Dennis Mitchell's veteran story

Dennis Michael John Mitchell grew up in the Sydney suburb of Georges Hill and attended Fort Street Boys' High School in Petersham, which he said gave him a 'terrific grounding'.

During the Vietnam War, Dennis was drafted into the National Service Scheme in 1967. After basic training was assigned to artillery.

Dennis and his mate, Dave Fisher, asked to be sent to infantry, which was granted. Later, they both jumped at the chance to join the Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. They both did the Cadre training course in Western Australia, and were among only 18 of 117 that managed to pass. After training in Australia, Dennis deployed to New Guinea for more training.

In November 1968, Dennis was sent to South Vietnam. He served with the 2nd Squadron, SAS from 1 December to 20 February 1969, and then the 3rd Squadron, SAS until 12 September 1969.

On arrival, Dennis was immediately struck by how big an operation the Australian deployment was. He quickly settled into life at the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) base in Nui Dat. Accommodation was fairly basic. The SAS soldiers slept in in old army tents, many of them quite deteriorated.

The soldiers spent much of their time patrolling around the base and having contact with the enemy because interdicting enemy movements was a major function of the SAS.

Dennis found his return home to Australia quite difficult. Only 36 hours before landing in Sydney, he had been involved in a hot extraction. Trying to acclimatise to such peaceful surroundings so soon after such an event was a somewhat surreal experience.

Dennis' feeling of unease was compounded with the sad news that his best mate Dave Fisher had been killed. For some time afterwards, Dennis was afflicted by survivor's guilt.

The 1987 Welcome Home Parade proved a pivotal episode in Dennis' life. It allowed him to come to terms with his service in the Vietnam War. He welcomed the public's acknowledgement and enthusiasm. The event prompted him to become involved in decade-long executive stints in the SAS Association and the Veterans' Indemnity and Training Association in an attempt to support the veteran community.

Vietnam

Transcript

Fort Street Boys High School

I lived in Georges Hall. It was then a far-flung suburb of Western Sydney with one bus service a day in Bankstown. Now, the epicentre of Sydney, I think, or close to it. I went to school at Fort Street Boys High School, which was a long trip away in Petersham, but it was a selective school and my mother and father were keen for me to go.

Their academic standards were very high. And while I was a mediocre student at Fort Street, that turned out to be a pretty good outcome when compared to the rest of the state. So, I did quite well with that … It was boys only in those days. It's now co-ed. There was a Fort Street Girls High School, which was in the original buildings where Fort Street Boys were at Milsons Point in Sydney.

When I went there, it was, yeah, a boys only school and it was very traditional. We learned Latin, and we played rugby and all of the things that you would expect an old GPS school or an English school to do. But it was terrific grounding. I learned a lot more there than simply to read and write … It was not church based at all. It was still a government school.

Called up

I had no ambitions or intentions to join the Army. I was working in a clerical job after school, really only to make money so I could chase girls and cars. But I got called up, and I wasn't unhappy about that. I, in fact, looked forward to the change that would bring to my otherwise pretty dull working life.

And so, I happily went in and I took the view that if I was going to be in the Army, I was going to do it for all it was worth and get everything out of it that I could and give it everything I could. That's how I ended up wearing green … I didn't actually end up in the Army until 1967.

Yeah, my birthday's in December, so I got the letter in late 1966, or it might have been early '67, I don't remember. I've still got the letter. In those days, it was for two years … I was fairly well across it, because the spectre of a call up notice was in my mind for six months before I registered.

So, I was fairly familiar with Australia's given reasons for being there, and the size of the force that we had there. I wasn't particularly aware of the mission, which I found out much more about later. I suppose I was better informed than most young men in Australia at the time because I had a pecuniary interest.

Infantry training

1RTB in Wagga. That was pretty easy. I went through that. The difficulty came at the end, and I had a good friend. In fact, we met as we walked through the gates of the Marrickville Army Depot at the time, we had to report to Major H. J. Moran. I can still remember that. His name was Dave Fisher. He and I soldiered together for all of the time I was in.

Dave and I were talking about it, and we said, "If we're in the Army, the epitome of the Army is infantry." That's where you want to be, that's where the experience is and where the ... I hesitate the word action, but where the activity is. That's what we wanted, and that's what we put down.

