Queensland Vietnam War veterans digital stories: Clarrie Whitehorn
Australia’s decade-long involvement in the Vietnam War remains a significant cultural touchstone for those who lived through it. For some, the anti-war sentiment was the shaping of a generation; for others, it was a tragic final note on a stressful and traumatic service experience.
State Library of Queensland has recently interviewed a number of Vietnam War veterans to capture their oral histories. Through their first-hand experiences, we are able to gain unique perspectives and anecdotes that shape our perception of this turbulent time.
Clarrie Whitehorn, 42013, was a Warrant Officer Class Two upon discharge.
He joined on the 26 August, 1967 and received his training in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales for three months before being relocated to the School of Signals in Melbourne. He was trained in the use of a teletype writer. He describes hitchhiking every weekend during this training period from Melbourne to Adelaide and back just to see his girlfriend of the time, Evelyn.
We finally said, this is no good! Let’s get married!
Evelyn and Clarrie are still married today.
His call-up for overseas service led him to Singapore first, then Saigon and eventually Nui Dat.
When we landed in Saigon, I looked around and there was all jet fighters all around and soldiers everywhere and I thought, ‘this is a bit bigger than what I thought!’
He was posted to 547 Signals Troop, where they listened to the Vietcong radio communications for information. He describes a specific incident in which they received intelligence about an ambush being established for the Americans. He mentions passing on this information to the American forces which resulted in a counter-ambush and a successful mission.
They reckon they saved a lot of lives…that was because we gave them the information and we got it there in time. You can imagine the amount of traffic we were going backwards and forwards… Everything was a flash message but we got it to them in time. The Americans gave us a thank you letter for saving all those lives.
A common leisure location for Australian troops in Vietnam was Vung Tao for its beach and recreational activities. Clarrie describes playing beach cricket and volleyball.
Another common experience for Australian servicemen while in Vietnam was public service. For Clarrie, that consisted of assisting a local orphanage by taking the children out on field trips to various locations to provide respite time for the nuns. The soldiers would take the children on picnics and to the beach, and on one notable occasion took the children on a field trip to the Zoo.
[We] bundled them all up in the two land rovers and took them to the Saigon Zoo because one of the little tackers wanted to know how big an elephant was.
Clarrie recalls the unceremonious way in which he and many other Vietnam veterans returned to civilian life. He recalls arriving at Sydney airport and having no one there to greet them, finding his way to the domestic airport terminal, and eventually having to catch a taxi to return home.
There was not a soul there, just a few soldiers walking through… and that was our welcome back.
You can watch Jon’s digital story below.