Interviewee: Laurie Drinkwater (LD)
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Date of Interview: Friday 1 June 2001
Place of Interview: Yaroomba, Sunshine Coast
Transcribed by Laura Manasserian: Wednesday 16 January 2002
Corrected and edited by Gary McKay: 7 February 2002
Final edit by Gary McKay & Caroline Foxon after interviewee perusal: 23 August 2002
Lawrence Drinkwater was born in Taree NSW in 1939 and worked for the NSW Railways before joining the Army in June 1957. He served in the infantry corps in Malaya at the end of The Emergency, where he served as a rifleman in the Second Battalion RAR (2 RAR). He deployed to South Vietnam with the Sixth Battalion RAR in 1966 and was a rifle section commander at the Battle of Long Tan. He left the Regular Army in 1969 and served for many years after in the Army Reserve reaching the rank of sergeant.
Subject of Interview: Australians in South Vietnam, the Vietnam War 1965-72 (particularly 1966-67), training for war, training courses, combat and battle, deploying to Vietnam, the Nui Dat base, defensive preparations, tactics, the Battle of Long Tan, casualties, morale, return to Australia. National Service 1965-72, the enemy, Viet Cong soldiers and tactics. Demonstrations and politicians. Mine incidents, casualty evacuation. Allies, leave: R & R and R & C, discipline.
TranscriptGM This is a recording of an interview with Laurie Drinkwater recorded on Friday 1 June 2001. Recorded by Gary McKay for Maroochy Libraries’ Veterans’ Voices project.
Laurie, firstly thanks very much for making yourself available for this project. My first question, is why did you join the Army?
LD Well, my father was a soldier. I’d worked with ex-Second World War soldiers after I left school. It seemed to be a pretty good life. I always sort of had the idea as a kid to be a soldier or something, so I was … I was only young when I joined up - I was only 17 - so I probably always was thinking about being a soldier.
GM Laurie, you enlisted in 1957. Was your choice of infantry your decision?
LD Yes, yes. When I actually first went down to the recruiting centre, I was thinking about being in transport, but after going through Kapooka and all the old corporals and sergeants, old infantry men, I decided I wanted to be a grunt.
GM … be a grunt. Okay. Now you where did you do your corps training, your infantry corps training?
LD Corps training was at Ingleburn when it was called 4 RAR.
GM Okay. They were sort of like the depot battalion weren’t they?
LD Yes, there was straight across the road from 13 National Service (Battalion) at that time.
GM Okay. Now, you went to Malaya in 1961?
GM So, you’re only, God you were just, how old were you?
LD Oh, I would’ve been 22
GM What sort of job did you do in Malaya?
LD When I first arrived I was a private - acting section 2IC and then, just more or less just after I arrived, I got my first hook.
LD And so I was section 2IC.
GM And what sort of operations did you do?
LD Well, at that time, the Emergency had finished and we, in the two years we were there, we were mainly working out of Terendak camp at Malacca but for the operations were on the border, the Thai-Malaya border.
LD And we went up there for … I think the first time was three months and the second time was two months, I think that’s about, so we done about five months in the two years on the border itself.
GM That’s three months on operations?
LD That’s on operations yeah.
GM In the jungle?
LD Carrying live ammunition.
GM And it was pretty tough terrain up there, wasn’t it?
LD Yeah, that was the toughest part about it was the terrain, it was.
GM I mean, Trevor Hagan said to me it was all up hill, you never, ever went down.
LD That’s what I always used to say to myself, I used to say if the hills were any steeper, they’d be walls.
GM Was it really hard?
LD It was, it was very hard because of the, as I said, the hills were so steep and you always … and they were always muddy and you seemed to be going two paces forward and one back, you know, you go three paces forward and slide back two, you know. So yeah, it was pretty tough and the jungle was pretty thick.
GM And what, you worked out of a patrol base?
LD Yeah, well, we, we’d work out of Crow or Alor Setar on the two different occasions and then they would be your rear details or the rear mob. And then your company would go up and they would set up a company headquarters and then from there you’d go out into platoons, and work from platoons. And then sometimes from the platoons you’d even go out like on ambushes, section ambushes, out again and you might spend a week just in the section on an ambush in the section.
GM Did you ever have a contact?
GM Must have been hard to keep the guys switched on?
LD Yeah, but it probably, well there was a lot of work attached to it and yeah, I’m suppose to have them switched on and thinking, you know, if we did get hit at any time but I think, no I think it was pretty well everybody seemed to work in pretty well and we got it done.
GM Yeah, and you were, and you’d be patrolling what just in, along the border, or in AOs or…?
LD Well, what mainly we used to do was you’d be given a certain area and you’d do sweep searches. You’d do a grid square at a time; you’d go up, and then go across and then come back down again and then you’d do one grid square. Then you’d move into another grid square, and you’d keep going and doing that and then you could say that you searched the whole area. And your platoon would do that one, another platoon would do that, and by the time it got to a company doing it, you’ve covered a fair area, and you could say that there was nothing there.
GM Did the enemy or the CTs ever come in?
LD No, no we never saw any CTs. A(lpha) Company did have a contact, but it was somebody that just run into them. The people that we saw most was - and we were capturing them and taking them back to the police - were the smugglers. The people smuggling stuff over the border or illegal timber getters.
GM Is that right?
LD The Thai timber getters, they used to come over into Malaya and steal their timber and the Malays used to go back over and so they … so if you got any Thais, they were illegal in Malaya, and the same as over the border, in fact, what they’d done one time - and they got us lost by the way - they had border stones along the border and every so many kilometres there’d be a border stone with a mark on it to let you know whether… And these were also on the map and we got to one and we thought ‘Righto there we are, we’ll set off from here.’ We set off and got lost. Lost completely. So we found out later, what they used to do, these timber getters would drag their elephants down, pull the border stones out - they’re about, (indicates a metre high) - and move them back down into Malaya! The Malays do the same thing, move them back into Thailand and over so many years, that the border stones just got misplaced all over the place and we thought right it’s on the map, that’s the border stone, we’re right. And we took off and of course we took off from the wrong place and we were completely lost. We were lost for seven days in fact.
GM An elastic border.
GM Yeah. Yeah, and it’s not that easy to map read.
LD No, well the maps over there were, you know, they hadn’t been surveyed on the ground. They were only done from aerial photographs and they weren’t real spot-on at the best of times, so you know, whether all this other mucking around that the locals used to do didn’t help at all.
GM What was the hardest part about those operations in Malaya?
LD Well, as we already spoke about, the terrain. The terrain was the hardest part probably. We’d come across tracks or old camps of CT but you got to remember that this time that the Emergency was over. They didn’t want to, they weren’t big enough to stand around and fight so the hardest part was probably slogging away for nothing and the beasties, the leeches and all those sort of things, mites.
GM All those critters in the jungle.
LD Mites, yeah.
GM Yeah. What sort of job were you doing there? Section 2IC were you?
LD Yeah, section 2IC.
GM In a rifle section
GM What’s the important part about that job?
LD Well, the most important part is being in charge of the gun section and yeah, that’s about it.
GM What sort of gun were you carrying in Malaya?
LD We were carrying the Bren, modified Bren.
GM When you say modified?
LD Well, it was, it was, you may as well say the Bren gun, it was just a bit different, it just had a couple of different parts on it but it was mainly…
GM Still had the big banana magazine on the top?
LD Yeah, yeah instead of the straight one. [LD: it was the straight magazine and used 7.62 mm ammunition.]
LD So it was, it was, well we had Brens and we had these other ones, so you may as well say that it was the Bren gun.
