Story 56 - A Tour Out Of This World

(From Bible to Bullets)

Part 1

by David Murphy

David Murpfy



A Tour out of this World - Part 1

This account was written to crystallise memories and thoughts that have been spinning round in my head for more than 30 years.  It developed from a wish to make a record of my life for my children and siblings, something everybody should do.  It will never be a best seller but should be of interest to my family and those who served with me.

I started tentatively on the events of my childhood and youth using an old Apple IIe computer in about 1991, just a few years after our first daughter was born.  The writing went well, was finished in about a year and was enjoyed by my wife, parents and siblings.  It covered my life up until I left the seminary but came to an abrupt halt on reaching the period of my National Service in 1968.

For some time, work stopped on the project.  Eventually, I realised why: I simply didn’t want to have to think about my 2 years of Army service, mainly the year in Vietnam – something within me was preventing me from doing what I wanted to do.

That realisation was very galling to me as I am a strong believer in individual freedoms.  I am also very stubborn and convinced myself that it shouldn’t be too hard to write about 2 short years of my life if the previous 20 had been so easy.

It has now taken me another 11 years of stop/start hard work to bring the story to its present state.  There has been much soul searching, plenty of tears at times but laughs too because concentrating on the funny times is a good defence against bad memories. 

You will see that the account here of my pre-Army life has been drastically compressed as it was not my main focus.  I haven’t perfectly reached back from this far down through the years but I’ve tried to be as precise as possible.  At times, I have altered names to protect the identity of those who might be hurt by being singled out.

This is my story, the story of one National Serviceman, moving down the road from call-up to enlistment, through training, on to war service and finally, discharge.  I was not in the “front line” in Vietnam but nor was I ever safe from harm.  At times, my life was at real risk but when you’re 21, you think you’re bullet proof and the “what-ifs” only come after the event.   As one of the support troops, I respect our “grunts” (infantry) for the incredible effort they put in under enormous strain.  On patrol for weeks on end, exposed to the elements, eating from ration packs, never having enough to drink, alert for booby traps, ambushes and all the other pressures of that war, they were supermen.  They should never have been subjected to such prolonged demands but since they were, a lousy $40/week pay - the average wage back in Australia - was like a kick in the teeth.  Shame on any government that could misuse such fine young men!  That misuse continues to this day. 

Why the title?  Well, in Vietnam, we referred to Australia and civilisation as “The World” so it followed that Vietnam was out of it.  Each period of service there was considered “a tour” but what happened there and the way we were forced to live and behave would not be acceptable to a normal tourist.  

I was 46 when I started writing about my Army life, out of the work force 7 years by then, living on 5 acres in a rural area west of Bundaberg.  It was 20 years since I’d spoken to a fellow Veteran, I had never marched on Anzac Day or even watched a march and had no idea that my attitudes, feelings and problems were typical of most Vietnam Veterans.  Since that time, possibly because of writing this story and definitely because of my family’s influence, I have mixed with Veterans and spent a lot of time thinking about our war in Vietnam and trying to locate Veterans who served there with me.

This has forced a re-evaluation of my negative attitude to our treatment by fellow Australians and a self-examination, principally of what forced me out of the work force.  Ultimately, I have come to understand that my war experience has damaged me in a way that is not unique to me (as I had thought) at all.  Many Veterans suffer from common symptoms which limit their lives, sometimes severely.  I am now seeking treatment which should enable me to lead a less anti-social life and I recommend that other Veterans do the same if they can see that they are unable to live life to the full.

I dedicate this story to all Vietnam Veterans.  They were patriots, believers in, and protectors of the democratic processes of our Government and were filled with the Anzac spirit, willing to go through hell for their mates.  I especially single out National Service Veterans who specifically volunteered for the Vietnam War.  They didn’t choose an Army career like Regular soldiers who were therefore obligated to serve in Vietnam as ordered.  They were plucked out of their civilian cacoon by a random roll of the dice, cut off suddenly from family, friends, work, study and social life and thrown into a way of life not of their choice.  Despite all that, about 40% of National Servicemen volunteered for Vietnam service.  By answering the call, they were directly responsible for the size of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, thereby exerting an influence far out of proportion to their numbers.

We were proud to serve.   I salute you all.

David Murphy



I was born in Brisbane in 1947, the second son in a family of 4 boys and 3 girls.  My parents were middle class practising Catholics who raised us with similar beliefs.  There was an insistence on doing as we were told, working hard, treating others well and not wasting what little resources we had.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1My childhood was happy.  Our family struggled financially (as most did) but we never lacked for anything essential, such as good food, clothing and education.  We knew we were loved and believed that our parents would always stand by us no matter what foolish mistakes we made.  Our lives were a good mix of discipline and (in the boys’ case) freedom to move around and do as we wished provided it was within the boundaries laid down.

Brisbane, in the 50s and 60s, was a great place for children and young people.  It was safe and there were unlimited adventures to be experienced in the developing suburbs.

The Murphy boys earn a reputation in the local area (Moorooka) for living life to the full without actually getting into serious trouble.  Sure, there were fights with other gangs using fists, sticks and rocks and, more often, shanghais.  We did things in billy carts and on bicycles that didn’t go down too well with Mum and Dad.  We made our own the big area of bush a block from home, building cubbies, bushwalking, fishing for yabbies, playing Cowboys and Indians and so on. We would come home from all that fun with split heads, broken teeth, black eyes and gashed skin.  Mum took it in her stride, patched us back together and off we went for more.

Naturally, we had a Catholic education which meant running the daily gauntlet of threats and worse from the “Proddos”.  The private school fees also meant a heavy drain on family finances, requiring Dad to hold down 3 part-time jobs at one stage in addition to his regular work in the Immigration Dept.  It taught us the importance of making sacrifices for what you truly believed in.

Initially, we went to the local Convent school where the nuns beat the 3 Rs into us.  The discipline was fierce but we did learn and probably suffered no lasting harm.  From Grade 6 on, my brothers and I travelled across the city to the Christian Brothers College at Gregory Terrace where we finished our schooling up to Grade 12 (or Senior, as it was called).  Discipline was harsher than ever there with a never-ending drive for self-improvement in a competitive atmosphere.

I was introduced to team sports, School Cadets and classrooms where places were determined by ability.  Studying at school was hard with upwards of 50 other students in the one room but homework was even more difficult, particularly in upper secondary school.  We were given hours of work to do each night – many hours on weekends.

Unfortunately, my brothers and I also worked on weekends delivering circulars for a shopkeeper friend of the family.  The money earn was our pocket money as family finances couldn’t stretch that far.  The work was hard, especially in the heat of summer as two of us normally delivered 2500 circulars in the one day.  I did this work every weekend from Grade 7 to Grade 12.

We grew up knowing that the good things of life wouldn’t be delivered to us on a platter.  Everything would come at a cost and would be valued.

Some of the defining moments from those school days were:

Being exposed regularly to talks from visiting missionary priests.  These inspired me to decide at the age of 10 to become such a priest, a decision which shaped the rest of my school years and beyond;

Being a member of the elite class of 15 year olds which, one winter’s day, was brutalised by the vice-principal for an hour and a half.  He spent that whole time standing at the head of a queue asking the Latin and French equivalents of English words.  An incorrect answer brought a heavy whack with the strap.  I complained to my parents about the incident but they took no action, believing that the Clergy could do no wrong.  I don’t blame my parents who always had our best interests at heart and trusted the system but my education would have been nicely rounded out had they taken action against that gross misuse of authority.

Eventually, the end of schooldays came.  Some classmates went down to the coast to booze up, have a good time, score with the girls and worry about whether they did well enough to score a place at Uni.  I went home for a quiet holiday before leaving for the SVD seminary at Marburg.  The last 4 or 5 years at school had all been aimed at this, which I long afterwards realised was a mistake - not only had I made the wrong decision but gone the wrong way about making it.  It would have been far better to have kept my options open till the end of school, perhaps even till the end of Uni. 

A Tour out of this World - Part 1The Seminary was on a dairy farm west of Ipswich where we worked, played and prayed our way through the next two years.  We were shut off completely from the outside world except for visiting days four times a year.  There was no TV, no radio, no newspapers, magazines or non-religious books. There was a rule of silence except for a one hour period at night and an extra hour on Sundays.  It was all designed to help us understand ourselves and our motivations. 

I lasted the distance, took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and headed off to Sydney with 6 others for further study - 6 years of it stretched out in front of us before the ultimate goal of ordination to the priesthood could be obtained.

The routine loosened up drastically.  I spent one day a week working at Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, being a sounding board for the patients to bounce off.  That was an eye opener to just how tough life can be and showed me the fine line between the mentally healthy and unhealthy. 

During the year, we helped out at the Albury show, working the Order’s roast turkey stand.  A number of teenage girls worked there with us and I really enjoyed their company.  From then on, doubts crept more strongly into my thinking about the direction my life was taking, particularly the requirement to live forever without a close relationship.  Eventually, our class went down to Wiseman’s Ferry on the Hawkesbury River for a few days of introspective thinking (meditation).  There, I went off by myself across the river, climbed up onto the ridgeline and eventually reached the decision to leave the Order. 

It was the hardest decision I’d ever made but one I’ve never regretted.

By then, my number had come out of the barrel for National Service but advice had been sent of a deferment as long as I remained in the Seminary.   Young men throughout the country were taking extraordinary steps to avoid being called up but I would have been weak in the pants staying on just to avoid Army service.  There would still be a medical to pass but I knew what the result of that would be because I had passed the Order’s extremely thorough medical only months before.

So I left the Seminary on the 16th September 1967 and headed home to Brisbane and an uncertain future.  I quickly found work in a fibro factory at Newstead where an Italian poofter propositioned me with the biggest “salami” I’ve ever seen.  Factory work was very hard for me as life that year had been soft in the Seminary but eventually I was able to reach my quota of ridge capping. 

Meanwhile, the extremely efficient Department of Labour and National Service amended its records to take into account my changed circumstances and sent me a certificate of registration.  It was only a matter of time before the system caught up completely and control of my life was taken away from me again, this time by the Army. 

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

In the New Year, I accepted a job with the Commonwealth Bank, figuring that long term prospects were better there than on the factory floor avoiding predatory poofters.

To get Army numbers to a level necessary to support a reasonable force in Vietnam, National Service had been reintroduced, with the first ballot on 10th March 1965.  Those balloted were born in the period from 1st January 1945 to 30th June 1945.  Out of a possible 181 birthdates, 96 were drawn so the chances were higher than 50% of enjoying an Army career.  The second ballot in September 1965 had a similar high drawing.  From then on, the numbers levelled out as there was then only a need to maintain the high numbers.  When my ballot came along on 8th September 1967, the chance of “a win” was down to 22%.

Barely 25% of those balloted passed the medical.  The Army was looking for fit, healthy young men and it freely discarded those who didn’t measure up to its requirements.  Shortfalls were easily avoided simply by calling up many more than were required.

Through those two measures of a ballot and a severe medical culling, only a small proportion of the eligible male population found themselves in uniform (my guess is about 5%).  A smaller number still of those (40%), volunteered for service in Vietnam.  A heavy, disproportionate load was therefore put on these young men whose efforts have been unrecognised and badly rewarded.  As the effects of their war service become obvious later in their lives, the nation needs to look at the kind of care it offers them.


Call Up Notice'

You are hereby called up for national service with the Military Forces of the Commonwealth.

You are required to present yourself to Officer Commanding at Northern Command Depot, Ashgrove on the seventh day of February 1968 at 9 a.m.

This notice should be presented together with your Certificate of Registration when you report for service.

There was a certain finality about this notice which reached me soon after New Year, 1968.  In fine print at the bottom of the letter were a few “out” clauses but I knew they were never going to apply to me - an Army future was guaranteed.  I worked on in the Bank, spent time with my family and counted the days down.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

The day came soon enough.  For one of the few times in my life, I turned up early for an appointment.  Nobody could accuse me of being eager to start Army life - it just seemed a good idea to get the nonsense over with early, before the inevitable last minute rush.  So, at 8.30am on 7th Feb 1968, I became a soldier, to be precise, a member of the Regular Army Supplement.

When the last straggler had arrived and been ticked off “present and correct”, a very loud Sergeant herded us into a bunch.  “You men are to repeat this after me,” he shouted,   leading us through the oath of allegiance to the Queen as laid down in our Constitution:

“I (David Murphy) do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her heirs and successors according to law. SO HELP ME GOD!”

The wording had not a single mention of our nation, or the government and people of Australia.  We joined in reasonably loudly at first until we realised what the oath was about and then only the Sergeant could be heard.

We’ll do that again…but LOUDER!”  he shouted.  There was no improvement.

Typically, the Army believed it could not only force us to become soldiers but also to take an oath against our will.  I believe such an action must be illegal.  Anyway, I quietly made my own oath of loyalty to the land, government and people of Australia. 

Then I was handed a “Notification of Enlistment” which, in an amazing display of intelligible brevity (for the Army), told me my name (some Nashos needed to be told that - they were so dazed), rank and serial number.  This information was absolutely vital in case of capture by the enemy.  It and nothing else could pass our lips, no matter how fiendish the torture!

Unfortunately, I concentrated so hard on learning who I was (1733914 Recruit Murphy, D.J.) that the importance of the second paragraph on the form escaped me.  This slip-up was to have dire consequences for me before the day was out.  The paragraph read:-

“This means that you are now subject to military law as well as civil law and must therefore obey all orders given to you by Officers and Non-commissioned Officers of the Army.”

Of course, we’ll eventually get to that story once we go through all the events of an incredible day but first I have to say something about that quote of three lines which was to govern our lives for the next two years.

There we were, minutes into an Army life none of us volunteered for and already we had been quoted our “do’s” and “don’ts”.  There was no explanation about our rights, the consequences and penalties for breaking military law, or the limitations of those in authority over us, nor was anything said about how to obtain recourse if we felt badly done by.  I think it would have been fairer to devote a few hours to lessons on the subject before dropping the heavy hand of military law on us, don’t you?  Still, the basic message was heard loud and clear - we had to obey anybody entitled to give us an order.  No problem there - that sort of thing went with the job.  I didn’t have any difficulty with doing what I was told.  Most of the others would have felt the same but there were some who, for as long as they could, valiantly resisted being ordered around.  Those fools were soon sorted out by experts with loud voices and stripes on their sleeves.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Join the Aircraft

We were formed up into some sort of lines, meant to represent platoons and then we sauntered off to the buses, with Corporals frantically shouting “Lefff, lefff, lefff righh lefff - get in step, you slackos!  Cut out that gab, ya sheilas!”  Why did they bother?  There would soon be endless hours of drilling on the parade ground to get us marching the Army way.

The buses took us out to Eagle Farm where TAA prop-jets carried us down to Williamtown (north of Newcastle) for another bus ride 120kms or so out to Singleton.  Here, we became part of the First Recruit Training Intake of ‘68, with the Third Training Battalion.

This battalion processed four Intakes a year, each one of 450 Nashos.  We joined other recruits from NSW and the ACT, some of us becoming members of the 4 Platoons of “A” Company.  I was in 3 Platoon, Section 1, with Corporal Bluhm in charge.

Our first taste of Army food came with a late lunch (first food and drink since breakfast) and we realised then that we wouldn’t starve but neither would we need taste buds again before discharge.  It must be very difficult to dish up food in such quantities while retaining tempting flavourings and tastes but some organisations manage it.  Army food was shocking!  I think the Sergeants’ and Officers’ Messes were the only places where any effort was made to put quality food on the table.  Right through recruit training, we were pushed very hard physically, needing more nourishing food than normal.  There never was enough.

So Army life was off to a bad start.  I would normally say, “Things can only get better from here” but it wasn’t so that day.  We were on a steady slide downhill.  There were queues all afternoon for gear issues, medicals and then sleeping gear.  In between times, we tried to break the ice among ourselves, getting to know one another.

Clothing and footwear were the first issues.  We had two or three sets of greens, a dress set in khaki polyester, P.T. gear, two pairs of boots, a pair of dress shoes, slouch hat, giggle hat, belts, gaiters, back pack and webbing, water bottles, cleaning gear, sewing kit and so on - the list was endless.  Typically, much of the clothing fitted poorly but then it was never meant to be more than functional.  We staggered away with our burdens to drop them with the small suitcase of personal gear we had been allowed to bring with us.

Now that we had uniforms, it was time to be issued our weapons.  I signed for my SLR (Self Loading Rifle, Belgium FN make), serial number 6406954, almost 5KGs of lethal rifle but innocuous compared to today’s automatics. 

Self-loading meant it was able to fire only one shot for each press of the trigger, quite a restriction on firepower although each round packed a hell of a punch.  All the same, live ammunition was carefully accounted for and we only ever got our hands on it while on the rifle range.  Possibly, Regular Army officers and NCOs rightfully didn’t quite trust such a weapon, while loaded, in the hands of us amateurs.

Then we were back in the mess hall, queuing in front of half a dozen medics who used us as pin cushions, inoculating us against a variety of diseases without bothering to tell us which ones.  (Many years later, my Medical Records show that only a smallpox shot was given but I distinctly remember receiving multiple injections - one was probably tetanus but who knows what the others were – official denials of other injections would be the response to any questions asked.)

It had been a hell of a day, starting off hot and sticky in Brisbane, continuing hot and dry down in Singleton.  We had gone for long periods without so much as a drink, hungry till well after regular lunch time, stood for ages in slow moving queues and then they topped it off by sticking us full of needles.  As if that wasn’t enough to test our patience, we were also subjected to the indignity of a “short arm” inspection.  Not a good start at all to our working relationship.

It was then well past dark, another mealtime missed as they hurried us off to swill some more slops.  This was our first opportunity for quite a while to sit down for a few minutes in section groups to continue the process of getting to know one another.  A few minutes are about all we got too as we still had to endure another queue for bedding before we could actually call it quits for the day.

We were allotted beds on a section and platoon basis.  As Murphy’s Law would have it, two of us were surplus to our platoon accommodation and had to sleep in a 4 Platoon hut.  Naturally, I was one of the two left out in the cold.  This should not have been a problem but you will see in a minute what troubles it caused.

Our platoon must have been well organised because we had all our gear packed away and our officer (Lt O’Connell) had finished his final briefing by 9:00pm.  Some of us were starting to show signs of fever from the needles so he ordered us “to hit the sack immediately.  I want those lights out within five minutes - we’ve got another big day tomorrow if we’re to make soldiers out of you.”

I couldn’t get into bed quickly enough - it’d been a long, long day.  My hut mates, though, were still getting organised so all the lights remained on and there was lots of noise.  I turned away from the light and was just dozing off when somebody started shaking me roughly.  I rolled over, saw an unfamiliar face moving away from me and rolled back.  Only a few minutes later, it seemed, the same thing happened.

This time I didn’t even bother moving.  “Bugger off!”   I said, annoyed.

“What did you say, Recruit?” came a deep voice.

I rolled over and growled, “Bugger off, ya bastard!” 

“You can’t talk to me like that, Recruit.  Get out of bed.  You’re on picket duty for the rest of the night!”   I squinted up to see an unfamiliar corporal, his eyes fairly popping out of his head.

He was Corporal Galoot (not his real name), I later found out, from 4 Platoon and he must have been offended for some reason to find me in bed (probably thought I was crying for Mum!), with everybody else in the hut still up and awake.  I had no idea how to defend myself and within a few minutes was dressed and marching over to the picket hut for all night guard duty.

He had me there every night for the first week.  Theoretically, we had four hours on and four hours off, so it was possible to get some sleep but I was a walking zombie the whole time.  He found fault at will with my bedding, rifle and personal gear.  He was determined, it seemed, to have me on permanent picket duty. 

Finally, my mates persuaded me to lodge a complaint of victimisation with Lt O’Connell who sorted out Corporal Galoot immediately and apologised for the way I had been treated.  (Coming as it did from a Nasho Officer, the ticking off didn’t go down too well with Galoot either!)  Then a place was found for me back in our platoon hut when somebody got an early discharge.

“Great,” I thought. “Now I can settle down and ‘enjoy’ the training.”

Noooo...  Murphy’s Law still ruled.  Cpl Galoot was transferred into our platoon and although he controlled another section, he became our drill instructor!  You should have seen his eyes light up when he caught sight of me and heard my heart thud into my boots!  He was a real sadist and must have felt a flush of pleasure to have me back in his power again.  As for me?  Well, I couldn’t believe my bad luck in falling back into the pit so soon after climbing out.

Recruit training wasn’t a dream run for many of the others either.  It was the first time away from the family environment for most and the Army atmosphere didn’t make the adjustment easy.  Even without people such as Cpl Galoot, those first few weeks would have been difficult.  The Army was a very class conscious society with Recruits on the bottom of the heap.  Discipline was based on the 3 Rs - rigid, rigorous and ridiculous as far as we were concerned, more used as we were to the easy going civilian lifestyle of the late 60s.

One loner started with us, claiming to be a conscientious objector.  He became a special target for all the instructors who were determined to catch him out.  Their approach was to antagonise him so much he would drop his pacifist cloak and lash out, proving his claim to be a sham. 

The bloke was legitimate.  He couldn’t even hold a rifle without bringing up his most recent meal.  Once that was up, he would dry retch. 

“Poor bastard,” we muttered, feeling sorry for him but, at the same time, not understanding. Eventually, they were throwing his rifle at his chest to force him to grab it or be crunched - he let it hit him every time!  After about a week of this, they relented and gave him a discharge.  A person like that may appear a weirdo within the system but the Army was at fault (not him) for forcing him into Recruit Training.  They were guilty of treating him with outlandish cruelty - the shame is that they were never called to task for it. 

Our day normally started at 6:00am when Reveille sounded over the camp loudspeakers.  We had a few minutes to get to the loo, then dress in PTs for a run round the circuit before breakfast.  This was done at a considerate pace by all the instructors except…guess who?  Yes, Galoot forced a considerable pace and would even double the distance if we did anything to displease him.

Breakfast was probably the best meal of the day - the cooks could hardly muck up packet cereals, could they?  They reserved that for the cooked part of the meal which we endured rather than savoured.  We were supposed to get a piece of fresh fruit a day too, thanks to the dietician who worked out how best to feed an Army that marches on its stomach.  Unfortunately, my piece was generally gone by the time I got to the head of the queue.

Immediately after breakfast, we lined up on the parade ground for a rollcall and dress inspection.  Fault would be found with the slightest thing out of place, if boots, gaiters or belt weren’t highly polished enough, or if there was a speck of dust up the rifle barrel. There were also gear inspections in the huts periodically.  We had to stand at attention beside our beds, lockers open, while the inspecting officer went through everything thoroughly.  The beds had to be made exactly as laid down, with clothing folded a certain way and placed in a set order in the locker.  Some of the officers were real nit-pickers who delighted in tearing a bed and locker apart because of some perceived flaw.  Standing there as adults destined to fight for our country, we felt degraded and humiliated. The Army felt it was good for discipline!

A Tour out of this World - Part 1


Corporal Galoot was in charge of one of those morning parades one day when he halted in front of me.  “Why didn’t you shave this morning, Recruit Murphy?” he bellowed into my face.

“I did, Corporal.”  Looking straight ahead but careful not to make eye contact.

“Don’t lie to me, Recruit, and look at me when you speak to me.”

I looked at him, forgetting the effect of a Murphy stare on even a set of stripes.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he shouted, not liking it at all.

I had shaved that morning, of course, but used an electric shaver because my face used to cut up easily with a blade.  No doubt it didn’t shave as “close as a blade” because I have a heavy beard anyway but there was no way he was entitled to accuse me of lying about shaving.

“Get back to the lines, bring your razor back here on the double and shave properly,” he shouted, close up and personal, flecks of spit splattering my face.

“There’s nothing to plug it into, Corporal,” I replied, tired of the nonsense.

In thunderous silence, his face went livid, his eyes popped.  How do you talk sensibly to a raving lunatic, anyway?  I was in for another bout of picket duty for sure.

He stepped back a few paces, called the platoon to attention and marched quickly off the parade ground, leaving us there alone.  What did the other blokes think he was up to?  I was trying not to think at all - with Galoot, it could have been anything.  In a minute, he was striding back to us.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see something glinting in his hand.

“Recruit Murphy,” he ordered, “three paces forward...March!”

I marched out.

“Recruit Murphy...about turn.”

I turned to face my mates.

“Platoon...stand at....ease!”

Their boots crashed the ground, rifles thrusting forward in their right hands.

“Now, Recruits, I will teach you the consequences of not shaving before coming on parade,” he announced.    Taking my rifle, he placed his safety razor in my hand.

“Now shave as you should have this morning, Recruit Murphy.  There’s no need to worry about cutting yourself,” he laughed, “I’ve put an old blade in there.”

He had, too - I could see the rust marks on it.  I started shaving, without water, without lather.  In today’s world of AIDS and hepatitis, nobody would be stupid enough to shave with another’s razor but there was no such fear in those days.  I should have simply refused to do it as Galoot would have had no right to force me but none of us knew the limits of his authority.

Blood soon streamed down the sides of my face and under my jaw line.  He waited till I had completely bloodied both sides before calling a halt.  I absolutely shook with anger and humiliation but there it was, he had trampled all over me.

“Go clean up that mess,” he said, without any sympathy whatsoever,  “and get back here on the double!”    

I marched off to the lines.

I continued using the electric shaver daily but he never again commented.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

Normally, the roll call parade was over quickly without this sort of drama.  We would march off then to some sort of training routine.  This covered a lot of subjects such as getting to know our rifles and other weapons (weapon drill), map reading, first aid, hygiene, basic infantry tactics, military law (thanks for nothing!), drill.  The days were very full, with most of the lessons physically taxing.

Working with weapons, especially the rifle, was interesting.  We first learned to strip it down to its basic parts for cleaning purposes.  The importance of a clean weapon was stressed as the number one priority for a soldier.  We were told that many Armalites (the American standard issue M16s) had jammed in Vietnam because of poor maintenance and lives had been lost as a result.  Our SLR was much more robust but still needed regular cleaning.

We were practising this early in our training when Danny Brunton (a jockey sized runt) made the mistake of referring to his rifle as his “gun”.  He had to repeat after Cpl Bluhm, “This is my rifle.  This is my gun.  This is for fighting.  This is for fun.”  Each statement required him to grasp one of two weapons.  The rifle was one of them - you won't need much of an imagination to work out what the other one was!

I suppose this sort of emphasis on using the correct terminology for basic equipment is the same in many fields.  I’ve learnt since that sea vessels are not boats but ships, tourist coaches are not buses, shovels are not spades, you don’t get bitten by bees, you get stung, and so on.  Being corrected for using the “wrong” word when everybody listening knows exactly what you mean can be more than a little irritating though.

Still, we had all learnt by then not to argue with a set of stripes, so we did our best to make them happy.  We stripped our rifles down repeatedly, till we could literally do it blindfolded.  Sling/magazine/gas-plug/piston/spring/cover.  We learnt the loading, firing and unloading procedure.  We fired often on the range from a variety of positions.  That could be surprisingly dangerous because, although we lined up side by side on a mound, rifles to the front, sometimes the rifles wandered sideways, seemingly with minds of their own.  There were times early on when people would dive in all directions as some silly clown turned around with his rifle to speak to an instructor.  Grouping and accuracy of shots were the goals and scores were kept for each effort on the range with a final rating given at the end of training.

