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Graham Warburton

inducted 2021 Service

Before Graham Warburton set foot in South Vietnam as a young solider, there was already a mountain range unofficially named in his honour.

The Nui Dinh hills - a stronghold of the Viet Cong - were nicknamed the “Warburtons” or “Warbies” by Graham’s battalion during their training at Holsworthy base, NSW. It was a joke based on the lyrics of a popular song at the time, but this off-the-cuff tribute could not have proven more fitting. On the battlefield, Private Warburton – or “Nug” as he was known – proved to indeed be a mountain: of courage, loyalty and strength of character.

Conscripted in a controversial scheme that was made law without a referendum, Graham, along with many other young men, was selected for national service to fight in an unpopular war, simply by virtue of his birthdate being pulled from the barrel. Graham accepted that his life, which was just coming together, was going to be turned upside down.

It’s difficult to imagine the thoughts of a young footballer conscripted from Warrnambool landing in a country so vastly different to his home: The intense heat, the insects, the torrential rain, the towering jungles and the ever-present dangers of war.

Although only 20 years old at the time of his deployment in May 1966, Graham was a natural leader. He arrived supremely fit and ready to fight and accepted one of the most challenging roles on the battlefield as a forward scout. This is the soldier who walks at the front of the pack - the one who goes first. As fellow soldier and Graham’s friend John Harris explains, a forward scout needed to be keen eyed, cool-headed and sharply alert to possible dangers.

Graham’s job was to look for any signs of the enemy – trampled ground, a trip wire, a bush that looked out of place – while still following the directions of a compass and a map held by a section leader many steps behind him. Graham was, in short, the eyes and ears of his fellow soldiers and their trust was absolute. As John Harris puts it, “it was the most dangerous duty, in a dangerous occupation, in a very dangerous place”.

Graham’s battalion 5RAR was constantly involved in active combat beyond the Nui Dat base, searching, patrolling and ambushing, and coming under direct fire. His leadership on the battlefield drew the attention of his superiors, who were impressed by his calm, his character and his dedication to duty. He was soon in line for a promotion - which he declined - as he wanted to remain “just one of the boys”.

Graham was a popular soldier, with an easy laugh and a good sense of humour who liked to stir his mates, but he was fully attuned to the horrors of war. His own platoon came under mortar attack, leaving many of his friends killed or seriously injured. His company was also part of a “sweep through” after the ferocious Battle of Long Tan, where soldiers had to pick their way across hundreds of dead bodies.

In the face of such trauma, Graham maintained his faith and his strong connection to home. He wrote letters whenever he could and never left a letter unanswered. In these letters, Graham would occasionally offer glimpses of the reality of war and his very human fears. In one letter, he told of “the nightmare over here” and how he “had lost another mate” and “you don’t know when your turn is coming”.

That letter was written in September 1966, just three months after Graham had turned 21, and just weeks before his death. Private Warburton was mortally wounded by a sniper’s shot to the stomach while on patrol in the Nui Dat area on 1 October 1966. He was again the forward scout – the man who went first.

To quote John Harris: “It’s difficult to measure the value of a person’s life that did not extend far past his 21st birthday. (But) if it is measured by the significance and weight of loss placed on it by his mates, family and those who knew him, then in Nug’s case, it is immense”.

The forward scout – the man who went first

Graham Warburton

Inducted 2021