18 Aug 2016

'Please, we ask that you bring our fallen home'

8:40 pm on 18 August 2016

Vietnam War veterans have used a memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan to call on the government to bring home soldiers still buried overseas.

Veterans pay their respects to those who served in the Vietnam War.

Veterans pay their respects to those who served in the Vietnam War. Photo: RNZ / Matt Atkinson

The Battle of Long Tan was fought in August 1966 and involved the Royal New Zealand Artillery's 161 Battery.

Thirty-seven New Zealanders died in the war and, while the majority are buried back home, seven are buried in Malacca, Malaysia.

In Wellington, a wreath-laying ceremony was held at the National War Memorial this morning, followed by a national commemoration service at the Michael Fowler Centre.

Veteran Robert Davies, who addressed those gathered for the ceremony, said it was a stain on New Zealand that these soldiers had not been brought home.

He said it was time the National government stepped up and did its job.

"The costs of repatriation are trifling and surely the National government, the government who sent us off to Vietnam War, will wish not to be forever remembered by its veterans and their next of kin as the government who refused to honour their side of the contract.

"Please, we ask that you bring our fallen home so that they too can join the ranks of New Zealand's glorious dead."

Trevor Don, whose father, Alister Don, was the first Kiwi killed in Vietnam and was buried in Malaysia, also spoke at the ceremony and addressed Prime Minister John Key directly.

"Mr Key, the armed forces would go wherever you told them, they would not ask questions, they would not ask why. They trust the government, they trust you. That's why my father and other soldiers died during the Vietnam conflict. Thirty of them are home with their families on their home soil, on the ground they love. Seven of their mates are still waiting to come home.

"You sir have the power to bring them, to bring their mates back to them. From the bottom of my heart Mr Key, please bring our families home."

John Key addresses those gathered at the Michael Fowler Center.

John Key addresses those gathered at the Michael Fowler Center. Photo: RNZ / Matt Atkinson

However, Mr Key said the issue was not black and white and some families wanted their loved ones left there.

"I can understand completely the emotions of some of the families, but I don't think it is completely universal and I think there is a view, from some at least, that they should rest where they fell, "Mr Key said.

Mr Don said if that was the case, then soldiers should be brought back on a case-by-case basis.

"If a family doesn't want them to come home then we're quite happy to leave that one there, but the majority of us want our families brought home."

Across the Tasman, hundreds of people turned out to commemorate the Battle of Long Tan with a service at the Australian War Memorial, and another on Anzac Parade in Canberra, the ABC reported.

Eighteen Australians were killed in that battle and 24 were wounded, along with almost 250 Viet Cong soldiers.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, addressed both crowds.

He said Vietnam veterans were unique among Australia's returned military personnel, and the day was a chance to pay tribute to all those who served in the conflict.

"I think I'm entitled to say we're a funny mob, perhaps in some ways a bit weird, certainly we're different," he said.

"Not many returned veterans in wars before or since were sometimes booed, or occasionally even reviled by their own countrymen and women.

"Many Vietnam veterans felt alienated by the wider community from which they sprang and in many cases by the government which sent them and even most regrettably by the ex-service organisations which did not seem to embrace them."

Disappointment as Vietnam cancels commemoration ceremony

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, local authorities have agreed to allow restricted access to the Long Tan site after negotiations with the Australian government overnight.

Access to the site was being limited to groups of 100 people or fewer.

A Vietnamese government source told the ABC the Australian Consulate had promised to hold a "low key" event, but that a planned gala dinner and concert were seen as insensitive.

Visitors to the Battle of Long Tan site would not be allowed to wear medals or uniforms, carry banners or make speeches.

The commemoration ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary remained cancelled.

The service took 18 months of planning, and RNZ understood about a dozen New Zealand veterans and about 1000 Australian veterans were in Vietnam for the occasion.

A New Zealand who runs a bar in Vung Tau, John Bell, said those who had made the trip for the ceremony were very upset.

"It's pretty disappointing... The camaraderie is pretty low here at the moment, everybody's disappointed of course."

New Zealand Returned Services Association chief executive David Moger said he was "gutted".

He said it was not about glorifying the war but remembering the sacrifice of those who served.

Mr Key said the cancellation of commemorations in Vietnam was being dealt with by the Australian and Vietnamese Governments.

He said he had not been fully briefed on the situation as it was really between Australia and Vietnam.

"My understanding is that there has been some negotiations happening between the Vietnamese and the Australians overnight, so it's really a matter for them to resolve."