Robert Hall (Australian Army), Operation Wandering Souls
Bob Hall commanded a platoon during the Vietnam War. It was a heavy responsibility. After a long army career, he entered academic life and discovered through his research a way to give something back to the people of Vietnam.
Bob Hall served in Vietnam as a platoon commander. It left an indelible impression on him.
"I often say to people that I had more responsibility as an infantry platoon commander in my early twenties than I've ever had since. It's unlike anything else I've ever done in my life."
After serving in the army for 26 years, Bob entered academic life and concentrated on the mass of data the war had produced.
"As a war, as a campaign for the Australian Army, I think it's really fascinating, because it's got many more nuances and swirling politics and economics and social developments are all there in the campaign, much more so I think than say the First World War or the Second World War."
The archives that Bob and his colleagues investigated yielded surprising results.
"We were in a position where we had this mass of combat data. Around about five thousand combat incidents. Each one had the date, time, the location recorded, we had the number of enemy casualties that we'd inflicted including the number of enemy killed. And most of those killed were buried at the scene of the combat incident; that was part of the Australian Task Force policy."
The Vietnamese had recently assisted Australia to locate their MIAs and that provoked an idea in Bob and his team.
"I was impressed by the Vietnamese assistance to Operation Aussies Home. They had helped identify our six missing in action, where they had three hundred thousand. That sort of stuck in my mind, that we needed to do something to say that, you know, 'We can reciprocate this.' In Vietnamese culture, there is a very, very strong desire to perform certain rituals at the burial site of kin. Because if those rituals aren't performed then the soul is deemed to be wandering forever in a kind of never world. And so, many Vietnamese, particularly of the Vietnam War era are very anxious to find their kin and resolve that for their deceased kin, before they themselves die."
They called the Project Operation Wandering Souls. They used the data to help Vietnamese families find their loved one's last resting place. They also returned personal items.
"We were on national TV in Vietnam and we had a major presentation of all of these documents that we took back to a general in the Vietnam Peoples' Army, so it was quite spectacular; we had to give speeches and so on. It was interesting to see the kind of emotional trajectory of these things, because when we went into these halls to hand over these documents, there was some kind of trepidation; people would be looking at one another and not knowing what was going on.
Then the formal proceedings would start and tension would rise to a point where we started to return the documents. And at that point there was often wailing and tears, and an embracing of us and the person we were returning the documents to.
After that, there was a wave of joy, and happiness you know, and that's when we went out and had beers and a lovely Vietnamese meal. So it was a really terrific experience and I'm really pleased to have done it."