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Different rememberings of the Battle of Long Tan


Chris Johnston - Long TanEvery few years something comes up about my brother, John, and the other five MIAs who didn’t come back from Vietnam. A Veteran contacts us or there’s an article in the press. Now, there’s an invitation to go to Perth in August where they’re naming streets after the six, in a new housing development. 18 August 2006 is the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, in which 18 Australian and more than 245 Viet Cong soldiers were killed. There will be different rememberings. It’s hard to put the dead to rest.

The first Vet, Barry, rang me in Mebourne 14 years ago with an invitation to Canberra for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in October. I tried not to be hostile on the phone:

‘Listen Barry,’ I said, ‘it’s not my scene. Military salutes. Tough talk.’

‘It won’t be like that. I promise you.’

‘How many gooks you killed a day.’

‘Shit, Christine,’ he said gently, ‘we’re not a bunch of Rambos.’

‘Glorifying the whole thing.’

‘Glory? Not much of that.’ He was still calm.

‘Look, I marched in the moratoriums. I was a teacher. Took my students along.’

He wasn’t going to be drawn on that. ‘John was part of a great team. We were doing a dangerous job,’ he said.

Yes, he was a patient man. He wasn’t going to get off the phone until he’d had a good try at getting me to Canberra.

He told me how they were the ones who went out on the dust off. If one of ours was bleeding under the vines in the jungle, among the leeches, the medics would fly out and bring him in. When a bloke came in from a dust off, like Pete, he wouldn’t waste any time. Pete, yes, he’d swagger in to the mess, still in his battledress, jumping the queue, straight to the bar. ‘”Give us a beer,” he’d say and expect to be served. We were the ones that brought them in if they went down. And he’d get served.’ I had to laugh.

Different rememberings of the Battle of Long Tan‘Barry, I’ve already told you. I was on the other side.’

‘So? That’s old stuff.’

‘I’ve got a friend who was a conscientious objector. Maybe they were the heroes.’

‘Maybe,’ said Barry. ‘Look mate, I was nineteen when I went. I didn’t even know where bloody Vietnam was.’

‘Well, you were a pack of bloody idiots going,’ I said and started to cry.

‘I know, love,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I think that the lucky blokes came back in body bags.’

‘John and I didn’t even get on. He was a bastard, but he was my bloody brother. What if I can’t stop crying and spoil your reunion?’

‘It’s yours too, darl’, he said. ‘You’re one of us.’

I told him no way. He said it was the last hurrah for ‘Nam. A chance to bury ghosts. Just do it, he told me and said he’d shout me a beer.

Different rememberings of the Battle of Long TanWe didn’t get on, John and me. I found an old photo of him. Beautiful blue eyes. Long black lashes that I should have had. He was a real lair who left school early, went to pie nights at the YCW footy club, raged with mates, smashed up his hotted-up Holden now and then. A broken rib here, a gash there. He was a hard worker though, delivering frozen chooks, thumping dead poultry around the freezer truck all day.

John glared out at me from the photo, a can of Foster’s in his hand, leaning against the Holden. His wife, Carmel, must have taken the snap on his 23rd birthday, not long before he went away.

‘I’m going to Vietnam,’ he told me. ‘You never get anywhere if you don’t take a few risks.’

‘What does Carmel think?’ I knew she was pregnant.

He shrugged. ‘I’ll have a War Service Loan when I come back and we can get a house. I’ve worked it all out; one chance in 5,000 that I’ll get killed.’

We were a punting family.

‘You’re bloody mad,’ I said. ‘It’s a crazy war.’

His mouth went into a hard line. ‘Don’t give me that university commo crap,’ he said and swaggered out.

He joined the medics and was at Vung Tau, Nui Dat, one of those names. We knew he was quite safe. He told us that he operated the radio at the base. Thank God he wasn’t running around among the Vietnamese people with Armalite rifles amid the napalm and the bombs.

The Vietnam War. Crazy stuff. Make love not war. I marched down Swanston Street among the banners at the moratoriums. Troops out! Troops out! Troops out!


Different rememberings of the Battle of Long TanI walked into the reunion on the Friday night and smoothed a sticky name tag on my chest. ‘Christine Gillespie’, next to the poppy that you wore if you were a relative of the 503 who didn’t come back. Next-or-kin, the little label said. I looked around at the Eighth Field Ambulance survivors.

‘So, you came.’ Barry smiled at me and put a beer in my hand. It was mainly couples, so I was glad there was someone to talk to. They were showing slides, all depressing in black and white. ‘That’s the veranda of the hospital,’ Barry said. ‘The chopper was always parked out to the right.’ There was another slide of them all having a barbeque, in shorts, laughing. Another bloke came up to us and stood near Barry. ‘They were the best prawns,’ he said. He pointed at the image with his pot. ‘Wasn’t that the day Gillespie didn’t come in? Twenty past five, it was.’ He wandered away and I cried. Barry and his friends hugged me and said that that was alright.

