A Popular War: Our Vietnam War

Running time
58 min 52 sec
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 1 shows how Australia became entangled in the war, how sending conscripted soldiers won widespread support but forever changed lives and how the first stirrings of dissent started to appear. Narrated by Kate Mulvany.

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Narrator: On September 2nd 1945, in a quiet Melbourne suburb, a day a young couple has been waiting for has finally arrived. Their first baby is on the way. At the same time, half a world away, a thin, proud man with a wispy beard steps up to a microphone. The speakers crackle and hiss as he stares out at a huge crowd who are gathered to hear him speak. While Robert Brian Perrin comes into the world in Melbourne, in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh proclaims the Independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam with some familiar words.

[Speech in Vietnamese translated as 'All men are created equal they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.']

Narrator: Twenty years later, Robert Perrin will fall from a helicopter to his death on the jungle floor, a casualty in the world that was born on his birthday.

Sapper John 'Jethro' Thompson (retired), 1st Troop, 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers: I was about 18 and a half at the time and joined the army, and I don't regret a day of it. Nothing.

Dr Dot Angell OAM, who served as Staff Nurse, Australian Civilian Surgical Team, Alfred Hospital: Nothing prepared any of us for these conditions that we had to work and live in. Nothing.

Lieutenant Colonel Gary McKay MC OAM (retired), Platoon Commander, 11th Platoon Delta Company, 4RAR: And we got only 50 metres in, and the sky fell in.

John Thompson: I was mesmerised by the flutter, like confetti, coming down over me.

Sapper Robert 'Yogi' Earle (retired), 2nd Troop, 5RAR, Royal Australian Engineers: She said, 'you shouldn't have been over there in the first place'. And that hit me really hard.

Dr Kim Huynh, senior lecturer in Politics, ANU: I think that's why my dad hasn't slept for more than 3 or 4 hours in the last 50 years.

[Title: Our Vietnam War. Episode 1: A Popular War]

Narrator: Australia slowly emerged from the horrors of World War II. But as the economy recovered, Australia came to fair better than most. Until, for the comfortable majority at least, life started to feel pretty easy.

John Thompson: Australia was a wonderful place.

Private Mick 'Bing' Crosbie (retired), Fire Assault Support Company, 7RAR: As everybody says, 'those were the good old days'.

Biff Ward, anti-war activist and author of The Third Chopstick: Oh, it was wonderful; the '40s and '50s.

Dr Bob Hall, Platoon Commander (retired) and Adjunct Lecturer, UNSW Canberra: A pretty sort of free and easy kind of life. I used to do a lot of rabbit shooting, and riding all over the countryside on my bicycle.

Mick Crosbie: There was just good fun. Good mateship.

Biff Ward: It was so – slower and quieter, now. You could live on a bicycle and just go anywhere. There was hardly any traffic.

Private Graham Edwards AM (retired), Pioneer Platoon Support Company, 7RAR: We just had an incredible freedom to walk, to hitchhike, to adventure, to climb trees, to swim in swamps, to play in creeks and to do all the sorts of things that young kids today can't do, and they don't know what they're missing out on.

Dr Garry Woodard, head of Joint Intelligence Organisation (retired), ambassador (retired) and author: In that period, we still felt we were part of a British family. Still part of the great Anglosphere.

Narrator: At the end of the 1940s, Australia was led by a true champion of the Anglosphere, Robert Menzies.

[Movietone News title: Mr Menzies and his Cabinet]

Archival news narrator: From Canberra, first pictures of the new Australian Cabinet just after being sworn in. As seen with the Governor General, Mr McKell, at who's right sits Mr. Menzies, prime minister for the second time.

Garry Woodard: He had a presence. He had urbanity. He brought a civilising influence to bear into Australian policy. He was a pragmatist, not a dogmatism. The Cold War, of course, was there, in which he was on one side, but we always had faith that Menzies ran a sensible, tolerant, cooperative, smooth Westminster system of government.

Narrator: Menzies may have been instinctively drawn to Britain, but Britain could no longer assert itself in our region.

Professor James Curran, historian, University of Sydney: Its [Britain's] days as a global military power we're done. The United Kingdom [UK] could not act with any kind of pungency or force in world affairs without the support of the Americans.

Narrator: Old European powers, such as the UK, were thrown into the shade by the Cold War battle between the USA and the Soviet Union. That didn't stop France attempting to reassert itself in its former colony in Indochina. Ho Chi Minh's forces, known as the Viet Minh, resisted.

Dr Mia Martin Hobbs, Research Fellow, Deakin University: Now, in the aftermath of war, even though Ho Chi Minh declared a democratic republic – an independent Vietnam – France does not want to give up their colonies. So they start the French War against the Viet Minh, the French War in Indochina. The Yanks are really in this from the beginning. They had actually backed the Viet Minh during the Japanese occupation because they're fighting against Japan as well. They were supplying them with arms. But when the French come in, they switch sides, and they started supporting the French, and by 1950, they're paying for 80% of French war costs in Vietnam.

Narrator: The French were humbled and ejected from Vietnam in 1954. But for Australia, French attempts to retake their colony were really none of our business.

Garry Woodard: It didn't impinge on our consciousness. This was a matter of a stubborn French attempt to maintain their empire and nationalists attempting to gain their independence. But, beyond that, we knew very little about Vietnam.

Narrator: That is, until the idea of falling dominoes creeps into vogue.

James Curran: If we don't stop the advance of communism in one country, a whole lot of other neighbouring countries will fall. The falling dominoes were expected to go all the way from South Vietnam down through Southeast Asia and reach the Australian doorstep. That was a theory.

Dr Rowan Cahill, historian and anti-war activist: Oh, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. The falling of the dominoes. It was constant, and the fear of Asia. Constant. At school, kids passed around those Japanese torture books that came out from recollections of World War II, and yeah, there was a fear of Asia for sure.

Archival news reporter: Active Communist fighting fronts have been opened up in Indochina, Malaya and the Philippines, where communist satellites, trained by their overlords in Moscow, carry on in attempted warfare. They carry the flag of world revolution. Even now, their eyes are on the rice fields of Indochina, the rubber of Malaya, and one of the biggest prizes of all, Australia.

Mia Martin Hobbs: The idea that Ho Chi Minh is a communist just like Mao is a communist, and that they're all going to gang up on us and fall down on us as dominoes really stems from this very essentialist view of Asian people as simplistic and easily led.

Dr Greg Lockhart, Captain, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and historian: There's an ethnic and cultural disconnect between us and the world around us, which goes back to the very origins of our history. White Western British people migrating to this part of the world and becoming a White enclave in Asia, and that sets up a fundamental problem in the history, which we still haven't resolved.

Archival news reporter: The Menzies Government had already committed itself to support the United States in Korea, and, in 1952, Australia was a signatory to the ANZUS Pact.

Narrator: With the retreat of the British, Australia felt very small and alone in our neighbourhood. The Menzies Government turned to the United States, signing the ANZUS Treaty, which came into force in 1952.

Archival footage of Robert Menzies: The world needs the United States of America. The world needs the British peoples of the world. The world needs every scrap of democratic strength that can be found in it. Nobody, however, optimistic, need underestimate the measure or the character of the danger that always confronts us.

Narrator: Trouble was, we weren't exactly certain what we'd signed.

James Curran: What is ANZUS is supposed to mean?

Dr Peter Edwards, historian of Australia's Vietnam War: The Americans answered by saying, our support for you will depend on your support for us elsewhere. Now, what did elsewhere mean? Well, the next item on the agenda was Vietnam. The support for South Vietnam.

Narrator: Attempting to strengthen ties with the US, the Menzies Government dipped a toe into the water. In 1962, they sent an army training team to Vietnam to support the fledgling Republic of Vietnam in its struggle against attempts by North Vietnam to unite the country under communist rule.

Ashley Elkins, historian: '62 is a pivotal year, in many ways, and the commitment of 30 advisors to South Vietnam as part of a new body, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, as it became called, was a moment for Australia to enter the war really. These were men sent to train and assist South Vietnamese forces, bringing to them their special knowledge of jungle warfare.

James Curran: Really, from that moment, Australia is pretty much in the ball game.

Archival news reporter: Where does the line draw? Where do we stop? How far do we go?

Archival footage of Robert Menzies: Well, we start off by trying to win.

Archival news reporter: How do we go from there?

Archival footage of Robert Menzies: Well, let's win first.

Narrator: In contrast to North Vietnam's stable leadership under Ho Chi Minh, South Vietnamese President, [Ngo Dinh] Diem, had trouble making friends.

Archival news reporter: South Vietnam. Focal point of the West's fight against communism in Southeast Asia. For nearly a decade, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem ruled his small nation of 15 million without open opposition. But in mid-1963, protests began mounting against his regime.

Professor Nathalie Nguyen, historian, Monash University: I think the problem with the way the West approached South Vietnam was that South Vietnam had just come out of colonisation. It was fighting for its survival against a very determined enemy that wanted to invade. And yet somehow people expected South Vietnam to instantly become a democracy. This was never going to happen. You know, it was it was struggling with far too many issues just to establish itself.

Mia Martin Hobbs: Ngo Dinh Diem had been getting increasingly repressive. Increasingly, he's despised by the South Vietnamese. It basically tips the JFK administration into action.

Narrator: The CIA backed a military coup against the regime. President Diem and his brother [Ngo Dinh Nhu] were eliminated.

Archival news reporter: In a swift coup, they swept through the streets of Saigon, overwhelmed loyalist forces and seized key buildings. Diem and Ngu refused an offer of safe conduct out of the country and fled. Both men were killed

Greg Lockhart: After Diem is then assassinated, because the CIA realises he's a disaster, from that point, you've got this revolving door. You know? Various generals sort of rotating through the prime ministership in Saigon and it's a very unstable regime.

Narrator: But no matter how unstable the southern Vietnam regime was, the US Government believed it must be supported to keep the communist north at bay.

