Adrian Roberts's veteran story

Adrian Roberts was born at Midland Junction in Western Australia in early October 1939, the eldest child in a large family. When Adrian was young, his father was in Europe serving as an RAAF navigator and bomb aimer. He returned to his young son a 'total stranger' but over the years he had a strong influence on Adrian, instilling in him a strong ethos of service.

In 1959 Adrian joined the Citizen Military Forces, serving in the Light Horse. At the same he was studying at Teachers' College. Although he had begun working as a teacher, and having recently married, in 1962 Adrian was selected to attend Officer Cadet School at Portsea and chose to devote himself to Army life. He later remembered his time at Portsea as both 'the hardest year of my life' and the 'happiest of my memories'.

As a Second Lieutenant, Adrian continued his training in the Armoured Corps. By the mid-1960s he and his wife, Gillian, had two children. In 1965 he was posted to the newly raised 1 APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) Squadron, beginning another period of intense training before being posted to Vietnam in April 1966.

Among historians of the Vietnam War, Adrian is perhaps best known for his courage and leadership during the Battle of Long Tan, for which he received a Mention in Dispatches, but his service during that conflict encompassed far more. He went on to finish his first tour with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and in 1971 returned to Vietnam as a member of the highly respected and much decorated Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, serving with the 1 ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Armoured Brigade in the northern part of South Vietnam before joining US Special Forces in training Cambodian troops.

Adrian returned to Australia, and Portsea in April 1972, this time to work as an instructor for 'three wonderful years'. He remained in the Army for the next sixteen years, serving on a range of postings, including stints at Staff College in England, a period in the Office of the Chief of General Staff and further time in the Armoured Corps. In 1980 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and two years later took command of the Army's Armoured Centre. By 1984 Adrian had been promoted again, to Colonel. He left the Army in 1988 to return to teaching, only to find the profession much changed from that which he had known in the early 1960s. Nevertheless he found that teaching gave him 'a real sense of achievement' and over the years he has taken great pleasure in meeting those who he taught in schools or in the Army and hearing of their achievements. That, he said, 'would be the most rewarding part of my working life, whether army or civilian.'

Adrian, to borrow his own phrase, now lives in 'quiet retirement.'

Vietnam War veteran (Army)

Transcript

Reflections on the Second World War

I grew up during the Second World War. I used to stand by the road in the little country town I came from watching the soldiers going in their trucks and when they were going overseas invariably I seemed to acquire their fox terrier mascots or things like that and my mother was a spotter for Japanese aircraft up at the local Road’s Board. Luckily no Japanese aeroplanes ever assailed us but, you know, it was part of the ambience and the ladies all made camouflage nets and what have you.

My mother would get these letters from my father whom basically, I’ve got a very vague recall of him at the beginning when he was in the embarkation depot down near Swan River and I remember as a tiny child trying to find a hole in the wire fence to get through and then he went away and when he came back he was a total stranger. The only thing I found interesting about my father was his peak hat, I can remember that.

Instinct and situational awareness

Long Tan started for me the night before. We'd been shelled and mortared the night before, but it didn't fall on our position. The artillery got a bit, the engineers.

A friend of mine lost his leg. He changed bed places, he was an engineer, he changed bed places and his mate would have lost his head but because they'd reversed their beds, he lost his leg.

Anyway, the next day, I mean there was a bit of running around but not overtly. We went off to see Little Patti. My driver, Piggy O'Rourke, is still the oldest 60s rocker I have ever come across and he took her, after the concert, took her for a ride up to 5RAR and in the middle of all this we could hear the artillery going, shooting shells over our heads and got more and more until I realised it was well over a battery's fire.

It was in fact regiment fire and got back to the squadron, I went under the shower and a runner came over to me to say, "The Major wants you with his map."

And that was the sort of signal that we were off again to play rescuers or silly buggers or whatever.

Long Tan - Part 1

Long Tan started for me the night before. We'd been shelled and mortared the night before, but it didn't fall on our position. The artillery got a bit, the engineers.

A friend of mine lost his leg. He changed bed places, he was an engineer, he changed bed places and his mate would have lost his head but because they'd reversed their beds, he lost his leg.

Anyway, the next day, I mean there was a bit of running around but not overtly. We went off to see Little Patti. My driver, Piggy O'Rourke, is still the oldest 60s rocker I have ever come across and he took her, after the concert, took her for a ride up to 5RAR and in the middle of all this we could hear the artillery going, shooting shells over our heads and got more and more until I realised it was well over a battery's fire.

It was in fact regiment fire and got back to the squadron, I went under the shower and a runner came over to me to say, "The Major wants you with his map."

And that was the sort of signal that we were off again to play rescuers or silly buggers or whatever.

Long Tan - Part 2

I chose the route because there's a, we'd call it a river or a creek, called Suoi Da Bang, at a point when I'd been involved with the 173rd Airborne Bigrade fighting at Long Phuoc.

I'd seen a buffalo cart enter and exit and there was an agricultural dam or something so I knew I couldn't get swept down because it was raining like billyo at this stage. Monsoonal rain, it's got to be seen to be believed.

So anyway I took off and got to the wire of the engineers and blow me down they'd altered the gap that was there and the engineers were off at dinner so I had to send a runner over there, eventually got someone back, they opened the gate.

Then I got told to send two carriers back for the CO, he'd changed his mind and was going to come out with us so I did that and then I pushed on because I realised it was going to take us a while to get over this creek because of the rain and it certainly was. When I got to the creek, I expected them to catch up. Well they hadn't caught up with me, so I left another carrier.

Tony O'Shea was commanding that to secure the crossing. We actually did an assault crossing which means we put them across in small groups and secure the other side and come across because up on the hill I could see the artillery coming so I knew which way I was going and despite being ordered to halt and I could see the problem D Company was in.

I pushed on and we came up on the flat to cross this stream in flood which was going well over the legal speed for us to swim in. I might just digress and say that back in Australia the only water crossings we'd done were in Lake Eppalock which was dead flat, glassy and no current. Lovely graded entrances and exits.

The problem is if you go in too deep an angle the water gets ingested through the engine on the top even though you've got a bilge pump but it can't contain the water but this was alright but we were actually swimming but we had an additional problem, in the year the carrier had been running, our carriers had been running. All the shrouds, the black rubber thing that go along the track had become busted.

We had none and they're a very vital part of steering in the water. One of our carriers actually did a complete circle bumping against the dam so that stopped it sweeping downstream.

People don't seem to understand that was a battle of nature. Anyway, we got through amazingly quickly and we didn't drown anyone. A carrier got drowned the next day in much less difficult conditions.

Long Tan - Part 3

I  put my carrier into two up formation, that is, two forward one back, two forward one back and myself in the middle. In the normal course of evens I would have had a reserve section but they were still stuffing around picking the CO up.

We crossed the road that ran between Long Phouc and Long Tan. That village was just a ruin from the previous year, or something, the Vietnamese and Americans had gone in there. And we burst, the rubber, the young rubber on the outside was about group commander head height, you couldn't see down, and once we came through that it was in a way like the ground stood up. They were all, these dudes in green and they had packs on their back and what have you.

Camouflage. And just for a split second I thought they were our dudes but they…Corporal Gross on the far right, he said "Contact. Enemy." He was part aboriginal. I don't know what part, but he was an aboriginal guy, and he yelled out, he lives in Queensland now, so we began to fire.

The enemy withdrew in very good order. They had rattan loops around their ankles and were dragging their wounded back and by fire and movement, that is to say, some of them were firing at us and others were pulling their people back. Something in the order of 100 people.

We had a frontage of about 120 metres and they were more or less evenly distributed across our front. We got through that group then we hit a second, a second wave, a distinct second wave that these people, again approximately around 100-150, I don't know, and they were all withdrawing. The first lot had been going towards the Task force.

What happened was Clements, who was my far-left carrier and the carriers I had borrowed to make up the troop, had no gun shields. Clements was hit in the tummy. Ironically, the doctor told me that the flak jacket that he got from the Americans slowed the bullet down or bullets and they tumbled around inside him. He was badly wounded. I sent, I sent that carrier back. I've got to say it was a moment of compassion. If I'd have been a rock-hard soldier, I suppose I wouldn't have done it. He lived until he was twenty, till the 27th August.

