I came from hell' – Vietnam veterans, refugees remember the fallen



Dinh Nguyen remembers dreaming of sugar and fats.

This, he says, is what the body craves when it is truly hungry.

Mr Nguyen understands hunger like few other Australians. He was held in a prison camp run by the Vietnamese Communist Party for 6½ years. During his “re-education” he was forced into hard labour – felling trees, tilling soil – while rationed barely enough to stay alive. Mr Nguyen’s family literally tightened their belts to eat less of their meagre supplies so they could bring him food.

When he was released, Mr Nguyen was 32 years old and weighed 35 kilograms – but his ordeals had only just begun.

Proud Kingsbury grandfather Dinh Nguyen survived more than six years in a prison camp before spending another six years separated from his wife and only daughter.

Photo: Paul Jeffers

These are some of the things Mr Nguyen remembered as he stood in front of the Shrine of Remembrance on Saturday among the hundreds gathered for the Vietnam Veterans’ Day Commemoration Ceremony 2018.

Mr Nguyen was there to remember and to meet fellow South Vietnamese Army veterans. But, mostly, he was there to pay his respects to veterans of the Australian Army who he said fought and died for his freedom.

“In Vietnamese culture when you eat your food, you remember the grower,” he said.

“They from Australia, far away from Vietnam. They go there to help us. To fight for the freedom – and they lost their lives. And most of them were young.

“As a human being, you cannot ignore that.”

Mr Nguyen was matter-of-fact when he recounted his own ordeals. It was when he spoke about the sacrifices of his family and those of the diggers that the tears came.

For their part, most of the diggers were in high spirits, slapping backs and ribbing mates.

1st Battalion veterans and mates Perry Neil, Ian McCartney, Greg Cummins, Hilton Cother and Tom Loughridge.

Photo: Paul Jeffers

“You don’t remember the shit stuff,” Ian McCartney said.

“You remember the funny stuff.”

Mr McCartney promptly recounted a couple of choice examples. Few of them, it is fair to say, were family friendly.

“We don't see each other often,” he said of his fellow 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment veterans.

“So when we do, we all turn back to 21, 22.”

“Except the body won’t,” chirps in 1 RAR digger Greg Cummins.

Vietnam veterans Ian McCartney and Greg Cummins 'remember the funny stuff'.

Photo: Paul Jeffers

There would have been plenty of “shit stuff” for these veterans to bring up.

Like the first night of the Battle of Coral–Balmoral when their nine-strong Delta company was among the first hit by the Viet Cong, who killed one and wounded seven of their mates. Or any of the next 25 days and nights of the battle.

Instead they joked and caught up on life after war, when they took up shearing, farming, plumbing, painting. Mostly they’re retired now. Mr McCartney drove tankers for BP and managed a few pubs in his civilian career.

“Now I manage from the other side of the bar,” he said.

'They hit us first ... all night time stuff too,' Hilton Cother recalls of the Battle of Coral–Balmoral.

Photo: Paul Jeffers

Fifty years have passed since the Battle of Coral–Balmoral – one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

Earlier this year Mr McCartney, Mr Cummins and their 1 RAR comrades were awarded the Unit Citation for Bravery for that battle in which 26 Australians died.


Vietnam veterans' bravery recognised on eve of 50th anniversary

Many Vietnam veterans still aren’t accustomed to that kind of recognition.

Warragul father-of-six and former armoured vehicle mechanic Chris Murnane recalled returning from war to a cold welcome, even by some veterans of previous wars at his local RSL.

“Everyone was sort of in hiding,” he says of his fellow Vietnam vets.

“It was divisive.”

Second generation armoured vehicle mechanic Chris Murnane.

Photo: Paul Jeffers

Back in Vietnam, things were so divisive families were being torn apart.

As Mr Nguyen and his pregnant wife fled the country, she was arrested and detained.

He made it to a refugee camp. Though he could have gone to the United States, he chose to settle in Australia.

Mr Nguyen had to wait six years before he could bring his family over to join him. Six years before he met his daughter Uyen for the first time.

Now she is a solicitor and he is a grandfather.

“Very religious people say ‘when I die I want to go to the heaven’,” Mr Nguyen said.

“You know what I tell them? ‘You are in heaven’. To me this is heaven.

“Because I came from hell.”

Vietnam Veterans Day Remembrance Service

Photo: Paul Jeffers

The 2018 Vietnam Veterans' Day Commemoration Ceremony at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne marked the 52nd anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

Photo: Paul Jeffers