The Kerfuffle. A lovely word that describes an upset and boy what an upset, brains far bigger than mine came up with the idea to amalgamate the 2 and 3 Cav ration stores. No more would I lounge around in the idyllic surroundings of my comfy office, hidden from the world and only a bellow away from the boss. I had my own kettle for the copious amount of coffee and tea I drank, and you wouldn’t call yourself a storeman if you didn’t have a huge adequate stash of snacks from the ration packs – that nobody else wanted. Life was good, up to a point. It’s early 1971 and my future seemed mapped out, they wanted me to go on a storeman’s course. I didn’t want to. The boss reckoned I could do it standing on my head, that’s fine I say but I’m a gunner. I’m only here until I’m better, I don’t want to do it – add several more lines of whining – okay then I’ll go to the new ration store while I plan my future. Jerry Gould my rat-truck driver, partner in crime and I packed our pencil sharpeners and oily rags and headed into hostile territory. No matter that you’re part of the same Corps we didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome. The Sergeant in charge, Bob Cherry – who turned out to be a nice bloke – sent Jerry away and sat me down with a, ‘Don’t touch anything, not a ledger, a desk drawer nothing.’
Hmm this was enthralling; they didn’t want me to work, the doors burst open and in came El Capitan and a Staff Sergeant both struggling under piles of ledgers, ‘Young Smithy,’ declared my fearless leader, ‘you now have the rest of the day off. It’s Friday, I don’t want to see you until Monday morning.’ Cut to scene from – The Flash – I disappeared with the speed of a thousand startled gazelles, leaving the main door flapping in my wake. Jerry picked me up and we’re off before anyone changes their mind. Ahh the luxury, back to the barracks change into civvies and bolt into Sydney.
A farewell to arms to the troop. Saturday night and it’s party time. My old troop is heading for Vietnam and they’re having a send-off at the Peter Badcoe club, our canteen. (All the canteens were named after Australian army Victoria Cross recipients) Naturally I am invited and turn up looking as smooth as David Niven – cravats were popular then. Tight jeans, silk cravat, and silk shirt all that thick black hair slicked up – Yeah Baby I was Shagadelic, until I reached the front door. There they stood, the men I should have been going with, in a bunch, blocking the doorway, looking angry. The only thing missing were the baseball bats and a rope. It went like this, me: ‘What’s up?’ – Ted the troop Corporal, AKA The Beast. ‘You know what’s up, ya dog. Dobbing in a mate and him ending up in the clink.’ – The mob moves forward, me: ‘What, who, when, what?’ – ‘Curly, the Corporal whose job you took then dobbed in to the Meatheads.’ (Military Police) – Me still astounded and now surrounded by a very agitated group and being jabbed in the chest by Ted’s rather large finger, ‘Will somebody please tell me, what has happened?’ My obviously straight, although gobsmacked face must have registered with them. ‘You don’t know, do you?’ – ‘No.’
The explanation: – Curly had been the storeman for quite a while and had run into financial difficulties at home. So he decided to rip the store off and consequently his fellow soldiers out of their food. His plan was simple, too simple. Take quite a few pounds of meat cuts from all the messes, along with sausages and a few cartons of eggs. Make up ‘meat trays’ to take to local pubs and raffle them off to the drinkers. Take home all the profits and viola, no money problems. This had been going on for months. It seems El Capitan did a little more than read Playboy, he had started going through the books from 3 Cav ration store and found numerous discrepancies. After he sent me away Curly turned up to be greeted by all sorts of grief and found himself doing a few weeks in Holsworthy Military Correction Establishment, i.e. the clink. Not a place for the faint hearted. So muggins here ended up being blamed for his untimely demise. After all had been revealed we partied on, and a good night it was, although a couple of the bloke’s whinged. I was dancing the night away with their ladies, while they were drinking. Come on some of the best music was happening then. Add flashing lights, funky birds, plenty of grog and it makes for a great send-off.
I get my wish. Life returned to normal and Jerry and I commuted to our new workplace. A constant round of put in for rations, pick them up, put in the store – my new place looked like a mini-mart – weigh, count, measure, dispense, put in truck and deliver. Phew, no rest for the wicked. (I learned enough about keeping ledgers to set me up for running the books at a two-man police station) Life went on, the war went on and Mrs Smith’s little boy Laurie was not a happy chappie. Look at it this way, when you train for something be it a sport or a game, a war even then you have a sense of anticipation. There is an end in sight and you can see it looming on the horizon, damn it you can taste it. I call it combat interruptus, a bit like coitus interruptus except nobody is losing their knickers.
To gain an objective we must have a plan, I had two of them. Plan A, pester the hell out of the Adjutant, Captain Arrowsmith. Appear at his office every morning without fail, big salute, a hearty, ‘Good morning Sir, are there any vacancies in Vietnam today?’ – He looks back at me across his desk, dark piercing eyes staring and with his hooked nose he reminded me of a bird of prey. ‘Morning Corporal Smith, sorry nothing today.’ – Big salute, ‘Thank you Sir.’ About turn, march out. Plan B, as above except throw myself onto his carpet, beg, plead, cry and wail. That wasn’t going to happen, although it came close.
