Patrick O'Hara's veteran story

Patrick O'Hara was working in the Australian Public Service, when he heard he had been conscripted for two years National Service in the Army. The news came as a huge surprise. Patrick had assumed that his birthday would be missed in the ballot as he had never been picked for anything before.

While some other people were objecting to having to do National Service, Patrick regarded it as an opportunity for adventure, offering the prospect of new and exciting experiences. His family opposed the war in Vietnam and, while they accepted the news, it created some tension.

At the time, he did not even know where Vietnam was.

From April 1967, Patrick was posted to 108 Battery, 4 Field Regiment, training at Puckapunyal and in Sydney as a Gunner before his deployment to Vietnam. As an artilleryman, he served as a Forward Observer with B Company 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in Nui Dat. He recalls that the National Servicemen (Nashos) and regular soldiers got on very well and respected each other, despite the differences in backgrounds and ages of the men. This led to some lasting and valuable friendships.

During Operation Coburg in 1968, Patrick and several other soldiers had a lengthy contact with the enemy, with bullets flying overhead and gunfire coming from all directions. As young Nashos, Patrick and his mate had not experienced the intensity of front line contact before. Without warning, the Sergeant announced that it was time for a cup of tea. Crouching behind a big tree drinking their tea, while bullets were flying around them, Patrick felt much calmer. Years later, the Sergeant recalled having never felt so scared. He remembered his awareness of the need to alleviate the alarm of the young soldiers. For Patrick, the memory symbolises the egalitarianism that existed in his unit and the strong bonds of mateship that form when people are faced with difficult situations.

Following his service, Patrick studied to be a teacher, becoming the first person in his family to attain university qualifications. He has an enduring admiration and respect for the Vietnamese people and their culture.

Vietnam War veteran (Army)

Transcript

Birthday Ballot

No, didn't think at all about Vietnam. Didn't know where Vietnam was, didn't have any idea. When I was told I had to register, I think I was eighteen and a half, you had to register. I registered in a bit of, not a daze, but a lack of realism. This won't come to anything, it's just paperwork.

As it got closer and people began to talk about the next ballot and marbles being pulled out and you start to learn that our famous footballers were getting called up, Carl Ditterich for St Kilda and the cricketer, of course, Doug Walters, you start to become more aware of it and then you got, well, excited or anticipation.

I remember at work all waiting for the ballot to come out, I never thought I'd get picked because I never got picked for anything, you know. It was a huge surprise. My recollection is I was sitting in the public service and someone had a newspaper and he called out the dates and one of them was the 1st of December and I just thought "Bloody Hell" and that's when, "What happens now? What's it going to be like? How am I going to go?"

Just the whole thing was like, within myself thinking about the changes was bigger than Ben Hur. The whole thing was a … When I got home Dad said, "Will you be going into the army now?" and mum didn't say much, just waited for the paperwork and it was then I started to read about objectors and burning cards. I never thought of a possibility that I would do that because that was too, I don't know, too big.

There were people who knew a lot more than me. That's for someone else to do. I'll just go ahead and because I didn't know what to do, I didn't know what job I wanted to do. No girls. Girls terrified me. The whole thing of just, this is an adventure, an excitement, different to what I'd done before. I just rolled along.

Reflections on being called up

So I just rolled along when I got called up. I didn't have any particular view, I just rolled along and did national service. The army, it was only two years, but it took me away from my brother. When I was nineteen and he would have been what? Seventeen, I suppose, so it had a bit of a, I suppose, influence in our relationship later on, particularly the fact that he didn't get called up.

My father really opposed Vietnam but because I'd been called up he never said anything. He never let me indicate that. It caused a lot of tension with the extended family. My mother couldn't come and see me off at the Geelong station 'cause she was too upset. So, the whole, that whole process was very traumatic, I think, without being outwardly so, with just the tensions it caused.

