Archive number: 2557
Date interviewed: 15 May, 2000
You are listening to the interview audio
NB. This transcript is of an interview filmed for the television series, Australians at War in 1999-2000. It was incorporated into the Archive in 2008.
The first I became aware of the army was when my uncle went to Korea and he left his uniform hanging in my wardrobe as a young kid, and I was very much taken with the uniform and the military in general. I thought it was very
exciting stuff and he used to send back photos from Korea and from Japan when he went on leave. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was to have a big impact on my later life. My first job was to go in and work for Coles [department store] and I spent several years doing that and it wasn’t until in 1961 when there was a credit squeeze, that I got moved out to a store and became disgruntled with that. So I went off and actually joined the army,
and to me, infantry was what army was all about, so despite the other choices being available for other corp,s I went straight into infantry and I served for a couple of years as a soldier before being selected to go off to officer training. In early 1965 I came to back to the 1st Battalion [1RAR] where I’d been a soldier, this time as a second lieutenant and I spent several months with them
before changing units during a reorganisation and then just a matter of days before the 1st Battalion sailed, or elements of them sailed, on the HMAS Sydney to go to Vietnam, I was moved back into B Company of the 1st Battalion. At that time we had very little idea of what to expect about South East Asia and most of us had no idea where Vietnam was at all. We had heard on the news
Bob Menzies, the Prime Minister at the time, talking about the Communist threat and why the troops were being committed, and that had been reinforced in lectures and briefings that we had in the months leading up, most of which I’d missed out on, so I had a very hurried introduction to my unit and we set off on the Sydney in May 1965.
We arrived in Vietnam on 6th June 1965. We were on board the HMAS Sydney and we arrived off Cape St. Jacques, which the Australians later came to know as Vung Tau, and the first thing that impressed us was the humidity, the smells that came wafting on board the ship from the Vietnamese villages and the countryside. And within a few hours
we were unloaded, we were waiting on an airstrip and herded onto a C130 Hercules aircraft, actually totally packed into an aircraft, way overloaded by our standards, and we flew up to Bien Hoa and when we arrived there we were expecting a huge airport, lots of jet aircraft, but we were quickly ferried away from that and up onto a hill in the north eastern corner of the air base. We were
ferried around in cattle trucks. There were a lot of funny jokes going around about how much they appreciated us, transporting us like that, and then we settled into our battalion area which was a very large, open area. Off to our left there was a huge rubber tree plantation and an American parachute battalion had occupied that, and over to our right there was another American parachute battalion
and that was set up also in the open but it was, had a huge earthen mound around it, big square-shaped camp with long barrack tents. And we had somehow expected that we might have something similar, but we were set out on the ground in a tactical formation, in amongst knee-high rubber tree stumps. It had been an old rubber plantation and these trees had been cut down.
So in grass that was about thigh high, in amongst these rubber tree stumps, we set about digging in, expecting that this might be an avenue along which the Vietnamese enemy might attack the air base and so we had a very unreal arrival in heavy monsoon rains. We were told to put up our tents. There were no sticks, nothing to hang the tents on
so a lot of the soldiers and myself included, ended up putting bayonets on our weapons, turning them upside down and driving them into the rubber tree stumps and then erecting our tents between those, and of course that was only good at night because in the day we needed our weapons back to go on fighting. So it wasn’t at all as we expected. Our thoughts were that we might have been in a more permanent camp and as time wore on, we
progressively put out barbed wire entanglements and then mines and so forth, around to our front and we patrolled out from there. But the camp really was one of undergoing a constant, constant rebuilding and moving because we spent so much time out on operations. Our initial recollections, or my initial recollection of meetings with the Americans were that whereas we were dressed in very drab, baggy greens,
and the Americans were very smartly turned out, almost as though they were ready to go on to a parade at any time. Their uniforms were starched. They had very gaudy red, white and blue badges on their shoulders. They marched smartly around the place. They saluted their officers whereas our troops when they arrived were very typically I guess what people could expect of Australian troops in any
theatre of war that you might see, where they were very relaxed and prepared at any time to go into action and that was quite a contrast. Our recollections of the Americans will stick with us for a great number of years, but I think the most startling thing was the way the Americans conducted themselves on patrols, because within a few days of arriving we were sent out in
small groups with the Americans to become familiar with how they conducted their ambushes and their patrols out from the base. And we were absolutely terrified to be moving along with a large group of Americans with their rifles over their shoulders, talking, some with radios playing as they went out, and they would wander off into the night and set up their ambushes or their listening patrols and we would have to try to settle down and anxiously wait out the night with them, hoping
all the time that nothing would actually come along and cause them to go into action because we didn’t know where we fitted in or how we would react with the way that they fought. Very quickly however, we then settled into our own way of operating and we went about our patrols in a far more cautious and, a way that had been practised and put into operations in Malaya and in Borneo
in the years before us and passed on to us through our experienced officers and especially the NCOs and the sergeants who really provided at that stage, the backbone and the steadiness behind the young soldiers and particularly a person like myself, a very young officer at the time. They were very instrumental in us getting through those early days of acclimatising to the heat and the humidity
and getting out on the operations and settling in, in a way that didn’t expose our soldiers to undue threats or dangerous activities, having people going off too excitedly with their weapons and so on.
Before we left Australia we were aware that we had been struggling for some time to get new equipment for our battalion and the quartermaster of the battalion had great difficulty getting enough stocks to go overseas on operations. We arrived in Vietnam with World War II old machine carbines, the Owen gun of the Papua New Guinea
campaign and the SLR rifle. Within just a few months we had to take on about seven new weapons that the Americans had and that were in the later, latter time … later months, would become quite vital to our operations. We were given a new type of grenade, much smaller and lighter than the one that we’d used in Australia and which
was a Second World War type of grenade. We were given a grenade launcher that would project a small, egg-shaped grenade hundreds of metres, and we were given a light anti-tank weapon which was extendable and virtually a throwaway, typical American throwaway type item that we could use against bunkers. And we had to train with these and get familiar with their use and then incorporate them into our operating habits so that we
could use them effectively against the enemy. But the biggest change that we found was whereas we had been used to going into our operations in trucks and then getting out and walking on our feet, was to be totally overwhelmed by the Americans’ helicopters. In Australia we had seen the Iroquois helicopter several times in the year before we’d gone, but we’d only seen them in one, maybe two at a time.
