Archive number: 1749
Preferred name: Heso
Date interviewed: 16 April, 2004
D Company, 6RAR
You are listening to the interview audio
We’ll get you to start off with the life overview that we talked about. So can you take me through where you were born, where you grew up and on from there?
I was born in Brisbane in 1945. I spent my first five years around the suburbs of Brisbane before we moved down to Wynnum.
I stayed at Wynnum all through school until I was nineteen. At that stage conscription kicked off. In 1964 I think we had to register for conscription. I registered and I got called up in June 1965. I went to Kapooka and did the basic training down there, and then back to Enoggera in Brisbane where we did nine months training with the 6th Battalion. Following that we had a twelve months holiday in Vietnam
with all expenses paid. I had the twelve months in Vietnam and came home in June 1967. I got married shortly after that. Prior to going into the army I was in the Commonwealth Bank. I rejoined the bank. I never really got transferred out of Brisbane. I did a lot of relieving work. I was with the Commonwealth Bank for thirty three years. I was made redundant in 1994 and moved up to Bribie in 2000.
Have been here for about four years. So I’ve been retired up here ever since. I do a bit of fishing a bit of bowls, a bit of everything. That’s basically it.
I will just get you to take me through what years you were in Vietnam, what your role was and where you were based?
I got there in early June ’65. For the first three weeks we were on Vung Tau which was basically a beach ex- French
holiday resort. The Australians used it for their logistic support base. We were there for two weeks until we got acclimatised and then we went up to Nui Dat which was to be our headquarters, the Task Force area for the next twelve months, while we were there anyway. When we moved into Nui Dat it was basically just a rubber plantation.
So from the time we moved in we had to do patrols, put up barbed wire, dig trenches and as the twelve months went on and on the place improved. We put up tents and floorboards even and all the good stuff like that. But at the same time…we only had a barbed wire area about a hundred and fifty metres from where we were sleeping. So all the time we were there the barbed wire was not far away and
it was the front line. So we lived there and we did operations which were sometimes two or three weeks long and on other days we might do a small day patrol with seven or fourteen men. So that varied the whole time we were there. So after twelve months I came back to Brisbane in June 67.
So what I’ll do now, I’ll go back to the beginning. How many suburbs did you live in Brisbane before moving to…
was the main one. That’s on the Brisbane River. So we lived there for a while.
Do you have any memories of what that suburb was like to grow up in?
It was pretty good. We used to walk to school. Norman Park School was probably a couple of miles away. We could catch a tram. I think the tram fare was a penny each but if you walked then you saved your tram fare to buy lollies. Then we walked home. In those days if you walked anywhere it was safe. We grew up on Norman Park which had Norman Creek
flying through it. That was a good little place. You could fish off the jetty and catch crab. That was a rental house, and then Dad decided we had better move, so we bought a house near Wynnum near the golf club, and football fields and we spent the rest of the time there.
Had your dad been involved in World War II?
Yes he was in New Guinea. He was with the infantry up there.
What sort of things would he tell you about?
He wouldn’t say much.
He was a quiet fella. He kept most of the stuff to himself. Just keep your head down and don’t do anything silly and that sort of stuff. He supported us all but he kept in his own little world in certain ways.
What sort of knowledge or impact did World War II have on your life?
We didn’t really think much of it at the time. He was gone. I was growing up and into sports
and that was the whole world you lived in at that age.
Were there days when you noticed that your dad would take part in Anzac Day or was he a member of the RSL [Returned and Services League]?
No he kept away from all that. He was never part of the RSL and he only joined when we started a RSL on Fraser Island. I talked him into joining so we could build our members up a bit.
It was just something that didn’t interest him. For some reason. He never told us why. He didn’t drink or smoke. His friends were his workmates and a few of the neighbours. He seemed happy.
What did he work as?
Did he work for other people?
Yes he worked for a firm in the valley I think. Morgan and Whacker[?]. I think he mostly worked for them. He would do a lot of weekend
work and he paid his way. There were three kids and in those days mums didn’t work. So he was always working for his mates at home doing up cars and working on trawlers and that sort of stuff.
Did he ever teach you anything about cars?
Yes. When my brother and I started getting cars, he’d say he wasn’t going to fix it for us but he’d show us how to fix it. So we would do the work.
And as we got on, it was handy. We had old cars and they were always breaking down so we had a fair old idea of what to look for first. We could fix it ourselves.
And how about your mum? What sort of person was she?
She would stay at home and stand on you when she had to and give you a hard time when she had to. But she was good. Real good.
And how many brothers and sisters did you have?
One of each. I’m the eldest. A brother and then a sister.
When you were young and had the freedom around Brisbane, what sort of things would you get up to?
Well in those days there weren’t any nightclubs. A night out would be the dances on Friday night. I used to work in Manley at that stage. I would catch a train into Brisbane at night time and meet up with a mate of mine. I’d stay at his place on the weekends.
We’d play football. Basically it was dances and that and then we might sneak into the pub. A lot of underage drinking. We’d find a pub where they’d serve us underage. It was easy.
And how would you describe Brisbane as a city at that stage?
Pretty laid back. As I said, there were no dramas. You could do anything you liked and you felt safe.
And which were the pubs that would serve you underage?
I can’t think of the names…oh, the British Empire was always pretty good.
There was one where the Reserve Bank building is now. That’s been long gone. But in those days there were two or three pubs on every block in Brisbane. It wasn’t too hard to get a drink.
And what was the situation with the football that you used to play?
I played for Manley. I went through from Under Thirteens to Under Eighteens. It was on every weekend.
Which code of football?
There was nothing else in those days. Soccer might have been in its infancy. But the rest was basically Rugby League.
And how was the competition organised?
Through the Brisbane Rugby League. Inner suburban. North, South, East, West. There were about a dozen teams.
How was Manley compared to others?
in the last couple of years but before then we got belted nearly every game. But we grew up all right and started learning a few things. A lot of the other teams were bigger than us but by the time we got to seventeen and eighteen we caught up to them. So things evened up in the last couple of years. And that was the time that the senior teams started to get some good players. So they started to improve and it spread throughout the club.
What was the population
in the Wynnum Manley area?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. Probably in the low five thousand.
And how linked was it to Brisbane?
The old steam trains. I used to take the steam train to go to work when I was in Brisbane.
And what was the build up of suburbs in between like at that stage?
No much. Tingalpa was a small suburb. Cannon Hill….
That’s basically it.
You went to school at Wynnum?
Yes Wynnum Central and the Wynnum High School.
Yes. We only went to Junior. Like in those days you did your primary school up to twelve and then you had the option of doing four years high school. Two years high school got you to junior level.
That could get you a job anywhere in Australia. If you got to junior you had your choice of jobs. Then you could go on and be a schoolteacher or go to university or what ever you liked. We knocked back more jobs that we ever had. In those days you applied for a job before you finished your junior, and come Christmas time you left school and if you wanted to go straight to work then you did. It was mainly public service and banks. If blokes wanted to be apprentices there was no trouble.
And what were your ambitions?
Public service to start off with. Mum would say get into the public service and you’d be safe and you won’t have to worry all your life. And then I got offered a job with the Commonwealth Bank. I think they wanted me to go to Sydney first up. Mum said I was too young and I couldn’t go to Sydney. So then I got a job with RM Gow. They were a grocery company. I think they’re still going in Moorooka. I had six months there and the bank wrote to me again and said they had a job for me in Brisbane. So I moved
over to the Commonwealth Bank.
What did you do at R.M. Gow?
Just a clerk.
What were the differences in lifestyle between being at school and being a worker?
More money. A bit more independence. If you wanted to do things then you did them.
And what was the situation with your pay. Did you give some to your mum?
Yes we paid board from the first day and my old man threatened us that if we didn’t bank some we’d be in trouble. There was actually a newsagency next door to the station. I think pay day might have been Friday, so we had to bank five bob [shillings] or ten bob or something and if we didn’t do that then we were in trouble. So every week, ‘There you are Dad, there’s my bank.’ So when holidays came around you had money.
What did this teach you?
It was pretty good at the time but overall I think I’ve learnt to spend money pretty well.
I get it and spend it but at the time it was all right. You had to pay board. A lot of people didn’t pay board. But with us it was part of the deal, so no worries.
When the Commonwealth Bank wrote to you, what sort of position were you offered?
Just basically postage boy or something. Pretty important stuff.
What did you have to do?
the mail, send the mail and put the stamps on. I had another important job. They had their own sewerage system out the back. So I had to make sure there was chlorine in the system and it was dropping at the right rate. If it dropped too quick it smelt of chlorine but if it wasn’t dropping fast enough then you smelt everything else. So if the manager walked in and he smelt the wrong smell you were in trouble. It was a pretty important job in the Commonwealth Bank.
And was there a rate of progression?
Yes. In those days you’d do your penance on postage tables. If you were real lucky you would go into ‘telling’ straight away. Different little jobs and you’d move up the ladder and once you got to teller you thought you were made. That was a ….
What sort of duties did you have when you were behind the teller?
In the morning you would get your money out and count it up and balance it in the afternoon and put it away.
That would keep you busy before you went home.
I’m familiar with the Commonwealth Bank when it’s all computerised, how did the system work then?
In the old days? Everything was handwritten. Every little ledger. If you walked into a bank to put twenty dollars into your account, there would be a sheet with your name in it. You’d have to pull that sheet out and write down twenty dollars, add it on to the balance. You might have forty dollars there and you’d put in the deposit,
so you now had sixty dollars. Everything was hand posted. The smallest account right through to the bank’s general books.
So everything was non centralised. If I had an account at Wynnum I couldn’t go to Toowong?
No, not really. Now they’ve got those black light things…if you wanted to draw some out of Toowong say, you would have to go into your bank and fill out a form there and get the bank to send
it to Toowong. You’d say I’ve been down to Wynnum and I want to draw some money out here. That’s the only way you could do it in those days. You had signatures in the back of your book and all sorts of things like that. In those days you might have people come in and say they had made arrangements to draw money out here. You couldn’t find their signature and they would abuse you. It was all part of the growing up process.
Given the times, what sort of transactions, withdrawals, would people be making?
In this time now they would seem pretty small, but it would relate to what we do now. You might draw out a hundred dollars housekeeping for the week, then you might draw out five pound.
And how big was the Commonwealth Bank at the time?
It was probably the biggest I suppose. Things change.
What other banks were around at the time?
The ANZ [Australian and New Zealand Bank], the National, Commercial Bank of Australia and they were taken over by Westpac. It was about five or six around the streets.
You mentioned that it was a lesson for life, what did you learn in the bank?
In those days dealing with people it was all yes sir no sir. Anyone senior to you, you called them Sir or Mr. That was a bit to get used to for a while. But you were taught respect for your elders, respect for the customers.
You were taught how to treat people senior to you. In those days that was drummed in to you, particularly at school and when you got out of school it was still there. You looked after people.
And what was the social life like at the bank?
Pretty ordinary. Not much in those days. In those days when you got to a certain age you were expected to get married and there were either juniors in the bank,
and the next level up were the seniors and they would come to work and go home to the kids. It took a while before social clubs developed in the bank.
So working at the bank was there any other changes to your lifestyle?
No, pretty mundane. The biggest thing was when you got transferred. If you wanted to go ahead you basically had to accept transfers. You had
to do your time in the country. Before I went in the army it was getting to the stage I wanted to get out of Brisbane. I was bored and I had actually applied for a transfer to ….they advertised positions and you would apply for them. They might say you didn’t have the experience. In small branches you had to do four or five different jobs, and they might say you haven’t got the experience at the moment. So I missed out them.
And it was only the next year that this National Service thing came in. So that filled a bit of a void there.
And given that the time was the ‘60s, what sort of changes or things were happening in terms of popular culture around you, music, television and these sorts of things?
I remember when television came in.
We couldn’t afford it originally. We used to walk up to the main shopping centre which they called The Terrace. That was a ten minute or fifteen minute walk. We’d just stand at shop windows, stare in watching the TV. You’d get the same people there every night. You’d stand there and watch your favourite shows. You couldn’t go until you finished your homework. Then we got TV and then colour TV. Everything was moving. You’d get an old wreck [car] and do it up.
These days everyone wants a new car but in those days you bought what you could afford to buy.
And are there any particular songs that stand out from dances?
Col Joye was one of the big boppers in those days. Dusty Springfield. They used to come to Australia and do tours. They used to bring shows to the Festival Hall. You’d go there and bop around the place.
Duane Eddy. Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar. I remember that one. Rock music came in. Johnny O’Keefe was a big one. There were always shows coming to Brisbane and there used to be a dance at the West End. I don’t know if it’s still there.
I used to meet my mates. Get off the train and they would pick me up in their car. And there was an old pub under the bridge, Under the William Jolly Bridge I think it’s called now. We used to go in there and buy two cans of beer each and you’d drink one. That would just about fill you up and then you’d leave the other one in the car and then you’d go to the dance and you’d get a pass out at half time and you’d come out and drink the other one. On two cans of beer you were just about drunk. By the time the dance was finished you were sober enough to drive home again.
But two cans of beer was a big night out.
What were the dances like? How were they structured?
It was a big hall. They had a band up the front and people dancing everywhere. There were no canteens or anything. That was it.
How did you ask a girl to dance?
I don’t know. Just walk up to her I suppose. You got to the stage you knew them all. You knew that that group of girls would be there. It was one big friendly group.
Were there any different sort of fashion trends that defined different groups?
You had the Bodgies and the Widgies in those days. They were the slicked back hair…they used to stand out.
Funny clothes. What is the mob in England, the punk rockers? They were a bit like that. The in thing was to wear your Guy-Mitchell blue shirt and black trousers.
What was the Guy Mitchell shirt like?
A bright blue shirt with a bit of gold fleck in it. If you had one of them you were in the scene.
And did you meet anyone at the time? Any girlfriends?
Actually I met Glenda. Not there but another place.
Had you met her before you went to Vietnam?
How did you meet her?
At one of these dances. Then we went out on and off and we got pretty steady. I knew her for three years I think before I went away. And we picked up again when I came home.
And we just stuck through thick and thin.
What kind of places would you go out to?
Dances, movies. That was about all there was in those days.
Any movies that stand out from the time?
No I can’t remember.
What sort of news were you hearing about National Service?
It sort of came out of the blue I think. There was the usual talk that the government was considering bringing in conscription and then all of a sudden the news headlines, it’s in. All nineteen year olds had to enlist and they gave the details about how they were going to do it. They were going to pick out so many birthdays every six months and if your birthday was one of them
then you had to register. And there was still no guarantee that you would get in. Once you registered it was up to them to pick the numbers they wanted for that particular call up.
What was the general response to this idea?
Nobody seemed to be dead set against it. If it happened it happened. There were no bad vibes about it at the time.
At the time did you have any ideas about the political situation?
No I didn’t take much notice of it at all. If your dad voted Labor then you voted Labor. I think there was a twenty-one year old vote in those days. So we didn’t have to vote.
What sort of things would you hear about Communism?
Very little. We
were pretty insulated from all that sort of stuff. Your world was just work and sport and going out. There was no real need to get involved in that stuff.
Were there any rumours or myths about what Communism was all about?
No not really. You heard thing. Some movies about Communism.
The Korean War was not long over and we knew about that. But it didn’t really sink in that it was every going to worry us. They’re there and we’re here. There was no real drama for Australia.
When did your birth date come up?
I was born on the 1st of January and it started off from the 1st of January to the 30th of June. That was the first group. If I had been born earlier I wouldn’t have made it. I was just on the cut off. If I had been born on the 31st December I wouldn’t have gone. Anyway that came in and then they sent around all the registration forms.
So I filled it in and waited to see what was happening. Later on we got the form back to say your number’s up. I think it was around about Christmas time. I’m not quite sure. I think I was on holidays. I got the notification back to say I was one of the ones who had been selected.
What was the situation with work and National Service?
Well the legislation covered that. They had to let you go and they had to give you your jobs back when you came back. There was
never any drama there.
What did your parents think about you being called up?
Dad didn’t say much. Mum was a bit dirty on it. She didn’t want us to go and they shouldn’t be doing this to all the young boys. But she accepted it.
What did you think?
As I said I was looking to get out of Brisbane anyway and this was another way of doing it.
Did you have any expectations of what the army was like?
No not really. Dad never talked much about it. Five or six of my mates in Wynnum they all got called up. A couple got the call up and a couple didn’t make it though. We talked about it. There was no, “Bugger this, I’m not going. No, I’d rather stay here and go to work.”
What was the procedure you went through after you got the notification?
You got the call up and they would say they would write to you in due course. The next thing was the medical. We had to go to Woolloongabba or Centrelink or whatever it was called in those days. You had to go there for a medical. There were hundreds of blokes there. There was a doctor there and he would take some blood out of you. You had to cough and all this sort of stuff.
That was it. There were no x-rays or anything serious and so long as you were warm and breathing you got through. I had a mate I went up with and he had had a fairly serious injury playing football and he didn’t tell them, they didn’t ask. He got in. He did the whole two years. They just wanted people. They just had to get them in. The whole plan was to get the National Service going to get enough
people to fill up these two battalions that they had committed to send to Vietnam. They couldn’t get them from regular soldiers. They didn’t have enough. So they just had to get the numbers up.
What did Glenda think of you spending two years in the army?
Not much. The first twelve months…well three months away and nine months in Brisbane,
even though we had to stay on the base we did get a fair bit of leave. Once we got to Brisbane there were a lot of exercises in Brisbane, and then the twelve months away we couldn’t do anything about that.
And after the medical what happened after that?
That was just forgotten for a while and then you got the advice and we had to go to Kelvin Grove Army Barracks.
We just got a very simple letter to say be at Kelvin Grove at nine o’clock on such a such a day, bring your toothbrush. A mate and I fronted up with our toothbrush and not much more because once you get there they take your clothes off you anyway. Blokes were walking up with suitcases full of clothes. A change of clothes, that’s all we took. We went to Kelvin Grove.
They processed us there. Got on buses and went to Eagle Farm Airport and then out to Kapooka. So all in one day we had gone from being civilians to army.
When you turned up at Kelvin Grove, how did they treat you?
Oh they were right there. They had to be there. They were all right. They just made us line up. They didn’t start yelling or screaming at us at that stage. This is what they were going to do. They explained everything nicely to us.
Sign up here and all that sort of stuff. And take the oath.
What’s the oath?
To defend Australia, the Queen and all this sort of stuff. I think they still do it. My son was in the air force and he had to do it in Brisbane.
And taking this oath, what kind of feelings did you have?
It was part of the deal. Take the oath, stand around and have a cup of tea. It was all part of the line up.
Was it a bit exciting?
I don’t know about
exciting but here we go. Today’s the day. More excitement about going on the aeroplane.
Did they give you uniforms at Kelvin Grove?
No. Probably a week before we got properly organised at Kapooka. Medicals and needles and processing and giving you numbers, serial numbers and the whole lot. Then
all of a sudden…I think it was on the Friday or Saturday and then they said next Monday you start training. So then every day you were marching somewhere to pick up some gear and taking it back. All the drama of how you were to make your bed and fold all your clothes neat. I think we had about five blankets each and they had to be all properly folded. We thought this isn’t going to be much fun.
But you had to do it.
What time did you arrive at Kapooka?
Middle of winter. We’d come from Queensland and I’d never been really cold in my life before. It was the middle of winter in Wagga. It was freezing. Ice around the place. The shower blocks were a hundred and fifty yards away from the huts we were in. We thought this is not going to be much fun at all here.
When you first arrived at Kapooka how did they treat you?
day or so they probably looked after us pretty well but then they started to jump on us. They couldn’t afford to let us too cheeky I suppose. They let you know that you’re there for them, not them for you. Then we had a lot of fellas who had been to Malaya and that, they were the instructors. And once the actual training started that was when all the yelling and screaming started.
You’re national servicemen and not regular soldiers, and that came through for a while. And you still had to prove yourself to them that you could do the same thing that a regular soldier did. It gave you the shits for a while. And the drill instructors and the physical education instructors seemed to go over the top to make it harder for you. If you can’t finish this in three months then you’re going to stay another three months. All little things like that.
But when you look back it was all just to get your self confidence up.
How did you find it at the time?
Bloody hard early. Climbing up ropes. I never climbed up a rope in my life. You had to get up and over the top and down and over again. But in the end you did it. You just got used to the tricks and rolled with the punches. You knew they were going to scream at you every day when you were doing your drills and playing with the rifles, pulling them to bits and putting them back together.
I had never seen a rifle like that before. If you didn’t do it right the second time they were screaming at you.
What’s your immediate reaction when someone starts yelling at you?
Earlier on you didn’t want any part of it but after a while you think no worries. You had to do. There was no good jacking up [refusing] because you’d end up doing a day’s pay or they would charge you. In the end you would come out seeing it their way.
Do you think they were especially harsh on you because you were National Service?
I think so, yes.
Would they make any reference to that in their yelling?
Yes the odd bloke. Some went out of their way trying to make it hard, whereas other blokes were good. They were all individual men with big jobs to do. But you sort of worked them out pretty quick.
You knew who you could push a little bit and who you couldn’t.
What sort of nicknames would they have for national service men?
Nashos [National Service soldiers] mainly. But half way through the training things turned around a lot. They realised we weren’t just sooks and mummy’s boys pulled off the street. It worked out.
At Kapooka what was the mix of national service?
was all nashos where we were. We were Queensland and New South Wales in our area, then Victorians came in towards when we were leaving. It was all just nashos in our group.
Was there much division between the states?
Yes, it seemed to be with Queensland and Victoria for some reason. You would have a sports day. We had to play Rugby Union in the army.
And for some reason all they wanted to do was belt you. But it was just out of the blue. It must be Rugby Union. Everyone wanted to kick your head in. It was just crazy. Not like the gentleman’s game of League.
With the early part of training, was it odd that took about a week to get things organised?
I don’t know. It might have been five days. It was a pretty big deal. They had all these people arrive and they had to be issued with their gear. It wasn’t just a couple of uniforms. It was everything from your socks to your hats…every bloody thing possible. Greatcoats, blankets, sheets, pillows, everything.
Were you the first National Service intake?
We were the first call up yes. The very first. We were sort of the testing ground I suppose. Yes we were the first lot. Yes definitely the first.
Did they make any reference to this at the time?
No really. “We’re here to train you blokes and get you into gear.” and that’s it.
And you knew all the time. Basically at that stage you knew you were going into a battalion. And you had an idea you were going to Vietnam anyway.
What sort of rumours were around?
The instructors would say if you came from Brisbane you’d be going to 6th Battalion. If you came from New South Wales you’d be going to 5th Battalion. Ingleburn or Liverpool. They had a bit of a charade things there. Getting towards the end of training
they go through this charade and you pick out where you want to go. Whether you want to go to infantry or personnel carriers or tanks or cooks. There were about fifteen different corps, and you had to pick out five corps that you’d rather be in, and about ninety five percent of us ended up in infantry. So it was the army charade to say that that we all had a choice of where we wanted to go, but that was just part of the deal. They
knew they had to fill up the battalion and that was the way to do it.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 02
Back to basic training, what kind of things were they teaching you exactly?
Early on in the drill part you had to know how to march and how to turn, right turn, left turn, back turn and all that sort of stuff. That was the kick off.
A lot of it, probably the bulk of it was working with weapons. The weapon in those days was the basic SLR [Self Loading Rifle], M16 machine gun, Owen machine gun, and a lot of the work was handling those weapons, cleaning them and breakdowns, how to clear jams and that sort of thing. And a lot of fitness work. But probably the majority of it would be weapon handling.
And how were you taking to this?
It was all right. No one had any real problems. We were all just kicking through. Probably the hardest part for me was the fitness. I thought I was fit playing football, but there’s two sorts of fitnesses. You’re physically tough or you’re physically fit. You think you’re fit but you’re not in the army. You’re tough. You go on a ten mile run in those days. You get half way through and you’re
buggered. You think you can play football, but you say I’ve got to keep going. The bloke in front of me is going and I’ve got to stay with him. Then you finish that and you come to play football in the weekend or something and you’ve just done a ten mile run and you think I must be fit. But you’re not. It’s a different type of fitness. Football is stop start and go quick. Army fitness is endurance. You’ve just got to keep going. And once you got used to that
it worked out all right.
And how were you taking to the discipline of army life?
It was hard for a while but you had to accept it. They weren’t going to bend. You were told to do something and you did it. You could work out how far to push them without getting into trouble. Blokes got into trouble for stupid things. Things that after the training they would never get into trouble again.
