Australia and the Vietnam War

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Phuoc Tuy Province

Civilian Aid

Distributing gifts at Binh Ba, Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam, Bruce Fletcher 1967. [Oil on canvas on hardboard, 60.9 cm x 76.6 cm. AWM ART40579]

Distributing gifts at Binh Ba, Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam, Bruce Fletcher 1967. [Oil on canvas on hardboard, 60.9 cm x 76.6 cm. AWM ART40579]

United States and Australian forces in Vietnam sought victory against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army on the battlefield, but also through engagement with local people. Known by the term ‘winning hearts and minds’, this approach involved earning the support of the people upon whom the Viet Cong in particular depended for sustenance and shelter. However, popular support for the South Vietnamese Government, meant to be a rallying point for those opposed to communism, was very low. Few South Vietnamese gave their loyalty to a corrupt and incompetent regime whose military forces had proved unable to defend them. The task of winning hearts and minds was therefore a difficult one.

Civil action, involving medical and dental aid, construction work and agricultural assistance, was first conducted by a small team within the Australian task force and, by mid-1967, by a Civil Affairs Unit. In the early days in particular, while the task force base was still being established and the area around it cleared of both civilians and the Viet Cong whom the civilians were suspected of supporting, operations took precedence over civil assistance to the local population. Nevertheless, by late 1966 civic action was gaining a degree of momentum and some Australian units were formally identified with the Vietnamese villages in which they would undertake projects.

Civil Affairs Unit Members Private Graham Hehir (right) and Private Dan Amos repair a village windmill north of Nui Dat, to the delight of the local children, 1971. [Image courtesy of Dan Amos].

Early projects involved practical measures, such as the distribution of medical and dental aid. Vietnamese villagers were consulted about the type of projects that the people wanted and were assured that the Australians were there to help them. The fact that the task Force base was located in the middle of Phuoc Tuy Province also gave villagers a sense that the presence was, if not permanent, then at least long term thus lending a sense of security to the civic action projects.

While highlighting the fact that the Australian presence in Phuoc Tuy could be a positive for the province’s inhabitants, credit for civic action was also intended to flow to the South Vietnamese Government. However, any kudos gained was invariably directed at those who carried out the work, Australian soldiers. While this may have earned the Australians a degree of goodwill, it did little to boost support for a government whose representatives were rarely seen and which contributed little to the welfare of its people.

'Australian Aid'

