The 160-odd members of Whiskey 2 Company that fought alongside each other in Vietnam, and considered themselves “brothers”, have met again for the first time since they disbanded in 1969.
When they arrived back in New Zealand, the soldiers were told to tell their friends that they hadn’t been in Vietnam fighting a very unpopular war, but were instead on their overseas adventure.
There was no parade, no reunions.
But Nelson man Ralph Urwin got sick of seeing his old comrades’ death notices, so decided to act and organise the company’s first reunion. “There are guys here who I haven’t seen in almost five decades. It is quite emotional.”
The reunion started on Friday night at the Suburban Club with a registration. On Saturday night there was a dinner and on Sunday a parade at Anzac Gardens before a barbecue.
Ralph says he volunteered to go to war when he was 19 and an apprentice electrician. “It was my OE. We were brought up under the domino theory and were told to fight them in someone else’s back yard before you fight them in your own, that was the mind-set.”
About 160 men from around New Zealand, and even one from the UK, joined the company and headed to Vietnam after months of training in New Zealand and Malaya.
Ralph says it was often boring work, “indispersed by manic times”.
The company would patrol, as there was no fixed front line. When they ran into a Vietnamese unit they would decide whether they could take them on themselves or, if they would need back up in the form of artillery or air strikes.
His company lost seven men during the war and had 30 injured, but he says they never lost a fire fight, “just the war”.
“Charlie [the Viet Cong] was a good fighter and he was fighting in his terrain and he knew why he was fighting. About three months after I got there I wondered ‘why are we here?’”
He says there were depressing days, especially when they were patrolling for days on end in the wet season.
Ralph was the platoon medic and one day he was called to the perimeter because a man had been hit. “He was an Aussie guy and he had a big hole in his chest and he said ‘f*&%, I’m dead, I’m going to die’. I said ‘hang on a minute Jacko, lean forward’, so he leaned forward and there was no exit hole, so I said ‘you’ll live mate, it’s only shrapnel, you’ll live.’ He slept in my bunk for the rest of the night until they could helicopter him out in the morning.”
Ralph says he left New Zealand feeling proud that he was doing his bit for the nation, but returned “a villain”.
“People were blaming the soldiers instead of the politicians. We were just doing what we were asked and the soldiers wore it, not the government.”
Ralph returned to Nelson after the company came back home and picked up his apprenticeship. He then went to work for the Nelson Fire Service for 20 years.
Ralph marched at the reunion parade at Anzac Gardens on Sunday with his grandchildren. He says it was a “special moment within a special weekend”.
He wanted to thank all of those who travelled from all over New Zealand and Australia for the reunion, and to Nelson RSA president Barry Pont who helped organise the reunion.