Little incidents that someone would pick you up on. Your locker and your six pair of underpants had to be perfectly folded. One might be a little bit out and you would be on extra duties for that. They went out of their way to make it hard. They had to get the idea through your head that they were the boss and you were the soldier and do it my way. There’s only one way and that’s my way. People accepted it.
How did you take to it when something seemingly small like your underpants…
You’d think of a good name for him. But once again he would say, “You’ve got extra duty this afternoon, report to so and so to pick up cigarette butts or something.” “Yes Sir.” And away you go. You didn’t like it but you did it.
And how were you with the other blokes. Were you developing friendships?
Yes, we were in the old
corrugated iron half moon huts. They were basic. There were no toilets in there. You had to walk as hundred and fifty yards to the toilets. Ten or twenty people in the hut. Everyone sort of bonded real well. There were very few people who didn’t. They bonded great. And the blokes you met in the army are probably the blokes you’re still kicking around with now. Just one of those things. Once the bond was there you stuck.
And you were talking about the rumours going around. How would these rumours be spread? If you were going would you talk about it?
Yes. Someone would drop the rumour that you blokes are going to 6th Battalion in Brisbane and that’s getting ready to go to Vietnam. They had a boozer [bar] up there, the canteen, and when you finished training in the afternoon you’d go up there and that was what you would talk about, where you were going to go next.
Then someone might say, ‘I’m not going to go to infantry, I’m going to transport. What are you going to put your name down for?’ But as I said we all ended up in infantry anyway.
What did you put your name down for?
All the exotic ones, transport and air supply. There were some good ones there. But my five were basically around transport and things like that.
And what was the feeling like when everyone received the news?
I think they just laughed. They more or less expected it. They said they were going to send you to the medical corps…a few blokes got what they wanted …and there would be blokes who wouldn’t be suited for infantry. They handled the course but they just would not be suited for that sort of work. There was one bloke there, he was a conscientious objector, and
he was deeply into the church and we would go to the firing range and he wouldn’t hit the target, he would just fire everywhere. In those days they wouldn’t boot them out. He went through the whole of the training but it would have been no good putting him into infantry. There were a few blokes who didn’t have the build to do it. So they would have got other corps.
Would any of the blokes purposely try and avoid the infantry?
No I don’t think so. A few blokes got injured and that was the only way out during the training. But most of the blokes were OK.
Talking about the discipline of army life, can you remember any particular officers at Kapooka?
No. We had a sergeant there, Sergeant Robinson I think his name was. He was hard old nut. At the end of your training at Kapooka you did a march with a rifle. You would leave early in the morning and you’d have to do this twenty mile march around the outskirts. It was pretty hard going, and this Robinson would be saying “When I get you blokes on that twenty mile march, I’ll show you up. We’ll see how good you are then.”
Anyway he did the march too but the poor bugger ended up with blisters. We had finished the march, had a shower and were up in the canteen when he was coming in. But he wouldn’t take a lift. There were cars for blokes who were crook [ill]. If you couldn’t go any further they would pick you up and bring you in. But we had to give him his due. He was barely walking when he got in. He wouldn’t take a ride. And the next day he said that we blokes weren’t all that bad after all.
That was the end of the training basically. Anyway we went out to prove he was wrong and that’s what happened. It was part of the training.
And were you learning at that stage any particular techniques for any possible service in Vietnam?
No this was just the basic weapons training and basic army training.
We were talking about rumours. How would you talk about the possibility of going to Vietnam? What kind of ideas would you have about the place?
Well we knew nothing about it. If they had said show us on the map, I wouldn’t have known. All we knew was the Americans were there and we were going. But
no one actually what it was like or how serious it was. We had definitely no training on it.
Did you have any idea of what kind of fighting you could be facing?
Yes, jungle and that sort of stuff. Paddy fields.
So once you received the news that you were going to be in infantry, did you have further infantry corps training?
When the regular soldiers join up they do three months at Kapooka and then you do your corps training at Ingleburn. Another
three months there. Then you go to the battalion you’re being attached to. But of course there was a hurry to get the battalion up to scratch we went to Enoggera. The battalion was formed in June ’65, and we went straight to the battalion and we did the corps training with the battalion. That gave everyone more time to bond together.
When we got to the battalion it was all regular army, NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] and we had two National Service officers who came to our platoon. They arrived more than a month after we got there. So the corps training was done with the battalion.
Well tell us about that corps training?
Well we went everywhere. We went to
Tin Can Bay. That was a big training area in those days. That was fairly new. We would go to Shoalwater Bay outside Rockhampton. We used to go to Greenbank. Down the border to the Lamington Plateau. West Ipswich and other places for a couple of nights. But the bigger ones we’d go to Tin Can Bay
or Shoalwater Bay. And then of course Canungra before we went away. That was the final jungle training.
And what kind of things were you learning on these exercises?
It was all built around team work. Like drills. I was in a rifle section and there were eight or nine blokes in a section. Then there were three sections per platoon. It was all built around contact drills,
if they found you first what you would instinctively do. You might do it twenty times. You would get sick and tired of doing it but you just keep doing it. And there would be specific things you would do on a machine gun. Something might happen and the machine gun would automatically go to the highest ground or to the right.
It was just instinct. There would be three or four in the rifle section and if something happened you would go there. And at night time you would do the same thing. I knew where the bloke next to me would be. If there was contact drill and shots were fired, then I knew that you’d go there and he would be over there. It was just team training all the time. That was the way to do it. You would get sick and tired of doing these drills but when the time did come it worked. You knew exactly what to do. And unless something really strange happened then everything would fall into place.
How intense was it this training?
Very. They kept at you all the time. You would go to Shoalwater Bay…we were the first to use it. The exercises probably went for three or four weeks. You were just walking around in the bush there for three weeks and it was full on training.
And were they teaching you patrolling
Yes, patrolling and ambush. All the signs of movement and how to move yourself. What to look for. Everyday there was something else you had to learn. In the end, as I said, it all worked out.
What experience did the instructors have?
Most of them were from Malaya.
But yes, a lot of them were from Malaya. A few of the old sergeants had been around a bit and had a lot of experience. Our officer in our platoon was a national serviceman. He obviously didn’t have much experience but he took a lot of information from his sergeant. He took advice from him which was fair enough. So things went on from there.
And were they teaching you specifics about the Asian jungle?
No not really. The only time we go into that was at Canungra and they had mock up Asian villages and tunnel hides that you could expect to run into. So basically before that it was just teamwork. Shoalwater Bay had a lot of open area there too, forest. It was a cattle property prior to that.
There wasn’t much jungle up there. At Canungra there was just dead set jungle. You couldn’t see the trees. So that was what we went in to do.
How would they test how well you were doing things?
They had tests. You might learn certain drills and they would say next Friday you’re getting tested.
Things like, you had to be blindfolded and completely strip your rifle blindfolded. But the training to do that was when you took a piece off you put it down in the same spot every time. You would be trained to take the cover off the rifle and that went there, and this goes there and that goes there. Even when you’re blindfolded you know when you put your hand down there you’re going to pick up the trigger guard.
When you put your hand down there you know you’re going to pick up the piston. And after a while you just pick it up blindfolded and put it together. But everything you did was tested. Even marching and this sort of thing. But more so going with the weapons. You had to know everything about your weapon. If you had a jam you had to clear it straight away.
Were they telling you anything about possible booby traps?
so around Canungra too. They had demonstrations of different sorts of things, traps to look after and that. That came into it.
And tell us how long this corps training was?
Nine months. From September through to June. Then we went away in June so there was no let up. We did three months at Kapooka, nine months straight and then on the plane and away we went. So it was pretty full on for the first twelve months. You didn’t
go on a holiday or anything like that. No, we had a couple of weeks off over Christmas. But even then something came up in South Africa and we were on standby to go to South Africa. There was a problem over there. I can’t remember what it was now. But we got issued with new uniforms and even when we went on leave we had to tell them where we were in case we got called back. We got needles to go to South Africa and new gear issued. But that died.
Do you remember what that was?
I can’t really. All I can remember them saying that if we go we would be looking after some big bridge, guarding a bridge. That might have been just rumours too. But that would have been Christmas ’65. Something was going on out there. It would have been nice to have big black Zulus running at you.
And what was your Christmas like for that couple of weeks off?
It was pretty quiet I think. I don’t think we went away. We might not have been allowed to go away. I’m not too sure. It was pretty quiet. I think we only had a couple of weeks off then back into it.
Did you see Glenda?
Yes she would have been around. She was living in Hamilton I think at the time.
And at the end of this corps training how do you feel you had trained yourself?
Well I had a lot more confidence. A lot more confidence in everything you did. From the smallest thing to the biggest thing you knew you could take it on. You felt good within yourself. You knew you had got through everything they had thrown at you. The physical training and that sort of stuff. Going through the obstacle courses…you’d say, no I can’t do that. But you knew
you had to do it. You see this bloody great wall in front of you and you know you have to get over it. You just force yourself to do it.
How prepared did you feel to go away to a war situation?
Yes good. We never really talked much about it but we inwardly knew that we couldn’t do much more. We had done what we had to do to train for it.
Was there a sense of keenness to go?
At that stage there probably was yes.
Describe that for us?
We were getting close. The last two or three weeks before we went away was all sort of down hill things. We were getting issued more needles and gear. There was a lot more…more training talks about Vietnam and what to expect. Then every afternoon
they might say off you go, and we’d go into town and get on the grog [alcohol]. You’d talk about it, now we’ve got to this stage, now we can’t get there fast enough. Let’s go. You got to that stage where it was three weeks before we were to go and then it was two weeks and you were wishing it would go quick.
And what were you being told about what to expect?
We were told we were going to an area that the Americans had previously been in.
The same thing, we were going down to Vung Tau for a week or so to get used to the place. Then we were going up to Nui Dat. It was an unused rubber plantation. From then on we had to make our own camp when we got there. Even then you didn’t realise what was involved. Just walking into a rubber plantation and turning it into an area where you had to stay for the next twelve months.
We thought the engineers would be there to put up huts for us but that wasn’t part of it. That was what we weren’t prepared for.
What were they telling you about the enemy, the VC [Viet Cong]?
Not so much about the North Vietnamese. They talked about the enemy running around in their black pyjamas. That they were very stealthy and sneaky. And they booby traps and not to trust them. Be careful
around the villages and all that sort of thing. To watch them everywhere you go. There was nothing much about the North Vietnamese at all. Maybe they said the North Vietnamese were committed to fighting the Americans and we were going to look after things for the Americans. That’s the way it went.
And did they warn you that there may have been a tough fight ahead of you?
They said we had to realise that there was going to be fighting and some of you will get killed. That’s a bit sobering for a while but then the blokes accepted that too. We spent a lot of time out but none of them got hurt. That was just accepted. We had a big party one night before we went at one of the big hotels in Brisbane. I don’t know who the guest speaker was but he said,
“Whether you like it or not, some of you fellas here won’t be coming back,” and that was a sober up thing too. So everyone was in the right frame of mind and new what to expect.
Tell us about leaving?
Leaving? Well we went from Amberley. We went from Enoggera to Amberley by bus. The families came to say goodbye at Enoggera.
I think it was a mid afternoon or something. All the gear was on the trucks and we went by bus. I remember Mum and Dad were there and Glenda. You had your rifle and one magazine each in your pocket. Mum said, “Are they real bullets? You be careful.”
Within half an hour we were on the bus and off to Amberley and then to Vietnam. We stopped at the Philippines to get fuel and got off there for about an hour I suppose and then on to Saigon and Vung Tau.
How did your family feel about you going?
It was just ‘be careful’. That’s all. They had accepted it and the usual things mums and dads say,
‘Don’t do anything silly. Keep your head down.’
What plane did you go on?
I think it was a Qantas 707. Proper female hostesses, luxury.
And you mentioned your guns. Did you have your guns with you and your uniform?
Yes. We were in uniform. The blokes who went over as reinforcements at certain times, they couldn’t wear uniforms. They went on a commercial flight, but this was for the military.
Where did you put your guns?
I can’t remember seeing them around on the floor so they must have been up in the luggage. All the kit bags and that were in the storage.
It was probably overhead luggage.
Describe the atmosphere on board?
It was pretty quiet. It was a night flight so some were trying to sleep. There was a lot of talking. A bit of a chat now and then. There was definitely no excitement or anything like that. It was just, “Here we go.”
Ok tell us about the arrival in Saigon. Tell us what you first saw, the sights?
I remember approaching Saigon. The most vivid thing I can remember is seeing all the craters in the ground from bombing. This was when you first started to descend. You’re a long way out and you’re really in the country. There were bomb craters and destroyed buildings and that’s when we thought, this was it.
When we landed at Saigon it was almost a military airport. There were all the American fighter planes in the sandbagged bunkers on the edge of the runways. It was military people everywhere. As soon as you land the buses pull up and you get into the buses. So when you landed there you really got the idea of what was happening with all the American presence with the planes and
the destruction that you saw. Then they put us into these buses to go to Vung Tau. We went through villages and fields. That was no real drama. There were a few village people standing around looking at us.
What did the airport look like at this stage?
All we saw was the runway. We didn’t get into the main airport building. It was the runways and the fighter planes. It didn’t look like an airport
as you see an airport now. It was just a fighter base. We just landed between all these plans. There were helicopters everywhere and military personnel everywhere.
Was it very busy at this stage?
Yes. There was always a military transport coming and going.
As we were landing you could see flights of jets waiting to take off. It was just a full on operation all the time.
We’ve heard before that perhaps it was the busiest airport in the world, is that the impression you got?
It was pretty busy yes. I went on R&R [Rest and Recreation] from Saigon too and that’s the first time I was in the actual airport building and you sit there and there’s full on military people coming and going. Aircraft just in and out.
It was just a continual buzz of jets landing and taking off. There was just no stopping. It just kept going.
You mentioned you went by bus. Was there protection for this bus?
I think so. I’m pretty sure it was a bus. Some blokes reckon it was a truck. I can remember. But I remember going somewhere in a bus once and it had chain wire guards around it. That might not have been when we went to Vung Tau. It might have been something else.
But they would have had protection.
And tell us about Vung Tau. What were your first impressions when you got there?
We went straight through Vung Tau town and onto the beach which is like Surfers Paradise Beach with no buildings behind it. And tents.
We were allocated tents. That was where we stayed for the week. We were on the beach. Sand dunes behind us and there was nothing at all. No amenities. It was built as a staging post originally. 5 Battalion went there a week or two before us. So they were already in Nui Dat. So the camp was made for them and we
moved into it. It was just basic sand. We got sand everywhere. All through the kit bag, through your clothes. Through your weapons. It was a mongrel place.
And how were the defences set up. Was there a perimeter set up there?
Vung Tau had nothing. There might have been a bit of barbed wire at the back but we never saw it. As far as we knew there wasn’t any. It was wide open.
What kind of protection did they have?
I don’t know. I never thought of it actually.
They must have had some people there doing guard duty. But it wasn’t us. We were just on the beach. We didn’t have anything to do as far as guarding the place. We did one little operation. One little shake-down operation up the beach. A bit of bush behind the beach. That was half a day exercise.
We were working in the area, working in the humidity and that was the only time we moved out of camp.
You mentioned that you didn’t think about it but did any one have any fears about it?
No it was like a holiday camp. There were people coming around selling pineapples and stuff. You just left Australia the day before and you were buying pineapples off kids on the beach. It was just like a holiday.
The same thing, running around getting issued with a bit more gear and a few more needles and then away we went.
Were there any buildings or any permanent structures at Vung Tau?
Some wooden army structures and big medical tents. Administration, Q store [Quartermaster’s Store] and that sort of stuff. But they were all tents. But then it turned into a huge logistical base.
Permanent structures and anything.
Were you receiving any briefings about what to expect?
No they were saying we were going up there in three days time, and then they gave us more detail about the area we were moving into and what to look for. You know, the rubber trees are this big and there will be nothing there when you get there. 5 Battalion is over the back there and you’ll move into this area. A company will be there, B, C, D.
Battalion headquarters will be there. You got more details about what would be there. They said 5 Battalion had been there a week and they hadn’t had any contact, that sort of stuff.
And as you were there for a week of acclimatisation, how were you acclimatising to the place?
It didn’t seem much
different. It was hot. We got the afternoon monsoonal storms. But the worst part about it was living in the sand. Everywhere you went there was sand in your boots. Everything you touched it was full of sand. You’d go and have a shower and by the time you got back you were sandy again. Couldn’t wait to get out of the bloody joint.
Well tell us about getting out of the joint?
When the time came we went up by helicopter.
We landed in a clearing there. Everyone knew where they were supposed to go. Then the platoon commanders got their orders from the company commanders. Everyone was allocated their positions in this big perimeter. We lived in two man tents in those days. This is your area.
They worked out where the machine guns were to be placed. The whole lot and where everyone would be. You couldn’t leave your tents up during the day. You had to put them down. Every day and for the first month at least, every afternoon it would pour and all your kit bags and everything was full of mud. You’d get dry during the day and wet at night. There were no cooking facilities.
No proper cooking facilities. We had to start putting up our barbed wire fences. While we did that we had to dig fighting pits and weapon pits. We had to do patrols at the same time. So the first month it was full on work, and our particular company commander, Harry Smith, he was pretty hard but everyone…
He worked us hard but everyone appreciated what he did. As it turned out it was good. Other companies might have had thirty metres of barbed wire whereas we had ninety. We had more barbed wire entanglements than anyone else. You worked hard to do it and you swore all the time but you did feel safe. So in the long run it was good. You would dig your weapon pits. You might have that job to do one day and then all
of a sudden you would be out on patrols for half a day. So you come back and your pit was half done and his pit was fully done. So you’d catch up. In the meantime it would start to rain. The first month was pretty ordinary. Early on, the first couple of days and weeks we basically had no defence. So if we were ever going to get hit that would have been the time to do it. We were on the ground with nothing.
Did you have a perimeter at all?
Within the first week we would have had one or two strands of barbed wire which was nothing. But for meals…we were on ration packs for a little while but then they got a camp kitchen organised. But you’d have to take turns in going up there and you’d get your dixies with your food in and go back to your camp to eat it and by the time you got back to your camp it was full of water. You were trying to protect it. It was just one of those things.
There was no way out of it at the time. You just had to put up with it.
How did you keep your bedding and all that dry?
We had blow up mattresses. They were just rubber blow up mattresses. We had a very thin blanket but you didn’t need that anyway. But all that stuff got wet every day so you would be trying to dry it out during the morning. But sleeping, you just had a blow up mattress on the ground.
A hoochie tent, a two man tent which generally started leaking anyway.
Would you get wet at night?
Oh yes. And you had to do your time on the machine gun too. The machine gun had to be manned all night. All the time. So you had to take your turn at that. You had to do your two hours and if it was raining it was raining, bad luck. You had your ponchos and that but they didn’t
keep the water out too well.
And what about at night on the machine guns, did you have any lighting outside?
No. Just the moon. Sometimes there was no moon. They had night scopes…compared to what they’ve got these days they weren’t very effective, but you could see movement with them. It would just brighten it up. You could see movement out in the distance.
They weren’t all that good but you had them. That’s basically all we had.
What protection did you have from say a mortar attack?
Nothing. But as we proceeded we got trenches dug with overhead covers. They would be dug right down with logs built into them. After a while you could get in them and get underneath them. But early on, the first six weeks we had basically nothing.
Just fighting trenches with no cover over the top at all.
Were you told what to do if a mortar attack came in those weeks?
No, you just had to hold your position. You had nowhere to go. You couldn’t go backwards or forwards. You couldn’t go anywhere for safety, put it that way.
If we were getting mortared a lot of them would explode in the tree canopies which would rain stuff down on you anyway. At that stage it was pretty thick overhead.
So describe for us what it looked like, the whole area?
If you’ve ever seen a rubber plantation, there were trees seven or ten feet apart in perfect lines every way. Every row of trees would be in a perfect line.
These ones were good sized ones. They all had a thick canopy of leaves. So in one way it was good but in another way, if you were getting shelled it would explode in the top of the trees and it could do more damage. So it was just these rubber trees. There wasn’t much undergrowth. Just trees.
And what was the topography like?
Pretty flat. Little rises but basically flat. In front of our area where we were there used to be an old banana plantation a few hundred metres in front of us. We used to have a listening post out there. Two blokes used to be out there all day. It was a forward warning sort of post. You would sit in this grove of bananas
and eat a banana if you felt like it and hope no one came near you. It was good.
Was it cleared around the base?
Well it wasn’t bull dozed or anything. It was very low growth. No one would be able to crawl in, in front of you, during the day anyway. That was a few hundred metres all around.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 03
Just take me through the first five or six weeks at Nui Dat?
When we first moved up there it was just full on getting the camp ready and that was it. Sun up to sun down was just work. Digging trenches, barbed wire patrolling and that was it.
There was nothing else to do after that. We had an operation I think in late June. It was sort of a shakedown operation. We didn’t have any problems. There might have been a few small contacts but that was nothing.
And how was the camp set up in terms of how was the battalion divided up?
5 Battalion was more or less behind us. They had their own area facing out one way and we were facing out the opposite way. So with the two battalions and the headquarter groups, there was basically an oval shape or a circle of a perimeter. Our lot, we had four rifle companies, A B C and D.
And a support company. The support company in those days was called the anti tank platoon or something. But the A B C and D Company had their perimeter lines. And each company had their three platoons and each platoon had their own area, all the way around from A Company to the support company. Each company had their own company headquarters in behind us and then the battalion headquarters was right in the middle. So
basically you had a circle of rifle companies around the outside and headquarters in the middle.
How were the defences set up for each individual platoon?
Well each platoon also had three sections and each section had a machine gun. It had a set arc of fire. So there were say nine machine guns along the front and each one
had an arc which they fired on and the arcs crisscrossed each other all the way a long. So at any stage, if every machine gun fired on their arc, the whole perimeter would be covered by machine gun fire. That was the main defence. The barbed wire. And then we had claymore mines set amongst the wire. They were all hand detonator things. Then you had
your individual infantry fellas on the machine guns. So you had your rows of infantry, machine gun…and the barbed wire was out the front.
How would the infantry men be dug in?
At that stage we had the pits dug so you had your fighting pit. That was a pit out the front and at a right angle was overhead cover. So you could stand up in your pit and face outwards and if there was mortar or overhead fire you could duck
underneath. But that wasn’t really successful because there was always water in it. So it was full of water with spiders and snakes and all sorts of things. I wasn’t real keen on getting in there anyway.
Did you have to get in?
We didn’t, no. Now and then but only to hide and have a smoke. You weren’t suppose to smoke down the front but if you got in and turned your back around you could have
a quick smoke. So long as you didn’t get caught.
And how big was the pit?
Not real big. Just big enough for generally two blokes to get in. Most of them were two man pits. Deep enough to stand up and see out of.
How much time would you spend in there at a time?
The only time you’d get in there…well in the pit itself…at night time we had stand to and they would have a clearing patrol which would go out…each company or platoon would have an area
and they would send a patrol out. They’d start on the left hand side and go out five hundred metres or whatever and sweep around to the right hand and then come out. So they would send the clearing patrols in at dusk and you would stand to in the pits until it was dark. For some reason they thought if we were going to be attacked it would be at that time. So you would stand to and then stand down in that time.
If you weren’t on guard…you still stood to in your tents. You weren’t down the front so you couldn’t do anything. You had to be in an area just in case something happened. And it was a hundred metres down to the trenches if you had to get there in a hurry.
How was the wire set up?
It was just an ongoing thing. Concertina wire.
Razor wire and all sorts of things. There were all different ways of putting it up. Three rolls on the bottom and then two on top of that and then one on top of that. There was high wire and low wire, so if they got through the first lot then they might be confronted with another lot. Then if they got over that there might be wire ten feet long
and five feet high. It was pretty good.
With all of the wire is it hard to see through it?
No. We had little ways of getting out. They had …you had to get out there to go out. There was a walk way through the wire. It winded through the wire. We were supposed to be the only ones who knew how to get through.
Like to get through our wire it was a fair walk. We had a lot of it there.
And were there maps made of where the mines were?
No, we didn’t have land mines. We had the Claymore mines. They were visible. You could see them. They were the anti personnel mines. They just exploded ball bearings outwards. They were set in the ground normally, so far off the ground and they would just blow out.
What triggers them?
A hand detonator. Electrical detonator. So it was up to who ever was on guard, who had control of it to set it off when he sees fit or when he was ordered to.
Where were the guards?
They were on the machine gun and wherever the machines were that was where the controls were. But we never used them, not in that area anyway.
And how far approximately would your tent be from the wire?
A hundred metres, maybe a hundred and twenty metres. A long way.
Having all this wire so close to you, did it make you feel secure?
