Janice & Stuart Smith, Loss

Running time
3 min 45 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Stuart Smith was a young child when his father, Bernard Lyle Smith, was killed in action in Vietnam, but it was some years before the sense of loss began to sink in. For Janice, now raising two sons on her own, the connection to her husband Bernie remained strong.


Janice: "I didn't want him to go back that time. Because I had that premonition. I said, 'If you go this time, you won't come home'."

Stuart: "My memories are tinged by sounds and smells. The sound of his army boots, squeaking across the lounge room floor; the smell of hair tonic."

Bernard Lyle Smith was a sergeant in the Australian Army. He served one tour in Vietnam in 1966 and returned for a second, in 1969. On the ninth of March 1969, Bernie and his corporal, George Gilbert, were killed by an enemy mine.

Janice: "I don't know whether it was Stuart or Edward, one of them woke up at that particular moment, in the morning, and that's when it happened. But the police came and I knew. When the police came I knew what it was."

Stuart Smith was five years old. His brother Edward, was just sixteen months.

Stuart: "The Catholic nuns from the local school accompanied the police when they came to our house in Williamtown. And while the police went inside, the Catholic nun took me aside and we walked around the front garden. And the phrase that they used to break the news to me was: 'Your father won't be coming home.' But as a young child, you don't find attention to that. You focus on what's near and now. It probably wasn't until I was a teenager that it really sunk in. When you were looking for that father figure in your life.

When I went back to school, a couple of days later, I always remember, the Catholic nun met me at the gate and said, 'Look, it's probably best if you don't talk about this with the other children. Don't raise it with them.' And I now know that the reason for that was that it could have caused a confrontation in the schoolyard. And even when I was at school in later years, in the seventies and eighties, it wasn't popular to talk about the Vietnam War and associate yourself with it. So you kept that internal."

Since the war, Jan Smith has attended every reunion held by Bernie's battalion.

Janice: "I find when I go to reunions, some of them, it's taken them thirty years or more sometimes, to come up and speak to me, because they've always been too frightened to speak to me. And I say, 'Well, don't feel like that, I don't... you know.' But they're all so good to me, the whole lot of them."

The Welcome Home Parade of 1987 was pivotal for Stuart Smith.

Stuart: "While I was there I heard over the loudspeakers that the flags that were representing those that were killed in action were assembled, and those that wished to carry them should go up there and pick them up. And I went up there and I spied my father's plaque and flag, and a man was about to pick it up. And I said, 'Excuse me, do you mind if I carry that one, because I knew him.' And this bloke stood back and paused and said, 'You knew him?' And I said I did and he said, 'Well if you knew him, you should carry this.'

And I did. I carried it at the front of the march. But after that I met many people who knew him as part of a 5th Battalion reunion. And then, I discovered stories about him which I had never known. And I knew more about him from that, than I ever did from my own family."

Janice: "Still dream about him. After fifty years. And I never remarried. I said I never would."

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