Have you ever met a special person whose story begs to be told? I first met Professor Trang Thomas in Hanoi in 2011 when she was leading a group of Australian psychologists on a professional development tour of Vietnam. My wife, Robyn, was a member of the group and I was tagging along for the experience. I was most interested to discover that Trang was a native of North Vietnam and that her family had fled to Saigon in 1954 to escape from the rule of communist leader Ho Chi Minh. A brilliant student, in 1964 Trang won a Colombo Plan scholarship to undertake tertiary studies in Australia. She excelled in her studies in psychology as the first female Asian student to achieve first class honours at the University of New South Wales. From that auspicious beginning, she went on to a stellar career as both an outstanding academic and the 'go to' person for state and federal governments for representation of multicultural interests and those of the broader community in a long succession of challenging positions. In an era of feminist determination to achieve equality of opportunity in male-dominated occupations and institutions, Trang repeatedly broke new ground as a female immigrant who achieved eminence through sheer ability and her commitment to give as much as possible to her new land. Along the way, she faced the challenges of marriage, motherhood and gaining a foothold on the academic ladder. In parallel, she and her husband, David, gave unstinting support to Trang's family in South Vietnam when, refugees once more after the fall of Saigon in 1975, they experienced tragedy and hardship as they sought to escape from the harsh communist regime that ensued. Among those who survived was Trang's mother, an indomitable woman who was the major influence on Trang's life and the source of her philosophy of 'The more you give...'
All of this I would learn in the months and years after our meeting in Hanoi. But even then I learned quickly that Trang wasted no opportunities. Robyn had already told her a little of my background as a Vietnam War veteran and author of a history of Australian Army Aviation's participation in that conflict. 'You will be my historian on this tour,' Trang smiled. 'We have a long bus trip to Halong Bay in three days. Along the way, your contribution will be to tell us what moved you to write about the war and give us your opinion on the factors that led to a high level of psychological impact on the troops who fought there.'
Over the next several years, we accompanied Trang on similar tours to destinations as varied as Greece, Turkey, Italy and South Africa. In Southeast Asia, we toured Cambodia and cruised down the mighty Mekong River to experience once more the delights of Saigon. We meandered through India from New Delhi to Goa, always learning, always enjoying the company of colleagues and friends. Somewhere along the way, the suggestion was made that I should write Trang's story. And as we explored new places, I recorded Trang's story and was privileged to meet other family members who could describe for me their own journeys as refugees as well as Trang's early childhood in North Vietnam.
Now, in July 2019, Trang's story is in print. I have tried to capture her many high achievements and honours in the context of the long-running drama series that perhaps best describes her life. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to ensure that her adventures as an outstanding Australian in an increasingly diverse society are now a matter of record.
I hope that readers will join me in engaging with Trang's modesty, energy and unselfish commitment to her new land.
Reviews OCTOBER 6, 2019 BY ANDRES KABEL Trang by Peter Nolan [7/10] “Trang: The More You Give” is an unassuming biography of the sort that shouts “fascinating person I’ve known,” normally only of interest to those who actually are friends of the subject. And I do know Trang Thomas, the Vietnamese-born Australian covered in this book, though my acquaintanceship is recent and not especially deep. But appearances deceive, a cliché that applies equally to this bio and to Professor Trang Thomas herself, because this book is an engrossing tour through both a life and her times. Most unexpectedly, the gentle, intelligent academic I thought I knew was in fact a trailblazer through my era. A pioneering psychology academic, Trang was way ahead of the curve in Australia, tackling issues of ageing and multiculturalism long before they became mainstream. She headed up government commissions, served on landmark boards, and was called to duty by a revolving roster of senior politicians. Consistently, she stood up unswervingly for the principles of multicultural richness and equality, as well as feminism, that are close to my heart. The number of times she was accorded a “first” (first woman, first Asian, etc., etc.) amazed me. Of course an interesting life often a boring book makes, but Peter Nolan, in his second book, is a smooth, logical writer with strong narrative control. In short, “Trang” is a superbly crafted biography that should be read by all Australians.
