Article from the Weekend Magazine, from the Weekend News, Perth Western Australia 13 December 1969.
It all began with just 4O men
Australia is in the eighth year of its commitment to support South Vietnam. From 1962 to April this year 25,000 had served there, with 254 deaths and 1144 wounded. Currently Australia has three battalions committed in Vietnam, together with supporting troops. Ships of the Australian navy also serve in Vietnam waters.
Australia's special area in Vietnam is Phuoc Tuy province.
Initially, Australia's military contribution was limited to 40 officers, advising South Vietnamese forces, and in the ensuing three years this grew to 100. In 1965 the Australian Government decided to send an infantry battalion to fight alongside the South Vietnamese Army and the United States forces. With the Australian Army then consisting of only four regular infantry battalions, sending a larger force was out of the question.
During 1965 another three battalions were raised in Australia, making possible an announcement in April 1966, that a two-battalion task force would be sent to Vietnam the following month.
The force had insufficient strength to operate with complete independence, needing American help to supply troops and give them helicopter and artillery support. From time to time as the situation demanded Australians were requested to help South Vietnamese and American operations. In 1965 conscription was reintroduced in Australia and trained national servicemen were available in 1966.
The decision to use non-volunteers overseas in an undeclared war was politically controversial.
In 1967 sufficient volunteers were available to bring the task force in Vietnam up to what was considered its full strength of three battalions with associated supporting arms. This enabled Australian forces in Vietnam to play a more independent role than they had before.
OUT OF THE mists of a Vietnam jungle came cries of jubilation.
They were from Australian troops who had just killed several Viet Cong.
The cries expressed their relief in the realisation that it was somebody else who had been killed.
This followed days, even weeks, of patrols in jungle so dense that the Australians had to crash through it noisily—and dangerously. In such operations the forward scout is out in front, leading 10 men if it is a section, 30 if it is a platoon, 90 if it is a company.
He knows, and those who follow him know, that he is the bait.
If the Viet Cong are out there they will shoot at the Australian scout first, maybe kill him.
But his patrol will then know where the enemy is. That is, unless the enemy lets the scout slip past and stays under cover to ambush the patrol. Either way, it's a treacherous game, with well-planted mines, simply triggered by a misplaced boot. The game of keeping sane is played in a cruel, private way by every man.
Some stand back now, after the cries of jubilation have died, and take a look at themselves and wonder how they actually shot or killed anybody. One young man who had killed Viet Cong during his national service duty recalls: "It was not me really, but that's the way it is up there. Everything's different."
He was also the bait, taking hourly turns with four others as forward scout. Like them he was exhausted after that hour, and when he shot a Viet Cong he was jubilant. At home he is mild-mannered, quietly spoken, devoid of any passion to kill, maim, injure, even insult.
On patrols he kept sane by convincing himself he would die in Vietnam. He was convinced he would not return alive to Perth, his parents and friends. Only a month before coming home, after two years of constant strain, he digested the fact that he was still alive.
But there were still another 30 days to go.
He found them unbearable.
He was terrified. All over again he convinced himself he would die.
How do those who have come back feel about the war?
They have mixed reactions.
There are those who say Australia is right to be there —"if our Government says we fight there, then that's good enough for me,"—to those who say we should get out— "it's useless staying."
Some of them were unresponsive when they were asked for their reactions. They had not long returned from the biggest, most responsible and dangerous task of their lives, yet hardly offered a word about it.
They were uncommitted on whether the war was right or wrong.
But some WERE willing to discuss their time in Vietnam:
"The whole idea is that you creep through the jungle so the Viet Cong cannot hear you," says journalist Ian Cook, a machine-gunner in the Army.
"But the jungle is so thick you just have to break your way through and naturally make the most incredible noise.
"So the first one through is the target.
"It really is nerve-wracking. The pressure is enormous.
"I adopted the mental attitude that I was going to die. From then on it did not matter. You could do the most incredible things, and it did not matter.
"When you go on patrol you start out from base, with a bare minimum of rations, for three weeks.
"There is no booze; probably not a change of clothes in that time, not a wash, or a change of socks, perhaps a shave, and hardly any sleep.
"So just from the physical point of view things are incredibly difficult.
"You never know what is going to happen so these things tend to build up the pressure.
"When I first shot and killed I know I definitely got two Viet Cong. "It was a horrible mix-up really.
"I know one had 30 bullets in him. He was torn in half and I had done it.
"The only thing I could feel was great happiness because it was him and not me. I know this is not me, but that's the way it is up there.
"Everything is different. There are different values and they don't fit anywhere else.
"The things I do down here have nothing to do with up there.
"In those few seconds when all is happening, the important thing is that you get him before he gets you. That's what matters.
"I didn't go out and bring the bodies back. The section I was in was doing the attacking.
"The following section went put and brought in the bodies. One of the bodies I shot turned out to be our battalion's 100th kill, so they turned on a bottle of champagne. I was quite pleased, I thought it was quite a good effort. This doesn't sound like me here but that's the way it is up there.
"I couldn't believe myself doing it before I went in and I still can't believe having done it before now. You eventually have a terrible letdown because you get tremendously excited at the time and the adrenalin buildup must be tremendous. After a while you start to wonder: 'Just who am I?'
"I don't think anybody knows how bad it is up there, only the Australians in the jungle.
"The Army public relations moved in towards the end of our stay and it is very hard for a newsman to go out with a batallion.
"I think there is an attempt to keep it from the public.
"The real clamp-down came after the middle of 1968 and allegations about a soldier giving a Viet Cong suspect water torture.
