Vietnam: Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial
This commemorative publication reflects on the wide experience of Australians who served in the Vietnam War. The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial recognises all Australians who served in Vietnam. The opening of the memorial was an important step in recognition.
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for all those who suffered and died
A poignant moment in Australia's history occurred on Saturday 3 October 1992 with the dedication of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial. Exactly five years earlier, 25,000 veterans of the Vietnam War had participated in the Welcome Home Parade in Sydney. For many, this parade was a time for reunions; for others, it was a step in a long personal journey from their war service to recognition as veterans. The dedication of the memorial honouring all Australians who served in Vietnam was another, emotional step in this journey. The memorial honours, in particular, the 521 Australians who died in the service of their country. As one veteran reflected, 'Sydney was for those who came home. This weekend [of the dedication] is for those who didn't.'
The memorial has become a treasured site for remembrance of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War. Men and women who were there, and others who were not, visit this site from around Australia and overseas to pay their respects and to try, in their own way, to make sense of events that now are three and four decades past.
The 'wall of words' on the memorial's inner northern wall provides the inspiration for this booklet. The booklet is not intended as a history of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War but rather, like the wall of words itself, a reflection on the wide experience of Australians in that war. The 34 inscriptions taken from the wall of words – presented here in the same order as they appear on the wall – give visitors to the memorial a 'feel' for those troubled times, events and actions. Those interested in learning more of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War are encouraged to read Australia's official history, unit histories, general histories and personal accounts of the war.
The Vietnam War represents the longest operational commitment of Australian forces. Between mid 1962 and 1973, when the last Australian combat troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam (defence attaches and an embassy guard) some 60,000 Australian servicemen and women had taken part in the war directly or in logistic support roles. A grim total of 521 Australians died in the war. Over 3000 others were evacuated with wounds, injuries or illnesses. Others have died since from war-related injuries or illnesses, the physical and emotional strain of war service having proved, for some, too much. Many others still bear the physical and mental scars of the war.
The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial had its beginnings in the wake of the 1987 Welcome Home Parade. A committee of veterans' associations and other interested parties was established to have a memorial constructed in the national capital, Canberra. A site on Anzac Parade, the avenue honouring the service of Australians in all conflicts and services, was allocated. From the beginning of 1988 until September 1991, the site was marked only by a small, wooden cross, painted white, with a noticeboard alongside, on which was painted: 'On this site will be erected a memorial for those who died & served in the Vietnam War'.
Even before construction started, people visited this site. Veterans came to see where their memorial would stand. Families of the dead sought out the place their loved ones would be commemorated – in addition to their names having been inscribed on the Australian War Memorial's Roll of Honour. Architects sought inspiration for the design competition, announced in 1989. A design was chosen. Workmen arrived. The first sod was turned on 6 September 1991.
About 15,000 veterans gathered for the dedication of the memorial. Most were Australians; others had served in the New Zealand, American or South Vietnamese forces. Family members of the 512 Australian service personnel who lost their lives in the war attended as honoured guests. Some 15,000 spectators – family, friends, strangers – came to cheer the veterans, who marched and paraded before the memorial, remembering and honouring all those who served and died in the war.
The memorial's wall of words reflects the 'life journey' of veterans of this controversial and divisive war. The conflict itself and the following troubled years of peace are represented in the memorial – and thus within this booklet – with statements of anguish and confusion amid excerpts of action reports and histories. But as the dedication itself passed into history on 3 October 1992, with veterans attending reunions and celebratory events afterwards, a subtle change in mood and outlook could be detected. As the weekend of the dedication drew to a close with fading light and bad weather, some observers noted:
It began with bitter tears on a perfect morning; a roller coaster of emotions later, it ended with a whoop of joy in the rain.
Tony Wright and Jane Cadzow
The sound and sight of 'dust-off' helicopters were always welcomed after soldiers were wounded or accidentally injured in combat areas. Countless lives were saved in Vietnam by the ability to evacuate casualties from forward areas quickly, often within an hour of men being wounded or injured.
Battalion medicos and other troops gave initial treatment, applying field dressings and attempting to stabilise seriously wounded men, while signallers called in one or more 'dust-off' choppers. These were usually a Bell Iroquois, or 'Huey', from either Australian or United States units. The choppers usually landed in open areas or clearings hewn from jungle by troops; occasionally, casualties had to be winched aboard. The 'dust-off' crews were renowned for their flying skills displayed over and over again locating and landing in combat areas, sometimes in appalling weather conditions or at night, and frequently coming under fire.
