the Vietnam War. Researched by Dr Dale Blair, DVA historian.


Archival audio of Denis Gibbons: I think it should always be the way we had it in Vietnam. If you're there and see it, you should have the freedom to report it as you see.

Narrator: Following in the footsteps of iconic Australian war correspondents like Charles Bean, Frank Hurley and Damien Parer came Denis Gibbons. Over a span of 5 years, from 1966 to 1970, Dennis ventured into the heart of conflict. In doing so, he single-handedly captured the largest collection of photographs depicting Australians of war. His backdrop was the Vietnam War, a conflict that engaged Australian forces from 1962 to 1973, although elements of the RAAF returned in 1975 to carry out evacuation and humanitarian flights during the war's final days. It was a war of complexity and contradiction. One that tested the limits of courage and resilience. This documentary unfolds the story of Dennis Gibbons, a tale of a man whose camera lens bore witness to the lives of the men and women who served in Vietnam. Through his eyes, we see their stories, their struggles and their moments of humanity amidst the chaos of war.

In the wake of the Second World War, the global landscape transformed dramatically. Ideologies clashed as the world found itself divided once again. The emergence of communism in the east was met with staunch resistance from Western democracies. Vietnam, a nation split between North and South became the epicentre of this ideological battle. The communist North receiving support from the Soviet Union and China stood in opposition to the South, which was backed by the United States and several of its allies. This division transformed Vietnam into a pivotal frontline – a microcosm of the larger Cold War struggle. Australia's involvement began in 1962 with the provision of a small team of advisers to support South Vietnam and her United States ally. The conflict escalated, and in 1965, Australia dispatched a battalion with supporting units to Vietnam. In 1966, the Australian Government increased its commitment to include a Task Force of 2 battalions, a Special Air Service Squadron and 8 RAAF Iroquois helicopters. A third infantry battalion and a tank squadron would be added in 1967. The Task Force Base was set up at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province. Controversially, the Task Force included men conscripted into military service. It was into this world that Dennis Gibbons stepped, armed with his camera and typewriter, and began compiling what would become the largest personal photographic record of Australians living and fighting a war. Prior to going to Vietnam, Dennis had been a member of the Commonwealth Military Forces as part of his national service obligation. He had also worked at CSR before becoming a photographer for People magazine, and his path to Vietnam was a somewhat accidental one.

Denis Gibbons: I'd been in the Army. One of the things I did not tell anybody when I went to Vietnam, was that I'd been in the military. That I had been trained as an infantry soldier. I was on the reserve list, even while I was in Vietnam. I could have been called up for Vietnam, actually. And some of the people that I served with were actually in Vietnam, actually stayed in the Army, and they knew I'd been in the Army, and I asked them not to tell anybody. One of them said to me one day, 'You know, if they ever find out that you're on the reserve list, and they short an officer here, they'll you up, you know, you bugger.' And I said,'Well, don't you dob me in.' When I was about 10, I was given a photo outfit. A little box, which had a little camera in it, and a little enlarger and little developing tanks and all that sort of stuff. I kept taking photographs all my life. When I left the university, I was working CSR Research Department, and I was doing a hell of a lot of photography. Because this was so technical. I went to the chief at the research department and said, 'Look, I'll have to do a course. I just cannot get the quality of the information we need on film.' He said, 'Well, where will you that?' And I said, 'Well, the Institute of Technology's got a course.' So I went in and applied, and they took me, and it turned out I was put into a class –because I could only come of the nighttime – all the press photographers, apprentices from all the newspapers and magazines in Sydney, were in the course. A fella called Johnny Elliot was with Fairfax, and he and I became good mates. And he said to me, 'Look, you know, if you want to pick up bit of extra dough,' he said, 'on the extra nights when we're not working, I can get you a job at the Music Hall over North Sydney taking photos as well. And you know, you get 8 or 9 bucks a night', which was big money in those days. The next thing John said to me one day, 'Look, I want you to come over and meet the fellow at Fairfax. He's in charge of one of the magazines called People magazine.' He was looking for somebody extra to do photography for the magazine. George Richards is the man's name. A beautiful bloke. Very nice fella. And I went over and had an interview, and he said, he said, 'Well, look, I'll give you something to do next weekend, and if it pans out, we'll go from there.' So he gave me this little job to do and I did. Wrote up a bit of a story on it. Handed it in, and he said, 'Alright'. So he then kept feeding me. I ended up – I was earning more money doing the work at the Music Hall and the People magazine than I was getting as a research chemist at CSR. So I resigned, and I was just working virtually full time on magazine jobs. And he came to me one day and said, 'Dennis, we want somebody to go to Vietnam. We want them to stay there. Because every time we send somebody over there, they'll only go for 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks, but we want somebody to go there and stay for a minimum of a year, maybe longer.'

Narrator: Dennis Gibbons arrived in Vietnam on the 12th of January 1966. And after securing his press accreditations, went straight to work.

