With one hand fixed on his rifle and the other gripping a handle on the side of the helicopter, Gordon Benfell could do little to stop his shovel from vibrating out from under him and falling into the Vietnamese jungle below.

Half-perched in the helicopter's doorway, Benfell could see smoke in the distance from the artillery barrage that was meant to clear the jungle of enemy. Then he saw Phantom jets shoot over, bombing the same spot, followed by the strafing runs of helicopter gunships and, as he came closer, a machine gun hammering away from his own Iroquois helicopter.

"Jesus," Benfell thought. "I'm going in to that."

It was 1969, the Vietnam War was raging, and 20-year-old Corporal Benfell was about to lead eight men into combat as part of a type of an operation called "reconnaissance in force". This involved finding, and fighting, the enemy.


Benfell and dozens of other men jumped from nine helicopters, which soon flew off and left them in silence.

The men searched the area, found enemy tracks leading in all directions, and decided to lay an ambush near a creek.

The enemy approached from an unexpected direction.

Someone yelled.

And then it was "just chaos" as the New Zealanders "took a massive amount of fire".

Benfell's first major combat operation was barely a few hours old.

BENFELL was born in Dunedin in 1948, the son of a freezing works manager and a Fisher and Paykel whiteware dispatcher. He was schooled in Balclutha and at Riccarton High, where he was an average student.

Cadet training was a highlight of school, and that was partly why, just before his 15th birthday, he signed up for the army.


Military blood ran strong in his veins. A great-grandfather had served in the British Army during New Zealand's early colonial years, he had uncles buried in World War I European graveyards, and his father had fought in North Africa during World War II.

On a wet night in January 1964 a train rumbled into Waiouru, a door opened, and a 15-year-old boy stepped towards the stern voice of former All Black Stanley Hill.

"I was only five foot tall, and I had to drop down onto the track," Benfell says. "The first thing I saw was 'Tiny' Hill shouting at us in the rain."

It was the start of three years of training as a Regular Force cadet that would lead to his graduation as a lance corporal on his 18th birthday.

His biggest challenge during the early days was homesickness. The Waiouru camp was like "a very, very strict boarding school".

Benfell was meant to be a radio technician, but quickly moved on after developing a passion for weapons. This would come to define much of his later career.

Events moved quickly. By 20, Benfell was a corporal based at Nui Dat, in southeastern Vietnam. He was, it is believed, the youngest Anzac corporal of the war.

AFTER his 10-month Vietnam deployment, Benfell steadily progressed through the ranks. He was a platoon sergeant in Singapore during the early 1970s, then returned to New Zealand to train soldiers.

He was increasingly fascinated by "adding finesse and capability" to weapons.

In 1987 he "retired" for a few months, during which he was involved with setting up a family motel in Rotorua before returning to service part-time in the Territorials.

He found himself attracted to the sea, and in 1994 he moved to Tauranga and bought a charter boat, the UDC Alert, which he still owns.

In 1995, he was out on the boat when he received a call that prompted him to rejoin the military full time. He soon found himself back at Waiouru as a training manager. He was promoted to major in 1997 and by 1999 was acting chief-of-staff at the military base.

In Timor
In Timor

EAST Timor was next.

Benfell commanded a small-arms team based in a 300m by 300m compound that also housed three deer and a crocodile.

He was there for seven months as part of a force training Timorese soldiers and former guerillas.

After this he became more involved with his passion - evaluating the effectiveness of, and developing, weaponry.

It was becoming clear that New Zealand soldiers needed a semi-automatic marksman's weapon. Benfell, a crack shot, visited the United States to "help create a weapon, to make it better".

The result was the DMW, a rifle notable for having a muzzle brake which reduces the effects of recoil. This weapon is capable of hitting a man-sized target 80 per cent of the time at a range of 1km while firing 90 rounds a minute.

In 2011 he went to Afghanistan to introduce the weapon to New Zealand forces. Risk was always present. In Kandahar, militants attacked a base outside a compound where Benfell was staying.

"They attacked most days and nights, so that was nothing unusual."

BENFELL has come a long way since that 15-year-old jumped into "a strict boarding school".

How did he treat his own men?

"I wasn't one to be crossed, but I tried to treat people fairly," he says. "In the military, you are treated as you deserve."

Benfell says the New Zealand Army has a professional culture in which people "get on with their jobs".

During five decades of soldiering, he has seen many changes. The complexity of the job has increased significantly with changes to communications, battlefield technology, legal scrutiny and rules of engagement, which define when and how a soldier may fight an enemy.

Benfell describes some of those rules as "absolutely ridiculous" and is compelled to use one of the few minor curse words we hear during our two-hour chat.

"Having to wait until you're fired at," he says. "How bloody stupid is that"?

Benfell says that only people who have been in combat themselves are in a position to judge a soldier's actions while under fire.

BENFELL does not like talking about his combat experiences but, unlike many veterans, he is willing to do so to an extent. At one point he mentions being so close to an enemy as to strike him in the shoulder with a rifle butt. Some memories evoke strong emotions and are vivid. Uncomfortable subjects seem to include long-term health effects, post-traumatic stress and the morality of the Vietnam War.

"Rightly or wrongly, it was a body-count war," Benfell says of Vietnam. "The Americans believed that if they killed enough people, the enemy would lose the will to fight."

Benfell arrived back from Vietnam on the first birthday of a son he had never met, travelling by night to avoid anti-war demonstrations.

He volunteered for all this. Why?

"I joined to serve my country," Benfell says. "Nothing makes you feel better."

This prompts him to speak of nights spent under fire with his mates, of shooting at enemy soldiers just 30m away, and of looking at those mates again in the morning while lying in the mud.

"A bond is forged in adversity," Benfell says. "When you've been through trauma together, it's a brotherhood. I shed a tear when I meet these people again."

In Afghanistan
In Afghanistan

WE'VE mostly been chatting in the lounge of Benfell's two-storied Judea home. The walls are stacked with photos of people, and the deck outside offers views of the ocean that first drew Benfell to Tauranga. On the floor beside us is a mounted Steyr army rifle and on the wall behind us is a black baton presented "with appreciation from police snipers".

Now we move into the study to look through some old photos.

We find one showing a man's back covered with angry rashes. The back is Benfell's and the rashes were caused by Agent Orange, a controversial weedkiller used in Vietnam to deprive enemy soldiers of cover.

We come to another photo showing a group of soldiers in the jungle. "This is one I don't dwell on," Benfell says. He points at a man standing close to the camera. "He was dead two hours later."

We talk about Benfell's relationship with the Bay of Plenty. He learned just three years ago that he was related to the Whakatohea Maori of Opotiki.

Benfell had attended two tangi there without knowing of those blood links, and on both occasions experienced feelings that he described as almost spiritual.

"I'm not a superstitious person, but as I walked onto the marae the hair stood up on the back of my neck," Benfell says. "It was the strangest feeling."

Kaumatua questioned him about his background, then greeted him as a cousin. That British Army great-grandfather from all those years ago had married one of their ancestors.

BENFELL is 68, is married, and has three sons and a daughter aged in their 30s and 40s.

He's also a grandfather.

Last May, after passing a military physical test, he realised that the years were catching up with him. He retired in February, and his farewell dinner at Waiouru eight days ago was attended by 14 Vietnam comrades.

Benfell intends to spend his retirement hunting and fishing, writing a book about guns, and "being a grandfather extraordinaire".

Benfell was New Zealand's last Vietnam veteran in active service. He was also the last of our Anzacs - infantry units serving in Vietnam formally held that title while working with Australian forces.

Half a century in the military. How does it feel to leave?

"It's strange," Benfell says. "All these years ... I can't quite accept it.

"I still have this great sense of belonging."

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