... The RAAF dust-off pilots had no light and showed great skill in coming down ...
The Australian Army also operated aircraft in Vietnam. Its 161 (Independent) Recce Flight, callsign 'Possum', was frequently called upon to support ground operations.
Pilots and observers were trained in, and undertook, a wide variety of tasks, from tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting to light transport and casualty evacuation. The flight was in Vietnam from September 1965 to March 1972, initially operating a mix of Bell Sioux helicopters and Cessna 180 fixed-wing aircraft; these were later complemented by Bell Kiowa helicopters and Pilatus Turbo-Porters. A solitary Cessna Bird Dog was also borrowed from an American unit.
Both Army and RAAF ground staff were posted to the unit, showing equal versatility in maintaining the various aircraft. They also occasionally refuelled and did minor repairs on American aircraft. One mechanic claimed: 'Memories of US pilots not knowing where oils etc should be added to “their” aeroplanes still sticks in my mind!' Australian pilots, on the other hand, possessed a good working knowledge of their machines.
As well as spotting for enemy forces, pilots directed 'dust-off' choppers to remote landing sites (occasionally also taking out one or two casualties) and frequently directed the fire of Australian helicopter gunships ('Bushrangers') strafing and rocketing enemy positions.
... Sunray was directing the lightfire team – bushrangers – from his possum ...
Artillery played an important supporting role in ground operations. Its impact was decisive in battles such as Long Tan in 1966 and Fire Bases Coral and Balmoral in 1968, and in many a 'contact' at company or platoon level.
The first Australian artillerymen posted to Vietnam were gunners of 105 Field Battery, which deployed with the original 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) group to Bien Hoa in 1965. Later, there were always two Australian field batteries, a New Zealand field battery and 131 Divisional Locating Battery based at Nui Dat in support of 1st Australian Task Force operations. Further support came from American 155-mm, 175-mm and 8-inch guns. Artillery forward observation officers and troops accompanied infantry units in the field; while pilots of 161 Recce Flight flew tactical reconnaissance and artillery spotting sorties. Thus patrols sent out to search for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces could expect timely and accurate fire support.
... the part played by artillery was decisive ...
The Vietnam War was the first major conflict widely seen by people 'back home' watching television. Combat cameramen accompanied units in the field, hitching rides on helicopters returning to base to 'file' footage of the day's action.
Personnel in the war zone were aware that their actions might be seen 'back home'. Many servicemen and women, particularly those sent to Vietnam later in the conflict, had watched the war unfold on television along with people who did not serve in Vietnam. They had witnessed the same gripping and, at times, distressing footage and thus had some idea of what to expect.
The world's media mostly focussed on 'big battles' involving American forces, with visually thrilling and stirring images 'prized' by the nightly news. Combat cameramen and photographers also accompanied Australian units on operations but in some ways the Australian experience of combat in Vietnam was not portrayed well 'back home'. The regular but 'mundane' (in visual terms) jungle patrols at which the Australian infantry and special forces excelled were easily ignored by news programs seeking short 'grabs' of 'real war' footage.
... what we did on the battlefield in the morning was on our living room tv screens that night ...
As well as airlifting troops into operational areas, helicopters gave a means of extraction. They were particularly important for 'dusting-off' casualties, for emergency airlifts of patrols or small units harried by larger Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army forces, or for repositioning troops during an operation.
The dogs, like troops, were expected to ride in helicopters whenever necessary and were winched aboard or down to the ground wearing special harnesses if a chopper couldn't land.
Much loved by their handlers, who would share a 'possie' on operations and even drink out of the same tin, the dogs were unable to be repatriated to Australia because of our strict quarantine laws. Many eventually were given new homes by expatriates living in South-East Asia.
... the nva hugged our withdrawal and engaged the dust-off choppers ...
Tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps, were used extensively, though somewhat restricted during operations in more rugged and jungle-clad areas. They could also be 'dug-in' around perimeters of forward bases to provide an extra measure of fire support in case of enemy attack.
... the tanks went ahead of the infantry in APC's ...