The American Red Cross, doughnut dollies they were called, told me that I'd at least given Pete a few…and it didn't make a material difference to our situation. On the right I was using a sunken road as the axis 'cause that led towards Harry Smith's position. On the right hand side, the carrier just over the road from me, Corporal Carter's carrier, his 50 calibre had jammed and he leapt up on top with an Owen machine gun and killed the crew of a recoilless rifle who, subsequent to the action, I discovered, they fired, hit a rubber tree, then fired again and hit the same rubber tree.

The rain had got into their gun sight and it caused … and that's why they missed, why they lost their lives. All those other people were trying to kill us and we were trying to kill them. Terrible. It's terrible when you have to run over and through people. Anyway, about this time the CO, after this had happened, that's when the CO finally got to us.

Long Tan - Part 4

That's when the CO finally got to us and he asked my troop officer who was carrying... which I did and the fire was enormous. One of the things that stays with me is all the rubber trees exploding with white sap. It doesn't look like any more like it did then but then it looked like a great big green cathedral, fairly clean underneath, so we did that and then he asked us to break it off and we did and we came down at an angle and formed a line between D Company and the enemy but there was no more fighting.

All we could see was just, because it was quite dark by that stage, all you could hear was the groaning noise of people crawling away, whatever. We stayed there for, I don't know, an hour or whatever it was while the CO and Harry Smith made up their mind what they were going to do next.

I was looking at my map. We had these wonderful Picto maps that were photographs but they've got the grids on, see that out to the west where we were at the edge of the rubber was a banana plantation which looked pretty clear ground so eventually we loaded up D Company and I put the dead on the front carrier in case we were hit going out, told the blokes to herring bone, that's, all, if we were hit but nothing happened.

The CO of 6RAR of A Company, a little number of B Company that was there, they followed us out and when we got out of the area, formed a hollow square with the cargo hatches open and the interior lights on and I stood out in the middle of this square with my radio operator, Jock McCormick and we guided the helicopters in. I'd never done that before. I didn't actually know. A couple of years later I was on a special course and I learnt how to do that.

Long Tan - Part 5

One of the advantages of being an officer is that you are so bloody busy trying to deal with the situation in front of you and think about what next 'cause you, in an armoured vehicle, you've got to think at the speed of the vehicle. Let's say its 20 kilometres an hour, so you've actually got to try and anticipate from map and head what's coming and what might come and where it might come, so you're dealing with two things all the time if you're any good. If you're not, then you get whacked.

You're totally absorbed. It's afterwards that it catches up with you and the strange thing is, even as I've been talking, while I can't remember my shopping list down in Coles, I can remember every flash and bang and what have you very clearly and it never seems to go away or become less.

Minefield

Oh well we were working on operations all the time because the Vietnamese were perfectly aware of who we were, where we were.

The Task force laid itself down in a, what I call a pie crust perimeter because just to give you a for instance, there was the APC squadron to the west of the Route 2 and then there was a huge gap and 5RAR were on the other side of the road and when I say huge, damn near a kilometre.

They put up all this barbed wire and said 'Minefield. I didn't realise at that stage, certainly when I was in the second tour, I understood what North Vietnamese sappers were like and that would have fooled nobody for no time at all.

These were guys, the sappers, who stripped down to shorts, no shoes, and felt in front of themselves for the prongs on jumping mines for example and they'd get through, just in the dark I'm talking about, too. Amazing.

Home

When I came home the first time, I remember standing on the edge of Luscombe Field watching my troop going out on operation because I'd gone up earlier, I was going back earlier.

I got back to Melbourne, Victoria, and I was in the kitchen with my mother-in-law and my wife and they were talking about matters domestic and all my head said was "I want to go back. This is foreign country. I don't belong here."

So, I went back, that was one of the reasons. The other reason was I generally felt concern for the Vietnamese people, and I had a much closer, by virtue of the training team, a much closer relationship with the Vietnamese people and I still retain affection and respect for them.


Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Adrian Roberts's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/adrian-robertss-story
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