Excavating old memories is neither pleasant nor straightforward

Photo: The Late Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser with Van Pho (author) and his wife

Excavating old memories is neither pleasant nor straightforward, and sometimes trauma aggravates the experience and reveals things long buried.

. There are some events in our lives we will never forget. I was born in a small village called Tân Thành in South Vietnam. My family home was opposite the village market, and a river was behind it, quietly taking water and life’s rubbish out to sea. The village was where my father met my mother when he was seventeen, working as an itinerary hawker.

. In 1963, the communist insurgency staged a surprise attack on the village. My house was accidentally bombed in the crossfire. The whole family fled the warzone with only the clothes on our backs. I looked back. The stark image of my family home burning and the concrete bridge collapsing was burnt into my memory.

. After being uprooted from Tân Thành, we were provided with a small place to live in a large building to share with other families. However, the building itself was a horrible place. It was used to host communal functions, mainly funerals. To reach home after school, I would have to walk down a long dark corridor past a room where coffins were placed before burial. It was always dark inside the room, with only some candles and incense burning. Sometimes, I saw people dressed in traditional white funeral clothing, all crying. I was sure there was a ghost inside watching me. My heart would thump, and my knees turned to jelly as the fear gripped me.

. Several years later, my family moved into a new home. It was just opposite the local hospital. Besides all the typical doom and gloom of a hospital setting, the noise of ambulances and other traffic and the constant stream of people in and out was my new life experiences. Nevertheless, this new place was far better than the previous one. Of course, I still witnessed deaths and human grievances but at least from a distance!

. Near where we lived, beside a row of tamarind trees, was a vast estate over one hundred years old. It had been subdivided and rented out to a dozen families, primarily labourers and servicemen, along with their children. Usually, I would go there after school to play with those kids. Unfortunately, they teamed up and bullied me because they considered me just a lone boy from a family full of girls. I realised that being true friends with these neighbourhood boys was perhaps just a bridge too far. Yet I continued to hang around with them and put up with their bullying because I needed friends. My time living in the communal building had left mental scars, and I didn’t want to return to that time of loneliness and darkness.

. Then, on Wednesday, 30th April 1975, once again, it was communism that delivered another devastating blow to my peaceful life. It was the day that communist North Vietnam overran democratic South Vietnam. As a fifteen-year-old boy, standing between childhood and adulthood, I was caught in the grip of a new fear, the uncertainty and insecurity of what living under communist rule might mean.

. There were many unforgettable events that happened to my family during this period. But I just wanted to cite only one. I had a book collection. Each book was my treasure, my hope, and it gave me something to aspire to. I grew up with some book characters because I had read them so often. When the new communist government kicked off a political campaign to destroy the remnants of the old culture and lifestyles, I had no choice but to burn them with my own hands!

. In 1978, I completed my secondary schooling and undertook a tertiary study with a Vietnamese literature major after passing the highly competitive university entrance exam. During those university years, political indoctrination (or brainwashing — a correct name of the game) was so heavy. The whole thing was like listening to the same old record being played on a gramophone, over and over, until the words began to blur into monotonous noise. We all played the “Let’s Pretend” game. The professors pretended what they said was the truth, and we students pretended to believe them. Each kept their honest thoughts hidden inside but outwardly energetically followed the Party line. Everyone had been sold a lie and promised a world that would not exist. Whatever they said against those lies was a symbol of stubbornness and an act beyond redemption. I was careful not to show any sensitivity and often did my best to have stayed out of silly debates, even though the arguments put forward were laughable, childish, and often illogical. It was excruciating for an extrovert like me to bite my tongue and say nothing. Whatever I did or said would be seen as a symbol of stubbornness and an act beyond redemption. Finally, guilt for being silent wormed its way into my conscience. I realised there were no places for people like me in this society, even if I desperately wanted to belong.

. My anguish became worse as time went on. My life was one of tension, fear and anxiety. It was like standing on a loose rock on the very edge of a cliff, knowing that at any moment, I could fall into the abyss below. I wasn’t really living. I thought seriously about leaving Vietnam regardless of the consequences.

. While studying, I stayed in a student dormitory. Opposite the dormitory was an old Catholic church. Just glancing at it, one immediately knew that the church’s glory belonged to the past. Its once-manicured garden had become a wilderness, providing a bushy cover for prostitutes, beggars, and the homeless. The splendid architecture, the holiness of the cross and the serenity of the nativity scene at the front was no longer a deterrent to the new society’s undesirable elements.

