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Think Piece: Remembering David Paterson

Thursday 16 March, 2017

Bill Hignett PhotoThe 20 March marks the 46th anniversary of the death of Second Lieutenant David Paterson, the only Australian teacher killed in action in Vietnam.

Six years earlier, David had started his teaching career with the South Australian Education Department in the country when, on 1 January 1965, he was appointed head teacher of Mount Hill Rural School, a small one teacher school with 20 students in seven primary grades near a railway siding in the middle of Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

When he turned 20, on 24 January 1965, David was required to register for the first National Service ballot, and was subsequently called up for National Service. Like all teachers who were teaching in schools and called up for National Service, he immediately obtained a deferment until the end of the 1965 school year. He obtained a further deferment for the 1966 school year as he was still meeting his study obligations.

While teaching at Mount Hill Rural School in 1965 and 1966, David engaged in community activities assisting with the organisation of the small schools swimming carnivals at Port Neill, playing for the Wharminda Football team and playing basketball in the teachers’ team on Thursday nights at Cleve.

Even though he only taught at Mount Hill Rural School for 2 years, David is fondly remembered by his former students. One of his former students Tony Parker told me “he was very good teacher who was always challenging me to achieve my best.”

At the beginning of 1967 David commenced his National Service in the Australian Army.  While undergoing recruit training at Puckapunyal he was selected for training as an officer and attended the Officer Training Unit at Scheyville in New South Wales. He spent the second year of his National Service as a Second Lieutenant with the Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea.

Over 300 National Service teachers, including 27 from South Australia, were posted as either Sergeants or Second Lieutenants to New Guinea with the Pacific Islands Regiment and played a major role educating Papua New Guinean soldiers particularly in the areas of civic and civil responsibilities prior to self-government in 1975.

After returning from New Guinea in 1968, David extended his commission and was posted to 3RAR, then based at Woodside, South Australia.

He married in October 1969 and his daughter Sarah was born in September 1970.

In 1971 David was part of 3RAR’s Advance Party arriving in South Vietnam on 12 February. He was posted as the platoon commander,8 Platoon, C Company.

On 20 March 1971 David was commanding a half platoon patrol in the eastern part of Phuoc Tuy Province.  In the early afternoon the patrol heard sounds to their front and moved forward to investigate. The enemy were well concealed in bunkers and opened fire from a range of 10 metres with automatic rifle fire (AK-47), a hand held rocket launcher (RPG), and a satchel charge. David was mortally wounded and two soldiers were seriously wounded in the initial contact. David ordered those around him to leave and died of his wounds soon afterwards.

RAAF helicopter gunships were called in to support the patrol and one of the co-pilots, Pilot Officer Ronald Betts, was mortally wounded whilst doing so.

From all of my conversations with former students and members of the Mount Hill and Wharminda communities, David is remembered with great fondness as a teacher who enriched and valued their communities. After my own service in Vietnam, I returned to Cleve Area School in 1973 as a secondary teacher, and taught some of the students who were in David’s classes at Mount Hill Rural School in 1965 and 1966. It was very clear to me that David had left a lasting impression on these students.

According to David’s family it was always his intention to return to study and teaching once he left the army.

It is disappointing that, except in these communities, his contribution as a teacher has largely been forgotten. His employment records in the SA Education Department did not record him as being killed in Vietnam and, except for the death and funeral notices, the South Australian Advertiser devoted one line on 23 March 1971 to his death.

Arrangements are being made for David to be remembered during the Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial on 13 July 2017.

If you happen to be in Canberra that day, drop by and pay your respects.

Lest We Forget

Bill Hignett was a teacher at Cleve Area School.  Bill was called up for National Service in 1969. His National Service included a posting to 86 Transport Platoon RAASC in South Vietnam from 7 October 1970 to 19 January 1972. On return to Australia, he undertook a year of study and was re-appointed to Cleve Area School in 1973. Bill was awarded an OAM in the 2014 Queens Birthday Honours for services to the Indigenous communities of South Australia. He is an active member of Aboriginal Veterans South Australia and on the Committee of the Vietnam Veterans Association in South Australia.


David Paterson 1967

David Paterson after he had completed his officer training course at Scheyville in 1967.

David Paterson with students Mt Hill Rural School

David Paterson with his students at Mount Hill Rural School in 1965. The plane had landed in the paddock near the school.





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