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Once We Were Soldiers

 

Australian combat infantryman's badge
Life for a Nasho
 

© David 'Stretch' Byran
8 Pl C Coy 1st Tour

Author: David 'Stretch' Byran

On the wall just inside the foyer of my old High school there is a small brass plaque dedicated to the memory of a former student.

In 1962 Les Farren and I were classmates completing year 12 at Northcote High School. Les was an only child living with his parents in Reservoir. In those days we did not have computers, mobile phones, colour TV or credit cards. Rock and Roll was raging, Elvis was King and the Beatles were about to rocket to the top of charts.

Another Northcote High school student, Normie Rowe, was singing with a group at Rock ‘n Roll dances in local halls on Saturday nights. (Normie was later to be conscripted for national service and served in Vietnam in the Armoured Corps).

My father was a milkman and we had only just sold our Northcote dairy a few years earlier where we delivered milk by horse and cart.

I finished school at the end of 1962. Early in 1963 I started a job as a claims clerk at the Union Insurance Society of Canton, in a small company office in Queen St, Melbourne. Les got a job with the Bank. We lost contact after leaving school. The rest of 1963 and 1964 life consisted of parties, Balls, Dinner-Dances, 21st birthdays, holidays fishing at Rosebud and playing football and basketball with local teams. Life was good and simple still living at home with Mum and Dad and my 4 brothers.

Early in 1965, the then Liberal Government announced the introduction of a scheme requiring all young men about to turn 20 to register for conscription into the Army for two years National Service training.

The method of selection to be via a ballot of birth dates. If your birthday was drawn we were required to pass a medical examination. Having passed the medical we would then spend the next two years in the Army.

2345 ... my birthday. The 2nd of March 1945 was one of the birthdays selected. Les was also ‘lucky’ enough to have his birth date drawn out of the barrel.

On the 30th June 1965 Les and I were part of the first intake of Nasho’s sent to Puckapunyal to do our 3 months basic training. After completing basic training we were given a choice of which area of the military we would like to join for the duration of our 2 years service. Because the strength of Army Infantry battalions was very low at the time most of us were posted to the infantry regardless of what our preferences were.

We were posted to Holsworthy Army barracks in NSW, to join the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment where we were to do our Infantry training. I only saw Les once while we were training with the Battalion in Holsworthy. He was in D Company and I was in C Company and we each tended to stick with our immediate platoon and company groups.

Infantry training consisted of countless military exercises in mountainous bush terrain, a training exercise at Wewak in New Guinea and a month at the Army Jungle training centre in Canungra where we honed our skills for warfare. At this time, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment consisting entirely of volunteer regular soldiers, were serving in Vietnam as a unit with the American Forces.

We expected that our Battalion, 5 RAR, would be the next Battalion to be sent to Vietnam to replace One Battalion. We were unsure however being such a political contentious decision, whether conscripts would be sent or even be given an opportunity to choose whether we wanted to go or not. Anyway in April 1966 the Liberal government officially announced that our Battalion, the Fifth Battalion, Nashos included, would be going to Vietnam at the end of April 1966. We were all given pre-embarkation leave in early April to share precious time with family and loved ones before we were to spend at least a year overseas in a seemingly faraway foreign war.
 
Without the presence of family or civilian friends, my platoon, 8 Platoon Charlie Company flew out of Richmond Air Base, NSW, to Vietnam in the early hours on 28th April 1966.

We were the first Australian Army unit consisting of Nasho’s to enter the Vietnam War.

The remaining members of C Company and the Transport Platoon arrived in Vietnam a couple of weeks later on board  HMAS Sydney, formerly an aircraft carrier but now a troop carrier. It was later affectionately known as ‘The Vung Tau Ferry’ owing to the many trips it would make ferrying troops and supplies to and from Vietnam over the duration of the War.

The Battalion commenced the first of many operations of the war when we were transported by Iroquois Helicopters from Vung Tau to an area near Nui Dat. Our task was to clear the enemy from an area consisting of rubber plantation, scrub and paddy fields. This area of Nui Dat was to eventually be Australian task force headquarters and our base camp for the duration of the war. I went to Vietnam with the job of being one of 3 machine gunners in the platoon. The machine gun was the main firepower in an infantry section. Our job was to give instant covering fire when a contact occurred with the enemy while the rest of the section or platoon moved into position to attack or take cover.
 
Les was a rifleman with 10 Platoon D Company.

It was during this first operation that the first Australian National Serviceman was killed during an enemy contact. He was Errol Noack a 21 year old from South Australia.
 
Over the next few months we continued countless patrols, Operations which would last days or weeks involving the occasional skirmish.

We also commenced setting up defences for our base camp. So if we were not out ‘touring the countryside’ setting up ambush positions, doing search and destroy operations or village cordon and searches, we would be digging weapon pits, constructing bunkers, putting up perimeter wire, erecting tents or filling sand bags. There was no such thing as a full uninterrupted night’s sleep.
If we were out on patrols or operations we would have to do our piquet or guard duty in pairs, manning the perimeter guns trying to be forever hyper vigilant.

In mid June 1966 our platoon was heading out of camp through the gap in the perimeter wire, we passed D company coming back into camp after a stint in the bush. It was then that one of the D company blokes told me that Les Farren had been killed a few days earlier on 10th June 1966, 19 days before his 21st birthday. He suffered massive shrapnel wounds to his lower body area and died in the arms of the company medic. Les was the first Victorian National Serviceman killed in Vietnam.

I completed 380 days service in Vietnam and returned home with the Battalion on 12th May 1967 to a heroes welcome. I was discharged from the Army on 30th June 1967 having finished my two years as a Nasho.

I am now 66 years old and it has been another lifetime since I was in Vietnam. I have 4 sons and a daughter. My youngest son is in year 10 at my old high school. I am frequently at the school again as a parent attending parent-teacher meetings and other parental duties. The walls of the school hallways are adorned with a variety of honour boards listing sporting and academic achievers as well as a variety of historic photographs and an array of artwork. Just inside the front entrance on the wall of the foyer is a small brass plaque that has the inscription ‘Dedicated to the memory of Leslie T Farren, Student of this school, killed in action, June 10th 1966, in South Vietnam’.

I wonder whether the present day students even notice that small plaque or will they ever know the life it represents. The life of former student, a brave soldier, a friend, a Nasho.

Over the last few years on Vietnam Veterans' Day I have slipped into the school foyer and placed a small floral tribute under the plaque in remembrance of my former classmate.

Les had such a short life for a Nasho but a lifelong remembered by those who served with him.

David Bryan (aka Stretch), 8 Platoon C Company 1966-67.

 

3786921 Private Leslie Thomas Farren 5RAR, Killed in action Vietnam War
Pte. Farren's commemorative Plaque

Christian Cross
Lest We Forget
 

Point Private Leslie Thomas Farren, 5RAR Roll of Honour »Here
Point Video clips and article of the Memorial Plaque Ceremony to Les Farren »Here

 Note: This short story, by Stretch, was entered in the 2011 ‘The Victorian Veterans Community Story Writing and Art Competition’ and received an Honourable Mention.

(Article courtesy 5RAR Association newsletter Tiger Tales April 2012 edition)
 

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