My Vietnam Protest
Annals issue 5 of 2001 had a short article on ‘News of the Catholic World’ about the Vietnamese government confiscating the parish church of Thanh Quang to convert it into a museum.
This sad story started me reflecting on my involvement with Vietnam.
As a youngster, I wanted to be a pilot. Probably like most would-be pilots, I wanted to fly for an airline. An airline captain seemed, in my mind, pretty close to God. My dream was not based on financial rewards but on a boy’s hero perceptions.
The air force taught how to fly and paid well at the same time. This seemed the best way to an airline career. I didn’t realise then that the flying the air force offered was so much more professionally rewarding that I would never again consider the airlines.
I joined the air force to learn to fly, to eventually become an airline pilot, not to fight in Vietnam a country I had heard little about. However, with no choice, I was posted to Iroquois helicopters as part of the first group of four pilots posted directly from pilot’s course to helicopters.
When I joined 9 Squadron on helicopters in Vietnam in March 1967, I was like most other 20-year-olds; keen, excited and eager to get on with it. But my eagerness changed direction. From eager to prove myself as a pilot I became eager to defend a beautiful people from unspeakable horrors.
I saw the results of those nights of torture inflicted on the men, women (particularly) and children who had fled North Vietnam, often as whole Catholic communities, so they could continue to practice their faith in the south.
And we allowed this to happen. We allowed the so-called Vietnam protestors to lose the war and condemn these people to often lifelong misery. These protestors saw nothing of the sufferings of the simple Vietnamese. Not a word of apology have I heard from any of the protestors to the Vietnamese people who fled at the fall of Saigon. Many Catholic Vietnamese in Australia today fled the north for their faith and then fled their country for freedom while suffering awful horrors on the way.
One of the most satisfying missions we used to fly in Vietnam was market day. With the countryside impassible, we would load our helicopters with many more people than seats plus an assortment of pigs, chickens and vegetables and take them to the district market, returning later in the day. Usually we flew with doors open in Vietnam, but with such a diverse cargo we had to close the doors. The smell was something else! It was so bad, one of our otherwise good, Catholic young crewmen was so distressed he threatened mutiny and refused to fly with such a cargo again.
Typical of Australians, soldiers and airmen alike seemed to adopt the Vietnamese people in the same way our soldiers in more recent conflicts do today. As an open, trusting people, we always assumed the best of the Vietnamese, never thinking that any could be so underhand as to carry a concealed grenade or to wish ill of us. And the Vietnamese people responded in kind to this treatment. We all felt as if it were family when news of atrocities meted out to these people started coming in during the 1968 Tet offensive.