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Errol Wayne Noack (1945–1966)

by John Knott

This article was published:

Errol Wayne Noack (1945-1966), fisherman and soldier, was born on 28 March 1945 in North Adelaide, only child of Australian-born parents Walter Heinrich Noack, mechanic, and his wife Dorothy Muriel, née Wilson. Errol's mother 'cleared out when he was just a baby'. Raised by his father and, for a time, by his aunt and uncle, he completed his schooling at Concordia College, Highgate.

After being employed in a number of jobs, Noack joined his father and worked as a tuna fisherman. A good-looking young man, he was 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, with fair hair, blue eyes, firm features and a brooding expression. He enjoyed spear-fishing and skin-diving. In November 1964 the Federal government introduced a system of national service, whereby 20-year-old males were selected by ballot for two years full-time service in the Australian Regular Army. The conscripts could be sent abroad. Noack did not welcome being called up, but 'decided to make the most of it'. He was among the first intake of national servicemen to be enlisted on 30 June 1965.

Noack settled easily into life as a 'nasho'. His nickname, 'Flex', suggests that he had an easygoing personality. He completed basic training and was posted as a rifleman to the newly raised 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, based at Holsworthy, New South Wales. While on exercises in Western Australia, he began a relationship with Sandra Harrison, a 17-year-old who lived in Perth. She believed that they would marry when he completed national service. Having belatedly celebrated his 21st birthday with his family in Adelaide on 8 May 1966, he left Australia four days later for the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

5RAR's first operational task was to clear suspected People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) from around Nui Dat, the proposed base for the 1st Australian Task Force. A member of No.5 Platoon, 'B' Company, Noack was flown in by helicopter on the morning of 24 May 1966. The weather was hot and the soldiers struggled to push through the dense scrub in single file. Late that afternoon 'B' Company made camp for the night. With 'A' Company operating close by, a forward listening post was set up to warn if they, or the enemy, approached. Members of No.5 Platoon, including Noack, were chosen for this duty.

As his party moved through the scrub, it was suddenly fired upon. Everyone went to ground and returned fire. During a pause, Noack rose to move to another position and was hit in the side by a bullet from a sub-machine gun. Whether or not the Viet Cong had initiated the action, it soon became apparent that 'A' Company and 'B' Company were shooting at each other. When the firing stopped, Noack was still conscious. He died in a helicopter on the way to hospital at Vung Tau.

The death of the first national serviceman in Vietnam was bound to provoke controversy. That initial reports attributed Noack's loss to friendly fire only made matters worse. Major General Kenneth Mackay, commander, Australian Force Vietnam, ordered that the 'plug be pulled' on communications with Australia while an autopsy was held and senior officers made a series of urgent visits to the men in the field. On 25 May Mackay reported that Noack 'had been killed by enemy gunfire'. Although Mackay's account became the official explanation, the men of 'A' and 'B' companies remained convinced that Noack died 'as a result of a tragic error'.

In death Noack became a symbol of the small but growing anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia. His uncle said that the family wanted no 'propaganda . . . made out of Errol's death'. None the less, protests escalated. On Adelaide's Cross of Sacrifice the following words were written in red paint:

aged 21

On 1 June a large crowd gathered in Adelaide for his military funeral. The army flew Sandra Harrison from Perth so that she could attend. Noack was buried in the Derrick Garden of Remembrance, Centennial Park cemetery. An emergency accommodation house for Vietnam veterans, at Mitchell Park, was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Mackay, Australians in Vietnam (Adel, 1968)
  • R. J. O'Neill, Vietnam Task (Melb, 1968)
  • P. King, Australia's Vietnam (Syd, 1983)
  • D. M. Horner, Australian Higher Command in the Vietnam War (Canb, 1986)
  • F. Frost, Australia's War in Vietnam (Syd, 1987)
  • G. Langley, A Decade of Dissent (Syd, 1992)
  • T. Burstall, Vietnam (Brisb, 1993)
  • I. McNeill, To Long Tan (Syd, 1993)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26-28, 30 May-2 June 1966.

Citation details

John Knott, 'Noack, Errol Wayne (1945–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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