'It’s an honour and a privilege'
It was the 18th of August 1966. Seventeen-year-old Patricia Amphlett, better known by her stage name “Little Pattie”, was entertaining troops at the Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat with Col Joye and the Joy Boys.
Much to their disappointment, Delta Company, 6RAR, weren’t at the concert; they were out on patrol, just four kilometres away, on the edge of the nearby Long Tan rubber plantation. Some of the soldiers recalled hearing snatches of music as they headed out.
Amphlett was still on stage singing when the fighting began.
“It was during the second show that I could hear lots of commotion going on in the nearby rubber plantation,” Amphlett said.
“We had been there since the beginning of August and we got into a pretty good routine of at least three shows a day, sometimes nights as well, depending on curfew.
“I didn’t say anything because I knew we were in good hands and it didn’t occur to me really that it was serious, but indeed it was.
“And of course those sounds escalated during the third show, and at about 10 to 4 in the afternoon we were given the signal, which is by the way the index finger across the neck, ‘Get off stage, c’mon finish,’ so we did.
“I can’t remember the song itself, but it would have been the songs that were hit records at the time… Stompin at Maroubra, and He’s my Blond Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy…
“Col would have been singing Bye Bye Baby of course, but I can’t remember our last song, it probably would have been Rock Around the Clock.
“We finished in a hurry, and it rained, torrential rain …
“There were sirens blasting as we were whisked away in a jeep which took us to an Iroquois helicopter which then took us back to Vung Tau for the night.
“The helicopter pilot was yelling out hurry up, hurry up everybody … and on the way, we flew right over the battle site.
“And of course that was the battle of Long Tan.”
The battle of Long Tan was one of Australia’s fiercest and most intense engagements of the Vietnam War.
Cut off and outnumbered by at least ten to one, an isolated infantry company of 105 Australians and three New Zealanders withstood massed Viet Cong attacks for three hours in the torrential rain. They suffered the heaviest Australian casualties in a single engagement in Vietnam, but prevailed against all odds. But the victory was not without cost: 17 Australians were killed and 25 were wounded, one of whom later died of his wounds.
Amphlett, now in her 70s, has never forgotten that day. She remembers seeing tracer bullets as her helicopter flew overhead.
“I was sitting next to a soldier with a big 50 calibre machine-gun … and we were witnessing what was going on from the sky,” Amphlett said.
“He didn’t talk, and I didn’t talk … we just stared at the jungle, and there were thousands and thousands of orange lights, which were tracer bullets.
“On that flight back to Vung Tau, there was none of the usual banter or laughter or happiness within the helicopter, and I felt apprehensive, but at no time did I feel scared …
“I don’t think you get scared when you are 17 and you’ve got soldiers around you with 50 calibre machine-guns; and I don’t mean that to be funny.
“I do remember seeing the light draining away from our faces, so if that’s fear it’s fear, but I didn’t feel that at the time …
“I don’t know that I was ever frightened when I was there.”
Her friend, fellow entertainer Col Joye, had been “kidnapped” before he could climb aboard the helicopter by a sergeant who had bundled him into a vehicle and driven him off to have a drink with Australian soldiers. He was later rescued after spending much of his time in a weapon pit, and was reunited with Amphlett in Vung Tau, where they sang for the wounded.
“Col Joye and I gave an impromptu concert at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau,” Amphlett said.
“This was the next morning and that was a bit difficult to do because the reality of what had happened was becoming stronger in our minds, but once again our good training kicked in, and we sang for them, and it was lovely.
“Over the years, I’ve met some of those injured men again; they are now old men, and it’s always quite an emotional reunion.”
At 17, Amphlett was the youngest Australian entertainer to perform for Australian soldiers in Vietnam. A teenage pop sensation of the 1960s, she had stomped her way to stardom with two hit singles by the age of 14, leaving school three months before her 15th birthday to focus on her singing career. By the time she went to Vietnam in 1966, she was one of Australia’s most popular performers.
“I was a kid myself when I went there,” Amphlett said.
“My mother had a phone call from a person who was the head or the secretary to the head of a government department, asking for her permission – my parent’s permission – for me to go and entertain the forces in Vietnam …
“I had already had a three-year career as a singer, but this was something I’d never done before of course.
“At first, my family were very firmly on the side that thought Australia should not be involved in Vietnam.
