WE WERE ONLY 20


We were living a life of plenty
We were near adult all of twenty
When a letter came in the mail
Make fathers curse mothers pale
Called to serve Queen and country
Defend those who fight for free
Not here for the free rides
Everyone short back and sides
Learn to march, learn to kill
How to lose your own free will
Sergeants yell, corporals shout
PT instructors shake it about
Gear looked new but it was old
Left from World War Two we’re told
On the parade ground flat and hot
Told we are a bloody shabby lot
Some can march left and right
Others told to get out of sight
Which is a rifle, which is a gun,
One for shooting, one for fun.
Out in the bush, on a long march
Army life seems terribly harsh
Home on leave, crowd stand-out
Everyone else a long-haired lout
Discovered the evils of Sydney Cross
Keep moving to gather no moss
Some got lucky choosing a corps
Others would not get to see a war
More training to become a Digger
Knowing when to pull the trigger
Others play supporting roles
Not for them never-ending patrols
Contact left and contact right
Ambush training day and night
Paint your face and camouflage
Hard to hide when you’re so large
Playing games seemed surreal
One day would be real deal
Some by sea on ‘Vung Tau Ferry’
Others by air, so not to tarry
Lucky ones in Saigon, Vung Tau
Most in the bush, here and now
Many days stealthily on patrol
Nights in ambush a shallow hole
Thud of guns and bombs
Close then so far away.
Winning hearts and minds
Often losing souls to mines
Battles small and large
Contacts won and lost.
Relived in the boozer
Different versions told
In letters to beloved.
On R and R innocence
Could have been lost
Except it had flown away
In a war of attrition
Still at contrition
Padre’s penance chimed
Through the crazy mind.
Sleeps to go got smaller
Till zero day came at last
And his future to always
Be haunted by the past.
Searching for normality
Around familiar streets
But no one understood
Where they had been
Or what they’d done
The unmentionable
Became forgettable
To many but the lost
Found wanting
In their own country.
At last they came home
But part of them remained
In a new land ordained
Where lives were salvaged
Among those so savaged
All who were part rebuilding
Soft bells will always ring.

Pte. Kerry White with Sir Raymond Huish at the 5RAR base at Nui Dat early 1967"While the Redgum song, ‘I was only 19’, has become something of an anthem of the Vietnam War (it was actually written some years later in 1983), most Australians who fought in the war would have been over 19, particularly those who had been called up for National Service from the age of 20, which was also the average age of our infantry soldiers in Vietnam. Many Regular Army volunteers of course signed up at 18 and 19. More than 15,000 ‘Nashos’ served in the Vietnam War (1965-72); of 479 Army personnel killed, 200 were Nashos; nine others were Navy and 14 were RAAF with seven civilian deaths for a total of 508 Australians killed; 3632 were wounded or otherwise injured.
 (Source: http://www.ausvets.com.au/vietstat.htm ).

This poem appears in Kerry White’s latest anthology, ‘Behold the stars’, available on Amazon.

Note: Kerry has been informed subsequently that 17 was actually the minimum age to sign up with the Army.

 

 

© Kerry White
b company vietnam 1st tour
Kerry White

 

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