Interviewee: Wayne Brown (WB)
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Date of Interview: Monday 28 May 2001
Place of Interview: Cotton Tree, Maroochydore
Transcribed by Laura Manasserian: 17 December 2001
Corrected and edited by Gary McKay: 6 February 2002
Final edit by Gary McKay & Caroline Foxon after interviewee perusal: 23 August 2002
Wayne Brown was born in Adelaide in 1945 and was studying and training as a psychiatric nurse when he was conscripted into National Service. He deferred the first draft until he graduated into his profession and was inducted into the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. He went to South Vietnam in May 1968 with 4 RAR and spent the majority of his tour as a rifle company corporal medic. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery when tending to casualties under fire.
Subject of Interview: Australians in South Vietnam, the Vietnam War 1965-72, (particularly 1968-69), training for war, training courses, combat and battle, deploying to, tactics, National Service, casualties, medical facilities and practices, morale, return to Australia.
GM This is a recording of an interview with Wayne Brown recorded by Gary McKay for Veterans’ Voices, Maroochy Libraries’ Innovations Project recorded at Cotton Tree on Monday 28th May 2001. Wayne, firstly thanks very much for joining us today. You’re a National Serviceman, who went to Vietnam. What were you doing and where were you living when you came up for the draft?
WB About that time I was living in Adelaide and was working as a psychiatric nurse at Glenside Hospital and I was undergoing training in a three-year course.
GM So you were doing all this psychiatric nursing, how did you get into the draft? Were you deferred, or…?
WB I was actually deferred. I was in the very first call-up that happened in ‘65 and I was about halfway through this nursing course and I just got married, had a house with two mortgages and things were going fairly well. Prior to that, I tried to join the Navy at 17 and rolled up to the recruiting office. They said ‘take your glasses off and read the chart’, and of course I had a bit of trouble and they said ‘see ya later’. I thought, oh well, I tried to do my bit and three years later I’m caught up in the National Service thing which sort of put the kybosh on what my plans were, for, you know, getting started with a family and qualifying. So I got a deferment for about 18 months and then they said we need medics in the Army, come in.
GM But you were qualified when you finished?
GM When you got called up?
WB Yeah, qualified psychiatric and mental deficiency nurse.
GM Because you would’ve been twenty-two.
GM So two years older than everybody else. How did you feel about being called up and ripped out of all of this marital bliss and all, how did you feel about it?
WB Very angry at first. I got to recruit training and I was pretty cranky and this officer said to me on the second day - you know I was walking across the parade ground and he said to me ‘pick up two hands full of gravel’. What the hell would I want to pick up two handfuls of gravel for? And he said, ‘pick up two handfuls of gravel’ and he was quite firm about it. And I said, ‘Aw strewth this bloke’s a bit of an idiot.’ So I picked up two handfuls of gravel and said, ‘What do I do now?’ And he said, ‘You march around until I tell you to stop. You hold your hands like this with a clenched fist, and you march around like that.’ And he came out a couple of hours later and told me I could go. I thought ooh… I was pretty ropey and then I thought to myself in that time, settle down you’ve got two years of this; you gotta pay the bills at home, and do the right thing, and I started to settle down a bit.
GM What did your wife think of all of this?
WB Not very impressed at all. Actually pretty cranky too. Yeah, because my pay actually dropped by about a third - which wasn’t good. We had two mortgages and a baby and that sort of thing.
GM Did the company you were working for - did they make it up?
WB No, it was a Government hospital; it was the only State not to make up the Government employees’ wages while they were away so yeah had a few negatives happening about that time.
GM God. Okay. So where did you go for your recruit training?
WB Puckapunyal in Victoria - that was a bit of a shock. Early winter but you know I didn’t mind the running and the jumping and the shooting and all that sort of thing. That was pretty good.
GM Were you a sportsman?
WB Yeah, I was a skindiver and a basketballer, Aussie Rules player; yeah, a bit of everything, and while I was there they said ‘who cuts hair?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I cut hair.’ At the hospital you know I’d cut some hair. Didn’t know if I’d get paid for it. So I was getting 20 cents a haircut, which sort of supplemented the wages a bit.
GM Well that’s all right.
GM So you did your recruit training; did you have any choice of corps?
WB Yeah, just prior to that there was a selection thing for officer training at Scheyville and they had me in the room there and they said, ‘Right-o, well would you like to be an officer?’ And I said, ‘Well what does it involve?’ And they said you do this six-month course, I think it was, and you come out an officer. And I said, ‘Well that’s all right, can I still be in the Medical Corps?’ ‘Oh no, you go to infantry.’ Oh, that’s no good to me. So I said ‘no thanks very much’ and went back; and then we had this allocation selection thing and you had three choices. So I put medical, catering - didn’t mind a bit of cooking - or infantry - just for a bit of a laugh. So I got Medical Corps; I got infantry and I did my own cooking, so yeah, I won all three.
GM So where did you go after recruit training?
WB Healesville, just down the road.
GM So, the School of Army Health?
WB Yeah, in the middle of winter.
WB In the tents, yeah freezing cold.
GM How long did you spend there?
WB Ten weeks. I tried to shortcut that because I just passed all my medical things back in Adelaide and the training at Healesville was pretty antiquated; about World War One standard, and we were getting 100 percent for anatomy and physiology and 99 percent for medicines and all this sort of stuff you know. It was just a breeze and wasting time. And I thought, well to get some real money I need some promotion or to get some work done, but they said no, stick it out for 10 weeks, and so we just sort of switched off for a while and cruised through and then went to Wacol.
GM Did it surprise you that the training was so antiquated?
WB Yes it did. Especially when you’re preparing to go away to war. The people that were running it were pretty old-fashioned and bit doddery I thought. It could’ve been a whole lot better.
GM Had the wrong people in there?
WB Yeah, and they sent us for a couple of days operation up in the snowfields training - for the tropics!
GM That’s handy.
WB So we had fellas flaking out at parade from the cold rather than the heat.
GM Good gracious.
GM So after Healesville, where did you go?
WB Went to Wacol; applied for a posting in Keswick in Adelaide and got Wacol in Brisbane.
GM That’s about as far away as you can get.
WB Yeah, I went to the field ambulance there and that was okay, except we were painting the rocks white and raking leaves and doing ‘emu parades’; all the mundane stuff, and not doing a lot of training for medical reasons.
GM Was it 11 Field Ambulance?
WB It might have been 11 Field, I think yeah. I always get the number wrong.
GM Okay. So how long were you at 11 Field?
WB Couple of months there, then out to Greenbank and did the medic’s equivalent of the battle efficiency course out there. I had a brief posting to 1 Mil(itary) hospital; that was pretty antiquated too, and I got on the wrong side of a few people. Back to Wacol and I had a relief stint at an artillery unit at Enoggera while their medic went on leave and that was okay. I had some autonomy there, which was a bit of a change, and shortly after that - when I was expecting to go over to Vietnam and work in the hospital at Vung Tau, like so many of their 11 Field Ambulance people were doing - I got a transfer to 4 RAR infantry at Enoggera.
GM Who arranged that?
WB I’ve got no idea. I was promoted in the meantime. I had been in the army eight months and I was made up to corporal just after I come back from Christmas leave.
GM You would have been on corporal Group 6 (pay level) wouldn’t you?
WB Something like that yeah.
GM Because of your medical qualifications?
GM So you were starting to get money again?
GM Still weren’t anywhere near as civvy street?
WB No no, the trouble with that was that you had to go and be the duty corporal and dob your mates in for playing up and that, which I never did. No training or anything at being a corporal, but suddenly (it’s) ‘sew your stripes on’ and you’ve got all these extra responsibilities; that you have got no idea about how to handle, yeah.
GM So 4 RAR were going to go and do their tour in May ‘68 to 1969 but you would’ve been coming up for discharge, I think, during the tour.