The entire training platoon was assigned, other than those that have been corps enlisted, assigned to artillery. We had heard things about artillery that there was a lot of rock painting and blankoing and saluting, going on up at North Head, and that didn't appeal. And so, we were asked if there were any objections, and Dave and I both said that we objected to that and we'd prefer to go to infantry, to which the response was, "If you silly buggers want to go there, fill and we'd prefer to go to infantry, to which the response was, "If you silly buggers want to go there, fill your boot."

So, we ended up in corps of infantry and at Ingleburn doing corps training, which was about three months. Towards the end of that, the question about what would happen to us beyond that came up. Our hope and indeed expectation was that we would be posted to an infantry battalion. We'd train with that infantry battalion, and we'd deploy with that infantry battalion.

But as luck would have it, we with that infantry battalion, and we'd deploy with that infantry battalion. But as luck would have it, we were posted to the reinforcement wing, and our future was to go to Vietnam relatively soon to replace some poor bugger that had been bowled over or was hurt.

That didn't appeal very much either. Coincidentally, Reg Beesley and Ross Bishop, who was OC and 2IC of 3 Squadron SAS came through Ingleburn recruiting. I didn't know very much about SAS, I must admit, but I knew they were in Perth. I'd never been there. I knew they were airborne, I'd never parachuted, so we thought we'd give it a go.

The deal was they would not take national servicemen. But if we agreed to sign on for 12 months, should we be successful, then they would let us attempt the Cadre course, or now called selection course. And lo and behold, we both got that invitation to attempt selection.

S.A.S training course

You retained your national service number, and you retained your identity as a national serviceman, but you were able to extend the two-year commitment for another year. In effect, you became the same as a short-term regular soldier signed on. The reason for that was that there's a lot of investment in training an SAS soldier, and there's a lot of time involved.

Two years plus an operational deployment wasn't enough … Attrition rate's high. It then was around about 15 per cent would get through and it still is, which tells you something, I think. I think we started with 117, we ended up with 18. Yes, it was tough. It's tough physically, no question about that. If you're not fit, you won't get through.

But it is far more than simple fitness. Really, it's a test of your stamina, your commitment to getting in, your, “will achieve this, whatever it costs”. That is where most people fell over. It just got too hard and they felt, "This isn't worth it. I'll give it away." The combination that the Cadre staff, were able to put on you of being physically absolutely exhausted, being hungry, cold, miserable, and to then throw in a huge disappointment, like the food truck disappearing over the hill in front of you. And then, when you get to the top of the hill, it goes over the next hill.

They were looking to see how you could handle situations that was unexpected and things were very difficult and looked like they were going to be more difficult, how do you react? That's how most people fell out. They gave it away before they gave it their all … From memory, I think it was six weeks.

First week was on Rottnest Island of all places, then back at Swanbourne, and then out on the bush. Yeah, I think six weeks is right … they were happy days, very happy days for a number of reasons. One was huge amount of satisfaction of getting through. Second was it was over. Well, over for the time being anyway.

Parachute training

You then had to be para qualified. We went off to Williamtown in those days, near Newcastle, and became para qualified. Once that had happened, you were entitled to be posted to the regiment and wear the sandy beret … you get frightened. It's quite an unnatural thing to do, of course. But I've got to say that in those days, RAAF were in charge of parachute training.

They did a great job so that by the time the first jump came around, I was certainly apprehensive, but there was no question that I was going to baulk. I just walked off the ramp and off we went. The assessment, nearly everybody got was ‘nervous but controlled’, which is pretty accurate.

Yeah. Mind you, let me say that military parachuting in the 1960s was not fun. The parachutes we used, old X type, the descent rate was 18 feet a second, so you hit the ground very hard. Broken limbs were not unusual. Also, we went out at low height, 800 to 1,000 feet, so there was no time in the air really to appreciate it.

When you're doing double door exits out of a C130 with 64 parachutists in the air at one time, you got people swinging through, you're rigging lines and walking over the top of your canopy and grabbing your air. So, it was not what you see on television about this nice, soft, gentle landing under the big flying coat of a parachute … C130's got a ramp, of course.