GM And what other sort of weapons were the section carrying?
LD 7.62 rifle and the Owen, that was your section weapons. Nothing else.
GM Okay. Now you did two years there. Were you, what was your marital status?
LD I was a single man.
GM And happy in Terandak. What was the life outside operations like? When you weren’t on ops, what was it like?
LD What in civilian?
GM In garrison soldiering and…
LD Well, we done a lot of parades. We done a lot of training and we had a lot of leave, because at the time we used to get, we used to get all Australian public holidays, Malay, Indian and Chinese public holidays, so we …
GM Forever on holidays.
LD We used to get a fair whack of leave. But by saying that, that when we worked, we worked hard. You know.
GM And this was with the Second Battalion? Was it a good time?
LD Yes, I’d say that was the best two years I’ve ever had in my life.
LD Yeah, too right, yeah, I loved it.
GM Okay. So in 1963 you came back to Australia. How did you end up in 6 RAR?
LD Well, 6 RAR. 2 RAR was cut down the centre when the National Service come in. It was cut down the centre to make up 6th Battalion (6 RAR) and they more or less just put a big knife down the middle of it and said all on that side of the camp remains 2 RAR and everybody on this side is 6 RAR, and I was in Charlie Company 2 RAR and we were on that side and we become 6, so I was a foundation member of 6 RAR.
GM Okay. And at Enoggera?
LD At Enoggera?
GM Okay. So that would have happened in…?
LD Happened in 196…
GM Late ’65.
LD ‘65. June ’65.
GM June ’65.
LD 6th June 65.
GM So you then had about a year - more or less - before you went to Vietnam with 6 RAR? What sort of things did you do in that year working up?
LD Well, the first few months we were, D Company were waiting for the first batch of National Servicemen to come in. Now that batch only went through Kapooka and they only done their basic training, so it was up to us to put them through their infantry training. So while we were waiting for the first couple of months, there was only a skeleton force of D Company, mainly NCOs and officers and ‘Q’ people and so were just preparing for those people coming, preparing lessons and training aids and things like that so when they come in, that we grab them straight away you know.
GM Do you reckon that’s a better way to go with a battalion doing its own corps training, or better to have something like the Infantry Centre?
LD Well, it’s probably hard to say. I thought it was good, because you got to train the blokes that you were going away with and train them to the way you wanted to train them. But not taking anything away from the Infantry Centre, because those instructors down there are real qualified instructors not saying that we weren’t, but that is their job.
LD But, I still think that it was probably better, because you’re training them, they get to know you. They’ve got to work with you when they get over there and you start afresh with the team, you make your team, and you teach ‘em what you want to teach ‘em from the start and then everybody is on the same net.
GM Yeah, I mean, you’re really in-building all the SOPs aren’t you?
LD Yeah, yeah
GM They’re not having to learn the SOPs when they arrive from the Centre.
LD That’s my personal opinion.
GM Yeah, no, I mean I’ve done it was 8/9 RAR. I mean we had to it when 8/9 cranked up. Okay, so, you doing all this corps training but now you’re a corporal?
GM In a rifle section, in 12 Platoon.
GM Right. What’s sort of exercises did you do?
LD We were doing pretty solid exercises; we would be going out, we’d go out on Monday mornings and we’d come back Friday afternoon, practically all the time. Have the weekend off and go out to the bush again and then we’d do maybe a ten-day exercise. But after the corps training, the basic corps training was finished, then we really got, we were out in the bush all the time you may as well say.
GM You’d being a Reg at that stage for about eight years, and all of a sudden you’ve got all these National Servicemen in your organisation. What did you think of the Nashos?
LD Well, I was a bit apprehensive first up but after I got to work with them, I really thought they were great blokes, I’ll tell you that now. I thought they were, I know that they’d been, they’d won the lottery and they’d come in and I thought, you know, we’re gonna have a hell of a time with these blokes because they are not gonna reform and carry on. But no, they knew that they had a job to do and I’ve got nothing against National Servicemen at all, in fact, I think they done a wonderful job.
GM Yeah, it must be something about the Army that sort of gets them in. Very few guys jacked up, I mean…
LD Hardly any, I didn’t see any.
GM Yeah, yeah. And you had a National Service platoon commander?
LD Yeah, yeah, we had Dave Sabben and he topped his course at Scheyville. The trouble is of Dave and myself, we didn’t see eye to eye a lot, because I was from the old school and learnt off the wrong people I suppose, you know drinking and carrying on, and Dave was by the book. But I think we respected each other. He respected me as a soldier and I certainly respected him as an officer. But we used to have our, our little heated moments.
GM Yeah, Okay. So after all this corps training and exercises you go off to Vietnam. How did you get to Vietnam?
LD We went by plane from Amberley.
GM Jets or Hercs?
LD Yep, no, yeah, 707s.
LD Qantas, yeah, we went by Qantas and we left about midnight and then we pulled up at Manila in the morning, sometime in the morning - I can’t remember what time it was - we were only there for an hour and a half or something while they refuelled and then straight on to Saigon.
GM What was your impression when you, when you got out at Saigon? I mean you left Brisbane in the middle of winter?
GM In around about this time of year.
LD Oh, well, having the experience of the weather in Malaya, I knew what to expect, but getting off the plane at Saigon and looking around the airport there and just seeing the equipment and fighters and every sort of aeroplane in the world taking off and landing, it was just mind-boggling.
GM Yeah, I mean it’s just totally out of the whole scale of what you’re used to isn’t it?
LD Just to see the equipment, people running around and everybody seemed to be going somewhere, but going nowhere you know.
GM So how did you get down to Nui Dat?
LD Well, first up we went down to Vung Tau.
GM Oh yeah.
LD We were supposed to go down there for a week and acclimatise and we were on the Back Beach and we had tents and it was stifling. That was terrible.
GM Not much wind down there.
LD No, and anyhow, before we done our week - I am not sure just how long it was, but I know it was a few days before we were supposed to move up - that they told us that we’d be moving up early because there was a fair bit more activity going on. Even though that we knew that we were going up there to probably be shot at, I think everybody was just glad to get off the beach because it was…
GM It’s not a nice place is it?
GM It’s just sand hills and …
LD You just, don’t feel like doing anything. You know, you’re just, your energy just sopped out of you.
LD And even when we got up there under the rubber in the shade it was like paradise, but still stinking hot.
GM Yeah, it’s quite funny, and I mean it really wasn’t a pleasant place, I mean. We interviewed Maureen Javes and she was describing what it was like working in all the sand hills in Vung Tau in the hospital and it was pretty ordinary. Okay. Now you arrived in Nui Dat and basically it was a bare base.
LD Well where we went to it was virgin because we took up new positions. 6 RAR went to a brand new position. So the base was reasonably new, 5 RAR had been there - I don’t know how long. But where we went was completely brand new.
GM So, how did you spend those first couple of weeks?
LD Patrolling, digging in and standing to. And that was…
GM Hard work?
LD Very hard work, because you never got time to rest because you had to put up your defences, you had to dig your hole in the ground; you had to keep active on patrols out the front and making sure that no one’s creeping up on you and all that and just everything had to be done and hardly got any sleep at all - it was shocking.
GM And I guess the best part was when you went out on patrol you got a bit of rest.
LD Well this is right yes, you’d go out on patrol and you halted for an hour or so and your could try and catch up with, you know, put out a couple of sentries and try and catch up on a little bit of sleep.
GM Yeah. Okay. It was real early days for the task force in Phuoc Tuy Province. What were you expecting from operations at that stage?
