Australian Troops Depart For Vietnam - History

Australian Troops Depart For Vietnam - History

May 26,1965

US Aircraft over North Viietnam

Eight hundred Australian troops depart for Vietnam. The Australian forces center around the 1st Australian Task Force (ATF), headquartered in the Nui Dat Rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy Province, southeast of Saigon. The Australian forces are later supplemented with troops from New Zealand. In the course of war, 47,424 Australian troops serve in Vietnam, 494 of whom are killed and 2,368 of whom are wounded. In addition, 35 New Zealanders are killed and 135 are injured.

Why Australian special forces spent 10 days in Vietnam without saying a word

Navy SEAL and Vietnam veteran Roger Hayden spent ten days with the Australian Special Air Service during a mission in Vietnam. Hayden, then with SEAL Team One, invited the Aussies to go out in their area of responsibility. They had a blast Hayden told fellow Navy SEAL vet Jocko Willink on his podcast.

But for the entire ten days, the Aussies didn’t say a word. They just used hand and arms signals.

Some people may not be aware just how far back SEAL history goes. SEALs were first birthed during World War II, so by the time of the War in Vietnam, the use of Naval Special Operations was a lot more perfected than it was in its earliest days. The United States wasn’t the only country to have special operators in Vietnam. Many are surprised to discover the Vietnam War was fought by a handful of countries who also believed Vietnam was the front line of the ideological war pitting capitalism versus communism. One of those countries was Australia, which sent (among others) its own special operators.

For Australia, it was the largest force contribution to a foreign war in its history and for the longest time, remained its longest war. It was also just as controversial for Australian civilians at home as the war was for American citizens at home.

Australian soldiers from 7 RAR waiting to be picked up by U.S. Army helicopters.

(Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Canberra.)

For Vietnam-era Navy SEAL Roger Hayden, the Australian SAS were some of the best he’d ever seen. He went to Army Ranger School, Raider School, and others, but he says he learned more about reconnaissance in his ten days with the Australians than he did anywhere else in the world.

“In UDT (underwater demolition teams), you just didn’t have the fieldcraft to be out in the jungle looking for people,” Hayden said of the SEALs at the time. “Their [the Australians’] fieldcraft was so good… and you gotta have your sh*t together.”

According to Hayden, they lost a lot of SEALs because of their lack of fieldcraft preparation.

Hayden and his fellow SEALs took over from those they replaced the very same day they arrived in country, with little to no preparation or turnover. They had to start completely brand new, flying into a South Vietnamese base near the U Minh Forest, today called U Minh Thượng National Park. Hayden says they were doing dartboard ops – where they would throw a dart at the map, going to wherever it hits.

“We didn’t have intel, we didn’t have sh*t,” Hayden says. “We were pretty isolated out at a Vietnamese base camp in BF-Egypt, you know what I mean?”

His time with the Australians was a rare run in the jungle, as he and fellow SEALs normally conducted riverine inserts for ambushes, intel gathering, and enemy observation.

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From the Honest History archives: What happened to Australians after the Vietnam War (June 2015)?

Part of the narrative of Australia’s Vietnam War in the more than 40 years since our commitment ended has been that Australian soldiers returning from their deployments were badly treated by their fellow Australians. Australian prime ministers from Hawke to Abbott have spoken in general terms about this. Prime Minister Hawke in 1988 spoke of ‘the recognition at last extended to our Vietnam veterans’ at the welcome home march in October the previous year.

Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra (Wikimedia Commons)

Prime Minister Howard, nearly two decades later, spoke of our ‘our nation’s collective failure at the time to adequately honour the service of those who went to Vietnam. The sad fact is that those who served in Vietnam were not welcomed back as they should have been.’ Prime Minister Abbott, speaking in 2015 at a welcome home parade for soldiers returning from Afghanistan, said, ‘Now, some decades ago, Australians returned home from another war and were not properly acknowledged’.

Ministers like Senator Michael Ronaldson (2013-15) have spoken in similar terms, Ronaldson saying, for example, in May 2015:

We honour our Vietnam Veterans, and their families. We acknowledge that our nation has, in the past, not appropriately recognised their service and sacrifice. As we mark our century of [military] service, the Australian Government is determined to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour those who have served their nation.

Some of these political remarks have sounded rather like dog-whistling about the importance of Australians being loyal to soldiers who are placed ‘in harm’s way’ today and in future the implication seems to be that unpatriotic Australians were responsible for this ill-treatment in the past and might do something similar again to troops deployed today. (The current responsible Minister, Dan Tehan, seems less inclined to dog-whistling, preferring low-key announcements.)

The dog-whistling has played to attitudes present in at least some parts of the community, as evidenced by a letter to the editor of the Canberra Times this week which referred to ‘vile excuses for Australians’ who were alleged to have harassed soldiers returning from Vietnam. The 50th anniversary of Long Tan may see more of this type of reaction.

Perhaps, though, it is just the passing of time and the fading of memories that cements particular views in minds. The ‘welcome home march’ of October 1987 was seen then as making up for deficiencies in the welcomes provided while the war was on. ‘Fourteen years after the last Australian soldier returned from Vietnam’, said John Jesser in the Canberra Times, ‘the Australian community finally gave veterans of the war the welcome home they had been waiting for’. Twenty-seven years further on, Jesser’s Canberra Times colleague of 1987, Tony Wright, seemed to be following a similar track:

For the first time in Australian history, the nation’s troops received no universal embrace when they returned home. When that long war ended for Australia in 1972, Vietnam veterans were given no welcome home march. No cheering, no bunting. It left a legacy of bitterness and confusion that claimed more lives through alcoholism and suicide.

By 1987, the Hawke government judged enough time (15 years) had passed to deal with the Vietnam War. Australia was finally moved to welcome home its soldiers. In October 1987, 25,000 veterans, many of them weeping, marched through the streets of Sydney, with tens of thousands of Australians cheering them. (Emphases added.)

Welcome home parade, 6RAR, Brisbane, 14 June 1967, with 60 000 spectators (AWM P06136.013/Bruce Minell)

Wright’s piece was emotive but carefully written. There certainly was no big parade after 1972 – but there were fifteen parades between 1966 and 1972, one for all except one of the contingents returning from Vietnam and many of them witnessed by crowds far larger than that of 1987. The issues for many veterans, however, would have been ‘no parade after public opinion turned against the war, no parade after the Moratorium marches of 1970-71, no parade after it became clear that the war had been lost, no parade after those of us who had been there – and the government and most of the community – wondered whether it had all been worth it’.

Wright is also correct to draw attention to the effects of the war on those who fought it – alcoholism, suicide, the effects of Agent Orange, and so on. Despite politicians trying to divert attention, the deficiencies in dealing with these effects are best sheeted home, not to the public, who overwhelmingly supported the war till the early 1970s, but to government agencies, such as the Repatriation Commission and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which were often sluggish in responding to veterans. Some RSL branches also were less empathetic than they could have been to men returning from Vietnam and to their families.

A complex war with complex fall-out

The complexities in the story of how Australian treated its Vietnam veterans were spelled out in Honest Honest History’s collection of materials last year entitled ‘Mythbusting about Vietnam: highlights reel‘. This collection drew upon the detailed research in books by Michael Caulfield, Mark Dapin, and official historian, Peter Edwards, which looked at evidence about parades, community reactions, RSL attitudes, the gradual move towards dealing with veterans’ trauma, particularly through counselling services under the auspices of DVA, and the phenomenon of ‘misremembering’.

