Allen Evans went to war for twenty years.
And not just the mere wearing of a uniform on the periphery of slaughter, but at the centre of the killing – face-to-face with it, on the front-line, except that front-lines don’t exist in modern, dirty war. The enemy is all around.
And it was all around Allen Evans in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. Enemies tried to kill him and he did kill them in his 22 years in the Australian army.
Today, he lives in a tidy, comfortable home in Glen Innes with his memories. Alone with his ghosts.
Nearly 70 years ago, he signed up for adventure and never tired of it even though adventure meant setting ambushes to trap the enemy where it – they – could be killed.
And where adventure meant sleeping, in his boots, with the strap of his gun around his wrist. Out on operations, he was careful not to wash with soap because soap smells and enemies have keen senses of smell.
He would track the enemy with dogs – he says that in one sortie as a tracker, a dog failed to detect the enemy and there was a fire-fight. He survived it but the dog didn’t – it was shot for being useless.
Some who have killed are haunted, unable to sleep, and Allen Evans may be but he doesn’t reveal it. At the age of 85, he says he still suffers from post-traumatic stress. In the past, that would erupt in sudden anger. Drink was once a solace – a temporary, false one.
And he did fight the people his elected government decided were enemies of freedom and of Australia.
On Friday, he will take part in a ceremony to unveil a new memorial in Glen Innes. It is dedicated to “Our comrades who remain on the battlefields of North Korea.”
Korea was the first war he signed up for at the age of 18 as a wild youth. He was one of 10 brothers and sisters and no obvious parents. They looked out for each other. He left home and became a drover and the solitary, nomadic life suited him.
Of his reason for volunteering to fight in Korea, he says today: “It was an adventure. I’d never heard of the place but it sounded good – three meals a day. That’s all you want.”
Korea was an especially horrible war, a civil war without front-lines often high on mountains in deep forest and at temperatures way below freezing. The silent Chinese soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army were often all around, poised to attack with bayonets at the sound of a whistle in the dead of night.
When the armistice came, he realised just how many hundreds of Chinese troops were hidden around him, ready to kill him – and he them.
After Korea ended in 1953, he eventually returned to Australia for a short period before being sent to Malaya to fight communists in the jungle, spending a month at a time as a tracker working in small groups alone in the jungle.
He came home in 1959 and then back to Malaya in 1961 and then back to Australia again in 1963, by which time Australia was involved in Vietnam. “We were among the first to go to Vietnam”, he says.
Again, he was a foot soldier charged with finding the enemy, either to kill him himself or to direct others behind to do the final act.
He was in the battle of Long Tan in August, 1966 where Australian and South Vietnamese forces confronted a much larger Vietcong force amid rubber plantations in monsoon rain.
The Australians were saved only by an artillery bombardment which forced the Vietcong back. Allen Evans says (with what seems like calm understatement): “It was a nasty one. We lost a lot of fellows. Twenty-three were killed but we got over 200 of them.”
He does tend to speak in understatement (and perhaps that’s what you need to do when you are so closely involved in killing and the danger of being killed). For example, of one fire-fight where there were hundreds of dead, he says: “It was a busy time.”
He is matter of fact about what he did. He signed up to be a soldier and soldiers fight. “It’s a case of you or them. When you get to a fire-fight, you do what you have to do.”
He described one incident in Malaya: “I set an ambush and we sat there for two or three days, with nothing happening”.
They set the trap and camped some distance from it because, he says, smell is an important give-away of location in the jungle. Wires had been laid to alert them to movement at the site of the ambush.
“Then, I got a tug on this wire.. The next thing, down came these four terrorists.”
Allen Evans and his comrades opened fire. “I emptied my gun into his back” is the way he puts it.
There was, he says, then a requirement to photograph the dead and their equipment and the dead had to be tidied up for that. Their faces had to be washed.
Allen Evans is vague on what exactly happened, but after he returned to base he found himself before a court. He admits that he “knocked these two blokes off”. He was tried by a British judge who decided the Malayans’ deaths were in the Australian soldier’s self-defence.
Allen Evans talks about all this calmly, simply relating the facts of the matter without any enjoyment or embellishment.
He does not seem callous. It may be a defence mechanism where he distances himself from horror. He still remembers battles vividly, describing the “dead silence” when guns stopped, for example.
Some veterans wear their trauma on their face. The sadness is in the eyes. Or there is sometimes what’s called the thousand metre stare – vacant eyes looking far beyond you.
Allen Evans does not seem like that. He is low-key but clear-headed.
He says of his two decades as a warrior in three serious conflicts: “I did enjoy it”, but he also says that its effects still weigh him down. He says unemotionally: “I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”.
“You get upset very easily – very argumentative.
“I’ve been a loner for years and it made me more so.”
He’s had psychiatric help: “It was because I’d been to too many damned wars.”
“I remember it all so well. That’s the trouble. I remember my first blokes who were killed”.
He still remembers the sound of helicopters because they signaled that he was about to leave the relative safety of a camp for the fields of killing.
“As soon as you heard the chopper, you knew you were going out. They would drop you off in the jungle and off they would go”.
He is tortured by one big, guilt. It concerns not what he did to the enemy but what he may have done to his own family. When he was at war, he was not with them and he fears he neglected them.
He says that the children of veterans are three times more likely to kill themselves than the children of non-combatants.
His son was one who took his own life.
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