Archive number: 1106
Date interviewed: 21 November, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Okay, so I just want to start of with just getting a brief sort of four to five minute description of your life to date.
My life to date?
Life to date.
Well I suppose the first thing I start off with is that I’m the eldest of two children, I have a sister who’s two
years younger than me. We grew up very close together because we sort of lived out in the bush, and if we weren’t mates well we had no-one to play with, no-one to talk to so we’re still very close. My Dad’s deceased but my Mum’s still alive. I was born in Goulburn and when I was about six years of age we moved to Armidale. Mum’s folks come from Armidale, Dad’s folks come from Goulburn. [telephone interruption]
Four to five minute overview.
Okay. Right to go again? Okay, well I suppose where I’ll start from, I’ll go back to where I was born, I was born in Goulburn, my Dad’s folks all lived around the Goulburn Crookwell area. I’m the eldest of two children, I have a sister and my sister and I grew up very close together, we still are. And we’re great mates, and if I didn’t have a sister to talk to or play with I would have had no-one, because we lived out in the bush, and circumstances prevailed that we actually
had to move back to, up to Armidale where Mum’s folks came from when I was about six or seven years of age. We lived on a rural property, I didn’t attend primary school, Mum taught me, and when I started high school I boarded in town for about nearly two years, and Mum and Dad moved to another property which was closer to Armidale and there was a bus service. So I then went back home and travelled on the bus every day to high school. Got my Intermediate Certificate when I
was fifteen and six months, seven months, eight months, whatever it was, and the day I finished my Intermediate Certificate went home and started work. I worked on the place where Dad worked, and I just sort of choofed along there. Mum and Dad worked on the place ‘til October 1968 when I was enlisted into the army, so I choofed off down to Singleton where I did my recruit training there and I was lucky to get into the armoured regiment at Puckapunyal. I was down there for some
time, where I spent my training in the regiment, and ended up in the A Squadron, and went to Vietnam with the A Squadron. Came back towards the end of 1970 discharged, went back on to the farm where I was working, and then I was there about nearly two years and the place was sold. So Mum and Dad and myself we were still living at home, we went to another property out near Wollomombi, and I was there for about ten years and Dad, no it wasn’t quite ten years, eight years, so I was going to get
married and Dad decided he’d retire, he was a Second World War veteran. So Mum and Dad retired into Armidale where we had bought a house, and I was there for about another 18 months and then I got a job with the same people managing one of their properties just north of Armidale. And Sally and I, we got married in 1980, in 1981 I think it was we moved out to this (UNCLEAR) where we managed it, and I was there for ten, how long was I there for?
Seventeen years it must have been, fifteen, seventeen years, and we had our kids, had all our five kids there, and then the place was sold and I was on a disability war pension, the doctor thought it was a good idea. He said at that time of the game my health wasn’t well, so to take the TPI [Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Pension] and give work a miss, so that’s what I did. We rented a house in town for a little while before we bought our house out here. That’s a very quick overkill, very quick.
No that’s good, that’s excellent. I’ll just go back and just ask you a couple more questions about what you told me. So with your early memories of your family and your younger sister?
What sorts of things do you remember doing, playing and interacting with your sister on the property?
Well, there were no other kids around, so there was just the two of us, and when we were at Goulburn I don’t have such a great recollection of that
because I was only about five or six. But you know, I do remember the house we lived in there and yes, it was sort of a great childhood. Then we moved up to Armidale there, I’ve got great memories of that. But when we were kids we had a little sausage dog and we used to play with this sausage dog and we used to play with it under this big gum tree. We used to have little – Matchbox toys first came out [toy motor vehicles], so I’ve actually still got a couple of original Matchbox toys. Mum used to teach us but we’d get stuck in and we’d start about
half past eight, all depends, eight o’clock, all depends how we were going. So by lunch time we’d have all our school work done so basically that was the rest of the day, was off. And we used to go out and play under the gum trees and dig in the dirt and carry on, and just, yes, do kids things. Mum and Dad sort of probably only went to town once a fortnight, or maybe even once in three weeks. But then we got a bit bigger and like most country kids big enough to carry a pea rifle around so we used to knock off and go fishing or shooting rabbits.
So yes, it was a real great childhood, enjoyed it.
So was it an isolating experience?
It wasn’t, it didn’t worry me, because I never knew any different, yes. It was before TV and video games, none of those things. When we lived at Goulburn we never had a telephone or anything, but when we were at this other place, the first place that Dad worked on, that had a telephone, a party line, we thought we were made. But one of the great social things was that every weekend we’d go and
visit Mum’s folks, and the whole family used to also turn up there, Mum’s brother, his family and two little girls that he had. There’d always be a family reunion at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s place. We don’t seem to do those sorts of things these days very much, but yes, it was good.
So tell me more about your dad, you said he was a Second World War veteran.
Did he ever tell you stories about the war?
Sometimes he did, but unfortunately he took more to the grave than what he told me, but yes, I
really admired my Dad, he was a true gentleman and a brave man. He used to say that he fought all the King’s enemies, he fought the Italians, the Germans, the Vichy French and the Japanese. He saw action in the Middle East and he was in Ceylon for a little while when they came back from the Middle East and the Japanese were bombing Ceylon, and spent time there before they sailed back to Australia. And then
he was in New Guinea, the Kokoda Track, he fought through there and got wounded, came back to Australia, was in hospital there for six or seven weeks, he got shot through the hand. And then when he got better then he went back to New Guinea for the second period, so yes, he was a very brave man.
So was he in the infantry?
Yes he was, yes. He was in the 2/2 Battalion AIF, and – which was one of the battalions, outstanding and brave combat battalions, fought everywhere, you know, he often talks about or talked about fighting in
Bardia where the Australians captured literally hundreds of thousands of Italians there, yes. And then when the Germans turned up it was a different story, got hunted back fairly well with them. But then at that stage of the game his division was recalled back to Australia because of the Japanese threat, the other divisions stopped there, but his division came back. And on their way back they had to pull into Ceylon because Ceylon was under threat then. They thought the Japanese were actually going to land there
as well, Ceylon Harbour and that was getting bombed. So he was there for some time, and yes, he often talked about they were out on patrol and this huge big water buffalo sort of peered out of the scrub there and he said he had his machine gun, he had a Bren machine gun. And the old sergeant said, he said if that buffalo moves, he says, you shoot him right there and then. But he said the old buffalo turned around and wandered off. He said it was quite an experience for him. But they were in there and the Japanese bombed
Ceylon Harbour. And anyway they were there for a couple of days and the next thing one of the big ocean liners came in and they raced in and put them straight on the ocean liners and they got them out of there straight away, pulled them out. And the ocean liner was one of the big cruise ships, and anyway he just took off, he said they left all their escorts behind, he said nothing was going to catch them, they were gone. And they came back to Australia, but they had to go way down the other side of Tasmania because Bass Strait
could be mined and submarines in there. So they came back to Australia right around, he said they nearly went to bloody Antarctica to get back, to get back to Sydney, yes. Then they had leave and then went up to Innisfail and north Atherton Tablelands with the division, did a lot of training there, jungle training, before they were sent to New Guinea.
So just going back to that story about the water buffalo, where was that?
Because I’ve never really thought about
how nature affects like what are sort of –
Yes, he also said they saw a huge snake there as well, he said you know, the road was probably about eighteen or twenty foot wide and the snake was as wide as the road. He said it was a huge python thing, he said he was terrified, he said no-one moved, he said this bloody great snake just slithered across the road, he said we left him go, he said no-one was going to touch him. So there were lots of nature things about.
So this was in the middle of waiting, or was this…?
Well basically they were just, yes as I said they dropped them into Ceylon because
they thought the Japanese were going to invade there, but they didn’t. But they were bombing the place, they were bombing the harbour.
Did they see any of the effects of bombing and that kind of thing on native animals, and things?
I don’t know, I don’t think so, they probably would have done up in New Guinea there with the – it would have been shelling and bombing and all those sorts of things. The native animals would have copped a fair hiding there. They never really mentioned it, that is, just war experience more than – that was just one of the funny things he was just talking about, yes.
Had he ever gone overseas before,
before he went to Bardia?
No, no. No, he’d never been anywhere, I don’t think he’d ever been out of New South Wales. He was a member of the army reserve unit, in those days what they used to call the militia, or CMF [Citizens’ Military Force]. But then the war broke out, he then joined the army. But he was actually very lucky, he ended up with, what was it, the Eighth Division which went to Singapore, and he was in that division but anyway he took sick. And I just forget what the story was, he was
crook, and that unit sailed, and he ended up going with the other division, Sixth Division I think he was with, and he was with them. So instead of going to Singapore he was lucky enough he went to the Middle East in a way, otherwise he would have ended up a prisoner of war in Singapore, Malaya.
Yes, he copped a few injuries though?
Yes, he got a bad bullet wound, a woodpecker machine gun got him up on the Kokoda Track and shot him through the arm and hand, and he was very lucky, he had his little fingers,
and this finger here, he couldn’t straighten those little fingers more than that, the bullet went right through the middle of his hand actually, shot him in the hand, busted his bones in this hand.
On the right or left?
It was the left hand.
Because they often say that married men should take off their wedding rings. Did he have his wedding ring on?
No, he wasn’t married at that time, no he didn’t get married until after the war.
Okay. So even when you were a boy you could see…
That was something he sustained for the rest of his life?
but he also had shrapnel wounds on the back of his leg and back. Up in the Middle East there the mortar shell got him, shrapnel hit him, not seriously but he still had shrapnel in him, and they didn’t take it out.
Because they couldn’t, or…
Yes, couldn’t, probably healed up, wasn’t that deep, or just in the flesh, so he left it there. Never seemed to worry him, although he had a crook shoulder in his younger days. I remember he had a crook shoulder, and
he was a Bren machine gunner, and they reckon that firing a machine gun, thousands of rounds, he basically destroyed the muscles and that in his shoulder, so he had a lot of trouble with his shoulders.
Destroyed the muscles, the actual …
The actual machine gun, yes, you know, the recoil of the machine gun all the time, belting into your shoulder, like somebody hitting you with a hammer in the shoulder all the time, so yes.
Because, did he ever show you what it was like, or you operated the machine gun yourself?
Yes, I had a fire of a machine
gun, I knew what it was like, yes.
Just for my benefit, can you describe that machine gun and how you operated it and what kind of effect of it would have been on the body?
Well not only the noise but also the recoil. They just have a magazine, I think they have twenty-eight rounds in the magazine, so you just fired twenty-eight rounds and it’s like getting hit in the shoulder twenty-eight times with a hammer. And you just whack a magazine off, say four hundred or five hundred rounds
basically in a few minutes, so it just continues belting you in the shoulder all the time, yes. So it did mess up his shoulder. He was also, I wouldn’t say he was quite deaf, but he had hearing loss as well.
Was there an expectation that you’d just keep going, in the high country?
Yes, you just kept going, yes. I think when the old man was wounded I think he didn’t spend much time – you know, with the shrapnel wounds he didn’t spend too much time, they just sort of basically patched him up, and the ones that needed stitching or whatever they did. So they
stitched him up and he was only off for a little while and he just went straight back to his unit, straight back into it again. So he just didn’t go on compo [compensation] for a month or two, as soon as you were ready, back into it again.
Was that the common thing?
Yes, the common thing, yes. There was always this great feeling, I think, if you don’t do it you’re letting your side down, you letting your mates down, so your comradeship is vital in military service.
You’re always there for your mates and your mates are there for you, so you don’t go slacking off or bludging off when you felt like it, because it’s just not yourself, you affect the whole team. And as I said, Dad was a Bren machine gunner, well he had what they call a number two and helped him load guns and carry the gun and direct the fire and all those things, and helped him. So if he’s out well it’s basically a machine gun gone, and they’ll either pass it on to somebody else but then somebody else has got to become a number two or the number one machine gunner.
Did he ever tell you about the
medics, how they worked and stuff?
I know up there on the Kokoda Track he walked, I think it took him about a day to get back to the aid station, and then it took him another four or five days to get back to the hospital, so yes, very hard routes, slow to get back out, the evacuations were yes, traumatic and a drama in their own rights.
When did you notice that your dad had shrapnel wounds?
I never sort of really noticed it, you know, probably sort of later in life.
When you’re a kid I don’t think you take any notice, but Dad talked about it a bit later on, his shrapnel wounds, but when I was a kid I noticed his left hand, his fingers were all deformed. His little finger, the next finger too was all deformed, he couldn’t straighten them. And then he told me, he showed me the marks, the machine gun got him through the hand and sort of followed up his arm and came out in his arm but didn’t smash the bone there but smashed all his fingers and broke his fingers then. And lucky enough he didn’t lose his fingers or didn’t lose
his hand actually. And he said the surgeon did a marvellous job getting him back to what he was. But he never complained about it, you never heard him swearing about his finger wasn’t working or anything like that, he just, you know, a lot of people have probably known Dad all his life and they never realised that he was deformed. His hand was like that, he actually only had three fingers on his hand. He could close his hand, but he could never open his fingers straight, they only just went to about that position.
Did he keep in touch with his mates in the army?
Yes, he did, yes. There was quite a few of them actually, Dad joined and as I said got into a division, but that division, most of that division, the 2/2nd Battalion particularly was raised in the Northern Tablelands and the North Coast, so when Dad came up here there was quite a lot of those blokes around. And I went – took Dad, to a couple of reunions, there was one down at Kempsey some years ago, quite some years ago, and I drove him down, him and his best mate, so we went down, I went to the reunion. So- –
No, in Kempsey.
Yes, Kempsey. No, we never went to the ones in Sydney, there were ones on there, we never went down to them, but he just went to a couple of local ones. And one of the blokes he was great mates with, a bloke called Ron Diamond, he was a lieutenant – he ended up a lieutenant with Dad. But they were great mates, I think Ron transferred out towards the end of the war and went somewhere else, but yes, they were great mates, and used to talk to one another on Anzac Day and all those sorts of things. They used to see a lot of one another, because he didn’t live that far away from where we lived at Wollomombi. So Dad was, yeah,
kept in touch with his mates. And there was another fellow here in Armidale not long ago, just died, and he was mortally wounded – they thought he was dead, up there on the Kokoda Track, and he was missing for about two days, he dragged himself out, he’d been shot in the stomach. And they’d given him up for dead, and he dragged himself, I don’t know how far he dragged himself, a hell of a long way out and he got out, but he had very bad health. But the funny thing
was he was the last of the 2/2nd blokes around Armidale to die, so he outlived the lot of them, and he was the one they all thought wouldn’t have lived at all.
Did his other mates sustain injuries as well?
I think most of them did, yes. Dad said at the end of the Second World War, you know, when he first went in there the battalion strength was probably about one thousand two hundred. Out of all those original blokes there were thirty-one of them left, they were the only ones left out of those original ones. The battalion’s strength was probably about seven hundred, but of course
all the reinforcements and replacements and those who had been wounded and killed, and some had obviously moved on, some had become officers and moved to different units and what have you. But out of that original battalion there were only about thirty-one of them left at the end of the war. So the odds of doing that were pretty huge, but he was one of the lucky ones.
So was it unusual at the time for your dad to talk about it?
I was pretty lucky that we’ve got a
very strong military history in our family. My Dad’s brother, he served in the Second World War, my Mum’s brother also did, he was in the same battalion as Dad, and that’s how Mum and Dad met through Uncle John. Mum’s sister, her husband was a Second World War veteran, so when we used to have family reunions at times, I used to be like most – a lot of kids, well I don’t know about a lot of kids, but I used to sit down, shut up and listen to what
the old man and my uncles used to be talking about. But they never talked about the serious side of things, but they’d always talk about the funny side of things and enjoyed a good laugh about the stupid things that happened, stupid things that people did. I suppose sometimes they did talk about the actual war, but yes, as a kid I used to be fascinated listening to them.
Did you feel like it made a strong impression on you?
It did, it shaped my life, yes, yes.
That’s why I’ve sort of become involved with the RSL [Returned and Services League], not because – well I never aimed to get anything out of it, but I thought I owed it to my Dad and that generation, yes. It’s always been my belief to help one another, obviously now those numbers are slowly dwindling, but there’s other veterans, career Vietnam veterans and those who served for peacekeeping forces, the Gulf War and what have you, they – yes, I’d like to think that
in some way I can make a little contribution to that.
Do you think that in the First and Second World Wars they were able to kind of talk about their experiences in a serious way when they came back?
Probably, although I think a lot of them never spoke, my Dad – there’s lots of things, Dad never spoke about it obviously, but I don’t know what he – I suppose some of the things he said were
general types of things, you probably could find it in books and things, when he was there, but you know, the day-to-day combat missions and those sorts of things he never spoke about. He spoke about a couple of his mates getting killed, he used to get upset about that, so I think that’s probably why they sort of block those sort of things out, yes. Yes, one of his best mates I think got killed the day the war ended, so that sort of affected him, so he never used to talk about that. I only heard him say that about a couple of times. Another one of his good mates got
shot standing right next to him, shot through the head, so yes. But he only mentioned those things probably once or twice in his life. And that was sort of probably only after I’d come back from Vietnam and we were just talking about war and things, yes. But I think he sort of felt – Dad and I were – we were like brothers more than father and son, because we worked and lived with one another all our lives until Dad retired in 1980. Then we still were very close with one another.
So he would have been
right in the trenches and right in the sort of guts of …?
Yes, right at the front line, yes. Dad was – their company was first in, last out in a lot of cases. So it wasn’t like it was just – it was really one of the – the battalion was one of the front line fighting units in the Second World War, very proud, very distinguished history, the 2/2nd Battalion. Dad always felt that
comradeship with that unit. We used to have a shot at one another, he used to reckon, “Ah,” he said, “Bloody tankies, I don’t know,” he says, “You blokes get it easy, should have been a grunt.” I said, “If you didn’t have enough sense to be anything else it’s your tough luck to being a grunt. I wasn’t going to be out there listening to your stories.”
So how did he describe it?
I don’t know how he used to describe it, I think he just – he had pride in what he did, yes. I think he sort of felt that – I think he was proud of what – well he was very proud of
what I’ve done, but equally so I was proud of what he’d done too.
But were you turned off? Because you didn’t become…
No, not really, well you don’t get turned off, I suppose. But I think you’re very, very aware of what’s going on, I think you’re probably even more aware, but you never say anything because when you’re a national serviceman, I just accepted the draft, accepted my lot, and said that was it, let’s bloody – got to do it, let’s get on with it and make the best of it I can.
But you were pretty wise about what had …
what they’d gone through. What was your impression of it though? Like what did you think?
Well I think you – you don’t get an impression but you can’t get a feel of it until you actually do it yourself, so I think it’s – that’s what I sort of found through the RSL, that I’ve been extremely lucky that there were quite a lot of World War I veterans around, and obviously Second World War, Korea, Vietnam fellows, we’d only sort of just become involved in the RSL in the 70s, the middle 1970s. But
even though those fellows were in their eighties from the First World War, we were comrades then, we called them all by their first names, they weren’t Mister so-and-so, they were just you know, Reg and Jim and all those fellows. Don’t call me bloody Mister so-and-so, my name’s Jim, and they – the age difference never appeared there, we had just that thread of comradeship that I think only those who’ve served in the military forces
have, you can do all sorts of things but you never find that sort of comradeship link between generations as what they have done in the military service.
Yes, it’s interesting. So what did you – how would you, as a second hand source, describe what it would have been like at the front line?
It would have been horrific. The wars, even the First World War and the Second World War were completely different, the trench warfare in the First World War must have been absolutely
shocking, the same with Gallipoli, the only part that would have been a little bit different probably was in the Middle East there, with the cavalry regiment, the Light Horse units there, that was a fairly – a mobile war, but Gallipoli was and the First World War, you know, they had thousands of men slaughtered in one battle. And they’d race over and they held the trenches for a few hours and the Germans would counter-attack and drive them back out again and there were literally thousands of men dead, there’d be no gain at all. Whereas the Second World War I think it wasn’t
so much – it wasn’t really trench warfare, obviously some of the Middle East towns and those places, they had forts and trenches there, but they were with tanks and armoured artillery and mobile – the whole war with respect, had changed, yes.
Do you think there was like, in the First and Second World Wars, an ethics in how they would approach certain campaigns?
Australians seemed to have ended up with a great respect for the Turks. One of our fellows I knew very well, a First World War veteran, he was on the first boat to land at Gallipoli, and he had no resentment towards the Turks. I think he actually sort of felt, I wouldn’t say it’s compassion for them, but didn’t hate them, but I don’t know whether they actually hated the Germans. But I don’t think they treated the Germans – didn’t like Germans as much as they did the Turks, they sort of felt closer to the Turks, particularly after the war.
And it’s interesting to note that after the First World War that Turkey remained neutral, they’d had enough, realised what war was, after the First World War, so they didn’t get involved. But the Japanese and the Australians, that was a different kettle of fish all together, yes, they hated one another with a vengeance and there was no quarter given, no quarter taken. And I think that’s – they used to say they were a cruel enemy, they were cruel to their
own troops and cruel to civilians. And yet if you got captured well they were cruel to you too, as obviously demonstrated by the Changi and Sandakan marches and prisoners of war and the Burma Railway and all those sorts of things. But even saying that, the Japanese officers, they treated their own troops nearly as bad as what the Japanese troops treated their prisoners of war, had no respect for prisoners of war, they viewed anybody who got caught was weak, and you know, they sort of
didn’t have any respect for the Australians, the same way the Australians felt towards the Japanese I think, some of them still even today, particularly those who were prisoners of war.
What about in terms of strategy and tactics? How do you think the First and Second World Wars were characterised by the way they approached warfare?
The First World War, manpower was nothing. The bloody British generals there, they just threw men into the face of battle and just had them slaughtered by the
millions. They didn’t seem to care. Well the Battle of the Somme, I think there were sixty thousand men lost there – British troops lost in one day, didn’t worry them. Find more men, throw them in there again, just minced one another down, that’s all they did, grind one another out, just keep slaughtering one another, see who can last the longest with the manpower. And that seemed to be the way. But I think in the Second World War, thank God
they had a bit of bloody sense and woke up to you’ve still got to commit your troops and that, but don’t put them in – if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to put them in properly with artillery attacks, and of course Armoured Corps tanks had taken over in those days too, they were just – tanks helped break the stalemate of the First World War but they just started to come into their own towards the end, even though they were fairly unreliable and what have you. But in the Second World War well, you know, the Germans showed what tanks and armoured vehicles and mobility can do when they overran Belgium and France and
within a few weeks, where they’d spent years in the First World War, gain one hundred yards here and lose two hundred yards there, and going back and forth basically on the same piece of ground. And of course air power had come in the Second World War, they were just bloody kites flying round in the First World War, weren’t they?
I wonder if Kokoda and the experiences in Malaya and Singapore were different to Europe in the way they
Yes, jungle warfare is one of the worst warfares you can fight, yes, very difficult. Europe was an often welcomed terrain in a way, villages, you had a large civilian population as well, roads, infrastructure, but in the jungles of New Guinea there you just – everything you basically – you walked, you carried on your back. Aeroplanes would drop you stuff in, yes. I mean I used to laugh, the
old DC3s came in there, and they wanted a heap of picks, so they heaved out this big bundle of picks, and the rope holding them together broke. So instead of one big bundle of picks came down, there was about three hundred bloody picks all came down, they were flying round everywhere, frightened the hell out of me. He said worse than a bomb attack, he said all these picks flying around landing on top of us. Blokes scarpering and leaping under trees and logs, and trying to get out of these picks coming down. So yes.
So your father was
in Kokoda, and that’s where he got injured?
Did he talk about that experience of being on the Kokoda Track?
Yes, he spoke about it, the mud and the rain, the steep terrain, and the Japanese there, he said they were bloody starving. I don’t know whether he actually personally witnessed it, but he said there were witnesses of cannibalism taking place there, the Japanese were starving. Yes, he talked about fighting, village fighting and
what have you there. So it was very tough there, as I said, his mate took it, that’s where he got wounded there. Dad got wounded there, it took days to get out of it. It really was a shocking place yes. I just had a mate of mine just went up there and just walked through, I think he thought he was fairly fit and he went up there. I think he only walked a small section of it, and I think he lost about four kilos just up there in about three or four days. He said it was just terrible, yes, he said
there were still pits and things there he said, in the jungle, he said even after all this time. And they had a bit of a dig around and they found bullet rounds and bits of war debris still lying around in the jungle up there. So it was do or die there, yes. See the Japanese were only about thirty kilometres from Port Moresby, or thirty miles it might have been, but it was desperate times.
They got to Port Moresby and they were on this side of New Guinea.
Were the Australians able to live off the land better than the Japanese?
No, there wasn’t much to live off the land, I don’t think, I think they were better supplied, they had a shorter supply line. See the Japanese had basically walked, I don’t know how far it is, but a long way. I don’t think they had any air support, so basically everything they had they had to carry it in. Where the Australians,
they could nearly drive to where the – they had a road fairly close to where the Japs had got, so they were able to transport their troops in there, in the last desperate effort to save the place, yes.
What did your dad feel about the Japanese?
Didn’t like them, no. Mum, she didn’t like them either because she had two of her cousins were killed in the Sandakan march, and she never forgave them. In saying that she drives a Toyota
car but that doesn’t matter though.
How did your dad describe them?
Fanatical. Yes, ferocious, yes, just didn’t like them, there were – no prisoners of war were taken, they didn’t worry about prisoners, they fought to the death. They just wouldn’t give in.
Basically they were withdrawing and what have you, but if you wanted to stop them you’d have to kill them all, because they wouldn’t give in.
Do you think the Australians were aware of how kind of resilient and determined the Japanese were?
I think they probably were, because they – I think they certainly were, they always – the common view was that, the racist’s view that you know, the little slant eyed, wearing glasses,
little people, but they soon learned their bloody lesson when they marched down through Malaya and Singapore. I think they realised that they were, at that stage of the game were probably the best infantry unit in the world, especially in jungle warfare. But the tide wasn’t sort of turned until New Guinea, and the Kokoda Track was sort of the beginning of the turning of the tide, and people realised they weren’t invincible, they were
just like anybody else. Australians were starting to be better jungle fighters, better training, we realised the units that had come back from the Middle East had just been fighting in desert. Well desert, you can just see dust and people for literally as far as you can see. In the jungle if you can see a person five foot away from you, you’re doing well. So a completely different war.
Were you ever with your dad when he encountered any Japanese people when he came back to Australia?
Yes, but that – no, he didn’t hold it against them, but he held it against them when he was in the army at that time of the game. But no, his resentment didn’t carry on to the Japanese as a people at all. I think there were two different scenarios there, that those who fought and died for the Emperor, then after the war that – no, Dad’s – one of Dad’s good mates and one of our best friends fought during the Second World War and then he went into Japan with the BCOF [British Commonwealth Occupation Force], British occupational forces.
