Friday 13 January 2012 by Ian Affleck. 14 comments
News, Personal Stories

Michael (Mike) Coleridge will always be remembered for the photograph he took on 26 August 1967 of a group of soldiers of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7RAR, waiting for an Iroquois helicopter to land and take them back to Nui Dat at the end of Operation Ulmarra. This photograph has become an Australian icon of the Vietnam War and is graphically featured on the Vietnam National Memorial on ANZAC Parade in Canberra. But this is just one of 558 still photographs and 54 films taken in Vietnam by Mike Coleridge in the Australian War Memorial's collection.

Mike Coleridge, Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7RAR waiting to board an Iroquois helicopter to return to Nui Dat, 26 August 1967 Mike Coleridge, Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7RAR waiting to board an Iroquois helicopter to return to Nui Dat, 26 August 1967 EKN
Coleridge was born in Slovenia on 11 July 1933. At the end of the Second World War his parents' marriage failed, and he accompanied his mother to Austria, before migrating to Australia as an unaccompanied 16-year-old. As a young man, he worked in a range of manual jobs in Sydney, always struggling to make his junior wages cover his expenses. At 18 he found work on a property in rural New South Wales, where his circumstances improved and his life assumed some degree of normality. A young man looking for adventure, he eventually found his way to Darwin. Life in the Northern Territory was exciting, and during this time he learnt to fly and was awarded a private pilot's license.

Vietnam. 1967. Private Peter Harding of Ballina (NSW), paddles out from the bank of a tributary of the Song Rai River in a boat which had been secreted among mangroves by the Viet Cong. Assault pioneers from the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), discovered nearly a dozen craft. Vietnam. 1967. Private Peter Harding of Ballina (NSW), paddles out from the bank of a tributary of the Song Rai River in a boat which had been secreted among mangroves by the Viet Cong. Assault pioneers from the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), discovered nearly a dozen craft. COL

In 1957 Coleridge enlisted in the Australian Army, hoping to enter the fledgling Army Aviation Corps. Believing the recruiting sergeant's assurances that he could transfer after completing his recruit training, he signed up; however, his lack of formal education proved a barrier to army pilot training and he found himself a gunner in the Royal Australian Artillery Corps. He never realised his ambition to fly. Gunner Coleridge was posted to Malaysia in 1961, and during his tour he privately made films for the British Army using his own cameras.

On his return to Australia in 1963, Coleridge sought a transfer to the Royal Australian Army Education Corps as a public relations photographer. During this time he married and had two children. But his marriage failed, leaving him with his two children of his own and another his wife had brought to the marriage. Coleridge, now a single father, was posted to Vietnam. With much difficulty, and without any support from the army, he arranged for a family in Melbourne to care for his children. Sergeant Coleridge arrived in Vietnam on 19 November 1966, and although posted to Headquarters in Saigon, he spent most of his time at the new 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base at Nui Dat. Over the next 12 months he recorded the activities of 5RAR, 6RAR and 7RAR and other elements of 1ATF. There were no facilities at the 1ATF base for a photographer, so he constructed a makeshift darkroom, in which he developed his own films.

A digger with his dog and gun watch for the Viet Cong during Operation Paddington, 1967. A digger with his dog and gun watch for the Viet Cong during Operation Paddington, 1967. COL
Vietnam. 1967. On top of Nui Dat hill, the highest point in the Australian Task Force area, Delta (D) Company soldiers of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR), keep constant watch for Viet Cong movement. Vietnam. 1967. On top of Nui Dat hill, the highest point in the Australian Task Force area, Delta (D) Company soldiers of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR), keep constant watch for Viet Cong movement. COL
1967 Army signal, acknowledging Coleridge's colour photography
Coleridge operated independently, accompanying soldiers on operations, seeking out images to satisfy the needs of the Public Relations Officer in Saigon and taking many photographs in response to the conflict that surrounded him, including many shots of Australian soldiers moving through the Vietnamese landscape. Like many photographers of the time, he always carried a number of cameras, including 35 mm and 120 still cameras and frequently a 16 mm Bell and Howell movie camera. Using his own initiative, Coleridge started using colour film in both his still and movie cameras. However, the army was geared to providing the print media and TV with black-and-white images, and so initially it didn't support Coleridge's use of colour. Because the army only supplied black-and-white film, colour film and colour stock either had to be traded with other photographers or purchased privately. Colour film had to be processed privately in Saigon, and as most of his salary was spent supporting his three children back in Australia this must have been very difficult for him. Many of Coleridge's colour film stills, and the colour films of the photographers who followed him, were duplicated in black-and-white for use in the media. Coleridge's persistence was eventually rewarded by the Army Public Relations Directorate in Canberra: a signal sent to Saigon in September 1967 acknowledged both the high standard of the colour footage and the fact that Coleridge had provided the colour stock personally, and advised that replacement stock would be dispatched from Canberra.

After completing his tour of Vietnam on 21 November 1967, Coleridge was posted to Melbourne. His period of enlistment had expired and he resisted the army's efforts to keep him, realising how difficult it would be to continue serving as a single father.

