I spent most of last week in Bendigo attending a reunion of my Army unit from Vietnam. We originally planned it for last year but the borders being closed due to Covid beat us and we had to defer it until this year. In 1987, the then Prime Minister (Bob Hawke) declared that August 18 would always be known as Vietnam Veteran’s Day. We have always held our reunions around this date.
Our event began on Tuesday afternoon (August 16) with a “Meet and Greet” function at the Bendigo RSL Over seventy people attended (including partners) and some stayed on for dinner afterwards. It was wonderful to see so many of our old mates from 85 Transport Platoon (Vietnam) once more. We have a strong bond originating from the time we worked together, played together and looked after each other while we were at war in Vietnam.
On our second day, we had an exciting trip to Puckapunyal Army Base near Seymour where many of us completed elements of our training or, alternatively, were posted prior to embarkation. I did my recruit training there as well as my driver training before I went to Vietnam, I was posted to an operating unit at Pucka as well.
We were invited by the Army School of Transport to visit and see some of their new trucks and meet their trainees. Warfare is now very different from the closed in jungles and rubber plantations of Vietnam and the new vehicles designed for open terrain reflect that. We were somewhat open-mouthed to see just how technologically advanced the Army’s modern vehicles were. By comparison, our old International Mark 3’s and 5’s looked very primitive.
These new vehicles are made by Germany’s MAN Rheinmetall and have quite a number of very advanced features. For example, the crew are fully harnessed while travelling as the very forward cabin is designed to separate from the vehicle in case of an explosion. There are no openable windows – all air conditioned and the vehicle is automatic. While we had a a crew of two (driver and co-driver, each armed with personal weapons on our trucks), these new ones now have a crew of three – driver, gunner and commander. The commander has access to more electronics and communication equipment than we had in our entire unit. Each truck now has a roof mounted 7.62 calibre machine gun, hence the role of the gunner. While we loaded trucks by hand, these modern ones have an integrated loading system where freight is pre-loaded into containers or on flat platforms that the truck then lifts and carries mechanically.
We spent a good hour talking to a group of trainees about our experiences and they were very interested in some of the photos that we had to show. We were old enough to be their grandfathers but they showed us a lot of respect and gave us a good amount of interest. Many thanks to the leadership of the School of Transport for hosting us.
We had lunch in Royal Hotel – the oldest pub in Seymour and were fascinated by its history and stories from the past that the owners presented to us. Its history in colonial times included being a mortuary, post office and Cobb and Co stage coach station.
Our last stop before returning to Bendigo was to visit the Vietnam Commemorative Walk. It was established jointly by the city council and the local RSL (Returned Services League) because so many soldiers who went to Vietnam did some of their training in the area. It has a long glass curving wall that contains the name of everyone who served in Vietnam from all three services.
The weather on Thursday (August 18) was lousy but it didn’t deter us from joining in a commemorative service for Vietnam Veterans Day that was led by the Bendigo Vietnam Veterans Association. Our ex OC (Col Snare) gave a very meaningful address. Following the service, we sat down for a nice lunch is one of the RSL’s function rooms.
Our last day, Friday, saw us taking a short tour of Bendigo in which a member of the local historical society pointed out many of the important sites that are part of the city’s history. Bendigo is the third largest city in Victoria with a population of 101,000. The discovery of gold on Bendigo Creek in 1851 transformed the area from a sheep station into one of colonial Australia’s largest boomtowns. Bendigo has the newest Gothic style cathedral in the world.
Following this tour, we had arranged a visit to the Thales factory where the Bushmaster and new Hawkei vehicles are manufactured. Thales (pronounced Tallis) is a French company that has a number of operations around Australia that manufacture military equipment and various armaments. Their site at Bendigo is in the old Ordnance Factory that has operated since before WW2. We weren’t aloud to take photos inside.
For us old blokes, these vehicles are quite mind-blowing. The Bushmaster is an armoured vehicle that carries ten soldiers. They no longer get transported on the back of as truck as in our day. This vehicle was very successful in Afghanistan and we have recently donated a couple of dozen of therm to Ukraine.
The Hawkei is a 7 tonne vehicle to be used for reconnaissance work and transporting of supplies. It too has some interesting features. For example, all the seats and internal fittings are suspended from the roof, rather than being bolted to the floor. This provides increased safety from the energy of any explosion and protects the occupants. These vehicles will run on either diesel or jet fuel. (With the prevalence of aircraft and helicopters in modern warfare, jet fuel is often far more readily available on the battlefield than is diesel). These vehicles can be slung under a Chinook helicopter and easily transferred. On top of that they have a range of around 600 km, self inflating tyres and their lithium batteries can power them in constant readiness but in complete radio silence for up to 15 hours.
Our final event was a dinner at the All Seasons Hotel. It was a grand event with everyone attending. We had a speech from one of the local councillors (who was standing in for the Mayor) and entertainment by a duo that sang all the old songs that we knew.
I came home on Saturday morning very relieved that this event had gone so well. I had headed up the committee who put many hours of work planning this reunion and it is a credit to their effort that everything went so well. Now, all we have to do, is to wait for our next reunion in Darwin in 2024. Hopefully, without Covid, we can entice more people to attend.