  • Winning hearts and minds’ (WHAM). This pennant was used by the Australian Task Force when it assumed tactical responsibility for civil affairs, military civic action and psychological operations in specified areas of Phuoc Tuy Province in 1966. [AWM REL/02091] The Australians needed to demonstrate their commitment to assisting the local population. Major John J Donohoe, civil affairs and psychological operations staff officer, HQ 1ATF, had, during the early days, to ‘beg and borrow’ six soldiers from various ATF units. It was not until a year later in June 1967, that personnel were actually posted to both an established Civil Affairs Unit and to the psychological operations section of 1 ATF. The pennant, in the colours of the South Vietnamese flag, was to alert both South Vietnamese and Australians to the Civil Affairs program. However, after just three months, the pennant had to be removed from Donohoe’s car when it made him an enemy target.
  • As part of the civic action program, Staff Sergeant Ernie Ross from NSW treats a Vietnamese child with a skin infection at Vo Xu village, in Binh Tuy Province. The village was the target of a 1RAR search and destroy operation in November 1965 during which more than 160 Viet Cong suspects were discovered among more than 400 detainees. [AWM SHA/65/0334/VN]
  • Members of 1ATF deliver food to a local village during the early stages of the Australians' civic action program, 1966. [NAA: A1200, L58617]
  • Corporal Keith Bosley, No. 35 Squadron RAAF, ties in a load of four cows bound for Nha Trang. No 35 Squadron, RAAF, Caribou Aircraft, known throughout Vietnam as Wallaby Airlines, carried a variety of freight around Vietnam. [AWM VN/66/103/01] In 1962, under the auspices of the Australian aid program known as the Colombo Plan, the Australian Government provided cows for a dairy farm at Ben Cat in Bien Hoa Province. Warrant Officer Joe Vezgoff, Australian Army Training Team (AATTV), accompanied Mr Brian Hill, the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, when he opened the new farm. On touching down at Ben Cat we were met by 20 or so Vietnamese Government officials and an equal number of white-coated animal attendants. In the background, looking forlorn were the real VIPs of the day – the jersey cows, much out of place in a land of paddy field and oppressive heat. … the sight of Meals on Legs must have caused much salivation for members of the Viet Cong division in the area. Cooks would have begun sharpening their knives and readying their cooking pots for action. … Needless to say, over the next months, gradually the jersey cows mysteriously disappeared, whilst the smell of cooking meat also pervaded the air...   [Warrant Officer Joe Vezgoff in The Men Who Persevered by Bruce Davies and Gary McKay, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2005, p. 26]
  • The RAAF Principal Air Chaplain, Air Commodore Smith, joined one of the RAAF's voluntary medical civic affairs visits to a Vietnamese village outside Vung Tau during his visit to the RAAF Component in Vietnam, October 1966. [AWM VN/66/0084/01].
  • A new Southern Cross windmill and storage tank in a new market place in Ngai Giao village, the site of cordon and searches by 5 RAR and 6 RAR.  The market place, worth $9,000, together with a water supply, was provided for the village by the Australian Government's civil aid program. The banner reads, 'Le Kanh Thanh May Bum Nuoc, Ap La Van Xa Ngai Giao,' October 1968. [AWM EKN/68/0138/VN] We – that's not to say we didn't make mistakes. One of the mistakes that we made, the windmills. There were fourteen windmills erected in all, and they were very successful at the time. But we didn't tell the Vietnamese how to maintain them. And they very, very quickly fell into disrepair and there isn't one left now that there wasn't – virtually, as I understand it from the end of the war in '75 – there wasn't sort of one that's been working since then either. And that was a real shame because the water reticulation system, the windmills were good value I thought, for the people – gave them much easier access to water than, the old well system. But we should have been training them in maintenance at the same time as we were erecting it. That's one lesson that we learned. [Lieutenant Barry Smith, Civil Affairs Officer, 1ATF, Australians at War Film Archive No: 2144]
  • Red Cross Representative Carole Talty (nee Fitzpatrick) with Mother Superior and children of the An Phong Orphanage, Vung Tau, 1969. [Image courtesy of Carole Talty]
  • Corporal (Cpl) Jim Mottram of SA, a medical assistant with the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, dresses a patient's leg at An Nhut village, near Dat Do, 1969. [AWM BEL/69/0532/VN]
  • Civil Affairs Officer Lieutenant Barry Smith of NSW supervises the distribution of soap to local villagers under the Operation New Life scheme, an operation for the rehabilitation and assistance of Vietnamese civilians in Phuoc Tuy Province. It was sponsored by the Returned Services League (RSL). March 1970. [AWM FAI/70/0121/VN]
  • Sister Maureen Spicer, a member of the Australian Civilian Surgical/Medical Team from the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, spent four months at the Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital in 1966. The team was dispatched to Vietnam under the auspices of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) to work in the under-resourced civilian hospital. The team of six doctors, five nurses and a radiographer were all volunteers who worked seven days a week in appalling conditions. Constant shortages forced them to scrounge, beg and ‘borrow’ drugs from the American military hospitals and airbase at Bien Hoa. [AWM P03122.001]
  • A leaflet produced by the 1st Psychological Operations Unit, September 16 1970. The leaflet targets Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army personnel with families in South Vietnam to induce them to rally to the South Vietnamese Government. The leaflets were dropped by air as part of the psychological warfare program. The English translation of the leaflet reads:

 Friends in the Communist Ranks:
- You have been misguided by the Communist doctrines.
- You are living a lonely life at secret bases along the border areas.
- You have seen the Communist duplicity and ruthlessness deceive you into committing crimes of death and destruction to innocent compatriots.

We, the members of the PSDF, are ready to help and welcome you back to the national fold with clemency from the government.
We, the members of the PSDF, stretch out our arms and welcome your return to the people of the anti-communist civilian ranks.
We, the members of the PSDF, volunteer to serve as the bridge of understanding to help you rejoin your families and loved ones just as soon as possible.

