Australia and the Vietnam War

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Veterans: 'My Vietnam'

An 8RAR vehicle returns from an operation, 1970. [Image courtesy of Derek Walsh]

An 8RAR vehicle returns from an operation, 1970. [Image courtesy of Derek Walsh]

… it's just the smell of Vietnam and the smell stays with you for the whole time that you're there, until the time you leave.

[Gunner John Kinsela, 4RAR, Australians at War Film Archive No. 2454]

I lost all me skin off my feet, from what's it's name? Well we'd been in the rain for a fortnight and it hadn't stopped raining and we were out there and I said 'Oh I'm that itchy’. Took my shoes off and when I got back inside base, to my company headquarters outside in the bush, took my boots off, then pulled my socks off and all my skin came off right down, just come off both of them, my feet just peeled straight off, so I had to get heli, medevaced out back to Nui Dat so I could get around for a fortnight without any shoes and that on and get the skin back on.

[Lance Corporal Norman Cameron, 7RAR, in Australians at War Film Archive Interview no. 1710]

  • The first wash for days! Gunners of 102 Field Battery close to a fire support base, 1968. [Image courtesy of Richard Cranna]
  • Crew Commander Corporal ‘Shorty’ Atkins and his crew after hitting a mine on Route 2, near Fire Support Base Coola. There were no serious injuries but the starboard suspension unit was flung metres away from the tank. 1968. [Image courtesy of David Weigall]
  • Lum, a young local in his borrowed ‘Tanky’ beret, courtesy of 1st Armoured Regiment troops, 1968. [Image courtesy of David Weigall]
  • Overloaded!  An incident in the sandpit when 12 Field Regiment gunners overloaded their truck with sandbags. Note the young boy on the right milking the fuel tank while the gunners concentrate on the sandbags. 1968. [Image courtesy of Richard Cranna]
  • Lt John Jansen, 105 Field Battery during Operation Silver City, 1966. [Image courtesy of John Jansen]
  • ‘Yes, I know there’s a tree there – I just didn’t think I was going to hit the bloody thing’, 1968. [Image courtesy of Geoff Hansen]
  • Band members from the 1 RAR band served meritoriously as stretcher bearers during combat.  The band is led by Drum Major Jerry Bekendam. 1965. [Image courtesy of Neil Grant]
  • 102 Field Battery gunners decorate their own Christmas tree in the bush. Richard Cranna is in the centre of the photograph with his hands on his hips. [Image courtesy of Richard Cranna]
  • A friendly gesture to bring a little joy and Christmas spirit to the troops on patrol, 1970. [Image courtesy of Eric Watson]
  • Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) from 3 Cavalry Regiment deploy prior to an ambush on Route 2. Troops take advantage of the moment to shave and chat. 1970. [Image courtesy of Mick King]
  • ‘Have guns will travel’ [Image courtesy of Mick King]
  • ‘Mr Whippy’ at the US Bearcat Base, Bien Hoa, 1968.[Image courtesy of John Cooper]
  • Catering Corps Private Roger Herrod (and friend) attached to 17 Construction Squadron, 1968. Pet monkeys were not specifically allowed but many officers turned a blind eye to their presence.[Image courtesy of Roger Herrod]
  • The front of this US tank could be modified for mine-sweeping, 1970. [Image courtesy of Eric Watson]l
  • Morning curfew over, villagers move out to the paddy fields, 1969. [Image courtesy of Mos Hancock]

The creeping mank. It's just a skin rash we used to get in the bush from being wet all the time. It was just one of those tortuous things, like prickly heat and you used to get prickly heat too. But not taking your boots off for twelve to fourteen days your feet totally wet all the time that they get all shrivelled up and then you get manky and you get all sorts of reinfestations of tinea and God's knows what else. So a patrol really couldn't go any longer than that. On the grounds of body maintenance and your crutch was the same, you can imagine. If you didn't take your clothes off for fourteen days and you used to stink like a pole cat… the VC couldn't smell you…. They smelt worse than us. 'Cause they never took their clothes off sort of thing. But you know that was the way it was.

[SAS trooper, Mick Malone, in Australians at War Film Archive Interview no. 1710].

I said to the helicopter, "Can't you land?" He said, "No." He said, "I'm not sure what's underneath," so I had to jump out of the helicopter into the rice paddy and so actually when I got to the area where the contact had been, I was soaking wet and covered in faeces from the water buffalo and I felt most ill-prepared to do anything but I just went ahead and did it. There are other times where it was much more dangerous where I had to be winched in and I was actually quite frightened in those situations… There was one night winch-in where I was winched in at night through a tree canopy and I kept on hitting the trees and they'd have to pull the winch back up and then let me down again and the contact was still going on, some distance away, and that was quite worrying. Also I've got a fear of heights as well so that didn't help.

[Dr Anthony Williams, Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, 7RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, No. 2454]

The Hoa Long Dance, an elaborate trick played on ‘new chums’ who were invited to attend the dance on their first Saturday night in Vietnam. Told to dress in civvies and to be outside the orderly room for the truck at 5.30 pm, they were watched by the ‘old chums’ as they waited and waited… [Images courtesy of Tony Schick and Darryl Horner]

To be a national servicemen you're a 'reo' [reinforcement], what a lot of people don't realise is that you get units that train in Australia, they might do one, two, three years training together as a unit, they do all the jungle training, they do everything together, they work as a team… A reinforcement is somebody that comes in like a reserve that comes in that nobody knows and that was a bit of a culture shock too. Landing in Vietnam and then being taken out to the Horseshoe and put with all these strange guys that I'd never even met before.

[Gunner John Kinsela, 4RAR, Australians at War Film Archive No. 2454]

You patrol for a while, you stop, have breakfast, patrol, patrol, patrol, have lunch. Patrol, patrol, walk, walk, walk, ah evening meals. Beautiful. Then you all head towards a night defensive position… the next morning up we get again, stand-to, pack up ‘the house’, patrol, patrol, patrol, simple. And we do the same shit all over again. Unless of course the shit hits the fan somewhere in between. Then things get a little bit different. Priorities are somewhat different then… And then when that shit’s all over, saddle up, move out, patrol, patrol, patrol. All over again and that’s the way it was, mate. It was just never-ending.

[Anthony Hughes, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 pp 12-13 (drawing on interview no 2093 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]

We put some new windmills in and the colonel of our unit, he was very proud of this. There was a well dug and a Southern Cross windmill put up and the next day there was a big opening and back he came. There was a bit of wind blowing and they released the hold on the windmill and around went the wheel and up and down went the rods and out came the water. He put his mug under and drank a mug full of water to show them how great it was. That afternoon he was in hospital with the worst stomach bug you’ve ever seen. They found that some somebody overnight had emptied the toilet bucket down the well.

[Edward Schunemann, 1ACAU quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 346 (drawing on interview no 1399 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]

You get to Vietnam. You’re in the middle of a war zone. This absolute rush the whole time. The absolute pinnacle of life. When you come off that peak, everything’s downhill, you’ll never get back there. It’s there, you’ve done it, but for the rest of your life you’re trying to find it again. And I was told that the reason I first went back to Vietnam was that I was going back to try and rediscover what I’d lost there. I believe that. No. I left part of me in Vietnam, I left my youth, I left my innocence.

[Tony Ey, CDT3, drawing on an interview by the author and quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 468]