Veterans' Stories Vietnam

Veterans' Stories Vietnam cover

Many who served in Vietnam, both regulars and national servicemen, look back upon their time there as a formative episode in their life. Whatever path led them to Vietnam, professional soldier or ‘nasho’, their letters or diaries written at the time, and their later recollections, suggest that many went through moments or periods that stand out as being noteworthy. The illustrated chapters of this book are based mostly on these sources. They reflect people’s concerns and interests during their time in Vietnam: the novelty, boredom, fear, anxiety and sometimes the enjoyment. For many who deployed, their tour was their first time overseas. Many lamented the separation from loved ones. Some who served in a combat role were frank about the violence of war, while others scarcely mentioned it. Some talked about interactions with the Americans. Many wrote of short leaves to Vung Tau or of their week of rest and recreation outside Vietnam. The nature of any individual’s service depended upon their role and when and where they deployed. Irrespective of whichever phase of the war they experienced, the things which many Australians wrote and spoke about were broadly similar. The veterans’ stories used in this book consider the themes that run through many of those recollections.

ISBN: 978-0-6488823-7-4
Series: Veterans' Stories
Access a designed version to download or print

Some 60,000 Australians served during the Vietnam War, which became the longest-running conflict of the 20th century in which Australia took part. This account of their experiences was drawn from their own recollections, as part of the ongoing Veterans' Stories history project of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This project seeks to honour the contribution of Australians who have served during more than a century of wars, conflicts, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations – irrespective of the nature or length of their service.

… kids always get to you because they're so innocent … To see kids traumatised is one of the worse things you can see because it's not their fault … those memories are hard.

– Lance Highfield, No. 2 Squadron, RAAF


The Vietnam War was the longest of the twentieth century conflicts in which Australians fought. Over the course of a decade, from 1962 to 1972, Australia's commitment grew from a small number of military advisors to a Task Force based around three infantry battalions.

Some 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam, most were in the army but each of the three services was involved. After the cessation of combat operations in 1972, a small embassy guard remained, and in 1975 as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, RAAF aircraft and crews returned to evacuate Australian military personnel, civilians and South Vietnamese refugees.

In the war's early years, few Australians objected to their country's involvement. With the Cold War entering its second decade, if they thought about it at all, people considered South Vietnam a bulwark against the spread of communism into Southeast Asia. As the number of Australians in Vietnam grew, as the casualties mounted, and as people increasingly came to believe that the war was being lost, opposition increased. By the early 1970s, even after the Government announced a staged withdrawal from Vietnam, tens of thousands of people were protesting in the capital cities in what were known as the moratorium marches against conscription and Australia's involvement in the war.

The last Australian troops returned home in early 1972, and the American withdrawal was completed in early 1973, yet the war in Vietnam continued. The South Vietnamese fought on until North Vietnam prevailed in April 1975, bringing an end to a conflict which by then had spilled over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. Millions had lost their lives, millions more were made refugees and the disaster that befell the region continues to reverberate today. By war's end, 523 Australian service men and women had lost their lives in South Vietnam. Some 3,000 more were wounded, otherwise injured or were victims of illness. In Australia, the Vietnam War led to the greatest social and political dissent since the conscription referenda of the First World War and to a wave of Southeast Asian refugees whose arrival changed the shape of cultural life in several of Australia's largest cities.

Most Australians who deployed to Vietnam did so for a twelve-month tour of duty. During that time, the countdown to their tour's completion and return home was rarely far from their thoughts. For those in a combat role it meant release from a dangerous, uncomfortable, exhausting existence during which death or serious wounds were a real possibility. Those who served in base areas might have experienced the war differently, marking the time against other yardsticks, doing a job that might have been demanding, mentally draining or perhaps tedious, while likewise counting down the months, weeks and days.

At home, Australians found their main way of staying in touch with servicemen and women was through the written word and taped recordings. Letters and messages from family and friends recalled civilian life, kept those on active service in touch and reminded them of a world beyond the war. At home a few lines or words from South Vietnam were awaited just as anxiously. Along with frequent letter writing and tape messaging, some kept diaries, detailing their experience of the war both at home and in Vietnam, while after the war veterans might have reflected on their service in memoirs or manuscripts, published and unpublished.

Many who served in Vietnam look back upon their time there as a formative episode in their life. For regular military personnel, service in a war zone represented the culmination of months or years of training and preparation, becoming for many a significant step in a longer career. National servicemen by contrast had to make the dramatic shift from civilian to recruit, to soldier on active service and back to civilian within a couple of years, and might have considered this time one of unexpectedly rapid transition from youth to maturity. Yet in Vietnam, members of both cohorts served alongside each other sharing the same dangers, risks and experiences. Whatever path led them to Vietnam, professional soldier or 'nasho', their letters or diaries written at the time, and their later recollections, suggest that many went through moments or periods that, at least to those who read their words without having shared the experience, stand out as being noteworthy.

The illustrated chapters that follow are based on these sources, mainly contemporary material but also a small number of post-war manuscripts. They reflect people's concerns and interests during the years of the Vietnam War; the novelty, boredom, fear, anxiety and sometimes the enjoyment. For many who deployed, their tour was their first time overseas, their first exposure to an Asian country and its people and their first, and often only, time in a theatre of war. They wrote about military service, enlistment and training, leaving Australia and their impressions of South Vietnam. Many lamented the separation from loved ones, writing about longing and homesickness. Some described working with soldiers of allied countries, mainly those from the United States. Some who served in a combat role were frank about the violence of war, others scarcely mention it. Many wrote of short leaves to Vũng Tàu or their week of rest and recreation outside Vietnam. As they ticked off the days remaining in their tour, they wrote of their longing to return home.

The nature of any individual's service depended upon their role and when and where they deployed. Irrespective of whichever phase of the war they experienced, the things about which many Australians wrote and spoke were broadly similar. This book considers the themes that run through much of those recollections.

A nurse in army uniform holding a small child.

Army nurses Lieutenant Margaret Ahern and Lieutenant Terrie Roche with children of Hoa Long village, near the Australian Task Force Base, 1967. Photographer Barrie Winston Farleigh Gillman. AWM GIL/67/0485/VN.

Two soldiers squatting in front of a bulldozer.

Sappers Claude Malone and Paul Taylor of the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers, prod for mines in front of a mine and land clearing bulldozer in Phước Tuy Province, August 1971. Photographer Philip John Errington. AWM PJE/71/0413/VN

To Vietnam

Vietnam lies about 4,000 kilometres north-west of northern Australia, in Southeast Asia. For most Australians serving in Vietnam, the trip there was about an eight-hour flight or a near two-week journey aboard the troop carrier HMAS Sydney (III).

Perceptions of Vietnam, of the place and of its people, would be shaped by the nature of service a person was engaged in and the location where that service was carried out. For most Australians serving in Vietnam, Vũng Tàu – a coastal town near the southern end of the country – was their place of disembarkation. The town had previously enjoyed a prosperous colonial life as a beach resort, known as Cap Saint Jacques, and had been a favourite getaway for French colonials and affluent Vietnamese since the late 19th century. During the Vietnam War it was an important strategic port, as well as a recreational destination for fighting men and others. A large contingent of Australian and New Zealand airmen were stationed in the Vũng Tàu area, as well as base units and medical personnel. Many Australians would visit Vũng Tàu for recreation or for medical treatment at the hospital there.

In June 1965 the first contingent of Australian infantry was sent to serve alongside the US 173rd Airborne Brigade in Biên Hòa province before Nui Dat – in Phước Tuy province – was established as a base for the Australian Task Force. Some Australians were quartered in Saigon at the Free World Headquarters, which housed the headquarters staff of all armed forces operating in Vietnam.

Personnel from the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam (AATTV), elements of which had arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and who were subsequently scattered in microcells throughout the countryside, lived a very different life to their compatriots, often in indigenous communities.

This variance in experience has created a diverse, and at times divergent, set of memories among veterans. However, for most Australians who served in Vietnam, particularly those of the first contingents, Vietnam was a place little known about and one even less understood. Gary McKay, who was conscripted in May 1968 and served in Vietnam with 4RAR in 1971 after having completed his officer training, attested to a general ignorance that prevailed even then:

When I was conscripted, I didn't even know which side of the equator Vietnam was situated, and certainly knew very little about why the war was being waged, other than what we were being told by the government of the day.1

For the many national servicemen growing up in the tumultuous 1960s prior to their call-up, Vietnam had little relevance. Older soldiers – regulars, some with Second World War and Korean War experience – may have held a more worldly view and been more attuned to the politics of the day. However, it seems that Vietnam, or the possibility of serving there, was not a high priority in the army's training, given the recollections of Peter Haran, who served two tours in 1967 and 1971 as a tracker dog handler:

I hadn't read anything about it and I had heard no reference to it … I didn't see anything on the news that clicked, maybe it was on the news. We had a black and white TV set. I didn't see it in the papers. There was no reference to Vietnam. There was no reference made to the conflict at all during the recruit training … We weren't being trained to go to war. We were being trained as soldiers to be part of the Australian military. We were there and this was going to be our career. I was going to be there for six years. Basically to me it was going to be the job and the adventure that was ahead of me, there was no reference made at all to Vietnam.2

Whatever the understanding of where Vietnam was and what was happening there, the decision to commit Australian troops came as a surprise to some, as revealed by Lex McAulay, a full-time soldier:

In early 1965, I was in 4RAR on exercise near Townsville when my commanding officer assured me that Australia would not become involved in the 'losing' war in Vietnam. Ten weeks later, I was standing in the long grass at Biên Hòa airbase, in the advanced party of 1RAR.3

The idea of Vietnam being an unwinnable conflict is a view that has become entrenched in popular memory, but one that probably did not take root until the Americans decided to begin withdrawing troops and commenced the Vietnamization program in 1969. Kevin Wigg, a regular soldier who served with the Australian Army Medical Corps, reflected on his perceptions during his time in Vietnam, 1970–71, noting that the futile nature of the commitment had in fact become quickly evident to him:

I was a regular soldier and you go where you're told. I can't be worrying about the conflict and who's right and who's wrong. If I'm going to start worrying about that I might as well join the conscientious objectors and stand on a box. But I joined the system knowing that someday I might be sent away somewhere … It wasn't until I got over there – it's like everything else, once you get involved in it you start to learn about what's going on. And whilst I never ever thought from one perspective that we shouldn't be there – we had to be there because we had alliances with other countries that were involved. If they ask you for assistance you have to go. It's part of the treaties … So from that point of view I had no problem about being there … When I got over there, I saw how futile it was. I suppose within six months of being there. You could see that … we were never going to do anything. It was just going to be an endless thing that would go on for ever and ever. They were being supplied arms and ammunition from somewhere else. How can you treat that? You can go there and blow the place off the face of the earth tomorrow. Americans could have blown the place to smithereens tomorrow but that wasn't going to fix it either … I suppose after about six months I realised that this is absolutely hopeless and if you're going to do anything at all you need to get the small child from school at kindergarten level and start educating the child and it's going to take hundreds of years if you're going to keep wanting to put that effort in it. And it's just not worth the effort. They do their own thing. And have a look, Ho Chi Minh marched back into Saigon and the whole thing wasn't worth it. All those lives lost and all the plunder and misery all for nothing because the area and the ground they gained was just given up in the flick of an eye … There was no battle front ... It was just sneaky stuff all the time. Sneaky stuff that could go on for a hundred years. Well it's been going on for a hundred years, hasn't it? Started off with the French. So they're just left to their own resources now and life just goes on.4

For the soldiers who were being sent to Vietnam, their understanding of the reasons for their presence was often distilled into the simplistic Cold War 'domino theory' of the time: that the establishment of a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist rule in neighbouring states – the analogy being the fall of one domino tile would lead to the collapse of a complete row. It was not necessarily believed by all, as indicated by Robert Lovell, who served with the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit in Vietnam between June and December 1970:

… the concept of dominos was something that we had all heard about as the reason why you were there … I didn't know enough about the history of Vietnam to realise how much the Vietnamese hated the Chinese, how there would be no possibility of an international Communist bloc. But I still felt that the domino theory was a bit overblown and that the threat wasn't as great as we were led to believe. Just by the way it was being touted, [it] just didn't ring true.5

Some, such as Wendy Jobberns, a civilian nurse's aide, understood the politics of the day in only the vaguest terms:

I was only 23 at the time and not very mature … I knew there was a war on but I just feel that politically I didn't really know very much that was going on … I knew that we were worried about communism … but other than that, no.6

Others, like Patrick O'Hara, a national serviceman and gunner who served with 4th Field Regiment in 1967–68, were just young men with little life experience and gripped by youthful naivety:

… didn't think at all about Vietnam. Didn't know where Vietnam was, didn't have any idea. When I was told I had to register, I think I was eighteen and a half, you had to register. I registered in a bit of, not a daze, but a lack of realism. This won't come to anything, it's just paperwork … There were people who knew a lot more than me. That's for someone else to do. I'll just go ahead and because I didn't know what to do, I didn't know what job I wanted to do. No girls. Girls terrified me. The whole thing of just, this is an adventure, an excitement, different to what I'd done before. I just rolled along.7

Not everybody was ignorant of Vietnam and the politics particular to it. Colin Kahn, who commanded 5RAR in Vietnam during 1969–70, was a case in point, as well as being someone who would be expected to be cognisant of the broader context of the conflict:

I had been, of course, studying about Vietnam for a long time. I read the works of Ho Chi Minh. I read what Ho Chi Minh used to say; how he was going to win this war because he would fight a war of protractive conflict, which no free nation could ever stand up against. And he said he would turn the population of the free world against their own governments by this war of protractive conflict. He used to say that democratic governments need quick wars to get over with it. People wouldn't fight. He was dead right – everything Ho Chi Minh said was perfectly correct, and that's why it worked out. I used to study him, I used to study all the American reports that I could get back, American books on Vietnam, so I knew a hell of a lot about Vietnam, in a general sense, before we ever got there.8

Robert Dawson, one of the earliest members of the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam, was another with some knowledge of the country prior to his arrival:

Well, I got into the Vietnamese language before the conflict, 1961. It wasn't until '62 that we sent the training team, the initial training team, and I think that was about thirty guys, spread all over … So I was certainly aware of Vietnam, having done the language course, and not only do you learn something about the country – before that I had no knowledge of it whatsoever – but you have an interest in it too, that what you are training to do if something is going to happen over there, then that's where you are going.9

Whatever political knowledge service men and women may or may not have had about Vietnam and why Australia was involved there became a secondary consideration once service personnel entered the country for the first time. A common experience to all those serving in Vietnam was the instant assault upon the senses that accompanied their arrival. Maureen Spicer was a nurse with one of the SEATO civilian medical teams based at the Biên Hòa Provincial Hospital:

I arrived in at the end of August 1966 to the noise and traffic of war, fatiguing humidity, pungent smells of spices and diesel fumes and a mass of humanity on pushbikes, motorbikes, cycloes and auto-cycloes, cars and donkey-drawn carts. There appeared to be no road rules except the person who tooted the loudest and longest had right of way. It was exciting and somewhat frightening.10

Both civilians and military personnel had to adjust quickly to their new environment. It is surprising just how ignorant many Australian soldiers were of what lay ahead of them in Vietnam, despite the army having garnered several years of experience by the time later reinforcements arrived. Just how 'in the dark' these young soldiers were as they arrived in Vietnam is patently evident in this account by George Goater, a regular with the Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who served in Vietnam in 1965–66:

I think I was probably the same as everyone else, very apprehensive. Just absolutely didn't know what to expect. They loaded us onto these landing craft and we putted in towards the shore, and we were probably all seeing the battle of Coral Sea or something fought again on old films that we've seen of the Americans raiding the beaches and all this sort a thing, and ducking bullets and we weren't too sure whether this is what we were gonna be doing or what. So the landing barge trundled up to the beach and the door dropped and we all got told by some sergeant, “C'mon move, move!”, and we tore off up the beach and then slowed down and there was no bullets. And anyway, next thing we saw a couple of Vietnamese women and some kids and they were selling Pepsi Colas to us. It was a little bit of an anti-climax I s'pose you might say, and that was our introduction to the enemy soil, I s'pose. It, yeah, it was nothing like any of us I'd say dreamed it was gonna be like. We thought we were off to war and we were … met with a bottle of Pepsi Cola.11

Andrew Gates was a regular serving with 6RAR in 1969–70 and was another who professed no knowledge of what to expect right up to the point of landing at Vũng Tàu, which was surprising given his arrival occurred four years after Goater's:

… they shoved us in this landing craft – you know, standing-room-only stuff – to get us in the landing craft with all our bags and that and we hit the beach and the front door dropped down and you know there was people standing around, and all these people … you could see them all walking along the street all dressed in black with their little straw hats and all that on and I'm thinking, 'Bloody hell, this is, you know, I've been trained to shoot anyone dressed in black and ninety percent of the population is walking around in black!' … and like here we are just hit a war zone and it looked like nothing was going on because there were cars driving, it looked like ordinary sedans driving down the street. There was a lot of uniforms but not that many because Vũng Tàu was like a tourist resort for everybody ... we stood around and said, 'Bloody hell this is a nice looking joint isn't it?' And, you know, 'there's some nice little women up there', you know, 'this should be fun'. And no one was shooting at anybody … on the way in on the landing craft I wasn't really sure what was going to happen because I had no idea whether we were in artillery range or whatever so you just didn't have a clue – just accepted that we were going to land on the beach and be ready if you have to.12

Colin O'Neill, a national serviceman serving with the Royal Australian Army Dental Corps in 1968–69, also arrived with no idea of what to expect and he, along with others who had arrived with him, was conned into thinking the worst:

I remember as the 707 came into land at Tan Son Nhat, we were looking out the window, and it was just after the Tet Offensive, and we saw all these mortar holes and bomb craters and weapons, and people walking around with guns, and people manned on lookout things. And we were thinking 'Bloody Hell! What have we got ourselves into here?' And that's when the reality hit home, very much. I can remember looking out, I was at a window seat looking out, and I was thinking 'I don't believe this. Jesus …' Tanks everywhere. That's when it first hit. 'Shit.' Got off the plane and the heat and the smell. I mean, Vietnam just stunk … This smell, I just can't explain it. So we got off at Tan Son Nhat airport, then we caught … I think it was a Caribou, from Tan Son Nhat down to Vũng Tàu … but it was manned by [an] American pilot and American gunners and that, and we'd just arrived in country, and we didn't have a clue, and we didn't know that the North Vietnamese didn't really have an air force. But this American gunner said, 'Now listen here, you guys. If I tell you guys to hit the deck that means we're getting attacked, and we might be going down …' We were all twenty, twenty-one years of age, and he's telling us we're going to get attacked by the North Vietnamese air force. We didn't have a clue, and we're absolutely packing death by this stage … It was all a big act, of course.13

Garry Whykes, who served with the 17th Construction Squadron Workshop in 1967–68, found his arrival to be an overpowering experience:

Arriving in Vietnam was mind blowing. I had never seen such poverty, destruction, and a willingness by the people to do anything to survive – prostitution, black marketeering, gambling and theft. And the smell was something else.14

Adjustment to the social mores of this new place took time, and the degree to which Vietnam differed culturally was almost an affront to Australian sensibilities at times, as is evident from the recollection of Kevin Barker, a regular who served in Vietnam with 5RAR in 1969–70:

Vũng Tàu used to be the Paris of the East when the French had it. When they left or were kicked out, the place went to ruin and all the sewage systems blocked up and there was no sewage. Like people used to crap in the street and you'd be walking down the street and some old duck or some woman walking in front of you would stop, lift her dress, squat and have a shit in the middle of the footpath and then walk off. Just that was it, it's the way they lived. It just stunk, it was a foul smell. But after a couple of months you just ignored it, you didn't even notice it in the finish. The villages outside the main city were cleaner than what the city was. They at least cleaned their streets up and made their own latrines, dug holes in the ground and did it that way. But in the city, no, they'd chuck their rubbish out the front door. And that was it. It just got washed away in the monsoons later on. That was sort of a culture shock when you see people living like that. That's the way they chose, they didn't want to fix anything or have anything done for them.15

The 'stink' was, in the case of Vũng Tàu, partly due to the location and industry of the town, as Stephen Lewis, a gunner with the 12th Field Regiment in 1968–69, observed:

Vũng Tàu had a dreadful smell. It was a coastal town, fishing town. The Vietnamese, when they'd catch their fish they would leave them out in the sun to dry and so there was always a smell of fish down there. Dogs … they seemed to have lots of dogs in places like that, and sort of dog turds everywhere and their own particular smell. Again, Vietnamese cooking smells because they would cook in the street. All that's very unique and very exotic for some young lad from Australia.16

Others, like Brian Woods, a national serviceman serving with 9RAR in 1969, were moved by the natural beauty and fascinating aspects of the countryside:

Vietnam itself is a lovely, lovely country, a beautiful country. It's dry in the dry season then it's very wet. Four o'clock … every afternoon, that's when the rain starts. You could set your watch to it. You could throw an orange seed down today and go back in a month and there'd be a tree there. That's how good a country, beautiful soil, beautiful ground. Very thick, very thick jungle, very thick in density, growth. Vines and cane with these long, huge needles on them and it's just different, it's something you don't expect to see … how do you fight through that? You spend all your time cutting your way through, let alone fighting. But it's different country – it's beautiful. The people are so old fashioned, so ancient. Water buffalo pull their carts and their ploughs, and water buffalos are a sacred animal. The wives do all the farm work and the husband squats around smoking and talking business all day. And the women chew betel nut … ugh … betel nut – red lips, yellow teeth, all the teeth are rotted out … But it seemed so different. We were told that everyone was a killer … and it wasn't from what we seen. But it was beautiful country, I couldn't believe it. You could grow anything.17

Neil Weekes, a national serviceman serving with 1RAR in 1968, was, like so many others, a little overwhelmed by the new environment in which he found himself:

The ox carts and the little Lambrettas all getting around with fifteen or sixteen people hanging off at all angles, the smells. Never knowing who was the enemy because everyone wore a conical hat and everyone dressed in black and we were taught that anyone in black and wearing this hat was a possible enemy … It was mind-boggling, to say the least.18

This quandary that soldiers often felt about the civilians around them was also expressed by Patrick O'Hara:

The first time I'd seen women with their áo dài, beautiful long hair on a bike, white skirt, dust everywhere but they just always looked beautiful and clean. Yeah, and I also started looking at the Vietnamese men then, thinking, 'What are you thinking? What do you do at night-time? Do you go and get a rifle?' or 'Are you looking at us just to look at us or are you looking at us to plan something?' or 'Are you counting how many of us there are?'32

Having arrived in country, service personnel began to have interactions with the Vietnamese within their immediate vicinity. For frontline soldiers this often occurred on their patrols. Colin Nicol, a national serviceman serving with 6RAR, in his recollection of his first time outside the Nui Dat wire six days after his arrival in Vietnam in May 1969, was struck by the novelty of seeing life in such a foreign land:

Passed through 2 villages & it was almost unbelievable to see the peasants ploughing up their fields with ancient single hook ploughs drawn by 1 or 2 bullocks or oxen. Children everywhere, many of them no older than 7 or 8 smoking happily in the fields … their houses (I could never call them homes) consisted of straw (thatched) & bamboo. Many of them were lined with beer cans (Yankee cans).19

Patrolling was the main focus of Australian ground operations in South Vietnam; some patrols proved relatively quiet while others were full of incidents. No one leaving their base could be sure what they would encounter outside the wire. Just over a month after his arrival, Peter Winter, who served in 7RAR in 1970–71, wrote of Vietnam to his family and commented on the odd sense of displacement he felt:

This country is strange. I haven't seen a lot of it, or its people cause we've been out bush or in camp for 90% of the time and therefore we stick to ourselves a lot – We fly over it and pass through it and sleep in it and fight in it and crap in it etc. etc. – yet I can't realise that it's not part of Aust. It's wild, hot, thorny, prickly, and a cruel country – it's only when you see the people [in] their little houses that you realise your [sic] elsewhere.20

As some of the previous comments suggest, some soldiers brought with them a preconceived suspicion of the Vietnamese, of their motivation, and of their loyalty to the cause. The idea that every Vietnamese was a killer, as Brian Woods had been told, led naturally to a pervasive distrust of the Vietnamese people. Attitudes to the local population were very much subject to the experience and role one was undertaking – as Barry Smith, a national serviceman serving with the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit in 1969–70, pointed out:

We had the opportunity to see Vietnamese in a more normal light than the average Australian. From the infantry digger's point of view, his routine was going on operations with the enemy trying to kill him before he killed them; and from R&R in Vũng Tàu he came back with an empty wallet and often venereal disease. It is understandable how soldiers with almost total negative and frightening contact with Vietnamese were conditioned to dislike and distrust them. Many Australians derogatively referred to Vietnamese as 'nogs' and 'noggies' and to Civil Affairs members as 'noggy lovers'.21

The repugnant pragmatism that lay behind the verbal debasement of the local population, as well as the particular discomfort it brought, was explained by Sri Lankan born George Fernando, a national serviceman with the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps in 1967:

Once again we were at war with an enemy that we had to undermine and somehow we had to turn them into monsters, lesser people. So here were these evil, slanty- eyed, slope-headed gooks that we somehow had to kill, seek and destroy. If those people were seen in the same light as yourself, you wouldn't do that. So somehow, they had to be undermined. That is the way any war is justified. They've really got to be the bad guys … I had a difficulty here. A very good friend of mine, a prefect at Royal College where I studied … he was out here completing a Master of Science and PhD at Melbourne University. He was one of our most scholarly students and clever thinkers. A man who I would describe as being highly moralistic and intelligent … really, a very clever thinker. When he heard that I had been drafted to serve in Vietnam he rang me on the phone and he said, 'Do you realise what you're doing here? You're going out there to shoot guys very much like us'. By 'us' he meant Sri Lankans. And these Vietnamese people were fellow Asians. That for me certainly was a dilemma, whereas to the Aussies these guys were 'slope heads' and 'gooks'. To me these guys were fellow human beings. Therein lies what was for me a difficulty. I guess if I was to serve in a combatant area, that difficulty would have been greater. So there was a contradiction there. Morally I was opposed to my presence there, but I still volunteered. So part of me didn't like the scenario, and part of me … my adventurous side … wanting to be with mates and be part of that, and some other moral side of me didn't like the fact that I may have to shoot a person who would be a person very much like myself.22

That Australians could be programmed to dehumanise the Vietnamese as an enemy was hardly surprising given the basic training experience of William Clark, who served with 110 Signal Squadron in 1969–70:

We then had to run around a small course with barbed wire, logs and ditches, bayonetting sandbags and yelling out 'KILL, KILL' all the time. Most of the time we treated it as a laughing matter by one and all … To get us into an ugly mood we were to believe they were women and children capable of hurling a hand grenade into our midst. We were told to stab and jump on the sandbags, real serious vicious type of thing, you know. When we had finished this lesson, we had to run back to the huts yelling out 'KILL, KILL', all the way until near the huts, and then we sprinted the last 200 yards.23

Despite the undoubted racism displayed by some soldiers toward the Vietnamese and the racist elements of the Australian vernacular, many soldiers displayed a significant empathy for the Vietnamese people caught up in the conflict in which all were embroiled. This was certainly the case for Colin O'Neill:

Generally, I think, the Australians treated the Vietnamese very well. The children were great, the orphanages … and there were a hell of a lot of orphans over there, they were great kids. That was the hardest part about the war, the impact that it had on them. The Vietnamese people, I never had any problem with the Vietnamese people. They were genuinely very friendly. You had to feel sorry for them. They didn't ask for what went on. They probably hated our guts to a point, and hated the Americans, but you tried to treat them. I think most Australians did treat them very well and tried to look after them and help them as much as we could. But that's what Australians are like. Most Australians, anyway. But you couldn't help but feel sorry for them. They were in a pretty shit war, in a pretty shit country, and living conditions were pretty basic. They had been living in a war-like environment for most of their lives, most of them. They knew nothing else. You had to feel sorry for them.24

Nevertheless, irrespective of such compassion, Australian servicemen sometimes found themselves having to carry out actions that did not sit well with them. Barry Todd, an armourer/ gunner attached to the 135th Helicopter Assault Company (US) during his second tour in 1967–68, recalled:

I remember one morning, and I didn't know why we ever did this thing but it was the first time we did it. We were down the Mekong Delta and it was fairly early in the morning. And we refuelled and we went out to – it was a village. And all the people had been cleared out of the village and then we were told just to shoot anything that we saw, anything that moved. And there was ducks and pigs and water buffalo and that, and I wondered why we were doing that. There didn't seem to be any need for it and we were destroying the people's homes and their livelihood and everything that they had for no real reason. And I think, we always did try and identify an enemy but I guess there's time when you can't identify them. But I think, we randomly fired at … what we thought were enemy, without really knowing that they were, so maybe we killed a lot of people that were really just innocent.25

Ronald Nolan, who was a regular working for the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps in 1968–69, was another who affirmed the distress and apparent pointlessness of such actions:

Some of the things that were done were morally, militarily wrong. Relocation of villages. All the population of the village picked up and moved from A to B and then the village put to the torch. For what reason? In most cases no-one could produce a good reason other than to create a free fire zone where any movement in there copped it. But the flow-on effect is horrendous for those Vietnamese villagers. Their ancestors had grown up there and farmed there and then to see all this burnt … on the one hand we would talk about hearts and minds and on the other hand we'd relocate a village. It worried me when I knew it was happening and it still worries me. And unfortunately, I know that Australians were involved in it. We did it. We did it around Vũng Tàu.26

Such destructive undertakings, apart from the obvious distress they visited on the villagers, were likely to be counterproductive as they alienated the local people, as intelligence officer Robert O'Neill, who served with 5RAR in 1966-67, explained:

The local Vietnamese people let us know very quickly whether they liked us or not; we'd get groups of people coming in from particular villages bringing gifts … bringing chickens, vegetables, fruit and so on, and they would stand around and have a chat with us. That made the gathering of intelligence so much easier because they thought about us in positive terms rather like themselves, not just a bunch of foreigners in strange uniforms speaking a different language who'd come to oppress them. And above all, you did not want to be associated with destruction unless it was absolutely essential.27

The sagacity of such thinking, and the benefits it delivered, was borne out by Ray De Vere, who served with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in 1969–70:

I read a couple of books about Vietnam and discovered that I didn't know too much about the culture of the place, and at that time in my life I'd not been outside Australia. So I made it my business to find out something about the culture and then I read a great many books about Vietnam and a great many books about the Indo–China War, the French section in there, and found … one of the common threads through many of the French books was the fact that they didn't identify with the people, which led to the fact that they were offside with the people they were supposed to be helping, as well as those they were there fighting. And I made a special point of encouraging my troop to find out about the locals, to deal with them in a compassionate way … One of the things that I used to impress on my troops was the need to respect the people and understand their customs. And, as an example, I insisted that instead of throwing lollies to kids, which Australian troops often do, which causes them to scrabble in the dirt for them and it's a bit undignified, is to hand the sweets and so forth to the elders, maybe the parents, maybe schoolteachers, something like that so they can be distributed in a reasonable way. Another thing was to understand that when we're going through a village, that we didn't drive through at breakneck speed scattering dogs, chickens, cats and anything else that happened to be about. And this paid off in many ways by identifying with the people and showing that we respected them, because they on many occasions told us where mines were and gave us information about the VC.28

There was, too, an incongruity and power imbalance in the very presence of the Australians amongst the Vietnamese which was not lost on Lance Highfield, who served in 1970–71 as a leading aircraftman with No. 2 Squadron:

The main thing was not knowing anything about the history or the culture of the people and the little things. I can remember going into a village one day and I'm 20 years old, 21, whatever I was when I actually walked into this village, and we're fully armed and gone into this village and here's a bloke in his front yard, so to speak, I mean they don't have front yards like we've got front yards but he's got his little garden and he must've been 80 years old and he's bowing to me. And here I am in his country, he's 80 years old, I'm 20 years old but because I'm with the military and armed and we're an armed patrol type thing, he's bowing to me. It should've been the other way around, and that sort of affected me, you know. The kids, they affect you 'cause they don't know what's going on … the kids are always the innocents of any conflict, you know, and … it gets to everyone, kids always get to you because they're so innocent, you know, and then they're traumatised. To see kids traumatised is one of the worse things you can see because it's not their fault … those memories are hard.29

As much as Australians tried to do the right thing and provide assistance through the various civil aid and military programs, it was doubtful that they were ever accepted fully into the hearts of the local population – a point reflected upon by Robert Roach, a national serviceman who served as a medical orderly at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in 1969–70:

I mean everyone smiled, everyone smiled. But what was behind the smile you had no idea. And, I mean, if you think about it, we were intruders, we were an invading army on their homeland, so, I mean, I try and put it back in our perspective. It was basically a civil war between North and South Vietnam, a bit like New South Wales and Queensland having a donnybrook, and the Chinese come in and take over, which is basically what we tried to do. We'd resent that, so I think there was a lot of resentment.30

Nevertheless, the experience of being in a different country did prompt a cultural awakening in many of those who served there, as recalled by Lester Mengel, a regular who served with 2RAR in 1970–71:

I'd never, coming from Australia, not been overseas, you hear about they worship Buddha and all that sort of stuff, then you actually see it everywhere, their little shrines with their incense stick and all that sort of stuff and they're praying and all that sort of stuff. It just opened your eyes a bit that there was other things other than the God that we believe in.31

Amongst the Australians serving in Vietnam there were few who carried any previous knowledge about the place. While some had taken the time to investigate aspects of the political, military, and social history prior to arrival, the large majority probably had not. Most Australians serving in Vietnam did so with little understanding about the environment they were entering, and for many the little knowledge they had was framed in the political orthodoxy of the day, namely the domino theory. Australians arriving in Vietnam were immediately challenged by the obvious differences between it and Australia. The memory of the oppressive heat and unpleasant smells have stayed with many veterans. The differing social and cultural mores, particularly prostitution and black-marketeering, saw the Australians reflect soberly upon the differences in their experiences at home and the lifestyle they were now witnessing – albeit a damaged one, viewed through war's prism. Given the negative portrayals of the enemy conveyed to the Australians prior to their arrival, and given the local population's uncertain sympathy for the communist cause, it was not surprising that many soldiers viewed the Vietnamese with suspicion. These suspicions and feelings of disdain often gave rise to racist language to describe the local inhabitants and were compounded, no doubt, by the Australians' own desire to escape the situation in which they now found themselves. Irrespective of that, Australian personnel were able to, and often did, express empathy for the terrible lot that had befallen many Vietnamese civilians. Especial sympathy was reserved for the orphaned children with whom many Australians came into contact.

Some veterans have looked back on their time in Vietnam and questioned the legitimacy of Australia's involvement. Generally speaking, the naivety with which many Australians had entered the country was quickly lost as they adjusted to their new surroundings.

A soldier standing with a girl on a bicycle.

A Vietnamese worker has her identity card checked by Corporal Peter Boyd, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), near the Binh Ba rubber plantation, April 1968. Photographer Kevin Denham Thurgar. AWM THU/68/0421/VN

A shirtless soldier in shorts surrounded by women workers in conical hats

Vietnamese women workers assist Private Bill Lauber to spread loam at the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group area in Vũng Tàu, August 1967. Photographer Byron Charles Campbell. AWM CAM/67/0621/VN

A soldier with a group of children watched by a soldier with glasses sitting on a log.

Bombardier Peter Kelly, 106th Field Battery, Royal Australian Artillery (RAA), hands out sweets to Vietnamese children during Operation Mosman, August 1967. Photographer Barrie Winston Farleigh Gillman. AWM GIL/67/0691/VN

A convoy of soldiers on a busy road.

South Vietnamese civilians drive bullock carts loaded with firewood past an APC carrying 1RAR troops during US Operation Abilene, 1966. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/66/0299/VN

Two shirtless soldiers planting a small tree in front of a sandbagged tent.

Major Peter Sharp (left) and Lieutenant John McNamara plant a Cootamundra wattle tree near the tent lines of a company command post near Biên Hòa, 1965. Photographer Bryan Rupert Dunne. AWM DNE/65/0330/VN

Two shirtless men with a shovel and wheelbarrow pouring cement with helicopters and planes in the background.

Men of 5 Airfield Construction Squadron prepare a hangar site at Vũng Tàu, South Vietnam, June 1966. Left to right: Corporal B Stuart, Sergeant C Robb, and Aircraftman H Ryan. Photographer E Connelly. AWM MAL/66/0037/37

A group of men in uniform working on the framework of a wooden hut.

Members of RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam build accommodation for the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company at the newly established Black Horse base at Vũng Tàu, December 1967. Left to right: Michael Perkins, Barry Todd, David Green and John Sendy. Photographer John Dawe. AWM NAVY15061

A large group of soldiers wearing slouch hats in a landing craft.

Troops of the 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR), leave HMAS Sydney (III) in Vũng Tàu harbour, bound for the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, February 1970. Photographer John Geoffrey Fairley. AWM FAI/70/0119A/VN

Home away from home

Having arrived 'in country', Australian service personnel and civilian aides turned their attention to settling into their new 'digs' and trying to make them as comfortable as possible.

On arrival, service personnel settled into their new accommodation and routines, began adjusting to their new surroundings, and also started to personalise their new living quarters. The latter was probably an easier task for those located in Saigon and Vũng Tàu and other towns where they had ready-made, if only rudimentary, lodgings as opposed to the Task Force base at Nui Dat, which had to be built from scratch. Nevertheless everybody set about improving their accommodation in whatever small ways they could. The staples of daily life, such as food and the mundane tasks of laundry, became important focuses, as did the establishment of a home environment through the acquisition of pets and participation in recreational activities.

The establishment of a 'home away from home' was close to the raison d'être of Stacey Kruck's service in Vietnam as a representative of Everyman's Welfare Service, a Christian philanthropic organisation based at Nui Dat, as he explained:

I'd work for the first 2 hours of the day cleaning, making sure the place was in absolute pristine condition. I'd renew all the stores that needed to be renewed, I'd pack my Rover and then I'd leave the centre open so as fellows could come in and get cold drinks, or they could sit and read a magazine, or they could listen to the radio or listen to records, tapes and so on, play games like darts and so on. So these were for the fellows who were back in camp who were having a rest from patrol or operations etc. And there were quite a number around base camp, like who were in the administration of the place, who didn't go outside the wire all that much and so their work was to be supportive elements from within the battalion. So … they came into the hut particularly at lunch time or something like that. Now it was a long … hut and it had a cement floor and we had the barber at the back and … attached to that down there was another wooden section that went back quite a way, that was filled with a library, table tennis tables and all those sorts of things for the fellows. And at the back of that there was a room that they used as … they used to develop films for the fellows there or films for the battalion. So yes, that was the sort of set-up and fellows felt very at home there, it was like home-away-from-home atmosphere that was the whole purpose of it. But half way through the morning I'd be off and I'd be out and doing my rounds around the fire support bases or, and I'd work out, I'd try and get out there about, at least 5 days a week, I'd be on the road for most of the day. I'd get back just before the gates closed, the 'pearly gates' as we used to call them in the Task Force area. Wash out all your vehicles, wash out and clean all your equipment etc. and go and have a shower – by that time it was time to have tea. And then at night I'd be down at the centre and I'd hold little competitions or something like that for the fellows in darts, for those who were around, or if they wanted just to come and talk or wanted to read a book or anything. And it was just … very relaxed, it helped them to relax and enjoy it at night …1

Robert Healy, an airframe fitter with No. 2 Squadron at Vũng Tàu in 1970–71, provides a sense of the routine of daily life there as well as the feeling of isolation he experienced:

We had every sixth day off. We could go to the beach where the squadron had a couple of speedboats for water skiing. One was called Fourex, named after the price paid for it to the Yanks – a case of Queensland XXXX beer. Other than that, we could go off base with the chaplain to work on civil aid projects or at orphanages. By the time I arrived, the squadron had set itself up with plenty of amenities, scrounged or legally obtained, including a small swimming pool and an outdoor movie theatre. The Americans had an air-conditioned theatre with plush seating a kilometre or so down the road but we preferred our own theatre … I remember the heat, appalling food, the boredom of nights spent drinking beer at ten cents a can, and the strong sense of camaraderie which came from being one of a small group of Australians isolated in a sea of Americans a long way from home. I felt remote from the conflict around me, although aware that our aircrew could face danger.2

Colleen Mealy, who was one of the first four Australian Army nurses to arrive in Vietnam in 1967, serving initially with 8th Field Ambulance and then with 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vũng Tàu, gives an insight into how basic the accommodation was when she arrived and how the nurses went about improving their quarters:

It was tents and some Nissen huts. No air-conditioning, no running water. We managed to make it a home ourselves. We went out, we shopped in the village and we got some of the boys who weren't too sick to paint the walls for us. We made it our home, we made it feminine.3

Maureen Javes was a New Zealand nurse also attached to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vũng Tàu and found her own particular way to combat some of the discomfort and isolation endured:

When I arrived there we didn't have a shower, we just had the tin wash basin, which we filled up with water and you washed yourself all over. And then when you had soaped yourself all over, you just flushed yourself off with water in the washbasin. After I had been there for a while, we did get a couple of tanks with cold water in them. And we had just a small room where we did our laundry with a twin tub washing machine in it. We had thunder boxes, or a thunderbox, for the toilet, which was an absolute disaster. It was chock a block. Nothing was sort of underground by this stage ... While I was there, it got to the point where they couldn't suck it out, they couldn't burn it out … they just couldn't get rid of what was in there. We had maggots, the size of which I have never seen before, crawling round in the top … I started a garden in the sand there and everybody said, “Oh, you're stupid. Nothing will grow.” But I had to do something for the loneliness and to help pass the time of day. So I started this garden. And the Red Cross arranged to have some plants brought out from Australia, on one of the supply aircraft, the Hercs [Hercules aircraft] that came in, and they put a few flowers on. I grew coleuses which flowered and they were absolutely beautiful, they were about three feet high. The garden grew and … It filled a void in my life. And I was the only one that ever touched it.4

The worst of the transition from Australian conditions to Vietnamese conditions was reserved for the infantry. John Robbins was a member of 6RAR, which arrived at the new base at Nui Dat in mid-1966, and he describes the morale-sapping effects of the new environment:

After two weeks sleeping on the ground, we got Second World War tents; they all had holes in them. We got some floorboards and we all dug drains to get rid of the water round the tents. We had stretchers to sleep on … Things start to get a bit tense with some people, living in these conditions, living out of ration packs because there is no kitchen set up. Water everywhere, red mud everywhere and it starts to test a few people. People start to do their block a bit …5

Not surprisingly, physical confrontations would occur between the men, in part because of the pressures of the cramped living arrangements and ready access to alcohol, as Colin O'Neill explains:

The boys got a bit rough and ready there at times. It certainly alleviated some of the boredom there. You can imagine men all in an environment, of course there is going to be fights, there is going to be ill feeling, but the alcohol didn't help. The drinking was non-stop … you can imagine drunken soldiers who have still got their weapons and ammunition in their huts and they're all full of drink. It's a pretty potent sort of situation.6

The lack of privacy and basic state of the ablution blocks at Nui Dat was another aspect which can only have undermined men's morale, as hinted at by Robert Roach:

Our showers were timber, cold water only. Latrines were built on a big mound and they were dry but they had thunderboxes over the holes and the holes went down a fair way. Reportedly, anyone that upset too many found his gun missing during the night and usually it ended up down the latrine and then he'd have all sorts of charges to face … They were fairly deep and nasty and they were sort of pretty ordinary. I didn't like using them. There was about eight or ten of them in a row, not cordoned off, just open. Sit there with your paper and you've got guys either side of you doing the same thing. Absolutely no privacy, no privacy at all. Showers were the same, communal showering. Various number of shower roses mounted on the walls and no cubicles, just open showers.7

Irrespective of these blow-ups and inconveniences, life on base at Nui Dat was relatively uneventful according to James Murrell, a national serviceman serving with 4RAR in 1968 – although he also noted how it contrasted significantly with the stress experienced on patrols:

… nothing much happened around Nui Dat because it was an area where, if you'd been out on ops, you'd come in and you would … actually rest physically and mentally until the next operation … it was our home away from home. There was notice boards, there was – with newspapers from Australia – they'd be 2 or 3 days late but you could go to an area where you could read a newspaper. Not as if you ever did … I never ever remember reading a newspaper over there. There was the American Forces Vietnam Radio so if you had a radio you could listen to this, all the tripe that [they] were carrying on with. Well basically, what I remember of American Forces Radio were the songs that were hits of this time. 'We've got to get out of this place'. You know that was a big one. Everyone, every Vietnam Vet, got to get out of this place … yeah, that had such meaning. And, Bobby Goldsbrough, 'Honey'… I don't know why I remember those two, but I do. Life in the camp … was nonchalant really, it was a non-event. There'd be picket duty to do of a night, either on the wire which was behind an M60 or radio picket within the confines of the camp. So every night you had to do an hour and a half picket or two hours picket … I looked back through a couple of letters and they were always written on radio picket. There's radios going and if there was a stoush going on all you'd have to do is let the officer in charge know that someone was in strife and then it was their bother … Within the confines of the camp we were quite nonchalant and switched off, just taking it easy. We were there because someone had to be there. And, yeah, you just – there'd always be two of you and you'd sit, talk, smoke. Always smoking like that ... But I never smoked before I went to Vietnam. Loved them over there. They were in our ration pack. We were getting 4 per ration pack while we were out in the bush and they were 20 cents a pack at the PX store. So if you didn't smoke when you went, there was no excuse why you shouldn't when you got there because they were so cheap. And fellows who didn't smoke, when they went out in the bush they became smokers, just with the stress of what was going on. Particularly after a contact or something like that, because your adrenaline – you were hyped up and then you'd find your mouth'd dry off and your mind'd be going and then you'd fall flat, you were just absolutely deflated like a balloon, so smoking became a part of your life.8

For artillerymen who had to man the guns day and night, the gun position itself became the centre of their world, as evident in this account by John Kinsela, a national serviceman serving with 4th Field Battery in 1970–71:

With the guns in a battery in a static position, you've got all these sand bags that go around the gun and then just at the back of the gun you've got sandbags built up … and then you've got corrugated iron and that's your living area. On either side of the dome galvanised iron and on top of the galvanised iron there's sandbags, everything's sandbagged and you kind of sleep on stretchers inside like a little cavern. There's about three lots of caverns with guys sleeping in, they call them 'hoochies' and that's where you live and they've got a toilet block – the bulldozer just builds a hole in the ground and they put Perspex and they put the toilet on that – so it was quite civilised. They actually had a kitchen, and they rebuilt another kitchen because they'd been in the Horseshoe for quite a while … you had two mattresses, two sleeping pozzies, and I think there was about three or four bays and about two in each bay … You're on duty twenty-four hours of the day. The only time you were away from the gun was if you had your two days rest in Vũng Tàu or you went on your R & R or something happened to you and you had to go to the hospital. That was the only time that you're away from the gun.9

In stark contrast to the conditions being endured at Nui Dat, Wendy Jobberns lived in relative comfort, if not luxury, in Biên Hòa:

We lived in a French villa, I think it was a French villa … we were upstairs and I think we had US Aid underneath us and we had a guard out the front and we had a paddock to one side and there you could watch the kids riding buffaloes and things like that, but we just had one big communal area and to one end of it we had the bar and it also had a sitting area and a dining area at one end, and then we had loads of just bedrooms and they all had their own toilet and shower in. So it was great. I mean it was good conditions and we did have air-conditioning in our bedrooms or in some of the bedrooms, yeah, and a fan.10

Another obvious necessity, apart from the accommodation, was food. Generally speaking, the quality of food was considered poor by most when compared to what the Australians were used to at home and presented challenges to the consumer, as noted by Yvonne Bolton, an army nurse serving with the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vũng Tàu in 1969:

… our food was terrible, dehydrated whatever, turkey, chicken, steak, you name it. It was all dehydrated and if you had have put a blind fold on anyone they wouldn't have been able to tell what they were eating. It was terrible. You would be there getting the flies off your food, trying to eat with your other hand. Go out to the kitchen and the Vietnamese cooking would be picking their toenails. The food was revolting. I found it revolting anyway … you lost interest in eating.11

Maureen Javes expressed a similar view but noted, resentfully, a marked improvement in the food when VIPs visited:

We used to look forward for some dignitary coming because the day they came we used to have prawns and shrimp and whole fish baked, sitting in the middle of the table, and you just carved a piece of fish as you wanted it. Well, it was all very well for them, they thought we were living in the lap of luxury because we were foolish enough to turn on all this good food for them, which we never saw unless they were coming. It used to make us angry to think they could produce this food when somebody was coming, but for the best part of the time we got all this preserved and rehydrated and reconstituted food.12

Soldiers like Ian Leis, a regular with 5RAR in 1969, just tried to make the best of what was on offer:

… the best part of the food was the cold cartons of milk. I really think that whilst I was in Nui Dat, that's what I lived on. I drank cold cartons of milk. The eggs were full of ether for preservation and you just couldn't eat them. No matter how they tried, they just could not get the taste or the smell of ether out of the eggs.13

Given the limitations of the food, service personnel looked for ways to supplement or improve their choices, as Gary Conyers, a member of the regular army serving at Vũng Tàu in 1971, remembered:

The only fresh rations we used to get was if we went down to one of the fishing villages and bought some fish or something like that. But there was no fresh rations. The Americans were very big on sweet types of things too … they liked cranberry sauce shoved it all over everything. And up in their kitchens, I don't know, they had six, seven different flavoured milks. They used to bring a long life milk out in a big bladder type thing. I forget how many litres were in it. But it'd be flavoured all these different flavours. They liked real sweet sickly type of things, where the Australians didn't like that. In fact, if you came home on R&R the standard order was, 'Bring back ten dozen pies'. Because it's funny – when you can't get something, that's what you crave, and all the guys just said, 'I want a pie, how about you bring pies back'. And a lot of the guys did that – bring boxes of pies back on the aeroplane with them – and it was a treat if there was meat pies turned on for tea that night. That was the treat of treats. Vegemite was another thing. Send us over jars of vegemite 'cause you couldn't get that over there.14

Food parcels from home were always welcome, as they offered some relief from the usual foodstuffs available. These treats were generally shared among colleagues when received, and sometimes might have been considered a little exotic – as suggested by the experience of Michael Malone, a trooper serving with the 3rd Special Air Service Squadron in 1969–70:

I had a girlfriend who used to write quite regularly. She used to send up salamis and all that sort of stuff, which was fantastic. Salami! You couldn't get any deli type things at all. We were sick to death of living out of our ration packs and eating American manufactured foods and things, even though salami's a manufactured food. But you couldn't get any of that stuff – you could only get four- gallon drums of frozen milk and it was just weird. And cans of scrambled eggs. Powdered eggs. Powdered tea. It was just awful. I don't know how they eat or drink any of that stuff. So hang it in the thing and the blokes'd walk in and cut a piece off and eat it. It got very mouldy though, in the tropics. You'd have to scrape about four inches of mould every time you wanted to eat some of it.15

Father Bernard Maxwell, a Catholic chaplain variously based in Saigon, Vũng Tàu, and Nui Dat in 1971–72, was one who adopted a positive philosophical position and found the food situation to be tolerable:

Fruit was a bit sparse but there was some fruit … we used to buy local fruit, go and buy … these big orange bananas ... mangosteens, paw-paws – go to the market and buy them, or better still get one of our girls to go down. If we went down we paid three times for it, if they go down they bargain for it. So … they weren't intolerable conditions at all. My father [was] in … Gallipoli … where they lived on biscuits and bully beef – they did it in terrible conditions, but we didn't have that. The field rations were good too, you know, on the field. Yeah, they were okay. Field rations, tinned meat, tinned fruit, chocolate with nuts and everything, for an emergency ration. It was great, so we knocked it off, you know. And also toilet paper, we actually got toilet paper in the ration pack … The old warrant officers were a bit experienced with your C rations and they could do anything with them. They'd turn up a bit of a casserole type of thing or a stew, you know, fascinating really. Buy local bread from the Vietnamese in the villages and the French taught them how to cook bread, like long French bread. So you can survive, you survive … it wasn't First World War stuff at all ...16

For all Australian personnel, replicating aspects of home was a way of introducing a semblance of normality into their lives. This was done in a variety of ways, such as naming places after familiar things. Various company 'boozers' were characterised by Australian vernacular, such as the 'Ettamogah Pub'. The helipad at Vũng Tàu was called 'Kangaroo Pad'. Another source of replication was the undertaking of typically Australian behaviours, such as the playing of Australian sports. Playing and watching cricket, rugby and Australian football were popular indulgences that contributed to fitness and relaxation but also provided a tangible link with home, for homesick personnel. It may also have acted as an expression of a unique Australian identity. The beach at Vũng Tàu provided the opportunity to indulge in some of the most Australian of pastimes such as swimming, sun-bathing, and water sports – though it, too, did not escape Australian humour, as remembered by Anthony White, a doctor with 5RAR during 1966–67:

… the surf was a bit flat, [with] a few stingers. It was very hot, though. It's much hotter there. Surfers Paradise in summer's bad enough – this is worse. In fact, the diggers called it 'Sufferers Paradise' in the diggers' way. They always dream up a name for things. So early in the morning, fine, but you wouldn't want to go out in the middle of the day.17

The celebration of public holidays such as Australia Day, Anzac Day, and the Melbourne Cup were marked calendar events, as was Christmas Day, although the war could be an inconvenience to such occasions – as James Castles, an engineer serving with 1st Field Squadron in 1968–69, recollects:

We harboured up Christmas night. I remember on Christmas Day I had had the same pair of army greens on for six weeks, I had one sleeve left in my shirt; Rick had none. And I remember on Christmas Day they flew us out a hotbox meal in a Chinook helicopter for the whole company or battalion harboured out in the bush, and actually gave us all new greens to wear. That's my recollection of Christmas Day that year … I think we stayed there two nights. We harboured up the night before Christmas and we stayed there two nights. We moved again Boxing Day … from memory we might have moved out on dusk, changed position on Christmas Day, because I think we actually had a contact when we first got harboured Christmas night ... And then we moved on, and the company – we took the rear platoon position – and as they were having contacts in bunkers, which was pretty constant, we were coming in behind them and searching and blowing the bunker systems.18

Not surprisingly, Christmas was a time that caused greater homesickness in soldiers, as explained by Peter Winter:

I think it is the first period of time that we are all thinking of home. We always think of home but it's the time that friends, relatives and strangers get together with real feeling in their hearts. To be absent from the gathering, to be away from home, when everybody forgets their problems and enjoys themselves – this is what's making our atmosphere empty.19

The adoption of pets was another behaviour practised in a bid to keep spirits up. Pets are a common part of most Australian households, and Peter Haran explained the positive effect his tracker dogs had on the soldiers:

… they saw the Labradors as a little pool of normality in a situation that was totally abnormal, the war. So to them Caesar, Marcus, Tiber, Juno, Janus, all the other dogs that we had, were a little bit of Australia. A dog, probably Caesar, stood out a bit more because he looked Kelpie, so he looked like an Australian larrikin Kelpie. Marcus would lick you to death. The other dogs were also a mixed breed but you looked at them and you immediately thought of home. I've got a dog at home or family's got a dog at home and here's an Australian dog, so it had a sort of normality about all this war that was occurring around you all the time.20

Music on radio and tape, as well as concerts and films, were another source of entertainment. The movie Good Morning Vietnam and the soundtracks of other popular films have placed the music of the 60s and 70s front and centre in the public's imagination as being synonymous with both the soldiers' experience in Vietnam and the anti-war movement in America. The importance of music and the US influence was remembered by Stephen Lewis:

… you were just starved for entertainment … you had no TV but we all, most of us, had radios and we used to listen to AFVN, that 'Good morning Vietnam' guy all the time and they played lots of really good music. So our culture became American culture, if you like.21

In Australia, songs like Smiley and Arkansas Grass, both released in 1969, were popular and evoked a sentimental empathy for the soldiers. Smiley, a song sung by Ronnie Burns, was written by Johnny Young about the singer and popstar Normie Rowe, who had been called up and sent 'off to the Asian war'. Arkansas Grass, by the band Axiom, was a thinly veiled anti-war song that pined for the men serving to be brought home. Music was an important outlet for those serving in Vietnam, and Peter Haran discussed its centrality to the soldiers' daily life, as well as the variety of music listened to:

The music that we had in 1968 was via Armed Forces American Radio. On the second tour the Australians had set up their own radio station, so we had our own rock n' roll music, plus country music and requests, and an AFL football broadcast and a broadcast of the Melbourne Cup – we'd get that sort of thing. Credence Clearwater Revival music is equated with the war, really. I've got all of their particular albums. 'Fortunate Son', 'Green River', 'Heard it Through the Grapevine'… the CCR music was really quite strong. The one song that everybody equates with Vietnam is the music from the 'Deer Hunter', which was 'Can't Take My Eyes off You', Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons because it was in … the film. It was also thrashed to death on the radio over there. 'Lonely Soldier' [Mr. Lonely (Letter to a Soldier)], Bobby Vinton, that was thrashed and thrashed and thrashed. Then as time progressed you had music from the Fifth Dimension, 'Up, Up and Away'; 'Age of Aquarius' and that sort of thing. When we got to 1971 soldiers used to go on R&R and they'd buy thousands of dollars' worth of stereo equipment … I had a … Pioneer commercial turntable. I brought that back with me, plus the whole set of speakers and a Sansui amplifier and piles and piles of albums, records, 'The Real Thing'. I'd play those and they'd record it and play it off down at their tent. So at night you had the battle of the sounds in those tents. You'd have Stones at one end and CCR at the other and then somebody else would be doing Slim Dusty. It was that sort of cross-section of music. On the Armed Forces Radio you'd have request music and it was basically any sort of rock that was going on at that time. The music evolved from 1967 through to 1971. The journey of rock n' roll music was actually the journey of Vietnam. When I got home after my first tour, 'Sergeant Pepper' [Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band] the album was out. I'd bought stacks of Beach Boys stuff because I liked Beach Boys type music and I had all the Beatle type music as well. I got all Rolling Stones that I could actually collect. The tastes in music amongst Australians was very wide. Among the Americans, if you went onto an American base or you listened to their Armed Forces Radio, you started to see Summer of Love 1968 and the hippie type music and then a bit of acid rock … that was starting to come in. But they also were really on R&B and Blues. 'Dock of the Bay' was a song that you'd hear 50 times a day, along with 'Respect' by Aretha Franklin. You would hear that 50 times a day.22

