THE QUIET VOICE OF HALF A CENTURY
LIFE IS LIKE a river. We drift downstream and, on our journey, we meet thousands of people. Most of them pause for a while, swim against the flow, and then we drift apart. Some seem to get caught in the eddies beside the bank and they remain with us for a lifetime. But most – fellow students and pupils, the people we work with, the neighbours in our suburb or village, the people we see every day as we jog or walk the dog – are there, in our lives, drifting along at the same pace, and then they are gone. Gone, in most cases, forever.
The past is a foreign country hidden far upstream from where we are currently floating. It is inhabited by people we once knew so well, but haven’t seen – or even thought about – for decades. They, who once were so close and so important, are now, at best, shadowy memories. Nothing more than small, forgotten leaves or twigs circling endlessly in distant backwaters.
This is a story of how those people you once knew so well, and saw so often, may have had their lives changed by their chance floating and rubbing up against each other. And it is a story which, in one small example, answers that most challenging of questions that teachers ask themselves: Did I make a difference?
The timespan is 1968–2018. Fifty years. Half a century.
It is a remarkable story of the little-known contributions made by Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War; of the boat people who fled from South Vietnam in the years after the war; of the fierce determination to start again those lives which had been torn apart by the war; of a young refugee who was inspired in the most unusual way by an Australian soldier; of the choices made in the new America that Donald Trump has forged; and of memories and tender friendships restored and renewed after half a century. It is a story of deep, life-affirming humanity.
It is the story of a man and a boy – a teacher and pupil; of the magic of memory; and the way some things which can be inconsequential to one person can be genuinely life changing for another. It is the story of an Australian soldier named Rex and a Vietnamese student named Thai.
THE LETTER LOOKED very official with the Australian crest emblazoned on the front. It was September 1965. It said something about two years’ national service and that I should report for a medical. I hadn’t been chosen or selected, but my birth date had been taken out of the lottery barrel.
What luck, considering I had never won anything and haven’t since, not even a chook raffle. I was in the first call-up, after Menzies decided to support the struggling people of South Vietnam who had allegedly called for help. Actually, this plea from South Vietnam turned out to be a lie, one of several told by our conservative governments. The Australian government wanted to show support for the Yanks, so the so-called request from South Vietnam was arranged.
I didn’t want to go into the army. I was not the best example of the marine type and certainly this was supported by a family tradition of military incompetence. My dad and Uncle Alec were both in the tank corps in World War II and remained at the dizzy rank of private throughout the war. As for me, I was happy where I was. Why would I want to go into the army? Where’s bloody Vietnam, anyway – and who cares?
Fortunately, before my call-up, I had started to study for a teaching certificate. This meant I could defer my draft until completion of the course which would take a year or two. Beauty! By then the whole thing would have gone away. So I settled down to life as normal. I started a Bachelor of Arts by correspondence at the University of New England in Armidale. Thinking vaguely, if I did one subject a year then it would take me nine years. World War II only lasted for six years so how long will it take to win a war in some tin-pot country that no one can pick on a map?
How wrong could I be? Late in 1966 I was attending a compulsory medical examination. I was advised to wear ladies’ underwear and talk with a high voice, but I never felt comfortable enough to do this. Apparently, this was a sure way to fail the medical.
I felt like a pin cushion with needle after needle seeking a reason not to have me in the army. They didn’t find anything so in January 1967, at the age of twenty-one, I caught a bus with some other bewildered young blokes to Kapooka army recruit camp, located just outside Wagga Wagga in south-western New South Wales.
So began three months of bastardry, anger and abuse. In retrospect, the army had an effective way of training people. At all levels, and at all times, they used anger in its different forms. The impact of this was to humiliate, disenfranchise and control. This may have been good for people going into war but it’s hell for people coming out of war, as I was to experience.
The man who was given the responsibility of whipping us into shape was a corporal with one testicle. He didn’t tell us, but we soon found out that it was the reason he couldn’t go to Vietnam. It was never explained why he couldn’t be shot at like anyone else who had the normal number of testicles. More importantly, even with one ball, why couldn’t he shoot at people? I mean, how many do you need to fight in a war?