WB Yeah, I ended up coming home at the end of March in ‘69 and they (the battalion) stayed there until May ‘69. Yeah, so I had a couple of months; I only had ten months over there.
GM But being a National Serviceman, you had to volunteer to go to Vietnam?
WB So they tell me now. I don’t remember volunteering.
GM You just went along with the crowd did you or…?
WB I thought that at the time that we were due to go anyway to replace these fellas at the hospital that were coming home, and people were going over in dribs and drabs and my turn was gonna come up and that was going to be it. And I guess, in the background, I sort of had a curiosity about what it would be like to go over there, because my great grandfather was in the Boer War, and grandfather at Gallipoli, and father in the Middle East and New Guinea, and uncles in the Navy and Army. I thought well gee…
GM You were fated to go.
WB I think I was fated to go.
GM But you don’t remember the fact that you actually (volunteered)…?
WB No no, I didn’t sign a slip or anything that I recall or…
GM Did you know anything about Vietnam?
WB No, no idea, no idea.
GM You knew there was a war on?
WB I knew there was a war on - even back at Puckapunyal they were talking about sending us over there or to the Middle East - because there was a bit of strife on there at the time. So we didn’t know whether we were getting issued greens or khakis, or camels.
GM Righto. So, what sort of special training, or what sort of exercises and courses did you do to prepare you for Vietnam once you joined 4 RAR?
WB Went to Canungra (Jungle Training Centre) with them just after I got there. We were sort of bouncing around Canungra, and the CSM Jock Richardson came up to me and he said, ‘Corporal Brown you seem to be doing it fairly easily.’ I said, ‘Well I’ve just done Greenbank with the 11 Field Ambulance only a month ago and now I’m out here.’ So we did Canungra and then Shoalwater Bay, Tin Can Bay and that sort of thing, and that was pretty good. The only problem I had was they gave me an Armalite about a fortnight before we were due to fly out and…
GM Let me guess - you hadn’t been trained on it?
WB No, hadn’t fired a shot out of it. I thought it was a toy; I was waiting for the real weapon to arrive.
WB They said ‘no that’s it’, and they said they had detailed someone to take me out the range. I think I put two mags through it and they said, ‘yeah righto’. I thought this is pathetic. It was just as well I didn’t need it.
GM I mean because the training you get on the SLR was so good.
WB Oh yeah.
GM That was good. I wouldn’t mind betting you could still do the IAs today because it was drilled into you, I mean, I always felt more comfortable with the SLR than anything else
WB The only good thing about the Armalite was that it was lighter and I had so much gear.
WB You know it fitted in well there.
GM Yes, well I’d like to talk to you about the kit that you carried. But before we get to that, how did you actually get to Vietnam?
WB I was on the rear party with 4 RAR. I was the last medic to join them, and the staff sergeant - I assume - organised all the leaves and who was going on the advance and the main and the rear parties, so I ended up in the rear party. So I was chuffed off home on a week’s leave and came back and they’d all gone. And they took most of the supplies with them and I was left to handle the 2 RAR advance party (returning to Australia).
GM Oh, right.
WB Who were looking for all the medical supplies that were supposed to be in the RAP that had (now) gone missing. So I just said, ‘Oh sorry, I’m an innocent Nasho and I know nothing. I’ve been on leave and they’ve obviously taken it with them, sorry.’
GM So where was your wife at that stage?
WB She was back in Adelaide.
WB Yep, she couldn’t handle moving up to the North - that didn’t go down too well.
GM It would’ve been fairly lonely too?
GM I imagine because she was an Adelaide girl?
GM Okay. So did you fly over?
WB I flew over on Qantas. Left Brisbane one cold night about this time of year, May - end of May – with a cold westerly wind blowing through Brisbane at eleven o’clock at night. We flew out; hit Singapore first thing in the morning - stinking hot. Got to Saigon and I couldn’t believe the amount of traffic, and the noise, and the avgas fumes, and the smoke, and the tropical smell of Asia. The worst thing I think was seeing all these black-pyjama’d people with their coolie hats on, because we were told that they were the enemy! And there they are fossicking in the rubbish bins at the airport you know. Then we met this Australian bloke and he said to wait for the Caribou over there and you will go to Nui Dat later on. The old ‘hurry up and wait’.
GM Was that a real shock getting into Tan Son Nhut (airport)?
WB Yeah. And we had a rifle with no magazines - because we might have been ‘dangerous’ - and a cut lunch. It was just unreal, yeah.
GM Just amazing to think about it mate.
WB Yeah, here we are in Asia.
GM So you hung around Tan Son Nhut until you…?
WB Got on the Caribou.
GM Got on the Caribou…
WB Yeah and I think by early afternoon we were up in Nui Dat. A truck waited at the Luscombe Field and it took me around to the 4RAR RAP with my bags. And you know my head was still spinning I think. But then I saw the familiar faces of the 4 RAR blokes, the medics, the doctor and, oh yeah, here we are!
GM Now so in actual fact you were actually posted to the medical platoon?
GM And then you were assigned out to a rifle company?
WB Later on I was actually.
GM So what did you do first off?
WB (I was) one of three medics at the RAP doing our day duties there and every third night we did TAOR patrols. I did medcaps out in the villages with the doctor and that sort of thing, a couple of operations with battalion headquarters sitting on top of hills at fire support bases. And a couple of months later I was sitting on one of these (hills) up on top of Nui Nghe, just outside Nui Dat - the fire support base was located there - and the first day of an operation and just dug my pit. I had just got this dirty great boulder out of it and rolled it to one side. I was sitting back having a smoke and the message come down from the top, ‘Corporal Brown pack your gear. You’re going to B Company’. I thought, this is a joke, you know, pack your gear. So then a little ‘Possum’ helicopter came in and picked me up and whizzed me off to B Company; their medic had got heat exhaustion on the first day.
GM Good planning.
WB Think so.
GM So what sort of things did you do in the RAP – and, for the tape, the RAP is Regimental Aid Post. So what sort of stuff were you doing in the RAP?
WB Oh we had rashes and cuts and burns and all the accidental things that happen around the camp. Every now and again a whole rifle company would march up to the front and get their tet (tetanus) tox, or plague, or cholera or typhoid injection. Oh (I got) pretty good with the needle practice. And we would take blood samples for malaria and the clap and things like that - not that many of the fellas got that. But we’d restock the place and medcaps would be good; we got out (of Nui Dat) for a day into the villages and put all coloured paints all over the kids’ legs, ulcers; diagnose people with TB and refer ‘em off to the local hospital. I think the dental team used to come with us and they’d be pulling teeth by the hundreds, because their health and hygiene was pretty low.
GM There were very few medical facilities weren’t there? Out in the villages…
WB Oh yeah.
GM Then you actually got posted. How long were you doing RAP work before you went to a rifle company?
WB I got there sort of late May, early June. June, July, August, September – it was early September when I was sitting on top of Nui Nghe when I got the word and then I had seven months with B Company after that.
WB Their medic never came back.
GM Well I think what we’ll do is we’ll stay with the rifle company because it’s probably a bit closer to where it all happens for a company medic.
WB Actually I did have a couple of contacts with battalion headquarters while I was with them so…
GM Is that right?
WB Yeah I had a bit of experience before getting to B Company.
GM What was your first contact like?
WB My first contact, I was with the doctor and his batman, and battalion headquarters and the Kiwis had hit a bunker system. And then they called the artillery in, and their forward scout had got whacked in both thighs with a big chunk of shrapnel and he was only a couple metres from the bunkers. And they’d left him there and pulled back to reorganize, and then go (back) and get him. So their medic came wandering over and he said, ‘Any of you blokes want to come along?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll come.’ And we got to within probably 20 metres of the bunkers and the enemy were still in there and they shot just over our heads - luckily - and kept us pinned down for some time. And then a couple of Maoris went forward and dragged this bloke out - Private Dil was his name - and I though what a funny name for a bloke - D I L. And anyway we got him back and that was the first major wound that I’d seen; apart from a bullet wound through a knee at the fire support base. We patched him up and dragged him out and got back to the clearing. The doctor put in an intravenous line and the chopper was going to have to lower a winch but the canopy was too high. So he (the pilot) said, ‘We’ll throw out a harness.’ Of course, I didn’t know what was going on. I was leaning over this bloke pushing the intravenous fluids into him, and the harness hit me in the back of the neck and knocked me rotten. So they peeled me off him and someone else took over the (IV) bag. And then they put him in the harness and whizzed him off and sent him back to New Zealand, and he’s reasonably good - apart from not playing football any more.
