BIRNIE, Thomas

Service Number: 18161
Enlisted: 10 May 1963
Last Rank: Sergeant
Last Unit: 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR)
Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 23 November 1939
Home Town: Townsville, Townsville, Queensland
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Soldier
Died: Accidentally shot by sentry whilst re-entering platoon area, South Vietnam, 25 March 1971, aged 31 years
Cemetery: Woongarra Crematorium, Townsville, Qld
Wall H Row A Niche 13
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Grafton Clarence Valley Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Kallangur Vietnam Veterans' Place
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Vietnam War Service

10 May 1963: Enlisted Australian Army (Post WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR)
19 May 1967: Involvement Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant
19 May 1967: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR)
19 May 1967: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161
13 Jun 1968: Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161
16 May 1970: Involvement Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant
16 May 1970: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR)
16 May 1970: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161
25 Mar 1971: Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Sergeant, SN 18161

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18161 Sergeant Thomas Bernie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment Age 31 from Townsville QLD. Bernie did two tours of Vietnam with 2RAR, 1967-68 during which he was wounded, and in 1970-71. He died of wounds at 1st Australian Field Hospital in the early hours of 25th March 1971, after being accidentally shot the previous morning by a sentry while re-entering his own platoon area

Woongarra Crematorium
Townsville City
Queensland, Australia
Plot: Wall H Row A Niche 13


Biography contributed by Susan Brown

Known as "Tom", Birnie was born on 23 Nov 1939 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. One of seven children, he attended the local school before attaining his leaving certificate. he had an outgoing personality and was always the life of a party. He enjoyed sports, particularly Rubgy Union, and loved reading and writing poetry. He joined the British Army in August 1959 and was posted to the Royal Military Police, attaining the rank of lance corporal, but requested a discharge at the end of April 1961 to travel instead to Australia. 

He arrived in Melbourne in May and travelled to South Australia, where he spent some time kangaroo shooting before returning to Melbourne to live with his older brother David. He was taken on as an apprentice fitter and turner in an engineering firm, and played rugby for the Power House Team. 

Through his brother Birnie met Joan Carr, also from Northern Ireland, and soon the two began a relationship. The couple moved to Brisbane in late 1962 and Birnie found a firm where he could continue his apprenticeship. he and Joan were married in March 1963 and a month later he left his apprenticeship to pursue a career in the army. 

Birnie enlisted in the Australian Regular Army on 10 May 1963, leaving his pregnant wife in Brisbane. Joan went into labour while Birnie was at Kapooka, and though he did his best to get back home in time, he was unable to witness the birth of his son, Mark.

After basic training Birnie attended the Infantry Training School at Singleton and was later posted to 2 RAR, joining D Company on arrival. He was known to be an unconventional soldier, which brought him to the attention of his superiors on a number of occasions.

Birnie's battalion deployed to Vietnam in May 1967, and soon Birnie was transferred to 4 Plantoon, B Company. In late January 1968 he re-joined 2 RAR on operations in the field, and after a gruelling year the battalion returned to Australia in June. A close mate had been killed in Vietnam, and Birnie was noticeably changed as a result. 

Birnie was promoted to sergeant in August and was made acting company sergeant major until November. In May 1969 he signed on for a further six years of service and spent much of the year preparing for a second deployment. 

In May 1970, 2 RAR deployed to Vietnam for its second operational tour. When Birnie arrived back at Nui Dat he wrote to Joan, saying that after seeing the base, which to his eye had changed little, "It was like a nightmare starting all over again." Birnie was a prolific letter writer, and often included poetry he had written for Joan and Mark. He penned his last letter home in February 1971, and included a poem called The long hill home. The last stanza of the poem read:

I stand atop the long hill home

With wife and son, we three alone;

And far away in the jungle's mould

The bones of my youth lie stiff and cold

Never to walk the long hill home

On 21 March, B Company, 2RAR was deployed to an area near the Long Khanh Province border. Two days later, following a contact with a party of Viet Cong, 4 Platoon encountered an enemy bunker system near the Suoi Soc stream. The platoon went into harbour for the night near the stream, and in the morning Birnie took a half-platoon clearing patrol eastwards. 

Finding signs of the enemy, he radioed his platoon commander and went to inspect a VC sleeping area. Unknown to Birnie, the stream bent around towards where the rest of 4 Platoon was harboured. A sentry stationed there saw a figure carrying a weapon stop and squat down; not realise it was the other half of the platoon, he opened fire. 

Birnie's forward scout had been in the process of  asking for further direction when the inital burst of fire occured. Birnie was hit and received multiple wounds to his abdomen. After a five-minute exchange of fire, the platoon commander realised what was happening and called a cease-fire.

Birnie was quickly evacuated to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau for surgery, but his wounds were too severe. He died in the early morning of 25 March. He was 31 years old. 

His remains were returned to Australia, where he was buried with full military honours.  

Source: Kelly Michael, 27 October 2016, "The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (18161) Sergeant Thomas Birnie, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Vietnam", Australian War Memorial: [Accessed 22 August 2020].