The 110th Signals Squadron Headquarters actually ran a record library service in Vũng Tàu, recording music on to blank tapes provided by the soldiers. At Phan Rang Air Base, the United States Air Force (USAF) provided a similar amenity for the many airmen who had tape systems and enabled them to build up a library of taped music. A refreshing change to the taped music and music heard on the radio was live music. Australian concert parties visited the Australian bases regularly, and those close to US bases were privy to seeing American stars such as Bob Hope and Nancy Sinatra perform. Little Pattie and Col Joye were probably the most prominent home-grown acts to tour Vietnam. The concerts were treated as a special night, with some of the men donning their best uniforms to attend the shows. For the troops, seeing Australian women on stage was a great fillip to morale, the absence of women in a war environment being one of the obvious differences to home. The limited opportunity for soldiers to fraternise with women of European descent made the rare instances memorable and those women were given exalted status, as Stephen Lewis noted:

We had nurses. We had Red Cross field officers. We had observers. They would have been highly sought after as companions, I'm sure … very highly respected. Nobody would make any untoward remark towards a European woman. I include Americans there, 'cause there were quite a few American nurses. There were Kiwi nurses up there as well. When the entertainers came up, guys tended to make fools of themselves a bit, you know, jumping up on the stage and carrying on, but that was part of the concert and generally speaking that was being encouraged, as long as it was orderly. I would think that they would have every reason to feel safe because they were almost a sacred object, and a pack of men would tear one idiot apart if he did anything untoward.23

Though opportunities were limited for fraternisation between the sexes, intimate relations were not unknown, as Maureen Javes recalled:

… one or two of the girls managed to become friendly with blokes. One of the nurses married the pharmacologist and they're still happy together today. A couple of romances happened. I think some got together with the troops – I'm not too sure quite how that happened, whether they met them there or afterwards. But there was ways and means of meeting up with these people. We used to have them into our quarters, into the dining room. The men used to come in and just have a drink and a beer. That went amiss. One of the girls got pregnant and had to be sent home. So our quarters were sealed from the men and they weren't allowed to be entertained there after that. We sort of became a nunnery.24

The restricted opportunities to socialise and boredom that dogged the front line soldiers was not something that those based in headquarter jobs in Saigon had to endure. In such places, socialising was part of the job – and one not without consequences, as illustrated by the experience of Peter Jarratt, a member of the AATTV in 1963–64:

I did a lot of socialising because there was a constant stream of visitors coming down to see how we were doing at Cat Lo. Mainly CIA, but they used to drag down province chiefs and sector chiefs and Uncle Tom Cobley and generals. And if you look in my diary there is a whole list of senior people who wanted to come and have a look around. I seemed to be showing people around all of the time. And then you had to wine and dine them, all on American expense. There was a very demanding social life. And when I went to Saigon there was a demanding social life there as well, quite apart from my female friend, my embassy – I socialised in the embassy, they were living in a different world, they had parties and things, and so I socialised with them. Yeah, it was a fairly demanding social life … but I was nearly always sick. I had terrible stomach troubles, we all did because we ate Vietnamese food, got amoebic dysentery. I seemed to be always on medication because of my gut. Some of the advisors came back and reckoned they had more wounds in their belly than they had ever seen in a million years … the food was something that you can only imagine. And American food was appalling as well, absolutely appalling.25

Even though Saigon offered extravagant opportunities to some who served there, it was a city marked with its own sense of danger, as noted by Norman Fearn, a regular with the Royal Australian Service Corps attached to the 1st Communications Zone Postal Unit in 1968–69:

It held the most tenseness of any place I've ever been in. It's more tense feelings in Saigon than there was out in the front lines 'cause you just didn't know if the young couple or the young youth on the motorbike pulling up alongside you was going to throw a grenade, a knife, or fire a few shots, and this used to happen quite often. You had to be on the lookout and always tense and looking everywhere, as you go down the town. But that was the worst part of Saigon that I can recall. The tenseness and even the – any of the boys coming in from the front, coming to Saigon for a short space of time, I'd say they were pleased to get back out where they could relax in their quarters. Towards the end of our twelve months, in late '68 and that, it quietened down quite a bit 'cause apparently it must have come alive again … as the end got nearer.26

Knowing the fixed term of their tour of Vietnam, Australian service personnel settled into the routine of life in their new accommodations and commenced marking the days off their calendars. Not surprisingly, the accommodation in Nui Dat was basic; and for many of the infantrymen, life at the 'Dat' was somewhat transitory, as they spent much of their time in the field, where conditions were obviously more Spartan again. The rudimentary nature of the ablution blocks in Nui Dat and Vũng Tàu were little different in the early years of the Australian involvement but were improved over time to varying degrees. The quality and variety of food consumed was varied and limited, but those living in more established quarters and in the towns and cities were able to supplement their diets with local produce – though this was not a luxury often afforded troops in Nui Dat and in the field. Soldiers in the front line welcomed treats sent from home to break the blandness of their fare. Beyond sleeping and eating arrangements, service personnel engaged in many social activities in which the drinking of alcohol formed a central part. The consumption of alcohol was an easy and obvious means of escaping or forgetting about the rigours of service. Drinking, along with reading books, watching movies and listening to music, were central to the in-house normalisation of life away from home for most serving personnel in Vietnam.

Two soldiers resting in a tent with a black dog standing between them.

Members of the Anti-Tank Platoon, 9th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (9RAR), listen to music in a tent in the company lines at Nui Dat: Private John Parcell (left), Private Neil Matthews, and Janus, one of the Support Company's tracker dogs. Photographer Roger King. AWM P06259.009

Members of 5RAR play touch football in a cleared patch in rubber trees during a break between operations, August 1966. AWM FOR/66/0635/VN
A group of five shirtless soldiers crowded around a wooden chest in front of a large artillery piece.

Artillerymen of 103 Battery enjoy a break by their 105mm howitzer, 1967. Photographer Michael Coleridge. AWM COL/67/0139/VN

A tracked armoured vehicle on a beach with beach goers in the background.

Members of 7RAR enjoy a few minutes off from operations to have a quick swim in the South China Sea while the gunner of an armoured personnel carrier stands guard, January 1971. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/71/0011/VN

Five cooks standing around a large saucepan.

RAAF cooks mix fruitcake for a Christmas dinner at Vũng Tàu with the assistance of Vietnamese worker Nguyen Thi Cuc, December 1966. Left to right: Warrant Officer Tex Kenny, Corporal Kevin Andrews, Leading Aircraftman Paul Banks and Leading Aircraftman Tony Reynolds-Huntley. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0106/04

Three soldiers sitting in a room reading newspapers and writing letters with a rifle propped in the foreground.

Trooper Brian Pollock uses the YMCA writing desk while Private Linton Allen and Corporal Len Buck read while awaiting their turn, February 1968. Photographer Richard William Crothers. AWM CRO/68/0104/VN

A local laundry shop on the outskirts of Bà Rịa made full use of flattened beer cans to construct the wall of the shop and provide the sign outside, 1971. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/71/0188/VN

Seven uniformed men holding beer cans in front of a large tent.

RAAF airmen outside their 'wet canteen' tent named the Ettamogah Hotel, Vũng Tàu, 1966. Left to right: Robby Gee, Doug Bowie, Kevin Seckington, Ray Bessen, Wayne Darcy, John Florence and Kevin Devine. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0053/03

Seven uniformed men holding beer cans in front of a large tent.

RAAF airmen outside their 'wet canteen' tent named the Ettamogah Hotel, Vũng Tàu, 1966. Left to right: Robby Gee, Doug Bowie, Kevin Seckington, Ray Bessen, Wayne Darcy, John Florence and Kevin Devine. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0053/03

A man scrubbing down a table with buckets of water while a man standing in his underwear watches on.

The laundry at the RAAF base used by members of No. 9 Squadron at Vũng Tàu, 1967. Photographer Joseph E Riches. AWM P01596.003

A soldier sits at a table talking to a woman with a child, while children look through a window in the background.

Lance Corporal Andy Hyde, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), speaks with a Vietnamese woman working at the laundry in the town of Bà Rịa, a few miles from the 1st Australian Task Force base, March 1968. Photographer Richard William Crothers. AWM CRO/68/0233/VN

A smiling naval officer serves men food from a long table on a warship.

A petty officer and cooks of the RAN guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane serve up a banquet to crew members during the ship's second and last deployment off the coast of Vietnam with the US Seventh Fleet, 1971. Photographer Elmer Christopher Galloway. AWM NAVYM1212/23


Just as serving personnel had to adjust to the climate, the people, the food, and their new living quarters, so too did they have to adjust to the natural environment around them.

Some of the insect life encountered in Vietnam was not unfamiliar to Australians. Mosquitoes and leeches are common to Australia, although the level of irritation experienced

from such things in Vietnam may have dwarfed the home experience. Snakes, too, are a feature of Australian life, although the varieties of these reptiles encountered obviously differed. Contact with larger animals such as elephants, tigers and monkeys often drew comment and presented a new form of exotica to Australian eyes. Some veterans of the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation had previous contact with such mammals but for most of the Australians, familiar only with their own unique fauna, these animals represented a new experience. For those whose postings had them living in the cities and towns in Vietnam, contact with wildlife was limited but for the men in the field, patrolling the jungles and paddy fields, encounters were more numerous and often unexpected. Such meetings also carried some risk because they could invoke reactions and movement that might compromise men in concealed positions and also because illness and wounds might be a consequence of such encounters.

Mosquitoes, of course, carried the threat of malaria, which could potentially incapacitate a soldier for months, and so preventative methods were undertaken. Mosquito nets were provided, as well as anti-malaria tablets. While the task of setting up a net in fixed quarters was fairly straightforward, the practicality of erecting a mosquito net in the field was quite another matter – as Anthony Hughes, an infantryman and veteran of two tours in 1967–68 and 1970–71, pointed out:

… who the hell is going to put a mosquito net up inside a hoochie if you've got to bloody upstage and move in the middle of the night? It is again an exercise in futility. We were supposed to carry them and we were supposed to use them, but it was another extraneous bit of shit that always got left back at Nui Dat. If you go out and you are laying an ambush, naturally you can't move, you can't cough, you can't fart, and you can't do this. How are you going to put a bloody mosquito net up when you are lying flat on your guts in the mud or something? Then I think they gave us these things like a bee-keeper's net and that's bloody stupid too because you couldn't see through the damn things of a night-time. And the mosquito repellent that we were issued with, I've still got some in the shed actually, the bastards used to drink it; I'm sure of it. They used to get high on it. It didn't do a damn thing. It would sting your eyes. It made good bloody oil for the weapons if you ran out of rifle oil, but it certainly didn't deter the little bloody mozzies at all.1

Wasps were another winged insect that could make life difficult if not downright dangerous, as evident in the following incident related by Robert Van Harskamp, a sapper with 21 Engineer Support Troop who served in 1967–68:

There was a massive tree … it was full of these wasps and we kept going past them every day … and dumping our loads and everything, dozer going up there, roller rolling away, going past them, we didn't disturb them, they didn't disturb us, then this arsehole, I don't know who it was, grabbed a rock and threw it right through the middle of them ... One billion wasps all of a sudden took off in one hit. As soon as you disturb one, they all go automatically. Now Billy Warren would have been about six or seven hundred metres away from where it actually happened. When they came, they came. I was on the Ute, thank Christ, so I planted it and took off, only got a couple of hits. We drove as fast as we could away from it and Billy was on the grader and he's grading away and looking and next thing they are flying past him and he said, “Hey, what the hell is going on, it's not lunchtime yet?” About two seconds after he said that – boom, boom, boom, he got hit. About thirty or forty of them got him. He was in a mess … you couldn't see his eyes … we couldn't go back to the work site, couldn't go back there for two days … we had machines and flame throwers and they got rid of them that way because we couldn't go back there again until they got rid of the wasps' nest.2

John McPherson, who served at 1st Australian Field Hospital during 1970–71, described the condition of the unfortunate victims of a wasp attack:

In particular I remember a fellow in … an APC – and he was sitting on top of that and going through the jungle, and he must have just glanced this tree, and there was a wasp nest in it. And the wasp nest fell down, onto the turret of his APC, and all the wasps came completely out and absolutely stung him completely all over. I've never seen a man in so much pain. By the time he was dusted off and back to us, you wouldn't think there was a hospital with enough morphine to quell him, and he come up in welts … one of the other blokes virtually went into shock. He only had a dozen stings in him that we tried to get out but this other bloke was covered just down his face and down his head. Although he had a hat on, he'd tried to get that off and once he got that off they got all over his head. And I don't think I've ever, ever seen a person in so much pain. They came in screaming, and they'd been administered morphine on the way in. Geez, he was a mess … five or six days later he walked out with a few red blotches on him.3

John Sonneveld, an army helicopter pilot who served in 1970–71, witnessed a similar incident involving green ants whilst hovering above troops in the jungle:

… all of a sudden, one of the armoured personnel carriers came to a screaming halt. The back door flew open. All the blokes ran out the back of it and started tearing their clothes off. What the hell? ... While they were tripping along, a nest of green ants dropped down the turret and was biting the hell out of them. So they weren't worried about bullets, they were worried about ants.4

Peter Beauchamp described how difficult it was to spot the ants, and how intrusive they could be once aroused:

… they have these green tree ants and red tree ants. And what they did is they got into the tree and they built their nest in the leaves in the tree so you didn't know they were there. But they sort of pulled the leaves in around themselves and made a nest in the middle and somehow welded the leaves together. But you brush that and the next minute you've got the angriest little fighting ant on you. And they don't stop. They get in and they bite everywhere. And they go down your shirt, your trousers and everything. And they just keep biting. They'll just attack you, both the red and the green. I've had the instance where I was involved in one of these situations and I had to physically take my shirt off and throw my shirt away and then I was brushing these ants off. There was that many of them on my body and they were biting and I just came up in all these welts. So that's just some of the nasties.5

The assessment of Noel McLaughlin, a trooper with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps who undertook two tours in 1969 and 1971, that such 'cranky … insects' could 'stop a war' was not far off the mark.6 For soldiers who had to lie on the ground for long periods or who had to wade through water or move through the jungle, there were a host of 'nasties' with which they had to contend. Leeches proved a particularly problematic creature and Harold Butterworth, a sergeant who served with the 8th Field Ambulance in 1967–68, described how invasive they could be as well as giving an insight to how a sensitive problem was dealt with:

Out in the jungle it's moist and there are leeches, and leeches go for anything. You can just walk from here to there in the jungle and come out and you're covered in leeches. You have to burn them off you. Of course, if you're sleeping in these sort of areas, what they do is sometimes they get up the eye of your old fellow and they attach to the insides of the urethra. Now this can be quite a frightening thing as you can imagine because it causes swelling. It's only the leech that's swelling but they can swell to four times their normal size ... But although it's not painful, it is very distressing to them to know there is a leech up there. And, of course, you can't get a cigarette butt and burn it off, can you? The only way you can get that is to induce him to have a leak. So you have to give him a diuretic and the best diuretic you can get is a beer. You can't have that out in operations out in the bush, so they get evacuated and you give them a bottle of beer and they piss it out … We had 2 or 3 of those. We used to issue condoms to them for when they went on leave but they used to wear them out in the scrub, to stop the leeches getting in …7

Not all insects were on a mission to cause misery and discomfort to Australian serving personnel. Vaughan Millar, a lance-bombardier with the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery who served in 1967–68, mentioned one of the more benign and deceptive varieties of insects encountered:

One of the things that I haven't mentioned is that though I spent most of my time in Vietnam awake at night, they got fireflies there. And you'd be out there and you'd see these lights dancing in the distance and you really couldn't tell whether they were a lot of small lights close to you, or big lights very far away, or whether they were in convoy and these sorts of things.8

It was the sheer size of some of the insects and invertebrates encountered that was enough to cause concern, irrespective of any venomous capabilities they may or may not have had. Peter Beauchamp described what he called 'rubber tree spiders' as being big enough to 'fit into a hat' and being 'six to eight inches across'.9 Anthony Hughes, perhaps with some slight exaggeration, declared that there were centipedes as big as cobra snakes and scorpions as big as yabbies.10 Such 'critters' did not have to be of mythic proportions to disable service personnel. Victor Smith, a leading aircraftman who undertook two tours in 1967–68 and 1970–71, recalled the circumstances in which he was stung by a scorpion:

We were on a task, I had to resupply smoke grenades into the chopper we had a Connex that stored all our smoke grenades, and I was pulling smoke grenades out of containers that they were in and taking them across to the chopper, and this blasted scorpion bit me on the finger, and it stung like a bull ant! In fact I had the rest of the afternoon off because of it.11

On another occasion Victor was unlucky enough to be attacked from another unexpected quarter while off duty:

On a rest day we were doing some sport and whatnot down at Back Beach down by the Badcoe Club, and we were actually out in the South China Sea, having a bit of a swim. Some of the boys were playing around with the volleyball and I was off on my own. I had sort of decided that I would head across and join them and sort of floating on my back and my foot touched down onto the sand and I think it was a stingray that got me on my left foot. And it really got me, I had blood going everywhere, my foot within a matter of minutes had swelled up and was bruised from the foot right up to the knee! And I am heading off to the beach, yelling and screaming, 'I have been bit! I have been bit!' and all my mates are looking off at me, 'Oh, look at Smithy. The stupid bastard'. And then they saw the blood, 'Oh shit, he really is in strife'. So they bundled me into a Land Rover and got me up to the army hospital and I got treated for it. Bloody Viet Cong stingray and a Viet Cong scorpion have attacked me in separate incidents.12

One insect of unknown designation was that described by Anthony Hughes:

… there was another thing called an RTA bug. I don't know of anyone who was ever bitten by one or stung by one. It was so called RTA because if you got bitten by it, the story was, RTA was 'Return To Australia'. As I said I don't know of anyone who was bitten by it. There may have been a couple of people, but I don't have a clue. And it was a funny looking critter. It was quite a big insect like a beetle. His jaw, from memory, used to come across like that, like a big bull ant's nippers, but they were also split laterally so in effect he actually had four.13

Peter Beauchamp provided a further description:

We had a little critter over there which we called the RTA bug … It was a funny little thing. It was only about two inches long with a nipper on it. And they reckoned if it bit you, it made you very, very ill for a long time.14

According to Vaughan Millar, the RTA bug was 'a variety of a tailless whip scorpion'.15 Whether caused by an RTA bug or some other variety of 'nasty', Charles Stewart – a signalman with 1SAS who served in 1967–68 – described a painful encounter experienced by one of his colleagues which revealed the way in which unexpected incidents could compromise a patrol's efforts to maintain concealment:

… one of the blokes went on leave and we took one of the cooks out with us, and he was sort of [an] amateur entomologist, picked this thing up and it went 'shhhht!' and sprayed into his face. Oh, I think it was, they told me afterwards, like hydrochloric acid that was a spray, defensive of this particular beast and it sprayed all over his face, so he was burning, his face was virtually blistering and we had to keep him quiet because he wanted to have a yell out, so we're stuffing his bloody sweat rag down his mouth so he couldn't make too much noise and I'm trying to treat it by pouring water all over it, which was nasty because it was dry season and we needed the water …16

For Paddy Bacskai, a corporal with the Special Air Squadron who had served in 1967 and 1970–71, working amidst myriad micro threats represented a kind of earthly hell:

There is a netherworld of leeches, spiders, snakes, call it whatever you like, all this sludge in the netherworld that you walk through, sleep on, etc. We slept off the ground if we could mainly because of the parasites and everything that were almost a greater danger to you than one of the communists shooting you in an ambush. There was hookworms, there was heartworms. There was rat's excreta and urine which would give you things like leptospirosis. Malaria was common – I got it twice in spite of the Atebrin tablets … Anyhow, can you imagine working 60 days under this netherworld type thing?17

Snakes, like spiders, invoke an almost instinctive fear in many people. Soldiers were certainly wary about encountering snakes, and not without good reason as Vietnam was home to a number of venomous varieties of kraits and vipers as well as the fabled King Cobra. Snakes were plentiful, as Peter Woodford, an Airfield Defence Guard with No. 2 Squadron who served in 1969–70, noted:

… there were thousands and thousands of snakes. You go outside in patrol. You never walk through rice paddies. You try to avoid it. You come back early in the morning and I'm talking as soon as it gets light ... You always walked on top of the paddies because walking through meant you got all of the kraits, which is an asp. They were starting to get ready to sun themselves so they could move.18

Of course the large number of snakes in existence meant that close encounters were inevitable, and while few snake bites were recorded amongst Australian soldiers, there were plenty of moments where snakes put the wind up soldiers.19 Peter Woodford described such a one:

Another night we had to race down to the bunkers. The first person that raced into the bunker also raced out again because there was a King Cobra there. Sitting up like that. So we kind of let him have residence and we stayed outside. That was fine by me. I wasn't going to go in and shoot him.20

Bill Black, a medic with 3RAR, was one soldier who had a snake encounter closer than most. His account revealed, again, how such incidents could compromise the safety of soldiers in the field:

I've often said to people I would've gladly jumped in the snake pit at the zoo and not thought twice of it. You got that used to the snakes … you saw all the big pythons. You saw every snake … cobras were quite common. I remember in an ambush, it was dry because the creek bed was, well there was nothing in it. We went in about early hours of the day, perhaps midday or whatever, and despite what you hear about the Americans, we all carried the trannies too, except we had ear plugs, they didn't. Anyway, it must've been around the Grand Final time here and I was … starting to wear out with all this crap. Anyway, I'm listening to the footy and I'm thinking all my mates and bloody Karen will be down at the Beauie pub … and we're still stuck in this … place, waiting to kill someone that doesn't want to be killed and all that bloody stuff … And when I was at tech school, I got winded playing football, and I must've been dreaming about playing football and suddenly I feel this bloody whack in my ribs. And again, I thought 'Ah shit, I've been whacked playing football', and I thought 'Oh I know what that is'. The weight's starting to go over my body … and I must've yelled out … And Kellsy [Lt. Graham Kells] said, 'Shut up, you'll get us bloody killed!' And I said, ' there's a snake on me' and all of a sudden I hear Graham say, ' hell'. Snowy White, the sergeant … said, 'Shut up … you'll get us killed!' And I'm like, ' hell, it's still on me'. They had heads on them like footballs, they must've been 12 foot long, and I bloody knew what had hit me. Yeah, I've never forgotten that night.21

Another reptile that diggers on patrol might cross paths with was the monitor lizard, which could be construed as representing an enemy presence. Don Barnby, a trooper with 2SAS who served in 1971, related his experiences with the giant lizard:

… one thing that was very disturbing was one of the big monitor lizards that used to run around the bush sometimes. They used to sound like people actually running, because they were quite heavy, they were quite long. They were … I seem to remember in my imagination about six to eight feet long, these big lizards. And they'd … sound like somebody running barefoot through the bush.22

It was the plight of the larger animals and encounters with them that invoked especial empathy among the soldiers when the catastrophic effect the war had on innocent creatures became evident. These animals, like the country's civilians, became collateral damage if unfortunate enough to find themselves in war's destructive path. The tiger was undoubtedly the most majestic of the animals native to Vietnam, and stories of them passing through camps or of being seen while on patrol were not uncommon. These chance meetings provided some humorous moments, but sometimes the outcomes of such encounters, sadly, reflected man's unsympathetic impulse toward nature. Bill Black related one humorous story that occurred in the company to which he belonged:

One of the other platoons in our company, they're in an ambush and I think they'd been out for a couple of days on a creek. Anyway, they hear this bloody screaming starting to come from his tent, because there were often stories ... because they run a green venetian blind cord around the perimeter and it came into the centre from the three gun points. And if you're moving at night that's how you move down. There were often stories that the closed fist would be going down and hit a closed fist from the other side and it was the Viet Cong. I never experienced that but you certainly heard those stories. Anyway, I suppose this guy's thought shit, he's getting his throat cut. And I don't know whoever got to him first and calmed him down so he could speak, because you slept on your back. And he could feel something wet on his face and when he opened his eyes there's a bloody tiger over the top of him licking his face.23

George Logan, an AATTV member serving in his second tour in 1969–70, recalled a much grimmer incident that involved the shooting of a tiger:

At one stage there I was with the Vietnamese and we were protecting a land-clearing company of US engineers and they had these long ploughs and they were clearing the jungle, making trails throughout the jungle and so forth. And they were clearing this area and as they cleared, of course, the wildlife in there was getting trapped. And we knocked over the odd deer and one day this tiger came bounding out and bounded towards two of my diggers, my binchies, and they shot him. One shot just in here (cheek) and one under here. And killed him and they brought him in on the dozer and put him down and he was just beautiful, he really was and as I watched him his eyes clouded over and I thought, 'What a bloody shame, you know, that we killed him'… Anyway, as it was, we ate the tiger, and I must tell you those tigers must have muscles in their shit because no matter what the Vietnamese did with it, it was as tough as buggery. They could cook anything the Vietnamese, the deer was beautiful, we killed a couple of deer there, but this thing was so tough.24

While the incident George Logan described had a degree of necessity to it, in that it was motivated by a sense of self-preservation, other incidents involved nothing less than wanton killing. Peter Woodford recalled several incidents involving big cats that showed both man's kinder and baser instincts at play:

One night we ran into a panther that was sitting there. We thought 'we don't want to kill it', so back we go at a very fast rate of knots. Another night we were out there and we saw a couple of tiger cubs. The problem was if there are tiger cubs, where's Mum and Dad? So you kept going and not hanging around … but we used to have panthers and if you've ever heard a panther scream it's very much like a woman screaming in pain … tiger's roar but panthers do have a funny type of scream. The Yanks used to go out shooting them, the tigers. I have [only] ever seen one shot panther or maybe it could have been a jaguar. But it was a black animal and I think it was a panther … We were coming back one day from Cam Ranh Bay and here's a jeep with two tigers thrown over it, dead … Over the bonnet. The Yanks were sitting there with their hands up and people taking photographs on it. Why kill an animal for that? They are not doing any harm … I think in a lot of ways I would like to go back there just to see what has happened to the animals. Like I said tigers are a magnificent beast and the Americans used to shoot them for sport … two draped over the bonnet of a jeep. Two magnificent animals: one male, one female. It almost rips your heart out. I mean just because they can say, 'I've shot a tiger'. Who cares? There are not enough of them left in the world now.25

Infantryman Terrence Sturrock, a national serviceman who served with 7RAR in 1968–69, remembered hearing announcements on the American Armed Forces News that spoke to the all too common destruction of wildlife in the pursuit of perverted sport:

… instead of the normal ads they had a lot of … what we'd call community safety announcements … I remember one, 'Don't machine gun elephants'. That was for … American helicopter pilots that were up in the highlands … if they saw herds of elephants … [they would] sometimes wing down and shoot them … So there was all that sort of surreal background with the Americans.26

The tragic consequences that such actions and the war were having on the wildlife was not completely lost on all those who were serving in Vietnam. Janet Fry, who was a civilian entertainer, provided an uplifting account of at least one attempt to provide some relief to distressed elephants.

