This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Discover the experiences of the 'Fab Four', the first 4 Australian Army nurses to serve in the Vietnam War. This story tells the experiences of Lieutenant Colleen Mealy, Lieutenant Margaret Ahern, Captain Amy Pittendreigh and Lieutenant Terrie Roche in Vietnam.
Student inquiry questions
- Plot on a timeline the following milestones of the Vietnam War that are mentioned in the film:
- The start of the Vietnam War
- When Australia first sent Military Advisers to Vietnam
- When the Australian Battalion arrived in Vietnam
- When the Australian Taskforce arrived in Vietnam
- When the first Australian Nurses were sent to Vietnam
- When Australians started to withdraw from Vietnam.
- The term 'Viet Cong' is mentioned in the film. Who are the Viet Cong? What did the Viet Cong use to their advantage in the conflict?
- Who were the first 4 Australian army nurses to be posted to the Vietnam War? Explain the nickname that was given to these nurses.
- The families of the nurses found out they were being sent to Vietnam when it was announced on the radio. How might they have felt learning the news this way?
- Describe the conditions of the hospital when the nurses first arrived in Vietnam.
- Helicopters played a significant role in the Vietnam War. What did the sound of the helicopters signal for the nurses? How did helicopter transportation of the wounded soldiers help in their treatment? How do you think the outcome for the wounded soldiers may have differed if the helicopters were not available?
- Nurses are sometimes referred to as the 'unsung heroes' during times of war or conflict. They care for and provide comfort to wounded Australian soldiers, as well as other sick and injured patients. Make a list of all the people that nurses helped during the Vietnam War.
- The Australian nurses faced unexpected conditions when they arrived in Vietnam. Describe the conditions they faced and why they may have been unprepared for these conditions.
- Many nurses describe feeling isolated when returning home from the Vietnam War. Describe what factors contributed to the nurses feeling isolated.
Opening credits. Four war medals shine beneath the words 'Stories of Service, Vietnam War.' Photos shuffle into view. They depict an Indigenous soldier, a naval seaman, and four women in uniform. Fade to black. An array of photos starts with the four women in grey uniforms, then shows military nurses at work in various locations, wearing grey or green uniforms.
Narrator speaks: 'Not all heroes in wartime are soldiers. Nursing the wounded has always been an aspect of war, and in Vietnam, Australian nurses were close to the action. Providing care and comfort to allied soldiers, enemy troops and civilians alike, many admit to being horribly unprepared for the physical and emotional conditions they encountered. Despite this, they persevered, using their skills and experience, maintaining their sense of humour to counter the pain and despair of those around them.'
A map shows North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Text: 'Vietnam War, 1955 - 1975.' In black and white footage, a soldier takes notes in the jungle. Several helicopters fly across jungle toward waiting forces. Soldiers hurry from helicopters and move through tall grass and jungle, guns ready.
Narrator speaks: 'The Vietnam War was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia which lasted from November 1955 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Australia first sent military advisers to Vietnam to work with the South Vietnamese in 1962. In 1965, this was expanded to a battalion, and in 1966, a task force. While the 1965 battalion operated with United States troops, the task force was given a province, Phuoc Tuy, as Australia's area of responsibility.'
Aerial footage shows tents and tanks in a fortified clearing. A helicopter door gunner reloads. A helicopter flies over dark buildings and vehicles. A soldier on a stretcher waits near an ambulance.
Narrator speaks: 'The task force base was at Nui Dat in the middle of the province where the Vietnamese communist forces, known as the Vietcong, were active. The task force base was 30 kilometres from the Australian logistics base, which included the 8th Ambulance Field hospital at Vung Tàu on the coast.'
Holding their weapons ready, Australian soldiers move warily through jungle and wade through a waterway. They pass a dilapidated hut. Soldiers help a wounded man.
Narrator speaks: 'The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army used their familiarity with jungle terrain and swamps to their advantage. They were renowned for using guerrilla war tactics, including setting booby traps that resulted in terrible injuries.'
Names appear on a photo of 4 young women in colourful outfits - 'Colleen Mealy, Margaret Ahern, Amy Pittendreigh, Terrie Roche.' Wearing grey uniforms and flowing white nurse headdresses, they have a tea break in a camp sitting room. Wearing green uniforms, they stand near gathered soldiers. Each nurse holds a camera.
Narrator speaks: 'Lieutenant Colleen Mealy, Lieutenant Margaret Ahern, Captain Amy Pittendreigh and Lieutenant Terrie Roche were the first 4 Army nurses to be posted to Vietnam. Imagine how shocked their families were when they found out that their daughters were being sent to Vietnam by hearing it first on ABC Radio.'
A photo of a woman with short pale hair becomes interview footage. Text: 'Terrie Roche.'
Narrator speaks: 'Terrie Roche recalls...'
Terrie speaks: 'It was all a huge secret, so I never mentioned it to anybody. And the WAC girl came and said, 'I think you'd better be getting on to your mother because there's announcements being made.' So I phoned my mother, who was distraught, 'cause she said, 'They're naming nurses going to Vietnam. So thank heavens it's not Terrie or we would know.' And the next minute they said my name to be going.'
In their grey uniforms, the 4 nurses examine goods in market stalls. They pose smiling outside a building.
Narrator speaks: 'The 4 nurses were all young women in their 20s when they were sent to Vietnam. Well-known Australian photographer Denis Gibbons, who photographed the nurses in Vietnam, dubbed them the 'Fab 4' in a play on the name given to the musical group, the Beatles.'
Wearing a white shift, and a surgical mask and cap, a nurse tends to a wounded man. In green uniforms, the nurses move among local people. Wearing their grey uniforms, they visit a market. A photo of a compound shows off-duty soldiers near long metal sheds.
