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Peter Nolan. Possums and Bird Dogs: Australian Army Aviation's 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam.

Peter Nolan. Possums and Bird Dogs: Australian Army Aviation's 161 Reconnaissance Flight in South Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, August 2006, $35.00.

Back when I first visited the Australian War Memorial, about two decades ago, the Vietnam War was shown in a small, cramped gallery tacked onto the end of most people's tours. I recall an old TV showing period news coverage, mannequins dressed as an Australian and Viet Cong in the 'jungle', and the real treat of a Sioux helicopter of 161 (Independent) Recce Flight suspended above. It is amazing to think that we have waited this long for a history of this unit to be published.

161 Recce Flight was one of the longest-serving Australian units in the Vietnam War. Its first members were deployed in 1965, to support the 1st Battalion, in Bien Hoa. When the 1st Australian Task Force was deployed to Phuoc Tuy, the unit was redeployed there, and was built up. Using fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, including the Sioux, Cessna 180, Bell Kiowa and Pilatus Turbo-Porter, it was in Vietnam almost until the end of our involvement, conducting tactical reconnaissance, artillery spotting, light transport and other sorties. It suffered a number of casualties, and received its share of decorations.

Peter Nolan served with 161 Recce Flight during 1967-68. He was a member of the ground staff, as were most of the men in the unit. The nature of his service has perhaps provided a perspective that more unit historians of flying units could do with. Too often, what we see in unit histories of flying units is merely accounts of air operations, with little about the contribution, challenges and achievements of ground staff. This unit history, by contrast, covers air and ground activities well, and it is hoped that others will follow the example. Also to be commended is the veteran's realisation that service in the war does not provide automatic knowledge of events; the author has undertaken prodigious research to produce a sound historical work.

The purchase and reading of a unit history, particularly one by a veteran, can be risky. Primarily written for former unit members, and their families, they can sometimes be little more than an exercise in feel good back patting; and often assume background knowledge that many (non-veteran) readers won't have. Fortunately, in relation to Vietnam, a good number of unit historians go beyond this, and Peter Nolan is one of them. He has gone to great pains to explain the activities of 161 Recce Flight. Indeed, the approach taken was to provide a general history of Australian Army involvement in the war, with the focus of course on his unit. A reader who knows nothing about the war could pick this book up and not need to refer to any other book to have a reasonable understanding of what was going on. I imagine this works especially well for veterans, their families and general readers, and it may have assisted in procuring a commercial publisher. Readers who know more about the war could feel there is too much information. Fortunately, the background is provided in such a way that it is possible to skip a few sections and still get a lot out of this book.

Something that is becoming a little too common in published histories nowadays is that quotations of veterans are either too common or too long (or both). (I have been guilty of it myself.) In this book, the instances of quotations are well controlled, except that a few are too long. This is a minor bugbear, and it should not detract from what is otherwise a very worthwhile unit history. The author and publisher are to be commended for a well-researched, informative and balanced unit history.
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Moreman, John
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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