Australia and the Vietnam War

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Vietnamisation - pulling out

Overview

In November 1971, the Australian 4RAR and Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment flags at Nui Dat base were lowered for the last time by New Zealand Regimental Policeman Private Tai Whatu and Australian Regimental Policeman Private John Skennar of Grafton, NSW. [AWM CUN/71/0536/VN]

In November 1971, the Australian 4RAR and Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment flags at Nui Dat base were lowered for the last time by New Zealand Regimental Policeman Private Tai Whatu and Australian Regimental Policeman Private John Skennar of Grafton, NSW. [AWM CUN/71/0536/VN]

The Tet offensive of February 1968 is regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong mounted a series of attacks on major centres throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong suffered enormous losses, it was a psychological and propaganda victory for them. Surprised at the Viet Cong’s ability to orchestrate such major attacks across the country, including an assault on the American embassy, many in the United States began to disbelieve assurances that the war was being won.

The fallout from Tet also led the United States President, Lyndon Johnson, to announce that he would not seek re-election. He was succeeded by Richard Nixon who won office in November 1968. In 1969 Nixon announced that the withdrawal of American troops was a priority. In a policy known as ‘Vietnamisation’ the number of United States combat troops was gradually reduced and their places were taken by soldiers in an expanded South Vietnamese army. But the United States continued to provide assistance by supplying weapons, further training for the South Vietnamese army, and naval and aerial support for South Vietnamese soldiers on operations.

  • 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]
  • South Vietnamese soldiers receive instructions on loading an M79 grenade launcher from Private (Pte) Ron Jones of WA, B Company 6RAR. September 1969. [AWM EKN/69/0098/VN].
  • Three Australian advisers assist an ARVN soldier to conduct a security check on a local villager during a combined 6RAR/NZ-ARVN shakedown operation. [L-R] Private (Pte) John Stickland of Vic; Corporal Chris Gannon of Qld; Pte Peter Simpson of NSW, September 1969. [AWM Bel/69/0664/VN]
  • ARVN troops celebrate the completion of their weapons training with 5RAR at the Horseshoe, 1970. [Image courtesy of Mos Hancock]

…it very simply wasn’t finished the way it should have been. I’m not saying we should have won. That would have been preferable of course to losing, but the way it was done was a heap of shit because we left many, many good South Vietnamese people in the lurch and it was like turning your back on your best mate and walking away. It shouldn’t have happened. That is politics though… Nothing to do with us, but it left a very nasty, dirty taste in a lot of people’s mouths. It still does. [Corporal Anthony Hughes, 7RAR, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 434. (Drawing on interview no 2093 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]
  • Lighters packed with 3RAR vehicles approach HMAS Sydney, at Vung Tau. The departure of 3RAR troops and vehicles was the first major move in the withdrawal of the Australian forces from South Vietnam, 6 October 1971. [AWM FOD/71/0507/VN]
  • Members of 4RAR/NZ (Anzac) leaving Nui Dat for Vung Tau inside a RAAF Iroquois helicopter. Other troops in 4RAR were transported by road convoys and with RAAF Caribou aircraft, ending their combat role in South Vietnam, 1971. [AWM CUN/71/0538/VN]
  • Australian Task Force Commander Colonel Phillip Greville receives an award from the mayor of Vung Tau, Nguyen Van Tinh, during a parade to farewell the Australian forces from South Vietnam, June 1972. [AWM FOD/72/0044/VN]
  • The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) flew out of Vietnam in a RAAF Hercules aircraft on 18 December 1972. Brigadier Ian Geddes from NSW, Commander Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (COMAAAGV), farewells Warrant Officer 2 John Gordon from Qld, Regimental Sergeant Major of the AATTV. [AWM P01011.061]
  • ‘Moment of Truth’. A North Vietnamese tank rolling through the Presidential palace gates in Saigon, 1975. Thomas de Kessler, 2000. [Pen and black ink on paper 7.3 x 11 cm, AWM ART91468] We knew one day we would be overrun – but we did not know what day.  Many felt that it would happen in 1973, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, so we had some luck that it lasted till 1975. [Van Nhung Tran quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 423. (Drawing on interview no (tba) in the Australians at War Film Archive)]

Tet had had its effect. In May 1968, just 4 months later, peace talks attended by representatives of North and South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the United States, opened in Paris. Australia’s Government, having followed the United States lead in Vietnam, was now in the position of having to also enunciate a strategy for withdrawal. In April 1970 the Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, announced that the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (8RAR) would not be replaced when its tour of Vietnam ended in November. This followed a United States Government announcement that more than 180,000 Americans would be withdrawn and, more importantly, that a complete American withdrawal would follow.

