Returned & Services League of Australia

City of Wollongong RSL Sub-Branch


Peter John Poulton AM - A Life of Service

Extract from an article Originally published in the Illawarra Mercury By Greg Ellis – May 27 2019

After returning from Vietnam and being assigned to Goulburn as a police constable Peter Poulton was called to a property where a missing person had been reported.

The grim discovery he made of a young returned serviceman dressed in his full military uniform and medals in a shed on the farm triggered something inside which set off a chain of events that has helped him help the RSL help thousands of people.

Mr Poulton soon found himself on a journey to do everything he could to help others struggling. He felt no one should have to face things alone and to this day he is one person anyone can talk to for help.   Mr Poulton has also notched up 33 years service with the RSL helping returned service personnel and their families.

He became president of the City of Wollongong RSL Sub-branch in 1997 and remained in that position until 2020, some 23 years..

In May 2019 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his outstanding work with the RSL and his sustained service to veterans and serving ADF members.

It is the highest honour the RSL bestows and was presented by the RSL NSW president James Brown in a ceremony at the RSL Figtree Bowling Club in front of Mr Poulton’s family, senior RSL NSW officials, representatives from the three tiers of government and the sub-branch committee who nominated him for consistently seeking out challenging leadership roles within the RSL.

They include being active in the RSL’s Central/Southern District Council and RSL NSW Day Club Committee, instituting the Illawarra ANZAC Day Schools program, being instrumental in planning and implementing the Illawarra Centenary of ANZAC event in 2015 and working tirelessly to have the cenotaph and surrounding gardens in the Wollongong CBD significantly upgraded.

But Mr Poulton also made a huge impact for service men and women nationally.   For his leadership role with the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Committee in 1986-87 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.   It came after he coordinated the Welcome Home Parade that saw 30,000 Vietnam veterans march through Sydney to honour the 497 Australians who died in Vietnam.

At that time, he managed to convince the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke about the need to establish the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on ANZAC Parade in Canberra.

Understanding why Mr Poulton has done so much for so many starts with his childhood.   He was born in Sydney and lived in Concord before moving to Crookwell at 14.   His mother Margaret had grown up on a farm near the town and Mr Poulton soon found himself doing wool classing and working in a shearing shed before starting work as an apprentice motor mechanic at age 16.

But shortly after starting his apprenticeship his father died of a massive cerebral haemorrhage. Timothy Poulton had been a war veteran of WWII and had served in the southwest Pacific. And grandfather Derrick Poulton was a WWI veteran who served at Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele.

Mr Poulton decided he also wanted to serve his country.   He spent two years with the 3rd Battalion Royal NSW Regiment which had a detachment in Goulburn. He then applied for and was successful in joining the police and was posted in Penrith, Parramatta and Katoomba as a constable.

“Then in February 1968 I received a letter from the Department of Labour and Industry saying my number had come out of the barrel,” he said.   “I was sent to Kapooka and then the School of Infantry at Singleton before going back to the Reinforcement Holding Area at Ingleburn with the Royal Australian Regiment”.   Mr Poulton then did jungle training before spending a week with his family prior to deployment in Vietnam where he served as a private with the Australian Civil Affairs Unit in 1969.

“I was a driver for a captain of engineers. Some of the places we went the hair would stand up on the back of your neck. We were a support unit. Sometimes we had to stop in Vietnamese compounds when there was something going on”.  Mr Poulton vividly remembers the Battle of Binh Bah, regarded as the second most significant battle to Long Tan.

“We were called in and came in on the tail end of that operation. We were in convoy and when we drove in the smell of gunpowder was everywhere. Then we saw the bodies. There were hundreds and they were just decimated”.

When he returned home in 1970 after a year long tour of duty those images were still raw in his mind. He went back to the police and was stationed at St Marys briefly and then Goulburn where found the remains of that other young serviceman. Mr Poulton said he had obviously been distressed by something he had experienced in Vietnam.

“When I got back to the police station what went through my mind was “what can we do about this”?”

Those thoughts remained when Mr Poulton was stationed at West Wyalong for five years and then Warilla where he suffered a bad knee injury on the job which resulted in a 12 month recovery.   Not long after returning to work in 1984 he was run over at an RBT station and the damage to the same knee resulted in him being discharged medically unfit.

That began a period of soul searching and thinking about what he was going to do next and reflection on what he could do to help other returned service men and women.

The answer came in 1986 around the same time he joined the RSL. He accepted an invitation from the Wind City Veterans and travelled to Chicago for the welcome home parade and was “absolutely stunned”.   “The numbers there were just unbelievable. I came back and said this can be done here”.

Mr Poulton contacted the then president of the RSL and then began organising an Australian welcome home parade. They were told no one would turn out but they were determined to proceed with the event in Sydney. It was about making a real difference for Vietnam veterans and they did.   “More than 30,000 people turned up and 100,000 people line the streets. It was a total watershed,” he said.

The impact was highlighted in a radio talk back show Mr Poulton appeared on with Normie Rowe. A woman rang in saying she would like to thank him. She said the morning after her husband came back from Vietnam he was gone.   But he came back home because of the march and the feeling of acceptance it created. The acknowledgement by the Australian public meant so much.

“There were a lot more stories like that,” Mr Poulton said.

He then found himself at a meeting at Sydney Town Hall with Prime Minister Hawke and raised the idea he and others had of building a national memorial on ANZAC Parade in Canberra.

It was met with a favourable response which prompted the start of five years hard work for Mr Poulton.   The memorial opened in October 1992.   His office for the final three months of the project was at Old Parliament House where he had a clear view of ANZAC Parade.

Returning to Wollongong Mr Poulton helped the RSL out with welfare, assisting with pensions people were entitled and visiting hospitals.   He instituted the Illawarra ANZAC Day Schools Program after seeing a similar initiative in Sydney. It has grown to the point where 25 schools participated in the ANZAC Day Schools Service this year.

The Illawarra Centenary of ANZAC events Mr Poulton was involved in coordinating included a visit to Wollongong by then NSW Governor Marie Bashir.

Mr Poulton received the Australian Achievers Award twice in 1988 and 1993 when he was also nominated for the Australian of the Year Award.

Asked to look back at the last three decades and explain why he worked so hard to accomplish so much for others he said a driving force was still that image in his mind of a young man wearing his uniform and medals in the shed of a farm near Goulburn. And the drastic action the returned soldier felt he had to take.

“The thing that still drives me is unfortunately our younger veterans today are still doing it. And instead of turning to alcohol they are now turning to drugs and living on the streets. We have got to get a plan in place to help them”.

“The RSL has really got it going with Home For Heroes where they are praised and looked after until they can get them back on their feet. But unfortunately some keep dropping out and coming back. The only thing you can do in that circumstance is keep going. We can’t give up. We have got to try and keep trying”.

Mr Poulton said the community can help.

“I would ask people to keep their eye out. And if they have an inkling there is a homeless veteran you ring the closest RSL and let them know so they can send someone and see what help we can give them”.

Other Links

Click here to read an Interview with Coal Coast Magazine

Click here to view the Funeral Tribute for Peter Poulton AM

Click here to see details of Peter’s trip to Chicago in 1986 to attend the Vietnam Vets Welcome Home Parade which was the inspiration for organising the Australian Welcome Home Parade

Click here to read a Speech in 1990 by Prime Minister Bob Hawke announcing the winning design of the National Vietnam Memorial

Click here to view Peters recollection of the lead up to the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home March in October 1987

Click here to see the history and details of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra


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