The next few months went by with much screaming and bullying. Everything was anger. People walked, talked and acted with anger. It was institutionalised anger. I was confused by this, but it succeeded in that it made me feel angry.
I was chosen to go to North Head army camp as a physical education instructor. Normally the North Head of Sydney Harbour would be a delightful place to live: healthy air, great views. But not when you are a guest of the Australian Army: tedious hours of drills, again with anger, and hours of sentry duty protecting I don’t know what.
Since I had been playing rugby with Gordon Rugby Club prior to conscription I was marked by the army as a potential player. The army seemed to take winning rugby games as seriously as winning wars. I was picked to play in the Australian Army XV and we went into camp at Holsworthy. There were others in the team who held a much higher rank than me, but to my surprise I was appointed captain.
After the rugby tour I returned to the condemned Nissen huts in Wacol, a desolate suburb outside Brisbane. Prior to the rugby tour the army had sent me on several courses, both basic and advanced, for the training of artillery signallers. The signallers’ job was to radio the grid reference of the enemy’s position so the guns could be engaged.
Now that the rugby was finished the depressing thought struck me that I was facing fifteen months of mental torture, rotting in some godforsaken hole while I served out my national service as a signaller. Blokes I’d trained with had already been sent over to South Vietnam so I had ‘missed the boat’ – well that’s what I wrote to my commanding officer. In the response to my letter requesting to go to Vietnam, my CO posted me to the jungle training centre at Canungra, inland from Southport on the Gold Coast.
Over two weeks at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre I was killed three times. This is probably still a record. As a forward scout, I not only got the platoon lost on two occasions; I also walked into an ambush, tripped a booby-trap grenade and was killed by another booby trap tied to the front of one the ‘Việt Cộng’ as I turned over his ‘dead’ body.
So it was with some trepidation that I looked down on the city of Saigon from the Qantas jet on 8 January 1968. In 347 days I would be home…not that I was counting.
The first few days in Núi Đất were like a bad dream. Perhaps it was just the shock of it all. The heat and humidity were stifling. I was given a tent which I shared with another bloke and issued with an M16. I preferred this to the heavier SLR, which I could hardly pick up. It was only a few weeks after arrival that I was summoned to the operations centre and told I was to draw ammo and food packs from the Q store and be on the chopper pad in thirty minutes. I was to be part of a small relief force dropped somewhere out in the bush but no one told me where nor why, which was par for the course for my whole time in Vietnam.
When we landed I was told to dig in beside another bloke who already had dug a substantial slit trench: as long and as wide as he was, but very deep. I was to learn why this was a good idea. That first night I slept with one eye open and my rifle on top of me with the barrel held tightly between my folded arms.
From the frenetic traffic on the radio we knew there was a lot of action out there. As a radio operator I could hear the constant traffic and the grunts (infantry) calling for artillery support. I had arrived in the middle of the infamous Tet Offensive in January 1968. Our fire support base was not hit, one of the few that were spared from attack. Some weeks later I was back in my humble tent at Núi Đất in relative safety.
Though it was the Australian operational headquarters in South Vietnam, there was not much to do in Núi Đất. Vũng Tàu, on the coast, was the site of the supply base and Aussie hospital, while Núi Đất was the site of an old French rubber plantation, still covered with rubber trees that had not been harvested for many years.
I was dealt a cruel blow at the end of May 1968. My unit packed to go home, but without me. As I was late to arrive in Vietnam because of the rugby tour, I now faced another six months without a unit and without a job. In desperation I approached our battery sergeant major for advice. Luckily for me, he was a rugby nut who happened to follow Gordon Rugby and was happy to help. He asked me what I did on civvy street, so I told him about my short teaching career. He suggested I might like to apply for a job with the Civil Affairs Unit, a small and relatively unknown unit dedicated to winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people with medical, construction, agricultural and educational support. I made an appointment with the CO of the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Latchford. He was keen to suggest that I might have role to play as an English teacher at two schools in the nearby town of Bà Rịa: Minh Phụng and Châu văn Tiếp. I was happy to oblige.
