Tour of Duty
With the Vietnam War at its height, Australia sent a team to play in a tournament in Saigon
Against the distant rumbling of artillery guns and the howl of military helicopters flying towards the front line, the roar of the 20,000-strong crowd was starting to rise in frustration. At one end of Saigon's oppressively humid Cong Hoa Stadium, soldiers struggled to contain locals furious at a half-time score of Australia 1 South Vietmam 0.
It was November 1967 and, with a ground war being fought in the south and a bombing campaign in the north taking almost 250,000 lives, the Vietnam War was fast approaching its awful peak. There, in the centre circle of the Cong Hoa, Stan Ackerley stood alone playing keepie-uppie with a football. Seemingly oblivious to the riot in the stands, the Australian midfielder was an island of calm amid the chaos.
That was the sight that greeted the Socceroos' 46-year-old team doctor Brian Corrigan as he walked out of the changing-rooms for the start of the second half. As Ackerley juggled the ball, Corrigan noticed that the Australian was singing to himself one of the less than affectionate rhymes the local population had come up with about the Australian soldiers in Vietnam: "Hop do lee, cheap Charlie / Will not buy me Saigon tea."
With such a ludicrous scene playing out in front of him, Corrigan found himself wondering, "What the bloody hell are we doing here?" That question had been raised over and over again since the idea for the tour was first broached.
In early 1967 the Australian military in Vietnam had begun to use football as a vehicle to bridge the cultural divide between themselves and the local population. Keen to build on that, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs decided to send a team to compete in a "friendship tournament" to celebrate South Vietnam's national day. It would be contested by the friendly South East Asian and Pacific nations of New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, South Vietnam and Australia.
The foreign office, though, was mostly alone in its enthusiasm for the idea, with one Australian broadsheet running an editorial the week before the tournament declaring it was "not the time or the place" for such a tour.
While the players themselves were mostly too young to appreciate the situation into which they were about to be dropped, some of the senior members of the Socceroos backroom staff had concerns. "Some of us thought it was like waving a red flag at the Viet Cong," wrote Corrigan in his autobiography, The Life of Brian. But the Australian government was convinced. So, on a warm spring evening, the Socceroos boarded a flight to a war zone.
Flying into Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport, Australia soon realised just how difficult the tour was going to be. "I think at the time it was the busiest airport in the world," said the forward Ray Baartz. "Military aircraft taking off here, there and everywhere. I think we were all surprised by the scale of it. To land there was a fairly daunting experience."
Along with the military planes, Stan Ackerley remembers it being the first introduction the players had to the notorious South Vietnamese military police. "At the airport there's two airstrips — military and civilian," said Ackerley. "When you come in they've got the military and you see all these fighter jets lined up and you may have to hold up while these fighter jets take off. And then when you go into the airport all you're seeing is military and the biggest military you see of the lot is what they call the white mice, the Vietnamese [military police]."
If being greeted by the machinery of war weren't enough, worse soon followed. "We got to the [team hotel] which was called the Golden Building, if you can ever imagine that, and it's a ramshackle bloody place," said Corrigan, his voice tinged by exasperated irony. "As we're walking through [the Socceroos striker Attila] Abonyi yells out, ‘That's strange. Why are they bringing us in through the basement?' But it was the main entrance!"
The seedy, run-down lobby was only the beginning of the problems. When Ackerley went upstairs to his room to put his luggage down he reached out to switch on the light. There was, though, no switch and he was flung across the room as he grabbed a naked live wire. Only good fortune and the quick response of Corrigan saved the former Manchester United youth-team player from serious harm. Further down the hall there was more consternation when Abonyi found he would be sharing his room with a large gecko.
Back downstairs and hungry after such a long flight, all the team wanted to do was eat. Gathered in the hotel's dining hall a plate of ‘food' was put in front of each player. On it was a single piece of what Corrigan described as "slimy, greasy spam".
"We'd been issued food coupons to use to get reasonable meals during our stay in Saigon," explained Corrigan, who was in charge of all food and drink for the team. "However the hotel's proprietor had taken his cut and now there was nothing left for us other than substitute ham."
A challenging first day continued with a briefing from the Australian Embassy that was anything but reassuring. "Be very careful of people on bikes," warned one embassy official, "especially if they have women on the back, as they may think you are an American and shoot you." That left the team terrified. "When we got outside the embassy," Corrigan said, "it seemed as if all of Saigon was riding around on bikes!"
As the embassy officials passed around photos of people who'd been hit by claymore mines packed with jagged pieces of metal, they warned the team to "be very careful of anti-personnel mines" and told them that "all playing fields will be combed for mines before you play."
