Vietnam veterans lead Melbourne parade

It was 2am but the sky was bright orange when Dennis Gist arrived in Vietnam aboard HMAS Sydney.

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From the water, he saw explosions and gunfire light up the sky, and says Vung Tau Bay was an eerie place.

Part of the first Royal Australian Regiment to travel from Sydney to Vung Tau in 1965, Mr Gist and his fellow seamen were delivering supplies, troops, tanks, artillery and Agent Orange.

The voyage to Vietnam was his first of many between 1965 and 1972.

“There were floating mines, enemy divers and that sort of thing … we didn’t really expect that. It was a scary place for everyone,” Mr Gist told AAP.

That was in stark contrast with Melbourne on Monday, where Australian Vietnam veterans and their South Vietnamese counterparts led the Anzac Day march down St Kilda Road to the Shrine of Remembrance in the warm April sunshine.

Thousands lined the streets as they marched behind their regiment banners, marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

In what is often described as one of the defining chapters of Australia’s military history, 108 Australian troops defeated a Viet Cong force of more than 1500 soldiers.

However, soldiers returning from Vietnam did not receive a warm welcome – they returned in civilian clothes in a bid to avoid anti-war protesters.

Marching with his grandson, Mike Mihaljcek was proud Vietnam veterans were leading the parade.

“We didn’t think that would happen when the war was over. From those early days, this is great progress for us to be here,” he told AAP.

Along the streets, flag-waving families were there to ensure their children remembered the sacrifices made.

The march had a noticeable police presence. Officer numbers were boosted in 2015 following a foiled terrorist plot.

Alexander Roy Gunning served in Vietnam on three occasions, working in the engine room on HMAS Yarra.

He remembers enemy divers and seamen dropping “scare charges” over the side of the ship, which at times could “frighten the living hell out of you”.

Fighting back tears, he said marching in 2016 was particularly important after burying one of his navy friends just three weeks ago.

“It means a lot today … it all just sinks in,” he said.