Life Lessons From Vietnam

Memorial

I was recently asked to give a talk on my experience as a soldier in Vietnam. Others have also asked for a copy of my talk – so here it is.

This year, as normal, I attended the Anzac Day Dawn Service and the annual March to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. For me, different parts of Anzac Day have different meanings. The simple Dawn Service replicates the ‘Stand To’ that every soldier on active service follows as a defensive measure in case they become under attack at dawn. During that service, I often reflect on my Grandfather’s service in the trenches in France, at the Somme, and the barbaric nature of that time that would have been a horrible experience for any man. Then, I see the March as a time of reunion in which I can catch up with old mates with whom I have a close bond. It’s also a time of pride for me in that I have served my country.

March

I didn’t get involved in any of these services for many years after I returned home from Vietnam. Veterans were never sure as to how they would be treated by the protestors who threw red paint or dye at us and called us murderers and baby killers. It wasn’t until, after the wonderful welcome home parade in Sydney in 1987 that I felt good about engaging in these commemorative events.

The events in this talk happened over 50 years ago now. I believe that the Army has changed significantly since those days. I need help to remember some things about my service and other memories are as clear if they happened yesterday. Those who served in other Corps or even in the same unit at different times will certainly tell a very different story to the one that I am telling you as their experience would be different.

I was a ‘Nasho’ – conscripted into the army at 20 and I had my 21st birthday shortly after arriving in Vietnam. We didn’t like to be called Conscripts – the preferred term was National Servicemen or ‘Nashos’ for short.

As I get older, I get more and more proud of my service and I am constantly amazed at how something that I never expected to be part of my life has become so significant in my life. I grew up in a very close knit (probably sheltered) family. I probably could have benefited from a bit more larikanism.

Conscription in the 1960s and 70s operated on the basis that you had to register in the year that you turned 20. A ballot was held with birthdates drawn from a lottery barrel until they had sufficient numbers. It was very much a lottery. After a medical check, you started your national service in one of four intakes of around 1000 men each year.

When I received my call up notice, I was devastated. I was worried about what would be in front of me – would I go to Vietnam? Would I be safe and could I cope with army life?

In fact the notice that I received in the mail was written in strange government language. It seemed to me to be quite ambiguous, saying something like “You are eligible for National Service, however your eligibility has been deferred”. What did that mean? I called a friend to ask about his letter and he told me that it said “You are not required to serve”. My immediate reaction was “Oh Shit!”.

As it turned out, I am glad I went to Vietnam. I think that serving at a location back home would have been a waste of an opportunity. I am fortunate to have had the experience that I had on active service – it was far more rewarding than spending my two years in a base like Victoria Barracks or Watsonia and I now have a network of life-long mates.

Me With Rocks for Causeway LuminarNeo edit

It is a fallacy to think that everyone who was balloted in, went to Vietnam. Overall, around 800,000 young men were eligible for National Service, around 60,000 of these were actually called up, and only 16,000 of us went to Vietnam. In total, almost 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, 521 lost their lives and more than 3,000 were wounded.

I had to report for duty at the Engineers Depot in Swan Street – located near the site of the Square Stadium in Swan Street.. We had to brave a cordon of women protestors from the Save Our Sons Protest Movement. I had no idea that women who protested there (and during the war at other veterans events) could be so violent. Perhaps I expected women to be more motherly.

Once inside, we were welcomed by a number of soldiers in Army uniform with a cup of tea. However, when we got off the buses at our recruit training base at Puckapunyal, near Seymour, these Recruit Training Instructors started shouting at us and didn’t stop for the entire ten weeks of basic training. Basic training converted us from civilians into soldiers. We learned to march, fire weapons, follow army discipline, learn a variety of combat skills and complete hours of drill.

