Archive number: 2029
Preferred name: Paddy
Date interviewed: 30 June, 2004
1 Squadron SAS
3 Squadron SAS
You are listening to the interview audio
Where were you born Paddy?
I was born in Hungary, about sixty ks [kilometres] south west of Budapest, 1940. And we more or less lived there. A place called Szekesfehervar, I can’t pronounce it hardly myself. The Hungos [Hungarians], like all Europeans,
use multi-syllable words…Anyhow, born into the war. Things were okay for the first few years, but then towards ’44, she got a bit grim. Bombings were a daily occurrence. We protected our house as much as we could. The closest we got, it was not a direct hit, but outside the backyard here. In fact, my grandfather, who was an old retired veteran,
many times wounded, who was our guide and mentor, he was the first one to fall into the hole and break his arm. We thought this was a bit of poetic justice, but we did love the old fellow.
What experiences did he share with you from his war time?
Heaps. He told us how to rig up the windows with tape, and how to open them in the middle of a big bombing raid to allow the percussion….How to keep your mouth open. How even a table like that absorbs…
In a bombing raid or a mortar attack or a rocket attack, you are more likely to get hit with a flying rock or brick than with a piece of shrap…all of it’s shrapnel, all of it is flying. As a matter of fact, if we were in a room here now, we would be peppered in the dust, in the brick dust. Sometimes I couldn’t even see you that close. Anyhow, sandbagging and also
things like, he would impart knowledge like, if you could hear the scream, you could hear the scream mostly, but if you could hear them coming down, if you could hear the scream, it was give or take a block away. This was more or less proved true later on as I went through and I started to get artillery and mortars myself, and started to experience the whole thing, firsthand as a soldier. This was as a young kid. And also as a young kid in the war effort, there is no such thing as being too young,
you all worked, you all pulled your weight. Even if it was just carrying a small bucket of water. Even if it was just carrying a small bucket of sand. And so on. Yes, he guided us heaps. Unfortunately, I think he also died during the war. He was a retired gentleman, and he was also a public servant by then and he was in charge of the air force canteen in Hungary. He was a very big man.
The best rank or equivalent I can put to him is aspirant or sergeant major of the army. He was knighted eventually. He got the Hungarian equivalent of the Victoria Cross. He was a very big man, and I could see that in his dealings that everyone respected him. He was a notorious womaniser, and I don’t know if you really want this, but he married bigamously. I’m a result of his second batch
of kids. And also at that time, another soldier recognised a photo of him on the wall and said, “That is my sister’s fiancée. And she’s pregnant.” Which didn’t go down to well with Granny. I think he died from high blood pressure. I was there at his death, and I wish I had of been older and maturer and I would have treated it better. As I was a young kid, I treated it sort of flippantly. He was a sad loss to our family.
But by that time, our family was disintegrating.
In what circumstances did your grandfather pass away?
Look, he really did have something. High blood pressure. Perhaps because of his past life, perhaps because of the stresses of the war. He wasn’t a young man of course, he was born in 18-something or other. He was a terrific man’s man, a rough head, but he looked
every inch in his uniform, sword, the whole kit and caboodle. As I say, I wish I had been a fraction more mature. Forty years later I went back to the same house to the same room and reminisce, and got a strange feeling out of it. He was the figurehead, he was the leader, he was the chief and then he died. He really finished the disintegration of our family. The whole thing. My uncles were in the military…
It was war time, there was no one around. The men disappeared. Really, wars are fought at home by ladies and kids, and old men, and a few bludgers. Draft dodgers, call it whatever you like. Or sick, lame and lazy, or perhaps smart people.
So I understand your grandfather passed away at home, where you were living?
He actually passed away at the married accommodation
at the back of the canteen itself. Which I hope is still standing but I don’t think so. With progress, they bulldoze these areas and so on. I remember it very distinctly. And that more or less heralded, not our hitting the road…Where it all came about was give or take around Christmas, or prior to Christmas ‘44.
The Soviets had already besieged Budapest and were starting to make forays southeast. Now if you can just imagine this, like if they besieged Perth and started making forays into Mandurah Bay…The Germans of course, were coming up…Hungary had the pleasure of being occupied
by both the Soviets and the Germans. One was an enemy, one was an ally. But nothing seemed to matter very much, you were the meat in the sandwich. You were the populace and all of a sudden you had not one, you had two sort of occupiers. Pretty flexy stuff. Anyhow, they moved up and we became part of the front line. They had sort of a brazier-shaped defence of some sort.
And that particular day we were surrounded by Tiger tanks, the whole lot. Any kind of World War II war things that you want. They came into our house, they told us to be quiet, very politely. They stuck the old machine gun over the sink. The linked ammunition rattled in the sink. Later on I was to handle heaps of linked ammunition in combat. I just find it strange.
Anyhow they rattled the old linked ammo well and truly in the sink. I don’t know whether they smashed a window out or not…Yes, I think they smashed it. The next minute they came in and hid. One came in with a crowbar and one came in with a huge sledgehammer. If you can imagine, the sink was facing this way towards the Soviets and over here they started to knock a huge hole in the kitchen wall. You can imagine
how that impressed Mum and old Granny. The house was pretty shaky from the bombing as it was. The people came in and tell you…not to shut up, but very nicely, they were very polite. But knocked a huge hole, which was obviously an escape. Obviously they were going to use the street as a front line, as a defence position, and they were going to….I don’t know if you know about military manoeuvres, but you stage through, you do it in stages. Of course, with the knocking of the hole…
Just before Christmas it is so cold in Hungary. I mean the snow is often two metres deep. The Siberian wind blew in. We were pretty chilly beforehand from emotion, but all of a sudden the old wind blew in, and my God…And then we were surrounded by, and these were young SS [Schutzstaffel] troopers, forget about them being brutal or anything, they might have been down the line, but these were kids. Like you,
they looked like you, with the camouflage gear and the old potato masher grenade in their boots. And they were winking at me and perving at my Mum’s bum, and my Auntie Clary was there, too. And it was a sort of organised chaos, which the Krauts [Germans] are very good at. Anyhow, the next minute the shooting started, the MG [Machine Gun] let go with a good burst…It was to become so familiar to me later on.
They started firing…from what I can assess now but back at the time to me it was just Guy Fawkes Night. Sustained bursts obviously to keep someone at bay. And then the shelling started. I don’t know if it was the Germans that fired a salvo first….Yes, I think it was the Germans. The German artillery started to rip into the Soviets, then the Soviets replied with a
20-percent increase and those Katyusha rockets. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them in the movies…They’d come in, they’d whine in, they’d scream in, that instrument of the devil. I’ve been in mortar attacks, close artillery. And I’ve never experienced, even with the section to section rockets in Vietnam…These Katyusha things…If you were at the wrong end of them…And this thing went on
and on and on. And the troops started to stage through the hole, and pass you. And some were pale. Christ knows what I must have looked like. But when you’re a kid all you do is take your fear from the adults. That’s all. And it’s like a dog, it’s palpable. Fear is palpable. And you can’t avoid.
But when group fear grips, you can cut it with a knife. And sometimes when I say the poor old Germans, they were just a soldier like anybody else. When they came through and especially when some of the barrages got heavier, and everything shook and everything was dust, and everything was flying shrapnel, and people were praying and people were groaning…They weren’t screaming, because everybody had a certain military discipline by then.
I screamed, I let go a few good ones. By the way, this is not new stuff; it had gone on before, but this front line. Oh Jesus Christ…anyhow, Mum…I think we survived the first move quite well, many people on the street didn’t. Then the bombing started.
Now I haven’t got a clue whether it was Soviet bombing to soften us up, because perhaps they hadn’t won the first stage. We had already gone, and somebody said that the town didn’t fall for a fortnight later. Anyhow, when the bombing came, Mum lost it, totally lost it.
She became zombified. We prepared for an evacuation; we had our suitcase packed, like any normal person does. But I knew she was zombified because she didn’t take her suitcase. She had fur coats in the cupboard and she threw a couple on, didn’t take the suitcase, perhaps took her purse, this was mid-winter mind you,
and walked out on me and Granny. Walked out, abandoned us, just like that. Later on…if it wasn’t for Granny then later and getting hold of me and a suitcase and we trudging through the snow to try and catch up with her, which was by a fluke that we did, I would not be sitting here now.
What was the flukish circumstances in which you caught up with your mother?
Well, we had a rough idea where she was going
because she was an aluminium worker, and the aluminium boss could sort of see it coming and said all the important workers - aluminium was a very important substance in armaments - and he said he had made the bigger evacuation plan and he had created an RV [rendezvous - meeting] point. What we also didn’t know was that he was my Mum’s lover and she was torn between all kinds of emotion.
Like one, “Am I going to…this is my kid, and this is my Mum, but this is my lover, and the world is really turning to shit.” and unless you’re really there in real life and experience it, never judge anyone. I’ve long since given her the miss about who is a coward and who is a hero. There’s a thin, fine line between the two. The only one I will call a coward
is who deliberately leaves his mates behind, that is a no-no. And I personally later in life threatened to shoot one bloke who wanted to bug out on me, and meant it. And he stayed so we were all right. But she totally lost it. Granny had a clue that she was heading for this organised factory RV [rendezvous] point to be collected and moved westwards to Austria. And we struggled through the two metre snow,
Granny was a little fat thing, I think the snow was higher than she was. It was nearly to her shoulders, and we were dragging this big bloody case. And there was another bombing raid while we were walking; a small one….It was a pitiful thing. She was never meant to be a refugee, nor was I. We didn’t use the word, please believe me. I think we caught up with Mum who was hiding in a derelict building
to avoid the second bombing raid, then somehow or other in a heated exchange between daughter and Mum, about, “leaving your kid.” and all of this, then Mum managed to convince Granny to become a refugee and the three of us headed for the RV point. That was the beginning of the end for her. When I confronted
Mum later on as a more mature person, she looked me in the eye, she never dodged it. She said, “Son, at that very moment I couldn’t care about my country, my family, my home, or you or anyone, I just had to get out of the place.” She looked me in the eye, that was good. If she had of looked away I wouldn’t have liked it. Over the years, I have confronted her a few times.
It’s not a pleasant thing for your mother to abandon you in a situation like that. If she had stuck to her guns and she said, “Right at that very moment, nothing mattered.” And I believed her, I believed her. She lost it. ‘Shell shock’ it was called. In later wars that I was involved in, we used to call it ‘bottle fatigue’. Because the more you were under stress, the more you drank. So in the end it really became
a toss-up. Are you really an alky [alcoholic] or do you have combat stress? So we called it bottle fatigue, and really it was combat stress. We never heard of fancy pills, and marijuana was in Vietnam, but in Malaya and places like that, we never even heard of it.
Why did you describe that as a turning point for your grandmother?
It was the beginning of her death as far as I am concerned.
I mean, it took six years from the front of the house to make it to Fremantle. Six years on the road. Six years of anxiety, exhaustion, fear, interment, beatings, rapes…Mum was raped once or twice in front of me. Maybe, one was a very particular bad
incident which I will never forget. Granny came from the old school. She was also born in the late 1800s. World War I was a horrible mess, but even there they tried to keep some kind of protocol. So for her this refugee bit and being treated like a mongrel dog, like a prisoner, which we were. We were sent to a concentration camp,
we were rescued by a German officer with one arm. We were sent to the concentration camp. It was ‘Non-Jewish Undesirables’. I don’t think I liked that title. Surely they could have found a much nicer one, don’t you reckon? So that’s what we were, Non-Jewish Undesirables. And as soon as she was able, in ’46 I’d say, when the war went down, we parted with her. We took her to the station,
she was hell-bent on going back. I don’t know if you’ve ever said goodbye to a loved one that you know you will never see again. You do that with a dead person, but you know that they’re dead. But you try doing that with a live person that you know you are saying goodbye to, like dead, and it’s not something you forget easily. You can laugh and joke and say, “Poor old Granny…” She actually died when I was serving in Malaya, I got the news,
I was a young kid, just like you, and I got the news that Granny had died, and I thought of all the things that we had gone through.
How did you farewell your grandma?
It was horrible. A list of horrible things…No, you wouldn’t even make a list, there would be so many things that would be quite amazing that you can undergo in a most listing…
But the most horrible thing is to say goodbye to a loved one and know that you will never ever see them again. And especially when you were a kid. And the reason I survived in many ways, there was just no food, we were given no food in many circumstances. We became prisoners of the German system. The Germans took over Austria, that’s the place that we went to next. It took us 101 days
to make about from here to Northam. A hundred and one days on trains. We took every train that went that way. Open frame, people would sleep on the platform, waiting, chock a block, like sardines. Which was good because you kept warm. Waiting for the train to come, then the train would come, and they would throw the doors open and there would be a mad
sardine panic to squeeze in as many as they could. And then the train would take off. And this particular place in Czechoslovakia, because as I said, it never went direct. The train pulled out and I was left on the platform, and Mum was already on the train, screaming and carrying on as I would have. And there was a German deserter; we thought he was a deserter because we didn’t have a clue
what he was doing there. He was a fellow in his full dove grey uniform, youngish fellow, and he had a wound, but when he realised what was going on, there was Mum, the train was pulling out, cattle carts they were, there was Mum pulling out and screaming and he could see her, and he looked at me there…By that time there was only the two of us on the platform, because I got left behind.
He came over, he got me under the back here and he hurled me like a bowl, like a Dennis Lillie job [famous Australian bowler], and it was pretty good, he landed me on the top of all these people. And I remember a hand coming up and dragging me down and telling me in German, which at the time I couldn’t understand, but later I picked up, “Stand still.” And although he said it in German, I knew exactly what he meant.
So there I stood like this, it seemed to me like an eternity, but eight hours. People jammed in. I don’t know how much I can say…But people wanting to go to the toilet, pissing their pants, farting all over the place. And I was standing there, starving, nothing to eat.
To cut a long story short, the doors opened, I got carried out with the mob, and Mum came running through the thing and then the crying and all of this…I remember saying to her, “Can I have a slice of bread, please?” I was starving.
And Granny of course was an onlooker to all of this and it was just too much for her, and then she went back. In Hungary, they used to worship their ancestors. They’d have an All Saints Day when you would go to all your graveyards, clean them up and put candles…And that night you go home and have a big booze party. That’s a good thing, I really enjoyed those. And her ancestors
were calling her, I’m sure of it. I mean, the fact that she really looked her daughter in the eye and her grandchild, the only one she had at the time, I think it was more powerful for her to go back. And even though my grandfather was a rogue, a loveable rogue, I think she was the one he really wanted. So she went home
and then she faded away. But I’m sure the war experience just finished her off. But what surprised me, she never…We were on a ration, now if I tell you the ration you wouldn’t believe it. This is from memory, but I was at a stage where most Australian kids go to primary, kindergarten, where they can
like scientists, say, learn five languages before you’re five because your mind is blank, and after that it becomes harder because you get preoccupied with living. This was my blank stage; I took everything in like a sponge. I should have been sitting in school learning reading, writing, arithmetic…I never went to school until I was age seven or eight by the way. Anyhow, I was taking all this in like a sponge. This was my classroom.
The funny thing was, as it went on, I accepted it as life. I didn’t realise that this wasn’t how people lived. I thought this was how the rest of your life went. Dead bodies and getting kicked up the arse and having your Mum raped, all of this. When I look back on it…all I know is I was frightened, don’t worry about that, but I started to accept it in a funny sort of a way as well.
Looking back on it. But anyhow, with Granny, the meagre food we got, Granny always smuggled it to me. And a ration would be something like one loaf of bread, one egg, one kilo of flour, 18 slices of salami, one or half a pints
of milk, and perhaps one or two other things like it, per person, per month. Per month. So your loaf of bread was split into four, Christ knows what we did with the one egg. Three of us on the ration thing…But the key to survival was
that we ate everything that died or moved. Squirrels, rabbits, goats, horses. I mean the poor old horses…there was no petrol, so they were back in vogue again. We ate the horse. I think I can remember what a horse tasted like. Not too bad by the way. We’d go into the forest, and spinach was a lifesaver. Funnily enough, in one particular area that we were there was
heaps of spinach. That was a lifesaver. Mushrooms, we had to learn which were the poisonous ones. Trading, trading. Anything you ever had of value you tried to hang onto it as long as you could. Women traded favours, sexual favours for their kids…I don’t blame them a bit. I take my hat off to them.
It was a tough, grim bloody life, it really, really was. I’m sure a fair amount of stealing went on, as a matter of fact I know. I never had the chance to steal anything, but things were so desperate that had I, I would have.
How aware were you at that age of the fact that women prostituting themselves for basic essentials?
I wouldn’t call it prostituting at all. That’s the wrong word. Perhaps in the towns or somewhere there….
We were in a work camp, Arbeit, Arbeit means ‘work.’ We were actually in a lager. A camp. We were controlled. I wouldn’t call it a concentration camp, but it was a camp. And the Gestapo came and did you over. And you had your…everybody had to do their share. The kids had to do the cookhouse duties,
collect wood, whatever the women had to do, the washing. This particular castle was 700 years old. Things were primitive, talk about primitive. A room like this we’re in now, 14 by 10 or 12, if you were lucky only 14 people lived in it. But if you were unlucky, perhaps 20 or 24 lived in it.
Can you describe how that many people shared that space?
Absolutely. The strongest personality took over. In every system you’ve got to have leadership and direction. The strongest personality would take over and start directing things, in other words, become the room chief, like a prefect. Floor space, sleeping space was allocated. What people did then, they got nails and
twine, and then they would nail from one side of the wall to the other, and they would hang a blanket to give themselves privacy. But I’m not talking about a huge space. I’m talking about two…let’s say one metre by however long a blanket is or so on,
because opposite is another group, so you are virtually sleeping toe to toe. You were playing footsies with the people on the other side…I shouldn’t laugh, but it was…to me it was very real, but it was very surreal. In times of stress, if there was some blokes around, and there was the odd
bloke and they were lucky, I suppose, goodness only knows. But a lot of sex goes on. You can imagine it. You were only on the other side of the blanket, and…I nearly swore like a soldier. You’re getting the hell shoved out of you by someone having a big bonk on the other side of the blanket. You got so blasé about it…I’ll give you a point. In a cold country,
people bonking beside you is great, it generates heat. All I knew was that this warmth was very nice. By Christ…and the air strikes, every time you would move by train then down would come the planes and shoot the crap out of you. And you got underneath, and the ricochets from the wheel
and the pieces of steel, and you cringe like a mongrel dog. And once again, Granny came to the rescue, straight on top of me. Not so much Mum. Mum was a very young thing, Mum was immature. She was only 19 years old when she had me and she was pampered all her life. She had rather a good life before that. She was tough, too tough, got us into trouble a lot of times. A lot of beatings.
She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She called a spade a spade and the authorities didn’t like that. So not only did the rape happen, but a really good going over with the beating business…
In what circumstances did the violence or the beatings or the rapes take place?
Almost none. On almost any excuse whatsoever. We were forever and a day processed.
They were always looking for provocateurs, spies, agents, call it whatever you want. Anti-Nazis, anti- anything between one and ten. You were processed in football fields. They put up star pickets, then they put lines in between them. Then they put up a piece of cardboard with whatever initial was your name and you lined up there. And you could…rain, hail or shine,
you could be lined up there for days within this star picket compound. Then you go forward and you sit down, and they’ve got the officials there with their bands and badges…Gestapo….The people from the…Each town had a Nazi…Gauleiter was the name.
He was like a political lord mayor. People from the Gauleiter office. Everybody was crapping themselves. You only had to say one thing wrong and you were in the bag. Sometimes you had to say nothing and you were in the bag. And they were forever and a day interrogating you, trying to trick you. As I say, poor old Granny was just a wreck. Mum was, depending on the times, belligerent,
and she used to give them a mouthful, which didn’t go down well. There was many times I was standing beside her, crapping in my pants.
What was their line of interrogating, Paddy?
Always they start off with identifying…You got identified so many times. Goodness knows, I think Germany must have…Incidentally, Austria where most of this took place was a German province. The Germans marched in and annexed it and they called it Ostmark.
It was no difference from saying the South Australians come in here, occupy us, take over the authority government, put a Gauleiter or their equivalent, whatever a South Australian dictator would be, and we would get another name like Swanee or something like that. So no longer you were a West Australian, you were a South Australian under….And then they put in the pretence government,
but of course, the political man at the top. Always identification, always, “Where do you come from? Why are you here? Where are your papers?” We had no papers. We had bugger all. As a matter of fact, Mum had her birth certificate. If Granny hadn’t featured on her birth certificate as her mum, Granny would have been a nobody. That was the only record on which she existed. I was on as her son, so I was all right.
She had one ID [Identification] card from her aluminium factory ID card, which went over well because when they marched into Hungary they annexed that, the Germans annexed that, so she was virtually a worker for the Germans. But she must have already been aware of it because her second ID card, the second ID papers, she already put a ‘Y’ on the end of our name.
Our name is Bacskai, or Bachkai, as the Hungarians pronounce it. And it can be spelt with an I or a Y legitimately, but the people who generally spelt it with a Y were, for want of a better word, the landlords in the olden days. The old British lordship. You had your serfs and peasants and whatever. And Mum used to alternate the spelling from I to Y depending on what she thought
and did this confuse them…I don’t know. And then there were the searches. All of a sudden a scream would go through the place. “Everybody, everybody line up in the courtyard.” No, they never used the word Gestapo. “Polizei, polizei.” that’s a German world.
“Out, out.” You line up. Sometimes they wanted your gear. So you took everything you owned, which wasn’t much, and you laid it out in front of you. And then of course there was the Gestapo fellows who looked amazingly like the people you see in the movies. They looked like detectives. Like coppers, except our coppers don’t wear a hat. When I was a kid,
here in Aussie, all the coppers always wore a hat. So it looks the same, and the hair was exactly the same. Then they lined you up. And they always had their well armed military escorts, heavily armed paddy wagons and trucks. Then they’d look…You’d never want to be the first one, I can tell you. So they’d look over the thing and this particular search,
we’d just been allocated to this camp, we had absconded from another and we were crapping ourselves. And there’s a little old frail Hungarian nobleman of some sort beside me, and…and he had his possessions in a tea towel.
Everything he ever owned. Including this beautiful sword that was a family heirloom, he was a count or something. To me he looked like he was either a frail old man or he had cancer or something like that. Of course, this sword was like a magnet to the old Gestapo man. He came marching over like…
“I’m going to keep it.” He came marching over and I couldn’t help but look. My Mum was always rigid, whispering out the corner of her mouth, “Look to the front, look to the front.” You don’t make eye contact. Anyhow, over he marched and looked at this sword and saw this sort of pitiful human being.
“Vas ist dass?” German, “What is that?” And the bloke said this is my family, such and such, and this is the family heirloom. And I think the old Gestapo man, he looked…he said “Scheize.” which is, “Shit.” and he kicked him fair in the face. And felt this full impact. And it knocked this poor old fellow about two metres back.
And then they got hold of him and then they beat the crap out of him. And then the two soldiers came and got hold of him and bang in the back of the truck, and the sword flew in as well. And I remember Mum trying to talk as loud as possible, saying, “Look to the front, look to the front.” Then he came next to me, and he was eyeing me up…a kid is a kid. You can’t, you can’t be sort of.
I looked him in the face; he looked at Mum and kept going. Down the other side, people were getting the hell beat out of them…Whole families, mum, dad, three or four kids, beat up. Nobody said a thing. Survival…You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to be in the situation to appreciate it. You would have to be Mahatma Ghandi or something to take a step forward and say, “This is wrong.” Forget about it, at that point in time, survival…
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 02
You were just talking about the concentration camp. Is this the second one that you’d been to?
Lager meaning ‘camp,’ Mitterberg meaning, ‘Middleberg One’, Lager Mitterberg Eins…When you’re talking about concentration camps, and there was a huge one about
from here to Fremantle, called Mauthausen, and anybody who lived in the area couldn’t actually say they didn’t know about Mauthausen…As I mentioned before, Castle Harthein, it was an euthanasia centre, whenever you got sick and you got a ticket for that, forget about it. But the concentration camps had thousands of
outstations they called them ‘komandos’, and they in turn had substations which were work stations. And in actual fact, each time you were allocated to work, the local Gestapo bloke got a kickback. Something like a dollar a day.
And skilled workers and normal workers were sent to build armaments. They had much better conditions; they were better fed, because they wanted them to be able, right. Or they’d build a railway line. So really, the people…what you see in the movies, that was a hardcore concentration camp, that was a political set up. But a concentration camp
had komandos, which were substations. The komandos had substations again, and so it went down to the skilled workers. Mercedes, Daimler Benz… the Steyr rifle, which the Australian Army bought and perhaps took to Iraq, the Steyr factory was within reach.
But that’s where this Steyr [arms manufacturer] rifle was built by people like my Mum and people like that. And funny that eons later the Australian Army buys the Steyr. When I first saw it, because we had SLRs [Self Loading Rifles], it just brought back the memory. I thought, “Christ, this is amazing.” My own mob.
Everything, trucks, aircraft….Really it was a sort of a slave labour job. Incidentally, I put in a claim and I could and I was accepted and I was given a number…By the time mine came up and especially as I was small, and my job as a kid, we were forever and a day lined up looking for this mythical potato beetle that we were given a diagram of, and we were promised five shillings, which in those days would be the equivalent of 1,000 bucks or so,
even a shilling would be worth something. So we spent all day looking for this potato beetle. I remember finding a beetle and handing it in but I got no money whatsoever. This was the job of the women and the kids and the babes, to go out on the agricultural team. Or you were looking after the sheep and the goats for the local farmer. Like in the early days, the Australian convict days, where the convicts were allocated to the farmers and the free settlers…
Did you get paid any money for it?
C’mon, no. Save you from getting a beating. Anyhow, yes, I remember I guarded a bunch of calves for a day. And the farmer, it was up to the generosity of the farmer, the farmer gave me a magical hot bun out of the oven. I just couldn’t stand it.
Between there and home I scoffed it, and then I went in to Mum and I was devastated because the rule was for survival, share, share. I broke down, I said, “Look, I’m so sorry. I should have taken half.” She made dolls to survive. She used to cut up any kind of material she could. Stuffed dolls. She was very artistic, a dress designer and she used to sell these for a pittance,
enough to buy us something. Oh yes, looking after sheep, goats…not begging, asking someone, this is how you got by. Then of course as the Germans were pushed out, I remember that day…
Pushed out by who?
By the Americans. We wound up in an American sector.
Did you have any warning the Americans were coming?
A rumour. We were smack dab in the middle between the Yanks and the Soviets by then. I would say we were either in the guts of the 30-kilometre line, or the Soviets were 30 kilometres
this way, we were here, and the Americans were 30 kilometres this way. And they were both racing towards us, and we were praying that the Yanks would reach us first. There was a lot of talk in the cookhouses, where us kids went, and the washhouses and all of this, and there was quite a lot of Fascist, communist-type refugee displaced person.
A few of them wanted the Soviets to win, or a few, they thought the Yanks would betray them, that kind of stuff.
Was that some of the rumours that you would hear?
That the Yanks were…
All I can say is the little expressions, the little sayings, and of course being a kid I soaked them up like a sponge. If I was an adult…
I can remember more of that time than I can of anything else. The Yanks were Amis A-M-Is, and the Russians were the Ruskies. “Better to have a Ruskie at the top, than an Ami at the head.” And I think the head did have sexual connotations.
Anyway, the day came…Before that, before that we ended up allocated, you are always allocated, and we ended up at Mitterberg again, we went
to, we were sent to a camp down the bottom of Austria called Salzburg. Salt mines were there, and people were working in the salt mines. Because by then we were sent to the salt mines, because by then these authorities who had interrogated us incessantly,
and probably because of my Mum’s big mouth, had classified her as undesirable. Non-Jewish Undesirable. We weren’t told this of course, but all of a sudden we were assembled with this group and given tags….Bunched on a train,
not cattle carts this time, a normal sort of a train, shipped over hill into Germany, into a place called Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s headquarters. And we expected him to come walking around the corner any minute. Mum was looking out for him or something…Of course, we had been brainwashed. Later on, when we ended at Mitterberg his
parents’ graves weren’t very far away, and just so the authorities wouldn’t flog the hell out of us, we used to pretend to pay a pilgrimage to the graves. Anyway, we were shipped over to a place called Berchtesgaden, oh Jesus Christ it was chaos. I reckon…anyhow, we were
quite innocent at this point, we were heading for an assembly point but we didn’t know. Anyhow, there was a German officer. He had one arm, one arm and two suitcases. And Mum being Mum and young and fit and strong, and he was trying to get on the train, grabbed his suitcase and put it on the train with him. And he was very grateful and
he was talking to her in German. “Where are you from, fraulein?” And she said, the place where she come from, the German equivalent, because you know when the Brits used to occupy a place, they gave it British names. You know how it goes. “Oh Hungary.” he says, “Beautiful ladies, beautiful wine.”
