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Vietnam Veterans Day Address by Richard Barry, Narrabri Cenotaph 15.8.14

Vietnam Veterans Day.

I have been invited by the Narrabri RSL sub-branch to address the assembly today to remember those who fought, those who perished and those who still suffer today as a result of a controversial war in Vietnam on this the 48th anniversary of one of its widely known battles at the Long Tan rubber tree plantation. However, Vietnam is not just about Long Tan, it is much more than that.

Vietnam has been one of those tragic countries in the way of mightier powers which have tried, often successfully, to subjugate and exploit it. The last of these foreign rulers were the French as far back as 1892. This changed during WW2 when Japan entered the war and revoked the 1892 treaties with France. Then in 1954 the French, after 5 years of huge sacrifices in lives, money and material withdrew from Vietnam.

In that same year an armistice was signed in Geneva to divide Vietnam along the 17th parallel into two military zones. The North was backed by China and the South became independent backed by America. Both governments claimed sovereignty over Vietnam.

But the situation deteriorated partly because of political dissension and increased action by the communists. Terrorism began on a large scale in 1958 and by 1960 guerrilla warfare was rife. America sent in 8,000 troops during 1961-1962. By 1965 the US had 23,000 soldiers in Vietnam. Three years later there were more than 500,000 that served altogether. The war raged on until the withdrawal and by 1971 US soldiers had fallen below 200,000. The last US troops left in March 1973 having suffered over 53,000 dead and over 153,000 wounded.

A total of 18.3 million gallons of Agent Orange was dropped over the country whilst 7 million tons of bombs were dropped. This was more than twice the amount of bombs dropped over Europe and Asia during the whole of WW2.

How did Australia become involved? There was a genuine fear of communism in Asia spreading to Australia. If South Vietnam were to fall to communism,as the domino effect theory suggested would happen, other nearby countries would follow. There was popular support for going to war in South East Asia but this eventually changed as the death toll mounted. 

Australia was involved in an alliance with the US following the Korean War namely  the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). In 1962 we sent 30 military advisers to assist the South Vietnamese army. A RAAF squadron was posted to nearby Thailand as a backup. By 1964 the military advisers increased to 60 and by 1965 reached over 100. In May 1965 a total of 778 soldiers of the 1st Battalion arrived. Battalions were subsequently sent on 12 month rotations and from 1962 to 1971 nearly 50,000 Australians served in Vietnam. The war in Vietnam eventually took 521 lives, wounded 2,000 more men and cost the Australian taxpayer $200,000,000.

National Service. Following WW2 and Korea many soldiers had left the army and recruitment was minimal. With the SEATO alliance and the war escalating in Vietnam it became necessary to bolster troop numbers. So, in 1964 every 19 year old male had to register for National Service to preform two years full-time service in the Regular Army. Failure to register incurred an immediate two years jail time resulting in a criminal record.

By 1972 a total of 804,286 had registered. From this lot 63,740 were called-up and over 19,000 were sent to Vietnam together with the regular/career soldiers. A total of 215 National Servicemen were killed and 1,279 were wounded. Narrabri district saw 27 young men fighting in Vietnam and their names are suitably inscribed on this cenotaph. 

Conscription was contentious and deeply divided the community. It was the first time the public saw live combat action relayed on TV sets in their lounge rooms by the following day. Like today, people saw ghastly images of dead women and children. Never before in Australia's military history have citizens been conscripted to specifically fight in a foreign war and it will never happen again.
Vietnam Veterans were spat on when they arrived home. No ticker tape parades. They were called "baby killers" and many a veteran did not let on he fought in Vietnam. It was shameful.
On 3rd October 1987 some 25,000 Vietnam Veterans marched in Sydney at the Welcome Home March. Fifteen ANZAC Days had passed since the end of Australia's war in Vietnam. The healing process had began in earnest.

We pay homage to the fallen and respect the living. Lest we forget.

(Prepared by Richard Barry. VP/VV Day - 15th August 2014)