. Sometimes in a state of relentless despair, I walked to the dormitory gate and stood looking at the church across the street. Its doors were still tightly closed. People said that churches always kept their doors open for the needy. At this moment, I would have loved to sit inside that place of tranquillity. But, sadly, its doors weren’t open.

. My mind returned to Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”. My understanding of that statement wasn’t that it was a direct attack on religion per se because he acknowledged that God had existed but just thought that He was dead. Every individual faced the possible absurdity of existence alone.

. I looked up at the cross, trying to refocus my thoughts. I had read that, in the first century, the cross only meant one thing to people — a slow and horrible death as a savage form of capital punishment. I had also read that Christians believed that, because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, those who placed their faith and trust in Him alone for salvation were guaranteed eternal life. That, without death, there would be no resurrection. That was why the cross meant hope and revival.

. As I gazed up at the cross, the message became clear, like a light in the darkness of my anguish. I should not give up living because pain and suffering were part of my life journey, like a train slowly steaming its way from station to station on its way to its final destination. Some stations were good, whereas others were bad. Some things must be put to death to allow new life to grow.

Was Nietzsche right when he said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”? He believed that the world was full of suffering that lacked any overall purpose or meaning. However, he thought that our ability to deal with this suffering and endure and overcome hardships was an essential exercise in building power and character. Would I ever discover my power and true nature in this cruelly inhuman system? Would it make me a better or a worse person? What meaning would I find in my suffering?

. Escaping Vietnam by boat at that time was a dangerous business. Plans must be done in secret because if they were leaked or discovered by public security, all people involved would be severely punished by lengthy jail terms or even death sentences. In addition, while crossing the sea, refugees would lose their lives due to the unseaworthiness of their boats, the rampant piracy, the lack of food and water, the adverse weather elements, and no rescues by passing ships.

. I had a conversation with my father about my traumas. He understood and agreed to fund my escape to save my sanity.

In late May 1981, by arrangement, I travelled to a coastal hamlet near the port city of Vung Tau. Sometime after midnight, with the love of my life, Thế Nga, we jumped on a leaky unseaworthy fishing boat illegally built in a remote jungle, heading to sea. I passed my point of no return in Vietnam.

. The boat was tiny but dangerously overloaded, well above its designed capacity. We were ordered to overthrow our belongings to keep it light and float. Then we faced endless problems with the engine and fuel. There was absolutely no food on board, and the water had been rationed a cupful daily. Many commercial ships passed our boat, but no one stopped to pick us up. On the seventh day, we were totally lost at sea after traversing hopelessly without a working compass. Finally, the boat capsized during a violent storm. I was fortunately plucked out of the sea alive near an operating oil rig within the Indonesian territory.

. On the safety of the rig platform, I was overjoyed. I had crossed the bridge. I was unchained. I was like a bird let out of its cage, at last, soaring high up into the heavens.

. From now on, I could hold up my head proudly without fear of rejection and persecution.

. After spending almost eight months in a refugee camp in Indonesia, I was accepted for resettlement in Australia. In January 1982, I arrived in Melbourne with great excitement and anticipation. Initially, there were huge issues with the language and cultural differences. I found various jobs at the factory to rebuild my life. Later, I returned to university to gain tertiary qualifications in a different field — science and maths, which I hated so much during my secondary school years. Then I became a professional, working for multi-national and large Australian corporations across various industries over the last 35 years. I have always been acknowledged by my employers for my passion, commitment, dependence, integrity, and responsibility.

. My past wounds have been scarred over. I have emerged from underneath their weight. My old fear was replaced by compassion, and forgiveness has given me freedom.

. Recently, at a work lunch, an older lady with a European heritage asked me, ‘Are you considered yourself Vietnamese or Australian?’. Then she smiled in a way that robbed the question of any ill feeling. I took a deep breath. My old traumas suddenly resurfaced.

. ‘What makes us who we are? Is it where we were born and grew up? Or what language do we speak? What clothes do we wear or what food do we eat? I know who I am. I only think about my life in this country I love. Did it matter whether we were ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese, English, Croatian, Greek or Italian, or so and so if we had the same life, the same experiences here?’

I paused, then resumed:

. ‘There was a Vietnamese expression “the motherland is a bunch of sweet starfruits”? I don’t know why starfruits were chosen, as they are rarely sweet and usually terribly sour. Maybe, the relationship between a person and their motherland is like a taste of starfruits. We are all Australians sharing the ebbs and flows of this country.’

