Four decades after its powerful lyrics resonated with the nation, John Schumann’s I Was Only 19 is still a unifying force.
A carefully constructed narrative that evokes emotion and conjures up harrowing images of war and its aftermath, I Was Only 19 has become an unofficial national anthem.
John penned the song in his backyard. It changed his life, and the way Australia saw its Vietnam veterans and how Vietnam veterans saw themselves.
"I’ve always thought 19 is the irrefutable argument, the counterargument to people who say songs can’t change the world."
The song eloquently captured the experience of the country’s Vietnam veterans and communicated what many of them struggled to share.
John went on to recount one of the many stories shared with him over the years, of a Vietnam veteran who heard the song on his car radio. So struck by it, he pulled over.
“The first thing that Vietnam veteran said he did is he cried,” said John.
The former frontman of the band Redgum knows he could have easily been one of those veterans. Instead, he had friends that got the call up. They returned fundamentally altered.
"I did feel very sorry for our diggers who found themselves, through no fault of their own, fighting in an unpopular war and not being treated very well when they returned."
While the Vietnam War seemed to become a thing of the past for many, John lived with constant uneasiness over what had happened to Vietnam veterans during and after their deployment.
Writing a song about the Vietnam War had been on John’s agenda for a while, but he wanted it to be authentic and unique.
When Don Walker wrote Khe Sanh for the band Cold Chisel, John lost a little hope.
“Everyone went ballistic over that. I thought to myself ‘well, that’s it, he’s pipped me at the post, so that’s that idea gone.’”
He also wasn’t prepared to base a song on his imagination or from media reports. The authenticity of the veteran experience was key.
As fate had it, he met the bloke who would ultimately not only be the muse for I Was Only 19, but who would also become his brother-in-law.
Mick Storen served in Vietnam with 6RAR.
“When I was starting to go out with Denny, who is now my wife, she told me that Mick was in Vietnam and didn’t like to talk about it and not to mention it. So, I didn’t.”
That was until one night when Mick went to see Redgum perform.
“I was full of adrenalin and beer and ignoring the advice, I said to him ‘look, I’d really like to write a song, would you talk to me?’”
Much to John’s surprise, Mick said yes -- but with a couple of conditions.
The first was that John didn’t denigrate Vietnam Veterans.
“That was not my intention at all so I was able to convince him that I had a great deal of sympathy.”
The second was that Mick would hear the song first, and if he didn’t like it, it wouldn’t see the light of day.
“I agreed to both of those.”
A few months later the pair met and John, armed with cassettes to record the chat, interviewed Mick.
“We just talked and he showed me photographs and odd bits of memorabilia he had from his time.”
John listened to the tapes off and on for the next few months. Then, one Sunday morning after a late gig the night before, John eventually woke. He took a guitar, a packet of cigarettes, a coffee, a foolscap pad of paper and a red pen into his backyard.
"I wrote Only 19 in 15 minutes."
John said it wasn’t a consciously constructed work, but rather one that cooked away on the back element of the creative stove.
“When I took the lid off, there it was.”
The song was released in March 1983, eight years after the Vietnam War ended.
John said, “Denny and I were backpacking through Indonesia on our honeymoon. We hadn’t been in contact with anybody for like, six weeks or something, so I didn’t know.”
The honeymooners stopped at a post office in Jakarta only to find a deluge of mail from home.
“I remember we sat down in the gutter outside the post office with a pile of telegrams essentially trying to work out what had gone on.”
Once they made sense of it all, John realised I Was Only 19 had risen to the top of the Australian charts.
“The things that I have done, the people that I’ve met, things that I’ve seen, would not have happened without I Was Only 19.”
Performing this song is special every single time for John, but there have been some performances that made his spine tingle a little bit more, including the 1987 Vietnam Veterans welcome home parade in Sydney.
“That was just me and my guitar. The Domain was full of people, veterans and their families. It was pretty amazing.”
He also spoke about the time he played it with his band The Vagabond Crew in Tarin Kowt at the height of the war in Afghanistan.
And if those moments aren’t enough, John is often still approached about the impact of his song.
“I remember being told by some SAS guys that when they got through their SAS course, they packed up in the barracks, put their bags outside their room and stood in the corridor, turned the lights down and played I Was Only 19 over the speakers.”
A current serving soldier referred to I Was Only 19 as ‘our song’, a term John takes to heart.
"That’s a great honour, but it also bestows responsibility on me and I’ve got to protect it."
While fighting off those who want to misappropriate the song, John is supportive of respectful versions.
A cover of I Was Only 19 was recorded by Augie March frontman Glenn Richards to aid the RSL’s 2023 ANZAC Appeal.
Glenn and Augie March also performed the song during this year’s ANZAC Day footy match in front of a record ANZAC Day crowd of over 95,000 people.
“Glenn is a fine musician and a fine songwriter. He did a really lovely version, and there have been some great versions…”
Hip-hop band The Herd recorded their version of the song in 2005, which reached number 18 on this year’s Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown.
In a new collaboration, John is working on a version of the song with The Waifs.
“I’m really excited about The Waifs, I’ve been a big fan of theirs, and it’s a bit of a different interpretation.”
As the song has taken on a life of its own, reinterpreted and recreated for newer, different audiences, the man behind it has also been acknowledged. John’s significant service to the veteran community, music, and community was recognised when he received an AM in the 2022 Australia Day Honours. A fitting award for the creator of a piece of true, iconic Australiana.