“My father was most unhappy at the thought of his baby girl being there, but in the end he relented.
“I think Mum talked him into it … She did say to him twice, ‘Oh look, Joe … she’ll be well looked after, she’ll have three meals a day, she’ll have plenty of sleep … I think we can trust this man on the phone. After all, he is from the government.’
“Of course, my worldly dad didn’t believe that all, but when he found out that Col Joye had agreed to go, he relented … He knew that I would be very well looked after by Col and the boys because they were like my big brothers.”
Nothing though could prepare her, for what would be a life-changing experience.
“I was a well-trained performer, but this would be different,” she said.
“I’d never been to a battle-zone, a war zone, a conflict zone before so it was all new to me…. the sights, the sounds, the smells… it was something that I had never experienced.
“Of course, once you are on stage, it’s another stage, but when you look out at the audiences, the smiles on their faces are just priceless. You can’t buy that, and Australian audiences in Vietnam were the best. They were just kids too, you know, and they were wonderful…
“But the biggest preparation that stands out to me is the amount of needles that we had to have…
“I’m not at all a scaredy cat about needles, but I do remember 13 needles one morning …
“They were determined that we wouldn’t get anything … and quite often they would invite someone from the press to come out and take a photo whilst I was having a needle, so there was lots of, ‘Smile Pattie, smile, for the camera,’ and the photos I have of that are so funny because I’m thinking, ‘These needles are so big, and it’s hurting,’ but I could never let on that it was.”
She remembers flying into Saigon when she first arrived in Vietnam.
“At the time, I think, a plane landed at Tan Son Nhut airport every 12 seconds, and we were just one of them,” Amphlett said.
“I thought, ‘My God…’
“We’re going in, and there are planes underneath us landing, and planes up above us.
“But as soon as we got off the plane, it was the sights and the smells and the sounds… We knew we were in a very, very different part of the world then, and I’ve been back several times, and I’ve taken groups of Vietnam veterans and their wives back to Vietnam, and when we get off the plane, it’s always the same; that terrific, unique smell of that particular city.
“[Coming home] it was like coming back into another world … and I then understood why people who come back from places of conflict, from war, didn’t really want to talk about it to people who hadn’t been there …
“It changed my life and made me wonder to this day, why can’t people sit down and talk about these things before getting the guns out or dropping bombs?
“It’s the incomprehension of war and battle, that people actually want to do it that still befuddles me … so while I have admiration for the people who are told to do that, the people who are just doing their job, I don’t know that I have that admiration for the people, or the governments, that make those decisions.
“After being there, and my experience there, I too felt that we should never have gone there, but we did, and our young men had no choice but to be there … and they are absolutely wonderful, so although I might have been against our involvement, I would always, always support them, 100 per cent, and respect them and the job that they had to do …
“To this day, I know countless Vietnam veterans and their families who have enriched my life as far as friendships are concerned. They are just wonderful people – misunderstood, under respected – and I suppose that’s why I love them”.
Amphlett sang at the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Concert at the Domain in Sydney in 1987 and went on to serve on the Council of the Australian War Memorial in the 1990s. She performed for Australian troops in Iraq and the Middle East in 2005 and 2006, and sang at a special performance at the Memorial to mark the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan.
She will be performing as part of the Vietnam Requiem this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the Australian withdrawal from Vietnam.
Created and directed by the Australian War Memorial’s musical artist-in-residence, Chris Latham, the Vietnam Requiem brings together Australia’s leading composers and performers in a bid to create a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War through music.
A commemorative work, it will focus on veterans and those directly affected by war, including military and civilian medical staff, entertainers, journalists and photojournalists, the protest movement and the Vietnamese refugees who made new lives for themselves in Australia.
“It’s an honour and a privilege to have been invited and I can’t wait to be a part of it,” Amphlett said.
“I close my eyes, and I can still remember with clarity great details of being there …
“I was just 17, and I took it all in. My life changed because of Vietnam veterans and their involvement.
"It really shaped me in so many ways as a human being for the rest of my life
“I guess this requiem will bring out every emotion that we have, good, not so good, sad, but it should heal …
“My life has been enriched by the friendships I have with Vietnam veterans.
“I think it’s going to be very special occasion.”
The Vietnam Requiem will be performed at Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, Canberra, on Saturday 5 June 2021 and Sunday 6 June 2021. For more information, visit here.