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Gary McKay MC OAM

Gary McKay MC OAM

Lieutenant Colonel, Australian Army


Second Lieutenant Gary John McKay

4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 2789609
Rank on discharge: lieutenant colonel
Honours/awards: MC OAM

"For me, Vietnam is 30kgs on my back, wet with sweat and walking in a single file. No one speaking. Using only hand field signals to communicate.

It's short, sharp, violent contacts.

But a couple of times, we had longer engagements. One, it took us four hours to go 200m.

That's not what it said in the training pamphlet ..."


In 1968 Gary McKay was conscripted to the National Service and allocated to infantry. Gary said, “I was supposed to go to recruit training at Singleton, but it was full, so I ended up at Puckapunyal. When I got down there, they said, ‘Hands up all those that want to be officers.’ You had to have your leaving certificate and pass the basic psych, physical and all that, and then you went on a selection course. It was pretty competitive. About 150 guys made it to selection and only about 50 of us got picked.”

“Because they expanded the Army from three battalions to nine, they needed more junior officers. So, they created an Officer Training Unit at Scheyville, and jammed a one-year course into six months. I went to Scheyville, just outside Windsor, it was a pressure cooker.”

“At Scheyville everything was assessed from your ability in the field to playing sport, to the way you ate in the mess. I think we had 135 in the class and 58 got through. They weren't mucking around, I mean, you had to be able to lead an infantry rifle platoon on operations against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Anyway, that's how I got to be a second lieutenant grunt at 20.”

“Because I was a pretty good rugby player, they kept me for a the 3rd Training Battalion at Singleton; I had six months of officer training and a year of being a platoon commander/captain of the rugby team. The weekend after we won the grand final in the Hunter Valley, I got posted to Brisbane to the 9th Battalion, which was coming back from Vietnam.”

“I only had six months to go, and I hadn't done anything except get trained as an infantry officer and play rugby. So, I wrote a letter to the Director of Infantry saying, ‘you trained me but I'm not going to get a chance to see if my training's up to speed.’ I got an answer back, ‘you'll join the 4th Battalion which is leaving early next year, 1971.’ So, this was right at the end of the war for Australia. I had to extend my National Service obligation to go.”

“I joined 4 RAR at Canungra, replacing a platoon commander who’d been given the sack. I trained with Delta Company 4 RAR for about six months then we went across to Vietnam. Like with a lot of other battalions, the advance party went by air and the main body, which I was in, went by HMAS Sydney to Vung Tau. We went in May 1971.”

“We were getting off the Sydney, and 2 RAR were coming on. The Chinook helicopters landed on the after deck and we piled on and flew straight to Nui Dat. It was my first time in a Chinook, and it was scary, it was like flying over the moon with bomb craters everywhere. That’s when you realised, you were in a war zone. That and the fact that everybody’s carrying a weapon.”

“The Australian Army training system was probably at its peak when we went to Vietnam in 1971. We were very well prepared, and we had leaders who had already been there and done that. My platoon sergeant was only 24, but he’d already done three campaigns: Borneo, Malaya, and a tour of Vietnam. We're told in training; you'll have a crusty old sergeant to look after you. He wasn't old but he was highly experienced and had a nice level head.”

“When we got to Nui Dat, we went out for a warm-up op in an allegedly quiet area. We went out and we practiced our formations, and just got used to it before our first real op.”

“I remember going out on patrol early in the tour. We went out for a couple of weeks and we didn't see anyone, didn't smell anyone. With every day that went past, we got wound a little bit tighter. The other patrols were having contacts and we were thinking what’s wrong with us? And then all of a sudden, ‘bang’, we had one. I tell you, the novelty of being shot at wears off after the first round is fired at you.”

“When someone says ‘Vietnam’, I think stealth, patrolling quietly 800-900 metres an hour – tops. Thirty kilos on my back, wet from sweat, in single file in the jungle. Not speaking, using field signals.  Stopping every hour for a location state. And then when you have a contact, everything just going nuts, but it might only last a minute.”

“There were two items that we had at the very pointy end. One guy had secateurs so he could just go ‘snip, snip,’ and not move anything. And the other guy had a counter attached to his weapon, a counter for counting sheep or cattle in a stockyard. It was all paces and bearings because you couldn't see anything, you just saw green. You rarely got out in the open.”

“You could tell the grunts when they went to the beach. We were pale and the guys who had the easy jobs all had suntans. We were white because it was sleeves down, camouflage cream on, hats on, and that was it.”

“I remember a time when we were moving through primary jungle, and I turned around to the platoon, and everyone was doing his job, watching his arcs, all cammed up, not a sound. And we came into this sunlit clearing, it was like in a national park, and it was about 10 o'clock. So, I just did the field signal for ‘all-round defence’ and ‘teabag’ – have a cup of tea. Not a word was spoken, the guys just went into all-round defence, and the sentries went out, and the guys quietly got out their brew gear, and one guy would make a brew for him and his mate. And here we were in a war zone, having morning tea in the jungle, and it was like being in a park. And then packs on and back into it. I’ll never forget that. I can still imagine that scene in my mind's eye.”

“It was mostly short, sharp, violent contacts but we had two huge fights. One with the 274 Viet Cong Main Force in a bunker system with a troop of tanks in support. It took us four hours to go 200 metres; that wasn’t in the training plan. But these guys were very good fighters and that was one big battle.

“And the other big battle was the very last major engagement of the war at a place called Nui Le. We were up against the North Vietnamese Army and outnumbered to buggery, eight- or 10-to-one, but the only support we had was air or artillery. Someone had decided because the war was over, they'd send the tanks home. I don't know if we would've been able to get tanks in there anyway.”

“It was a day of reckoning for my platoon because we'd been there six months and we hadn't lost anyone. We hadn't even had anyone wounded and then in that one day, all my machine gunners in the assault line got shot to death. Two of those kids had only been with me for three days, they were reinforcements. And right at the very end of the day, myself and my sergeant were wounded.”

“Going to Vietnam, my aim was to bring everybody home. We were not going to win the war, but it’s like any contact sport, if you don’t go in hard, you get hurt. And that was, I think, why my platoon had no casualties until right near the end of the tour. The guys were aggressive but in a good way, not in a foolhardy way. They were half Regulars and half Nashos, but they bonded together great as a team.”

“So, we were the last battalion to go to Vietnam and we were in the last battle, right at the very end, and I was the last Australian wounded in action. My company ended up being the last company in Vietnam, we left in March 1972. The rest of the battalion left at Christmas.”

“We had met some of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) guys who had been in the war for 10 years. We knew when we were leaving, we were leaving them to a pretty ordinary fate. And that was sad, but the North Vietnamese were prepared to pay any price.”

“I've been going back to Vietnam for 25-odd years as a battlefield tour guide. And one thing that I really came to realise was that we needn't have been there; it was a civil war.”

“I was giving a talk at a school and one of the kids asked me what the saddest thing was for me about Vietnam. If you’d asked me that in 1972, I would've said it was the death of my four soldiers, but for me now the saddest thing is the Vietnamese MIA (missing in action). Australia had had six MIA who were all recovered. The Americans had a couple of thousand and I think they haven’t even got half back. But the National Liberation Front or the People’s Army of Vietnam had a quarter of a million. So, the saddest thing for me is the quarter of a million families who will have no idea where their loved ones are. As I say to kids when I give school talks, there are no winners in a war.”

“I think the biggest thing we learned from Vietnam as an Australian society was that if you're going to put people in harm's way, you've gotta support them when they come back. Especially in the combat arms, we put people into a very unnatural environment where people are trying to kill each other and then we pull them back out and they don't expect there to be any rub off. And it took a long time with the Vietnam veterans, but they've realised we've gotta support these people.”

“Another thing I think we've learned is that if you're going to put people in harm's way, you have to have a combined front on the political sphere. I think people now realise that, and I think the politicians now realise that.”

“I ended up spending 30 years in the Army. I made the decision after only two years that I would extend to go to Vietnam and then maybe sign on for a five-year short service commission. But I ended up being offered a permanent commission. I never thought of the Army before I got conscripted, but we're a good fit.”