Archive number: 1631
Preferred name: Bill
Date interviewed: 29 March, 2004
2 Royal Australian Regiment – Vietnam
You are listening to the interview audio
Thanks so much
for your time today. Could you begin by sharing with us a brief overview for about five or ten minutes of your life: where you were born to where you finished up in the forces.
Yes. My name is William Douglas Rolfe. I’m known generally Bill, always have been. I believe that the Bill came from a friend of my father who was killed in training during the Second World War. I was born in Cooma, October
46. Just south here of Canberra. Moved about the country with my parents. My father was in the railway and I particularly remember living in Moss Vale and then Sydney before moving out to Griffith in New South Wales. I went through the last year or so of primary school there and on to high school. Spent all my high school years in Griffith before
I entered military college in about 1965. Four years in military college and graduated into the Royal Australian Regiment or the Staff Corps and I was allocated to infantry. Served in Townsville for about a year before the battalion was posted into Vietnam. In Vietnam I
was in Nui Dat with the 2nd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. I was wounded on operations there and evacuated to Australia. Spent quite a bit of time in hospital in Sydney out at Ingleburn military hospital. At the end of that year after some discussions with the Military Secretary in Canberra, I was allowed to attend university.
I attended [the Australian] National University for four years, graduated in law, and then back into the military and transferred to the Australian Army Legal Corps. I was posted about the country then, back to Townsville first and then subsequently
to the staff college down in Geelong. Then I had a 12 month tour of duty in the United States with the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps being educated again. Then back to Australia and worked in the army legal services for quite some time eventually becoming Director of Army Legal Services.
The last several years in the military were in the new position then known as Director General Defence Force Legal Services. Left the army then and after some time wondering what I was going to do joined the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department for several years before taking
up what is my present occupation as Principal Member of the Veterans’ Review Board. There we go.
Excellent overview. Thank you for that. Now, if I could take you back and just ask you a few questions of growing up, what are your first memories of childhood?
Possibly the things I remember most probably round about Moss Vale when I must have
been preschool age. We lived up behind an old private hospital, a little fibro cottage there. I do remember the trips down to the school. You had to traverse a lengthy pine plantation and the magpies were always
attacking you. So you had to line up at one, put your coats over your head and go like blazes to try and get through without being attacked by a magpie. I remember that next door to us, there was a fellow by the name of Throsby, a very famous Australian name. It wasn’t until years later that I remembered anything
about it but it was the Throsby Bridges [Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, killed in action Gallipoli, May 1915] who established the Royal Military College that I attended. But I didn’t really have much to do with those people. I just remember a happy childhood with my sister there. Subsequently moved to Ermington in Sydney before going out to Griffith, New South Wales. So they’re my earliest memories. We quite often
visited my grandparents on both sides of the family. My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side, he was a veteran of the First World War, B Company 34th Battalion, First AIF [Australian Imperial Force] in France. Although I never ever heard him speak of it. And on my mother’s side,
she was a widow out at Canowindra. I enjoyed my grandparents very much. On both sides of the family they were lovely people. Of course, my mother’s brothers were both commandos in the Second World War and there was a third brother who I never met. He died shortly before the end of the war. They’re the sorts of things I recall from very
early childhood. Later on of course my recall tends to focus on the high school years growing up in Griffith in New South Wales.
Just before we come to that, Moss Vale schooling there you went to infants and primary?
Have any memories of the school?
Yes. I do. At the primary school I remember the headmistress
was Miss Hole, very severe looking lady, but very kind. I remember attending the school. I don’t even remember the kids from that time. I remember having to cross the railway line to get over to the school.
Not wagging it but spending a lot of time in the blackberry bushes on the way and picking blackberries and things like that.
Never came across snakes while you were there?
I don’t think so. No I mustn’t have. Probably wasn’t until later years when we lived more in the country that I came across, even noticed such things. Figured out that chops
actually came from a sheep. Probably took a while.
You mentioned your grandfather served in World War I but never spoke of it?
No. I don’t recall him ever speaking of it. He was a big strapping man, six foot two or so. I have a photograph of him. He died about 1976 at the time when
I was posted somewhere else and I couldn’t even get to his funeral. I just remember him as a big scary fellow in many ways because he was so big. I still remember him in Nimmitabel; they lived in this lovely old cottage on a bit of a hill that looked out across the Monaro. You could see him coming back; he was a fettler on the railway
and worked in the same job his whole life. Periodically he used to take me out on the trikes checking the line. My grandmother would always load my pockets up with Granny Cakes and we’d spend the day out on the trike. But I can still remember him coming back from the little fettlers’ hut over on the line. He’d have his tucker box on one shoulder and one of those ironbark sleepers on the other that he’d bring back for
firewood, just carry it along like it was a loaf of bread.
So if he didn’t talk about the war, did he talk about the past at all, growing up himself?
Not a lot, no. And it’s only even nowadays odd snippets of information in passing that my father mentions; not a lot of that even.
I knew that he was a labourer when he joined up. That his family had raised him in the areas around Jindabyne, Bubunderah, Prince Frederick - the old name for the area around Berridale, I think it was. He laboured there and laboured for a couple of years afterwards when he came back
before he joined the railway which was about the early 1920s, 22 or three I think. Spent his whole life as a ganger on the railways. But he just never talked about those sorts of things. I don’t think he was…it just never came up.
What did you actually know about World War
I if he never spoke of it?
Very little. I did have a book of photographs which was a presentation made to him by the community when he came back. I still have it at work. It’s one of those…it was boxed and it was part of the official photographic history, which was in a number of volumes. I used to
periodically pull that out and look at the shocking destruction that occurred during the First World War and particularly areas in France. I even in later years came across a small diary of his. I have that. Very faint writing. But even then he wasn’t the sort of fellow to discuss anything in a lot of detail. It pretty much was dates. Such and such a date, marched
to so and so; went into the front line; next date was when he came out of the front line into reserve, marched to so and so. On one occasion he was blown up in his what we’d call a bunker nowadays I suppose. But his mates dug him out and he was alright. That was the extent of the discussion of that particular incident. He did get some shrapnel wounds to a leg on another occasion.
He was evacuated to a hospital in the UK [United Kingdom]. But really I don’t know anything more about it than that.
So that was your dad’s dad, is that right?
Your mum’s dad? Did he serve in World War I?
Not to my knowledge, no. He came from Queanbeyan. No. To my knowledge he didn’t serve in World War I.
It wasn’t until his son served in World War II that I had any knowledge of the family involvement in military activities.
Did you know your uncles that served in World War II particularly well?
Yes. We spent a lot of time with them, both of them. One died just the year before last. He was a commando.
I didn’t realise how close we’d become until he died. In fact, when I came back from Vietnam and I was hospitalised in Sydney, my wife stayed with my uncle, Fred McMahon - known as ‘Mate’; Frederick Dwyer McMahon. And yes
he was a great fellow. His brother and they both attended our wedding and we had quite an extended family. We kept in touch with those people. I would hope to see his brother, Tom McMahon, on Anzac Day this year, but I haven’t seen him for many years and he’s getting old now. Knew them well.
They didn’t talk a lot about it. But I do remember on occasion when we lived in Griffith at one stage; it must have been in the early sixties, no it’d be in the late fifties and they moved to Griffith for a while. I think they were looking for work. They both had quite extensive knowledge and experience with explosives and
were employed in a new development in Griffith that was being undertaken at the time. It was quite surprising. There were quite a number of old commandos from the years in the war who’d settled around Griffith, some of them on soldiers’ settler blocks. Others had gone into some sort of farming, quite a number of them. Periodically they’d gather at our house
and just have a few beers and yarn and every now and then there’d be a bit of a story recall, mainly laughing, “Do you remember when so and so did such and such?” and they’d all laugh and carry on. They were funny stories, but most times I was shortly thereafter sent off to bed because it was grownups talking. I never heard a lot about those stories either.
More so in later years and perhaps on occasion more so from other people who knew them. But my mother would periodically talk about it because they wrote to her quite a lot and she had quite a collection of letters. One of her brothers, Tom, he was a very good natural artist and he used to
draw various pictures over the envelopes and they were very interesting for a long time. Don’t know what’s happened to them now. My mother was always interested in history. She’s been involved in some tracing of our family back to the [HMS] Sirius [Captain Phillip’s ship of the First Fleet] I think. But I haven’t spent a lot of time
on that myself yet. I expect that’s some sort of job I’d do in retirement.
These uncles though, did they share with you particular stories from their service?
No. Not a lot. I remember I suppose before I went to Vietnam I saw them a couple of times and they were aware
I’d shortly be going off to Vietnam, but they just told me to keep my head down and not to volunteer for anything, which always seemed to be a warning given to all young soldiers, “Don’t volunteer. You get in real trouble that way”. And periodically they’d make jokes with me because I was an
officer. They’d been soldiers. With some sort of luck I’d probably find out what soldiers did.
The fact that you’d served in Vietnam, did that bring you at all closer to them that they’d served as well?
No they weren’t those sort of people. They were very good to me when I came home and certainly looked after my wife and helped out in any way they could.
But I suppose you could probably feel a little bit more of a bond in that I had something of an idea about the sort of circumstances they’d served in. Same with my father. I knew a little bit about
where he’d been, what he’d done. But on most occasions I think any of the discussions that took place were about funny stories. I find that pretty much the case myself. Any occasion that somebody wants to talk about something, you don’t talk about bad times or miserable times or times you were perhaps frightened or anything of that nature. You just remember the really unusual things.
Private so and so tearing all his clothes off when he was supposed to be a forward scout because he’d brushed an ant nest and had ants all over him and yelling and yahooing when we were trying to be quiet, that sort of stuff. I heard a lot of funny stories like that from them in later years. I suppose to that extent I was probably accepted a little more amongst them and their friends
and they would perhaps talk a little bit more openly about some of the things that occurred to them when I was present, when on other occasions they would have kept it pretty much to themselves.
So you dad served as well?
Yes. He was in the 1st Australian Army Headquarters in New Guinea during the Second World War in [Port] Moresby and up around Lae and those places.
As an officer?
No. He was a runner actually. He had a few funny stories too about the different stories he was given as a runner to take messages to various headquarters and units and sometimes in the dead of night relying pretty much on dead reckoning, not being given maps or anything.
Just to get those messages off. He always wanted me to take him back to a place outside Moresby where he said he’d hidden a very good revolver in a tree and he thought he might get it back.
What funny stories did he tell you as a kid?
As a kid he didn’t really
speak about it again. I don’t remember as a kid ever sitting round and talking about those sorts of things. It was more on occasions hearing them talking amongst themselves; the veterans of those years reminiscing themselves. Things like,
in fact only relatively recently told me about a terrible fight he got in with some big fellow. There was no way in the world he was going to beat him, he said, but he couldn’t give up because there were lots of his mates around and it just wasn’t in his nature. So he had to keep getting up. Eventually the other bloke wouldn’t fight him anymore because he was too bloody. He said, “But I was still standing up”.
And your mum, was she serving anywhere during World War II?
No. She became a schoolteacher effectively. She was educated in Canowindra and there they had the old intermediate high schools and you couldn’t really
go on past third year at high school. But she was obviously very clever and capable and she stayed at the school for a while and effectively was the secretary for the headmaster. But then when I suppose it arose in the nature of vacancy, a number of the farming
families around there was a number of small one teacher schools and she was allocated to one of these to teach the children of a number of families. She wasn’t much older than some of them herself. So she did that for a number of years. Eventually she went down to Cooma out the other side of
Nimmitabel. Funny thing, nowadays my cousin and her husband live in the house where Mum taught school. In fact, what’s the name of the property, Springfield. There’s a new and an old Springfield. But at Springfield, I understand that my grandfather
met his wife out at Springfield too. So this whole property’s got some resonance for various parts of our family.
How did your mum and dad meet?
At this property. Someone just suggested they get together. He was back on leave I think from the army.
They met then, obviously hit it off.
So what was your mum like as a person?
Lovely lady. She’s still alive but suffers now from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a terrible thing to see it happening to her because she was such a
bright and vivacious and intelligent. She’s still got a lot of recall of her very early days and particularly about her times as a teacher and she remembers in great detail the visits by the inspector and what she did with the kids and the sorts of things she was trying to teach them. Nowadays of course she can’t recall what happened five minutes ago.
She was very well read; always encouraged myself and brothers and sisters to read widely. I remember her reading stories to us at a very early age, possibly about the time we lived in Moss Vale. Some of the history that she read to us there was probably
some of those sad old stories about the blind men coming back from the war and things like that. We’d sit around there snuffling and crying about these terrible sad stories. But on other occasions she’d read us quite a range of stories, parts of novels and really encourage us to read a lot. All my brothers and sisters still do read a lot. We’ve all had a pretty good education.
They always encouraged that. That was largely my mother I think, supported no doubt by my father. He was more committed to a boy and young man getting a job. It was a work ethic that he sponsored more than the education. But Mum always took a great deal of interest
in what we were doing at school and encouraged us and tried to help us whenever she could. And she was good at it.
Did your mum give you any advice for the future?
I don’t think so. I do recall Mum saying that you’re most likely to live your life the way you grew up in your family. Effectively it’s the
environment that you develop in that’ll influence you and if there are good and bad parts of it, then you should recognise it and try and manage those circumstances and push the bad bits to one side and focus on the good bits. But no, she never articulated in those precise terms, but I was always well aware that’s what she thought. Basic
rules like ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. Understand what other people think and feel and take account of it in what you do because whatever you do impacts on other people. My father perhaps he always emphasised
integrity, honesty. You have to be honest in everything that you do. You have to say what you think, don’t touch anything that isn’t yours and make sure you own it yourself. If you want something, go and work for it. But they’re the sorts of I suppose quite simple values but good solid basic ones.
Were your parents
religious at all?
Not religious I wouldn’t think, no. My grandmother, in fact both my grandmothers, they attended church regularly. Katie went up to the Catholic church, good Catholic she was. Went regularly until she couldn’t
walk properly any more. I don’t think Albie did, but Katie certainly did. My father was sent off to a Catholic school; village school. Nimmitabel is a very small town. I think he was expelled from that one and then went to the public school but then he was expelled from that one and the Catholic school took him in for a while and then they eventually decided
that he’d had enough education and he got a job. I think he was a bit of a wild fellow; number of wild fellows about that sort of country those days. They were brought up, they had plenty of room, there were horses about, they could all ride. I suspect they were a pretty wild bunch. Katie always said as much.
Albert was always very severe on them if he caught them doing the wrong thing, but they still did the wrong thing. He had a very good mate, my father, Georgie Thornton. The Thorntons lived just up the top of the hill above their old place in Luton Street in Nimmitabel. I remember George and his father; the whole family lived there.
George suffered a bullet wound in the side of the head in New Guinea up around Lae I think. Periodically I’d see George over the years and his father. I always remember his father, Thornton the elder, I’d go up to see them because Aunt Liz used to
make - we called them aunts and uncles, but they weren’t of course - scones for us. Most mornings if we went up there, we’d get fresh scones from Aunt Liz. Old Johnnie Thornton he’d say, “Good God Almighty, it’s little Billy Rolfe”. It was like saying ‘G’day’. That’s how he greeted me every time he saw me,
until I could say it off pat myself. Apparently that amused everybody around the place that I could sound just like old Johnnie. They made billycarts for us and things to play on. Apparently we lived there when I was very young in Nimmitabel - I just don’t recall that. I remember those sorts of instances from
the times we spent there on the holidays and things like that. But old George, he died here in hospital in Canberra and my father rang up and told me that George was in hospital and I went and saw him every day for about a week. He seemed to be coming good. He was still in intensive care ward, but I went back one day and he’d simply died.
My father was very upset about that. He couldn’t travel and couldn’t even get to his funeral so I went to George’s funeral in Nimmitabel and he’s buried not far away from where my grandmother and grandfather are buried. But I think we started off talking about the religiousness. No, I know that Katie was
quite religious. Nana McMahon, she attended church every Sunday and sang in the choir. Mrs McMahon, everybody around the town called her Mrs McMahon. Her name was Blanche Leticia McMahon. She hated those names. But she was a fierce woman, very independent, had been
widowed long before I was born. She ran a boarding house. She just turned the house into a boarding house. She used to get these young bank Johnnies come from all over the country and they’d board there. She ran the place with an iron fist. They had to be in on time to have a meal or they didn’t get a meal; leave their rooms tidy.
Very funny days with old Nana and with Katie. They were quite different women. I’m not sure they even met each other. Certainly in the later years they didn’t travel, so they have very little to do with each other. They were wonderful people in their own right.
What did your dad do for a job after the war?
Joined the railway.
Worked in the railway as his father had done. He retired in his early 60s I suppose. So he spent the rest of his life on the railway. He was a driver. Followed the normal system I should think that you worked around the sheds for a while cleaning old steam engines
then you worked your way up to fireman and you shovelled coal and then you became a driver. Subsequently I remember that definitely he had to study to drive the diesel electrics and he hated that. I think he just struggled with his reading. His own
reading was normally some cowboy novels, which I didn’t mind either. I used to read his old cowboy novels. I’d read anything I could get my hands on, but he pretty much confined himself to that so I know that he really had to work hard going through these manuals dealing with the diesel electrics when I was about must have been 14, 15 I suppose and he was studying too. Kept out of his way.
He’d get so mad. He could be pretty fierce too. You kept out of his way when he had to go and hit the books. But I think he spent nearly his whole life…he went pretty much from Nimmitabel and then around Cooma up to Goulburn and lived in Goulburn for some time before moving to Moss Vale and then
lived in a housing commission house in Ermington in Sydney and then moved to Griffith. He retired eventually from the railway in Griffith.
Was he at all tempted to join the Korean War?
I don’t think so. No. I think that - mind you, again it’s a matter I never discussed with them - but I think they’d had enough of
the time they spent in the army, quite a lengthy period of time. I don’t’ think they were interested at all. But again I never ever raised it with them. Quite often I think in those days, there were people who came in at the end of the war and wanted to be involved. Some of those people
went to Korea. There were some people who just couldn’t…got so used to their military life, they were happy to go back into it. There are some young fellows who wanted to go to war and prove themselves and there were some people who didn’t have any other work. They joined up too. I recall a few
people that I served with had served in Korea. They were quite a deal older than me. But a number of old warrant officers, instructors, and a couple of fellows that I served with subsequently. One had been a machine gunner in the Korean War. Then we periodically heard stories about the actions that they’d fought and I read quite a bit about it subsequently.
Even relatively recently served with a retired general on the board who won a Military Cross in Korea at the Battle of Maryang San which is a battle that not many Australians know about nowadays. It’s surprising. It was a very fierce action, but it’s just not something that’s in the mainstream
of our history.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 02
Bill, your family went to Griffith. Can you tell me about Griffith and your memories there?
Yes. Very nice country town. I enjoyed my life there. It’s
I suppose I was there in the 60s, went to school, I think it was sixth grade in the primary school at North Griffith. Made some friends there although as a young fellow it was always difficult making new friends. My sons found that out when we’ve travelled about.
I remember some great fellows there. The fellow I remember at that particular time was Peter Blackman, a wonderful sportsman, suffered a terrible illness and injury in later years and it seriously debilitated him, but the Blackman family are all great cricketers and Peter was at the school. He was the honcho.
If anything went on in the playground it was done through Peter. I learnt that in the first day or two; a clip under the ear. But subsequently at high school and as I started to grow and fit in with the community again and make new friends at the high school again and started to play sport; I think that’s where I really started to play sport and became very
interested and quite reasonable at footy and things like that; rugby league. Then I was a lot better able to stand up for myself, like those moments that you can recall when you suddenly realise you can do something. I can almost put my finger on a couple of those instances and I said, “Well
okay, that’s it. I can do that now. No one will stand over me about that sort of issue again”. I can remember a couple of instances like that, so that…I had a good solid circle of friends and knew a lot of people. My mother and father were comfortable in the town. I was pretty much allowed to go wherever I liked. I think that when we’d lived in Sydney in Ermington,
I wasn’t allowed out of the street and if I did wander too far I’d get a lacing from the old man. But I think they probably both did; the big city’s a bad place. When we went out to Griffith, I was allowed go anywhere I wanted. There was a big hill up the back of town, a scenic hill,
I even used to set rabbit traps up there and ride for 20, 30 miles out round the farming districts. I really enjoyed that. Went to high school. Started off I think I was placed in the A classes where we had to do a language and
subjects at the higher level: Maths 1 and 2. I wasn’t much good at mathematics or even French for that matter. I would have much preferred to do things like technical drawing, which were the other classes, although I did do technical drawing for a year. Then my first effort at social responsibility I suppose you could say,
we signed a petition saying that we wanted to do technical drawing a second year. The deputy headmaster took us into his office one by one and gave us three cuts of the cane and said, “Now get out and do what you’re told”. So we very quickly found out that you didn’t take those sorts of steps lightly. There was always going to be someone waiting to jump on top of you. So we didn’t do
technical drawing. We went back to Maths 1 and Maths 2 and those sorts of subjects. But I had good friends there. One fellow I still keep in touch with, Bobby Beale. He subsequently became the city manager in Griffith, but he’s now city manager out in Hay. He’s a great mate of mine; still see him periodically. Hope to get out there
and visit with him one day. Like most things you’d like to be able to do it every other day. I just don’t have the time. Travelling around the country with my work. What was the question again?
Just moving on to the next one. You mentioned a couple of times there were times you stood up for and overcome things, what were those sort of things?
I think it was just discovering
the things that you could do. One thing that popped into my head just the other day for no particular reason, as a young boy in Griffith and the black and white Group 20 Rugby League team was the ant’s pants, the first grade team in the high school;
you’d go and watch all their matches and play football. I struggled for a while just trying to play rugby league and then I can remember like it was yesterday playing a game in one of the house teams - because I wasn’t in one of the school representative teams - chasing a fellow across the paddock who was just clearly going to get away from me and I eventually launched myself at him, took my
feet off the ground and tackled him, damn near frightened myself. That’s how you do it; that’s how you tackle people. It was like a light went on in my head. I thought it was so hard and it wasn’t hard at all. Just that moment made such a difference to me. I almost blossomed as a rugby league player because I’d suddenly discovered this thing about myself.
A couple of other occasions. Playing against fellows much bigger than you and trying to set yourself in front of them when they’re charging at you with a run-up from 20 yards away and suddenly finding one day that you could plant yourself and stay there despite the size of this fellow rushing at you. I think it’s a great feeling.