. Glancing at my workmates, I saw most of them nodding in acknowledgement. I smiled. It was going to be alright as “we were individuals, but we were also one”.

. The lady who had asked me the question threw her arms around my shoulder and hugged me. A sense of belonging overwhelmed me! I was proud of my heritage, and everyone respected it.

. This year, the anniversary of my birthday was a couple of days before Easter. I’m at the age of doing reflection more than looking forward. One of the benefits of having to live in this free society is that I became a Christian. I was an atheist in Vietnam because the regime taught that ‘religion was the opium of the masses’. Easter is one of the most important Christian celebrations. Christians glorify and thank for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, meaning He conquered death and redeemed us from sin.

. I am sitting here in the comfort of my home in Warburton, Victoria, to write these words. The place overlooks a seemingly endless, faraway mountainous range. The sun is just above a tall gum tree in the paddock, and its rays illuminate different spectrums of the range, creating various colours to give an indescribable beauty. Everything around me is lush and green, and “I think to myself, what a wonderful world!” (Louis Armstrong).

. Australia has been a lucky country for me. Like my father, I learned never to give up and have never felt like an outsider. Australian people have genuinely opened their arms to embrace me like a family member who had just returned from overseas.

In his famous song, My Way, Frank Sinatra sang: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few.’

. However, unlike the singer, I haven’t had any with my decision to leave Vietnam 41 years ago!




A Bridge Too Far is the true story of a young man growing up in southern Vietnam. At the age of three, he became a war refugee.
At fifteen his country was overcome by the communist North and his family was branded the enemy of the people for being bourgeois Chinese. From then on, he was a target for state-sponsored racism and discrimination, with the net slowly tightening around him until he could no longer go on.
Escape was his only option!

The National Vietnam Veterans Museum needs your help.


Calling all Vietnam Veterans: Your Museum Still Needs Your Help

Thanks to the Vets, others, unit associations, and ESO’s that have donated so far. The VCAT hearing is over, and we now wait for decisions.

Around $40K has been donated to date, so we need EVERY VET who can spare $10 or so to get on board.  

There are over 40,000 DVA Vietnam Veteran Clients

To date, just 1700 individual vets/partners and other organizations representing their members have donated.

Maybe our expectations of support for YOUR Museum were too high. Again, grateful thanks to those who have supported the appeal, but PLEASE, to all the other vets who have not contributed, can I call on you and your mates for one last effort?

Every cent raised goes to the VCAT legal costs, now around $180K Donations are tax-deductible.

Direct debit to the museum is as follows:

Nvvm Trading Account Bendigo Bank BSB: 633 000 Account: 149 738 577

Identify the donation as “VCAT FUND” along with your name.

Call the Museum on 03 5956 6400 for other donation options.

Authorized by Bob Elworthy AM NVVM Secretary M: 0402106262


COMMENT: Torture-Resistance course weakens Army

This article is so inaccurate, so based on the writer’s personal perspective and not on investigative journalism I find it offensive. The title of it “Torture-Resistance Course Weakens Army” is a prime example of click-bait journalism – “Now I’ve got your attention, read me.”

Who is Damien de Pyle? What are his qualification and/or experience that, supposedly, gives him credibility? Has he attended the course or is his “insight” or rather lack of it based on a conversation with a failed attendee or on some nebulous government report?

“SAS hero Stuart Bonne” What has he done that entitles him to the epithet “Hero”

In the early 1960s, a couple of years after graduating from OCS into Infantry as a Second Lieutenant I completed a two week Code of Conduct course at the School of Military Intelligence on Middle Head, Sydney. The aim and purpose of the course was comparable with that of the CAC course conducted by SMI now based at the School of Military Warfare at Canungra, QLD.

The purpose of the Code of Conduct course was to create mental awareness of what was possible in warfare. It was a replica of the prisoner of war camp at Hoa Lo in North Vietnam in the 1960s. The POWs therein endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The prison complex was sarcastically named the “Hanoi Hilton” by the inmates.

The Code of Conduct course syllabus and conduct were based on examples of such installations. The day to day conduct of the curriculum was unsparing and uncompromising in discipline and application. Accommodation of “POW” inmates was frugal; food was basic and limited; the application of personal hygiene was considered to be indulgent; and, intimidation of individuals resulted in lack of sleep and inability to collaborate with “cell mates” for mutual support.