As you say, they were bloody fanatical when he was fighting them in the jungles up there round Lae, but when he went to Japan they never took their resentment with them. But they – yes, they sort of didn’t like them as far as soldiers went, I don’t think.
So when it was in the 1960s in Australia, what was the general kind of feeling at that time about war?
Well I always went to every Anzac Day,
Dad used to go to the Anzac days, and I think that we just had to get on with things, rebuild things. See Australia up until I think the middle 1950s I suppose, was very slow, my old man used to drive an old surplus car that he got after the war, I think we had that for about – we left Goulburn in 1956, yes,
he still had that in the middle of the – getting on towards the 1960s, yes. Because there were things that were still in short supply in those days, cars weren’t that plentiful, yes. I can still remember when I was going to high school, I used to spend a lot of time looking out the front gate of the high school watching the railway line. There were always trains tearing up and down there. You’d see one train going up and down the track a day, that’s it. But you know, there were goods trains, and the whole public transport system relied on rail,
because the infrastructure of trucks and roads wasn’t that good. But I think Australians were just rebuilding the nation as it was, because when you consider that that generation, all the twenty to thirty, or maybe forty years of age were either – a large proportion of them, about fifty thousand Australians were killed or something like that, no, I forget the figure, but a large number of Australians of that generation was killed
and there were as many if not two or three times more suffered from war. And yes, places, my uncle had a farm, my grandfather ran the farm and my Mum helped run the farm, she looked after the two places, so all those sorts of things had to be rebuilt again. The fences were all falling over, so the nation was just sort of basically – like it was recalled – I was only a bit of a kid – being rebuilt.
Do you think it made it easier
for them to deal with all the trauma that they’d gone through in their experiences in the war, about the fact that the allies won?
No, my old man used to say there’s no winners, there’s only one side loses more than the other side. So yes, life would have been certainly different if we’d lost the war. But I think when peace was declared at the end of the First World War, let’s try and start life again. Basically that was one end of one era,
let’s get on and try and build a life again.
That might be a good point to change tapes. How are you feeling?
Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 02
Okay, we’ll just pick up where we left off, just about the 1960s at that time, do you think that the younger generation had been affected by the other wars?
Well I think so, yes, because as I said there was such a great, large number of people that
served. And also the whole structure of Australian society had changed I think. Women suddenly had been forced out into the workforce that may have never been, and I think most of my mates at school, their fathers were Second World War veterans, so yes, everybody had been touched or was related to war, even as a kid. And I can remember going to Anzac Days and the streets would be lined with kids, and Second World War veterans there, there’d be literally three or four hundred yards of them
marching up the street, so big roll ups, big turn ups. So it did affect everybody, people just had a new perspective on life.
How do you think the younger generation viewed war?
Probably having not lived through it, but heard about it, I don’t know whether they were appreciative of it, I think the younger people today are a lot more appreciative
of our servicemen and women, going right back to the First World War, what my generation did. Because you know, it’s only twenty years, wasn’t even twenty years, fifteen years ago sort of thing, in the 1960s this happened and our parents were all young, young people, you know, it was just part of history, it only just sort of actually happened, Mum and Dad are still marching and walking around, grandfathers and uncles,
and all those people were there. I think the younger people now are also a lot better educated, well, far better educated than I ever was, and with the teaching of history, I think the younger generation today relate to it a lot better than I did. Not that I didn’t recognise what my Dad did, well in a way I probably didn’t recognise it when I was young, until I got older and Dad started to talk to me a bit.
Do you think that
people talked about it enough?
A bit hard to say, because I think people only talk about it if they want to talk about it. A lot of people I know never talked about it. One of the things I’ve done is gone to RSL funerals, gone to funerals for returned men, and you know, I do the Poppy Service and the ode for them, and then I say to the family, I say – you know, sometimes I get a copy of their discharge certificates and it just says so many days overseas service and maybe where they went. You
say to the family, where’d your Dad go? Don’t know, Dad never really spoke about it. So yes, a lot of cases families have got no idea what their father or grandfathers did. So I was pretty lucky that even though Dad never really told me day-to-day things that happened, I had an overall view. So actually I think I was very lucky that way, because a lot of them never spoke about it. And as I said earlier on, if you were lucky enough to be sitting around,
sitting around out on the verandah on a cool afternoon when all the oldies were having a beer and listening to my uncles and Dad talking, and laughing and joking and carrying on a lot of times with their war experiences, I think that was therapy for them. Whereas with Vietnam veterans it’s only a small number of us compared to them. Yes, we sort of just keep on our own patch, might see one another once a year on Anzac Day and maybe some other days but
that’s about it. So there wasn’t a number of veterans to talk to. Veterans need veterans to talk to.
Do you think that that kind of attitude, well not attitude but that general idea that people didn’t talk about it, trickled down into the kids of the 1960s?
Probably did. Probably did. But even so, when you’re a kid, God, what do you want to do? Not interested in what your old man did.
You know, you go out and play footy, or in my case go out and shoot rabbits and that was more important than worrying about what Dad had done, when you’re only ten, twelve, fourteen or fifteen. But I was lucky in a way that I spent all my work life with, well a great part of my work life working day-to-day with Dad, lived with Mum and Dad up until the 1980s.
I’ve always had this impression that the1960s was such a
Buggered if I know, I missed out on it. It swept by me. That was supposed to be the sexual revolution, but it didn’t happen in my life. So no, it’s whatever you make of it I suppose. In the 1960s I was in high school. So maybe some of the earlier baby boomers [people born just after World War II] might have been – towards the end of the 1960s it certainly was, but the beginning of the 1960s we were all just trying to get through high school, get out of the goddamn place, go and get a life, who wants to go to
So what was the attitude of young people to change, and America and all these new things that were coming?
Probably not such a great lot, although I can certainly remember when JFK [President John F Kennedy] was assassinated. You know, that was sort of a shock to us. And of course it was starting to get towards – the Americans were starting to look at the space age and Sputniks and all those sorts of things. So yes, suddenly things had started to change.
But I don’t know if we were getting Americanised or anything like that. But as I said basically we just sort of wanted to get out of school and get a job because everybody left school and just went and got a job, as I said, left school one day and started work the next day. And all my friends and mates did that, I suppose a few of them went on to uni. Most kids left in those days in third year, Intermediate Certificate. Some of the real clever kids, they just went,
left school and went to work, went home and went to work, some worked on the farms. Whereas today, my kids, very few of them are dropping out, they’re all going on to Year twelve, and most of them aim to go to uni. My days most of us couldn’t bloody well wait till the last day of school to get out of the place. So it was a different view all together than what it is today.
So tell me about compulsory military service.
I sort of didn’t take much notice
until you know, when I got to twenty or whatever it was, and I had to go and register. And obviously we hadn’t long had TV [television], and because every night on TV was the Vietnam war, it was filmed on TV, so yes, I just thought well, you know, just went in and registered and went home and basically forgot about it until the bloody letter arrived. That came as a bit of a shock, my lifestyle was just sort of choofing along one day after another, go to work, come home, go to work, that was basically it. I could see it was going to be a change in my lifestyle, yes.
Where were you working at that time?
Just on a property just west of, no sorry, just east, of Armidale. My old man was sort of helping run the place there and I was sort of working with him. The old fellow that owned the place, there were just three of us on the place and I was just doing my usual things there, not spending any money, just choofing along from one day to the next.
What kind of work were you doing?
Just looking after sheep and cattle, just farm work, yes, and all the usual chores that you do on a farm.
Well it wasn’t a farm, it was a property. It was about three thousand acres, so it was a fair sized place.
So where was the nearest town from Armidale?
It was only about twenty kilometres out of Armidale. We had no excuse to go to town, you’d just go to town to get the groceries and that was sort of it, yes.
You didn’t go out?
No. Might have went to the pictures now and again. No, not really. Really quiet sort of insignificant person, true.
What about girls? Were there any girls around?
No. Wasn’t interested in girls, wouldn’t worry about girls. I’m not bloody queer, but I wasn’t really worried about that. No, I enjoyed life doing what I was doing, so I suppose well, by the time we got to nineteen maybe we were starting to look at the girls. But suddenly this bloody letter arrives in the mail, you will trot yourself off to the
doctor for a medical, and after you’ve done your medical next thing you get the letter, you will trot yourself off to the railway station at nine o’clock to catch the train to Singleton, so that takes a different perspective on life. So that was two years that you knew what you were doing.
So you were around ninteen when you had to register?
Yes, I think we were ninteen or when you registered I must have been – I might have been twenty, I think, I’m not sure, I’ll just work it out,
yes, it was twenty when you registered. And I remember I had my twent-first birthday and I was actually in the army, yes.
Did you want to get out of it?
No, no I didn’t. I thought, that’s it. It never entered my mind, I never had an inkling or never had an ambition to join the military forces, I never thought about it really. But like most things, I thought well, that’s it, I’m in,
not going to spend all my energy trying to get out of the ruddy place, I’ll spend all my energy making the best of it while I’m in there. There were a few that went to the medical and they had all the excuses in the world. And the old doctor was a Second World War doctor and he just wrote on it that they were medically unfit. So it was pretty easy to get out of it if you wanted to get out. Because I think he realised that it’s a waste of bloody time, if you got them in there they’re going to cause problems, and their heart’s not
going to be in it, so why inflict other people with them?
What kinds of excuses would they come up with?
They had bad feet and they had nightmares and all funny sorts of ones, yes. They were just some of them I’d heard, and when I went to get on the train they weren’t there.
So how did it work? You’d see coverage of Vietnam on TV every night?
Pretty well, yes. Yes, it was on TV nearly every night.
American bombing missions or attacks, or Australians getting killed and wounded, yes. Towards the end, you know in the end of the 1960s there, it was full on. Australian troops were still – more of them being deployed because I think the armoured regiment there, the tanks that I was with, they didn’t get into Vietnam until about 1969 I think the first squadron of men went there. So they were still pouring troops into Vietnam at that stage of the game.
I’m sure your dad would have had a few things to say?
Yes, I think he – yes,
he never said anything, you know, but I think him and Mum were very concerned. I’d hate to have been on the platform, on the railway station the day I caught the train to go to Singleton. But even worse would have been the day when I came home before my final leave, before I went to Vietnam. Mum and Dad never – just you know, bloody careful what you’re doing, be careful, keep your head down. Yes, righto mate. So we just, yes, I think every family was touched and concerned about it.
Did he have thoughts about the war itself?
No, not such a great lot. You’d just see what you see on TV there, they don’t emphasise the danger of booby traps, mines, bloody rockets, snipers, all those sorts of things. So a news article would come over saying Australians involved in a fire-fight in Phouc Tuy Province, such and such a place, two Australians were killed, one wounded, five wounded, or ten Australians were
wounded when a mine exploded, and those sorts of things, but you don’t, you know, that’s sort of basically the detail, you don’t know what it was like or what wasn’t it like.
Did he have opinions about Australia’s involvement with Vietnam?
Yes, it seems strange but I still believe Australian troops should have been involved in Vietnam, and what makes my argument is that when Vietnam finally fell there was absolutely a huge amount of people escaped or
tried to escape out of Vietnam, boat people and what have you. I think there were more people lost their lives on the sea and the boats and whatever to bloody-well reach land. I don’t think they’d ever realised what the loss was. So people were prepared to take that sort of a risk to get out of it, the refugees and what have you. I feel an empathy towards them, yes. And those who stopped behind I think they got brainwashed. Yes, I think
life was hard for them, I think Vietnam has turned around now, some of my mates have actually gone back there, I’ve got no ambition to go back. I suppose if the opportunity arises I might, yes, but I’d sooner – if I had to go anywhere to see a battlefield I’d sooner go to Gallipoli, I’m not particularly interested in – Kokoda I probably would be, but it’s too much like hard work going to visit there, I think. I’d have a look at the major battlefields in France and Belgium. But as far as going back to Vietnam I’m not over – yes, I can
think of better places to go.
What about Australia’s involvement with the situation though? Did you guys have opinions about that at the time?
Yes, we believed Australians should be there, yes. I suppose some would disagree, some would say no we shouldn’t have been there. Some people are now coming out and saying we shouldn’t have been there, but that’s in hindsight. But no, when we were there we believed we should have been there. But that was a very difficult
war to fight, like a guerrilla warfare. We were talking about trench warfare earlier on there, but your bunker systems, they’d either fight or they’d ping off before they got in there. But terrorism, well not so much terrorism I suppose but guerrilla warfare, with mines and booby traps and those sorts of things, yes, that’s the worst. The worst is not knowing where your enemy is, they can be cycling down the road on a pushbike waving to you one day, and that night they’d be setting mines up and setting up ambushes for you so, yes, it’s very hard.
But I think Australians in the Phuoc Tuy Province had done a very good job in there.
It must have been a very different kind of war to your dad’s?
In terms of how did he view it?
Yes, a lot of Second World War blokes including my Dad have always said that they would sooner have been where they were than in Vietnam. Yes, it was completely different, no fixed lines, no signs, you never knew where your enemy was.
In New Guinea, like the Kokoda Track you knew if the enemy was just up there, they were there, you could walk through the one piece of jungle one week and see nothing, you’d walk back the next week and you’d get ambushed. So yes, just completely different. No wars are good but yes, Vietnam was a pretty hard war that way.
Were those kinds of things apparent before you left, those distinctions?
we certainly were trained well, before we went we were aware of it, before we went into the army we were probably not quite so aware of it. No, that’s one thing we had, we were well trained. And Australians, well the infantry, like there were lots of tracks and that through the jungle, and basically Australians were trained never to walk on the tracks, we just made our own track through the jungle. (A), tracks that were always booby trapped and mined and (B), that’s where the enemy sets their ambushes up on tracks.
Australians used to ambush tracks, the Vietcong used to walk on tracks and things, and Australians used to always walk through the jungle.
So what about the general feeling at the time? What were Australians feeling about Vietnam?
Probably about that stage the anti-war movement was starting to get quite strong, but the silent majority I still believe were supporting us, and they were the ones that
weren’t out on the street, obviously. And well I believe that cost the war, the troops in the war, we’d basically won the war but we’d lost the propaganda, particularly back home, yes. So the Vietcong even admit that they’d lost the war, but when they started to see the anti-war
sentiment take over, particularly in America, they realised they just had to hang in there.
What were the protestors protesting about?
Basically Australia’s involvement in the war, which is a shame because I think there’s certainly people, the people of South Vietnam, there was obviously a lot of them didn’t want to be taken over by Communists, there was obviously some that did. But when the nation was divided there, I believe that they were pretty bloody
antagonistic to the North Vietnamese, they’d sent a lot of their troops in with those who had – refugees who’d decided they didn’t want to live under Communist rule. So they’d infiltrated the place and maybe the terrorism, well not so much terrorism but a lot of coercion of a lot of the villagers and things. Because the Vietnamese people, they’re friendly and they didn’t want the war
either. So it’s one stage of history you can look at and say yes, we were right to be there and another stage you can say we were not. But my view was that yes we were there, let’s do the job, we certainly believe that people should have the right of choice to political freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to do what they like, in reason. But by the law of the land of course, yes.
Okay. So what was the threat of communism to Australians at that point?
Well the main threat was what we used to refer to as the domino theory. And the fear was that if South Vietnam fell to Communism then you looked at Laos, Thailand, because the political situation in Malaya at that time was very unstable as well, so that was the theory, the fear of it, that it would just
collapse, the whole Asia region would collapse underneath communist rule. And I think history’s proved with events that have happened in Russia in the last few years, that communist rule might be a great way of total rule, people might view it as a good way to go, but it certainly isn’t. I think you’ve got to have free enterprise, we’ve got to have people who are prepared to work. In Russia, the bits I’ve read about it there was
no encouragement for anybody to work, if you just worked on a co-op farm you only did what you had to do, because it didn’t make any difference whether you produced a huge crop of spuds or whether you produced one spud, there was no incentive for you. So yes, that’s it, that’s my view there, but that was the fear, that was the propaganda in those days, whether you’d look at it as propaganda. But I think that was the huge cost of the Vietnam war on all sides, that the
Communists maybe didn’t have the will to carry on any further, or maybe the theory was completely wrong, I don’t know, but that was what we were told.
Did protestors believe it was propaganda?
I don’t know, I think they just wanted Australians out of the war. I think they were probably – well I think after, what, Vietnam went for nearly ten years, so I think that
yes, everybody probably had a gutful of it, including us, and you know we were there, but still and all, I still say I believe we were there at the right time and doing the right job. But it had to end somehow or other I suppose. It got to the stage, the will of those making the most noise or the will of the population or whatever you like to call it, so – and of course the Australians were just about out of Vietnam when there was a change of government, the Labor Government came in, so that was the
end of it then.
So did you have any opinions about the protestors at that point?
Yes, I wasn’t real keen on them. One of the things that really annoyed us was that when we were in Vietnam the wharfies decided they would put a black ban on the Australian supply ships, that were supplying us, which was a navy ship called the Japara, and they black banned it, so it just affected us, it wasn’t going to stop the bloody war, but it certainly
put us at risk, because we were having supply difficulties, spare parts, those types of things. So the navy had to turn round and take over and load the ship themselves, the wharfies wouldn’t do it. So the Australians were really pissed off at the union at that stage of the game. So you know, what the bloody hell’s going on? If you don’t agree with it don’t agree with it, but we’ve still got to survive up there, by your not helping us you’re just actually – all you’re doing
is putting us at risk. We’re not going to win the war but you’re going to cost us our lives, by not keeping our essential supplies and foods and everything else we need. So we weren’t happy with them.
How much of an impact, because you would have registered in Armidale for the compulsory military service? Was there much happening in terms of protesting in Armidale at that time?
No, not really I don’t think, probably a little bit through the university, but no. The huge moratorium marches were of
course in Melbourne and Sydney. But I think Melbourne might have been where the strongest anti-war movement was.
So how were people feeling? So what about people in Armidale? What were they feeling about
um, the war at that point? What was the general feeling in Armidale?
It’s a bit hard to gauge, it’s sort of pretty well over the top of my head. But there wasn’t a large demonstration, there might have been a few peace rallies or something like that. Probably more peace rallies than anti-war rallies though, which I think was the difference. But they weren’t blocking the streets and carrying on like that, probably had an odd march or two to coincide with the major
demonstrations in Melbourne and Sydney.
How did blokes feel about being conscripted into the army, or doing compulsory military service?
There were always those who were totally opposed to it, but the greatest majority of us obviously accepted it. And as I said, some of those that didn’t want it had medical reasons and yes, didn’t go anyway. But I think the majority of us looked at it that it was an adventure as usual, which seems to be the
answer for most of us. Even going back to the Great War they all joined because they thought it was a great military adventure. There’s not much adventure about it I don’t suppose, but those of us who did it, we gave it one hundred and ten per cent because as I said earlier, if you’re not there to support your mate, it’s like any team, it’s a full team effort and everybody’s got to play to one hundred and ten per cent ability, no matter what it is. Keep your mind on your bloody job, you mightn’t get hurt but the bloke
next to you might be. So that was one of the greatest fears I think, you let your mate down, you wouldn’t worry about yourself, you’d hate to let your mate down. So I think we went not so much for the song and the heart as the poem says, but we had to then do it, looked at doing it, okay, let’s get on and do the job.
What is your opinion about compulsory military service, as a
I think it’s probably a good policy, which may seem strange but there are actually two schools of thought. There’s like a military national service and then there’s a community national service, especially a few years ago when there was a high rate of unemployment, you could actually call them up and maybe not do military service but do – there’s
plenty of other types of service they could have done instead of calling it bloody ‘Work For The Dole’. They could have taken people in and trained them in specific community skills and those types of things, which benefits everybody. So there is of course a lot of conjecture over whether we have compulsory military service, but I don’t think we’ll ever see compulsory military service brought in again. The logistics of it’s just
– and how do you do it? The number system? If you’re going to do it, one in all in, I think that’s –a bit like the Israeli army.
Explain that to me. The marble out of the barrel thing.
Yes, it was just the luck of the draw, they actually spat a marble out of the barrel, it was actually your birthday date, the day you were born, the birthday date, your date, it wasn’t you as an individual. So if you were born like I was, on twenty-fifth April,
twenty-fifth April came out, everybody who was born on the twenty-fifth April was called up. So I reckon I didn’t have a chance, born on Anzac Day the marble would have to come out, wouldn’t it? So yes, and they just went through and it was a quota of how many couple of thousand, I don’t know how many, what the quota was, how many they took, worked it out, we need a couple more birthday dates, we haven’t got enough, we’ll draw a couple more out,
I don’t know how it worked, the only thing I know is that it was actually done on birthday dates.
So would you see someone spin this barrel?
Yes, I think they actually did do a public draw. So you’d sit there with bated breath, wouldn’t you?
Did you watch it on the TV?
No, no I don’t know whether it was a live broadcast, but they actually did have a public – I think they did have a public – don’t quote me.
So it wasn’t like a Sale of the Century [TV game show] thing, with like one of those barrel girls?
Could have been –
“Come On Down – your uniform’s waiting for you.”
Come to the war.
Yes, free trip overseas.
Indeed. So in terms of compulsory military service, do you think that if blokes or women go to the army, if they do compulsory military service, do you think they should have to fight?
No, I think that should be a voluntary thing,
you know, if you get called up do it compulsorily. It’s the same as, well what I believe in our unit was there were some who didn’t want to go to Vietnam but there were some who were busting their neck to get there. And those who didn’t want to go, funny thing, they didn’t go, you know, you’re not going to waste your effort and try and convince somebody when there’s other people wanting to go. Our unit was only a relatively small unit, not like a battalion or a company or anything like that, just a
squadron of tanks. And I know a couple of blokes there, they weren’t real keen on going, and they just said to the CO they didn’t want to go. And the CO said no drama, like they had a headquarters squadron and they had a squadron getting trained up to go to Vietnam, so those that didn’t want to go they just transferred them over to headquarters, and there were plenty of things for them to do.
Were people given options? Like were they clear about those kinds of things?
Unofficially they weren’t given,
officially they weren’t given an option, but those that had strong enough beliefs or concerns that said they didn’t want to go, they actually went and talked to their unit commanders. And yes, they just quietly moved them over to the other squadron there and they served out their two years there and I haven’t seen them since I left, but I think they were happy to go there and there was no drama. And there were people in the
headquarters squadron who wanted to go to Vietnam and they just moved them over there and said righto if that’s where you want to go and they, yes…
But wouldn’t they think you were a wimp if you didn’t want to…?
No, we didn’t worry about them. Sooner have one good volunteer than ten who didn’t, wouldn’t you?
So tell me about the process once you actually registered, what happened then?
You were given the dates that you had to go and have medicals, so I think the first time we met one another we turned up at the
x-ray place, and a mate of mine was in a rock and roll band, he had hair about twice as long as yours. I thought, this is going to be interesting. But anyway we all got ourselves x-rayed, it was a Saturday night actually, we had the local RMO [Regimental Medical Officer], the medical officer, there was a couple of them there, as I said, he said he was a Second World War veteran, and there were about thirty of us turned up there and did our medicals and
gave us a bit of a quiz, and basically the old doc said to me, “You’re right, you’re in.” I said, “Good, thanks doc.” I think it was about eleven o’clock or something like that before I got home.
So what kind of medicals and quizzes were you doing?
Well there was a whole lot of us there and only two doctors, so you just had to wait your turn. You know, eyes and blood pressure and basically just a bit of health.
The friendly fly’s turned up. But anyway, it was sort of interesting when we caught the train, there was probably only about fourteen or fifteen or half of them didn’t turn up, so half of them failed the medical if you like to look at it that way.
Or they had some of those bad dreams?
Yes, bad dreams, couldn’t sleep, yes. Somebody had wised them up.
They knew what they were doing.
So what about the test, the quiz? What was that?
I think they just sort of, you know, what you see and what you ask, what you thought about it. Do you want to do your national service, have you got any problems doing it? It’s bloody, what, a fair while ago now. But yes, that sort of thing, I think it was just a general chit chat so you were able to just put your view across. And really they were probably quizzing us and we were just thinking they were having a nice friendly chat to us.
So they were actually asking you, you think, leading questions about
what, where your attitude was at?
Yes, what your attitude was, are you right to go, do you want to go? Yes, I think they sorted them out. Because I remember the first few weeks at Singleton down there I actually ended up with a – it was in the summer time, I think it was October we went in, and I ended up with an ulcer in my eye because of the heat and the dust, and anyway when I went up to the medical – to see the doctor, I’d done a guard duty all night and my eye was all
red and swollen and I couldn’t see out of it, so I went up to the doctor, and anyway he’s in there bellowing at these people, five or six of them, and they’re saying, “My feet’s crook,” and he’s yelling at them, “Get out of here.” Anyway he said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I’ve got a sore eye.” And he said, “You have too, sit down here, we’ll have to do something about that.” So anyway he was up on these ones who’d been there about a week, mightn’t have been a week, might have been nearly a month I suppose, because you have a basic drill and that sort of stuff, do guard. “Oh, that’s no good, right,
go and get your gear and put it away and come back here, we’ll have to take you up to the hospital.” So I had a week in the hospital, but I didn’t see any of the other fellows in there on sick parade. I don’t know what became of them. But they were in there and suddenly discovered military life wasn’t for them.
Indeed. So can you remember just some of the questions that they asked you in that initial kind of discussion?
No, not really, but basically I think what you thought about it
and you know, were you looking forward to it? Would you like to go, sort of thing, do you want to go? And just feeling you out, how’s your health, are you pretty fit? Yes. Do you have any problems sleeping? No. One of the other fellows said , “I suffer from nightmares, I don’t sleep well.” Anyway he never turned up there at the train, so they were weeding us out pretty well.
So were you in a group or would they take you away into a room?
No, no, take us away into a room, yes, did an
interview. But when you think about it really, and that’s why it’s interesting that the health of Vietnam veterans is such a concern to a lot people, because we were really the cream of the population, they only took the top percentage. They weeded us out, it was the luck of the draw how you came out of the barrel, but then again you were weeded pretty well when you went for your medical. I think there was – I reckon half of them failed the medicals, so they then only took the top
fifteen per cent or twenty per cent.
And they weeded them out also in terms of attitude and stuff?
Yes. Yes, they had them sorted out. As I say a few of them slipped through the system like I was talking about a minute ago about the medical down there. There were a few of them screaming and going on they had crook feet and their knees were aching and they wanted to go home. Obviously the old doctor said, “You’re all right, go.” But as I said, the old Second World War doctor, he realised, you know, why would you send somebody who’s going to moan and whinge and cause trouble? You don’t
want them. We don’t want them.
So why do you think they were like that?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask them, I suppose. I’ve got my personal view but I’m not going to say it here.
Come on, no, tell me.
No. I think they – well they probably had a concept of military training, or what was involved and their conception may have been that life was going to be hell and they were going to get killed and they weren’t going to be in it. But as I say, you’d have to talk
to them and see what their view was.
