14 August 2023

Vietnam veteran reflects on his service after 50 years

| Sarah Martin
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Peter and Julie lay a wreath at last year's Anzac service in Cooktown.

Peter and Julie lay a wreath at last year’s Anzac service in Cooktown.

PETER Sanderson says that his local RSL sub-branch has given him a family after spending two decades in the army.

The Cooktown local shared his story ahead of the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

“We got a pretty cold reception when we came home,” he said of his return after duty.

“We felt alone and we weren’t recognised, everyone just sucked it up and got on with what we could do, but a lot of blokes couldn’t handle that – we lost too many along the way.”

Mr Sanderson was a corporal in the army and spent 13 months routing enemy soldiers with Three Platoon A Company in the Seventh Royal Australian Regiment, before doing a second tour in 1970 which ended after four months when he was injured by a rocket blast.

“I joined the army at 17 and flew into Vietnam in 1967 – it was my first active duty,” he told Cape York Weekly.

“I was an infantry soldier and we did operations up to six weeks long looking for the enemy, living in a base camp of tents and walking and camping through the wet season when we were out on operations.

“In 1970 I went back in the training team, but got stuff through the legs when a rocket blew up near me and I got sent home. I don’t really have problems with that now, it’s more the problems in my head.”

Peter Sanderson, Julie Oliver and Basil at home in Cooktown.

Peter Sanderson, Julie Oliver and Basil at home in Cooktown.

He recalls sleeping naked back-to-back with his fellow soldiers to keep warm under a tarp strung between trees, and peeling wet socks off in the dark after a day’s marching to find his sodden skin pulled off along with the fabric.

“I have some very good friends and a lot of funny things happened, but we never talk about the nasty bits I suppose you’d call them – you have to see the funny side to keep yourself sane,” he said.

“I did get counselling, but many years later, when I was discharged after 22 years, things started to come back to me pretty quick then.”

He encouraged other veterans, especially younger personnel from Afghanistan and Iraq, to join their local RSL sub-branch.

“What you get at the sub-branch is everybody happy, the jokes are flying, the beers are going down well and you wouldn’t know unless you were told what they’re actually doing,” he said.

“Not celebrating or anything like that, but a common interest and an understanding.

“There’s that mateship, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the navy, army or air force, there’s always someone there who will give you a hand – we all look after each other.”

Mr Sanderson and his wife Julie Oliver have been together for 38 years, meeting in the army mess hall when he was a corporal and she was a warrant officer.

“I saw him in the distance with his blonde hair, and I said to myself that’s the bloke I’m going to spend the rest of my life with,” Ms Oliver said.

“We were both in uniform and I marched up to him and said I’m Warrant Officer Julie Oliver and that was it.”

Peter and Julie at Anzac Day gunfire breakfast at the Cooktown RSL Memorial Club in 2014.

Peter and Julie at Anzac Day gunfire breakfast at the Cooktown RSL Memorial Club in 2014.

Mr Sanderson said for him and his wife, who have lived in Cooktown for 21 years, joining the local RSL sub-branch provided the family atmosphere he missed after two decades in the army.

“When you’re a soldier, you’re protected and it’s one big family, then you come out and the difference is just colossal,” he said.

“When you get into a group like the RSL sub-branch no matter what you did or what corp you belonged to, army, navy or air force, it doesn’t matter.

“You don’t have to talk about it because you know and you know that those around you know. That’s when the funny yarns come out, someone will remember something and away it goes – it’s good.”

They now stalwarts of Cooktown’s small sub-branch, with Ms Oliver serving as the president and Mr Sanderson as vice-president, but the retired soldier said it was time to hand over the baton.

“The Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are coming along and they will take our place,” he said.

“We like to think we took our father’s places, and they’re all gone and I’m 79 and I’m in the age group that went to Vietnam.

“We’re ready to hand over the baton and hopefully we can help them, they can learn from our mistakes and pass that on.”

A commemorative service will be held at Anzac Park in Cooktown at 11am on Friday for Vietnam Veteran’s Day.

Members of the public are encouraged to attend.

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