FOUR locals have been honoured with bravery awards at recent Vietnam War commemorations.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, which have been described as the fiercest, longest and most costly battles involving Australian forces in the Vietnam War, and following national commemorations in Canberra on May 13, veterans who served in the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, including Tom Loughridge of Loch, Perry Neil of Korumburra, Daryl Kerslake of Allambee South and Bob Sutton of Inverloch, were awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry for their involvement the battles.
Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove announced the award, “For extraordinary gallantry in action in the Dinh Duong/Bien Hoa Provinces of South Vietnam from May 12, 1968 to June 6, 1968, during Operation THOAN THANG,” making the following remarks:
“With limited experience at fighting high intensity combined armour/infantry engagements, the Australians demonstrated extraordinary gallantry in the defence of FSPBs Coral and Balmoral.
“The exceptional leadership and soldiering skills of all members of [the 1ST Australian Task Force (Forward), including the 1st Battalion RAR] and their sustained outstanding performance in the face of overwhelming odds during the largest and most hazardous battle of the Vietnam War were in the finest tradition of the Australian Army and the Australian Defence Forces.”
Perry Neil attended several days of 50th anniversary commemorations in Townsville last month, saying it was “fantastic” to come together with hundreds of other veterans to receive recognition and new colours from the Governor General.
“We had a fantastic reception from the Townsville mayor, attended by over 400 people. There were marches, memorial services, a regimental dinner. I saw a few blokes from my section, and we were really stoked with the reception we received from the current battalion. They looked after us very well.
“It’s a great thing, especially for the blokes that persevered in the ongoing battle.”
Perry’s involvement in the Battle at Fire Support Base Coral was brief. He received shrapnel wounds to his stomach, groin, legs and arm and was choppered out to hospital on the first night his section was attacked by North Vietnamese forces (May 12, 1968). He had spent several months in Vietnam prior to the attack and says the experience “still plays a big part in [his] life” and he has been actively involved with the RSL and Legacy for the past 25 years as well as meeting up with members of his section for yearly reunions.
“We were fighting at very close range. Often at point blank range. There was a lot of noise, but it was all over pretty quickly.
“I can’t say it was a scary experience because your training kicks in. I remember changing a magazine and looking up and seeing a rocket come in, but everybody kept pretty calm and attended to the wounded. It’s more afterwards that you get scared, thinking about what could have happened.
“When I got sent back [to Australia] and served my time in the army reserve, I tried all sorts of jobs but I found it very hard to settle down.”
Tom Loughridge, originally of Grantville, was a machine gunner in a different company and survived 25 nights of sustained attack, as well as oppressive heat, torrential rain and several bouts of malaria, during his 339 days in Vietnam.
Tom saw his best mate Bevan killed and another mate Max wounded by a mortar less than a metre away from him, but says he “never had time to think about being frightened”.
“My instincts and training kicked in and it was time for me to take over my machine gun.
“But when a dust-off helicopter came in to evacuate Bevan and Max…all the training in the world could not have prepared me or any soldier for what had just happened, seeing your mates killed or wounded and feeling so helpless.”
Tom says he was sad to leave his mates, his “second family”, at the end of the battle on June 6, and that he found it very difficult to “adjust into normal life” upon returning to Australia, especially as soldiers were told to “go home and not mention where we had been or what we had seen or done”.
“You put your head down and bum up. I became a workaholic, whereas a lot of men became alcoholics,” he said.
Tom says he, like many Vietnam veterans, suppressed his feelings until decades later, when Australian society finally began to recognise the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers in the controversial war through events like the 1987 Welcome Home March.
“There was very little support for returned soldiers or understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder. You were on your own. Suffering PTSD – people can’t see that.
“But if you had an arm or a leg missing they would see that you did have a bit of a problem. PTSD, you do your best to cover it up and don’t talk to people. You never talked to anybody. It was probably 25 to 30 years before you even mentioned it.”
Perry and Tom agree that though the Battle of Coral-Balmoral is less well known than Long Tan, it was no less significant, and that the events of 1968 had a profound impact on many lives.
“It’s significant in terms of the losses and the length,” said Perry. “In 26 days, we had 26 diggers lost and around 100 wounded. Over a third of my platoon were killed or wounded,” Perry said.
“The events of Coral-Balmoral were the biggest life changing experience for me. They will always be with me,” Tom said.
To find out more about the Battle of Coral-Balmoral, visit the National Vietnam Veterans Museum in Newhaven, Phillip Island, which is holding a commemorative exhibition to mark the battle’s 50th anniversary until October 26.
Our Vietnam veterans recognised 50 years on