The Long Shadow: Our Vietnam War

Running time
1 hr 1 min
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Copyright 2023 Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Department of Veterans' Affairs

Our Vietnam War tells the story of Australia's involvement in the words of the men who were sent to fight; the battles, the protests, returning and the long shadow the war cast on the people whose lives were turned upside down. Episode 3 (final) shows how Australia followed as the United States withdrew from Vietnam. For those who returned, the war would forever hang over their lives through health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Members of the Vietnamese diaspora speak. Narrated by Kate Mulvany. (Final episode of 3)

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Archival footage of Houston: We can see you coming down the ladder now.

Narrator: On the 20th of July 1969, as millions on Earth hold their breath, Neil Armstrong steps onto the soft dust of the moon.

Archival footage of Neil Armstrong: I'm going to step off the ladder now.

Narrator: In Vietnam, young Australian singer Cathy Wayne takes one small step onto a makeshift stage to perform for Allied troops. As she sings, she is hit by a bullet aimed at a US officer.

Archival footage of Neil Armstrong: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Narrator: On the same day that Armstrong makes history as the first man on the moon, Cathy Wayne becomes the first Australian woman to die in the Vietnam War. Her killer has never been brought to justice. In Australia, at the end of the 1960s, God Save the Queen was still the national anthem. Indigenous children were still being forcibly removed from their families, and women had to pretend to be married to obtain the pill. But as the decade was drawing to a close, and anti-war protests intensified, it felt like the '60s of popular imagining was finally arriving.

Dr Mark Dalpin, author of Australia's Vietnam: Myths vs History: Nobody ever expects a war a drag on. Wars are always going to be over very, very quickly. The people that we invade are always actually on our side, oddly, and they'll eventually come to see since the enemy will be defeated because we are always stronger. And, not only that, we have right upon our side.

Narrator: But the war hadn't been quickly won. And in 1969, US President Richard Nixon had inherited the problem.

Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen, Government and International Relations: Nixon announced a policy of Vietnamization, which cynics called 'changing the colour of the corpses', which is actually very misleading because there were always, in every week of the war, there were far more Vietnamese casualties than there were Western casualties.

Mark Dalpin: As the war dragged on, Australian public opinion began to turn against the war.

Narrator: Australia's involvement in the war had always received majority support, but by the end of the '60s, dissent was, at the very least, understood and becoming contagious.

Graham Walker AM MID SVCG (retired), Officer Commanding, A Company, 8RAR: If we were in Vietnam for any reason at all, it was so that people have the freedom to protest in our society compared with the society we were supposed to be fighting against.

Narrator: On 8th of May 1970, around 200,000 Australians marched in moratorium events around the country. Undeniably announcing that opposition to the war had transformed into a mass movement.

Rodney Tiffen: The fact that the moratorium went so well and so peacefully, and it was clear that, you know, there was very strong anti-war sentiment amongst a large group of people. It was a bit of a turning point.

Biff Ward, anti-war activist and author of The Third Chopstick: A protest that really stands out for me is the first moratorium. Workers would go on strike and come out the street, and, you know, it would bring the nation to a standstill.

Jean McLean AM OTL, anti-war activist and former Victorian MP: It had taken over the whole city. It was a fantastic spectacle.

Archival footage of protest speaker: ... a foreign policy, which is not only wrong and unjust, but is absolutely opposed to the interests of the Australian people.

Dr Rowan Cahill, historian and anti-war activist: The American architect of the war, Robert McNamara, in the late '90s or something like that, he says, 'If I knew then what I now know, it wouldn't ever have happened'. And I thought, 'Get real, you bastards. We figure that out when we were 19, 20, 21'.

Mark Dalpin: The government had no intention of fighting a war against an anti-war movement. They didn't anticipate it. They didn't understand it. They didn't even know what to do about it.

Narrator: Wanting an end to the war had spread all the way to the White House.

Archival footage of Richard Nixon: The time has come to end this war. Let history record that at this critical moment, both sides turned their faces toward peace and away from conflict and war.

Rodney Tiffen: The Americans were clearly looking to get out. The trouble was, the Americans were not giving much indication of how many troops they would withdraw or when they withdraw.

Narrator: At home, Liberal Party infighting saw John Gorton replaced as prime minister by William McMahon.

Archival footage of William McMahon: I've been involved in politics for a long time, and I've learned to take a smooth with a rough, and I took this in exactly the same way as I would have taken a defeat.

Rodney Tiffen: In March 1971. William McMahon became prime minister after overthrowing John Gorton. And McMahon just didn't have the presence, and he was leading a very divided and tired government.

Narrator: Adding to the government's problems was trying to ease our way out of the conflict in Vietnam without looking like we were slavishly following the US.

Professor James Curran, historian, University of Sydney: Richard Nixon has been elected on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, to achieve peace with honour. But from the moment he's elected, he starts to withdraw troops at the rate of about 100,000 a year. They're not consulting Australia, right. Australia's having to read about this in the newspapers.

Narrator: Within weeks of becoming prime minister, McMahon announced an acceleration in the withdrawal of Australian troops. Soldiers finishing their tours would not be replaced. In August 1971, he promised that all Australian combat troops would be out of Vietnam by Christmas.

Archival news reporter: A year ago, Vietnamese were not allowed anywhere within the perimeter of the Australian Task Force Base. But now, with Australia's operational role in Vietnam winding down, things are beginning to change. A large section of the original Task Force Base has been handed over for training Vietnamese in jungle warfare. In other words, preparing them for when the Australians completely pull out. A few miles south of here, a key Australian military base, which was the springboard for operations patrols and ambushes, also has been handed over to local Vietnamese forces. Further evidence that Australia is pulling out of this war.

Dr Peter Edwards, historian of Australia's Vietnam War: By the end of 1972, nearly all Australian combat forces had been withdrawn.

Narrator: For the Australian troops still in Vietnam, having fewer comrades didn't make their life any easier.

Lieutenant Colonel Gary McKay MC OAM (retired), Platoon Commander, 11th Platoon, Delta Company, 4RAR: Operation Ivanhoe was the last deployment by 4RAR when we were in South Vietnam. The government, God bless the cotton socks, announced to the world that we would be withdrawing from Phuoc Tuy province.

Ashley Elkins, historian: The Task Force was days from leaving. We had signalled our intent to go. The Vietnamese, they knew that we were leaving.

Gary McKay: The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese decided they would come back into Phuoc Tuy province, and try and give us a kick up the bum as we were leaving. We started finding lots of signs that the enemy were in the area, and in large numbers. We found a foot track. When we were told to go in, there was a lot more opposition than we thought. We only got 50 metres in, and the sky fell in. The Battle of Nui Le, as we now call it in 4RAR, especially in my platoon, starts. People could not hear my voice. The noise was so great. He couldn't yell on an order to anyone. After about 15 minutes, probably, my machine guns had stopped shooting. I looked across, and I could see my number one machine-gun group, laying down behind the gun, and they weren't moving. So I go running forward. People are shooting at me, and I get down, and my two machine gunners are shot to death. Both head shot. And I look across to my right, and I see one of my diggers. Fred saw me going, so he did the same thing. So Fred got the other gun going. And so between us, we waited till they got really close, and then we ripped into them with the automatic fire. And so we provided the covering fire for the platoon to withdraw. The tragic part about all that for me was that I had no cover from fire, and I had to use the bodies of one of my dead soldiers as cover from fire. And that was that was pretty awful. But the battle wasn't over. It's now dark, and I was behind a skinny tree, which is – I blame for what happened next. Two AK-47 bullets ripping into my left shoulder and dislocating my arm. The artillery was then called in. And so, once we stopped the artillery, the enemy withdrew. And that was the end of the battle, per se, and a long night. My medic, Mick Sullivan, used all the morphine he had on Ralph Niblett, because Ralph had what we call a sucking chest wound, and he was gonna live. No way. He said, 'Gees, Ralph, you'll be home in time for the grand final.' And he looked at him, and he said, 'No mate, I'm fucked.' And they were his last words. I'm sorry about the language, but that's what he said. And he was the last Australian to die on active service in South Vietnam.

Ashley Elkins: I think as a result of that operation, right on the eve of leaving Vietnam, people are starting to question what this was all about. Why, why has there been this long commitment since 1962. It's now nearly 1972. And here are 5 men, 5 soldiers, who have been killed and 30 have been wounded in an action which will have no influence whatsoever on the outcome of this war. And it's quite fair for people to be asking these questions. What did these men die for? What did any of those die for, that died throughout the commitment? And I think, okay, sorry.

Archival political campaign advertisement: Time for freedom, time for moving, it's time to begin, yes it's time, time for old folks, time we loved them, it's time to care, yes it's time, time for children ...

Narrator: Back in Australia, after 23 years of Liberal –Country Party rule, the electorate decided to change the government.

