After 52 years in an Army uniform, Gordon Benfell—Vietnam veteran,
sharp shooter and a mate to many - is calling it a day.
There’s nothing frivolous about this gnarly sniper who has been the Army’s sole remaining Vietnam War veteran
in service for some years. The son of a freezing works manager and a whiteware dispatcher, he first donned a
uniform at just 15. He was actually recruited before his 15th birthday to ensure all his documentation was ready
before the January 1964 intake.
“I know it sounds corny these days but I joined for patriotic reasons – I really did want to serve my country.”
He admits though it was hard work for a skinny kid who hadn’t yet stopped growing and was at great risk of
blowing away in a high wind.
Originally recruited to be a radio technician he realised soon after joining that he leaned more to the outdoors and the
lure of a life based around weapons. “I’d had several iconic infantry mentors and knew I was in the Army for the
long haul and needed to be doing something that thrilled me. I made the change and have never regretted it.”
After three years as an RF Cadet he graduated as a Lance Corporal. His first RF infantry posting was to the National Service Training Unit in Burnham. He was nearly 18, had several infantry qualifications under his belt and was well prepared as an instructor, despite his age. Those skills were noticed, and he was quickly promoted to Corporal and soon found himself part of the Training Wing of the nearby First Battalion Depot. “It was a challenge, and a whole new standard. Soldiers from the Malaya and Borneo tours and the first returning Vietnam veterans did not readily accept
an 18-year-old corporal telling them how it was. Thankfully I survived, somehow gained acceptance and mentally prepared myself to join the queue for overseas service.
The Vietnam companies were put together as training platoons in Burnham. What was to become Victor 4 Company
was assembled in January 1968, trained together for 10months and then deployed to Terendak Camp in Malaysia
where the training intensified in the jungle heat.
Major Benfell had been married for just a few weeks when he deployed to Vietnam. “I never saw my beautiful son
Andy until arriving home on the eve of his first birthday. Communication was by letter and there was no leave
allowed back to New Zealand.”
He served in Phouc Touy Province with V Coy 6RAR/NZ (Anzac) Bn within the 1st Australian Task Force, as Section Commander of 3 Sect 1Pl. “We had been Alpha Coy in Burnham, Charlie Coy and Victor 4 in Terendak and deployed
to Vietnam as V Coy 6RAR/NZ (Anzac) Bn”. He was the youngest Anzac Section Commander of the Vietnam War,
a detail he is very proud of.
“I believe the New Zealand companies (Victor 1-6, Whiskey 1-3) were as well trained for the Anzac role in
the Vietnam War as they could be. In combat they performed admirably, with great courage and were held
in high esteem by our allies.
Our ‘contact’ reaction and other operating drills were instinctive. We had trained, practised and been tested ad infinitum for nearly 18 months to ensure this was the case. Our veteran trainers had pushed us hard in every aspect and hammered into us that nothing less would be good enough. They were right. We were in action just a couple of hours into our first operation and within a couple of weeks V Coy had been in combat many times. The nature of the fighting was varied and usually occurred within 10-20 metres. These were very intense on both sides and sometimes over before anyone had time to do more than initial, immediate actions.”
There were exceptions though. “Into the third week of our first operation our platoon engaged a regular North Vietnamese battalion of approximately 250-300 soldiers across a clearing some 250m away. Quite a battle followed involving great courage from our soldiers, very brave chopper crews free dropping ammunition resupplies to us several times and expending several US and Australian helicopter gunship teams onto the enemy. Now supported by a second NZ platoon, we conducted a bayonet assault on the enemy position.
“Nothing focuses the mind better to what is to follow, than being told to ‘Fix Bayonets’.”
“I only ever heard the ‘Fix Bayonets’ command in combat that one time. It chills me to think about it even now. Many years later I was in a formal meeting and the question arose whether a new rifle being considered should be equipped with a bayonet. I was in no doubt whatsoever and would always advocate in its favour. The bayonet is an international symbol of the Infantry and I have vivid recall all these years later that in the unlikely event that it was needed, nothing focuses the mind better to what is to follow, than being told to ‘Fix Bayonets’.”
On a later operation, he and an Australian Warrant Officer were accompanying a Vietnamese company as advisors.
“On just one day we were ambushed three times. The first two were simply chaotic exercises in survival, a bedlam situation to get out and get others away from the total physical and mental disorientation of high explosives and all manner of small arms fire coming in from 10-15m away. On the third occasion we fought back and though still lacking the organisation that might have equipped us to do better, gave a good account. In hindsight I recall the experience of being ambushed to be the most horrific combat experience of all. Regardless of the amount of training, even the instinctive reactions that we prided ourselves on; nothing prepares a group unlucky enough to be caught in properly set ambush, to be immediately aggressive. The survival instinct can be very brief but it is addressed first.
“Nothing really prepares a soldier completely for actual combat as training can’t quite duplicate it and nothing certainly prepares us to carry some of the later burden of simply doing our duty. I found that I could handle all of the activity involving operations against male enemy combatants. Engaging with them is what we trained for and there is a quick maturing effect; a coming to terms with the sights and sounds involved. I am however deeply saddened by the inadvertent involvement of innocents, particularly women and children in any conflict.”
While well -trained, the experience was to leave an indelible mark. “We are civilised and educated people within a society of values. Our duty requires us to carry out actions that are absolutely necessary at the time and in accordance with our training and at the direction of our government. Those who have been involved in combat as we were can be very proud of doing their duty but do carry an additional, inescapable emotional burden”.
Major Benfell eventually returned to New Zealand. “I felt good about surviving and going home but so such a deep sense of guilt about leaving my mates behind”.
On his return he was appointed platoon sergeant of a newly assembled platoon taking them through the same training
he did less than two years earlier.
“We stayed together as before and prepared for Vietnam at Nee Soon Camp and Dieppe Barracks in Singapore.
This company would have been next into Vietnam but the government announced an end to the military
commitment to the Vietnam War.”
He went on to deploy to Singapore again as a platoon sergeant with 1 RNZIR and later as CSM Charlie Coy. In 1979 he was attached to the UK School of Infantry to assist with the development of sniping and a formal Sniper Course. At that time the NZ reputation in sniping was well established and this tour eventually involved mentoring work with teams from Australia, US and Canada. He deployed to East Timor as OC of the Small Arms Training Team in 2003 and joined Crib 18 in Afghanistan in 2011 to introduce the new Designated Marksman’s Weapon with which he had been closely involved in developing.
In recent years he has focused on the development of shooting skills and the small arms weapon capability of NZDF.
He holds the Queen’s Medal as an Army Champion Shot, and captained the highly successful New Zealand Army Combat Shooting Team between 1995 and 2005. He was made a member of the New Zealand order of Merit in 2007.
So how do today’s soldiers differ from those of yesteryear?
“I have the utmost respect for our soldiers of today. Soldiering is significantly more complex now with more technology for and against us; personal and collective responsibilities are more complex but conducted within the same life threatening backdrop of ‘kill or be killed’ that has not changed over the history of combat. I believe our soldiers have always been as good as any anywhere, and better than most. New Zealand is so well served by its Defence Force
and can be rightly proud of its service people.”
While Major Benfell is bidding farewell to the Regular Force, he is not making a total departure from all things military.
He is becoming a Reservist and will be involving himself in welfare matters and advocating for ex-soldiers in his community. He will be working with international manufacturers and writing privately about weapons, hunting and shooting matters generally.
“I also intend to do more fishing and hunting and being a grandfather that my grandchildren love and are proud of.”
The above article by Judith Martin acknowledges Gordon Benfell’s long military service.
It was; ‘The end of an era’.
“The second ‘end of an era’ occurred in The Warrant Officers and Sergeant’s Mess at Waiouru on
Friday 10th March 2017 at a RNZIR Regimental Dinner to farewell him.
Although restricted by numbers, Gordon invited family, those who were closely associated with him in Vietnam,
other Vietnam Veterans, families of the fallen, medical staff and later work mates.
They gathered outside the mess at 1800hrs for the official ‘Mihi Whakatau’ to be welcomed as a returning group.
The Queen’s Colours and The Regimental Colours with the South Vietnam Battle Honour,
were marched in, prior to all of us being seated.
This was followed by the usual toasts and presentations to those who had served 25 years with RNZIR.
There were also speeches and 3 significant presentations to Gordon Benfell.