When we got over there and our first operation we moved the battalion down to what was called The Snake Pit, a huge, flat area where the helicopters were lined up ten in a row, six rows at a time, and would lift half of the battalion in a single go. And apart from those there were gunships that would also go along to escort these helicopters. And I think that was the most impressive part of changing not only the weapons but the
style of operations and thereafter, practically all of our operations were characterised by the use of helicopter insertions with lots of gunships and a huge amount of fire support. In Australia we had been given demonstrations of how to use artillery and occasionally of how to use ground attack aircraft, but it wasn’t until we actually we were in-country, in Vietnam, and involved in contacts in firefights where
we actually got to use these in any great numbers. And the Americans had an enormous amount of artillery, huge guns, self-propelled guns, ground attack aircraft of every type, from Second World War propeller driven aircraft through to what were then the latest jet ground attack aircraft, the F100 fighter attack. So there was a lot of, a lot of learning to be done whilst we were in
operations and there were quite a lot of experiences where our soldiers were making mistakes and learning as they go. I remember on one occasion we came back after an operation and as we were jumping off the truck, somebody fired one of the grenade launchers and the grenade went a few metres and hit a soldier in the arm. But in that few metres the grenade as it’s launched, hadn’t gone through the complete process of arming, so the soldier was able to walk away with a huge bruise but without any other
physical damage. Other types of things that we had, involved getting used to moving with very large amounts of armoured personnel carriers and then later in our year that we were there with American tanks as wel,l and it was just astounding to us, having moved with three or so armoured personnel carriers back in Australia, to find again that we would be able to lift most of the battalion at a time
and roar around the countryside in these huge metal tanks and again it became, it gave us very much a feeling of overwhelming support and superiority in the weapons that we had. Okay, very quickly in the peace we became aware ….
Within the first couple of months of arriving in country it became very evident that the Americans were gauging their success in the field by the number of kills, not by ground held, but by the effect of their operations as measured in the bodies of the enemy. We were part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. They had two parachute battalions
and our battalion, the Australian battalion, operated as the third battalion with the Americans on operations. That meant that we were taking our chances alongside of them in the way that they operated, flushing the enemy out and meeting them in typical American fashion we thought at the time, of going around the countryside and attracting the enemy to them. We continued to operate in a very stealthy manner
in the way that we moved through the jungle looking for the enemy and then fighting him on our terms rather than drawing him to us as the Americans did. We had several operations where sadly the Americans suffered huge casualties themselves through doing this. On two occasions battalions working alongside of us lost virtually an entire company, well in excess of a hundred men killed or
wounded, down to the stage where out of a hundred and fifty or so there were only a handful of men left standing. And during one of those battles, one of our companies had the very unfortunate experience of having to hold a large helicopter landing zone, into which were flown the American bodies that our soldiers then had to put into bags to be sent back to the air base, and that was most distressing for us.
Our experiences were that we felt very emotionally depressed and saddened when our own colleagues were killed, and that started very early in the piece and it affected our troops emotionally as well. We found on one operation, at the same time as those Americans had been killed in large numbers, that we lost two soldiers that were killed, but we couldn’t recover
their bodies, and our soldiers were absolutely furious that we couldn’t get in to get those bodies out and we were taken back to Bien Hoa and the soldiers were almost at a point of rebellion. They wanted to go back and get them. As it turned out I think better judgement prevailed and our battalion was told that it wasn’t to go back, and so we have two soldiers from our battalion missing in action. They were dead.
We know they were dead. There were substantial efforts to recover their bodies but we just couldn’t get to them. In our own operations we strove to come to grips with the enemy and to kill them and that’s the way that our operations were also judged, the success of those operations, and as a very young second lieutenant it was very important to me for the first few months to get to a
point where we could get our first kills within my platoon. And I remember becoming somewhat reckless in the pursuit of fleeting engagements with the enemy, to try to get those first kills, and once it had happened I think our platoon was able to settle down and go about their business in a somewhat more professional manner. They were a little too excited trying to get that initial kill.
Tell me by how much you were influenced by, in your own way, by the American approach of kill ratios, that you had to do that, that that was the measure of success.
The Americans were driven, almost at any cost, to count their success by the dead of their enemy
and they had little difficulty justifying casualties on their own side that happened in pursuing that objective. From our own point of view, to me it was important that we didn’t unnecessarily jeopardise the lives of our own soldiers, but at the same time we actually had to get out there and close with them in their jungle bases,
and so we were working in their country, on their terms, in places that they were familiar with, and we got to the stage where we were quite frustrated I guess, by not coming into contact with larger numbers initially. Later on when it happened of course, we started taking our own casualties, and at that stage I think we became a more mature formation,
because we knew that we were able to cope not only with fleeting glimpses of the enemy and small numbers of kills, but when it came to the crunch, as happened in the Hobo Woods on top of the Cu Chi tunnels, our battalion went in leading the Americans, expecting that we would hold the ground and the Americans would be flown in and have the bigger contacts, and we actually landed on top of the headquarters. They were in the tunnels three deep underneath us
and we found that over several nights the VC, the Viet Cong, were coming out of the tunnels and engaging our troops and using command detonated explosives to great affect against our troops, whenever they had the opportunity. So things got very, very confusing because we were actually, instead of coming face to face with an enemy, they were within us and all around
us, and were able to come out of those tunnels behind us during the day and during the night and that was quite terrifying. At that stage my platoon, that should have been thirty-three strong, were down to fourteen men and so we had two sections of seven myself included, rather than being able to manoeuvre three sections of ten and at platoon headquarters. That was
I think, a turning point for our battalion. It was quite a significant operation and it gave us I think, one of our first tastes of a major battle and in that battle there were a lot of people were killed and it’s sad that when the fighting soldiers were being wounded and killed by the enemy that our medics were able to go forward and
in attempting to look after the wounded soldiers were themselves being killed. In D Company next to us, two medics were killed one after the other in the same place trying to care for their wounded comrades and that had a major effect on the soldiers after that battle.