We were worked hard and were penalised for mild infractions. One common type of bastardisation was called ‘’Jumps’. This started with us all on parade and then given five minutes to be back on the parade ground in our pyjamas with the bottom sheet from our bed over our shoulder. We were made to do push ups until all the late comers were all back on the parade ground. Then we were ordered to change into PT gear and again had to do push-ups until all all the late comers were back. Finally, we had just another few minutes to get back on parade in our dress uniforms. After that, the NCOs held a hut inspection and we were charged because it wasn’t tidy. The penalty was a few days of being confined to barracks.

During recruit training, we had a series of compulsory self development lectures by the Padres. These were loosely based on the Ten Commandments and focused on both spiritual issues and decent civil behaviour. It was interesting to see how they handled the sixth commandment – thou shalt not kill, because that is exactly what we were being trained to do. My recollection is that they made a distinction between killing in combat and committing murder. This all seemed to have a positive effect as ultimately the way in which we operated was praised by our enemy with reports that Australians were good soldiers – they saw us as tough, we didn’t abuse their women and we respected their dead.

We marched out of recruit training with a formal parade feeling very proud of ourselves and the fittest that I have ever been in my life. We had been turned into soldiers and you would not have been able to recognise us from the regular full time soldiers apart from our different regimental service numbers.

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We were asked for our preference as to which Corps we would prefer but mostly the allocations didn’t make much sense. Schoolteachers were posted to the infantry, Mechanics became cooks and accountants became engineers.

I was a skinny kid with not much upper body strength. I had trouble with most of the physical training although I gave it the best go that I could. I was OK with long route marches as I had been a bushwalker – a field in which a long lean physique was an advantage. On the basis of this, and my previous employment, the army decided that I should become a clerk in the Royal Australian Army Service Corps.

Fortunately, for me, my grandfather died on the day of our march out parade and I was given two days compassionate leave. When I eventually reported back to the Corps training centre I was asked what I was there for, so I said to the officer, “Sir, I want to be a driver”. He directed me to the appropriate area and that began my specialist training in transport.

Driver Training took 8 weeks and we were taught how to handle heavy vehicles, do servicing, fill out the inevitable paperwork and drive under conditions of threat. I graduated this course as dux of the class with an army licence to drive a Landrover, 3 and 5 ton trucks, and a tipper (dump truck).

I then spent four months posted to a transport unit at Puckapuntal, learning that it was a reinforcement unit for Vietnam.

Our OC there was a reserve officer who had taken up a full time posting to provide extra leadership while other officers were posted to active service roles. He was very casual but creative enough to find interesting tasks that would keep us occupied. – carting hay to bushfire affected farmers, going on convoy drives to regional areas.and working to carry rock from a local quarry to the site of a new airstrip under construction. My mates never let me forget that on one of those days, the dux of the class rolled his truck onto its side.

Our final training before departure to Vietnam was at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, near the Gold Coast in Queensland. This training centre is the only Australian Army base that has its own cemetery (rather daunting). Training there was very tough – everything on the double. We practiced patrols in the bush, ambushes, cordon and search operations and had target practice both during the day and at night. Completing the confidence course, under live fire, and the tough obstacle course were a standard part of this training.

A standard issue SLR rifle (Self Roading Rifle) in those days weighed around 5 kgs. Instead of taking one of those heavy weapons to Canungra, our OC issued us with a much smaller and lighter F1 sub-machine gun. These were instantly taken from us on arrival and we were issued with SLR Rifles.

Coming back to Puckapunyal from Brisbane by second class rail, we slept in the luggage racks. My bag with my broken down weapon inside was checked into the guards van but not offloaded at Seymour. We had a very anxious wait for the return train from Melbourne after frantic phone calls to the lost property office at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne. It wouldn’t have done to have a couple of sub-machine guns go missing! Fortunately, they arrived back in Seymour on the afternoon train.

As a result of all this training , we were very well prepared for our overseas posting.

I flew to Vietnam on a chartered Qantas plane, changing into civilian clothes for a transit stop through Singapore. There was only an informal agreement between the two governments for troops to transit through Singapore so we had to look like civilians. It must have been very strange, every week, to have 150 young men with short hair wandering around Singapore airport wearing khaki pants, spit polished shoes and in a variety of coloured shirts.

