VFL and the Vietnam War

Maryanne and I have just spent a few pleasant days of Annual Leave, enjoying the hospitality of Port Fairy. My first time there since 1999.

As is one’s wont, the watering holes were visited. I recall from my visits there in the 1990’s former Collingwood rover Ronnie Wearmouth had the licence at the Victoria.  On this visit we spent a deal of time at the Star of the West. It seems Ronny had previously held the licence there also. But what I found interesting here was the link with some Essendon players of a halcyon era.

Former ruckman/forward Ian ‘Ginger’ Anderson had strong links with the Star of the West. There is a photo of him flying for a mark in a match versus Richmond, played at VFL Park in 1971. Also there is a large article about him going back to Vietnam , working with disadvantaged children over there. His link with Vietnam? He served there with the Australian military during the conflict of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. Flicking through an old encyclopedia of league footballers it mentions his years at Windy Hill being 1967, 1968, then 1971, the years in between being spent on active service in Vietnam. But he wasn’t the only Bomber who saw duty there, with one of the displayed articles mentioning he was one of six. The others were  Keith Gent, Lindsay Mcgie, Ian Payne, Greg Perry and Bill Thompson.

The conflict in Vietnam occurred when I was but a young boy, so there are some hazy recollections.  In those days I barracked for Geelong, thus remember Wayne Closter being absent, due to being on active service in Vietnam. My question(s) for fellow Knackers is: Can they jog my memory re VFL players seeing action in this conflict, and was Essendon’s contingent of six the largest representation of any VFL club ?


  1. Dave Nadel says

    My feeling is there were actually very few AFL players who served in Vietnam. Quite a few were called up but did not leave Australia. I think Royce Hart and Kevin Sheedy were in this category. I would not be surprised if Essendon had the largest contingent of Vietnam conscripts because it would fit with the very conservative culture that Essendon had for most of its history prior to Kevin Sheedy. As you are aware Glen, Australian involvement in Vietnam was very controversial and the majority of Working class ALP supporters opposed it.

    As an opponent myself I was always more interested to find which footballers opposed the war. Most people believed Brent Crosswell did. I am told that Carl Ditterich was also against the war although I am pretty sure Carl was called up and did not go overseas. Like Glen I would also appreciate further information.

  2. Rocket Nguyen says

    VFL umpire Gen James served in Vietnam.

    Royce Hart’s comments about how he avoided being sent to Vietnam at the recent AFL Hall of Fame dinner has not gone down at all well with the vets based over here in Vung Tau…

  3. John Duckworth, older brother of Bill, got called up at the same time as my brother and played 50-odd games for Fitzroy during his national service. We went to Vietnam. Came back home and played for West Perth then went to Central District in the SANFL where he won the Magarey Medal in 1979. Returned to West Perth

    After one game for Fitzroy they measured one of his kick-ins, I think it went over 80 metres. Does anyone remember that?

    He was a really good player.

    It’s always worth noting that until 1987 the best players were spread around at least three competitions.

  4. Peter Fuller says

    I may have asked you this before. I recall the Age match report the Monday following the big Moratorium march, which asserted that two (or perhaps more) North Melbourne players had sat down in Bourke Street on Friday, and that North collectively had, in effect, staged a sit-down on Saturday, when they were flogged (I don’t remember which opposing team). I figured that you may have been able to verify the story, and perhaps even identify the players.
    My recollection is similar to yours, that very few footballers who were conscripted, saw service overseas. Clubs generally exploited their influence to ensure that their prominent players continued to play, just as they exploited the availability of players on interstate postings, Royce Hart for Glenelg, Mick Nunan for Richmond, as examples.
    There was a celebrated case of high-level political intervention in the earlier era of National Service, when PM Menzies ordered that Ted Whitten be relieved of scheduled army obligations, so that he could play in a final for Footscray.
    I suspect that few if any players would have been brave enough to acknowledge dissenting views, given the extremely conservative attitudes in the VFL administration and that of most clubs.
    The moratorium was 8 May 1970, North’s loss, 9th, and the match report, 11th (for other readers’ benefit, as I know the dates will be seared in DN’s memory).

  5. North played the Pies around that time of the seaaon, with i think the scoreline being 17-30 to 10-6. It was round 5 or 6, with North losing to an innacurate Fitzroy the week prior. The Lions kicked 5-24 to record a 5 point win over the Roos who scored 7-7 in wet conditions.


  6. Mark Doyle says

    I am not sure of the reason for trying to connect conscripted VFL players with the Viet Nam war. Australia’s involvment in this war was shameful and disgraceful. Most of the conscripted semi-professional footballers who played aussie rules and rugby league were given “cushy” jobs which did not interfere with their football. Also, conscripts were not forced to serve in Viet Nam – they volunteered for selfish reasons to obtain financial benefits such as discounted home loans and uni. fees paid by the government.
    People should visit the American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, the My Lai Massacre Museum and a number of museums in Ha Noi to get a true appreciation of this war and how it affected the Vietnamese people. Another place to visit is a craft factory near Ha Noi, which employs people who have genetic disabilities caused by the American chemical war program.

  7. Glen- Im a Vietnam Vet .The most famous South Aussie is Graham Cornes who served in 69.
    While I respect the views of people opposed to the Vietnam War (Ive been back a second time to see the people and the country without the “war effect”)
    For me the war finished when I came home and I got on with my life- unlike a lot of fellow comrades who were not able to due to various reasons
    However I would ask the readers to be careful about making statements that are unfounded or they have no knowledge about when referring to Service in Vietnam

  8. Glen.

    Footscray’s Graeme Chalmers served with the RAAF in Vietnam post VFL career (1962-1968 75gms/37).


  9. Oges – Spot on. Amazing how many experts there are on this topic, most of whom were not there.

  10. Thanks Dips

  11. Ian Granland says

    I was in Vietnam in 1970-71 and although we were not able to conduct a formal competition, there were a few games. I organised one at Nui Dat between our unit and another which I umpired – it was my first go at blowing the whistle and I loved sticking up the sergeants and junior NCOs on the field, penalising them 10 yards when they got a bit cheeky. I don’t recall seeing any VFL players but boy, I did see some great young players and was in awe at their talent on the field.

    Cutting down the 1200cm high grass on the field with a Massey Ferguson and slasher – rifle at the ready, was quite an effort and a mate and I were caught up with those chores prior to the game. I remember listening to St Kilda towel up South Melbourne before 104,000 on my little radio through Radio Australia.

    Diverging, the most interesting sporting function where I was, was the weekly arrangements that soldier SP bookies carried on with the Saturday Australia races, again through Radio Australia. It was a HUGE business and well worth someone researching this activity – before it is too late.

    BTW, John Duckworth played with Balmain in Sydney while in the army and was very much renowned as a super kick of the ball.

  12. Ian- brings back memories especially the Sat bookies and races as we had the local bookie in our tent. Did Crown and Anchor rule on pay nights in the boozer in your time?

  13. Stan the Man says

    Ian G…… “The Bookies never lose”. to elaborate on your story. My brother served in Viet Nam probably at the time you described. He was one of those SP’s who was taking the bets on a weekly basis. After having an enourmous “run” and winning heaps over a period of time – then 2 weeks in a row a horse in Sydney called Sunburner (??) on a track heavy won at the odds of 15/1. Everybody in camp got on and having no way of laying off the bro and his mates had to wear it. They had a laugh about the $$$ but as their “tour” was about to end in a couple of weeks they were just glad to get home to Aussie

  14. Ian Granland says

    I was in a signal unit in Vietnam at Nui Dat. Our unit had two ‘bookies’ while I was there. One a staff sergeant and the other a lance corporal. I have tried to get the latter to tell his story which I find so fascinating but he is very reluctant. The other has passed into another world.

    Bascially we got the Saturday races live from Sydney via Radio Australia and rebroadcast to us through Australian Forces Radio. These bookies would have a cronie in a signal unit in Watsonia, Victoria, who would send a telex message through on about Thursday each week with a complete list of acceptances for the following Saturday, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. This would then be given to one of the clerks in our orderly room who would type out and roneo hundreds of copies of these sheets listing the horses in each race I think along with their form.

    The unit’s dispatch riders, soldiers who would go from unit to unit picking up and dropping off army correspondence (we had no posties) would circulate these race sheets on Fridays to all units. There was about 5,000 soldiers in the base at the peak.

    Both of these bookies had jobs where they could ‘disappear’ of a Saturday afternoon to their tent where both had phones connected so they could take bets. The rest of us worked but didn’t begrudge these comrades who paid dearly for the purchase of their ‘book’.

    Soldiers from other units, both in the field and inside Nui Dat, would ring their bets through which were listed by the bookies. The dispatch riders would take the winnings to the various units the following Monday and/or collect the bets from those who lost.

    It was a pretty lucrative business but dangerous. Many bettors absconded back to Australia when their time was up sometimes owing thousands to the bookies.

    Of course everyone had to be paid. The bloke at Watsonia, the receiver of the telex in the Coms Centre (air cond,) building, the clerk who typed out the sheets and of course the dispatch riders. I dont know who else got a sling nor how much the bookies ended up with but they certainly made a quid.

    I would love to sit my friend down one day and record his story. After all, who ran it when he was on R & R or on compulsory duty? I will work on it. I reckon it would be a great legacy to lodge at the Aust War Memorial.

  15. For those who would like to read the history of the VFL (Vietnam Football League) played in Vung Tau during the Vietnam War click on here http://boylesfootballphotos.net.au/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=54
    Yes 6 Essendon Players served in Vietnam and were all National servicemen. John Duckworth (Fitzroy) & Wayne Closter (Geelong) were the other two National Servicemen. Graham Cornes also served in Vietnam as a National Serviceman and played with North Melbourne years later. Another player who played in the VFL in the 1940s also served in Vietnam in the Regular Army. Footscray player Graeme Chalmers joined the RAAF after playing with Footscray and served in Vietnam. So what we can gather there was 8 National Servicemen who served in Vietnam of which 6 were Essendon Players. Glenn James the VFL Umpire also served in Vietnam. I know a number of the Essendon Vietnam Vets were very annoyed when Royce Hart bragged how he got his posting to Vietnam overruled through his club connection. I am also led to believe that Kevin Sheedy was not happy that Richmond ensured he did not go without his knowledge. It also correct that many other VFL footballers appeared to get very cushy or convenient postings that allowed them to avoid posting to Vietnam and still play footy. Stan Alves, Carl Ditterich, Rex Hunt are some that come to mind.

