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TIM MANGAKAHIA had weathered some dicey episodes with his health in recent years, and it wasn't always looking a sure bet that he would make it to 70. So as his big day drew closer, the former soldier pulled out all the stops. He booked the reformed show band, the Maori Volcanics, to play at his party and corralled into action his five kids, 15 grandchildren, and as many of his old mates as possible from both here and in Australia, his home of 31 years.
It was a grand occasion, but one important face was missing. Mangakahia had been unable to track down Reg Swarbrick, the Australian commander of his platoon which served in Vietnam as part of the 4RAR/NZ (Anzac) Battalion in 1971.
Mangakahia had acted as Swarbrick's de facto platoon sergeant, responsible for a section of 10 New Zealand assault pioneers. Despite their differences in background and age, Swarbrick was 11 years his junior, the men grew close during their eight month tour of duty. Their friendship set the tone for strong working relationships within the platoon, among soldiers from two armies who had never met, let alone trained together, before having to meld seamlessly into a viable combat unit amid the pandemonium of a theatre of war.
As close as their wartime friendship was, Mangakahia had seen Swarbrick just once since Vietnam, at a "Welcome Home" parade in Canberra in 1987. After glimpsing each other in the march they made all sorts of promises to keep in touch, but the good intentions of the day were gradually overwhelmed by the demands of work and family life, and they again lost contact in the intervening years.
In recent times, Mangakahia had pursued any number of leads trying to find his old mate, none of which bore fruit, until he placed an ad in a Returned Services League newsletter. When the breakthrough finally came, it was immediately obvious why his nationwide search had failed.
"One guy (Alan Price, the President of the 4 RAR Association, Qld)) came back to me and said: `I've found him. And you're never going to believe this. He's in your country.' I said: `What do you mean?' He said: `He's in New Zealand'."
Earlier this month, nearly two years too late for Mangakahia's 70th, the Sunday Star-Times reunited the pair in Auckland. Mangakahia flew in from Brisbane, and Swarbrick from Christchurch, where he has lived since 1995.
On meeting again, they gripped each other in a bear hug, noted the myriad ways in which age had indeed wearied them then, hands on each other's shoulders, launched into a long, discursive conversation that would occupy them the better part of the next 24 hours.
On paper, about all Swarbrick and Mangakahia have in common are soldier fathers, and the mutual realisation, on the cusp of manhood, that they too wanted to go to war.
Swarbrick was born in Belgium to a Flemish mother and an English father who had fought there in World War II. He grew up in Melbourne, where his family relocated when he was nine.
Mangakahia, the soft-spoken grandson of Hamiora Mangakahia, premier of the Maori Kotahitanga parliament, was raised on a Coromandel farm which had no electricity. He also had no secondary education.
When he was four, he lost his mother to TB; when he was 14 his father, a World War I veteran who had been gassed in combat, succumbed to a brain tumour. It was expected he would take over the farm, but Mangakahia, his wanderlust stirred by his father's war stories, moved to Auckland to stay with his older siblings.
"It wasn't of any interest for me to remain on the land; I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my life there," he says. People told him he'd be a labourer for the rest of his life. "But I thought `no, I'm going to be an army man. I'm going to get out of here'. I remembered hearing my father's stories about being on leave in Egypt, and thought, `That's what I want to do'."
Mangakahia completed compulsory military training, joined the army engineers, and "just kept firing in my papers to the infantry battalions until they got sick of me" in an attempt to get on a tour.
He got his wish, serving in Malaya and Borneo. Despite having a wife and children, he was happy to leave for Vietnam when he got the call-up at age 33.
Living in military circles, the popular anti-war sentiment did not leave an impression on him. "I'd recruited and trained the boys that were going over with me. Putting that training into practice was going to be the icing on the cake."
In Australia, national service laws required 20-year-old men to enter a ballot for possible military call-up. Dissatisfied with his white-collar job in accounting at a petroleum company, Swarbrick withdrew his name from the ballot and signed up willingly, "rather than waiting for his marble to drop".
He too, was unaffected by the growing protest movement; the placard-waving Save Our Sons demonstrators who confronted him at a recruiting depot simply "didn't register".
"I don't think I was brainwashed, I don't think I'd heard enough to be brainwashed. It just seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. It was going to provide me with more excitement than what I was doing," he says. "I guess I was pro-war. I had no idea of what they were chanting. I was just in a blur. I was going somewhere."
SWARBRICK had "eyes like a mad cat" as he disembarked into the clamour of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airfield, in those days the world's busiest. His first, disconcerting impression of the New Zealand forces was the sight of an RNZAF Bristol freighter which had no reverse capability being pushed backwards on the tarmac by a scrum of men. ("They called it 50,000 rivets flying in loose formation," recalls Mangakahia.)