I’m sure everybody does it, everybody has their own little discoveries about themselves. They might have lived in fear for many years about a bully and then suddenly find that they can handle a bully, or they find that they can handle particular situations such as I’ve just described. I think it makes an enormous difference if you’ve got that capacity to discover maybe that you’ve lived in some sort of
oblivion for a long time, just in fear. But it’s a wonderful thing to discover that it’s not to be feared.
Did you ever overcome the school bully?
No, he wasn’t a bully. If anything he was one of those people, a natural born leader and he just controlled everything.
He was pretty much that. I can remember occasions if he saw bullying going on, he would stop it. That was a good lesson for me too, that there were people about who would take those steps. No, I never saw Peter as a bully but as a character that you’d want to emulate. But things seemed to be
so natural to him. You see people who make themselves into leaders, for example, or just make themselves into anything just by hard work and perseverance. But then every now and then, you come across a person who just has all those skills and capacities, just born that way, and has an aura
of authority, a sense of compassion. They don’t even understand it themselves. They don’t know that they’ve got it. But they won’t allow another person to be bullied because it’s not right. I suppose all you can say is they’ve got some innate skills and capacities and the environment they were brought up in developed them. But those sort of people can still be…
I suppose as a new boy I was very nervous of people like that because they were the controller.
Now changing the subject slightly. Girls. Did you have girlfriends at school?
Yes. Sometimes neither I nor the girl knew about it, but as little kids do, they say, “So and so’s your girlfriend”.
“Is she?” I had girlfriends I suppose more at high school; it was probably only a few. I remember Shirley Sainting, still see Shirley about once in a blue moon, pretty rarely.
Carol Shoddy, another lovely lady who was a great character. And then of course my wife and I were at the same school together too, so we know lots of the same people, went out in groups with the same people. We’ve been
married approaching 36 years now but we’ve known each other a lot longer than that.
Did anyone teach you about the subjects of sex education?
No. I think we all discovered that as we went along in those days.
Your parents never spoke of it at home?
No. Very staid.
We were a very conservative family I suppose in that regard. Not the sort of thing people spoke about. I suppose they tried to teach you, if anything, I suppose my mother would have taught us more about…no that’d be unfair. Both of them taught us respect for other people.
I suppose that was expected to carry over into anything you did. You had to respect. Even in a time when my mother would have liked to have worked. But my father wasn’t going to have that. He wasn’t going to have a situation where his wife had to go to work.
But still in that social context, there was the responsibility to respect other people for what they were, what they believed, and to protect your own dignity. You were responsible for that too. You had to be able to defend yourself. My father taught me boxing.
I never thought it was teaching much. I didn’t always look forward to it, down the backyard with the gloves on. Thump thump again. “Geez”, you know, “pretty soon I’m going to get the hang of this”.
How did he teach you boxing? Was that one on one? You belt him, he belts you?
Yeah. He didn’t flog me just for the sake of flogging me. He genuinely was trying to teach me. But
every now and then he’d plant one on me. Said, “You got to learn to take one before you can hand it out”. Not a bad rule either: if you’re going to throw a punch at a man make sure you can take one back. Along with those old homilies like ‘you never hit a kid because he’ll grow up’ and ‘never hit a drunk cause he’ll sober up’
and those sorts of simple rules. I don’t think it did me any harm; certainly it taught me to keep my guard up. Periodically it’s been useful.
What sort of mischief did you and your siblings get up to when you were kids?
Around the house I suppose
we were in a normal amount of trouble. But it’s a funny thing, we didn’t spend a lot of time together. We had our own groups of friends in our own age groups. My sister, Phyllis, we went to the same schools, but I hardly ever saw her. My brother, Jim, tried
to keep his distance I think because everywhere he went, I’d been before. They were measuring him against “Oh your brother did such and such”. Jim had some difficulty with that for a while until he was able to make his own discoveries and establish himself. My youngest sister, I think I was 15 before she was born, probably older, 17, 18. She was a late child.
She’s done very well for herself. So it’s only in later years that we’ve spent more quality time with my brothers and sisters. As kids we went our own way and had our own friends. I’d be off playing footy or basketball or some other sport and they’d be off with their friends doing their own thing. We didn’t spend a lot of time at home even. I do remember getting a couple of floggings
building shanghais [sling shot] and a little rubberised pistol type thing that worked on the same principle as a shanghai and hitting my sister, Phyllis, on the bum with a lead pellet that I’d constructed. Got a terrible kick up the bum for that.
What was discipline? What did it
entail? Did you get the strap?
Pretty serious discipline if it was necessary. Bit frightened as a little kid. Certainly get the strop. Again, I got over that too. Just pushed it out of my memory.
Do you remember when television came in?
We didn’t get a television until I think I was at high school and probably about second or third year maybe, so it must have been about 1960 before we had a television. Probably about the same time as my father got a car I think.
Didn’t see the need for a car. But eventually bought an old FJ [Holden] which I learnt to drive on. That’s not right at all, I suppose that’s when we got a TV [television] in our home. But I do remember when we lived in Sydney the lady across the road, Merle,
she was a single mother I think or perhaps a widow with a couple of young kids, on Saturday afternoons she used to invite us over there to watch the wrestling, the ‘Masked Marvel’ and people like that. So that would have been a few years earlier. But after we left Sydney and went to Griffith, I don’t recall us having a TV for quite a long time.
I very quickly grew out of the wrestling, pretty sad stuff I tell you. I don’t remember having a television in the house. One particular house - the first one we moved into - a weatherboard house which I think only had a
sitting area with a fireplace and two bedrooms and then verandas all around it. The verandas at the back had been built in. The kitchen was at one end and it had the old wood stove and the bathroom down the other end of that hall where it had a chip heater. I remember getting a lashing for that too. You could get
enough chips into this chip heater you could get it glowing red cause it was just sucking air, that’s where you get the fire from - wooh wooh - and you could see the chimney start to glow. I reckoned that was great fun. Of course it was terribly dangerous too because the place could have burned down at the drop of a hat. It was just dried out old timber. I had a bedroom on the side of the veranda out on the front
cause there weren’t enough bedrooms I suppose. But I was quite happy about that. So I had two walls and there was an old canvas blind that came down on one side and then it was just open at the other side. So it got very cold in winter. And the canvas side - our next-door neighbour -
was Donald McKay. Have you ever heard the story of Don McKay who was murdered in Griffith at the time of the - I suppose starting up with the drug culture that seemed to be - he and his wife were a lovely couple. He had a very strong social conscience. They were both studying
for various degrees I suspect, both well educated people, had magnificent libraries. They used to lend me books to read. Ian Idrious I particularly remember; they introduced me to Ian Idrious. But a whole range of other books. Funny how those things come back to you.
At school, study-wise, were you a good student?
Pretty average I think. I was lazy I think was the biggest problem I had. I could do the work. I eventually repeated my fifth year at high school because at pretty much the last minute I’d decided that I wanted to go to the military college and
failed my mathematics. And a whole lot of options opened up to me and the military college said, “Oh well, you had to have English and mathematics. You’re otherwise selected provided you pass these subjects”. And I missed the mathematics. My father said, “What you do now is you put a pack on your back and go wandering
round Australia doing jobs. Just go and have a look at the country” which surprised me a bit. It was probably a good idea but I didn’t do it. I deliberately decided that I’d go back to school for a year so I could get this subject and learn how to work the books. I’d never really spent enough time at it. I did
what I liked and scratched through on the rest. I was in the A class except for maths. I could understand and I was just a lazy student. But then I went back to school in the final year and got mathematics and did much better in my studies and was in a much better position than I would have been to go off to the military college.
Was your father supportive of going back to school?
He said I could do what I wanted. He made his suggestion, said, “It’s open to you” but he said, “That’d be one way”. I had a pushbike. “I’ll give you a few bucks, start you off. Go and ride your bike round the country and get some jobs”. There were other options too. I could
have gone into the bank. All the students those days had to do either vocational tests and a person would tell you what you were best suited for and you’d either be school teaching or go to the bank or the PMG [Postmaster General’s (department)] or something of that nature. Then a few select students would be recommended that they apply for Commonwealth
Scholarships and go to university. Subsequently I did. I think I won a scholarship to do science and physical education at Sydney University. That must have been the second go because I didn’t have the math. But I didn’t take that up. I’d set my mind on going to the military college. But I could have gone off and been a jackeroo. Sometimes
wish I’d done that.
Just share with me the story of getting into Duntroon and studying there?
I had been in the cadets at school, joined up I think in my second year at high school. I spent perhaps three or four years in the cadets,
went through the ranks, corporal, sergeant and a cadet under officer eventually. I was selected from my school to go to…as part of their recruiting drive I suppose they took students from country schools and a whole range of schools down to the military college and had a look at it. Can’t say I enjoyed that trip too much.
You were just allocated to a group of people who were on tables. There was a whole system of bastardisation in place in those days where the senior cadets hated the junior cadets and we were just drawn into that and I didn’t like that at all.
So what happened there?
This is when I was still a cadet at school.
I try not to confuse what I knew then and what I knew subsequently when I became a part of it. But we were allocated to a table and normally about seven or eight to a table. You’re allocated to a table for a particular period of time. Junior class at one end and a senior class at the other end, but always graded down to the bottom. You had to sit up straight in your chair
with your back four inches from the chair through the entire meal. You probably have to advise the senior class member what had been on the news that morning, so you had to have listened to the news. There was a certain rationale for all these bits of hazing so that you did listen to the news and you knew what was going on in the world; you’d have to recite it. Sometimes the senior class member
was just too lazy to listen to it himself and wanted a thumbnail sketch. I think in those ways we were perhaps taught to develop some familiarity with what was going on in the world. You were required to listen to the news every morning and then summarise it for someone else. But then you had to know
lots of minor bits of detail and information about the military and range of weapons. If you didn’t know it, you had to research it for the next meal. Then you had to learn various bits of inconsequential information, I suppose something to do with almost like table etiquette. You certainly
had to learn that as well for a particular table. But you had to be able to divide up the butter in very precisely even portions. You had to estimate how much milk was in the jug so that everyone got the same amount on the table. It was bastardisation. Didn’t enjoy that too much.
Were there beatings?
Never saw that at any stage. I do recall one occasion when a fellow was made to do push-ups until he was physically ill. That was a very rare occurrence. No, perhaps not as rare as I might say, but certainly I wasn’t aware of it. I did hear about other people
being harassed until they were in tears. That was always worrying, but I was never subjected to that myself and I never saw it. I did have to stop on one occasion when I saw a fellow being told to do push-ups until he was physically ill. I directed it be stopped and I took the fellow down to the hospital
I remember. I still remember that. I got such a berating from the matron at the hospital because of the condition this fellow was in. I wasn’t really in the position at the time to say, “It’s not my fault”. I was in a position where I was well aware I had to look after this
young fellow and take him down there, but then effectively I was blamed for the circumstance he was in, but I couldn’t say that someone else did it either because you weren’t allowed to dob [tell tales]. So I had to take it and got a terrible berating from this matron who I admired and felt very bad that she felt that I’d done such a thing. I was still torn at the time
between these competing responsibilities to protect your mates and, even if they’re not mates, here’s a fellow in my company so I protect him, but also protect your mates. So you didn’t dob on your mates.
Was this cadet group linked to the school or it was a separate community group?
No. It was with the school, the cadets.
Were there teachers involved in it?
One was an old veteran. Forgotten his name. Lovely old fellow: very quiet and unassuming sort of fellow. Looked terrible in a uniform. He was overweight. But he made the effort and trained us and helped us. And another teacher, John Robinson, who was a
younger schoolteacher, still lives out in Griffith, worked very hard at things like that. Taught us a lot. Did a really good job. Taught me some hard lessons too on occasion.
Things about leadership. I had a bit of trouble. I was a cadet under officer. I remember on one occasion and I had
a bit of trouble with another cadet under officer. I’m not quite sure how it arose now because I always seem to remember the consequences more than the incident. But I think I proposed to fight this fellow and it really wasn’t the way to deal with the situation. John made me
feel very bad about the type of response that the situation had loosened in me when he expected from a person in the rank and position I was in a much more objective and thoughtful approach to the issue and how I should react. I reacted pretty much in an emotive way. Decided that I’d sort it out straightaway just by punching his lights out.
It wasn’t the smart way to do it either. It was another one of those moments. I knew I could do that. I knew I could clean this fellow up but that wasn’t really the issue and certainly wasn’t going to solve anything. John made me see that. That stuck with me too. That’s another good lesson.
What sort of things are they trying to teach or
train you within the cadet system?
I suppose they were trying to teach us some sorts of things like independence of thought and capacity to deal with different situations as well as the simple things like teaching us to shoot, to drill,
to work as part of a team. They were still seen I think in those times as very important issues for young men. Not long out of war. People understood you could take your 303 rifle [Lee-Enfield .303 calibre rifle] home from school and carry it through the street and because you were in cadets it was okay.
Nowadays you see someone with a 303 in the streets you’d be calling the police and there’d be fellas in Kevlar vests [bullet-proof vest] popping up everywhere. But it was a quite different society. The whole community had just come out of a war and they understood what you were doing and what those things were for and why we were trying to provide some really basic training for the young at the time, in case they had to face it in the future.
Cadet camps? Do you have memories of those?
Yeah. They were good fun. We went to Singleton I think. Yes. Again my father thought that was a good idea because he’d been to Singleton and he’d trained up there. “Can’t get into much trouble in Singleton”. We couldn’t either. You couldn’t get very far away from it.
It was another interesting piece of education because I came from a country high school then and we were camped in between two of the Sydney GPS [Great Public Schools, actually private] schools: TKS, The Kings School and what was the other one? I think Cranbrook. That was an eye-opener for me I tell you.
At the military college I met people that came from those schools. TKS. Even I say it. The Kings School. But I didn’t even know those sort of things existed when I first came across these people. They wore different types of uniforms. They wore grey with red trimming, things like that. We just got the old khaki clothes that they cut them out to fit if we could make them
fit and boots and gaiters. I’ve forgotten the…Blanco [dressing for webbing equipment] belt and Blanco gaiters and polished brass [belt and equipment fittings]. But we had a couple of big blues with these private schools, I suppose led along a bit by other fellows who’d been there before and were all geared up and ready for this,
and had discovered what private schools were whatever view they had of them and decided they were people you had to fight. You’d go tent hopping and knock their tents down at night or grab their fire buckets and throw water through their tent. You could get into a lot of trouble and a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun and I suppose it wasn’t malicious activity or anything like that.
But we did cause some trouble and we got into trouble. Lots of embarrassing times. Even things like the short arm parades where you’d strip off naked and put your boots on and then your greatcoat and file through past the doctor and the sister just to check if you had any disease. I think that’s because that’s the way they’d always done it.
That’s the way the army’s always done it. They got all these kids filing through. And there’s a matron, a nurse or something up the back. Got to do what? I suppose it was probably a useful socialising process for the ones who joined the military too. I couldn’t believe it. “There’s a woman in there.” We’re standing out in our boots and
our greatcoats, freezing to death, mind you. “What do you have to do?” “You have to go up and stand in front of the desk and hold your coat open and he’ll tell you to cough.” “God! What’s going on? What’s it all for?” Cause no one told us anything. Nothing. They just told you what to do. They always had a couple of old army instructors around too. They didn’t give us
any information. “I’m not here to wipe your bloody nose, kid, I’m here to tell you what to do. That’s what I’m here for.” I suppose good socialising incidents.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 03
You told us a bit about your cadets and the military influence you had up to that point. But if you take yourself back to you’re a 19 year old, why would you want to go into the military college? What would be reasons for that?
A couple of practical reasons. I couldn’t see much of a career for myself as a physical education teacher or as a jackeroo. I could have got jobs like that. Didn’t think I wanted to go into the bank. There just weren’t a lot of
opportunities that I was aware of. I remember one of the big pastoral companies that I approached said, “Yeah. We’ll give you a job as a jackeroo and you’ll eventually work up to be a station manager. We’ll give you eight pound a fortnight and found” I think. At the military college they said, “We’ll give you
eight pound a fortnight and found and an education and the opportunity to travel the world”. I said, “Geez that sounds all right”. “And what’s more, you’ve already been in the cadets so it’ll be easy for you”. Well I got sucked in a bit there. I quite enjoyed the cadets and I suppose I was
comfortable with the idea of discipline and felt at that early stage without knowing too much about it that I could handle the authority and could wield authority appropriately. I suppose I had the arrogance of youth that made you think that was the case. I was quite comfortable with the idea. My father wasn’t that keen about it.
But he said, “If that’s what you want to do, well that’s your own problem”.
Outside the practical reasons, were there any things like patriotism or Queen and Country? How important is that to you at the time?
I had read about it. I read voraciously and I was aware of patriotism and you had a responsibility to serve your country.
I’m sure I had a quite romantic notion of it but I saw that as a good solid proper aim for a person to take up too. But I wouldn’t say that was the basis of it. It was just one of the whole range of factors that made me feel, this is a good job.
It’s 1965 you entered
Duntroon. The Cold War is on; this division between Communism and the West. There is a war brewing in Asia. What did you know about that wider political situation at the time?
We specifically studied aspects of it. We were educated in history and issues like economic development. They were part of the
curriculum for the course that was started up with the University of New South Wales. We - again, as I mentioned earlier - were required as a matter of course to listen to the news each morning. And you’d get up at five o’clock so you could hear the news and commit it to memory. So that we became familiar with capitals and countries and leaders and communism and where the war was going on,
and the fact that we already had men from the Australian forces and the training team. We had forces deployed in Malaysia because Confrontation [Indonesian policy and belligerence towards Malaysia] was just coming to an end. So that we were well aware of what was going on. Every day made a bit more aware. Constantly educated in
our responsibility to be aware.
What sort of personal investment did you take on in that education though? Did you feel one-way or the other about the rights and wrongs?
No. I think very early on I took on the view that I was going to be a professional soldier and the responsibility of the soldiery
then was to do what the government required and that a properly elected government required. Not thoughtlessly but that we were the military arm of our country and when our elected representatives would make decisions on particular functions that the military would perform, then we just had to do it the best way, the most efficient way that we
possibly could. I very early took the view that I should take a professional view of this as a soldier. It certainly wasn’t hard to be aware of the difficulties many parts of the community were having with that idea. But again, that’s not new in this country either. There’s always been
some element of the society that just doesn’t want to have war. I understand that too. I understand it better now that I’ve been to one. No one wins at a war. But as a young man you don’t know that. I think I took a very pragmatic approach then and said, “Well sure, there are people object and people are entitled to object
in this country”. I don’t think I ever took on the role of the professional soldier to the extent that I could say they shouldn’t be objecting. I think I was quite satisfied that there were people that would object and that we were entitled to do that and that’s one of the reasons we fought. But at the same time I’d made up my own mind and I’d said, “Well that’s what I will do”.
Putting aside any specific conflict in Vietnam, a professional soldier’s job in essence is to fight wars. Is that something you think you wanted to do?
Yes. I think I did but perhaps without really understanding what that involved and what that necessitated. And we were even on occasions
given over to discussing not so much the aftermath of war and what people do then, but how you develop a group of people for war. How you encourage them and how you prepare them and even the documentation, make sure you got your will written. “Why am I writing a will?
Because I might be killed. Whoops, hang on a minute, this is a bit fearsome.” But I knew damn well as a young man no one could kill me. It just wasn’t possible. Very confident in that. It really didn’t matter how many times you read casualty lists or about death of people, even people that you
had vaguely met in the course of a very short military career at that stage. It didn’t strike home.
Coming back a bit to when you arrived in Duntroon. What were your first impressions of Canberra and the military college?
We came in by train and we were met at the station by
RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] Tom Muggleton and his staff of drill sergeants. That was an eye opener I tell you. They weren’t offering to carry our luggage or “Come along fellows, get on the bus”. No. “Form up in three ranks. What’s the matter with you, son, can’t you walk?” I remember him standing behind me and saying, “Am I
hurting you, lad?” “No.” “I ought to be. I’m standing on your hair.” “Goodness.” I chuckled a bit at this. “Don’t you laugh at me, lad.” Geez he looked terribly fierce. They were trying to establish their immediate authority I learnt in years to come. They did that very effectively. But as far as
Canberra was concerned all I saw of Canberra was what I saw out of the windows on the way out there. For the next ten weeks I think it was, it wouldn’t have mattered where I’d been. My days were entirely numbered in how shiny I could get a boot and how many steps you took on the parade ground to do such and such and what particular drill movement and what
basic military matters you had to be aware of. And the bastardisation started just in things you had to learn. The screed. I think after ten weeks you could get one afternoon out from four o’clock till seven or something like that in Canberra. So you could go and see Canberra for three hours,
but before you were allowed to do that, you had to know the screed. The screed was lots of information about the military, about Duntroon itself, the height of the flagpole, how many windows were in the military instruction block, which was a big glass building, where the guns on the Gun Gate [northern entrance to the Royal Military College] came from and what the inscription on General Bridges grave was up
on the hill [Mount Pleasant]. So we had to know all that material. You had to pass a written test before you were allowed on leave. So we were being socialised into the military setting.
You remember how many windows there are in the military instruction block?
No, but I just had a little catch in my stomach when I suddenly couldn’t remember it. I think the flagpole was 74 foot and six inches,
but you had to allow half an inch for bird shit on top; that had to be taken into account as well.
You use the term bastardisation. How were these things enforced? By the senior classes or by the drill sergeant?
A sort of moral fear by the senior classmen. The authority wielded by the RSM and the drill sergeant and by the
officers was the authority of the military. That’s what they exercised. But the authority of the senior classmen was…they had no particular authority beyond a particular rank level that existed in the Corps of Staff Cadets. But it was I said a moral fear, but it was an immoral
fear really. On occasions I think some people did jack up and say, “No, I won’t do it”. But they made your life so miserable thereafter. Every spare second of your day would be taken up with, would be devoted to ensuring that you did what you were told to do.
Again, as I think I said before, I can accept a certain degree of a rationale for these types of processes and systems. But it’s never well handled by young men and women nowadays who don’t have a lot of experience in handling people and handling people according to the different
characteristics and features that those people have. But I didn’t know it at the time. I’m pretty sure that the young men and women nowadays - I would hope that the next generation learns a little bit more - but I suspect those sort of things still go on to a certain degree. I know that the military has worked very hard in the last 20 odd years to eliminate it completely but I don’t think they ever do.