WB Yeah, so I had that one and the bloke with the knee (wound), it was just like a three-eighth-inch drill had gone in one side of the knee and out the other; just a neat bullet wound. No sort of explosive exit wound.
GM That’s a bit unusual.
WB Yeah, yeah it stabilised as it went through I suppose. It might have been shot from fairly close.
WB And that’s when we heard about our first death in Delta Company too. They hit some blokes (enemy) and they all jumped into the creek and fired back and disappeared. So one dead, and several wounded, and no enemy to show for it - which is fairly disappointing.
GM Now as a company medic, what is your job?
WB Well quite extensive really. When I was in camp in Nui Dat, I had a company aid post. I had a tent all to myself. In the front of the tent was the aid post. I had a table and kidney dishes, swabs, metho and injections and scalpels and things and books to write things in and a bench seat. And blokes would come there each morning for a sick parade and (I would) diagnose them and paint their rashes and give them antibiotics or codeine or whatever. If they were too difficult to diagnose, I’d take them down to the doctor at the later sick parade. Had the usual things there; emergencies, some times blokes would get burnt or they’d be in fights and there’d be bruises, and things when blokes get on the turps. But the most common thing I treated I think was rashes and…
GM Just tropical diseases?
WB Yeah, so that was in camp. I also had to do hygiene inspections too, which was a bit foreign to me. I was an honorary hygiene inspector going around the cookhouse and check for flies and filth and grease traps and toilets and shower blocks - things like that. Yeah.
GM That’s basically common sense most of it, isn’t it?
WB Basically common sense, yeah.
GM But out in the field…?
WB In the field I sort of had between a hundred and 120 blokes that I was responsible for medically. And I didn’t realise this at first, and when it dawned on me I thought, strewth this is fairly responsible, and even when there was no action you still had the tineas and the rashes, and cuts and bruises, because when you’re going through bamboo, blokes get sliced up just walking through that. They are like big darning needles - open you up real easy. Sprains and strains; people falling into creeks, and out of helicopters. Sometimes they (helicopters) wouldn’t land; they’d hover up there a couple of metres and you’d jump out with…
GM And you got all that weight on your back.
WB Thirty or forty kilos. And you hit the ground and then you’d get the secondary whack. Yeah, so that sort of thing. A lot of maintenance medicine really, and all I had was a little medical kit about as big as two shoeboxes I suppose. But I had three platoon stretcher-bearers, and they each had a medical kit. And after a time I got my hygiene bloke to carry a spare bag of shell dressings, because the first big action we had, we ran out and we had to get them off the blokes that were out on the perimeter and that took time and that was no good at all.
GM So what else did you carry besides your med kit?
WB Oh I had two smoke grenades. I was supposed to carry two fragmentation grenades, but my Minolta camera fitted into that pouch quite well, and I got away with that. I think I had ten mags of ammo, five water bottles, five days rations, occasionally Jock would give me a Claymore (mine) to carry; yeah, plenty of gear.
GM So was the bloke that looked after you most of the time the CSM?
WB Yeah, he looked after me pretty well. He was a tough man, Jock Richardson, but he had our welfare at heart.
GM Who was your company commander?
WB Bill Reynolds.
GM And you did all types of operations with B Company?
GM So we’re talking heliborne operations?
GM Lots of foot patrols mainly, mainly foot patrols?
WB Mostly foot, yep, well all foot patrols really.
GM You didn’t do any mounted patrols? You know in APCs?
WB We went out in APCs for…
GM But didn’t do mounted patrols?
GM So they just dropped you off?
WB Just dropped us off; deception methods you know, race in and drop you off in the dark and then keep going.
WB (They would) pretend they had no one on board, and then you get out and wonder where the hell you were - and which way was up.
GM Okay, now what was important about your job as a company medic?
WB Well, I guess the company couldn’t function if people were sick or wounded. It was a pretty important job to keep them up to the mark medically. Quite often we’d do medical examinations or FFIs I think they were called. I think it stands for foot, fungus and infection - something like that. We would do these inspections every now and again. And check the blokes’ armpits and groins and in between the toes. Otherwise if the infection got too far ahead they’d have to get choppered out; and as it was most platoons were short of men instead of having 32 - I think which is the recommended - they were down to 18 or 20 some of the time - which is way under-manned. So my job was to keep blokes healthy. If they got a cut or something in the bush, I’d stitch them up, which was good fun, and keep them out there (in the field) when possible.
GM You said you were allowed to give injections. Were all medics allowed to give injections?
WB Yeah, we weren’t supposed to legally stitch people up, but the practicality of the situation was that you either did that or you got a chopper in every couple of days and compromised your position so…
GM What was the hardest part about your job?
WB Diagnosing I think.
WB All the diseases and things - that’s the infection disease side of it. But I guess the hardest part in combat was getting multiple casualties and working out the priorities of treatment - trying to save all the lives without risking anybody.
GM What was the hardest, the wet or the dry season, to look after people?
WB Both had their problems; dust and heat are the dry season. Lack of water through dehydration and heatstroke was actually pretty common - now I realise. Then the wet season for all the fungal growths and just being miserable most of the time. You can’t hear the enemy sneaking up on you either at night if it’s raining, and hootchies shine, but you can get plenty of water to drink.
GM Were you apprehensive going out as a company medic?
WB Yeah, yeah, once I knew what it was all about. I had done a couple of contacts with battalion headquarters. But I was only a week I think into traveling with B Company when we had a major bunker clash, or Charlie Company had the bunker clash. One of their platoons got stuck and (they had) three dead and six wounded out of 18 blokes - so half were gone and the other half were looking after them. And we went in to help and the action was still going on. So then I realised how tough it was, and that my life was at risk. We’d gone about four or five hundred metres across the bush, well thick bush, to get to them. The actual contact had ceased and I thought oh it’s all over, we’ll go in and patch these blokes up and she’ll be right. And I saw a bloke behind a tree sort of pointing somewhere and I said, ‘where’s the wounded mate?’ and he said, ‘just over there’. Actually he just pointed - didn’t say anything, just pointed over there and about fifteen, twenty metres away was a big buttress-rooted tree. I could see these blokes sort of sheltering behind it and thought oh yeah over there, so I sort of ducked my head a bit and got half way across to them, and these bunkers about eight metres to my left opened up on me. Strewth! And that’s when I realised they were actually shooting at me! So I dived in behind the tree and started to work on this bloke that was actually mortally wounded - he died on the chopper later. The contact went on for another half an hour until it got a little bit dark, and the NVA cleared off. There was only about four of them there, but gee they made a mess. They were in the bunkers and we were in the open and 7 Platoon, Charlie Company lost three dead and six wounded.
GM Welcome to the sharp end!
WB Ooh yeah, and I then I we got back from there and we actually winched them out about 9 o’clock at night from our company position because it was the only clearing around and got ‘em out. And I just couldn’t believe it. I just thought this is not happening, you know this is a dream, I couldn’t sleep, I had all these flashbacks and it was just like a big picture show going on all night in my head you know, re-running the thing. What could I’ve done different you know? I felt guilty about not doing certain things and then I felt okay that I’d sort of busted a gut in other ways, and yeah, it was pretty horrendous really. I thought ‘strike, this is only the first week’. Luckily it settled down a bit after that.
GM What made you apprehensive or scared you the most when you were out on operations?
