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Simon Willis AM CSC

Simon Willis AM CSC

Major General, Australian Army



Lieutenant Simon Vincent Laidley Willis

(left, with Paul O’Sullivan)
4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 39283
Rank on discharge: major general
Honours/awards: AM CSC

"I am always grateful for the people; the commander who taught and trained me, and the soldiers whom I was privileged to lead.

We’re still close, still connected. If I open my email right now, I’ll have at least two emails from the diggers I served with in Vietnam. We’re connected by the shared hardships."

Simon Willis graduated from the Royal Military College in December 1970, and almost went straight to Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander in the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Simon said, “I was lucky on a number of levels. I was lucky the rifle platoon I got was one of the best trained platoons in the battalion, and I was lucky to actually get there in the first place.”

“One of the commanding officers said that the 4th Battalion was probably going to be the last to go to Vietnam and they should get some younger fellas in to extend their depth of experience. So, he went to the Royal Military College and said, ‘Give us two infantry graduates!’ And that’s how I ended up there.”

“I graduated mid-December, went home to my parents for a couple of weeks over Christmas, and joined the unit straight after new year for our final training. I departed for Vietnam in April 1971. I was sent on the advance party, so I flew to Vietnam whereas the rest of the battalion went by ship (HMAS Sydney). I got there three weeks before everyone else, and my job was to settle in and check the lines and everything. I was one of the most inexperienced young officers, but I was the only single officer. The other four were married, that’s why I got sent not because I was smarter or whatever else.”

“Our job was to get a group of young men together as a unit, to work together, and to keep them all fit and healthy. We had National Servicemen and Regulars, and I can't say I noticed any difference between them. We didn't take pains to identify them though it was easy to do. Every National Serviceman had the second number ‘7’ in their regimental number.”

“The corporals brought them together, the diggers all lived in the lines together and they had to work together. If someone wasn’t pulling their weight, whether it was a Regular or a National Serviceman, the corporal sorted it out. And if he didn’t the sergeant did, and if the sergeant didn’t it might’ve got to me.”

“There were two wars going on in Vietnam. There was the war being fought up in the 1st Military Region near the DMZ (demilitarised zone), which was more conventional warfare with large units banging into each other. Whereas we operated as small units sneaking around the jungle aiming to secure particular areas, basically search and destroy. Occasionally we got into big fights, but generally speaking, we had 15-second, 20-second encounter contacts and it was all done and dusted.”

“Australia operated mainly in one province, Phuoc Tuy Province. The province was broken up into civilian access areas and free-fire zones. In the civilian access areas people got around doing their daily chores up until curfew at say nine o'clock at night, and then a whole different regime applied. Anyone seen in the free-fire zones was deemed to be enemy. We mainly operated in free-fire zones, and we only came in contact with the villagers occasionally, when they went to tap old rubber trees or whatever.”

“Phuoc Tuy Province was divided into a circle with the base in the middle at Nui Dat, with three battalions each with an area – a third of the province. We had nine battalions, and they would do their 12 months and be replaced. It would roll through with the battalions returning to the same areas of operations. You had patrol reports that went back many years so there was a successful handover. Any time there was a contact it was on a map and a hand-scribbled database. We had a pretty good start.”

“The company would have an area within the area, and concentrate on that, and the platoon to a lesser degree. We generally deployed into the field with one officer and about 23-25 soldiers in the platoon. I went back to the same area pretty much constantly. It was maybe 30 km by 20 km, and in featureless jungle that’s bloody big. Some days we wouldn't do more than 1,500 metres.”

“Before you left the base at Nui Dat, you were issued with all your rations, and you’d go through adjusting them and chucking out the lima beans and whatever else you didn't want to eat. In the American C-Rations there was something called White Bread, it was literally white bread in a can. If you heated it up, it was just wonderful. If you toasted it, it was like toast. And in the Australian ration pack you had something that resembled butter in a tube and jam in a tube. So, one of the luxuries was to be able to get to a point where you could have toast and butter and jam. That was outstanding.”

“We got resupplied every five days or so. You'd run into the other platoons, and you'd have a chat and that sort of thing. And when the resupply came in, they might bring you out a carton of milk and an apple, or a bread roll or something like that. On one occasion the cooks put food dye in the bread rolls. So, Bravo Company, our company colour was blue, so our bread rolls were blue. Charlie Company’s rolls were amber, and Delta Company’s were red. That way they said the right rolls went to the right people. Tasted good.”

“There was a definite smell in the jungle, particularly around bunker systems. If you didn’t see other signs, you knew you were getting close because you could smell them. My enduring memories of Vietnam are of the smell and the leeches.”

“I also remember the personnel I worked with. My sergeant was a tremendous trainer, operator, counsellor, and teacher. And I had a wonderful company commander who was a great thinker, who delegated well and trusted well and kicked arse well.”

“The people and the relationships were really important, and that’s still evident today. I probably get two emails a day from diggers in the company in Vietnam. We were young men, we all went away together, we shared the same experience, we shared the same hardships. We had good times together and we had not so good times together. And when it was all over and done with, we were lucky to have a Radar O’Reilly (the company clerk in M*A*S*H) who took it upon himself to make sure we kept in contact. Initially it didn’t happen, but now we stay pretty well connected the whole time.”

“When I left for Vietnam, I left from Townsville on the advance party, but the battalion marched through the streets before they left, and there were no protests. The town put on a big farewell bash. People were cheering and everything. When we came back, we had a march through the streets of Townsville. But there were elements of demonstration all over the place.”

In 1987 the Australian Vietnam Veterans Association organised a Welcome Home Parade through the streets of Sydney. “After 1987 people were becoming more open to discussing elements of Vietnam. Before that no one really discussed it. For society at large it was done and dusted, and for those involved, we didn’t want to stand on rooftops and yell about it, we just wanted to get on with our lives.”

“There have been a lot of incorrect stories that have gained traction about Vietnam and about the politics in general. First, you’ve got to put in the context of the times. That was the time of the ‘reds under the beds’ and the Yellow Peril. There were Communist insurgents everywhere and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that they were gonna sweep down. People think they brought in National Service for Vietnam, but I believe it was introduced because of the threat from the Indonesian Confrontation at that time.”

“Most of the diggers that went to Vietnam went because their country asked them to. They were either serving voluntarily or they were invited to serve whereupon they said yes. ‘I got my number drawn out. I wouldn't have volunteered, but because I'm called up, I'm gonna do it anyway.”

“I'm pretty certain that throughout the war, except with the rare exception, conscripts weren’t forced to go to Vietnam in combat roles. I know everyone in my platoon was a volunteer.”

“I think the overall opinion among Australians might be that National Servicemen were forced to go to Vietnam. I think some were forced to go for political reasons or for publicity or whatever, but they might have gone in non-combatant roles. What’s the point of taking someone to be part of a team that doesn’t want to play. You wouldn't do it in any other field of life, so why would you do it in the military.”

“I think a lot of people's perceptions of Vietnam are based on movies as opposed to reality. Of course, there were elements and people that operated that way, and it makes a good movie. But as a general rule, it didn't happen that way.”