It probably made you feel safe. It shouldn’t have though. You walked through thirty or forty metres of wire and you thought you were safe, but you’re only another hundred metres away from it.
So yes, you had a sense of security of some sort, and then at other times you didn’t feel safe at all.
How about the first couple of nights that you were there?
It was pretty spooky. We had no wire no nothing. No trenches and we were laying on these little blow up mattresses and the little tent was getting wet. So the first week or so was a bit spooky. But we were assured we were safe.
And before the wire was up what were the patrols and guards like?
There were always patrols out. In a platoon with say three sections, there may be two sections working and one section out patrolling and then in the afternoon they’d come in and another section would go out. So every battalion always had patrols out. It was for safety reasons.
Take me through one of those early patrols?
We never used to go too far in the early days. We might go out a couple of ks [kilometres]. You’d be given orders where to go. Follow the map to so and so, turn right and follow the river down to so and so and have a look around.
Then come home. There was no real bad country at that stage. The scrub was just enough to be hidden. We didn’t have any contacts anyway.
How do you move in a patrol?
You had your forward scout out first and then a second scout. Then you’ve got your command people, machine gun in the middle then your rifle group. Each bloke in the machine gun group the same bloke would have the machine gun all the time.
Then there would be three or four rifle people and a forward scout. Everyone had their own job that they preferred doing.
What job did you get?
I was between the rifle section and scout. At different times you’d do different jobs there. The rifle section was just basically three rifle men. Probably mostly I was scouting.
What would you wear on patrol?
The old baggy old green clothes. The army greens and bush hat, baggy hat. We had helmets but we never wore them. We didn’t wear helmets at all. In camp we had to have them beside our bed. We’d have a wash in them.
How do you communicate on a patrol?
A lot of hand signals. Signals for ‘stop’ and ‘go’ and signals for ‘careful’ and ‘slow down’. Nearly all hand signals.
What are the signals?
Enemy was thumbs down…when you thought there was enemy there. The usual…move up. That was come to me. A fist up and down.
When you wanted someone to come up…say I was up there and I thought I saw something I would go like that and the section commander would know something was up and he’d come up. The usual stop and go.
What was the experience like, going out on your first patrol?
Everyone was very tentative. We were all doing things by the book. You’re supposed to do this and that. Everyone was pretty edgy the first couple of times.
Then you got a bit more blasé about it. We had more confidence. You would be really edgy about where you put your feet down. You’re taught to look for this and that and don’t do this and that. After a while you’re still doing it but you’re doing it more easily. You’re not so edgy. You would start seeing things further in front of you whereas before you were looking down too much.
The more you did it the more confident you got.
And what exactly are you looking for on these patrols?
Well you’re looking for the enemy of course but we tried to keep off tracks. We didn’t work on tracks because they were easier to mine and booby trap. So we would go up the side of the track but you still had to keep looking for mines. And the main thing especially when you’re scouting
was movement. If it’s not windy and you see some leaves and trees moving then you’d think well that shouldn’t be moving because it’s not windy. Or you might see…there might be leaves on a tree and the front of a leaf is green…you know how a normal leaf is green and the back of them might be a lighter colour. And you might see a bush that’s half dark green and half light green.
It turns out it might be a bloke there who might have a camouflage on but he’s got it on back to front. Little things like that that you’re always on the look out for. Movement. Movement gives people away. You may be laying there and you might just scratch your arm but that’s enough to move a plant beside you. Any sort of movement is what you’re looking for all the time.
What sort of precautions would you take in terms of standing out in the environment, like smells and things like that?
…mosquito repellents and that sort of stuff. We tried not to use that if we could. You would be in an area that you were not too sure of and even with your small fires when you cooked, so they could smell that. So quite often you’d just eat cold food rather than start a fire.
That’s basically it. You know, things that don’t rattle. Anything in your pockets. Your dog tags you tape together so they won’t shine, so the sun won’t shine off them and they won’t rattle. Things like that.
And what about things like using deodorant?
No such thing. On a big operation you might be out for a month
and the only time you’re clean…it might be every four days you would get resupplied with food and it might be every eight days they’d bring out a fresh set of greens for you. So you would have clean cloths. And in the mean time you’d just trudge around in them and most times you’d get wet. I’ve seen the clothes actually get rotten over a period of time. They just fall apart some times.
Clothes you might have had for six months and one day they’re gone.
How would you shave?
You took your shaving kit, yes. Some blokes didn’t shave much at all in the bush but our boss reckoned we had to shave. You wouldn’t shave every day. Every three or four days you’d have a shave. But you had your little shaving kits.
You wouldn’t have cream, just use a bit of soap or something.
Were you allowed to smoke?
Not all the time, only when you stopped. Yes we always had a smoke.
Wouldn’t that give you away?
Yes but, when you stopped you always had your listening post out. If it was in an area where you were a bit wary you wouldn’t. Only if you were in a reasonably safe area.
But then again you always had your guard out.
And in these first couple of weeks when you were going out on patrols just in the general area, how long would you spend out on a patrol at a time?
They varied. Some might be only over night. Others a day. And the big battalion operations
could be anything up to a month. They would just keep going and going and going. Company patrols, might be a week. It depends how many were there. We used to go out on half company patrols which might be fifty odd people. We might stay out for a few days. It would depend on the area that you went to and what you were looking for. Sometimes you went out to protect other units. It might
be armoured personnel carriers out there so you might go out and protect them at night time and this sort of thing.
What sort of information were you given about what the Phuoc Tuy Province was like?
Not a real lot. Before we went out on these patrols they would say something like the villages have reported some movement at night time or the spotter aircraft has seen movement here or there.
So they always told you where you were going or what to expect. But Phuoc Tuy…the Americans had been there before us. They had a few stoushes [fights] there and got knocked around a bit. So we weren’t told we were safe there. They just said the Americans had been there and they had had a couple of big fights.
How big is the province?
I don’t know.
In the patrols how much of the general area of the province was being covered?
Over a period of time, the whole lot. We weren’t suppose to work outside Phuoc Tuy Province. I think later on in the piece, years later, some of the battalions did move out to the north. But when we were there we basically covered the province itself…between us and 5 Battalion. So when we were there we just basically covered the province itself. It was a fair area to cover.
And just going back to
the early days in Nui Dat, take me through the gradual build up and improving general living conditions?
We had a few weeks in these little two man tents and then we got four man tents. They were basically a four man tent. It was a mud floor and we were living on camp stretchers. Once again there was nothing to put your gear on. It was just on the floor.
The rain still came through the tent at night time. We dug little trenches around the side to try and help it but the rain would just fill them up. Then it progressed on and on and the tents got better. So we had to start sandbagging the tents. The brass [highly ranked officers] were walking around the tents. Then around about August we started getting floorboards. It was like building a house. We got these floorboards that we could put down.
That took a while. Mid August one tent had floorboards and then slowly but surely everyone got their floorboards. Then you had your sandbag walls up and we started making furniture. We would beg, borrow or steal wood and we’d make a bureau and writing desk and a little cupboard to put your clothes in. It was like home after a while. And everything started looking a bit neater for a change.
So it took from June to late August or September before we were out of the mud.
Was this an official process that happened, or would the men undertake it themselves?
No, all the stores were slowly arriving after a period of time. When the stores became available we would get them but the stores had to come from Australia and once they
got to Vung Tau a lot of people wanted the stores. All the support people down at Vung Tau they took what they wanted first. Some would come to Nui Dat. When it got there all the headquarters people would take what they wanted, and in the early piece the outskirts people got what was left over, then we started to get our steady supply. So that’s why it took so long. We were at the end of the chain.
There was nothing we could do about it.
What as set up in terms of the mess and things like that?
That was…early on it was just a field kitchen in the field, then they got a cookhouse built. Then the original mess was a big tent. Then by Christmas time the first year we had big aluminium sheds, a boozer and canteen.
We had a cookhouse and mess there. So we had a big mess and a big aluminium boozer later on. In the meantime they were building roads all around the place. Not bitumen roads, just dirt roads. But by Christmas time it was getting pretty well developed. We could walk down a main road.
How would most people get around Nui Dat?
Only walk. The company had jeeps. There was a jeep
allocated to every company but that was just for the blokes to go and pick up the supplies. Or if someone needed a doctor sometimes you’d get in the jeep but mostly you’d walk. It was only about fifteen minutes from where we were to the headquarters was. So most of the time you walked.
And how about things like toilet facilities?
Yes that came along. Pretty basic in the early piece but then we
got the drop toilets and more or less hot showers. That was top class stuff.
Before the hot water how would you shower?
You just had a cold splash. They had showers but they were just cold buckets of water. And then when they got organised they had hot water and it was good. For the first couple of weeks you didn’t have a shower.
And in the first little while with the wet and the mud and everything, did it affect you in any way with any skin irritations?
No. They were always in your ear about keeping your socks dry and make sure you dry between your toes and stuff. That was part of the training you did too on the medical side.
It was up to you to look after your personal hygiene. If you suffer then your mates will suffer. So everyone kept on it. Some blokes did get tropical diseases and skin irritations. It wasn’t from bad hygiene.
And what were the men like who you shared the tent with?
There were four in the tent and you shared the tent with people who were in your own section.
We were all good mates. I never had a blue [argument] with anyone who was in my tent. But now and again some of the blokes would have a blue over anything. A lot of them…if they weren’t happy they’d just go and sulk by themselves rather than cause trouble. And the next day they were as good as gold. If there was a bloke you wanted to have a blue with you would say, bugger it, don’t worry about it. The next day you’d be mates again anyway.
And the blokes you were in the tents with, did you develop a better friendship with them?
Oh yes. You’d see them wander out of your tent in the afternoon. When we were in camp there was still work to do. From the day we got there, there was always something to do, digging more holes. And then at four o’clock you’d knock off and go and have a shower, get changed and then have tea and go and have a few beers.
Someone would say, are you ready, then let’s go and have a drink then. So you sort of stuck with them a lot.
Would you share stories with each other like your life back home?
Not much of that. You might get letters from girls. You might say, “No worries mate?” And, “No, everything’s sweet, no worries.”
Blokes might talk about…one of the boys John Quincy, he had a girlfriend in Proserpine. She wrote to him and said our football team played Cairns or something today and three of our players got hurt. He said, “I feel like writing back and say, our team played the Viet Cong today and three of our players got killed.”
There was always something to laugh at. It didn’t matter how serious things were, we would laugh at it.
What kind of humour was there? Was it almost a macabre humour?
Yes as I said, it wouldn’t matter how serious it was. At times you might have been being fired at and for no reason someone would say something stupid.
Whether it was a strange spirit coming through I don’t know. But there was always someone to break it.
And living in the tent with three other people, what sort of things do you have to do to respect each other’s personal space?
Well it was divided into four sections.
There were no dividing rules. But it was just accepted that that was his area and you would keep out of his area. He’d come in. Everyone had their own spot of where you put your boots and where you put your rifle. I could walk into the tent and say that’s where his rifle would be. The same stuff would be in the same spot. He respected your space and you respected his. If you wanted something of his you’d just ask and he would say, “Yeah mate just go for it.”
You wouldn’t dream about going and taking something without asking.
And you mentioned spiders in the pits area, what sort of wildlife would you have to look out for?
They had those krait snakes. A yellow banded thing. They were supposed to be pretty deadly. A few spiders and things. They were the main ones.
Would they come into your tent?
I suppose they would have but mostly the snakes would be in the trenches. I saw a couple over the twelve months but I never had any worries with them. You’ve got to be careful with your boots and make sure they haven’t crawled into your boots overnight. You might put your foot in your boots and you might get a bit of a hurry up. Spiders, scorpions.
Were your tents inspected?
No. They didn’t worry about that. All that strict regimental stuff…that dropped out over there. You were expected to keep clean. It couldn’t be a shambles. Every day the corporal would be there and he might say, “Mate that’s getting a bit dirty, you had better clean that up.” But there were no inspections or kicks in the backside. They sort of accepted it.
What was the situation…was alcohol rationed?
Yes you could only drink down the canteen. If you were in camp and you weren’t on guard there was no objection to you having a drink. If you knew you were going out the next day then you wouldn’t drink too much. I think it was ten cents for a can of beer or something.
Most of the beer was American and you’d never get the same beer twice. It would be every brand and every strength. You could spend a dollar and get ten beers.
Were there ways that drinking was encouraged?
No they didn’t encourage you to drink. If you got caught with drink in your tents you were in trouble. That was one of the strict things. You could not drink outside the canteen. People used to send, relations would send bottles of spirits to you.
You had to hand it in. You could drink it in the canteen. You would just go down to the canteen and say “Mate this is my bottle.” The bloke running the canteen would put your name on it and you’d buy coke or whatever you wanted. But if they caught you up in your tent with it…One bloke sent me a carton of cans
and the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] got it when the mail came through and he said, “What’s this?” and I said, “I think we know what that is Sir.” “Yeah, take it to the canteen.” You could put it in the fridge there and drink it when you wanted it.
And talking about patrols earlier, can you take me through what would have been your first operation?
The first main one was to this village.
There was a village which had been previously gone through by the Americans and all the inhabitants had been resettled. It was a pretty good sized village. Well presented houses and the whole works. It wasn’t a little farm village. It was a proper sized town. We had to go in and look for any tunnel systems that might still be there or any
personnel that might still be there. Anything at all. But part of the deal was once we had finished we had to raze it. So basically wreck the whole village. We tore down houses, knocked over churches. The thing was just knocked to the ground.
What sort of things were in the houses?
Personal furniture, tables, chairs, crockery. Everything. When they were relocated they were told to take what they could on trucks. So they were relocated to a new established village that probably had everything anyway.
But they were just picked out of the house, put on the truck and they had to take what they could carry. The village itself was within our area of responsibility. They put out a no go zone around Nui Dat. So many kilometres out and that was no go. Anyone caught in that area was considered to be enemy, and this village was within that
area so it had to go. So that’s the main reason it got knocked over.
How did you get to the village?
Walk. Some of the operations, depending on where they were you would go out by helicopter or armoured personnel carriers, or walk. Then other times you might walk all the way out and come home by helicopters. It just depended.
did you conduct the search through the village?
Basically it came back to what we learnt at Canungra I suppose. Be careful as you go in doorways and looking for booby traps. That was one of the big lessons, going through villages and looking for booby traps. If you opened a door you would have to consider it was booby trapped. You would tie a rope around it or something and open it as you moved away.
If you wanted to move a chair you would have to say, this is booby trapped and tie a rope around it and pull it. We were there a few weeks I think. And the same time we were in other areas. We were there but at the same time we had patrols in other areas. It was an ongoing thing?
How systematically would you move through?
Yes pretty well. There were a lot of underground tunnel systems there and some of them were pretty hard to find. They were hidden under beds and stoves and all sorts of things. So they turned up quite a lot of them and then we’d get the engineers to come and destroy them.
So everything had to be pretty well looked at.
Did you find any tunnel systems?
What did they look like?
Just a little square hole. Getting down was a bit of an exercise because they were a lot smaller than us.
I definitely didn’t go down any but a couple of blokes had a quick look. Some of them opened up into underground houses, rooms and everything. But I didn’t see any of that.
What sort of booby traps would exist in tunnels?
They had mines.
Stakes, sharpened stakes. Swinging boards with stakes in them. Lots of little tricky things. The ‘tunnel rats’ who went down there, they were in a world of their own. They would be crawling along on their belly with a torch. You wouldn’t know what you were coming to next. And actually in other places they had snakes tied
on string on the roof and you wouldn’t know until you hit it and it would probably bite you. Pretty cunning.
And when you took a couple of weeks to go through the village, where were you based, camped?
Just outside the village. Same thing we just had our perimeter and at night time we had to guard the perimeter. Day and night
time, we always had people on guard. You took your turn to do the village or do the guard.
How would you sleep?
Well every night you had to do a couple of hours on the gun. But there were eight in a section so that meant four two hour shifts. You just took turns with early shifts or late shifts. If it was the early shift you might not have to get up that night. You might get up at ten o’clock and then you could sleep through to sun up.
So every night when you were in the bush you had to do the gun picquet.
Would you dig in?
Yes but not deep. Just a shell scrape which would be deep enough to cover your body. Any blast would hopefully go over the top of you. So a lot of areas you couldn’t dig in. It would be too hard. It might be shale or something. But most nights you had to dig a shell scrape.
So every day you would walk through a different area and every night you had to dig a shell scrape.
And would patrols go out through the village?
Not so much in the village but you would still put out ambushes. You would go out where ever. Once again it might be that movement had been reported along so and so, so
you’d put an ambush down the track at night time. Get there at last light, put an ambush down and stay there all night and wait until one came along. We didn’t spring any ambushes when we were there but other groups did.
What sort of impressions of Vietnamese life did you get from going through the village?
The one we were at was very neat. It was a nice town. But other places we went through, other villages, they would be pretty ordinary, slobs. But this particular one was a nice place.
What’s it like going through a completely inhabited village?
No real drama. This was the first big one we did. We were told to knock it over so we knocked it over. It was pretty impersonal.
Like when you start knocking out churches and that, people would say, “Shit we shouldn’t be doing this.” But you were told to do it and so you had to do it.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 04
In that village, apart from the tunnels did you find any evidence of enemy operations?
We had one contact I think. One killed. I think it might have been a woman. That was later on in the piece and I think that was the only contact we had.
Whether she was Viet Cong I don’t know. That was the only one.
What was said about this contact?
I think some blokes were just out patrolling and they saw this figure off in the distance and that was an area where they shouldn’t be anyway. So that was the end of her, they just blew her away.
Did you say you were in this village for a week?
A couple of weeks probably.
Why were you there for so long?
It was a big village, a good size and pretty substantial buildings. We had to knock them over and burn them.
How exactly were you knocking them over?
The engineers came in. They had some equipment. These places had tiled walls and facilities. Not like the normal villages we would run into later on in the piece.
It was just grass and straw and not real big at all. This was a proper town.
And how did you feel about this kind of action as a soldier yourself?
I don’t think any one was real excited about it. When we went out and they told us we had to destroy the village we thought that would be good, a bit of burning and looting and something. But when it started we thought this wasn’t really bloody flash.
But blokes found things, souvenirs, cross bows and things. As I said the people were just plucked out of the town, put in trucks and taken away. Like going away and leaving your DVD player behind or something. Clocks on the wall and everything.
Were there any particular items that made you feel particularly disturbed about it?
When you say about souvenirs, what kind of things were being kept?
Cross bows, wooden artefacts, tools and stuff. Whether
they were toys or not you wouldn’t know. They had them on the wall. Not pictures. Things on the walls, decorations and that sort of thing. It was, “That looks nice, I’ll take that.”
What were you noticing about cultural aspects of the place?
Didn’t notice much at all.
Did the orders seem questionable to you?
No, probably after a while you question why we did it but it was in our area and if we leave it standing it was going to give shelter to the enemy. So every time we go past there they might be hiding in that village. So rather than clear it every time we went in that area, we left nothing to clear.
Were there a lot of tunnels?
Quite a few. Yes most of the villages had tunnel systems for protection. Some were scared of their own people. Like tax collectors. The Viet Cong had a tax collector who would come around and tax the locals to fund the Viet Cong army and that sort of thing.
They weren’t just hiding from us. They would hide from their own people some times. A lot of them had little hideaways under their houses.
So what kind of equipment were they using, were they using bulldozers?
Yes I think there were bulldozers in the end.
And how would they burn it?
Just push it into piles and set it up.
What was going to happen to this area once it was razed?
It would just go back to vegetation. There was still a lot of scrap. I don’t know if it was ever completely cleared. Most of the tunnels were blown up I know that. The big structures were knocked over.
And what was the talk amongst the men about this job?
Just get it done.
So what happened after that?
we just went back to improving the camp facilities and same thing…just on going patrolling and working in the camp. Whether it was going out for one day, two days, a week. If you weren’t out there then you were in the camp. Different sections, different platoons doing it. Probably every day there would be at least one platoon in the bush.
You just took your turn.
Were there any other major incidents or operations in the lead up to Long Tan?
No I don’t think so. No major ones. You had your little patrols and you might run into the enemy here or there. But nothing frantic. Other companies probably did. They probably had more contact.
It was just who was in the area where they were. We might have been in the area the day before and then another company went out and found them the next day. You only sort of hear about the big operations when you were out there for months. But there was always people in the bush and generally they had some small contact now and again.
And at this stage what was your impression of the enemy before Long Tan?
We didn’t have much to do with them.
I don’t think I ..I had only seen one or two the whole time. We hadn’t had any real contact at that stage.
Did you think that that was going to happen?
Yeah we thought it was going to change. So you were always on edge. You weren’t dropping your guard at all. We had been there since mid June to August before Long Tan and
nothing big had happened and blokes were saying where are they all, what are we doing here? But we were still on our toes whenever we went out.
Were some of the blokes actually feeling that there wasn’t much of a war going on?
Yes in their own sort of joking way. We thought we had scared them off already.
But we knew it was only a joke. In their own minds they knew they could walk out beyond the wire and get shot. You weren’t safe anywhere really. It was just luck. Other companies were getting hit. Other companies and other platoon were getting into trouble.
So tell us about the lead into Long Tan?
on the night of the 16th of August, A Company were out on operations. Our platoon were up at A Company lines doing their gun picquets, doing their gun guards. That’s what we would do. If one company was out another company would supply people to do their job. So our platoon was in A Company lines the night the Task Force mortared at about 2 o’clock on the morning of the 17th.
So we were doing their picquets. You could hear the explosions when the mortars were fired and you could hear them whistling over the top of us. We were thinking, gee I hope they keep going. By this time everyone was on stand to. But most of them landed in the headquarters area and a couple of blokes were killed.
Then we were on stand to for the rest of the night expecting something. Nothing happened of course. Then on the 17th A Company was still out there. I think B Company went out to look for where they had fired all these mortars and rocket grenades from.
They were out there looking for these areas. On the 18th of August we were put on warning in the morning that we were going to go out and relieve B Company in this area. So we went out about midday I suppose. B Company found the place where the rockets and the mortars had been fired from and they had also found tracks and
blood trails where the Australian artillery had fired back and wounded them, the Viet Cong. So we went out to relieve them. I think we met up with them about one or two o’clock. The two company commanders discussed where they had been. Where the B Company had been.
Then B Company went back and we stayed there and had a smoko [a break] and we were ordered to move off into the area to see what else we could find. Then, it was after three o’clock I suppose and then the forward section came across a couple of Vietnamese.
About four of them. They fired on them. I’m not sure if they killed one or not. But we went through and found weapons. The other ones ran back into the rubber. Then we all formed up and were ordered up to this area and 11 Platoon…I think we were the right hand platoon
we formed a single line, a long extended line and we went into the rubber chasing these blokes up. Probably half past three. We weren’t doing that for too long when all of a sudden the firing started and then it was more shots and more shots and by then we were right into it. There was a bit of confusion
early on and even though we knew what was happening we didn’t expect it as quickly. Then all the training kicked in. People were going where they were supposed to go. Then it got worse and worse. You could see these people, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong off into the distance and you could see there were hundreds of them there. Not just a few. I could literally see hundreds of them.
That when people started to realise we were in more trouble than we thought. The fire just kept getting heavier and heavier. And the tracers, you could see the tracers whizzing by. I was in an area there, our machine gun had gone off to a different area, off around to the right where they were trained to go and it just seemed to go on and on for a while
in slow motion. But we didn’t know where the others were. The blokes in 10 Platoon and 12 Platoon, they were getting a bit of a hiding. There were about five of us left in one little area behind trees and we were sort of going backwards and forwards for a while. We didn’t have any command. There was just five privates there.
We lost contact with the corporal that we had. The lieutenant and the headquarters group, they were away from us. We didn’t even know where they were. We were just sort of stuck in this little area by ourselves. We just decided to get down behind these trees and work out what was going on. Then the artillery started coming in. You found out later on that it was the headquarters group that had called the artillery in.
The Viet Cong were getting close to us. They would form up in groups. They didn’t run, they just sort of fast walked. And sometimes they would get within fifty or seven metres of you. There was only five of us. Then all of a sudden out of the blue they would get hit with artillery. You could see this artillery winding through the trees and it was almost like you were doing it yourself. But it was just pure luck. Every time they got near us the artillery would hit them.
It didn’t happen once, it happened four or five times. Then you’d see them withdrawing and forming up again, then they’d come again. This was happening all along our front. It wasn’t just us but our artillery just kept saving us. We got to the stage; we didn’t know what to do.
We weren’t panicking. There was always something to laugh about. So we said we would have to do something shortly. We have to do something for ever. And then this sergeant came racing along behind us screaming out, “Every man for himself!!” And he left and at that stage when he went and there was so much fire coming in
they saw him running and they followed him in. We thought we would stay where we were a bit longer. The fire dropped right down and then we thought what we would do, we would run thirty or forty or fifty yards and then get behind a tree and have a rest. We started to run and they would see us running and the fire would build up like a drum roll. Louder and louder and louder. And you’d see all the tracers whizzing past. We did it three or four times I suppose and we were lucky that no one got hit doing that. We still didn’t know where the main group were.
We got back a bit and I saw a big fallen tree. I jumped in that and there were about four or five other blokes hiding in there. They had all seen this tree. So we hung around there for a while and we saw some coloured smoke and we thought that’s probably our mob putting up smoke so we can find our way back. So we followed them back there and sure enough that was our headquarters.
So at that stage we were back in the main area. We got there and the old sergeant, CSM, Jack Kirby, he grabbed us…he grabbed me when I came in and he said, “Are you wounded, hurt?” And I said I was all right and so he told us to go through there and face out that way. So I went out there and there was a big bloody hole,
I don’t know if it was a crater but it was half full of water and I thought that will do me, so I hopped in there. Then he came down a bit later and gave me more ammunition. At that stage I didn’t know the full extent of what had happened. You knew blokes had to be gone. Then it got to the stage then
that the Vietnamese had gone around behind us and they were forming up to attack from behind where I was facing out but they were down in the bush. It was really thick. You couldn’t see anything. But apparently that’s where they were and that’s when the armoured personnel carriers arrived. They came out from camp, from Nui Dat. They were with A Company. They just ran into the VC that were forming up behind us.
It was long grass and those blokes were on the ground getting ready to attack us so they literally ran into them. So that broke up that attack and then it started to quieten down a bit. It was pouring with rain the whole afternoon. Then it was getting dark. This would have been five o’clock I suppose. That’s when you started to realise what had happened. Probably fifty yards away from me was an area which they turned into the aid post,
and you could see a lot of blokes there laying down. When it quietened down you would go across and say “Where’s so and so?” and someone would say, “He’s dead.” And then you started to realise that there were seventeen blokes laying there who were wounded. That’s when you first realised the full extent of it. You thought it was not going to happen to me. But it did happen. And you knew in your own mind that it could happen.
But you didn’t want to believe it and all of a sudden you started to see how many had gone. And then they had the …A Company moved in and around us and protected us. They started…there was more attending to the wounded. They decided to move back to an area to evacuate them that night. So they laid them on APCs [Armoured Personnel Carriers] and we moved back to an area
back where there was a big clearing where the helicopters came in. They took out the wounded that night. This was after midnight. We tried to sleep. We were inside the APCs that night. But no one slept. We were so hyped up. In the morning we got out and we worked out just who was and wasn’t there. And then the
other support came out from camp and it was decided that we’d go back into the area and pick up the blokes who were left behind. At that stage a lot of the blokes weren’t too sure whether they wanted to go in or not. We wanted to go back to camp but the CO [Commanding Officer] decided we’d go back in and pick up our own blokes, and in the long run I’m glad we did. We moved back into this area. It was complete devastation. All night they kept
shelling it and the whole rubber plantation…there were trees all over the place, body parts everywhere. We went back in the APCs and when we walked out the back door and looked around; you’d wonder how anyone survived. A couple of our blokes did survive the night there. They were wounded and survived the night. It was bloody great seeing them.
It was just a mess everywhere and some of the bodies had been hit two or three times and it was just bits and pieces. We ended up staying there another three nights I think. Cleaning up the place, collecting weapons and burying them. They were going to get a bulldozer out and then they found that when it got out to one of the creeks they
couldn’t get the bull dozer across. By this time it was two or three days in the sun and all the bodies were rotten and started to smell. So then we had to bury them individually. So that was probably the worst part of the next couple of days. We stayed out there. We camped the night time in the area. Every time…you’d hear the odd shot from the other patrols that were out.
You’d hear the odd shot and everyone would stiffen again, here we go again. It didn’t happen of course but everyone was on their toes. Then I think the third day we went back into camp. We said, “That’s it, we’re out of here.” and we went back into Nui Dat.
And what’s it like doing that horrific job of clearing up bodies?
The same thing, we had to treat them as being booby trapped too. They would booby trap the dead so you had to tie a rope around them
in case there was a hand grenade under them or something like that. At the same time the body was stiff with rigor mortis. It was hard digging. You were trying to get a hole big enough to put everyone in. You couldn’t do it properly. They were just barely under the ground. They reckon a couple of days later the wild pigs had dug half of them up anyway. You wouldn’t want to go back there for a few weeks.
What is the scene like to look at as a young man?
It took a while to accept it. From seeing it early on, as a rubber plantation, to the scene of complete destruction and death. It was an eerie smell. You can smell death. As soon as you got out of the APCs you could smell it. It’s the first thing that hits you. And then you look around and you could see why. I was worried
about it. Until we got there I think the worst thing I had seen in my life was a road accident. A bloke had broken a leg and his calf had opened up and was bleeding. I thought I was almost sick that day so how am I going to be over here. But once again the training kicks in and you just switch off. And it just happens. You seem to automatically accept what you’re looking at. The brain just accepts it. But I wasn’t real rapt in getting back there but once we got the job
done I was glad we did because we more or less finished the job we had started. We picked up our own dead. We had to go and find our own blokes. We had to wrap them up and get them into the APCs as well as the two blokes we found alive. So it was one of the best things we could have done.
Why do you think that? Just because the job’s done, or…
walk away and leave something. You saw the end product. It wouldn’t have been worse going back a week later when it had all been dug up by the pigs. We went back there and cleaned up. We collected all their weapons. We all had backpacks on, and when it got bad we took them off so they were spread all over the paddocks.
So everyone found their own gear. Five of us found the trees we were laying behind. Each bloke had unconsciously left things behind. Hand grenades near the tree where I was and I thought why did I do that? I wasn’t able to throw them. Little things go through your head I suppose.
It was good to get back when you thought about it.
You mentioned the smell, describe that for us?
It’s eerie. I suppose you could call it a sweet smell. Once you smell it once, months later, other places you go to, someone might have been killed there that day, you can smell the blood. You think, “Shit something’s been going on around here.”
Artillery might have killed someone the night before or something like that. It still comes back to you. It’s just one of those strange things.
How was this affecting you, a couple of months into your service?
We came back to Nui Dat and we had a couple of days off just wandering around the rubber trees. We talked about it. There was no counselling. That didn’t happen in those days but we just sort
of sat around in groups and talked about some of the blokes who were gone, their families and that. How well you knew them. Then I think they gave us four or five days leave down at Vung Tau and we just played up like nobody’s business for a few days, and everybody sort of clicked back in the groove then.
Probably a week and a half, two weeks at the most after Long Tan we were back out in the bush patrolling. We just sort of went through the calming period, the cooling down period in Vung Tau and we just clicked back into the whole thing again and came back into it.
Had you lost any good mates?
Yes, quite a few. Blokes I had been through Kapooka with and had ended up at Enoggera with. We had done the whole thing together. Yes there were a fair few, yes.
How did you find out that some of them had died?
Generally that night, late afternoon, talking to the blokes who had been wounded. “How’s so and so?” “He went early.” One bloke,
he lost his section corporal. He lost nearly his whole section, about eight blokes. One of them was one we got back the next day. He knew there were another seven or eight killed. He was wounded in the elbow.
Did you see any of the Australians who had died yourself? Their bodies?
The next day.
No, on that particular day I didn’t. We were in this little area which would have been from here to the front of the house to the next blokes, but I didn’t see anyone get bowled over. It was just one of those things.
What’s it like to see their dead bodies the next day?
Pretty spooky. It was sort of calm. A lot of them had been shot through the head.
They just looked calm. The first time you think, this isn’t going to be easy. Once you got there it just seemed to be different. We would put them in a body bag or whatever we had. It sounds strange but that’s the way it happened.
What effect did it have on you seeing a fellow soldier dead?
I don’t know if you’re shocked. You instantly think of him being alive or what you did the night before or when you had a smoke with him. Just little flashbacks and then it’s gone.
Is it a weird feeling?
Yeah, sort of weird I suppose. It’s hard to say. It’s a calm feeling. Probably not a calm feeling. I didn’t get uptight or anything. I probably felt sorry and a bit sad.
I don’t know.
Were any of the men emotionally upset?
The night...as the battle slowed down I saw a couple of the blokes crying. Not for long. Just a bit of a sob and then they….the next day when we were picking them up I didn’t see much of that. I didn’t see anything like that. See the next day a lot of the people from the Task Force and from Saigon all came out.
All the generals and the photographers and a lot of them were getting around the area. They were getting around in their nice starched greens and pointing a rifle at a dead body and their mates were taking photos for them. They would come up and talk to you and a few of the boys told them to get.
They didn’t want to talk to them. Didn’t want to talk about what happened. That upset the blokes more than anything else. All these people from Saigon and Vung Tau coming out. That upset them more than anyone.
Why were doing that?
The other ones? They were from headquarters. They came out to the battle scene so they could report to their superiors and that sort of stuff….to be part of it. The brigadier came to have a look around to say he had been there. But they brought a lot of hangers-on with them.
There were hundreds of weapons and other equipment and at that stage we had it all bundled up in this big area and they were all coming up and picking up weapons, cocking them and playing with them and this sort of stuff. We were sitting around having a smoke at this stage and saying ‘Have a look at these posers.’ That upset the blokes more than a most things. More than we thought it would.
It may be an obvious question but in what way exactly was it upsetting?
They just walked in nice and clean and tidy and they took over the whole situation. Then the business of pretending that they were guarding a body and getting their photos taken. Crazy.
Was it a sense that they were claiming credit but they hadn’t gone through it?
They were just posing.
And not got through it I suppose. And trying to tell some of the senior fellas, “Get your blokes out of there, move them out.” And this sort of stuff. That sort of garbage.
I want to ask about when you were moving in that single file forward. What was it like when you had those first shots coming at you?
For a little while it was hard to believe. I don’t think we were getting hit originally. The ones over on the left copped it more. There was a field machine gun there
it looked like an old Japanese machine gun on wheels that we captured. It’s the one that caused a lot of the trouble earlier. I think that hit the section near us, beside us and further away. Straight away we were involved and we heard all this really heavy firing and we saw the tracers away to the left a bit. Then as we were ordered to move into the next area, that’s when we came under fire. I don’t know if it was one minute or five minutes
that we weren’t really in it that much. So we started to move around a bit and that’s when the bullets were snapping passed you and hitting the trees. As it goes passed it sort of cracks. You would hear ‘Crack crack crack’ all the time and the tracers were a long way behind the bullets.
The blokes were in an anxiety sort of state, where are we going to go? What are we going to do next? It just went on like that for a little while. It’s hard to put a time on it. I know it was about half past three or something that we moved off to follow the blood trails and twenty minutes was when everything started. But then the next thing you know it’s bloody six or seven o’clock and we’re back
in the headquarters area, and the APCs had arrived. If you tried to account for that time you couldn’t do it. You wouldn’t know where that two hours went. We were laying down behind these trees and we didn’t know if we were there for an hour or what. It just seemed a pretty safe place to be at that time. We had no command structure at that stage.
We just sort of got our heads together and struck out from there.
How intense was the firing from the very start?
Real heavy. They obviously waited until we got to a certain spot before they opened up and then they opened up on that section. 11 Platoon and the headquarters….probably just over thirty odd blokes all up.
And the other two sections copped the most of it early. They were out to the right a little bit further. But yeah it was really heavy early. There was smoke from the machine gun…I think it was hidden in a bush. You could see these plumes of smoke coming out.
I’m pretty sure that’s where the machine gun was firing from. So it just kept going.
Did you realise straight away how big the force was?
Well we could see hundreds of them, that was heaps for us. But you get estimations of two or three thousand people. Whether that’s right or wrong I couldn’t say. But at any stage you could look out and see a couple of hundred in the area,
milling around and forming up to do things. But then they…as we found out later, they sent a group to try and outflank us and by accident that was when our mob sent a group up that side to try and come and help us. So they ran into each other. So they both pulled back and then they sent another group down the other side to try and get us. And by the same sort of accident another lot of our mob were coming up
to try and help us. So every time the Vietnamese tried to outflank us they ran into some of our mob who were coming up to try and help us. I think that gave the Vietnamese an idea that there were more of us there than they thought. That slowed them down. But if they had got around behind us then we would have been completely cut off because there was a fair distance behind us to where the headquarters were. So a lot of things fell into place. The artillery initially and then the APCs later on.
And the helicopter dropping ammunition for us later on in the afternoon.
What do you think about the possibility of luck?
I’ve always said it’s fate. Just dead set fate. We lost two or three blokes. They had only moved into the platoon the night before. They were in the reinforcement unit. They had been in the country two or three weeks and they got posted to us and they moved
in the night before and they went out with us and they were dead that afternoon. Not even twenty four hours. They said well he was unlucky. But he might have gone that way and I might have gone to ground or I might have gone to the right or I might have stopped and he had kept going.
It’s just pure fate. You heard of blokes and things that happened to them and you can say well that shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and even probably during the whole tour different things happened to different people. Things out of the ordinary. Or they appear out of the ordinary and they do something they’ve never done before.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 05
I’ll go back to the beginning of Long Tan and get you to tell me about when you first heard the shelling and what your first reaction to that was?
The shelling the night before. It was a bit of a wonder…that was the first time the Task Force had been shelled.
It took a bit of a while…I mean, every night there were shells going out and they would just fire at independent targets, every couple of minutes. They would just fire at anything. Harassment firing I think they called it. They just kept the people guessing out there. They could walk somewhere and a shell would land on them. So every night there was fire going out and you sort of got used to it… ‘Bang bang bang’ But this night
we were in the A Company lines and we could hear ‘bang bang bang’ and then we heard ‘thump thump thump’ when they landed in and we realised that that’s not going out, it’s coming in. First up we thought it was artillery going out until it started to come in. It was a fair way away from where we were but we worked out pretty quickly it was incoming fire. So it didn’t take long for the word to come down the chain of command to us that the camp was being shelled.
Then everyone was down at the forward lines and on guard.
What was it that woke you up?
Just the thumping. We might not have been asleep but if we were it would have been the thumping.
What kind of a thump is it?
It’s more a thud. When the shells are going out they sort of whistle. They do when they’re coming in but up until then it was just the whistling going out.
But in the actual battle when the shells were coming in they were full on about fifty metres in front of us. As they get close to you the whistling turns to a sort of tumbling sound….you can hear the actual shell start to tumble as it finishes its arc and starts to go down. So when you hear it tumbling that’s when you know it’s about to land.
When you hear it whistling you know it’s going over the top of you. So at Long Tan it was that tumbling sound all the time.
What’s that feeling like…to know that these things are going to come down pretty near?
At Long Tan it was great because they were landing on people who were trying to hurt us. A bit later on, the next year we actually got shelled by our own artillery and that wasn’t real flash because you could hear
them coming and you knew they were going to hit us. At Long Tan we basically knew they were falling in front of us and they just kept falling in front of us. A few fell behind but they didn’t do any harm.
And when Nui Dat was being shelled and the news came down that this was happening, what did you have to do to get ready to get down into the lines?
You took your gear with you.
Even when you went to the boozer at night time you always took your rifle. You always took that where ever you went. And we were in someone else’s line, A Company, so we had basic webbing, ammunition with us. So within a matter of minutes of being woken up we were down the front. Down the defence line. That’s just part of the training.
What were you doing in the defence line?
We were in their trenches and just looking out and waiting to hear any noise or indication that they were there.
Could you see any flashes or anything from where the mortars were?
No, that was way back behind us.
So how long did you spend in the line?
All night we stayed there. No one knew if they were going to attack or not.
The next morning when you, D Company went out to relieve…
The next morning we just went back to our own area. That was the 17th. It was the 18th we went out. On the 17th B Company went out to relieve A Company.
And what did B Company do during the day on the 17th?
I don’t think they did much at all. I think they just lounged around.
Just working around the area I suppose.
Would you say there was a difference in the air?
Yes, they were waiting for reports to come back about what they had found out there. They had what they called Orders Groups in the morning and the afternoon, when the instructions come down from the top of the Task Force down to the battalions and eventually down to us. That might be four o’clock in the afternoon and that’s when you find out…
They probably said that B Company was out there and B Company found this and did this. So most of the time you were waiting to hear stories of what had been found.
Did you get to see any of the damage done to Nui Dat from the shelling?
No. Heard that a couple had been killed and a few wounded. That was it. That was a long way from us.
So it was out of sight, out of mind.
And these sessions in the morning and the afternoon when you got all the information, do you think people were paying closer attention to it now?
Yes. Everyone wanted to know. The rest of the day you would wander around doing your work. You would hear rumours but it was these sessions when you got the proper information.
What kind of enemy did you expect
to possibly meet around Nui Dat?
Just the local guerrillas. The battalion, the local D445 guerrilla battalion had been there forever and they were supposed to have been cleaned out by the Yanks. We were supposed to have cleaned them out a couple of times but they were still there. But the local guerrilla unit used to integrate with the local villages and at night time they were the enemy and in the day time they were farmers.
Were they differently equipped?
They weren’t as well equipped as the regulars. These were the fellas who got around in their dark pyjamas and what ever weapons they could scrounge. They were pretty clever. They had their way of doing things. They were a good enemy too.
Would there be any chance of the regular army in Phuoc Tuy province?
The only time we ran into them was at the battle.
Was this unexpected?
Because there was never any intelligence to say they were there. When you get two regiments, that’s a lot of men and they were able to move in the area unknown. I mean they were moving a couple of thousand people around and you would think someone on patrols or secret operations would have picked it up.
You would think somewhere along the track someone would have woke up to the fact that there were two regiments moving into the area. Whether people knew it but didn’t think it was right I don’t know.
Was there a follow up afterward to how the regiments had gotten into the area?
Probably was. There was probably an inquiry. There was a fellow in Queensland who did a video on it and he had traced things back. He had spoken to people who claimed they had followed the radio signs of these regiments as they moved in
but no one took any notice of it. This video is pretty graphic and pretty well explains what was ignored. In intelligence, this fellow got to Saigon but they didn’t believe it and they didn’t go on with it. So whether that’s a hundred per cent true or not…he was pretty definite in his findings.
And how about the night of the seventeenth, was there anything in particular that went on?
No it was a quiet night.
Was there any tension in the air that there may be more shelling?
No. We knew that other companies had been out there going through the area so anyway there would have moved out to a different space. They came into this no fire zone, no movement zone. They were well in range of the camp.
So we probably didn’t expect anything that night.
Had A or B Company had any contact at all?
Only with the blood trails. A Company may have had a couple of small contacts. The only real evidence were the blood trails that they followed when the enemy shot through afterwards. As soon as they started firing, the Australian artillery and mortar started firing on them
and they had the range finders to be able to pick out where the firing was coming from and zero in on them, so it wouldn’t take long to be able to hit a target.
The next morning, on the eighteenth, what sort of preparations did D Company make to go out?
We were warned we were going out. We were told to take rations and that for three or four days and then each section
had a fellow allocated to go to headquarters to collect the rations for the section and the ammunition we needed. That was normal. You were told how long you were going and so you picked up the rations and any ammunition you’d need. So there was nothing really different from anything else.
Were there any briefings given to you?
Just the basics. We’re going out to take over from B Company and do patrols.
It was midday or when ever and we walked out and rendezvoused with B Company and took over.
What weapons did you have with you?
Just the standard SLR rifle. We had the main machine gun and a couple of blokes had Armalites [M16s]. But most were just the semi automatic rifles.
How much ammunition
did you have?
I had not over a hundred rounds. Some blokes had more, some less. I think you had to carry sixty. But I had more than that and I had some spare in my backpack. Extra.
And how about things like personal weapons, like knives?
I had a bayonet. You always took your bayonet. Grenades. Two or three each. That was basically it.
Water bottles. You needed a machete to get through the bush. So we carried that. We always carried the bayonet but we didn’t know what we were going to do with that.
Did you carry your bayonet on your rifle?
No. In the scabbard.
And had you been out into the area you were going beforehand?
Yeah probably. I can’t remember how many times but we would have gone through that area.
It was pretty well in our area coverage. A lot of time we would go out on short one day patrols. So we were conversant with the areas that were relatively safe. That would have been one of the areas.
What was the general area around the plantation at Long Tan generally like? Was there a village?
No. Just out in front of us
there was a banana plantation and most of that had been knocked over. A bit of undergrowth, a few trees. The nearest village was Ba Ria but that was a long way away. Miles away, twenty minutes by car probably.
In terms of the area where the battle actually took place, was there any, I guess tactical significance or was it just…
it was just the rubber plantation. The only structure there was an old tin shed, a caretaker’s shed sort of thing. That was up on stumps and that was it. There was no tactical thing there at all.
Was there any reason why that was where the enemy happened to be?
Not really. It was pretty open. There was nowhere to hide. You couldn’t hide behind the trees. They were fairly young trees. So many rumours and theories.
They were on the way to attack the camp. The blokes that we hit early, they were there to lure us into an ambush. Everyone has their own ideas. One was that we got in their way when they moved in to attack the camp.
What did it seem like to you?
I think that sounds right. But you talk to the blokes and everyone is equally divided. Everyone’s got their own ideas. But the more senior you get the more
they seem to think it wasn’t an ambush because they hate to think they were caught in an ambush.
What makes you think it was an ambush?
Just the way it happened. We were chasing after these blokes out of the blue and all of a sudden the heavens opened up. We had gone from going through a forest, a rubber plantation to getting cut about. But some say no, we ran into them. They were going that way and we ran into each other.
I’ll stick to my story. I mean if they were going to attack the Task Force, why wouldn’t they attack at night? Why wait for two days and take a chance of getting found out? If they had found those two regiments the Americans’ fire power would have torn them to bits. So that’s one way of looking at it, but other say they just got there in time. Why warn the Task Force they were going to attack by mortaring them two nights before?
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.
At what point did you realise that it wasn’t this guerrilla force you had been fighting?
With all the heavy firing to start with and then when you looked through at about two hundred metres and saw people everywhere and they weren’t the black suited fellas. These fellas had greens on. They had webbing and helmets. They had everything. And that when you knew you weren’t fighting the guerrillas.
And you knew that if there would be a hundred there then there would be hundreds everywhere. And they were so well organised. They weren’t just ambling around, they were lining up in groups and moving forward in groups and you could see so many of them with all the good gear on. They had the same gear as us.
Could you tell what kind of weapons they were using?
Not so much at the time.
They all had fully automatic rifles and we had semi automatic. They were probably better equipped than we were. Probably ninety five per cent of them had full automatic AK47s [Kalashnikov rifles].
Where would they have got their AK47s from?
They were supplied by Russia I think. And a lot of them were new weapons. They were as good as new. So they weren’t a badly equipped force.
And this realisation that it wasn’t just the guerrilla force, how did that affect your hope for getting through?
You were always confident for some reason that you would get out. It was a matter of how and when. A few blokes jokingly said, “We’re in trouble here.” And someone would say, “Yeah we are, but don’t worry.” That was the kind of thing that kept happening all the way.
The five of us pinned down and we were joking. It was pouring, really pouring. It was real thick mud and a bullet would hit the mud and fly up and you’d say that if it was coming straight then it couldn’t kick the mud up so there must be someone in the trees shooting down at us. So snipers in the trees and one of the blokes looked up and said, “There’s one up in the trees, six rows back three wide.” or something and you’d say, “It’s your turn, have a go at him.” This went on.
And you might miss him and someone might say, “You idiot, I’ll get him.” So that’s what kept everyone going. There was no real panic. Everyone just fed off each other.
What do you think it was that enabled you guys to keep calm?
Well basically with the training. That taught us not to just blast at anything that moved.
We didn’t have all that much ammunition. So the training and the mateship. I knew everyone well. We sort of knew how each other would react. Mateship and training.
When do you think the training kicked in?
Probably within a couple of minutes of the firing starting.
That’s when people started…I mean there was confusion, mass confusion earlier on. People didn’t know what was happening. We had never been fired at before and there was this huge volume of firing coming in on us.
It might seem a strange question but how do you know if you’re being fired on or someone from your lines is firing at something?
When it’s coming in you can hear it zapping past you. It makes a cracking sound. The bullet as it goes past you will crack and all you hear is it breaking the sound barrier.
That’s the cracking noise it makes. But by the time it makes that cracking noise the bullet is so far away it doesn’t matter. If you can hear it cracking then you’re still alive. It was just so much cracking going on and you knew it was coming past you. There were all these yellow and green and orange coloured tracers.
