Friday, April 19, 2024


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Conscript and Conflict

By Amanda Wright

"Some of us were only 20," Kenneth (Ken) Higgins recalls, his voice heavy with the weight of memory. "In those days, you couldn’t vote until you were 21 and you couldn’t drink.
“Yet they would send us to Vietnam to kill people."
“We were sent to a foreign land we hadn’t even heard of before as kids, to kill people we didn’t know or dislike.
“They expected us to go and do these horrors and then come back and forget about it.”
This is part of the turmoil many Vietnam Veterans have had to face throughout the years, many with undiagnosed PTSD battling recurrent nightmares, many with unexplained illnesses through harsh poisonous chemical exposure and many who still to this day are reluctant to talk about the horror of conflict as a conscript.
The sad irony of the Vietnam War, is that although it was the first war to be televised, it’s the war with the most reluctance for its returned soldiers to talk about, due to the harsh labels pinned on these kids when they returned, “baby killers”, “murderers” were yelled at them when they first stepped foot back on ‘home’ soil.
There was no welcome home parade for these men and women.
And then, after the constant anxiety of staying alive for months on end in a jungle with constant attacks and explosions, these brave souls were basically forgotten, left to get on with a life they barely recognised, with little to no support.
This is the story Ken Higgins has agreed to share, not to glorify war, but to acknowledge the sacrifice of those still living with inner turmoil, pay respect to those fallen and ensure the mistakes and sacrifices of the past aren’t white-washed and forgotten.
Continued on pages 5 and 6…

Mackay RSL Sub-Branch President and Vietnam Veteran, Ken Higgins, reflects on the sacrifices made by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: Amanda Wright

The Brutal Toll Of Vietnam's Battlefield

Forgetting the horrors of war proved impossible for Ken and his fellow conscripts.
"Nearly half of the Australians killed in Vietnam were conscripted soldiers, yet the Australian Government said conscripts were mainly to be utilised to make up the numbers... Yet the reality was that conscripts saw as much action as the full-time soldiers.
“In our platoon at least half of us were conscripts.”
The conflict which forever changed Mr Higgins’ life occurred on December 11, 1969. For the soldiers in Vietnam, it was a very different ‘Summer of ‘69’ than the one sung by Bryan Adams.
Amidst the dense jungles of Vietnam, fate dealt a cruel hand to a band of brothers.
"War correspondents were a relatively rare sight for us... until that day," Ken recounts with the rawness of memory. It was a day etched in blood and sorrow, a day when their section commander, Lance Corporal Robert Buchan, known affectionately as Jock, met his untimely end.
Jock led his platoon through the treacherous terrain of the Nui May Tau Mountains. With every step, they made their way through the thick jungle canopy and traversed the thin line between life and death.
As they pressed forward, Private Kenneth Higgins, a forward scout, signalled the presence of an enemy bunker just 15 meters ahead. Jock, ever vigilant, halted the platoon's advance, sending a second scout to investigate. But fate, cruel and unyielding, intervened with ruthless efficiency.
The enemy, hidden amidst the canopy, advanced upon the unsuspecting soldiers. In the chaos that ensued, Jock was struck down by a hail of bullets to the chest, his young life extinguished in an instant. Nearby, Private Kenneth Higgins was wounded, his arm and leg torn by the onslaught.
Above the canopy, the rhythmic thud of helicopter blades signalled the arrival of salvation. An American medivac team descended upon the sight of contact, their mission clear: to rescue the wounded and retrieve the fallen.
The aftermath was captured by the war correspondent who was with them that day.
"It’s the only photo of an Australian soldier killed in action taken by a war correspondent in the Vietnam War," Ken reflected.
The photos capture the aftermath of the contact with L/Cpl Buchan’s body in view while an American ‘dust-off’ helicopter (Iroquois) hovered overhead to winch the injured Pte Higgins to safety as well as retrieve the body of the deceased.
“They winched me out of the jungle first as Jock was already dead and if they ran into strife they would have left him and returned later, but they were able to get Jock’s body out. There were no body bags or anything, they just had to tie him on and lift him out.”
The memory of that incursion still haunts Mr Higgins to this day, though his valiant stature rarely shows glimpses of the effect these and other moments in Vietnam left scarred on his soul.
“It was a horrible time but interwoven with the best of times which is hard to comprehend.
“But when faced with the horrors we were, you relied on the person beside you with your life, and that forms bonds which are still strong to this day, more than 50 years later.
“I never had any hatred towards the Vietnamese people, what we were doing over there in our minds was political. But we still had to protect ourselves and our mates, so we did what we had to do to survive.
“We knew we just had to hold on long enough to get out of there.
“It’s probably scarred us a lot more than we realise in the way we think. My wife recognises it in me, she says when bad things happen I show no emotion. But when you’ve seen the worst, whatever they dish up now is no worse than what we’ve been through.”