My first day was a culture shock but a fascinating one. I walked into the first period with my M16 and placed it carefully in the corner. The army were insistent that we had our rifle in our possession at all times. This meant the rifle went with you to the toilet, shower and meals, and, of course, on operation it remained a part of you. It was a serious breach of discipline to be without your rifle. What I didn’t appreciate was the response of the students, especially the girls who gave out little squeals.
I quickly left the class and placed my rifle in the staff room and returned to the kids. Thank god it wasn’t stolen. While no doubt having a rifle in class may have been good for discipline, it was absolutely inappropriate, so I got permission to take a 9 mm revolver with me each day, smuggled in an old leather brief case bought from the local market.
The teaching staff at Minh Phụng High School was made up mostly of Catholic refugees from the north. They were all friendly and welcoming. I was immediately impressed with the principal, Mr Huy, an intelligent man who spoke reasonable English and excellent French.
Sadly I had no French (I got 27 per cent in my Year 7 French exam), so we struggled along in English. I followed him around from class to class providing pronunciation of long lists of vocabulary. The teaching technique was based on the strict French style with no interaction; just silence with long lists of words and the occasional exercise from an old text book. Later he let me take classes on my own so I quickly changed to lessons of show and tell, in English of course, with a little music thrown in. ‘What colour is this pencil? What is in this bag?’ And so on.
I became adventurous as time went on, so I introduced the students to folk songs as a method of adding to their vocabulary. Songs from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were their favourites, which was lucky because they were the only ones I knew. The kids thought that teaching English with songs was hilarious, especially when I tried to sing: ‘Five hundred miles, five hundred miles, five hundred miles away from home…’
So corny, but the singing got an enthusiastic response.
It felt good to be a novelty.
The school days began at 7.30 am and we finished for lunch around noon. Then we would share lunch in the staff room before having a nap on bamboo mats on the floor. The cook was a wizened old lady from North Vietnam who lived at the back of the school. She was a great cook and often offered us some North Vietnamese specialties including dog, snake and semi-congealed duck’s blood, which I politely shared in tiny amounts.
As time went on I became quite friendly with the staff. I attended mass on some occasions, spoken inspiringly in Latin, and I was reasonably comfortable in the environment.
I hired an old bicycle to spend some lunchtimes riding around the Bà Rịa market trying to look part of the scene. I met some locals and even some parents. I felt privileged that I was able to meet people I previously needed to hate. Few soldiers in a war zone meet people, other than prostitutes, so I had a rare insight into the Vietnamese temperament. How did they survive so many decades of war and invasion? They remained so positive, so resilient and so gentle, with this ever-present background of misery.
One of the stresses in Vietnam was to know when you were going home. I reckon it was better not to know, since counting down the days – especially the last twenty or so – was agony. Every day I thought I was going to die. Behind every tree was hidden a booby trap or at least half the North Vietnamese army, and they had my picture.
Being in Vietnam resulted in a constant low level of stress, changing in intensity only at the beginning of your ‘tour’ (a silly Yank expression), and again at the end. In between, I was quite cavalier, even looking for trouble. Some kind of coping mechanism kicked in that can only be described as bravado, saturated with super-vigilance.
The trouble was, as I was to discover on my return to Oz, the vigilance remained. Loud noises, crowded places and even the whap, whap of the helicopter were all reasons for high tension and awareness. Some blokes could only sit in public places with their backs to a corner. Silly, really, but it was like an obsession: it controlled you and it took a long time to find some peace. Some never found it and preferred to end their lives – like a final protest or plea for help. I still feel a sense of helplessness and profound sadness when I think of a man choosing to escape the pain with death. The acceptance of Vietnam vets in a march through Sydney streets took twenty years. For many it was too late.
MY NAME IS Thai Dang. I was a boat person who fled from Vietnam. I was born and raised in Bà Rịa, Phước Tuy Province. I was only seven when the first group of Australian soldiers came to Vietnam.