Another weapon impressed me - the M79.  It was very light, with a short barrel about 5cm in diameter and fired two types of rounds.  One was a straight out shotgun cartridge which shredded anything at short range.  The other was a grenade which could be lobbed out up to a few hundred metres with great accuracy.  This seemed just the thing for close fighting in jungle and was often coupled with an Armalite (one barrel under the other) in Vietnam by our SAS and used as an “under-and-over” very effectively.

We had some training with the M30, a practice grenade which went off with a little 'poof'.  Typical of all things in the Army, there was a laid down procedure for throwing it.  We learnt this, practised it, each of us preparing to throw an empty one, and finally we threw a live M30.  The method was quite logical and natural: “Hold the grenade in your right hand, pull the pin with your left and drop it on the ground.  Throw the grenade.  Watch it hit the ground.  Count slowly to 5, and then duck.” 

Theoretically, it wouldn’t go off before then.

Next, we threw the fair dinkum one, the M26.  An instructor took us one at a time into a little square enclosure with brick walls about shoulder high.  He would quietly demonstrate what to do, have us go through it too and then we would throw the grenade for real.  His job required nerves of steel, even more than a driving instructor needs.  For some reason, legs went to jelly in there, fingers, hands and brains no longer did what they should have.  You could just about smell the fear in the air.  When our turn did come, everybody was probably even more nervous because of an accident the day before.

The recruit had seemed to listen carefully to the instructions which were for right-handers.  He was left-handed.  Instead of dropping the pin from his right hand, he had a picture in his mind of opening his left hand so he did just that and dropped the grenade!  He threw the pin, though.  There was plenty of time for the instructor to pick up the grenade and toss it over the side but nerves being what they are, he picked up the recruit, threw him out and then tried to heave himself over too.  BOOM!  He went over all right, with a healthy dose of shrapnel in his backside.  One of the questions in our minds was why couldn’t it have happened to somebody more deserving, like Cpl Galoot?

So we lined up one by one to throw this lump of explosive. It weighed about 500gms, felt good in the hand but was just a little bigger than the rocks we used to throw as kids.  The instructor was having trouble keeping our heads up till the 5 seconds were gone.  No wonder.  The inside of the brick wall was chipped and deeply pitted from the day before, so the dire consequences of a mistake could not be ignored.  However, after the first few efforts went without drama, we improved.  I naively believed the Army’s assurances that the grenade wouldn’t explode early and counted my 5 seconds off nice and slow.  The safety lever zinged off as the grenade left my hand and then my slow “Mississippi 1, 2, 3, 4, 5's” were the sole sounds till the instructor’s “Down”.  We ducked…just in time.


At last we were all starting to get the hang of Army life.  That was by necessity rather than choice because none of us chose to join up and the Army had never heard of the option “shape up or ship out”.  We had to accept that we were in there for two years and make the best of the situation.  I suppose the system had to wear us down eventually, geared as it was to breaking in “wild horses”.  Unfortunately, it was more used to dealing with volunteers with a lower level of education and was unable to make allowances for well educated people who had been ripped away from their niche in society.  That was why we were in conflict and why the Army failed to make the best use of our abilities.

There was still the problem of Galoot.  He was torturing us on the parade ground, not only in performing the drill routines but particularly by pushing us physically.  He always drilled us longer than the timetable allowed which was bad enough but he was merciless in throwing in 20 pushups at a time if somebody didn’t perform a routine well enough for him.  His speciality was holding us in the “Present Arms” or “Right Dress” positions for long periods.  We’d had him.

We decided to do him in if we ever caught him in the lines of a night.  It was to be a fists and boots payback which would have caused him serious enough injury but the danger was there that somebody would have used a knife in the excitement.  The cooler ones among us hoped that the situation would be resolved some other way before he gave us that opportunity.  Fortunately, it was sorted out a most unlikely place.

He was giving us curry as usual on the parade ground.  It was hot - really hot, even for March - and we’d been at it for more than an hour.  Nothing was pleasing the bastard so he was really going off his head as usual.  Our greens were drenched in sweat, tongues glued to the tops of our mouths.  Our brains were running on auto with just an odd pleasant thought of inflicting vile torture on our tormentor.

Something then upset him even more.

“Platoon...Aaatention.  Rrright dress!” he shouted.

That command didn’t fit the routine we were doing so he had obviously moved us into punishment mode.  That’s the way it worked out.  Every person, except the right markers, took one pace forward, flung his left arm up and twisted his head to the right, shuffling back in line with the man on his right.  When all were still, the order “Eyes Front” would be given, arms would drop to sides, heads would face front and we would be back in the “Attention” position, nicely lined up.

Five minutes later, we were still waiting for “Eyes Front”.  Arms were wavering.  They seemed unbelievably heavy and shoulder muscles stretched in continuous pain.  Some leant a little to the left to rest their arms on the shoulders of the persons next to them.  Galoot was anticipating that, quickly giving the arms a whack with his swagger stick.  Another eternity later, arms were flopping about as if it was a puppet show. 

“How long can this go on?” I moaned to myself.   CRASH!

Graham Casemore, two to my right, hit the ground, face first, left arm still out, head twisted right, rifle (with fixed bayonet) firmly grasped in his right hand.

We moved as one.

“As you were!” Galoot shouted harshly.

He had to be crazy letting Graham lie there, unconscious.  We stood still...sort of... A few of us could see the side of his face…the colour seemed to be going out of tinged blue…he’d swallowed his tongue!  Danny Brunton, to my left - the wimp, remember - threw his rifle clanging to the ground and leapt over to Graham. 

Rifles hit the ground everywhere.

Galoot stepped forward a few paces, abusing us, ordering us to get back in line.  Shock, horror - the whole platoon had disobeyed a direct order from an NCO.  Most of us ignored him, half a dozen moved towards him.  Fortunately for him, he remembered a pressing appointment and left the parade ground, at a fair pace, if not at the double.

We rolled Graham over, got him breathing again and carried him back to our lines.

That was the end of Galoot’s terror campaign.  Nothing was said officially. He still took us for drill but, from then on, it was all done by the book.  Perhaps somebody in authority had seen the incident and suggested to him that he had gone way too far - I doubt if he would have been capable of seeing that by himself.

We became almost comfortable in the routine.  Hut inspections caused very few problems, our boots and webbing were so highly polished that we could see our

Were we becoming soldiers?

As if to test us in combat, we were given a weekend leave pass to Newcastle.  We dolled up in our best greens and were surprised how smooth we looked.  Those Newcastle girls wouldn’t know what hit ‘em, but would it be enough to win their “hearts and minds”?

A Tour out of this World - Part 1We really didn’t give them much of a chance to win on, as it turned out.  We paraded down the street from the Army bus in our uniforms, to amused stares and whistles here and there.  Once we found a motel, though, we couldn’t get into civvies quick enough, thinking we would then be inconspicuous. However, the locals were much too smart for that, with long experience of dealing with soldiers.  We were given away by our haircuts, our bearing and the way we hung around together.

The clubs made us welcome although our dress of shorts and thongs wasn’t up to their standards.  We drank beer, watched floor shows and played the pokies till our money ran out.  Our main aim, it seemed, was to drink and drink...and drink.  We never actually made contact with any girls.  That was fortunate for them because we knew they wouldn’t have been able to resist our advances and there would have been a quick victory for us!

Somehow, we all answered our names on the Monday roll call.

All that time, I was struggling to complete assignments for an Economics degree through Queensland University.  They always reached me a matter of days before they were due back even though I complained and asked to be given more time.  In spite of the utter exhaustion and lack of time through those first few months and the lack of privacy for study, I managed to submit the completed assignments without adverse complaints from the uni.

The effort became too much.  Later on, in Corps training, I had to resign from the course.  That experience, coupled with a general “run-down” feeling on return from Vietnam, was enough to convince me not to try again for a degree.  There’s no doubt it was a major turning point in my career development.

On discharge in 1970, I was able to view the NCO’s comments on my progress as copied from Lt O’Connell’s notebook.  They made interesting reading, made me so mad that I wrote a blistering letter to go with them on my file.

The comments were:-

Week 1:  Continuously “stuffing up”

Week 2:  Improved but mixing with Gregory and Hall.  Drill - good.

Week 3:  Arrogant, insubordinate, dress poor.  Possibility of being U.S. soldier.

Week 4:  Gradually improving but has a long way to go before he is a good soldier.

Week 5, 6 and 7:   Improving

Week 8:   Has improved a fair bit but still requires supervision.

Week 9 and 10:   No further comments.

Final comment:   This soldier requires supervision at all times but in time will make a good reliable soldier.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

These words naturally appalled me almost two years later when I saw them.  At the time they were made, I was trying hard and achieving the best of results in all aspects of soldiering.

Fortunately, what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - SingletonThe training was starting to climax by then.  We were reaching a superb fitness level from a variety of physical activities, particularly the morning runs, parade ground drills and the obstacle course.

There was one wall on the course designed to test teamwork more than fitness or strength.  It was at least 12 feet high, without so much as a finger or toe hold, impossible for one person to climb on his own.  We had to get a whole section over it, rifles included.  Our early attempts were pitiful but we worked on it in our own time and eventually figured out a method of doing it which required us to go over in a certain order. 

The last man had the most difficult task.  He had to leg up the one before him, then take a running leap upwards himself, trusting in the one up above to grab his rifle at the top of the sling to help him “walk” up the wall.   Pint sized Danny Brunton turned out to be an ideal last man.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1Our work on the parade ground by then was preparation for the Marching Out Parade on the 30th of March, the Army’s version of a Graduation Night.  The whole Battalion presented itself for inspection by Major General Murchison, commanding 2 Division.  Of course, it was timed for the heat of the day, commencing at 1:40pm, so there were more than a few bodies to be carried away after fainting.

We marched on in our number one boots and gear, looking like a million dollars, formed up in Platoons and Companies.  “Left, right...left, right.  The soldiers marching are a wonderful sight!”  The Band played various tunes as we marched past in  s l o w  time, quick time, and review order and then during the inspection.  There is no doubt an Army on parade can put on a show.  The spectators, knowing we were training for war, were very susceptible to lumps in the throat.  They went off to their Afternoon Tea thinking Australia’s security was in good, fit, young hands - we couldn’t wait to get off and get a cold drink into us. 

Many years later, I read a poem called “Drill” from the book “A Veteran’s Reflections” by Stewart Law.  The book is a great read for any Vietnam Veteran and costs just $10 direct from Stewart.  This particular poem gives a good description of drill and army life i
n general.


When first I joined the Army, we performed a thing called drill.
Who ever thought up such a thing was really quite a dill.
They called us to attention, then they stood us all at ease.
Then made us do it all again, but never once said please.

They taught us how to turn about, to face the other way.
And then they turned us back again, but why they did not say.
They turned us to the left and then, they turned us to the right.
I did not see how this could help to teach us how to fight.

We did an open order, then we numbered from the right.
Our Sergeant made a groaning noise at such a woeful sight.
They made us do a right dress so our lines were straight and true.
But Sergeant said our lines were crook, they made him want to spew.

They marched us back and forward, and round, and back and forward again.
They treated us like little boys though really we were men.
And though we marched around a lot, we never went nowhere,
Just round and round and round and round the RSM's drill square.

We sometimes went in quick time and we sometimes went in slow.
But why we had to go at all, I really did not know.
And sometimes, simply out of spite, we did it at the double,
Especially when we did things wrong and were in lots of trouble.

They made us do some funny things, especially with our arms.
We shouldered arms, and ordered arms, and even ground our arms.
We put them at the high port, and we rested them reversed.
And more than once, while this went on, I mumbled and I cursed.

Our time at drill went on and on, why did they so persist?
I loved it most when we were told at last we were dismissed.
It's funny how we loved to hate that dreadful thing called drill.
Yet though we did it years ago, we all could do it still.

Stewart Law

Early in April, very near the end of Recruit Training, we were trucked out 80km for a forced march back to the base.   We had done a shorter march of 32kms the month before and had a fair idea of the agony ahead.  Although the Army has ample transport and would have to be on its last legs to ever dream of forcing its troops to perform such a feat in wartime, we were told the exercise had to be completed successfully.  A time limit of 8 hours applied.  At an average speed of 10kms/hr, this meant we could not walk or march - most of the time, we had to jog or step it out briskly.

We had a reasonably early start, about 8:00am.  There was no way of avoiding the heat of the day which only added to the testing conditions.  We went as a Platoon, with rifles, M60s, back packs, rations and full water bottles.  A few tried to cheat on their gear, some even taking empty water bottles to cut down the weight.  They were all caught before we started and brought back up to correct weight.  That didn’t stop the real fools among them from guzzling their water in the first couple of hours to reduce weight and then trying to bludge drinks later off the rest of us.  They were caught at that too and we were forbidden to share our water with anybody for the rest of the day.  They were really tonguing for a drink well before we finished.

Well, did we make it?

Of course!  We were there in under 8 hours, some staggering, all of us with sore feet, some bleeding puddles in our boots but we made it.  Some found out that day just how much pain they could handle and were surprised.  Some found out the value of a full water bottle!  With all my circular delivering experience, I knew it would be less of a problem for me than most and that’s the way it turned out - I was carrying somebody else’s pack or rifle for most of the afternoon.  That wasn’t showing off - it was just helping your mates and they certainly appreciated it.

Towards the end of the training, we were asked to choose what Corps we would like to go on to.  For example, we could choose Infantry (and do more forced marches?), Armoured, Artillery, Medical, Transport, Catering, Signals - the list was endless.  We were allowed four choices, more or less indicating that we would be given one of those.

I chose Armoured first because Dad and my brother John were both in the 2/14th QMI, a CMF unit - having metal between the enemy and me seemed like a good survival plan.  Artillery was next because they usually keep a good distance from the enemy and I thought it might be fun handling a gun instead of a rifle!  Signals was my third choice just to let them know that Infantry was not even my third choice.  I didn’t bother with a fourth choice, figuring that if they ignored the first three, they would take no notice of the fourth anyway.  As it was, Lt O’Connell recorded only Armoured and Sigs as my preferences.  Surprise, surprise...I was given Sigs and a posting to Ingleburn, on the western edge of Sydney, commencing on the 17th April.

A few nights before leaving, an end of training booze up was organised.  The Army turned a blind eye to it, provided the drinking was confined to an area outside the base perimeter.  Each company designated its party area and was given strict instructions not to interfere with any other company.  We all dobbed in for the booze and basic food which the NCOs ordered in for us.  It promised to be a great night because we had become good mates and had plenty to talk about before splitting up and going our various ways.

That’s the way it turned out.  We ate and drank our fill with not a cross word said.  Eventually the beer ran out and we made our way back towards the gap in the perimeter wire, some staggering a little in the dark and from the booze.

Danny Brunton and I were bringing up the very rear, chatting away only four or five paces behind the group in front.  Suddenly, we were grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground.  There we writhed and fought and yelled as a press of bodies kept us down.  Our mates walked on, not hearing a thing because of their own yahooing.

Four blokes from another company had jumped us for a bit of fun.  I was doing all right handling my two and had eventually managed to get back to my feet.  Then Danny collapsed and his two turned on me as well.  They had me back on the ground in no time. Danny lay still beside us.

“The little bastard’s not breathing!” one of them said, panicky.

There followed much muttering and swearing until they decided two of them would carry him back into camp to get help.  The other two sat down on top of me.

There was a media stink going on at the time about Australian troops using water torture on Vietcong to extract information.  The story was that they were pouring water over their faces so it was impossible to breathe - the victims felt as if they were drowning.  Of course, the Army denied that any soldier would ever do such a thing.  What they did was take the Vietcong up in a chopper, blindfold them, and then push them out.  In fact, they would first bring it back down to a few feet off the ground, but the sudden push out the door usually did the trick.

My captors didn’t have a chopper, nor did they have water, but they had beer.

“Let’s see if this water torture really works,” one of them said.

He poured beer over my face.  It frothed in my eyes, forcing them closed.  It frothed up my nose, around my mouth.  A few minutes before, I was drinking it, enjoying the cool flavour and feeling sorry when it ran out.  Soon, I was drowning in it.  Holding my breath, I fought to the limit, kicking and squirming, knowing that when my breath ran out, I would be unconscious and they might carry it on too far and do me serious harm.  When I had just a little air left, I suddenly went limp.  They kept pouring.  Then just as I was about to panic, to heave desperately for air, they noticed and stopped.

They thought they had another unconscious body on their hands.  There were more muttered curses and “What do we do now's.  They got off me to talk about it - still not thinking it might be a good idea to try to revive me.  What would have happened if I’d really been out to it?  Bloody idiots! 

As soon as the first weight came off me, I leapt to my feet, lashed out at the nearest dim face and took off for the camp lights.  They showed that the gap in the barbed wire was somewhere there in front.  At the speed I was going though, it was impossible to even keep to the track so I knew there was no chance of finding the entrance.  My chasers were struggling to keep up with me and were at least twenty metres behind.  Really, if I had just taken a dive and lay still, they probably wouldn’t have been able to find me. 

That never occurred to me as I tore on through the dark……and bounced off the fence.

The noise brought them shouting and running in the right direction again.  I went at the fence, leaping up and over it, landing full length on top of the coils.  Somehow, I was able to reach forward, grasp wires in each hand and pull my body into a somersault which put me feet first onto the ground on the other side.

My hut mates were sitting quietly on their beds with a single light on at the far end when I walked in the door.  They listened to the bad news about Danny and we were heading out to search for him when in he walked, escorted by two provosts.  They had been watching the returning party-goers and caught Danny struggling to get away from his captors.  For once in our short military careers, the MPs were on our side.

We didn’t have a clue about the identity of our attackers so there was nothing further that could be done except talk about what vile things we would do if we ever caught up with them.  I went to bed to dream about drowning in vats of beer and fighting through jungles of barbed wire.

Next morning, I woke to find the sheets covered in blood.  There were big gashes across the palms of both hands and a deep Z-shaped cut down the back of one wrist.  The RAP was dealing with hangovers that morning and the staff didn’t mind the variety offered by treating me.

“Good party was it, Soldier?” the Medic said to me with a knowing smile.

-.. --- - ...  .- -. -..  -.. .- ... .... . ...

We arrived at Ingleburn, not knowing what to expect, except that it had to be a hell of an improvement on Recruit Training.  We were officially part of 3 Troop, Eastern Command Wing (whatever that was), but we belonged to Signals Corps.  Our rank sounded a bit fancier that Recruit - we were Signalmen - but in fact we were still basic Privates.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

Our set-up was much smaller than at Singleton. There was no huge parade ground, no need for outdoor training areas, firing ranges and so on.  There weren’t even facilities for indoor training!

Just as we began to think we were there for a holiday, we found that an outside company had contracted to train us as Keyboard and Teleprinter Operators. Our base was to be little more than eating and sleeping quarters.

Marconi was a very large, multinational communications company.  They had obviously been called in to train groups of operators when the Army found itself suddenly at war and without the ability to do the job.  We bussed to and from the Marconi School of Radio daily.  There we were packed, twenty three of us, into a small room, bare of everything except simple classroom furniture, Morse code key pads and headphones.  The wiring was set up to allow us to connect to the tutor, individually or collectively.

 We’d left Cpl Galoot behind only to find ourselves being tortured in a more refined way.  The teaching method was simply to brainwash us with a torrent of Morse code.  Hour after hour, we received and sent it, except for the all too short periods when we moved to another room to learn touch typing.  The sounds of dots and dashes were literally going right through our heads.  Before too long, it was impossible to even think without converting the thoughts into Morse.  In fun, we swore at each other using it, but there was no pleasure in finding ourselves dreaming in dots and dashes.

The aim of the course was to qualify us at receiving Morse at 15 words per minute and sending it at 20.  Some sent in such a disjointed fashion that listening to it was like deciphering something written in the dark. The secret to sending was to develop a rhythm as tight as a musical score.  My proven poor track record in the musical field should have made that impossible for me but the rhythm came from somewhere and I topped the class, sending at 35.  I could receive close to that speed.  Many letters consist of four symbols and all figures have five, so you can appreciate the skill required to achieve that result. 

Building up to those sorts of speeds took all of three months, gradually increasing speed as we went.  The tutor ran a ticker tape of messages through a machine which could be adjusted to send at any nominated speed.  This gave him a very precise control over our learning curve, keeping the hare always just out of reach of the hounds.  I got my own back at the end of the course.  He couldn’t keep up with my sending at true speed and had to slow it down in playback.

Nobody ever explained the big picture to us - why an ability with Morse was necessary in the modern world and where we would actually need to use it.  Perhaps it was simply a tradition in Signals to train all operators, just in case.

The teleprinter side of the course went much the same way.  I had learnt touch typing in the seminary so it was easy for me to achieve a speed of 50wpm, well over what was necessary.  I topped that class also.

Describing the agony of three months’ mental slog in a few brief pages like this makes it all sound so easy.  It was anything but that.  Recruit training may have been physical torture and hard to accept but our brains were stretched to explosion point by the drumming of dots and dashes on that Signals Course.

Fortunately, the tight discipline, regulations and kit inspections of those early days were left behind us.  There was a very brief rollcall parade each morning after breakfast and then the Army left us to our “study’.  We were even allowed to leave the base on weekends, provided we were there for the morning parade.  That break away from the routine gave us the chance to let off steam and helped maintain our sanity.

The Queen’s Birthday weekend came and we were given a three day pass.  This was a chance for the Queenslanders to head off home, our only chance for the year as it turned out.  Six of us and a carton of cold beer piled into one car and headed north up the Pacific Highway.  I looked at the trip as a means of getting from Sydney to Brisbane - most of the others thought of it as a chance of getting stuck into the booze.

Naturally, it was a terrifying night.  The driver drank continuously, drove fast and, at times, dangerously.  The Highway then was narrow and twisting, with a number of one lane bridges proving regular death traps.

Somehow we managed to cross one of those at the same time as another car, after taking right of way when it wasn’t ours.  We sat, frozen to our seats, as the headlights rushed towards an obvious meeting in the middle of the bridge.  Our driver still had his "tallie" to his lips as we somehow squeezed past.

This brought on a mutiny, of course, which got nowhere because the driver refused to let anybody else drive his car.  We did manage to hide the rest of the beer though so he gradually sobered up as we neared Brisbane before breakfast.  I noticed that Sid O’Toole hadn’t touched a drop so it seemed like a good idea to arrange the return trip in his car.

Our car park at Ingleburn was looking like a successful used car yard on the Tuesday.  Transport was at last available to hit The Cross of a weekend.  We did that a number of times in spite of the hour’s drive through heavy early evening traffic.

I was back in the big city only nine months after leaving it never to return but it wasn’t at all the city I had known.  We went to King’s Cross - the city of the night - at its lurid peak then with the influx of GIs on R & R from Vietnam.  This was probably the start of Australia’s drug scene although we never came across any.  We did find plenty of strip shows and brothels - you couldn’t walk the streets there without some tout trying to drag you through his door “to view the best show in the world”.

Part of the fun was teasing these touts by pretending to be interested in their spiel and then shaking our heads and walking away when they had finished.  Eventually, we would troop into one joint or another to watch the girls get their gear off in a titillating way. The cover charge wasn’t much - they made their money by overcharging on drinks.  That was all right by us - we didn’t go there to drink.  We were there to look and yahoo.

Most of the girls were very attractive, with very good figures and they were well dressed (when they started their acts).  Some obviously enjoyed what they were doing, some (I think) absolutely hated it but I guess they all chose to do it for the money.

The way men are made, it is impossible to watch a girl stripping professionally like that without finding your blood coming to a boil.  It is true that you can only see so much of a good thing though so there would be a bit of yawning and attention wandering while the later strippers were in action. It was all probably part of the make-up of The Cross for those shows to stir up the young bloods and get them in the mood to use the brothels.

Coming out of one of those shows once after midnight, we stepped onto the crowded footpath of William St.  There were so many people even at that hour that there was a lot of body contact just walking casually along.  Suddenly, there was a commotion in front of us.  The crowd parted and we saw a man fall on his back to the ground.  There was a long knife sticking up out of his chest.  Another man ran away from us, knocking people out of his way.  None tried to stop him.

A space cleared round the victim.  People even went out onto the road to walk around him as they would around a pile of animal shit.  A couple of us ran over to help him, a few tried running after the knifer.  I went back to the strip club to have them call an ambulance.

The King’s Cross regulars just seemed to treat it as an everyday event!  We didn’t think such a killing was acceptable among a crowd of innocent people, especially not on an Australian street.  Nothing like that happened again while we were up The Cross.  Not in our sight, anyway.

We did make it to the brothels, or some of them anyway.  That was an experience.  There was a narrow little lane (Chapel(!) Lane) just over from the Cross where the rundown houses shared common walls and a common purpose of prostitution.  Everybody knew the place, knew what went on there, police included.  Prostitution was legal although soliciting was not, so the police could do little to stop the action.

We would turn the corner at the top of the lane to look down the length of it at a number of men on the roadway sussing out the girls standing in their doorways.  We always got there late on a cold winter’s night but the girls must have been running hot because they never had much on.  There seemed to be a lot of swarthy Mediterranean types there, hot breath misting heavily, who didn’t need much urging to “come on up”.

The girls picked us immediately as soldiers and we “endured” all the enticements, physical and verbal.  Perhaps their experience made them realise they wouldn’t be getting their hands on us so we were just a bit of a game for them.

“Special price for you, Love,” one would offer, with everything hanging out.

“I’ll keep you warm tonight, Big Boy,” the girl next door would counter.  “I’ll show you just why your Mum warned you about ‘bad’ girls!”

We walked on to stop at the next doorway.  Men were standing all up and down the lane, doing the same thing.  Then the flashing blue light of a police car would turn the corner and immediately, as if on cue, everybody would turn and walk slowly away from it.  This was the only harassment the police could offer - they picked up anybody loitering.  As soon as the car turned the bottom corner, the routine started again.

Naturally, we all wanted to know what it was like in there.  However, none of us was willing to be the “guinea pig” and poke his nose or you-know-what in the “trough”.  One night, after one bloke had been in there about twenty minutes, we asked him what it was like.

“Not all it’s cracked up to be,” he said.

“Well, do you think she enjoyed it?”

“Nah, she just lay there chewing gum.  After a while, she said to me, ‘Have you finished yet, Luv?’  You’d get more action out of a blow-up doll!”

That decided it for us and we settled for being just spectators.

Those nights out were really boys-only booze-ups - checking out strippers and the pros were just side-shows.  This meant we had to be careful to keep our driver sober as the drive back to base was so long.  Normally, that wasn’t a problem, the driver would sink his few early beers and then lay off to watch the rest of us drink ourselves stupid.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1

John Bryant was the designated driver one night.  We must have been having a particularly good time cause nobody noticed that John was sinking more than his fair share.  He was a quiet sort of bloke normally and wasn’t saying much that night as we piled into the car for the long drive out through the traffic lights of Parramatta Road.

Before long, only a few of us were awake.  Traffic was light and we were fairly zipping along.  Suddenly, we drove straight through a red light, blazing headlights lit up the right side windows, a horn blared, an engine roared and tyres squealed.  We’d missed a serious collision by a whisker.

“Bloody hell, John!” I cried.   “Watch out for those red lights.”

“Yeah, all right, sorry, Mate,” he muttered.

