Fifty years ago this month Victor 3 Infantry Rifle Company returned home from war, but theirs was not a homecoming remembered with fondness — and nor were all veterans treated with respect or dignity. Te Awamutu Courier editor Dean Taylor attends the V3 reunion and finds that even today, the emotions are still evident and memories raw.
Victor 3 Infantry Rifle Company had spent a year fighting in Vietnam, a conflict misunderstood to this day, and one which divided a nation.
New Zealand was drawn into the 'war against communism' waged by the Americans and, for the first time, Kiwis were able to watch it in their lounges on the television sets.
But, as Te Awamutu RSA president and Victor 3 veteran Lou Brown says, the coverage was the American, sanitised version — not the "real atrocities of Vietnam".
He says when he and his comrades came back to New Zealand they were shunned by both official parties and the public.
"We weren't welcomed home, we were blamed for a war no one wanted," he says.
Fifty years later, at a special reunion of Victor 3 (V3) held in Te Awamutu which included a public commemoration service, the emotions were evident as the memories from half a century ago were still raw.
Lou says the year in Vietnam, and subsequent treatment back home, brought V3 closer together, and they have been ever since.
"We relied on each other for support, and still do," he says.
The brothers in arms have a reunion every two years, but to mark the 50th anniversary of the homecoming, Lou put his hand up to host a special event.
Small town, big dreams: Te Awamutu's Walk of Fame
Te Awamutu woman's mission to restore veteran graves
He says Te Awamutu RSA embraced the opportunity to assist with the event, supported by the Ministry of Defence, Waipa District Council, New Zealand Government and National RSA.
On Sunday, 120 veterans, supporters and family came together in Te Awamutu, opening with the public commemoration at Te Awamutu War Memorial Park's Sunken Cross.
They were also supported by current Victor Company members, 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from Linton Military Camp under Company Sergeant Major Regan Cherrington and Lieutenant Tom Merrilees — hosted by Te Awamutu Community Cadets at their HQ.
The parade fell in under the command of Parade Marshal AJ Quinn, with Te Awamutu Community Cadets forming the Catafalque Party.
Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest welcomed the veterans and supporters to the district and honoured them for the sacrifices they made for their country. Wreaths were laid by the New Zealand Government, represented by the Minister of Defence and Veterans Affairs Ron Mark and assisted by Taranaki/King Country MP Barbara Kuriger, Waipa District Council, National RSA, current Victor Company and Victor 3 veterans.
The Musical Allsorts assisted with the singing of the National Anthem, and hymn Abide With Me and the Roll of Honour was presented as flag bearers lowered their standards.
Former New Zealand Army Band bugler Doug Rose played Last Post and Reveille following the reading of Ode to the Fallen.
The reunion continued into the evening, when Te Awamutu RSA hosted a formal dinner.
Lou says the public service was a poignant event for the veterans — recognition of their efforts and sacrifice.
"V3 was the highest decorated infantry unit to serve New Zealand since World War II," he says. "We lost two comrades in our deployment — but we all lost our innocence in Vietnam. Vietnam was a misunderstood, misrepresented war — and in the end it was all for nothing.
"There is nothing positive about war," he says.
V3 was formed in 1968 from members of the 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment who were serving on the Malay peninsula.
"We were a highly trained, combat-ready unit thanks to our second-in-charge during training, Captain Neville Kidd who had been CO of the SAS. "He put us through our paces to be effective operators in jungle warfare and to fulfil roles envisaged in various SEATO contingency plans at the time.
"A number were already experienced soldiers who saw duty in Malaya and Borneo."
V3 had 172 personnel deployed to Vietnam from May 1968 until May 1969, serving as a rifle company with Australians in the 2 RAR/NZ Anzac Battalion and later as an attachment to the 4 RAR/NZ Anzac Battalion, both integral components of the 1st Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat in the Phuoc Tuy province.
Lou had started his career with the army after completing his National Service.
He was in the regular force for five years, posted initially to the Infantry in Burnham. He was then posted to Malaya and from there trained and was formed up into V3.
After Vietnam Lou rose to Corporal and was part of the National Service training wing — where he had started his military career — but a law change changed his career.
The Government of the day abolished National Service and Lou's job was gone.
Without a career path in the Army, Lou left and returned home to farm at Puahue.
Lou says hosting the reunion was a privilege and he and his fellow veterans appreciated all the support.
Veterans and current Victor Company spent time together and the young soldiers showed off some of the modern equipment they have.
The formal dinner was another chance for Victor 3 Company, and all veterans of conflicts, to be properly recognised and honoured for their service and sacrifice.
A highlight was the presentations by Victor Company, 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment to be displayed at Te Awamutu RSA, one a plaque acknowledging service in Afghanistan and the second, a special 1st Battalion plaque to honour all veterans at the V3 Reunion.