Wartime 46 - Feature Article: History under fire

By Ashley Ekins

For decades, the terms “wounded” and “injured” have been used to classify casualties in war. Service medical records, from the First World War to the present, employ both terms in their lexicon and official operational and medical histories similarly use both terms liberally. Yet some servicemen and veterans believe the terms should not be confused.

South Vietnam, 11 September 1968A DHC-4 Caribou transport aircraft droned over the Mekong Delta on a re-supply mission. Bad weather had forced the captain, Flight Lieutenant Donald Bliss, to abort his scheduled landings at three airstrips and he was now attempting to fly on to the airfield at Ca Mau to refuel. With cloud cover sinking almost to ground level, he flew dangerously low. Suddenly, about 13 kilometres from the airfield, a bullet struck the windscreen. Both Bliss and Corporal Doug Angus, the loadmaster, were showered with glass fragments. The co-pilot, Flying Officer John Maxwell, was uninjured. Bliss decided not to land at Ca Mau and flew on a further 100 kilometres to Soc Trang. The crew then returned to their base at Vung Tau, changed aircraft and continued their mission.

There this story rested until the opening of the Australian War Memorial’s new Vietnam War gallery in February 2008. The damaged Caribou windscreen was displayed with the caption: “In September 1968 Flight Lieutenant Donald Bliss flew this Caribou of No. 35 Squadron on a mission in the Mekong Delta. Bad weather forced the pilot to fly low to the ground, and the windscreen was struck by ground fire. Two members of the crew were injured, but the aircraft landed safely.”

After the galleries were opened to great public acclaim, a Vietnam veteran wrote in, objecting to the wording. By using the word “injured”, he stated, the Memorial “demeans sacrifices of Australian service personnel”, and he urged a change, “to reflect the fact that the airmen were wounded in action (WIA)”.

After consideration, the Memorial declined to change the caption. As a result, the veteran circulated his opinion widely on the internet, seeking support. A number of other veterans then felt compelled to join him in broadcasting their complaints to the Memorial, various veterans’ organisations, including the RSL, and members of parliament. Unfortunately, none of those complaining produced any new knowledge or evidence – most had not even viewed the exhibition. Nevertheless, the Memorial historian responsible for the Vietnam gallery was asked to check her sources. She found the report by the Commanding Officer of No. 35 Squadron RAAF states: “the aircraft was hit by enemy ground fire, causing minor injuries to the aircraft captain and the supernumery [sic] Loadmaster” (emphasis added).

Furthermore, Defence archives advised that medical files contain no report of injuries to the aircraft captain. The loadmaster’s injuries were reported as “multiple small lacerations”, requiring glass fragments to be extracted, after which he was given a tetanus injection and returned to duty. There was no documented record to corroborate a claim made in RAAF News, one month after the incident, that Angus “whose wounds were slight” had a bullet “crease” the left side of his head.

The choice of the word “injured” in the caption is clearly justified. Undoubtedly, some would rather it were changed, but the use of this single word hardly “demeans sacrifices of service personnel”.

Australian official historian Charles Bean, whom some of those complaining upheld as the benchmark, prized the clarity of plain, direct English. True, he used “wounded” as a generic term on occasion, as in the “clearing of the wounded” on Gallipoli. But Bean also employed “injured” and various alternative descriptions, even using the word “hurt” when it seemed most apt.

In some instances, the use of “wounded in action” might even be classified as “high diction”, the elevated language identified by American scholar and Second World War combat veteran Paul Fussell that was intended to glorify and romanticise war experience: soldiers became “warriors”, courage and bravery became “gallantry” and “valour”, and dead soldiers became “the fallen”.

Popular English usage continues to evolve. Charles Bean might have deplored the modern use of the word “veteran”, but that term is now entrenched in the Australian vernacular. Bean and his generation were more familiar with the uniquely Australian label “returned serviceman” or even “returned man”, generally applied with a respect and admiration approaching awe.

Perhaps a return to the simple dignity of plain language might again engender that same sentiment.