James Curran: Let's not forget that, on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, he was due to give a speech that afternoon in which he was going to say that America must not tire from its efforts in Vietnam, that it still had to be, for the world, the watchmen on the walls of freedom.

Archival footage of Lyndon Johnson: I, Lyndon Baines Johnson, do solemnly swear.

Mia Martin Hobbs: LBJ comes into power. He says, 'We're in an awful mess. This is an awful mess, and I don't know what to do about it.' He thinks it's just going to get worse and worse, and he doesn't see how we can pull out.

Peter Edwards: Johnson was, on the one hand, saying he was not going to get involved but covertly putting in place whatever would be necessary if it came to the point where American troops had to be committed.

Narrator: In 1964, with the US increasingly committed to Vietnam, Australia saw the opportunity to lock in the precious alliance. For that, we needed more men in boots. The Menzies Government's answer was conscription.

Archival news reporter: What do you think about sending troops to Vietnam?

Archival student being interviewed: I think it's a good idea. I think all countries should participate and help each other like that.

Archival businessman being interviewed: I think it's got to be done. We haven't gotten a choice at this stage.

Archival woman being interviewed: Well, I suppose you'd have to really keep them – keep the communists out. But I'd rather see my boy stay around.

Archival senior man being interviewed: I think it's perfectly alright. I think it's a duty of honour.

Archival middle-aged woman being interviewed: Well, I don't particularly like the idea. I don't think we should be brought into it at all.

Archival young man being interviewed: I don't think they should send people there. If the Americans want to start a fight or start a war, that's their business. Why should we be involved? It's got nothing to do with us.

Ashley Elkins: The introduction of selective conscription, as it was called under a National Service Act, was seen as the way to bring the numbers up in the defence force. They were looking to get a force of 40,000 and they were way below that. 20-year-olds were asked to register their birth date to the Department of Labour and National Service on turning 20.

Archival news reporter: Do you like the idea of 20-year-olds going overseas ...

Archival senior man being interviewed: Yeah, 20, 18 and 19, yeah. In they go.

Archival senior man being interviewed: It's a good experience. Makes a man out of them.

Archival senior woman being interviewed: I don't believe in conscription. If they want to go, they can go of their own accord.

Archival middle-aged woman being interviewed: I have a son in the national call-up, and he'll probably go in time. And I'm a widow, and he's my only son. And therefore, I've got a right to say why should he even go.

Mick Crosbie: Well, I thought if it was to assist the country in the defence of communism spreading, it might be a good thing if the current numbers in the defence force were inadequate.

Archival army trainers: Go ... Yippee! That's what happens if you don't make it. Give us 20 pushups ... 3, 4, 5. Come on, you're like a bag of wheat.

Dr Mark Dalpin, author of Australia's Vietnam: Myths vs History: The population loved the idea of young men in uniform becoming disciplined adults through the process of military training. Controversially, the candidates were chosen by lottery. A lottery that eventually acquired the unkind nickname 'lottery of death'.

Archival news reporter: This barrel held the immediate future for 40,300 young Australians who have registered for national service since January the 25th. The plan which was announced last November, in view of the deteriorating strategic situation, aims eventually of providing a constant strength of 13,800 young national servicemen in Australia's military forces.

Professor Michelle Arrow, historian, Macquarie University: The draw happened on television. There were 31 dates in the barrel, and if your birthdate was drawn out, then you had to register for national service. It had an element of randomness to it. It also felt somewhat ghoulish to many; the idea that your life could change and pivot on this single moment of bad luck.

Gary McKay: Here I was going to be taken away from a life of playing rugby with St Ives in Sydney, rowing surf boats with Newport and in hot pursuit of a girl from the computer programming department. But, yeah, I just thought –but then I thought, no, it won't happen to me. Hah. Of course, it does.

Archival broadcast of the birthday ballot: 323. 323. November 18 May. Correct.

Gary McKay: I'll always remember a bunch of guys from Sydney Uni, standing on the footpath, handing out shots of scotch, and telling you to run up the stairs to the medical appointment so your blood pressure would be through the roof. I drank a Scotch but I went and took the elevator.

Private Kevin Borger OAM (retired), 5th Platoon, B Company, 5RAR: It was a pretty quick medical. Yeah, it was unusual, I guess, because I'd played a lot of footy so I was used to parading around with nothing on front of other guys, but they were your mates, though.

Rowan Cahill: Right. So, I was conscripted in 1965. We were the very first people to have to sort of figure out the rights that the state has over an individual. You're asking to think about the morality of war. You're thinking about the morality of killing and stuff like that. These are big, moral, political, spiritual, religious issues.

Mark Dalpin: When you hear people talk about the Australian Army at the time, they talk about it as a place of equality, a place where people of all races and classes mix together. You can be excluded from national service if you were gay, and there was a certain amount of gay pretending, if you like, I think going on. Certainly some doctors were prepared to sign off men as gay who might not otherwise have shown any particular gay tendencies. So we get this faintly comedic image of straight men pretending to be gay to get out of the services, but the other side of that coin is gay men pretended to be straight so as to be conscripted. Because a lot of people wanted to be conscripted. A lot of people wanted to fight the Vietnam War. That's a fact that's forgotten now.

