It is the Soldier, not the Reporter who has given us the freedom of press.|
It is the Soldier, not the Poet who has given us the freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the Campus Organizer
who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the Soldier who salutes the Flag,
who serves beneath the Flag,
and whose coffin is draped by the Flag,
who allows the Protester to burn the Flag.
My name is David Pye (that's me in the picture when I was 20 years old
and in Vietnam).
This isn't a biography, just some memories, and pictures I took
while I was in Vietnam in 1971.
The pictures are fairly old now and the quality has suffered somewhat, but they are still reasonably good considering how and when they were taken. I bought a 35 mm camera over there and took it with me on active jungle operations.
I obtained some of the black and white pictures from the Battalion Photographic Section after I returned to Australia. This was while I was in the Battalion Intelligence Section and had access to the photographic archives. Although we didn't know it at the time, when we arrived in Vietnam the war was winding down, the VietCong were not a major threat anymore and they had been reduced to minor skirmishes. North Vietnam was simply waiting for the Allied forces to withdraw from South Vietnam, all of the moratoriums and peace marches in the US and Australia, plus the widespread television coverage of the killing and atrocities were seeing to that.
Within the last 27 years (at the time of starting to write this it's December 1998) only 2 people have ever asked me about my time in Vietnam, and since no-one was really interested I just kept it to myself and I guess I just pushed it all to the back of my mind. I was never one for going in the "veterans marches" or getting boozed up and exchanging war stories so I ended up keeping my memories and experiences to myself. Up until about a year ago I have never thought much about it, but for some strange reason I now think about Vietnam almost every day. Many of the memories are as clear today as they were then, after all this time the realisation has hit me that about 10% of the Battalion that I was in were injured or killed. 27 years ago in Vietnam I don't think the thought of dying ever crossed my mind, now I realise that I could have been amongst that 10%.
To put the Australian casualty figures in plain english ... during the time Australian troops were in Vietnam there was at least one soldier killed every week and at least one soldier injured every day.
Maybe this is what they call "post traumatic shock" or "delayed shock" (after 27 years!!!), but whatever it is, I find it disturbing. I don't like constantly thinking about Vietnam, it should be forgotten so that life can carry on. I didn't do anything over there to be ashamed of, so you'd think that it would be just a matter of getting on with life, but I don't seem to be able to find the switch to erase the memories. I've had a fairly busy and good life since leaving the Army, I married a wonderful woman, raised two loving daughters (grown up and left home now), have my own home and not too many worries, and have not had too much of a problem with Vietnam up until a couple of years ago. Maybe it's because as we get older, we tend to slow down and reflect more on our lives.
During the 25 or so years after I came back from Vietnam I didn't think much about it, I didn't think being over there was anything remarkable, it was just something that I did. I saw all the war movies that came out showing all the killing and heard all the stories that other veterans had to say, they all seemed to have lots of horrific war stories to tell and I didn't have any. Why didn't I see all the horrors everyone talks about, after all, I was a grunt and I was at the "sharp end". I could never figure out why everyone else's time over there seemed to have been so terrible and yet mine wasn't, after all, we were all in the same war and we were all in the same place. During the last few years I've been thinking a lot about this and I think I've finally figured it out...most of the "war stories" are just that, they're exaggerations or simply made up. What I experienced over there was exactly the same as all the other combat soldiers, sometimes there would be an enemy contact and someone would be killed or see someone killed but it didn't happen every day, most of the time was simply boredom. After all this time I now feel a sense of pride in the fact that I served in Vietnam and I will tell anyone and everyone that I was there. Whether it was a justifiable war or not, is now relegated to the history books, but I know I did fight in an incredibly unpopular war, in an incredibly uncomfortable place and now I finally want to tell the world.
I believe what is missing from the lives of all Vietnam veterans is the same thing that would have made everything OK...
- To have been given a pat on the back and told "We're proud of you, you did a good job."
- To have been accepted as a returned serviceman from the Vietnam war and to be welcomed as one.
- And to have been respected for fighting for our country.
To have been accepted, respected and congratulated would have kept all of the demons away!
It's said that a problem shared is a problem solved, so this (hopefully) is my own form of therapy.
I've always wanted to write a book of some sort, didn't know how, but figured I could put my pictures and memories together into a reasonable semblance of order, put it on the Web for the world to see and not only solve a problem of mine, but maybe inform and even enlighten others in the process.
The pictures here are the ones I took and the story consists of what I experienced, none of it is exaggerated or made up. You won't find a story of blood and guts or a story that comes from Hollywood, you won't find a story of women or babies being killed or mutilated, I wasn't a Rambo wannabe or a "super soldier", I was simply one of many 20 year old kids who didn't know any better, fighting in a war that no-one cared about.
Contrary to the perception that many people have about wars, they're not places of excitement and glamour, but places of boredom, long periods of time alone and thinking, places of fear, of bone weary tiredness, thirst, hunger, frustration, living in rain, mud, dirt, heat, sweat and most of all, wonder at why you're there at all. There are no cameras, glamour or heroics as the movies portray, there is only YOU, doing what YOU have to do, simply because you're there.
The Hollywood movies, television documentaries and the many newspaper articles would have us believe that the Vietnam war was a place of untold horror, where everyone who went there saw their best mates blown to bits and where we were fighting for our lives 24 hours a day.
Well it wasn't really quite like that.
The Australian Task Force in Vietnam looked after a province called Phuoc Tuy in the southern area of the country. This was a reasonably secure area, as the US forces were in the northern provinces where most of the fighting took place. We were really there as a political force, to justify the US intervention. However, each province in South Vietnam had it's own groups of enemy, such as the Xuen Moc guerillas and the professional Local Force Regiment D445 which were usually in Phuoc Tuy province. So even though we were in a more secure area than the Americans, the security was only there because of the constant patrolling and search and destroy operations that we carried out.
I believe the Australian soldier was much more disciplined and better thought of (by our government) than the US troops. We trained together in Australia, sometimes for a year or more before going "in country" and we went there as a complete unit. Whereas the US seemed to send a whole bunch of conscripts to Vietnam, then split them up and sent them wherever a replacement was needed. They were all individuals and strangers to each other and the bonds of mateship that we had were uncommon amongst the US soldiers.. We almost always operated in large groups of usually a company size and no smaller than a platoon, the US seemed to send out small patrols without much support. Drug abuse became a huge problem for the US forces while it was a rarity amongst the Australian soldier, even though the stuff could be bought anywhere. The problem of "fragging", shooting or blowing up anyone you didn't like happened quite a lot amongst the US forces, but as far as I know didn't happen amongst the Aussies.
So this is my story, my memories and my thoughts. I have written this story as accurately as my memory allows, while some parts may not seem correct to others who were there, we all had different experiences, and this is what I remember as my time "in country". I have also taken great lengths to NOT exaggerate or embellish anything in order to make it more "gutsy", and have NOT made up any "war stories".
Now, go back in time to 1971, to a war torn country called South Vietnam and look through my eyes as a naive 20 year old combat soldier.
I joined the Army during the end of 1969 at the ripe old age of 19, after being disillusioned with jobs. I completed 10 weeks recruit training at Kapooka, then 10 weeks Infantry Core training at Ingleburn in New South Wales. I was then sent to the 3rd Infantry Battalion at Woodside in South Australia as a Rifleman in support section/A Company. A few months later it was off to the Jungle Training Centre in Queensland for 3 weeks of early mornings, late nights, hard training and not much rest.
It was towards the end of 1970 and we were gearing up to go to Vietnam in the beginning of 1971. The thought of going off to fight in a war didn't even bother me, I guess I was the same as all the naive young men who signed up during the second world war and thought of it as a big adventure. We had all been conditioned to believe our own government's propaganda that we had to stop the evil communists from taking over the world. We were the big bronzed anzacs going off to beat the "nogs", and we'd all come back heroes to be looked up to.
Boy-oh-boy!! Were we ever STOOPID!!
During this time there were moratoriums in Adelaide, these were anti-war demonstrations consisting of mostly university students. We were told to keep away from these people and not to wear uniforms if possible, however, there were a couple of clashes that resulted in some rather bold newspaper headlines. This was the era of "make love-not war" and there was a considerable amount of anti-war propaganda spread around by students, teachers and some politicians.
The year went fairly quickly and in the beginning of 1971 we packed up shop and climbed aboard the ancient rustbucket HMAS Sydney (an old aircraft carrier) and away we went. The trip over was fairly uneventful, we did quite a bit of weapon stripping, shooting at balloons thrown over the back of the carrier and sitting around. Several days later we were in Vung Tau harbour being choppered into the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat by Chinook.
Nui Dat was the First Australian Tast Force (1ATF), this was the centre of all military operations for all Australian forces in Vietnam. By the time we arrived in country, it had become a secure base for the Australian forces. This was where all the fighting forces were and where we started all operations from. Further south was Vung Tau, this was a very secure area where the Australian forces could safely go for R&C (rest and convalescence). This was the logistic support area where all the "paperwork" was done. The fire support bases "Marj", "Kate", "Pamela", Ziggie", "Toby" and "Beth" were established at various times to give artillery support if needed while we were on operations.
On the carrier on the way over it had still seemed like just another military exercise such as we regularly had in Australia, none of us gave much thought about what we might be getting into. It wasn't until we got out of the Chinook and started walking down the dry, dusty ground that I suddenly realised that we were all really in a war zone. Here I was, a naive 20 year old kid, never been in a fight, never been in any trouble and I was in a foreign country and was expected to kill people who I have never seen before and who have never done me any harm.
We were shown where our Company lines were and then where our tent was. We slept 4 to a tent, these tents had been there ever since the Task Force was built several years earlier and it looked (and smelled) like they still had the original beds and mattresses still in them.
After a couple of days to settle in we packed our bags to go out on our first operation in the jungles of Vietnam. All the training in the world doesn't prepare you for the real thing.
Back in Australia we had been shown what to pack when going into tropical rainforests, so we packed what they had told us to pack. Then when we found out it wouldn't all fit, because we had all this extra ammunition, grenades and American rations that they hadn't told us about in Australia, so we had to do a quick rethink and leave out anything not absolutely essential. Experience is the best teacher, so after a couple of days in the "j" we figured out what was really needed and what was junk. The easiest philosophy was..if it doesn't fit in your pack or pocket, then you don't need it (apart from ammo or weapons of course).
The first operation we went on, we were taken by helicopter. I had never been on one before and it was quite exhilarating to realise that none of the safety conditions apply here, such as shutting the doors or using seat belts. To this day I can still remember being crammed into an Iriquois helicopter along with several others with packs and weapons, trying to squeeze onto seats designed for people half our size. Then taking off, looking out through the open doorway at the treetops flashing past not very far below us, wondering who or what could be lurking in the dense jungle below us, barely able to hear anyone above the noise of the wind and the rotor blades, the chopper shaking so violently that it feels like it will simply fall to pieces, the door gunners holding on grimly to their M60's. Then seeing the clearing, the pilot going in fast, a quick, bumpy landing and then jumping out with what feels like the weight of another person on my back, sliding a round in the chamber and quickly heading for the dark, gloomy jungle.
The first couple of days and nights were a shock to the system. There were virtually no wild animals here, as they had all been killed with the constant fighting. The jungle was very dense, hot, humid and quiet. All we ever did was follow the person in front and make sure the person behind was still there, sometimes the jungle was so dense that we'd only travel a few hundred metres in a day.
Most of the time it was simply boredom - walk a few steps, then wait 10 minutes - walk a few more steps, then wait again, and so on, and very rarely did we know what we were doing. Very little of the training in Australia applied here, we were both individuals and part of the group in a huge jungle so dense that we didn't know where anyone else was except the ones directly in front and behind. In the late afternoon we would stop somewhere for the night, we were set up in two's along the circular perimeter of our harbour position with the M60 machine guns evenly spaced around the perimeter. We would be in two's given a certain position in the circumference and shown our arc of fire, then it was a matter of clearing the ground for a space to sleep, cleaning weapons, cooking some food (if possible), finding the way to the gun position and finding where the next person was that you had to wake up after your stint on the gun at night.
For a half hour before last light everything was packed up and we "stood to", as this was the most likely time for an attack. Then it was straight to sleep broken by a couple of hours on the gun.
We slept where we were positioned, sometimes it was on ants nests, rocks, mud or whatever happened to be there, it was a matter of smoothing the ground as much as possible, laying down a groundsheet and in the wet, trying to put up a "hootchie" (this was a waterproof sheet that was used as a sort of roof/tent). We were supposed to keep our boots on all night, but I used to take mine off when sleeping. I was damned if my toes were going to get eaten away by some scabby fungus or footrot shit. At night my pack was packed ready to go and used as a pillow, rifle placed next to me in the same spot every night and boots next to it (Yes, every night we all went to sleep holding onto a loaded weapon!).
When it was your turn for watch, the person waking you up did it very quietly and carefully, no-one wants to get shaken roughly when you're asleep in a war zone. It was usually so dark that it was a matter of crawling along a rough path feeling along a piece of string until you came to the gun position.
Every night we all took turns as sentry/guard, two at a time usually for two hours at a time. Sitting together behind the gun, not talking, just listening, trying to see in the usually pitch black and looking forward to going back to sleep.
