50 years goes by since Ken Mackenzie returned from Vietnam

Ken Mackenzie returned from the Vietnam War 50 years ago. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS. 257277_33

By Mikayla van Loon

From a very young age Ken Mackenzie knew he’d one day join the army to follow in his family’s footsteps.

Although he didn’t feel just 17 when he joined the armed forces, Mr Mackenzie said looking back now he can see just how young he was.

Fifty years ago on Thursday 18 November, Mr Mackenzie safely made his way home from the Vietnam War, something not all were lucky enough to do.

“It’s quite a memorable day because it’s a big deal coming home from a war that consumed most of our lives for the best part of 10 years,” he said.

For Mr Mackenzie, Vietnam was exciting and although he saw a lot of hurt, he has quite fond memories of his time there.

“I have a lot of memories of Vietnam. It was a pivotal part of my life. You’ve got to live it to understand that you’re living on adrenaline. For 12 months, your adrenaline is pumping the whole time. So it’s quite an experience.”

Having spent two years in Malaya prior to going to Vietnam, Mr Mackenzie said he felt reasonably experienced by the time he joined the war in Nui Dat.

It was the men who had been taken from their civilian lives at the age of 20 and conscripted into national service who he felt sorry for.

“The poor national service guys got the dirty end of the stick in a lot of ways. They were taken either out of school or out of their jobs and put in the army where they were indoctrinated and trained in various skills, and then sent across to Vietnam, where they could be wounded or killed.

“And they came back totally different people from the person that traveled across to Vietnam. They were older than their years, wiser and far more worldly.”

Mr Mackenzie said as someone who had chosen to become a soldier, the experience he had returning to Australia was a lot different to that of the men who had been conscripted.

“Veterans were considered to be poison. People didn’t like us. We were abused, shunned and discriminated against.

“Fellows like me that were in the regular army, we were okay because we were still in a military family as it were. But these poor guys, the poor national servicemen, were shunned by a lot of people.”

For those who served in Vietnam, Mr Mackenzie said there was no discrimination, everyone was a soldier fighting a war, so it was difficult to watch on as his fellow servicemen were booed upon returning to home soil.

One of the hardest parts for Mr Mackenzie however, was leaving Nui Dat when Australia pulled out of the war altogether.

“I was really angry that we left when we did because where we were we had it won and the government just turned its back on Vietnam and walked away,” he said.

“They turned their backs on every soldier that served there, every soldier that died there, every soldier that was maimed there and every soldier that came away damaged in some way, shape or form.”

For a year Mr Mackenzie served with 160 fellow Australians at Nui Dat and in the field with the 4th Battalion, before returning home on the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney.

Strikes at the Garden Island docks meant that he and all the other soldiers on board were forced to descend near vertical stairways onto floating pontoons carrying two large bags and a rifle – that was his welcome home.

After Vietnam, Mr Mackenzie went on to serve in Sumatra as a communications specialist and then in Cambodia as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission after Pol Pot had been in power.

A 39 year career in the army saw Mr Mackenzie experience a lot that people will never understand but his memories of camaraderie and excitement, friendship and service is something he said he “lived and breathed.”

“I was privileged to serve with the best men and women in Australia, over 39 years and the soldiers that I served with, without exception, were terrific people.”