Stories from the Vietnam War digibook

Stories from the Vietnam War introduces secondary students to the different experiences of Australians who served in the Vietnam War. Through 12 stories, readers peek through a small window to what it was like during the war from those who were there. The questions in each chapter are designed to encourage further research and understanding of the Vietnam War.

Australian experiences

Almost 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War. For more than 10 years, members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) worked in varied and challenging roles. Sometimes those jobs were dangerous. Everyone who served has their own story to tell. In each chapter, we share just a few veteran experiences from this conflict. We encourage students to use the questions to guide their research and further explore different aspects of the Vietnam War.

Alan Jones – No 9 Squadron, RAAF

My first impression of being in combat? I have never been so scared in my life. No question about it. I couldn’t swallow, I remember it was very hard to swallow. When I did, I swallowed about three fishing weights and I had a bad taste in my mouth and felt tight in the throat. I knew what I had to do, but it was getting my mind to function. Once I got my mind working and did what I was trained to do, especially during a winch-up, I tried not to concentrate on the noise and do my job. Sometimes it was pretty hard.

I take my hat off to the ground forces because you would not have got me walking around down there amongst all that. In the squadron the guys were great – all of them. We are all different, we all do our thing different ways.

Alan describes the fear of his first experiences of combat. It is easy to imagine that he was not alone in feeling this way.

What other emotions might Alan and his colleagues have felt during their time in Vietnam?

Sandy McGregor – 3 Field Troop, Army

The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around.

It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself. Already feeling claustrophobic behind a gas mask, the sensation was multiplied 100 times over in the constrictions of that dark netherworld. Added to that the knowledge that around any corner you could find yourself face to face with cornered foe or any other of a dozen forms of death.

The tunnels used by the North Vietnamese were at the time a surprising discovery for Australian and American troops.

What role did the tunnels play in combat and what challenges did they present to the Australians?

Gary McKay – 4th Battalion, Army

In 1968, Gary McKay was conscripted into the Army as part of the National Service Scheme. Having elected to undertake officer training, Gary was deployed to Vietnam as a platoon commander with 4RAR. During a battle in September 1971, Gary was seriously wounded. For his actions during this combat, he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

Watch as Gary shares his experiences of this time in Vietnam.

Conscription proved controversial as the Vietnam War progressed and Australia’s death toll rose. Some men were happy to serve while others were opposed for different reasons.

In what ways did people share their views on conscription? What impact did it have on those who were serving overseas, the Australian Government and members of the Australian public?

Norma Dickson – 1st Australian Field Hospital, Army

I had a stretch of about 47 hours where I just had not been to bed because we had over 40 patients brought in in one hit. Of course you would never say, 'I am tired, we will do him tomorrow', so we just had to keep going until we finished the whole lot … there were days when we were on our feet for 24hrs, plodding around in blood all day. There was so many bad injuries, young men coming in with their legs off, arms off, gaping wounds everywhere. I would never want to go through that again, that is for sure. The noise of the helicopters is one thing that still always comes back to me … we also knew that we always had to be spot on with things we were doing because people's lives depended on your decision making, and that used to put us under a lot of pressure.

Nurses were part of important teams in Vietnam, saving lives daily.

What other roles did people perform in field ambulances and hospitals to help the sick and injured? What experience or training did they receive before leaving Australia?

Colin Elliott – HMAS Hobart, RAN

The RAN had a diverse yet significant role in the Vietnam War. Among its many responsibilities was to provide gunfire support to the United States Navy. Ships performing this role served on what was known as the 'gunline'.

Watch as Colin Elliott shares his experiences on HMAS Hobart.

At the end of the video Colin asks the question, 'Do I have a right to feel proud of that or not?' How would you respond to this question? Include at least 3 stories or quotes as supporting evidence for your answer.

