Part 5 - The National Servicemen
The “Nashos” as they were called, formed a most valued and integral part of the Armoured Corps in the Vietnam era. Indeed, it is speculative that the small number of men in the peace time RAAC could not have sustained the effort the Corps did without them. While a second tour for regular soldiers was not unusual and a few did a third, without the presence of draftees, a continuous rotation of regular soldiers through Vietnam would have meant some being home for a month or two and going straight back
Brigadier Angus J McNeilage Conspicuous Service Cross
I might seem passing strange to include such a high ranking officer in the National Service section, but that was indeed where Angus McNeilage started his career. Called up in 1965, Brigadier McNeilage was trained in the first class at the Officer Cadet School, Scheyville (one of his instructors was Percy White) and commissioned into the Corps at the end of that course. Angus says that he was quite happy to be called up, and after a short while in the Corps, changed his enlistment to a five year short service commission. He asked himself, “Why hadn’t I done this before?” (This type of commission is usually for doctors, lawyers and other specialist personnel who the Army needs for a relatively short time.) He does not say so, but it is almost certain that he did so to be sure of a tour of Vietnam.
(As an aside while being interviewed, McNeilage mentions two of the Platoon Commanders at the Battle of Long tan, Second Lieutenant David Sabben and Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp who were classmates at Scheyville. These officers would have commenced their course with McNeilage in June 1965 and were in the fiercest of battles in August 1966, performing brilliantly. It is a tribute to the training Australian soldiers received.)
At the end of the five year commission, Angus was adjutant of 1st Armoured Regiment. One evening, thinking of matters career, he realised that, in fact, he was not officially in the Army at all as the time for the expiry of his term had passed. He saw the CO next day and told him, “Sir, do you realise that I’m not actually in the Army?” After a little string pulling and phone calls to the Directorate of Armour and the Military Secretary’s office, Angus was reinstated and made a regular on the spot.
Angus’s qualities both as man and soldier were of the highest order. He was (is) always ready to listen to as well as talk at fellow soldiers of all ranks provided they have something of value to say and even then he would tolerate some who others would merely brush off. His first Troop in the 1st Armoured Regiment won the inter Troop competition called the Paratus Cup. Even allowing that he had as his Troop Sergeant Robert ‘Jock’ Browning and as his Troop Corporal Rex Harris, two of the hardest heads and most competent tank men, it says much that he could fit in as well as he did. No matter how competent his subordinates, an incompetent or rash officer can ruin a Troop in short time. Angus never looked like doing such.
The ‘go’ of armoured vehicle operation is not simply being able to drive, load or fire the weapons. A crew commander, especially if he is also a Troop Leader, has to know about and (at a pinch) be able to do all these things, and at the same time tell his other tanks what to do and where to go as well as listen on his radio to a sometimes irate Squadron commander. McNeilage did this with aplomb.
So well thought of was Lieutenant McNeilage, he was posted to Malaya and seconded to the senior British Regiment, the Life Guards. While exposed to the regimental life of this elite Regiment, Angus found three things. One was that the Senior NCOs were “outstanding”, the second that “young officers, 2nd Lieutenants and Lieutenants were there to be ‘gun fodder’ and for the squaddies (junior soldiers) to laugh at.”
The third was one of the Life Guards officers activities; polo, an expensive sport. McNeilage didn’t take part, cost aside, but mainly because he couldn’t ride. The Sultan of Johore, who was a most keen polo player, called him “Angus, the Cavalry officer who does not ride!” Later in his career, Angus went back to Malaysia to the British Jungle Training Centre as an instructor at their Combat Arms School, and the Sultan remembered him and called him the same.
He went to Vietnam, being the last tank Troop Leader to be posted there, doing his year with A and B Squadrons of the Armoured Regiment. His attitude was that “as a professional soldier the one way to test your mettle, I suppose, is to actually be involved in the conflict to see if you can actually do your job.” He had then, like many young men of the era, no thought as to the rights or wrongs of the conflict, but was eager to get into it. His later thoughts are that it was “a terrible waste.”
When his tour was almost over, McNeilage had handed his Troop to another officer and went on an operation, Hammersly, oddly enough commanding the bulldozer tank, a Centurion fitted with a ‘dozer blade to its front. He conducted many land clearing operations, which in Australia would be unremarkable as such, but in Vietnam, where land mines of all shapes and sizes abounded, it was most dangerous.
To emphasise the opening remarks in this section about National Servicemen, McNeilage says that for his tour (1969/70), his crew commanders were regular soldiers, but all the rest were ‘Nashos’ and indeed, his gunner had been sent to Vietnam with but six months left to go of his compulsory enlistment. This can but illustrate how valuable the National Servicemen were to the Corps.
While training officer at C Squadron of the Armoured Regiment (then known as the Mickey Mouse Club) Angus was called to Canberra for an interview to be selected as Aid de Camp for the Chief of the General Staff. As with everything, the Army has an abbreviation for all this- ADC to CGS. This is a most prestigious job, only going to the most bright, dedicated and tactful of junior officers. It speaks volumes for McNeilage’s ability and character that he was selected for the job.
The ‘Chief’ at the time was Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Daly. McNeilage was most impressed by this senior man, and says, “It was an outstanding experience for a young Captain. General Daly’s abilities and leadership were just mind boggling.” One of the ADC’s duties was to ascertain for the Chief the names and brief resumes of the people who he would visit from time to time. On one such occasion, General Daly was to visit the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion.
As the retinue (Daly, Battalion CO, 2i/c, Adjutant, RSM and Angus and other hangers-on) made its way around the base, the CGS stopped a Corporal, shaking hands and saying “Good day, Bill, how are you and Mary and (the kids)?” The NCO answered and a short conversation ensued. Afterward, several people congratulated Angus on “How on earth did you find out about that Corporal?” and other such remarks.
Captain McNeilage kept mum as to the fact, which he had learned later in conversation with the Chief, that Daly and the Corporal had served in Korea together!
In November 1986, as a Lieutenant Colonel, Angus left the regular Army for private reasons and joined the Army Reserve, and was posted to run the 3rd Army Recruiting Unit. From there, he was posted as CO of 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse. When asked if there was any ‘flak’ from reservists about an ex ARA officer being posted there, McNeilage opines that there was one man who was a little put out, but generally, no.
This comes as no surprise. Angus had been the ARA training major at that Regiment for three years before leaving the regulars, and his dedication to duty, professional conduct of his duties and sheer force of personality would have earned the approval of his fellow reserve officers.
While CO of 4th/19th, Angus fought one of the major battles of principal with the powers that be which occur from time to time. The first Troop to be deployed to Vietnam was in fact from A Squadron of 4th/19th. While deployed as part of the 1RAR Group, the Troop’s name was changed to the bland and uninspiring First APC Troop, this occurring toward the latter part of the tour. The whole Group was attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade which was awarded the US Meritorious Unit Citation. In short, after many representations, the Group was granted the right to the award.
Now, the award came with emblems: a red rectangular badge to be worn by individuals and a streamer labeled VIETNAM 1965-66, the latter to be added to the Regimental Guidon. As things developed and without 4th/19th being informed, these honours were claimed by 3rd Cavalry Regiment with the dubious evidence that 1st APC Troop was the linear precedent of 3rd Cavalry; the honour had been won by that Troop, so…..A ceremony was arranged and items procured for presentation.
Lieutenant Colonel McNeilage, on hearing of this, asked why it was not to be presented to his Regiment. In his words, “people were ducking for cover over it.” He asked of Army Office why, and was informed that 1Troop, A Squadron 4th/19th had never existed and was never in country and we don’t know what you’re talking about. McNeilage took umbrage at this, telling Army Office that the Directorate of Organizations (D Org.) needed a history lesson.
The argument went back and forth till finally Army Office acknowleged that Angus was correct, although he was told he couldn’t spell ‘Wales’s’ (which is the correct spelling). There were other trivial objections, but the most important of these was that the Citation could only be presented to a unit currently on the Order of Battle. (ORBAT, for the uninitiated, the complete list of all the Army’s units currently active). At that time, the Troop in question was not.
McNeilage, who had been in close contact with the Director of Armour, Colonel Roger Kershaw, hatched a plan and for a week during the time the Citation was to be presented, they arranged for the Troop to be, in fact, on the ORBAT. “We established them, then we disestablished them!” Angus had worked in Force Structure Branch, as had Kershaw and they had a mate who worked in D Org. So, the Citation was presented to the correct Troop, thus confounding the “bandits” from 3rd Cavalry. And yes, the author has a vested interest in this story as he was a member of the Troop.
In his usual modest way, Angus expresses surprise at the fact he was promoted Colonel to command the Reserve Command and Staff College in Melbourne, a most prestigious job. More surprises were in store when he was promoted to ‘star’ rank: Brigadier, to take over the 4th Brigade. It was a Brigade which had been “starved of funds over, probably the previous decade.” Then, after the first year, money was forthcoming and McNeilage’s Brigade was given a role: protection of the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Tyndal in the Northern Territory.
This, with the funds to work with, allowed the Brigade to carry out the necessary military appreciations to for the protection of the base, as well as for the ‘corridor’ of road and other communications between it and Darwin. A number of TEWTs (Tactical Exercises Without Troops) were conducted to establish conduct of operations policy for the task and the Brigade senior staff were able to be flown there for the purpose. This was a great fillip for the Brigade and morale was raised accordingly.
After three years, the Brigadier was posted to 3 Training Group. The same features were evident there; no funds and poor morale. As the Reserve had little or no chance of being ‘called out’ except in time of national emergency, a requirement went out from the Government of the day for legislation to be drafted to allow Reservists to be sent overseas at times less drastic than outlined before. McNeilage was involved in putting the legislation together as Commander 4th Brigade. There is much work yet to be done, with enabling bills to be passed by Parliament. These include the protection of people’s jobs while they are away, family assistance and support and the like. This work, McNeilage says, has been done to a degree to allow specialists such as doctors and nurses and an example is the good work done by Reserve Medical Corps personnel in recent events such as the Indonesian tsunami disaster.
Other important work done by Angus McNeilage was to help in the drafting of the training package to allow for the reduction of the four year course at the Royal Military College, Duntroon to eighteen months, this to allow (in part) for the establishment of the Defence Force Academy.
Angus met some characters in his time in Armour. He had a great deal of time for ‘Jock’ Browning, his first Troop Sergeant and attended his house for dinner on occasion. Jock’s wife Joyce once went to the trouble of making haggis. Another was the inimitable ‘Firebuckets’ Don Campbell, who had a session with Angus in the Officers Mess one night. At the end of proceedings, Angus opined that he ought to do the driving and accordingly he and the more than tipsy Campbell went off. After a short while, Campbell called out “Stop! Stop! Stop!” in the most urgent tones.
Angus brought the car to a screeching halt, enquiring as to what the hell was the problem. Campbell looked over from the passenger seat in a blurred fashion and said, “Angus, you’d better drive, I’m too drunk!”
For this distinguished career to the Nation of National Service, Regular soldiering and Reserve service, Brigadier Angus McNeilage, a most modest, professional, personable and competent gentleman soldier was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross and very few have been more deserved. It is open to speculation as to why a more senior award was not granted, or indeed why it took the Army so long to recognize his service.
Unbidden Memories.Radio call no one wants to hear-“Contact-Standby DUSTOFF!!”
Corporal Norman John ‘Normie’ Rowe Member of the Order of Australia
‘Normie’ Rowe was, when drafted, a true superstar of the Australian rock scene. He had the whole ‘thing’, the whole ‘scene’. Rock concerts, adulation, screaming fans, limos, money, everything! He left Australia to further his career in England and was doing well there when the draft gurus caused his number to come out of the barrel.
It is to his everlasting credit that he came back from England to do his duty whereas any number of young men in his place would have tried every trick in the book to stay! Of course, the Army PR machine made much of him, posing him in front of tanks and such.
Normie did his recruit training and was posted to Armour and eventually to 3rd Cavalry Regiment and a year in Vietnam. He served with distinction, with A and B Squadrons of that Regiment, rising to Corporal Crew Commander and gaining much respect from his fellow Troopers. He was kind enough to be interviewed and the interview is reproduced verbatim, less the umms and ahhs and some extraneous material.
Author: How did you feel when you were drafted?
Rowe: I was pretty much decimated. One of the things that really annoyed me was the fact that the press gallery knew before I was officialy told. I really believe that was a very personal thing and should have been kept under wraps until I received official notification.
A: Poor man management, that!
R: Yeah, well, it was a terrible thing from my point of view! I was on tour in Western Australia. The press phoned me in Kalgoorlie and said ‘How do you feel now you’ve been called up’? I said that I hadn’t been called up! ‘They’ said ‘Oh yes you have!’ I said that I hadn’t heard anything yet, and I was told, ‘Well, you can take it from us, you have!’ And it was about four days later when I was in Bunbury at the radio station and my parents phoned me there and they said that we’ve just received notification that you’ve been called up!
It was not just poor man management. It was some thing that…they could have said, well, because of that, you’re not called up. It was that bad and from that point on, I lost total trust in the Public Service. I do not trust anything or anyone who is in the Public Service. And that way, I know I won’t be hurt as much.
A: You’re not alone there, I can tell you!
R: I know, I know that! I am probably one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who simply don’t trust the Public Service.
A: Exactly! Now, I heard a story that you were in England and had to come back to Australia. Is that correct?
R: Yeah, I was touring England and interestingly enough, Gene Pitney died in the last 24 hours while doing a tour of England and I had been on one such tour with Gene. And, I was touring England with quite a lot of different people at that time.
I had to come back to Australia because I didn’t want Australians to think that I was in the UK just to get out of the draft. I was purely in the UK to try and extend on an international basis what I’d achieved here in Australia.
A: To further your career, obviously.
R: Yes. And there’s no reason in the world I believe that I wouldn’t have actually achieved something like that, as all my peers, the people who were on the same rung of the ladder as I was treading did eventually become international stars. I feel I was gypped out of that. But, nevertheless, I finished up with some of the best mates in the world and I guess, it’s that ‘sliding doors’ thing.
If I’d stayed in the UK my life would have been completely different and I wouldn’t have some of the friends I’ve got. I’ve just received an email, an email of support and I actually was sitting at the computer with tears in my eyes because I didn’t realise that anything I’d ever done had the sort of effect on any person the way it had affected this one particular man.
A: The fact of the matter is that even even after all these years I can go into any Sergeants Mess in the country and meet someone I’d known, or someone who knows some one I knew. It’s an experience that I think everyone should have.
R: Yes! Well, you know everyone’s not cut out for the military, per se, but I think everyone is cut out to give back a little to the nation in which they’ve been born.
A: Exactly! Now, who would have been the greatest influence on you in the Armoured Corps?
R: Oh dear, probably Mitch, Bill Mitchell, my first Driving and Servicing instructor. He was a Pommy from the Royal Armoured Corps, 1st RTR (First Royal Tank Regiment). He was a kingpin on the old Centurion and was a great instructor and I’d heard that Bill loved the first person into the engine bay, the dirtiest to come out at the other end of it, the one that cleaned everything first.
A: He served you well in the training aspect?
R: Oh yes. So, I thought, I figured I was going to go to Vietnam. I actually didn’t see any point in doing six months, nine months, twelve months training and not using it. So, I figured I was going to put my hand up to go anyway! If I was going to go there, I wanted to be the best prepared that I could. As a performer, I knew that the way to be the best performer was to be the best prepared!
And so, I leaped under the vehicles for the driving and servicing part, then the gunnery side. Then, when in the Radio Wing, I already had a head start because I’d been in the PMG (Post Master General Department, now Australia Post) as a telecommunications ‘tech’ and in Signals in the Army Cadets. All of those courses, D&S Gunnery and Radio I ended up topping.
A: That pretty much leads into my next question and almost answers it. How was your training before you went to Vietnam?
R: Well, first of all, the fact that all Australian soldiers are trained as infantry in the first place, I think is a very, very good start. Because, the infantryman is obviously, no matter what happens, no matter what technology you have, no matter how may battleships or airoplanes you have, you can not win a war unless you have infantry soldiers on the ground!
R: And as an AFV crewman, a truck driver, carrying a radio or say a storeman, you may very well at some stage be operating as an infantryman. That was made very clear to us and I thought it was a terrific thing to have so much ‘cross training’. Certainly my experience was that people were cross trained so much so that pretty much anybody in a (APC) section could run that section. After a few months knew the general operating procedures and various tactical skills, right down to the drivers, the bottom end of the scale if you like. Newcomers-give them a couple of months in the field and they’d be able to operate a section.
A: That reflects an opinion by Bill Shakespeare who you might have come across.…
R: Oh yes, I knew Bill very well!
A: And he says that our soldiers, particularly Armoured Corps soldiers were the best informed because the drivers could hear everything going on over the radio net.
R: I think that’s a good thing. And the drivers had the facility to say what they thought! You know, I was leading One Troop one time-it was my first Crew Commanders job. I remember, (Captain) Dave Lawrence, whose vehicle I’d just got out of as the Troop (radio) operator, came up to me on the air and asked if we had to stop at every culvert?
And, I was doing exactly as I’d been trained! Stop at the culverts, get the (engineer) mini-teams to check them out and then proceed when they’d been cleared. I radio’d back to him that I’d be happy to follow him as fast as he’d like to travel! He pulled me aside later and said that ‘You don’t have to be smart!’
A: How did your training relate to reality? I mean, you go through it all in Australia, you get on the big bird, you get to Nui Dat and everything there is as it is. Did it seem as you’d been told?
R: I didn’t spend much time in Nui Dat! I arrived on one afternoon, had enough time to have a shower and go to the boozer and have a have a couple of ‘goffers’ (naval slang for soft drinks) go to bed and get up early next morning for a resupply run. I was out at Fire Support Base Julia very next day! I took over as ‘jockey’ of (call sign) One One with Craig Haydock who I believe was the number one icon soldier. (Laughs) If you wanted to hold someone up as the perfect soldier you would hold Craig up. He was at once jovial and funny, but on the other hand you would put your life in his hands ‘cause you knew everything would be fine.
A: Yes, there are some like that!
R: And the state his greens were in. He always looked good as if he’d just changed! Very suave and handsome!
A: Don’t you hate ‘em? After 10 or so days in the bush, I always looked like some sort of ragbag!
R: (Laughing) It wouldn’t take me that long! A couple of hours and I’d be gone!
A: Did you have a choice of Corps or did they just send you?
R: Well, there were preferences given and my first preference was Armoured Corps. And the reason behind that was that my mother had a very very close family member whose name was Frankie. He was killed landing at Buna driving a Bren Gun Carrier. (Properly named Carrier, Universal. This tiny vehicle by armoured standards was often misused with disastrous results.)
I wanted to carry that part on. There were only two of us from my training platoon who ended up underneath a black beret, Tim Little and myself. Timmy and I are still very close. I have such close friends-Brian Griffin I speak to all the time. He’s the Vice President of the Far North Coast Vietnam Veteran’s Federation near Lismore.
The thing I found with Armoured Corps people is that when they really just got on with their job. I spoke to the Neil Herford, Commandant of Kapooka, oh, about 14 years ago. They have a Psychcologist officer there. You know that they put the recruits through an aptitude test and only certain ones go to Armour. They have an IQ level and mechanical aptitude levels as well as other things which make you a good soldier, who would be in charge of a very expensive piece of kit!
A: That leads again into one of my other questions. Every one says that the standard of people we got was very high, especially among National Servicemen because of those things you’ve just spoken about. They also say that the Corps couldn’t have done the job without National Servicemen.
R: I don’t agree with that! No, because we had an Armoured Corps before National Service. I mean, if you look at, say, the men that went in and saved the day at Long Tan-they were Regulars!
