4CA, Interview with Murray Jones discussing the importance of our Vietnam veterans’ experiences and the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War

Thursday, 13 January 2022

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel


Murray Jones: Good morning. It’s 846 4CA. I’ve been very lucky over the years to have quite a bit of contact with John Schumann, the man of course, from Redgum, and it’s been interesting to talk to him. He’s worked in mental health areas, of course was the man that sang that song, that iconic song, only 19, all about the Vietnam War, but the type of service that he provides just by singing that song. And I guess spending time with veterans is just so important, particularly for Vietnam veterans.

We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and of course, it is a very, very important time. Let’s talk to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel. The Honourable Andrew Gee joins me this morning. Good morning, Andrew. How are you today?

Andrew Gee: Very well. Thanks, Murray. Great to be back on 4CA.

Murray Jones: Excellent. Now, look, this is a really important announcement because I’ve had you know quite a few discussions with people, including John Schumann from Redgum, about the impact of the Vietnam War on a lot of ex-vets here in Australia or vets here in Australia. And, of course, in a lot of ways, they kind of felt that they were forgotten. But it seems like there’s been a really good announcement by the government with respect to investing into this 50th anniversary.

Andrew Gee: Yes, next year is the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the federal government has set aside $6 million for that commemoration and it’s a really important milestone not only for our Vietnam vets, but also for our country, because we owe our veterans an enormous debt of gratitude. Almost 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, 521 lost their lives and more than 3000 were wounded.

The reality is they weren’t treated very well when they came home and the pain from that time and their treatment still exists and still lingers to this day and I think that this opportunity of the 50th anniversary commemorating the end of our involvement is an important one in that we can express our pride, our appreciation, our gratitude, but also our respect to all that those men and women did because they served with distinction. The Australian record in Vietnam is one of distinction and one of success, and we should be very proud of them and we should never, ever forget what they did and we should never, ever forget the 521 who lost their lives fighting for our country.

Murray Jones: You know, it’s very sad because when somebody signs up and they decide to basically put themselves on the line to serve their country. You know unfortunately, the Vietnam War seemed to get so involved in a political issue, and unfortunately, what we’re just talking about is a situation where these people have come back after putting their lives on the line and because of a political issue, they were sidelined. So it’s so important for some of these commemorations and these celebrations to really recognise just what we’ve talked about that supreme effort. And of course, there’s people that actually lost their lives in the Vietnam War as well.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, absolutely. There has been healing in recent years, but I don’t think that healing is complete yet. And if you try to speak to Vietnam veterans all over the country, I’ve got one veteran who can talk quite matter of factly, about what it was like facing the enemy, what it was like being hit by AK 47 fire. But the emotion just bubbles to the surface when he talks about how they were treated when they came home and his experience about being turned away from an RSL club. It’s unbelievable that all of that happened. People throwing paint and offal on our diggers when they returned home. It is a very sad and sorry chapter in our history and a lot of effort has been gone to making that right and putting it right. But it’s not complete yet. And when you look at the record, as I said, it’s an extraordinary record of service. Australians took their experiences from jungle fighting in World War II, smaller operations in Phước Tuy Province, which is the province which we had care and control of when we were there. And it is an extraordinary record of success.

Long Tan is probably the most famous example, but there are many, many others, like Binh Ba and Coral and Balmoral, so many other places and battles where Australians distinguish themselves, and we should be very proud of them. I was having a chat to my uncle about it who served, just recently. I’d never spoken to him before about what it was like over there and I think more and more Vietnam vets are wanting to talk and just share their experiences and I think that’s a really positive thing because the nation wants to hear the stories. So I would just encourage all of our ex-service organisations and all of our community groups and local councils to start thinking about what they can do next year to commemorate this 50th anniversary.

The end of combat operations was officially announced on the 11 January 1973. Vietnam Veterans’ Day is on the 18th of August, so the centrepiece of the commemorative services will be at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial. There will be a service there next year, but there are going to be commemorations and services all around Australia. So the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will be consulting very closely with ex-service organisations and other community organisations. So keep an eye on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs website.

It’s a really important opportunity for our country to express its pride, its appreciation, its respect and honour, the memory of all of those who served and sacrificed so much. And they went because their country called them to go. That’s why they went. Australia said, we need you to go and they answered the call for us.

Murray Jones: So we’re talking about the 18th of August 2023 be a part of it, locally. And of course, as Andrew just said, there’s a big event happening in Canberra. It’s a wonderful concept, and I think the important thing is to keep this in our mind, we really owe, we really owe a debt of gratitude to these Vietnam vets.

Andrew Gee: I should just mention that with respect to the Redgum Song, I was only 19. I have a veteran in my area from Oberon, Bill Wilcox, who was on the ground that day, the day that mankind kicked the moon and he was injured in a mine blast. He was clearing mines after that incident. And Frank Hunt, who is the Frankie that’s referred to in the song. He actually visited Bathurst and talked of his experiences, which were just extraordinary, and he actually spoke of being I think he said he was in Melbourne and he had been at the movies with another digger, and they walked outside and there was a Vietnam War protest going on and someone reached into a garbage bin and smeared meat pie on him, on his face. And he said that he was obviously pretty shocked, but in typical laconic jigger fashion, he said, I think that needs a bit of sauce or words to that effect, Frankie, actually he didn’t actually die. It was another digger who lost his life in that incident by stepping on a mine. But they used Frank Hunt in the song so the family wouldn’t be upset. Frank agreed that he would be the Frank he referred to in the song and to have him come and talk to the Vietnam vets, it was about three or four years ago now and then Bill Wilcox from Oberon, who was also there. If you go to the RSL Museum in Oberon, you can see the watch that Bill was wearing that day. It’s still got shrapnel in it. Bill has still got shrapnel all through his body from that day and from that episode and Bill was a nasho, he wanted to be a first grade footballer with South Sydney, went and did a trial game, then got the call up and went and fought in Vietnam for this country. And that’s just one story.

Murray Jones: Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel Andrew Gee, been great to talk to you this morning. Thank you so much for your time.

Andrew Gee: Thanks, see you Murray.

** End of transcript **