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Roderick White AM RFD

Roderick White AM RFD

Major, Australian Army



(Temporary) Corporal Roderick David White

3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 2239085
Rank on discharge: major
Honours/awards: AM RFD

"I’ve got some things at home in a trunk that I did bring home from Vietnam, and there’s still red dust in them; in the wet season, spending days on end, nights on end, sleeping on the ground in an ambush or patrolling during the day in heavy rain – those stains never came out.

Even the smell, you know. You pass through a village and they’re cooking something, and I can still sometimes pass by a restaurant or a takeaway and smell some Vietnamese food that’s cooking, something that I’ve smelt before. I can’t identify it, but I know where I smelled it the first time."

Rod White was in the school cadets at Christian Brothers Chatswood. Rod said, “As cadets we used to go the rifle range and fire Lee-Enfield rifles and Bren guns. Inspired by that, I joined the CMF (Citizens Military Forces) Army Reserve and then I volunteered for National Service. I wasn’t conscripted, my birthdate didn’t come up.”

Rod was deployed to Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) in February 1971. He said, “I went from being a corporal in the infantry in the Army Reserve to a corporal in the infantry in the Australian Regular Army. In Vietnam, many of our senior officers and a lot of sergeants and warrant officers had already been to Vietnam, or Korea, Malaya, or Borneo. So, we had a lot of people who were very experienced in jungle warfare and had done multiple tours of active service. I look back and think, these blokes who had all this experience helped us get through.”

“In an infantry battalion you’ve got rifle companies, an administrative company, and a support company. And in that support company, you have an assault pioneer platoon, signals platoon, mortar platoon, and an anti-tank/tracker platoon. The anti-tank platoon trained with 106 mm recoilless rifles that you could mount on a Land Rover or mount on the ground to fire shells into bunkers or armoured vehicles. We trained with the 106s before we went to Vietnam, but because of the terrain and the type of operations, we left them behind at Nui Dat.”

“After we got rid of the 106s, we reverted to being a pure infantry platoon. I got tapped on the shoulder to become a mortar fire controller (MFC) because someone in the platoon had to carry the radio to call in mortars and artillery. MFCs were usually sergeants, and they had another bloke carrying the radio. I was told it was my chance to become a temporary sergeant and have someone carry my radio. I said, I’d give it a go, but when we left Vietnam, I was still a corporal and I was still carrying the radio.”

“A mate of mine from the 7th Battalion heard we were replacing them, and he left his A frame and pack at the Q Store at Nui Dat for ‘Corporal Rod White of 3rd Battalion’. So, when I got to Vietnam, I got a message there was some gear for me. There was stuff that you really had to scrounge for, and there was a note that said, ‘I don’t care what you bring home from Vietnam but bring my A frame.’ I didn’t bring it home, and 50-odd years later whenever I call him up, he says, ‘Where’s that bloody A frame?’”

“I’ve got some things at home in a trunk, that I did bring home from Vietnam, and there’s still red dust on them. I remember the red dust, and I remember the heat and wet. In the wet season, spending days on end, nights on end, sleeping on the ground in an ambush, or patrolling during the day in heavy rain – that was life.”

“We had very good basic gear and we added to it. Hanging off your webbing, you’d have high explosive, white phosphorus, and smoke grenades. And you’d have links of belts for the machine gun, your basic pouches, and magazines full of rounds for either your SLR rifle or your M-16 rifle, depending on your job. When I became an MFC, I switched over to an M-16. When I wasn't carrying the radio, like everyone in the platoon I had to share the other support weapons, the M-72 rocket launcher and the M-79 grenade launcher, and someone had to carry the Claymore mines.”

“The forward scouts generally had an M-16 in one hand and a pair of secateurs in the other for the lantana, bamboo, and elephant grass. The forward scouts were often the smallest blokes in the platoon, and in many units they could be cutting through the lantana and run into someone on the other side.”

