I Was Only 19 was a song written by John Schumann from the first-hand account of Mick Storen, a regular soldier who was a veteran of the Vietnam war, and a survivor of the Battle of Long Tan. Schumann met Storen through his girlfriend Denise (referred to as Denny in the song) who was Mick Storen’s sister, the song is told from Mick’s perspective in the first person, and also included contributions from Frank Hunt who served with Storen in Vietnam
The single version of this song was recorded in March 1983 by two Redgum members – John Schumann (vocals,guitar) and Hugh McDonald (violin, vocals), at the CBS studios (Syd) with session musicians Brian Czempinski (drums), Peter Coghlan (bass) and producer Trevor Lucas singing backing vocals. A live version of the song which was included on the band’s album Caught In The Act (#5 in ’83) was also recorded in 1983 by Redgum at the Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle Hotel in Rozelle (NSW).
The band at that time were left to right below – Hugh McDonald (violin, vocals), John Schumann (lead vocals, guitar), Verity Truman (flute, tin whistle, vocals) and Michael Atkinson (guitar, mandolin, poiano, vocals). This version included explanatory comments by Schumann about the meaning of the expression “light green” which referred to the operational patrols in areas marked light green on topographical maps, where dark green indicated thick jungle, plenty of cover and few landmines, and light green indicated thinly wooded areas, little cover and a high likelihood of land mines.
Mick Storen’s father and grandfather had both seen action for their country overseas and typically did not reveal the actual brutality and horror of their wartime experiences, the song evokes the menace, tension and pathos of battle and armed combat with the use of specific place names, words and expressions – Chinooks, SLRs, greens, Canungra, Shoalwater and Vung Tau.Below left to right – John Schumann, Mick Storen, Frank Hunt in 1984.
Schumann decided to write a song for the veterans, but he didn’t want to base it on media reports and his imagination, and when Cold Chisel recorded Don Walker’s Khe Sanh he thought he had missed his chance. But once his brother-in-law Mick Storen agreed to share his memories of his time in Vietnam, he wrote I Was Only 19 based on his experiences after serving with the 6 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), in Vietnam in 1969. Frank Hunt below in 1969.
The song gradually builds through the soldiers passing out parade to action in the war zone and the death of comrades “Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon / God help me, he was going home in June.” Private Frank Hunt (above) was in the same unit as Mick Storen and although it wasn’t Private Hunt who died when the mine exploded, he was badly injured, it was his commanding officer Lieutenant Peter Hines who was killed in the same incident , but Schumann chose not to identify him in the lyrics, out of respect for his family.Below Diggers on patrol during the Battle of Long Tan.
Schumann recalled the day he wrote the song “We’d done a gig in Gippsland the night before, and I was living with a friend David Sier, in his little terrace house in Carlton North. I went out to a tiny cottage garden in the backyard, sat down on a small bench in the sunshine, with my guitar and wrote the song … it took about thirty minutes.” But apparently it was pretty scary playing the song to Storen who Schumann recalled “was not very demonstrative at the best of times, but he liked it and told me to make sure that Frankie (Hunt) also approved, which he did.”
I Was Only 19 is a simple protest/ folk song which only occasionally adapts the facts to accommodate the structure and rhythm of the song, some special effects are also incorporated to heighten dramatic effect but only sparingly. John Schumann’s deadpan laconic vocals provided the perfect foil for the withering and unerringly realistic lyrics, and the musical accompaniment of guitar, violin, drums and bass was subtle and moving.
Mick Storen (above) was only 19 when he left for Vietnam, a wide-eyed, adventurous and confident young soldier, but like so many veterans he returned to Australia changed, damaged, struggling to adapt to a civilian environment where he his efforts were either ignored or vilified, grappling with the impact of PTSD, and exposure to Agent Orange, feeling dispossessed and marginalised in a country he had fought for. Below the huge Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in Melbourne in 1970.
The song resonated with the public, and apart from Goanna and Midnight Oil, few Australian bands of the 80’s could boast such a fiercely outspoken, passionate and combative outlook as that of Redgum. The royalties from the song were donated to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia and four years after the song was released the Vietnam veterans were belatedly honored with a “Welcome Home Parade” in October 1987.
I Was Only 19 is a genuine Australian classic, it charted #1 when released before the Caught In The Act album, stayed on the charts for four months and was rated by APRA as one of the best thirty songs written in the period 1926-2001. An excerpt from the song’s lyrics are now enshrined on the Wall of Words which forms part of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Anzac Parade, Canberra –
“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.”
I Was Only 19 and the album Caught In the Act were produced by Trevor Lucas, an Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer who had relocated to the UK in the 1970s where he joined the legendary Fairport Convention, was briefly married to Sandy Denys (below on their wedding day) and upon his return to Australia in the 1980’s produced such classic songs as I Was Only 19 and Goanna’s Solid Rock, Trevor sadly passed away in 1989, aged 45.
The promo video was a moving visual image of the scenes depicted in the song, it reflected a strong ant-war message, not an anti-soldier message, and sensitively dealt with the complex emotional issues embedded in the narrative.
The song was unjustifiably denied overseas success as Redgum’s release coincided with the release of a song also entitled 19 by Brit Paul Hardcastle, a very different song in structure which used sampled narration, interview dialogue and news reports to convey the anti-war message, Hardcastle had the international hit and also made top ten in Australia.
Schumann left Redgum in 1986 and Hugh McDonald took over lead vocals, the band would continue to record and perform until 1990 when they disbanded, but Schumann, McDonald and others continued to collaborate on new albums – Lawson and Behind the Lines in 2005, and to perform as the Vagabond Crew, until Hugh McDonald sadly passed away in 2016. John Schumann has also penned a moving tribute to indigenous diggers with his song On Every Anzac Day, and in 2015 I Was Only 19 was added to the Sounds of Australia Registry in the National Film and Sound Archive as a composition of cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.