Schumanns father wasnt too worried about the idea of him being conscripted – “He thought it would do me the world of good” – but his mother was far from comfortable with the idea of her boy going to Vietnam. “I didnt understand why every time I had an asthma attack I had to go to the doctor, but she told me a bit later on that she was laying a paper trail in case my marble came up.”
It wasnt until he was studying philosophy at Flinders University that Schumann started to learn more about the war in Vietnam.
“By the time I got to university, the war was in its final hours,” he said. “I had been in blissful naive ignorance about the war – other than what it might or might not mean for me personally – but once the light was turned on, I became opposed to our participation.
“It was a war of American imperialism, and we had no business there, and I was very keen to see the Australians brought home, particularly those blokes I knew over there.”
Schumann never forgot those who served and how close he came to being one of them.
“I had some friends who went and they came back fundamentally altered,” he said. “And that I think helped give rise to the song because I looked at these guys and again thought, there but for the grace of God go I… The songwriter in me could well imagine myself being sick and psychologically injured and being home from a war that nobody wanted to honour my service in. There was a sense of injustice, and … injustice will always fire me to get off the couch.”
He decided to write a song for the veterans, but he didnt want to base it on media reports and his imagination. When Cold Chisel recorded Don Walkers Khe Sanh, he thought hed missed his chance, but then he wrote I was only 19, based on the experiences of his brother-in-law, Mick Storen, who had served with 6 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) in Vietnam in 1969.
“I was going out with Denny at the time, and I knew her brother had been in Vietnam, but she told me that he didnt talk about it,” Schumann said. “She brought him along to hear the band play at the Oxford Theatre in Unley [shortly before Christmas in 1981], and we all went out for a drink and something to eat after the show … Notwithstanding the fact that Id been warned that he didnt talk about it, I asked him – very possibly on the wings of a six pack – if he would be prepared to talk to me.”
Much to Schumanns surprise, Storen said yes. But there were two conditions, the first being that Schumann didnt denigrate Storens mates. “That was not what I wanted to do, so that was easy,” Schumann said. “And the other condition was that he heard the song first, and if he didnt like it, then the song was not to see the light of day.”
Schumann agreed, and the pair met a few months later at Dennys house in the Adelaide Hills. Storen brought with him a carton of beer and a small cardboard box containing his Vietnam memorabilia – photographs, slides, a couple of badges, a map and a few bits and pieces.
“He came up one night, and we had a long conversation, which I taped on cassettes, and I just listened to those cassettes over and over and over,” Schumann said.
When he sat down to write a few months later, the words just tumbled out. “It was like itd already been written,” Schumann said.
“Wed done a gig … in Gippsland the night before, and I was living in Melbourne at the time with my friend David Sier. He had a little terrace house in North Carlton, and I went into the backyard. It had a little cottage garden and it had a little bench, and I sat in the sunshine with my guitar, and, really, it didnt take very long at all to write the song. It was really quite extraordinary… As proud as I am of 19, that morning I felt as if I was little more than a conduit.”
He admits it was “pretty scary” playing the song to Storen for the first time. “Hes not very demonstrative at the best of times, but he did greet the song with silence, and not unreasonably, I thought that Id really put my foot in it,” Schumann said. “I thought he was thinking, How dare he? This guys a complete idiot and hes going to marry my sister. But no, he liked it, and I was so apprehensive about the whole thing, I just remember he said, Mate, youd better go see Frankie. And he said that a few times.”
In the original lyrics, Schumann wrote that Tommy “kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon”, but Storen didnt know any Tommys and wanted the name changed. It was Storens platoon commander, Lieutenant Peter Hines, who stepped on the mine in July 1969, but Storen didnt want his name used out of respect for his family. He told Schumann, “You can use Frankie, but youd better go and see Frankie to ask him if its okay.”
Frankie was Frank Hunt. He had been badly wounded in the same incident that killed Hines, and in January 1983, Schumann went to visit Hunt at his home in Bega. “I knocked on the door, and I dont think he was very impressed,” Schumann said. “I was this long haired, bearded, left-wing firebrand … but because I was a friend of Mick Storens, he let me in the house, and I played him the song, and he was knocked sideways too. He just wanted to hear it again and again, and I was sick of playing it by this point, so I asked him if could just record the song into his ghetto blaster.”
Frankie agreed to share his story, and when the song was released in March 1983, the impact was immediate. “Everybody I played it to was knocked out by it,” Schumann said.
The song went to number one, and four years later 25,000 Vietnam veterans marched through the streets of Sydney in a belated welcome home parade. For the hundreds of thousands of Australians who bought the record, Schumann suspects it was a way of saying sorry.
“I think I was only 19 provides an I get it moment,” Schumann said. “Australians are fundamentally fair and decent, and I think I was only 19 was a story … that made us stop and think, Oh, shit, we didnt do the right thing by those blokes. It gave us all a chance to look over the fence, and look into the backyards of the Vietnam veterans who lived next door or down the street.
“I think weve learned to separate our position on the war and our position on the men and women who are sent to fight it. And I think thats a very important distinction.”
Thirty-five years later, veterans still approach Schumann to thank him for telling their story and helping their families understand.
“Its the song that changed my life,” Schumann said. “On the basis of 19 … Ive been places and met people and done things that I would never have hoped to have done in my wildest dreams. [But] its no credit to me. The work and the power of the song is, in lots of ways, nothing much to do with me … its the Australian people who have opened their hearts, and their minds, and elevated the song, and drawn it into the pantheon of Australian literature and culture.
“Sometimes I think that I channelled some other force that day … Its almost as if the universe said, Look … its really not fair about these Vietnam veterans. We really need to get everybody to understand whats going on here, and how do we do that? Oh well do it with a song. And they sort of peer through the clouds, and say: See that guy with the left-handed guitar and the stammer, lets pick him.”
The song is now the subject of an online exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. Named after the alternative title for the song, A walk in the light green, uses a range of items from the Memorials collection – including items loaned by families involved with the song and a series of interviews – to tell the story behind the song. “Thats a real badge of honour, and I am genuinely honoured,” Schumann said. “To be recognised in such a significant way by the Australian War Memorial, which is one of our great institutions, you cant help but be very impressed and moved by that.”
For Schumann, one of the most “spine-tingling” performances was when he sang the song for Vietnam veterans in the Hall of Memory at the Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. “Its like playing a hymn you wrote in a cathedral,” he said. “Its very, very special… Im not completely inarticulate, but the emotion of that, words fail me in lots of ways.… It was a tremendously moving experience.”
Schumann says he owes a lot to the director of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson for the opportunity. “Brendans got a really deep understanding of the power of contemporary art, and contemporary music, and its role in the science of commemoration,” Schumann said.
“You never think youre going to write another I was only 19, because you know thats not going to happen – a songwriter gets to write a song like I was only 19 once in his or her lifetime. Thats a real gift, and 19 has been a gift."
Read more about I was only 19 in the new online exhibition A walk in the light green, staged by the Australian War Memorial.
Steve Strevens book, The Jungle Dark, which tells the story of Frank Hunt and the other soldiers of 3 Platoon, is available in the memorial shop.
Claire Hunter is a features writer with the Australian War Memorial.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter