Some more info behind "He was only nineteen"

I think everyone in Australia is familiar with the song he was only 19.

I wrote about it here.

In a newsletter from my old unit (2RAR) there was a story that I found quite interesting, it was based on a newspaper article in the Adelaide paper in 2008....


Another walk in the Light Green




THIS Anzac Day it will be 36 years since the end of Australia's involvement its longest and most controversial war.
AS war flashbacks go there was none more powerful than February 16, 2008, a hot day near a military camp at Hoi My, only a few kilometres from the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat in southern Vietnam.
Former combat field engineer Dave Sturmer chokes back tears as he relates the events of July 21, 1969.
It was the day man walked on the moon and the platoon commander of the Sixth Battalion's Alpha Company had just pulled back minesweeper Dave's headphones to tell him the news.
As Dave continued sweeping for mines on the sandy track, the lieutenant walked back to his Three Platoon headquarters in the bush - and trod on a M16 jumping jack mine.

It was a patch of earth Dave had not yet swept and the mine that jumped from the ground before it exploded, blew off the officer's leg and sent a hail of deadly fragments into the 30-man platoon.
Shaking with shock, Dave reached the stricken man - and others wounded - and tried to help.
It has taken months of planning and research to come to this place full of terrible memories. Now, with the assistance of an old engineer's map and GPS references, six vets and a very select group of Australian tourists stand on that square metre of ground that inspired the words to the famous John Schumann song I Was Only 19.
It was here Dave witnessed minutes of terror and courage where a radio operator (``Frankie'' in I Was Only 19), despite his wounds, called in the Dustoff evacuation chopper.
Dave now lies on his stomach while we all listen to his agonising recollection of watching his mates writhe in pain and the life slip away from the young lieutenant.
I'm already tearing up - it is one of the most emotive, challenging experiences of my post-war life.
Dave is struggling to relate the minutes after the first blast which, contrary to Schumann's song, was not triggered by young Frankie. One man is dead and 18 wounded.
With the Dustoff chopper comes the battalion doctor - who minutes later treads on another mine. Two are now dead and 23 are wounded.
DAVID Armstrong, a Melbourne adventure travel consultant who helped Dave Sturmer with the GPS references and access to the never-before-visited blast site, is filming the re-enactment.
Suddenly, as if on Hollywood cue, a dozen men in green uniforms, some wearing pith helmets, appear through the trees. They are Vietnamese Army soldiers, curious at this group of foreign civilians standing in the bushes on their patch of land.
I felt myself stiffen as they drew closer, their looks a mixture of curiosity, and suspicion. For a few minutes in a semi-circle around us, they whisper among themselves while Dave continues his story.
We have permission from the Local People's Committee to be here, but there is a palpable tension in the air. I don't want to look but I do and my eyes lock with one of the young ``former enemy'' and his expression is bemusement at the Aussie vet telling an old war story and the fact we should tramp through the bush to this nondescript patch of scrub. I've been hyperventilating for the past half hour - it was maybe a kilometre or two from this spot I was blown up by a mine in 1967 while on a tracking mission.
No way was I going back to that spot, even if I could find it.
The soldiers quietly inquire from our Vietnamese government official what's going on and they stand for several more minutes watching with little expression while an Aussie veteran tells a story, that quite possibly their fathers were part of, before they melt back into the bush.
Dave is now standing by himself and unashamedly crying, his personal odyssey is finished.
The Vietnamese official - whose eyes are also wet with tears - gives us the wind up and says we'd better leave. He declines our offer to lay a commemorative plaque on the site.
It's been more than a week now into the Vietnam visit and my vet mate Larry and I have climbed through the Long Hai hills, tramped the length and breadth of old Nui Dat and trekked out to Long Tan as part of an itinerary tailored to take vets to areas they want to revisit.

TOUR organisers obtained clearance to visit war sites and walk over private or restricted areas. It is through this special arrangement we are soon scrambling up a mountain track to the site of the famed helicopter crash where four men were killed in action in April 1971.
It also is the location where last year a forensic team, under the guidance of Jim Bourke's Operation Aussies Home team, recovered the remains of Lance-Cpl John Gillespie, who was killed and buried beneath the Dustoff chopper shot down by the enemy on the slopes of a steep ravine.
The blades of the crashing aircraft also killed my friend and former dog handler Tom Blackhurst. So, out of duty, I had to gasp and grunt with fellow vets up the hill track - ``a 20-minute walk'' said the guide.
After 30 minutes I was on my knees, gasping, with Larry asking, ``You OK, mate?''
We are now in what was called by the former enemy the Minh Dam Secret Zone. Two days before we had been up here among the massive rocks and boulders, staggering, wheezing and squeezing into old Viet Cong bunkers and tunnels.
Now we're at the chopper crash site and for half an hour we speak quietly, running our hands over the still visible evidence of boulders pockmarked by gunship bullets and rocket fire from 37 years ago.
While we're there our guide, a former Viet Cong, places two branches in the shape of a cross on the spot where Gillespie's remains were found.
I was also dry-mouthed because this was the incident I wrote about in my book Shockwave, told to me by gunship commander Norm Goodall on the fire support mission he called ``my white-knuckle day''.
It was another emotional moment of many on this extraordinary trip. But more was to come.
The following night Larry and I were tucking into a schnitzel at Vung Tau's Ned Kelly bar when I noticed two vets writing their names on the wall of fame in the restaurant.
I asked who they were. I was speechless - they identified themselves as Aussie RAAF vets Roy Zeger and Bob Stephens, crewmen and survivors from the actual chopper that was shot down. They also visited the site, just before our climb up the mountain. For a memorable half-hour they gave first-hand accounts of the tragedy.
At Nui Dat we spent nearly two days walking through the almost pristine rubber plantation, marking with GPS our old tent sites. Larry and I believe we identified the cracked, spider-infested old slab of concrete that was the kennel block for the tracking dogs in 1967.
In 1967-68 I had a kelpie-labrador-cross tracking dog called Caesar, one of 11 four-legged Diggers who, for their efforts, were pensioned off to Australians in Saigon when the war ended.
Nailing down the old kennel site was like finding a long-lost grave.
The Long Tan Trek, the main feature of the battle tour, begins at the former Delta Company 6RAR position in the rubber plantation at Nui Dat. Under the guidance of ex-5RAR infantryman Barry ``Barney'' Ruttle we adopt a patrol arrowhead formation, emulating D Coy's patrol of August 18, 1966.
Each of us also read out aloud original radio transmission transcripts from D Coy on that day.
Sweating buckets, we glide quietly through the rubber trees.
This place is hallowed ground: a four-hour battle took place here that saw 18 Diggers and 450 enemy killed and another Anzac legend born.
In the mottled shadows around the Long Tan Memorial a solitary Vietnamese goat herder is witness as we burn incense and whisper the Ode (any other form of commemoration is forbidden). The Long Tan Trek tour is two weeks of walking, staggering and grunting over old theatres of battle.
It is intensely emotional, at times exhausting but ultimately a fulfilling, even cathartic, experience.
I FOUND a real healing of war and remembrance that was due in no small way to the friendly gentleness of a new generation of Vietnamese - and the occasional old Viet Cong we met who was full of hugs and grins. Even the new military were open and friendly.
On the final day, back in Saigon, Larry teed up a hire car and driver for the day for $80 and we fought our way through a million motorcycles northwest to the town of Than Ouyen and the Fire Support Base Coral Battle site.
This was significant to my mate Larry who crouched in a hole on the first night's battle - a fight that went on for days and saw 23 Australians killed in May 1968.
We had left the official tour group and had no permission to go there. The local militia had a meltdown when we called in at their headquarters about 2km from Coral.
Our driver got an official dressing down, and we said sorry - then like two good vets stopped outside the village and walked through the rubber to the Coral site to get pictures. Vietnam, 40 years on, and old soldiers are coming back.
This is not a grand tour of Vietnam: it is specifically in the province - now called Baria-Vung Tau - where thousands of Australian combatants did their tour of duty.
Anyone on this sort of personal trip should be very conscious of protocols - no overt celebration or unruly boastful behaviour.
It also is vital to get the OK from the regional People's Committee before wandering into known battle areas, and respect must be shown for both sides involved in the conflict. Unlike Gallipoli, laying wreaths, plaques or memorabilia is not allowed.
It was TET when we arrived - for me strong memories of blood and thunder.

I spent my 60th birthday in a Saigon restaurant where our host, a gorgeous French Vietnamese woman named Rose, who also was hosting us at her French villa (a B&B at $28 a night), had arranged a 60-year-old Vietnamese rock singer to entertain this old Digger.
If I remember anything about that night it is Mr Ha and his Credence Clearwater Revival rendition: Wolling, Wolling, Wolling on the Wiver.
And the grand finale? Outside the Palace Hotel in central Saigon Larry called out, ``Peter, you'd better look at this''.
I caught my breath. Running up to me from a photo shop where his owner worked, was a seven-month old black kelpie-cross labrador. He playfully bit my hand and wagged his black bushy tail. Welcome back.
It was the great-great-great-grandson of a tracker dog named Caesar. True? Well, I've got the photos - and it's a great story to tell the kids.

Wet ya appetite?

Then get Peter Haran's book......



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