At your service 3

Categories: Wellington.

To commemorate ANZAC Day and mark our 30th issue, Capital chatted to three returned servicemen, who, by the age of 30, had already fought their biggest battles.

3 of 3: David Lackey

For David Lackey, his year as a lieutenant in New Zealand’s artillery battery in Vietnam was the “thrilling” highlight of his brief military career, but it left him with a deep and enduring suspicion of politicians and their motives.

David Lackey

David signed up for a three-year commission in the regular forces in 1965 after leaving Christ’s College, having a period in his father’s insurance brokerage and a spell overseas with Lloyd’s of London.

“Back in New Zealand I was totally bored with the insurance industry – it was so low-scale compared to London.

Then I was called up for national service. Suddenly I found I was on my own, I wasn’t my father’s son.

“I was ideally suited to army life. The discipline was easy after the bullying I had experienced at school. After the futility of school cadets, this was substantive soldiering.

“Mike Thornton [the son of General Sir Leonard Thornton, then chief of defence staff] and I both had problems with our parents, and we both signed up for a three-year commission.”

He trained at Waiouru (under then Captain Ken Gordon) in the gunnery school and went to Vietnam in 1967 as part of 161 Battery, which operated 105mm howitzers. He very nearly didn’t go. Due to depart by RNZAF Hercules on a Sunday morning, David returned to the mess late on Saturday afternoon to the news that he had been pulled off the flight, apparently because the NZ battery in Vietnam had made a mistake and had shelled Australian infantry, killing three.

Rather than accept this, David took himself to Army HQ in Wellington, demanding an explanation. In a makeor-break career moment, he found himself facing a stern brigadier general who rescinded the order and told him to get the next flight out.

Vietnam was transformative. On a roadside while he and his men were filling sandbags, he watched a parade of young Vietnamese in luxury cars, streaming past to a local beach resort. He started to ask why foreign soldiers were fighting the communists when the local people were not.

He started to question the political rationale for New Zealand’s presence there. (At the time, there had been much controversy about New Zealand’s committing troops and the antiwar movement was growing in strength.)

“Ken Gordon had done a good job on me. At Waiouru I came to believe what I was told by my superiors and by the government. In Wellington I had been mixing in a high social circle of defence and security personnel where the consensus was that we were doing the right thing by being involved with the Americans in Vietnam.”

In 1968 the North Vietnamese and their allies, the Viet Cong, launched the Tet offensive, which shifted the strategy from guerrilla campaigns to conventional warfare.

The attack at Tet (the Vietnamese New Year) was unexpected, large, and initially successful, although ultimately a failure. But more importantly, it disproved US claims that the war was being won by the Americans and their allies.

In 1968 David returned home – his group ordered to wear civilian clothes, not their uniforms, so as “not to upset anyone.”

The battery paraded up Auckland’s Queen St and were jeered and mocked by some. A protestor made a citizen’s arrest of their commander Major John Martin. He appeared in the Papakura Magistrates Court where the charge was dismissed.

It took David many years to overcome symptoms similar to those of a post-traumatic stress disorder, and he remains bitter to this day.

In 1973 he married Kate Elliott, who was beginning a career in foreign affairs. She turned down a posting to Washington because David was now happily making money with sharebrokers Daysh Renouf.

He resigned and told Kate to accept the next offer of a post. In 1974 they went to Singapore and, contrary to the rules about spouses of diplomats working on posts, David set up a yacht-brokerage business, which he carried on when the pair went to Fiji.

A career highlight for Kate came in 2002, when she became high commissioner to Canberra, the first woman to do so. While there, David devoted himself to helping veterans. He helped produce evidence for New Zealand Parliament’s inquiry into the exposure of New Zealand soldiers to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used in Vietnam, but which subsequently was shown to cause birth defects and cancers.

David has a clear view about what he would like to have known at 30. “I’d like to have known more of the bigger picture about Vietnam and New Zealand’s involvement – much more than I was told at the time.”

Now aged 72, his scepticism of politicians is still strong. “Don’t trust politicians – ever” is his simple advice to today’s generation.