I know you’re probably right, but do you think they were wised up by someone else?
Yes. The ones that got knocked back on the medical, yes, somebody told them what to say. We commented about that when we went out, you know, talked to a couple of my mates there, and they said yes, they knew what to say, they’d been wised up. Us
stupid mugs hadn’t been wised up. No, we wanted to go.
You wanted to go?
Yes. Let’s do it. The old saying of the Nashos [National Service soldiers] is, we went in there to do a job, the regular army went in there to get a job. That’s probably not a nice thing to say. You might have to edit that bit out.
So in terms of just, I know I’m pushing the issue, but in terms of these other blokes who didn’t want to go, did you have discussions with the guys that were going to go, about these other guys?
We probably just made comments and said their heart’s not in the right spot, and let’s probably just let it go, you know? We weren’t concerned about it, yes. Probably knew we didn’t want them.
Were they weaklings?
No, not really, sort of bloody – yes, maybe, certainly weren’t weaklings in their bodies, some of them were bloody fit, tough looking young men, but well, that was their choice,
I don’t know when they were rejected, what’s the word, whether they felt they made the wrong decision later, I don’t know.
Do you think they weren’t patriotic?
No, I wouldn’t say they weren’t patriotic, but I think they had their view. You know, at that time of your life it’s a hell of a change, because a lot of my mates had
girlfriends and starting to get serious and not looking at long term relationships and marriage and those sorts of things. So two years of your life, I know I had mates who had girlfriends, loved them (UNCLEAR), six months in the army life and they’d get a “Dear John letter,” so they had to weigh up their life and see what they wanted to do.
What’s a “Dear John letter?
You know, Dear John,” hate to inform you that I’ve found somebody else. Unless you’re like one of my stupid mates who had two girlfriends and
put the wrong letters in the wrong envelope and they both received the other girlfriend’s letter, so that was a bit embarrassing for him.
Were they Dear John letters to them?
No. Love You letters to them, but one was addressed to Carol and one was addressed to Sue, and Sue got Carol’s letter and Carol got Sue’s letter, so you can imagine he got two Dear John letters in one go, didn’t he?
That’s great. So you think you’d need to have a certain mindset to be able to
commit to going to war?
I think so. Yes. Not to war, but just in the military service, yes.
What do you think that mindset – how would you define it?
Be prepared to work as a team, prepared to follow orders. Do as you’re told, main thing. You don’t have the opportunity to question things, when you get more experience you probably can suggest things, but yes, it’s basically prepare to do as you’re told, keep your
nose clean, work hard. Yes, military life’s a good life, I think.
Are they useful skills?
Yes. Yep. Today I think military life, there’s so much more in it because a lot of people go in there and come out with wonderful trades, and then you’re in there for six years, twelve years, maybe go in twenty, come out at thirty-two or thirty-five, or something like that, you’re a young man still, plus you’ve got wonderful training, it’s –
yes, but in our days the trade wasn’t there that it is today, with all the new technologies and computer warfare and all those things. You know, if you could load a rifle and point a rifle in the right direction, hit a target now and again that’s all you had to do. In our case if you could drive the tank, change gears, keep the petrol and oil up to it, although it’s probably more technical in the Armoured Corps than
certainly being in the infantry. Although I think the infantry’s a lot more dangerous, probably in one way they’re more skilled than being in the Armoured Corps. You know what you’re doing, you don’t last long otherwise. A lot of potential not to last long, but still a lot of the risk in the Armoured Corps is higher, with mines and rocket attacks and all those sort of things, so no job’s easy.
I think we’re at the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 03
We probably worked it out and said, righto, we need one thousand two hundred soldiers for this intake.
So was it likely that you’d have guys that had the same birthday?
Yes, but didn’t seem to be many of us about though. There might be
more birthdays missed out than drafted I think, there were more drafted than missed out, I don’t know how it worked. But that was the idea of it. And one of the fellows who got down to Singleton and we weren’t there very long, he had a piece of paper and a pen, and he was racing around trying to find out everybody’s birthday date to see how it worked out. I don’t know whether he did or not, how it did work out.
That’s cute. You were telling me before the differences between infantry and armoured, just in terms of infantry you really need
a lot of skill to be able to survive.
Yes. Some of these things to look out for, you’ve got to be aware of everything all the time, and one of the biggest things in Vietnam was where you put your feet, because there was a whole section just blown away with one land mine which somebody’s put their foot into, and you’ve got to be aware of. Like, one of the classical places was a section of blokes got killed, they were out in the middle of this area and there was a nice big tree,
so where are you going to stop on a hot day? Boom. So you know, that’s the sort of skills you live or die by. Looking for triple eyes, just keep your eyes on triple eyes, enemies, all sorts of things. We did those sort of skills also in the army when we were driving, if we came to a place where the tanks had to all go through to get across a gully or a creek. We used to carry sappers with us, engineers, and they had their little mine detector
things, you know, like they use looking for gold nuggets, so they’d get out and wander around and have a poke and look to see if there were any mines in there before we drove through. So you had to check all those places out. So it was skills on both sides, but I think we had a little bit more protection. Some of our tanks did hit those enemy personnel mines, one of them, a bad one it was, it turned just as it hit so it only flicked the back of the tank, the track hit it, and the bloody mines used to jump in the air about five or six feet and explode.
And it jumped up and exploded and just cleared the back of the – basically cleared it onto the back of the tank, and the troop commander – not the troop commander but the vehicle commander and the loader operator who had themselves exposed out of the turret of the tank, they were both badly wounded with this bloody mine. But you know, I’ve seen the tank and it’s just – it’s all steel but it’s got all these pitted marks where this ruddy
shrapnel was smacked in the back of the tank. So you can imagine what it does if it jumped in among a heap of men.
Indeed. I’d like to ask you more questions about that, because when you were first registering did you guys kind of know what you wanted to go into?
No, not really, no. I think we basically thought well infantry was in great demands because it had three battalions there and they only did a twelve month period, so there’s three thousand blokes there that
they’ve got to swap around. So the infantry was – but then again there were quite a few of them put into the service corps like truck drivers and mechanics and those sorts of things. We used to always laugh about it if you were a mechanic you’d end up a cook, if you were a cook you’d end up a mechanic, so it still applied.
So how did they – they didn’t place you according to your skills?
Yes, they did I think, yes. I think that’s – I probably jumped at the gun, but that’s how I ended up, skills with driving
tractors and dozers and those sorts of things I was involved in.
So did you put down a preference? Did they ask you?
Yes. But when we sort of went in on the first day we all met up on the railway station, we had no idea what we were in for. We caught the train then got to Singleton and we didn’t get down there ‘til fairly late in the afternoon, got met by a bus, we all had civvies clothes on and as I was talking about earlier on, my mate with his long hair that came down the middle of his back, he had his hair cut and it was
still about here. “Oh” he said, “I’m right.” He’d had a hair cut. That’s the first thing they do, they get us in there and they line us all up and – but that was the next day he got a hair cut, but basically they said, “You’ve got to get a hair cut,” and he said, “Why? I don’t need a hair cut.” And they said, “I think you need another one.” But you know, they were being very nice and polite to us. And anyway they lined us up with documents, sign here, and there was bloody documents coming out our ears, right around the other side. Okay, shirt sleeves up, bang, needle, bang, another needle. Needles, more
bloody needles. So that was pretty good. Then round the other side there, righto, measurements, and yes, here’s your boots, here’s your uniform, everything was done, we didn’t finish up until about – they took us off to lunch, or tea at night time, whatever you like to call it, dinner, then you know, back into us again. I think it was about ten o’clock before we finally got ourselves kitted down for the night. And next morning, back out yelling at us, six o’clock, out of there, going for a run. So you know, I’d done a bit of
training before I went in so it wasn’t too bad. Every morning at six o’clock I’d get up and go for a gallop around the bloody place up hills and down hills, come back, have a quick shower, get dressed and have breakfast, and then we started drilling, then more needles. So one of the worst needles we had was the bloody Smallpox needle, and they actually scrub your arm down, then they stick the Smallpox vaccine
on your skin , then they’ve got a little needle and they just break the skin, that’s not too bad for about a week, then you see everybody – their shirts, it suddenly becomes a weeping sore, and I mean it’s bloody awful. You see everybody’s shirt and they’re all stuck to their – and sore, God, mongrel of a needle. And you know, you’d see everybody marching around, not too many people swinging their bloody left arm.
Yes, and it took a month, two weeks, three weeks to get over that. It was a rotten needle, we didn’t like that at all. But that was all we had. And then one of the other needles we had, I don’t know what it was, I think it was Cholera or something or other, they actually gave us the needle and made us, at about three o’clock in the afternoon said, right, everybody’s got to go back and they actually gave us the – after the needle – they said you’ve got to lay on your bed and not move. I don’t know what the needle was going to do to us but we just – that’s the only time we ever got an afternoon off,
except when I was in hospital with my eye. And anyway we trained there for about three months, and had to do a passing out parade.
Before we move into this, I just want to ask you a few more questions about that initial arrival. What happened with the hair? Shaving?
Oh yes, the next day they – anyway they were all lined up there, I got a short hair cut because the old man – I used to always have short hair, but my mate there, he was walking away, “Hair cut,” he says. Anyway off he goes and he
comes back, he’s got about this much hair, didn’t recognise him, I bet his mother didn’t even recognise him, you know?
Did he save his hair?
I don’t think so, I don’t think so.
Was there a shift in their attitude, like when you arrived and then that first morning at six, getting…?
Yes, she was all on then, yes, she was all on then, yelling and carrying on. When I look back I don’t think they were as bad as what they are, or they were, in a lot of those military colleges like Duntroon and that, that was,
yes, there was no bastardisation, they were just into us. A, you had to learn discipline, B, you had to be fit, and C, when they said jump, you didn’t even ask how high, you just jumped. So yes, I think recruit training, it was fairly tough but yes, it was interesting.
So describe recruit training and some of the things you did.
I was pretty lucky – well a lot of the kids
had actually gone through cadets, school cadets were a big thing. And we’d actually picked up the basic drills and those sorts of things in cadets, although we were used to the old .303 rifles and cadets used to do drill with a lot of slope arms, like the oldies and the war fellows do, but with the SLR [Self Loading Rifle] there was no drill, but we had a sort of a basic instinct, well I had a basic instinct on drill. So you know, that was the first thing, learn to march and swing arms and you know, learning to drill and halt, and march
off, and make sure everybody stepped off with the left foot first, and hold it on the left foot and all these things, we just went through and learned. But also they took us into the classroom, we did a lot of classroom stuff, they started teaching us that as well.
What sort of things?
Bush craft and camouflage and all that sort of stuff was actually done in classrooms, and
they actually later on started teaching us about military war, why we were in Vietnam and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, how that worked. So they actually educated us, they also had an education corps when they were there, some of the kids hadn’t passed say out of English or something like that, they actually took us back and educated
us, we used to go out to school at night time, they’d basically bring you up to the Intermediate standard if you hadn’t – if you got your Intermediate Certificate and failed one of the subjects they’d have a look at it, the teachers, yes. But it was full on there from six o’clock ‘til night time, lights out was at nine o’clock I think. So then you had to have your room clean and look after yourself. Some of the young fellows there used to go crook about the meals, but it was better than my Mum’s cooking so I didn’t complain. No Mum, I don’t mean that.
But it was pretty good.
Tell me about the cooking. Like, what sort of food?
I thought it was good food, basic, meat, spuds, vegies and a bit of ice cream now and again, plenty of it. Breakfast was good.
What kind of brekkie?
Cereals, bacon and eggs. Yes, they looked after us all right, the meals were good. Toast, finding time to get up and make sure you were there to get it was the main thing, getting yourself organised. But then you sort of
get duty, like mess duty. You’d strike one of them now and again and you’d have to help with washing pots and bloody pans up. And then as I said when your drill got good enough they went through and we did guard at the front gate and back gate. We used to have to write everybody’s number plates down as the cars drove in, bloody officers coming in and out, you had to fall the guard out and all race out and stand there and salute them as they went in and out. It was an interesting way of life. Didn’t mind it.
When did you start handling
Basically from the first day, yes. Got issued your clothes and you got issued your rifle, because you needed your rifle for your drill, you know, shoulder arms, and present arms and all those things, you just did hours of drill. Didn’t do such a great lot of shooting, that was sort of the next stage on when you went into recruit, recruit training into corps training, yes. But I did go down the rifle range and had a few shots, but not –
no, but didn’t live at the rifle range.
So you were all unarmed, well you were armed but there was no ammo or…?
No, no, no, they didn’t give us any ammo. They had bayonet sets, the special drill had to fix bayonets and everybody had to learn how to fix bayonets without dropping the bloody things, and make sure they clipped on properly without falling off. So that’s basically what we did there for – I said three months but I don’t think we were there – we went in October, early October, and we finished up just before Christmas. So October, November, December, so yes.
So what rifles were you using? SLRs? Can you describe them?
I think they were made in Finland, well they were made in Australia but they’re a Finnish mob, and that’s the last of the self-loading rifle, so they were automatic rifles. But they were only a single shot, and they were 7.62 millimetre, and yes, if you got hit with one of them you didn’t come back for a second one. They were a good rifle. And Australian troops used them in Vietnam and then I think the early ones had like the old
Owen machine gun, which was a Second World War machine gun, a nine millimetre machine gun. But then the Americans started to supply us with their Armalite rifle, which was a plastic rifle basically, but it was a good rifle, but it was only a small bullet. That’s what they’ve got nowadays, they only use a 6.65 or something like that millimetre. So that was a big bore.
So how big was the SLR?
Big rifle, about that long. It was a good rifle to shoot with, but it’s a big bullet, you had to
bang it into your shoulder fairly well to – it was only – the bullets were about that long, .308 calibre in Imperial measurements. But they were a good rifle because they had a lot of power, a lot of penetration, particularly in jungle, they’d chop through, take a fair bit to stop it, fair bit to deflect the bullet. So the Americans actually liked our rifles more than their rifles, the Americans had their Armalites, I don’t know whether – they
weren’t – they were in fire fights, or the infantry did, and if they were Americans the Americans would (UNCLEAR) a lot better rifles than these. Didn’t get too many wounded up the other end, they didn’t survive it.
So what were the American rifles? What were they using?
Mainly Armalites, I think earlier on they had their one carbine whatever it was. No, American rifles were nearly all Armalites. I think they also used shotguns.
Yes, a few Australians had shotguns, I saw a couple of shotguns.
So when you got issued with your boots and all your uniform, did you always have to walk around with your gun with you?
No, it all depends what we were doing. We had a locker and had the key in the locker, so if we were just doing drill without it, the rifle had to be locked away. But when we – you had to go back and grab your rifle. Did a lot of PE [Physical Education], galloping round, running around, and working
on – in the gym and whatever, well sort of a gym they had. And the other thing, if you worked out what corps you wanted to go to or was thinking about going to, the armoured corps, you actually had to swim I think it was one hundred metres, plus you had to be able to tread water for ten minutes with your uniform on, because the APC [Armoured Personnel Carriers], if you went into them they were amphibious so if the ruddy thing sunk on you, you had to be able to swim to get yourself out of the vehicle.
Some of them have a habit of sinking. But when they went to the tanks, it didn’t matter about them.
When you said they’re amphibious, they were meant to be able to work on land and water?
But they sometimes sink?
Yes, sometimes they sink. Yes, overloaded or they get a wave on the water and something else, who knows? Water gets in the hatches. I don’t think they’ve got a (UNCLEAR) on them, so they only just float.
So could all the blokes
tread water for ten minutes?
Yes, most of us did, yes. I’m just telling you now, I was knackered [exhausted] by the time I was finished. So that sort of helped, you know, some of them didn’t, some of them did. Our recruit corporals and sergeants used to say, stop in there, don’t give up, don’t give up, you’ve only got another two minutes to go. We might have had another five minutes to go but he wasn’t telling us that though. We’re sort of going up and down in the water like this – just got through it.
So what was defined as full gear?
Your boots, trousers, shirt, that was all. Yes, you didn’t have your pack with you, just your standard clothes.
So what happened to the blokes who couldn’t make it?
They were destined for infantry, weren’t they? They weren’t going to get in the armoured corps, were they? It was one of the prerequisites you had to have to join the armoured corps, you had to be able to swim and tread water. But then again when you got there a lot of them went into tanks and those who went into the armoured corps, went into the cavalry units where the
APCs, yes, they required that. But our Centurions floated like a stone, didn’t they?
So at that point in recruit training you hadn’t selected where you were going to go?
No, not really, no. Thought about it and the funny thing was the old fellow Dad used to work for, he was a Second World War veteran too on the first job I had, and he used to say, “You don’t want to join the armoured corps, bloody tanks, they draw all the fire.” And I thought, it’s a bit of
an adventure. So well into our training one night they took us around to the hall there and said righto, you’ve got your corps selections, what you want to do put in, and I thought well, I’ll stick in armoured corps. I don’t think they asked for a reason, but they just said there was armoured corps and infantry corps and service corps and medical corps and the list goes on. RAEME [Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] and what have you,
engineers, so there was a whole variety of corps, which is what they’re broken up into. My mate said, “You’ll have to go infantry.” I said, “No, I’ll still go to armoured, I’ll probably end up in the grunts of the infantry, which we’ve always referred to as grunts. I said, “If I end up with the grunts corps, it doesn’t matter.” So anyway, I stuck down armoured, and infantry second choice. A lot of those blokes never put infantry at all. Guess where they ended up? The infantry.
Yes, because the largest number they wanted was the infantry. But out of the whole intake there I think there was probably about one thousand two hundred of us, something like that. There were only about six of us who got armoured corps, most of them went to the infantry. So anyway they told us about three of four days later, just called us in and sat us all down again and went through and said, these are going to infantry corps, rattle, rattle, rattle, rattle, rattle and these are going somewhere else, rattle, rattle, rattle,
these are going to armoured corps, there were only about five or six of us got into armoured corps.
You must have been pretty stoked [happy]?
I was, yes. Where the hell’s armoured corps? Puckapunyal. Where the hell’s Puckapunyal? I think it’s in Victoria. Oh, all right, I’m going to Victoria. I was very pleased, yes. It wouldn’t have worried me if it had been a different infantry, I said I didn’t care. I knew the armoured corps, that was one of the things I asked was, what units are in Vietnam, what infantry was in Vietnam. The armoured corps in Vietnam because they had (UNCLEAR) units because of the
tanks, yes. So anyway we struggled through and got through that. It was tough, hard work at times, but certainly we felt very pleased and proud of ourselves and we achieved – that was the toughest part, and if you can get through the toughest part, you’re right.
Were some of the blokes disappointed where they ended up being posted to?
Yes, my mate with the long hair who was a drummer in the
rock and roll band, he decided he wanted to join the band, the army band. And anyway he went back down there, I won’t mention any names, but if he hears the tape he’ll know who it is, he got infantry, and he turned up – this time it was Christmas time so we all got about a fortnight’s leave for Christmas and then we had to present ourselves back to our corps, and his corps training was back at Singleton. So that
was – anyway he turned up back there and the band was there, so he just strutted himself up to the band and he said, “I’ve come to join the band,” and they said, “Join the band?” “Oh yes,” he says. They said, “Well what’s your name?” And he told them his name. “Don’t think about it mate, get yourself over there, you’re a grunt.” So he didn’t end up in the band, much to his disappointment. I saw him after he went to Vietnam, and he was very proud of what he’d done too, I think.
Did he have a hard time?
I don’t think so.
Cutting his hair, I mean?
No, no. Although the Christmas leave at Christmas time there, his band put a concert on and all his mates had real long hair there, and he was sitting down the back there, yes. I don’t think they gave him a hard time. You’d have to ask him.
So you then finished up there – before we go to Puckapunyal, what was it like
with, in terms of rank, and how did you respond to this new kind of authority and training and stuff like that?
Yes, that wasn’t a drama, because as I said I was with the cadets, in the cadets, and ended up a sergeant in the cadets, so our rank when we went in there, was called recruits, and that’s the lowest of lowest of rank you can get. And the people in charge of us were actually only corporals, so they were our drill corporals,
and each platoon had a couple of corporals plus a sergeant plus a lieutenant, so it was generally an elderly – not old but had probably been to Vietnam, some of the corporals had been to Vietnam so… You know, they were realistic in what they had to teach us and train us. If you can go to Vietnam and come back from Vietnam without being wounded or killed, we’ve done our job, so that was their attitude, you know? Some of them thought they were real bastards, but others thought well,
they’re trying to instill into us something that will save our lives, so if you’re going to do it you’ve got to do it properly, no good being a bloody idiot and getting yourself killed.
Did anyone get in who had a bad attitude?
No. No, they’d all been weeded out before then as I said. No, they were one hundred per cent, they were one hundred per cent effort, everybody was. We might have swore and cursed at corporals, bloody idiots, what the bloody hell are they doing this to us for, but when we were told to do it everybody did it.
Nope, worked hard.
So tell me about your mates, like who did you meet and did you make any special friends and things like that?
Not so much there but some of us were from Armidale and we were all mates, we’d sort of ended up in the same platoon, but you made more of your mates when – I was only there for nine weeks, whatever it was, and you were just flat out all the
time. You were allowed to go to the canteen now and again, but basically it was out of bounds, so you didn’t have time to have a beer, you never had time to have a beer anyway, you were just flat out all the time. And yes, they were friends, good mates, but when you went into the regiment, and particularly when we went to Vietnam, a crew of four in a tank, well you lived or you died by your – with your mates
as the saying goes. So yes, they became very close friends.
So you didn’t have time for R & R [Rest and Recreation] during that recruit training?
No, they gave us one day off one Saturday, and they actually had an open day and some of the families came down to see them, and they weren’t allowed off the base, I don’t think. They could have been, I don’t think they were. But they organised about five or six buses, and those who had no family coming down, this is about halfway through the course, they actually took us down
to Nelsons Bay, we went down there to the RSL club, they drove us down there and we had a look round Nelsons Bay and we ended up at the RSL club and we had a feed there and all got on the grog, and then they turned round and took us back, back to the camp.
Was it like just a day trip?
Yes, just a day trip, just to give us a day out.
Was anyone just sort of crawling up the walls, to want to go out?
Never had time, no. Some of them might have been but they never said, some of them might have said they wanted to go
home, but at that stage of the game we were all committed.
No, but I mean going out, like having a good time and, you know?
No, no, as I said we were all committed, no-one went AWOL [AWL – Absent Without Leave] , no-one got out of the place. Could have got out of the place easy enough if you wanted to, but no-one did. I think we were too bloody tired to worry about going out.
What about blokes with girlfriends and things like that?
They might have found it
a bit harder, but as I said, some of the girlfriends didn’t hang around, some did.
Any recollections of any mates with girlfriends?
Not such a great lot, no. As I said we were sort of friends, but I don’t think we sort of pried into one another’s private lives very much, yes. Because day-to-day life was just to survive the day, because there’s always somebody yelling at you,
you know, you’re always marching around, as I said, we used to get up and go for a bloody – we were the only platoon that did – the bloody corporal was a fitness fanatic so he’d have us galloping around, up and down bloody hills all around the camp there, then breakfast and into the drill. I think they gave us ten minutes for a cup of tea at about ten o’clock, then lunch, then straight after lunch back into it again. And of course you had to have your gear all clean,
rifle clean and everything for next morning, and you had to have lights out at nine o’clock, whatever it was. So you just didn’t have any spare time.
So just describe the drill for me.
Main thing was to get everybody marching in step together and be able to do all the rifle drill, present arms and carry their rifle, fix bayonets. The aim of drill is obviously you get everybody to do the same thing on command at once without thinking, that’s what drill derives from.
And that’s what Australian troops in the First World War had to have, their drill and discipline. If you were lined up in those trenches there and you’ve got about ten or twenty or fifty machine guns in front of you, you’re just going to be mowed down, you know, they say, “Let’s go over the top,” and you just did it, that’s what drill is. The same with drill in life – like fire drills and everything, you do it without question, you do it without thinking, it becomes a
drill, it becomes an automatic command, obeying an automatic command, yes.
Anyone stuff up putting on their bayonets?
Yes, everybody would stuff up now and again, yes. First few weeks was bloody horrible, if you looked back at it now you’d say, God, I wasn’t that bad, was I? Well, if you’d never done it before, you know, if I got you out there and yelled at you to march, and quick march and halt, and about turn and all those sorts of things, you probably could do it, I don’t know, but if you
could do it you’d be different.
Any accidents? Anyone stab themselves?
No, no. I don’t think there were any accidents, I think a few people might have ended up with a couple of rolled ankles or something, might have been going through obstacle courses. No, the only accident I saw was in a park, we were training down there, a bloke had a wedding ring on and jumped off a bloody vehicle, left his finger behind, but that was just bad luck.
What about the other blokes? What
were they like? Or didn’t you get time to really get to know anyone?
Yes, got to know them but as I said but not become best of buddy, buddy mates, because we were only there for literally weeks. No, they were all very good to us. No bickering, no fighting, no squabbling, yes, because you didn’t have time to do it, didn’t have time to have enemies, you’d argue with your corporal and your sergeant at times. They were good.
So tell me about
Pucka, that was certainly a change in lifestyle there too. When we finished up we actually had a big – at Singleton, I’ll just go back to Singleton, we had a big marching out parade, and that was on a Friday or something. And anyway on the Saturday morning we all took off for our leave and that was the end of the – a lot of them came back for the infantry, but we all ended up like bloody chaff in the wind, we went everywhere. So we had our Christmas holidays and I went back,
caught a train to Sydney and then caught the train, went down to – the night train, I think it was the Spirit of Progress or Southern Aurora or whatever it is, one of the trains, we had to get off at Albury. We got off there about four o’clock in the morning, and we had to wait there for about an hour to catch a Victorian train, then that actually stopped at every station on the way down. So we got down to Pucka there about eleven o’clock in the morning. And there was a little bus there waiting for us and it drove us in. We went to what they call the Armoured Centre,
it was where the infantry were doing their corps training, and that’s where we did ours, our corps training there.
So sorry, you didn’t go to Pucka straight up, you finished the recruit training and then there was a break for a while, and then did you go home?
Yes. It was Christmas time you see, we finished up just before Christmas, so we had to go over there, I think we had two weeks off, the whole army just about shut down for two weeks.
So what did your dad think of you when you came back from that first recruit training? Were you a different bloke
Yes, I probably was, I was fitter, yes. I don’t think I’d changed, personally, well, I probably looked a bit different, looked different, yes. And it was sort of strange because basically I didn’t have to go to work or anything, so it was two weeks holiday for me, I don’t think I’d taken two weeks holiday since I left school. So Mum and Dad, I think at that stage of the
game, well they were concerned for me, because there was no – you know, you’re going to Vietnam on fourteen September or whatever it was, there was no date or anything like that.
