Anthony W. Pahl

Responses to Interview Questions

Anthony W. Pahl: Vietnam 1969
Anthony W. Pahl: Vietnam 1969
1. Please tell us in brief, about your family, parents and why did you decide to go to serve into Air Force? What did your family and friends think about it?

Born in 1950 in the little River Murray town of Mannum in the state of South Australia, I am the eldest of 4 children, with a brother and two sisters. Our parents separated when I was 5 years old and our Father and Grandmother raised us. Our family was poor and life was very difficult, but we were much loved. At age 16 I left school and home, and decided to make my own way in the world. My father served 9 years in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) after World War 2 as an Engineering Draftsman, but after our mother departed, he was unable to continue with his career because the RAAF was unsympathetic to the fact that there was nobody to care for his children. His RAAF service was inspirational in my decision to join, and he was proud that I decided to follow in his footsteps.

Soon after leaving home I met my future wife, Maria, in June 1966, and in December 1966 we committed ourselves to be married. In December 1967 I enlisted in the RAAF and Maria and I were married in February 1968, a mere five days after my 18th birthday and while I was still undergoing basic training. Maria and her family, who had immigrated to Australia from Italy in 1961, were very supportive and pleased with my decision to serve my country even though there was a high likelihood that I would have to serve in Vietnam.

2. What was the attitude of the society towards the war in Vietnam? What young people thought about this war?

In 1964 Australia introduced the National Service Scheme – a requirement for all males of the age of 21 years to register for this service. If their birth date was drawn (by ballot) they were liable to two years continuous full-time service in the regular army, followed by three years part-time service in the Army Reserve. The full-time service could include combat duties in Vietnam although the National Service was introduced to provide mainly support troops to serve in Australia while the regular army was on duty in Vietnam. A National Serviceman needed to volunteer if they wanted to serve in Vietnam – a fact that was not, and to a large degree is still not, understood or appreciated by the Australian public. Regular servicemen had no such option – they went where and when they were ordered. National Service (or as it was commonly known – conscription) was hugely unpopular and the focus of moratorium marches of the early 1970s, which occurred at a time when Australia was disengaging from the war.

However, I had joined the RAAF as a volunteer and truly felt, at that time, that I was serving to protect my country. Most of those who had voluntarily joined the Australian Armed Services felt similarly, as did the vast majority of the National Servicemen. The thought that communism was only a comparatively short flight away from our own doorstep was more than motivation enough to strongly desire to stop its spread “over there” rather than on our own doorstep. This desire was fuelled by President Eisenhower’s late 1950s “Domino Theory” (and which policy was later adopted by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) which declared that, one-by-one, the countries of South-East Asia would fall to communism if it were not stopped… and Vietnam became the battlefield to achieve this goal.

By the early 1970s, as mentioned above, the anti-war movement had gained so much momentum, (both in America and here in Australia) that it became clear that the war in Vietnam was a no-win proposition and, in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accord between North Vietnam and America (and her allies) was reached, America and her allies withdrew. It was not until 1975 that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese – 2 years after the Paris Peace Accord was signed and armed hostilities ceased.

The result of the above, and the war itself, had profound and lasting negative effects on all Australians who served in the Vietnam War. The Australian public laid the blame on the servicemen and their attitude to returning veterans was shameful. Personal experience, and from first-hand knowledge of the experience of fellow veterans, of this national attitude ranged from being ignored and ostracised, to suffering verbal and physical abuse. We were spat at and physically assaulted, called warmongers and baby-killers, and many similarly horrible experiences. I think the most damaging of these occurrences was the fact that Australia’s Veteran Organisations refused to recognise our Vietnam Service and barred us from joining their organisations, having the attitude that Vietnam wasn’t a war – merely a police action

It wasn’t until 1987 that an official “Welcome Home Parade” was held in Sydney. The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in our National Capital, Canberra in October 1992. The last of the Australians had returned from Vietnam in 1972, so a period of over 15 years had elapsed before Australians started to understand the effects of our service and their attitudes had on the 55,000 Australians who served in Vietnam. But even so, the Welcome Home Parade and the National memorial were largely funded organised by Vietnam Veterans themselves. It was only the determination and dedication of Vietnam Veterans that served to highlight the enormity of Australia’s immoral and terrible treatment of them that Australians and the Australian Government realised the gross injustice they had perpetrated on this brave and honourable group. It was then that the public and the bureaucracy fell into step and acknowledged our service.