I don't know the reason why, but when we had a full aeroplane, 64 jumpers, we used the two side exits and we both went out that way. Perhaps it was to spread us out so that we, of course, if we all went off the ramp, we'd all be in the same bit of air even more so. But I don' that we, of course, if we all went off the ramp, we'd all be in the same bit of air even more so. But I don't know that that's the case.

Further training and selection to go to Vietnam

The training then continued after the para course. I did Sig training so I could drive a 64-set using morse code. I did medic training at Healesville in Victoria, which was designed to look after the patrol

members on operations, but also to provide first aid to indigenous folks should we find ourselves doing that sort of recruitment of indigenous people. And then, there was ropes, rope course, rappelling, cliff climbing. Boy’s Own stuff, it was wonderful. I loved it. And the patrol course, which was really focused on the work we would do in Vietnam.

At the end of all of that, then the next stage was New Guinea where we did our jungle training as opposed to Canungra and Shoalwater Bay, where the others who were going to Vietnam did it. A number of reasons I've heard about why that was. New Guinea was a tough environment, number one.

But number two, the government of the day, I have heard, wanted some military commitment to New Guinea, and sending an SAS squadron once a year partly fulfilled that. But I don't know whether that's true or not. However, in my case, early November, we were packing up ready to go to New Guinea when 15 of us were told we weren't going, and that we would be deployed to Vietnam immediately as reinforcements for 2 Squadron who was then in country they’d had a lot of people become unavailable for a variety of reasons.

And so, 15 of us were assigned to go straight up without going to New Guinea. Subsequently, I learned that the reason for that was we were the people who had … done the best on the patrol course, which was, as I said, the precursor to operations in Vietnam. So, I ended up in Vietnam in November 1968.

Flights to Vietnam

We all ended up at Eastern Command Personnel Depot in Sydney after pre-embarkation leave. We trickled in basically when they could find a spot on an aircraft going, then they'd assign one or two of us. I went with John Cousins and Joe Rice, so three of us went together, then two.

For example, I arrived in Vietnam in late November. Dave Fisher didn't arrive until mid-December, and he was in that same group. So, it was a trickle in process, not like the big 707 where the whole squadron went away together … we overnighted in Penang. Butterworth, I should say. Same, same. And then, the next day into Tan Son Nhut in Saigon onto a Wallabies Airline Caribou and into Nui Dat.

First impressions on Vietnam

It stank and it was hot, incredibly hot. We've got heat in Australia, but I don't know, the thermometer must lie because 36 degrees in Australia seems cooler than 36 degrees of Vietnam. Perhaps … it's the humidity. I arrived at the end of the wet season, so the country looked pretty good.

It was nice and green and the dust wasn't too bad at that stage. Other impressions, didn't get to meet any Vietnamese people. Never did, not real ones. The other thing was the size of the task force as we flew into Nui Dat, it was a substantial operation … Plenty of supporting arms and tanks had arrived, so it was a serious operation.

Accommodation in Nui Dat

There were tents, basically. Some wag had said that they were the same tents used in World War Two, and I don't know whether that was true or not, but they were certainly not new. Mind you, they'd been up for three or four years in a monsoonal climate. The tent had duckboards, had room for four bunks. It was surrounded by sandbags, but no overhead protection, simply the walls. Typically, four people in a tent.

Typically, those four people would be of the one patrol. A patrol was typically five men led by usually a sergeant, but sometimes an officer. Chris Roberts had his own patrol, for example. Normally, the four men of the patrol would occupy the one tent. But that got mixed up over time too, as people went on leave and other people came in to take their place.

Patrolling and the quality of the enemy

I should say that every position on a patrol, all five of them are tense. It's just the nature of the beast. I didn't find scouting any more tense than being sig. I liked the idea that I wasn't going to walk the patrol into something that I hadn't seen. And so the sense of responsibility was huge, but I quite liked it better than being back in the middle of the patrol.

We moved incredibly slowly, so you had the time to assess what you were walking into or perhaps walking into, and your senses were very highly attuned. I’m sure Mother Nature ramped it up a bit for you so that you could survive. Charlie was also, in the most part, not always but for the most part... Sorry, Charlie, the enemy, for the most part was slack. We could hear them or we could smell them before we got too close.

They were generally, in the earlier part of my tour, switched off when they moved on tracks, but in the last six months they became... Oh, and also, we moved, we were in a different area, they became much more conscious and tactical … To a degree, it was. In my first few months, the people we bumped were mostly D445.

They were fulltime soldiers and they were quite well-equipped and had training, but they weren't to the same degree as NVA. In the last six months of my tour, we spent a lot of time up in Long Khanh province around the Nui Mây Tào’s, which is where 5 VC Division had its headquarters. They had 274 and 275 regiments, which were mostly North Vietnamese and they were a formidable enemy, and they were much more switched on. They had excellent anti-ambush drills, and they were clever in that they would put, if they heard helicopters, they'd put an OP on every possible LZ in the area. So, it was difficult to get in without being sprung.

Offensive patrolling

When I first arrived, the standard patrol was four or five days, and the purpose was reconnaissance, the so-called eyes and ears of the task force. But if opportunities presented themselves, then we would take offensive action. But that was not every patrol by any means. As time went by, and Westmoreland’s idea of ‘if we kill more of them, than they kill of us, we're going to win’, which is just absolute nonsense as we now know, we were tasked more and more to take offensive action.

So from a four-day, five-day patrol for reconnaissance, we became ten-day patrols and looking for opportunities to kill the enemy, usually ambushing tracks. Yeah. So, it changed … Thankfully, we never had to assault a position and we were ... careful is not the right word, but we were sensible.

We chose our fights, and I don't think the Americans were as good at that as we were, but we were not about to take on something where the odds were plainly against us, if we had a choice, sometimes we didn't have a choice. But where we had a choice, we would look to take on enemy concentrations that we could handle with what ordnance we had, which was fair bit.

A typical patrol

A typical day would be you were awake before first light it. In truth, you never really fully slept. We used to call it sleeping with your ears open, but you were awake and ready at first light just in case the enemy had twigged to where you were and were going to assault you as it became light.

As soon as it became light enough to move quietly, we would move from that earlier P spot, overnight spot again, for the same reason. We might move 100 metres, then we'd prop and listen, and in that process also eat. We didn't eat a lot for a whole range of reasons. Then the patrol commander would go around each patrol member and tell them what his intentions were and what the day would look like and off we'd go patrolling.

We'd patrol very slowly. I was a scout and I set the pace. Occasionally, the patrol commander would ask me to ... Well, he'd tell me, actually, "Move it along." Occasionally, he'd tell me to back it off. But basically, I set the pace and he would give me a compass bearing.

He would go and I would have a compass on my wrist and I would follow that compass bearing. We would move probably an hour, hour and a half at a time and in that period, we might cover 200, 300 metres maybe, 200 probably more likely, very slow. And then, we would stop, grab a drink, a bit of a rest and then we'd move on again until we got to what was called park time. The enemy didn't move during the heat of the day, between 12:00 and 2:00.

The only thing moving in the jungle would've been us if we moved. So, we'd stop, we'd eat, we had signal scheds to keep, and often one of those was that period. At the end of that, we'd move on again. We'd stop late afternoon, 3:00, 4:00 for a signal sched, and then we'd start to look for a place to lie up for the night.

We would find such a place and wait until the place had settled down. We were at least quiet, we were listening, was there anything going on? Could we smell anything? We'd eat, and that's the only time we might heat food. And then we would make up where we were going to sleep. Now, typically, what we’d try and do is crawl into a bamboo ticket or into a very dense scrubby area where anybody trying to get to us would make a lot of noise.

We would wait through last light, we would stand to ready to fight if necessary at last light. And then we would clear the jungle floor of its detritus, lay down whatever sleeping arrangement you had. I had an American poncho liner, I just put that on the ground and flop it over me. You take the pack off.

You take off your fighting belt, which had your essentials for survival, ammunition, water, first aid. I put that arm through the shoulder straps so that if I had to move quickly, I had it through there, and weapon, I would lay on the ground with my hand on the pistol grip. The pillow was two water bottles with an M26 grenade beneath with my sweat rag on it, and it was quite comfortable. As I say, we didn't really sleep deeply, but you'd doze away through the night.

Weapons, tactics and hot extractions

That seemed to me to be a survival device that carrying an SLR, even though the weapon was heavy, the weapon was long, the ammunition was heavy, but because I carried an SLR, I had Australian ammunition pouches. Where if you're carrying the M16, you would use the American type.

