life of service
Vietnam War veteran Peter Poulton has spent his years giving back to the community
Peter Poulton has been the President of the City of Wollongong RSL sub-branch for 19 years. He also served as a police officer in St Marys, Goulburn, West Wyalong and then Warilla for 18 years. And since the Centenary of Anzac began in 2014, Peter has been the Chairman of the Illawarra Centenary of Anzac advisory committee, which established two annual scholarships for University of Wollongong students, who are direct descendants of Australian or New Zealand service people.
“Our loss of youth [at Gallipoli] was horrendous compared to any other nation involved,” Peter says. “It’s fitting that we remember their sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy today.”
On top of all of this, Peter was the Chairman of the Organising Committee for the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade. The parade, which took place 14 years after servicemen and women returned from the war, and saw 110,000 people line the streets of Sydney in support, was such a momentous achievement, that Peter was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988, for his tremendous efforts.
We sat down with this knowledgeable, articulate, and well-respected man, to talk about life at war and the enormous impact he’s had on the community and his fellow veterans…
You began your career in the police force…
I was a police officer from 1967 to 1984. I was born and bred in Sydney, and transferred in the police force from West Wyalong to the Illawarra on April 24, 1980, before being discharged, medically unfit, hurt on duty. I had my left knee kicked in half by an angry motorcyclist who I’d chased up through Bulli and stopped at Rixons Pass Road. We were pulling speeds over 180km/hr in a 60km/hr zone, and he was quite irate about being stopped. And then I was run over on duty at a random breath test station.
What brought on the move from West Wyalong to Warilla?
West Wyalong is a man’s town – a country centre of 5000 people – and my better half said, “I want out of here!” You’d open the door at certain times of the year and there’d be umbrella weed all the way up to the door.
Not long after you became a police officer, you were called up to serve in the Vietnam War?
I was sworn into the police force on June 26, 1967, and in 1968, I was called up and went to Kapooka, then the infantry centre. I went to Vietnam for the whole of 1969. I was with a specialised unit, which was formed specifically for Vietnam called Civil Affairs, aiding the local indigenous population. We had education officers, engineers, agricultural experts, linguists… We rebuilt schools, and put in windmills. In fact, if you drove across Southern Vietnam today, I’m sure you’d still see Southern Cross Windmills going around and around.
So you were there to help rebuild the country?
Well, I went to Vietnam as a soldier. We were at The Battle of Binh Ba, which resulted in what has been described as, ‘the death of a village’, and they had to completely rebuild.
What’s the biggest memory that sticks out during this time in your life?
The thing that plays on your mind is when I saw the devastation in Binh Ba… just the horrific loss of human life and the destruction of these villages. It was horrendous.
Was it difficult to readjust to normality after the war?
I think because the police force was paramilitary, I probably assimilated better than others. One of the most poignant memories in my life was when I’d been home from Vietnam for six or seven months, and back in the police force in Goulburn – another officer and I were called to a house. We went down to the woodshed and here’s a bloke in full uniform wearing his medals… and he was dead. It got too much for him. There’s been a lot of it over the years and it’s happening again now with the modern-day soldier.
Has the climate changed now with modern-day war?
The climate is now that the RSL and other ex-servicemen organisations need to be reaching out more to these guys, and females, and trying to help them. It’s not an easy life over there. Some of our nurses in Vietnam suffered with PTSD as much as any combat soldier because of the horrific injuries – they were injuries you wouldn’t see in a modern hospital. But, in fact, I’ve spoken to a couple of orthopaedic surgeons, who have said that some of the operations today are done with the aid of what they learnt in Vietnam. The amputations were so horrific. Because the warfare was different in Vietnam compared to WWI, WWII… I don’t agree in trying to compare the wars, even though the weapons are different, the end result in going to be the same. Whether it’s an improvised explosive device, or a booby trap as we called them, to homemade hand grenades in Gallipoli or a 15-year-old using a bow and arrow, it will still have the same effect if it hits the right spot.
How do you feel about the Vietnam War with 50 years distance?
Truthfully, how I feel about it… the free-world governments let South Vietnam down by just pulling out. If we really look at it logically and question it, why have so many Vietnamese people fled there? They didn’t want to live under that regime. And then you question why… why we went there and why we didn’t do anything about Pol Pott’s total genocide? Some would say the US government had a lot do with it. The South Vietnamese, yes. Did they ask us to go? I don’t know. But we had a treaty with the USA, which meant they could call on us.
Have you ever been back to Vietnam?
No desire to. Some people have. I lost two very good mates over there, which I suppose makes you a bit bitter and twisted.
In 1987, you headed up the Welcome Home Parade…
Yes, I was chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Reunion. When I saw the elation on my fellow veterans’ faces, I asked myself why it hadn’t been done earlier. Then we went on to build the Vietnam Forces National Memorial to remember all Australians who had served, suffered or died in Vietnam. We didn’t want their sacrifice to go unrecognised by future generations. It cost about $1.5 million in total, and was a long and arduous process until it came to fruition on October 3, 1992.
Was it a long process because there was opposition?
No, it’s surprising after the Welcome Home Parade a lot of the media described it as a watershed. There were thousands and thousands of people lining the streets of Sydney. And the memorial culminated five years later on the same long weekend. A lot of blokes would have nothing to do with any ex-servicemen's associations if not for this. When the Welcome Home started, a lot of people came out of the woodwork, and when the memorial was built, there was a hell of lot more.
How do you feel about the way young people commemorate Anzac Day in the Illawarra?
The young people in this area are magnificent! If you come to the dawn service in Wollongong, you’ll see hundreds of young kids. And a couple of days later, we have the All Schools Anzac service, where we get the kids to actually run it. We also use the cadets as the defence guard at the Wollongong memorial, so it’s all about the youth.
You must have seen the Gong change quite a lot over the years?
You used to be able to drive down Crown Street! A lot of the stuff that’s happened has been for the betterment of Wollongong. Now we have cruise ships coming in with thousands of people so it’s helping the economy. The people behind it should be congratulated for putting us on the map.