Dr Patrick Mullins, Visiting Fellow, National Centre for Biography, ANU: The election of the Labour Party in December 1972 meant the end of Australia's military involvement in the Vietnam War.

Archival footage of Gough Whitlam: The war of intervention in Vietnam has ended. The great powers are rethinking and remoulding their relationships and their obligations. Australia cannot stand still at such a time.

Patrick Mullins: Within days of coming to office, Whitlam had ended conscription, and he'd had ended prosecutions against those resisting the draft.

Archival footage of Gough Whitlam: Instructions have now been given that all pending prosecutions are to be withdrawn. The Commonwealth police have been asked to withhold execution of outstanding warrants.

Archival footage of draft resister: I feel tremendous. I feel very good.

Peter Edwards: The steps that the new Whitlam government took were as much symbolic as they were actual.

James Curran: But the big crunch comes, and the big rupture in the relationship comes, of course, only days after Whitlam is elected, and that is on the 18th of December 1972. The Nixon administration, frustrated with the peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese – the fact that they're going so slowly –embark on this massive bombing campaign of the major population centres of North Vietnam, Hanoi and Hai Phong. They drop more bombs on those 2 cities in a 12-day period than the Allies drop on the entire European continent during the Second World War. Kissinger says, 'Mr President, we are going to break every window in Hanoi'. Now there is enormous moral outrage across the world. The Pope attacks the White House. The 2 biggest critics though, in terms of world leaders, are the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Archival news reporter: If the bombing had not been resumed, relations between the present Australian Government and the United States government would be better than they had ever been since the Second World War between any Australian government and any American administration.

James Curran: What did Australia gain from going all the way with LBJ in Vietnam? Especially when you consider that all the major decisions were taken without prior consultation with Australia as an ally. The real question is, what is there to suggest that anything will be different this time once the hazy mist lifts? We are now in the position where we are locked into America's strategy in Asia to counter a rise in China. To what extent are we really confident that we will get anything better in terms of consultation, in terms of decisions that America takes, in its own interests.

Narrator: Australia's participation in the war formally ended in January 1973. The final act came in April 1975, with the fall of Saigon and the utter collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The last Australian servicemen left Vietnam when our embassy was evacuated.

Archival news reporter: During the last few days, it was inevitable that the Australians would close down completely in Saigon. Officially, the embassy is being closed temporarily, but no one on the staff is really sure if they'll ever be back.

Leading Aircraftman Ian 'Spike' Dainer (retired), Airfield Defence Guard, No 2 Squadron, RAAF: In the last week or so when really Saigon was surrounded, they sent a team of 4 of us to the embassy to protect the the ambassador's staff. We went out to the airfield. The last 2 Hercs were to come in late that afternoon. Possessions of embassy staff are loaded onto the last aircraft: carpets, bottles wine, ceramic statues. The pilot came out and spoke to the the officer in charge of the operation and he said, 'What about these poor blokes?' and he said, 'Ah, there's no room. We'll have to send another aircraft'. So they left, and the 4 of us sat there for – oh, I don't know – it must have been getting dark, I think, before that last Herc did turn up, and we were quite confident one would come, but after a couple of hours, you do start to wonder, and it's sort of, like, very late afternoon, that it arrived, and the last 4 of us left Vietnam. I mean, it puts a nice full stop on the whole war, doesn't it, that someone thought that some carpets were a bit more important than 4 Australian airmen? And you wonder, 15 years of war and 500 young Australian lives, 50 something 1000 Americans, several million Vietnamese, and we're having an argument over carpet. What do you say?

Archival news reporter: When they returned, the nation rejoiced, perhaps just as much for the end of an unhappy chapter of Australian history, as for the safe return of its fighting men. Well, all except 500 of them anyway.

Narrator: Around 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. For many, coming home wasn't as peaceful as they'd hoped.

Mark Dalpin: When national servicemen were demobbed, they were demobbed very quickly and unemotionally. It was a very sudden break from a life that was alien to them anyway, to a life in a society that had to some extent changed around them.

Private Mick 'Bing' Crosbie (retired), Fire Assault Support Company, 7RAR: You just thought you were going to pick up from where you left off. That wasn't the case. You are at a different level. And so that wasn't – you didn't discover that until you got home.

Graham Walker: People don't know what to ask, don't know what to say, you know? The children want to know if you've killed somebody. And what was your weapon like? And the adults are often stumped. What do they – what am I going to ask, you know? Did you have a nice time, you know?

Narrator: Trying to reintegrate, many Vietnam servicemen trod a traditional path and rocked up at their local RSL Club.