Because any group like that in socialising itself tries to find particular levels so that there are authorities exercised by…and particularly where you’ve got a nice tidy gradation by classes and people have been here a year longer than another person then it’s a very difficult thing to manage. Very interesting social exercise too I’m sure. But the sad thing about it is it really
dramatically affected some people. Some people couldn’t handle it at all and left.
We’ll talk about those people, but maybe just give us some examples of exactly what they did and what they did to you?
What they did to me. For example, in our rooms everything was ordered, regimented in the military fashion. So the cupboards,
there was a space for everything in your cupboard. We had shirts with detachable collars so the collars went in one place and the shirts in another particular spot. They had to be ironed into nine-inch wide piles and everything would be in particular piles. The senior classman normally as the
person who’d been there three years and that was the second classman and a year short of the first one, they would periodically and regularly inspect your room. So after you’d worked hours and hours to get your things, they’d walk in and say, “Ruler? No, that’s a fraction over nine inches” and just throw it out on the floor. Oh, or
you’d have to strip the weapon and lay it out in a particular style on the bed. They’d just tip it up and say it all had to be made up again. Or the bed would have to be made up with particular hospital corners. They’d pull that out onto the floor. So effectively you were always starting again. “Do it again. Not good enough”. Or “There’s dust on the floor”. Or they’d take a white ceremonial glove,
rub it over the window sill, “Dust on that. Do it again”. There’s a particular manner in which they could do it too that related more to rather than the process that they’re employing, that related more to the personality of the people that are doing it. Every now and then you come across a personality you just couldn’t get on with. But
you live through it and after a while it dissipated as you become part of it. I suspect they were able to - the people doing the bastardisation - were able to do it a lot easier, their own personal apprehension was easier for them when they didn’t know the person. But then as you were incorporated into mainstream life at the college,
it was much more difficult and their own colleagues would then identify any excesses in most cases and pull them into line too. There’s a certain degree of control but not well exercised amongst young men without a lot of experience.
You mentioned that some fellows couldn’t take it. What happened to cadets who couldn’t take the life there?
Inevitably they left.
Were there incidents that you can recall?
None that I care to recall. There were. Yes there were a number over the years and I do recall that
they resulted in investigations and questioning of many people about how particular cadets had been treated. I remember in my own senior class year, I think it was, which was at a time when we weren’t really involved a lot in dealing with the junior cadets. Your final year was really devoted very much to
preparing you for a command that you were supposed to take up the next year. So it was the class below you that had that sort of responsibility. But I do remember the commanding officer of the Corps of Staff Cadets collecting my senior class together in the coffee room and haranguing us about the way a particular cadet had been treated.
He was disgusted. But I wasn’t aware of what had particularly gone on in relation to that cadet. But he left and I’m sure there was another investigation. There have been many investigations in the military college. But yes it was quite bad. As I say,
invariably they left. Some of my own class left, some of the people that I went through with. One left and came back which was a very very brave thing to do I think. He came back the next year and went on to make a good solid career for himself. But I think both the military and he recognised that at the time he left he
just wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Others left because it wasn’t at all what they’d expected, the type of life, and as they became more aware, “Damned if I’m going to do this”. I don’t think there were huge numbers left because of the hazing or anything like that, but there were some. I’d hate to make that a focus. It was an unfortunate
thing, and I was never comfortable with it myself and yet was involved with it too. I’m sure I was involved to the same extent as most of my colleagues. I wouldn’t seek to relieve myself of any blame in that regard but I was never comfortable with it.
It was as you say a part of the system and it had its reasons and it worked and it fitted in
with the establishment. Was there a line at which the behaviour once crossed became something else and was that something that was acknowledged perhaps by the people in control?
I’m sure there was. But it was a very grey line. It wasn’t black and white. There were probably black and white measures on occasions. Like you mentioned before beatings and things like that; that didn’t occur.
I don’t recall, no I just don’t recall anyone being beaten up, which is probably - some people probably would have been able to deal with that a lot easier than the sort of mental issues that arose from the pressures that they were put under. They’d probably be able to deal…in fact
I found it very hard to deal with these sorts of things; it was like the schoolyard bully almost but without getting beaten up, but that constant pressure on you. You didn’t have enough sleep. You had to do all these jobs. You had to remember particular things. And there’d be someone shouting at you all the time. I thought they were all chiefs and no Indians. I thought I was the only Indian and many other people the same. But
the eventual release was sport and our academic curriculum. You’d be in the classroom and it was almost a relief. You were away from the living quarters. And in sport and some of these same people who were giving you such a hard time had to line up on the other side of the paddock and run into you, and a lot of people got their own back then.
Squared up. And there was a recognition that there was a bit of a square-up like that too and that’s about the time when it would start to peter out in the course of the year. But then of course not everyone was in the position to be able to do that. There might be a person who was not as strong and nowadays I suppose when there are men and women at these various institutions, they’re not going to be able to take out their spleen on
some young woman that’s given them a hard time. It’s just much more difficult nowadays. But I was fortunate in that I could see an end in sight to that sort of hazing and that sort of activity and eventually I got through. Doubted a couple of times that I would and still remember
one or two men. But I got over it.
Moving on from that, what about what you classed as the military authority, the drill sergeants and the RSM? What was that training like and how did you adapt to that in the early stages?
It was always firm. In fact, the simple statement is firm and fair.
There were characters amongst the drill sergeants. They had a particular job to do and they had to teach us to do particular things. It might be parade ground drill or it might be naming of parts in weapons, to recall Allen’s poem Naming Of Parts, or it might be minor tactics.
But that was inevitably done according to tried and tested military instructional techniques and sometimes it was just so by the book you’d say, “Geez, that came out of a pamphlet” [military training manual] but you learnt it. You learnt how to zero the weapon, how to operate the radio set and
in some cases why you did it that particular way. But I think they were men who were long past any idea of hazing or fazing. They not only exercised authority, but they demanded respect and immediate response. In some cases it was very easy to respect some of them because
of the way in which they conducted themselves and instructed you. Other people it was not as easy but you were obliged to accord them respect in the manner in which you approached them. You just learnt that in part of the socialising process.
Who were the figures that one way or the other influenced you the most during your first couple of years at Duntroon?
The RSM, Tom Muggleton. The RSM is always somebody you expect to be just a rock and he was a rock. He’s still alive old Tom.
Lives in Canberra. But he and a couple of warrant officers there who were Korean War veterans I remember them particularly. Another old sergeant, a Kiwi sergeant too, a New Zealander; they always had one there. Just a very fine
body of very experienced non-commissioned officers. I suppose they were the ones who created in our mind’s eye what we expected from the non-commissioned officers that we would eventually get to see. It was a good solid reliable picture. They weren’t always the best-educated men although they’d probably done their military schools.
And they weren’t as articulate even as us, but they could get a point across. They could explain it in sometimes colourful language, sometimes with really unusual vigour. One fellow was given to saying something like, “If that arm continues to flap about like that, I’m going to have to tear it off and rub
the dirty end in your face”. The first couple of times you hear this, “My God, it’s terrible”. But after a while it was like his exclamation mark. He’d really become upset about this arm flapping around where it shouldn’t be flapping around. They all had their own little tricks and idiosyncrasies for instruction but you very quickly.
accepted them and I’m sure many of us adopted some of those idiosyncrasies. But they were very influential. We also had officers - there was an officer in charge of each company - we didn’t get to see them as much. They administered the cadet corps and they kept notes on you coming in from various parts and periodically they’d interview you to find out how things
were going. Sometimes you thought they were genuinely interested and other times they were just going through the motions. But again they were normally carefully selected for a whole range of skills, even if it was just to coach the footy team. But I suspect many of them were identified as people who could work with young men
and who’d evidenced some particular capacity and skill themselves in some other job. They were mainly captains and majors.
What were the common punishments meted out by the military authorities? By the RSM?
Extra drill. It depended on what particular area you were in. For example if you were at physical training,
PT lessons or anything like that. The old PTI [Physical Training Instructor] would say, “You slacker. Two times up the rope”. Quite often this gesture, they’d indicate with the whole hand. That was so they didn’t point at you because pointing at a young officer is rude; only we weren’t young officers then, we were enlisted and we weren’t appointed officers, but anyway. Someone had told them
years ago that it was rude to point, so indicate with the whole hand. So you’d do something wrong and the PTI would say, “Two times up the rope” so you’d have to climb the rope twice to the ceiling but that was part of the PT instruction anyway. We had Reveille every morning at six fifteen and periodic inspections
to make sure that everyone did get up at that time. Or lights out at a certain time of night and the officers would go through a block to check these things. Your door would suddenly burst open, “You’re not out of bed? Three day stoppage of leave.” I suppose stoppage of leave only came where you were in a position where you actually got some leave. Before that, the two junior classes could get extra drill. That was a very frustrating
extra drill. You normally got two or three together, which meant that each morning you had to get up well before Reveille, dress yourself in the dress of the day. If it was wintertime, put your greatcoat on, your webbing over the top of that. Pack,
basic webbing and with your weapon present yourself at the parade ground at six fifteen where you would be drilled for 30 minutes with pack on in full marching order. It’d be “Left turn, right turn, left turn, left, right, left, right, right turn, left turn” just drive you mad. But it wasn’t even that. We were young and fit.
It wasn’t even doing the drill. It was the rigmarole of getting down there, taking all this equipment that you had rolled and packed in a certain way and displayed in your room, putting it on and then having to reassemble it in this particular style and form when you got back there and then perhaps at some stage during the day because you were doing something in the military wing, adjust it to fit the new set of clothing that you had on.
A couple of days extra drill could throw your whole routine out something serious. Extra drill. Even filling out the form had to be done in a particular style and format quite rigidly dealt with, which was considered by the company AQ [Adjutant Quartermaster] clerk who was the only person with any rank in your second year.
The company AQ clerk had to make sure that everyone had properly used the correct regulation in the book and had used the correct style of letters and the right height and the right angle. It was constant nit-picky things, which eventually became a part of your life and didn’t bother you at all. Those sorts of things. Extra drill did. Then subsequently as you got into the senior classes, stoppage of leave
handed out with gay abandon by some people who again weren’t really good with exercising authority or being selective in how they exercised a particular disciplinary authority. On most occasions you’d have to go for a hearing before the company commander and you were always guilty.
What kind of a cadet were you? Were you
often on extra drill? What for?
No. I had my share of them but nowhere near the numbers that other people got. Some people got…one of my good mates when he left the college after four years I think he still owed them extra drills. But I had the advantage at the outset that I had been in the cadets.
I had some understanding. I remember another good mate of mine - he’s in Canberra too - the first day I saw him put a uniform on, he looked like a postie: slouch hat, he bashed it [set the shape] all wrong and had his gaiters on back to front, his belt upside-down. It was a
terrible problem trying to fix him up as well as fix yourself up. You had to do those sorts of things too. It wasn’t a problem. There was always one of your mates around who’d try and help out. But for the sort of things that you’d get them for would be, could be on the parade ground and turning your head to look at something that you saw.
“I told you to look to the front. Extra drill.” “Oh God.” I don’t think the academic instructors were allowed to give out extra drills willy-nilly which would have caused difficulties but they could report you to the military authorities for being late to classes and they would probably award you extra drills for that. Some of the academics of course, as was appropriate for the times, even
at the military college some of them were quite leftish leaning and thought the whole military system was a farce and this shouldn’t occur. So they wouldn’t report you. We just played on that.
Somewhat of a compromising position I imagine?
We took a practical view and said, well that’s their personal problem, it’s not ours. All there is in us
is an advantage. That’s all there is for us in it. But they were doing things according to their lives too.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 04
What was the mix of blokes like going into Duntroon with you?
Real variety. We had a very large class the year I entered. There was
106 or something like that, maybe more, and about 66 of us finished the four years. They came from every state. They came from public schools and private schools. There was long ones and short ones and fat ones. One fellow I think he’d been an
Olympic triallist in swimming. Another fellow was trying to decide whether he’d take up a lucrative Aussie Rules [football] contract. Other ones, quite a number of them, had offers of very fine scholarships to university. There was such a range of people.
All with their own differing views on what they expected I think and what they were going to get out of it, and it’s quite interesting sometimes to look back now and see the directions that it’s taken some of them to. It was a period where they were placing a bit more emphasis on the education, but we were still only in the early stages of it. With
the university, we weren’t drawing a degree, but I suppose second level and you could shortly thereafter finish a degree afterwards. The number of people who went on to finish degrees and then subsequently master’s degrees and doctorates are quite considerable I think. I can think of maybe four or five just off the top of my head who have doctorates now.
Then there were about four generals came out of that class. One of them’s the Chief of Defence Force now, Cosgrove’s the Chief of Defence Force [General Peter Cosgrove], and others who’ve gone on got out relatively early afterwards and made a success of life in the business world. By any sort of reasonable measure,
it was a very, what’s the word I’d use, capable group of people. I suppose in one sense they were all selected, but then they select people for lots of things. They were well aware that a war was starting up and one that
could involve us and yet they were still joining up. I was always very comfortable - which is a thing that worried everyone I suppose to start - with how I fit in with this group. Because right from the outset you’ve been selected, to build us up I think, so you’re special.
Thing my wife actually complains about now. She says, “You actually believed all that rubbish, didn’t you?” And it’s true, we did. We thought we were a bit special. But initially you were very concerned about how you’d fit in with all these people from all these posh schools and people who had very good passes in the leaving certificate or the super-duper sportsman. How will I ever get to play in any team?
But you eventually found a spot for yourself. Everybody found a spot for themselves.
You talked before in your cadets about your introduction to private school boys. Were there any class differences at Duntroon?
No. You mean, say, in any one group of people?
Would you have been able to tell who the private
school boys were and did it make a difference to you?
Not after a week or two. Even then I didn’t know too much about it. I couldn’t tell a Kings School fellow from a Joeys [St Joseph’s School in Sydney] fellow. They probably could, but I couldn’t. And then of course there are also the Queensland schools, then the Victorian schools, West Australian. They all had their own. But I don’t think anyone…
I did hear a very good story that Cosgrove told at one of our reunions recently involving both himself and one of our classmates who was a very fine soldier and a man that we always thought would end up in Cosgrove’s position now. But he didn’t. He left probably 15 years ago and just decided it didn’t suit him.
But I think he’d been at The Kings School. They were both on a bus going in to RMC [Royal Military College] from the railway station and Cosgrove said he tried to strike up a conversation with this fellow and said, “What school did you go to?” “Kings.” “Oh. Right. That’s a pretty good school I believe.” “Yes. It is.”
“I suppose you played in the football team.” “Yes. I was the captain of the rugby team. Rugby Union we played there.” “Oh right. And I suppose a pretty extensive range of subjects.” “Yes. I topped the school in three of my subjects, but otherwise, yes I had quite an interesting group of subjects.”
“And did you involve yourself in lots of other things in the school?” “Yes. I was captain of the school. And yourself? What do you think about all this?” “I think I’m on the wrong bus.”
What sort of a cadet was Peter Cosgrove?
He was like the rest of us I think. An average sort of bloke; always very vigorous.
His father was in the army so he had a sense of the military also. Bit of a wild man. Keen on sport. Naturally capable in subjects like English and history and always interested in expanding his knowledge. But otherwise he got in the same amount of trouble as the rest of us,
always in some blue somewhere about something. There was always something going on. Cosgrove was involved in it too.
Just on that issue of private schools and class base, did you ever have to justify yourself that you didn’t come from a private school going into Duntroon?
No. Duntroon I’m quite certain was
colour blind and socially blind. It didn’t make a difference. I can’t ever recall any sort of incident. Even things like…and it’s only something of note I’ve thought about in later years. There weren’t any aboriginals in my class. I don’t think that would have made a difference. There were
lots of children of migrants, Hungarians and Austrians. A very good mate of mine that I formed over here, he was killed shortly after we left, but his parents were migrants from Hungary. It was almost obvious that he had some sort of European background from his family, but it just didn’t make a difference. Even
one that had some sort of dark skin colouring. But I can’t remember anything ever came up about any of those subjects. We made much of things like which school you came from for maybe the first day. Thereafter it was entirely forgotten. In one sense
that was a part of the socialising process too. I’ve heard it said many times over my career about the United States Marines. They break everyone down to the basic blob of humanity and then they build them back up. I’ve never believed that. I don’t think you can break a person down into parts like that and then expect to build them back up and create a whole person.
But it was a phrase that they used. It had a certain degree of currency in Australia in so far as - and I’ve heard myself say this a number of times today - this socialising process. I think that’s as good and as close a word as you can get to it. There was a need to group everyone together to make them feel like a unit. Some cohesion. Just to allow them to find some support
amongst themselves for what everybody outside knew would be a difficult time for us. That was one of the processes that was successfully and unsuccessfully employed.
Can you give us just an overview of what your education consisted of there and how it was divided between academic and military training?
Yes. Five days a week. It would normally be academic classes either in
direct lecturing or in tutorials, but not the whole day. And I don’t have any - yes I do, of course I do - but the type of subjects I expected was probably the same types and rates of lectures that were at the University of New South Wales. As an arts student I did English, history,
economics, those types of subjects. In the first year or two I might have done Science A and Science B, which was just two - I think there might even be a military element there apart from the liberal education was to ensure that you could understand some of the matters that you’d be dealing with in your military career, as a matter of science. But for the arts student it was intended as a liberal education.
Our subjects even in the first year I think we studied Australian and American and British writers. We read Patrick White’s Voss and The Tree of Man. We had good lecturers. Economics was in economic development, economic geography, those types of subjects. And history.
And that academic list of subjects went on for several years. There was also a science course there and an engineering course. They worked very hard as people do in engineering and science courses. They couldn’t understand what we worried about in arts courses.
“You have to study that? Don’t you just go and read it? What do you mean study?” There were always those sorts of conflicts and time available. Also in the course of a day at least several days a week you would have a physical education, physical training, which might involve work in the gymnasium or outside somewhere and you’re carting logs around. That was just good common-sense
to keep us fit and active and working. In addition we had our military subjects, which might just be drill on the parade ground or it might be infantry minor tactics down at the wing, shooting out on the rifle range. That normally took a bit more time and so had to be much better planned and coordinated because you weren’t allowed to eat into the academic time either.
And then at the end of each year of course we had a large camp training program where we were put out in the bush for several weeks. That was to exercise us as a unit in a constructive task force setting and to give the senior cadets some experience in moving troops around the ground, conducting ambushes, cause there’s no doubt at the time
also we were interested in low-level jungle warfare and things like that so there was a lot of emphasis on those sort of activities. It wasn’t equal parts. There was probably a greater degree of emphasis on our academic work at that time, certainly in the early years. But there was the physical education and sport and
our basic military training that probably over the first two or three years might have taken us to what a corporal might know in an infantry platoon in basic tactics and how to live in the field and how to run a section of ten men. In our own socialised process in the Corps of Staff Cadets, we
were each in companies which were broken into platoons which were broken into sections. We had certain responsibilities there just for managing our own living accommodation for example, from leave for having persons on duty to deal with rolls on parade and whether people were sick or medically restricted
or anything like that.
Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam War escalated during your time at Duntroon. They committed a battalion. How did that change things at the military college?
Not a lot at all. We were certainly aware of it and what we were all hoping to do was get out and get our tour of duty
before it finished. We got regular information back sometimes from the senior class that had just graduated and some of them died too of course. That was always very sad. But we got information back and our instructors were constantly turning over as well.
Some of those came back from a tour of duty in Vietnam so we had good information on the relatively low level at which Australian troops were operating. We weren’t there with huge strategic numbers like the Americans were. But we were most interested in how platoons, companies and battalions operated and issues
of patrolling and utilisation of armoured personnel carriers, infantry operating with a small amount of armour that we had there and how you fought bunker systems, how you ambushed, how you patrolled. They were the types of matters that we could get information on fairly easy and we spent a lot of time talking amongst ourselves about it.
Was there a point at which that
information started coming in or was it already part of the curriculum?
It was part of the curriculum. We could see it change because in our very first year there, which was 65, when the battalion was committed - that was one area I think - I suppose the
experience then was of Malaya and patrolling in a jungle, so to that extent it was more of the same. But operating in a war zone where there was a big shooting war going on and aircraft dropping bombs all over the place and ships offshore supporting attacks by infantry,
rocket attacks, fighter aircraft, helicopters by the ream. It was just so different to the way in which Australian battalions operated in Malaya where they were very quiet and periodically got an aircraft to drop something and on occasion could fire a mission from a battery if they were in reams of artillery. But this was a totally different shooting, but
in a very basic sense it was jungle fighting again. We already thought we were pretty good at that.
What sort of equipment were you exposed to at Duntroon? You’ve mentioned armoured personnel carriers, helicopters.
We were regularly taken off to various places where we would see kit.
In our first years when other people would normally in an academic year have holidays, we’d be taken on an industrial tour or something like that to have a look at the military industrial complex such as it was or other aspects of the industrial complex in south eastern Australia. So we saw - I’ve forgotten the name of the aircraft now - the flying brick,
the Mirage aircraft [jet fighter aircraft of the 60s and 70s] being constructed, given information about the huge amount of wiring in it and given various diagrams showing how it worked. So we saw helicopters. I think the first weapon they showed us to handle was still the 303. But we had the self-loading rifle.
We had an anti tank weapon, Karl Gustav 84-millimetre [recoilless rifle, rocket launcher], which would have been very useful against bunkers but they wouldn’t provide ammunition for us because we were joining the Americans and we had none [Swedish Government embargo]. So we fired this damn thing on the range but knew we wouldn’t be able to get ammunitions for it in Vietnam. You could always
see that little political element in something as simple as that. We weren’t going to be using that. But then again we came across lots of other more efficient weapons, much lighter and much more suited to the particular purpose that we were going to be employing them for when we eventually got there. We still did our normal training on ranges.
And with infantry minor tactics, we became aware very quickly that there was a very serious threat from mines. So at the engineer school, we were exposed to mines and the types of mines and even the simplistic way that is the best way to pick them up, and made constantly aware how difficult that task is,
and how long it takes, what impact. They raised constant questions as well, “You’re supposed to be moving at how many metres a day. Yet if you come across mines you’re going to reduce that by a factor of five or something like that”. All those sorts of questions constantly being raised in one venue or another.
