Vietnam vet shares memories of good times and bad

As we approach another Anzac Day my thoughts are cast back to when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s as a young boy going in to the city all dressed up in my best clothes to stand on George Street near the Town Hall to watch men and women march down the street, not fully understanding the sacrifices they had made and the carnage that they had gone through in the name of freedom.

As a youngster it was more about waving the flag and cheering them as they went past. It was not until I got older that I realised just how terrible their war experiences were.

Little did I know when I was growing up that one day I would be marching down George Street on Anzac Day in Sydney. Vietnam saw me play out a period of my life as a National Serviceman from 1968 to 1970, 12 months of it spent in Vietnam at Nui Dat Base in Phouc Tuoy Province.

To most people at home the war in Vietnam was all about combat units as seen on TV. This war was very different as it was the first time war was shown on TV - while people were sitting down having their evening meal.

But it wasn’t just combat units in the war. There were also support units. The unit I was with was a RAEME Unit attached to 1 Field Squadron, the largest engineering unit in Vietnam. We were not always out on operations as we supported the combat units’ operations.

The base people were referred to as “POGOs” and they played a major role in what was going on in the day to day operations of the Base. The squadron workshop I was assigned to was responsible for keeping the engineers’ plant and equipment going. This involved earthmoving, mine clearing and general vehicles and equipment.  We also had to support 9RAR and do overnight patrols. 

In the afternoon we tried to relax and unwind. We had access to the engineers’ pub, and the beer was 10c a can. This was a way of getting back to some normality after the events of the day. 

After the evening “meal” the blokes would wander back to their tent line and either write letters home or make tape recordings whilst listening to the music being played on our reel to reel tape recorders, such as the Animals (We Gotta get Out of this Place), Deep Purple, Whiter Shade of Pale and all the late 60s favourites. There were no mobile phones or Facebook then. 

 In typical Australian spirit there were larrikins that tried to make light of the problems that we were all going through. Whilst listening to music one night I said to my mates “why don’t we get some after-hour drinks from the American PX?”  

There was bourbon, gin, whisky etc  for $2 a quart bottle. We also had access to blocks of ice. It was all very illegal to even contemplate drinking in the lines. We said “who cares, the water is crap, we can’t drink that!”. So a kitty was started and the Bunker Bar was born. The music got better in the early hours of the morning and much to our CO’s discomfort he could never catch us in the act. He was too military-orientated for our liking - we were more like the MASH unit on TV. Our helmets were used as ice buckets in the bar.

In the course of all this we got on with the job and did it well, working through the night on many occasions to get the mine-clearing armoured personnel carriers back up and running after being destroyed by mines during the the day. The same happened with bulldozers and other equipment.

A lot of the time we were plagued with wet weather, working in a workshop yard full of water. One day we were having an inspection of the workshops and I decided to cut some rubber fins and set them in the water in the workshop with the sign “Beware of the Sharks”. This brought about some chuckles from the inspecting gentlemen.  

The only way through the Vietnam ordeal was to know that tomorrow was another day and one day closer to going home. On top of this we were being sprayed on a continual basis day by day by planes laden with chemical cocktails. The medical conditions and illnesses suffered by Vietnam veterans is across the whole spectrum of those who went, be it PTSD, cancers and other life-affecting medical issues.

When you were lucky enough to have days off, we would go to Vung Tau for a break or visit Ba Ria to do some shopping and then going to the orphanage to help there, playing with the kids or doing repairs on buildings.  

As it happened the week I was due to leave Vietnam and head for home was also Melbourne Cup week, so I helped organise a sweep. At the time the ABC were filming a documentary and filmed the event. 

It was difficult coming home to your friends and family to settle back to the life you had before. It was so different, and hard for them to understand. In 1978 I started a movement with my wife questioning our involvement in Vietnam and what the troops were subject to as opposed to other conflicts. It attracted huge controversy from the Australian and US Governments and chemical companies.

This was to become the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, of which I was the national and state secretary and it was the start of the counselling service as we know it today. We had no government funding and initially my wife and I funded it and ran it from our home.

There is always another side to war. Sometimes it is not easy to live with but the reality of it all opens your eyes to a different life.