On our arrival in Saigon, we were dumped out onto the tarmac waiting in sandbagged revetments for further travel to our different units.

In Vietnam, we were up against two types of enemy. The NVA who were well trained and disciplined were full time soldiers. We would also fight the Viet Song (VC) who formed a militia resistance movement and part time insurgency in the south. We were told that we would be able to recognise them because they all wore black pyjamas. It was quite unsettling to sit amongst the revetments and see that all the local workers wore black pyjamas – it was actually the standard peasant working dress.

Australia (army) had three centres of operations in Vietnam – a small headquarters in Saigon, a logistics base and hospital at the port of Vung Tau where our supplies arrived. Our task force operations were based at Nui Dat. The base at Nui Dat was located in a rubber plantation and had a circumference of around 8 kilometres. Units were well spread out to reduce any risk of damage from rocket and mortar attacks. The perimeter consisted of just a couple of barbed wire entanglements with a guard tower very 300 – 400 metres or so We constantly patrolled the area around our base. At the height of the war, around 5000 men were posted at this base. The army had relocated nearby villages and cleared a distance of 3000 metres around our perimeter. This was to prevent the VC from being able to hide and fire mortars into the base.

My unit, 85 Transport Platoon, was a part of the Task Force Maintenance Area (TFMA). We had three responsibilities. About 1/3 of our trucks were servicing the Task Force – delivering water, garbage, fresh food, and distributing ammunition. Another third were tippers working with the Engineers on civil aid projects such as building schools, repairing roads and building community facilities. The final third were general purpose cargo trucks carrying troops to operations and resupplying operations in the bush. As I said, I was 20 years old when I arrived at this unit. My platoon sergeant was only 23 and my commanding officer was 25. We were all very young, but very capable. My OC recently told me that the army has never been more effective since those days.

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We lived in tents – each with a weapons pit by the entrance. We slept on iron framed beds under a mosquito net.

We had a compulsory roll call and pill parade at 6.00 am every day before we went off to breakfast and then started work at 8.00 am after another parade when we had our weapons inspected and we received our tasks for the day.

Our mess hut fed everyone in the in TFMA. Showers were a corrugated iron shed with five or six canvas shower buckets strung up on pulleys. Water was heated by petrol fired ‘choofers’ in a 44 gallon drum and we each had one bucket of warm water for showering each day.

Toilets were ‘long drops’ with six seats in a row. There was chimney / flue through the roof as every few weeks we would tip a 44 gallon drum of petrol into the pit and burn everything off to maintain hygiene. It was great fun to wait until the toilet had a full house and then quietly drop a coloured smoke grenade down the flue (that is of course, unless you were one of the occupants at the time).

Nui Dat  TFMA Lines in Dry  3

Food was good – we ate out of aluminium dixies – breakfast was cereal, eggs and sausages / bacon with a cup of tea. Lunch was often a salad and dinner at night was a hot meal of various types with dessert – nothing fancy, just lots of solid food to feed hungry and active soldiers. However, in my unit, we were rarely back in the base at lunch time so we were generally issued with ration packs each day and had lunch out on the road..

We had a wet canteen (boozer) which was popular as a social gathering place at nights. We were rationed to two cans of beer per man per day. Our recreation hut had a black and white television set that picked up TV broadcasts from an American Station. I remember feeling that it was quite incongruous that I could watch the first moon landing live while at war!

Occasionally, we had a show from visiting entertainers. The most regular form of entertainment was a nightly movie in the outdoor theatre .

Once each month, we had a day trip down to our logistics base at Vung Tau where they had a beach and a pool. Being a non drinker in those days, This gave me the opportunity to catch up with a few mates who were posted there, shop at the American PX and do an occasional cultural tour run by the American Red Cross.

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Mail was our only form of communication to home. I had a lot of friends and family writing to me so I spent a lot of time writing and answering mail. It ruined my handwriting. It took about five days for the mail from home to reach us unless the postal workers or the waterside workers protested by black banning mail and supplies to the troops. Eventually, the army created a work around for these stoppages but for a time contact with home was unpredictable.

