Vietnam veteran pilot Joe Driver makes peace with ANZAC Day

Joe Driver
Vietnam veteran Joe Driver has lived a life of high adventure as a helicopter pilot.

By Maxine Brown

JOE Driver saved dozens of lives as a 9 Squadron Iroquois pilot during the Vietnam War – yet it’s taken decades for him to feel comfortable enough to March on ANZAC Day.

The verbal abuse and aggression from sections of the Australian public upon his return home, including being personally sledged as a “baby killer”, made sure of that.

For a man who strived to serve with humanity and integrity, the public backlash cut deep.

READ MORE: Vietnam veteran urges community to embrace healing at ANZAC House Veteran Central

The talented helicopter pilot played a vital role in carrying men to and from operations, transporting supplies and, importantly, getting the wounded from combat zones to hospital in time to save their lives.

Joe joined the RAAF in 1966, aged 19, learning his craft at RAAF Base Point Cook in Victoria, where he said “our pilot training was the best thing ever, far better than what the American pilots were getting”.  Joe started flying in the January of ’67 and, by 1969, was propelled into the madness of the Vietnam War, initially as a 9 Squadron co-pilot to cut his teeth, before taking the controls of his own gunship.

“It felt like we were heading off on an adventure,” said Joe, while reminiscing about heading into Vung Tau for the first time.  “We didn’t know what we were heading into, we had no idea. There was a lot of bravado and in ‘69, we felt bulletproof.

“That first week there was wow, you start off as co-pilot, and we’re loaded up with South Vietnamese soldiers, and we come clapping in on a combat assault mission. Then there’s guns going off everywhere, and there’s hot stuff bouncing off my helmet and down my back, and the gunner’s laughing his head off. The eject shells from the M60 come off forward and because they’re just firing away, he’s laughing because the shells are bouncing off the new co-pilot.

“So after getting over that little surprise the pilot says to me, ‘hey Joe, just come on the controls mate? Just come on the controls for a little bit.’ And I said sure thing, what’s happening Rex? And he says ‘just in case I get shot, mate! It’s just in case I’m shot!’

“So that was my first wake-up …. that this is not quite MGM studios in Hollywood, this is real life.”

Joe’s second steep learning curve came within those first five days, with the realisation that he could never really know who was on his side.  He was stunned that South Vietnamese soldiers that they dropped into combat zones would sometimes then start shooting at the helicopter. They’d even leave armed grenades rolling around the floor of the Huey upon disembarking.

Joe Driver as a young RAAF pilot, second from right in the dark fly suit.
Joe Driver as a young RAAF pilot, second from right (in the dark fly suit). Photo: AWM

It was an intense introduction.

But there’s one night amid that insane year of close shaves and daredevilry that is scorched into Joe’s psyche – a night that claimed his innocence in its entirety.

Joe, a family man who now lives at The Vines, said: “The one that’s burned into my memory is I was co-pilot on a night run, we got called out because our troops on the ground had walked into a mine field, which was not uncommon. As we approached, I’m talking to the guy guiding us in and realising shit, this is really bad, they’ve probably lost half the platoon and we’re going to need another machine because we’ll probably have to pull everybody out.

“So we loaded the first bunch on and it was like an abattoir, honestly, it was not good. There was no screaming, in fact it was very quiet. But the smell was terrible. And I look around and there’s one guy they threw in on a stretcher and then threw his leg in. And there’s one guy sitting in the back and I yelled ‘do you wanna smoke, mate?’ So I lit a smoke to pass to him and he leaned in to take it and his back was bristling with bits of metal. No wonder he winced.

“So anyway, we took these men, whipped them back to the hospital, and we’re coming back again. We’re talking to the radio operator and as we’re talking to him, he steps on a mine. It was a jumping jack mine, the type that pop up and then go off, sending shrapnel at waist height.

“Of course we went, ohhh sheezus what are we going to do? And all we could do was land in our skid marks where we were before, because hey, this is a mine field and it’s quite serious.

“So we landed in our skid marks and before we could work out what we were going to do now, how to get these guys on board because there’s nobody left to carry them on, the guy who actually trod on the mine was injured, but he wasn’t blown to bits. He’d ridden the thing up but others had copped it. So before we could work out a strategy to safely get the injured on board, the crew were like “no, we’ll get them” and, without a second thought, off they went. We got them all back!

“We went back the next day to retrieve their packs and whatever had been left behind and there was a bloody mine just two metres away!”

Joe laughs that it was the mateship and alcohol that saw him emerge after the horrors without any long-term effects on his mental health.

“In fact, the squadron doctor at the time said those of you who don’t drink, will have problems. And he was right,” Joe said. “It was all about mateship and, it being 1969, we believed in what we were doing. Towards the end though, we realised we weren’t really doing anything there.

“We didn’t fight the same way the Americans did, of course. I went back 10 years ago and it was very interesting to go back to the old haunts and talk to the Vietnamese who’d been in Vung Tau.

“When I came back, we would have people over and we would drink, too hard, and drink and talk, drink and talk. Certainly for me, I don’t think I’ve had a lot of problems, because we processed everything together.

“We’re all good friends. Because you go back to those days. We have reunions, every couple of years now, and it’s just fabulous. When we catch up it’s like we’ve never been apart. And here we are now, all in our late-60s and 70s, yet it’s like it was yesterday. And every time we do it, it’s the same. “

Joe, who is now retired from flying – his final gig was as a 7 News Perth helicopter pilot – has undergone a few health challenges in recent years, including cancer.

While it took him decades before he became comfortable Marching on ANZAC Day, he can’t this year, because of his health.

“I’m having problems walking at the moment and don’t think I could keep up a March purely because I’ve just had a spinal operation. Otherwise I would. I’ll meet up afterwards and see the guys then.

“Under any other circumstances, I would have Marched with 9 Squadron. We’re a dwindling bunch, unfortunately, but even though we’re not all in the best of health, it’s all in the attitude!“

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