"I remember it well because it caused a stir among the fellows I was with.
"They all went around with the catch-cry: 'We are never cruel to our prisoners. We never take any.'
"I went up there with a feeling of being against the war and I came back with that feeling consolidated.
"There is a general attitude that the South Vietnamese want to be freed from the communists.
"But having seen them and how poor they are and how much they suffer through the war I am convinced they could not possibly lose anything if the communists took over.
"I think there is a rich minority in South Vietnam that wants the Americans and Australians to oust the communists.
"But the vast majority of peasants would be happy so long as somebody took over —the communists, anybody —and the war stopped."
Another soldier who saw the war as a just war, said he went to Vietnam with a "pretty idealistic approach."
"I was keen to get up there."
He said he believed Australia's involvement was worth while and he came home with the same feeling.
"I guess that coloured what I saw," he said. He would not be named.
"But so far as my conscience goes, killing certain people in Vietnam is justifiable."
He was not worried by casualties among Australians.
As a soldier he saw casualties in a detached way. "Things like that are black and white," he said.
He expected that a civilian would view them with more concern.
Yet the same young man recounted one of the most touching stories of Vietnam I had heard in a week of interviews.
It was about an ambush which he had recorded in his diary. He said it was an event that left a deep emotional impression.
It was an ambush with armoured vehicles near a river, early in the morning, with the night's curfew on the river still hours away from being lifted.
A sampan came down the river, and after waking his mate, the diary writer reflected: "Ambushing is an aburd little game—it is so easy."
Back in Australia and in training he recalled how hard it was, sitting through the night, still, in complete silence, no matter what bit you, no matter how uncomfortable you were. Here the noise of the sampan woke him. You even had time to have a sleep if you wanted it in a real life ambush he thought. The little sampan was an easy, flimsy target. And the diarist wrote how he turned up the volume of his radio before his mate started firing, how he quietly said a little prayer for those aboard the sampan. There were only two people aboard, a civilian and his daughter. Nobody knew why the civilian—his body could not be recovered after the attack— was taking his eight-year-old daughter down the river at 2 am.
But the young soldier recalls, that he and an officer had to take the little girl back to her mother and tell her they had killed her husband.
The war in Vietnan, he said, made him more self-reliant.
"It's the first real responsibility I had. I was responsible for the lives of men.
"I do not think you find many people my age—I'm 24 with that responsibility outside the services.
Another soldier who would not be named (he is still a reserve), said he spent nearly a year in Vietnam and considered he would not have done national service training if it had not meant going to Vietnam. "Getting there makes you feel that at last you have achieved something," he said. "Otherwise you have just lost the two best years of your life doing nothing.
"Everybody knows the most boring thing in life is being in the Army in Australia.
His attitude to the war was: "You might as well fight the communists there rather than here."
He said he believed if communism was not checked in Vietnam it would spread.
At the moment the effects of communism were already noticeable in Australia.
"Every time they have trouble at the wharves, it is caused by the communists," he said.
Did anything annoy or irritate him about Vietnam?
"Yes, the officers. Just their attitude. The snobbish attitude of a lot of 'em."
Peter Dyson, of Swanbourne was angry at first when he saw his mates getting injured and shot.
"I was angry within myself, I guess it's the best way I could describe it. I wanted to kill as many of the Viet Cong as I could. The first operation I was in, there were 16 casualties on the first night."
Mr Dyson was in the gun pits with about 800 Australians facing about 6000 Viet Cong in opposition. The battle started at dusk and lasted till early morning. The same pattern continued for several days and eventually the Australians were helped out of trouble by the Americans.
Mr Dyson said when he was in the pits first of all he felt "pretty damned scared."
But then his attitude changed to a strange optimisic rationalisation:
"Oh we can't all get killed because we haven't lost a whole battalion in one operation so far in this, war."
His anger at his mates getting hurt changed after a while too. Your attitude towards this changes. You learn to become less attached to these things."
All your thoughts centre on the idea that you have got to protect yourself.
"They come back to your own survival. Partly it gets down to the thing that it's no bloody good getting angry. You can't do anything about it. And from here you think: 'What am I doing here anyway?' '
He said he noticed a big change when he got home.
Some attitudes and opinions of people who had not been to Vietnam annoyed him, particularly university students or people who protested about having to go to Vietnam. The fact that he could not share his experiences with anybody made it difficult.
He also missed the mateship and the constant companionship of soldiering.
"You learn to live with chaps, you learn to be more tolerant and you miss them when you are back home. I would practically go off my head if somebody came home late and drunk and tipped my bed upside down. After a while you get used to all this. You become more tolerant. But you get frustrated with the attitudes of people, especially when you see these university riots with people saying they don't want to do national service. I think most chaps who went overseas share the opinion that it's not a winning cause, but it's a just cause. I think the thing that really gets you for the first 12 months back is restlessness. I'm only now just starting to settle down. I could have had six million jobs since I've been back. But I'm settling down now. I was working in a bank when I got called up. But I couldn't have stayed in a bank. I would have got sick of staying inside. As a result I'm selling real estate now, and getting out a bit."
Ian Cook said he also noticed a restlessness among Vietnam veterans.
"It seems they have seen so much that they just lose all sense of values. Nothing really matters. Nothing matters like having possessions or having money. All anybody really feels like doing is drifting around and keeping on drifting. I'm talking particularly about one bloke who was studying law before going away“.
"When he came back he didn't go back to university. He took up labouring.
"Something has changed his whole life."