We made the safety of our car park without further incident, everybody piled out and ran for the warmth of our quarters.  A few minutes later, just as we were about ready to switch the lights out, somebody noticed John was missing.  A quick search of the building, then the shower and toilet block, showed nothing.  Where was he? Finally, we checked the car park and found him - he’d parked perfectly, opened the door, started getting out and then fallen asleep.  The temperature must have been below zero but there he was, head and shoulders on the ground, feet in the car, snoring away as though he was snug in bed!

He wouldn’t wake up so we half-carried, half-walked him over to the hut.  We reached the door, propping him against the wall to open it, and he spewed...all over himself.

“Terrific, John!  What do we do now?” was the cry.

We lugged him to the showers, got the water going nice and warm, and stood him under the nozzle, fully dressed.  That way, you see, we washed his clothes at the same time.  He started yelling, “I’m drowning, I’m drowning!” (the water torture thing again) but at least he was awake.  We left him then to finish the clean-up and went off to bed.

Barely a few hours later, we staggered out to the morning parade.  All we had to do was answer as our names were called and then we’d be free to go back to bed.

“Sir,” was the dignified answer as Bogger Bertini’s name was called out.

“Bryant...(Nothing)  Bryant...(Nothing)  BRYANT!”   Nothing.

Where was he this time?  Were we going to spend the whole weekend looking for him?

We rushed off to search for him all over again, nursing hangovers and nasty thoughts about what we would do to him for spoiling our morning.  We knew he wasn’t in the quarters but we looked there anyway, looked under the beds too.  Finally, we went down to the showers where we’d last seen him.  There he was alright - sitting on the floor asleep, under the shower.  He was still fully dressed, the shower was still running (the hot water had long since run out), and he was still snoring!  The Duty Officer marked him on the roll as present without even seeing him in person.  He reckoned our story was just so far-fetched it had to be true.

We had built up into a close-knit group by then.  Most had come to grips with the dots and dashes so we were able to enjoy the ample weekend free time together.  I had never had mates like those before or been able to act in such a carefree manner so I was lapping up the experience.  All this time in Sydney, with its hundreds of thousands of girls on tap, none of us had been able to find a girlfriend.  To tell the truth, we weren’t even looking - we were too busy enjoying each other’s company.

One night, Jock Robertson and I went out on a double date with my cousin Anne Dollman and her friend, Karen Green.  According to Jock, he was a bit of a hit with the girls so I was dubious about letting him near Anne who was only 16 or so at the time.  He did try her on early but she was up to handling him so from then on we had a good night.  The girls were able to go to work next day and skite about their night out with the Army, and Jock added a few more fantasies to his repertoire!  It didn’t bother him a bit that Anne found him quite resistible.

Lost of the group had been working full-time in civvy street but not many knew how to look after their money.  They lived from pay-day to pay-day.  In fact, they lived till the first Monday after pay-day and then found they’d spent everything on the weekend.  I started lending money (interest free) to four or five of them.  Before long, they regularly hit me on the Monday for $20 or $30 each to tide them over.  That may not sound like much these days after the wages explosion of the Whitlam years but $20 was half our gross weekly wage.

It didn’t make sense to me - the silly buggers were like dogs chasing their tails.  They’d pay me back next pay-day and then because they were that amount short in the hand, they’d have to come looking for more in a few days’ time.  I was too soft and shouldn’t have done it but what started as a favour turned quickly into a habit.  Fortunately, there was trouble only once getting the money back.  Some was owed after we went our separate ways and I had to threaten writing to the bloke’s CO.

Towards the end of the course, those of us who’d qualified were able to skip lessons while the others were given closer attention.  We then found that the Army can’t stand idle hands and will go to ridiculous lengths to keep soldiers occupied.

There was a story about that at times like those the order was sometimes given to dig holes, fill them in...and then dig them again.  I couldn’t have copped that.  We did emu bobs through the grounds, though.  Walking slowly along, line abreast, we picked up every scrap of rubbish.  When everything was in the bin, we’d have to go back, line up and do it again, even though we knew there was nothing left! 

Raking fallen leaves was another vital job we performed for our country (and Queen).  Leaning on a rake like a real Council worker waiting for a leaf to fall from the trees, I vowed to spend the rest of Nasho in Vietnam once training was completed.

The stupidity of pretending to be busy started me thinking along those lines but there were other reasons of course.  For a start, I believed the freedom of a neighbouring people was being threatened and, as a nation, we had an obligation to help them out.  Our soldiers were putting their lives at risk to do just that.  If the opportunity was given to me, I was willing to do the same.

Stopping the tide of Communism from sweeping down on Australia was a lovely catch-cry for politicians and the RSL but it was never an issue for me.  The way I saw it, North Vietnam had broken a United Nations resolution and was invading South Vietnam.  The population there didn’t want the northerners and were resisting.  That seemed a simple enough summary of what was happening - nothing different from the reaction to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait!  We all know how much the world appreciates the intervention of the United Nations there.

The difference of course was that Saddam was defeated.  If there’d been a quick victory in Vietnam, hell, wouldn’t it have been a lovely war!  Unfortunately, casualties make good news - reporters were already having a field-day in the USA stirring up anti-war sentiment.  None of them had any qualifications to fight a war and if the politicians had any as well, they certainly kept them well hidden.  All the same, both the media and the politicians thought they should have the final say.

The result could, and should, have been very different, if only the generals had been allowed to make the decisions.  I feel so sorry for the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who have suffered so long because of our callous indifference to their fight for freedom.

Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to say more about that later on.  At that moment, I was willing to go to Vietnam because the cause was right.  There was also the negative aspect, as I said before, of getting over there to avoid fiddling about in Australia doing nothing useful for a year.  There was an aspect of adventure to it too, of putting my life at risk.  The final reason was purely financial.  War Service Homes were available at low interest rates to anybody who served 6 months or more over there.  That was an attractive carrot too.

So, as our time in Ingleburn ended, the decision to volunteer for service in Vietnam was already made - I was just waiting to be asked.


In the dead of winter, (mid-July anyway), we were on the move again – but not to the warm sunshine of Townsville.  No, no, NO.  We were posted to the Army School of Signals at Balcombe on Mornington Peninsula, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne, down the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay.  Possibly the sun does shine off and on during some summer days in this area but the locals would panic if it appeared during winter.

Not even Toowoomba could prepare you for the absolute misery of a winter in that place.  Fog hung about for most of every day although occasionally a bitterly cold gale would clear the decks.  Even without the wind, we froze.  Much of our training was outdoors and we were miserably cold even in jumpers and heavy greatcoats.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1The course was to take six months, mainly involving learning the use of radio equipment and the procedure of sending and receiving messages.  In fact, the call signs we used were the ones Task Force Units used in Vietnam. This sort of practical work was very interesting so we did enjoy it in spite of the cold weather.  It was just bad timing for us to be in that part of Australia for most of the winter.

Once, we were camped out trying to put what we had learnt into practice.  We had Land Rovers equipped with out-of-date radio transmitters to use as mobile sub-stations, with our camp as the home base.  We had aerials up in the trees to boost the signals and improve reception.  Probably, walkie-talkies from Tandy Electronics at $20 a pair would do the job better these days.  Anyway, we looked the part that day when Philip Lynch, Army Minister, turned up for a publicity shoot.

He sat beside me while I operated a radio in the back of a Land Rover.  A photo of us appeared in Brisbane's Courier Mail at the time, giving the impression we were having a great yarn.  The truth was that he sat beside me for at least four or five minutes while the photos were being taken but never once looked at me or uttered so much as a single word.  I started off saying, “Good morning, Mr Lynch,” until his silence really riled me into saying outlandish things just to get any response from him.  The poor fellow was there in body only - his brain (if he had one) was elsewhere.  Perhaps, he felt so guilty about sending young blokes like me off to war that he just had difficulty facing us.  Beats me.  I was stumped by his behaviour.

Fortunately, that was the only time we copped such treatment.  The Army personnel had an excellent attitude and helped us make the best of our situation.  An Army doctor was a good example of this. 

The RAP parade was held first thing of the morning, overlapping breakfast.  Perhaps the Army thought we wouldn’t fancy food if we were sick enough to want to see the doctor?  That was probably true because you would have to be at death’s door to be willing to endure the nonsense of a sick parade.  Most of us had bad colds on and off without bothering to line up for medication.

One morning, we noticed a very lengthy queue outside the RAP, long enough to make us want to find out why.  There was a good reason.  We had a new doctor and she was a bottler.  Nobody was much interested in finding out what she was like as a doctor - they wanted a close-up look at her and a bit of a chat. 

Suddenly, half the base reported sick.

We lined up ourselves the next day to check her out.  The queue grew pretty long but we arrived early for a spot up front.  I had a cold as my reason for seeing her.  I was shown in as the orderly completed the paperwork.  She was a bit of all right too - nice face, pleasant manner, and she filled out her uniform better than any other doctor I’d seen.

“Well, Sig Murphy, what’s your problem this morning?” she asked with a smile which showed she was a woman as well as a doctor.  It increased my blood pressure and reminded me I was a man as well as a patient.

“Bit of a cold, Ma’am,” I replied.

“Drop your daks then, Digger,” she ordered and started writing on some forms.

My brother’s words from twelve years or so before came rushing back into my brain: “Don’t drop your pants just because someone tells you to.”

“Hang on a minute,” I thought, “doing just that years ago got me into heaps of trouble.  What’s she up to?  I’ve only got a cold, for God’s sake!”

Looking up then, she caught the doubt in my mind.

“Well, all you blokes have come for a perve on me.  What’s wrong with me doing a bit of that too?”

She gave me some pills for the cold and asked me to explain to all those waiting outside that she was happy to examine anybody who was really sick.  Any others would end up on report.  The queue rapidly disappeared as the message got through but for the rest of our stay in Balcombe, the sick parade was always a pleasant experience.

Weekend leave was quite regularly obtained.  We toured around ice-cold southern Victoria without really enjoying what we were seeing.  There were trips to Ballarat and Bendigo where we wandered around the old mine workings, not really understanding it all.  Some weekends were spent at the motor racing or drag racing.  Calder Raceway was the venue for that, and Sid O’Toole was the petrol head responsible for dragging us off there but it wasn’t bad entertainment the few times we went.

I managed to get in touch with Dad’s sister, Mary and her family, who lived close in to the city in St Kilda.  We had lived so far away from them in Brisbane that we hardly knew them, other than that there were even more of them than us, and they had lost their father after a long illness.

They took me in as though they had known me all their lives.  Not only that, they also took in the various strays I brought along with me.  We couldn’t all fit into their place but next door was a vacant house they were minding for relations of a deceased friend.  It was ideal to bed down there whenever we stayed over in Melbourne.  Fortunately, we proved that Mary’s confidence in us was not misplaced because we somehow managed not to damage the house, in spite of drinking an awful lot of beer there.  I should say a lot of awful beer because it was VB and even I could see it wasn’t a patch on XXXX.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1Mary and the girls (particularly Liz, Mary and Ann) fell in love with Ric Hocking who used to get around with me and a few others.  He was only about my height but he was handsome with olive skin and black hair.  The girls loved his quiet personality and “little boy” smile.  They wanted to mother him.  I think he must have been looking for a mother because he rather enjoyed the attention!

My birthday came round on September 15 as it had for the previous 20 years.  A 21st is something special though - it had to be celebrated as a milestone in my life.  Bruce Meakins’ birthday fell the day after mine so we decided to party together on the nearest Saturday night.

The essential ingredients for a memorable 21st were grog and girls, neither of which could be enjoyed on Army land.  We found a water storage reservoir nearby where there was a nice grassy slope around a little roofed barbecue area.  There was no power but the Army “donated” a generator which supplied lighting and ran a record player.  There wasn’t much we could do about the cold except rug up and drink plenty of beer.

It was very cold so we thought an 18 gallon (about 80 litres) keg would be necessary.  Twelve hours later, as we laboured manfully to empty it, we wished it had been a 10.  For a while, it had seemed nobody would be getting a drink as we struggled with the temprite spear and then fiddled endlessly with the gas supply to get the beer flowing properly through the cooling mechanism without foaming all over us.  The effort was worthwhile because the beer did taste great...for VB.

One of the reasons we bought so much beer was that we had lined up some nurses for the night and you know what nurses are like.  We figured they’d be drinking plenty.  None of us had girlfriends down there so we thought we’d be doing ourselves and the nurses a favour, inviting them out on a blind date.  It was simply a matter of calling the nurses’ quarters at the local military hospital a week before and issuing the invitation.  Then we called on the night to pick them up, pot luck.

Quite a number were waiting for us, rearing to go.  We were disappointed to find that we’d been conned and would have to return them for their 11:00pm shift but it was good of them to give us five hours of their company anyway.  They must have been under strict orders to come back sober because they drank sparingly, which is why we ended up having trouble getting through the keg.

It was a good night, even so.  Soldiers and nurses must be the right mix because even though none of us had met before, we partied together.  That good old Aussie custom of keeping the sexes apart was absent.  Too soon, the girls had to be back.

I had been chatting up a pretty one most of the night so we sat in the back seat of the FJ together, with me hoping to get past the holding hands stage.  Ric was sitting beside her in the middle with another rather plain nurse on the far side.

Bruce Meakins drove, sharing the front seat with another couple and wishing he could be in the back.  The car purred along quietly as we whispered to each other.  I had my arm around the girl and thought the right moment had arrived to try for a kiss when, without warning, she and Ric started loving up!  That was the last I saw of my birthday girl that night.  I was about to reach across to twist Ric’s ear when plain Jane, on the far side, took her cue and somehow arrived on top of me.  That fairly took my breath away as she showed me you don’t have to be beautiful to kiss.

Easy come, easy go. 

