THE TRAVESTY OF CORPORAL JAMES B. RIDDLE

Cpl Jim Riddle in his prime, 1969

If you were unkind, you’d call Corporal James Bertram Riddle a mercenary; if you’d fought alongside him in the jungles of Vietnam, you’d have called him a professional soldier of the highest calibre and been glad he was on your side.

Sometimes, it’s all about perspective.

One thing’s for sure though, Cpl James B. Riddle (or ‘Jim’ as he was to all who knew him) is the forgotten man of Australia’s involvement in that war. And what was done to Riddle after he served this country was a travesty, if not a national disgrace.

For the last decsade of his life his body gave up on him, but even during the toughest of those times he maintained a warrior heart.

You’d first know of Jim Riddle from my memoir — The War Within which became a best-seller in Australia and stirred up one hell of a hornet’s nest; and a follow-up work, Anzacs Betrayed.

Jim Riddle had things to fight about, you see. Like the battle to right the wrongs of his military past.

It wasn’t a lot to ask, but the bloody-minded bureaucrats and politicians who cast him from the military records in the first place, bastardised his service history, ignored his rights to gallantry medals, then kept him from returning to the country he fought for, are still turning a blind eye to the accuracy of his his service record.

That’s when those of us who fought alongside him, joined in.

We took up the fight for him because most of us have also battled the pea-hearted decision-makers in this country when it’s come to veterans’ rights, and know that sometimes push has to give way to shove.

And make no mistake, what has been done to James B. Riddle, should appal every Englishman — and Australian.

***

In his prime, Jim Riddle was a giant of a man. In any contact with the enemy, be it a chance encounter at a creek bed or a bunker assault against an entrenched enemy, you wanted him beside you. If you’d been wounded, it didn’t matter how precarious the situation was, you’d look for Riddle to keep the enemy at bay, or to come and drag you to safety.

I know that for a fact, because I fought with him for some five months in two different infantry units before we got split up- first with the 4th Battalion, and then with the infamous 2nd D&E Platoon of 1969. Soon after we were split up, I got machine-gunned with the 9th Battalion, and repatriated to hospital in Australia where I spent two years, and ended up permanently disabled.

CPL Jim Riddle (at left) with three other members of the 2nd D&E Platoon

James Riddle came home relatively unscathed (PTSD was yet to kick in) then went back for a second go at them. Had nothing better to do, he said. Always at the coal-face of infantry action too. None of that ‘pogo’ shit, as he called support units.

The thing about Jim Riddle was that he was a genuine fighting man. Like the time a few of us got into a brawl with the resident, rear-echelon crew back at Nui Dat between operations. Riddle heard the ruckus, strolled in, summed the situation up, and told the rest of us to ‘piss off’ back to our bunks.

In the morning, the ‘boozer’ was littered with broken chairs and windows. Glass everywhere. We learned later that after we’d left, Riddle had taken them on, on his own. Cleaned them up too. Mind you, they got him for a few breaches of discipline. That was the way of it with Riddle.

But let me say, there are many old Australian soldiers walking our streets today, who would’ve died young, if it hadn’t have been for Jim Riddle being alongside of them back in the war.

I’m one of them.

Trouble was, Jim Riddle didn’t endear himself to his superiors, so the rewards of soldiering didn’t come his way. He wasn’t into the tugging of forelocks, or sucking up to officers, and called a spade a spade. He had little time for leaders who were glaringly incompetent, or who stayed in the background during the action.

Mind you, he wasn’t Robinson Crusoe in that. Most of us had scant regard for officers like that — the ones who invariably managed to ‘score’ gallantry medals when the smoke cleared. There were lots of officers like that. Some high-flyers amongst them in the Australian Army ranks.

In Riddle’s case, he was promised two gallantry medals during his service- one with the 2nd D&E Platoon, and one with the 8th Battalion, but didn’t receive either. Hardly surprising. Indeed, one of the units he fought in (and actually led, for a month or so) — the 2nd D&E Platoon, was discretely ‘edited-out’ of all histories of the war for 39 years after a series of contentions in the field, and his medal went with it.

Riddle’s gallantry on that occasion was only formally recognised in a Ministerial Statement by the The Hon Dr Mike Kelly on May 29th 2008- four decades after the event. Speaking about the 2nd D&E Platoon’s successful ambush of a large enemy force at Thua Tich in May, 1969, and specifically about the role of Jim Riddle, Dr Kelly stated,

“Their success was a tribute to their professionalism and the outstanding leadership and courage of Corporal Riddle whose personal actions ensured the survival of many members of the Platoon who would otherwise surely have been killed.”

Too late for a medal for him, though, by then. Too many years had passed.

What’s more, he wasn’t an officer. Didn’t have enough friends in high places either, or ‘mates’ in the Australian War Memorial — the gatekeeper of the nation’s military history.

It pays to get in good with that lot.

***

I first met Jim Riddle at the Infantry Centre in Ingleburn where he was a cut above the rest of us. He was already a man then, while many of the rest of us were still struggling with boyhoods. Broad-shouldered, moustachioed, and muscled-up- that was the soldier who strode into the barracks the first time.

