18 August 2019,
Not wishing to be disrespectful but in today’s address I will not talk about The Battle of Long Tan which has been recalled many times over the last 53 years and now a film depicting the battle has also been produced. Unfortunately too little has been said of the men who served at that time and the conditions in which they experienced the sounds, the smells, the fears of the Vietnam War, so in today’s commemoration speech I will concentrate more on what makes the men and women of our Army so unique, and most importantly what drives these ordinary Australians to perform extraordinary things in times of war. The quotation I am about to read is an excellent quote from Maj Gen Michael O’Brien an ex 7RAR platoon commander in Vietnam but it could also relate to an artillery battery, a tank or APC squadron, a squadron of engineers, a chopper Squadron, or any other unit or sub unit that served in Vietnam.
“Australian Soldiers identify with their Battalion. It’s indeed their family: it leads, feeds, clothes, directs and exhausts them. Its veins are its Sections and Platoons, its limbs the companies. It has the capacity to inspire their actions, to drive them beyond exhaustion, at times to subordinate their loved ones and to provide a depth of male comradeship rarely achieved elsewhere. This exclusive club has demanding rules of entry and offers few amenities. It seems to revel in adversity and prosper in challenge. It has fickle moods: a sense of purpose may be cemented by a mascot or nickname while, in contrast, wide dissatisfaction can be spread by a single remark from the Commanding Officer. It has a formidable capability that is derived from the action of 800 men with shared aims and esprit de corps.”
Much has been written about the battles, the incidents, the terrors, death and horrific woundings suffered during the Vietnam war but sadly not much has been written about the oppressive and stressful conditions our young soldiers had to endure, by day and night for almost a full 12 months tour of duty. And many went back to that hell hole more than once.
Most of our war in Vietnam was in the jungle. The jungle can be your friend in terms of concealment. It can be your friend in terms of finding a place to hide in a LUP or a night harbor but it also offers the same level of concealment to the enemy. It mostly in parts has an abundance of water except in the dry season, some falling as much as 2 inches in one hour which are monsoon conditions. It is a unique and difficult terrain in which to engage in war fighting and due to the oppressive conditions at times difficult to lead and importantly to maintain morale.
On patrol the breathing needs to be quiet but with the humidity and the stress at times you have difficulty in catching your breath in particular if you are ascending a 1 in 2 gradient fully loaded. Every step can be a challenge due to the slippery slopes and tiring of legs and the pumping of adrenaline that is coursing through your body watching for signs of the enemy. You must remain alert and positive but the conditions seem to make your mind wander at times where you are worried more internally about your discomfort than externally and the likely enemy threat. The key for any commander in that environment is not to set an unrealistic or dangerous pace to ensure if confronted by the enemy the soldiers are in a state of readiness and capability to fight.
The sweat drains all over your body where you are cocooned in your hot wet sweat. The worst and particular in a forward scout environment is the sweat running into your eyes and causing a distraction and no amount of patting your eyes dry with your sweat rag seem to make a lot of difference where after a while in country you just put up with it like swimming under water with your eyes open without a face mask or goggles. The spiders, the snakes, the bugs, the ants, the leeches and from time to time some bigger creatures are all a part of the jungles biodiversity. We were wary of them but we got used to them.
The Bergen or back pack full of rations, water, ammo, batteries, and sundries is heavy and in the jungle with an ill-fitting Bergen it’s very easy to get a rash and in the humidity and wet just so slow to heal. Your clothing and boots (no jocks or socks) are saturated and your feet are getting water logged and each step is becoming more uncomfortable and painful but you have no choice. You simply must push on. A monsoon downpour makes it very difficult to maintain contact and communicating with the man in front through hand signals, but you must. The rain is coming down so hard where you know that the enemy won’t necessarily see or hear you but you won’t be able to see or hear them either; not an ideal situation. In fact it’s frightening. We come across a growth of “wait awhile” too broad a front to circumnavigate so we all need to cut our way through as carefully as we can with secateurs but no matter how well you cut you spend an enormous amount of time and energy to disentangle from this hideous and debilitating vegetation and at all times potentially being exposed to the enemy.