Together we will reconstruct our country in peace and prosperity. [AWMRC02925]
  • Lieutenant Terrie Roche, Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps, of NSW, with ‘Rabbit’, the young mascot of the Civic Action Team at Hoa Long, June 1967. [AWM GIL/67/0482/VN]
  • ‘VC Bandits’: A leaflet produced by 1 Psychological Operations Unit at Nui Dat, 23 November 1970. The unit played an important role in the battle to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese people. The leaflet, designed to induce the civil population to give information about VC activities and to discredit Communist taxation activities was disseminated by hand. 
The English translation reads:
What have the Communists done for you?
They have caused sorrow, destroyed homes and killed people by their senseless rocketing and fighting.
They are doing nothing to help the progress of the country.
They take illegal taxes that they use for themselves. They do not use taxes to build roads, schools and other things for the people.
Help the GVN to rid of these bandits. Give any information about the communists that you know to the GVN officials. You will be rewarded and your name will be kept absolutely secret. [AWM 304/288]
  • Australian troops distributing aid to civilians on the morning after the Battle of Binh Ba. [Image courtesy of Mos Hancock] In June 1969, the supposedly pacified village was overrun by Viet Cong. Fighting to expel them from Binh Ba lasted for two days, after which the Task Force Civil Affairs unit arrived to help resettle the homeless villagers.
  • A leaflet produced by the 1st Psychological Operations Unit on 26 February 1971. The leaflet was meant to demoralise Viet Cong and NVA troops and was handed out by members of the Special Air Service (SAS).  The English translation of the front of the document reads:
Your camp has been discovered: You are no longer safe. Fill out the spaces on the back of this notice and keep it with you.  When we find your body we will use it to give you a proper burial. The back of the document, pictured here: Full name: Rank: Religion: Next of Kin: Date of Birth: Unit:  [AWM RC02095]

The South Vietnamese Government did, however provide its own civic action activities, known as the Revolutionary Development programme, funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Under the programme, teams would assist villagers in public works while also ensuring that Viet Cong infrastructure was removed. Most of the Revolutionary Development programme’s activities were carried out before the Australian civic action projects were fully developed and a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam who reported on its activities noted that the Revolutionary Development Teams were received with limited enthusiasm. Some programmes, however, were highly regarded, mostly those relating to infant care such as midwifery and baby and child-care.


Captain ‘Algy’ Bruzga of NSW, Headquarters, 1ATF, and a Vietnamese interpreter prepare a tape-recorded message to be broadcast to the Viet Cong. The message was broadcast from a helicopter and tells Viet Cong troops that they can obtain meals and medical attention if they surrender. The jeep was also used for psychological warfare ‘psywar’ broadcasts. [AWM COM/69/0237/VN]

By the latter years of the war some substantial projects were being carried out around Phuoc Tuy province. In 1969 renovations were carried out at Ba Ria Hospital and the following year the Civil Affairs Unit constructed a school in the village of Bau Pram. Work on improving other schools in the province went ahead throughout the life of the program. Windmills, made in Australia, were installed in villages and hamlets across Phuoc Tuy Province. Houses were built for South Vietnamese soldiers and their families, and agricultural projects were also carried out. Australia’s 17th Construction Squadron also became involved in training Vietnamese apprentices and Australian civilian agencies also contributed to development in South Vietnam through the donation of cash and materials.

Civil action, based on good intentions and having resulted in the provision of some effective projects contributed to gaining the support of people in Phuoc Tuy Province. But these activities were also compromised by the reality of operations, misunderstanding of the local culture and people and their needs, and the crucial fact that the South Vietnamese Government was too deeply unpopular for programs of this type to ever result in it gaining widespread support. However dedicated to the task the Australians may have been, the obstacles to success during a bloody guerrilla war were ultimately too great to overcome and the withdrawal of Australian forces in 1972 meant the end of such projects.

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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View The 173rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters Situation Report (Sitrep) for 141800–151800H December 1965 provides a summary of Operation New Life as well as US Civic Action activities on the 14th and 15th of that month. [AWM 273/14].

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View The Australian Force Vietnam Monthly report for July 1966 details the civic action undertaken by Task Force members that month. [AWM 98/R723-1-13 part 1]

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View The raising instructions (pp 10–11) for the First Australian Civic Affairs Unit (ACAU) were issued from Army Headquarters in Canberra on 10 March 1967. The entire document can be viewed on the Australian War Memorial website at AWM 95/17/1/1.

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View The syllabus for the 1 Australian Civic Affairs Unit (ACAU) Orientation Course as it appears in the 1 ACAU Narrative Annexes, 10 April – 31 May 1967, pp 15–18. [AWM 95/17/1/1]

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View video of Interview 1 Lieutenant Barry Smith, 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2144

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View video of Interview 2 Lieutenant Barry Smith, 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2144

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View video of Interview Second Lieutenant Robert Hannam, 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2161