At night, when on guard at the machine gun and you heard a noise, you fired the claymore mines and machine gun first and asked questions later. No friendly forces moved around in the jungle at night, simply 'cause you couldn't see diddly squat', so if there was a noise - you fired. Quite often (sometimes too often) someone would hear a noise and start blasting away, this would result in everyone else getting woken up with a heart rate of about a million beats a minute and a bucket load of adrenalin pumping through your veins, you'd grab your weapon, face outwards looking into a pitch black jungle and lie there quietly listening. If you heard a noise to your front you had to decide whether to fire or not, if you fired and there was someone there then they'd see the flash from your rifle and could have shot back, and there may have been more of them than you. This type of incident happened to all of us regularly, as there were always strange noises at night, especially when you're sitting in a jungle at night, when imagination and fear become very real.
Jungle warfare isn't like in the movies where the fearless jungle fighters hack their way through the jungle with machettes on well worn paths. The first person (the forward scout) had to make his own path using a pair of secateurs, quietly cutting one branch at a time while keeping his eyes open for any VC, and all that the rest of us did was to follow along. It was always hot and humid, we rarely spoke and when we did it was always in a quiet whisper. One of the greatest pleasures was when we'd halt for several minutes and we could snatch a few minutes rest by sitting or lying on the ground just to take the weight of the pack off our shoulders.
If you've ever watched any jungle war movies and all of a sudden the bad guys shoot at the good guys and then the good guys dive into the jungle and straight away know where to shoot at the bad guys. It wasn't quite like that, the jungle was so dense that most times it was only possible to see the person a few metres in front and behind you.
If shots were fired, you wouldn't know where they came from and while lying on the ground in a tropical jungle you can see stuff-all apart from dirt. And you most certainly DO NOT stick your head up and look around to see who's shooting at you. If someone is dressed in dark colours and is standing still in a tropical jungle, you can most times pass within a few metres and not see that person.
This wasn't a war where there was a "front line", the North Vietnamese Regular Army consisted of very professional and skilful soldiers and were a force to be reckoned with. Whereas the Vietcong (VC) could be anyone, even young women and boys, and were extremely hard to find. They could be the person you talk to during the day, and then the same one you shoot at in the jungle. The end result of this was that most of us simply followed the person in front through the jungle while whoever was forward scout would quietly lead the way with safety catch off and eyes and ears wide open. For us this was a war of boredom, we just walked, stopped..walked, stopped...walked, stopped, and after doing this for a few weeks, I got so bored and pissed off because NOTHING ever happened, that I used to hook my rifle through the webbing straps to take the weight of it (so did most of the others). If we had gotten into a contact it would have taken several seconds just to get the rifle untangled.
Despite the difficulties and hardships of living in an inhospitable jungle, everyone got on very well with each other, our world was our small group of 20 year olds. We lived together and relied totally on each other, especially the person you "slept" with, at night, the two of you were alone in a black, noiseless jungle. Probably one of the worst things about the jungle were the bugs. In the dry season there were red tree ants (weaver ants) that made nests in trees and if you brushed against them you would be instantly covered with hundreds of biting ants, there were ticks, which caused a painful red lump, but were more of a nuisance than anything else, scorpions, large (jumper) ants, termite nests, a thing called an RTA bug (the rumour was that if you were bitten you were Returned To Australia), spiders, centipedes and snakes.
Then in the winter there were the leeches and even mud crabs.
The humidity and heat was so high that wearing clothes for more than a few days caused the cloth to simply rot and fall apart. I usually carried 2 pair of socks, they were never washed, I simply turned them inside out, swapped from left to right foot and so on. Boots were brushed with bootpolish to keep the leather soft (otherwise it dried and cracked very quickly). Everyone soon found out that you don't wear underwear in a jungle, rashes were easy to come by and hard to get rid of. Clothes were worn loose and comfortable, in a jungle looks aren't important but comfort most certainly is. We all probably smelled terrible, but as we all smelled the same, it wasn't noticable. We didn't carry any identification except for "dog tags", I destroyed any addresses or identifying information on any letters that I had (if you lost it and the VC got it they could write to whoever sent you the letter).
The training in Australia didn't really prepare us for what we would need to take in the jungle. We very quickly found out that mosquito nets are useless, as were waterproof ponchos, air mattresses and about half the food in the ration packs. I carried a plastic groundsheet to sleep on, hootchie, the clothes on my back, enough rations for 5 days, (2 days Australian and 3 days American), 4 waterbottles in the wet season, 8 in the dry plus a "squishy" bag holding the equivalent of a couple more, toiletries, letter writing stuff, camera, a couple of paperback books, rope, SLR rifle, bayonet, 160 rounds (8 magazines), 2 hand grenades, 1 smoke grenade, 100 rounds for the machine gun and sometimes a claymore mine.