They didn’t tell me until the next day that the rest of the crew got out of the chopper. How John’s legs were trapped underneath when it crashed. That one of the crew tried to drag him out. How it exploded into flames and he burned.

One of the blokes drove me back to the motel that night. The music on the radio was turned up high.

‘And welcome to beautiful Canberra, all you Vietnam Vets. We’ve got another golden oldie for you from our sixties and seventies special. Remember this one, guys, it’s the fabulous Animals...’

We gotta get out of this place,
If it’s the last thing we ever do.
We gotta get out of this place.
Girl there’s a better life
For me and you.


Different rememberings of the Battle of Long TanI clung onto John’s flag—the army gave it to us when he didn’t come back—and we stood around in the freezing Canberra morning after the Dawn Service. The Brigadier had said it all then: our boys left home and went to war, he said, and in a few hours they were old men. There was a beating of rotor blades. We all looked up. A lone Iroquois came out of the horizon and flew over us, thud-thud-thud, as the red sun slid up, making pink marks on men’s faces.

The blokes stood around afterwards on the oval, 20,000 of them. A few came up to me, asked me if I wanted anything as I waited for Carmel and her daughter, John’s daughter. There was tea and fruit cake served by the Salvos. Did I want a cuppa? Another hour until the march past the Prime Minister. The band was warming up with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ over near the goal posts. So, I stood like a koala hanging onto a sapling and watched. There were reunions, vets who hadn’t seen each other since Vietnam.

‘Ray, mate, I’d never have recognised you, except for the voice.’ Two Harley Davidson riders threw their arms around each other, so close I could hear their leather squeaking.

‘Shit, mate, you look so old,’ said Ray.

‘Thanks pal, you haven’t exactly been preserved in a time capsule yourself.’ They hugged and laughed like kids and offered me rides on their bikes.

‘This is my first “back to Vietnam”, mate,’ said Ray. ‘It blows me right out. I’ll see you at the lunch.’ He punched his friend on the shoulder and limped away on a gammy leg.

I yawned and waited and thought back.


It was mid-April 1971. I called in to Dad’s that Sunday night. I was late. They all sat around, my Dad, two sisters and two brothers, with the light dimmed, just staring at me. ’O.K. So I’m always late. I’ll be late for my own funeral.’ I laughed. They looked away.

‘John’s dead,’ said Dad.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘He works at the radio base. He doesn’t even go out with a gun. They couldn’t kill him there. He’s home on leave in a week.’

‘He went out in helicopters to pick up the wounded. It was part of his job. He got shot down.’ Dad began to cry. ‘They couldn’t recover the body. The major came and told us today.’

‘Well, how do they know he’s dead if there was no body. You’re all being stupid,’ I yelled.

‘Well, he died for his country,’ said Dad, not looking at me.


Barry took me around. So did some of the other blokes. He picked me up to visit the War Memorial. It was beautiful. Slabs of concrete, a huge image of a bunch of men being air-lifted out of some village by a chopper. There were 35 inscriptions on the northern wall, quotations, the language of the troops: 

The RAAF dust-off pilots had no light and showed great skill in coming down.

What we did on the battlefield in the morning was on our living room TV screens that night.

Nobody's got 365 days and a wakey to go.

An extreme effort was demanded from nursing staff on those occasions
- over 24 hours on duty was done on most of the days mentioned.

Contact - stand by dust off.

The decision to send an Australian battalion to Vietnam is a grave one. These are inescapable obligations which fall on us because of our position, treaties and friendship. There was no alternative but to respond as we have.

Australia's last combat forces left South Vietnam yesterday on board HMAS Sydney, ending 10 years of Australian involvement in the war.

I don't seem to have many friends since i came home. If you weren't there, you can't understand.

More than 750,000 men turned twenty during the years of the war - a ballot, with marbles spun in a barrel, was used to help select those for conscription.

Throw smoke! - i see green - affirmative!

Our family found itself divided over Vietnam.

At vampire pad our own doctors and nurses took over - we knew we had made it.

On 3 October 1987, 25,000 Vietnam veterans marched in a welcome home parade through Sydney, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands. It was the greatest emotional outpouring witnessed in decades.

I walked with Barry around the three concrete memorial seats. At each end of these memorials is the name of one of the six Australians recorded as Missing In Action.

On the way back to the next event, I flicked on the car radio. ‘And another golden oldie for you boys. Remember this one fellahs?’

I’m leaving on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again...



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Existing comments

beautifully written!

russell walsh | 15 August 2006  

I saw this article in the Age yesterday!

andy johnson | 20 August 2006  

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