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Shrine Conversations: How did Tim Fischer's military service influence his political career?

Vietnam War (1962-73)

Over the course of his life, Tim Fischer wore many hats: deputy Prime Minister, politician, diplomat, farmer, chairman, patron and advocate for many causes.

But one that often goes under the radar is that of a Second Lieutenant in the Australian Army.

In this episode, author Peter Rees unpacks Tim's military service and how it impacted his life as a politician. 


'I've Been There' by Alsever Lake 


LAURA THOMAS: Over the course of his life, Tim Fischer wore many hats: deputy Prime Minister, politician, diplomat, farmer, chairman, patron and advocate for a number of causes. But one that often goes under the radar is that of a Second Lieutenant in the Australian Army.  Before his colourful career in politics, Fischer was conscripted and served with 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam. My name is Laura Thomas, and in the episode of Shrine Conversations, we’ll be unpacking the military career of Tim Fischer, why he left the Army, and how his time in Vietnam shaped his political career. Joining me to unpack this story is author Peter Rees. Peter is the author of many books, including most recently, I Am Tim: Life, Politics and Beyond, a biography on Tim Fischer. Welcome, Peter.

PETER REES: Hello, Laura. It's great to be here with you. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now, you knew Tim quite well with your connections as a journalist, can you tell us about the first time that you met him and your first impressions of him?

PETER REES: Well, my my first connection with Tim goes back to 1969 I think it was, when I joined the Wagga Daily Advertiser. And one of my duties was to write the Lockhart Urana Express, which was a weekly newspaper that the, the advertisers have put out at that time. And it covered Lockhart, of course, and Boree Creek where Tim lived. And as it turned out, there was an announcement for a redistribution, and a new seat in the state parliament, the New South Wales State Parliament. And we, we ran on the front page a picture of Tim on his tractor. And we said that Tim was likely to be a candidate who would be throwing his hat in the ring. And I can't forget that image of Tim on his tractor. He was this raw boned young farmer who just looked like a natural country boy. And I couldn't have foreseen at that stage that he was going to go on to the heights that he did. 

LAURA THOMAS: So that impression changed over time, I guess?

PETER REES: Well, it did. I mean, he went to the state parliament, and I really didn't have much to do with him again, until he came into federal parliament. And he was the National Party member for the seat of Farrah. And I watched him rise through the ranks in opposition as a shadow minister, and then throw his hat into the ring, ultimately, to become the National Party leader. And I watched with amusement, the reaction among my gallery colleagues to to his leadership victory. People were writing him off immediately as a drongo and somebody who is too old fashioned to lead the national party, and I think everybody underestimated Tim. 

LAURA THOMAS: And as you've already alluded to, he had an incredibly interesting and colourful political career. But we're here to talk about something a little bit beyond politics and his time in service. But before we get into that, Peter, I was hoping you could give us a brief overview of Tim's life kind of up to the outbreak of the Vietnam War.

PETER REES: Well, Tim was born in May 1946. He grew up on a farm, Peppers at Boree Creek that his parents, Barbara and Ralph ran. He had a brother, an older brother, Tony, and two sisters, Vicki and Carol. He first went to school at Boree Creek Primary, and after the Korean War boom, when the Fischers did quite well, they sent the children to boarding school and Tim went to Xavier College in Melbourne, where he spent the formative years of his life as a as a boarder at Xavier College. And while he was at Xavier, that he really, really developed an interest in world affairs, the Jesuit teachers instilled in him a sense of curiosity, and also a confidence, a growing confidence that he should not succumb to issues that might be daunting, such as, he had a stutter, he wasn't going to let that stutter hold him back. He knew he had to do something about it. So he joined the school debating team and won the debating prize, so that showed a determination on his part to to succeed, to not let challenges get the better of him. And that was an attitude that really carried through with him for the rest of his life. And particularly, it was there to be developed, nurtured when, in 1966, when he had to enrol for the National Service ballot.

LAURA THOMAS: And he was called up. But what I found interesting was that he could have sought an exemption because he was in farming and a farmer. Why did he choose to take up the call? 

