Their memories and history are part of the new book, Serving Our Country, which shines a light on the role played by Indigenous servicemen and women in defending Australia.
This exclusive extract looks at some of their combat experiences …
Like non-Indigenous veterans, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ex-servicemen are uncomfortable talking about their experience of war. Perhaps Geoff Shaw best summarised the sentiments of many of the veterans in a 2015 interview: ‘I don’t like to tell you … the itty gritty side of war. The lighter side, yeah – I can tell you a lot of [the] funny side of war.’ While veterans’ reticence at times makes it difficult to write a historical narrative of their Vietnam experiences, the reticence itself is also telling about how these men have (re)constructed their memories.
Aboriginal veterans who were willing to share their memories in interviews spoke of the challenges fighting a guerrilla war: the patrols, the difficult jungle conditions and the psychological dimensions of not knowing who or where the enemy was. Among the 108 men who fought in Australia’s most famous battle in Vietnam, the battle of Long Tan on 18 August 1966, five have been identified as Aboriginal: Thomas ‘Buddy’ Lea, Vic Simon, Jeffrey Duroux, Dennis Graham and Brian Hornung. Vic Simon described the battle in 2013:
First off we had a contact and then we moved up in sort of like an open box and unfortunately 11 Platoon they sort of walked into the ambush. They copped it pretty bad and then we sort of went in to help them out and that’s when it’s all started: just there for three hours’ solid fighting in the rain and pouring down rain. And the artillery was very good even though they landed pretty close to us but they sort of saved our lives.
After the battle, authorities discerned that the 108 Australians had fought an entire Viet Cong regiment of around 1500–2000. Given the incredible odds, Buddy Lea reflected: ‘How we all did not get killed, I will never know to this day. 18 of our men got killed; 24 of us, including myself, got wounded.’
The challenges of fighting a guerrilla enemy feature in veterans’ recollections of combat. In 2015 Des Mayo described one time when his patrol came across a bucket system of Viet Cong booby traps, and shots were fired on his patrol. They called in the artillery to fire on the area. In this instance, American jets flew in and carpet bombed the area. The Australians had to hide from them, even suffering casualties from the friendly fire. In 2014 Roy Mundine described another incident which left him permanently wounded:
Well we were going down into a bunker system and we come in there and that and we moved forward to check the area and I stepped on a mine or hit the side of a mine that went off and it blew us up, blew me up and blew me leg off.
The majority of Indigenous troops in Vietnam – approximately 60 per cent – served in the infantry. This was more likely to do with their education levels rather than officials determining Indigenous people to be more racially ‘suited’ to front-line combat. The next most common corps membership, constituting approximately 12 per cent of Indigenous soldiers, was the Royal Australian Engineers; smaller numbers served in specialised corps such as Signals. American scholars have found significant evidence that many commanders viewed Native American soldiers as a martial race who were ‘natural’ soldiers. The martial race construct influenced many commanders to send Native Americans as forward scouts because they could supposedly sense the enemy, or had better eyesight. In Australia, only two Indigenous interviewees hinted at similar sentiments; David Nean speculated in 2014: ‘I reckon over there they looked up to you more because they thought you was better qualified for fight in the bush and that.’ Edna Coolburra also said in 2014, ‘Every time they were looking for a forward scout, they would pick Bill.’ None of the other interviewees implied that race played any role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers’ assignments.
Men who served in the RAAF and the RAN had different experiences from the infantry. Of the 260 Indigenous Vietnam veterans identified by the Australian War Memorial in 2010, 19 were Navy. Many sailors were involved in transporting servicemen to Vietnam from Australia and patrols to the North Vietnamese coast. Clarence Williams recalled in 2015 an incident in Vung Tau Harbour when a turbo generator blew in the aft engine room. While he was not hurt at the time, he stated: ‘what I remember about it was all the asbestos falling like a cloud, like a snowstorm’. RAAF had the fewest Indigenous members and the smallest Australian force in Vietnam – only five identified by the Australian War Memorial in 2010. Rob Bryant was an airframe fitter who served with 9 Squadron in Vung Tau for 12 months from April 1970 to 1971. He remembered two other Aboriginal RAAF members working in maintenance roles in Vung Tau during that period.
* Serving Our Country, RRP $39.99, NewSouth Publishing.