So just to get a time line, you’d come back for Christmas and then the expectation was that you’d go to corps training…?
Back to Pucka, Pucka for corps training, which was about another three months, then after you do that you’d go to the regiment or the squadron or – I didn’t know where I was going to end up, I hadn’t made my mind up whether I wanted to go for tanks or APCs or what I wanted to do.
And then go to Vietnam then?
Yes, probably end up going to Vietnam after that, yes.
And would you spend Christmas in Vietnam?
I would have only if I’d have gone there, but I didn’t go until January the next year.
So that wasn’t the last Christmas you spent, that was the end of that year, the following year?
Yes, so I had two Christmases at home when I was in the army.
Okay. So then you went back to Pucka after that?
Yes, after Christmas, yes.
And describe for me just what that
process was like and how different it was to recruit training.
Completely different, completely different, because we actually got back down there and I think we had a couple of days bumming around waiting for everybody to come back, because there were still people on leave. And anyway then they gave us like an open day and we – there’s the regiment and then there’s the centre, and they actually were divided, the regiment
was sort of one side of the hill and the centre was on the other side of the hill. And the centre is where all the training corps are, like the driving, servicing, radio operators and gunnery courses they used to run, they were held at the centre. So we just bummed round there for a couple of days then the next morning we turned up there and did our usual parade and just lined up. And they said righto, we’re going to show you this now before you make your selection on what you want to do. So anyway they took us around on top of the hill there and they had an APC carrier there and they had a little Ferret scout car they used to
have, they had a couple of Centurions sitting there, and anyway they just talked about if you joined the reconnaissance unit, you’d probably end up tearing around in these Ferret cars. If you joined the cavalry units that’s what you’d do, with the APC you’d learn to drive it and radio operate and those sorts of things. They had the old Centurion there, and they ran over a few safety things on it, like the hatches on it, don’t drop them on your foot, and all those sorts of things. And all the vehicles – they said if you join the armoured
regiment we need tank drivers and gunners, radio operators, radio operator loader, he’s got to load the guns. And they had another lot there, they wanted what they called – they were like special troops, they were shock troops, that’s what they were called then. But the funny thing was, you ended up shock troopers but they never went to Vietnam. A couple of my mates did that and didn’t go to Vietnam, as far as I know they didn’t.
What kind of stuff did they do?
They were supposed to
drive round in APCs and they had like guided rocket launchers and those sorts of things. They were supposed to be like an elite lot. But anyway, they just sat us around there and they showed us all over the vehicles and said, righto, into this room, and they gave us a piece of paper, righto, put down your preference for what you want to do, and why you want to do it. So I stuck down, I said, that looks good fun driving one of those tanks around. So I stuck down a tank driver, I said I’ve lived on the land and used to driving tractors and I think I
told a fib, I said I used to drive bulldozers. I had driven a bulldozer but it wasn’t ours, but I thought, I’ll stick that in there. And anyway about the next day they lined us up, righto, and read these names out, such and such, “Rowe, tank driver, DNS course” which was the tank driving course. Beauty, so that was very lucky that I got a corps that I wanted and the job in the corps that I wanted. A lot of blokes didn’t have that sort of luck. And the other fellows that came down with me, a couple of them
wanted to get into the tanks, from Singleton, they went into the armoured corps, a couple of them ended up tank drivers, a few of them went into the cavvy. So basically it was full on then, they taught us how to – the drivers had to service and look after the service of the vehicle. Literally hundreds of grease nipples on the damned thing, you had to fill it full of grease nearly every second day, and certain jobs you had to do every week, certain mileage, you did other certain jobs. Then
we had to learn all about the mechanics of the vehicle, and then they started teaching us how to drive it, well that took weeks, just to learn how to drive the damned thing. It’s an interesting machine, it had what they call a crash gearbox, as I said it double shuffled, you had to do what they call a stick gear change, it’s just all the skills. I was actually talking to somebody the other week who had been in the armoured corps and drove the Leopard tanks, and
somebody had an old Centurion, and they actually had to drive the Centurion and there was no way they could drive it, it was too much skill for them. We had a very highly skilled job, in a way, in an old machine, it was just the knack of doing it.
So the Centurion is a different type of tank to the one you were driving?
No, that’s what I drove. The other fellow drove the Leopard, which are the new tanks.
So can you give a sort of walk through of the tank? What’s it like, where do you sit, what are the things you’re operating and working with?
the drivers have to drive the vehicle plus look after the servicing, and the engine – well a little bit about the old vehicle, she weighed fifty-two tons, I think fully loaded used to weigh up to about fifty-five tons, and it had a Rolls Royce petrol engine in it, 650 horsepower. It had a six speed gearbox in it, two reverses, and everything was done by the linkages, it’s no hydraulics,
put your foot on the clutch it was about a ninety pound pressure just to push the clutch in, and brakes, you had to basically adjust the brakes every day on them. It had four big brake drums on the back one, two for the steering and two for the main parking brake.
When you say ninety pound pressure, you mean…?
Yes, to push the clutch in is equivalent to pushing about ninety pound. So we all went out with great big massive left legs.
(laughs) So it was good fun, once you got good at it you used to be able to hoon round and make them go anywhere. Then the gunner, he used to sit down in the turret, the drive was good that I had, used to have the hatches off and there’s about this much of you sitting out most of the time, all the time. I hardly ever drove closed down.
So just describe that, you’ve got certain components that you can take off?
Is that what you mean?
No, it had a hatch that closed and opened, and you raised and lowered your seat. So if you closed down you dropped your seat down and you pulled these hatches, two hatches, one on each side, fastened them down, and you had periscopes to look through. But you couldn’t see much because the ruddy dust used to fly up and cover them. So ninety per cent of the time even when we got into a couple of contacts, we never closed the hatch down, we probably should have done, but didn’t, because you can’t see.
So you were using these to see?
And the guy behind you was using them to aim it? So where was he in relation to you?
Basically nearly straight behind me, but up higher, he was in the turret. And there was actually, alongside me, there was a little compartment in there that you never put anything in there, and also next to me was ammo bins, that was for the main armament, they were in the hold of the tank. And so up above me was the
turret, the gun used to be sitting straight above my – well not so much my head, just on the side of me. So I’d be watching the gun, the gun would be there, all the time above you. And the gunner, he sat in the vehicle up in the turret, but he was basically behind me. I could in a certain situation when the gun was in the right way, I could get out and get into the turret. But when the gun was pointing straight at me, a lot of his controls and things were straight behind, I couldn’t. You
could, in desperate situations you could squeeze through there. But he was in control of the guns. And we had like a radio system, we could talk to one another all the time. It was an old British system, they had a, what do you call it, a press or switch and you had to put it up to your mouth, but I had mine taped down, because when you’re driving left and right, hand changing gears, I didn’t have a free hand to
talk, so I used to have it taped up on the vehicle, so I could just lean forward and talk to the crew members.
And you had to view through…?
The periscopes, when the hatches were down. But ninety-nine per cent of the time we never had the hatches closed down, but your head’s sticking out about this far, out of this hatch on the front of the vehicle. I’ll show you, I’ve got some photos here, you can have a look at them, yes.
So what was it like when the hatches – you would have had to have done lots of training with the hatches down?
Yes, I did a bit of training
with the hatches down, yes. The track, with the dusty conditions the track actually works like a conveyor belt, it picks the dirt up and actually throws the dirt over in front of you, and if it’s dusty and dry it just blows straight back, in a few minutes you couldn’t see out of the ruddy periscopes.
Because the periscopes – all the dust would trickle down?
Yes, the dust would just sort of fly up and catch in the periscopes.
I think we need to change tapes, but I’d like to hear more about the tanks.
Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 04
So we basically graduated out of there and went to the – into what they call the regiment, and went to A Squadron.
Yes. And then went to Nui Dat?
A fair bit later on, yes.
A fair bit later on?
We spent a lot of time training, went to Canungra.
Okay. All right, well let’s not jump too far ahead. In terms of – Okay, so we’re talking about the tank, we’re in the tank, I’d just like you to describe the periscope system and the way everything kind of works, just visually, because yes, I’m blind.
In the battle situation in theory we’ve closed the hatches down, and the only way you can see is there’s
periscopes, there’s two of them about this big, one sits here and one sits there, so you actually can sort of see, and they swivel, so you can – they actually had one looking straight ahead and one looking to the side, so if you’ve got another tank alongside you, turn this one this way so you can keep an eye on him, because otherwise unless the crew commander can tell you where the other vehicle is or what’s going on, you haven’t got a clue. So when you dropped down below there was probably about six to seven inches of
steel, the hull on the tank was that thick, so you dropped down below that so that’d be your protection.
So it was almost like your rear vision mirror or something, as well as your eyes?
You couldn’t see backwards but you could see to the side a bit, yes. So you needed to see what was in front of you, you needed to see if you did a turn to the left or the right you could swivel your periscope around a little bit to get a look, yes. So you didn’t want to run over somebody or if you were in a bunker system, look for where you were going.
Yes, but as I said, we very rarely used them. One of my mates was badly wounded, he was just sitting there like I was when an RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] hit the front of the gun mantle above his head, and he got quite badly hurt, steel flew off the back of the – off the tank onto his head.
Hit him on the back of the head. So he was very badly hurt from that.
From the tank?
Yes, when you hit those RPG rockets,
they’re like a gas, they burn their way through, instantly burn their way through, they might even burn a hole as big as a pencil, but you get a splash off, like molten steel splashes off. But anyway, so the main thing was in those sorts of situations, drop your seat down, whack the two covers over, hatches over, then watch out of the periscope. We used to close the hatchet down sometimes when it was pouring rain, it was too wet to sleep outside, so we’d sleep in the tank.
When you were in Vietnam, or in training?
No, in Vietnam.
Okay. In terms of just the view, being able to see, what, you’d only be able to look out of the tank when the hatches were down?
With your periscope when the hatches had closed and when the seat’s down. The normal time you’d have your head sticking out, because the hatches would be folded back, they just folded back this way. But you still only had a quite limited view,
(PAUSE) you could only sort of see the sides, you couldn’t see behind you. And I’ll tell you another story a bit later on why people shouldn’t overtake tanks when the drivers can’t see what they’re doing.
Can you tell us now?
When we were in Vietnam, we were driving up one of the main roads there, we were going to set an ambush up late in the afternoon, and an American in a little one ton truck thing decided he’d overtake me, but I didn’t know he was overtaking us. And I just happened to
glance across and here’s this vehicle flying through this paddy field, and the bonnet’s bouncing up and down and so is the driver. And he bounces over these paddy fields coming screeching to a halt. And the old crew commander says to me, “You just ran a bloke off the road then.” I said, “I didn’t see him, is he all right”? “Yes,” he says, “But I think he’s going to need his underclothes changed though.” So I said, “You’ve got to tell me if somebody’s overtaking me.” We weren’t supposed to drive them – in Australia we couldn’t drive our tanks on the roads, but in
America it was – in Vietnam it was a great experience. The Americans had built these real beaut bitumen roads, because – I’m getting ahead of myself here – but the road between Saigon and Phouc Tuy was one of the main roads, and the Americans upgraded the road. And the old Centurion used to love going down a bitumen road, you could actually slide down the road going flat out, top speed twenty-one miles an hour, and you could actually slide down the bitumen road still going in the
same direction, the tracks are still going and you’d just go sideways, it was great fun. But it took a bit of skill to do it but you could just slide on the road. So this bloke tried to overtake me, I didn’t know he was there, so I probably just started to give the stick a bit of a jerk to keep it going, because they don’t run in a straight line all the time, they veer a bit all the time. Because one track on one side might be a little bit longer than the other side, so the vehicle would crib one way or the other.
So just that mechanism of the turning tracks, it needs to actually grip on to something
in order to move forward?
Yes, well if you’ve got it sideways you’d just lock it up, hit one of the brakes and she’d just put one track out of kilter with the other, and she’d just slide sideways on the road. Pretty good feeling, having a fifty-two ton, fifty odd ton vehicle, sliding down the road.
Did you have any of the other guys in the tank at the time?
Yes, we were always crewed up, but they didn’t worry. Old bloody Rowe showing off again.
But we just took to the road you know, when there was oncoming transport you’d see them head to the edge of the road and we’d just say righto, we own this road. Probably wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but no-one’s going to argue with that sort of vehicle size, are they?
So what sort of speeds do you get up to when you’re doing that?
Only twenty-one miles an hour, which doesn’t seem fast when you say it, but if you’re hurtling along at twenty odd miles upwards of about thirty odd kilometres I suppose, yes.
In something of that size?
In something of that size, magnitude, yes. Especially when it was a dusty area, imagine the huge cloud of dust and that flying.
(PAUSE) the tracks actually grip on to stuff, and you need to maintain equilibrium on both sides? Could you topple over?
No. Wouldn’t fall over.
Wouldn’t fall over?
No, it wouldn’t fall over. No, we’ve had it on some really sharp angles, they’d slide before they’d tip over. You know, if you’re on a steep side of the hill, the weight of them is they’d start to slide down, but you wouldn’t – you were careful with what you were doing. But they basically climbed nearly vertical, or dropped down vertical. Those were things we
sort of learned when we got to the regiment, no, at the centre, when we used to drive them, we had to learn how to ford or cross gullies. And one of the things they took us out into some big washways, deep erosion gullies, and you actually had to learn how to drive the tank, drop the tank over about a twenty foot vertical drop, yes. So that was an interesting skill. You used to have to lock all the hatches down, put the gun at the back, the gun had a cradle, so you
tied the gun down because you couldn’t leave it out the front. Then you drove up until the tank got the point of balance and as it started to go down you went from say first gear, you went into about fourth gear, and you planted your foot so when it hit the ground it just drove itself out. It wasn’t too bad, we were about the second, the first bloke went through they actually cut the bank down a little, but you had to learn how to drive vertically down, and vertical falls.
What about the impact of the people inside the
No, we used to – when we were learning to drive – we had a crew commander who was teaching us, he was the only one in the vehicle. Even though it used to bang pretty hard when you hit the bottom, there was a bit of give and take in them. The main thing was not to hit the idle wheels too much and break them.
But the seats aren’t padded or anything, are they?
They’re about as good as these seats we’re sitting on. It was a bit of a thump, but the secret was once you started out you drove it see, so the tracks would grip and pull you
straight around, otherwise if you went down slow she’d be likely to fall over on us.
Did that ever happen?
No, maybe it did when they learned to do it, but it didn’t happen to us. When she went down, as I said, whacked her into basically top gear and planted the foot so she’d just hit and the tracks were speeded up, they pulled the vehicle out. It’s amazing where you could take them. Don’t believe me, do you?
Yes I do. So tell me
about when you first started to drive them. What did you feel when you first got in there? Was it alien?
It was an amazing sort of feeling really, because even though it was a petrol engine, it was the same sort of engine they had in Spitfire fighter planes, and even though they only did about twenty-four hundred revs, when you sort of wound them up they used to sort of scream, and you’d hear the motor way down the back screaming away there. But basically most of the time you drove by feel. When we were learning to
drive we drove by the taco, the taco [tachometer] was sort of just sitting here, and you’d have to be watching the taco because of the huge amount of noise with the roaring of the tracks and rumbling and everything like that. And nine times out of ten you couldn’t hear the engine. So you’d be watching the taco and when she dropped down to a certain rev you’d have to go and change gears when she revved up. They had a magneta in them, we used to have a cut out on them, so when the engine got to thousand four hundred and fourty revs,
the – they’d cut out, so the motor would over-rev, she’d die on you, and she’d start missing. So you just watched the taco when she hit full taco rev speed, you changed the gear or you just took your foot off a little bit. And when we were learning the old commander teaching us used to say, back her off when you’re on the cut-out. And you could hear if somebody was driving her flat out and he’d just stand there and say, “She’s missing,” because the magnetas used to cut in and the motor would be going
rrrrrm, and going on. So you’d just back off a little bit to get her off the cut-off.
So when you say missing, you mean like jumps a gear or…?
No, no, the power, the electric spark plugs cut out.
Do you stop?
They will until you get down below the certain revs, then she just fires back up again. But it doesn’t stop dead, but it starts missing, some of the cylinders start to miss, because they were cutting out before the other ones, so you just start to lose – instead of having your twelve cylinders you’re
probably only down to eight or to nine or ten. There’s a couple of them miss out then it drops the power, so then it just drops down below the red line.
So when you’re sitting in there, what are you using to steer with?
The two levers, they just had levers. They’re not like a bulldozer where you’ve got pedals or anything, but levers. And when you were driving you had to lean forward to reach the levers when you were in the head up position. But when you drop down your
levers are back up here because the seat used to fall down eighteen inches, two foot I suppose, the seat used to raise and lower.
And there’s no vision except for if you are looking through the periscopes or if your head’s above that hatch?
Yes, that’s all. Basically when you’re down, you’ve got to use the periscope when you’re sitting down in the vehicle. When you’re sitting up you’re just basically at eye level, maybe just a little bit higher. It all depends on the height of the person.
And you had to lean forward to do it, to pull the gear lever, the gear lever was in the middle, and the brakes were on the side, and the hand brake was on that side as well. So it had an accelerator, it had a clutch and a brake.
So you’d have to be pretty automatic? Do it with your eyes closed, in terms of what you’re doing with your hands?
Yes, you couldn’t see what you were doing, yes. You
didn’t look down to see where the gear lever was, you sort of – you knew where you were, you just did it automatically, you just had to look over now and again to keep – but after we got experience with it we didn’t bother worrying about the taco, because we knew what we were doing. If it started to die back you just had to keep the revs up so you’d throw it back, double shuffle back into another gear, keep the revs going.
How long did it take to get really confident?
I don’t think I got confident until I got into the regiment, so I could do it, but I wasn’t brilliant.
But yes, I think it probably took three of four months, maybe a bit longer until I got really good at it.
So just in terms of the tank’s vulnerability, is it just literally like a wall of – a bubble of steel moving along, or is it…?
It’s a square box of steel basically, yes, that’s what it is, yes. The old Centurion was pretty good but our suspension units were
actually bolted onto the hull of the tank, so some of the tanks hitting large mines up there, they’d bust the track and blow the suspension units off. But then they could re-bolt them back on again. Whereas, some of the American tanks had what they call torsion bar suspension, and they actually go – the mechanism goes right through the hull of the tank, so if you hit a mine unfortunately a lot of the high pressure explosive gases could escape through the torsion
bar entrance into the hull, so American tanks, those tanks they had a fair few problems with. That’d be the end of the tank probably, the crew wouldn’t be real good either. With the old Centurion, providing you didn’t hit a mine that exploded in the centre of the tank, yes. But there were two tank drivers were killed in Vietnam.
Yes, two Australian tank drivers were killed in Vietnam, yes.
So it actually is vulnerable? Just before we talk about the vulnerability, when you
described that earlier scenario of gas in the hull tank, is that because it emits from underneath, or where does the gas…?
That’s what explosive is, huge high-pressure gas, that’s what does damage in bombs.
So what, it will explode?
When it hits the mine, a huge gas explosion, you’ve got a huge pressure, it’ll blow in through where the torsion bar goes through the hull of the tank, the gas is allowed to get in there, it’s a weak, vulnerable part. They were in those tanks, anyway. With the old Centurion, you hit it there, the gases
would blow the – the explosion would blow the track plus probably the wheels, and the suspension unit was just bolted on to the hull, so you didn’t have a weak spot where the gases or the high pressure would expose into the vehicle.
You said that two Australian tank drivers were killed in Vietnam?
Yes, they were killed with mines. I won’t sort of go into the detail
because the family might listen to what happened. But they were the only two. We had casualties and all that.
Can we just turn the camera off for a sec?
Just leave the camera off for a sec, I’ll tell you.
You can always change your mind. Okay, so in terms of those two guys that were killed in Vietnam in those tanks…?
Yes, one fellow was killed with an unexploded American five hundred pound bomb, I don’t actually know the details. But the other
fellow was killed because the hull of the tank,underneath the driver’s compartment, has a drainage plug, and of course he probably got out two or three times to do it, and the ground was wet and boggy and mud, covered with mud, so to make it easier he screwed it in from inside his compartment, so when the tank hit the mine instead of the flange on the drain plug being strong and help resist the explosive charge, it was only the thread holding it, so that just
blew up into the vehicle and that’s what killed him. So obviously things are designed for a certain way and to act in certain conditions, so even though it was probably a good idea to do it, in realistic terms it wasn’t designed to be done that way. And that’s just the way things happen, I suppose.
Do they give you a good kind of run down of those kinds of things when you’re learning about the tank?
Yes, but they didn’t sort of mention that one. But yes, the basic thing is you put it back the way it’s supposed to be done. There’s actually not a number, but there are hold access plates under the floor, in the bottom of the tank, for engine oil change and those sorts of things you’ve got to deal with, these bolt block access plates. That’s probably one of the weakest parts of the tanks, is actually the bottom of the vehicle.
The actual floor?
The floor, yes. It’s
not the thickest part.
So when you’re talking about mines, anything that comes from underneath, you strike at the most vulnerable part?
The most vulnerable part, yes. The track part is if it’s directly under the track, it’s certainly devastating. But if anybody ever goes to Canberra to look at the tank in the War Memorial in Canberra there, just get down on your hands and knees and have a look underneath, you can see what happened there. The mine was offset. A lot of cases the switch of the tank with the mines, are
with the mines, where the explosive charge is, and this one was offset, the switch is sort of three or feet away from the explosive, and the explosive charge actually went underneath the tank. It didn’t bust the hull or anything, but it put a big bulge in the bottom of it, then ruptured the ammunition, and all your linkages and things. I’m not sure whether the tank caught fire or not, but yes. So that’s the vulnerable part of the tank.
So when you say
The switches for setting off explosive charges, they were very simple and very primitive. They basically consisted of two pieces of bamboo wood, with a little metal plate like a jam tin or something in the middle, and a little electric battery with the wires going on to each of the little metal plates, tin plates, hooked to an electric detonator.
So when a heavy vehicle or basically a vehicle or a set of vehicles goes over, pushes the two pieces of bamboo together, the two pieces of metal make contact, causing a short circuit in your battery, and sets the electric detonator off. So they were set, say the explosive charge was dug in a hole set in one area, and the wire and the bamboo switch was probably set three or four feet away. It could have gone the other way, you could have driven actually over it, and the explosive charge
would have gone off about four or five feet away from the vehicle. But as Murphy’s Law [anything that can go wrong will go wrong] would have it they drove over it and it went off underneath the vehicle.
This is a World War II tank? Or a Vietnam tank?
A Vietnam tank we’re talking about.
So that’s a VC [Viet Cong] mine?
Right. So what would happen theoretically if a mine was to explode underneath the tank?
That’s what I’m talking about, that’s what happened. It bulged the bottom of the tank, on the floor of the tank. You could I suppose in theory send them back and they’d
have to cut the floor out of them and rebuild them. But see all the linkages and the bins, ammo bins, batteries, there’s a large number of batteries set in the bottom of the tank, so it would have busted all them. But chances are that it probably actually burnt the tank, would have burnt the tank out.
So what, it would rupture through the floor, or would rupture enough to…?
No, just probably put a bulge in it, instead of being level it probably raised it six to nine inches. It’s armoured steel, but it was lucky enough that it didn’t,
it was designed I think so that it doesn’t fracture, it’s just got a lot of give in it.
So what would it do to the people inside the tank?
It all depends how severe, if it busted the ammo and shorted the batteries out the chances are that it might have started a fire. But otherwise if it didn’t, if they were lucky enough it didn’t, it would have just crippled the tank. Because of the steering linkages and all those things, it probably would have loosened the engine mountings and busted – hard to say what it would
have busted, yes.
If it started a fire, it would be outside the tank, or inside?
No, inside, inside, yes.
So it would be like a veritable oven?
Yes, yes, we had one of our tanks blow up. Hit a mine, it just happened in front of me. I was driving the troop leader’s tank and the sergeant’s tank was in front of us. We drove in the evening before to set up an ambush, and when we went back out, to drive back out again you
don’t drive in the same tracks in case somebody comes in in the night time and sets it up. So we were driving half a tank width, so there was the tank track and our track, one was in the middle and one was on the side, and drove out and they’d put two RPG rockets in with the explosive, so the mine itself didn’t hurt the tank but the two rockets burnt a hole through the bottom of the – exploded or penetrated into the bottom of the tank. In doing so ruptured – that’s where a lot of the main ammunition is,
and it just busted it up and the tank caught fire. And flames were shooting out, my mates were all flying out of the tank, yes. A couple of them got quite badly burnt. That happened just right in front of us there, yes.
Did anyone survive?
Yes, they all survived.
They all survived?
What are the logistics of jumping out of a tank when something like that’s happening?
Well it’s better than hanging around in there, is it?
But like, do you have to climb…?
No, they just flew out, the sergeant he actually
was sort of – he just sort of flew out, and he flew over the side of the vehicle and got hooked up, he had the radio harness on him, so he was hung up there. He didn’t hit the ground, just flew out of tank. And the gunner, he was down underneath, he leapt out and he grabbed and helped the sergeant and they pulled him, got him back. They went back on to the engine deck of the tank, and the operator, he just flew straight out, the driver, he hopped out of the front of the vehicle, the fire wasn’t in his
compartment, though it was getting pretty bloody hot there. The worst thing you’ve got to be careful of is if you jump out there might have been anti-personnel mines there as well.
No, there weren’t, luckily. But the engineers there did find another tank-mine, some twenty yards away from where this one was.
So how burnt were they?
Blisters up the arm and back of the neck. The old sergeant, he was burnt but he –
- he never came back on operations.
Was he really shaken up?
Really shook him up, so we actually ended up with another troop sergeant.
I can imagine it must be really, really scary, going down and not knowing.
Yes, it was scary for us just even watching it, yes. Because what can you do? We couldn’t do anything because basically when that happens we go on full alert because that would have been the opportune time for the Vietcong to attack us. We were in this
large clearing probably a couple of hundred yards wide with jungle on each side of us. So she caught fire there.
And you couldn’t reverse or anything like that either?
No, we had other vehicles behind us.
So you were in sort of convoy?
Yes, we were in a convoy, you follow one another all the time. You’ve only got to be out six inches and you hit a bloody mine or something like that. That’s the difference between the luck of the draw and no luck at all.
So are you saying there could have actually been mines each side of the track and you just missed them?
You wouldn’t know where you’d missed them, see you drove in there and missed – the tank is what, eleven foot wide, so you know, that’s five and a half feet, missed it by five and a half feet when he drove in, and drove over it when he was going out.
So was everyone just paralysed? What happened?
Yes, we sort of went into a drill, ready reaction, and my troop leader he
jumped out and ran along the track where the other vehicle had driven, you don’t walk where the tank hadn’t driven, and he helped him. But we were in action, ready to go sort of thing, we traversed our guns around making sure – because that would have been an ideal time while we were under a fair bit of stress there, if there’d been any Charlie in the scrub there that would have been the time they had a go at us. So yes, it was a little bit hectic there for a while.
