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Kenneth Norris

Kenneth Norris

Lieutenant, Royal Australian Navy


Acting Petty Officer Electrician Weapons Radio Kenneth Lindsay Norris

HMAS Perth, Sydney and Vendetta, Royal Australian Navy
Service number: R63680
Rank on discharge: lieutenant

"My first trip to Vung Tau, it was like Christmas, with the night sky lit up with flares and shell tracers accompanied by the pounding of the shore guns. Taking diggers back to Australia aboard HMAS Sydney in ’67–’68, I talked to them, and they were proud of their efforts in Vietnam.

My last deployment, aboard HMAS Perth, in six months we fired over 10,000 5-inch artillery rounds. I lived directly below the aft gun mount and every time the guns fired, specks of asbestos separated from the overhead pipes and and appeared like Christmas snowflakes throughout the messdeck."

Ken Norris’s first trip to Vietnam was on the destroyer, HMAS Vendetta, escorting HMAS Sydney or the Vung Tau Ferry as it was known. The drama began even before Vendetta set sail for Vietnam.

Ken said, “The trip was quite taxing on me personally. This was my first time at sea on a destroyer, and she had to set sail into a gale. We responded to a mayday call and headed to Jervis Bay to pick up survivors of a dredger (Atlas) that had gone down, but the only sailors we picked up were dead ones.”

“The seas were 55-foot, and the Vendetta was battered. So, we headed into Sydney Harbour where an army of dockyard workers worked round the clock to get her ready. Work that would normally take six months took three days, and off we went. We joined up with Sydney at Manus Island and then we sailed to Vung Tau.”

“We spent three days at Vung Tau and that was my first exposure to that environment. I was only 18 and as a young guy I was quite taken by the place. From the sea you could see just layers and layers of green, and at night it was like watching fireworks coming over the jungle.”

“When I was on watch, one of my jobs was to let off scare charges down the side of the ship to stop any laying of mines.”

“After we left Vung Tau we went to Hong Kong. A typhoon had come through and Hong Kong was not in a good state of repair, and at the same time the Communist riots were taking place and there were machine guns at all the police stations. I don’t know which was more dangerous, Vung Tau or Hong Kong.”

Ken Norris’s second deployment to Vietnam was on board the Sydney from late-1967 to mid-1968. He said, “Being on the Sydney was a little bit different from the Vendetta because we were bringing the soldiers back from Vung Tau and talking to those guys and hearing about their experiences.”

“I used to run the radio network on the ship and a couple of the soldiers would come up and I’d give them a visiting role. They would play their tunes on their way home.”

“The impression I formed of the soldiers was that they were proud of what they did. Morale was high until they got home and there were protesters on the wharf. That really deflated everybody.”

Ken’s final deployment to Vietnam was on the Perth. “It was a gun line ship and we fired 10,000 rounds in support of the main operations. My memory is every time the gun fired the place was like Christmas with all the lights. That gun fired 5000 times above our heads. Boom! Boom! It was always present.”

Apart from the ever-present gun fire, Ken has good memories of life on board the Perth. “We had a group of guys who were all fitness fanatics. We had a very strong karate club, and we were very active. We would run around the upper deck while the guns were firing; you had to plan your route to keep away from the guns. We got extremely fit.”

Ken said, “A good part of coming home was, my wife and my eight-month-old daughter were on the wharf to meet me. It had been very hard for my wife because we got married in November 1969 and I deployed in September 1970. When I left our daughter was one-month old and my wife was only new to the country. She is Portuguese but we were married in the United States. I convinced her to come to Australia and we've been married ever since.”

A couple of months after coming home, Ken went to join the local RSL sub-Branch. “They basically told me to bugger off because they were only interested in Second World War and Korean War veterans,” he said. “There was definitely a negative feeling towards people who served in Vietnam compared to other veterans. It was more the people who were in charge of the RSL than the members themselves. That upset me, but I’ve got over that and I’ve been a member of Castle Hill RSL for many years.”

“I don't think the Australian people appreciated what the war was all about, and that was the takeover of people's lives by a very harsh regime. The ideal was right, to protect the democratic rights of a people who wanted to be democratic. But unfortunately, the whole process got twisted and we ended up with what we got.”

“I would not support future wars where you haven’t got a stable government and where you cannot leave the country knowing it’s going to be in safe hands. It’s just wasting the men, wasting the resources and for what purpose?”

Ken has been back to Vietnam since his war service. “I felt the place was very friendly, but the absence of graves of the ARVN (Army of Republic of Vietnam) made me think. A lot of those graves were ploughed and disappeared and there were beggars who were missing a limb who were ex-ARVN. It's a peaceful nation now, but it's still a big price to pay by the people left behind.”