Archival audio of Major Barry Gillman, Australian Army Public Relations (PR): This is Barry Goodman reporting from the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat in Vietnam. Millions of words, together with 1000s of press pictures and television news film stories, have been produced by the International Corps of Pressmen resident in country about the war here in Vietnam. Typical of the freelance pressmen at work here is Denis Gibbons, a photojournalist who comes from the Sydney suburb of Greenacres. Tell me, Denis, what prompted you to throw up regular employment back in Australia to cover the Vietnam War on such a risky freelance basis?

Archival audio of Denis Gibbons: The war in Vietnam was the big news in the world at this time, and I felt that if I wanted to try and make a career out of journalism in magazine work, that this was the place to come to make my name, get into the thick of it. And once I've done this, I have a bargaining power for back in Australia.

Archival audio of Major Barry Gillman: Fair enough. And just how much of a period have you spent out on operations with Australian and American troops chasing the action photographs?

Archival audio of Denis Gibbons: I've been in Vietnam now for 4 months. Of this 4 months, 3 months have been spent in the actual combat zones ranging from the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) up north down to the delta in the Australian Task Force area. And after that, I spent just on 3 weeks on the Cambodian border with the Special Forces Group controlled by Australia.

Narrator: One important service operating in Vietnam was that known as 'Wallaby Airlines', the popular name for Royal Australian Air Force Transport Flight. They had been flying DHC Caribou aircraft into Vietnam since 1964 and were renamed No 35 Squadron on the 1st of June 1966. Theirs was an essential role, supplying outlying American special forces units and the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam. Dennis Gibbons would occasionally hitch a ride with them.

RAAF No 25 Squadron: 'Wallaby Airlines'

Actor narrating Denis Gibbon's text: The Mekong milk run, photographed and written by Dennis Gibbons. Properly, it's known as the 005 Mission, but to the officers and men of the RAAF who maintain this transport and communication lifeline for the service personnel and civilians in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, it's the milk run. For the crew, Flight Lieutenant Blue (John) McDonnell, Flight Lieutenant Nick Watling, Corporal Allan Hudson, and Leading Aircraftman Bob Brookes, this is the start of another run.

Flight Lieutenant John McDonnell MID (retired pilot), No 35 Squadron, RAAF, 'Wallaby Airlines': It was in my last week in Vietnam when I was getting ready to hand over to my replacement, Nick Watling, and Denis was introduced to us as a journalist here to look at you guys and do some stories about you. Kind of travel around with him. I found him quite a nice guy. Had a couple of beers with him. Talk about the meaning of life. Talk about his experiences. He mentioned meeting a lot of Hollywood celebrities coming to Sydney for various things and I found that all very interesting stuff. Otherwise, we told him what we were doing. He came away with us on a couple of overnight stays. He was just good company. We didn't have anything to hide. Just go along and do our job because he said he just wanted to see us doing our jobs and so we did. By the time the article came out, I was home again. I was just interested to see it. Clipped it out and put it in my scrapbook.

Denis Gibbons: See, I mainly did magazines. I didn't worry about what went out on the news side because UPI (United Press International) got the blurb from the Americans and the Australians. They didn't have a helicopter coming in every day to give the stuff to to take it back to Nui Dat. I mean, the system they had was very good. I mean, you could give any helicopter pilot in Vietnam your film in a packet, and he would then give it to UPI or Australian Associated Press or whatever. They would get it and they would then process it, write it up and send it out. Occasionally if there's something big, I always had a little typewriter in my pack. And, of a nighttime, I would sit down and type up things to go with the pictures. They would get the journos to put it into the story. So as long as you gave them all the basic information correctly, they could then write it up into a story, and they'd flower it up a bit and then they'd flower it up a bit more in Australia. They, from time to time, to sell their newspapers, would change stories around to the feeling of the paper-buying public. If they knew they were all upset about things, they would write a story up with a slant to it that would sell the paper. Whether it was right or not, who's going to query it out there? And that used to hurt me ...

Archival audio of Denis Gibbons: Just recently returned from a trip up to the 7th Fleet in the Tonkin gulf, having a look at North Vietnam close hand.

HMAS Hobart, Operation Sea Dragon

Actor narrating Denis Gibbon's text: Along with soldiers and airmen, the Royal Australian Navy is playing its part against the communist surge in Vietnam. Along the sea lanes of the Vietnam coast, ships of the US 7th Fleet are pounding seagoing and land-based targets. One of these operations involving fast destroyers and frigates is known as Operation Sea Dragon. The crew of the Hobart consists of 20 officers and 312 other ranks, and she's under the capable command of Captain Guy Griffiths, DSC.

Captain Guy Griffiths DSC: We were the first naval ship to be deployed to Vietnam. We arrived up there in March for a 6-month deployment. Two things we did: we supported the ground troops ashore when they were operating within range.