At times with the rain, the foliage, the sweat in your eyes is like being in a fog of war. So easy to lose concentration and when you do that you or your mates are dead. The sweat rash in your crutch and on your waist is starting to burn from the salt in your sweat and you can’t wait to give it all a bit of an airing. The heavy sense and pressure of the energy draining humidity is compounded by the jungle canopy where the heat and the steam is exasperated by the rotting foliage underneath from which there is no escape. In some places just extracting your boots from ankle deep mud and slush is a chore adding to your fatigue and the risk of losing concentration. Losing concentration will also lead to tripping; stumbling and falling which further drains your energy and can also give your position away. Bamboo clumps when you are forced to travel through are like a vegetable slicer where coming out the other side you’re bleeding from various parts of your body which is a magnet for the leeches and your clothing in parts is in shreds. Jungles by nature are hilly with much defined creek lines but they can also be very flat and oppressive with water underneath. You can go days patrolling without seeing the sky, sun or moon except for a haze between the canopy vegetation. At the end of a day’s patrol thankfully without incident you are looking forward to harboring or lying up and enjoying a bit of a meal. A bit of shut eye interspersed with picket duties and after moving off at first light to another location and a light breakfast the whole previous day’s experience of patrolling in the jungle starts all over again. This routine is relentless and many times, our mates in support from our gun battery, mortars and engineers were also subjected to the same conditions. The boys in Armoured may have been slightly more comfortable and were always good for some water or a brew but they lived in constant fear of RPG’s, mines and IED’s.
After a period of time operating in these oppressive conditions “you get comfortable in being uncomfortable” where any discomfort is just accepted as a part of our role as an Australian soldier who has lived with jungle warfare since WW2. Leadership and maintenance of morale and a sense of humour is essential in a jungle warfare environment and there is never a lack of humour amongst Aussies even in the most dire of circumstances. The jungle is your friend providing you observe all of the tactical training that you have had. It is the most grueling of all war fighting so you must be very fit to fight and you must fight to get fit. The hardest emotional memory we all have of Vietnam is not being able to mourn our war dead. Due to the nature of the war, the vegetation and terrain, the memories we share of our war dead is a body bag containing one of our mates being winched up through the jungle canopy to a hovering chopper. No time to mourn, no time to reflect, safety catch off and back into search and destroy mode, where self-preservation mode over rides any thought of sorrow or mourning. And many wonder why for years we were non tactile, cold and difficult, in particular with family and friends.
This is very much our war through the eyes of us on the ground doing the hard yards with our supporting arms or any others who had to endure these oppressive conditions on a daily basis. It is now some 46 years since the last troops came home from Vietnam and its superfluous to engage in the political dialectic about the pros and cons of the Vietnam War but what I can say is that the many young men and women who went off to that far-off place full of hope, pride, and seeking to make a difference did so with valor, determination and a certain apprehension but never did I see them waiver or falter in their mission. Many of us have memories about our times in Vietnam and in my case I am not consumed by the bad memories which I tend to quarantine in a safe place. I am more focused on the good times and there were many, of watching ordinary young people from different backgrounds working together as a team, enjoying each other’s company and very importantly looking after each other’s backs. People often ask me what I got out of Vietnam to which I respond quiet unashamedly that it made me a better person in character and spirit. It made me look at life a bit differently and made me focus on what is important in life and my values. Working and sharing the events of that war with the most incredible people who have become brothers for life. Some people have great difficulty in understanding bonds that have been forged through war and the spirit that exists within these men and that unbreakable bond, sharing those similar values. Values now considered by some being old fashioned and dated but in the minds of these men and women who served, their values are timeless and sacrosanct. That is what today is about. You can have your battles, contacts and incidents but you can’t have them without people. People who are prepared to put their bodies on the line fighting for something that they believe in, and that fight goes on today with so many fighting for the veterans and their families and many other voluntary pursuits, be it CFS, SES, sport, Legacy, RSL and so many others. Although this presentation today was about our war, I can confirm that the young men and women of today’s Army are doing it just as tough in different circumstances, in a different war in a very hostile environment and when it comes to our young men and women in that war the spirit, the values and the mateship is just as enduring. Sadly some families today will be mourning for those that did not come home and others who have since passed. Today like Anzac Day there would not be one person in this room who has not been touched by war and it’s after effects in some capacity. It is this that brings us together here today. To remember and respect all who have served in whatever capacity from the Boer War, WW1 and WW2,, Korea, but in our case the lot of the soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, and more recently the years of peacekeeping, which should be more appropriately termed lifesaving in the lives they preserved, to the desert and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan and in particular to honour and remember those that did not return.
Lest we forget