I flew up to Brisbane yesterday afternoon to visit my old Army unit (85 Transport Troop) after an invitation from the Commander of 26 Transport Squadron to present a copy of my Vietnam diary to the unit.
My flight up was non-eventful other than some dumb passenger had not boarded the plane and we were delayed for almost half an hour while they found and off-loaded their bag. The plane was a brand new Qantas 737, the last to be delivered from Boeing in a large order placed some years ago. Inside, it smelled just like a new car and on the outside it was painted with an historic insignia featuring a winged kangaroo. An orange stripe along the side of the fuselage created problems with the sensors of the airbridge when we arrived in Brisbane as they kept pushing it back every time that it approached the plane. This meant that it took us around 20 minutes to disembark but at least we didn’t have to wait long for our bags.
This morning, I was up bright and early to
drive out to 85’s base at Amberley. I met up with two of my old Vietnam Veterans mates, Viv Rooks and Greg Shadbolt and went through the compulsory induction onto the site which meant watching a compulsory ten minute video and then entering our personal details so that we could be issued with a visitors pass. In the meantime, Marcus Luciani had arrived to escort us into the base and I felt very guilty at using up so much of his busy time to go through this very slow security process.
When we finally arrived at 85’s briefing room there were nearly 100 diggers assembled to hear my presentation. I told them as much as I knew about the unit’s history and gave them some details about our experience in Vietnam. I think that one of the interesting facts is that the original 85 Transport Platoon was formed in 1967 and to our knowledge was the only unit in the Australian army unit since WW2 too be formed specifically for overseas service. All the rest had existed before any deployment to Vietnam.
We joined Marcus for lunch in the Officers Mess and discovered that many things about army life are no different at all. On the other hand, many of the disciplines and procedures have changed in a way that mean that some of the everyday activities of our time are now totally inappropriate today. No more working bare chested, no more alcohol other than that allowed in the ‘boozer’ and no more smoke grenades in the trucks.
After lunch, Marcus gave us a quick tour around this joint RAAF and Logistics facility which I found very interesting. We drove past the area in which the RAAFs new Super Hornets are based and it was really clear that they are keot in a very secure area indeed. I have visited a couple of friends in prison over the years, but the steel fences and razor wire in this area of the Amberley base makes the security that I saw in prisons look lightweight. The other thing that impressed me were how new and modern the facilities on this base really are. The offices would rival corporate facilities anywhere and the accommodation blocks look just like modern townhouses that could be seen on any new property development.
Viv, Greg and I . spent some time after lunch talking to a number of 85’s drivers as they were getting their vehicles ready for an inspection in the coming days. It was interesting to share perceptions of army life but these drivers have a much different life to the one that I had. These guys are now long distance truckies. They can be away for up to six weeks at a time transporting army vehicles and equipment to various operations. They get by through making the cabin of their truck into something of a home and keeping in touch with each other by radio.
When I use the word ‘truck’ I mean it in a very serious sense. These are very expensive Kenworth prime movers and they can pull up to 100 tonnes of freight. Jeff Glossop was kind enough to take me for a spin in his truck – out onto the highway and back into the base again. At least I could still get back in with the same visitors pass.
In my day, our little 5 tonners had six gears in both high and low ratio but these things have 18 gears!. Because they are air conditioned, the drivers can sleep over in their sleeper cabs and be quite comfortable – just what you want when you are out on operations in northern Queenland and the Northern Territoryfor long periods of time. In my day we would have had to put up a hootchie and sleep overnight on the ground. A few months ago I visited the Kenworth factory and saw how they were made. Today I had a ride in one.
After a lot more time chatting to the guys we were invited down to the the boozer for a drink as a way of ending the day. I guess that long ago this would have been called a ‘canteen’ but even in my day, it was known as the ‘boozer’. This ended a fantastic day for us. There was no way that the 85’ers were going to let us buy our own drinks and their hospitality was fantastic. The boozer was closed promptly at 4:00 pm so then it was time to leave and head back to my hotel in the city.
As I left Amberly, the black sky to the north made it obvious that there was a storm brewing. Thunderstorms were forecast for late afternoon, but this looked very serious. Fortunately , I timed it right to miss one of Brisbane’s most severe thunderstorms, but I was certainly caught up in its aftermath. As I travelled closer to Brisbane the traffic became more congested and the trip that took me just under 40 minutes in the morning, took me offer 2 hours this afternoon.
The high winds had torn down trees and the road was covered in shredded foliage for much of the way. Parked cars had their rear windows destroyed by giant hail stones and one bus had its large front window out on the road in front off it and impaled by a tree branch. There were very few traffic lights operating and some houses had lost their roofs. On one corner, sheets of corrugated iron hung over the electricity wires like bed linen on a clothes line. The only thing for me to do was drive slowly and patiently and keep worlong my way back to my hotel.
I really enjoyed my day today. Thanks so much to Major Luciani for inviting me to visit and to Captain Luke Millwood, the OC of 85 Troop. Thanks also to the members of 85 for their interest in our experience and for their overwhelming hospitality.