A Veteran’s New Home

By Joe Patterson | 27 May 19
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“The [communist] takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia” – Robert Menzies 1965

Glenn’s motorbike weaves through the nocturnal traffic of Vung Tau. The weight of three people makes it difficult to manoeuvre, causing us to zigzag across the roads before we screech to a halt outside an apartment block.

Glenn Nolan is a local Australian war historian and owner of a bar in Vung Tau called Tommy’s, and behind me is Rod ‘Rocket’ Halor, a veteran who now calls this province home. The average age of an Australian soldier in Vietnam was only 20, a few years younger than I am now.

In the present day, as global tensions rise between North Korea and Trump’s United States, the possibility of another global conflict doesn’t seem so distant. I have found myself thinking what it would be like to be told I was going to war with no choice, and then what it would be like to return from such a conflict. My curiosity has landed me in the coastal city of Vung Tau in the Ba Ria-Vung Tau province (formally the Phouc Thouy province) where the Australian military were prominent during the Vietnam War, only to discover that this place is where many Australian Vietnam veterans have decided to make a home 45 years later.

A war shrouded in controversy, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, continues to be divisive. On returning from service, many veterans were met with hostility, disrespect, and a lack of assistance from the Government and communities, leading to near countless reports of ongoing adversity, recovery and isolation.

In 2016 thousands of Australians arrived in Vung Tau to attend a large-scale commemorative service honouring the lives lost in the Battle of Long Tan, Australia’s biggest military victory during the conflict. Many veterans had agreed to return for the service. For some it was a significant first step towards recovery and healing from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans and their families flocked to Vung Tau, only to be told just 24 hours beforehand that the service wouldn’t take place. After the Vietnamese government cancelled the commemoration a large portion of veterans wiped their hands of Vietnam once again, vowing never to return.

There is an ongoing discussion among veterans, and the community in general, about the rates of suicide and PTSD among veterans, and how we approach spending in terms of recovery for returned servicemen and women. Recent government spending on military memorials has been called into question. Many have objected to the $110 million construction of the John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux, France, dedicated to the thousands of Australians who lost their lives on the Western Front. They say government spending should be more focused on the living, rather than the dead.

There are hundreds of Australian veterans and their families who struggle to get adequate compensation or assistance from the government to aid in their recovery.

In the particular case of Vietnam veterans, many of whom hold a bitter resentment toward the Government that failed them, some found that it was matter of taking recovery into their own hands, by returning to Vietnam.

Vung Tau

Currently a combination of a resort city, and a hub for offshore gas and oil mining, Vung Tau was once a popular rest and recreation spot for Australian and American soldiers during the war. It was a mere 30 kilometres from Nui Dat Military Base – Australia’s primary combat base during their six-year involvement in the war. Today, as I arrive on a relatively empty bus from Ho Chi Minh City, I see the city is made up of tall apartment buildings, palm trees, and manicured gardens.

I make a call to Glenn Nolan, a man of military background himself, who lives in Vung Tau with his wife, Trang. Glenn was involved in the organisation of last year’s event for Vietnam Veteran’s Day, and who I’ve been told is the man to speak to about the Australian remnants of war in the area.

Glenn hears my accent on the phone and tells me to come straight to his bar, Tommy’s, for a beer. Outdoor bars and restaurants spot the streets in Vung Tau, separated by hotels, parks and fancy electronic stores. The small 24-hour convenience stores are incredibly clean and are frequented by tourists. Behind Tommy’s bar, cable cars pass each other slowly packed with eager tourists keen to get a view of Vung Tau below.

Tommy’s Bar

Glenn and I sit outdoors in the shade of Tommy’s discussing the differences between Australia and Vietnam long into the afternoon. Glenn tells me that he joined the Army in 1975, just as the war was ending. As we continue talking, the sun starts to fade and the large outdoor space remains relatively empty. Now and then a Vietnamese family will come in to Tommy’s bringing their own food. We enjoy a beer in the late afternoon humidity. “It hasn’t been the same since all that shit last year mate,” Glenn says, “No one came here on ANZAC or Veteran’s Day.” The sky darkens and heavy rain begins to come in off the water; massive drops pelt the iron roof overhead. It isn’t long until a lanky man by the name of Rod Harlor comes in. Rod, or Rocket to all of his mates, is 69 years old, and was an infantry man and in a mortar platoon as part of 9th Battalion, RAR. Rocket left Vietnam at the end of his tour in 1969 at 22 years old. “Like most vets, I absolutely swore I’d never come back,” he says, sipping from his beer. “I came back with a group of mates the first time in 2011 and found it had changed so much. After seven trips I decided to make it my home.”

Rocket paints a picture of a different time. He tells us that the dirt roads stretching from Ba Ria to Nui Dat are now highways with manicured garden beds in the middle.

Local families stream into Tommy’s. They drink jasmine tea, and the children run around high-fiving us and playing. Eating a Four’n Twenty pie, Glenn offers to take me to the fields tomorrow with Rocket, to the province where the Australians were engaged. I accept, eager to understand what it would have been like to be a soldier here.

Later, I walk home along the beachfront. Bars like the Red Parrot and Offshore play loud music as young Vietnamese waitresses serve older western men. The smaller bars are crammed with young locals drinking cocktails and laughing. Lights from boats can be seen out on the water. I imagine the Australian soldiers coming here for a weekend to blow off steam, then heading back to the war, after their break was over.

The Long Hai Hills

I meet Rocket and Glenn early the next day and another veteran Brodwyn ‘Browny’ Brown joins us. He is a large bald man with a bushy moustache and lives not far from Tommy’s with his wife, a Vietnamese woman. He was part of the 85 Transport Troop (their informal insignia, the Road Runner) in 1969 here in Vietnam. The four of us hop into Glenn’s car and venture out of Vung Tau.

We fly along the highway toward a large hill range in the distance, leaving the congested inner-streets of the city. The buildings become sparser, and the landscape fills with rice paddies and rivers the further we get from Vung Tau. We venture through more small villages, and Glenn points out a woman spit- roasting a dog with her family. “Once the war was over this country started to starve without the help of Russia. That’s why there are fuck-all birds left,” he says. Rocket asks how old I am; I tell him I’m 23 and I am suddenly aware that I am older then these men were when they were here.

In 1964 the government introduced compulsory conscription for 20-year-old males, who were selected in a ‘lottery’. If selected, the men would undergo tests and interviews, and a month later they would report for military service.

The Long Hai Hills is our first destination and we near the base of the jungle-covered range spanning the horizon near the ocean. “The hills were a Viet Cong base during the war,” Glenn says as the car climbs the dirt road snaking up toward the mountains. “This area was bombed 40 times by B-52s and it was the Australians who had to head in and clear them out.”

We pull into a large clearing in the trees that now serves as a car park for tour buses. Souvenir kiosks surround the area, and the large space funnels into a path leading to the Minh Dam Secret Zone, a Viet Cong base area. Dozens of monkeys, some carrying their babies, dart across the road as Rocket leans down trying to get a photo before they scurry off.

During Operation Pinnaroo, the Australian troops attempted to eradicate the Viet Cong, or ‘VC’, forces in these hills. The VC forces had used the dark caves to endure the bombarding of napalm, CS gas and artillery. Operation Pinnaroo killed 13 Australian troops and wounded 34, without a shot fired. All casualties were a result of the troops setting off their own landmines. We near the top of the path where a handful of temples serve as a memorial to the Viet Cong forces lost in the area. Rocket looks up to nowhere in particular and says, “They had kitchens and hospitals, everything they needed. Any Aussie sent up here was very very wary … it was so dangerous.”

Glenn points out an unnatural stack of rocks near the largest temple that has been cracked perfectly in the centre. “That was the impact of direct artillery.”

The largest temple is silent, and a bust of Ho Chi Minh stands in the centre surrounded by incense and candles. Browny, who has never been to this area, comments on the extravagant Chinese style of the temples, where detailed golden dragons sit on bold red roofs. We take off our shoes and enter, while Glenn whispers facts about the names that are etched on small grey tiles. A handful of different names are written in gold, one of which is Vo Thi Sau, a famed woman who worked as a guerrilla against the French occupiers during the First Indochina War. Her status acted as a symbol for unity during the war. “She was only 14 when she threw a grenade at a group of French soldiers,” he says. “There is a gold statue of her down the road in Dat Do, we can go have a look.”

Dat Do

We travel parallel to the South China Sea, and I ask about what the guys got up to when they had time off. Rocket recounts a time he stole a ute with some mates from Nui Dat so that he could go into Vung Tau to party. “I got in a bit of trouble for that,” he says laughing. Glenn interjects with a characteristic addition of a statistic. “In the Second World War, Australian soldiers had an average of 40 days in combat during their one-year tour. In Vietnam it was 314 days,” Glenn says solemnly. Browny adds,

“You can imagine after all those days in combat you would just want to head into Vung Tau get fucked up for a few days and forget it all before starting again.”

In 1967, Brigadier Stuart Graham implemented a barrier minefield for the protection of Nui Dat along the coast. Glenn points out where it began as we chat about mines and how they continue to impact the country. I bring up the Redgum song ‘I Was Only 19’, and the group share a laugh. “The part about ‘Frankie kicking a landmine’ was true, and it did happen the day of the moon landing,” Glenn exclaims, “But it happened to a bloke called Pete Hines who died, so they used a different name.”

Glenn slows down as we see a cleared area on the side of the road. Lined up perfectly is an assortment of military era vehicles with everything from tanks and motorbikes, to planes. Some are in pristine condition, others look like they could be centuries old and are blend into the post-apocalyptic landscape. “No idea what they are for,” says Glenn as we take off again. Vietnam seems to have moved on from the war with authority, yet if you scratch the surface, fragments of the war are easy to find.

I had almost forgotten about the minefield until Glenn slows does and says, “And this is where it ended.” It was 11 kilometres long and 100 meters wide. There were approximately 2100 M16 ‘Jumping Jack’ mines that popped out of the ground to waist height before detonating. These kinds of mines are still found throughout Vietnam today, with large areas of the country still in danger from ordnance.

In Dat Do we arrive at a haunting statue of Sau. In gold, she stands solemnly surrounded by garden beds and flagpoles. “She’s such a hero around here,” Rocket says.”

“I met an old man once who knew her,” Glenn says, “He thought she was fucking crazy!”

Long Tan Cross

There is a paradoxical order to the rubber plantation, considering the unrest that were faced here years ago. The trees are lined up perfectly and as we drive they flicker past like an old film reel. The farmers hang their hammocks between two trees to rest in the shade, and we venture out toward the adjacent field where all the trees have been cleared. “The oldest man to die here was 21, and the youngest was 19,” Glenn says as I walk down the paved path toward the centre of the field, picturing the young men fighting here.

Like a lot of sites where mass death has occurred, there seems to be an eerie silence. It is one of only two foreign war monuments in Vietnam, the other being the French Dien Bien Phu monument. On August 18, 1966, D Company, comprised of just over 100 men, were engaged in a battle at this rubber plantation in torrential rain, mud and the darkness of night. They held off a force of approximately 2000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The opposition suffered 245 deaths while D Company lost 18 men. The battle was significant for the ANZACs and was one of the largest military victories completed by the allies during the war.

The paved area in the field is empty except for an Australian woman and her guide. “My husband fought here,” she says, silent on whether or not he also died here.

Browny points back toward the trees, “Imagine fighting among those, just horrible conditions.” Browny and I venture out into the field where new rubber trees have recently been planted. They are only shrubs at this stage, sprouting from the ground.

I ask Browny about his time in the war. “I was 1st Battalion, RAR, infantry for about four years,” he says with his hands on his hips looking out into the trees. “I joined catering in the army when I realised there was no future in the infantry,” he tells me smiling. We continue to trek through the dry dirt that puffs up with every step.

I ask Browny if he saw any action during his time in the war. “God, no!” he replies, “There was a time during target practice that the helicopters came in and we thought it was time to go, but it didn’t happen.”

I leave the cross hoping to discover the place young men called home during their tours here. Noticing me searching, Rocket says,“Nui Dat is about five kilometres that way,” pointing over the tree line.

Nui Dat

Nui Dat (‘clay hill’ in English) was established as Australia’s primary base of operations in 1966 and held as many as 5000 personnel at its peak. The base was in the heart of VC territory and a four-kilometre uninhabited radius had to be established from the base for security. Locals were forcefully removed to prevent leaks about the base.

Today, Nui Dat looks like any other small village in Vietnam, its inhabitants having regained their rightful home. We drive through the town at a snail’s pace as Browny and Rocket point out the spaces that were used for barracks, pits and even a performance area. The Kangaroo Pad, a helicopter landing area, looks significantly overgrown compared to the well-kept surface depicted in images from 1967. The large trees and bushes creep from all sides, and it won’t be long before areas like this are completely unrecognisable. Rocket resumes his story about the ute he took as we turn onto an asphalt road, a relief from the pot-hole clad roads we have been travelling on. The road we turn down is the only way in or out of what resembles a square cul-de-sac. “This is the airstrip,” Glenn mutters as we stop the car. The locals who now call the area home go about day-to-day as they did long before the Australian troops arrived here.

Ba Ria

We arrive in Ba Ria, the provincial capital, and sit in the shade of a gazebo of a local restaurant. We eat ribs, wings and an assortment of pho and banh mi while talking about life after the war. Glenn has worked in dozens of different industries after his military service, and has a resume a mile long, but suggests that at 50 he is too old to get jobs back home.

After Rocket returned from Vietnam, he had trouble integrating back into society, working many different jobs for years. “I struggled for a long time. I remember living in my son’s shed thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” The group speak openly about PTSD, something they have learnt to overcome, possibly by living here.

“I remember getting so mad when I drove… road rage,” says Browny, “Now I just don’t fucking drive!” he laughs.

Rocket mentions a phrase he has heard countless times, “The Army teaches you how to turn on a switch that they never teach you switch off, even after the war is over.” For the first time, Rocket breaks his silence about his actual days in combat, telling me of the mortar pits they dug in the jungle. “It would piss down with rain and we would only have a bit of plastic to cover us.” This image, depicted so often in films and books, is so much more visceral when described first-hand by a real soldier.

I ask about their relationships with the Vietnamese, after noticing they don’t speak much of the language despite living here. Rocket starts to tell me about their friend Vo Xuan Thu who was part of the North Vietnamese Army from ‘66 to ‘72. “We have had great nights drinking at their equivalent of an RSL.”

“We are sitting around with them and they come up asking for photos and to cheers their drinks with us, and they are all fucking generals!” says Browny. I imagine that a large part of the healing process for these men is realising the lack of animosity between them and their former enemy.

Tommy’s Bar

Dragging myself out of Tommy’s later that night I walk back to my hotel, surveying Vung Tau. Young Vietnamese women out the front of clubs come up to me speaking in perfect English, asking me to join them for a drink. The security guards at the casino call out to me across the road and offer me a cigarette to sit and talk about Australia. I picture those same boys coming to Vung Tau, in an attempt to switch off from the horrors they faced after countless days in combat.

The next day I help Glenn strip the sports bar bare at Tommy’s. The museum-worthy collection of sporting memorabilia is all being removed. “This place was full every Veteran’s day and ANZAC day, but now nobody comes,” Glenn says showing me pictures of people crammed in the bar like sardines. Every inch is covered with flags, jerseys, and framed pictures. Rocket shows me Richie Benaud’s signature on a cricket ball and some of the impressive collection of stubby-holders.

I walk down the stairs as PT walks in. Pete ‘PT’ Taylor is a Vietnam veteran originally from Canberra who lives in Vung Tau with his wife.

We sit in Glenn’s office where a library of maritime literature about the war lines the walls. PT is bald and has fading tattoos on his arms, and he tells me how he feels about Australia. “I don’t like having some young bartender tell me what I can and can’t have to drink,” he says. “That would never happen here.”

I ask him about his life in the war. “I was 21, and I was a machine gunner in 5th battalion,” he says. “I was here about 10 and a half months before I went home …  I never thought I’d come back.”

PT doesn’t go into detail about his time during the war, much like the other veterans. Despite having found some peace in their new lives in Vietnam, talking about their time in the war still seems to be challenging. I ask about how he dealt with going back to Australia at such a young age after experiencing so much. “I was pretty erratic,” PT says. “Didn’t help that Australians didn’t want to know us. We thought we would be welcomed.” Pete held some jobs driving trucks and working for the government and has four kids back in Australia. He first returned to Vietnam in 2005, reluctantly. “I didn’t want to come, my mates told me I had to,” he says, shaking his head firmly. “After about two days I wanted to change my flights and head home; the smell of the jungle hadn’t changed and made me sick.” PT pauses for a moment and continues. “I stuck around and it got better but it was spooky to start with.”

PT tells me about a couple of mates he served with who he managed to get to see a psychiatrist recently, others have committed suicide after fighting PTSD for years. “I tell them you have to come back here, and we can go out into the bush to chase away the ghosts.”

PT and the others talk about Australia as if it is an old friend that somehow let them down. Following orders to serve their country at 20 years old, then being called murderers on their return has fostered in him a distaste for Australia. As Pete leaves, he tells me it’s the people that kept bringing him back to Vietnam, before it started to feel more like home than Australia.

Vung Tau

That afternoon, Rocket, Browny, Glenn and I drink and laugh late into the night. Glenn exclaims, “I’d rather have a shit day here, than a good day in Australia!” as we toast with our beers before heading back to Rocket and Glenn’s apartment for a nightcap.

Slightly inebriated and weighing down Glenn’s motorbike, we pull off at the apartment block where both Rocket and Glenn live. They pay $400 a month for a large apartment looking over the city.

I stand on the balcony of the apartment and look out toward the sea, then back inland in the direction of the sites I visited yesterday. Rocket has a framed picture of Ho Chi Minh, or ‘Uncle Ho’ to him, up on his wall; a gift from the local North Vietnamese Army veterans and his friend Thu.

“Look at this,” he says handing me an old photo, as I look out from his balcony over Vung Tau. In the picture, a group of men in a mortar pit shield themselves from the explosion. “That’s me,” he says smiling pointing to the bare-chested young man covering his ears for protection. He tells me that he was brought in as reinforcements, and his job was to carry the shell from the pile and drop it into the mortar. “The young lad I was replacing had put his thumb over the end to hurt himself, so he could go home,” Rocket says setting the photo down. These men in the pit, launching projectiles together everyday, would have developed a uniquely strong bond and friendship. Rocket and Glenn give me a bag of rusted shell casings. “These were found in the dirt at Long Tan,” says Glenn. “You keep it.”

I say goodbye to these men. “Don’t forget us,” Rocket says. It is reassuring to see that these men have found some happiness and peace by going full circle. I hope that the world has learnt from Vietnam, though sometimes I’m not so sure.