A: But, there were other battles like, Binh Ba and Coral/Balmoral and all these other engagements….
R: Certainly! But what I’m saying is the common denominator was that they were Armoured Corps and not that they were National Servicemen. I mean, what it did was to give the military the opportunity to be able to rotate (soldiers) much better and give much more depth. One of our number in recruit training was a doctor, who became an M60 (machine gun) operator in an infantry section.
R: Yes, and in my opinion was absolutely extraordinary!
A: How on earth did the system let him get through to that?
R: Well, some of us didn’t want to do what we did outside. I didn’t want to go to Band Corps! The last thing I wanted to have following me around was the sort of thing (the media circus) as had followed Carl Ditterich (a well known VFL footballer of the time) and some of the cricketers had.
A: Now, there’s another question if I can back track a bit. One of the things that has come from the other interviews I’ve done, is that people weren’t very well trained in first aid. Would that be right?
R: Well, we did field dressing and basically dressing on the wound and try not to spew into the wound and get the wounded soldier ‘Dusted-Off’ as soon as possible. That was it.
A: There were some young men, as we all were at some stage, going into action and then seeing some of these horrendous things and unless you’re prepared for it, it can be very traumatic!
R: Of course! I mean, the first day I went out and I’d forgotten about this until Craig Haydock reminded me. This was about half way through the three months I’d spent in hospital for PTSD. I’d gone down to Adelaide to do a show on a weekend and Craig came to see me.
I wanted to find out a few things that I couldn’t remember. I asked him if we’d seen much blood and guts and that sort of thing and he asked me ‘What about the first day you went out on patrol?’ I said, ‘What was that?’
He answered, ‘Well, we’d been in an ambush the day before and we’d gone back to clean it up and to see if there was any follow up. There were a lot of Viet Cong caught in the ambush there, dead. We were ordered out of the place almost at once, so the engineers gave them an engineers burial.
I asked him what that was. He said, ‘Don’t you remember? They put a box of PE on them, bound them in det cord and blew them into the trees!’ I witnessed that. When he reminded me, I knew what he was talking about. I thought about it and, shit, the day before I was on a plane on a 707 coming into Vietnam.
A: Yes, I understand that. I always said that soldiers who are going into action should spend a day with an ambulance crew, perhaps, or an emergency department for a day or so that they might have some idea that this is what might confront them when they get there.
R: Yeah. And the other thing that was interesting to me there was that, about eight or nine years ago I was talking to Dennis Gibbons who worked for Australian Associated Press, AAP Reuter. He went up to the Task Force HQ and said, ‘I’ve got this signal from AAP in Sydney saying they need as urgently as possible a photo of Rowe in the field.’ Now, there was a familiarization period of a week whatever which I missed out on completely, because they wanted to get a photo of me in the field.
A: Well, that’s grim, that. That shouldn’t happen. Irrespective of who you are, the procedures of easing you into the place should have held for you as for anyone else.
R: And the other later thing was that Johnny O’Keefe came to the Dat and he wanted to have photos taken with me! So, a signal came in from Task Force saying send Rowe in for photos. I turned around to Dave Lawrence and said, ‘Sir, do I have to do this?’ He said that it was not operational so I don’t see why you couldn’t say no. I said that I do want to say no for a very good reason.
First of all, I knew Johnny O’Keefe well and he was an opportunist if nothing else and it would have been very good for him to have his photo taken with me, but it wouldn’t have meant much to me to have my photo taken with him. So I said to Lawrence, ‘Look, two weeks ago, I went down that big bomb crater, at 25 kilometers per hour and the only reason the vehicle didn’t completely tumble over was because I was carrying an ‘A’ frame.
I got my legs caught in the guns (his configuration was of twin .30 calibre machine guns) and I was suspended upside down by the guns. I was flown in to have my knees checked-they put a bandage on them and I was flown straight back out! I wasn’t in the Dat for more than an hour!
I also said to Captain Lawrence, ‘If my driver is driving is driving another crew commander and hits a mine while I’m in the Dat, how do you think I’m gonna feel?’ He said that was fair enough and I said that I don’t want to go. So that’s the way it was; I didn’t go.
It was only later that I found out that along with O’Keefe, my old band, The Playboys was there.
A: That’s the attitude that is engendered in the Corps and the whole Army I guess. There are a number of times I’ve heard men say, who’d gone home and something bad happened, if only I’d been there, perhaps I could have done something.
R: Yeah! I don’t think you can say that. I know that when I left, my track was blown up not long after I’d vacated it, but I’ve never thought to myself if only I’d been there it might have been different. If I had been there, it might have been me!
A: It’s what I call the ‘f onlys’. ’f only I’d been there, ’f only I’d done this or that differently!
R: ‘If’, is a superfluos word in that context.
A: Now, the equipment, the 113s, the .50 cals, the .30 cals, how did you find it, good, bad, indifferent?
R: I had the best set of .30s you’ve ever seen in your life. God, they were good! I was pretty good at getting the best out of my equipment. I had the best set of radios, of course and with my (AN/PRC) 25 set, I could get 10 kilometers on anyone else. I worked them well!
A: Can you recall your first contact?
R: (Laughing) Yes, I can; I relive it constantly. I was on the Tuy Tien trail, no, it was near Phu My 5. We had gone out on a patrol with some Regional Force irregulars and an American, by the name of Steve Hugh and a Cambodian adviser, dirty big guy, a Montanyard. Anyway, we dropped them off as the jungle closed in on us. They got into an ambush and I came around this left hand bend and started to take RPG fire and all sorts of shit.
That’s when you know you’ve got good mates because Brian Griffin brought his track right along side me and started ‘hooking in’, drawing the fire away from me. So, I already knew there was someone who was prepared to give his life for me. Not many know if they’ve got a friend that good!
I suppose it would have been about, oh, nine years ago I get a letter from the United States and it goes on ‘I’ve been looking for you since a fateful day in 1969 you may remember’, and then he went on to recount the story. It was the American adviser who wanted to ‘tell you how much I wanted to thank you for saving my life and giving my kids a father and giving my wife a husband.’ I thought, ‘shit, I don’t want that onus!’
A: Don’t mind saving your life but leave out the wife and kids bit!
R: (Laughing) Yeah! In fact, his wife and of his daughter are coming out and staying with Brian and his daughter is going to the Lismore High School. His son has already done that and we’ve become very, very good friends and talk to each other on the internet frequently. It’s really quite a nice thing.
He said that I saved his arse and the only way I could get in touch with me was through the Australian Embassy in Washington. He said, ‘I was in Vietnam with an Australian soldier who sang a song ‘It ain’t necessarily so’.
A: They would have picked that up.
