A question of numbers - Vietnam War

Hard on the heels of Australia’s other military commitments in south-east Asia, in 1962 the Australian armed forces became incrementally committed to a new ten-year conflict in South Vietnam. Once again, various lists of men believed to have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage have been assembled, but none has yet been completely verified. While an estimate of about 300 has been proposed, it has so far been possible to verify with reasonable confidence the presence in Vietnam of just over 160 Indigenous Australian men: 144 in the army, 12 in the RAN, and five in the RAAF.

Those in the RAAF, although fewest in number, were spread across all three flying units and the Operational Support Unit sent to the war. The navy men also matched the general outline of RAN involvement (serving in the guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart, which manned the gun line in the northern waters of the war zone, in the former aircraft carrier turned troop ferry Sydney, in one of the latter’s escorting destroyers (Parramatta), or in the supply vessel Jeparit.). Predictably, as the service with the largest presence in the conflict, the army offered the densest pattern of Indigenous participation.

In addition to providing soldiers for each of the nine infantry battalions rotated through Vietnam before Australia began withdrawing its forces in 1971, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander personnel served in most of the supporting arms and corps that made up the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat and the Logistics Support Group at Vung Tau: armour, artillery, engineers, ordnance, transport, ambulance, and hospital. It is notable that the first published account by a black digger in Vietnam was written by a member of 1 Field Squadron (engineers).[1] Members have even been identified in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam[2] and detachments of the Special Air Service Regiment.[3]

At least seven men were killed (although not all were combat casualties) and three were wounded in action. Two were present at the momentous battle of Long Tan in August 1966. Awards were relatively modest compared to earlier conflicts (one Indigenous man was Mentioned In Despatches and one received the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry), but more than anything this reflects the different intensity of fighting in this theatre. The highest rank held by an Indigenous Australian man appears to have been Warrant Officer Class I (the most senior non-commissioned rank). Interestingly, considering that the National Service Act 1964 exempted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the requirement to register for national service,[4] no fewer than 18 Indigenous Australian men were in Vietnam while completing national service obligations.

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[1]  K.C. “Kenny” Laughton, Not quite men, no longer boys, IAD Press, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, 1999.

[2]  Ian McNeill, The team: Australian Army advisers in Vietnam 1962–1972, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 1984, p. 156–57 (Warrant Officer 1 J. Geedrick).

[3]  David Horner, SAS: phantoms of war, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales, 2002, pp. 291–93, 566 (Harris); see also p. 563 (William Allan Murphy) and p. 570 (Wenitong).

[4]  Sue Langford, “Appendix: the national service scheme, 1964–72”, in Peter Edwards, A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965–1975, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, New South Wales, 1997, pp. 366–67.

About the author:

Military historian Dr Chris Clark wrote this brief history on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the assistance of a generous grant from the Gandevia Foundation. Dr Clark has been researching and writing Australian military history for more than 40 years, and has authored, co-authored, or edited more than 30 books, including The encyclopedia of Australia’s battles (3rd edition 2010). He was an officer in the Australian Army and later worked in various government departments as a strategic analyst and historian, and at the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He headed the Office of Air Force History in the Department of Defence for nine years before retiring in 2013. Dr Clark is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy.