Ambassador Bill Tweddell’s Address
Vietnam Veterans’ Day
Clark Veterans Cemetery
18 August 2014
Veterans, members of the Angeles City Returned and Services League, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
Vietnam Veterans Day is commemorated on 18 August every year. The day was originally known as Long Tan Day, chosen to commemorate the men of D Company, 6RAR who fought in the battle of Long Tan in 1966. On that day, 108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought a pitched battle against over 2,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in a rubber plantation not far from the small village of Long Tan.
It is very fitting that we honour Vietnam veterans with this special day on our nation’s calendar, when we recognise all those who served, but especially the 521 men who paid the supreme sacrifice on active duty in the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1972.
Australian troops were first sent to Vietnam in 1962 and the numbers increased over a 10-year period that saw more than 58,000 serving in the conflict by the end of the war.
Vietnam Veterans Day is an opportunity for all Australians – and particularly for Vietnam veterans, their families and their friends – to commemorate all battles of, and service during, the Vietnam War.
As a nation, we must never forget the service and sacrifice of those Australians who served their nation in the Vietnam War.
It has to be acknowledged that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War provoked domestic controversy. But history has two important lessons from that experience:
• First, that voicing opposition to Australia’s involvement was a democratic right. Brave young people have fought, suffered and died to secure that right.
• Second, that, in exercising the right to oppose a war, one should nevertheless support and respect those whom the Government sends to fight it.
Those people whose service and sacrifice we honour today deserve to be counted alongside all those whose selfless courage has contributed to shaping our national character.
My fervent hope is that gatherings like ours today help in the healing and reconciliation process for veterans who fought in Vietnam – and indeed veterans of all conflicts in which our troops have been called to take part.
Our Vietnam veterans continue to carry the burdens of their service. They are a remarkable generation of men and women who, together with their families, have fought hard to ensure that their service is never forgotten.
In the case of those families who have borne the sorrow of not knowing where their loved ones lay buried, the searches for Australian service personnel missing in action in Vietnam resulted, during my time as Ambassador to Vietnam, in the successful retrieval and return of the remains of three servicemen: Private Peter Gillson, Lance Corporal Richard (“Tiny”) Parker and Lance Corporal John Gillespie.
It is one of the professional and personal highlights of my life that I was able to play a role in that achievement – and to help set in train processes through which the remains of a further three servicemen – the last three – were retrieved and returned after my tour of duty had ended. They were Pilot Officer Robert Carver, Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Private David Fisher.
Our nation must also resolve never to repeat the mistakes of the past, including the egregious treatment meted out by some in our community to Vietnam veterans upon their return to Australia.
This ceremony today provides an opportunity to reaffirm the common values and deep friendship that we Australians share with the people of the United States, New Zealand and the Philippines, as well as of the other allied countries alongside whom Australians have served during wars and peacekeeping operations.
Lest we forget.
Before I depart the podium, I would like to welcome a very special guest.
It is indeed a great honour to have with us today one of my fellow North Queenslanders, Mr Keith Payne VC, AOM – a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry "in the face of the enemy" awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces. He is the last living Australian recipient of the original "imperial" Victoria Cross. A true national treasure.
Keith Payne had an impressive military career having served in the Korean War between April 1952 and March 1953, Malaya in 1965 and Papua New Guinea in 1967 before being posted to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam in February 1969.
In May 1969 he was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion when it was attacked by a strong North Vietnamese force. Keith Payne’s Company was isolated and surrounded on three sides. By now wounded in the hands and arms and under heavy fire, he covered the withdrawal before organising his troops into a defensive perimeter.
He then spent three hours scouring the scene of the day's fight for isolated and wounded soldiers, all the while evading the enemy who kept up regular fire.
He found some forty wounded men, brought some in himself and organised the rescue of the others, leading the party back to base through enemy dominated terrain.
For his heroic actions, Keith Payne was awarded the Victoria Cross presented by Queen Elizabeth the Second aboard the Royal Yacht, Britannia, in Brisbane on 13 April 1970.
It is the service, sacrifice and deeds of Keith Payne that has inspired generations of Australian serviceman that have gone on to serve us proud in Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and other theatres.
Keith will celebrate his 81st birthday on 30 August, another impressive milestone for a true national treasure.
Veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please join me in welcoming Keith Payne.