Medical staff of the field hospitals at Nui Dat and Vung Tau, namely the 2nd and 8th Field Ambulances and 1st Australian Field Hospital, worked long and hard treating the many wounded and sick troops and civilians admitted. In all, 43 members of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps served in Vietnam and one, Captain Barbara Black, died on active service.
Supporting the medical staff in Australian and American hospitals were Red Cross volunteers, of whom 22 (19 women and three men) from Australia served in Vietnam. The Salvation Army, Young Men's Christian Association, Everyman's Welfare Service and Australian Forces Overseas Fund also sent volunteers to serve with the Australian forces.
... the effort required of nursing sisters indicates their tour of duty should be reduced ...
The Royal Australian Navy commitment to the Vietnam War was extensive and prolonged – ranging from warships patrolling the coastline with the US 7th Fleet to logistic support vessels, a helicopter flight, clearance diving teams, and support staff at Vung Tau.
The first Australian warship deployed to Vietnam was the guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart. During its first deployment in 1967, the ship came under fire on nine occasions while taking part in the US 7th Fleet's Operation Sea Dragon off the North Vietnamese coast – twice in April 1967, four times in May and three times in August. The crew earned a US Navy Meritorious Unit Citation and several decorations for this first deployment. During its second deployment in 1968, the ship came under enemy fire twice in April and once in June; tragically, on 17 June 1968 the Hobart and four American ships were attacked mistakenly by US Air Force strike-fighters. Three missiles struck Hobart, killing Chief Electrician Raymond Hunt and Ordinary Seaman Raymond Butterworth and seriously wounding three others. After repairs in the Philippines, the Hobart returned to complete its deployment. The ship's third deployment in 1970 was no less important but fortunately less eventful.
... hobart was bracketed repeatedly by medium to large splashes ...
Australian troops, in particular those of the special forces and infantry, were highly regarded by senior officers and other ranks of the forces they fought alongside. General William C. Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, famously praised the Australians in a postwar memoir.
On the whole, Australian troops were well prepared for service in Vietnam. It has been suggested that they were perhaps the best-trained Australian troops committed to any conflict up to that time. Infantry battalions worked up in Australia prior to deployment, and troops underwent jungle warfare training at Canungra, Queensland. Australians also did not have the same social problems that seemed to plague many American units.
The elite were the Special Air Service (SAS) troops who conducted long-range reconnaissance and fighting patrols. Often out in the jungle for ten or more days, they operated stealthily and effectively on reconnaissance, setting ambushes and tracking Viet Cong units.
... the Australian army was like the post-versailles German army — men in the ranks could have been leaders. General Westmoreland ...
Coloured smoke was used extensively by troops in forward areas, where thick vegetation often blurred the lines between opposing forces. Smoke enabled the indication of enemy positions for artillery and close air support, and also showed the positions of friendly troops to avoid 'friendly fire'. It was also used to attract incoming choppers for 'dust-offs', resupply and airlifts. At times smoke was also set off by the enemy to try and confuse pilots, leading the unwary to land into a trap.
... the enemy joined our command radio net, threw coloured smoke and almost sucked the co into a landing ...
Australian operations in Phuoc Tuy were relatively minor compared with many large-scale actions waged in northern provinces. In part, this was due to Phuoc Tuy's location in the south, far from North Vietnamese bases, and in large measure to the Australians' professionalism and proficiency.
The 1st Australian Task Force asserted its dominance on the province with the Battle of Long Tan in August 1966, and in May 1968 in the Battle of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. In keeping with Australian doctrine, battalions also spent much time patrolling, putting pressure on enemy units, cutting supply lines and limiting support from locals.
Another significant battle took place at Binh Ba on 6 June 1969. Two enemy regiments had entered Phuoc Tuy in May 1969, being tracked and engaged by 6RAR north of Nui Dat. Shortly after 8.00am on 6 June, a tank heading out to assist 6RAR was fired at by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) while passing through Binh Ba. D Company, 5RAR, was the Ready Reaction Force at Nui Dat that day. It was rushed to the area in armoured personnel carriers (APCs). With tank, artillery and helicopter gunship support, the infantry fought a fierce action lasting several hours in and around the village. One Australian, Private David Brennan, was killed and eight others wounded; over 90 bodies of enemy troops killed in the battle were found.
... big contact tonight in the binh ba rubber. troops hit with rpg's. ready reaction force went out in apc's ...
Most troops posted to Vietnam began counting down their return home almost immediately. A standard tour of duty lasted a year, although some national servicemen with less than a year remaining of their national service were in Vietnam for only a few months before returning home for discharge. Other service personnel had a tour cut short because of serious wounds or illness.
Infantry battalions and other combat units generally were sent to Vietnam on a year long tour, with 'originals' in these units expecting to serve a full calendar year. In other units posted to the theatre of war for longer – mostly supporting and logistic units based in Vietnam for several years – reinforcements came in on rotation. In these units, it was common for men to serve in Vietnam slightly more than a calendar year while waiting for their replacement to arrive.
... nobody's got 365 days and a wakey to go ...
During major operations, medical staff in field and base hospitals worked long and hard treating battle casualties. The injured could be Australians, allied troops, captured enemy troops or civilians. Doctors, theatre technicians, nurses and orderlies bore the brunt of the medical effort.
About 80 per cent of Australian combat casualties were caused by mines or booby-trapped ordnance, such as grenades. Mines were usually lifted from Australian, American or South Vietnamese minefields and reburied. These sinister and much-feared weapons proved difficult to detect in thickly vegetated and muddy terrain. Soldiers who stepped on a mine suffered horrific, sometimes lethal, injuries to their legs and lower torso. Often, shrapnel hit men nearby. Dozens of Australians lost limbs and some were blinded.
'Dust-off' choppers landed next to the hospital so that critically wounded patients could be rushed through triage to the operating theatre. Operations on soldiers – sometimes also civilian adults and children – involved complex and demanding surgery.
... an extreme effort was demanded from nursing staff on those occasions – over 24 hours on duty was done on most of the days mentioned ...
The first Australian military unit sent to Vietnam, and the last to leave, was the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). Known as 'the Team', it was in the country almost ten years and established an outstanding reputation for professionalism, dedication to duty and gallantry operating with South Vietnamese regular and irregular forces.
The first contingent touched down in Saigon on 3 August 1962. Commanded by Colonel F P (Ted) Serong, a former instructor in jungle warfare and authority on counter-insurgency, all were highly trained and experienced officers and warrant officers. They joined American military advisers attached to South Vietnamese units, but initially were prevented from accompanying these units on operations. This ban was lifted in June 1965.
Some 990 Australians and ten New Zealanders served with 'the Team' during the war – many did more than one tour – and 33 were killed and 122 wounded. It was deservedly a highly decorated unit, with all four Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians in the war going to soldiers of the AATTV, along with other Australian, American and South Vietnamese decorations.
... the team ...
In late 1966, the Government committed a bomber squadron to the war. For the men in 2 Squadron RAAF at that time, news of the pending deployment was unexpected. The unit was based at Butterworth, Malaysia, operating under essentially peacetime conditions; married men were accompanied to Butterworth by their wives and families, living in base quarters.
Before the squadron deployed, its strength was virtually doubled to about 280 men. Aircrew numbers stayed at 11 two-man crews but more ground staff were needed for the unit to function on a war footing. The Canberra bombers were also upgraded with UHF radios, better navigation displays and cockpit floor armour plating. Finally, in April 1967, the Australians settled into Phan Rang airbase as part of the US Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. Initially, the Canberras flew mainly high level bombing missions under radar control, later changing to low level visual bombing with greater accuracy. With the callsign 'Magpie', they could also be used for close air support, led-in by forward air controllers firing rockets at the target and instructing aircrews to “hit my smoke!”
During its service in Vietnam, which ended in June 1971, the squadron's groundcrews achieved an impressive 97 per cent serviceability rate while the aircrews, flying four to six per cent of the wing's sorties, accounted for 16 per cent of the wing's assessed bomb damage.
... magpie 35, hit my smoke ...
The naval effort saw Australian ships carrying men and stores and escorting supply ships to Vietnam, along with combat patrol and escort duties off North Vietnam. As well as coming under fire from enemy shore batteries, warships patrolling the enemy's coastline also frequently shelled targets on shore. For instance, on one occasion the guided missile destroyer HMAS Perth participated in a naval bombardment of radar and missile sites on Hon Me island, which stopped the enemy from using these sites to target warships and aircraft.
... Perth engaged five CD sites as primary targets, provided suppression fire and stopped a cross lot on Hon Me Island from radiating ...
