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Johny Bineham

Johny Bineham

Staff Sergeant, Australian Army


Corporal Kevin John Bineham

AFV Detachment, 1st Division Intelligence Unit, Australian Army
Service number: 1200529
Rank on discharge: staff sergeant

"More than anything else, I remember the smell of bread. In the mornings, walking in the village, the smell of bread wafted everywhere. There were metre-high stacks of freshly baked French baguettes.

That smell of bread will always take me back to the village."

Johny Bineham spent a year in Vietnam, from December 1967 till December 1968, as counterintelligence with the 1st Australian Task Force. Vietnam wasn’t Johny’s first overseas deployment. He went to Korea with the Australian Army as a 19-year-old seeking adventure, and he was in Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation.

Johny said, “With Vietnam, it was again adventure, but I was 35 years’ old, so I’d matured somewhat. I knew what had happened to South Korea and how it had blossomed into a successful democratic nation, and I was hoping something similar would happen with South Vietnam. I was also really interested in meeting the Vietnamese people.”

“Half our unit were Vietnamese, mainly translators and interpreters, and there were about ten other Vietnamese in the Task Force and another 20 stationed in Ba Ria. I developed some really wonderful relationships with the Vietnamese. I made a point of studying the history of Vietnam. I asked them about their art, their culture, their singing … and they were just so surprised somebody was interested.”

Being in counterintelligence, Johny was out every day. “Normal intelligence is very sedentary, you have information coming in, you make sense of it, and then disperse it where it needs to go. Normal intelligence is you trying to discover things about the enemy. Counterintelligence is operatives or agents trying to deny the enemy knowing about you.”

“I was out every day, even in the boondocks in the jungle, seeing people from the CIA, private operatives, Vietnamese paramilitary, police … I’d give them the latest developments in the Australian Task Force and then I’d get whatever intelligence I could. I had to trade information. In many ways intelligence depends on the relationships you develop.”

“Another thing we did initially were vast cordon searches. At night they would send a battalion of troops to completely cordon off a village, and in the day the villagers would all be made to gather at a certain paddy field or oval. They were looking for Viet Cong who were on a blacklist. They never caught any because Viet Cong were not going to come into a village when there’s a battalion of troops there. It was a huge waste of time and it upset the villagers.”

“Instead of cordon searches, Captain Boscoe organised snatch-and-grab operations and they were far more effective. We would find a village with four or five people on our blacklist, who were obviously very involved with the Viet Cong. Before dawn we’d take three vehicles and go to three houses, and then to the houses on either side, and if the targets weren’t there we left. The idea was we’d be in and out of the village in ten minutes, we didn’t disturb it. These operations became very, very successful.”

“I believe, and I haven't heard otherwise, we captured the highest-ranking Viet Cong in the war. We were doing the traps and we dropped into the CIA. The CIA guy had a Vietnamese Chieu Hoi (surrenderer) who knew where this Viet Cong was hiding out in Hoa Long village. The CIA guy had had information like this before, and the American sector headquarters wouldn’t act on it, so he didn’t think they would act on it now.”

“So, I rang Captain Boscoe, and he had a company of troops surround the area so we could go looking in houses and looking for tunnels. But the Chieu Hoi was having trouble finding the house or maybe he was chickening out.”

“Meanwhile, the rest of us from Intelligence had these metre-long steel probes and we were probing the ground looking for tunnels. We found what we thought was a tunnel, but Captain Boscoe wanted to keep going from house to house. So, I thought we should get a step ahead.”

“We put a length of bamboo down this hole, and it was at least 10-feet deep, and it was also quite wide. The problem was we couldn’t find the tunnel entrance. I had Corporal Young, who was with the mini engineer team which carried explosives, prepare some guncotton and we had everything ready and waiting.”

“Captain Boscoe gave us three minutes to act. We put the first lot of guncotton down and it moved so we knew there was a tunnel there. We put a second lot down and then lit it and about five feet from me, the lid blew off but nothing happened. Then I heard some voices, and these fingers came up over the entrance and this face popped out. She was Vietnamese and her ears must have been ringing from the explosion. She came out and I motioned her over to an interpreter and straight away started asking questions. In that initial confusion, you try to get any information you can.”

“The next thing, more fingers came up, and then this guy came up. He had this big pair of shoulders on him, and I don’t know how he got through the hole. But he came out and we blew up the tunnel. This guy was the highest-ranking Viet Cong we’d caught, he would’ve been the equivalent of a colonel.”

“All the equipment for the Australian Army came in through Vung Tau. I had really good connections there, so I could pick up stuff for our unit, but occasionally I had to trade things. So, I needed things to trade.”

“I noticed that whenever they found a Viet Cong camp in the jungle any documents, photographs, bravery certificates things like that, came to our unit to be translated to check for any intelligence information. Then once it was finished with, they just burnt it. Now some of the Viet Cong were artists and they were in the jungle and doing sketches, and when they put out a propaganda magazine, the front cover would often be a wood block and it was great artwork. So, I had people save them for me so I could use them to trade, and I ended up with a large pile. Some were Soviet-style posters – ‘We the Workers’ and ‘We the Fighters’ – but others were portraits and local scenes of buffaloes and things like that. I ended up with the largest collection of Viet Cong art in the world as it turned out.”

Johny’s Viet Cong art collection was exhibited by the Casula Powerhouse and toured around Australia for six years. He said, “I always felt it belonged to the Vietnamese, especially the certificates of bravery which should go to the families. So, I made photograph copies for myself and bundled it up and someone in Canberra organised for it to be returned to the Vietnamese. It was nice that something positive came out of that, instead of it just being burnt.”

Johny has some fond memories of Vietnam. “Some areas in Vietnam, especially early in the morning when it was tranquil, were in many ways a tropical paradise. And in the Vietnamese towns you'd often see hot bread shops with baguettes piled a metre-and-a-half high. Two things really stand out in my mind, French loaves of a morning, and French brandy.”

Reflecting on the war, Johny said, “One thing that really upset me was the fact that although half of our unit was Vietnamese, and we had a really close working relationship with them at a very personal level, we left them all. Not one Vietnamese who worked with the Australians in either a civilian or military capacity was brought to Australia, and that includes all the staff of the Australian Embassy in Saigon. We left them all.”

“I've no personal regrets. I regard my going to Korea and Borneo and Vietnam as being my university. And it's the university of hard knocks. And you learn lots of things the hard way. But there is a certain sadness.”