Lights out was at 10.00 pm and after 6.00 pm shirts were on and sleeves had to be rolled down to minimise mosquito bites and malaria.

We were nominally paid in A$ currency which at that time was worth $US 1.35. I still have difficulty trying to understand my pay book with its double entry system! We were also issued with a cake of soap and a couple of razor blades every two weeks. I think my pay rate was $68 per fortnight. There wasn’t much to spend money on and by the time that I cam home, I had saved enough to buy a new car.

To prevent black marketing, our cash money was in the form of Military Payments Certificates (MPC). Normal US currency or AUD was never used. Every now and then there was a sudden and unannounced changeover to a new series of MPC. This made the old version. Instantly worthless and this greatly upset the local bar owners and black market dealers who had collected large amounts of MPC, only to find it now worthless.

Everyone was rostered for piquet duty overnight. Pairs of us rotated on a four hours on – four hours off basis to patrol our operational and living area to provide security at night. One of my scariest moments was to see the reflection of the moonlight in the reflector of a parked trailer. I was sure that it was a VC who had infiltrated into our base.

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Nui Dat was a self contained base. We had an airstrip, a helicopter pad for operations and another for supplying troops in the bush. The base had its own water treatment plant, postoffice, cash office, Q Store and Canteen (think, mini Kmart) , a barber shop (latterly) and a POW compound. We had a medical centre with a fully equipped hospital about 20 minutes away by helicopter. No local people were allowed to enter the Nui Dat base.

As a transport unit, we actually spent more time outside the base than did the infantry, although while we didn’t go out looking for a fight, we were well prepared to deal with a threat or attack if one arose.

I remember on the first convoy that I was on a few days after I arrived in country, We were carting sand in tippers from the beach at Vung Tau up to Nui Dat (about 30 kms). This took us through a number of villages and along the main highway from Vung Tau to Saigon. I was ‘shotgun’ on that truck and it was very stressful. I spent the trip on alert standing on the co-driver’s seat with my head out of the cupola. I had my rifle loaded, a round up the spout and the safety catch on. My eyes were continually scanning for any threat and I was feeling anxious. However, after a few days I began to feel more comfortable and although we were always anxious, I could put everything into a more relaxed perspective.

Tippers carrying Sand

Anxiety was always an issue for us. We never knew whether the Vietnamese man who rode past on his motorcycle was a schoolteacher on his way teach a class, or a VC with a satchel of explosive that could be brown into one of our trucks. Our convoys were escorted by a Landcover fitted out with an M60 machine gun.

One day, I was driving (alone) through a rubber plantation north of our base when a Vietnamese man jumped out from behind a tree waving a North Vietnamese flag. I had no idea how to respond other than to speed up and try to run him over. He was still there when I came back but this time, I had my rifle ready to shoot. It turned out that he was simply trying to sell me the flag as a souvenir.

We occasionally had a “stand to’ when the VC fired mortars and rockets into our base. Fortunately, most of these overshot and landed in the rubbish dump on the perimeter. There were some times when Intelligence expected an attack, so for those periods we were always with our weapons – in the shower, toilet, at the mess, or watching a movie. Otherwise, our weapons would stay in our tents while we were inside the base. Rifles were inspected every day and we would be charged with an offence if there was even a tiny speck of dust in the barrel.

There was one resettled village just to the north called Ngai Giou. A community of Roman Catholics from North Vietnam had been resettled there. I spent a few weeks working on a civil aid project to build a medical centre for that village.

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I’m sure that you have all heard of atrocities committed by Americans (and supposedly by Australians) during the war. The classic one was at My Lai in which US troops murdered many civilians. However, what people at home never heard about were the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong.

Within two days of the Ngai Giou people being resettled, the village headman had been murdered by the VC. In acts of terror, village chiefs were disembowelled in front of their community. We discovered after a few weeks that the people of Ngai Giou were starving. The VC were blocking them from travelling along the road to the next village to go to the market. Our trucks went to work providing transport to and from the market until the problem with the Viet Cong was resolved.