So what happened when you stepped out of the tank? Did you…?
I never got out of the tank, the crew did, we got them back, and we just let the tank burn out, there were flames and fire everywhere there. We’ve actually got fire extinguishers in the vehicle, and there’s a set of the fire extinguishers that the driver can set off which actually puts CO2 gas into the engine compartment. But there was nothing we could do with the ammo, it just went up. But it was only propellant, luckily the warheads didn’t explode, the shells
With the fire?
Which would have made…
Yes, you wouldn’t think a tank would burn, but gee the bloody – they go. Anyway we actually had to let it burn out, and then had to medivac the blokes out. Then we had to go and get another – we had to wait there most of the day, they had to bring in another bloody tank recovery vehicle to pull it.
Did you put them in your tank while they waited for medivac?
Yes, they came up onto our tank, yes.
Were they just…?
They were in shock, yes.
What did they say? Can you remember what they said?
No, not really. We were sort of doing a fair bit of talking amongst ourselves there yes, what they were exactly saying, they were just saying they were bloody lucky to get out of there. They were. The gunner, he got burns up the back of his arm, didn’t catch on fire himself personally, luckily.
What was everyone else saying?
Well, mainly things to see if they were all right and that we didn’t come under attack. And anyway everything settled down then, we always carried two sappers with us, you know, as I was saying about the blokes with the metal mine detector gear, they got out and got ferreting around and about another thirty yards away they found another bloody…
Off the road a bit?
It was like a land clearing where they cleared all this jungle, it had all been cleared out, that’s where we were driving down, so
tanks and vehicles had left tracks everywhere. And anyway they found another one there, what they call Chinese – Chicon explosive, there was about thirty pound of that. But it probably would have just blown the track off or something, mightn’t have even blown the track off. But what buggered us was the bloody, the RPG rockets they had in the explosives. Just underneath the tank, after we looked at it, later on we came up and had a look at it, and you see the two little bloody holes where the RPG rockets had burnt through.
You said before that if you hit the track, it’s devastating on a tank? What’s the effect of that? What happens theoretically if you were to hit, if the mine was to hit the track?
Well you come to a screeching – the track would fly off and you’d just screech to a halt, you can’t go, can’t move anywhere, so you’re stuck there. That leaves you open to attack. But the tank can be recovered and rebuilt,
they had to rebuild – fixed them up, they had a big workshop in Nui Dat there where they rebuilt them. Do major changes like engine changes, and the engine’s only got a certain lifespan, so when they blow up they get new engines.
So the actual track would come off?
Yes, it would just break, it’s just held together with like pins, there are steel pins through them. They’re steel tracks but they’re all smashed.
So you’re just totally vulnerable to attack?
mentioned before that there’s some, I don’t know if you were referring to the mines, but they can melt the…
Yes, the rocket does that, the RPG rocket does that, yes. They’re still using those bloody RPGs, they call them, that’s what they are, rocket grenade personnel, RPG. They use them in the bloody Middle East at the moment, they’re still using them there, the Yanks and whatever, coming under RPG attack, same things.
Can they only
They explode but they also, they’re like what they call a shape charge, and they’re shaped in such a way, when they explode that they actually force a jet of super hot air into a steel, it’s a way they can design the charge to explode.
And that super hot air is what melts?
Yes, like an oxy torch.
and how much of a radius would it melt?
It’s only about as big as a pencil. But then it would splash off steel on the inside, you know if you use an oxy to burn through steel, you know how you see steel fly? The molten steel flies off with the pressure, well it’s the same principle as that. But some of the tanks up there took three or four RPG rockets through them, and probably some of the crew were wounded, slightly wounded but yes, they were
Indeed. Just describing the inside of the tank, there’s just the gunner?
There’s a gunner, and a web – still haven’t got around to that. But there’s the radio operator and loader, on the back of the hull there’s – inside the hull there’s the main radios which communicate between vehicle to vehicle, and also allow us to talk as crew to crew. Everybody’s on – like the radio’s on and he’s also the
loader. There’s two machine guns and then co-ax with the main armament, and the radio operator loader. His job is to load the main armament and make sure the machine guns are all firing. So when we’re in a battle situation he’s likely to be inside, down in the vehicle, loading the guns and making sure everything’s working. And then there’s the crew
commander, he’s actually standing or sitting, or most of the time standing behind the gunner, and he’s in charge of the vehicle, which way the vehicle goes and all those sorts of things, fire command.
So you can actually stand at full height in the tank?
If you can stand up inside – does it actually – you can’t stand up to full height when you’re driving, you’re sitting down?
So it’s just in the hull of the tank?
The hull of the tank, yes. The commander can actually stand up, he’s got a seat, but actually nine times out of ten he stands on his seat, and the radio operator he sort of stands up and sits on the hatch, and nine times out of ten they’re sitting on top of the hatches outside the vehicle.
Outside the vehicle?
Sitting on the hatches, like this here, you’ve got your legs inside the hatch, yes. You can’t see otherwise, and you can’t stand on the floor and see out because it’s too high,
ah, and of course if you’re standing on the floor the floor doesn’t rotate with the tank, the floor is set. So if the operator’s got to load her, say they start traversing and they’re going left or right, he’s got to make sure he walks round on the floor, otherwise you can get a bit squashed.
So how many people can sit in the hull at one time?
Basically three, yes. It’s only three. There is a bit of room on the loader side,
probably a couple of people. I’ve been in there with a couple of people being in there. One of the things we’d do is, well I did, is just try and learn the other guys’ jobs. So I’ve had a go at firing the gun, I’ve had a go at loading it, tuning the radios, the radios are old British radios, you had to keep – they have a tendency to wander off channel, so they’re quite complicated how you tune the radios, and
when we were on – pulled up somewhere, somebody has to always be on the radio, particularly the troop commander’s vehicle which I drove. I drove the sergeant’s vehicle for a while and then I went onto the troop commander’s vehicle. Somebody has to be on the radio all the time, because it’s not only just the troop talking to one another, the vehicles are talking to one another. If you’ve got infantry they want to talk to you too, your resupply, your headquarters wants to talk to you. So it’s pretty – radio activity’s an
essential part of our communications, it’s the only way of communications.
Can you describe the position of where the gunner is? Get up, when you’re describing just where the gunner is situated and what he’s doing inside the tank.
Right, well the gunner sits in the turret behind me, but down lower in front of the vehicle commander. His job is to control the
firing of the guns, and also the traverse and the movement of the turret. The Centurion tank had a gyro system on it, that no matter which way the vehicle bounced up and down, the gun would stay level. So we’d be going along and the vehicle is rising up and down and the gun would be level. So when you’re sitting driving it’s a bit unusual, you think the gun’s bouncing up and down all the time, but it’s actually the vehicle bouncing up and down all the time, because the gun’s stopping level. And the gunner could point it at the target and I’d steer left or right and the gun would still remain on the
target. Although it wasn’t one hundred per cent, it was about ninety-five per cent accurate. So one of the things I had to do, especially if we were travelling fairly quickly through a timbered area, or even if we were going fairly slow, was to make sure the bloody gunner was pointing his gun the right way, because if I was going to steer around the left hand side of a tree, I’d make sure I told the gunner to traverse left, because it’s a bit embarrassing when the gun goes one way round the tree and the tank tries to go around the other side of the tree. And that has happened
at odd times too.
What would happen then?
Actually it’s got a safety clutch on the gear to traverse the turret. I remember down at Pucka there, I was hooning along, there was a nice big gum tree there and for some reason the gunner decides he’d stick the turret a little bit out the left hand side and I decided I’d go the right hand side of the tree. And next thing the barrel whacks into the tree and the turret sort of goes whirrrr, and they’re suddenly pointing out the back, frightened the hell out of them. And the other one that gives them a real start, if you’re
driving into the scrub somewhere and you tell the gunner to traverse left or right and for some reason he doesn’t, and the gun barrel pokes into a tree and you can see what’s going to happen. So you jam your breaks on and screech to a halt, but if the gun barrel hits the tree, it pushes the gun barrel back and that automatically ejects the main shell out of the thing So suddenly it gives him a big start and it goes bang and out flies the shell out of the back of the gun.
Back into the hull?
Yes. That wakes them up in there.
Is that because the barrel of the gun protrudes beyond the edge of the tank?
Yes, it protrudes way out in front of the tank, yes. So you’ve got to be careful. So the crews talk to one another all the time. I was talking to the gunner, you know, traverse left, and that’s what he’d do, and traverse right so I’d tell him which side of the tree I’m going and what have you. And we had to talk to one another.
How restricted is the gunner? When you said he
can move the gun, in a situation would you be more likely to just have a fixed position? There’s not a lot of flexibility like you would have with a machine gun or other types of …?
No, we could traverse three hundred and sixty degrees but you’ve got to watch out if you don’t get in a situation where the trees and that stop you traversing. But the main aim is of course to keep the tank front on, because that’s where the thickest part of the armament is, on the front of the tank. Not on the side or the back of the tank. So if you
drive it into a bunker system, make sure you’ve got your nose in front of the tank into the bunker system, don’t try to get side on.
So you wouldn’t have additional people inside the tank with guns or anything like that?
No, the tank has got the main armament which was a twenty pound a gun, and it fired a high explosive shell, which is like an artillery round, but it also fired an anti-tank round, which was
used on other big tanks, but we also used that for bunker systems, we used to fire the high powered anti-tank round into a bunker system. It didn’t explode, but they have such a huge muzzle velocity they just – the compression would blow the bunker system half apart.
When you say the anti-tank, is that the rocket stuff you were talking about before?
No, it’s still the main gun. The main gun just had different types of ammunition. And it also had what they call a canister round,
which was just like a huge big shotgun shell, and it just fired all this, like ball bearings, so it was deadly. If you had it in a jungle and you couldn’t sort of see something in front of you, fire a canister round and it’d just blow all the leaves and trees and stuff out of the road. We’ve actually shot down trees with canister rounds. You get about five or six of them and you just fire a canister round and trees four or five foot across would just blow it straight in half.
Full on trees?
Trees, standing up trees. If the trees are in the road, you just can’t see round through them, just give them a canister round and it’ll chop them in half, just chop them off, blow them off. You’ve got to be careful the tree doesn’t fall over on top of you.
What happens if that happens?
Well, you take great paces then. It didn’t, luckily. We chopped down a few trees that way, blew them down. Got into a bunker system, wasn’t sure what was happening, where they were. Bloody tree in the road so we’d just pull up near the tree
and fire the canister round, blew the tree, just blew it in half. Well, didn’t blow it in half, just blew the whole trunk off. The tree fell down, you can see where you’re going.
What about the anti-tank ammo? What would that do to another tank?
Penetrate another tank, yes. That’s what tanks fight tanks with. The HE [High Explosive] shells would explode but probably wouldn’t penetrate tanks. But the armoured piecing rounds, that’s what they were designed
When you say penetrate, what do you mean?
Go through the steel, yes. The Centurion tank was actually developed towards the end of the Second World War to combat the Panzer tanks, the Tigers and the tanks that the Germans had, the top German tanks. They rushed them into Germany but they just got there too late to test them. But the Israelis used them, great success,
um, that’s their main fighting vehicle, with the Six Day war and a couple of wars they had in Egypt, Syria, and all those there, they’ve upgraded them – they actually upgraded their Centurion tanks, put diesel engines in them, put bigger motors in them. But Australia didn’t, we just –we had an infrared light system on them so you could see at night time, night vision.
Which is another thing we need to go…
which is another thing we should go into. But the VC wouldn’t have had any of these kinds of tanks?
No. They didn’t.
Or the North Vietnamese army?
No. When the war sort of finished they had tanks come in there, but none while we were there. No, we were there basically as infantry support.
Yes. I think we’re at the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 05
Okay, thanks again Don. Can you explain to me the start up drill of coming to the tank and how you’d actually start up to move on a mission?
Right, we had what they call, well actually we had two drills, we had a last drill and first drill.
So first drill in the morning we were supposed to lift the hatches up, check the oil, check the water, check the fanbelts, and the same thing when you finish up at night, so you’d do the same thing but you’d do it at both times of the day, the beginning of the day and the end of the day. So any major works at night-time, that would generally entail fanbelts. In Australia the fanbelts used to cut out nearly every day, they’d do about one day and you’d have to go and change the fanbelt. But in Vietnam we had better quality fanbelts, so you might get a week out of them.
Because you’d have to change them when everything’s red hot, if the engine’s been running all day. That was a real good job, you’ve got to become an expert at doing it real quick otherwise, because it was too hot. And also night time we would adjust our brakes, every day we’d have to adjust the brakes, because the less movement you wanted in your levers, if you didn’t adjust them up, instead of just pulling your lever back about six inches, you’ve got to pull it back
bloody two feet, and that wouldn’t work real well and that sort of became real hard work. So it was important to know how to do these jobs.
Just concentrating a little on the fanbelts, with respect to the two fanbelts, the ones that you used in Australia and the ones you used in Vietnam, what was the difference between the two?
I think the ones we used in Australia were made in Australia, but a lot of the ones we used came from England. Spare parts were vital,
um, I’ve I’ve actually seen on the front wheels, well the front idler, the bloody bamboo and stuff actually gets in between where the spike of the tracks runs around through the idler. All the bloody rubbish and jungle stuff actually gets caught in there and actually splits the spikes on the idler, busts the idlers. And we’ve had to replace idlers, and we’ve actually seen them come back in there and they’ve got BOAC [British Overseas Airways Corporation] stickers on them, they’ve flown them straight from England, straight to Vietnam for us. But
you know, didn’t have any in Australia so they’ve had to bring spare parts in from the UK [United Kingdom].
Did it happen often or even occasionally where too much junk would get caught in the idler?
It happened fairly regularly, we used to have to chip it out and clean it out, but if for some reason or other it got caught in there and you didn’t have time to do it, or you couldn’t do it, yes, you’d just have to watch the idlers. But I think we only replaced them a couple of times when we were there. But it did happen, in Australia it never happened.
What about the fanbelt, were you
ever out halfway on a mission and it broke?
Yes, there were three belts in the fans, and each one – there’s two big – they had two fans, so there were three belts on each one, because basically you had to check them every morning and every night, so they were just about broken, there’d be great big cracks in them, but the outside layer would sort of hold it together. They would break but we used to change them before they broke.
So can you just explain to me, you can see the wear and tear on
So what are you looking for?
Cracks. You’d just see cracks in the belt, inside the v-belts, three v-belts, and if you look inside the v-belt inside you could see the crack in the v-part of the belt, it would crack. Because they were actually in between the engines and the transmission, the engine was in one compartment and the transmission or gearbox and brake drums, they were in the other part.
And the fans were in between the engine compartment and the transmission compartment. And the air would get sucked in over the motor, through the two fans, and the radiators folded down over the top of the gearbox, so that it’d blow back over the gearbox upwards, through the fan, then the transmission covers would then deflect the air out over the back.
So to actually
change the fanbelts you’d actually physically have to get outside to it?
Yes, yes. You had to open all the hatches up to do that, yes.
Right, okay. What was the second start up procedure, of drill?
No, that was basically the main drill, just to check the engine oils and everything like that. Start the motor up, make sure the thing was running okay, walk around the vehicle, if the tracks were slack you’d have to tighten them up at night time or during the day time if they’re working hard. It made them hard to drive if the tracks were real slack, it wouldn’t give you a real good ride.
If you kept your tracks fairly tight, and if you got into a really rough situation instead of slacking off you actually accelerated, you drove the tank. And the cogs went in on the back and up in the air, it would actually tighten the tank down onto the tracks, and that would sort of illuminate a lot of the bounce up and down. Because the tank is driving it, pulling itself down on the tracks as it drives. So yes, if you could do it that way you could keep it driving, instead of getting slack it would bounce. But to get the back of the tank
down to pull itself down, it’d tighten itself up.
Was there an emergency drill if you were under attack?
Yes, there were drills, but you took every situation on its own worth. You used – under infantry attack the vehicles would all come in like a huddle together, come in close together, support one another. It all depends where you were. At night time we used to harbour down for the night, we’d put the vehicles end to end, form a, like a tight hollow
square, so you got protection all the way around, and the crews sleep in the middle, in the area between the back of the vehicles, give yourself some protection there.
So occasionally you were out on a bivouac type thing where that was the case?
Every night, every night, yes. Unless we were in an ambush, if we did an ambush situation then we’d have the two vehicles, or three vehicles on the ambush front, and the other one pointing backwards to protect the rear.
So just set up for me an ambush scenario. What would you actually do and how would you actually lay out the battle position?
Well it all depends what you’re ambushing, we used to ambush – there were rivers there, large rivers, and we used to set up ambushes or set up observations and ambushes on the rivers. We’d drive down, the bank of the rivers was all scrub, and get in there and the tanks and things, you just sort of have a – basically as you said, the barrel just about pointing through it, but you could see over the scrub and stuff.
So we had two vehicles looking on the river, and the other vehicle out the back plus the engineers or the armoured recovery vehicle with us, they’d be on the back. And then you set up there and basically when nothing was happening on the river, we just sort of took it pretty easy, but you had a couple of blokes, a bloke on each tank during the day time. Same at night time, just to watch, observe all the time.
So sorry, just
for the landscape, if the river was here, could you sort of lay out where the tanks would be accordingly?
We generally tried to pick on a bend or somewhere where we could see well, get plenty of observation up and down the river, and you’d basically – the bank was pretty high, it was thirty or forty feet down to the water, so we’re just on this high bank and it’s all scrub. We came in and probably knocked down a little bit of bushes and stuff there just to make a bit of – so it’s clear between the vehicles,
particularly the back of the vehicles, so if you need to react you can get into the vehicles quickly. And set up there and watch. But on jungle trails and those sorts of things, well you just set up in an area where you’ve got the trail under observation. At night time we had starlight scopes, so we had one of them.
What are they?
They’re like a telescope, but they use starlight, intensified
starlight so you can see in the dark with them. And so you could see in the dark with starlight scope, and there’s no noise, you’d just look through them. It was sort of a greeny colour, quite sort of strange to look through. But you know, in a dark night you could still see quite well. But also with the infrared spotlight, we had a big red infrared spotlight on our vehicle, it would shine a white light, you know, a mile or so, and then you’d put an infrared cover over it, and it would still sort of
give you the same distance but you had to have a transformer thing that you had to look through to change infrared light back to a spectrum that you can see. So you had to have your auxiliary motor running to drive the generator to drive the bloody lights, so you had a noise, but you also, you just couldn’t be sitting there looking at the light, you couldn’t see it. So you had to look inside the turret. With the crew commander he had an
eye, an infrared receiver in one of his periscopes to look through to see that image.
Where were these lights positioned on the tank, on the turret or on the …?
Yes, on the turret, the big spotlight was onside the – on the front of the turret and it was on the mantel so it actually coincided with the gun, so if anything went wrong, if you reserved anything you could use the main armament or the
machine guns, and the spotlight if set up right, would be shining the spotlight exactly where the gun was pointed.
Were the lights effective or not?
Yes, they were very good. Yep. But as I say, the only disadvantage was of course once you had to start jobs generally you had a noise compound come in, so we never used them in ambushes, but we used to use the starlight scope.
Coming back to the ambushes, how many tanks would go out?
We had three, three tanks in the troop
plus an APC or a tank recovery vehicle, belonging to the RAEME, and they have a couple of mechanics there, so any breakdowns they would help us fix the vehicles up.
And what’s the infantry support?
Most of the time we were by ourselves. We travelled by ourselves, ambushed by ourselves, but other times we did do infantry support. Some of the times we used to carry the infantry around on the tank to get them somewhere
and drop them off. But yes, we didn’t get any fights with the infantry, we went through the bunker systems by ourselves, went into a ready reaction to support infantry in a bunker system and by the time we got there the Charlie had shot through. But the infantry had found this big bunker system late one afternoon and we got called in to help them.
So what would be your job in respect to the bunker system? Aren’t bunkers where you crawled through or walked through?
Some of them were,
some bunkers were like tunnels, but these ones were like fox holes, like the Second World War with the hole dug in the ground and logs and that sort of stuff, and bushes covered over the top of them so they were protected that way, and camouflaged from air strikes and whatever. But instead of the infantry going in there and getting shot up, well we went in there and basically destroyed the bunker system for them, with their support.
So you just fired shells in there?
Yes, fired shells in there too, and drove over them and knocked the trees down and just demolished the place, yes.
basically trying to collapse the system?
Yes, collapse the system, yes, and render it useless. And as I said earlier, you could chop the trees down with the canister rounds, but you could also push them over. So if they had a nice area and there was no-one there, you just pushed the trees over and there’d be nothing left. So yes.
Did you go through the fire drill of what you do in firing?
Firing the gun?
Yes. Sorry, I have to get a drink of water. The fire drill. When they had the Armoured Centre there the drivers, we had our what we call DNS and we’d learnt all about driving and servicing drill, but the gunners and the radio operators which went to the gunnery course, they learnt all their drill there. And basically the main armament or any of the machine guns or any of the weaponry, this is in an emergency situation,
extreme situation, they took their orders from the crew commander. So the crew commander identified the target, basically told the gunner, if it was a fair way away he’d give him the range or if we wanted to do what they call a ranging shot or whether they want to do a ranging gun – or machine gun shot. And basically told him to fire, and the gunner just called out, you know, firing now, so we all knew that it was firing, that would all come through the radios, so we knew
that it was going on. So there was this particular set drill and the main armament was fired. The loader then would select the round that was going to be fired, the commander probably would have known, the HE would have known if he was still firing HE, high explosive, so he loaded the gun and it had a little switch on the turret above his head, on the ceiling of the turret, and he’d have to flick that so the gunner couldn’t fire the gun before he was out of the way. So it was like a safety
switch, he didn’t want to ram the shell in there, because the gunner, in a good crew in a hurry could just hold his finger on the trigger and then as soon as the breach block was slammed shut, she would automatically fire. It was an electric driving pin that fired the shell, it was an electric firing mechanism in the shell. So if he bloody-well had his finger on the trigger, and the loader wasn’t a wake up, you know, the gun would
suddenly go off and recoil back at him, or sort of came past him. There was a cover around the back of the gun so it wouldn’t have hit him, but you know, she flies back fairly smartly and ejects the shell out in one motion. So yes, he had to make sure he unlocked the switch and he’d yell out, loaded, and just with the set of targets, so many rounds, the gunner would just yell out firing now and away he’d go, bang, and
(PAUSE) they’d load another one, flip the switch and load it, and firing now, and away you’d go, yes.
What’s the time lapse between how quickly you could fire?
Very quick. A good loader, it was only a matter of seconds, because while he’s singing out, as soon as he’s loaded, he’s grabbing the next shell. There was a basket on the side of the turret that held four shells. So yes, he had four, plus one up the spout, so he had five shells ready to
go, he could just – as soon as he could just grab them and slam them in and bang, the breech block would automatically fire shut. Grab his – flick his switch and grab another one as he’s yelling out load it. Yes, it’s only a few – yes real quick.
Forgive me, just so I understand correctly, the guy who’s got the switch, the safety switch, where is he in respect of the tank if that’s the …?
If he was facing the front of the tank, he’s on the left hand side, he’s on the opposite side to the gunner, and the crew commander, so
he’s so he’s basically got half the turret to himself. On one side of the turret he’s looking at the front of the tank, on the right hand side down below is the gunner, who traverses the gun, aims and fires the gun. The crew commander’s sort of directly behind him but up higher, standing behind him, or sits behind him, on the other side of the gun, the gun actually divides the turret in half, you can’t get around behind the gun because the back of the gun’s got a cage that goes out around it, so when the shell is ejected it flies out and hits the back of the cage and drops down into a
basket on the floor, because the floor of the turret doesn’t move, just he turret, just the gun moves. So you don’t want shells rolling around under there. Yes, if we got a bit filled up well you just had to grab the empty cases and heave them out of the top of turret, it did have a little hole on the back of the turret where you could put the expended shell out. But I think that’s always a bit of a danger because sometimes some of them go right out and actually jam the turret, so you just heave them
Were there ever any accidents in Vietnam or in training in respect to just firing the gun?
No, no, you had to be very careful what you were doing, yes. But I never saw any accidents, no. Everybody was aware of their job and what they were doing. By the time you got to the first line of firing they’d gone through a lot of training, they knew what they were doing. Well they thought they did. No, they did.
What sort of noise does it make inside the
the tank when it goes off? Have you all got ear muffs?
No, never had ear muffs, no. It was fairly noisy but it was more noisy outside. Yes, there is a fair wonk and a bang and a fair bit of noise when the shell’s ejected and it falls in. There’s noise all the time, rattling and clanking, yes. And a lot of yelling because you’re yelling at the top of your voice, you know, firing now, and load it, and all those things, it’s all yelled at the top of the voice.
Could you just take me through the noise of the actual gun firing? How would
Pretty hard to explain, but yes, it was very loud but it was sort of a muffled bang more than a sharp bang. But of course when you’re outside it’s a different sound all together because you were protected a bit from inside the turret from the direct noise. But then again it all depends what sort of round you were firing. If you were firing a HE round, it was not as loud as the armoured piercing shells, because the high explosive
shells are probably two thirds of the volume, might even be less, might be only half the volume of an armoured piercing round. The armoured piercing round’s got a true charge in it, the old tank rocks backward when they go off.
Yes, you’d be standing behind the tank or standing on the tank, you’d watch it when they fired an armoured piercing round, you can see the tank lurch backwards.
So after the initial explosion of the shell firing
out, would you hear it actually leave the tube?
You could hear it going through the air, especially the high explosive ones, it was sort of a whining, whistling sort of a noise, and of course all our shells had, what do you call it, phosphorous on the back of them, they were tracer rounds. So you could actually see like a big red light, and you could follow it, you could see the shell going all the way with the red light, burning
phosphorous heat. You’d see exactly where your shells were going. Not like a lot of artillery, they don’t fire tracer rounds. Machine guns have tracer rounds, and on the side of the tank – on the turret they actually had a fifty calibre machine gun, and it had a solenoid charge on it, it used to fire three rounds, and they were a tracer round plus they were what they call flash, they’d explode with a bright flash up the other end, and the sights had four dots on them. So you started on the top dot
and you put the dot on the target, this was up to two thousand yards, if you weren’t sure of the exact distances. And if you did what they call a ranging gun, which is a machine gun fifty calibre, you’d fire that and it goes boom, boom, boom, and he puts it up on the next dot and boom, boom, boom, and he does that and boom, boom, boom, then you can see the third lot of shots, which would be the third dot, hit the target, and all he had to say, the crew commander
say, you know say, you know, he’d fire the shell then, he’d say shell dot three on, and then the gunner would just put it down until the third dot was on the target, fire the main armament and the distance should be spot on, you’d get a hit first round with the main armament. But over two thousand yards we used to fire what they call a ranging shell, so it could be yards away on direct sight, you know, you’d say five hundred yards or something
like that, and he had a little scale thing and he’d set it, set the bubble, fire, and then he might have to say drop it up a bit, what do you do then, hit the target.