You may have deduced from this that the hollywood image of the really cool looking Rambo killer, silently darting through the jungle in his designer military gear, carrying a rifle, a knife and not much else may be a trifle short of reality. The weight of all this stuff made for a bunch of slouching, slow moving, smelly, sweating, tired soldiers.
We used to get a resupply, usually by chopper before our rations ran out. This also included a change of greens (clothes), a carton of milk, a bread roll and any mail. Any of the rations from the packs that we did not use had holes put through it and was buried. Water was the biggest problem especially in the dry, we all carried sterilizing tablets and too often would have to use river water or ground water.
The food in the ration packs was surprisingly good. The Aussie packs were strictly made to sustain us without too much enjoyable food, while the American packs had small containers of peaches or pound cake, so between the two types of ration packs we could make up some quite tasty meals. A lot of the stuff in the ration packs was similar to some of the kids snacks that are sold in the supermarkets today. eg Tubes of condensed milk, jam, marmalade, small packs of cracker biscuits with cheese spread, small tins of fruit or cake. But they are called "ration packs" for a reason as there's just enough food to sustain life jus as long as you ration the amount you eat. So we were always hungry and never had enough water.
There wasn't a great deal of variety in the way of weapons. Most of us carried an SLR (Self Loading Rifle) this used a 7.62mm round, if fired at a 4 gallon tin of water it could easily lift the tin up and leave a whopping great hole as it left the back of the tin. The machine gun was an M60 also using a 7.62mm round. Each gun group of 3 men usually carried several hundred rounds in belts of 100 rounds each. The forward scout carried an American M16 (Armalite) this had a smaller 5.56mm round but fired at a much higher velocity. We sometimes carried the M72 rocket launcher (a self contained armour piercing rocket), the claymore mine (an anti-personnel mine set up in defensive positions, manually detonated and firing 700 steel pellets over a wide range), One of the problems with the Claymore mine was that as it was electrically detonated, sometimes when there was an electrical storm, the friggin' things would detonate from the lightning. (this was after they were placed in the front of our defensive position and armed, NOT while we were carrying them), the M79 (this was a sort of grenade launcher that could fire different types of grenades eg. phosphorous/fragmentation), we all carried 2 hand grenades and 1 or 2 smoke grenades. I never carried the hand grenades hanging off my webbing like in the movies 'cause it was too easy to snag the pin in the jungle, instead I kept them inside the magazine pouches on the front of my web belt. (I was more worried about the grenades going off accidentally than getting shot, so I taped the grenades up! Besides that, you can't throw grenades in a dense jungle!). The engineers with us carried a bagful of C4 explosive (for detonating unexploded 500/1,000lb bombs dropped from planes, the C4 was also excellent to use as a cooking fuel).
Fear and Reality
When we were dropped in a clearing by choppers on our first operation (after being in country for about 3 days), we started walking towards the jungle and there was an air of unreality that I was really in a war zone and there were people out there who would willingly kill me. For a while it just didn't seem real, I still felt like I was in Australia, but it didn't take very long to forget about Australia. After a couple of weeks, Vietnam was my reality and Australia was just someplace that I heard about on the news, the jungle became my only world, what I carried with me was my home and what was happening here was was the only news that I cared about. We used to hear the news about what was happening in Australia, but none of it seemed to matter, it all seemed so trivial. Who cared about a store sale, a wage rise, a new model car or someone being arrested, none of this was important anymore, my reality was this jungle where the rules and laws of Australia didn't exist, this was my REAL world.
This first operation was only supposed to be for 3 days, in order for the whole battalion to acclimatise to the Jungle, unfortunately for us the VC had different ideas. After only having been in country for about a week, and in the jungle for four days D Company was hit repeatedly during the night by an unknown sized force which resulted in 2 killed and several wounded from D Coy.
This shocked the whole battalion and resulted in what was originally a 3 day acclimatisation turning into an operation that kept us in the jungle for over seven weeks. There was no TV, no radio, no booze, no rest, very little talking, constant walking humping a heavy pack, gun piquet and sleeping on the hard ground every night and ration packs for food. Needless to say, we all learned very quickly how to survive.
After the op was finally over and we returned to Nui Dat, we were all extremely thin and haggard, we had all lost muscle tissue, had no fat at all and were absolutely exhausted.