Afterwards, Bob Davies (Victor 3 and former Sergeant Major of the Army) spoke of their time together
at the Regular Force Cadet School and how he earned his nickname ‘General’. He was 15 years of age,
although he looked 12, if that, Bob said.
His Vietnam Platoon Commander, Wira Gardiner followed and spoke of his first meeting with him in Malaysia and his active service in Vietnam stating his qualities as an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and young Section Commander. In Vietnam, he recalled his own map reading system along with Gordon and the other two, Len and Willie of establishing their location by a ‘triangulation method’. He would ask; “Where are we?” and then put his finger on the map in the
middle of where the 3 JNCOs’ indicated where they thought they were and state; “This is where we are”.
Wira said that retiring as a Major and having a nickname of General, he could be referred to as;
“Major General Benfell”.
Gordon was then asked to speak;
“Dining President, Chief of Army, Regimental Colonel, Colonel Michie, Distinguished Guests”.
“Thank you all for being here tonight”. “These occasions are all about family in one form or another
and that will be the essence throughout my few words tonight”.
“I would like to start by congratulating all those recipients who have just received the 25yr bayonet”.
“It is a milestone achievement and hard earned – well done to you all”.
“We simply could not function over time without a support base of some sort and for most of it, is our own family”.
“I owe my own family an enormous debt for their tireless encouragement, love and support over many years”.
“My wonderful family is represented here tonight by my amazing wife Eliza, son Dave, a veteran in his own right
and daughter in law Candice”. (They are soon to welcome Private Bowyn Benfell).
“To the Corps family, those here tonight who know me, and so many current friends and more who have
moved on, thank you, be assured that exchange between us has been reciprocal”.
“I have learnt so much over many years from the knowledge, attitude and example of those around me”.
“Thank you for your support and being here tonight”.
“To those mainly younger ones here tonight who have never heard of me, you are an appropriate
presence at such Regimental occasions because you are the faces of our current and future capability,
deployability and it enhances the team values and bond of comradeship for us all to be together on these
occasions”. “Thank you and well done for being here tonight”.
“This aspect of tonight’s activities is however not about me, I’m just lucky enough to be the last one standing,
it actually marks the last serving link of the Vietnam War generation with its Battle Honour ‘South Vietnam’.
“Because the last serving veteran is an Infantryman, it also marks the final exit of the 2nd Anzac generation in
our history”. “The Infantry element of New Zealand’s commitment to the Vietnam War has carried the ANZAC
name quietly but with great pride in what the name stands for; for almost 50yrs”.
“Initially one NZ Company and then two were embedded in successive deployments of 2/4/6 RAR to make
that unit an ANZAC Battalion”. “In Victor 4’s case, it was to be 6 RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn”.
“The soldiers of six Victor Companys’ and three Whisky Companys’ carried the name ‘ANZAC’ with pride”.
“Representing those 9 Infantry companies tonight is a group of special guests”. “It would not be appropriate
for them to be here tonight and ‘faceless’ tomorrow”. “Let me introduce them”.
“Quin Rodda” – “Second-in-Command of Victor 4 Company – simply revered for every aspect of his Vietnam service”. “His example, guidance and promotion of the team/family bond are legend”.
“Wira Gardiner” – “Platoon Commander, One Platoon V4 Coy”. “Then Lieutenant, he was an inspirational commander leading from the front in the finest tradition of his forebears”. “He went on to a distinguished civilian career and in
addition is now also the Honorary Colonel of 2/1 RNZIR”. “We are so proud of our ‘Boss’.
“Fellow 1 Platoon V4 Section Commanders– Len (and Rae) Constable and Willie Peacock (father of Kendall)
– simply amazing mentors to a 20 year old trying to come to terms with a very unforgiving environment”.
“Section 2ICs’ – Bob Davies, Bob Derwin, Geoff Dixon – all of similar youth, each fine, highly skilled soldiers”.
“Like me, matured by reality very quickly”.
“Also, Lance Corporal Tom (and Bubs) Hemopo - Mortar Fire Controller on this occasion but a magnificent soldier,
master of his various crafts and a steadying hand in the worst of situations”.
“Right at the Sharp end – Lead Scouts – Graeme (Jed) Rowley and John Whitē White”.
“Simply top of their highly demanding craft too”.