Patrols in jungle and less densely vegetated areas involved days of methodical, cautious patrolling. The Australians were skilled at these patrols, having undertaken elementary jungle warfare training at Canungra, Queensland, with further training and exercises at platoon, company and battalion levels.
The effectiveness of Australian infantry training is borne by 'contact' statistics of the infantry battalions in Vietnam. For example, during its year long tour in 1969-70, 8RAR had over 130 contacts with enemy forces; whereas in American units the enemy opened fire first in 88 per cent of contacts, against 8RAR the enemy opened fire first in just 6.7 per cent of contacts. In two-thirds of their contacts, the troops of 8RAR opened fire from ambush positions, often waiting patiently for hours or days for enemy troops to appear following identified tracks before springing the trap. Using small arms fire alone, the Australians achieved a killing ratio of one Australian for just under 87 enemy soldiers. Other Australian battalions would have achieved comparable results.
Despite their proficiency at jungle warfare, contacts were still dangerous and, of course, potentially deadly. As well as returning small arms fire, the enemy might also respond with grenades, mortars and light or medium machine-guns. There was also the danger of triggering an explosive device while running through jungle or along tracks – with little or no chance of spotting a mine or booby-trapped grenade in the heat of action.
... contact – stand by dust off ...
In late 1964 South Vietnam's Prime Minister, Tran Van Huong, requested increased military assistance from Australia, and the United States renewed pressure for more troops to be sent. In May 1965, an Australian infantry battalion, 1RAR, and supporting units were dispatched to serve alongside the American 173rd Airborne Brigade in the province of Bien Hoa. This was over a year before the visit to Australia of President Lyndon B Johnson, partly to request even greater commitment, that inspired Prime Minister Harold Holt's infamous “All the way with LBJ!” speech. (This later became a 'war cry' of sorts for anti-war protesters, but in 1965 opposition to the war was minor and muted.)
... the decision to send an australian battalion to vietnam is a grave one. these are inescapable obligations which fall on us because of our position, treaties and friendship. there was no alternative but to respond as we have ...
The Vietnam War represented the longest operational commitment of Australian forces to date. From the initial deployment of military advisers in 1962 to the final withdrawal of an embassy guard in 1973, over 57,000 Australians served in operational or logistic support roles.
Popular memory (now almost a myth) is that the anti-war protest movement effectively “stopped the war”, with Australian forces pulled out after the change of government in 1972. In fact, the decision to withdraw Australian forces reflected the gradual extraction of United States forces that was occurring under President Nixon. Prime Minister McMahon announced on 18 August 1971 that most Australian servicemen and women in Vietnam would be home by Christmas.
The last major Australian combat troop withdrawal was in December 1971. This left only AATTV and units required to finish winding up Australia's participation in the war to be pulled out in 1972; the last observers left in December 1972. Military attaches and embassy guards were pulled out the following year.
Although many servicemen and women, particularly reinforcements, were flown to or from South Vietnam in military or chartered civilian aircraft, usually whole units were transported from and to Australia on the converted aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney. Known to all as the 'Vung Tau Ferry', it also carried large equipment and bulk supplies, completing 23 return voyages during the war. Other logistic support vessels also gave valuable service.
... Australia's last combat forces left south vietnam yesterday on board hmas sydney, ending 10 years of australian involvement in the war ...
Wars divide societies between those who “were there” and the majority who were not. In every conflict of the 20th century ex-servicemen and women felt a certain sense of isolation, having endured an experience not understood by most of society. Other veterans to feel this isolation included the original Anzacs who battled with the horrors of trench warfare, former prisoners of the Japanese whose brutal captivity was almost beyond comprehension, and veterans of the 'forgotten war' (Korea). But for Vietnam veterans, this sense of isolation in many cases seemed accentuated by opposition to the war; unfortunately, in some quarters this opposition was personally directed at the veterans themselves. Some veterans, particularly those who did not return home with their unit, also recall landing in Australia late at night, giving the impression they were 'black sheep', and being shuffled somewhat clumsily through discharge procedures; this was not a uniform experience.
As the war dragged on, and the anti-war protest movement strengthened, servicemen and women came to feel that no matter how hard they tried and suffered, the tide of the war and public feeling was turning against them. Some returned home to find that friendships and even kinships had been shattered, though this did not happen in every instance. Vietnam veterans had good reason to feel that only fellow Vietnam veterans could understand the traumas they had endured in war and the stresses they faced afterwards.
