Archive number: 543
Date interviewed: 18 September, 2003
1RNZIR – Borneo – Malaya - Terendak
3 Squadron SAS
2 Squadron SAS – Vietnam
You are listening to the interview audio
Kevin if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up in New Zealand?
I was born in Christchurch in New Zealand on September the 8th 1946, grew up there. I lived in Christchurch until the age of fifteen, joined the New Zealand Army in 1963 and I left Christchurch then, never to return
on a permanent basis.
Tell me about what it was like as a kid growing up in Christchurch?
Well I had a pretty good upbringing really, compared to the youth of today I suppose, none of the problems, plenty of room for all sorts of youthful activities, plenty of opportunities, some of which I didn’t exploit to the fullest.
I was more sport-orientated, which is not surprising which in New Zealand which was all pretty much rugby, rugby, rugby.
Is that what you played, rugby?
Was that a during the week thing or on weekends?
Well, both. It would probably be on schoolboy teams. We played school competitions on a Friday and then club competition on Saturdays, so two games a week and training two nights a week, yes.
Sounds pretty intense?
Yes it was, that’s why we expect the Bledisloe Cup back [Reference to the upcoming Australia New Zealand Rugby series – New Zealand did indeed win]
What other things did you get up to on the weekends?
Well there was a river not all that far so that was a bit of a magnet to the young lads out there to see what they could get out of it in terms of trout and salmon and what nature’s bounty there
was obtained in devious ways, pretty much not quite a Huckleberry Finn type situation but close to it.
Do you like fishing?
I haven’t done it for quite a few years but whenever the opportunity arises, yes I still throw a line in the water.
That was pretty nice, having salmon and trout around where you are growing up?
It was called the Waimakari and the name means ‘cold water’, and it was.
Can you describe just a little bit of the countryside so I have a bit of an idea?
From my geography lessons of those days it was a coalescing alluvial fan that formed from the erosion from the southern alps over you know a period of time, you know. It formed the Canterbury Plains, flat, gradually rising to the west to the foothills of the South Alps and of course the Banks Peninsular on the east coast
which was the crater of an extinct volcano. It was nestled at the base of Banks Peninsular and was the largest city in the South Island and the second biggest city in the country, laid out in a grid pattern by [William] Light who also laid out Adelaide and Penang.
So if you could tell me a little bit about your family?
I was the oldest of children, the only boy of three younger sisters. Father worked as initially, did his apprenticeship after service in World War II as a joiner's machinist and worked in a local joinery factory and then later on took over the managing of a workers club and
worked his life out as a licensee.
What did your father do in World War II?
Both my father and his brother both served in North Africa and Italy so both of them had service, as did my grandfather who was at Gallipoli.
Sound like you come from a pretty long line of…?
Well certainly back to as far as my grandfather goes. I don’t know prior to that but I strongly suspect that there is an Australian connection and at one stage there
may have been someone wearing a ball and chain … but my grandfather’s family are in Melbourne and I think Boxwood Cemetery in Melbourne and he was in fact serving in the Australian Army prior to the outbreak of World War I because he was already enlisted
and they knew his age and he knew he wouldn't get away with them for some time, and he in fact went AWOL[Absent Without Leave] from New Zealand and joined up over there and went away with the New Zealand Army. Subsequently commissioned and rose to the rank of major, which wasn’t bad for a bloke that didn’t go past primary school.
Did you say that it was your great-grandfather who was in Gallipoli?
What was he doing in Gallipoli?
Oh, he served initially as an engineer and rose to the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2 in the engineers and went to the UK and did a commissioning course at Aldershot and upon commissioning went to artillery and finished the war as a battery commander and finished up in Cairo in 1919 suppressing the riots and involved in the suppression of riots that occurred in Cairo
at the end of the war.
Do you have any memory of being brought up with war stories?
Yeah fairly vague ones. Boys are … it was always something in my life and hop on my bike and push it five or six miles down to see grandad and spend a Saturday afternoon with him and he, after he retired he basically
grew vegetables and whatnot to supplement his pension, and whilst we were out there pulling weeds out of the onion patch we, you know he would recount a few of his experiences - pretty much the light hearted ones not the more gory details but a few of the misfortunes and scrapes that he got himself into.
When you were growing up did you have to have some sort of job as a kid like a paper run or…?
No I didn’t, well, I did walk after school when I was in high school delivering groceries, but not out of necessity as such; more just to supplement my pocket money I guess. During school holidays it was very common … close by to us were a large amount of raspberry farms and of course raspberries needed picking and
we were employed as raspberry pickers during the Christmas holidays. It just sort of tended to end up in raspberry fights, much to the disgust of the farmers.
Can you remember how much you were getting paid to do that job?
Oh I think about six pence. The actual container was a half a four-gallon kerosene tin with a handle, and I think we might have got about 1/3d
for those. I'm not sure what the measure would have been, but, whatever, I’m not too sure, about half a gallon, yeah.
Sounds like a bit of hard work?
Yes it was, but not physically so, but boring, and you had to stick at it to get any money out of it, so the more you picked the more you earned. But yeah, and being summer of course and out in the sun and quite a few of the kids refused to wear hats on principle
and got heat stroke; and certainly going home sunburnt at the end of the day was fairly common.
You said that you weren’t particularly great at school, what subjects did you enjoy at school?
I guess History and Geography and English probably would probably have been my better subjects but I guess my exam marks wouldn’t have reflected that. But
academically I was certainly down at the bottom on the ladder.
What subjects did you dislike?
Maths, Physics I was pretty hopeless at and Chemistry … I could blow up the chemistry lab no problems, but certainly on the mathematics side of it I was not the best.
Did you get into any strife at school?
Nothing out of the ordinary really. Inn those days corporal punishment was still legal
and teachers could give you ‘six’ without reference to the head master and he was prepared to go the dozen, and so I would have been caned a few times.
How big was the school that you attended?
Riccarton High School was in its fourth year when I started and so it was a new school, and I suppose we would have had a student body of around four hundred.
That's a reasonable size.
Anything stand out for you during your school years?
Not particularly. I’m trying to think of world-shaking events that occurred during that time. I can remember the death of King George the Sixth I think it was, we all got a day off school. I was in primary school at that stage, and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation; and
the Royal visit in ’53 that was coincided with the Waitangi [Tangiwai] disaster and certainly that was a memory that stuck with me. That The Tangiwai disaster occurred the day before Christmas Day, on Christmas Eve, and sitting around the radio in the family living room with grandparents and relations and what not, and listening to the names of the victims
getting read out over the radio. There was a hundred and fifty-eight we killed in that tragedy, so that … you know, that was a memory.
How old were you when actually you left school?
I left school at fifteen after three years of secondary education, or secondary school attendance, and went into a regular force cadet scheme which was operating in the New Zealand Army between
’48 to ’92 I think, when they wound it up.
So, sorry … it was a forced cadet scheme?
It was a regular force. There were high school cadets which I participated in, as we have here, but the New Zealand Army, Air Force and Navy ran a junior enlistment programme, so you could come in at fifteen and graduate at eighteen and go into a regular unit.
What sort of things would you do as part of the cadets?
Pretty full-on situation. For those that were enlisted as tradesmen, there were apprenticeships on a whole range of trades; and there were those of us that were on the military side, where there were education options getting up to university entrance level; and for those that were thought suitable for officer training. And for those the dullards and the drones, they carried on with the normal type of training.
At the end of the first year you went then before a Corps selection board you put your preference up and they decided if they would take you. So I opted for infantry and they gladly accepted me.
Did you make some friends while you were in cadets?
Oh yes, yeah, it's quite surprising that over the last twelve months I have re-established contact with about half a dozen people from that era
mainly via the Internet and as a result of the Internet contacts, yeah, life long friends from those days, that’s for sure.
Did you do any sort of over night exercises?
Oh yes. It was a normal type of training that would be conducted in the unit regardless, although we didn’t do long exercises
we got away for periods for up to a month, some of which were conducted in quite rugged areas and we did have on occasions a couple of fairly serious accidents, and some quite serious injuries.
On one occasion we were negotiating a scree, which is a rock face, and a bloke lost his footings and started to slide, and probably slid about sixty feet down the scree and ploughed himself into a big rock boulder down at the bottom of a river
and gave himself a depressed fracture of the skull. Right in the forehead. Certainly the normal run of twisted knees, ankles and you know, cracks on the head and the normal type of injuries that you associate with infantry training. And of course in those days we were a little less safety conscious than we are now, so we took more risks with our young, invincible bodies.
Sounds pretty intense for cadet training?
Oh it was. Your daily routine was the six o’clock reveille and lights out at ten and you had very little spare time in between. It was full on.
What were the people like who were your trainers?
They were all regular army officers and NCOs [Non- Commissioned Officers] and mostly, on the officer side, mostly young graduates coming back to New Zealand from Portsea or the RMC [Royal Military College, Duntroon]
where they would come in as platoon commanders; and the OC [Officer Commanding]. in those days was normally a World War II veteran with a lot of experience and background; and the NCOs the majority of who had served overseas in the New Zealand Army in Korea or Malaya, so we were under the command of men who had been there and done that and knew their stuff.
Not necessarily the best at handling teenagers in their difficult years.
So what was the discipline like?
Yeah, the discipline was pretty strict. Within in the military system there is a type of punishment called ‘CB’; Confined to Barracks and we had an OC that would automatically give anybody for whatever infringement give
ten days CB. CB was designed to waste your time. Being on CB meant that you got up at five-thirty and there was a particular call played on the bugle call system and whenever ‘defaulters’ was played, as it was called, you paraded out in front of the orderly sergeant’s hut. One of their favourite little stunts was to hop on a push-bike and let you run
behind - those sorts of things, all good stuff in retrospect but which I made a conscious made the effort not to inflict on others during my time in the army.
Do you think it does any good doing that sort stuff?
Yes and no. If you was to look at the recent situation where a young soldier actually committed suicide due to the pressure that was put on him in a similar situation, then
you can't afford to lose lives from that sort of thing. But, on the other hand, if you look at the quality of soldier that they turned out at the end of the day it probably paid dividends - certainly on operations later on. But what that left you with at the end of your time in the army - as a citizen - is questionable.
A little while back you mentioned World War II and it has reminded me to ask you about your father in World War II?
Well, he served, and both he and his brother enlisted in the New Zealand Army at the outbreak of war, and I think, due to age, they didn’t enlist until 1940 or ’41. My uncle was first away in the 15th draft of reinforcements to the 2nd NZEF [New Zealand Expeditionary Force] and my father followed not that far behind I think, maybe in the 16th draft -
so they would have done the end of the North African campaign and certainly the Italy campaign.
Did you tell you anything about his experience in North Africa or Italy?
Not to a great extent. I probably got more of my father’s and uncle’s experiences from my grandfather, and then things have come to light now that both of them have passed away.
Old friends, people that I have never known but that met my sister and passed on stuff to my sister, which she subsequently passed on to me.
Why do you think there was a lot of this holding back information?
There was very much a feeling of ‘it's not your place to know’. I guess
that the horror of war was something that parents always wanted to protect their children from. It's part of being a parent, I guess. However, it can do a disservice to the following generation and the nation if people aren’t prepared to put their experiences down and have them recorded; but I think basically it was just the natural protective instincts of a parent.
They figured it was something that kids didn’t need to know about and if they had to face it then they had to handle it in their own way.
So what would happen when you would get out of cadets at the age of eighteen?
At eighteen you went into a regular unit, which in my case was the 1st Battalion Depot in Burnham then you just soldiered on.
How different was it from..?
Oh, quite a large change - personal freedom certainly!
From graduation onwards all your weekends became your own pretty much, unless you were away on exercise and you could legally drink; a jug of beer was 3/6d. Those sorts of things, you know, which were forbidden to cadets, (one) because we were under age and (two) because, you know, we had virtually no free time. You couldn’t own a motor car although we did pretty well.
We had a more flexible approach to things within the army in some sense that, with a staff member we could get a staff vehicle for the weekend - a Land Rover and a few rifles and away we'd go and spend the weekends deer stalking around the area and that sort of thing. Always supervised, but the opportunities were there
to join in, because once you came into the regular army you were left to your own devices, so it wasn’t organised and laid on for you, you had to do it yourself.
How did you take on your newfound freedom?
With a succession of hang-overs I should imagine, but yeah, a few ups and down here and there, a heady taste that sipped the elixir of freedom. But yeah, because our training program was still pretty well full-on at that stage I’m talking about late ’64 early ’65 -
there were two conflicts in which the New Zealand Army was then involved, confrontation and that was in Malaysia and the earliest of the New Zealand Army commitments into Vietnam. At that time we were getting - primarily through the newspapers - reports on the activities of our parent unit the 1st Battalion,
operating then in peninsula Malaysia, and then in ’65 in Sarawak, and first hand from a small trickle from people that were coming back from Vietnam. Also in 1964 I was on a course and a number of students on that course were withdrawn, back to their unit,
and this was 161 Battery, who had been warned out from service in Vietnam with 1RAR 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment] and they turned up at Wairoa in the middle of winter in open Land Rovers driving around thrown in their L5 Italian pack outfits, training to go into a tropical theatre. Exactly how the ice, snow and sleet correlated to the hot dripping dense jungles was a bit difficult - but that was the best that they could do. So the reality of
being committed to a conflict that some time in the fairly near future … was there.
How aware were you of the political situation?
The political situation in Vietnam? I guess we made ourselves aware through the newspapers, and there was the occasional briefing, and most units tended to run a thing called … the New Zealand Army had the ‘CO’s hour’; the ‘Commanding Officers hour’
and once a week an hour would be put aside for a current affairs briefing or somebody who had returned from overseas would then address the guys and give them an update on the situation. Then, the closer to the departure date then more intensive briefings were conducted, along with a bit of language training and country familiarizing, customs and cultures,
which was what you would be going into.
What was an average day like in this training?
An average day for a soldier started at six and finished at ten if he was lucky, but at that stage we had a couple of good arrangements. Every pay day because we lived quite a distance from a town, we were paid on a Friday morning and lunch time the Friday afternoon the buses left and
we went on shopping leave, so that gave us a two and a half day weekend. Back in the barracks for roll call at eight o’clock Monday morning. That was a bit of flexibility every fortnight; and we had at the end of each year, I think we had six weeks leave, so we had a fairly generous leave arrangement as well. But you know, the work itself was pretty intensive.
What things would you be doing?
Well it depended on what your particular military skill was at that stage. When I went to my battalion depot I went to Pioneer Platoon and all our training was focused on small scale engineering tasks conducted within the battalion. So to that end I spent quite a bit of time at the school of military engineering in Linton, which is in the North Island, and that was a whole range of mine war-fare, and explosives , bridging,
construction, defence works, wiring, that sort of thing.
How does that work in the field?
With great difficulty. A pioneer had a pretty hard days work in an infantry battalion in most circumstance. Certainly if a battalion is in defence, everybody is wielding a pick and shove. Pioneers had power tools and explosives available to them
to make that job go a little bit smoother, but certainly a lot of heavy physical labour.
Sounds like it was quite specialised?
It was to a certain extent and it provided the battalion commander with a small engineer capability under his own direct command, so he didn’t have to get an outside engineering unit to get certain jobs done.. Sometimes the job would be too big or had to be done too quickly for us to handle it alone and engineering support would come in and we would just
basically supplement them as a labour force.
What attracted you to that in the first place?
A little bit hard to say, probably making things go bang was always an attraction. You can wreak quite a bit of havoc with a small amount of explosives, yeah. We had a lot of fun. One of the things that we were able to do … because the New Zealand Army wasn’t particularly generous with its ammunition allocation we were limited
on the amount of explosives we had available to us. It was available to the local shire councils because farmers might want some blasting done on their property, and we had the skills and the necessities, and the farmer would provide the explosive and we would go away and do the bang for him - what-ever it was that he wanted done, tree felling, or cleaning out old dams, or any work on his property, so that was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Sounds like you liked making things go bang?
Well I used to have a bit of a passion for it. We had in fact one phase where we were all given a variety of targets around the city - Palmerston North - and we had to go and calculate the amount of explosives required for their destructions. Myself and another soldier were given a local service station
and we arrived on the scene walking around with tape measures and taking notes and a piece of chalk marking cross around his service station; and he came out and asked us what where we doing and we said we were measuring it up for a demolition and well ah, he raced inside and got on the phone and within minutes the police were on the scene. Yes so it took a bit of talking and the base commander was required to smooth the waters there, explaining it was only an exercise … and in fact they improved their community liaison skills rather rapidly after that.
That’s quite funny - it sounds like quite an unusual exercise?
No, no, that was a fairly standard sort of thing. Anybody on a demolition course would get something like that. They would be given a building or a target for destruction and be required to calculate the amount and the location of the explosives they would require in order to destroy it.
What other sorts of things would you do as part of a demolition section?
Well we did an old railway bridge which was quite interesting - about a mile upstream. The railway line had been diverted and there was a new bridge put in and we spotted the old one and it sort of shuddered from end to end, and there was warning signs on both ends sort of thing. And we applied to the railways for approval to demolish it, and which we subsequently did.
Sadly we didn’t have an engine running across it at the time we set it up. That was quite spectacular and we were a little bit naughty in that most people in the demolition game like to get the job successfully completed and with the minimum amount of explosives, economy and professionalism. We went slightly the other way and
we used a pretty rough and ready formula, which was to estimate the amount required and then double it. So there was a near-by paddock with some sheep in it running around in circles getting chewed up railway sleepers raining down on their heads. We killed about six. Not a PR [Public Relations] success.
That’s very funny.
So there was a very irate farmer putting in compensation demand to the army.
What was the army’s reaction to the fact that you managed to knock off a couple of sheep?
Well the first instance was to demand the return of the fleece, and did we eat the meat? … to which we said, "No," and that the farmer possessed full possession of the beasts even though they were deceased. Also within Pioneering there was quite a bit of small boat and water craft work
and if you can join water work bridging or river crossings with explosives , then obviously fish result - and of course if you camped out they supplement your rations. So we had a lot of fun and a pretty free and easy way in that sense.
It actually sounds like quite a pretty good time?
Well if you like to compare it
to twelve months later, well, yes.
Were they teaching you survival skills?
Survival was always in one form or another always in the background. Every training wherever possible injected a survival element. Yes, we did do a survival course, and everyone was issued with a live chook and we ran around with a live chook for about two weeks; and a wheat sack, and yeah, combat survival.
The difficulties with a survival course in New Zealand was that it was pretty easy to survive, compared to subsequent ones I have attended in Australia - where survival is a real issue. New Zealand is a lot more forgiving and friendly to a survivalist.
Can you tell me what you were doing with the chook and the bag of wheat, I’m picturing it but not understanding it?
