Sharing Stories of Service: David Kelly, Vietnam War

David Kelly was one of many young Australians who was conscripted through National Service to serve during the Vietnam War. His collection of coloured photographs, mostly taken at Nui Dat and Vung Tau, showcase servicemen during work and downtime, army vehicles, local towns and villages, and entertainers. With more than 240 images this impressive collection donated to State Library of Queensland provides a glimpse into the experiences of those serving in Vietnam. Moreover, it exposes the lived realities our national service recruits, affectionately known as Nasho’s.

Australian Serviceman sat on sandbags in Vietnam, 1968-69.

The National Service Scheme (1964-1972) was introduced to bolster Australian’s military capacity amongst rising concerns and instability in South-East Asia and Vietnam. There were three separate national service schemes prior to this final program, which you can learn more about here. Under this final Scheme 804,286 young men were registered for national service and 63,735 served in the Army, including David Kelly.  Selection for military service was held twice a year and was based on a birthday balleot for 20-year-old men. If your birthday was drawn and you met security and fitness criteria you could be selected to serve 2 years in the army (reduced to 18 months in August 1971), followed by 3 years part-time in the Army Reserve. Some 15,381 national servicemen served in Vietnam, with more than 200 killed and another 1200 wounded on active service.  

Australian troops in Vietnam, 1968-69.

Kelly served in Vietnam from 1968-1969 with the 17th Construction Squadron, a unit which consisted mainly  of personnel from the Royal Australian Engineers. His initial reaction to  arriving in South Vietnam as a National Servicemen was:

“the realisation that you would be exposed 24/7 to being shot, bombed, mortared. Once you accepted this you had to make sure you did your job and more importantly, get home in one piece.” (2019)

A Vietnamese boy at the airfield, Vienam, 1968-69.

The 17th Construction Squadron was initially based around Vung Tau and then were later deployed to the 1st Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat, which was where David spent most of his posting. His squadron was involved in a wide variety of engineering tasks, including the construction of roads, bridges, helipads, dams, workshop buildings as well as establishing quarries, land clearing operations and extensive drainage works. David’s primary responsibilities within the squadron were machine maintenance of bulldozers, graders, trucks, and land rovers, which feature heavily within his photo collection.

Military cars and vehicles in Vietnam, 1968-69.

The Vietnam War was a brutal and harsh conflict for those serving. Despite this David’s collection also captures moments of joy and comradery including a drink with friends, the construction of a billy-cart, a football tournament, interacting with local children and throwing a fellow soldier into a river.  David finished his deployment in Vietnam on the 28 May 1969. While his service provided opportunities to make lasting friendships, like so many, it also affected his mental health. David acknowledged that:

“Making lifetime friendships and having experiences to tell your family was an important part of recovery from my exposure to PTSD. The help from various associations like DVA and Vietnam Veterans Federation to serviceman like myself was invaluable.” (2019)


Throwing a fellow soldier into a river, Vietnam, 1968-69.

This year we will be featuring 15 stories of service personnel from WWI to present. We encourage you to share your stories of service with us. To learn more about this campaign and how you can contribute, visit our website.

Additional Resources:

  • 31613 David Kelly slides of Australian Servicemen in Vietnam

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