Janice and Stuart Smith's story of Bernard Lyle Smith

Stuart Smith was a young child when his father was killed in action in South Vietnam, and it was some years before the sense of loss began to sink in. For his mother, Janice, who had to raise 2 sons on her own, the connection to her husband remained strong.

Bernard Lyle 'Bernie' Smith was born on 2 September 1939 in Snowtown, South Australia.

Bernie's family had a history of military service so, not surprisingly, he grew up wanting to join the Army. His father had served as a radio operator in the Australian Army during World War II, his grandfather served in the Second South African (Boer) War, and 3 of his great-uncles served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during World War I.

A talented musician from a young age, Bernie applied to join the Australian Army as a 'Band Boy' but was unsuccessful. It wasn't until November 1958, when he was 19, that Bernie enlisted in the regular army. After basic infantry training, he deployed to Malaya from 1959 to 1961.

Not long after his return to Australia, he married Janice Leonora Bain and they had 2 children, Stuart and Edward.

Still in the Army, Bernie was promoted to corporal in 1965 and trained the first intake of the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR), readying it for deployment to Vietnam. Bernie and his battalion arrived in Vietnam in May 1966.

The soldiers of 5RAR worked tirelessly to exert control over Nui Dat, an area dominated by the Viet Cong. Bernie was selected to join the reconnaissance platoon, scouting for the enemy before the battalion moved in and conducting ambushes. Bernie's work was extremely dangerous.

In 1967, 5RAR finished its tour of duty and Bernard returned home to his family. Promoted to sergeant, he worked as an instructor to train platoon commanders.

Two years later, 5RAR deployed to Vietnam again.

In March 1969, during a reconnaissance operation, Bernie was part of a rescue mission in a minefield. When an M16 landmine was detonated, 7 soldiers were wounded and 3 died. Bernie was killed instantly. He was 29 years old; his sons were only 5 and 1.

Janice recalled the heart-wrenching moment the police came to her door. She knew instantly what it meant. Ever since the war, Janice has attended every reunion of her husband's battalion.

For Stuart, the 1987 Welcome Home Parade in Sydney was particularly special. In his father's honour, he carried a plaque and flag, walking at the front of the parade. It was an emotionally moving day, where he met many of his father's comrades and heard new stories about the man he'd called 'Dad'.

Janice & Stuart Smith, Loss

Transcript

Janice: "I didn't want him to go back that time. Because I had that premonition. I said, 'If you go this time, you won't come home'."

Stuart: "My memories are tinged by sounds and smells. The sound of his army boots, squeaking across the lounge room floor; the smell of hair tonic."

Bernard Lyle Smith was a sergeant in the Australian Army. He served one tour in Vietnam in 1966 and returned for a second, in 1969. On the ninth of March 1969, Bernie and his corporal, George Gilbert, were killed by an enemy mine.

Janice: "I don't know whether it was Stuart or Edward, one of them woke up at that particular moment, in the morning, and that's when it happened. But the police came and I knew. When the police came I knew what it was."

Stuart Smith was five years old. His brother Edward, was just sixteen months.

Stuart: "The Catholic nuns from the local school accompanied the police when they came to our house in Williamtown. And while the police went inside, the Catholic nun took me aside and we walked around the front garden. And the phrase that they used to break the news to me was: 'Your father won't be coming home.' But as a young child, you don't find attention to that. You focus on what's near and now. It probably wasn't until I was a teenager that it really sunk in. When you were looking for that father figure in your life.

When I went back to school, a couple of days later, I always remember, the Catholic nun met me at the gate and said, 'Look, it's probably best if you don't talk about this with the other children. Don't raise it with them.' And I now know that the reason for that was that it could have caused a confrontation in the schoolyard. And even when I was at school in later years, in the seventies and eighties, it wasn't popular to talk about the Vietnam War and associate yourself with it. So you kept that internal."

Since the war, Jan Smith has attended every reunion held by Bernie's battalion.

Janice: "I find when I go to reunions, some of them, it's taken them thirty years or more sometimes, to come up and speak to me, because they've always been too frightened to speak to me. And I say, 'Well, don't feel like that, I don't... you know.' But they're all so good to me, the whole lot of them."

The Welcome Home Parade of 1987 was pivotal for Stuart Smith.

Stuart: "While I was there I heard over the loudspeakers that the flags that were representing those that were killed in action were assembled, and those that wished to carry them should go up there and pick them up. And I went up there and I spied my father's plaque and flag, and a man was about to pick it up. And I said, 'Excuse me, do you mind if I carry that one, because I knew him.' And this bloke stood back and paused and said, 'You knew him?' And I said I did and he said, 'Well if you knew him, you should carry this.'

And I did. I carried it at the front of the march. But after that I met many people who knew him as part of a 5th Battalion reunion. And then, I discovered stories about him which I had never known. And I knew more about him from that, than I ever did from my own family."

Janice: "Still dream about him. After fifty years. And I never remarried. I said I never would."


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Janice and Stuart Smith's story of Bernard Lyle Smith, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 24 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/janice-and-stuart-smiths-story-bernard-lyle-smith
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