... I don't seem to have many friends since i came home. if you weren't there, you can't understand ...
In earlier wars, battles remained virtually unseen by most Americans and Australians on the 'home front'. Television changed this, creating in Vietnam literally the first 'televised war'. For the most part, news and current affairs reports were uncensored while governments and military forces struggled to comprehend the impact of this relatively new medium.
What television did not often portray was a concerted effort by military personnel and civilians to treat and care for civilians caught up in the war. Australians from all three services took part in Medical Civil Aid Program (MEDCAP) visits, treating sick and also the wounded caught in crossfire or bombing. These efforts were commendable but, unfortunately, did little to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the war. Hundreds of thousands were killed or wounded – most in northern provinces.
... more than ever before tv showed the terrible human suffering and sacrifice of war. Richard Nixon ...
Regular and national servicemen served side-by-side in Vietnam in virtually all units. While many were posted to combat units, seeing action in forward areas, others served in bases in vital supporting roles.
In support of the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat was the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group, established at Vung Tau in late 1965. This base was constructed more or less from scratch in a stretch of sand dunes along the coast, and its port and airbase soon became the primary entry and departure points in Vietnam for Australian military personnel and supplies. The base had workshops, ordnance depots, a hospital, signals centre, and assorted other administrative units.
Personnel based at Vung Tau generally were awarded the Vietnam Medal (and later also the Australian Active Service Medal 1945-75 with clasp 'Vietnam') for their operational service. However, many personnel based outside of Vietnam arrived in Vietnam only on short logistic support missions – for instance, on the regular courier and medical evacuation flights flown by Hercules transport aircraft, or voyages of naval supply vessels – not qualifying for the operational award. In 1993, the Vietnam Logistic Support Medal was struck for these personnel, including merchant seamen and civilian flight crews of airliners chartered to carry military personnel.
... from 1965 army units in vietnam consisted of about 50% national servicemen and 50% regular army. about 20,000 national servicemen served in vietnam ...
'Puff the Magic Dragon' was a callsign for the US Air Force AC-47 and AC-119 aerial gunships that could be called in to unleash heavy machine-gun fire on enemy forces. An alternative callsign was 'Spooky'.
... this is puff the magic dragon in your location ...
Clashes with enemy forces could be sharp and deadly, but 80 per cent of Australian combat casualties were caused by mines or booby-trapped ordnance exploding.
The awful consequence of stepping on a mine was later documented in the 1983 hit song, 'I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green)', by the Australian band Redgum. Written and performed by committed 'lefties' who had been anti-war protesters, this song about the war and postwar experience of men like 'Frankie' proved an important step in reconciliation between Vietnam veterans and the wider community. A society that many veterans felt had shunned them seemed shamed by the realisation that bodies and lives had been shattered. The injustice of taking out opposition to a war on servicemen and women was acknowledged, and within four years the Welcome Home Parade in Sydney had been organised.
... then someone called out 'contact!' and the bloke behind me swore
we hooked in there for hours, then
a god-almighty roar
frankie kicked a mine, the day that mankind kicked the moon
god help me, he was going
home in june ...
Unlike in other wars in which a clearly defined enemy was engaged, in Vietnam the identity and location of the enemy was often unclear. The Viet Cong, in particular, excelled at guerrilla warfare, with agents and units able to infiltrate most areas. In villages sympathetic to the North Vietnamese cause, they could take shelter and even pose as civilians. The 1st Australian Task Force effectively countered Viet Cong operations in Phuoc Tuy, by 1971 pushing out most of the larger enemy combat units. However, there was still always the danger of enemy agents and sub-units penetrating the area, so constant searching and patrolling by infantry and also RAAF airfield defence guards (operating around airbases) continued.
... like chicken man – there were charlies everywhere! ...
About one third of the Australians who served in Vietnam were national servicemen who had 'won' the infamous conscription ballot – although not all who 'won' ended up serving in the war.
National service was reintroduced in November 1964 to meet the pressing need for more troops to serve in Malaysia, Borneo and then Vietnam. Almost all 20-year-old men had to register for national service, with ministers of religion, theology students and the disabled exempted automatically. Others could apply for full or partial (non-combat service) exemption. A ballot was run every six months to determine who from that period's registration would be conscripted; one marble for each day in the six-months was placed in a Tattersall's lottery barrel, with marbles drawn out until the quota for that period was filled. Dubbed 'the birthday ballot' and (later) 'lottery of death', it resulted in 63,740 young men being called up (out of 804,286 registered during the war), of whom about one-third saw active service in operational or logistic support roles.
