I Was Only Nineteen
|"I Was Only Nineteen"|
|Single by Redgum|
|from the album Caught in the Act|
|A-side||"I Was Only Nineteen"|
|Redgum singles chronology|
"Only Nineteen", "I Was Only Nineteen" or "A Walk in the Light Green" is the most widely recognised song by Australian folk group Redgum. The song was released in March 1983 as a single, which hit number one on the national Kent Music Report Singles Chart for two weeks. It was also recorded for Redgum's live album Caught in the Act (Epic Records) released in June, which stayed in the top forty of the Kent Music Report Albums Chart for four months. Royalties for the song go to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. It is in the Australasian Performing Right Association's Top 30 Australian Songs of all time.
The song is a first-person account of a typical Australian soldier's experience in the Vietnam War, from training in Australia to first hand exposure to military operations and combat, and ultimately his return home disillusioned, psychologically scarred and possibly suffering from the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
Contrary to popular belief, the subject of this song is a volunteer member of the Australian Army, and not a conscript. Australian men did not become eligible for conscription until the age of 21.
Redgum's lead vocalist-guitarist, John Schumann, wrote the song based on experiences he heard from veterans — particularly Mick Storen (his brother in-law) and Frankie Hunt: "The power derives from the detail, provided by my mate and brother-in-law, Mick Storen, who was brave and trusting enough to share his story with me." — John Schumann
For the live version, Schumann explained the title, "A Walk in the Light Green", as referring to operational patrols in areas marked light green on topographical maps, where dark green indicated thick jungle, plenty of cover and few land mines and light green indicated thinly wooded areas, little cover and a high likelihood of land mines.
The Australian Vietnam Veterans' "Welcome Home Parade" was held in Sydney on 3 October 1987 and was followed by a concert in The Domain where Redgum's Schumann performed his song with veteran Frank Hunt on stage. From this parade, a desire for a War Memorial to commemorate Vietnam Veterans grew into fruition with the Memorial's dedication in October 1992. Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial was constructed in Anzac Parade, Canberra in 1992 and includes a "Wall of Words": "Stele B, the northern or right-hand stele, is adorned with a series of 33 quotations fixed in stainless steel lettering." Amongst the quotations is:
Then someone called out "contact" and the bloke behind me swore, and we hooked in there for hours, then a god-almighty roar. Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon. God help me, he was going home in June.
A "normal language" explanation of each quote has been included, courtesy of the late Brigadier Alf Garland:
This is a quotation from the song 'I was only 19' by the Australian singing group "Red Gum" [sic]. It relates to a fire fight that had lasted for some hours when an explosion occurred. "Frankie", one of the soldiers had kicked (tripped) a landmine. In the song he died on the same day that the US put a man on the moon for the first time. Frankie was supposed to be returning home to Australia on completion of his tour in June of that year.
At the 40th-year commemoration of the Battle of Long Tần, 18 August 2006, veterans were accompanied by Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddle at the Long Tan Cross; following the commemoration a concert was held at Vũng Tàu where Schumann (and The Vagabond Crew) sang "I Was Only Nineteen." He also introduced Long Tần veteran Storen as the source for the song. For an SBS TV special Vietnam Nurses (2005), director Polly Watkins chose "Redgum and John Schumann's song 'Only Nineteen' during the Welcome Home Parade in 1987 because it is integral to one of the nurses' stories." Frank Hunt provides an account of his Vietnam experiences, titled "I Was Only Nineteen", in Gina Lennox' book Forged by War (August 2006).
After Schumann had received letters of request from active soldiers in Afghanistan and East Timor he sought permission to visit the troops but obtained no answer. A reporter published an article on the situation, authorities gave permission for Schumann to tour East Timor in December 2009 and entertain Australian and New Zealand troops. In September–October 2011 he played for Australian troops in Afghanistan.
The lyrics include words, terms and place names particular to Australia and Vietnam:
- ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in the world wars. Originally the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
- Canungra: the jungle warfare training centre near Canungra, Queensland.
- Channel Seven: Australian television network.
- Chinook: Military helicopter.
- Contact!: Military term indicating contact with the enemy. Will also contain direction of contact either contact left, contact right, contact front or contact rear.
- Dustoff: Casualty evacuation by helicopter.
- Greens: Jungle Green Working Dress, the field uniform worn by the Australian Army between the early 1960s and 1989.
- The Grand Hotel: A hotel in Vung Tau that had been converted for Army use.
- Light green: parts on a map which indicated supposedly more dangerous areas for soldiers to patrol as there was little dense foliage and cover and an area which was more likely to be mined.
- Nui Dat: Village in Bà Rịa province in Southern Vietnam, and the main base of 1st Australian Task Force from 1965 to 1972.
- Puckapunyal: Former Army enlisted soldier recruit training centre in Victoria.
- Shoalwater: Military exercise area in Queensland.
- Sixth Battalion: (aka 6RAR) Australian army battalion, whose D Company had been involved in the Battle of Long Tan during a tour three years earlier.
- Slouch hat: Parade head-dress for the Australian army.
- SLR: Standard 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle issued to Australian infantrymen during the Vietnam War.
- Tinnies: Cans of beer.
- Townsville: City in Queensland, home of the Australian Army's 3rd Brigade & RAAF Base Townsville. Also at the time the embarkation point for troops shipping to Vietnam from all around Australia, because it was the biggest port in Northern Australia.
- VB: Victoria Bitter (beer). Was also used as a reference to one's comrades in arms aka "Venerable Brethren." e.g: "We made our tents a home VB with pin-ups on the lockers, and an Asian orange sunset through the scrub." (A reference to the defoliant, "Agent Orange" used prolifically in Vietnam).
- Vũng Tàu: Coastal city in Southern Vietnam which was the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group base and a rest area for troops based at Nui Dat.
When the song was first released, Rick Melbourne, a breakfast radio announcer, produced a parody version of the song, including the lyrics "God help me, she told me she was sixteen". Australian country singer John Williamson recorded a live version as "Only 19" and released it on his 1984 vinyl LP, The Smell of Gumleaves (rereleased in 1996 as a CD under the title Home Among the Gum Trees).
The song's and album's producer, Trevor Lucas, performed his version as a member of his United Kingdom-based group Fairport Convention at the 1985 Cropredy Festival. On the show Fast Forward, Gina Riley, in character as Eleanor LaGore, performed a swing version of the song.
The song was covered by Australian Army Band The Lancer Band in 2015 in the lead up to ANZAC Day. The cover gained positive widespread attention in the media.  It differed from most covers as it was performed by soldiers and sung by a female soldier.
- "I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green)" (John Schumann) - 4:19
- "Yarralumla Wine" (Michael Atkinson) - 2:33
Single version "I Was Only Nineteen" (March 1983) – 4:19
Only Schumann and McDonald of Redgum played on this track:
- John Schumann – lead vocals, guitar
- Hugh McDonald – violin, vocals
- Brian Czempinski – drums (later became a member of Redgum)
- Trevor Lucas – backing vocals, producer
- Peter Coughlin – bass guitar
Caught in the Act live version, "I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green)" (1983) – 5:57
Schumann introduces the song and explains the phrase 'A Walk in the Light Green' which he gives as its title. Recorded at The Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Hotel (aka Three Weeds Hotel) in Rozelle, New South Wales:
- Michael Atkinson – guitar, mandolin, piano, vocals
- Hugh McDonald – violin, vocals
- John Schumann – lead vocals, guitar
- Verity Truman – flute, tin whistle, vocals
- Trevor Lucas – producer
- Jim Barton – engineer
John Schumann released the song as an acoustic single on iTunes to commemorate 30 years since the song's original release. The single was the version recorded for the 2008 Vagabond Crew album Behind The Lines.
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- Schumann introduces the live version of the song with an explanation including "...it's about two mates of mine who went to Vietnam, came back Agent Orange victims...".
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- Radio operator Private Frank Hunt did not step on the M21 mine on 21 July 1969, at Hoi My, South Vietnam, but was so seriously injured by the blast that he was repatriated to Australia. It is uncertain in what sense the songwriter had meant that he was going home in June, the month before.
- "MEDIA ALERT Frankie kicked a mine; mankind kicked the moon" (PDF). awm.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-02-26.
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- "Storyline Australia behind the scenes: director Q & A". sbs.com.au. Archived from the original on 2006-08-30. Retrieved 2008-01-23.
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- ABC Music John Schumann on ‘I Was Only 19’ - Thirty Years On + Acoustic Single