A WAR HERO’S STORY
SEPTEMBER, 1965: JOHN Achilles, a young jackaroo from Chinchilla, was working in the Northern Territory when his birthday was drawn from a drafting lottery and he was conscripted to serve in the Vietnam War. He was just 20-years-old.
“It was a challenge. I did a lot better than a lot of them though because I’d been out in the bush and fired a weapon and fired a 303 and shot kangaroos and a lot of the city boys had never done that, you know?” Mr Achilles said.
A year later, Mr Achilles found himself serving as a signaller in the 101st Field Battery in the jungle near Nui Dat, calling up artillery for the infantry with little more than with a wireless pack on his back.
“You would have to pull the aerial down because the Viet Cong would shoot wireless operators, so you pulled it down over your shoulder until you wanted to send a message,” Mr Achilles said.
But Mr Achilles carried with him one more crucial thing.
“I had a little 35mm camera and I used to put it in plastic because of the monsoon rains and carry it in a pouch on my hip,” he said.
During his nine months in Vietnam, Mr Achilles took an extensive collection of photographs which are now a part of a new book written by his artillery captain and former director of the Australian War Museum, Steve Gower.
“I’d use 36 shots and send them away to Kodak and have my home address in Chinchilla on the slip and all the slides came to my home address, they never went back to Vietnam, so they were all here when I came home,” Mr Achilles said.
Round Complete: An Artillery Forward Observer in Vietnam, is a first-hand account of an infantry solider during the Vietnam War.
“It tells of all the operations we went on from 1966 until 1977... It was Steve’s job to call on artillery and my job to call it in.
“No one likes to get killed but you’re fighting in a war - it’s you or them. You called in artillery and although you couldn’t see where it was landing, you knew it was devastation.”
Mr Achilles said while they have never faded, the recent publication of the book has brought back a lot of memories, particularly of how Vietnam Veterans were treated by the Australian community after the war.
“When we came home we marched in Brisbane and we got the keys to the city and it was a big ticker tape parade in those days and then it was after 1970 everybody turned against us… marching and protesting,” he said.
Mr Achilles said he didn’t share his experiences for a long time because of the contention surrounding the Vietnam War.
“When we came home we never talked about it, we just drifted back into society. It’s only the last few years it’s come out and they’ve started having this Vietnam Veterans Day.”
Mr Achilles marked Vietnam Veterans Day at the Chinchilla RSL Memorial Club on Friday.
“It means everything to me,” he said.
“You reflect on all your mates and the fellas who didn’t make it.”
LEGACY: John Achilles has contributed his photo collection to a book about the Vietnam War.