We were late getting back to the hospital so we barely had time to say goodnight as the girls rushed off to slip into uniform and go on duty.  We went back to the keg which was less dangerous but also less fun than the back seat of an F.J. with a couple of nurses.

We did date them a few more times when they were able to get off duty at the right time, without any real attachment forming.  I had a go at Ric for moving in on me like that but it was the girl’s choice so he thought what could a man do but grin and bear? Said with that cheeky Hocking grin - what could I say?!

Back around the keg again once the girls had gone, the number of virile young men plummeted away as the temperature dropped sharply. The beer flowed on - for once we seemed to have a keg that was never going to run out.  Most of us had drunk far more than we normally did and only Bruce and I had any reason to keep celebrating.  Emptying the keg was becoming a chore (perhaps if we were drinking XXXX instead of VB it would have been different).  We decided to give up for the night and go back to the base.  Pikers!

We staggered into our sleeping hut, making enough noise to wake the dead.  We did wake them too, every one of them good blokes who wouldn’t go back to sleep without finishing off the keg for us.  “It won’t take long,” they said.

Back to the cars again, this time with the help of the sober ones to carry in the keg and temprite.  We put them in the middle of the hut in the aisle between the long rows of beds.  The doors at each end were shut to keep out some of the cold.  The rest we handled by wearing our greatcoats, turning on a few bar heaters and drinking some more beer.

Some time passed (don’t ask me how much) while we yarned about our antics earlier that night and during our Army time.  We also drank some beer.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1Now and then, somebody had to slip out to the loo, a few buildings away.  Going out once, I forgot there were four steps to the ground and made it in one. There was no pain - one of the very few benefits of drinking beer - even though I did spear into the ground head first.  I lurched to my feet, decided the loo was too far away after all and looked around for somewhere that wouldn’t splash.

Back inside, we drank some more beer.  By then some of the boys were becoming hungry because drinking all that beer takes a lot out of you, believe me. Don’t believe me if you like.  We sent a reccie patrol down to the kitchen to find something edible.  Some bread and vegemite at least was what we were hoping for or they might get lucky and come across some cold meat.  They brought back some bread all right (no butter) and cold meat (RAW! pork sausages).

Raw sausages obviously wouldn’t go down too well with all that beer so we had to find a way of cooking them.  The solution was to lay a couple of bar heaters on the floor face up, place a large baking dish over them and there we had our own frying pan and fire.  The snags cooked beautifully in their own fat (and a little beer) while the bread toasted to perfection on another heater.

The aroma of barbecued sausages and toast filled the hut, complementing the strong smell of beer.  We stood there, fancying this feast frying before our eyes.  Then the end door burst open.  There stood the Duty Officer and his sidekick.  We were breaking all the camp rules in the book - partying after lights out, beer in the lines, theft of mess food, misuse of army heaters.  Thank God there were no girls. 

For a moment, he looked at the 18 gallon keg, hugely throned in the aisle beside its temprite.  His mouth fell open when he saw the sausages splattering over the heaters.  He took in the odd sleeping positions of the weak bastards who’d got the staggers.    Time stood still.  We waited for all hell to break loose.  He briskly about-turned, marching out the door without saying a word.  It slammed shut behind him.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1If it was all too much for him, it wasn’t quite so for us.  We decided we had tacit approval to continue as long as we didn’t attract attention so we kept the noise level down, ate our toast and snags...and drank some more beer.  You would think with all this drinking, we’d all be out of our minds, wouldn’t you?  Well, if we had been, I wouldn’t have the memory to tell you this story, would I?  It’s a true story too – here is a photo, showing in glorious colour the scene I’ve just painted for you, minus the Duty Officer of course - he didn’t hang about long enough for the long exposure.

Eventually, sleep won - the party pooped in the pre-dawn hours.

Some hardy souls went down for breakfast, some had beer for a change and some of us settled for a few chucks. 

Something still had to be done about the keg.  We were determined not to damage the Army’s reputation by taking it back to the pub with beer in it so there was no way out, we’d have to go and drink some more.  Midday was the deadline.  That was the trouble - we’d probably have felt like a beer by nightfall but we didn’t have the luxury of waiting that long.  Nor could we chance our luck by keeping all that gear in the hut any longer.

Getting the keg and temprite to the car in broad daylight (well, Victorian winter daylight) was risky but nobody pulled us up – perhaps the fog helped.  We didn’t have a clue where to go till someone had the bright idea that the beach would be deserted.  So it was.  We set the keg up and sat around it in the sand, dressed in greatcoats, drinking what we hoped would turn out to be the dregs. 

The fog lifted, the sun came out - the sort of unusual occurrence that is often reported in the papers!

Suddenly, hundreds of people were all around us enjoying the sunshine.  What on earth were they doing there?  It was still freezing.  They seemed to be looking down their noses at us as if we shouldn’t have been there on their beach - rather unfairly, I thought, because we were there first.

Then our luck changed - the keg ran out!  We quietly packed it all up as if it was our normal Sunday routine and left the beach to the snobs………

The weather is so bad down there in winter that the only outdoors activity is to play Aussie Rules, or watch it.  Naturally, most just watch - hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them.  Every day, the media is full of discussion about what went on in the last weekend’s games, what’s going to happen the next weekend and generally whatever little football-related trivia a desperate reporter can dredge up.  We took all this in for a while with a certain amount of humour but eventually had to go to a game to see for ourselves what it was all about.

Mary’s family supported St Kilda so we went along to watch them play in a semi-final at the M.C.G.  90,000 real supporters also went along on a bleak, sleety day.  They dressed in layer upon layer of clothing, topped off with their team’s colours.  Their mood was quite fanatical and we felt right out of it although being part of such a vast crowd was an experience in itself. 

I knew the rules and understood the game OK from the seminary but some of the others were completely baffled. Certainly, the play flows well enough.  Whether it has the excitement to match Union or League is another matter.  I guess you just have to be raised with the game to really appreciate it.

We settled for enjoying the atmosphere of the big crowd.

Once a week, the Army insisted we had an afternoon off, playing some kind of sport.  I couldn’t play squash or tennis but Rosebud Golf Club was happy to let us have a game on their course so I signed up for golf.  It wasn’t all fun as the weather often made play difficult especially as the course was exposed to the sea breezes.  At least we had a good run outdoors which helped let off any tensions.

Rosebud is a little further down the Mornington Peninsula from Balcombe and not far from where Harold Holt (the Prime Minister) pulled his disappearing trick the year before.  The coastline there is very rough, with many rocky outcrops half-in, half-out of the water, not the sort of place to go for a Sunday swim.  Still, he did go in and no trace of him was ever found.

Most of us were from interstate and regularly rang home to speak to family or girlfriends.  STD had yet to be introduced into the phone system so we used the trunk call operator and waited for her to make the connection.  “Please insert $3.50,” she would say.  “Press button A,” and the money would fall down with a clatter. 

A few former Telecom technicians were on the course.  They each had a master key to unlock the money container in any public phone in the country.  When each call was over, one of them would use his key to return the money to us.  They were very honest and never took a cent extra.

I’ll bet many others with one of those keys couldn’t resist that temptation.  We never felt guilty about those free calls because we’d been put there in that rotten place two thousand kilometres from home.  Free calls should have been provided to make the separation more bearable for us and our families.

 In the seminary, most of us corresponded with a number of people who supported the Order.  One of my regulars was the Smith family (not the real family name) from Wynyard in northern Tasmania.  Mary (not her real name), one of the daughters, generally wrote back, probably at her mother’s urging.  I kept in touch with her after leaving and thought about slipping over to see them one weekend, since it was only a short flight across Bass Strait.

The arrangements were made and it turned out to be a pleasant weekend in spite of the weather there which was even fouler than in Victoria.  I went back (to Australia) on Sunday arvo promising to write more often, thinking Mary was just polite in asking.

Training continued on relentlessly. 

We were looking forward to finishing in January when a call came out of the blue for two volunteers to cut short the course and fast-track to Vietnam.  Two of the 23 were Regular Army soldiers and didn’t have to volunteer to be considered, two were married.  The other 19 volunteered!

Many times over the years since, there have been newspaper articles and letters to the Editor claiming the Government forced Nashos to serve in Vietnam against their wishes.  The method of arriving at our selection shows the lie in that claim.  In fact, I never once came across any Nasho who was forced to go.  If a Unit was due for service there, any Nashos who wished to stay behind simply transferred elsewhere.  I still grind my teeth listening to the rubbish people come up with about that war.

Bruce Meakins and I were chosen as the best prepared.  That suited me.  Getting out of Victoria early as well as a posting to Vietnam was a real bonus. We packed our gear at short notice into his FJ, said goodbyes to all our mates and left for the sunshine of Queensland on the 28th October.


The Army generously gave us three days to cover the 2000kms to Brisbane but we intended driving straight through, hoping to be there in 24 hours which would allow us to spend some time with our families.  Bruce was confident about being able to handle all the driving himself as I didn’t have a licence.

We got away soon after 8:00am which was good and early but it was also smack in the middle of peak hour.  Coming from Balcombe, we copped heavy traffic twice, going up to Melbourne and then coming out the other side.  That resulted in the loss of a couple of hours and much nervous energy before we were able to find the Hume Highway to head north.

Once out of the built-up area though, we hit our straps.  Victorian roads were almost as good as those in Canberra so we had a very smooth run all the way to Albury/Wodonga.  We didn’t see any SVD turkeys on the way through Albury but we waved at a few girls who didn’t respond even if they recognised me.

The drive was going really well at that stage.  We’d made up a little of the time lost getting out of Melbourne, the car was fairly humming along and Bruce felt fresh.  Brisbane - home - was getting closer by the minute.

It would have been a sensible idea to buy a few maps to plan the trip out properly but Bruce had driven down the Hume Highway from Sydney, knew that road and wouldn’t hear of going any other way.

He wanted to go right into Sydney, on up to Newcastle and then he was prepared to continue from there on the New England Highway.  I wanted to cut across to Wagga Wagga and on up the Newell Highway which would have cut many hours off the drive - he wouldn’t be in it.

Somewhere around Goulburn, came the first sign of trouble - the exhaust noise at the rear of the car seemed very loud.  “The bloody bizzo’s fallen off,” Bruce growled.  We tied the muffler back on with fencing wire but permanent damage had been done and from then on, we roared along like a Mack truck.  Putting out that much noise, we were sure to be pulled up by the first cop to hear us so we tried to sneak through Liverpool and Parramatta on the outskirts of Sydney.

By then, we were slowing down and accelerating with a deafening roar.  That made us decide to bypass Newcastle by taking the scenic drive up the Putty Road which joined the New England Highway at Singleton.  We were looking for a road sign for the turnoff to Windsor which I understood was the jumping off point for this road.

We were lucky to find it because, as we tried to drive along unobtrusively through Parramatta, a cop car came towards us from the opposite direction.  Bruce quickly turned the engine off and we coasted past in neutral, slowing down all the time on the slight slope.  We’d made it!  He was just about to restart the engine when the police car turned around and came after us.  We quickly turned left, roared up a quiet suburban street, round the next corner, turned everything off, sat and waited. 

False alarm, no sign of the police.

We did manage to find the turnoff to Windsor but in the dark and under all that pressure, we missed a left turn into the Putty Road and finished up at Wiseman’s Ferry.

There I was, back in the very spot where I’d made the decision to leave the seminary just over a year before!  It was about midnight by then.  Although the place wasn’t exactly lit up like Martin Place, I could pick out landmarks easily.

We still weren’t even aware of our mistake.  Other troubles were distracting us.  Coming down the last section of steep twisting road, the brakes started to fade badly.  We were hoping they’d come good as they cooled down.  However, there was another problem as well. We could smell smoke from a bush fire, growing stronger the closer we went to Wiseman’s Ferry.  Sydney, that day, was encircled by raging bush fires - one was blazing in front of us on the other side of the river.  If we had known about the size of it and the danger, we would have turned back.

We caught the last ferry of the night across.

“Does this road go through to Singleton?” we asked the operator.

“Yeah,” he replied, giving no indication that it deteriorated into a forest track and went through a blazing bush fire first.

We drove down the bitumen to the right, following it a little way till it turned to dirt.  This was wrong - the Putty Road was sealed all the way, we had heard.  We quickly turned back to the ferry, only to find it half way across the river.  We could wait all night for its first morning run or continue on up the dirt road.

Neither of us wanted to hang about so we drove on.  The road rapidly worsened, dipping down into gullies, sweeping round hills and mountains.  The brakes faded  very quickly again, then failed completely. 

“The bizzo’s have had it!” Bruce cried as he resorted to slowing by using the gears.

Then the smoke thickened and the vegetation flamed fiercely on both sides of the car.  For five minutes or so, we burst in and out of pockets of light and heat.  Then we came round a blind corner in second gear to find our path completely blocked by a fallen tree.  In daylight, we would have been able to drive around it.  In the dark, it could only have been done with a real risk of rolling the car.

Bruce double-declutched into first gear, turned the screaming engine off and aimed for the bushiest end of the tree while still staying on the track.  We hit with a crunch, riding up onto a few branches.

There was sudden silence for a second or two.

“Quick, Murf, heave on the front and we’ll try to reverse off,” he shouted.

I climbed in among the branches, broke off some that were sticking under the front, pushed with all my might and we got her off OK.  A good look under the front with the help of a torch, however, found we were far from OK.  One branch had speared the radiator, another bigger one had whacked the sump, causing a dripping leak.  We had spare oil and a few litres of water.  It seemed possible to drive on providing the stick plugging the radiator stopped it from leaking too much.

Neither of us was taking much notice of the time but we knew it was way past midnight.  We’d seen no sign of life since leaving the ferry.  There was no choice really but to keep going as far as we could.  The oil light came on first.  We poured in some oil.  Then the water temperature climbed close to the red just as we drove past a windmill pumping into a tank.  We were able to fill the radiator and a couple of empty bottles for later on.