Also during the Hobo Woods we had to go down and clear the tunnels and initially some of our own soldiers were doing that, but then as the days wore on we brought in engineers to go down into the tunnels and blow them up. And in our company one of the engineers that was attached to us got down a couple of
levels and was asphyxiated and died in the tunnel. He just could not get back out and suffocated in the tunnel from, partly from the gas that we were using and partly because his huge frame just blocked the air when he was in the tunnel because they were so small. Those sorts of things had an affect on us. Our own company headquarters in that engagement had been blown up. Our artillery observer had
been blown up and killed. He was actually mistaken for the company commander because he was moving with his radios and talking on his handset and obviously one of the Viet Cong enemy thought that he was a commander and detonated the mine that killed him, wounded our own company commander just metres behind him and wounded one of the soldiers that I had served with as a soldier just a few years before. People tended to rally around at
a time like that. Our company commander soldiered on and continued to manoeuvre his company to fight. The other platoons manoeuvred around them and continued to take casualties including another machine gunner that was killed by a sniper and things became quite confused and rather desperate. That was one of the first occasions where we, because we were actually on the enemy
that we had to call in very close air strikes and helicopter gunships and at one stage a gunship had actually fired into our own company area miraculously missing anyone. But it was just by sheer chance and we could have had quite significant casualties just through the difficulty in trying to get that air support in close to us where we could be effective against the enemy.
We found whilst we were there, and I had this under strength platoon, that in a way we were presented with not having to dig our pits at night. My platoon was on a section of trench that very comfortably fitted to where we were on the perimeter, however we were undermanned, and at night, instead of having two people on a machine gun we only had one, and I remember our medic
who was supposed to relieve me on the machine gun at night being so concerned that he refused to man the gun by himself, and so I sat through the night with him. Not holding his hand but being very careful about the way that I spoke to him because he was on the point of emotional collapse and severely stressed. And I think one of the things we had to be very careful of during that war
was not to push people to the extent where they became so stressed and so emotionally drained that they became ineffective and a danger to themselves. It became particularly so as time wore on, after six months and more in the war zone there were a lot of people becoming quite stressed and having to go, be sent off on leave and
given a spell out of battle. We found the intensity of operations really contributed to that stress because we were being taken, flown in from one area to another all around Saigon, within hundreds of kilometres of Saigon and in areas that were described to us in fairly threatening terms, ‘war zone D’ which was an area named by the French just across the river from where our battalion was
stationed at Bien Hoa. That name alone sounded very threatening yet when we got in there and came to terms with the terrain we almost considered it to be our backyard. The Iron Triangle that we assaulted after several months gave a feeling of some huge fortress, impregnable fortress and yet when we were rolling into that area mounted in APCs [armoured personnel carriers]
we had our first demonstration of really massive American firepower. There’s B52 bombers almost out of sight came overhead and pounded the area with thousands of tons of bombs and even in the armoured personnel carriers, with all of their noise we could feel the blasts, we could feel the ground jumping and yet you could only just hear the noise of the aircraft, much as you would today
looking up and seeing a Qantas aircraft flying over, it was so far away. That gave us a great feeling of confidence in the support and yet when we went into the iron triangle we found that the B52 bombers hadn’t hit their mark, that we took significant casualties in our battalion. In one day alone there were over thirty people severely injured by land mines and
that had a morale damaging effect. There was no enemy that we could actually come to terms with. The mines were there. They were blowing people up. As the soldiers around them would react to somebody being blown up, as they went to ground they were triggering mines and being blown up and there was no enemy that they could fire back at. So people became very determined during that time to really get back and make up
for our colleagues, our comrades that had been wounded. About twenty miles north of Saigon is an area that they call The Hobo Woods and in that area was known to be a major Viet Cong headquarters that controlled all of the units north of
and around Saigon and the 173rd Airborne Brigade was to conduct operations into that area. Our battalion was to lead the air attack in helicopters, secure the landing zone and the two American battalions were to manoeuvre around and locate the tunnels. However when our battalion arrived, the initial reconnaissance
that had been done by our battalion operations officer, he had noticed near the original landing zone that the areas under the trees nearby didn’t have any signs of leaves and normal foliage. It seemed to have been covered with dirt. So the landing zone was moved to another area close by and quite fortunately, because when the battalion landed they got into landing zone secure and
as they moved out to go through that other area that was where the tunnels were. It was actually right under the landing zone and we would have been right on top and engaged by enemy bunkers and pits, the entire infrastructure right at the initial landing had we not been able to or had our battalion operations officer not been able to pick that up. So the soldiers got out and as they were moving through that area came under quite heavy attack.
Initially, D Company moving alongside our company had several soldiers killed including some of their medics and our company was forced to manoeuvre around them and in the process of doing that the headquarters was blown up, the artillery observer was killed, the company commander was wounded, a sig [signals] that had been with me as a private soldier several years before was also wounded and shortly after that the
platoon next to me had one of their machine gunners killed by a sniper. So we were really in the thick of it very quickly, and then as they moved through the area it became more obvious that they were actually on top of the tunnel system. The soldiers, as they went through, were constantly being surprised by the Viet Cong coming out of tunnel entrances. They were extremely well camouflaged, either in the jungle floor or their bunkers where they had built
them into embankments where there were just the tiniest little slot that they could see through and fire from, that were very hard for our soldiers to pick up and in fact even when we knew they were there, it was hard to come to grips with that and we literally had to attack them with our soldiers climbing on top of those bunkers and digging through the top to drop grenades in. It became a very, very hectic battle. Following on from that in the next few days we consolidated over that
area and then set about methodically locating the entrances to all of the tunnels, and then subsequently going about destroying them. Right on the side of that tunnel area was a village with civilians that were going about what we thought was their normal business. They obviously knew the tunnels were there and so they were Viet Cong sympathisers. But in the process of that battle we had to be very careful how to handle the civilians nearby
as well. I found a couple of days later that one night we went out …
Interviewee: Bill Hindson Archive ID 2557 Tape 705
When we got on top of the tunnels we had to go through and do a very extensive search. As we were discovering the tunnels initially they were using whatever, our troops were using whatever we could to block them up to stop people coming out during the day or during the night
and we actually had to go into the nearby village and get bags of rice and we were using those to block some of the tunnels as well. I remember one of my soldiers going through an area where there was fairly sparse light undergrowth and just a small amount of leaves covering the ground and as he got to this point you could see him tapping his foot, and I got sort of curious as to what he was doing and he felt around for a bit and called me over,
and he said, “Look at this.” and he just carefully brushed away the leaves and then with his finger he just drew a bit larger than A4 size paper, a rectangle on the ground. Then he got his bayonet out and dug around in the middle of it and pulled out a piece of wire and he just pulled it out and it lifted out, a nicely formed concrete lid with the earth over the top of it and underneath this tunnel just went straight down into the blackness. And it was that hard to find.