Vietnam. 1967. During operation Broken Hill in Phuoc Tuy Province, troops took the elusive Viet Cong by surprise. Lance Corporal Geoff McGuffog of Tamworth, NSW (right), leads a gagged and securely tied Viet Cong suspect past Bombardier Jim Creber of Mortdale, NSW. Vietnam. 1967. During operation Broken Hill in Phuoc Tuy Province, troops took the elusive Viet Cong by surprise. Lance Corporal Geoff McGuffog of Tamworth, NSW (right), leads a gagged and securely tied Viet Cong suspect past Bombardier Jim Creber of Mortdale, NSW. COL
Vietnam. 1967. The tracks of armoured personnel carriers of A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, take heavy punishment in the war and have to be changed about every 2000 miles. Soldiers of the Squadron lay out new tracks ready to be fitted. Vietnam. 1967. The tracks of armoured personnel carriers of A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, take heavy punishment in the war and have to be changed about every 2000 miles. Soldiers of the Squadron lay out new tracks ready to be fitted. COL
Over the decades that followed the war, Mike Coleridge traveled the countryside, finding work wherever he could. He worked for a time as a photographer for the Melbourne Truth and at other jobs, always supporting his two children. He moved to Darwin and then, in the early 1970s, to North Queensland, where he drove steam locos in the cane fields; from there it was on to Western Australia, where he mined gold, before moving to New South Wales. He and his children settled in Canberra in 1984, where he worked for a time as an attendant at the Australian War Memorial. With his children now grown up, he found some relief from his responsibilities and began growing walnuts on a small property at Jerangle, New South Wales. His final move was to a property on the outskirts of Braidwood, where he raised Angus cattle.
Identity discs worn by 4410203 Sergeant Michael (Mike) Coleridge Identity discs worn by 4410203 Sergeant Michael (Mike) Coleridge REL35614
Like many Vietnam veterans, Coleridge experienced a range of health issues, including first cancer of the bladder and more recently lung cancer. Just before Christmas 2011 he had a bad fall in his house and was taken by ambulance to the Braidwood Hospital. He was transferred to hospital in Canberra, where an X-ray revealed he had two fractured vertebrae in his lower back.

Michael Coleridge passed away peacefully in hospital in the early hours of 10 January 2012. He is survived by his son, David, daughter, Rhonda, and granddaughter, Julia.

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Andy

So sad to hear of this. I hate to say it but I didn't know his name. Some of his photos though have become iconic and I recognised them instantly. Like so many people with a unique talent, we are more likely to remember their work than perhaps their names. God Speed, Mike and thank you so much for your incredible legacy to our Country.

Rhonda Fulop

I loved my father very much. He was both mother and father to my brother and I as we grew up. Dad told me many stories of Vietnam and what happened over there. I will always treasure what he taught me about life. He is now with his good friends Jack Fletcher and also Kate Webb. Jack especially was so good to Dad. Rhonda.

Mike Morrow

Brother, It is with heartfelt sympathy for your family as I say God speed and goodbye for now, while you join so many Brothers that have made their final journey before you. Until we meet, keep a look out for me. Lobo Viet Nam Vets MC USA Ohio State Secretary

Sheldon Williams

Farewell Mike, It was a privilege to know you and share our stories. Yours were always far more interesting! I regret we didn't spend more time together, but always enjoyed the lamb roasts when we could. As a young lad from Slovenia you worked bloody hard on arriving in Australia. I know you loved flying, ended up in the Army and then you proved to have a skill, expertise and dedication as a war photographer that few have been able to match. Stand Easy Mike. I know you will be among friends.

Mick Toal

RIP Digger, your imagery is a priceless legacy for your life, your service and your craft.

Bruce Keeley

RIP Mike, Some battles are long and hard, you have gone to your just reward. I will always remember the many chats and conversations we had. Your name will forever be enshrined in the military history of this nation. Bruce

Critical Past

That first photograph is just perfect, it nearly jumps out of the screen at you. What a tremendous contribution Mr. Coleridge made to future generations of Australians to document our involvement in the war. And to spend his own money to buy colour stock because of a lack of support from the Army, Mr. Coleridge was clearly dedicated to his work. As part of his work Mr. Coleridge documented some of the less than heroic activities that Australian troops participated in during the war. I was saddened to see that the first clip shows Australian soldiers forcing people from their land and burning down their homes. All Vietnemese villages within Line Alpha, the 4km radius around Nui Dat 1ATF base, were dismantled and destroyed and the populations moved to resettlement camps. This one act alone so early in the existance of 1ATF alienated several thousand local Vietnamese and turned them against the Australians. The Australians were completely ignorant of the connection of the Vietnamese peasant to their land, where their ancestors are buried, their Quê hương. By removing peasants from their source of income the villagers became dependent on hand outs and could be more easily controlled. Not conduct that should makes us as Australians proud. Rest easy Mike Coleridge.

Andrew

It is a sad day when a country loses someone that has done so much for his country and yet very few people know his name - the images are iconic and are well known by most Australians with a passing interest in the Vietnam War....god speed...

Colin of Morwell

I was a member of 7 RAR October 67 till they left vietnam in April 68, and I went to 1 ATF I am sure you have left foot prints, and touched many many veterans in your Journey, Brother, Rest in peace, your gone, but will be remembered, by many of fellow Vietnam Veterans, who have suffered, and have gone,and others are still suffering but continuing to fight on. (Lest We Forget)

Mike Coleridge, Australian Vietnam War photographer, 1933-20

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Max Allen

Thank the powers that be for people like Mike and for the talent he had. Maybe he wanted to fly, but found his true vocation. R.A.A. 66-67

GAry Hardy

It is pretty sad to loss poeple who made so much for their country. They will reamin heroes forever in people's hearts.