Well, you had nothing to eat. That was, you know, your Kentucky Fried [Chicken] for the time - so we cut it up and most of it sort of took pity on the chook and didn’t actually get to pluck it … no.
And how long was that supposed to be lasting you?
Well you were dumped out in the bush for two weeks and you were given checkpoints and destinations to meet; and compared to what we would do now conducting a survival course in Australia
it was pretty haphazard. And we were just thrown out with a pair of trousers and a wheat sack, sandshoes and a chook. Now of course the thing was to … a full body search was conducted before you were dumped off. There was an enemy party out there looking for you, and all local civilians, farmers and the local police were
told that there were escapees in the area and to be reported sort of thing. So everybody sort of used a body orifices to hide the matches and a couple of five pound notes and I can remember approaching a rather lonely house and there was an elderly lady sort-of quaking at the door, and paying her five pound for a loaf of bread and a tin of jam -
which I thought was pretty good exchange at that time as we were getting quite hungry.
Where the police really looking for you and reporting you?
Well what they would do was … in those days sometimes the police still rode bicycles and as they were driving around the local area and they saw you, or if they called into a local farm house and they'd seen you, then they would just simply telephone that sighting back to the army who would then send people out to where you were last seen in order to
try and track you down. If you were caught you were put into a barbed wire cage and subjected to interrogation; and you had a cover story and it was pretty flimsy by today’s standard, amateurish by today’s standards. But it certainly laid the foundation for having to face hostile interrogation at some stage.
How has it changed over the years?
It has become a lot more professional, a lot more intense. Certainly, probably today’s younger soldier being trained to escape and evade and survive and counter interrogation … they are far better equipped than what we ever were. But at the end of the day, if you have got certain vital bodily parts in a vice then
you will tell the enemy anything he wants to know.
What were you trained, I mean if you were captured what was the….?
Well, the idea was to deny the enemy information for as long as possible. We were told to hold out for twenty-four hours because in that twenty-four hours it would give your unit the opportunity to take preventative measures. For example if you were caught with radio codes on you
and that gave twenty-four hours for those codes to be changed. Tactical information that you may have had, locations, then after twenty-four hours that information would change so there was no further point in denying it to them. You know in intense pain the idea is to get yourself to survive the interrogation
and walk away with all your bits and pieces still attached and your mental facilities still there - because you are facing an unknown period of internment as a prisoner of war ahead of you
Where they giving you specific training for Vietnam?
At that stage Vietnam was looming on the horizon but, no, it was basically still directed or based pretty much on the Malayan Emergency
and the events that were occurring in Malaysia. Vietnam hadn’t really … it was over the horizon, it was looming there but the focus was on, because my unit the 1st Battalion was still in Malaysia and I didn’t go to Vietnam until ’67
the focus was on Malaysia and not Vietnam.
Were they thinking at all about the difference in terrain or temperature?
Yes they were certainly aware of it, but unlike Australia, there was nothing we could do about it. We trained in the environment that New Zealand presented, whereas if you were training in Australia for a tropical zone, then you went to a tropical part of Australia to train. If you're training for mountain warfare in Australia then well, you've got the snowfields to train in.
If you want to train for operations in New Zealand then you can send them to Tasmania. A similar type option. New Zealand didn’t have that option and they couldn't afford to send them to Australia.
Was there anything, any part of your training that you found to be quite absurd?
Well as a young soldier with a questioning mind
I certainly made myself unpopular with some observations. I think … thinking back, some of the hang overs from World War II might have been a little bit questionable …
What sort of hangovers?
… but I’m just thinking back to some of the procedures that we used. We used a challenging procedure, which was almost still out of World War I,
“Halt! Who goes there!” which is probably still effective even today I guess, but yeah, there were procedures that had been developed from World War I and II that were included in our training and that were subsequently dropped. But overall, the basic content of all our training was relevant.
Polishing brass, you know, that was always challenging; and some of the maintenance procedures, making bed rolls, inside inspections every Tuesday; five blanket bedrolls spit polishing boots and polishing brass - all that was sort of mind numbing activity, and it certainly wasted a lot of time that could have been better spent, that’s for sure.
What was the physical drilling like?
Pretty intense. After my second year, after I left cadets, we generally got away from the drilling. But certainly, every Monday morning was the CO's parade, and that would put three companies on parade. Periodically throughout the year, as almost any unit will suffer, there was
visits by VIPs [Very Important Persons] , whereupon a lot of time was wasted on preparing for a guard or a parade. At one stage - I think 1963 or '64 - the New Zealand Army was invited to take over Public Duties in London. They selected a hundred and fifty of us into an intensive drill and spit and polish type situation.
The numbers were gradually weeded down. They were going to take a hundred and twenty away, and I was at about a hundred and twenty three. I'd had uniforms tailored etcetera and we were removed. We were too short. So I'd done about two months of solid square bashing under a pretty demanding RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major]
from the Brigade of Guards as well as our own people, and yeah, I didn't make it.
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 02
As we were saying about the amateur interrogation … what extent would you go to in training?
Well generally … if you were captured, which I managed to avoid, but the general practice was sleep depravation … into total blackness,
out, in and out, so that you your lost sense of time, you lost, you know you think you have been held for ten days and you have only been held for ten hours sort of thing …like, putting you in a physically uncomfortable position and making you remain in it for long periods of time.
What sort of positions would be effected?
Oh generally, sitting on your haunches, squatting, so that
the blood circulation to the lower limbs is cut off. But yourself, that was one of the favourite ones, leaning against a wall with your fingertips. A lot of that was based on experiences gained from the Korean War, where the North Koreans and the Chinese used what was then termed ‘brain washing’, a fairly crude but effective type of interrogation technique
on their prisoners. And it really worked quite successfully with the Americans, particularly the less well educated Americans. It totally failed on any Turkish POWs [Prisoners of War] and it was always touted by our chaplains that it was because of their religion faith, but a few of us - including myself - said, well, "How many North Korean interrogators spoke Turkish?"
None. The British Commonwealth POW experience, we tended to have a higher survival rate and resistance rate than the Americans. So we figured that our education system and our social values gave us a better chance of surviving captivity you know,
and certainly I think, if you look back on the Australian record, Australians as prisoners of war, particularly in the Middle East as unpaid guests of the Japanese for three and a half years, you will find that to a large extent our national characteristics helped us through that one. Particularly our willingness to look after one another which probably wasn’t apparent with the small number of Americans and the Dutch.
The record certainly shows that British officers where far less prepared to help their own guys like our guys were. As a consequence of the British class system and the way that they were selecting officers at that stage of the game in the war, they hadn’t taken heavy casualties, that required replacement from the lower classes. They didn't have to commission people, so the people that were captured as commissioned officers
within the British system were born to lead, and of the upper class where leadership was a right. So certainly Australians were far better equipped to survive captivity and interrogation and quite a few others.
So what did you think brought about those Australian characteristics and what were they?
I think it was the history of the European population since the First Fleet, really.
The environment shaped our characteristics to a certain extent. Certain events would have forced … just to open up the land you had to be a bush man, and out there you had to look after your neighbour and you had to be very self reliant and very quickly gain a whole new range of skills that were required
from looking after a horse to shearing to…, however you were going to earn your living, be it felling timber or extracting gold or farming, you know. So certainly in those days the average Australian had a far wider range of practical skills at their fingertips than perhaps we did today.
Do you think those things are where mateship comes from?
Yes, certainly a contributing factor to mateship. Because any heavy physical task is far easier to accomplish for people working together than it is for one individual, so it doesn’t matter if it is two or three miners working a claim with a pick and a shovel …
yes, it's team work and cooperation that gets the job done and that, at the end of the day, gets the reward.
Just on a more trivial line, I think I heard you say earlier before about “bodily bits in vices and orifices” … and what was going on in those amateur interrogations?
Well certainly not to that extent, but
you only have to look at any record of anyone who has been a prisoner of war, or interrogation in either a military or a civil sense - there the electrodes would be attached to your sensitive parts, your genitals etcetera and currents passed through in order to 'loosen the tongue' … and I guess there is far too much of that that is on record.
Where there any kind of that, I guess you would call them
'mischievous antics', going on during cadet interrogations?
Not really … there was and still is in New Zealand a rather antiquated telephone system on a party line where you could crank a handle and pass a current through it and the interrogation cells would have one on of these phones on the wall and
they would crank the handle and make a buzz in a threatening manner. It would like generate a volt or three to pass through you … I mean, they wouldn’t crank out more than that, but yeah, but intimidation you know, a threat real or imagined, was an effective interrogation technique.
I think you also mentioned earlier that New Zealand’s involvement in Malaysia had quite an influence on New Zealand military culture?
That would be true when you consider that post 1945 New Zealand's commitment pretty well paralleled that of Australia. The first one being the Korean War then the Malayan Emergency and then confrontation and whilst confrontation was still on, then on into Vietnam - so those all those conflicts Australia and New Zealand participated.
It just interested me because as a young Australian myself I don’t immediately identify
with the Malayan conflict as I would with some of the other conflicts that we have been involved in. Was there a difference between New Zealand and Australia in identifying with that conflict?
No, the only difference between Australia and New Zealand in those conflicts was the size of the commitment - whereas Australia might have had ten thousand New Zealand would have a thousand, so there was a difference in population. But the will of both governments or countries
was pretty much the same.
Early in the interview I think you were just about up to being cut from the guard that you had been training for. Would you like to continue from there, Kevin?
Yeah, that was early 1965 … the system was within the New Zealand Army at that time that the battalion in Malaya would change over by half a battalion at a time, so the Battalion Depot were basically putting around four to five hundred men
together to replace the same number coming back to New Zealand from Malaya. So to a fairly intensive build up programme of training that took us through to mid October to 1965 and at that stage of the game the draft release occurred.
That was generally done by aircraft. So you sort of, by group of fifty off they would go in a Hercules and flown off to Singapore and that aircraft would bring fifty guys back from overseas. The married soldiers were fortunate enough for them and their wives to be brought back by civil air on QANTAS, and the singles were stuck in an Air Force Hercules
on a pretty long and boring flight. I went up from up from Whenapai in a Hercules to Jackson Field Port Moresby. Because of the confrontation we couldn’t overfly Indonesia, so we went up to the Philippines and then down and around and back to Singapore, and I think all up it was a twenty-four hour flight duration
with only one break - a couple of hours on deck at Port Moresby. It was a long boring and uncomfortable flight to arrive in Singapore, yeah.
This might be a tedious question but how did you spend that long boring flight?
Trying to sleep. Playing cards … and it was impossible to carry out a conversation because of the noise of the aircraft, and everybody had earplugs in their ears. And one of the less endearing characteristics of a Hercules in those days was they had a distinct
temperature level, so the bottom half of your body was quite cold and the upper part was quite hot. But the hostess with hairy arms handed out packets of sandwiches, yes …
They weren’t exactly hostesses at all were they?
No, no it was a scowling Flight Sergeant and a couple of crewies[crew members] that really resented the fact that the army was on board their aircraft.
I should just come back for a moment to ask you about the build up and the intensity of training before you left?
Ok, well it reached a peak, and then as the draft started to leave it gradually tapered off . Because we weren’t in units as such and we were all reinforcements it wasn’t training at platoon and company level - it was all individual and section level. So that kept
exercises and durations were fairly short but quite intense, with the focus being on an individual level, mainly weapon handling, shooting, map reading, navigation … and physical fitness played a big role, a lot of route marching and digging in defence activities and that sort of thing.
Personally, what was your anticipation of going off to Malaya?
Well I probably had the fantasies of an exotic eastern country with unknown delights awaiting me … cheap food, cheap booze and cheap women. Or so the story went. Yes, but I think at that stage of the game I was doing quite a lot of reading and perhaps getting a taste for the East.
What about the idea of getting a taste for the action?
Well, that was always there. We knew that
our battalion had been in action in 1965 and had done six months on the border in Sarawak, and we knew that they had quite a few engagements with the enemy. Fortunately we hadn’t lost anybody and we had a few people wounded and we had taken casualties but no fatalities. So yeah, even though we were aware of the intensity, the operations in Borneo were petering off. But
we still expected to have to conduct operations against TNI [Indonesian Army] at that time.
Did your attitudes toward being involved in a conflict change at all from the training to the reality of being on a foreign shore with an enemy?
No it pretty much remained the same it was. Like a football team or a boxer training, we knew what we were there for and we were all looking forward to it;
(one) to test ourselves, (two) it was our job, and (three) were we up to it and could we manage to perform at the same level as our forbears had in previous conflicts?, Yes that was always there.
Were those things discussed amongst yourselves much?
To a certain extent it was. Probably … when we socialised with older soldiers or those had recently returned or had had experience elsewhere. And this was mainly in canteens and on the booze.
We were always sounding them out as to the reality of the situation and then sort of quietly having our own reservations, you know, "I didn’t like the sound of that." you know, hmm, well, yes, yeah we never sort of expressed doubts but we all held them.
There was the odd guy that inevitably was one of the gang-plank dodgers, but once reality dawned then they got themselves into jobs that were quite safe.
What were any pearls of wisdom that you received from those soldiers who had seen action?
Yes there was probably a fairly regular flow of sound advice for young soldiers.
We had to sort it out from the more exaggerated tales shall we say -they were just rather keen to 'pull on' and you had to be a little bit discerning, but yes there was always sound advice coming through, for sure.
Well we can begin with your arrival?
Yes, we landed in Singapore and I got off the plane for the second time in that flight and was hit by humidity, the exotic smells of the East - a mixture of boiled cabbage, excrement and whatever else. That's how some authors have described the smell of Singapore. Then straight onto buses and away we went. We had about a four hour bus trip across the causeway - the Johore Causeway -
and on up to Terendak, which was a large Commonwealth Base - 28 Commonwealth Brigade was based at Terendak just north of Malacca. At that stage there was no bridge across the Muar River. The Muar River had figured in a previous conflict pretty significantly in Australian military history; we drove through a place called Parit Sulong where in 1941 the Japanese had massacred
a company's worth of Australians … and across on the ferry and we got into Terendak after dark about eight o'clock; got fed and got sort into culture shock and wondered when it would start cooling down. Little did we know it never would. Yes, so arrival, meal bed, and a strange environment yeah.
Pretty much in shock, completely disoriented … indeed … but that of course that was sorted out the next morning with the usual routine: woken up got up out of bed and put on parade, fed and then straight into something like fourteen days of acclimatisation and induction training. They had that pretty well down pat. We didn’t
do a full days work but it was graduated - the first day was PT [Physical Training] designed to do about two hours work, a rest and plenty of fluid going in. The normal routines for soldiering in a tropical zone … our anti-malarial precautions and quite a lot of lectures. Health and hygiene was always on the list. And getting issued with new equipment
and our personal kit, webbing, and clothing; and briefings on the local situation. At that stage the battalion was on alert, the whole brigade was. Live ammunition was issued to pickets and guards on various locations around the camp at night; a radar tower was guarded and the beach … so
we were in a fairly reasonable level of security - this is late ’65 and bearing in mind in ’64 the previous year the paratroopers into Lavis and Ponton had occurred, so yeah we were still on alert. One of the things to do when we got on the … you know, the platoon guarding the radar station,
I was to get the friendly radar operator to let you have a look at the screen and explain to you what was going on across the Malacca Straights out there; and Indonesian patrol boats would come up to the imaginary centre line of the Straights which demarked Indonesian territory from Malaysian territory and they would come up to the line and turn back and patrol along, and then go back to their base.
Yeah it was on.
Sorry to interrupt you there Kevin, but I mentioned my own personal identification with Malaya and you said now that on your arrival you had passed areas where there had been conflict between the Japanese and the Australians . Were you aware of those conflicts on your arrival then, or was this something you learned late?
I had a vague awareness and in fact it became reinforced as we did
battalion and brigade exercises. And probably the brigade commander to a certain extent had selected areas that both the Australian Army and obviously the British Army had operated in previously and we did a long brigade withdrawal exercise that we were told - and subsequently from my own research that I worked out many years later -
that the withdrawal from a place called Kroh on the Thai border by British Units as they withdrew down the Malay peninsular . So in fact that one particular exercise replicated a real. like real time withdrawal. And of course the New Zealand Army never fought in the Malay conflict however we did a company size ambush at a place called Gemas, once again on a bridge where
a very significant Australian action was fought in 1941, no, in '42, in January ’42.
Did you feel a sense of following in their footsteps?
Yes, we certainly did that. And what added to it was that some of the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] had actually served on those operations against the communist terrorists during the emergency. We had one soldier - a sergeant who was a bit of legend - and he could take us back to overgrown clearings and say, “We took an airdrop here in ’56
and I buried some tins over there; let's see if they're still there” and they had rotted away of course, but he was a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge on the Malayan jungle.
Did you take incredible inspiration from that?
Well probably we stood in awe more than in inspiration
but he certainly gave us a very clear idea of what was possible in terms of operating in the jungle - what you could do. There is an old saying that comes from the title of a book called ‘The Jungle Is Neutral.’Which is pretty much true: you can work with it or you can work against it, and there are better results trying to use it to your advantage.
I think the Americans just tried to remove it didn’t they?
Yes, but that’s still a couple of years ahead.
Can you describe the camp for me then?
Terendak was a modern well laid out Commonwealth Base shared by three nations, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain with an Australian Infantry Battalion a New Zealand infantry battalion, and a British Infantry Battalion along with
support arms and units from all three nations. The command was rotated and during my time we had a British Brigadier who then handed over to an Australian Brigadier. Just outside Terendak and not part of 28th Commonwealth Brigade but closely attached to it was a battalion of Ghurkhas.
The camp was modern with plenty of facilities - married quarters you know, a well-appointed base and horrendously expensive to run which is why we subsequently pulled out of it, in part.
At which point was that?
That happened in 1970 because of the Vietnam commitment. Australia withdrew from Terendak … Britain withdrew first up with its ‘East of Suez’ Policy and
in 1968 Australia and New Zealand then moved down to Singapore and the base was handed over to the Malaysian Government. It still serves as a military base in fact.
What was life like in that camp?
That style of life was the last of the, how can I put it.., the old Colonial Era style of soldering where the
very junior rank of private soldiers would have a ‘boot boy’, so his boots were cleaned. And we had what was called a 'dhobi waller' - there was a unit laundry run by an Indian family and all your washing was done for you - your uniforms came back pressed and starched so it was in the old British style of colonial soldering. That was
the last of it right, at the tail end.
What was recreation?
Booze and women, both cheap and both available. Yes.
How available were the women?
Disgustingly available. Well certainly outside any large military complex where there are soldiers it attracts certain types of industries. And outside Terendak was a stripper bar called 'The Evergreen' and each it has its own favoured sort of bar … and
I had to ask the Military Police and they advised that there were a large amount of out-of-bounds areas between the camp and the city of Malacca.