Were mines a particularly fearful weapon?
Do you think they were more or less feared than others?
I think so. I think mines, yeah, they’re a constant worry. But I think you very quickly put them to the back of your mind. I do recall the first time I went outside the wire in Vietnam was with a tail patrol from 6 RAR [6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment] and
they were leaving next day. So it was pretty much a search and hide operation. They call them search and destroy operations. These were search and hide. That corporal, he wasn’t going to have any of his men get shot on the last day in Vietnam. They were trying to find the biggest clump of scrub they had to set up and ambush. But while it was their last day in Vietnam, it was my first day. I’d had a look
at the mine incident report map which they’d long ago forgotten to worry about and it was just red dots all over the place. This is where there’s been a mine incident. I knew there’d been mine incidents near where we were going into and I was trying to walk six inches above the ground. I suspect on that very same afternoon I said, “There’s just nothing I can do about this. You look for signs. You keep off tracks. You keep away from
really obvious areas where they’ll put it and then you just forget about it”. But you can’t forget about it. You’ve got to be aware because they’re always out to get you. But in some circumstances you could get into areas where there was much more likelihood there was going to be mines. One of the areas that we were in there was an old
Viet Cong engineer battalion and if you were in any of the areas they’d been in, there’d be booby traps wherever they’d been. So you knew to look for them and some of our men were really good at picking those things up. I had the advantage of that situation a couple of times when one of our scouts picked up signs which made us immediately aware there was something unusual around there. And we found mines,
booby traps they were in that case. There were other times in Vietnam when some of the battalions suffered terribly from mines in the Long Hai hills. We lost a lot of men there.
We’ll come back to some of these issues a bit later in the interview, but just while we’re still on the training at Duntroon, as Australia’s commitment increased the political situation in
Australia changed as well. What contact did you have with that while you were training to be an officer at Duntroon?
Not a great deal at all. We were…it was like a seminary in some respects. We really were in a convent. We didn’t just come and go as we pleased from RMC
in the course of a week, which is not to say there weren’t fellows who went over the hill [absent without leave] in the course of a week at night, but certainly that wasn’t a common practice. So if you went out it’d be on a weekend. It’d be after your sport on Saturday night. And then if you had some jobs to do on Sunday morning, normally at the very least you had personal administration like
washing and cleaning and perhaps even studying for work during the next week. So we didn’t mix a lot. We mixed with ourselves. The furthest afield we might go might be one of the blokes had a car you might go out to Collector and have a few beers. That wasn’t well accepted either, that you could go drinking. If an RMC cadet was caught drunk in
charge of a vehicle or drunk anywhere then you could be dealt with by the civil courts, but he would also be dealt with by the commandant, hopefully just by the commanding officer who would then perhaps just order some stoppage of leave. If by the commandant, he would probably discharge you. When you’d got that far, it’s not worth it. So beyond what we obviously read and were aware of because it was a
topical issue, we weren’t confronted by the issue every day. Some people did very carefully think about it. I remember in my second last year there, a very highly regarded cadet deciding that he would conscientiously object.
Graduated. I think he did eventually go, but in a civil affairs unit rather than to an infantry unit where he would have normally been allocated. That was very interesting for a while amongst the particular circle of friends he had, which included some men in my own class. They discussed it in the evenings
on occasions but I wasn’t one given to discussing those type of things. I decided I’d made up my mind. It wasn’t that I was oblivious to it or that I’d deliberately put it out of my mind. It was just that I was quite clear what I was going to do.
What about some of the academics you mentioned may have been a little bit more appreciative of those opinions? Were they ever influential in any way in telling you about what
was going on?
No. I don’t believe so. For example, like almost becoming propagandist or something like that? No. I wasn’t aware of that. And I would have been aware of it. But I’m quite certain that some of them thought that it was
entirely wrong for Australia to be involved in this particular war, and some of them in any war. But they didn’t I don’t think influence us in any particular way and certainly didn’t try and disseminate any propaganda. They would have been just out on their ear. Wouldn’t fit.
What about propaganda the other way? Do you think you were ever given
a diet of propaganda to get behind this war?
No. I don’t think there was a diet of propaganda, but then again I don’t think they had to. We had been socialised into a military organisation without any particular war in mind but just as part of a defence force, and I think that most of us just assumed and
accepted that was our purpose. We were being trained to be employed as part of the military machine. After you’d been there a few years, the ones who were left were well satisfied with that circumstance. Not busting to go to war I wouldn’t say. Not everyone was. Some people really
could see this as the only way to make their mark in a career was to get a war under your belt. But others’d be quite happy to just serve; it’d be just a job. But I didn’t feel that we were the subjects of propaganda at any stage or that we were such a group as anyone felt
that there was a need to propagandise any part of the process that we were involved in, because there weren’t any real doubts about whether we’d be an effective military force.
Just going back to something you said before, if you did get leave from Duntroon, where would you go? Why Collector for example? Why
would you go out there for a drink?
Much less likelihood of any of the members of staff or the drill sergeants or from the officer corps being out in those locations. More often than not married men would be around their quarters or in Canberra somewhere. You could go out there and have a beer at least. We used to go as far afield as perhaps Bredbo,
Collector, Bungendore; old beer garden in the pub at Bungendore. But on other occasions you’d try some of the footy pubs around town if you were feeling game. But I remember one time I went to Manuka footy club there and just turning around from the bar, quite satisfied that me and a few mates’d be able to get a beer there and they’d let us in, it wasn’t a problem.
Turn around with a beer in each hand and there’s the RSM standing in front of me. “There, young Rolfe.” “RSM, God.” “Finish those up and I’ll see you on Monday morning.” “Yes, sir.” Go over to a mate who was immediately in behind the pillar and…Tom was good that way. He knew that I had two beers, so it was obviously for one of my mates. Didn’t ask me who
my mate was because I couldn’t tell him. But I was caught cold and he knew it and I knew it and I got three extra drills I think.
Were you identifiable in the Canberra community as Duntroon people?
Canberra community tells me we were. We always had short hair, tie and jacket and
polished shoes and grey trousers. Yep we were identifiable. ‘Cordys’. ‘Bloody Cordys’.
Did you play in the local rugby competition for example? How did you get on with the non-military players?
Yes. Some of them pretty well. Some of them were good. In my first year here
I was in the under-19 team and we won the competition the first year. And then in the next several years, I played in the first grade team which also helped my socialisation at RMC too because I was still a junior classman but playing with the senior classmen. There were a number of us in that sort of boat. But we did mix with some
clubs. Some clubs were well aware of the circumstances at RMC. So Easts, for example, would always put a keg on for us in a quiet spot and we could go and have a beer with them and have a yarn. Some of the others wouldn’t, said it was our own problem. That probably worked round and round too. No, we could get on with sporting teams and some people
made life-long friends there and they were highly regarded as contributing to the Canberra sporting scene. They were much sought after in teams. It wasn’t always possible for us to get men into representative teams because inevitably it’d come up at a time they want them to play just when we were supposed to be going on exercise. It was always plain the emphasis that the commandant
would place on our training rather than the… But there also were problems with it. I remember on one occasion the captain of the First 15 he got two weeks suspension for thumping this fellow in a footy match. I wished I could have thumped him too; I think he did entirely the proper thing. But he got two weeks off the local
rugby judiciary for thumping this bloke and he got four weeks off the commandant, which we all thought was pretty tough. But the commandant said, “I don’t care what they say, this is what I’ve decided. You’re not playing for four weeks.”
I’ve heard from others that there was some conflict between the university in Canberra and the military college. What, if anything, did you see of that?
Again, that had apparently dissipated
by the time I started. But I’ve heard of that. Certainly there was much folklore at the military college about it and in the several years before I started, so it would have been the early 60s, there’d been reciprocal raids on the respective premises. I think there’d been an old car burnt on the parade ground, which I think even the RSM didn’t like that.
He thought it was not a good thing to have conflict between the university and the cadets, but when they burnt a car on the parade ground, that’s a different matter. “My parade ground!” And there was a large raid on one of the houses of residence where I think cadets did a lot of damage too, which caused an almighty ruckus and questions in parliament.
So that there were very stern measures imposed on that sort of thing by the time I arrived there and we’d developed a better relationship. They’d actually developed a day of various competitions called Bury The Hatchet Day. It was a deliberate attempt to try and rectify the unfortunate bad feelings that had arisen over a period of time and they were trying to bury the hatchet.
I think it worked. But some of it was just mythology anyway. I remember when I subsequently attended the ANU [Australian national University] and went to games between - at one stage I even coached the university rugby union team - but by that stage RMC was past its best days as a rugby giant, which it was at one stage
in the local competition. But I remember even then, you had people saying, “Boo! Cordys” without even knowing why they were. “Why do we do that?” “That’s the way we’ve always done it”. And the Cordys did pretty much the same thing, “Bloody uni!” “Why do we say that?” “Because we’ve always said that”.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 05
Your graduation at Duntroon, can you share your memories with me there?
Yes. It was a very fine time. It was largely taken up with ceremony
because we had a large parade, all parents invited in and they’ve got Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff there handing out certificates and things like that. We had to train and drill in the mornings and evening for some weeks before to make sure everything was perfect if the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Minister
and all those sorts of people were going to be there. I was a company sergeant major then. I led one of the companies. So a lot of your time was just taken up in making sure your company was properly outfitted and dressed and drilled properly. But at the same time we had the opportunity to take an evening off and go out with our parents
to dinner. I remember booking a table for dinner in the Canberra Rex Hotel, which was fairly flash those days, for Mum and Dad and myself; Joan was there too, my wife. That was a nice event. It was. But it was just surprising
that we’d been there four years and it had just gone so quickly. We were being posted off to units. We’d been told which units we were being posted to. I was going to an infantry battalion, which was earmarked within about 12 months for service in Vietnam. So I knew it was all going to come to fruition, which was some concern again, because of all the efforts to make peace and all the bombing going on in North Vietnam at the time. It might all
finish before we got deployed. That was a bit of a worry, which is a terrible thing to think back on now. What a funny thing to think, “I miss out on my war, geez, what’ll that do to my career?” But it was lots of colour and bands and marching if you were into
that sort of thing. It was really nice. My Mum really enjoyed it. She liked seeing her son graduate as an officer in the Australian Army. And we even had I think a fathers’ day too. We all went down to Number One Oval and had a few beers with our fathers, the whole class. My old man got a bit tipsy,
accidentally backed into…I think he was overbalancing and went backwards into a fibro wall in the old change sheds there and put a hole through the wall with his elbow. But old [Major] John Godwin who was in charge of company administration at the time - since died - lovely old fellow and a veteran of New Guinea, and he and my father had been talking
about times in New Guinea and things like that. Then my father was terribly upset that he’d actually holed this wall and what were we going to do about that? God, we’d have to go and get a piece of wood and fix it up. And John, “No, no, no, not a problem at all. We’ll fix it up tomorrow. Not a worry”. But I don’t think my father could forget it for weeks.
Did you father or mother
mention anything to you about a, graduating and b, Vietnam?
No. It was all pretty much a set course. I think they were very proud to come down and see me leading one of the companies and see me graduate. Said, “Now you might get a job instead of being educated all the time”. But no we didn’t talk much about it.
Even when I eventually left for Vietnam, my wife and I drove down from Townsville at Christmas time and we could travel about fairly easily then because everything we owned was pretty much in the car. I remember we left from Merriwagga where my brother and sister were living in a house in town.
Tiny little town. Mum and Dad drove out to see us off. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back again before I went overseas, so I just said, “Right, I’ll see you later”. He said, “Yeah. Better keep your head down”. And that was it. It really seemed quite inappropriate going off to war,
but I wasn’t going for months yet so it was anti-climactic I suppose.
Now did you get married just after finishing at Duntroon?
Yes, within days. Came straight back from grad [graduation], which was about two or three December I think,
back to Griffith and we married on the 13th or 14th. Oh my God, I should remember that. I know I’m very close to that. You might have to white out that. Oh dear. Well she may never get to see this, may she?
Well not this particular tape. Did she know what she was getting into marrying a military man?
I think so. You talk about it a little bit because it was a question at the outset and we talked about marriage. Always loved her very much. But I didn’t feel right about marrying before I went overseas going off to war. I knew we were having casualties and I’d seen one or two of the men come back very badly injured, and I just didn’t
think it was right to make that sort of commitment for the rest of your life, didn’t know if you were going to have the rest of your life. But she was very practical about that, “Oh well, yes I suppose we could leave it but of course by the time you get back, I may not be here.” “What do you mean?” “Not going to sit around waiting forever you know.” “Alright, if that’s the way
it’s going to be then perhaps we should get married now.” “I think that’d be a good idea.” So it was done. It was under threat.
So after graduating and getting married, you went to Townsville, is that right? Just share with me the story of what regiment you joined and what you were doing there.
I went to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which was in the course of being
relocated from Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane to Townsville to new barracks constructed there. The 6th Battalion was in residence and training up and they would very shortly thereafter leave for Vietnam. I polished myself up and then on the particular date that I was supposed
to report for the battalion went out there and there’s not a soul there. No one. Not a soul. So I went across to the 6th Battalion lines and fortunately the adjutant of the 6th Battalion had been the adjutant at the military college. He wasn’t worried at all. “Ah there, young Rolfe” another young Rolfe “what are you doing here?”
“I’m supposed to report to 2 RAR today in Townsville.” “Well they’re not here, are they?” “No sir.” “Well then you better work with us.” So I worked with the 6th Battalion for a few days. They gave me a job there checking out all the accommodation in their lines and within I think probably a week the advance party for the 2nd Battalion arrived and
I met a number of the officers. But it was being rebuilt because it had earlier had a tour in Vietnam and then virtually, not disbanded, but they’d been run down while they devoted all their effort to the other battalions that were being allocated. So 2 RAR was being reconstructed as a fighting unit.
But I didn’t have any men in my platoon at that stage. It was a couple more weeks before the company commander arrived. So we were really scratching round trying to figure out what the hell to do with ourselves and what sort of matters we could put in place to make it easier when we did start to get men in, because they very quickly then did start coming in. But it was really advantageous for me because I was a new boy which was always going to be hard moving into an
established system. But I was a new boy in a new ground and I was first there and it really was helpful so when people started drifting in, they had to come and see me to see where to go and I had a sort of administrative role for quite some time until we got the units moved in; then I started to get my own men
allocated to me. We started building from there.
So who was actually in command before the CO [Commanding Officer] had arrived?
He came with the advance party, but there wasn’t anyone there. Someone had just given me the wrong dates, or perhaps they’d given me the right dates, but when they changed no one bothered to inform me because I was on leave en route to Townsville. So they said, “He’s only a lieutenant anyway”,
so when I turned up and I did the right thing, I went and found another unit, and they let everyone know that I was already there and they said, “Well done, don’t send him down to Brisbane then force him to go back up again. You look after him until we get there”. And my wife and I lived in a hotel on the smell of an oily rag, I might add, because we were down to our last dollars when the battalion
was eventually settled and they actually paid me. We were trying to figure out how we’d get a meal somewhere, how we’d pay our bills. I think I probably had 400 dollars when we started off and then we had to live for several weeks on 400 dollars.
So what infrastructure was there for the 2nd Battalion?
A whole new barracks. Very
fine, at the time the best of the best. Probably still there and looking sadly the worse for wear now, but that’s quite a time ago. But at the time we had lines for a battalion, brand new lines, so that all the administrative buildings were brand new, the big storage areas for our Q [Quartermaster] stores. Each of the companies had headquarter
buildings with storage for weapons. The troops had lines with four to a room, which was pretty good at the time, and showers at both ends of the block with enough showers for everybody. They were all new with new ovals and new parade ground and a training area up on the High Range. It was state of the art for the time.
And how long
did you wait for your platoon to come along?
Yes, I was a platoon commander. I was 1 Platoon, A Company of the 2nd Battalion. They came in dribs and drabs for some weeks or some months as they came from other locations in the case of some of the non commissioned officers and came out of the recruit training
into their infantry training in Singleton and then up to Townsville to join the battalion where we undertook our unit training.
These are all national servicemen are they?
About half and half. I had some regulars and some national servicemen. All the non-commissioned officers - I had a sergeant and three corporals - they were all regular soldiers. One of those had already had one tour of
duty in Vietnam; two of them had, and initially a platoon sergeant who had been around for donkeys’ years, old Jimmy Doyle, and he helped me out a lot, great fellow. But he wasn’t allocated to my
platoon, he was allocated to another. But they had the same sort of trouble. The platoon commanders didn’t even arrive there for a while. They came up from Brisbane as well. They’d been working in Brisbane and so they came in dribs and drabs as well. So I got to know all of the NCOs [Non-commissioned Officers] in the company and particularly my own NCOs quite well before the soldiers actually started coming in.
How was Jimmy Doyle a help to you?
talking to me about how you deal with particular incidents, how you deal with soldiers, what sort of training they’d been doing, the type of work that we’d be doing in Vietnam. He was just a mine of information. In fact, on his first tour, I think his platoon commander had been killed
pretty early and he’d effectively been the platoon commander for the best part of 12 months. So he knew all the ropes. He’d been there before, done it. So just talking with him was very helpful. We became good mates in fact. I still see old Jim every now and then. We used to every now and then go fishing together or go out to the island - Magnetic Island [east of Townsville] - or something like that.
Given that you were straight out of Duntroon and a bit fresh in a sense to everything, did these corporals that’d already been in Vietnam or fellows like Jimmy Doyle treat you as a bit green in that respect?
Yes. You had to be very careful. You had to earn your stripes, your respect I suppose. You were an officer, so they were bound
to accord you certain standard forms of respect like saluting and things like that, but there was always a question whether they would genuinely do what you said because they were old soldiers. “He’s brand new.” I think the military’s been ever thus. You have to establish your authority in some way.
Some people have to do it deliberately by marking out territory a bit like a dog. But other people are more fortunate in that by their own personality just by working with people they can establish their responsibility, the willingness to work with people in particular ways. Between those two broad
extremes then, each person has to find what works for them and what suits them best in their own personality. And like everyone else I fell somewhere in the middle I think.
How were you able to do that?
I don’t think I ever applied a formula to it. But I took a pretty firm line I think.
I let people know, the men in my platoon, that I was the boss, that what I said went. If there was need for discussion about it I’d ask about it and if they really thought they had to say something, then spit it out and talk to me about it but remember that at the end of the day I’d decide. Which seems a bit
authoritarian in one sense but at the same time it was necessary to at least start like that and let people know that you weren’t going to be pushed around by the people that you were supposed to push around. I’ve always been a reasonably personable sort of fellow and I’ll listen to people. I don’t think I ever had
any real difficulty. Every now and then I’d come across a fellow who’d try and give me a bit of lip or backchat and I’ve had to charge a few people with offences. No one ever took a swing at me, or anything like that. I was big that I didn’t have to worry too much about that and I certainly looked fit enough I think. So that wasn’t an issue. But it was just they were also
attuned, they knew it was an infantry rifle company, rifle battalion, and we had a difficult job to prepare for and they better get used to the idea that we had to be disciplined right from the outset. If we couldn’t manage discipline ourselves within our own little sub-group then we risked casualties. I often made that point to them. We have to know what each other was
doing and why they were doing it. We didn’t have to be the best of mates, but we had to respect the capacity…at the very least we had to know the capacity of the people around you and if I thought there were people who just didn’t have the capacity then I was going to shift them out. But we found common ground and I was quite satisfied before we went overseas that if I said to someone
to do something in a difficult situation, I felt confident that they would do it.
You mentioned the issue that it’s important to know the capacity of those around you. Did you have problems with some of the men - not you and them - but they relating to the other men around them?
Yes over time we did have that sort of issue.
There were perhaps warning signs in training on occasion where you could see that sort of problem starting to emerge and you’d wonder about it. In a couple of cases, I did have to take some steps to approach my company commander and said, “Look, this just will not work. Done everything I can.”
He wouldn’t just let me say, you can sack a man. You had to have very good reason. So you always had to go over it for a lengthy period of time and talk to the particular people concerned and make sure there wasn’t another way around it. A couple of times I eventually decided there wasn’t any other way around it and they put them somewhere else in the battalion.
Can you talk me through these instances so we get a picture of what arose?
It was just,
I think in one particular instance, it was just a matter of personality. One man didn’t feel confident about another fellow. One of them was in authority. He raised it with me several times, but I kept insisting that he work with it and work with the man and we will work through it,
as you would. You don’t lightly shift people out when you’re just starting to come together as a cohesive group. I spent, in fact I suspect I probably spent more time trying to get this fellow into the mainstream way of thinking and approaching tasks, but eventually
it became apparent that it just wasn’t going to work that way. In some cases, he was headstrong and bad tempered, violent, and just caused enormous trouble. There were fights on occasions within the platoon and it was bad for the morale I suppose you’d say but I still
thought we could work through it. He was a vigorous man and I thought he’d do well in some of the difficult situations that we were likely to encounter, but eventually it became too much of a problem and we didn’t get to test that. I had to bite the bullet eventually and say, nuh, it’s causing too many administrative problems and interfering with our preparation for the overall role.
So these fights that you mentioned,
that was during the training time?
Yeah. He had people…that happened now and again. People go out, get a few too many beers in them and someone’d say the wrong thing or try and chat up your girlfriend or something like that and there’d be a blue on. Most occasions they got over that pretty quickly and it was just young men acting badly. But they would
get over it on occasion quickly. And I’d deliberately on some occasions say, “Go and shake hands” and they could do that and would do it. But it was the time when they couldn’t shake hands that would create problems. And still other occasions when I was still forming my platoon, I spent a fair bit of time in the magistrates’ court in town
trying to get people out of jail. They’d been in town and been involved in a blue and the police were called and then they jobbed [hit] a copper too. We were pretty fortunate with the magistracy there on that occasion. On most occasions it was just a fine. Because we were spending most of our time out in the bush up in the High Range Training Area, there was a certain degree of acceptance that when they’re back for a weekend
that there might be a little bit of trouble now and then. But as long as it never got really serious, it was just a fight or something like that, they were reasonably understanding about it.
Were the troublemakers generally the national servicemen or the regulars?
No. I wouldn’t split it up like that at all.
It’s quite remarkable, after a relatively short time it was difficult to tell one from the other. The closer we got to deployment to Vietnam the more difficult it was to tell them apart. I think eventually some people took longer to understand that it was
the issue, that we really had to train hard, work together, understand what the drills were, what you did when you were fired upon, as a matter of protection. It just took some people longer to realise that there was a heavy reliance on other parts of the team. If you were suddenly fired upon behind a tree and people kept firing, you needed a machine gun
to suppress that firing so you could get into a better protected position. There were signals and methods and ways of doing that without endangering yourself or endangering anyone else. As our training developed and they came to understand that, then there was a clear understanding that you really did have to rely on other people in the team and you wanted to be sure that they knew what they were doing
and that they were reliable trustworthy people who wouldn’t leave you in a hole. And it didn’t matter whether you were black or white or Muslim or Church of England or anything. The real issue was how do we keep each other alive? And all those other things just disappeared into the background.
So it didn’t matter if you were a national serviceman or a regular. No I don’t think it really mattered at all. It might periodically come up. Someone might say, “Bloody Nasho”. But beyond that it’s a bit like some people use the term ‘you old bastard’ like a term of endearment.
It eventually got the same sort of attachment in that word.
The fights again that you mentioned earlier. Was that only on leave or were there also fights on exercises?
No. It was nearly always fuelled by alcohol, which I think is the same in most parts of the world and most parts of the country that I’ve ever been in.
It’s not often that people fight dead sober. They’ll normally have a few beers in them to either give themselves the courage to take a swing or just to fire themselves up at the outset. They probably wouldn’t fight if they were sober. They understand that later on. They say, “I just had a few beers. It seemed like a good idea at the time to thump him. He’s been
asking for it for months so I decided tonight I’d do it”. They were a quite cohesive group of people, but they were socialised in the same way as I’d been socialised over four years. We tried to socialise that group over 12 months. And it does work,
it’s a tried and proven system. You put people together and you put them in difficult circumstances, give them a task to do at the end that they know they have to perform, and in some cases their life depends upon it, they’ll start to work together. But it you can’t get them to work together, you might have to look at yourself, but if you can identify some other reason, shift the blame
from yourself, then you have to look at that too. But our company commanders are also…the platoon commanders under training were as carefully surveilled as were the troops. In my battalion, one company commander was removed. In my company, one platoon commander was removed; a sergeant was removed.
Those sort of decisions were taken all the time to deal with the large…there was 700-odd people in a battalion. You’re constantly looking at how to keep it efficient and maintain its efficiency.
What were the circumstances for those men being removed?
Effectively in relation to their job.
Someone had assessed they weren’t doing their job properly. But the particular circumstances I don’t recall. I know it happened. But I don’t recall.
The types of characters in your platoon. Could you share with me some of the characters there?
There were some.
Lot of nicknames. I’m sad to say some of the names I don’t even remember now. I certainly remember my NCOs and one fellow, old Jock Yuill, he’d been around for a long time in the army, he was a regular and he was on his second tour; wasn’t quite sure why he was going back as an infantryman again.
He’d had enough of that, but anyway he was going back. Then there were people like old Sonny Meredith. He was a forward scout. He was a bit of aboriginal or something. He was a good tracker too, but we didn’t think that was in any way related to his aboriginality. He just had a keen eye for detail.
One couple of fellows who were real good mates, I can remember one of them we called UC, short for ‘Unconscious’. He was a good hard worker and reliable fellow and he’d do what he was told and really trained hard, but we still called him ‘Unconscious’ but he’d just laugh it off. And one fellow, he’s in hospital here in
Canberra, I visited him on Friday night, Dougie Hyde. He came in fairly late. But Dougie was a good solid citizen. But he’s in hospital at the moment at some risk of death although there’s been a slight improvement in the last few days and I got the fellow then who took over my platoon when I was wounded,
he came down to see him the other day and that seemed to pick him up a bit. That was good to see. And then there was another bloke who’s been down recently to visit Doug, Paulie Bateman. He was a machine gunner. Only slightly built fellow, but tough as boots. Took some shrapnel up the back in a later action in the platoon, but
he’s doing all right now. He’s still a bit crook in the back I think, but he’s doing all right. And some of the other fellows that I remember names of and they’ve just disappeared off the face of the earth. Mick Price: great little footballer. Some of the things
some of those blokes got up to I just won’t talk about. I don’t intend to talk about them. But no, there were characters there and we had good fun times in our training preparation. They were sometimes hard work. First off, trying to get to know them, and the company commander properly insisted that we should know a lot about our men. We should know everything from their hat sizes and boot sizes to
what sort of family circumstance they were in and whether they were getting on well with the missus. He said, “Because all of those personal circumstances go to make up the whole man and they’re issues that you have to on occasions deal with. If they need a hand or want a hand sometimes, they’ll probably come and ask you, if you’ve got their trust”. So he said, “You go away and earn that trust and establish the circumstance in which they feel
that they can trust you to talk about these things”.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 06
Before we actually talk about the 2 RAR in Townsville, how long was the battalion in training for before you were deployed in Vietnam?
It would have been 12 months.
And during that time did you stay in Townsville the whole time? Was there a jungle training course done?
There was jungle training. We worked up. You’d do section level, platoon level, company level, and then even a couple of battalion attacks that were prepared for with
some live firing and explosions and things like that. We did major battalion exercise down Shoalwater Bay. But we also had to go through Canungra to get all the proper ticks on things like grenade throwing, rifle shooting, patrolling. We were all tested on those aspects, although we provided our own
cadre as well to support the cadre provided at the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra then. I was on that so I remember I spent an awful lot of time on the grenade range. It would have been much better for me being out with my platoon. But still my platoon sergeant and the section commanders had to do that and I could have been one of the first casualties so it was proper.
But we also did a whole range of other courses. You’d have Unit Emplaning Officer courses to train a whole range of people up from each company in emplaning and loading Hercs [Boeing C130 Hercules transport aircraft] and going aboard helicopters. I even did a course on…a sort of POW [Prisoner of War] course, what to
understand and expect if you were captured. That was a bit frightening, that one, but we did several days of that in South Australia I think. There were courses I would have loved to have done. Several of us young subalterns tried to get on a parachute course. Thought we’d be laughing because both the CO and our company commander were parachute jump instructors, we thought we’d be right. But they said,
“Nuh. You’ve got too many other things to do”. We did training up around Tully, Innisfail, where the country’s quite heavy and steep. That was hard yakka [work]. We did a lot of training up in the High Range where we had rifle ranges, grenade ranges and bunker assault courses and things like that. There was a lot of training. We were
away from home a lot. Most weeks we were away. If you were just up at the High Range, they might bring you back by trucks on Saturday morning but you’d be going back Sunday night.
When you look back at all that training you’ve just described, in hindsight was there anything that you think you weren’t prepared for or anything that you concentrated on too much?
No. I wish I’d
done it before. I think it’s like most things in life. You train for it and you’ve got a certain expectation that’s not much like what it turns out to be. After the event hopefully you learn from it all and carry it on and just wish you’d had that experience before you did that.
I’m sure that most people feel the same way. I’d love to be able to go back with what I know now and run a platoon.
What information were you as a young officer getting at that stage about what was going on in the ground where the Australian forces were operating in Vietnam?
We got quite extensive information. Periodically a couple of our
senior officers in the battalion were sent to Vietnam to look and immediately before, probably a month or two before, the commanding officer went across and spoke to the CO of the battalion that we were replacing. Of course, Army Training Command had a constant flow of information about the type and nature of enemy forces and where they were located - intelligence information that was fed into our operations
element in the battalion to keep them up to date and to assist them with their training and how they dealt with the flow of information. I suppose at ground level, I was never weighed down with information and accordingly I didn’t have that much to pass on to the soldiers. So to that extent
it wasn’t a burdensome flow of information at all. Maybe we could have got more on occasions, but I don’t think that was really the case.
As a platoon commander, do you keep a notebook or some kind of record about your platoon?
Yes. I did.
Can you tell me what was in that or what sort of information you kept?
Yes. I kept a Platoon Commanders Notebook. I had a page devoted to each
soldier. I had background personal information on him about his family, details of his sizes and clothing and stuff like that if we needed to get information on a course, just to get a pair of boots in the field or something. What size? I could get that out of my platoon notebook. The courses that he’d been on,
perhaps disciplinary problems, social problems, strengths, weaknesses, those sorts of things.
Were you already training these men in certain roles, or was everybody pretty much able to do anything within the platoon?
Pretty much. They could do most things, except my job. But for example my NCOs
were trained in calling in artillery fire and mortar fire or we had standard procedures for air support, standard operating procedures, and they were familiar with those because they were laid down as battalion operating procedures. It was expected that if you were in real trouble and any one of those people were knocked over or knocked out of action that one of the others would be able to do that sort of thing.
At a section level, everyone was trained to fire on a machine gun and to operate it and maintain it, but it was normally one person who was allocated the role of operation. It wasn’t passed around amongst different people because people got used to one man with a machine gun. The scouts likewise. Sometimes simply because of the number of people that you left back in camp,
other people had to take on the role of scout. But some were better at it than others. In particular areas you might like to have one fellow up the front rather than someone else. But that was a very demanding job too; placed a lot of pressure on the fellows.
We’ll talk about those jobs as they come up in Vietnam. One other thing about training at Canungra, how did you
find that course and how did your men find it?
It was fairly demanding. We knew the battalion was being tested too for its operational readiness. People were keyed up and hoping to perform and knew they were under a watchful eye. They were a very experienced and dedicated staff at Canungra and they wanted to make sure that battalions were operationally ready.
But in many respects it was a lot of doing what you’d done before. There were real opportunities for emphasis, for example I remember on the range where we did a section assault and then platoon assaults and then you had explosions going off either side of you and machine gun firing overhead - an old Vickers gun [Vickers medium machine gun] - well overhead, but there was still a lot of noise.
It gave some indication of the noise that you’d have to contend with in a contact situation and it was always difficult to try and make sure that you had everyone operating together and only one group moving forward at a time and one group on the ground to cover them. So all those things were made a bit more
lifelike in Canungra.
You mentioned you spent some time on the grenade range. What were you doing there?
Safety officer and one of my colleagues was - I’m not sure how that worked out, but one of my mates who was a close mate of mine from RMC, who was a platoon commander also in the battalion, but he was one of the safety officers on the ground at the point where they were
throwing grenades. There were some funny things happened there too. Dangerous funny things, but nevertheless we were able to laugh about them.
No. We didn’t have any accidents but went very close a couple of times. People just get nervous picking up live things like a grenade and pulling the pin out of it and standing there holding it and knowing the pin’s out and it’s ready to fire.
They say, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Now, throw”. I do remember on one occasion seeing a fellow grasp the grenade and the fellow deliberately told him and I heard him tell him to place his thumb around the strike lever, which he did, but then as he put his hand on the pin and pulled it he shifted his
thumb off the lever so when he pulled the pin the lever went too and it was going to blow up. So we were both screaming, “Throw it!” He’s taking…and threw it but it went off very shortly after it. Made the heart race. But we did laugh about it afterwards saying, “Thank God”.
Suddenly you hear this ping! Ping? It’s not supposed to ping yet. That’s the strike lever. All these things rush through your mind in a fraction of a second. It’s not supposed to do that, but it’s gone, you’ve got to get rid of it.
When you used those grenades in an operational context, were they governed by a certain safety laws or rules about how you carried them, where they’d be…
Yeah. Every man had a couple of grenades. But we taped them up normally. Taped the strike lever up. Because it had been…I don’t know of any particular instance myself, but people wearing them in particular types of clothing, not checking them enough and the pin eventually just working out. So it was a matter of practice we had a bit of tape around it. So it became
something that you couldn’t use immediately. You had to get the tape off it and then get the pin out and then throw it. But I remember one occasion when we used grenades in a bunker system. We didn’t really have to use them then I don’t think but it was just an excessively prudent measure. “We’ll put a grenade in there, see if there’s anyone in there.” There wasn’t.
Just before we
go across to start talking about Vietnam, maybe just list the weapons that you used at the platoon level. You had obviously grenades at your disposal and the SLR [7.62 mm Self Loading Rifle] every man had.
Not every man. We had - I carried an M16 5.56 millimetre [5.56mm assault rifle]. Section commanders normally had an M16 and I think we even
allocated one to the scout and perhaps the number two on the machine gun. I don’t quite recall now. But then the people who were specifically allocated say to the rifleman role, they carried 7.62 millimetre SLR. We also had some
40 millimetre grenade launchers, little weapon. Subsequently I think they got one of those under and over with an M16 on top of a 40 millimetre launcher. Had one of those each section. A GPMG M60 [General Purpose Machine Gun 7.62mm] in each section. We would have had a couple of launchers,
probably one a section. Each man carried additional ammunition for the machine gun; that was belted [a linked ammunition belt]. Probably every second man carried - but that depended upon the job you were doing too - a Claymore [anti-personnel mine]. And we probably also carried
scattered amongst men in the section some det cord [detonating cord] and some detonators for perhaps clearing a helipad [helicopter landing pad] or something of that nature but also for putting your Claymores in line. That’d probably be it; quite a lot of ammunition.
Did you have any problems with detonating Claymores? Are they difficult things to use?
Relatively simple really. There are also apocryphal stories that you heard about in training that you had to be careful about where you sited them and not too far away and cover them by fire because the Viet Cong would come in and turn them round on you and stuff like that. No, we never had that sort of trouble. On most occasions when we set up ambushes they were certainly covered by fire.
You put your Claymores in to covering the kill zone and perhaps a further distance up along the track depending on the lie of the land and how many Claymores you had. And you’d certainly be able to cover the kill zone where the Claymores were directed as well by fire. So we never had to worry about that sort of stuff.
Perhaps you could take us through the lead up to the battalion going over to Vietnam. What happened in
the immediately preceding period?
We concluded various training sessions. We had pre-embarkation leave. I went on an advance party. So I was there perhaps four, five, maybe a week before the battalion got in and moved into lines where our company would be. But immediately before
leaving, our pre-embarkation leave was the thing most on everybody’s mind. We’d decided we’d done enough training. We were ready to go, all fired up. We had a few things like - that was probably a few weeks before - footy matches against teams in town. Don’t think we had a march through town or anything like that.
No, there were no bands playing or anything like that. In fact, when the advance party left we went out to Garbutt airport at midnight and said goodbye to wives and girlfriends and assembled people and left, middle of the night. But I don’t remember anything particular about that. It was all part of the work up and
deployment, almost like an exercise.
What discussions did you have with your own wife around this time?
I don’t think we had to discuss a lot about it. I told her I’d done all the proper things, which I made sure all my men had done. I’d made a will out. We weren’t all that long married. We didn’t own a lot. She was going to go home and
stay with her parents. We’d just discovered she was pregnant so she was going to stay with her parents out on the farm at Merriwagga. I suppose long before, months before, we discussed the possibility that I mightn’t get home. She thought it was a bit silly to talk like that. She wasn’t into that sort
of stuff so we left it at that.
Did the fact that you had a child on the way give you any cause for thinking about what you were doing?
Yeah. I thought it was a bit silly but that was deliberately done too. My wife said, “If you don’t come back, we’ll have a child anyway so perhaps all the more reason to make sure you come back”.
I couldn’t really argue with it.
How did you get to Nui Dat? Flew out of Garbutt?
Yeah. Flew out of Garbutt. Had one brief stop over somewhere. I don’t even recall where that was now. I think we drank Tiger beer. Of course we had to disguise our appearance as a matter of security so we all had black shoes, khaki trousers,
web belt, short hair and multicoloured shirts, disguising our appearance. Flew to Tan Son Nhut [Saigon airport], which must have been in the early hours of the morning, then in sticks on Caribous [short range transport aircraft] into Nui Dat.
What were your first
impressions of Nui Dat?
Dry, miserable-looking army camp. It was pretty dusty. But it was exciting. It was a culmination of years of training and waiting. We were there at last. But to a certain extent what I expected.
There weren’t attacks going on or anything although I’ve heard since on many occasions people say they flew in there and the place was under attack. That very rarely occurred. But it was well established, well laid out, carefully laid out. May have been problems if there’d been a
large enough force to attack a place like that, but really there wasn’t, so certainly by that stage, at that time, there weren’t those sort of forces in the province. It could have been attacked, but there were always security elements about. There were minefields about, Claymores, wire, so we felt reasonably secure.
Then I think the next day I was out on the table patrol late in the afternoon and then I was really satisfied that I was there and ready to go. But over the next few days we also had familiarisation tours about the place, chopper [helicopter] rides about the place to look in various places.
A couple of convoys in trucks to show us where particular places were down around Baria, Hua Long, tours around all the sights and smells that you’d have to become familiar with. Smell a lot like dead fish, most of the villages, certainly around the coast. Then I think I also had a familiarisation tour
with an APC [Armoured Personnel Carrier] section. The good, the bad and the ugly - three APCs which were commanded by a classmate of mine, Bob Storey, Kiwi - it was an independent New Zealand section. I was real pleased to see Bob, and Bob and I had a good yarn about what we should expect and what would happen and I thought he’d get us lost for sure. I didn’t think he could read a map. We eventually got to where we were supposed to go.
Yes we had that sort of familiarisation and then we had to prepare for the battalion coming in. It just takes a lot of work shifting that amount of men and equipment. Shift them into the tentage and making sure that your picquets were started from the first night and people were well drilled into what they had to do, understood where they’d be sending
messages to if something happened. It was expected over the first short period at least there’d be lots of trees sneaking up on people and they’d be nervous, so we had to give ourselves a mind-set as to how to deal with those sorts of situations.
Perhaps at this point you could for the archive give a brief description of Nui Dat and the scale and layout of the place there.
Well I could. I’d have to stop and think very carefully about that.
Well how big was it basically to start with?
I’ve never stopped and thought about it, but it was a large area. It was in an old rubber plantation for a starter. But we had in one sector of it for example a strip [airstrip] large enough to certainly land Caribous. And there was a big water point down there too.
There was a hill in the centre called SAS [Special Air Service] hill - a bit of a hill, where the SAS had set themselves up [actually, Nui Dat hill]. There was other radio equipment up there. The battalions were ranged around the perimeter and normally I think it was probably at least two companies forward on the wire, but well spaced out so there’d be
at least two platoons frontage for each company, so quite an area there as well. But then you also had artillery, effectively a regiment, plus some American 155 millimetre guns [medium artillery]. There was a New Zealand section I think,
troop. Then there were the tanks and armoured personnel carriers, probably in depth at some location. Although I think the engineers and the tanks had a part of the perimeter as well. I never got to see those areas. I went down to the artillery on one occasion and across to one of the other battalions to meet some of my old mates when I first got there, but
never saw them again thereafter. So it was a very large area. It held a task force, probably seven or eight thousand men all up. They weren’t close together because of fear of rocket attacks and the very faint possibility of artillery or mortars from some distance way. Everybody had a pit.
There were some well-established and well-entrenched strong points on the perimeter from which you could direct fighting against any particular assault on the wire and the mines and the Claymores that were around the perimeter. And lanes going out so we had some ranges outside too and periodically we’d go out and fire all sorts of weapons to check those and periodically
watch firepower demonstrations like the Phantoms [F4 Phantom jet fighter aircraft] napalm runs and hard bomb runs. They were well outside the wire. Yes. And cleared country out beyond the perimeter so they couldn’t get close there either. But for the most part a fairly ordinary life went on inside the perimeter.
How were the troops accommodated?
We had those stinking hot old army green tents with sandbags up to about waist high all around them, high enough so that…we actually had the old army beds too with springs, but with a foam rubber mattress and a plastic covering.
So as it got really hot, you’d slide around on it because there was so much perspiration. And you couldn’t get a breeze through the place because of the sandbags. They were very hot and uncomfortable I suppose. But we had things like sheets there too. That was a positive I suppose. But after you’d had them on your bed for a day and a sweaty night then they were…and they always smelt like the
laundry down at Baria where they washed them, smelt like yesterday’s lunch or something like that. The water had half a dozen uses I think, “I told you not to wash your socks in the egg water until I made the tea”. So they probably used the water for half a dozen other purposes before they got round to washing the sheets and the clothes. The clothes always smelt too. But it was useful to have a laundry
I can imagine at first it might have been a bit difficult to find your way around.
Yes. It was because it was a large place and you really didn’t have good reason to go just wandering about initially. Most times I found I had plenty to do just looking after my platoon and doing what the company commander wanted without just deciding to wander off. I would have had to get approval
for that anyway. So I didn’t get to see much of the task force base at all. I spent any spare time that I had just looking at maps to figure out where we would be going or could be going to feel confident I had rough pictures in my own mind of the areas we could be going into.
Was the base organised into streets?
Yes. They had streets and even signs.
Drainage systems for the monsoon conditions. Nothing you could do about the dust in the dry season. Course with heavy vehicles moving about at any one time, you soon get bulldust. The most comfortable times were probably in the evening but then you’d black everything out. You’d just keep walking into rubber trees or into somebody’s tent or tripping over sandbags or…it was very difficult. It was pitch black
sometimes under that rubber.
What about messing facilities?
You had company messing facilities. I think we had an officers’ and sergeants’ mess even at a company level and we’d all eat together. Ate all the same food out of the same kitchens but the troops had a larger area.
It wasn’t that far away. Perhaps we could have all eaten together but that worked quite well. Sufficient variety in the food; wasn’t fantastic food, but cooks didn’t do a bad job with what they had. Some of the American bread that you’d get, you’d have to shake the weevils out of it sometimes at first but it wasn’t bad. Kept you going.
Pretty soon as soon as you started operations and living off ration packs, you started to lose weight anyway and fine down pretty quickly. Like racing greyhounds we looked.
How long did it take you to get the battalion organised off the planes into the base?
That was a relatively short period. I think our company was in
certainly in a week I think. And each of the companies were doing the same thing. It would have taken longer to get some of the procedures flowing regularly and like clockwork, but they pretty shortly did. There was a lot of emphasis on security to start with, to make sure our contacts with battalion headquarters and the companies on the perimeters were well established and
things like the strong points were in good reliable contact with the battalion CP [Command Post] again. They were the things that you emphasised most. But at the same time you’re trying to make the soldiers reasonably comfortable in the Spartan conditions that they were in. They had four to a tent. Really, you just had a bed and a
place to stand your rifle where it was close by and to lay out your webbing; wasn’t a lot of room for other stuff.