We all absolutely DESPISED the peace marchers back in Australia, here we were, in a jungle war zone without the comfort and security that they had, and all they ever did was take time off from their studies to disrupt the Australia that we were fighting for and then go home at night to sleep in their comfy beds. They condemned and ridiculed us, we were simply the sacrificial pawns used by our government and abused by our fellow countrymen.
I was fortunate enough not to have to kill anyone, however there were times when I was scared. EVERYONE gets scared, it doesn't matter how macho or tough anyone thinks they are, they WILL be scared given the right circumstances, the ONLY variable is the degree of fear.
One of the engineers with us used to think he was Rambo and just about every second night that he was on gun piquet he would claim he heard a noise and let rip with about 50 rounds. This guy even used to claim he could "smell'em". This one particular night he let rip with the M60, so we all quickly scrambled for our weapons, faced outward and listened. After a few seconds my offsider and I heard a dragging noise moving from in front of the gun position on our right, across our front maybe 6-7 metres and slowly moving away. I didn't think it was an animal because it would have screeched or roared, and it sounded to me more like someone being dragged. Neither one of us fired, and since the noise was going away from us we just lay there and listened. If it had been coming toward us I think we would have fired. But we were both SCARED, although the whole incident happened within a couple of minutes we still had time to THINK. Most violent or heroic actions are carried out without too much thought, because when we have time to think of the consequences, we all usually take the safe way out. I am as sure as I can be that the gunner had wounded someone and that whoever it was had either dragged themself or been dragged away. ( The VC and NVA always carried away their dead and wounded unless it was impossible to do so).
No-one knows what they would do in a life threatening situation, this is something that you must experience in order to know what you will do. And usually these situations happen very quickly without time for rational thought, such as in a war zone. But when you're alone and have time to think, you start to have doubts.
The Vietnamese People
Vietnam is a country that has been at war in one form or another for a very long time. Because of this the Vietnamese race has "grown up" fighting wars and is very adept at warfare.
The people were extremely poor but were very clever at stealing, conniving and conning money etc from the allied forces. Small children could steal a watch off your wrist, money from your pockets or would sell their sister for favours. The blackmarket was rife, we could buy anything we wanted for the right amount of cigarettes. In the Australian bases we used the American MPC (Military Payment Currency) to buy stuff, this was so the Vietnamese couldn't use their currency in the Australian bases.
We did get a couple of days of R&C (Rest and Recreation) in Vung Tau, this was a safe area and the only place where we wore civilian clothes and didn't carry weapons. There were virtually no laws here, prostitution was everywhere, disabled men and boys (a lot were amputees) would go around the bars with their trays selling everything from pornography to flick knives, anything at all could be bought for the right price. Small boys would steal the fillings from your teeth, I had a watch taken off my wrist and didn't even know it. The way of life for these people was one of looking out for number one, that is looking after themselves. Stealing was simply the norm, just don't get caught.
The Vietnamese police were called "White Mice" and were as tough as they come, and as corrupt!Nearly all of the Vietnamese in the towns could speak English and virtually all of them despised the allied forces (who could blame them) but they all put up a smiling face, simply because they had no choice. They were second rate citizens in their own country.
I was in the infantry in Vietnam, this is about as close to fighting in a war as it gets. I didn't see any enemy and didn't shoot at any enemy. Most of the other combat soldiers didn't either, but their seems to be a proliferation of war stories from just about EVERYONE who was there. There was a story in a prominent South Australian newspaper about a driver who drove around Vung Tau during the war who claims he still has nightmares about the horrors he saw, and he still suffers from the affects of his service. Somehow I don't think there would be too many horror stories to tell about driving in the safest area in Vietnam. It would seem that most of the returned servicemen who tell all the war stories are the ones who don't really have any to tell.
The US forces took the brunt of the fighting in the northern provinces, they were the ones who got the rough end of the stick. While it is true that we were in the same war, in the same country, fighting the same enemy, we did not have to put up with the same shit that the Americans did. We had it fairly easy compared to the US forces, but I am inclined to think that the Australian soldier had a much higher morale and was more disciplined than the US soldier. Plus, I believe the US soldiers were thought of as much more expendable by their Government than we were. One of the problems with wars (apart from getting killed) is that the war stories invariably get bigger and bigger as time goes on and eventually everyone seems to have been a war hero. And eventually even the cooks, clerks, drivers and other non combatants seem to have their own gruesome war stories to tell.