... more than 750,000 men turned twenty during the years of the war – a ballot, with marbles spun in a barrel, was used to help select those for conscription ...
As well as basing three squadrons and several supporting units in Vietnam, from 1967 the Royal Australian Air Force also had pilots serving on exchange with US Air Force squadrons.
The 36 Australians who served in American squadrons flew a variety of aircraft, from Phantom strike-fighters used for tactical reconnaissance and close air support, to light aircraft flown by forward air controllers who 'led-in' bombers and strike-fighters attacking enemy positions.
Forward air controllers needed exceptional piloting and observation skills to identify targets, which were often in close proximity to friendly forces, and 'lead-in' (by firing smoke rockets) the Australian, American or South Vietnamese attack aircraft. Ground troops often indicated their positions by throwing coloured smoke, which the forward air controller spotted to locate the actual target before leading-in the attack aircraft with directions to “hit my smoke” (rather than the ground troops' smoke).
... throw smoke! – i see green – affirmative! ...
The ability to call for close air support proved vital in many actions, particularly when enemy forces were pressing hard against Australian, American or South Vietnamese positions. US Air Force Phantom strike-fighters and 'Spooky' gunships were often called in to attack, but often it was helicopter gunships that gave the best and most timely fire support.
The most widely used helicopter in the war was the Bell Iroquois, operated by Australian, American and South Vietnamese forces. This versatile workhorse of the air was often used for transport and 'dust-off' missions, but increasingly it was also employed in the gunship role. Pilots specialised in low-level flying and could bring guns to bear on the enemy rapidly and accurately. The additional firepower provided by gunships overhead was often decisive in company and platoon actions.
Both the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy had helicopter gunships in Vietnam. The Iroquois choppers of 9 Squadron RAAF were perhaps the best known, but between 1967 and 1971 four contingents of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam were deployed to Vung Tau as part of the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company. Both units operated in close support of Australian and other forces.
... phantoms and spooky were invaluable, but the helicopter gunships gave the best air support ...
The Vietnam War was the first conflict widely televised. Whereas previous generations had only sanitised cinema newsreels and newspaper reports – admittedly, with much longer casualty lists – to give an insight into a war, people could now witness death and destruction nightly on television. To many 'baby boomers' and others who did not personally experience the war, footage of combat and human suffering was shocking and offensive. Images of many dead and wounded soldiers and civilians could not be dismissed lightly, and thus television helped spark the anti-war protest movements that eventually played a part in convincing the American, Australian and New Zealand governments to withdraw their forces from Vietnam.
... for the first time in modern history the outcome of war was determined not on the battlefield but on the tv screen ...
The Vietnam War divided Australian society along political and ideological lines, perhaps best defined as the pro- and anti-war camps. While men and women were serving in Vietnam, their family, friends and former colleagues could be protesting against the war. This often caused deep personal wounds, splitting many families and ending friendships.
The bitterness and divisiveness of this war has tended to overshadow the many bonds of love and friendship that persisted, regardless of politics and ideologies. Whilst many Australians did literally and metaphorically turn their backs on servicemen and women in Vietnam, many others stood firmly by them, even if personally they did abhor the war. There was also a proportion of Australians whose support of the war did not waver.
... our family found itself divided over vietnam ...
Villages were considered prime grounds for recruitment for the Viet Cong and for concealment of enemy weapons, ammunition, supplies and troops. Operations often involved cordoning off and searching villages - sometimes removing and relocating inhabitants to 'safe areas'. Cordons were usually established at first light, and searches proceeded during the day, but sometimes variations were made to this procedure.
As well as searching villages, forces provided assistance under civic action programs. From 1965 until the withdrawal of forces from Vietnam, many Australians took part in these programs in addition to their normal duties - typically providing medical aid or constructing schools and playground equipment. In 1967, the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit was formed specifically to provide civic action programs. It featured engineer, medical, education, liaison and agricultural detachments - erecting windmills, buildings and fences; delivering medical aid; conducting English language courses and handing out teaching supplies; and advising on crop propagation and animal husbandry. Teams often took advantage of searches, arriving after the village had been cordoned off to offer assistance to villagers, while also entering the villages at 'normal' times.