Extreme distress of body and mind by the deliberate, systematic, and wanton infliction of physical and mental struggle by one or more persons in an attempt to force prisoners to yield information or to make a confession or for any other reason was the aim. Physical torture and pain were not inflicted during the Code of Conduct.

The cell doors were not locked and we were informed why. Provision was made for individuals to self-exit the course if the mental burden became too much to bear.

US Navy pilot John McCain spent five and a half years in the “Hanoi Hilton.” On return to the USA he was elected a Senator and became the Republican Presidential nominee.

I suggest “SAS Hero” Stuart Bonne should re-assess his employment preferences and look around for alternatives.

“I’m happy that many veterans have already indicated support for our campaign. I want to call on politicians and the public to now do the same, because for the sake of our country’s Army, we need to change this course.” I suggest also that Damien de Pyle, the author of the dubious article, should go back to the School of Journalism.

Bill Giles Lieutenant Colonel (retired)


Was This the Worst Strategy of the Vietnam War?

It was 1966, and the Vietnam War was turning out to be unlike anything else the US military had faced before. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, was severely concerned; despite massive territorial gains, the North Vietnamese troops continued to move south freely and didn’t seem the least deterred from continuing with the conflict.


Australian defence chief warns further criminal charges could be laid over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

By Ben Doherty

Gen Angus Campbell says there could be ‘very, very uncomfortable days’ ahead for Australia’s special forces.

Australia’s Defence Force chief has warned of some “very, very uncomfortable days” ahead for Australia’s special forces, with the potential for further criminal charges to be laid over allegations of war crimes committed in Afghanistan.

Gen Angus Campbell, himself a former troop commander and squadron commander within the SAS regiment, told a civilian audience in Sydney that if the military had failed institutionally, “we need to face that”.

Speaking at the Lowy Institute, Campbell said the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) was continuing its work investigating allegations of war crimes made against Australian soldiers.

Last month, former SAS trooper Oliver Jordan Schulz, 41, was arrested and charged with the war crime of murder, over the alleged shooting of an unarmed Afghan civilian, captured on camera. Schulz has been bailed awaiting trial.

“There may be others,” Campbell said. “And that is a matter for the OSI and ultimately, then, a matter for the commonwealth director of public prosecutions.

“You won’t see me trying to gloss over these things. And I think that there could be some very, very uncomfortable days coming forward.”

The OSI was established in 2020 in the wake of a report by NSW court of appeal judge Maj Gen Paul Brereton, which found “credible information” to implicate 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 people in Afghanistan.

The inquiry recommended that allegations against 19 of those individuals be referred for criminal investigation.

Campbell said the continuing investigations, carrying the potential of further charges, were a confronting reckoning for soldiers and officers implicated and for the military more broadly.

“In these circumstances, it’s really important to support the people who are involved,” he said.

“But to recognise that if we have failed as an organisation, then we need to face that … and we are individually and collectively better for it if we do so.”

Campbell said the restoration of the reputation of the Australian military would be won by upholding the standards of behaviour expected of it by the Australian public.

“I don’t look to the question of ‘how do I protect my reputation or the reputation of the Australian Defence Force?’ Instead I ask the question: what are the correct values and behaviours and purpose to which we should be applying our effort? And reputation emerges.”

The defence force chief said the military was “doing the work” as recommended by Brereton to address the issue of command responsibility in the commission of alleged criminal offences.

The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that the culture within the Australian army’s special forces will be reviewed regularly in the wake of the Brereton inquiry, according to defence documents released under freedom of information.

The Australian defence force is also updating its policy around respite for frontline soldiers to ease pressure on individuals, after the inquiry found an over-reliance on a small cohort of special forces soldiers for the Afghanistan campaign provided too little time between deployments.

The director general of the OSI, Chris Moraitis, told parliament earlier this year his office was investigating between “40 and 50” allegations of criminal behaviour by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

In a wide-ranging address on Tuesday, Campbell said Australia’s Aukus commitment of acquiring conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines would “transform its strategic posture, bolstering security and stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades to come”.

He declined to comment on the French president Emmanuel Macron’s aeroplane interview in which he said Europe must not become a “vassal” unwillingly drawn into any conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.

But he did say, in response to a question on Taiwan, that “anything that undermines” the stability of the Indo-Pacific region “is of interest to Australia”.

“Conflict sometimes may be necessary as the absolute last resort. But Shakespeare got it right: when you unleash the dogs of war, you can’t necessarily be confident to contain the outcome. A stable, secure, free and open Indo-Pacific, for all nations is in Australia’s interest.”