Narrator: The return of conscription may have been massively popular, but there were early ripples of dissent.

Michelle Arrow: Not long after Menzies had reintroduced conscription, he delivered a speech to – really to the party faithful at Hornsby in Sydney's Northwest. As he started to make his speech, a number of women who had infiltrated the crowd, dressed all in black, rose silently from their seats, and they were wearing veils over their faces. So they looked like they were women in the mourning. And they were jeered. They were booed. Menzies had to kind of stop his speech for a moment. And the women stood there for several minutes just kind of absorbing the kind of abuse I suppose of the crowd. And then they all left the room –left the hall – at the same time and handed out anti-conscription pamphlets. They weren't ratbags. They were dressed as respectable Liberal women, but they were dressed as if they were going to a funeral. The idea that respectable wives and mothers would protest government policy, that would claim to know better than Menzies, would claim to know better than the government who was making these big decisions, was seen as kind of outrageous.

Narrator: It was the first women's protest against conscription in the Vietnam era. It would not be the last.

Michelle Arrow: You know, a number of the women who were part of these early protests were sort of told, 'Why don't you go home and look after your husband and family at home rather than worrying about this stuff? It's none of your business.' You know? So it was very much that politics is men's domain, and women, and particularly mothers, have no role to play in this kind of broader civil society debate about whether we should be sending young men to fight in a war overseas.

Narrator: And sending young men to fight overseas was exactly what Robert Menzies had in mind. The decision was taken at a forgotten Cabinet meeting on December 17, 1964.

Greg Lockhart: He was a bit tired, and he wanted to get it over quickly. He goes into the meeting with the Cabinet, and basically, he'd clearly already made his mind up, wants them to ratify a decision to send combat troops to Vietnam

Garry Woodard: The meeting was of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of Cabinet, which was Menzies, McKeown, the leader of the Country Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Harold Holt, the Deputy Leader of the [Liberal] Party and the Treasurer, and what Menzies would habitually call 'the new boys'. On December the 14th, a request came in from President Johnson, not for a battalion, not mentioned at all, said he didn't want it, actually. But for a great array of other military assistance, and particularly, he wanted a big increase in the Australian Army advisors.

Narrator: The US didn't want Australian combat troops. Menzies had other ideas. After 5 minutes of discussion, the meeting decided to send an infantry battalion of 800 men to Vietnam.

Garry Woodard: The Prime Minister saw this as an opportunity to get alongside the United States. 'Everything we can put alongside the Americans in the common interest is good', he said.

Greg Lockhart: There are few things more serious than a prime minister could do is send people to war. I mean, this is you know about taking and losing life. And, and national treasure. So it's hugely important. And so this was just done, you know, in 5 minutes.

Narrator: Five minutes to decide to commit combat troops to fight in Vietnam. Five minutes to set in train a process that would alter Australia immeasurably.

Garry Woodard: A discussion was not worthy of the great issue that was involved.

Narrator: By April 1965, Robert Menzies was ready to let the rest of the country know about the decision taken the previous December.

Ashley Elkins: He was claiming it was a civil war, not an insurgency from the north, which was part of the justification for it, of course. It was the justification of maybe behind our for defence policy, and an attempt to get a powerful American strength into our sphere of influence, which was seen now to extend into Southeast Asia.

Narrator: But first, he had an obstacle to clear.

Peter Edwards: If we were going to commit forces to Vietnam, we would not simply do it because the Americans wanted us to, or because we wanted the Americans to want us to, we had to have an invitation from the South Vietnamese government. And it was known that the people in power at the time had some reservations that if foreign governments would come in and have to fight their battles for them, that this was going to be seen as a sign of weakness, as indeed it was, on the part of the Vietnamese people.

James Curran: Now, Menzies claimed of course, to have been in receipt of a request from the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, but I think the conventional wisdom now amongst scholars, is it in fact the Americans had generated that request from the Republic of Vietnam on Australia's behalf.

Narrator: On April 29, 1965, the prime minister told the House of Representatives that Australia would send a battalion of combat troops to Vietnam.

Emeritus Professor Michael Hamel-Green, former draft resister and anti-war activist: Well, I think that certainly felt I had been kicked in the stomach because, you know, I was the one he was wanting to send there.

Greg Lockhart: I was in my first year at Duntroon then. And indeed, I remember walking to mess parade at lunch, and I was just a little behind time, and there's this cheering going on. And that was because news that matches that announced the commitment had occurred. So we were rather pleased as soldiers would be that you had a war.

Bombardier John Burns (retired), 103rd Field Battery, 1st Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery: I believed all the things that the government was saying. The communists coming down through Malay Peninsula, you know, in time, and then eventually Australia, and I thought, if we can stop it there, well and good, and that was part of the plan.

Archival news reporter: Would you both like to go to Vietnam?

Archival soldier being interviewed: I would, I know.