Then more and more started coming our way. The other sections copped it earlier and we started getting more and more later on. It might have been five minutes later. So we came under the heavier fire then.
How far in to the plantation were you when the firing started?
Five hundred metres I suppose. It might not have been that far in.
And you mentioned before that you
were all spread out, the twenty seven men. Were you spread out when you entered the plantation?
Yes we formed up as we left the edge of the plantation, after we had the contact with these three or four others. We swept through in an open line formation.
And why did you go in an open line. What was the purpose of that?
To cover more area. If you just went single, one behind the other….this way there was a bloke every ten metres or something.
We were spread across so we covered a lot more area going through.
Does this mean it’s easier to get separated and cut off?
Well in this case you wouldn’t because it was open country. But in the jungle you wouldn’t because you couldn’t see ten yards away from you. You were always in contact with the bloke near you, put it that way. You can always close up, but you wouldn’t be that far apart in the thick bush.
When the firing first started and there were these couple of minutes of confusion, what did you do in those first few minutes?
I don’t think anyone went to ground. We were just walking and looking. Then word came through that we had run into a pretty big force here
so be ready to go here or there. Then it just sort of got to the stage that we didn’t go anywhere, we were just pinned down where we were. So they started taking casualties in the other section and we were pinned down in that area. We couldn’t go forward and we couldn’t go back because we were pinned down.
So you all went to ground. Did you stay in the ten metres apart line?
Yes we were behind a tree each.
There were five trees and five of us behind them. Side by side.
When you go to ground what is the best position to be in so you are ready to fire?
Just on your stomach looking out.
Do you prop your rifle up at all?
Yes, just the way you were taught. You’ve got it up to your face
most of the time. At one stage…I had my backpack on so I took that off and put it at the front and rested the rifle on that after a while.
When you were lying there on the ground what did you see?
You could see all these figures in front. Figures coming towards you and going back. A lot of smoke from the artillery and weapons going off.
You just sort of guessed yourself what was going on out the front. Here they come again, ‘bang’.
Is there a particular smell to the cordite?
It’s like a gunpowder smell, a cracker smell. Pretty thick. Plus it was raining and that stopped the smoke from going through the trees. The heavy rain sort of kept all that down.
When did it start to rain?
Probably around about four o’clock I suppose.
Bit later. Probably half an hour or three quarters of an hour into the battle. It started pouring.
What did you think when it started raining?
What else can happen?
Does rain act as a protector or it is more troublesome?
It went against us because the OC [Officer Commanding] wanted to call in an air strike, the American fighters to help, but to do that they must know where you are.
So what you normally do is throw coloured smoke out in front of you, but the smoke wouldn’t rise through the trees. So they didn’t even bother doing that. The story was the American pilots said, “We think we know where you are, we’ll bomb in front of you.” But we said, “No go away, we’ll keep going by ourselves.” They didn’t even try throwing smoke because they knew it wouldn’t go through the rain and the trees.
To throw smoke in a situation like that, wouldn’t it draw attention towards you?
Yes. That’s what happened when we were withdrawing. The people who were already back there thought if they throw smoke out our blokes will see it, but also every other Vietnamese saw it as well. So they were drawing firing onto themselves when they were trying to attract us back to them. So it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. But they kept throwing it out to give us an idea where they were.
How did you know it was your smoke?
It was a calculated guess because we knew basically that that was the area where they were and that was the way we were heading. So we hoped for the best.
When you were lying there looking, does an instinct take over, do you just start firing or
how do you pick out a target?
Well basically we were all looking down a line of trees each. We were all behind a tree. And the alley of trees was yours and you would just wait for the movement. Particularly when they were coming in. They just got up and walked and were pointing their rifles from the waist at you. But we were down so we weren’t an easy target. They were easy. They weren’t just running or dodging. They were just walking and it was easy to have a go at them.
Why do you think they moved like that?
Probably their training. There were so many of them they probably thought they could just keep rolling on and eventually get to us, which they would have if the artillery hadn’t come in. They had the numbers. Even if all the platoon was alive there were only thirty of us. At that stage probably half of them were dead anyway.
Is it easy to tell if you hit someone?
Yes, they were never more than…we weren’t just blasting away. We were short of ammo [ammunition],
so we were pretty careful and they were within a hundred yards or hundred and fifty maximum. Anything over that you wouldn’t bother firing at.
Was this the first time that you had hit someone?
Yes. I don’t think I had fired a shot before then.
Did any thoughts related to that go through your head at the time?
No. Just training and you knew you had to do it. They were having a go at you.
No one seemed to be worried about it.
Is there a sense of ‘it doesn’t feel real’?
It was real enough but there was some sort of other sense there that this shouldn’t be happening. We’re supposed to be winning this and all of a sudden we’re the ones getting a hiding. All the training had said that they might fire a few shots and shoot through [leave], but we
had hundreds of them still coming. This can’t be right. This isn’t what they told us would happen. So that was the unreal part of it until you woke up that we were in trouble.
And when you’re concentrating on lining up a target, how does your mind work? Are you focused on what you’re doing or is there part of your brain that’s thinking about…
You’re pretty well focused.
Once again your training. They teach you how to breathe when you’re going to squeeze the trigger. Take your breath and hold your breath when you squeeze it. So you’re telling yourself, breathe. That’s going through your head all the time.
So those lessons from training…
Yes, you think about it. Breathe, hold your breath, squeeze. All that sort of stuff kicks in.
I think there’s a story in one of the books, one of the blokes heard one of the other blokes as he was going past him, and that’s what he was saying, breath, hold your breath…he was talking out loud. And that’s basically what most of the blokes were doing.
Is there anything…when you’re concentrating that much, is there any odd details that are in your mind, or things you remember which seem like an odd thing to remember?
No. Not really. Just ongoing. Just seeing different blokes getting hit. Some would go backwards, some would fall straight down. Just little things like that. Nothing really stood out.
Does something like torrential rain affect your rifle at all?
Yes mud gets into it. I think mud caused a lot of trouble with machine guns. The automatic machine guns. The SLRs were good. They could be real muddy but they would just keep going. They were a pretty good rifle. I think the Armalites had a bit of trouble. But the SLRs…they’re fired by gas. It pumps the piston up and down
and shoots the other bullet out. You can adjust the gas and the higher you adjust it the more it kicks, but the more chance you’ve got of keeping going. I just put mine on pretty high and it kept going.
When the rain started how did this affect your visibility?
It didn’t make much difference. They were just a bit more blurry I think. You could still see the shapes because they weren’t that far away.
You couldn’t see into much depth but what you could see was clear.
How loud was the rain?
It was hitting the ground and mud was splashing up four or five inches. It was coming down, and that was even through the canopy of trees, so it was pretty heavy.
And how long had you been lying down until the artillery started?
It came in pretty quick. It’s hard to say how long. It might have been ten minutes or a bit less. But I think the artillery started a fair way behind and it walked forward getting closer to us. I think the sergeant called it in on his own position at one stage because they were only fifty odd metres in front of us. So it was close. They
had safety parameters you know. I think he was told he was within that area and he shouldn’t be doing it. I think he thought we wouldn’t be here. So that was no worries.
And with the trees, the shells, did they make it through the trees?
A lot of them burst in the trees. They hit the trees up in the branches. A lot of them were tree bursts. That would cause a lot more damage
than some of them going off on the ground. They would burst up there and they would just spread more. Like it would come down and hit straight in and it would burst forward. So up in a tree it would just explode 360 degrees out.
Could you see those shells landing?
Yes you could see the flash, an orange red sort of flash. You’d see it half way across the road away.
It was like the movies. Blokes getting blown out. That was vivid. Fifty or seventy five metres away, a great flash.
Was there a bit of a sense in your mind that it was a bit like a movie?
No, when you think of it now…at the time, blokes would say, ‘Hey look at that. Here they come again.’ The salvos might be five or six rounds at a time.
And when the first one landed you’d know there were another four or five to go and they’d be there within five or ten seconds. When you get five or six high explosive shells landing in an area, it can do a lot of havoc. And then they’d pull back.
When did you and the people around you make the decision to try and move?
After that sergeant came through and called out ‘every man for himself’.
Tell me about the sergeant.
Bob Buick. He took over from our original sergeant before Long Tan. Then he took over the platoon when the lieutenant was killed. He was killed pretty early in the scene. Buick took charge of the operation from there. Of our part. But we never saw him. The only time we saw him was when
he ran past and shot through. ‘Every man for himself’ and then off he went. In one way it was good. At least he didn’t say stay there and fight. So we thought fair enough we can go when we want to. But at the time we weren’t ready to go. We weren’t ready to go, there was too much fighting. So we just waited until things quietened down.
An order like that, was that like abandoning?
At the time everyone thought it was the right thing to do.
But then later on when he started writing books and that and the story was he gathered up the survivors and all this sort of stuff and that was when blokes started getting dirty on him. At the time no one had a problem with him. Fair enough. And even in the next couple of weeks or months…he got a Military Medal
for leadership and he told everyone he gathered up all the survivors and led them back to safety. That didn’t happen. That’s when blokes started getting dirty on him. There’s been a big rift between him and everyone else ever since. But that’s him. That’s his life. That’s how he lives. But he went through and when we thought it was time to go we went too. We were just about out of ammunition so it was no good staying. There was no one ordering us to stay there.
So that gave us a way out.
What do you think a sergeant in his position should have done?
In hindsight, blokes honestly didn’t have a problem with that order. There was no way out. Maybe we should have stayed a bit longer and maybe he should have said, we’re going now.
But as I said, at the time no one had a problem with it. Even if he had have kept his mouth shut later on, no one else would have worried about it.
What exactly does ‘Every man for himself,’ mean?
Make your own way back to safety. Do what you can do get out of there. He had other blokes where he was who had been wounded…in the headquarters group, and
he was close to the other section. So I don’t know what happened to them and how he got them out. But the last time we saw him he was going.
And what triggered the decision for you guys to move?
We were almost out of ammunition and we knew we couldn’t stay much longer. So we decided we’d wait until the fire died down and then go, head back.
What were the changes that the fire was going to die down?
When they didn’t have a target to aim at or shoot at…it sort of died down to sporadic fire, but as soon as you stood up they’d all see you and start shooting. So we thought we’d make a run for it…twenty or thirty metres and dive behind a tree, have a break, wait for the fire to die down. We were lucky, no one got hurt while we were doing it.
Had you seen the smoke at this stage?
At that stage no. At that stage we didn’t know where we were going. We were headed back from where we came from earlier on in the day.
And how do you move?
Just run. Crouch down and go. We were only going thirty or forty metres and diving, turn around, face out again and then someone would say, come on we’ll go again and off you’d go.
We just kept doing that and we came to that big tree that we hid behind for a while.
What does it take to make you stand up and run knowing that you could be hit?
There was no real problem because we didn’t have any choice. We decided together, when we say go, we’ll go. So one started getting up and we all started getting up. There was nothing else to do. We left our packs behind, took our webbing and rifle and bolted from there. We didn’t take any heavy gear with us. We just went.
And this tree, how did you come across it?
It was a fallen tree. It had probably been hit by artillery earlier on. It was just a big fallen rubber tree but all the greenery was still there. So we thought there’s a place we can hide for a while. So we just scrabbled into the canopy of leaves. There were other blokes already there having a break.
What did you say to them?
I don’t remember. What are you blokes doing here, I suppose.
I don’t know where they came from. They were part of the other section. I think when we ran out from there one of them got wounded on the way. So we were still under fire all the time. There was no easing up. We were coming backwards and they were coming after us. We were still weren’t safe. Hiding behind a tree you thought you were safe. But you had to put yourself in the open again.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 06
During the chaos of this initial first hour or what eve time it was, do you have any idea of how many men had been lost?
No, in the small group we were, we were away from…like after the first five minutes we were away from the other groups. Two of our fellas went off to the right and forward a way. One of them was killed and one got back. But apart
from those two blokes…when things settled down a bit, we didn’t know what was going on anywhere else. And other sections wouldn’t have known what was happening with us either. We had no idea of what was going on in other areas.
And so were you hearing any sounds or any orders being shouted?
No. Each platoon had a radio, but we didn’t have anything like that. No you couldn’t hear.
The noise from the artillery and the rain. We didn’t hear anything else outside our area but it that way.
Did you have any visible contact with any other sections?
At the time? Yes now and again you saw blokes moving a bit. They were a fair way away from us.
When people started to reorganise after the firing started, whether we got left out on a flank unknowing, or they moved quickly and we didn’t move quick enough to go with them, I don’t know. But we just seemed to be out on a limb.
So were there any communications at all with anyone else?
Not after things settled down. It might
have been fifteen minutes and we were in this defensive position. That was it.
And you mentioned that training kicked in, but was there anything else that kind of helped you survive this situation?
No I don’t think so. Just the blokes around. We were all sort of feeding off each other. There was just that sort of stuff.
Was there a leader amongst you?
I think we were all privates. One bloke might have been a lance corporal.
We were just privates and we all sort of looked at each other and said, “What do you reckon?” And we just worked it out. The more say yes then we’ll go, if they don’t we’ll stay. Everything we did we just threw around amongst us.
Apart from gunshots were there any other weapons being used against you?
They had mortars but they weren’t hitting us. We found grenade launchers. Whether they used them or not I don’t know. We found all sorts of weapons, heavy machine guns, light machine guns and all sorts of grenades, but basically all I saw were the bullets.
What about yourselves, were you just using the bullets?
Yes automatic rifles, that’s all.
We talked a bit about visibility, but paint a picture for us, what you could see out there?
Well as it got darker and the more rain came the harder it got, but you were looking up this alley, up this laneway of trees and the heavy rain. Close in you could see clear shapes and further away a bit fuzzy, and in the background you just saw a lot of
blurred movement. But they were fifty metres away from us sometimes. They were really clear and the further back they were….you know. But you could always see a lot of movement. It just depended on the rain.
Were you scared?
I suppose I was scared, but I didn’t feel scared, you know? I was more scared when I got back to where our headquarters was. I’ve got this far and I don’t want to get hurt now. Maybe I didn’t have time to be really scared, but when I got back there I thought, ‘Christ this is good, I’m here.’ I started to get more worried then.
Paint a picture if you can of the sounds?
There was a huge
volume of rifle fire. The whining, whistling of the shells coming over. That’s mostly it and the rain belting on the ground. That’s about it.
Was it constant the firing?
Yes. Fairly constant. Just up and down from time to time while they were regrouping. There was always fire coming in.
It just depended on how much. While they were regrouping it would drop down a bit. Then as they were getting ready to move in again they’d build up the fire.
You talked a bit before about this but describe again that moment when you had to get up and run? Can you remember just before you did it, the feeling?
It was probably…thinking, well we had to do it and having to convince yourself to do it. There
was no good staying there, so bugger it. And “Righto, let’s go.” Not “We’ll wait another five minutes. We’ve got to go so let’s do it.” So we did it. Go now.
Is there anything you can compare that kind of moment where you get up and run, to?
No probably not. That’s hard.
Jumping off a cliff or something like that?
Oh yes. Like when you’re doing training they make you jump off a big platform into deep water. And I said, “I can’t swim.” And they said I had to jump anyway. So you just jump. Something like that I suppose. You know you’ve got to do. You don’t want to do it but you’ve got to do it. Just take a breath and do it.
Do you remember that run?
Bits and pieces. Mainly when you stated to run they’d all see you go and they’d all start firing and it was like a drum roll getting louder
and louder and louder. Then someone would scream, “That will do!” and we’d just dive. We you dived you probably skidded ten feet in the mud. Not that far, but you’d be skidding in the mud. Then you’d get behind the tree and turn around and have a look behind you again. You’d get your breath back and someone would say, “OK we’ll go again.”
It would be the same thing and then after a while someone would call out, “That will do!” and you’d dive again. So bit by bit we worked our way back.
Was it hard to move through the mud?
It did seem to be. It was pretty thick. That was the least of our worries though. We just made ourselves just go. It wasn’t that sticky mud, it was just thick mud.
And where were you when you saw the smoke?
Hiding behind this dead tree, fallen tree. We sort of worked out that we couldn’t stay there much longer
anyway and one of the blokes said there was some smoke. So we all looked and we could see this smoke going up and we thought that must be our mob. And it was. One of the other platoons were there.
And could you tell how quickly you were being followed?
No not really. I don’t think they followed us that quick because we were running and diving and hiding and running and diving and hiding.
They weren’t running after us put it that way. They may have taken the opportunity to regroup themselves. But they weren’t catching us.
So how long were you breaking after a short sprint?
Only a few minutes. Get your breath back and go again. There wasn’t anything we could do. Just turn around and have a look and go again. Once we made the break we thought we may as well keep going.
Did anyone provide cover when you made your run?
No. We didn’t have the ammunition to do that. We had no automatic weapons and only a few rounds each anyway.
Well describe for us the feeling as you get low on ammunition in such a situation. What’s it feel like when you run low?
As we started to run out someone would say, ‘How much have you got left?’ I had some extra stuff in my pack that I shared.
And a couple of others had ammo in their packs but a couple of the others, not so much our mob but other people had run out altogether. So we realised we were getting low and that’s when the sergeant came along. We knew we would have to do something. You can’t stay with nothing. So when we did run out we went. It just worked out that when the time came, we all had two or three rounds left.
But does it frighten you dramatically?
scary or frightening but it did bring home the fact that someone had to make a decision to do something. Nobody was saying they were frightened about it but it made you think that something had to happen soon.
And tell me, do you play a game with the enemy like not wanting to let on that you’re running low on ammunition?
didn’t have much choice. We just had to pick good targets only. We weren’t blasting away. Whether we realised we weren’t just blasting away. I don’t know. We were just very precise. Pick a target. We just couldn’t afford to waste it. Whether they picked that up or not I don’t know. We had no automatic weapons to blast them with.
Just slow fire.
Ok, describe the scene when you finally rejoined….
Got back? We ran in through this line of defence which was facing out. And for some strange reason once you went past them, we were running and once we got past that line of defence we thought ‘Oh, we’re safe.” and you sort of slowed down. ‘I’m home.’ Like, you’re still getting shot at but
you just moved into an area, the company headquarters area where everyone had congregated and the first thought was, ‘I’m home.’ And then the old CSM grabbed me and told me to keep going, “Get through there. Get down the back there.” Then when you got back to that area where you were put down, you started realising what was going on. You could hear the noise. The shooting was still going on and that’s where you heard a bit of yelling because we were in the
headquarters area. The orders were being called out. All the talking going backwards and forward between the Task Force headquarters. You could hear them yelling, trying to get heard through the rain. That was when you realised it was still going on.
Describe the atmosphere back at this place?
I can’t say it was quiet. Sombre. Blokes were just going about doing what they were told.
And what they had to do. I think the OC sent the word back once for reinforcement and I think he said that if they didn’t get there soon, don’t bother coming because he knew we were running out of everything. At that stage we hadn’t been reinforced with ammunition. And then the bloody helicopter arrived and dropped some ammunition down to us.
But up until then everyone was running out of everything. So his word was if you don’t get here soon don’t bother coming. He was in charge of the company. He sort of realised that things weren’t going too well either.
How did that make you feel hearing that?
I didn’t know that until blokes started writing books and there were investigations into things.
So was there a sense of this?
I didn’t think so.
Like I learnt as much reading the books twenty years later than I knew on that day. Blokes don’t talk a lot about it. I’d hear that a bloke I knew well had seen something or had done this and I’d say something like, ‘I didn’t know you did that.’ And reading the books brought a lot home.
And so tell us about hearing the APCs coming?
We didn’t know the enemy were in front of us either. And then
you heard the dull roar of the engines and they were all firing. All the APCs had either a 50 calibre machine gun or a 30 cal which made a lot of noise. And they opened up and you could hear the roar of the engines and the guns going off. The first thought was they were shooting at us because we could hear them coming towards us. They were a fair way away…a few hundred metres away and they ran smack bang into the mob who were forming up behind us.
So they were just like the cavalry arriving you know. And then that attack finished and the APCs rumbled into the area. The other troops, the A Company troops hopped off and the APCs came through. The A company blokes put a perimeter around behind us.
What was it like to see them?
It was good. That’s when you first started thinking this was over now. We might be right now when they arrived. It could have gone the other way. If the enemy had have known what they had run into they could have walked over us at any time. Put it that way. They reckon it was a couple thousand men and at best it was only a couple hundred of us. So the way it happened, the way it was spread out over a large area,
the obviously thought we had a lot more troops than we did. If we had have been congested into a smaller area, they could have done anything to us.
So upon reflection how does it make you feel that amongst those twenty seven with so many injured there was probably only fourteen, fifteen of you. How does it make you feel to know you held them off?
Well that’s one of the things about this big argument about whether we were ambushed or whether it was an encounter. My impression was if we were ambushed we did a good job of getting out of it. We did well to beat the ambush off. The other blokes say…in the long run years later we think we did all right with what we had, and then you know in your own mind that they never forced a full attack on you.
If they had we couldn’t have done it. I would have been physically impossible to hold them. But they got to a certain area and pulled back when the artillery got them. If it wasn’t for the artillery it would have been all over in half an hour. The whole company would have got wiped out.
Does it make you think about fate?
Was pride an issue?
Yes there was a lot of
pride involved. You never thought of yourself, you thought of the other bloke. You would say, ‘I saw him do a good job,’ or, ‘I saw him do something.’ I was proud to know all these blokes, and we still get together now. Not everybody but quite a few of us. Every five years we have a big anniversary. They’re still like brothers when we get together. Every five years we have a big one. And it’s good. We still stick together after all this time.
There was a real bond build up.
What about the bond between the five of you who were caught?
Yes. I still know where everyone of them is. There’s one in Melbourne, one in South Australia, one down Brisbane. So we see each other every year. Quite regularly. We have a bit of a laugh.
There’s something life forming when you’re put in a life death situation?
Yes there is. Those sort of blokes…we play a lot of football and a lot of cricket and as I say the blokes I kick around with now are the blokes I was in the army with. It was only two years out of my life but they’re still the blokes I kick around with, ninety five per cent of the time. Apart from people I know here and play golf with,
my best mates are army mates.
We were talking about the APCs coming. Tell us about that evening as it progressed?
There was a bit of a lull. Well there was a lull. The fighting had just about stopped. I think they were gathering up their dead and wounded and getting out of the area too. The CSM came round to make sure everyone had ammunition and asking if anyone was wounded and that sort of stuff.
I just remember walking around the blokes saying, ‘Are you all right?’ Then the hierarchy was organising what we were going to do that night, whether we were going to go back to Nui Dat or whatever. Then they decided they would have to get the wounded out that night. The helicopters couldn’t land where we were because we were in this thick rubber, so they found an area within reasonable range for us to move to. So we loaded all the wounded on the APC
and the rest of us got on the APC or whatever was there and we went back to this area where they called the helicopters in. The helicopters came in and took out all the wounded. It was well after twelve by this time. So we stayed there the night and the APC fellas were pretty good. We still had to do guard and picquets but the APC fellas said “You blokes get inside and have a sleep and we’ll do it for you.” They looked after us pretty well. But you couldn’t sleep.
There were no beds anyway. We were only just sitting up inside the bloody things. We leant on each other and I don’t think anyone went to sleep. Then we got up in the morning and by that time everyone knew exactly who was there and who wasn’t there, who was wounded, who was badly wounded and we worked out what we were going to do.
How did you secure this area, the open area?
I don’t think it really was secured. We just went there. The APCs once again formed the perimeter and they even used their lights to bring in the choppers, so they weren’t
really worried about any enemy being there I don’t think. They were just hoping they had already gone. Some of the A Company blokes may have been on outskirts I don’t know. They probably were. But they were game enough to use the APC lights to bring in the helicopters. So that would have shone up all over the area.
What did you think about this situation?
At that stage I wasn’t really worried about it. Too tired. You had to get the wounded out and the choppers had to have some guide to come down. Lights, or torches or flares or something.
When did the choppers come, what time?
Close to midnight. It was well after midnight when everything was finally over and we finally settled down.
So you said the APCs formed a perimeter,
And how were the defences set up amongst the APCs?
They had their guns mounted on the top and they just manned those guns all night. As I say, there were probably other people out there, outside the APCs. I don’t remember if there were or not. They would have gone somewhere that night.
Were there any men who had spent the night in amongst
the jungle who were by themselves, wounded or …?
Yep. They were at the original contact point, where we first got fired on. One bloke was badly wounded. He ended up losing a lung, ribs. He nearly died a few times. Another bloke was shot through the cheek I think and maybe the leg or ankle or something like that. They had to stay out all night. That would have been pretty scary
because the enemy were scouting through the area all night picking up their dead and their weapons and stuff. And these two blokes were playing dead. So they would have had a pretty ordinary night.