The Socceroos had been allocated a patch of grass in a vacant lot next to the team hotel to train on but when they went to use it they were informed it hadn't been cleared. Instead, for the duration of their stay, the Australians trained on their hotel's roof. For the next two weeks, footballs, seeming to fall from the heavens onto the road below, became a familiar sight to those passing by the Golden Building.
Confronted by the difficulties that come with being in a warzone, along with Vietnam's suffocating heat and monsoonal rain, there was little respite for the Socceroos as they started trying to win the tournament.
Yet the Australians came out of the blocks firing and on November 5 they easily dispatched New Zealand in their first game, Abonyi scoring a hat-trick in a 5-3 win. Two days later the Australians were back at the Cong Hoa Stadium to face the hosts South Vietnam. The atmosphere was tense, the pitch surrounded by barbed wire, army snipers and soldiers armed with fixed bayonets. The legendary Socceroos striker Johnny Warren put Australia ahead in the 35th minute with a sensational strike, at which the violence of the crowd meant the game had to be stopped. "I remember looking over at the bottom end with all the trouble and then looking over to the tunnel," Ackerly recalled with a laugh. "And I thought, ‘I can sprint that.' It was all going on; there was no mucking around with the tear gas. It's not just because [the crowd] was very patriotic but because they were such big gamblers and were about to lose all the money they'd just put on their team."
The South Vietnamese president, Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, went into the home side's changing-room at half-time to try to stir them to victory by offering the players money if they turned the result around.
It didn't work; and the Australians held on for a 1-0 win.
An easy 5-1 victory over Singapore in their last group game, Abonyi scoring his second hat-trick of the tournament, meant Australia topped their group and booked a meeting in the semi-finals with Malaysia.
That match was also marred by controversy, police and military personnel storming the field after a Malaysian player kicked the winger Tom McColl as the Australian was lying on the ground following a tackle. A brawl developed, with security forces required to restore order.
A frustrated Australia struggled to break down their opponents and it wasn't until the 27th minute of extra time that the deadlock was broken by Baartz.
Australia's opponents in the final were a strong South Korea, who'd dispatched South Vietnam in their semi-final. By that time the general population back home had started to take notice with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcasting the games live on radio and newspapers around the country reporting the action. One story that ran in the Australian papers the day before the final revealed that, in a misguided attempt to help motivate the squad, the Australian Soccer Association had told them that if they won the final they'd be allowed to keep their team tracksuits as a reward. At a time when players went almost completely unpaid for playing for the national team, the offer only patronised men who were already making great sacrifices.
Meanwhile, Corrigan chanced to bump into a childhood friend among the chaos of wartime Saigon. It's an experience that remains with him.
Sitting in a Returned and Services League club in Sydney some 34 years later, Corrigan looks morose when the topic of his good friend Jack Blonley is raised. "That's a terrible story, Jack…" he tails off and pauses for a while, thinking, staring into the distance. Eventually he starts to recall how, years after they'd attended boarding school together in Sydney, the two friends were reunited.
"Johnny Watkiss had a fractured fibula," he says. "We had to go to a hospital to do an X-ray and there was nobody to come and pick you up or anything like that. There was just no liaison. So we got a bus.
"We got down to the hospital, walked in the door and in the courtyard here's Jack Blonley! He's my idol and he's standing there and I thought, ‘Oh fancy seeing him,' and he says, ‘Get down you fool, they'll zap you!'
"‘They're all around the place.'
"He was quite off the twist. He was quite convinced he was going to be killed, quite convinced he was going to be killed by a Viet Cong sniper.
"So I said, ‘How do you do? Here's my mate [Watkiss]. I'll introduce you.' And he interrupts saying, ‘How are you getting back?' I tell him in the bus and he says, "Don't go in the bus, they'll zap you. I've got a driver. We'll take you.'"
As Corrigan and Watkiss headed into the radiology department, the two friends agreed to meet once the X-ray was complete. The X-ray, though, never happened. In the middle of a war, the hospital was far too busy to deal with the needs of an injured footballer.
"It was a mistake to think they even would," Corrigan says. "I mean you could imagine the bloody X-rays! You've got people blown in half and Johnny Watkiss walks in with a broken leg!"
So, with the afternoon wasted, Corrigan and Watkiss got into Blonley's car and headed back to the Golden Building.
"He takes us in his Jeep and we get to this huge five-way intersection and he's saying to the driver, ‘Don't stop! Don't stop!'" recalls Corrigan.
The problem wasn't just that military trucks hurtled through the chaotic intersection but the anxiety of the Vietnamese Military Police who manned a guard-post there. If they ordered a vehicle to stop and it didn't, they would fire a warning shot into the air. If the vehicle still didn't stop, the next shot would be aimed straight at the driver.
"We started getting to the intersection," Corrigan says, "and the poor old driver is sweating and he said, ‘I've got to stop or the white mice will shoot me.' Jack pulls his gun out and puts it to [the driver's] head and said, ‘If you stop, I'll kill ya.'"