Dr Mia Martin Hobbs, Research Fellow, Deakin University: A lot of veterans' reflections about coming home, they talk about being flown in the dead of night to avoid protesters. They didn't have Welcome Home parades. That they were abused by anti-war protesters. And that they were excluded from the RSLs. And what's interesting about this is that for 3 of those 4, there's just not the evidence to back it up. Now the last of these so-called memory myths is actually not a myth at all. Veterans were excluded from the RSLs. And initially, that they were excluded from the RSLs on the grounds that Vietnam was a conflict or a police action and not a war.

Private Graham Edwards AM, Pioneer Platoon Support Company, 7RAR: So I joined in 1971 but I was never made welcome. They didn't think that were real soldiers, and they didn't think that we were worthy of being RSL members.

Sapper Robert 'Yogi' Earle, 2nd Troop, 5RAR, Royal Australian Engineers: My brother took me into the RSL, I was in full uniform, on August 6, and got a beer off the barmaid and she said, 'You shouldn't have been over there in the first place'. And that hit me really hard. It wasn't a warrie. I never joined the army voluntarily. It was just some thrust upon me.

Graham Walker: There was also a problem with our Aboriginal soldiers. I mean, I know of I know of one instance in Bourke, where 2 Aboriginal soldiers in uniform went to the RSL, and were told they weren't allowed in.

Private Victor Bailey (retired), Forward Scout, Support Section, Delta Company, 7RAR: The RSL in Bourke in those days was called the Bouke–Oxley RSL. A big arsehole in there said, 'Where are you blokes going?' I said, 'In here'. He said, 'No, you're not'.

Graham Edwards: It's quite absolutely disgraceful, and for that reason, some veterans to this day still have a dislike and an anger directed towards the RSL because of the way they were treated. But it's interesting now to know that Vietnam-era blokes now, and have been for some time, the strength of the RSL across Australia.

Archival news reporter: Never before in Australia's history have armed forces engaged in a conflict overseas received such a mixed reception at home and so much outright opposition. Well, now the last trips have returned. It's a fair enough welcome, but it's a far cry from the national rejoicing that greeted earlier returns.

Narrator: While many units had marched in the streets on their returns from war, there was a strong feeling among Vietnam veterans that Australia had not respected their service. The veteran community began to organise a fitting Welcome Home parade.

Mia Martin Hobbs: There had been these growing, sort of organic, welcome home parades all over the United States in the early '80s. And that inspires veteran activists in Australia to have their own welcome home parade on the anniversary of Long Tan.

Narrator: In October 1987, 22,000 veterans marched in Sydney.

Lieutenant Colleen (Mealy) Thurgar AM (retired), Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps: We had no idea whether people would throw stones or stuff at us or whether they'd clap.

Archival news reporter: This was the scene that brought it home to Australians. 504 flags, one for every Australian who gave their life in Vietnam.

Biff Ward: It was a turning point for the veteran movement and, I think, for Australians in general.

Archival news reporter: More than 25,000 of the Australians who fought in Vietnam were marching again.

Archival news reporter: An estimated 110,000 people thronged the streets of Sydney to give them the welcome home many had missed.

Biff Ward: What was so obvious that this march just was irrelevant. What happened was, all these men finding each other, finding their group, and talking to each other and sobbing. I remember saying, 'What's going on? Why is this happening?' And yet, it was sort of obvious that they hadn't been able to do that until then.

Dr Bob Hall, Platoon Commander (retired) and Adjunct Lecturer, UNSW Canberra: The great thing about that, for me, was meeting a lot of my diggers again. That was what it was all about, for me. There was a walk down a street, but who cares? I wanted to be with my diggers. I wanted to meet them again. I haven't seen many of them for a long time. So it was a great opportunity to get back with them.

Graham Edwards: I've never seen so many diggers have so much dust in their eyes. Because a lot of blokes are marching down that street, brushing it out. It was an emotional time, and a very warm and forgiving time.

Archival footage of Vietnam veteran: The best part about being here today, and hopefully everyone will think the same, is that we're all together.

Robert Earle: I never went to it. Too little, too late. The damage had been done.

Mick Crosbie chatting and playing darts with veteran friend: How have you been going? ... Yeah, I just came back from Malta about 6 months ago. I see me, my clan over there.

Mick Crosbie: I was drinking at my local hotel. When I was drinking there, I just clammed up and didn't say anything because you're worried about what people might think. And so you – you're scared because if you do go out, and you go out for dinner with a group of people and somebody annoys you, it's very embarrassing just to get up and say, 'I'm leaving. I'm out of here.' What you would do, you'd go to the toilet and don't come back. So you'd find a way to leave.