Actor narrating Denis Gibbon's text: Whenever she moves up and down the coast, she's continually tracked from the mainland of North Vietnam, from 2 radar stations and from another on the Chinese island of Hainan, thus giving the North Vietnamese a 3-point plot on her at all times. With this in mind, and the location of all the mainland shore batteries known, Hobart does one to 2 fire missions inland a night

Captain Guy Griffiths DSC: When we came to doing things off the coast, the shore batteries fired at us. They didn't like what we were doing, so we responded.

Actor narrating Denis Gibbon's text: As HMAS Hobart concludes her inaugural deployment, the baton is passed to HMAS Perth. Like a sister ship, HMAS Perth is a Perth-class guided missile destroyer, primed for her maiden mission on the gun line. The gun line includes ships of the United States and Australian navies stationed off the coast of North Vietnam, conducting fire missions against onshore targets. Stationed off the [Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)] II Corps operating area, HMAS Perth takes on the critical role of providing gunfire support, notably for the 1st Cavalry Division of the United States Army as they engage in strategic operations on the ground.

Acting Petty Officer Quartermaster Gunner John 'Jack' Aaron (retired), HMAS Perth: I'd just come off watch up on what was known as the AA Control Centre, where I had a number of lookouts with me. By the time I was relieved, 8 o'clock, the shells came. I was in the Petty Officers' Mess with one of my very close shipmates, and next minute we heard what sounded like someone was outside with a bucket of bolts and nails, and they were throwing them against the ship's side. And Hooroo said, 'What's that?' And I said, 'That sounds like shrapnel to me.' And next minute: bam, bam, bam, bam. And the ship went to first state of awareness, and we all headed off for different stations. Unfortunately, one of the shells grazed the top of our armed gun mount, Mount 52, and glided through the top, and penetrated out the other side of the rear of the gun mount, and went on further down through the deck underneath and blew up in there what was known as the Classified Bulletins Office. Now, there was a number of wounded personnel –4 all told; 2 of them were in a critical condition, and 2 others were able to be looked up to by the doctor on board. When I saw that doctor, at one stage of the game, he was just covered in blood from looking up to these people. But fortunately, with the Americans, they were able to medivac the 2 critically injured personnel, and they flew them to a hospital ship down off the DMZ.

Narrator: The establishment of the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat changed the focus of Denis Gibbons's methodology in Vietnam. The base became his home away from home, and it and the nearby port of Vung Tau became a multifaceted Australian operation.

Archival audio of Denis Gibbons: I wanted the people of Australia to know what the diggers were doing. I mean, there was things happened there that I could have reported on which could have got Army guys, Navy guys, Air Force guys into trouble, and probably me refused access after that for doing it. That, to me, didn't seem the thing to do. But I did report on things that were wrong. And there was nothing that anyone could do about it, but it didn't cause any loss to any individual soldier or group of soldiers.

Narrator: Whenever at Nui Dat, Denis Gibbons would accompany Australian infantry patrols to record their experience. It was a decision that placed him squarely in the danger zone.

Denis Gibbons: 95 – maybe even higher percentage – of the journos and photographers really turned up after the battle was over, and they landed in helicopters. Very few people were what was known as embedded with the troops. In other words, started the operation with the troops, stayed the troops and then came home with the troops. This is where I differed to all the other Australians that went over there. I did not stay in Saigon. I went down to Nui Dat. I moved in, and I lived there for the duration. I went on operations, and I made a point of always doing the first operation that every battalion did. I was able to then pick the battalion I thought would be the best one to go and the company that I thought was the best one to go with. The Aussie digger I rated after seeing Americans, Thais and bloody South Vietnamese – I rated our infantry one step above American Special Forces. And our SAS, there was nothing that could compete with them anywhere. In the bush, we were deadly. Really, we were deadly.

4RAR/NZ (ANZAC): Operation Federal, February 1969

Private Willem 'Bill' Doeland, 7th Platoon, C Company, 4RAR/NZ: Contact. There is enemy out there. Get down. Get your rifle. Get yourself ready. And that's when the adrenaline starts.

Private John 'Blue' Ryan (retired), 7th Platoon, C Company, 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC): I remember Denis walking backwards in front of us with the enemy behind him somewhere. We didn't know where. And I did make the comment that if we get fired on, you have to return fire, so you would hope that Denis would have hit the deck because that's how it's done. Forward scouts leading down the track and us following behind them until such time as you reach the body. You've got 2 scouts on the left of the track and then diagonally back, myself and Bill Doeland.

Willem Doeland: I was with the machine gunner, Bluey Ryan, and we were way out front, so that they could then grab the Viet Cong and drag him back in. At that stage, it's very fearful. Like I say, the adrenaline is pumping, and you're on full alert because there could be more enemy out there. You just never know.

John Ryan: The section commander, [James] Blue Wicks, was with us. He stopped at where the body was. Firstly, a body would need to be searched to see if there's any information on there that's of any use. But to do that - rather than be out isolated out on the path or in the defensive position we were in, we'd bring the body back in there to do what you needed to do.

Willem Doeland: With fear and adrenaline, you are that alert that anything that goes on or around, you are aware of.

John Ryan: The 2 scouts, they encountered the enemy. I am not sure whether they instigated the shooting or the enemy did but it was pretty much simultaneously. We returned fire. Threw up a lot of dusters, like smoke, to be honest. You wouldn't know how many people you're dealing with. Like, if you had a large body of soldiers, the Vietnamese would always have scouts out the front. So you wouldn't know what you, really, are going to encounter. We said to the scouts to pull back because of a sort of open situation. They've pulled back. We'd be a fair way from that other position then, and because when things settled a bit, Bill and I couldn't find them. They'd pull back.

Willem Doeland: No, it wasn't a perfectly executed – because when we were called back, Blue Ryan and myself were way out front, and we hear this voice, 'Ryan! Come back!' And with that, Blue said, 'Right. I'll lay a ground fire. Kick up a big load of dust, so if there is anybody out there, they can't see us. Start moving back.' He told me to get going, and he said, 'I will follow you.'

John Ryan: They'd retrieve the body, and we shot back to within that other position.

Private Waldemear 'Wally' Sobczyk (retired), 7th Platoon, C Company, 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC): I was down on the gun. We knew the blokes were coming in, and we were making sure that there's no one else going to attack them. So as they come through, you're laying on top of the gun. You're looking out there. You're not looking at the blokes or the sky. You're looking at what's going on in the jay. And I heard click, click, click behind me, and I thought, 'Christ! Someone's got a gun out there!' I spun around with the M60. I would have killed him because that taking the photos is like a click, click, click on a rifle. He was lucky!

Willem Doeland: It's a little bit chaotic. And Denis was in amongst a lot of it, to his own detriment. He could have got hurt. Yes. Yeah. I would not like that job anyway.

John Ryan: Denis is pretty chuffed because of the fact that that was the first time he was able to get photographs of Australians while they were doing their thing.

Willem Doeland: It actually shows you the reality of it. And it brings back to mind the fear that a man has when there is a contact, or there's rounds being fired, and what you do and how you feel in a thing like that. It actually brings back a lot of those memories.

8RAR: Operation Atherton, December 1969

Archival footage of (Temporary) Corporal Winston Parry (retired), A Company, 8RAR: On our trip with 8, we had a guy from Brisbane, a bloke by the name – I think it was Gibbons – and he was with the company all the time. He was a civilian. He had years there. He was that good, he was giving the company commander advice because he knew, you know. He used to stay with the company commander. We were always pleased to have him. We had a good company commander who was ex Special Forces anyway, and had been there before in the Training Team, but this guy was always welcome because he was up there with us, you know. Used to chat with us. Take photos of us. Yeah, we had a lot, used to come out with us for a few days, but he used to travel pretty well all the time with us, you know.

(Temporary) Corporal Bob D'Arcy, 1st Section, 1st Platoon, A Company, 8RAR: I thought he was crazy brave. He must have seen an awful lot, I would imagine. Some of it must have been not very nice. But he seemed to have a really high commitment to his job and certainly had a great reputation. Photorealism. It was just what life was like, you know. Being a combat soldier is like 90% boredom and 10% terror. I think he captured all that.

Private Ray Asmus (retired), 1st Platoon, A Company, 8RAR: It was a wake up. Thinking, 'Oh! We're in a war zone now.' We found this bunker system, so we were moving forward to it.

Bob D'Arcy: You start to see these trees that have been cut down, then you know – you know there's a bunker system somewhere because they use those for overhead protection. So they put the poles across and cover it, then they make it very hard to see. Two VCs started to walk towards them and they were able to take them both out. And then the rest of the bunker system opened up. So they were pinned down for quite a while. The company closed up, and that's when we weren't going to assault that bunker system. So it's: packs off, get ready, you're gonna go in, form up. That's the over-the-top charge thing. It's not what you want to do but – they were firing at us. You've got rounds going over your head. So everybody was moving into position. The company had formed up, and then they decided to napalm the place. The VC just bugged out. They just broke contact and ran.

Archival footage of Denis Gibbons: I remember the 8th Battalion, who only did one tour, near the end of my time in Vietnam. They arrived, and I went over to A Company and a fella called Major Murphy was the OC, and he said, 'Why'd you pick me?' and I said, 'Because your company is going to have the first contact.' And he said, 'You know, we've got to do the assault to secure the fire support base?' And I said, 'Yeah, that's okay. The way it happened, then, it will happen when you take off to the Hudsic [?] Ridge.' He said, 'Oh yeah. Oh, well, that's interesting. Yeah. Thank you very much. I'm quite pleased. You can come with us. There are no problems.' We assaulted. We took the area. They moved in. We were due to move out at 1400 – 2 o'clock in the afternoon. At a quarter to 3, we were crossing a creek, and there were very big logs. Big trees had been cut down. I always used to walk with the lead section, behind the number 2 on the M60, which was about 5 diggers in front of me. And I stopped, and the young digger caught up to me, who was corporal – the section corporal – and he was on a second tour. He'd been up as a private and stayed in. He was actually a Nasho. He decided to make the Army his life, and he was back on his second tour. And I said, 'Did you see the trees?' And he said, 'Yeah'. I said, 'We're going into a big bunker complex'. And he said, 'Bloody oath, mate!' You know. And I said, 'Well, you better tell you forward scouts or whatever to keep their frigging eyes open, you know, because this is – this is – this is big.' Because we – we were holding things up a little bit. Next thing that Louis came up – his platoon commander came up and said, 'What's going on, Corp?'. And he told him what he and I talked about, and he turned around and looked at me as he talked, and he said to the corp, he said, 'What would this bloody civilian know anything about this? Get on with it.' You know. 'Get on with it'. Well, we went – started to go up the hill, because it was quite steep after that, after the creek, and as we were – came up, it was clearing, and the forward scout had actually crossed and was on the – in the bush on the other side, and I looked to the right, and I look to the left to the right and my head, I immediately swung back to the left, and I threw myself on the ground. The corp run up and said, 'What's up?' And I'm laying on the ground. And I said, 'On the left, mate, on the left. It's a bunker.' He looked, and he said, 'Bloody oath!' He said, 'I think it is.' And we were – next thing, this young Louis came up again and said, 'What's the holdup? The boss is on my tail.' You know. And the corp says to him, 'It's a bunker on the left'. And I put my 10 cents worth in, and I got – I got another earful from the young lieutenant. And I said, 'Well, mate, if you're gonna send your boys across there, you're gonna get them killed. I'm not going anywhere.' And I, like, remained laying on the ground. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the 2IC came up and said, 'Oh, Corp, go take the boys and have a look.' Because they all thought that the dead material down there was dead for – because we all went around, and we went down, and we went around the ridge, came up behind that deadfall. Brand new bunker. Five packs. Five bowls of rice. And when we got into the bunker – there was no bodies – and when we got into the bunker, there was the rice – was hot, still hot. But it was interesting though that within 20 minutes of moving out, we ran into the enemy. They fired a number of RPGs. The company immediately took 15 casualties. And then we went into this big bunker complex and fought on there for 2 days.

Narrator: Another aspect of the war that Denis Gibbons captured was the plight of Vietnamese civilians. From the heartbreaking circumstances of the orphans at Baria, of the war injuries inflicted on the children, and of the day-to-day activities of Vietnamese trying to get on with their lives with a war all about them. All found themselves in the frame of Denis's photographic eye. Not all of Denis Gibbons's assignments are about the grim realities of war. The arrival of Australian entertainers at Nui Dat provided a lighter and happier experience.

The Entertainers: The ABC Show, March 1967

Archival footage of Bruce Webber: I've been everywhere. An Australian tune, which fittingly introduced the ABC concert party to Australian and allied servicemen in Vietnam last month. Hello there, I'm Bruce Webber, and I accompanied this group of performers – Lorrae Desmond, Dinah Lee, dancer Jackie DePaul, comedian Bobby Donovan, Jim Gussey and the ABC Sydney Dance Band – throughout South Vietnam. The largest entertainment party to leave Australia since the Second World War opened its tour at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province, south-east of Saigon. Nui Dat, a knoll of land a few 100 feet above the dirt and stunted trees of an old French rubber plantation. This is the site of the Australian Task Force.

Dinah Lee, The ABC Show, 1966–1967: Performing for the troops – they were a captive audience. They were there, and they wanted to be entertained, you know. It was like, thank goodness! Because they loved seeing their entertainers come over to entertain them. There was the musicians, there was us girls, and Denis. And Denis was just there. I remember this photo: me, Jackie and Lorrae, skipping along. We were going to go to a mess. There's Denis in front with his camera. Just absolutely wonderful shot. You're sitting in a jeep going to a gig. You turn around. In the backseat, there's Denis with the camera. Wherever we went, there's Denis. And, of course, Denis at the shows. He was always there, taking photos of us on stage. Talking to our boys in the audience. Talking to generals and majors. There's Denis.

Jacqui DePaul, The ABC Show, March 1967: This guy kept taking photos of us. And he was a menace – we ended up calling himself Denis the Menace. But I used to call him a pest because he would turn up at anywhere. And that was Denis Gibbons. That's how I met Denis. We were there for 18 long, punishing days. And no matter where we were, this pest would turn up. It was Denis. He was just amazing. He had this amazing laugh. And it didn't matter how you felt, because I was not a happy chap when I was up there.

Dinah Lee: Denis is everywhere because Denis had to be everywhere. He was part of the team.

Narrator: In 1968, Australian pop sensation Normie Rowe was drafted into the Army under the National Service Scheme. He arrived in Vietnam in January 1969. And Denis Gibbons recorded his arrival.

Lance-Corporal Private Normie Rowe (retired), 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps: We felt really strange arriving in service dress with no weapon going into a war zone. Denis Gibbons worked for AAP Reuter. I was coming off the plane. There he was, there, taking a photo. To me, it was like sensory overload. Everything was like, 'Wow'. All your senses are taking in so much information, your brains shuts down for a period of time. And I think that that's probably what happened to most of us when we first arrived in country. Until we got used to the – the ambience, the sense of surrounding. Apparently, you're supposed to get 2 weeks familiarisation before you go out on operation. Denis says to me, I'd got a telegram from AAP Reuter saying, 'Urgent. Need photos of Rowe in the field'. 'So I went', said Denis, 'off to Task Force Commander Brigadier Sandy Peterson and says, "We need photos of Rowe out in the field. When can you get him out?" "Oh, he can go tomorrow morning."' So the next morning, I'm on a resupply vehicle, and I'm out there, and Denis is there. The bastard. That was the start of a good relationship. I guess, in many ways, he got paid for each image that he was able to produce that had some sort of value to Australian newspapers. Because he was a photojournalist; he wasn't just the photographer. Along with it went a caption, and the caption was positive. To have somebody on your side when so much of the press was not on your side, and the press can determine the community's attitudes towards things. To find somebody good like that is a gem. I think we can be all thankful for people like Denis. He went beyond the call of duty. And I guarantee there was a huge difference between Denis's first story and his last story in Vietnam. I guarantee it. I have no doubt that Denis came back and he, like so many of us, was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. I'd be very surprised if there was a photojournalist who actually put themselves right in the front line, who doesn't suffer PTSD. But they were there for a very different reason we were there. I don't think that changes what happens to you psychologically or anything. But I think what it does do is at least gives you a reason for being there. And you know, being able to tell the truth is a pretty good reason.

Narrator: One of the enduring symbols of the Vietnam War is the helicopter. The sight and sound of them was ubiquitous. Helicopter crews of the Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Australian Navy and Army all flew missions in Vietnam. RAAF pilots and crew with No 9 Squadron, Army pilots with 161 Recce [Independent Reconnaissance] Flight, and the Navy pilots and crew with No 9 Squadron but also with the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam, which was attached to the United States 135th Assault Helicopter Company. Denis photographed the latter at work in August 1969.

Archival news reporter: It's become one of the most dangerous and most important jobs of the Vietnam War. One thousand feet above the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, government soldiers are being flown into the day's battle. A handful of Australian Navy men are piloting the helicopters or flying as gunners.

Archival news reporter: Forty-six Australians are almost lost among the American and Thai troops at this huge base called Bearcat just north, north-east of Saigon. But once you've found him, there's no mistaking the Australian sailor. This is the only allied unit in Vietnam with full permission to grow beards. And after 8 months, it's beginning to show. They're unique in another way. The Australians are part of the American Army's 135th Helicopter Assault Company. The only fully integrated unit in South Vietnam. And the maintenance and flying crews are a mixture of Americans and Australians. Flying helicopters has become one of the most dangerous jobs in the Vietnam War. With better weapons and now years of practice, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese are scoring direct hits. In one recent period in Vietnam, choppers were going down at the rate of 2 a day, and so far, more than 1,100 have been downed.

Lieutenant Ian Maxwell 'Max' Speedy (retired), RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, 135th Assault Helicopter Company: The command and control ship was the easiest one for journalists and visitors generally to fly in. More or less up and out of the way. Two thousand feet was a good place to be when it's getting a bit hot on the ground. And so it was a good place to bring the odd admiral and general and senator and all the rest of it who did come in their droves to visit us. I'm pretty certain Denis will have flown into a few landing zones and seen the guys on the ground doing it, that's for sure.

Sub-Lieutenant Jerome 'Jed' Hart (retired), RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, 135th Assault Helicopter Company: We had film crews and entertainment crews come through and, from time to time, approved journalists, and it was always welcome. It was a fresh face. Someone from outside. And generally, those people were sympathetic in their approach and understanding. It was – it was good.

Max Speedy: Did it bother us? No, I don't think so. It didn't. I think it was taking the message home. It was a bit triumphalist though. We're winning in the war and it's all wonderful. It was far from that.

Jed Hart: The journos, too, they had sometimes a lot of experience in other war zones, and they had a pretty good idea of what we're in the middle of. They were older than we were. So they had a greater perspective. And I think that helped.

Max Speedy: The story was changing. I think the protesting in Australia probably started in earnest around the mid-69 and the beginning of '70. That's when they got going with a – with a vengeance. The effect on us. We were in a war. We were gonna stay there. There's nothing we could do about it. We thought we were doing a good job. Time for reflection comes later, when you've got time to reflect. We didn't have time to reflect whilst we were there. We were in it, doing it.

Narrator: One group of people that had caused much excitement in Vung Tau and who were the subject of many Gibbons photographs, but the first 4 Australian Army nurses that arrived in 1967 to work at the 8th Field Ambulance Military Hospital, later, the 1st Australian Field Hospital. The nurses, Captain Amy Pittendreigh and Lieutenants Colleen Mealy, Margaret Ahern, and Terrie Roche were known as the Fab Four. It was another nurse, Trish Ferguson, who arrived in country in February 1970, who gained Denis Gibbons's special attention. They became romantically linked and married soon after they returned from Vietnam.

1st Australian Field Hospital: Vung Tau, 1970

Lieutenant Patricia Ferguson (retired), 1st Australian Field Hospital, 1970: As soon as there was a contact in the bush, a siren would sound over the hospital, and it went as far down as the beach, so even if you were off duty, you came in and saw if you were needed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Naughton OBE (retired), Commanding Officer, 1st Australian Field Hospital: We would get a communication from a helicopter carrying wounded that they were inbound. They will tell us how many they had on board. They would then tell us how many minutes before they were going to arrive.

Patricia Ferguson: If there were 4 stretchers coming in, we had 4 stretchers out at the chopper pad ready to put back on the chopper, and the boys are all out there meeting it. The worst thing was when the first siren sounded, and then the second one didn't for ages because you knew the chopper was under ground fire and couldn't land. So that was quite distressing.

Michael Naughton: Our call sign was Vampire. So they'd arrive on the helicopter. We would do a rapid assessment of how badly injured the man was. We would make sure that he had no weapons on him, especially if they were wounded prisoners of war. They would be then hand-carried down to the triage area.

June Naughton, 1st Australian Field Hospital: We had a big triage hall with 3 trolleys on either side. On those 6 bays, would be the main resuscitation areas.

Patricia Ferguson: When they were still on the ground, we would cut up through their laces, right through their clothes. Take off their clothes and lift them up.

Michael Naughton: So we can examine the under surface of his back and his buttocks and all that to make sure they weren't wounds on the back that we couldn't see. Didn't want to miss them. So then he'd be laid down, and the process of pain relief and resuscitation would take place. We became pretty good.

June Naughton: That area would become quite crowded, really, with your surgeon and the anaesthetist looking after the most serious patient.

Patricia Ferguson: We had trays underneath the trolley that the x-rays could slide straight under. And then someone was putting in the drip, and the pathologist was standing by to take the blood at the same time, and catheter and whatever, whatever.

June Naughton: And they would be allocated sort of 1 to 6 in that mid care.

Patricia Ferguson: There was no drama, but it was quietly efficient. Everyone knew what they had to do. Someone was even writing down everything that you took off the digger to put in, you know, in his bag for him.

June Naughton: The theatre techs would be there helping with the resuscitation until they were needed inside, in the operating rooms.

Michael Naughton: The process would proceed until the resuscitation was brought to the point where he was fit to go into the operating theatre to have the surgery done on his wounds.

June Naughton: ICU was just being established when I arrived. And then because of the serious patients that we were getting in, Trish then went from theatre across to intensive care nursing.

Patricia Ferguson: Intensive care. It's virtually a one on one rather than a 50-bed surgical ward, so you've got to know them much, much better. We do 10 or 15-minute observations with everything. So you were there by their bed, working with them all the time and got to know them really well.

Michael Naughton: Denis. Interesting man. Very flamboyant, outspoken man who had been there for a fair while. He was a botanist, and I found that intriguing that here he is as a botanist, running around with a camera, getting himself in all sorts of troubles. He behaved like a gentleman with the ladies, with the officers of the hospital.

June Naughton: I quite liked Denis. He was friendly. He was intelligent. He came across to me as quite caring.

Michael Naughton: I don't know that anybody ever had anything but admiration for Denis. We were all intrigued by the fact that he used to go out on operations with the men.

June Naughton: The period of intense activity. Trish's arrival. Denis being a patient. All sort of happened about the same time and threw us all together, if you know what I mean.

Patricia Ferguson: The first hours of Vietnam I worked in the theatre, and when we were finished work, June, who was a theatre sister, said to me, 'Let's go the medical ward. I've got a friend there. A patient.' So that's where I met Dennis. He was in and out of hospital, plus he was up and down from the Dat. So it just grew. I talked to him sometimes for ages just on the phone, which wasn't very private because often when he was even in Cambodia or Can Tho or wherever, you'd have to go through 3 or 4 or 5 switchboards, so that all listen in and interrupt if they thought – so that was really – 'Get off the phone', I'd say. 'Oh, sorry, ma'am, sorry, ma'am.'

Michael Naughton: He had an illness. Yes. I mean, he was in hospital a couple of times. If he was assaulted, he would have been evacuated. I told him that. It didn't cut much ice. He was wounded a couple of times.

Patricia Ferguson: When he got typhus in Cambodia, there were 3 of them. One died. One was shipped back to Japan in ice. And then Denis went to hospital in Saigon, but then he asked to be transferred to Vung Tau – Australian Field Hospital. And he was really ill that time. And I remember there was a big – something had just missed him there –so he was – he was – he had a wound right across there. And for ages after we came home, he – we were picking bits of stuff out of his legs and his arms.

