Monday, 24th April, 2017
By Michael Murphy
You would be hard-pressed to find a bloke as true as Des Kennedy.
When the Vietnam War veteran and Broken Hill RSL president speaks, you know it comes from an honest place forged by loyalty.
He’ll admit he’s no angel. In fact, he’s not a religious man at all, but if there are gods watching over “Bluey”, they would probably slip him a VIP pass so he could make his way through the pearly gates with comfort and ease.
Des is not one to glorify his past, he’s matter of fact about it, the bad and the good. When he tells you about the good stuff, he usually follows through with a deep belly laugh, his eyes light up like a baby laughing for the first time.
Des was actually only a few days old when he got his first ride in an army truck. He’s a Wilcannia boy, the son of a shearer and a governess, a couple who also managed two pubs in Wilcannia: the Queen’s Head and the Courthouse.
His mum gave birth to him in Sydney in 1946 while his Dad was purchasing the American truck, a leftover from the Second World War. The Kennedys made their way back to the West Darling with their new son carefully bundled up in the toolbox on the running board.
“The truck was a high open-backed thing with bullet-proof sides on it, had little things on the front windows so you can’t get shot at,” Des said.
“The truck is still out there in a paddock near Wilcannia, they tell me, but I haven’t found it.
“It used to be able to go everywhere, because they never had a chopper or anything, so the old man used it in the floods up there.”
Des came into Broken Hill when his folks got on in years, and had a crack on the mines before he decided to travel around and experience what Australia had to offer.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he had been called up for national service, and his letter was following him around the countryside before it caught up with him in Melbourne in 1967.
He was 21 and he enlisted at St Kilda, trained at Puckapunyal in central Victoria, before making his way to the army base in Singleton, NSW, for more training.
“We used to play ‘waries’ and climb up great big bloody hills with guns and all that,” Des said.
“They said ‘do you want to walk out or ride out?’,” pointing to the chopper.
“Blokes put their hands up to ride and they got put on that bloody thing, they’d tie them on the skids like they did with the wounded.
“I pulled out right at the last minute, I said ‘I’m going to fly this bloody thing not ride on it’,” said Des, and he posed in front of the chopper while his mate took a picture. His mate chose to ride out that day.
“He said it was the most scariest thing in his bloody life... because you can’t see a bloody thing underneath you.”
Looking at that old photo now, and knowing what lay ahead, Des said he would wipe that smile off his face.
The newly-minted soldier was called up to fight as a “replacement” for the Royal Australian Regiment One Battalion. He actually met the man he replaced at a reunion years later.
“He fell over on the ship going over and jammed a rifle butt up his arse,” Des said. “I caught the plane out to Darwin, drank it out of grog, then flew out to Singapore.”
The Qantas flight then touched down in Saigon.
“We were in the middle of a bloody attack on the airport.
“We had no rifles, no nothing, we were sitting under the wing of the DC3, waiting to get picked up.
“They were everywhere running around, and we were sitting there on the bitumen, we couldn’t even get rocks out of the bitumen to throw at them.
“They were not close enough to hurt you, but close enough to see them.”
Des’s tour would last 12 months. For the most part, he was in the “bush” with a small group of men in a “section” for six weeks at a time. When one of the men got killed, wounded or sick, another would take his place.
“We were never ever fully strength,” Des said.
“In a section you had the M60, the two IC, and the forward scout, a radio operator, medic and a couple of other blokes,” he said.
“I started off as two IC to the M60, or I carried the M60.
“It weighed 26 pounds, plus 250 rounds, plus another couple of hundred in your pocket.
“I always carried more than I should have, because if they went ‘bang’, I was going to go ‘bang’ back at them 150 times.”
The men didn’t get to really know anyone else other than those in their section, because when they got back to camp, they were too tired to mingle, just hit the drink, and were sent out on work parties the next day.
The Americans were just like they were in the movies: gung-ho. They would fly in, blast everything, and then fly out while the Aussies would get dropped off and walk into their position, fighting various stoushes during their six week stints.
“You are six foot tall and bullet-proof (before you go over) ... I wasn’t married or anything when I went over there ... we didn’t give a f@#*, you don’t when you are young.
“We will kill them all.
“Then all of a sudden, it all turns around and you start seeing mates blown apart.
“It sinks in up here,” Des said, pointing to his head.
“And you never get rid of it.”
The lack of support back home also sunk in up there. One of the biggest problems for the Aussie soldiers was unionists back home blocking supplies of equipment and food. They had to bludge food off the Americans so they wouldn’t starve.
Des said he wasn’t there to back the government, he was there backing the soldier standing next to him, and he would back them all the way.
“And when you are over there, and you get all these newspapers against us being there, it makes it even worse.
“You are fighting for your country, you have got to have a bit of pride in yourself, and yet the people in your country don’t want you.
“And then when we came back to Sydney when the ship landed, they threw red paint all over us.
“Called us ‘child killers’.
“That’s when I cracked right up.”
After the humiliating welcome home, Des caught the train to Cronulla with a mate from his section, he walked into a Woolworths and up to a serving counter.
“I took all me gear off, my boots and everything, got a pair of thongs, dropped my pants, kept my undies on, took a pair of stubbies shorts, grabbed a t-shirt and left everything there.
“And then we went out and got blind for a week, we were that disgusted.”
Des made his way back to Broken Hill and picked up a job on the mines and got married, but the war wasn’t finished with him yet.
The Americans sprayed a chemical called Agent Orange from planes all over southern Vietnam during the 60s and early 70s. Des was in Vietnam when the defoliant program was at its peak. His daughter was just 11 hours old when she had to have a 12-hour operation.
Des also fights post traumatic stress disorder, like so many other veterans. Someone with PTSD experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.
“It’s the only thing I say about PTSD ...” Des said.
“Dad gave me a gun when I was a kid, but he never told me not to kill anyone.
“You were told if you are going to kill it, make sure you can eat it, or it’s feral, or if you are having fun shooting cans or something like that, clean up your mess afterward ... those basic things.
“But I was never, ever told not to kill people.
“You didn’t have to be told that.
“You didn’t take guns and shoot people.
“It’s not bred into you.”
* Des decided to join the local RSL branch in 1999. He popped his head in the door of the local office one day after work and has been helping out ever since. He will lead Anzac Day commemorations in Broken Hill tomorrow.