Which was what distance?
Malacca was about twelve or thirteen miles away, yeah.
And the stripper bar: The Evergreen?
The Evergreen was right outside your front gate.
So it was a makeshift strip?
No. They were substantial buildings. They weren't
sort of beach bars with bamboo and a tap as we found elsewhere, no, they were substantial buildings and very well patronised and providing a whole range of facilities, food, tailors, clothing, souvenirs, everything the young soldier would want there was someone there to meet those needs.
What was your freedom to access those needs?
Well generally if you were not required for duties after five o’clock at night then it was a matter of signing the leave book at your company headquarters, cross the football field, flagging down a taxi and two minutes down to the front gate and you were into it, yes. As well as the recreational facilities provided within your own unit lines a large wet canteen, well stocked, yes, and well patronised.
Any memorable experiences?
Well there was the occasional huge riots, brawls - take your pick, between various units. One of the points of friction within the brigade was that whilst there were two battalions away there was always one battalion back, and the wives of the two battalions that were away
sought solace with the men from the one battalion that remained, shall we say. So that was occasionally … but generally all the three units during my time, the Scots Guards, 3 and 4 Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, and ourselves, got on pretty well, certainly a lot of rivalry on the sports field when sports were played … and blood baths on the football field were patched up at the bar after
so there was generally a good spirit, good morale and a high spirit right throughout the whole brigade.
How were the sporting games arranged?
They were both organised and impromptu, the impromptu ones usually took place outside the bars close to closing time when, you know, fifty Australians would scrum down with fifty New Zealanders and fifty Brits would decide to jump in the middle.
But other than that there was well-organised long standing football competitions, basketball, boxing, the whole gamut was there. That area was known as FEALF : Far East Asian Land Forces, and it took in British units up as far as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. So there was a lot of sport conducted,
including golf for the more senior ranked officers.
Just in regards to the footy who was topping the table?
Well New Zealand always did pretty well with the Rugby naturally, but we only put on a scratch team of Australian Rules players to take on Australia, which completely confused the Poms when they put eleven soccer players up to try and play an Aussie Rules game I mean they were more the entertainment side of things. Serious sport was limited to rugby, hockey, basketball, boxing.
Another hotly contested area was the brigade Skill at Arms competition where various activities involving your weapons, and shooting competitions that sort of thing were competed for.
Do you think the three nations were pretty evenly matched?
Yep, obviously the Brits would inevitably win the soccer;
Australian did pretty well on some things, it just depended. I remember the Australian heavyweight boxer always used to win in the ring and always seemed to lose to his opponent in the bar. We had Sugar Bristow and Jim Burgess - Jim Burgess was the Australian heavyweight, Sugar Bristow was the New Zealand heavyweight and Jock McManamy was the
British heavyweight; they had about six bouts against each other, which they took turns at winning and losing and a dozen impromptus outside the bars, yeah.
Were they the camp heavyweights or official heavyweights?
No, they were they army heavyweights, yeah. The official titles and unofficial titles.
Can you explain the kind of encounters you had during the operations you completed there?
Our battalion was posted to the 1st Division of Sarawak in 1966 - the political division of Sarawak - about May 1966, and it was a particularly quiet posting. That tour was a quiet one compared to the one the battalion had had the previous year in 1965. The Indonesians
had decided to give the game away pretty much and sued for peace. There were a couple of incursions; they unfortunately didn’t come our way. We were deployed to block them from getting back across the border and they chose to go another route, much to our disappointment, I think 4RAR[4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment] picked them up and dealt with them and we, on that tour, we took no casualties to enemy action, although we did take some casualties -
a number of casualties.
What casualties did you take?
We took casualties … shrapnel wounds from our own friendly fire, we took casualties from a 'dead fall' - that's hung up logs that crashed down during the night when we were sleeping on the floor of the jungle and I think we may have taken a couple injured, oh, we lost one drowned
accidentally on a recreation, a beach party, he went down to a beach party and drowned unfortunately, and a couple of vehicle accidents. They're almost inevitable.
I thought only the Americans provided friendly fire?
No, they do not have exclusive rights to friendly fire casualties by any means. Our one in fact …
we were at a company base at Gunung Gajah and a detachment of two of 105 pack outs as belonged to 950 Commando Regiment gunners … and normally they provide artillery support for us but in this instance they were doing training and putting the gun into the anti-tank role, and firing flat trajectory over open sights,
and as we hadn’t seen that before we all gathered around the gun pit and sat up on the sand bags to watch this and they picked a large tree about five hundred metres out in front as the target and put a round of high explosive into it. And a few bits of shrapnel came straight back along the line of flight, over the top of the gun shield and ploughed into three of our guys that were sitting around
the sand bag wall of the gun pit watching. Hmm. So no, the Americans do not have a monopoly on friendly casualties at all. In fact 4RAR had a very tragic episode at that time in fact, when they in fact shot one of their own guys. They had left the perimeter and gone out and it was a little bit dark and as they approached back into the perimeter they weren't recognised
and the sentry shot one, so it happens.
The sentry shot one?
Yes, it happened again in Vietnam the following year.
Can you go into some explanation of the Claret Operation?
Claret Operations were the code name for cross border operations. They were pretty highly classified at that time. In the second tour we didn’t quite get to a Claret operation.
I got close enough to the border to put my foot over the imaginary line, but no that pleasure was denied to us, although the battalion the previous year had done quite a number of Claret operations penetrating into about ten thousand yards. I think 4RAR which was the adjoining battalion at that stage may have had the opportunity to conduct one but it didn’t come our way to my knowledge, and
I certainly didn’t get the opportunity to do one at that time.
What was the objective of these operations?
Well to hit the enemy where we weren't allowed to go and hit them - on the border.
Why was that?
Political sensitivity at the time. If you could imagine there was a sort of a three-way conflict of interest:
Australia and New Zealand and the UK were intent on ending the war and inflicting punishment on the Indonesians; the Indonesians were intent upon stirring strife and inflicting casualties on the locals; and the Malaysians were a little bit sensitive, and they didn’t in fact want to get into the conflict with their brothers, their neighbours …
and tended to be a little bit reluctant; so in theory we did not cross borders and conduct operations on the Indonesian side. We had to wait until they crossed the border and came into our territory. That was like trying to box with one hand tied behind your back. So sensibly the senior British Commander, General Walker, took steps to get around that and therefore it had to
be, you know, a very high level of security was placed on it. And it’s only in recent years in the last ten or fifteen years that any real details have actually started to come to light - even though at the time we all knew that that had gone on; but we knew what had happened on those operations we didn’t know all the details of it. Well they had been generally been pretty successful and had
inflicted severe causalities on the Indonesians, so yeah they were a 'success'.
Do you know how the operations were conducted?
Clandestinely, O.K. they would generally take the form of a raid or an ambush on an enemy target or an enemy camp or a major river … bearing in mind of the geography of that region just
across the border were a number of tributaries flowing into the Kapuas River which was the largest river in Indonesia. So these were the main supply lines for the Indonesian Army. There were no roads. They had boats and they had very limited air support and so to resupply their troops they came up rivers. Therefore the rivers were ambushed and the supply barges and craft were shot up. As one
Digger said to a reporter at the time, “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” which was a pretty apt description. Other than that my unit on the previous tour hit a company sized base across the border about ten clicks across in a dawn attack. We got across in a very quiet fashion and
surrounded it on two sides the night before and waited until the camp woke up at half past five or six o'clock in the morning. And the camp came to life and the troops mustered out on the parade ground under the flag and then got an unpleasant surprise as half a dozen machine guns opened up on them.
Tubes of mortars that had been taken across commenced to do their thing, and in fact I think we took five-inch rocket launchers across that were still in service, so yes, a whole range of weaponry suddenly deployed on an unsuspecting enemy.
So you made them pay?
We made their day in a very strong manner, yes.
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 03
Yes there was a little bit of disappointment within the whole unit at the time
that tour was uneventful, basically. Alright everybody still worked hard. Borneo was a very physically demanding terrain to operate in, so we still did the patrolling and all the whole yards … but in terms of successes against the enemy, no, we didn’t get any, and we weren't rewarded in that sense which is good on one hand and you know ,
a little bit disappointing on the other. So everybody came home safe and sound.
Did you do survival type drills working with the climate?
No, no survival situations encountered, but we did a lot of 'hearts and minds' with the locals, because each of our forward bases tended to be located fairly close to a village, so
a lot of first aid medical work was provided for the locals; a bit of support -I think they ran a program through us. We got a lot of contacts with schools in New Zealand and got text books and what-not. Battalion headquarters was located at a high school at a place named Balai Ringin. We put down a basketball court for the school.
The school football field was actually a landing pad for our helicopters, so it was fair exchange and no robbery. We built them a basketball court. So quite a lot of that stuff went on and because it was the end of the conflict there was a lot of clean up of unexploded ordnance and munitions that were lying around. There was bomb recovery and disposal, and making the locals aware of unexploded ordnance.
Were you actually digging up UXOs [unexploded ordnance]?
We did on one area that had been outside our company base. We knew that there were quite a number of unexploded three-inch mortar rounds so we spent a bit of time prodding around and locating those and destroying them. Basically, cleaning up the area and leaving it as safe and as tidy as we could for when we handed our base over the 8th Battalion Malaysian Regiment
who had a completely different approach to things. They were going to do things differently and that was fair enough the war was over. They were merely there for show, and to secure the area. There was a remnant organization called ‘CCO’ - Clandestine Communist Organisation - still lurking in that part of Sarawak and it gave both Governments, both the Indonesian and Malayan Governments, an excuse to maintain a high military presence and deny access to others from outside
for about another ten to fifteen years afterwards.
Did it really exist?
It existed but it was dispersed - still just a political organization with no military threat really. There was a little bit of resurgence in that year, in '67, back on the Malay peninsula, but that was the time that Jim Johnson -
the ‘Duck Feather King’ went missing and we got called out back from leave to go up the Cameron Highlands to try and locate him I recall.
Sorry was that … ‘Duck Feather King’?
Yes. Jim Thompson was an Australian and had a business in Bangkok where all the duck farms supplied feathers to him and he made feather pillows and that sort of thing [also regarded as the father of the Thai silk industry];
and he disappeared in mysterious circumstances in a resort area called the 'Cameron Highlands' outside Kuala Lumpur. So that was one of the little mysteries of that era. Hmm.
When you were interacting with the locals were there any friendships that you built up?
Not personally. We had a … I had a small group of guys that used to come into camp every day as a workforce
running a few projects in camp: digging a new bunker. So they had locals into our camps as a work force, and one guy was employed full time down in the rubbish dump, crushing cans; and a lot used to gather timber, for defence works, bunkers and that sort of thing; and a couple working in the kitchen doing pots and pans
and the girls from the village had the contract to do our laundry. And it was quite an experience sitting up in a gun position overlooking the river and seeing the maidens beating your trousers against the rocks - and breaking all your buttons - but you would get your trousers beautifully clean and fresh with broken buttons, yes.
With the Australians, because I mean, you were a New Zealander at this stage, what was the relation between the Australians and New Zealanders, particularly if there was a celebration of Anzac Day?
We would generally come together and there was no doubt about that, I have had Anzac Days at different locations around the world and it is definitely one day when both nations will seek each other out and regardless of where they are. And that was certainly in 1975 when I went, no 1980
when I went to the 75th Anniversary of Gallipoli landings … it was just amazing the number of young Australians and New Zealanders from all over Europe that came to that one particular spot on that one day in Greece for that day, yes.
It is quite lovely to think about that?
Yes, it was, particularly for the people of that age when before, you tended to think that that was the generation that didn’t care about its history
or heritage. To see so many making such an effort, to come from where ever they were … from remote areas of Europe …it was a pilgrimage to Gallipoli and it has continued, and the numbers at Gallipoli each year is just incredible.
How long were you actually in Borneo?
That was six months, that tour, so for that for my two-year posting to Malaysia
- 28th Commonwealth Brigade - we had six months in Borneo and we had six months of the next year in Vietnam. Those two years went rather quick.
So how did you get out of Borneo?
We came back on a ship called the Auby which had in fact been sunk by the Japanese in 1942 in Kuching Harbour, and refloated and it was a pressed into service as a troop ship and
it was pretty basic and uncomfortable. And it was only a twenty four or thirty six hour passage from Singapore it might have been a bit longer and that was an interesting one because going over on the Auby we had a Royal Naval Submarine escort and a Royal Air Force Shackleton air craft as an escort as well; and occasionally we would get investigated by the Indonesian air force.
They would stick their nose in to see what was going on because we were sailing through Indonesian waters.
Was there any chance that that would cause tension?
Oh yes, certainly cause tension, but there wasn’t too much that the Indonesians could do about it. At that time their navy consisted of very ancient Soviet rejects, and they'd run them aground or stranded them up the archipelago, or they were broken down and couldn't leave the wharf. So they had a pretty scrap iron fleet but
they had the capability of inflicting damage on us. I think they had B26’s that could have done some damage to us.
What were some of the duties you had to perform on the ship?
Well, life boat as a standard drill … well that was a muster to your life boat station, and then we had an anti aircraft drill
which meant that there were a number of 20mm Oerlikon Cannons carried on board and they had certain places around the ships rail where the crew would race out and bolt them on and then we'd go along with our own machine guns - the GPMGs [general purpose machine guns]at the time - and they would be sort of positioned between the Oerlikon cannons as our anti air craft protection, which was pretty hopeful.
Why do you say that?
Well, we couldn't have done much against a determined air attack but at least we could have thrown something up against them, anyway.
Was that part of your duties?
No, I forget what my role was on that particular drill but I think it was, “Put on steel helmets and hide under your bunk” or something like that, I know that we didn’t take things very seriously.
We figured that the Indonesian Air Force might have retained a little bit of a capability but one of no real threat to us.
So at that stage you were going back to Kuching?
No, no, we were returning … the battalion was returning from Kuching to Singapore and then took a bus back up to Terendak. There in support of us at that time were some Royal Fleet Auxiliaries: Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad who sort of had their grand finale at the Falklands campaign. But in fact, I was going over on Sir Lancelot and then came back on the Auby.
Sorry, can we just pause there … [technical interruption]
So we got on the Auby and came back from Kuching to Singapore, yeah. We did … we got into a little bit of support for the locals - the 'hearts and minds' campaign.
Yeah, we were there and then we jumped on board the ship and went away. So what base were you in in Borneo?
Well, our battalion was based at Balai Ringin and I was deployed at Gunung Gajah which was about forty kilometres from Balai Ringin as the crow flies
and about five kilometres off the border.
If you could tell me where you were in Borneo?
I was deployed in the 1st Division of Borneo, which was a political boundary in the sense that the State of Sarawak is divided
into divisions, and we were in the 1st Division. We shared with 4RAR on one side and a Royal Marine Battalion on the other, and our battalion headquarters was located at Balai Ringin and we had three rifle company’s deployed forward at Plaman Mapu, Gunung Gajahand Tebedu; and I think a platoon at Pang Amo - so we were a very widely dispersed battalion and
I spent most of my time at Gunung Gajah, which mean 'Elephant Mountain'. 'Gunung' is elephant and 'Gajah' is mountain [actually vice versa]. We were on a little knoll on the bend of a river and overlooking a village below us. The village had a population of about one hundred and fifty inhabitants in the tradition of long house style of Borneo; and the centre of the village, which was their football area and our drop zone.
So we used that each week. We were resupplied by air craft and the supplies were parachuted in. There was a rough road being developed but at that time it was not completely developed so we had no road access; and the position had been constructed about two years prior and was starting to full apart so a lot of our time was spent
rebuilding the bunkers and the earth works and the fortifications around the base. It was wired with bamboo punjis [sharpened stakes] and there was an ongoing job replacing wire and cutting the undergrowth out of it and that sort of thing. So a lot of time was spent in our defences and a lot of time spent patrolling out to the border, and quite a bit of time spent on the hearts and minds of the locals.
How long would the patrols take?
The patrols would take seven to fourteen days depending on re-supply and just exactly what they were required to do. When we responded to possible Indonesian incursions they tended to be a bit shorter. We would go into a blocking position and sit there, where as 'hearts and minds'
we might have three or four villages spread over a distance and we would move from one to the other over a two week period just showing the flag providing a bit of medial aid, speaking to the village head man and gaining intelligence from the locals.
How important do you think the hearts and minds campaign was?
Oh, you could not over rate the importance of hearts and minds - certainly from an intelligence point of view.
The locals needed no convincing to be on our side. The Indonesians had indicated very clearly that they held them in very low regard so we didn’t have to win them over, they were on our side any way, there was a lot of work to be done to look after their interests, raise their level of health, and gain from them what ever intelligence we could … and just build their confidence generally.
How would you increase their level of health?
Well, we would take trained medics with us. Because we had a limited amount of medical resources to us the policy was to treat women and children - women of child bearing age and children first, and anybody else may have suffered a placebo. We put a water sterilising tablet on a bandaid on their forehead or something like that and they'd go away happy.
But certainly what ever could be done for women and children would be, or if need be, then medical evacuation would be organised. This was always pretty difficult because of the remoteness of the areas and we did not have an abundance of helicopters as we did in Vietnam. So that would quite often take some organising. It was not unusual for a platoon to stay in a village in a long house for a couple of days and provide protection while the unit medical officer came in
and provided treatment for the locals.
What was their health like as far as food availability and things like that?
They had … not too bad, but because of the Indonesian presence a lot of their food supply had been denied to them because some food sources were across the border and a lot of really people suffering from malnutrition from the other side because they were the same ethnic group,
and related tribally they would come across and live with the people on our side. They were refugees in a sense and their health - sores, abscesses, a lot of big, open jungle sores - and a lot of malaria, and teeth … a lot of dental problems because kids had been exposed to lollies and suffered
a lot of dental decay because of that.. Tuberculous was another one. The British under the colonial system had run a fairly good public system, but since independence -Malaysia got its independence in 1957 - the Malaysian Government itself had not maintained the same standard that the previous government
had established. So consequently a lot of them were in pretty bad shape.
It sounds like it was a big job to be dealing with it?
It was, it was bigger than our limited capacity. We could merely scratch the surface of it.
How many medical people were there in your battalion?
You would probably have a RMO[Regimental Medical Officer] who was a qualified doctor, and under him he would have around about thirty guys who would be trained as medics and then … it
was quite confident that in those days that an infantry battalion - where it had a band - then the band would double up as stretcher bearer medics, so instead of blowing their trumpets they would dispense bandaids and aspros. So the band was in fact one of our very effective
hearts and minds units because they would put on a concert and entertain the locals and look after their health as well.
