War of bullets and a bride

Veteran remembers the Vietnam conflict

Last updated 14:25 16/08/2014
Dennis Montgomery
REMEMBERING: Dennis Montgomery went to Vietnam in search of adventure.

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Dennis Montgomery has a wife, four children, and eight grandchildren thanks to the Vietnam War.

But this week, more than four decades since the war ended, he still finds himself choking back tears over a coffee in Wellington when he thinks of his two tours of duty.

Prime Minister Keith Holyoake reluctantly followed the United States into the war, initially committing a civilian surgical team, then a non- combatant team, then the military.

Thirty-seven New Zealand military personnel and two civilians would die in the conflict.

This Monday, August 18, is Vietnam Veterans' Day in New Zealand and Australia, marking the 1966 Battle of Long Tan, the most significant clash for Kiwis and Australians.

It is also the launch day for a new book about New Zealanders' involvement, No Front Line.

Author Claire Hall and a team interviewed more than 150 veterans for the book and an oral history project.

Like many of his comrades, Montgomery went to Vietnam in search of adventure. "I wanted to find out why everybody was protesting."

Working on the railways as a tradesman, he had applied for two jobs, one in Antarctica - and the other in Vietnam, a country he knew "was long and thin and roughly about the same size as New Zealand".

He was assigned to a civilian surgical team in the coastal town of Qui Nhon.

On paper, the job appeared to be vehicle maintenance away from the bullets. In reality, it stretched to servicing the equipment for a hospital, right down to the surgical instruments and generators.

Roy Mann, whose job he was taking over, was alive only thanks to a battery mounted behind the seat of his Land Rover.

An altercation with an officer from the South Vietnamese army - which the Kiwi troops were supporting - resulted in the officer firing his rifle into the vehicle. The unusually mounted battery stopped the bullets before they could hit Mann in the lower back.

"I asked him if the officer who fired it was still around," Montgomery said. "He said, 'Yes, we glare at one another'."

Montgomery remembers another close call, visiting a hill village to see a blacksmith. They warned the nearby American troops that they were going in. Coming back, they heard gunfire, then saw an "older gentleman running towards us".

They were about to dive under the Land Rover when they saw an American tank barrel turning towards them. They jumped into the vehicle and "got the hell out of there" as tracer fire flew past.

They escaped unharmed but others, such as fellow Kiwi and friend Gordon Watt, were not so lucky. Watt was killed when he got caught by what these days would be called an improvised explosive device.

Montgomery still chokes up thinking about that. He recently heard a radio interview with Hall about the new book, and it brought the memories right back.

"Some people say talking about it gives you closure . . . So much comes back."

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There are also good memories. There was the surgical team's dog, originally called Brutus but renamed Cleo after she got pregnant - who was spayed by the medical team to prevent a repeat performance.

Cleo, it turned out, hated the Vietnamese. "She would tolerate the cook because she fed her."

So Cleo wasn't too impressed when Montgomery brought home a local girl, Pham Thi Xuan, whom he would eventually marry.

He first needed the approval of the New Zealand ambassador, then Paul Edmonds.

The ambassador called him into his office in November 1971. A german shepherd was sitting at the end of the desk.

Before giving approval, Edmonds warned Montgomery of the extreme difficulties of marrying a foreign woman, particularly the cultural differences.

He knew this first-hand, as the dog in his office belonged to his third wife, a Swede he had since divorced.

The ambassador was trying to figure out how to get the dog out of the country and back to Sweden.

Montgomery and Pham Thi were married in a Saigon registry office on January 11, 1972. Shortly after, Montgomery ended his tour and flew home. Later that year, his wife joined him.

This year they marked their 42nd wedding anniversary.

"I promised her a proper wedding when we got here, but she never got it."

- The Dominion Post


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