A ranging shell though is just a normal shell?
Yes, but ranging shell means that okay, you’ve got to find out what the range actually is. Might hit the target first, you might hit bang on the target first on, then you’ll just say, shell fire, she’s on target, he doesn’t need to adjust it.
The fifty calibre, is that just
solely a ranging instrument rather than a defensive instrument?
Yes, although I think I heard one of my mates talking about it, in hot situations there they’d grab the bloody – the loader who’s actually fired them, because the solenoid would only let three rounds go slowly, like, chung, boom, boom, and they’d just grab the bloody trigger and let half a bloody bullet go flat out. But that was in desperate situations. But it also had a thirty calibre machine gun, and it was co-axed with the fifty calibre and the main armament.
Where was that positioned?
Next to the fifty calibre, you’ve got the main armament, then next to the main armament was the fifty calibre, and next to that was the thirty calibre machine gun. So you could use the thirty calibre machine gun to spray around a bit, with the turret. And the troop commander, the crew commander, he actually had a thirty calibre machine gun on his cupola, next to him as well, so he had a thirty calibre. And we also
had our own personal weapons. Some of us – the driver was always lucky I thought, he always had a pistol, I couldn’t hit anything with the bloody thing, but it was always good to carry around, you looked like bloody John Wayne walking round with this pistol. And that was good, because some of us used to go out, had a holster and a belt and everything and I used to write it off, stick it in a bin and forget about it. When you got back to Nui Dat or somewhere you’d have a side arm with you all the time. So you’d go and get your pistol out and walk around a bit. Bloody
useless thing. But better than carrying a rifle around though.
So what did everyone else have?
A couple had rifles, and the crew commander had a pistol.
What rifles were they?
I think they had Armorlites actually, yes.
The American rifle.
Okay, just coming back to the sound that the shells make leaving the tube, you said one was a high whiz sound, just for my sake can you actually try and recreate the sound for me?
Well it sort of went boom and it sort of went (makes whistling noise) you could sort of hear it going (makes another whistling noise) going like that, sort of a whistling jetting sort of sound, yes. But with the armoured piercing round it was just boom, it was just bloody gone, you know? And then of course it never exploded, it’s solid, it was very impressive when you fire them at rifle ranges into dirt bunkers or old tanks or anything, it goes boom, just a huge
ball of fire and it’s hit the target and it’s gone through the – it’s hit, it’s ricocheted and you see it spinning away up in the air, and falls down, and yes, goes everywhere.
And then, so destroying the bunkers, just coming back to that, you’d come to a bunker, what would be the actual process? Would you check the layout of the ground, what would be the process?
Well basically moved into it, find out what was going on there, found the bunker and got up fairly close,
because you couldn’t use the sight because the gunner couldn’t see. So you’d point the barrel in the right direction and in some cases you just fired it, pointed it in the right direction and fired, let her go, because you were fairly close. But if you wanted to make sure and you were a little bit further away and you couldn’t sort of see it, sometimes before the operator loader loaded the main gun, he’d have a look down the barrel. So he could sort of see whether the barrel was pointing in the right direction. And that’s the other thing you had to do if we were doing what they call hold down. The hold of the tank is
below the ridge line, or a high ground line, and you just put the turret above the – so all you could see if anybody was looking at you, all they could see was just – if they could see it, was the turret and the gun. So if it was pretty close to the ground they’d have to get the loader operator to have a look down to see if the shell wasn’t going to hit the dirt just in front of the vehicle, which has happened at an odd time or two, which is a bit embarrassing.
What happens then?
Well, ra, ra, ra,
(laughs) luckily they don’t explode, if you’re lucky the HE doesn’t explode, it just ricochets, it sort of hits the ground and buzz, flies off somewhere in the air, lands down the paddock somewhere. As long as it doesn’t land in some old cocky’s [farmer’s] bloody dairy farm down the back, it was all right. So then somebody would get an earful over it, making sure, “But I did check it.” “You didn’t check it.”
So the shell wouldn’t, if that happened, actually bury itself straight into the
ground at all?
No, but nine times out of ten it just didn’t have enough bloody clearance. He’d look down and say, “She’s right, clear.” But she’s just flicked the bottom of the shell, she just didn’t quite make it. But if it’s going to stick in the ground well obviously the loader then would have got a perception that yes, it’s too close, the tank will have to go forward a little bit more to get the clearance.
Given the distance, is there a distance that a tank has to be away from its actual landing mark
(PAUSE) in case of sort of …?
No, not really. If you’ve got enemy that close what we use, we use the canister rounds, which is like a huge shotgun shell. It’s got about five hundred or six hundred bits of steel in it I think it is, and it just blows everything away. At Pucka down there we were one of the first ones to go through a gunnery shoot down there, and we had to do a drive, we had to start off and had to drive onto a ridge about
a mile or so away, and you had different targets on the way. And we were the first to go, and we went over this hill and here was this heap of these little bloody wooden soldier cut-outs under this tree, about twenty of them there. So the old troop leader, crew commander, “Canister round, and target. Fire, boom.” And that was the end of it, there wasn’t a bloody target left. They were supposed to do everybody. So we got into trouble, they said, “Next time don’t shoot at the targets, fire near the targets, but the canister round blew the lot of them
So what was its actual degree of width when it fired, and how far would it go forward?
Like a shotgun, so the further away it went the bigger the spread. So you know, five hundred or six hundred yards away, she’s a big beating zone there, we were starting to run out of power by then. So yes, basically a really good range was one hundred up to say three hundred yards. You need to be a distance away to get a spread, you know, like a beating zone, like a
shotgun, the further it gets the bigger the pattern gets.
Okay, when you’re going out on a mission, obviously you’ll know what the mission is, but how many shells can you take, and what variation of shells do you take with you?
In Vietnam basically most of our shell range was probably HE, had a good sprinkling of canister rounds and a few, I think we carried about fifty odd shells all together. A lot of them were in the floor,
there was a bin in front of the tank next to me, the operator loader could get at it while the gunner’s pointing at the front, I think that was about – what’s in there? Probably twenty of them in there or something like that. Yes, we probably – the ratio would probably be a bit over – probably half HE, then a quarter armoured pierce and a quarter canister rounds. So even though there were
no tanks there, we did use the armoured piercing shells to blow up bunkers and those sorts of things, yes. And that was discovered by accident, I think somebody was in a bunker system and for some reason or other stuck an armoured piercing shell into it and fired into the bunker, and she blew the bunker to pieces. He said, “That’s the way to go.” So it doesn’t explode but there’s just a huge shock wave off them because it’s such a colossal muzzle velocity.
So are bunkers just a flat piece of ground with as you say sort of trench-like things or
even tunnels in it, or are they in the side of a hill? What are they?
Where was the tank most effective? What type of bunker?
Dirt log and dirt bunkers yes. You just stuck an armoured piercing round into it and fired them into them, sort of cave them in. Most of the systems we were in were just straight out bunkers, they weren’t – well we weren’t going to get out and check them out to see whether there were tunnels.
but yes, one of my mates, he was a tunnel rat, and he used to go down in those tunnels, but no bloody way would I do that, nope.
I’m with you, my friend. Now just stepping back again, the ambushes. What are you actually hoping, or who are you actually – I mean obviously the VC, but trying to ambush? Is it troops, is it transports, what are you trying to do?
Well on the river there was boats and transports,
um, there was there was a really – one of the best ambushes they had there was before my time, the trooper tanks were out on this river, and the Americans were doing a big drive up the river, putting it under attack. And anyway that night these sampan barges came down the river, they came down on the hour every hour, and they got down there and the Australians with
the tanks just blew them out of the water. And once they got the first one they said that’s it, that’s it for the night. About an hour later, choong, choong, choong, down the bloody river comes another one, boom. But the only bit of excitement we had there, we were sitting on the side of the river and a bloody Yank patrol boat came down, and he decided to have a bit of a brass up and brassed up the bank where we were. We felt like sending them to the bottom of the water, but we didn’t. And anyway they got into trouble for brassing
things up. And then we got on the radio, “We’ve been under attack from bloody Yanks.” Anyway they got the message quick smart through to them and they got a kick in the backside. They thought it was a bit boring so they decided to have a bit of a brass up on the river. What were we having an ambush for? They didn’t know we were there.
So given obviously in this case you’re aiming for boats, you don’t have to fire a ranging shot for that, you can just hit them?
No, we’d hit them. Basically over say
for – up to one thousand yards sort of thing it’s flat. We’ve got a main aiming point, so the projector lies flat then so you’d hit it first shot.
What else besides boats are you aiming for?
Well as you said there, the main thing was to ambush Vietcong wandering around at night-time on tracks or day time on tracks, yes. That was the main sort of thing, trying to catch them.
But the biggest problem we had of course was our noise, our noise factor and our smell factor. Because hot mechanical smells, you could smell our vehicles. And noise. Even of a night time when you’ve been running the vehicle hot all day and you know what steel’s like at night time, it cools down and clicks and clicks and makes all these little peculiar noises as the vehicle is cooling down. So it was very hard to keep one hundred per cent silent. I know some
Australians did have some success with our tank ambushes.
Yes, but we were pretty – we had a pretty quiet time on our ambushes. But that’s sort of one of the reasons, you can smell, at night time you can smell the hot oil. There was always a peculiar smell, not that we didn’t wash them and clean them, we were very good boys that way, but you can understand with mechanical machinery like that it’s
yes, it probably – but the noise factor, we read reports of infantry, you know, they’re getting close into a contact and they called the tanks in, and as soon as the bloody Vietcong hear us coming they’re gone, they’re not going to hang around. They did take us on in a couple of places.
Where did they take you on?
They didn’t take our troop on, but there was a
major battle at – it was in Ba Ria there in the Tet offensive, but I don’t think the tanks were there – I’ll try and think of the place.
So you were saying, the tanks?
Yes, the Australian troops got called into its five support bases, there was Belmore, I think it was Belmore, five support bases,
Australians helped, the Vietcong attacked them there, the tanks were a great asset there in Ba Ria, no it wasn’t Ba Ria, I’m trying to think of the other place. But anyway, it didn’t worry us, we never sort of got into any contacts, pretty quiet.
The tunnel systems, are there any more stories surrounding you know, firing
and destroying tunnels, and what was your experience over that time?
I couldn’t actually say we had – there were tunnels in our bunker systems when we went in, maybe there weren’t. But as I said we went into a bunker system and blew it up and wrecked it and tore it to pieces. And a few days later somebody was talking to us, and infantry blokes who were in the same area there and they came in and spent the night with us, and they came in and said, “There was an air strike up there, where abouts”? And we just said
it wasn’t an air strike, it was us. God! We tore it apart, it just looked like an air strike.
So given different sizes of bunker and tunnel systems, how many shells would you fire in per sort of …?
It all depends, probably the tanks probably fired three or four, four or five each, all depends, and they just blow them up and manoeuvre around to make sure there’s no-one in there. If there’s no enemy there to attack us then we’d just go through and
just drive on some of them. So you’ve got your three vehicles there, so they’ve fired three or four shots each, that’s twelve, a dozen bunkers you can blow up real quick.
While you’re firing your gun is someone actually checking that the enemy is not coming up on you?
Yes, we’re on the move, we’re watching all the time.
So what was the process? One would fire, two would …?
No, we’d just move through together, maybe one vehicle at the front and the other two on the flank, and watching the flanks, moving in from the flank,
um, and, just watching all the time what was happening there. One of the blokes who had the best view was actually the driver, because I was down low, whereas the other crew sitting up high actually couldn’t see through the foliage some of the time. So yes, the driver has got an important role to play there that – down low I could see the opening of the bunkers and things, so a lot of the times I was actually directing the tank, where to – the gunner what to do and where to go. It was up to the crew commander what he fired into it. I’d say, there’s a bunker over
to the left there forty metres, and those sorts of things, because I could see it.
How are you identifying the bunker, just by…?
Yes, well I could talk to the gunner, you know, bunker forty metres there, and the crew commander couldn’t see it. Where? And I’d point the gun and I’d say traverse right on, can you see it, and he’d say yes, yes, so I could give them – direct with the gun, point the gun in the right direction.
So what are you actually looking for in the ground to identify a bunker?
Generally like a
a split, like a black line or a shadow or something, you know, you can sort of just see the difference in the foliage or the difference in the – like an opening. And a lot of the times they’re sort of covered up with leaves and green – sort of camouflaged and hidden. But once you know what you’re looking for you could see.
Okay, we’ll just stop there and change tapes.
Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 06
You were talking about the fact that when the VC heard the tanks coming they used to take off. Are you therefore saying that they had no tactics to try and take down or bring down a tank?
No, they had tactics there, they used to use a rocket grenade and launch it in RPGs against us,
but why would you stand round and fire a slingshot at a bloody steel monster? No, when they were taking fire support bases, yes, the tanks were there, they were fair dinkum, and they were trying to get in, but – especially in open, well they just flew. We actually were driving across some open country and there were about twelve Vietcong and they were about fifty yards from the line
of scrub, and you just couldn’t open fire on them, anybody, unless you were dead certain that they were, and of course they were five or six hundred yards away from us, we could see them, but by the time you go back to see that there was like ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam], the South Vietnamese forces, they could have been in that area as well. So you don’t just open fire unless you’ve come under fire and you can see they’re carrying the AK47 rifles,
and obviously were, well then you had an open go. But by the time we grabbed the radio call back, no, no friendlies in the area, they’d belted for their bloody lives and got into the scrub. But you know, we should have just hooked into it, from what we saw of it. No, one of the great fears it was from anybody up there to put friendly fire on somebody.
Did that ever happen?
It happened quite a lot, yes. Nothing happened to the armoured corps, but the
infantry, yes, it happened. Because even though we had jungle greens, when you’re wet, sweat, rain, green goes dark, light poor, looks black, yes, so that’s always a tragedy of war, one of the worst tragedies.
You’ve heard stories about this?
Heard of stories like that, yes.
One company of infantry had set up, a couple of platoons had set up their base or set up their harbour for the night, and the platoon was supposed to come in from the, say from the bloody west, and they got themselves a bit bloody lost and came in from the wrong direction, and yes, one of the blokes got shot, because he was coming from the wrong direction, they were wet and hadn’t changed their clothes for a week, and just looked black.
yes, so that’s the sort of tragedy that can happen, does happen. So that, you know, going back to the First World War, Sally’s great uncle, he was shot at Gallipoli by his own sentry, they challenged him and he was deaf, lost his hearing, couldn’t hear, so the sentry shot him. So it happens in all wars.
Given the tanks’ responsibilities in Vietnam, was it an
effective tool in jungle warfare or not?
It was, yes.
Probably the only thing that stopped us was actually bamboo, bamboo clumps, big bamboo clumps and that, you couldn’t – it was impregnable, you just couldn’t drive through that, but everywhere else we could go, even in the wet season, surprising to know where you could go. Admittedly we did get bogged down again. One of the worst bogs we got into was off a road in front of a village, one of our vehicles it just
just bloody nearly disappeared out of sight, and it took us about two days before we could get it out. We actually left it there overnight and the local ARVN, the local South Vietnam forces, they protected the vehicle there, we had to come back and get a lot more cables. I was the second vehicle, I got bogged, but they were able to pull me out, and the other one was too far away, we didn’t have enough cables to join them together to pull him out. But it was surprising where they could
go though, the ground pressure on them I think it was about eleven pound per square inch, which is a lot less now than our chair on the floor here. Yes, I think they were very effective and I know that some of my mates who are still in the infantry they have great respect for the tanks.
How did you actually get this tank out of the bog? What was the process and what machine pulled them out?
No, the tank just pulled him out,
yes. Probably hooked two tanks together, had a short cable between the two tanks and then ran a real long cable out, and onto the other vehicle and yes, we just pulled him out and take one rope off and just back, drive forward and pull him back out again, winched him out. On the what they call the recovery vehicle, it was actually a Centurion tank without a turret, and the engineers used to carry it. But it had a big winch on the back of it and it was specially designed for an armoured recovery vehicle, had a
couple of machine guns on it, that’s all it had. And sometimes they came with us. And this had a big winch cable and a spade sort of thing that used to just drop down so you’d dig into the ground to stop the vehicle pulling itself back, so it could be used to recover the other vehicles, and tow vehicles.
What was the most traumatic mission that you went on?
Probably none more than any other I don’t think, it’s just one hundred
per cent all the time. You never know when there are mines, you never knew when he was going to hit, you never knew when he was going to make contact, you just lived on your nerves all the time.
Was that the worst thing about the war?
Probably was, yes. You never knew where your enemy were, what was under the ground and what was around the corner. As I talked about earlier there, you know, the other wars there, you knew exactly where your enemy were, you never knew where anybody was.
There was always a fear that, we used to talk about what they call satchel charges, you know, people would be – you’d be driving up and down the road, there’d be motor bikes, trucks, cars, vehicles going by you, all they had to do was have a satchel or a knapsack or something like that full of high explosives, and all they had to do was just drive by and throw it up so, you know, try and get it in the hold of the tank. So they could drive right by and just throw it in the vehicle.
Are you saying that happened?
but it could have happened. We were always very wary of it, we always kept our eyes on things. That’s what I mean to say, when we were going down the road we used to take ninety-nine per cent of the road.
Besides using the armaments that you have, did you ever drive into the enemy and try and run them over such?
No. No, I was a good boy, I wouldn’t do that, much, no.
This tank wasn’t used for that purpose?
I think some of the other tanks may
have done, but I can’t speak for our troop, our troop wasn’t. But I think in bunker systems like that if they’d have been in there well it would have been tough luck Charlie, so you know, destroying bunker systems there probably were times when Australian tanks might have been used, and they might have been in there. But as far as I’m concerned, no we didn’t.
Was there a major engagement that you were involved in?
Not really, no. But
um, we seemed to be in the right place at the right time, as far as I was concerned. I thought, I’m going to come back a bloody live coward, not a bloody dead hero.
Were some of the boys in your corps cowboys, so to speak?
No. They were only there for one thing, and that was to do our job, yes. They – I believe carried out to a very high professional standard.
(PAUSE). No, it wasn’t gung ho or anything like that, we were bloody well there to do a job, and did it to the best of our ability, we weren’t there to show off or bloody yahoo or make idiots of ourselves. Because I think a lot of the things a lot of units have is pride in their unit. In the armoured corps we always wear a black beret and have great pride in our black beret, so not going to let the side of the team down.
When you were out on a
night ambush, was there a rotation sleep roster? How did that work?
Yes. Bloody hard. We were always tired, we used to do two hour shifts, you’d get four hours off then you’d go and do another two hour shift. But there used to be two of us on, two together then you had four hours off, so you used to have to swap around that way. But yes, two
hours is a long time, and you go back and you get four hours sleep, then back on again for another two hours. One of the worst sort of places to be in of course I reckon was in bloody rubber plantations, because the whole forest is full of fireflies, and every time you looked down the paddock, is that a firefly or is that somebody with a torch? And yes, the first few times in bloody rubber plantations – because it’s just like a
bloody thousand people dancing around with bloody candles, the fireflies, full of fireflies.
And when you got the opportunity to just sleep, did you sleep?
Yes, you’re just in a state of exhaustion most of the time. You know, you’re up before daylight and basically you don’t go to bed until after – if you got the first shift well you’re there from say ten o’clock, then you get four hours off again at two o’clock and it’s four o’clock again, so you
might go back and have an hour’s sleep and you’re at it again sort of thing, so you’re only looking at, you know, four, five hours sleep most nights. But sometimes you feel you just – well I remember one day that we were waiting for some infantry to catch up with us, so I just dropped the old – I didn’t bother getting out of my seat, I just dropped the old seat and used to lay back, I was having a lovely snooze there, and next thing somebody comes down and yells out, “You’re bloody well asleep, what are you doing”? We were looking for you. We’ve got to go now. “Oh, righto.” So you could sleep really
So where were the positions of watch, and where were the positions of sleep on the tank?
In the dry season we were pretty lucky, we had little bloody camp stretchers, we used just to throw them on the ground behind the vehicle. But on duty at night time it was in the turret, on top of tank, one would be in the crew commander’s side, which was the gunner’s side, so you’d climb down and use the guns from there, or the machine gun, the crew commander’s machine gun. And the other fellow would sit on the other side, on the loader side,
so if so if you needed to whack into it, well you just dropped down and load guns and those sorts of things. And also the radios, the one with the radios.
So there was no need to actually sleep inside the tank?
No, I slept in the tank a couple of times, on what we thought were pretty tricky ambushes, in pouring rain and we hadn’t set up, so yes, but no, we basically didn’t sleep in the tank.
And was it hard to stay awake during your watch?
Yes, terrible, yes.
What would you do? What would keep you awake?
Well the two of you there, we’re not supposed to talk, but we’d have a little quiet natter away to one another, if you could somebody you could talk to, just whisper away to one another there very gently and quiet, and keep it low, keep it down, but after a while there was always the fear that you’d go to sleep, so that’s why we actually had two people there to ensure that no-one did. So we used to
be on the go, on the alert, especially the second shift, yes very hard.
Was there ever a time or you heard of a time where crews did fall asleep?
No, no, if they did they never told me. No, I don’t think so. No, they were very good. As I said, it’s survival. But the nights up there, when the moon’s on, it’s sort of eerie,
the moonlight, but at night time when there’s no moon it’s just pitch dark, and as I said, the bloody fireflies flying around. And we used to have some little torches, like those little pencil torches, and they only shined a little small beam, well it could have been the whole bloody battalion of Vietcong marching out the front with one of those torches, you wouldn’t have known. But the skylight scopes, they were interesting. You’d look through them at night time but the fireflies they shone really bright, you could sort of nearly see them with the,
with the scope. So we used to keep an eye on them like that. The radios were very quiet, no-one chatted on the radios unless they wanted it.
If you slept for four hours and you were on watch for two hours, and there’s two up, two guys up, how does that actually work?
Well say you’ve got the three vehicles there, so there’s twelve, so you might only set up one place, or you set up two
places, if you’ve got a couple of blokes from – a couple of sappers with you, so they’d do guard duty with a couple of blokes from RAEME, so that sort of gives you thesixteen, so yes, probably the first guard mightn’t start until people start to settle down for the night, so you mightn’t actually start to – everybody’s on duty basically until well after dark, there’s a bit of twilight, not such a great light, it’s sort of light then bang, it’s dark, so once it was dark there’s nothing else you could do,
If you were going to attack a Centurion tank and try and blow it up, where was it’s weakness, where would you attack?
Don’t know. Probably the front idler wheel or somewhere like that, try and knock the tracks off it, that’d be about – yes, knock the track off it. Because you’ve got the right sort of gun, rocket and things, probably didn’t matter where you had it. But if you had a limited thing what you could do, was
yes, try and knock the track off them, they don’t go too far without a track. But they were designed as I said to combat the tigers and the top German tanks at the end of the Second World War.
What animals were you afraid of or annoyed you in respect of getting inside the tank or …?
Bloody ants. There were red ants, and they put leaves together, and they make a nest in there, mongrel
things, you hit a tree, the bloody nest would fall, and where’d it fall? Straight down the bloody driver’s compartment. And they’d bite the crap out of you. And they would hang on, and you would pull them off and their bloody heads would stop behind, that’s how they’d bite. Mongrel things. And we used to carry a tin of Mortein [insect repellant] and everybody would be smelling like stinking Mortein. Oh hello, you ran into an ants' nest, did you? They were mongrels. I hit one there one day and I just bloody screeched to a halt and I just leapt out, and
I pulled up and I couldn’t care if there ten thousand Vietcong there, no way was I hanging around. Bloody ants. Another experience we had there, we drove in the track and we were going to knock off for lunch or having a break or some bloody thing, and we drove into the scrub, only drove in about ten or fifteen yards off the track, and anyway we pulled up there, it was as thick as buggery in front of us there, couldn’t see a thing, just sort of got off the track. And anyway I was just getting out of the tank and the blokes are going, “Jesus, did you see what you
ran over”? I said, “No, what”? Got out there and walked back and here was this huge king cobra bloody snake laying where I ran over him. So luckily he was on the ground, he wasn’t in the bloody – up off the ground at all with his nose in the scrub. He was a massive bloody snake, he was about fourteen or fifteen foot long, he had a head on him, well as big as my bloody hand. Anyway, he had a bulge in him, because the
boys got a bit inquisitive, so someone gets a machete out and chops him up and he had a bloody lizard in him, about a four foot lizard inside this bloody cobra snake. Yes, I often think, now if he’d have been up in the trees, if he’d have come in and eaten me I would have been a gonner. That would have been equal to the red ants, I tell you, I’d have been out of there, I’d have let the tank drive itself.
So is that what happened to you? The ants' nest fell down on you?
Could you just talk us through what happened?
You only want to hear me suffer, don’t you?
(laughs) They were mongrels of things, they’d just munch into you. But I don’t whether they had a lockjaw or not, but they would just pierce the skin and they’d just chomp on to you, and they would not let go.
So tell me what you were doing? Just tell me the story.
Well we’d just finished up in an ambush and we were making off, and we were just driving along and I ended up in front or some bloody thing, and there was just a little shrubby tree there, so trees on the road are no object, so I hit the tree, and as I hit the tree this
bloody ants' nest just flew off the tree and dropped straight on my lap there and about five million little red ants, they weren’t little either, they were big. And the funny part of it was, when we were in Australia we used to train in our tank suits which were like overalls, button up overalls, but I don’t know why, in Vietnam we just had jungle greens, just you know, green trousers the same as infantry use. And of course you might have had one button done up on the front, it was that bloody hot, and as you can imagine, about five million ants going
down your shirt and all over you. So yes, I just knocked her into gear and just flew out. And luckily somebody heaved me down a can of Mortein and that did repel them a bit, they soaked up a can of Mortein over us. I was about five minutes there sorting these ruddy ants out.
And what were the rest of the boys doing?
