I recently read a very interesting article on the British Medal Forum written by Tony Rooney. Tony has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.
I've edited the article slightly and removed the photos that Tony had included. The full article can be seen at this link, however, membership is required.
A History of the 1962 General Service Medal with South Vietnam Clasp (62 GSM with SVN clasp)
The early 1960’s saw the UK defence establishment move towards joint air, land and naval operations. Steps were in place to merge the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aviation, into a single the Ministry of Defence. This merger eventually took place in 1964.
Embracing this new institutional spirit Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second introduced new General Service Medal to supersede both the Naval General Service medal 1915 and the General Service medal 1918 which was awarded to the Army and the Royal Air Force. As with the previous General Service Awards, the new medal was also available to those Commonwealth countries that still subscribed to the imperial awards system.
What is important to note is that, although named the 1962 GSM, it was in fact not instituted until 6th of October 1964 under the new MOD’s order number 61. The reason the medal is named the GSM 1962 is because it was decided to retrospectively divide the end of the Brunei Campaign for which the old separate GSM’s were awarded and the ongoing campaigns in Borneo and Vietnam, at that time, with the new award.
On August 3rd 1962 the first 30 officers and NCO’s of the Australian Training team Vietnam (AATTV) arrived in Vietnam. They were initially allocated to Vietnamese training establishments at Dong Ha, Hiep Khanh and Duc My. The advisors to the Ranger Training Camp at Duc My were for the most part members of the Australian 1st SAS company which had been established 5 years earlier on 25 July 1957 (Malone, SAS A Pictorial History of the Australian Special Air Service). Additionally two officers were assigned to the ‘Combined Studies Division’ (CSD) a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organisation that operated out of Danang. (McNeil ‘The Team’)
It was these two CSD officers, Captain Peter Young and Captain John Healy who fired the first angry Australian shots of the war. On the 17th of August 1962, a helicopter that they were travelling in was forced to land with mechanical difficulties. Healy and Young repelled a Viet Cong assault on the downed aircraft, with the door gun they had stripped from the helicopter. (Davies and Mckay, The Men Who Persevered P.22) Captain Young joined the Australian Army, by taking a short service commission, after previous service in the British Army with 22 SAS in the Malayan Emergency (Young and Jesser, The Media and the Military) About 10% of all Australian troops who ultimately served in Vietnam were UK natives. Many of them, like Young, had previous service in British Forces.
The commander of AATTV, Colonel Ted Serong had been specifically proscribed by the Australian Department of External Affairs from engaging in combat or violating the neutrality of neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. (Woodard, ASIAN ALTERNATIVES) Serong ignored both of these edicts. The first Australians sent by Serong to assist the US Special Forces in their border ‘trail watch’ camps were drawn from the SAS Company men instructing at the Ranger Training Center Duc Lap. In his October 1962 report Serong admits - “Currently Sergeant Weir is visiting 20 Special Battalion (Rangers) in the Kontum area and Sergeant Simpson is visiting a Special Forces Village Defense Project near Lao Bao.”
For November 1962, Serong reported “Received a request from Col LAYTON, Combined Studies, to keep Sgt SIMPSON at (Khe Sanh)”.
At that time the border surveillance role was undertaken by Montagnard tribesmen led by United States Special Forces (USSF) troops. (Ahern, Vietnam Declassified) The program named the ‘Civil Irregular Defence Guard’ (CIDG) and would later be assumed by the US army, but at that time it was organised and financed by the CIA’s Combined Studies Division. (Methven, laughter in the Shadows) The Colonel Layton, Serong refers to was the CIA’s Gilbert Layton. (Petersen and Cribben, Tiger Men) The Sergeant Simpson referred to is Sergeant Rayene Simpson.
The Australians operating on the trail watch missions with USSF on the border were forbidden to cross the border into Laos and there is no official record of them ever doing so. However, given that, that is where the trails were; and that Serong ignored the stricture by personally flying reconnaissance over Laos. It appears likely that the Australians with CIDG troops did venture into Laos. On 11 September 1963, Serong recorded in his Commanders Diary “Departed for Saigon in CS (Combined Studies) apache. Aimed at overflying a PAVN (Peoples Army of Vietnam) airfield inside Laos on the border near Kontum. Too much cloud.”
