As it happened… beyond the stories – Normie Rowe reflects on the Vietnam War

Normie Rowe
Normie Rowe in Yagan Square

Several years ago, Normie Rowe was called to Perth for a television pilot, being produced by Johnny Young, with a script I’d written.

We assembled with the filming crew at Curtin University where Normie was to be the face of the TV special focussed on the Anzac spirit.

It was, of course, an appropriate subject for Normie, well-known after his Army conscription and war service in Vietnam.

A fellow Viet veteran, tracked down in Perth, was brought before the cameras with Normie where he told the harrowing story of how he was wounded and stranded in Vietnam.

“Then an armoured personnel carrier appeared and a soldier’s arm reached down and pulled me up and away from danger,” he said. “That soldier was you, Norm.”

On that set, Normie rekindled many horrible war memories, working together with his long-time mate Johnny Young, in their support of the Anzac spirit. They were successive Kings of Pop.

Johnny based his haunting hit song, Smiley (sung by Ronnie Burns), on Normie. “Smiley, you’re off to the Asian war. Smiley, you’re all on your own.”

Normie never begrudged serving for his country and proudly wore the uniform and medals. He also copped spite and abuse hurled at returning Viet vets for their roles in the conflict.

Those who came back (504 young soldiers did not) brought mental and physical war wounds, Normie included, with treatment for his mental issues.

Normie had good reason to be angry at finding himself in 1969 in the heart of the war. He had possibly been set-up.

In its misplaced wisdom that stopped the current King of Pop’s career and left him with stress and depression. It is thought Army public relations allegedly slipped Norm’s name in with conscripted men headed for training and war.

A decade earlier, Elvis Presley was conscripted to serve in Germany and photos of him in Army uniform and in the Army barber’s chair were a massive fillip for promoting the US military.

What was good enough for Elvis and America would be good enough for Normie and Australia. All in the national interest!

In 1968, Australia’s top pop star was performing in Bunbury as part of a national tour when he got the tap on the shoulder – not by military or government types or by official letter like other conscripts – but by the media.

Normie was to pack-up and join Army recruits in training at Puckapunyal.

Quickly followed that famous photo: Normie sitting in the Army barber’s chair, his long, locks fallen on his shoulders.

After basic training and freshly-landed in Vietnam, within 24 hours Normie was rushed into action. The media wanted a photo-shoot.

At 6am, the former choir boy and Aussie heart-throb found himself in an armoured personnel carrier, heading out of Australia’s base at Nui Dat to help count and deal with bodies and collect weapons following a Viet Cong ambush of Australians. 

Enemy bodies were piled together and blown up with explosives – Normie’s introduction to an engineer’s burial. Dark memories of these horrors were to surface much later during his mental treatment in Australia.

Years later, Normie Rowe, 74, despite his mental scars, post-war treatment, loss of mates in Vietnam and de-railed singing career, demonstrated in Perth that he has come to terms with his fate and can still be enlisted to tell it as it happened. In the ANZAC spirit.