Also, because I was already carrying heavy weight, I would not be assigned so much extra ordnance. For example, we’d all carry claymore mines, M26 fragmentation grenades, white phosphorous grenades, 40-millimetre grenade projectiles, and  mines. There was a claymore, awful lot of other stuff to carry, so that would be spread up amongst the patrol members based on what else they had to carry. For example, the sig carrying the radio set wouldn't get as much either …

As issued to the Australian Army, the SLR was only capable of single automatic shots, so a round went off every time you pulled the trigger, and it had a 20-round magazine and it had quite a long barrel with a big flash eliminator on it. We modified that. We took the flash eliminator off. Some people cut their barrels off until they're about that long. We had 30 round magazines, and we had them modified so that they were selective single shot or full automatic.

Full automatic is not very useful. It was a difficult weapon to control, because they're a very big round with a lot of recoil. In situations where we had the time to use the weapon correctly, we would fire, aim single shots. But if we were in trouble, we were really good at running away. Running away saved more lives in Vietnam of SAS men than anything else, I think.

And the way we would run away would be put so much fire down range and make so much noise that the enemy would wonder what they'd bumped. When you had probably three SLRs firing on full automatic, you've got three section-sized weapons. So the enemy's saying, “We’ve bumped at least a platoon here, maybe more”.

That kept their head down for a bit while we disappeared … most of our contacts were within 10 metres, we were shooting people just as far as that screen away … If we were in contact and it was a much bigger mob than we could handle and we chose the runaway solution, we'd put an awful lot of fire downstream. We'd fire and move. Some would fire, some would move, some would fire until we'd break contact, and then we'd tippy toe away.

Now, if we broke contact, then no need for a hot extraction. In fact, towards the last six months of the tour, if we broke contact, you stayed in, put an ambush on somewhere else. You didn't get out just because you'd had a contact, which earlier on you would've, because your position was compromised. Charlie knew you were there and would come looking for you. But hot extractions were occasionally necessary if you were being followed up.

If Charlie had the numbers and was still chasing you, then there were a number of options. If the helicopter could land, that would be the idea and there was always a light fire team, sometimes a heavy fire team, sorry, gunships with the extraction slicks. Charlie certainly didn't like those.

So, if the slick could land, that was certainly the ideal. And as the slick came in, the gun ships would go down either side and destroy the jungle on either side with rockets and mini gunfire. But sometimes an LZ wasn't available. In fact, quite often, you didn't get to choose when you had that sort of a contact.

The options then were winch. You could winch two people up at where you had that sort of a contact. The options then were winch. You could winch two people up at a time. But during all that, they say you needed three winch ups. Typically where that was, you had this great big helicopter making an awful lot of noise sitting in plain view and they were very vulnerable. So that was rarely used as a hot extraction.

Sometimes used for convenience, but not when the enemy was in the area. RAAF was very jealous of its helicopters … The most common extraction method for a hot extraction, that is enemy in close pursuit or actually under fire at the time, was going out on the ropes. That would be five ropes tipped out of the helicopter.

It had a knot on the end, a bowline. We would put a Swiss seat on with a little bit of rope we carried, carabine it through that, hook it through the eye, and the helicopter would rise up and pull us out, fly to an area where it could safely put down, put us down first obviously, and we'd clamber onto the slick and go home. Very uncomfortable, by the way.

In Charlie's backyard

People used to say to me, that I knew outside of SAS, but in the Army, "You guys are crazy. You shouldn't be wandering around in Charlie's backyard and sometimes into his living room, a long, long way from any help. The only way you're going to get it is you have to set up a 64 HF set, run out a dipole aerial on a compass bearing, and crack out the Morse key and try and send some code to say you're in trouble."

I didn't agree with that because it seemed to me that everyone's got a different say you're in trouble." I didn't agree with that because it seemed to me that everyone's got a different job. So, the APC driver's got a job, the gunner's got a job, and we had a job, and we trained for it as they trained for theirs. We had special equipment as they had special equipment.

And so, I thought, "No, this is what we trained for, and we're pretty good at it, and it's okay." It's really only later I thought to myself, "They're probably right. It was probably pretty silly thing to be doing." In one case, it nearly cost me my life, for sure, because we bumped the heavy weapons company of D445.