A major legacy of the Vietnam War, still highly sensitive [Edwards wrote in 2014], concerns the impact on those who served, and by extension on their friends and families. This is a complex story, in which at least three major strands can be discerned: the reception given to the veterans by government agencies, such as the army, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (as the former Department of Repatriation had been renamed) and the Repatriation Commission, by ex-service organisations, and by the wider Australian community the impacts, both direct and indirect, of post-traumatic stress on the post-war health of veterans and the impact of a number of herbicides and other toxic chemicals, generally known collectively as Agent Orange.

Enduring myth: ‘The Welcome Home March, 3 October 1987: Because many men returned from Viet Nam in small groups it was not possible to have grand parades for them. When Battalions returned they usually marched through the streets of a major city but these often attracted the rabid rat bag element of the Anti War, Anti Conscription, Anti Government and Anti Anything crowd. Many Viet Nam vets were bitter about the treatment they received from an indifferent populace and an angry Rent A Crowd. Many still are.’ (Digger History: The page seems not to have been updated since 2006.)

It is around these intertwining strands that nuances need to be found welcoming home has many aspects.

And the mythology about the war is even more intense [according to Michael Caulfield, writing in 2007]. Soldiers returning from Vietnam were attacked by organised anti-war protesters who spat at them, threw blood on them and called them “baby-killers”. No, they weren’t. Vietnam veterans are social misfits, loners, prone to alcoholism and violence. No, they’re not. Australians did not support the war. Yes we did, by a large majority until the last couple of years [of the war]. Australian soldiers were never welcomed home. Yes, they were. And on and on. The gap between veterans’ memories and popular belief about what Australia did in Vietnam, why we did it and even whether we succeeded, remains deep and wide and leaves most people either ignorant or confused. Even now, 40 years later, those two Vietnam Wars have never really come to terms with each other, never really been at peace. (Emphasis in original.)

The material in our collection drew responses from the Vietnam Veterans’ Federation and others and they are included again. There is also material included at the link above about the politics behind the building of the Vietnam Memorial in 1992.

Finally, there is some suggestion in the literature that Australian ‘memories’ were actually borrowed from what was said to have happened in the United States. This Wikipedia entry discusses American research on claims there that returning veterans were spat upon or called ‘baby-killers’.

Other ways of remembering

SBS earlier this year ran a show, The War That Made Australia, on the work of the Australian Army training team in South Vietnam and how its members later helped the resettlement of former South Vietnamese soldiers in Australia. The series should be available from SBS shelves in Dymocks stores.

Larry Zetlin wrangles a group of former draft resisters and opponents of the Vietnam War. A Facebook page (Hell No! We Won’t Go) links to interviews and reminiscences. There is expected to be a segment on Hell No! on 7.30 tomorrow evening (18 August). A set of interviews has been lodged with the Australian War Memorial (search the AWM website under ‘Hell No’).

Moratorium, Melbourne, 1970 (AWM P00671.009/Ron Gilchrist)

Mick Armstrong wrote about the radicalisation of Australian university campuses during the Vietnam era. Echoes of this persist today. Paul Daley reviews Michael McKernan’s book, When This Thing Happened, about McKernan’s brother-in-law, Joe Stawyskyj, a disabled Vietnam veteran.

The variety of ‘after Vietnam’ experience underlines, if it was necessary, that there is always more to war than service and ‘sacrifice’. As an American peace group said last year, ‘One of the biggest concerns for us … is that if a full narrative is not remembered, the government will use the narrative it creates to continue to conduct wars around the world — as a propaganda tool’.

For more Vietnam-related material on the Honest History site, simply search under ‘Vietnam’.

David Stephens registered as a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War, one of the 1200 who did so. When his number was drawn out, and not being entitled to further educational deferment, he became a National Service Act defaulter. He took part in the first moratorium in May 1970.

Related article: A useful academic contribution is Nicholas Bromfield’s paper to the 2012 Conference of the Australian Political Studies Conference, ‘Welcome Home: reconciliation, Vietnam veterans, and the reconstruction of Anzac under the Hawke government’. Published later with a different title. Bromfield uses many references, including Ann Curthoys’ 1994 article pointing to the plethora of welcome home parades while the war was on. He focuses on indifference after the war turned sour as the key ingredient in veterans’ dissatisfaction and suggests the Hawke government’s neutralising of this dissatisfaction helped facilitate its promotion of the Anzac legend after the late 1980s. Bromfield has a perceptive article also from 2016 which concludes thus:

The Anzac resurgence so evident in the last quarter of a century has ensured that those prime ministers who do conform to the Anzac legend’s boundaries have a powerful rhetorical tool, if they are only talented enough to work within its limits and exploit its authoritative themes and sanctified tone. This gives succour to conservative views and little hope to those who would prefer to see a more progressive Anzac tradition, more representative of Australian diversity.

Vietnam moratoriums

The Vietnam moratorium protests, the first of which took place on 8 May 1970, were the largest public demonstrations in Australia&rsquos history at the time.

They represented growing discontent within a portion of the Australian population to the government&rsquos commitment to the Vietnam War in general and conscription in particular.

The protests took place during a period of great social change in Australia, when people from a range of backgrounds were prepared to defy authority.

Labor politician Dr Jim Cairns addressing the first moratorium:

Our spirit is the spirit of peace and understanding. Our spirit is opposed to violence, opposed to hate, opposed to every motive that has produced this terrible war … we can overcome, ladies and gentlemen.

Vietnam War

Australia sent 60,000 defence personnel to Vietnam from 1962 to 1972.

The government&rsquos rationale was to stop the spread of communism and strengthen the country&rsquos ties with our most important strategic ally, the United States.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies loathed communism and believed China, and any countries that came under its control, posed a threat to Australia.

When France was forced out of Vietnam in 1954, the country was divided between the communist north and a quasi-democratic (though corrupt and dictatorial) south. It soon became clear that North Vietnam intended to seize control of the south.

From the late 1950s America committed troops to help South Vietnam, rapidly escalating its deployments under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The Australian Government&rsquos decisions to send a team of military advisers in 1962, and then ground forces in 1965 were motivated by strategic and economic interests.

The US, Australia and New Zealand had signed the ANZUS treaty in 1951 and it was hoped that by showing a commitment to the American plan in Vietnam, Australia would secure more comprehensive protection against communism, as well as an improved trade relationship.

Initially, the decision had broad support from the public and media. However, it was opposed by Labor, the more militant unions and a small faction of anti-war groups.

National service and conscription

The National Service Act 1964, passed on 24 November, required 20-year-old males, if selected, to serve in the Army for a period of 24 months of continuous service (reduced to 18 months in 1971), followed by three years in the Reserve.

The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that conscripts could serve overseas. Over 63,000 men were conscripted and over 19,000 served in Vietnam.

For much of the war, opinion polls showed that most Australians were against conscripts serving in Vietnam even though they broadly supported the war itself.

Vietnam protest movement

As the war progressed Australians were less convinced by the original rationale that China and communism posed a direct threat. Opposition to the war also grew as national servicemen were killed and wounded in the course of their service.

Public support for the war remained strong when Prime Minister Harold Holt visited Washington on 29 June 1966 and told President Lyndon B Johnson that Australia was &lsquoall the way with LBJ&rsquo.

When Johnson visited Australia later that year, huge crowds turned out to greet him. But there were signs of unrest. A few militants threw paint and rotten eggs at the President&rsquos limousine and there were death threats although only a few small public protests.

