Each year on Remembrance Day in Invermere the heads of local Columbia Valley veterans are solemnly capped with Canadian forces berets in familiar shades of green, blue and black. But during the laying of the wreathes, astute observers will have noticed, one gentleman comes forward not in a beret, but in a tall, wide-brimmed hat.
The hat is a slouch hat, standard issue for all Australian military personnel, and its wearer is John Wood, a Canadian resident for decades, but Australian by birth, and a Vietnam veteran by service.
“The hat, yes, every Australian soldier gets one. And mine is one of the only things I got back from Vietnam,” says Mr. Wood. “That and there was a 40-ounce bottle of Crown Royal they sent back to my sister, which she still has and has never opened.”
The hat may be unfamiliar to many Invermere residents, but then so too is Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War (Australia was one of six countries to send troops to fight on the side of the South Vietnamese). Mr. Wood served in Vietnam with the Royal Australian Engineers Corps. Although it was the Vietnam War that cemented the extremely trying conditions associated with dense tropical rainforest warfare in the minds of most Canadians, the Royal Australian Engineers — as a corps — had already been deployed in similar environments in New Guinea and other Pacific islands, as well as in what is now Indonesia and Malaysia, during the Second World War; during the Malayan Emergency in 1950s; and during the Borneo Confrontation in the mid 1960s.
For Mr. Wood, the war was a long time ago, and although he doesn’t like to dwell too much on the past, it’s not something to forget either. When he does think back to those days, his thoughts are often mixed.
“I want to make clear that it certainly was not glamourous,” he told the Pioneer. “The average person really does not know what went on over there. It was quite intense.”
Mr. Wood is not keen to go into the often-gory details of the war, but did say that some of the Vietnam movies of recent decades “are actually pretty accurate. Not Rambo, of course, but some of the others are. It really was pretty crazy what went on there.”
The equipment and artillery being used in the war, for instance, was often more powerfully destructive than what had ever been used previously – helicopter gunships capable of strafing the ground with a bullet every eight inches; F-4 Phantom fighter jets (with speeds faster than 2,000 kilometres per hour) dropping napalm bombs; and warships able to shoot artillery up to 25 kilometres.
Soldiers on the ground were often in thick forest, barely able to see more than 10 metres in any direction, and under constant threat of setting off fatal booby traps or drawing fire from unseen enemies. Mr. Wood’s service
with Royal Australian Engineers saw him driving an armour plated Caterpillar D8 (a kind of bulldozer), knocking down and clearing out rainforest (“flattening it, basically,” he said) to prevent enemies from using it for air cover or supply routes.
“It was hair-raising, your nerves were always almost shot. It was sweltering, dark and full of (under) growth. Every time you touched a tree (in the D8) you didn’t know if it was going to blow up (as a booby trap) or not,” said Mr. Wood. “When you were on foot on the ground, with each step you’re not sure if you’re going to trigger an explosive, or if somebody was hiding behind each bush, or if that odd coloured patch of ground was some other kind of trap.”
Eventually Mr. Wood did get caught in just such a trap.
“I ran over some high explosives and it blew the D8 to pieces. But by some miracle, I got out of it,” he said, although he did suffer severe burns on his face, coming back to Australia in a Medevac plane after 181 days overseas, and spending the rest of his service in a hospital.
Overlaying the actual war experience of Australian soldiers in Vietnam was the social and political context of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I remember walking off a Qantas plane (upon first landing in Vietnam in 1969), looking around, seeing the people looking at us and thinking ‘they’re not too happy to see us.’ Eventually I came to realize that it (the war) was all about politics and money. It wasn’t just me, there was a general feeling among all the guys (soldiers). We were all sold out and we knew it,” he says. “When we got back to Australia, it was a difficult transition to come out of the situation we had been in and then go back to civilian life. The public was not happy with us. The feeling in Australia was that they didn’t want the troops there (in Vietnam), they didn’t like what they saw happening there, and we (returned soldiers) tended to take the brunt of that.”
Military service for young Australian men was mandatory during the Vietnam War years (“we had no choice, we were drafted” said Mr. Wood), and many veterans returning from Vietnam were just 21 — making them barely old enough, at that time, to vote or go into a bar in Australia. Such was the anti-war sentiment in Australia, that some returning vets found it difficult to get jobs.
It was this situation that, in part, spurred Mr. Wood to leave Australia in 1971, coming to Canada, landing first in Vancouver, before moving to Cranbrook (where he met his wife) and then eventually Fairmont Hot Springs. Thoughts of Vietnam receded into the past.
“For the first 20 years or so after Vietnam, I blanked it all out of my mind, totally,” he said.
But the difficult circumstances of the war created a strong sense of camaraderie among the Australian soldiers serving there, and now when Mr. Wood is back visiting Australia he sees old friends from Vietnam, “and we talk about it, the way old men do.”
Just as Mr. Wood is not the type to dwell in the past, nor is he the type to hold grudges.
“I don’t harbour any bitterness about it. Not toward the Vietnamese or the Australian government or anybody else,” he says.
After two decades of ‘blanking out’ the war, Mr. Wood is now a regular fixture at Invermere’s Remembrance Day. He won’t be there this year — he and his wife are heading south in their camper. But he’ll have his medals and slouch hat in the camper, and if they happen to be near a town on November 11th, he’ll put them on and attend the local Remembrance Day ceremony.
The occasion has always been set aside as a day to remember the sacrifice of those who have lost their lives in war. And Mr. Wood is only too well acquainted with what that sacrifice entails.
When he lays his wreath each year — be it here in Invermere or in a town south of the border — he thinks of his grandfather who came back from the First World War in France forever altered. He thinks of the generation of Royal Australian Engineers who lost their lives in New Guinea and the Pacific in the Second World War. And he thinks of his friends who never came back from Vietnam.