My Fifty-Five Year Anniversary

Today, July 17, is quite a momentous anniversary for me. It’s fifty five years since I was required to report for National Service training and become a soldier in the Australian Army.

Nui Dat  Setting Up the Gun Jeep

I don’t know where those fifty five years have gone. Perhaps getting married, having children, raising a family, developing a career, working hard and trying to live life tom its full. I remember many aspects of my service clearly as if they occurred yesterday. For others, I need a prompt or two to stimulate my memory.

I had to register in 1968, the year that I turned twenty. Two ballots, based on birth dates, were held each year and those who were selected completed medical assessments and were then compelled to report for service in one of four intakes each year. During the period of National Service in Australia (1966 to 1972) around 800,000 young Australian men were eligible for service. Of these, 66,000 actually became soldiers with just 16,000 of them (including me) serving in Vietnam. This was the first (and last) time in history that Australians had been conscripted for active service.

I remember reporting for duty at, the then, Engineers Depot in Richmond. We were greeted by soldiers in uniform, who we later found out to be our recruit training instructors. They were very nice to us as we reported, asking us if we would like a cup of tea and so on, but as soon as we reached our training base at Puckapunyal, they started shouting at us and didn’t stop for the rest of the ten weeks of recruit training.

2RTB Huts

Coincidentally, I found a video shot by ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) of protesters outside the Engineers Depot on the very day that I reported for duty. The link is here.

I managed my way through much of the recruit training but as a skinny kid I found a lot of the physical training (especially the PT) very difficult. I had been a bushwalker, so long marches were not a problem for me and I soon became used to the discipline, even when orders and instructions seemed to make no sense at all.

I had worked in the Personnel (Human Resources) Department of a company and the army had me slated to have a military career as a Pay Clerk. My grandfather died on the day of our March Out Parade from recruit training and I was fortunate to be given two days compassionate leave to attend his funeral. On my return to Puckapunyal, I reported to the Royal Australian Army Service Corps training centre and was asked what training I was scheduled to do. I told them that I would like to be a driver, so I was directed straight to the driver training area. This was a significant change of direction and it opened up many areas of experience that I would never have had as a clerk.

P1010681 Edit Edit

After eight weeks of driver training, I had learned how to drive heavy vehicles, service them and how to complete all the army’s transport paperwork. Some training was complex with much instruction but some was quite simple. For example, I learned how to reverse a truck with a trailer attached by simply spending all day out in the training area driving backwards.

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I left the driver training centre as dux of the class and was posted to 87 Transport Platoon, again at Puckapunyal. (I later found out that on my official army record my driver training rating was classed as ‘average’.) Our new duties included general transport work and some additional training that gave me a licence to drive a tipper (dump truck). This unit was a resupply unit for transport units in Vietnam but I decided to just take my chances as to what the future may hold . After five months, I was on my way to war!

Before leaving for Vietnam, all Australian soldiers were required to complete a demanding training course at the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canunngra in Queensland. This course was tough with every movement done at the ‘double’. We learned to conduct ambushes and patrol. We spent a lot of time on the firing range. We had to complete a 200 metre long confidence course under live fire. Completing another foreboding obstacle course was also a requirement for graduation.

IMG 0843

I left Sydney for Vietnam at midnight on a chartered Qantas Boeing 707 in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. We had refuelling stops in Darwin and Singapore., I will never forget my first encounter with tropical weather in those places. It felt like I was enveloped in a hot and wet blanket. I wondered how I would survive a year at war in the same type of climate.

We flew in to Saigon by mid morning and disembarked waiting for further instructions. In our training, we had been warned to be wary of Vietnamese wearing ‘black pyjamas was they would probably be Viet Cong.’ It was shock to arrive in Saigon and see that nearly all the locals were dressed in black pyjamas. It was just the standard peasant dress!

Qantas707

From Saigon, I flew on to our Task Force base at Nui Dat in an Airforce Hercules aircraft along with other replacement soldiers and a couple of vehicles strapped to the floor. I was met at the Nui Dat airstrip by the 2IC of our unit and taken to the lines (of tents) and shown where I would live as a member of 85 Transport Platoon, 26 Company, RAASC.

