Exactly two years after Kiwis fired their first shots in the Vietnam War, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake told the Herald there had been no request to increase New Zealand's troop numbers.

The next day - 50 years ago today - the paper said Holyoake "was adamant that New Zealand has no present plans to increase its military commitment in South Vietnam".

Herald story on Prime Minister Keith Holyoake's July 1967 assurance there were no plans to increase troop numbers in Vietnam. Source / Herald archives
Herald story on Prime Minister Keith Holyoake's July 1967 assurance there were no plans to increase troop numbers in Vietnam. Source / Herald archives

Three months later, he announced an increase in New Zealand's "V-Force" from 376 to 546 men, after a request from South Vietnam.

"The Government now believes that the demands of the Vietnam situation require a further effort of us," Holyoake said.

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Back in 1967, as remains today, sending troops to war was sensitive and controversial. For months, the Herald had been awash with debate about the possibility of an increase.

The Herald calculated that the increase to 546 would bring New Zealand's military involvement to .025 per cent of the population; Australia's planned increase to 8000 would mean .066 per cent of its population was involved.

The National Council of Churches opposed a troop increase and thousands of people marched in protest against the war.

In Auckland, a police inspector was pushed over a cliff when protesters and police fought a "pitched battle" in Paritai Drive outside the home of the American consul. The senior officer halted his slide, but suffered a cut head and felt dazed.

Herald story in October 1967 on the Vietnam troop increase announcement. Source / Herald archives
Herald story in October 1967 on the Vietnam troop increase announcement. Source / Herald archives
Herald story on an anti-Vietnam War protest. Source / Herald archives
Herald story on an anti-Vietnam War protest. Source / Herald archives

New Zealand's first shots in the Vietnam War, also called the Second Indo-China War or the American War, according to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage's nzhistory.govt.nz site, were artillery shells fired on July 16, 1965 near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

In May of that year, Holyoake had announced New Zealand would send a combat unit to join the United States-led coalition. Before then, the New Zealand contribution consisted of reconstruction projects and a civilian surgical team treating civilian war casualties.

More than 3000 New Zealand military and civilian personnel served in Vietnam between 1963 and 1975. Thirty-seven men on active service died and 187 were wounded. Two civilians with the surgical and Red Cross teams also lost their lives.

Lance Corporal A. W. Rakuraku attends to a wounded Viet Cong solider in Vietnam, June 1969. Photo / Herald archives
Lance Corporal A. W. Rakuraku attends to a wounded Viet Cong solider in Vietnam, June 1969. Photo / Herald archives
Kiwi arterillymen at work in Vietnam, 1969. Photo / Herald archives
Kiwi arterillymen at work in Vietnam, 1969. Photo / Herald archives

In 2008, the Government made a formal apology to Vietnam War veterans. Prime Minister Helen Clark acknowledged they were not treated fairly on returning home from the largely unpopular war. In 2007, a $30 million package was announced with the aim of compensating veterans and their families affected by Agent Orange and other chemicals used in the war.

A Returned and Services Association national vice-president, Bob Hill, who served in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam, said the apology "did mean a lot to the guys".

"We came in [back to New Zealand] in the middle of the night. They didn't want you in uniform and we went straight on leave.

"I never felt any backlash, unlike a lot of others who did."

Hill, who was a corporal in Vietnam and later rose to be a warrant officer class 1, said of his time there: "As young professional soldiers it was exciting to go there. We were going to do a job."

He had some close calls but got through without being wounded.

"We had quite a few from our company who were wounded. We even had the Australians mortar us. That was exciting."

Read more historical stories from the Herald archives:
Governor Grey's invasion of the Waikato
The changeover to decimal currency
Seventieth anniversary of artist Charles Goldie's death
Five die on Mt Rolleston
First to row across the Tasman