Archival news reporter: Why is that?

Archival soldier being interviewed: There's a lot of benefits you get out of it really. An experience, and when you come back, it's a pretty good possibility, a lot of benefits.

Archival news reporter: And yourself?

Archival soldier interviewed: A lot of benefits, we got a really nice experience and when you come back, which brings a possibility.

Archival soldier being interviewed: No, I don't want to go, but if I have to go, I'll go.

Archival soldier being interviewed: It's not a matter of liking to go, but I would go.

Archival soldier being interviewed: I realise that I am in the army, I've got to go with it.

Archival soldier being interviewed: But if it was a choice between deciding to go – volunteering or staying – I'd stay. I wouldn't volunteer.

Greg Lockhart: I didn't think it was a good idea. However, I did my duty. I was professional officer and you know, I spoken for and I had to do my duty regardless of what I thought personally.

Flight Lieutenant Bob Grandin (retired), Helicopter Pilot, No 9 Squadron, RAAF: The military is conditioned, I guess it's a term to use, to believe in the sorts of politics that the government believes in. So the thought to be able to go and fight in somebody else's backyard instead of waiting until we had to find their own backyard, you know, it was positive for us.

Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith SG MC (retired), Officer Commanding, Delta Company, 6RAR: I must say on the no date I felt wonderful. It's like, if you've got racehorses, you've got to give them a run.

Greg Lockhart: I don't think Menzies had any idea of the kind of war he was getting into, nor really do I think the chiefs of staff did. But in relation to Menzies, it wasn't – it wasn't his area. I mean, he was a lawyer, he was a politician, and he dealt with strategic and political matters, and he didn't think specifically in military terms.

Gary McKay: Gross ignorance probably best summed it up.

Protesters: ... 3, 4 we don't want war, 5, 6, 7, 8, don't wanna negotiate.

Archival protester no 1 interviewed: Well, I think the Americans shouldn't be interfering as much as they are in Vietnam. And they should leave Vietnam to a certain extent to decide its own troubles. What use is it if we take Vietnam? If Vietnam is lost, are they any closer to us? No, they are not. They're no closer. They're just as close whether Vietnam is lost or not. Right? So why send a quarter of Australians to Vietnam? What use does it serve? None. Can we make any – any appreciable difference difference?

Archival protester no 2 being interviewed: It has to do with Australia's alliance with America.

Archival protester no 1 being interviewed: It indicates nothing. It's a boob to get –

Archival protester no 2 being interviewed: Anyone who doesn't believe in US policy in Vietnam is living in a fool's paradise.

Archival protester no 1 being interviewed: Oh, don't be silly man. What use is it if our blokes get killed? It's a token. It's a useless token. Our men shot for nothing. And they're just as dangerous whether they are lost or won.

Archival protester no 3 being interviewed: Look, if we lose Vietnam, we lose Australia.

Archival protester no 1 being interviewed: If we lose Vietnam, we're just the same.

Gary McKay: It wasn't until you were personally involved that you started to take an interest, you know. Nineteen, 20-year-old men, a lot of testosterone, playing footy, rowing boats, surf clubs, dances on weekends, girls, beer. All that sort of thing took priority before geopolitical matters.

John Thompson: I liked cars and trucks. All the boy stuff. And I lived near a council yard and all their heavy equipment was parked there. And we had a family friend who worked on the wharves in Melbourne, crane operator, and he happened to say to me, 'Look, if you want to do that. Get into the army. And they'll teach you how to drive it. So I've made my inquiries and discovered I had to join the Corps of Engineers with a view to becoming a plant operator and so I took all the appropriate steps. When I was about – I was about 18 and a half at the time and joined the army and don't regret a day of it.

Mick Crosbie: I remember the day that this photo was taken, and that was in about 1969. Well, there's a young boy, a very young lad, that looks out of place in an army uniform.

Ashley Elkins: In this initial stage, one Australian battalion being attached to an American brigade was not going to make an enormous difference to the outcome of the war in Vietnam.

Kevin Borger: If you remember, I was a boy from the western suburbs of Sydney I didn't know too much about guns, mate, and I was conscripted, yeah.

Narrator: Troops from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 1RAR – all regular army – arrived in Vietnam in June 1965.

Ashley Elkins: They were well trained, well prepared, very experienced, in the main. They had really done lots of work in counterinsurgency. Counter-revolutionary warfare was one of the standard doctrines in the Australian arsenal, if you like. What they weren't prepared for was the scale and nature of the war.

Kevin Borger: We arrived at the Saigon Tan Son Nhut airport and saw these planes and jets taking off and thought, 'Jesus, this is what a war looks like'.

Ashley Elkins: The Australians were terribly equipped. They had out-moded uniforms, boots, equipment of all kinds. Very little in the way of mechanical aides.

