Australia and the Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War

Bien Hoa Province

'The Sun', Thursday 29 April 1965. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]

'The Sun', Thursday 29 April 1965. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]

The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South-East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.’

[Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Hansard, 29 April 1965.]

On the afternoon of 29 April 1965, Australians were warned that the Australian Government would ‘provide an infantry battalion for service in Vietnam.’ Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies delivered a statement to the Lower House of Parliament that evening, explaining that the decision was made in response to a request for ‘further military assistance’ by the Government of South Vietnam and in consultation with the United States Government.

'Bien Hoa – 1965-66'

  • Corporal Neville Modystack of SA, 1st APC Troop, and Sergeant Robert 'Wally' Greig of WA, Australian Logistics Support Company, waiting to disembark from HMAS Sydney at Vung Tau, May 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0112/VN]
  • Members of 1RAR digging in at their section of the 173rd Brigade base soon after their arrival in Bien Hoa in May 1965. [AWM P01496.001]
  • Conditions were far from ideal at 1 RAR’s new home at Bien Hoa. The rudimentary amenities included the unsophisticated shower on the left, 1965. [Image courtesy of Kerry Lampard]
  • The body of Private Michael (Mick) Alwyn Bourke, 1 RAR, is farewelled at a ceremony at Tan Son Nhut airbase before being flown back to Australia. Just weeks after arriving in Vietnam, 1RAR suffered its first casualties when Private William Carroll’s grenade pin caught and released as he leaped off a truck after the battalion’s first operation. The subsequent explosion killed Carroll, Privates Mick Bourke and Arie Van Valen, and an American, Private First Class D. Pierson.  A further ten soldiers were wounded, including two Americans. 26 June, 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0151/VN]
  • Lance Corporal Lyal Pukallus and Bombardier Robert Hart of Qld, members of the Australian Army’s 161 Reconnaissance (Recce) Flight at Bien Hoa, October 1965. The ‘Recce’ flight arrived in Vietnam on 28 September 1965 and was based at Bien Hoa, under the command of 173rd US Airborne Brigade. [AWM SHA/65/0036/VN]
  • A number of Viet Cong prisoners were captured during a 1RAR ‘search and destroy’ operation in Vo Xu village, Binh Tuy Province. Private James Jarrett of NSW searches one of the prisoners watched by (second from left), Corporal Ken Forden of WA, 1965. [AWM SHA/65/0291/VN]
  • A member of 1RAR patrols near Bien Hoa accompanied by local children, 1965. [AWM P04959.004]
  • Private Ian Pascoe, in the sand-bagged radio shack at the headquarters of 1RAR, Bien Hoa, September 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0341/VN]
  • Corporal Rex Gabel in a mobile signal centre at 1RAR headquarters, Bien Hoa, transmits in morse code to the Australian Headquarters in Saigon, September 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0340/VN]
  • With the cavalry waiting discreetly in the background, 1RAR infantrymen patrol in the rubber, 1965. [Image courtesy of Rex Warren]

Five days after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, Arthur Calwell, spoke in Parliament, opposing Australia’s commitment of troops to South Vietnam.

Our men will be fighting the largely indigenous Viet Cong in their own home territory. They will be fighting in the midst of a largely indifferent, if not resentful, and frightened population. They will be fighting at the request of, and in support, and, presumably, under the direction of an unstable, inefficient, partially corrupt military regime which lacks even the semblance of being, or becoming, democratically based.

[Excerpt from Mr Arthur Calwell’s speech, 4 May 1965.]

The Qantas Air Ticket supplied to Jens Smith, an infantryman with 1RAR for his trip to South Vietnam in 1965. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]

On 27 May 1965, a company of 1RAR and attachments together with a small media contingent left Sydney for South Vietnam. Their voyage on HMAS Sydney took 14 days and they arrived at the port of Vung Tau on 10 June. The remainder of 1RAR travelled to South Vietnam by air. They were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade and stationed in Bien Hoa province approximately 25 kilometres from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), an area held by Viet Cong.

The Australians, comprising one infantry battalion of approximately 600 combat troops, an Armoured Personnel Carrier unit, the Prince of Wales Light Horse, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) unit with six Caribou planes, a small surgical team, a handful of civil engineers, diary and signals experts and the men in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), were under the command of Colonel, later Brigadier, Oliver Jackson, the Commander, Australian Army Force, Vietnam. Although Jackson, based at the Australian Headquarters in Saigon, was under the operational control of the Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, he remained responsible for ‘matters of Australian administration and support.’

Once they had set up their base and their defences around the 1RAR position, the Australians began to patrol their tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). Tasked with securing the Bien Hoa air base, deep patrolling and offensive operations into areas adjacent to the base, and conducting combined operations with US and ARVN troops, the Australians soon discovered their tactics were very different from those of their allies.

This, along with the recognition that a single Australian battalion would always need to be integrated with a United States brigade, led military and political planners to the conclusion that Australian forces in Vietnam should comprise a task force with its own area of operations. Thus, in 1966, the 1st Australian Task Force, made up of two battalions, 5RAR and 6RAR, was dispatched from Australia to Phuoc Tuy Province to set up a new Australian base at Nui Dat.

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An announcement that President Johnson’s personal envoy, Mr Henry Cabot Lodge would visit Australia ‘to consult on the Vietnam situation’. [The Canberra Times, April 15, 1965]

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Headline ‘Menzies stresses “close” views’. [The Advertiser, April 21, 1965.]

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View video of Interview with Lance Corporal Arthur Law, 1RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.1434