On one particular operation, together with other members of my platoon, we were accidentally wounded by friendly mortar fire. This occurred due to a combination of navigational errors. Navigation was often a challenge in Vietnam with just a map and compass, no GPS in those times.

In October 1971 Rod was in the bush on patrol when they got message, they were cutting the operation short. “We were told we were going back to Nui Dat, and we might even be going home. Within five days we were on the helicopters flying out of Nui Dat onto the HMAS Sydney in Vung Tau Harbour.”

“At Nui Dat we dropped all our webbing into a heap, and they poured kerosene over it and threw on a match. They wanted to make sure no one was taking that webbing home; it was infiltrated with grime, leeches and grubs. I can still remember we were throwing all this stuff on the heap. All our boots had to be burned. And we all stripped off into the raw and went over to the showers. We had a long shower which we always did after an operation, and then we got re-kitted with some fresh greens.”

“I've been back to Vietnam twice. In 1996, I went with a group of Vietnam veterans, we all met in Singapore because we were coming from all over the place. There were 20-odd blokes, 20-odd years after the war. When we got off the plane at Tan Son Nhut Airport and we walked into the reception area, you could smell that smell from 20 years’ earlier. And we were queueing with our passports, and one of our blokes fell onto the floor screaming and crying. His mate took him back to Singapore for three or four days and then home. The other bloke told me that when they got back to Australia, they told their families that the tour had been cancelled. They didn't say why they’d gone home.”

“In 2018, I took my son back for two weeks. Our tour leader had the family name, Ha. I said, ‘I don’t remember that being a southern name.’ He was from a northern family and they came down after reunification and were living in Vung Tau. I asked him what his father was doing in 1971, and he said he was an officer with the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and that we would get to meet him. We had a lovely evening with this major and a couple of his mates from the NVA and Viet Cong. They expressed genuine comradeship and goodwill.”

“I think the Vietnam War, unlike the First World War and Second World War, was very difficult for Australians. It was politically divisive. The conservative old established families supported the Vietnam War and the people who were enlightened during the sixties were the ones who thought, do we really need to be there?”

“The animosity towards Vietnam veterans was very disappointing. At the end of the day, we were doing what the democratically elected government asked us to do. I know veterans who put on their resumes that they were travelling in Europe for the last few years, rather than saying that they had been in the Army. You left Vietnam out of your resume because there were people who still had this gripe that you needn’t have gone. You could have done what some blokes did and gone into Gaol and did your National Service in prison. There were legitimate exemptions from National Service.”

“And then of course a lot of blokes just couldn't adapt back to civvy life. After I returned from Vietnam, I had two weeks at home and I went back to the battalion. Then in early 1972, I decided to get out of the Regular Army as there were minimal opportunities. I saw an ad for carpenters in the Antarctic with the CSIRO. Mum said, ‘Why would you want to go to the Antarctic when you’ve just come back from Vietnam?’ I had completed an apprenticeship prior to enlistment.”

Rod got the job in the Antarctic, but he met Judith on a blind date before he was due to go. They are still married 49 years later. “About 10 years ago, my wife and I were walking past this trash and treasure shop and sitting on the floor was one of these American radios that I carried in Vietnam. I thought it’d been stolen from a military base, but the lady had bought the contents of a shed of a bloke who passed on. I gave her $50 for it, and I’ve still got in the garage, and I often look at it.”

“After the war, I went through a phase where I wanted to know more about Vietnam. I started to buy every book I could. Four years ago, when my wife and I moved, I commenced disposing of probably 500 to 700 books. I remember a medical practitioner telling me, part of my dealing with life after active military service, was immersing myself in reading about it. I also gave many lectures on Australia in the Vietnam War to schools, clubs and veterans organisations.”

“I put on a uniform again and returned to the active Army Reserve, so that kept me in the green gear. I was an infantryman a good part of my life. I did just on 30 years all in the infantry.”