My father was a big man of 6 foot one and played AFL. He had been in the army. I was a little scrawny bloke. I never saw myself in a uniform or a rifle. It just wasn't on the horizon in any way shape or form.

Arrival at Puckapunyal

Getting of the bus at Pucka it was just go, go, go. Get your uniforms, big piles of shirts and trousers and boots, running around putting things down.

Sergeant coming in and one of the first things he said was "You're going to make this bed, you fellows. You know, you don't have your mothers now". It was just all shock or just running around. You look around and other blokes were doing it. You do it too, you know. Nah, it was firm instructions.

Once we got our own sergeant and once we got the hut, then the yelling started but at the beginning, these were professional, hard-nosed scary sergeants who barked orders and didn't look at you, looked through you, so it was just a case of you do as you are told and you do it quickly and everybody is beside you. It's a real system, you didn't get time to sit around and think, "Will I take one of those? Will it fit?" They fitted you out, gave you the right size, it was a well-oiled machine that got you through that process very quickly so they could get into the army bit.

Organising it, being told everything had to be put up like this and "I want you in this gear in half an hour" and that's what happened. You got of the bus and didn't just wait around for something to happen. We snapped it all off and put on the gear and you're wondering whether you've got the right gear or not and you're watching blokes and the next minute we're out for a run. They got us active very very quickly and then they came back and the sergeant walked up and down the hut and just yelled at us, where to put your shirt, where to put your trousers, how to do your socks, and then have a shower and ready for the, line up outside the canteen in half and hour.

I did feel that panic, that stress level come but I was just totally focussed on not, well not being a dill, I suppose, not being the one who says "I can't do this", you know.

Life at Puckapunyal

I look back and it was good fun at Pucka, mostly, all sorts of, in our hut we had a fellow that killed two men in a brawl at Werribee and the judge had given him two years gaol or two years nasho and he was a tough man.

We had fellows who were married. It was the first time, being middle class, that I met a sort of person that I'd never met before. Totally amoral, just a different, for the country, just a different sort of person altogether and we were all in there together and when I look back, I find it amazing.

One of the skills that national service gave me was the ability to mix with people and to get on because you just had to, so it was ... and we had a lot of men from Western Australia and they all looked more grown up than me, they all looked bigger than me, they all looked, in my perception, they all looked more mature than me but, yeah, I was in the hut with men who were married and had kids.

A camp suicide

Then we went to artillery to North Head, which was another kettle of fish altogether, you know, we had waiters and white tablecloths and we were treated like, well, not like Pucka. On the first day, we were just taken off into four and put into a room, told to drop our bags on the bed and go for a run or I can't remember what we did.

But when we came, there were four of us, when we came back, I walked into my room and one lot of gear was missing, I didn't walk into, I walked to my room. And I looked in and one lot of gear on one of the beds was missing. And someone said, "What happened to this bloke?"

And they said, Oh, we found he had hung himself just before you blokes had got here". So we had to stay out of our room for a couple of hours while they sorted that out. And that was, we had no why, none of us knew who he was.

He just walked back or got back and hung himself on one of the beams in the room. So that was the first time that, you know, they were very clever, at least they kept us busy and didn't talk to us, they just didn't have time.

Choosing the artillery as a safe bet of survival

I was not posted to be artillery, I didn't know what to do and I said to dad, "What will I do?" And Dad said, "Well, you don't want to be a grunt and walk around and grovel in the mud and get shot at. But you don't want to be a clerk, get somewhere in the middle and do the artillery". After talking to dad, I said, "Right then, I’ll join artillery".

My father had a big influence on me. I didn't have any particular things about … I'd been reluctant, I suppose, about the infantry because I thought, "Oh no, can I do it?", you know, they're tough men and I had that whole image that I was not quite there. So I did the artillery, where you're up the front but you're not up the front. You get shot at but they don’t actually shoot at you, so it was a safe sort of bet between action and survival.