One of my favourite memories was that no matter how far we travelled out of our base and into the back blocks, we would invariably come across a Salvation Army Officer in his Landcover who had set up a coffee / tea station. Each fighting not had its own Padre and Chapel. Otherwise, we had three padres in Nui Dat – RC, C of E and OPD (Other Protestant Denominations). They were quite accessible if you had a personal issue that you wanted to talk about. However the Salvos were always out in our operational areas and they did a wonderful job of pastoral care.

Some of our work within the base was preparing and loading water bladders that were flown out to the troops in the field. The same went for ammunition. Occasionally, we were lucky to get a joy flight on one of these supply helicopters but we had to make sure that it was returning for another load, otherwise we would end up somewhere else and charged with desertion. It was a bit of a risk, but good fun.

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We all spent a couple of turns on the Garbo run. We had the only compactor garbage truck ever built for the army. It proved our thoughts on how the army designed its tricks – they worked out high a man could conveniently lift t and then added another half metre to its height. The garbage run provided a good example of being able to make the most out of something. Men who were about to return home often threw out their clothes and boots. We could swap these on a one for one basis at the Q store for new ones (called “Loss and Damage Replacement or L&D.) Although the standard uniform issue was two pairs of boots, two shirts, two pants etc, I ended up with over six pairs of everything because of the gear that I collected on the garbage run.

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One of our largest operations was to supply an Infantry and armoured corps operation that went into the extreme north of our area of responsibility. It aimed to prevent the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from infiltrating into Saigon as they had done during the previous Chinese New Year (Tet).

The direct road to the north hadn’t been cleared since the French left in 1964 and was considered too dangerous to use. Instead, we took a route over two other sides of a triangle. It was much longer – presenting us with a three day return trip. We took five trucks loaded with with petrol and tank ammunition and were escorted by a gun jeep and two armoured personnel carriers with 50 calibre guns.

Operation Matilda  Resupplying

For two nights, we stayed at a US base that was expecting to be overrun within the next couple of weeks. On the second day of this operation, we resupplied our tanks and helicopters. It then took us another day and half to get back home.

At this US base, was the first time that we had ever experienced overt racism and we were shocked. We went to the mess for dinner and sat down at a convenient table only to be told by the Americans that we should sit somewhere else as that was the table where the ‘niggers’ sat. That wouldn’t have been an issue for us and we weren’t used to any of that type of racial distinction. For example, the engineer in charge of our tip was an Aboriginal and we followed his orders and instruction as he was the boss. His nickname name was ‘Nugget’ but I doubt that such a nickname would be appropriate today.

We liked the American equipment and fire power, but not their method of soldiering. Many were poorly trained and ignorant. We used to make some extra pocket money when we picked up ice from their ice works by selling them chicken feathers for $1 each as ‘kangaroo feathers’.

Some of our problems came from ‘industrial accidents’ not just the enemy. One of our members rolled his truck over in a major road accident and needed to have his face reconstructed by American plastic surgeons. To this day, he still looks fifteen years younger than the rest of us.

We had one day, when we were tasked to clear a remote fire support base. A little D4 bulldozer was bogged in some mud. We thought that could give it some traction by using the winch rope on our truck to pull it out. However, with my toe on the accelerator and my heel on the brake, all that happened was that my track was dragged in toward the bulldozer. We connected a second truck to the back of my truck with chains, thinking more weight would help. Meanwhile, a platoon of Vietnamese soldiers had lined up along the length of the winch rope watching what was going on. All of a sudden, the wire inch rope snapped and it snaked wildly towards the bulldozer. To this day, I don’t know how any of these soldiers were not decapitated.

Mostly, I enjoyed driving the tippers on road construction. It made me feel as though we were doing something constructive. Our trucks were often over loaded to double their carrying capacity. We were occasionally out after curfew, working in the dark to repair roads and culverts that the VC had blown up, or to carry rock to build a causeway that was being built to replace a blown up bridge. On those occasions, we were heavily protected.

