History teaches us that war is destruction on an unimaginable scale — but it was when young Erin Badenoch held a bomb in her hands for the first time that the connection between human action and the carnage she has only seen in books and on screens hit home.
“When the man handed me the bomb to hold, I was shocked at how heavy it was. It made me realise how much destruction it would have caused when it went off,” the Port Macquarie High School student said after a graphic lesson on the Vietnam War delivered by the Nambus, a travelling museum and memorial.
The bus houses war items such as uniforms and weapons that can be worn and handled by students, as well as video footage, photographs and war-era news-stand headline posters. It is operated by veterans from the Gosford branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia who for more than 10 years have been visiting schools from the Central Coast down to Wollongong.
They engage about 6000–8000 school students a year, arranging for local veterans in each town to join and give the children first-hand accounts of their wartime experiences.
“The Vietnam War is a compulsory part of the history syllabus and to have access to these veterans is a wonderful opportunity for our students,” said Port Macquarie High history teacher Arch Fowler. “Too often history is purely literary, and to be able to question participants is invaluable for students.”
On a recent visit to seven schools including Westport HS and Port Macquarie HS the Nambus’s three veterans were joined by seven local veterans who told their stories to the gathered students.
“It gave me a good idea of how hard it would have been in the jungle, fighting and just staying alive,” said Damon Mahony from Westport HS.
Fellow student Jackson Gordon agreed: “It was very tough over in Vietnam — I can see that now,” he said. “We take our lives for granted and have it so easy in Australia right now.”
History classes heard first-hand accounts of what life was like being conscripted, then doing basic training before being shipped out and into harm’s way. They were given information on the various sections of the army that conscripts ended up in, whether it was the infantry, the engineers or the medical corps.
As a teacher, I found the Nambus’s lessons invaluable, giving insight into the war that will help me in the classroom. I became deeply aware of what it must have been like to be a reluctant conscript forced to get involved in the conflict. I could picture myself in their situation as I’m close to the veterans’ age.
The veterans mentioned the shameful way they were treated by compatriots on their return. They were spat at. Some spoke of depression and turning to alcohol to cope. Questions came thick and fast from the absorbed students.
“We visit about 30 schools a year and talk to between 6000 and 8000 students,” Mr Thompson said. We’re a self-funded, non-profit organisation.”
Students were given a guided tour of the museum and the various flags flying from the bus were explained, including the fact that the veterans, out of respect for their fallen comrades, do not fly the flags of the enemy they fought.
Victoria Brissett, from Westport, said wearing battle fatigues for a photo made her think about the physical labour of soldiering. “When I put the uniform on I realised that it was very heavy and how the people in the war had it tough every day,” she said.
Jake Thwaites, another year 10 student added, “I was carrying a heavy backpack and a radio for the photos. I couldn’t imagine having to carry that around all day.”
Students at Port Macquarie HS were also impressed with the Nambus visit and listening and talking to the veterans and being allowed to handle so much equipment.
“Getting to hear about their experiences directly from them was a lot different to hearing about it in the classroom,” said Jack Cornish. “They gave us a lot of details and I got a huge insight into what it was like for them.”
We all went away with a much better insight to the suffering of so many people caused by the war in Vietnam, which seems so long ago now.
Tony Cronin is a temporary teacher at Westport HS and Port Macquarie HS.