Crap, crap all this kind of thing. “By the way.” he said, “Where are you going?” And he leant over and he read her tag. Well, he just shut up…And by that time you were like a jungle animal. You sensed every change in mood. You sniffed it. And Mum could see straightaway that something was wrong. Anyhow, she said to him, “What is wrong?” And he said, “Nothing.”
But she was insistent, and this took place in a few seconds…And he said, “Where are you from?” And we said, “From Linz.” You get Vienna, you get Linz. Another one of the huge camps that we’d been in, thousands of people, you’d been shunted from camp to camp.
Anyhow, he said, “Look, fraulein how many of you are there?” And she said 75, whatever there was in the big group, and he said, “No, I’m talking about you and your immediate kin.” She said, “Just me, my boy and Granny.” Granny was sitting on the suitcase. The suitcase incidentally had been marked, slashed with paint.
Tagged, everybody tagged. He said, “I can tell you something, those things are for the concentration camp. You will be shunted further down the line to the assembly point where you will be met and sorted out.” And Mum started with, “But we’re not Jews.” And he said, “No, relax. Even some of my relatives are there.” He said, “Anybody.”
He said, “Today. Today, see the chaos on the platform?” He said, “Today, the Soviets had crossed the river. There is panic in Germany now. The Soviets have crossed onto German soil.” He said, “Get your Mum and your boy. Get out of the station any way you can.
Rip those tags off, hide and go catch any train back the way you came.” Mum again crapped herself. Mum was very brave, but these situations just never stopped. They were just an endless thing. Anyhow, he could see that we’re a bit stunned for a minute. He said, “First of all go and get your mother.” She got Granny.
He said, “Rip the tags off.” We were frightened, terrified of ever doing anything against authority. By that time, we were programmed like lemmings. That’s what happens in war, in occupation, you become a lemming. She said to him, “Can you buy some tickets back?”
He said to her, “Now you are thinking.” He, in actual fact I’m telling you everything short, and he actually went to the ticket box and got three tickets for us, and because Mum wasn’t handling the shock too well, and I don’t know how you would handle it if you were told that
you were going to the concentration camp….how do you think you would be?
At that time of the war did people think that was immediate death?
At that time of the war they knew that was the best place to stay out of.
Which camp were you heading for?
This is what we tried to work out. We thought we would be heading for the women and the kids camp, which was in Northern Germany, and…
There’s many categories like…Dachau. Dachau I think was mainly for political prisoners. Ravensbruck…There’s different categories; I mean there was a mishmash. There was a camp of political prisoners. There was a camp of sick people, they were already sick
so they’d work them to death, feed them nothing, and there was another camp for women and kids. We worked out we were heading for the women and kids’ job, and then we would be farmed out to the komando there. Mum and I put our heads together and nutted it out later on. Not Ravensbruck…
So you’re heading back towards….
No, at this time we were still at Berchtesgaden, and because he could see that we were so nervous about opposing authority that he had to hold our hands. He not only brought our tickets but he escorted us out of the station, past the old train conductor and the soldiers standing around
and said, “Lose yourself in the town until dark.” or whatever. And he saluted with his cane and we watched him go. And all of a sudden we were absconders in a very harsh system. Very lonely. I seem to remember that instead of waiting for a train, we tried to hail down a hay cart with a draft horse. I’ve got a recollection of sitting beside this bloke.
And as we drove towards the German-Austria border in this hay cart, I think…Poor old Granny was just…she was at sea with all of this. Mum lost her nerve. “How are we going to get across the border? Is there barbed wire? Are there mines? Are we going to be shot?” There wasn’t. And I reckon we could have got over easily. Anyhow, I think, as a result we hid there. We got off the hay cart and hid there.
But then towards evening we went back into the station. Of course, we had tickets so we were right, we had no tags, we looked like we were average flotsam and jetsam that went around the place, and we got on the train and went back exactly the way that we had come and we got off. And we were absolutely petrified as to what punishment we were going to get.
But when we got to…it was either Vocklabruch or Schwanenstadt and got off and handed ourselves into the authorities under some guise, we must have made up a story of some sort, that’s when they took us and allocated us to Castle Lager Mittleberg Eins, of the Arbeit Dinst, which was a sort of a sub-sub-sub komando. But what also played on our minds,
because Mum wanted to tell the rest, but the German officer said to her, “This is your chance to live, and you have to turn your blind eye to the others.” And to this day, many wonder what happened to the others. But this is how it was. There was always choices. Every time was choices. And the main choices was, “Do you want to croak it
or do you want to stagger on?” And so on…I don’t know if you find this interesting.
I find it fascinating.
It was an amazing day, and to this day, Berchtesgaden has a spot in my heart. I’ve never been back. I have been back to Germany…I never did anything for 40 years until my military service was over. And in actual fact,
I had to sign a piece of paper, because by that time I was with the SAS [Special Air Service] regiment and held a good position. And I was told that I wasn’t allowed to communicate with any Eastern European country, whoever the enemy was at the time, for five years. But I did start to do research back here. And as soon as I could I jumped on a plane. And the first thing I did was stand at the foot of the grave of my Dad and that sort of got it going again. Then I went into Germany
and near these places, Austria…
And what happened when your family turned itself in?
Well, I think we would have been in deep shit, but if the chaos hadn’t of set in, with the Russians crossing over the border and the Russians threatening Austria very much so, but because there was this scene of confusion,
normally it would have been…If we had returned to where we’d come from, after we’d been allocated it would have been straight to the Gestapo police. That was the system. But because of the confusion we got away with it, or perhaps we got a sympathetic clerk. Young girls used to do jobs. Imagine pictures of Germany, World War II, everyone walking around, Boris Becker look-alikes beating everybody up.
It wasn’t like that at all. If we were lemmings, as refugees, the population were lemmings, and they were under the same pressure. You only had to look sideways in Austria and you were told to go before the tribunals. Everywhere was tribunals, three people…they sentenced so many people to death for things like giving the gesture to German soldiers walking past, writing on the wall,
being in receipt of an unsympathetic letter. If you were found reading a letter and a passing German official, Austrian official on their side, he could demand it. He could search you. Often you were stopped and searched, and if a letter was found on you that poked crap at them, you were before the tribunal.
And the general rule was…once you were before the tribunal, you were a dead man. And they sentenced this many people to death that they invented an electronic guillotine.
Would people be killed in the street?
Plenty of people were shot in the street. I mean, I guess in all my time,
the most dead bodies I’d ever seen was in Austria, without a shadow of a doubt. Look, I’m not an expert on electronic guillotines. Apparently it was a…conveyor belt of stretchers…and you were strapped onto these stretchers, and you were…take a head at a time.
Did you actually see one of these things in operation?
No, no, no, but everybody…rumours, panic. We had nothing else, we lived on them.
It’s incredible, throughout your entire childhood you were living on fear?
I was never without anxiety. Fear came when the adults around me started to fear or act suspiciously.
But the minute the adults around me were okay, I was okay. But anxious? Yes.
Did you have any other kids around you?
Oh, yes. Some of the stories I could tell you. They make mine pale. I think mine are stock standard, run of the mill, nothing extraordinary. But some of theirs…like getting your baby sister
grabbed by the leg and smashed against the wall…obviously I must have suffered something. They had a special class in the Northam Migrant Camp, H5, Room H5 by a dear old fellow… H5 used to be known as ‘Ha Ha’.
Ha-Ha funf, funf is five in German. Ha-Ha were all the screwballs, all the affected kids. I am a graduate of H5. And Brian Clevelly, I hope he’s alive, Brian, said that was the most greatest experience he’s ever had as a teacher. Getting us screwballs and trying to turn us into good Aussie citizens. Anyhow, we weren’t so screwed. Obviously it
must have had a traumatic effect on me. Although at the time, we never heard of all this psychological…garbage. We carried on blissfully ignorant.
What happened after the Russians arrived?
It must have been a big day, because I remember racing from the castle to the hill, down the hill
to the little nearest village…anyhow, all of a sudden there was the mighty German Army, or parts of it, and horses everywhere because petrol was almost impossible to get. I remember these Lipizzaner horses, one German soldier was riding and leading about six or seven…
For a young kid that was so magic. And then you saw them limping without shoes, and you know how the Germans were always immaculate…They are really great people, honestly. If they had of been better led, they would be the salt of the earth. And equally, if they’re led the wrong way, they go wrong.
Blokes with iron crosses, bandages, crutches, horse drawn carts with bodies piled on them to buggery, like wounded dead, I couldn’t tell. Heaps of them, heaps of them walking…I think they were going west, east, I’m not sure.
And this was a huge parade of this beaten army. Of course you still see the odd fancy staff car with a flag and they looked all right, but the average bloke there was so rat shit…anyhow, we thought, “It’s getting close.” This is when the talk came about of , “Hope to Christ the Yanks get to us.”
Anyhow, what happened, there was a huge river, Elbe, I think from memory. And the Soviets coming up from that way had to cross the Elbe, the Yanks didn’t. And the Elbe held the Soviets and the Yanks overran our area first. It was unbelievable. Once again we ran down from the castle to the road and the scene
couldn’t have been any more different. Jeeps by the galore. The typical Yankee GI [infantry/soldier] chewing gum, reading a book…slack as shit, half of them. I got a medallion from the Yank Army, I did operate with them. And us kids, with our hand out screaming out for something, anything.
And they were chucking off these little chewing gum dispensers. Little plastic things, this square, like a cigarette lighter, and every time you clicked one down, a little square chewy would come out. And they came in convoys of powerful trucks. You know nothing like the poor old Kraut Army [German Army] looked like.
Equal and opposite. And laying back and reading a stick book, Dick Tracy, or Christ knows whatever they were reading, and giving the odd wave, but really looking at you half interested…but they got the idea, and look, they must have been sick and tired of it. We threw our rations out in Vietnam to the locals…
And funny enough, in our convoys in Vietnam, and the kids used to be there like that, and we looked down, we had the same American stuff, I could see myself. In actual fact, I saw two or three Vietnamese urchins with their arms out to me like that, that looked like me, physically. And it tugged at my heart. Actually, I feel so strange about it, I still do.
Anyhow, out came flying a brownish glistening thing. A tin I was to become familiar with later on…A big scrum goes on and us kids fight for it. I got it first, I was the youngest kid on the bottom, so I slide out and run like mad for the hedgerow, run like mad with this prize, no idea what it is. And
we could also see parachutes dropping in the background. I will never forget that. I don’t know if it was the cargo drops or whatever. Anyhow, I got to the hedge, and I got a stick and pried open the lid. And there were Alfoil type stuff, I pried it open and this mystery white powder was there, and the only thing I could equate it to was flour of some sort.
Anyhow, I tasted it, like kids taste it…didn’t taste too bad. The next minute it was the whole hand…I thought this was a prize, quick to Mum, and I raced up to her, “Look what I’ve got. The Yanks are down the road, it’s all over.” You know what it was? Powdered milk. It was the first time I remember tasting…
I didn’t have a clue. That was the beginning of the end. The Yanks moved in, they came to our castle. They used to yell at each other, they had this chant, like…there was a World War II song, it went, “Hey Baba Riba, Hey Baba Riba.” and, “Carry me back to the track, Jack.” or some garbage.
I heard it in a movie about angels…Anyhow, they used to yell out, “Hey Barba Ree Bar.” it was a kind of…we used to do the same. This is my big impression of them, drawing into the castle gates on their MG [Machine Gun] jeeps with their MG mounted things and looking over…what surprised me was the languages they spoke. See, I didn’t know about migration and all of that. There was a Yankee platoon,
about 30 blokes, and there was almost not a language they couldn’t handle. If someone spoke in Italian, a Yank would answer in Italian. If someone spoke French, a Yank would answer in French. It was amazing, an American platoon…Why? Because they were either the kids of immigrants themselves…and this astounded us, because all of a sudden…we didn’t know who our enemy was. Our enemy was whoever was putting shit on you
that day, that’s who the enemy was. But these were the propaganda bests, and we found them very pleasant. Actually one became my hero, I thought he looked like…Tab Hunter or something, epitomised in the big Yankee helmet. Later when we put them on, I couldn’t get mine off fast enough. They weighed a ton.
The Americans must have seemed pretty powerful…
Physically? They were well fed…
They were well fed, they could do anything, they’ve come in, in the big trucks…
They came from a different world. A world we were totally alien to, a world which we didn’t understand…Hungary, Austria, that’s the seat of European culture.
Like Beethoven…or somebody comes from Hungary was…they made a movie about him, Amadeus [Mozart]. And it’s a seat of culture…There were streets there of nothing. I had to have a tooth pulled, I think, and the dentist’s chair
was here and I think the back wall was here, but I was looking onto….nothing. If you can imagine….that wall there, that wall standing, the dentist’s chair is over there, and that’s the dental clinic. There was nothing. Streets that were just piles of rubble. I don’t even know what they did with the rubble…
When the Americans moved in, did they supply you with food and supplies?
No, not at all.
What happened as far as getting you out of that…
Absolutely bugger all. Nothing. The only thing that changed was that they needed labour. So all of a sudden, everybody got more work with them, and especially if you were a skilled person. So all of a sudden people started to get
money…You weren’t free, you were still documented the same, but you weren’t under the pump. The pump was lifted. Where you were under the authority regime, you still were but you weren’t, you were under civil administration like we are now with our police and so forth. Whereas before you were very much in a dictatorship-type set-up.
But you would have had nowhere to go?
I ended up living in that castle,
five years after the war, in a room, in a wood room, me and Mum. Now that was two metres by three or four. You could get a bed in it and a stove. And I reckon we were lucky to get that. First of all we were upstairs
with all the multitudes. We became long standing residents, we scored the wood room and we thought we had won the lottery. And yes, I reckon I lived in that same castle five years after the event.
So things did get better?
They got better. But they got worse before they got better.
Worse in what way?
Well, all of a sudden…
two classes emerged. The haves and the have nots. Like everything became available on the black market but nowhere else. Like, I saw this in Vietnam, where heaps and heaps of stores are brought in but they don’t go to the right people. They don’t go to the Red Cross. They go to the shifties, connivers, the gangsters,
and suddenly you have this huge black market trade which virtually denies it from legitimate sources that the average person needs. If you wanted anything, medicine - people were dying, no medicine. Medicine straightaway went to the black market industry at exorbitant prices. So what it became overnight, you had this certain segment of Austrian society of which the refugees…
And I think by that time we had gone over from the Red Cross to the United Nations…maybe it was too early for the United Nations. We were classified ‘displaced persons’. Certainly wasn’t going to…I would say for at least a year after the war, it was still scrounging the garbo [garbage] dumps. Cigarettes were the tender. We used to scrounge the butts
and out of which we would make one big cigarette. And that one big cigarette, you know, rolled in paper, that was the tender. That became money. And nylon stockings for the ladies became tender. No, things were very grim for the first year after the war ended. You would really expect that all of a sudden…no, definitely not. After the first year, and especially when the American sector…
We were put under an American military government then, a military man, military government, things started to get better. And employment, they were starting to organise…Look, it’s not unlike what you saw in Iraq, when they took over. There was bugger all. It’s starting to get better now, and it will get better still. But they’re still not there. That was what it was more or less like. You see, armies are good at being armies. Armies are not much chop at administration.
They’re wonderful for military administrations, but they’re not much chop for civil administration. They’re not trained for it, it’s not their job. There’s great similarity with what you saw at the end of the conflict in Iraq and trying to rebuild the city and infrastructure. As far as I’m concerned, this is what we experienced. And for the first year of all, it was really hard.
So what happened after the five years? How did you get out of the castle?
Well, one you were sort of…
Okay, they had this huge problem. They had…I don’t know how many refugees they had in Europe. The Red Cross had been trying to do their very best up until then, and yes they did, the International Red Cross. Then all of a sudden the United Nations came on the scene, an American military government came on the scene. All of a sudden you were governed
by the military governor but administered by the UN [United Nations]. We then went from refugees to DPs [Displaced Persons], displaced persons. And the castle that we were out, whatever it was before, got nominated as a displaced persons’ castle. But funny enough, some people
got farmed out to farmers, as labourers, but this time paid labourers, not to do it for nothing, or for food…
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 03
We became displaced persons all of a sudden, but it was good because we got a status. Before, we had no status, we had no work, we had really nothing…We were nothing. And all of a sudden, this new piece of paperwork and this change of administration,
a lifting of the servitude burden, if you want to call it that, with it the fear. There is still a bit of anxiety, but this anxiety was the sort of normal anxiety you might have about meeting your bills at the end of the month, which is not so good, but it’s all right. Better than the anxiety of walking around the corner and being searched, punched down and perhaps never seen again…Anyhow, all of a sudden we had a status, DP, displaced person,
we were almost proud of it. We fitted in somewhere…And also they allowed you to work, to keep the money. They allowed you free accommodation, be it just an extension of what you had before. My uncle joined us. He incidentally had been captured during the war. He had gone to get himself out
of the military prison, he volunteered for the French Foreign Legion because the French Foreign Legion used to scour the military prisons looking for talent. And that was a way out…He actually went to Morocco and Algiers fighting with whatever Arabs were unhappy with the French at the time. It got to the point where he deserted, and when he rejoined us in Austria he was limping from being shot in the bum by his mate going over the wall, because he reckons
if it hadn’t of been, his mate would have hit in the back or in the back of the head, but as it was he got a shot up the bum. So he was quite happy with that. Limping, he was a mean piece of article, my uncle, he was a loveable man, never without a knife, never without a pistol. Quick on the temper, punch you first before…and him and my Mum never got on, ever. For the first time we ate well. Things he used to bring home fell off the back of a truck.
And there was a huge fight at the table over a hunk of salami. “Don’t eat that!” She’d say to him, “Where did that come from?” He’d say, “Don’t worry about it, it fell off the back of a truck.” She’d say, “You stole it. Don’t eat it, don’t eat it.” And I was starving. And I was waiting, he was cutting slices. And he’d say, “Go ahead, son. You’ve got to eat, you’ve got to survive.” So I’m reaching for the salami and she’s saying, “Don’t eat that!” It was hilarious. Anyhow, he was a chef and he
got a job in the hotel nearby as the head chef. Things just became so…and Mum got work, too, and I think she became so much better for it.
What kind of work did your mum get?
Mostly, sort of cleaning type…although Mum was a well educated person. Domestic-type help work.
Whatever it was, we had more money, we had more status, we had more freedom than we’d ever had in our lives. Not her of course, she was raised up as I say quite a pampered young thing in what you could call an upper-class family. As for me, you’ve just had my raising up in the last few minutes. I could hardly call it upper class, can you? Anyhow, it’s not low class either. Survival class perhaps…
What did you make of your newfound wealth?
I was over the moon. I really started to enjoy it. I remember life taking on a different complexion. I loved the castle by then. When the war ended, it was a shemozzle because deserters, Cossacks, you’d see the old Russian Cossacks on their horses, heading back to Russia…
full as a boot, believe me, on the old bloody vodka or whatever they were drinking. Inviting you on their horses, doing their head stands in front of you and showing off…All of them off their…How the hell they never busted their necks, I don’t know….They wanted me to go back to Russia with them. The more they sort of gave the signal to come, the more I backed
against the castle. This was another thing, but we had a couple of run-ins with them beforehand, and I can’t remember if it was during the war or after. But their favourite thing was, I hope I get this right, “Davai, davai, davai, give, give, give.” whatever you had, they took, and they had another expression that I am not going to tell…
The vagrants, the deserters, occupied the forests nearby. The misfits. And they of course were onto us young kids like sting, so you ran like mad. You kept your bum against the old bloody castle wall I can assure you. Many of the kids were kidnapped and never seen again,
died. Mum’s lover, his name was Hoffman, the factory man who led us out of Hungary returned, he traced us. So there was a big huge reunion between Mum and him. I had mixed feelings, although I thought he was a good bloke. He was a very good, educated man, an artist; he actually taught me how to draw.
I’ve actually got a piece of his work, a drawing of the castle in my files now, which I cherish. Sort of semblances of normality, but he was a shattered man. He was not the same when he came back. Semblances of some kind of normality were starting to return. Everything was judged in how much you could eat. If all of a sudden you ate well,
that was it. There didn’t appear to be any measure of…to me. From where I sat, this was how I saw it. So all of a sudden you start to eat okay, perhaps not well, but you started to eat okay. And that was only because your parents or somebody around you who got some money. But there were some people who did not, and there were people
who still had to scrounge the old garbo tips. Hoffman….his dad was the police commissioner for Linz and he had a family there. He was going over, he had to try and smuggle himself over to the Russian side to put his affairs in order, to say goodbye to his family, he was leaving them,
then come back and him and Mum were either going to marry or stay in Austria or whatever…I remember there was big talk, because Granny was….at that time, still pining that we were all going to risk it with the Soviets and go back to Hungary, where they would marry and we would cope as best as we could. And with the training that we’d had so far, we maybe could have done it…
But Mum was terrified of the Soviets and so was I. Anyhow, when we escorted him through the forest to the Russian checkpoint, into the Russian sector, which was pretty bleak stuff, exactly like you see in the black and white movie. There again there was a parting scene between Mum and him, I was a spectator, bloody snowing. We saw him; he went over the bridge,
I think there was a Yank guard on this side. The Yank guard checked his papers and let him go. He went over the bridge, he waved, there were some Russian trucks there, and that was the last we ever saw of him. He was treated as a provocateur and he was tortured to death. And he was tortured to death in the same cell as his father, who had been chief of police,
had been tortured to death in. We didn’t know, of course. He just disappeared. And the local pub owner, an older man, had a crush on Mum. So somehow or other through manoeuvrings and he employed my uncle as a chef…he was in the black market, he was in every bloody thing.
One of these people, a ‘survivor’ survivor. He was the only person that I knew in the whole area who could get petrol for his car. And that is the first recollection I ever have of riding in a car, maybe ’46/47…First time I sat in one, an amazing experience. I’m sure kids today can’t relate to the fact that you don’t ride in a car until you’re six or seven…
Anyhow, amazing, through his black market network, through his spy network, maybe he was working for the Yanks, who knows? He got the data back to Mum and she fell apart, totally. And the old fellow, he took advantage of this. He took the shattered young thing and put it right on her. And they had a sort of a fling or an affair until
she recovered and then bit by bit gave him the flick. Which I was very sorry for, because I never ate so well and I’d never ridden in a car before. Stuff the rest of the gear, I just thought what a wonderful thing it was to be living in a warm room, eating well…I was hoping that Mum would carry it on for a longer time. Anyhow, poor old Hoffman, he didn’t deserve that.
After that Mum started to go strange. First of all, Granny had already gone back. There was Mum and me in the wood room and the castle got new inmates. All the World War II survivors left and you got all these political people, political escapees, and they were different. They weren’t long-term reffos [refugees], they were…
I don’t know, they were fleeing politically. They were furtive, they were secretive, they were nothing like the kin before. The great thing about people is the less they’ve got the more, they stick together. Not because they love each other, but because they’ve got to, to live, to survive. All of a sudden, one family is saying, “We’re off to America.”
Off to South Africa, off to Canada…Australia was hardly ever mentioned, except the very near and dear group we made friends with, they were off to Australia. That was the first we ever heard about Australia. Bit by bit, these people who helped you survive all these years were going and being replaced by these political refugee types, and we started to feel almost unpleasant at the castle.
Anyhow, every year you would have to front up to the German administration and they would give you a work leave pass. Like when a Brit comes here and has to have a certificate to work. And anyhow, this year we fronted up full of steam and things were different, because by this time Mum had my sister,
and this was worrying the Austrian authorities, because all of a sudden they almost had a citizen on their hands. We were just the same old flotsam and jetsam, and she had, through this fellow who lives in Adelaide now, who my sister has reunited with, her real father, we had an Austrian citizen on our hands and this worried the hell out of them because they would have to be responsible, education and…
They said, “You’ve got one hour to make up your mind whether you’re going to America or to Australia.” They said, “Frau [fraulein].” she always looked young, “take your boy down a local village and buy him a lemonade and tell us whether you are going to America or Australia.”
We were astounded - gob-smacked the word is now. My Mum said, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere at all. We’re staying here. We like it.” They said, “No, you’re not.” This was after they interviewed us about my young sister, who was virtually a babe, and where she was born and all that…They said, “No, you’re not. If you don’t take our options.”
and it’s your choice.” they tell…it’s the typical, “It’s your choice. We’re very kind. We’re giving you back to the Russians.” That’s all they had to say to my Mum, “Give you back to the Ruskies.” She dropped a bundle. We were down in the old village there, and I was a student, I’d read everything that I wanted, and I could read. Honestly, I don’t know who taught me, or if I taught myself, I could read. From day one I was writing, I was drawing,
I’ve got some of my drawings here now…Mum asked me to draw the castle for her 30 years after the event, and I drew the castle for her and even drew in a solitary tree in the front of it that she had forgotten about. She couldn’t believe it, she absolutely couldn’t believe it. She said, “Are there any gangsters in America?” I said, “Yes.” Because I distinctly remember the photos of the black cars with the Tommy guns. I said, “Oh yeah,
Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel.” all these…“God.” she says, “We better not go there. We better go to Australia.” I thought for a minute and I said, “Where is it?” She said, “Near America, down a bit.” Anyhow, we sort of mulled over it and we went back to the Austrian UNAid [United Nation’s Aid] fellow in his gleaming white shirt, it nearly knocked the socks
off us, I don’t know what kind of washing powder he used. Anyhow, he wouldn’t let us back in the building. We said to him, “We’ve made up our mind, we’re going to Australia.” He put his arms around Mum and said, “Good choice. Just like Austria.” Anyhow, on the strength of that we were processed through three or four other camps
in Northern Germany, went to Bremen Haven, went to Bremen, down Delmenhorst, which was a big Canadian camp. And from there put on a ship for Australia. The Skaugun III. And it was the
first time we saw the ocean and it was the first time that any of us had been on a boat. The Delmenhorst Camp, which was a migrant collection centre, after all we’d been through, it scared the daylights out of me, but for only one reason. I had never met Italians before.
And all of a sudden, the majority of these camp inmates who were going to be crammed on this boat with us were Italians. And I was used to a shell-like existence, we all were. Where you said nothing, you shut your mouth, right. And all of a sudden, these…all of a sudden these free people come along, they were all brown and we were
anaemic or whatever, and singing, “Hey Gumbadi.” and singing songs. I’m not Italian but I still remember. Something or other about a good-looking young person on the roundabout. You picked up every lingo in the world, believe me. There is no lingo that appears on a movie screen
that I can’t fathom out what they’re talking about, that’s an advantage of being a reffo. Anyway, I never saw people like this in my entire life. I guess for the first time I was looking at freedom perhaps, being free. And they scared the absolutely daylights out of me. And for 2,000 of us to be crammed onto this boat which was meant to take about 1,500,
and a huge amount were Italian…They were beautiful, fun-loving people, except to me they were so foreign, foreign to the environment I came from…
What did you fear about them being foreign to you?
Oh, the extrovert-ness, the boisterousness, I hadn’t come across it.
We were used to the regimented….down, downtrodden, servile sort of existence. And all of a sudden you had all these people who seemed to have no care, who were not afraid to demonstrate, were proud of it. I’d never seen that before. It scared the daylights out of me, I wasn’t
used to it. Incidentally, at that point, the minute I saw a person of authority, in uniform or anything, I would clam up. And something I have to this very day. It’s opposite now, I give them heaps of cheek now. I feel I’m on top. But it took me a long time. I’ve still got it, but I get in first now.
Anyhow, we were four weeks on this bloody boat, and I must have heard the joke, “Where the hell are we?” And the first exposure to Aussie was the Australian butter, and we couldn’t get over how salty it was. I suppose we had it more natural in Austria or Germany, where they probably got it from the local farmer and churned it up,
and it didn’t have all the preservatives…Anyhow, the mood was quite amazing. You were a draft. You weren’t a migrant sort of shift, you were a draft. You had an escort officer. In our case it was a Major Day, an old army digger from New Guinea, I think. You were a draft, you were…
everything was military. I’m sorry, I’m getting a mental block, and I shouldn’t, I spent 24 years in the military. But everything was military on the damn thing. When we got to Fremantle, first up, and then you were trained to the Northam Migrant Camp, which is still there now, or bits of it…Yeah, the huts have been taken away. Everything was military. Like for instance, if you were
to go into the army tomorrow, your basic training would be three months. For us reffos, our Australianisation was three months. A lot of people in dribs and drabs earlier. In those three months, everyone had to attend classes…learn the language. By that time I had picked up heaps from the American soldiers. So much so that only after a matter
of weeks, I’ve still got my first examination report, I got nine out of 10 in English after just a matter of weeks. When I showed that same report card to my old teacher, Clevelly, he said, “Jesus Christ, I must have marked you a bit loosely. I must have been easy on you.” And there was his writing; there was his signature and everything.
