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THE WAY THE DICE FALL

Set during the social upheavals of the late sixties, The Way the Dice Fall is a story of mateship, courage, larrikinism, sacrifice and self-discovery. It is a time in Australia when opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War is growing and the Anzac legend is under threat.  

Jack is a nineteen-year-old public servant when he is drafted. At the Singleton Recruit Training Centre he becomes one of the ‘Intrepid Five’. There is Rocco, the charismatic entrepreneur, the sagacious Mick, Biggs the perennial joker and the enigmatic Hugo.  

Together they embark on a journey through the jungles of Vietnam and the seedy bars of Vung Tau. Years of growth are compressed into one as convictions are challenged and the meaning of loyalty and hypocrisy meets them head on.     

In Store Price: $AU26.95 
Online Price:   $AU25.95

ISBN: 1 921118 86 5
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 242
Genre:  Fiction
 

 


Author: John Cunnington 
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2007
Language: English

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Foreword

This is a fictitious story concerning a group of young soldiers serving in one of the battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) operating from the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base in Phuoc Tuy Province , South Vietnam , in the late 1960s.  

The author has taken certain creative liberties in writing the story, so any inaccuracies can be forgiven. The narrative is reminiscent of the tales spun on ANZAC day. Basically true, but spiced with a degree of embellishment and fantasy.  

The characters are true to life, the events realistic. The novel is interspersed with humour, romance and rejection, sex, the coarse language of soldiers when discussing generalities and under stress, close-quarter engagements with the Viet Cong (VC), and anger, directed not only at the enemy, but at times towards one another and often towards those in Australia protesting against the war.  

While reading the book, I was vividly reminded of my service in Vietnam with the RAR. I am sure other readers who served in the Regiment in Phouc Tuy will also undertake this journey back in time.  

It’s a good read. Enjoy.
Kev Grayson (Skinny)

Author’s Notes

It may come as a surprise to many Australians that conscription has been a part of this country’s history since Federation. The fact that young and middle-aged Australians possess only a scant knowledge of past military conflicts (Gallipoli being the exception) is a sad reflection on our education system.

A child growing up in the early sixties learnt a great deal about English and American history. People such as Nelson, Washington, Lincoln and Bonaparte filled the pages of history texts. It was well known that Audie Murphy was the most highly decorated American soldier in World War II. How many Australians have heard of ‘Harry’ Murray ? Books such as Patrick Lindsay’s The Spirit of the Digger are starting to publicise the exploits of this amazing Taswegian , Australia ’s most decorated soldier in any theatre of war. His exploits are inspirational.

Enlisting as a private, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. During World War I he won the Distinguished Service Order twice, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Victoria Cross. He was made a Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and was also awarded a Croix de Guerre by the French Government (Lindsay, 2003 p.109).

Sadly though, his name is barely recognised in this country. The contribution of Australia ’s ex-servicemen and women, the sacrifices, the unimaginable hardships they endured and the part they played in moulding our traditions and culture are recognised only by the fervent readers of military history.

Just as the contribution of our heroes has been central to Australian history, so has the concept of National Service. There has probably never been another issue that socially, politically and militarily has caused so much controversy as conscription. The egalitarian nature of Australian society and a deeply rooted resentment to being forced to do anything against one’s wishes, especially by governments, has been an Australian tradition. Attempts, therefore, to force Australians to go to war were strongly resisted. The issue of voluntary contribution versus compulsory conscription has significantly influenced our history and warrants clarification.

Following Federation, the initial Defence Act provided for conscription for home defence but not for overseas service. In fact, ‘conscription for home defence operated for all but sixteen years between 1911 and 1964.’ In 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes attempted to introduce conscription for overseas service but lacked a Senate majority to affect any legislative changes. He subsequently resorted to referendums, which were narrowly defeated in 1916 and 1917 (Jordens, in Pemberton, 2000 p.64).

Historically, Australia ’s army was divided into two groups – the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), who volunteered to serve anywhere in the world, and the Militia, who volunteered to defend Australia ’s shores. The AIF regarded the Militia with a degree of disdain, nicknaming them ‘chockos’ or ‘koalas’. ‘Chockos’ was an abbreviation for chocolate soldiers because it was claimed they would melt in the sun. The inference behind ‘koalas’ was that the Militia was seen as a protected species (In later times regular soldiers jokingly referred to members of the Citizens Military Forces as cut lunch soldiers). Both groups had never fought together until 1942.

That changed in 1942 when Australia ’s depleted forces in the Pacific required urgent reinforcements. Soldiers of the 39th Militia Battalion, many of them only 18 years of age, volunteered for overseas service and were dispatched post-haste to New Guinea to combat the advancing Japanese forces.

Buoyed by the professionalism and experience of soldiers from the Second 2/14 AIF Battalion, Militia and AIF fought side by side at Kokoda, never shirking in ‘courage, endurance and sacrifice’. Leadership and an unswerving loyalty to mates melded the two units into a fighting force that halted the Japanese push through New Guinea (Lindsay, 2003 p.152).

In 1943, Prime Minister Curtin was faced with a major dilemma. He needed more troops to send to New Guinea but was fully aware of the sensitive and volatile conscription controversy. He avoided political fallout by cleverly designating the southwestern Pacific as part of Australia for the duration of World War II.

From 1942, opinion polls on conscription received consistent approval. However, conscription for overseas service was strongly rejected when polled in 1950 and 1951.

The Cold War in Europe, the Arab-Israeli war and the start of the Korean War in 1950 highlighted the fact that Australia was unprepared for military conflicts. In order to boost our military deficiency, a new national service scheme was introduced through the National Service Act of 1951. Between 1951 and 1959 a total of 227,000 eighteen-year-olds were conscripted. Provision was made that national servicemen could volunteer to serve overseas. The 1950s scheme provided for training in the navy, army and air force. Each service had its own training requirement, which was usually about three months’ continuous training with ongoing part-time attendance.

These 1950s conscripts did not see active service. ‘However some Navy National Servicemen were present on ships that visited Korean waters during the Korean War, at the atom bomb sites at Monte Bello Islands in 1952 and at the atomic tests at Maralinga in 1956. RAAF National Servicemen worked on aircraft that had flown through the atomic cloud while others worked on tanks that had been used during the testing. National Servicemen were placed on alert for active service during the Suez Canal crises but were stood down when the threat had passed’ (Callaghan, 2005 p.10).

In 1959, National Service was abolished for a number of reasons. The army viewed conscription as a waste of resources on the basis that it produced only semi-trained soldiers who could not be directed to serve overseas. Furthermore, conscription for home defence was seen as useless when Australia was under no military threat.

According to Jordens (2000, p.65), the decision to re-introduce conscription in the sixties appears to have been ‘politically motivated and related to the vision by Prime Minister Menzies of Australia’s economic and strategic role in South East Asia.’

In 1964, the National Service Act was enacted on the grounds of increased risks in the South Pacific region. Mr Menzies cited Indonesia ’s confrontation of Malaysia and growing conflict on the West New Guinea border as examples. Amendments to the Defence Act permitting conscripts to serve overseas were passed on 6 April 1965, ironically the day before the first battalion of Australian troops was committed to Vietnam .

The army did go on a major recruiting drive in 1964 but rejected 70 per cent of the 11,500 who applied. With conscription, it was possible to acquire a more educated and skilled section of the workforce from a much larger pool.

The 1960s scheme was only for the army, and men aged 20 were randomly selected by a birthday ballot. Between 1965 and 1972, sixteen ballots were conducted, the first eleven secretly. Men were drafted for two years’ fulltime service and integrated into regular army units. 17,424 national servicemen served in Vietnam . About 1,500 of these were casualties, 200 of whom paid the supreme sacrifice (Lindsay, 2003 p.267).

It is relevant to note that despite the secrecy and timing of the introduction of conscription, there was a significant degree of public opinion support. The perceived threat from Indonesia , which received ample media coverage, contributed to these views.

Much has been said about claims that conscripts were sent to an overseas war zone. It has been argued that conscripts, in fact, volunteered to join Vietnam-bound units. This may be true, but mateship and peer pressures are powerful forces and it was always likely that twenty-year-olds would follow the close friendships they had forged during recruit and corps training. All conscripts were given options for their chosen corps. Seldom did anyone receive their first preference unless it was for infantry, artillery or armoured corps.

As the war in Vietnam became perceived as unable to be won, public opinion about the war and conscription heralded a wave of protest that had never been witnessed in this country. At the start of the war, leaders of the anti-war movement were atypical of the sections of society to which they belonged. Members of Protestant and Catholic groups were out of step with the attitudes of their fellow parishioners who supported conscription and the war. Even the RSL had dissenters and the formation of an anti-war group, the Ex-Services Human Rights Association of Australia, destroyed the belief of universal support for conscription (Jordens, 2003 p. 76).

