Rest and recreation in Sydney during Vietnam War

 

United States (US) service personnel serving in the Vietnam War were entitled to 7 days rest and recreation leave (R&R) after a year's tour of duty in Vietnam. R&R could be spent in one of several countries outside Vietnam. Most destinations were in Asia, but Sydney was also a popular choice for a few years.

Almost 300,000 Americans and 18,000 Australians spent their R&R in Sydney, and the scheme contributed $80 million to Australia's economy.

R&R during the Vietnam War

Despite the horrors of war, flights out of Vietnam were joyous, the happiest places in the Pacific; GIs often broke into applause on takeoff. Likewise, returning flights were somber.

[Sarah Rose, 'Flight Status', Washington Post Magazine, 13 May 2020]

Most US soldiers served at least 12 months in Vietnam. During their tour of duty, they were entitled to a period of R&R leave. The goal of R&R was to boost morale by giving soldiers a break from the war zone.

In the early part of the war, US service personnel had the choice of several Asian locations, including:

  • Bangkok
  • Hong Kong
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Singapore
  • Taiwan
  • Tokyo.

Hawaii was another popular option for R&R leave. Many US soldiers chose Hawaii because it was closer to the mainland, allowing them to meet family and friends there.

Australia was added to the list of R&R options in 1967 and soon became a popular destination.

R&R in Sydney

When the US Government asked that Sydney be added to the R&R leave list in July 1967, the Australian Government agreed.

Australia had a close relationship with the US that went back to World War II. There were also economic benefits for Australia. By the time the scheme ended 4 years later, it had contributed some $80 million to the Australian economy.

Australia had supported the US and former Republic of Vietnam in the war since 1962. But by 1967, there were concerns about how the public might respond to the presence of large numbers of US servicemen on leave from an increasingly unpopular war. Among the issues raised at the time:

  • Would there be racial discrimination against visiting African Americans?
  • Would there be a wave of sexually transmitted disease?
  • What sort of impact would thousands of soldiers, fresh from a war zone, have on Sydney?

US service personnel started arriving in Sydney for R&R leave in October 1967.

Arrival of the first contingent

The New York Times newspaper reported the arrival of the first contingent of service people, looking forward to enjoying a week's leave in Sydney. Passengers on the chartered Pan American flight included sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines, as well as 2 women from the Women's Army Corps and 25 Australian soldiers on leave.

The plane's arrival was a notable event in Sydney. On hand to greet them were a Navy band and an official delegation that included:

  • Edward Clark, Australia's Ambassador to the US
  • Malcolm Fraser, Minister for the Army
  • Eric Willis, NSW Tourism Minister
  • Keith Yorston, president of the Australian American Association.

The visiting Americans were taken to Sydney's Chevron Hotel, in the heart of the city's Kings Cross. Before their leave officially started, they were warned about:

  • carrying weapons, which could earn a jail term of 3 years and a fine of $800
  • staying out of trouble or risk leaving at their own expense
  • being approached by possible Communist agents
  • saying too much about Vietnam
  • using drugs
  • drinking too much alcohol.

As recounted by briefing officer, Captain John McCloskey, about the strength of Australian beer:

If you can wrap yourself around 20 American beers you'll do well to manage a dozen here and still maintain equilibrium.

[Captain John McCloskey, quoted in 'Sydney Greets U.S. Servicemen From Vietnam; 137 Arrive in New Program of Rest and Recreation in Australian Centers', New York Times, 6 October 1967, p 5]

Sydney in the 1960s

A line of 11 men with short hair and civilian clothing in front of 2 shopfronts, a souvenir store with the sign 'Boomerang Cruises' and a cafe with a sign  'The Plantation American pancake & coffee shop'

R&R Servicemen, Kings Cross 1970-71. Photographed by Rennie Ellis during the final 6 months of the R&R scheme in 1970–71. Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

The Vietnam era was not the first time US armed forces personnel visited Kings Cross. In World War II, thousands of them arrived in Sydney from the war in the Pacific. They came ready with money to spend at Kings Cross' cafes and clubs.

Kings Cross was a multicultural and fashionable place in the 1960s and early 1970s. There was a vibrant nightlife that continued into the early morning hours. US troops could visit:

  • bars, cafes and restaurants
  • movie cinemas and theatres
  • strip clubs and brothels.