LD Looking back on it, I don’t think I was expecting anything really. I was just sort of there and what come, come. I wasn’t looking at great big attacks or whatever in fact, I suppose, we were working that hard, you didn’t have time to think much about it. But I do remember my platoon sergeant, old Paddy Todd; he was a very old soldier and had a lot of experience, but he said to me one time, he says, ‘These Cong are not just gonna let us come in here and take over this place,’ he says. ‘They’ve been controlling this province for years and years,’ he says. And then ‘They’re not just gonna walk out and let us just walk in and take over,’ he says, ‘they’ll hit us one day.’ And he was right, poor old Paddy.
GM Yeah. Now you, you did some operations after that?
LD Yeah, yeah, when we first got there.
LD Yeah, our first operation was down to Long Phuoc and that was search and destroy and that sort of woke me up a bit. These beautiful old buildings that were just burnt to the ground.
GM When they were doing all the relocations?
LD And it saddened me a bit I thought, you know, that the people have lived there and especially when you come across a place and you’re going through it and you find kids homework books and things, you know, you can sort of relate that. My God, this was somebody’s house one time and now we’re torching it and they weren’t just little atap huts either. They were substantial houses.
GM Yeah, one of the, one of the worst parts of it I guess. So you did all that and then did you have any contacts in any of these preliminary operations?
LD Down at Long Phuoc there was … we had a couple of contacts, minor contacts they were, mainly people just taking pot shots and scooting off. So, nothing, nothing major at that time. We were just close to B Company one time when they run into about a company and they had a fair, fair stoush and we were just off to the side. We were very close and it was, could hear it pretty much. We didn’t get entangled in that one and there was more or less people just running into each other, there was a few shots fired and off they’d go, you know. Nothing real startling.
GM So, about what percentage of your platoon would have been National Servicemen do you think?
LD I think, I think must have been half at least. So you actually know that, nobody seemed to worry too much about who was Nashos, who was Regs, you know. It didn’t seem to worry me.
GM Just all melded into one.
LD Didn’t seem to bother much about who was who, but it must’ve been about half if I look back on it, at least half. I couldn’t give a definite number or couldn’t even go near I don’t think.
GM So, really 12 Platoon had a fairly incident-free run until the battle of Long Tan?
LD Reasonably, yeah, yeah, yeah.
GM Okay. Now, the battle of Long Tan is looked upon as being the icon of the Vietnam War from an Australian perspective, and you were either lucky or unlucky enough to have been in it. Did you have any idea that this sort of thing was building up?
LD Personally I didn’t know. I didn’t have any clue at all. I thought that we would just be having contacts until the day I come home.
LD We might get into a big one, when I say a big one, we might run into a platoon or something, but I never expected anything like that, although I should’ve listened to my old platoon sergeant.
GM Well Paddy was right wasn’t he?
LD An old warrior.
GM I mean he was spot on the money. What about the mortaring of the base, or the rocketing of the base, with the recoilless rifles and mortars the night before? Did you remember that?
LD Yes, I certainly did because my section was on duty that night on…
GM On gun picket?
LD On picket yeah. And first up I wasn’t sure whether it was going out or coming in. So I got on the blower and I said, ‘What’s going on? Are we getting hit or is it going out?’ And they said it was coming in. So they asked me to take compass bearings and report back in. But you see it was going right over us and hitting up around the SAS and that, and it seemed so far away where it was actually falling. We stood to and everybody stood to and they said, ‘Oh they might put an attack on us’ and all this. There were rumours were going round everywhere, so it wasn’t actually a night that would’ve went down in my mind at the time of something … really it was happening.
GM Okay. But on the 18th August, you didn’t get to see the concert party either?
LD No, but I got to give Little Pattie a hug and a kiss about two years ago.
GM Okay. You got moved out to check these (mortar) base plates and stuff didn’t you?
GM Would you like to just take us through from the time where you’d had lunch; you’d stopped for lunch, where I think B Company had found something?
LD Yeah, we married up with B Company, the patrol from B Company, and they showed us where they’d found the mortar position and I didn’t actually get to see it myself because I was on the perimeter. I heard that they’d found some blood and clothing and that. So we realised, the artillery - the night before - must have got a couple. So then we sort of said goodbye to B Company. Everybody was probably thinking, oh yes well, they’re (the enemy) gone now.
GM They hit the toe?
LD Yeah, we’ll follow them up. So we just started back about 3 o’clock I think it was, we started in the afternoon. Started going on our, the rest of our patrol and…
GM And moving as a company?
LD Moving as a company, two up and one back. 11 Platoon on the right, 10 Platoon on the left, and 12 Platoon in reserve.
GM And in rubber?
LD In rubber, yep.
GM So fairly cool?
LD It was a nice peaceful walk.
GM For a short period of time. And then, and it was fairly open so you are spread out?
LD Yes, yes, you could see for a long way, so you know, clean rubber was pretty good and yes, it was just another afternoon having a wander round.
GM And then sometime after 3 o’clock things started to happen.
LD Yeah, well, there was a few shots fired. Coming from 11 Platoon’s area and the word was that they’d run across a couple of people or something and they’d got one weapon and I’m not sure whether they said they’d got the body or whatever happened. But I know that they said they captured one weapon. But everything seemed - started to move very quickly after that, and then it wasn’t so long after that when the Viet Cong opened up. It was just one noise. It was something I’d never heard before, you know, the noise was phenomenal.
GM All small arms?
LD Yeah, yeah. And that was first up all small arms and, you know, I look back and I think, gee I never, didn’t ever, it sounded more that day than it does even on the range when you got a detail on the range.
GM All firing at once, yeah.
LD Yeah, and, and then I probably thought to myself, my God, this is not just a contact, you know, this is something more than a contact.
GM So what was 12 Platoon doing while all that was going on?
LD Well, while that had happened, while 11 Platoon were (in contact), what was happening was in 12 Platoon, everybody more or less went to ground and waited to hear what was happening up there and then and things get a bit blurred - I must admit that. Things were happening. I know that 10 Platoon were told to, or 11 Platoon must of told company headquarters that they were, they were getting hit by the (enemy), on the flank or probably all round or something, then they sent 10 Platoon up on the left to try and break up the enemy up there. Now I know that 10 Platoon run into people (enemy) up there. I was still back, 12 Platoon was still back with company headquarters. I remember one bloke Brian Hornung - he was the sig for 10 Platoon - I remember him coming back in. He had shrapnel hanging out his throat or somewhere so that must have been when they started dropping some mortars in. And I think, or did he have a bullet wound, I can’t remember, but I know that he’d been either shot or something and must have been a bullet because it went through his sig set. But I remember him passing me going through to company headquarters and then…
GM So you were out, so you were sort of protecting company headquarters?
LD Yeah. And I remember some mortars coming in around our area and then I remember being told that we were going (forward). 12 Platoon was to go up to the right and relieve pressure on 11 Platoon from their right.
GM So you’re heading south yeah?
LD Yeah, and there was, you know, everybody says that, you know, 12 Platoon went up there. Well it wasn’t 12 Platoon fully; it was only two sections less. One section was kept back with company headquarters and a couple of blokes from each of the other sections. So it was only probably half the platoon which was - they always say 12 Platoon went up - it was only probably half the platoon.
GM Oh Okay. Right, were you in that group?
LD Yeah. Me and Chico Miller.
GM And what happened when you went up?
