Featured photo showcases Mr Johnson and Mr Farrell with Ms Todd’s Year 12 English class
On a sunny afternoon, Friday the 5th of May, my Year 12 English class was treated to a valuable experience. Our teacher, Ms Todd, organised for two New Zealand veterans of the Vietnam War to come in and talk to us about their time in fighting in this famous war. Pat Johnson (President of the RSA in Auckland) and Ray Farrell (the national Support Advisor for Vietnam veterans) are two of the many who went far away to go and fight in the Vietnam War.
They told us that they were both very young when they joined the army. Ray was just 17 years old and bored at home. There was nothing to do, so when the opportunity arose to have what he thought would be an adventure somewhere exotic and far across the world, he was very keen. Young Ray had no idea what he was really getting involved in. Of course, he had to ask permission from his father first, as he was even too young to sign up without permission.
Ray told us many stories about the experiences he had overseas. One of them was about obtaining an AK47 (machine gun that was very sought for) in Vietnam, which he wanted to bring back home. He contacted the NZ Police Commissioner, and in return for being granted permission, Ray promised to alter the gun. After returning to New Zealand, he and a few mates landed at Whenuapai (now known as the Whenuapai Air Base). They went through customs with no problem and took a truck to the ferry building at the bottom of Queen Street. The city was a ghost town. Six o’clock closings were still happening and this meant that everyone was already kicked out of the pubs and at home with their families. “If we had thrown a grenade in the middle of the street, it wouldn’t have hit anyone,” he boasted.
With no-one around to help, it was a struggle to find a place to rest overnight. They finally found an old hotel on the corner of Victoria St and Queen St. and were let in to get settled. A while later, there was a knock on the door. It was the police searching for the guy with the AK47. Ray let them inspect his souvenir and they soon gave it back to him without a problem. Just as well he had adjusted the weapon as advised by the Police Commissioner.
Our guests also talked about Agent Orange and Napalm. These two terrible poisons were used in the Vietnam War. Apparently, the war also had similar poisons such as Agent Pink and Agent Blue. When these were mixed together, they made a deadly concoction. Dropping these bombs had the cheerful name of ‘Operation Ranch Hand’. Aeroplanes came over during battle and would spray the jungle trees. The job of this spray was to kill all the foliage. Within a day, all the leaves would fall off. This helped soldiers see within the thick jungle because of their enemy, the Vietcong, used the jungle to hide in. It was also discovered too late that if this poison could kill everything in its path, it meant it was poisonous to the health of the soldiers. Future generations, born even today, are suffering from genetic deformities caused by these toxic cocktails of poison.
The text we are studying in class is “The Things They Carried” (written by Tim O’Brien, an American veteran of Vietnam). Having read this book, one student asked Pat what he had carried with him during his tour of duty as a foot soldier in Vietnam. “I carried my dog tags. They had your name, number and religion on them, as well as your blood type. When lining up the casualties, medics would pin dog tags on a soldier’s chests so that they’re easily identifiable.” Ray added, “I carried a can of beer.”
They also told us that there was no resting. They were always stressed. The main rule was, “Alive. Alert. Alive. Alert.” These words were repeated frequently throughout the talk. There was also no sleeping on the job. Ever. Some of us were shocked to hear that these two men still have nightmares about their time in Vietnam. Anyone, who went there, came back changed. Ray tried to explain by giving the example of a computer never being shut down.
“You know when you close a computer and it doesn’t shut down properly, and when you go to open it back up again, it takes a little while to think things through again. We were like those computers. All our files were open all the time and some will never close.”
Our thanks to Pat and Ray from the Returned Servicemen’s Association for spending their valuable time with us and for sharing such incredible memories of this awful war. Thanks to these brave and generous gentlemen, our novel study has been brought to life and has much more significance to us now. Special thanks to Ms Todd for organising their visit. I’m certain we all took away something lasting from this hour long conversation about the Vietnam War.
Written by Jess Freeth (12LI)
Photography by Jess Freeth