Certainly neither Vietnam nor conscription prevented Holt&rsquos Liberal-Country Party coalition winning the October 1966 election in a landslide.

The groundswell of support for the anti-war movement came from baby-boomers &ndash the 40 per cent of the population under the age of 20. Most university students strongly opposed the war, especially the growing number of militant leftists.

Vietnam was seen as the most damaging policy of a firmly entrenched, conservative government whose decisive electoral victory led to perceptions of arrogance. As the war continued, with no end in sight, a wider range of people began to object to the war on moral grounds. As the author Paul Ham says:

Bit by bit, like a great ship turning at sea, Australia&rsquos support for the war gradually shifted direction. Like hundreds of little tugboats, the political misjudgements, draft resisters, death notices and protesters nudged Australian and American minds on a new bearing.

Television war

The Vietnam conflict was known as the &lsquotelevision war&rsquo because so much of it was televised.

The public was routinely exposed to horrific scenes that vividly conveyed the scale and degree of suffering in Vietnam. Public disquiet in Australia and America was exacerbated by the My Lai massacre.

In March 1968 a company of US troops under the command of Lt William Calley murdered 347 civilians in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.

That such atrocities took place further undermined the basis of the war, which had been to protect South Vietnam and halt the spread of communism. In addition, the Australian public began to think that if American soldiers were doing this sort of thing then possibly their Australian comrades were doing the same.

By January 1970, the US was showing signs of withdrawing from Vietnam, as was Australia. But no exit date had been stated, and Australia&rsquos position was clearly dependent on what the US was going to do.


At a national meeting in Melbourne in early 1970, anti-war groups from across Australia agreed to hold a moratorium. The word &lsquomoratorium&rsquo, in this sense, meant a halt to business as usual.

The moratorium took its cue from the US moratorium in October 1969, in which more than 500,000 Americans protested in 1200 cities and towns.

It was seen by those taking part as a non-violent protest and proved to be the largest and most sustained in Australia&rsquos history. The two objectives were to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam and to end conscription.

It came soon after the 1969 Coalition election victory, which meant for many people there would be little shift in government policy on Vietnam for at least three years.

The most visible leader of the moratorium movement was Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry Dr Jim Cairns, whose charisma and intellect galvanised thousands of anti-war activists. Above all he recognised how important it was that the marches, which advocated peace, be peaceful themselves.

The moratorium movement drew in a disparate range of groups opposed to the war &ndash clergy, teachers, academics, unions, politicians and school students. Donations poured in. While university students had led the anti-war movement up to this point, the moratorium involved thousands of everyday, middle-class Australians.

Not all Australians supported it because of the unprecedented size and intensity of the protest many found it threatening. Conservatives were strongly opposed, among them Billy Snedden, Minister for Labour and National Service, who described it as &lsquopolitical bikies who pack-rape democracy&rsquo.

A total of 200,000 people took part in the first moratorium. The largest event was in Melbourne where 70,000 marched peacefully down Bourke Street, led by Cairns. The police were restrained and the crowds watching them cheered. Similar events took place in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and dozens of rural towns.

The second and third moratoriums took place on 18 September 1970 and 30 June 1971 respectively. These events were dominated more by left-wing extremists, and fewer people attended. The second moratorium turned violent. In Melbourne police baton-charged protesters and in Sydney 173 people were arrested.

Returning soldiers

My Lai had the effect of shifting the focus of many anti-war protesters away from the government and onto soldiers. Whereas the veterans of the world wars were welcomed home as heroes, both regular soldiers and national servicemen were occasionally accosted, spat at and insulted by protesters.

Even many branches of the Returned Servicemen&rsquos League (though not all) refused to accept them as members. This had a severe psychological impact on veterans, many of whom were already traumatised by their experiences in Vietnam.

Vietnam moratoriums as a Defining Moment

It is unlikely that the moratoriums directly affected the government&rsquos decision to withdraw troops from Vietnam, which Prime Minister John Gorton (who succeeded Holt in 1969) had already started to do and Gough Whitlam promptly completed when he swept to power in 1972. The stronger influence on Gorton was US policy.

However, it probably affected the government&rsquos policy on conscription in that soon after the first moratorium, Cabinet took measures to reduce the number of draft-resisters who went to jail.

The moratoriums were an indication of a broad collapse in public support for the war. They were both revealed and fostered a new sense of unity among those opposed to Vietnam and conscription.

The Australian population was younger, better educated and more affluent than ever before, and it was emerging, along with the rest of the developed world, from the turbulent 1960s, which had put an end to automatic deference to authority.

The moratoriums also helped launch women&rsquos liberation. Women were heavily involved in all three moratoriums. The women involved had discovered that the male leadership of the moratoriums was at least as sexist as their opponents.

Their response to this influenced their subsequent protest activities during the 1970s, among the results of which was the 1972 decision by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to grant equal pay to women.

A timeline of some of Vietnam's history

Years from a very time ago are labelled BC or BCE. BC means 'before Christ' but today the term BCE, or 'Before the Common Era' is commonly used because it is not about Christianity.

The term AD refers to dates after the birth of Christ and has similarly been changed to CE, or 'Common Era'.

111 BC (BCE): Vietnam is ruled by the Chinese, who named the country Annam, which meant 'Pacified South'. The Vietnamese people resented Chinese rule and tried always to resist.

40 AD (CE): The Chinese executed one of the leaders of a Vietnamese tribe. His wife and her sister, who became known as the Trung Sisters, rallied other tribal leaders. Their armies defeated the forces of the Chinese governor, who fled Vietnam. The Trung Sisters became queens of their part of Vietnam. Three years later, the Chinese defeated the Vietnamese. The Trung Sisters, rather than surrender, threw themselves into a river.

150 CE: Another famous and heroic woman, Trieu Au, led an army of 1000 men into battle against the Chinese. She rode on an elephant and wore gold armour. Her army was defeated.

939 CE: The Chinese were defeated and Vietnam was now independent. Many different families now different parts of Vietnam.

Part of the Citadel in Hue. ©kidcyber

1802: Nguyen Phuc Anh took control of Vietnam and declared himself Emperor Gia Long, and in 1804 he began work on his palace and citadel in Hue on the banks of the Perfume River. It was similar to the Forbidden City where Chinese Emperors lived. Much of this still remains today, and sections are being restored to they way they looked.

1859: The French occupied Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a fine example of French architecture that can be seen in Vietnam still. ©Getty Images

1885: All of Vietnam was colonised by the French, together with Cambodia and Laos in an area that was then known as French Indo-China.

1940: During the Second World War, France was defeated by Germany. Germany's ally, Japan, occupied Vietnam.

1945: The Vietnamese, led by Ho Chi Minh, drove the Japanese out of the country. Vietnam was declared to be the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French returned, and Ho Chi Minh’s troops continued to fight for another 8 years.

1954: The French were defeated and left Vietnam. A conference of world leaders decided to divide Vietnam into two separate states. The north was the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam with its capital in the city of Hanoi. The south was the non-communist Republic of Vietnam, with its capital in the city of Saigon.

Now called Reunification Palace, this is where the President of South Vietnam lived. ©Getty Images

In the south, the government was unpopular and was replaced by military rulers (men from the armed forces). People in the south who wanted south and north to become one country of Vietnam, were called the Viet Cong. They fought against the army of the south. The North Vietnamese supported the Viet Cong in their fight.

