Vietnam War veterans unite to build a club to with their former foes
Email Vietnam War veterans unite to build a club to with their former foes
Updated January 28, 2018 06:58:44Photo: Former enemies Rod Harlor and Vo Xuan Thu share a beer at Tommy's Bar in Vung Tau, where they once fought. (Zoe Osborne) Related Story: Cancellation of Long Tan service a 'kick in the guts' Related Story: Reporting war from the frontlines of history Related Story: Vietnam veteran's daughter finds peace Map: Vietnam
Forty-three years ago, Peter Safe and Rod Harlor would have shot Vo Xuan Thu on sight, deep in the Vietnamese jungle.
Now, the three men are drinking together in what was once an Australian war base.
"We would greet each other with guns and bullets but now, after all these years, we greet each other with a glass of beer," laughs Thu.
The former enemies have met to discuss their plans to build a veterans club in the area â" a shared space for vets from Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. As they share their stories, it becomes clear that any animosity between the men is long gone, if it ever existed.
Shoot or Be Shot
Vo Xuan Thu was just 19 when he joined North Vietnamese Army in 1969. The following year, he would trek for four months from Hanoi in Vietnam's north to the southeast of the country.Photo: Thu joined the North Vietnamese Army at 19. (Supplied: Vo Xuan Thu)
"I carried a pack weighing about 20 kilograms and all my weapons and ammunition," he remembers. "The weather was very severe â¦ the days were hot and the nights were cold."
As they moved, hiking through thick jungle, the troops were showered with B52 bombs, losing swathes of comrades to battle and bouts of malaria.
"Sometimes when we reached our camp we only had 60-70 per cent of our men [left]," says Thu. "During the war, we were ready to die for one another â¦ I have never forgotten my comrades who fell."
Australian veterans Rod Harlor and Peter Safe shared a similar experience.
Rod was conscripted to national service at 19 where he served as a mortarman. Much of his time in Vietnam was spent in jungle laced with snar es placed by the Viet Cong, meaning the ground beneath his feet was as dangerous as the enemies in the trees ahead.
"There'd be punji sticks covered with faeces and things like that," he says. "They'd have these bamboo things [with prongs] that were attached to a tree and they'd swing out and hit you if you tripped a small wire.
"Once you got out there and you were in fighting mode, they were the enemy â" shoot them or they'd shoot you."
But Rod never hated the Vietnamese enemy.
The prevailing attitude among his battalion was a kind of respect rather than animosity, he says.Photo: Australian veteran Peter Safe respected the Vietnamese enemy. (Supplied by Peter S afe)
Fellow 9 RAR digger Peter agrees. "'Frustrated respect' I suppose you'd call it, more than anything," he says. "The Viet Cong were very difficult, they're wonderful bushmen and they knew their country backwards."
A farm boy from a long line of soldiers, Peter joined the army at 17 and left for Vietnam the following year in November 1968.
Towards the end of his second Vietnam tour, he was stationed in a local village, passing information from the Republic of Vietnam Forces to the Australian headquarters.
"It was a Viet Cong village," he says, "but I never had any problems there â¦ that was when I really fell in love with the country and the people."
Peter remembers a mutual respect between the Australians and Vietnamese during his service, soldier to soldier.
"We were respected because we treated them as people," he says.
"The soldie rs we captured, [if] wounded, would... be treated by our doctors... and we always buried their dead respectably."Photo: Local kids "playing soldier" with an Aussie digger in Vung Tau, July 1967. (Supplied: Stan Middleton)
Looking back, Vo Xuan Thu agrees.
"Unlike the Americans, they understood that in war there were soldiers and there were civilians," says Thu.
"With the enemy soldiers they did their duty, but they didn't let the war taint their relations with the civilians at all."Photo: Aussie soldiers play Aussie Rules footy with local kids in Vung Tau, 1968. (Gary Dobson )
Home away from the homefront
It's perhaps this long-standing mutual respect that has allowed Rod, Peter, Thu and other veterans like them at Vung Tau to actively pursue friendship today.
The first official meetup between the two sides took place in August 2016, amid a storm of controversy over the cancelled Long Tan memorial service. Australian and Vietnamese vets came together in Vung Tau for a gala dinner to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.
"That was the first time in Australia's history â¦ that opposing veterans had sat down as friends and had dinner and beers," says Peter.
Ironically, the friendship and support is something the Vung Tau vets failed to find when they first returned to Aus tralia.
Australian troops returning from Vietnam were hit with anti-war marches and a generation of WWII veterans that would not recognise them as their own.Photo: Australian veteran Rod Harlor served in Vietnam Jan-Dec 1969. (Zoe Osborne)
"We were ostracised by not only the civilians but also the RSL and everybody else," says Peter. "According to the RSL, that wasn't a war zone, it was just police action â¦ it took a while for them to come to grips with it and [it to] be recognised as a war."
At that time, neither Peter nor Rod imagined they would one day return to Vietnam.
"It took a hell of a lot of convincing myself that it'd be a good thing to do," says Peter, "but I booked the flight [5 years ago], went to Hanoi and absolutely loved it."
Peter now spends over half his time in Vietnam every year.
"I'm not a relaxed person even now â¦ probably the only time I relax is when I'm back in Vietnam at Tommy's bar having a few beers with the boys," he smiles. "I think it's just because we're all army â" we understand each other."Photo: Curious local kids with an Australian soldier during the Vietnam War. (Supplied by Stan Middleton)
Rod first returned to Vietnam in 2011, finally moving to Vung Tau full time in 2015. Getting to know the country today has been an invaluable source of closure.
" It's a great place to come back and unload those demons you've been carrying," he says. "You've still got the bad memories until you come over and see the place now."
Just the beginning
While he counts himself lucky for his experience after the war, Thu also feels drawn to the mateship that underpins the community of Australian vets at Vung Tau.
"My transition from the war to normal life was easy, especially when compared to other Vietnamese veterans," he says. "I got out of the war alive, I didn't have any life-altering injuries [and] I had a high-paying job."
But the support offered for veterans in Vietnam is minimal and many suffer similar problems to their Australian counterparts.Photo: Vung Tau harbour in October 1969. 49 years on, the bay is the proposed site for the new veterans club. (Bryan Schell)
The idea for the veterans club had been in the back of Thu's mind for years, but he only recently introduced it to his Australian comrades.
"Mr Thu came here one day with these booklets and showed us â" it's very well put together too â" accommodation, bars and restaurants," says Rod. "The whole concept is about friendship between the two nations."
Despite past concerns from Australian vets about reconciliation with the Vietnamese, the group is hoping to raise support from the people who would be welcome at the club â" veterans from both countries.
Plans for the club are in their final stages and the group is working to raise adequate funds to move it forward, ideally this year.
Topics: history, people, unrest-conflict-and-war, world-pol itics, vietnam, australia
First posted January 28, 2018 06:00:00Source: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam