Gary McKay (Australian Army), Combat

Running time
2 min 27 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Gary McKay went to Vietnam as a national serviceman and commanded an infantry platoon. He saw battle first hand.


Before he was conscripted, Gary McKay had little knowledge of Vietnam.

"I didn't know which side of the Equator it was on. I didn't."

But in his task as platoon commander it didn't take long for the reality of combat to assert itself.

"When you kill somebody, it never leaves you. You put it in that box and you shove it away at the back. It's a terrible thing."

For a long time, Gary and his platoon almost believed they were bulletproof.

"We couldn't believe it. We'd had ambushes, contacts, serious firefights, didn't get a scratch. Couldn't believe it! We thought obviously you know, God's on our side, we're the good guys. We're the blokes in the white hats, it's obviously meant to be. Then the next day, the sky fell in."

It was September 1971, and Australia's last big battle began in a place called Nui Le.

"The amount of fire coming our way was just unbelievable. I had my hat shot off, my radio operator on my right side, Barry Garrett, I lost coms trying to bring the artillery closer.

And I turned around and he's... the bullets are going across my back and into his radio. And all of a sudden, it's gone quiet in my platoon. What had happened is all my machine gunners had been targeted very carefully by the enemy "" and all shot to death.

You couldn't yell an order out. Like I couldn't tell someone to go up and get the gun going. They couldn't hear you. It looked like we were about to be overrun, so, I did what had to be done. I ran forward, I dove in behind my two dead gunners and I get the gun going.

And, I don't know, it took me almost twenty years to accept the fact that I'd had to use my own men as cover from fire. You can imagine the mess. And I got the machine gun going. So Fred's behind the other gun and between us, we thwarted the enemy assault.

It wasn't over for Gary. Later in the battle, he was badly wounded and became one of the last Australian battle casualties of the Vietnam War. He recovered and went on to a successful life as an author of military history and tour guide for veterans returning to Vietnam.

"It took me to places where internally and spiritually that I would never have gone. I have seen the very best in men in the very worst of circumstance. You know, it's funny. We are expected to behave normally in the most abnormal of environments. And it's a big ask."

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