PETER REES: Tim always believed that if you had a challenge, you faced up to it. He wasn't going to take an easy way out. His father instilled in the dictum that if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing well. LAURA THOMAS: And Tim believed that there was no point in backing away from this situation, he would face it head on, and just make the most of it, see what he could achieve from it.

LAURA THOMAS: So it seemed that he quite fully embraced being conscripted. But how about his parents? How did they react to this news?

PETER REES: They wanted them to take the possibility of an exemption that was there for rural youth. He could have taken that and done part time training while using the excuse of working on the farm because it was an industry that that was needed. But Tim wasn't going to have that, he wanted to see what he could learn from it. 

LAURA THOMAS: In July 1966, he began his training at Kapooka. What were those early experiences like for Tim?

PETER REES: Well, it was quite a shock. He marched into Kapooka. And, and that's when all the shouting and yelling began, because the Army knew that they had to take these, these young men, I mean, they're only 20, barely out of school. They had to take these young men and fashion them into soldiers, who just could be going to Vietnam to to fight in a war. This was serious business and the serious business began for Tim, the moment he walked in through the gates at Kapooka. 

LAURA THOMAS: Was he used to that kind of strict regime of being? Was that a surprise, a shock to the system? 

PETER REES: I think the fact that that he'd been a boarder for so long that Xavier College made it made it easier for him because he experienced that sense of aloneness, that need to be looking after himself. So he wasn't thrown into the deep end. In that sense. He knew what it was like to have to confront being away from a family situation.

LAURA THOMAS: And I guess this next question, harks back to what we've spoken about already about how if Tim was going to do things, he was going to do them right, and he was going to do them well, because Tim went through a selection process to take part in officer training. Tell me a little bit about that and how he got over the line with this?

PETER REES: Well, the need to, to train officers for Vietnam was was pretty intense. There was a shortage, a manpower shortage, a shortage of leaders. And the army had to get officers up to speed very, very quickly to possibly command a platoon in a war situation on the battlefield. And so they sought out those who might be interested in in going through a leadership course, becoming officers. And Tim decided that he would naturally enough he put himself forward. And he rated pretty well. He, I mean, he was seen by his contemporaries as somebody who was a shambling country boy, two left feet, as one put it 'He looked like he was walking through wet grass all the time'. And while he might have looked like that, but quickly became apparent to those undertaking the tests, conducting the tests for the army, that he had a very sharp mind. And he had qualities that could be nurtured. They noticed that he was a bit of a loner, that he would need to have leadership and teamwork develop. But they thought with that mind, he was somebody who could certainly be fashioned into an officer who would take well to the the officer training unit course, that been specially set up at Scheyville, near Windsor, in in New South Wales. And before he knew it, Tim found himself getting off the bus at Scheyville and being shouted out by a Regimental Sergeant Major to pick his feet up and be quick about it.

LAURA THOMAS: Now when he was getting assessed for this, something I found quite interesting was, I'm not sure if it was a board member or someone assessing him, but said that 'he will worry'. What did they mean by that do you think?

PETER REES: That he didn't shrug things off. He took things seriously. And he thought things through. And he just wanted to make sure that he got things right, that he got things done. He wasn't going to cut corners. He would worry about the welfare of those under him. And this certainly proved to be a very pertinent observation. 

LAURA THOMAS: So you mentioned he picked up his feet in Scheyville, what was his training like there? 

PETER REES: Well, it was intense. It was aimed at really honing these qualities, these personal qualities to get the officer cadets up to speed to take command of men in a battlefield situation. And it was long, the training was long, they didn't stop from six o'clock or even earlier if they were getting extras as punishment, like not having their shoes shiny enough or anything like that, being late on parade. And they would go through until lights out, nine or 10 o'clock at night. This was a very draining experience. But Tim managed to get through right to the end, without the penalty of an extra as, as I say they were called. And that's when the trouble began for him. Because nobody got out of Scheyville without at least experiencing some extras. And so he got loaded up with some extras for minor things at the end of his period.

LAURA THOMAS: As the finish line was in sight. 

PETER REES: Exactly. 

LAURA THOMAS: Do you put that back to the fact that he's probably used to working long hours in a farming situation that he kind of could deal with that high pressure environment?