LD Well, we were going up and the funny thing was, we were going up and I looked around and I seen these blokes down to my right and they had stuff hanging out of their hat and everything and I thought it was B Company blokes and I said to my 2IC I said, ‘Don’t tell me that’s B Company that’s come back is it?’ And he looked down and he said, ‘No,’ he says, ‘they’re bloody Charlie!’ He was an ex-1 RAR bloke and he’s ‘No, they’re Charlie.’ So Sabben put us down and we started firing on (them). They were, they were, they were lining up to assault company headquarters, that’s what we think they were doing, so Sabben put us down and we fired down the line of trees where these blokes were forming up and we really got stuck into them there. And the blokes that were in front of them, forming out in front of them, didn’t know what had happened. They’d turned around and come back through where we were firing and they walked straight into our fire too so…
GM So you really had them enfiladed?
LD So we had ‘em, yeah, we done, it just happened to be that way at that time yeah. And then we got fired on from a different angle and we went to ground then and we were pinned down there until then some of the blokes from 11 Platoon did manage to get back to us. We threw smoke and to give them an idea. They come through us so, some, they come back to us. Some, there was a rumour going round that, that when 12 Platoon shot on 11 Platoon that were coming back. That is not right. What had happened to those blokes that had got hit on the withdrawal back from 11 Platoon, they come under fire from our, when we threw smoke, the Cong started firing into the smoke and they run through it. But no, that was not a very good rumour to spread round that we were shooting our own blokes.
GM Was that, was that noise still going from the bad guys?
LD Yep, yeah the noise was, you were, you know, it would come up and then it would sort of ease off and then it would come up again, you know. So that noise went on and on and for a long while, yeah.
GM OK, so how, how were your guys reacting to all of this?
LD Very well, very well I thought. You know, young fellas, first time under fire. No, no I can’t see any…
GM Because you were 27, you’re…
LD I was an old man!
GM You were an old man compared to them, I mean…
LD And I thought that they’d done one mighty job; I never had anybody fall to pieces or anything.
GM When did you get, when did you reckon you first got an idea of how bad 11 Platoon had been chopped up?
LD Probably when the, when - I was just talking about when the blokes that were coming back from 11 Platoon come back to 12 Platoon, and then we could sort of get an idea just how bad it was because Bob Buick was in amongst that mob and he told the platoon commander and Paddy Todd just what had happened up there. And then everybody knew that it was pretty, pretty, you know, terrible because we didn’t even know what would happen. All we knew that there was a hell of a lot of people firing at each other up there, but until we actually got confirmation back from Buick what it was like … then we knew that this was something else.
GM When you went down to help 11 with your half a platoon and Dave and Chico, was it raining then?
LD Yes, yes it was, I just can’t remember now. It must have been, must have been raining then. Or did it rain, or did it start raining, did it start raining before we moved up, everything was a bit of a blur at that time.
GM And that was heavy rain wasn’t it?
LD That was the heaviest rain I’d seen, I reckon.
GM And you’ve been in Malaya.
LD I’d been two years in Malaya and I’ve seen some heavy rain, but everybody that you talk to that was at the battle that day, I always say, what if, what do you remember about that day? The rain, the rain, everybody talks about the rain, you know.
GM I mean it’s just, it was just so ironic that in the biggest battle we ever had we also had the heaviest, nastiest storm. I mean, it was like God was sort of, you know, letting loose on everybody.
LD Well, yeah, and then you know, I’ve, people have asked me before, did it hinder you or did it help you? And I said, it done a bit of both, but it would’ve done the same to the enemy anyhow. So maybe it might’ve been good in one way, maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know.
GM Yeah, so the survivors of 11 (Platoon) come back. What happened after that?
LD Some of them, some of them.
GM Some of them, yeah. So that’s right, because a couple of blokes, Jimmy Richmond and that were left out there.
LD And another couple, they’d made their own way back another way. They’d got back to company headquarters through another route.
LD But when they got (back), well when we realised how that many we had - and I can’t even tell you how many it was that got back to us. And when we knew that there probably wouldn’t be any more (coming) back and we were still pinned down at the time and then there was a bit of a lull in it, and we did make our way back to company headquarters.
GM And how did you do that? Was is it a case of just firing and moving back or...?
LD Fire and movement. My section, they gave my section the wounded; I was told to take the wounded and lead back down to company headquarters while Chico and platoon headquarters had done fire and movement back and they more or less protected my arse as I…
GM Sort of like a fighting withdrawal?
LD Yeah, sort of, well, well, it was a fighting withdrawal and I scooted off with the wounded.
GM And how badly were these guys wounded?
LD They were all walking; we didn’t have to carry anybody.
LD But, you know, I’m saying that, you know, some of them were shot in the chest but they were still being able to walk. At that time it was very hard, it would’ve been very hard to carry anybody.
LD It would’ve been, you know.
LD So, if, it was just a help along and they sort of shuffled along and that was it.
GM So, back into company headquarters?
LD Yep, we got back into company headquarters. By that time 10 Platoon had already got back to company headquarters, and then what we had left in the company, we put up a perimeter and from then on it was more or less, I would say that’s where we stayed in that perimeter and hopefully then wait for reinforcements or the inevitable.
GM So, it sounds, I mean it sounds easy to say now, but it must have been bloody, must have been heart in your mouth stuff at the time.
LD Well, I done a couple of laps around the rosary beads, so …
GM Now, which, which, whereabouts were you, were you on the perimeter?
LD Yeah, I was, I was up on the well, hard to say where. There was 10 Platoon and 12 Platoon more or less out the front where the attacks were coming from. 10 Platoon were taking the most of the assault, and my section was just on … we married up with 10 Platoon and we were getting the leftovers from the side and then around the back, I don’t who they had. I know that they had one section of 12 Platoon and probably one section of Chico, no, no, no wrong, they had, no the one section of our platoon, company headquarters still had them, plus the extra couple of blokes from each section, so they must have put them around the other side I suppose. I don’t know.
GM Now, what were the enemy doing?
LD When they were doing their assault they would get so far up and then they’d go down, and you would probably think that you’d mowed that lot down, but then the next wave come and blokes were getting up and joining that wave and coming in with them. So although you were killing people out there, everybody that went down wasn’t dead. They were just waiting for the next wave to come through and then they’d join them. Pretty clever.
GM How were they coordinating it all?
LD Bugles. That’s one thing I do remember, the bugles.
GM Could you, you could hear them?
LD Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, the bugles. When I started hearing the bugle, I knew that this is not just a little platoon or anything,
GM This is serious stuff!
LD Yeah, because they don’t, they don’t use buglers just…
GM No, that’s regimental activity. Yeah. When you started hearing all these bugles and seeing all these waves of attacks coming in, what was your reaction?
LD Very scared I’ll tell ya. But what more could you do, you couldn’t do anything else but just…
GM Fight for your life.
LD Fight on and there wasn’t much else you could do.
GM And how were you running your section? What were you doing with your blokes?
LD Just giving fire orders, making sure everybody could see. If you seen somebody, giving fire control orders, and that was about all you could do. If you seen somebody, or a bunch coming up on one side, just make sure that your gunner knew that they were there and it was more or less just fighting. There was no tactics to it …
GM And what were you using for cover?
LD The rubber trees, that’s all we had, the rubber trees.
GM And they weren’t that big were they?
GM They were only juvenile rubber. So, I mean you were just there trying to keep, keep a control of your blokes.
LD Yeah, just keeping the head down, firing to keep them off and just keeping control of the section.
GM How was, how was, how close did they ever get?
LD To me, to our section, probably 75 yards would be the closest, but 10 Platoon, they got very close; they got closer than that I hear, they got right up to them nearly.
GM So, what was, what was our artillery doing?
LD Our artillery was doing a magnificent job they were. Morrie Stanley, the Kiwi FOO, he was bringing the artillery in and he was bringing them in very close but he, it was, really chopping them about.
