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Thursday, 6 April 2023
Sydney Technical High School
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

I greet you in the language of the Gadigal, as I pay my respects to Elders, past, present and emerging of the Gadigal and the Bidjigal, traditional owners of this land.

  • The Honourable Chris Minns MP, Premier of New South Wales
  • Ms Georgina Harrisson, Secretary, NSW Department of Education
  • Mr Ray James OAM, President, RSL NSW
  • Major General Paul Irving (Ret’d), ANZAC Memorial
  • Mr Steven So, Principal, Sydney Technical High School
  • Mr Ken Stevenson, Old Boy ’65, Vietnam War Veteran
  • Students and Special Guests

Thank you for this invitation to deliver the 2023 ANZAC address.  Growing up in Hurstville, your school is part of my home turf, so I am particularly pleased to be here.  There is nothing like that feeling of being on familiar territory. 

Nothing could have been less familiar than the cities, villages and jungles of Vietnam for the 60,000 Australians who served there between 1962 and the final withdrawal in January 1973. Throughout that decade, nothing could have been more harrowing than the sounds of gunfire and helicopters sweeping overhead and nothing more fearful than the prospect of stepping on a booby trap planted by friend or foe - who knows who. 

Sixty thousand Australians served in the war.  Conscription, which was introduced in 1965, was for young Australian men who turned 20 in the year of the ballot.  15,000 young Australians were conscripted, purely based on their birthday.  I was part of the generation that lived during that war, but not part of the generation that was required to go to war.   My parents were part of the generation that had already gone to war, lost loved ones and suffered the deprivations and other miseries that war brings.

I remember the times well. I remember my mother’s tears and fears the night before the ballot, not knowing whether my 20-year-old brother’s birthday would be drawn in the ballot.  I remember her tears the following morning when the date 6 May appeared in the ballot.  My brother’s birthday is 7 May.

Those who did serve in Vietnam were there because, either as full-time members of the armed forces or as conscripts, they had been required by their country to be there to fight the threat of a perceived growing ‘Red Peril.’ 

I can still remember the front page of many newspapers of the day which carried a map with big red arrows starting in China, sweeping down through North Vietnam, through South-East Asia, landing in Australia – it was the great ‘domino theory’ of the advance of communism.  Initially, the fear of the ‘Red Peril’ was palpable in the community.  But as the war went on the criticism grew. There were conscientious objectors. There were student protests and arrests.  I knew both conscripts and conscientious objectors. 

In the United States, yellow ribbons appeared on gates and trees and lampposts.  The song ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ became the lullaby of a war that was seen as the ‘Unnecessary War’ – I say lullaby because it was a song of protest, wanting the soldiers to come home to a dreamlike peace  With the final messy withdrawal from Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in terminology that fails to grasp the reality, the humanity and the sacrifice of those who served, it was the War that was lost, not won.  

The impact on those who fought in a war their government asked them to fight, was significant.  Some managed it better than others but as a country we did not manage it well. 

In 1969, still at the height of the war, members of Australian D Company returned to the site of the Battle of Long Tan and created a memorial there.  The battle of Long Tan on 18 August 1966 saw the largest loss of life on a single day with 18 young Australians killed.  It is the date on which we now commemorate Vietnam Veteran’s Day. 

The creation of the Long Tan Memorial during the height of the war was the act of comrades who understood the importance of commemoration - of remembering their lost colleagues.  It is the only foreign war memorial permitted on Vietnamese soil, except for the French military memorial at Dien Bien Phu.  

It was another 18 years after that memorial was built, and 14 years after the withdrawal of Australian troops before any form of recognition was given when a welcome home parade was held.  On 3 October 1987, after a dawn service at the Cenotaph, 22,000 Vietnam Veterans marched in Sydney in the Australian Vietnam Forces Welcome Home Parade before a crowd of 100,000 well-wishers.  

It was another 5 years before a national memorial was built.  On 3 October 1992, some 25,000 Vietnam veterans marched as part of the dedication of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade.

That failure of commemoration over two decades was deeply hurtful to the 60,000 personnel who served.  It was a failure, in the words of Oxford University philosopher Cecile Fabre, to give testimony to the ‘moral significance of all human beings.’[1] Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke of this at the Dedication Ceremony when he said:

“We cannot make good this hurt any more than we can undo the war itself.

But, by this memorial, we can make good the memory.”

Wars have a tendency to turn the national focus inwards.  In this school’s very first  Journal, published in May 1916, when Australian soldiers were also at war on foreign soil and those at home were fearful and worried, there is a very prescient quote which speaks of the vision of the school then, and which remains. The quote reads:

“Australia is not the only environment that young Australia(ns) must take into account. A people cannot live its complete life apart from other peoples, any more than a man can fully function apart from society … we are the ‘heirs of all the ages’, although … we may find it in unexpected places.”[2]

In many ways, this reflects the war that we are here to commemorate.  Because the Vietnam War created such division, from support to condemnation, we do not often speak of the positive contribution that the war - and, therefore, those Australians who fought in it - had on us as Australians, on our defence policies and in the region.   The contribution and the impact of that contribution has been significant.  

In the region, Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, was strongly of the view that, by delaying the fall of Saigon from 1965 to 1975, Singapore and other nation states, had 10 years to strengthen their political and economic resilience.[3]  

Australia was the place to which Vietnamese refugees fled, embracing Australia as home, adding to the vibrancy of our multicultural community. They fled here because of the goodwill created there by our veterans.  In doing so, they left their homes and homeland, many never wishing to return because of the trauma of the war. 

Thanks to the dedicated and diligent archival work of Vietnam veteran Ken Stevenson, your school now has its own memorial to those who served and made their contribution to Australia and to the wider region.  It is an honour to be here to share this significant moment with the school. 

Lest we forget


[1] Professor Cecile Fabre, Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford, ‘Remembering Wars: Lest We Forget’ podcast in The Philosopher’s Zone on Radio National

[2] Sydney Technical High School Journal Volume 1, No 1: May 1916

[3] Peter Edwards, The New York Times: 4 August 2017: ‘What was Australia doing in Vietnam’

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