There was no way if we were running through the area or fighting through the area, we just couldn’t have found all of the entrances into the tunnels, they were just so well disguised. When we got down into some of the others, areas which were more accessible from ground level we found some of the hospitals and the command posts were actually at ground level but had been reinforced with concrete around the sides and were quite big, big as a sort of four,
five metres or so in length and a few metres wide and over the top of that just slightly above ground level had been thatched and then camouflaged over the top. So some of these were quite substantial structures and then going off those would be the tunnels and you could just barely fit into them because Vietnamese, most of the soldiers we came up against were fairly light in frame and we found when we got into the tunnels we had to actually hunch our shoulders in. We couldn’t wear our webbing because it just didn’t fit,
so we had to stoop down because of our height, hunch our shoulders in, and so when the people, our soldiers got in there to go in and search the tunnels, they were really crouched up in the tunnel and they had to have a torch to shine ahead of them and a pistol. I tried myself on one occasion and you became very aware that the light from your torch was projecting down the tunnel and could be seen ahead so you were absolutely alert
to the fact that you could be seen, possibly even heard, coming down the tunnel and so you had to listen very intently for the slightest movement ahead of you and at the same time be aware that there could be booby traps, grenades and bombs and things in there. So it was quite a stressful experience. When we started to discover the extent of the tunnels and at the end of it, it actually covered over seventy kilometres, the area below
went down two, three levels and we started to put smoke into the tunnels and force it through so we could see where the smoke was coming out to discover the other entrances. After a couple of days we got the order to go in and start to blow them up and we knew that there were people still down there. At night you could hear them moving around. So we started out calling up engineers and an engineer detachment was allocated to
our company and these people were more professional and more trained in how to deal with this, but I wouldn’t have swapped places with them for the world. They were the ones that then went down multiple levels and to fit through these little tunnels where you couldn’t, the entrances where you couldn’t get your shoulders in, they had to raise their arms above their head so that they could slide down into the entrance and it was that that actually caused
one of the engineers working with our company to die. Because he got down in the tunnel, he got into it but because of his bulk, his size, he actually blocked off the air and then the smoke that was in the tunnel, in the end it smothered him. He died of asphyxiation in the tunnel. And of course what happened then was, although we’d had a rope around him to help lower him into it,
when he slumped down in the tunnel and they tried to pull him out, his shoulders sagged and he wouldn’t fit back up through the entrance anymore. It was very sad. Our guys were most distraught about it. They could see him. They could see him there and just couldn’t reach him to get him out. At that stage I think the decision was made that they wouldn’t try to force down and go down any further levels but simply to put
CS gas into the tunnels and to blow them up, and even that, probably after several months after we’d departed would not have made the tunnel complex uninhabitable. They would have still been able to go in and bury into them and rebuild it. In fact those tunnels had been there since the French were there in the ‘50s and had been developed and expanded and improved upon over years and years and we had to try to deal with that
in the space of a week or two of our operation. So we didn’t fully get into it but we had a very nasty time of it because of the complexity. As the operation progressed we set about methodically clearing the entire area and had to try to find where all the tunnel entrances were and plot the extent of the tunnels and to do that of course while they were still occupied. We could actually hear
people down there. I was intrigued at one stage when moving through a very lightly forested area with a good cover of leaves on the ground, that one of my soldiers started stamping his feet and he was thumping about a bit and I went over to him to see what he was doing and he very carefully crouched down and said, “Have a look at this.” and he brushed away the leaves and then drew, he was feeling around and he drew the outline, about an A4 page size
of a rectangle on the ground and he took out his bayonet then and started probing around and found a piece of wire, a loop of wire in the middle and he very carefully eased it out, looked underneath and then lifted off this concrete lid that had earth in the top of it and leaves over it, that disguised the entrance into a tunnel that then just dropped away into the blackness below us. And that’s how well camouflaged they were and we had to go through the entire area and there are over seventy
kilometres of tunnels in this complex going down two or three layers. As we moved on and progressed through the area it became more and more evident of the scale of what we were sitting on. There were hospitals. There were command bunkers and some of these and even kitchens and they were, those bigger rooms were built closer to the surface. Some of them reinforced with concrete and the hospital as I recall was actually at ground level and it had a thatched
roof over it which was then camouflaged. The kitchens had tunnels running out from the ovens to disperse the smoke out into the foliage of the jungle so you couldn’t see smoke drifting through the trees. Through all of that there were a huge amount of documents, there were medical supplies, there were weapons, there were booby traps all over the place and we progressively set about collecting all of those and documenting. There was even a printing press where they ran off their own publications
and their orders and so on in the place. So we had to move through, documenting, going through methodically, getting into all of that and then later we had to set about the business of destroying the tunnels. It was in those times that we then found how difficult it was moving in the lower areas of the tunnels because of the size. They were really very, very narrow and quite small in height. To us
Aussie soldiers, even a person like myself who’s not big, that became very difficult. It meant we couldn’t go down the tunnels wearing our webbing or carrying larger weapons. We had to rely on pistols and of course we had to have a torch down there as well and we became very aware and sensitive to how much you needed to focus on and be alert for any slightest sound in the tunnels