How would that come to pass? Would they go into the villages and play music?
Yes, they were generally always located back with battalion headquarters but they put on concerts in Kuching which is the major city about an hour and a half's drive away, and around the villages that were easily accessible by vehicle,
they would put on concerts and then where possible two or three bandsmen would come out on a helicopter and put on a little bit of an impromptu concert. We were also visited by one Acker Bilk [clarinet player] who put on a show for the troops in the same format that Bob Hope used to do in Vietnam. Acker Bilk came out to see us and he had to play Stranger on the Shore of course,
and we had to arrange for his helicopter to break down so that he stayed over night.
That was very sneaky of you.
Indeed. It was certainly worth it. There was a little bit extra on the beer ration and he entertained us quite royally, yes. I have been a fan of his ever since.
How was he received by the other men?
Very well. Excellent. Everyone absolutely loved his performances.
How important do you think were social gatherings such as that?
Certainly it plays a very important role in morale, particularly where the unit is under a degree of stress. And if you looked at, say our commitments between Vietnam and Borneo, we were nowhere near under the stress that the Americans were under in Vietnam.
To them, the Bob Hope show was great morale booster, as it was to us, whereas Borneo, even though we enjoyed them we would have survived without them. But it was great to have them.
Can you tell me a little bit about being in the support company in the assault pioneers?
Well, that meant that our daily life would tend to be a little bit different from the rifle companies. Certainly in Gunung Gajah most of my work was involved in supervising local work parties,
repair the wire, restoring bunkers , siting new bunkers and looking to our defences. Checking … each day I would do a major circuit check for mines and flares that were electrically detonated around the perimeter to make sure that everything was O.K. around there. So it was a slightly different days' work
than an infantry solder in a rifle section.
Why were there flares and mines?
For illumination, bearing in mind that an adjoining camp to us - Tebedu - the year before had been seriously attacked, when it was occupied by 2 Parachute Regiment. They in fact lost about three guys killed and had about fifteen wounded. Their base, Tebedu, at that time the bulk of the company was out and the CSM [Company Sergeant Major]
had about a dozen guys left behind to defend the base, which he did very successfully, and he got an MC[Military Cross] for it. And he lost and eye, hence he got the name 'Patches'. He defended that from a fairly substantial size attack. I think it was thirty Indonesians that conducted that assault and it started I think about two o’clock in the morning and
they finally repulsed the last at around six thirty. It was a pretty serious event and that made us very aware that the enemy was out there and they were capable of inflicting damage on us. Our bases our company positions were heavily fortified.
Did you ever think that there would be a chance of being attacked?
In the beginning yes, the threat was always there but as the tour progressed and Indonesians sued for peace, and the negotiations went on, then the tempo of the operations wound down and towards the end we realised that there would be very little chance of them coming back that’s for sure. Their hearts just weren’t in it.
How did you rate the Indonesian soldier?
A pretty disparate bunch really, ranging from 'as good as any', to 'pretty woeful'. Their situation at that time was a logistic nightmare for their people.
The whole variety of weapons, the supply line as I mentioned were pretty tenuous. They were forced to use their best which was the RPKAD [Resimen Para Komando Angkatan Darat – Indonesian Special Forces- later renamed Kopassus] but they lacked the political will to wage the war, and with the overthrow of Sukarno in ’65 and Soeharto taking power, then that was basically the end of the confrontation.
From then on it was just sewing up the loose ends and negotiating the peace.
What were the conditions like where you were?
Pretty basic. We lived underground and we didn’t have electricity, O.K. we were lucky enough to get fresh rations and two cans of beer per man perhaps, as it was, but we shared our underground living conditions with quite a few million rats
and a couple of King Cobras, which kept the rats under control.
It just sounds like incredibly basic conditions?
Pretty basic. We were lucky enough to get a shower every day. We had a couple of things rigged up to provide hot water, so we had a hot shower once a day and a can of beer if we were lucky; and not too much to complain about in real terms, in soldering terms.
Where did most people gather?
a central sort of dining hall which was the mess and the briefing room. So after we would stand to at night for fifteen minutes before last light and fifteen minutes after last light and then from that time on we would go into our night routine. The canteen had wind up hessian flaps on it and
they would be dropped and Primus Lamps would go up, and the bar would open. So we did not run a fully technical 'silent night' routine at that stage. I think there was a big radio and it was sort of low volume radio playing, and we had a few beers. But certainly by about nine o’ clock at night we would be back in our bunkers. We'd blunder off to them with a
torch in hand and into bed and then you would probably get hauled out sometime during the night for an hour on gun picket. There was a roster system. So you spent an hour up on a gun position somewhere looking out into the darkness - the stygian darkness - as the nights in the Borneo jungle can be...
Tell me about nights in the Borneo jungle?
The nights in the Borneo jungle can be exciting, particularly out on patrol. Nights in rainforest anywhere in the world can be exciting. At night a whole new ball game of fauna comes out - insects and animals come out at night that lay up during the day - nocturnal animals. In Borneo in the jungle there was a lot of wild life activity a whole range of things from elephants to crocodiles to big monitor lizards, snakes,
birds, bats, monkeys, orang-utans, lots of things, yeah.
Gosh, it would be hard to … you would have to know your animals to know what they sounded like to separate that from the enemy?
Well, yes. I in fact got run over by a monitor lizard one time - not in camp but out with the platoon. I was on the last sentry shift about fifteen metres forward of the platoon
and back from a narrow little animal track; and I was due to be pulled in for the night and we were going to settle into our night routine, and I heard a bit of noise which I figured that it was something coming along the track. And it was at that stage where it was right on last light, and I thought, "Well, its' not human," so I just took a couple of paces forward and I put my head down on the track
trying to get the last bit of light coming from through the canopy to see if I could see what it was, and a monitor lizard run over me and scared the hell out of me yeah. I let out a startled yell and of course everybody stood to in the platoon position wondering what the hell was going on. I was a gibbering wreck as I stagged in, "I just got run over by a monitor lizard," and they have got three big pointy toes and they left marks on my face as it ran over me.
[laughs] It's a bit embarrassing, really …
Well, I woke up one night - we used to sleep in stretchers - and it was pitch black of course, and you would put your hand out and you couldn’t see it in front of your face. And I had this feeling that I was not alone in my stretcher and as I sort my eyes adjusted to the darkness I got this sort of shape, what in fact, it was an orang-utan that had come into my tent. We used to sleep under
a hootchie [tent] and it was pushing my tent up and sort of peering in at me. And we used to sleep with a rifle across the spreaders of the hammock and I’m reaching back trying to bring my rifle forward to line up on this thing as it was peering in at me. Yeah, it was a friendly orang-utan come to see what was going on.
Was there a lot of killing of the wildlife by accident?
we avoided that, they were the good guys and an early warning device pretty much. They were the indicators if the enemy were around at all.
How would you use the animals as indicators?
Well, generally if the jungle goes silent it can indicate that something would be around; and it always went silent for a period of the day from around eleven to two. In the heat of the day anyone with any sense - either human or animal - would lie up. You know,only ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ as it goes …
from Noel Coward I do believe. And so we would then park up and take advantage of that and more so in Vietnam. So that anything that moved during that time was generally the enemy, or if animals were startled and you could hear them crashing off through the jungle then something startled them, so it gave you an early warning to some degree.
Wouldn’t elephants do that?
Elephants tend to move quite quietly through the jungle although, they do have certainly bodily noises which are quite loud. If you digest a ton of foliage a day your digestive systems adjusts accordingly. But however, Australia did lose one soldier killed to an elephant in Borneo in rather tragic circumstances. They were there, but yeah ,there
was always elephant or animal events happening and we would just sit there and watch the monkeys. They would come through the tree tops and start gibbering. The old man of the monkey troop would send the females in first to check it out and they would sit up there and squeak and scream and carry on and throw things. If you were under one of their fruit trees they would pull it off and throw it at you and that sort of thing.
What about insects?
Insects. You lived with the insects. The dreaded Anopheles Aegypti.
They were the mosquitos that carried the malarial parasite. It was always the first light and the last night that the Aegypti came out, so you went into your malaria precautions: pull your sleeves down and sleep under a net. But wherever you were they were always mosquitoes around. We used insect repellent in various ways … there were a lot of anecdotal stories around about what insect repellent would do to you.
It would get in your eyes and make them sting, and it’d take the glass off your watch face. Don’t get it on your watch as it would chew up the glass and you can't read the face. It was pretty powerful stuff. We used to at night, not so much in Borneo but certainly in Vietnam, I would put it on a sweat rag and put it on my face until I got to sleep. Yes, you
shared your living environment with a whole range of insects and animals.
Were there any cases of snakebite?
Yes, we had one as I can recall, and we all laughed about this one. The platoon commander jumped off a helicopter and got bitten by a snake. He fell back on it and got sent back to base while the rest of his platoon carried on with the mission. It was very embarrassing for him. Yes, there were snakes around. I had one. It was a Banded Krait. We had assault boats and we were pushing through a swamp
and I was on the bow, and there was a bloke on the motor, and we were cutting our way through and ramming our way through and we hit some vegetation. So we rammed it and lo and behold out of the foliage fell this yellow and black curly wriggly thing which was a Banded Krait. I was at the bow standing tip toe with my rifle
and saying, "If I shoot this snake I will put a hole in our boat and sink us and if I don’t and it bites me it will kill me." So what do you do? So I got the boat hook and prodded it and it wrapped itself around the boat hook and I hung it out over the side and the coxswain of the assault craft grabbed his rifle and shot it. Ruined the boathook as well. Yes, snakes were around.
Was there anything about pest control with the rats?
Well, the King Cobras that used to live under the floor boards would kill a rat a day for a meal and so the rats would come out … the were a pest because they used to chew through everything. You would leave a packet of biscuits out and they would chew through it. And they would run over you while you were sleeping and you would wake up in fright sort of situation -
“Another rat just ran over my face, yes, lovely!", so we used to … we didn’t mind the King Cobras. We would hear them slithering around and there would be a squeak and we would know that he had got a feed for the night and that the rest of the rats would be hiding.
Did you trap the rats to get rid of them?
Yes, this was a recreational occupation to devise the most efficient rattraps. The idea was the bait would stick over a can of water so that it would run out over and fall in there. If we got a live rat we would tar it up and send it
back in so it would chase the other ones away.
Sorry ‘tar it up’?
Yeah, well, we used to have Creosote for preserving timber, so we'd paint the rat with that and then let it go and it would go back down the rat holes with a totally foreign smell, which would hopefully drive the other rats away. That was the theory.
And did it work?
I don’t know if it worked but it was good fun.
Was there any problem with malaria? Were people coming down with it?
Yes, malaria and a number of tropical diseases were always a problem. So you could go back to Australian Army operations in New Guinea in World War Two. Disease was a bigger killer of men than the enemy so it was always a high priority for malarial precautions and for
anti mite - the tubercular mite that carried scrub typhus. And there was water sterilisation, cholera, and leptospiras. You couldn’t do much about that - if you copped it you copped it.
Leptospiras might be know as 'Weals Disease’. It is carried in rodents and it comes into humans. Dairy farmers get it off the tails of cows too.
it comes in through cuts and grazes but it is actually a parasite that is in the urine, and when the cows come down to drink at the edge of the water and urinate, then with the rain, the creek would rise and flood the urine and then the parasites were in the water. And then when you go down cross the stream … you always had grazes and scratches so it would then come in through the open wound and you would
go down with leptospiras.
How would you treat that?
Basically its just good nursing and I don’t think there is actually anything that can be done to prevent it or treat it. It's good nursing, because you bleed out of most bodily orifices and it’s not a pleasant sort of situation. Dengue fever, well you couldn’t prevent Dengue, and certainly you could prevent malaria. We were on Paladrin - two Paladrin a day.
Was there no inoculation for Dengue?
No, you just had to take your anti malaria mosquitoes precautions, which were sleeves down after dark
and sleep under a mosquito net and use insect repellent. But Scrub Typhus which was carried by the trombicular mite, and that was countered by clothing - basically by trousers and the cuffs of our sleeves and putting our clothes in the laundry and washing with them with anti mite. It permeated right through everything.
What else?, Cholera and amoebic dysenteries … water sterilisation, so you always carried a water sterilising kit, which sterilised your water but left a bloody foul taste in it. There were two parts to your kit. There was a chlorine based steriliser and then there was a Sodium Thiosulphate tablet which took away the taste. One was as bad as the other I think.
What sort of things did you have in your kit?
O.K. Along with our water sterilizing kit we had a little piece of equipment called a Millbank Filter Bag. If you ever got into an area - which
I never did in Borneo but I certainly did in Vietnam - for example, if you came to a mud wallow where the buffalos had been and there was no other water, then you could strain the mud through the filter a couple of times and that would clarify it and you'd sterilise it and drink it.
It sounds terrible?
It was, but it was better than dying of dehydration.
Any other special things that you had in your pack?
From that point of view, not really. I mean an infantry soldier carried quite a variety of equipment. First of all he carries his house on his back. And then he carried his weapon and all his ammunition and then he carried a range of bits and pieces they would be tacked on to it as well. So both in Borneo and certainly in Vietnam we could not get away from a huge heavy amount of load.
A heavy load, yeah.
So that's what I'm imagining. With the load, the heavy load, that's got to be another problem with …
Borneo had the advantage that we never carried the same weight of ammunition. We carried probably the same amount of food but we didn’t have to carry the same amount of water because where we operated there was surface water more readily available. We didn't carry the same amount of ammunition because we didn't get into the same intensity of [tape ends]
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 04
Denise [interviewer] was just asking you about some of the foreign fauna, I just wanted to know how your encounter with the orang-utan ended?
I think it made a bodily noise and departed in disgust while I sort of lay there shaking with my rifle. It took me a while to get back to sleep after that, I might add. But it wandered away. It was just satisfying its curiosity.
When you saw the monkeys throwing fruit at you … would that relieve or add tension to your patrol?
Generally this would always happen when we were just sitting still right, so they would come in and have a look, squeak, shriek and carry on and they would move away; because they would move through the tree tops feeding as they went, sort of thing. But once they had satisfied their curiosity they would move on.
Did you find any humour in that?
Oh yes, there was always humour - animals incidents would always break the monotony hopefully. At one stage of the game in Vietnam we were sitting down in an LUP - a Lying Up Place, you know, in a circle. We always sat in a small circle facing out for two or three hours from eleven to three or eleven til two …
and we heard the actual enemy moving and he was firing shots, signalling shots. And then we had a deer run through the centre of the LUP being chased by dogs, and we then realised that the enemy was a hunting party and the dogs had sprung us. Well, they went off their faces, right,
so at that stage of the game the enemy were about twenty metres away from us and we opened up and gave them everything we had, and then we bolted - so there was a startled deer, three dogs barking their heads off, and a very bloody shocked confused enemy wondering what the hell the dogs had hit that was going to fire back at them. But fortunately that was an exception rather than the rule. If you had an animal encounter it was usually rather fun.
We used to carry opera glasses - the small opera glasses - just for looking through foliage and that; and I was using the opera glasses and there was something out in front of me and I couldn’t make out what it was and I went forward and pushed a big leafy branch down and I put the glasses up and came nose to nose was a honey bear. We were looking at each other
and this must have been on for about fifteen seconds of eyeballing before the bear sort of grunted and turned around and wandered off.
Well earlier in the interview I think you were going to describe everything you were kitted out with?
O.K. on the Borneo side as I mentioned before we were a bit lucky in that we didn’t have to carry quite the same weight. Ammunitions and rations and water which was the heaviest components of the thing, but the infantry soldier would have basically three lines of equipment:
what he stands up in, his boots, trousers and jacket; and in his pockets would be some essentials, possibly a mirror, a compass, a shell dressing which is a bandage, our map in a pocket. The next bit of the layer that will go on is the shoulder harness, belt, pouches, containing ammunition, water,
possibly a bit of food which itself can get quite heavy, up to fifteen or twenty kilos if he is carrying six water bottles … depending on his ammunition load. For ammunition there will be magazines and grenades, smoke and maybe a flare, and he may also have a personal radio beacon indicator - a search and rescue radio, plus his weapon in his hand.
Then the next layer is his backpack, which is his house, rations, water, bed, and he may have additional bits of kits like radio batteries, and a radio in there if it's his job to carry it. So, the bulkier, heavier items. So if contact with the enemy necessitates he can drop his pack and fire.
And if it gets worse he might have to ditch his webbing and run, which is his means of survival, but even then he's still got on his body a compass, a map, a mirror, and maybe matches or a lighter or something, so he is still in with a chance. So all that sort of comes up to a pretty heavy weight and I have been in situations where we haven’t been able to put our packs on and we haven’t been able to stand up, so one of us has got to
pull all the others up. We pick him up and put his pack on him. This was particularly hazardous in Vietnam doing helicopter insertions into an LZ [Landing Zone], where the helicopter comes in and there is high grass on it and it blows the tops of the high grass down and you don't know how far it is down to the ground. And the skids touch the top of the grass and you jump out
and you've got two metres whistling down. You impact in and backs go and knees go and injuries occur, so yeah. The actual weight that you carry is quite a serious situation. You can't do without it to a certain extent but it costs you as well to carry it.
What's the mirror used for?
Signalling mirrors, a way of attracting attention of aircraft. If ever you are cut off and isolated and the enemy doesn’t see it, you can put it on the aircraft. So that is a useful a survival emergency signalling device. As well we used to carry little marker panels - orange and yellow fluorescent panels - to be tucked away in a pocket and once a helicopter pilot spotted your mirror
and you knew he'd seen you, then he knew you were not the enemy. He might ask you to throw a particular colour smoke or show a colour panel to confirm that you are not the enemy trying to suck him in. So you'd show red smoke or you would show a red panel or something of that nature.
Should we move on to your withdrawal from Borneo now or..?
You can move on to anything you like.
Nothing that we should cover before we go on to the withdrawal?
No, not really, certainly Borneo was the curtain raiser
for the events of the following year; and the most significant event I would say of the Borneo tour of 1967 that related to the following year in Vietnam was the briefing that everybody got - basically company by company - about the Battle of Long Tan. The 6RAR [6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment] along with the forward observer party
which was a New Zealand Battery. So the New Zealand Army in its wisdom took the people that were involved in the Battle of Long Tan and sent them down to us to give us a run down. It was an eye opener.
So where were you when you met them?
I was still in Borneo - on operations in Borneo being briefed about the Battle of Long Tan that occurred in August ’66 in Vietnam
Can you tell us about that briefing?