GM You could see that could you?
LD Yeah, yeah, oh yes, you could see the artillery just out in front of you and it was, it was getting stuck into them.
GM And what was happening to all the rubber trees?
LD Just getting devastated.
GM Yeah, just blowing around and…?
LD Getting blown and yeah.
GM Must have been noisy?
LD It was, it certainly was. Yeah, it was deafening.
GM And what sort of weapons were the enemy carrying?
LD Mainly AK-47s
GM So you got a lot of automatic fire coming in?
LD Oh, yeah, yeah.
GM And, when the enemy were firing at you, were they accurate or were they…?
LD Well, we were, we, we were on sort of a, on an incline. We, we had a bit of cover, so the bullets were just flying over the top so, yes, they were accurate, but we were just lucky that we were on this little bit of a slope and where the bullets were going over us. So, yeah, we were pretty lucky in that respect.
LD One thing that always sticks in my mind; I was fascinated by the tracer, the tracers - it seemed to go so slow. You could see it coming towards you and it just seemed to be coming so slow you know and it all…
GM They were using tracer were they?
GM Was it green?
LD Green and red I think it was. But I just remember, you know, thinking a bullet, why’s it going so slow?
GM Yeah, you must have seen blokes fall from your own fire.
GM What did that feel like?
LD I didn’t worry too much about it. I was, I was pretty scared, let me tell you.
LD And I thought well, you know, if I don’t, if I don’t fire at somebody and I, if I can’t rid of them, they’re gonna get rid of me, and I’m more important.
GM You must of thought at some stage that you were going to get over-run?
LD Yep. Well, yeah I suppose, I suppose it did go through the mind but…
GM Tried not to think about that.
LD Yeah, I don’t know whether, you know, I suppose, geez, we might get over run here, but then again, you might think, gee we might get out of this too, oh we might, there’s a lot of things, 101 things that go through the mind.
GM What was your greatest concern when you’re in that company perimeter and fighting off those attacks, what was your greatest concern?
LD I know that all throughout the battle, one of the greatest concerns that I had was we didn’t seem to get any information and we didn’t know whether anybody was coming out to help us, we didn’t know what was … well that was me anyhow. Our communications, well nobody knew exactly what was going on, but you know you always… All my training was always keep your troops informed - and nothing was coming back and I couldn’t, you know (tell them), you know, is anybody coming out? Did anybody let them know back there, or what’s happening, you know? And nobody could seem to say ‘Oh yes, reinforcements are on their way’, although I knew that there would be, but it was just, that nothing was getting down to the soldiers.
GM What is the incident that really stands out to you in that battle?
LD Well, I must admit, it must be when I lost my forward scout (Paul Large) because he was only just only a couple of metres away from me. So that … he was shot straight through the head. It was in the last part of the battle, I think it must have been within the last quarter of an hour. He was a National Serviceman. He went through with me from the start of infantry training. We drank together in the canteen, we drank together out in Brisbane. He was a friend of mine, although I was section commander. He was a friend and he used to confide in me a lot. I think he made me a father figure and he used to confide in me a lot and told me one night while we were on the grog in Brisbane, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get back from Vietnam.’
GM Did he?
LD Yeah. And I said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ you know. And he said, ‘No, I have that feeling.’ Then he says he came from a little country town, Coola down in NSW, it’s only a real little small town and he said, you know, he says, ‘I was the only bloke from Coola to come into the Army, get called up.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ He said ‘Yeah.’ he says, ‘but I don’t think I’ll ever get back to see me mates.’
GM What a dreadful premonition to have.
LD Yeah, yeah. And when, and when he copped it, you know, I thought, by God, you know. But yes, that was, yeah, so he was a good friend of mine, and, well he was a good friend of everybody’s. He was just one of those country boys that everybody liked, you know, and he was a real good guy.
GM Anyone else from your section get hit?
LD Bushy (Bryan) Forsyth, he got wounded in the hand. It went in his hand and up his arm and he kept (quiet), he didn’t tell anybody until it was all over and the reinforcements was in and I’m counting heads and seeing that everybody’s all right, and I said, everybody all right? And I thought Paul was the only one that I’d lost, me forward scout and Bushy says, ‘Sir, I think I’ve done something to me hand here.’
GM Because it was in the dark by then too wasn’t it?
LD Yeah, and I said, ‘What did you do?’ He said - I thought he might’ve ripped it on something.
LD And he said ‘No, Sir, I think, I think I might have a bullet in up here, I can feel the bullet in the arm.’
GM Is that right?
LD ‘Oh, well,’ I says, ‘you’re going back to the RAP.’
GM Tough bugger.
LD Oh yeah, he was only, he was only a kid too. He was only 18 (19). He was a regular soldier with 18 (19) years of age. And he says, ‘No, no, no. I’ll hold out until tomorrow morning, see what happens tomorrow morning.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going back to the RAP now.’ So he went back and he was choppered out that night with the wounded but he reckoned, he said, ‘No’, he said, ‘it’s only, only that I can still fire my weapon.’ Great bloke, only a kid, but oh God, what a piss head, he could drink, he could drink.
GM Now, what do you think was the real crescendo of the battle, when was that?
LD Oh, it’s hard to say, I can’t say when it was, the start of it seemed to be, you know, when everybody started firing all at once, or whether it was during the battle when they were putting in the attacks or whether it was the end when the APCs come through. It, to me, it just seemed to be like one thing right through, with no start, a start and a finish but nothing in between.
GM Just, just a great mass of activity?
LD I know that there was times when the firing had lulled down for a while then it would start up again, but to me, it just seemed to, it started there and then when the APCs come in at finish there and that was the actual battle. There was still a lot of work to do after that with getting the casualties back to the LZ and choppered out that night.
GM Were you worried about ammunition?
LD Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Ammunition was crucial, it was; we were running out of ammunition right, left and centre.
GM Were your soldiers, you know, did they, what was their fire discipline like?
LD Well, I told them that when I realised that this was going to go on for a while I told them to, you know, to just watch their ammunition and only, only fire if you could make it work and so, yes, we held out pretty well, but we did have to get re-supplied during the, during the time, but it was a bit scary because, see at that time we were only going out with three magazines – only 60 rounds.
GM I really can’t believe that. We learnt from what happened to you, because I mean, we’d take 120 for an SLR and we’d take 200 for an M-16.
LD Oh, there was a lot of things that was, a lot of lessons learnt from Long Tan that helped out I’d say for the rest of the war.
GM Oh definitely. Were you aware of the helicopter resupply?
LD Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard the choppers coming in. I didn’t actually know what they were doing. I heard them coming in and when they come in I asked what was going, what are they here for, and somebody said they’re bringing us in ammo and I thought, oh thank God for that.
GM Did you have much communication with your platoon commander?
LD Yeah, yeah.
GM Just by voice?
LD Just by voice, well only by voice. Yeah.
GM It would have been still hard to do. And it was still hosing down with rain when the choppers came over?
LD Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was still pissing down, pissed down most of the time.
GM When did it stop? When did the rain stop?
LD It must have been just before… you know my memory is buggered.
GM Was it before or after A Company arrived?
LD It would’ve been before A Company got in I think. Yeah, when the APCs come through with A Company; I’m sure it wasn’t raining, I’m sure it was over then. Yeah.
GM What did you, when were you aware that A Company were on the way?
LD Personally I probably didn’t know until they actually arrived there. There was stories going around, A Company’s on their way and that, but…
GM You couldn’t hear the APCs?
LD Not, not until they got right up to our position.
GM And the enemy was still firing?
LD Well, see A Company and the APCs run into a group of enemy at the back that were gonna…
GM They were going to roll you guys?
