Thursday, November 30, 2023

New Zealand Vietnam Veterans’ Day commemorated tomorrow

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Lt Col (Retd) Barry Dreyer – a Howick RSA member – this year stepped down as Colonel Commandant of the Royal New Zealand Artillery. Photo RNZAA

New Zealand Vietnam Veterans’ Day commemorated tomorrow.

New Zealand’s Vietnam War veterans are commemorating the fallen, remembering the war and what came after, and catching up with old comrades today, and through the weekend.

Veterans groups are holding commemorative services at cenotaphs and marae across the country, to remember the dead. As per custom, these services are followed by gatherings of old friends and comrades.

RSA National vice president Bob “Bukit” Hill served as a section commander in Vietnam in 1967/68. He retired from the Army in 1985 as Regimental Sergeant Major, and went onto a career in human resources management building major New Zealand infrastructure projects.

The lives of those who returned from Vietnam have covered a full spectrum, from success to hardship, he said. Some became captains of industry and leaders of the military, Government, and society, while some others fared less well.

“Many of those who went overseas returned to make significant contributions at all levels to New Zealand society,” he said.

“There are those who struggled when they came back – and are still struggling. This is no different for the returned men and women serving today. Life takes all sorts of unexpected turns.”

The intense shared experience of operational deployment creates a bond that lasts a lifetime, Mr Hill said.

“It’s very difficult to put the certain sense of camaraderie into words. I’m sure this was the same for those who went to the First and Second World Wars, as much as it is for those who served in more recent deployments. It forms friendships that never weaken, created by relying on each other in difficult situations.”

Jack Hayes served in Vietnam in 1970/71 as a lieutenant and troop commander of New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) 4 Troop. He views the August 18 Commemoration as a day to remember all Vietnam Veterans, not just to focus on those who died there. Mr Hayes retired in 2009 as an army major. He continues to work with the New Zealand Defence Force as an adviser on medals policy.

“Over 3000 men and women served New Zealand in Vietnam, and came home to live good lives making positive contributions to New Zealand society. They have worked in a wide range of occupations both here and overseas, have married, had children and most now are focussed on their grandchildren. They are proud of their service in Vietnam. They deserve the respect they receive from almost all New Zealanders.”

The experience New Zealand servicemen gained in Vietnam was of real value in shaping the NZ Defence Force at the time. Air force pilots and crew who learned (from the US Air Force and the Australians) a great deal about the use of helicopters and the role of forward air controllers. “We would never had gained that level of experience in New Zealand,” Mr Hayes said.

“Many Vietnam Veterans stayed in the army and air force, reaching high ranks and levels of responsibility. Vietnam shaped them and added to their experience and they were highly regarded by all for their operational knowledge and leadership. That extended into their civilian occupations when they retired.”

Mr Hayes also commended the care provided to veterans by Veterans’ Affairs.

“The new Veterans’ Affairs team are looking after our Vietnam veterans and their families very well. There will always be some disappointment, but overall this cohort has been supported well – and it looks even better going into the future. Well done to the staff at all levels in Veterans’ Affairs.”

August 18 was chosen to commemorate New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam as it marks August 18, 1966, when New Zealand’s 161 Battery gunners supported the Australian 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment infantrymen in the intense Battle of Long Tan, inflicting a major defeat on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army near Ba Ria in south-East Vietnam.

Through this significant victory against the Communist forces, the South Vietnamese and allied forces were able to secure the province of Phouc Thuy for the rest of the war.

It has just passed 52 years since the New Zealand Army first fired rounds in anger during the Vietnam War. In total there were close to 4000 New Zealanders who served in the war over a period of eight years.

Barry Dreyer, a Howick RSA member, was involved in the Battle of Long Tan as an artilleryman. He commented: “Inevitably, the lives of most of the Vietnam service people were changed forever. Most of them were young, still seeking their way in life and tied closely to their loved ones at home. Not only were the soldiers affected by the War, but also wives, partners, children and family, sometimes over many years,” Mr Dreyer said.

“Over the whole of the period, these servicemen and women played their part extremely well, able to hold their heads up in any company, and against any enemy, as the New Zealand serviceman has always done. They went as trained soldiers and came back as professionals.”

They developed an unbreakable camaraderie which is still there to today, he said.

“They went through trials and tribulations that most people would not understand; they had times of utter boredom, and periods of intense and dangerous activity. Their memories consist mainly of the minute and mostly irrelevant matters, and the relaxing and humorous periods. Most often, the tough times are hidden away,” said Mr Dreyer.

“They did their jobs superbly, working hard to support their countrymen and their allies, and complete their nation’s bidding, as they fought to defeat the enemy. They deserve the country’s gratitude.”

  • August 18 is Vietnam Veterans Day. A commemorative ceremony will be held at the Vietnam War Memorial in Manukau Memorial Gardens, Puhinui Road at 10am on Sunday August 20. The public are welcome to join the Veterans and their families.

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