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John Verhelst JP

John Verhelst JP

Corporal, Australian Army



Corporal John Edwin Verhelst

Headquarters, 1st Australian Task Force, Australian Army
Service number: 3797649
Rank on discharge: corporal
Honours/awards: JP

"I spent many days in Huey gunships. I would fly with them on SAS jungle inserts providing security, and with the medical team or public relations team.

One day I returned to Kanga Chopper Pad at Nui Dat and the air force person filling the fuel tanks looked at me in horror and he showed me where a row of bullets had blasted the side of the chopper, about 18 inches from where I had been sitting for the last two hours.

I shrugged and walked off."

In the 1960s Berwick was a small rural Victorian town. John Verhelst was the only person from Berwick in the National Service 18th intake. “In October 1969 I went to Richmond, and they were nice as pie, and I thought this is okay. But when we got to Puckapunyal the sergeant said, ‘You lot, I’m your mum and dad from now, forget you’ve got other parents …’ and he went on and on, and I thought ‘oh shit’.”

“The first five weeks were hell, but then we were allowed three days off to go home. After that, in the second five weeks you either made it or you didn’t. I thought I'm not gonna fight it, I'll just put up with it. It wasn’t super, but I got through it.”

“Then they had me working in the Officers’ Mess at Duntroon. I was talking with a sergeant who had just come back from his second tour in Vietnam. He said, ‘you want to go and get out of this. It's an experience, that's why I've been twice.’ So, I signed up and off I went to Canungra (jungle warfare training).”

“We did two weeks at Canungra and out of 100, 70 of us got through, and about three weeks later I got my note saying I was off to Vietnam. At the start of December 1970, I jumped in a Qantas plane and off we went. We landed at Tan Son Nhut in the morning, and it was as hot as hell, and we had to stand outside in the shade of the buildings because it was the busiest airfield in the world. Finally at five o'clock we got some water and some food. Then a Hercules took us down to Vung Tau and from there a Caribou took us up to Nui Dat.”

“As I got off the plane I heard ‘boom’. Our tents were about 100 metres from one of the wires where the artillery was. So, every 30 seconds every night they would shoot off a 105 mm round, ‘boom!’”

“Anyway, I saw my tent, met the other guys, and about two hours later the sirens went and we had to get into the bunker. I didn't even have a rifle at that stage because we turned up late, and we weren't getting all that till the following morning. So, I just followed these guys into the bunker and there was about six or seven inches of mud and crap in there. We were there for about an hour, then the whistle went, and we were allowed out. This was my first night, my welcome to Vietnam.”

“My job was looking after the Officers’ Mess and bar for the stewards. I spent most of my time doing morning stock takes and then I didn’t do much during the day. I let the guys go off at night while I looked after the bar, and I ended up chatting half the night with the lieutenant in charge of catering, and the commander of D&E Platoon (Defence and Employment), the infantry platoon that looks after security.”

“The work rolled along for about three months, but I was bored. I was talking to a chopper pilot one day and he said, ‘come out with us.’ I'd never been in a chopper in my life. Anyway, for the next seven or eight months, I went up on the gunships about two or three times a week. People thought I was a bit crazy going out with the choppers, but it was an adrenaline buzz. There’d be five choppers, two with SAS guys. I was on a gunship, and we’d just circle around so the SAS guys could get the landing drop and get out. Sometimes I’d go out in the little Bell helicopter doing the document run to the bases around Phuoc Tuy Province.”

“When you balance books and work out rosters every day for nine months it gets pretty tedious. That’s why I went out a lot.”

John has vivid memories of the rain in Vietnam. “You’d get up in the morning and it was raining, and you’d have to go to the toilet block, and it was raining there. You’d have a shower, but you were wet anyway so you didn’t worry about drying yourself. I wore boots and shorts and a shirt, nothing else, no undies, no socks. And there were snakes everywhere. We had a pet mongoose that kept the snakes away from our tent.”

“You were always on your guard. Everywhere you walked, you carried this SLR rifle with you. We’d laugh and carry on, but you were on edge all the time, you never knew when you were going to get mortared or when there was going to be an attack. We were mortared five or six times when I was there, but not very close, maybe 150 metres away.”

“For our R&C, we would go down to Vung Tau for two nights every four weeks. Half the guys would trip off to the bars straight away. I wasn’t a beer drinker, and I didn’t smoke cigarettes, I would spend quite a lot of time just walking around the streets and talking to people, talking to Vietnamese. I've been back several times. They're the loveliest people. They love their country, everything about it. They love living. They have a passion for good food. Even then when I was over there, I was thinking, why are we here? I know why we were over there; people do know it.”

“Nui Dat was in an enclave within Phuoc Tuy Province. When they came in April 1966, the first thing they did was put up a great big fence. So basically, everything that happened, happened within; we spent probably 90 per cent of our time inside an armed barbed wire enclosure. If you wanted to buy food or see a show, it was within those confines. So, every four weeks when we went to go to Vung Tau, we were quivering to get out of the place. Sometimes if it was a bit quiet, they’d truck us down to the beach at Vung Tau for three or four hours. They were highlights because most of the time you were stuck in Nui Dat.”

One day that has stayed with John is 12 June 1971. “I went to Long Khanh Province to Courtenay Hill with a supply convoy on the day seven of our guys were killed up there. A guy threw a satchel charge on the APC (armoured personnel carrier), and it just blew them to bits. We got there a couple of hours later, it was surreal. Everyone was just walking around, no one was talking. And the next day, the APC was brought back to Nui Dat on a flatbed truck. The Armoured Corps was 150 metres from our tents, so visually it was there with you all the time.”

John said he ‘grew up’ in Vietnam. “I had been a country Victorian brat with mates who all played footy and cricket and whatever else you do. I never went back to my mates who lived in the country because we couldn’t relate to each other. I went and lived in Melbourne with a couple of mates and got into dope and did my work and that was it. I totally forgot about Vietnam. No one ever asked me about it. They didn't want to know.”

“About two years after I got back, I was a bit of a mess. At the end of 1973, I thought I’m gonna go one way or the other. So, I went on the Australis (passenger ship) and five weeks later I was in London, and I drove coaches from London to Kathmandu for a year and a half. It blew a lot of the cobwebs out of my system and then I went back to a company I used to work with in Sydney. And that’s how I just rolled on with life.”

“I was working in Bangkok at the Shangri La in 1987 when they had the Welcome Home Parade, and someone asked me if I was going back for it. I said, ‘No way.’ I had nothing to do with the Army or National Service or Vietnam veterans until about 2007 when I went to a reunion that we held through our 1st Australian Task Force Group. Since 2010, my wife and I have run the reunions for 100-200 people, every two years.”

“I think Australians need to learn a little bit more about Vietnam. The Nam Bus goes around Australia and there are a lot of vets now who go to schools and talk to children. That's good. They've only been doing this for about eight or 10 years, so the people from 25 to 65-70 years have no idea.”

“It took me quite a while, but I think I’ve got myself together and now I’m involved with the DVA, with the 1st Australian Task Force Group, and with Mind Dog, the psychiatric assistance dogs. I have Labradoodle and she's halfway through learning to be a Mind Dog, and I can go anywhere with her.”