Cross to be or not?

A newspaper clipping from when Richard Norden returned home from Gundagai after being wounded in the Vietnam War. Pictures: CONTRIBUTED

One of the debates going on in Canberra at present is the eligibility of a young soldier who performed an act of extreme gallantry while serving in Vietnam with the 1st. Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in 1968.

His case is now before the Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, to make a decision, after the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal supported his case. As it is the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War perhaps it is hopeful that another posthumous award such as that conferred on Edward “Teddy” Sheahan for his action in 1942.

The criteria for the award of the Victoria Cross are:-

An act of the most conspicuous gallantry in the presence of the enemy.

A daring act of valour in the presence of the enemy.

A pre-eminent act of valour in the presence of the enemy.

A daring act of self-sacrifice in the presence of the enemy.

A pre-eminent act of self-sacrifice in the presence of the enemy.

Extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.

When a previous Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove, himself a Vietnam veteran, read the recommendation of the award from his then commander in Vietnam, Lieutenant Colonel George Halse, Peter Cosgrove was recorded as saying; “I thought that when I read this, this bloke should have got a VC”. But military history is full of heroic actions by Australians that go unnoticed, and it is a good thing that stories such as that of the young soldier who is the focus of the recommendation of an upgrade of his Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) to the Victoria Cross are recorded.

The young soldier in question was Private Richard Leslie Norden who was born on 24 August 1948 at Gundagai, New South Wales.

At the age of 18, he selected the Army as a career and enlisted on 27 April 1966. After infantry training at the Army’s Singleton training base in New South Wales, he was posted to No 1 Australian Reinforcement Unit until 31 January 1968 when he was again posted, this time, to the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (RAR). He then set out for Vietnam with the 1st Battalion RAR on 10 April 1968 and began task force patrols.

On 14 May these task force patrols now became involved in combat contacts with the enemy and had already experienced up to nine contacts. Here is the action that Richard Norden carried out while on a task force patrol, that resulted in him being nominated for the Victoria Cross (VC) in 1968.

It was eventually decided that it did not meet the required standard to get the VC, so he was awarded the second-highest award with the DCM instead.

One of these patrols was remarkable for the extreme courage and devotion to duty displayed by one of its members. At 5.30pm on 14 May 5 platoon B Company 1 RAR, was operating about one thousand metres from FSB Coral when it was ambushed by an enemy squad of six men.

The forward scout and the section commander of the leading section were hit, twenty metres in front of the remainder of the section. Heavily enemy fire isolated the two wounded men.

Private Richard Norden of the leading section asked for covering fire and dashed forward under heavy enemy fire to the section commander, killing one enemy on the way. Having expended his own ammunition, he grabbed the automatic weapon of the dead Viet Cong soldier and fought off the enemy, as he assisted the section commander back to the section.

Although wounded, Norden again went forward under enemy fire and reached the forward scout, killing the Viet Cong who had been using the scout as a shield. Seeing that the scout was dead, Norden returned to the section, collected grenades, and cleared the area, thus enabling the scout’s body to be recovered.

His three attacks into the enemy position resulted in the position being secured. Norden was personally responsible for killing three of the enemy. For his outstanding example in saving the life of his section commander, recovering the body of the scout, and at the same time reversing the enemy’s advantage, Private Norden was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

There is no doubt in this writer’s opinion that Private Norden clearly met the criteria for the Victoria Cross (VC), but sometimes many soldiers in combat go unnoticed for their extremely brave actions and it brings back memories of another act of courage and mateship carried out by a Warwick resident, Warrant Officer Stanley Richard Walsh, of the 2/15th Australian Infantry Battalion in 1942.

Here was an official record of Stan’s extreme acts of bravery for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal which makes one wonder to what more has a soldier got to do, to be awarded the highest military honour.

Throughout the present campaign until he was evacuated sick in the middle of September, W.O, Walsh has evinced courage and coolness of a high order. While the 2/15 Australian Infantry Battalion was occupying the coastal sub-sector, Walsh displayed resourcefulness and bravery on several deep patrols.

In particular, he accompanied Captain Angus on reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory in the early part of August, as a result of which a fighting patrol under the same officer was able to locate and destroy almost the whole of an enemy working party, 25 strong.

During this fighting patrol, W.O. Walsh, who was second in command, was cut off behind the enemy forward posts, but was cool enough to avoid betraying his position until the enemy defensive fire had stopped, then made his way back to our lines. Again, during an attack made by the 2/15th. Australian Infantry Battalion on enemy positions at West Point 23 near TEL El EISA on 1 September 1942, W.O. Walsh displayed outstanding resolution and devotion to duty.

When his Company reached its objective, Walsh was sent to inform BN HQ of his Company’s location. After making the journey to and from BN HQ under extremely heavy shell fire W.O. Walsh saw a runner from another company who had been hit by a shell splinter about 50-yards from the post that Walsh was occupying.

Walsh went out to the man under heavy enemy fire, brought him in and dressed his wounds. Later when the battalion was ordered to withdraw, Walsh picked up the wounded man and carried him throughout the withdrawal, which took place under heavy enemy fire.

During this 500-yard carry, the wounded man was hit a second time, and Walsh halted, dressed the second wound and continued to carry him to safety. The physical endurance, courage and tenacity of this Warrant Officer on this occasion, was an inspiration to all troops who saw him, as was his steadiness under fire throughout the engagement on 1 September,1942.

It must be remembered that the time difference and the field of battle were entirely different. There is a time difference of almost 50 years between these two soldiers’ acts of valour, but it should also be remembered that acts of extreme courage in the heat of battle are timeless, and it is the creation of legends.

Each man, in my opinion, was deserving of the VC and it is hoped that other acts of bravery in battle should be non-political and justly honoured. Also, be brought to the attention of the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal. Apart from the DCM, the only other honour Richard received was that he was posthumously honoured by the naming of the Richard Norden DCM Club at Duntroon.

Richard left Vietnam after being wounded in the action that saw him awarded the DCM, and took a discharge from the Army after his 3 years of service, in February 1970. He later joined the Australian Capital Police Force. He died on duty on 30th October 1972 from a motorcycle accident, and after a service at St. John’s Church of England in Canberra, he was buried with full police honours in Woden cemetery, Canberra, on 1 November 1972. He left behind his wife Robyn and 2 sons Scott and Shane.

In conclusion, Richard Leslie Norden’s action in the Battle of Coral-Balmoral in 1968 in Vietnam, demonstrated all the qualities of the Anzac spirit and should never be forgotten, just as Stan Walsh’s action in World War II.

Tim Barlass, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 August 2023, wrote an excellent article in support of Richard’s nomination for an upgrading to a VC, and is hoped that Defence Minister, Richard Marles, reacts positively to the tribunal’s decision and maybe, just maybe, look at Warrant Officer Stan Walsh’s similar story 82 years ago.