Did you ever talk to them about their night?
Yes. One bloke doesn’t talk much about it. The other bloke, we lost contact with him. We’ve got this association and about six or seven years ago we lost contact with him. So I don’t know where he is now.
So what did they say about it?
Yes Jimmy was
pretty badly wounded and probably off the planet a bit. But he said the worst thing was they were walking past them, within feet of them. He said they were scared they were going to come and kick you to see if you were alive. But it just didn’t happen. He was badly wounded and bleeding and he was trying to control his own bleeding and trying to play dead at the same time. In the morning when they went back in and found him the first thing he said was,
“Where have you been? What took you so long to get here?” So he still had a bit of a sense of humour.
Well speaking of sense of humour. You told a fair bit about the job you had to do, clearing the area, was there any black humour or jokes make of the morbid scene?
No not really. I can’t remember anything. There was a bit of souvenir hunting done.
A few officers had pistols and so if you found a pistol amongst them you grabbed them but they were confiscated actually. No, the worst thing was…searching them for records that might help intelligence, and you’d find a wallet and it might have a photo of his missus and three kids. They were the same as us. So there was a fair bit of that. There’s his family, his mum and dad. But there was no taking the micky out of [teasing] them at all.
What kind of weapons were you finding?
Good fully automatic AK47s mainly. That was the main weapon, the AK47. They had plenty of ammunition. They had plenty of supplies. You could go through their backpacks. Their supplies were rice and that. Not so much the medical supplies. There wasn’t a lot of that there.
But they were very well equipped.
Did that surprise you?
Yes. Well we didn’t expect like that. We didn’t expect to run into people like that. When we did and when it got to that stage it was surprising to see the equipment they had. They were all in good uniforms, clean. Good webbing. Good weapons. Everything had had was good.
What kind of picture at this stage were you forming of who you had been fighting and how strong they were?
I don’t know if I formed a picture of them. You knew they weren’t fools and they weren’t just the run of the mill farmer playing soldier. And the more you got into it the more you realised what they went through. They were walking through artillery.
They were getting shot at. And walking through artillery…they really did it hard. But they didn’t stop. They just kept coming and rolling along. It was what they had been ordered to do I suppose. They had been told to go forward and that’s what they did. So they did a good job. You can’t take it away from them.
What kind of opinion were you forming of them as an enemy?
You would have to have a good opinion of them, they were well trained.
You couldn’t really say anything bad about them. When they walked through our artillery, they just kept going. There was no such thing as breaking lines or anything like that. They would fall back, regroup and turn around and come again. They were well trained and they were brave men.
Did many men feel this kind of respect?
Yes you would talk about it when you got back and were
sitting around the trees. We respected what they did.
Well describe for us just how many bodies and what the scene was like?
The official count was two hundred and forty five bodies. There might have been more, there might have been less.
If I had to go and count I might have said, one two three four five, and you might have said one two three four and you might have counted two of mine. But the great majority of them weren’t full bodies. They had limbs off and things like that. The cleaner bodies were the ones that had been shot. There was a lot of carnage when the artillery was landing all the time. Not only would they be hit and killed once but the next round of artillery might land on them again.
So they were getting killed three or four times.
How thick was the carnage. Were there bodies everywhere?
It was over a fair area but in certain areas where they were moving in all the time, they were thicker. They weren’t piled on top of each other. In some places they were spread out. And they took a lot away too. They found hundreds of blood trails where people had been dragged out. And the fact that we only found one or two of
them alive. They must have had hundreds of wounded if they had two hundred and forty killed. They must have had that number or more wounded. So the wounded had been carted out. In some areas they obvious cleaned out all their wounded and all their dead and in other areas they didn’t have time to get there before the sun came up. Different areas had a different coverage of dead bodies.
In the night could you hear this going on?
For the period we were still there,
the blokes who were on the front perimeter, they could hearing them crawling up and grabbing their dead and dragging them back. They weren’t firing at our blokes and our blokes weren’t firing at them. But they reckon they could hear them coming up and moving back all the time until we moved out all together. So that was another thing about them. They could have just bolted and left hundreds of wounded there.
Don’t know where they took them too. No one ever found out. You think they must have had an underground hospital somewhere. Over the next few days and weeks they had troops out trying to find where they went, and no one ever found where they went too. They were carrying around wounded people without trucks to transport them in. So somewhere in that area I reckon there must have been a huge underground complex.
It’s never been found if there was or explained what happened to the wounded. I think they found a few graves where a few dead were buried, but they never found anywhere where the wounded ended up. They must have had some pretty bad wounds. So somewhere they disappeared.
With this carnage when you were burying people, what would you do if you found just a body part like a limb?
Put it into one of the holes. There were a few trenches that had been dug, and a lot of bodies were thrown in them and filled in. They were four or five foot deep some of the trenches and a fair few bodies and bits got thrown in there too.
Would you mark these graves?
No we just dug them and covered them over. They weren’t proper graves. Two feet would be a deep one.
Then we covered them over.
The images of this sort of carnage stay with you?
You don’t often think of it but every now and then it comes up. A quiet time sometimes. For some reason you have a flash back. Not a lot any more. It used to be a lot but it still happens.
They don’t reckon it ever goes away. But you do think about it.
You mentioned about returning back and you never got debriefed. What kind of things did the commanders say to you?
Just the usual stories would come back from the Task Force commander, Brigadier Jackson or what ever his name was. It was congratulations. By that time all the papers
and congratulatory telegrams were coming through from Australia. They would come out and read them. ‘This is from the Prime Minister of Australia.’ You’ve done this and you’re great and all this sort of stuff. Every morning they’d be reading these things out. Different governments and the Americans. Then that died down after a while.
So what effect did these messages have on you at the time?
It was good at the time.
It was good at the time. When they were reading them out we’d think, ‘Shit that’s good.’ And now it’s just…now you hear the same thing and you feel, well fair enough.
Did they talk to you about what you had gone through or your mates dying or anything?
No. We just got back to camp and they said we could have a couple of days off. We got up had breakfast, wandered around, sat under a tree, wrote letters, having a smoke, morning tea, went to lunch. Just a couple
of easy days doing nothing. Just talking about things to each other. Things you had seen and things you had done. I suppose that was a way of letting things out. And then at night time you would have a drink or a few drinks. Then they sent us down to Vung Tau for a week.
Do you remember how you felt just after?
It was a calm feeling. We were back in camp. No real dramatic thing.
We knew we were there for another ten months. So that was always in the background. Next week we would be going out again. It wasn’t like it was all over and we were going home.
Going through that did your idea of war change as opposed to a week or two before?
Yes it did. You more or less thought it’s not going to get any worse than this. We know we’re going to go out and shot at again. Some will be killed and wounded again.
Up to then it had all been anticipation, how you would react under fire and whether you would handle it. You now had the realisation that we could do it and we would do it again if we have to. It doesn’t matter what happens from now on, we’d been through it.
So tell us about this time in Vung Tau straight after?
They took us down and put us into a R&C [Rest and Convalescence] centre and let us loose. You got changed and had to hand your rifle in. Even down there you had to take your rifle with you. Then you had to hand it into the quartermaster there. Then we just got changed into civilian clothes and got some pay. They gave some pay out of our pay book and go. “Don’t forget the curfew’s at ten o’clock.” they said.
Straight into the bars and we carried on from there.
What did you get up to?
A bit of everything mate. A few got into a few blues. A lot of the Australians there who were based at Vung Tau, they were going around to the bars and the clubs and skiting that they were at Long Tan and bumming drinks off the Yanks. The Yanks loved Australians, and these blokes were going on about being at Long Tan.
The Yanks had heard about Long Tan and they would say they would buy drinks. And now and again a couple of our blokes would be in the bar and hear it and then there would be an all in brawl. That happened a few times. A mate and I ran into a couple of Yanks. They were real good blokes. They said, “We don’t want any bullshit about slouch hats and koala bears, we just want to have a drink with you.” Whereas others were a bit silly.
But we ran into a couple of good blokes and they took around the place. We even slept at their camp out at the airfield. They were helicopter pilots or something. We went out at night time one night and they said “You sleep in our bed and we’ll sleep on the floor.” They said though, don’t bullshit to us about kangaroos and slouch hats. It was good.
Did you have much more contact with the Americans?
No, the only time we every saw them was when we were on leave.
There were still some working in the province, Phuoc Tuy Province, but we didn’t have anything to do with them. We might be going down one side of a paddy field and we’d see them on the other side. We didn’t want anything to do with them. We just kept out of their way and they kept out of our way. It didn’t happen too often. It only happened once I can remember. There were a lot on the other side of the paddy fields and we just played doggo [hid] until they had gone.
Their way of defending was to just blast the place out. If they had seen us they probably wouldn’t have even tried to find out who we were. We were in the bush and they were in the bush so they would probably have just let go. It was a good chance of it. So we just laid down.
How did you know of this kind of American mentality?
They were the stories that were going around. When we were out in the scrub doing patrols and things, every night
you would stop for your tea. It might be four o’clock for a brew up. But you didn’t stay there that night, you’d move on to another area. So if anyone was following you, before anyone knew you were there, you had moved on. So when dusk came on we would do what we called a clearing patrol and go around a few hundred metres out, just in case some one was following us. And that was it. No noise, no brewing up or anything. But
the Yanks way of doing that is that they get into a circle and they just fire out for two or three minutes. Fire everything they’ve got. That was there way of clearing the area. The noggies [slang for Vietnamese] knew that that’s what the Yanks did so they wouldn’t come within range until they wanted to. So they would blast out hundreds of rounds and they would give their position away. But we would stop, then move on before we harboured up for the night.
That’s a different way of operating.
What do you think is the better way?
Like we did. Stay hidden. Make them find us. If they did find us we always had the guns mounted. We always had trip leads out and things like that to get a bit of an early warning. So there was always something on our side.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 07
What was the setup at Vung Tau like in terms of bars and things?
The whole town, the whole main street, every second place was a bar or a tailor shop. Tailor shops and bars, that’s all there was.
You couldn’t eat the food there. All you did was drink the beer. Every beer was different. The local brew. One would be strong and one would be weak. But you would wander through the markets and have a look at the place and then gravitate back to a bar, go for another walk, gravitate back to a bar. That was about it. They had the Back Beach at Vung Tau where we were originally. There was a sort of club there, Beachcombers.
We used to get down there a bit. Blokes would go for a swim. Try and swim home. Yeah, that was one of the places we would spend a bit of time.
How safe was it?
It was pretty safe. They had a curfew, ten o’clock at night you had to be off the streets. They reckon that there were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathisers were probably the taxi drivers. You wouldn’t know. They would come in at night time.
They would come in and buy supplies so you wouldn’t know who they were. They never worried us and we never worried them. We never had any real problems. I suppose in time someone would have.
And were there girls in the bars?
What would they do?
They would come up to you and ask you to buy them a drink, Saigon Tea I think they used to call it. Uc dai loi [Vietnamese term for Australian] ‘Australian number one’.
What did most people think of them?
They were little skinny and ugly. They were probably about ten years old most of them. I didn’t have much to do with them. Ugly little things. Skinny.
Were there many people who found it comforting to talk to a woman in a bar?
You couldn’t get much conversation out of them. All they knew was Uc dai loi, or
‘American buy me drink.” and that sort of stuff. You couldn’t talk to them. If you walked into a bar they would descend on you like flies. Blokes would rather just go and have a drink by themselves. Then you’d get the little bar boys coming around trying to sell things to you. You’d say, “Go away and leave me alone.”
What were they trying to sell you?
and that sort of garbage. “You buy this, you give me this.” Just annoying little buggers.
After an experience like Long Tan and then spending time somewhere like Vung Tau, what were your feelings about what you were fighting for?
I didn’t have much respect for the locals. But then we didn’t really get to know them. The only time you had anything to do with the locals was when they were trying to take money off you. That sort of thing.
The ones you saw in the villages were pretty grubby people and the ones you saw downtown you didn’t think much of them anyway. We saw a very small section of them. There were some good ones, a lot of good ones I would say, but we were never given the opportunity to meet a big majority of them. We got the rough end of the market I suppose.
So how committed did it make you feel towards the war?
I didn’t really worry about it much. We were there for two or three days and then we were gone, and in the bush you didn’t see much of the civilians anyway. So I wasn’t really worried. They only time you saw them was when you were on leave. I think I only had two leaves the whole time I was there. So I didn’t worry.
And in terms of what you were fighting for, did the defeat of Communism mean a lot to you?
No, we didn’t
know what we were fighting for. When the blokes were joking and saying we defeated the Communist hordes for the North and this sort of stuff, that was a standard joke. I think everyone knew it was a no win situation. We would go out in the bush, might go out for a month, and then you’d come back and you might be five six kilos lighter and a couple of blokes had been killed or wounded and you’d come in feeling like shit.
You’d have a shower and go down the boozer and the next morning there would be a letter from the commander saying congratulations to the battalions, you have cleared the area from so and so to so and so. It’s now free of Communists, free of North Vietnamese, free of Viet Cong. And you know you could walk out there straight away and get shot at. So you felt like saying to him to, ‘You go out and have a look’.
It was just a fact of life. Everyone knew it was going on.
How does this affect your morale?
It was just part of the game, the game they played. There were mountain ranges there and they were just infested with them, and unless…if you went in by helicopter they all knew you were coming. If they didn’t want any contact with you they would leave the area. If you walked in you might strike them before they knew you were there, but once again, when they knew you were there, they’d go away and
come back when you came went home again. You were going through areas day after day after day, and you’d have your contacts. You would never feel safe. You might go back into that area but you would never drop your guard. There was no such thing as a safe area in the whole bloody province.
What about after Long Tan when a lot of people had been lost,
didn’t this make you question it a bit more, like was it worth it?
No I don’t think any one actually spoke like that. It was never part of the conversation or anything.
But what about what was in your mind?
No it was never a subject. Never something that was discussed much at all. I didn’t. I don’t know about the other blokes.
And after you had come back from Vung Tau, how long was it before you were sent out again?
Whether it was a full operation or just a patrol, it was only probably days. A couple of small patrols early on. But there were big operations every month. Big operations, company size or battalion size. They were on all the time. There might be a battalion operation and they might send out three companies.
So maybe initially after the battle they might have left us home the first time. But even then you were still going out doing small day patrols. So it was pretty well straight on again. You didn’t have a month off or anything like that. Just saddle up and go again.
Was there any trepidation on that first time out?
A little bit, but you also thought they can’t hit us that hard again.
I was thinking what ever happens it won’t be like that again. Once you get out in the bush and start walking there were other things on your mind. At night time you would probably think about it when you were woken up to go on the gun or something. Being on the gun picquet was probably the worst time because every little animal that moves, or a rustle in the trees, you’re on edge. You’ve got these night scopes. They’re all right but you can’t see a lot.
But you know if something does happen then it’s up to you to give the alarm that there are people there. So that’s one time when you have to be on the ball and as I said, every little movement makes you think there’s something there.
How do the night scopes work?
Some high tech thing. It turns the dark into a blurry light. You can’t pick out faces but you can see movement. You can see animals or people moving in the distance. It could be pitch black,
although I think, although I think they do need the mood. They work on batteries. But it could be pitch black and it was sort of half light. It gave you a bit more of a start.
And how were your confidence levels after Long Tan in terms of your own ability?
Probably increased because you knew you could handle it.
Initially everyone was worried out how they were going to react under fire and how you would react. And after that everyone had that question over them answered. There was no one in the whole company who you would say couldn’t handle it. They stood up and faced it. So everyone’s confidence was up I think.
And you mentioned that the village was your first major operation; did you head into any other villages afterwards?
Yes, but not big ones. There were a few villages around the place. You would put what they called a cordon around it and you would search it for the tax collectors, arms, ammunition, tunnels. The same sort of thing. You’d rip these people out of bed about three o’clock
and round them up into the square or something and then rip into their houses Not destroy them but pull their furniture around looking for holes in the ground where they hide their money from the tax collectors. And generally when you did that you would get a bit of information like the tax collector is going to be in so and so village that night. Or within a couple of nights. Quite often you’d find him.
You’d find the money that this bloke had been taking off all the villages. So you were looking for that and as I said, weapons and other stuff like that. Just mainly the tax collectors and the weapons. Probably at least once a month there would be something like that going on. It would depend on what was in store or what your company was doing.
How would you wake the people up and get them out of bed?
Yell and scream at them. Bash on the doors if they had doors. We had interpreters. Each platoon had a Vietnamese army interpreter. He’d be shouting in his own lingo [language]. But you wouldn’t know what he was saying. He might be saying go and hide or you had better come out. You wouldn’t know. They were supposed to be loyal.
What were the reactions of the people in the village?
Pretty dirty. There was one place we went to. We were guarding some American artillery across the road from this big village. It wasn’t a flash one but it was a good sized village. During the day the medical fellas used to go into the village and patch up sores and cuts and give medical treatment to the women.
After about three or four days they put a big sign up in the village, ‘The village of so and so wishes to thank the Australian Army for their kindness’ and all this sort of stuff. And then the next morning we ripped into it and guided them all out and searched the place, and the same day they pulled the sign down. They were sick of us by then. But we did find a lot of stuff in it. Money and stores and stuff like that.
So while they thought they could get away with it they did it. We were there for probably a week before we did it. And the next minute we were rooting them out of bed and into the street and go through their village. They would be at you but you wouldn’t know what they were saying. They didn’t look real happy. Little kids looking at you.
“Give me lollies, Hershey bars.” The American Hershey bar. The kids all knew that word. But there was no dramas.
What were the kids like?
Like kids everywhere. They were friendly little buggers. They would come up with big smiles on their faces and if you had anything to give them then you’d give it to them. But we weren’t carrying around lollies and things. Sometimes you might have a chewy, like a muesli bar.
An apricot slice or something. That would be in the ration pack and it wasn’t very tasty. Some of the ration packs had little chocolates in them. But that didn’t happen very often.
And how did you feel about getting people out of bed?
Did you ever feel sorry for them?
No, I don’t think I did
because I knew what they were doing. And plus the Viet Cong…it might be their village. They might come home at night time, or come home during the day time and go away again. So quite a few of them who you were getting out of bed were Viet Cong. I think most of them hid their weapons outside the village. They wouldn’t try and hide them at home. But you just wouldn’t know who you were dealing with. There wasn’t much conscience in it.
Was there ever any trouble in these villages?
We never ran into it, no.
Would anyone ever have to use force to get into the houses?
We might have dragged a couple out. Probably a couple of times you had to drag people out. The old women were the worst. Chewing betel nut. They didn’t like coming out much. You couldn’t blame them for that.
Did you get a sense that they were used to this kind of treatment?
Yes they sort of knew what was going on all the time. Here we go again. I don’t know how many times they got raided, but you could bet your life it wasn’t the first time.
How would you cordon off the village?
Just put a ring around it, particularly on the roads in and out. You would probably sneak around the day before and find out where all the tracks
were. They had tracks leading out to their paddy fields, so you would work out where the tracks in and out were. But you’d cordon the whole thing and put your main emphasis on these tracks. You’d leave your guards there and then go in and start getting them out. So if you found anyone trying to run up a pathway, they would be the first ones you’d stop.
By the time you got to the village and if there were blokes running…there would be no point in running for nothing. So it was quite often the tax collector.
And when you found things in the village what did you do, what were the repercussions for the villagers?
I don’t think much happened to the villagers. If it was money it was confiscated. I don’t know if it was ever given back in aid or not. A lot of money in aid in the villages.
They had a project WHAM. Winning Hearts and Minds I think it was called. The WHAM Project and that was basically to win over the villagers. Take in truck loads of gear, food, medical supplies and that sort of stuff. So they were playing both sides, the villagers. They were getting pretty well looked after.
Were there any orphanages in the area?
They were there, in the bigger places. Like Ba Ria. That was a huge town, almost the provincial capital. There were orphanages and schools there. But we didn’t see any.
If you found tunnels in a village what would you do then?
We would just report them. Get in the engineers and if they were a proper tunnel they would follow it through. A lot of them had a tunnel which went under the house and out to the paddy field. So depending on what sort of tunnel it was, they might destroy it. Sometimes it might
be just a hole to hide in. So they would just do what they had to do. It shouldn’t have been there to start with. We never did much with the tunnels. We just called in the engineers and they came in after us. It had to be done.
And how long would you spend around the village?
be gone by lunch time. We would go in the morning, clean it up and get out. There would be no need to stay there.
Would you stay around the village at night?
Yes. But mainly ambushing around the village. Like word would go around that there were Viet Cong or tax collectors coming down this route at night time so you would ambush that route. And anyone who came into that area was fair game. They weren’t supposed to be there.
What were some of the other contacts that you had with the enemy after Long Tan?
We had a big mine incident. We had a couple of blokes killed. We were coming down this area by the side of a road and a mine exploded but one of our blokes had a Claymore around his waist. The Claymores were put out every night at our positions.
They had a detonator in them and when you collected them in the morning you were supposed to take that out. And the only way that Claymore can explode is if the detonator is in it. The only way…this explosion detonated this Claymore that this bloke was carrying. The only thing they can put it down to is that he didn’t take the detonator out in the morning. They tested it so many times afterwards, firing shots at it to make one explode but it wouldn’t work.
So the Claymore exploded and that did more damage than the original mine. A lot of blokes were killed and wounded. A lot our blokes.
Where were you?
I had just gone past the area where it happened. I was scouting that day I think. It was a trap. We were led into a trap. There were three or four civilians walking down this road. We were off to the side, twenty or thirty metres off the road and the word came up to stop them and search them.
The bloke behind me said, “We’ll go in” and I said, “No, we’ll go forward and then stop and then they can walk down the road and then the blokes behind us can go in.” And that’s what happened. They waited until these blokes got to a certain area, then a mine was detonated which then detonated our Claymore. So they used the civilians to suck us into this area. When the civilians were coming down the road you’d could
hear… there was a bit of a crest of a hill and you could hear someone behind them yelling out. They’d walk down the road, stop and look around. You had it in your mind that there was something wrong. You’d hear a bit of noggie talk up the road and then they’d walk on. They knew their prime job was to suck us into this area where their mine was. So that’s what happened. When they got to a certain area this bomb went off.
A bloke and a young kid were hurt. They weren’t badly wounded. They ended up in the Australian hospital anyway. It was just one of those things. We were sucked in by the civilians. This was a bloke and a girl. So you couldn’t really trust anyone out in the bush and they shouldn’t have been there anyway.
Were there any precautions that could have been taken for this not to have happened?
Not really. They had to be searched. The casualties could have been cut back if the Claymore hadn’t been armed. There still would have been injuries, probably even some killed. But the Claymore did all the damage.
So at some stage those people were going to be searched. It was going to happen.
And after the Claymore exploded what action did you guys take?
Well I went to ground. We heard this bang and looked around and there was a huge black cloud, the road dust and dirt. I don’t know how high it was. Then there was a ‘Thump thump’ as bodies came down. They had been blown up.
It was an unearthly sort of feeling and then the dust settled and you could see what had happened. There were a lot of blokes badly wounded. I was just told to keep looking up the road. That was my area and not let anyone else near the place. Then they got the helicopters in.
How did they call the helicopters in?
Radio. Always had radios. In ten or fifteen minutes they were probably in hospital. The helicopters saved a lot of lives. Probably ten or fifteen minutes to get there and they were in an operating theatre. In the old wars that wouldn’t have happened.
How does something so chancy as this mine explosion effect your confidence again?
It was just spooky when it happened. Things happened every day. Blokes might not get hurt but you’d see things or come across things and after a while you realised that you couldn’t get spooked at everything you saw. We were always running into deserted camps and sometimes you would walk in an area
and the fire was still warm. The ashes were still warm. They had not long gone and you’d think Christ if they had still been there we would have walked into that. So you just accepted that these things happened.
And you were mentioning earlier that there was a time you came under mortar fire from our artillery?
Yes. We were out on operations and ….
It was pretty early in the morning and we had broken camp and packed up and were moving out. We were beside a windy sort of track. Someone thought they heard some movement off to the left and they decided they would call artillery in behind that, and then we’d be in a position if there was anyone there they would come towards us to get away from the artillery.