Thank goodness it was D445, or I wouldn't be here. Anyway, they had us all but surrounded, 70 plus of them with mortars and wheeled machine guns, and we were in deep shit. The only way we could get any help was with a 64 set. I ran out a dipole aerial and I cranked out our contact codewords and packed it up, and it did get the boss over in a Sioux helicopter, but by then, it was all okay. We ran away basically, just in the nick of time.

So, yeah, the unavailability of support was really what set what we did apart. The battalions did small man patrols. They did clearing patrols around their night harbours, but always within the circle of at least a company-size formation available for them, and under an artillery umbrella. We didn't have that. That's why I think subsequently I thought to myself, "Yeah, those guys might have been right."

Insertion by helicopter

We were operating in Long Khanh, which was where we had to go to find enemy. Phuoc Tuy was pretty quiet. That was at the extent of the range of the Hueys. Typically, once we were inserted the slicks, well, the whole formation, five helicopters to insert a patrol, one slick, one spare two gunships and albatross lead who sat up above and coordinated it all.

Typically, we would get the helicopters to linger in the area for 20 minutes after insertion, just in case, because you were often hit on the LZ. But when we're going into Long Khanh, that linger period just wasn't available. So, operating at Nui Dat did have some drawbacks, but it was our base.

S.A.S. isolation at Nui Dat

Our area on top of the hill was restricted area. Nobody was allowed in there. Our operations were classified secret. There were occasional visitors that people would bring on, but they were usually people who were from the training team, for example, who had served in the regiment before. 9 Squadron, our RAAF friends who put the air in Special Air Service, they were always welcome. But otherwise, no, not really. No. The only time I mingled with other soldiers from other units was on R&C in Vung Tàu, or on R&R.

Vietnamese people

One of the disappointments, I suppose, of serving in Vietnam is you never really got to meet any real Vietnamese people. You saw the peasants on the side of the road, but you had no way that you could communicate with them. They were dreadfully, dreadfully poor. So the only Vietnamese that we saw were either trying to kill us or we were trying to kill them, or they were the lurkers and urgers and spivs and black marketeers in Vung Tàu, or the bar girls, all of which had an agenda.

And so, we really didn't get to meet what you would call the normal Vietnamese folk. Vung Tàu was a den of inequity. It was all of the sin and sex that you could poke a stick at. There were plenty of people down there trying to prey on you, P-R-E-Y. But it was a lot of fun too.

Decision to leave the army

I was there 10 months, and I had to make a decision about whether or not I would sign on. Reg Beesley fronted me, had me stand in front of his desk and ask me what I was going to do. I said I was going to leave. He said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, Whitlam is going to win in '72”. He went within a poofteenth in '69. “This war isn't winnable. It's lost.

I don't want to be in an army whose fortunes are controlled by an avoured left-wing leader who likes Communist China, and an army that will come home having not had a win”, as unfair as that was. As it turned out, I was prescient, Whitlam did win in '72. He decimated the Armed Forces.

SAS was nearly removed from the order of battle, the ORBAT. It wasn't until the Hilton bombing in 1978 that SAS got a role again, which was counterterrorism … I corresponded with my brother and my father who kept me up to speed with what was going on back home with which I had an interest in current affairs and still do. Certainly, I had an interest in the geopolitical situation regarding Vietnam.

And so, I suppose I was probably better informed or perhaps more interested than others within the squadron … Certainly, I could have signed on again because I liked the work, I liked the lifestyle very much. Had it not been for what I could foresee happening, I probably would've stayed in. But I didn't want to be part of what I could see coming down the tubes.

Last patrol

Last month, I was certainly aware that I would be going home within the next four weeks … On my last patrol, which we had to come out on the ropes because it was a nasty ending, I had the wind up, well and truly when I was scouting.

I could swear I could hear stuff that my patrol commander behind me couldn't. And so, I was slow and I got bit of a hurry up from both the 2IC, Jim Phillips and Lou Parrington about, "Come on. Come on. We got to move it along." So yes, it did impact on my work.