The American C-123 provided to take them to their task force base proved no more reassuring, with the engine emitting a shriek that had no place in an airworthy craft. "The loadmaster reached down under the seat, brought out a ball-pein hammer and banged about three times," recalls Swarbrick. "The noise stopped and we took off."
They touched down amid the searing May heat near Nui Dat, a shallow, pancake hill in the southern coastal province of Phuoc Tuy which was marked with rubber plants and laterite roads, and which served as the Australian task force base for a few thousand, mostly ‘ANZAC’ troops. Despite the proud ANZAC tradition, Swarbrick recalls there was "some level of uneasiness" about working alongside the New Zealanders: "I didn't know dot about Kiwis in general, and Maoris in particular. You don't just throw two groups into the pot and hope that everything works out all right."
On the flight in from Singapore, Mangakahia recalls the New Zealanders voicing their reservations too. "They'd say, `I'm not too sure about taking orders from an Aussie'."
Mangakahia tried to knock it on the head, but tensions flared regardless. When Swarbrick's old-school Australian platoon sergeant exploded at a group of the New Zealanders, ordering them to stop playing cards and to line up outside their tent, the heavy set, Zapata-moustached soldiers simply stared him down. There was a stand-off until Mangakahia intervened, the soldiers more comfortable taking orders from their countryman.
Swarbrick realised the best way to run the platoon was to install Mangakahia as the de facto platoon sergeant, handling any issues within his section. "I've no doubt, looking back, that I wouldn't have done as well with them without Tim," he says. "He spoke and they listened."
The easy rapport between the two leaders helped strengthen overall relations between the two nationalities within the platoon. "I just found Tim easy to like," says Swarbrick. "I couldn't see anything not to like, so we started working and everything worked just fine."
Whatever cultural differences existed between the two groups evaporated in the face of their strenuous workload which kept them occupied from first to last light. The two-can daily beer ration also played no small part in forging the ANZAC bond. "When you deployed, they'd accumulate, and when you came back you'd have a barbecue and a bit of a booze-up ", says Swarbrick. "We all became mates."
The coldies piled up during the platoon's first deployment, which lasted close to 100 days.
"We could have sat in Nui Dat until the cows came home, and we probably would have been wiped off the face of the earth," says Swarbrick. "The thing about Vietnam was that there were no frontiers. The enemy was all around you. It was a patrol and ambush type of war; search and destroy. We were supposed to find the bad guys in our area, at worst keep them out, and, at best, kill them."
They patrolled through rubber, grass and jungle, skirting the villages they passed. They slept under half-rounds of galvanised iron culverting, "like a dog kennel", says Mangakahia. It was filthy work. "There wouldn't be a dirtier platoon in a battalion than the assault pioneers."
Their efforts on the ground were assisted by formidable air power. "When you got in the clag, you had artillery landing on your doorstep within minutes," says Swarbrick. "If you had casualties, you had helicopters whisking people out."
The air support also delivered fresh fatigues, rations and a constant trickle of "reos", or reinforcements, from the ranks of newly arrived Australian national servicemen. Just as suddenly, when their two years were up, they would be spirited away again.
For those who weren't there, impressions of the Vietnam War are invariably filtered through the imaginations of American filmmakers and writers, conjuring a picture of a profane and drug-fogged conflict, coloured by the rock and roll counterculture of the age.
Swarbrick says this doesn't reflect the ANZAC experience. His platoon didn't adopt "the Lucky Strikes in the side of the bush hat, chewing gum approach" of the American grunts, and rarely came into contact with their more powerful allies. (As a professional soldier, he found the more left field in their ranks to be "a bit floppy".) He was unaware of any drug use among his men.
But even without the drugs, there was no denying the strangeness of the conflict. He found the jungle an eerie, unnerving place.
"It's a corny phrase, but the silence was deafening. Scary-quiet."
For Mangakahia, the heightened alertness of their silent patrols seemed to encourage in the men a sort of sixth sense.
"If there was something you felt was imminent, something the lead scouts had picked up, the sense would go through the platoon. You could feel it."
There were bizarre, unexpected findings: the Honda motorcycle they came across in the middle of scrubby terrain, far from any roads, which they brought back to base as a trophy. And there were moments of brutal beauty, such as the destruction of hundreds of metres of a tunnel complex, in an explosion which "changed the topography" of the area. Ultimately though, says Swarbrick, his platoon "weren't engaged with the enemy to the same extent you'd see in movies". "The Americans put themselves in harm's way a lot more. Ours was seen as more of a security role."
