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Paul O'Sullivan AM MBE

Paul O'Sullivan AM MBE

Brigadier, Australian Army


Second Lieutenant Paul Stacy O’Sullivan (left, with Simon Willis)

6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 19966
Rank on discharge: brigadier
Honours/awards: AM MBE

"The rubber, paddies and the jungle became familiar environments. In about October 1966, I went to Saigon with my platoon for a week to provide security at the hotel where the HQ AFV signallers lived.

I remember feeling really uncomfortable. It was too crowded, too much going on.

I felt exposed. I remember feeling relieved when we got back to Nui Dat, back to the jungle, and thinking, “This is what I know. This is what I’ve been trained for.”"

Paul O’Sullivan was a second lieutenant in Vietnam and an original member of the 6th Battalion. “6RAR deployed to Vietnam in June 1966. I arrived in the country on battalion headquarters as the assistant adjutant, or in contemporary terms ‘personnel logistics’.”

“Because I was the assistant adjutant I was in the last contingent. We flew by Qantas charter jet from Amberley into Tan Son Nhut, trans-shipped to C-123s (Providers) and flew to Vung Tau. From there we deployed by air assault to Nui Dat where the 1st Australian Task Force base was being established.”

5 RAR arrived in country before 6 RAR. They had already taken up a quadrant and we took up another sector in the rubber plantation and set up house. It took eight or nine months to establish the base. It was exhausting because we had to build the defensive position and conduct offensive operations at the same time. Each company had a sector and an AO (area of operation) where we patrolled. You would go out on patrol and when you got back you had to dig holes, improve holes, and put up wire … the whole lot. It was hugely demanding.”

“We arrived in the middle of the monsoon season, so digging defensive positions was just heartbreaking. Digging in this red mud, you’d get down so far and then it would pour down and just turn into soup.”

“The Battle of Long Tan took place on 18 August 1966. The platoon commander of 11 Platoon Delta Company was killed, and the platoon decimated. Those who were left were given a couple of days breather at Vung Tau and when they came back, I took over. I was relieved when I got over the desk job and got out in the field. Very few of the Diggers who fought at Long Tan carried on. They moved some soldiers from 10 and 12 Platoons and brought in others.”

“My first operation was up in the mountains. We had two sections of eight men, myself, and my radio operator. We built 11 Platoon up over the rest of the year and the rest of the tour. A full-strength platoon is about 35, but we never had anywhere near that.”

“6 RAR and 5 RAR were the first to deploy with National Servicemen, so they were the first intake, and they were fantastic. The great strength of the National Service soldiers in the first intake was they were trained in the battalion. They did their recruit training at Kapooka, and they came to the battalion to learn how to be infantrymen, how to fight.”

“Instead of being taught general infantry training rules they were taught according to the battalion SOPs (standard operating procedures). We taught them in the battalion and then they stayed in the battalion, so they became very tight. I had a good relationship with the soldiers, they were good lads.”

“I think independence and initiative have always been characteristics of the Australian Army. They are good characteristics for soldiers provided they know what job has to be done. You set out the plan and if it doesn’t go to plan, they can get on with it.”

Paul said he has a triple-layer memory of Vietnam. “There was the never-ending wet during the wet season. Then in the dry season operating in paddy was like operating in concrete and you were wet anyway because you were sweating to death. You were wet the whole time, it didn’t matter if it was the wet season or the dry season, you were wet.”

“I didn't mind it after we'd been there for a while. I got used to being wet, that's just the way it was. Some of us had come from parts of Australia, which are very humid at the best of times.”

“The 6th Battalion was made up of predominantly Queensland enlistees because it was a Brisbane battalion, even with the National Servicemen. I think it worked well because a lot of the fellas came from the same town and knew each other and had been to school together and worked together. It enhanced the fundamental principle of, ‘What do you do? You look after your mate. You die for your mate.’ The bond was stronger because so many came from the same towns.”

“Operationally, we saw our fair share of action and incidents. I lost a section commander who was killed, and I lost quite a number of Diggers who were wounded. A mine knocked out a whole bunch of us. Some of the guys who were wounded had only been in country for a couple of days, and that was it for them. On another occasion, we got hit by our own artillery. The medical system was very good, and a lot of guys are alive today because it was good.”

“The period I was in Vietnam, was when the Task Force was being established and effectively gaining control of Phuoc Tuy Province. The objective was to deny the enemy access to the villages, food sources and all that sort of thing. I think by the end of our tour, we were pretty confident that we'd actually done that. The 274th and 275th Viet Cong regiments had virtually disappeared back into the mountains and back into their traditional hides.”

“Towards the end, Brigadier Graham had come in to assume command of the Task Force from Brigadier O.D. Jackson, and he was responsible for the defensive plan that built the minefield that ran from the Horseshoe to the coast. The minefield was to stop Viet Cong and regular forces from getting through from Dat Do to the provincial capital, Ba Ria, and to contain them on the eastern side.”

“We all knew from basic training, that if you're going to lay a minefield, you have to cover it with observation and fire. If it’s 15-kilometres long that's pretty hard to do. There were a lot of casualties during the laying of the minefield, and then there were a lot of casualties after the minefield had been built. Charlie would go under the minefield fence, collect the M-16 ‘jumping jack’ mines, and use them against us. After 1967-68, there were many Australian casualties from our own mines, because dear old Charlie thought ‘thanks very much’.”

In Vietnam, Paul didn’t have much contact with the civilian population apart from doing cordon and search operations of the villages. “That was the closest we got, and it was clear that the locals were very wary of us. We would move in after a night cordon and you could see they were thinking ‘here are these bastards again.’”
“The Vietnamese villager was a subsistence farmer. They were struggling to get by and grow a bit of rice and mind their own business for the most part, and they were getting hammered from both sides. Charlie was killing them to intimidate them to hand over their food or to recruit them. And on the other side, we were relocating them allegedly to safe havens, it was disastrous.”

“There was rural provincial Vietnam where people were struggling to make ends meet, and on the other side there was Vung Tau with the bars, the brothels, the massage places and what have you. That was the contact that so many of our young soldiers had. It was their first time away from home in a lot of cases, and their first time out of the country. On the one hand, they're seeing these poor, desperate people struggling to survive day to day out in the villages, and in the sort of metropolitan areas they were exposed to, an unreal construct of society. It was a very artificial and a demeaning construct.”

“My most pleasant memory of Vietnam was getting back into the jungle after I'd been detached to Saigon for a week in Australian Army headquarters. Each week, a platoon from Nui Dat was deployed to protect the accommodation for the signals people in Saigon. It was regarded as being a reward because when you weren’t on duty, you could go into Saigon.”

“My greatest relief was getting out of Saigon. We hadn’t been trained for urban warfare. I found it terrifying standing there waiting for some woman sitting sidesaddle on a motor scooter to hurl a grenade over the blast wall. Getting back to Nui Dat and going back into the jungle, that was great. I knew my way around there, I felt comfortable.”

“I guess the most important dimension to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War was the political one. We had National Service in the fifties, the sort of three-month how to carry a rifle and what have you, that was a good system. The legislation to reintroduce National Service was brought in in 1964 with the undisclosed intention to send troops to Vietnam. They created the National Service scheme and the birthdate lottery that went along with it. I think it's important to understand that we're all subject to the decisions that politicians make, whether we like it or not. And that throughout history, old men have sent young men to war. And to be aware that we're all vulnerable to that sort of decision making.”

“I started the process to enlist in 1963 and went to the Officer Cadet School,  Portsea in 1964 for the 12-month commissioning course. I knew precisely what was going on and what I was letting myself in for. My expectation was that I would go to Vietnam sooner or later. I didn't have someone tell me, you're gonna stop being a butcher or whatever and we're gonna teach you how to kill, and we're gonna put you in harm's way.”

“One of the most disgraceful aspects of our involvement in that war was how we treated the National Servicemen when they came home. They got back to Australia and these guys were out in 48 hours. The Regulars came home and simply continued to serve. I stayed in the battalion for another year, so I had all the machinery around me and I didn't have to think about outside or anything else.”

“Some of the boys who went to join the RSL were rejected. So, there was this sense of being double dunked. I lost the bloody lottery, and now no one wants to know.”

“I wasn't in Australia at the time of the Welcome Home Parade, I was serving in England. But as the President of the RAR Association in New South Wales, most of the guys I deal with are Vietnam veterans and the March was a defining and definitive transition for them. It was the catharsis. Today when I talk to my contemporaries about the rejection and what have you, they are over that now, it's part of history.”