    As for Mark Doyle and his “expert comments” on Vietnam I challenge him to prove his comments that no National Servicemen had to serve in Vietnam if he did not wish to. Wayne Closter did not want to go but was sent. Some of my mates in my unit did not want to go and one went to his local MP to help him avoid going. Not being a “Royce Hart” he still got sent! Imagine a Battalion asking everyone if they want to go to Vietnam or not! They would have been decimated! It just wasn’t feasible to give anyone a choice! No one ever asked me (I was a Nasho) if I wanted to go or not. Once we were sent to Canungra for Jungle Training you knew you would be going!

    As for Mark’s comments that Nasho’s volunteered to serve in Vietnam for selfish reasons! Put your life at risk for selfish reasons you have to be joking! I wonder if Mark was draft dodger or just anti Vietnam war! That is OK but don’t be an expert on things on things you want to believe that are not actual fact!

    Mark your claim that people should visit the American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, the My Lai Massacre Museum and a number of museums in Ha Noi to get a true appreciation of this war and how it affected the Vietnamese people. Communist propaganda tells people like you what you want to hear! They never mention the worst massacre during the war which occurred in Hue during the TET Offensive of 1968. The Communist took over the city for a period of time. They then produced their lists of all educated people, City leaders, Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers etc and rounded them all up. Marched them out of the city and executed them. 3,000 bodies were later located in mass graves and 3,000 were never heard of again. Same policy used by Communist Pol Pot in Cambodia! Never gets a mention in those places you mention! Ask anyone in Hue what they think of the Communists! The people in the South have a very deep resentment for the North even now. After 1975 they jailed hundreds of thousands of former South Vietnam Military Officers & public officials for years with many dying in captivity. Why? My wife (since 2005- I met her in Vung Tau in 2002) lost her South Vietnamese Army husband during the war in 1973. After 1975 she was sent to a New Economic Zone in the bush with 3 young children in the most terrible conditions where you weren’t allowed to leave. No house or nothing! One of her children died in her arms! He was buried with his father. So what did the Communists do? They destroyed all the war cemeteries of the South! She has nowhere to visit her them as a result. This upset a huge percentage of the population in the South! There is a saying in the South “Don’t Believe what the Communists say” “Watch what they do!” My wife’s family escaped the Communist North Regime in 1954 to the South! Unless you have lived under a Communist Regime you would not know Mark! Funny thing is that now they run a Capitalist Society under the Communist banner against everything they believed in! Who are the rich people in Vietnam? The Communist Party members & families! Sorry about my comments but I thought it necessary (as a National Servicemen) to ensure another view is expressed which in a free country we are entitled to do. That right is not often available in a Communist country! By the way I am involved in programs to help Vietnamese in Vietnam & also to help Vietnamese Children to learn to swim as thousands drown each year. I love the Vietnamese People & hope as years go by they will become a lot more free. In recent year things have gradually improved but a long way to go yet! Stan Middleton

  16. Reg Bennedick says

    I Reg Bennedick was a cpl Cook at 1 Aust reinforcement unit a unit to which Lindsay McGee was posted in 1966, would it be possible to get in contact with Lindsay Mcgie former player for Essendon wearing no. 4 .We became good mates during our tour of duty in Vietnam . Please send email to above email address would be very pleased to hear from him. Reg Bennedick

  17. To Reg Bennedick. Reg send an email to me [email protected] and I will forward your details to Greg Perry who I am sure would know where Lindsay McGie is. Stan Middleton

  18. Peter Whitbourne says

    I played the 1966 season with the bombers reserve grade.iwas called up and entered the army in September of the same year.in 1968 I went to vietnam with 1Rar.at times I feel extremely disappointed that because I did not play a senior game ism not included with the footballers mentioned although I played with several of them at essendon.just the thoughts of an old red and black digger.

  19. Peter whitbourne says

    My name is Peter Whitbourne. I played reserves football with Essendon in 1966 alongside Keith Gent,Ian Payne and many senior players who were at the end of their time.I was also conscripted the same year. In 1968 I was attached to 1R.A.R. and did a tour of Vietnam during theTET offensive.I do not recall any other players that served in Vietnam at the time. Stan Alves and I were good mates at Puckapunyal,although he did not serve outside Australia.

  20. “Football is 40 blokes chasing a bag full of wind. It’s not as if there is anybody shooting at you.”

    – Arthur John Duckworth.

    Vietnam Veteran 1971
    Magarey Medallist 1979

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