50 YEARS: A small pin to honour a huge battle
FIFTY years after Ken Ford and many others fought a series of battles defending firebases Coral and Balmoral in Vietnam, he still has flashbacks to memories of the intense battles of his service.
"Every night at 2.30am, that's when it would start,” he said.
Over three nights, Mr Ford said they would see the North Vietnamese, navigating through the jungle via green tracer, come from more than 20km away to attack the newly established bases Coral and Balmoral.
"They'd start out at dark, hit us about 2.30-3am and stay until six and then they'd retreat,” he said.
"They attacked on May 13, May 16 and May 26, but in the meantime we would also go out on patrol and run into them in bunkers.”
Known now as the the Battle of Coral-Balmoral, the battle against regimental forces of North Vietnam was considered one of the defining and largest battles of the war, but went largely unrecognised until this year, when on the 50th anniversary of the first battle, unit citations for gallantry were awarded to finally recognise those who fought.
And last week, when his pin recognising his service arrived in the mail, Mr Ford said it made him chuckle a little.
"I said to the lady in the post office, '50 years to get recognised and this is how it arrives',” he said.
The battle was no laughing matter, and Mr Ford said it was important for not just him, but everyone who deserved to be recognised.
"Lots of people had never heard of Coral Balmoral until now. We were there for 26 days. Seven battles over 26 days and there was no one to come and rescue us,” he said.
"It's not really a closure. For many of us the only closure we'll get is when you kick the bucket. I remember being there, down to 50kg, you'd do your gun picket of a night, there was always noise and you just relied on your nerves and adrenaline.
Mr Ford said the low-key arrival matched his experience on return from the battle.
"When we got back, it wasn't popular. We were told to get our uniform off and not to talk about it,” he said. "People were marching through places like Townsville, and getting spat on, called baby killers because that's the way the media portrayed it.
"It wasn't until 1987 that they organised a coming-home parade, and people came out of the bush and there were 300,000 people waiting to recognise the vets, which had taken 20 years.”
The pin takes pride of place on Mr Ford's jacket, and he marches as a proud Vietnam veteran each year.
"The grandchildren march alongside us, and they're so proud of us,” he said.
"I've always been proud to be a vet. Before you couldn't talk about it, but now the vets get the recognition they deserve.”