Vietnam Vanguard edited by Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill

In 2006 I read Australia’s Vietnam War, an excellent account of the impact of the war, in many different ways, on Australia. The book, though, did not contain much information about Australian forces fighting in Vietnam. Vietnam VanguardThe 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency, 1966 (Australian National University, 456 pp., $50) fills that void by taking the reader on operations in Vietnam conducted by the 5th Battalion of the 1st Australian Task Force during an early phase of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The editors and the book’s 27 contributors are veterans of operations conducted by Australian troops in 1966. Their goal is to recall with accuracy what transpired with Australia’s decision to join the war, as well as to show how its units prepared for operations, and to provide an account of the 5th Battalion’s year in combat.   

For readers familiar with the American way of war in Vietnam—especially those who were actual participants—it is very interesting to learn about similar challenges the Australians faced and their efforts to overcome them.

One parallel is the deployment of draftees into combat. The Australian battalion was half manned by national service soldiers who were conscripted and sent to Vietnam, just as many American troops were. Several contributors to the book emphasize the importance of not allowing disgruntlement at being conscripted and sent off to war become divisive within their units, especially in combat, and how they came to terms with it.  

Somewhat divergent operational approaches to the war by the Americans are contrasted with that of the Australians, reflecting lessons learned earlier about how to fight a counterinsurgency conflict. The Australians, unlike U.S. forces, had combat experience following the Korean War, including successfully conducted counterinsurgency operations. They had seen action during the 1948-60 Malayan Emergency and again during the confrontation with Indonesian irregulars in Malaysian territory. Consequently, many NCOs and officers in the Aussie Task Force in Vietnam had counterinsurgency experience.

It took years before American units could benefit from experienced personnel in Vietnam. As an example, my unit—the 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 506th Infantry, which deployed in 1967—had only a few NCOs who had served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66.

Australian leaders embraced the Hearts and Minds approach in Vietnam, as reflected in their Cordon and Search strategy. To illustrate the Australian way of war in Vietnam the contributors write about engagements in which they fought in difficult terrain against long-entrenched Viet Cong units. Many of their experiences in combat will be familiar to American Vietnam War veterans. Their frustration with some rear echelon units that didn’t provide full support to the troops in the field and their appreciation for courageous helicopter crews who braved ground fire, weather, and terrain are experiences American and Australian troops shared.

Members of B Co., 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment during Operation Tambourine

Australian soldiers found themselves unprepared when assigned to be advisers to local Vietnamese units and CIA-sponsored irregulars. Those assignments were disappointing and frustrating and remain a sore point with the contributors to this book.

The Australian military was very sensitive to casualties. This was something that Gen. Westmoreland, in contrast, was willing to accept for U.S. troops, as demonstrated by operations he ordered following 1965’s bloody Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. 

When the public in the U.S. and Australia turned against the war, the impact was especially felt by the veterans themselves.  American and Australian troops shared the experience of coming home from the war to an often indifferent nation.That factor has been a driving force in Aussie veterans’ desire at this late date to finally tell their stories. 

For the soldiers of Australia’s 5th Battalion, this book has provided that opportunity.

— John Cirafici

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel