For Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams, he just wanted to get back the identity and historical past so rightly his to be returned. However, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which decided to “play God” on a certain well-known photograph, and the family of another Vietnam War veteran are unwilling to give it back.
A black-and-white photograph taken from the battle of Suoi Chau Pha in Vietnam, the combat fought between Australian troops and the Viet Cong which resulted to the death of six Australian soldiers and wounding 14 others, some 5 decades ago had given substance to the life of Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams. For his loved ones and his air force buddies, he was the man in that photo holding the plasma bottle.
However, that place in Vietnam War history was taken away from the life of Kerin Williams.
This said image was taken by RAAF photographer Barrie Ward August 6, 1967. The photo’s arrangement was simple. It showed three men carrying an injured individual on a stretcher with the fourth man in a flight suit holding up a plasma bottle. In the background was a bullet holes-ridden Iroquois (Huey) helicopter could be seen in the background.
But as simple as it looked, urgency was very palpable in the image. The wounded one on the stretcher was an injured digger, the three men carrying him were army medics at the Nui Dat forward detachment.
And the older man in the flight suit carrying the plasma bottle with a cigarette on one hand was no other than Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams. His identity was even visible on the flight suit he wore. It had the surname “Williams” sewn on front.
”I don’t know why or how I survived intact. Sometimes I wished I was wounded or injured. There are things I did over there that I am ashamed of, but I look at that photo now and I am proud, what I did actually meant something, it’s positive.,” the now 76-year-old Warners Bay resident recounted.
But the Vietnam War veteran’s world came upside-down when the Department of Foreign Veterans decided to “play God” on the photograph in 2012.
The department altered the said image to appear in its Remembrance Day poster and calendar. It photoshopped the cigarette out, the bullet holes on the Huey helicopter were fixed and eventually, the department’s records took the identity of Kerin Williams away from the picture.
In the nicotene free-version of the real image, Mr. Williams was replaced by Dr. Jack Blomley, a former St. Joseph’s Hunter’s Hill student and a celebrated former rugby union international member.
That alteration changed history literally. It ripped veterans’ and military associations into two and left the families of the two war veterans in bitter contest for who has the rightful claim to the man in the flight suit in the photograph.
According to Kathy Williams, the daughter of Kerin Williams, the records of the now-dead photographer, Mr. Ward, had clearly stated that it was her father who was the plasma bottle carrier in the photo.
”He is wearing his flying suit with his surname over his right breast. Dad never loaned his flying suits to anyone. Dad remembers Barrie taking that photo, it’s him in the photo, so basically he has been labelled a liar,” she said then further added…
“The mistake [the Department of Veterans’ Affairs] made caused such a mess, both for dad, our family, Blomley’s family, other vets and the department itself.”
She even pointed out that they had already filed the necessary complaints for her father’s identity for a long time. She said that the minister was never able to get back to her but the department had assured them the matter had been resolved.
However, when Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams found out yet again that the photo with the wrong identity had appeared, they couldn’t help but think there was someone in the Department of Veterans’ Affair intentionally playing god with it.
But on the side of Dr Blomley’s family, his sister Patsy Graham insisted that her brother was rightly identified. Two of the three army medics present in the picture, Trevor Skinner and Bert Kuijpers, had signed declarations saying that the plasma bottle carrier was really Dr. Jack Blomley. According to them, he often wore a neglected flight suit as its material allayed his problem with prickly heat.
“Anyone from our family or who served with him immediately says that’s Jack. He was a larrikin, but greatly loved, and no one assumes he borrowed the flight suit from Kerry. He just would have taken a discarded one where he found it … The department has handled this terribly,” Mrs. Graham stated.
The Australian War Memorial had given the ruling that it was really Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams in the picture in 2013. Their decision was reached based on the substance presented by the evidences of the flight suit’s name tag,the hairline and the shape of the face.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs had already said on February 28 that they would change the caption of the said picture to rightly identify Kerin Williams in it after inquiries were made by Fairfax Media earlier.
The department also admitted that it did photoshopped the cigarette away from the photo so that the posters could be displayed in schools.
But in spite of this ruling, Dr. Jack Blomley’s family still believes he was the man in the flight suit carrying the plasma bottle. Both families, nonetheless, agree that both men were at Nui Dat on that fateful day.
Kerin Williams was 29 at that time and was a leading aircraftsman from RAAF 9 Squadron. He was standing on the Iroquois helicopter’s glider as it was hovering over the jungle clearing near Nui Dat in the province of Phuoc Tuy waiting to evacuate the wounded among the Australian troops stationed there when the black-suited Viet Cong materialized from the jungle and started firing their AK47 rifles.
The bullets from the enemy’s guns sliced the pilot’s shoelaces, punctured through the Iroquois and a shrapnel scraped through a medic’s forehead but they missed Kerin Williams.
“I was born in Rockhampton but grew up in Vietnam on that day,” he said. ”We went back to Nui Dat … The wounded started arriving and I just jumped in to help wherever I could. It was then that Barrie Ward took the photo,” Vietnam War veteran Kerin Williams, who preferred to be called Kerry, recalled.
During those times also, Dr. Blomely’s personality overshadowed the Nui Dat forward detachment. He was often seen around the camp wearing boots without shoelaces and often shirtless. “Jack the Quack”, as he was called, also had the habit of ignoring the military’s protocol.
But his geniality was a mechanism he adapted to hide the war’s effect on him. In reality, it wore him down.
Five years after leaving Vietnam, he died of heart attack leaving his wife and five children.
That fateful day – August 6, 1967 – hurled a bitter and long shadow over the tow families of the Australian Vietnam War veterans.