Wangi remembers the Vietnam war death of Lieutenant Peter Hines who was killed the moment man walked on the moon

PROUD SOLDIER: Lieutenant Peter Hines in a march in Townsville. Picture: Courtesy, Shane Hines
PROUD SOLDIER: Lieutenant Peter Hines in a march in Townsville. Picture: Courtesy, Shane Hines

JUST as millions of others were doing around the globe, Norma Hines was sitting before her television on July 21, 1969, watching history being created.

In her home in the Lake Macquarie village of Wangi Wangi, she waited to see a man walk on the moon. Only she was more than watching. The young wife was scribbling down everything she was seeing, every word broadcast, because that's what her husband, Peter, had asked her to do.

Lieutenant Peter Hines was half a world away, in South Vietnam, and in a war, leading a platoon of soldiers.

"I think it was amazing, man landing on the moon, but it was overshadowed for me," Norma Hines says.

About the same time astronaut Neil Armstrong was uttering those immortal words, "That's one small step for man ...", her husband took one fateful step.

On the moon, humankind took one giant leap. In the jungles of Vietnam, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend was lost.

Lieutenant Peter Hines, the commander of 3 Platoon, "A" Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was mortally wounded when he stood on a landmine.

FAMILY GRIEF: Shane Hines and his mother, Norma Hines, stand before the commemorative plaque to father and husband, Lieutenant Peter Hines, at the memorial in Wangi Wangi.

FAMILY GRIEF: Shane Hines and his mother, Norma Hines, stand before the commemorative plaque to father and husband, Lieutenant Peter Hines, at the memorial in Wangi Wangi.

As Norma was later told, her husband had just been informed on the radio that man had walked on the moon. So Lieutenant Hines was standing to share the news with his men.

"That's when he stepped on the mine," Mrs Hines recounts.

The explosion wounded 19 men. Among the casualties was a radio operator, Private Frank Hunt. In song, it would be "Frankie" who "kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon". That's how the famous line from the Redgum anthem, I Was Only 19 (A Walk In the Light Green), records the moment. But it was Peter.

The official history noted that even as Lieutenant Hines was dying, he continued to calmly give instructions and encouraged his wounded men.

Peter Hines was only 27.

Norma Hines was informed the following morning that her husband had been killed. They had been high school sweethearts. They had married when she was 16, and he was 18. They had a son, Shane, who was eight when his Dad left for Vietnam. Peter's father was a local school teacher. Everyone in town loved Peter. And Peter loved Wangi. Even when he was in officer training in Victoria, he and his young family would drive home for long weekends, just to spend time by the lake.

So on July 22, 1969, word spread quickly through the community that Wangi had lost a beloved son. When his body was returned home for the funeral service, every shop in town closed.

"Wangi was so supportive, they just rallied around," Norma Hines recalls. "Most didn't believe we should be in Vietnam - this was a Labor town - but that didn't make any difference."

What's more, there was a little boy to be cared for.

FAMILY: Norma, Shane and Peter Hines, on the night the army officer was leaving for Vietnam from the RAAF base in Townsville. Picture: Courtesy, Shane Hines.

FAMILY: Norma, Shane and Peter Hines, on the night the army officer was leaving for Vietnam from the RAAF base in Townsville. Picture: Courtesy, Shane Hines.

Shane Hines still has the photo of him with his parents, taken on the night, in May 1969, Peter Hines was flying out to Vietnam. And he has some of the letters his father wrote to him.

In one, dated July 12 and what Shane believes to be the last from his father, Peter wrote, "Daddy goes bush again the day after tomorrow for another month". He concluded the letter with, "Keep on looking after Mummy and give her a hug and kiss for Dad. Be good. All my love, Dad." The soldier also drew dozens of kisses, next to the words, "To Dad's little man".

Dad's little man is now a 58-year-old grandfather.

"To me, he was always a hero," says Shane Hines. "He believed in what he was doing."

To honour his father, Shane Hines and the Wangi Wangi RSL Sub-Branch have organised an anniversary service for Sunday at 11am. It will be held at the memorial outside the RSL Club, where a commemorative plaque for Peter glints in the sun. About 10 of Lieutenant Hines' men from his platoon are expected to attend, travelling from as far away as Adelaide and North Queensland. The service will begin with that Redgum song.

"I always go to my own place when I hear that song," says Norma Hines.

Scott Munro, president of the Wangi Wangi RSL Sub-Branch, Norma Hines, and her son Shane Hines at the memorial in Wangi.

Scott Munro, president of the Wangi Wangi RSL Sub-Branch, Norma Hines, and her son Shane Hines at the memorial in Wangi.

So while the world gazes at the sky on Sunday, Wangi will look within. The gathering will honour a soldier, remember a much loved local figure, and reflect on who - and what - a family and a community lost on July 21, 1969.

"He's part of the culture of Wangi," says Scott Munro, the president of the local RSL sub-branch. "When you lose someone like that, you lose that potential. All the knowledge he had, the respect, he could have contributed that to the community."

As Norma Hines says, "We lost a really good man."

The plaque commemorating Peter Hines at the Wangi memorial.

The plaque commemorating Peter Hines at the Wangi memorial.

Newcastle Herald