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Remembrance - a matter of perspective

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

I spent my youth immersed in the Australian military involvement in Vietnam. It altered the course of my father’s life. I’ve retraced his actions in Vietnam in high resolution and eventually garnered an understanding of both his operational tour of duty as well as the larger Australian military commitment in former South Vietnam. I then began to understand the much larger US led war and the misguided political pretences behind it. Vietnam was a battlefield in which the nationalist Vietnamese, under the banner of communism, aimed to reunify the entire country under one autonomous government free from foreign intervention. The Australian public was told that unless the US backed South Vietnamese government was saved from communism then one-by-one all of south-east Asia would fall like dominoes. Clearly that never occurred and perhaps Australia should never have become involved. Politics aside, at the end of the day the Australian government did commit troops to Vietnam and the way in which they conducted themselves was to such a high standard that they garnered the respect of their US and South Vietnamese counterparts, and to some extent even those whom they directly fought against.

Westmorland with Australian Centurion troops at Balmoral

After spending many years in Vietnam I’ve continued to gain a greater understanding and respect for the hardships faced by the front-line soldiers,. My own father was a conscripted national servicemen that served with Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment on its first tour of South Vietnam. But I've equally gained perspective of the broader Vietnamese history and culture. For over a decade I’ve been travelling and living among the Vietnamese people, even largely adopting a Vietnamese way of life. I’ve learned enough Vietnamese to speak clearly and freely in day-to-day interactions, I thoroughly enjoy the cuisine, and experienced many parts of the country's wide-ranging and stunning geography. I've also become fascinated by the evolution of the nation as it stands today. The story of Vietnam’s development from humble beginnings in the Red River Delta to its current unified state is long and captivating. Like so many others, my father was dragged into the tail end of thousands of years of struggle for independence that has seen rebellion against Chinese domination, conquests of neighbouring kingdoms, several periods of internal conflict, French and Japanese occupation and what the victorious Vietnamese nationals term US imperialism.

In my time here I’ve had opportunities to hear many southern people’s varied views both for and against the US allied military involvement in Vietnam. In the past I've mainly resided in the key Australian area of operations, formerly known as Phước Tuy (now Bà Rịa - Vũng Tàu) Province, where as an Australian I'm often greeted with open arms by those who once supported the Australian military there. In recent months though I've spent more time north of Saigon, continuing to develop a greater understanding of what took place in the key southern resistance zone. This was the region that 1st Battlation, Royal Australian Regiment primarily operated in 1965-1966 attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade. It was also where the Australians fought a month-long series of actions now collectively known as the Battles of Coral-Balmoral. These included the fiercest and costliest battles of the Australian military experience in Vietnam, not surprisingly given the several significant strategic Vietnamese revolutionary bases close by. Twenty-five Australians were killed and almost one-hundred wounded. It sadly took fifty years and much lobbying for the Australian government to finally award a Unit Citation for Bravery to those involved. In stark contrast, the Vietnamese government have long commemorated the more than two-hundred and fifty men who died during the fighting as national heroes and martyrs of the revolution (cách mạng). Two memorials stand at the site of Fire Support Base Coral (Hội Nghĩa commune) and a smaller memorial at the site of Balmoral base (Bình Mỹ commune) where the Vietnamese launched their main thrusts against the Australians.

The Australian buildup at FSB Coral
The main Vietnamese memorial at the site of FSB Coral

Due west of the FSB Coral now site stands an impressive memorial complex in recognition of a strategic military base known as the ‘Vĩnh Lợi War Zone’. Located in Vĩnh Tân commune, Bình Dương Province, the memorial is a local landmark commemorating the sacrifices of the local revolutionary Vietnamese during the two resistance wars against the French and US allied forces. Vĩnh Lợi was a revolutionary leadership centre of War Zone D responsible for the organisation of Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) main force units, South Vietnamese National Liberation Front and local village guerrillas. Its strategic position made it suitable as a key link in the line of communications between War Zone D and bases along the Saigon River through the decades-long revolution that saw the end of French colonialism, patient political victory over the US and its allies and final military defeat of the South Vietnamese government which resulted in national reunification.

