It was in March 1970, I was 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.
At least I felt like I was.
There was ticker-tape raining down from tall buildings, there were crowds of people lining Martin Place and George Street, my family was clapping from in front of the Town Hall and I was proud.
Proud to be an Australian soldier, proud to be marching with my mates and in a unit which had performed above all others.
How do I look dad?
My greens (uniform) were slightly pale due to age and wear but my boots were shiny, my rifle was sparkling clean, my bayonet scabbard was black and showed no signs of where it had been for the past 13 months and the brass on my black belt had never looked better.
My slouch hat had seen better days, I’d hardly worn it for more than a year and felt hats don’t travel well in a kit bag.
It was a day to remember.
Barely noticing some dry red paint on the road near the Town Hall, I marched with the boys around a corner and on to Hyde Park to an army container where we were to hand in our weapons.
It was a fairly slow process - all rifles had to be ticked off against our names before being put away.
A Warrant Officer was speaking to the boys ahead of me and as I came closer I heard him say, “Get out of uniform and get out of town.”
I have never forgotten those words.
We had no clothes to change into; they were either back at Garden Island or with our relatives who’d met us as we disembarked from the old ‘Vung Tau Ferry,’ otherwise known as HMAS Sydney.
It was only later I realised there was an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment among a large portion of the population. At the time, I couldn’t understand why.
Black and white TV news
I was amazed as I watched the black and white television evening news to see banners and placards near the Town Hall which I had not seen earlier.
As I watched, the camera picked out a person who burst from the crowd carrying a tin of paint which he attempted to throw over our colour party.
Still, I was stunned by the veracity of the protestors.
Nearly 50 years later I look back with 20/20 hindsight…well, through a different lens anyway.
My jaundiced view of university students who led the demonstrations has altered considerably since both sons have degrees and my oldest grandson is about to complete his first year of engineering.
The ‘black and white’ war turned out not to be so black and white after all.
Our population had been exposed to the war every night while they ate dinner. Every aspect which could be made look bad was highlighted.
Later, I noticed almost all the film footage was of American troops and remembered too, the Australian journalists were rarely seen where we were. Apparently, Australians weren’t the ‘news.’
Australian troops behaved in a manner more likely to bring praise than reproof. The Australian media of the time should be the ones ashamed of their actions.
I’m still proud of what I personally achieved and my unit is still the best – in my mind it will always be so – but I now wonder about the politicians, both here and overseas, who lied and led us ‘up the garden path’ and into a war we were destined not to win.
Perhaps those demonstrators had something to remonstrate about. Did they know something we young men in green didn’t?
Again, I look back and perhaps those young people were only demonstrating against war, and who can blame them, because the truth about how our politicians were only intent on placating the American government by joining them in the war didn’t emerge for some years.
Politicians are supposedly renowned for telling lies, in fact I think we expect it now. But in nearly every case, the truth comes out eventually to the shame of those involved.
Those who led the whole country astray back in the early 1960s must live (and die) with their actions. All comes out in the end.
It will be the same in our own lives, all will be revealed in the end no matter how well we’ve hidden the truth, deceived others, even ourselves and in the end, we will be judged.
John Skinner is a retired journalist who has written ten biographies on famous campdrafting competitors. He was an Australian infantry soldier wounded in Vietnam, served six years as a Police Officer, was CEO of the then Australian Rough Riders Assn (Pro-Rodeo based in Warwick, Qld). He and his wife Marion retired to a small farm 25km south of Warwick 20 years ago. They have three children and now seven grandchildren.