PETER REES: Well, I think that's true. But he was also somebody who was self reliant in his approach to organising. He learned very quickly that he had to build on his natural inclinations, which were anyway to to have strategies to take care of issues that confronted him. But by the end of that six months, he was really very, very, very much more even self reliant than he had been coming in. The army had brought out those qualities and honed them very nicely.

LAURA THOMAS: And it ended in him winning a prize. Can you tell me a bit about that?

PETER REES: This was a very, very sought after prize, the Lieutenant Gordon Sharp Memorial Prize, it was awarded to the most improved officer cadet and carried a lot of value among those who had been through the course because not long before Lieutenant Gordon Sharp himself had been through the OTE course, graduated, gone to Vietnam. And it was there that he was killed in action. So there was there was an aura about this prize. It was a revered name, Lieutenant Gordon Sharp, and to win that prize was was something that was a goal for all of those on the course. 

LAURA THOMAS: What was it awarded for? You said it was the most improved cadet, but what were the skills that they were looking for in that? 

PETER REES: Well, they were looking for teamwork. Tim's teamwork had been developed through the course. His aptitude and his field work, his map reading. I could say that, when he started with the course, there were 150, well he was among 150 men who'd gone in, a lot of them were cast by the wayside as the course developed over those months. So much so that when graduation time came, there were only 56 or so left in the course out of that initial 150. And in the final outcome of of the results, Tim rated 23. So he was he was certainly in the top part of the draft.

LAURA THOMAS: Now, when he became a leader, what was he like? Was he well liked by the other men that he was in charge off?

PETER REES: Well, they all liked Tim, because he was fair. He didn't try to do anything under hand. He was somebody who saw himself as part of a team but a leader when necessary. When he addressed these men for the first time when he was the platoon commander, hE told them that they should address him as Tim because he was one of them. When alone together, he was Tim 'I am Tim' he told them, 'Except when the commanding officer Colonel` Bennett is around, then I am, sir'. 

LAURA THOMAS: Right. Why do you think it was important for him to kind of build that relationship in that way? 

PETER REES: Because he really did come to realise the importance of teamwork, of keeping the men around on side. He wanted the men to feel like they wanted to work with him and for him, to have that ease of command. Rather than impose order from above. He wanted his leadership to be conducted on that level.

LAURA THOMAS: Now, Tim was posted to 1RAR and it was announced that they would be going on a second tour of Vietnam in March 1968, joining the first Australian Task Force. Now as a national serviceman, Tim had to extend his service in order to go. What was that decision making process like for Tim? Was it a difficult decision on whether he'd go to Vietnam?

PETER REES: It was a much more difficult decision for his parents to accept, it was not an outcome that they wanted to see. They were aghast when he told them he was thinking of joining, extending his his service to take in this, this tour of duty of Vietnam. They could see the numbers, the number of deaths, the the soldiers, the Australians, the young Australians, Tim's age, who were dying in Vietnam, and the others, the many others who were coming back wounded, and naturally enough, they were concerned for the welfare of their son. But Tim took a couple of bottles of Bacardi home to try and convince his father, to mollify him. And probably at the end of those two bottles, he told him, 'Look, I'm going, because if I don't go, I'll always wonder what could have happened, what I could have achieved'. And so he signed on, and then left for Vietnam. 

LAURA THOMAS: But before he left, he did have a bit of a farming accident, didn't he? 

PETER REES: He went back home on final leave. And his parents were away from the farm for a little while. And he noticed that while they were gone, a paddock needed harrowing. So he got the machine out, went out into the sun. It was March and was pretty hot. And he got out into the field. And the Harrower, a quite big machine weighing about a tonne or more, tipped over, just so happened and had trapped him. And it was a pretty serious situation. He was trapped under this machine with a spike through his leg for a couple of hours or more until neighbours saw something wrong. And they called the ambulance. Tim was taken to hospital and spent a fortnight in traction. He was lucky though, in that he recovered very quickly and this did not prevent him being able to to join his comrades to go to Vietnam. 

LAURA THOMAS: Tell me about the journey over to Vietnam for Tim, what was that like?