On the day Jock was killed during Operation Mandaran, the second scout was John Gosling, Ken’s best man at his wedding and the duo are still close friends to this day.
“That close-knit family of a platoon of guys never ever leaves you.
“The only reason we leave each other is when we die, and we’ve lost a lot.
“A lot of the Vietnam Vets are dying very young, some through suicide and some through illness.
“I’m not saying we’re young now but we shouldn’t die yet, and a lot are dying sooner than they should.
“We’ve had people die in their 40’s and 50’s from a lot of cancer.
“We’re suspicious of the defoliants used during Vietnam and it leaching into the water and all sorts of stuff that stuck to us, all the poisonous agents.
More than 20 years after returning home, Ken spent three weeks in Greenslopes hospital with a rash from one end of his body to the other.
“They had me in oil baths daily, wrapped me up like a mummy, I had to sleep in wet gear and they never told me what it was.
“We had a reunion back in the 90’s, and out of the 8 of us that slept in the same room, 6 of us had rashes.
“We’re seeing a lot of child deformities coming through, out of all of my mates nearly all of us have a child with something not quite right and not just the children but the grandchildren.
“But the Government won’t admit to any of that, we’re just told to ‘get over it’.

South Vietnam, December 11, 1969, Pte. Kenneth Higgins is winched out on a jungle penetrator by a hovering US Iroquois medical evacuation dust-off helicopter
The New Zealand Army Roman Catholic padre, Chaplain Ray Stachurski, administers the last rites to section commander L/Cpl Robert Buchan. Photo credit: Peter Ward
Ken being attached to the jungle penetrator in preparation for being winched out of the jungle, wounded in an arm and leg

Leaving A Legacy For Our Veterans

Ken’s story echoes that of many of our Vietnam Veterans. Young people of today would struggle to comprehend what it would be like to be plucked out of a humble upbringing, thrown into the face of a war that had seemingly nothing to do with the place they called home.
Mr Higgins was a country kid, who was plucked from the bush to be thrown into the jungle.
He was born on a dairy farm near the Goulburn River in Victoria, close to the NSW border. The closest main centre was Shepparton. They moved to Gippsland and then Kyabram where Ken did his schooling and played footy. That’s where he was called up from during the Vietnam War conscription.
The way conscription worked was the government randomly selected days of the month and if your birthday fell on one of those four days, you had to be assessed.
Ken and other kids from around the country were gathered up for medicals. Being fit and healthy, Ken flew through all of the tests.
“You would have been better off presenting as a rabid mongrel dog, but you just didn’t know back then, you were too honest,” he said.
He served his first 10 weeks of intensive training at Puckapunyal in Western Victoria, where they were torn down to be built back up.
From there, it was 10 weeks of infantry training at Singleton in NSW and three weeks at Kununurra for intensive jungle training.
“There was barely time to draw breath between the training, we were given a short time to say goodbye to Mum and Dad before we had to return to Ingleburn in Sydney. At midnight on a Monday night the plane would take all the reinforcements over to Vietnam,” Ken said.
“We flew to Saigon, then were shipped to Vung Tau and up to Nui Dat. Most of us were infantry and we went straight to our battalions, the reinforcement wings were tied to the 9th battalion. I was there for a month and a half and then did the next eight months with the 6th battalion.
On his 21st birthday, Ken has an interesting story to tell, involving trip wires, claymores and a wandering dog that lit up the jungle, but that’s a story for him to share over a cold beer or two.
“In May 1970 we were shipped back to Australia on leave and then to Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, which is where I fell in love with Queensland.”
While Ken was in Vietnam, his mum and dad had shifted down the Mornington Peninsula, which is where he met his wife soon after returning home.
“I was married at 24 and we’re still married 51 years later.
“Her Dad was a WWII Spitfire pilot with the RAAF and he was the secretary-manager of an RSL and invited me straight in, so I became an RSL bloke when I was 21 and I’m still here today.”
Ken and his wife moved to Hervey Bay in 1988 and bought a caravan park. They shifted in 1992 to Kinchant Dam where they owned and operated the camping grounds for more than 10 years. They then went to Alligator Creek, then briefly back to Hervey Bay when their kids were still there, and then back to Mackay where all of their children and grandchildren now live, apart from their son who lives on the Gold Coast.
“I love Mackay but I’ve always been very upset that the veterans haven’t had a proper RSL here for a number of years,” Ken said.
“I remember when the club was in full flight on Sydney Street, and that’s why we’re so passionate about getting our veterans a proper home, and not just for veterans, we want to open our doors to a number of vulnerable or disadvantaged groups of people to give them our support,” he said.
“The town deserves a decent veteran organisation to look after their interests and wellbeing.
“It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s about having fun, coming together for a laugh and hanging shit on each other. That’s the Australian and New Zealand way of life. Hang it on each other and give it to each other while respecting the heck out of one another.”
As President of the Mackay Sub-Branch RSL, the reason Ken is so passionate about the RSL is to support fellow veterans and their families, not just in Mackay, but across Australia.
With ANZAC Day approaching next week, Ken says it’s not a story of glorifying war, it’s a story of respecting the 100,000 who have died fighting for our country, and the brothers-in-arms in New Zealand.
“I talk about New Zealand and Australia in the same breath because I think we’re so close. When you’ve fought next to the Kiwis, you know we as ANZACS really are one,” he said.
“Supporting our veterans is important because there are stories to be told and those people should be proud.
“Those ANZAC’s who served together in battalions in the theatre of war are special people who should be proud of their deployments.
“Not to glorify war, but to leave a legacy for our younger ones.
“There’s no benefit to skipping over and adjusting the reality of history.
“We should learn from the past to move forward in the future.”

ANZAC Day 1970 at Nui Dat
Ken as a young soldier in Nui Dat
May Tao, South Vietnam, December 2, 1969. Guns and supplies are lowered into Fire Support Base Picton from a Chinook helicopter to support the ANZAC 6RAR / NZ battalion

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