Lest we forget – school honours its Vietnam veterans

Fifty years after the war ended, a school history project has uncovered the former students who fought in Vietnam. Linda Doherty reports.

A serviceman saluting in front of an honour board A serviceman saluting in front of an honour board
Image: Hands-on history: NSW Governor Margaret Beazley and Ghassan Adra lay a wreath beneath the honour board.

“Hands-on history” is how Ken Stevenson describes his collaboration with Sydney Technical High School to create an honour board for former students who served in the Vietnam War.

Mr Stevenson, president of the Teachers RSL Sub-branch and an Old Boy of ‘Tech High’, has spent three years collaborating with students, teachers and military historians to source the names of 91 former students who went to war.

The project “grew like topsy” after Mr Stevenson and History Head Teacher Robert Devlin conceived the project, fresh from reconstructing the school’s World War I honour board, which was made by Tech High woodwork teachers in 1917.

Mr Stevenson initially thought he would be looking for ‘Nashos’ like himself, men aged 20 in 1965 who were conscripted into the National Service Scheme to increase the size of the Australian Army to counter perceived security threats in South-East Asia.

“But I found students back to the Leaving Certificate of 1945 who had voluntarily joined the Defence Forces and later served in Vietnam,” he said.

He spent thousands of hours cross-referencing student names from class rolls and Intermediate and Leaving Certificate records with the Nominal Roll held by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I estimate that around 10 per cent of Tech High students served in Vietnam from 1958 to 1970,” he said.

Sydney Technical High School students worked from Mr Stevenson’s database and researched individual former students who served in the Navy, Army and Airforce, with the assistance of Major-General Paul Irving and Dr Brad Manera at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park.

“It was hands-on history and very collaborative,” Mr Stevenson said.

The Vietnam War honour board was dedicated on April 6 by the NSW Governor, Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley, in the presence of Premier Chris Minns, Major-General Paul Irving, RSL NSW President Ray James, Department of Education officials and school staff and students, who led the ceremony.

More than 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973, with a death toll of 523 personnel and 2,400 people wounded in the conflict.

In June 2023 it will be 50 years since the last Australian combat troops left Vietnam – the platoon guarding the Australian Embassy in Saigon.

Vietnam veterans have long felt ignored and forgotten, compared to the rousing welcome home parades for those who served in World War I and World War II.

History Head Teacher Robert Devlin said the honour board project sought to address this historical discrepancy and to “promote a growing sense of community engagement and commitment within the school to a collective Australian and global past”.

“The proper commemoration of the Old Boys who served in Vietnam in a dedicated honour board is overdue, sadly mirroring the Australian story,” he said.

Sydney Technical High School in the southern Sydney suburb of Bexley has 920 students from 73 cultural backgrounds. The government selective school for boys was founded in 1911 and is one of the six original selective schools in NSW.

“Every year the students research the histories of their Tech brothers’ service for Anzac and Remembrance Day services and commit their research to the Virtual War Memorial of Australia,” Mr Devlin said.

“These are enduring learning experiences, which promote opportunities for students to explore human actions and become aware that history is all around us.”

Principal Steven So said the construction of the honour board filled the gap in the social history of the school.

“The World War I and World War II boards show the vast commitment the school has had, since its commencement in 1911, to the service of Australia,” he said.

Mr Stevenson was studying science and mathematics teaching at Armidale Teachers College when his birthdate came up in the ballot used to select men for National Service.

He started National Service in 1968 and was posted to Ingleburn to join the 12th Transport Platoon which supplied reinforcement personnel for troops in South Vietnam.

In Vietnam he served at the First Australian Taskforce headquarters at Nui Dat and with the Psychological Operations Unit, driving trucks and open Land Rovers for 312 days.

“We used to colour squares every day on a chart to count down the days to return to Australia,” he said.

On his return to Australia he worked at Heathcote High School as a mathematics teacher, before spending four years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary linguist.

For many years Mr Stevenson was mathematics head teacher at Sydney Technical College in Ultimo, where Sydney Technical High School was originally located, and currently lectures in statistics at the University of New South Wales.

  • 175 years
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