WHEN the wooden balls began dropping from the barrel 52 years ago, there were many people who were hoping that this was one lottery in which their number wouldn’t be called.
Often known as the “birthday lottery”, the draw was done from a barrel that had been used for Tattersall’s cup sweeps, filled with 181 numbered marbles representing the days of the year from January 1 to June 30. Alternate lotteries would have 184 balls for the dates of the rest of the year.
If one of the balls drawn corresponded to the birthdate of one of the thousands of Australian men, aged 20, who had registered for National Service, it meant they were eligible for call-up.
It was 22 December 1966 when Les Wilkinson’s birthday numbers were drawn from the barrel. He was drafted as a National Serviceman with orders to report to the Marrickville depot. From there he was sent straight to Kapooka for recruit training. Les remembers, “It was here where I learnt to make my bed, iron and neatly fold my clothes, spit polish my boots, and more importantly, make new friends.”
Les was then marched out to do his Corps training at Bandiana, and 3 months later moved up the ranks to Private. Before long, Les Wilkinson was told he was going to Vietnam. The day he arrived in Vung Tau, Vietnam he was told the TET offence had begun.
His posting at Nui Dat was hot and dusty and he can still recall the sound of artillery going off every day and night. Les recalls, “It was certainly a new experience, but one that I got used to quickly.”
On the 10th May, 1968 he was told he was going to fire support base Coral. On the way they stopped at a US Army Base called Bearcat. Les saw a US Soldier drinking chocolate milk, he told Les where he could get some and they instantly clicked. They had a BBQ and exchanged girls’ addresses as well as their uniforms. Les later wrote to his cousin and found out his friend had been killed.
On his second night at support base Coral they were attacked and lost all their stores from a mortar attack.
Les tries not to remember those days but he says there are things that still haunt him. “They were horrific times. The sound of the enemy’s bugle, the smell of cordite, firing at gun ships, being overrun by the enemy and the burying of the dead in enemy holes. I can still remember Lieutenant Brown saying, “Don’t shoot until you can see the whites of their eyes,” as we had the company of one RAR in front of us and he didn’t want us to shoot one of our own men in the darkness.”
The battle lasted a month and it was the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war.
In December 1968 Les Wilkinson arrived home at 2am to avoid any protests. He was discharged in January 1969 and had no contact from any of his war mates until their Welcome Home in 1987. “It was great to see the boys again but I, like a lot of the boys, suffer from PTSD and still to this day have nightmares. I lost a lot of my close friends whom I had before Vietnam as I couldn’t talk about it to them. So I found new friends who did not know I was in Vietnam. I now regret this very much.”
Les will be attending the Dawn Service at Seven Hills RSL this year to remember his fallen friends.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will Remember Them. Lest We Forget.