In 1965, the United States of America sent troops to south Vietnam to help fight against the Viet Cong and the Northern Vietnamese. A few weeks later, Australia and New Zealand also sent troops to South Vietnam. In the west, this was called the Vietnam War, but the Vietnamese called it The American War.

Ho Chi Minh remains a hero of Vietnam: his vision was for a united country under one government. Photo©Getty Images

U.S. planes dropped bombs and sprayed poisonous chemicals onto large areas of land, to destroy the forests which gave shelter and food to the Viet Cong fighters. Bombs were also dropped on North Vietnam.

In 1970, the Australian Government decided to bring Australian troops home from Vietnam. The last Australian troops returned home in 1972.

In 1972, the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam. Fearing that other countries would become involved and enlarge the war, a ceasefire agreement was signed between North and South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the U.S.A. All American troops were gone from the country by 1974.

In 1975, after a bit more fighting between the North and the South, the war was over. The North had won and the country became known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, the man whose vision it was that Vietnam should be united as one country run by Vietnamese people rather than other nations, did not live to see this. He remains a hero to Vietnamese people.

In total, 223,748 South Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives, approximately 4 million Vietnamese people were killed or injured during the war, in both North and South Vietnam. The number of Americans killed was 58,183 and thousands more were wounded. The number of Australians killed was 496 and 2398 were wounded.

Today, the Vietnamese people are still suffering the harmful effects of the poisonous chemicals that were sprayed over their land during the war.

Read about Australians in the Vietnam War:

Read other kidcyber pages about Vietnam:

If you use any part of this in your own work, acknowledge this source in your bibliography like this:

Thomas, Ron & Sydenham, Shirley. 2020. Vietnam: Facts and History [Online]


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From the time of the arrival of the first members of the Team in 1962 almost 60,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam 521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded. The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers met a hostile reception on their return home.

Australian support for South Vietnam in the early 1960s was in keeping with the policies of other nations, particularly the United States, to stem the spread of communism in Europe and Asia. In 1961 and 1962 Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the government in South Vietnam, repeatedly requested security assistance from the US and its allies. Australia eventually responded with 30 military advisers, dispatched as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), also known as "the Team". Their arrival in South Vietnam during July and August 1962 was the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. In August 1964 the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also sent a flight of Caribou transports to the port of Vung Tau.

By early 1965, when it had become clear that South Vietnam could not stave off the communist insurgents and their North Vietnamese comrades for more than a few months, the US commenced a major escalation of the war. By the end of the year it had committed 200,000 troops to the conflict. As part of the build-up, the US government requested further support from friendly countries in the region, including Australia. The Australian government dispatched the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), in June 1965 to serve alongside the US 173d Airborne Brigade in Bien Hoa province.

Accession Number: P01951.007

Vung Tau, Vietnam: door-gunner from No. 9 Squadron, RAAF, using twin-mounted M60 machine-guns.

The following year the Australian government felt that Australia's involvement in the conflict should be both strong and identifiable. In March 1966 the government announced the dispatch of a taskforce to replace 1RAR, consisting of two battalions and support services (including a RAAF squadron of Iroquois helicopters), to be based at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province. Unlike 1RAR, the taskforce was assigned its own area of operations and included conscripts who had been called up under the National Service Scheme, introduced in 1964. All nine RAR battalions served in the taskforce at one time or another, before it was withdrawn in 1971 at the height of the Australian involvement it numbered some 8,500 troops. A third RAAF squadron (of Canberra jet bombers) was also committed in 1967, and destroyers of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) joined US patrols off the North Vietnamese coast. The RAN also contributed a clearance diving team and a helicopter detachment that operated with the US Army from October 1967.

In August 1966 a company of 6RAR was engaged in one of Australia's heaviest actions of the war, in a rubber plantation near Long Tan. The 108 soldiers of D Coy held off an enemy force, estimated at over 2000, for four hours in the middle of a tropical downpour. They were greatly assisted by a timely ammunition resupply by RAAF helicopters, close fire support from Australian artillery, and the arrival of reinforcements in APCs as night fell. The armoured vehicles had been delayed because they had to 'swim' across a flooded creek and fight through groups of enemy on the way. When the Viet Cong withdrew at night fall they left behind 245 dead, but carried away many more casualties. Seventeen Australians were killed and 25 wounded, with one dying of wounds several days later.

The year 1968 began with a major offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, launched during the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday period, known as "Tet". Not only the timing but the scale of the offensive came as a complete surprise, taking in cities, towns, and military installations throughout South Vietnam. While the "Tet Offensive" ultimately ended in military defeat for the communists, it was propaganda victory. US military planners began to question if a decisive victory could ever be achieved and the offensive stimulated US public opposition to the war. For Australian troops, the effects of the offensive were felt around their base at Nui Dat, where a Viet Cong attack on targets around Ba Ria, the provincial capital, was repulsed with few casualties.

Accession Number: COL/67/0140/VN

A wounded digger, hurt in a booby-trap explosion, is evacuated to Vung Tau.

By 1969 anti-war protests were gathering momentum in Australia. Opposition to conscription mounted, as more people came to believe the war could not be won. A "Don't register" campaign to dissuade young men from registering for conscription gained increasing support and some of the protests grew violent. The US government began to implement a policy of "Vietnamisation'', the term coined for a gradual withdrawal of US forces that would leave the war in the hands of the South Vietnamese. With the start of the phased withdrawals, the emphasis of the activities of the Australians in Phuoc Tuy province shifted to the provision of training to the South Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces.

At the end of April 1970 US and South Vietnamese troops were ordered to cross the border into Cambodia. While the invasion succeeded in capturing large quantities of North Vietnamese arms, destroying bunkers and sanctuaries, and killing enemy soldiers, it ultimately proved disastrous. By bringing combat into Cambodia, the invasion drove many people to join the underground opposition, the Khmer Rouge, irreparably weakening the Cambodian government. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, it imposed a cruel and repressive regime that killed several million Cambodians and left the country with internal conflict that continues today. The extension of the war into a sovereign state, formally neutral, inflamed anti-war sentiment in the United States and provided the impetus for further anti-war demonstrations in Australia. In the well-known Moratorium marches of 1970 and 1971, more than 200,000 people gathered to protest against the war, in cities and towns throughout the country.

Accession Number: P01404.028

Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam, November 1966: 6RAR soldiers follow an armoured personnel carrier (APC) during Operation Ingham, a "search and destroy" mission.

By late 1970 Australia had also begun to wind down its military effort in Vietnam. The 8th Battalion departed in November (and was not replaced), but, to make up for the decrease in troop numbers, the Team's strength was increased and its efforts became concentrated in Phuoc Tuy province. The withdrawal of troops and all air units continued throughout 1971 – the last battalion left Nui Dat on 7 November, while a handful of advisers belonging to the Team remained in Vietnam the following year. In December 1972 they became the last Australian troops to come home, with their unit having seen continuous service in South Vietnam for ten and a half years. Australia's participation in the war was formally declared at an end when the Governor-General issued a proclamation on 11 January 1973. The only combat troops remaining in Vietnam were a platoon guarding the Australian embassy in Saigon (this was withdrawn in June 1973).

Accession Number: CUN/66/0161/VN

Vietnam, 1966: Australians patrol near the village of Tan Phu, near Bien Hoa Air Base.

In early 1975 the communists launched a major offensive in the north of South Vietnam, resulting in the fall of Saigon on 30 April. During April a RAAF detachment of 7–8 Hercules transports flew humanitarian missions to aid civilian refugees displaced by the fighting and carried out the evacuation of Vietnamese orphans (Operation Babylift), before finally taking out embassy staff on 25 April.

From the time of the arrival of the first members of the Team in 1962 almost 60,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam 521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded. The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or gaoled, while some soldiers met a hostile reception on their return home.

A Calendar of Military and Political Events

Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in the Soviet Union but received aid from the US to fight the Japanese during World War II, declares that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam is the only legal government. This is recognised by the Soviet Union and China, but Australia supports the French-sponsored government of Emperor Bao Dai. Us provides military and economic aid to the French in Indochina.

French defeated by Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, after a 55 day siege. The defeat signals the end to French presence in Indochina.

US begins to funnel aid directly to the Saigon Government and agrees to train the South Vietnamese army.

South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem visits Australia. Prime Minister Menzies reaffirms support.

Hanoi leaders form National Liberation Front for South Vietnam, which the Saigon regime dubs "Viet Cong", meaning communist Vietnamese.

The Minister for Defence (Reginald Townley) announces intention to send 30 army advisers to South Vietnam (SVN).

The first members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) arrive in South Vietnam.

Advisor, Sergeant William Hacking becomes the first Australian to die in Vietnam when his weapon accidentally discharges after being caught in vegetation.

Vietnam's President Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu are murdered in a military coup, with the foreknowledge of the US Government.

Lyndon B. Johnson becomes US president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and announces that the US will continue support of South Vietnam. By year's end 15,000 US advisors are serving in Vietnam, which received $500m in US aid that year.

The Minister for Defence (Hon. Shane Partridge) announces the AATTV will be increased to 83 advisers with expanded role.

Warrant Officer Class 2, Kevin Conway becomes the first Australian to die as a result of enemy action in South Vietnam.

Following a reported attack on US ships in Tonkin Gulf, US Congress passes Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving President Johnson extraordinary powers to act in South Vietnam

The Prime Minister (Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Menzies) announces introduction of national service to increase the army’s strength from 22,750 to 37,500. Opposition to the war in Vietnam is not accepted as a reason for exemption.

Australian Government, responding to requests from the US President and South Vietnam Prime Minister for 200 additional advisers, offers to send ground troops to South Vietnam.

The Prime Minister announces the dispatch of an infantry battalion to South Vietnam, with an armoured personnel carrier (APC) troop, a signals troop and a logistic support company.

Advance party from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), departs for South Vietnam, for service with the US 173rd Airborne Division.

HMAS Sydney arrives at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, carrying the bulk of the Australian force.

First national service intake begins recruit training.

Australian Government approves increase of Australian forces to a battalion group, supported by an artillery, additional APCs, engineers, army helicopters, light aircraft and more logistic support.

A Morgan Gallup Poll finds 56% of those polled were in favour of continuing the war in Vietnam.

A demonstration against the war in Sydney results in 65 arrests.

WO2 Kevin "Dasher" Wheatley refuses to leave his mate, WO2 Bob Swanston, and is killed. His actions earned him Australia’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross.

Harold Holt succeeds Menzies as Prime Minister.

Holt announces the Australian commitment in South Vietnam will be Increased to a 4350-man task force, and will include conscripts.

The 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) will include two infantry battalions, a Special Air Service squadron, combat and support logistic units and eight RAAF Iroquois helicopters (9 SQN).

The Task Force will be supported by 1 Australian Logistic Support Group (1 ALSG) to be established at Vung Tau. For the first time, national servicemen will be sent to South Vietnam.

5 RAR deploys by helicopter from 1ATF concentration area at Vung Tau to secure the Task Force area at Nui Dat. Private Errol Noack becomes the first national serviceman and member of 1ATF to die from enemy action.

Concentration of 1ATF at Nui Dat is completed.

The Battle of Long Tan

D Company, 6 RAR, strength of 108 men, battles North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces estimated at between 1500 and 2500 until relieved by A Company, carried in by armoured personnel carriers of 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron. The enemy leaves 245 bodies on the battlefield while 17 Australian infantrymen and one APC crewman are killed. The Company earns the US Presidential Citation.

Morgan Gallup Poll finds that 63% are in favour of conscription, but only 37% approve of sending National Servicemen to Vietnam.

Major Peter Badcoe, AATTV, is killed in action leading two companies of Vietnamese regional forces. For his outstanding heroism in this and two previous actions, he will be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

A New Zealand rifle company - V Company of the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Regiment (RNZIR) - arrives at Nui Dat to serve with 2 RAR. The Australian Battalion is re-designated 2RAR/NZ/ANZAC.

Morgan Gallup Poll finds 62% in favour of continuing the war in Vietnam.

The Prime Minister announces an increase of 1700 to Australia’s commitment in South Vietnam, including a third infantry battalion and a tank squadron.

Prime Minister Harold Holt missing, presumed drowned off Portsea in Victoria. His body is never recovered.

3 RAR establishes itself at Nui Dat as 1 ATF’s third battalion.

John Grey Gorton sworn in as Prime Minister.

Communist forces in South Vietnam launch what becomes known as the Tet Offensive, with concentrated attacks against every major city and regional centre. Although Tet costs the Communists 45-50,000 troops, it sows serious doubt in the minds of the Australian and American people and leads to major changes in government policy towards the conflict in South Vietnam.

Tet comes to Baria, the capital of Phuoc Tuy province. A Company of 3 RAR and a troop of APCs fight a savage 24-hour battle to clear the town.

Prime Minister Gorton indicates that Australia will not increase its commitment to Vietnam.

The Battle of Coral & Balmoral

The Battle for Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral begins with an enemy attack that overruns 1 RAR Mortar Platoon and captures one of 102 Field Battery’s gun pits. The base is cleared with the help of helicopter gunships. After a second attack on May 15, Australian casualties around Coral stand at 15 killed and 56 wounded while enemy losses are estimated to exceed 100 dead.

Massacre of civilians by US soldiers at My Lai village. At least 450 unarmed people are killed.

At FSB Balmoral, near Coral, infantry supported by Centurions tanks turn back an assault by two battalions of NVA regulars.

A sweep outside Coral by D Company 1 RAR, supported by four Centurion tanks, smashes an enemy bunker systems and kills large numbers of VC and NVA.

A second attack on Balmoral is crushed by combined infantry, tank, artillery and mortar fire, leaving 47 enemy dead and six prisoners for 1 Australian killed.

Serving as a company commander with a Vietnamese mobile strike force, WO2 Ray Simpson displays outstanding heroism and disregard for personal safety in two firefights with enemy forces. His actions will make him the third member of the AATTV to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

WO2 Keith Payne, also a company commander with a mobile strike force, earns the AATTV’s fourth Victoria Cross.

The Battle of Binh Bah

Two companies from 5 RAR, supported by APC and Tank troops and Australian helicopter gunships, engage in house-to-house fighting to clear the town of a strong force of NVA regulars. The fighting destroys much of the town and costs the NVA more than 100 dead for the loss of one Australian.

Morgan Gallup Poll finds 55% want Australians brought home from Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh dies in Hanoi, aged 79.

Following the withdrawal of 25,000 US troops from South Vietnam, and plans by the US Government to withdraw another 50,000, the Prime Minister (Sir John Gorton) advises any further substantial reductions will include Australian forces.

The Prime Minister announces 8 RAR will not be replaced at the end of the year, some support elements will be withdrawn from South Vietnam and the AATTV will be increased by about 120 soldiers.