Laughing of course. No, they were quite sympathetic because yes, sometimes if I hit a tree up high,
or branches over the top, yes, they’d cop it. And what else was the biggest problem? Mozzies [mosquitoes] of course, yes. The other funny sort of thing, there was a bird over there, used to make a bloody squarking noise all night, and it was with the bulldozers, were doing land clearing, so they pushed up
with the bulldozers, they have about five or six bulldozers there, and they just pushed up like a dam, and we just parked inside – there was a bank of dirt all the way round us, and we went off one morning there and they’d put the carriers in front of us. They had carriers, bulldozers and us. And this bloody APC carrier hit a mine and actually the fellow came from Armidale there, I know him quite well, and it blew the – the mines just blow those bloody APCs over. So it blew the APC over. He got medivac’d [medical evacuation by helicopter] out,
and anyway that sort of stuffed up the day by the time we pulled the bloody APC back up. So anyway we weren’t sure whether the mine was already there or did they come in that night and put the mine in there, while we were about half a kilometre away, or a mile or so away from where we were, we hit the mine. So anyway that night – we used to also carry what they call an M79 which is like an oversize shotgun, used to fire this – it
was actually referred to as a grenade, it was, and this shell, grenade thing, probably had a range of about four hundred or five hundred yards, I think. So we had one of them on the vehicle and anyway they said, we got to bloody – just to keep them buggers honest out there, let one or two of them off at night time and just fire them down in the general direction. Because they don’t make much noise when you fire them, you know, they sort of go whoof, and you hear boom up the other end there. Anyway, it was my turn on guard duty and this bloody bird up in this tree, squark, squark,
squark, squarking, squawking away. I’ll give you squark you mongrel, it’s about time I let one of those things off. I don’t know how far away he was, so I pointed in the general direction, whoof, boom, squark, he was gone. I don’t know whether I killed him or not, but he didn’t annoy me any more. You had to do funny things like that to amuse yourself, yes. We had some funny times at times.
What other sorts of funny things?
Bloody, it was pouring rain one night there, we had our
tarpaulin and tent up underneath it in there, and this stupid mate of mine, he was the gunner, our crew commander or the troop commander was a lieuy [lieutenant], anyway he’s laying on his bunk, it’s red hot pouring bloody rain, pitch dark, and anyway ruddy Hutchy found a heap of twigs with a few leaves on, so he goes over and he keeps flapping these wet soggy leaves on our lieuy, and he says, “Bloody frogs, frogs jumping all over me, bloody frogs, can’t sleep.”
And then he finally woke up and after about five minutes of this he finally grabbed hold of it and he worked out it was bloody Hutchy whacking him with this damned stick. He was going to kill him. Bloody frogs, it wasn’t a frog at all.
And what jokes were played on you?
Just the usual one I suppose, not too bad though, yes.
What’s a usual one?
I can’t remember any off hand, but it’s just good comradeship things,
yes. But we’d do stints out in the scrub and then we’d come back and we’d have three of four days back at Nui Dat and that’s when we used to do maintenance on our vehicles, major maintenance on our vehicles, if the clutch was getting a bit dickie we’d replace the clutch and those sorts of things.
So how long were you out for?
Three, four weeks at a time.
Really? That long?
So where would you store your food, and what food would you …?
We had to get resupplied every day, because you know, the amount of gallons of fuel that was coming through.
Resupplied with fuel and food?
Yes. We were actually on American rations, Australian infantry ate Australian rations, but we ate American rations, and American rations came in a box, it’d be two foot six by eighteen inches wide, and it had these little boxes in it, and each little
box was a meal. Whereas Australians had a one-day pack and they were sort of, you know, a foot by nine inches I suppose, and that was a meal, a day’s meal. We used to get American rations, and when we first started, this is good you know, you’d get tinned turkey and omelettes and a little tin of peaches. But after a while, bloody omelettes again, oh God. But
it kept us alive. But every day we’d have to be resupplied. Sometimes the Chinooks choppers would fly fuel into us, they use to use – they had five hundred gallon bladders, big rubber bladders, and they used to fly them in and drop them off and we used to carry a petrol pump on the back of our tank. So you’d have to hook it on, fuel ourselves up, pull it up. Sometimes they’d bring in hot box meals to us if it got late in the afternoon, we’d organise it. So we basically saw resupplies every day.
Hardly ever went two days, sometimes we did, if we could be in a place where no-one could get to us.
Just coming back to the Yanks’ food, are you just saying it was repetitive?
So what variation did you have?
There wasn’t any variation at all, there was about four or five different basic – that was the change, and you couldn’t do anything with it. Australian rations had one day, and they also
had like what they call a twelve-day ration box, and you’d get tins of stew and meat and peas and beans, and all that sort of stuff and you could get a pot and you could throw the whole lot in and it makes another – terrible looking bloody stew but it was quite tasty. So you could combine it all, but the American stuff you couldn’t get your little can of turkey and your little can of omelette, you couldn’t sort of mix it up to make a stew. So that was the sort of thing, we basically ate what was in there and that was it, you couldn’t,
you couldn’t vary it at all, but you could vary what you had, but there was only so many varieties. Do you get what I mean?
So you’re saying the Australian packs were actually better?
They were in one way, yes. But of course we had the room, you know, we could get five or six cartons and throw it on the bloody back of the tank, we had a big cage around the back of the turret and that food and water and that sort of stuff in it there.
Would you at all worry about your rubbish, like pick it up so the enemy
wouldn’t know where you were?
So what would you do after you’ve eaten a meal and you were clearing out to somewhere else?
You’d just put it in bags and actually chuck them on the tank, keep it, yes, look mate, we were a bloody tidy, none of this bloody Cleanup Australia mob, I tell you.
But what was the point of cleaning up?
Well as I was talking earlier about those mines, the switches on the mines, all they needed was a bloody baked bean tin and, you know, plenty of tins around, but why leave it around? You know,
set it up with a booby trap, get a tin of baked beans, put some – slip a grenade, take the pin out of a grenade, slip a grenade into it, tie a piece of thin wire, you know, trip cord wire across a couple of trees, and all you’ve got to do is somebody just comes along, kick it, pulls the bloody grenade out of the tin, no pin in the grenade, five seconds or six seconds, whatever it is, boom, off goes the grenade. So yes, you didn’t leave anything to chance, because everything you left, somebody else’s rubbish was somebody’s
bloody, yes, means of killing you, or maiming you. So we used to pick everything up and take it with us.
The saying was therefore more true obviously with your rubbish there?
Yes. And batteries were one of the biggest things that – if you had a battery, you know, some of us had little radios sort of thing, or a camera or something like that, if your battery went flat you never threw your battery away because
it only it only takes a weeny little bit of electric charge to set an electric det [detonator] off. So you just hung onto everything.
Coming back to being supplied each day, you spoke about the Chinook I think, coming and bringing petrol, was it a Chinook that brought your petrol and your food every day, or was it a variety of vehicles?
A variety of vehicles, yes. If we were well out in the scrub and that, the Chinook heavy lift ones had to come in and bring the fuel in for us.
Um, if we were near a road they – from the regiment or Nui Dat the truck would come out with a couple of bladders of fuel on it for us, plus maybe bring us back a hot box meal. We were pretty lucky that we could have a change of clothes every day, because we had so much water, we had fifteen, twenty four gallon jerry cans on our vehicle, and we used to carry a little bloody canvas shower thing around, when it was permitted, you know, we’d just swing
the gun out to the side and hook the bloody – drop the gun down, hook the shower bucket on, tip some hot water in off the bloody – sitting on the back of the motor of the tank, have a nice hot shower, put clean clothes on. Poor old grunts, they thought we were God, they’d been out for a week or two and then they’d catch up with us, “Would you guys like a shower”? “Oh, would we what.” Yeah, have a shower. I don’t know if the boys in the cavalry knew what we were doing. Stick the bloody shower out for them. “But mate, you can only
have about two gallons of water.” “Two gallons of water?” That was like two hundred gallons of water. We used to feel sorry for them, they did it tough.
And what did they call you?
No, I think they just called us tankies, yes, turret heads.
But you were saying to me earlier about joining the armoured corps.
Yes, well why wouldn’t you want to join the armoured corps? No look, that’s the way to go I think, the armoured corps, great life. And
why would you bloody slug and carry everything around when you can drive round and carry it around?
Coming back to being resupplied, aren’t you giving your position away the whole time, if you’re supplied each day? What was the thinking behind that?
Well when you’re using probably five or six gallons of fuel for a couple of – for a mile, you’re not going to last too long, so we’ve just got to have our resupplies.
So how big was the tank in the tank, if you like, the petrol tank?
We had a one hundred gallon tank that used to be on the back of the tank, which was an auxiliary
one, and I think there was another one hundred and sixty gallons, so we had about two hundred, nearly three hundred gallons of fuel. But you know, we were going gallons to the mile, it’s not miles to gallons. So heavy going, first gear, second gear, second gear mainly, first gear was super low gear. And you’re running all day, you basically full revs all day. So you know, you’re just going through the fuel. And we needed water and those
sorts of things too, top up, keep things going. They’re a big machine to keep running.
Was your crew close? Would you regard them as great friends and …?
Yes. But unfortunately with the armoured corps being such a – I don’t like to use the word select, but coming from a small body throughout Australia, my crew, because we had, the
crew commander was in Canberra and the gunner he was in Young, and the other radio operator, the radio operators and gunners used to swap around a bit, so those two fellows, one was down in Victoria somewhere, I haven’t heard from him for a long time. No, we were really close.
So when were you put together? In Vietnam or back at training camp?
We sort trained together, crews were swapped around a bit, but when I first went to
Vietnam I drove for the sergeant for a little while and then I then took over and drove for the troop commander.
So where were you – is that the first time you met the troop commander?
No, I drove for him in Australia. So he went over there and he had – his driver moved, his time was up, he came back to Australia for some reason or other and anyway so yes, I back on with him then. Don’t want to sound like I’m skiting, but the driver for the troop commander is probably the hardest job in the troop,
because we’re basically a three-man crew, because the troop commander, he’s off getting sit-reps [situation reports] and orders you know, and what planning and all those things, so there’s three of us on that vehicle, whereas the other crew are a four-man crew, even though the crew commander might be doing certain things, but he’d be helping the other crew. But on the troop leader’s vehicle, yes, it was full on. Well I used to do all the servicing
and do all the greasing and everything like that on the vehicle, used to read the rose wheels and take links out of tracks, and all those sorts of things. Some of the other crew used to help me but yes, it was very busy.
That was one extra role you had. Were there other extra roles you had to take on?
Yes, probably doing radio duty with the other – share round with the other crew. The crew commander would be off talking to the other
crews or talking to the infantry and things, and so there’s just basically three on the tank so yes, used to take my turn there as well, even though I wasn’t officially trained as a radio operator, but I certainly picked it all up and knew my alphabet, my Alpha, Charlie Delta and all those sorts of things, so had a gift of that, it was pretty simple to pick up.
Did you have a code name, your group or your tank?
Yes, yes. Tango, as in tank, that was our name,
and it was in Three Troop, Tango three, or Tango four was the troop where the troop number was, then it was Tango four which is the troop leader’s vehicle and Tango Alfa was the sergeant’s vehicle. Or Tango four, three, hang on, I’ll get it right. Tango four Alfa was the sergeant, Tango four Bravo was the corporal, and Tango four Charlie, so yes, they all have code names and code signs,
radio code signs, so I knew what they were.
So if you wanted to contact the sergeant’s tank, would you dial him like on the radio or …?
Just call him – everybody’s on the radio, so you call him up. “Tango 4 Alfa, Tango 4 over,” so you give the call sign that you want to talk to, and the call sign that you are, and they just come back and say, “Tango 4 go,” and away you go then, you say, we need to go across here and travel left
over there and park near that rise there, or you know, whatever you’re doing in the mission. Roger.
Given the noise, the sound or even equipment, radio equipment problems, was there signs that you used, hand signals you used to give each other?
No, not really, most of us were fairly polite. No, no, the radio worked pretty well actually. You used hand signal sometimes if you wanted –
you know, when the vehicle’s alongside you or you’re parking at night time, you know, give him a signal that you’re there sort of thing, so you’re just there and they watch you and you know what they were doing. But when you sort of do it every night, everybody knows their positions, there’s the troop leader, we were always the second vehicle, the corporal – one of the corporal vehicles was always the first vehicle, so he’d drive into, you know, the troop leader would say,”Righto, we’ll harbour here for the night, and go left
left two hundred metres whatever it is, and we’ll harbour here for the night,” and so you’d just go into position, and we’d go straight in, the other one would come in and the other fellow would come in and just spin around back in onto us, so we knew where we were going.
So two tanks facing the front, one facing the rear?
Basically more into like a cross, so one came in, the first one would just do a left wheel, we’d come in square with him, the other fellow would come in and do a right wheel square with us, the other fellow would come around and do a three sixty and just back in.
So there was the sergeant’s
tank, the commander’s…?
Yes, he was the lieutenant.
The lieutenant’s tank, and then …?
Two corporals. Was the leading tank a corporal tank for the purpose of it would get taken out first?
Basically. No, I think the corporal tank was – because he would follow directions, he’d know what he was doing, the
sergeant’s tank’s generally down the back so you had somebody of authority at the back if anything goes wrong at that end. So you haven’t divided your power that much.
Okay. Was there ever an engagement that you were in, and just putting obviously mines aside, where a tank got attacked or even men got injured and killed?
No, no. Didn’t have an experience like that.
Yes, even saying that, you know, you’re still sort of under stress all the time, because as I said, you never knew when it was going to happen, what was going to happen, seeing your mates getting blown up and burnt in the tank that caught fire and what have you. I hit a small mine, hit a mine, but it didn’t bust the tank or tracks or anything, so that was pretty lucky. I think it was probably an anti-personnel mine, and didn’t do any damage. So you never knew where it was
or when it was, what was going to happen.
Given that in the case of a tank, there’s four of you working in a confined situation, how did relationships go? I’m sure you weren’t all buddy buddy the whole time?
No, surprisingly we were, yes. I don’t think we ever had an argument or barney or blue with anybody, no, worked really well. And I think that’s one of the things that your training does for you, you know, you end up working as a crew and if there is any sort of friction people pick it up so they swap crews around a
little bit. No, we never had a barney [fight] at all. One of the things we used to spend a fair bit of time on when we had free time was we used to play cards, and that sort of, you know, five hundred card games or – one way we used to relax. You end up in a fire support base and there’s infantry around and there’s nothing to do, so you go and play cards.
Did you ever drive or look into the American tanks?
I never had a drive of them but I had a look inside of some of them, yes. We ended up with an American,
what do they call them, cavalry units came down to where we were, there was a new road getting built there and we were just alongside the road and they came. You know, their equipment was bloody – we just had three tanks and our recovery vehicle, and they turn up there with about forty tanks and twenty trucks and APCs by the score, there’s probably one hundred and fifty vehicles there, it’s like what they called a regiment or unit, or whatever they do, cav regiment, yes. And
yes, their tanks were in the lead and they had a little, I think they called it a Sherman tank, it was only a little – it had a huge gun on it, it had about one hundred and fifty one hundred and fifty, two hundred millimetre gun on it, but it was only a small tank, I think it could have even been amphibious, I’m not sure. But it was, yes – and they were building this road and some of these Yanks wanted to go for a drive on it and the old lieuy said, “Come on, we’ll take them for a drive.” So they hopped on and we just burbled down the road about three hundred or four hundred metres and
turned around and came back and there’s rocks and stuff all over the road, there’s big boulders, and I just hooked it into top gear and we would just rock over these rocks and things, lurching around a bit, we weren’t hardly moving. Came back and pulled up there and they said, “Goddamn it, we couldn’t even drive on that road, let alone go at that speed.” They were amazed at this old Second World War vehicle, with their modern stuff, yeah it killed them. You know, travel over anything just about,
the ride of it.
Interviewee: Don Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 07
So just coming back to the American tanks, are you saying the Centurion was a better tank than the Sherman?
Yes, I don’t know about their M60, that was one of their main battle tanks, I didn’t see one of them, but these are only little tanks, yes. And basically for us what we want, just digressing there, one of the interesting things that struck all the Australians was that we were very
close as a troop, as a group, a whole unit. But the Americans there, we found that they turned up there, maybe it was a sign of the times what it was then, but there was a lot of negroes and a lot of whites in the American unit. The negroes went one way and the whites went one way, and we’re not realising that, so the Yanks said, “Come over and have a – you guys come and have tea with us tonight, we’ve got some goddamn good food here.” Yeah, righto. So we go over there and we get
all this goddamn good food, so we just wander back and there’s a heap of bloody black fellas sitting there, big negroes sitting there, so we just wandered over and we sit down and we start talking to them, and all the white blokes, they’ve got their meals and they’re walking around giving us a dirty look. It took us a while to wake up that you know, we weren’t supposed to be talking to them guys, we’re supposed to be talking to them goddamn guys over there. But man, they don’t call them negroes or any of those racial names, called them sir, they’re all about six foot six and weigh about two hundred and fifty
pound, and fit, geez, bloody big men. I wouldn’t given them bastards cheek, I tell you. And we didn’t either. So anyway the next night they invited us over there, we went, we’ve got it, and we all went back and sat down at our own vehicles and thought, we’ll sit back over here. But there were great you know? The Yanks talked to us, they were – but there was this distinctive group that yes, I think their black crews and white crews didn’t seem to mix up too much. Maybe they did
but they seemed to be segregated
What did you think of them as a fighting force?
Oh yeah I think they’re very good. I think to myself at times they – not that we were involved with them at all but yes, they were good, the soldiers were a bit bloody stupid at times, but some of the individual units were better than others, I don’t really know. But yes, we respected them for what they were doing, they were the same as us, they were,
they were putting their goddamn ass on the line like we were.
So there wasn’t much talk at Nui Dat about the Americans and …?
No, no, actually after they left us they actually did go down to Nui Dat, and they stopped a couple of nights there and they got into the Aussie grog, well they reckon they were bloody drunk and stupid, the Yanks walking around everywhere because our grog’s about half as strong again as theirs, what do they call it, Budweiser or whatever the bloody stuff they drink, it’s terrible grog. And anyway geez they liked our VB [Victoria Bitter] man.
(laughs), all these plastered Yanks everywhere the next morning, still.
Did you ever have to call on the Yanks for support?
Oh yes, air support.
So when would you do that?
When we needed them, they’d come in, yes.
What would be the situation?
We were in a fire support base. And not long after we got there – we just basically turned up there and the Vietcong were seen about five hundred yards in front of us there,
and in about ten minutes these bloody super sabres these Yanks had, they came screeching in at treetop level and bloody napalm and bombs going everywhere there. This is war here man, yes, they’d just turn up out of the sky anywhere. Ended up towards our tour there in Vietnam there was a fair sort of a contact went on in the Long Hai mountains , and took about two
days, but they called in a B52 strike, and we couldn’t see it and we knew it was coming, they said it’d be five o’clock in the morning. And anyway five o’clock in the morning it was just like this huge roll of thunder, this B52 strike went in, it was just awesome, the power of it. You know, when these Sabres come in there, the 105s or the fighters or whatever they were, Phantoms, I’ve seen them doing bombing runs, you know, they
fly in, there’d be a couple of bombs and boom, boom, and then they’d roar off with their after burners going and they’re gone. With this bloody B52 strike it went on for about half a minute, you know, just one roar, yes. Bloody hard to – bit hard to explain, but it wasn’t a bomb attack, it wasn’t boom, boom, boom, it was just brrrrrrrr, just roared, about half a minute of it, there was about three bombers went through there. They were sort of the awesome fire power there.
And about two days later they were finding bloody Vietcong wandering around in bloody rice paddies there, you know, three or four kilometres away, just had no idea where they were. One of the helicopters came in and landed there and there was a Vietcong wandering around, he had no idea where he was, he was bloody deaf and they literally shit themselves when the hear a bloody jet bomber going over, yes. So the firepower’s frightening that way.
Talk me through
then the actual events when you called in this Sabre. Like why didn’t you just progress forward and when did you notice the enemy?
There was thick jungle, so instead of putting the grunts in there or putting the tanks in there, it was just as easy to call in an air strike, they knew exactly – they knew where they were, and the bombing mission was pretty well spot on, they had good coordination, they had good directives of where to
go. That’s one thing about it, they were pretty well spot on. There was always fighter bombers in the air, always. But if they take off there mightn’t – a lot of them are all on pre-planned missions, but there’d always be some there in such a situation like that. If you’ve got a sticky situation well why put men in there when you can just call up for air support? They’re probably just hovering around in the sky somewhere, you know, they’re only bloody – might be one hundred kilometres away, but it’s only a few minutes away, the
speed they were travelling. And they’d just come screeching straight down, whack, whack, and a bloody ball of fire and smoke and flames and they’d roll it over and sort of hit the after fire burners and bang, they’re gone. Instant response pretty well.
So in this particular case, once they’d bombed, did you progress forward?
No, no. I think the infantry might have went in there a couple of days later, but they didn’t go in there then. No,
the risk was probably too high, especially in a thick jungle situation like that. If they were there they weren’t there no more. So why worry about it?
So are you therefore saying to me that with the infantry, you guys didn’t go round picking a fight as such?
We did, we didn’t, yes. But in sort of situations like that well you call in the air power,
um, you’ve either got them or they’ve shot through. So they’re not going to hang around anyway. So I think – you wouldn’t notice, see they could have even had SAS [Special Air Service] in there you see, you wouldn’t know who was in, who spotted them, called in the air strikes.
Tell me the story of when you did run over the mine and what happened there.
We were just choofing along and anyway there was just a bloody explosion, you could feel concussion in the tank, even if there was an artillery barrage going, and it might be down three or four kilometres away, you could actually feel the
concussion of it, sort of phwoof, phwoof, you know, on to you? So anyway you just felt this phwoof concussion and a bang. Anyway the old troop commander said, “Oh yes, we just hit a mine.” So I screeched to a halt and, I said, “Okay”? He said, “Yes, it hasn’t done any damage here,” and then he talks to the vehicle behind us, said, “Oh no, it just went off as an explosion underneath the track
there, it mustn’t have been over large, but it didn’t – righto, away we go.” But you’ve got to put a mine report in, so he radios in and says, you know, “Tango four hit a mine.”
You weren’t concerned that there was worse up the road?
Not really, because we got off the road then. We probably weren’t on the road but we came in, there were some – we were actually in a situation there, there were some grunts copping a bit of a bad time up in this big valley in between these hills, it wasn’t on the
Long Hai’s, it was on the other hills there, and they wanted us to do a shoot for them, but an indirect shoot like artillery, but that’s very, very dicey, we probably haven’t got enough accuracy, and we’re not really – we were trained for direct firing, indirect firing which is shooting over a hill at a target. But anyway the squadron leader basically told us no, don’t do it because it’s too
risky, and the last thing you need is to drop one short onto the grunts. So we were in there watching them and they actually came back out, they pulled out and came out. And we were there in case they got into contact, getting out. So we waited there for about half a day until they got out of there, and we just wheeled around and we were just driving off when I hit the mine, yes.
So just coming back to the grunts in contact, are you saying that they wanted to give you
coordinates for you to fire on to?
Yes, yes. That’s sort of an artillery job, we could probably have done it, but you couldn’t guarantee one hundred per cent accuracy, or one hundred per cent – they were sort of saying it was, you know, giving their position and then they were saying you know, it’s five hundred yards in front of us or whatever it was. It’s up in this hilly terrain, whether you take
the hill into it or whether it’s five hundred yards as the shell flies, or five hundred yards as they’d walk, and there was a risk. They were not under direct attack at that time, and so we got our troop commander to actually call up our squadron, and our squadron leader said no, best not to do, he said don’t run the risk, he said just stop there, and if they get into trouble getting out then you might have to. But don’t
go and do it if you don’t have to. He said if you’re not one hundred per cent sure. And anyway, one of the worst dramas we could ever have is firing on or hurting your own troops. So we just stopped there and they pulled out and got out. It’s up a sort of real deep, like a bloody gully gorge sort of thing, between these two hills.
Just exploring this a little further in respect to the troops withdrawing back, are you
saying that the artillery are actually more accurate than a tank is?
Yes, yes, by far.
Why is that? I thought tanks in a sense were almost mobile artillery.
Artillery have got better ways of setting themselves up, getting exact positions and bearings, our bearings are probably just compass bearings, and degree bearings, but you’ve got to know exactly where you are, and no, artillery is far superior than us, we’re not,
not designed I don’t think tanks are designed – no they’re not, they’re not designed to be an artillery piece. The Americans have got vehicles, mobile guns, which are tracked vehicles, but they are actually artillery. So they’re far more accurate, far superior accuracy than what tanks were as far as indirect shooting. If there were no bloody friendlies in there, so oh yeah, whack a few shells there, if somebody’s up on the hill there, you know way over to the left there looking down on
it with a pair of binoculars or something, yes, that might be a different story. But if anyone fired within say five hundred yards or two hundred yards next to them, we couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t bloody hurt them.
Because part of the problem is you’ve got to work out accurately your position as well?
Yes, yes, that’s right. And we’ve got to know exactly where we are, even looking at maps, you know, you might be out, even on maps you could be out fifty metres on a map, and then we’ve got to work out angles,
ah, the gun has got to be at a certain angle for the range, up and down, the tank would have to be set up properly, yes, we just didn’t do it.
So there was never a time that you did actually fire to a point which was called upon?
No, no. Other troops fired on targets, identified targets, but there was no-one near them.
um, actually down the Long Hai’s there was a cave there, and one of the young fellows was telling me about it, they fired onto this cave opening, but unbeknown to them the bloody thing was just a cave that went into one side of the hill and out the other side, it was very deep through. So the shot was a real beauty, it went straight in the cave and went straight out the other side and took off down the paddocks heading towards some village. So they said, “We won’t do that any more.” So they were too good a shots, yes. But that was by
sight shooting with the sight and not by, as I was trying to say, the indirect shooting. But they were accurate. When you could see what you were shooting at.
Nui Dat. What was it like living there and returning to base?
Pretty good, yes. It’s always – 1970 probably wasn’t too bad early on there, I think the risk of mortar attack and those sorts of things was very high. It wasn’t too bad, it was quite comfortable and the main thing we had
(PAUSE) we just lived in tents which were sandbagged up about four foot high, and we had sort of beds with just a mattress, a wrought iron bed with a mattress on it, and the gear you didn’t want you’d leave it. But you’d come back and everything was covered in dust, because where we were half the squadron was in a rubber
plantation, and of course guess where we were? Yes, out in the open, next to the road, the road went out the back, what they call the horseshoe. So we were next to the road there and came back and bloody dust and everything was over it. But it was good to go back and maybe get a couple of days R and R, go down to Vung Tau and get on the grog down there, then come back. But most of the time we were in there we were doing major vehicle
Who would you share your tent with, or would you have …?
Crew. Same tank crew, except for the lieuy, he used to – he had a tent, him and the sergeant had a tent, so there were only the three of us in our tent. But the other crew, there’s the corporals, the four crews with the sergeant and the lieuy, they had a tent for themselves. But there were only three of us in our tent, yes, that was all.
Was there much theft in the unit?
No. What do you thieve? Nothing to thieve?
No, had it secure, there were some civilians in there, civilians, Vietnamese in there, down the other side there, there was a little barber shop set up there, and the Vietnamese use to come and cut hair and things. But no, it was – nothing to bloody thieve anyway. You didn’t want to thieve somebody’s worn out jocks, did you?