... as a variation we closed the village cordon in daylight and searched next morning ...
North Vietnamese forces, in particular Viet Cong, dug extensive tunnels and bunkers in which to stockpile supplies and conceal troops. They could be located beneath villages or in jungle-clad areas. At times, enemy troops encountered in a 'contact' literally disappeared by going to ground. It could take hours of cautious searching, often using tracker dogs, to locate the camouflaged bunker and tunnel entrances.
In designated 'no-go zones', heavy bombers could 'soften up' areas, perhaps destroying bunkers with direct hits, or chemical warfare could be employed. Transport aircraft, including Caribous of 35 Squadron RAAF, dropped 'riot control agent' (nerve gas) over the jungle. The theory was that if a barrel landed and split open near a bunker entrance, the released gas would sink to the lowest point and kill or drive out enemy soldiers.
In operational areas where carpet-bombing and chemical warfare could not be employed safely (to friendly troops and civilians), bunker and tunnel systems had to be explored, with any occupants weeded out or killed. Grenades and flame-throwers could be used to clear entrances before 'tunnel rats' crawled in. Said to be amongst the bravest troops in Vietnam, they were armed only with a pistol and torch, with nerves of steel and fast reflexes needed to “shoot first, ask questions later”. Many of the tunnels and bunkers had been abandoned and there was little to find.
... we must learn to understand nva bunker sign-tracks: latrines, dead branches, streams ...
For men badly wounded or injured on the battlefield and 'dusted-off', the flight to hospital was naturally an anxious and frightening time. Lying face up on the floor of a dust-off chopper, holding out against pain and fear and loss of consciousness, there was relief and even elation when the chopper's landing skids made contact with the ground outside a field hospital. Most of the serious casualties of the 1st Australian Task Force were landed on 'Vampire Pad' at the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau.
After surgery and further hospital treatment at Vung Tau, seriously wounded and injured patients, as well as patients with debilitating illnesses, were evacuated aboard Hercules transport aircraft of 37 Squadron RAAF, based at Richmond, New South Wales. The first stage of the medical evacuation (medevac) was to fly to Butterworth, Malaysia, where patients were admitted to 4 RAAF Hospital. From there, they were flown to Australia. During the war, some 3164 battle and non-battle casualties from the Army, RAAF, RAN and New Zealand forces were evacuated via 4 RAAF Hospital.
... at vampire pad our own doctors and nurses took over – we knew we had made it ...
For many Vietnam veterans, though not all, the years since the war seemed marred by insufficient recognition of their service and sacrifice. The war's dead were officially acknowledged with 521 names added to the Roll of Honour in the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial; but a significant proportion of veterans felt that they, the survivors, had been pushed into an historical wilderness. Veterans' groups campaigned for greater recognition and more assistance for troubled former comrades. In the mid-1980s, a growing wave of popular support led Vietnam veterans to be widely acknowledged in the nation's remembrance of war as a new generation of 'Anzacs' and to be ritually 'welcomed home'.
Some veterans had already been welcomed home officially. All the infantry battalions and some other units had paraded publicly shortly after their tour. The first 'welcome home' march organised by the forces was in June 1966, recognising the efforts of 1RAR; unfortunately, some later marches in capital cities were marred by anti-war protesters verbally and even physically attacking returning soldiers. The last official march was in December 1971 at Townsville, an 'army town', where thousands of residents 'turned on a rousing heroes' welcome'.
Other veterans, in particular those who had returned wounded or sick or in small groups (rather than returning with a unit) had not experienced a cathartic 'welcome home'. Some national servicemen recalled touching down after midnight without so much as a handshake and “job well done, son” before discharge, a demoralising experience for young men trying to adjust to civilian life. Not all shared this bitter experience, with regular personnel, in particular, remaining in a supportive environment alongside fellow servicemen and women.
The 'Welcome Home Parade' in Sydney was organised by veterans' and other groups following the outpouring of emotion when American veterans were publicly 'welcomed home' in several parades in 1986. In Sydney, veterans from around Australia marched. Passionate and cheering crowds lined the streets. For some veterans, the parade was a good time for a reunion; for others, it was the psychological 'welcome home' they needed.
... on 3 october 1987, 25,000 vietnam veterans marched in a welcome home parade through sydney, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands. It was the greatest emotional outpouring witnessed in decades ...
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