Gerg Lockhart: They couldn't work out what they were supposed to do, and the only troops anyway couldn't get the supplies and equipment that they felt they needed. You know, their shirts, their uniforms, their tents were sort of rotting in the monsoon and so on. What some officers from the battalion did was got in a jeep with a trailer on it, went down to an American base at Vung Tau and said, 'We're here to pick up the Australian stores'. And so they flogged 5 50-calibre machine guns and a water truck. Now I understand – I don't know if this story is apocryphal or not – but that the Americans opened fire on them, but they got back to base. Meanwhile, the signals officer had taken a load of slouch hats and shower buckets to Saigon to barter for field telephones and communications equipment so they could communicate around the perimeter of the Task Force Base.

Archival news reporter: Australian soldiers on patrol in Vietnam. Two minutes ago, there were 5 shots about 300 yards away in the jungle. Friendly or enemy?

Kevin Borger: We had to prepare that whole area where they intended to put the task force in. Not only was it mentally tough, it was physically tough. And when we were establishing our footprint, the only way we could defend ourselves was patrol. Patrol, patrol, patrol.

Archival news reporter: Sir Robert Menzies boughs out in the Australian political scene. This is how it was today as Sir Robert Menzies arrived at Parliament House to attend a meeting of the government parties to tell them of his intention to retire.

Narrator: Robert Menzies finally stepped down as prime minister in January 1966. Harold Holt was elected unopposed to succeed him.

Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney: When Menzies retired, he was 70 years old, and he'd been prime minister for 16 years and the government had become more and more moribund, and Menzies had become less and less interested in new challenges.

Archival speech of Robert Menzies: One becomes tired, one becomes not quite well 100% in efficiency, and I have an old-fashioned belief that the prime minister of this country ought to be 100% efficient.

James Curran: There was a sense Menzies was tired, that it was time for him to go, that the Coalition needed a fresher, younger style of leadership. And they certainly got that in Harold Holt. Harold Holt essentially continued, if not increased, Australia's commitment to Vietnam.

Archival footage of Harold Holt: The need for Australian participation in Vietnam is, I believe, well understood by an overwhelming majority of Australians and supported by them.

Peter Edwards: Holt came in with great enthusiasm for the commitment. He seemed to be initiating increases in the commitment, which surprised even his closest advisors. He didn't seem to realise that the policy was not an unlimited commitment, that it was a matter of committing sufficient forces to have credibility with the Americans but keeping that commitment as low as we conveniently could.

Narrator: With a new prime minister came a new approach: a separate base of operations for Australian troops.

Ashley Elkins: A major rethink came about through senior ccommanders like General John Wilson, who had been resisting all along the use of the Australians in any form of mobile warfare with American units. The proposal was to insert another 2 battalions into a task force with his own independent area of operations. This took a lot of discussion and consideration. In the end, what Wilton settled on was the province of Phuoc Tuy, which had advantages of various kinds. It had a seaport for ready access through Vung Tau.

Greg Lockhart: The selection of Phuoc Tuy province is interesting because I think the government didn't want Australians to go up into the north, for example, where there would have been bigger battles and, therefore, greater casualties. The Australians, because of the national service component, were extremely worried about casualties. And so they wanted a province they thought was relatively quiet. And Phuoc Tuy seemed to fit the bill.

Ashley Perkins: It was possible to build a base right in the centre of this province, which became a fixation almost. That there would be a base around a hill, known as Nui Dat, a dirt hill right in the middle of the province. It would allow the Australians to operate independently and practise their own form of counterinsurgency operations. That was the basis of this change. It would require a vast amount of work before it came into being.

Narrator: The operation to clear the area was dubbed 'Hardihood'.

Kevin Borger: Operation Hardihood commenced possibly 10 days after we arrived.

Ashley Elkins: Two townships, two small villages, had to be destroyed, and the displaced people relocated. That became a thorn in the side of the task force for the next 5, 6 years. The 2 villages of Long Tan and Long Phuoc, they were razed to the ground. The people and their gardens and their vegetables and farms were destroyed. So you had a population of about 5,000 dispossessed people, very discontented, still trying to get back to their original ancestral areas, where the – traditionally in Vietnamese culture – these places had a reverence, for the ancestors bones would be buried in the heart of the village, houses and so on. And they were denied access to these areas.

Gary McKay: It was pretty tough. But it was something that had to be done.

Ashley Elkins: This was very, very ill-considered, you have to have to concede, and it's – it left to a stain, really, on the Australian involvement at that stage.

Narrator: As the soldiers settled in, in Vietnam, back home, other young men were taking a different path.

Archival audio of William White: I ask you, as your commanding officer, to consider your position carefully and to record as ordered so as to avoid becoming liable to the quite severe punishments which the law provides for infringements of military discipline.

Archival audio of man questioning William White: Mr. White, does the telegram at all change your plans now?

Archival audio of William White: No, I have made it clear from July the 18th, when I was dismissed from my teaching position, that I do not intend to comply with the call-up notice. And I do not intend to present myself to the military or to obey any orders of a military nature.

Rodney Tiffen: William White was a conscientious objector and a teacher.

Narrator: William White's birthday was drawn in the first conscription ballot held in March 1965. He was the first Australian to fight his call-up notice. After refusing to report for training, he was sacked from his teaching job and then arrested and incarcerated at Holsworthy army base.

