Extract from interview with Alan Strang – 24 April 2010
Reproduced with permission of Alan Strang
I’m Alan Strang. I worked in a National Bank when I was a young man. Left that when I saw an ad in the paper to join the army to go to Vietnam. Joined the army and they gave me a choice of being in the artillery or the infantry. And I was so naïve, I didn’t know the difference between the artillery and the infantry. And I asked the guy what the difference was – the recruiting sergeant said: ‘the infantry walk into battle, the artillery ride into battle’. So, I chose the artillery. And joined up, went to Papakura, did my training [at] Waiōuru, Papakura, and eventually joined 161 Battery in Vietnam in 1970 and stayed through to the end of 1971. So, I did my tour ‘70−’71.
So, you’re now here in the 2010 Anzac Day tour. Is this your first-time back in Vietnam?
Yes, I haven’t been back since. I’ve read a lot about it obviously, but I’ve never been back in the country since we left in ’71.
Why did you come along?
A number of things. My wife and I have talked about it off and on, but mainly because of my sons. My sons have asked lots of questions. I’ve found it hard to answer them, and when this opportunity come around, and we could bring our families, I approached my eldest son, Glen. Approached him first, and he was dead keen to come. And I think his enthusiasm to come sold me on the idea. I was a wee bit diffident. But his enthusiasm to come back and be with me here, I think, is my driving force. Unfortunately, my other son couldn’t make it, but at least I’ve got one here and that’s great.
We’re only halfway through the tour at this point but what are your initial impressions and feelings about being back in Vietnam?
Yeah, it’s nothing like I expected. I was a wee bit worried I was going to get emotional, or things like that, but the country’s just changed so much. The people have put it all behind them and, really, it’s like going to any other country as a tourist. We haven’t had Anzac Day yet. Tomorrow, Anzac Day may be different, but up until now I’ve had real trouble identifying places we’ve been to. The country’s just grown and blossomed so much. I think it’s great how they’ve got on with it.
Has it been a case of exercising any demons at all?
No, not yet. As I’ve said, I’ve come here as a tourist. I’m not coming here reliving the war. I’m coming here just to see, and mainly to explain things to Glen about what happened. Things that I couldn’t explain at home, perhaps I can do it here.
Now you mentioned before that you wanted to discuss certain issues about your perception of the war.
Yeah. When we were in Papakura training before we left New Zealand, the NCOs who were training us, they gave us lots of ideas in fighting the yellow hordes and the domino theory. And we came over here to liberate a country that was being overrun. That was the sales pitch. And I went away to the library in Papakura and did some reading on it – saw about the colonisation by the French and the subsequent invasion of the Japanese, then the French again. And I thought, perhaps these people are looking for liberation and we’re going to provide it. And that’s the feeling that was actually going through my head. I could imagine the soldiers in Italy [during WW2] marching up there and pushing the Germans out and being welcomed as liberators. And I thought, perhaps that’s what we’re going to be doing.
When we arrived here, actually it was different. It was quite different. The public didn’t really welcome us, and I could see that the previous soldiers – the Free World Forces – hadn’t won the hearts and minds of the people. And I didn’t actually feel like a liberator at all.
With the people in the south – the South Vietnamese – was it a case of them no wanting to fight for their own independence, or was it, perhaps, an apathy for the long running wars they’d been experiencing?
It was actually amazing. Some people out in the country just got on with their life. It looks like they’d been living in war for hundreds of years, and they accepted it as part of their way of life. And maybe the more educated ones could see that the government in the south was corrupt. And the one from the north was probably no better. But I didn’t really see that the tactics we were employing by relocating people out of their villages and putting them in safe areas was going to help win the hearts and minds of people. They resented that, and I could see that they weren’t overly enthusiastic towards us. Any my perception started to change.
Was there any particular incidences which made you realise that the situation on the ground wasn’t what you perhaps what it once was?
Yeah, I saw people being loaded onto trucks and taken away from their villages – old ladies looking confused, old men, children. No young people. Obviously, they were in the armed services on either side – I’m not too sure which side. Just the old folk. And just the bewilderment, and being pushed and shoved, and told it was for their own good and they couldn’t even understand what was being said. Their villages were being flattened for tactical reasons, and I just found that a wee bit hard to reconcile.
So, some of tactics and strategies employed by the allies over here. They were, in your view, being quite counterproductive to the end goal?
Yeah. Perhaps someone higher up than me might have a better picture of it. It was never explained to me, how this was going to help win the war. The idea was to clear this area so to deny the enemy any access to food and supplies, and stuff like that. But it was also denying the citizens their land and their homes, and that was counterproductive I thought.
Were you in the minority, or a bit of majority in terms of seeing the war and the efforts here in that way?
I don’t know. I kept it to myself. It was just my observations, and it was probably not the done thing to talk. I was proud of what I was doing as a soldier. I was doing my job for the unit I was in, and I was quite happy to serve my country and do my very best doing it. But I could just see that there was no end to it. We were not going to win the way we were doing it.