It’s Saturday afternoon and although the torrential rain has let up, the sky is dark.
The men set the chillybin down in between rows of headstones of the long dead. They throw down a rug, pull out some beers and pay their respects to a soldier who died a hell of a death and a man who, in their eyes, deserves a lot more respect than he ever got.
When Morrie Manton was blown up by a landmine in 1967, the Vietnam War had become a war of politics.
Protests were taking place around the world. Instead of being welcomed home as heroes, soldiers who believed they had been serving their country faced anger.
A growing hostility in New Zealand spilled over on to Manton’s original headstone. He was buried in the civilian section of the cemetery 38 years ago but his headstone made no mention of the Vietnam War. Nor did it mention he was killed in action.
These four veterans from the same platoon, none of them entirely well, have come here to rectify that.
The men unveil a new headstone they have had engraved: “Vietnam, 34598 Cpl, MJ (Morrie) Manton, RNZIR, Died 2.9.1967, aged 29 Yrs, Killed in Action.”
Being killed in action is different to just dying, say these soldiers, some of whom were only teenagers when they moved through the jungle in silence for weeks on end using sign language to communicate; who tied string to each other at night, a slight tug enough to bring them to wide-eyed alert in the face of ambush by the Viet Cong.
The men of this platoon of Victor Company, the first infantry to go to Vietnam, were sent by a reluctant Government under pressure from America.
They forged incredible bonds and today their memories still bring tough men to the verge of tears.
It is not just Manton, though, who makes them emotional. Even as they toast their friend, the men – retired Lt Col Raymond “Red” Beatson, Brian “Willy” Wilson, Graeme “Topsy” Turvey and James “Dinga” Bell – are contemplating their own early deaths.
Agent Orange still haunts them and each man has health niggles, some worse than others.
Their platoon of 35 men is dying at an exponential rate. Twelve are already dead – two killed in action, one by suicide and nine from what they believe are Agent Orange-related illnesses.
A further seven, they say, are at death’s door. The rest are biding their time, trying to fit in activities with families, fearing they too will become ill.
In this one platoon the death rate from conditions that may be connected to Agent Orange is 257 in 1000, compared to 18.93 in 1000 for the civilian population of the same age dying of similar illnesses.
At the graveside which for so long denied Manton’s place in Vietnam, the men remember the “constant” raining down of chemicals designed by the Americans to strip the trees of foliage and expose the enemy. The chemicals soaked into their skin and they drank them in rain water.
On their minds today, as every day, is anger about the ongoing struggle for recognition and recompense for exposure to chemicals which are killing their comrades and causing defects in their children and possibly in future generations.
Still upsetting is the lack of acknowledgement and recognition they received on their return from Vietnam, from a war which still leaves them with nightmares.
Corporal Morrie Manton was a section commander in the platoon. The day he died he had two scouts out front, the third man in a line of men who trailed single file, stepping into each other’s footprints to avoid ground littered with mines.
Jumping Jack mines jump to waist-level before detonating. Maybe Manton heard something in the village his section had come across on its way to its next operation in Phouc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, but whatever the reason, he deviated slightly from the path.
His body was blown off from the hips down, but he did not die instantly.
The moment is frozen in time for those with him that day. Somehow, Manton hauled himself to a sitting position and looked down at where his legs used to be. There were mines all around, the rest of the men could not get to him.
Someone yelled “hang on, mate, we’re coming to ya,” and Manton said “well, for fuck’s sake, hurry up.”
He died about 20 minutes later, the first of the New Zealand infantry to be killed in Vietnam.
His mum wanted him home but the New Zealand Army had no system to get the dead back to New Zealand. In the end, the Americans flew him back and he was buried in the civilian part of Waikumete Cemetery with a civilian headstone.
He meant a lot to these men. He was 29, an experienced soldier and mentor.
“As long as we’re alive there’ll be one of us who will come up and pay respect to him, the respect that’s owed to him,” says Graeme “Topsy” Turvey.
The men each place a poppy on the new gravestone. They are in their late 50s and early 60s now but were just teenagers when they joined the Army.
Leaving for Vietnam was the proudest day of their lives. They joined up for various reasons but all say they wanted to serve their country.
In Vietnam they had no idea of the politics of the war. Their job was to kill and to survive.
They were in dense jungle almost all the time, moving silently, a highly trained platoon with a remarkable kill rate of 80 to one.
They would spend two weeks in the jungle, come out for clean socks and new ammunition, then head back in again.