As well, he had a wonderful intellect, and a devilish wit. It infuriated the officer ranks. Like the time when a duty officer lined us up on Monday mornings for a weekly inspection of our private parts. “Looking for scabs and crabs and such,” he said, lifting our shirts and taking a good look.

“Nothing but a pervert,” was all Riddle said, affronted at the invasion of privacy.

The next Monday morning, Riddle got himself a healthy erection prior to the inspection. The officer went red, speechless, when he lifted Riddle’s shirt. Not that he had to lift it too much. The rest of us were mighty impressed — as much by the erection as his insolence. We never got inspected again.

Riddle had bought himself out of the English Marines in 1968, specifically to fight for Australia. He’d been a sergeant in the commandos, and had seen service in three British conflicts — Aden, Cyprus, and Borneo. And since Britain wasn’t in conflict with anyone at the time, and not looking likely to, Riddle glanced at the Australians battling away in the latest Asian War and figured he could be used to advantage. He didn’t mind a war.

They wanted him as an instructor, to train up blokes like me — but Riddle hadn’t come to Australia to be a tourist. He wanted in the fight. He and I turned up together as reinforcements to “D” Company of the 4th Battalion, late January 1969.

It was just in time to witness the deaths of Sam Graham and Joe Ramsay on my first real patrol. For a young bloke like me, naïve to the ways of the world, and to jungle fighting, it was reassuring knowing Riddle was nearby.

Found ourselves caught in a three-way assault against a Viet Cong bunker system some time in March that year, and although I didn’t witness it, Riddle’s actions were noteworthy. By then, we were in different platoons (me in 10 Pl; he in 12 Pl), and both platoons engaged the enemy in a bunker complex from two diferent angles.

Although Riddle’s section was at the rear of his platoon on that occasion, he got himself up to the front of the action, bringing a bag full of hand grenades with him. He had every right to have stayed in his position at the rear of the platoon and taken it easy. But that wasn’t Riddle’s preference.

And it was why we were glad he was on our side.

So too, at Thua Tich on the 29th May,1969 when the 2nd D&E Platoon fought one of the biggest platoon-sized battles of the Vietnam war.

Don’t go looking for it in the record books though — despite Dr Mike Kelly’s assurance that the platoon and its record would be “forever enshrined in the history of the war”, it hasn’t happened. The Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veteran Affairs won’t allow it.

There are reputations to protect, you see. Because bodies were blown-up. Bodies were strapped to the backs of armoured personnel carriers and dragged around the place. Civilians fired upon. Things like that.

Things the army has done their best to hide, or disguise all these years.

And it’s one of the reasons why Cpl James B. Riddle didn’t score a gong. He should have. No doubt about it. Because, on that day, and although only a corporal, Riddle found himself in the role of platoon commander, against all protocol. He’d done so, on account of the fact that our first platoon-commander — Lt Barry Parkin — had been surreptitiously removed from the platoon, as too, our sergeant, John Chainey.

So we’d been a leaderless platoon there for about a month, and Riddle saw the danger of men not being commanded adequately. He slotted himself into the job.

On the night of that ambush, Riddle and ten other infantrymen took on an extremely large enemy force along Route 328. Set as a ‘listening post’ about 500 metres up the highway from where the cavalry commander, Capt Tom Arrowsmith had laid down an ambush, Riddle’s actions prevented Arrowsmith’s position from being counter-attacked after the ambush was sprung. Arrowsmith hadn’t known how large the enemy force was that initiated the ambush.

It had stretched some 500 metres or more along the highway.

From his vulnerable jungle position, Riddle initiated a second front against the enemy, and led the way himself- opting to use the M79 grenade-launcher to best effect. The infantrymen at that listening post had a field day that night, there being a fullish moon and all, and with such a body of enemy lined up along the raised dirt track in front of them.

But the record books (written by the cavalry commander, Arrowsmith) give all kudos to the cavalry for the success that night — and scant attention given to the efforts of Riddle and his infantrymen of the 2nd D&E Platoon at that listening post.

Mind you — it wasn’t the only time this happened.

For the whole of that month, Arrowsmith recorded all the actions the 2nd D&E Platoon was involved in, to a generic ‘D&E Platoon’ which was commanded by a Lt Ray Woolan. He says he wasn’t aware that there were two such platoons operating under the same name. I’ll give him some leeway in regards to that because he was from the Cavalry and wouldn’t necessarily have known what was what with the Infantry.

But for Arrowsmith not to make any effort to correct the records all these years on, when the truth has been fully revealed, says much about him.

CAPT Tom Arrowsmith (at left) with Brigadier C.M. Pearson- Commanding Oficer of the Task Force, surveying the ambush site at Thua Tich, on 30th May 12969

And it says even more about the validity of Australia’s military history. Because, the thing was, Lt Woolan’s platoon was never anywhere near the action at Thua Tich that day or night, yet Woolan ended up getting a Military Cross and the action at Thua Tich a component of that award.