where you could hear people scurrying away or maybe hear people talking and so on. So whilst they were down there creeping through the tunnels they had to be constantly alert, not only ahead of them but all around them because they were other trapdoors leading off the tunnels down into lower areas and tunnels running off to the side and so on. It was a huge rabbit warren. It was almost like we were sitting on an ant’s nest and every now and again the Viet Cong,
the enemy, were coming out and still fighting us and that happened right throughout the entire operation. When we finally got to the stage of blowing them up we had to force smoke down into the tunnels to try to push it through and see if there were any areas that we hadn’t discovered where there was smoke still coming up. And then we called up an engineer detachment to our company and they were probably with other companies as well and in the process of the engineer, a person trained in
explosives and so forth, going down below the second level, the soldier who was fairly large-framed got down into a trapdoor in the bottom of the tunnel, had to raise his arms above his head to drop through and we had a rope around him in case we had to pull him out. But he got down in there and the tunnel was so tight that he died of asphyxiation from the smoke
and from the lack of air getting through into that level. When the company went to pull him out, his shoulders had slumped and he wouldn’t fit back up through the entrance again and there were frantic efforts to get in and to dig him out but with little room to move, he died before we were able to rescue him. Whilst we were in Vietnam we became aware that
the public at large were not totally in support of us. There had been notices in the paper. On one occasion there was a photo of myself in The Australian dealing with a bomb, and just below that photograph there was an advertisement for conscientious objectors to contact those numbers to find out how to get out of going into the National Service. We’d had problems with our post. We had problems with wharfies [wharf labourers] going on strike
and not allowing ammunition supplies to be sent up there. So we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but after we did arrive home - the day after, we were dressed as best we could under the circumstances in our greens and ready to march through Sydney and we formed up as soldiers have done for decades before us and marched down Martin Place past the Cenotaph
and turned into George Street and marched all the way up there and all the way along there were cheering crowds everywhere, but here and there you could see that there were people that were protesting and were unhappy about it. But it wasn’t until we got to the Town Hall where the dignitaries were standing on the steps and the battalion, as it marched past looked to the right and saluted, that as the CO [commanding officer] of the battalion approached that point did an eyes right and saluted,
that a woman came running out of the crowd, upended a bucket of what we thought was blood at the time, but it was red paint, over herself in the middle of the road and the CO, looking to the right didn’t see her and she grabbed him and he shrugged her off but he had red paint all over him. And then she went back through the next company, through the soldiers, rubbing the red paint on them, and it wasn’t until just in front of the company that I was in
that the police came out and grabbed her and took her away. Not everybody in the battalion saw that at the time but it got a lot of media time and it had a devastating affect on our soldiers as they came back, certainly on our CO, who I would say, probably had his military career severely affected by that experience and since then, and he lives only two doors away from me in Canberra, has
declined to have anything to do with reunions of our soldiers and so on. I think he’s just so deeply affected by it. We had other experiences where people were spat on in the streets. I had an experience some years later, after my second tour, when the husband of a girl that had been a friend of somebody I’d been taking outl met me on a train and who’d
called me a murderer, a child killer and a rapist. It was totally unnecessary. They didn’t have to focus their hatred on the soldiers. We were doing our job. We were professional soldiers sent there by our government, the government that they had elected largely and the National Servicemen who’d had their marbles come up in the lottery of life and had been sent to Vietnam. They had done their best.
They had seen their mates die. They’d seen people wounded and screaming beside them, and to come back to Australia and see that, it was just terrible and that’s had a dramatic affect on my life and every other soldier that’s ever been there. I hope that in our future wars we don’t do that again. And it was with great concern that I went
out into public places after that experience of our march back through Sydney. After a very short time in Sydney I went down to Melbourne and my father took me to his Returned Services Club and I’d been asked to tell them about my experiences and I did that and the old diggers said that wasn’t a war, that I didn’t know what a war was. I was just
devastated. I never joined the RSL [Returned and Services League] after that. I came away and just couldn’t cope with it. It was bad enough with the civilians but to have the old diggers say that, it was terrible. So I got back after my leave and got into the army and went on with my training and
I inevitably went back and did another tour. And we had the same thing happen, happen again. I think the protesters were really misdirected. They should have been taking out their anger on the government and we could have accepted that, but to have them doing it to the soldiers that’s inexcusable, and they should forever
feel ashamed because of that. Before I left Vietnam the battalion had asked for two volunteers, two officers to go to the Special Air Service, the SAS, and
there had only been two of us had volunteered, myself and Kevin Lunny. In part, I think I volunteered because I knew partly about the reputation of the SAS. It really hadn’t been established as much then but I was impressed by the way they operated and my company commander had formerly been in SAS and he was a magnificent company commander and I was very much influenced by him.
So when they asked for the volunteers there were two of us, we were accepted and on return to Australia we were both posted to the SAS regiment and immediately went into what was to be six weeks of SAS selection course. But we actually only got about three weeks into it and we were taken off because our infantry skills were so high and so well developed that when we got to the
firing, the live firing stage we actually set too vigorous an example for the other people that were on the course, and in the process of a fire and movement exercise we were so close to the level of being dangerous that the NCOs took us off it and we were very quickly then moved on and did our parachute training which was another three weeks during which [The Battle of] Long Tan occurred whilst I was on leave in Sydney and I was devastated by that.