Shock and horror. When we were told about it …(one) the scale of the casualties that Australia took; (two) the size of the enemy forces and the amount of ammunition that had been expended. That was just incredible to us. I think it was over three thousand rounds of 105 artillery fired. We were lucky to see three hundred for the six months fired and
that’s for the whole battalion, so just the scale compared to Borneo. Borneo was done on a shoestring - a low budget operation, very small scale. So the things that they were talking about, the figures and the size of it, the size of the enemy, the amount of ammunition expended, and the amount of firepower available, was mind boggling to us.
What was the setting of this briefing?
These guys came into battalion headquarters and everybody stood down and gathered in the mess hall; and they set up a white board or a chalkboard rather, and they pinned up some maps and quickly grabbed everybody’s attention. And then they went around the company positions in rotation and gave the same presentation to all of us.
What followed the briefing?
Some pretty serious discussions because by then we sort of knew that the writing was on the wall and that was where we would be next year. Although we hadn’t been officially been told, we figured that’s what's in store for us And as events turned out, yes, we returned to Malaysia for about three weeks of Christmas leave
Where did you take that leave?
I went up to a place called Hat Yie in Thailand and enjoyed a cold beer
and whatnot and good food etcetera … and I think early in January because the battalion changeover was occurring and the in country training for the new guys was …we were the 'old guys' by then and we had five hundred new guys come in. We were then warned out, and what the CO [Commanding Officer] did was he took Charlie Company, the rifle company,
plus elements out of support and said, "The Government is sending you to Vietnam." And round about a hundred and eighty of us from what was then Victor Company. We couldn’t go as Charlie Company because where we were going there was already a Charlie Company so we couldn't use that designator. So as it turned out we went to 6RAR
and went into a very intense training cycle prior to our departure to Vietnam in May.
Where did you do the training?
That was done in the training areas in Malaysia - primarily the field firing area at Asahan, which was a well appointed range; at Kluang which was a Royal Engineering base, a lot of training was conducted there plus our own local training areas. So we got an unseen amount of ammunition
available, and equipment came in. We changed our GPMGs and we were reissued with M60s - much to everybody's disgust. We didn’t know how to use them and we had to go next door to 4RAR and ask the guys over there to teach us how to use them. During a large brigade operation … a brigade exercise rather, at Butterfield, which is another old Australian area from World War II. On
St. Patrick’s Day a hundred and twenty guys out of 4RAR were taken out of exercises and sent back to Australia; and they reinforced too, and they sort of waved us good bye and said “See you in Vietnam guys.” as they headed off - which turned out to be true. And they went back to Australia and they joined 2 [RAR] and then joined us in
Could we just go back to the training with the M60s. What was necessary to learn about the M60s?
Well, even though it was a machine gun, the drills were different and it was a piece of American junk compared to the Rolls Royce that we had at the time.
Could you go into some detail of a comparison of the two?
OK, technically the M60 had a pretty pathetic lineage.
At the end of World War II what the Americans were doing was looking to replace their Squad automatic weapon - which was then the Browning automatic rifle - with an automatic belt fed weapon. The best weapon in the world at that time bar none was the MG42 Spandau. German production had been around since 1936 and it is still in service in other forms today in the Australian Army as the G3. But in typical US fashion they said,
"OK, this works, but we will make it ourselves." and they took the blueprint back to the US and they then, rather than tool-up metric, which it was at that stage they just took it to imperial and tooled it up and whatever they produced didn’t work. It was a mongrel, hash of a thing. They just worked it and worked it and finally they got a weapon to work patterned
on the old German Spandau M60. It had none of the redeeming features and certainly not the reliability nor the barrel change, not the rate of the Spandau, nor the old GPMG rifles that we had at the time - the old 7's. But the M60 it was a mongrel and we had to suffer it. I mean, it did the job but we incurred a lot of problems.
The Australian Army or the Australian Government was never generous with money so the American systems relied on a high turnover and availability of spare parts and you know what Australians are like with spare parts - they hate it; and when they're supplying the Kiwis they hated it even more, and yeah, but we got through; and that was just one aspect. And we were issued with American Pattern steel helmets
which were totally useless except for everything except for boiling water in and cooking. We carried it and at the first opportunity threw it away … well, some guys were grateful that they did have them later on. We left Terendak just after Anzac Day ’67 …
How did you celebrate Anzac Day?
We went down to the local
104 Field Regiment from the Royal Australian Artillery. We went down to their ‘SPU club’. I should mention the spew club was the 'Sporting Personnel United' [SPU] and it was a jungle bar that seemed to have a secret and endless supply of booze. Consequently you drunk there till you spewed.
Yeah, great day. It was a great Anzac Day and they knew that we were heading off the next week we knew that it could have been for some of us our last Anzac Day on planet Earth; yeah it was a good one.
What sort of formalities did you follow before you got into the informalities?
I think a quick prayer and the Last Post on a bugle and then crack the cans and started to throw the cartons around.
And that was about it, yeah, and that was a particularly memorable day. Form there about a week later we packed up and hopped into buses; and the battalion band serenaded us farewell at the gates, and we bussed down to Singapore onto Hercules flew into Tan Son Nhut and that was an eye-opener … it was a relative short flight of about sixty or ninety minutes
up to Saigon up the South China Sea. And we circled Tan Son Nhut - which was at that stage was one of the busiest airports in the world - and looked out and saw the nice green rice paddies that are typical of South Vietnam; and all these nice round things scattered through out the nice green paddies. Well, what were those round things? They were bomb craters. And touched down and looked at wrecked aircraft on the
end of the runway … passed rows of revetments and turned and came into the parking bay on the apron of the air strip and ramped down and doors open and we listened to … looked out onto an amazing array of modern weaponry. The smell of burnt JP4 aviation gas, screaming Phantom engines … we were just mind boggled.
We hopped off and strolled away and we were greeted by a bevvy of Vietnamese maidens who put garlands of flowers around our necks. And then into the mess on the base for a quick meal and then we hopped into a number of C123’s and were flown up to Nui Dat, to Luscombe Strip. We were picked up by trucks and taken in 6RAR and met on arrival by
the platoon sergeant of 6RAR and he took us to where they were located. We were bedded in and later afternoon about five o’clock taken down to the mess, stood in the queue, - Harrassment and Interdiction - and next thing all hell breaks loose! One of the gun batteries out on the perimeter firing H&I [Harrassment and Interdiction] and we thought, “What's that - coming in or going out?” and they said, "Don't worry,
that's going out . You will learn to tell the difference." Which we eventually did. And thus we spent our first night in Nui Dat behind the wire.
What was that first night like?
Yes, interesting. The Task Force at that stage used to go into ‘brown out’, which still had the odd shaded lights around. We were accommodated in a big steel hut along
with a unit called Civil Affairs, so there were a couple of interesting characters there. The medical officer had played rugby with the Wallabies and played against the All Blacks so we're ‘in like Flynn’ with him. He had the nick name of 'Jack the Quack from Nui Dat,' and old Jack … he had many a tall tale and true to tell us. One of the ones that had us in hysterics was,
he was in fact a CMF [Citizens Military Forces] medical officer in Victoria in private practice, and they went along to the annual officers’ ball in Melbourne and Jack’s wife said to the General, “General, Jack’s always whinging that he would love to go to Vietnam
and you won't let him go.” so the General said “O.K. I’ll fix it.” and three months later Jack was sent to be the doctor in Task Force; so he had a bit of reputation and he was known as 'Jack the Quack from Nui Dat'. He had a patient come in, a young soldier come in who had taken a bit of shrapnel in the buttocks and he was lying on the table and Jack said to the soldier, “Where did you get it son?”
and he said “I have some lead in my bum, doc.” and he said “No, no, not there. Show me on the map where was the contact.” and he wanted to know where the war was going on not the where the wound was located.
He could probably see the wound for himself?
Yeah, yeah. He was a bit of a character. So that was early days. We had a couple of weeks there and from there we went out to what was known as the Horseshoe.
Can I just interrupt you there Kevin. What was it like for replacements settling in down there?
That was interesting. 6RAR were at the end of a very long hard tour. They were in the eleventh month of twelve months of very hard soldiering and they'd had some particularly heavy battle contacts . They had lost overall … I guess the battalion would have lost about eighteen at Long Tan and probably thirty guys killed and over a hundred wounded over a twelve month period. So they were ragged - mentally and physically ragged -and they were at the end of a very long, hard arduous. They were stir crazy …
How did they express their ‘stir craziness’?
Yes. In numerous ways. A classic example was when we were queued up outside the mess waiting for a feed and one of the diggers races into the rubbish bins and ripped the lid of the rubbish bins and starts eating the kitchen garbage, declaring
and in a loud clear voice, “The food in here is better than the slop you put on our plates!” Or something to that effect. And everybody sort of cracks up laughing and the duty officer and inspector of the meal wasn’t too impressed. So there was a whole range of things … they used to walk along with a beer can on a piece of string and pretend it was a dog, you know, pat it and tie it up and a whole range of things.
What was it like rubbing shoulders with these guys?
Well these guys were certainly an eye opener to us. We held them in awe. Our initial in-country training was conducted by a bloke called Francis Xavier Alcorta - Frankie Alcorta - who subsequently became a journalist in the Northern Territory. He told us how it was and he grabbed our attention very quickly and held it undivided for quite a period of time as he ran through the things. And he
sort of said … well we got off the plane with what we had in Borneo with us, and he sort of said “Well you won't need that and you won't need that.” “Get rid of the bloody binoculars, they're useless to you.” “No, that’s useless.” and “Change that and change that.” and he put us straight in a very short space of time and we paid full attention to what he had to say.
So you weren't treated like tourists?
Oh no, I mean, they recognised that (one) we were professionals in our own right and we had come from a different theatre of war but certainly they had the experience under their belts at that stage. There was no doubt about it. So from there they were in fact relieved by 2 [RAR] and during that change we went out to a place called the Horseshoe which was about five kilometres from the task force base; and it was so called because it was a ring of an extinct volcano -
not particularly high in terms of features, but it was horseshoe shape. And at one end was a barrier mine field that the Australians had put in to divide the province, and it ran down to the coast. They'd spent quite a lot of time and effort and physical resources the previous year putting this mine field in, and we were to pay a pretty serious price for it. It was a mistake, a serious mistake, and probably the biggest one the Australians made in Vietnam,
in that they failed to observe one of the principles of laying mines : cover by fire and observation, and they relied on the South Vietnamese to do that . They didn't, and the enemy - the VC [Viet Cong] - simply came in at night and dug them up and took them somewhere else and we walked on them. So we provided the enemy with a very efficient weapon at very little cost to himself. Occasionally from the horseshoe we would do a patrol down the wire
and you would see where a buffalo cart had been backed up to the wire and a rope had been thrown over and you could see the wheel marks and the drag marks - cut, cut, cut and pull the wire away; and the odd little shredded meat and clothing hanging off the wire where they hadn’t lifted one quite right … what we'd done within in a standard pattern mine field,
a certain number of mines would have an anti-lift device under neath and they would trigger an anti-lift device and pay the price for it. But in return he got a whole lot of mines and they would then be deployed around the province and that inflicted casualties upon us.
How did that influence your attitude towards Charlie [slang for the enemy]?
Well, I think he very quickly earned our respect. There's no two ways about that. And from
day one in Vietnam he taught us to walk on tippee toes and be very mine and booby trap conscience. He was a master of improvised mines and booby traps. He had to be. The generosity of the Americans delivered to him a large amount of munitions
and he could use them in an improvised form - unexploded rounds, bombs that did not go off, he would dig them up and take out the explosives and use it in one form or another. The Americans were a little bit untidy in their habits in the sense that they would leave stuff lying around in places where they had been - they would loose stuff, drop it, ammunition, grenades, anything and everything. You name it, they would leave it behind
and the enemy, Charlie, he would just move through and clean it up and recycle it to his advantage and our disadvantage.
Would you say the excesses of the US forces had both negative and positive…
Oh definitely. I mean, it's easy to be critical about the way that the Americans went about running that war but the fact remains that the generals were schooled in a European battle that
they were going to fight against the Russians. They had all served their time in the European theatre in World War II and they had no understanding of counter-revolutionary warfare what-so-ever. They tried to shape the South Vietnamese Army in their own image, which failed at the end of the day. They certainly failed to heed any lessons that the French ever left them
in terms of the French failed in Indochina They then became a very serious victim of their own political system. In that, from day one … I’m talking about ’56, that far back. They created a situation where the politicians demanded good news so they created the lies to meet that demand
and it went on from there. So they created a lie and a web of deceit that sucked them in and under and basically lost them the war.
And this involved throwing a lot of money into the war?
They threw billions, billions - the long suffering US tax payer I mean … every … what they spent on the war they could have built a million dollar mansion for every
person in the States by now.
Did the excess of forces of the Americans supply you with a sense of security or comfort?
Well, in the early days - certainly in ’67 - upon arrival you had to think, "We have to be invincible alongside the worlds' biggest military power." and what we could see of it was pretty awesome.
But as the war progressed and our own experiences increased you saw the way they went about business, you realised that really, they weren't up to the job. Knowing now that they ran the war by what was called the 'Berkeley Mafia' with bureaucrats and whiz kids out of Berkeley that applied the theory that x ton of bombs
on y squared meters produces z number of casualties. It didn’t work. They learnt nothing. Germany bombed London in the Blitz and it didn’t defeat the U.K. and Britain bombed the hell out of Germany but it didn’t effect German industrial production. They learnt nothing and tried to repeat it, and the result is history. They
never lost a battle but didn’t win the war, and of course we went along with it.
When did you start to see through that propaganda?
I guess I … earlier on arrival we hopped on some trucks and we were travelling out of Vung Tau and one of the guys I was with said to me, “Look at the number of Vietnamese males
of military age hanging around the streets, and here we are fighting their war to help them. How much are they doing to help themselves.” and of course, we basically went in to prop up a totally corrupt regime and the Vietnamese themselves all right, they had that war in real terms since 1945,
and that was part of their lives, every day of their lives, not like the three hundred and sixty five days it was going to be for us. So they had a different approach to it, theirs was to get themselves through each day and to live through it so that hopefully in ten years things might change, but it meant that corruption was rampant, and there was a number of military age males not in uniform.
So why were there, the Australian and the New Zealanders there? To our way of thinking they should be fighting it themselves, and that was one of the first things that we noted.
Did you make this observation during your first tour?
Oh yes, it became very quickly apparent.
Can I ask you maybe a crude question: why did you then complete another or several tours?
I was a professional soldier and that’s where all my friends were, my mates.
O.K. then; we should return to The Horseshoe?
Yes, we held that for about six weeks while 2RAR came in-country. We replaced 6RAR and they went home. And 2RAR then did shake down patrolling and familiarising yourself with the area, then we started into the normal operational pattern that developed for the next six months whiles we were under the command of 2RAR [2nd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment].
So what was the purpose of your operations at that time?
They tended to be 'cordon and search' - trying to pin down where the enemy was. If you could understand that Long Tan in the August of the previous year had basically driven out main force enemy out of the province. To take on Task Force and see how good we were and try his luck.
He got a serious bloody nose out of it. The main force that was there was the 34 NVA [North Vietnamese Army] Regiment out of the province and he left behind a very seriously depleted local force units : D445 and D444 … D244 and D245, two local force battalions plus
83 rear services group - a couple of Chau Duc low scale guerrilla units. So they then set about restabilising their presence, basically. Task Force had broken their grip on the population. They had a major plus in that we had given them a minefield. We had put thirty thousand mines in the ground
and invited them to come along to come and pick them up. So Task Forces' operations at that stage were designed to separate the civil population from the enemy. We conducted Operation Ainsley astride Route 15 north of Ngai Giao and that was designed to take scattered pockets of civilians
living in rubber plantations and small villages, and we built a resettlement village and stuck them out in the open, surrounded them with barbwire; and gave them some tin huts and relocated them into that …
Could I interrupt you there Kevin? [brief technical interruption]
Those operations in 1967 were designed to cut the enemy off from the civil population. So Operation Ainsley which was conducted
from September 4th to 26th in 1967 - and ask me how I know, I had my 21st birthday on it. the So the move north of the Task Force base astride Route 15, and the Task Force built a new village: Ngai Giao and gathered up, rounded up, herded up all of the civilians scattered along that area. They were rounded up and put behind barb wire under Task Force control.
How were they rounded up?
Pretty much at gunpoint. We flew over a 'voice' aircraft aircraft telling them to pack up in five minutes notice. We descended upon them and put a cordon around them and we had Vietnamese police and interpreters; and told them what was going to happen, drove some trucks up to the front of their houses, threw on mum, dad and the kids and the family furniture and the pigs, the
chooks and the cattle, and drove them away and then set fire to their houses.
Did you meet any resistance?
A few women that were very reluctant to leave and you could understand why. They were separated from (one) the most critical things in their culture - the graves of their ancestors, their food sources and in some cases some quite respectable accommodation and … you know, the place that they had lived, been born, grown up ….
So they were relocated about fifteen or twenty kilometres back to Ngai Giao - not to primitive conditions but in some cases not as good as what we took them out of.
And this was to separate the population?
To separate the population from the enemy. Anybody with a little bit of knowledge of military history will know that this pretty much exactly what the Brits planned
in Malaya in the ‘50s, and did with a fair degree of success.
Can I ask you what difficulties did you face separating the population?
O.K. we had this problem and it existed for everybody on our side for the whole duration of the Vietnam conflict: every Vietnamese knew which side we were on …
OK, the perennial problem for the entire duration of the conflict was simply that every Vietnamese knew which side we were on - unequivocally. We did not know which side any Vietnamese were on. They might have had the uniform of the South on, but their sympathies could have been with the North. So it was a civil war for them and it divided families
and nothing unusual for a mother to cook a meal for one son and send him back to his South Vietnamese Army unit, and open the door and in comes the other son who has come in out of the jungle from his local Viet Cong unit. Divided families, divided nation. And as I said, every Vietnamese knew for sure which side we were on, but we never knew for sure with side they were on.
And of course with the fall of Saigon in ’75 some very surprises came out of the woodwork - top level South Vietnamese military men who turned out to be long term moles and agents for the North Vietnamese … yes.
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 05
How long was your first tour?
While you were at Nui Dat what sort of operations were you completing?
Well most of them at that stage were cordon and search … pretty much as I recall and from then until the end of the tour there were no major engagements. That particular six months was fairly quiet, operationally speaking.
The enemy had withdrawn from the province and had left behind small local guerrilla groups. He was basically trying to recoup from the hiding he had got at Long Tan the year before - '66 - and he was rebuilding his strength and then launched of course the Tet 68 offensive. At time we were back in New Zealand catching it on TV.
Can you go into some details of the operations that you did complete in those six months? What kind of hazards did you encounter?
Well, the range of hazards … the normal hazards incurred by the enemy presence was always mines and booby traps …
What kind of booby traps?