Who was the person or people responsible for showing you round and helping you get yourself oriented in this place?
Initially it was the team commander from the 6th Battalion,
Rex Whitney, I recall. Rex was a good hand and experienced. He gave me all the basic information. But he was…the difficulty in those sorts of situations always is that they are just so keen to get out of the place. They really do just want to get out. So we had to keep asking questions and they got sick of that pretty quickly.
But they tried to help as much as they could. They knew how hard it was. They’d been through it. It didn’t seem that long ago to them, but they badly wanted to go home. Yeah, so we had platoon commander on platoon commander show each other the particular areas in line, the bunker, the segment of the wire that you’re responsible for. Strong points. Lines back to
the battalion CP as well as the company. Those sorts of security type issues were emphasised.
What did you personally find you weren’t prepared for? What surprised about arriving in Vietnam?
Not a lot, I don’t think. I think I was quite well prepared for it. Didn’t expect a lot and wasn’t disappointed.
And we’d done enough exercise on the High Range Training Area and Shoalwater Bay. Everything had just dropped in there the day or two before or the week before. Living either very wet or very dry conditions. We were aware of what we could expect from a military camp like that.
What about these butterflies that you spoke of before?
Was that a problem? Being nervous about actually being there?
It didn’t seem to be a problem. I’m sure that everybody had different feelings about it and were no doubt nervous on occasions. Certainly any stage you had to go outside the wire, you always had to be aware of the possibility of nervousness because it’s like a
disease, it’ll spread if you aren’t able to manage it. You had to be constantly aware that somebody might be nervous or that they weren’t nervous at all, which is probably just as bad. Always makes me nervous if you find a person who - one of these supposedly fearless people - not worried
at all. They become complacent. I prefer people to have some butterflies and be a little bit nervous. The person who is quite lackadaisical and doesn’t fear a thing and doesn’t worry about a thing, that’s when something’ll go wrong.
You mentioned you were keen to have a look around the areas you’d be operating in. Where were you to be deployed?
Did you know what part you’d be in?
No. I didn’t know. I hadn’t had any information. I just would have liked to have been prepared to go anywhere. In fact it’s only years later reading up about the war and some of the broader political concerns that I became aware that there were some areas - for example, Long Hai hills -
they probably weren’t going to put us into that area too much or into the Light Green or the Long Green because of the mines there and the difficulties they’d had with the mines being picked up from the old barrier minefield and relocated by the Viet Cong, and the numbers of casualties that we’d suffered in other units from mines had created some very real political sensitivities.
So I remember one of my colleagues commenting at the time that might mean we’d be going north and west rather than east of particular lines. That proved to be the case. Initially we were deployed I think into the
Nui Thi Vais I think, Nui Thi Vai hills on our first operation. Could be wrong there.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 07
Bill, could you describe for me some of the patrols you went on?
Yes. First one I think would have been to Nui Thi Vai, which was some steep country
and quite difficult for some of my men because we weren’t very used to the steep country. Done a bit of training there. They were losing a lot of sweat. So that was quite difficult just deploying up into the Thi Vais and the company headquarters to establish reasonably high up in the hills and then the platoons
patrolled out from that. That went along quite reasonably for a while. We did find some evidence of what I would have thought was old usage as I recall. We thought it was probably people like the Chau Duc, which was the local level support element for the Viet Cong in the area. But
we didn’t have any contact I don’t think until late in that deployment. Had one contact where coming out of the Nui Thi Vai, Nui Dinhs, and it was late one evening when we’d actually come off a track and then doubled back a bit on the track ourselves to ambush the track further back up.
Just as the forward elements had decided there was certainly no one there and they’d have a scout around for a spot to camp, a couple of fellows wandered within sight of them anyway carrying weapons. So they fired a few shots and threw everybody into a flurry. We did sweeps and didn’t find anything. I suspect they fired one or two shots
back at us and fled and that was it. That was the extent of our first contact. That was up in the Thi Vais. Then we also did, I did a boat patrol out in the Rung Sat Special Zone towards Long Son Island where we had three or four little flat-bottomed assault boats and we did a tour around through the mangroves, which was a bit tricky.
They were very high in low tides and extensive mud flats then. But we were also trying to see if we could find whether there’d been any movements in those areas at the time and any bunkers that had been developed. There were a few high spots there where they had actually dug in and established bunker systems. But we also took along one of the regional force police. We had to stop and search
boats and people going out to Long Son Island where they thought there was still a small element of Viet Cong. People had to smuggle food out to them and things like that. We did find a few people who had far more food than they needed, or far more food than you’d expect to find on the sort of people they were, so we thought that they were smuggling it out. But the regional police
took them away to question them further. We really had nothing more to do with them.
On these early patrols, what was the feeling amongst your men? Were they excited, afraid?
Nervous I suppose. But I suppose I never really talked to anyone
about it. Maybe my batman [officer’s assistant] every now and then I did. George was a very…he was trained as a schoolteacher and had his service deferred until such time as he’d completed his training so he was a national serviceman and that’s right, I remember you asked me before about
distinguishing national servicemen. Before we went over, we had one fellow that decided days before we left that he wasn’t going. He was a national serviceman too. But the simple fact was he was just handed over to a civil affairs unit at home in Townsville to deal with. But he just declined to go. He was a good friend of George’s and they’d obviously talked about it a bit. So
on occasion I’d talk to George about this sort of thing and we got along pretty well George and I but he’d say on occasion, “Hey listen boss, you’re making me nervous”. Sometimes he was being fair dinkum, other times he wasn’t. I’d say, “Come on George, we’re going to whip up there and have a look” and he’d say, “Oh no skipper, I think you’ve got to go up there by yourself”.
“You got the radio, George, come with me.” “Oh geez I don’t know about this.” Then on one occasion when we did get fired at from a bunker system, I said to George, “Get the radio up here” and he said, “You come and get it. You’re drawing the crabs [attracting fire]”. He was a funny bloke, old George.
Did you have to go and get it?
No. He’d do it. That was his initial response.
“Anything that is drawing the crabs, it’s you. Why should I come to you? You come to me.” I think everyone was nervous to an extent, but no one so frightened they couldn’t do their job.
So there were no instances of men who were just too afraid to do anything?
The old World War I shellshock idea?
I think shellshock…I don’t have much doubt that arose after prolonged shelling. At that stage we were still out looking for people and we hadn’t come across anyone so there wasn’t any real good reason to be shocked by shell at that stage. No one had come under any prolonged or concentrated fire. There just wasn’t
the reason to be terribly fearful. We were well armed. We were trained. We had artillery within call and able to…no, we did and should have felt quite confident that we could deal with most situations that arose, and I think that’s a sort of situation we regularly try to instil in everybody. What is there to be afraid of?
A different situation and I know my platoon after I’d left, on one occasion they were involved in a fire fight for six hours and were really trying to back out of it. That must have been a fearsome fright because there’s a lot of shot and shells being scattered through the scrub on that occasion and they were probably up against well over 100 people. And they would only have numbered in their 20s.
But I wasn’t there. I can only guess at what they felt. But I’d also take into account the fact that they’d been there seven or eight months then and they were pretty well aware of what was required on any occasion. In fact, I think the way they handled themselves then supports that view. They knew what they had to do. I never saw anybody in the short time I was there so frozen with fright or fear
that he couldn’t do his job. Did see a couple, I saw one fellow nervous but he became ill and was located to another job, never became a problem.
You spoke earlier about in a sense the nervousness naturally of leaving Nui Dat to go out on patrols and stuff like that. Did the Australians
when they were at Nui Dat have a fear of the VC [Viet Cong], a fear in respect to …
No. I don’t think so. No. We were a very solid, well-armed base position. There was the one occasion where they intended to mount a challenge, but that was
D Company 6 RAR found them. There was probably a couple of thousand, very large group; I’ve forgotten the figures now from reading the books about it. Read so many accounts of it now. Certainly that company was in a lot of trouble until they got the APCs in and the 50 cal [.50 calibre heavy machine gun, mounted on APCs] firing and really broke up their attack lines.
But even then and I’m sure those situations frighten people and create fear and consternation, but there wasn’t the need to live in fear in a place like Nui Dat. Most times people went about, played volley ball, played sport, had a few beers at night, chiacked their mates and had a good time to the extent that you can have a good time in a
place like Nui Dat. It wasn’t as if it was Khe Sanh under constant threat of rocket and artillery attack by large, well armed forces. We were in a quite different situation.
Could you talk me through going out on a patrol from the point where you actually receive orders and what you tell your men
as you go?
Well, depending upon the nature of patrol. Say it was an ambush patrol; if you’re going out to set an ambush in the local area almost as I did on one occasion down near Hua Long I think, then you would look at
the possible consequences of this particular ambush. What we anticipated could come into it; whether it be armed parties or people getting supplies; the best areas for them to go into an area. Assess how you’d put the ambush into position without the local populace knowing about it. Whether to go in at night or try some other subterfuge to get you into a
particular area that you could relocate to an ambush position. You’d try and get a sight of the ambush location either from a chopper or drive past in a vehicle. You’d probably do rehearsals for moving, for actual firing the ambush and for move out if you had to move any particular distance. You’d make sure that you’d rehearsed those sorts of things so that people knew
exactly what they had to do because it would most likely be at night. And you’d check all your equipment, ammunition; see if you could get night sights and things of that nature before you had a bit of a rest before you went out. Try to get people to have a bit of a snooze before you went out because you’d likely be up at least all night.
So how much warning would you have about a patrol before you actually went on it?
If it was an ambush patrol, it would be the battalion ops [operations] cell in its area of operations would be planning those things well in advance and unless it was something really unusual where you got a sudden good piece of intelligence or information that warranted setting up an ambush that hadn’t already been planned or deciding
to relocate one that had been planned for a particular area, then normally you’d have a reasonable amount of time for all the planning and preparation that should be done to be most effective in those ambushes. It was less likely to be the case if you were already in an area of operations and rather than just harbour for the night and try and get some rest with picquets out, depending how many people you had and how
long you’d been out and all those things, and the country, and the threat, then you might set an ambush on a track that you’d come across. If you’d been able to identify a track pattern in the area and thought that there was an indication just by use of the track that it had been used on a regular basis, then as part of your harbour or as a deliberate effort you might set an ambush on that track for the night.
Again, you’d try and do as much planning and preparation and rehearsal as you could. But you didn’t always have that luxury if you decided pretty much as you were going to harbour up or discovered something as you were going to harbour up that it was necessary to do that.
What would a rehearsal involve?
Normally finding a piece of ground or setting up
an area so as to look pretty much…and marking out the particular area that you thought the particular ambush site would look like, showing people on the ground where they would be in relation to each other. What the actual kill zone would be and its limits. And what you’d be trying to do with…
You were just sharing with us Bill
Yeah why was it necessary for rehearsals? It was a safety measure really. A measure of prudence because ambushes normally occur in the dead of night and in circumstances where it’s pitch black and you’ve got to know where you can go and what the reaction of your mates around you would be. So if you fired
your Claymore it might be onto… The New Zealanders had one really funny ambush situation where it really was just a whole bunch of Claymores, miles of Claymores it seemed to me. They’d have a fellow in a pit, dug in. He’d fire the Claymores and then flee back along this line, taking the line virtually with him back into a harbour position, which they’d set up in something like a triangle. Because the possibility was that if it was
a well drilled Viet Cong NVA [North Vietnamese Army] group, they might immediately try and flank you. Just as we’ve got drills to deal with counter ambush, some of them had drills to deal with it too. About the only thing they could do was turn and assault straight into you. But course with the Claymores laid out, there wasn’t much chance of that if you’d really set it up in the kill zone.
But then again they’d always have normally a fellow with an RPG-2 [Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher] well out in front. And if anything happened he was just supposed to pull the trigger. He had an RPG-2 on his shoulder; pull the trigger. It didn’t matter where it was aimed it’d hit something and blow up and frighten everybody but they’d know something was going on. So a well drilled unit
could possibly try and flank you straightaway. Break off the track and sweep through. So you always had to have drills and preparation to be aware of those sorts of things.
Could you share with me some of the Cong’s tactics? My understanding is often if you came into contact with them they’d turn and flee. But they used other sorts of devices to attack you as well?
I didn’t have that many contacts with them of course. But we’d prepared ourselves and read about it and understood how we believed they operated. The more sophisticated elements, the better-trained elements could operate pretty much like we did. They’d patrol carefully and have a scout well out in front. They’d normally have as I say an
RPG-2 seemed to be their standard response to any ambush or any attack of that nature. Fire it. And just the explosion and the shrapnel flying about was enough to make everybody keep their head down. Then again the better-trained units would try and flank you or have an immediate contact drill such as charge into the ambush. That’s pretty much the only opportunity that you had to stay alive. Pretty much the same as our
own ambush drill or counter ambush drill. But that wasn’t always the case of course. Sometimes you’d just get a couple of people who might have been Viet Cong tax collectors just moving along a well-worn track. On other occasions they’d just get slack just like anybody else did. Might bump into them
or even find them - I camped next to about five one night. We were quite sure that we’d been following them all day and there was still water running into their footprints so we knew we were very close behind them but it was just getting too dark so we just stopped, virtually sat down where we stopped and slept. And first light next morning
off again and within about 50 metres a big scurrying and scatter up the front. They’d stopped too and camped. So we camped next to each other. But they just fled. That’s what they’d been trying to do all the time, get away. They’d been leading us on a…they’d followed a track and then they’d gone off the track and they obviously had a compass.
We were pretty sure that they were engineers because they’d come out of a bunker system where we’d found some engineering equipment and mines and things like that. But we thought it useful to follow them up. They were either just being careful or cunning; just didn’t follow a straight-line track. Take a track for a certain distance and then go off at bearing and scrub bash [move off the track in the bush]
for a while and then take another bearing. They were quite clearly bearings that I could follow on my compass. And then, bugger me, they just stopped in this patch of scrub, but it was just too dark for us to go on and we couldn’t hear anything so we stopped. Got up in the morning and nearly walked over the top of their camp where they’d stopped. They hadn’t lit fires or anything like that but there’d obviously been about five or six people sleeping there.
So it was a little unusual. Forward scout was very upset. He said he could have held hands with one of them he thought.
Kept each other warm. The different roles that people had in the unit. There’s the forward scout. You spoke about the guy who’s the radio operator. What other roles
are there in a platoon?
A platoon those days, may still be, it was about 34 men all up. And three sections of ten and a platoon headquarters of four. Platoon headquarters I had myself, the sergeant, the sig [signalman], the batman. Each section had a corporal section commander, 2IC [Second in Command] who was normally in charge of the machine gun
group. So there’d be a gunner and a number two and the rest were riflemen, but amongst the riflemen you’d also take a scout for each section. Your scouts would probably operate…you might preferably have two scouts, one well out and one in between so you got a link. But of course then that’s the theory of it.
But when you’re on a deployment such as Vietnam, you probably had to leave a couple of fellows back in Nui Dat for duties in the kitchen or something like that, could be anything. You might have one medically restricted because he’s crook with something. Might even be one off on leave because you accumulated leave. So you could end up rather than 34 men, if you had a full complement
anyway, you might be down to 27. In some cases towards the end of the tour because they weren’t replacing people and things were winding down, they got down to less than two sections. So you might have 15, 16. That became very grim then. People just got overly tired. But it would and could be quite demanding because
if you patrolled all day on some occasions you might only make a hundred metres in an hour or two. But if you were worried about a particular area and there was sign about or you’d find a stump of a cut tree or something like that, relatively new, why do they cut down trees? Build overhead protection for bunkers. There’s a bunker around here somewhere. Whoa. Go slow.
Or you find unusual signs, a nick in a tree with a twig obviously very carefully placed underneath. Is that a mine sign or just a direction to someone coming up later? Or three stones in a neat little line on a track. Why is that? You just wouldn’t find three stones in a neat little line on a track. So it required some considerable concentration for people to see those things
and then to try and work out what it meant and then how to react to it by the method of your patrolling. Should you have one section still forward or should you have two sections forward, should you just spread out a bit and try and cover a bit more ground. So you’d be stopping and starting and there’d be people down the back not quite sure what was going on, getting pissed off, saying, “What on earth is going on up there?” Just get everybody
to take pack off and then say, “Packs back on again. Move off.” So little bits of frustration and lack of information, all those sort of things building on people as well as carrying well over 50 kilograms of weight in a very hot climate and worrying what the fellows up the front know that you don’t know. So there’s a lot of pressure on people.
By the end of the day you badly needed a sleep and yet if you decided to run an ambush that night then you probably need half the platoon awake for the rest of the night, or you’d certainly have, if you had the best part of a platoon there, you’d have your three machine guns manned. So everyone’s got to take a couple of hours on the machine gun. And you’ve got to be awake then. They’ve got to stay awake. So you’ve got to have two people there. So there are six people at least that are awake all the time. And the rest just aren’t
getting quite enough sleep. First thing in the morning you stand to and lay there for a while just to see if you can hear a sound. If you can’t hear anything you might put out clearing patrols around your perimeter to make sure there’s no one there. Then you might even decide to move and say, “We’ll go to another location before we stop and have a feed”. And if you stop to have a feed then you set up a harbour again. So you’re constantly trying to protect yourself and be as aggressive
as you can while taking these prudent measures to check what’s going on around you. It was a fulltime job.
You mentioned you want to know what the fellows up the front - the communication thing - the fellows up the back are thinking, what the hell’s going on anyway. Communication. How did that actually function between the scouts up the front and yourself and just letting know the fellows behind you what’s happening?
Quite often just hand signals. You have a good
briefing before you start off in the morning. So that they knew what you were trying to do and where you were trying to go and what sort of ground you were trying to cover. What sort of ground they could expect to cover. I’d have a map with me all the time. I’d have a map open and a compass in my hand and myself and perhaps the sig and batman pacing as well to check off, because that was the only real way you had of understanding the distance you’d travelled; by paces
and compass bearings. If we did have to shift, I’d normally go on a true bearing and I’d indicate the particular spot I wanted to go to and the scout would figure out the best way to get us there if it was within sight and he could keep it in sight all the time. And they would be working on constant changes to bearing on the compass and that was very difficult
then to know exactly where you were. And you had to know where you were at all times because if you wanted artillery straight away you need to know a bearing and you normally set little bounds for yourself and you’d identify particular bounds or even particular spots where you would call for artillery so you had those bearings and directions prepared in your head if there was a contact.
You’d get a round [artillery shell] on the ground straight away. It’d be probably 1000 metres ahead of you but then you could adjust it. But you’d know there’d be a round coming while you were trying to work out what the hell was going on anyway. So you had to be prepared for all those sort of things all the time. I quite often had bearings up and down my sleeve. And fire tasks where I thought I’d try and land a round if I got to this particular
position and nothing had happened or if something had happened about there, looking at the land on the map and the way it was going on the ground itself, “If I have to fire one, what bearing would I give for an artillery fire mission” or something of that nature.
Was there much idle chatter in respect of fellows just talking?
No. Moved quietly all the time. Quiet as you could. Didn’t just walk through the bush.
Each man had an arc of responsibility while he was walking along. If we had one section forward and two sections back and I’d be essentially in the middle, I was probably the only fellow who didn’t get to look around a lot at what we were seeing because I was constantly looking at my map and my compass. My sig was constantly listening to his radio or perhaps pacing as well because I didn’t really have a batman. You didn’t have that sort of luxury.
But the sections in front, your first man was obviously your scout and your second scout has got particular arcs of responsibility to watch. Then your section commander, he’d be keeping an eye on the scout or second scout. The man behind him might be looking to the left. The one behind him would be looking to the right. And trying as we’d trained, where your eyes go your weapon goes so you can
put a round in straightaway. And sometimes that’s difficult just when you’re going through really heavy country and trying to force your way through country and remember that you’ve got an arc of responsibility that you’re supposed to keep your eye on. So constantly concentrating; certainly again that’s the theory of it. Some people by the end of the day would just get so dog tired they couldn’t give a stuff if they got shot
and certainly if that other bugger got shot too. It’d probably do him good.
Animals that caused you problems, or insects like ants - did you have problems with those things?
On occasions yeah. I do remember one particular occasion when he was just yelling and yelling and we always did when I was there, we just moved quietly.
We didn’t talk. Even when you stopped you kept your voice low because some areas, particular conditions and openings through the jungle can carry just like smell can. Sometimes you can come across a smell before you come across anything. But we just kept quiet. That was a rule. And this yelling and yahooing and went charging up
forward to see what was going on and had the section commander come over and crouch down watching this bloke up there and he’s throwing kit everywhere and peeling off his clothes. He said, “He’s gone bloody loopy”. “Get out, what’s going on?” “He bumped one of those big” these big like a cone shape of leaves and these red ants used to get in it and you just had to go right around that, and he bumped it. They were jumping ants.
They jumped all over him. They were everywhere: in his hair, his ears, down his shirt. The only way he could do it was get his gear off and he was making terrible noises. But none of us wanted to go too close to him either. “Keep quiet.” “Oh get stuffed. You wouldn’t bloody like it.” “Sh.” Wasn’t
worried at all. And he had bloody bites all over him. And sometimes it was almost impossible to keep them quiet too. One time we come down and we come across this big quite a large creek, a lot of water, and a big rocky area, and it looked like a protected area too. I thought if I put a machine gun up there and one up there, I can put a few blokes just through the pool at a time
and just cool off and have a relax for a minute. Sure enough I did that and the gunners stayed in their points, they were smart enough to do that, but the blokes in the water: bombing each other. “Hey boom.” Jumping and great splashes. They wouldn’t just get in and have a wash and quietly get out. They had to yahoo and carry on,
I couldn’t stop it. Wasn’t that worried about it either incidentally; they needed a break because they’d been at it a few days.
What do you do if there’s a noise like the guy who’s been bitten by the ant and makes a lot of noise? Do you quickly move out of the area?
Yeah. Just try and get away. I don’t think on that particular occasion we’d come across a lot of sign that we were in a bad spot anyway.
But certainly by that stage if there was anyone around they knew very well that we were. And they knew it was Australians from the language. So we just said, “Waste of time” and moved as quickly as we could into another area. Had to start again. You often come across a situation like that. I think it was probably in the same patrol
I remember it was just a really dry area, we didn’t have water, and we thought we’d come across some sign, but we just needed water really badly. They said, “There’s a chopper [helicopter] coming”. Chopper, they know exactly where you are. “We’ll just kick it out.” Kick it out? Sure enough
about an hour later a wokka-wokka [helicopter] comes flying across the trees and half a dozen jerry cans of water went boom! Like bombs they were. “Geez, that was a good idea”. The chopper was doing about 90 knots. By the time these jerry cans hit the ground they probably were too.
