Tagged: John Schumann

21 July 1969: The day that stopped the clock in Vietnam

Bill Wilcox’s watch stopped dead at 2.20pm on 21 July 1969 and never restarted. A field engineer in 1 Squadron in the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) in the Australian army, he’d been up in the Long Hai hills in south-eastern Vietnam for about 10 days. He and his mates were due for a break.

It had been dirty work, even by wartime standards: dropping into active tunnel systems used by the Viet Cong, at risk of underground combat or possible asphyxiation and mine demolitions.

The irony was the engineers were mostly destroying their own mines, laid two years earlier. Nearly 23,000 US M16 “jumping jack” mines had been buried in a barrier aimed at isolating their enemy combatants in the jungle.

But the field hadn’t been properly secured. At enormous risk to themselves, with many soldiers lost, the North Vietnamese army learned to excavate and redeploy the mines against Australian forces.

Wilcox and the rest of 1 Squadron were heading back to base in a helicopter when they received the news that members of the 6th Battalion, of the Royal Australian Regiment, had strayed into a minefield in the “light green”, with one killed and many more wounded.

The “light green” was an area on the map that had been partially cleared – where defoliants including Agent Orange were used to strip the forest canopy of cover and where mines were likely to have been buried.

With nowhere for the helicopter to land amid the rubber trees, Wilcox and five others, including medical officer Capt Robert Anderson, were winched down. Another was Sapper Dave Sturmer, who spotted a three-pronged stick in a tree indicating that three mines were in the area.

But only one had gone off.

After they landed, the first person Wilcox came to was Frank Hunt, later immortalised in Australian folk group Redgum’s song I Was Only 19: “Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon.” Along with other members of his battalion, Hunt had been listening to a broadcast of the moon landing the previous evening.

But Hunt had survived. In the song, written by John Schumann, his name had replaced that of Lieutenant Peter Hines. Hines’ body lay several metres away, though he too had survived the initial blast and had been giving directions until his death.

Hunt was in a bad way and was one of the first to be “dusted off” – slang for medically evacuated. “He copped it in the lower body and legs and he was smashed up real bad,” says Wilcox, now the president of the Oberon and Blue Mountains RSL sub-branches.

In the meantime, one unexploded device was located nearby. One more remained. Wilcox and company taped off safe areas, trying to clear enough space for a helipad so the remaining injured could be airlifted out.

Then the medical officer, Captain Robert Trevor Anderson, took a step outside the tape.

Jumping jacks, when disturbed, would spring from the earth into the air before detonating around waist height, but this one blew up beneath the soil, directly under Anderson. Somehow, he remained standing, still conscious, his clothes torn off.

“I was thrown probably 10 metres away, after the explosion, and I didn’t black out, I was still conscious,” Wilcox says. “I looked back and all I could see was red – like a stump – and it was Anderson.”

Corporal Johnny Needs was about 20 metres from the blast but took a single piece through the heart. He died in a comrade’s arms. Wilcox took more of the metal, mostly in his left side and knee.

Some of his own equipment saved him. “A heap of pieces went straight into a battery box, which saved my left hip, otherwise it would have smashed it as well as my knee.” His watch also took a hit for him.

Within 45 minutes, Wilcox had been dusted off himself to the military hospital in Vung Tau. With the chopper full, he was strapped to one of the landing runners. Still fully conscious, he watched for sniper fire as they lifted above the tree line.

“I thought, ‘Jeez, if I’m not dead now, I soon will be,’” he says. “I’ve got a little model at home of a chopper with a stretcher on the outside with a little dummy in it – that was me.”

Schumann was a left-wing firebrand and the singer and songwriter of Redgum, one of Australia’s most popular and political bands in the 80s. The song was written from the point of view of Schumann’s brother-in-law, Mick Storen, a veteran from the 6th Battalion. When he wrote the song, Schumann was going out with Storen’s sister, Denise – “Denny” in the song – and he figured he might have a tetchy relationship with Storen.

One night Storen surprised him by coming to a Redgum gig and, after the show, “on the wings of a six-pack”, Schumann asked him to tell him his story.

Denise had warned him not to. History had not been kind to the Vietnam war or those who took part in it. “It was Mick Storen’s courage and trust to step outside the closed circle of Vietnam veterans that [propelled] 19 into the world,” Schumann says.

In 1983, after the song’s release, Wilcox was driving trucks. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been unable to settle into regular work. It was on long-haul shifts that he first heard I Was Only 19 on the radio.

It took a while for the penny to drop as to what Schumann was singing about. “It never hit me until it was pointed out to me that it was about our set-up. It might have been weeks before I even realised. It’s still a very moving thing when I hear it.”

Anderson, who was blinded by the mine that blew under his feet, became a celebrated psychiatrist in Melbourne, served on many veterans’ committees and was the RSL Anzac of the year in 1991. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

Hunt lives on the far south coast of New South Wales. He didn’t kick the mine himself – that was Hines – but was written into the role by Schumann, with consent. “Everyone is Frankie,” he told the ABC in 2015.

These days Schumann is a little tired of talking about 19. He has written a new song, Graduation Day, about police suffering from PTSD. It hits a similar nerve to his classic, and he finds himself fielding unusual media invitations from the likes of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

“Having a song like 19 in your catalogue is like having five kids, and you love all of them equally, but one of them plays AFL footy – and the only kid of yours that anyone outside the family wants to talk about is the AFL footy player,” he says now.

