Given that yesterday was Vietnam Veterans day, it's probably a good time to post this recollection.
Infantry battalions were supported in country by a range of people and structures. One important element of this support was the padre. He rejoiced in a variety of nicknames, including “sky-pilot”, “god-botherer” or “bible-basher”, but these nicknames, like the attitude of most soldiers, were generally benign.
There was a grudging respect on the part of most diggers for anyone who was prepared to share the privations and dangers that were central to the daily life of patrolling as an infantry soldier. I encountered a few padres during my service, and was generally impressed. I don’t know if there were any poor quality padres in Vietnam, but if there were, I didn’t come into contact with them. I guess anyone who wasn’t genuine would have been given short shrift by the diggers.
We were fortunate as a unit to have a Father Keith Teefey as our padre, and he was well respected by most of us. I got to know him during April on our second battalion operation, when he traveled with B Company.
During the operation I did a stint as LOB (which meant I was back in base for a week – a job that was rotated through the rifle sections) and I traveled with Keith Teefey back to Nui Dat on an APC. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversation on the APC – they’re much too noisy, but we moved on to a truck at FSB Anne, and I was able to talk to him then.
He had worked in the Darling Downs and this gave us something in common, as I knew the area.
He talked about some of the civil affairs work that he was involved in, and this raised my interest straight away, as it sounded preferable to tromping around the scrub in a rifle platoon. Most things sounded better than what I was doing at this time.
Besides, I was a teacher, and would have given my eyeteeth to be working in Civil Aid, where my expertise was. I began to harbour thoughts that I would get myself – somehow – into civil affairs, and when I got back to the Dat, penned a letter to the CO requesting a transfer to a unit involved in this work. (It was this letter that was partly responsible for my posting to Q platoon later). The response to this was predictable. The company commander made a point of letting me know that he thought this was my way of escaping operational duty, by calling the letter “a load of bullshit”.
He was right about me wanting to get out of a rifle platoon, but wrong in calling what I’d written “bullshit”. I really did have altruistic motives. Incidentally, my platoon commander was supportive. On reflection, it may have been simply that he wanted to get rid of me.
Earlier in this operation, we had moved into FSB Anne after what seemed like months of patrolling. In reality, we had been “bush” for about five weeks. The best part of getting back behind the wire, in a slightly more secure situation, was enjoying a field shower, which removed several layers of sweat and filth, and made us feel human again. When you haven’t had a proper cleanup for five weeks, you become very appreciative of this kind of opportunity.
We set up positions within the relative safety of the base, and began to clean our gear and deal with what the army called “personal administration”. This was code for getting all our paraphernalia back into best possible nick, trying to repair or replace lost or damaged items, and getting stuck into weapons maintenance.
This last aspect was treated with almost religious fervour, because apart from the fact that we had been drilled since the first day of recruit training into looking after our weapons, we knew that in a real sense, our lives depended on weapon reliability. Generally, the SLR was reliable under the worst of field conditions, but the M-16 and M-60 were less so, not tolerating sand or grit. The belts for the M-60s had to be kept clean, or the result was a stoppage, possibly at a very inconvenient moment when the rest of the section was relying on the gun.
There was also time for a different and more conventional variety of religious observance – that of a “church” service. Easter was coming up, but this was to be a simple communion service for all ranks. The place chosen was in the open to one side of the FSB. It was made clear that religious denomination wasn’t an issue and everyone was welcome.
I went along, as did the bulk of the platoon, and was amazed to hear Keith Teefey announce at the beginning of the service, that communion would be taken, and everyone, irrespective of denomination, was welcome to join in, providing they did so in the right spirit. Quite a few of my non-Catholic mates did so, and whilst we didn’t discuss it (soldiers generally don’t comment on liturgical matters in the field), seemed to show due reverence in the situation.
As a Catholic brought up in a fairly conservative tradition, I was impressed by what I regarded as a rational and ecumenical approach to pastoral care in the field. A letter to my parents, written that afternoon after the morning service, explained what I had seen. I knew my father would be interested, as he was something of an amateur theologian, and had a keen interest in liturgical reform, originating about the time of Vatican II.
My dad told the Parish Priest in Texas at the time, and all hell broke loose.
This priest, a very conservative Irishman, reported Keith Teefey to the Bishop of the Diocese, much to my father’s dismay, which began a long-running feud. (The bishop, who didn’t have any jurisdiction in this case, had enough common sense to ignore the report, but it made my father very angry.) This feud culminated in a denouncement of my family from the pulpit. This made dad even more upset, because the priest cast aspersions on one of my sisters who was obliquely accused of giving bad example, because she was enjoying a busy social life in Warwick. My father refused to have anything more to do with the priest.
This was a local issue, as dad was principal of the state primary school, and had at this time two children (my youngest brother and sister) attending the convent school. Looking back, the situation was a good example of the power of ignorance.
To some extent, it was also indicative of the attitude of some Australians to the conflict, an attitude born of ignorance. I remember thinking that the whole episode had elements of farce. I never told Keith Teefey about it. Later in my tour, in Admin Company, I had the chance to travel with Keith Teefey to the Baria orphanage, which had been adopted by our unit. I enjoyed the contact with the children immensely, some of whom had obviously been fathered by American servicemen. The conditions in the orphanage weren’t wonderful, as it was overcrowded and understaffed, but the kids seemed full of life, bright, and very pleased to see us.
We would scrounge all sorts of useful items and give them to the staff, who were very grateful. The diggers were very generous, and would scout around for useful items if they knew they were going to a good cause. It was pretty clear to me that there was an enormous amount of goodwill between the average digger and the ordinary Vietnamese, and I’m sure that we would have spent our time much more profitably in South Vietnam if we had been engaged in civil affairs work, and left the fighting to the Yanks.
There may have been a better long-term political outcome if we had done so. Mind you, one of the reasons for the relative security enjoyed in Phouc Tuy was the superior tactics and field craft exhibited by 1ATF. If the security had been managed by the Yanks, it would probably have been a very different story.
There were a number of diggers who professed to despise the Vietnamese people, but I’m sure this developed out of fear, and was not a typical reaction. The major issue was always that of being unable to trust anyone, as there was no front line, and security was never guaranteed.
Despite this, Phouc Tuy was more secure during my time in country (1970) than most other provinces, and this was certainly due to the superior tactics adopted by the Australian units, as it had been a VC stronghold. As far as I can see, we were light years ahead of the Yanks in this aspect of the conduct of the war.
I was very pleased (and surprised) at the end of June to be posted to Q platoon, Admin Company. Some vacancies had occurred there as a result of Nashos completing their time in country, and I’d always been honest with my superiors about my discontent at my posting, so the recommendation was made, and my transfer came through. This meant that I would live behind the wire in a tent, and would not be spending the rest of my tour (about six months) tromping through the jungle. I had made some great mates in B Company, and felt some guilt at moving into the relative safety of Admin Company, but in the end was relieved at the less dangerous posting. It sat well with my major goal of getting home in one piece.
As it turned out, in short order I was posted out to the Horseshoe to run the Q unit out there, so I didn't stay in the Dat for long. When the QM discovered I was a teacher in civvie street, and could operate a 16mm projector, I also took over showing late run films to the diggers.
I got to see a lot of movies.