The Northam Migrant Camp was a bit different again. It took us a hell of a big mental turnabout to realise that it wasn’t another work camp, concentration type camp, collection camp, which it really was…they were as regimented as well. Lights out…we never had…in a cold climate like Europe, everything was enclosed. Here all of a sudden all the dunnies were open
because…Northam Camp was a camp to prepare…to harden soldiers to go to the Second World War. They more or less progressed through their training, went to Northam then went overseas, so it wasn’t exactly palatial. Later on, I went there as a soldier and I thought it was a joke because I was used to it. But for instance, the dunnies had no doors. I don’t know about your mum, but my Mum didn’t like to go and do her business without a door on the dunny.
Once again the huts were about 18 foot by goodness knows what, and 30 of us were crammed in there, so up comes the old twine and blanket routine all over again, so it was a bit of a blast from the past. Once again, not something that we expected. I don’t know what we expected…I guess what we discussed before. The end of the war, you expect all facilities to go back to normal, but
it just doesn’t happen.
What were the differences, apart from the similarities you described?
The differences were astounding. From memory, we landed here in the onslaught of summer. The bush fires to begin with. The foliage, the black boys, the long trip…I mean, four and a half weeks on a boat
to the other side of the world, in ’50…The only way you can say it’s equivalent is the astronauts now landing on the moon. Actually, I would say that people would accept astronauts landing on the moon now, more humdrum and mundane then it was in those days to go from Europe to Australia. And
the thing was, you knew you couldn’t go back. You could, but when? I knew how the old original Brits must have felt who sailed out on the original fleet and were landed here. There is a way back, you can become a ticket of leave man, but when are you going to become a ticket of leave man?
So, like, a one-way journey?
It was a one-way journey.
And the locals were so different, and so strange. When we pulled into Fremantle, perhaps it was a Sunday, but there was nobody there at all. When we landed, the entire population of West Australia was 300,000. Three MCGs [Melbourne Cricket Grounds] worth lived in the state. On a grand final day that is, three MCGs on grand final day, that was the entire population. I said to my escort officer, Major Day,
“Where is every bastard?” He said, “This is it. That’s why you’re here, son.” I should have got the message then. He gave a wonderful speech before we got off the boat, it was marvellous. I’ve got a copy of it. I’m a bit of a hoarder…
Can you recall what he said during the speech?
Very much so. About landing
in a new land and the opportunities. And how we were like the second wave or third wave of pioneers…It was absolute marvellous speech. “Go and make a name for yourself.” and all of this. For those of us who could understand it, and I could understand most of it, and of course there was translators. This was another thing, whenever…
Like Harold Holt appeared before us before we boarded and gave us a pep talk, right? We expected Harold to come out like Crocodile Dundee, but he came out in a suit…he looked all right. He would yell out the lecture or pep talk in English, and there would be about five different interpreters in umpteen different languages, yelling out across at each other.
So your best hope was if you understood four or five lingos [languages] at the same time, you got the drift of what he was trying to tell you. I certainly remember much of Major Day’s talk, it was absolutely beautiful and perfect. He pointed us in the right direction. How we had to behave…in other words, the chances were in your hands to go and get them. Most of us did.
What was your morale like when you disembarked?
Morale? Ours or the group as a whole? Some people dropped their bundle because this was the moment of truth. And any moment of truth you can react whichever way you want, you hope to react positively, but it ain’t always so easy. Some people dropped their bundle at the very moment of truth. You’ve got to understand they came from shattered, busted lives,
with very little family and very little documentation. Nothing. We landed at Free-o [Fremantle]. Mum met husband number two on the boat, he’s still alive in Subiaco. He had three or four packets of cigarettes that we could sell. That was it. We had no money, none, none. Imagine yourself landing at Heathrow Airport now, and apart from your passport, you’ve got…a bottle of whiskey
which you can flog down Soho or something, that is what it was like. That was pretty precarious. That was flying by the seat of your pants situation to start off with. The camp authorities, I don’t want to insult anyone here, 4,000 of us were at Northam. The flies from the shit pans, the military dunnies…
the food was unbelievable. We’d never seen food like it. The abundance of it. We couldn’t believe it. We thought this was a trick. We never believed there could be so much food. A lot of the people began to dig into the sugar bowls and filled their pockets with sugar, because it’s got to be a trick, and as soon as we’re marched out, everything will come down, it will back to normal, you will be back into the prison camp.
So people would walk out of that mess hall, you know from the sugar bowls, filling their pockets with sugar for the next day when the reality will start to bite. Things like that. The food there…it made such a big impact on me. And the flies…it got to the point where, I got used to, and it takes a bit of training, and I did it later in the military as well, let the flies crawl all over you without
distracting you from what you are doing. Anyway, it was the onset of trachoma. Later on, when we went to the bush…I was educated in Big Bell, and the flying doctor, he came and treated a couple of us kids for trachoma otherwise we would have gone blind. But I’m sure that started off in a Northam Migrant Camp. If you were a doctor, you got a job as an orderly in the camp hospital. If you were an engineer,
you got a job as a truck driver. If you were a carpenter, you got the job of hosing out the shit buckets. If you were anything below that you went into the kitchen and washed the plates, and this was how the jobs were allocated. You probably had a heart surgeon pushing you around on the trolley. They all made it…most are dead.
You know I get so many invites now to the migrant things to represent whoever, the migrants, and it took me a while to work it out. “Where the hell am I getting this garbage from?” You know, they open a museum in Fremantle or they open a museum in Northam, I’m only the list as invitees, as a guest, and then the penny drops….of course, there is no other bastard left alive.
How many children were amongst the 4,000 in the camp?
Come to think of it, in the castles and in the camps, there was always an abundance of women and kids. In fact, they made up the majority of the population. Now in the Northam Migrant Camp, not so. I would say…
young people, yes, 20 year olds, your age, would have made up the majority, because they never took anyone that was a bit old. The only way they took the oldies was if you happened to have your mum and dad there, you know what I mean. Maximum young kids like me? A third. But, a hell of a lot of hassles
because the women all of a sudden had to find a new life, and they had nothing, and mostly they had kids to support. And they would have to support them now. So all of a sudden there was this huge love boat type of a situation took place, where the women tried to very quickly snare a husband
to help them for the future, and this includes my Mum as well. And I hated that bloke she picked, but at least he was kind and didn’t beat me.
Who did she select?
Old Joe Varga. Eighty-three now, lives in Subiaco. Hated his guts until I was 30 or 40, but I love the man now and I appreciate what he did for us.
How did they meet?
On the boat, on the vessel.
Through my sister. My sister was running around, he took a fancy to her, gave her lollies and so on, and through that met Mum and…Believe me, there wasn’t so much of a shipboard romance, Mum was sort of pretty hard. Incidentally, the day we went to get our tickets to get on the boat, Mum was raped again. Again. By the camp pastor. Oh, she was very unhappy about that one, I’ll tell you. It nearly cracked her up. After all the things
that we had gone through during the war, this seemed to be the last straw. This was the start of the new life, we had selected this place, Australia, and we never had a clue where it was, so it was flying to the moon a bit. And to go and get your ticket and be ushered into an office and go through another rape, that was a little bit too hard for her to take. And she had what I think was a nervous breakdown, so her exit out on the boat wasn’t the most pleasant thing. She must have had some affections
for Joe, but I reckon she, like a lot of ladies at the time, it was just necessity more than anything else.
What were the circumstances surrounding that incident with the pastor?
I think they had met a few times…it was the first time, or the second time…it would be within about the first half dozen times that
I’d ever seen a movie, and I still remember what it was. Rose Marie, Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddie. And deckchairs, it must have been summer or pleasant weather. She was a very good looking woman. And I think they had just met,
and I don’t think it was anything super duper…whether he thought it was a parting gesture or not, because he left for America the next week. Whether he’s alive in America or not…I know his name. Anyhow,
she went in to get the tickets, she was taken into his office and that’s what happened. That bowled her, she’d really had it on the boat…And poor old Joe was there, he was a good bloke, don’t get the wrong idea…
Did your mother confide in you about what had happened?
Oh yes, very much so. She was actually…it got to the point that she had a nervous breakdown as a result…
that the medical authorities were thinking of holding us back from getting on the boat, and this was adding more stress because we just wanted to escape, and I was sort of the go-between, and I delivered messages and whatever clearances we had to get, the documentation. I used to rocket around. I used to go to Mum in the hospital there and then go to the authorities. They would often ask, “Why isn’t your Mum doing this?” “Oh, she’s busy.”
And I had a young sister, and I was looking after my young sister in the room. But of course, the other reffos, especially the ladies, would come in and give me a hand. But it was a very anxious time. Then she recovered enough to sort of look very good, in time for us to actually catch a train for the boat. But her mental state…it serves a bit of a coup de grace, I think. The chickens came home to roost for all the war years, I reckon.
And because, look…when you’ve got your mind set on a fresh start, and I mean a new blank page fresh start, and then all of a sudden you get dealt that one…We’ll never know because we’re blokes, but I’m sure a lady knows exactly what I’m talking about. And I wasn’t pleased when I heard about it. In the other rape business that went on, I had to talk her out of killing the bloke. She was, really…
She had a lot of manly characteristics. She was all woman but she had a lot of manly characteristics. Yeah, we had to take the knife out of her hand virtually…
What position was that bloke in to rape her?
What position was he in? He wasn’t only the camp pastor, which was sort of a part-time job, but he was always an administrator and he always believed he was somehow or other involved with the intelligence system.
There was always a great intelligence system operating with the selection of migrants. Each country always wanted to know that they weren’t importing provocateurs, heavy criminals, you know what I’m talking about. So there was always a very heavy intelligence process and agents and everything in the camps. Incidentally, the Gestapo beating I recited on the tape, you would never believe it, but we had a search from the Americans
the same as that, except that they did it, in the castle, looking I suppose for black marketers. And you would never believe, the bloke next to me got beat up again. So my advice to you is that if we searched today, don’t stand next to me. Heed that warning. And then we got shifted to Adelaide
where Joe got work on the wharves. But very soon absconded from that and went to Big Bell, south of Meekatharra, and that’s where I became an Aussie, and I joined the military in 1957. That’s about it.
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 04
How long were you actually in Northam? Was it three months?
Well, because Mum signalled her intention of marrying Joe…We stayed two months for sure, but you were meant to stay 12 weeks, like a military basic training. But because Mum signalled her intent to marry, everything was registration and letting the authorities know…
They announced their official engagement and she was allowed to follow him. And what the drill was, although the men were meant to be there as well for 12…weeks, as jobs became available they were farmed out. And a job became available on the Adelaide wharves and he was sent there…
because when you migrated, although you were sort of selected for migration…totally ignore the fact that the UN didn’t want to keep us…but that was us and perhaps some of the others. But that didn’t matter. Once you were in a migration stream, you were in a migration stream. And you came out under…I don’t know the exact title, but you came out under a two-year work bond,
you came out under…that meant for two years you had to go where they sent you. Then after that two years, you were okay. You could seek your own fame and fortune. Because Joe was sent to the Adelaide wharves and they became engaged, we were sent to follow him there.
Was it hard to acclimatise to Australia?
Everything was foreign. Nowadays, you can jump on a plane and go to Singapore, go to the USA [United States of America], go to Los Angeles, anywhere. And the mode of dress, the mode of furniture, the mode of handling climatic conditions are the same. But in those days,
everything was different. Your mode of dress. We had urchin style haircuts, which were like Mick Jagger…or what was the other style? Urchin or page boy, which looked like a Beatle. The Northam kids had short back and sides style.
The Northam kids were well fed, brown, everyone was brown as a berry, we were getting that way, we were pale. If we wore the old shorts we wore…leather shorts. We were used to everything being enclosed, even the dunnies being enclosed. All of a sudden we were in an environment where everything was open. Like one step back from outdoor camping.
The spiders, the willy-willies, sandstorms, the bush fires, the funny sounding names…Real funny sounding names. It would be better described if you were sent to South Africa, something like that. As far as being a cultural shock, it was immense. There was no correlation. Perhaps if we had gone and….it still would have been a cultural shock.
Perhaps if we had gone to Perth, it might not have been so much. Northam in 1950 wasn’t as close as it is now. We’re talking 1950 now, 54 years ago.
Did you start attending school in Adelaide?
I thought you meant the migrant school…
Yeah, I went to school in Adelaide, too. Migrant school was an absolute hoot. First of all, we were in the funny class, the traumatised kids, which was unbelievable in itself…I don’t know what the other classes were like. I was sitting next to a big Jewish kid who hated me, because Hungarians
were shoved in with the Krauts, the Germans, and his family suffered, so had mine, and possibly out of the two of us sitting side by side, I was the only who had been sent to a concentration camp, but he didn’t know that, you see. So every minute of the day he was at me. And the language…Clevelly was teaching us in English.
I was okay. As I say, I picked it up from the Yankee soldiers, but some of the kids had none, absolutely none. So he was teaching a class in English that went from people like me, nine out of 10, to people who just sat there and looked at him, still traumatised, sitting there, 120 in the water bag, on benches, on hard benches, and the education was hard pressed, even back then.
Clevelly, to make do, used to cut pencils in half so we had a pencil each. We had a makeshift band. You know with the cymbals like the Salvation Army job and banging on tins….And I remember this, because when I turned 10, I had to stand at the head of the class and they had to sing Happy Birthday To You, in English, to me.
I’m not going to tell you what it sounded like. Which was okay, because I didn’t grasp it fully either. And everything was ruled with the iron rod. Old Clevelly, he was a good bloke. We used to call him Billabong Clevelly, by the way, because he was forever and a day trying to explain what a billabong was to us. And anyhow, Billabong Clevelly,
he got this Italian kid who was giving him a hard time and he was whoomping his bum, and I mean this poor kid was getting a regular Singapore flogging, and the kid kept yelling out “Basta, basta, basta.” Clevelly thought he was calling him a bastard, you see, so the more this poor old kid would call this out, the more old Clevelly would flog him. We just went along with it anyhow, and then it was over, I don’t know which one of us said to him later,
“Mr Clevelly, we hate to tell you, but ‘basta’ means ‘enough, enough,’ in Italian.” We could have stood up, but we didn’t…there was tragedies that resulted of what went on in the huts. Like, you know, Mum finds a new lover, the new lover liked her mum, but just didn’t like the kids and didn’t want to start a fight…we would often be sent out
on search parties to look for kids to come to class. I won’t say it was that common, you would find them in the dunnies and they’d hung themselves with a skipping rope. They used to issue us with a skipping rope and some of the kids used to use that to hang themselves. I’m talking 10 year olds. I don’t know how many of the old camp administrators are left, but
if they are dinkum and they’re got any balls, they will back my story up. For what it’s worth, I don’t care what they do. It was happening, it was happening. There was quite a few homos in the camp, so just like the old times in Austria, we younger boys had to run around well and truly
keeping our bums against the wall. And there was one very close to us, and by that I mean in the system. In the system. And the staff used to change girlfriends every time a new consignment came in…
It’s just a pit of sin where you’re staying…
No, it wasn’t a pit of sin, but it was certainly a pit of humanity and…
raw human…it couldn’t be any other way. Because all of a sudden you’ve been transplanted into a foreign environment where you desperately have to make a new go of it or otherwise you are not going to survive…and so this puts humanity to what it is. It was no different. It was a more modern,
Westernised version of what went on in the camps over there. That’s all. A more civilised…but the same. Human nature is the same. Human nature hasn’t changed.
So how old were you when you left school?
Which one? Okay, the Northam one…I was 10 when I left…Incidentally, I went to school about six or seven, but this was a school…
this was in Austria that parents got together, because there was just no education. And they nominated a teacher-trainee fellow to be the teacher. Well, he was a bloody disaster, nothing was taught. It turned out into a huge bonking session down the back. We, us young kids, we were all nudging each other, have a look, because the teenagers were down the back who were
made for this thing…that was a disaster, that school was closed. That my was first ever experience at school. I learnt nothing. Mum said, “What was it like?” I thought it was bloody interesting. I loved it; I want to go back tomorrow. But when the adults found out what happened and they canned the school…
So were you about 16 when you finished your education?
Yeah, 15, for sure. But by that time, I was sent to an Austrian school for a year, a Hungarian Migrant School, a proper one for a year, switched back to the Austrian one, to the Northam Migrant School, to St Joseph’s Convent School in Adelaide and to the Big Bell Convent. No offence to the Northam School at all, and it was a proper, but
you could say that and the Austrian school for a year…And I don’t know how old I was, but I was only in grade three [in Adelaide], but the thing was I was expected to pass at that level. I must have had a proper grasp of the language by then, and I did pass, genuinely.
But I seem to recall, my first three years of school in three different languages. And I seemed to have passed the lot.
And what did you do after you finished school?
Oh, straight into the military. I guess it was a hangover from what I just described….
Did you look up to people in the military, because of your life experience?
I decided very earlier on, Big Bell was a huge adventure…
Big Bell, just south of Meekatharra, was just such a wonderful thing. It straightened me out, it put me out, it opened my mind, it taught me…the Australian bush, I can’t say enough about it. I don’t like the cities much. It was the best thing that could have ever happened. It was an accident almost, but it was the best thing. When I left there and came down to Perth, I was a different person.
Totally. And I was for adventure then. I used to collect bottles and send away…In those days, whenever you returned a beer bottle, there was one pence or a thruppence or whatever, and I used to forever and a day collect and send away to Boans of Perth, mail order books. I used to devour books. All my life I’ve devoured books. I’ve got my own private library. And I used to collect bottles so I could buy books. In those days….
you had your catalogue and you sent away from the country to the city, to Boan’s or Bairds [store] or one of these places, and up would come the mail order things. So by the time we left the place in ‘55, we left the mine in ‘55, I was hell bent that I was going to be into adventure. I was going to run the world properly. I wasn’t going to be hounded or pushed or whatever.
And I guess being around so many uniforms and being in that environment influenced me more that I thought. There was only two things that I ever wanted to be. I wanted to be a farmer, I wanted Mum to send me to agricultural college but she couldn’t, or a naval officer. That was the only two things. You know how kids want to be fire engine drivers…but when we came to Perth,
after a period of time, I worked for a Carlyle Company and that was very, very good, and in a very short space of time, in the space of 18 months, I was left, and I was only 17, I was left to run a department on my own, which was pretty good, from starting to actually being the boss of a department. But I just couldn’t wait to join the military.
I did my exams when I still 16, virtually, and come 17 at Subiaco, I was waiting at the bus stop with the rolled up towel and the toothbrush and all that, and then amusing thing happened. While I was waiting at the bus stop…and I always wanted to go to the SAS [Special Air Service], always that was an ambition, and an SAS jeep broke down in front of the bus stop. Now,
later on we wore a sandy beret, but in those days it was the red beret. And of course my eyes are agog, these are the killers from the sky, or whatever, my ultimate goal. And there they were trying to work out what was wrong with the jeeps. Kicking the tyres in and the usual garbage, and I thought, “Do I have enough guts to say anything? Bugger it.” And I walked up to the leader, and I know
who he is now, because he later came back as a regimental sergeant major of ours. And I said to him, “Hey, I’m joining the army.” and I’m expecting, “Well done, son” or something like that. And he said, “Get out of it while you bloody can.” And then while my jaw was still hanging down, I jumped on the bus and out to command personnel depot. But that was 1957.
Were you issued with a uniform straight away?
Well, it was sort of a uniform. A baggy, khaki looking thing, which was almost like a prison uniform. It never fitted. If you saw them on TV you would think it was a comedy. A pair of boots, which hardly fitted…You weren’t recruits then yet, you had to be sent to the recruit place. It was a personnel depot where you were collected, but I thought
it was great. And the oddballs were there, and generally these personnel depots were manned by oddballs. The boss was a…military policeman. Black Jack? Mean fellow, mean. Obviously they had sent him down there to calm down, and the cook committed suicide and the barber slashed his wrists. This was my introduction to the old military.
And the boys were coming back from Malaya, and this was exciting me a lot. The combat zone in Malaya. I will never forget, in the cookhouse, we were sent there to peel the spuds, and there was me, the kid who has never been hardly in a day, and an old hand who was back from a combat zone. And he was teaching me how to do bayonet drill with a broom handle. Anyhow, he was going through all the motions, got a bit enthusiastic, stuck it through the door and jabbed the cook on the other side.
I remember his name, too…I think he died last year or the year before. And then they sort of get hold of you, and you go off to Kapooka, in New South Wales, in the draft. In the proper draft thing. This time I was entering a camp of my free will, full of enthusiasm and looking forward to an absolutely wonderful life of adventure. Barely 17…
What did Kapooka look like?
Left over from World War II. None of the nicely built huts like you can see down the regiment. Nissen huts [wooden-framed huts]. Harsh, manned by World War II and Korean veterans who took no garbage and rightly so, because they weren’t training
you there for a picnic. A firm…it was very, very hard and harsh, but good. For me it was good. Funnily enough, in that camp we had the same amount of suicides, hangings in the ablutions amongst the new recruits as we had in the Northam Migrant Camp. So whether there is a parallel to that, goodness only knows. True, true, true. Young kids, just…
I don’t know what goes through the mind of a person like that. I can appreciate it. Obviously it is the end of the road for some reason or another, but for me, I couldn’t fathom where the end of the road would be for a thing which I thought was enjoyable. And easy. You were fed, you were dentally treated. I felt like I was in paradise. I missed the bush, but we were promised plenty of it and did get it.
Did you find it easier than the other blokes then because of your previous experience?
I think so. It took me a while to bulk up, and I did. But it seemed that the World War II sort of depriving of proper sustenance. I wasn’t small, but I could use a lot of bulking out. I didn’t quite bulk out in Big Bell.
It wasn’t bad. I was starting to, but I would say it took me quite a while, probably took me two years in the military to bulk out to where I was a good fighting weight, whatever…As far as the mental outlook, I couldn’t get enough of it, Absolute…I got in the manure for when we were doing the bayonet fighting because I was smiling. I was smiling because I enjoyed it, but the instructor thought
I was laughing at him. So I nearly got punched that day and everything. If he only realised….I couldn’t get enough of it.
So what sort of things did they teach you in the early days of training?
The usual basic stuff. All the weapons, a whole lot of the weapons, that was a huge one, and important. Discipline, of course. Endurance. Physically they built you up with the PT [Physical Training] section.
Looking back on it, not as much as they could…knowing what combat requires I would do it in a different way. I would do more physical building up. I certainly would do more on the weapons side. But then of course when you go to your regular unit, they are meant to bring you up to speed. They introduce you to every facet…They introduced you to grenades, throwing live grenades.
It’s extremely well done. Just looking back on it I would just do a few things differently and perhaps they do do them differently now. I would have gone through what every boy, girl goes through in their recruit training. The hair shaven off, or cut down, the yelling, the screaming, the pressure, which was good. This was where you learn, all of a sudden, I can do this in a few minutes,
whereas before back home it took one hour. And improvise…you’re starting to switch on to learning about a situation where it changes, a lot. And for me, that was just…that’s all I ever had. So it was really nothing. But where I did have a hassle was this authority figure thing. Some of the instructors became the Gestapo, truly, in my mind
and that was the one and only thing that I found it mentally hard to cope with. Realising that these authority figures weren’t the ones that were going to take you around the back and beat you or shoot you or something like that. That they are really trying to train you. That part of it is very, very hard. And if it hadn’t of been for a couple of the good blokes there, I could have gone the wrong way.
They knew how to pick people. It was excellent.
So what happened after Kapooka?
I went to my regular battalion, infantry, which is what I wanted exactly. I wanted to fight; I didn’t want to go there for anything else. It would have broken my heart if I hadn’t got it, but I got exactly what I wanted. I went to the infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, the big one.
It’s a wonderful outfit, I love them to this day. ‘Nogra [Enoggera] in Queensland. I wasn’t still…either 18 or 19, because they were planning to go to Malaya, the rotation, to fight in the Malayan Emergency, and because of my young age I had to stay in a rear party. I was part of it. You’ve got your advance party, the main body and the rear party,
waiting for my 19th birthday to clock over, because it is legislation in Australia that you are not allowed to fight until you are 19. That came after Singapore in World War II, when a whole Australian division went in the bag and they went to the Thai-Burma Railway. They put a lot of it down to the kids being young, but in actual fact, they weren’t trained at all. They weren’t even trained like we were after three months in Kapooka. The Australian Government in their wisdom said that nobody under 19 then thereafter shall go over,
and I was…not a victim of it, but one who had to respond to that. But before that, I spent 10 months in the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra.
What was that like?
I was on what they called the demonstration platoon. Where we had to demonstrate to the other students, rotated through, in jungle warfare training
all the drills, the ambushes, the sniping, the contact drills, field craft, all the ways to put up shelter, dig trenches, whatever…it was absolutely magnificent, once again I couldn’t get enough of it. I just couldn’t get enough of it. Give me a jungle or give me the scrub and I’m in…
Were you chosen for that because of your youth rather than sending you off…
No, no, no, that was well before…I knew we were going to Malaya….We were actually training the Malayan people, I was actually involved with training my own battalion in that.
So how did you get that job?
Good looking. I probably walked around the corner and they said, “Paddy, you’ll do.” They didn’t seem to take a platoon
or a company, it just seemed to be…Well, let’s face it, the demonstration and everything you had to put on had to be spot on, so I like to think they probably had a think about it and thought who could really do the job well, to train and I was the one chosen. So I would like to think that I was a good pupil of them. It’s probably not true what I’m saying, but I like to think it’s true.
What were the living conditions like?
In Canungra? Oh,
jungley, primitive, we lived in a tent, which I thought was heaven. No, a tent, it had floorboards, that’s an advantage. We walked to the mess hall, there was a bit of a canteen. No, it was magnificent…it was a pretty rough place. I’d put it as a jungle version of the Northam Migrant Camp. It was absolutely great and it wasn’t so built up…
Later on, as a sergeant or a warrant officer, I went back there for courses and they had these modern snazzy buildings and everything, like a university campus almost. I though, “Oh, no, this is no good. Too civilised.” You can’t have it too civilised. The way they had it before with the tents, you basically lived on the fringe of the jungle, with the instructional areas, perfect. This business with having everything
so nice…it’s all garbage. It really is. I know it sounds probably silly to you…
You think it’s too soft these days?
Too civilised. Too civilised. I mean, if you are going to be a fighter and you are going to live on the ground, why not get into it early and get used to it?
Did you make any good mates while you were at Canungra?
Oh, absolutely. Mates for life. From recruit training
you make mates for life. People I’m in contact with right now, from that day. A mate of mine…took me home to Beechworth in Victoria because I had nowhere to go, I was from West Australia and they gave us this leave. He took me home to Beechworth in Northeast Victoria, and next door to him
lived my wife, and he wanted to marry her, or make a play for her or something…I didn’t know this. Anyhow, I did and we’re married. We met Australia Day, 1958, Chris and I. And to this day, he keeps reminding me.
So it didn’t ruin your relationship?
Mind you, he’s on his third wife. So obviously, maybe she was the one. And I think she probably thinks she should be….
This is also going on during the Canungra period and the period waiting to go to Malaya. I met my future wife. I had no idea about it, who the hell knows these things? Fate sort of sucks you together and so on. And mates, yes,
the same mates…and then of course I met my wife. I know them to this very day. And we can go two years without seeing each other, they live in the eastern states, but when you meet, there is no barrier; you are like you were then. And the same with my SAS mates here, when we’ve had a reunion…although we’re so much older, and it’s
almost like yesterday. This last Anzac Day march, none of us march so well. One, we don’t even care about it, and that’s why we don’t do it so well. And I remember my good mate marching beside me, and his old sergeant was behind me. And Ron couldn’t help himself, he started calling out the step. “Left, left.” And my mate turned to me and he said, “Shit, I’ll be on mess duties soon.”
This is on the Anzac Day march…We went to Malaya in ’59.
Were you excited to finally get there?
Excited? I was over the moon. And on top of that, it got me my first jet aeroplane ride. I had been on DC3s. We moved to Adelaide on a DC3, the old World War II Biscuit Bomber…
The trip from Perth to Adelaide took eight hours, that’s what it took to fly from Perth to Adelaide. It was my first jet ride. We were in a 707, I think, from here to Singapore. But it still took a while, it wasn’t five minutes. I would say it was more like eight hours, or double the time
of what it takes now.
How many of you were on the plane?
On the rear party? Plane travel was not…everything was done by train and truck. This was like winning the lottery. This was the reward for being in the rear party and getting all the last bit of stores away. Then we were marched down to the Brisbane Airport, and there was this beautiful jet looking thing.
It was so exciting. Anyhow, we got on that with all our gleaming uniforms, Australia’s up…and for a migrant boy, it was doubly so, because as far as I was concerned I had finally won my spurs, I’d made it, this was it. I might have been a flotsam and jetsam before, but all of a sudden, I was a somebody, I had made it. I had kinship, I had a country, I had…brethren…I was just…
absolutely wonderful. And of course, because the communists had done a hard job on the rest of my family that was there, they had really put them under the pump, I hated communism. So not only was I come of age, but I was doing something that I considered worthwhile. And then…Asia again. Forget about landing from Europe to Australia, and Australia going
to Asia in 1959…If you think Singapore looks like it did in ’59 as it does now, you’ve got another thing coming.
What were your first impressions of Singapore?
