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Commemoration Service for the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War

Issue date: 
Thursday, 18 August 2016
Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, GNZM, QSO

Rau Rangatira mā, kua huihui mai i tēnei rā, nau mai, haere mai, ki roto i te wairua o maumāharatanga.  Tēnā tātou katoa.

Ka huri ahau ki te mihi ki ngā taonga whakamaumāhara katoa, e tū ana ki runga, e takoto ana ki roto rā nei o Pukeahu Whenua Maumāhara – tū mai rā mo ake tonu.

Distinguished guests, gathered here, welcome in the spirit of remembrance.  Greetings to us all.  I turn to greet all the memorials standing on or lying within Pukeahu Memorial Park; may you stand forever.

I specifically acknowledge: The Rt Hon John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand; Mr Andrew Little, MP, the Leader of the Opposition; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Chief of Defence Force; Mr Paul James, Chief Executive of the Ministry for Arts, Culture and Heritage; BJ Clark, National President of the RNZRSA; Rear Admiral David Ledson, Chair of the National War Memorial Advisory Council; Graham Gibson, representing the New Zealand Vietnam Veterans’ Association and Major David Weston, representing the Royal New Zealand Artillery Association - tēnā koutou katoa.

Fifty years ago today, D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, with artillery support from 1st Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery – which included 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery – clashed with Viet Cong forces of the 275th Regiment and D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion at the Battle of Long Tan.

The anniversary of that battle is now Vietnam Veterans’ Day in Australia and New Zealand.

No doubt some of you who are gathered today will have another battle, another day, or another moment which defines your experience of the Vietnam War – the ‘American War’ as it is referred to in Vietnam.

When reading about the battle, one is struck by its tempo, its chaos and its ferocity.  One can only imagine the dire consequences that on the Australian side resulted in 17 killed, another who died of wounds and 24 wounded; and on the Viet Cong side 245 dead left on the battlefield, three captured, and many more thought to have been removed as the Viet Cong withdrew.  Other Viet Cong were so badly mutilated their remains were unidentifiable. 

People of my generation recall the impact the war in Vietnam had on New Zealand.  It was a long and gruelling conflict, and our first televised war.

It shifted our perception of our role in the world.  It was the first war we fought without our traditional ally, Great Britain.  It was yet another war we fought alongside Australians.

Here at home – as you will remember – it was controversial and polarising.  It generated debate and division.  Regrettable, the men and women who served their country in Vietnam had to wait until 2008 – Tribute 08 - to receive an apology for the way they were treated and the lack of support they had received.

Whatever the debates and views, there should be no question about the professionalism, resourcefulness and humanity of the Australians and New Zealanders who served in Vietnam.

As part of Tribute 08, the Government funded a five-year long oral-history project to collect the memories and experiences of New Zealanders who served in Vietnam.  It became a powerful way for veterans to record their experiences of the war and to share the ongoing impact of the war on their families.

Out of that project came the Vietnam War website.  It tells the history of the war from a New Zealand perspective.  It is a source of information for Vietnam veterans and their families.  It has become a taonga for them as well.  I encourage you all to use it if you have not already done so.

Another outcome of the project was Claire Hall’s book No Front Line.  It is based on the first-hand accounts of New Zealand Vietnam veterans and their family members.  In the book, a veteran recalled a skirmish in the jungle after a surprise encounter with Viet Cong forces.  After much confusion and an intense fire-fight, the remaining Viet Cong soldiers, who were trapped in a bamboo thicket, refused to surrender.

A tense night ensued.  The dawn light revealed only three Viet Cong were still alive.  Rather than routing them, the Kiwi soldiers made them coffee and gave them rice.  In the words of the veteran being interviewed:
“When a man’s got nothing, he deserves respect”.

I think that episode embodied the ‘ANZAC spirit’.  It illustrated compassion, courage and respect, which we like to think of as arising out of another conflict – fifty years earlier – the First World War.

While there has been a lot of attention in recent years on the Centenary of the First World War, it is important to have the spotlight also fall on more recent conflicts – wars that have touched the lives of people who are still among us.

The men and women of today’s New Zealand Defence Force, and the Australian Defence Force, carry the proud traditions and values of their forebears as they work to enhance safety and security in the world’s conflict zones.

Today, like you, I also remember Vietnam veterans I have known who have passed on.  Together, we especially honour the 37 soldiers who died while on active service in Vietnam, the 2 civilians who lost their lives while serving with the surgical and Red Cross teams, and the 187 who were wounded.

Together, we recall the more than 3000 New Zealanders - service-personnel and civilians alike – who served in Vietnam between 1963 and 1975 – whether as combatants, doctors, nurses, engineers or aid workers.

Together, we honour their comradeship, their service and their sacrifice.  No reira, kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui, huihui tātou katoa.

Last updated: 
Thursday, 18 August 2016

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