Remembering loss and bravery in the Vietnam jungle

YOUNG MAN: Frank Hunt, a forward scout, was 17 years old when he joined the war effort in Vietnam.

YOUNG MAN: Frank Hunt, a forward scout, was 17 years old when he joined the war effort in Vietnam.

THANKS, mate.

They are simple words, but Bega man Frank Hunt has waited 48 years to finally say them to the man who saved his life.

Earlier this year Mr Hunt was finally face-to-face with Oberon local Bill Wilcox, who had helped save his life after a mine explosion while they were both serving in the Vietnam War.

His story is one of courage and tragedy, inspiring the lyrics for the famous Australian song I Was Only Nineteen, performed by Red Gum.

Mr Hunt will tell his remarkable story this Sunday in Bathurst during his Vietnam Veterans Day speech, sharing the details of the historic day in the damp Vietnam jungle.

Mr Hunt was 17 years old when he joined the war effort in Vietnam. He was a forward scout, "the eyes, ears and nose for those behind me".

He was doing his job on July 21, 1969, during Operation Mundingburra with the Third Platoon, A Company, Sixth Battalion when tragedy struck.

The Americans had just landed on the moon, and the men heard the news over the radio as they carried out their patrol. At that moment their platoon commander Lieutenant Peter Hines accidentally stepped on a mine.

Mr Hunt was standing right next to him as the men were thrown off their feet in an explosion of dust and blood.

Eighteen men were badly injured, lying bleeding spread in the jungle. Their beloved Lieutenant Hines used his dying breaths to call the men to do their mine drill.

"He was loved by all his platoon," Mr Hunt said.

Mr Hunt was hit with shrapnel across his entire body, with both his legs badly broken.

HURT: Bill Wilcox suffered 60 wounds to the left side of his body after he was thrown to the ground by the force of a mine exploding.

HURT: Bill Wilcox suffered 60 wounds to the left side of his body after he was thrown to the ground by the force of a mine exploding.

He said his life was only spared by a St Christopher medal his wife had given him on the day he left for Vietnam. The medal was found buried in his chest with a piece of shrapnel embedded in it.

"If it wasn't for it, I would have been killed," he said.

After checking, in his words, "that he was still a man", he got on the radio and called for help while trying to stop the bleeding from his many wounds with mud and pieces of cloth.

"I still had a job to do," he said. "I'm a survivor."

A team of engineers, including Mr Wilcox, and medic were winched in by helicopter to help.

Mr Wilcox was the first to reach Mr Hunt, and with his team, they managed to patch Mr Hunt up, who had lost half his blood, and load him onto a stretcher hanging below the helicopter.

Mr Hunt remembers the agony of his broken bones grating on each other as the stretcher spun.

It was at this point when a soldier accidentally stepped out of the 'safe lanes' the engineers had laid, and stepped on another mine.

This mine, however, malfunctioned and blew up under the ground.

Mr Wilcox was thrown to the ground by the force of the mine, and lay bleeding with 60 wounds to the left side of his body. 

REUNITED: Oberon’s Bill Wilcox and his fellow Vietnam veteran Frank Hunt, from Bega. Mr Hunt will speak in Bathurst on Sunday.

REUNITED: Oberon’s Bill Wilcox and his fellow Vietnam veteran Frank Hunt, from Bega. Mr Hunt will speak in Bathurst on Sunday.

The explosion took the life of Private Johnny Needs.

Mr Wilcox was taken to an American hospital, while Mr Hunt was taken to an Australian hospital, so they didn't see each other again.

Mr Hunt was unconscious for five weeks, and spent 19-and-a-half months in hospital and continued to need hospital visits every year to deal with his extensive injuries. To this day he has only ever had two days without pain.

So he never met the man who was the first to find him as he lay bleeding in the jungle.

That was until Mr Wilcox managed to track him down after hearing the words to I Was Only Nineteen, which recounts Mr Hunt's story.

Mr Hunt said one of the reasons he was happy for the song to be based on his story was he hoped it would bring veterans together.

"I hoped all the veterans would feel they were a Frankie," he said. "I'm proud I played a part.

"If it wasn't for that song, I would never have found Bill."

Mr Wilcox finally made contact in October last year, and the men met after 48 years in March this year.

Mr Hunt said it was very emotional.

"I just kept saying thank you," he said

"I'm so eternally thankful that he found me. He was able to answer a lot of questions for me.

"We have so much in common and we have a lot of catching up to do."

Mr Hunt said his speech for Vietnam Veterans Day has two purposes, the first being the fact Vietnam veterans were able to bring post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) out into the light. 

"We fought for the rights of veterans. We have taken mental health to a whole new level,” he said.

“We've brought it out in the open.”

And the second?

"People often think Australians lost the war in Vietnam. But we didn't. Our mission was to clear the Phuoc Tuy province of the Viet Cong, NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and Viet Cong sympathisers, and we did it. 

“We took it back and we held it. We achieved our mission."

Vietnam Veterans Day will be commemorated at 10.30am on Friday at the Cenotaph in Bathurst, and a service will be held on Sunday at 10.30am at the Bathurst and District Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park.