Physical Training. I wasn’t unfit when I joined up, like most other kids I had spent my life outdoors, making the most of every hour of daylight. My problem was a diet high in carbs and low in protein, we couldn’t afford a lot of meat. Carbs are great for energy but not the best for muscle development. I hated my body with its lack of definition and little flabby bits. ( no not that one ) I could do the five-mile runs and 25 mile route marches. What I couldn’t do were chin-ups. Our PTI’s or physical training instructors – torturer’s, were all gleaned from Artillery. They were Corporals and you had to refer to them as Bombardier. They were fit. Disgustingly, achingly, ‘I wanna be like that’ fit. I well remember our first five-mile run, it would have been in March and cold. Kapooka wasn’t too far away from the Snowy Mountains and already the early morning chill did nothing for you. Dressed in green shorts, singlet, socks and sandshoes and jogging on the spot in three ranks, we were that blue we looked like an army of Smurfs. I’m not saying it was cold but your nipples stood out that far you couldn’t fold your arms. Away we went, our golden Adonis ran backwards at the front encouraging and badgering us along. I can still feel the cold air going into my lungs and feel it burning them, and see my mottled skin all blue and getting red patches as I ran. So I have to ask the burning question, where do we get the term ‘fun run?’
Kapooka was built on a ridge, a long undulating ridge and the road led out of the camp and into the countryside. No time for taking in the bucolic vistas, one’s main concern seemed to be keeping down breakfast: bacon, eggs, tomato, toast, porridge and a mug of tea doesn’t taste good at all sitting in the back of your throat. I felt a little sorry for those who had a big night in the canteen. There were several platoons doing the run and we were bringing up the rear. So those hardy souls who had a large liquid intake the previous night were now bending over at the roadside, heaving. This did nothing for those of us concentrating on regurgitation. We had to run on the spot a few times waiting for the slackers, when they caught up away we went again. The Australian army doesn’t call cadence as troops run or march, the wheezing, coughing and hacking was enough. It sounded like patients waking up in a TB ward. Nostrils distended, arms pumping we forged ahead, not wanting to look weak or inadequate under the steely gaze of our Bombardier.
I imagine every training battalion has a Heartbreak Hill, we were no exception. Even on a wide plain I think the army would find something resembling a hill, and then make it bigger. When you first saw it you could hear the collective clang of arses hitting the ground. “Come on you lot, up to the top, not far.” Young Adonis sprints past, chiselled jaw stuck forward, skin glowing with disgusting health, muscles rippling like coiled serpents. You get the picture. The top of this Himalayan feature gets closer and closer, then, the disappointing wail of those at front, “There’s another bloody ridgeline to go.” Yep, they conned us. We had put our all into reaching the top of the false ridge and ended up with nothing once we arrived. I don’t even remember what the view looked like, all I could see were those little sparkly shapes you get in your vision when the body’s screaming for oxygen.
There were several exercises you had to do to pass the fitness test. We had rope climbing, loved it. Swimming, loved it, the running, the obstacle course ( yes there is mud and barbed wire and big log structures to scale) loved it. Nothing else posed a problem except the chin-ups. One caring Bombardier took me under his heavily muscled wing and designed a few weight training exercises for me after hours, and encouraged me to work hard. A few others had some strength problems, so we had a group weight lifting exercise. This involved running around the oval carrying a caber over our heads then shifting it from shoulder to shoulder. Someone shorter usually put themselves in the middle of the log, then as you ran along they trotted with their fingertips touching the underside. Smart. It fostered teamwork and other skills, and it was character building but in my six years I never had to carry a third of a telegraph pole anywhere.
You also had to perform a minimum of six chin-ups and three reverse type curling ones. These involved pulling yourself up, chinning the bar, bringing your knees up and swinging yourself backwards until your shins touched the bar. You don’t see that one on ‘Biggest Loser.’ With some struggle and a little determination I accomplished the chin-ups. The Bombardier took me downstairs to where they stored excess equipment and I did the reverse ones on a wider bar. This gave me better leverage and I passed the test. It felt great to have somebody take an interest in my progress and help me out. Ten years later I overcame the lack of protein problem when I trained hard to get into the police service.