R: And they gave him my home address, my company name and company number; they had every thing there!
A: Fair enough! What about any subsequent contacts?
R: There was nothing…….I was what I call very lucky. The day that I arrived in 1 Troop, One One section, Craig said to me, ‘Welcome to One One Section, where nothing ever happens.’ And that was how it was pretty much through my tour of duty. I carried the One One tradition with me into the HQ Section and the One Two Section and it wasn’t till after I left that we had a bad result.
(It is instructive to note here that Normie still uses the plural ‘we’ when speaking of others. It illustrates the bond which existed and still exists between people who have shared experience and shared danger.)
A: That’s strange because my section was also call sign One One. You didn’t have any mine incidents?
R: I didn’t personally but people ‘wore’ my mine, so to speak. I had just been out of the Troop Leader’s vehicle for a short time; I was leading up ‘mine alley’, the Tuy Tien trail and there had never been an incursion of Australian tracks up that trail without a major mine incident. There had been one just before I got there and I could feel the cloud over the whole Troop was still there. It was then even more important for me to be on my game. I actually didn’t like being anywhere else but leading the Troop, being the lead call sign. I reckon I was much more cautious that anyone else!
A: Well, that’s a good thing to be!
R: Of course, of course.
A: I understand that point of there being a pall over things because a couple of my good mates extended and were at Long Tan and they say that for a week, two weeks there was a pall, a feeling over the whole Task Force about it.
R: Yeah! You can understand it. And thank God. There was one of them (incidents) that really knocked me around and I didn’t realize how much until about 1987. I was up in Townsville and I was with a fellow by name of Jimmy Canuto. Jim was SSM of ¾ Cav and he’d also been in my section.
So Jimmy said do you want to go for a ‘sticky’. So, we went for a drive had a bit of fun, you know, twenty years later and all that. Then he said, ‘Come in, I want to show you something.’ And we went into the Orderly Room and he showed me the Guidon with all the Battle Honours on it, photos of Binh Ba and all the other places that 3 Cav had been.
He then took me outside and showed me the memorial, a large piece of granite on the edge of the parade ground. I went up to it and read down the names. As I got closer to my time, the names seemed to be bigger and more embossed, in much larger relief. And as I read past those names, that effect started to fade away as I didn’t recognize any of the names.
I was standing there when Jimmy grabbed me and said, ‘Are you OK?’ I replied, ‘You know, Jim, I think for the first time since I came back from Vietnam, I think I’m OK.’ And that’s when I experienced ‘coming home’. That’s what I call the ‘coming home experience.’ I wanted everyone else to feel that! I dedicated myself to having everyone else have that feeling I had at that moment. Having them come to the Welcome Home parade.
A: And you say to yourself, it’s OK, it’s OK.
R: Yeah! You are OK! It was over the deaths of Bob Young and Keith Dewer. They came to grief on a 500 pound bomb. It just threw the track in the air and it came down on top of them. They were great guys, good fun people and great to be with. I have photos of Keith and myself together down at the beach and the Badcoe Club. (The rest and recreation facility at Vung Tau, named after Major Peter Badcoe, VC) We all got on so well!
I can remember an ‘O’ group, where a Sergeant, I can’t remember his name, told us that there had been a mine incident in the Long Hai hills and Young and Dewer were killed. I recall saying, ‘Shit, did they? That’s a shame! Now, what are we doing tomorrow?’ I’ve just finished reading Kokoda and Peter FitzSymons (the author) points to the same thing!
Where you don’t have the luxury of grieving properly, not at that time and we didn’t have the opportunity of grieving ever! No one gave that to us! The only opportunity for grief is on Anzac Day or in your private moments! And it’s not good enough. Because those lives are worth much more than the country has given!
A: I’ve had the same thing myself. I did a funeral once where the widow came up to me afterward and asked why the band marched off to a bright happy tune. ‘I’ve just buried my husband and the band goes off like this. Why?’ I explained that this was how soldiers viwed things-once respects have been paid and due ceremony observed, all we can do is get on with things, and that’s what the band march off playing a happy tune represents.
R: And we had our concert at the Welcome Home which was a part of the grieving process. That’s why we’ve always had a concert at the dedication of memorials around the country, to get on with it, to have a bit of normality in spite of all the craziness!
A: If I can take a different tack. In your opinion, which is the harder thing for AFV crewmen, the physical or the mental aspect?
R: Oh, mental! There’s not much physical about being an APC crewperson. Unless it’s to do with changing a track, ah, of course unless you’re in a Centurion in which case- well, I never wanted to be a Centurion crewman. They had a tough task. The APCs were a great vehicle and we were lucky to have them. I always thought they’d make a good ‘sin bin’.
A: If this track’s rockin’ don’t come knockin’, so to speak.
R: (Laughs) There wouldn’t have been a lot of rockin’ at 11 tonnes!
A: You were promoted Corporal. How did you feel about that, pride, so what or..?
R: I wanted it badly! For me, it was like a score card as to how I was doing. Because I was pretty dedicated. I wanted something back, more than just ‘here’s your pay’. Being in showbusiness I suppose you get that (need). It’s not for immediate accolades, but at some stage you want someone to say you’re doing a good job and here’s a hook. (A chevron, badge of rank.)
A: Do you have any yarns about characters or incidents that might have a humorous side, or not so funny?
R: There was one guy, ‘Pig Pen’ we called him. He would walk to the showers wearing nothing but a pair of thongs or perhaps gumboots carrying a towel, just back from the bush, looking like an absolute shit fight. By the time he got back to the tent, it looked as if he had no reason to go to the showers in the first place! Still looking like a shit fight!
A: If you were going to use a word or a phrase to characterise the Royal Australian Armoured Corps or Armour in general, what would it be?
R: We all like to think we’re gentlemen of the Cavalry. There’s a lovely line, where an Artillery officer and a Cavalry officer are at the urinal. The Cavalry officer goes to walk out the door, when the Artillery chap says, ‘In the Artillery, we’re taught to wash our hands after going to the urinal.’ To which the Cavalryman replies, (laughing) ‘In the Cavalry, were taught not to piss on our hands in the first place!’
As well, the Australian Army is the only one I wanted to be in, or maybe the Kiwi Army, but no other. And certainly, the RAAC is the only Corps I wanted to serve in. I didn’t mind going to war, but I didn’t want to walk!
A: As we say, a third class ride is better than a fist class walk!
R: Yes! I take great delight in pointing that out when I’m berated for having a 360o turning head. (A ‘friendly’ insult from other Corps, that is ‘turret head’. Turrets of course do turn 360o)
A: Back on the characterisation of the Corps. I’ve known some fellows who were rough as hessian underpants, but who, in their own way, were true gentlemen.