Route 15  Causeway Constrauction

It took quite bit of skill to lay out a load of screenings to a certain depth when we were working with the engineers. After a few weeks I was able to run a load out to any required depth – 3 inches, 6 inches or just dump it on site.

I arrived home with about three months left to serve. We had to pay for our own airfares from Sydney to our home state, otherwise we would have travelled by free second class rail travel.

I had about six weeks of leave accrued. That gave me time to settle in again. At first, I missed the structure and discipline of the previous two years but with help from my boss and my family, I settled back in to civilian life.

A few days after returning home, I went shopping with my mum. There was a sudden loud noise (maybe a car backfiring) and I found myself lying in the gutter with my arms over my head. My mother asked “What on earth are you doing?’ and I replied “The same thing as I did last week”.

I then had about six weeks of time to serve at the Watsonia army depot before I was discharged.

The company that I worked for had to give me my job back, by law, They had actually employed someone else to to do the same things at that I had done before I went into the army but with a little bit of temporary resentment, I was well supported and glad to be back at work again.

Memories do keep lingering on. Many years later, I met up with a man at a landscaping business, got talking, and showed him my diary that I had kept. I had recorded that one day, we had taken a company of infantry from 5 RAR out to the start of an operation. This was the operation in which his brother was killed.

So from this experience at the ripe old age of twenty one I learned some good life lessons. Many of these were reinforced by my later training as an Organisational Psychologist and in my professional consulting work. I have to say that they are not always easy to follow however.

You cannot send a person to war and expect them to come home the same.

Some people ridicule veterans who are affected by their war service, but you simply can’t judge a veteran by civilian standards. One of the expectations of war is that people should be able to perform in ways that humans are not really capable of. The guilt of not living up to this expectation affects people enormously and has long lasting effects.

Hang out with winners – not with losers.

Winners are capable of providing support and a good example in life. Losers suck the energy right out of you as they need frequent reinforcement and support for dealing with their own problems.

Everyone has something to offer.

Find out what others can contribute and encourage them to contribute. They may just do it more effectively the you can and we will all be richer for their contribution.

Try not to judge others.

This is very difficult. It was easy to look down on the Vietnamese around us. However, they were just ordinary people who wanted the same things that we all want – security, the best for their family, an education for their kids and enough for to eat. Every individual is a human being and no less valuable than any other.

Learn about the context or environment .in which you are operating.

I was surprised at the living conditions of some people in Vietnam who lived in shacks that were constructed along the roadside, Later, I realised that they were displaced people who were struggling with conditions that they had no control over. My attitude to them changed significantly. Understanding the circumstances of others is essential for responding to them appropriately. The business equivalent of this is to know your market.

If you want to achieve some form of outcome, take responsibility for doing something about it yourself.

When I arrived in Vietnam, we had to erect a new tent, I slept on a camp stretcher for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t until I recognised that no one was going to get a bed for me that I had to go and scrounge one for myself. I ended up finding a spare bed along with a packing case that I could use as a locker long before the time I would have had one by waiting for someone to put my priorities ahead of their own. Self responsibility is an important part of one’s own effectiveness.

THAT IS MY STORY

Nui Dat  Dumping Gravel  2

Before I went to Vietnam, one of my relations gave me a pocket sized diary with a zipper enclosure. I kept a daily record of my activities and later combined these notes with the letters that I had written home to my family.

For a detailed description of my time in Vietnam, look up my Vietnam War Diary at https://www.wilsons.id.au/vietnam-diary-march-1969-70/

4 thoughts on “Life Lessons From Vietnam

  1. Thanks for sharing your memories and thoughts of a remarkable time.
    Cheers, Joe

  2. Absolutely wonderful Bruce. Thank you so much. I regret having missed the meeting to hear it it “in the flesh” , but am very grateful to read this transcript. A wonderful record.

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