BACK THEN: Peter Haig with his good mate Jeff McCole, another bloke from the bush in Vietnam in 1971.
BACK THEN: Peter Haig with his good mate Jeff McCole, another bloke from the bush in Vietnam in 1971. Contributed

Farmers then warriors

HE WAS an Allora farm boy who graduated from Warwick High and was all set to saviour his 20s when life changed.

It was 1970 and Australia was at war with Vietnam, when Peter Haig's number - or more accurately his birthday - came up.

The Southern Downs landholder was among the 63,000 young Australians conscripted during the controversial lottery system, which saw 19,000 serve in the armed forces in Vietnam.

I decided we should shut the hatch as it was getting too dusty. Seconds after we closed the hatch, we trod on the mine. It was a 50 tonne tank but it just lifted it up.

Even now he can recall how distraught his mother was when he was conscripted.

"I didn't want to be in the army or I would have joined myself," Mr Haig explained.

"My parents knew what war was about though and my mother was devastated when I was conscripted.

"But I always thought if it was good enough for the bloke next door, it was good enough for me."

"There were a lot of blokes in the same boat."

So he started his basic infantry training in Singleton and celebrated his 21st birthday on an army base.

Then he put in for the engineers corps, which is how he became a member of the Royal Australian Engineers, one field squadron, plant troop.

For a young bloke, who had grown up on an 809-hectare mixed farming and livestock property between Warwick and Allora, at a practical level, it was a relatively easy adjustment.

"Like a lot of blokes from the bush, I had been driving tractors since I was 10, so that part of the business was okay."

He said those with a rural background were often highly sought after by commanding officers because "we could shoot, we were good in the bush and we could drive anything."

Which was how he came to be in a mine-clearing unit left behind to clean up as the major forces pulled out of the war zone.

 

Allora farmer Peter Haig.
Allora farmer Peter Haig.

"There were minefields everywhere and they had to be cleared before we left."

 

So he became one of a select team of operators, who shared the driving of two D8 dozers, armoured plated for the sole purpose of the edgy role of mine clearing.

"Before we started clearing the mine fields we'd done some work sweeping roads ahead of the troop convoys.

"One day we were in this US tank, a M48 with these rollers in front of it to detonate mines.

"We'd been over this road and we thought it was clear so we were on our way back and there were three of us in this tank with the hatch open sitting up there pretty relaxed.

"Then I decided we should shut the hatch as it was getting too dusty.

"Seconds after we closed the hatch, we trod on the mine. It was a 50 tonne tank but it just lifted it up. We got shaken around, but we survived."

It wasn't the only close encounter Mr Haig had on a frontline blurred by jungle warfare. He lost his share of mates in the 520 Australian servicemen who never returned from Vietnam.

But today, he'd preferred to focus on the close mates he made, than dwell on the blood shed. And he shakes his head about references to the engineering corps sappers having a "tonne of guts" for driving out in front of convoys.

"We were all just doing our jobs, doing what we had to do.

"Yet I made a lot of close mates over there. Living on the edge like that, you rely on each other for your lives and I have friends all over Australia still."

This Thursday, like many others, he will join the Anzac Day march in honour of the blokes he fought beside more than 40 years ago. But the day will always be bittersweet.

"We still haven't learnt from Vietnam. We're still sending our forces into no-win conflicts and it's just burning up good blokes."



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