Route Marches. Not content with bursting your lungs and crippling your arches with running, they also insisted that you were able to walk long distances. Every soldier, no matter what the mustering had a grounding in basic infantry skills. So if needed, a cook or a storeman could be called upon to fight. It’s a bit like learning Algebra, everyone had to know it, only a few used it. Our platoon Sergeant decided that I would be in charge of ‘foot hygiene’ for everybody on my side of the barracks. This involved a pre and post check of about twenty pairs of feet. Now this is okay if you are a podiatrist, a casual observer of feet or plain kinky. I was neither. You can well imagine the ribbing I received for my troubles, I think the Sarge wanted to see if I could handle the pressure. I had joined up for six years so the chances of me making corporal in the years ahead were good. In retrospect I couldn’t complain, at least it wasn’t a ‘short arm’ inspection the medics had to do. So I became the Bonaparte of Blisters, the Sun Tzu of Tinea, the Maestro of Metatarsus.’ The other blokes didn’t like it one bit, I copped a lot of flack but they all had their feet checked. Note to self, no matter how tough life becomes, never become a shoe salesman.
We marched for 25 miles, carrying a rifle, wearing basic webbing and water bottles. I think we had to carry a certain weight in our bum packs and that was it. When you say it quickly 25 miles isn’t far, when it’s up hill and down dale it seems to go on forever. We had a couple of stops and the Salvation Army man was never far away. Out of all the Padres the ‘Everyman’ as he was known did the most. No matter where you were he’d be there with his Land Rover. In the back he’d have a couple of urns of ice-cold cordial, boxes of biscuits, an urn of tea, coffee and hot chocolate. He’d also listen to you if you had troubles and help in any way he could. Blokes had no qualms about dropping a few bob in his collection box. In New Guinea in WW2 an Everyman set up his jeep and a tent with drinks and biscuits minutes after the Japanese were routed out of the area, and was there to greet the Australian soldiers. Even to this day I’ll support the Salvation Army before anyone else.
This wasn’t a pleasant stroll in the countryside, it had to be completed in a certain time and our boots weighed more than we did. Not the sleek footwear of the paratrooper or even the GP boots of the regular army. No, we had boots from WW2, boots AB with a smooth leather sole. Now you have your feet scanned and a computer works out the size and the boots are made to order. Marvellous. I thought it bad enough checking feet before the march, as soon as we returned to barracks I had to check them again. Phew, there were a few blisters and I dispensed foot-powder and Band-Aids, taking note of who had what. It reinforced my strongly held belief, I could never harbour a foot fetish. At least not in army boots.
Bayonet Practice. Yes it’s exactly like it is on the movies. Straw filled dummies or sandbags hang from wooden frames while young men screaming and yelling run at them. Then ram the bayonet home, twist it and pull it out. You had to put on a war face, contorted and hideous while those waiting their turn laughed their heads off. The bayonet has a lengthy history and is quite a weapon in its own right. Bayonet charges have turned the tide in many battles and it’s one of the few ways that soldiers get close and personal with the enemy. Some of the blokes were a bit reluctant to use them properly but there was always an instructor to tell you how to do it, “Recruit Bloggs, what the bloody hell are you trying to do, make love to it? Stick it in, twist it, pull it out. I could do better with my dick.” – “Don’t tickle the bloody target, what’re you trying to do make it laugh itself to death?” – “It’s a bloody sandbag, how hard is it to stab a sandbag?” And so on it went.
A bayonet is designed to do a maximum amount of damage to the human body, There are grooves down each side of the blade, so that when it’s in the body flesh sticks to it as it’s pulled out. The points on ours were extremely sharp, although the edge doesn’t have to be. I found out exactly what it looks like to have a bayonet go through flesh. One drill movement you learn is how to fix bayonets. The rifle is held at your right side and on the command you push it forward, your hand goes to your bayonet on your belt at the back. Then they are swept out with a flourish and clicked onto the end of the rifle. That’s the easy bit. Part of the marching out parade involved marching with fixed bayonets, and before you march off the ranks have to be straight. There’s a right marker and the ranks line up off him, the order’s given and everyone except the right marker takes a step forward, raises their left arm, head to the right and shuffles back into line with every left fist touching the shoulder of the man next to him. When the line is straight the order’s given for eyes front. Around come the heads down come the arms, all very good. The rifle is held in the right hand and the bayonet sticks up above the shoulder.
Ben, a South Sea Islander stood to my right and unfortunately he held his left hand up too high and brought it down onto my bayonet. It made a slurpy sucking noise as it went all the way through his palm, stopping on the hilt. Afraid to move I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw that Ben’s usually dark face had turned grey. The next thing bright red blood spurted up. The corporal raced over and grabbed hold of him, unclipped my bayonet and pulled it out. Yes it made a sucky noise on the way out, not the sound you want to become familiar with. All I could do was stand and stare.
Next week: First Leave, The delights of Wagga Wagga and the Fight.