I must mention someone I considered a Mate, Corporal Ken Boardman. He was killed in action in June 1971 not too long after arriving in South Vietnam. The APC he commanded was destroyed by a satchel charge thrown by a Viet Cong into the box of Claymore mines carried on top of the vehicle. He died along with his driver and several infantrymen sitting on the vehicle. It was indeed a sad day. My lasting memory of him was the Friday before he left 2 Cav. I had finished for the day and sat on the steps of the hut polishing my boots. I can still see Ken making his way down the cement path between the huts, tall; fit he had the air of a confident man about him. A broke one to boot, ‘Smithy, can you lend me $2.00 till payday for petrol; I have to get home now?’ – ‘No worries Ken.’ – I flipped a note out of my wallet he took it and slipped it in his top pocket, ‘Good onya Smithy,’ he patted his pocket, ‘next week okay?’ That was the last time I saw him alive. I’ve seen him since but that will be another story.
When the news came through that he had died it sent a wave of sadness through the unit. We were only a couple of hundred strong so it was more of a family, without a mother and a dad who could get angry and you didn’t always like your siblings. Know what I mean? I’m not being flippant here, we all had that macabre sense of humour. The man was missed, not only by his family and fiancée but by his other family, us. This made me all the more determined to go so you can imagine my surprise when I walked into the Adjutant’s office a month or so later and he said, ‘You’re going in ten days, get your stuff together.’ My knees wobbled and for once I couldn’t speak. I know, hard to imagine. Now the fun began, in that ten days I had to have my pre-embarkation leave, a week, and all my needles for overseas service, a bloody lot and have a medical. First things first, needles. Not just any needles or shots as those over the big pond call them. These were for diseases that would make your hair curl: plague, diphtheria, dysentery and another plague and I forget. What I do remember is this, that what should have been given to me over three months was given in half an hour. You’ve heard of Buboes, they are swellings associated with horrible diseases that make your bits fall off. Your lymph glands swell up into huge, lumpy – sore – lumps. The medic thought it quite funny as I walked out looking for all the world like a large goose about to fly off. Arms stuck out from my sides, any movement making the pits, well the pits. Try packing your trunk when your arms are stuck out like that, go on laugh. Well I am now. Everything packed I hauled my big canvas ‘cricket bag’ out to the Land Rover, young Jerry was taking me to the airport. Sadly I never saw him again, he was a National Serviceman and left the army while I was away. None of us were big on letter writing.
One good thing about being a quick reinforcement was I didn’t have to go to Canungra, the jungle warfare centre in Queensland. I know I wouldn’t have survived it, my knee would have quivered and died and all those snacks had put on a few pounds. Leave was okay, the parents didn’t seem overly impressed that their little lad would be going to a war zone. Why would they? WW2 was their gig and anything less didn’t rate a mention. It gave me time to be with the siblings. The family was living out bush at this stage and as life would have it right next door to my first wife to be. Apparently she had spied me from a distance while mustering cattle. I won’t go into anything to do with this part of my personal life. Ex-wife still has issues with me so I’m not sticking my hand in that hornet’s nest.
Back in Sydney I had to report to the Eastern Command Personnel Depot at Watson’s Bay. They handled all the troop movements and this is where one had their final medicals. In Mountain of Death our ‘heroes’ spend an afternoon at Doyle’s seafood restaurant, plotting their heist. It is located on the waterfront down the hill from the unit and what used to be an artillery post in the 1800’s, another piece to the defences of Sydney harbour. Doyle’s would have to still be the place to go for a feed of seafood and chips, topped off with a cold beer. The seagulls roost along the railings casting withering glances at you out of pink, beady eyes. They never miss a chip thrown in their direction. The sun reflects off the blue water, creating a soft glare. A marina is nearby and millions of dollars’ worth of boats bob up and down on the swell from passing ferries. Magnificent views both of the harbour and the Heads, people watching and oh, did I mention cold beer?
Watson’s Bay. Thanks to Wikipedia.
The defining moment came, time for my medical appointment. This was in the morning and I would be leaving that night. The doctor seemed like a nice bloke; he went right over me, top to toe and everything in between. ‘Hmm, you’re a little heavy young man. What job will you be doing?’ – ‘Gunner Sir, armoured.’ – ‘Hmm, get on the scales again.’ I climbed on again glad that they weren’t the ‘speak your weight’ kind. One person at a time on the scales please. I lifted one foot off, he stared at the scale, wandered back to his desk and looked at his list. Yes there was a scale of weight for your particular job. I think I came in somewhere between pack mule and leave him at home. He must have seen the look on my face, ‘Do you really want to go?’ All I could do was nod. ‘Okay, you’re on the plane.’ I could’ve hugged him.
A mixed bag of soldiers waited for a Qantas flight at Mascot airport late that night, dressed in summer uniform (it was winter) with a jumper on. We waited patiently, on-flight luggage in hand containing a civilian shirt to wear when we changed planes at Manilla. The government there didn’t want it known that they were transiting soldiers for Vietnam. We stopped over in Darwin first where we had to wait for a couple of hours, then on to Singapore. A sight to behold indeed, about a hundred soldiers in khaki pants, boots and mainly Hawaiian shirts tried not to march off the plane. We boarded a US civilian flight and headed to Saigon. Laurie was going to war.
Next week. Ton Son Nhut airport. My first night out and Settling in.