3. How did you learn about your departure for Vietnam and what were your feelings about it like? What did you think about the war BEFORE departure?

Having enlisted in the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) as a volunteer in 1967, I knew the chances of being sent to Vietnam were high. After basic training, I completed a 5 month course in the Airfield Defence category, which is the RAAF version of Special Operations, and was trained in the use of many and various weapons, unarmed combat, and all facets of ground operations including static defence, ambush, reconnaissance, and surveillance/reconnaissance patrols etc. and was excited at the prospect of adventure, particularly knowing the excellence of the training and the fact that I enjoyed the work and was good at it. As I indicated previously, I felt that serving in Vietnam was vitally important to the defence interests of Australia: after all, I’d rather fight an enemy “over there” than in my “own back yard”, and that was an attitude that most, if not all, my contemporaries similarly held.

4. What was the most impressive for you when you arrived to Vietnam?

Upon landing in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from Australia, the number of American aircraft, not only landing and taking off, but also lining the runway and taxiways, was awesome in its magnitude. I remember thinking that there surely weren’t that many aircraft in the world… but like toys, they extended as far as the eye could perceive.

However, I was highly trained and that training engendered an expectation of immediate and continual battlefield action. The reality of the situation upon arrival in country was far different than that expectation. Instead of immediately being handed a weapon and fighting off the enemy hoards, we landed in Saigon only to be required to wait in the open on the taxi-way for 4 hours while transport was arranged to take us to our base in Vung Tau via the 1st Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat in the Phuc Tuy Province, in the Mekong River delta region south-east of Saigon.

At that time, Australians didn’t carry personal weapons with them – they were issued after arriving at their base of operations. This lack of weapons made each of us feel extremely vulnerable because we were in the open for quite a long time and very much aware that we had to fly, unarmed, over enemy territory to reach our ultimate destination.

5. What was the most impressive for you during your training?

I was not initially trained as a helicopter gunner in Australia – my speciality was Airfield Defence – but after spending 4 weeks patrolling and setting ambushes around the airfield at Vung Tau and performing the mind numbing duties of building bunkers and sentry duty, the opportunity came to apply for helicopter duties. The Commanding Officer of No. 9 Squadron, the Australian helicopter squadron, called for volunteers: I immediately applied and was accepted.

Training was “on-the-job” and, after two hours of flying time sitting next to a trained gunner, I finally took my solo-position as port (left) side door gunner in UH1H “Huey” Slicks (resupply and support helicopters).

After 2 months, my status was upgraded and I was transferred to helicopter gunships where the duties were much more interesting – and very much more dangerous. To fire twin-M60 machine guns at enemy who were firing back is exciting. A 2.5” rocket pod with 7 rockets and a min-gun (which can fire about 4,500 rounds per minute) on each side of the helicopter makes for some awesomely effective firepower.

6. What were the circumstances you were living in during that time?

The RAAF, which had only 120 members in the area where I was stationed, were based on the US Air Force base a Vung Tau where we had our own small cantonment area where we lived and relaxed. The conditions were excellent and we lived in wooden barracks with local civilians employed to wash our clothes, keep our barracks clean and tidy and, would you believe, make our beds every day. Although we lived in barracks style accommodation (lower and upper levels with 25 men on each level), each of us had some semblance of privacy in the form of spaces divided by wardrobes and writings desks.

Early each morning, the operational members of 9 Squadron would fly to the Australian Army Task Force base at Nui Dat from where we carried out our support operations.

The Twins: My M60s - #18 and #53
The Twins: My M60s - #18 and #53
7. Did you have a kind of fear before flights? Have you and your friends got any of superstitions and tokens?