Mick Crosbie chatting and playing darts with veteran friend: There you go. A good grouping, but no bullseye ... Yeah, as hopeless as ever ... Some things never change.

Mick Crosbie: In 1992, there was a dedication to opening up the Vietnam Memorial in Canberra. And in the hotel, we were in a darts competition and I had to indicate that I would not be there for a few days. And they said, 'Well, what for?' A little bit more detail and it turns out that I divulged why I was going and they ended up saying, 'Well, I was a veteran too'. And the other guy said, 'Well, so was I'. And all this time, we hadn't ever discussed it or known one of each other's involvement in the military. So this was a bit of a shock.

Vietnam veteran: We were the second last aircraft to take off from Vung Tau. We had 39 onboard our Herc. So I flew us from there to Butterworth, from there to Darwin, landed in Darwin one o'clock in the morning. It was 2 of us in the end, 10 hours later, that got off in Richmond. And that was big fanfare coming home.

Mick Crosbie: After the event, we sort of opened up a bit to each other about at all and then we realised that we were home. But it took a long time.

Mick Crosbie chatting with veteran friend: Yeah, I'll see you soon ... Yeah, will do ... Okay ... Cheers.

Private Barry Vasella (retired), 12 Platoon, Delta Company, 6RAR: In later years, we discovered that there was a price to be paid, and that was when we started to find out that we really hadn't escaped unscathed from war.

Victor Bailey: We all had our own demons. What I did, I medicated on alcohol. It dulls the pain. And when you sleep, you might have dreams but you don't have them as bad as if you're awake.

Graham Walker: The problem is that when you're in a war, your survival instinct revs you up, and you become hyper alert. Now when you come home, your survival instinct simply won't believe that you're no longer in danger. A soldier on the battlefield is thinking, 'When I get home, all this anxiety, I will leave behind and have a leisurely lovely, relaxed life'. And, you know, my loved ones, I'll be able – my family and everything, I'll be able to rekindle my relationships with them. The other thing is, to survive on the battlefield, a soldier has to suppress both fear and grief. The problem is that, to suppress any emotion like that is to suppress them all.

Mick Crosbie: This lady that I married, just the best person ever, she used to come knocking on my door. I'd know she'd come around a couple of times a week at half-past 4. I would be at home before I went up to the pub and I would turn the radio off and I'd put the earphone – I'd put it put them in my ear so she wouldn't think that I'm home. I wouldn't open the door. I just didn't want to – what's this bird coming around, wanting to interfere in my life? What does she want to get into my life? I've got a terrible life. I don't want to put all this onto her.

Barry Vassella: I can tell you when it first bowled me over. I'd taken a team of golfers up to Townsville to play at an event, and there was a log on the ground in the background in some bush. And my world stopped then. I was at a point where I couldn't – I really wasn't functioning well at all, and had no real idea why until I could find out what this log was. Well, it came back that it was another operation that we were on –it was called the Battle of Bribie – it was a shambles, should I say that? They told us that they'd got all the wounded and dead out from the afternoon before. I walked maybe 10 metres, stepped over a log, and there was a dead Australian soldier on the other side of the log. You don't leave people out there. So that was a traumatic experience. But having stepped over that log and seen this dead soldier, and just said, 'Okay, keep going'. It had gone. I saw a log in the bush 40 years later, and it brought back that day. It was a shit of a day. The day before was a shit of a day. And I'd forgotten all about it, or I'd buried it. There is no cure for PTSD. You have to manage it. You have to live with it. And one way of doing it is of talking to other veterans.

Sergeant Chris 'Simmo' Simpson (retired), Rifleman, 5th Platoon, B Company, 7RAR: I'd never heard of it before. I'd never heard of PTSD. I'd heard of shell shock in World War II and World War I. And I understood – I understood that, but I'd never heard of PTSD.

Graham Walker: Well, PTSD was only named in about 1980. Previously, it had been thought that people were predisposed to these war neuroses and so on. Post-traumatic stress is not dependent on a person's strength or weakness.

Gary McKay: My bronzed Anzac image was shattered when I realised, you know, I had post-traumatic stress. I don't like to use the word disorder because I feel that suffering from post-traumatic stress is normal.

Narrator: Another invisible legacy of the war was exposure to chemical defoliants.

