VIETNAM WAR Q&A – HOW WERE RETURNING VETERANS TREATED?

While I knew that Australia had sent troops to Vietnam, I had no idea that their returning combat veterans were treated as shamefully as they were here in the U.S. (Intel, “Australia Set to Commemorate War’s End,” April 2022). What was it that made this such a universal response when we should have been proud of them? Was this an independent action on the part of civilian Australians or was it learned from American media? Also, were the Vietnam combat veterans who returned to England treated in the same shameful way?   

Shelby Morrison – Orlando, Florida 

Thank you for your questions, and for your interest in learning more about the experiences of Australian Vietnam veterans.

A total of 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam, and faced many of the same challenges experienced by American servicemen upon returning home. Given the national and cultural differences between Australia and the United States, veterans’ experiences varied between the two nations, and societal opposition to the Vietnam War expressed itself in different ways. However, the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular over time in both countries, and servicemen reported being shunned and mistreated by others after they returned home.

Q: WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE THIS SUCH A UNIVERSAL RESPONSE WHEN WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD OF THEM? WAS THIS AN INDEPENDENT ACTION ON THE PART OF CIVILIAN AUSTRALIANS OR WAS IT LEARNED FROM AMERICAN MEDIA?

Opposition to the Vietnam War formed in Australia for several key reasons. From the war’s outset, sentiments existed among some quarters of the public that the country was being dragged into an American conflict contrary to its own national interests. These feelings increased in the public sphere over time as the war continued.

Another factor was the introduction of the draft. In 1964, a conscription “lottery” scheme was put into action, by which 20-year-old Australian men were chosen via the selection of numbered marbles. Upon being chosen, each man was required to serve two years full time in the Australian Army, plus an additional three and a half years part-time. The draft was unpopular and drew opposition from members of the public.

Television played a key role in shaping public perceptions of the war. As in the United States, many Australians were alarmed by grisly images and scenes of suffering and destruction they witnessed in television news reports. The year 1968 marked a turning point in public attitudes toward the conflict. The Tet Offensive increased opposition to the draft.

“Horrific scenes on television screens … sapped public support further,” according to Neil Sharkey, curator of Australia’s Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

Many people were also deeply shaken by the atrocities committed during the My Lai Massacre. According to the National Museum of Australia, “the Australian public began to think that if American soldiers were doing this sort of thing then possibly their Australian comrades were doing the same.”

Growing public outrage at the war, and coverage of protests in American cities, inspired Australians to gather in protest rallies known as “moratoriums.”

“An Australian anti-war movement gathered momentum, and by 1970-71, hundreds of thousands of people were attending Moratorium [protest] marches across Australia …. Soldiers returning to Australia met a hostile reception,” wrote Sharkey.

Over the years, Australian veterans have reported that they were insulted and subjected to discriminatory treatment after returning home from Vietnam.

REJECTED BY FELLOW SOLDIERS, IGNORED BY THE GOVERNMENT

Vietnam veterans also endured a particularly painful form of ostracism — mistreatment by other military veterans. This manifested itself in exclusion from social clubs for veterans commonly known as RSL (Returned and Services League of Australia) clubs. As a nation, Australia had developed a distinct sense of pride in its troops’ achievements in World Wars I and II. Yet some World War II veterans treated their countrymen who fought in Vietnam with disdain, adopting the attitude that Australian troops in Vietnam were merely a sideshow to the American military and that it was “not a real war.”

“We were ostracized by not only the civilians but also the RSL and everybody else,” said Peter Safe, who served in Vietnam in the 9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in an interview with Australia’s ABC news. “According to the RSL, that wasn’t a war zone, it was just police action … it took a while for them to come to grips with it and [it to] be recognized as a war.”

Additionally, the potential exposure of Australian veterans to Agent Orange and chemical defoliants in Vietnam was a hotly contested issue. Initially, the Australian government flatly denied that any veterans had been exposed to chemical defoliants. In response, Australian veterans fought fiercely for recognition and eventually were able to claim compensation for illnesses resulting from herbicides and pesticides.

The Australian government has recently stepped up its efforts to honor the service of Vietnam veterans.

Despite the similarities in their postwar experiences, Australian and American veterans had distinctly different experiences in the field. For example, unlike some American servicemen, Australian soldiers were not impacted by social tensions related to the Civil Rights movement. Drug use was not a widespread problem among Australian conscripts, although alcohol abuse became a major issue in the war’s later stages.

Aside from the United States and Australia, another country whose Vietnam veterans experienced widespread mistreatment upon returning home was New Zealand.

“A lot of veterans who came home were just advised to get out of uniform and disappear,” according to Claire Hall, writer, historian and archivist for New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The country experienced heated anti-war demonstrations, with a police inspector in Auckland being pushed off a cliff by protesters. New Zealand’s government issued a formal apology to Vietnam veterans for mistreatment in 2008.

