Vietnam War veterans remember mates made on the frontline

Platoon Commander Ross Miller pays his respects at Omaka Cemetery.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Platoon Commander Ross Miller pays his respects at Omaka Cemetery.

A ceremony to remember the most decorated New Zealand company in the Vietnam War became more than a standard news story for reporter Jennifer Eder, who stumbled across the men her father served beside.

In our wee office, reporters take turns at working weekends and I was down for Sunday.

The list of scheduled stories can vary from the pleasant to the droll, but when Sunday's list appeared in my inbox, I was curious.

A couple of tears are shed during the Roll of Honour.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

A couple of tears are shed during the Roll of Honour.

A memorial ceremony for veterans of Victor 3 Company who fought in the Vietnam War, but had since died.

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I'd been to memorial ceremonies before, and I knew the questions I would invariably ask as I envisioned the article to come.

Denis Teeling leads the Blenheim District Brass Band during Sunday's ceremony.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Denis Teeling leads the Blenheim District Brass Band during Sunday's ceremony.

I also knew my father was a Vietnam veteran himself. But standing among the tombstones at Omaka Cemetery, in Blenheim, on that sunny Sunday morning, I was not expecting to hear his name read from the Roll of Honour.

I'd been writing shorthand notes about the vets dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs, and suddenly I was one of those remembering.

The ceremony for Victor 3 Company was held roughly every two years, changing its location each time. 

Christchurch man Rod Eder served with Victor 3 Company in the Vietnam War.
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Christchurch man Rod Eder served with Victor 3 Company in the Vietnam War.

What were the odds?

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About 43 veterans and their families had travelled from as far as Australia to remember their mates from the war.

When the trumpets and flags were packed away, the congregation moved to the Clubs of Marlborough for lunch, and I went along to find out what kept the vets coming back.

Victor 3 Company loafing around in the field.
SUPPLIED

Victor 3 Company loafing around in the field.

I spoke to Bob Davies for a good 10 minutes before he told me he was in 3 Platoon. My father Rod Eder's platoon.

"You would have known my father then," I said.

He could not quite believe it when I told him my name.

Rod Eder cleans his gun by candlelight.
SUPPLIED

Rod Eder cleans his gun by candlelight.

"I used to visit your father when he was sick," Davies said, and his eyes welled up and his voice croaked.

Dad used to have dialysis three times a week after he was diagnosed with myeloma cancer, linked to the Agent Orange herbicide he was exposed to during the war.

I was 14-years-old at the time and I stayed far away from the hospital because it was too difficult to watch him drained of energy hooked up to the machine.

Cadets at the NZ Army Regular Force Cadet School in 1965, from left, Don Bensemann, Chris Robinson, Laurie Cooper and ...
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Cadets at the NZ Army Regular Force Cadet School in 1965, from left, Don Bensemann, Chris Robinson, Laurie Cooper and Bob Davies.

He died two years after his diagnosis. 

In a sudden shared anguish, I gripped Davies' hand with the firm handshake dad taught me.

We spoke about the book my father wrote, Deep Jay

Mick Collins, left, and Arthur Noble remember their friends at the ceremony.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Mick Collins, left, and Arthur Noble remember their friends at the ceremony.

I always knew it was loosely based on his experiences in the war, and reading it as an adult I felt like I was hearing dad's war tales from beyond the grave.

But I could never have known, reading between the lines, how heavily the other men in the platoon featured in some of the characters.

Davies waved over Mick Collins and Arthur Noble, known as Scoobie, to have a look at me. 

Sherry Wickman pays tribute to her brother Michael Wickman and Donald Bensemann.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Sherry Wickman pays tribute to her brother Michael Wickman and Donald Bensemann.

Collins, a tiny, bearded man with more badges than blazer, and Scoobie, quiet-spoken, seemed equally amazed to meet me.

"I knew your father very well," they kept saying.

"When you're living in a tent with these guys, in a war, you can't help but become close," Collins explained.

Marie Normile, of Te Rerenga O Te Ra, performs at Omaka Cemetery.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Marie Normile, of Te Rerenga O Te Ra, performs at Omaka Cemetery.

Blenheim man Lance Corporal Don Bensemann was one of two men in the company who never made it to a reunion.

He was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968, aged 21.

Platoon commander Maurice Dodson recalled the day - he and eight others stumbled across an enemy base and were outnumbered 20 to one.

Kahu Chadwick, of Te Rerenga O Te Ra, gives an emotional performance.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Kahu Chadwick, of Te Rerenga O Te Ra, gives an emotional performance.

Dodson took some shrapnel to the head and back from hand grenades, and a bullet in the shoulder, before another platoon flanked the enemy and they were evacuated, he said.

"I felt our group did very well given the number against us."

Private Mike Wickman, of Porirua, was also killed in action.

About 43 veterans and their families travelled to Blenheim for the ceremony.
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

About 43 veterans and their families travelled to Blenheim for the ceremony.

The company's 12-month tour, 10 times the length of other tours, inspired the television documentary Baptism by Fire.

The men became the most highly decorated New Zealand infantry company since WWII, but the fight did not end when they were pulled out of the jungle.

They would face booing from peace protesters during their welcome home parade, post-traumatic stress disorder and eventually the effects of Agent Orange.

Despite the usual politics you get when you throw men together from all walks of life, Victor 3 was a brotherhood with a lifetime membership.

It was hard to describe the bond, Dodson said.

"We come together every two years, just so we can meet up again and remember, and remember those no longer with us."

When Bill Walker looked around the room, he did not see the grey hair and walking sticks and hearing aids.

He saw the young men he faced gunfire with, he said.

"They're very special young men. I still call them young, though it's been 50 years."

 - The Marlborough Express

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