Michael Hamel-Green: He believed he would qualify as a conscientious objector opposed to all use of violence, but he was unsuccessful in his conscientious objection case.

Rob Wilton, teacher and former draft resister: His conscientious objection was not on religious grounds, but on the immorality of the Vietnam War. So this again, to me, was one of the great injustices of conscription. The more rational and intelligent and well-founded your objection was, the less likely it was to be listened to.

Narrator: After a protracted legal battles, Bill White eventually won the right to be recognised as a conscientious objector. His stand inspired 1000s of others around the country.

Mark Dalpin: The lasting legacy of the standard that he took was the visuals, are the photos that remain, the photos that are on the front pages of newspapers, which showed a school teacher, a schoolteacher of all professions, being carried away by police and arresting for ostensibly refusing to fight, refusing to join the army.

Rowan Cahill: That showed you what the state could do. And that sort of that showed you the extent to which they could act in a blatantly repressive way.

Archival speech of Harold Holt amidst a crowd of loud protesters: ... there are opponents of the government who are here to ... what the government has to say on the national policies of this government.

Mark Dalpin: The government didn't want trouble. The government didn't anticipate an anti-war movement, and the government wanted to fight a war, not an anti-war movement. The government didn't want to be seen to be manhandling teachers out of a schoolhouse into a jail house. You know, they were horrible pictures. And it's worth remembering, what a brave stand it was for someone like Bill White. What an unusual stand. How far away from the Australian mainstream those early anti-war campaigners were. I mean, people thought they were mad. The first national serviceman to be killed in Vietnam was Errol Noack.

Narrator: Errol Noack was conscripted in the same March 1965 birthday ballot as Bill White.

Ashley Elkins: Errol Noack was a young man who lived on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. He was a fisherman, farmer. He was a church-going young Lutheran boy, who took his his church seriously. He was dispatched along with many other young nashos in 5RAR.

Mark Dalpin: After his basic military training, he joined 5th Battalion, 5RAR – 5th Royal Australian Regiment – and went to Vietnam and played a part in building the base in Vung Tau, which at the time was just a beach

Ashley Elkins: He was on the first operation, where companies in what is often termed their shakedown operation, familiarise themselves with the area.

Kevin Borger: We hopped out of the helicopters, and, you know, young soldiers thinking, 'This is pretty cool. I'm out here patrolling with live ammunition out petroleum with live ammunition.' We patrol with the weapon, the bullet up the spout, but safety catch. It was the real thing.

Ashley Elkins: Making their way through the scrub outside Nui Dat. Still getting a feel for the local landscape. Stopped to refill their water bottles.

Kevin Borger: I came back with that water and distributed the water amongst our section. Errol Noack, I'd walked over to him and dropped his water off, and he said to me 'Borge', that was my nickname, he said, 'What do you do with these purifying tablets?' As I was explaining it to him. John, who was on the machine gun called out to me, he said, 'Hit the deck, Borge.' At that instant, there was just a roar and a thud. Errol got thrown back behind me. The distance would have been at least 3 metres, I would say, maybe even more, but I actually heard the thud. And I had dived the other way, alongside John, that was the number 2 on the gun, and we started to return fire. Not knowing what to expect, I was thinking that all of a sudden, that screaming hoards would come out in front of us and run right over the top of us. I thought, 'Jesus, it might be the end of me right here.' The section commander George Gilbert, he stood up and started yelling out, 'We're Australians'. With that, everything stopped. Errol was laying behind us. I looked at him. He was grey. He was a sickly grey, and he was calling out to God, and he was saying he was dying.

Ashley Elkins: He was quickly evacuated. As quickly as they could get an evacuation helicopter in nearby, but died on board the helicopter.

Mark Dalpin: Initially, the government, the army said that it was a skirmish with the Viet Cong. In fact it turned out to be another unit of Australian infantry had fired on Errol's patrol. This was deliberately covered up. It was said that the reason Errol had been shot was that he stood up. According to Army doctrine, you stay low air. Errol, the conscript, the man who had not had the training, you know. The implication being that if you didn't have the training, you didn't have the dedication of full-time professional soldiers, to really know what he was doing, you know. He stood up, got shot, his fault. His comrades have since said, 'He did not stand up. He did not get – that was not why he was shot. It was not his fault.'

Kevin Borger: Errol never got up – they said he got up – after the contact has started. Errol never had a chance. He would hit, I would say, by the first round, the first actual round that was fired. That was, hit Errol. It certainly would have had significance to the people back home. The politicians were certainly worried about it. And I'm sure when the news got back to my mum, she would have been horrified. I don't – I never told Mum that I, when I was there, that I was alongside Errol. I didn't want to cause her any concern, that.

Ashley Elkins: He was commemorated in 2 ways after his death. In the task force base that they were building, the 1st National, was commemorated in the Noack Avenue. That was, a sign was set up. They had to build street signs into this base that was getting bigger and bigger all the time. And in Adelaide, the Cross of Sacrifice at the South Australian War Memorial on North Terrace in Adelaide was defaced by graffiti by protesters who wrote, 'Errol Wayne Noack, aged 21, his was not to reason why'.