R: Yes! They would look after you and yours. I’m sure that is the way of Australian service people anyway.
A: How did the Army treat you when you came back to Australia?
R: I came back in civvies and didn’t put on another military artifact again. I didn’t even bring anything back with me! I said, OK, I’ve done my two years and now I don’t want to know anything more about it. On de-mob day, I was asked to go and see the officer in charge of Southern Command. I went in, with long sideburns and getting back into pop music mode. He said that he wanted me to come so that he could thank me. ‘You’ve had an exemplary record’ and so on and so forth.
I said, ‘Thank you for saying that, sir, but I wonder why you’re not out at Watsonia saying this to everybody else?’ That’s always been my atittude! I didn’t want to be treated differently to any other person in the Army, good or bad. I was happy just to do my task.
When I got privileges, I always shared them around. I carried a couple of slabs of ‘goffas’ for the infantry blokes. I gave them free of charge. Because I reckoned the infantry guys did it damn tough! Our job was to support them and each other. They needed us as much as we needed them!
A: What about your friends? You would have had a heap of them before you left. How were they when you came home?
R: Well of course, guys who were in bands and so on, The Playboys, most of them were still around. They were still doing their own thing. I had certainly changed my whole attitude to the music industry. In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in it any more! You know, when you see people on the breadline, just trying to make do and you’re trying to justify your own existence.
All these people making good money out of being a pop singer and basically being self serving, with a fickle audience. I looked at them and I thought I want something more than this! It became necessary for me and it still is, to have an excuse to be in show business.
It enables me to point out the sins of what happens to ex servicemen and to point out the services that are available to them.
(This is a common syndrome for many war veterans. Having been confronted to literal life and death matters on a day to day basis, the importance of what they held to be truths of life are seen in a completely different light.)
A: Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing for vets?
R: I think on the day that Jimmy pointed me to the memorial stone, it became quite obvious to me that I would need, if the Welcome Home was going to work, and I was to be involved, it was to use the skills best suited to me.
It was really fortunate that at the time that I’d been on television a lot, ‘Sons and Daughters’ five nights a week, I did that for two years, then picked up the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. And I’d been rehearsing and having a lot of press conferences and so forth.
It gave me an opportunity. Every time I had a press call, a radio interview, television, newspaper magazine, I was able to say that playing Valjean was like playing someone who had been in a war. Then I was able to turn that around and give a dirty big plug to the Welcome Home parade!
The Les Mis people liked because they were getting an extra bit of mileage!
A: And of course having a high profile people would listen to you rather than someone like myself.
R: I think if it hadn’t been for John Schuman and Red Gum’s version of I was only nineteen, our road might have been a lot more difficult to traverse! I think we had a debt to them, but now mostly repaid.
A: It was a pivotal point in the public’s awareness of Vietnam vets problems.
R: Yes! I think it was very much so! I think it was catalytic! I think we need to all keep remembering that. And when I say the debt has been at least been partly repaid, the words of that song are there for time immemorial. They’re on the memorial in Canberra. There’re not too many songwriters who have their words immortalised in such a fashion.
A: Where did you gofor R&R?
R: I came home! My brother in law was driving me at 60 kilometers per hour and frightened the shit out of me! I said, ‘Russ, you’re going to have to slow down!’ He said, “But I’m only doing the speed limit!’
‘But,’ I said, ‘I can’t see everything at this speed!’ You learn to look through the trees and at the road and behind buildings. The fastest I’d travelled was at 40 Ks for the last 10 months and that not often!
A: Did you have anything to do with the Barrier Minefield?
R: No, thank God!
A: It’s been a huge thing of conjecture. I’ve interviewed a couple of senior officers about it. One was almost vitriolic about it and the other a little more guarded but they both agreed that, shall we say, it was a bad idea?
R: It caused a lot of (unnecessary) deaths. Well, we do learn-no mine field should not be covered by fire!
A: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
R: Not that would be appropriate to what we’re on about here.
A: I thank you for that. I truly appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.
Lieutenant Peter John Watson
Peter Watson was inducted into National Service in 1967. He was initially posted to the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Singleton where he was selected to go to the Officer Training School at Scheyville. He served his obligation of two years and when this was almost up he, “At a Dining in Night while the port was being passed I volunteered to extend by a year to go to Vietnam.”
When he went for his medical before going to Scheyville, his medical examiner was John O’Neill who had played Rugby for Australia. O’Neill was coach of the University of Queensland Rugby Club and asked him ‘Do you want to go there or not?’
Peter replied, “Well, I’ve just failed University, my mother’s going to kill me, so the Army’s looking pretty good!”
Peter says that the greatest motivator he had at Scheyville was the fear of failure. His father told him he had been ‘Lucky and privileged to have gone there’ and Peter agrees. For the first time in his life he had experienced teachers who were genuinely interested in seeing their students learn. He played rugby there, at half back, picking up the standard injuries.
One of his instructors there was Allan Stewart, an old time British Armour soldier from WW2 who had served in ‘Crocodiles’, the flame thrower version of the Churchill tank. Later, Peter ‘did’ Canungra with Stewart and he and the rest of his course tried their best to get him through but Allan was “Just too old”.
Peter mentions several of his non Armour classmates and praises Scheyville as “Picking the eyes out of National Service-they chose the best,” at the same time modestly excluding himself from that classification. His class started with 160 cadets but commissioned only “About 120. That illustrates the way the Army weeded out those no good and maintained its standards.”
He asked to go to Armour as his father had served with the Corps during WW2 as a doctor attached to the Armoured Division, later winning an MID. “And,” Peter goes on, “I didn’t want to walk anyway!”
At the Armoured Centre, Watson was a member of the author’s gunnery instruction crew, but had to finish his course some while later as a Rugby football injury, namely a fractured skull, put paid to that!
After the Armoured Centre, Peter was posted to the Second Cavalry Regiment where he came across ‘Slim’ Kennard. The SSM gave Peter a ‘serve’, saying, “Get off the Gwass, Wabitt!” only to see Peter’s Officers badge of rank and saying, “Ah, You’re an Sir Wabbit!”
While there, the Regiment suffered from lack of funds to repair vehicles. For a particular activity, a Saladin Armoured Car, two Ferret Scout Cars and an M113A1 were scrounged up to form a Troop with Watson in command. They had to conform to the exercise schedule and were duly ‘killed off’ a half dozen or so times.
Peter became a little ticked off with this and finally told his Troop “It’s about time we fought back!” So, he picked a good night harbour location in a grove of trees, slipping the Troop in after dark. He gave a false grid reference to confuse the ‘bad guys’ and set his Troop Sergeant off to do some ambushing.