Michael Naughton: I got notification that I had to come back to Australia for a court case. I had some commissions to fill while I was there. I had to get an engagement ring for Denis. I had no idea who that was for.

Patricia Ferguson: Well, the first time was over the phone because I remember saying, 'One doesn't propose to one over the phone'. And he said, 'But I can't get down to the base 'til whatever, whatever. And I said, 'Yeah, you can.' And he said, 'I can't. I can't get down 'til –'. He was up somewhere with the Montagnards or something then. I met several of the journalists in the UPI office in Saigon, but Denis was always in the bush. See a lot of journalists worked from the office. They didn't go out as much as he did. But he was always out in the bush. The stories. They used to have stories more than he did. And I remember even at the time thinking, how do you know all that when you're in your office? No. He knew it all from personal experience.

Michael Naughton: I don't think we realised at the time the Denis was – was up compiling a record, a photographic record, which we now understand to be outstanding.

June Naughton: The photos that he actually took of the hospital were of people doing their job at the hospital. The x-ray technician taking his x-rays. The doctors looking at an x-ray up on a screen. And you can almost see them thinking, 'Now what's going on there?' You know, it's those sort of professional-type photos that Denis took that have been very, very valuable.

Michael Naughton: Some people didn't enjoy Denis, but they didn't understand him. But I can remember one officer in particular, a commanding officer of an infantry battalion. I said to him, 'Look, meet the bloke. Talk to the bloke. Lay down your parameters. And you will find you've got to mate.' So the next thing, Denis is happily exconced with that mob. And I think, in some ways, there might be people who envy that experience – that the broadness of his experience.

Patricia Ferguson: So in the meantime, I used to just get lots and lots of letters, lots and lots of phone calls, poetry. The CO had a sitting room in his hut so we could often go there for a talk or down the beach.

Michael Naughton: If Denis was in conversation with somebody who said something ridiculous, he really very quickly pointed it out, and there's no much wrong with that.

Narrator: Denis Gibbons's war took him all over South Vietnam and to neighbouring countries. From helicopters flying over the Mekong Delta to the decks of Australia and destroyers working with the US 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, Denis was there. He visited Australian Army Training Teams and the US Special Forces in outlying posts along the demilitarised zone, where few other journalists would go. He accompanied US and South Vietnamese combat units into Laos and Cambodia and during the Tet Offensive. He photographed Australian soldiers arriving and leaving on HMAS Sydney, known as the Vung Tau Ferry. He took nearly 10,000 photographs. Unique, insightful, and an everlasting record of the war he saw in Vietnam. But Denis Gibson's war had come to an end, and it did so in controversial circumstances when he reported on a robbery at the Australian Logistics Hub in Vung Tau. The story sparked a backlash and led to a retraction in the press, typically the end of such an affair. Yet, this time, it served as a pretext for the authorities to remove Gibbons from the Task Force, officially citing personal reasons. Whether his removal was sparked by a personal vendetta or a more official stance against journalism within the Australian operational area has never been fully explained.

Patricia Ferguson: Because I resigned my commission, you see, you couldn't stay in the Army if you got married, and I want to get married more than I want to stay in the Army. So – and Denis was sick, so 'Oh, let's go home'. I came back on a military flight, and he came back a couple of days later. He didn't come back on the same plane as I did. Was a bit frustrating for him when we came home because, working for UPI, you could work as a photojournalist. But back here, the unions, they'd let you work only as a journalist or a photographer. They said, 'You're taking away someone's job'. So that was very frustrating for him that he couldn't do both. We didn't know about PTSD in the early '70s. So the nightmares are not sleeping, the wandering around, being able to deal with big issues but little trivial ones would set you off. We didn't think that it might have been from Vietnam. We just tried to deal with it. We just thought it was, you know, he was studying, I was studying. I was working, he was working. Just whatever happens, you try and deal with it, but then later on, you realise what was happening.

Narrator: Patricia and Denis married in 1970. Their shared battles with the war's aftermath lasted until their divorce in 1986. Through the eye of his camera, Denis Gibbons transformed into a conduit for the collective experiences of the veteran community in Vietnam. With unflinching honesty, he captured both the valour and the tedium encountered by those on the front lines, as well as the profound sacrifices they endured. His dedication to portraying these truths did not go unnoticed. In 2005, his significant contributions as a war correspondent and photographer were honoured with the Order of Australia Medal, a testament to his role in chronicling an important chapter in Australia's military history. Denis Gibbons's work stands as a testament to the complexities and truths of war. His enduring legacy captures not just moments in history, but the very essence of human experience in times of conflict. It's a silent yet profound narrative that connects generations.

Denis Gibbons (1937 – 2011). Denis worked in Vietnam from 1966 to 1970. He was wounded 5 times. The Australian War Memorial now holds over 10,000 of his pictures from the Vietnam War.

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