PETER REES: It was something that lived in Tim's mind for the rest of his life. They flew out of Sydney on a Boeing 707. And as they approached Hansong airport in Saigon, the sounds of the Blue Danube Waltz, Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz, were at full sound, full volume blaring through the cabin. And Tim looked out the window. And he could see the busyness of war down below. There were army vehicles, there were aircraft, there were men, it was a mass of activity. A just sat in complete dissonance to what he was hearing this beautiful music in the cabin of the aircraft. 

LAURA THOMAS: Such a bizarre contrast and probably a bit of calm before the storm because Tim did see some action in Vietnam. But before we get into that, I'd like you to talk a little bit about Tim's role when he arrived and what he was doing as part of 1RAR.

PETER REES: Well, Tim was a transport commander. He was in charge of getting vehicles ready and making sure that all the logistics were there, in operating order, all lined up, all ready to go. It was a very important part of the organisational side of war. He was known as the as the TOCO, Transport Officer for the Commanding Officer. And it was through that role that that he quickly established himself in the affections of the men. But there was there was one, one lovely incident that happened early on in this piece when he hadn't impressed, he'd failed to impress one of the Sergeants and the Sergeant said to him, 'Senior Lieutenant Fischer, do you know why you're a Second Lieutenant?' 'No', said Tim, 'Because there are no bloody third Lieutenants', he said. That was an apocryphal story, probably, that Tim liked to tell against himself for the rest of his life.

LAURA THOMAS: Probably put him in his place for a little bit. How did how did Tim react to that kind of pressure cooker environment where there's pressure coming from the top and pressure coming from the bottom? How did he go with that? 

PETER REES: Yeah, well, Tim had that sort of mind where he didn't let the situations get the better of him. He always tried to prepare stratagems for for situations. So he was a planner, he was an organiser. And this was something that that the Army had really managed to bring out of him. And he had these qualities there right from the start when he was at school, but they developed through officer training, and now they were being tested in a war situation. And, and Tim embraced that challenge, as he always did embrace a challenge. He was prepared for that. And he didn't let those challenges faze him. 

LAURA THOMAS: And what were his opinions or I guess, reflections on Vietnam as a country in those early weeks? 

PETER REES: Well, part of the training that they had undergone at Canungra in preparation for going to Vietnam was to face the situation where there were, there was an enemy physically. And as one of the Tim's friends put it, 'We confronted these people in black pyjamas. We were told they were the enemy'. But when we got to Vietnam, everybody wore black pyjamas.

LAURA THOMAS: So it was yeah, a different situation, I guess to what they trained for, which is something you're quite often hear

PETER REES: That's right. So it was a cultural shock. And that opened Tim's eyes. He immediately he was made aware of just how different life in this Asian country was compared with what he'd grown up with, what he'd experienced in Australia. And that was the start of his deep fascination that developed with Asia over the over the next several years.

LAURA THOMAS: Tell me a bit about what happened at Firebase Coral in May 1968.

PETER REES: The North Vietnamese were determined to take Firebase Coral, and on May 13, they attacked and there were five Australians killed and many wounded. They came back three days later and attacked again. Tim was there and when the attack happened, he and Private Bob Edelman left the hoochie, their tent coverage and dived into a shallow shell scrape. There were rockets, grenades, mortars, and shrapnel. And the noise was horrific. Tim popped his head up out of the shell scrape, Bob Edelman said 'What are you doing? Get down!' and pulled him down. But within a split second, Tim had been hit by shrapnel and sliced through his his flak fest, his flak jacket, into his shoulder. He was peppered with shrapnel on his forehead. He was injured, he was bleeding. Others were dead nearby. He survived. And he was taken to hospital. It was there that he noted later that he smoked his one and only cigarette. Which combined with with morphine, took him from Cloud Nine to cloud ninety nine.

LAURA THOMAS: Would you say then, and I assume there's some reflections from his colleague, Bob, that he was quite lucky to be alive after that situation. 

PETER REES: He knew he was very lucky to survive. And he sent a message back to the family to reassure them because he knew that the news would go down and shocked the, that it would go down badly. But he sent a message back to to reassure them that he was okay by giving them this message. 'Look, I'm okay, give the family dog Socks a kick, a gentle kick in the side'. So that was his his humour for dealing with that very serious situation.