Anti-Vietnam War protesters stage the first moratorium marches in Australian cities (70,000 in Melbourne, and about 120,000 throughout Australia).

About 100,000 people take part in a second moratorium march.

8 RAR returns to Australia at the end of its 12 month tour in South Vietnam. It is the first 1ATF unit not to be replaced.

Sir William McMahon replaces Gorton as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Prime Minister McMahon announces further cuts in Australian forces in South Vietnam, including withdrawal of the tank squadron, RAAF Canberra bomber squadron and some Caribou transport aircraft.

Third and last of the big anti-war rallies. About 110,000 demonstrate in State capitals.

The Prime Minister announces the bulk of Australian forces in South Vietnam are to be withdrawn, leaving only a modified training team. The period of national service is reduced from two years to 18 months.

3 RAR is airlifted onto HMS Sydney, leaving only one battalion at Nui Dat.

4 RAR moves out of Nui Dat to Vung Tau, ending Australian combat operations in Phuoc Tuy province.

USA and North Vietnam sign a peace agreement.

The last Australian logistic units leave Vung Tau and Australia’s commitment in South Vietnam returns to a training role with the 150-man Australian Assistance Group, Vietnam (AAAGV) and the AATTV.

Australian Labor Party elected to Government.

Conscription ends, draft resisters are released from jail and pending prosecutions for draft resistance are dropped.

Australia’s military commitment in South Vietnam ends, although controversy about the precise end date of the war continues.

Nixon announces agreement that has been reached for 'peace with honour'.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announces establishment of diplomatic relations with Hanoi, but retains recognition of South Vietnam's Government.

Last US troops leave Vietnam.

The Saigon Embassy Guard Platoon are the last Australian troops to leave Vietnam.

After departure of the Embassy Guard, Transport Support Flight Butterworth continued their regular Saigon courier service.

South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu declares that war has begun again.

Australian Government responds to urgent requests for transport assistance from Governments of South Vietnam and United States by hastily dispatching a contingent of seven RAAF Hercules and two Dakota aircraft to Vietnam on a humanitarian relief mission

The RAAF is utilized in various roles during final weeks of the war, including movement of refugees, transport of Red Cross and UN supplies, and on 4th and 17th April, evacuation of Vietnamese war orphans from Saigon to Bangkok during 'Operation Baby Lift'.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia falls to the Khmer Rouge

Australia closes its embassy in Saigon, completing withdrawal from Vietnam on ANZAC Day.

The final task of Australia's military in the Vietnam War is conducted on ANZAC Day, when the RAAF participates in evacuation of the Australian Embassy and final withdrawal of personnel from Saigon

Communist forces capture Saigon as the last Americans leave in scenes of panic and confusion.

Courtesy of the VVAA Museum Sub-Branch. Includes material from the Special Edition of the Australian on Thursday August 18 1988, with attribution to Stuart Rintoul's "Ashes of Vietnam" (William Heineman, Australia).

Australian Troops Depart For Vietnam - History

  • Battalion HQ Group
    (5 Officers and 31 Other ranks) ,
  • 4 x Rifle Companies (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta)
    (ea of 5 Officers and 118 Other ranks)
    • Each company consisted of,
      Company HQ - 2 Officers and 13 Other ranks
      Support Section - 6 Other ranks and
      3 x Platoons each of
      • platoon HQ, 1 officer and 3 other ranks ( Plt Sgt, radio op and batman) and
      • 3 x Rifle Sections each of 10 Other ranks (1 Cpl, 1 L/Cpl, 8 Ptes)
      • Mortar Platoon - 2 Officers and 31 Other ranks
        • provided mortar support for the battalion and the Task Force with six 81mm mortar tubes and generally operated from the base area or from a Fire Support Base (FSB). A Mortar FO would accompany rifle companies.
        • equipped with 16 Medium Anti-Tank Weapons (MAW) the Platoon provided additional fire support for the battalion.
        • equipped with the ANPRC 25 radio set provided and maintained all radio and telephone communication requirements for the battalion. Each rifle company HQ was allocated two radio operators. Radio Operators manned the radios and telephones in the battalion Command Post (CP) and accompanied the battalion on operations. Platoon radio operators were normally drawn from the platoon itself.
        • played a similar role to engineers. This Platoon provided valuable support for the battalion in defence works, mine detection and field engineering
        • Surveillance Platoon - 1 Officer and 14 Other ranks

        Total Strength = 37 Officers and 755 Other ranks

        It is unlikely that any battalion ever went into the field at full strength. Illness, leave entitlements, troops ending period of engagement all sapped a battalions strength. The numbers above are a guide only and were altered to suit circumstances on a daily, weekly and tour basis.

        The Infantry Rifle Section

        Composition - 1 Cpl (Section Commander) - 1 L/Cpl (Section 2i/c) - Scout Group(2 Pte) - Gun Group(2 Pte) - Rifle Group(4 Pte).

        Weapons Used by Infantry Rifle Sections

        L1A1 Self Loading Rifle (SLR) - semi auto - fired a 7.62mm standard NATO round - weight 10lbs - magazine capacity 20 rounds - range 300metres - standard issue weapon for all soldiers in the Australian Army. Very robust and dependable weapon. Each soldier carried at least 150 rounds each.

        M16A1 Armalite Rifle - (Colt AR15) fully auto - 5.56mm round - weight 7 lbs. - magazine capacity 20/30 rounds - range 300 metres - carried primarily by forwards scouts in each section of a rifle company, also issued to selected appointments in a unit. This weapon was not issued to Australian troops until stocks were obtained form US sources in 1966. Early versions of this weapon were prone to stoppages and breakages, caused mainly by an unsatisfactory and weak alloy bolt carrier. That was fixed.

        General Purpose Machine Gun M60 (GPMG M60) - fired a 7.62mm round and fed by linked ammo belt of 100 rounds - weight 23 lb - range up to 1100 metres. This was the main fire support weapon for each section who carried 1 M60 and at least 1200 rounds. Reliable weapon , provided ammunition belts were kept clean and the weapon was well maintained. Was prone to continual stoppages if the weapon became too worn .

        F1 Sub Machine Gun - fired a 9mm round - magazine capacity 30 rounds - weight 7.2 lb - range 100 metres. This weapon was totally unsuitable for conditions in Vietnam. The range (100 Metres) and low velocity of the 9mm round was not capable of penetrating the jungle and undergrowth. The M16 Armalite was eventually issued in place of this weapon.

        40 MM M79 Grenade Launcher - carried by each rifle section with 36 rounds - weight 6 lb - range 300 metres. Very effective against enemy troops and light installations.

        M26 Fragmentation Grenade - carried by each member of a rifle section - lethal radius of 10 metres. Used effectively for close quarter fighting and clearing enemy bunkers and weapon pits. A smooth bodied high explosive grenade. It weighed 425g with a fuse delay of five seconds. The average throwing distance was 40 metres. Its blast radius was ten metres, with a killing distance of 5 metres and a wounding distance of up to 25 metres. The members were initially issued with two M26 grenades per man.

        No 83 Smoke Grenade - used in various colours to indicate to position of enemy and friendly troops. Used largely to indicate to helicopters and aircraft, the position of a unit. Helicopters would not land or evacuate wounded until a smoke grenade was thrown and the colour of the grenade was verified.

        M49 Trip Flare - and used at night as an early warning device to detect and illuminate enemy movement.

        M18 Claymore Mine - 10 carried by each rifle section - range of 50 metres. Used extensively as a defensive weapon in night harbours and was most effective when used in ambushing enemy parties.