A difficult return home

One of the hardest things was that I was in the back seat of my parents’ car being driven away from Mascot Aerodrome, 36 hours after I came out from a nasty contact on a hot extraction on the ropes. You didn't get the time to decompress and to... What's the word I'm looking for? Make sense of it all. Suddenly, you were back into Sydney.

It was surreal, but I thought, "Oh well, I've got to get on with the rest of my life now." The girl I was talking about, Pat Feely, said she was coming up to see me, and I thought that's really good. She did come up. She arrived in the week after I got back. But it was to give me a verbal, "Dear John," because she didn't want to do it in a letter while I was away, which to her great credit took courage and decency to do that, and she did it.

So, that was a bit of a kick in the guts. That was on a Friday. Following Sunday, Dave Fisher was killed. He was my best mate in the unit. And so, I wasn't feeling really good about that for sure. I should have been there. I recognize it now as survivor's guilt. But at the time, it really upset me.

And so, I was drinking too much, and I realized that I needed kindred spirits. One of the good things about coming home as a squadron was you're all together, you all got home together, all your friends were there, but we who came out home singly didn't have that.

So, down at the end of the street where my parents lived, where I was living, it was the Homebush RSL. And so, I went down there to join the subbranch and the social club to meet some folks and have a chat. You might not remember Dale, but in those days, the doorman was a dapper fellow in a white shirt, short sleeve and a little black bow tie.

He asked my business there and I said, "I wish to join." He handed me an associate membership form to join the club. And I said, "No, I wish to join a subbranch" He said, "You're just back from Vietnam, are you?" I said, "Yeah, indeed. Yeah, I am." He said, "Look, mate, members around here aren't accepting you, but if you go over to Bankstown, I think you'll find they'll sign you up." I thought, "Well, __ you." I put everything I had and knew about Vietnam into a box and put it away and didn't go back there until 1987 for the Welcome Home Parade.

The Welcome Home Parade

I get a bit chokey even thinking about what a difference it made to me. I wasn't going because I'd put all that aside and I wasn't part of that. But my wife, very sensibly clever girl, made me go. Basically said, "You got to go." Got out my medals and had them court mounted for me, because I hadn't touched them before. And so, I went and the best thing I ever did.

It made a huge difference to my attitude, caught up with all the old mates or many of them from the old days. The outpouring of good wishes from the crowd, incredible. Just incredible. So, I completely changed. I joined the SAS Association. I became its president for 10 years, vice president for another 10 years, on the national executive.

I assisted here through the Veterans Indemnity and Training Association, which I was the president of for 15 years. And so, I tried to put a bit back into the veteran community, not just Vietnam, but the veteran community. And I embraced my service, which I'd always been proud, but it was not okay for me in my mind to talk about it before the Welcome Home Parade. Indeed, nobody wanted to know. I remember when I got home and I tried to pick up old friendships. I'd been away three years and they'd all moved on.

They had wives and kids and houses in the suburbs, and they worried about their lawn and their thinking was so shallow. It's probably a harsh thing to say, but I remember remarking on that, "Don't you know what's going on, what's being done over there?" Yeah. So, as I say, I just didn't deal with that at all until the Welcome Home Parade, and it was such a fabulous relief …  actually more than acceptance. Acceptance would've been good, but it wouldn't have been enough. It was enthusiasm for us. Yeah, that's what struck me.

A positive and a negative reflection on Vietnam

When I think about my experience with Army in Vietnam, it's rather got two streams. The first stream is how very satisfied I am with the role I played and how professional and effective the unit was with what it had to do. SAS had a difficult job, but they did it with elan and were incredibly effective.

We lost one soldier to an enemy bullet. We shot more of our own than they did actually, and that's a result of how tense it all was. So, we did a terrific job, a very hard job, but we did it really, really well. And so, I'm proud to be part of the regiment for that reason. I'm proud of my part in it.

That's one stream. The other stream is, what a shocking waste it was. War for nothing. Blind Freddy could see or should have been able to see that you weren't going to be able to defeat the North Vietnamese without invading that country. An invasion in that country would bring China in and it would be a dreadful mess. So, invasion was off the table and therefore there was a no win. It could not be won. The amount of lives, the treasure, and Australia's reputation in the world was just destroyed. So positive, but a big negative too.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Dennis Mitchell's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/dennis-mitchells-veteran-story
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