Entrance gate and stele at Vinh Loi memorial complex

After five years of construction the elegant 5.5 hectare Vĩnh Lợi complex began welcoming visitors in 2016. The entrance to the site boasts an elaborate three door gate, beyond which stands a stele and impressive victory monument. The solemn 17,000 metre memorial temple houses an altar and statue to former president Ho Chi Minh, behind which the names of local military martyrs are etched. In the rear of the building a well-designed museum houses many artefacts and artwork of the local resistance from the Stone Age through recent warfare and modern economic development. It also houses an education centre that welcomes school classes and other groups, providing an opportunity to understand the efforts of those operating in the Vĩnh Lợi area and broader resistance campaign. It is clearly designed to facilitate a heightened sense of awareness of past sacrifices and instil a sense of national pride amongst the younger generation. Upon entering the main hall it is customary to light incense and pray before the image of Ho Chi Minh. In those few silent moments I reflect upon the loss incurred by all who fought in this now peaceful region, regardless of ideological persuasion. The men who’s names inscribed upon the memorial walls believed, above all else, in national unity free from foreign intervention. My father had little desire to enter the war but as he was given little choice did so and fought fiercely to survive.

Images below courtesy of the memorial management

Central memorial hall
Victory monument
Main entrance to the memorial hall
Education centre
Students learning of the hardships of their forbears

During the Australian military buildup at Coral a battalion of the US 1st Division (Big Red One) was engaged in a pitched battle with Vietnamese forces within a kilometre of the current Vĩnh Lợi memorial complex. Dad landed at Coral on the same day and promptly moved off into the same area of the quieted US battle. For two weeks he conducted a series of ambushes along the Ba Pho stream, upon the same floodplain that the memorial now stands. During those weeks he and his mates engaged several small parties of Vietnamese nationals retreating back to War Zone D after assaulting strategic locations in Saigon. Later, Dad watched and waited on the southern perimeter of Balmoral as highly accurate mortar fire walked back and forth through his position. Assessing the distance between the falling rounds he was certain that 'the next one had his name on it'. By luck or fate that next round landed just metres outside of his gun pit, unfortunately killing his platoon mate Alan Cooper. What haunted him more though was the absolute waste of life as the ensuing human wave assault was countered with a barrage of heavy machine gun and small arms fire.

My father, David Johnston, on the Ba Pho stream floodplains in the Vinh Loi War Zone

Among the many names of fallen Vietnamese martyrs in the Vinh Loi memorial, stands one who sacrificed his life on the date that Dad was operating right behind the memorial. When I first saw the date that this man died I felt a solemn silence wash over me. I reflected upon the highly personal connection between his sacrifice, my father and myself. He was a young man, a soldier just like Dad doing as he was ordered. However unlike Dad he had been fighting for a cause that he truly believed in; the nationalist struggle to end over a century of foreign occupation of his country. Fulfilling the Vietnamese revolutionary catch-cry that "it is better to die free of slavery" his struggle ended that day but my father's would go on for decades. The revolution that this man fought for ultimately saw the end of French colonialism, patient political victory over the US and its allies, military defeat of the South Vietnamese government and finally the national reunification he had hoped for.

Vietnamese revolutionary forces united in their struggle for national independence

The slogan now emblazoned across the country is that ‘there is nothing more valuable than freedom and independence’. Ideological beliefs aside, Vietnam has indeed created a singular, independent national identity free from foreign domination. Following the collapse of South Vietnam the new national government implemented communist style collectivisation, but within a decade recognised the downside of international isolation. In1986 the government implemented economic reforms known as Đổi Mới (renovation), a soclialist-oriented market economy that set the nation on an upward trajectory that it still enjoys today. While not everybody yet reaps the benefit, evidence of economic growth and opportunities for business minded individuals can be seen almost everywhere one looks. Hand-in-hand with this growth can be seen an ever increasing recognition of the service of the country’s revolutionary forbears who fought, suffered and died in order to bring about the current state of peace. Vĩnh Lợi War Zone memorial complex is an ideal example of such remembrance.

'Nothing more valuable than independence and freedom'

In June this year I was honoured to facilitate a small group of travellers to visit the memorial site. In tandem with one of the lovely staff at the memorial I was proud to illuminate the visitors of the significance of the Vĩnh Lợi memorial, and the hardships faced by those whose names are now etched upon the sacred walls. Without doubt it serves as an outstanding reminder to the Vietnamese of their revolutionary forebears efforts. However I also firmly believe this is a place that any foreign visitor to the region should experience in order to gain context of their own countrymen’s service within the larger picture of the French and American Wars. With the consent of the local authorities the memorial will become a key feature on our itinerary during future visits to the Coral-Balmoral battlefields in Bình Dương Province.

Luke assisting the manager of Khu Di Tích Chiến Khu Vĩnh Lợi conduct a small group tour of the memorial complex

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