Barbara Frances Black By Indigo Bew

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black was the only Australian female casualty of the Vietnam War. Her little known story has affected the lives of many Australian soldiers, servicewomen and their orphans. Despite returning home from Vietnam as a sick, pregnant, soon-to-be single mother, Black fought hard for the equality of her fellow servicewomen.

Early Life

Barbara Frances Black was born on the 19th of March, 1946 in Sydney, New South Wales, before moving to Victoria in her childhood. She grew up with her father, A.D. Black at 88 Glyndon Road, Hartwell, Victoria, where she fostered a love for piano playing, folk singing and table tennis. Black graduated from Traralgon High School in 1963, before training as a nurse at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne.

Barbara Frances Black in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital uniform. Australian War Memorial.

Barbara Black enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Services (AANS) on the 24th of July, 1967 in Watsonia, Victoria. She completed the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) Indoctrination Course in 1967 before arriving in Vietnam on the 14th of May, 1968.

Service in Vietnam

When Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on the 14th of May, 1968, she was the youngest Australian nurse to serve, at just 22 years of age. Black was part of the second contingent of Australian nurses posted to Vietnam, and served at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau. During her time in Vietnam, she had to deal with injuries caused by explosions, gunfire, mines, shellfire, malaria and fever. She treated civilians and Australian, allied and enemy soldiers with kindness and respect.

Adjusting to life in a wartime hospital was hard for the 43 nurses of the RAANC. A study on the wartime experiences of Australian nurses in Vietnam found that 'The nurses that arrived in 1968 came into an environment in which they were uncertain and clinically underprepared.' SomeĀ of the most trying times at the hospital came when a new dust-off chopper landed with many wounded patients. All the nurses (eight when Black served) would rush to the chopper to perform triage - a process of sorting out the high priority patients to those with less urgent needs. This process was very "stressful and fatiguing" for the nurses, as they had to make quick decisions that could dramatically affect the lives of the soldiers in their care. Yet Black and the other nurses pulled through this hard time with teamwork, friendship and dedication.

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black (left) with Lieutenant Diane Carlson at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau. Australian War Memorial.

Another struggle that Black, and the other nurses at Vung Tau faced was the malaria crisis of 1968. This outbreak of malaria commenced in July, 1968 (just two months after Black arrived in Vietnam), and continued into August, when the admissions to the hospital grew to "pandemic proportions". The outbreak was caused by soldiers not applying anti-malaria discipline, and admissions continued to rise until October, when 258 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were diagnosed with malaria. The influx of patients caused up to 60 beds (out of 106) to be filled with victims of malaria. Despite the many patients, Black and the seven other nurses of the 1st Australian Field Hospital restored many to health - the Australian nurses maintained a 97.4% survival rate for their patients. The nurses' success was based on their teamwork, as many nurses would help out in the malaria ward, even if it wasn't their shift.

Life could be difficult for wounded soldiers in hospital, but Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black endeavoured to ease the pain. As well as providing efficient medication and treatment, she would perform songs for the soldiers' entertainment. Her performances would lift the bleak horrors of war, and help to shine hope, light and humour on the soldiers' situation. Black was extremely well-liked, and helped to lift the morale of many soldiers.

Black was promoted to Temporary Captain on the 2nd of June, 1969, and carried this position until the 1st of December, 1969. 1969 was a very busy and intense year in the hospital. The number of admissions rose to 3839 - a staggering number of patients for 12 nurses to deal with. Towards the end of 1969, Black was diagnosed with Leukaemia. However, the army doctors decided to withhold this information, as the disease was untreatable at the time, Black only had a few more months of service, and she was a very valuable nurse who was needed at the hospital. The doctors also believed that Black would want to stay and help the wounded for as long as she could. However, they did tell her to seek medical attention upon her return to Australia.

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black returned to Australia and was relieved of duty on the 1st of April 1970. During her time in Vietnam, Black's dedication and kindness saved the lives of many soldiers, while her singing raised their spirits.

Returning Home

Upon return home to Australia on the 1st of April, 1970, Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black went through many struggles. She fell pregnant soon after she arrived back home, but her relationship failed, as her partner was leaving to fight in Vietnam. This left Black with the prospect of raising a child as a single mother.

