50 YEARS ON: Vietnam veteran Chris Atkins at Vietnam Veterans Day last weekend in Bowen
50 YEARS ON: Vietnam veteran Chris Atkins at Vietnam Veterans Day last weekend in Bowen Kyle Evans

Vietnam Veteran reflects on the battle of Coral and Balmoral

THIS year marks 50 years since Australian troops took part The Battle of Coral and Balmoral - a bloody three week campaign which saw Australian and US forces dropped directly in the path of North Vietnamese forces following the Tett Offensive in 1968.

But for Bowen man Chris Atkins, the images and sounds from the series of battles remain as vivid as the weeks he lived them.

"Nobody ever forgets noise like that,” he said.

"What I remember most is when they attacked at night and it was like an electrical storm. The artillery would be firing mortars, gunships would fly over an area the size of a football field and leave rounds in every square foot ... it was incredible.”

Originally from Victoria, joining the war wasn't something that Mr Atkins thought was on the cards.

But after being nationally conscripted into the armed forces, the decision was no longer his to make.

Pretty soon, he found he found himself at recruit training for the National Service before being deployed to Vietnam for a 12-month tour.

"Everyone in my street were all service people. My dad did 20 years, and if I had said to my dad I'm not going to go he would have said 'pack your bags'. So there was a bit of pressure to go,” he said.

Arriving at Coral and Balmoral on May 18, 1968, Mr Atkins' unit served as part of a blockade force to stop supplies coming in from the North. By that time the battle was well and truly in full swing.

"Two battalions got dropped off on May 12,” he recalled.

"They got there late in the afternoon, they weren't prepared to get attacked the next morning. They got attacked at 3am. The Australians pushed them back but there was nine killed and 28 wounded on the first night alone,” he said.

Serving as an Armoured Personnel Carrier in 3rd Cavalry regiment, Mr Atkins was charged with driving troop transport vehicles to and from the hot zones. Mr Atkins said it was the fearless nature of the North Vietnamese forces that made them a tough enemy.

"They came looking for us,” he said.

"We went out every morning and every night and clear a 5km area. And they would form up and creep in at about 2:30 at night until they were about 100 yards away and attack. They were incredibly brave soldiers.”

The battle resulted in 27 Australian deaths and 113 wounded in 28 days of fighting.

Having attended a Vietnam Veterans Day service in Bowen recently, Mr Atkins said he still often thought about the war. Now 72, he hopes he has a few Vietnam Vets days ahead of him yet.

"It's something you never forget. But it's never played on my mind like it has on other blokes. It's an excellent day and it's something we all have in common.”

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