Rowan Cahill: Down where I live, there's a major memorial to the Vietnam War with the list of all the people on it who died and he's on it. And I look at that and all of the other names, and that almost makes me weep when I see him.

Kevin Borger: Yeah, I shed a lot of tears now, and I wouldn't have been the only one. I didn't express it to anyone but it's something that, but, my own. You're there by yourself in a harbour, you know, in a defensive position, and it's pouring rain, and you're living like a mongrel dog. You're missing home. You're missing your parents. You know that the next day, you get up it all starts again. Met his father. Devastated about Errol, but he couldn't accept that his son should say was killed by friendly fire. So one day in Vietnam, or one day in an operation, and he's dead. Why wouldn't he be better? He wanted to feel proud about his son, and he should be proud about his son because he's done nothing wrong.

Archival news reporter: The [HMAS] Sydney sailed in April with 400 men of the 1st Task Force. They replaced the 1st Battalion, who came home in June.

Narrator: When 1RAR sailed back to Australia in June 1966 after its one-year deployment, the unit returned to a hero's welcome. Over 300,000 people turned out to greet them in Sydney.

Michelle Arrow: It's a reminder that, one, that the war was very popular and, 2, that soldiers, I think, you know, still have that central position in Australian sort of cultural life and the centrality of the Anzacs and things like that.

Biff Ward: We had the television on for the news, as we always did. And there was this great marching column of soldiers through Sydney and this woman, on her own, just stepping out of the crowd.

Archival news reporter: Only one incident marred the proceedings. A young typist daubed with red paint grabbed at the march leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Preece, smearing his uniform. Then she ran clawing among the first 2 ranks of soldiers until she was dragged away by a senior police officer. Later fined and put on a good behaviour bond, she explained she wanted to show that some disagree with the war in Vietnam.

Biff Ward: I was just transfixed by this bravery and metaphorical power of this action. I thought it was wonderful. She had, on her own, decided this war was really immoral and wanted to do something and planned this action completely alone. I've never heard of anything so brave.

Mark Dalpin: Nadine Jensen was not part of any organisation. And when she was taken to court, bedraggled and covered in red paint, the judge just assumed she was mad. The judge thought she needed mental treatment. Why would anyone do this? They couldn't understand. Obviously, Jensen's point, Nadine's point, was to show the blood that was on the hands, in her mind, of the Australian military. But to perhaps ordinary conservative Australians, there's a madwoman covered in red paint running at some soldiers.

Narrator: Nadine Jensen's lone protest has had a lasting impact in our cultural memory.

Private Victor Bartley (retired), Forward Scout, Support Sector Delta Company, 7RAR: The issues that I had when we came back from Vietnam, some battalion, we marched up George Street, come past Town Hall, and there was this hairy-under-armed bloody hippy sheila. She run out with a can of red paint and threw on me and a couple of mates. She called us murderers, child killers and rapists. To come home to something like that. For someone in my country, saying that to us: murderers, child killers and rapists. We didn't do that. And we didn't deserve someone like that to say to us.

Sergeant Chris 'Simmo' Simpson (retired), Rifleman, 5th Platoon, B Company, 7RAR: The hangover from Vietnam went on for years and years and years. It's just the way we were treated when we came. We were treated just like dirt. And some of our fellows were drenched with red paint, spat at, abused. You know I remember a couple of drunken women screaming at us as we marched past a pub not far from Garden Island. It was just – just very, you know, just really disappointing.

Mia Martin Hobbs: These sorts of stories of anti-war abuse, these have been circulating in the broader community and in pop culture for decades now, and they seem to represent very real feelings of alienation and exclusion. This sort of goes back to the Anzac legend. There was this expectation that soldiers would be treated as the pinnacle of masculinity. That they would be celebrated. And it sets up this expectation, when you speak about war in abstract, this beautiful heroic thing. The reality, when soldiers have been through something that they suffered through, that was a struggle for them, and they come home and they feel like the public's not completely with them, it's understandable that they feel really let down.

Mark Dalpin: Many, many veterans now talk of being smeared with blood. They say we, 'We were smeared with blood. We were smeared with red paint.' When veterans speak of 'we' or 'I', they're often speaking of a kind of collective. They're speaking, they're speaking both from a collective memory and with a kind of collective consciousness. So a lot of veterans might say, you know, 'I had red paint thrown on me'. They don't mean that they specifically had red paint thrown on me. They believe that their service was doused in red paint. They believe that their service was doused in blood. They believe that our service was subject to a blood libel. It's interesting as well, although, I suspect just a coincidence, that it happened to be a woman because if you look at the stories that veterans tell about the responses they get when they got home, it's often a woman who's spitting on them. It's often a woman who's sneering at them. It's often a woman who's denigrating their service. And that woman, I've come, I've come to believe, is often an imaginary reiteration of Nadine Jensen.

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