They were only nineteen: the song, the story and the legacy 356



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If there’s one song that will haunt me all my days, it’s Redgum’s I was only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green).

Written in 1983, it tells the story of an Aussie infantryman, from training at Pukapunyal to first-hand combat, military operations, and eventually returning home disillusioned, psychologically scarred and possibly suffering the effects of Agent Orange.

My sisters and I played the song endlessly as kids, only half understanding the lyrics with some help from Dad, who was a Vietnam Vet, filling in the blanks.

Of course, the line that sticks with everyone is: “And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon. God help me – he was goin’ home in June.”

At some stage in young adulthood, it dawned on me that the story of the man in the song was real. It’s written into the lives of every Vietnam Veteran, into the words they don’t speak, the wounds they don’t talk about, and the lives they rebuilt after coming home, virtually in disgrace.

My father has never spoken much about the war. There are photos in which he looks like a young Robert Redfern – he’s usually smiling, mucking about with mates. We’ve heard the story about the time they blew up the dunnies on the base, but the serious stuff. Well, that’s not something he can really talk about.

One of the pictures is of a dirt road somewhere in Vietnam. I think Dad was on R&R that day (I’m not sure if it’s the same day he accidentally ordered monkey’s brains for lunch). There’s a little girl in the photo, not much else. I remember looking at it one day and my father casually mentioning, “That was the day I saw my first dead body.”

The only other hint of what he went through as an artillery man was when a young friend who’d joined the army said he wanted to got to war. My dad, not prone to flashes of anger, practically shouted, “He’s an idiot!” and swore.

I also remember being proud as punch the day my dad was reunited with his unit for the 1987 Welcome Home Parade in Sydney. Redgum played I was only Nineteen in the Domain. At the time I had no idea that the song was part of the movement that forgave the young men for fighting in a dirty, unpopular war.

All I saw were lots of bearded blokes, some laughing, some crying, and my dad wearing his medals – a hero of the Anzac legend in every way.

The true story of “Frankie”, who kicked the landmine in the song, is revealed in a new book, The Jungle Dark, by journalist and Vietnam Veteran Steve Strevens.

Frankie is a real person – Frank Hunt, a friend of John Schumann from Redgum’s brother-in-law – but it wasn’t he who stepped on the landmine on the day in the song.

Frank was walking behind a man named Lieutenant Peter “Skipper” Hines from 3 Platoon, A Company, 6 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment who was injured when the mine exploded on July 21, 1969.

Frank, who himself still suffers from physical and mental injuries obtained during the war, told the ABC he allowed his name to be used instead of Skipper’s to protect the family from the media attention, but is happy now for the story to be set straight.

“He was an absolute champion man, a leader of men,” Frank said.

Even today, 32 years after the song’s release, Frank says it still plays a role in raising awareness about the physical and mental health effects returned soldiers live with.

“Everyone is Frankie and that’s the point I really wanted to get across with the song,” he said.

Speaking with my father, who went on to work as a public servant, the legend of Frankie is indeed an important one to Vietnam Vets. He remembers the Old Boy’s attitude of the early 80s and the refusal to recognise the Vietnam soldiers.

It wasn’t until the Veterans Association came face to face with “Frankie” that the attitude began to change. A condition known as Post Vietnam Stress Syndrome was recognised and the Vietnam Veterans’ Counselling Service was established, and, finally, the 52,000 soldiers who fought in that dirty, unpopular war were allowed to get on with their lives.

My father recalls the procedure – or lack thereof – for coming home after two years of service. “You put your rifle in a barrel, got on the plane and when we landed at home they said, ‘right then, f-#$k off”.”

By then he was no longer 19. And he was just another Frankie.

Do you remember how the Vietnam Veterans were treated when they came home? Do you think it was wrong?

Starts at 60 Writers

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  1. They were treated badly when they got home, while they were out there fighting, many Australians spent years here protesting the Vietnam war. I am sure out Vietnam vets who come in here will fill us in, but I don’t remember them getting abuse, I think they probably were ignored. It is a dark stain on the era, in more ways than one. It was a war we should never have been involved in, and we should have welcomed our boys back home with open arms. Our soldiers did not cause that war, they were causalities of it

    6 REPLY
    • I will have you know my husband was called a baby killer on more than one occasion. If Australia does not help there less fortunate countries we would be a world full of dictators. Please have some compassion for the people in this world that do not live in a safe country like Australia.

    • They were splashed with RED Paint to represent the blood they were supposedly guilty of shedding. This was by all of the labor supporters. The trade unions refused to send ammunition to them as well.

    • I am an ALP supporter I marched at the anti Vietnam rallies and that is load of crap about the ALP, I have never been rude in life to any soldier from any war..the war was wrong and so was the Government, but the soldiers were not at fault

    • Wendy Perrins I will have you know that your husband was not called anything at all by me, take it up with the people who did the name calling !! Joseph Skilton to put it simply that is a load of crap

    • It was the Menzies Government who sent them there, can anyone else remember “all the way with LBJ” ? We should never have been involved and it caused a flood of Vietnamese refugees heading here

    • Leanna Stephenson, Joseph Skilton is correct about the red paint incidents. I also can remember them getting abused, to the point that they could not wear their uniform, and didn’t want to be out in public with their ‘short back and sides’ haircut, in case people thought they were soldiers. There were many people just out there, protesting against the war, but some of the lunatic fringe took it too far, and would gang up and both physically and verbally abuse any soldiers they came across. They gave the anti-war campaigners a very bad name.

  2. My man is my hero. He had two tours of Vietnam!!! Me and mine a super super proud of him Shame shame Australia you treated them so so badly hang your heads in shame !!!!

  3. I can remember sitting in fear almost waiting for the lottery to be called on the tv, we were conscripted, the whole family was there. I was a young apprentice and I felt nervous my birth date would come out. I was lucky, they called the birthdate out after mine, even then I knew war killed. Some of my mates were not so lucky and one died and another one lost both of his legs

    1 REPLY
    • Same here David, only they drew the numbers both sides of my birthday. It was ony a political war where soldiers did not go to protect their country, Like you said, many were either killed or injured physically or mentally for no gain to anyone. Terrible for the Soldiers and families, but absolutely invigorating for the politicians.

  4. It senseless war that we were never going to win and one like the Iraq war, that we should never have been involved with. But that was not the fault of our soldiers who fought bravely, it was fault the fault of the Government at the time

  5. So your commenting on Australian Soldiers and put up a pic of American Soldiers !!! Be ashamed again 60 !!!

    1 REPLY
  6. My late husband was in 3 RAR and I will never forget how him and the other Vets were treated when they got home.It was a disgrace to see how the Government and the RSL turned their backs on them.

    4 REPLY
    • Beryl I totally agree went through the very same thing with my late husband no one wanted to acknowledge them and it wasn’t till the welcome home march in 1987 but it was to little to late

    • Yes Gale,my husband passed away in 1988 but he went to the Welcome home parade and he pushed a close friend of ours who was in a wheelchair who was also a vet and he also passed away a couple of years later.I will never forget how proud they were that day .

    • I drove disabled vets in the Welcome home march in Sydney – It was difficult to drive because tears were streaming down my face – they finally got the Welcome they should have had years before not the red paint that was thrown over them. I still remember the name of one that I drove in the March – Major Kepper 🙂

  7. I think why they shun so much was because at that time they did not win “I don’t think they ever suppose to “therefore the R.S.L and likes just didn’t like and yes I had friends who went over and unlike a lot of them they came back relatively ok a lot didn’t

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