Norman Cameron and Cassius – 7th Battalion, Army

I jumped (from the helicopter) ten or fifteen feet into the mud and slush with my dog. I said, ‘I’m getting out of here too.'
… And Cassius for the first time in his life, indicated. He indicated from about 50 metres and I said, ‘What are you doing?'

He stopped, looked and pointed straight over there on top of this ridge and I thought, 'Oh,' so I stopped … I went through the normal drill and said, 'My dog has indicated over there,' I said, 'He's never indicated before in his life but I’m going on taking his trust that he’s stopped and he’s pointed on that hill.'

So they said, 'All right we we'll just sweep around a bit and have a look.'

So as soon as we started sweeping around, they shot down along where we were, and had he not indicated we would have walked straight smack-bang into a big ambush and his indication saved our platoon from walking into an ambush by a gun post up there.

During the Vietnam War, 11 tracker dogs worked with Australian forces.

Other than indicating when the enemy was near, what other roles did these dogs have? Why were they important?

Do some research to find more stories of service dogs in Vietnam.

Gary Beck – No 2 Squadron, RAAF

Gary Beck enlisted with the RAAF in 1960. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Gary flew Canberra bomber planes with No 2 Squadron. After 38 years with the RAAF, he retired with the rank of Air Vice-Marshall.

Gary shares his experiences as a pilot with No 2 Squadron.

During the Vietnam War, Australian and American forces sometimes worked together. Explore the relationship between Australia and the United States at that time. What were the benefits and challenges of this relationship?

Janice McCarthy – RAANC, Army

The most important thing for us in Vietnam used to be to get some mail from home. We waited to open our mail when it arrived and then sat down later in private and devoured it. I think that having your friends and your colleagues writing and telling you what is going on in Australia was really important. Also some of the Army girls wanted to know what it was like in Vietnam because they knew that they would probably going to be up there themselves … so it was a two-way arrangement. I got mail and news from Australia and I told them what it was like for me.

The Vietnam War was at a time before the internet, email and mobile phones. Communication relied on physical letters, as well as newspapers and magazines sent to and from Australia. Due to the nature of war, at times there were delays. Australians could go for long periods without contact from home.

When was the last time you wrote a letter and sent it by post?

Write a letter to someone you care about, sharing what you know about the Vietnam War.

Janice and Stuart Smith (Bernard Smith – 5th Battalion, Army)

During the Vietnam War, more than 500 Australian servicemen lost their lives. Bernard Smith was an Army sergeant in Vietnam. At age 29, he and another Australian were killed when an enemy mine was detonated.

In this video, Janice and Stuart Smith share their experience of losing Bernard, Janice's husband and Stuart's father.

For many Australians, their loved ones did not return from Vietnam. The impact is everlasting and everyone deals with grief differently.

Both Janice and Stuart acknowledge that sharing stories is an important way to remember and honour Bernard. Explore ways in which you can commemorate through stories.

What traditions do we use to commemorate those who have served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations?

Conclusion

The experiences of those Australians who served in the Vietnam War are not limited to the stories shared in this digibook. Veteran stories told in their own words are a powerful primary source. Students can use oral histories as a stepping stone to a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War and its impact on those who served.

Introduction
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Conclusion

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Teacher notes

Australian Curriculum for History Year 10: History of the Modern World and Australia

Australian Curriculum for History Senior Secondary Unit 4: The Modern World since 1945

Sources

Alan Jones:

Gary McKay, Bullets, beans and bandages, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999, pp 83-84

Sandy MacGregor:

Sandy MacGregor and Jimmy Thomson, No need for heroes, Calm Pty Ltd, New South Wales, 1993, p 109

Norma Dickson:

Narelle Biedermann, Tears on my pillow, Random House Australia, Sydney, p 198

Norman Cameron and Cassius:

Michael Caulfield (Ed.), Voices of war, Hodder Australia, Sydney, 2000, p 269

Janice McCarthy:

Narelle Biedermann, Tears on my pillow, Random House Australia, Sydney, p 129

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