Valour and obligation

Greek Australians in the Vietnam War (1962-1972)

“Who are these good looking blokes?” asks the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby.

George Zafiris, now 63, has long grey hair. When his papers came his parents, like many of the others’ parents, begged him to go to Greece. “My parents said ‘We’ll send you to Greece,’ but I did not want to go. I am a citizen of this nation. I felt I had obligations.

He points to photos of young men in the book of oral history, Greek – Australians in the Vietnam War, compiled by Vietnam veteran Steve Kyritsis.

The Premier talks about ‘commitment, mateship, sacrifice and unity’ as standard bearers of political humility when talking about old warriors. The Premier signs the book and the camera flashes begin popping.

Over 120 Greek Australians served in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1972.

A small group of these men crowd around a large dark boardroom table; the type of table politicians sat around over 40 years ago deciding how to select young men to fight in another foreign war.

It seems Australian politicians are adept at sending the fit and young to fight and die in foreign wars.

“Who were these good looking blokes? Indeed!” I ask myself.

I try to reconcile the photos of handsome  fatigue clad young Greek Australian soldiers with the aged men around me.

Some choke back memories ushered back to life by the ocassion.

The men in the book look like filmic archetypes, the ones my generation grew up with in film such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.

My generation are Vietnam film veterans, moulded by Hollywood myths which end in dark heroic overtures with Hendrix or the Doors as the soundtrack.

Vietnam is about growing up with constant TV images of fiery napalm explosions and body bags loaded onto planes and choppers.

Yet the men assembled here are not celluloid heroes, They are real men who served in a war characterised by a lack of moral compass.

“It was a war with no front and no seeming end,” Steve Kyritisis said, the author of the book.

Kyristis arrived in Australia in 1959, signed up for National Service in 1966 and saw action on two tours of duty.

“I saw action during the Tet Offensive. Here we were trained for jungle warfare and now we were fighting in an urban war from house to house,” he said.

Tet, the Vietnamese holiday, Tet Nguyen Dan, celebrates the first day of the year on a lunar calendar.

North and South Vietnam announced that there would be a two-day ceasefire in honour of the festival.

However as Kyritsis recounts: “We were caught out. The Vietcong launched a major offensive; one of the largest military operations yet conducted up to that point in the war.”
Kyristis stops, looks out, his eyes swell, “It was a savage introduction to battle but the Vietnamese people were brave and fought hard.”
He describes his strongest recollections of serving in Vietnam.

“The Vietnam war for me was the sound of Hueys,” the helicopters that became an enduring symbol of the Vietnam war. “That sound has stayed with me to today.” Kyritsis recounts. “That heat was incredible; that sweat I will never forget.”

The Vietnam War was initiated by the French in a vain attempt to maintain their colonial hold on the Indo-Chinese region.

Cold War paranoia saw the Americans and Australians escalate the war in support of a corrupt South Vietnamese Government against the Communist North Vietnamese and the Vietcong.

Over two million Vietnamese combatants and civilians died, along with 60,000 Americans and 508 Australians.

Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia were carpet bombed with over seven million bombs dropped in the war but in the end the Vietcong prevailed and won.

America and Australia were left reeling from their loss and moral attrition as a result of a litany of atrocities such as the masscacre of civilians, the burning of villages and the indiscriminate aerial bombardments.

Fighting the Vietcong became one and the same as fighting the Vietnamese people. It was one more war that most now agree we should not have entered.

It was a war that America and Australia wanted to forget especially as the Vietnam Moratoriums became mass movements. Sadly it was the veterans who carried the brunt of popular anger.

Some Vietnam vets harbour resentment to the way they were treated on return.

“It is important that when those that served in Afghanistan or in Iraq come back they are treated with respect,” Kyritsis warned. “Soldiers do not make choices which wars to fight; politicians do that.”

“In the beginning everyone supported the Vietnam War, just like most people supported our involvement in Iraq initially and don’t now,” Robertis Antonis said, a Vietnam Vet whose father migrated to Australia in the 1920s.

Many of these vets have just met for the first time. Most of them, like all other Australians, were conscripted by lottery – their names picked out from a barrel like a macabre game show.

James Frangos, now 63, sporting tight black jeans and Spanish boots, states, “The Vietnamese were brave. You could see that regardless of their polite smiles.  They were cast iron tough. They did not want us there… I had and still have great love for them.”

He draws a parallel to now, “It’s our unwearying alliance to the US, like Iraq and Afghanistan now. We should not have been there.”

Like many of his fellow vets, Frangos, who came to Australia with his family at the age of five, was opposed to the Vietnam War.

However he came from a family with a history of military service. “My father had me when he was 65,” Frangos tells me. “He had seen action in the 1912 Turkish Greek war and my grandfather was in the Greek War of Independence in the 1800s.”

He adds, “I was a loyal son. My father said, ‘You have to serve. This is your nation and these are the laws of the nation.’
“So regardless of how I felt and regardless of not agreeing with him, I loved him. He was my father.”

Charles Exindaris volunteered for service and was “felled by shrapnel and six AK47 rounds.”

His father had served in the Australian Merchant Marine during WWII.

“We have an alliance and that means we had to respect that,” Exindaris emphasised.

“They called me ‘Fish’n’Chips’ and ‘Zorba’” Exindaris said generating laughter amongst the assembled, “Or they’d say ‘Hey Zorba bring your name with that wheel barrow over here’ but it was all in jest, We were comrades.”

George Zafiris, now 63, has long grey hair. “My dad and my mum still bug me to cut my hair.”

When his papers came his parents, like many of the others at the time, begged him to go to Greece. “My parents said ‘We’ll send you to Greece’, but I did not want to go, I am a citizen of this nation I felt I had obligations.”

Zafiris’ greatest fear was “that I may kill someone. I was stationed as an electrical engineer in Nui Dat…Here were these people who you could see in their eyes did not want us there. They were fighting for their country…all smiles in the day and at night they’d wear their black pyjamas and come trying to kill us.”

A recurring theme throughout my conversation with these men is their devotion to Australia and their respect for citizenship, regardless of their views on the Vietnam War.

“It was my duty to serve as a citizen,” Charles Galakos said, wearing his old tunic with a large medal of his father’s from his time in the Greek army during WWII.

“Look at this medal, it’s my Dad’s. He fought in WWII but they don’t have his name engraved on it.”

“If this nation is going to accept me as a citizen then I need to do the right thing,” adds someone from the group; a sentiment that is expressed by all the veterans.

These men laden with profound respect for their Greek culture are so committed to the nation and to citizenship they were prepared to lay their lives down for it, regardless of the immorality of the Vietnam War. Maybe it’s something that rabid critics of multiculturalism should reflect on from within their comfortable offices.

Greek – Australians in the Vietnam War by Steve Kyristis was funded by the Victorian Multicultural Commission and is available through the Greek RSL.