Dr Elise Julien I have just finished reading ‘Trang: The More You Give’ by Peter Nolan. I found this a fascinating biography of my friend, and of many others, Trang. I met Trang through our common interest in travel and Psychology. The account uncovers so many layers in Trang’s amazing life to date, many of which I knew little about, or just snippets. This is typical of Trang: she is a humble person who can easily fly under the radar, unless you ask. Peter Nolan has managed to extract different aspects of Trang’s life and expressed them in a concise and clear way. I enjoyed the short Chapters and the clear, chronological descriptions of the many transitions in Trang’s life, ranging from geographical ( eg Hanoi to Saigon as a refugee, to Australia), major appointments (eg 1st female Professor) to philosophical( political engagement, feminism, human rights, multiculturalism). Nolan managed deftly to weave the personal attributes of Trang throughout his account, alongside his exploration of her career that developed through sheer determination to break through discrimination, and glass ceilings. When opportunities arose, Trang extended herself to accept them despite an already full existence, following her life’s mantra from her mother’s influence: 'the more you give.' This is such an apt title. Trang’s loyalty, compassion and practical support shines through, such as her financial support of her beloved nanny who was one of the important female influences in her life. Nolan showed great insights as to the drivers in Trang’s life and how they underpinned Trang’s decisions. I think this is a fascinating account of an 18 year old young woman who came to Australia in search of education and independence, under difficult circumstances, leaving her war torn homeland of Vietnam. Nolan has navigated Trang’s complex and full life from both a personal and career perspective. He has managed to describe the push and pull of many roles that Trang lived, as student, partner/marriage, mother, career and mentor. Her humanity shines through it all. I can recommend this Biography in its own right, whether or not you had the pleasure of knowing Trang. Elise Julien
Dr Stuart McDonald 5 Stars What a remarkable woman! Well written Peter. Congratulations on such an achievement. Amazing amount of detail- clearly took lots of research and interviews. Well done- I’m full of admiration.
Jack Ingram I liked the book. The portrait you painted of Trang as a compassionate, courageous woman with a cheeky streak was most endearing. Her courageous stand for truth to power in her struggles with the Riverina College hierarchy and her debunking of the NZ politically correct zeitgeist of biculturalism was truly inspiring.Thanks mate. Jack.
Previous Works Peter Nolan, Possums and Bird Dogs: Australian Army Aviation's 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, 2006
The author has drawn on official histories and the Flight's records, supplemented by oral histories from its past members, to present a vivid account of the challenges faced and overcome by a small group of Australians at war. Written for collectors of military history and all aviation enthusiasts, Possums is a timeless story of dedication, humour and courage under fire.
In writing Possums, Peter had the advantage of having served with 161 Recce Flight in Vietnam from February 1967 to February 1968. He was one of several Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel posted for duty with the Australian Army's fledgling aviation unit, the first to be deployed on active service. His tour of duty encompassed significant periods, including the move of the Flight to its long-term location with the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat, the intensification of operations during 1967 and the 1968 Tet Offensive. His personal experience and knowledge of both operational and technical matters enabled him to produce an authentic and accurate narrative of the Flight's day-to-day operations in the context of the conduct and progress of the war over a seven year period.
Following his experience in Vietnam, Peter was commissioned into the RAAF's Engineer Branch. His service history of 25 years includes postings to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, RAAF units throughout Australia and to the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. from 1978 to 1982. After leaving the RAAF, he completed a degree in Modern Asian Studies which reinforced his strong interest in the history, politics and economic development of Australia's Asian neighbours. In creating his story of the war in Vietnam, he thus writes not only from the viewpoint of an experienced military professional but also as a keen historian.
Review by Major General M.P.J. O’Brien, CSC
Possums & Bird Dogs: Australian Army Aviation’s 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam Peter Nolan
The most recent bibliography I have seen on Australians in the War in Vietnam is in Jeffrey Grey and Jeff Doyle’s Australia R&R: Representations and Reinterpretations of Australia’s War in Vietnam (Chevvy Chase: Vietnam Generation Inc, 1991). When you look at this comprehensive listing of the books and articles resulting from Australia’s longest war (and mentally bring the list up-to-date with those more recently published) some trends are evident. In terms of Official History we have been well served and await (perhaps eagerly) the final volume on the Army commitment. These histories are worthy successors to those edited by C.E.W. Bean, Gavin Long & R.J. O’Neill: we have much to thank Dr Peter Edwards for. But there are evident gaps in the extent of published unit histories which can never be expected to be filled by the Official Histories.
Unit histories fall into several categories. Souvenir pictorial battalion histories were issued soon after unit tours of duty, in relatively small numbers. You would be lucky to see them in any school library, even though most have been reprinted. They are short on analysis and strongly echo the approach of the Anzac Book: while they may contribute to history they are more for individual remembrance. Luckily we have had a crop of more analytical unit histories such as this volume to help round-out this collection. The ones published so far are strongly biased towards infantry, armour and engineers with surprisingly few gunner contributions. Logistic unit histories –well, there’s a thought! Army Aviation was essentially an arm (rather than service) in this war and that makes this book most welcome and almost overdue.
What are the characteristics of a good unit history? It should tell the story of the unit, preferably so that it can be understood by readers who have not shared the same background and experiences. It should go beyond bald facts so that it communicates the feeling of the unit and what made it tick. It should, and this may be a personal view, allow the soldiers in the unit to tell a large part of the story in their own words. Readability, honesty, accuracy and the right atmosphere should be its hallmarks.
This history of the fixed and rotary wing reconnaissance aircraft integral to the Australian Army in Vietnam tackles an important subject and it does it well. Its author has the great advantage of having served with the unit as an attached RAAF airman from 1967-68. He has interviewed comprehensively and used their contributions wisely to tell a large segment of the overall story. In a unit where officers did the primary job, he has ensured, quite rightly, that it is not just an “officers’ history” and it is the richer for that approach. He has been particularly successful in producing a narrative with just enough external context so that a reader can follow not only the progress of the war, but also the relationship of the Reconnaissance Flight to those units that it supported and their operational progress. That was not a trivial task. And Winifred Mumford, who did the maps for the book, has done a marvellous job.
I consider from my limited personal experience that Army Aviation pilots in Vietnam were remarkably capable and mature individuals, perhaps far more mature than many of their contemporaries on the ground. If I am correct, this is a fine testament to their selection, training (both flying training with its RAAF and Army components and, in most cases, Officer Training Unit Scheyville) and their unit leadership. I have no doubt at all that they contributed disproportionately to the Task Force capability. Perhaps I feel that this book might err towards excessive humility on this topic. As an outsider, I would like to give them far more credit.
The writer of the blurb for this book on its back cover has wrongly judged its target audience as ‘for all aviation enthusiasts’. While I am sure that this volume will have particular appeal to them and to all Army Aviators in particular, all those interested in the important topic of the employment of the Army aviation arm would benefit from it. But as well as being one of the important texts for the study of the employment of an all-arms independent brigade, this book is an entertaining and engrossing read. We must be grateful that the author has completed this book while most of his oral sources are still alive.
Peter Nolan, Possums & Bird Dogs: Australian Army Aviations’ 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2006, Softback, $35
Possums and Bird Dogs
The Story of Australian Army Aviation’s 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam
A substantial gap in the history of Australia’s military involvement in South Vietnam has been addressed. 161 Recce Flight was the first Australian Army Aviation unit deployed on active service. Operating Cessna 180 and Bell 47G3-B1 Sioux aircraft under the Possum call sign, this small unit provided specialist intelligence and liaison services, together with direct support for Australian Task Force operations, from 1965 until 1972. The Flight operated from Bien Hoa in 1965 before moving to Vung Tau in 1966 and then to Nui Dat in 1967. Its capabilities were enhanced by the introduction of Pilatus Porter fixed wing aircraft (1969) and Bell OH58A Kiowa helicopters (1971). It broke much new ground and its success was a key factor in the development of the present day Australian Army Aviation role and capabilities.
By the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Army pilots could expect to fly up to 1200 hours during their year in Vietnam. Inevitably their dangerous low level work exposed them to enemy fire. Three pilots died and several were wounded. Individuals were decorated for acts of quiet courage. Technical tradesmen worked day and night to keep the aircraft on line. Other support staff provided catering, logistics, communications, operations room, air traffic control and administrative services. Several New Zealand Army pilots served with the Flight. Close and cooperative relationships were formed with American flying units. More than 87,000 sorties were flown before the Flight came home.
Behind the operations lies a tale of many parts and much humour as personnel of all ranks strove to improve living conditions and operational effectiveness through innovation, improvisation and the creative diversion of resources. Initially unarmed, the Flight’s fixed wing aircraft soon sported rockets while the Sioux pilots sought also to develop defensive and offensive capabilities to enhance their reconnaissance and support roles. Bird Dog aircraft were borrowed from the Americans to boost operational capability and one was built from scrap to bring home. The objective was always clear. ‘We were there as soldiers, flying aircraft, to support soldiers. It was as simple as that.’ (Major Laurie Doyle, Possum Master Two).
Author Peter Nolan has drawn on official histories and the Flight’s records, supplemented by oral histories from veterans, to present a vivid account of the challenges faced and overcome by a close-knit and remarkably talented group of soldiers. Written for all aviation enthusiasts, it is a timeless story of dedication, camaraderie and courage under fire.