Vietnam veterans John Connelly and Max Dadd are glad to see the tide turning in Australia on the Vietnam War.
The pair told their story to the Namoi Valley Independent on Friday following the Vietnam Veterans Day service at the Gunnedah Cenotaph.
A local for 28 years, Mr Connelly said he met Mr Dadd at the School of Military Engineering near Liverpool in 1968 where they both completed their core training. They then went on to Canungra in Queensland for jungle training before deploying to Vietnam.
Mr Connelly was in the regular army and Mr Dadd was a National Serviceman and their tasks included bridge building, mine warfare, land clearing and patrol duties.
“Each infantry patrol that went out had to have an engineer go with them [in case of booby traps],” Mr Connelly said.
They returned to Australia in April 1970 and Mr Connelly stayed in the service until 1971 doing administration for Citizen Military Forces and managing transport platoons.
Upon their return to Australia, the friends said those who had returned from Vietnam were treated badly and called “baby killers”. It wasn’t until 1987 that Australians began to recognise the sacrifice that had been made by those who had served.
“It’s nice to see that the RSL and the general public are starting now to accept the service we were involved in,” Mr Connelly said.
“For a lot of years, it was thought of as nothing.”
Mr Dadd echoed his friend’s sentiments.
“It’s about time,” he said.
“It took [Australia] about 20 years to give us a welcome home. It was just 20 years too late.”
John Connelly’s story
I joined the Australian Army as a volunteer National Serviceman, on July 17, 1968, and was sent to Kapooka to do basic training for three months.
This was followed by 12 weeks of corps training at the School of Military Engineering in Liverpool, driver training at Randwick and jungle training at Canungra.
By this time I had been in the army for about 10 months. I then returned to the School of Military Engineering in a reinforcement holding wing to wait for deployment to Vietnam.
I was sent to Vietnam in April 1969 as an army field engineer, flying out of Sydney on a Qantas 707 special charter flight in the middle of the night to avoid any confrontation with protesters.
On arrival in Vietnam we were hurried off the aircraft and were told to wait in a sandbagged area on the tarmac of Saigon airport – they needed to get the Qantas flight back in the air as soon as possible as there had been a rocket attack only an hour before we landed with smoke still rising in the air from burning debris.
I can remember thinking: “What have I got myself into now?”
We were given a sandwich and a piece of fruit with the order to “eat it, as it may be a while before you get to your unit.”
None of us could eat so we gave it to the Vietnamese children who had gathered around – they were as afraid as we were but trying to get by the best way possible in the war zone.
Finally we boarded a Caribou for the flight to Nui Dat and Vung Tau, the Australian task force bases where we would spend the next 12 months.
The first three months were spent adapting to the environment and overcoming the fear. As time progressed I was involved with bridge building, mine warfare, land clearing and patrol duties within the rubber plantations that bordered the jungle.
I can remember being shocked by the living conditions of a third-world country, especially one that was at war.
There were people living in dirt-floor huts, made from discarded beer cans, no larger than three metres by three metres, and housing six or seven people.
The culture shock was incredible. To them, life was cheap and their prized possession was a 100cc motorbike which would carry up to five people at any one time.
They lived on rice, had very little possessions and begged for food in the streets. We gave them fruit and whatever we could spare.
I recall lying on a bunk, housed in tents at the base camp, listening to the eight-inch guns firing round after round into the long, high hills, watching the aircraft drop napam and wondering if anyone would survive the onslaught.
This time in Vietnam has made an indelible mark on my life and my character.
As we were all there under the same circumstances, strong bonds were formed that would last to this very day – mates you could count on and who would do anything you asked of them.
Together a sort of acceptance set in of what was happening and we tried not to be affected by what we saw and what we had to do.
As the time came closer for our departure, we would again become fearful that this would be the day we did not make it out of country in one piece.
When the day finally came to leave, I could not believe it. I just wanted to go home. We were flown back to Saigon to board that same Qantas 707 flight for the return trip to good old Oz.
As we waited on board the plane for departure, you could have heard a pin drop – everyone was thinking the same thing. What if we were hit by a rocket or small-arms fire as we were leaving Vietnam?
The aircraft finally became airborne and climbed steeply to 30,000 feet. As this height was reached all on board gave a cheer. We knew they could not get us at this height.
We landed in Sydney at about 11pm so as to keep a low profile, as we were told there may be protesters for the Vietnam War about.
As we left customs we were given a leave pass and told to report back to base when the pass expired (no debriefing).
My girlfriend at the time was waiting for me at the airport so I caught a cab home with her and started to drink.
After returning home my life changed. I found I had nothing in common with anyone I had known before and could not talk to anyone except another Vietnam veteran.
The ex-service community and clubs did not want to know us. People called us “baby killers” and protesters would spit on us.
I thought the only place I belonged was back in Vietnam and I felt guilty for leaving as some of my mates were still there.
I almost went back. The only thing that stopped me was the girl I came home to. We were now engaged and she begged me not to go.
The world had changed and all I wanted to do was fit in, so I grew my hair and wore the clothes of the day – but it didn't work.
I had changed and I could not go back to the way I was before Vietnam.
After leaving the Army, I had problems assimilating back into the community and holding down a job.
Acceptance from the community did not come until the Welcome Home march in 1987.
To this day I still carry the scars and illnesses as a direct result of being involved in the war in Vietnam.