THIRTY-EIGHT men who left the same high school to fight in the Vietnam War, including one who died in the Battle of Long Tan, have been immortalised on a memorial plaque on the battle’s 50th anniversary.
Staff and students from Padua College, Kedron, welcomed back nearly 30 former students who served in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975.
The veterans unveiled a bronze memorial plaque with the names of 38 former Padua College students who fought in the Vietnam War.
The list includes Kevin Branch and Dennis McCormack, original students of Padua College, Kedron, who fought at the Battle of Long Tan in Delta Company.
Private McCormack, known as ‘Skinny’ to his schoolmates, was among the 18 Australians killed in action in Long Tan.
He was the first Padua College ‘Old Boy’ to die in the war.
The college received news of a second casualty in the Vietnam War on February 8, 1971.
Soldiers from Company A 2RAR on a “search and destroy operation” had been patrolling close to a feature known as Courtney Hill, edging alongside the Long Tan rubber plantation.
Their operation detonated a landmine and the blast instantly killed Private Peter Kowalski, a machine gunner and member of the Padua College 1965 graduating class, and wounded another Australian soldier.
His sister Sabina McDonald was at work when she heard her brother had been killed in action.
She heard the news from her local Kedron parish priest.
“Fr Kenny, he came to where I worked and he came up to see the manager because I saw him coming in and I wondered, ‘What is he doing here’,” Mrs McDonald said.
“I didn’t think anything of it.
“And when he came into the office, it was at the stage where … he couldn’t even come to tell me that he had died.
“He said he didn’t know what to say to me.”
Private Kowalski’s classmates, who reunited at the college for the Battle of Long Tan 50th anniversary, still carry the shocking news of their friend’s death.
James “Jim” Doherty, a Vietnam veteran from the Sixth Battalion, broke into tears while saying the Roll of Honour at the college ceremony, after meeting eyes with Private’s Kowalski’s mother, Erika Kowalski, and sister.
Speaking after the ceremony, Mr Doherty called Private Kowalski a courageous young man.
“A very brave bloke as a teenager, didn’t cop any nonsense, he was very fit, and the only son of the Kowalski’s,” he said.
Veteran Sam Sammartino, a former national serviceman or ‘Nasho’ with Battery 104 in 1969, graduated in the 1964 class at Padua College.
Mr Sammartino, who was a member of the organising committee for Padua Old Boys Vietnam Veterans’ ceremony, had also been in the same primary school class as Private McCormack.
“I knew of him in a way because he lived not far from me,” Mr Sammartino said.
Stepping into his old high school exactly 50 years after the Battle of Long Tan was “extremely emotional” for the veteran.
“When we left here in Grade 12 as we were senior in those days, well it was only another 18 months and I was in the army,” Mr Sammartino said.
“(We were) so young…they only pick you when you’re young.”
Mr Sammartino gave an address at the ceremony, saying those gathered “are here foremost to remember, to honour and to pay our greatest respects to Dennis McCormack and Peter Kowalski who made the ultimate sacrifice”.
He also remembered seven veterans who had since died after returning from their service in Vietnam, Kevin Branch, John Coppleman, Michael Gallagher, Frank Horne, Ray Maguire, Brian Priest and Peter Waters.
“They may be gone but they are not forgotten,” Mr Sammartino said.