We stayed with the veterinary team once and they told us they'd been out into the boonies up in the Ho Chi Minh Trail to patch up a herd of elephants that had got too close to the bombing and a couple of them had been killed, but there was quite a herd of elephants up there and they'd landed their choppers in the bush and after they'd darted the elephants that needed [help]. One had his tail hanging off, so they sewed it all back on and pumped him full of [anaesthetic]; some had their ears blown off and they darted them, tranquillised them, put the chopper down in the area that they'd flattened and they rushed out and would sew up any of the damage on this herd of elephants. I thought that was rather nice. That was the nice side of the war. There was still people out there that did care for animals as well as people.27

Primates were another species of animal that were encountered. That soldiers moving through the jungle were as much a point of curiosity to these as they were to the soldiers, is suggested by Donald Barnby:

Lot of monkeys, little monkeys, used to have little white-faced monkeys, grey little white-faced monkeys that used to hang up in the trees and shower you, and shake branches and throw things at you. Because we're moving very slowly, I think we intrigued them … And these monkeys used to shake branches and they used to – you could see them – you'd look up in the trees and they'd be looking at you, but because you're all camouflaged up and moving incredibly slowly, it's sort of … they didn't really know what you were, you know, whereas the average person'd be walking quite quickly … and they'd know … exactly … But they'd look at us, you could see them with inquisitive looks on their faces, hanging out of trees and they'd be looking, they'd be trying to figure out what it is down there … because you'd be looking up and all you'd see was the whites of their eyes … so they were probably thinking, 'What are these things down on the jungle floor, moving around like this?'28

Urmas Moldre, who served with both the 2SAS and AATTV in 1968 and 1970–71, provided a humorous example of the curiosity of the primates:

… we were down near a stream and because you're down near a watercourse the trees are naturally bigger, roots are deeper and so on … we got picked up in the morning by a friendly ape, an orang-utan, or a gibbon or some such, and this thing's just adopted us. And the silliness of the situation, if you're down below moving at sort of a hundred yards in half an hour sometimes, and above you you've got 'whoo, whoo, whoo'… swinging from tree to tree, you're thinking 'You bloody idiot, for God's sake leave us alone!' Anyway, he adopted us, he loved us for some reason … and it didn't bother us because it's just jungle noises anyway so it's nothing, there's no harm done. But we stopped for lunch and he stopped too and he was sitting in the tree and he's looking down at us, and we're doing something boring like eating a cold can of whatever. So he decides to show off and he's leaping around us from tree to tree, these great big swings, beautiful, arcing away tree to tree. All of a sudden he's let go of this tree and as soon as he did he realised, 'I'm not going to make that branch!' and for about 30 feet there was this horrendous, 'ahhhhhhh'… scream, thump, and as these five guys with their cans and their weapons across their laps all stand up, all looking for their little monkey mate, the monkey, orang-utan, whatever he was, he got up. I swear he walked over to the tree that he'd missed, grabbed it with both arms and started banging his head against the tree, jibbering to himself all the while. You could almost see, you know, 'You stupid, stupid monkey, how old are ya? You made it to this age and you still can't grab the …!' and off he went, he wandered off. He was too embarrassed ever to look at us again.29

Monkeys and baboons were, however, quite capable of violent behaviour and soldiers were warned of the danger they could pose. Bill Black provided an account of just how spectacular and unnerving the presence of these creatures could be:

When we arrived, they showed you what the booby traps were and they'd had, I guess, a platoon, attacked by monkeys, and I think they lost two or three guys. And they were telling us if you bloody hear the monkeys coming over, face down and don't even look. And we were in a fairly sparse rubber plantation ... And we could hear this bloody roar and this crashing, and we're thinking, 'Shit' … one of the guys said, 'Monkeys' so we hit the deck and of course you've got to peek. God, it was like an eclipse … where they were going through the trees, and I suppose they hit a slightly rotten branch and that was the crashing on to the ground … and they were big monkeys … It seemed to last forever … there must've been bloody thousands of them or hundreds of them. Just on the move across the canopy.30

The environment of the primates was, however, compromised by the deliberate destruction of jungle through the strategy of defoliation that was embarked on by the US-led forces, as noted by Eric Giblett, a trooper with 1SAS who served in 1970:

… there were troops of monkeys that used to go through the trees and … with the Agent Orange and that, when it was defoliated the old monkeys suffered because where they used to hide in the trees was all dead. We were sitting there one day … watching them and this monkey comes through the trees and swings and grabs the branch and it's all dead and snaps off and down to the ground. Then you hear him moaning so he's obviously winded himself. He was a big monkey, obviously the troop leader if you like – so there was quite a bit of that.31

One can easily imagine how unnerving it was for soldiers already on edge, listening for the enemy, to be hearing strange noises and wondering whether it was the Viet Cong approaching. Being unfamiliar with some of the local fauna it was easy to become jumpy even over the most harmless noises, as is demonstrated in this account by Peter Kercher, an infantryman who served in 1968–69, who also revealed the variety of surprises that could visit men on patrol:

You can't be silent but that's your intention. You know there's twigs and things and you'll walk and see the twigs and you'll be 20 yards ahead and you'll hear some bugger behind you has stepped on the twig … Apart from that there's noises in the bush all the time. There's bark that's falling off the tree somewhere and you wonder what it is and that's all it is, something like that. There's all other sounds … and there's this 'rat a tat tat'. Something I'd never heard before. Bloody woodpecker. Various other noises. One time coming through the scrub, there is this crash bang coming and I thought, 'Here's someone coming, moving fast coming through the scrub towards us', and go to ground, quiet, waiting for them to come out. Something like an orang-utan but smaller, about 5 of them, come through. Going through the trees above us … Another time I can recall … we were out on a patrol … and we were out all night and we were under a tree that had fallen down and we were all lying out under this big tree and hear this noise coming, and this is just after the sunlight started to break, and hear this noise coming and here's a bloody great pig with tusks like this, sticks his head under the bush. I had him lined up. If he'd done the wrong thing he was going to get blasted but he sniffed us, looked at us and wandered off. The next time, a rooster. I was very suspicious this time but nothing happened. He was wild but he looked like a domestic rooster that got out of a camp or village or something. He came trotting through the thing. I heard this coming so we all froze. He came trotting through. He looked like he was out of the farmyard.32

Of all the wildlife encountered, it was the behaviour of the wild pigs that perhaps provided the most sobering reminder of war's grisly side, as alluded to by Ronald Perkins, a Korean War veteran and an original AATTV member who served in Vietnam in 1962–63 and 1971:

The only animals we noticed over there was the wild pigs. They used to come in and eat the bodies. You'd often find after a battle you'd hear a bit of noise out there and come the morning you would see the wild pigs are still at them or have been at them during the night, eating the bodies.33

Australian interaction with local Vietnamese wildlife could hardly be said to have been a pleasant tourist experience. Encounters were often abrupt and unexpected, and at times potentially threatened the lives of serving personnel. For the Australians living in basic quarters and in the field, insects constituted a constant discomfort that had to be endured. Nevertheless the wildlife encountered in Vietnam provided some memorable and humorous anecdotes. However, the tragedy of the war and the calamitous effect it had on the larger species of animals was not lost on some of the Australians who served in Vietnam.

Two shirtless soldiers standing and holding a large dead snake.

Sergeant Leo Jaago of the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit shows Captain Karl Jackson the king cobra he shot, 1967. The snake measured 11 feet (3.35 m) from head to tail. Photographer Byron Charles Campbell. AWM CAM/67/0309/VN

A soldier holding three live snakes while another soldier looks on.

Private Bob Bredl of the 12th Field Regiment, RAA, (right) shows Sergeant Terry Jobson some of the snakes he collected at the Task Force base at Nui Dat, July 1971. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/71/0366/VN

A bed in a tent with a bag, pair of thongs, and a radio on the ground next to it.

Interior of a tent at Nui Dat used as living quarters by a member of 5RAR, with a bed fully enclosed by a mosquito net, 1966. Photographer Douglas James Bishop. AWM P01353.024

A large scorpion next to a cigarette pack.

A pet scorpion belonging to Corporal Erik Frisken, B Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment, at Nui Dat, 1970. Photographer Paul Owen Davison. AWM P11560.013

A soldier resting against a large dirt ant mound.

Medical orderly Staff Sergeant Toby Ross of 1RAR rests against a giant ants' nest on the side of a jungle track during Operation Roundhouse, February 1966. Photographer Kenneth Roy Hilton Blanch. AWM BLA/66/0116/VN

An elephant stretches out its trunk towards children lining a fence at a zoo.

Australian soldiers from the Task Force base at Nui Dat on a visit to the Saigon Zoo, with children from the Cao Dai orphanage in Bà Rịa, 1970. Photographer John Geoffrey Fairley. AWM FAI/70/0754/VN

A bird sits on a soldier's hand while another soldier feeds it a biscuit.

Private Sam Bradford (left) and Private Allan Brown of 7RAR feed an army biscuit to a local bird that had befriended the men of the unit at a fire support base, June 1970. Photographer Michael John Jones. AWM JON/70/0432/VN

Two soldiers holding a small pig.

Tiger pig', the purported mascot of 5RAR, being presented by Lieutenant Colonel John Warr to Lieutenant Colonel Eric Smith, 7RAR, during a handover ceremony at Nui Dat prior to 5RAR returning to Australia, May 1967. Photographer Michael Coleridge. AWM COL/67/0316/VN

A monkey sitting on the barrel of a machine gun.

Private Robert Allen, a member of the Defence and Employment Platoon of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF), with his unit's mascot, 'Hardrock' the monkey, who was given to the platoon by the people of Cam My village, June 1971. Photographer Philip John Errington. AWM PJE/71/0318/VN

Four cows being strapped into the cargo hold of an aeroplane.

Corporal Keith Bosley, No. 35 Squadron, RAAF, ties in a load of cows bound for Nha Trang, 1966. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0103/01

A monkey with a chain lead sitting on the shoulders of a soldier.

Corporal Don Elder, a member of the Australian Logistic Support Company, carries the unit mascot, which walked into their lines at Biên Hòa, August 1965. Photographer Bryan Rupert Dunne. AWM DNE/65/0235/VN

Keeping the home fires burning

One of the things that I did while I was there to connect myself with Australia was I'd get up on the roof at night and look at the Southern Cross and I'd think, 'That's the same Southern Cross when I'm at home', so that gave me a connect with home.1

This simple act by Barbara Bruce, a civilian nurse working at Qui Nhon Hospital in 1970, says much about the need of those serving in Vietnam to stay connected with Australia. Some 4,000 kilometres separated the two countries – the journey home by aeroplane was less than 24 hours, but for those locked into 12 months of service overseas, Australia was a world away. The separation from families is an age old consequence of service with which every generation of military personnel must deal. For single men and women it might be considered to have been something felt less keenly than those affianced or married or with children, but not necessarily. Everyone had their own deeply private needs.

The mimicking of activities enjoyed at home was one way of maintaining a psychological link with home, but the most tangible and important method of connection was direct communication with loved ones. On this, those who served in Vietnam are almost universally agreed. That connection was maintained principally through letter writing, but also by the sending of taped messages, as many of those serving in Vietnam had acquired tape-recorders while on leave in the Asian cities or while visiting the well-stocked American PX store in Vũng Tàu. On occasion, some men returned home on leave to reconnect with their families, while others arranged to meet loved ones in other countries while on leave. Thoughts of home were carried by service personnel wherever they went and those thoughts could sometimes invade one's sleep, as was the case with Paul Tapp, a national serviceman serving with 7RAR in 1970:

Somehow in my deep sleep I had managed to go home. I was with my wife. We married before my embarkation in case I never returned from Vietnam. I had lost my good mate, Tony Purcell, fellow national serviceman, who went before me and was killed with 6RAR in July 1966. And before I was sent up as a 'reo' to the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit in March 1967, we'd been to see another mate who'd been gut shot, and so the reality was dawning on us. Better to be a war widow than a fiancée! 'You'll be looked after, darlin'.' I was with her when my mate shakes me awake. 'Wake up. You're on'. My turn at piquet.2

Robert Healy gave some idea of the wrench upon recently married men that service in Vietnam ushered in:

I had only been married a few weeks when I left for Vietnam. After years of living in barracks I was just getting used to wedded bliss and a tour in a war zone was not the way I wanted to spend my first year of marriage.3

Wayne Brown, a recently conscripted national serviceman and medic with 4RAR in 1968–69, described the stress of having to leave his partner:

She was very teary saying, you know, 'You promised you'd never leave me', and all this. And I said, 'Well, it's sort of out of my hands, dear. But that's the way it is and we've got two years of this, we'd better make the most of it. I'll send money home … and you've got the house and the car – see how we go'. But it was traumatic.4

Ann Kidney was another recently married spouse who experienced her husband Bruce being carried off to war, to serve with 86 Transport Platoon RAASC in 1968–69. The pain of that separation, as well as the effort made to provide a multi-layered path of regular communication to both soldier and civilian, is clearly conveyed in her account:

In January 1968 I married the man that I loved. After only three months of marriage, I stood at Mascot Airport saying goodbye to my husband. I was 18 and he was 21. It was the start of a very lonely year. Bruce was a fun-loving young man who enjoyed life and all it had to offer. We had been together for three years and during that time he had been conscripted for National Service. It was shortly after our honeymoon that we heard he was going to Vietnam. While holding Bruce tightly at the airport I told him how much I loved him and would miss him, and assured him that I would be waiting for him when he returned home. I did not want to let go of him; I did not want him to walk to that plane; I was sick with fear, as indeed he was, that he may not return. But like other National Service conscripts, Bruce felt proud to be serving his country. We wrote to each other almost every day and if a few days went by without a letter I feared the worst: a knock at the door from someone in uniform, or an urgent telegram with bad news. Our soldiers in Vietnam felt likewise – they feared a 'Dear John' letter from a wife or girlfriend to say that they had found someone else. I knew that I would never do that to Bruce, but I found it difficult to convince him of that. It was one of their biggest worries. All they had to look forward to, as they crossed each day off the calendar, was coming home to loved ones. All of us, family and friends, tried to maintain contact and reassure him. I was living with my parents and often visited Bruce's mother, father, two brothers and six sisters who also worried about him. We all wrote to him so that he could feel close to everyone. As well as letters, I made audio tapes so that he could hear all of the voices from home. I also made music tapes to keep him up to date with the latest record releases. Bruce wrote of things he saw in Vietnam. Although he could not say too much, I could always read between the lines. Things were worse than he was telling me. Every day in Vietnam there was fear, stress, anxiety, fatigue and loneliness. I felt afraid for my husband and the other boys over there – and they were only boys! I watched programs about Vietnam but although it was the first 'television war', anti-war protesters seemed to be the biggest story.5

Beyond pen and paper and audio tapes it was possible to contact loved ones by telephone but the process was difficult, as was stated by Peter Beauchamp: 'telephone calls from over there at the time were very far between. You had to have permission to ring Australia. Then you had to have a time allocated and everything else. And vice versa'.6 Michael McDermott, a regular who did two tours in 1969–70 and 1971, found a way around the more official channels when desperate to telephone his wife about his pending return:

I rang her from Vietnam. I found this way of ringing her. I found a bloke who could get me through to a relay station in Da Nang and I got a connection to the Philippines and I got a connection to Sydney and I got a connection to out where I lived, and she was around the corner at the shop with her sister, and then they came back and I spoke to her on the phone from in the field because I really needed to talk to her … I just wanted to tell her I was coming home, it wouldn't be long … and I could've written her but when I spoke to her I could be more emphatic, so I did that.7

For Edward Schunemann, a Korean war veteran and member of the Civil Affairs Unit, phone calls home to his mother were certainly important and had assumed a place in family tradition:

There was a facility where you could get a phone call through on a good day because wherever I've been in the world … I always rang my mother up on my birthday and thanked her for having me. That's always been my thing. I have to do that and I rang her up from Vietnam because they had a phone there. I couldn't ring her up from Korea but I rang her up from Vietnam. Any other time when there was a phone I rang her ...8

Letters were the most common form of communication with loved ones, and the importance of them was concisely stated by Michael Naughton, a regular army officer who did two tours in 1965–66 and 1969–70 as well as a previous short visit in 1964:

… mail is important, it's a thing that the diggers look forward to … when the mail call comes, the kid that doesn't get a letter is always left out. So his mate will say 'Here, read this'. Mail's important – they'd like to be able to keep in touch, and it's the only way they can keep in touch.9

Not surprisingly, interruptions to the receipt of mail engendered bitter feelings among those awaiting news from home. Such was the case, as Naughton recalled, when Australian trade unions decided to crank up their opposition to the war by placing embargoes on supplies and mail being sent to serving personnel in Vietnam:

I was also very angry with the trade unions who decided to deprive our people of their services. And I remember a magnificent campaign … the topographical survey people print maps and things, or they printed envelopes to send back to Australia. And they printed on it 'Punch a postie'… What a wonderful thing, 'Wallop a wharfie'. So this mail was flooding back and by the time the mail was working, this stuff was flooding back and the posties were reading it – 'Punch a postie', 'Wallop a wharfie'. It had a pretty good effect, I think. And I think the boys were showing their muscle, they were showing their extreme displeasure.10

The regularity with which service personnel wrote home depended on personal preference and circumstances. It was difficult for men on active operations outside the wire to put pen to paper, while for others letter writing was not a natural proclivity. Robert Roach undoubtedly belonged to the latter camp and was one who resorted to an alternative form of communication:

I was the worst letter writer. Even my CO called me into the office one day and said, 'Roachy, are you alive?' And I said, 'Yes sir'. And he said, 'Well for sake, tell your wife! We've had mail from home saying you're not responding – we wondered if you were dead'. So what I ended up doing was buying two little tape recorders. So we would then tape messages. And that was a lot easier than writing. So we'd swap tapes, which was much better. But I wasn't real good on the letter writing side … She's still got the letters here somewhere, but probably told her how much I missed her and loved her and, more than anything else, how I was looking forward to getting home and that sort of stuff. Things that I thought she'd want to hear.11

Soldiers understood the importance of their own letters to those at home, and the lengths to which they were prepared to go to ensure a steady flow of letters home is revealed by Creagh Bramley, a regular who served two tours in Vietnam while detached to 152 Signal Squadron (Special Air Service) in 1968–69 and 1971:

To keep the peace at home, if we were going out on patrol or something you would write seven letters, say, to cover that period of time, and then this mate who was my best man and vice versa, he would post them each day. He would post one of the letters. I'd just leave them marked one two three four five six seven … It's just you were saying, 'How's Jane, how are you? Love to Mum and Dad and love you', and all the rest of it. So you just reword that a bit and, 'It's hot up here', or, 'It's raining'. That's all you had to say, so it was quite easy to do that and then she didn't have to worry whether you were out in the bush ... I never told her until some years ago that that's what we [did], not just me. It was quite a common occurrence because it just saved them worrying about what was going on. They didn't need that hassle worrying too much about you … on top of, you know, living with my Mum and Dad can't have been easy. Not that Mum and Dad were difficult, but she's not home, you're not there. She's got [our] first baby that she's got to learn all about and … she is the sole parent looking after the kid. So she didn't need me up there bleating and saying how hard it was and all that sort of crap.12

Deciding on the content of what to include in letters was something that many soldiers wrestled with, as noted by Franklin Bridges, a gunner with 1st Field Regiment who served in 1969–70:

It used to worry us – and I've spoken to other fellas about this – we didn't know what to write in our letters home to Mum and Dad because we didn't know what they knew. If we knew that they knew nothing we could've told them what we wanted them to know, like, 'Don't worry about me, I'm this far from [the] enemy', or whatever. You could've just said 'this is where I am, and what I'm doing', but because we didn't know what they'd read or heard on the news, we couldn't tell lies in our letters, so you had to be very specific of what you were telling them because you just didn't know what they'd heard. It would be no good sending them a letter '… and don't worry about me' … if the paper said this unit was doing such-and-such. That used to worry us. Quite a few of us talked about that at the time, you know – what do you say to Mum and Dad when you know they probably know more about what's going on than we do? And that was a bit disconcerting … when we were out on operations I used to be fairly specific to Mum and Dad and say, 'The enemy were five hundred yards away' or 'they went that way' … and try to not make them anxious, but I've realised since that it probably didn't do any good anyhow because if they thought the enemy was five hundred yards away they'd think, 'My goodness, how much closer do you get?' Not thinking … most of our contacts were at twenty yards, you know. So that's not very far away ...13

Whether writing letters or sending taped messages, the soldiers acted as their own censors, deciding on what they should or could reveal. Colin Nicol, a national serviceman who served with 6RAR in 1969–70, was one who wrote home to his family and provided graphic descriptions of the actions in which he had taken part. After vividly describing his experience in his first major operation, codenamed Operation Vincent, he explained his motivation for doing so: 'A lot of people say not to write home and tell them how you feel etc, but for me it is an outlet and also I'm sure you would much rather know my true feelings – what is exactly going on…'14 Keith Payne, a regular serving with the AATTV in 1969, was one soldier who tried to shield his wife from the gravity of his situation but whose lies, as he termed them, were, in the end, undone by the reality of war:

… all the really bad parts, that's mine. She doesn't have to know. When I used to write home, well I only wrote a couple of letters. After that I found the new trick, small tape recorders. So I bought a small tape recorder and a few tapes and sent it home to Flo … and we'd swap tapes. And I'd get halfway through the tape, that was for the family, and then I'd say, 'For Flo only, for Flo only, for Flo only', so the rest of the family had to blow through while the 'Flo only' part of the tape went on for Flo. But I never told her what was going on, you know. I'd say everything was going all right, you know. 'The training's well', and [such] lies. Well, I did until I got hit that first time – I got hit and then a man appeared at Flo's, at the door at home, and the boys said, 'Mum, there's a soldier outside'. And Mum had a look and she said, 'Oh yeah, how many? Only one? Oh, it's all right then'. 'cause she knew – two, it would be the padre. Padres are bad news. So he came up, knocked on the door, [and she said] 'Come on then, how is he? Want a cup of tea? How is he?', 'cause she knew I'd only been wounded, you know. And when the second time come around, she said, 'This is getting a bit heavy'. Yeah, my lies – yeah, never mind.15

For men wounded in action, particularly if the wound was a severe one, the opportunity to write home was compromised and they relied on the invaluable assistance of others, such as the Red Cross women, of which Rosemary McLaughlin was one:

Our main duty was being a communicator for a wounded soldier, with his family in Australia. That was really the main duty of the Red Cross personnel. Initially the army would send communication to the soldier's family in Australia that he'd been wounded, or he was hospitalised. It was our duty to have a letter dictated. If they were well enough they would write a letter, but usually it was dictating a letter to us, and we would send that home. Or a telegram. Mostly a telegram first, then we'd have letters dictated. And that might go on for a whole week. Every day we would sit down and have a letter dictated to us, and we would post that off. And then in the reverse, it was quite often our duty to see if we can follow up and get mail for them, because if they were transferred from the bush, from Nui Dat down to the hospital for any reason, they would lose contact with mail. So we would have to follow that up. Because it was a great cheer-up thing to have. Probably this was one aspect where we were not really briefed sufficiently. That this was one of the duties. But then you did it as part of your course of a day. And you knew you had to do the letter, and get it posted, and there was satisfaction all round, because the patient would be happy that he'd had contact going to his family. And you'd be pleased to have been able to do that …16

The most dreaded of letters received by service personnel was that universally referred to as a 'Dear John' – a letter from a sweetheart ending the relationship. As feared as such a letter was, the panacea for the afflicted soldier within a tight-knit khaki family was relatively simple according to Graham Sherrington, a regular with 5RAR in 1966–67:

Towards the end of our tour we were very 'tight'. We all looked after each other and understood each other's strengths, weaknesses, fears and home worries. I think it made me more tolerant of people in the long term. Sometimes men would get a 'Dear John' from the wife or girlfriend. When this was spotted – and it was fairly easy to spot a grown man crying or deathly pale after reading his mail – the therapy was fairly basic. We'd put up the 'Dear John' on the notice board and everyone would append comments, 'What a bitch!' etc. I'm sure the shallow, selfish women who sent them never imagined a hundred men would mock the letter, or many of them would never have been mailed. Next we'd get the recipient drunk. It seemed to work fairly well. Pain shared is pain eased. One young man in another company shot his 'Dear John' in the bottom of his weapon pit with a submachine gun – scaring everyone.17

David Williams, an engineering mechanic serving on HMAS Vampire in 1966, was another who alluded to the importance of the service family to men struggling with personal problems:

I knew my wife for a couple of years before we got married, so it's just lucky that I picked one that could go the distance, because it's difficult on the ladies when you're away – and barring health reasons, I've seen a lot of good men get out of the navy and still end up divorced, which is a shame because sometimes they may get that 'Dear John' and we've got six or seven months to go before we get home. Look, I've been on board and a mate gets a 'Dear John' and, like, you get into port and there's about a hundred letters there and you see them and we've got about six months to run and his missus is gone and probably shacked up with an ex-mate of his and Christ knows what, and you've got to keep those guys, you're on deployment. If you go home and you get special compassionate leave, you're a welfare case and a whole host of things – but it's up to the people around him to keep him together and to say, 'We'll be there for you' … and that's what I find is pretty important. Well, that doesn't happen in civvy street, nine times out of ten you're having problems with your family and you're on your own and you've got nowhere to go to, so I'm always mindful of that …18

Some service personnel extended their letter writing beyond the immediate circle of family and friends. Pen pals were not uncommon, and some soldiers committed themselves quite earnestly to their new previously unknown friends, as is evident in the recollection of Lester Mengel:

I wasn't an avid letter writer. However, I did write a letter. One of the guys had a friend that wanted a pen pal in Vietnam, so I said, 'Hey, I've got nothing to lose …', so I wrote probably two letters a week to her. Mum got upset because I wasn't writing enough to her. So I got to know her pretty well. When I came back from Vietnam I drove all the way down to Melbourne to spend some time with her and her family and came back to Brisbane again. Just a pen pal … I looked at it as somebody to write to of the opposite sex. Nothing was going to come with it. But I thought, 'Meet this person that I've never met that I've been writing to for five months, four months', whatever it was. So I drove down there and stayed a few nights with her, and her brothers and sisters and her parents. I've forgotten their names already ... Maybe deep down behind me I thought something may become of it because I unloaded a lot of my thoughts onto her about Vietnam – what was happening at the time, and things like that.19

Graeme Hellwig was a member of the Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, serving with 102 Field Workshop in Vũng Tàu in 1971–72. While there, he taught English to Vietnamese students in his spare time, some of whom he corresponded with after he returned to Australia. This excerpt from one letter received, dated 7 February 1972, perhaps shows his success as a teacher but also reveals that he had shared aspects of his personal life with his students, and that letter writing was a way to unburden oneself of troubling thoughts:

My dear teacher, I was happy and emotion so much, when I receive your letter from Mr. Dan hand it to me. You found again your memories with your family … I'm very happy but I'm sad, too. Because you and Miss Barbara are been unable to cooperate.20

Peter Winter was one who wrote home and gave expression to his disenchantment with the war, and to the positive effect of the support received from home:

Perhaps I'm just a little too romantic in the expression of my feeling but that's how it seems right now. In the song 'What the world needs now, is love sweet love. Not for just a few but for everyone. Lord we don't need another mountain. We have mountains and hillsides enough to climb' – everyone here, I'm sure, feels the same; after climbing our mountain we'll be satisfied to live on the plains for a time. Perhaps we'll benefit from our task but right now it seems a lost cause. Who cares really? If it wasn't for morale boosting letters and the knowledge of loved ones thinking of us, it would be an extremely difficult and surely insurmountable task.21

The morale boosting effect of letters from home was certainly evident in the experience of Neil Weekes, a 'nasho' who served in 1RAR. On 19 April 1968 he wrote in his diary, 'A wonderful piece of news. Lyn is pregnant. Our child is due about Nov 14. It's really great to hear it'. This was particularly uplifting as on the same day he had mentioned enduring a 'morale shattering' lecture on mines and booby traps.22

Some service personnel, recognising the uniqueness of their service in Vietnam and perhaps the importance of it for posterity's sake, embarked on collaborative record keeping with their loved ones. Kenneth Hains, a national serviceman who served in 1970–71, was a case in point:

I have meant to mention that scrapbook you are keeping for me, Helen. It would be really great if you could keep all the paper clippings you come across about 7RAR. I have started a diary, and with this and your collection plus photos, something good should develop when I get home.23

Tape recorders have already been mentioned as an alternative method of communicating with family and friends. They were a relatively new technology that could be enjoyed by those at home, as was the case with the family of YMCA worker Keith Williams:

I would make a tape every week and send it home, and they would tape over it and send it back so I would have information coming in, and that was really wonderful; It kept me up to where the kids were … I used to take … the battery operated tape recorder and I would sit that on the seat beside me, a bit like talking on a mobile phone these days. As I would drive along, if I saw something interesting, I would turn the thing on and I'd talk about it … We were sort of worried about filling out the tape but with my youngest daughter, who's now living in Darwin, talking has never been a problem. And Pat would find about five minutes at the end of it. Megan would bring her friends home and … oh, the rubbish I had to listen to. But it really kept me up with where the kids were.24

Soldiers close to the wire had to be mindful of what they recorded, as the war could invade their world at any time with unforeseen consequences, as happened to Brian Woods:

… we had an incident there once where we got attacked in camp and I was on the tape and forgot to turn it off and raced out and left it going. We got mortar-fired on it and we raced out under attack and all this and when I come back I forgot to switch it off and I started talking to her again: 'Sorry about that, I had to race out and all this', and forgot to wipe it off. And I believe she got it and it upset them quite a bit, so, you know what I'm saying – you can't send too much home … they were quite upset by it. It upset them in what actually was happening. They don't think it happens to you, like they see on TV.25

Visits to local orphanages were a favourite activity for soldiers and nurses when they were able. It was an opportunity to rekindle their humanity and help innocent victims of the war. It was also something on which a connection could be made with those at home, as was the case with Colin O'Neill and his mother:

I wrote home to my mother and she organised all these clothes, kids' clothes, for the orphanages. And she did that on quite a number of occasions. I think I was taken aback by the fact that they were getting about in pretty primitive conditions and lack of clothes and that sort of thing. The kids stand out. The kids were fantastic. Kids anywhere are fantastic but the kids over there were fantastic. It's so bloody sad what happened to them. Whether they're still alive, or whether they were killed in the war, whether they were refugees, you just don't know. The kids were pretty good. The Bà Rịa orphanage was a pretty special place.26

Modern technology, such as mobile phones on which texts, calls, photos and videos can all be sent, was not available to those in Vietnam, but visual records of service could still be forwarded to family members, as John Kinsela described:

A lot of my photography was in slides and I had a slide projector at home, so they used to have a slide night at home. I used to address all me photographs; they used to go to a lab in Melbourne and then [be] re-addressed to home. All the folks would be up looking at them.27

Homemade treats were a nice reminder of home, as well as a welcome change to the daily fare served up in Vietnam, and the receipt of food parcels was always appreciated by those serving. At Christmas time the units were generally deluged with extras which were distributed to others more in need, as Stephen Lewis recalled:

I remember Mum and Dad sent – or probably Mum would have done it – but they sent up a food parcel for Christmas in '68, as did lots of other families, and we had so much food that we were never ever going to be able to eat it and it wasn't going to last. Nothing lasted in that environment and we had no refrigerators and things. So we, after lunch on Christmas Day, we took a Land Rover with a trailer into the nearby village of Bà Rịa and went to an orphanage and we actually distributed everything we didn't want amongst the kids and the nuns there. That was a good day.28

Another point of contact with home was through the visits of VIPs, journalists and photographers, who were all responsible for providing snapshots of Vietnam that were conveyed to the Australian public and could shape what the families of serving personnel thought about Vietnam and what they imagined their loved ones were experiencing. Norman Cooper was a PR photographer with the RAAF and he explained some of the considerations in play while undertaking his work:

I knew what I should and shouldn't photograph in most cases, pretty much all the cases, but if I missed something it would be picked up in Canberra before anything was distributed. The entertainers, when they came up, we always put on a feed or get some of the young guys and girls handing them drinks or plates of goodies. But I had to make sure the guy wasn't married or anything like that, so you had to be careful on that sort of thing – some of the shots I did in the hospital you had to be careful … when some VIPs came through and visited the hospital over at Back Beach [at Vũng Tàu]. You just had to be careful who or what was wrong with the guy, so you didn't upset people back home as far as showing him distressed or showing something you shouldn't.29

The newspapers and magazines to which journalists and photographers contributed were another medium through which serving personnel could attain general news from home, but such items were not readily available according to Alan Anderson, a national serviceman with 1RAR in 1968–69:

We might get the occasional newspaper. We were so damn busy we didn't care. That's wrong. It's not that we didn't care, we just didn't have time ... If you were lucky you got to see a 'Stars and Stripes' newspaper. But generally it was really reliant upon someone receiving a clipping from a newspaper or a whole newspaper, which would be like gold. But generally information wasn't available. We were very isolated.30

Such isolation was even more pronounced for the relatively few airmen who operated in United States formations, advisors in the AATTV and other specialists who found themselves in small cells working in the company of Americans. Based far to the north of Australia's area of operations, the navy's clearance divers felt the distance keenly, as recalled by Tony Ey, a veteran of four trips to Vietnam between 1966–71: 'About the only news we received being based in Da Nang was through the American press. We were so cut off from … the rest of the Australian forces that we got very little information as to what was happening at home'.31

Some service personnel met family members while on leave, which provided direct news from home as well as the comfort of being with loved ones. In extreme cases where a soldier was critically wounded or ill, the Australian Red Cross Society Field Force acted as a liaison with relatives from Australia who were allowed to visit, that connection being seen as a possible assistance in a patient's recovery.32 Ronald Nolan, a regular with the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps based in the 1st Field Hospital, remembered:

There was a system and it was implemented where next of kin, if a soldier was wounded or ill and it was considered by the senior doctor that his chances of recovery could be helped by a next of kin visiting, there was a system … it had a code name. If that was implemented, a signal was sent to Australia, and the welfare people in Australia went into action and contacted the next of kin and arranged to bring one –- generally one, but they could be accompanied – to Vietnam, flying Qantas into Saigon over to Nui Dat, and we would provide accommodation and an escort and a guide and someone to assist. There was –- I know there were two cases of this happening. One happened while I was in Australia on my three weeks R&R, and there was one other … I'm sure that this lady came and I have a feeling that her son had meningitis or cerebral malaria – something to do with the brain. And she was brought up and I can remember escorting her around the unit and meeting her at the plane, and things like that.33

One select group who worked with seriously injured soldiers were the chaplains. They played a highly symbolic role in representing home to soldiers undergoing treatment, as revealed by Howard Dillon, an army chaplain who worked at 1st Australian Field Hospital and Headquarters, 1st Australian Logistic Support Group in 1969–70:

Even chaplains didn't tell you what you were likely to confront; you just went there. So, it was quite a shock to be at the hospital and find that you were supposed to give the last rites to dead soldiers. When you're young and invincible, you take on the world. The medical team – even though they were working on the soldier, there was no one to actually be there for the person. So I found myself as being the kind of anchor person that was there reassuring the soldier. Sometimes I felt that you were kind of powerless. I mean, nurses are giving injections and people are taking pulses, and I wondered whether I was doing any good – and I talked to the CO about it and I said, 'Sometimes I feel we're just in the way'. He rebuked me pretty strongly and said 'No, you're the one normal thing here. Everything else is abnormal. We're all flat out saving the digger's life, but you represent mother, father, brother, the normal world. You do for him what a family would do'. So you'd find yourself stroking his forehead, holding his hand, praying. Talking quietly in his ear – that's if he could hear. Sometimes with the mine explosions they were deaf. Sometimes they had things on their mind, so it becomes a kind of confessional.34

Maintaining communication with loved ones at home was important to sustaining good morale among service personnel in Vietnam. Letters and taped messages were the main means by which this was done. The flow of mail could sometimes be interrupted, and the anti-war campaign by postal workers and trade unionists that interfered with the delivery of news from home was widely resented by the men and women affected. What news to include in letters home was a delicate matter for many of those serving in Vietnam who were mindful of adding to the concerns that loved ones were feeling. In that sense, serving personnel imposed their own brand of self-censorship on the information that they wrote or recorded. Sometimes the best intentions to protect those at home were undone by information received through other outlets, such as television and newspaper reportage, which serving personnel could not control. A letter from home was one of the simplest joys experienced for most who were serving in-country.

Gunner Ernie Widders of 2RAR takes time out during a break in operations in Phước Tuy Province to write a letter home, May 1971. Photographer John Alfred Ford. AWM FOD/71/0256/VN

Lance Corporal Barry Hearn of 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR), writes a letter during a break in operations, November 1967. Photographer Byron Charles Campbell. AWM CAM/67/1064/VN

A group of soldiers standing together in front of an armoured vehicle.

Soldiers from 2RAR receive mail in the field, August 1967. Photographer Byron Charles Campbell. AWM CAM/67/0672/VN

A soldier wearing a helmet reading a letter with his gun across his lap.

Private John McIvor of 1RAR reads a letter from home while stationed at Biên Hòa airfield, June 1965. Photographer Bryan Rupert Dunne. AWM DNE/65/0060/VN

A woman with a group of soldiers.

Singer Lenore Somerset hands a letter from home to Private David Jones, 3rd Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment at Nui Dat, April 1969. Photographer David Reginald Combe. AWM COM/69/0271/VN

Army nurse Lieutenant Diane Lawrence takes time on her day off to tape record a letter home, July 1969. Photographer David Reginald Combe. AWM COM/69/0476/VN
A shirtless soldier in a dug out sits on a wooden crate writing a letter.

Writing a letter home, March 1969. Photographer David Reginald Combe. AWM COM/69/0168/VN

A man with glasses holding a reel to reel tape recorder to his ear.

Corporal Don Sutherland, 104th Signal Squadron, listens to a voice tape from his family who had recorded a Christmas message for him in the studios of Radio 4BH in Brisbane, December 1969. Photographer Christopher John Bellis. AWM BEL/70/0010/VN

A man with his head on a pillow reading a letter.

Sergeant Paddy Todd of 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, reads a letter from his family as he lies in a hospital bed at Vũng Tàu after being wounded in the Battle of Long Tan, August 1966. Photographer William James Cunnen. AWM CUN/66/0718/VN

A soldier talking on a telephone with two men either side of him holding cans of beer.

Major Neville Wilson (on the telephone) receives news of the birth of his son, September 1967. With him are Warrant Officer Jack Selmes (left) and Colonel Robert Smith of the US Army, its senior adviser in Quang Tri Province. Photographer Byron Charles Campbell. AWM CAM/67/0843/VN

Rest and recreation

Rest and Recreation (R&R) and Rest and Convalescence (R&C) were an important and much anticipated part of serving personnel's time while in Vietnam. Both represented an opportunity to get away from the war zone and become a civilian again, if only for a short time. R&R out of country meant that service personnel could travel overseas, most often to other Asian countries. Some, usually those married with families, made the journey back to Australia, although most chose not to do so, believing that leaving home a second time was too much of an emotional burden on themselves and loved ones.

Sightseeing was a popular pursuit for those travelling out of country, as well as shopping, but an overriding indulgence for many soldiers was sex and drinking. This was also true of those taking R&C in Saigon or Vũng Tàu, where the local bars became focal points for soldiers to pursue both. The Peter Badcoe Club, named after the Australian Victoria Cross winner, offered a more conservative experience, by comparison, for those wanting to avoid the bars of downtown 'Vungers'.

Those serving at base units usually had one day a week off in which they could relax from the rigours of service. For soldiers serving in Nui Dat or AATTV in country, most of their time was spent in the field and even when resting within the wire at Nui Dat or the fire bases, the men were constantly on alert to guard against any possible enemy attacks. Each company ran their own bars (boozers), so men had a fairly uninhibited access to alcohol. While in the confines of the base they had to make do with creating their own amusements, such as playing sport, playing cards, and reading. Film nights were popular, and occasionally concert parties toured the bases, playing at venues like the grandiosely named Luscombe Bowl at Nui Dat.

Trying to put aside the tensions of the cities and towns, or experiences beyond the wire, lay at the heart of the pursuit of recreation by those serving in Vietnam. Josephine Howard, a Civil Medical Aid nurse working in Biên Hòa, recalled the simple act of watching a sunset with a drink in hand being a mode of relaxation, although one that was at times tinged by the incongruous reality of war:

… we were taken to our house … and the third floor was a recreation room and kitchen and dining room and a sundeck. So we'd gather up there in the afternoon and watch the sunsets and occasionally watch a bit of fighting going on down the road ... I can remember thinking when we'd been there about two months, they blew up an oil dump about a hundred yards down the road and we're all just standing there drinking gin and tonics as though it was perfectly normal and I thought, how quickly you adjust to anything.1

One of the simplest forms of relaxation for service personnel to fall back on was reading. The Australian Logistics Support Group at Vũng Tàu was well stocked with reading material, according to Rosemary McLaughlin:

We had a great collection of paperbacks, and we kept getting boxes of paperbacks, so that was well stocked. They'd been donated … and sent up from Australia. Newspapers. Probably about a week old newspapers – but still, they were sought after and we always kept up with that and tried hard to keep a good supply of newspapers coming … And we'd see how Australia was thinking of us in Vietnam, and of course occasionally there would be photographs. So of course that was all talked about.2

Nui Dat was less well stocked with reading material, and the value of books and their peculiar method of distribution was captured by Noel Clegg, a regular with 6RAR in 1966–67:

A big thing that we did miss was like the 'Women's Weekly' and that sort of stuff – the 'Woman's Day', the 'Women's Weekly'. The girlie magazines, they were a dime a dozen, you could get them everywhere. The prize possession though of anybody was a book, like a novel, something like that because it would start off in a platoon and the first bloke would start reading it, when he'd finished the first couple of paragraphs he'd rip them off and they'd go to the next bloke and go down like that. And if you're at the end of the line and somebody lost the last bloody paragraph you were very cranky … and that's how it used to go, the book used to go down and you could be two operations before you finished that book because that was a very prized possession if you had a book. I remember reading things like … 'The Carpetbaggers', [by] Harold Robbins, was a very good one … A few of the other books were those little cowboy ones, those Zane Greys … You had first choice if it was yours and you read the first couple of paragraphs and then you give it to the next bloke and then you kept reading, so you had the book right through, the other bloke had to wait probably two days … 'Come on, hurry up, get on with that book, read it!', that was one of the big things. I never was a bookworm but over there you were because that filled in time.3

For Robert Creek, a sapper with 1st Field Squadron who served in 1967–68, a memorable reading experience came in a most unexpected form. Three months into his tour, Creek received a parcel he had been waiting for:

Six weeks ago I had been at my post in a musty and cramped underground bunker … the telephone and radio centre at Nui Dat headquarters …This was my home, twelve hours every day, seven days a week … 6 PM to 6 AM … I sat on the only chair at the console in the humid atmosphere. The sole relief was the breeze from an oscillating fan that had been placed on a stool near the doorway at the foot of the stairs … coupled with the whirring of its electric motor and the glaring incandescence of a single light bulb in the ceiling, the atmosphere was bright, humid and very, very lonely … I stood up to stretch my legs and ambled over to the box in the corner … a small insignificant paperback titled 'An Australian Story' took my eye … so I flicked over the pages. I then returned to the switchboard, rested the book on the console and began to read. The book portrayed the events of an era of day trips by horse and coach to Mt Macedon, horse riding at Berwick, and travels to the Mornington Peninsula; of grand mansions with sweeping carriageways and spacious manicured lawns and flowerbeds tended with utmost care by household gardeners. Most of all it described the people that lived in, visited and worked in those lavish surroundings. A few evenings later I finished reading the book, so I read it again. I was so enthralled with its descriptive manner that I put pen to paper and forwarded a letter to the author. 'Dear Madam, I've found a copy of your book whilst on duty here at Nui Dat and have enjoyed it so much that I thought it proper to inform you of that fact and thank you for your efforts'… then posted it off, thinking nothing more of the matter … Four weeks later a letter arrived, with a gold crown sealing the envelope and bearing a Canberra postmark. I didn't recognise the handwriting but on opening it I found a card with a sketch of a windmill and corrugated iron water tank drawn on the front and signed M.C. 23rd June 1963. “Dear Sapper Creek, How very good of you to write me. I received your letter with much pleasure and [am] delighted that [you] … liked 'An Australian Story'. It is as you realize, a true story, a record of a period. I am sending you another, a later book [called] 'Tides and Eddies' which you may find interesting. I hope it turns up safely and that you like it. Thank you again so much for writing. All best wishes to your 1968. May it be a better year for us all. Maie Casey” Boy! Was I excited … It's not every day, especially in Vietnam, that a soldier gets a personal gift from the wife of the Governor-General of Australia. I think I must have told everyone within earshot of me at the bar and at the adjacent outdoor movie theatre … I can't remember the movie but I am sure I enjoyed it. Maybe I just enjoyed my own company – just being very happy.4

Movies, as Creek suggested, were another welcome outlet for entertainment and relaxation. A description of a typical movie night is provided by Desmond Kearton, a craftsman in the Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who served in Vietnam in 1968:

… they had an amenities unit … and they used to get these films from Australia and different units each night used to get use of this, you know, [projector] so when we got our turn, you know, it wasn't real regular, but when we got it we used to show it and sit down, have a couple of beers in our canvas individual chairs and it was great, you know, takes your mind off everything that was going on … Cat Balou and a few of others. I just forget now but some of the old entertainment ones that were around the place … there was a couple of good ones, I think, but it was certainly different. We had a big open screen like a drive-in picture theatre and had a projection box … and sometimes the bulb would blow in the projector and blokes would curse and swear and you wouldn't see your full movie – but no, that was the fun of it really.5

Sometimes, though, the war itself could provide a macabre distraction. Ron Kelly, serving with 1RAR in 1965–66, wrote to his wife, likening an aerial bombardment to a popular entertainment: 'You should have seen the movies we saw last night – we were sitting in our pits when the planes were getting stuck into something on the hill across from us. They were dropping bombs, napalm, rockets and bullets, boy it really looked good.'6 If he had never seen such a thing before, close proximity to the action must surely have surpassed any film.

Leave taken out of country was probably the form of recreation that excited serving personnel more than any other, although it could usher in a host of emotions and could also prove to be a somewhat surreal experience, as suggested by this snapshot provided by Graham Sherrington:

I went to Hong Kong at Christmas for R&R and it was mind-bending to go straight from a lethal vicious war in the bush and paddy fields to a Christmas fairyland. All of the shops were beautifully lit up, decorations were everywhere and Christmas carols were playing. The peak was covered in mist and it was cool and rainy. I submerged in the Moulin Rouge Bar, only coming out to refuel with food at my hotel and to go on tourist day trips around Hong Kong. I didn't sleep for five days and passed out on the Pan Am flight going back to Saigon. I'd spent $US1,000 and all I had to show for it was a Zippo cigarette lighter, a shiny Hong Kong suit which I'd sent home and terminal exhaustion. Needless to say I was put on the first re-supply chopper back out to the bush and went ambushing the same night, where I promptly went to sleep – a cardinal sin. I can remember my corporal throwing a stick at me for snoring and whispering, 'You're supposed to be rested, you mongrel'.7

One didn't have to travel out of country to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, and Vũng Tàu and the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat offered plenty of opportunities, according to Colin O'Neill:

One of the outlets over there was the booze. I think about it now and it's a wonder that there wasn't more Australians killed – all shooting at each other on the grog, I know it happened. Alcohol was so readily available. I think I was drunk for the first three Sundays in a row in Vietnam. Absolutely rotten. I remember vomiting in my hut, that's how crook I was. You'd have Sunday off and you'd go down to the beach; we were right next to the beach. We'd have barbecues and we would have a trailer-load full of beer. There would be Courage beer, Fosters, VB, and all that. Beer was fifteen cents a can, so you could just about get drunk for a dollar. Fifteen cents a can. You could buy a 'goffa', which was a soft drink, for ten cents. The boozer would be open every night. There would be no restrictions on alcohol. And there you are with weapons … you're drunk …There was a lot of incidents with guys drunk and weapons, but there wasn't a lot of incidents where they went berserk with their weapons. You think about that now, amazing. The army wouldn't allow that now. Maybe they do, I don't know. But the access to alcohol over there – I learnt to drink in Vietnam because that's all we did. What else were you going to do? You'd work in the daytime and you'd go and have your tea or your meal or whatever and then what would you do? You'd get on the booze. We used to have beer can stacking contests, where you'd drink a can, put it there, another one there, and you would see who could get the most cans to the top. But the grog was the outlet. It was a pretty dangerous way of relaxing, now you think about it, because you've actually got weapons in your hut. You have to carry your weapon with you everywhere you go, and you're on the grog. I mean that's just dynamite.8

Beyond alcohol, some personnel serving in Vietnam were known to indulge in drugs as a means of recreation, relaxation or escapism. Despite the prevalence of marijuana and availability of other drugs, it seems Australians for the most part preferred beer, as suggested by Stephen Reynolds, a national serviceman who served with 2RAR in 1970–71:

… there was marijuana there on leave, R&R in Vũng Tàu, there was marijuana and I dare say there was some at camp too. I don't know if there was much, though. I recently went to a reunion and the blokes … were saying, 'I used to smoke dope in the lines'. And I thought, 'I don't remember that'... I don't doubt that it could have happened, and did happen perhaps, but I don't think it occurred to a large extent. I don't know and I would be absolutely astounded if there was anything else apart from a bit of marijuana around the joint … I wouldn't think there'd be anything else … and the booze side of it was only beer. We were never allowed to drink anything else … We used to knock off at 4 o'clock … we wouldn't be on the grog the night before an operation … No, the boozer'd be closing early. Everything like that was fairly well controlled … you wouldn't want to be going out on operation with a hangover.9

The pursuit of sex while on leave was a prime motivation for many soldiers and often went hand in hand with the consumption of alcohol. Its pursuit could, however, sometimes be tempered by a soldier's need for normality and tenderness, as is evident in Donald Barnby's account of his time as a trooper with 2nd Special Air Service Squadron in 1971:

I used to go to these bars sometimes and the guys'd say, 'come on, we're gonna go to the bloody Li-lo Bar or something'. I'd say, 'No, no, I just want to sit here'. And what I'd love to do was, towards the end of the afternoon before … the night sort of hotted up … all these bar girls'd come out in a big group at the end of the bar or something and they'd be just chatting and talking to each other and they'd be putting on their make-up and chatting just as, you know, girls do, you know, putting on their eye shadow and their lipstick and all this sort of stuff. And I'd just buy a beer and I became well known and a lot of these Mama Sans'd say, 'Oh, Mr Don, Mr Don, come in, come in'. And I'd buy a drink. I just wanted to sit. And at first they thought I was quite strange, you know, but I also found it very comforting just to look at these girls, it was sort of like a slice of normality. These girls'd all be just chattering away and putting make-up on each other and themselves, and I just found that to be really a slice of peace, you know. I'd sit there just in my own world, looking at them, you know, smiling … I just wanted some feminine contrast … because they weren't being bar girls then, they were in their other mode, they were just girls. But … when Mama San flicked the fingers … then they went to business. And that was a different side of them, but this side they were just young girls putting on make-up and it was just classic.10

The youth of the bar girls was always, and remains, a problematic aspect of the liaisons between the girls and the soldiers. Many were undoubtedly too young to be practising prostitution but most soldiers accepted their participation as part of the culture, or as a less than ideal economic necessity for the girls and their families. Indulgence in prostitutes came with the very real danger of contracting venereal disease, which was a risk many men seemed willing to take, especially single men. For those with partners, staying true when confronted by the myriad temptations available to soldiers on leave in the towns and cities proved difficult, and the acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease when they were due to return home could prove embarrassing, as Colin O'Neill explained:

The only thing was that if you had VD and you were meant to go on R&R and you were supposed to be coming back home to Australia you couldn't go … That was the rule, but I know a couple of guys did come back with VD. I know one in particular came back and he was either engaged or he had a girlfriend but he didn't have sex with her and she couldn't work out why. He just gave her whatever excuse. He got back to Australia but the general rule was if you were infected you weren't going back until it was cleared up … I mean it was a contagious disease … But it was pretty prevalent over there, no question that it was … I could be wrong on this but if you had The Load, or The Jack, as we used to say and you were due to come home, I don't think you would get back. I think they would keep them there until it cleared up … That would have taken a bit of explaining …11

Not all serving personnel wanted to immerse themselves in the bars in which prostitutes worked and in Vũng Tàu they could stay at and confine their activities to the Peter Badcoe Club, which was sited less than 200 yards from the South China Sea. Here, a variety of entertainments were available to those who wanted to indulge in them, although excessive drinking was still very much part of that. Nevertheless the serving personnel could enjoy comparative safety while being able to swim at the beach or in the club's swimming pool, go water-skiing, sailing, and surfing. Those who wished to do so could walk into Vũng Tàu to the bars, but had to be mindful of the curfew, which was sometimes missed by soldiers too drunk to be aware. There was undoubtedly an element of recklessness in the manner in which many of the men approached their recreational leave. This was underpinned, in part, by a sense of fatalism, as suggested by Barry Seeley, a regular in 2RAR who did two tours in 1967–68 and 70–71:

No one came back to Australia unless you were married, and all the single guys like me used to go to places like Taipei, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong. The first trip, I went to Taipei and the second trip I went to Hong Kong and I had a great time. I don't remember too much about it, I think I spent most of the time at the bars. Like I said, I was single and that was our life. You didn't know [whether] you got off the plane after you came back and within a couple of days you could tread on a mine – [it was] the time to just let your hair down and relax, and we certainly did that in a big way.12

The revelry that some soldiers indulged in while on leave was, of course, not pursued by all servicemen. One who shunned such behaviour while in Hong Kong was Robert O'Neill:

I went with Bruce McQualter and we were winies and foodies. Bruce had a very good palate and a very good knowledge of wines, and … having come from four years in Europe, [I] knew a certain amount about it too. We both had wives of whom we were very fond and we knew each other's wives, so we were not tempted to stray in the direction of the ladies of the town, and what we did was just have a nice, civilised period of self-indulgence with food and good wine.13

Others simply followed the regular tourist pursuits of sightseeing and shopping. Photography was a hobby many service personnel took up while overseas. Alexander Levey, an army chaplain who served in 1970–71, went sightseeing in Hong Kong and found himself in a most surprising situation:

I wanted to go on a train ride; wherever I go on holidays I always go on a train ride ... So I got on this train up to the border somewhere and it was crowded. It must've been a Sunday because there were people going up there and they were all getting off here and there and I stayed on the train and it came to a place called Luwow, I think it was, some name like that, and this big advertisement, announcement came over in Chinese. And a few people on the train just got off and I was in the carriage by myself and, anyhow, another big advertisement and then the train moves off very slowly and I'm sitting and thinking, 'Everybody's off and I don't know what's going on'. And there's a big notice as big as that wall, appeared in English and Chinese, 'You are now entering a prohibited area. Do not enter without permission and special permit', blah, blah, blah. I thought, 'Well, I can't get off a moving train so I might as well sit down and enjoy the view'. So I arrived up at the next stop … and as I got off the train, this British soldier came up and he said, 'Can I see your papers, Sir?' And I said, 'I haven't got any papers'. He said, 'You're here without any papers?' And I said, 'Yeah, I just, I'm an army chaplain on leave from Vietnam'. And he said, 'But you should have papers to be in this area, didn't you hear the announcement back at the last station?' And I said, 'They said something in Chinese but I don't speak Chinese'. And he said, 'Well you can't stay here, look down the front of the train, that's the Freedom Bridge, the British flag's flying on this end and the Communist Chinese flag's flying on the other, so this is a forbidden zone'. 'Oh!', I said, 'I'm very sorry but I just came for a Sunday train ride'. So he said, 'You must come with me', and he took me to the boss's offices on the station and told him what was happening and he said, 'You've got a camera?' And I said, 'Yeah, but there's only two films left in it'. He said, 'Don't take any photos here otherwise I could take your camera and your film. And you must get on this train and go straight back'. I don't know why I say these things, I said, 'I haven't got a ticket'. He said, 'You won't need a ticket, just get on the train, it's leaving in a minute and … go out of this area, you should not be here'. And I said, 'Oh, thanks very much'. So that was a good story to tell back home. Of course in those days Communist China was forbidden territory and this was the bridge across into China. So I got back on the train and thought, 'That's an experience'.14

Even Vũng Tàu offered sightseeing opportunities for those who wished to pursue them, as well as an opportunity to indulge in water sports, as Anthony Sommer, a leading aircraftman with No. 35 Squadron, remembered:

Sunday was supposedly a day of rest, but we didn't rest, you'd go touring around town. There was always something to see in town. I remember signing out a jeep on one Sunday and with the two American friends I had, went out to the top of a mountain that was near the town of Vũng Tàu. And this mountain contained old French cannons that had been abandoned years ago when the French left there. It was an interesting trip. Climb up a mountain on an old gravel road. Doing that, I was a little concerned, I thought, 'Who knows what's buried in this road? You can run over a mine at any time'. But we made it up and back without any incident. It was interesting to see the history of these old abandoned cannons just lying in ruins, things like that. Go for a tour around the city. It wasn't a very big city but you just had to drive around the streets and see the sights. There was a presidential palace mounted up on a hill. We weren't able to get very close to it because it was secured and guarded by the Vietnamese Army. You could go up close and have a look at where it was. Sunday was also water-skiing day. I learned to water ski in Vietnam, which was really amazing. The air force had two boats: one ski boat and one fishing boat. So a friend of mine, who was a good water skier, and there'd be five or six of us, would get the boat out for the Sunday and take it out into the harbour. And there was a little river that ran into the harbour [which] had nice smooth water, good skiing conditions. So we'd go up there and this guy taught me how to ski. It was great.15

For Barbara Bruce, who visited Bangkok while on leave, just the simple pleasure of shopping was delight enough:

The floating market tour was interesting, but going out to dinner every night and roaming the stores for good jewellery – that was my memory. We actually had three days there and then to Singapore. I had a cousin in Singapore who worked for Qantas so we spent two days in Singapore as well. I went to the Singapore zoo … it's an unbelievable zoo. The shopping was very good there, too. We were keen to get to the shops. There was no real shops to speak of in Qui Nhon; there was a market and a lot of the stuff had been pinched off the US … but there was no real shops to speak of, so we were really happy to go and do some real shopping.16

All service personnel had the option of returning to Australia for their five days R&R, but most opted not to. Uppermost in men's minds was the distress that a second parting would cause their families and themselves, and the doubt associated with the decision to do so was well conveyed by Raymond Stuart, a regular with 3RAR in 1967–68:

I returned home to meet my wife and two daughters in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast and we had time there. That might have been a mistake, on reflection, because it is very hard within a year's absence to return in five days, particularly with children who don't really know you. You are looked at strangely by your children and it takes more than five days to get back into the swing of your children, bearing in mind that they are four years of age and nearly two … You had two choices in R&R. You could either stay in South East Asia or go home, and I elected to go home. And it might have been a line ball whether you stayed away from your family for a whole year … There were certain people who consciously elected to stay away from the family for a whole year, for that reason. Not to expose their children to a person that they really didn't know until they had a chance to communicate and really get together … and also there is a certain disadvantage of the hot and cold treatment. To be taken from a Spartan all male environment into a less Spartan environment and then returned to it, such as returning from R&R in Sydney, it is a hurtful process to have to make that complete adjustment within a year. You are almost at the point of saying that you didn't get much benefit from either. You get pissed on R&C and that doesn't do your body any good, and in R&R you dealt with just touching base momentarily with family ... I don't think anybody came back from R&R or R&C totally invigorated by the experience. And as a truism I would much rather have said, 'Well let's get it over with and go home'. Have ten days off. I suppose, to put it another way, if someone had said, 'We'll shorten your tour by ten days' I would have said, 'Yeah. Go for it'.”17

Bill Black was another who returned home for his R&R. His decision was based partly on the amount of gear he had accumulated during his stay in Vietnam, and wanting to ensure its safe passage home. He also revealed the disjuncture that had occurred between home and his service in Vietnam.