        M72 66 mm Light Anti-Tank Weapon LAW) - weight 4.5 lbs. - range 200 metres. Light weight and simple design, this weapon was most effective against enemy installations such as bunkers and buildings. Fired a high explosive round from a disposable launcher.

        A Typical Load carried by an Infantry Soldier.

        Individual items of gear included, basic webbing harness, weapon and ammunition, a shell dressing, entrenching tool, machete, M26 grenade, nine full water bottles, five days rations, small stove and hexamine tablets for cooking, shaving gear, steel mug, shelter, lightweight blanket, hammock, spare socks and bayonet.

        In addition each 10 man section shared a load of, 6 x 100 round belts for the M60 MG, spare barrel for the M60 MG, M49 flares, smoke grenades, white phosphorus grenades, grenade spigots and ballastite cartridges, claymore mines, detonating cord, plastic explosive, M79 rounds, M72 LAWs, spare radio batteries, torch, starlight scope night vision device, panel markers for identification to aircraft, binoculars, compass, maps, protractor, pace counter, strobe light, secateurs, medical kit, watches, codes and writing equipment.

        Signallers carried the ANPRC Radio with spares batteries and handset and antennas.
        Platoon medics carried a comprehensive medical kit.

        Dress - consisted of jungle greens with sleeves down, general purpose boots (GPs), sweat rag, floppy green bush hat.

        Australian involvement in Vietnam

        The Australian government committed troops to the Vietnam War in 1965. Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was driven by a fear of communist expansion in Asia and the government’s desire to align itself with the United States.

        Australian foreign policy

        Even after its federation and nominal independence in 1901, Australia’s foreign policy was for years strongly influenced by Britain. Prior to World War II, the Australian government still looked to London for leadership, diplomatic guidance and, when necessary, military protection.

        This reliance was undermined by the events of World War II. The advance of Japanese imperial forces into the Asia-Pacific brought an aggressive imperial power close to Australia’s shores.

        Australian confidence was particularly rattled by three events, all in February 1942: the surrender of the British base at Singapore, the Japanese invasion of New Guinea and the bombing of Darwin by Japanese planes. It became apparent that Britain was incapable and perhaps unwilling to assist with the defence of Australia.

        Shift towards the US

        This prompted the Australian government, then led by prime minister John Curtin, to initiate a fundamental shift in Australian foreign policy. Without cutting its ties with Britain, Canberra began to draw closer to the United States, now a more formidable power in the Pacific region.

        In April 1942, Curtin placed all Australian military units under the command of an American general, Douglas Macarthur. American troops were extensively based in Australia for the duration of World War II.

        This close co-operation continued after the war. In 1951 Australia, New Zealand and the US signed the ANZUS treaty, a military alliance developed largely in response to Cold War threats, such as the rise of communist China. Under the terms of ANZUS, if one of the three signatories was attacked for a foreign power, the others were required to assist.

        The Australian ‘Red Scare’

        Like its new ally America, Australia had also been subject to anti-communist scares and hysteria.

        The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), formed in 1920, had been banned during World War II. Though its membership was never large, the CPA was a prominent and outspoken group.

        In the late 1940s, a period of social and economic unrest, Australia was disrupted by several major strikes. The conservative press and politicians blamed these strikes on the CPA, which they blamed for industrial destabilisation.

        Menzies’ war on communism

        Robert Menzies, then leader of Australia’s opposition party, played up this communist threat. Menzies claimed that trade unions and the Labor Party, then Australia’s party of government, had been infiltrated by communist agents and agitators.

        In December 1949, Menzies became prime minister after a decisive election victory. The following year he attempted to ban the CPA, declaring it an illegal organisation. Menzies’ banning of the CPA was later declared unconstitutional by the High Court, then blocked by a nationwide referendum.

        The signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951

        Through the 1950s Menzies’ government attempted to assert Australia’s importance in the Asia-Pacific region. It also sought to maintain and strengthen its wartime ties with the US.

        Australia and South Vietnam

        In 1954 Australia became a foundation member of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). A multilateral body for collective defence against communist aggression, SEATO was effectively an ‘Asian NATO’. Like other SEATO nations, Australia gave its full and unequivocal support for the newly formed Republic of South Vietnam.

        In late 1956, Australia began supplying aid to Asian nations under SEATO protection. The first package was in the region of three million pounds, the largest portion of which went to Saigon. This aid package received widespread support in Australia, both from the general population and both sides of politics.

        South Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Diem meets prime minister Robert Menzies while visiting Australia.

        Australia’s financial aid to South Vietnam was accompanied by moral support and enthusiastic rhetoric.

        In September 1957, Ngo Dinh Diem undertook a brief tour of Australia, where Australia’s leaders and its press hailed Diem as the “strong man of the South”, “incorruptible and intensely patriotic” and “the type of Asian leader whose straight talk and courageous manner should be valued”.

        Diem’s visit was accompanied by the kind of fanfare usually reserved for a royal visit. By placing Diem on a pedestal, the Australian government and media were clearly aligning themselves with the United States.

        While Diem was being celebrated, the Australian media demonised those who opposed him. The leaders of North Vietnam and South Vietnamese insurgents were painted in simple terms as communists. There was very little complex analysis of their background or political goals. An editorial from the Bulletin magazine was typically dismissive:

        “They are just the same old numerous, expendable, careless-of-life, bare-footed, rice-eating Asiatic campaigners who have defied every kind of modernism from the day of the bow-and-arrow on a war front to the explosion of the H-bomb in 1954.”

        Australian support for Saigon

        Australia continued supplying financial aid and equipment to South Vietnam and other SEATO protectorates. By the end of 1965, Canberra had remitted the equivalent of $US13 million in aid.

        Australian military involvement in Vietnam began in August 1962 when 30 personnel were sent to assist the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) to assist with weapons training and equipment maintenance.

        In June 1963, Sergeant William Hacking became the first Australian serviceman to die in Vietnam, after an accidental weapon discharge. In July 1964 Warrant Officer Kevin Conway became the first Australian to be killed in action in Vietnam after a US camp was attacked with mortars and overrun by Viet Cong soldiers.

        Despite these losses, the Menzies government remained committed to assisting South Vietnam for up to ten years – but this support, they said, would remain focused on training and logistics.

        National Service

        Military involvement

        The Gulf of Tonkin incident and the direct involvement of US troops caused a shift in Australia’s position.

        In November 1964, Menzies told Australians that the build-up of communist forces and increases in attacks by communist insurgents required a stronger response in Vietnam.

        Menzies announced the introduction of a National Service scheme – in effect a form of conscription – where males over the age of 20 would be selected by a ‘birthday ballot’.

        Under the National Service program, conscripts would serve a minimum of two years with the Australian Army. During this time they could be deployed in Vietnam. Menzies hoped to raise 8,000 troops each year via the National Service program.

        In April 1965, Menzies announced the dispatch of the first Australian combat troops to Vietnam. Opinion polling suggested a significant majority of Australians supported this decision.

        “All the way with LBJ”

        Menzies retired from politics in early 1966, aged 72, and was replaced by his deputy leader, Harold Holt.

        In June 1966, Holt visited Washington DC and held talks with US president Lyndon Johnson and other American political and military leaders. Holt announced publicly that Australia would “go all the way with LBJ”.

        Lyndon Johnson embarked on a reciprocal visit in October 1966, the first visit to Australia by a serving US president. Johnson was welcomed in Australia by enormous crowds. More than 300,000 people gathered along the president’s motorcade in Melbourne.

