April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

At the Vung Tau RSL

By Mark Dapin

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Veterans return to Vietnam

As soon as World War Two ended, diggers returned to the battlefields and POW camps to retrieve makeshift crosses and small memorials, lost keepsakes and buried memories. But after the fall of Saigon, in 1975, it was impossible for an Australian veteran to go back to Vietnam for the things he’d left behind. Vietnam had closed its borders to the non-communist world. The pilgrimages of former soldiers did not begin until the late 1980s, when the Vietnamese government began cautiously to relax its restrictions on tourism. By that time, there was almost nothing left of their war.

Walter Pearson, now 63, once an artilleryman and now a tour guide, was one of the first Australians to return. He was a television news correspondent covering the dedication of the replica Long Tan cross, which commemorated the infamously bloody battle, in 1989. The site of the old Australian military base at Nui Dat had become a quarry. Its airstrip was a road through a village.

Pearson now lives with his Vietnamese wife and their 18-month-old son in the town of Binh Long, near the Cambodian border. Tonight, he’s 200 km south, drinking on the terrace of Lucy’s Sports Bar, in the port city of Vung Tau, with a table of Australian veterans who have started life again in the land where they lost their youth. Among them are David Jones, a national serviceman who first came to Vietnam in 1970, Ernie Marshall, from the Ordnance Corps, Les Baldizzone, who lost his best mate in Vietnam in 1971, and Bruce Williams, who found his best mate here in 2006.

About 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam, the majority between 1965 and 1972. Vung Tau, then a faded and unlovely beach resort, was the site of a large support base, and the place where almost every Australian soldier spent at least a couple of days’ rest in country. It was a garrison town of camp followers and conmen, hand-job parlours, blow-job bars and brothels.

Today, it’s an oil town, popular with riggers on their breaks, and a weekend destination for locals. It’s also home, for at least part of the year, to perhaps a hundred Australian veterans. Lucy’s Bar on the waterfront is full of old diggers, but they also meet at Tommy’s and Ned Kelly’s. In every bar, the drinks are served by beautiful young Vietnamese women in tight, brief clothing.

Marshall, a thick-set 63-year-old with a long ponytail, signed up with the regular army for three years at the age of 17. After completing his service, which included a year at Vung Tau, he found a job in Vietnam with a firm of architectural engineers. The government refused him a visa because he was under 21, too young to work in a war zone.

“As I went through my life, I always felt there was something missing,” he says, “but I never could put my finger on it. And then in about 2001, I came back to Vietnam and I felt like the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle had fallen into place.”

Like all the men at the table, Marshall has a Vietnamese partner. None of the veterans has taken up with a woman his own age, though they haven’t married bar girls either. But there’s something more that keeps them in Vung Tau. Marshall moved to the city full-time eight years ago, when there were “only two or three of us”.

“The only people I’ve actually met who were here at the same time as me were old Viet Cong soldiers,” he says. “They’re extremely friendly. I’ve been invited twice to Liberation Day at their equivalent of the RSL, an ex-military club in Ha Long. We’re very well accepted.”

Within a fortnight of 64-year-old Les Baldizzone’s arrival in Vietnam in 1971, he was caught up in a guerrilla attack that killed his best mate, Paul Manning. Baldizzone remembers machine-gun fire and mines. “It was pretty horrific,” he says.

Bruce Williams, 65, runs pacers for harness-racing in South Australia, and lives about half the year in Vung Tau, although he plans to move here permanently next year. In 1969 his tent mate at Nui Dat, Thomas Doolin, was hit in the head by shrapnel from an Australian grenade and choppered out.

“I hadn’t seen him,” says Williams, “until I came back to Vietnam in 2006. He was sitting there in Tommy’s Bar, and I said, ‘Thomas Doolin’, and he looked at me and said ‘What are you doing here?’ After 40 years, I walked in and I knew him straightaway.”

The war wounds are closed for Williams.

“How can you have any animosity towards the Vietnamese when we were sent here to their country to fight them?” asks Williams. “It’s a little bit like if South Australia was fighting Victoria, and Japan came in to help South Australia. I feel more animosity towards our government for sending us here.”

Williams still calls Doolin his best mate. Doolin died of cancer in 2012, but they got to share his last years.

David Jones, 63, tall and strong-looking, used to run a shop in South Australia. One day, in about 2006, “a couple of hoons” came in to rob his store. He jumped the counter and gave one of them “a good hiding”. He snapped in his marriage too. He and his wife hadn’t had sex for years, he says, so he left her. Eventually, he found himself back in Vietnam, and married a woman from the Mekong Delta. He pays $250 a month in rent for an air-conditioned unit. Williams stays in the apartment upstairs.

While Pearson has an extraordinary knowledge of the country, speaks fluent Vietnamese and is the only native English speaker living in Binh Long, the rest of the veterans spend much of their time with other Australians. They sit at the bar and they drink with their mates, a gang of blokes on the tear. They flirt with the girls, and they party like it’s 1969 and they’re all 20 years old again.

Half a lifetime later, they’ve found what they left behind.

Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin is an author, columnist and journalist. His books include Spirit House, King of the Cross and Strange Country.

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