Tamworth's Wally Franklin will never forget that night at Fire Support Station Coral

Highs and lows: Vietnam Veteran Wally Franklin said it was a relief to finally be recognised with a Unit Citation for the Battle of Coral-Balmoral. Photo: Peter Hardin
Highs and lows: Vietnam Veteran Wally Franklin said it was a relief to finally be recognised with a Unit Citation for the Battle of Coral-Balmoral. Photo: Peter Hardin

Wally Franklin vividly remembers the night the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong poured into Fire Support Base Coral at 2.30am on March 12 1968, and the fierce fighting that ensued.

He remembers his unit not being able to “dig in” sufficiently due to arriving late, but he also remembers burying 90 enemy soldiers the following morning.

What might be even more powerful is his memories of returning home, turning up to see his brother at a Queensland meatworks, only for the meatworks to go on strike until he left the premises, such was the ill-feeling towards the war in Vietnam.

Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of that fateful night, and at a ceremony in Canberra those servicemen were finally given the recognition they deserve, with the Unit Citation for Gallantry announced by  Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester.

The battle of Coral and Balmoral raged on for 25 days, and was the largest Australian action since WWII, killing 25 Australian soldiers and wounding many more, while somewhere in the vicinity of 2000 enemy soldiers fell.

Then and now: The 131 Divisional Locational Battery at Fire Support Station Coral in 1968, Wally Franklin is far left, and then in Canberra at a ceremony to commemorate fifty years since the battle last weekend.

Then and now: The 131 Divisional Locational Battery at Fire Support Station Coral in 1968, Wally Franklin is far left, and then in Canberra at a ceremony to commemorate fifty years since the battle last weekend.

Mr Franklin was in the 131st Divisional Locating Battery.

“Our job was the find the enemy but we didn’t have to try too hard, they found us,” he said.

“We won that battle, but I guess they won in the long run.”

For Mr Franklin that official recognition has been a long time coming, and comes on the back of decades of lobbying.

“To get the citation and to see the relief on the faces of the blokes that fought for it was really good – it was a very emotional day,” he said.

“Just to have our unit, those that are left, all together in Canberra for it, was out of this world.” 

While it is well known that many of those men will forever carry the physical and mental scars of both the war and the aftermath, Mr Franklin said it impacted all of them in different ways.

“A lot of the blokes sort of removed themselves from society and went and lived alone, I kind of went the other way, I went into charities and doing work to help other people out,” he said.

A lot of that work was through his other passion, sport.

Not only does Mr Franklin’s chest and walls of his house bear the honour of his service medals, but these days they also host an Order of Australia, as well as a NSW Volunteer of the Year Award for his almost peerless devotion to sport and community.

When he is not on the sidelines or in the boardroom of local clubs and organisations Mr Franklin is on the road, and most recently two of those trips have been back to the site that fifty years ago he swore he never wanted to see again.

After many years of hesitation Mr Franklin finally returned to the site of Fire Station Coral in 2014 and 2017, and while it is now a rubber plantation he managed to locate the area where he was dug in that night, as well as meeting three of the enemy soldiers he fought against.

“I thought of them as the enemy then, but we were probably the enemy, we were in their country. We were just doing what we were told, and they were doing what they were told,” he said.

“My vision of Vietnam has absolutely changed, it is a beautiful place and the people are very generous, and very forgiving.” 

That night in 1968 also changed his life in another way, after spending most of his time in that battle “dug in” next to Gunnedah man Ian Finlay.

Some years later Mr Franklin travelled from his hometown of Rockhampton to be in Mr Finlay’s wedding party in Gunnedah, where he met a young Tamworth lady named Jill, who would shortly after become his wife.