Anyway they dropped eight or ten rounds of artillery way back and then they gave an adjustment to Nui Dat to bring the fire further in. And whoever was on the plotting board mucked up the adjustment and every shell, the twelve shells landed on the track where we were. If they had tried to hit the track they couldn’t have done it. It was just pure fluke. So the first six came in,
and the first six hit and that was a bloody mess. And in the distance you could hear the boom boom boom as they fired again because they had been told to fire twelve shots. And everyone knew they were coming again. There was nowhere to hide. There were a few trees and everyone knew that within seconds there was another six coming in. That was one of the worst feelings. You had nowhere to go so you just put your hands over your head, put your pack over your head and
hoped for the best. And sure enough you could hear the whistle and then the tumbling noise and you’d think, here we go and then it would be ‘Bang bang bang,’ again. There weren’t any more. The radio got through then. But as I said, they could not have hit the track if they had have tried in a hundred shots. It was just pure fate or whatever you want to call it.
So what was the background of them stuffing it up?
We said bring the fire forward a hundred yards or something.
The bloke on the plotting board, he gives the gunners the degrees to put in the gun sights and he would have said lower gun so many degrees left. But when he plotted it he plotted the wrong degrees. Instead of a hundred he probably bought it forward a hundred and fifty or two hundred and they just landed on us.
They were Kiwi gunners. They were upset those blokes. When we got back to camp a week or so later they would come around every night bringing cartons of grog and apologising. They would bring their guitars, singing all the time. But the CSM was killed and quite a few others were killed there too. He was one of the heroes of Long Tan.
There were some pretty bad injuries. Jack Kirby.
What kind of man was he?
He was huge. He was a big bear of a man, and even at Long Tan it was a wonder he didn’t get hurt because he was a big lumbering bloke and he just walked around. The whole time at Long Tan, he was in the company headquarters area and he kept moving around the area all the time, talking to blokes, giving them ammunition and cheering them up and that sort of stuff. And he got killed by a bloody accident like this.
That’s the way it goes.
And did you hear…like was there a radio call back saying ‘Stop firing’?
No I didn’t hear that. We were away from that area a bit. The ones who do all that are the headquarters people. They’re generally in a group apart from everyone else. In a safe area. Not safe, but back a bit. They do all the radio calls.
Would it have been a cranky call?
Probably they would have screamed, stop! After the first six landed they would have tried to stop it then but you could hear the next six coming. The call just didn’t get through in time. By the time it was relayed to the gunnery position…they would have had their area where the operations were and then they guns would be fifty yards away from that.
So the message just didn’t get through in time to stop them. They’re all hand fired. They’re not automatic. That’s what happened.
And was most of the damage done by the first six shells?
I don’t know.
How close did they land to you?
Well the bloke beside me got a big split in his head. So once again there were a lot of tree bursts there too.
But he was ten fifteen metres away. They were all around. All in that area where we were.
And what was the result…given what would have been chaos after the shells landed in your area, the fact that they hadn’t shelled where they were supposed to be shelled?
It was chaos all right because they had to get the choppers in to get the dead and wounded out, and then we just harboured up there for a few hours,
and sort of got the breath back and got our acts back together. No one knew if we were going to go straight back to camp or keep going with the operation. So we were just sitting there having a few cups of tea and coffee, then the word came out that we were going to continue on. So off we went again.
How could you continue on after an event like that?
It was a bit hard then, yes.
We didn’t feel like it. It’s bad enough when blokes get killed in action, but when it happens accidentally like that and a lot of blokes were wounded, that seemed to hurt more than anything else. That was the worst part.
Was there any sort of …for someone like the CSM, just amongst the men, was there any sort of word said?
He was pretty well respected. Everyone felt pretty sorry.
He was one bloke who had the respect of everyone.
Were there any sorts of funeral words said for him?
No. Most of didn’t even see him. Word came down that Jack was dead and we were all committed to stay in our positions in case we were going to get attacked. So wherever you stopped at any time, you were on guard. If you stopped for a smoko [cigarette break] or cup of coffee,
your position, you’re looking out there even though you’re having a smoke. You still have to be on guard. We didn’t come in to see what had happened in the area that was badly hit. So it was only people in the immediate vicinity of his area that saw him. He was gone.
For how long did the operation continue on?
I don’t know. We could have either just started or we could have been getting towards the end of it.
We kept going for a bit longer anyway. It was more than a few days.
Where were the New Zealanders based?
Nui Dat. All the artillery was there. They had Australian and New Zealand artillery there, working together.
And are there any other
particular patrols or operations that you remember?
Nothing that really stood out. Quite often there were incidents…nothing was the same. Everything was always different. But it got to the stage but a lot of it was just hit and run. Like a bloke might be two hundred yards away and fire a couple of shots at you and then go for his life. That was their way of trying to harass you I suppose.
But there were no real big incidents after that. Getting towards our tour they established what they called a horseshoe out towards the end of the province. A huge minefield. The idea was to stop enemy coming into the province. So they built a huge minefield and it was supposed to be guarded by the horseshoe feature. It was just a
bloody flop from day one because they couldn’t patrol in the minefield. The Vietnamese Army were supposed to be guarding it at night time but they wouldn’t go out at night time, and in the end it turned out that the Viet Cong would come in and lift the mines themselves. They would come in and lift the mine, take it away and use them against the Australians. But that was at the end of our tour. There were battalions that went in after us; they were getting blown up by our own mines all the time.
The Viet Cong used that minefield for their supply depot. If they wanted six mines they would go out and dig up six mines. It was a disaster. But the Australian Army would never admit…well they have admitted it, but the people who ordered it, who were responsible for it have denied it was the disaster it was. It was just a complete disaster.
Were maps made of the minefield?
There probably would have been.
It was not a matter of knowing where the mines were, it was just a matter of stopping people from getting at them. They didn’t have the personnel to stop people at night time from taking a couple of mines. They would just come in and dig around with a knife or bayonet or stick or something until they found one, and then they had the knack of being able to get it out without it exploding and off they would go. Beauty, I’ve got three mines tonight. They would hide them on the road that the Australians were going to walk on the next day.
It was just their own supply depot.
Did you ever patrol up to where the horseshoe was?
Yes, we were up where the horseshoe was. The horseshoe was established when we were still there and we used to have patrols. We would go out for a couple of weeks. Like one platoon might go out for a fortnight and then come back to camp and then another platoon would go. We patrolled out from there but the minefield wasn’t properly established then.
Were there different fire support bases
set up along there at this stage?
Yes when we were operating in an area outside artillery range, the artillery would have to go out and put a base down, yeah. That would have to be protected by the infantry too. But we never operated outside friendly fire range. Wherever we went they knew the artillery could get to you.
And in the horseshoe was there a natural horseshoe type area?
Just a plateau sort of thing. Nothing outstanding about it.
What sort of things would you do when you were heading out there? Was it for contact or for reconnaissance?
Just patrolling around the place. There was never a lot of drama there. They knew we were there and they kept away from us. The engineers were doing the minefield. They were building it and we were protecting them.
Did you see them building it?
No I didn’t. They lost soldiers while they were building the minefield. Dangerous bloody work putting these mines down. Another mistake.
And when you headed out on the patrols when you would go out for a month at a time, how much ammunition would you carry with you?
After Long Tan the increased the load you had to carry.
I think it was one hundred and twenty rounds you had to have on you. So blokes still carried more. If you thought you could carry extra you would. You could take as many as you liked. But you had to have a minimum amount after that. See blokes were getting a bit slack too. We had been there for a couple of months and we hadn’t had any contact, so rather than carrying a hundred rounds they would leave one magazine home. And the next time they might say bugger it I’m going to take sixty this time. So the blokes themselves got slack.
They still had what they were supposed to have on them, but prior to that they might have had an extra forty or fifty rounds. And as it got slacker they would just leave them behind, put more food in or something.
As Long Tan got further away into the past, did this start to happen again?
No I don’t think so. I think it was a pretty good lesson learnt.
Particularly our blokes, they all kept their ammunition with them. You would often see when we were going out, blokes would be getting more, and after a while if you hadn’t used it you had to fire it off or dump it anyway. You didn’t want it going stale. Blokes were hard on themselves then.
So is there a use by date for ammunition?
I don’t know but they didn’t take the risk. The ammunition brass cases get a bit corroded and rather than risk a blockage it was better to have nice clean stuff.
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 08
We were talking a lot about patrols on the last tape, you mentioned being forward scout. What was it like taking this role?
It was …I didn’t actually mind it because you always knew what was going on.
When I was back in the rifle section, something might happen, you might hear a few shots fired and you had absolutely no idea and until the word came back you were in the dark. At least when you were at the front you had an idea what was going on. I didn’t really mind it.
How would you move in this role?
Pretty slowly. It would depend on the area. If you were in real thick bush, quite often it was hard. We
kept away from tracks as much as possible. Quite often you would make your own track. You made a lot of noise doing that so you knew you weren’t being too bloody quiet. Then other times you were in open country and you sort of had your heart in your mouth because you knew everyone could see you. So different country, different areas and it was just between you and the next bloke.
So you think about looking for movement and things out of the ordinary that you thought didn’t look natural and that sort of stuff. So you were always looking for something.
What about the effects of the potential extra danger?
We were always told that the forward scout was the first one they’d hit. And then later on they said well maybe not the forward scout. They may let him through and hit the next one behind.
I don’t think there were any real tactics. There may have been. We never ran into any problems like that. The forward scouts weren’t continually getting hit. Most of the time it was just random shots fired at you. Long Tan was a bit different for the forward scouts. There weren’t any forward scouts as we moved into the rubber. We were just spread out.
Describe some of the scenes you would come across as a forward scout? What evidence of the VC might you find?
Generally when you got close to a camp. They were pretty good at camouflage. So when you were getting close to an established camp you may find a bunker system. But if they had been away from that camp for a while, like it had been abandoned, their firing holes in the bunker system…they would normally be covered with leaves,
and if the camp had been abandoned then those leaves would have died or something like that. But if they were still in that camp which happened once I think, you don’t really see them until you’re onto them. So that gets a bit spooky then. I’ve gone past pits and then turned around to signal back that we’re
getting close to the camp, and you turn around and see the back of the pit. But there was no one there thank Christ. That sort of thing. When they were really well camouflaged, if they were in there, they’d have you before you knew. This particular day there were none there. They were long gone. You only see them if they want you to see them.
You might see other people and then you’d have to get the interpreter to tell them to get out of the road or question them to find out who they were or what they were doing there. If you were satisfied then you’d warn them to get out. They were probably there gathering intelligence anyway. Tell their mates, they saw an Australian patrol up the road. You can’t shoot everyone. So you’d see a lot of villagers.
Would you come across evidence of recent presence?
Yeah. Same thing. They would quite often hear you coming or know you were coming. They would have their early warning people out and they would know you were coming, or they might drop you in by helicopter and leave you in close proximity to a camp. So they would just go.
So you would go in there and quite often the ashes would still be warm and things left behind. Bits and pieces they had left behind, cooking utensils and stuff like that. In some of camps you’d find great caches of rice and salt and stuff like that. And literally tons of it. That would all be carted out and it was given to the villages I think. Then you’d find that and you’d get the APCs to come out,
and you’d load the APCs and away they’d go carrying it all back. But that was quite a lot of times that you’d find that.
When you travelled through and looked through these areas would you have to be extra careful about traps?
Yes generally if you knew they had just barely gone, it wasn’t a worry. Once again we never had much trouble with booby traps and that. You were always looking for them. The battalions that came after us, they had a lot of trouble with them.
We had on some odd occasions but not a lot. But going into an area you’re always spooked by booby traps.
How often would you be out on patrol, like how regular was it?
We were there twelve months and I reckon if you put every day together,
seven or eight months I suppose. You seemed to be out more than you were in. Even if you were only going out for the day. You might go out at first light and come back at three or four in the afternoon. A few operations were over a month in length, and generally when you went out you stayed out. There was none of this going out for two weeks and coming back for a break and going back out.
So I reckon you would be looking at well over seven months. Bear in mind too there were only the two Australian battalions there. And we had to share the wear. And it was a fair size area so between 5 Battalion and 6 Battalion there was always a presence in the bush. It was pretty hard on the manpower.
How stressful was this on the men?
You would get…sometimes you might just come back in. You might have been out for a week
and then the orders group in the morning would say that this afternoon we were going out to guard the guns that had gone out to protect someone else. We had only got back in and now we were going out again. But once again there was nothing you could do about it. There was no option. You didn’t go to the boss and tell him we didn’t want to go this time.
That just wasn’t an option. So you copped it sweet [accepted it].
What did you think of the leadership during your time?
I didn’t have a problem. Our major, he was a tough man and in his own way he was fair. That was what he put into us. We were recognised as the fittest company. He was an ex SAS [Special Air Services] officer and commando.
He made us do things other people wouldn’t do. When we were training in Brisbane, we would do extra runs. You might do a nine mile run on a Monday and then you’d have to do another five mile the next day. We went to go to Canungra on a Sunday morning and before we got on the bus we did a five mile run. We got to Canungra, had breakfast and then we got handed over to the Canungra training people. But that wasn’t good enough for him. So before
we had breakfast we would do a run. We were literally the fittest of the lot. So in Vietnam itself, when something had to be done quickly and someone to get from point A to point B, they always seemed to pick D Company because they knew we were the fittest. And it felt good. We were fit. But he wouldn’t take a risk either. If we came to a big paddy field and you could go straight across it in five minutes, we’d
spend an hour going around it rather than expose ourselves. And then sometimes, it happened once, we went out with a CMF [Citizens’ Military Forces] officer. He was over for a week to see Vietnam. Anyway we had him this day and we came to a paddy field and we said we’d go around this and he said, “No, straight across.” You were like a cat on a hot tin roof because you knew you shouldn’t be there. Our boss would say we were going around. We were not going to expose ourselves like that.
But he wanted to save time so we went straight across. Nothing happened, but it could have. Everything you did you could trust his judgement. We had real good leadership all the way down the line. Even the corporals. During the tour, blokes like us were made into lance corporals, corporals. It was good, your mate might all
of a sudden be a corporal trying to tell you what to do, and you’d tell him to go to buggery but you would still do it anyway. But everyone respected their leaders. That was part of the deal.
And what about the overall leadership, the general leadership, the generals. How did you feel about their planning?
I don’t know if they did much planning. I think they just stayed in Saigon. They would have got the intelligence reports
and the reports might have said there was enemy activity in so and so part, and then they’d give that the flick down to someone down at a lower level and it would go to the Task Force and all of a sudden it would come down to us. As far as organising the operations, I don’t think those big fellas had much to do with it. They would get a report and say, yeah we should do something about that. So they’d say to have an operation into that area and that would be their input.
Then they’d leave 6 Battalion’s intelligence people and the commanding officer to work out the details. They made sure that anywhere we went we had artillery cover and mortars. You never felt you were just thrown to the lions sort of thing. You didn’t feel you were out there without some support.
And being in the infantry, you were called grunts. How did you feel the other blokes…I forget their name, all the support staff?
We had support. Like our cooks and that they used to come out on patrol now and again. They would get bored staying around the camp. They were all trained as infantrymen, so quite often they would go to the OC and say what was the chance of going out. He might say we were going to so and so tomorrow for a week and if you want to go you can go with 9 Section or 10 Section.
There’s a bloke there going on leave and you can take his place for a couple of days. They would come. They didn’t hide in camp. You had what we called ‘the baseballers’. The mob down at Vung Tau. They were the ones who did most of the bloody talking and …they’re biggest problem would be getting a leave pass at night time to go for a night out. That was the biggest worry they had. So they seemed to be the ones doing all the bloody whingeing.
The ‘blanket counters’. All sorts of nicknames. They were the ones that the blokes in the battalion would have a go at. Most of them, even in the big operations, the battalion headquarters was in the bush too. So most of them would have spent time in the bush.
So was there a sense of disrespect for those guys who never got out in the bush?
I don’t know if it was disrespect or
…it was their job to do. They were there to do a job. I think it was just good natured ribbing. ‘You bastard. You can stay there and get tucked up in a nice warm bed every night with a cup of cocoa before you go to bed.’ But then you heard…some of the transport people down at Vung Tau, they’d do a convoy from Vung Tau up to Nui Dat. They would bring supplies up. You would see them on some TV
shows, they would always be under pressure and all this sort of thing. They were worried and nervous wrecks when they had to drive the trucks up the road. They always had APC convoys. They might do it once a month or something. Same thing again. That was their job. But there were a lot of them who just never, ever, ever left Vung Tau. They had a little security blanket. They would go out at night time and come home.
And after a heavy patrol, or even not a heavy one, just the stress of it, how would you unwind and relax?
We would get back. Every time you got back, by the time you had a shower and cleaned up and cleaned your weapon properly and did your laundry or whatever you had to do, orders group would come through later on that afternoon, and
they might say you had done a good job and everything was sweet. Then you’d have dinner and get on the grog. That would be it. You’d get down the boozer. Stagger back and go to bed. Towards the end, the latter stages, they had an open air movie and you’d have to walk through a pitch black rubber plantation for about five hundred metres, falling down pits and that and tripping over rocks and that. You would have to take your own chair.
The camp was completely blacked out. There was no lights showing at night time except for his movie thing which was right in the middle of the camp. But to get there it was pitch black. Some nights you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. So bugger it. I didn’t often go down there.
And would you drink a fair bit?
Yes you’d get there after dinner and probably booze around six.
The would close about nine. You’d sit there drinking, play darts and that sort of thing. That’s all you did.
Did you drinking increase once you were over there?
It probably did. When we were home in Australia we were playing football and cricket and working. I think the drinking age was twenty-one in those days. So you couldn’t drink unless you were twenty-one.
So we were all under age. So when you got in the army you had the army canteen going all the time, even in Australia, so yes you probably drank more. Probably more drinking.
And you talked about R&C at Vung Tau, but did you have any R&R [Rest and Recreation]?
Yes I went to Bangkok. Had five days there.
What did you get up to there?
Oh the same. Chasing women and bars. We got
there. Arrived at the airport. It was all Americanised. We went Pan Am. Once you walked in the place there were all these people trying to sign you up for tours, go and see this and that. We didn’t go on one of them. The first morning was the Floating Market and I woke up at about ten o’clock as crook as a dog [ill] and you read the itinerary.
The floating market tour leaves at five o’clock. We might not have gone to bed. And one by one we ended up missing all the tours because we were out drinking or tearing around the place. We had a taxi driver and he used to drive us everywhere. Anyway he would pick us up in the morning and take us to a Thai boxing match. The tourist things…the boxing matches, were all bunged on for the tourists. But he would take us to the proper Thai boxing. Then the same thing, we’d come back for a shower and a shave and off to the bars.
But in those days Bangkok was beautiful. It was the cleanest city in the Orient. There was not a thing out of place. But now it’s a brothel. But in those days it was spotless. The best spot to go to.
What were the bars like there?
As good as anywhere. The bloke I went with was an Aboriginal fella. Basically R&R was an American thing and ninety five per cent of people you ran into were Yanks. So we would go to the bars and sit there and drink together, and the Yanks couldn’t believe a black man and a white man were drinking together.
These white Yanks would walk over and say, “What are you doing drinking with a darkie?” And then later a big black coon [African American] would come over and say, “Hey buddie, why you drinking with this white fella?”
They just could not accept we were mates. That we were drinking together and sticking together. With the Yanks the whites were there and the blacks were there. Never any thought, even on leave of going together. They were dumbstruck that we were such good mates and we kept together. The way they looked at us.
That was the American way.
Tell us about your mate?
He was a regular solider. He got transferred into the company. He was one of the reinforcements I think. He just happened to end up with us. He’s living up in Rockhampton now.
What were you drinking in these bars?
I can’t remember. Mainly beer. I was never a big
spirit drinker. Mainly beer. In Thailand I think we drank the local whatever it was. In the camp we just drank what we could get.
Were there girls in these bars?
Yes, but they were a bit classier than the ones in Vietnam.
What were they like exactly?
A lot of them were…crossbreeds. They weren’t just pure Asians. I don’t know what cross breed they were but they were a lot more attractive and you could talk to them, have a conversation with them. They were good.
Did you go with any of these girls?
Was it nice to see women after all this time?
Yes. Someone you could talk to yes.
Yes we did some shopping. I got a Thai silk suit made. I was all done up like a sore toe. It didn’t cost much in those days, but by the time I got back to Australia, within a month I had put weight on. Even when I got back to Vietnam it just went in the kit bag and went mouldy, and when I got home it didn’t fit me anyway so I threw it out. But I spent a lot of money there on different things mainly grog.
I think I bought Glenda some Thai silk or something, and the brother and sister a ring each and I ended up with nothing. I came home from Vietnam with nothing.
After R&R was it hard to return back to the grindstone?
No. The same old thing. It was sort of inbred into your head that no matter where you had been or what you had done, you were going back there anyway. Some blokes went back to Australia on leave. That would be hard.
I don’t think I would want to come back if I had come back over here. It would be easy to shoot through in Australia. Over there you had a chance to see a different country anyway.
Well, did you think of going back to Australia?
When we were there we didn’t have the option. We had, Singapore, Bangkok…another place. And even then when it was your turn to go they’d say,
“You’re off to Singapore or Bangkok. They’re the only ones open.” So you just took what you could get.
And when did you feel it was coming close to an end, or did you start to count the days?
Yes, they had a sort of countdown ritual there. Thirty days and a wake up, twenty nine days and a wake up. Every morning someone would scream out, twenty eight days and a wake up. And then the last
week or so we were being relieved by 2 Battalion and their advance party arrived and the last week or two, that advance party did all the night guards. So we didn’t do any more patrols and no more night guard. So the last week or so we just calmed down. We just came down and getting rid of stuff we weren’t taking home and just keeping what we had to keep for the period we were there.
It was just admin [administration] sort of thing. We were playing up like crazy as much as we could.
As you came close to the end of your tour, did you think more about your mortality?
Yeah. The last few months you thought a lot more about it. The last couple of weeks we weren’t going out anyway. But yes towards the last few months you’d think, Christ I’ve been here nine months now and they might you’re going out to this area tomorrow and that’s when you start thinking
is that a good area or a bad area whereas before it would be righto. And you would try and work out what had happened there before. But that came and went.
As reinforcements came through, did you notice something about the way they looked which was different to …
Yeah you’d look at them and think fresh faced young blokes. A lot of the reinforcements that were coming through were Nashos [National Servicemen] too.
And they would just hit the place. Go to Vung Tau for a while and then up to Nui Dat for a few days. They were handed out to different units then. But they came in looking exactly like what we did when we came in. Apprehensive and carrying the kit bag and looking around. Then you think you lucky bastards, you’re walking into a camp with tents and a proper boozer and a proper canteen.
Floorboards to walk on. They all mixed in over a period of time. The sort of got to a stage where for an initial period they kept to themselves, but then after a while they mixed in with everyone. They had to. You’d get them in your section. So once you got to know them or they got to know you it was right. It just seemed that the blokes who had been there a full tour stuck together a lot more.
When you worked out over the last twelve months, the ones who were killed and wounded, or gone home for other reasons, there weren’t too many who had started it all off. I think out of our platoon of thirty blokes there was seven or eight who had came home together. That sort of little group sort of stuck together a lot more.
How did it affect your morale with so many not being around?
The less that
were there the more we stuck together. But the last few months, I don’t think we lost any more. That was good. Other companies were still having hits and we were lucky.
Did these new blokes look really green [naïve]?
Oh yes. They were looking green and probably feeling green. Then you think I was like that I suppose.
They mixed in quick.
Did you give them any ribbing [teasing]?
No. Just welcome boys. Good luck.
So tell us about the wind up to your tour?
We had a few party nights down at the canteen and that. The 2 Battalion fellas took over all the work. A couple of times
blokes were letting flares off up and down the road. That wasn’t real popular. We got into a bit of trouble for that. During the day, blokes would talk about what they were going to do when they got home. When they got out of the place. I don’t really remember much of what we were doing during the day. We sent a truck down to one of the local villages to buy a suitcase each to put our gear in.
By the time you got your gear in and picked it up the handle would fall off. It was just cheap garbage. When we came home we had to march through Brisbane. We got off the boat and marched through Brisbane, and the army couldn’t supply the campaign ribbons. So they actually went to Ba Ria and bought Australian ribbons for us to wear. The army orderly people had to go to the local
noggie village to buy our ribbons to march through Brisbane in. They couldn’t supply them. So they went to a Vietnamese town to buy our campaign ribbons. Crazy.
Tell us about that final day?
We just woke up in the morning. I don’t think anyone had breakfast. We came home on the aircraft carrier, the [HMAS] Sydney. It must have been mid morning and we were to be flown by helicopter from Nui Dat straight out to the ship. These big Chinooks [helicopters] arrived and we were loaded on them.
You had your rifle and all dressed up in nice new greens and your suitcase without the bloody handle with everything you owned in it and you marched up this gangplank in this bloody thing and before they pull the gangplank up at the back you looked out and you could see all these poor buggers. Like the reinforcements arrived and they stayed with 2 Battalion.