Support at home

At the end of artillery school everyone got posted and a group of us got posted to Wacol which was the reinforcement waiting area. So, it was obvious that if you were going to go there, that was for feeding in for replacements on a one or two basis to Vietnam. It was a holding thing.

I don't think Vietnam still registered. We still weren't meeting blokes who had come back from Vietnam. All our sergeants at Wakool hadn't been to Vietnam. So, it was there but it was still a vague, it was still unreal I suppose. I don't think it had dawned. When we went to Vietnam, we were hushed through and told to wear civvies and it became obvious it as a bit secret and they wanted us away. They didn't want us in army uniform when we stopped off in Singapore or somewhere or wherever we stopped.

So, then it properly started but I never detected anything. I can remember at that stage being home and being in a, went out to dinner with some relatives and I wasn't in uniform and a relative unbeknownst to me just stood up and said, "I'd like everybody in this restaurant to congratulate Patrick here. He's going to Vietnam in a couple of weeks and he deserves our support and everybody in the restaurant clapped. So, there was no, I hadn't come across any antagonism or that sort of thing.

First Impressions

Yeah. Big jet. Got in. We had to wear civilian clothes because at Singapore, something to do with being a neutral country and troops couldn't transit or something.

So, we flew, landed at Saigon. When we landed at Saigon we got into the trucks and drove to the American accommodation, that's when the whole thing, you know, the smell of the country, the smell of the … , the little …, American troops everywhere, military police everywhere, the exoticness of it. And I can remember flying into Saigon and looking out the window and seeing the hills below me and thinking "What's going on in those hills? What fighting's going on? What Americans are down there, trapped and being shot at?"

So, there was some awareness but not much. So that was the first thing just coming into Saigon, and being in a foreign city. I'd never been overseas before.

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

So obviously something had got into my head before and I can remember my clearest memory was of driving in a truck, land rover, rather, and walking past a row of houses and young men in black pyjamas but that was there, young men leaning in the doorway just glaring at us. Just staring at us with an intense hate and that was very upsetting, once again, thinking of what they would be doing at night whether they were sneaking around Nui Da that night.

Arriving at Nui Dat

I think we just stayed overnight at Saigon and then, and the other thing that occurred to me straightaway, I remember a Vietnamese woman would come in to clean our rooms at this American base and I was surprised straight away I thought what's a Vietnamese woman doing in the base?

Surely they can be … but, yes, we did, we flew and landed at Nui Dat, can't remember landing and then got taken around to 108 Battery. Well, it was a really busy, it was a really busy airport. The landing strip was busy. You had the American, the only really tin buildings that I can remember were the American PXs, all the rest was tents.

Dirt, dust, guns firing because the American second 35th Mobile tanks were next to us and guns, you always had the sound of guns firing in the background and blokes going around in vehicles with no shirts. Really, yeah, just dusty.

The difficulty of integrating as a reinforcement

Well that's one of the hardest things, I was welcomed as friendly on the gun but I never broke, I never got close to these blokes because they trained together they knew each other really well.

And while I was friendly with them, we’d go and have a beer at night, it was hard to have conversations as such, that I hadn't been there, so being a reinforcement, and that's one of the reasons why I didn't stay on because I thought I don't want to go through another batch of blokes coming in being together and, you know, that sort of thing but the first night they just put me into a big tent till they found a tent for me to go in and during the middle of the night the guns next door fired and I just thought we were being mortared and ran outside and wondered why nothing was going on.

So it was, no, so you were just, for the first time you’re just on your own as in you're not with a group of blokes where you're part of the unit. So the blokes were good. But all the positions, you see, gun layers, all those had been established. So I was, you know, just a gun number until I got sent over as part of the FA party.

Becoming part of the group

I became, I knew what I was doing around the gun and that gives you a reassurance knowing that, that when there's a fire mission you know exactly what to do, you know how to do it and even if it's just carrying the ammunition up to the gun loader, the round up to the gun loader, you do it quickly, you do it.

So you're aware of, even in that context, a set of, well it’s your place I suppose, you become comfortable in knowing how the whole place works, you know, going down and sitting in the, behind the machine gun for guard duty, you've done it before. You know what noises you can hear and all that sort of stuff. But I was never aware that I’d changed at all or become a different person.

It's a relief and a sense of strength in being part of a group, of being surrounded by blokes who, they know you, you know them and not judging you. There's no politics, there's no preciousness about anything. Your whole world and environment is just what is happening around you and there's a comfortableness, that's the part that's important.

Whereas before I didn't know that I didn't know them, didn't know the topic for conversation, couldn't necessarily relate to what they were doing. But once you fit into a group and fit comfortably into a group of people who support you. That's, I think, where that comes in.

Fear and Apprehension

For me, walking around on patrol, I loved. Loved going through the jungle, loved the walking, loved going across streams. Loved listening to the radio in the background and hearing what was going on and nothing ever occurred to me.

When we would have contact, apprehensive I would say more than anything else just wondering what's going to happen. I remember one day we had an initial contact, we bumped into a, but as the contact kept going, the gunfire stated to move around, so it was obvious they were trying to get around us.

So just that feeling of apprehension. I suppose another day when it dawned on me, a Vietnamese sniper had obviously figured out where we were going and he'd shot three forward scouts in a row. One bloke who had been hit and the bullet had hit something, his shovel or something, and it had gone into his skull and when you looked in you could see the bullet just sitting and the officer just wheeled around, and he couldn't pick me because I was part of the … party, and he just said "Here, you, just take us out" and I thought then what would I have done if he had wheeled around to me and said "Patrick you take us out". So, fear and apprehension but not specific, "What if I get hit in the head? What if I get hit in the stomach? What if I lose a …", just that fear and apprehension.

Sleepwalking

We had a few tense moments and one night I woke up and I was sitting out in the bush.

Not in a fox hole, pitch black, and I'd been sleepwalking, and I found myself out just sitting in the donga. And I was terrified. I thought, well, in the morning I'm going to get shot here.

I got back in and I didn't know what to do. I waited for the light to come, the sun and I listened very carefully and I heard the click of a radio and I found out where it was and I just got up and walked in and went back to my pit. But walking around doing, I was obviously starting to get a bit affected, so sleepwalking is not something that goes well with being out with the infantry.

Reflections on service

Firstly, we should never have been there. I firmly believe that. I think of the suffering that we inflicted on those people. One day, one night, you were always waiting for body counts, you know, that's the way things were and in the artillery we never really got any, that we had killed anyone, and one night we were told our gun, the one I was on, had killed 22 Viet Cong. Yes. Whoa. Then a couple of days later we found out they were all women. They were porters, carrying stuff.

So that affected everybody knowing that, everyone calmed down and it wasn't until I became a grand parent and got my own grand kids, it started to bother me. "How many of those women were pregnant? How many never had … ?" But that didn't come until later, but we should never have been there, but it was an exciting experience. It was a good experience. The fact that you had done something different. The heroics of it and the Anzac Day bit I don't relate to at all but just the fact that you had an experience that was different.

But, I still rang up a mate of mine, we were in the reinforcement thing together, and I haven't spoken to him for fifteen years and, he's a bit of a sad figure, but he didn't want to get off the phone, all he wanted to do was talk. I've got blokes who ring up, not many, but who ring me up regularly. So being part of that is important. But I love being involved with kids talking about, once again, you know, going out on Anzac Day and telling stories, not war stories, just stories.

But I get really upset that we haven't learnt from it, that we're still doing this incredible damage to people, to women and to wives and the suffering, how Vietnam, some of the blokes I know, it just destroyed their lives. They're just having a miserable time because of the whole … so mixed feelings. I wouldn't advocate national service. Overall, when I look back, there were some really good times.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Patrick O'Hara's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/patrick-oharas-story
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