During their tour, the platoon had only two "contacts" with the enemy; the first, an ambush which broke the silence of an early morning patrol.
"It was quiet, then for a brief period of time all hell broke loose, then it was quiet again."
Mangakahia laughs as he remembers the encounter. "People were running through the rubber and we were firing, firing. When it was all over, Reg said `Geez, you guys couldn't hit the side of a barn. Everybody check your sights.' And in the excitement nobody had put their sights up, it was just lit and strip. They all got away."
The other contact occurred when they challenged a group spotted at the end of a rubber plantation. "The next minute we were getting incoming small arms fire. Once again we let rip," says Swarbrick.
"When we went into an area of operations, they were essentially civilian no-go areas. You can get into whether it should or shouldn't have been, but that was what it was. If anything was there that shouldn't have been, it was fair game. It turned out this guy was from a local village, and he was talking to the wrong people, and those people were the ones doing the firing at us. He lost his life."
Thirty seven New Zealanders were killed in Vietnam, a figure eclipsed by the 500 Australians, which pales next to the 58,000 Americans, in turn dwarfed by the 3.2 million Vietnamese who lost their lives.
Swarbrick's platoon suffered no casualties during their tour; it wasn't a traumatic experience for him. "I have no dark spots; for me it was just something we did. Ultimately you'd have to say that Vietnam was a military defeat, but we didn't feel that we'd been defeated. I don't think we left with our tail between our legs. To the last day we were intact; we were secure; we were doing our job."
His only real scars stem from the way he and his fellow soldiers were treated subsequently, as they re-entered a society that had been watching the war on television, and did not like what it saw.
Returning troops were shunned by the governments that had sent them to fight, a betrayal that had ample time to rankle Swarbrick as he made the long and cumbersome trip home, trying to reach his wife and son by Christmas.
From Vietnam, the Australians were airlifted to HMAS Sydney, sailed to Townsville, then Sydney, where he lugged his kit across town to catch the train to Melbourne. "When you look back on it, why wouldn't you fly somebody home? It was like, cheap bastards, you know. Nobody said, `Well done, you did a great job'."
Swarbrick, who went on to have an accomplished military career, including serving in the elite Special Air Service Regiment, regards his post-war treatment as the darkest memory of the services.
He believes men he served with were psychologically damaged by their experiences. "You've just borrowed no, taken two years of their life. It was almost like they were expected to plug back in exactly where you left off and it would be all OK. And I'm sure it wasn't. These days you get counseling for road accidents, bomb threats and nobody even asked these guys the questions. It was callous."
Mangakahia says that although they weren't expecting a hero's welcome, he was unprepared for the public antipathy that awaited them at home, even from fellow servicemen. Some returning soldiers were refused membership of their local RSAs. "They said, `You weren't in a war.' I just stayed out of the way, didn't let people know I'd been there."
Soldiers were stolen home in their civvies in the middle of the night, pelted with paint bombs during marches, vilified by the public as "baby-killers". Mangakahia remembers being had up about his involvement by a group of students. "I said I was a professional soldier, wherever the government sent me, that's where I would go. If police in your city would only respond to some things and not others, would you feel safe?"
Actions by their governments in recent years have gone some way to redressing the betrayal they felt. Last year, Helen Clark delivered a Crown apology to the nation's 3400 Vietnam veterans for failing to support them, and an event called Tribute08 provided the first official welcome home. A trust was established to support veterans' children and a commitment made to address health problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
The vets are patient. They've gotten used to waiting for what they're due. Next week, Mangakahia will be among the New Zealand contingent which, for the first time, will lead Brisbane's huge ANZAC Day parade an event which, in many towns, once excluded Vietnam vets. Last year, the parade drew 60,000 spectators.
Afterwards they'll repair with their families and guitars to a boat on the Brisbane River; old grievances won't be aired. "Soldiers always talk about the good times," he says.
A couple of weeks after that, Mangakahia, whose health has improved in recent times, will turn 72. He'll be getting a birthday visit, a couple of years overdue, from an old mate.
Reg Swarbrick and Tim Mangakahia were reunited in New Zealand courtesy of Pacific Blue and the Rendezvous Hotel, Auckland.
The idea for this story originated from Monique Farmer, an associate editor of the New Zealand Sunday Times-Star with the cooperation of the RSL of Australia, NSW Branch and the 4 RAR Association, Qld.
Vietnam brothers-in-arms reunited
Tim Mangakahia and Reg Swarbrick, reunited after nearly 40 years.
4 RAR Assoc, Qld
20 April 2009
4 RAR Associations of Australia
Their Service . . . . Our Heritage
We Will Remember Them