As a veteran, I am always interested to visit the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra. Every time that I visit, I find something new to see. It is a wonderful memorial with so much to reflect upon as to how our armed services have contributed to Australia’s history.
Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War One historian, first conceived of a museum memorial to Australian soldiers while observing the 1916 battles in France. An architecture competition in 1927 defined the design of the memorial but a limited budget and the effects of the Depression confined the scope of the project. In 1939, it became clear that a second war of similar proportions would break out, so the Memorial’s Board of Management decided to make the building a space for the remembrance of all Australians involvement in war. The building was completed in 1941, after the outbreak of World War II. Additions since the 1940s have allowed the remembrance of Australia’s participation in all recent conflicts. The Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier was added in 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 1.
Last night, we found, on the memorial’s the website, that a free ticket was required for entry due to the management of Covid density numbers along with some serious a construction activity that will almost double the memorial’s size. I was a bit disappointed to find that the Post WW2 museum areas (including Vietnam) were now only open on some specific days.
I was wearing a polo short from one of my unit reunions and when I showed my tickets on arrival, the staff quickly recognised me as a veteran and immediately offered me a special visit to see the Vietnam exhibits. A young lady named Rosie accompanied us down to the closed off Vietnam area of the museum and allow me a good deal of time to look around. She had also served in an army transport unit and we had a good conversation in which we swapped stories about transport operations and our common service in the army.
The building consists of three parts:
- The Commemorative Area a (shrine to those who made the ultimate sacrifice of giving their life in service to their country).
- The Memorial’s Galleries (museum) with a display of memorabilia, artifacts and stories from Australia’s involvement in wars beginning with the Maori Wars in New Zealand in 1863, then the Boer War, Gallipoli and the First World War, the Second World War, Malaya, Korea and Vietnam and finally our last military activities in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
- The Research Centre (records) that provide first hand information for historians and those researching their family history..
This area includes the Pool of Reflection above which two long galleries record the names of every Australian who has died in the service of their country.
Their names are recorded on a series of bronze panels. Relatives and friends have placed poppies near the names of those with whom they are connected and these colonnades are a sea of red as you look along their length.
At the end of the building is a dome in which our unknown soldier is buried and the mosaic covered walls illustrate a representative of the four services of Australia’s military.
Thanks to Rosie, we were able see some exhibits that would have otherwise been closed today. The two most impressive ones were an Armoured Personnel Carrier and a Huey helicopter. Both of these machines were instrumental in taking our infantry soldiers into combat operations in Vietnam. The sounds that they made are forever etched into the memories of Vietnam Veterans.
One exhibit that has a lot of significance to Vietnam Veterans is a model of our base at Nut Dat from where our task force operated.
The site of Nui Dat was chosen by Lieutenant General John Wilton in 1966 and was built mainly by men from the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. The occupation of Nui Dat required the removal of all inhabitants from within a 4,000-metre radius of the base in order to ensure the security of the facility. Ultimately this policy—which was an unusual step among allied bases in Vietnam—required the resettlement of the villages of Long Tan, with a population of 1000, and Long Phuoc, with a population of 3000 people.
The Dat, as we called it, sprawled out from a low hill and was bounded by a major road that bisected Phuoc Tuy Province from north to south. By 1969 it housed 5,000 soldiers, and its defoliated perimeter of barbed wire was 12 kilometres long. Rubber trees provided useful shade within the base. Snakes, almost as plentiful, were less welcome, as was the constant noise from frequent landings and takeoffs by aeroplanes and helicopters and intermittent artillery and mortar fire in support of operations.
Life at the Dat was quite regimented. A day typically began at first light with patrols of the perimeter, a flag raising and the first of two “pill parades” at which soldiers took preventive medicines against malaria. Breakfast, usually consisted of toast, cereal and eggs and came at around 7.30 am, followed by inspections, briefings, and several hours of work.
For those who stayed inside the base, lunch often consisted of cold meat and salad, and was followed by more work in the afternoon. For those, like us drivers, who were frequently on the road at lunch time, we ate from a hotbox that was brought out to with hot food insulated in a container filled with hot water. Otherwise we ate from an American C2 single meal ration pack. There were 12 varieties of these and each included one canned meat item, one can of fruit, a tin of biscuits or crackers and a dessert item. An accessory packet contained cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream, sugar, and salt, can opener and a spoon. Although the meat item could be eaten cold, it was much more palatable when heated. By comparison, Australian raton packs were much lighter in weight (and tastier) and provided food for 24 hours.
Around 5.00 pm the recreation rooms and the wet canteen (boozer), where alcohol could be purchased, would open. We were limited to two cans of beer per man per day. After dinner, which may have been a barbecue, but more often consisted of meat and three veg, the flag was furled, sleeves were rolled down as further protection against mosquitoes, the perimeter was patrolled again, and movies were shown. Lights out was at 10.00 pm. Each unit mounted an overnight piquet for security. Pairs of men patrolled their allocated area between 6.00 pm and 6.00 am, In our case, piquets were rostered for four hours on and four hours off. Everyone had multiple turns on piquet duty.
The Resource Area
We didn’t get to this area today but one of my proudest moments in the past was to take my two grand daughters there to show them the diary that I kept while serving in Vietnam. My mother had kept all the letters that I had written home and I donated them to the War Memorial along with my small pocket diary in which I had kept a note of every day’s activity during my service in Vietnam. It is available for aversion to see – all you have to do is to go the desk at the Resource section and ask to see Private Wilson’s Vietnam Diary.
The Memorial’s Expansion
As I mentioned earlier, the Memorial is beginning a very large expansion program. Only about 4% of their memorabilia items are currently on display and a large area is being constructed in which to house more of them – especially those from more recent conflicts. Outside the Memorial is a small bulding that has a computer generated video of how this expansion may look. It appears to be really stunning and will take three years to complete. I grabbed this photo off the video to provide some idea as to the fished building will look. There will be a new entrance at the front and a large semi circular addition at he back. Both look as though they will blend into the current building exceptionally well.