In 1967, three Auckland teenagers were surprise selections for a New Zealand team chosen to play at an international tournament in war-stricken Vietnam.
Dave Taylor (16), Brian Turner (17) and Earle Thomas (18) would all go on to long careers, making almost 200 full international appearances between them.
But Taylor almost did not survive the tour, left behind in a war-zone hospital, close to death after picking up a deadly virus.
The story of Taylor’s brush with death is recounted in Boots and Bombs, a book by Craig Stephen that explains the emergence of New Zealand football in the 1960s and 70s.
The following is an excerpt from the book …
Rotting in a hospital corridor
By Craig Stephen
Dave Taylor had made his only appearance in the Vietnam match, thrown on as a sub at half-time to give him his first cap and some valuable international experience.
The teenager, the youngest member of the squad, had only been a bit-part player in the tournament but would return with some harrowing memories.
Sometime after the match — Taylor can’t recall precisely when, but it was likely to be the day after the match — he was lying lifeless on a bed in the corridor of a Saigon hospital.
He was gaunt and dishevelled after being struck by a vicious virus. Initially, at least, he had the company of his mates who came to visit him, though he was barely conscious. Soon, he would be left alone as the rest of the squad returned home.
Taylor hadn’t been left to recover from his illness; he’d effectively been left to die.
His teammates had been told by coach Juan Schwanner that he couldn’t survive the viral infection he had picked up and that it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to it.
Taylor tells me this story in a bar in Epsom, Auckland, with Turner alongside him, having very much survived his ordeal in the French hospital. After recovering and returning home, he played 64 times for his country over the next 14 years.
While he doesn’t recall the timeframe, Taylor certainly remembers how rapidly his illness developed once he first felt the pangs of sickness in the hotel.
There’s no subtle way of explaining a serious viral infection so I’ll leave it to the attacking midfielder to do so.
“It was coming out black at both ends. If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist it was just like that. I had no self-control, the bed was a complete mess.
“I was rooming with Brian and when it started, the air was filled with this really putrid smell. Someone called in the Australian doctor who said I had to go to hospital immediately.”
“It wasn’t a nice sight at all,” Turner says of his mate then and now.
“He was stuck out in a corridor in the hospital, he didn’t have his own room or anything, and he was in a very bad state. It was just … awful. We all felt for him.”
Turner believes Dr Brian Corrigan’s decision saved his life, and if Australia hadn’t gone to the tournament, Taylor wouldn’t be around today.
“He was pretty close to death; that’s what Schwanner told us all,” he says.
“It’s easy to be critical afterwards. Looking back now, you ask yourself why New Zealand Football didn’t think of taking a doctor along when we were going to a hot country like Vietnam.”
After visiting his colleague, John Legg said Taylor looked drained and very weak.
“He had drips on his arm and he was pretty depressed because he was stuck in a hospital in a foreign country which wouldn’t have been much fun I would imagine with no one who could really speak English.”
Those language barriers prevented the teen from finding out precisely what the problem was. The only people who could visit him once the party left were two Vietnamese women from the New Zealand Embassy who came to the hospital most days but could only speak pidgin English.
Schwanner was able to speak some French from his travels, so he was able to discern from the medical staff something about his condition.
The coach felt he had to tell the squad the grim news before they saw him for what was likely to be one final time.
“Schwanner took us all into the hospital and told us that this would be the last time we would ever see him,” says defender Paul Rennell.
“And, well, of course, we were all just devastated. He was only a young boy, just 17, and he’s being left behind in the hospital to die. It was heart-wrenching. You really felt for him and for his parents back home.”
When Taylor was moved out of the corridor, he shared a room with a Vietnamese boy around the same age who had been badly wounded in a bomb attack.
The hospital was full of patients with limbs blown off or with other terrible injuries.
The boy’s mother was staying in the same room and made food for her son on a small cooker she hid from staff, and ate the hospital food herself. The Vietnamese boy died of his injuries.
Taylor has no idea why he got so ill as he was eating the same foods as everyone else at the hotel. But he says with an air of resignation that it was virtually inevitable that someone was going to get the virus and it just happened to be him.
No one remembers the food with any affection. There were weevils in the bread rolls and they had to pick them out. The tiny critters were even found in the rice.
Taylor was by far the worst sufferer but other players also fell ill, though they only had a bug for about 24 hours. The food was described as very oily and unappetising.
“We had no choice but to eat the hotel food. We didn’t have the money to eat out,” says Earle Thomas.
“The Aussies were getting all their food from their troops who came into the hotel and cooked it all on the top floor. One day they (hotel staff) brought out dinner and we’re thinking ‘ah, steak, this is great’ and we asked them to get some more of it.
“They told us it wasn’t steak but dog. We never asked for meat again.”
For Rennell, there was one way of avoiding the sickness — he drank beer every night.
“That kept me right,” he says half-jokingly.
Despite Taylor’s appalling condition, the management wanted the teenager to go back with them on the plane.
“I was clearly in no fit state to travel; I couldn’t hold anything down. I couldn’t bear the thought of walking down the corridor never mind try to get on a plane,” he says.
The prospect was dismissed outright by medical professionals.
After being discharged from hospital after eight days, Taylor began the long journey home on his own. Despite being relieved to leave the ward and Vietnam, he had to endure an arduous trip back to Auckland.
“I was out of it after leaving Saigon. When you’re grogged up with the drugs and still very weak you’re not compos mentis. I flew from Vietnam to Singapore and had a day there before I got a connecting flight back.
“In the hotel room in Singapore, I just lay there on the bed. It was just like the opening scene of Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen is lying on the bed and the fan is going round and round.
“That’s all I could do, stare at the fan on the ceiling, and I was wondering if I was ever going to get back home. I had to travel by myself, all the party was gone by then.”
The New Zealand squad
Main photo: The New Zealand team that visited Vietnam in 1967. Back row (left to right): Gary Lake, Colin Latimour, Istvan Nemet, Dave Taylor, Jim Ferrier.
Middle row (left to right) Neville Siebert, Juan Schwanner (coach), Alex Caldwell, Paul Rennell, Brian Turner, Earle Thomas, Mr R. E. McDonald (Referee), Owen Nuttridge.
Front row (left to right): Ray Mears, Tony Gowans, Colin Shaw, Jack Cowie (manager), Tom McNab (captain), Gordon Smith (assistant manager), Ken France (vice captain), Jim Moyes, John Legg.
Photographs of Dave Taylor, Brian Turner and Earle Thomas by Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
Boots and Bombs
How New Zealand football grew up in the 1960s and 70s
Author: Craig Stephen
Cover: Dave Taylor playing for New Zealand against Indonesia at Auckland’s Newmarket Park, 1973.
Before Spain 1982 came a series of (mis)adventures that helped shape the national team. Incredibly, a squad was sent to Vietnam in 1967 as the war raged and this ludicrous foray forms the centrepiece of Boots and Bombs.
This extensively researched work includes tales from a disastrous world tour, the riotous visit of George Best and his feted Manchester United team, a ground-breaking tour of China, and the time Alex Ferguson came with a Scottish national team.
With photographs and exclusive interviews, this is the story about an extraordinary period in New Zealand football history.
Boots and Bombs costs $30 plus postage per copy and is available from the author by emailing here >>>>