On return back to the regiment we went about our more specialised small group training and in the process of doing that I was moved into 1 Squadron which was to be the next squadron to go overseas and I spent eight months in Australia from the time I left to the time I went again and that time included our leave on return, our pre-embarkation leave, all of the training,
nine weeks in Papua New Guinea working with our patrols to get familiar with one another, to work in areas of tropical heat and humidity and jungle and hills and so on and to really stress people and get them to the point of exhaustion. Whilst we were doing that we were really moulding together very, very competent, capable small groups for the tasks that lay ahead of us with SAS
and so in February of 1966, sorry 1967, I forget the time because it was all so close together. In February of 1967 we got ready to go and I arrived on March 2nd, the day before my twenty-fourth birthday and we set about our training and briefings
getting ready for the operations that lay ahead of us. This time we were at Nui Dat down in Phuoc Tuy Province with the rest of the Australian Task Force and things were much different, vastly more different than the first tour. This time I was working again with all regular soldiers but far more highly trained and with a greater level of expertise and skill. There were people that had seen service in Malaya,
in Borneo and had served with Borneo with the SAS. I had Vietnam experience, the only one, other one in our squadron at that stage that had that, and so for me it was just getting back into country and I think I fitted quite quickly back into operations. That became for me … that helped me get
used to the SAS operations very quickly but it also thrust me into the more dangerous SAS patrols because there’s nothing like flogging a willing horse. As you get somebody that’s very capable of performing certain types of patrols the reaction was to give them more and to lead them on and give them more dangerous things. So there were several of us patrol commanders and I commanded a five man patrol as well as a troop of four patrols making twenty.
I got very quickly engaged in ambush patrols where we went out to …
I want you to include about the contrast between the hundred and fifty and four.
With the SAS in Vietnam we worked in patrols of five men rather than platoons of twenty. I’d felt most comfortable in Vietnam with my platoon of
what was less than the thirty and became lesser as operations went on, but behind us we had the backing of the other platoons in the company and the other companies in the battalion and all of the air support and fire power. With the SAS it was just a five man patrol. So, on your operations you needed to take everything on your back and within those five men that would sustain you for a week at a time in areas that were thirty kilometres or more away from the task
force base. We had no direct air support. We had no artillery support. We were totally left to our own devices. So we became a very close knit, highly professional group of people that through our training in New Guinea and our other long exercises in Australia, we got to know one another so well that we could almost pass messages just looking into the eyes of the person next to you and with very little
facial expression. The other thing that changed dramatically was the style of operations. Instead of going out to search for people and having fleeting glimpses of the enemy, with the SAS patrols we were put into areas far from the Task Force base where we knew there were enemy. We went to tracks. We went to their villages. We searched through the area and found them, observed them for lengthy periods of time and when
we got to the stages where we became more aggressive they were putting in ambushes to kill them and get their weapons, their documents, the information off the bodies and we became highly skilled at that. And my patrol in particular ended up doing a lot of ambushes and instead of a week at a time I found that my time in the jungle could be half an hour contact just after we’d got off the helicopters or, except for two patrols
throughout the year, I had a maximum of three days at any one time because we were so constantly in the thick of things that invariably, whether it was reconnaissance or ambush we would have a contact within a few days. With our SAS five man patrols, after a while going through
reconnaissance and looking at the enemy travelling around, we could report on numbers and we could report on their villages and so forth. But it was decided within a few months that we could probably get more information if we carried out more aggressive patrols and got into ambushing the enemy where we could get their documents off them and their weapons and take photos of them close up to see what sort of equipment and clothing they had and get their maps,
all that sort of thing, so we would have even more information than just reporting sightings. And my patrol being one of a number of quite successful patrols, particularly at ambushing, was put to this task and we had some initial successes and then in our enthusiasm we went from five man to a ten man patrol because on the jungle tracks that we were ambushing by day often there could be quite large groups of enemy coming along. And
whilst we could move very quickly with a five man patrol, we could put down a lot of fire from our automatic weapons and grenade launchers and so forth, it was felt that if we bolstered this up to ten we could cover a bigger killing ground on the edge of a track and put more fire power onto that so we could actually get a larger number. And to put that into practice we conducted one patrol where with ten
men, we had six in the killing ground, we put two people alone in what we hoped was a hundred metres to either side to give early warning of the enemy coming down the track, and then we had our sig and medic behind us. We were surrounded with claymores [mines]. We’d carried a number of these each and so we had a lot of these on the track and the two early warning patrol members had tiny little radio sets that they
could talk over. When it actually came to the ambush, the fellow out to the right who was only out about fifty metres rather than a hundred, saw the enemy coming down the track, saw that there were four of them but instead of immediately talking he waited until they went past and then he said, “Here they come.” I was sitting behind a tree and heard this
noise, ‘here they come’, reached down to pick up the radio and looked up onto the track to find myself staring at a VC less than ten metres away who was looking directly at me. But he couldn’t see that it was me because I was camouflaged and partly behind a tree, but he had heard the communication and at that stage he and the next guy took cover behind a very large anthill mound which just happened to be where we had our claymores
and at that stage I set them off and these two rectangular shaped explosives blew them up and the other two that were there were fired at but escaped. When we went forward to check on the bodies we found that along with those two we had another casualty at the time, and that was a very large monkey probably about two feet high, about this high, and he’d been
carried on a stick by the leading man and we’d blown him up as well. And so as we went forward and we got the documents and so forth off these two and one of them turned out to be a company commander, then we found that we had this other very large monkey lying dead in the middle of the ambush as well and we couldn’t work out at the time whether they were carrying the monkey for food or for some other purpose as they went down the track. Whilst we
were searching them, we hadn’t quite killed them outright and it became the practice with our patrols for me to do the searching. I’m not quite sure why, but my sergeant tended to stand back and cover and I felt quite happy that he was going to protect me from any other enemy that might have been missed in the ambush and while I was searching the fellow he actually grabbed hold of me. It didn’t seem like a big thing at the time and we went on about our business and then we took
photographs of the area so that we could show back in camp what sort of equipment and clothing they were wearing and we gathered up all the documents and the weapons and then departed, leaving him to die there. Later on I felt that ten men was too big, and unlike in the battalion where we had all of those men gathered around us and we had a feeling of security by the firepower of all
of those soldiers, in SAS it actually felt better to have a smaller number because you could see them all. You could have more control over what you were doing and as it turned out on that ten man patrol, we probably achieved nothing more than we could have done with five. So we actually went back to the five man and I think only on a couple of other occasions we went to ten for specific tasks but
they proved not to be terribly successful.
Could you go through his documents, because when he grabbed your wrists and broke through, just take me through what it would have been like.
