Warrnambool Vietnam Veterans set to mark 50th anniversary of the Battles of Coral and Balmoral

Mateship: Vietnam veterans Chris Loughhead and Terry McInerney, who served in the Battles of Coral and Balmoral are hoping the Sunday's 50th anniversary ceremony in Canberra comes with a pleasant surprise. Picture: Rob Gunstone
Mateship: Vietnam veterans Chris Loughhead and Terry McInerney, who served in the Battles of Coral and Balmoral are hoping the Sunday's 50th anniversary ceremony in Canberra comes with a pleasant surprise. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Warrnambool Vietnam veterans Terry McInerney and Chris Loughhead are to be honoured in a ceremony in Canberra on Sunday.

Their names will join those of other servicemen and women who fought in the Battles of Coral and Balmoral in May 1968.

Half a century after they risked their lives in a conflict that lasted from May 12 to June 6, the pair will be officially recognised for their involvement.

Sunday’s ceremony will be held at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial and hosted by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester.

Veterans from all over the country will gather to mark what is referred to as ‘Australia’s most protracted and costly battles of the Vietnam War’.

The conflict lasted 26 days and resulted in the loss of 26 Australian lives, with more than 100 wounded.

The date’s significance is one noted by our city’s former soldiers.

“Coincidentally that day 50 years ago was Mother’s Day when they attacked us,” Mr McInerney said. “And again 50 years on, it’ll be Mother’s Day.”

Mr McInerney and Mr Loughhead were among units deployed to establish Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in the vicinity of routes used by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces to attack Saigon, the southern capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr McInerney was a ‘gunner’ in C squadron in the 1st Armoured Regiment, Mr Loughhead was a signaller in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

A serviceman for three years, Mr McInerney said while he was disappointed he was unable to attend Sunday’s event due to health reasons, he was grateful their efforts would finally be acknowledged.

The pair are also hoping the event will include an announcement of a Unit Citation for Gallantry awarded to all participants in the Battles of Coral and Balmoral.

“It would be only the fourth citation since 1942,” Mr McInerney said. “But it’s an honour 50 years overdue.”

Both agree the battle was one fought as a coordinated group and that everyone there deserved the recognition.

“They were trying to get into Saigon and we were the blocking force,” Mr McInerney said.

“I was in Vietnam for 12 months and I believe we were put in there as bait to attract the NVA to knock us over.

“The VC were the farmers at day, guerrillas at night. We wouldn’t know who they were because they were farmers.

“They’d look at you during the day and they’d wave at you, and then that night they’d fire mortars and rockets at you.”

“It’d be the middle of the night and the tanks are going in and out and the weather was so bad.

“We were in the middle of the swamp.”

Mr McInerney was a “tankie”, fellow serviceman Mr Loughhead said the role of that squadron was honorary.

“The tankies were the elite,” he said. “They were like the cavalry, they saved the bacon many times.

“We were being overrun and the tankies would come in and help.”

Mr Loughhead was a signaller. He served a total of two years in the Australian Army.

“I carried the radio on my back and worked with helicopters and supplies,” he said.

You just looked after each other because you knew if you looked after him, he’d look after you. There were no individuals, you looked after everyone, regardless of rank. No one was left on their Pat Malone.

Terry McInerney

Although unknown to each other until both later settled in Warrnambool, the pair had met in the field during operations.

“My job was to get communications to the command post,” Mr Loughhead said.

“I put the telephone line out and my commanding officer picked up the phone and said ‘yes it’s working ok’, and he’s talking to his commanding officer and all of a sudden it went dead.

“I went out and checked it and a bloody tanker had rolled over it, chewed it up. I’m cursing and cursing and it turns out it was these tankies.”

The pair would have been 50 to 100 feet apart at the time.

“But we had different jobs to do,” Mr Loughhead said. “So we didn’t meet until a reunion probably ten years ago.”

Neither veterans have returned to Vietnam since deployment but both hold strong memories of the country.

“I can remember the smells.,” Mr Loughhead said. “There was a contrast. It was beautiful on one hand and it was a horrible experience on the other hand. 

“The people were lovely, the children were absolutely gorgeous. We would go to the villages and the children would gather around and we’d give them fruit and candy bars, and they were lovely. 

“But you never knew if you were out on patrol and you came across children, what they’d be carrying. It could be guns and grenades and they could be nine or ten.” 

Mr McInerney said certain images remained in the mind 50 years on.

“It was hot and humid,” he said. “And poverty was an awful thing. 

“There was no sewage and the smells were horrific.”

“I remember their white shirts that were so clean, so white,” he said of the Vietnamese folk. “I could never understand how they kept them so white in the middle of nowhere.”

They continue to hold all of the Australians who fought in Vietnam in high regard.

“We were known as ‘Ucdaloi number one’, Mr McInerney said. “It can be loosely translated as the upright ones from the south”.

“We were such a close knit family over there. You just looked after each other because you knew if you looked after him, he’d look after you. 

“There were no individuals, you looked after everyone, regardless of rank. No one was left on their Pat Malone.

“You cant believe that what is written about mateship is so true,” Mr McInerney said. “It’s magical. 

“We trained here as very good soldiers, we really did. We adapted to what was going on. The Australians were really good at adaptation. 

“We were the most disciplined, honest and fair. 

“We never shot until we were fired upon.

“If we saw people moving in the bush when we were on patrol, we’d sit and watch and then make a decision.

“If we could capture them we did.”

Both Vietnam veterans admit returning from service has continued to be a challenge.

“We were high up on adrenaline all the time,” Mr Loughhead said, “We jumped at shadows. You lived on the edge.You had to.

“I came back very bitter about the Vietnam War. I isolated myself that’s how I coped. I never talked about it. I couldn’t deal with seeing so many mates getting killed.

“I didn’t have a clue where Vietnam was before I went, but my number came up and you’re off and you soon learnt discipline, and respect for each other and team work.”

The suggestion of a citation would mean further awareness and respect for the men.

“It’s an acknowledgement that we’re not cowboys,” Mr Loughhead said. “We want recognition from the Australian Government that it was a significant battle and they recognise that with a unit citation award.”

Mr McInerney said his hope lies with future generations.

“Our younger people should acknowledge that our younger veterans are over doing it all again for us,” he said. 

“There are always going to be battles over money and greed, that’s all it is.”

For former Assistant Minister for Defence, Dan Tehan, a citation would mean closure to an inquiry he initiated in April 2017.

“They came to me and presented a compelling case,” he said. “What they had to say, what they endured on our nations behalf, really made an impression on me.

“What I did was because of them. They’re the heroes.

“They’re the ones who were fighting there and my view was if I could get them some recognition for what they did that was the least I could do for what they did on our behalf.

Mr Tehan started the push not long after he became the Minister for veterans affairs.

“I’m not aware of any citation at this stage but if they have been awarded citations I’m absolutely thrilled for them. Its wonderful recognition for what they were prepared to do on our behalf.

“If that’s the case there are some things you get to do in this job that are very rewarding and this would be one of those.”

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