DAVID BUTTERFIELD was conscripted as an infantry gunner when he was called up for National Service in 1966. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he recalls what that time was like, and why today Nasho’s who trained up for combat, but never went overseas, believe their medical needs have been ignored too long.
WHEN my birthdate marble was drawn out of the barrel to go into the army for two years, it didn’t really come as a shock – there was no why me? It was just bad luck
It seemed that around every 20 years or so there was a war, and it was now my turn to serve in one.
It didn’t really dawn on me at the time that I was one of only 7 per cent of eligible 20-year-old men (1 in 14) conscripted for army service with a big chance of going off to fight a war in South East Asia.
Looking back, I can’t recall any of my mates being called up – just me.
I knew training would be tough but other than discipline I didn’t know much else about what was in store for me.
My father was strong on discipline so I didn’t think that part of the game would be a problem.
I’d be in the army to help protect Australia from being invaded by communists.
Girls, cars, going to the footy and ballroom dancing were all I ever thought about as a skinny, pimple faced 20 year old.
2 RTB Puckapunyal (Recruit Training Battalion)
ONE day I was behind the counter selling postage stamps as a postal officer in the Postmaster General’s Department, the next day at dawn, along with a plane load of other guys I was in Puckapunyal and about to learn to become a soldier.
Once I was attached to a platoon with another 40 guys, given my serial number 5714464 and a hut to live in, training got underway at 0600 Mon to Sat, (0700 Sundays) marching, marching and more marching (drill work), salute training, lot’s of PT training, spit polishing boots, dress/hut/rifle inspections, learning how to strip and fire weapons, bayonet practice, forced marching (running/marching fully kitted out), throwing hand grenades, picket duty, mess duty, a 20 mile march, (I nearly froze to death) and so on.
That’s what you did in recruit training.
During that time our training NCOs would constantly verbally abuse us for being the worst platoon they’d ever had.
One event I’ll never forget was a fellow recruit, being forced to dry shave on parade in front of the rest of the platoon because the corporal wasn’t satisfied with his morning shave.
Another time the company (about 200 of us) was on parade, our company sergeant major felt the need to remind us that unless otherwise directed, only two people were allowed on his parade ground – himself and Jesus, and that Jesus had to get permission from him to use it.
From memory I think he got into trouble for that one.
Once three of us off duty, in civilian clothes on a Sunday, came out of the dry canteen having a bit of a laugh about something or other and were set up upon by a big beefy major who abused the shit out of us for nothing at all – just a great big bully that could say what he liked to three recruits who could do nothing but just cop it .
At times you felt that you were in gaol and being punished for a crime you hadn’t committed.
I was always homesick and longing to see my girlfriend family, and friends – I missed everything about my now former life.
Ten weeks’ training and despite being the worst platoon of all time, we graduated. We then moved off to corps training, with the majority going into infantry (not necessarily by choice).
Corps Training (four weeks)
My corps was artillery, and I was sent to the School of Artillery at North Head near Manly.
In the dim light of morning when the train arrived in Sydney and we bussed out to the School, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
The location was superb.
Beautiful red-brick buildings overlooking Sydney and the harbour.
Everything was immaculate because us gunners, (equivalent to private) had to keep it that way.
Its nickname was Bullshit Castle – if it didn’t move, you polished it, if it did you saluted it.
More and more drill marching, inspections, polishing your room floor twice daily and so on.
Intermingled with training on the 105mm field gun (howitzer).
THE location being close to Manly and a ferry boat ride to Sydney made life quite pleasant.
We also had more leisure time if we weren’t on extra duties.
I do recall a propaganda chat when we were shown a map of the world with the communist countries coloured in red and how quickly since 1917 the map got redder and redder as it moved closer to Australia.
The “domino theory”; if we don’t stop them here (Vietnam), they’ll be on our doorstep before we know it. That was never going to happen and of course it never did.
12th Field Regiment, Holsworthy near Liverpool.
Life in the regiment was a bit of everything, the usual previously mentioned stuff but where training stepped up to go fight a war that was never officially declared a war.
A lot of field gun firing exercises on the Holsworthy Range, lots of guard duty (two hours on four hours off from 8pm to 8am the next day).
I recall a duty officer once, full of booze, calling out the guard for inspection late in the night as a bit of fun for him – unlike the guys trying to get a bit of sleep while not actually on guard.
Holsworthy barracks were mainly fibro type huts, they were old and cold – without our mosquito nets we would have been eaten alive.
At weekends, if you didn’t have extra duties, we might go into Sydney or the local RSL Club in Liverpool for our fun.
That is the West and South Aussie boys – most Victorians drove back home, and the NSW boys went home every night let alone weekends – it was a day job for them.
In April 1967 I was picked to undergo jungle training at Canungra in Queensland – a place you go to before being sent to Vietnam.
A tough joint this place, two days off in three weeks.
Lots of physical and weapon training, obstacle courses, muscle-toughening courses; it was full on.
Exercises out in the rainforest with the leeches, snakes and unfriendly vegetation.
I passed the training and went back to Holsworthy.
On parade it was ‘who’s been to Canungra?’
Hands went up – ‘you, you and you pack your bags for a week’s pre-embarkation leave and then off to Vietnam’ – I didn’t get picked.
Soon it became ‘who’s been to Canungra and would like to go to Vietnam?’
My hand never went up!
Maybe I was a gutless wonder, but I’m still around today so I don’t care.
Many of the guys I was with at 12th Field went to Vietnam and I know of two that were killed at Fire Support Base, Coral, just after the communists Tet offensive in 1968.
I had other mates who went to Malaya; I really wanted to join them but was knocked back.
It came at a time I was getting very depressed.
I’d received my ‘Dear John’ letter, which most West Aussies received at some stage.
As well, a couple of former mates decided I was a good target for bullying – an uncalled for, an unnecessary and unpleasant experience.
The only time I’d been bullied and towards the end of my service
School of Artillery again
The last three months of service I volunteered to go back to the school as a driver.
Ten hours’ training in how to drive trucks and Land Rovers.
I had so many close calls mainly through dodgy brakes.
Running off the road following a tyre deflation in convoy and rolling the bofors gun I was towing, as well as tossing around all the guys in the back was the scariest event.
I ran over unexploded artillery ordinance at night when towing field guns for night firing exercises.
So army life in Australia was not without its dangers.
Many Nashos, who didn’t go to Vietnam had injuries that they may have since died from or which they suffer from today. Others died from different causes
Then the end – Exit interview question: “Would you like to sign on”. Answer: “No thanks!”
Australia should never have been involved in this unpopular war – people power made a huge contribution in bringing it to an end
The only other time men were conscripted to fight in a war was in WWII and they weren’t sent overseas to fight until 1943.
Every 1 in 14 eligible young men were conscripted; for the rest it was business as usual.
They had their jobs, probable promotions, their tertiary studies, their friends and loved ones and their sweethearts.
We had to start again and adjust to civilian life – two years behind the 8-ball.