By mid 1963 the original 30 members of AATTV 12 month tour was finished and replacements started to be posted in from Australia. On 1st June the first AATTV fatality was incurred, when Sergeant Bill Hacking was killed, most likely by suicide, while on operations with 3/3rd ARVN Battalion (Davies and Mckay, P.33)
In February 1964 the training Camp at Hiep Khanh was closed down and Serong took the opportunity of transferring the AATTV training staff wholesale, to the USSF CIDG program. These were ‘officially’ the first Australians to join the USSF ‘A Teams’. But as we have seen Australians had been temporarily assigned to the border camps, from September 1962.
In April 1964, Serong had passed on the grumbling from Danang and signalled Army Headquarters “Report 21 April 1964 - Decorations and awards. AHQ will have received my separate submission on this subject. This matter gives rise to discontent and criticism. It is important to the well being of this Force that either a form of recognition of their operational service be effected or an appropriate reason provided why this should not be done.”
By May 1964 the second tranche of 30 advisors were due to end their tour and were beginning to be replaced. In July 1964, one of the third tranche of AATTV team member was the first to be killed in Action. On 6 July 1964, local Vietcong and members, of what Serong identified later, as the PAVN 304th Division, attacked and attempted to overrun the Special Forces Camp located at Nam Dong. In an action that saw the first Medal of Honor, of the Vietnam War, awarded to US Captain Roger Donlon, Australian Warrant Officer Kevin Conway was killed. (Donlon and Rogers, Outpost of Freedom)
By the end of October 1964, the Training Team replacements were well and truly complete and the Team had expanded to 78 members. The team was visited at that time by the Australian Adjutant General, Major General Harrison who gave the news that a new General Service Medal had been approved on the 6th of that month and that “it would be issued soon and they would be eligible for it.” (Davies and McKay)
February 1965 signalled the end of an era, when Colonel Ted Serong relinquished command of AATTV and was detached to work on CIA counter Insurgency projects. During his command he had been cited for a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
Unfettered by a quota system that was to be the scourge of the Australian Army, when applied in later years, for his men he had written citations for:
An Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Lieutenant Colonel Russell McNamara
A Member of the order of the British Empire(MBE) for Captain Barry Tinkler and warrant Officer Don Donkin.
The Military Cross (MC) for Captain Barry Petersen and Captain Noel Delahunty.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for warrant Officer George Chinn and Warrant Officer Ray Simpson.
The British Empire Medal (BEM) for Warrant Officer Reg Collinson, Warrant Officer Robert Rooney and Warrant Officer Roy Weir.
The Queens Commendation for Brave Conduct (QC) for Warrant Officer John Clarke, Warrant Officer Mick Coffey, warrant Officer John McEwan-Ferguson and warrant Officer John Malone. (Palmer, Vietnam Honours and Awards – Army)
All of which were approved by the palace and all of whom would eventually receive the 62 GSM with SVN clasp.
In 1965 the Australian commitment to the war in Vietnam was boosted by the arrival of the First battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) in March of that year. At first, the members of 1 RAR were given the same information as the AATTV, that is, they would be eligible for a campaign medal and they were informed that it would be the 1962 GSM with a clasp South Vietnam. (1RAR Commanders diary) The arrival of 1RAR complicated the issue of Vietnam campaign medals, because the battalion group included 161 Battery of the New Zealand Artillery.
The Australian and New Zealand process for recognition for a contemporaneous campaign in Borneo was a simple affair. Instructions on the establishment and qualifying conditions had been determined by the UK Ministry of Defence. Just as it had in previous campaigns such as Malaya, the Australian and New Zealand governments had merely followed the directives that they received from London, in awarding campaign medals.
Vietnam however was complicated due to the lack of traditional guidance received from an uninvolved Britain. The Australian and New Zealand governments too, were at odds with each other over the qualifying conditions for Vietnam service. The Australians opted for a liberal approach, and wished to extend the qualification to some civilians, while the New Zealanders adopted a more conservative stance. In the normal course of Commonwealth participation in military activities a compromise would have been negotiated with the UK authorities. Without British participation in the Vietnam War and a UK Labour government that was vehemently opposed to that war, post-colonial Australia and New Zealand were left to sort the matter out between themselves.