But he’s also proud. “A songwriter gets to write something like 19, if they’re lucky, once in their life. I researched it really well and I thought about it a lot, but it was one of those songs I wrote in five minutes … I look back and I go, ‘Wow, that was something else.’”

In 2010 Wilcox revisited the site where he nearly lost his life. This year he hopes to go back on 21 July, for the 50th anniversary of something more significant than the moon landing. At 2.20pm, his stopped watch will be right again.

First published in The Guardian, 25 April 2019

Preserving the past

A 100-year-old chocolate bar may not sound like the tastiest treat in the world. But imagine receiving it in the trenches of World War 1.

Bill Thompson, museum curator at the Ballina RSL sub-branch in northern New South Wales, says the chocolate was a Christmas present to soldiers – a small token of luxury during a time of international trauma, courtesy of the Australian War Contingent Association in London.

Now, the chocolate lives in the museum, donated by Dorothy Brumley. The recipient had been her father, Henry Wharton-Braithwaite, when he was in France in 1915, after he had served at Gallipoli.

“It’s still in the tin, [and] it’s in excellent condition – except the chocolate, of course. It looks bloody awful!” Thompson says.

Almost all Australians are familiar, at least by name, with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and its treasures of memorabilia. But fewer know that their local RSLs often feature their own exhibits, sometimes of thousands of items.

These pieces have the power to touch not only those with personal associations and memories of wartime, but younger generations who have grown up without any kind of equivalent experience.

“We get a lot of visitors from schools, and they all arrive with a great list of questions, and they’re usually more orientated with some of the later conflicts,” Thompson goes on.

“[But] all of our families had connections with World War 1. I know mine did, and it was just normal – everybody had some member of their family or relations that served in World War 1 because there was so many of the poor buggers.”

Thompson, a former national serviceman, took over the curating role from his friend Mac McCallum, who passed away in October. The pair had worked together on building Ballina’s display for the past 15 years.

“When I joined, there were only a few items in the museum,” he says. “Macca and I got together about recording and displaying them, we got a few cabinets together and away we went. Now, we’ve probably got upwards of 800 or 900 items in the museum.”

The late McCallum had his own particular distinction as a dog handler in Vietnam: his pooch was Caesar, a famous hound whose service was so distinguished that he was bronzed. The sculpture was unveiled in Edmondson Park, Ingleburn in 2016.

Caesar, a labrador-kelpie cross, also earned his own set of medals, housed in the Ballina sub-branch museum.

“They’d be dropped with their dogs out in the jungle somewhere, and it was up to them to sniff out the enemy,” Bill Thompson says. “The dogs would lay with the men in the jungle and eat out of their packet tins.

“And he was unbelievable, this dog Caesar. I’ve got some of his history hanging on the wall with Macca’s photo that we put up a couple of weeks ago, and it’s got the list of medals that they’d given to the dog.”

The Seven Hills–Toongabbie–Wentworthville RSL sub-branch, in western Sydney, also has an impressive collection, which has been carefully documented by Honorary Secretary Chris Gammadge.

Gammadge is a serious archivist who has dedicated to organising and documenting the material collected by the sub-branch. Out of 5000 items, that often come to the museum with no known details, he has failed to identify the origin of just two.

When he came to the sub-branch, he says, “the guys had four glass cases full of stuff that was totally unidentified”.

“I’m an ex-primary school principal, and I like to have things organised, and to know what things are. My wife went overseas with her niece one April, and I decided to go to the club and spend time identifying the stuff and writing stories about it.

And so Gammadge turned himself into a memorabilia historian, a valuable role in preserving and enhancing our knowledge of what was otherwise in danger of being lost – or, if not lost, trapped in cases, without any context for visitors to understand or appreciate them.

It’s a role that strengthens the bonds between the RSL, its members and the local community. The Oberon RSL sub-branch, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, engaged the community on another level: extensions to the museum were painted by inmates from the local correctional facility.

Bill Wilcox, president of the Oberon sub-branch and Blue Mountains District Council, says many of the prisoners took an interest in the resulting exhibit that went far beyond a job that got them out of their “office” for the day.

“A couple of them were, ‘Are those guns real? Do they work?’ I said no, they’ve all been disarmed, so don’t get any ideas! And they were joking, but they were good.”

Wilcox, a Vietnam veteran who had served as a field engineer clearing minefields, had a few very personal exhibits of his own to share.

At the age of 20, on a mission to rescue and recover members of the 6th Battalion, Wilcox himself was hit in an explosion that killed one of his mates and left him with significant injuries. In the museum, he says, “I’ve got photos of myself and X-rays of all the shrapnel that’s still in me. They were right into it!”

Having his own body as part of the display, Wilcox said, had helped close the circle on his experience, along with a return to the site of his experience in 2010.

Wilcox ended up a small part of Australian popular culture folklore, too. Before he was hit, the first soldier he reached was Frank Hunt, whose story was told in the popular Redgum song I Was Only 19, in the lyric “Frankie kicked a mine, the day that mankind kicked the moon”.

The song’s author, John Schumann, took a little necessary poetic licence: though badly injured, it wasn’t Frankie who stepped on the mine, but Lieutenant Peter Hines, who was killed. Schumann changed the roles at the request of, and out of respect for Hines’ family.

Wilcox says it took him 50 years to reconnect with Frank, who lives in Bega on the New South Wales south coast, and the two are still in touch today.

It’s these more personal stories, like Wilcox’s X-rays, that have the most power to move audiences.

First published in Reveille, Vol. 94, #2 March 2019