Arrowsmith got a gong too. A minor one at first — but they made up for that 35 years later by upgrading it to a Star of Gallantry in the End-of-War list.

Neither Riddle, nor the other men at that listening post that night, rated a mention.

Most probably it was because the whole shebang was a sorry affair in more ways than one.

***

Turns out, the formation of the 2nd D&E Platoon wasn’t done by the book.

It was an ‘ad hoc’ platoon, created on a whim, with no formal paperwork. No records.

Years later, Major George Pratt admitted he had ‘formed the 2nd D&E Platoon’ on the orders of Brigadier C. Pearson but the national historian, Ashley Ekins, could care less about the facts.

It didn’t marry up with his personal opinion.

The opinion of George Pratt should have been the only one that counted — after all, he was the Officer Commanding HQ Company at the time; while the historian never set foot on the battlefield (or any battlefield for that matter. It’s always the way of things that angers soldiers — men in suits write up the history of events they took no part in).

The waters concerning Cpl Jim Riddle and the 2nd D&E Platoon were certainly muddied. No doubt about that.

There was much conjecture about whether or not the platoon had even existed in the war, let alone be involved in such a significant engagement with the enemy.

Not even politicians could get to the truth of the matter.

According to the former Minister for Veteran Affairs in 2007, Bruce Billson MP, ‘there was no authority to create a second D&E Platoon’ so the fact that one had existed, smelled.

Add to the intrigue the fact that we were operating outside the range of artillery, without official infantry leadership, without an attendant medic, and found ourselves in an area crawling with enemy, and you get the picture.

Army stupidity.

Or perhaps we were simply regarded as expendable pawns in the grand game of medal counts, and personal glory for officers.

***

Riddle kicked a few arses along the way. No doubt about it.

Got himself in hot water a few times too. Like the time he relieved a dead Viet Cong of a few thousand dong in an earlier encounter with the Viet Cong, and put it on the bar in Vung Tau for us to drink up afterwards. Some officious officer got him for stealing off a body.

Riddle simply said he preferred to think he was spreading goodwill. He did something similar some other time too, in a stint with the US Special Forces. It may have cost him a medal with that lot too.

His indiscretions counted against him.

So when he ran across open ground to attract enemy fire after Private Dennis Poulson was killed with the 8th Battalion, taking the enemy heat off another infantry section that had been pinned down, he got no glory there, either.

‘We expect it of you, Riddle,’ was all he was told by the Company commander.

Same as when the battalion wandered into a known minefield and lost many men killed or badly wounded in a series of bloody incidents in early 1970 (this time with yet another D&E Platoon) it was Riddle’s cool head that prevented other losses.

You won’t find any record of those deeds, either, in any history of the war.

Riddle simply wasn’t destined to get gallantry medals. He was no one’s favourite.

But he didn’t deserve being left stranded in England after he’d gone back home to bury his father after the war, and stayed there to raise a family for some thirty years.

Bad mistake, that.

Because in 2005, when he got to figuring it’d be a nice move to go back to the country he’d fought for, all those years ago — Australia — and live out the rest of his life, he was shocked to be told he wasn’t welcome.

Jim Riddle in 2005, battling to be allowed back into Australia

Not bloody likely was the response from the bureaucrats in the Immigration Department. Refused him entry, point blank.

Riddle hadn’t maintained the paperwork, you see, for all those years, and despite serving this country in war for more days than the great majority of Australian servicemen ever did, was effectively locked out.

It’s where we fellow veterans got in on the act. We took the fight to the politicians and bureaucrats, and kicked their arses. It took fifteen months, but we finally got him home to Australia.

Too late for him to qualify for the highest war pension, though. Funny about that. No amount of argument can convince the legislators to make a special case of him either. Seems we can find cash galore to fund the extravagant lifestyles of former prime ministers and governor-generals and 50,000 illegal Muslim immigrants, but none to reward a man who risked his life for this country on the battlefields of Vietnam.

And to top it off, some bastard beat him senseless in a halfway house run by the RSL a year after he arrived back in Australia, and Riddle suffered a series of strokes as a consequence. He was rendered severely disabled.

No one bothered to investigate the bashing. He was just a war veteran, that’s all, and a pommie bastard, to boot. Who cared? They eventually sent him back to England so he could be with family.

A bed-ridden Jim Riddle at Sydney Airport waiting to be returned to his family in England

Personally, I think it’s the least they could do for him. After all, they gave him nothing else. Funny thing happened along the way, though. It was done on the condition that he never speak to the media about the 2nd D&E Platoon matter.

I wonder why.

PS In 2008, the Hon Mike Kelly MP— Parliamentary-Secretary for Defence Material — officialy recognised the 2nd D&E Platoon in a statement from Parliament House:

(Author Don Tate is the best-selling author of The War Within, and Anzacs Betrayed which tells the story of the 2nd D&E Platoon in Vietnam — one of the most unedifying matters to come out of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War involving atrocities, murder, the falsification of historical documents, the vainglorious pursuit of gallantry medals, and the brazen deceit of Australian Senators and politicians.)