Background of the Viet Nam War

The roots of Australia's involvement in Viet Nam and a chronology of events

Background of the Viet Nam War

Background to the War

The roots of Australia’s involvement in Viet Nam lie in the earlier Viet Nam conflict of the 1950s. The French ruled Indochina for about a century, from the 1860s to 1954, with the French occupation characterised by taxes, tyranny, oppression by wealthy landlords and economic exploitation. Although the French were ousted from Indochina during the Second World War, they returned in 1946 to reassert their rule, especially over South Viet Nam, and the First Indochina War began. The Viet Minh, created by Communist Party founding member Ho Chi Minh, who had also declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV) in 1945, led opposition to the French. The Viet Minh forces of the DRV waged war against the French until they finally won independence, culminating in the defeat of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 after a bitter campaign.

The First Indochina War exacted a high toll, with approximately 93 000 French forces killed and over three times that number of Viet Minh casualties. Interestingly, the United States underwrote almost eighty per cent of France’s war expenses, spending a total of US$3.5 billion by the time the French were defeated.

In July 1954 the Geneva Accords were signed by France and Viet Nam, establishing a temporary partition of Viet Nam at the 17th parallel, pending the outcome of national elections to be held in 1956. Under Ho Chi Minh the DRV, based in Hanoi, remained dedicated to the unification of Viet Nam under communist rule. In the south, the Republic of (South) Viet Nam (RVN) was established with Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister. In 1955 Diem repudiated the Geneva Accords and refused to participate in elections to decide on reunification. North Viet Nam formed the National Liberation Front for South Viet Nam (NLF) in 1960 and began an insurgency war of terror and indoctrination against the government and people of South Viet Nam. The Second Indochina War (or Viet Nam War, as the west referred to it) began after the Viet Nam Communist Party decided early in 1959 to sanction greater reliance on military activity and to start infiltrating South Viet Nam. They did this by moving cadres and weapons into the south via the clandestine land route that was soon dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Following the defeat of the French, the United States had transferred its support to the newly established RVN and began providing advisers to the South Vietnamese as early as 1954. By the time Australia sent its first contingent of 30 advisers in 1962 the United States had in place a military advisory system of over 2000 advisers.

The War

The Viet Nam War was and still is the Australian nation’s longest ever commitment to war. It began in August 1962 and continued until December 1972. Australia was part of an Allied Force in Viet Nam that included the United States of America, Thailand, New Zealand, the Philippines and South Korea. The Australian contribution to the war totalled some 59 000 servicemen and women. The bulk of the effort centred around the Army who provided a three-battalion Task Force, an artillery regiment, cavalry squadron, Special Air Services squadron, engineer squadrons, an Australian Army Advisory and Training Team, Civil affairs unit and logistical support units. The Royal Australian Air Force contributed a helicopter squadron, a short-range tactical transport squadron and medium bombers and personnel as forward air controllers. The Royal Australian Navy had an ongoing commitment from start to finish with transport vessels, warships operating with the American 7th Fleet, a helicopter flight and a Clearance Diving Team. Throughout this book the authors will use the term Viet Nam as two words to correctly denote the country in accordance with Vietnamese spelling.

Those who served

The nominal roll of Australian veterans is over 59 000 men and women. This figure includes all those served in Viet Nam between 1962 and 1973. The following categories served during this period: 42 000 Army personnel, over 4500 RAAF personnel and over 12 000 RAN personnel. The nominal roll also includes a further 1200 people covering philanthropic organisations such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross, merchant seamen, civilian employees of Qantas, entertainers, media, civilian medical aid teams and others.


One of the most controversial and divisive issues of the Viet Nam War for the Australian nation was National Service conscription and the use of conscripts to serve overseas in a ‘foreign war’. The Australian Army trebled in strength during the period of the war to meet defence commitments in Viet Nam, Malaysia and Singapore. Over 804 000 Australian men registered for National Service during the war. From January 1965 to December 1972, 63 740 men were conscripted. Of these 15 542 served in South Viet Nam where they constituted roughly 50 per cent of each Army unit after 1966.


