In the lead up to Remembrance Day, Shepparton News Journalist, Monique Preston, sat down with branch President, Mr Bob Wilkie, where he reflected on his time serving in Vietnam.

Shepparton’s Bob Wilkie was part of one of the last battalions to be sent to the Vietnam War.

He arrived in Vietnam in April 1971 as part of the 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.

Like many only conscripts with him, he was 20. By then, the Federal Government had already pulled one of its three battalions out of the area he was sent to.

It was the start of the withdrawal of troops from the conflict, but for those who remained, it meant more work.

“When there were three there, it wasn’t so hectic,” Mr Wilkie said. “With two, we were pretty busy and spent most of our time in the bush.”

Mr Wilkie was a rifleman in the army. His job saw him spending most of his time in jungle operations of ambush and patrols.

Most of the time, he was with a group of about 30 others. Days were spent patrolling; at night, they slept on the ground.

Each operation would last for 30 or 40 days.

Mr Wilkie turned 21 while in the jungles of Vietnam. For him, it was just another day. “I couldn’t do anything special. There was no celebrating,” he said. His parents had thrown him a 21st birthday party before he left, so at least he had those memories.

Mr Wilkie recalled his hardest day in Vietnam. It came in September 1971 when his company struck bunker systems that contained a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers at Nui Le.

It turned out to be the last major battle fought by Australian and New Zealand forces in Vietnam. Mr Wilkie said a full battalion of about 500 North Vietnamese came up against his company of only about 120.

“They had (underground) bunker systems. They were very hard to see,” Mr Wilkie said.

“Normally, if you hit one, you were in trouble.”

The battle was part of Operation Ivanhoe, which was launched on September 19 by the Australians deployed near suspected enemy concentrations in the province of Phuoc Tuy.

The North Vietnamese lured the Australians into a well-prepared bunker system on September 20. The next morning, one of the Australian companies came under mortar attack while patrolling, with 15 injured.

Four kilometres away, Mr Wilkie’s D Company came across a North Vietnamese bunker system and was pinned down by heavy enemy fire.

“We were the first down the track and hit the bunkers about 8am,” he said.

Air support for the Australians bombarded the enemy territory before the Australians – under the impression that the North Vietnamese could have withdrawn – tried to push forward again that afternoon but again came under fire.

As they retreated from one bunker system, they struck another 400m away. “It was just on dark. About 5pm or 6pm,” Mr Wilkie said.

The Australians, including Mr Wilkie, had unwittingly withdrawn into a more precarious position of the bunker  system and became trapped.

Artillery support kept the Australians alive during the night and, at times, was falling only 50m away from the trapped men.

“We were actually receiving shrapnel (from it),” Mr Wilkie said. “We were probably saved by our artillery forward observer who was plotting in the dark to tell them (the Australian artillery) our position.”

By morning, the enemy was gone and the battle was over. Five Australians died in the battle, with another 29 Australians and one New Zealander injured.

Mr Wilkie said the air and artillery support saved the Australians in the battle. It is not a time he likes to remember or talk about. “It was not very comfortable. I can tell you that,” he said. “That was my worst experience.”

With Australian troops being pulled out of Vietnam, Mr Wilkie did not have to do the standard12-month stint. Instead, he was home by Christmas.

“I could have stayed on. Our company stayed until the March, but I had the chance to come home for Christmas and you don’t knock that,” Mr Wilkie said.

He was discharged from National Service early in January 1972. “I was back working in a bank a week later,” he said.

Mr Wilkie had been a teller at a bank in Kyabram when he was called up for National Service in July 1970.

When he came home, he got a job in a bank in Melbourne. This job that led him back to Shepparton in 2000 to work for five years before he retired – with his last 20 years in the bank in management positions.

When he left the bank in 2005, Mr Wilkie became involved with the RSL. This has included the past nine years as the sub-branch president.

In the intervening years, Mr Wilkie has been back to Vietnam three times on holidays.

“Most of my time there was spent in the bush,” he said. “Civilians had been cleared out of our area. “I was always interested to go back and have a look.”

What he found was what he said was a safe place to visit, with the Vietnamese “beautiful people”.

His return trips to the country he fought in have been a lot different to his time there in his early 20s, with Mr Wilkie avoiding most of the areas to do with the war. “I just wasn’t interested in going there,” he said.