Rather than fear, anticipation and determination were the main cause of pre-flight nerves, but on many occasions when we knew the mission was going to involve contact with the enemy, it almost became a test of will and bravado between each of us to never display trepidation or any sense of fear.

I would never fly without a photograph of my wife and daughter in my left breast pocket. For me, it was almost like having an extra armour vest to protect me and on the occasions I forgot it, the days seemed much longer and the “adventures” more intense. But an even more important necessity was making sure I had the same M60s EVERY time that I flew. I called them “the girls” or “the twins”. The numbers 18 and 53 identified the guns – I’ve attached a photograph of them.

8. Tell about the most important flight for you?

At the end on one particularly long and intense day in November 1969, just as we had taken off to return to Vung Tau, a priority radio call requesting our assistance to evacuate several wounded Australians. We responded and soon arrived at the locality to find that we were unable to land because there was no LZ (Landing Zone) nearby. It was dark by the time we arrived at the location where 2 badly wounded soldiers and1 dead were to be evacuated. Despite being under intense enemy fire during which I was slightly wounded, we successfully extracted the casualties and flew them to our hospital in Vung Tau. A few days later I visited the two wounded in hospital and that was an extremely emotional meeting. We continue to remain in contact to this day, and I see both of those blokes at least once a year on ANZAC Day.

9. Tell something from tragic situations and from funny situations?

On a firing pass during a gunship support mission for the Australian Army, our helicopter was under intense ground fire. That wasn’t so bad because we knew that while we were the focus of enemy attention, the soldiers on the ground would have an opportunity to consolidate and regroup.

However, I was leaning out the door and had one foot on the rocket-pod: my foot slipped as the helicopter banked to the right and I fell out. Thankfully I had my “monkey strap” (a 3 meter long canvas belt – one end attached around my chest and the other to a “hard-point” on the helicopter. Unfortunately, the “monkey strap” was longer than my intercom cord so as I was dangling below the skids of the helicopter, I couldn’t let any of the crew know of my predicament.

Because the strap was connected at the centre of my back, I had quite a struggle to grab it in order to climb back inside the helicopter. After some difficulty, I managed to drape one leg over the skid and was almost safe again.

In the meantime, the other gunner realised that I was missing. He looked down on my side of the helicopter (the left) and saw me struggling to climb back inside. Thinking he could assist, he grabbed the monkey strap, which had the effect of tipping me upside down and I lost my grip and once again found myself hanging below the skids.

All this happened while the helicopter was making a circuit in preparation for another firing pass – a matter of 90 seconds at the most but I was ready for the next pass –shaking and sweating – but ready!

On one occasion in particular, we were tasked to support an extraction of a group of five Australian Special Forces soldiers who had made contact with the enemy but were severely outnumbered. Unable to land, the extracting helicopter had to perform a rope-extraction while hovering over the jungle. The soldiers attached themselves to the ropes and we lifted them out. Sadly, one of the soldiers didn’t attach the rope properly and at about 150 feet up, he fell. A concentrated search by the Australian Army failed to locate him. This event occurred on September 27, 1969 and it wasn’t until October 2008 that his remains were found and he was returned home to full military funeral.

10. Was there any kind of hate towards the enemy?

I don’t recall feeling any hatred towards the enemy, but there was a respect and healthy apprehension because of their elusiveness and ability to blend in with the local population. I did feel anger and disgust at their cunning, and sometimes terrorising, guerrilla tactics towards us through the local population.

11. What was the attitude towards the enemy? What was you’re the very first meeting with an enemy like?

Australians had a high respect for the enemy’s ability, and often felt great elation and satisfaction when confrontations against them resulted in a “win”. My first encounter with an enemy combatant was prior to becoming a helicopter gunner. I was attached to the Australian Army and a boat transporting supplies by a boat disguised as a fishing vessel was spotted. We were tasked to intercept the boat, take the crew prisoner, and confiscate the weapons. With the support of helicopter gunships, we completed the task without any casualties on either side and while transporting the prisoners back to our base, I couldn’t help but feeling that they were patriots who were fighting for that which they believed, just as I was. I really felt no hatred towards them – instead I felt a grudging respect that they were persevering despite being out-gunned and, usually, out-fought.