Bare, black ground flickered and smoked all round us but the fire was at least to the rear - our worries were now only with the car.  We stopped repeatedly and more frequently to top up the water and oil.

Poor Bruce was handling the pressure well.  He must have been absolutely exhausted, his car was suffering worsening damage and we didn’t really know where we were.  There had been no signposts since leaving the ferry.

Just as the sky began lightening, we came out of the black forest and there was Cessnock.  We pulled up in front of a car yard, almost cringing at the smell of burning metal coming off our engine.  It was shot.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1That FJ was Bruce’s pride and joy.  The night’s events changed that and he had already decided to trade it in on whatever our money would buy so our journey to Brisbane could continue.  Not much was said.  We lay back and dozed until the car yard opened.  It had been one hell of a day and night.

The salesman beamed at us as if we were his first clients for the week.  We probably were. I could tell by his smile that he would be going out of his way to be nice to us!  He sniffed around the FJ, commenting on the smell.  The stick poking out of the radiator had him shaking his head which looked as if it would fall off when he saw the oil dripping out of the sump, puddling underneath.  He whistled through his teeth when the brake pedal pressed to the floor.

However, he made no comment about the flawless paint job and rust free body.  He seemed not to notice the brand new tires and the unmarked upholstery.  He did notice our uniforms, the Army gear in the back seat and guessed that we were soldiers on transfer. 

He had us over the proverbial barrel.

The night’s grimy coat of soot, charcoal, grease and dirt on us told him all he wanted to know.  He must have thought we would take any heap of junk we were offered so he showed us a couple of cars that wouldn’t have made it out of town.  Bruce knew how to handle salesmen, shook his head sadly at him and asked if there were any other car yards nearby.  Naturally, that got the desired result.

Finally, we swapped the FJ and $280 for a Vauxhall something-or-other. 

“Lovely car,” the salesman said, as though he was giving us a Mercedes.  “It’s got the same engine as the Ford tractor!”

“Hell,” I said to Bruce, “are we going to drive at tractor speed all the way to Brisbane?”  I had visions of us ploughing up the highway, trailed by hundreds of angry honking motorists!

Fortunately, the car turned out better than we had hoped.  Bruce started very sedately up through Singleton, not willing to push the lumbering beast too hard.  About fifteen minutes out of Muswellbrook, he took the speed up to 70mph (110kmh) and held it there till we reached town, watching the gauges very carefully.  They stayed steady.  If anything, the car rode better at this speed than the FJ.  He started to smile - tractor engine be blowed! 

We reached home about 8:00pm, some 36 hours after leaving Balcombe, and weren’t we glad to make it!

A Tour out of this World - Part 1Our families had us for another day and a half during which I had to parade for the younger ones in my dress polyesters.  Judy and Margaret seemed quite impressed by their big brother.  Mum didn’t seem to care much for the uniform - I suppose all she could think of was that in too short a time I would be gone again, this time to the dangers of Vietnam.Bruce and I reported in time to 139 Sig Squadron at Enoggera Barracks, our first non-training posting.  Well, not quite - there was still plenty of training lined up for us as we found out. 

Normally, we could have expected to go out on exercises with various units to sharpen up our procedures, but seeing we were being pushed through in a hurry, there wasn’t time for that.

A place was found for us on a pre-embarkation jungle training course at Canungra - officially called a Battle Efficiency Course.  Till then, we both went to an Army Driving School in the foothills of Mt Cootha.  It didn’t matter that I had no civilian licence – the course qualified me to drive an Army vehicle in Australia or overseas.  The instructors were great to get along with and knew how to teach.

We learnt basic maintenance of the Land Rover, how to control it in poor conditions and how to drive defensively.  That sort of training is never offered to a civilian in driver training but I’ve been very grateful for it over the years.

I’m not at all grateful for the job the Army dentist did on my teeth.  He checked us over as part of our pre-embarkation procedure and found a number of fillings to be done.  These all fell out within months of being discharged in 1970.  More about that later.  The optometrist also had a go at me for having only one pair of glasses.  Regulation 521, I (ii) b (or something like that) required all personnel serving overseas who needed glasses to have two pairs.  He promised to see to it that a second pair was supplied before my departure, marking the check sheet accordingly.  It never did turn up.  More about that later too.  Finally, we were stuck full of whatever needles had been forgotten in Singleton or whatever boosters the Army decided we should have.

By then, they should have been satisfied we were ready for Vietnam but there was more training to come. 

Canungra!   If the Army wasn’t in occupation there, it would be a delightful place.  It’s in the border ranges south of Brisbane, in the Gold Coast hinterland where heavy rainforest is the norm.  There are, in fact, a number of holiday resorts in the vicinity.  Unfortunately, the Army never considered using its facilities as a holiday resort.

We spent three weeks there from the 21st November on a course designed only for the super fit, a course meant to stretch us to the physical limit.  For a start, we weren’t anywhere near that level of fitness.  Then, as we were support troops, we had no need for that level of fitness in Vietnam.  The Army thought otherwise.

The instructors made Cpl Galoot look like a wimp in comparison.  Without descending to his level of mistreatment, they shouted, abused and threatened us from daylight till after dark.  One of their favourite threats was that they would fail us on the course to force us to repeat it.  Considering the unseemly haste in getting us to Vietnam, Bruce and I shouldn’t have been fooled by it, but we were.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1We were teamed in section strength of ten men where we all knuckled down to the training as best we could.  Most of us were Nashos and roughly the same age so we were soon able to reach the fitness level and handle the physical work put on us.  The exception was a Regular Army corporal about 40 years old who smoked heavily.  He would have had trouble running to the loo.  We did wonder at times if he was a plant to make life difficult for us but the poor bloke suffered too much for that to be true.

Towards the end of the course, we had to do a ten mile (16kms) run in full gear out to the rifle range, then immediately run through a bit of an obstacle course (crawling through pipes and under barbed wire, mainly) while a Bren gun fired over our heads.  This was to teach us not to be gun-shy, I suppose, and to keep our heads down.

It’s a pity we didn’t hear a variety of weapons fired in anger because I arrived in Vietnam without ever knowing the sound of mortar and artillery fire.  Anyway, after running the gauntlet of machine guns and still trying to suck air into our lungs, we had to fire at pop-up targets over different ranges.  If we didn’t follow the correct firing procedure, our shots would all go wide so this was a good lesson in how to control our bodies, our breathing and minds when under pressure.

That exercise was made more difficult for us because the “old” bloke collapsed at the beginning of the run.  The rest of us had to carry his rifle and gear at first.  Later we carried him as well!  He looked the whole time as though he was about to have a heart attack but the instructor wouldn’t let him take a ride in the ambulance.  The laughable part of it was that when we stopped for a short breather, he was the only one to light up a smoke!

The obstacle course was much more difficult there than the one in recruit training.  It was much longer for a start, the obstacles were more cleverly designed and we ran the course against the clock.  We were as slow as the last man over so teamwork again was the essence.  Instructors were stationed at each obstacle, shouting at us to go faster, use a different technique or just plain shouting.  They helped us manage the old bloke who was more than a handicap - we had to manhandle him over two or three of the obstacles each time round the course.  Naturally, we never came close to the record but there was great satisfaction at seeing our times tumble each day.

Risk of injury was always there, as you can imagine.  Now and then, somebody would slip or make some kind of mistake and be hurt.  That happened in front of us one day as we watched a section go over one of the safest obstacles.  It was a wall about six metres high with netting both sides.  The idea was to go over the top showing the smallest possible silhouette although that wasn’t always the most natural way to do it.  One soldier went over all right but his rifle caught in the net, threw him off balance, then his leg caught and broke as he fell awkwardly.

Much of the training dealt with basic infantry manoeuvres in jungle and was as useful to me later in Vietnam as touch typing.  I enjoyed it though, especially a two day patrol and the rainforest rifle range where pop-up targets required instinctive firing.  We had to contend with a number of ambushes from “the enemy” during the day which convinced me never to volunteer as forward scout or tailend Charlie who usually copped it first.

The night camp stands out in my memory.  “For the purposes of the exercise”, we had to imagine we were deep in enemy territory.  That meant no fires, no smoking, no noise.  We had to have fields of fire, firing positions, dummy claymore mines, sentries and so on.  All went well as we struggled through our cold, unappetising food, put up our little hoochies, blew up our flimsy air mattresses and spread out our sleeping gear.  We were deep in thick jungle, the dark and silence couldn’t have been more intense.  There were strict orders to make no sound and show no lights.

A piercing scream broke the stillness of the night. 

With the thicket of trees, ferns and other undergrowth around us, the sound may have penetrated only a short distance, but the yelling continued. Then a torch turned on.  One of our “brave” Diggers had crawled into bed to find other life already crawling around in there!  By the time we calmed him down, he had blundered through a couple of hoochies, transforming our camp into a shambles. 

We found half-a-dozen young redbelly black snakes in his sleeping gear were to blame.  They were dealt with quickly.  He wouldn’t get back into bed so he took first sentry shift to give his nerves time to settle.  The rest of us very carefully checked out our sleeping gear before hopping in.

The course finished and we returned to Enoggera to find the rest of our Balcombe group there, Ric Hocking among them.  We were able to spend Christmas with our families.  Since Ric came from Perth, he spent his Christmas with my family down the Gold Coast where he charmed the Murphy girls, of course.  We were all a fair bit quieter than normal, knowing that the plane was about to leave for Vietnam, with me on it.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Map


Our journey to Vietnam began at South Brisbane railway station on Sunday, the 5th January 69 - we sat up all night for the trip down to Sydney. Our discomfort worsened from too much time for thinking, then and during the long day following, about the unknowns of the year ahead.  The Qantas flight was due to leave after dark.

The big moment came.  Bruce and I were walking to the departure gate when there was a heavy hand on my shoulder.

A vaguely familiar voice said, “ Murphy.  We’re off to fight the war together, hey.”

I turned around.  It was Galoot!  He’d made Warrant Officer, not because of brilliant recruit training, that’s for sure.

Of all the people to cop on a plane leaving for war, I had to score him.  I couldn’t believe it.  For once I was able to have my say on the spot instead of thinking it up hours later.

“Don’t bother getting all matey with me, Galoot,” I said.  “I’ll never forget what a 'BASTARD' you are.  Just watch out if you’re ever near me in Vietnam – there could be a live grenade rolling your way!”

With that, I turned my back and walked out to the plane.  That was the last I’ve ever seen of him – thought of him often but never missed him a bit as you can imagine.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Singapore

Qantas supplied a 707 for the flight to Saigon.  We stopped over in Darwin which did its best to acclimatise us with its unbearably sticky heat even in the early hours of the morning.  Flying on through the last hours of darkness, we changed into civvies to look like tourists, reaching Singapore as the day was breaking.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Vietnam MapVietnam looked so close to Australia on the map yet we seemed to take forever to get there. The hazy, filmy view as we approached Tan Son Nhut Airport gave no indication of the all out effort going on below, by both sides, to kill the enemy.  The plane made a very steep descent, taxied quickly to the terminal and then we could see the damage everywhere from the ‘68 Tet Offensive. We were hustled off the jet, looking out of place in our khakis among the black pyjamas and cone shaped hats.  Then we were fed a packed sandwich lunch and boarded a Caribou for the flight south-east to Nui Dat.

In the air once more, there was no escaping the reality that we were in a country fighting for its survival.  There were large areas of denuded vegetation, thousands of bomb craters, bare rice paddies and swathes of lush green jungle.

Nui Dat was nothing like the jungles of Canungra which we had been led to expect.  As our Caribou dived steeply on its final approach to the airstrip, I could have sworn we were landing in outback Queensland.  We had just overflown the base to land from the east.  I could see through the ramp opening that the countryside was dry, dusty and brown, rather than green.  A road ran south to Vung Tau, skirting a mountain range away to the west.  Any vehicle on it or anywhere around the base threw up a thick cloud of dust.

Vehicles from our various units waited beside the tarmac as the plane braked to a roaring halt.  We were efficiently bundled into these as another group of Diggers who had completed their tour of duty climbed aboard the plane.  In no time at all, it taxied down the runway, spun round and roared off over our heads.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Nui DatThe Land Rovers bumped along the road past Nui Dat hill on our right as we silently sat in the back.  5000 soldiers were based in the camp but there was little evidence of their presence.  (A couple of thousand would have been out on operations anyway.)  They were spread out over a large area, quartered in tents under rubber trees.  Finally, we passed the chopper pad (Kanga Pad) where a number of Iroquois and some mean-looking Cobra gunships waited their call to action, then we drove under the rubber trees into the 104 Signal Squadron area.

A friendly welcome there helped us relax as we were shown our accommodation and the camp facilities.  There weren’t as many signalmen about as I expected.  We found out in the briefing that most of them were working with various units on and off the base.  That was the nature of our job - we never worked together as a group but were attached in twos and threes to other units.  Sigs were coming and going from Nui Dat all the time and there would have been many I didn’t meet once in the twelve months.

We were very quickly issued with rifles and ammunition and safety procedures explained.  To drive home the point that we were in a war zone, we then went out to the perimeter to fire them.  We all had a turn on the M60.  Bruce Meakins copped shrapnel in his eye from one of the rounds misfiring in the breach - not quite the start to his tour that he anticipated.  For a few days, the medical staff thought about returning him to Australia but then his eye started responding to the treatment with no lasting effects. 

A Tour out of this World - Part 1Life ran to a routine there as everywhere.  The day started with breakfast in a large open-sided Mess.  We had standard Aussie cereals, followed by hot food which was anything but edible.  Generally, they dished up eggs, either fried, boiled or scrambled.  For longer shelf life, the eggs had been injected with ether which was supposed to disappear in the cooking.  It didn’t.  The eggs tasted so foul that very few of us could eat them and just scraped them off the toast into the rubbish bins.  Never mind, eggs were on the menu and served up in the mess so the Army was satisfied that we were eating them and getting a balanced diet!

