We are now in the 50th Anniversary Years of the Vietnam War, or as they call it in Vietnam “The American War”. And we might ask : How did we end up in the Vietnam Situation that has left us with such a legacy ?
Australian men and women had been deployed overseas by our Federal Government in the years since WW2 prior to Vietnam – all “regulars”, including many local people. In the decades after WW2 there had been serious concern about the spread of Communism and the Domino Theory, which was played superbly by long term Conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who invoked our SEATO Treaty Obligations. The USA had sought support for Vietnam with their Many Flags approach – similar to what we have seen in recent decades. Thus we saw Conscription reintroduced several times and our military personnel deployed to various Asia Pacific locations.
- Malaya : information suggests that we did not lose any local people in Malaya
- Korea : information suggests that we did not lose any local people in Korea
- Borneo : information suggests that we did not lose any local people in Borneo
- Papua New Guinea : information suggests that we did not lose any local people in PNG
- Vietnam : it is unknown how many Illawarra people actually served in Vietnam however it undoubtedly numbers in the hundreds – and five Illawarra young men lost their lives there. Four lived in the Illawarra and one who had been born here.
Initially a contingent known as the AATTV, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, a Special Forces unit was deployed in 1962. In later years this was escalated to include the No.1 ATF, No.1 Australian Task Force, so that we saw about 60,000 Australians serve in Vietnam – Army, Navy, RAAF and Civilian personnel. Over 15,000 were Conscripted National Servicemen, of whom over 200 died, of the total of 500 Australians killed in Vietnam.
There had been attempts to introduce Conscription in 1916 and 1917 during WW1 by then Prime Minister William Morris “Billy” Hughes. These were highly divisive, but were defeated at national votes or plebiscites. They were then opposed by ALP politician John Curtin, who would be forced to turn to Conscription in the defence of Australia in WW2. Universal Conscription had then been introduced by the Menzies Government with the Malaya Emergency and the Korean War. However by 1957 a more selective approach was being considered, before Conscription was abandoned in late 1959. By 1964 the Australian Government chose to re-introduce a selective form of National Service Conscription based on birthdays – and then that National Servicemen would be deployed overseas to Vietnam. For a Timeline of the History of Conscription in Australia click here.
The overseas deployment of Conscripted National Servicemen from 1965, albeit voluntarily, to Vietnam was initially supported by a majority of adult Australians – noting that those under 21 years could not vote in the Vietnam era.
By and large most young men registered as required by law and about half were deployed to Vietnam. They would be sent out on 28 day patrols – in high temperatures. In rice paddies and also in rubber plantations that offered little protection. Helicopters and Armoured Personnel Carriers were used as well. There were no Australians taken as POW’s in Vietnam – a promise had been made by all that no man would be left behind no matter what. The Australian War Memorial features photographs young men from across the Illawarra who served in Vietnam – Helensburgh, Austinmer, Thirroul, Bulli, Woonona, Corrimal, Wollongong, Unanderra, Port Kembla, Dapto, Oak Flats, Barrack Point and Kiama. They served in the Army, Navy and RAAF. There is also an ex RAAF nurse who has made her home in the Illawarra since. And one Illawarra soldier has been identified as being part of 6RAR Delta Company at Long Tan on 18.8.1966.
There were some lighter moments and for some troops they got to enjoy the facilities of the Peter Badcoe Recreation Centre at Vung Tau Beach with its Dasher Wheatley Entertainment Centre and Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool – or a concert at Nui Dat’s Luscombe Bowl. Others always seemed to be out on patrol and missed out on the concerts.
However that deployment to Vietnam proved to be increasingly controversial over the years, with graphic war film footage, mainly US sourced, screened nightly on the television news. Indeed there remains a huge amount of film footage of the Vietnam era – 1 and in the years immediately afterwards – 2.
Huge Moratorium Marches were held in Melbourne and Sydney. As with the 1916 Conscription Plebisicite, the debate became increasingly bitter. This has been argued to be one of the key factors in the ALP under Gough Whitlam winning the 1972 Federal Elections. Politically, it has also been claimed by some that it generated a very long term, arguably permanent, and surprisingly sizable movement away from the Conservatives – costing them a whole swathe of normally more conservative supporters among the Baby Boomer generation.