Being a music junkie, I bought a load of stuff at the American PX which was up the top of the airstrip at Nui Dat. And I had that much of it, I thought I'm going to have to come home on the five days to start shipping some of this home … and I spent the five days, went back, got on the plane, flew back up to Nui Dat and back out into the jungle, and I've said to Karen over the years, 'You'd wonder why I went back', and she said, 'But that was normal to you, back here wasn't'. And that makes sense … as much as I hate to admit it, it probably was normal.18

The problem with leave which all service personnel had to contend with was that it had to end. For most, the time spent on leave was all too short, as acknowledged by Richard Yielding, a Royal Australian Army Service Corps member attached to 161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight, who served in 1970–71 and who had taken leave in Hong Kong:

Sad to say that the whole time went rather too fast and I was just getting used to the idea of living there when I had to come back (Oh Boy!!). Anyway I am now back at Nui Dat in my little tent, and once again there is 'No Place Like Home!!' (HA! HA!)19

Such homecomings were sometimes ushered in with an unpleasant dose of reality, as Peter Winter found after his leave at the Peter Badcoe Club in Vũng Tàu ended:

By the pool all day drinking cold coke and going for a dip when the sun got too hot. The beach was out of bounds 'cause of a rip. So I relaxed completely all day and had a very good sleep that night. Next day (19th) we had to pack up and were on board the trucks heading for Nui Dat by 1000 hours. Then the whole sky fell in – By 1200 we were fully equipped and moving through bamboo etc. on our second operation. They gave us ¾ hour from when we got off.20

An interesting aspect about leave in Vũng Tàu, held to be true by many servicemen, was the presence of Viet Cong in the town and of an unspoken truce, as claimed by Robert Bell, a civilian medical aide based at 1st Australian Field Hospital:

I probably passed many [VC] in the town of Vũng Tàu but you know it was an R&R centre for all of us as well as them, so we had an unwritten truce. We'd leave them alone if they left us alone and it worked all right only because they liked the Australians and the Americans spending all their money in town; It fuelled their cause a bit … There were rules for going into Vũng Tàu – firstly, as Australians, we weren't allowed to carry any weapons. We had to leave them at the base. Secondly, you wouldn't travel on your own; you would make sure that you travelled with friends or mates – otherwise you were vulnerable. And there were certain things that you just didn't do and areas you didn't go into. If you played by the rules you were generally okay. It was known that the VC consisted of civilian population and by day they were farmers and roaming around Vũng Tàu and by night they were fighters.21

Paul Large was a general surgeon based at the hospital at Biên Hòa, fifteen miles north-east of Saigon, and he was able to take leave to Da Lat in the Central Highlands, with its more temperate climate, and while there was exposed to the peculiar realities of the politics of Vietnam:

Da Lat was a lovely place. It was 4,000 feet altitude, or a bit more than 4,000, and it had quite a temperate climate, cool nights, and it was a very pretty place. There was a natural lake; it was surrounded by hills and very, very pleasant to be in. John Forbes – the late John Forbes, who was brilliant on fevers – he was at Fairfield Fever Hospital, he and I went and we got down to the … airport at Tan Son Nhut in Saigon and in this Air Vietnam aircraft and we had no priority, we had to wait until the military aircraft had all got off before we could go … we sat there for about half an hour before we could go. Hot! It got hotter and hotter and hotter. The hostess opened the door but the air was hot, humid, and she had a tiny fan which she stood there holding to try and cool us down. And I looked at John Forbes and I know I must have looked like him, he was grey and sweating and I wondered how long we were going to last. Anyway, we duly took off and that was fine and when we got to Da Lat there was about a three-quarter of an hour bus ride into town and there were police checks everywhere ... I don't know how much Viet Cong activity there was around there; there was obviously some, because there was some shelling going on at unseen targets. And we stayed at a very nice hotel, built by the French – very high ceilings, lovely and cool, windows, bidets, inter-communicating doors, all the trimmings and a very nice dining room … At a neighbouring table there was two lovely girls and a priest and a man who, we thought he was French, and when we finished our meal we joined them and we all had a chat together. The girls pushed off and it turned out that the priest and the other man were related, I think they may have been brothers, and the man who we thought was French was an Italian and he was a coffee planter in a place called Ba Mi Tut, which was high up and temperate and these lovely girls were … the product of this marriage between him and the Montagnard. They were beautiful and he invited us to go to his coffee place at Ba Mi Tut and we couldn't, but we asked him about the Viet Cong and he said, 'Oh, I pay my taxes, they leave me alone'. That's how it worked.22

Whether in country or out, R&R, R&C and days off were looked forward to as a means of escape from the tension and drudgery of service. They allowed service personnel to revisit the normality of civilian life – albeit one much warped by the short time available and taken in cities and towns that had adjusted their economies to the influx of military visitors. There was variance in the recreation indulged in by service personnel. The simple pleasures of shopping for gifts, dining out, and sightseeing were enough for many but there was also an excessive indulgence in alcohol and the sex trade by many of the men serving in Vietnam. The latter carried the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases which, apart from compromising the men's health, undermined the efficiency of the unit due to their absence for medical treatment. Drugs were widely available but did not appear to have been a favoured recreation by Australians, who were perhaps more conservative than some of their American allies and more prone to a culture of drinking. Irrespective of what type of work a person was engaged in, and as much as R & R was enjoyed in whatever capacity service personnel saw fit to indulge, it was only ever a temporary break from the rigours of service which had to be returned to until the cessation of one's tour.

Three Australian servicemen pose with their boards after surfing at Vũng Tàu beach, October 1967. Photographer Roy McDonald. AWM P11687.039
Six shirtless soldiers sitting around a table drinking.

Members of Support Company, 7RAR, relax in the beer garden of the Beachcomber, a bar located on the Back Beach Road to the town of Vũng Tàu, June 1967. AWM P01783.009

Eight soldiers around a table gambling with dice.

Men of the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron gamble on a dice game at Nui Dat, 1966. Left to right: John Delacey, John Callow, Bob Tetley, Noel Milikins, Douglas Lennox, Bill Gelhaar, Jim Stone and Max Nicolson. Photographer Paul Macmichael. AWM P05655.150

Five life-savers pushing their row boat out of the ocean.

Members of the Australian Army's surf lifesaving club with their boat McWilliam's Wines IV on the beach at Vũng Tàu, September 1969. Left to right: Greg Nowlan, Gary Outram, John Green, Mick Kendal, Kevin Parkinson. Photographer David Reginald Combe. AWM COM/69/0629/VN

Signalman Tony King and local worker Truong Thi Hong distribute Christmas gifts to orphans at the Redemptionist Orphanage, 25 December 1969. The Christmas party was organised by soldiers of the 110th Signal Squadron detachment in Saigon, and the Australia-Vietnam Church Aid Project donated the gifts. Photographer Brian Edwin L'Estrange. AWM LES/69/0845/VN
A large group of soldiers relaxing and drinking beer from cans.

Members of Support Company, 2RAR, relax at a unit barbecue after their return to Nui Dat from an operation, April 1971. Photographer Tony Robinson. AWM AWM P02319.029

Three men in sleeveless football jumpers stand together drinking beer.

Members of 5th Company, Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC) enjoy a drink after a game of football at Vũng Tàu, October 1967. Photographer Michael Coleridge. AWM COL/67/0943/VN

Brisbane vocalist Merriel Hume performs on stage at the Luscombe Bowl during a concert party at the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, to an audience of 1200 Australian troops, August 1968. AWM ERR/68/0810/VN
Men playing volleyball.

Sergeant Ken Foster at the Headquarters, Australian Forces Vietnam (AFV), sends the ball back over the net in a volleyball match against Americans at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, September 1968. Photographer Richard William Crothers. AWM CRO/68/0870/VN

Four nurses in uniform shopping and looking at conical hats.

Four members of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) from 8th Field Ambulance, shop at Vũng Tàu, 1967. Left to right: Sister Amy Pittendreigh, Sister Terrie Roche, Sister Colleen Mealy and Sister Margaret Ahern. AWM EKT/67/0022/VN

Four men with cameras standing with a giant statue of Buddha behind them

Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) representative Keith Williams points out features of a monastery to three Australian soldiers in front of the sitting Buddha, a landmark on the hills overlooking Vũng Tàu, April 1970. Left to right: Private John Hodgson, Private John Toonen and Private Lindsay Gazzard. Photographer John Geoffrey Fairley. AWM FAI/70/0203/VN

Two men with a model aeroplane squatting in front of a real aeroplane.

Corporal Derek Downing and Craftsman Chris Banner of the 161st Independent Reconnaissance Flight prepare to start a model aircraft on Luscombe field at Nui Dat, July 1970. Behind them is an Army Pilatus Porter aircraft. Photographer John Geoffrey Fairley. AWM FAI/70/0557/VN

The Americans

Before Vietnam, Australians had last encountered Americans en masse during the Korean War a decade or so before, and prior to that in the Second World War. Both fell largely beyond the memory of the generation of service men and women born mostly in the 1940s.

If America was known to the Australians who went to Vietnam, for most it was through television, movies, music and consumer imports rather than personal contact. As a teenager, Andrew Kelly, who went on to serve with the AATTV in 1969, sported a 'Tony Curtis haircut' and danced to American rock and roll. He recalled, 'Every Saturday I'd go down to the local record shop … and buy a record, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis Presley'.1 Don Barnby remembered of his youth, 'there was a lot of cowboy movies … all those really cheap American westerns … I remember Kit Carson … and all the … American legends, the cowboy legends'.2 Neither Kelly nor Barnby had met an American – their impressions of the United States came exclusively from popular culture. Whatever impression this gave them, confronting the reality of the United States' economic wealth and military might in Vietnam was for many Australians an eye-opening experience.

Colin Nicol wrote several months after his arrival in Vietnam in 1969, 'Today I saw my first Americans. They have fantastic equipment. A few points I noted about these Americans: 1. Good builds 2. A lot of them wear glasses 3. Sense of humour 4. A lot of respect for Australians'.3 Nicol was not alone in claiming American respect for Australians. Undoubtedly true in some cases, his view perhaps also reflects an Australian desire to be held high in American esteem. Australians and an even smaller number of New Zealanders were America's only Western allies in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of United States servicemen spent their R&R in Australia, yet relatively few worked alongside Australians during the war. If there was admiration on the part of some, it is just as likely that many Americans had neither met Australians nor given them much thought.

American veteran John Dwyer wrote to Australian veteran Bob Gibson in 1981, 'Many Americans, both veterans and civilians, either don't know or have forgotten that Australia did indeed serve in Vietnam'.4 This amnesia was due largely to the vast scale of the United States' war effort in Vietnam, which dwarfed Australia's and which for the most part was concentrated in a single province. Alan Cunningham, an intelligence officer who served two tours in Vietnam in 1968– 69 and 70–71, remembered:

We were all overwhelmed by the sheer size of the American effort … they would do tremendous feats of logistics, like they actually made the highway from Vũng Tàu to the main road of Saigon …They had flotillas of machines that just laid down asphalt on basically sand … They had squadrons of boats coming over the shore with goods. They had whole supermarkets dotted around the country that held stationery items and hygiene equipment and stuff that units need to operate, you know, and you wouldn't need to sign for anything …The effort and the logistics was just incredible and a day didn't go by that we weren't gob-smacked by yet another American excess.5

Australians who had encountered Americans before, like Henry Coates of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, still found the extent of America's presence in Vietnam remarkable:

I had never seen so many Americans … gradually, as you got out of Saigon and got up towards Nui Dat, you started to see Australians or Kiwis … But there were a hell of a lot of Americans. When I had gone up there in 1969 we stayed at a hotel that had had Americans billeted in it … and it was just chock-a-block; and there were helicopters flying around the sky over the top of Saigon the whole time … it was an American war.6

Coates arrived in the war's final years – the visit he described here preceded the beginning of his first tour in April 1970 by some months, although little regarding his impressions of the American presence would have changed in the intervening time. Philip Brookes, a regular who served in 1968–69 at Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam, was similarly impressed, if not a little overwhelmed, by the American presence and attitude:

[It was] just massive, just overbearing, it was in your face, you know, typical American I suppose. It's, you know, nothing subtle; it's just huge. Everything's big, everything's brash, you know, that sort of 'can do' attitude, which is fine in certain circumstances, and I guess in those circumstances it was good. But it was overpowering, overawing, yeah just there all the time. Everywhere you went were Americans … it was like Little America I suppose.7

Tony Ey, another who first met Americans in Vietnam, was also struck by the overwhelming display of the United States' military might:

Phantoms [fighter jets] all along one side of the runway … there must have been 30–40 aircraft waiting to take off. It was incredible activity … the only word I can think of is 'awesome' to see the way the Americans operate – the sheer firepower and the quantity of equipment is massive.8

It was the opinion of some Australians that the enormous disparity in military and logistical might did not necessarily confer superiority on the Americans when it came to operations in the field. Ron Kelly wrote in 1965, after his first patrol, 'I did not think the nerves would put up with it. Hell, you take your life in your hands every time you go out with the Yanks'.9

Tony Ey, who worked closely with United States diving personnel, believed the Americans were poorly trained, and described a certain lack of confidence he and his colleagues had in them:

We had a bit to learn about the Americans in dealing with them and working with them. Although we worked very much as a team, we would never send one of our own out on his own with the Americans, because we didn't trust them. We always went out in pairs so we could cover each other's tail. The Americans were quite different to us and we found it quite hard to comprehend, in a way, the lack of training. None of them wanted to be there. They all hated it. They all wanted to get home – whereas we were, you know, 'this is good stuff'. This is what we're here for, what we train for – so yeah, we were all a little surprised by the Americans. They were probably surprised by us.10

James Gable, a RAAF airfield defence guard and helicopter door gunner with No. 9 Squadron who spent time at Vũng Tàu, thought that the Americans he dealt with 'looked up to us in a lot of ways'. The reason being, so Gable thought:

Because I think, firstly, most of the Australians were easygoing, but we also had a lot of self-confidence and confidence in our own abilities … The majority of Americans we met at Vũng Tàu, on the base, were technical people, and we very rarely saw the 'you-beaut' American fighting soldier as such. Most of these guys were mechanics or drivers or clerical staff or military police, or whatever. They were all fairly technical. But we got the impression that they quite admired us.11

Robert Muller, an American soldier, certainly did. In 1981 he wrote to an Australian veteran, Bob Gibson:

I don't know if you know, but I owe my life to an Australian soldier. After several months as a platoon commander with the Marines, I … worked as an assistant battalion advisor to the ARVN … my partner was an Australian Warrant Officer. The day that I was shot, he … ran up the hill and brought me down … being awarded the Silver Star by the Americans for his braving the enemy fire … his heroic efforts … allowed me, as the doctors explained, to miraculously survive what should have been a mortal wound. Obviously I feel very close to all the Australian veterans, as we all feel close to each other in an experience which makes us comrades, despite national flags.12

Good or bad, American influence extended into virtually every corner of the war. Colin Nicol found himself pondering the nature of America's war in Vietnam: 'It amuses me how the Americans provide Civil Aid for the S.V. people & yet we find all the gear the nogs eat – or most of [it] – is the civil aid gear. Food for thought!'13 This situation was a function both of America's failure to sever the ties between villagers and Viet Cong and of America's seemingly limitless riches. Medical officer Michael Naughton noted the abundance of American materiel and the generosity with which it was dispensed:

My experience … was mainly with the American medical fraternity, and they were very generous. The first major contact we had with American medical folk was with materiel resupply, as they call it … The planning in Australia was a shambles … I had absolutely nothing to do with the packing of the medical stores that were allocated to us, and when I opened them in Vietnam, it was just pathetic … I can remember making some hostile comments in my initial report … “How anybody could consider this adequate for our job is inconceivable”. I think that was almost a quote … our equipment was so poor, we would've been in really big trouble had it not been for the American supply system. They were absolutely generous … we couldn't have survived without them … Generous to a fault. Our blokes became very adept at horse-trading. A slouch hat could get you almost anything … a slouch hat and pair of GP [General Purpose] boots … you could close a deal on anything.14

Civilian nurse Canny Coventry had a similar experience, and remembered of her arrival at the Biên Hòa Hospital in 1966:

I went to the instrument cupboard and there were a few instruments … If it had not been for the Americans who befriended us at this stage, I don't know where we would have been. We had to go to this huge store in Saigon and I chose a lot of instruments so we could start doing abdominal and plastic surgery.15

If the scale of the United States effort in Vietnam left many Australians in awe of their ally's enormous wealth, some also believed that it was at least part of the reason for the Americans' questionable tactics. Peter Jamieson, who served with the 1st Armoured Regiment in 1968–69, said:

… the Americans were known for being gung-ho. I suppose the thought process is that they think they're the biggest and the best and they've got the most firepower and … they thought they could win the war in Vietnam purely by the amount of firepower they had and they would just blaze away at anything … the Americans seemed to want to take chances … because they think they've got that firepower to get out of it, whereas the Australians were a bit more reserved. I always thought we were smarter [in] how we operated than what they were. Didn't take the chances they did.16

Gregory McGee was a veteran experiencing his third war. He had encountered Americans as a young soldier during the Second World War and in Korea, and now again while serving with the AATTV in 1964–65. In Vietnam he regarded them as 'very careless about security' and 'about noise':

They would go out on patrol and have a little pocket radio playing jazz. There was a lot of noise at night, talking and shouting. They were careless with their firearms. Every now and then someone would fire a round. There was a lot drinking and drug taking going on.17

Sydney Webster provided an example of Australians and Americans meeting in the field while he was serving with 9RAR in 1968–69 which exposed stark differences in the methodology of the two allies. He did not doubt the courage of the Americans but was surprised by their ignorance in field craft, and gave a detailed example of their failings:

He had a ton of guts but he had no brains. You can't say the Yank wasn't prepared to fight but I never agreed with their tactics. They used to spruik a lot of theory but it wasn't evident to me in the bush. When we were in the bush, at all times camouflaged, a bit of face camouflage and sleeves rolled down, all commands by signal unless you were close enough to talk lowly, all movements slow and deliberate, and always – whatever position you are in – one bloke looks to the right and the other fellow looks to the left … so you cover all round … Once, when we had to marry up with these Yanks … around Biên Hòa … we were in position … and this bloke said to me, 'Hey, sir', and I said, 'What?' He said, 'I can hear music', and I said, 'You are bloody mad'. And he said, 'No sir, I can hear music'. I couldn't hear music. After a while this other bloke said, 'See, he is right sir, I can hear music'. So I thought, 'All right, we will listen'. And they both said, 'Sir, we can hear music'. I went over to the boss and I said, 'There is a couple of kids here reckon they can hear music', and he got on the radio to this Yank and he said, 'Are you anywhere near our position?' He said, 'Yes, I make it that we are five hundred metres from you'. So he said, 'Go back and keep watch out'. I got back to these diggers and I said, 'No-one stands up. Stay where you are in your firing position and we will see what comes'. Within a minute or so there is the rustling in the bushes and along comes this Yank, steel helmet uncamouflaged, shirt undone, dog tags glistening and he is jigging along … The bloke behind him was carrying his weapon [so] that he could use it, the first bloke had his just across his shoulder ... and then came the machine gun, not the commander as with us, and the machine gunner had it across his shoulder and he had the radio and he was entertaining the troops with the radio. I went back to the boss and told him and he said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'We are about three hundred metres from your position', so he said, 'Get your patrol to halt and stand where they are'. This bloke said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because my men are going to stand up'. … And when we stood up you ought to have seen the jaws hit the ground and all this type of thing, and they couldn't get over the fact that they had walked past so many of our troops. And that is just basic, very basic jungle law that you don't do anything like that.18

Though such views were shared by many, they were not universal. Ernest Snelling, another AATTV man who served in 1968–69, recalled:

I never really had a problem … they all seemed reasonable, same sort of guys as we are … They certainly operate differently … there are lot of guys from the Second World War and Korea who would decry the American forces and say … they kill a lot of people … and they don't practise tactics properly, there's no finesse, it's straight up the middle … the Americans work on a different principle and when it all boiled down, the end results of the Americans is pretty much the same as the Australians … the casualties are about the same … on a sort of ratio basis. It's just that the Americans don't really go looking for people quietly, they go looking for people to come and get them … making a lot of noise about it. The Australians do it differently. I don't see any difference provided the end result is achieved … I think a lot of the comments that we hear about how the Americans operate are based on a sort of … feeling from the heart rather than from the brain.19

Ian Mackay, who had served with 6RAR and at Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam, in 1966–67, was impressed by the soldierly standards of some of the elite American units but not their army generally:

I thought the Americans were good because they were hand-picked, they were the Special Forces, they were the 'Green Berets'… They were listening to the British doctrine and they were hungry like we were in the SAS days for information, when we first formed SAS. I didn't have any feeling of American arrogance. I was impressed with that. I was impressed with these guys. One of them I had particular contact with – led me into a minefield that I didn't want to particularly be in – briefed Congress, I read a few months later in 'Time', where he stood up in front of the joint Congress and briefed them and I thought, 'That's good, they're trying to learn from people who actually know what they're doing'. And he was a captain who won the Medal of Honour, or something. I met some very good guys who were very useful to the rest of my career, in the Americans. So I've made a couple of anti-American statements but I have a great respect for many things that the Americans do. It's just the 'big gorilla' approach is not necessarily the best in these sorts of situations. But at small level things they were very good … they were doing like a training team role with the Vietnamese and they were being reasonably successful. Now the Rangers were the best of them, but the normal American troops were not good.20

One group of Americans who were universally admired and respected were the pilots of the choppers who were at the forefront of the medical field evacuations. Ronald Nolan certainly believed this to be the case:

… the outstanding American unit in my opinion in that war was their medical evacuation helicopters, who operated under the code name of Dustoff. Now these were Iroquois helicopters solely designated to casualty evacuation and they were painted with huge red crosses, which meant nothing to the Viet Cong. They would fly those helicopters anywhere, any time, to pick up casualties. The pilots of them, they at one time had a life expectancy of thirty days. They had that many blown out of the sky, going in to try and pick up casualties, but they never folded. They were always on the job.21

Contact with Americans both reinforced and challenged Australians' understanding of the United States. Both countries shared a common language and a recent history as close allies in the World Wars and Korea, and though it was a one-way street, they also shared cultural touchstones that left a particular view of American society in the minds of many Australians – one that left them unprepared to confront less celebrated aspects of American life. Before they deployed to Vietnam, few Australians would have pondered the extent and nature of racism and segregation in the United States. Desmond Kearton recalled:

… the canteen's over there somewhere and here's a black American sitting in one … group and the white Americans on the other side. They wouldn't mix together. We said, 'What's wrong with this?' 'No, the white Americans don't drink or mix with the black Americans', and the Australians said, 'We'll drink with any bugger, black or white, as long as he has his shout of beer' – you know, we don't care, so that was a very fast learning curve there.22

Philip Brookes remembered:

I was drinking with some Americans in the bar and they were talking about going 'coon hunting', and I thought they were talking about raccoons – and it was Negroes. They were Southerners and, you know, I didn't like that 'cause we … met quite a few Negroes and we got on pretty well with them. So I think they appreciated our sense of humour … We had an Aboriginal guy … with us and we used to take the mickey out of him, you know, 'You black bastard', sort of thing, which you would never do now. And, you know, he used to call us, 'Whitey'… And the Americans could never understand … it would cause a racial riot if they did it in their unit … Certain bars that I … went into were full of Negroes and you sort of got 'the look' … and, 'What are you doing here? This is a black bar'. 'Oh, sorry mate', you know, 'I'm an Aussie. Do you mind?' And 9 times out of 10 they'd say, 'No, come and join us'… That was a period when there was a lot of racial tension in the US and it manifested itself in the military as well, a lot of racial tension ... you saw it more with the Negroes …They'd do the 'high fives' and the talk was designed to exclude white Americans. And then you had the southern Americans who were very, you know, anti-Negro and were quite open about it … That's not to say that whites and Negroes didn't mix – they did. But there were certain groups of Negroes that would drink or mix by themselves, and whites, you know, a whites-only bar and a blacks-only bar.23

Few Australians were in a position to publicly express their opposition to this kind of segregation. Civilian entertainer Robin Stein was one who could:

… they realised that if they wanted my show they couldn't do that. That was cool. They got used to that and the word went around very quickly that I wouldn't do a show for them if they were segregated … That took a couple of months, but I managed to do that. I simply would not have gone on and I meant it. I was completely serious. If they wanted a show, they couldn't be segregated. I don't care who they are, I didn't care if they were officers, who they are. Didn't matter to me, they were just men to me.24

Australians, whose own country was far from immune from racist attitudes and policies nevertheless found its overt, clearly visible manifestation in the United States forces quite confronting. The passions that issues of race could arouse among Americans occasionally found expression in encounters with Australians. For Brian Woods, the use of an unfamiliar piece of Australian slang almost ended in tragedy:

The Yanks, we never had much to do with the Yanks, they … could never understand our language, could never understand our slang. We done a gun lift … with the Chinook choppers and one … lifted this gun up and it blew a jet on the Chinook. So it dropped the gun and crash landed and out jumped these Americans and this big Negro … he come and stood beside me and I still had to look up at him to see him, look him in the eyes. And I said to him … 'By Jesus that was a close one, digger'. And at that he reached down for his pistol and the sergeant standing behind me just clacked his weapon … and said to me, 'You'd better come with me' and walked away. I said, 'What was the problem?' He said, 'He was going to shoot you' … I said, 'What did I say?'… 'He thought you said 'that was a close one, nigger' … anyway, that was a run in with the Yanks.25

'Yanks' was how most Australians referred to their American allies, but that term was also put through the filter of Australian rhyming slang – as Brian Millar, a member of No. 2 Squadron, based at Phan Rang in 1969–70, found to his surprise:

I don't even know if it was the first day or the tenth day, or whatever day, but it was very, very, very close to the original day of arrival when I heard this term, 'Bloody Seppos' … 'Oh we got that from the Seppos', and 'Oh, he's a good friend of mine, that bloody Seppo'. And I'm thinking 'what the hell [are] they talking about?' and eventually I said, 'What's a Seppo?' and they said, 'A Seppo – it's septic tank'. And I said, 'Well, I know what a septic tank is'. They said, 'Yeah, well it's a bloody Yank'. And then it dawned – a Yank, an American, is a septic tank, is a Seppo. And that term has stuck with me since, and it will stick with me forever.26

While there were occasional cultural and language hiccups in the Australian–American relationship, many Australians thought the US military displayed a gross insensitivity toward the Vietnamese population and culture. Graeme Mann, who was a member of the Civil Affairs Unit and worked with the US Air Force, thought so:

I think Americans can be very heavy at times, and they can be so insensitive to other people's cultures – and I think that's what they've done in Vietnam … They pretty well turned all the girls between fourteen and seventeen into prostitutes. That was point number one that wasn't endearing to anybody, and they also were just generally insensitive to what I think was probably a very sensitive culture. I think the Vietnamese were a very gentle culture, though history doesn't actually say that. But their country was adorned with these beautiful temples and they just got blown up, 'boom!', you know … heavy handedness.27

Norman Fearn commented on what he saw as a fundamental difference between Australian and American treatment of the Vietnamese:

So they'd all say, 'Uc Dai Loi!' – Australians. 'Uc Dai Loi, he number one'. 'American, number ten'. They wouldn't have dealings with the Yanks at all, if they could help it. Well, the Yanks in my opinion – not all of them, some – didn't treat them as humans … or as people. They were just there and showed no respect for them at all. But … Australians, anyway, will say, 'G'day', this that and the other, and treat one another as equals until proven otherwise, sort of thing. And they respected that. That's why we could always get more out of them than the Yanks could … Just in their attitude and the way they'd speak to them, as if they were going back to the days of the slaves in America … just the way they spoke, expecting them to get out of their way. 'Keep well clear of us, we don't want you to do anything for us' ... just being ignorant of them – that was the only way that we personally saw it. But we used to have a few of them [Vietnamese] helping us to unload the Tuesday plane, the Qantas flight when it came in direct from Australia, and they were good to us. When everyone was off the aircraft and we finished unloading the mail, we'd go up and the crew would give us a few plates of fresh Sydney sandwiches and Sydney papers and a few oranges, they'd give us that and we'd chuck the oranges to the – well, not chuck, but give them to – the helpers. And they raved – they'd do anything for orange, fresh fruit. So any time we needed volunteer assistance, their hands went up first. They knew they wouldn't be shoved off at the end of the job – they'd be given some reward, same rewards as we got from the aircraft. I found that you treat everyone as humans, which they are … treat them the same way, and they respect you and look after you as well.28

As critical as many Australians were of the Americans, there was sometimes in their comments an attempt to understand why things were as they were. Berenice Dawson, a pathologist with a SEATO Medical Team in 1971, commented on the GIs' behaviour:

Well, the Vietnamese used to call them elephants because they were just so large. They were in many ways oafish, noisy and all the rest of it, and they just used to go about things in a gross way. Impact on the war? I don't know. Certainly they killed a lot of VC, I suppose, with their bombs; they destroyed a lot of villages, killed a lot of civilians with their bombs … they didn't have a clear idea of why they were there, for starters. They didn't particularly like the area. If they were grunts, as they used to be called, they were fighting in jungles in just horrible conditions and they were fighting an enemy that wasn't their enemy and, I don't know, I just think they hated being there a lot of the time. Didn't know why they were there, hated being there, and their mates were being killed and they just wanted to get the hell out of there. I didn't see it, but I heard a lot about drug-taking, especially amongst the army people. The GIs were into heroin because that was very cheap, easy to get hold of, and I guess through grog and drugs, they calmed their devils but they could lash out at the Vietnamese because they looked like the enemy that they were fighting. It all looked the same to them.29

In the war's later years, Wally Thompson – a veteran of Malaya, the AATTV and two infantry tours of Vietnam – watched what he saw as the deterioration in quality of the United States Army in Vietnam:

I saw the decline of them. When I first went there it was the pick of their army – '68 was very hard, that was the hardest time in Vietnam for me, the Tet Offensive, and then when I went back in '70, by '70 the American army was falling apart. Poor training, poor discipline, people wearing peace beads and smoking pot.30

The extent of drug use in the American military came as a surprise to the Australians. Marijuana and heroin commanded the most media attention, their use regarded by some as an extension, in part, of the counter-culture in the United States – but also, because of their ready availability, as a breakdown in the army's morale in response to the circumstances in which many soldiers found themselves. By 1970 American estimates suggested that twenty to thirty percent of II Field Force Vietnam were using marijuana regularly, while the following year an official survey of Americans returning home found twenty percent were addicted to narcotics and other drugs.