WB That sort of thing! Actually the suddenness with when things could happen suddenly; springing an ambush or…
GM Is it about the fact that you’ve got to make decisions?
WB Yes, that’s very concerning because of the responsibilities that I felt I had to really be clear in how I evaluated each case. And when you had a sudden contact and you had lots of wounded around you, you had a lot of thinking to do in a short time and you had to act, and quite often you had to go forward when the action was still happening. Because the wounded are out there - and they’re not getting any better. So then there was your personal safety to think about while you’re actually kneeling alongside some bloke trying to patch him up. And everyone else is behind a tree or in a hole and blazing away, and you think, strewth, you know, if I get knocked off, who’s going to look after these blokes? The stretcher-bearers have got a fair amount of knowledge, but not a lot, so there is only one medic.
GM So if something actually happened, how would you know when it was time to go up? Would you be called up?
WB Oh yeah, there was always that cry that I dreaded ‘medic, up the front’ and that sort of made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. After a while I got conditioned that whenever I heard a couple of shots, I’d wait for the call. Sometimes it didn’t come which was fortunate for me, but the hairs would stand up, and I’d anticipate going forward and thinking, oh am I going to get nicked this time.
WB Or worse.
GM So your job really is about staying alive and saving other blokes lives. Even though you’re armed, it’s really only there for your own protection isn’t it?
WB Yeah, for my protection, and what I learned later, was for my patient’s protection, which is fair enough too. But luckily enough I never had to use it. There were always other fellas around doing the shooting and protecting and so on, while I got to work. And those that weren’t busy shooting, were helping me - which was very good too.
GM Okay, who’s the person that most stands out in your memory?
WB Bill Reynolds, just a little – he was the major in charge of B Company - just a little ahead of Jock Richardson, the CSM. Bill basically had the welfare of all of his men at heart. He got us on parade early in the piece and he said, ‘Right the war over here is crook, but we’ve got a job to do. I don’t want to risk anybody’s life unnecessarily. Nobody’s going to be gung ho under my command. I’m taking all you blokes home if I can possibly do that’. And we really thought, this is our bloke!
GM What a good idea!
WB Yeah, so we nicknamed him ‘Blinky Bill’, because he had these bushy eyebrows and he used to blink his blue eyes a fair bit. A lovely fella, yeah, he still keeps in touch.
GM Yes. You mentioned Jock Richardson too.
GM What sort of a character was he?
WB Jock was a tough little Scotsman, and he wore this grey flannelette undershirt, which I thought was pretty quaint. I thought gee he’s got to be pretty tough. It’s stinking hot our here and he’s got this flannelette shirt on underneath. But he used to make sure that we camouflaged up every morning after we’d shaved, and cleaned our rifles every morning - and every evening, and he was tough to the point of looking after the men and making sure they did the right thing, and therefore did the right thing by each other.
GM Because if you don’t do those things it stuffs up and then people die.
GM You know you only find that out later on.
GM A lot of it. Who was your RMO? The Regimental Medical Officer?
WB David Lewis, he was a good bloke, he was a young fella.
WB Bit wild, no, not a Nasho, but he’d gone through medical school…
GM Under the Army’s sponsorship?
WB Yes, so he was bonded to the Army and he was actually not an Army type. He used to sit in his chair in the RAP strumming the guitar while reading one of Leon Uris’s huge novels and telling the Army where to go. But he did his job medically and he taught us a lot how to operate - minor surgery and suture. Yeah, he was pretty laid back, but when the chips were down, he was right there. He came out into the bush to help me a couple of times with my wounded, when I couldn’t handle it, and he wasn’t really supposed to be in danger out there, but he came out - so that was really good.
GM Okay what do you think was the worst time you experienced in Vietnam?
WB Well, I suppose the worst times were the contacts - the big contacts - when you had lots of casualties laying around, and you didn’t know which way was up, and you had to prioritise the treatments. You’d have a quick look through and you’d find out those that were stable, those that the stretcher-bearers could sort of patch up, and then you got onto the ones with the chest wounds and head wounds. Things that were sort of life threatening - where you thought you could do more good concentrating on them and hopefully save their lives, which was possible in every case, except two. There was only two that I lost later in the piece. One was because it took so long to evacuate him. We had - I think - from the time of wounding to the time of evacuation, four hours. He had a major chest wound and other wounds to his limbs. And the other fellow had multiple fragmentation wounds and he died after about an hour. The doctor had come in and helped me with him, but we couldn’t save him, so the rest of them got to hospital and survived.
GM What were the worst wounds to treat?
WB Chest wounds I reckon, because the bloke’s in pain and for chest wounds and head wounds you’re not supposed to give morphine and you’re in this dilemma. The bloke is sort of thrashing around on the ground in agony and what do you do? You have to make decisions, so I made them at the time and lived with them.
GM Are gunshots worse than fragmentation (wounds), or is it the other way around?
WB Gunshots are worse I think, because they go through and they sort of pulverise tissue and they’re usually fairly major, where as fragments are usually not.
GM Sort of like tearing, ripping open?
WB Yeah, see Jock Richardson had twenty-two fragmentation wounds and he still organised a defensive perimeter, and helped me drag a mortally wounded Digger about 30 metres back through the action and over a bund where it was a bit safer. So then he finally let us treat him, so his fragmentation wounds were relatively minor. And I saw blokes in hospital when I went in with a guts ache; basically blokes in hospital with hundreds of fragmentation wounds like that had been peppered. Amazing, yet none of them were life threatening, but it’s damned awkward.
GM When you look back on a tour; when someone says to you ‘Vietnam’ what sort of incident or action jumps up and most reflects what you experienced?
WB I guess the one I talked about a minute ago with 7 Platoon; stuck in that bunker system. Whenever I have a bad night and have flashbacks and nightmares and so on, it’s that action. My first major action as the principal medical person there having to make the decisions and I reckon I could find that spot behind that tree today if I was allowed back in that area - it’s just so vivid. Crystal clear images are still there, even the smells. I can still smell and feel that place.
GM That must have been quite a shock to your system?
WB Oh yeah, realising that three or four enemy - I think it was four - could decimate a platoon and then clear off [WB: leaving two dead of their own]. The problem was the next day we had a look there, buried the enemy and walked away and then a couple of months later we were back there again. The frustration of putting your life on the line; going all through all that horrendous stuff with the bodies and the dead. The bloke with a bullet hole, one bullet hole he had right in the middle of his forehead, you know, classical firing position with the M-60 there - but dead. And then others with neck wounds and head wounds and shoulder wounds, and just wondering who to fix up first, and my gut feelings, and flying by the seat of my pants medically. I - by second nature - honed in on the most serious wounded each time, just with a quick glance around, ‘Yep you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay; I’ll have a look at this bloke’, and the judgement was pretty right.
GM Field triage?
GM Basically isn’t it?
GM It’s a lot of responsibility.
WB It is, and the training we had was totally inadequate. What we really should’ve have had was training in a casualty section of a general hospital, or out with an ambulance for several months to get a cross-section of bad injuries.
GM I think someone must have said something about your tour because on 4 RAR’s second tour, the medical platoon worked at the Townsville General Hospital.
WB Yeah, I read that in the book.
GM And you know Mick O’Sullivan, another company medic that you know. He could tell you all about that.
GM And that was probably was one of the lessons learnt (from Vietnam) I guess.
GM You must have seen some funny times?
WB Yeah, there were some funny times. But none that really grab me. The funniest one that I actually heard from another Digger was Jock Richardson again, and Jock’s not a very funny man usually, but he’d had several Diggers up on charges and he was marching them into Major Bill Reynold’s office. He should’ve given a ‘in the door and right turn’, but Jock must have been a bit flustered because he was cranky and he gave a ‘left turn’ so these Diggers marched in behind Bill’s desk and his chair. There was a phone on the desk with an exposed cable running across the floor. And I don’t know whether it was on purpose or not, but one of the Diggers’ boots sort of hooked into the cable and the phone went up in the air and down on the floor – crash, bang, wallop! And these blokes are marching around the room smirking and Jock halted them. Gave the right direction this time in front of the desk, and if looks could kill they would’ve been dead. Anyway Bill Reynolds has got this smirk on his face - that he can hardly conceal - and he says, ‘Gee, CSM that was an interesting manoeuvre!’ Which would have laid Jock pretty low.
WB Yeah, that was a classic. But one thing that made me smile every time I saw it, and you may have even seen it over there too, was a billboard sign outside the boozer. It had Charlie Brown and his girlfriend Lucy and they are standing in the sea and they got all these ripply waves up under their chins, and Charlie Brown’s got this stupid grin on his face and Lucy says very indignantly ‘I will not sink Charlie Brown if you pull it out’. That just tickled my sense of humour.
GM Yeah, I remember that.
WB One funny little thing that happened to me was that I kept getting stabbing pains in my gut. I thought oh strewth, what’s going on here? It was most uncomfortable and this was out in the bush on patrol. I had the big pack on and the bum pack and the medical kit sort of bouncing around on my chest, and I’ve got the Armalite slung under it and trying to keep my arc observed - watching where the barrel’s going, ‘yes Jock’. And I kept getting these stabbing pains in the gut. I thought oh strike, I hope this passes off pretty soon. Must be wind or it might be appendicitis or something like that. Anyway we pulled up later in the day and I had all blood on my gut and I thought strewth! What had happened was a Number 11 scalpel blade had worked loose in the medical kit and was sticking out about half an inch, and every time it would bump me, it was sticking into me.
GM But later in fact you did end up in hospital didn’t you?
GM What was all that about?
WB Oh late in the tour. I think it was early March in ’69. I’d sent a bloke out of the bush the day before with query appendicitis and the next day I had the same thing. I thought this was unusual, just pains in the guts and constipated; couldn’t pass a thing. I was burping and carrying on and writhing around on the ground and it was just getting worse and worse and worse. Anyhow I think we were hootchied up somewhere near battalion headquarters, and Doc Lewis wasn’t too far away, so a couple blokes carted me over to see him and he thought it might’ve been appendicitis, so he stuck a morphine needle in my vein and put me up on Cloud 9. Anyhow he organised a chopper to take me to hospital with query appendicitis; got in there and they examined me and said we won’t operate just yet. Well they stuck fingers everywhere and found that they might wait till morning, but they shaved me from nipple to knee - which wasn’t very exciting. It turned out to be a thing called mesenteric adenitis, which is all the lymph nodes in your abdomen get a viral infection and they’re all swollen at once like a generalised case of appendicitis. That soon settled down and off I went back to Nui Dat.
GM What was that other appendicitis you called it?
WB Mesenteric adenitis?
GM No, the time before, you said ‘appendicitis’.
WB Oh query.
WB Yeah that’s the possible (diagnosis)…
GM Oh query…
WB Yeah yeah question mark as in ? appendicitis.
GM Okay right.
GM I was going to say I hadn’t heard of that. Oh okay, so how long did you spend in hospital?
WB Oh only three or four days until it settled. The place was fairly empty and that was another incident. I’d corresponded with a mate who was a medical assistant down there. I thought I was going to be over there with him originally continuing my hospital career in Vung Tau. He used send me letters out on the ration choppers and if any B Company blokes were in hospital he’d put the details down on their progress, so I’d pass them on to Bill Reynolds.
GM Oh yeah.
WB Bill would say ‘How did you get this information?’ You know, as if I had a phone line out in the bush. ‘Oh, I have got this mate in the hospital.’ ‘Oh that’s terrific.’ He used to call me ‘Sam’ like everyone else. So I got to this hospital and I thought I’ll give Johnny Hector a surprise and once I got showered and shaved and in the ward, I said, ‘Where’s Johnny Hector?’ They said, ‘He went home four days ago.’ So I missed him.
GM What was the toughest time physically or mentally that you experienced?
WB Well, toughest times. I suppose being in the bush for a really long operation like forty-two days consecutive, and we were covered in rashes and dehydrated. I think it was the dry season because the rations didn’t give us enough energy and nourishment to keep up our strength. We were at a pretty low ebb and forty-two days in a row, moving from operational area to operational area, chasing the VC around Phuoc Tuy (Province) and when they weren’t there we’d chase them into Long Khanh (Province), and then back into Phuoc Tuy and someone - I think the SAS – would find another batch of them somewhere, and off we’d go chasing them again and give them a touch up. And then we’d get a touch up. I think by then, I was just pretty low, and I think that’s about the time that my mesenteric adenitis occurred.
GM When you said rashes, what sort of rashes?
WB Mostly they started off as chafes from the packs.
WB Yeah. The pack rubbing on wet shirts that had been on for about a month; full of bacteria and salt from the sweat and grime and grit, and the packs would rub and you’d get a bit of a soft spot there. Then you’d scratch it and you’d get a tinea infection. I ended up with what they call ring tinea. It wasn’t around my ring; it was in my groin, and my lymph nodes in my groin were like coconuts by the feel of them. I was walking like a cowboy with my fly open to let the air through and keep it dry. It was just getting worse and worse, and I was trying all sorts of ointments and things, and nothing was working.
GM All these ointments
WB Yeah I ended up putting purple gentian, violet and Mercurochrome and all that - and they didn’t sting too much. They didn’t do anything for the infection and I had this stuff - I think it was World War Two or World War One stuff - called Whitfield’s Ointment and it’s like it’s got menthol and all sorts of things in it, and I stuck that on my nuts. And I thought something’s got to fix this terrible infection up you know, and it was like sticking it in hot coals! On this operation we had helmets with us, so I tipped my water bottle into the helmet and dangled the privates into that and that made it worse! It’s like having chilli and having a drink of water - it’s a terrible effect. So I just had to dry scrub it off with my sweat rag and let it eventually dissipate. I got back to camp just after that and Doc Lewis organised crystalline penicillin, which sort of started fixing it up in about 24 hours.
GM That’s like sticking a star picket in your leg
WB Oh yeah, after it’s been in the fire.
WB Yeah mate, I’d given them to lots of blokes and thought ‘what the hell are you whinging about?’
WB You know… it’s only a needle.
GM It’s like…
WB It’s murder!
GM It is. I was on that for months, oh strewth! I think we might’ve already covered that you didn’t think that you were that well prepared?
WB No, no. The training we’d had was pretty basic and what we should’ve had was the training in a hospital in a casualty department or ambulance. Doc Lewis taught us how to diagnose a lot of the tropical illnesses, but a lot of it was just flying by the seat of your pants.
WB I remember the 2IC coming up to me in the bush one day. We’d been through a burnt out area which was unusual over there, and he come up to me and he had a ring of blisters all around his neck. I thought strewth that’s unusual. (It was) like a necklace. And I thought that might be shingles. And I wrote the med(ical) card out and sent him out of the bush in the chopper. He came back about a week later and I said, ‘What did you have?’ And he said, ‘Oh, shingles.’ I’d never seen a case before but somehow in the back of the computer - in between the ears - I’d read it somewhere in a book and a string of blisters along a nerve track or…
GM It’s to do with stress isn’t it?
WB Stress, yeah, and your immune system being lower - that sort of thing.
GM A few people got it after Cyclone Tracy.
WB Oh right, yep, it follows a nerve path…round the waist or round the neck.
GM Enormous trauma, shock or stress and not eating properly and all those sort of things, yeah. What did you think of the enemy?
WB At the time I hated them, I absolutely detested them because they were trying to kill us. And you know as a medic we’d been told - I think at Canungra - at some of the lectures there, that officers, signalers and medics were the priority targets for them. Once they knocked off the officer, your command and control was gone. Once they knocked off the sig - or the sigs set - your communications were gone; and once they knocked off the medic, you were stuck. You’d have blokes sort of laying around wounded and things could go awfully wrong then. Panic would set in I think. But then again, I admired their guts, because they stuck around in the big contacts even knowing that we had huge, massive firepower that we could bring to bear just from one radio call. I didn’t like it when they sort of sniped and ambushed and nicked off before you could get a decent crack at them. So, I had all these mixed feelings about them at the time. But then I often, in my quiet moments, I’d think well I’m coping with a hundred to 120 blokes out here in the bush. I wonder how their medics are coping? A sort of a reciprocal concern I suppose. Then one particular day we were harboured up, and I think we had some platoon patrols out, and it was pretty quiet and suddenly bang, bang, bang! One of our sentries had a shot at a passing squad of VC that almost bumped into us. Six of the seven got away and one of them was dead there. It turned out he was the medic and he has these scalpels and scissors and forceps and a few medications and bandages and things and I thought strewth, if the boot was on the other foot that could be me some time. At the time I had a new stretcher-bearer and he kept saying to me, ‘Can I go and see the body, can I go and see the body?’ And I said, ‘Oh you’ll see one soon enough.’ And I thought well hang on if I take him out now - when we’re not in action - he’ll get blooded. So I went to Jock Richardson. I said, ‘Can we go out and have a look at the body?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah righto.’ I said, ‘It’s for educational purposes’ and went out and had a look at the body and took the clothes off the top part and found the wounds and so on. And we did a dry run on what we could’ve done if it was one of our blokes. We couldn’t have done much because he was hit in the right side and the bullet stayed in; probably his heart area I reckon, so he was cleaned up pretty quickly.
WB But his gear was shocking. The scalpels were blunt, the scissors wouldn’t cut anything, the forceps didn’t meet at the tips, the medications were out of date, and I thought strewth, I thought my gear was antiquated, but gee whiz.
GM Did you ever take R and R leave?
WB Yeah, I took one R and R.
GM Where did you go?
WB Went to Bangkok. I was intending to come home but I only had ten months in country so people that had twelve months in country or I think the officers had the priority to come to Australia. I’d been at a private college after I’d been working for about 18 months and some of the students there were Thais and I thought oh yeah I’ll go to Bangkok and I’ll meet up with this fellow with a name about a metre long. So I went to Bangkok. I never found him because I forgot how to spell his name. But it was quite an interesting place, the pagodas and the floating markets and the Thai boxing tournaments that I went to, yeah, it was a respite from the war.
WB A bit unreal too.
GM How did you feel, well, how did you feel about when you went back in?
WB Oh shocking. I thought well, on day 1, I thought I’ve got four more days to go and I got to go back to Vietnam oh that’s going to be a shock, here I am in a little hotel room with a bath and a shower and TV set and bar fridge, taxi downstairs on call 24 hours a day with two other Australian blokes that we were sharing with. Oh, this is all right and enough money to last the five days - I hoped - and got to go back to that stuff. Not so good. So make the most of it.
GM Did you go on R and R with blokes you knew?
WB No no. One bloke was from 1 RAR and I forget where the other fellow was from. I was a temporary corporal and they were both privates and they looked to me for leadership. Wrong!
GM Now what about things like letters? You know from home? Did you get much mail?
WB Yeah, my mum was my main source of information from home. She’s a prolific letter writer and a prolific book writer - she’s into book number five at the moment
WB All about Vietnam and Agent Orange and the kids and our experiences, my experiences and all that. I got a letter - probably three or four a week from mum, and newspaper cuttings and she’d even put gumleaves in sometimes and 5 O’clock razor blades because once I said I was short of razor blades. At Christmas time all the blokes were getting bottles of rum and bottles of whiskey, and I think some blokes got some ouzo and stuff like that. Mum sent over a carton of Cottee’s soft drink. She didn’t think I drank.
GM Oh well, that’s not bad.
WB And a big box full of crumbs that used to be a cake.
GM Oh yeah.
WB So mum was the main source.
GM Well, we’ll get onto casualties now. How did you handle the impact of treating wounded men that you knew?
WB Well, most of them I was familiar with except for the ones in Charlie Company that I treated when we rescued them that time. I think most of them were reassured knowing that it was me coming forward; someone they played darts with, someone they had a beer with occasionally, sat in the mess hall, come around had a yarn. Some of, or most of them, I would’ve given a jab to, plague or cholera or something. Then whenever a contact did happen, I was always concerned as to who it was, you know, if there were multiple casualties, do you go and treat the bloke that’s a mate of yours, or do you go and treat the bloke who’s seriously wounded? You had this sort of dilemma. Well it was not really a dilemma because it didn’t really happen, but you think these things could happen, and you wonder where they’d been hit on the body and you hope to hell that it wasn’t a gut wound because they’re a bit gory. The sight of blood didn’t bother me too much - unless it was mine! I seemed to handle that sort of stuff, sort of brains and blood and all that sort of thing, but when it’s yourself, it’s a different matter.
WB You go a bit wobbly in the pins.
GM What about blokes, did you ever treat a guy that you knew who passed away?
GM What was that like?
WB That was shocking. That was my worst experience. I didn’t think he’d die because he had pellet wounds in the chest and a lot of them in the legs. I bandaged the legs up, and the chest wasn’t bleeding. So I thought well you know, they’re not in too deep and I actually got the doctor in because he was unconscious after awhile and I thought no he’s not going to die. And he did within the hour. I thought, gee whiz, what else could we have done? Really without opening him up on an operating table, there was nothing we could do. And I guess from the time of wounding to the time he was, or actually dead on arrival but had he got to hospital within the hour it was still probably too late. Yeah.
GM What was the main killer? Was it shock or…?
WB I reckon, yeah yeah, shock got him. Yeah, even though you know, they say keep a bloke warm and do this and do that for shock. We had intravenous fluids going into him pretty smartly, firm bandages on, feet elevated, all the things you do for shock, but I think some people succumb to shock and other people don’t.
WB Choice, appearance or whatever…
GM Yeah. And what about mine incidents?
WB He was a victim on that mine incident, so he had pellet wounds and his mate Vic had copped the brunt of the blast and he was killed instantly.
GM So what sort of a mine was it, do you know?
WB Command detonated, so I presume it was a Claymore, not a jumping jack.
GM Not a jumping jack, or a homemade Claymore?
WB Don’t think so, because it was out the front of a big bunker system and we presumed later that instead of a lightly armed or lightly guarded arms cache, it was actually a regiment bunkered there. We came across a big rice paddy in the dry season, it was a big clearing basically and they must have set this up on our line of march. As we hit the bush, one platoon peeled off to the right, one peeled off to the left. Company headquarters was just moving in to prop and send the patrols out to look for this cache and company headquarters got brassed up. Luckily they’d split it into two parts that day and I was in the second part, I was still out in the paddy, otherwise I would’ve been right in amongst there, probably. Well Jock got 22 holes in him there. Two or three other blokes got wounded and two killed. Then the tanks came in and they got rocketed repeatedly and several tankies got badly wounded.
GM Okay, so that was…?
WB That was in February ‘69
GM February ‘69
WB Yep, that was probably our biggest contact and our longest and that again we pulled back and next day we were wanting to go back in and do em over and we got moved to another area because there was a truce on for Tet (holiday).
GM Oh yeah February…
WB So the anger and frustration of that…
GM How does, how does, what’s the impact of death like in amongst the other soldiers? I mean, you’re actually trained to look at people and assess their condition. You must have also noticed the impact of this on them as people? What was it like?
WB The worse affected were their close mates, their tent mates back in Nui Dat and the blokes that were with them out there. They are close, each section had a close bond and they were the most affected. I had a couple of fellas come up to me and say look, why couldn’t you save him, you know, and they were getting quite toey about me not being able to save him. I said, ‘Here, hang on, I did everything I could with what I had and even getting the doctor in.’ You know, we just couldn’t save some blokes. Terribly sorry, but that’s the way it is. And they were really overwrought, and they are probably still a bit like that today.
