John Gillies served in Vietnam with the New Zealand Surgical Team, the 1st New Zealand Services Medical Team, and the 1st Australian Logistical Services Group. His Vietnam War involved outpatient work, minor surgery, post-operative care, and civil aid.
Gillies painted 20 portraits of Vietnamese in his spare time; he also sketched in biro pen and pastel, often in places where photography was prohibited. Home Fires Burning was the first public showing of his Vietnam War sketchbooks.
A fifth-year medical student on deployment, Gillies arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in December 1969 to the sound of Christmas carols.
I learned to cope with the realities of a war-torn country where human mutilation was a daily occurence. I made sure time off was well spent getting into the countryside and enjoying being a tourist – albeit in a potentially hostile environment.
He didn't just administer aid in a hospital setting. Gillies once rescued an ambulance from a rice paddy while holding up traffic on an adjacent highway. He also helped carry out emergency casualty evacuation and treatment after an attack on nearby American compound.
An outstanding memory is feasting with civilians in January 1969 to celebrate the Tet festive season; the Vietnamese lunar New Year. Just a year prior in 1968, North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces broke the Tet ceasefire agreement and attacked around a hundred towns and cities in South Vietnam.
Back home, Gillies worked as a specialist physician and clinical director of respiratory medicine for the Canterbury District Health Board until 2007 when he retired to become a full-time artist and portrait painter.
Look at images of John Gillies work in the Home Fires Burning exhibition below:
Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage. Material from the Home Fires Burning: New Zealand's Vietnam War exhibitions held in Papakura, Auckland, April-June 2012