They were a master of improvised booby traps, so two types basically. One type would contain an explosive device
and the other type would just be a mantrap, caltrop, punji, that sort of thing which would still inflict pretty serious injuries. So these were spread right throughout the whole province. He obviously had to mark them for protection of his own people, so the key to it was be able to pick up his mine markers so that you knew then that you were coming into an area that he had mined.
As I said the M16 mines that were lifted from out of the minefield, he put pretty well scattered right through the province. There was a particular concentration of them in the 'long green' and the Long Hai mountain area.
How did you develop the technique to detect those booby traps?
You learned to walk on tip toes, plus keen observation and anticipation
I guess. Knowing of what to look for in terms of signs.
What signs did you learn to pick up?
Basically, because our operating procedures kept us off tracks, we would hit a track from the side, we would look at it … you might see things like recent cuttings across areas where saplings or logs had recently been felled, and sometimes they'd would go to the extent of putting put mud over them to conceal them, so you knew that he was constructing a bunker system in the area.
If you could sense that were approaching a position that was occupied then you knew that to protect that he would then deploy mines and booby traps around it. So to that end you thought, “Well here's a likely area. We’ve sprung a trap and couple of kilometres away and they are moving in this direction." so we have seen this and seen that - we've seen the indicators come up, so we think he’s in there and we’ve heard signal shots morning and night. As you go in you are looking, looking, looking, and you will pick up the indicators.
If you don’t hear them then you will see them and then it’s too late. You just trod on it.
What encounters did you have with booby traps and detecting them?
Down on the … there was what was known as 'Ho Tran Cape' - there were three small features which were Nui Kho, Nui Dua, and Nui Ong - and our battalion was deployed to the north to block and we deployed down from the coast
and swept north, and as we swept north we came into a base area that had a 'food collection area' - for want of a better term. And in it there were some rice caches. Rice had been put into 44 gallon drums and concealed and weatherproofed in rock crevices that sort of thing. Well in the process of getting them out we spent a bit of time prodding around with a mine prodder … having a look and
gingerly sorting things out. it had in fact been booby-trapped, so had we gone in and lifted them straight up then we would have set the booby traps off.
How did you approach those situations?
With great caution.
And how did you then manage to open those kind of things?
All right, we did it by feeling around underneath and when we suspected something we tied a piece of cord around it, moved back thirty feet and hid behind a big tree and pulled. And of course, as it pulled it came off balance and it then released an explosive device underneath.
How many booby traps did you probably manage to ..?
I guess over that six-month period, bearing in mind the only KIA [Killed in Action] in Victor Company was due to a booby trap incident … but
I probably dealt with four or five … a half dozen, yeah. The one that was actually triggered by accident … just by sheer luck … it was set up as an improvised booby trap, a hollowed out tube of bamboo. They used it basically as a launching tube. They put a 3.5 inch rocket and wired it with a battery circuit, so whoever tripped the switch completed the circuit and fired the rocket -which was
a perfectly good booby trap except that unknown to Charlie the rocket that he used was actually a practice one. It was a turquoise blue training rocket - so the rocket went off but it had no explosive head. It hit a bloke and knocked him off his feet and stunned him a bit and he stood up and said, "What the hell was that!" So he had one of his nine lives.
What was the normal procedure during these patrols?
These were …we were then patrolling in platoon and company, normally that's thirty or thirty-three guys and you were lucky most times with sickness and leave. You were lucky to put a platoon of twenty to twenty-five guys in the field. So as a pioneer section attached to a rifle company we would generally have company headquarters which would be a group of about ten people - the OC,
the platoon sergeant, sergeant and a couple of radio operators plus a mortar or artillery FO [Forward Observer] and his sig [signaller]- a little group that would actually control the platoon. If we were split up even further travelling at platoon headquarters, then once again a small group in a platoon : a platoon sergeant and a radio operator a FO and a couple of pioneers. And of course, out from there, there would be from three to seven ten-man sections that the platoon commander was controlling.
Did you travel in a cross section of those sections and platoons?
Generally a platoon … usually at company headquarters and sometimes down at platoon level. Then if there was something, if a platoon found a booby trap then we would be called forward and we would have a look at it and say ye or nay, and nine times out of ten we would attach a piece of light cord and go back and hide behind the nearest big tree
and pull it and see if it went ‘bang’ and if it didn’t we would just get up and carry on and if we did, so much the better.
What differences did you find between travelling in a platoon or within headquarters?
Well, I guess the smaller the unit you are in, the sharper you are focused. The bigger the group you tend to get a sense of comfort from the group and you know that your contribution to the group security might be one twentieth, but if there are four or five guys then you are down to one fifth, so
the smaller the group the higher your level of alertness, shall we say.
Did it raise the heart rate?
Indeed. One became a bit of adrenalin junkie.
Would you say you got a thrill?
Oh, some of the little events from time to time would sort of spark you along and then, we were pretty lucky … the Americans put cigarettes in the ration packs for us so we could stop and have a nervous cigarette to calm things down.
Yeah but pretty much because of the nature of the warfare your mental alertness level was always very high - it had to be. At the end of a long hard day you were dripping wet and trying to keep your eyes open and it was a major effort.
Did you experience fatigue?
It was always there. You know when you’ve got fatigue when you start to fantasise about the next meal you are going to have when you get back to Australia or New Zealand.
We all suffered … but we all underwent a fairly considerable weight loss. The rations were adequate, but you know, you wouldn’t get fat on them. Jenny Craig [weight loss program] would approve. Yes, so there was always considerable weight loss in operations.
What were the various situations of these patrols?
It depended on how you operated, but in that first six months two to four weeks duration.
And what sort of levels of communication were there while you were out in the jungle on patrol?
From platoon to company, from company to battalion was the AMP PRC 77 or the 25 set. That was a hand held VHF [Very High Frequency] radio and fairly reliable.
A few … we bought walkie talkies so the section commanders could talk to the platoon commanders via a walkie-talkie. They weren't a military specification type item, and if the rain and moisture got in then they didn’t last too long at all. So normally communication between individuals in that operations was hand signals. You don't talk because that obviously gives away your position to the enemy. So you used hand signals.
Can you maybe indicate what kind of hand signals?
I think of a football umpire, that sort of thing. So all signals were generally one handed because the other hand is always on the weapon but you know, stop, tap on the shoulder to show you want the boss to come up to you; move forward [gestures] … those sort of signals. There's a whole vocabulary of signals. The enemy is always thumb down,
and clear to move on you just give the thumbs up; this one, 'packs on' [gestures] means "We are moving -so packs on and we will move in five minutes, get your gear on and let's go" …so there was a whole vocabulary of signals that developed communication for silent communication.
What kind of effects does silent communication have on you for that period of time?
Well, it kills conversation. That's for sure.
A lot of people would find that very difficult?
What normally happened was the section commander would have to communicate orders and that sort of thing, then you would go into a huddle, and you might lie around a map with a hoochie over your heads and a pencil between your teeth and he issues orders and everyone is writing orders. So generally, orders would be passed by bringing the guys into a small group and whispering or writing things on …
but you know, the map was plastic coated and all right, you would put contact on it, and you would write instructions on it. As the groups got bigger - for example digging a command post - then normally voice conversation would be carried out but in a very low level and so people got used to talking in muffled tones to each other.
What other senses did you rely on : sight, smell and hearing?
Smell, sight, hearing, yeah. One thing that living in the jungle does is that it sharpens all your senses, you are get a heightened sense of what is going on around you. You can smell, you think you are sharing your shirt with a mongrel dog and you're right - that’s what you smell like; you hear … you are more aware of sounds, and yeah, all senses are sharpened
basically from the time you get off the chopper and the noise dies away and then the noise of the jungle sort of kicks in and takes over.
You mentioned that you would smoke in the jungle. Would that give away your location?
Yep, definitely, it was something that had to be balanced and calculated but depending on the circumstances the enemy could smell tailor-made for sure. But as an appetite suppressant …
you are over -stimulated, so for something to calm the nerves after an event, yes. So these were things that were balanced. What you would do is to look to your security. When you went into a position you would harbour up into a circle or triangle or whatever your tactic was and then you would conduct a clearing patrol.
Now, depending on the sound range and visibility and how dense the jungle was then O.K. you obviously if it was fairly open you might go out a hundred metres and sweep right through 360 degrees, right around your perimeter, so you knew what was going on. Then you'd come back in and signal 'all clear' and everybody drops their gear, lights up a cigarette, and puts a brew on … cleans their weapons and does there normal daily routine. So yes, but if its done with security and all bases covered then
it can be O.K. Certainly it was a different story with the SAS [Special Air Service] and my next tours because basically we didn’t smoke at all then, but that was a different situation.
What about the enemy, did the enemy have any particular smells that you would pick up?
Yes, they were addicted to a pungent fish sauce called ‘nuc nam' You can buy it from your local Asian food shops, and
that smell was distinct. It gave them a distinct body odour, and it went through all his equipment and clothing and you could smell him.
From how far away could you smell him?
Well, it really depended on the currents drifting through the jungle on a nice still day. You would get onto a stream and the air currents would be carried along with the flow of the water and … fifty to seventy five metres, yeah.
Did you have any contacts during your first tour?
There were a couple. As I indicated and the only casualty that we had killed in Victor Company was on a mine, but it was … there were a couple of light contacts but it was generally pretty mild. That six months was pretty quiet.
Probably, for the whole battalion in the September October I think it was that we were in camp … and outside of the wire on a Saturday morning one time, we were having a demonstration by a Cobra gunship and there was a section of guys out marking targets and the Cobra would be out circling around and rocketing. Cobras were new as a gun ship at that stage, brand new,
and anyway one of the rockets we think malfunctioned and went straight into ten guys. I think it killed four outright and seriously wounded the other six. It was not a very good Saturday morning.
No, that would have put a dampener on things …
It certainly did. We went back and opened the boozer [bar] and everyone sat there in dead silence for about three hours, yes.
Did you get any R & C [Rest leave, in Country] on that tour?
No, we didn’t pick up a R & C. What our arrangement was, the R & C and the R & R [Rest and Recreation leave (out of country)] were controversial issues at the time because the Americans were allowed to come to Australia on R & R and the Australians weren't. But we had overnight trips down to Vung Tau and what we would do
is we would go down and take our gear down with us and there was a row of low small pine trees on the beach and we would hootchie up there, and bring in a trailer full of beer and ice and a few steaks and party up on the beach pretty hard … and then twenty-four hours, you know, back to it. The break we would get down there about midday
and party up that night and back to base by two in the afternoon.
Did you get into the red light district [area of prostitution]?
While the bars were always there yes, but didn't have the time, no. A few of the guys that were based in Vung Tau had the chance to avail themselves of what was going on. But certainly for us, no. We didn’t have an opportunity.
So you didn't see much of Vung Tau at all that tour?
I guess that brings us to the end of your first tour does it?
Yes, because we were relieved by Victor 2. The Voice air craft came out from Task Force and flew off with Tom Jones singing the Green Green Grass Of Home. With that in came the Chinooks from Vung Tau and brought in Victor 2 and we hopped on them back to Vung Tau and then back in Singapore and back to Terendak by
six o'clock that night. End of story.
Can I just ask you why that tour was six months?
Yes. We were posted overseas for two years we had had a six month tour in Borneo the previous year. The twelve month tour was an Australian requirement which they then asked the New Zealand Government to comply with because it was bad for the morale of their National Servicemen
who had to do twelve months - alright - and they were serving alongside guys that did six - and oblivious to the fact that most of our guys were back within the twelve months anyway, so yeah we … the first tour, in fact two units had this problem : Australian SAS and Victor Company had the problem for the duration of the tours, simply for the fact that the Australian Army, for political and economic reasons, decided that
they couldn't move guys forwards and back on a shorter rotation . It would be too expensive, so leave them there for twelve months.
So end of tour one. What happens when you got back to Terendak?
Back to Terendak. It was a pretty good welcome back but that was a bit of a let down.
How was it a let down?
Oh anti-climax I suppose.
Well, you went from hooked on adrenalin to
plain old ordinary again, you see.
So can you explain how you would get acclimatised to adrenalin? What's behind that, because it's counter to survival isn't it?
Well, I guess … some guys describe active service as being totally alive - all senses functioning - you know, your body and your mind are working at their peak
and there is nothing else you will do in life that will put you near that point, you are “full on plus ten percent” sort of thing. So anything else is pretty ordinary thereafter.
OK, that's a good explanation.
If that clarifies it.
So what happens then when you overcome the let down of being back in Terendak?
I came back to New Zealand . Flew back via Alice Springs as I recall, over night in a motel. No mini skirts were in so we went to the bar and drank it dry and staggered off to our beds at that stage. Back in to Auckland the next day.
Any of the blokes pick up any skirts?
No, not that I recall, no. The females of Alice Springs had other things on their minds at that occasion.
But really, coming back to New Zealand - and Australia was the same - it had no idea that it had committed people to a war. The anti-war movement was cranking up, and it was basically both countries really didn’t care to any great extent
about the fact that their governments had committed troops on their behalf. The anti-war movement was picking up. They had jumped on the moral high ground and worked the hard yards to academically qualify themselves to occupy the high ground and so …
Standing on their soapboxes were they?
Yep, the whole range. New Zealand to a far lesser degree than Australia, but it was very prevalent in both countries, yeah.
Can I just ask you when you arrived at Alice did you have any contact with the civilians there?
No, we got in probably about six o’clock and were thrown on buses and come straight out to the Mt.Gillan Motel. We were fed and then we just went straight to the bar. It was a long haul, Singapore down to Alice Springs.
When did you first mix with civilians again?
That would have been …
I guess about January ’68, really; we were back in New Zealand for Christmas in ’67 on leave and back into camp back on duty probably about the 1st February '68 - at the same time the [Tet] offensive was cranking up. So we were back to our friends and families for a brief six weeks I guess.
Pretty well all of us really didn't have a lot of problems adjusting, getting back into things.
What kind of problems would you have?
Oh, well the most common one was the beds were too soft. You came home with some pretty unsociable habits - language was always a problem, and it used to shock mother sometimes.
Things would inadvertently slip out, but certainly yeah, there was a very a very definite sort of adjustment - a lot of problems with noise, radios on full volume that sort of thing, you know, loud noise you were a bit adverse to loud noise.
Is this from the silence you maintained?
Yes, very much so.
What about … I don’t know how to describe it … I don’t know … the pedestrian attitudes?
Yeah, this was the major thing : the attitude of the nation. You would go into a hotel and park and have a few beers, and you would endeavour to get into conversation with your fellow countrymen and … very difficult to relate. I mean, we had been out of New Zealand for two years; nobody in New Zealand really cared what we were up to or what we were doing
except for the anti-war movement and we didn’t want to talk to them anyway. So it was difficult to relate to anybody … I mean, everybody that you went to school with had all headed off down different paths if life, so really you were forced to come back to your own group for social intercourse … yeah, it was difficult to relate to old school friends, whatnot, family …
and almost it was unknown to have civilian friends at that stage, yeah.
In terms of politics, how did you regard the basic complacency of Australian and New Zealand life and culture?
Certainly it was an eye opener that both countries deserved the title of the 'lucky country'.
They were very insular and inward looking in attitude and it still exists today. And New Zealand is far worse than Australia … but no, New Zealand is still very insular and probably worse now than what they were in my time. And it was bad enough then.
You just mentioned Christmas and we skipped past your 21st birthday celebration?
Which was in September ’67, yeah, that was Operation Ainsley.
I was lucky enough to get a double issue of rum that day, yes.
How much rum?
The measure was a water bottle top and the measure would go around just before last light; and everybody would stand to and you would still have a mug of coffee and you would get a water bottle top
full of rum. And I got a double issue for my 21st birthday.
Nobody sang you Happy Birthday?
No, I think somebody slung me a pick and a shovel and told me to get digging.
After the strenuous day after being on patrol, what effect would a measure of rum have on you?
That’s why you only got a limited amount - one nip - because it would certainly go straight to your head.
You would be tiptoeing on top of anthills singing, in short order.
Just returning then to New Zealand and leave just after Christmas … what else did you do during your leave?
I don’t really recall … it was probably around to where my father worked at his licensed premises
up at the bar for fairly long periods during the day. I think it was after two weeks I was phoning around town to contact my old mates and planning get-togethers because we were all sort of running out of patience with the rest of the world … and coming back to ourselves, yeah.
What marked the end of your leave?
I don’t know … just a date on the calendar that came up I guess.
We had a certain date that we had to be back by, and fortunately I lived not far from the camp that I had to report back to, so that wasn’t a problem.
So what happened once you reported back?
We then went back into a bit of a holding pattern. The New Zealand Army was pretty confused at that stage of the game. They thought they had more guys than what they needed and yet they were increasing the commitment into Vietnam. So there was pretty much a period of confusion.
Even the guys back in New Zealand who didn’t have much idea of what was going on or what the requirements would be … and so at that stage quite a few of us decided to separate from the service and seek our fortunes elsewhere.
Where did you think your fortune would lie?
Maybe some of the guys used to talk about some of the pretty good wages they used to get in Australia.
I came across and spent a week or so in Sydney and then got on the old Indian Pacific [train] and came over to Perth and stayed at His Majesty’s Hotel. I watched the Whahine sink on St.Patrick's day on the TV…and I think the next day I flew up to a BHP [mining company] operation outside of Derby at a place called Coolam Island.
What where you doing there?
I worked in the quarry,
mainly on a jackhammer, and blowing up, and turning large rocks into small ones.
You joined a demolition crew?
Oh well, yeah.
How long did you do that for?
Not all that long. About four months I guess … I put a little money together and then I thought I might give the Australian Army a go.
I came down to Perth and went through enlistment and went out to Caracatta. I spent about two weeks hanging around there and did the firewood run to Rottnest[Island].
Oh, in those days from 36 Water Transport company, the army had Kingston Barracks so they used to take firewood over to the, There was no firewood on Rottnest. Any guys … the misfits and odd sods that were hanging around would get the job to go over on the barge and unload the firewood.
You know it was a good day out.
You were one of those misfits where you?
Yep. Off RTB [Recruit Training Battalion]. They sort of looked at my record and said, "OK." What was normally fourteen weeks I think I did … one week at one end and then two weeks on the end. And chopped out the time in the middle. Walked down to the infantry centre which was then at Ingleburn
and went into the corps training role … a similar situation in there and then whilst I was there a recruiting team from SAS came around and I threw my hat in the ring for that; and they gave me a start … I don’t remember what I did that Christmas I think I stayed in Ingleburn and went to Perth in the January of ’69 and did SAS selection training in ’69 and stayed in SAS in '69
and then went back to Vietnam in November ’69.
Can you just tell me what the selection training was for the SAS?
