I chose this picture as a starting point for this history of the Welcome Home Parade because it reminds me that the story
begins with a conversation I had with Bob Gibson, the man I'm shaking hands with in the picture.
The story began
in Gibbo's flat in Manly, a beachside suburb of Sydney, in January 1986. Gibbo showed me a letter he had received from the
organisers of the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade. They were hoping some Australians would be able to join them
in Chicago in June of that year. Why Gibbo? On a previous trip to the United States, Gibbo had built up an impressive store
of goodwill in the American Vietnam veteran community. When the organisers decided to invite Australians to Chicago, Bob Gibson
was a name known to them.
At the time, Gibbo couldn't afford to go to Chicago, so he asked me if I was interested.
I replied that I was flat broke and couldn't possibly go. It seemed that the Chicago parade would go ahead without Australian
participation. Then, a number of things happened to change our minds.
I've already mentioned Gibbo's many friends in the American veteran community, and at the time I had an American Vietnam veteran
staying with me. That's him at the left, Brian Wizard. If you click on Brian's picture, you'll go to his website. So Gibbo
and I already had some awareness of the brotherhood that existed between Vietnam veterans from Australia and the USA.
What happened next though, was quite extraordinary, and had a profound effect on us and on the Welcome Home Parade story.
A group of American actors who were all Vietnam veterans brought to Australia a play called "Tracers".
help from Phill Thompson and the VVAA, Gibbo and I launched ourselves enthusiastically into the task of making these people
welcome in Sydney. The result was a new level of awareness of how much we enjoyed interacting with our American brothers,
and a new determination that we must get to Chicago by hook or by crook!
The following pictures show various members of the "Tracers" cast and crew enjoying themselves in Sydney. The first
picture features, at left, John Di Fusco, who directed the play and is one of its authors. For information about a recent
production and a brief history of the play, click on this first picture.
One of the "Tracers" actors, Howard Mungo, stayed in Sydney for several months after the others went home. Finally,
his visa expired and he had to leave. In this picture I'm doing my best to convince hime to stay. If you click on the picture,
you'll go to a website that gives information about Howard's more recent career.
At a barbecue we put on for the "Tracers" cast at VVAA headquarters at Mosman, another important person in the Welcome
Home Parade story came into our lives. His name is Gary Burns, and he is currently the Head of Sport at the Channel Nine Television
Network. In 1986, he was the Executive Producer of "The Midday Show". His show was doing a story on Vietnamese migrants
in Australia, and wanted comments from Vietnam veterans. We told him the best way to get a number of veterans together at
one place and time was to come to the barbecue. He came, and found an instant rapport with the veterans, both Australian and
American, that he met that day. Gary had spent many years in Southeast Asia as a journalist, ending with the hail of machine
gun bullets that killed his friend and colleague, the legendary Neil Davis, in Thailand.
When Gary heard about
our desire to go to Chicago, he and Ray Martin, compere of "The Midday Show", decided that the fact that Australian
Vietnam veterans had to go all the way to Chicago to get a Welcome Home Parade was a story the show would be interested in.
From this time on, "the Midday Show" took a close interest in our quest.
Over the following weeks,
Gibbo and I managed to recruit our friends Robert Dodds, Barry Dowsett and John Wilson, for the Chicago trip. Notices in Veterans'
journals had failed to raise any wider interest. John Wilson had been enthusiastic from the start, and his positive attitude
often rubbed off on Gibbo and me at times when Chicago seemed like an impossible dream. But with only a short time to go,
John still did not have the funds to pay for his air fare to Chicago. It was then that we decided to accept an invitation
from Gary Burns to go on "The Midday Show" to drum up some publicity, and perhaps raise some money to ensure that
John could make the trip.
This picture shows Ray Martin interviewing Bob Gibson, me, Robert Dodds and John Wilson. This was our second appearance on
"The Midday Show", after our return from Chicago. If you click on the picture, you'll go to the Channel Nine website.
Our first appearance on the show was a huge success. Battlers from all over Australia sent money, usually just a couple of
dollars at a time, because that was all they could afford. Often they told poignant stories about loved ones killed in the
war, or damaged by it. They were all indignant that we should have to go to Chicago for a Welcome Home Parade, and all believed
there should be a Welcome Home Parade in Australia. We raised enough money to buy John Wilson's ticket, and with the goodwill
of the Australians who contacted "The Midday Show" warming our hearts, the five of us were ready to go to Chicago.
It was at this point that internal politics within the veteran community raised its ugly head. Fortunately though, this intervention
had the unintended effect of giving our little band of travellers its sixth member.
Within the VVAA in 1986 there
was an ongoing feud between the New South Wales State branch leadership and the National President, Phill Thompson. As National
Secretary, I was drawn into this dispute because of my association with Phill. When "the Midday Show" gave our Chicago
trip national publicity, for reasons which I still cannot understand all these years later, some members of the NSW branch
leadership objected to my participation. It did not seem to matter to them that the Chicago trip had nothing to do with the
VVAA. One member of the NSW committee began making telephone calls to regional leaders of the VVAA around the state, informing
them that this trip did not have state branch approval (though why it would need it, nobody understood), and trying to drum
up support for some kind of campaign to sabotage it in some way. One recipient of one of these calls was Peter Poulton, of
the Illawarra region. Far from objecting to the Chicago trip however, Peter immediately called Bob Gibson to ask if he could
come with us!
John Wilson was with Gibbo when he received Peter's call. As luck would have it, we were due to pick up our US visas the following
day in Sydney, so Bob and John asked Peter to meet us there. I had spoken to Peter by phone in the past, and knew of his work
in the local veteran community, but had not met him. When we met him the next day, we decided he was eminently suitable to
be our travelling companion. Now we were the Chicago Six.