12. What do you think about enemy’s war capability? And what do you think about enemy’s moral spirit?

The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were highly motivated, dedicated and became specialists in achieving their objectives with limited resources. They were clever and tenacious and I believe their morale was extremely high despite being on the receiving end of many “defeats”. By the time America and her allies left, the North Vietnamese forces were decimated – so much so that it took over 2 years after the withdrawal of the American coalition for them to gather the troop strength to fully invade South Vietnam and unite their country.

13. Were there any rumours about Soviet Specialists taking part into this war?

We did hear rumours of Soviet specialists involved with the North Vietnamese but to my recollection, those rumours suggested that involvement was limited to an advisory and training role and I heard no reports that Soviet troops were involved in actual fighting.

14. What was relationship between Australians and Americans like, and between Australian and representatives of other countries?

Australians seem to have a natural ability to “get along with” almost anybody in whom they come in contact. Although we felt the Americans, in particular, were somewhat brash, and that their tactics were somewhat strange and very different than ours. Americans seemed to achieve their targets by force and numbers: Australians are more circumspect, and prefer to achieve our aims by more efficient use of personnel and materiel, better training and planning, and always with the aim of suffering as few casualties (both in terms of lives and equipment) as possible. The Koreans, Thais, and New Zealanders had a very similar objective.

New Zealand and Australia have a long history of mutual defence and support, and have fought as brothers since the late 1800 during the Maori War, and our national honour and respect has been forged on the battlefields of many conflicts including the Boxer Rebellion, the Boar War, WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In Vietnam we worked, lived, fought, and relaxed together… and, particularly because of the exploits at Gallipoli during WW1, our unique military association is commemorated and celebrated in both countries on 25ht April each year – a day recognised as an official public holiday known as ANZAC Day. (ANZAC is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps)

15. How did appear an idea to create your Site? How did it develop? Your ideas, thoughts and impressions about this project – what are they like? And authorities – do they support your project?

Between the period September 1992 and June 1999, I spent a total of nearly 6 years as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital because of an inability to function in the “normal” world due the effects of chronic war-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD include nightmare, flash-backs to traumatic events, anger, dissociative episodes, anger, startle-responses, inability to concentrate, depression, anxiety, withdrawal from family, friends, and society in general, as well as myriad other psychological abnormalities. During my time in hospital I learned relaxation techniques and coping strategies and found that writing my thoughts down became the singularly most effective and positive therapeutic exercise.

I had written some poetry soon after completing my RAAF service in 1988, but never pursued the art with any purpose. However, during and since the hospitalisation, I became convinced that writing was (and is) tantamount to a “magical pill” that helps individuals, particularly those who suffer like me, to come to terms with the illness.

My wife, after consultation with counsellors and therapists, purchased a computer for me in October 1999 to help continue my writing. From that time, there has been no further requirement for hospitalisation and, although I still experience the insidious symptoms of PTSD, the computer and my writings have enabled me to overcome the “down” times and live a much more normal and constructive life.

In September 2000 I first connected to the internet and joined an on-line poetry club and started sharing my writings which were well received and attracted positive comments and many poetic responses. It was then I decided to create a small website to display my writings. In January 2001, after many requests, I decided to expand the website to include war/veteran-related poetry and writings of the friends made in the on-line Club in order to share the positive and beneficial therapy of writing about the experiences and the consequences of war. Contributors to the site were from different countries so I decided to call the website, “International War Veterans Poetry Archives” (or IWVPA for short). Thus, the project began from a humble and limited inception.

Over time the site became more popular and required re-structuring to cope with the vast increase of requests to include writings from more and more people. This development has been on-going ever since, and the site now includes more than 20,000 individual poems and stories by about 900 poets and writers from 27 different countries. The one thing each of the writers has in common is that they are either War Veterans, Veterans of the Armed Services, or family, friends and supporters of those veterans, and each of them writes about their experiences, either direct or from observation, about war and/or its consequences.