How worried are you about China?

Admittedly, it’s a rather nebulous question. Are we talking about China’s global alliances (or attempts to create them)? Are people afraid of its economic power and potential, or its influence as a military and technological force? What do increased tensions between China and Taiwan mean for national security? And what about America’s hottest app, TikTok?

Let Bloomberg Opinion columnist Minxin Pei — with assistance from Bloomberg’s editorial board — calibrate your concerns. The perception of China’s increasing power tends to exceed the reality of it. Here are five reasons that is true.

  1. China’s military strength is overhyped: “For all its talk about the decline of the West and rise of the East, China remains a significantly weaker power than the US on practically all fronts. What China sees as unfair practices — including US surveillance operations in international airspace and waters near the Chinese coast — are merely a manifestation of the exercise of US power in its rivalry with a weaker adversary.”
  2. On top of that, Minxin says, China talks a big game on national ambitions but can’t follow through: “In case after case, leaders in Beijing have identified top national priorities and lavished them with support. And time after time, this ‘whole-of-nation’ effort, meant to mobilize the talent and resources of a giant country, has led only to waste, graft and failure.”
  3. Bloomberg’s editorial board says Washington frets about China’s financial leverage over the US, but that’s also overhyped: “Less than 2% of US foreign direct investment is held in China, and US venture-capital companies have invested only about $60 billion in Chinese startups since 2010, compared with $1.3 trillion in the US.”
  4. The China-Russia alliance is also less than it seems, Minxin writes, adding that influence doesn’t equal leverage: “The meagerness of the economic deals signed during Xi Jingping’s visit to Moscow — which glaringly omitted the second gas pipeline from Russia to China — indicates that China is not ready to go all in, at least for now. This portends trouble” for any alliance between the two nations.
  5. And the Saudi deal was significant, but the US remains firmly in control: “Those lamenting America’s apparent loss of influence in the Middle East should know that this is one of the costs of focusing US attention and resources on the competition with China — and it’s one the US can afford to pay.”

Russian Conscription

Photo: A Russian POW explains why he went to fight against Ukraine.

Why do Russian people let Putin take them to a battlefield where they know they are going to be slaughtered?

I watch a lot of videos with Russian POWs on YouTube channel of Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Zolkin[1]


Captured Russia’s soldiers who were forcibly mobilized (after September 21, 2022) say they were told by the conscription office that they would be just stationed away from the front line, and wouldn’t be participating in actual combat. Then they were shipped to the front line and dropped in trenches, and soon thereafter captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (the lucky ones who didn’t die under artillery fire).

Many Russian citizens who were involuntarily mobilized tell similar stories:

  • At 5–6 am they got a knock on the door of their apartments. (Some of them were picked at a workplace.)
  • A police officer accompanied by some lady (often a teacher from a nearby school) gave him povestka (demand to arrive at the local military commission), which he had to sign for.
  • After that he was told to dress up and come with them to the office of the military commission immediately; told that he just needed to answer some questions.
  • After arrival to the military commission, he wasn’t allowed to leave and was told he would be fully provided with all necessities and wouldn’t need anything else from home.
  • After that, he would be shipped to army barracks, along with other conscripts.
  • In the barracks (sometimes conscripts were dropped in an open field and required to sleep in tents) some minimal training with rusty machine guns might have been provided (or not).

The next stop for conscripts – front lines in Ukraine.

(Half of the conscripts did receive 2–3 months of training and were shipped to the front months later. Unlucky ones were sent into trenches practically immediately.)

Add to that constant brazen anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian TV and throughout all types of media, painting Ukrainians as followers of Satan (yes, seriously).

Russian citizens who didn’t make a conscious effort to find alternative sources of information and believe Russian propaganda believe that it’s Ukraine that was going to attack and destroy Russia, and if not for the brave Russia’s army, Russian cities would be bombed and destroyed (yes, seriously).

Caught between the lies by Russian propaganda and conscription offices needing to deliver thousands of recruits, law-abiding Russian males follow orders of the state and in no time find themselves cold and hungry in trenches with no way out.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian men who understand what’s happening in Ukraine, got out of the country or went into hiding, staying away from conscription offices and anyone who looks official. Only to Georgia had more than 700,000 Russians arrived since 24 February 2022; 100,000 of them stayed; others proceeded further to other countries.



Volodymyr Zolkin