The Australian military spent ten years fighting in South Vietnam. Nearly 60,000 Australian troops were involved in the war. It was the longest war in Australia's history. The first troops went on active combat status on 3 August 1962. The first combat unit into Vietnam was known as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). This was a small group of thirty military advisers who would deploy throughout South Vietnam, often working in isolated, remote locations while training indigenous troops to fight against the Viet Cong and NVA. This unit was similar to the American Army's Green Berets. Seasoned, highly trained, professional soldiers, these "trainers" were in effect, force multipliers.
The U.S. and Australia were very concerned that communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia in what was known as the "Domino Effect." This meant that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand might soon follow, giving the communists control over southeast Asia. The specter of this happening in Australia's "backyard" was not acceptable and the Australian government became a staunch supporter of America's policy in Vietnam. The average Australian citizen wasn't too interested in this beginning phase of the Vietnam War. There was very little opposition to the regular Army troops working in a training role in Vietnam.
The National Service scheme was begun in 1964 by the Menzies government. National Service was also known as "conscription," Americans know this process as a draft. It required twenty year old men to register with the Department of Labour and National Service. If their birthdate was drawn in what resembled a lottery, the conscripts would serve a mandatory two years on active duty followed by three years on the active reserve list. Not all duty assignments meant combat duty, some National Service troops would serve in support units. Once called for duty, the men then had a month to report for basic training.
The National Service scheme would propel opposition groups into action, such as, Save Our Sons (SOS) and Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC.) The SOS was begun in 1965 in Sydney by a group of middle class and working class women, mostly middle aged, who had sons that were old enough to be subject to conscription. The SOS formed a highly effective platform to campaign against conscription, and for conscientious objectors and draft resisters. When the SOS first entered the political arena they were complete novices with no experience in organizing, fund raising or staging protest marches and rallies. It would not take long for them to become organizationally sound, well informed and politically adept. The road would not always be smooth for the SOS members. They would encounter verbal abuse, assaults and arrests. In his book "Harvest of Fear," historian John Murphy describes early anti-war groups like Save Our Sons as, "distinctly genteel, concerned with respectability and with a strong faith in liberal democracy and the piercing light of rational argument." As the Vietnam War continued Australia would periodically increase it's commitment of young men to the war effort. In response, SOS's politics would become increasingly radical.
Like the SOS, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription fostered a new constituency, students. The YCAC's Sydney and Melbourne groups had a greater capacity to provoke public debate than their smaller sister groups in Canberra and Perth. The YCAC used a more irreverent and lampooning style of dissent than it's older, more sober counterpart, the SOS, but both were effective in moving more and more Australians to oppose the war. The YCAC and SOS held very close ties to the Labor Party. Their intent was to elect the Labor party candidate, Arthur Calwell as Prime Minister during the next federal election (1966) as he promised to put an end to conscription. Calwell was denied victory in a crushing defeat. He resigned as Leader of the Opposition in 1967.
The news media also caused Australia to change it's outlook toward the war. Film footage of real combat was seen nightly on the evening news in households throughout Australia. Viet Nam was a television war, it's drama playing nightly in ghastly, surreal and fascinating images. Television and newspaper photographs and reports on the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on the street in Saigon and other disturbing images had a searing effect on the nation's consciousness.
In 1966 Australia announced it would increase the number of troops in Vietnam to task force strength with the addition of a second battalion. A battalion is usually made up of 800-1000 troops. This second battalion was was deployed in 1967 and was made up of National Servicemen, who would see combat. This touched off the creation of more anti-war groups. An opinion poll from that time (1967) shows 46% of Australians disapproved of the troop increase, 17% were undecided and 37% in favor. This would be the first time that the war's opponents would outnumber it's supporters. After the Tet offensive in 1968 the U.S. and Australia began withdrawing troops from Vietnam. A Gallup poll in 1969, showed a 55% majority wanted a withdrawal from Vietnam. Forty percent of those polled favored them staying. All polls given after August, 1969 showed the majority of Australians wanted their troops out of Vietnam. The protests continued on and the opinion polls clearly showed Australians did not favor the war, but the Australian government wasn't swayed much by those factors. The policy decisions regarding the war relied more on what the U.S. was doing. The Americans had 536,100 troops in Vietnam in 1968, Australia had 7,660 troops in country at that time, these were their highest troop levels of the war. As America began to withdraw it's troops after the Tet Offensive, it's ally Australia followed suit. Massive political protest marches, known as moratorium marches took place in major Australian cities during the early 1970's. But, by that time Australia was already on it's way out of the war.
Many of these returning veterans were National Service troops. They hadn't gone off to war with all the young men of their generation as their fathers and grandfathers had. They were taken selectively, effectively removing them from everyday life and putting them into nearly continuous combat from one to two years. A lot of veterans had trouble readjusting to society after this prolonged and extremely stressful type of combat duty.
Their war wasn't a popular one. They weren't welcomed with open arms by the veterans from prior wars at the urban RSL (Returned and Services League) service clubs. Some of the WWI and WWII veterans did not consider Vietnam a "real" war. The rural RSL clubs were more welcome to the Vietnam veterans, though. The average WW II soldier in the Pacific was 26 years old and saw 40 days of combat in four years. The average Australian soldier in Vietnam was 20 years old and saw 314 days of combat in one year. Some veterans felt that they had lost the war and let the people of South Vietnam down. They were routinely shunned back home and blamed for Australia's loss of the war.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, higher than normal rates of suicide, divorce, alcoholism and drug addiction were some of the enemies the returning vets had to fight at home. Many Aussie troops had been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. Symptoms of Agent Orange exposure can be; cancers and tumors, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastro-intestinal and gastro- urinary problems, muscular and nervous system disease, blurred vision, nasal problems and blisters on the skin The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia was formed in 1979 to give these affected veterans a voice in pursuing an uphill battle against a seemingly apathetic Aussie government for some much needed assistance in dealing with their manifold health concerns. In 1992, the Australian government finally admitted to exposing it's troops to Agent Orange. The Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service was begun with direct assistance from the VVAA. The VVCS plays a vital role in helping to treat the veterans adversely affected by the war. Many veterans re-adjusted to civilian life with little difficulty. They were able to leave the war behind and get on with their lives. They started families, went back to school, started businesses, ran for public office and returned to other normal, everyday activities.
Often, returning servicemen from Vietnam were brought home on flights that landed at night, avoiding both confrontations or accolades at the airport. Many veterans did receive a parade if they rotated back to Australia with their battalion. But the Australian government would not give it's Vietnam Veterans an official parade until 1987, fifteen years after the end of the war. The parade was held in Sydney. 25,000 Vietnam Veterans marched in that parade before several hundred thousand onlookers who had come to honor these men, finally.
Australian Vietnam veterans have had to struggle with negative stereotypes from the American Vietnam experience. Many a returning veteran heard the words, "babykiller", "murderer", "rapist", "My Lai" hurled at him. But, the Australian soldier didn't participate in some of the more gruesome and illicit behavior that his American counterparts had. The Australian Infantry were usually involved in smaller unit actions using counter insurgency tactics. Drug addiction, malingering and racial tensions were essentially non-existent in the Aussie units. The Australian units that served in Vietnam, from this author's perspective, did their job and did it well.
521 Australians lost their lives in Vietnam. Three are still missing in action. There were seven civilian deaths. 2,069 Australians were wounded.
Vietnam Veterans Day is celebrated on Sunday, August 16, 2009. Please take some time Sunday to honor these men who served honorably and valiantly in Vietnam, Thank You.