I was one of a few people who witnessed the Australian soldiers fighting hard – not with guns, but with shovels, hammers, pens, guitars and earth-moving equipment. Besides fighting the VC, the Aussie troops built many civil engineering projects, organised high-school camping trips and ran sports activities.
The school I attended was the only public high school in the province where the Australian troops were stationed. At the time it was called Phước Tuy. I was twelve when I started high school at Châu văn Tiếp. I met Rex Ward when I was about thirteen years old.
Rex Ward used to drive to my high school in a dark-green Land Rover twice a week. He improved my speaking and reading skills by providing a more practical way to communicate in English. He taught me to sing ‘Five hundred miles’, my first English song. That is the only song I remember learning from him.
Sometime in the late 1960s, along with my ninth-grade classmate Cho, I entered a five-kilometre ‘marathon’ run from Long Điền to Bà Rịa. There was a team of Australian Army with about ten runners. Cho and I finished first and second in the Vietnamese youth group. It was fifteen minutes after the last Australian soldier finished his run! I blamed my poor performance on the fact that I did not wear shoes. I ran with my bare feet.
At another time I was among a few dozen kids that were selected to spend a couple nights at the summer camp organised by the Australian troops in Back Beach of Vũng Tàu (Bãi Sau). I did not know whether the troops were army, navy or air force but the hospitality was first class. I got to sleep on a soft-surface for the first time. I enjoyed swimming on the beach, playing games, and cleaning myself with fresh running water. I did not like the ‘canteen’ foods much but my first taste of a fresh apple was a true heavenly delight. My dream was to plant an apple tree someday, and that was what I did when I first bought my house in Pomona, California, in 2000.
My village, named Phước Hoà, did not have electricity, running water or a sewage system. The Australian Army engineering team came and put a bore, a windmill-powered water pump and a water tank next to my cousin’s house.
For the first time I saw water running out of a pipe – not in a bucket, which is what we normally used to scoop water into from an open well. We all got soaked during the grand opening celebration in front of many officials and Australian troops. What a wonderful fun memory!
That same army engineering team also later laid a huge pipe that carried fresh water from Bà Rịa to Vũng Tàu. Not sure if the initial purpose was to provide water for the Australian troops in Vũng Tàu, but eventually all the people in this beach town enjoyed the fresh water.
My older brother who lived in Vũng Tàu pointed out to me the different colour of the new water, since it did not have a trace of stained colour that came from the local wells. The pipe, about two metres in diameter and twenty-four kilometres long, was laid above ground along the only highway that connected Bà Rịa and Vũng Tàu. After more than forty-five years, the pipe still is in good shape and works flawlessly.
Although my parents were in Bà Rịa, Phước Tuy Province, I spent my high school senior year in Vũng Tàu. By then, in September of 1972, there were only a few Australian soldiers left. But even at the peak of total Australian troops in Vietnam in late ’60s, I seldom saw them hanging around bars like the Americans, their counterparts.
Perhaps their total troop number was smaller or by virtue of their hard-working ethic, wasting time or money was not in their nature. Very sure that was the main reason our Vietnamese bar-girls called our Aussie soldiers ‘Cheap Charlies’.
When the South was taken over by the North I decided to leave the country. Most of the people who tried to leave Vietnam didn’t make it. They drowned or were killed by the Thai pirates. I bought a boat without an engine. The boat engine was very hard to find but I managed to get a shell of a boat and get an engine and put it in.
We escaped from Vũng Tàu. We escaped from that area in 1978.
Our journey didn’t go as well as we had planned. The engine didn’t do a good job. We only travelled three days and two nights. On the third day the engine broke and we could see, on the horizon, that a big storm was coming so we all thought: This is it. We are not going to make it. But, out of nowhere, came two Taiwanese fishing ships. They came and rescued us.
Those two ships had already completed their fishing. They were heading back to Taiwan. When the captain saw us he realised that if he didn’t save us, twenty-nine people would die. So he rescued us and then ordered his ship to turn around and head for Singapore.