Estimates of casualties vary slightly depending upon the source but it is generally accepted that 520 Australian servicemen were killed in action (KIA) in Viet Nam or died as a direct result of war-related injuries. Of these 495 were Army personnel (200 were National Servicemen), 17 RAAF personnel and eight RAN personnel. This number includes six Australian servicemen who were declared Missing In Action during the war; they are believed to have been killed in action but have no known graves. In addition seven civilians were also killed.

The weather

Viet Nam is situated approximately between the 8th and 22nd latitudes and in the southern latitudes has a tropical climate. The Dry Season, which runs from January through to June, experiences searing and enervating heat. The Wet Season from July through to February has tropical monsoonal downpours with incredible heat and humidity. These climatic conditions were typical of the weather experienced by most of the Australians who served in Phuoc Tuy Province.

Viet Nam chronology


6 February American Military Assistance Command formed in South Viet Nam. By mid-1962, American advisers are increased from 700 to 12 000.

3 August 30 advisers forming Australian Army Training Team Viet Nam (AATTV) arrive in Viet Nam to assist in training Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) elements.


2 November Republic of Viet Nam President Diem is assassinated in a military coup.

December By year’s end Viet Nam has received $500 million in aid and there are now15 000 American military advisers in South Viet Nam.


8 June The AATTV is increased to 80 advisers.

6 July  First Australian, Warrant Officer Kevin Conway, killed in action.

14 August Six Caribou aircraft are provided by the Royal Australian Air Force Transport Flight.

10 November The Australian Government introduces selective conscription of 20-year-old males by ballot under the National Service Act.


January  The AATTV is increased to 100 officers and warrant officers.

8 March  Two US marine battalions, the first United States combat troops to arrive in South Viet Nam, walk ashore at Da Nang.

29 April  Prime Minister Robert Menzies announces the commitment of an infantry battalion to Viet Nam.

May - June The lst Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) and support forces totalling 1100 men established at Bien Hoa to serve under operational control of the United States 173rd Airborne Brigade as its third battalion.

September  Morgan Gallup Poll in Australia indicates: 56 per cent of Australians in favour of Australian involvement in Viet Nam; 28 per cent in favour of withdrawal; 10 per cent undecided.

1 September  RAR is expanded to a battalion group of 1400 men with the addition of an artillery battery, engineer troop and army aviation reconnaissance flight.

December  American forces strength reaches 184 300


8 March  Australian Government announces increase of battalion group to an independent taskforce of two battalions with combat and logistic support.

April  Prime Minister Harold Holt visits Viet Nam.

May - June  The lst Australian Task Force (1 ATF) totalling 4500 men including 500 National Servicemen, is established at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province. 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1 ALSG) is established at Vung Tau.

24 May  Private Errol Wayne Noack becomes the first Australian conscript to die in Viet Nam.

12 June  The Royal Australian Air Force provides an Iroquois helicopter squadron to support the 1st Australian Task Force.

18 August  The Battle of Long Tan: D Company, 6 RAR, supported by artillery, beats off attacks by a combined enemy main force regiment and provincial battalion.

October  United States President Johnson visits Australia.

19 November  Morgan Gallup Poll in Australia indicates: 63 per cent in favour of conscription, 37 per cent in favour of sending conscripts to Viet Nam.

22 December  Australian Government announces further increases in the military contribution to Viet Nam. American forces strength in Viet Nam reaches nearly 400 000.


March Royal Australian Navy provides a guided missile destroyer to operate with US 7th Fleet in the South China Sea.

19 April Royal Australian Air Force provides a squadron of Canberra bombers to operate out of Phan Rang.

May Morgan Gallup Poll in Australia indicates: 62 per cent in favour of the war, 24 per cent in favour of Australian withdrawal, 14 per cent undecided.

17 October Australian Government announces increase in 1 ATF with the addition of a third battalion and a tank squadron.

October Royal Australian Navy provides aircrew and ground staff for a helicopter flight with the US Army (RAN HFV).