Narrator speaks: 'They had limited experience of the range of severe injuries and tropical diseases they would encounter, and they had almost no information about what to expect. After stepping off the plane in Vietnam into the tropical heat, it was immediately clear to them that the general uniform of Australian nurses at the time, which included nylon stockings, was not suited to the climate. The 8th Field Ambulance hospital, where they were stationed, was a series of metal sheds with concrete floors built on expansive sand dunes.'
Photos show a young nurse with short dark hair. Text: 'Colleen Mealy.' Sandbags reinforce one side of a long shed. Inside, bare-chested soldiers relax on long rows of beds. The white-haired Colleen is interviewed. Footage shows the nurses in a market. In a photo, wounded soldiers relax outside.
Colleen speaks: 'It was tents and some Nissen huts. No air conditioning, no running water. We managed to make it a home ourselves. We went out, we shopped in the village, and we got some of the boys who weren't too sick to paint the walls for us. We made it our home. We made it feminine.'
A wounded soldier is loaded into a helicopter. In a hospital, a nurse checks a patient. Near shelves of medicines, a nurse sits with a soldier. Colleen takes notes as a medic does his rounds. Several helicopters fly over jungle in a long line. Inside one, a soldier lies on a stretcher.
Narrator speaks: 'The 4 nurses set about dividing up their responsibilities. Terrie took on the intensive care cases. Margaret and Colleen shared responsibility for the theatre. And Amy, who was captain and the group's senior officer, ran the medical ward. They organised the hospital and allocated 10-hour work shifts, although sometimes they had to work around the clock to care for the wounded. There were often multiple casualties to deal with, and the sound of helicopters would send the nurses into action. Colleen Mealy recalls...'
In photos, a helicopter flies low above a base, and soldiers carry stretches from helicopters.
Colleen speaks: 'Usually dusk and dawn were the times when we got casualties. The siren would go, you'd quickly get dressed and race downhill. The boys would carry the stretchers from the chopper. They would have had their weapons taken away from them before they got into the triage area unless they had a rifle strapped to their leg as a splint.'
A wounded man is loaded into a helicopter.
Narrator speaks: 'While well qualified, the nurses had not previously encountered the type of horrific injuries caused by landmines and booby traps that were used in Vietnam.'
An interview with Terrie Roche is flanked by photos of young Terrie.
Terrie speaks: 'You know, the worst person that I looked after, there was a... a big skirmish, and we had quite a lot of, uh, casualties, and the worst one really came in last because he insisted he was the sergeant and assisted everyone else. But he lost an eye and a leg. And how he survived, I do not know. But he was that brave. And I recall saying to him, 'Alex, you must have a rest and close your eyes and go to sleep.' He said, 'No, I can't. I won't wake up if I go to sleep.' I said, 'I promise you, you'll wake up.' And he said, 'Well, I'll go to sleep if you stay here while I'm asleep.' So I said, 'Very well.' So... he sticks in my mind a lot.'
A wounded soldier smiles as Terrie tends to him. A soldier is loaded into a helicopter. A nurse tends to a patient.
Narrator speaks: 'For many wounded soldiers, just seeing an Australian woman provided some comfort and a sense of home. Terrie Roche recalled one patient said that, 'When he smelt my perfume, he instantly knew he was safe.' After that, she always put on perfume every time she knew a helicopter was landing with patients evacuated from battlefields. That way, even if the casualties couldn't see them, they could smell them and relax, knowing they were going to be cared for.'
The nurses head away from tents.
Narrator speaks: 'The location of the hospital at Vung Tàu enabled rapid treatment of wounded soldiers who were brought in by ambulance and helicopter.'
An interview with curly-haired Margaret Ahern is flanked by photos of young red-headed Margaret.
Margaret speaks: 'We were only 20 minutes by chopper from any of the battles that our troops fought in. First World War and the Second World War, it could be days before, you know, sort of from the time they're wounded until they got to a medical facility. But the advent of the helicopter made things so much better. So, a lot of our fellows that if they'd been left out in the field even 24 hours, um, the infections that, you know, they got in their wounds, and I never saw a clean wound.'
In a tent, 3 nurses smile with a local woman. A group of soldiers sit writing. Surrounded by local women and children, the nurses check a baby. Colleen shows children a camera. The 4 nurses visit local nurses.
Narrator speaks: 'While in Vietnam, these first Australian nurses were something of a novelty for both the soldiers and many locals. For the soldiers, they were a reminder of home and family. And for many local Vietnamese people, they were the first European service women that they had seen. When the nurses weren't caring for patients, they participated in goodwill activities. For example, they visited the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat and the village of Hòa Long, where they visited the local pharmacy, hospital and other community buildings that had been constructed by the allied forces.'
Photos show red-headed Margaret in her dress military uniform, nurse's uniform, and dishevelled, holding a Vietnamese baby.
Narrator speaks: 'Lieutenant Margaret Ahern, in particular, was a big hit with the locals, who had never seen anybody with her striking red hair.'
An array of photos show the 4 nurses working and relaxing in Vietnam. A sliver Australian Active Service Medal lies among the photos.
Narrator speaks: 'The so-called 'Fab Four' nurses returned home in 1968, having paved the way for the nurses that subsequently served in Vietnam. Returning home and back to work, many nurses felt isolated from their colleagues. The nurses who served in Vietnam were instructed that once they returned home, they were not to speak of their experiences, and because of this, many continued to suffer the aftermath of trauma without help for the rest of their lives. Nurses received the Australian Active Service Medal.'
Fade to black. The Australian coat of arms is displayed in white. Text: 'Australian Government. Department of Veterans' Affairs.'