The car approached the intersection and, inevitably, a military policeman told them to stop. When they didn't, he raised his gun into the air and fired. BANG! The car kept driving. A military truck with wheels almost the size of a man glanced just past Corrigan's backseat window, but they made it through. The military police didn't fire again and the four men arrived at the team hotel safe, but shaken.
That sort of behaviour wasn't unusual for Jack Blonley, though.
During an R&R break with his wife in Singapore, Jack was unable to sleep. Even in safety, he went to bed clutching a gun beneath his pillow.
It's not hard to see how the boy from Tumbarumba in rural Australia picked up the nickname of Jack the Quack. While it was meant with affection, it highlighted the psychological breakdown that befell so many in Vietnam.
Corrigan convinced Jack to come watch the team play in the final against South Korea. "He came at lunch time before we played and the fellers all said to me, ‘Who's this idiot? Who's your mate?' And I said, ‘Give him a chance; he's a really good guy. Jack's just all wound up.'"
The Australians arrived at the stadium to find that the local fans who'd been so hostile a few days earlier were now fully behind them because the Vietnamese loathed the South Korean soldiers, who were renowned for their brutality.
Things didn't start well for the Australians, Lee Young-Kewn putting the South Koreans ahead in the first minute. But the Australians rallied and after a seesaw affair, it ended 3-2 to the Socceroos. Fully 38 years before Football Federation Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation, the Socceroos had competed in their first major tournament on the continent and won their first trophy in senior men's international football.
As Corrigan explained, though, amid the lengthy celebrations that followed that night, the tragedy of war would come crashing home. "We come back [to the hotel] and Jack started to have a few drinks," he said. "He sat down and they [the players] thought he was fantastic! They were laughing away with him and he's telling all these stories about what happened on tour [Jack had played to a high level as both a cricketer and rugby player] and the rest of it."
As the evening went on and the team continued to celebrate, Corrigan noticed his old friend had disappeared. "I thought, ‘That's strange. I can't see anybody in the building and I know he hasn't gone outside the door.' And I went in my room and I looked in and couldn't see anything and I just heard this little scuffle. So I put the light on and here's Jack sitting in the corner crying."
Startled but concerned, Corrigan slowly approached him and asked, "Jack, mate, what's the matter?"
The answer from his dear old friend, a man he still calls his idol, broke his heart.
"‘I didn't think I would ever be able to sit around and bullshit with fellas again,' he said. ‘I'm so terribly grateful for what you have done for me tonight.'"
Both men broke down crying.
Six months later Jack's tour of duty ended and he returned to Australia. The horrors of Vietnam, though, stayed with him and he struggled to sleep. At just 46 years old, after all he'd been through, Jack's heart gave up.
The morning after the final the Socceroos arrived at Saigon Airport in quite a state. Many had stayed up all night celebrating their win. A rabble of hungover young men waited to board a military transport plane to Vung Tau, an idyllic beach the Australian military used to give its soldiers a break from the rigours of fighting.
"We got out to the airport and there's a Caribou out there," Baartz recalled. "We all get in and line up along the side like you're troops and everyone's laughing and joking but not feeling too good or anything. Then the Caribou takes off still with the back open and he's flying over the jungles and I'm thinking, ‘Close the back up! There's Viet Cong down there!'
"So we come in to Vung Tau and the captain knew we weren't feeling too good so he says, ‘I'll show you the beach.' He comes down and he's flying real low over the water and we're looking out the back and oh…." Baartz tailed off, remembering the nausea of being hungover while hanging out of the back of a military plane a couple meters above the beach.
The Socceroos spent the day swimming, enjoying a barbecue with the Australian soldiers, and drinking. After a torrid two weeks in Saigon, the down time was sorely needed.
While it must be noted that not all of the players look back on the trip with affection — the late Johnny Warren wrote in his autobiography that, "It wasn't until years later that I realised how the team had been blindly steered into helping the war effort" — the tour did have one positive effect.
The majority of the young squad that travelled to Vietnam went on to form the nucleus of the first Australia team to qualify for a World Cup, in 1974. Furthermore such a challenging time away as a playing group helped to create a bond. "There's no doubt about it, no doubt that spirit carried over until the World Cup in 74," said Corrigan.
"I can never ever remember problems between any of the players on that tour or on any other tour that those boys were involved in," said Baartz. "The support and harmony and the mateship that was there was just something to be believed. I think because that tour was so tough, the conditions were so hard, the team bonded together and supported each other so much that it laid the foundations for the Socceroos spirit that continued on to 1974 and onwards."
It might not have been what the Australian government had in mind when they decided to send the Socceroos into the heart of a war, but the 1967 tour of Vietnam left its own unique legacy.