• MAJGEN John Hartley, AO
• Mr Keith Payne, VC OAM
• Former Team Members
• Soldiers of our allies (United States)
• Fellow veterans
• Ladies and gentlemen
It is a singular honour to host this reception for the 45th anniversary of the formation of the Australian Army Training Team – Vietnam, particularly in the presence of such a distinguished gathering. As a non-member of the Team I feel privileged to address a special group of men and their families who have contributed so much to Australia’s proud military history. Thankyou also for inviting me to the moving commemorative ceremony at the Australian War Memorial this morning at which your President, Major General John Hartley, spoke so well.
The Team made a unique contribution to Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam War. It began 45 years ago when some 29 Australian soldiers; fit, carefully selected and experienced, were farewelled from Sydney, leaving a small, and very likely, an anxious group of relatives and friends. Few media attended and little public interest was shown.
No-one could ever have imagined that this tiny group of soldiers would launch such a prestigious chapter in Australia’s military history.
In the field of individual gallantry and performance of duty, no unit on the Australian Army Order of Battle has a prouder record.
In your 10 years of active service from 1962 to 1972, you lost 33 of the 992 members posted, with some 122 wounded. In the process the Team was decorated with:
• The South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm unit citation and the US Army Meritorious Unit Commendation.
• 4 VC’s (Kevin Wheatley, Peter Badcoe, Ray Simpson and Keith Payne).
• 2 DSO’s, 3 OBE’s, 6 MBE’s, 6 MC’s, 20 DCM’s, 15 MM’s, 4 BEM’s, 4 Queen’s Commendations and 49 MID’s.
• Add to this, numerous US awards including 1 DSC, 18 Silver Stars and 64 Bronze Stars along with some 376 Republic of South Vietnam awards.
None of this comes as a surprise to me. As a young Duntroon cadet from 1955-58 I was taught my basic military skills by future team members of the likes of Rusty Troy, George Chinn, Arthur Stanley, Ron Perkins and Don Strachan; splendid warrant officers whose soldierly demeanour and superb instructional skills made such an impact on me and hundreds of my compatriots that their faces are as clear in my mind today as they were 52 years ago.
Likewise, Captains Laurie Clark and Russ Lloyd were young officer instructors at Duntroon at the same time; wonderful leaders and teachers of the military art. Laurie went on to become Chief Training Advisor of the Ranger Training Centre at Duc My, whilst Russ commanded the Team in distinguished fashion in 1969-70.
In my first posting to the SAS as a subaltern in 1959 I was trained by future team members of the likes of: Roy Weir, gentleman Jim McFadzean, D J Neville, Ray Simpson (Cobber), Clem Kealy, Joe Flannery and George Chinn to name but a few. Fellow officers in the Regiment included: Ray Burnard, Keith Kirkland, Brian Wade, Graham Belleville (KIA), Don Robertson, Geoff Skardon, Ian Gollings and Ian McNeil, all future Team members.
In my later postings to the SAS, I served with wonderful soldiers and team members including John Sheehan, Frank Sykes, Tony Thorpe and Bruce Sutherland – all beneficiaries of that superb trainer of Special Forces, Laurie Clark, whose Recondo selection and patrol course program remain a cornerstone of SASR success to the present day.
John Murphy, one of the finest officers ever to serve our Army and who had the presence of mind to establish “Australia House” in Danang as a meeting place for the Team, was a close friend and took the first SAS squadron to Vietnam. His earlier service with the Team must have contributed immeasurably to his splendid work as a squadron commander.
Then from the proven training grounds of the RAR and PIR in which I also had the honour to serve, were comrades in arms of the likes of Adrian Clunies - Ross (a magnificent officer and later 2IC of 8RAR), George Mansford (The Mad Galahs), John Healy, Stan Krasnoff, Barry Peterson, Bill Brydon, Keith Sticpewich, Ken Stoker, Vin Murphy, Larry McGarry (recently passed away), Ian Teague, Jim Devitt, Neville Wilson, Pat Beale and scores of other wonderful soldiers whom time precludes me from mentioning now.
The point I wish to make, is that given the outstanding personal qualities of these men, linked to an intense sense of military professionalism, the Team was always going to be something special, something unique; and although operating mainly in ones and twos, a close band of brothers, united by pride in themselves, their mates and in the uniform they wore.
As a company commander with 8RAR, our battalion was very well-prepared for Vietnam. We had 12 months full-time duties-free lead-up training in Australia and a month of familiarisation training just outside our brigade base at Nui Dat when we arrived in country. We also had extensive training with our supporting arms and services.
You on the other hand arrived in-country in ones and twos, where after a quick briefing in Saigon, you were posted to South Vietnamese or Montagnard units you didn’t know. Language was always a major problem, training standards in many cases were inferior, fire support and rapid casualty evacuation was not guaranteed, diet was different, and unit morale low in some cases.
Within hours of arrival to your new unit you could be in action, where sustained personal courage and example was often required to hold your force together; to prevent possible panic and disintegration.
Yet you did not give up or complain. Rather, like the true professionals you were, you simply got on with the job - to your lasting credit and to that of the Australian Army and its fighting reputation.
At this point the question is inevitably asked, was it all worthwhile? Was it right to be there in the first place and did you and your fellow Australians in the Task Force do a good job?
Well, I think it can be somewhat counter-productive to look at such questions with the benefit of hindsight. The Vietnam of the 1960s was significantly different in terms of regional focus and ideology, and perhaps today’s judgements would not be appropriate. However I believe it goes without saying that the region may have looked incredibly different had we not committed, and I have always remained very proud of my service and that of my soldiers in Phuoc Tuy Province.
But whatever you feel in respect to the strategic or moral justification of the war, of this you can be sure; as members of the Australian Army Training Team - Vietnam, whether you served as advisors, trainers or commanders, you did your duty as directed by the government of the day. Your conduct as professional soldiers, your courage under fire and your empathy with the South Vietnamese people and army, won widespread admiration at home and abroad, and brought great credit to the battle reputation of the Australian Army.
And now as we veterans grow a little older, a little greyer, it might be of interest to note at Christmas 2005 I saw a very similar group of tough, motivated, professional soldiers in another Australian Army Training Team – this time in Iraq. Their outstanding performance and commitment to Australia’s interests is a powerful reflection of your legacy. Perhaps they might be welcomed into the fold in future, as part of a wider training team association. Something to think about very carefully.
So well done AATTV veterans, and especially to the wives, children and families who supported you. Hold your heads high always, in the knowledge of a job well and faithfully done in the conflict that was Vietnam.
A very happy 45th birthday to you all.
• MAJGEN John Hartley, AO