 

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7 comments

  • Peter Lindwall May 26, 2022   Reply →

    I don’t know about other veterans being shabbily treated on their return but I served in Vietnam in 1965/66 and 1971. In 1966 the 1st Battalion RAR received a tumultuous welcome home parade in Sydney and in 1971 the 4th Battalion received a huge welcome in Townsville. We also received a welcome by a flotilla of boats on Sydney harbour as the HMAS Sydney brought 4RAR home. I’m not denying the moratorium marches and a few individuals who might have insulted me including a few WW 2 veterans who told me to put my medals in my pocket. Overall, I always had the view the Australian people were quite entitled to protest, it was only when they took out their angst on the troops that riled me. I served 20 years and overall didn’t let the resentment bother me too much. It should be noted that we had to disembark the Sydney in Townsville specifically for the welcome and immediately after boarded the HMAS Sydney for the trip to Sydney.
    I sometimes believe the Australian media is responsible for misrepresentation of the facts when reporting on conflicts such as the Vietnam war.
    Pete Lindwall

  • Barry Rissel May 26, 2022   Reply →

    I served with the AATTV during 1966-67 and upon my return to Australia was not aware of any of these protests or discrimination by WW1 or 2 veterans. In fact I immediately joined the Gaythorne RSL (where I was welcomed) as I was posted within Enoggera Barracks. When AATTV members marched as a body through Brisbane on Anzac Day (either 1968 or 69) and it began to rain heavily we were directed into the Town Hall and received a standing ovation. Perhaps as the war progressed, sadly, public attitudes changed. I attended the welcome home parade in Sydney in 1968 and visiting quite a few establishments throughout the day, found it impossible to pay for a beer.

  • R Spragg May 27, 2022   Reply →

    As a vietnam vet I was treated very poorly when I came back so that I did not want or wear my medals(I give them away) I did not march in anzac day for many years, let alone the fact that after coming back I was not allowed to go into a civilian hotel and have a beer because I was 19 and the drinking age was 21. Lets not forget jim cairns who was a rabid communist and the federal labor party beingly partly or wholly responsible for our supply ship (The Japaret) not being loaded by the maritime union and at that stage the only communication that we had with our friends and familys was the mail and the australian postal service refused to deliver our mail so all of our food parcels and things from home were not arriving. I do not regret my service there but I hated the way we were treated on our return so much so that I never wore my uniform in public again.!!!!!

  • Terry Bennett. May 27, 2022 May 27, 2022   Reply →

    As a formal CMF Volunteer to serve in Vietnam, and I might add only 10 of us between Sgt and Capt actually served when they called for volunteers from the CMF in late 1965. I was the only RAAOC WO2 to serve in 2AOD the whole of 1968. We volunteered
    the same way as the Militia and CMF in WW1 and WW2 and when we volunteered lost our jobs and went on FTD for supposidly
    for 18 months with 6 months additional training and service in a Unit for 1 year. On return to home I had developed Hemoiroids
    form the happy pills and finished up having to go to RAP at Watsonia and was duly transferred to my CMF UNIT and to make matters worse no briefing or help and no job. I might add I had spent 11 years in Commonwealth Bank and was not allow to rejoin the bank afterwards. As a result 2 months later and a number of affilications I obtained a Job with Ansett Airlines where I stayed
    for 28 years before retiring on medical grounds. I might add that DVA did not help until the RSL Advocate and my family Doctor
    greatly helped me to finally receive a War Pension for my conditions. I was retired from the Reserve at age 55 after a total of 36
    contineous service. As a result I got no help from the Department of Defense or politicans or the bank during my service and in
    fact the RAAOC was not keen on my service even though I was fully qualified with additional service. So you can imagine how I
    would have felt and the boys from WW1 and WW2 as they passed through and as I did some 22 years later

  • Ken.T. May 28, 2022   Reply →

    I served and went to Vietnam as a Regular Solder. On return I went with my father to the Ingleburn R.S.L. He was a W.O. 2 from the Infantry Centre at Ingleburn. I was told at the R.S.L. that Vietnam was only a small policing engagement and not a real war by this old croaker at the Bar. He then proceeded to ask me if I had killed any kids whilst I was there.
    I have never joined an R.S.L. or been affiliated with one since. A few years latter I was told that “You Vietnam blokes should harden up and stop you whining about how hard you have been done by,” My greatest pleasurer was to tell this 2. W.W. Pogo to piss off when he came crawling to my place about trying to get a T.P.I, for a paper cut he had back in 1942. These and a few other derogatory remarks were made over the years, but mainly I can just roll with the flow and ignore the unintelligent comments from cowards who hid behind the coach. Some of the other blokes copped worse and some never copped any thing.

    The bottom line is, The Vietnam Veteran was the course of turning the attitude of the D.V.A, around and making this mob look at their discrimination and attitude towards those who protected their jobs, family’s, and lively hood.

  • Lee O'Neill May 28, 2022   Reply →

    I too had a bad experience on my return in 1971, being told to only wear civilian clothing outside of duty times and was accused of raping the women and murdering the babies, by a school teacher while at a party. As a result, although an officer, I grew my hair as long as I could and told people I was a truck driver. I never marched on Anzac Day until 1987 when a mate talked me into it. This turned out to my benefit as it was there I met my beautiful wife who has stood by me all these years.

  • stevow May 29, 2022   Reply →

    R. Spragg ‘hit the nail on the head’, a much more accurate description of what happened. The ALP and Jim Cairns leading the attack were as much responsible, as the unions for the attitude in Australia. I recall a Mr. Sharkey who also was a unionist and member of the communist party doing his bit to destroy the Lib govn and cause returning vets to be shunned, is the above Sharkey related? History being re-written to suit a narrative again.

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