LAURA THOMAS: Now after he recovered from his injury and had some R&R, Tim was then appointed Commander ofSeven Platoon Charlie Company. And that essentially meant that he was out in the jungle more often, which also meant more exposure to Agent Orange. So Peter, can you tell me a little bit about that? And Tim's reflections on that?

PETER REES: Yeah. Well, the Americans had this, this operation called Operation Ranch Hand where they would douse Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, with millions and millions and millions of litres of Agent Orange which was made up of two herbicides, 24D and 245 D and mixed with kerosene or diesel. Now, both of those components, those herbicides, contained dioxin, which was a carcinogenic. Tim in his operations with his men was out in this countryside, he was horrified to see the damage that this spraying the Americans undertook with Operation Ranch Hand with Agent Orange had done destroying trees that they believe that the Americans said provided cover for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and destroyed the crops, killed the crops. But it also meant that the men were in situations where they were being affected, they were in many cases doused with Agent Orange. And Tim long believed that this was the cause of the issues that led to his leukaemia much later in life by affecting his immune system

LAURA THOMAS: Was he resentful of that experience when he was diagnosed? Was there an element of him that was resentful of his service for that?

PETER REES: Not so much resentment to the Australian Army, but certainly towards the Americans. He was very critical of the way the Americans approached the war in Vietnam, he thought they treated the South Vietnamese in in an almost racist way. They didn't listen to the South Vietnamese, Tim thought that the war would have had a much better chance if the Americans had listened to the South Vietnamese. And of course, this was all part and parcel of the way that they employed Agent Orange in such a manner, just a blanket approach, without understanding the impact that it was having not just on American and Australian troops who were there, but also on the Vietnamese themselves. And of course, we're seeing the long running horrific effects of that even today. So Tim was very critical of the of the Americans for using Agent Orange.

LAURA THOMAS: And Tim returned home in February 1969. How did he go readjusting back to civilian life?

PETER REES: He believed he was lucky in a sense in the manner in which he came back to Australia. He'd flown over and had that immediate introduction to to war. But he came back by ship. And that took 10 days or so. And it gave him a chance to prepare himself, to acclimatise in his own mind, so to speak for what would be a civilian situation. There were many others who had the reverse journey; had gone over by ship, but came back by plane and found themselves going from Saigon to Sydney and Kings Cross within 24 hours and getting, you know, blind drunk to deal with such a change. And that was something that that Tim thought he was really lucky to be able to avoid. Now, when he came back, the demonstrations against the war, the anti Vietnam demonstrations were still going on. They were very frequent. And very large. Tim, supported the role of the Australians in Vietnam. And unlike many others, he also supported the right of Australians back in Australia, in the cities in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, to protest.

LAURA THOMAS: So how did he deal with balancing his experiences with this, this understanding that yes, this protest is valid.

PETER REES: He thought it was a right, there was a right that everyone had in a democracy to express their point of view. And he, he opposed political moves by the state government to ban marches, to ban moratorium marches. He thought this was a fundamental right that Australians had to have. They had a right to voice their protest to the war, what he didn't appreciate and didn't support, he was very critical of militant unions, which stopped things like mail going to Vietnam, and other and other things like that, that affected the welfare of the soldiers. That's what he was opposed to.

LAURA THOMAS: Right. I imagine there would have been some very interesting conversations that he would have had with a lot of people and to be a fly on the wall in them would have been fascinating, I imagine.

PETER REES: Well, that's right. And when he was elected to state parliament, he actually supported the right of Australians to protest in speeches in in in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, which was quite a forthright thing for him to do, given that the Country Party as it was then known as, had so many returned servicemen from World War Two who were against the protests. And Charles Cutler, his leader actually came and congratulated Tim and said that his his position on this had been heard in cabinet and had been listened to. So the strength of his views on that were were effective.

LAURA THOMAS: Now, we know that Tim went on to have a very successful political career, but was he tempted to remain in the Army after his return from Vietnam?