Archival news reporter: In the late '60s and early '70s, more than 11 million gallons of the herbicidal cocktail known as Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam. It was the frontline weapon and a decade of chemical warfare waged on the jungle by the Americans

Graham Walker: It was very mysterious, this – it was, you know, a big area and it was just quiet. There were no birds and so on in there. These – just these grey tree trunks with – and there seemed to be a lot of this grey powder around.

Chris Simpson: What we all worried about was Agent Orange because we used to see aircraft going over spewing this stuff out. And we all thought, as you do, 'Oh, it must be okay, otherwise they wouldn't do it'. Obviously, it did affect many of our people and there's been like a lot of men die of cancer.

Peter Edwards: Now, it's quite clear that those herbicides were very dangerous chemicals and could cause all sorts of effects.

Graham Walker: They have never been able to establish an exposure index. There are too many factors involved. There are too many ways you can be exposed. What they had to do was to make an arbitrary time in Vietnam for somebody to be said to have been exposed, which was 30 days. So now, if you have been in Vietnam for 30 days, it is accepted you have been exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals. It's very, very important that it was a legal issue, as well as a scientific one. So, if a veteran had been exposed to Agent Orange and they got cancer, the veteran gets the benefit of that doubt.

Narrator: Vietnam Veterans' Association lobbied for recognition and compensation.

Archival news reporter: Former sheep shearer and Vietnam conscript Richard Gibson said he and 2 other soldiers had had their uniforms soaked with spray. They sprayed herbicides from the back of a truck onto and near the perimeter barbed wire of the Australian base camp at Nui Dat. Gibson said that halfway through the operation, the men's eyes started watering, and they got severe headaches. He said he did not report the symptoms, but the operations were suddenly halted.

Peter Edwards: They succeeded in getting a Royal Commission set up. The Royal Commission, where the chemical companies were represented by highly experienced and expensive barristers, were able to tear apart that sort of evidence. The Royal Commissioner said that there are all sorts of other things for which the veterans should be compensated, that many of the ailments were caused by PTSD, but also alcohol was supplied to the troops in Vietnam, or smoking and cigarettes were supplied, so they should have been compensated for all those things. But he said because they concentrated so much on Agent Orange, they created this terrible situation where they were not compensated or adequately treated for too long a time for the problems that they had because Agent Orange was only responsible for a certain proportion of them.

Narrator: Returning service personnel were not the only people to encounter hardship and loss on leaving Vietnam.

Dr Indigo Willing, researcher and founder of Adopted Vietnamese International: From the very moment that you leave your country, even, it's all about losing things. It's about grief, and a grief that lasts a very long time.

Professor Nathalie Nguyen, historian, Monash University: I don't think it was an easy time for refugees. There was a lot of racism. There wasn't necessarily any understanding of why Vietnamese refugees were leaving their homeland.

Archival news reporter: With town after town falling to the communists, and more of the map of Vietnam being shaded red, the trickle of refugees flowing south became a flood. As many as 100,000 of them stretched for over a hundred miles back up Route 7, the only road from the north open to Saigon.

Dr Kim Huynh, senior lecturer in Politics, ANU: In the 1970s, Australia, it had started to become more multicultural, more mixed, right but racially it's still white. But I suppose that's what marks the Vietnamese who came after the fall of Saigon: that we were the first a significant intake of Asians to Australia.

Nathalie Nguyen: My father came from the north, from this region in the north. My mother came from the south. So many of the differences between north and south I can see illustrated, you know, in the history of my family. My maternal grandfather was apparently very upset when my parents fell in love because, you know, from his point of view, he couldn't understand why his daughter had to fall in love with a North Vietnamese. Why couldn't she fall in love with the South Vietnamese? 1975 would have been terrible for my parents, especially for my father because he'd been – he'd already left the north like many other northerners. And so they really invested all their hopes for an independent Vietnam in South Vietnam. They'd actually experienced communism in the north. The problem with people in the south was that they hadn't actually experienced communism. So a million people were sent to reeducation camps. Another million people were forcibly relocated to the so-called New Economic Zones in rural areas. And the communist regime in the post-war years was extremely harsh. Children denouncing their parents. Neighbours denouncing neighbours. And this is why, you know, the major refugee waves didn't actually happen in '75. Yes, there were people who left in those final terrible days when Saigon fell, but the large refugee waves occurred 3 years after the Communist takeover. And why? Because people had been through 30 years of war. And one of the great tragedies of that exodus is that we still don't actually know how many people died in the process. The boat people themselves believed that for every boat that made it, one didn't, and nearly a million made it to refugee camps. So they believe that a million died in the attempt.