As we got the four VC into the ambush and the two went to ground behind the anthill,
I reached down and set the claymores off and to my right and left the other patrol members started firing into the area: They usually fired a complete burst from their weapons, replaced the magazines and then waited for any other fire that might come back, and having no fire returned then we got up and moved forward into the area of the ambush. It became practice from a number of ambushes that we’d had for the sergeant and one other person to cover the track
to my left and right and I would go forward and search the bodies and as the dust and the leaves are still falling out of the trees from these explosions, we got up and we assaulted forward and I came across these two and immediately checked that they weren’t just lying there trying to fool us and had any fight left in them. And then I started to go about systematically getting the documents off them and to do that I’d check their shirt pockets first.
We’d kick the weapon out of the way. We’d go through any equipment that they had if they were wearing packs and pull it apart, make sure we had any maps, papers, photographs, any other equipment they might have had like compasses or grenades, any navigational aids that they might have had with them and ensure that we got all of that and we’d stow that in our equipment as we were doing that. When I was part way through
doing that, I was actually going through his shirt pocket and this hand came up and grabbed me around the wrist. I was a bit taken aback by it and fairly vigorously pulled my hand away and then determined that this guy had probably done that out of a dying reaction and was really no threat. So we went on about searching him and then subsequently we withdrew and it wasn’t until I got back, back in our base and
was having a shower that I found I had this stinging sensation in my wrist and he’d grabbed me hard enough for his nails to go …
Interviewee: Bill Hindson Archive ID 2557 Tape 706
As time went on with our first tour we became more adept at sensing when we were near enemy camps and so on. We could differentiate the smells of a VC camp from our own people moving around with us and from the normal smells in a jungle and that became tuned to the extent
that you could do that fifty metres or a hundred metres away. And people, the scouts and so on within the platoons could pick up the slightest movement and whilst they were carefully searching through the jungle ahead of them and to the left and right, they would look for any abnormal structures in the jungle. Instead of the vertical trees or trees leaning out, if they could see any horizontal timbers that might
indicate that that’s a support structure of a tent or some structure within a village. They would be very alert to that and wary of anything that was out of the natural. Dogs and chicken noises in the area: Signs on the ground, how well tracks might have been worn and how recently people would have moved over those tracks. Identifying that became a very highly tuned skill. On my second tour
when I was there with the SAS, that was carried even further. Our patrols moved very, very slowly and very cautiously and as we went along we were careful to cover up our own tracks behind us and the last man in the five would go to great pains to cover our tracks. But the people up the front were searching for any movement ahead of us, any noise, any sound that was out
of the ordinary, and in some of the areas that we went into which were large enemy formations, on occasions we would be confronted by very large groups, platoon size groups, company groups moving past us within ten metres or so and so we would have to be aware, to see them first, to hear them and to stop what we were doing, to freeze and carefully camouflage
ourselves and get under cover. And so we were able to watch large groups from very, very close proximity. That was really the essence of our survival. If we had gone, as probably the Americans were doing, moving quickly through the jungle then we would not have been able to be so alert and the enemy on many occasions would have had the upper hand. Even in SAS, when a five man patrol
moved through the jungle and came up against the enemy who could see us coming and had the opportunity to fire first, often our camouflage and our skills at movement and our accuracy of returning a very high volume of fire, still beat them to the punch. We were faster in aiming and firing. We could put down more fire. We could control the other people in our group to manoeuvre so that everyone
could fire and that became the reason for a lot of our successes. On a few occasions when we were going through those large enemy areas we actually were inside their camps. We would move across tracks within their areas and we would be moving through and around bunkers and so on that they had constructed.
Often, fortunately, they weren’t occupied, but one of the SAS patrols of another troop got themselves into an enemy camp when a substantial number, in excess of a hundred actually, returned in the evening and they threw themselves into a pig pit and covered themselves with the pig excreta to camouflage themselves and spent the whole night there. And people were willing to go through those extraordinary
steps to ensure that they could remain in very close proximity to the enemy and not be discovered and that patrol was able to move out again in the morning. Mind you they weren’t accepted so well when they got back to the squadron base. The other people we got on, worked extremely well with were the 9 Squadron helicopters. They were also absolutely vital to our survival. We had occasions where people were shot at
on landing, being dropped off on the landing zones. The helicopters would return under fire and pick us up again. I had a patrol of mine where, in the jungle, I’d had a man shot and so out of the five of us we had two carrying that fellow and the helicopters came and got us and there was no landing place. We had to be winched up through the jungle whilst we were in contact with the enemy and the door gunners were firing at the enemy directly above us as
we were being winched out. They were absolutely magnificent. There was no way that an SAS patrol could have survived the contacts and getting out of those areas without 9 Squadron and they hovered above the jungle canopy, being shot at for tens of minutes at a time whilst they winched us out. They were just extraordinary. Even at night on occasions they would come and get us and without the confidence that
they would do that our abilities would not have been as high as they were. On many occasions when we were in a firefight with the enemy and in contact with the enemy, because of our training and our reflexes the whole episode seemed to slow down. We could pack
so much into a short period of time and still be in control of what was happening. You could see the enemy. You could see them firing at you. You could direct other members of your patrol to take care of a particular enemy that was over in that area and at the same time be firing and dealing with somebody yourself. I had an ambush where we didn’t use claymores and I’d initiated it by firing at two people coming down a
track and we’d hit the two of them. On an early ambush that I had, before we’d introduced the directional mines, the claymores into our ambush patrols, we initiated an ambush just
with our rifles and I remember these two VC moving into our killing zone and I initiated it by firing at them, and then my sergeant and I got up and assaulted forward and we hadn’t killed these two. The one in front of my sergeant, I could see out of the corner of my eye, was on his knees and looking around for his weapon that had been knocked from his grasp. The one in front of me was facing me. He was in a crouching position and he’d had his weapon and he’d
reached around to get it and he was bringing it around towards me, and I distinctly remember seeing that barrel coming closer and closer and closer to me as I brought my rifle up and fired first. And I would have thought that that probably took less than a second, but it seemed to me that it was in slow motion and after I shot him he fell over backwards and the weapon was flung away and my sergeant said at the time, “What will I do with this one?”