LD They were gonna roll us up from there. It was lucky that A Company and APCs come through at that time and broke that attack up and then, well from there, then A Company and the APCs were in amongst us and then that’s when I probably, yes, they’re here! And…
GM How did you feel then?
LD As somebody once said before, it was like the, the cavalry coming in to save the wagon train. You know, it was just…
GM Well, you had circled your wagons, hadn’t you?
LD Yeah well, we had, yeah and it was, everybody was sort of thought, oh, we’re right, somebody’s here, we’ve got a chance, you know?
GM Plus you had X number of APCs each with a machine gun on top which really helps.
LD So actually, that’s when I myself thought, well, you know, we’ve, I think we might get out of this. Yeah, gonna live till tomorrow.
GM Yeah, who’s the person that most stands out in your memory from that battle?
LD Must be Jack Kirby.
LD Oh, yeah. Has to be.
GM Now, he was the Company Sergeant Major.
LD Yeah, yeah. Jack.
GM What was, what was Jack doing that sort of made you sit up and take notice?
LD Well, Jack was… I guarantee he must have been and visited everybody in the company while the battle was going on.
GM Is that right?
LD From the lowliest soldier up, he went round, he was giving morale. He’d plonk down beside you and say a couple of words, ‘she’ll be right mate’, or something like that you know. In fact he come down, he plonked himself down beside me at one stage and he said, he said, ‘Do you know anybody out there?’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking he’s meaning, you know, is there any of our blokes out there. And I said, ‘No, no, no.’ He said, ‘Well that’s all right,’ he says, ‘just shoot anybody you don’t know.’ You know, things like this and he was, and then he’d get up from me and he’d run down to someone else, and he’d plonk himself down and say something to someone else and so he was keeping the morale of the troops up and and of course, he was a big man.
GM Oh yeah.
LD And, you know, and I thought well how come he didn’t get hit, you know. He made such a big target and he must of went and visited every soldier on the perimeter and…
GM So he just, keeping the…
LD Keeping the morale up and then when the ammunition come in, he was bringing the ammunition out himself with the help of others, but he was actually bringing the ammunition out himself and throwing it around, so. I’ve always said that he should have got a VC that day.
LD He was, he was great.
GM But he did win a Distinguished Conduct Medal but unfortunately died later on, didn’t he? Were there any funny incidents? I mean, it may sound silly to ask a question like that, but during the battle was there anything that you just thought I don’t believe this is happening or…?
LD Well, I suppose the funniest thing was when Big Jack come down and told me to shoot anybody I didn’t know, you know. I don’t think anything else really stands out as funny. But…
GM Any strange things maybe?
LD Yeah, the whole day was pretty strange.
LD But I do, this wasn’t about the battle, but one funny thing that I thought I might relate to you happened just after we got there. We had, somebody had captured this old fella in around Phuoc Tuy and he was in there, well I reckon he was in there fruit picking at the time. He wasn’t supposed to be and the ARVN had - I don’t whether it was the ARVN got him - or whether it was one of our other company, but anyhow, D Company was told, under interrogation he said that he was down there spying on the Viet Cong and he was gonna come back and tell us where they were and all that, and I think what he was doing was just fruit picking, but he made that story up so they, he said, ‘Oh yeah, I been spying on about 20 Viet Cong down in Long Phuoc.’ So they bundled D Company up and to send us down on a patrol for a search out what he was saying, but we took him along with us. I bet he didn’t think that was gonna happen! So we’re down there and once we got down there, we knew he didn’t know anything because he was saying, ‘I seen ‘em over there.’ And then he says, ‘No, they’re over there.’ And you could see that, and we had an interpreter with us and we had the IO with us too and we run across all these kids, oh, about half a dozen kids. So the IO said to the interpreter tell the kids that we’re playing a game with the Viet Cong and they’re hiding and we’re supposed to find them. So the interpreter gives a bit of a talking, kids have a talk to him and the IO asks, ‘What did they say,’ and the interpreter says, ‘The children say it’s not a very good idea to play games with the Viet Cong.’
GM Is that right?
LD And I nearly cracked up at that, but I thought that was one of the funniest things…
GM That’s a goody. I like that.
LD Kids about this high. ‘Not very good idea…’
GM It’s not a good idea. Yeah. Was the battle of Long Tan the toughest time you ever faced?
LD When you say the toughest, no, I gotta say no, because physically, we were pinned down most of the time and mentally, probably not because the job was there, it had to be done. I do remember, the most, the most mentally frustrating thing that I ever done, was one night we were sent out on a roving patrol, a half-platoon patrol into the rubber. It was in the time of the year when the leaves had fallen off the trees and they were all…
LD There was no moon. You couldn’t see your hand in front of you and we were to do this roving patrol and there was a half a platoon and we sounded like a bloody regiment and here we are supposed to walk around all night. And I said to the platoon sergeant, Lance Larcombe, I said, ‘Hey, this is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Everybody can hear us coming a mile off.’ And he said, ‘Well that was our orders, that’s what we gotta do.’ And I thought that was one of the most stupidest patrols I’ve ever been on in my life and I was absolutely shitting myself. The blokes that I had in my section they were coming up to me and they said that they were terrified. Just the noise that we were making and that, and I thought, all I can do I said, I’ve already been to Larcombe and said that I wasn’t happy and we’ve just got to go on with what he says. But I thought to myself later, whoever dreamed, dreamt that up needed a good reefing.
GM Well, I once had a bloke describe that sort of activity and trying to keep quiet as like trying to tip toe across cornflakes on a footpath. You just can’t do it.
GM Yeah. What sort of an impact did the battle have on, on 12 Platoon and your guys?
LD Well, I don’t know whether it made an impact personally, inside, but when we come back after the battle, everybody, I couldn’t see a great change in the way we worked. Or I couldn’t see a great change in more people going on sick parade or trying to shirk out of anything. Of course, 6 RAR tried to keep, keep it suppressed, if that’s the right word, in that much as, don’t let become, don’t let D Company become a sort of a ‘we are D Company’ and then they got A, B and C Company.
GM Well there was enough of that anyway.
GM Before it even started with Harry.
LD Yeah, that’s right.
GM But I mean, but guys didn’t go gun shy on you?
LD No, I couldn’t see a great deal of change in them, in the way they worked. I know that there were blokes that used to do a lot of sitting, sitting by ‘emself at times and contemplating, but it never affected the way they performed.
GM Well, that’s to be expected isn’t it? Was, I just want to have a guess here, would the saddest time you had in Vietnam have been the 19th of August going back in?
LD No, the saddest time I had over there was, yes, of course, going back in and Jack Kirby gave me the job of rounding up a few blokes and taking them up to pick up our dead. But no, the saddest time I can honestly tell you was when Jack got killed. I was in Charlie Company at that time and I was, we were out on an operation and I was on the, the ready reaction force and it was only a platoon at the time. They had this ready reaction force that worked with the APCs and word come over that D Company had been hit and me being ex-D Company we had, we were told to get on the APCs and go. We thought they were being hit by the enemy; and as we all know now it was the New Zealand artillery that was dropping in on them. And then on the way, they said, ‘No, they haven’t been hit by the enemy they’ve been hit by our own fire.’ Okay. And then just before we got there, they said the CSM’s been killed and that really broke me up. Why I was up in Charlie Company was (because) I got busted from corporal down to private. I’d went on leave and forgot to come home. Fell in love.
GM But (reduced from) corporal! Whereabouts, in Vietnam?
LD In Vung Tau, yeah.
GM Oh right.
LD So, I came home…
GM You got busted back to private?
LD Yeah, well as the CO said, ‘What happened to you?’ and I said, ‘I got on the grog and went to sleep,’ and course it isn’t hard to understand why I went to sleep. And he said, ‘Well you didn’t sleep all that day and half way through the next did you?’ And I said, ‘No I didn’t.’ He said, if when you woke up that if you’d made some attempt to get back, but when you just decided I’m AWOL now, and I’ll take another couple of days off, he says, ‘I can’t forgive that,’ he says. ‘I give private soldiers 14 and 21 days field punishment.’ He said, ‘I can’t just let one of my NCOs do it and give him a slap on the wrist,’ he says, ‘so you’re reduced to the ranks.’ So I went up to Charlie Company then and, and we were onto, that’s how I got to Charlie Company.
GM Was that a kick in the guts leaving Delta?
LD Yes it was, yes. It really hurt, but I knew that it was my fault and the result of stupidity. But Jack was, oh that’s what I was going to tell you, why that it hurt and I thought about Jack. Because, when I was waiting to go up to see the CO, Jack called me over and he sat me on the sand bags and he says, he propped himself up and he says, ‘Come here and sit here Drinkie,’ and I got up beside him and he said, he just put his head down and he says, ‘A waste, a waste.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘A waste of a good NCO.’ And I said, ‘Oh well, nothing can be done about it,’ and as soon as I was told that Jack had died, the first thing I thought of, ‘a waste’… and I’m starting to get a bit teary.
GM What sort of an affect did, did the loss of Jack Kirby have on the company?
LD I think, well, as I say I wasn’t in the company at that time, I was up at Charlie Company by then, but the feedback I got, because I’d come down to see my mates at times, yeah, I think it had a pretty, pretty bad affect on the company. I couldn’t, I couldn’t, go into it because, as I say, I wasn’t working with him at the time.
GM Did you spend the rest of your tour in Charlie Company?
GM As a Digger? Or did you get your rank back?
LD No, no I, I got up there and, no I didn’t get my rank back. I started drinking a bit and I, no…
GM You were following your name, were you?
LD Yeah, yeah, I got into a bit of trouble up there too.
LD On with grog.
GM So, you finished the rest of the tour out with Charlie Company?
LD With Charlie Company and when I come back, went on leave, and come, when I come back off leave, I went back to D Company then as a private, and they went to, they had six months at Canungra, as the Demonstration Company and I left, I left them. When they went to Townsville, I didn’t go to Townsville. I went to the Aviation Regiment.
GM Okay. Right. Now, this, the differences between soldiering in Malaya, in Vietnam? It must have been worlds apart?
LD It was, it was. It was completely different.
GM But did you get anything out of Malaya that you were able to use in Vietnam?
LD Oh, sure yeah, yeah. Just, just the basic thing of soldiering, working in another country, working in a tropical area, knowing on the border operations, knowing that there could be enemy there. Yeah, oh yes, I think Malaya was a great help to us.
GM So, you, you reckon you were pretty well prepared for your tour in Vietnam?
LD Yes, I, in fact, I’d say that our company, D Company, was very well prepared even besides the people that had had experience before, the National Servicemen, because, yeah, I think, yeah, we were very well prepared. And Harry made it that way.
GM Yeah. Now, when you went to Canungra, before you went to Vietnam, you were told a whole lot of things about the war and the enemy and all that, and then you went through the battle of Long Tan, did you reassess? Or did you think they’ve got it really wrong there at Canungra or what?
LD No, we’d, I’m not sure whether our whole company or whether it was before, there was a mob that, an intelligence mob came and I remember sitting in on a lecture, and they were showing us movies from Dien Bien Phu and the French were there, so I knew that the Viet Cong or the Viet Minh were very capable people. You know, I had no, no hesitation of thinking that they were just a rag-tag Army that you know, that fire a couple of rounds and run away, I knew that they were, you know, they could do it right because they had plenty of practice didn’t they?
GM Yeah. They knocked off the French. What did you personally think of the enemy anyway?
LD I thought they were very good soldiers, I knew they were very capable and I sort thought of them as a soldier, the same as I was.
LD I didn’t hate them. I, I would’ve have liked to think that I hated them while I was there, but I never hated, I couldn’t say that I actually hated them because every one that I buried, I always said a prayer over them when I buried them. No…
GM I mean they’re the enemy, aren’t they, that’s it.
LD Yeah, and when they’re laying down there with a big bullet hole in them; it brings them down to size doesn’t it? It, so I couldn’t, I couldn’t you know, look at him, and say, you know and feel that hate and want to chop off his ears and all that sort of thing like some people, not our forces, but like some other forces might have done but, no I didn’t feel any hatred. I used to make out I did in front of everybody else, you know, I hate those bastards, but not really.
GM Yeah, did you ever have a mine incident?
LD The only real mine incident that I went through was when Col(in) Lithgow was blown up and he was in another platoon of the same company, D Company and it was initiated by one of their mines but he had a Claymore (mine) over his shoulder and it was round his back and the shrapnel from the enemy mine had set off his Claymore and blew him completely in half.
LD I spent a lot of time soldiering with Col, and that hurt me a little. Well, hurt me a lot. But that was a pretty devastating thing. He was, the top half of him was there and the bottom half of him was down there.
GM I mean that’s a devastating thing to happen.
LD Pretty gruesome, yeah.
GM How did the loss of your mates affect you when you were on operations?
LD To be honest with you, of course you must feel for them, but then you also think well this is part and parcel of what we’re here for. It has to happen, somebody has to die. I’ve never seen a war where everybody comes out unscathed. I must admit that sometimes I thought to myself, thank God you and not me. But, nothing really got me at the time. It was always seemed to be later when it hit, a couple of days later.
GM When you weren’t busy?
LD Yeah, when you had time to think about it, but while you were working, righto it’s happened. You’re upset of course. You feel for him, but where it really starts to get you is couple, with me anyhow, a couple of days later and when you’re sitting down, probably with nothing on your mind, you start thinking and then you might go away by yourself and have a little reminisce over things.
GM Yeah. Now, casualty evacuation was a big part of the war in Vietnam by helicopters. On the night of the 18th of August, or the morning of the 19th, early, very early in the morning, you guys were evacuating people out you said?
LD Yeah, yeah
GM And did the helicopters land or winch them out or what?
LD No, no, no. They landed.
GM They landed?
LD They were taken back by APC, from the battle area, taken by APC to an LZ which wasn’t prepared. It was just a big open rice paddy I think it was, it might’ve been or something, but it was a big clear area and the APCs sat around on the corners and they opened their turrets with their lights on so that they could see and the choppers came in, landed, put the dead and wounded on the choppers and they flew out.
GM Okay. Did you yourself ever get wounded or hospitalised?
LD No, no.
GM Okay. Did you ever go down to the hospital?
LD I did spend a couple of days in the hospital down on the Back Beach. Nothing more serious than piles.
GM Oh Jesus.
LD I had piles, so obviously I had haemorrhoids.
GM Did you get to work with any of our Allies?
LD No, not really, no, only except the Kiwis, you know, our FO team and sometimes I do remember a couple Kiwis coming out with us on patrol and that was before they, before the NZ… I do remember Kiwi’s being there.
GM So you had two companies of them.
LD Yeah. And but, never really worked with them except for our, our artillery team. So, but I worked with them in Malaya.
LD Yeah, I thought the Kiwis were pretty good.
GM How do you think the Australians stack up against the rest as soldiers?
LD Oh, they’re the best aren’t they?
GM Are they?