The luxurious, 36-storey Chevron Hotel, where many of the first contingent of visiting service personnel were based, had its own nightclub. This was a renowned venue. It featured many international stars like The Beach Boys, Shirley Bassey, Rolling Stones and the BeeGees. Australia's TV Logie Awards had been held there since 1961. For young Americans, this would have been a glamorous and exciting place to visit.

Meeting the locals

Daytime activities were enjoyable too. US troops visited Sydney's iconic beaches and surrounding rural and regional NSW. Hospitality events were organised by the Country Women's Association (CWA) and the Australian American Association.

Many Australians regarded US servicemen on R&R with sympathy. They were young, a long way from home and engaged in a war in which many were reluctant participants.

Most people believed the Americans should be allowed to enjoy their leave, regardless of what many individual Australians felt about the war. Sydney families often welcomed visiting soldiers into their homes. Some extended their sympathies further by hiding US Army deserters and keeping their whereabouts secret from authorities.

For visiting service personnel, Sydney was the 'next best thing to being home', said John Podlaski, who served as an infantry soldier in the Wolfhounds of the 25th Division and the Geronimos of the 101st Airborne Division.

A group of 11 women of various ages wearing dresses and holding wineglasses pose for a photograph.

Former members of the Country Women’s Association (CWA) who worked as volunteers at the United States (US) Rest and Recreation Centre in Sydney during the Vietnam War. Outside of military contacts, these women would have been among the first Australians encountered by many US servicemen during their week of rest and recreation. Identified, from left to right: Lorraine Hawkins, Jean Hunter, Suzette Hawkins, Hilda Dunleavy, Helma Bate, Peg Palmer, unidentified, unidentified, Myrtle Wood (standing slightly back), unidentified, unidentified. AWM P03220.001

End of R&R in Sydney

The US and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War was ending by the early 1970s.

On 31 December 1971, the last R&R flight from Vietnam landed at Sydney Airport. On board were 154 US soldiers who were taking their leave in Australia.

When the program ended, and the US R&R Leave Centre closed, the City of Sydney hosted an official closing ceremony at at the Sydney Town Hall on 21 January 1972.

R&R leave for Australian personnel

Australian armed services personnel were also entitled to rest and recreation (R&R) and rest and convalescence (R&C) leave in Vietnam. R&R out of country allowed overseas travel, often to other Asian countries. Some men, usually those married with families, went back to Australia. However, most stayed closer to the war zone because it seemed too difficult to farewell their loved ones all over again when returning to the war. Read some of the Australians' reflections on R&R.

3 men in swimmers stand on the beach in front of large surfboards
Three Australian servicemen pose with their boards at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, in 1968. While the tropical waters must have been inviting, the small waves might have left these surfers disappointed. AWM P11687.039

Sources

1967 'Sydney greets U.S. servicemen from Vietnam', New York Times, 6 October, p 5, accessed 31 March 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/1967/10/06/archives/sydney-greets-us-servicemen-from-vietnam-137-arrive-in-new-program.html

1971 'Last R-and-R', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 31 December, p 3, viewed 31 March 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110697753

1972 'R and R centre in Sydney closes', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 22 January, p 7, accessed 31 March 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article101753880

Boon, Jason (2020), 'Potts Point icon: The Chevron Hotel's Silver Spade room', 30 January 2020, https://jasonboon.com.au/local-landmarks/the-chevron-hotels-silver-spade-room/, accessed 30 March 2022.

Cochran Studios (c. 1960), Poster for the Chevron Hotel, Sydney, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, object no. 2012/99/1, accessed 30 March 2022, https://ma.as/435253

Dictionary of Sydney (2011), 'Kings Cross', accessed 31 March 2022, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/kings_cross

Fahey, Warren (2021), 'Kings Bloody Cross: Sydney stories with Warren Fahey', National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, accessed 31 March 2022, https://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/kings-bloody-cross-sydney-stories-warren-fahey.

Podlaski, John (2011), 'When in Vietnam, where did you go on R&R?', Cherries Writer Vietnam War blog, accessed 30 March 2022, https://cherrieswriter.com/2011/05/07/when-in-vietnam-where-did-you-go-on-rr/

Rose, Sarah (2020), 'Flight status', The Washington Post Magazine, 13 May, accessed 30 March 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/05/13/during-vietnam-war-women-who-served-special-pan-am-flights-flew-into-war-zone-transport-soldiers-why-has-their-role-been-forgotten/.


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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Rest and recreation in Sydney during Vietnam War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 22 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/all-way-lbj/rest-and-recreation-sydney-r-and-r
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