5RAR troops led by Corporal John Hinchey, instruct ARVN soldiers on the use of the M60 at the Horseshoe, 1970. [Image courtesy of Mos Hancock]

5RAR troops led by Corporal John Hinchey, instruct ARVN soldiers on the use of the M60 at the Horseshoe, 1970. [Image courtesy of Mos Hancock]

Vietnamisation meant that the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) would double in size, necessitating additional military trainers and resulting in an expanded role for the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) whose numbers increased in the final phase of the war. However, the ARVN was ill-equipped and unable to match the North Vietnamese Army in the field. Early in 1971 Australia’s Joint Intelligence Organisation, reporting on the progress of Vietnamisation, described the ARVN as ‘uneven in quality’ and suffering from poor leadership. Australian military officials in Phuoc Tuy and Saigon reported that the local ARVN would meet significant difficulties once the Australian Task Force’s battalions left. To add to the gloomy outlook, few South Vietnamese had any confidence in their own government which was regarded as corrupt and incompetent.

The biggest mistake was the failure to go about a fair dinkum approach of boosting the South Vietnamese Army in the early stages, giving them a fair allocation of helicopters and artillery and the like, and above all else comprehensive training. Subsequently, after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and after President Nixon replaced President Johnson in early 1969, the catch-cry went up that ‘Vietnamisation would turn things around’ and a huge effort was attempted, finally, to boost the South Vietnamese Army. It was too little, too late.’

[Tim Fischer, 1 RAR in Vietnam: our war – our peace, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, pp. 128-129]

The last Australian troops to leave 1ATF Nui Dat, October/November 1971. [AWM CUN/71/0539/VN; FOD/71/0513/VN]

Australia’s last two battalions to serve in Vietnam, the 3rd and 4th Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR and 4RAR) arrived in 1971. In August that year the Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, announced that the remainder of the Task Force would be withdrawn at the end of 1971. 3RAR returned home in October 1971 followed in December by 4RAR and the Royal Australian Air force’s No. 9 Squadron. Some logistics personnel and the last of No. 35 Squadron’s Caribou aircraft left early in 1972.

Second Lieutenant Bill Denny, 86 Transport Platoon, RAASC, was with one of the last Australian units to leave Vietnam in February 1972.

We were going home… Walking through empty buildings, this seemed a special moment in time – doors banging in the wind and the base eerily deserted. Vietnamese workers were crying and distressed. I lied to them, reassuring them that we would be back ‘if the VC come’. As it turned out, the Viet Cong did come – four weeks later – but we were never going to go back. I never really got over the friends I lost in Vietnam, nor the desertion of those we had so comprehensively fought to support and protect. The last of us formed the final convoy and headed down to De Long Pier, then by landing craft out to HMAS Sydney.

[ Bill Denny, in Vietnam: our war – our peace, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 2006 pp 48-49 ]

Baria - Vung Tau 2008

  • Nui Dat today seen from the side of SAS hill. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • There are few signs of the former Australian base. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • Looking up to SAS hill from above Kangaroo Pad. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • The remains of the runway at Luscombe Field. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • The site of the former 1ALSG base at Vung Tau. [Image courtesy of John Newman]

In April Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces launched an offensive across the South. United States airpower, rather than the ARVN, stopped the North Vietnamese. A massive United States bombing campaign against the North followed in December 1972. In 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army again launched a major offensive against the South, the ARVN forces, this time without United States air support or supplies, were overwhelmed. South Vietnam descended into chaos as civilians fled and thousands of ARVN troops and officers deserted. RAAF personnel returned to Vietnam during these fraught days to help evacuate civilians and transport humanitarian supplies.  They counted among their number the last Australian service personnel to leave Vietnam.  The South capitulated in late April 1975, bringing the war in Vietnam to an end and ushering in an era of Communist rule.


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