The other party was commanded by Lieutenant Roger Tingley, not long returned from Vietnam where he had won a Military Cross at the battle of Binh Ba. During the ambush activity, Tingley was ‘captured’ by Watson’s men. Now, mindful of Tingley’s physical condition (he was not fully recovered from wounds received in the battle), Peter asked for his parole not to call out for the duration or, “We’ll have to tie and gag you!”
Tingley refused to give his parole and was duly tied and gagged. The night proceeded, with Watson’s Troop “Having a ball! About 3AM the call came out from the Directing Staff that the “Exercise was over, no kidding, this is important!” And it was, younger brother of his Troop Sergeant, Charlie Chester, had been injured in a hit-and-run accident. Tingley, however, had been forgotten and when finally released, gave all and sundry a great serve.
When he had re-signed for the extra year to go to Vietnam, Peter went home on pre-embarkation leave. At breakfast, he informed his parents as to A, re-signing and B, doing so for the purpose of going to war. His parents were a little shocked and his father’s friend (who happened to be Sir Walter Campbell, later Governor of Queensland-they had been fishing earlier) said, “The boy’s obviously insane; we’ll get him out of this!”
Watson considers that the Canungra training was a complete waste of time for Armoured personnel. However, everybody had to do it. Amongst the group of Armoured personnel was Sergeant Allan Stewart and Pokey Coughlin. Old ‘Stewie’ was “Just too old to be an infantryman running up and down the hills of Canungra and failed. It was a pity, as he really wanted to go to Vietnam.”
Peter, like so many others of the Vietnam era, went to war in the comfort of a Qantas Boeing 707. In Singapore, he went through the farce of changing out of his uniform and donning, “A floral shirt to go into the terminal for breakfast”, as if 200 or so fit, short haired, tanned men were a usual occurrence in an international airport and not a group of soldiers.
The contrast between Australia and Vietnam was bought home to Peter with alacrity. When his aircraft was beginning its spiral descent into Ton Son Nuit airport, he was “Looking down and asking my self ‘what are those little round holes filled with water’ and realising heck, I know what they are! (Artillery craters)
“As the plane descended a Service Corps sergeant decided that he wanted out, got out of his seat and tried to exit while in flight. He had to be restrained! The first thing that struck me when I left the aircraft was the smell! The second thing was all these men and women wandering around in ‘black pajamas’. Hang on! They told me that everyone in ‘black pajamas’ was a VC! Obviously these people weren’t!
(This dreadful piece of misinformation, no matter how many times debunked to authorities in Australia, seemed to possess a life of its own. The cotton pajama-like trousers and blouse were a cheap and almost universal set of garments for rural and sub-rural Vietnamese.)
“So, we sat at the airport for four hours or so. We didn’t have any Military Payment Certificates (issued by the US authorities to counter the black market) for a soft drink or any rations. Whenever we went to movements for information we were told that ‘we’ll get around to you’. Eventually, a C123 came for us, you know, the ‘baby’ Hercules. A US Air Force aircraft and we were loaded on. They couldn’t raise the rear ramp because of a hydraulic leak, so the crew chief made a running repair with a torn T shirt and eventually we made it to Nui Dat.
“The briefing before we went was the thing that staggered me. There were so many easy things we could have been told. There was a huge gap in the knowledge that was coming out of Vietnam to that which was given to the people who were going there. The training didn’t really reflect the situation.”
Watson’s jobs in Vietnam were quite varied, being successively Troop Officer of a Cavalry Troop (ie. second in command); Troop Leader for a while; a liaison/exchange officer with the US 49th Transport Battalion; liaison officer at the US 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment; liaison at the Thai Army Panther Division; Troop officer again and finally Intelligence Officer at the Squadron Headquarters.
His first contact “Was a dud. On the Firestone Trail, two VC were walking along it, a couple of shots were fired, the VC scarpered and that was it! The second was in the ‘Long Green’ area and it wasn’t much either. The third was after the second day of (the battle of) Binh Ba. We were reacted down into Hoa Long. (Captain) Ray DeVere led it; he had half a shot up Troop so I took Support Troop with him. We got a few RPG rounds but no damage. The funny thing about that was at the end of it, two things happened. My driver was a bloke called David Page, a lovely young fellow, a real good bloke. Anyway, I’d fired quite a few rounds of .50 at these guys who’d fired the RPGs and had left a round (chambered). Poor David was out of his drivers seat and had straddled the barrel when the round cooked off. (fired owing to the extreme heat of the barrel.) Everyone ducked for cover, then laughed at Page who was white as a sheet.
“That night we harboured in the area where we had the contact. The next day, the infantry discovered three VC who had hidden in a well in the middle of our position.
Armoured soldiers, much like all soldiers, try to make the best of things as they happen. They, of course, have superior carrying capacity and mobility to that of infantrymen. On one operation near the Courtney rubber plantation, with some idle time, Peter took a section of three carriers into the large US base at Long Binh stopped at the Loon Foon Chinese restaurant. There they picked up some fried rice, noodles and sweet and sour pork. Then on to the local branch of Cornucopia Ltd., AKA an American warehouse to exchange a carton of Australian beer for a box of frozen steaks.
Then, back out to the wet and miserable Fire Support Base. A slab of steel saw service as a barbecue plate and soon came the smell of grilling meat. A Platoon of Infantry came by and did the classic double take, especially when seeing Trooper Floss Glass and his Crew Commander uncork a bottle of wine and pour two glasses. “This just about sent the infantry off their brain!” (It also illustrates the surreal nature of the war itself!)
Peter names several people who influenced him in his short time in the Corps. The Task Force Commander, Brigadier ‘Sandy’ Pearson is one such and of who Peter says, “Was a brilliant bloke-I liked his style and his ability to communicate with people. (Major) Laurie O’Donnell (later Lieutenant General) I thought was brilliant. I was lucky to have two really good guys to actually look after me.”
Whilst attached to the Thai Army, Watson went ‘AWOL’ to Bangkok with the Thai general who was Commander of the second rotation of the ‘Panther’ Division. They played golf at the Air Force Officers Golf Club and in general it was, “A couple of brilliant days and when I got back, no one knew I had gone!”
Peter, when asked about the standard of the Thai Army opines that “They were there purely for the politics and the US Army PX where they could get cheap electronic equipment that they could sell on the black market. In fact, there were two incidents with them that stand out.
“The Thais didn’t go looking for a fight. They would go into the rubber (plantations), set up hutchies (one man tents) and stay there for a month. The VC woke up to this and ambushed them and caused considerable damage. The US Army liaison officer, a ‘bird’ Colonel asked me if I would like to go and see what had happened. The two of us ended up being the ‘cavalry to the rescue’. Between us, we had an M60 MG, two Armalites and an M79 Grenade Launcher. Thank God it was all over when we got there. It was a matter of organizing the ‘Dust Off’ and air strikes on the escape routes.”
