Veteran recalls: 'Vietnam is still fresh in my mind'
IT IS difficult to believe it is 50 years since I was one of the fortunate ones who returned safely from the Vietnam War.
In some ways it seems like it was only the other day that I marched through the Sydney CBD with my unit, 5 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in May 1967 after returning on HMAS Sydney.
The good times which were few and far between are the most difficult to recall; the hard times like losing mates to mines on the Long Hai mountains and setting up a fire support base on an unlucky site called The Horseshoe come more readily to mind.
The recent Anzac Day was a special one for the many Vietnam War veterans who were National Servicemen.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first intakes of 20-year-olds finishing their two years' service as well as the return from Vietnam of the first Nashos to complete a 12-month tour of duty.
The first Nasho to die in Vietnam was Errol Noack, who was serving with 5 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, when he was killed on May 24, 1966.
From 1965 to 1972, 15,381 National Servicemen served in the Vietnam War, with 200 killed and 1279 wounded. A total of 521 Australians died in the war.
I was one of those called up in 1965. Initially I was in the first call-up in June but was deferred to the September intake.
In October 1966 I joined Errol's unit, 5 Battalion, as a "reinforcement" and was discharged in September 1967, still a member of the Tiger Battalion.
Earlier this year I returned to Vietnam for the first time. Many have been back, some more than once. Some live there. Probably just as many have not been back and do not want to.
When I last flew into Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat just over 50 years ago it was reputedly the busiest airport in the world. The city was officially Saigon and Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's leader, was the No.1 enemy.
Our Buffalo Tours driver and guide introduced us to the helter skelter of HCM City on our way to the historic Hotel Continental Saigon, established in 1880, claiming to be the first hotel in Vietnam.
Because the city was so much part of the war and with what I have read since, I feel like I have been here before. Maybe in spirit, but I did not go into the city on my last visit.
Even so, I was not prepared for the confronting exhibits in the War Remnants Museum - graphically displayed statistics and horrors of war. Outside American choppers and tanks are on show like souvenirs.
At the Presidential Palace where the two tanks that crashed through the gates symbolising victory on April 30, 1975 are on display, the newsreel plays in my head.
When we visit nearby Notre Dame Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office, two spectacular, famous classic examples of French architecture, it is something else that catches my eye. Nearby is an older and smaller building. I recognise the rooftop from media showing some of the last desperate, fleeing souls clambering on to a US helicopter the day before the city fell.
It was a CIA building.
We also admired the city views at night from the Rex Hotel rooftop bar, a wartime hang-out and scene of daily press briefings by American officials.
Next day we set off for Vung Tau. This was the port and logistics base for the Australian effort in the war and where I left from on HMAS Sydney 50 years ago.
Now there are resorts along the beach and oil wells offshore, symbols of a new industry.
On the way we visited Nui Dat, site of the Australian base for up to 5000 Diggers. Now the airstrip is a street with houses and a shop off to the side.
On top of the hill near the former airstrip nothing remains as cattle graze, but it is easy to imagine the concerts held in the natural amphitheatre not far from where the sites of the elite SAS tents and where the reinforcement unit was camped.
Our guide has an album with maps and photos from the era. A photo shows a Hercules landing on the strip back then with the Warburton Mountains (Nui Dinh Hills) in the background.
We drive by the area of rubber trees where the battalion camp was and onto Long Tan where a memorial marks the site of a famous battle involving our fellow Diggers of 6 Battalion in August 1966.
The guide gave a version of the battle which I did not hear − I knew the story myself.
Later memories stirred when we stopped a few kilometres from the Long Hais - mountains where many Australians were lost to mines, including some of my mates in B Company.
Beside what was once a track and is now a four-lane highway we stopped so I could see The Horseshoe - site of what has since been recognised as a strategic disaster and scene of several needless Aussie deaths.
A few years ago I put together an anthology with poems related to Vietnam, including one commemorating Frank Topp, a regular soldier killed at Long Tan who had been at the same school as me in Toowoomba: "In among the rubber and rain, Frank and his boys were caught. A long way from the land of his dreams, In the nightmare of Long Tan".
The book The Poet From Hell also included a poem about my battalion: "Sons of farmers, bankers, builders, teachers; Sons who'd farmed, banked, built and taught; Set out to reclaim a Vietnam province over-run ..."
A second anthology, Strength, Labour and Sorrow, marked my 70th birthday and included a Vietnam tribute which concluded: "Anzac reputation intact, They won their battle, Not theirs the war".
My third book was a change in genre, military aviation history, about three pilots − one each from the First World War, Second World War and Vietnam. The last one is about Coast resident Jim Campbell, who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, the first army pilot to receive the award since 1918.
I did not know him until a few years ago but was there on the ground when he committed the act that resulted in the award.
Our company had been hit by mines in the Long Hais and he flew a doctor into a suspected minefield.
My most recent book last year was another anthology which includes poems about a variety of subjects including Vietnam and a tribute to the Anzacs at Gallipoli: "No place for innocence, hills of terror, From ship to shore a bloody shambles. Stiff upper lip, strategic error, He crawls, he runs, then he scrambles..."
Now I am working on a memoir based on the Vietnam experience in my life, which I have been slogging away at for years.
The title I have at this stage is Dominoes and Marbles - a reference to the Domino Theory (of Communist expansion through Asia) that was used to justify in part the Vietnam War and to the marble method of selecting 20-year-old males for army national service based on birthdays.
Some went and some did not. My birthday was a winner in that lottery of life.