And he was still hunting around for his weapon and I just instinctively said, “Shoot him.” which he did and so we were able to finish that ambush off. But things just went so slowly and I think it was because our senses were so acute, you could take in so much more of what was happening in an instant and react to it and react with confidence as we were trained.
Vietnam I think, in many ways was quite a different war to First and Second World War. I mean obviously they were
fought in a totally different way, the casualties were different and so on. But in those other wars, in World War II especially, there was a Victory Day. There was a victory in Europe. There was a victory in the Pacific and everybody at home celebrated and they were keen to have people come back home, to have their units demobilised and to get their men and their women back into their communities. In Australia
there was no victory. We had done our best. We had won our war, but we were then put onto a plane, flown out of the heat and humidity of Vietnam directly to Mascot, or Perth, or Darwin, and in an instant we were back in Australia: Within a single day we were back with our families, our girlfriends
and we couldn’t describe the sorts of things that we had done. More so because there was so much hatred in the community that was being directed at us, that myself and a lot of others were really reluctant to discuss anything about our service and only with great difficulty could we do that between ourselves. But because we came, in Vietnam, we came from all over Australia
to join our units, we didn’t return as a single unit to a single country town or city and so our friends that we’d served with were scattered all over the place, and I found that extremely difficult and I had trouble coping with that for years and years. I couldn’t describe it to my fiancée when I returned, later my wife. I have never been able to describe it
to my children until just recently, and a lot of my soldiers went through extremely distressing times. Whilst overseas some had had their wives leave them and one of my soldiers from my first tour had such a hard time that when he went to a reserve unit he actually got a weapon from the armoury and he shot himself five times with an automatic weapon.
Fortunately he survived but he was in such a bad way for the next fifteen years that he sank probably as low as you can go, but just last week I was at a reunion with him, the first reunion that we’d had since Vietnam, and he is now totally recovered and is a great example to all of the other soldiers in the way that he’s now, fits into the community. And he is
President of the Newcastle RSL and does a magnificent job there and all of the other soldiers at that reunion were able to comment on how distressed he must have been to have gone to such lengths and yet what strength of character he had to recover from that. I found when we had our reunion that I checked around the dozen of my soldiers from my first tour that were around the table,
all of them had disabilities. One of them, eighty per cent disability pension, a hundred per cent and all of the others were totally and permanently incapacitated. I think in a very large part that’s because of the way we were treated when we got back from Vietnam and the difficulty we
had being able to relate our experiences to others and our families and we’ve kept that from them for so long, and it’s only now I think people are finding the strength to get together and to be able to talk about it. And I find it extraordinary, the way that young people in particular, are now seeking more information about Vietnam and lending more support to the veterans on their parades and I think that’s very
important to their recovery and I hope that goes on for a long time. I had grandfathers in the First World War, my father in the Second World War, as my wife’s grandfathers and father were. I served in Vietnam. My youngest brother served in Vietnam. I think we all had troubles coming back from all of those wars. Vietnam had its own particular troubles and I don’t think we should be seen as being
any different to those that were returning from First or Second World Wars, because they certainly had their problems, but they did have more support from the community from the very day they returned. And I don’t think that people at large in the community really understand that the biggest battle we had in Vietnam was not in Vietnam itself, it was when we came home.
When I got back from Vietnam with my second tour I still felt we had unfinished business but at that stage I was totally exhausted.
When I stepped off the aircraft back in Australia I started shaking and that didn’t end for several months and I fortunately had a lot of leave. I went to work on a farm and drove a tractor for a long period of time and I think that was good mental therapy. That, after a while got rid of the shaking and it wasn’t long after that we went to England and I found even then, a lot of people were asking what’s Vietnam about, and they could do that in England. There were no protesters there. I felt
more comfortable there than back in Australia. But there were still the reports in the paper, the casualties, the battles that were going on and then the gradual slide in the way the war was going to its very untidy conclusion and when we brought all the troops home. I think a lot of veterans, and myself included, feel that we weren’t given a fair go, that we really were fighting, we were doing our best but we had our hands
tied. We had our hands tied by the way the population, many of the population reacted and objected, and we had our hands tied by the way the government, particularly the American Government, progressively built up their forces and then scaled down their forces in the war. For many years after I returned I stayed in the service, for over twenty years and whilst I was with my other
army mates, the other officers and the soldiers and working through the different jobs that I had in Australia, I was fine. It was only when I got out of the army that I found myself in a very demanding civilian job, that I really entered a very intense period of denial and I didn’t attend any of the Anzac Day parades or
reunions. I didn’t go to the return home march in Sydney. I didn’t go to our battalion reunion in Townsville where they were given a meritorious unit award and ultimately I fell apart and I did that unfortunately, with my eldest daughter at a conference in Perth and it just
distressed me immensely. I’d gone through a period where we had dedicated a memorial in Canberra to the SAS people that had been killed in Vietnam and in training, and unlike Vietnam where your friends were killed and their bodies were taken away or were wounded and you could go and visit them and they were taken away ultimately and returned to Australia. On this occasion
when we dedicated our memorial, all of the next of kin of some forty-two SAS soldiers attended the service and as they came up to place their roses on the memorial they came up and stood by me. It was a bright sunny day, they all had their glasses on and they were crying. The next of kin, the families, the
wives and their children dated from the Borneo days to people that were in their late forties and fifties down to the Black Hawk widows in their twenties and I think that triggered it. I just found that impossible to cope with and it was only days after that
that I found I had problems, and so thirty-three years after the war I became a casualty and all of my soldiers, all of my soldiers have done that. I feel
responsible for them still and I now feel really compelled to get back in touch with them all and help them because I think they need me now more than ever.
I just hope the government can provide the support they need and to continue to look after them now, because some of them are in really desperate straits and have had problems with their families many times over and have problems with their jobs and are really financially in
very bad straits. So I hope the government can continue to find it within their budgets and within their hearts to support them.