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Straight from the Vietnam soldier caravan parks honour ANZAC fallen

November 16, 2006
Straight from the Vietnam soldier caravan parks honour ANZAC fallen

Vietnam veteran Peter Macdonald was given the Last Rites after being hit in the right arm by a Viet Cong AK47 bullet. He remembers the time he was shot instantly in a clipped Regular Army way as - 10am on March 15 1968.

A member of an elite team of Army field engineers he was doing mine clearance for an Australian patrol whose forward scout had walked into a Viet Cong booby trap as they patrolled toward the jungle of the Long Hai Hills in Phuoc Tuy Province .

"It was like being hit with a baseball bat and I saw I was bleeding badly. But your training kicks in and I kept firing my rifle as I worked to get back to my group", he said

At the invitation of Top Tourist Parks members, who were in Canberra for their 19thAnnual General Meeting and Conference from October 24 to 26,he laid a wreath on their behalf on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial.

As a 19-year-old the former Tunnel Rat (field engineer) found minefields, probing with a bayonette. Defused bombs and booby traps. Crawled through the terror of narrow, pitch- black Viet Cong tunnels with a torch, pistol and bayonette.
He remembers - You never had enough hands for the job and you look ridiculous with a bayonette between your teeth. You never knew if there was someone waiting for you around the next turn.

The Viet Cong were masters at stealing Australian laid mines and using them against the Diggers. So a secondary trigger was rigged under the Australian mines to stop that.

Within a night the Viet Cong had mastered the surprise and turned it back on Australian field engineers who found themselves dealing with their own mines plus a Viet Cong booby-trap underneath.

Peter's unit was among Allied troops overrun by North Vietnamese Regulars and the Viet Cong as they crashed through Fire Support Base Anderson.

At  the going down of the sun we will remember them
At the going down of the sun we will remember them

Four of his team died as the young Diggers fought the D442 North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong who came at them, infiltrating through the American lines. The D442 were very good soldiers, Peter Macdonald said.

Body count was the big Allied barometer of success. But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars fought that even in death. They charged with a rope tied to their leg so their bodies could be pulled back and carried away.

As the Australian War Memorial recordsshowtotal deaths between 1962 and 1972 in the Vietnam War were 500 (426 battle casualities) and 3,629 wounded/injured/ill.Being an elite field engineer was a particularly dangerous occupation by percentage.

Just how dangerous is underlined by the numbers. The Field Engineers made up about one percent of all Australian troops in Vietnam at any one time, but suffered about 8 percent of the casualities.

Because they worked all the time with sections on patrol the Field Engineers put in more combat timethan anyinfantry soldier.

During the two months of the Tet offensive six Field Engineers from Peter'sunit werekilled. Two more were killed in action and 12 wounded during the 12 months they were in Vietnam. So 10 of the original 30 came through.

Peter Macdonald thought he was dead soon after his right arm was shattered by the impact of the 7.62mm Viet Cong bullet. The pain was unbelieveable and he was losing so much blood only an immediate Casvac helicopter ride to an Army operating theatre could save him.

But a radio call from HQ operator Noel Huggins asking for an Australian helicopter was refused.

Peter Macdonald lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Peter Macdonald lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The pilot, who has the final decision, said the area was too hot for his unarmed chopper.

The right military decision was a death sentence for Peter Macdonald.

But Huggins call found an alternative and brought American firepower.

He was heard by the pilot of a US Gunship chopper who radioed back - Give us your position we are coming to get your guy.

And they did, guns blazing to keep Viet Cong heads down.

Peter was kept alive by Doc John (Jack) Davis a heroic 8th Field Ambulance medic attached to the 3 RAR battalion.Davis was the medic with A company 3 Battalion. He won the Military Medal inanearlier action in Baria.

In 1993, the Military Medal was discontinued, and since then the Military Cross has been awarded to personnel of all ranks.

Doc Davis not only saved Peter but ran under heavy Viet Cong fire to another badly wounded member of the Australian patrol.

Davis pinned the wounded soldiers stomach together and carried him to safety. Peter Macdonald says Davis should have got the Victoria Cross.

The seat of the democracy they fought and died for
The seat of the democracy they fought and died for

After Peter laid the wreath on behalf of the caravan park chain members Top Tourist Parks went to dinner at the remarkable AustralianWar Memorial.

The venue was amazing with the dinner tables surrounding another great survivor the restored Second World War Lancaster bomber G for George (more than 90 missions over Germany).

What happened next was pretty amazing too!

Peter, through his Western Australia based company Tubal Pty Ltd has been providing training support and consultancy to the caravan park industry since 1995 so of course he joined the Top Tourist Parks members.

And there at Peter's dinner table was Noel Huggins the radio operator whose call had brought the American Gunship chopper to his rescue. Noel is a member of the Top Tourist Parks chain and runs Boomerang Way Caravan Park, Tocumwal now.

The run of chance went one step further. Noel had a Canberra phone number for Jack Davis which Peter used to call the Army medic who kept him alive.

Doc Davis has an amazing recall, Peter Macdonald told GoSeeAustralia. There I was, I just I rang him just out the blue and he recalled it all.

He told me that at the time he thoughtI would losemy arm, Peter said.

Jack Davistold Peter Macdonald - I had to tornique your arm so tight to stop the bleeding becauseI was afraid you were going to run out of blood, but it was so tight I also thought you would lose your arm through gangrene.

Former Chief of the Defence Forces General Peter Cosgrove (retired) has just released a book called My Story. It is a great straight from the soldier read. He is particularly direct about Vietnam.

