Memories of Vietnam, 50 years on

Ian Beker served in the Vietnam War as a gunner.

THE realisation it had been 50 years since Ian Beker returned from serving in Vietnam brought mixed feelings.

In recent weeks the Awarua Returned and Services’ Association president has been looking back at his time there.

The Vietnam War lasted from about 1960 until 1975. Fought between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the US-backed Republic of Vietnam in the south, it ended with the defeat of South Vietnam in April 1975.

The end of May marked five decades since 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery withdrew from Vietnam, and Mr Beker pondered over photographs.

Anecdotes aplenty, he recalls the effort required at Fire Support Base Toby.

“I was looking at this photograph and I look right p***** off, and I was.

“We filled 20-something thousand sand bags and then we had to bug out. We slashed them instead of retrieving; we took the barbed wire and waratahs and that was all, we got out of there.”

Brought into the site by helicopter, those setting up did not look properly when doing so.

“We put the barbed wire up . . . there were two 500-pound unexploded bombs there. There were footprints around it.

“It would have taken out the whole battery.”

The decision was made to leave.

Troops were two-and-a-half miles away when they blew.

“The whole ground trembled. They sent tanks in and helicopters to guide us out, they were really worried. We’d announced we were coming home.”

This was his second-last support base before returning.

When he did, however, he and his brothers-in-arms faced the scrutiny of the public.

Mr Beker acknowledges the controversy of New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War but said he had no regrets serving in it.

“I’m proud my country honoured their word. They had a treaty, they were asked to go and they honoured that treaty.”

The advice given to the short-haired young man was to tell people he had just got out of prison, rather than tell them the truth.

“We were certainly not welcome.”

They returned to the airfield under the cover of darkness.

“There were people within service who did not agree with the war either, so they were telling them. They knew, they had inside knowledge.”

Protests were personal. There was a depth of hatred he only experienced from the public one other time, during the Springbok Tour of 1981.

“My mother got letters I was bayoneting babies and doing nasty stuff.

“People say, forget something like that.”

Speaking of the time immediately after returning to New Zealand, Mr Beker describes how a lack of a buffer period resulted in a shock to the system.

“We were walking down Queen St the next day after we returned home.

“A car backfired; we hit the ground and rolled. We thought it was gunfire.”

A young Ian Beker with the M60 machine gun.

In 2016 he made a trip back to Vietnam.

His guide’s parents, who were from South Vietnam, were sent to what was called re-education camps after the war.

“He couldn’t go to university and his daughter will never be able to.”

He also visited a former base, Nui Dat.

It was here he discovered a monument for the dead Viet Cong.

“I said, right I want to stop here, I want to lay a poppy.

“I came back and [the guide] said, respect for the enemy’, and I said, soldiers, they were not the enemy’. After that, his attitude changed and he couldn’t do enough for me.”

They were professionals, he said, there to do a job.

“Yeah it was a game, I was 19 at the time. It was, I’ll get you if you don’t get me first.”

He first enlisted in Invercargill, asking for a job posted as far away from home as possible.

It was Papakura, where the gunners were based.

After basic training he headed to Waiouru, then to Fiji on an exercise after his mother signed papers for his active service.

A reserve in December 1970, he arrived in South Vietnam in February 1971 for a 12-month tour.

The first three days comprised of orientation, including getting to know the M60 machine gun.

Fresh-faced soldiers were taken to a test fire pit, and told to fire the belt off to get a feel for it.

Hands pinning his shoulders down, he did so, the barrel lifting into the air.

It transpired to be a dramatic and fiery first experience. Someone before him had washed down elements of the gun with petrol, instead of diesel and, with the heat of the continuous firing, it caught ablaze.

“The next thing it started firing on its own.

“The petrol ignited, and the only three hairs on my chest went whoomph. I threw the machine gun down the hole.”

Yells of “break the belt” were hurled at him, but he said, “no, I’m not touching that bloody thing”.

He became number two on the gun, the one to pull the trigger.

But his deployment was cut short six months in, when the Government brought them home.

When thinking back on his service, he describes the experience for his young self as the ultimate high.

“It was you against the nasties. They always depersonalised the enemy… they weren’t people.”

While there were highlights to his service there, memories of less comfortable experiences remained.

“One bad thing I always remember was when we were doing a clear and control one night and we came across a guy with one leg.

“He had a crutch and was hopping along but was out after curfew.”

He was searched.

Electric cable was found, along with some batteries and packaged powder.

“The electric things were the ones that concerned us the most.

“So they took his crutch off him and kicked his ass all the way back to the village on one leg. I’m ashamed about it now but at the time I was more concerned about someone getting snotty and taking a potshot at us.”

Unable to settle on his return, Mr Beker re-enlisted and within two months was sent to Singapore between 1972-1975 and again from 1978-1980.

He was 38 when he retired, having achieved rank of Warrant Officer.

After his return, he became the general manager of Southland Disability Enterprises, where he feels he had a rewarding 25-year career.