Just exploded. No, that didn’t work. I hope it wasn’t me that suggested it but I remember saying to myself afterwards, “That’s a bloody stupid thing to do”.
What about snakes?
Every now and then you’d come across one. Was the little scorpions were the worst things.
Again, the problem there was information. A scout might…he could sneak up on a snake he’s so quiet. But he might spot one and he’d just say to his mate - hand signal, we’d made up hand signals for everything - give a nod and there’s a snake there. He might say to the section commander there’s a little just there, walk around it.
They managed to convey that but by the time the message gets right down the back some fellow waving, so he walks up and stands on the snake and the snake strikes at him. “Oh” and yelling and yahooing again, “That bastard didn’t tell me there was a snake there”. I’m sure he passed the message on. And there used to be apocryphal stories about
this very sort of issue. And people have done experiments over time passing a message between five or six people a couple of paces apart - just signals or just with whispered words - they’ll turn something like “Three enemy directly in front” and by the time it gets down the back “There’s a couple of monkeys swinging in a tree”. Obviously
it wasn’t as simple as that because enemy sign is just thumb down and everybody knew that and you might even get the messages screwed up a little bit after that, but everyone knew what it was based around. But if you’re dealing with ‘monkeys in a tree’ or ‘there’s three elephants having a party up the front’ by the time it gets to the end of the section. Eventually you get up to there and you say, “Where’s these elephants you’re talking about?” “What bloody elephants?” “I got a message down the back
that there’s some elephants.” “No bloody elephants.” Just goes on.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 08
Bill, I believe you did one patrol in boats.
Can you tell us about that? What was it for and where did you go?
We were down in the Rung Sat Special Zone between the highway going up to Saigon and there was a very large mangrove area off the Saigon River. Went all the way up to Saigon.
Both at Long Son Island, which is a fairly large island, which could be seen from Vung Tau harbour, and between there and the mainland there’s a very large area of swampy tidal country. We used to use these little flat-bottomed boats - which is a bit funny too.
We had these little flat bottomed boats to wander in and out amongst the mangroves. Periodically if you got too far away from the swampy stuff, you’d get drowned by the Americans. They had these huge big boats with hundred horsepower double motors on them and a fellow standing up the front, strapped on, with a twin 50 calibre machine gun strapped on the nose of it. We’d be sitting in a little flat-bottomed assault boat
with an M60 machine gun and they’d come along and do a lap around us and near swamp us with the wash. You’d say, “G’day Yank. Go away.” But we took regional force policemen with us on those sorts of patrols. We normally had about four in each little boat; 40 horsepower motor. Resupplied
a particular village - that was all planned out - with fuel. And patrol the swamps, try and go quietly and try and pick up boats that were shifting gear between the mainland and Long Son Island.
What did you encounter on those patrols?
A couple of times we stopped boats and questioned people as to where they were going. Checked their identity documents, checked the amount of food they had
to assess whether they were actually smuggling food. One person had too much food, enough food for several people and didn’t have a very good explanation. We had to put that one ashore with the regional police. They took them away to be questioned but we were just working with them. That was our job, to get them. For the rest,
you’d pull up a fellow who was obviously a fisherman. On a couple of occasions he’d just tie up beside you and then start throwing fish into your boat. “Hey, no, no, stop. Don’t do that.” The Vietnamese police would say, “Yes, yes. He should do that. Give us some fish”. “No, no, no. It’s his fish. No,
he keeps his fish.” We’d chuck it back. He’d chuck it back. Always had a problem with the police, they just expected that anyone they pulled up did get a bit of what they got. Was always a problem but they were interesting. Always felt a bit vulnerable wandering around in these little boats. Always remember the story about the Kiwis and they set up an ambush
from the mainland on one of these little tidal creeks one night with three armoured personnel carriers and some boats did come up the river in the dead of night, which just shouldn’t have happened. They shot them up. They thought they’d identified two people in each of these boats. They said that they had two enemy KIA [Killed in Action] and two EBC. We didn’t know what EBC was. They said, “Well I presume
they couldn’t find the other two bodies”, so they presumed they’d been Eaten By Crocodiles. Apparently caused great consternation up in Task Force Headquarters, who didn’t see the funny side of it at all.
What were the dangers out there? Were there crocodiles?
No. I don’t think so. But there were bunker systems in the swamps, which was…they had bunker systems everywhere. Anywhere they could find some
protected ground and country. There were some there in the higher pieces of ground in the mangroves. They’d wade through, sometimes they’d have boats, other times they’d just find tracks through the mangrove. Which is really unusual because some of the tides there were 16, 17 foot. But they did have these tidal waves so we just had to try and find them.
Where did you sleep on those patrols?
Find a bit of high ground and pull your boat up as close as you could to it so you didn’t have to wade through the mud, which was nearly up to your hips. We had to know what the tides were and when they were coming and going and things like that, make sure that the ground actually was high enough that the tide wasn’t coming over it.
Just camp there for the night. Put a mozzie net [mosquito net] over yourself and eat dry food and wait till next day when you get back on the boat.
Would that be a whole platoon out on boats?
No. We probably had about a dozen men. I did one boat patrol for about three days.
I think the other half of my platoon was allocated to the ready reaction force in task force headquarters so that they could be deployed at any stage with another group in armoured personnel carriers or by helicopter to assist anyone else in trouble.
Were they more or less popular for the men and yourself than a patrol in the jungle?
The time I did it, it was only the second one our battalion had done. A good mate of mine had done the first one. He was a young officer known as Gaylord. Gaylord, the Mississippi River Boat Gambler for his gambling habits back home in Townsville. He then became known as Gaylord Warlord when we deployed
to Vietnam. Then after he did the boat patrol, he was Gaylord Warlord Sealord. Poor old Gaylord’s dead now. He never came home. He didn’t die in Vietnam, but he just did not come home. I think it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him and he just couldn’t stop talking about it. He enjoyed himself all the time. Ended up in a mental institution.
Just got worse and worse and died. But he was a laugh of a man. He was a funny man. Gaylord Warlord Sealord. So this was the second time our battalion had been allocated into the special zone and it was just something interesting to do. When you got out there in the stinking mud - mangrove swamps always smell -
on a couple of occasions people had to go over the side and get in the mud and then you couldn’t get the mud off you for a bloody week. It wasn’t a good job but it was no different to any other job. I suppose the advantage and some of the fellows felt it, was that you weren’t walking. It’s probably preferable to that extent.
You mentioned that you didn’t have too many contact situations; you’ve mentioned a couple
passing, but could you maybe tell us about one of the more memorable ones?
That was the most memorable one because it led within a day or two directly to that situation again where we’d been patrolling, found some tracks that appeared to be recently
used and followed them, keeping off the track. But eventually came across…or was it? No it might have been we had one going into that bunker system. We pulled up near a bunker system and I sent out…normally we
harboured about midday but I was a bit uncertain as to the sort of country round me, so I sent a section commander and two men off in one direction and a section commander and two men off in directly the opposite direction so they weren’t ever going to bump into each other. Just to spy out the country. With standard instructions; what happened if something happened. But the first group had only been
out maybe five minutes and I was just doing my normal radio checks and there was a great burst of fire from one and these fellows came charging back into the camp. I grabbed a magazine and a rifle and yelled for George to come with me. We went down to the perimeter to wait for them to come back. They were charging back in. So I grabbed the rest of the
section. They told me briefly what happened. They’d gone out and came across three men, all armed. They fired at them so they fired back and then withdrew but the bad guys didn’t seem to be withdrawing. So I immediately got a section together and we went back to the spot where they’d been fired upon. Sure enough they were still there, fired on us again.
So then we had to start making some more careful plans. But then I think I got mortars in behind them. Sometimes the better trained ones would wait until…they knew our drill so we’d always get a round on the ground and they’d see where the first round fell and they knew we always put it out a safe distance and they knew where the rounds were coming from and they’d head off in another direction,
unless they were a large group and they were confident they’d be able to fight you. But sometimes they’d stay up close, according to what we’d read. They’d stay up close and fight until they heard the rounds in the ground and then withdraw. That’s pretty much what happened but one of them was obviously wounded and left a very heavy blood trail. There was a lot of blood so we thought we’d catch up with him pretty quick.
Followed for a while and ended up in a bunker system and got right into it before we knew we were in it. We’d just come on it from the wrong angle. No track or anything. We’re peering into a bunker before we knew we were in a bunker system. We were on the ground and I was next to one of my men and he
was a section 2IC. I remember telling him to move up on one particular side in a particular direction. As he went to get up his shirt caught on something. He just pulled it up and he had a clacker caught on his shirt. The clacker was the old thing we used to set off the Claymores with. He had a clacker stuck in his shirt, so he was actually laying on a clacker. He said, “Jesus”
and told me what was happening. I said, “Well don’t move”. Talk about trite advice. “I’m not going to move you silly so and so. What are you going to do about it?” He give me a real mouthful. Anyway we got him disconnected and away from there. It immediately made us very cautious. We established
that there were booby traps around. We were just so lucky to get in there without setting anything off. We found old Chicom [Chinese Communist] claymores and old French grenades set up on trip wires, a whole range of stuff, and then some tools. It was obviously an engineer,
what we thought was part of the D65 Battalion which was an engineer battalion and that was their job. Even had 500-pound bombs all sawn up into pieces and the explosives had been taken away. So we stopped worrying altogether about these fellows who’d run away and started search out these booby traps.
Later in the day Snoopy came in, the CO, and took out some of the tools and equipment we’d found. As soon as we started patrolling again the next day, we came across another bunker system. They fired on us too I think. Again we got right into the bunker system. There were more booby traps around and that’s eventually where I got hit
Just a couple of questions about these bunker systems. How do you know you’ve wandered onto a bunker system? Can you tell us what you can see and what’s on the ground around?
It was always you could get an idea if you were lucky by the fact that there was cut timber around the place.
But if they’d carefully prepared as they normally did, they’d even cover up a stump with mud, put leaves and twigs around it so you wouldn’t see that it was a stump. But they used timber for overhead protection on the bunkers and then build posts into it and then good solid overhead protection. Sometimes even had shrubbery growing out of it. It had been there long enough to have that sort of situation develop. And
camouflage down over the sides where they’d leave gaps of six inches, might be a foot, depending on who’d constructed it from which they could fight. But they were nearly always very well camouflaged. And sometimes if there were any sort of tracks leading into these
bunker systems, which were designed for the ground and for the type of defensive position that they had, they might have track systems into it if it had been used for a long time and you can’t avoid making some pieces of hard track, but they would normally, they’d have sentry spots too but they’d be even better camouflaged. They might
have a little trench that a person could duck into and virtually disappear from view. On occasions - I remember in old bunker systems that we walked past - you actually walked past these things before you actually realised they were there. It was only by looking back that you suddenly realised there was what would be a sentry post. But sometimes their bunkers systems were not
well constructed. I remember a good mate of mine who took over my platoon after I was wounded telling me that when they were involved in a big firefight, they came across three men - the forward scout saw three men just having a brew. He watched them for a while and they didn’t seem to be doing anything and he eventually fired and he said the whole world blew up then. They were actually in the bunker system, which was a big
U shape. They’d actually managed, accidentally, to walk into the open end of the U. So there were people on both sides of them. These fellows were just having a brew and they were in terrible trouble for a long time. But it was fairly well spread out. When I read back on action reports of other people involved in these sorts of circumstances, some of the Vietnamese had
very good weapons drills and there must have been some cool customers amongst them so if men in one bunker fired that didn’t mean everybody fired. They’d wait until it was absolutely necessary for them to fire until they figure out where you were. So you might feel you’re dealing with one machine gun and start to deploy your troops to deal with that and suddenly bump into another one who might start firing then.
So they were very good. So you were always a bit nervous when you did come across bunkers.
When you initially followed this blood trail and discovered you were in a bunker system, what did training dictate you do next?
Stop and try and consolidate. So I had to stop, call the rest of my platoon forward and deploy on what we thought were the outskirts of the system and then get
ourselves out and then try and work our way back into it again. Work around the edges, make sure there was no one there, try and find the tracks in, identify if there were more traps on the way in. That was pretty tricky then.
Had the person you were following entered underground?
Don’t think so. They did find him a couple of days
later in the same area, so we presumed he was the same fellow. He was dead, which is a bit surprising because they normally carted them away or buried them. They didn’t on this occasion. We wondered whether the other ones were wounded too. But apparently they did locate a body, which they assumed had been involved in that particular contact. And they’d gone straight through the bunker system, out the other side. They were just heading off.
Can you give us a bit more detail on some of the booby traps you found? You mentioned a grenade.
Yeah. One was an old French grenade. Which just had an old nail in above the strike lever with a string from it which came down to ground level and stretched between a couple of stumps.
So that if you trod on that you pulled the nail out of the grenade and the strike lever and it should go off. Some of those things looked very old. Then we found a DH-7, the Chicom type claymores, which was like a garbage tin lid set up in the bushes facing down a track. So it was set up deliberately to cover a track,
with a pressure switch further down the track where you’d come in so if you trod on it, it’d go off. But there was also another detonator strapped to it and a clacker sitting further inside the bunker system so you could fire it from two locations. Then we found I think it was a couple of mortar bombs wrapped
in leaves. They had the impact pin out of the bomb. So that became effectively a pressure switch itself. Then you just insert in the ground, covered it up, wrapped in leaves. We found some I think it was 155 [millimetre] shells where they’d actually bored holes into them, placed
primer det [detonating] explosives into the holes and then just dug out the side of it so that they could fire that as a direct explosive device itself. They were the type of things. There was Claymores there too, American Claymores.
You mentioned you found tools. What sort of tools were they?
Drills, augers, pliers, pincers, hammer.
Types of tools that we assumed they’d used in breaking down some of the various explosive devices that they’d carted in there.
Was there evidence that there’d been enemy in this bunker recently?
Mm, bits of food. Some of them were pretty untidy, not very hygienic. Some camps were very clean
but others were filthy. We could tell that they’d been there relatively recently, probably using it to stage through.
After you’d cleaned that one out and moved on, can you just take us through what happened next leading up to your wounding? You’d found another bunker system.
Yes. We got into another bunker system. There were booby traps there too.
I think some brief shots exchanged, but we were quite satisfied they’d fled and that there was I think it was quickly established that there were more booby traps. Then we were starting to go through the same process. Anywhere we went we’d plot a track and mark it. Then we got another platoon in who’d been relieving us because we were running out of tucker and water.
I remember going down to one of the bunkers and showing the other people from this platoon where things were located. I was reasonably well aware of where our tracks were to, because you just had to be careful of that. But when I was coming back and one of the fellows said to me, “Hey Skipper,
have a look at this” and I still remember just turning and there was a fellow going off to my left. And then “Boom” a terrible explosion. I still don’t know and I’ve never spoken to the fellows about it whether I trod on something, because it went off directly in front of me, which is what saved my life of course,
or whether the fellow behind me had stepped on something going off to one side. But I never bothered to check. I don’t think they would have known anyway. But the one that went off in front of me was most likely a Claymore. It was obviously very close to me, just because of the way the ball bearings fire out.
It hit me in the lower leg. Either it was poorly sited or I was very close to it. So it shattered my legs and knocked me over and the fellow immediately behind me and a man further down who’d only been with us that day. He got
apparently hit in the breastbone with one pellet - went off through his heart. Cause they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. When they got to him there was no obvious wound. Poor fellow. He was dead. We were in a bit of trouble because then we had a mine go off right there. I was bleeding very badly and the fellow behind me was bleeding very badly
and we had to figure out what to do then. And I wasn’t much use to them.
Were you unconscious for a period? What do you remember of that time?
I remember immediately I got jammed almost in between two stumps or caught on a bunch of sticks and twigs on my face.
A fellow pretty quickly came up to me a few metres away. He said, “What’s up, Skipper?” I said, “You’re going to have to prod. Don’t come near me.” I remember saying that. But I was bloody near deaf too with the explosion. My head was ringing. I wasn’t sure whether he could hear me or whether I’d have to shout. I was jammed on my face and I had to
actually half twist over to look. I had pins and needles in my leg. Pins and needles, I reckoned. I had a look at my legs and they were just shattered, boots and legs and trousers just shattered, so I knew I was in deep trouble. But I couldn’t turn right over or sit up. I was jammed in the logs. I said to that fellow,
“I need a tourniquet” and he said, “Yep. Don’t worry. We’re coming”. Then they just had to prod over towards me and put a tourniquet on and get the choppers, and get us out. That took a bit of time because we’d been in contact and had to wait for the support choppers. Normally they had to
if they had a chopper coming in that wasn’t armed, they’d wait until they got an armed one in to help protect the chopper. There was nowhere for it to land - we were in swampy country - so they had to winch us up and they did. I remember by that stage it was really starting to hurt. And I’m sure…the shock…
I didn’t really feel anything for quite a while. But by the time I was in the chopper, I remember going over the skids because they had a Stokes litter [stretcher designed for helicopter winching] and they put my mate in first. He went up like that in the Stokes litter and then I had a vertical one. As soon as it lifts me off the ground and all these things, they had it tied up, or strapped up bandages but they were just a mess. I remember going over the skids on the chopper and I was just dragging and it started to hurt then really bad.
Then I was on the floor in the chopper. The crewman said, “How you going?” “Not too bad”. Should have said, this is a stupid conversation. He said, “Won’t be long mate”. I think I was drifting in and out of consciousness then.
I do remember thinking, lying on the ground, I thought…my hands just started to close up like that. I believe it was something like loss of blood and probably lack of oxygen. Not breathing properly. I remember focusing on this. I was trying to get my hands spread out on the ground and keep my fingers right out, “That’ll help me along a bit”. I suppose it was advantageous I could focus on something as stupid as that,
trying to keep my hands open and not let them close up. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh Christ, Toot’s not going to be happy about this; going to be upset about this”. Then they got me into the chopper back down to Vung Tau and off the chopper. I was a bit upset then too. I saw a padre there.
I was a bit concerned that they thought, this fellow needs, this is the last of him. It wasn’t that. I was badly wounded but I don’t think I was…I might have bled to death but that’d be the worst of it. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was thinking positively, I’d be okay as long as they could patch up my legs.
Then this padre and I remember seeing the crosses on his collar. “Oh geez, I’m in a bit of trouble here. They got the padre in to have a look at me.” And there was a young cousin of mine too, Tommy McMahon. He was working on the pad there in the triage area. I remember him saying ‘G’day’ to me too but all I could think of to say was, “G’day Tommy, how you going?”
And in the triage area where they cleaned you up…I’m pretty sure they did, they cleaned me up, they cut clothing away and things like that and then I was going straight into the operating theatre. But they pushed the trolley over against a wall to start with. I’d seen the triage area before and I’d been told, “If there’s nothing we can do with one person, we get them out of the way and we get on with who we can help. We just push them over against the wall.”
And I got pushed over against the wall. I said, “Oh geez, this is it. I’m in real trouble here”. But I wasn’t. They’d cleaned me up and there were other people coming and they were just cleaning them too, fixing them up, and we were just going into different theatres. And then I remember lying under the big light. I think it was old Mike Norton who was the
CO of the hospital at the time and another surgeon; I think he’s dead. I just never knew his name, never could remember it. But Mike Norton was the CO of the hospital and he said, “We’ve got you now, mate. You’ll be right”. Put the mask on me and I woke up later. But it seems…it was a very long time ago; hope I got it right.
What did you find when you woke up?
I had a lot of pain when I first woke up. I was hurting a lot. The nursing staff there was very good. They went away and got the doctors straight away and they come down. The big fellow, I remember him saying to me, “We’ve got some bad news for you son. Had to amputate your legs”. I thought he said, ‘leg’. But
I said, “Just one?” and he said, “Both of them”. Whoa, that’s a bit tough. He said, “Otherwise you’re pretty okay”. I had a lot of skin off me just from blast effect but not much else. Big chunks out of my thighs but otherwise just this little cage over my legs. I didn’t even look.
Wasn’t game to look. It was days before I could look. Then it was just a bit of a mess. They had weights sewn into my legs to keep the skin down over the bone. Then I remember just a day later one of the other platoon commanders came in. He’d been assault
pioneers [engineer-like platoon integral to an infantry battalion], no, he was tracker platoon. He took a round up the side of his head. Geez, I just had his name then, but I played footy with him in the battalion. I think - quite apart from the fact that he’d been hit in the side of the head - I think it’d been something like a glancing shot and he really just
didn’t know what was going on around him. I was starting to come good. I remember saying to him, “Hey how you going?” He just looked at me for a while and then just lay down on the bed. But I had good times and bad times too. Sometimes hurting like blazes. They’d just come along and give me a needle. Go off to sleep again. Only got into trouble once. That was from the Red Cross lady I think who came and said she was going to send a note off
to my parents to let them know. I think she said, “Who should I tell?” “I think you’d better tell my father.” She said, “What’ll I say?” “You should tell him I’m a little bit shorter, but I’m okay.” She said, “That is so gross. I can’t tell your father that. That is so gross.” She really gave me the rounds of the kitchen. She was probably right too.
I think I was just trying to be a smart alec, trying to keep on top of the situation that I was concerned about myself. She eventually said, “We’ll find a better form of words than that, but you’re alright?” “I’m okay.” “We’ll tell them that.”
What was going through your mind during those first few days when you couldn’t bear to look down? How do you come to terms with that?
I think the only bit of sage advice that I got during that time I think was from a surgeon. It always bothers me that I can’t remember him. He was a big solid fellow. He did come back a couple of times and talk to me. Said to me that you can be fitted with prostheses.
