Australia and the Vietnam War

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Aftermath

Veterans

Going home. Luggage on the tarmac at Vung Tau, 1971. [Image courtesy of Leon Pavich]

Going home. Luggage on the tarmac at Vung Tau, 1971. [Image courtesy of Leon Pavich]

Anecdotal evidence holds that most men returned from Vietnam in the dead of night, hidden from the public. In fact, large numbers actually returned on HMAS Sydney, to a welcome by dignitaries and a parade. The manner of their homecoming affected the way in which veterans recovered from the war, those who did arrive late at night to no fanfare and the seeming indifference of the military had more trouble adjusting to life at home than did those whose return was more public and who had had the benefit of a couple of weeks unwinding on board Sydney before reaching Australia.

But the return home was only the beginning of a long period of readjustment. For a long time after the war large numbers of Vietnam veterans felt that many in Australia blamed them, rather than politicians, for the war and the way it had been conducted. Images of the war, many still familiar, of children burned by napalm, of the dead of My Lai, of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a member of the Viet Cong in the streets of Saigon, had an effect on public opinion and public understanding. The fact that these images related more to the American/Vietnamese experience in Vietnam was less remarked upon. People associated the role of Australians in the war with that of the Americans in a way that failed to recognise the two countries’ different approaches to fighting in Vietnam.

  • Preparing to head for home! 3RAR troops on the deck of the Vung Tau ferry, c. November 1968. [Image courtesy of David Limpus] I found when we had our reunion that I checked around the dozen of my soldiers from my first tour that were around the table, all of them had disabilities. One of them, eighty per cent disability pension… and all of the others were totally and permanently incapacitated. I think in a very large part that's because of the way we were treated when we got back from Vietnam and the difficulty we had being able to relate our experiences to others and our families [Lieutenant Bill Hindson, MC, 1RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No 2557]
  • Private (Pte) Brian McKenzie, 3RAR (left) who later became a long-serving National President of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, returning to Australia on HMAS Sydney, c. November 1968. [Image courtesy of Rex Marsh]
  • Private Graham Edwards, of WA, Assault Pioneer Platoon, 7RAR, holding a self-loading rifle during a training exercise in Australia. On 12 May 1970, during a patrol between Tam Phuoc and Long My, Edwards and two others were severely wounded by an M16 mine dug up from an Australian field and re-laid by the Viet Cong. Both his legs had to be amputated. When he returned to civilian life, Edwards moved into public affairs and politics. After 14 years in WA’s state parliament, he was elected to the House of Representatives in the federal seat of Cowan. Edwards has held ministerial appointments and served on parliamentary committees. He has always maintained a keen interest in defence, the welfare of veterans and disability services. c. 1969. [P04724.001]
  • ‘Image for a dead man’ Ray Beattie, 1980. [Synthetic polymer paint, collage on canvas 218.5 x 145 cm, AWM ART40885] Neatly folded on a simple wooden chair is the red ensign of the Australian Merchant Marine. Above it, hanging from the backrest, is a pair of dog tags. The jacket, slung over the chair awaiting its owner’s return, boasts the infantry combat badge and three medals for service in South Vietnam. On its shoulder rests a slouch hat angled as if the wearer’s head is bowed, its badge pointing to the service medals on the jacket. The artist, Ray Beattie, served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, the clothing and medals in the painting are his (including the mistakenly issued second South Vietnam service medal). His father sailed under the flag during the Second World War. Image for a dead man evokes Beattie’s feeling of losing a small part of himself whenever he heard of a fellow soldier’s death in Vietnam.

Some veterans recall being abused as baby killers, rapists and murderers on their return. For men who regarded themselves as generally having fought with more humanity and professionalism than their American counterparts, this was a bitter blow. Veterans who had lost friends in combat, who had seen death and who had killed, as is the lot of soldiers in war, were appalled at the way in which their having done the job asked of them by their government was, in some cases, used against them.

Even the RSL proved less than welcoming. Remarks by returned soldiers from earlier conflicts suggesting that Vietnam was not a real war hurt men seeking the comradeship and understanding of fellow veterans. This experience was not universal – rural RSL clubs in particular did welcome men returned from Vietnam – but it happened often enough for some veterans to harbour a life-long resentment of an organisation from which they expected much more.

In 1980 some veterans formed the Vietnam Veterans’ Action Association which later became the Vietnam Veterans’ Association of Australia (VVAA). Established partly as a crisis counselling service and as a vehicle through which to prosecute a case for veterans claiming to suffer from the effects of herbicides and defoliants used in Vietnam, the VVAA has played an important role in the lives of some veterans. Its membership has been cited at somewhere between 5,000 – 7,000 out of some 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam.

Veterans

  • American Vietnam veterans in La Trobe Street, Melbourne, during the 1988 Vietnam Veterans International Reunion. On Saturday 15 October 1988 veterans attended a dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance before marching through the city. Photographer Elizabeth Gilliam was commissioned by the State Library of Victoria to document the reunion. [State Library of Victoria H92.260.11. Photograph reproduced with the permission of Elizabeth Gilliam]
  • Vietnam veterans, flanked by their wives and children, march through Melbourne on 15 October 1988. Staged as part of the 1988 Vietnam Veterans International Reunion, the march was part of a larger program of events that included a civic reception, a presentation of keys to the city and a special reunion for Vietnamese veterans of the war. [State Library of Victoria H92.260.12. Photograph reproduced with the permission of Elizabeth Gilliam]
  • Members of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club bear flags at Melbourne’s 1993 Anzac Day ceremony. Veterans’ motorcycle clubs were formed around Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, often claiming the cult film Stone as their inspiration. Feeling shunned by a society that ultimately turned against the war in which they fought, perhaps enjoying the ‘outlaw’ tag often associated with bikers, or simply seeking the fellowship of other veterans who shared their love of motorcycles, former soldiers quickly filled the ranks of the new clubs. In this photograph at least one returned man from an earlier war appears slightly bemused by the sight of these rough looking men, veterans from a different generation. Their appearance, however, belies the fact that the clubs of which they are members are known for undertaking community and charitable work. 
[State Library of Victoria H94.167/5. Photograph reproduced with the permission of Janet Hawkins]

By 1987 attitudes to the war had changed: Vietnam veterans were given a welcome home parade in Sydney. Some 25,000 veterans marched to the cheers of several hundred thousand onlookers. Five years later, in 1992, a National Memorial for the Vietnam War was unveiled on Canberra’s Anzac Parade. These gestures meant a great deal to veterans and they signalled an acceptance of Vietnam veterans that some who returned from that war had not felt before.

In the early 1990s veterans began making pilgrimages to Vietnam. For many it was a time to pay respects to friends who had been killed in the war, for others a chance to meet the former enemy and make their peace, or simply make gestures of friendship with men and women who shared a common experience and for whom there was no ill-will.

The many stories of disturbed veterans, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and continuing to suffer from their time in Vietnam suggest that this was almost a universal experience. It wasn’t. Many Vietnam veterans simply returned to Australia and settled back into the routines and habits of civilian life. For every veteran who remains haunted by the experience of Vietnam there are others who have left it behind. Many who served in Vietnam have gone on to achieve success in the military, in politics, in business or in charitable work. No one story is typical, but the widespread perception of veterans being abused and ostracised, while true for some, was not the case for all.


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View video of Interview 4 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585.

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View video of Interview 5 Second Lieutenant David Sabben 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2585

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View video of Interview Trooper Michael Malone, SAS, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2087