The other incident occurred during a five nation operation in the Courtney rubber plantation area. ‘Arc Light’ was the code word for a B52 strike and anyone who has seen one and the results thereof will know how devastating they can be. Peter, was in the Thai Command Post. One evening, whilst taking, decoding and plotting the ‘locstats’ of each Australian Task Force unit’s night position, he noticed an anomaly. ‘Whiskey’ company, a New Zealand unit, had given its location to be in what was the center of an Arc Light strike zone.
Peter asked for the company to “Check your locstat” and after decoding again, the result was the same. He alerted his Thai, Vietnamese and American superiors and finally went on ‘open’ (clear language) radio to tell ‘Whiskey’ about its imminent danger. The Australian Task Force duty officer “Went off his brain” at this apparent security breach. Eventually, it transpired that the Australian Task force had their ‘plot’ of the B52 activity down incorrectly and had acted under the delusion that ‘Whiskey’ was clear of it.
“The Kiwis were asked to pack up, guns at the high port and run, which they did. Within minutes of the strike being diverted to an alternate target, the Kiwis radioed that they were outside the strike zone. They must have moved very quickly at night to get there. The strike went in as planned.
He characterises Armour in this way. “It was so uniquely different as a branch of the service. Everyone would look at you and say ‘you’ve got everything going your way, you have water, you carry all those rations, you didn’t have to walk’ but it was dusty and it was dirty and it was bloody hard work. There was a different level of fatigue for Armoured Corps guys than there ever was for infantry.
“You have to have the ability to listen to three (radio) conversations at once and swap between them. It was an organizational task. You had to be extremely flexible and adaptive. The hardest part? Yes, mental! Fatigue-especially drivers-they drove all day, with the heat and the vibrations. It was so difficult, and then, you had to get through the night!”
Peter Watson praises such fellow officers as Ray DeVere MC and Tom Arrowsmith as knowledgeable and professional men, super confident and “Good to be around. Some, however, I would be scared to go outside the wire with! And what’s more, the Diggers knew that! You didn’t have to be Einstein to see who they trusted and who they didn’t. It was painfully obvious.
“It manifested itself, say, when certain people would say something and the call would go up ‘the green machine sucks!’ Or ‘chicken man! buck, buck, buckaw! He’s everywhere!’ and the person concerned would ask ‘who said that?’ as if anyone would own up! The guys had a genuine way of letting you know whether they trusted you or they didn’t.
“The diggers found a cast iron bath, French style, and decided to make it theirs. They rigged up a hot water system for it to make a Diggers Bath House. However, the Squadron Commander decided he would make it his! Not a totally intelligent decision! As I exited the Mess one night, I was told that it would be a good thing if I went back and had another drink. A nod is as good as a wink and I did.
“Next thing, there’s this mighty Kaboom! The chimney flew across the Officers Mess and the road and landed near the Sergeants Mess. They thought it was an incoming rocket! The Bath House was demolished and the Service Investigation Branch was called in without any success. Half the Squadron knew who did it and the other half had a good idea! And one man never found out!”
When asked as to how he felt about National Service, he says that he looked back on it with fondness and that it should “Still be around in some form or other. It created problems for some, taking Vietnam out of the equation but I think that the majority of people looking back would say it wasn’t too bad at all. It wasn’t two lost years. I learned things in the Army I didn’t even know I was learning. And, many life-long friendships! And certainly don’t regret that extra year.” Still, after so long out of the ‘Green Machine’, Peter has an affection for it, and, “It still means a lot to me even though it was but three years out of my life. A very important three years.”
In one incident, his driver hit and killed a water buffalo, which cost the Australian Government $800 dollars. Later, on his attachment to the Americans, he was asked to go on a ‘hearts and minds’ mission. The task was to pay a gratuity to a Vietnamese widow 43 US dollars because an American truck had run over and killed her husband. The Americans called this a ‘solacium’ payment. (Latin- consolation, relief.) He couldn’t reconcile the difference in life values. Peter started, like so many since, to be a little disillusioned about the war.
Peter thought he should put back into Vietnam some of what he had taken. He became Australian Vice-President of the Vietnam Veterans Reconstruction Group. The AVVRG had built an orphanage at Baria and a couple of kindergartens, one of which is on the site of the Australian Movements Center at Luscombe Field. (The airfield at Nui Dat)
So, in one of the ironies of life, the first and last pieces of dirt which Peter had set foot on in Nui Dat were at the Luscombe Field Movement Centre and 33 years later, he was part of a group that had built a kindergarten on the same site. In a second irony, he met the Commander of D445 battalion, which had been the nemesis of the Australians and he was a “Brilliant bloke. Tough! He would have had to have been tough! But, a delightfully friendly guy who; all he wanted to do was sit down and talk about the things that had happened. If I had ghosts (from the Vietnam days) they disappeared that day!”
When he returned to Australia, Peter continued his studies at the University of Queensland for a degree in law. He was told by a lecturer that he was going to fail. Reason? “Because I’d been to Vietnam!”
Later that year, Watson was having lunch in the refectory. A young student, one of the leading radicals, came up behind him with a megaphone and said in front of him, “In front of me, I have a murderer!” Peter paid no attention for a moment until he realised the fellow was talking about him!
“I lost the plot. I went after him and grabbed the megaphone out of his hand, took the batteries out and threw them all around the refectory and told him I was going to stick the thing up his backside backwards then turn him into a white wetsuit! Eventually, a couple of mates grabbed me and took me out and we went down to the Regatta Hotel where I cooled down.” Peter completed his degree, in commerce.
Peter Watson, like so many others, took the lawfully made decision to be called up in his stride. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam, only to be reviled on return. Through all this, he was determined to his best and no more can be asked of any man who takes on the arduous task of crewing an Armoured Fighting Vehicle.
Trooper Patrick T Burton. (A day or so after the interview with Watson, Peter emailed the following, inter alia, reproduced entire.)
You asked about who I admired during my experience in Vietnam. There was one who I didn’t mention who I should have Trooper Patrick Burton. He volunteered to drive the upgraded M113A1 that was used to clear the Dat Do (barrier) minefield. He did this over an extended period of time. I never knew if he understood the risk associated with this exercise possibility of a major mine being placed in his tracks that would have launched him to the moon. In return, the Army gave him a week in Malaysia. He thought that was terrific. No mention of a medal as that would have admitted that the Army got the whole idea of the minefield wrong. Patrick has since died, (1975) but he was a very brave soldier.
Trim vane out and locked? Does this thing really float?