Some Americans might have smoked dope or used heroin on operations, but the problem was experienced mainly in rear areas, on relatively quiet fire support bases or at times of low risk, on R&R perhaps.31 If substances of this nature were frowned upon, the United States military took a different view of amphetamines and sedatives, millions of which were distributed to military personnel. Drugs, both sanctioned and illicit, were very much part of the United States' experience in Vietnam. Michael Naughton was asked about the problem by senior American general Creighton Abrams:

Why were the Americans into all the drugs and heroin and stuff which was freely available? I mean, our blokes could've got it if they wanted to. And, why weren't the Australians? I guess we were just 30 years behind the American way of life … But our blokes used to drink, mate, they used to drink very hard. I can remember saying to him that 'I think our addiction is contained in a green can, sir'. That was VB; that was the popular beer.32

While the Americans' problems with illicit drugs did not extend to the Australian military in Vietnam, it did have an impact in Sydney, where Americans on R&R were implicated in the city's growing drug trade. Even before the first Americans arrived, some Australians were voicing their opposition, worried that extending the United States R&R scheme to include Sydney risked importing the problems that bedevilled American forces in Vietnam. Some recalled the negative aspects of the American presence in Australia during the Second World War. There were also expressions of concern about the possibility of large numbers of illegitimate and perhaps multi-racial babies being born to Australian women, about sexually transmitted disease, and about the possible presence of large numbers of black Americans. Others regarded the scheme as a positive, foreseeing profits for the hotel, tourism and transport industries. Many Australian individuals, families and groups went out of their way to welcome and entertain the Americans, more than 6,000 of whom arrived each month. Hospitality services were set up at the R&R centre at the Chevron Hotel in Kings Cross, staffed by volunteers from the Country Women's Association, the Australian American Association, and the Australian Citizens Committee. Thousands of Australians volunteered to act as guides or provide home-cooked meals. Americans on leave went on outings with, and ate in the homes of, Australian families. Some, from rural areas of the United States, were keen to see country Australia and visited regional towns.33

Every American arriving in Sydney was taken directly from the airport to the heart of Sydney's red-light district, King's Cross. Many divided their time between the excitement of bars and brothels and the staid kind of sightseeing more readily associated with tourists. But with money in their pockets and just a few days of respite from Vietnam some, like Erik Grannenberg, 'Never left King's Cross'.34

In King's Cross and nearby streets, restaurants changed their names and menus to cater to American tastes. Prices went up, too, as people tried to extract their share of the millions of dollars Americans were spending.35 Joe Leatham was one US soldier who spent a lot of time in the Cross, but his memories also went to the hours he spent walking around Sydney:

I especially enjoyed hanging around the Circular Quay, watching the ferry boats coming and going, and took a few trips on them myself – went to the Taronga Park Zoo and also to Manly Cove … I took a green double-decker bus to Bondi … I remember … walking across the Harbour Bridge one afternoon near the end of my stay and thinking that if things didn't work out for me in the States … that I would come back to live in Sydney.36

Many Americans, particularly those who served in a combat role, likely found R&R in Sydney to be a jarring experience – a brief few days of respite that, except for those who deserted, invariably ended in a return to Vietnam. Back in the war after his week in Sydney, Joe Leatham remembered, 'After I got back to Phuoc Vinh the place seemed even more of a dump than before I left for R&R, and from then on I really started counting the days'.37 This was a sentiment likely shared by many Australians returning to Vietnam after their R&R out of country.

Australians' experience of the Americans in Vietnam was diverse and varied, reaching from remote jungle outposts and large rear-area bases to Vietnam's rivers and coastal waters, to the skies overhead and as far away as eastern Australia. Australians were often surprised by the Americans, finding in their allies a curious mix of enormous wealth, generosity, politeness, and consideration on the one hand, and overt racism, casual cruelty and an approach to the war that was at once an object of wonder and puzzlement on the other. Australians who kept diaries or wrote letters home often mentioned encounters with, and opinions of, Americans – some admiring and some less complimentary. For many of those who grew up in families whose members might have met and got to know Americans during the Second World War, and who grew up with American television, music, dance and films, the reality of dealing with Americans was often a memorable aspect of their service in Vietnam.

A large helicopter hovers above the deck of a warship.

Crew members of the RAN guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart (II) unload boxes of food supplies which have been lowered from an American Chinook helicopter, June 1968. AWM NAVY/17184

Three soldier cooks rolling dough on a table.

Sergeant Bob Randal (left) and Sergeant Ed Fenton (right), cooks of the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group, roll some dough in a US mess at Long Binh during an exchange program with the Americans, watched by Sergeant First Class Ed Shepherd, a US mess supervisor, July 1971. Photographer Philip John Errington. AWM PJE/71/0370/VN

Three soldiers with rifles dismounting from a helicopter.

Soldiers of 7RAR dash from a US Army Iroquois helicopter during Operation Lismore, May 1967. Left to right: Private Ken Aspinall, Private Jozsef Csorba and Private Peter Gates, all of the Fire Assault Platoon, Support Company. Photographer Barrie Winston Farleigh Gillman. AWM GIL/67/0377/VN

Soldiers riding on an armoured personnel carrier.

US armoured personnel carriers transport troops of 1RAR during Operation Denver, April 1966. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/66/0320/VN

US Army infantryman Staff Sergeant Don Williams of the 4th/12th Infantry Brigade with Sergeant Bob Moore of 1RAR during Operation Toan Thang in Biên Hòa Province, May 1968. Photographer William Alexander Errington. AWM ERR/68/0479/VN

Three soldiers standing in a front of 40-gallon drums with sandbags on top.

An American 'dust-off' pilot explains to AATTV advisers Warrant Officer Class 1 Tom Waters (centre) and Warrant Officer Class 2 Dennis Heenan (right) the use of equipment for winching patients out through thick jungle canopy when landing is impossible, May 1970. Photographer Peter Anthony Ward. AWM WAR/70/0298/VN

A US soldier stands by as troops of 1RAR step ashore at Vũng Tàu from a landing craft after disembarking from HMAS Sydney (III), 1965. Photographer Bryan Rupert Dunne. AWM DNE/65/0002/VN
A wounded man on a stretcher is carried from an army ambulance.

An unidentified Australian serviceman is stretchered from a US Army Medical Service Ambulance to a Caribou aircraft of No. 35 Squadron, RAAF, June 1966. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0119/03

A group of soldiers gathered in a hut looking at a board on a table.

Chief Australian adviser in the Delta region, Major John Browne (right rear), with American and South Vietnamese officers, June 1970. Seated in the centre is General WB Rosson, the Deputy Commander of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, studying diagrams of Regional Force Company's camp with which the Night Operations Advisory Team (NOAT), a team of AATTV advisers, was attached in Ben Tranh District, South Vietnam. WAR/70/0406/VN

A soldier in the foreground with arms outstretched directs a helicopter into its landing spot.

An Australian soldier directs the crew of a US helicopter on to a jungle landing zone in the Cong Thanh district of Biên Hòa province during a combined Australian–American operation against the Viet Cong, November 1965. Photographer Michael Barry Shannon. AWM SHA/65/0113/VN

Return home

The return home of service personnel after the completion of their tour of duty was much anticipated. From the moment soldiers arrived in Vietnam they began the countdown to home, with many daily marking-off calendars pinned to the walls of their billets.

The return of service personnel was eagerly anticipated by their loved ones and families. Most soldiers were accorded a welcome home parade marching with their battalion, in which they were almost universally enthusiastically received by the general public, although others returned home individually or in small groups to much more anonymous and private greetings. For all those returning, an adjustment had to be made from passing out of a war zone and, for conscripts, back into civilian life, or to routine home service for full-time regular service personnel. As years passed many veterans would become afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For those affected this was not always evident on their immediate return to Australia, although for others it seems there were signs of future problems.

Australian battalions usually returned home on HMAS Sydney (III), a former aircraft-carrier which had been converted to a troop carrier. An exception was 6RAR, which was flown home company-by-company over several weeks owing to the Sydney undergoing a refit in May 1970, and was thus denied the customary welcome-home parade following its second tour.1 For the individuals and small groups who were flown home, the departure time of flights from Vietnam meant that most arrived at Australian airports late at night, a fact that gave rise to the belief that soldiers were being returned at such times to avoid embarrassing confrontations with protestors.

The feelings of those returned home, which underpins the focus of this chapter, revealed a gamut of emotions, some foreseeable and others not so evident. There was also a marked difference in the manner in which regular soldiers resumed their working lives on return to Australia, as opposed to national servicemen, who found themselves almost instantly discharged from the military and returned to their pre-war job, if they had one. Gary Conyers, a regular who served in 1971, recalled:

… the Qantas flight coming home was what they called the champagne flight, so the grog just flowed like buggery ... And they brought us into Sydney, which I didn't think anything of at the time, but they brought us into Sydney around about midnight – told us to get changed into our civvies clothes and go on a week's leave. And that's what we did. And I was due for discharge when I got home anyway, so I went on a week's leave and then I went back to a migrant centre at Dundas. And I think it was about six days and I was discharged and I was back in my civvy job. So it all came to an abrupt end. Bang, bang, and it's all over … you just can't do that to anybody ... have them trained up as well as that, and then just shut them off. And also, the other big problem – you weren't going to tell anybody you'd been in the armed forces either, cause there'd be a fair chance you might get your head punched in. But I was lucky I lived in one of the better towns as far as accepting Vietnam guys. For instance, the local RSL actually sent me parcels while I was over there with some goodies in it, lollies and God knows what else in it. And when I got home the local RSL had a bit of a dinner for me, too, to welcome me back, where a lot of places they weren't game enough to even say they went to Vietnam. They just stood out like dog's balls anyway, because you had short-back-and-sides and the majority of people had long hair. And that's where a lot of problems from the Vietnam vet arose, from the way the guys got treated when they got back home – where I personally didn't go through any of that. I was very lucky actually.2

The idea of resuming or getting back to a 'normal life' was a pervasive one, and for those continuing their life in the services it was a somewhat matter-of-fact proposition, as indicated by Robert Healy:

I left on 24 June [1971], thinking I would never return. After a few weeks' leave, I reported to my new unit, picked up a couple of medals in a cardboard box and got on with the rest of my life. I spent over 20 years in the air force and then joined the Department of Veterans' Affairs … My Vietnam service was an interesting part of my life which I did not regret but had no wish to repeat.3

For Bruce Mouatt, a RAAF pilot who had done two stints in Vietnam in 1968 and another in 1971, his war service slipped into the background of his life until it resurfaced dramatically over a decade later:

Back in Australia we melted back into a 'normal life', flying Mirage fighters and planning what young people plan for. We didn't talk about our war service much – no reason to really – and only later have some of us searched our consciousness for more. For me a watershed was reached in 1985 when I visited the US Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. It silently shook me to the core and I felt a sudden clarity that will never leave me.4

For men such as Graham Edwards, a regular with 7RAR who had been wounded and had both his legs amputated three weeks prior to his return to Australia in 1970, the challenges of reintegration into society were more immediate:

It was an emotional time, a really confronting time, but it was a very warm time too, to finally come into the embrace of a loved one and my family and to be reunited, but never ever the way I ever wanted to be reunited, and I still feel a sense of emotion, when I see homecomings of other troops today and I see them walking off the ship or walking off an aeroplane, and walking into the arms of a loved one and I would have given anything, even today, for that sort of a homecoming. As opposed to the waves of Second World War blokes who came home where there was a range of programs, and educational areas they could put someone into, the blokes coming home from Vietnam came home in dribs and drabs and we were just slotted in where we could. And I think in retrospect too, we were seen as a problem, not as a person. So where do you hide this problem? What do you do with this person to get them out of the way and to get them off our books so we can eventually discharge them from the army and push them onto someone else's responsibility? That's what it appeared to me. The last thing I ever wanted was my children ever to grow up thinking that their father was a cripple. So I did throw myself into community activities and they were the sorts of things I think that kept me sane. Although in retrospect, I had times when I got incredibly angry, times when I just had to go off by myself, wishing that things were totally different but just getting on with what I had to do.5

The one place of refuge that returned servicemen would have thought they would have found empathy and a supportive arm was the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL), but this was not always forthcoming, as John Thurgar, a trooper with 1SAS, recalled about his return to Australia:

I was repatriated home in October 1970, wounded. There was no support for Vietnam veterans from the government, the community or returned service organisations. I remember my proud dad taking me to my first Anzac Day march in 1971 only to be chastised by World War II veterans as 'not having served in a real war' and for having taken part in a war they were opposed to. It hurt Dad, and it hurt me … It took me a very, very long time to ever go back to an RSL and also, to be forgiving.6

Some men, such as Kenny Laughton, returned home with a sense of purpose. Laughton was an indigenous soldier who served as a member of the Royal Australian Engineers in Vietnam in 1969–71. In his case, a strong family history of activism was paramount in his post-war battle for veterans' assistance:

My father was an activist and my greatest hero along with my cousin the late, great Charles Perkins, who was also a great influence on me. I was never going to just come home and spend my life sitting under a tree … I was committed to trying to change things for the better for Aboriginal people and assisting fellow Vietnam veterans, black and white, in our fight to get adequate care from the Federal Government (those responsible for sending us to war in the first place) and non-government organisations like the RSL supposedly responsible for lobbying on behalf of all veterans.7

The fraying effects of service in Vietnam became evident in many men almost as soon as they came home. Anthony Pahl, a leading aircraftman, had served in 1969–70 and his experience showed just how socially debilitating traumatic memories could be:

The intensity of my service as a helicopter gunner and related traumatic incidents triggered psychological problems almost immediately upon my return from Vietnam. They were diagnosed as personality deficiencies, inability to cooperate with peers, and insubordination; manifest in temper tantrums, abusiveness to peers and superiors, and violence – thankfully upon myself rather than others. With a change of mustering from Airfield Defence Guard to Financial Account Clerk I was able to remove myself from many of the activities that triggered symptoms. But the memories remained and my reaction to them had a detrimental effect on my career until I separated from the RAAF in 1988.8

Leaving the RAAF provided something of a solution for Pahl, and he was not alone in thinking that such action was perhaps the best remedy to counter the disturbing emotions experienced. Phillip White had served with the 8th Field Ambulance in 1970 and he adopted a similar tactic: 'When I discharged from the army, I gave away most of anything that reminded me of Vietnam. I wanted to get on with my life, forget the past, and not mention being a Vietnam veteran'.9 Others were able to compartmentalise their experience, including Tony De Bont, who did two tours – first as a 'nasho' in 1968–69 and then as a regular in 1970–71: 'My Vietnam experience was one year in a twenty-year military career and whilst that year was different and at times difficult, when I returned home it was put behind me and I got on with the job'.10

Suppression of one's war experience was seen by many veterans as central to getting on with a 'normal life' but it was neither a necessarily healthy nor an easy thing to do, as suggested by Robert Woolley, a sapper with 1st Field Squadron:

Returning to Tasmania in October 1969 I felt as if I wanted to forget all about the war, and tried to block it out of my life. That's pretty hard to do when you are fuelled with an anger that won't go away no matter how much alcohol you drink, and with long nights of recurring dreams of the war. In spite of the inner turmoil, I married and had two children and tried to live a 'normal' life.11

Bill Kane, a shipwright who served aboard HMAS Perth in 1970–71 and made three trips on HMAS Sydney (III) in 1971–72, noticed a significant change in the demeanour of the men being returned from Vietnam:

They were very gaunt, very quiet. They'd do a lot of staring; didn't tend to join in, sort of kept to themselves a lot. That was my first experience of guys that had been in battle and how it really affected them – you can just tell it in their face, you know. Everything was sad about them …12

The notion that Vietnam veterans were not adequately welcomed home or supported has been one held by many who served, but it was not one necessarily shared by all. Gary Beck, a pilot with No. 2 Squadron who served in 1968–69, made a distinction between the return of full-time RAAF personnel and national servicemen:

We were so occupied all the time; there was never this feeling for us that we weren't welcomed home, or we've missed out on something. And I think that was true of anyone on our squadron certainly, and anyone in the air force, because we weren't part of the Nashos. We had no experience like that. So I think all those feelings were mostly felt by those who came back from the army tour in Vietnam and suddenly had nothing. They were just in a sort of a friendly wasteland.13

Alistair Bridges was another busy RAAF man, a helicopter pilot with No. 9 Squadron who returned in 1968 and found his wartime skill set not necessarily fit for peacetime military service:

… there was never any acknowledgement that you'd been in a war zone … and that's part of the reason why I think I ended up in Darwin, because I was still flying round like I was in a war zone and that's not really acceptable down here. Yeah, there was no preparation for returning to civilian life ... I still had years and years to go. I just loved the Air Force and the flying.14

Neville Wiggins, a helicopter gunner who served in 1970–71, stated simply how bizarre the transformation from a war zone to home could be: 'I got on the aircraft about seven o'clock, flew me to Saigon, Saigon to Sydney. I was home that night after being on patrol that morning. It was surreal, just surreal'.15 Andrew Gates was another who found the transition from Vietnam to home a difficult thing to grasp, and one that ultimately led to his reenlistment:

I was emotionally drained ... I couldn't accept, you know, one minute I was sort of over in Vietnam fighting the war and the next minute I was lying in a safe bedroom, sort of, and it felt foreign. It felt like an unreal experience, you know. I felt like it wasn't happening. I felt the urge to sort of go back. I knew I couldn't because they wouldn't have taken me back in and got me back over there quick enough for the battalion anyway … but I decided while I was lying there … 'Oh well, I'll join the army'. So after ten weeks I walked into Southern Command and said, 'Look here I am'. 16

The knowledge that one was about to leave Vietnam was something that could fill a frontline serviceman with dread and superstition. The idea of one's luck running out just before leaving for home played heavily on the mind of Barry Fletcher, a helicopter gunner who served in 1967–68:

I flew, which I wasn't supposed to, up until the very last day I left Vietnam … I wasn't even supposed to be flying – you were supposed to stop flying about a week before [but] because of events they didn't have enough crew and being that I had been off due to a flu thing, I said, 'I will fly'. And they had an SAS insertion thing. And I was up there and at that particular time I was on the spare aircraft and I am sitting there thinking, 'Tomorrow I am not going to be here, I will be going back to Australia, I really have no interest in this'. And I am listening to the briefing thinking, 'Well I am spare aircraft circling off down the road, nothing to worry about'... As we walked out to the aircraft the boss said … 'Barry get your flight crew, you're going to put the SAS patrol in'. And I just looked at him and I said to him, 'You're joking, I am flying home tomorrow. You are seriously joking. You are pulling my leg?' He said, 'No, that other gunner is new. I want experienced crew, therefore you're putting them in'. And I said, 'You have got to be joking, my luck is not that good, you can't do this to me'. He said, 'You'll be right'. 'Okay'. So I went around to the other crewman and he went to take his chicken plate off the aircraft and I said, 'You leave that there'. 'Why? You ain't gonna need that'. 'You leave that there. I am going home tomorrow and I want all of the protection I can get'. So I went and pinched another one from another aircraft, [and] I said, 'If you're gonna shoot me you're going to have to be accurate'. So I put one on the seat, one behind me and put my helmet on and my jacket and I reckon if a leaf had barked at me in the tree I would have shot it. So I went and did it and I did the operation and nothing happened, it was uneventful. And I swore that if anything was going to happen, today was going to be the day. And, of course the next day, hopped on an aeroplane, flew to Saigon, hopped on a chartered aircraft, flew to Australia. I think we stopped in Darwin for an hour or two, flew into Sydney and within thirty minutes we were dispersed to all parts of the country. Basically told, 'Don't tell anybody where you have been'.17

Having arrived home in Australia, it was not easy to shed habits formed in a war zone, and these could visit veterans unexpectedly – as Michael McDermott attested:

When I first came home I had one [bad dream]. I flicked over out of bed because I thought a flare had gone off and I was near the seaside and sometimes near the seaside the sun comes over the horizon and a ray of light comes zipping in through the curtains and hits you and you think it's really white light, and I saw that and I went flick, out of bed onto the floor.18

There was, too, a need to adjust back into normal routines and behaviours and shed what might be termed military manners, which had become ingrained in one's conduct in Vietnam. This was not always easy, as Alan Anderson, a national serviceman who served with 1RAR in 1968–69, recalled:

… the family gradually came to see me at home and I didn't realise it, but my language was rather coarse and my manner of alcohol assumption was rather offending. To us, it was just a natural way of life. I used a very bad word in front of my mother and my mother-in-law and my wife. When someone said to me, 'What do you think of Vietnam?' I told them. So very quickly, people sort of faded away from around me. I didn't realise because there were no women. We never saw women. There was no reason to change your vocabulary. Where you would adjust your vocabulary for the presence of women, being so long without being in contact with a female, you certainly became rather coarse in your vocabulary. When my step brother asked me … 'What do you think of Vietnam?' I replied and used a four-letter word starting with c … and I thought I had just answered his question adequately, but I noticed that people just … they were gone … I dragged Judy across the street one day in front of all the traffic. I wasn't aware of street lights. There were no street lights ... I can remember driving down the wrong side of the road one time. Not drunk – just a normal right-hand driving vehicle and I was used to driving on the other side of the road. I had all of these things to adjust to. And men who would have come home and gone from that straight into Civilian Street … there was no debriefing. There was no assistance to blend back into society … I went to Enoggera, handed my papers in, they told me to come back on the 25th and they didn't want to see me between now and then. So I signed the papers, got on the bus and came home, type of thing.19

Yvonne Bolton had contracted Hepatitis C during her service as a nurse, as a result of working in the compromised sanitary conditions of the base hospital at Vũng Tàu, and her reflection of her return home reveals how little support was on offer for returning nurses in any form, from either military authorities or the general public:

And when we came back from Vietnam it is hard to believe but people would not even talk to you about Vietnam. Not even in the army. Like if you said, 'I am sick', you might as well have been talking to a blank wall. I mean people in the highest of positions – it was just like it never ever happened. There was no counselling before you went to Vietnam and there was even less counselling when you got back. Nothing. Not even someone to talk to … even the other Vietnam vets, because by that time we had all clammed up and we couldn't even talk to each other, and there was certainly no one in the community that you could talk to either – they just didn't want to know about it; they just wanted to tell you that you shouldn't have been there. And I think that's why I was so angry, because after a while you began to think you were a bit of a hypochondriac – and after I got my documents released, I realised that I had been sick. And if they had have been like a business or company that I had been working for, I would have sued them … that sort of treatment, especially post-Vietnam, had actually caused me so much stress. And to also send people to Vietnam without any counselling prior to going, and then to have all of that work where there was no one to relieve you – and then to actually bring you back, medivac you back or even just to bring you back, and not have any counselling and proper medical treatment. That was very poor – not even to have any support from the public.20

Peter Haran gives some idea about the gulf in understanding that existed between returned servicemen and those at home who had not experienced the war:

Friends would say, you know, 'Why don't you forget the war? Everyone else has'. I thought 'I can't be with these people'. I was still high, on a high from war. I needed to be with other veterans. So I went to the Blue Mountains, where I had a couple of mates who were larrikins up there, who were veterans. Stayed there and then I went back to Ingleburn, and I did my two years in Ingleburn as an instructor and then I got posted to 3RAR as a section commander, and then I went back to Vietnam.21

John Coates, like many regulars, did not have time to dwell much on his service in Vietnam upon his return to Australia, as work dictated he focus on new tasks:

You just took up your life. You usually had about three weeks' leave that you might have accrued, and you took that. I'd been posted to Duntroon to be the Commanding Officer, Corps of Staff Cadets, so I took three weeks' leave. I think we went up to a newly-opened place at Terrigal that had just started, and had a week there. It was in the middle of winter, it was May, and then I reported for duty after the end of my three weeks, or whatever the time was, at Duntroon. So in a lot of ways it wasn't a real break in your service, you just took up your life, although you felt quite different. Most of my family said I seemed a bit disturbed when I came back from Vietnam, and I think I probably was. I was still jittery. Noises worry you – big bangs, cars backfiring – you're conscious of noise more than anything else. But in other respects life went on.22

Loud sounds certainly provided an embarrassing moment for Peter Jamieson:

I remember we went to the first Royal Adelaide Show after I came home – I'll never forget it – and we were in the kids' nursery with the little lambs and all that. We were with friends of ours actually – he was Best Man at my wedding, John Mason, and the fireworks must have gone off. Bang! I'm on the deck thinking, 'Contact!'. Everybody's looking at me and I just felt such an idiot – but anyhow, they took me outside. 'Of course we understand, we understand'. They probably didn't. Anything with a sudden bang or anything and, you know, you react to it.23

For Maureen Javes, the sound of helicopters had embedded itself in her consciousness: 'When I first came home, every time I heard a chopper I jumped out of my chair and automatically rushed to the door, or the window, to see what it was, because that meant trouble'.24

Home life was something of an anti-climax for some veterans. Even though they were glad to be home; it was difficult to reconcile the eventful time and changes that they had undergone in Vietnam with what seemed a mundane suburban life. Anthony Bowden, a trooper with 2SAS who served in 1968–69, recalled:

… setting foot in Australia, that was the relief … within a week of being discharged, I called back to where I worked before … and the boss said, 'Can you start next Monday?' So it was back into it again, picking up where you'd gone off before … I only lived half a kilometre from where I worked and it was just back into the grind again. So that was as if nothing happened really. Most of the other blokes that I worked with, they couldn't have given a rat's arse. They'd never heard of SAS, they'd just heard of Vietnam and [said], 'Did you get any diseases?' 'Did you bring any diseases back?' and that was it. Or they were trying to line me up with their sister or girlfriend's girlfriend for blind dates and that was about it. The thing is, when you came back you look for things that were different as a milestone or a guide to say, 'That's changed. I don't remember that'. The problem was, nothing had. Everything was bloody exactly the same. The guys I knew were still carpenters or they were electricians, they were still driving the same bloody cars, they had the same girlfriends. The pub that we drank at, still there, the same barman was there. Nothing had changed, it was as if, you're looking for something to say, 'Wow, that's different', someone got married … [but] no one got married. Anti- climax, it really was …25

Tony Ey was similarly disposed and felt what he was feeling was widely experienced:

My family was outside waiting for us and all of a sudden I was back in reality and that took a bit to acclimatise. You wake up in the morning and you shake your head a bit and think, 'Where am I?' Life goes on around you. You have never been to Vietnam. Nothing's different. Nothing's changed – but in your head you are still in Vietnam, so, pretty weird feeling. I think every bloke has it.26

Robert Bell was another who found it difficult to reconnect with his past life:

The thing I noticed most with being home was trying to accustom myself back into being home. And secondly, everything was different. The street was the same, the house was the same, everything like that was physically the same but people were different. And I just didn't know anybody anymore. I couldn't get on with my friends. I couldn't speak to them. I couldn't speak too much to my family. It wasn't them, it was me. I was different. I came home a different person and I couldn't believe how twelve months in Vietnam had changed me so much. And how it matured me so much. I went over at nineteen, I came back at twenty years of age. Well, I could have been thirty years of age. That experience matured me very quickly. And that's probably why I couldn't relate to my past friends.27