“Representing ‘Gold Star’ (US Term) families, those who joyfully anticipated the safe return of their loved ones,
but were to receive the worst possible news and who clearly have the ultimate investment in that Battle Honour
– Wayne Williams, ex RNZ Navy Officer / Brother of Jack (V4’s first Killed in Action)”.
“Six of us here, were within metres of Jack in that fierce engagement”.
“Jack’s family are all actively engaged with V4 family activities”.
“Wayne is a very appropriate representative of all those families bereaved by that war”.
“Thank you for being here Wayne”.
“Pam Miley –Terry”. “Iconic rep of our ‘Angels in White’, a succession of nursing sisters at the Australian Hospital;
so protective of their right to provide best care to NZ’s sick, wounded and Killed in Action”.
“The true story is folklore within V4 of Pam receiving the body of V4’ 5th soldier KIA
and as she tenderly began her care, his family Taonga which he had worn continuously,
slipped from his pocket with its broken cord”. “The interpretations of the scenario are obvious”.
“Thank you for being here Pam”.
“Ladies and Gentlemen – as the Vietnam War generation and NZ’s 2nd ANZAC generation steps aside,
the mana of all those Infantry soldiers who served is so well represented here tonight”.
“I am very proud to have served with all of these soldiers and also to have been able to serve on
and deploy with successive generations of NZ soldiers, many of them here tonight”.
“In closing – as young veterans we were frequently ‘put down’ by the veterans of previous wars
and it seemed to be a prevailing tradition for this to occur, whatever the conflict represented
- ‘yours was not a real war son’, seemed to be the common theme”.
“I can tell you tonight that having seen successive generations training and on operations, that after 50 years,
I am qualified to tell you (and I know it’s a shared view), that in any future conflict or war,
the soldiers of today will perform at least as good as we are recorded to have been”.
“NZ is as well served by its soldiers today as it has ever been”.
“Ladies and gents I have had a blast – I’ve had a few high spots and a few regrets – but I’d change nothing”.
“I again thank all of you for coming to support this occasion and on behalf of our special guests,
wish each of you the very best for your future”.
At the conclusion of his speech, he introduced the 2IC of Victor 4 Company, Captain Quin Rodda,
who presented a signed copy of our book, ‘A Soldier’s View of The Vietnam War’ to the Regimental Colonel
of the RNZIR, Colonel Stefan Michie. This gesture, although on behalf of the Victor 4 whanau,
represents all NZ Vietnam Veterans and be seen as a symbol of the exit of the Vietnam War generation
and a ‘South Vietnam’ Battle Honour handover.
Photos and the Army News article are acknowledged on this website to;
Judith Martin-Editor Army News
Major Tim Tuatini-Army Public Affairs Officer
Historic Moment. 2IC V4 Coy, then Captain Quin Rodda presents a copy of ‘A Soldiers View of the Vietnam War’
to the RNZIR Regimental Colonel, Colonel Stefan Michie DSD to commemorate the Vietnam Veterans group attendance at the dinner marking the retirement of the last serving veteran of the Vietnam War. Brigadier John Boswell DSD,
Chief of Army, Major General Peter Kelly MNZM and Pl Comd 1Pl V4 Coy and now Honorary Colonel 2/1RNZIR,
Sir Harawira ‘Wira’ Gardiner KNZM; look on.
Also in attendance were two other Vietnam Veterans, they were; Major General (rtd) Maurice Dodson CBE,
MC from Victor 3 Coy and Colonel (rtd) Ray Seymour MBE, JP from Victor and Whiskey Coy.
Afterwards, the colours were made available for us to take photos alongside them,
with the South Vietnam Battle Honour showing.
Next morning, Gordon, Eliza and our group, gathered at 0730hrs in the Soldier’s Mess for breakfast.
Colonel Michie was also present and apparently, had already read a large portion of our book.
Gordon again thanked everyone for attending.
Quin Rodda closed proceedings with a prayer.
Kia ora ‘Major (Retired) General Benfell’ to you and your whanau,
for the honour of being invited to this significant and historic occasion.
From your invited guests.
No air power ever wins a war,
it can only help the artillery, tanks and the supply
columns are only supporting troops but without the infantry,
you can do nothing, nothing at all.
In the end, one man, grimy, unshaven,
lousy, bleary eyed, ‘scared as hell’,
will hoist himself up, grab his rifle and plug forward.
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