It happened at a Motel in Palmerston North in 1980. It was the first official reunion of Vietnam Veterans since we had all come home at different times and virtually avoided each other.
The social two days for wives and Vets had been brilliant. Old mates. Lots of stories, genuine pleasure at having survived the war together.
And it was special to me. The weekend brought our wives somehow into our lives for the first time. They watched and listened to men who acted and spoke just like their “strange” husbands…some light was being spread on some of the habits and actions of their chosen man.
But the fun part of the weekend was about to end…
It was Sunday morning…meeting time, Kangaroo-court time, shared hangover time…and a guest speaker…
The dapper little Auzzie flipped over his last chart, turned to the packed hall and said:
“Well, there ya go Kiwis. Forget your kids’ Spina Bifida, your cleft pallets, your malfunctioning organs…
“Hands up all those in the room who have a child with a deformed foot! Go on! Any sort of a deformity in the foot – one or two.”
He glared at us…hands on hips.
Absolute silence greeted him. The hall was filled to overflowing with Vietnam Veterans and their wives…probably 200-250 of us.
My wife dug me in the ribs. Looked at me. “We have one”
I raised my hand, about half way. The bloke three people down the row did the same…then came a groundswell of murmuring. I looked around. Hands were going up all over the room.
Bloody hell! The room was a sea of hands!
Then the sobbing started…then the screaming and crying….I could not believe it…
Our little Auzzie presenter from the Royal Commission of Enquiry in Canberra, Australia, threw his pen onto the table.
He packed up his papers. “You are exactly the same as us. So what are you going to do about it?…
…and stormed off the stage, leaving the room in a noisy, sobbing mess.
We seemed to ALL have children with deformed feet…how did that happen…no one had ever mentioned it before…I supposed it was not the sort of thing that blokes mentioned to each other on the odd occasion that we met.
We had read about the stroppy Australians (bloody Nashos!) getting organised to have a go at their Government about being sprayed with Agent Orange…
We sort of knew that the odd couple had had the odd “problem” with the odd child…but that’s war eh! We had been professional soldiers…we went in with our eyes open, didn’t we?
But this…this was something different.
And NZ Vietnam Veterans had come of age.
At some time early in the United States’ commitment to defend South Vietnam from the Communist North, the military commanders realised that they were in for a jungle war that lent itself beautifully to an insurgent, motivated, local jungle fighter.
The jungle was the Viet Cong’s friend and home. Large numbers of local and Northern troops could move about, train and ambush from its lush cover.
So specifications for a “super defoliant” were drawn up and tendered to chemical/agricultural companies.
The new product was to:
Kill off the bushy cover (as opposed to large trees) fast.
* Be able to be applied by aerial and backpack sprayers.
* Meet budgetary requirements
* Be safe to human and animal life.
The Dow Chemical Company won the tender with a mixture of known and new chemicals that did the job. It was to be in three variations but the main one, for general use over large tracts of jungle, was named Agent Orange (so named for the band that marked the drums, not the colour of the agent).
It was made from:
Plus a greasy adherence material that ensured that applications stayed on the bush in rain long enough to kill the plant.
Variations of this were also made to address different, specialised scenarios. These were Agent Blue, Agent Red and Agent White.
Somewhere in the testing and acceptance of the product, someone forgot to sign off on the “safe to human life” specification.
And Dow decided that the best quality work and most efficient manufacture of these wondrous new products would be done at their existing manufacturing plant in Waitara, New Plymouth, New Zealand.
The “Chemical Warfare – Herbicides” pages 111-112 of “The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War” (S. I. Kutler, Simon & Schuster Macmillan 1996) says that operational flights to deliver the defoliant began in 1962…but that “Operation Ranch Hand (as it was named) reached its peak in 1967 – my year in Vietnam with V Company.
During that one year the program flew 6847 sorties using 4.8 million gallons of AO, defoliating 1.2 million acres of jungle and crops.
All of the drums that arrived in Phouc Tuy province were Agent Orange. Some of them had V Company’s name on them.
(I read somewhere last year that by 2001, not one member of Operation Ranch Hand was alive.)
I first saw the stuff used on us one fine day in Nui Dat. Word had gotten out that due to some cases of malaria being reported in camp, a US C123 aircraft would be flying low over our lines, spraying “Insecticide” to kill the mossies that were plaguing us.
Sounds good to me. I thought.
Sure enough, during the day, a smaller Hercules, noisy as hell, flew over, low. Through the rubber trees I could see a wide swath of drizzly mist coming from the back of the plane.
Three days later all of the scrubby plants that scattered around our bunkers and buildings were dead! And the tree-top canopy of the rubber trees that gave us protection from the sun, was drooping and going brown.
Hmmm…bloody strong mossie killer they use over here. I must get some for home.
It turned out that the plane that was despatched from Vung Tau to spray our camp was mistakenly loaded with Agent Orange, instead of the mossie spray.
We laughed about it and learned to live with a little less overhead cover.
The next time I came across AO was up close and personal.
We were on The Horseshoe. The forward slopes of the hill led down from our bunkers to the jungle. We had built a minefield on this slope and fenced it with zig-zagging barbed wire,
We had cut tracks through the minefields so that we could exit and return for patrols. These tracks were covered by our machine guns’ fields of fire…and were decorated with smoke grenades and rigged with trip wires and flares for any unwanted, night time visitors.
Trouble was, the bush grew up through the barbed very quickly and ruined our field of view and fire.
Countless sweaty (and exposed) cutting parties were used to try to keep the bush to a minimum.
But it was a losing battle. The more we cut the bush out of the wire (carefully!) the more it seemed to grow.
Enter, the magic Agent Orange.
I was put on a work party one day where two of us stripped off (to keep our shirts clean) and put on heavy knapsack, hand-pump sprayers.
Up and down the tracks through the wire we went, spraying left and right…under the watchful eyes of our sentries posted at the edge of the bush and the guys on the .50Cal.machine gun post above us.
I got the horrible-smelling stuff all over me…and so did my mate. We worked all afternoon, spraying the whole minefield…and revelled in a long shower before stand-to at dusk.
Within two days, all of the bush was dead and falling as dust to the ground in the minefield. We were impressed!
I never thought much of it until that reunion in 1980.
Royal Commissions were formed. Reports by prominent politicians and Knights of the Realm were produced. The consensus was that there was no proof that NZ troops were sprayed inVietnam. One report stated categorically that “NZ soldiers were not exposed to Agent Orange at any time in South Vietnam.”
And as always happens in human trouble spots, a hero emerged.
A man who himself was becoming one of the hundreds of Vietnam Veterans dying of cancer. Here was a man who had fought in Borneo andVietnam, had earned the Military Cross for bravery in the face of the enemy. He rose to the rank of Colonel and went on to command 161 Battery of Artillery in Nui Dat in Vietnam.
He found some old maps in an Army trunk at his home in Christchurch. They clearly showed grid references, markings, code words and call signs that showed repeated aerial applications of Agent Orange in, over and all around the province of Phuoc Tuy that we operated in.
He took his proof to Parliament.
His mana and standing were such that the former Government findings on Agent Orange were reversed and repudiated. He caused laws to be written and groups formed that today provide financial and medical assistance to Veterans and their families in coping with the many effects of the scourge of Agent Orange. He elicited public apologies from the Prime Minister of New Zealand for the official denial of Agent Orange exposure for all of those years.
We are dying at a steady rate of 4-5 men a month.
Each of us veterans is responsible for seeking out and putting in place the support structures that the work of the great soldier and citizen put in place on our behalf.
Colonel John Masters, MC, ONZM, died from cancer at his home in Christchurch in 2010.
Shortly before he died, a group of Vietnam Vets arranged for the Ghurka soldier whose life John saved in hand to hand combat in the Borneo jungle, to be flown from Nepal to the Papanui RSA for the first and last reunion of the two old soldiers.
The rest of us continue with what is left of our lives as best we can. The spectre of Agent Orange hangs over our every day and that of our children…and now our grandchildren.
The dress jacket stands ready in the wardrobe, medals up and gleaming, beret brushed and ready, regimental tie pressed and waiting.
Whether the next funeral is for a close mate’s…or for our own…we are ready.