17 December Prime Minister Harold Holt missing in surf near Portsea, Victoria, presumed drowned.

December American troop strength in Viet Nam approaches 500 000.


10 January John Gorton sworn in as Prime Minister.

30 January North Vietnamese and Viet Cong commence Tet Offensive against South Vietnamese cities.

12 February Prime Minister Gorton indicates that Australia will not increase its commitment to Viet Nam.

31 March President Johnson orders halt of bombing of North Viet Nam and announces he will not seek re-election in next presidential elections.

May - June lst Australian Task Force involved in battles defending Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral.

7 - 9 June Prime Minister Gorton visits Viet Nam.

5 November Richard Nixon elected US President. American troop strength in Viet Nam at year’s end is almost 540 000. Australian troop strength is 7171.


January Peak of 8 300 Australian Service personnel (more than 7 000 Army) deployed to Viet Nam.

25 January Formal truce negotiations begin in Paris.

31 January American forces in Viet Nam reach peak strength of over 542 400.

March Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird coins the term ‘Vietnamisation’ to cover preparations of American troop withdrawals

6 - 8 June 5 RAR routs a battalion of 33 NVA Regiment occupying the village of Binh Ba near the 1 ATF base at Nui Dat.

8 June President Nixon announces the beginning of the withdrawal of American combat forces.

August Morgan Gallup Poll: 55 percent in favour of Australian withdrawal, 40 percent in favour of continuing the war and 5 percent undecided.

3 September Ho Chi Minh dies in Hanoi aged 79.

December American troop strength reduced by 67 000.


22 April Prime Minister Gorton announces the reduction of Australian forces in Viet Nam: one battalion of the three battalion task force will not be replaced at the end of its tour in November.

30 April US President Nixon announces that US and ARVN forces have attacked Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. Large anti-war protests spread across the USA.

8 May First moratorium demonstration in Australia: 120 000 march to call for an end to Australian involvement in the Viet Nam War.

18 September Second moratorium demonstration: 100 000 march in Australian cities; over 300 people arrested.

1 November ATF reduced from three battalions to two, by the non-replacement of 8 RAR at the conclusion of its tour of duty.

December American troop strength down to 334 600.


30 March Prime Minister William McMahon announces gradual withdrawal of 1000 personnel to take place during next three months.

30 June Third and final moratorium march: 110 000 demonstrate in Australian cities.

18 August Australian Government announces that the 1st Australian Task Force will be withdrawn before Christmas 1971 and the logistic support forces shortly thereafter.

8 December Last major withdrawal of Australian troops from Viet Nam: 1 ATF completes its withdrawal with the departure of the last battalion (4 RAR). American troop strength now down to 156 800.


30 March NVA launch offensive across the DMZ.

12 August Last US ground combat troops withdrawn from South Viet Nam; over 43 000 airmen and support personnel remain.

5 December Following the election of the Whitlam Labor Government on 2 December, conscription ended and imprisoned draft resisters released.

18 December Almost all Australian troops withdrawn from Viet Nam leaving a small Australian Embassy guard.


23 January Cease-fire agreements formally signed in Paris. Draft in United States ends.

26 February Prime Minister Whitlam announces the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam but retains diplomatic recognition of RVN.

29 March Last US military forces leave Viet Nam.

June Last Australian troops leave Viet Nam.


January President Thieu announces that war has begun again.

June North Vietnamese build up of forces continues in south.

October North Vietnamese begin their Winter-Spring offensive.


15 March South Viet Nam abandons all northern provinces to the Communists.

25 March Hue falls to Communists. Da Nang captured five days later.

21 April Last defensive line outside Saigon captured at Xuan Loc. President Thieu resigns as 13 NVA Divisions surround Saigon. Two days later President Ford declares the war ‘finished’.

29 April Last American troops evacuate from Saigon by helicopter.

30 April NVA troops enter Saigon. Saigon falls as last Americans leave, bringing to an end the Second Indo China War (1960 -75).