He wanted to drop us off at Singapore. He put us all off on a raft in the middle of Singapore Harbour. It was very, very early in the morning because he did not want to be directly responsible for us. He dropped us in the harbour, gave us some water on the life raft and he left. That was forty years ago.
The winds blew all day long. Many ships passed by but no one seemed to care to pick us up. By late in the afternoon the winds had blown us… In the morning we saw the Singapore skyline but we were blown further, further, further…we saw the skyline disappearing.
The wind blew so hard it blew the top off the life raft and we had to lean on one side to keep the raft stable. All day long we were drifting and drifting. We paddled. We swam.
Late at night one of the people screamed, ‘I touched the ground!’ By then it was around nine o’clock and we knew that we had reached land. We realised that our lives had been saved. We walked to the shore. Suddenly I saw a torch. Two men who were half naked and with just a sarong covering their lower parts and they had bows and arrows pointing at me. It was like in the movies.
On the boat there was a person who thought that we might have arrived on a cannibal island and that the people might eat us. I had been worried about that. I screamed at them: ‘Malaysia?’ But they shook their heads, so I screamed again: ‘Indonesia?’ This time they nodded so I jumped up and down with joy because I knew it was a country that was civilised enough that they wouldn’t eat us.
That island, Tanjung Uban, didn’t have a refugee camp so we were all put in the small backyard of the police station…with fans. We were there for a couple of days and later on they transferred us to the bigger camp on the island of Tanjung Pinang, not too far from Singapore, where we all stayed for seven months.
All the representatives from the countries were coming to the refugee camps and were interviewing people. America was the first country to interview the refugees. If, for some reason, they rejected you then you would go to the other countries. Australia, France, Canada…and a few others. They would ask if you had someone who already had residence in America and if you did then they chose you to come to America. My partner at the time had relatives in America. We were held for another couple of weeks for screening. We were then taken to Jakarta, where we stayed for a couple of weeks. From there we flew to Hong Kong and then we flew to Seattle.
Seattle was where we were processed by immigration and I remember there was a Lutheran pastor. Every single person who came to the US must have sponsorship. We were sponsored by a Lutheran Social Service organisation. They were the ones who paid for us. They paid for our airfare ticket. Not pay…they loaned us the money. So when we came to the US we had to pay back for the ticket later on.
People who came to Australia… Australia paid for their ticket. They were really the lucky ones.
I remember the Lutheran pastor came out and met me at the airport. He said, ‘Welcome to America.’ He gave us $10 for our pocket money.
From Seattle we flew to a city in Minneapolis and from there we flew to Duluth: very, very cold. I had come from 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Jakarta and we ended up in Duluth on a day when it was 25 degrees below zero. That is nothing because a few weeks later it dropped down to 50 degrees below zero. I didn’t have a sweater. Basically I had flip flops and a short-sleeved shirt and very thin pants. When I stepped out of the aeroplane I couldn’t walk.
On that day, for some reason, the little tunnel that connected the plane to the airport wasn’t working. They made us walk down the stairs and from the plane you had to walk across the tarmac. I couldn’t walk. I was so cold. There was a big gentleman – later I found out that he was a Pastor from England – he had a mission in Duluth. He first took his very big jacket and wrapped it around me. He lifted me up and carried me to the terminal. He dropped me down inside the terminal and I returned his jacket. He also gave me the footprint story about God carrying a man. It was printed on a small card and I still carry it with me today.
By then my sponsors were waiting inside with a thick jacket and warm clothes.
I arrived in the USA in 1979 and I found a job as a janitor. It took me about a year and a half to improve my English skills, then I enrolled in the University of Minnesota and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.
There was a family – I always give them credit for helping me. He was a Navy officer. They were the Boyd family that raised me and took care of me. They drove me around, gave me advice, showed me how to dress. They were my new parents. I was twenty-two when I came to Duluth, Minnesota.
For seventeen years, I worked as a senior design engineer for Oldcastle Precast. It is a major corporation based in USA and Ireland with over fifty thousand employees worldwide, including Australia. I still work for them as a part-time designer. My contribution to the company was sufficiently valuable that they were happy to retain me even when I left the US and came to Australia in 2016. You may say this was the peak of my career and I am very proud of it.