As casualties mounted, the tide changed and mass demonstrations occurred throughout the country. The ranks of dissenters were being filled not only by highly educated youth from universities and technical colleges, but also by all sectors of society. The number of draft resisters increased, and the conscription and Vietnam issues eventually led to the demise of the Liberal government and the repeal of the National Service Legislation.

It was unbelievable for the returning veterans that they had participated in a war that was unsuccessful. The Australians in Vietnam were never defeated on the battlefield and left the country with reputations intact. However, on the wider scale, Vietnam was a disastrous campaign. Troops returned for the first time from an unpopular war that had divided a country.

While many Australians held no animosity towards the troops, there were numerous incidents of abuse. From my own experience, the public gave an enthusiastic and warm response to the march through the streets of Brisbane . Unfortunately this was not always the case. A significant number of soldiers felt discredited, bitter and distressed that they received little recognition. It would take many years for this lack of recognition to be addressed.

 Author Profile

John Cunnington was born in Brisbane , Australia , in 1947. He was a Vietnam veteran himself, having completed his two years’ National Service in 1969. Following discharge, he drifted through a number of occupations, including public servant, hotel proprietor, life insurance salesman, Commonwealth police officer, finance company manager and university lecturer.  

He was employed for twenty-three years by the Queensland Corrective Services Department, most of these years in a field management role. Along the way, he collected an Arts Degree in Psychology and Sociology and a Graduate Diploma in Teaching.  

In early 2000, John turned his hand to writing with a particular interest in the areas of military history, crime and deviance. Married with three adult children, John lives on Queensland ’s Sunshine Coast .  

 

 Read a sample:

I         

Visions of Shiuli

The sun may shine and leaves may wither

The rain may pour and transform life

But the world goes on like a winding river

In all its glory, in all its strife

The happiness and the turmoil to me aren’t true

For my small world is centred on you.

J W 1968.

Suddenly a wave of uneasiness engulfed me. Shiuli vaporised. I had the feeling that it was all too quiet. An eerie implacable silence prevailed. A sudden alien noise – a crunching sound directly in front – caused my stomach to churn. My fingers nervously caressed the trigger mechanism of the machine gun. There was another crunch, like broken glass being crushed on cement. My breathing slowed as a precarious feeling flooded through me. Pins and needles rushed down my legs. My eyes bored through the gaps between the bamboo and into the jungle behind. Please be a fucking pig. Then it happened. Black-clothed forms began emerging into the clearing.  

‘Oh shit.’ I lashed out at Mick with my foot.

Mick was instantly alert. Taking one look at my stiffened pose, he instinctively knew what to do. He anxiously fumbled for the Claymore plungers.

‘Wait till I fire,’ I murmured, trying to whisper and suck in my words at the same time.

The seconds seemed like an eternity. My pulse was racing and my heartbeat seemed to echo through my chest. For a fleeting moment, I thought my drumming heart might give me away. An inner voice murmured, ‘Centre of mass.’ My finger tightened on the trigger and a murderous hail of bullets sped towards the black clothing.

My ears rang as the Claymores exploded, their vicious cargo slicing and slashing bamboo, trees and bodies. Mick must have clipped on another belt of ammunition as shells kept spitting out of the chamber. The ground close to us shuddered as a rocket slammed into it. From some invisible point the black figures returned fire with a determined vengeance. Bullets buzzed through the air, pelting the overhead canopy like a savage hailstorm.

The thunderous onslaught was suddenly reduced to sporadic firing as if both sides had simultaneously disengaged through some subconscious agreement. I could hear the frenetic bursts of armalite fire and the steady clap of SLRs to my left and right as the forward section fired at the invisible foe. The returning fire seemed to have diminished and the sinister shroud of silence descended again.

My eyes scanned the clearing. A thin wisp of smoke hovered above the overheated gun barrel. A familiar high-pitched squeal overhead told me that the platoon commander had called in artillery support from the fire support base.

‘That was pretty close. They’ll fire for effect soon.’

I was quite surprised at the calm tone of my voice given that the adrenaline pumping through my veins had heightened all my senses. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. My hearing and sight seemed acute, almost superhuman. The blotch on my hand was crimson.

Almost on cue a barrage of artillery shells zinged overhead and pounded the area about three hundred yards in front. Silence again. Then another barrage, a relentless, explosive intensity that was both frightening and reassuring. Another ringing silence.

A haze of dust and floating, shredded foliage obscured my vision. I thought I could see a foot about twenty yards in front. Like the gradual lifting of a fog, the dust settled and the outlines of trees and bamboo re-emerged. It was a foot. I could make out toes. With rifles to our shoulders and eyes seeking the first sign of movement, we waited…and waited.

‘Okay, let’s go.’  

It took the section about an hour to sweep through the area. Three bundles of black clothed figures were lying motionless on the ground. Biggs had just bent over to retrieve an AK-47 when Hugo screamed and discharged half a magazine into one of the forms.

‘He’s moving. He’s fucking moving.’ He emptied the remainder of his magazine at the inert bundle. I saw Biggs grab his shoulder.

‘He’s dead mate.’

‘Yeah, Hugo,’ Rocco confirmed. ‘You’ve shot half his head off.’

For a moment I was mesmerised by the corpse lying in front of me. Hugo’s burst of fire had totally blown away one side of the head as if someone had professionally sliced through the skull with the dexterity of a master surgeon. An eye hung down from a piece of pulverised flesh, and the brain had completely disintegrated. The whole cavity was exposed. A feeling of revulsion and astonishment gripped me for a moment.

The section commander, Jim White, yelled out to us. ‘Jack, you and Biggs drag these first two behind the bamboo. Cover them with leaves or something. And for fuck’s sake hurry up.’

Biggs and I immediately responded, grabbing the victim’s pants while we tried to avoid touching the skin of the corpse. However, it was impossible, and in unison we grabbed the ankles and hauled the body along the ground. As the torso bounced over the rough terrain, the hanging eye quivered violently as if venting a final indignation. The skin felt like warm rubber and I was glad when the task was over.

‘I’m getting sick of dragging stiffs around,’ a pale-faced Biggs said. ‘How come we always seem to be the burial party, mate?’

All I could do was shrug my shoulders and shake my head. Like Biggs, I had become sick of burying people.

ø  ø  ø

Early next morning we moved to another location. An energy-sapping humidity, fuelled by a blazing sun, quickly took its toll. Tentatively the platoon moved across a narrow stream, its crystal clear water gurgling contentedly over a rocky base. I gave one fleeting look at the mound of leaves near the bamboo thicket that concealed two corpses. Their identity would never be known. In a short time the remains would have rotted or been consumed by wild pigs. They would simply cease to exist. I harboured no anger towards the Viet Cong, but no pity either. Occasionally I thought of the families of the dead soldiers who would never see them again and never know where they were buried.

Before we left Australia , there was an article in The Australian about the secondary victims of crime. The parents of a young girl who had been missing for five years were interviewed. They described the emotional turmoil they experienced every day. They had reached the point where they could accept the fact that she had probably been murdered. However, it was the uncertainty, the not knowing, that caused so much distress. There were likely to be thousands of such families in Vietnam .

The mound reminded me of an incubating wild turkey’s nest. Perhaps we have become like wild animals, I thought. Certainly we’re fucking turkeys for being here. I looked back to see Biggs pause and flick what looked like a small piece of metal towards the pile of leaves. It glittered as it spun through the sunlight before it vanished under the foliage of the bush grave.

Biggs had a trance-like look on his face. Then his head and shoulders appeared to drop.

‘Keep together.’

Biggs reacted immediately and moved on.

My eyes returned to scan mode. The grand master considered his next move and on command, the pawns eased forward.

ø  ø  ø

The next day I hurriedly scribbled a few words to Shiuli.

 

My Darling Shiuli,

This is just a short note to let you know that every thing is OK here. I want to catch the re-supply chopper so don’t have much time. Hope you are well and not stressing too much about work. Say hello to your mum for me and have a good time at the footy. Up the mighty Brethren. I was stunned to hear that some bloke had burned down the O’Connor Boathouse. It was one of Brissie’s icons. Oh well there is still Cloudland I guess. Things haven’t changed much here. We are still roaming around the jungles trying to stem the tide of communist aggression. Ha! Ha! It’s a pretty boring existence. I’ll write a proper letter when I get time.

Love Jack.

PS I wrote you a little poem. Hope you like it.  

ø  ø  ø  

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