Australia and the Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam

A member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, Captain Peter Shilston, confirming by radio that the village that he is about to search with South Vietnamese troops has been properly cordoned. Shilston was one of six AATTV members to be awarded the Military Cross during his service in South Vietnam. [AWM FAI/70/0595/VN]

A member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, Captain Peter Shilston, confirming by radio that the village that he is about to search with South Vietnamese troops has been properly cordoned. Shilston was one of six AATTV members to be awarded the Military Cross during his service in South Vietnam. [AWM FAI/70/0595/VN]

The first contingent of the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) arrived in South Vietnam on 3 August 1962. It numbered just 30 men and was made up of a mixture of officers, sergeants and warrant officers under the command of Colonel F.P. ‘Ted’ Serong. Team members were deployed to South Vietnam for a 12-month tour of duty with the option of extending for an additional 6 months. The AATTV’s numbers grew, as did the range of ranks held by its members, over the ten years that it served in Vietnam, peaking at 224 in 1971, shortly before Australia’s withdrawal.

From the beginning the AATTV was divided into groups and dispersed. Some worked with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units, some with indigenous peoples in the remote, mountainous areas of the country’s north-west, some with South Vietnam’s Civil Guard which was responsible for protecting key provincial infrastructure, some with the ARVN’s elite Ranger units and some with the American Combined Studies Division which trained village militias and which was also involved in the Phoenix Program that targeted Viet Cong cells and cadres for assassination.

  • Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Kevin “Dasher” Wheatley VC, a member of the Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam (AATTV) standing on the roadside near Saigon, 8 August 1965, just two months before his death in action at Tra Bong in October. WO2 Wheatley was awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) posthumously for remaining with a mortally wounded comrade while his position was overrun despite having had the chance to save himself.
His was the first such award to an Australian since World War II. [AWM A05546]
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Brian Betts, AATTV, outside a house in the area known as ‘The Street Without Joy’. WO2 Betts and members of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) were on patrol with a unit of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN). Quant Tri Province, 1967. [AWM P02222.016]
  • Major Peter Badcoe VC, of South Australia, served in Vietnam with the AATTV from 6 August 1966 until his death on 7 April 1967. Major Badcoe was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for three separate actions in Phu Thu, Quang Dien and Huong Tra areas during February and April, 1967. [AWM 116857]
  • Major Gordon Brown of Victoria, AATTV, District Senior Adviser in Nam Hoa, travels by sampan from Nam Hoa to more remote areas of his district, October 1969. [AWM COL/69/714/VN]
  • Major Gordon Brown, AATTV, of Victoria, and Vietnamese women stand before rotting clothing found in a mass grave near Nam Hoa. The remains of more than 200 victims of the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive were found in the grave. October 1969. [AWM EKN/69/0121/VN] I was instructed to visit Nam Hoa District village to ascertain whether it was a fact that the remains of some of the victims of the Tet massacre in 1968 had been found. I cannot, in words, describe the scene that confronted me when I arrived at that place. Approximately a thousand bodies had been retrieved and placed in Nam Hoa Village… In front of the shrine was a large open space where skeletons were laid on plastic for identification. It was a devastating sight. [Warrant Officer [Don Killion in Bruce Davies and Gary McKay, The Men Who Persevered, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005 p 164]
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Ray (Scarlet) O’Hara from Victoria with his hands on his hips and WO2 Bill Butler from Qld, instruct Regional Force (RF) soldiers in the use of the M79 grenade launcher in the Delta region, Ben Tranh District. The two AATTV advisors are part of a Night Operations Advisory Team (NOAT) to retrain the RF soldiers for night ambushes against the Viet Cong as part of a pilot project. June 1970. [AWM WAR/70/04/5/VN]
  • The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) during a march past at the parade where the United States Army Meritorious Unit Commendation was awarded to the team in 1970. [Image courtesy of Frank Beattie OAM].
  • The last members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) left Vietnam by RAAF Hercules shortly after dawn on 18 December 1972. Brigadier Ian Geddes Commanding Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (COMAAGV) (left), farewells Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) ‘Jock’ Gordon, Regiment Sergeant Major of AATTV. [AWM P01011.061]
  • The Meritorious Unit Commendation awarded to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) for ‘meritorious service in support of military operations in the Republic of Vietnam, July 1962 to August 1969.’ [Image courtesy of Frank Beattie OAM]
  • The Meritorious Unit Commendation awarded to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) for ‘meritorious service in support of military operations in the Republic of Vietnam, July 1962 to August 1969.’ [Image courtesy of Frank Beattie OAM]

Until 1964 AATTV personnel were forbidden from joining those whom they trained on operations, a ban that proved completely impractical when they were caught in ambushes and which diminished their credibility in the eyes of their students. After the policy changed, allowing participation in operations, AATTV members often found themselves engaged in combat more fierce than that experienced by most other Australian units in South Vietnam. By 1965 AATTV advisers were accompanying South Vietnamese Units on patrol and helping defend bases from attack. Designated as trainers they were often leaders, demonstrating military and counter-insurgency skills in the heat of battle.

For many in the AATTV, service in Vietnam was an isolating experience. They often worked alone or in pairs in small, mainly American, advisory teams which served with Vietnamese units. Their dispersal meant Australia had a country-wide presence and with it the ability to assess the situation outside Phuoc Tuy, the province in which most Australians in Vietnam served.

The Australian army's only serving Victoria Cross (VC) winners, Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Ray Simpson of NSW, (left), and WO2 Keith Payne of Qld, in Saigon, after the announcement of WO2 Payne's VC. WO2 Payne won Australia’s highest gallantry award for an action in South Vietnam’s Kontum Province on 24 May, 1969. WO2 Simpson won his VC for his actions two weeks earlier, on 6 May 1969. [LES/69/0590/VN]

The Australian army's only serving Victoria Cross (VC) winners, Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Ray Simpson of NSW, (left), and WO2 Keith Payne of Qld, in Saigon, after the announcement of WO2 Payne's VC. WO2 Payne won Australia’s highest gallantry award for an action in South Vietnam’s Kontum Province on 24 May, 1969. WO2 Simpson won his VC for his actions two weeks earlier, on 6 May 1969. [LES/69/0590/VN]

As Australia and the United States began to withdraw their forces from Vietnam the AATTV’s role changed to resemble what it had been like when they were first deployed. Training became the main priority as Vietnamese units were prepared for the time when they would have to fight without the support of allies. The last members of the AATTV to leave South Vietnam departed on 18 December 1972, a little more than ten years after the first members arrived.

During their decade in Vietnam the AATTV became the most highly decorated Australian unit to serve in the war. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to AATTV members, along with numerous other awards and decorations, including those issued by the United States and the Republic of South Vietnam. Most awards recognised bravery in combat; some were for service to the people of South Vietnam.