PETER REES: He was offered that chance. The Army saw him as, as talent. They wanted to go to Malaysia, they could see that he would have a very bright career as as an officer in the Australian Army. Tim thought about it, he weighed it up, and he decided against signing on. He'd extended once, he decided that he couldn't do it again, the family back on the farm, well, he owed the family time, more time back on the farm. And besides, there were other opportunities that he wanted to explore. He'd learned so much from the Army, that he wanted to see what he could do with the rest of his life.

LAURA THOMAS: Now we know here working at the Shrine and working with veterans that post traumatic stress disorder affects several returning service people. Did Tim experience the effects of PTSD or ongoing trauma? Because obviously, you spoke about, he was involved in some pretty harrowing situations in Vietnam, did they kind of live on with him?

PETER REES: He certainly had post traumatic stress, he didn't have it as a disorder that was disabling. He kept experiences locked away in a box as he put it in the in his head, the experience at Coral where he was injured, and also another situation where he was in an Iroquois helicopter, flying to Saigon and the Iroquois was diverted to pick up an injured soldier and it came under attack and he didn't have a rifle with him, but he had to help feed machine gun ammunition in to defend the the helipad as the soldier was brought on board. That lived with him for the rest of his life. He could always hear the sound of an Iroquois helicopter blades he knew knew that sound well. Likewise from the Coral experience, the sound of airborne noise, it startled him. He was instantly alert to where it might be coming from, what it might mean. Obviously, if it were something that foreshadowed potential danger to him. So he certainly had that, that stress that that post traumatic stress that was always there.

LAURA THOMAS: But as you've alluded to his time and service also brought about some positives in terms of his team building and leadership. So how did his experiences in the Army then position him to take an eventual career in politics?

PETER REES: Taught him man management, taught him to develop strategies to deal with situations, to prepare, to not let challenges faze him. These were the strategies that applied not just in the army, but he knew he could see that they would apply in politics. And I think he never lost sight of that. And he built so much of his political success on what he'd learned through that experience in the army. These were the tenets, the very tenets that on which he based his career

LAURA THOMAS: And did his time in Vietnam influence his kind of future policy on our relationships with Asia and those kinds of policies there?

PETER REES: Well he came back to Australia determined to focus on building a knowledge of Asia. And he certainly set about doing this in the years ahead. Firstly, with Thailand, he had a very, very highly developed knowledge of Thai politics. He spent a lot of time there, nurturing those relationships with emerging Thai politicians, and subsequently to that, also with other aspects of Asia. And it was something that he never lost sigh of. After his eyes were open to Thailand, he developed a fascination with Bhutan. He spent a lot of time in Bhutan in the years after the early 1980s. He was very close to the Bhutanese people who regarded him as one of their own. In fact, Tim thought that, we all know that he had this, this love of trains, and Tim thought that if he was ever reincarnated his best job would be to go to Bhutan, and be the the Transport Minister, the Minister for trains.

LAURA THOMAS: Right. Now, Peter, I'm aware, I'm about to ask you a very big question. But I'd like to know if you think that Tim would have gone on to achieve all that he did in his political life, if he hadn't been called up, if he hadn't had that experience in the army?

PETER REES: Laura, that's a very difficult question to answer. I think that to have achieved what he did in politics, would have been so much more difficult without his time in the army. He really was able to draw on on those lessons. He took them to heart. He treated them very seriously. He didn't cast off the experience in any way. He saw the importance of it. And he put it to good advantage pretty quickly because, as we talked about earlier, he stood for the the state seat, the new state seat of Sturt that was the result of a redistribution, not long after he came back to Australia. And he used his military experience to good advantage in what he said as a candidate for pre selection, making it quite clear that while he was young, he had experienced quite a lot in life, including as a returned army officer, a commissioned officer from the battlefields of Vietnam. It just made people take note. It gave him a confidence, a certainty and a commitment to public service, which was something that was there throughout his political career. He had this sense of duty. And that was something that was certainly honed during his time in the army. The army certainly enabled him to to have a political career much earlier than he might have had, something of course, we'll never know, if he hadn't been in the army. 

LAURA THOMAS: Well, Peter, thank you so much for shedding some light on Tim's life. It's been absolutely fascinating.

PETER REES: My pleasure, Laura, thank you very much.

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of Shrine Conversations. For more, make sure you subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.