At night during a two-week operation in a swamp full of snakes, leeches and mines, they strapped themselves to trees so they did not sink and drown. The skin on their legs rotted and peeled.
On a normal day they would stop for a quick cup of tea while it was still light but when darkness fell they would pack up and quietly move.
If enemy eyes had been watching and mortars were lobbed, they were no longer there.
Says Wilson: “Those tactics were going on all the time, which is why we’re still here today, that’s why we were so good.”
There are horror stories too, plenty of them, but they are not keen on giving details. The war was savage and sickening, yet coming home after their tour was also a shock. They thought they had been serving their country but their country now disagreed.
Faced with protest marches and accusations of “baby-killers” – nonsense, they say – and not allowed to join the Returned Services Association, they were shunned and traumatised.
Brian Wilson, now 60, says they could not wear their uniforms. “We all disappeared into the wind to hide and you had a guy buried out at Waikumete, they couldn’t put Vietnam on it [the gravestone], there would have been protests all over the place.
“You’ve come from a very close-knit group. We’re 35 guys who slept with each other literally, alongside each other in the bush being rained on, piddling on each other’s legs and you get pretty close to someone.
“And suddenly you’re pushed back into civvy life and you’re out there with the guys you went to school with who are yahoos now with long hair and they’re saying ‘well, how many babies did you kill?’ “
Wilson got a job working night shift “and I hid from the world for a whole year”.
His wife met him “as a bloody strange little recluse fella who just worked at nights and drank about nine flagons of beer and came home and went to bed all day. Of course it’s depression … “
But each of them got on with life as best they could. Some married and had children. Then came word of strange birth defects in children born to Vietnam vets – cleft palates, club feet, spina bifida, circulatory problems and many more. Wilson, who won’t give details, has a child affected.
Later came illness in veterans. They began to fall to cancers and circulatory problems, diabetes and other disorders.
Raymond “Red” Beatson has brought a document to the graveside. It is his submission to a Government working group on the concerns of Vietnam veterans.
The men call Beatson “the Boss”. Quietly spoken now, the retired Lieutenant-Colonel was the platoon commander, just 23 years old. The men credit him with keeping them alive. They defer to him still, quietening when he speaks.
Beatson’s submission is grim reading. It contains two photographs. One is the platoon as young men, before they left for Vietnam. The other is a rugby team, a College 1st XV which Beatson captained, whose members were about the same age as the soldiers he served with in Vietnam.
In the platoon photo, faces have been coloured in. The yellow faces – 12 of them – are dead. “The pink are those I suppose you could say have got one foot in the grave,” says Beatson. There are eight of these.
Just five of the rugby team are dead and Beatson notes that of the five, one man, a cancer death, was a Vietnam veteran. He has more figures, collated by Sovereign Insurance.
“They took our age group, which is 55 to 64 and said ‘well, for men dying of cancer, diabetes and circulatory problems, what would be the actual death rate’. “
The death rate was 18.9 in 1000, across the country. Beatson’s platoon’s death rate is 257 in 1000. “And we’re just one platoon of many companies that served. For me the big issue is that no one knows the extent of the problem, how big it is.
“It’s interesting, I mean, we have 56 per cent of our group that is dead or dying and there’s something like 3800 people who served in Vietnam. You push the 56 per cent out to 3800 and my maths makes it about 2000 who are dead or dying. That’s scary.”
Three members in his platoon alone have children with birth defects. He knows another veteran who had his DNA tested and the strands were found to have been “corrupted” – a legacy of Vietnam, he says.
But there is some optimism. After long years of denial, the Government has accepted that troops were exposed to a toxic environment. The working group has finished interviewing veterans but its findings may be months away.
Beatson’s view is that the acceptance of adverse health consequences has not been translated quickly enough into action.
Still veterans wait for an acceptance of responsibility. Still they struggle to get pensions for certain disorders. And for the four men at Waikumete, attending funerals has become the norm.
Says Wilson: “The proof of the pudding is that every second week on the net we hear about one of our guys who has a brain tumour, who has cancer, and they’re dying in twos and threes. There’s three or four right now on a death watch. It’s a frightening picture.”
For years they did not talk about the war. Now, for the sake of their families and dying friends, they say they have no choice.
See Below: Submission to The Joint Working Group on The Concerns of Vietnam Veterans
By Lt Col (Retd) R G (Red) Beatson 01 February 2006
Published: 2006, May, 06. | Time-stamp: 1:13 PM Saturday | By: Catherine Masters | Article Link: nzherald.co.nz | Article Title: Vietnam - war without end.