In any war there will be thousands of service personnel who participate, but the amount of people who are actually involved in REAL fighting is a very small percentage. For every one front line soldier there must be non combatants such as clerks, cooks, drivers, medical, supply and many more. These people are necessary, but do not usually get involved in any fighting. So if you have a war such as the Vietnam war and 500,000 personnel are sent, there may only be about 50,000 fighting personnel from that 500,000. Then out of that 50,000, there may only be about 5,000 involved in actual fighting. That boils down to about 1% who are involved in any firefights.
The most difficult memory to forget would be the sound of helicopter blades. For about 10 years after returning to Australia, whenever I heard the sound of a helicopter I would see the jungle, the open clearing and be watching for the choppers to come swooping in for a resupply or extraction. The sound is very distinctive and strikes more memories than anything else. For anyone who was there and wants to feel the heebie jeebies again, you can download an mp3 file of a chopper here
As for the hollywood movies that seemed to be made in abundance about the Vietnam War, there is only one movie that I have seen that comes close to showing what it was like for the Australian grunt. It is an Australian movie made in the late seventies called "The Odd Angry Shot". This, without a doubt is the closest you will see to the real thing, there are a few minor faults, but it is about 90% accurate.
I don't have memories of killing people, or lots of blood and guts, I'll leave that to other story tellers. What I do have are a lots of memories of the sorts of things that happened to all grunts at some time during their tour, here are just a few.
- On our very first op, we were going at a fair pace, I was behind Frank, our machinegunner. This was our first time in a situation like this and we were nervous and not very steady on our feet, after about 10 minutes I saw Frank slip and fall forward into a heap of mud and shit. When he got up he asked me what did I think he should do because the end of the machine gun barrel had been blocked with mud when he fell. We were walking too fast to stop so he just picked some of the mud out as we were walking and we hoped that we wouldn't meet anyone that we weren't supposed to meet and we hoped he wouldn't have to fire the gun!.
- For a half hour just before last light everyone "stands to", this is the most likely time for an attack so we all lay in our assigned positions quietly facing outward, weapon ready. The only time I ever saw a snake was this one time at stand to, it was wrapped around a small bush about two feet from my face, to my right. I couldn't shoot it and I couldn't move away, so I grabbed my bayonet and tried to slash it in the head. I missed and just made a lot of noise, so it didn't take long before I was told to "shut the f**k up" and watch the front. Fortunately the snake crawled away and left me in peace. Looking back on this incident it seems very funny and laughable, but at the time it was anything but.
- Another time just before stand to, while clearing away a small area of ground where I would sleep that night, I uncovered a nest of termites. (In a tropical rainforest termite nests are in abundance everywhere, including rotted wood underground). As this was my position for the night and I couldn't move, I had to quickly cover the nest with as much dirt as possible and then put down my groundsheet and everything else I could find between me and the ground. All night I could hear the termites biting and chewing under the groundsheet, thank christ they didn't chew through it.
- There were the good times, like when we were placed in a holding position along the Song Rai river for about three days. We mostly just lazed around soaking up the good life, cooking a decent meal instead of eating it cold and getting some good sleep for a change.
- I don't know how it started, but someone thought it would be a good idea to sleep in a hammock instead of on the ground. Soon half the company was sleeping in hammocks, but it didn't last long, because of the noise they made (they were made on the black market from US nylon material) and because of the fact that we made excellent targets hanging between trees, they were banned. One time I watched my offsider put his hammock up, all the time laughing at me while I cleared the rocks and branches from my "bed". Not five minutes after he climbed into his hammock, one of the tree supports snapped, he fell on the rough ground (that he hadn't cleared) and ended up sleeping where he lay while I silently burst into fits of laughter.
- There were many booby traps in the jungle and they were difficult to see. We had a Vietnamese scout with us from the ARVN. He used to see things that we didn't. Like the sharpened coathanger type wire sticking out from a tree with human or animal excrement on it. He also used to show us some of the leaves and vegetation that we could use to supplement our rations with.
- We were allowed 2 cans of beer per man/per day, as I recall they used to cost about 15 cents each and our company "boozer" was only open for ONE hour per day. BUT, when we went out on ops the quota was accumulative, so when we came back to Nui Dat we all had a fair quota of booze to get through. Now, you must bear in mind that there was NOWHERE to go and NOTHING to do so we all drank a REAL LOT. We used to drink as much as we could in the hour (6-7pm I think). A good time was usually measured by how much you couldn't remember the next day. I can remember chucking over my mattress, washing it down with the fire bucket water and then sleeping in it. AHHH!! 'twas the good life!!