The War Memorial is a moving experience
The War Memorial is a moving experience

With12 months combat experience as a 9 RAR 5 platoon commander during the Vietnam War hetells it in infantry style - from the ground up.

Cosgrovewon the Military Cross in Vietnam for his actions in the storming ofa bunker system in October 1969. In the Hat Dich area he once fought a point-blank shoot-out with a big group of Viet Cong with one ammunition clip in his M16 rifle. He had unclipped his webbing ammunition belt during a halt and when trouble started forgot to clip it back on.

Cosgrove's reaction is typically forthright - I felt a goose in not grabbing my ammunition belt before dashing into the fray, he says.

In Vietnam if you let your guard down for a moment you would cop it, says the man who commanded the International Forces (INTERFET) in East Timor and helped found a new nation.He retired as Australia's most popular top soldier Chief of the Defence Forces in 2002.

When asked by a journalist as Chief of the Defence Forces whether Australia's involvement in Vietnam was a mistake Peter Cosgrove said -

He admired the courage, exploits and commitment of the people who were there. He said that in retrospect Australia should not have gone.

In My Story he completes his response - All governments face a dilemma in such international challenges, when deciding whether or not to commit their young men and women to danger, in the interests of promoting and securing the national interest.

This is a call the government of the day made back in the 1960's in relation to Vietnam and I respect both the pressures of the day and the undoubtedly deep considerations they engaged in in before committing Australian troops to that war.

My concern is simple. Regardless of the political and ethical considerations of whether a war should have been fought by foreigh troops on the soil of Vietnam (that will always be a matter for endless debate), I remember with sadness that 500 Australians were killed in the war and many more wounded and maimed; over 50,000 Americans lost their lives.

And we left. And we lost. We must not do that with our men and women. Sending troops to war is without doubt the most difficult and agonising decision for any leader.

My advice to leaders is never to make the decision lightly and, having done so, never stop until the outcome is worth the cost, Peter Cosgrove said.

Peter Cosgrove says only soldiers who fought in the Pacific during the Second World War could make a comparison with the experience of Vietnam Veterans.

Many Australians, particularly War Widows and their families,know personally through the experiences of loved ones the truth of Peter Cosgrove's words.

The walls reflect battlegrounds
The walls reflect battlegrounds

Jungle warfare in the Pacific during the Second World War was dirty, deadly, up close and unrelenting in the fear and stress involved.

But Australia should recognise Vietnam was all that and more. Patrols away from support bases went on for four weeks.

Too often Diggers who came through it had the thousand yard stare instilled by constantly facing death day and night over a rifle sight.

Australian support for South Vietnam from the early 1960's was in line with policy to stop the spread of Communism in Europe and Asia.

All nine battalions of 1 Royal Australian Regiment served in the Vietnam taskforce at one time or another, before it was withdrawn in 1971; at the height of Australian involvement it numbered some 8,500 troops.

In January 1968, the Australian Task Force was ordered to occupy an area 12km north of Bien Hoa airforce base with a view to preventing any expected Tet assault. The ATF successfully engaged and defeated the enemy in February (as it did in an offensive in Baria at the same time) and returned to Nui Dat. It was again called on to help defend Bien Hoa in May.

The Communists mounted a major surprise offensive during Tet 1968. This added impetus to the anti-war movement in the U.S., but the Southern Communist units suffered such massive casualities they played a minor role in the war after Tet. By 1969 anti-war protests were gathering momentum in Australia. The Australian Task Force withdrew in December 1971.

In early 1975 the Communists launched a major offensive in the north of South Vietnam and Saigon fell on April 30.

Was it worth it? Peter Macdonald says yes the Domino Theory and Communism was a real threat and international actionstopped itsmomentum he believes.

But when Australia's Vietnam troops returned to Australia political passions were high and some Australians with different viewsabused and spat at them.

Australia's Vietnam Returned Soldiers could not wear their uniforms with honour. Peter Macdonald has had those experiences. But with time all things change.

As GoSeeAustralia stood with the Top Tourist Park members to watch Peter Macdonald lay the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier it was obvious that a great deal of good was done for all concerned.

The characteristics we value most in thepeople of Australia and New Zealand are the legacy we inheritfrom the pain of warand those values werebeing honoured- strength, determination, intelligence, compassion and humor.

We will remember them!

As the New Zealand Herald reports today - Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians gathered in the pre-dawn darkness at Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula to mark 92 years since the ill-fated landing of troops at Anzac Cove.

In the hours before the dawn service, crowds had gathered on the slopes around the ceremonial area at the cove to watch documentaries about the battlefield which gave birth to the Anzac legend

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters painted a moving picture of the Anzac campaign and urged a commitment to peace.

The Anzacs, who believed they were training for deployment in France, were pitched into an-ill conceived eight-month campaign against Turkey for which few of them were prepared, he said.

They were to learn that courage and natural ability could not compensate for failures in planning, leadership and logistics, he said in remarks broadcast live in both New Zealand and Australia.

Under constant fire from the start, many troops were hit before even making it to shore.

Many more were pinned down on the exposed beach.

The human cost of the campaign was enormous, with over half a million casualties including 130,000 dead, Mr Peters said.

In remembering the suffering and loss on both sides, let us commit ourselves to working for a world where differences between nations can be resolved without resorting to war.

That is the way that we can best honour the men who fought and died here.

Weacknowledge with thanks that research for this feature was done through the Australian War Memorial web site.

Editor's Note also see:

Top Tourist Park members at the War Memorial
Top Tourist Park members at the War Memorial