The Australian Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who was particularly anxious not to embarrass the UK government, originally proposed the idea of separate campaign medal for Vietnam service for both New Zealand and Australia. (Howson, The Howson diaries: the life of politics) Discussions between Australia and New Zealand continued about the qualification criteria and also a design for the new medal was required. The trans-Tasman negotiations failed to agree on qualification criteria and separate Royal Warrants were eventually sought for the New Zealand and Australian “Vietnam medals’. Agreement was reached on a design for the medal by Andor Mészáros, the designer of the 1956 Olympic medals and decimal coins and that it would be minted at the Royal Australian Mint in Canberra (1966 Cabinet decision 30 ‘Campaign Medal in Recognition of Service in Vietnam.’)
While these debates took place, Australians who had been awarded decorations for active service in Vietnam, since 1963 were still being invested at Government House, without a campaign medal to show for the service they were being awarded for.
The negotiations between London, Canberra and Wellington over the establishment of the new Vietnam Medal failed to address those Australians who had served in Vietnam prior to New Zealand’s participation in the War. The compromise solution was to recognise those Australians with early service in Vietnam with the 1962 GSM with SVN Clasp. The three Royal warrants, The Australian Vietnam Medal, The New Zealand Vietnam Medal and The 62 GSM with SVN clasp were all applied for, by the Australian and New Zealand Governments, to London for approval at the same time.
It would seem sensible that the qualifying periods for the end and start dates for the qualifying periods of the 62 GSM with SVN clasp and the new Vietnam Medal would be the date that New Zealand troops commenced active service in Vietnam. That was in fact the case. In June 1964 the New Zealanders had committed a small detachment of Engineers (NEWZAD) to the small Vietnamese town of the town of Thủ Dầu Một. Thus the start date of the Vietnam Medal was established as the 29th June 1964 specifically to accommodate and recognize the New Zealand diggers of this hardly known early New Zealand contribution.
The negotiations and approval process dragged on so long that it was not until 8 June 1968 that the three Royal warrants were finally promulgated and the Vietnam Medals started to be produced and issued from the Australian Mint. The 70 62 GSM SVN clasps were produced in the UK and issued to the early members of AATTV, nearly eight years after some of those members service in Vietnam began in 1962. Also noteworthy is that the AATTV members, so awarded, received both the medal and the South Vietnam Clasp at the same time. The exception was for those who had also served in Borneo and had already received their 62 GSM with a Borneo clasp.
Vietnam was a political war and nothing demonstrates this fact better than the long and drawn out saga of the award of the 62 GSM with SVN clasp. The long gestation period of the award and the sometimes contradictory advice that was signalled between Commonwealth Headquarters in Saigon and Canberra contributed a lot to the confusion and some of the mythology that has surrounded the award of this medal. This fact combined with the early teams association with classified CIA projects and what appears to be Serong’s deliberate subterfuge in hiding the combat role he apparently deliberately sought for the early team has further muddied the waters over the last 50 years.
The early training team, under the leadership of Ted Serong, established a unique place in military and political history and set a bench mark for following teams to meet. Those that received the 62 GSM with SVN clasp are justifiably proud of the award that sets them apart as pioneers of ‘The Team’.
AATTV Commanders diaries AWM, 1RAR Commanders Diaries AWM, Cabinet Papers Menzies Government 1966 NAA, AWM collections Photographs.
Ahern, Thomas. Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency University of Kentucky Press, Kentucky, 2009
Davies, Bruce. & McKay, Gary. The Men Who Persevered- The AATTV – The most highly decorated Australian unit of the Viet Nam war, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2005.
Howson, Peter, The Howson diaries: the life of politics. Penguin Books Australia; First edition 1984
McNeill Ian, THE TEAM- Australian Advisers in Vietnam 1962-1972 Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Malone M. J. SAS A Pictorial History of the Australian Special Air Service 1957-1997, Imprimatur Books. Claremont 1997
Methven, Stuart., Laughter in the shadows A CIA memoir, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 2008
Palmer, Alexander. Vietnam veterans Honours and Awards – Army Military Minded, Perth 1995.
Petersen, Barry and Cribben, John. Tiger Men, Macmillan, South Melbourne
Philpott, Tom. GLORY DENIED – the saga of Jim Thompson, America’s longest serving prisoner of war, Plume/Penguin, New York, 2002.
Stanton Shelby. Special Forces at War: An Illustrated History, Southeast Asia 1957-1975 Zenith Press, 1990.
Woodard, Garry. ASIAN ALTERNATIVES - Australia’s Vietnam decision and lessons on going to war. Melbourne University Print. Melbourne 2004
Young, Peter and Jesser The media and the military : from the Crimea to Desert Strike, Macmillan, Melbourne 1997.