Yep, it was fairly arduous. I think we did six weeks in graduated phases. Basically they ran you ragged. There were a series of what you might call military activities - training and weapon handling
and navigation just to see whether they thought you might be suitable or not.
Where was that training completed?
I think we had our last stage down at Collie, down around the Collie Dam. We had a phase in Perth here, and one on Rottnest, and a phase on Collie and the last phase in Bundoon.
Can you give a brief explanation of each of those phases?
Yeah, the initial phase was here in Swanbourne. It was an initial shakedown assessment - a little bit of teaching. Generally they would run you on a fourteen hour day and pull on some little surprises, like wake you up at 2 o’clock in the morning and that sort of thing.
What kind of things?
Oh, they would give you a navigation exercise -
the sort of activities you very quickly learnt never to believe what they were actually saying to you … all right, so they would get you out of bed at two o’clock in the morning and say, "We are going to do a twenty miler." and ten minutes down through the track they'll then turn you back and then they would give you up the next time and say “Oh we have only got a short run and
we'll do two miles." and sort-of fifteen miles later you’re still getting home.
What was the reason for that?
Well, that was the idea to evaluate the way you reacted and your attitude to those sort of things - basically to see if you could reach down and grab a bit more and stick at what they threw at you, and handle what they put up.
What common reactions were there?
Obviously there was a whole range. Some guys stuck at it
and others had dummy spits [couldn’t cope] and others decided that they weren't suited to it and didn’t want a bar of it and away they went. Packed their bags and went home.
How did it suit you?
Well, I spent the next six years with them so to a certain degree it must have suited me. But of course at that time they had pretty serious manpower problems so they were pretty willing to give just about anybody a run, really. Following on from me was the first time they took National Service …
and so I think had the Vietnam conflict not finished when it did … certainly by the end of ’71 we were pretty stretched on manpower. A lot of the senior guys were backing up for their third tour at that stage. They probably would have done Borneo with a squadron and
been promoted and going away again with a squadron. They put some pretty hard yards in by that time.
Going on a bit of a tangent here Kevin. I think I heard you say earlier your grandfather left New Zealand for Australia and then you made the return trip? Have you reflected on your family lineage or family history?
Yeah. Not that I ever ran into any family left in Australia. Although I believe there's a few in Rookwood Cemetery.
So have you reflected much on your family military history?
No, not to any great extent. Over the last few years I contacted a bloke in Tasmania who has the same surname as myself in Tasmania who is trying to put the family tree together back to the sixteenth century. In the year 2000 I went to a little town in Idaho to find out why they were using my name … and spent a week there and it was very enjoyable.
What did you discover?
Well, they wanted to sell me the place. They thought I had come back to the place to claim it. But I’m afraid that the Bovill that named it moved out in 1919 and on to greener pastures, yeah Bovill Idaho, population 200.
It is. It is quite a scenic location. It is in the Rockies [mountains] - one hotel and one café and one caravan park
When did it come to your attention?
I don’t know to be quite honest. It may have been in the late 1990s when I was contacting the Bovill in Tasmania for the family tree and I think I got something in the mail that said there was a town in Idaho named after us.
It certainly must have raised your curiosity?
Well, it raised mine but they were more curious about me when I got there. I don't think there'd been a Bovill in the town of Bovill for fifty years.
We should then return to the end of this phase of your life?
Yes, well in 1969, the bulk of that year after I went off to the parachute training school in Williamstown, New South Wales.
What happened there?
Did a basic parachuting course and broke my leg and came back to SAS and hobbled around on crutches for a while.
Why did you break your leg?
I hit the ground rather hard. Stood up, and things were creaking and I recovered my parachute and staggered off the LZ and sort of rubbed my shin a bit and said “Jeez there is something rough sticking out there and I had broken my tibia.
Why did you come a cropper [have an accident]?
Just the landing. Both feet didn’t hit the ground together. There was a bit of rough ground and even though my feet were together, both feet didn't actually hit the ground together. One foot was up and the down, so the one that was down impacted first and harder..
So yeah, that sort of put me out of action for a month or so and sort of set me back in the training cycle of the squadron that I was in. That was 1 Squadron at the time. But I did a couple of other courses with them and then, as they were about to head off to New Guinea for their final shakedown … there were a few of us simply because we had been to Vietnam previously,
we were sent up to 3 Squadron in Vietnam as reinforcements. They had lost a couple of guys and people had come home sick that sort of thing so they were short handed.
So you skipped the final shakedown in New Guinea?
I missed the shake down exercise in New Guinea with 1 Squadron. I was off into base as a reinforcement and then back up to Vietnam - so I I think I got up there late November or early December of ’69, having left the place in the December of '67, yeah.
Had things changed?
No, not at all. Modus of operations had changed a little bit. The emphasis had gone. We had the Tet Offensive. It had come and gone, but the staff was still the same.
With regard to the Tet Offensive - you said that was occurring while you were back here in Australia and/or New Zealand. Back then, were you following Vietnam closely?
Yeah, I did take a particular interest in it. Just the radio news and the newspaper headlines. Not much coming through the system. Certainly in '69 here in Swanbourne, on a pretty regular basis … fortnightly, if not weekly patrol reports and situation reports from 3 Squadron would be read out or distributed through the unit, so you knew [tape ends]
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 06
You were just talking about the SAS. Why is it the SAS in Australia has such a great reputation?
Because they earned it : hard work, dedication and commitment, professionalism, yeah all those things. But
pretty much they've proved to our political leader who knows nothing else … I don’t think that he has the rest of the army behind him that he can use. Probably a few good decisions were made along the way and the right people in the right positions drove good ideas. There were a few bad ones of course, but the guys themselves put in a lot of hard yards
and a lot of work to get to the standard to get to where they were at.
Is the training with the SAS more brutal than in other places in the world?
Oh yeah, but not that 'brutal' is an apt description. It is more intensive and it's conducted on a higher level of professionalism I would say. An individual in the SAS has to master a far wider range of skills and arts than his infantry battalion counterpart;
basically the army has one man one job whereas [in SAS] one man does ten jobs and usually three of them simultaneously.
Why do you think you were picked to be a part of the SAS?
Well, I think, as one of the guys said, “You always seem to come up with a 'funny' at the right time.” I think the morale with my associates might have got me a guernsey [a place] with the SAS. But how they assess guys at the end of the day is a system called 'buddy rating', where everybody rates everybody else, so it’s up to everybody else on how reliable these other people are. If you've got thirty guys and you rate twenty nine of them from one to twenty nine in terms of how
confident you feel in being in a tight spot with them. So guys that would get consistently rated in the upper half on the buddy rating scheme are guys that are acceptable to their peers - not so much their superiors - 'cause guys who are frequently acceptable to their peers are sometimes totally unacceptable to their superiors. So with SAS’s philosophy it is critical to be acceptable to your peers and be regarded by your peers. Your superiors are of less relevance.
What were the immediate differences that you noted between the Australian service and the New Zealand service?
Well, Australia is vastly bigger all right, so you had to train a lot more guys a lot quicker, and therefore it was a bit more superficial. New Zealand spent a lot of time in in-depth individual training.
It had a small army and it had not a great level of commitment at that stage, and we didn’t have National Service where as Australia was hauling in National Servicemen, training a large number of guys and cycling them through the system in two years. It was an army that was moving fast and turning over it guys but its depth was broad brush pretty much,
where as SAS tended to be a little exception to that - they put more effort into training the individual.
Did you notice any differences in going back to Vietnam for the second time coming from the Australian side rather than the New Zealand side?
Umm, not really. The sort of physical difference was that I moved up the neighbourhood. Instead of living down below in the rubber plantations we were now living up on top of the hill - had the view it and it was nicer up there and it got the cooling breezes.
But apart from that the Task Force was still operating pretty much the same. The same sort of problems existed. The good boss had gone and been replaced by a bad one, and he was making life pretty difficult for everyone.
What's the difference between a good boss and a bad boss?
Well, the way … as far as SAS was concerned it was the way the task force commander used his SAS, and the outgoing commander at that time
didn’t really appreciate our problems and we didn’t hold him in particularly high regard, whereas his replacement was a bit more sympathetic on the way we did business or how he could get better use out of us and use us to his advantage - whereas the previous commander at that stage didn’t quite see it that way. So that made quiet
a bit of difference.
When you were doing your SAS training what sort of things were you learning that you didn’t know before?
Very little that I hadn’t done before, every thing was done the same but at a higher level with the exception of two things: parachuting and signalling. I hadn’t been trained … I had done Morse code but
not used it at all. And I trained as a patrol signaller so I had to come up to ten words or fifteen minutes as a patrol sig, which I hadn’t done before which was quite difficult when you are tone deaf and sing like a frog …but yeah, other than Morse signalling and parachuting pretty much everything else I had done
in one form or another, but hadn’t done it at the same level. In SAS the focus is on small unit activity. Your unit is four or five guys and everything focuses around that; and in an infantry battalion you are one of eight hundred, and your unit is the platoon and its thirty guys and so that’s the difference.
And how do they train you for that difference?
Well it’s a mindset type of thing, if I was operating in an infantry platoon and found myself ten kilometres from my platoon headquarters with four other guys, I would say we were in a disaster situation. Whereas with SAS that’s great - we are out of the way and nobody can stuff us around, and we call the shots and make our own decisions and go where we want to go and do what we want to do
within our orders. So yeah, there is a degree of freedom to make your own choices about how you do you job that you don’t have in an infantry battalion.
Do you have to have a certain mindset to operate under those conditions?
Yeah, guys that can't bear to be alone by themselves at night are just not going to make and it and guys that need people and need support, they will have difficulties.
It basically looks at a guy who is self sufficient within himself yet capable of operating as a part of a small group that fits in with the SAS situation.
What did you most enjoy about that mindset?
I think just being able to get away from your headquarters and make your own decisions. That was just brilliant to me. “Oh lovely.” not having to answer to … and not having someone on the radio telling you to move, you know, two kilometres down the road and do something
stupid just when you are getting ready to go to bed. I mean the SAS you still had a job to do but you chose, and you had a greater degree of flexibility on how you did it and then you would sit down with the patrol commander and he would outline the plan, and you would kick it around like a bit of a Chinese Parliament [everyone’s view is listened to] and then you made the decision and away you would go.
How did the other services view the SAS?
With envy. They had very little understanding of how we operated. They only saw us from time to time under unusual circumstances and did not really appreciate it. Now one of things that really worked against the SAS was the relationship with the rest of the Task Force. When SAS gathered information
it was not acted upon immediately, right, and by the time the infantry battalion got the information that we had worked to recover it might be up to … in one instance it might be up to two months old and out of date. Here’s an infantry battalion or a rifle company deployed to search out an enemy camp found by SAS and there were reported to be ten to fifteen people in the camp. Well, at the time we found there were, but by the time
the infantry battalion or rifle company gets there they do the hard yards, cordon and search, sweep through, and there hasn’t been anybody there for two months. SAS stuffed up again, well it hasn’t stuffed up, it is just that by the time they got the information through the chain of command it was cold, dead and useless. So that was one of the frustrations in our work, in that the information we got was generally not reacted upon immediately. There were exceptions to it and when it was the exception
then generally good results results were achieved.
When you say searching out for information, does that mean you were patrolling areas?
Yes, basically a SAS patrol's AO - Area of Operations - would be six to ten square kilometres and we would go in at a certain point in that area and we would slowly work around and through
each one of those grid squares - with is a thousand metres by a thousand metres - looking for any sign of enemy activity. If we found it sometimes our orders gave us the opportunity to ambush it, see if people had been running up and down the track, fresh foot prints, and we would put an ambush in. So we had that flexibility. We could ambush targets with opportunity and we had some pretty
good success rates with it. Other than that it might be just to pull back and report it and let Task Force then make a decision on what they would do about it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your second tour?
Yeah, the second tour was a pretty good one. Being completely different from the first tour, it operated in the way the resources were available to us and the way
we did the business. And as I have indicated we had more control over our own destiny. So if you took a normal SAS patrol duration wet season of five to seven day or in the dry season seven to ten … or occasionally we got a fourteen-day patrol.
Why is there that difference with the weather?
Because in the wet season we didn’t have to carry as much water. The water was readily available; dry season your weight goes up because you had to carry your own water
so therefore your endurance in the field is limited by the amount of water that you can carry. That was a major factor why there was a difference in duration from the wet season to the dry season. Dry season, you felt sometimes you like you were walking on a bunch of corn flakes - it was that noisy, you know, dead dry leaf litter, and you just crunch, crunch, crunch. Sneaking along like that was a bit of a worry. So the way things were organised,
like I said, you had more direct control over events. You had more support, well not quite, but generally you had support on call. You didn’t have to wait too long for it, touch wood, but because you operated a lot further away from Task Force there were times when we desperately needed support and it was
delayed because the helicopters had to refuel and they were forty five minutes flying time away and we're sayimg, "Well, it's getting pretty warm around here now you know, I don’t know if we will still be here in forty five minutes." Fortunately we were, so that was one of the hazards - that we operated a long way from headquarters and from supporting elements. But the general routine of an SAS patrol
was that five days before you were due to go into an area you got your orders and that would give you the duration of the patrol, it's mission, and the AO [Area of Operations] that you were going into. As soon as you got the warning order a light air craft would come down the strip. The commander and one other would hop in and they would fly out over your AO taking a Kodak camera with them to take photos. They'd elect your LZs [landing zones], select your routes and look for water and look for any sign of the enemy and for
alternate LZs and that sort of thing. They'd come back to base and the patrol commander would then sit down and plan the patrol. The rest of the patrol would start their preparation … so we always had thorough preparation - all your equipment was stripped, repaired and inspected, weapons cleaned and test fired. Everything was meticulous whereas
in an infantry battalion we would come back from an operation, hit the deck, have a shower and the next morning the orders would be on top of us. You know, we would be going out. So that didn’t happen with SAS. So we had pretty thorough, meticulous preparation phase. We lined it up and conducted rehearsals - which was living firing of the contact drills or weapons, etcetera; and then on the day of insertion
you would just lay in your tent and drink as much water as you could - guzzle, guzzle, guzzle - and in the morning of the insertion the command pilot of the air force helicopter squadron would come in and he would pick up the patrol commander and one other and he would then fly his air craft over the route that they were going to do that day. He would over fly and check the LZs and confirm that they were O.K.
and come back and around about three o’clock in the afternoon we'd hop in a vehicle and go down to the helipad and into the pilot's briefing room and sit down; and squadron leader would brief his air crew and would go out and … say, to put five men on the ground we would have five helicopters all right. So, the composition was:
the leader helicopter that was the wing commander, that was his air craft; two helicopters were gun ships so that was our fire support if things go wrong. They were site protection. If the enemy were there then they were there for out protection. Then there was the air craft that we were travelling in and if that air craft went U/S [Unserviceable] there was a spare air craft to back it up.
So if it plonked down on the deck somewhere we could all get on board and come home again. Five air craft to put five men in on the ground. Basically we would take off around four or four-thirty depending on flying time to the insertion LZ. Generally we hit the ground … or how the insertion would go, was we'd would fly out at around a thousand feet while the skipper would sit up at two thousand; and about ten or fifteen kilometres short of the LZ everybody would go down to treetop and
he would stay at a thousand feet and he would then talk his pilots through the tree tops onto the insertion LZ. Then we'd hit the deck, bail out and be clear of the aircraft and the aircraft would take off - maximum thirty seconds. On the ground we would always land the aircraft in a fixed direction and close to the vegetation to give us as short a distance as possible before we would disappear into the scrub. We'd
go in fifty metres, stop, and sit down in a circle and listen. The aircraft would pull off and their noise would die off and they would go off ten kliks [kilometres] in a direction then into a holding pattern. They'd be here for ten to fifteen minutes and at the end of ten or fifteen minutes the aircraft commander would come up and say “Everything OK?” “Yep." And it'd be "OK, good, and good night and have a good trip,”
and they would go back to base. So by six o ‘clock that night they would be in the bar with a hot meal and a cold beer and we would be lying out in the jungle, head to head like the spokes of a wheel, doing our thing.
Why do you do that 'head to head' thing, like the spokes of a wheel?
That's the way we used to sleep, so it looked like spokes. We, the LUP at night, we always slept close enough to each other so that if somebody snored or had a nightmare or talked in their sleep then ‘bang!’ your hand would go out straight over their mouth, and ‘bang,’
you'd grab their nose and mouth and shut them up. So everybody, …I mean, I could reach out from where I was and grab two guys heads - bang - that was … the idea was sort of LUP [Laying Up Point] … and it was always to find the thickest bit of scrub we could get into and work our way in just before last light; and we always sat and listened and did a clearing patrol if necessary to make sure nothing else was around. And then into our night routine.
Did you have any specialised equipment that would say get you through some dense scrub?
Not really, ordinary gardening secateurs was about the maximum. We used to carry a pair of them. They were always helpful. But no, we didn’t hack and slash. You know the old Hollywood movies where they chop and slash … no, didn't happen.
What did you think of the aircrews?
Oh, excellent, excellent, they, like everybody in Task Force at the time … from the beginning they had their problems adjusting to
operations in Vietnam. They initially flew aircraft by the Department of Aviation regulations, you know: don’t get holes in it, don’t bend it and don’t scratch the paint. But that changed. A bit of grief and a bit of heartache but they came around, and from then on they gave impeccable support.
They never faulted, not once, whatever we asked of them they did, yeah.
How did they treat you guys?
This was 9 Squadron. I would say there was a very high level of mutual respect, yeah. When they lost guys it was like losing our own, it really was, yeah.
What did you do if you lost guys?
Ughh. phew … well … there was always a memorial service and a hat was always passed around to get some money together for a widow and that sort of thing. And then it was back, and on with the job really …
Can you tell me a little bit more about your experiences in your second tour?
Can you tell me some interesting things that happened?
interesting things … yeah we, when I say we … my patrol, for some unknown reason … we seemed to go into areas where something had happened before we arrived or something happened to the patrol that went in after us. That was just the odd coincidence and the way things happened for us. But one time we were well out to the
east of Task Force and over to the adjoining province - Long Khanh Province - and the Task Force had done a big sweep - an armoured sweep, because we had Centurions [tanks] at that stage - a big sweep around Task Force. And one of the helicopters resupplying one of the tanks reported back that they had seen elephants.
And we said, "Dah, there are no elephants in Vietnam." You know, impossible, the pilot was drunk or must have been smoking dope or something … but we were plodding around on foot, and what is there on the ground but large dollops of elephant doo [manure], you know, so I was sig operator, and I was talking to the patrol commander, and all our communications were encoded - known as OTLP [One Time Letter Pad]' which was an old but secure code developed in World War II, I think.
