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Vietnam Veteran's National Memorial Day

41961 WO1 (Bob) R.C. Thompson (ret)
Bob Thompson
Bob Thompson

Bang! Bang! On my door and a rather familiar voice sang out
"Wakey, wakey, hands off snakey".
Hell I thought, I'm still in the army! I looked out the window and it is still pitch black

It all started to come back to me, we had to be on the steps of the National War Memorial at least by 5.15am or for you old army blokes 0515 hrs. We, that is my mate of 30 years WO1 Phill Smith (30 years in the army) and I had to be early as we had to hold a night stick, in fact there was 504 of them. Yes you guessed it, one for each killed in Vietnam.

After the three "S" it was put on the good clothes, on with the gongs, lift up the legs of the pants and rub the shoes on the back of the socks, then off to the Dawn Service.

We picked up our night sticks and made our arrangements for lost procedure, then we found our way through the crowd to a spot on the steps facing the old and new Parliament Houses. A voice said, "Shit my feet are cold." A voice inside me said "You're not wrong mate".

Phill and I spoke to all around us and asked the usual questions "What year mate?", "What unit?", "Did you know ....?, "Where is your reunion?", "Have a nice day."

It's still pitch black, one can just make out people moving about. A Yank (septic tank) in front of us says, "We don't have anything like this in America, what happens next? A few of us share the telling. One of us asks the yank, "You in Vietnam?" "No", the yank said, "but I heard about your memorial from an Australian in St Pauls, so I had to come."

It's a bit lighter and we can see people walking up Anzac Parade and it appears there is a lot. A speaker is turned on and somebody blows into it. Complete silence, except for the chortling of Australian birds who were flying around gum trees and the Australian War Memorial.

I was thinking about Nui Dat and feeling a little sad and my mate alongside me whispered, "Jesus, I wish I was young again and you and I still shared the same tent." I was saved from reply by the band as it struck up "'O' Valiant Heart". I tried to read the words but it was still too dark. I did remember some of the words ("Deep your contentment in the last abode/Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God")

In the silence between the verses, magpies yodeled and magpie larks from a discreet distance, and maintained this contribution right through the Service and it sounded especially nice when Sir Colin Hines gave his heartfelt rendition of "They shall grow not old etc."

Then it was almost full light so I could see Col (Killer) Kahn (now Brigadier) give his address in that deep distinctive voice that all his old diggers will never forget. He said, "It is entirely fitting that this, our ceremony, takes place here, in this place above all others, and especially at this time of the day, that the ghosts, the spirits of soldiers past are honoured and revered by the nation. Today, we the nation walk with the particular spirits of more than 500 veterans and civilians who died." Dawn he told us was a significant time for us to remember for it was at this time we as soldiers had stood to, and thought in silence as we watched our fronts.

I immediately thought of the dawn standtoos in Vietnam, when we had weapons in our hands and the sighs of relief when to our front, we saw empty paddy fields.

Brig Kahn went on, "For the relatives of those who died, I promise that memory will paint this day with colours that can never fade."

We could all read the Service clearly now, so we sang as one voice "'O' God our help in ages past." By this time I had forgotten my cold feet, and my inner self felt warm and I was glad to be alive and to be at this place, at this time, with these my digger mates.

The programme worked the prayers and I remember one particular verse in the prayer for Vietnam Veterans ("We pray for all citizens divided in conscience over the Vietnam commitment. Heal our divisions and bring us together as one people.") I was thinking of the welcome home parade we got in Adelaide when me and my mates were pelted with rotten fruit and eggs. Then I thought, well its 20 years ago, maybe I'll try to forget.

We finally sang as one, our National Anthem - we all stood straight, hands by the side, head up, I looked out the corner of my eye and saw two diggers helping a soldier out of a wheelchair. All stood, two with arms under the middle one, medals gleaming. I thought to myself, that's mateship.

As the National Anthem died I thought I heard a Huey helicopter and said to myself, whoever thought to put that over the loud speaker system was bright, as the silence now was deafening. You could just, if you strained your ears, hear the chopper.

Then in the distance over Parliament House I saw a blinking very small blue light, and the chopper noise grew louder. Then the memories flooded back, how many times had I been out with a company of grunts on the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" and the G1 Air had promised to send a chopper to pick me up around 1600hrs, if he could, or as I was told many times, you will have to stay with the Company for the night. And when, as I sat in the jungle straining my ears for that beautiful, lovely sound of the chopper coming to get me.

And there it was, a single Iroquois helicopter. It was flying up ANZAC Parade towards us and as it got closer the noise of the blades got louder, my heart filled to near busting as my eyes filled with tears of love and joy of life. I then noticed everyone was waving up at the Huey, still in its full camouflage, and I looked up and found my hand was waving too.

We all stood silent for what seemed eternity, then I looked around at about 15,000 of my mates. This moment was magic for me and one moment in time I will never forget.

BOB THOMPSON Task Force Armourer

Units: Task Force HQ LAD

1 Armd Sqn Wksp

106 Fd Wksp