19 Aug 2014

Vietnam vets hope book overcomes prejudice

8:38 am on 19 August 2014

Vietnam War veterans hope a new book will help overcome public prejudice about New Zealand's most unpopular and controversial war.

No Front Line: Inside Stories of New Zealand's Vietnam War was launched last night to mark the Vietnam Veterans' Day in New Zealand and Australia.

Claire Hall, author of 'No Front Line: Inside Stories of New Zealand's Vietnam War'.

Claire Hall, author of 'No Front Line: Inside Stories of New Zealand's Vietnam War'. Photo: RNZ / Mary Baines

Jack Hayes, who was an SAS troop commander in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, said because veterans were vilified after the war, many had not told their stories until now.

"Members of my own family wouldn't talk to me for a long time, I had close relatives spitting on me because they thought I was a butcher, or because that was what was being published in the media in New Zealand while I was away. No one really knew what we did so the stories were multiplied many, many times."

No Front Line is a compilation of interviews from 150 veterans - infantrymen, pilots and troopers, aid workers and nurses, journalists, entertainers and their families back home.

Willie Walker, a radio operator, recalls the Battle of Long Tan, seen as the most significant clash for ANZAC forces during the war.

"A group of 108 Australians and three Kiwis, we were more or less ambushed by a force of between 1500 and 2500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops and at the end of the four hours we were looking at being overrun before we were relieved, it was a horrendous afternoon."

A nurse, Daphne Margaret Shaw, said contributing to the book had helped in her healing process and in dealing with the horrors of war.

She said because the New Zealand contingent was small, there was always the possibility that you knew the person if it was a chopper with an injured New Zealand soldier coming in.

A platoon commander, Ray Beatson, said the book goes a long way towards righting the treatment of returned Vietnam soldiers.

"From the soldier's point of view and airmen and civilian nurses and doctors it was a cathartic exercise that they were telling stories that they had probably had never told to their families or their friends. And I think it's redressing some of the historical aspects that were not true, the Vietnam War was an unpopular war as soon as the troops came home and for 50 years there's been nothing really done."

The book's author, Claire Hall said she was shocked at the raw and harrowing tales of many veterans.

She said they wanted to put their stories on record so others could understand and learn from those experiences.

Ms Hall said it was difficult to hear some of the stories and to see some of the men in such pain as they retold them.

"But really early on we had to make a choice as interviewers doing this work to be present, to be there with those stories."

The five-year long project was commissioned by the Ministry for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

Minister Christopher Finalyson said there had been a tendency over the years to downplay New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War which has caused great hurt to servicemen and their families.

He said the book was a must-read for all New Zealanders.

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