I served two tours to Vietnam with 161 Bty. I have found the reality that most of your lasting memories are formed on your first tour. I started out as a Forward Observer (FO). The FO Party is like a family. It is normally made up of four members – the FO; Bombardier Technical Assistant; and two Signallers. I only had the two signallers. There was Bombadier Truck Carr (the older of the two Carr brothers who served in the Bty) and Gunner Dick Wharerau.
One day on operations after we had taken a resupply with some mail, I was sitting having a brew and reading a letter from my mother. I suddenly realise that everything had gone quiet. I looked up and saw both Truck and Dick, sitting quietly looking at me. I sensed that they were watching the changes in my facial expressions as I read. It got me thinking.
So in the hushed tones that you automatically use when you are on Ops, I asked them if they had received any mail. No, not this time was the reply. I looked at them and realised something was not being said. So I asked in a manner so that they would not be offended, if they ever got mail from home. Not really was the tenor of the reply. So I finished the letter and passed it to them for a read.
Over the months they got to know my mother quite well. I told my mother what was happening and she would look for info from their home towns. She would send press cutting and news about odd things, especially the rugby. Sometimes, she would send a small pack of goodies which of course got shared. Each time she wrote, it would lead to talk about another aspect of our home life, how each of us grew up and what values we thought were important.
The great thing was that NZers of that era were all very similar. Most of us came from families that had struggled at one time or another, over came their problems and got on with life. We had all been to State schools with varying levels of success, which we decided was a poor measure of future success, but were grateful for having been there. Many of our experiences had a remarkable similarity, even though our lives had been separated geographically and by the paths we were taking in life.
It became the practice no matter who wrote to me, the boys got to read it as well. I made one proviso that there was to be no talk about my mail outside our FO Party. As far as I know they stuck religiously to that.
One day Truck came up to me during a break on a patrol and quietly said words to the effect that he and Dick had been discussing one of my girlfriends. Oh I thought, this is going to be interesting! There were several who use to write to me at that time. Truck and Dick had decided which one was the best one for me and thought that if I wanted that relationship to develop, I should write back to her along a suggested line.
How close can you get? I loved those fellows.
In fact Dick did get mail in the form of a newsletter from his home area of Whakatane. It was a simple newsletter sent about every two months or so. It was a great service that someone thoughtfully had provided for the large numbers of soldiers that came from that area. It was a real morale booster for Dick. Already a big man, Dick would grow a couple of inches and develop a lovely chuckle that lasted for a few days after his mail run.
Both the boys were Maori and I was a fourth generation Pakeha. Collectively we were NZers and were very proud of it regardless of what protests and stupid things were going on at home at that time. It was also the period before Treaty issues became important and changed the culture of the country.
After Vietnam I lost sight of the boys until recently. All of us eventually ended up living in Australia. Truck died in Melbourne in the mid-90s from cancer. As it turned out in this small inter-connected world, at the time of his death unbeknown to me, he worked for my brother-in-law. My brother-in-law became aware of our Vietnam connection from talking with Truck over the last few months of his life. He passed on the sad news of his passing. I wish I could have seen him again before he went. Dick lives in Sydney and I live in Adelaide. Sometimes I ponder what conditions and quirks of fate drove all of us away from a place that we had been so proud of?