The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (18161) Sergeant Thomas Birnie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Vietnam.

Place Asia: Vietnam, Long Khanh Province
Accession Number AWM2016.2.301
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 27 October 2016
Access Open
Conflict Vietnam, 1962-1975
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Troy Clayton, the story for this day was on (18161) Sergeant Thomas Birnie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Vietnam.

Speech transcript

18161 Sergeant Thomas Birnie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
Accidentally killed 25 March 1971
Photograph: EKT/68/0083/VN

Story delivered 27 October 2016

Today we remember and pay tribute to Sergeant Thomas Birnie.

Known as “Tom”, Birnie was born on 23 November 1939 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. One of seven children, he attended the local school before attaining his leaving certificate. He had an outgoing personality and was always the life of a party. He enjoyed sports, particularly Rugby Union, and loved reading and writing poetry. He joined the British Army in August 1959 and was posted to the Royal Military Police, attaining the rank of lance corporal, but requested a discharge at the end of April 1961 to travel instead to Australia.

He arrived in Melbourne in May and travelled to South Australia, where he spent some time kangaroo shooting before returning to Melbourne to live with his older brother David. He was taken on as an apprentice fitter and turner in an engineering firm, and played rugby for the Power House Team.

Through his brother Birnie met Joan Carr, also from Northern Ireland, and soon the two began a relationship. The couple moved to Brisbane in late 1962 and Birnie found a firm where he could continue his apprenticeship. He and Joan were married in March 1963 and a month later he left his apprenticeship to pursue a career in the army.

Birnie enlisted in the Australian Regular Army on 10 May 1963, leaving his pregnant wife in Brisbane. Joan went into labour while Birnie was at Kapooka, and though he did his best to get back home in time, he was unable to witness the birth of his son, Mark.

After basic training Birnie attended the Infantry Training School at Singleton and was later posted to 2RAR, joining D Company on arrival. He was known to be an unconventional soldier, which brought him to the attention of his superiors on a number of occasions.

Birnie’s battalion deployed to Vietnam in May 1967, and soon Birnie was transferred to 4 Platoon, B Company. In late January 1968 he re-joined 2RAR on operations in the field, and after a gruelling year the battalion returned to Australia in June. A close mate had been killed in Vietnam, and Birnie was noticeably changed as a result.

Birnie was promoted to sergeant in August and was made acting company sergeant major until November. In May 1969 he signed on for a further six years of service and spent much of the year preparing for a second deployment.

In May 1970, 2RAR deployed to Vietnam for its second operational tour. When Birnie arrived back at Nui Dat he wrote to Joan, saying that after seeing the base, which to his eye had changed little, “It was like a nightmare starting all over again.” Birnie was a prolific letter writer, and often included poetry he had written for Joan and Mark. He penned his last letter home in February 1971, and included a poem called The long hill home. The last stanza of the poem read:

I stand atop the long hill home
With wife and son, we three alone;
And far away in the jungle’s mould
The bones of my youth lie stiff and cold
Never to walk the long hill home.

On 21 March, B Company, 2RAR was deployed to an area near the Long Khanh Province border. Two days later, following a contact with a party of Viet Cong, 4 Platoon encountered an enemy bunker system near the Suoi Soc stream. The platoon went into harbour for the night near the
stream, and in the morning Birnie took a half-platoon clearing patrol eastwards.

Finding signs of the enemy, he radioed his platoon commander and went to inspect a VC sleeping area. Unknown to Birnie, the stream bent around towards where the rest of 4 Platoon was harboured. A sentry stationed there saw a figure carrying a weapon stop and squat down; not realising it was the other half of the platoon, he opened fire.

Birnie’s forward scout had been in the process of asking for further direction when the initial burst of fire occurred. Birnie was hit and received multiple wounds to his abdomen. After a five-minute exchange of fire, the platoon commander realised what was happening and called a cease-fire.

Birnie was quickly evacuated to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau for surgery, but his wounds were too severe. He died in the early morning of 25 March. He was 31 years old.

His remains were returned to Australia, where he was buried with full military honours.

Birnie’s name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among the more than 500 others who died as a result of their service in Vietnam. His photograph is displayed today beside the Pool of Reflection.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Sergeant Thomas Birnie, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Michael Kelly
Historian, Military History Section

  • Video of The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (18161) Sergeant Thomas Birnie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Vietnam. (video)