The experienced diggers had two games that they played with new arrivals. One was to tell them that they had to ‘stand to’ in their weapon pit at dusk. I was sceptical, and soon realised that this was a bit of a ‘con’ when everyone else was at the canteen (Boozer) drinking beer. The other was a ‘sign up sheet’ for the Hoa Long Dance on Tuesday nights. Hoa Long was a primarily VC village not far from the main gate of the base. Only a few people ever lined up at the gate at the prescribed time of 7.00 pm for the fictitious bus to the dance.

Nui Dat  TFMA Lines in Dry  3 Edit

Somehow, a few days after arriving in Vietnam, I was lucky in being selected for the last rotation of a detachment to our logistics base at Vung Tau where a section of our tippers supplemented the other general transport units. Life at Vung Tau was a bit more relaxed with the opportunity to go into the town with an evening leave pass, more availability of alcohol and a less restrictive environment.

Vung Tau  Lines  2

After two months the detachment was finished and we all returned to Nui Dat. There we lived in tents rather than huts, the beer ration was only two cans per day per man but the food was much better. We mounted piquets on a rostered basis to patrol our operational area for security every night.

Nui Dat  Lines

At Nui Dat our unit worked on three main tasks. One was to support the Task Force (5000 men) with the delivery of water, stores and ammunition along with operating a garbage service. A second section of our unit drove GP cargo trucks carrying troops and resupplying operations in the field. The third section was comprised of tip trucks that worked with the engineers building roads and on a variety of civil aid projects. Outside the base, we were always armed with a round ‘up the spout’ and our convoys were generally escorted by a gun jeep with an M60 machine gun. We were occasionally supported by armoured personnel carriers with their .50 calibre machine guns.

Nui Dat  Cargo Trucks

We worked 6 1/2 days each week with only Sunday afternoons (when available) for relaxation. We were given five days R&R leave in a variety of locations outside of Vietnam and three days R&C leave in Vung Tau over our year of deployment. Once per month, we were able to go for a beach trip for the afternoon to Vung Tau.

I spent a total of 366 days in Vietnam before returning home, again on a chartered Qantas flight to Sydney. In those days, that Army’s policy was that domestic travel was only by second class rail, so we had to pay for our own airfare to get home from Sydney.. By the time I returned home, I had only about ten weeks of my two year long national service to complete. I had about seven weeks leave accrued, leaving me with only about three weeks left to serve. I reported to the Southern Command Personnel Depot at Watsonia every day, doing as little as I could and then slinking off home for the rest of the day.

After my discharge, I returned to work at the company that had employed me before I was called up. I was very grateful for my boss who was an ex British returned serviceman from WW2 . He gave me a good level of support, was very understanding and helped me to settle back into civilian life again.

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I kept a diary while I was in Vietnam. I donated the original to the Australian War Museum in Canberra and I have a copy of the contents here on my website. If you would like to read the text, you can find the beginning by clicking on this link https://www.wilsons.id.au/vietnam-diary-march-1969-70/.

Overall, my two years as a National Serviceman has had a profound impact on me. I had a life experience that I could never have gained in any other way. I have also gained a number of benefits that are only available to veterans. I have become much more proud of my service over the years. The best thing, though, is I now have a network of close mates and we look out for each other continuously.

5 thoughts on “My Fifty-Five Year Anniversary

  1. Interesting. My only involvement with the Viet Nam war was a series of cruises between Subic Bay, (a very large military base in The Phillipines), escorting ex-HMAS Sydney which had been rescued from an ignominous doom, rusting away to a hulk, and which had been converted into a logistics carrier and had been nicknamed “The Vung Tau Ferry”.

  2. Thanks Bruce. This gives a new meaning to the Vietnam conscription days that the rest of us, luxuriating at home, really had no idea about.
    That any of your cohort could resume “normal” life as civilians is beyond me! So many careers and life stories must have been shattered by the time out and experiences.
    Ralph

  3. Happy anniversary Bruce!!!

    Ah remembering the joys of Puckapunyal in mid-July!!!

  4. 55 years nearly a lifetime ago!
    Thanks for sharing your Vietnam experience, we are so proud of your service. With the passage of time the Vietnam Vets are now very rightly admired and respected for their sacrifice.

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