A short rollcall followed. Anti-malaria tablets were handed out by an NCO who stood in front of each of us as they were swallowed.  (Two in the morning, one at night.) Actually, malaria had been rife only a few months before, forcing a trial treatment of a mix of Paludrin and Dapsone.  We arrived just as it was decided to put the entire Task Force on it.  None of us contracted malaria.  Many are now worrying about the onset of slow-growth brain tumours caused by the Dapsone!  (Relevant documents are still on the Secret list 35 years after, so veterans are very concerned about just what the government is desperate to hide and why.)

The Americans had a system of taking a single pill once a month.  It was almost too big to swallow and had the affect of causing acute diarrhoea for 24 hours while flushing the malaria bug out of the system.  This method therefore could only be used where there was access to a loo and the opportunity to take a day off to use it!  I took it at Xuan Loc and Hill 837.

Generally, new arrivals were given a short spell manning the communications hut on Nui Dat hill.  Cables ran there from radio sets at every unit in the base so the signal could be boosted through a companion set for greater range.

Twenty or thirty sets were installed for that purpose in a tin clad hut set into a cutaway at the top of the hill where a forest of aerials sprouted.  Our job was to keep all the radios operational around the clock.  We worked eight hours on, sixteen off, and slept in a tent further along the hill.  Past that, along the long axis of the hill, SAS had their main base on the down slope.  At the other end past our radio hut, was the American communications hut.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1All these facilities were hard up against the western side of the hill where it had been cut away.  This made us feel safe from any mortar or rocket attack from that direction.  Below, on that side, the perimeter was unmanned but was secured by booby traps, tripwire, barbed wire and an open field of fire from the APC’s (Armoured Personnel Carriers) to our south.  The base had plenty of depth to it in all other directions too, so although we were completely exposed on these three sides, we were assured the enemy could not get close enough to reach us.  There wasn’t a sandbag in sight.

One morning at the end of my first week “in country”, I was getting ready to come off night shift at 6:00am when I heard weird plop, plop, plop sounds coming from somewhere down the bottom of the hill to the west.  It was a noise unlike anything I’d ever heard before so I scrambled up the mound to have a look-see.  The sky still had a tinge of pink to it but I didn’t need any light to see the flashes as explosions rang out at the very base of our hill.

I ran back to the hut to pick up our HQ phone.

“There’s something going on at the western base of the hill,” I told the Sig at the other end.

“Get off the bloody phone,” he yelled, “there’s a Red Alert on - we’re under mortar attack!” (Expletives deleted in the interests of younger readers.)

“Well, thanks for nothing,” I thought as I rushed over to the tent to drag out my mates.  We climbed back over the mound to watch the blinking red lights dancing closer, exploding halfway up the hill.  There was a blast behind us then as our 105mm artillery fired directly over our heads, followed seconds later by huge explosions a few kilometres out in the dried out paddy fields.

The fireworks were soon over.

Radar had worked out the co-ordinates of the mortar’s position which was destroyed by our artillery.  A patrol later in the morning found the heavy base plate, a light pipe and a blood trail which indicated at least one enemy casualty.  (A “gunner” recently told me that the guns were fired on a high trajectory and low charge, with the range being adjusted shorter and shorter to drive the enemy in against our perimeter.  Firing was stopped only when there was a real chance that the rounds would drop short onto he Hill!  How close did I come to catching my first sight of the enemy or copping a 105 burst?  Ignorance can be bliss.)

A Tour out of this World - Part 1 - Map

That was enough warning for us and we decided not to take any chances in a repeat attack.  We filled and laid sandbags, first around the radio hut right up to and over the roof, then around the sleeping tent to one layer above bed height.  Never were so many sandbags laid by so few in so short a time.

While on "The Hill", we used to go down to the SAS lines to use their canteen.  The Troopers were exceptional characters who had survived a very severe culling process during training to win their berets.  In the military world, they were probably regarded as the very best at what they did in Vietnam.  Their job was to be dropped in small sections by chopper to note enemy movements along jungle trails, locate camps and so on.  Occasionally, they were allowed to carry out ambushes when their mission was over.

The VC and the North Vietnamese were so terrified of them that they placed a reward of thousands of dollars on their heads.  In spite of that and the dangers they daily placed themselves in, SAS hadn’t lost a single man in action there till late in ‘69.

We were in awe of them naturally but they went out of their way to put us at ease.  They never talked shop in front of us and only ever made mention of their work in jest.  I remember them kidding one bloke by calling him “girl killer”.  The story was that his patrol had ambushed a track successfully, killing all the enemy party.  The victims were all dressed in black, all carried weapons and returned fire before being killed.  A body check showed one was a teenage girl whose death was credited (rightly or wrongly) to the “girl killer”.  I don’t think it was a reputation he particularly cherished!

That short contact I had with our elite soldiers helped me later in the year when I was to have a close working relationship with them.

Soon my on-the-job training ended. 

I was posted to 9 RAR.  

The Americans were worried that the Tet offensive of ‘68 would be repeated and were putting every available man out on patrol.  They asked for two Australian battalions to be made available, something that was done unwillingly.

Normally, our battalions operated in Phuoc Tuy Province where they moved around to keep the enemy on the hop but where they could be close enough to defend Nui Dat if that became necessary.  Giving the Yanks two battalions outside the Province must have thrown all the forward planning out the window.

A Tour out of this World - Part 16 RAR, I think, was one.  Although there were many Nashos in its ranks, it was on its second tour and was operating very efficiently.  9 RAR was the other one.  It was the newest battalion, newly arrived in Vietnam, still finding its feet but had already been blooded before the end of ‘68.  Those two battalions became part of the American blocking force to the north-east of Saigon.

I choppered out to the Field HQ one hot February day.  There was so much dust in the air that the sun was actually obscured for the whole afternoon.  Artillery and APCs were also based there, somewhere behind the dust haze and the thick feeling of danger hanging in the air.  We worked in the Command bunker underground where it was hotter if anything than outside because of the equipment and the number of people.  We slept in slit trenches beside the 105s, tossing and turning as they periodically fired in support of our troops or on Interdiction missions designed to be a nuisance to the enemy.  Water was very scarce, not enough being available to even drink freely.

Here is one way of describing the scene and the pressures:


Armoured dust hazes the blazing sun,
clogs sweating skin, parches the tongue.
105's thunder death out of sight,
round shaking in the eerie light.

Desolate, dusty, featureless scene,
some pits shadow, some hoochies lean
above bodies without sound
in grave holes as guns pound.

Command Bunker officers with worried looks
act on reports of contact with "Gooks".
Diggers down, Dustoffs, Arty, Air Support,
information overload as the action is fought.

9 RAR's out there doing its best,
counting on support from all the rest.
Pressure's on, but no one will bend
or Grunts will suffer at the sharp end.

Days run into nights in endless repetition,
fear bores in without permission.
300-plus and a "wakey" to endure,
staying alive in my main aim to ensure.

35 years on and I'm still here
thinking of back then as I sip my beer.
It was all to much for such young men
and we hate to live it over and over again. 

My job was to link back to Nui Dat, calling in air strikes and Dustoffs (aerial ambulances) etc when necessary.  Much of the time, there was nothing to do other than to follow what was happening on the wall map and to pick up snatches of talk over the company radio networks.

Our troops were out there to block off any movement of the enemy towards Saigon.  The Americans would have achieved that by sitting in fixed positions, hoping the NVA wouldn’t be able to slip around them in the dark.  Our Diggers, on the other hand, patrolled aggressively during the day and laid on as many ambushes as possible during the night.  There was no way large numbers of troops could bypass them.

The two Aussie battalions were allocated areas to patrol, each company within those battalions also working in designated areas.  Naturally, these touched so there was often the risk of one of our patrols meeting another.  Therefore, it was essential our men were aware of the presence of another patrol because the Rules of Engagement were to shoot on sight.

Careful leadership and insistence on the patrols knowing where they were lessened the danger.  However, the need to move silently and navigate through dense vegetation meant that mistakes could always happen.

One day, tension was high in the CP because patrols had found signs of enemy presence the previous day.  Contact was expected at any time.  Then “A” Company crackled over the radio, “2 Platoon in heavy contact!”  All eyes swung to the wall map to see the position of “A” Company.  It was right where the enemy was expected to be.  There were hurried discussions as various officers guessed at the enemy strength and tried to work out the best means of assisting our men.

Suddenly, “C” Company radioed, “9 Platoon in contact, taking machine gun fire!”

I thought, “This is going to be our day - the enemy’s being sprung all over the place.” 

Again we looked for “C” Company’s position on the map.  It was right next to “A”.  Either we had bumped into a big concentration of NVA or we were shooting our own men.

The firing stopped as quickly as it had started.

Unfortunately, our patrols had been unaware of each other’s presence because one had wandered out of position.  They had met when neither was aware other “friendlies” were in the area, resulting in the double agony of self-inflicted casualties – some  dead and more wounded.

(Unit details referred to, of course, have not come from memory but from my imagination and I apologise if any Veteran suffers pain by reference to his Platoon.  The incidents, unfortunately, were all too true.)

This happened again over the next two or three weeks.  Morale wasn’t too hot as you can imagine.  It’s bad enough to have accidental casualties but when it happens more than once in a short time, it really hurts.  I feel very sorry for the poor blokes who followed correct procedures but live now with the knowledge that they killed or wounded their mates.

The operation was successful.  Small groups of NVA were intercepted almost daily as they probed for a way through our position.  They never did make it and the Tet Offensive for ‘69 fizzled out.

A cease-fire, called by both sides the year before to mark the Tet religious festival, had lulled the Allies into a false sense of security.  It almost gave the enemy the winning edge.  They proved to be a cunning and dangerous foe by then taking advantage of the agreement to move troops into positions which allowed them to nearly win the war.  In fact, the public reaction to the Offensive back in America probably did win them the war years later as the anti-war movement grew in strength.

A Tour out of this World - Part 19 RAR were given three days off after the operation to let off steam on R & C in Vung Tau.  The town used to be called the Riviera of the Pacific when the French were running the country before the Americans arrived.  It was a lovely spot on the seaside with bays, headlands, long sandy beaches and beautiful buildings built in a Mediterranean style.  The war had crowded it with refugees from country hamlets, beggars and prostitutes, which detracted from its charm and certainly roughened its gloss.

Our Task Force ran a sort of Club Med for the troops.  I don’t know where the officers went - maybe to a real Club Med!  I only had the one break there but some made it regularly between stints in the field.  It was a chance to get out of uniform, to walk the streets (with VC on their own R & C) like an ordinary citizen and to swim in the surf.

Much of the fun involved beer.  Cabaret style acts were lined up at night but the ones I saw weren’t much.  The troops generally just talked and drank.  Beer was 15 cents a can, with a wide choice of beers from each state, the USA and Philippines.  Cigarettes were 5 cents a packet.  Many Diggers developed a habit which they probably haven’t been able to kick in the years since.  We were actually issued 3 little packs of 5 cigarettes a day whether we smoked or not.  Each tent back at Nui Dat had its huge cardboard packing carton in the centre filled with unused smokes. 

Some would have been tempted to try out the local girls except for the lectures given about the dangers.  Apart from the usual moral objections, there was the certainty of catching some sort of VD.  If that wasn’t enough to put us off, we were told a story which did.  It went like this:  you couldn’t tell the good girls from the bad girls.  The bad girls (working for the VC) put a razor blade device inside them which ensured that what a very friendly Digger put in them didn’t come back out in one piece! 

I don’t know what bright spark ever dreamed up that story but I still wince and cross my legs, even thinking about it now.

That didn’t stop us from going to the bars - a local version of the pub.  They were just fronts for the brothels but made a lot of money getting soldiers to buy the girls drinks to have their company.  Saigon Tea was their favourite (and most expensive) - it was non-alcoholic.  Yanks used to buy them willy-nilly for the girls.  Naturally, we had to be a bit more careful with our money and built up a reputation for being tight.      The girls seemed to like our company well enough but it didn’t stop them singing this song, to the tune of “This old man”:

          Ook da loi, cheap Charlie,
          he no buy me Saigon Tea.
          Ook da loi have many, many pee,
          Ook da loi, he cheap Charlie.

“Ook da loi” was “man from the south” (Australian), “pee” was the local currency (piaster), “cheap Charlie” is obviously not a term of endearment.  We didn’t mind, singing them our own rude version of the song which I’ve now forgotten.

A Tour out of this World - Part 1The only other incident of interest I can think of from those three days happened while I was getting my lighter engraved in the street.  Kids always crowded us when we were about, begging us to “give me cigarette”.  Even bare-bummed urchins knew the phrase and used it.  A couple of boys aged about 10 or 11 were trying it on while I waited for the lighter.  While one was talking to me, holding my attention, the other sort of held me by the wrist with his hand over my watch.  He only had it there for a second or two and I didn’t feel anything other than a light pressure but, for some reason, I looked down at it...and my watch was gone!

The kid looked me in the eye, spun round and took off.  He only went a few paces when he seemed to hand it to another boy.  I was quick enough to grab that kid’s hands and find them empty so I took off after the thief.  Thank God I didn’t have my Army boots on.  I caught him in 20 or 30 metres, tackling him to the ground.  Then I picked him up and, without any compunction at all, punched him as hard as I could in the guts. 

“You rotten little bastard!” I shouted at him as a crowd gathered around.  The watch fell to the ground.  I picked it up, waved it at them all, muttering angrily about risking my life fighting their battles in return for treatment like that. 

I walked back to the engraver thinking, “Well, that’s Vietnam for you.”

Click A Tour Out Of This World (Part 2)

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