I hated it. People hawking and spitting and betel nut chewing and splattering it on the lamp posts next to you, the drain smells, the foreign cooking smells which I now love and eat their food and everything…I though they were rude, crude and uncouth.
And they called you ‘John’ all the time. You know, “John this and John that.” It didn’t matter who you were, you were a John. They tried to sell you everything. They tried to sell my group the Changi War Cemetery, or a grave plot there. And I thought they did a pretty good con job - we didn’t buy it. but I thought, “My God, why the hell would I want a grave?” They got you in this frame of mind that you started
to consider some aspects of it. Anyhow, we soon gave them the flick. And I took, by that time; I took with me a stock whip. I think it was 11 foot. And I remember the day before we went up country into Malaya…You see, Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaya then, before to Kuala Kangsar. I got out the stock whip,
and Nee Soon was a big British camp rather than an Australian camp, and I started to give it a run, you know. And before I knew it I was surrounded by these British soldiers. I couldn’t get over it. There I was, just exercising in the sun, then the next minute I had an audience of about 100 or 200. Anyhow, I got a bit cocky then and I could handle it then.
First of all I chopped up newspapers that they held, and then one brave soul I cracked a cigarette out of his mouth. I can more than do it now. I can still give a stock whip a run. The legacies of…I have to tell you, by the time my two-year stint was up in Malaya, I loved the place and I consider it a second home.
Were you actually based from Singapore?
No, no. That was just a staging camp. No, we went up into a place, now in North Malaya, now Malaysia, called Kuala Kangsar, near the Malay-Thai border, where all our companies were dispersed in different lots to fight the communist terrorists. Like for instance, our headquarters and Charlie Company, which I belonged to, was at a place called Kuala Kangsar. But we had a company in Sungai Siput, where the Malayan Emergency started.
The Malayan Emergency went from 1948 to 1960, and even then they didn’t quite put down the insurgents, because we later on conducted operations on the border for a bit longer to ensure…But when everything finished, they actually carried on, the terrorists, until 1989, believe it or not. Which they eventually called the Second Emergency. Anyway, we were sent Kuala Kangsar,
and then from Kuala Kangsar we would be rotated onto the Malaysian-Thai Border. I say Malaysian, but in those days there was no Malaysia. It was Malaya. And we were rotated into different groups to hunt out the communist terrorists. The Emergency war had different phases of it - about three. The first third of it
was a little bit akin to what you have in Iraq, okay. Car explosions, attacks on people, everything that you are seeing in Iraq now, on the politicians, kidnappings, everything that you are seeing now. Then the middle level was where the actual security forces. Not a lot of people know much about the old Malayan Emergency as they called it. They called it an
Emergency rather than a war because the two major products, tin and rubber, were protected, insurance wise, by Lloyds of London, who would not do so in a war. They would have been destroying the economy of a country. They said, “We can’t call it a war, we will call it an Emergency.” So it became an Emergency. It was a very fierce thing, and something like 23,000 people died. That’s a lot of people.
I mean, people know almost nothing about it. Okay, then you had the middle bit where the security forces got control, then they took to the big jungle and this is where my battalion came in. We were put in and we hunted them in the deep jungle, all on the Thai-Malay border. So you can see the different phases. Our air force was put in
at phase one. In fact, one Australian bomber squadron conducted 80 percent of all bombing missions ever done there, was done by Australians. Our 2nd Battalion, the first initial one in 1955, was put into the middle phase. And by the time our rotation came through, we were called ‘deep penetrations’. We did deep penetration operations in hunting them out and keeping them on the move and so forth. That was our job.
What were you told about, about the communist terrorists before you actually arrived?
The truth or the propaganda?
Tell me the propaganda first.
Well, like in every war that you go to fight, you get your spin doctors up…although, we never heard this word, ‘spin doctor’, before. We never heard any of these words that are used now. They’d come and tell you about the enemy. The enemy is always underfed,
smaller than you, he is short of ammunition, he’s not as well trained as you are, and he is a political bad man.
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 05
What was the reality of the enemy in Malaysia?
Well, they would have to be one of the most dedicated enemy…now that’s a tall order, because the Vietnamese were far more dedicated. The Viet Cong had a more immediate prospect on their hand with us. Whereas, the
Malayan Emergency was strictly a political exercise, strictly political sort of ideologue exercise - they wanted to introduce Communism into the whole country. And they were anti- the British, who were colonials and were handing over to the Malayans. As I was saying, things happen by evolution and revolution, but evolution was too slow for them so they wanted
revolution. Originally, they went at it at a thousand miles an hour. Very much akin to what you sometimes see in Iraq, the original phases, they went at it at a 1,000 miles an hour. But then as the security forces got the upper hand, it came down to a dull roar, and then in the end it was a case of the security forces actually hunting them more than anything else. But they were still active.
They were not knocked out of the game…I would say they functioned from 1921, when they started to get active, 1921 until 1988. Now that’s a fair go. And they suffered…they suffered a minimum of 13,000 dead, a minimum of 13,000 of their members killed and they were still at it. And in the end, as a matter of fact,
a peace treaty between Doctor Mahathir, the communist leader Chen Ping and the president of Thailand. So they were never defeated, let’s say from 1921…they were defeated. In actual fact, the Malayan Emergency was probably the first communist insurgent war where a victory as such was won. And you know, because it ended in ’48, but like the people themselves, sort of like the religious
extremists of today, who go off on a different mental bent to the average person, were actually never as such defeated until they all came to a mutual agreement of some sort. The analogy may not exactly be correct, but all I’m trying to prove is that these people stuck to their guns for a bloody long time.
During the break earlier, you did make examples. Take the example with Iraq and
the Malaya Emergency and discuss the comparisons…
I made the comparison with the early part only. The Malayan Emergency more or less went through the three stages as I mentioned. The very fierce onslaught at the beginning, which we can compare. Because in the early days of Malaya they were having something like 666 shootouts, and explosions and ambushes and cars and buses being burnt,
which I think would equate nicely with today’s modern warfare. In the early parts they were up to that…Let’s say in 1951, 1952, it was very fierce. And it was fighting on company sized, 100 men plus, those kinds of levels. And really the country then at that point in time was under siege. And in actual fact,
they killed the High Commissioner Gurney in an ambush. Now that is pretty high stuff. That equates in today’s terms to assassinating the current ex-administrator Paul Bremmer. So which they actually achieved. So the early parts were very similar. And they were a sort of similar enemy in as much as they were political ideologues, extremists, as opposed to religious ideologue extremists
who can’t wait for evolution. They bring it about by revolution. So there you are seeing revolution in action again. What are they revolting against? Probably us. They don’t like the way we do things, nor do a lot of us. But that’s the way human nature is.
What was your role during the Malaya Emergency?
I was an infantry soldier. Deep penetration patrols. We had a wonderful system, we didn’t like it because it
worked us to death, we were all like marathon runners almost. You could use a cycle of 10, because let’s say, okay, you went in patrol, a patrol would last between 28 and 30 days, then you would come and do five days refit
or you got five days, which was either five days Penang, five days Ipoh, which is the old North Malaysian capital now. And this was an endless cycle. It never varied, at least while I was there. Perhaps it varied for others, because like every war, every phase, every year there are differences, but while I was there for a two and a bit years it never varied. It was in 28 or 30 days,
and I did two end-on-end, 60 days. Now I have no idea if you’ve ever spent 60 days under the canopy, because in the jungle, you’ve got a canopy virtually. Everything strives to go upwards, to try and get a bit of light, competing with each other, and eventually a canopy is formed under which you lived, patrolled, did everything. There is the odd bit of sunlight, but there is a dimness in everything about us.
There is a netherworld of leeches, spiders, snakes, call it whatever you like, all this sludge in the netherworld that you walk through, sleep on, etc. We slept off the ground if we could, mainly because of the parasites and everything, that were almost a greater danger to you than one of the communists shooting you in an ambush. There was hookworms, there was heartworms. There was rat’s
excreta and urine, which would give you thinks like leptospirosis. Malaria was common, I got it twice in spite of the Atebrin [anti malarial drug] tablets and so on you had to take. Anyhow, can you imagine working 60 days under this netherworld type thing? Or when your ambushes used to go for 24 hours at a time, I mean, they were 24 hour ambushes,
they could last 30 days, but they were manned 24 hours a day. Twelve-hour ambushes in some instances, you would mount them in the morning and come up in the evening. You always depend on the police information, the Special Branch information with that, because in the Emergency you were the response force to the intelligence agencies. And intelligence agencies
were spearheaded by the Special Branch, and the Special Branch got the intelligence. In other words, when you were fighting the insurgents, you are fighting them through the civil system and the army is just a back up. When you’re fighting a full-blast war, the army goes first and the civil system takes a back seat. Not so in the Emergency, they did it the right way. There was civilian authorities all the way conducting the jam, so to speak, with us the military very much backing up the civilian authority.
The police, the Special Branch. So every time you would be doing what intelligence demanded. Let’s say you had a DLB, a Dead Letter Box, because the terrorists used to communicate with each other…it was compartmented - that meant if you catch one he can only give you so much information. The CTs, the communist terrorists, used to compartment their exercises, with their couriership and all that,
so each courier who used to deliver the letters to a Dead Letter Box, a DLB, would only do that section. So even if you either killed him or captured him you would only get…Let’s say you killed him, you’d probably get letters for about that scope, but if you captured him he would be only able to tell you what he knew about that section and the people in that section. Say you were laying an ambush onto a DLB, a high-priority target,
that would mean 24 hours a day, rain, hail or shine, bucketing down, you would just be there…You would get relief from your base camp, which was set up at a considerable distance, or a good enough distance away not to give anything away, and there you would be 24 hours a day in ambush position. It wasn’t the most dangerous war that I was in, far from it, but it was by far the hardest work I’ve ever done in a combat situation,
bar none. We carried 10 days’ rations. What would that weigh? Sixty pounds, I suppose. A full complement of ammunition. And every 10 days, weather permitting, we would get an airdrop to keep you going. To walk into an area, of the border area, would take 10 days. So sometimes you would walk in 10 days, because you didn’t get a helicopter ride…If you got a helicopter ride to it, it was only 20 minutes. So,
you rode 20 minutes in a helicopter to what was a 10-day walk in the jungle. Sometimes it was by boat, because the Pera River dissected our state. Then it would be one day’s boat road to get the same AO, Area of Operations. So you had a choice. If you managed to get rostered a helicopter ride, you’d go in by helicopter, 20 minutes, then your operation
would start, you’d do 10 days then you would get your airdrop, your first airdrop. Or conversely, you get a day’s boat ride in, which was very hairy and very dangerous. The river claimed the life of some of our blokes as well. You’d get a day’s ride, or you walked in for 10 days to start your operation. Ten hard slogging days. Like I said, not the most dangerous
combat environment, but by far the heaviest work I’ve ever done in a situation like that. It’s an eerie world living under the jungle, under the canopy. Anything can pull, pulls, anything that can jab you, jabs you, anything that can bite you, bites you. You can’t see from here to there, you don’t know from one minute to the next what’s behind, and forget about the humans.
Sometimes the wildlife was very dangerous. We had tigers harassing some of our base camps. I’ve come face to face with a young tiger from a metre way. He in turn then, because we interrupted him, he and my mates, he stalked us for the full day. Now he would not attack us, because he was young…but if you go in an area where you’ve got an old fellow on his last legs,
he will attack a human. And they constantly did, the local indigenous people. The Orang Asli as they were called, the Malayan Aborigines, the pygmy people. Negrito and Temiar.
What kind of relationship did you have with those people?
With the Aborigines, it was two-fold. Once again with the Pera River separating the north from the south. In the north, we had the most
primitive, probably some of the most primitive people in the world at that time. They were a small, five foot two, brownish, curly-haired, Negrito type of a person. Absolutely…an anamite, or animistic or spiritualistic or superstitious but they read everything into everything.
Like, for instance, if you had a meeting, whereas it for you was just another meeting with another group or person, for them they were already trying to interpret the spiritual side. As far as they were concerned, the spirits were in the trees, in the butterflies, in everywhere, in you. You could be, maybe not a person, you could be the manifestation of the devil. So if the person you met was acting strange, and they did, and I’ve had them in front of me, it wasn’t perhaps because
they didn’t like to see you or like the look of you, it was because they couldn’t work out exactly what you represented in their spirit world. Now this might sound like a lot of garbage to somebody else, but this was how I really found them. It took them a hell of a lot to be at ease with you. They had the six foot-plus blowpipes, and they were the real, genuine dinkum primitive man. Their shelters were primitive. Sometimes
they were just even a very crude humpy. On the other hand, they could build the traditional Malayan thatched hut, and always off the ground so the tigers and things…it would be harder for the tigers and things to get at them. It was a pleasure for me, some of the other blokes didn’t share my sentiment, but I always found it fascinating to meet up with them, or to live nearby them or to
have something to do…The big disadvantage was that the communist terrorists had them well and truly under command. The head communist in our area, called Ah Su Chey, who I believe was part Malayan Aboriginal. He married 13 of the local maidens to keep them loyal. Some would say a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
But anyhow, he had extreme control over them. They themselves, I found, when I had the chance to talk to them, which was occasionally, and of course, it’s sign language stuff. It’s not…some of them could speak a smattering of English because we’d have the odd night, or nights in their encampments, which was a good case of the malaria I talk about, plus probably a couple of the other
diseases we picked up. All of us went down with malaria over the time we spent in their camps. At their invitation, by the way, we didn’t intrude on them. But they were the eyes and ears of these communist terrorists, as a rule. They spy for them, spot for them, they would provide a screen for them, and it made it terribly difficult for us. On the other hand, because of our instructions of where we had the hearts and minds thing, and we had to win them, we knew they were playing for the enemy,
we knew they were playing for the other side. We also knew that they really wanted to be left alone, that they were middlemen. The meat in the sandwich, and so it was very difficult for us. There were times when we thought about shooting them down. I was one time in myself, my section commander wouldn’t allow me to shoot them down. They were definitely couriers; they should have been shot down. Another time, another company, not me, did shoot them and got into trouble as a result of it,
even though there was a curfew there and nothing moved after dark, so to speak, except the enemy. Yes, it was a very difficult situation. The Temiar down south, in what we called the Garden Area, always had the Chinese influence. Whereas the Negrito had the typical slash and burn…they would chop down the trees and burn the undergrowth, and plant their dry rice, tapioca,
and whatever, in these very crude gardens, bordered off by just hunks of wood. Down south the Temiar who were already less Negrito looking and looked more like a very handsome miniature Malay. They had even features…could be my imagination, but they appeared paler. They appeared more refined. Very well proportioned. They already had the Chinese influence and I think some of the Chinese people actually
bought off them, bartered off them, be they communist terrorists or not. And they had these gardens, they were already westernised. They were larger, whatever they traded…the Malaysian and Chinese were always after their rattan. You know, the cane, they were always after that. They used to collect it and sell it as a river trade.
And actually the leader of the push in my time, on their aboriginal side, I’m running on memory here so people can contradict me…was a fellow called Kerinching, and he was down south. He wasn’t a Negrito, he was a Temiar, and controlled the whole area apart from the communist terrorist leaders like Ah Su Chey, and the other ones who names I can’t remember. In the end I think Kerinching surrendered
to our own commanding officer. Yes, it was very interesting but also very frustrating trying to conduct a patrol against an opponent, when they’ve got these indigenous folks acting as guides and scouts. You can imagine it, we were behind the eight ball straightaway. And also every 10 days taking a resupply, was very hard to miss a re-supply in the jungle, the aeroplane noise…If you got on a peak, or climbed a tree, you could see the
parachute canopy coming down. Casualties were both combat casualties say, and illness, which was the most. Illness, or the jungle. The trees were forever and a day coming down and breaking blokes arms, legs, whatever, particularly in the dark. Malaria, leptospirosis, the place was full of all kinds of diseases. It was very
difficult to get out. If you were carried on a stretcher, even if you found yourself a path that even remotely went in the direction that you want to go, trying to get four Australians, big Australians carrying another Aussie plus equipment on their back through that…and sometimes the jungle was almost impenetrable and you were desperate, because you saw your mate there on the stretcher and he was had it. And you knew it was a matter of time, you had to get him often. Often we’d find a
bend in the river, and that just gave enough space, with the sand, to hover a chopper over that. I actually medivaced [medical evacuation] once myself like that. In actual fact, the chopper couldn’t land. I was sick as a dog, thrown in, hurled in like a basketball and I landed on the metal floor…I was happy to get out, so don’t worry about that.
What was your injury or illness?
At that point in time it was either malaria or leptospirosis. Leptospirosis, a couple of us got it. What it is, is if you were drinking downstream and rats are excreting and pissing upstream, and you’re down below drinking it, or even perhaps washing it…I mean, we boiled most we could, but you couldn’t escape the whole damn lot. And we had sterilisation tablets,
but you just can’t…We even had a sock-looking thing, like a water filter, which was impregnated with some kind of chemicals and you were supposed to filter your water through that. There was one patrol at least that we were filling up our water bottles below stream, it looked clean, it looked good, it looked pristine, but as we patrolled further up there was a dead elephant lying in the river with
all its guts hanging out, and just 50 metres below we had all filled our water bottles.
What were the symptoms of that disease?
Oh, a very high fever. Mostly of those ones, the first thing that gets you is a fever, then a lethargy where you can’t hardly move anymore. We carried a mate of mine at the last stage where he was totally out to it. Absolutely
out to it, the point of death or just before death. And many blokes, not so much the Aussies…because I think, this is only my theory, that our water isn’t as pure as the Brit water perhaps, but generally most of the Brits as a rule, or they had a greater casualties from leptospirosis than we did. And the only thing that our MO
Medical Officer, could work out was that the water we drank in Australia had enough impurities in it to give us a greater resistance for it. Which made sense. Probably the water now is a lot more pure than in the ’50s. In the ’50s, we were probably drinking enough variety for all of us over time to build up a greater immunity to all the jungle things we were getting through the water.
What kind of medical supplies did you take with you on patrol?
Pitiful. Absolutely pitiful. A little pack about this big, had to use your band-aids, bandages, whatever. I can’t compare to what we carried in Vietnam, the sophisticated drugs…Morphine, we all carried in Vietnam…This was very primitive stuff. And on top of that,
although coms was reasonable, communications, I can’t remember the [radio] set, maybe it was a fiver, I don’t know. But often you had a problem getting out to your base. But they weren’t bad. And the minute you took a serious casualty of any kind, it was onto base and try and get him out. Walk him out somewhere, get him to a clearing, try and find a clearing, anywhere,
to get him back to the British Military Hospital. It happened to a lot of people. Common stuff, I’m talking about very common stuff.
How were you operating those patrols, as regards to setting up ambushes and engaging with the enemy?
Sure. The standard…somebody back in headquarters got it into their head that an infantry platoon, which we belonged to,
could clear 1,000 yards square, in those days, of jungle. Which is garbage, really. I mean, you only clear the piece of ground you walk over or where you stand, but that was a lot of the jungle stuff, to clear that, and devised different kinds of patrols which depended on the platoon commander or whoever the strategist was. Wherever you crossed-grain, where you crossed-grained, wherever you did a track search, wherever you did a feature search, wherever you did a
creek-line search, a spur-line search, depending on whatever you were allocated, and depending on what kind of evidence you found and then on that, how fresh? And wherever you laid an ambush on it. Or perhaps you had pre-intelligence to locate something…we were basically out there, apart from harassing and chasing the terrorists, and eliminating them, we were also
out there to collect intelligence or confirm intelligence that we had already gone out with. So you would have what’s called ‘finds’. An old camp. One time, I think there was two or three CTs, I can’t remember, but we actually came across them while they were cooking their meal. And even before we could engage them, they were gone in a flash. I mean, we could have given a hell of a burst
here and there, but we would have been shooting at trees. And there was their beautiful hot meal. And it wasn’t the local woodcutters or anything like that. It was the genuine article. So you could come across them that quickly. You would come across them on the spot. And this happened around the corner, one minute nothing, the next minute there it is. And you were surprised…and most of the casualties were caused by stray shots from either side,
or deliberate shots of course, if one spotted the other one first, ambush him, that was a way a lot of the casualties were done, or an attack on a camp. Attacking a camp…I personally went on a camp attack with a group from the 42 British Commando….By memory, came ashore and it was our area, so they had to have an Australian representative go with them, and with the Gurkhas [Regiment of Napalese fighting under British Army], too, on another occasion in our area.
But everything was finds. A bandage with blood on it meant somebody had been hit or stabbed themselves on one of the vines. It was just a never-ending cycle of chasing, finding, reducing, getting back intelligence. This is really how you fight a guerrilla, by your intelligence being greater than his,
and you being one step ahead of him. I mean, if you can deny him his aims, and his aim was to create an impression with the local people, pass over his political message, or whatever kind of message, in other words make an impact on the people he wants to make an impact and change, he’s won. But if you deny him all this, then he’s already lost, he’s useless, he can’t get his data. And that was part of the job after
the Emergency ended. The Emergency ended the 30th of July, ‘60, but operations continued until ‘63, what was known later as the Thai-Malay Border Ops. They were distinctly an act of service phase, but they were separate from the Emergency. The Emergency went ‘48-60. That was it. But after that, the Thai-Malay Border Ops continued. But the pattern was pretty much the same. Intelligence operations, counter-guerrilla, counter-insurgency ops,
and then I think our group pulled out, more or less. By that time we were involved in Borneo, we were also involved in Vietnam as well. I think the Malays after that, the Malays come Malaysians, were left more or less, apart from the odd time when we were seconded to them, to do some work. To handle what they called a Second Emergency themselves...
On how many occasions did you have to go on one of those?
What, when Australians were detached to the Malays? On and off, all the three services, I don’t know about the navy side but I know the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] helped on the…we’re talking about the Second Emergency here, the one that happened after ‘63…I think during the Borneo period was ’62 to ’66,
it occurred a little. I do actually know some of the blokes who were involved….We were in Vietnam until ’71. But we even had battalions going, sometimes rotating, down to a stint in Malaysia then, and they were there during the Second Emergency, and they did give a bit of a hand here and there, and I believe some casualties
were taken as well. What I did notice after…my battalion came off the border, is that they changed the area of Australian operations from Northam Pera, and the Gurkhas moved into our area, to Perlis, on the left hand side of what was known as the Kra Peninsula. It was like an indentation in Malaysia…if you were a terrorist
and you had this nice little indentation that you could walk into, and the border surrounded you. It was like a nice passage way into the thing…That also made it so difficult for them to keep these people under control, because for a third of the country, they could more or less walk parallel with it, safe and sound in a foreign place. Their headquarters was never far from ours. I mean, I can personally recall people shooting on the other side of the Thai border,
randomly, yelling, screaming, ranting, taunting us, it wasn’t a big deal. It was the way it was. We, of course, were not allowed to cross the border into Thailand. We did do joint and special operations between the Thai Army, the Thai Police, the Malaysian Army and some of us attached. And they were kind of the special operations…
Whether they are secret too now, who knows? I won’t go too much into them, except they were operations to get the bad guys, it was as simple as that.
Is there any reason why you won’t go into any further detail about…
Yes, of course. Because I don’t know what official classification they still have on it. Possibly nothing, because the 30-year rule, generally things are classified for 30 years. But these would be Malaysian documents and I don’t know their system,
so I pay the respect of giving them the benefit of the doubt. All I can tell you is yes, I was attached to them and their group and we did some jobs around the border.
This is the first conflict you have been involved in…what was your impression of being in a battle zone?
Physically it was very intense. This business of
28 to 30 days in, five days refit, five days rest, kept up for 18 months. And to live under that canopy, to carry those weights…I mean, in our area there wasn’t a flat piece of ground in there. You were either walking knee deep in a creek or you were heading up the side of a cliff again. And on occasions you would hit the swamps, the swampy lands, where you did hit a flat stuff, or
whatever. And what we called the Moss Forest. I don’t know what you call it but there was no footing. Every time you step into this particular area, you would sink in waist deep and you were virtually slushing your way through rotten vegetation. Everything jabbed underneath…So really, it is a very, very harsh environment to live in, fight a war in of any kind, or to pursue an enemy in.
How did you manage personally to overcome that sort of an environment?
Young and fit and silly and well trained and motivated and believing everything your boss told you. I consider it a privilege to have been there. I didn’t enjoy all of it. As a matter of fact I can recall hating a hell of a lot of it, but I wouldn’t have missed it for quids…
The jungle is just an amazing place. Just being in there, there was enough…for me anyhow. A lot of blokes found it boring, and yeah, I was happy to get out of it, too, but while I was in it I found it a fascinating environment. And the fact that there was a real live enemy with a gun there, or around the corner, that kept me focus. I didn’t have a hassle, I never questioned it. I was a young man with a job to do, a job that I believed in,
and your mates…Whatever you do, your mates play the biggest part in your life. What you do for them, they do to you. Mateship, the humour, the support, the camaraderie, it’s worth anything. In any situation.
Are there any incidents you can recall that would demonstrate the level of mateship that you shared? And perhaps some of the humour of…
I think just being there…I just mentioned that we continued a rotation for 18 months. Now 18 months is a damn long time, and the mere fact that we were able to keep it up and we did. Now remember, we were carrying everything on our backs, you were nine times out of 10 on the sides of slopes, you were chasing after somebody who you also don’t know might be
waiting for you in an ambush position around the corner. You don’t know. Now, to do all of this, and survive in this environment, you can only do it with the support of your mates, with the humour. Humour, you want a humorous incident. Well, I don’t know whether it was when I turned 20 or 21 on an operation. At night-time, it was so pitch black that you could
poke yourself in the eye. And because of the dead fall, there was a constant dead fall…You know of the jungle giants rotting, falling down. There was no such thing of the old forest thing, look up, don’t park under a tree. Because trees were the whole thing, that’s why it’s a jungle. Anyhow, I drew the midnight shift…You could only get to your machine gun pit, which was a nominated gun pit, through a vine. If you didn’t follow the vine…
And shining torches and that weren’t on. So you followed the old vine to the machine gun post. Because it is so pitch black, you rely on your ears, the main thing was to listen out for dead fall. And this was one of the rules that we had in the platoon. And when you heard a tree coming down you screamed out, “Look up!”
Now what the hell you should look up for, I’m buggered if I know, because you couldn’t see anything. The only good thing is that you are conscious, or you are out of your sleep then. The amount of times that it was yelled out, I can’t honestly remember or even bothering to get out of my particular bed when the blokes yelled it out. But anyhow, that was the drill. You looked up and it either hit you or it didn’t or it fell beside the camp.
Anyhow, I drew the midnight shift and I turned 20 or 21, I can’t remember which. And I thought, “My God, there I am, 20 or 21, and there I am in the bloody jungle on an operation. All the other kids of my age were back home, getting keys to the door.” Number two on the gun at that time…I was number two to the Bren gunner. Macca. Good bloke Macca, and when I got relieved
I said, “I’ve got to celebrate somehow. I’ve got to do something to celebrate the occasion.” So I opened a can of steak peas and onion, cold, and while I was doing it I woke my mate Macca. I said to him, “Macca, Macca.” in the middle of nowhere. “Macca, I’m 21!” And I’m not going to tell you exactly what said.
I’ll give you the watered down version. He said, “So bloody what? Go to sleep.” And that was the kind of humour that you lived in. I didn’t care. I was celebrating my 21st birthday in this set-up. But humour just carries you, it carries you and your mates. Dry humour. Remarks. Some remarks…It went on for a long, long time.
Who were some of the mates that you recall from that period?
You mean names? One old mate I can recall, George Garvin, a truer friend you could never get. Arch Foxley, Brian Havers, Harry Devine…Look, you virtually became very close mates with the whole platoon, but of course you had your own
immediate close mates. A lot of these fellows I mentioned also carried on, and I went to Vietnam with, not once but a few times. A few times. As I mentioned, having said all that, the Emergency was and the way they went about it by keeping it a civilian exercise, with a military power supporting the civil powers and the hearts and minds…
That was the only reason why the Emergency was won, truly won, against an insurgent enemy. Against a communist indoctrinated enemy. It was because of the way they went about it. The terrain itself was something that you operated in. The early part of the Emergency was 14 towns. Or around towns, like you saw. Patrols in the early days weren’t nothing like our 28 or 30-day ones. They were a few days in…
because most of the action was around town. You’ve got remember that, these people wanted to take the place over. It was only later, as they got pushed further out, and then my battalion rotation came around, and we had to go to where they were. And then constant living under the canopy. You developed a pallor, you became pale. First of all because you only lived on tins, and you worked like steam. You became like these long-distance runners.
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 06
You were just going to give us some statistics you can recall?
Yes, and please believe me these are off the top of my head. In a two-year tour, I think, an average infantry battalion would walk, I think, a million miles or something like that. I’m sure it’s more than 1,000 miles, you know, collectively. There was 800 men in a battalion.
They would go through something like 1,600 pair of boots, which I think actually is an underestimation, because virtually there were times there, we were going through a set of boots per patrol, per deployment and sometimes two sets per deployment. And sometimes our clothes just hung off us, virtually ripped off us. And the air drop would come in and supply you with a new set. You went as light as you could.
I mean, you virtually had what you had on you and a dry set to change into at night-time. Because everything was damp all the time. And if you were in the rainy season, you’ve never seen rain like it. Because when you’re sitting in the rain, or standing in the rain in Australia, it falls on you. But there in the jungle, it doesn’t only come down, it’s draining towards you on every leaf, every bush…It’s like mini-waterfalls at times.
It’s like living in a mini-waterfall. And in some of the highland areas, where it’s very high, I don’t know, 10,000 feet, 12,000 feet, I’ll you what, it got bloody cold when it shouldn’t have got cold. And on that ridge it took 700 hours of patrol before you had a contact or incident with one of the communist terrorists, who of course did their work
whenever they wanted to, because you were after them. And yes, if they came after you, you knew all about it. But they would do their job of sabotage or propaganda or collecting debts or whatever, at whim, whenever they wanted. But you had to head down, bum up, to counteract them and do them some damage.
What sort of weaponry did they use?
Mainly old British weaponry,
which we also used at the beginning. They used number five jungle carbines, which my first patrol; we used number five jungle carbines. I never saw them with anything like a Bren, though I’m sure they had them. But they certainly had the old Sten gun [machine gun], which we never had at all. We had our own guns. I think the Patchets,
the upgrade on the Sten gun, the British one, I don’t know if they had any of those…They were, particularly early on in the piece they were desperate for weapons. And there was many recorded cases where they would suffer casualties to try and get the weapons off you, that’s for sure. Not so much with the ammunition, but the weapon? Absolutely. We knocked over an armoury. My group knocked over an armoury,
about 2,000 metres from the border. It was very well equipped. It had its own kiln, it had two lathes. Some of them were manually operated. They all ran away and everything when we got there. Sleeping quarters for 10, who were obviously the workers, and cooking facilities and as I say a kiln. A kiln for making their own beer. And some graves, of course.
There were some graves. At least one particular graves of those who had been shot or died from malaria or something. They were no fools. They were absolutely no fools. And when it comes to dedication, absolutely no question.
Were you using booby traps at all?
Us? No. They did originally. Oh yeah. I would go as far as to say that every single booby trap of the
indigenous variety, like the pungi stick or the bear pit or that ball with all the stakes sticking out of it that you would come across in Vietnam, I have absolutely no qualms in saying they were all first used in Malaya. Without a shadow of a doubt. I know it is a big deal to say that. Vietnam is the, whatever, the pangi, the sharpened bamboo…but no, all these things were used to great effect earlier on, and even later on, in the Malayan Emergency.
Were you taught about these booby traps?
Oh yes, very much so. Nobody virtually went to the place without doing Canungra, the Jungle Warfare Centre, JWS [Jungle Warfare School]. And no, we were extremely on top of the whole thing. Extremely. And we were taught by the blokes who came from there. I mentioned the demonstration platoon earlier? It was the job of the demonstration platoon on the strength of what was passed to you by the old hands,
to do the demonstration absolutely correct, as it was real life. Real life.
Did you get depressed by being out in the jungle for such a long time? You’re wet and you’re tired and it can hit your morale…
Well, a platoon is about…we were always under strength, but it was meant to be 30 blokes. We often went out with 20 or 24. Yes, it seemed to be the character of the blokes to begin with. The kind of blokes that were prone to that kind of gear…Sometimes you did notice a change in the mood of your mate, but this is where mateship comes in, and this is where you don’t allow it to go any further than that. But was I personally depressed? No way in the world. I couldn’t see anything to be depressed about. I mean, I was doing exactly what I joined to do. And I reckon this would be
the attitude of 99 percent of the blokes. There were some there who were soldiers by mistake. Maybe some of them did it to stay out of jail. But no, most of the blokes were great.
What would you do when you had some leave up your sleeves?
I reckon we weren’t sober for five days. To begin with, to start off with. The refit phase, you would go back to camp and you always test-fired your weapons. You test-fired them before you went out, but you test-fired them when you got back. As soon as you test-fired them of course you put them in an immaculate position in your hands, to the arms cote, which was the Malayan Emergency version of the armoury.
Naturally enough, you got your body as in a good a shape as possible. If need be, go to the medical officer and patch up whatever you had to patch up. Or pump some vitamins into you, or whatever…incidentally, the nightly stand-to drill…stand-to is where you stand-to at last light and so on, in case they want to do an incursion on you, even a probe or whatever. So everybody stands-to at last light.
And just prior to that, the platoon sergeant and perhaps…the platoon sig [signaller], I don’t know who, would come around and it was mandatory and recorded, you presume it was, where you took a Vitamin C pill, a paludrine, anti-malarial pill, downed with a water bottle capful of highly overproof rum.
As a rum drinker, but only since 1960, I think my habit dates back to that. At the beginning it took us a while to get used to it. We also had in our ration pack, raisins and things like that, to give you the energy to push forward. I used to go through the raisins, but I had a couple of mates who were
real drinkers, I won’t say any more, and when a platoon sergeant wasn’t looking, I would pass my capful of rum to them to down, but of course I would collect their packets of raisins for myself in return. But once I developed a taste for rum, there was no such thing. And that didn’t take long. That took about a few rums. It was overproof. The air force were
particularly worried about it, because if it spilled in the fuselage of the aircraft during the aerial drop, it was one of the few things that would corrode the fuselage. The chutes were meant to be colour-coded as they came in. Like red for ammunition, yellow for medical gear and all of this. But the colour code they threw out the window, with the exception of the rum. They always colour coded the rum, I think that was red, from memory.
So you knew which one to get to first?
I suppose so, perhaps. I think it had something to do with themselves as well, looking after their aeroplane. And what did we do then? Well, we would make amends, that was what we called it, make amends, in other words clean up all your equipment. Your basic webbing, your…we wore jungle boots. Rubber-soled, canvas-side jungle boots,
lightweight. We exchanged them or if we couldn’t exchange them and they weren’t bad enough, we would clean them up as much as possible. You would get into number seven dress. Everything had a number. Number one dress was shorts, boots, socks - I don’t know about a belt - and a bush hat. I think that was number one dress.
Number seven dress was full civilians. You had number seven dress and you had the choice of the trucks parked there, you chose whether you went to Penang for five days, or if you went Ipoh. If you went to Penang there used to be the Garrison Club, which is a now a bank. I visited it. Which was cheap accommodation, military administrative accommodation for the troops.
Like where a bed in a hotel cost you, say 10, it wasn’t ringgits, it was straight dollars in those days. Ten a night. At the Garrison Club it was two. So what we used to do, because we knew we would run out of money, we would pay for five days worth of room at the Garrison Club. We never slept there. I can’t remember sleeping there at all, I can’t remember any of it, it was just back up for us when we ran out of money, because we would go through it
like it was water. We could book into a…half decent pub and start carousing and yelling and screaming and working your way through the bars and fighting with the other forces, and getting arrested by the provos [Provosts - military police], sometimes. And going to the ‘Run Bong’, which is the Thai non-contact dancing.
Where the very…taxi dances, you had to buy a ticket. In fact, most of the dances there you had to buy a ticket. There was no liaison, except for the ladies of the night, between a male European and local lady. There wasn’t much liasing between the blokes and the local ladies, even if they were married,
the man would walk in front and she would dutifully walk two metres behind him. But there were liaisons, let’s say, between a normal girl and white bloke. And sometimes he would be sent home. Sometimes he would be very badly threatened through the father of the lass, by the gangs that they had there.
Like the 08 Gang, the 303 Gang, you know the local extortionist gangs. And sometimes the communist terrorist back up group, the Min Yen, who were the outside army who supplied them, they also used to do extra curricular by being gangsters on the side. Robbing banks and things, which is very good for the coffers, for the cause. And we did one time, we took a young artillery with us, he patrolled with us for a good year. Just to get him out of the road of being…
killed, in town, at these different chances or other opportunities. And the Run Bong is where you dance with a girl without holding them, or perhaps hold her handkerchief…Incidentally, the young man who did patrol with us, her father put a huge ad in the Straits Time renouncing his daughter. She no longer belonged to him…this is then. We are going back
to the 1950s….Just saying, “This girl is no longer my daughter.” To save face for himself, within his own peer group. When you weren’t used to the system, you would walk up to a local lass and genuinely said, “What is the time, please?” No way in the world she would answer, back then, head down and away. Nothing. Wouldn’t speak to you. Even if she was a university graduate and you knew all the
English in the world, it didn’t matter. That was the system it was.
Is that a cultural thing or is a fear thing?
No, it’s cultural. Strictly cultural. No fear, absolutely no fear. I never saw the local subjugated in any way, except by money. We had the dough. So they did as wanted because we could pay for it. That was the only subjugation I saw, and we were threatened on many occasions, by the local gangs.
And many fights took place where it was back to back, and punching against the locals. There was only one place in my place, Batu Ferringhi…No Batu Ferringhi now, the holiday strip of Penang. And that was the old Lone Pine. It was the only place where you could….And the road up there in those days was hairy. Mostly you went
in the dark. It wasn’t like the magical over-traffic things you see now. It was a little hairy bended road with jungle over the road, with some communist terrorists still in Penang Hill somewhere. And you went up to the Lone Pine. I remember one occasion there a group was going to do us in good and proper, and we were smuggled away by the owner of the Lone Pine, because he didn’t want the bad PR [Public Relations] coming his way.
It sounds like these local gangs were really dangerous?
Oh extremely. Extremely. A lot of Australian jockeys used to ride in the races there. And if they didn’t do as the gangsters wanted, the old horse to do, there was killings. There was heaps of killings. As far as amongst themselves there was oodles of killings. Not just one.
I remember one Australian doctor being killed. Mind you, his death was an accident. He was run over…
It sounds like it’s almost frontier country?
In the ‘50s, no…You can take two facets. One was this very organised British colonial
administration with everything neat and prim and proper. But when you got out of the confines of that…the Malays can be aggro [agressive]. They’re generally an easy going people. I wish now that they were the same people they were then, but that’s impossible. We are neither the same people we were in the ‘50s. But no, particularly the Chinese, they’ve got a certain bent. Very vicious, very vicious people.
They could get into if they got a snout on you, no problem. And it didn’t take much to get a snout on us drunken diggers. Not so hard is it?
What were the other services like to deal with? You said there was occasionally a bit of biffo with the air force?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, let’s face it; there was rivalry between the battalions that were in. The British battalion was in…
In our case, we first served with the 1st Battalion Loyalists, then later on with the 1/3rd East Anglians. And I did go with another battalion, the Cheshires perhaps…But particularly with the 1/3rd East Anglians, the fighting got probably worse than out in the jungle.
Why was that?
There was a lot of mean…I think their C Company or one of their companies…Incidentally, I was attached to them did operations with them, was National Servicemen from Soho. And they got paid nothing, absolutely nothing. They were conscripted and they were almost treated like dogs. As I say,
I served with them on jungle operations. So I guess they got a snout on us. We were well paid. Perhaps they looked on us as a challenge, but whatever way it goes, they either killed or put a Kiwi very badly in hospital…so we responded and they responded and before you knew it there was full scale riots in the main street and everything.
Of which I took part in one anyhow. I’m not making this up or telling you second hand. Their colonel was a terrific bloke. And I think later on, or just recently, he was the general of their army. I think he would remember those times in Ipoh with the 1/3rd East Anglians. I mean, it got down to combing the bars looking for them, or they were looking for you. Combing bars.
Even got to the point of checking peoples ID [identification], which we didn’t have the power to do.
Was that the main problem with the National Servicemen?
I think the National Service Company wanted to prove a point. That they were…They were a lively sort of young kids. Their out of duty uniform as a rule used to be tropical studded boots, jeans, white t-shirt and a studded belt. And their favourite expression was, “Looking for bother.”
Enough said, and our blokes were not lilies either, nor the Kiwis [New Zealanders]. And when we weren’t fighting the Brits, we were fighting the Kiwis. I remember when the Scottish regiment came in…Oh yeah, as soon as the Black Watch came in it was on for young and old. The Black Watch, they were a British regiment, we were fighting with them. I remember a red cap [British military police] paddy wagon in Penang,
and as the Aussies were thrown into it they were punched out by a Black Watch trooper, or when a Black Watch was trying to be thrown in the paddy wagon, he was punched back out by one of our blokes. This was a amusement, of some sort. This is what silly young people do, full of steam.
You said that you didn’t get on with the Kiwis?
Oh yeah, we got on amazingly well. But that didn’t stop the fights, especially when
we played them in rugby and things.
Did you manage to get into a bit of sport while you were there?
Not much, not much. It all happened towards the end of the tour where they tried to sort of orient us back to some kind of semblance of reality or normality, so when we came home to our loved ones, we were at least looking normal. Yes, the rugby games between the Kiwis and the Aussies was on, boxing was a thing
between I think the British battalion and ourselves, used to do that. And athletics. But athletics was more inter-battalion. Company against company. But I think towards the end of the tour, it was the 28th Commonwealth Brigade contest and it became semi-official and we had some wonderful athletes and we did rather well at it. But there wasn’t much time
for sport. Sport plays a big part, and when we were off in our platoon set-up, we definitely did play sport. But that was down to that level, because operations were priority to everything. Although towards the end, or halfway through, I can’t remember, one of our platoons was made what we called the football platoon. They transferred in people from all over companies,
and I think it was just a plot to try and beat the Kiwis. I think we thought we might have had a loss, so they decided, “We will stack the odds. We will get the best players from the battalion and put them in the same group.” And I think it worked, I think I was at the game where our mob beat the Kiwis quite nicely. But this was just games, this wasn’t normal army stuff. They don’t have time to jam everybody in the one outfit; they need everybody to do the job. That’s the main thing…
Did you get any mail while you were over there?
Yes, absolutely. I forget how long it took, probably no longer than today, but the best piece of mail, I reckon, is occasionally if they could, on one or your re-supplies or on an Auster aircraft, which is a small reconnaissance craft could perhaps come over and bring a message for the commander,
like a map perhaps that couldn’t be passed over the radio, and parachute it in or free-drop it in. And often when this occurred, they would free drop in mail. Or the mail bag would come in with a parachute re-supply. The best letter I ever got, in my opinion, is on my first operation from my wife to be. Which I still have. Your hands are so black, and when you’re holding
a pristine looking letter, and the contrast is too much for the old mind to…I remember one Christmas they also parachuted fresh bread into us. You look at your black hands and you’re holding this white piece of bread, it’s like a thing from another world. It doesn’t belong to where you lived, or where you worked. That particular occasion, three communist
terrorist Aboriginals wanted to give in, give up, and had tried to approach our unit to try and hand in their shotguns, their blowpipes and everything in. Imagine being at the wrong end of a blow pipe. But they were frightened by our appearance, because the communist terrorists used to fill them full of garbage about what we Australians…like we’d eat them.
As a matter of fact, there is recorded incident of them going around us to give themselves up to the Gurkhas or to the Kiwis, because they liked the Kiwis, because of the Maori boys. And funny enough, the local Malay Aborigines really loved the Maori boys as well. Of course, the Maoris are friendly. They tried hard, this group, and
one time our Eban tracker, each platoon had two Eban trackers. They were Dyaks from Borneo. I often was the scout or second scout, but in those terms you are the cover man, because at least one of your Ebans was up front tracking and you had to cover over his shoulder, and do the forward scouting over his shoulder, and he in actual fact spotted them, but the way they moved…
They lived there; they lived all their life in the jungle. The way they moved and used the foliage, he wasn’t quite sure but he knew that he had seen something. So in the end…his name was Unget, and the second Eban was Nerang. Nerang shared a bed opposite me in my shed. He’d taken two or three human heads, because he had the tattoo here.
Every time they took a human head they put a tattoo on their finger. He was the oldest. They decided that they were seeing ghosts. Put the fear of Christ up me. We couldn’t get out, they couldn’t speak English message well enough to impart the message. We knew something was going on around us, or about us, and we thought we were going to get ambushed at any minute. But in actual fact, it was the Eban
tracker sensing, seeing, that somebody was about us. And they were semi-primitive as well. Probably Unget is now the president of Borneo for all I know. Anyhow, that time he was still very much a primitive Dyak from the boondocks. They convinced themselves that we were surrounded by ghosts…so we didn’t
sleep, we were in a bit of a state of alert as well. Cut a long story short, it was the time we walked into a jungle fort, because each area, where there was a lot of Aborigines, they put in a police jungle fort. And that was not only to try and control the CTs, or for you to use as a forward operations base, but it was also a place where the Aborigines could seek shelter from the CTs, or pass on messages…
Try to win them over, do the hearts and minds. Now our forward jungle base was Fort Tapong. We were actually heading for Tapong because we were getting, for the first time, a fixed wing lift off their big pedang, which is their big sort of oval type thing. It wasn’t huge; because these twin Pioneer or single Pioneer aircraft were short take-off and landing aircraft.
Extremely. They could virtually land and take off in 100 metres, or 150 metres, and for the first time we were getting a lift out by these Pioneer aircraft. And so we were heading for the fort in this situation, where everybody….And the CT Aboriginals that wanted to give up, followed us, so as we entered the fort they followed us and headed straight for what we called the charge room, run by the local police there.
Straightaway giving in their shotguns and everything…we had a lot of conflict about it that night, and some of the oldies said it was better that it was done that way, than either get a shotgun blast in the face or one of the darts in between the chest here. Units get claims for captures. I think the local policeman got himself a claim of about seven CTs without doing anything.
Was there some sort of a competition about how many CTs…
No, no, but the units liked to…like football scores. There is always rivalry in a military unit, in a school, in any confined cloistered atmosphere. There has got to be. Friendly rivalry is great, it keeps the performance up.
Did you get used to the stress of being out on patrol?
Now, that is a good point.
Yes, of course. I think the long duration of two and bit years, two years, did get to you in the end. What I found in the end, coming out, that I…Funny enough, going on leave to Penang and Ipoh wasn’t a hassle because I guess we were still in our encapsulated leave environment with your mates around. But heading back into
the normal life, like Sydney is where we ended up, didn’t like the people about me. I think you got used to the isolation a bit. It’s not a matter of you don’t like traffic or something like that, and I guess it was with some of the other blokes, but you definitely left with some kind of…you got used to the sort of embryonic lifestyle.
And the open…it mainly had to do with people. An open area was fine, but the minute it got crowded with people, which you weren’t used to quite so much…because even if there might be 30 of you, you never saw more than the man in the front and the man in the back until you harboured up or until you had a no orders group. Generally if you saw two blokes behind you,
and we talked to each other in field signals…It was very important that you did keep in contact with the bloke in front and the bloke in the back…If you saw more than two then in that kind of environment, you were either two close to begin with, because you had to keep a certain spacing for tactical reasons, or you were hitting open stuff. But generally a platoon stretched out single-file, which was mostly what you could operate in, the terrain around you…
No, never saw much more than the man in front of you, and one or two men behind until you harboured up, until you came together for the harbour in the evening, when you got your permission ready for standing to and all of this kind of stuff. That is just the way that environment was. So even though you were working with 25, 30 blokes, most of the day you hardly ever saw them. You knew they were there, and the signals came and went up and down the rank…
Sometimes you could hear them, but then the platoon sergeant would demand a bit more silence. But really, honestly, patrolling was magnificent. You learned how to sway your body to go through the bush rather than bash your way, brush aside rather than bash away…Everything was down with field signals. We used to call it a jungle sway, with a pack on your back, to get
around the obstacles. Yeah, patrolling was top class. Stood us in perfect stead for Vietnam later on, perfect stead. I’d like to think a lot of Australians are safe and sound in their homes tonight, because of what us older Malaya and Borneo fellows managed to pass onto them about how to patrol in these jungles. I really believe that. It was really an invaluable experience.
You mentioned that you were doing a bit of forward scouting. Was that more nerve-wracking than any of the other positions?
Yes, yes, because not only are you responsible for saving your own bacon, but you are really responsible for saving the bacon of the rest. Yes, I did it from time to time. But I’m lucky to say that I had a mate, George Garland, who I mentioned before, he made me
fill that position. I used to relieve him, or we had one of the Eban trackers, who were always tracking the CTs and looking for signs, and who could…I know our Australian Aboriginals are top trackers, but nothing went past these people. They could just look at a piece of jungle or a piece of that and they could tell you a totally different to what you saw. We mainly had the Ebans up front, but yes,
you had to. I guess where it’s more nerve-wracking is the (biggles?-UNCLEAR) side of it. Alrighty, if you are on a track, it just goes straight ahead, I don’t know, the most you could ever hope for that you could really look down was 10 or 15 metres, and that’s on a good path. So you just had to use all
your senses, your eyes…I had good eyes then, I don’t have them now, I had them then. Good ears, I don’t have them now, but I had them then. And you just let Mother Nature dictate to you and you let your senses…smell. Yes, the smells that come in. I was never a smoker, I never smoked. And even later on in Vietnam, amazing, I could really smell
the Vietcong, or their cooking, a long way away before half of the others did. And was disbelieved often…
How important was the sense of smell?
To me it was very important. And they in turn can smell you. This is why we avoided soaps and…they didn’t mind you cleaning your teeth. They didn’t mind it.
But it was discouraged, because of the smell of the toothpaste, which is extremely distinct. And if one of your mates did it, you could smell it from 10 metres away, oh yes, because it doesn’t belong there. Any smell that doesn’t belong there stands out like the proverbial, so…I mean, you could smell them because their diet was different to you, and they smelt you for the same reason. Your diet was different to them.
We could smell like anything here, but in a jungle environment, in a pristine environment, where you more or less returned to the earth as well, you became part of the scenery, these things stand out. Believe it or not, but these things are different. A foreign element coming into what is the normal stream. And of course you are so keyed up…yes, some of the blokes cruised through their duty and bludged it a bit, so we had to kick
them up the bum to keep them alert. Especially if you were in the middle of the mob you feel nice and secure, so you think that you are going to have a cruise. Well, you can’t afford it, because perhaps that is where the incident starts and someone lies dead as a result of it.
What was the most confronting contact you had during your time in Malay?
The one I had with the actual Malays, which I don’t want to talk much about.
That one with the Sakis constantly trying to come in and give themselves up, but being too frightened, but moving around us all the time, that was one. One where I wanted to particularly…I mean, not only me but a whole lot of us, my mate Snow was next to me with a Bren gun. We didn’t shoot these two people down because
they were the local Aborigines, but we knew that they weren’t normal. But with politics being politics, our section commander just wouldn’t allow it. I don’t blame him. If I was him I would probably do the same. Politics is politics…Did they go on to cause anyone harm? Did they go on to cause any grief? We will never know. If they did, I’m sorry that we didn’t gun them down, but that is one case where politics won.
It’s interesting that politics can get into the jungle as well.
Well, politics is fine while you’re not in charge. But when the buck stops with you and the mind races, you’ve only got a few seconds to make up your mind what you are going to do. There was enough shooting, there was enough casualties, but it wasn’t Malaya…By the time I got there, earlier on, yes, there was heaps more shooting, heaps more casualties. But Malaya for me was not exactly like Vietnam was where it was full blast.
Head on….head on aggression from the Viet Cong or the Viet Minh or whatever the hell. And it was a very big counter insurgency push.
Were you ready to leave by the time you did?
Yeah definitely, definitely. It got to be beyond a joke. No matter how dedicated, how young, how no other obligations you had….
We were all too…We were all so…It sounds stupid, but we worked mainly under the canopy, so when we came out we tried to get a bit of a tan, to sort of look like the old bronzed digger and this kind of stuff. But it wasn’t quite as easy as all that, I mean, you burnt, you peeled, you did everything. Or you really spent most of your time in the boozer, let’s face it. From the canopy of the jungle to the
canopy of the nice pub where you spent your five days, and your forays out into the night world. So really possibly the only time you got a bit of sun into you, as such, was during your refit time, and where perhaps some of it was taken up in a card game. It got so bad that towards the end they actually took us on an historical tour and fed us steak, so when we did get on the boat to come home…
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 07
You mentioned something in regards to an historical trek at the end of your stay in Malaya?
Yes, the thing that characterised the old Emergency stuff, as with the Thai-Malay border ops was the intensity of it. And I guess really, if you are going to do in an enemy or neutralise an enemy like the CTs were, you had to keep the pressure up. Like even in a sport,
you ease the pressure off and the other mob get on top. I guess when it came to an end, and we knew that we were heading back home and the authorities want to do the right thing and also give you a rest, I suppose. I’m not privy to their thinking. But they decided to feed us up and to give us an historical tour, which was in actual fact a retrace of the Japanese advance into Singapore. And so,
we started at the town of Jitra, in Thailand, and we followed the entire advance down to…across to the other side, north of Singapore on the mainland, but across to the east coast where the Australians in particular were. I’m into history, so for me…for some of the blokes it was garbage, and all they looked forward to was the beers at night and the steak. The first time we were
given a steak every night to bulk us out. So the beer and the steaks were beautiful, I don’t deny that, but for me the historical sights was terrific. And in the ’50s, you’ve got to remember it was only 10 years or a bit more, in our case, since the end of the war. And the pits were there, the gun pits were there, the pillboxes were there…what astounded me with them was, in some particular defence positions of ours, of the British Commonwealth,
that the pits were dug in such a shape, like in the World War II configuration. You had the walk away trench in the middle, then a firing pit, which eventually made it as big as a room, so you can see that that is easy meat for a mortar. And I could easily see how the Japanese mortars hooked into these lines. I mean, a blind man would hit them. But I was also told that this was the thinking of the
commanders from the Indian division, there was a lot of Indians there fighting at the time, in the Second World War, as the Japanese were coming down, as part of the Commonwealth, and apparently some of the old Indians…When I say Indian, they were British, but the ones that were part of the Indian unit, still had the World War I mentality, or the World War I tactics, because that is where they would have been as a young man. I was astounded at some of the defences…They weren’t the slit trenches that we were used to.
They were the big wide huge World War I type things you see on the World War I movies. Amazing stuff. I’m sure we were taken near a place called Bukit Kepong, which was a Malaysian position, northeast of the coastal township of Muar. Because we had to go from west to east, past Segamat,
and down to the east coast where the Australians had a particular do [fight]. They also fought on the western side as well, definitely so….but were eventually transferred over….Now on the Bukit Kepong side was a very significant action in the Malayan Emergency, it was in the ’50s, where something like
twenty four Malays plus their wives and children, apart from four or five wives and children that escaped, and four and five of the Malays themselves who were wounded and comatose, fought to the death against the communist terrorists. Fought to the death against 200 communist terrorists. It was called the Battle of Bukit Kepong. That to me was also…I wasn’t as keen on it as later on
when I realised the significance. I was more keen on the World War II rather the Emergency that I was a part of…I now am sorry that…I pay much more attention to it, but now is a long time after, whereas when it was in the ’50s…But you’re young and silly so what do you expect? How can you put an old head on young shoulders. Actually, I’m sorry about a lot of things now.
You mentioned during the break some of the casualty statistics during the fighting in the Malayan Emergency?
Just off the top of my head, I would say 35 Australians died in the Malayan Emergency, 1948 to 1960. Many of them in ambushes [Thirty-nine Australian servicemen were killed in Malaya, although only 15 of these deaths occurred as a result of operations, and 27 were wounded, most of whom were in the army]. In Ipoh, 2 Battalion,
the sister battalion of ours, of the Royal Australian Regiment, got caught in a pipeline ambush, lost quite a few…
What is a pipeline ambush?
It was the sort of an ambush which the CTs laid on a water pipeline patrol, which our blokes had to take part in. They were caught in an ambush, they fought back well and in actual fact, a few decorations were won…And a pretend flanking attack
because I didn’t think they had the manpower but they pretended they were a lager force. And actually bluffed them out of it. That took a few. They were all buried at Kamunting Road Christian Cemetery, north of Taiping, where the 28 Commonwealth Brigade headquarters are. But earlier on, with some of the British units in particular…I think one Brit unit lost nineteen in one particular action, and I do believe,
I can’t remember their names, before my time, but we learned about it when we arrived in the country. And I know that the Malay police were ambushed in the north east of the country on…Panung, where they lost something like 21 killed. And there were definitely British units also had anything up to…Definitely around the 20 mark killed in action,
all in the same action, which is a lot of body count by any man’s language. That was the nature of the Emergency. It went over 12 years, it had three phases. The first they were charge, the second one we were in charge and the third time we were really chasing the hell out of them and pushing them over the Thai border. And that’s really how you view the Malayan Emergency. Of course, they regrouped over in Thailand and kept playing their game for many, many more years.
Chen Ping is still alive in Thailand. He is 72 or 73. He’s actually recently published his memoirs, believe it or not. I read them. Some of it I don’t agree with much, but much of it I could see was exactly true. And some of it I don’t agree with. Of course, he gives his side, and if you’re an historian you will see his side. If you were just a hater, then you won’t see the side.
But yeah, he speaks a lot of truth. But I only just read those recently.
What sort of impression did the Australian forces make upon him?
Oh, good, good. When I was with the Gurkhas, I did a patrol operation with the Gurkhas. And when the Emergency ended, but the patrols carried on, you got given what was known as a JCLO [Junior Commissioned Liaison Officer],
which was a policeman. A JCLO stands for, I think, Junior Commission Liaison Officer or something, but he is a policeman. During the Emergency you could shoot the bandits, as they called them, even, being not a war and them being communist terrorists and everything was fine. But when hostilities officially ceased, then of course you had to go before a court, as before on occasions when it before the court before as well,
depending on the circumstances, and this is where the policeman in your platoon would come up, and as being from the local jurisdiction, and you being a foreign Australian, would say, “No, all the rules of war.” blah blah blah. And this is why you had the JCLOs. Now most of the JCLOs were ex-communist terrorists. I just happened to be, hoochie-up, that means partner up,
a hoochie is like a tent, with the Gurkha JCLO who was an avid communist terrorist in the past but he seemed to be okay at the time. Actually, I liked him heaps. He was a terrific bloke. And he told me…he had been through the Emergency quite up towards the end of it, but as a communist terrorist. He said they feared three people the most. They feared the Fijians, through their sheer size.
They feared the Gurkhas for their professionalism and they were Asiatic like themselves. They feared the Australians very much for their aggression and their very quick response. He said these were the three they particularly feared. And that comes from him. Is that true? I haven’t the faintest idea.
It was ceaseless, the drills were ceaseless. Counter-ambush drills, contact front charges, where you charged forward actually because they were a smaller number and spread out…typical military drills. The drill
that you had was CT front charge. If you shot first, it was a contact; if they shot first it was an incident. Or if you just met and there was a dispersal and you had to run after them. The gun generally went to high ground, the rifle group, which is the group in your section which is the deployment side of the house went to the left.
But really the scouting command group had to run after these fellows. A pretty hairy occupation, because you don’t know what you are running into. But you only generally went forward to what we used to call, and considering that each unit did it differently, ‘Limit Of First Class Evidence,’ dropped hat, body, limit of first class evidence and then you stopped it. Perhaps even a great set of prints.
Identifying the terrorists was a big part of the communist picture, so if you could get any kind of intelligence you were quids in front. As a matter of fact, dead CTs were fingerprinted and photographed. And before, and it didn’t happen in our case, but before cameras were issued and partially because the CTs wouldn’t sign the Geneva Convention,
fingers were lopped off to be brought back to be fingerprinted rather than carrying the body out. The body was only carried out on a pole when it was near civilisation. And in some cases heads were severed and brought out for photographing so you had the mug shot. Pretty gruesome stuff.
Were you witness to those proceedings?
No, we had cameras or we just called the choppers in.
I guess earlier on in the Emergency they didn’t have the luxury of the helicopters, although the helicopters came in fairly early on in the piece. I reckon the choppers were there as early as ’50. But yeah, to some degree only…helicopters came into their own in Vietnam. But to a fair degree, a lot of the chopper things came in during the Emergency. At least with our lot. We worked a hell of a lot of with helicopters. Western Whirlwind, Sycamores…
Also with Pioneer twin and single, Pioneer short landing and take off aircraft. Yeah, it was really starting to hot up and they were starting to bring in all the instrumentality, and all the sophistication you can see now. I had heard of a unit nearby, doing some things like that, in my time, but that unit is going to remain nameless even though they probably did it legitimately. And I mean fully legitimately because nothing
was signed. But the ID is you identify. Another drill was the immediate ambush drill where you…heard them first, and you used to use hand signals to show which side of the track your mob was going to go on. Everything was worked out to the nth degree. You slid into the jungle, there you were. Yes, I had a few immediate ambushes, but we never opened fire. And the one I discussed earlier,
we thought that they were Aborigines and we knew that they were the bad guys, but the political situation got a hold of the old commander before one of us did it by accident perhaps, maybe, perhaps if one of the blokes had of been a bit trigger happy, it would have been a different story. Perhaps the commander would have been decorated…I’m only joking. And harbour drills, where you do all round defence
and things like that. And then of course occasionally, occasionally, depending on the situation you did your clearing patrols and so on. But everything was judged at the time. You always had to think on your feet, always. It was good. Excellent training for young people. And navigation was…really hard. You were looking at 1,000-by-1,000 yard square, which was so tiny,
and you were trying to…You can imagine what 1,000 yards square piece of primary jungle is, and then compare that to a little tiny bit on the map. Yeah, it really brought up your navigation skills, really good, excellent. And somehow or other we managed it. We did it. We did it. And sometimes, us young fellows, 19 year olds, 20 years olds…Funnily enough, in my platoon or at least in my section,
most of us were bush boys, with a bit of a bush background. But that didn’t gel, because some of the city kids were quicker or smarter at picking up things than the old bush boys. But when it comes to looking at the terrain, the country people have the advantage because they’re used to looking at the vista. So they could really look at the jungle in a different way from a bloke who is used to looking at high rises all his life.
Conversely, he had advantages in other areas where you might not. But navigationally in my section, we did it. Really great, absolutely terrifically. When it was such a difficult job and we were so young. We were lost, and she was pretty awkward stuff. In fact, your survival training is a very big thing now, it wasn’t back then.
After the first day of no food and hard work, and we were really in a bad way, or perhaps that was the second day, and unless you’ve pushed your body when there is no petrol in the tank, you will never know the feeling. All you want to do is lie down, and the more you lie down, the less you want to get up. And this is really how the rot sets in. And if it hadn’t of been for our section commander who realised that we were
fading away, we…because I remember he was saying, “Get up! Get up!” And I was saying, “Please God, five more minutes. Please God, five more minutes.” Because you’ve got nothing to run on. You’ve got no energy source. What I noticed was that every part of your body ached, almost as if you could feel your bones. It was a strange sensation. To actually push yourself forward, after the second day or the third day, to push yourself forward after you’ve
had no food was just agonising. Absolutely in every part of your body. One bloke started to eat grass, which is the right thing to do; you get some Vitamin C in. Later on we learnt the right way, and there is plenty to eat in the jungle, and we chastised him because of our ignorance. We thought he was an idiot, but he was right. Our forward scout…and we were in a fairly
hot CT area, we really were in a hot CT area, he was so buggered that he was up front with his rifle over his shoulder like a walking stick. And none of us gave a hoot at all. We were that shagged. We were out of it, totally out of it. If it wasn’t for the old section commander making a firm drill of walking for 40, and resting for 20, but that’s all by the clock…
Anyhow, this pushing resulted in us walking into an Aboriginal camp. Where they fed us up and gave us shelter. And then the next day they more or less pointed us to river that allowed us to get our bearing again, and find our way back to camp, many days after we’d left. I don’t know how days patrol
we’d done on a water bottle full of water until the Aborigines gave us tapioca [root vegetable] and some bananas and a good dose of malaria and dysentery and everything else that went with it. But we were very grateful for them, and it was another great experience, being with them. When you’re sleeping with them…They had a long house which I was absolutely convinced,
a Comsi hut, that was built by the CTs. As a matter of fact the whole camp looked like a CT camp. It even had a little parade ground to one side. There is no way in the world a Negrito Aboriginal is going to give himself a parade ground. He might give himself a rough circular patch where they have their meetings, but this wasn’t one of those. This was a flaming ex-communist terrorist camp that they were utilising and using.
And half of them probably would have known the locals very well, and they would have known that we were there.
It sounds like a very precarious relationship?
Well, these people had to survive. Like civilians in any war zone, they tried to be anonymous. One side wants them to do this; the other side wants them to do that. The old game. The Malayan Aboriginal, he was no different. He just wanted to be left alone.
And given your childhood experiences you could probably relate to…
I lamented the fact that some in the river and had the old Seiko watch that didn’t run, of course. But there they were, primitive man, really great specimens with the big long blow pipe and all the effect ruined by this non-running Seiko watch. Or when we were trying to light our hexamine, our solid fuel with our wet matches, one of them went into a hut and brought out a Ronson lighter with a two foot flame…
Which he had got somewhere. You could see the onset of civilisation coming to these people, definitely. Which was sad in a way, because goodness knows what they’re like now. Hopefully they’ve integrated into Malay society. It’s a bit sad. I treasure the times that I had with the local Aborigines. Definitely. The contact wasn’t huge. Although one of our companies did spend a lot of time in their camps.
We did on and off, or when we came across them, or when they came across us.
What kind of attitude did you have towards leaving Malaya and returning to Australia?
I think by that time, all of us had had enough. I think as we were leaving…We were very proud, we knew we had done the job well. There is no doubt about it. I don’t think there was a solitary bloke there who didn’t realise that they had done
a great bloody job. Great. We really put in the hard yards. Physically…forget about marathon running, I reckon we did a marathon a day, in effort. Minimum. There were some days when we had a rest because there were other patrols doing a search…But really, physically it was extremely tough and non-stop. Non-stop. Except for your five days refit and your
five days rest. Great achievement. Nothing but pride. And that 1st Battalion, it’s got my vote. I’m very proud of it to this very day. Incidentally, it then became the first battalion to go to Vietnam.
Well what happened in the interval between Malaya and Vietnam for you?
Well, I soldiered on for
quite a while with 1 RAR [Royal Australian Regiment], and then went to the reserves. I didn’t really last too long in the reserves…not last, I mean, that was by choice. Because I just simply rejoined. I really rejoined the full time because I wanted to go to Borneo.
And I’d done my SAS cadre before that and so I went straight to the regiment. We started to train with my squadron to go Borneo, and we were about to relieve the squadron in situ [in place] in Borneo, when the Indonesian Confrontation finished, 1966, I forget the exact
date. And by that time we had a squadron deployed in Vietnam already, and we just sort of did a right hook, for want of a better word, and relieved the squadron in Vietnam. So one thing for training for Borneo overnight to just jams off and you’ve got a new one and you’re landing in Vietnam almost straightaway. And we landed in Vietnam something like the 7th of February, ’67.
So how long were you at home for, between the Malayan Emergency and…
I was home for about…two and a half years, three at the very maximum.
You mentioned that you had left the army and into the reserves?
Yes, that was in ’63, but by ’66, I was back again.
So what had happened then? What sort
of changes of thought and attitude had you had during that time?
The only reason I ever left was because I got married, and I thought it would be a better life for my wife. If I had only communicated with her, I would have found out that she didn’t mind at all. It was a mistake. But as soon as I found out she didn’t really mind it, I was back in. And what kind of mindset
did I have about it? Not too bad. I’m very happy being a civilian. The thing…when I left, I felt that I had left the job undone. I felt that I hadn’t fulfilled what I signed up for.
Where did those feelings come from?
Loyalty, to your mates. I mean you don’t lose your mates. You drink beer with them. You might be a civilian…I was a civilian but I was in the reserves, so there is a continuity. In fact, my service went full time, reserve, full time without a break.
There was no break whatsoever, it was a transfer job. And they’d say, “We’re saddling up to go here, we’re saddling up to go there.” and it became very hard not to be a part of it. As I said, when they said they were saddling up for Borneo, that was good enough for me.
Was that when you did your SAS cadre?
I did my SAS cadre
before switching to the reserves. In those days you had, and I would assume it is still the same; you had three-year enlistments and six-year enlistments. I did two three-year enlistments, was transferred to the reserve, and then upped to a six-year enlistment, I’m pretty sure about that. And yeah,
I was fairly positive about that, which occurred very early in ’66. Considering that I left late ’63 and in early ’66 I was back in the full-time system again…However before I left I did an SAS cadre and spent a short time at Swanbourne until my time was up. When I returned, I realised that the blokes that were now surrounding me, I wasn’t going to Vietnam with. I just had the feeling.
Vietnam was very much on the horizon and we’d had some blokes that had gone but mainly in an advisory role. I don’t know if 3 Squadron was already deployed there or not. But quite a lot of the blokes had gone as advisors. So I walked to the adjutant and said, “I don’t know these people from a bar of soap. Our lives are going to depend on it.” So I asked to do another cadre. I was sorry for it, because they are bloody hard. They are torture.
However I was very happy, because as sure as hell they were exactly the blokes that I went to Vietnam with, and by that time we knew each other like that. And it was pain for I don’t know how many weeks, and having done one I did well, but that is neither here nor there. I should have, I had a bit of an advantage. I knew the system. Although they differ from...I somehow or other noticed that the second one was already more tactically geared,
whereas the first one was more commando. You know the unarmed combat, you know roping, rappelling, canoeing. Whereas the second one was already more geared to tactics and that. So you could see the combat side of it on the horizon, not only because of Borneo, but also because they could see that. So I was sorry, but I wasn’t. It all worked out beautifully, but it was hard yakka [work], I can tell you. It was bloody hard yakka.
Had you returned to the army because you could see Vietnam on the horizon?
We could, definitely. I could see Vietnam on the horizon, around the time I did the SAS cadre because, we were even loading…What a lot of Australians don’t realise is that they were a signatory to SEATO [South East Asia Treaty Organisation], and we were actually loading ammunition on boats to take to them because they were
already engaged in the conflict as a SEATO [Southeast Asian Treaty Organization] partner. It was our obligation, we had to help, we were a signatory to it. So you don’t start loading ammunition for a member partner, do you, without saying something is going to bloody happen. But no, I never…I genuinely mention that Borneo is the thing that tickled my mind and my mates were either actually there already or going there, and I wanted to be with them.
So really…And I was quite happy with that. Because I couldn’t see Vietnam being over in five seconds. It didn’t play on my mind or nothing, I just wanted to be with my old mates. Simple as that.
Time to return to the side?
Exactly that. And whatever conflict was on the horizon, that was yet to come. Time to return to the side, time to get with the old crowd.
Did the old crowd put any pressure on you, for want of a better word, to come back and join the side?
Yeah, there was the odd subtle thing…especially on the booze with them. Yes, of course there was, many jibes, banter. “It’s all right for you, you’re a civilian bastard.” It was a joke but…I wasn’t quite a civilian because the reserve
side was quite full on. And I was actually in the emergency reserve, and funny enough, we did the training down at the regiment itself. And that was another side. I was seeing them there as well. So really it was a bit of a surreal world. And I did rather well in civvy street [civilian life], I didn’t worry about that. Actually,
built…had my first house built, I didn’t own it outright, but I didn’t owe too much money on it, aged 23. Not many 23 year olds already had their first house, did they? I don’t know, maybe they do…Yeah, I did. Chris and I, we had our first house up and running aged 23. So it wasn’t as if I was down on the bones of my arse or anything.
So what was your family situation when you
returned to the army?
Well, when I returned to the army I was a married man, which I had never been before. I had one child or two…you’d think I’d remember straight away but I don’t. No. I know I had a couple…One for sure, maybe two. No, one. One and one on the way.
You mentioned your wife had no issues with you returning to the army. What about returning to the army and going overseas to fight with children in the picture?
No, no. Later on she had a hassle with it, but that’s because of the system, not with me. Because the system wasn’t…the situation started getting pretty grim. And casualties and things were being taken and on the nightly TV
and in the newspaper, including our unit. And she just wasn’t getting any feedback. That was starting to work on her. And what feedback she was getting was not the full story, so she had to imagine or surmise a lot of it. She went through a lot of bad experiences that way, until where in the long run, at the end of 24 years, she was
almost, not quite, anti-military. Not because of me being a soldier, but because of the system. And the system’s disregard for the next of kin.
Did those issues arise during your both your first and second tour of Vietnam?
Not so much the first. I would say it was the second time that they started to arise more. Although, yes, they started to arise…
in the first as well. Reporting about when you get pulled out of the jungle or something like that. It’s a strange life…like, for instance, I was waiting to escort her to hospital to have child number three. Child number two was actually born while I was there. Child number three…
But within a matter of two or three hours I was on the other side of the country, phoning back, asking hopefully if the birth went well, what the child was. However with child number two, the one I wasn’t in there, the duty officer came in all his full glory to inform her, as she’s being wheeled into the labour ward to give birth, that your husband has just now been medically evacuated out of the jungle, however we don’t know his condition whatsoever.
And her blood pressure rose and everything, and our number two child has a slight hassle as result of it. And when the matron of the hospital phoned through to the headquarters to try and get data, they just clamped up and wouldn’t pass anything on. Things like that. And this didn’t happen once, this happened continuously. Continuously. And it started to get to her in the end.
It started to get to her. You have to understand that we married after Malaya, and we were engaged before, and she was coming up to her fourth year of living with a person being away that long for active service. I mean, even in the last year, perhaps this was a peculiarity of the regiment, but in the last year I served away seven months. Not a common job. Not a job that most women could handle,
or would want to handle.
I’m getting the impression though that perhaps it wasn’t your absence but the army’s presence in your relationship…
You’ve hit it on the head. It wasn’t me or me doing my job, which she always encouraged and had a very strong attitude. It was the deal she was getting from the hierarchy in regards to feedback or any kind of information or part information is worse than full information…
Either be told something or don’t be told be told anything. I mean, when the padre comes to the door, it’s bad news because you think your husband is dead or whatever, but the only time the padre came to the door was to check on her, because my wife is Catholic and I’m a Catholic, too, and to make sure she was attending mass. And of course by that, she nearly collapsed on the floor. Things like that were not very nice.
Many, numerous…it was very hard on her, it became hard on her. Not only her, the other wives were all the same, because in turn, when I was the duty officer, I would get things like, “If my husband.” at the other end of the phone, “If my husband is not home in two hours I’m committing suicide.” That kind of stuff. So you get the old Land Rover out and you get the duty driver and
you rocket around to the house and you pacify the lady. Or you get things like five times a night, “There is a burglar on my roof.” There is none. You go around and you know there isn’t, she just wants to talk to someone, her husband is over there and she is suffering acute anxiety. So only by me being on the other end of it, in between tours and things that I learned how she felt. And believe me; some of the wives did it tough. Bloody tough. They always do it tough. They are the ones who ought to get a few
campaign medals, forget about us blokes, we’re gainfully occupied.
Just returning to the Vietnam conflict. What did you know about the Vietnam conflict before you entered the war?
I knew quite a bit about it, in my case. A lot of the blokes didn’t and didn’t care, but because I
was an avid studier of the French situation in Vietnam. Right up to Dien Bien Phu and the ’54 severance of the North and the South. So when I deployed there, I deployed there with about as well briefed by myself, apart from the propaganda briefs again, about the enemy being smaller, can’t shoot as well, are not as well trained, hasn’t got enough ammunition, blah, blah, blah…
And I’ll tell you what, the amount of ammunition they threw my way, forget about the rest of the crowd, I’m talking personally now. They never appeared short of ammo. And if they did, they must have saved it up for the occasion and they used it. And they could shoot. Mind you, they squealed like everyone else did when they were hit, but they were amazingly dedicated and focused on the job.
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 08
You were just talking about your understanding of Vietnam. Do you think that you were briefed effectively?
Oh yes, we were actually briefed by intelligence officers straight from there, two intelligence officers, and it just so happened that our troop commander won a Military Medal there, my old battalion,
1 Battalion, he used to tell us the truth. But funny enough, the most credence we used to give was to letters home from 3 Squadron already deployed. Because we all had mates there and they used to write us letters home, and they used to tell us in the letters what to expect. As a matter of fact, SAS is different from infantry. Where to have a drill similar can be a death sentence, in as much as the opponent learns the drill and then
puts you in the bag, right. So what they do there, because you are only a small patrol, like four or five or six, but generally five, sometimes four. Although there is a basis for a drill, I mean you can only do fire and movement in one way, the clue is to have what we used to call an inbuilt irregularity, so you never sort of did the same thing twice. Can you see what I mean?
And so we used to read the letters of our mates who were already doing it, and then we’d get ourselves together and go through the motions, pantomime the whole thing. We were well prepared, don’t worry about that. Although in my case only, in my squadron’s case, we had done all our training for Borneo. And there was virtually no time for…but the similarity was there, it wasn’t a big deal.
And the teamsmanship was there, so really Borneo or there, the intensity in Vietnam was huge. The intensity level went up to about grade 9 out of 10 straightaway, overnight. Where the little fellows were into you, a mere 5,000 metres outside the wire. They definitely believed it was their own country.
How did you get over to Vietnam?
Via Singapore, Manila…Yeah, Singapore, Manila, or was it…Tan Son Nhut airport. Civilian clothes, no uniform allowed. Civilian airline, Qantas. Qantas. A charter flight by the regiment.
I don’t think there was any other unit involved, by memory. But with all the attachments and everything you had, an SAS squadron, the plane was pretty full, I’d say.
What happened immediately when you arrived in Vietnam?
Well, we had our first incident almost from the very minute.
Let’s say it was a 707, we were in our final, we were making our final descent and our final approach to the runway, and all of a sudden the aeroplane started to do fighter pilot things. And when he started to throw it around, jockeying, he came over the intercom, the Qantas pilot, and he said,
“Sorry about that fellows. But we just had a wounded Phantom 104 or something come in, and it took priority, it landed shot up right in front of us and I had to take evasive action. But on this turn we should be all right.” And that kind of reminded you…a wounded Phantom had priority to land in front of you and you said, “Shit. It must be real.”
It was such a jolly ride until then.
So where did you head off to after you landed?
Straight to Nui Dat. We got onto either a C130 or a C123, which is a bay Herc [Hercules]. And believe it or not, and I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but that particular aircraft started to behave strangely as well, and the story is,
and I’ll tell you what, if it wasn’t that it was something else because it definitely was not…I’d been on hundreds of aircraft and thousands of flights I’d say. And they say that took ground fire as well. I know the alert alarm and everything…anyhow, that’s the story. All I know is that it behaved awfully strangely, not normal.
So you got a pretty good welcome into Vietnam?
We got a good
welcome to Vietnam, and then we landed at Luscombe Field. We got out onto this dusty old bloody thing and you look around and you say, “God, what sort of a wonderful place is this?” It wasn’t like landing in the city.
Was it a bit of a culture shock?
No, no way in the world. By that time, I forget how long I had been in, but it was pretty normal stuff.
No, it is definitely not a culture shock. Perhaps the location check is the best way to describe it.
So were you heading towards SAS Hill?
No, not in those days. I was there when we took over SAS Hill…At that point in time, our squadron…And for a while
two squadrons served side by side, Three and One. Perhaps two or three weeks, maybe a month. And they had a portion on the wire overlooking the battlefield of Long Tan. But then when we arrived, we were drawn in closer towards headquarters. One ATF, Australian Task Force.
And we occupied a position, the two squadrons together, almost adjacent to Australian headquarters. They had patrols out and bit by bit, as they were coming in, we had some come through familiarisation, and not much acclimatisation, and as their patrols were
coming in, they were being replaced by ours. And actually probably the second one we put out got into a reasonably good shoot out. So there was no time wasted. There was absolutely no time wasted.
What was your first patrol like?
Basically…well, I was keen to go, I couldn’t wait. Excited,
workmanlike I hope to think. It was the first sort of aggressive…I mean, I had been put in by helicopter before in Malaya, that was fine, but this wasn’t…This was the aggression, the gun ships and everything like you…Our job was still to go in clandestinely and unnoticed, and we used to have cover and deception drills, worked out with the helicopters, but still it was an aggression mode, because you could
go hot on the pad and all things like that. And in those days, we only used to infiltrate close to last light, to give ourselves the chance to disappear. We just gave ourselves in those days enough light to give us a chance to clear the LZ [Landing Zone] and get our first…what we called LUP, Lying Up Place, safe and secure. There was four of us or five of us and we were where they were.
We were put where they were. It wasn’t a matter then of looking for them, or trying to find to them, or them running into you. None of that. They were there, that is for sure. So it was a bit of a role reversal and Malaya then stood me in very good because all of a sudden we were the ones who were hiding from them, more or less, and we were the ones watching and looking and comparing intelligence, we were the ones ambushing them.
It was a damn good lesson, straight from the outset.
What sort of equipment would you take with you out on patrol?
Once again, when you’re operating with a battalion you’ve got back-up. Even the doctor and everything on hand, and other companies. Here you’ve got nobody. There are four or five of you, so you had to facilitate
all the skills that you would normally have in a lager group. Like your own signallers, you were all trained as signallers, I was too. Medics…The first tour I was two things, a Pioneer, the explosives man in the patrol, or the medic. I ended up being the medic more than…and in those days that meant carrying the…we all carried morphine,
but albumen, which is a blood supplement to drip, to give your fellows a drip. Some blokes had to use it, I didn’t and thank God for that. I used to joke with my blokes, “Don’t you blokes get shot, because instead of the albumen I’m going to tamp you with an old sandbag instead.” And jokes like that. And your med kit
was highly sophisticated, or sophisticated enough for you to do…especially with the doctor on the other end, say, on the radio, advising you…And some blokes did do complicated, or not routine surgery. Even diagnosis of various ailments. We even had a code in our code books; everything was code, so we even had a code for intensity of fevers or things like that,
so we could actually communicate with the doctor giving him certain numbers and he would collate it at the other end, and he would come out and ask your opinion, and you’d give an opinion and he would either confirm it or say, “No, it’s not that.” And he would advise you on what to give the bloke, or whatever immediate extraction…generally an immediate extraction meant that the whole patrol had to go. There was no such thing as…You couldn’t get a re-supply.
So what happens is you carry your water. We looked like camels. We had four water bottles and we had a five quart bladder stuck in the front of our shirts. Everyone looked pregnant. Unless you came across a creek or whatever, which was fine in the wet season, but in the dry season, Phuoc Tuy was very much like West Australia. What training we did for it, we did down Collie, and I though it was ludicrous. However,
when we got there, it was….Unless you got up the hills where you got the Malayan type jungle, it was like Collie, certain parts of Collie. It was amazing. Because Phuoc Tuy Province is down on the lowlands. Yes, the training was good, the training was spot on. Yes, I carried the med kit, I was the patrol medic more often than not on that first trip. Lucky enough
I didn’t have to stick a drip in…I had other things though. Lucky enough I didn’t have to stick a drip in. I’m trained to do it, it’s not a problem.
What sort of weaponry would you have on you, on patrol?
Okay, I’ve covered the water bits. I used to carry…
Okay…Everyone carried a knife, of whatever their sort of desire was. Some people carried a K-Bar [type of knife], I carried an RAAF survival knife. It was excellent. You’d carry your grenades, from two to four, depending on your fancy. I used to carry mainly the normal grenades and an M34 phosphorous grenade.
And always two or three red smoke or mini-smoke, which was used for signalling, along with your mirror, along with your panel when you needed help from a helicopter or you needed fire support, and then you’d mark your position, you would lay it out, they would confirm the colouring, because the enemy weren’t silly. They also had radio sets and they were listening in. On at least one or two patrols we were actually jammed by them,
so they had sophisticated equipment in some areas. It wasn’t just…because their headquarters operated more or less not far from the Cambodian border. Which would be from here to Northam from us, because it wasn’t such a huge distance away. And they could listen out as well. At least once or twice we were jammed, absolutely jammed in our transmissions. So you’d carry our grenades…I always carried four loaded magazines.
I always carried an SLR [Self-Loading Rifle] weapon of my choice. This is a thing you have in the SAS, unless a patrol commander or special job demands you carry something else, you carried the weapon of your choice. I always selected what I used to call the old elephant gun, because it used to put people down well and truly…The 7.62 round. Other people were having with the 5.56 of the M16, often they had unders and overs. In those days, the 203,
which is the more advanced 5.56, with the 40-millimetre rocket launcher or grenade launcher you see underneath, which is common now, and variations of, or more modern versions of, were just starting to come in. We were sort of experimenting with them. As a matter of fact, our weapons were called XM [Experimental Model]. Experimental model. XM148, which had the normal M16 with the original 40-millimetre grenade launcher underneath.
XM203, Experimental model 203…And all the weaponry you see now virtually comes…The younger brothers is what you see. Spot scopes. We started experimenting with single spot scopes, where you would just aim through the spot, and whatever you were aiming at was virtually hit. These were all new concepts. Now you see all of them fitted with the sight or the night laser and the night sight bit.
The starlight scope, which was the night vision device, was huge and heavy. It wasn’t useless at all, it gave you imagery, but that was about it. A tube about two foot long weighing about five kilos I would say, or four kilos. It really…Often you carried a spare Claymore mine in your pack.
I also used to carry an extra bandoleer of ammunition in reserve. So I had my four magazines in my pouches, I had a large 30-round magazine on my SLR, which incidentally the armourer, in our case, converted to automatic. The SLRs as a rule went into automatic. A single-shot fire.
But in our case that were legitimately converted to an automatic rate. Being a small amount of people, and when you were trying to save your bacon, you had to have a great amount of firepower to break contact and so on. Yes, and then a spare bandoleer in a pack. How many rounds would that amount to? Give or take…200 I suppose.
So you were carrying a lot of weight?
Oh yes, an amazing lot of weight. But
with a lot of the weight being taken up by the water. Once you are deployed, once you are on the ground, that is it, you survived for whatever duration you were told to be out. Five days in a dry season, or 10 days in the wet season, when you could get water and you didn’t have to take it and you could take extra food or something like that. Whatever they told you, you were out for. Whatever you had, had to last you. If you didn’t eat for the last three days, too bad. That’s it.
What would be the average time that you would be out?
Well, I think it became a sort of a standard in the end. I have been out longer or I was out longer, but especially when the dry season came around it was about five or six, and in the wet season when you could get water, it could go seven, it could go days longer, but the
concentration levels started to wane and the people knew it. From the very second you were out, you were absolutely concentrating 1,000 percent. And in the wet season, the sweat and the tension, the adrenaline which you were controlling, because you were moving so slowly because now you were the ones that were going to be hunted,
if you are spotted. I mean, even the effort of the slow movement over the ground, the actual body tension and even the mental tension was amazing. I defy any person to say that they cruised along. If they did they must have been superhuman. Or their patrol must have been noisy or lucky…I reckon,
you’d be battling to keep it up more than five days. Of course you can, and we have and we did, but no…we were after effectiveness, getting the job done. We had a close reconnaissance, be it an ambush, be it even trying to take a prisoner, be it a reccie [reconnaissance] ambush, a reconnaissance ambush…Whatever the job was, whatever they gave you…
The minute you landed the concentration levels were amazing.
How many different sorts of missions would you be going on? You mentioned reconnaissance and taking a prisoner…
We were tasked by the Task Force. Or the squadron would be tasked by the Task Force, or a higher element, or even divisional intelligence, and then they would tell you what they wanted. And our boss would sort of decipher it, and decide
whether it was going to be a one patrol task, when I say not together, but differently you know…Wherever he would program us over a period of time, and then you would react to that job. Now mostly the Task Force commander or divisional intelligence wanted intelligence. He wanted to know where they were, what they did, how well…footprints, we used to copy them, we used to sketch them.
Because if it’s poor footwear, it would give you an indication that they were not getting re-supplied. Or they were walking a lot; they are wearing their things down. A brand new beautiful brand spanking footprint might say it’s a new unit in there, fresh from the Ho Chi Minh Trail…Can you see what I’m getting at? It was everything, everything counted. You recorded everything.
Every single thing. And generally with x amount of SAS patrols, Infantry patrols, spies, whatever, all coming into the central location, that is where they do what is known as the intelligence picture. So often you would be checking or doing a part of the picture which you’d have no idea about. But they knew, whoever ordered you out on a job.
How much ground would you cover in a patrol?
Not much. You were generally landed to do a specific job and you were landed there. Your rate of movement, I mean there was no…the thing was you were not to be discovered. You were always at a total disadvantage the minute you were discovered, as panic situations. Not panic as in you’re panicked.
But they are coming to do you in, you are always outnumbered. It doesn’t take much to outnumber five blokes, at all. So no matter how good you are, and they did, they tried many times. Anyhow, you were landed there and then you went towards your objective, which was a camp or a suspected site or a track where you were perhaps to lay an ambush on
or just count them walking past, or whatever the task was. Now towards the end of your patrol after you more or less did your intelligence task, you could request that you engage them. Now you either got a request, or you sometimes got your request granted before you went out. This will be a reconnaissance, or whatever, but you can have an ambush phase if the target warrants it.
So I have been on quite a few where we were told to just do the intelligence and that’s it, and avoid contact at all costs. You’re there, but you are a phantom. And often those are a lot harder…
Why is that?
Well, you never know what is at the end of the request,
for the intelligence picture. For all you know, by becoming a bit more gung-ho as you would if you knew that a shootout had been granted sort of thing. Obviously if you’re doing both, you know that…because the minute you do have your contact, or you lay an ambush, they know you are there. But in obviously in cases where you were told to avoid contact,
you were not allowed to have it, it’s obviously important that you don’t, because they might have phase two of the operation going on together. So if you were granted it beforehand you knew that it wasn’t quite as strict as it when you were virtually told that, “Only if you are in an emergency, only if you get sprung…”
From the very onset I knew what the hell was going on. Now whether we had a shootout on that one or not, I don’t know, but we actually got surrounded and that was exciting. We actually started our reconnaissance mission, and all of a sudden, after a day, the message came around,
“No talking at all, it’s all hand signals.” And you know little clicks of the tongue, and speaking through your hands and your eyes and gestures, tapping, we all knew the lingo. Got the lingo from the bloke next to me. That means we were up stakes and we’re off. And he whispered to me, I was the last on the chain, and he whispered to me, “We’re surrounded.” And he of course took off,
as fast as he could go. I mean we tippy-toed around but when you had to move fast, you moved fast, and he moved like a rocket. He was my mate, we worked on this patrol. Then I looked around and all you see is this wave of moving trees coming towards you. I nearly caught up to him. I really don’t know…I think we
managed to get away from that one without opening fire. I could have…But I think that one we kept nice and quiet, and we brought back some good data there. So the first patrol was, you’re surrounded…Yes, it makes you think. The fact that it was harder not to have a shootout than to have a shootout.
That was real war, you know, bullets-flying war. And then of course it happened sooner rather than later, and it’s always hairy, five of you, four of you against a platoon or whatever…The bits and pieces are falling off the trees and the lead is flying past. But then you break contact and you escape, you got to one side, they were onto you…The only thing that ever used to pause them, we knew it from the prisoners,
is because our weapons were automatic, they were confused. See there is a ratio in most armies. A section consists of around nine men; you can have more or less. But always the main firepower is a machine gun. So all the other soldiers count how many there are by the machine guns. If you hear one machine gun, if you hear two machine guns, you know there are about 18 blokes. You hear three machine guns, you say, 30…But all of a sudden you’re hearing five
going off in session. And quite apart from that is a lot of firepower coming in towards you, and even though you’re a fanatic you don’t really want to die. I mean now you’ve got the religious people doing it in a different way, but believe me; the Viet Cong didn’t quite do it that. They were very brave and very dedicated but they came to a grinding halt when they were greeted by the firepower of five automatic weapons. It confused them. To hear five automatic weapons, that would mean about 100 people
as far as they were concerned. A company, they were striking a company. They’d, “Shit, we better ease up on this, we’re going up against a company of a hundred blokes.” But it wasn’t, there was only five of us. And by the time they sort of got it sorted out, we were gone like a rocket. You can imagine us. It gave us that breathing space to break contact, to go off on our flank, outflank and then as soon as we could ask for the helicopters to come and take us out. Because to stay there was suicide,
absolute suicide. Sometimes they would spot you going in and they would signal with their rifle shots. It wasn’t for quite a while later until we debriefed another prisoner that…we used to hear four or five rifle shots, and it was a signal. How many of us landed. One for each of us. The signal shot is generally one or two. It took us for a while. When they were sick, lame or lazy, they were put on an
LZ watch, a Landing Zone watch. Wherever they had a radio or not back to their main camp, or whether they sent a runner back, whatever…but all their main sort of landing zones, all the sick, lame and lazy, wounded, they always had them watching. So often even if we landed on the far side of the clearing and we used to try and edge in as far as we could…and the drill, we would be gone in 10 seconds.
And as I say, the helicopters would lay cover and deception. But having said that, we were still humans. And we were up against other humans, so no matter how good you are…and often, the early signal shot you’d hear, perhaps from the other side, four or five, they were really counting us and letting the rest know. Some commanders would then dispatch their patrol to tail us. To track you.
Some commanders would tell the tailing patrol to just keep an eye on us, and then they would come and take us out if we looked like being dangerous, in their minds. Some commanders, I’m reciting…I know what it’s like on the ground, I’ve experienced it all on the ground, but there is nothing like a prisoner telling you…Some would straightaway send out like the old Zulu horns, and sort of try and cut you off
and get you in the guts, that happened a few times as well. And of course, we knew all that. It didn’t really matter which flank they were coming from, as long as we could handle it and avoid them was the main thing. But if we couldn’t, then we’d have the normal contact situation…and we had code words and things to send. It was not uncommon in some situations that you be rolling your aerial out and some bloke would be tapping out
the extraction word, code word, and the Viet Cong doing the sweep would get the signal wire on the throat. One particular time there was a tug of war between our fellow and the bloke on the other end, trying to pull in his aerial. This was common stuff. I was in a camp many times but this never happened to me, one of the blokes actually got the line
in the throat, the old clothesline, and one actually fell down their gun pit. It’s really unbelievable situations. We used to get them in every kind of position. Like on the bog house, making love…sometimes we’d shoot them, sometimes we didn’t. It depended on the job. It was just unbelievable stuff. It was very normal then
but looking back on it now, it wasn’t quite the norm I suppose, I suppose. They hated us, they absolutely hated us. We were their number three hate.
What were there others?
Number one was B52 [bomber] strike, number two hate was H & I [Harassing & Interdiction Fire] fire, which was harass and intermittent fire, which later on was called A & I [Acquired & Intelligence] fire,
acquired and intelligence target, most of the intelligence targets came from us. We would plot their camps and then gunners back at Nui Dat would plot in whatever the task force told them for that night, and then at one o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the morning, they would just roll out of bed and fire a salvo. At the other end, the Viet Cong would be nice and asleep and the next minute they were under this huge barrage, out of nowhere.
That is harassing and intermittent fire or acquired intelligence target fire. And they do it intermittently, anytime they like. And according to the prisoner, it had such an effect that they started to sleep without their mosquito nets. And their rate of malaria went sky high. Things like that. And we were number three, according to this lady who used to come on that
we called Hanoi Hanna [propaganda radio broadcaster]. We would jump out of the bushes and stab their honourable men in the back. The price on our heads, if we were to believe it, was more than a helicopter. A helicopter I think was…a bag of rice and perhaps the bike, but we were 15,000 piastres, that is their local currency,
15,000 piastres, and we were guaranteed a trip to Hanoi for interrogation. I think…15,000 piastres was the price on our heads. And they tried a few times to put us in the bag; to capture us rather and take us in…15,000 piastres for them was a lot of money. More than a year’s wage.
The average Vietnamese soldier who has been away from North Vietnam for about four or five years, his pay would be something like two dollars a month, or two dollars a week, or two piastres …15,000 piastres was like…Yes, it was quite a thing. They said we would jump out of the bushes and stab them. They had called us Ma Rung.
Phantoms of the jungle. Phantoms of the jungle. And there is another thing we didn’t realise. When we shot them or whatever, what appeared to aggrieve them was that we left the bodies laying face down, some of them. We just left them as they were. This was combat, right. So we get in there and we realised…
they thought we did it deliberately, because apparently you are meant to roll the body over so that the soul can get to heaven. And they thought that we deliberately left them lying face down. And we never had the faintest idea about that. It’s amazing what you learn from the enemy. They were scared of us; they didn’t like us, that was obvious.
You didn’t have to be Rhodes Scholar to work that out. They reckoned we were brave, that was okay.
How would you get the signal to pull out of the operation if it got too dangerous?
That choice was the commander on the ground, and that always was the code word, and then the helicopters would be scrambled, and…
Helicopters would always be governed by an Albatross leader, as we called it. A high helicopter that had a greater picture of the thing, rather than the helicopters down at tree level, who were going to do the operation and pluck you up. And he would command wherever they needed a strike first, to neutralise the enemy around us. And then of course,
as soon as they came near, we would get on our ‘SABRE or ‘PR66’ I think they called it. Talking on their frequency…But to attract their attention we would hit them with a mirror, we had a mirror. They reckoned the flash of the side of fuselage, where the Perspex is, used to be so huge it would blind them even and for us on the ground it was so small.
Then they would talk to you, they would verify you with a panel, then they would ask you throw smoke, but you didn’t tell them what colour. They would look around, because the Viet Cong if they were around, they would throw smoke, too, and the chopper would ask you what colour yours was. It was a bad mistake for the other blokes if they had another colour, because then they used to use that as a
marker and absolutely demolish them. That’s like marking your own positions. So that was a bit of a precarious job for them. And this is how an extraction took place. It was either the decision of the Albatross lead, because by that time he was in charge and you were just a package. He would let the gunships well and truly neutralise the ground, strafing, or have the gunships standing by. Have the slick ship come and pick you up first and respond.
And they used to do all sorts of cover and deception, criss-cross patterns and whatever. But the minute you were lifted, they would saturate the area. Absolutely saturate it. One particular patrol, and in two tours there was a lot, so you try and get it clear in your head…
We were in an area where there was a huge battle between the Republic of Vietnamese soldiers and the Vietnamese. A huge battle. And the artillery had gone in and really pasted the area. And a B52 strike had also gone in. That particular task was a
bomb damage assessment, or a battlefield assessment. Sometimes you were tasked in to do a bomb damage assessment. You had to go in and assess how successful…Which was horrific stuff. You are in and out of huge shell holes. And some of these unexploded, or these 1500-pound bombs are sticking out of the ground like darts. But anyhow, it was very hard going and often you needed a disposed area, because one B52 strike
could virtually clear an area of 2,000 metres by 10,000 metres, one aeroplane alone. Which was a fair strip. Imagine a whole flight coming in. Anyway, this was a battle damage assessment area…It was eerie, it was ghost-like. They had shot all hell out of it…
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 09
I would have to assume it was day one or day two. We always used to sleep close to the track, because you learned a lot by people walking past. It depended on the tactical situation. Sometimes you got right away, but generally, you were within cooee. Which had its advantages
and disadvantages. Advantages that you got warning about movement and stuff, disadvantage in that if they sprung you they could line up on it and use it a start line and finished you off. Anyhow, we were relatively close to this one…and we were actually awoken by their signals shots. Not us. Because they were short of radios they used to signal each other with different guns at topographical points, all clear or whatever it was.
Anyhow, we were woken by that and by blokes patrolling past. So we got ourselves together, that was the only time you took your gear off, was at night. And even then you slept on it. You just never took your gear off, you might unloosen your belt at midday, but that’s it. You had to have it on you ready for an instant…
We decided to move position across to the other side of the track and then we patrolled towards where these Viet Cong had patrolled. So that went okay for a while, then we looked up and there was this bloke bearing down, stalking us…
I don’t know which is better, a bullet or to be impaled on one of those crossbow shafts, I don’t have the faintest idea. It didn’t look too appealing anyhow, which way. So we decided, “Oh bugger this.” We decided we can’t have too much of this, so we let the bloke get closer and of course without going into all the gory details…how much detail do you want?
As explicit as you’re prepared to be in regards to this incident.
In actual fact, from where I was on the flank I had a wonderful view of the man stalking us…There was a tall one and a short one, and the short one was very, very small. Anyhow, when he got the point where…because we were quite prepared with our job to let it pass, to let him pass. But once somebody is stalking you it is pretty hard to
break contact and get out of his way, but we were hoping against hope. So we let him come, from me, two metres, three metres…Incidentally, in both my tours, I think the furthest I ever got at a bloke was two or three metres. It was always that close. No way in the world was it something like 50, or 40 or 30. It was always
two or three or metres when we engaged….well, we did anyway. So this was it, we engaged the bloke with the crossbow and we well and truly drilled him. And I still remember movement behind and I give it a bit of spray or whatever. Anyhow, part of the job was…them not having the administrative system we did, carried the gear on them, so paybooks and things were always in their packs.
Valuable intelligence, right. Often signals movements. So our job immediately always was when we got one of them was cut off the equipment and we would carry it all back and give it to the intelligence people. So that always means somebody does the searching. So the boss yelled out, “Paddy, search the bodies.” No problem. We put a lot of bullets into this man,
because he was coming into a half circle almost of us. By this time we were all pretty hardened, but his back was so riddled that I said to the boss, “We’re not going to turn him over, are we? Because the other side is always worse.” He said, “No, no. Cut the gear off him and let’s get out of here.” So I’m running forward with my knife when
all of a sudden the smaller one runs out, who happened to be a kid. And a head wound, bleeds like mad. You cut your head and…well, it was an horrific sight. He would have been a boy of about nine, like I was after the Second War. He yelled out, “Uc da loi, Uc da loi.” which means ‘Australian’ and comes running towards me,
and I’m there cutting the gear off this fellow. And I don’t know if he grabbed hold of me or if he cuddled me, I just can’t remember that bit…I really can’t. But anyhow, that was a shock, that was an absolute shock. And of course, the people who had earlier fired the shot on the track had gone ahead of us and heard this shooting, and now they were all turning around and coming back towards us.
So there we were, with this dreadful situation, this young kid, who had obviously been wounded in the head, we got some intelligence, we were doing our job and of course the bad guys are bearing down on us like steam. So, the boss said, “Paddy, shoot the kid.” Now whether he meant it or not, I don’t have a clue. By rights, that’s it. Because there’s only five of us and we were outnumbered. I said, “No way in the world, you do it.”
And he said to the 2IC [Second in Charge] of the patrol…Not because we were cruel or any damn thing, this was a pretty desperate situation. Any minute…if you delay much more, you are going to be dead as a maggot, these are the decisions and the choices that you have got. Anyhow, he said to the patrol 2IC, “You shoot the kid.” And he says to the boss, “Go and get stuffed!”
There was this big argument with the whole enemy bearing down on us, and there we are having an argument about a humanitarian issue. Anyhow, Maller solved it. He ran forward, grabbed the kid and then we peeled off. We had a drill. Firing and peeling off…there we are running through the scrub like mad things, in a line, control, with a kid under the arm. I remember the
old signaller who at this particular point in time hadn’t been able to do his stuff, I mean we had to be able to get away and get into some sort of a safe, calm situation and send a code word to say, “Come and get us.” I remember…he sort of had the crossbow at the ready as well. As soon as we could we sent the code word and we said, “There are too many of them.” Then of course,
over comes the bird, the Albatross one, but mind you, it took 40 minutes. So we had to hide away and avoid for 40 minutes…And the kid was extremely well trained, and I mean trained like a soldier. When we went into all round defence he took his part, he went down in a fire position. He had no rifle. And even though we were gunning against his people. When we gave him a drink of water, because we knew he must have been in some kind of
state of shock, he didn’t just scull it, he sniffed it. He put it in his mouth, swilled it around, spat it out, decided it was all right, then had a drink. We’re talking about a nine-year-old kid here. When we gave him a chocolate bar, he smelt that. He didn’t gobble it down; he put it in his pocket for later. Anyhow, when the Viet Cong pressure came on, he started to gibber a bit, perhaps
maybe even calling out to them, we said, “Shut up!” he shut up immediately. He followed every order exactly like a trained soldier. We were amazingly impressed. Anyway we managed to get the signal up and over came the bird, after a while, it was an agonising long weight. And this comes back from an extraction, he said, “No good, I can’t get you out of there. No good.” He said, “I can’t get you out of there. No good.” He said, “This is what I want you to do. I want you to get in line,
I’m giving you a compass bearing. Your last man puts the red panel over his pack. But don’t deviate. And when I say go I want you to run on that compass bearing.” Which was all right up there in a cool aircraft, but down below…The bloke holding the compass’ hand was like that. He had us all very worried. Anyhow, when he said, “Go!”
We did, we ran on that bearing as best we could, keeping in mind the logs and the trees and everything. And you wouldn’t believe it, he had a gunship on either side of us, he formed a tunnel. And we were running and to be on the wrong end of there, to be down at ground level with the gunships, and they’ve got mini guns on either side, 6,000 rounds per minute…which
is pretty flaming fierce I think. And the crescendo down at this level was just unbelievable. So there we were running in a tunnel…we were very frightened of deviating off it now with all these hornet things coming on either side. He got them to fire a nice path for us through, until we got to another clearing and then he said, “That’s it, stop there.” That’s the bloke controlling it up there; it was out of our control by then.
And we propped and then he said, “Now throw smoke.” which we did. He said, “That’s funny, we’ve got two of them. What colour is yours?” Now I can’t tell if ours is the same as theirs, but it didn’t matter, he very quickly sorted out, with our mirror or our panel, and plus the fact that they were looking at us as we were running, and within minutes that other smoke was pulverised.
Forget it. Absolutely pulverised. And the next minute the pickup ship flared…You know how a helicopter loses speed by flaring, like a big dragon fly and virtually dropped into our lap and we just all ran on. I can’t remember if it was one or two. As we lifted, the door gunners just opened up and let it rip. I think we also shot out. And that was when the kid lost it and started to cry. That was the only time he lost it, but I mean
that was such a…unless you were used to that sort of stuff, it was real traumatic stuff. Anyhow, the bottom line is this. He was the son of a…his dad was the guerrilla leader for the area, and he was with him when he was shot the week before. The person who was with him was his uncle, and he was on patrol with his uncle. His mum was sick and tired of the guerrilla life…I can’t remember the unit or whatever,
and had in actual fact surrendered to the nearest ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam], Army of Republic Unit, and gave herself up. However, they being what they are made her an agent and sent her back, and said, “You’ve got to stay.” They probably blackmailed her, said that, then said they would tell the rest of them that was an agent provocateur or whatever…and in the meantime, of course,
this kid is going out on patrol with all his relatives, which the security forces are killing in front of him. Anyhow, the upshot of the whole thing is that when we got him back to the task force, we got a voice aircraft up from the intelligence people. I forget her name, Mrs Wi, and the voice aircraft flew over the area, it was pinpointed by then, and said, “Mrs Wi, we have your son. Please come out of the jungle immediately.” By that afternoon she was out, we put him in the orphanage,
and by that afternoon she was out and rejoined with her boy at the orphanage. Because afterwards we used to send money to…and she just gave us bundles of intelligence, just an absolute bundle of intelligence. It’s a classical example of how an extraction can happen.
But the 40 minutes it took, that’s a long 40 minutes. That’s one. There is oodles, oodles, oodles more.
You did mention earlier during the break about a close shave you had with a sniper. Any other close shaves like that?
Heaps of close shaves.
Actually, when you are in a firefight, there is so much rounds coming and often from directions you don’t really expect and the foliage coming down. And often you might blow your Claymores and things like that. There is a sort of an…I won’t call it an organised confusion, but there is a lot happening, there is a lot going down.
The sniper shot was it wouldn’t even rate very high except that it scared the hell out of me and my mate. When we were just going forward to…we were signalling originally with hands, but then we leant towards each other to whisper and a sniper shot snuck between his face and mine into the tree where we were sort of sheltering. We couldn’t work out where it was coming from.
But Nui Be, where I was trying to capture a bloke, in a very, very bad area, totally controlled by them.
What was the name of the area?
May Tao Mountains area of Phuoc Tuy, Binh Tuy and Long Tan area. And
I won’t go into the whole preamble of it, but we got to the point where we were confident enough because we had some armoured personnel carriers nearby, where we could attempt a snatch. To attempt a snatch, to take a prisoner…prisoners generally happened rather than you deliberately snatching them. Like, we did try all kinds of things, like using gas or whatever…and we did take prisoners, but as I say, more often than not it was a happening rather
than a deliberate snatch where you had to take a man. But on this occasion, I decided with the situation as it was, and I only had a few minutes to make up my mind, I was either going to shoot him dead on the spot or sort of take him. And I had my mate Billy, was just next door, it was his first patrol in country. I placed him on this side of the track because I was actually, at that point in time, providing protection
with a bunch of armoured personnel carriers. They were actually infiltrating us, as a cover deception moving into this very bad area. Anyhow, along they came in about five seconds flat. The reason I got into that sort of idea was that the fellow had absolutely…He had equipment, he was a Viet Minh [literally – Vietnamese communists] no doubt and behind him was his Viet Cong mate in the
atypical black Viet Cong local gear, but this fellow was a very big man for a Vietnamese, authoritative, he had a proper uniform and all this kind of stuff. But I couldn’t see his AK47 [assault rifle], so I thought, “Unarmed.” you know. I can’t remember the second bloke. I remember him, I can see him, but I don’t know, I couldn’t see a weapon on him. If I had seen a weapon on either of them I would have just dropped them like a hot potato and that’s the end of the story.
Anyhow, a rush of blood to the head. I let him come up to about two metres away, and then I said really loud, “Dung loi.” which is ‘give up’ or ‘hands up.’ And he did, they were rooted to the spot. But the thing was he couldn’t see me. He heard the voice, but I was in the bush and so was the other bloke, the rest of them were way back, there was only two of us. And
he just didn’t realise that I would have to get up, stand up to my full height and confront him and I did. I bore down on him, I looked him in the eye and I said, “Dung loi.” I thought, “We’ve got this fellow, he’s going to do what he’s told.” No way in the world. What I didn’t realise was his AK [rifle] was tucked here and in a flash he had it out and he was firing about here. Blasted past my right hand side, ruffled my hair like that and
by that time I had hit him two or three times here, spun him around, and then my other mate just went, thrum, and drove him back with his burst…I’m not going to go into it, but buckets of blood came out of the person. He dropped his weapon, and I could see the rest of his mob coming up behind me. So I suppressed that and of course by that time my other mates were coming down and joining in…
By that time we were up and we moved forward to the bend, around the bend, and I don’t know how the other blokes felt, but every time I had to get up when I felt somebody had me, it’s quite a feeling. That’s when you’ve got good discipline. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Your legs are rubbery…Anyhow, we got to this spot where his mates
had picked them both up. They’d both been hit and they were dead. So we did a follow up, myself and another mate were the tracker for, but because we they were nearby, Task Force decided on infantry, because we were SAS. We were classified then as ground troops and infantry follow up. And we were pushing towards a very big camp of theirs, which we suspected was Dong 10, a kind of
a Special Forces camp, and also by memory, where an American push the side we came in from, rather than the Australian side, had lost about…I don’t know how many were killed attacking it. And there we were like the last…especially myself and Blue…patrolling down. Like shags on a rock. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, they discovered back at the other end
a big cache of explosives, and food, rice…so all of a sudden our exercise up the front, the attempted capture, was forgotten and they wanted to get into the heavier-duty cache. But even after that, because we were on our way to be infiltrated. For once not by helicopter. I’ve been infiltrated by helicopter, by sea,
the D Day type thing, vectored in from a small boat by radar and all of that, and walking in…And anyhow, we were continued…we radioed to Task Force and asked to call the game off, because we thought there was too much shooting activity. We were supposed to infiltrate clandestinely. Not advertise our presence to all and sundry. Anyhow, Task Force refused us so we
had to keep going. Down we went and we infiltrated into this area. Now we had a drill with the armoured personnel carriers, they would do false turns and things like that. For anybody watching, they wouldn’t know what point we just slipped away. By that time we were in our camouflage gear and all of that. As sure as hell, they worked it out, they weren’t silly. And we heard the signal shots just before dark,
that they were onto us. That the trackers had found our tracks, which we’d go to great pains…we’d move very slow to cover. That was why we moved slow in everything. And by this time, we had a camp in front of us, or a transit camp or a staging camp…So there we were, with last light, and a group in front and a group right up our bum, the trackers
right up our bum. Not very desirable. And in the middle of a huge track complex which we were trying to avoid. Jokes, humour. Patrol Commander M. Bullock, a mate of mine, I had to sleep on one of the tracks because his logic was the passing Vietnamese would kick me in the head and then I would wake the rest of them. I don’t know, but I had a good night’s sleep anyhow. And obviously nobody come past.
But anyhow, the next day we advanced on the camp to do a close reconnaissance on it, and while we were doing it the blokes caught up with us - the ones up our bum - so what we did then, priorities first, we decided to ambush the fellows up our tail. So we put the Claymores [mines] out, give them a good blast and that kind of finished off that
exercise for a short time, not very long. Because they were all over the place. I was the last man, closest to the position, and as they withdrew through me, they threw down some of their grenades, which was the drill on that particular patrol that I was with. Each patrol has a different thing. In their patrol, the man closest to the action throws all the grenades, which I did of course. But some came bouncing back through the branches and everything, and of course they were getting a fair old head start on me,
in this particular case. And then of course they were in a clearing, and then we’d have to run over the clearing one at a time and try and avoid their fire. Of course, I’m the last man. You’d think by that time they would get their aiming, wouldn’t you? Anyhow, it was the same old set-up, there was too much for us to handle, and the helicopters were called. This time they were a bit faster
and the first gunship coming in to do the bit of a look-see was straightaway came under ground fire. This time, because we didn’t have a proper pad, we were winched out, two at a time hanging onto this winch. While we were actually going up into the old chopper they were really getting into us. They were pinging into us as we were hanging underneath…and my rifle
got stuck underneath the skid and the crew chief was going berserk, because nobody likes to take the old ground fire. I didn’t enjoy it either, but he thought I might have caused it. Once inside, he was busy working the winch, I got behind his twin M60s [machine gun], they’ve got them on either side and I just saw my mates down on the ground, by that time they were back to back, so I just shot a good little pattern for them around while they were
winched up. And that I would say is…I don’t know how you read it, but there were a couple of close shaves there as well, I would say. This was pretty normal fare, it didn’t happen every patrol. There was patrols where you never saw anyone and you had a quiet time. They weren’t that often. The hotter ones, you were more generally…
I don’t know the percentage, but the percentage of the hot and hairy ones were…they may not be predominant but they were certainly one for one.
How many operations did you complete?
Well I did two years, and how often would we go out? I don’t know…
Every three or four weeks. However I didn’t go out so much on my second time because I was by that time working in the intelligence section as well. But I still did go out and still did some really excellent jobs. Definitely over a dozen, two dozen, goodness knows. But even when you’re in country, you man…by that time the hill. We went to SAS Hill. And we use to man the pits,
the guns, have a picquet up there. The first tour anyhow we got mortared up there. I wouldn’t say it was a huge mortar attack, but a mortar attack is a mortar attack. Really you were never off the job, even when you were back there. The only time I would say you were off the job, was when you went on…In those days we had R & C [Rest and Care], a couple of days in Vung Tau,
which I think happened to me once. Then you had R & R [Rest and Recreation], which was five days. I think that happened to me twice. I think in two tours, I had something like 15 days off, 14 days off. I think at one time, first tour probably, can’t remember being off the Hill unless
we were put into operations as I just described, for eight months. Not only me, but the other blokes. It was an area. Perhaps we come off it to go to task force headquarters, which was fair enough, or to the local PX [American canteen unit]…Or maybe you got a driving duty to deliver or something. But really, you never left the confines of Nui Dat Hill. I seem to recall for eight months of my time.
I would say that in the two years, I wouldn’t have had more away from Nui Dat, say, forget about the Hill, a maximum of 20 days. But I doubt if it was even that. I honestly don’t believe it was that much. Which isn’t a lot of time off, is it?
Can you explain or describe what life was like at task force headquarters and how you spent your time on R & C or R & R
R & C was a different kettle of fish to what we did in Malaya. Although you went to Vung Tau, which was a nice town. And let’s face it, you also got full as a boot. But the difference was whereas before in Malaya say, you went and lived at the hotel, here as a rule, you lived at the R & C Centre. There was a few. There was one down by the ocean, the earlier one. There was one towards the
middle of the town. There was a curfew on and you were expected to be back by curfew. A lot of the blokes broke curfew but…you could be shot by the White Mice [local police]. It was a great break. I can only remember having…perhaps two. One per tour perhaps. I would say that I probably spent more time in the hospital than I did on leave.
Like one instance, because we couldn’t take water re-supply in the hot season…I mean, obviously I carried as much as I could, but my kidneys crystallised. Instead of being a sponge to siphon through, they actually crystallised into sand. So when you went to the toilet it was just a stream of blood and beach sand coming out.
And I know because they got it in a bottle and they showed it to me and there was that much beach sand. They just force-fed me fluid until they got me back to a reasonable level, and then you send you back again to keep doing it some more.
How did you spend that time in Vung Tau?
Same thing. First thing I ever did was get a decent shower
or a decent bath. We had a shower rigged up at the Dat, it wasn’t like normal accommodation, there was nothing wrong with it. If there was a bath, you’d have a soak and a tidy up; if there was shower you’d have a long shower without water restrictions. Because only the water truck delivers the water so every soldier that’s ever been in the field knows
about the water restrictions. Have a bath and then you would generally either went and had a civilised meal. And I know this sounds terrible and I hope the poor old cooks, I don’t hope they get offended. But a civilised meal. You were at the R & C Centre so you probably had drinks there. Mainly because they were cheap, and perhaps spent the first day there,
half full as a boot, flaked out. Or what was more the case; you’d stand up there and be headed for town. And then of course got arrested for violating curfew and goodness knows what.
What was downtown Vung Tau like?
Not bad. French type of town. French layout. It had seedy bars; it had a middle class,
high class, it had a high-class hotel. It was a beachside hotel. It was a beachside resort. In actual fact, it was an all-French beach resort. It was very nifty, it was excellent really.
What kind of exploits did you get up to in those seedy bars?
Well, we used to drink booze and you know and try and chase the chicks…
Normal soldier stuff, absolutely normal…and hopefully not get short-changed by the money changers who were very slight of hand and often you would end up with far less money than you ever gave them to get hold of the local stuff. I can’t recall too many…there was the odd punch there. I never saw it between our blokes. I saw it mainly between Americans and perhaps
mainly with the people there who were permanently based nearby. We had an Australian logistics group there…I can recall a few hostile things, but I can’t recall anything like battalion on battalion or something like that. This is really how the three days went, and they went faster than you can ever imagine it. Three days…And then you were back into it again. But at least it gave you a break.
It used to be a great relief sometimes when there was a convoy and they needed an escort and you were nominated, and you could go in perhaps and stay at the RAAF sort of compound there, it was a huge place.
Apart from the alcohol, was there any drug use?
I only saw it once…Hang on a minute,
I saw it once and the bloke was arrested, he was a Yank. And one of our blokes used it, and he was arrested and treated what was, I thought, considering his war record…I was anti-drugs and still am, but it was disgraceful. They took his war entitlement off him; they took his medals, his everything. It was almost like the old
fashioned being-drummed-out-of-the-service routine. Yes, it was supposed to be prevalent in a lot of American units. I had a short time with an American unit, not long. I didn’t see it. But they had it on the streets of Saigon. They were offering you heroin, a match box full for something like 30 or 40 bucks.
I don’t know what they do now days, but I’d think a matchbox full of pure heroin would be worth more than 40 bucks…It didn’t interest me. What did interest me was the comments by the American soldiers. That whenever they came up on operations, most of them were like all other Aussies and perhaps some Aussies did it,
they got on the booze and made animals of themselves. Whereas that small fraction that only relied on marijuana were nice and people in the corner watching all these animals. That was what they used to say, they had their own quiet little clique that was drifting away into a cloud and then you had the rest of them pouring it in their ear and chundering and fighting with each other, so we’re does civilisation start and end?
But I’m only getting that story second-hand. Honestly I never…Even the bloke who they chastised in our mob, I never witnessed it any case.
What drug was he accused of…
He just had the marijuana. That was all. Nothing more, nothing less. But somebody either saw it or reported it and he was treated, in my opinion, despite the fact that I was against it, he was treated disgracefully, absolutely disgracefully. The punishment he got and the disgrace heaped upon him…
and the good soldier that he was…it was not worth it, in any shape or form.
What was life like in the Task Force headquarters when you weren’t on patrol?
We used to go to headquarters, but we weren’t part of it. We had our SAS. What was Task Force headquarters like? A hive of activity. They had umpteen briefing rooms. They had three briefings a day,
sometimes which I did attend as a representative of the unit. They had a huge battle room with umpteen maps with every kind of tactical location pin-marked on it. They had a bank or radio sets…and it was quite disturbing when you were there during a heavy contact. A company against a company, a company against a battalion and vice-versa. You get all the battle noises coming over and the casualties and the dead and everything.
And you were there like in a sterile environment and you can’t do anything. It’s quite unnerving. For me, as it was with the hospital, with the casualties or when your mates got wounded, it was quite surreal. Because when you’re doing it in the field, you are full of steam, you’re full of your objective, you’re full of your training, you’re full of your survival instincts. You’re always full of something, right, it’s dog eat dog. And there seems to be
a logic to it. But once you are divorced from that and you are in a sort of sterile thing, and you are sort of like a spectator to a footy game where to miss a pass is to lose your life, and I got quite a different perspective altogether. And they had the intelligence there and they had the operations there. And air. The air arm, which was
responsible for placing all the air strikes at any given time, all over the joint. And that was a hairy job, and I often represented our unit to ensure that nothing was put on top of our fellows. And like, there was, from time to time. And I don’t blame anyone. It was just a…roly-poly situation, and these things happen. Eight percent of casualties in any war, minimum, are caused by yourself,
by your own mob. Eight percent minimum. Deaths, wounding, always caused by your own side. It’s a dangerous game, it’s not for the faint hearted.
Interviewee: Arpad Bacskai Archive ID 2029 Tape 10
What was it actually like to go back to Australia between tours? Was it a relief to get home?
Right. Unreal. Because we knew that we were going back. And it was taken…you weren’t really disengaged. I reckon from 1966 through to
’71, when I think I come home from my second tour, perhaps up to ’72, you’re not really disengaged. All right, you come home to your family and all right, you might be away from the location, but you are not away from the job. And you are getting briefed every day. There was briefing every day because you don’t know when you are going to be on a plane back again,
and you were training the new blokes. So what I virtually did between tours was I trained the next batch of blokes. And I was away from home. I can’t remember the time, but I was very seldom here. I would say that I would be…In the 12 months between the tours, I would have spent at least eight not home, training the next lot of blokes intensely for the job.
And I mean intensely. You had to impart everything to keep them alive. And the most gratifying thing…I can recall, is a young fellow, because we used to keep off the tracks, we weren’t in a position to be bold enough to use them because the tracks were their highways, right. So we used to teach a track and we had a track crossing drill.
Where you put out your flankers and so on. Or perhaps sometimes depending on what assessment the patrol commander made, you lined up and quickly got over, where speed was more important. And there was this young fellow, and I trained many, but there was one particular young fellow because I then rejoined his squadron up there. Not actually my own, I actually served for a short time with 3 Squadron.
My phrase for teaching them was that when you stepped on the track, be prepared to kill your mother. I said, “That’s it. When you step on a track, you be prepared to kill your mother.” I used to drum it into them, drum it into them. I said, “Because it happens so fast…” And anyhow, I went up and joined 3 Squadron for a while. I knew my own
squadron…when I say my own, it’s the squadron I did most with, but you don’t own any squadron, you get posted to one. And he came up and he…shook my hand and he said, “Paddy, I want to thank you very, very much.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “First track we ever come to, first patrol, your words came to me.” When you step on the track,
be prepared to kill your mother’.” He said he got on a track, Charlie [Viet Cong] put two rounds through his sleeve and he dropped a man and got over the other side. And he thanked me, and I felt so great. I felt so great. He got on the track and the Charlie put two in his sleeve. Now that’s getting close, isn’t it? But he got the upper hand.
So going back for your second tour, were you actually looking forward to it?
No, no. I hate to tell you, but I was getting ready for my third when they called the jam off. No, as a matter of fact…I was not unready, but really I never had a break. I came home, went on the cadre courses and trained all these people and sought of got on there…
Just outside the airport…and in those days the international was where the domestic was now, I halted the bus and I went behind the bush and I chucked up. I guess it was nerves because you know what’s coming. But once I did that I was fine. I got rid of my pre-match nerves I suppose, and I actually enjoyed the flight and I actually enjoyed landing at Tan Son Nhut, which I always liked. It was an exciting place.
But yeah, no, that was it. Once you were it was like you never left, you just slipped back into it.
Had the place changed much since you’d been away?
Yeah, yeah. It had larger, it had gone larger, it had gone more sophisticated. There was a village that were starting to relocate. The first tour I think it had been relocated within…
Not within the Task Force but to one flank. Which proved a disaster, because all the Viet Cong moved in there and watched us, sort of thing. It didn’t seem to work too well. The strip had been extended way out. Area had been cleaned, land cleared, whereas before the jungle came straight up, more or less.
They built a dam, because before the water point was outside. And you actually had to have a platoon or a guard, of which I was one. On the water point, which was outside the gate, every night, every single night. Which was north of the task force getting towards Binh Ba. But by memory, we had to actually secure the water point each night. Now, they’d built a dam inside there and storage dam.
Chalk and cheese, really. I remember the Baria turn-off, ’67, bleak, World War II scene, ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] soldiers padding past in their big Yankee helmets. Landing there in ’70, I think, my second time there were people on motor scooters, ao dai, the Vietnamese dress, laughing…
It had gone to a totally different atmosphere. It definitely got…But then it turned again, towards the end, when the Viet Cong started to make that last sort of bush up there, it started to turn a bit…But no, there were changes, visible noticeable changes…
What about your job on the second tour. With intelligence, what did that actually encompass?
I did all facets of intelligence. Unofficially I ran my own net, which was often based on how many drinks you bought who and who you snivelled up to and how you could get yourself onto distribution lists. And I managed to do a bit of that.
I was responsible for all infiltration and ex-filtration patrols. I used to give the pre-infil [pre-infiltration] brief, like where were the enemy, where were your groups, so you didn’t shoot them up or have an accidental shootout between friendlies. On your information the Albatross lead would often plot the flight paths or the tactics for the infil or the ex-fil. But generally, all and every kind
of intelligence that I could cram in and collect from all and every source. And then when a patrol went out, it was my job to brief them or give them the data for their area, plus I think up to two or three thousand metres beyond it. And once they were gone, once they had infiltrated, which I also did, it was my job to go down to the air
planning, and to make sure that they were safe, that they weren’t bombed accidentally. And out of the intelligence I gathered from every source and distributed, I gave all of the morning intelligence briefs, and also updated our intelligence maps to the point where marking in topographical information which wasn’t marked on your maps
but had been brought in by the fellows. I would collate it all. So in the end we had a very up to date…so whenever we went to an operation in an area, they had the latest. Even though the map mightn’t show it, I would draw it in, or have them draw it in themselves. Like the intelligence…I put a time limit on it, like 48 hours,
maybe a bit longer. The intelligence they had was timely. But I’d bring in earlier stuff, if I needed them. It was a very heavy-duty duty, and it was a 24 hour a day job. It was very satisfying. And I patrolled, too, quite a few and still had my shootouts as well.
Why did you choose to go back into patrolling?
Because you don’t want to lose what you had before. I mean, I loved my intelligence job, it was great, I really enjoyed it, and you would have to ask the other fellows, but I’m sure they would tell you I did a good job at it, well, at least I hope so. But no way in the world was I losing the reason I was there to begin with, to oppose the other fellows…Sometimes I was sent,
sometime I didn’t have a choice. Sometimes I would be told, “You’re accompanying. You’re going here, you’re doing that job.” And I knew when there was a slot because I used to program the whole damn thing. And my biggest coup was getting a coloured aerial photo of one particularly important landing zone two hours old,
and it cost me a crate of Barcardi. And with that the people just went…When the boss saw it, he said, “My God, two hours old?” Of course the patrol commander was delirious with joy, every blade of grass you could see. And the job went off well. That intelligence was so marvellous. We’re talking about real life, we’re not talking
theory or making a movie. It got to the point where I could easily have point…And I used to joke with my OC [Officer Commanding], and you don’t jokes about things like that, but I could put 10 dollars on wherever that patrol was going to go ‘hot’, as we called it, get straight into action. That patrol would go hot or not within a certain time…
I’m happy to say I was seldom wrong, and if I did think they would go hot, please believe me, I would tell them straight away. “Boom, everything full blast.” That was a wonderful job, I will never forget it. I stayed in the regiment but I was farmed out to intelligence organizations and had a reasonable career within the career, on the intelligence side.
What were these intelligence groups?
Well, I suppose it’s been written so I suppose I can tell you, but there is one called ASIS , Australian Secret Intelligence Service and ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Service]. ASIS is external, the equivalent of the UK [United Kingdom] MI
And then you’ve got ASIO, which is internal security, and they’ve got jurisdiction in this country only, which is the equivalent to the British MI5 [British Intelligence]. The CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], which has got many arms, is the equivalent to ASIS. They were written in a book so I’m not breaking anything. And I can tell you I worked with all the intelligence agencies or liased with them or call it whatever you like.
But that’s another thing, that’s another facet of the whole industry or the game or whatever. But getting back to the intelligence in Vietnam, yes, you had to be clever. You could go through the motions, you could just…you were getting the same pay, if you could live with your conscience and not supply your blokes with what they deserved. Or you could really put in the hard yards and come up with the top-shelf stuff.
And where possible I came up with…I would like to think that I came up with the top-shelf stuff. I used to push my counterparts down the task force and divisional intelligence, making a nuisance of myself, pushing them all the time. Nothing was good enough for any patrol whether I was on it or not. I got the best we could.
Would you say that your second tour was more enjoyable for you than your first?
I would just call them both parallel, except perhaps I went, in my opinion one notch much more on my second tour. Just that one notch more. Whereas on the first I did all these jobs without really having the intimate details. At least on the second one did I know all the detail behind the other jobs, but also the ones that I went on. Which was absolutely terrific, which gives you the full picture.
How old were you by the time you went for your second tour?
I had my 30th birthday, back on tour; I’m sure about it, my second tour. Considering I went into the military at age 17, it’s become a long haul, hasn’t it? And even then, funny enough, when I came back from that second tour, we went into training the blokes again. Because we didn’t know when the thing was going to end, or when we had to deploy. So I would say I
was more or less at it, from ’66 to ’72, non-stop, at least mentally. So that I think is a relatively long haul. Don’t you reckon? Then of course we were still getting prepared, but as you say they pulled everyone out in ’72. I know that we were training for
our third tour, and I know some blokes did do three, but they did a couple with us and then went on a training team. Or they went on a training team for…I was quite happy to have gone on the training team if I had applied. No worries at all. I would have enjoyed that. However, I am really happy that I did the two tours with the SAS because it kind of completed the whole thing. If I had of gone say…One tour with SAS,
I’d have loved it, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but what I would have really liked, I don’t know if you like these things, but perhaps finished it off with SAS and then done a Training Team [AATTV – Australian Army Training Team Vietnam]…But it was all starting to get a bit much, as from what I could see. Not the job, I was still keen on the job, I was still believing in the job, but physically, mentally on your home life, it was starting to stretch out.
The old rubber band was stretching a long way.
What did you think about America pulling out of Vietnam?
I was absolutely bloody shocked. I couldn’t believe it. To me it seemed like around the fourth quarter you take your ball and you go home without completing the game. Yes, we were starting, towards
the end of the second tour, there were signs and symptoms that the pressure was going back on. 33 NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and all these people who used to loiter around this division, that division, were starting to get closer and closer to the problems. The infrastructure, which we, in my opinion, and my intelligence opinion then, we delayed too long in arresting. We should have arrested them much earlier,
because when we did some of the writing was on the wall. Not in our province, but in some of the northern provinces, and of course the local Vietnamese judges then were very loathe to connect these infrastructure people. When I say we, I mean as a Task Force team. These were classified things and I have to assume they are declassified now. But we left our run too late in arresting at least our set of
Viet Cong infrastructure, the hierarchy of the province and the intelligence arm, and putting them before the Vietnamese judges for decision. Whether they be shot or whatever…But these judges were very loathe, because they could see their comrades coming over the hill. If not in our province…well, they say towards the end of the second tour, some of the pressure
was starting to go on a bit. Akin to, not too much. We were never beaten. Sometimes I think about Vietnam that we had won the thing many times over and we didn’t know. Because to really win it, you have to win it politically. There was only so much we could do in the field. I can’t speak for every province, and I can’t speak for every engagement and every action, and perhaps…
We were 3 Corps and perhaps in 1 Corps they were feeling the pinch more. Or down below in 4 Corps, they might have been feeling the pinch more. But I couldn’t help but get the feeling that, militarily at least, we had neutralised the place and perhaps even won the situation. But because the political thing wasn’t sorted out, it was un-winnable more than anything else. I think in the end they signed a peace treaty in Paris and that was the end of it.
So whatever you talk about…I hope to God that they have learned their lessons in the future, but I doubt it very much.
What sort of response did you get when you came back to Australia about being in Vietnam?
Not good. As a matter of fact, there was a great thing of not even talking about it. For the first time in the second tour I got R & R home, ever.
A big mistake. I really don’t believe you should be allowed to come home. It sounds fine, it sounds great, but when you go back after actually coming back to the unreality…you say the reality of home, but the unreality…because by that time, what went on there was real and this was unreal. And I mean when you land back, in your defence position, after you’ve been home seeing your wife, seeing your kids, five days only…
I don’t know how the other blokes reacted to it, but it sort of took the momentum or the wind out of your sails. Like my son, if they go into a situation like that, I’ve got three sons, tomorrow, I would say to them, “For Christ’s sake, don’t come home. Go to Hong Kong, go anywhere, get pissed, play up with the women, do whatever you like. But for Christ’s sake…” Because you go back and you just can’t…
And the minute the fire in the belly dies remotely you are up for getting that third eye, in my opinion. Bad mistake. I was sitting in my lounge room, had the next door neighbours there and she called me a killer. The next door neighbour! It was a very bad atmosphere. I never got pelted with tomatoes like some of the blokes
definitely did. We used to sneak into the airports, not like chest out, although we carried ourselves that way. It used to be...almost like trying hide you away. There you are, fighting for your country, upholding the pride of your nation and when you come back from doing exactly that, what do they do? They try and sneak you in the back door. No, it was a very bad atmosphere. Full uniform with
my ribbons on, I wasn’t allowed into an RSL [Returned and Services League], at all. I was stopped by the bouncer at the door. I said to him, “Listen, all these civvies [civilians] are going in.” There I am in full uniform, I’m transiting from R & R [Rest and Recreation] in Perth back to Nui Dat and you’re not allowing me to come in for a drink. He said, “I’m sorry, mate, I’d like you to, but it’s my instructions from the president of the RSL.”
I said, “Okay, can I please speak to the president of the RSL?” So the president came outside, wouldn’t even go inside the doorway, this was the Sydney RSL, I said the same thing, “Look, I just come from a war zone and I’m going back to a war zone. I just saw my family in Perth, I’m transiting, I’m in the camp, I’ve just popped down here for a drink and there’s your bouncer on the door not letting me in.”
He said, “Oh, you Vietnam vets are a bundle of trouble. You all just want to cause trouble.” He said, “That’s my instructions.” I don’t want to tell the camera what I told him…pissweak, bloody idiot. I mean, can you imagine how I felt? Anyhow, I said, “Well, go and get stuffed.” I was pretty aggro. And I suppose I was playing up to what he was saying about us Vietnam veterans getting angry and all that.
Anyhow, he stormed off inside and the bouncer says, “Come here.” He said, “Listen mate, your mates are not here. They’re around the corner at such and such a pub.” He said, “Just go…” So anyhow, I went there and walked in and it was like a Nui Dat job, all the vets were there, getting drunk, and I was home again.
This is how it was. Now isn’t that a bit of a disgrace?
Completely. Do you hold any resentment towards the RSL because of that issue?
Yes, I do. And I was a member of the RSL…I first joined in ‘61, then I dropped my membership and I didn’t rejoin until…let’s say 1990, perhaps.
So let’s say…A good 10 or 15 years I refused to become a member. And now they’re all snivelling to us to try and get membership. Look, I don’t care. I will say that to anyone. It’s a well known…they’ve now punched everything into computers and one of the things that comes up…
There was 14 war times…and you shouldn’t compare a war and action, that’s garbage. When you’re getting shot at, you’re getting shot at, even if you’re a cop on the street. There is no…but there was 40 times more…serious wounds there and two and 50 times more combat stress. Now whether the computer is right or wrong, I haven’t got a clue but what the impression I got at the time from the RSL was
that we weren’t in a war. There was just some ‘Asiatic melee’…and this is the impression that I got. Particularly in Sydney with all the pokies and everything, it seemed to be more a cabaret set, instead of saluting the flag and upholding the honour of your fighting men. That’s my opinion. But I did rejoin, and I don’t mind them. But I’ve still got that reservation in the back of my mind.
Does that reservation make you blokes a tighter group?
I think I’m not the only one who had this experience, far from it, and I think it does. And I think it’s sad, and particularly now…not so much now in a way, because a lot of the Vietnam vets say, and I would like to think I’ve got more active service than just the Vietnam one. I like to think that I’ve got a broad spectrum of active service,
but although our men are starting to get into prominent positions that reservation about the ultimate motive of the RSL as a quasi-political body is hard to shake our of your head. And that’s wrong, it shouldn’t be there. One for all and all for one. It is very hard to shake out. Yes, that was a very bad experience. Can you imagine it?
A man in uniform coming and going from a combat zone, not allowed to go and drink in an RSL! Have you ever heard anything like that?
I can’t imagine how shocked and disappointed and angry…
Angry. And especially when the bouncer directed me, and there were all the boys, in my position and that, and they were having a gay old party and we were all boarding planes here and everywhere. Now you know where the Vietnam Veteran’s Association started. Probably in those pubs.
It rebounded off the non-attendance of the RSL. True story. I’ve downplayed it, not embellished it. And I’m not anti-RSL, I’m a member. I renewed it in ’90 and I’m a proud member of the Margaret River RSL, a good group of blokes.
What did you actually do when you came back from Vietnam? Were you still in the military?
Yes, I stayed in the military until ‘81, and I went into the unconventional warfare wing side, which is the three interrelated fields of guerrilla warfare. Organising escape and invasion and physiological operations..
And was this part of intelligence?
Not quite. It is a sort of a military tasking on its own,
but of course intelligence always plays a big part in all of these things. I mean, how can you do guerrilla warfare without having the intelligence picture on hand, or psychological operations? Who is your target audience? Yes, how about if I say that it went hand in glove. But I also started to rise in rank, and I started to get administrative responsibilities.
Sergeant major, squadron sergeant major responsibilities were all of a sudden, irrespective of your qualifications or bent or whatever, all of a sudden you were looking after 100 blokes, the welfare of 100 men. The operational welfare on occasion of 100 men, the training, drill, dress, discipline, call it what you like. It was a huge responsibility. It’s one you can’t shirk, one you shouldn’t shirk and one you’ve got to do to the utmost ability. Once again, their lives, even in the drills,
even in the way you’ve prepared them to approach even parachute training say. Very important, I can’t stress it.
Did you enjoy that time?
Oh yes, very much so. Very much so. I only left the military to go into business. It was a hard choice. I had some wonderful positions offered. And I was also intending to go for a commission. I started, and was offered…I started to go that way.
And other things…but no, I decide the civilian business was the way to go. I’ve had no regrets, absolutely no regrets. But ’57 to ’81 is a long haul. A great bundle of memories. A lot of activity went into that, a hell of a lot.
The health of Vietnam veterans doesn’t seem to be particularly good, and you had some theories as to why your health is not so flash. If you could share that with us?
Well, in my opinion. You really have to battle…once again, I’m getting to your question. I’m proud of the way that
I have handled mine…and believe me, I’ve had my share, that’s not what the program is about. But if blokes are not prepared to battle for their health, like they battle for anything else, they will go down, and they are going down like flies. From what I can work out, Vietnam vets are now dying, give or take, around the age of 55. That is too young. Now, I put it down to this
basically, the Dapsone and the Paledrine [Atebrin] we had to take, some of the gear we experimented with…For instance, one minute we would put on a certain type of camouflage cream made by Elizabeth Arden, all the big people got into the act. The next minute there was a panic signal coming around, “Quickly, quickly, get it off. Wash it off. Because it’s going to make your face drop off, or you
are going to get cancer from it.” A proven medical thing. The same with Dapsone, some people just can’t take Dapsone in any shape, some died from taking it. And it was a whisper, and going down to the Task Force briefs, I actually saw the board of the battle and non-battle casualties. And some men did die from taking Dapsone. At least,
that’s what was written up there. And then defoliation. Like first trip, we were in the mess queue and a C130 came over and dropped the old DTT [insecticide/dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane] type stuff over it. As I say, we were all in the mess queue. The reaction was, because you don’t know too much about these things, “You beauty, there’s no flies for a week.” I remember saying, “No flies for a week or so,
I’ll go over to the garbage can.” a brand new garbage can full of hot water where you dipped your dixies to sterilise them. But as I dipped them I noticed that the powdery type stuff was falling into that as well, and falling into the food as well, which the cooks had prepared. And it drifted into the hut we used as a mess hall. And still nothing…
Then I recall the first patrol and there was a defoliated area. And the reason why I do remember it is because it was on last light, after our own stand to and you managed to get your head down, I noticed that this white stuff was rising and falling towards my nostrils…
as you were breathing in and out. Logically, the body is still not as yet, will be in umpteen generations, used to a huge intake of chemicals. It takes time for the body to evolve. And for want of a better word, we had World War II bodies and we were starting
to be exposed to World War III things, and some sort of reaction occurs. And not only that, but the fogger would come around and everybody knows…To fog out your tents? And everybody knows that the fogger was also used with agent orange to defoliate one minute and the next minute, DDT or something, to get rid of the mosquitoes. And of course they always did it when, often when the blokes were in camp and you would be fogged up.
Whether this is true or not, I don’t have a clue, but there has got to be some common denominator, because there is a common denominator in certain illnesses across the board. Plus what about the preservatives? I remember on one particular thing that the old cook was doing…I think we had some rations from the Korean War. We were actually eating rations from the Korean War.
I think it might have been…I can’t remember what it was, but for sure, positively, without a doubt. I was quite surprised. You only remember the things that surprise you. So all in all, add the whole thing up, in our case or goodness knows what case,
the adrenaline or stress, some reaction has to occur. The law of averages demands it. Otherwise, why are all the blokes dying so young? I’ve got a sheet of paper that tells you how many died last year, and you would get a bloody shock if you read it.
That’s one of the negative effects from Vietnam. Do you have positive effects from Vietnam?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed it for quids. It was a life’s experience.
I mean, you know when you…If you were to ask me what was the greatest experience of my life, not the most pleasant but the greatest….Chris would probably say our marriage, but look, I’m very sorry, but Vietnam and the two tours I got were by far the thing that I will live with to the day I die. I’m not sorry that I went. Would I do it again tomorrow if I was as young as that? Probably.
But no, it was an unbelievable time in our period of history, our world history. It was an unbelievable opportunity to contribute. I was an anti-communist in the worst possible way. They were communists, they wanted to bring about a regime which I didn’t want to be a part of. I loved my country, that’s it, into it. No questions asked.
Thank you so much for your time today.