I’d seen fellows with wooden legs before, just like old Digger James [Major-General ‘Digger’ James, former RSL National President]. He was a doctor at the hospital. I used to remember his car going past to camp training with a spare leg hanging out the back, haring off, so I was aware of those sort of things. I remember one day he put his hand on my shoulder as he walked away and he said, “Don’t let it make you a victim”. I think that’s probably the best bit of advice I’ve ever had,
but I had to think about it for quite a while and I had to interpret I suppose what he actually meant by it. It became apparent later on when some days you’d have really bad days, “This is just terrible. It hurts too much.” Or getting fitted with a prostheses is just too hard or I got an
infection in one leg at hospital. It could bear down on you some days. Eventually I worked out what he meant, that came in a larger context and meant a lot more than just a few words that he gave me, but eventually made a lot of difference to me in my recovery and rehabilitation. I didn’t become a victim. So I thought, no I was in a bad way
and it was a big stuff-up and a big hold-up on an infantryman’s career to have no bloody legs. But they’re not going to grow back, so just make the best of it.
Interviewee: William Rolfe Archive ID 1631 Tape 09
Your first thought you said was, “My wife’s not going to like this”.
I don’t know why that was. I’ve often thought, now that’s a pretty stupid thing to think too. Lots of other things could have passed through your mind. “Oh geez, Toot’s not going to be pleased
about this”. But fortunately she’s good country stock and practical and I’m sure it upset her at the time, but she managed.
It must have been hard for you at the time though thinking about your people back home and how they’d find out.
I was concerned about that because
I was worried about Toot and properly so as it turned out. Not so much because she couldn’t handle the news, but just the way in which it got to her. She was out on the farm out the other side of Griffith in New South Wales and they sent a padre and an officer out from Kapooka in Wagga to inform her that I’d been wounded’ which is about 120 miles from Griffith.
So they had to get over to Griffith and then 60 mile out the other side and find Oatley homestead on all these little back roads out in the bush. They stuffed up, went into a property, had to explain that they were looking for the Dart family where Joan Rolfe was staying. Then the phones started ringing hot all over - party lines - started ringing all over the place.
So Toot’s uncle knew before they got there what was going on. There’s an army car. They were all old soldiers themselves or families of old soldiers who’d been told this sort of thing before. They said, “There’s an army car with a padre in it over at so-and-so’s place looking for Joanie Rolfe”. “Oh yes. We’re in trouble.” Then
when they eventually turned up there, it was about a mile and a half down from the front gate across real flat country and they could see the car coming a long way. Toot said she was waiting at the front gate when they got out and she said she didn’t want them beating around the bush so she said, “Is he dead?” The silly bugger said, “Not yet”, probably just because I was still on the seriously ill list I suppose.
At least, that’s quite clearly what she remembers him saying. Not sure. I don’t think anyone would agree they said such a thing. But she remembers him saying, “Not yet”. They said, “Well you better come inside and have a cup of tea”. So they had a cup of tea, talked about it, said I was still in Vietnam and I was being well looked after and
everything would be okay in the long run. But must have been very, very hard for her. I think it’s always hardest on those who have to wait, those who have to find out these things. Sometimes when I - years ago, I do it less nowadays - when I used to sympathise with myself and feel what a terrible hand I’d been dealt in the world, I’m brought back to reality by that sort of thought that
really it’s a matter for…it’s one thing to have it happen to you, but the people who have to tell other people that these things have happened or who wait to hear that sort of information, it’s very hard for them. And there’s nothing they can do at all, absolutely nothing, when you’re thousands of miles away. At least I was. I think very quickly I decided I’d fight to
get myself fit and well again. As soon as I got the ringing out of my ears and what was very severe pain initially went away, which was only a week or two, then I said to myself, “Well all I can do now is, I’m not going to die, I’ve just got to find some way of, so to speak, getting back on my feet.
Perhaps get taller.”
You mentioned your response to the Red Cross lady. Were there other moments of humour if you like or black comedy?
Black humour? No, I don’t think so. No. I remember there that - I do remember not in relation to me -
just down the ward a little bit there was a Maori Kiwi who’d been very badly shot up. We didn’t have conversation long. Every time we started talking someone would come in and give us a needle, put us back to sleep again. But I remember seeing his mates come in one day to visit him. A couple of people came down from the unit to visit me too. We just had a…it’s funny the things that you
just can’t talk about. There’s nothing to talk about when you’re in that situation. But I remember these fellows coming in and sitting round his bed watching him, then eventually one of them going out and coming back with a wheelchair and packing all the kit up. This fellow had tubes running out of him everywhere. All of them lifted him up and put him on the wheelchair and they’re starting to wheel him outside with drips
held up and all this sort of stuff. And one of the nursing staff came up and said, “My God, what are you doing? You’ll kill him. What are you doing?” “We’re taking him to the movies. He said he wanted to go to the movies. There’s a movie on down at the Badcoe Club [Army recreation centre in Vung Tau] and we’re taking him down there.” “No you’re not. Put this poor old fellow back in his bed.”
When did the grief really hit you about your legs?
I don’t think it ever has. You don’t…I think I was pretty lucky. I don’t think I was stupid. I think I was just, when I realised what had happened I said, “Well you know it was just as simple as that.
It’s done. Nothing I can do about it now.” As I said, I remember those words the surgeon said, “Don’t let it make you a victim” so it seemed to me that was one of the things that I had to avoid, this so-called grief and loss and things of that nature. And once they put some artificial legs on me and I stood up again,
I said, “Well, I know my right ankle was pretty shonky anyway from footy. All I’ve done is improve my situation there”. So I don’t think I ever really had to deal with a grieving process about the injuries I’d suffered. Every once in a blue moon some years ago, when the kids were growing up particularly, I remember
wishing I could run with the kids or something like that. But beyond that I could normally slap myself on the face and say, “You can’t. That’s it. Get over it. Get a life. Find something else, some other way to deal with it”. And I was able to do that. I was just in a fortunate position. I’ve since seen people who suffered enormously and haven’t been able to do that.
I’m just very grateful that I am in that position, because they have suffered. I’ve seen some terrible suffering. But at the same time, I’ve come across in the artificial limb appliance centre - RALAC they used to call it - Repatriation Artificial Limb Appliance Centre, which was down opposite Albert Park I think it was. Big funny old building; we had
some funny times in there I tell you. But some old fellows in there who were getting limbs at age 80 or had limbs off ever since the Second World War and had made quite comfortable reasonable lives for themselves. That was always a good reality check. And there were injuries that other people had suffered. The people I was in hospital with at Ingleburn - some really brave men.
Suffered really horrendous injuries and could laugh and joke just like ordinary people. And even people I’ve seen since. I went to PANCH [Preston and Northcote Community Hospital] Hospital in Melbourne once to have a skin graft from my arm on to my leg. And I saw a burns victim down there who was in just terrible
pain and circumstances. He was talking to other people trying to help them. The spirit of some people is just absolutely amazing. And you only have to look around the corner on any day and you can find someone who’s worse off and in a worse off position trying to help someone else. And in those circumstances I don’t think you can complain. You just can’t.
You mentioned the padre when you got off the helicopter and you were thinking, this is it, were the padres always like the Grim Reapers?
No. I don’t think so at all. In fact on that occasion he was probably…I don’t think he was specifically brought in to deal with anyone. He was just there and helping. It was a pretty sad view I had I think of the role.
Say, oops if the padre’s there you’re in real trouble. I don’t think he was the Grim Reaper at all. No. It was just something that stuck in my head for a while that was pretty unfair on padres generally.
Can you tell us something of the trip on the way home?
No. Not a lot. I remember I was flown down to Butterworth and
stayed in the old British 28th Commonwealth Brigade Hospital from…might have been a day and a night, perhaps even might have been a couple of days. But they told me that they had to do some more work on the limbs. They’d put these weights on them; they keep the wounds open apparently in tropical countries like that just to prevent infection taking hold they don’t close the wound up.
I don’t know whether that’s generally true or not, but on this particular occasion that was information that I had. So they had these open wounds on the stumps, but with cord sewn into them and weights on the end to keep muscle and tissue pulled down over the bone and they had to do some more work on that there. But I do remember
coming home having the Herc [C-130 Hercules transport aircraft] all set up; they have stretchers all down the middle. When they took me I had a big burly ward orderly lifted me up. I wasn’t very heavy at that stage, probably about nine stone. Put me on this stretcher and folded the blanket over me and the blanket seemed to come down and I thought that’s just to move me
out on the aircraft. I don’t know whether it actually happened or not but I’ve got this story built up in my own mind now that I would periodically wake up and near froze to death on that trip back, because I was freezing all the time, felt cold all the time. I’d periodically wake up and I’d say to the Casevac [Casualty Evacuation] nursing sister there, mumble something to her about being cold and she’d give me another needle.
All I tried to tell her, I was freezing. “Gone cuckoo. Give him another dose.” And we landed at Richmond and put on a bus - old army bus - set up as a hospital bus. That was a pretty rough trip too over to Ingleburn. An old mate from the hospital at RMC
had been there. I didn’t know her that well. She was going through with a red cape and grey starched uniform very much like a matron, ticking off names. “Rolfe, I know that name. Bill, is that you? What are you doing here?” I had drips hanging out of my neck. “Just visiting, matron.” “Ah yes. We’ll look after you now.
We’ve got you now. We’ll look after you.” And they did of course. They were very good. But there were some fellows in some really tough circumstances there, who were really tough eggs. Bull Mahoney, one I remember, both his legs off up here. We had some fun times in at the Artificial Limb Appliance Centre when they were fitting us with limbs.
Remember doing a fire drill in there one day: a fire drill with all these limbless people. They put Bull in a nice Stokes litter to cart him down the stairs, put a strap across his chest and tied the thing up to walk down the stairs and he slipped straight under this strap and hit the fellow in front in the middle of the back and drove him into a wall at the bottom of the stairs and landed on his back. That poor fellow thought he’d died.
Bull wanted a chair and then we had to go outside in the street and there are people out there with no arms and no legs and no chairs and everyone trying to do the right thing by a fire drill. I went down one flight of stairs and then I jacked up and said, “No I’m not going any further until you get me my legs back”. “It’s a fire!” “It’s a fire drill. Get my legs.” Still had to go outside in my shorts
and artificial limbs half finished. But we had funny times.
What was the process of teaching you to walk again?
It was an established process that they’d obviously maintained from the war years. There was a set of rails there. We used to go into
RALAC each morning from Ingleburn in a bloody old army Landrover ambulance. If you’ve ever tried anything with no springs and no nothing, try one of those old army ambulances. Oh it was a shocking trip. Every day. It was about an hour and a half I think from Ingleburn in. We’d go in there each day and
eventually they fitted us with legs and put them on and you’d just walk up and down until you couldn’t walk any more. See where it was marked. See if they could make adjustments for it. Walk again. I practiced. I really practiced that. I didn’t want to limp too bad. I don’t think it was just for appearance. I just wanted to…I thought it’d all be okay if I could just
walk, just wouldn’t be that much difference. So I put a lot of effort into that. I suppose it took about…I was in hospital about four months I suppose. And after they’d done some skin grafts and they’d taken, I was able to get the legs fitted.
I was pretty right. I was wounded 2nd August - August, September, October, November - think I got out of hospital late November and then I went up to Griffith for a bit of a holiday. Took my legs with me. Tried to get a license to drive a car.
Bought a car that was automatic. Found I had to get a big sponge to put under the accelerator because I started off with doing 50 k [kilometres] an hour with this big heavy foot I had on and so I used to use a big sponge under the accelerator so I could put some weight on it. And I went down to the police station and he didn’t like the look of the things like the sponge under the accelerator. He said, “No we have to get some more information
on you before you get a license” I remember ringing up Al Grassby and telling him the problem I was having with getting a license. He was the local Member of Parliament for the Riverina. He said, “I think you’ll be right”. “What do you mean?” “You should get a phone call tomorrow.” Next day the police rang me up and asked me if I wanted to come down and do another test, so I went and did another test and got passed. Although they did put on my licence
‘Must wear legs when driving’ which I thought was pretty ridiculous.
How long after you returned to Australia were your family allowed to visit you?
Pretty much I think it was if not the same day, the day after. They must have arranged for them to come down and told them when I was coming back I think. But they were at Ingleburn.
No, I really don’t know that. I might have been there for a day. I was pretty tired after the trip back I think. I was still a bit concerned about Toot seeing me because I wasn’t properly shaven and I still had a haircut that my batman George had given me; which was a
shocker because he was not a barber and we used to just cut most of our hair off. It was easier to look after in the bush. George had done my last haircut so I had tufts of hair growing out me everywhere. I think because I was the boss I got the worst haircut in the platoon. So I had tufty hair and skin off my face and unshaven and I wanted them to clean me up before Toot saw me,
which they did. They were pretty good. They were always trying to help.
So what did your wife and your parents say when they first met you?
Just wanted to see I was okay.
Did they want to avoid the subject of the legs?
Don’t talk about the legs. No one talked about the legs. No one could talk about the legs. I can’t ever remember anyone talking about the legs. I don’t think I wanted to talk about them
myself. I didn’t deliberately raise it. I never raised it. We all knew what had happened. It was only one fellow asked me, “It was just the legs was it? Nothing else missing?” “No. Nothing else missing; I’ve checked all that.” “Right. Good.”
Was that a doctor
or a fellow patient?
No. One of my uncles, old Matey McMahon. He said, “Just thought I’d check”. “That’s alright mate, no sweat.” They even brought my old Nana down to see me who by this stage had the first signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and she was a lovely old lady who I was very close to as
a young ‘un. She told me about every person in her hometown of Canowindra who’d died in the last ten years I think. They took her outside after a while. Mate walked around the bed and he’s kicking at stuff. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m just kicking all those bodies under the bed. I never heard of so many deaths. I didn’t think it was a good idea to bring her in here
and talk to you about people dying all the time”. “That’s okay.” I put up with anything old Nan said, even the death rites. I had a number of visitors too and old mates. One mate actually came out and saw me as they brought me off the plane at Richmond, Phil Thompson who’s dead now. He’d been in the SAS and he got hit in the chin and it took the side of his jaw off.
He was pretty badly wounded, but made a good recovery and they patched him up well. He was a good bloke. And took a lot of trouble to arrange to make sure that he was there when the aircraft got back so he was one of the first faces I saw when I got carted off the plane, old Thommo. Good mates. I think that’s made
a very big difference to the rehabilitation that I’ve had. Always had good mates and people who go out of their way to find out if I needed help. I haven’t needed that much help but always known that there were people around who’d drop everything at a moment’s notice to come and help if I needed it.
Once you got home and you were starting to I guess be rehabilitated,
what next for you work wise? What did you think at that point in time?
Actually I hadn’t thought about it until the Director of Infantry sent a couple of officers down one day and said, “What do you want to do now?” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Well don’t like to raise it with you, but you’re not much use to infantry now. You’re very short.” And I had to agree. I said, “How can I stay in the army?”
They hadn’t thought about it. “Perhaps we could retrain you.” And they went away and thought about that and came back and said, “Yes. We could retrain you.” Then they sent a psychology corps officer to test to see if I could be retrained. They had to put the elephant’s trunk on its head instead of its tail, do some of these tests. They said, “Yes. We could retrain this officer as a doctor or a
lawyer or an economist or…” I think that might have been the several choices I had. People like Digger James, who’d lost a leg and the best part of a foot in Korea, had retrained as a doctor and by that stage I think he was the chief medical officer in the army. “We could do something like that.” But I wasn’t too keen;
I’d just spent four months in a hospital and I wasn’t too keen on doing anything. Sometimes regret it now. That would have been a good way to go. But I opted for law. They said, “Righto” tick, “We’ll get you retrained in law”. I came up to Canberra about Christmas time and they wrote a letter to the dean, the Director of Infantry and the Military Secretary, with the blessing of the
Chief of the General staff, and said, “You take this fellow on and train him as a lawyer”. I think it was as simple as that and they agreed, “Yes we can do it as long as he passes his exams and things like that”. And I could do that, so they retrained me. In the university holidays I’d go and work with the Director of Army Legal Services who were de facto sponsoring me through university.
Yeah so I was very lucky in that regard. They didn’t have any policy or systems to cover the situation. Some thoughtful officers said, “We spent a lot of time training him now, hasn’t been hit in the head, maybe we can still make use of him”. That turned out to be the case.
I think I was quite useful for over the next what was it 16 years or so that I served and eventually became Director of Army Legal Services, the position that my sponsor had occupied when he helped me through it.
Just moving on subject wise, a lot’s been said since particularly Vietnam about trauma after the war. What are
your views on all that? Were you traumatised, firstly by Vietnam?
No I don’t think I was but I’ve certainly seen people who have been. There’s no question of that. Knew one very well, as I say, a good friend of mine who was traumatised in an unusual way but he
just never came home. I’ve come across other men who’ve just been severely traumatised by some particular thing and in fact I’ve done a lot of research in a lay context about this issue, because it’s an important issue in what I do now as a Review Board for Disability Pension.
There’s just no question that it’s a very serious issue; lots of disagreement amongst psychiatrists about the nature of a trauma that’s suffered by a person before it causes psychiatric condition. It’s made more difficult by the fact that quite a large percentage of the claims for trauma accepted by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
who only see the more difficult ones. Then there are sometimes conflicting medical opinions as to whether a person has been traumatised or whether the particular event that the person suffered was of such a nature as to give rise to a lasting trauma that would only affect a person 30 or 40 years later. So it’s a very difficult and sensitive area.
post traumatic syndrome came to the forefront around Vietnam time or after Vietnam, is there a particular reason why so many veterans have suffered trauma as a result of that war?
No. It’s still the case that the diagnostic manuals that are still regularly used
around the world as indicating this type of issue…the issue was developed really in the United States and was particularly developed really to deal with people who’d had a lot of very serious combat experience being shot at and shelled, but it’s since become an issue for any sort of incident that occurred during your service in an operational theatre.
That’s made it a bit more difficult. It’s always difficult. But it’s much more difficult when you get conflicting psychiatric opinions. That’s sometimes the case. You get some psychiatrists who say, “Yes, this particular event was sufficient to
ground this psychiatric illness” and they’ve identified all these particular symptoms that flow from it and so say it’s a war caused psychiatric illness. And another psychiatrist will say, “I don’t think that particular incident was sufficient to give rise to a psychiatric illness and I can’t find all of these symptoms. They’re just things that occur in everyday
life exacerbated by perhaps some other particular events”. There’s a whole range of really difficult matters surrounding that. I don’t think it’ll get any easier as it goes on till they find some other way of…some psychiatrists and some medical scientists have said that there are some particular chemical imbalances that occur in the brain to give rise to things like
psychiatric illness and trauma and maybe that’ll come about. But there’s certainly no solid epidemiological evidence at the moment that people could rely on to deal with the social issue that we’re trying to deal with now as to who’s entitled to a pension for the particular service.
Coming now to Vietnam, the war itself, given obviously we pulled out of
Vietnam and it wasn’t a popular war with society, do you think it was worth fighting?
Well what’s worth fighting for? Certainly wasn’t a case that we were defending our homeland, our wives and children. We were defending a concept. It was based in something like
the domino theory and you’d have to say if that’s all it was then perhaps it wasn’t worth it. But then again in the light of what I mentioned at the outset, the practical view I’d taken. I’m not sure that any war is worth fighting, worth the loss of life, and the terrible consequences that flow for family and participants,
and innocent victims. I’m not sure that any war is worth those sorts of consequences. It’d be very helpful if there were another way of resolving international impasses and difficulties but at the moment there isn’t. If a country through its representatives decides that it has got a national interest in participating in a particular conflict
then all people like our military forces can do is do what they’re told, in the national interest. It sounds thoughtless, but I don’t think there’s another way of going about it. I don’t think you can have the military forces deciding on a case-by-case basis,
despite what our government says, what our elected people say, “No I don’t think this one’s really worth it. I elect not to fight this one. Maybe the next one I’ll fight. And of course I’ll stay in the military forces and draw pay, but not going to fight this one. It’s wrong”. And the other half say, “Oh this one’s all right, but maybe the next one that’s coming I don’t like. I don’t think I’ll fight that one.” It can’t work that way.
Are you at all disappointed in the way the Australian public reacted to the war and veterans?
Yes. I was disappointed on a number of aspects. But I think the Australian public itself is disappointed now the way it reacted as well towards the veterans, blaming them in many respects. I think that’s one of a number of reasons
why some veterans have become victims, because they knew that they weren’t supported. Some of them were called baby killers, had supposed blood products thrown on them and were mistreated in some ways.
I think it’s created victims out of men and women who were just doing what they had to do. Some honestly believed they had to do it. Others didn’t want to do it, but felt constrained by the laws of our country to do it anyway. I think they’ve really suffered because of it. It just shouldn’t have happened. They shouldn’t have been treated in that way.
Some people felt it very deeply and still feel it today, that they were mistreated. I don’t think everybody wanted to be seen as a hero but they expected better treatment than they had.
How important to you and even to your friends who served was that welcome home parade in about 87?
I wouldn’t have bothered
one way or another if it had just been me, but I recognised that it was very important to a lot of people. It amounted to closure for some of them and some are still bitter because it took so long to occur. Doesn’t matter what you do for those people, they’re always going to be bitter. But yeah I think it
really made a difference for some people. I don’t think they had to feel justified in the war they fought, but they had to feel like the public that sends its sons and daughters to war is responsible to look after them when they get home. And the better you look after them immediately they get home the less likelihood there is of having to look after
them in their old age when they still can’t get over the fact that they weren’t looked after when they got home. I think our society probably recognises that was a real failing nowadays, to the extent that veterans quite often only have to ask nowadays to get some particular assistance or treatment. There is such a feeling of guilt about
that, they’ll get it. Our veterans. Our heroes. Wasn’t like that when we came home. They weren’t our heroes. I’ve heard many a story. I saw a good mate of mine who I was sitting with him he’d been up in the northern provinces with the AATTV [Australian Army Training Team Vietnam], the army training team, and he’d been pulled out of a very
difficult situation by an American chopper and got back to base and was told his leave had come through. Within 24 hours virtually, he was back home. And he was in a battalion group that had been under a very serious assault and was in danger of being overrun 24 hours beforehand, and he’s back in Australia. Just wandered through the airport and they said, “Yeah you’re on leave.
Make sure you’re back here such and such a time. We’ll get you back”. So there was nothing to bring him home and just sit him down for five minutes even and talk to him about, remember these are the problems and difficulties that you face. Other people: one young soldier who came home and he slept on a Sydney railway station his first night home.
It just shouldn’t happen like that. Bringing our troops home even from unpopular wars; if they’re our troops, they’re our troops and they should be…they don’t have to be looked after for every single thing, but they have to be respected and they have to be provided with the dignity that service for your country should attract.