I want to give credit to my teacher, Mr Ward. If my life is a freight train, then I am the main engine pulling the train and using my own power. My teacher did not help me with the pulling, but by using a small amount of energy he switched my track so that I could have a smoother path and end up at a hugely rewarding destination.
ONLY A FEW of us came to America. The rest came to Australia. They settled in Australia including my older brother and all my friends. There were twenty-nine people on the boat and twenty-five of those people went to Australia.
My brother went to live in Melbourne and there was a group of eight people – my high school buddies – and I left them and went to America. So every time I had a holiday or vacation I came to Sydney or Melbourne. Some years ago I realised how wonderful Australia was and I have always planned to retire or live here.
My wife escaped Vietnam by herself. She came to Melbourne in 1981 and she lived and worked as an entertainer in Melbourne until 1991 when she decided to come to America. She found a new life there. She came to California and became successful as a singer and worked for a law office. That’s where I met her in 2004.
In 2016 we bought a place in the Gold Coast and we now live in Surfers Paradise. I was close to retirement. We decided that America was no longer where we wanted to live – Trump had just become president – so the timing was good and we moved to the Gold Coast.
Two years before we moved to Australia, my wife went online and started searching for the Vietnam Veterans Association. We managed to contact an organisation here in Queensland. It was the headquarters of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. They have offices north of Brisbane. So we went there and I told them that the veterans had done a wonderful job for me and the people in my home town. My wife and I want to do something to honour them and also I wanted to find the teacher who taught me the song ‘Five hundred miles’. We got him confused. We called him Major Smith but he turned out to be Gunner Ward. The actual teacher who came to teach us. We did not know his name. Of course we couldn’t find him. We did not have his name.
It was only by luck that Rex wrote a memoir about his time in Vietnam and there was a photo of the blackboard.
At the time of my arrival I said my last wish in life is to meet Rex Ward one more time. I would travel anywhere to see him if he is still around.
I have been singing that song everywhere I go. When I entertain groups of English-speaking people I always open with that song. I always mention that it was taught to me by my first English teacher. I used to say, ‘I don’t know where he is but he was one of the young Australians who taught me forty-five years ago.’
For over sixteen years, from June 2000 to December 2016, I sang that song close to a thousand times for American senior folks who were resting at the nursing homes in California. Along with my volunteer band, I also sang that song for the ‘Wallaby Airlines’ RAAF members at the 2017 ANZAC Day in Brisbane. That is the only song I remember from Rex. What a tremendous gift Rex had given me!
THE QUIET VOICE OF HALF A CENTURY
FOR ONE BRIEF moment these two lives crossed. By accident Rex started teaching English at Bà Rịa – he was twenty-two at the time – and one of his students was Thai Dang, who was thirteen.
A lifetime passed from that first meeting. Questions hover around their lives: Did you marry? Do you have children? Did you go on to higher study? What jobs have you had? Do you have grandchildren?
Those fifty years are the ones that define your life. They create the adult person in all its rich complexity. How do you feel about the Vietnam War? What memories do you have? Does it still haunt your every waking moment? Or have you put it behind you?
And how did it all end? Thai and his wife, Diamond, visited Rex and his wife at Avoca Beach on the New South Wales Central Coast on 14 April 2018. Rex and his wife then flew to the Gold Coast to be with Thai and Diamond on 2 June 2018.
True serendipity: when Thai finally found his teacher, Rex (he only ever referred to him as ‘teacher’), they were living exactly five hundred miles apart: Thai at Surfers Paradise in Queensland and Rex at Avoca Beach in New South Wales.
I can say no more. The river of life flows with such strange and random eddies and currents. Who, in their wildest dreams, would have thought that an Australian soldier teaching some young Vietnamese children ‘Five hundred miles’ (because it was one of the few songs he knew all the words to) would echo down half a century having made an enduring impression on the mind of a thirteen year old sitting in a steamy classroom in Bà Rịa.