They became attached to them. Blokes who had arrived say two months before they had to stay and do the twelve month tour. So you’d see all these bloody forlorn looking faces and you lifted up and the higher you got the more complete picture you got. And you thought, “Thank Christ I’m out of this place.” On to the aircraft carrier and the old Chinooks started coming down onto the deck.
And then we said, “We’re right now. We’re out of this now.” And that’s when you thought, you beauty. And a couple of sailors came and showed you where your bunks were for the trip. That was the best feeling you could ever get I think. They had a certain time to get from there to Australia because the march was organised for a certain date. They had good weather and they had to waste time.
You could look out the back of the ship and see great half circles where it was just going around in circles to fill in time. So for twelve months all we wanted to do was get home and here they were wasting time. Then they got you up trying to fill in the time. They’d take you down the back and we would shoot at balloons. You weren’t bored because you were happy enough to get out of the place, but they would make up things for you to do.
Have a boxing match with the navy or something. Right, I’ve been here for twelve months and now I’ve got some young fit navy bloke who wants to punch my head in. So the blokes didn’t want to get involved in any of that. If you went and shot at balloons then you had to go and spend half an hour cleaning your rifle. You got a can of beer and a soft drink each on the way home. You know those big cans. Tooheys or something. But there was always something who wanted the soft drink so you’d end up with two cans of beer.
You had to drink them. You couldn’t hold onto them. So by the time you got to the second one it was probably hot anyway. So sometimes you would have three or four cans and you’d end up full anyway. But every day you wanted for the time that the beer ration came out. Then you’d get as many beers as you could. Then that’s right, we pulled into Lizard Island on the way home and we had to paint the side of the ship that was going to be against the wharf in Brisbane so it would look nice.
So they said if we wanted to get over the side and help the sailors paint the ship we could do that. So we were in the middle of the bay of Lizard Island painting the ship. But things like that were just a waste of time. And I think that night up there; one of the nights on Lizard Island we had fresh fish. They sent a rubber duckie out with some navy blokes and with a demolition charge…they would be in gaol if they tried that now.
So we had nice fresh fish that night.
Can you tell us what it was like coming in?
We came up the Brisbane River. We got to Morton Bay that night, anchored overnight and in the morning, we all had another set of fresh starched greens because we were going to march through town. We had a nice new hat and we looked a million dollars.
A certain stage up the river they told us to go and get changed. So we went down and got on our new gear and threw our old gear overboard. We lined up and all the welcoming families were there and a lot of the blokes who had been wounded were there too waiting for us. That was good. Then we went by trucks to a certain area and then marched through town. In those days there was a lot of people there. A lot of the marches weren’t really well accepted, but we had no problems.
So we marched through town up to an area where the parkland is now. They took us out to Enoggera. We handed in the rifles and the other stuff they were going to take off us and said well off you go, come back tomorrow. Went back probably ten o’clock in the morning and we were out of the army by mid day and that was it.
There was no how are you feeling or debriefing. No such thing as counselling in those days. “Here sign this. Here’s your final pay. Do you agree with this, sign that. Go.” We just walked back in the morning in civilian clothes I think and in two hours we were out of the army. Back to civvy [civilian] life.
What effect did this have on you?
At the time
we thought ‘This was great, we’re out of here. No one’s going to tell us what to do.’ But over the years you think, the bastards. They dragged us home one day and when they had had enough of us, the said get out of here. They gave you a rough medical and dental. You had to be medically clear. That was the same as when you went in. So long as you were breathing you were all right. I think I had a month off and then I went back to work.
How did you settle back into work?
I don’t think I ever settled back properly. In those days it was formal banks and public servants and everything was yes sir no sir. Anyone senior to you had to be Mr this or Mr that. So it was pretty hard to accept that. We came back from what we had been doing and this bloke might be five years older than you and he was trying to tell you to clean his inkwell or something or pick up those drawing pins for me.
So I had a few run ins [arguments]. And then they sent us down to Sydney for a reintroduction to the bank. We were stuck in a boarding house somewhere and it turned out to be two weeks on the grog. They were supposed to fit you back into the bank system and what had changed while we had been away. And the managing director of the bank at the time gave an order that we weren’t to be given any homework and
all this sort of stuff. But it bloody backfired on him because we didn’t do anything. By the time we got there in the morning we were hung-over anyway and we couldn’t wait to get out in the afternoon. We would get on the grog at lunchtime and have a session and go to sleep during the day sometime. It was a waste of time. I think after a few courses they changed it to one week and it got more formal.
But basically, you had to go back to the job you had before. And the job I had was in a development bank. It was a pretty good job. What I was doing there was getting up the ladder a bit. Anyway they had to take me back there but there was nothing to say they had to leave me there, so I only lasted about three months and they transferred me out of there. So I went around to a few branches in Brisbane. I never really got transferred out of Brisbane.
But for the last twelve years I was do relieving work around the countryside. Relieving people on holidays and sickness and that sort of stuff. I didn’t mind doing it because I didn’t want to be tied down to one office.
What did you think of people’s attitudes, having been in a war situation? What did you think…
There were a lot of blokes in the bank who had been through the Second World War.
And they were the blokes who sort of put their arm around you and looked after you. If some blokes stirred you up they would say, ‘Look just cop it.’ They would grab you and say, ‘Don’t let him stir you up.’
And those sorts of blokes kept their eye out for you. But you also had the little upstarts who wanted to give you a hard time. So they had to balance it out. Overall…I had a lot of good mates in the bank but there were a lot of idiots too.
And what about just fitting into society after being in a life and death situation?
It was hard.
You’d say to people, “If that’s your biggest worry you haven’t got a worry.” They’d say, “Oh we’ve got to balance this, it’s two cents out.” I’d say, “Don’t worry. It’ll balance tomorrow. Don’t worry about it.” It was hard to put it into perspective. That was the bank. They had their rules too. So I would say go to buggery. And every year they’d do a report on you and they’d say this is going to come up in your report. You’re going to be in trouble.
That was their only threat. That was all they could do to you, give you a bad report. And quite often they did but you couldn’t do anything to them. You couldn’t challenge your report, well you could but they didn’t take any notice of you. You’d go to the manager and say, “Sir, this is rubbish.” And he would say, “I can’t talk him into changing what he’s said.”
Interviewee: John Heslewood Archive ID 1749 Tape 09
What kind of contact did you keep with your mates from Vietnam?
Initially we decided we would have a get-together the last Friday of every month. We used to get about ten or twelve turn up for that. Then ten years after we got home a couple of blokes decided we would start an association.
So a few of the sergeants and a couple of the other blokes got their heads together one day and it was a matter of getting around to the blokes and asking who had so and so’s address and so and so’s address. So we ended up building up a good mailing list. We’ve got about a hundred and fifty members now. It’s called the Long Tan Veterans’ Association. It’s not everyone who was at Long Tan but everyone who served with D Company on the first tour, ’66 to ’67.
And all the reinforcements that came and went and family of the fellas that didn’t make it and that. So yeah, over a hundred and fifty members. We’ve got no strict rules. No membership fees. They make a donation when they’ve got money. We get a donation off the government when we have a five yearly reunion. Every year, we still keep in contact with the army, D Company 6RAR [Royal Australian Regiment] which is still based at Enoggera. Every year we have a reunion
and mainly it’s blokes in Southern Queensland and New South Wales that come to that. But we always get twenty or thirty and then every fifth year that’s when we have a big one with wives and families and kids and that. We have a hundred and fifty to hundred and eighty people to that one. Everyone looks forward to that. Some blokes can’t afford to come every year. Some come every second year, some every five years. I’m the president of it.
So we meet every three or four months and I ring blokes up and say to someone give us a page of your life. So with letters from blokes I just make up a newsletter of what’s going on. It might be something about a bloke who might be crook. Some blokes might go on camping holidays. Someone might be going from Brisbane to Darwin so how many of our blokes are in the towns in between.
Who lives where? Give us your address. So everyone still kicks in. Yeah, it’s good.
How important in the first few years when you were first back from Vietnam were your friends to you?
Everyone made a point of it. We weren’t cast adrift or anything but you just had that feeling that you weren’t sort of mixing back in with the locals.
It wasn’t an obvious thing but I didn’t feel all that bloody comfortable going back to the bank and the way the bank operated. You had that little rebellious thing in you. I wasn’t looking for fights but I didn’t want to back down to people.
What was it in you that you think had changed?
Just a different outlook on life. Like when you’re in the bank the worst thing that can happen to you is you might get the measles or something, or put a stapler through your finger. You might have been two years of this and been through more than most people will ever see, and you come back and you’ve got these people with these little problems because the account is not balancing. A lady had lost two bob out of her money box or something. I would
think, ‘That’s not a problem. I don’t want to know about that.’ And a lot of little things like that kept building up.
What kind of response did they create in you?
You’d feel like blowing up but then you’d think what’s the use. There’s a bloke, he actually plays bowls up here now, he was one of the bosses in there. One day he said to me, “John I want you to do this…” And I said, “Righto mate.” And he said, “You will call me Sir or Mr.”
So I said, “You can go and…” And he said, “Right that’s it.” He went to the state manager but the state manager at the time was a RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] guy anyway and he listened to this guy going off his brain and the bloke went out and he said, “Thank you.” And then he grabbed me and he said, “Mate I know what you’re up against. Don’t worry about it. Just try and give him some respect. I’ll tell him that you’ve been reprimanded. Just try and put up with it.”
So I said, “Fair enough, thanks very much.” Little men trying to push themselves on you. Little insignificant people. Like the older blokes you knew had been through the mill themselves you copped them well, but these little insignificant middle managers that would try and make it hard for you. Whether they purposely did or …probably a lot of them did because they wanted to get it across to you that just because you were in the army didn’t mean you were any better than any one else.
So a fair bit of that went on.
And given the fact that Long Tan had been covered in the papers, were many people aware that that’s what you had been through?
Yes most of the work mates. Early on in the first few years when I went to different branches. And they would ask where I had been and I would say I’ve had two years here; two years there and I had a couple of years in the army. You would say, I was at Long Tan
but some blokes knew but there was no dramas. Yeah, the first few years they all appreciated it and give you a pat on the back and that sort of stuff. But as the years went on you didn’t advertise it. They knew you had been in the army and that was it.
Would they ask you questions about what had happened?
Some did. Not probing sort of questions. They would just say, “What was it like, no worries now?” And I would just say, ‘No it’s all right.”
Blokes who you knew well, good mates. You would tell them a bit more. But most of them wouldn’t probe too much.
How closely did you follow what was going on in Vietnam after you came back?
Pretty closely because I knew the blokes who had stayed behind, the ones who had joined us. And Glenda’s brother-in-law went across after we went. So you seemed to know someone who knew someone or who had a brother.
So yes every day in the papers there was always something about Vietnam. I would say, “Yeah I know that battalion.” and then they might say an area of contact. I would think, “Shit, I’ve been there.” It all comes back.
What did you think when things like the moratorium was in place and these big anti Vietnam protests?
We were all pretty dirty on it. What got us was the Australian wharfies [wharf labourers]. They were the great Labor men, and the Labor man helped the little man and all this sort of stuff. And they refused to load a ship that was sending supplies to us. Our only supplies came to Australia and we ended up having to bum it off the yanks because
the wharfies wouldn’t allow the supply ships to be loaded. And I thought well these are such good bloody Australians and working for the Australian way of life and there were a couple of thousand Australian blokes over there basically without ammunition. The Yanks supplied us. There was no risk of ever running out. It had to come from the Yanks while the great bloody wharfies were bunging on a turn [demonstrating] in Australia. That was one of the hardest things I found to accept. I had always been a Labor bloke,
and the blokes where I eventually started drinking every night in Brisbane, they were all wharfies and even before I went away I knew them, and before I went away it was “You’ll be right John.” Then when we came home we had a few good natured banters. “You left us high and dry, you wouldn’t load the ships.” “We were trying to get our message across.” “But it didn’t help us.” They wouldn’t give in. They were strict in their minds
that they were right. You could never change their minds. That was their way.
What did you think about the general situation in Vietnam as the war was progressing?
We were in a little cocoon there. We didn’t even know what the Yanks were doing and our government. Not until we got home and we could read about things, like the corruption in the government and then you started to realise it was a no win situation.
But when we were there we had no indication of what was going on.
Did you support the Australian troops being withdrawn?
Oh yes. As I said before you weren’t achieving anything. The quicker we got out the better. We were just going out into the bush and getting belted, and we achieved nothing because we knew that area we just walked out of was still in enemy hands.
It was just a no win situation and in the meantime you were losing people. So the quicker they got them out the better. It was still basically the end of the war when they brought them out, ’72 or something when the last one’s left. There was no great early withdrawal really.
What do you remember about hearing of the fall of Saigon?
Not too clearly. I remember the build up to it, but nothing sort of dramatic. Mainly the Yanks getting their people out and getting them onto ships and destroying what they could destroy before they left. Landing on ships and pushing helicopters over the side. All that stuff. Nothing about the build up to. It just sort of happened overnight.
The build up to it was probably over a couple of days. All of a sudden it was on and they were knocking the gates down. They were probably building up for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was just too easy for them when they were ready.
Did you feel any sense of anti climax or anything? When the Communists took over?
I don’t think so. It was probably always going to happen. Once you got back to Australia and you read more about it and you thought more about it, you knew it was going to happen eventually. You knew you were achieving nothing. You knew the Yanks weren’t achieving anything. Their idea was to put more and more men in, more and more firepower in, and they were losing more men every day of the week. They weren’t achieving anything. It was just inevitable that it was going to happen.
So it happened. All over red rover.
When you read things about Vietnam for example at the end of the war, would it bring back any particular memories for you?
No I was just glad we were getting out, and I would think at least those blokes are getting out of the place while they still could.
And over the years since then have there been times when the memories of Vietnam have come back? Nightmares or sleeplessness?
Not so much nightmares. There probably wouldn’t be a day go by when you wouldn’t think of some part of it.
You might wake up in the morning, and whether you’re dreaming about it or whether it’s in your subconscious, for some reason it’s there. You tend to think of the funny things that happened rather than the bad things. But it would hardly be a day goes by when you wouldn’t think of something about Vietnam. We have these reunions. There are actually six of us on
Bribie [Island] who were in D Company at the time. We don’t stick in each others pockets or that but a couple of us play golf, a couple of us play bowls and generally we see each other pretty regularly. But any time, over a drink and you start talking about it; you talk about the funny things. All the stupid things. You don’t talk about blokes getting wounded and killed. And even when we have these big reunions, fifty or sixty blokes drinking and running around,
we have tears in our eyes laughing, but it’s not a joke but something that happened to one of their mates. Stupid things that happened. They’re not crying about things. They’re laughing at each other. So everyone has their thoughts on some of the things that happened. The bad things and sad things you block them out. You probably think of them personally, but when we’re together we just talk about the good stuff.
Have some of the bad things affected you personally over the years?
Yeah, I got a bit of that PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] thing. But for a long, long time you deny you’ve got it. But your whole lifestyle changes. I used to be full on with football and going to cricket and then I stopped going to football and couldn’t be bothered. Then I went to have some counselling
and they gave me this thing to read, ‘Does this apply to you?’ There’s things like public spaces. When you get in a train…I used to catch a train to work every day. I would get on at a station and if there was a seat midway down the carriage, one spare seat, I wouldn’t go there, I would stand up. I would rather stand up by myself in the middle, rather than get amongst all those people. ‘Do you still attend sporting events?’ No I don’t.
And other little things and it was saying that was me. They would say, ‘If you go to a restaurant, where do you sit?’ And I’d say, “I like to be near the door.” And Glenda would say that’s what I do. Can’t stand certain conversations. Certain people you don’t respect or you don’t like, you can’t stand making small talk with them.
That sort of stuff. So that’s probably the flow back to it. I think with our group it’s helped a lot of blokes. If you’ve got a problem I might ring up a mate down the road and say, “Let’s go and have a talk.” “Yeah, no worries.” The worst blokes are in small country towns, they’ve got no one to talk to and can’t, often their wife will ring up and say, “Can you have a talk to so and so?” So you might talk for an hour on the phone some times.
They just want someone to talk to who they know has been through the same thing they have. It’s no good talking to their mates in the pub, they couldn’t care less. This association over all has helped a lot of blokes like that.
What sort of things were happening to you to make you think you needed to go to counselling?
A lot of short temperedness with Glenda and my son. I just couldn’t stand discussing things. It was either my way or no way.
You’re all wrong and that’s it. And over a period of years, it didn’t happen overnight, I thought maybe Glenda was right and you knew yourself you were wrong but you just couldn’t adjust. So yes there was one way of doing things, I’m right, you’re wrong.
What made you lead that back to any thing to do with your wartime service?
you start talking to these so called experts, you got the common things connected with PTSD. They reckon it takes twenty years to come through sometimes. So in the meantime, there’s little incidents that you don’t relate to anything, and you think “Oh that’s just me. I’ve been on the drink. I’m getting a bad temper.” but when they explain it to you that’s the start of it.
And over a period of time it just boils up. But early on none of my mates would accept that that’s what they had. Then apparently, they’re all getting treatment for it. But once they’re sort of retired they’re a lot better off too. We had this problem with people in the workforce. Same as the bank. They all had their little things, different people and you just could accept people you didn’t like.
You just didn’t like them and that was it.
And is there anything that especially brings back memories for you?
Helicopters. They were the lifeline the helicopters and they’re always flying around here for different things, tourists. So every time I see a helicopter I automatically think of helicopters over there. You would often go out by helicopter or come back into camp by helicopter.
Sometimes you would be out in the scrub for a month and then you’d hear the helicopters coming and you’d say, “You beauty, here they come” And the spot would be getting closer and then into them and off you’d go. You felt pretty safe.
So is it a good sound to hear?
Yeah. That was the expression, “Here come the choppers.” And even now
I might be outside and Glenda will say, “Here come the choppers.” And that’s what you automatically think of.
What do you think about the representation of Vietnam in films?
I haven’t seen all that many of them. We got invited to that Platoon when it first came out years ago. I reckon…that was supposed to be the closest thing to the real thing, but it was all Americanised. So I wasn’t too wrapped in that. One of our blokes
has written a book. Terry Burstall, they were trying to get a film out of that. But I think it’s all too hard. To get a film on his book they had to change it too much to make it more attractive. They had to spread the truth a bit more and throw in things that didn’t happen to make it more popular. So Terry said
if they’re not going to show the true story don’t bother doing it. A few different groups have tried to do a film on Long Tan and it just never happens and what, it’s now thirty-five years on. There’s other movies and it just doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t sound the same. The shots don’t sound the same. It just seems false.
It doesn’t matter how well they try or how good the actors are, for someone who’s been there it just looks false. The uniforms don’t…you just think it doesn’t look right. You’re looking for faults too I suppose. I just never seems to work out.
And are there any particular songs that you hear that are really reminiscent of your time in Vietnam?
All the songs…they’re all probably oldies now.
‘We’ve got to get out of this place.’ Our company, as I told you were always doing extra work, more running and more walking and everything, our emblem was a pair of army boots in a triangle. It turned out that Nancy Sinatra used that at the time for ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’. So that became the D Company song.
So everyone was always playing that song. That’s all we heard. So now every time we have our reunion, every year, the boot song goes on. So we’re known as the Boots Company. I can’t remember the rest of them. The blokes used to go on leave and they’d buy these big reel to reel tape recorders.
There was always something blasting around the place.
And when you look back over the year you spent in Vietnam, how do you think it changed you as a person?
It’s hard to say. Probably toughened my outlook on life. It probably made me think more of other people.
Overall thoughts on the world. It definitely toughened my outlook and how I thought of different things. You had
more direct thoughts on things. You wouldn’t say maybe yes, maybe no. You’d be definite. You had to make quick decisions and it taught you that you made a decision so you stuck to it. No in betweens.
What would you sum up as your worst experience from Vietnam?
I don’t know about Long Tan. That was an ongoing thing. The mine incident. That was from me to the door away, and it was a terrible mess. Some blokes got blown in half. That was probably one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen. Whereas Long Tan was ongoing. So the mine was the worst thing I’ve seen. A split second sort of thing.
That rings a bell all the time.
And how about a best memory?
Once again, just the funny things, the mateship. We always found something to laugh at. You think of things and someone would come up with something stupid and all of a sudden you’re laughing again. So it’s just the way things happen. Always something to have a giggle at.
One night there it rained all day and you’d just get dry and then you’d be wet again and I did an early gun picquet. I think I was finished by about ten o’clock. We had these sort of silk sleeping bags…they weren’t sleeping bags, they were just something you pulled up over yourself. They were pretty warm and I said “Bugger this.” I was wet and miserable so
I was in the raw [naked]. Took everything off, boots and all. And I got nice and warm and the next minute someone started to shoot. Oh Christ! Do I jump out and get dressed or just hope it’s just going away? As it was, someone fired his gun by accident. So I was running around trying to get my boots on. Stupid things like that. I said “Bugger it. I’ve had a gut full today. I’ve been wet and dried twenty times and now I’m just going to get nice and warm.
So I’m going to relax.” It wouldn’t have been and hour and ‘bang.’ That sort of stuff. Blokes would say, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night.” and they would come up with a story.
Do you feel part of the Anzac tradition?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve never…the only time I’ve been involved in Anzac Day
is when we started this RSL club out at Fraser Island six years ago. But up until then I never got involved with marches or anything. I just didn’t feel involved with it at all. We had one experience when we came back from Vietnam. We got discharged and the blokes who had to go down to Melbourne and Sydney, their train didn’t leave until that night, so we said “We’ll go down to the RSL.”
We were in civvies but these blokes were still in uniform. And they wouldn’t let us in. These blokes in uniform said, “We’ve just come back from Vietnam.” and they said we couldn’t come in. We weren’t welcome. And so we said, “Jam your club.” We go to the RSL for their dos [functionc], but none of us…a lot of us lived in the same general area and we just wouldn’t go near the place. But that was the attitude of the time.
Vietnam wasn’t accepted. So we said they could jam their RSL, jam the lot of it. These blokes were in uniform, we were in civvies and we weren’t welcome. So we went and had a few drinks before they caught the train back to Sydney. I don’t know if it’s happened in other places, but that’s something that’s stuck in my mind. And whether that affected me…I never joined an RSL until we kicked that off. So that’s only five years since I’ve been in an RSL as a member.
That’s the only thing.
Do you think having spent your time in the infantry that there’s something specific or something particular to an infantryman, certain qualities?
Maybe you like to think there was but when you did your homework…
everyone had their own ideas, the APC fellas and the artillery fellas. You like to think you did a better job or a harder job.
Do you think that the training that was given in the infantry created certain qualities?
Yes you sort of turn into a jack of all trades. Even though I was a rifleman, I could pick up a machine gun and handle it as well as he could. All the way through to a medic job, giving needles if I had to.
Put a drip in if I had to. Everyone could do everything. You felt you were fully trained with everything. Everything was intermixed. Including the medical stuff. Everyone had to help each other if they had to. So you thought you had every possible bit of training covered. But the other mobs would have done the same thing.
We walked and they rode.
As we come towards the end of this tape, are there any final words that you’d like to say to sum up?
I don’t know a bloke who says he’s sorry it happened. We shouldn’t have done it. People accepted it.
Most of them will say there should still be some sort of national service training. We probably wouldn’t wish they would be put into the situation we were put into, but that was done for a reason and it was all political. But national service should be still part of life. They talk about whether it’s good or bad. There’s a generation coming through that have never suffered hardship. If they have an accident in the school ground they get counselled.
Every time you pick up a paper someone is getting counselled for something. It’s a new generation. And there’s a generation of softies coming through. It’s there for the taking and you don’t have to give anything to get anything. But none of the blokes from the army I’ve ever mixed with have said I’m sorry we went. There’s blokes I know who got called up and who never left Australia. I think it would have been more boring sticking around Australia for two years. You might be a Brisbane person stuck in Melbourne for two years.
So overall I don’t think it does any harm. It’s just one of those things. I don’t think the government is game enough to bring in national service again.
Do you think they should?
I think they should. But it’s not socially acceptable any more to force people to do national service training. And they’ve
got the cost involved and they’ve got the training involved. And people are getting out of the army at a pretty quick rate. Senior people.
Why do you think it’s important?
You have to…well not so much defend yourself. That doesn’t really come into it. But it give you a bit of character and you learn a bit about life.
Character building. You see the other side of the fence. Like in a protected bank clerk’s job, you go to work in the morning and come home in the afternoon and go to squash at night. And you get a different lifestyle for a while and learn how other people are doing it. That’s about it.