The writings may be pro or anti war – no fear or favour is shown for or against any opinion or point of view – the aim of the site is to provide a forum where the voice of the often voiceless can be “heard”.

From its inception, the IWVPA project has been created, maintained, and fully funded by me from my war-disability pension. Other than some small donations from several individuals who have either directly benefited or have seen the positive effects of the project, I have received no financial support from any organisation or government body and although there have been a few lucrative offers of financial assistance from some businesses, I have rejected those offers because they invariable require something in return – like advertising on the site for example. This is not acceptable to me because I don’t want to put the site (or me) in the position where the freedom to include submissions of any point of view and about any war/veteran related subject may be compromised.

However, despite my refusal to permit any commercial involvement, many educational institutions around the world have sought permission to include details of the site, as well as individual authors and writings, in their history and linguistic curricula. This is something of which I am particularly proud.

On January 26, 2006 (Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 each year), I was advised that I had been recognised for “Service to Veterans through the International War Veterans Poetry Archives” and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). Such recognition is not given lightly, and I continue to feel humbler pride by the honour. Since receiving the award, I have experienced increased recognition of the site, and requests as a guest speaker at numerous veteran functions, high schools and universities, bother in Australia and the United States.

The project is on-going and will continue while I am able to properly manage the work involved. I’m still comparatively young (at least in mind) but when the time comes for me to “switch off my computer” I will, hopefully, have found a suitable replacement who is willing to continue with my work but in the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, I look forward to many years of continued involvement.

16. Do you still keep in touch with your fellow-soldiers?

Australia and New Zealand commemorate ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day on April 25th every year. This is a time when veterans gather for a Dawn Service followed by a parade that is held in every town and city throughout the two Nations. In Australia, Vietnam Veterans Day commemorations are held on August 18th every year.

On those two commemorative occasions particularly, fellow-veterans gather and celebrate the life and times of their service and, in particular, remember friends who didn’t come home… who died for us and for their country. We also have many ex-service organisations where veterans who served in the same units during war can come together to renew and retain long-standing friendships.

Personally, I am the South Australian Vice-President of the 9 Squadron Association, a life-member of the Airfield Defence Association, a life member of the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Vietnam Veterans Association, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of Australia Association. Because of my involvement in these associations, I enjoy frequent and valued friendship with my peers.

17. What would you like to say to Russian veterans?

My fellow veterans: we may have differences of opinion about politics, religion, and human freedoms – and those differences are not merely because of the country in which we live, but because we are human beings.

Our love for and feeling of duty to our respective countries is, without doubt, very similar, if not the same. Each of us joined the armed services for different reasons: some enlisted because civilian employment was difficult to obtain, some were conscripted, and others volunteered. Regardless of our reasons, once we committed ourselves we all performed our duty to the best of our ability and with honour and integrity.

Despite the naivety of our youthful desire for adventure and the righteous thoughts of defending our country against all enemies, on the battlefield such ideals became much less important because our energies became focussed on staying alive and keeping our comrades alive. It is only after returning to a comparatively peaceful civilian life that the ideals we held as youths were put into proper perspective – the higher plane of idealism – and the realisation that as individuals we made little difference, but as groups of trained solders we were able to achieve objectives that would have otherwise been unattainable.

Whether or not our countries “won” or “lost” the war in which we were involved is, to each of us as individuals, quite meaningless. What is important is how each of us, individually, acted and performed our duties.

The similarities of motivation, attitudes and purpose make us Brothers-in-Arms… and I am proud and honoured to have this opportunity to “meet” you through this forum. I urge that each of you write of your experiences. Formal history doesn’t record the individual’s actions so to record your experiences is very important to help others understand the realities of war. Even more important is that by writing of your experiences you can “own” them and make them a very “solid” part of your life. I have found, through experience, that by recording those experiences, they become more real rather than mere bad memories.