But surely guys brought they own things from Australia or they also bought local stuff?
would – you’d buy the stuff just before you come home, you know, you get a day off before you go home, you go to American PX [Post Exchange – American canteen unit] and you buy the stock up then. When I first got over there I bought a camera, so I carted a camera around in the vehicle with me, took a heap of slides, in those days. But we couldn’t leave it back in the tent anyway because it was just covered in dust and dirt, so it’d be ruined before you got it home. Although some of them were saying that – there was actually some who
stopped at the squadron headquarters and never went out, like those who ran the headquarters, radios and all those sorts of things, looked after the Q [Quartermaster] store and supplies, so there was always people there, I think they may have had – some of them had tape recorders and those sorts of stuff. But none of us in our troop did anyway.
What about stealing army surplus stuff to sell on the black market?
No, no. Mate, we never had enough bloody surplus for ourselves, let alone have surplus to flog off to the
black market. But you know, dare I say frontline troops, so I don’t know what happened to the rest of it. No, I don’t think there was, no.
And the Australians wouldn’t nick anything from the Americans?
No, because that’s the only time we ever saw the Americans, as I said when they came in to where we were and they were there for a couple of days and they choofed off, that’s the only time we ever saw them. But the Americans I think were pretty good, with the supplies and things,
yes, there’s no dramas there I don’t think. If you wanted a new engine for your helicopter, they’d just give you a bloody new helicopter, the stories you hear. But whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But see they were supplying us with food, fuel and those sorts of essentials, but of course our spare parts being British, either came from Australia or came from England, as I said about the wheels being flown straight out. And also on the side of the tank were bins, and they were a bit susceptible to getting
wiped off on the tree, if you were going to wipe a bin off make sure you didn’t wipe your own bin off, wipe somebody else’s bin off. So they used to be brought straight in from England. The APCs I think the Americans looked after them pretty well with supplies, but the tanks, we weren’t dependent on the British at all – on the Americans at all, just on the British.
Was Nui Dat ever attacked by mortars while you were there?
No, not while I was there it wasn’t, no.
So it was a pretty quiet place to be when I was there.
Did blokes get along, given the – I mean how big’s the area?
I don’t there, there was basically the three battalions there plus the APCs, there were helicopters and tanks, there was a big workshop there for fixing up APCs, trucks, tanks, yes, it was a pretty big area. I think there was probably – I think at any time, I think the best they ever got of Australians
ah, nearly one time there was about eight thousand men there. I think that’s the highest we had, and everybody was there. It built up to that level then tapered back off that level.
I understand that actually during 1970 the sergeants were riding everyone pretty hard? Is that your experience?
No, no. Not in our unit, no,
um, we sort of had an advantage being in the troop commander’s vehicle, because now and again he’d have a bit of a blitz on people not cleaning their boots. We used to still shave every day and didn’t clean our boots sometime, so the old trooper he’d be out and he’s got the boot polish out and he’s polishing his boots, come on guys, “Yep, righto,” and you’d see everybody out polishing their boots. “Boot inspection! That’s good fellows, I see you’re all looking after your boots.” It’s only
(laughs) because, you know, we’d watch him, he’s cleaning his boots boys, it’s on. Get the polish out, bash a bit of polish on it and get the other guys to be seeing you. Watch out, she’s on.
So if you didn’t care for your boots, what was the punishment?
You’d just get a bit of a rap over the knuckles, you know. Come on, put some boot polish on there. But nine times out of ten we didn’t have bloody time to worry about our boots, but when you had ten minutes, yes, if you saw him cleaning his boots, you went and cleaned your boots.
And if your
boots were ruined was it easy to get another pair?
Yes, yes. Clothes were a bit of a funny situation. You took the clothes over, and you’ve got to write your name on it, so you write your name on it and it goes – when they get dirty they actually had a laundry, used to wash them for us, which seemed strange, they used to send them off down to Ba Ria to get washed. But all the time I was there I never saw my bloody clothes again, you’d end up with all these old daggy
looking clothes, there’d be a bag full of them turn up when we got fuel, but they never had my name on it, so you’d rat around until you found something that fitted, oh, that’ll do. One bloke one day I went back to Nui Dat there, and saw this bloke walking around with my nice new bloody trousers, and I said, “They’re my bloody trousers. What are you wearing them for”? “Oh,” he says, “They’re not yours.” I said, “They are, but ….” The mob in the Q Store are going through and picking out the good clothes. So it didn’t matter much I suppose.
So there was a bit of
pinching of stuff?
A bit of resource sharing, shall I say.
You paint a picture that the Australians were almost like the perfect solider, were they?
Pretty close to it, yes. Yes, good as any, yes. No, I think we were professionals, yes.
Is that with your RSL hat on?
No, that’s with my black beret on, yes.
Surely there must have been men who just couldn’t cope with the
pressure, or …?
There probably were, yes. Yes, I think the infantry had it bloody tough, and I think they might have had their problems, but the people I talked to, I’ve never heard anybody say that we were bad people or bad soldiers, or you know, we were mongrels. But no, I’ve never heard – obviously there was – I think there was one incident there, I think a sergeant got blown up, somebody threw a hand grenade
into him, so what was the cause of that, I’ve never really known, maybe I don’t want to know. No, I don’t know what that was, whether that fellow who did it went troppo or whether the sergeant was a mongrel, I don’t know. Certainly there was no need for that happen, that was just disappointing.
When you went on R & R, I mean what was the Australian behaviour like outside the base?
Pretty good, yes, I must admit I was a very good little boy, I didn’t misbehave myself, but.
some of the fellows used to go off and have a good time. I don’t think they wrecked any bars, but they used to have a good time.
What’s a good time mean?
Getting on the grog, getting blotto and jumping on the – the Vietnamese they used to have horse carts sort of things, little horse carts, they had a little horse running around, and he’d pull up there and two Australians would get on, and about eight would get on the back of it, and the poor old horse, he’s got his feet off the bloody ground because he’s overloaded, and the old Vietcong – not the Vietcong, but the old Vietnamese, he’s yelling at them and trying to get them off,
and they’d just rearrange so the horse just touches the ground, and they’d gallop off up the road. Yeah, boys will be boys.
And what about the Australians enjoying female company?
I think a bit of that went on there too, but a lot of them didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, not that I’m painting myself as a goodie goodie, but – when we used to go down for R & R there was about three of four of us there, we never even went out of the gates, because we’d just get into the grog and there was a
movie on every night and good food, and go down to the beach and have a swim, yes. But we were quite happy with that. Some of them would hop down town real quick, visiting the bars and all the rest of it there, and then they’d come back and you’d see them go and visit the doctor in about a week’s time, get a dose of Penicillin or something. No, you wouldn’t want to touch it.
And no-one on your crew or even the larger group of tanks got caught and
punished for ill-discipline amongst the brothels and stuff?
No, not that I know of, no.
What warnings were the doctors or officers giving you as men in regards to those places?
Well basically that VD [Venereal Disease] is just rife there, keep out of them. I certainly heeded their advice, I never went near them, I was an innocent little bloody boy from the bush.
Innocent because…? You didn’t go near them because you weren’t interested, or
just because you were scared of the warnings?
Probably a bit of both, wasn’t interested and as I said, why would you want to go and run a risk, a health risk for a start? And I certainly wasn’t interested in going to see them, visit them, no. As I said, the R & R with the centres there, they had everything you wanted in them, you could go and play pool, table tennis, see a movie, good food and plenty of grog, and so you just wandered over to the beach and have a swim. One of my mates actually came back and
he was drunk, and there was an old kapok mattress. And during the night I woke up and I could smell smoke, and he’d fallen to sleep with a cigarette, and his bloody mattress was smoking away and just about to flame. Luckily there was some water there, so I went over and tipped water over it and it took a fair bit to put this bloody kapok out, and I put it out, and he never woke up. Anyway the next morning there he gets out and says,
“Geez, I’ve got a sore back.” I said, “Give me a look at it.” And he had a bloody blister on his back where the mattress had put a blister with the fire. And I said, “Your bloody bed was on fire, you fool, you were smoking on it.” “Oh,” he said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “Have a look,” and he’s holding the bloody mattress and the water was – where I tipped the water over the bloody thing to put it out. He was real pleased, he said, “Well, you saved my life” and I thought, don’t bloody-well smoke in bed next time. So if you’d blot yourself out, you’d blot yourself out.
Did the Australians have any songs that they
sung in respect to the enemy or the women?
No, not really, we just used to yahoo and carry on, you know. We used to – a couple of songs, what was it? Riders of the Storm, you know, we’d come in singing it out, (sings) Riders on the Storm and carry on, and old Eric Burden and the Animals, Sky Pilot, you know?
How does that go?
Oh, just basically, “Sky pilot....,” hang on, how does it go? “How high do you fly?” It’s basically about American pilots, you know, going off to battle.
It’s one of the American rock and roll songs?
Yes, it’s one of the old rock and roll songs.
Okay. What about jokes? Were there jokes that circled?
Probably were now and again, but I sort of can’t really recall them. But see, when we came back to
Nui Dat Nui Dat there, you’d get a good meal, have a shower and change your clothes, you’d work on the vehicle but it’d be like work hours, you know, you’d pray it’d be at eight o’clock in the morning, you used to do guard duty but you’d only be doing it for one hour, a couple of blokes for one hour, because the whole lot of us were there. And then you’d have parade in the morning, the old squadron commander he’d line us up there and just tell us what’s going on, they’d give us a debrief,
you know, there you know, there were contacts made in the Long Hai hills last night, and two Australians were wounded here or something that was happening, the Vietcong were seen there, so they’d give you a stat report on what was actually happening yesterday. And anyway, righto, away you go, fall out. So you’d go back around, if your vehicle was around at the bloody workshop you’d go round and help the Rami fellows fix your vehicle, clean the vehicle out, and adjust your tracks, and things you sort of hadn’t caught up on, clean the gun barrel, clean the guns, and just catch
up on maintenance then and basically then you had your job done at half past three, four o’clock that’s it, the pub would be – wasn’t supposed to be open but you’d sneak over and get in the door and the pub would be open, or the mess we used to call it there. And you’d have a few beers, have tea then there’d be a movie on, you know, the latest movies used to be shown. So we’d watch movies and yes, so you basically had two or three days off then, get fuelled up, stocked up and choof off again.
The chaplains at Nui Dat, do you know who they were and did you have any interaction with them?
Not really, but one of the mob that did a wonderful job was the Salvation Army, they actually were there, and you’d be out somewhere in the middle of nowhere and on the road or somewhere or other, and next thing this bloody jeep would turn up, it’s the old Sally bloke, turned up with a hot bloody – or a cold drink or something for you. They were marvellous, they’d be wandering around anywhere and everywhere. So every serviceman and woman has got a great affinity with the Salvation Army,
Were any of them killed with mines?
No, I don’t think so, not that I know of. No, the list doesn’t mention them, no. They didn’t go out looking for – you know, out on the bush tracks or anything but there’s some main sort of areas, and they would go with the unit, so there was a resupply going in, they’d likely just tag along behind, and they’d turn up there.
What about the other sort of denomination chaplains?
Yes, they were there I think, but I
(PAUSE) I mustn’t have been around on Sundays, I mustn’t have been a good boy, I don’t remember them going to church at all. They probably were there. The crew who were down at Nui Dat, they would have been there, the army chaplains would have been down there, I think, in Vung Tau.
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Interviewee: Donald Rowe Archive ID 1106 Tape 08
NB. This section of transcript is embargoed. Embargo ends 01/01/2034
So we’re just going to pick it up when you actually returned home. What happened when you finished up in Vietnam?
We finished up and about a week before we finished up they actually put us all on what they call happy pills. While we were there we’d take a tablet for
malaria, and to clean the system up you have what they call a happy pill, I don’t know whether it cleans out the drug you were on or whether it helps clean up any residual malaria viruses in the system. But anyway, once you got on the happy pills you know you’re on your way home, so that was a relief to get on the happy pills. And we just – the day we left we got up real early in the morning, there was an airport at Nui Dat, and we got on to an American transport plane at about seven o’clock in the
morning, and we flew to Ton San Nhut, which is the big airforce base at Saigon, and we just sat around and waited there until the Qantas Boeing came in, and the poor victims for the next round, they hopped off and they loaded us up and fuelled us up, and we took off and we flew straight home to Sydney, I think we left Saigon there about lunch time and we didn’t get back to Sydney, I think we were the last aeroplane
to get into Sydney when we landed. And while we were away we went out of the old terminal which used to be like the old Qantas building, which is where Qantas is now, and when we came back we landed in the new terminal. But we were the last plane in. There was a few people there waiting for their family to come back, but most of us there, me and my mates, there was no-one waiting for us. So yes, and we got through Customs and it was quite interesting that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, and anyway somebody said there was an
RSL club at Mascot, so we choofed over to Mascot and there were a few old diggers there, I don’t know what time it was, fairly late, I don’t know why it wasn’t closed, but it wasn’t closed so they let us in. And the old diggers there – we were dressed up in our uniforms and had our ribbons on, and they said, “Where have you blokes been”? “We just got back from Vietnam.” “Oh right,” so the old boys, we went to buy a drink, “No, no way, no, you’re not buying a drink in here, we’ll buy you guys a drink.”
So some people have said, you know, the RSL had nothing to do with them and didn’t want to know them, but that was our first night in Australia and here they are, the Mascot RSL Club, members there, and we had quite a few rounds of grog there until they finally kicked us out, and we never bought a drink. So yes, that stuck in mind, I won’t forget that. And then the next morning we just caught a plane and back to Armidale, got a taxi and there was no-one there to meet me, as I said Mum and Dad weren’t sure what time I’d be home, so I drove home and
just as we got on the boundary of the place where my Dad and I were working before I went away, and here’s Dad driving along up the road there in an old Land Rover they used to have at work there. So he was thrilled to see me, and then we choofed off and Mum was even thrilled to see me. Had a few days at home then went back to Holsworthy and was there for a week or so, and just finished up my time doing nothing there, just filling in time. Kicked out and basically that’s it, go home, get on with your life, forget about it, which was
strange in a way because no-one wanted to know us.
The general public, you mean?
Yes. And – because the anti-war rallies and things were all full swing then, so yes. Get home, get on with your life and forget about it, which is probably, as I think about it now is the wrong attitude to have taken, by the military anyway. There was no,
no program or no means to help anybody, I don’t think anybody – you know, you did your bit, basically get home and forget about it. And I probably tried to do that too, I think, just got on with my life.
When you came back, had you had a chance to communicate with your family, prior? Tell them you’re coming back?
Yes, sort of, but I didn’t know which aeroplane or what day or what time I was coming home, yes. That was one of the things that was greatly appreciated in Vietnam, was mail. Letters used to be
posted free, so you used to get free mail up there, just put my number on it, my name, troop or whatever it is, A Squadron, and then it went to a post office box in Sydney, no stamp, the oldies didn’t have to put a stamp on them, and yes, mail was a great part of life, because that was the only contact we had, just through letters. Couldn’t ring home, couldn’t talk to home. So yes, loved
mails, and the more people who wrote to you the better it was. So I used to write back, yes. I don’t know what happened to my letters, I think Mum might actually still have them.
It’d be interesting to read them actually.
Yes, probably is.
When you came back you were in civvies?
No, I came back in uniform, because I had no civvies.
So the old diggers, you were in there with your uniform on?
they picked it up, yes.
And what were their impressions of you guys coming …?
Well they obviously must have been very supportive of us, because you know, if they didn’t want to know us they would have just ignored us. But no, as soon as we walked in the place and they knew we just came back from Vietnam, yep, have a beer, and they shouted for us, there were four of us. So yes, they were very nice, it was very good of them.
How many of them?
Probably about half a dozen of them sitting in – leaning on the bar there,
Was that an unusual reception for a Vietnam …?
According to a lot of my mates it was, yes. It wasn’t for us, we just thought we’d come back as heroes, we hadn’t though. We weren’t heroes, we just came back, just pleased to get out. Time was up, did our two years. There was a little bit of pressure put on me, whether I wanted to sign on, do another three years or six years. I said no, I’ve done what I went to
do, so yes. And there was no talk about upgrading the tanks or anything, which probably would have been interesting, I might have considered stopping in, if I’d known they were going to replace the Centurions. But some of my mates who were regular soldiers, they actually ended up a few years later, quite a few years later, going to Germany to do all the drills, learn all about the new Leopard tank, so they had quite an interesting
career. But I did my bit.
When did you start to get an impression that people weren’t supportive of Vietnam vets?
Probably when we got back to town there, it was still fairly cool weather, because I came back with a good suntan a couple of people said, “Oh, you’ve got a good tan, been away down the beach”? I said, “No, I’ve been in Vietnam.” And they said, “Oh,” and turned around and
just walked off, didn’t want to talk about it. Yes, that was sort of strange, people who sort of – some of the people I went to school with.
Just even here in Armidale?
So it had really infiltrated everywhere, this attitude?
It had, yes. But that was a very minor case. The first Anzac Day, it must have been 1971 Anzac Day, I think there’s a photo of us there,
yes, seven or eight of us turned up on Anzac Day and we ended up on the front page of the Express, sort of thing, so yes, and that time it was starting to cut back, 1972 the Australian troops were pulled out. But I’ve never missed an Anzac Day, I’ve always gone to Anzac Day. But the whole way of thinking now has completely changed. I’ve heard people say that they were marching in the moratorium and that, and even they’ve admitted how
it wasn’t a very smart thing to do. And a typical RSL common view from myself is that before the last Gulf War there was a large number of demonstrations against the Australians becoming involved, but thank God we’d learnt our lesson, because when the Australian troops came home they were treated as heroes. The demonstration was against the government, but in our case it was against us, so we copped the blame,
and – but – yes, people thank God had realised that what had actually happened in the Iraq War was that it was the decision of the government and not the decision of the troops, they went there, for goodness sake let’s support them while they’re there, don’t make them feel like we’ve done to the Vietnam veterans. There was a turn around in policy or in the view of the average Australian, but I think
the Vietnam War, it’s a political war, we only do what the government says. The government was voted in by the majority, so that’s what the majority says, but don’t bloody blame us, blame the government if you want to, but we copped the blame, not the government. The government copped the blame too, but it spilled over onto the veterans as well.
Tell me about your involvement with the RSL.
That was very interesting how that sort of came about,
that shortly after I came back the old fellow who used to run a stock and station agency in Armidale, and Dad was a member of the RSL, so he just yelled out one day as we were walking by, “Come in here, join the RSL.” And I just went in and basically I just paid my money over and became a member of the RSL. And I lived out at a little place called Wollomombi, it’s a tiny little village, and Dad’s mate, a bloke called Ron Diamond, who I spoke about a bit earlier on, he was great
mates with Dad, and he rings up one day and he says, “Time to go to the RSL meeting.” Because in Wollomombi we used to put an Anzac Day service on. So he says, “We need you to go to the RSL, you’ve got to help run our Anzac Day service at Wollomombi, we need some support out here.” We hadn’t long moved out to Wollomombi. So anyway he picked me up and took me to the RSL meeting, it was the annual general meeting, I didn’t know that. The first meeting I’ve ever been to in my life, and the mongrel nominated me as the
vice president, didn’t he? So yes, they were all in favour, that was it. But anyway, the title was vice president but it was also like – they called it country vice president. So righto, you’re job’s to run Anzac Day, help organise Anzac Day at Wollomombi. So did that, and anyway the next year I became the senior vice president, and the bloke who was president resigned, and he said, “I brought along this fellow,”
Brown was his name, he said, “He’ll make a great president.” So old Mr Brown was duly elected, and that was February. In March Mr Brown turns up at the meeting and says, “Right, thanks, look, I won’t be here for Anzac Day, someone will have to do it.” And they all looked at me and said, “You’re senior, you’ll have to do it.” I said, “What? Anzac Day”? So I’ve never seen Mr Brown since, he never turned up. So that’s how I basically became involved in the RSL.
Did you have any reservations
about joining or anything?
No, never, no.
Knowing that maybe some vets had – World War II vets had a different attitude, things like that?
No, never struck it in Armidale. As I said earlier on, there were World War I veterans there, Second World War veterans, and no, gosh, I was treated like a – not like a son or a younger veteran, I was just treated like one of them, yes. I’ve heard other veterans say,
“Bloody RSL, they kicked us out, wouldn’t have us.” But Ron Diamond, that’s one of the reasons he dragged me along, he said, “The old First World War blokes were like that, they wouldn’t let us Second World War blokes take over the RSL. So Ron said, “It’s not happening here. You get in there, you’ll join.” So yes that’s how I sort of became involved. But I’ve struck it – well the presidents have what they call district council meetings in the New England area, and gosh, treated like, just like one of them, yes.
Not like a lost son, but like a lost member, made most welcome.
Do lots of Vietnam vets join the RSL?
Yes, quite a lot, yes. Quite a few haven’t, not every Second World War bloke joined the RSL, but yes, there’s quite a lot. And they’re starting to take positions in sub-branches, which they have to do because our poor old World War II veterans are in their eighties now.
Getting a bit thin on the ground?
There’s still plenty of them about, but they’re starting to slow down a bit and they need somebody else to take over and carry on the work of the league.
Just one more question I wanted to ask you, with the Anzac Day stuff, is that one of your main duties, of organising Anzac Day?
It was when I was in a sub-branch of the RSL
here in Armidale, but as I’ve taken on the state presidency, certainly not. It’s a huge picture now, yes.
Before we move on to the big picture, what did you used to do when you organised Anzac Day?
Basically the secretary used to write the letters, and I used to sort of coordinate it, put it all together with the help of the secretary, it just wasn’t me, it was team work, the secretary and everybody pulled together. The main object was to ensure that we have a
successful, well run and well turned out Anzac Day. Somebody was seen to be the figurehead, and I suppose it was me, but I was just one of the crew. Without everybody else pulling together, one-man shows don’t work. And just sort of MC-ing [Master of Ceremonies] it and an overall picture of it when it was run, to see that everything went according to plan. But all of the work had been done before Anzac Day. And Anzac Days in the last eight, ten, fifteen years, probably go
back fifteen years, were fairly mediocre, but every year now, it’s a stupid thing to say, but the media always rings up and says, “How’d Anzac Day go”? “Oh yeah …” “Bigger than last year”? “Yes.” It is, it’s actually gone bigger, and young people are turning up in great numbers, and I think that’s because as I said history is being taught better, they’ve realised that I think there’s six World War I veterans left, we’ve only got one in New South Wales; that
complete link, living link with history is very fragile, especially with World War I veterans just about gone. And every day somewhere there’s a Second World War veteran go, so living history is – that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
Indeed. How do you think young people view war these days?
I think they understand it better and I think they realise that
if you want to – you’ve got to be prepared to defend your liberty, and if need be, defend somebody else’s liberty, you know, I think everybody, no matter where they live, should be able to live in freedom and have the right to live their life in a civilised manner, and we certainly don’t need dictators and terrorism and all those terrible things that go
with it. And I think young people see the sacrifices made were for those reasons, not to glorify war, not because war was any great adventure, but to try and see that other people have the right to enjoy a civilised and democratic and – not that one political system is better than the other, between dictators, well dictators and total leadership like that where one man or one person rules,
doesn’t seem to have the advantages for the common masses. And if you’re not prepared to stand up for what you believe in, well you’re soon bloody taken over, corrupted or overrun by someone or something else you may not believe in.
Tell me about being voted in as president of the New South Wales RSL.
Yes, that was a great honour,
um, I suppose I never really aspired to be it, but it sort of came my way, and as I’ve only done it for a week basically, oh no, two weeks just about, I’m finding it’s still rather – very daunting, but I have great people working with me, my state councillors and sub-branch members, and we all believe in one thing, and that’s the RSL.
And to follow on from people who I’ve known as state presidents, I’ve been lucky enough to be on state council for a number of years, I’m the longest serving member there now, not that that’s anything to skite about, but I go back to people like Sir Colin Hines, who was the state president and Warren Newington and Rusty Priest, and Keith for a very short period of time, but they’ve left an impression on me. And the way they conducted it,
um, yes it’s something that I aspire to uphold that tradition that they’ve set.
What would you, what kind of values does the RSL uphold?
By the support and – not skiting but the letters of support and congratulations which I’ve received from a whole variety of, not only friends, but people,
um, would you would you believe I’ve got letters from the French Consul-General, the Turkish Ambassador, the Consul-General’s going to come and see me next week, so I’m not going to see him, they said, “No, no, he’ll come and see you,” so the RSL certainly must be held in very high esteem by not only people in Australia but other governments and other embassies and what have you. We actually went and had – in Canberra the other day and had
um, dinner at night with the Japanese Ambassador, as state president, so it’s rather an ironic sort of feeling. But yes, a little bloke from the bush – but it’s not just me, not, I am Don Rowe, but the RSL certainly, and the president’s certainly bigger than me, and that’s what I aim to be, just –
people might get sick of seeing my face but it’s the state president of New South Wales RSL, it’s the RSL’s image which I am trying to instil in peoples’ memories.
So when people think of the RSL, what kinds of qualities do you think they think of?
One of the biggest image problems we have is that a lot of people think of the RSL as clubs, because every town’s basically got an RSL club or an ex-service
club, but that’s an image some people perceive of us, but there are also those who see the RSL for what it is, I believe, is standing up for veterans’ rights and their dependents, their families. I believe that a hundred odd thousand Australians have died that somebody has to be a spokesman for, for their legacy that they left us,
and that we see that you know, our way of life or our liberties are being jeopardised by certain things. And I think the RSL has a right and an obligation to stand up and speak out against them, no matter who’s in power or what it’s about, because who’s going to speak up for those lost souls? I just hate to think that they’ve died in vain, and I’m sure they haven’t died in vain. Australia’s a better place for what they did, so is the
You’d have some unique approaches and insights I’m sure, being a Vietnam vet?
I think so, but I think being a vet’s probably more important, no matter where I served or what have you, but as I said, that common link between every generation of vets is something which, yes, maybe I’ve inherited. I’d like to think that I’ve inherited a little bit from my Dad, and inherited a little bit from those World War I veterans that I
knew, and it’s a pretty daunting sort of responsibility, but a challenge that I look forward to, with the help of my colleagues, and members of the league.
I think we’re almost done with this tape. I just wanted to ask you one last question. Is there anything that you wanted to say to future generations about war, and about anything in general, as a final statement?
A final statement? Okay, a final statement.
Well the younger generations, if you’re looking at this, for my sake and for all of those who gave their lives in the past, just pause now and again to remember the sacrifice they made, and don’t ever forget what they did, because as I often say, there is a debt that we owe to them, and I believe the only way we can actually pay that debt is remembering what they’ve done. And
when my great grandchildren look at this, be proud in what your father and what your grandfather did, but live your life to the fullest and be prepared to stand up and fight for the rights of yourself and others. God bless.
Thank you Don. Appreciate that a lot.