GM A lot of frustration too you know, it’s like you said, with those two enemy who took off, you’ve got nothing to show for your efforts.
WB Yeah, and I guess they have this survivor guilt thing that they weren’t there to either cop it themselves or to protect them.
GM I’ve heard of that, with a bloke in my own platoon who for 15 years blamed himself because he wasn’t in the field the day his best mate got killed. And of course his reasoning was if he had’ve been there it wouldn’t have happened.
GM Well it was going to happen regardless but…
WB A little bit different but…
GM But as you say, very hard to get around isn’t it?
WB Oh yeah, yeah.
GM Did Bill Reynolds look to you for advice?
WB Quite often, yeah.
GM What sort of things would he ask?
WB Oh everything medical. He supported me 100 percent, that’s why I said before he was one of the most admired people that I knew over there. He’d ask me what my opinion was, did we have to get the chopper in tonight to get this bloke out; could he last till morning? Whatever I said went. And therefore I had a lot more responsibility, do I take a gamble on Private Bloggs with the high fever and the rash not being serious enough to chopper out tonight, or do we get the chopper and winch him out, give away our position? What do you do? So 99 percent of the time, my judgment was pretty right, but most of it was just common sense - and flying by the seat of my pants again.
GM Did you ever get to treat a PW?
GM What was that like?
WB Not too good for him. He was shot through the mouth, which was pretty awkward to treat. I’d never had one of those before. The bullet had sort of blown his front teeth out and gone out just below his ear. So his cheek was like a peeled orange. So I had a bit of a dilemma on how to treat him. So I whacked some morphine into him and stuck a field dressing inside his mouth, and a shell dressing on the outside and bandaged his head up. Jock Richardson come around and said, ‘Righto, you’d better guard him until the chopper comes in.’ And I’d forgotten to put a round up the spout and I was wondering if this bloke could see far enough up the spout to see that I hadn’t put a round in it, but he was in no condition to have a go at me. He was dribbling away there.
GM Probably lost all interest.
WB Pretty miserable yeah, but then the chopper winched him out and then we heard next day that he’d not survived. Bill Reynolds come over to me again and he said, ‘What’s your opinion, should he have died from that wound?’ And I said I didn’t think so, and Bill just muttered an expletive and …
GM Too much trouble to look after.
GM Somewhere along the line.
WB Yeah, yeah he was disposed of, I think. Yeah.
GM Now what about a casevac by chopper?
WB Yeah, they were brilliant. Everytime.
GM Just run through how it worked from your perspective.
WB Yep, right. You have a contact, then you’ve got to prioritise your casualties and then you’ve got to have your area tactically clear for them to either winch out or land or reasonably tactically secure. Because one AK-47 round can bring down a chopper if it’s in the right spot. So there’s a procedure that the radio sigs have to follow, I forget what it was, but I had to work out whether they were urgent, non urgent, sitting, whether it had to be winch job - that sort of thing. And then Bill Reynolds would have had to work out the tactical position. Sometimes the chopper would be called forward to the fire support base, which was usually only a kilometre or two away, and then we’d get them in. Sometimes they’d be there within minutes. Say you’d have an accidental shooting - which happened - the chopper would be there in say 20 minutes. The bloke would be in it and off to hospital. And the worst one we had was about four hours where the fellow died just as we got to the chopper. He got wounded about 5 o’clock in the afternoon and winched him out about 9 o’clock with one torch on the ground and the chopper hovering about 30, 40 metres up.
GM It’s a guts effort to hover in the dark like that.
WB As one of our fellas said he was guarding the perimeter with the M-60 and he said it makes you pretty anxious guarding a perimeter with a chopper hovering above with all that noise, its ground lights shining down and the wounded being winched up and the blood flicking down like rain. It’s very descriptive, but you couldn’t hear a thing, and it’s pitch dark in front of you. You just hope like hell…
WB That they’re not around. The area we were in was near the Courtenay Rubber and it was just covered with bunker systems every kilometre or so.
GM Okay. What is the saddest incident that you can recall?
WB The saddest incident was trying to save Bluey, in which we were unsuccessful. He was the most likeable lad you could wish to meet. He only had a week or two to go in country. He’d come over to us from 2 RAR as a reo, just a really lovely fellow. Come round for a yarn in the odd time. He had all these fragmentation wounds when company headquarters got the mine blast, and we just couldn’t save him. Him and Vic. Because Vic was killed instantly. But the offshoot of that was that when we got back to Australia several years later, we made a point of finding out where Blue’s mother lived and going to visit. And she’d lost her husband just before Blue died, and a couple of years later she lost her son in a motorbike accident. She’s only got one son left now and it was pretty sad to go round and talk to her, but she’s really lovely lady and she appreciates anyone who visits.
GM Who were the ‘we’ in that group, were they your mates from B Company?
WB Yeah, yeah. Quite a few have been to see her. A few years ago we discovered Vic’s family in Queensland. His family had moved around a bit and everyone had lost contact and so, five of us went round there and renewed the contact, and we were treated like long lost friends. It was really magic - very sad. You’re very apprehensive when you do this because you don’t really know how they’re going to react, but they were magnificent. They’re both deceased now, Vic’s parents, but (it was) really worthwhile. So it was a very necessary duty - but very sad.
GM Yeah, it’s interesting, reminds me of what a padre John Tinkler said once, he said that the guys wrote to a bloke’s parents saying, sorry you’ve lost your son and all that sort of stuff, and the parents wrote back saying we’re sorry you lost him from your family as well.
GM The ‘family of soldiers’, yeah, it’s interesting.
GM Did you get to work with any Allies, the Yanks or the ARVN?
WB Well, we were an ANZAC battalion.
WB We had two companies of Kiwis with us, Victor and Whisky Company, and they were really good soldiers. My first contact was with them when the rescue party came in to get the fellow out with the thigh wounds. And I still actually correspond with the Kiwi major, who was actually a second lieutenant at the time in Whisky Company and he had a lot to do with Agent Orange issues in New Zealand. Does a good job, John Moller. We worked with the ARVN once. They sent out a section with us when we were going to find this arms cache and we had a couple of Chieu Hois that were supposed to know where it was and this section of ARVN, and as soon as the contact started the ARVN disappeared. Yeah, never saw them again.
WB Yeah, bolted. The Yanks were very good with their Dustoff and support - all that sort of thing. Their rations were good - if not bulky. But they were a bit dangerous too. Our Charlie Company was strafed one day and had 14 wounded in two strafing runs and then a week later they were bombed, I think it was a 500 or 750-pound bomb that was dropped in the middle of them. They were just thrown around and no one was killed or wounded. Just concussed and bruised.
GM Probably a delay fuse?
WB They were the unlucky company. It was yeah.
WB Apparently they found out later it was a plane going back after an operation and it just dropped it.
GM Murphy’s Law. God you’d have to be unlucky wouldn’t you?
WB Yeah, so, so they were to be avoided. And it worked out later that 25 percent of our casualties were accidents overall. I think that went through all the forces.
GM You mentioned before that their rations were bulky.
GM Did you have to eat a lot of American rations or was it a mix?
WB When we got supplied, every five days I think it was, we’d get three days American, which was three bulky meals per day, and two days Australian, which was…
GM One bulky meal for three days for three meals.
WB But with the variety it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t drink coffee, so I’d give my mate - Willy the ‘turd burglar’ - I’d give him coffee and he’d give me a tin of fruit. But then in the action I lost my big pack and surgical kit and I had 11 tins of fruit that I’d been hoarding up! So I never saw them again.
GM And what was the big action? That was the…?
WB In February we hit the bunker system, which was supposed to be the arms cache.
GM How did you lose your pack?
WB When I went into to rescue the wounded as the citation says, ‘Corporal Brown went forward to rescue the wounded’ and so on, and we rescued the wounded, and then Jock and I dragged this fellow back, we dragged Bluey back, and we didn’t go back in again, you see?