LD I, you know, without patting myself on the head or anything, I do believe the Australian soldier is way ahead of any other soldier because he’s so adaptable. He, he can be in one situation one minute and do a good job and taken to another situation completely different and still adapt very quickly and I always believe that, and not just thinking about Vietnam, thinking about you know, Second World War. Take the Second World War, we had blokes over in the desert and then they bring them home and they go to Borneo and New Guinea. And here’s the same blokes and they adapt straight away from the desert to the jungle, you know, which is two separate things. No, I think the…
GM We had ski troops in Syria during the Second World War.
LD Yeah, I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that until just recently.
GM Yeah. Yeah, I guess, and he’s a, he’s a fairly, he’s got a bit of initiative.
LD Yeah, yeah. If you can lose a commander, there’s always somebody there to step into his shoes and do the job properly just as good.
GM And I guess that’s our training system.
LD Well, we are trained that way aren’t we, that…
GM Step up?
LD That you always got to be able to step up one rung at least.
GM Now, do you ever look back when people say, Battle of Long Tan, do you ever look back and then go, how did I get through that?
LD Oh, geez yes. Yes of course.
LD Yes, you know, so many times I’ve thought, you know, the odds were against us so much, you know, why, why did we get out of it. How?
GM Why did you? Why do you reckon you got out of it? The company?
LD Well, I suppose that I think of, I think it was the training. I think people might argue against me on this, but I think if it was, if it wasn’t for Harry Smith and the way that we were trained before we went maybe… Maybe Harry might’ve made everybody hate him that much that all they could see was Harry Smith. I don’t know but Harry was a great bloke I think. He worked us hard, we used to call him all the bastards under the sun and everything, but you know for what he’d done, but did it pay off in the end.
GM Maybe toughened you up?
LD Well, I think it gave us that sort of mental thing that we are going to do it and that was, you know, the old story the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. I think the battle of Long Tan was won walking in Shoalwater Bay and Canungra.
GM And those boots were made for walking.
LD Good on you Nancy.
GM Yeah, yeah. Now how did you feel when you came home?
LD A funny feeling. It was a funny feeling. I was going with a girl only for a few months before I went away and while I was over there I was writing to her and I proposed to her. We were going to get married when I come back. She met me at the wharf. I went and stayed with her for a couple of days and while I was there, I just couldn’t believe, just, just, just wasn’t, just wasn’t a, it was like another planet you know and I said to her, I said, ‘Oh look, I better go home and see my parents.’ So I went back to Sydney to see my parents and I never went back to her. But Australia just seemed to be a place where there was no tension, there was no, everybody, it was just a funny sort of feeling. A peaceful feeling in a way, but not enough was happening, if you know what I mean. You know, something should be happening. People shouldn’t be just walking around, drinking beer at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and going home. There should be something else happening, you know. You know, it was just like Alice in Wonderland.
GM Did you come home on the (HMAS) Sydney?
LD I come home on the Sydney yeah.
GM What was that trip like?
LD Pretty good actually. Yeah, yeah, well, we weren’t doing any training. All we’re mainly doing was sitting around getting our gear ready for the, the march through Brisbane. So, nobody was hassling, because we were coming home and the National Servicemen they were going to be out straight away so nobody, it was, it was a bloody good holiday in fact.
GM What do you reckon you learnt from your time in Vietnam? Besides the fact that you should try and get back when you’re AWOL.
LD Well, yes, yes. Won’t go into that again. What I learnt, I learnt that pretty futile thing, war. I’m not a deadset pacifist but I’ve come to respect other people’s rights more. Not be conned by politicians. Not to believe everything that I’m told just because our side says it and probably don’t race into things, don’t let us ever go away and fight somebody else’s war or just to, to snivel up to some other country or anything like that and that, yes, I’m just sort of that way that it, I just don’t want to see our good soldiers go away for something stupid like that and not just them dying. But I met the parents and sisters and brothers of Vietnam vets that haven’t come back and I feel for them and 30 years later I meet them and I still cry and because I think, you know, you’ve lost something, I’ve lost something, we’ve all lost something and what do we gain? Bugger all.
GM Yeah, I guess you’ve answered the questions, which was, was Australia’s involvement worth the effort and the lives?
LD No. no.
GM I guess no life’s worth it, is it?
LD No, no. If, if we, if our country was gonna be overrun, by all means. I have a son now in East Timor (2001); he’s not there now. He’s had one tour in East Timor; he’s just getting ready to go back. I’ve got no hesitation on him going there because what they’re doing there is for, for a humanitarian cause, but us going to Vietnam was not for any humanitarian thing or to liberate the people the South from the North. It was just a show of ‘we’re on your side’ and the place was so corrupt.
GM It was political ideology wasn’t it? I mean, it was all about communism versus capitalism, east versus west, blah, blah, blah.
LD And what used to annoy me was you’d have these Yanks working in Q Stores somewhere down on the wharves where they’d never get shot at in a million years. And they’re making millions of dollars out of selling stuff to the enemy so that the enemy can use it to kill their own people out in the field and that was, oh my God, that used to make me boil. We come, we, we took a hospital complex one time, and all I could see strewn around was medical supplies, hands across the sea from America to the South Vietnam. Now where did they come from? They were being sold by our side, you know, and I thought, you know, this is, this is, crazy.
GM It’s another waste isn’t it? Have you, my last question Laurie is, have you got any regrets about going to Vietnam?
LD No, no I haven’t. No, I think that if I - I was due out of the Army at the time - and I don’t think I wanted … I would’ve got out, but I was toying with the idea and I … in fact I went to Harry, I got an interview with Harry. ‘Are we going to Vietnam?’ And he says, ‘I can’t say yes or no.’ And I said, ‘Well I’ve got to either sign on and go or get out,’ and I said, ‘I want to know.’ And he said, ‘Well I can’t tell you,’ he says, but he said, ‘I’ll tell you this, if you do sign on, you’ll get a trip.’ So I signed on, so yes, I did want (to go). I’m glad that I did go to Vietnam because I think it made me a better person, it made me look at other people. Have more respect for other people. See a different way of looking at myself and I think that if I didn’t go and I, when it ended, I would’ve hated myself for the rest of my life. I have three good friends that I was in Malaya with. They got out and they didn’t go and although they don’t actually say it, I know that they would’ve like to have gone.
GM Yeah. Good answer. Laurie is there anything else that you’d like to say or that I haven’t covered or you’d like to add to what you’ve said?
LD I think we’ve covered a fair bit and I can’t just recall anything off hand that I’d like to say except that I’m, I’m glad that something like this is being done. Because when I come to live up here on the Coast. I was asked - I was the only Long Tan veteran living on the Coast for many years - and schools used to ask would I talk on Vietnam, especially when Terry Burstall’s book came out. There was one school, Kawana Waters, that were using his book as a modern history lesson, so they used to ask me, and then when that school asked me to talk, then other schools had heard about and I used to go around and talk at the schools and, and the kids nowadays are wanting to know about Vietnam. Second World War was too far back for them. The last war, big war we had was Vietnam and they are very interested and if we can get to the kids, let the kids know that... what was wrong with Vietnam. But our soldiers put up a good show. They didn’t do atrocities. They done it the way it was supposed to be done but let, tell the kids exactly what happened and no ‘gilding the lily’ or anything like that. And I think that if we can say that the Vietnam vet, tell the kids, let the kids know, then the kids might grow up with a bit more knowledge or if their time ever comes that they have to go to war they might know not to go into anything that is a bit silly or being conned into something that they shouldn’t be where they are. That’s my political statement for the day.
GM And a good one. Thanks Laurie.
LD Thank you Gary.
GM That was good.
End of Interview