There can be no doubt that by the late 1960s the war had become unpopular, particularly in the major cities, and that returned servicemen were held in contempt by some of those who opposed the war. The lot of returned men was not helped by the graphic images and horrific stories that had been received by the general public as John Kinsela found:

I was too ashamed to tell people that I'd been to Vietnam because of a lot of the publicity with the My Lai massacre and … mainly from a lot of the things that the Americans had inflicted on the people. Those sort of atrocities filter back to being a soldier over there.28

Opponents of the war were, at times, able to discern that the soldiers were not necessarily appropriate targets for their protests. Barry Seeley found himself part of an odd reconciliation between soldiers and student anti-war protesters just prior to leaving for his second stint in Vietnam:

We went to Townsville – we were lucky going to Townsville because the people of Townsville weren't exposed to too much military and they opened their arms to us. The public, the locals were good to us and we only ever had one incident in Townsville prior to going to Vietnam on the second trip. We had the university next to the camp up there and there was a huge big rock at Lavarack Barracks, as you drive into Lavarack Barracks, and someone painted 'Death 2 RAR' on it and this was prior to us going up. The guys rightly or wrongly believed it was the students. A couple of guys retaliated with paint and they went up to the car park and painted all the students' cars. There was never anything in the paper about it, no publicity – they wanted to keep it quiet. The deans of the university got together with the COs and they came to some sort of agreement, [and] from then we had sort of a good working relationship with the students. I still believe it was the students; it was certainly our guys who painted the cars, I've got no doubt about that. But that incident maybe brought everything to a head, and the students got invited down to our sport events and we got invited up to their sport events, and people got together and they realised that we were doing what we were told to do by the government – whether we wanted to go, it was immaterial; we had no choice in going. I think it worked their way too. We understood the way they felt: that they had a freedom of speech to do things, but to do things the right way – protest against something, but don't protest directly to the soldiers.29

For some service personnel, the return home could be quite overwhelming for a variety of reasons, as was the case with Barbara Bruce:

I guess I had changed in that you are irreversibly changed when you are subjected to culture, and particularly such poverty. You can't then just come back here and be the same, because you have been exposed to something that you can't block out. When I got back here [to] our western culture, I found it difficult to adjust to the way we lived, because I had made my adjustment to such an extent. We lived like westerners in an Asian culture. I had still gotten used to a certain way of living, sort of a community way of living, [so] to come back here was really quite shattering. I have to overlay the fact that … I had made this friendship with an American which was quite serious, and I had written back to my family and said that I was going to marry him. Then to return, and that didn't eventuate, it was sort of a double whammy for me because already being in Vietnam was not popular, and to be in a situation where I didn't want to talk about a broken relationship, and everybody wanted to ask me questions – I found that really difficult. I did have a bit of a reaction to my Vietnam experience in that I actually manifested a skin condition about a month after I came back, which had nothing to do with what might have been dropped on the trees or anything in Vietnam because I don't think I was anywhere near anything like that ... It was an emotional response to just overwhelming emotions, and not really wanting to talk about it, and being put in a situation where people were constantly asking me questions and I didn't want to answer them.30

For those who had participated in combat or witnessed gruesome scenes, those memories were embedded in their consciousness on return to Australia and would be carried with them for life. How service personnel dealt with that varied, but for most it would seem such memories remained an unsettling presence in their lives. Geoffrey Jones, an army regular who did two tours in 1968 and 1970–71, wrote of the searing effect on his memory that coming upon the victims of an air strike had induced:

After a few days of trudging through the 'J' [jungle] we move across a scorched black hill side, the result of a recent napalm bombing raid by the Americans and discover half a dozen charred and bloated bodies of the enemy near the entrances of a tunnel complex. The instinct for survival in the oxygen-starved atmosphere of the tunnels had forced them to the surface gasping for air, only to be caught in the next bombing run and have their skin fried by molten napalm. Although they are the enemy, it's hard not to feel for them; it must be a horrendous way to die. That night we camp on a lunar looking landscape, and the smell wafting across in the slight breeze is something I could never forget as long as I lived … the unforgettable sweet and sickly stench of burnt human flesh.31

Robert Creek was one of over 3,000 Australians who were wounded or injured in Vietnam. His unit had been attacked by the enemy and suffered a number of casualties, including four killed. He described the aftermath of the battle and the lifelong effect it had on him:

The four bodies were picked up by their clothes and carefully placed on the two stretchers. One body on top of the other; what else could be done? Their arms dangled obtusely and lifelessly over the edges. The sight of these squashed bodies of our friends, who were alive just a few hours ago, was too much to bear. I couldn't think straight, I just doubled over and fell to my knees and cried uncontrollably. A couple of the guys held on to me as I let my rifle just fall to the ground. One of the rescue party picked it up and that was the last I ever saw of my rifle or any weapon for the remainder of the war … To this day, this sight of my deceased friends, just lying there … often brings tears to my eyes.32

One didn't have to be involved in direct combat to be gripped by feelings of uncertainty and possibly even remorse about one's role in Vietnam. Colin Elliott was ship's sailor aboard HMAS Hobart (II) in 1967 when it served on the naval gun line as part of operations with the US Seventh Fleet:

Every time that gun barrel went off, I wonder how many people died because of that gun barrel. And I watched it and I helped give coordinates to where to fire. And that worked on me. I thought, you know, do I have a right to feel proud of that or not? I don't know.33

Similarly, Patrick O'Hara, a gunner with the Australian artillery, reflected on the long shadow cast by the actions in the war of which he was a part:

… we should never have been there. I firmly believe that. I think of the suffering that we inflicted on those people … you were always waiting for body counts, you know, that's the way things were and in the artillery we never really got any, that we had killed anyone, and one night we were told our gun, the one I was on, had killed 22 Viet Cong. Yes. Whoa. Then a couple of days later we found out they were all women. They were porters, carrying stuff. So that affected everybody, knowing that, everyone calmed down and it wasn't until I became a grandparent and got my own grand kids, it started to bother me. 'How many of those women were pregnant?' … But that didn't come until later … But I get really upset that we haven't learnt from it, that we're still doing this incredible damage to people, to women and to wives and the suffering … some of the blokes I know, it just destroyed their lives. They're just having a miserable time … so, mixed feelings.34

For service personnel who had been invested in the cause, in their mates and in the people they had sought to protect, departure from Vietnam carried with it an element of guilt. Bill Denny served with 86 Transport Platoon of the Royal Australian Army Service Corps, and provided a poignant reflection about his departure – he being among the last to leave – in March 1972:

Walking through empty buildings, this seemed a special moment in time – doors banging in the wind and the base eerily deserted. Vietnamese workers were crying and distressed. I lied to them, reassuring them that we would be back 'if the VC come'. As it turned out, the Viet Cong did come – four weeks later – but we were never going to go back. I never really got over the friends I lost in Vietnam, nor the desertion of those we had so comprehensively fought to support and protect.35

Without doubt, a safe return home to Australia was an aspiration that was held by all Australians who served in Vietnam. That return, though, was not as easy in reality as it may have been imagined. Many veterans found the immediate transition from a war zone to civilian life – literally overnight, in some cases – to be a somewhat surreal experience and a destabilising one. For the most part, those who served in Vietnam had left Australia as young men and women and returned with a new maturity that belied their youth. It might be said that they had been robbed of precious years, and certainly many felt that Vietnam had defined and changed them. That many veterans felt that they were abandoned by the military and the government, and shunned by the general public, on their return is an undeniable fact. That is not to say support was not forthcoming – but the experience and levels of such support varied. Most veterans had to deal with the disjuncture in understanding that occurred between their own experience in Vietnam and the public's and their families' conception of what they had lived through. For many, the solution was simply to say nothing, and to try and get on with life. In many cases that simply deferred addressing psychological problems that needed to be talked through sooner or later. Physical reactions to loud noises and stress were evident in many veterans almost immediately on return, and may well have been harbingers of later post-traumatic stress diagnoses for some. For all who served in Vietnam it was undoubtedly both a defining and memorable experience, and the degree to which it has affected and shaped their lives cannot be adequately measured in uniform terms as there was a unique aspect to all individual experience.

The saying that 'time heals all wounds' is probably one of the least helpful things that could be uttered to a veteran, yet the passage of time – half a century since Australia's official involvement ended in Vietnam – has allowed some veterans to become both comfortable and proud of their service, which many veterans felt they were unable to express in the face of the public backlash against the war in its later years. That does not mean all have been able to divest themselves of haunting memories of the war. Bill Black is one veteran who has come to terms with his service over time:

… we're part of history, I think, full stop. Whether you get through unscathed ... I think all of us to some degree carry it, it'll never leave. But, yeah, it is what it is. And I've mellowed a lot. I always used to hear once you get to 70 you'll start to mellow … well, I can say it's true.36

Normie Rowe, an Australian pop music icon at the time of his call-up for national service, is another who has come to terms with his military experience in Vietnam, and his reflection is a positive one on which to conclude:

Vietnam changed my life, irrevocably. But the way I see it, every day is a new day. I've reconciled myself to the fact that I did my time in Vietnam and I can't change the past. I can only move forwards. You just have to accept that things happen in life. And all of these tough things that happen to you will eventually make you what and who you are when your life is full and almost to the end. You'll look back and say, well, at least I didn't die of boredom. And the truth is, the people I met there are now my closest friends. I know that if I'm in trouble, the first people to turn up will be my Vietnam veteran friends.37

A navy band in white uniforms leads a welcome home parade through a crowded city street.

Australian troops march in a 'welcome home' parade in Brisbane after their return from Vietnam, 1970. NAA A1500, K26968/11651088

A convoy of armoured vehicles moving down a road.

The last Australian troops to leave Nui Dat, home of the 1st Australian Task Force in Vietnam for more than five years, rumble past the main gate of the base aboard armoured personnel carriers, on their way to Vũng Tàu, November 1971. Vũng Tàu became the main base for the marshalling of units for embarkation and the closing down of unit stores, ready for shipment back to Australia. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/71/0539/VN

A soldier and a man with a tie kneeling and patting a dog that sits between them.

Dog handler Private David Cree of 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) introduces 'Milo' to his new owner, Mr JR Cochrane, the assistant manager of the Chartered Bank in Saigon, after his retirement from active duty as a tracker dog in Vietnam, November 1971. Tracker dogs were not able to be returned to Australia due to quarantine regulations. Photographer John Alfred Ford. AWM FOD/71/0564/VN

Members of 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) in a RAAF Iroquois helicopter prepare to fly from Nui Dat to Vũng Tàu at the end of their combat duty in Vietnam, November 1971. Photographer William James Cunneen. AWM CUN/71/0538/VN
A nurse in uniform holding the arm of a smiling wounded soldier as he lies strapped into bed on an aeroplane.

Vietnam War casualty Lieutenant Norman Clarke of the Detachment, 1st Ordnance Field Park, is made comfortable for his trip home in a RAAF Hercules, by Section Officer Gwen Ely of the RAAF Nursing Service, September 1966. Photographer Gerald Wallace Westbury. AWM VN/66/0055/12

A large group of soldiers standing on the deck of a warship with a helicopter in the background.

Soldiers of 8RAR alight from a Chinook helicopter after flying from the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat to Vũng Tàu harbour to start their journey home aboard HMAS Sydney (III), November 1970. Photographer John Geoffrey Fairley. AWM FAI/70/0772/VN

Five sailors standing in a line each holding a baby.

Crew members of RAN guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart (II) hold their babies for the first time on their return from Vietnam to Garden Island, Sydney, in October 1970. AWM NAVYM0741/10

A sailor kisses his baby being held by his wife.

Electrical Mechanic Weapons Electronics Allen Kirkman greets his wife and four-week-old daughter after HMAS Hobart (II)'s arrival back at Garden Island in Sydney on completion of its second deployment to Vietnam, October 1968. AWM NAVY18161

A soldier smiling surrounded by his family.

A family reunion for Signalman Ian Webster on his return to Australia from Vietnam with the advance party of 3RAR, September 1971. Photographer Peter Caprioli. AWM CAP/71/0274/CC

A soldier standing and holding his twin daughters in each arm.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Bob Pearson of 4RAR is greeted by his twin daughters on his return to Brisbane from Vietnam, May 1969. Photographer Bryan Rupert Dunne. AWM DNE/69/0258/NC

A close up of soldiers marching through a city street.

Members of C Company, 6RAR, march through the streets of Brisbane after arriving home from Vietnam on 14 June 1967. Photographer Bruce Minell. AWM P06136.012

A soldier sitting and placing his slouch hat on the head of a young boy standing next to him.

Private Gerald Randall of 5RAR is welcomed home by a friend at Sydney's Garden Island Naval Dockyard on his return from his second tour to South Vietnam, March 1970. Photographer Bob Pearce. AWM PEA/70/0063/EC

A column of soldiers marching with their rifles with fixed bayonets and their heads turned right.

Men of 7RAR pass Sydney Town Hall during their march through the city on their return home from Vietnam, March 1971. Photographer Bob Pearce. AWM PEA/71/0105/EC


Chapter 1 - To Vietnam

  1. Gary McKay, Vietnam: Our War – Our Peace (VOWOP), Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, 2006, p 82.
  2. Peter Haran, Australians at War Film Archive (AAWFA), time signature 12.30 (12.30), transcript page 1 of 10 (1/10)
  3. Lex McAulay, VOWOP, p 6.
  4. Kevin Wigg, AAWFA, 08.00, 5/8.
  5. Robert Lovell, AAWFA, 02.30, 7/8.
  6. Wendy Jobberns, AAWFA, 0.38, 2/5.
  7. Patrick O'Hara
  8. Colin Kahn, AAWFA, 36.00, 6/9.
  9. Robert Dawson, AAWFA, 08.00, 8/8.
  10. Maureen Spicer, VOWOP, p 8.
  11. George Goater, AAWFA, 02.00, 4/9.
  12. Andrew Gates, AAWFA, 22.00, 5/10.
  13. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 31.00, 3/7.
  14. Garry Whykes, VOWOP, p 20.
  15. Kevin Barker, AAWFA, 19.30, 3/8.
  16. Stephen Lewis, AAWFA, 16.30, 5/8.
  17. Brian Woods, AAWFA, 04.30, 5/9.
  18. Neil Weekes
  19. Colin Nicol, letter to 'Dear Mother, Dad and Kids', 7 July 1969, AWM PR87/055.
  20. Peter Winter, letter to 'Dear Mum, Rex and Boys' 31 March 70, pp 5-6, AWM PR03588.
  21. Barry Smith, VOWOP, p. 34.
  22. George Fernando, 02.30, AAWFA, 4/7.
  23. William Clark, AWM PR05526.
  24. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 30.30, 4/7.
  25. Barry Todd, AAWFA, 12.00, 5/7.
  26. Ronald Nolan, AAWFA, 09.00, 9/9.
  27. Robert O'Neill
  28. Ray De Vere, AAWFA, 24.30, 1/2.
  29. Lance Highfield, AAWFA, 14.30, 8/8.
  30. Robert Roach, AAWFA, 07.30, 8/8.
  31. Lester Mengel, AAWFA, 19.00, 5/9.
  32. Patrick O'Hara

Chapter 2 - Home away from home

  1. Stacey Kruck, AAWFA, 32.00, 5/9
  2. Robert Healy, VOWOP, p. 36
  4. Maureen Javes, AAWFA, 27.00, 2/8
  5. John Robbins, see Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 159
  6. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 14.00, 5/7
  7. Robert Roach, AAWFA, 08.30, 5/8
  8. James Murrell, AAWFA, 06.00, 3/8
  9. John Kinsela, AAWFA, 13.00, 4/9; 2.00, 5/9
  10. Wendy Jobberns, AAWFA, 22.00, 2/5
  11. Yvonne Bolton, AAWFA, 36.30, 4/7
  12. Maureen Javes, AAWFA, 04.00, 6/8
  13. Ian Leis, AAWFA, 11.30, 2/7
  14. Gary Conyers, AAWFA, 06.30, 6/9
  15. Michael Malone, AAWFA, 12.30, 7/9
  16. Bernard Maxwell, AAWFA, 19.00, 9/9
  17. Anthony White, AAWFA, 04.30, 7/8
  18. James Castles, AAWFA, 36.00, 6/9
  19. Peter Winter, letter 22/12/1970, AWM PR03588
  20. Peter Haran, AAWFA, 20.30, 7/10
  21. Stephen Lewis, AAWFA, 32.30, 4/8
  22. Peter Haran, AAWFA, 14.00, 8/10
  23. Stephen Lewis, AAWFA, 13.30, 6/8
  24. Maureen Javes, AAWFA, 20.00, 6/8
  25. Peter Jarratt, AAWFA, 30.00, 7/8
  26. Norman Fearn, AAWFA, 22.00, 5/8

Chapter 3 - Wildlife

  1. Anthony Hughes, AAWFA, 11.30, 3/8
  2. Robert Van Harskamp, AAWFA, 37.30, 6/9
  3. John McPherson, AAWFA, 34.30, 5/9
  4. John Sonneveld, DVA Veterans' Stories interview 21/1/22, Im3EKLjnJrMMSZu88G5iL&index=12
  5. Peter Beauchamp, AAWFA, 20.30, 5/11
  6. Noel McLaughlin, DVA Veterans' Stories interview, 29/6/21,
  7. Harold Butterworth, AAWFA, 36.30, 5/7
  8. Vaughan Millar, AAWFA, 04.00, 6/10
  9. Peter Beauchamp, AAWFA, 19.00, 5/11
  10. Anthony Hughes, AAWFA, 09.30 & 07.30, 3/8
  11. Victor Smith, AAWFA, 40.00, 5/9
  12. Victor Smith, AAWFA, 40.30, 5/9
  13. Anthony Hughes, AAWFA, 08.00, 3/8
  14. Peter Beauchamp, AAWFA, 19.30, 5/11
  15. Vaughan Millar, AAWFA, 03.00, 6/10
  16. Charles Stewart, AAWFA, 17.00, 7/9
  17. Arpad (Paddy) Bacskai, AAWFA, 07.00, 5/10
  18. Peter Woodford, AAWFA, 10.30, 7/8
  19. Brendan O'Keefe, Medicine at War: Medical Aspects of Australia's Involvement in Vietnam in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1950-1972, p 198, 1994.
  20. Peter Woodford, AAWFA, 02.00, 8/8
  21. Bill Black, DVA Veterans' Stories interview, 5/4/21, unpublished transcript
  22. Donald Barnby, AAWFA, 25.00, 5/11
  23. Bill Black, DVA Veterans' Stories interview, 5/4/21, unpublished transcript
  24. George Logan, AAWFA, 36.30, 8/9
  25. Peter Woodford, AAWFA, 04.00, 4/8
  26. Terence Sturrock, AAWFA, 01.30, 6/8
  27. Janet Fry, AAWFA, 33.30, 4/10
  28. Donald Barnby, AAWFA 25.30, 5/11
  29. Urmas Moldre, AAWFA, 22.30, 6/9
  30. Bill Black, DVA Veterans' Stories interview, 5/4/21,
  31. Eric Giblett, AAWFA, 26.00, 6/7
  32. Peter Kercher, AAWFA, 03.00, 7/10
  33. Ronald Perkins, AAWFA, 08.00, 6/9

Chapter 4 - Keeping the home fires burning

  1. Barbara Bruce, AAWFA, 21.00, 8/8.
  2. Paul Tapp, VOWOP, p 18.
  3. Robert Healy, VOWOP, p 36.
  4. Wayne Brown,
  5. Ann Kidney, VOWOP, pp 24-5.
  6. Peter Beauchamp, AAWFA, 39.30, 4/11.
  7. Michael McDermott, AAWFA, 13.30, 9/9.
  8. Edward Schunemann, AAWFA, 23.30, 7/8.
  9. Michael Naughton, AAWFA, 27.00, 6/11.
  10. Michael Naughton, AAWFA, 12.00, 9/11.
  11. Robert Roach, AAWFA, 20.30, 6/8.
  12. Creagh Bramley, AAWFA, 05.00, 8/9.
  13. Franklin Bridges, AAWFA, 09.30, 6/7.
  14. Colin Nicol, letter to 'Dear Father and Family', 9 June 1969, AWM PR87/055.
  15. Keith Payne, AAWFA, 27.00, 9/10.
  16. Rosemary McLaughlin, AAWFA, 28.30, 3/8.
  17. Graham Sherrington, service/australians-war-stories/regular-soldiers-were-back-bone-units-vietnam.
  18. David Williams, AAWFA, 36.30, 4/8.
  19. Lester Mengel, AAWFA, 04.00, 8/9.
  20. Graeme Hellwig, letter, AWM PRO3645.
  21. Peter Winter, letter 7/7/1970, AWM PR03588.
  22. Neil Weekes, diary 19 April 1968, AWM PR2017.657.2.
  23. Kenneth Hains, letter 23/6/70, AWM PR 90/014.
  24. Keith Williams, AAWFA, 26.36, 4/9.
  25. Brian Woods, AAWFA, 09.30, 7/9.
  26. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 33.30, 6/7.
  27. John Kinsela, AAWFA, 20.00, 6/9.
  28. Stephen Lewis, AAWFA, 08.00, 3/8.
  29. Norman Cooper, AAWFA. 26.00, 4/8.
  30. Alan Anderson, AAWFA, 24.30, 7/9.
  31. Tony Ey, AAWFA, 17.00, 13/13.
  32. Australian Jewish News, 21 October 1966.
  33. Ronald Nolan, AAWFA, 36.00, 8/9.
  34. Howard Dillon,

Chapter 5 - Rest and recreation

  1. Josephine Howard, AAWFA, 25.30, 3/5.
  2. Rosemary McLaughlin, AAWFA, 22.00, 3/5.
  3. Noel Clegg, AAWFA, 14.30, 8/9.
  4. Robert Creek, AWM PR03606, pp 6-8.
  5. Desmond Kearton, AAWFA, 18.30, 7/8.
  6. Ron Kelly, letter 15 June 1965, AWM PR87/195.
  7. Graham Sherrington,
  8. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 37.30, 3/7.
  9. Stephen Reynolds, AAWFA, 18.30, 6/8.
  10. Donald Barnby, AAWFA, 08.00, 8/11.
  11. Colin O'Neill, AAWFA, 26.30, 5/7.
  12. Barry Seeley, AAWFA, 23.00, 8/10.
  13. Robert O'Neill, AAWFA, 39.00, 5/9.
  14. Alexander Levey, AAWFA, 38.30, 6/9.
  15. Anthony Sommer, AAWFA, 19.00, 6/8.
  16. Barbara Bruce, AAWFA, 31.00, 7/8.
  17. Raymond Stuart, AAWFA, 21.00, 8/9.
  18. Bill Black,
  19. Peter Yielding, letter 16/2/1971, AWM PRO 0334.
  20. Peter Winter, letter 26/4/1970, AWM PRO 3588.
  21. Robert Bell, AAWFA, 06.00, 5/8.
  22. Paul Large, AAWFA, 11.30, 7/7.

Chapter 6 - The Americans

  1. Andrew Kelly, AAWFA, 24.30, 2/9.
  2. Don Barnby, AAWFA, 21.30, 2/11.
  3. Colin Nicol, letter to 'Dear Mother, Dad and Kids', 8 July 1969, AWM PR87/055
  4. Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia Vietnam War, 1962 – 1975, letter 3 September 1981 from John B. Dwyer to Bob Gibson, AWM PR82/005.
  5. Alan Cunningham, AAWFA, 36.30, 4/10.
  6. Henry Coates, AAWFA, 30.30, 3/9.
  7. Philip Brookes, AAWFA, 02.00, 5/9.
  8. Tony Ey, AAWFA, 17.00, 6/13.
  9. Ron Kelly, letter 13 June 1965, AWM PR87/195.
  10. Tony Ey, AAWFA, 22.00, 6/13.
  11. James Gable, AAWFA, 32:30, 4/9.
  12. Letter 7 August 1981 from Robert Muller, Executive Director, Vietnam Veterans of America, to Australian veteran Bob Gibson, 7/8/81, AWM PR82/005.
  13. Colin Nicol, letter to 'Dear Mother, Dad and Kids', 7 July 1969, AWM PR87/055.
  14. Michael Naughton, AAWFA, 00.30, 7/11.
  15. J. Twomey, 'It was Florence Nightingale by torch': military nursing traditions and Australian nurses in Vietnam', Doctoral Thesis, University of Wollongong, 2014, p 167.
  16. Peter Jamieson, AAWFA, 12.00, 6/8.
  17. Greg McGee, AAWFA, 30.30, 6/7.
  18. Sydney Webster, AAWFA, 11.30, 13/14.
  19. Ernest Snelling, AAWFA, 39.00, 6/10.
  20. Ian Mackay, AAWFA, 29.00, 5/9.
  21. Ronald Nolan, AAWFA, 02.30, 8/9.
  22. Desmond Kearton, AAWFA, 28.00, 3/8.
  23. Philip Brookes, AAWFA, 29.30, 5/9.
  24. Robin Stein, AAWFA, 27.30, 4/8.
  25. Brian Woods, AAWFA, 20.30, 6/9.
  26. Brian Millar, AAWFA, 00.32, 7/9.
  27. Graeme Mann, AAWFA, 05.00, 6/8.
  28. Norman Fearn, AAWFA, 02.30, 5/8.
  29. Berenice Dawson, AAWFA, 04.30, 8/9.
  30. Wally Thompson AAWFA, 30.00, 4/9.
  31. “Report on Marijuana and Drug Suppression”, 28 September 1970, attached to HQ II FFV, Memorandum for record, II FFV Command- er's Conference of 28 September 1970, 2 October 1970, HQ I ATF, file 220/1/3, AWM 103; See also, Karnow, Vietnam, a History (1994), pp 646-7.
  32. Michael Naughton, AAWFA, 07.00, 9/11.
  33. L. Oldmeadow, 'Six days to live: American servicemen in Australia on rest and recreation leave during the Vietnam War', Honours Thesis, Sydney University, 2003; C. Dixon and J. Piccini, 'Hello, Mr America: The United States R&R scheme in Sydney, 1967-1972', ed_States_R_and_R_scheme_in_Sydney_1967_1972.
  34. Erik Grannenberg,
  35. L. Oldmeadow, 'Six days to live'.
  36. Joe Leatham,
  37. Ibid.

Chapter 7 - Return home

  1. Ashley Ekins and Ian McNeill, Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968-1975, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012, p 421.
  2. Gary Conyers, AAWFA, 30.00, 8/9.
  3. Robert Healy, VOWOP, p 37.
  4. Bruce Mouatt, VOWOP, p 39.
  5. Graham Edwards,
  6. John Thurgar, VOWOP, p. 56; John Thurgar,
  7. Kenny Laughton, VOWOP, p 69.
  8. Anthony Pahl, VOWOP, p 72.
  9. Phillip White, VOWOP, p 80.
  10. Tony De Bont, VOWOP, p. 92.
  11. Robert Woolley, VOWOP, p 110.
  12. Bill Kane,
  13. Gary Beck,
  14. Alistair Bridges, alastair-bridges-returning-home.
  15. Neville Wiggins,
  16. Andrew Gates, AAWFA, 12.00, 10/10.
  17. Barry Fletcher, AAWFA, 28.00, 8/9.
  18. Michael McDermott, AAWFA, 25.30, 8/9.
  19. Alan Anderson, AAWFA, 34.30, 7/9.
  20. Yvonne Bolton, AAWFA, 41.00, 5/7.
  21. Peter Haran, AAWFA, 31.00, 9/10.
  22. John Coates, AAWFA, 02.30, 9/9.
  23. Peter Jamieson, AAWFA, 22.00, 8/8.
  24. Maureen Javes, AAWFA, 26.00, 4/8.
  25. Anthony Bowden, AAWFA, 16.00, 9/9.
  26. Tony Ey, AAWFA, 05.30, 11/13.
  27. Robert Bell, AAWFA, 01.00, 8/8.
  28. John Kinsela, AAWFA, 36.30, 6/9.
  29. Barry Seeley, AAWFA, 17.30, 10/10.
  30. Barbara Bruce, AAWFA, 05.00, 8/8.
  31. Geoffrey Jones, 'Recollections of Vietnam 1968, 3RAR', AWM PR87/196, pp 3-4.
  32. Robert Creek, AWM PR03606, p 9.
  33. Colin Elliott,
  34. Patrick O'Hara,
  35. Bill Denny, VOWOP, p 49.
  36. Bill Black, DVA Veterans' Stories interview, 5/4/21, unpublished transcript.
  37. Normie Rowe,


© Commonwealth of Australia

Unless otherwise noted, copyright (and other intellectual property rights, if any) in this publication is owned by the Commonwealth of Australia.

With the exception of the Coat of Arms and all photographs and graphics, this publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence. The Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence is a standard form licence agreement that allows you to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt this publication provided that you attribute the work. The full licence terms are available from

Requests and enquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to Publications Section, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, GPO Box 9998, Brisbane Qld 4001, or emailed to

Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.