        Johnson’s visit to Australia did encounter some small but visible anti-war protests. For the most part, it seemed the US-Australian alliance had never been stronger.

        The alliance weakens

        The events of late 1967 and 1968 undermined Australian support for Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.

        In December 1967, prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at Portsea. Holt was never found and he was presumed drowned. His successor, John Gorton, was an Air Force fighter pilot who supported Australian military involvement in Vietnam. Gorton, however, was more sceptical about how the Vietnam War was being fought and America’s military objectives in Vietnam.

        The Tet Offensive in early 1968 eroded Australia’s confidence about the progress of the war. Gorton became increasingly concerned about the lack of consultation between Washington and Canberra.

        In March 1968, when Lyndon Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam and announced his decision not to stand for re-election, Gorton only found out from media reports. In private he expressed the view that this was no way to treat an ally.

        Australian methods and tactics

        Around 60,000 Australian military personnel served in Vietnam during the course of the war. There were never more than 7,700 Australian combat troops deployed in Vietnam at any one time.

        In 1966, Australian forces were given responsibility for Phuoc Tuy province, 50 miles east of Saigon. They constructed an airstrip and major base at Nui Dat, then worked to clear the surrounding area of Viet Cong.

        Australian military tactics tended to be more cautious and measured than those employed by their American allies. Australians operated in smaller units, usually platoons. They used counter-insurgency tactics and avoided major roads, paths and obvious ambush points. These methods made Australian troops more effective and more respected by their enemy, though impatient US commanders sometimes criticised the Australians for not clearing areas quickly enough.

        A total of 521 Australian servicemen were killed in action during the Vietnam War.

        A historian’s view:
        “During the Year of the Monkey [1968] the [Australian] press, which had generally supported the war or stuck to feel good stories of heroism and mateship, vigorously changed its tune. The media reacted to growing middle-class disenchantment with the war. They did not initiate or promote anti-war feeling they reflected and fed off it… In time, editors published reports and photos safe in the knowledge their readers were now receptive to anti-war coverage. Intimations of defeat leavened the journalists’ copy: not only was the war a crime, it was also a losing battle.”
        Paul Ham

        1. Prior to World War II, Australia’s foreign policy was strongly influenced by Britain. This changed during and after the war when Canberra sought closer defence ties with the United States.

        2. Australian society and politics were also affected by Cold War paranoia. Australians feared infiltration of unions and political parties by communists, as well as communist expansion in Asia.

        3. Closer ties with the US were established in the 1950s. The Menzies government signed the ANZUS treaty, joined SEATO and provided financial aid and support to South Vietnam.

        4. Australia sent a contingent of military trainers to Vietnam in 1962. In 1964 Canberra introduced conscription to increase its defence force. Australian combat troops were sent to Vietnam in 1965.

        5. Australia’s commitment to Vietnam remained relatively small, with around 60,000 soldiers serving there during the conflict. Australian troops were mostly based in the southern province of Phuoc Tuy.

        ‘Taking to the Streets against the Vietnam War’: A Timeline History of Australian Protest 1962-1972 –– 1965

        February 7 – U.S launches large-scale, regular and unprovoked aerial bombing of North Vietnam and moves to introduce massive numbers of combat troops to Vietnam (over and above existing force of ‘advisors’)

        February – Menzies Government declares full support for U.S air attacks on North Vietnam

        February 11 – One hundred Melbourne trade unionists picket U.S Consulate in Commercial Road to protest air strikes on North Vietnam

        February 22 – CICD demands re-convening of 1954 Geneva Conference
        February – Seven Melbourne youth organisations (at meeting initiated by Unitarian Church Youth Group) decide to form joint campaign committee against Menzies Government conscription scheme

        March 10 – ‘Youth Against Conscription Committee’ protest at Department of Labour and National Service office (Melbourne) against ‘death lottery’

        March – CICD issues statement against U.S use of poison gas in Vietnam

        March 19 – CND Easter Monday march Dandenong to Melbourne

        April 20 – President Johnson despatches ‘special envoy’ Henry Cabot Lodge to Australia

        April 29 – Prime Minister Menzies announces commitment of battalion of 1000 Australian combat troops to Vietnam

        May 3 – 250 demonstrators in Sydney stage sit-down protest on Martin Place footpath against Menzies Government decision to commit more Australian troops to Vietnam

        May 4 – Opposition leader Calwell declares ALP’s opposition to the commitment of troops to South Vietnam in a speech to the House of Representatives in Canberra

        May 16 – Thousands of small leaflets (‘No Diggers for Dollars’) rain down on ‘Coral Sea’ parade in Swanston Street

        May 20 – New Sydney organisation ‘Save Our Sons’ joins peace vigil outside Parliament in Canberra

        May 21-22 – ‘Vietnam Teach-In’ at University of California (Berkeley)

        May 22 – CICD Saturday morning mass sit-down at Victoria Barracks against despatch of Australian troops to South Vietnam

        May 23 – ALP/THC/ACTU Sunday rally at Richmond Town Hall against despatch of Australian troops to South Vietnam. Cairns explodes idea of ‘aggression from the North’, the major propaganda lie of U.S/Australia military intervention

        May 25 – Delegates to 1965 National Conference of Australian Student Labor Federation (ASLF) in Canberra pass motion in political support of National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Sixteen delegates are arrested following sit-down on pedestrian crossing in protest against despatch of Australian troops to Vietnam

        June – U.S conducts genocidal napalm bombing of South Vietnam

        June 19 – 150 prospective conscripts sign advertisement in The Australian inserted by ‘Youth Campaign Against Conscription’ (YCAC)

        June – ‘Save Our Sons’ (SOS) formed in Melbourne

        June – General Nguyen Cao Ky emerges as Premier of South Vietnam

        June 30 – First Melbourne intake of conscripts Swan Street Army Depot

        July 29 – Nine-hour televised Vietnam ‘Teach-In’ at Monash University

        August 21 – U.S planes bomb dams in North Vietnam’s vital Red River irrigation system

        August 22 – YCAC holds its first meeting (‘The Whip’ Coffee Lounge 124 Lygon Street Carlton)

        September 17 – ‘Vietnam Day Committee’ (VDC) formed in Melbourne in response to appeal from Vietnam Day Committee of Berkeley California

        September 17 – ‘Vietnam Action Committee’ (VAC) protest at Commonwealth offices (Martin Place) in Sydney calling for withdrawal of all foreign troops in Vietnam and negotiated settlement on basis of 1954 Geneva Agreement

        September 29 – Second ‘National Service’ trainee intake Swan Street Army Depot

        October 22 – VAC demonstration in Sydney in response to Berkeley Vietnam Day Committee. Sit-down of 300 on Pitt Street roadway leads to fifty-one arrests

        November 2 – American Quaker Norman Morrison burns himself to death on the steps of the Pentagon

        November 27 – Ex-diplomat Gregory Clark publishes scathing attack on U.S/Australia Vietnam policy in The Australian
        November 28 – 8000 people attend Sunday afternoon folk concert at Myer Music Bowl (sponsored by CND, ALP, VDC, CICD) and hear Jim Cairns and Rev. David Pope

        November – U.S combat troops in South Vietnam now number 150,000

        Download the full timeline here, or click through below for a year-by-year timeline (with pictures) of this momentous period.

        ‘Taking to the Streets against the Vietnam War’: A Timeline History of Australian Protest 1962-1972