While she was pregnant, Black fell ill with Leukaemia. Although she was yet to be officially diagnosed with the cancer, Black realised that she would probably die from the disease. After researching entitlement rights, she realised that the orphans of deceased servicewomen were treated differently to those of servicemen. Black was outraged, as she knew that the entitlement money would be useful for her unborn child in the event of her death. On her bed at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, where she first trained as a nurse, she wrote letters to politicians to amend the Veterans' Entitlement Act. Her daughter, Emma Black, said, "In between blood transfusions... she would lobby politicians." Black's courage at this intense part of her life was admirable. She was pregnant and terminally ill, yet still had the vivacity and commitment to change a law that would help not only her child, but the dependants of other servicewomen.

"She Fought really Hard, knowing that she was going to die, to change that law so that i could be provided for." - Emma black

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black gave birth to Emma Black towards the start of 1971. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Black was officially diagnosed with Leukaemia. She continued to lobby the government to change the Veterans' Entitlement Act, but unfortunately never lived to see the day justice was served. Barbara Frances Black died on the 3rd of November, 1971 at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Fitzroy, Melbourne, at just 25 years of age. She is buried at the Burwood Cemetery in Melbourne, and her name is on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. Although Black didn't die in Vietnam, she is still counted as a casualty of the war, presumably because she was first diagnosed with Leukaemia during her tour of duty.

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black's grave in Burwood, Melbourne.

Shortly after Black's death, the Act was amended to include equal rights for the dependants of servicemen and women alike. The Veterans' Entitlement Act orphan's pension is now paid to the dependent children "of veterans who have died as a result of war service or eligible defence service."

Emma Black grew up with her grandparents (Barbara Black's parents) in a loving home, and was provided for with the orphan's pension that her mother fought so hard for. Black's fight for equality has helped many female veterans get the same recognition and rights of their brothers-in-arms.

"I am immensely proud of her... for the challenges that she faced with such courage on her return from vietnam." - Emma Black

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black's story is one filled with courage, kindness, commitment and tragedy. Unfortunately, her story - like many servicewomen's and Vietnam veterans'- has gone largely untold. The bravery that Black showed when she was pregnant and ill, and her dedication to change the Veterans' Entitlement Act should be survived in well known legends about perseverance in the face of adversity. The qualities that Black showed throughout her life resonate with those of the Anzac legend - bravery, teamwork, friendship and hope - yet many Australian servicewomen are often viewed as being separate from the Anzac legend. Researching Black's story has resonated with the feminist within me. Her fight to benefit all dependants of servicewomen (not just her own child) is a story that all Australians should know, and I feel very privileged and proud to be given the opportunity to share Black's story with others.

Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black was a woman who improved the lives of many soldiers during her time in Vietnam, and continued to influence the lives of servicewomen and their orphans upon her return home. Her story of bravery, friendship, hope and perseverance embodies the Anzac spirit, and should become an inspiration to all Australians.


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  • Australian War Memorial. (Date Not Given). Temporary Captain Barbara Francis Black. Retrieved January 2, 2018, from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10318040
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs. (2017, November 16). Factsheet DP60 - War Widow(er)'s Pension and Orphan's Pension. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.dva.gov.au/factsheet-dp60-war-widower-s-pension-and-orphan-s-pension
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs. (2017). Veterans' Entitlement Act (VEA) . Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.dva.gov.au/benefits-and-payments/compensation/veterans-entitlement-act-vea
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  • Smith, J. (2016, April 24). Daughter of Vietnam War nurse Barbara Black joins Justin Smith on 3AW. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from https://www.3aw.com.au/daughter-of-vietnam-war-nurse-barbara-black-joins-justin-smith-on-3aw-20160424-goe23d/
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. (2017). Virtual Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces - Barbara Frances Black. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from australia.vmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/43/Barbara-Frances-BLACK
  • Wooloware High School. (2016, May 16). Woolooware News, pages 4&5. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from www.woolooware-h.schools.nsw.edu.au/website/wp-content/uploads/2016/o5/Woolooware-News-T2-W3-Website.pdf
Created By
Indigo Bew

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