Narrator: In the late 1970s, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took a compassionate humanitarian approach to the Vietnam refugee exodus.

Nathalie Nguyen: Fraser did something rather remarkable because, you know, he opened the doors to Vietnamese refugees. And he did so, you know, without the support of the Australian people because there were certainly – Australians weren't putting up their hand saying, 'We should open the doors to all these Vietnamese refugees arriving in this country'. We were in Japan, in Tokyo, in 1975. My father was the ambassador. And when the fall of Vietnam happened, we obviously lost everything. So, we found ourselves stateless and homeless. And so in the final days of Saigon, the – Australia did have an embassy in Saigon – the ambassador's name was Jeffrey Price. And he pleaded with the Whitlam government to give him permission to evacuate, you know, his Vietnamese staff and their families. And that permission was denied. And this decision really haunted him for the rest of his life. All these people were abandoned. I actually discovered my family in the National Archives of Australia. A list of names of Vietnamese refugees that had been accepted for entry into Australia by the then foreign minister, Don Willisee, and Whitlam went through that list and put 'No' next to most names. You can see his writing in blue in the margins. And the only reason our family made it in was he put 'Possible' next to my father's name.

Archival news reporter: Various voluntary organisations were at full stretch, caring for 1000s of babies and young children who'd been orphaned or abandoned by fleeing parents. Australian, American and European bodies all offered to fly them to new homes, but the Vietnamese authorities refused mass applications. Eventually recognising that many children would be better off anywhere but Saigon, the Thieu government relented and mercy flights began to leave the country.

Narrator: In 1975, Western nations conducted a mass evacuation of babies from Vietnam. The operation was dubbed 'Baby lift'.

Archival news reporter: An act of mercy or an act of conscience. Either way, the arrival of this Qantas jumbo in Sydney bearing 215 Vietnamese war orphans was indeed a touching affair.

Archival news reporter: They came by the armload. Many too small to know what was going on. Some social workers argued it was wrong to uproot the children; others that the orphans' only hope lay in escape and adoption.

Indigo Willing: Children were basically just swept off the beds and put into cardboard boxes and put on a plane.

Ian Dainer: They literally filled up 707s with cots, little baby capsules on seats, strapped in and and flew 100s of children out of the country.

Archival news reporter: We were at the airport filming an Australian RAAF Hercules leaving for Australia, also loaded with orphans. We just turned around and there was this massive ball of black, thick smoke. Then we saw helicopters coming in and soldiers just picking up what looked like the remains of small children. They carried them on their backs into ambulances. Then afterwards we heard the full story. The Galaxy had come down shortly after takeoff. Apparently, it had lost power, and during a turn to get back down to the airport, it had crashed. Some of the first eyewitnesses to get to the crash site said the crash was spread over 100s of metres. Apparently, there are 2 decks in the aircraft. The lower deck, including many American wives and other women taking the children back to Manila and then on to the States, were killed. First estimates say as many as 80 people may have survived.

Narrator: Australian volunteers Margaret Moses and Lee Mack were aboard the aircraft. They were the last 2 Australian women killed in the war.

Kim Huynh: Most people don't want to leave their homelands. It's not like it was an easy decision for my parents to leave Vietnam. So they'd put up with quite a lot. But I think what they couldn't put up with is the realisation that their kids would never have a future in Vietnam. That's the stress my parents still live with.

Archival news reporter: More than 20 boatloads have now arrived in Australia, having braved 1000s of miles of open sea across the equator. The boats are flimsy, the supplies not enough and no one knows how many did not last the voyage. They're greeted, not with praise, but with protest and doubt, and that they'll be allowed to stay is by no means certain. We were told that we could impersonate Chinese–Vietnamese, and we'd have a relatively easy trip outside of Vietnam. I was 2 years old. I was a very feeble child. So there was some talk of leaving me behind with my mum, and my brother and my – it's hard to talk about. Just give me a moment. Every now and then. What an incredible choice my parents had to make. Who would go and who would stay. My parents, with a bit of help from my grandmother, they made that awful decision that if we were going to go, we'd go together. And if we didn't make it, then we wouldn't make it together. I was really very weak. I had some unknown illness. Spewing, Shitting all over the place. Not for just a day. Not for just a few hours. I'm talking 8 days before we even got on the boat and my father, something snapped in him, and he thought that we'd made the wrong decision and that I shouldn't go any further. So he went to the lady who owned the place where we were staying and he said he said, 'I'll find you some money. My son's not going to make it. Can you ...'. So he goes to the landlady and he says, 'Look, my son's not going to make it. I'll find some money. My mum will pay you. can you wait a little while and you take care of him. You will be saving his life. And you can take him back to his grandfather in Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh City.' I remember my dad telling me this, and he said, and he said, he said in a really casual way, but it stuck with me. He said, 'Sometimes I still think about that at night. Sometimes I still think about that at night.' I think that's why my dad hasn't slept for more than 3 or 4 hours in the last 50 years. You can imagine the trauma from that sort of decision. As it turns out, the woman was was very principled and upright. She didn't know if she could in good conscience take me so, so we left. We left all together. I suppose we were really lucky, but it's not the right term, is it? I don't know. It could have gone any way. That's the whole – that's the whole thing. It could have gone any way. Yeah. But I'm certainly glad it went the way it did.

Indigo Willing: Not much is really known about where I'm from at all. That's sort of a mystery. And it is for a lot of other people like me from the Vietnam War that were in orphanages. My adoptive mother had this amazing blonde hair. She had miniskirts. She looked very beautiful, and very other place in Vietnam. And when she went over there all the other children cried when apparently they saw this white woman, and I was the only one that didn't cry, and I just sort of looked at her like you know, okay, what are you doing here and you look nice. So made a connection that way. Growing up in Australia was both really, really wonderful and full of people that were very compassionate. And then, on the other side of that, there was a lot of racism. So we're having this ultimate kindness from people that have no reason to be kind to you, there were also a lot of people that were extremely hostile. And my mother she had a bomb threat to her house. And pretty much from when I was 5, I had racism regularly. As a teenager, I had it daily. It was something that I grew up with, and I still feel it now strongly. As a child that was adopted from the Vietnam War, I feel the weight of that for a lifetime. Every time I look in the mirror, I wonder who I am, what happened to my family, are they okay? Why me? What about people that have experienced racism as a teenager, and they didn't find it in their resilience? Not everybody makes it through?

Corporal Laurie 'Drinky' Drinkwater (retired), Sec Commander, 12th Platoon, Delta Company, 6RAR: Probably every night when I put my head down and just think about my soldiering days because it was a big part of our life, it's constantly there.

Private Kevin Borger OAM, 5th Platoon, B Company, 5RAR: You know, that's always there. It's not a great feeling when you're a loser. Not for me, I like to win, you know. Particularly in a war, I think. You know, that you're on the wrong side of history. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Yeah, I think I would. It's strange, isn't it?

Dr Dot Angell OAM, who served as Staff Nurse, Australian Civilian Surgical Team, Alfred Hospital: Would I go? If called, if I was young, I probably would. Yes.

Graham Edwards: I'd probably do the same again. You know, you've just got to take life as it comes. I did what I believed was right at the time. I can't get ever go back and change. But with hindsight, of course, I would never have supported the war. It was a bad war. It was a political war. Many young Australians, for the price they paid was with their lives. Sadly, we did the same in Iraq, and it's time Australia woke up to itself. Well passed that time.

Victor Bailey: I was really angry for the things that I believed in. To see the North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the wall of the President's palace in Saigon. I knew the things that had happened to those South Vietnamese people that worked with the Allied forces. What was going to happen to them? Everybody just deserted these people after all these years and all the blood, sweat and tears that blokes like me and all the others that have gone through to to save these people. And that was they just Allied forces just walked away.

Graham Edwards: The Vietnam War was a tragedy visited on Australia and America, but it was a greater tragedy visited on the country of Vietnam. You know, Australia paid a price. The Vietnamese country and the Vietnamese people paid a bigger price. That's the horror of war.

Roah Cahill: The Vietnam War was a criminal act by the Australian Government, by the American government.

Barry Vassella: My making. I learnt more in Vietnam than I ever have since about how life operates, how it works, and how I should work.

John Thompson: For me, it was a bloody big wake-up call.

Graham Walker: For me, it was military advancement. For Australia, it was an embarrassment. And for many of those taking part, it was a tragedy.

Colleen Thurgar: Vietnam, to me, was the best part of my life and the worst part of my life.

Robert Earle: A disaster. Waste of effort. Shouldn't have been there.

Kevin Borger: And I don't know if I should say this or not, but I think surely just saying I respect your service is not enough. Can't say that they all know it, can you? And the 500-odd other guys that lost their life over there. Or carry injuries, wounds, psychiatric conditions. Ah, I hope I don't offend anyone with that.

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