It’s fifty years since 85 Transport Platoon was deployed from Australia to Vietnam. It operated as a front line transport unit supporting our task force from 1967 to 1972. Overall, about 450 men served in the unit, each for a period of around one year. I was posted to it from April 1969 to April 1970. A total of of 50,000 Australians served in Vietnam over the time of our involvement in then war. We had 501 deaths during that time and 3129 battle casualties. Last week, I attended our bi-annual reunion in Albany, Western Australia.
The reunion took place over five days with people attending from all parts of Australia. It began with a ‘Meet and Greet’ function at Albany’s Sterling Club on Tuesday, August 15. I was a little late getting there because my flight from Melbourne arrived into Perth over an hour late and then I had to drive for five hours south to Albany. I missed the speeches and welcome ceremony, but it was wonderful to see so many old mates again.
We had an anniversary cake, but I did wonder at the spelling. Perhaps there is something of French influence in Albany???
On the second day, Wednesday, we men visited the relatively new National Anzac Centre in the grounds of the Princess Royal Fortress, while the ladies in our group visited a local sandalwood factory. The Anzac Centre overlooks the actual harbour from which more than 41,000 men and woman departed Australia for the Great War. For many of them it was the last sight that they ever saw of Australia. It’s a fantastic centre where a great deal of interpretive content forms part of an interactive story describing Australia and new Zealand’s involvement in WW1. It was developed by the Western Australian Museum and the Australian War Memorial and is run by the local city council;. From the interior, you can look though large panoramic windows across the location from where the convoys assembled and then left for Gallipoli. It surprised a number of people to learn that the first convoy was escorted by a Japanese battleship.
The members of the local lawn bowling club did a great job of providing us with lunch afterwards. It poured rain while we were at the bowling club and we watched squalls of horizontal rain and hail fall on their greens. We were hoping that it wouldn’t be as wet was this for the remainder of our time together.
Our reunions typically include an outing to a local place of interest. Albany was the last place in Australia to have a whaling operation and that was our venue on Thursday morning. It made a significant contribution to Albany and its closure almost decimated the local economy.
Whalers had been recorded here at Cheynes Beach in the 1840’s and a commercial fishing operation was established in 1920. This station was established at the Frenchman Bay site in 1952. It produced a total of 500 tonnes of whale oil during the 1953 season which was loaded aboard ships for export. Production increased in 1954 to 1000 tonnes – mainly from humpback whales. It continued at similar levels until the early 1960’s
Following a disastrous season in 1962 with record low catches the International Whaling Commission ended whaling of humpbacks from Antarctic stocks so the company commenced hunting sperm whales instead. The business remained profitable for many years, employing over 100 staff, A total of 1136 humpbacks and 14,695 sperm whales were caught from the station between 1952 and 1978. It closed in 1979.
The station is an interesting industrial site and we could only image the putrid smell of whale carcasses as they were cut up on the flensing deck with the blubber then pushed down into cookers that boiled the oil from the flesh. Apparently, you could always tell a whaler in a pub or a cafe by the smell that they carried with them.
To the west of Albany is a private military history museum on the stud property of John and Kathryn Shapland. It is in a building next to their house that was once the wood shed but has been renovated and extended into a fine multi-room museum. It’s very impressive! I think it would be one of the largest collections of its type in the country.
The Shaplands began their collection in just 2009 and have a passion for collecting items, books and mementoes that have a story attached to them. It now contains contains thousands of historical artefacts from the Boer War onwards, meticulously exhibited in their four purpose-built museum rooms. You have to see this collection to believe it. They have kept their collection at a very low public profile,. People only know about it by word of mouth and visits are only by appointment.
Apart from the military collection, Kathryn is a great cook. She made dozens of delicious scones for our afternoon tea. She and John actually came across to Albany for our formal Vietnam Veterans Day Ceremony but. alas, she didn’t have any more scones in her handbag. It was really very good of them to have enough interest in us to want to join us. I enjoyed meeting them very much
On our fourth day (Friday), we all attended the local Vietnam Veterans Day commemoration. This is held every year on August 18th to commemorate the Battle of Long Tan, one of the most significant battles in which Australia fought during our time in Vietnam.
The service at the Anzac Centre was an impressive affair. There is a strong Returned Services League organisation in Albany and they even provided a march commander to keep us under control. He was a previous RSM of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He quickly sorted us out with some long forgotten drill and we marched in better order than we have for many years. We marched down the hill to the car park at the Anzac Centre and then had a service that was attended by local politicians and service organisation representatives. The cadet band of the local RAN training ship provided the music and the local reserve unit provided the catafalque party. Paul Asbury (our unit’s Admin Officer) gave a good speech which I will try to obtain and include in a future post.
The service was followed by a BBQ lunch and here I am with my old mates Peter Beyers, Bill Pearson and Kevin Goulder. We are all now a lot older than the tender age of twenty that bee were when we were in Vietnam.
Overall, this reunion was well organised with good activities that allowed us to mingle and catch up with old mates. The local committee did a good job. I did wonder though, at the rather ‘kitsch’ wreath that was laid on our behalf at the cenotaph. Unlike the others that were made of beautiful local native flowers and floral arrangements, I thought that our ribbon and plastic affair resembled something more of a prize that you would win at the showground’s side-show when try to put the ping pong ball down the mouth of the rotating clowns.
We had a free day on our final day (Saturday), before our reunion dinner. Trish, the wife of one of my old mates from Tasmania is also a keen photographer, so we spent the morning together at a spot further around the coast taking some photographs. Unfortunately, I slipped while walking on a wet rock outcrop and fell, injuring my shoulder rather badly. I took myself to the hospital when I returned to Albany and was quickly and efficiently seen by the doctors in the Emergency Department. Some X-Rays showed that I hadn’t broken any bones but I had incurred some serious soft tissue damage.
The dinner at night was pretty good, event though I had my sore arm in a sling. Normally, the organising committeee running our reunions have previously polled members in advance to see who might be willing to organise the next one. That didn’t happen this time, so there was some unfortunate angst and mayhem trying to set up our next event in 2019 while we were in a busy and noisy public restaurant. Thanks to Bob for putting up his hand to host our next reunion in Port Macquarie, NSW.
I’m sure that all our members enjoyed this reunion. It’s always wonderful to see old mates again. The weather was cold and wet for most of the time we were together but that there’s nothing we could do about that. Its didn’t dampen our spirits at all. Thanks to the local organising committee, I’ve had a terrific time and look forward to seeing everyone again in 2019.