Memories of Vietnam, 50 years on

Published date10 June 2021
Publication titleSouthland Express
In recent weeks the Awarua Returned and Services’ Association president has been looking back at his time there.

The Vietnam War lasted from about 1960 until 1975. Fought between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the US-backed Republic of Vietnam in the south, it ended with the defeat of South Vietnam in April 1975.

The end of May marked five decades since 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery withdrew from Vietnam, and Mr Beker pondered over photographs.

Anecdotes aplenty, he recalls the effort required at Fire Support Base Toby.

‘‘I was looking at this photograph and I look right p***** off, and I was.

‘‘We filled 20-something thousand sand bags and then we had to bug out. We slashed them instead of retrieving; we took the barbed wire and waratahs and that was all, we got out of there.’’

Brought into the site by helicopter, those setting up did not look properly when doing so.

‘‘We put the barbed wire up . . . there were two 500-pound unexploded bombs there. There were footprints around it.

‘‘It would have taken out the whole battery.’’

The decision was made to leave.

Troops were two-and-a-half miles away when they blew.

‘‘The whole ground trembled. They sent tanks in and helicopters to guide us out, they were really worried. We’d announced we were coming home.’’

This was his second-last support base before returning.

When he did, however, he and his brothers-in-arms faced the scrutiny of the public.

Mr Beker acknowledges the controversy of New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War but said he had no regrets serving in it.

‘‘I’m proud my country honoured their word. They had a treaty, they were asked to go and they honoured that treaty.’’

The advice given to the short-haired young man was to tell people he had just got out of prison, rather than tell them the truth.

‘‘We were certainly not welcome.’’

They returned to the airfield under the cover of darkness.

‘‘There were people within service who did not agree with the war either, so they were telling them. They knew, they had inside knowledge.’’

Protests were personal. There was a depth of hatred he only experienced from the public one other time, during the Springbok Tour of 1981.

‘‘My mother got letters I was bayoneting babies and doing nasty stuff.

‘‘People say, ‘oh, move on’, but it’s very hard to forget something like that.’’

Speaking of the time immediately after returning to New Zealand, Mr Beker describes how a lack of a buffer period resulted in a shock to...

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