There were some who chose the path of Conscientious Objection – but the legislation only allowed for limited grounds for this – mainly religious based. We had several young Conscientious Objectors from the Illawarra “go underground”. They were supported by a number of local union activists. Conscientious Objectors potentially faced 2 years in prison, and one Illawarra man spent time in Long Bay prison. And there had been actions by Waterside Unionists around the country in refusing to load ships for Vietnam. A branch of the Save Our Sons movement formed in the Illawarra. Down here, as in the Hunter Region, it was based on working class women activists, rather than what have been dismissed as the Middle Aged Middle Class Doctors Wives “set” in the capital cities. The outcomes for Conscientious Objectors have been mixed since Vietnam, some thriving and others facing long term challenges. Some others chose a less controversial approach – there were a number of hurried marriages to avoid the Draft.
Those who served in Vietnam have also long felt betrayed – they had served their country as requested, but it has taken decades to achieve the respect that they see was their due for their service and sacrifice. Four Vietnam Veterans, all from the AATTV, would be awarded the Victoria Cross, and many received other awards for gallantry. The battle for appropriate recognition continues to this day – back then a Quota System on awards existed – regardless of the valour shown.
It has also been hard for some of the nurses who cared for wounded and ill servicemen. They too are at risk of PTSD, as were nurses from WW1 and WW2.
The acceptance of Vietnam Veterans by the RSL movement was mixed around the country, though apparently Sub Branches such as Woonona Bulli were more welcoming of Veterans returning from Vietnam. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Veterans turned to form their own Vietnam Veterans Associations for mutual support. Locals such as Peter Poulton were pivotal in its formation, and the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as the local memorial at Flagstaff Hill in Wollongong. National Vietnam Day, which is on the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, 18.8.1966, is a now a focus of commemoration. Though it was not the biggest battle fought by Australians in Vietnam – that would be the Battles of Coral and Balmoral.
In 1973 Peace Talks held in Paris seemed to hold out some hope for a Peace in North and South Vietnam. However by 1975 South Vietnam was invaded and ultimately the North prevailed to form the Republic of Vietnam. Many from the South became refugees in parts of Asia and some came to Australia, including to the Illawarra. We now see Vietnamese owned Bakeries and Restaurants, not mention Artists, Steelworkers and even an ex Indochinese Refugee playing the Bagpipes for ANZAC Day Services – further diversifying our rich heritage mix in the Illawarra.
In 1987 the Vietnam Veterans finally got their “Welcome Home March”, which they felt robbed of in the later years of the conflict. Attitudes have moved to one of more respect for our Vietnam Veterans, recognising that it was the Government of the Day which shoulder responsibility for the actions of that era. RSL Sub Branches now often only survive on the support of the Vietnam Veterans, both local and those who moved into the area in the years afterwards. Some of those who have moved into our area include the family of the late W O Kevin “Dasher” Wheatley VC. However there is still an element that bears a great deal of hostility to Vietnam Veterans and their families – and appears to recently be exploited by elements of the media.
By and large the Australian Army approach was based on their Jungle Warfare experience gained in Malaya. This contrasted with the widespread bombing and destruction of villages, crops and vegetation by US forces which alienated many Vietnamese locals. Although the RAAF did participate in some bombing raids. There have also been claims, counter claims and denials of a massacre of civilians near Nui Dat.
Many Vietnam Veterans have PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – some would put it at as much as 30%. This is not surprising as it was experienced by WW1 and WW2 veterans as well. Across all these conflicts such PTSD has also impacted Veterans’ families. And there has been the legacy of chemical exposures such as Agent Orange from Vietnam. Some would claim that there had been chemical exposures by a number of service personnel in the Korean war – although this has been disputed in the past.
Vietnam’s legacy has been also to see a change in Australia’s military direction – rather than a more aggressive forward facing, and instead to a focus on defence of the Australian Continent.
Many RSL Sub Branches have made sure that personnel deployed to other more recent conflicts, and particularly on their return, are recognised and supported with care packages .
Our Black Diamond Heritage Centre has embarked on an exhibition focusing on “Illawarra in the Vietnam Years and Afterwards”. Why a Railway Museum doing Vietnam ? In fact Illawarra Conscripts were instructed to report to Wollongong Railway Station and to a specific railway carriage for their trip to Sydney to start their period of service. And in there is one of the most extraordinary acts of protest, in front of a train conveying Illawarra conscripts to Sydney.
The exhibition will be Illawarra focused – with photos of Illawarra people who served in Vietnam during their tour of duty and of those who followed their consciences along a different path.
Acknowledgement – this exhibition has been made possible by many very, very different people from across the Illawarra sharing their time and views over the years since the Vietnam War. People who were from different political persuasions and vastly divergent perspectives of the Vietnam War and Conscription Debates. For this we are grateful, as we try to present what happened from these different perspectives.
Exhibition Hours : Sundays 1- 4pm from August 14 2016