GM Everyone withdrew?
WB So my pack stayed, I hope they enjoyed the fruit.
GM You mentioned a citation. What was that for?
WB A Military Medal.
GM And you were awarded it?
GM Well done. Another Brown with an MM.
WB Oh yeah?
GM Yeah, there’s a Shorty Brown as well.
WB Oh, right.
WB I’ll have to look him up.
GM He’s now a padre. He was a medic as well. Now…
WB Was he with 6 RAR?
WB Yep, right.
WB But he’s a minister of religion now?
GM Now, the ten months is up and I guess you’re National Service time was up?
WB Yeah, yeah. Lot of 8th intake, which I was then, had gone home, some as early as Christmas and some in January and I was still there and I was getting a bit toey. Thinking that I wasn’t going to make it. I really had this thought quite often that I was gonna cop it before I got out. I was quite apprehensive. But then I got this guts ache, went to hospital and I only had a couple of weeks left of my two years then and so they chuffed me back to Nui Dat and replaced me with another medic, a fellow called Dick Schwer, another Regular and he took over so, thank goodness. Then they said, ‘Righto pack your gear - you’re going home’. I thought hang on, I’m actually getting out of here. I still didn’t believe that I would survive until I think we were about halfway between Saigon and Jakarta. I thought the rockets can still get us up here! I was really that down. Yeah, that negative.
GM When was your Military Medal announced?
WB Oh, I’d been discharged about…
GM Oh, so you were out of the army?
WB Oh yeah, well out, I’d say about June, July, August I think it was.
WB Yeah, after the event
GM How did it feel leaving B Company?
WB It was a... it was like pulling a tooth I reckon. B(ravo) Company was family and still is. I mean there’s a reunion in Sydney next year (2002) and the preliminary lists are out and there are 43 B Company blokes on the list so far that are going to Sydney and I presume there’s going to be 60 or 70 so they were really, really good company, good careful camouflaged, well drilled, well spaced, good tactical company and they all got on. And we still see each other yeah. I mean I saw a bloke called Jerry Villalba the other day, 37 years in the army; he was behind the tree with me on the Charlie Company clash. Bill [WB: Field] is coming up to meet him and they’re going off touring. B(ravo) Company sergeant, Stony Bourke, he’s up to see us and we had tea the other night you know, it just goes on and on. Bravo Company blokes keep in touch, and go fishing together and camping, send cards - all that.
GM What do you think you learnt most from your time in Vietnam?
WB Okay. Well, I guess, mainly I learnt the futility of politics and war and corruption and how we really shouldn’t have been there; setting one group of people, supporting them against another group of people, when reunification was what I think now - having read widely about it - was what it was all about. And that the Americans sucked us in there. After having funded the French for many, many years and were unable to gracefully get out of that one. I have a feeling that they wanted to have a permanent base there, in Asia, a bit closer than Guam and Japan on the mainland and become the universal policeman and umpire, and all that sort of thing. That’s one thing I learnt, and I learnt that when you’re on the ground and actually, in a smaller picture, that teamwork and mutual support amongst fellas in the company, and the section, the platoon, that counts for everything. We only had two killed in B Company and probably eight or ten wounded. Most of the wounded I treated were from other units - as it turned out - because we were so careful; kept off tracks, went quietly and carefully. I knew that the fellas that I did patch up appreciated the efforts that I put in. The motto in B Company was ‘Hook In’, and I think I did a little bit of that. In fact one of our blokes owns a fairly big fishing boat now and he’s called that Hook In. He sent Jock Richardson a photo of it recently because he was a real ‘hook in’ lad. And I learnt that if you can survive Vietnam and come to grips with the legacy that Vietnam leaves you, you can handle just about anything.
GM Yeah, and I guess in the job that you had, your own mortality is driven home rather brutally at times.
WB Yeah yeah it was. I really wanted to survive it, I’ve got a lot of living to do, a lot of things to do, places to go. I didn’t want to die over there or get badly wounded. There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t mind a homer, but I didn’t know where to allocate it. Left arm, right arm, left leg no. No, oooh, yeah a bit of a dilemma, and I thought, no I’ll play it by ear if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
GM Stay low.
WB Stay low. It’s pretty hard patching a bloke up when you’re laying down though. It’s yeah…
WB Luckily, I was only about 9 stone wringing wet and a pretty small silhouette, side on.
GM Got any regrets about going to Vietnam?
WB I was reluctant to go at first because National Service wasn’t on my program after having tried to join the Navy and being rejected. So when I did knuckle down and get over there, I found that my role in B Company was quite an important role and that if I didn’t do it some other poor cow had to do it. But I established a lot of good friends in B Company and when you’re in, when you’ve been through a couple serious contacts together and you keep in touch later, you’re life-long mates and that’s pretty important. So the reluctance I had early about the war and being there and possibly getting shot is compensated by the mates that I’ve got today.
GM Well, you speak with a lot of pride about B Company. That’s quite evident.
WB Oh yeah, we were the best Company. I mean every Company says they’re the best.
GM But if you don’t believe that, you’d be in trouble wouldn’t you?
WB But we were one of the few companies, if not the only company that kept our commanding officer and 2IC and CSM, until he got wounded, all the way through. The others chopped and changed personnel for different reasons but we maintained our integrity.
GM Yeah, well…
WB The hardest things at reunions now is the reos that came in late, they bowl up at the reunion and they don’t really feel part of the brotherhood, but we try and make them welcome.
GM Yeah, I know what you mean.
WB We really should have done it stronger years ago. We’re trying to catch up now.
GM We look back now on Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Was it worth it?
WB I remember talking to you the other day at the introductory talk on this and I said one word would describe it - no. But having gone home and looked through the questions and thought about it a bit I’ve got about 28 lines here that I’ve written down. I really believe that Australia was conned into Vietnam, that the US had been fighting, funding the French war effort for years and couldn’t get out of it themselves and I reckon that the CIA and others, agencies, had manipulated the whole show. It’s recently become apparent by McNamara, who wanted to top himself after being caught out with all the facts and figures that the US and the Allies were in the wrong and we were never going to win and were too involved to leave and to save our political faces. I’ve read extensively on Vietnam and now have an idea of the bigger picture. I’ve travelled back to Vietnam three times and mixed with a cross-section of people and I find them very forgiving, they want to look ahead, and not dwell on the past. These people want to be friends; they want to trade with us, they want to show off the geographical beauty of Vietnam. They saw the American war, as they call it, as an inconvenience along the way to reunification of the North and the South. They and we are left with the legacy of indiscriminate chemical spraying with the residual contaminate Dioxin. I’ve recently been back to Vietnam and seen the deformed babies in the formalin jars in Tu Do Hospital in Saigon. I’ve seen the living deformed kids in nursing homes around Vietnam and I’m aware of the birth defects that Australian veterans’ kids are suffering from too. Youth suicide is rampant; post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, which I believe is partially caused by trauma and incidences in Vietnam, and chemical residue in their systems having a bad effect on the brain. The chemical issue cannot be summarily discharged as we were back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Australia, in my view, was conned into Vietnam by a concocted domino theory, an orchestrated Gulf of Tonkin incident and pressure from the CIA. It was a huge mistake that a generally gullible nation fell for at the time and I feel sorry for families who lost loved ones killed in Vietnam and for those who’ve died prematurely since. That’s a lot more than no… isn’t it?
GM That’s a lot more than you said the other day.
GM But I think you’ve summed up fairly well what a lot of people do feel. Mate, is there anything else you’d like to say?
WB No, just thank you for the opportunity to do this and I hope that this has actually stimulated me to get on with my book, which I’m into Chapter Nine I think, about my history as a medic in Vietnam and visits back to Vietnam since. So this has got me going again.
GM Good, well, Wayne, thank you very it was most enjoyable.
GM Good interview, ta.
End of Interview