Stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War: part one – Vietnam War Oral History Project

Claire with a Vietnam veteran, Father John Carde, at the Wellington launch of her book 'No front line'

Claire with a Vietnam veteran, Father John Carde, at the Wellington launch of her book 'No front line'

Over the last seven years historian Claire Hall has been working on the Vietnam War Oral History Project, run by Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, to collect the stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War veterans and their families. Using these oral histories, Claire then wrote the book No front line: inside stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War, which has been recently published. In part one of this two-part series, Claire writes about being part of this important oral history project. In part two she reflects on her book and the importance of sharing the veterans’ stories.

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has dedicated six years to gathering and telling Vietnam War history, prompted by a public history project born from a memorandum of understanding between veteran representative groups and the Crown.

The cornerstone of this programme was the oral history and digital archiving project – the largest ever undertaken. It did much to inform and develop oral history practice, and it bridged the digital divide – we started out in 2007 recording interviews on cassette and within two years had transitioned to a fully digital environment. The expertise behind the project’s success is phenomenal. Here, I need to acknowledge the formative influence of former ministry chief historian Bronwyn Dalley and of my predecessor, historian Paul Diamond. Their mana lent impetus and credibility to the fledgling project, and won the initial approval of veterans and their families.

All the interviewers and staff involved in this project – a team of a dozen around the country – shared a sense of the gravity of what we were doing. You don’t hear the stories we’ve heard or experience the memories we’ve been party to without being shaped by them. We realised early in the piece that in order to do justice to those taking part we had to choose to be there entirely. That meant balancing professionalism with the need for emotional honesty to play a part in the storytelling that was taking place.

Being there also meant adopting the strategy of kanohi kitea – being a face that was seen within communities. As Paul Diamond wrote in No front line’s foreword, we followed the lead of Father John Carde:

Father John Carde … had a reputation as a ‘hard case’ soldiers’ padre, who put on a pack and went on patrol like the rest of the troops. As he put it, ‘My motto when I became a priest was “Wherever His people gather, I would like to join in praising the name of the Lord”, so wherever there were people, I thought, Can I, may I, be part of their lives too? I never wanted to be anything above them, or below them … I just wanted to be part of the mix.’

To achieve this we went where the men were. We turned out to RSAs, reunions, memorial services and formal dinners. In the latter stages of the project we staged exhibitions here and in Australia. That investment in being seen and gaining trust from our core communities was essential to the success of the project.

Over five years we collected 150 long-form life history interviews, boxes of slides and photographs, Super 8 film, recordings, diaries and memorabilia, which are now in the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library. These were the artefacts we used in five exhibitions, which started small and culminated in a permanent display at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum outside of Melbourne. (This also gave me a chance to do a handful of interviews with some of the 16% of New Zealand veterans now living in Australia.)

Entrance to the Home Fires Burning exhibition at Papakura Museum, 2012

Entrance to the Home Fires Burning exhibition at Papakura Museum, 2012

It’s been a highly productive project, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Some veterans flatly refused to be interviewed for a government-run project. On the road garnering support, I’ve been let down by microphones and hearing aids, and I’ve been put on the bill as speaker well after the refreshments have started to flow. As a result, I’ve dealt with my fair share of heckling from the floor – not all of it about the government’s intentions for veterans’ interviews. One group of hearing impaired gunners I addressed in Papakura – without a working microphone – grew bored and suggested that removing my clothes might help them hear better. (I didn’t test that theory.) I’ve taken it all in good heart, and consider such trials to be part of the selection process that allowed me to eventually write these veterans’ stories.

This is a difficult project for me to hand over. The seven years I’ve spent recording and writing about Vietnam War history for the ministry has shaped me professionally and personally. While my role has finished, the digital archiving project continues under the guidance of audio engineer Anaru Dalziel and web officer Gareth Phipps. They will continue to gather memories, memorabilia and stories and add them to the online archive. Our Vietnam War history is in safe hands.

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