Back to Australia
The most difficult part to accept about the Vietnam war, wasn't the war itself, but the fact that no-one in Australia cared. One day we were 19 and 20 year olds living in a hot, humid, jungle full of every bug in the world that could bite, looking for an enemy who didn't wear a uniform and could rarely be found, having the capability to kill people using whatever means possible and not have to answer for it, carrying the most efficient weapons the Australian Government could provide, flying with gunships, travelling on tanks, in APC's, clearing bunkers, blowing up unexploded bombs, living and sleeping with a loaded weapon 24 hours a day and where most of the rules of a normal society that we had been brought up with - simply did not apply.
Then a few days later we were back in Australia with no jungle, no war and no weapons, it was like being on another planet, we were out of sync with our own country! But instead of a kind word or a welcome home, we were treated with abuse, sarcasm and contempt. Where if you defend yourself or touch someone you could be charged with assault, where we had to immediately adjust to a new set of rules, if we were seen in our uniform we were looked down on as if we were criminals, where no-one was even slightly interested in saying "What was it like?" or "We're glad that you're back" and where we were expected to simply forget about our experiences as if they never happened, never mention them again and go back to a normal life.
When I came back to Australia with the advance party, we landed inconspicuously at the Edinburgh Airforce Base at about 2am. There was no band, no crowds and no welcome. The only people there were the customs and our close relatives to drive us home. Shortly after our return to Woodside, a Battalion march was organised through the Adelaide city streets to honour our return, the amount of interest and support for us was shown by the fact that the only people watching were relatives and shoppers.
This is by far the worst horror story of the Vietnam war, to this day no-one cares, no-one is interested, no-one EVER asks. The war for each soldier may only have been one short year of their life, but it is without doubt the most memorable, and to return to your own country to be abused, ignored, looked down upon and forgotten is a most shameful thing.
Since returning from Vietnam I have only come across two people who were interested in asking what it was like. I don't tell anyone I was in Vietnam unless it comes up in a conversation, or someone asks and I have only marched in 3 Anzac day parades.
This Web site is my contribution to the way it was, in a war that should never have been. It is a brief factual account, without any exaggeration, maybe not as dramatic and frightening as "Apacalypse Now", but it is FACTUAL and REAL. It is my way of telling a little bit of my story, of expressing my past 27 years of thoughts and sharing my memories, of being able to tell what no-one has ever bothered to ask, and since you're reading this, then maybe you're just a little bit interested and maybe that will help justify the shame of a country that forgot and simply doesn't care.
A great many people, including WWII veterans have belittled the Vietnam war, by saying that it was only a guerilla war and not a REAL war like WWII. It was a different war, but a war that was every bit as brutal and horrific as WWII.
- The battle of Khe Sanh, where 6,000 US Marines were beseiged by an estimated 30,000+ North Vietnamese Regulars over a period of 77 days.
- The battle of Long Tan, where 100 Australian soldiers fought off an estimated 1,500 North Vietnamese Regulars.
- The TET Offensive, where an estimated 80,000 VietCong simultaneously attacked most of the important towns and military positions in South Vietnam resulting in 45,000 VietCong killed, 15,000 civilians killed (3,000 executed by the VC).
- The Mi Lai massacre, where Lt Calley (US) ordered his men to kill everyone in the village (400 men, women, children and animals), simply because of the frustration of not being able to find and fight an enemy who constantly wounded and maimed his own men.
There were many more occasions where there was brutal fighting, innocent people killed and maimed, and unspeakable acts of violence. This most certainly was a war that was every bit as "bad" as WWII, this was a war that lasted 10 long years as opposed to 5 years of WWII.
Through everyone's life we have times when certain things happen, war, family tragedy, marriage, children etc and these are how we rate our lives, these are the important things. In peacetime, marriage, children, work and our personal achievements are usually the most important things in our lives. Our peers see these things that we have done and we feel self esteem because we feel proud of what we have accomplished, we know that we have become a part of our society and that we are accepted for what we have done.
Being a soldier and fighting in a war has a huge impact on anyone's life and would have to be the most important thing that anyone could experience. But if we are then told that it was all a waste of time, that we shouldn't have been there and that no-one really cares anyway, then how much importance can we place on everything else that happens in life.
All of us build up our self esteem by doing things and then feeling that we have "done good". We feel good about ourselves because we are complimented or noticed by our peers for doing these things. But if we do what we believe is a good thing and in turn we are ridiculed and chastised, then we lose our self esteem and unfortunately, quite often turn against society.
This then, is the legacy of the war that should not have been.