I Was Only Nineteen

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Only 19“, “I Was Only 19” or “A Walk in the Light Green” is the most widely recognised song by Australian folk group Redgum. The song was released in March 1983. Royalties for the song go to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia

The song is a first-person account of a typical Australian soldier’s experience in the Vietnam War, from training at a military academy in Australia to first hand exposure to military operations and combat and ultimately his return home disillusioned and suffering from both PTSD and, it is implied, the harmful effects of Agent Orange.

Contrary to popular belief, the subject of this song volunteered for service in the Australian Army and was not conscripted. During the Vietnam War, Australian men did not become eligible for conscription until the age of 20.

Redgum’s lead vocalist-guitarist, John Schumann, wrote the song based on experiences he heard from veterans, particularly Mick Storen (his brother in-law) and Frankie Hunt. Schumann has said that “the power derives from the detail, provided by my mate and brother-in-law, Mick Storen, who was brave and trusting enough to share his story with me.”

For the live version, Schumann explained the title, “A Walk in the Light Green”, as referring to operational patrols in areas marked light green on topographical maps, where dark green indicated thick jungle, plenty of cover and few land mines and light green indicated thinly wooded areas, little cover and a high likelihood of land mines.

The lyrics include words, terms and place names particular to Australia and Vietnam:

  • ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in the world wars.
  • Canungra jungle warfare training centre in Queensland
  • Channel Seven: Australian television network.
  • Chinook: Military helicopter.
  • Contact!: Military term indicating an encounter with the enemy.
  • Dustoff: Casualty evacuation by helicopter.
  • Greens: Jungle Green Working Dress, the field uniform worn by the Australian Army between the early 1960s and 1989.
  • The Grand Hotel: A hotel in Vung Tau that had been converted for Army use.
  • Light green: parts on a map which indicated supposedly more dangerous areas for soldiers to patrol as there was little dense foliage and cover and an area which was more likely to be mined.
  • Nui Dat: Village in Southern Vietnam, and the main base of the 1st Australian Task Force from 1965 to 1972.
  • Puckapunyal: Former Army enlisted soldier recruit training centre in Victoria.
  • Shoalwater: Military exercise area in Queensland.
  • Sixth Battalion:: (aka 6RAR) Australian army battalion, whose D Company had been involved in the Battle of Long Tan during a tour three years earlier.
  • Slouch hat:: Parade head-dress for the Australian army.
  • SLR:: Standard 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle issued to Australian infantrymen during the Vietnam War.
  • Tinnies: Cans of beer.
  • Townsville: City in Queensland, home of the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade & RAAF Base Townsville. Also at the time the embarkation point for troops shipping to Vietnam from all around Australia, because it was the biggest port in Northern Australia.
  • VB: Victoria Bitter (beer). Was also used as a reference to one’s comrades in arms aka “Venerable Brethren.” e.g: “We made our tents a home VB with pin-ups on the lockers, and an Asian orange sunset through the scrub.” (A reference to the defoliant, “Agent Orange” used prolifically in Vietnam).
  • Vung Tau:: Coastal city in Southern Vietnam which was the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group base and a rest area for troops based at Nui Dat.

( Thanks to Wikipedia for the notes above- I’ve included the glossary of terms to help non-Aussie listeners understand the lyrics)

Five years ago, in post on this site (SQ 6- A Touch of Ireland) I recorded the following about the small township of St Marys, as it then was, on the banks of South Creek, on the Cumberland Plain at the foot of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales: Lines of a local poet, George Sullivan, recall those idyllic days:


If only Victoria Park could speak/ What wondrous tales from it you’d share, /About those careless, happy days/ When it was called ‘The Square’./ It could tell of all the bullocks/That were roasted on its green;/Of the glorious games of football/By sportsmen strong and clean./ It could tell of games of cricket,/ Of how the wickets soon did fall/When demon bowlers, Royal and Tolhurst,/Did send down the ball.

The names of all too many of those sportsmen strong and clean would be inscribed in bronze on tablets marking the fallen in the Great War, and subsequent wars, on the octagonal Rotunda. The phrase, strong and clean emerges 60 years later when  Redgum sang, This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean/ And there’s me in me slouch hat and me SLR and greens/ God help me, I was only 19.


So, the tropes that helped describe the ANZACs of the Great War in 1914-1918, strong and clean, were also used fifty years later in Vietnam. And I’m sure they filtered down the decades into Iraq and Afghanistan

I first heard the song when I was teaching at a High School south of Townsville in 1989. The VP put the song on cassette as part of the ANZAC Day commemoration. The students just shuffled around a bit in the tropical heat- not their sort of music, I guess. But I was captivated by the detail in the lyrics as well as the melody.

When I got back to Sydney in the mid-1990s the group I helped form, Banter, made the song part of the repertoire. Big Geordie sang the song with real bite. Our interpretation speeded up the song, and with acoustic folk instrumentation supported by thumping bodhran, was quite distinct from Redgum’s more sombre, funereal original.

In 1997, during a performance of the song, at The Henry Lawson Club in western Sydney, I noticed a guy of fifty-something, bearded and with greying long hair, watching the group intently. In passing (on the way to the bar for a beer after the song) I casually asked him how he was enjoying the set. He looked at me for a while and said, “I thought at first you were taking the piss- but decided there was no disrespect intended.” He was a Vietnam Vet. I assured him that, far from dissing anyone, we were honouring the soldiers who served.

Big Geordie is no longer with the group and we have discussed, from time to time, restoring the song to our sets, but no one yet has volunteered to step up and take it on. Maybe…..

I Was Only Nineteen

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