So we sat down and encoded this message, “Confirm elephants. Foot in doo dah;” so that was one of them. Another one I can recall as a sig, in came this message … military signals are given a priority and scaled from 'Deferred' to 'Routine 'to 'Flash'. I got a priority a sig - called a Priority Sig' - which I had never had before.
How did you receive that?
By Morse, OK. You sit down with an ear phone in your ear and a note book and a pencil in your hand, and you listen and you are taking down five letter groups and then you back to your OTLP and you write it in and you transpose and then you come out with a message.
How do you know when it's time to listen?
Well, the procedure was that we got two radio scheds [schedule] a day. Generally you would have a morning sched and an afternoon sched. What we would do on a radio sched is we would send the briefest message possible to indicate
nothing to report – NTR[ Nothing To Report] and to give the direction of movement. You'd send your location and a six figure grid reference and nothing to report, and the direction of your movement … End. And you'd send off … so it was to keep your time on the air down to a minimum. If there was something to be reported then you would generally sit up at night
do a long message and send that off the next day in a morning sched. Afternoon scheds were generally … the signals would come in to tell you … to tell you something or they might want you to do something or whatever. So in came this message, "Don’t use 243," which meant to us our emergency signalling radio, of which we had two in the patrol, one was on 241 megahertz and the other was on 243 megahertz. So, I said to the boss “Don’t use 243,
that takes out one of our radios - let's hope we don’t have a contact." And we got back and found that it was done because of the Apollo13 space probe. 243 was the frequency that they used all around the world that they kept clear to get those guys back home. So they didn’t want anybody else using it and jamming it up, so that’s how we got the story of Apollo 13 when we got back.
We said, "What happened to 243?" and they told us "Some dudes went to the moon and it looked like we would lose them up there, so we kept it free for them." So that was quite significant. And the other one came in … we had at that stage used Dapsone as an anti malarial, and another priority came in, “Don’t use Dapsone." so when we came in we said, "What's the problem with the Dapsone?" Apparently one of the Yanks took it and died, so you know, they were the sort of interesting things communication-wise that happened.
What's the chances of the enemy hearing the code?
Oh yeah they would intercept it but they can't do anything with it. They would get it but all they would get would be a jumble of five letter groups and without the key and the one time letter pad they can't translate it. And I mean, even now, to crack it they would sit at a huge computer bank and throw it in.
You know, even the greatest technology in the world would probably do it in thirty second; but the enemy in 1969, 1970 didn’t have that capability. They could hear us but there was a concern that they could triangulate and try and locate us, which was why we always kept our scheds as brief as possible. The less time that we spent transmitting the less likelihood that the enemy could locate us.
But certainly if he intercepted messages he wouldn’t make anything out of them. Not at all.
What were your instructions if you were actually captured?
Oh yes, well … the first thing was, “Don’t get captured.” and if you were going to get captured “Don’t get captured with the codes.” So they had to be destroyed. That was a sort of a major concern, so we all sort of said the agreement was we would all go together.
We were lucky with the overall Australian commitment that nobody was ever captured. We had six missing in action - that is six bodies that were never recovered. Till this day haven’t been recovered, so not bad. Out of the fifty thousand guys that were committed, compared to the Yanks, we had none captured
and only six bodies bodies lost MIA [Missing In Action,] you know, bodies not recovered.
When you say you would “go together” what does that mean?
Well that meant whatever happened to one the whole lot … so if we went … like, if a guy was wounded everybody would be with him and we'd do everything to get the wounded guys out; and if it looked like capture, then that was it, we would all be captured together.
There were a couple of patrols, not my patrols, where things got pretty tight at the end but again they got a lucky break the air force got there in time and the jungle parted in time and the helicopter could come down in a tablecloth’s size hole and pulled them out. So we did, overall the SAS for its time in Vietnam did have a fair amount of luck. Which didn't happen. But there was a couple of patrols - not my patrol - but a couple of patrols where things got pretty tight at the end of the day. But once again they had a lucky break - the air force got there in time and the clouds parted in time; and the air force came down through a little tablecloth sized hole in the cloud and pulled them out. So SAS - for its time in Vietnam, they had a fair amount of luck.
Your American counterparts - what were they doing wrong?
You could write a book on it. Our closest counterparts were the US SEAL Teams, with which we had exchange programs. And also … not so much the US Special Forces who operated in a different sort of thinking but US Marine Corps and US Alert Teams and the US Navy Seal Teams
operated in a similar way to us with some differences; and we like to think at the time that we had our procedures, our training and our procedures polished and at a fair higher level of either of those two - and they agreed themselves. The Seals didn’t do long range patrols. They were in twenty four hours on the ground, maximum for them.
US Marine Corps were courageous, but yeah, you had to wonder sometimes.
What were you wondering about?
Oh, just the way they operated. They would take risks that we wouldn’t even dream of, and they operated in areas that were far more likelihood of contact than us; yeah they just had a different approach to things and
when they sort of worked with us and saw how we sort of did things then the majority of them tended to take on board our ideas and apply things that they had picked up from us … rather than we pick up ideas from them. It was generally the other way around. Although there was a two way flow of information, generally they learned from us to the extent that [General] Westmoreland requested the Australian Task Force and SAS
to establish a training school at Nha Trang - the Recondo School - which it did initially … and then I think they handed over the training team to run the South Vietnamese to do things the way that we did it. They were called the PRU - the Provincial Reconnaissance Units And they had a training school in our province in Phuoc Tuy at Van Tiep; and when they went out and I did a couple of patrols with them as a sig, because they didn’t have any trained signallers in Morse code.
Their sort-of course graduation party was a real live patrol out in the J [the jungle], so we provide the communication back up and ran it through our operations centre. That was interesting.
What did you think of the South Vietnamese?
Yeah, I tended to be pretty sympathetic. They had a hard time from their own government and from their own senior command level. Everybody in Vietnam from the little rice farmer who asked nothing from anybody except to be left alone to grow his rice and raise his kids and his buffalos,
to the lower rank structure of the South Vietnamese Army - they were shafted by corruption by their own superiors and yeah, and they fought a long war. They had been fighting it since the French got beaten in ’54, then Ho [Chi Minh] invaded the south in '56, and
it had been a long hard road for them, yeah.
What do you think of them as soldiers?
They had their strong points. I mean, everything that we could say to knock them … in that they wouldn't engage the enemy, that was true to a certain extent was true. But they had next week, next month, next year - they had the rest of their lives in a war zone as far as they could see.
We just had the balance of three hundred and sixty five days. We were in for the short haul and they were in for the long haul whether they liked it or not. There was no R & R and there was no exit. They could defect to the enemy and that was the only other option they had. And if they were rich enough they could bribe themselves out of military service. Yeah, there wasn’t too many options open to them, that’s for sure.
What was the likelihood of contact where you were patrolling?
It depended on the area.
You know, we would all sit around and rub our hands with glee when we got the morning order for an area where nothing had been going on for months; and then you would get in it, and it would all turn to shit. Something that had been cold for months gets hot very, very quickly. So the whole province was … anything could happen at any time and that was our job. We were there to provide the Task Force commander
with as much information as to where the enemy is as to where he wasn’t. So it was always good to get out into a quiet area and sort of have a quiet patrol. There was always an indicator of a quiet patrol when we … the helicopters would come in to pick us up and take us back and the door gunners would be looking at the muzzles of our rifles - they were always taped, see. So if the tape was blown off then they would know straight away we had been in contact. But if they were still taped up then they'd know things were quiet.
So why were you taping up them?
To keep the mud and gunk out of the barrel.
Thanks for that …
Weapons tend not to work if they are half full of mud.
How would you get picked up from these areas?
Generally it was the same way as when we went in. We would try and run
an extraction … the goal of every extraction was to be back in camp by ten o’clock, so you could be at the brew point for morning tea and the gossip, right. So we would get into the extraction LZ the night before, check it out, and sleep just along side it. Then we'd come on the radio at nine o’clock …. and because HF [High Frequency] communications depend on sky wave, I mean, you needed the sun up to activate the Van Allen radiation belt so
it would reflect off … hmm, a bit of technical talk there, and ancient stuff … but by nine o'clock when the sun was high enough and the conditions were right enough for communications - CW - and away you would go, get your message back to base at LYZ grid reference and wait for them to come back with, ."OK, extraction at zero nine thirty or ten hundred." or whatever the time was.
So you'd sit there and then the ears would just start to flap - any sound - and the first guy to hear it, right, the choppers, and the patrol commander would pull out the beacon radio and establish communications with the squadron leader who was always flying a lot higher than his other choppers. He'd say, "G’day" and he might ask for mirror, panel or smoke - whatever he wanted.
And he would … soon as he made a pass over head he'd put the mirror on and say, "O.K. got your mirror." But that could be anybody and you would throw smoke and he would say, “I see red.” and he would come back confirm “Red.” and if he said “I see Green.” and you threw purple then you’ve got a problem - that means the enemy is there … because that’s why we carried two coloured smokes, so that on request we would throw smoke and he would call a colour and we would confirm
that that was the one that we threw. Meanwhile the gun ships would work around the LZ and check it over; and they would be constantly circling. And then bang, in would come the slick ship and we would pile on and the aircrew - the door gunner - you would see their noses wrinkle. This'd be five pretty smelly beasts that pile in on the helicopter and it would stink.
You could see just behind … they had a visor on and you could see their noses wrinkling up behind the visor as they got a whiff of our body odour. And anyway ,away we would go, back to base. Hit the deck hopefully by ten o’clock, have a brew, debrief, clean up your weapons and clean up your kit, and then one of two things would happen : there would be a carton of beer up at the canteen because it normally didn’t open till four thirty,
so we'd have a few beers before it opened and a yarn and wind down. And then five o’clock the helicopters would leave the Task Force base and go back to their night base in Vung Tau and we hop in with them and grab our dilly bag and we'd go overnight to the fleshpots of Vung Tau for the night. Then the flight back up the next morning and that was that - that was our break, and then back to a normal routine. Then five days later we'd pick up another warning order.
And the cycle would start all over again.
That was a great description, that was just fantastic. With the debriefing what sort of things did they go through?
Anything of relevance. So each member of the patrol would maintain a patrol diary. For example, at midnight you woke up and sat up and you heard a shot, then you'd take your compass out and put a bit of light on it and write, "O.K. at two minutes past midnight I heard a single shot; distance:
estimated to be one kilometre bearing you know west or whatever." so, anything that you saw - any enemy activity, wildlife activity; always handy to know what's going on - anything … water sources, where you got your water from; anything and everything that would be of interest to the Task Force commander
in identifying where the enemy is and where they are not. Anything that would be useful to other patrols going in. Somebody might be going in where you came out, and they might be carrying onto a different area. Other units … quite often people from other battalions would come up and they would look through our records - our register of LZs - looking for information that was suitable to them saving themselves a bit of leg work, so yeah, the whole gamut.
Sometimes it was pretty brief and sometimes it was quite detailed, just depending on what had happened while you were away.
How did they choose your in point and your out point?
You select it. The Task Force commanders operations group might want to know what's going on in a certain area so took six grid squares out of it and then put you in to see what you could find.
It just depended on what sort of information the task commander was looking for at the time and that determined where you would go and how you would do it.
What were some of the blokes like that were part of your patrol?
A cross section of ordinary Australian society, really, pretty much.
Where you always with the same guys?
Yep, you always tried to do that, always tried to keep the same patrol. There was a little bit of juggling here and there - like, a guy might be sick and might miss one patrol. But generally you tried to keep the same patrol identity together and by doing that you learned each other habits and it became a well-oiled machine. You know, very few orders had to be given and very few questions were asked - everything was done pretty much on instinct. Everybody knew what to do, blah, blah, blah. Everybody sort of backed up somebody else. Everybody had two jobs on a patrol. We were all trained in two specialties, and if any [tape ends]
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 07
How many operations did you complete during your second tour?
Somewhere … about eight or ten patrols I would say. It would average one a month.
What would you be doing outside those patrols?
Outside those patrols? Trying to do as little as possible but camp routine got pretty boring.
The major pastimes of any defensive position was constant work on defences - on the wire, on the trenches and cutting the grass. The growth in tropical regions is pretty prolific … all that sort of routine stuff was always done and there were always work parties for ammunition,
sorting bunkers, cleaning and tidying and tents used to always rot out and putting up new tents, sand bagging … there was a thousand and one ongoing things to do in a defensive position. Which is why on the odd occasion … it was always preferable to be out on operations on a patrol and away from all that.
What was it like on SAS Hill?
We had it to ourselves and we didn’t get visitors unless they were cleared
from the OC[Officer Commanding], I mean, nobody came up to us for a social visit unless it was cleared. People didn’t just wander in and, as I said, we sat up a bit above everybody else and it had cooling breezes and we had a great view.
Did you wander down?
Occasionally I would go back over to other units and see old friends here and there, and go down to the PX [Post Exchange Store], a shopping trip down to the PX …
but really didn’t leave the hill except for Sundays to Vung Tau or to go out on ops, and that was about it.
What could you get at the PX?
Oh, they had a good range of stuff. Not that I bought much. A KM8 reel to reel tape recorder was pretty popular with the guys at that stage of the game. That could give you eight hours of Andre Costellani non stop … not that I bought one at that stage of the game, but fairly well stocked with whatever the Yanks had. They
had good cameras, radios, very cheap liquor, disgustingly cheap liquor, which we used to buy and package up and send home.
So effectively like visiting a duty free store, was it?
Yeah, but most of us didn’t buy that much. We tended to save our shopping until we went out on R & R and we had to remember that anything we bought, bulk-wise it would sit in pretty bad conditions in our tents
and go mouldy and the rats would come in and eat it or, as the OC had at one stage, he had a whole pile of tailors making suits for him in Hong Kong and we got rocketed one day and a piece of shrapnel went right through his locker and put a hole in all his civilian suits.
What kind of tents were you staying in?
180 pound tents, World War II vintage.
I’m sure they pulled them out of some long forgotten warehouse in New South Wales or Victoria.
So how many would you be sleeping?
Four in a tent.
What kind of furnishings would you have in the tent?
Whatever we could make. You might be lucky to have a folding chair but the main supply of timber for the home handy man was the .105 cartridge boxes.
So the ammo would come in in a wooden box and they would be discarded and so there would be a great pile of boxes down the gun positions and so we would go down and talk to somebody and get the boxes and load up a trailer and a vehicle full of old ammunitions crates and bring them back up the hill and sit down with a screwdriver each and take out the screws and dismantle them and turn them back into bits of timber and
use it for flooring - plank floors - building cupboards, tables chairs or whatever your ingenuity extended to.
Home away from home?
Yeah, almost. Huh.
So what would you get up to in Vung Tau in the tour?
SAS had a little bit of a break in Vung Tau. The R & C centre in Vung Tau had a number
of aluminium dinghyies with outboard motors, a couple of inflatable zodiacs and what not, and, oh, some Hobe Cats, that’s right, so guys could go down and do some sailing and what not. So the idea was the SAS provided a crew on the safety boat - on a zodiac - a couple of Yanks had disappeared out on the horizon out into the South China Sea and had to be rescued and they were pretty badly sunburnt when they got them back.
They went out drunk and came back sober. They decided to, and one of the little perks that we had because we did quite a lot of water operations back in Australia. But we only did one in Vietnam. Anyway, what we did was that we would run a safety craft down at the R & C Centre. The other little lurk was the Saigon Guard. Occasionally we got to go to Saigon and guard the Australian Embassy but that was pretty rare. A few of the lucky ones would get away on exchanges to the US units
and … but the greatest opportunity of all was to go on the salvage run to a place called Cu Chui where the Americans had a huge garbage dump. So as they were pulling all the units would dump their gear, there was this great rubbish dump and we used to go down and salvage all sorts of stuff, tents, you name it. We would just load it up and throw it on the back of a truck and bring it back.
And that sort of made life a bit more comfortable for us - living out of American rubbish dumps.
Did you do any exchanges?
No, I wasn’t trusted to do an exchange. My OC thought I would be a liability once I was out of the site.
How did you gain that reputation?
Oh, I don’t know, he… probably due to our midnight chats I suppose. Mainly the senior NCOs and a few of the patrol commanders got away.
The diggers … I don’t think any of our diggers got exchanges. That was reserved for senior ranks, so we just had to make with an R & R. I went to Hong Kong half way through the tour so that was a good break, yeah.
What did you get up to on your R & R in Hong Kong?
Just the usual wine, women and song so to speak. Well, not so much of the song. Ran out of money halfway though and finished up at an old Brit China Fleet Club, a NAFFI [Navy Army Air Force Institute]
establishment, for the cheap food and cheap booze, yeah.
What about Vung Tau at this time, were you getting down into the red light district and the bars?
Most of the guys would sort of take a trip down there, just depending on your degree of insobriety. I can't recall falling madly in love with any Asian maiden of ill repute in that time.
But you did visit the fleshpots?
When I went back in 1990 I saw that their granddaughters were as avaricious as their grandmothers were, yeah.
Was VD [Venereal Disease] a problem at the time?
This was always an interesting one. The COs of units would place bets with each other on the VD rate. A high VD rate and a high malarial rate was a sign of ill discipline within a unit - on the myths of modern soldiering sort of thing. So
if a unit had a low malarial rate and a low VD rate, it was one of the yardsticks used. Funnily enough the New Zealand Army in Malaya had this quaint situation where if you contracted VD for the third time you got sent home as punishment. So there you are, if you didn’t want to be in Vietnam you got VD three times and got sent home.
Some punishment, yeah.
And were there a few boys being sent home?
No, not once Vietnam cranked up. VD wasn’t a real problem. Malaria was a problem and at one stage of the game one of the rifle companies of a battalion had a very high malaria rate and the OC was in serious trouble … and what we did, and in fact and our patrol was responsible for it,
they sent an army entomologist from Australia and we took them out to the area that the rifle company had been operating in, and whilst he ran around the jungle with his insect net catching mosquitoes we gave him protection; and then we went back and he set up his portable lab and did his research, then the word came back from Australia that that strain of malaria that was in that area was resistant to Paladrin.
So that got the company commander off the hook and explained the high incidence of malaria. No, the guys hadn’t stopped using Paladrin and yes, malaria had developed resistance to the drugs we were using at the time.
And there was nothing wrong with the discipline?
No, there was nothing wrong with the discipline, no.
Did you socialise most with the Yanks in Vung Tau?
Not all that much … when we went with the Air Force we would socialise with the aircrew - the 9th Squadron aircrew mainly. Socialising with the Yanks’… Task Force had a US medium battery - the 7th Husky. They were self-propelled 155s and we would go down there for barbecues.
They would eat their hamburgers and we would eat their steaks. We would just take our booze for them.
What kind of booze were you supplying?
Oh, VB [Victoria Bitter] and Fosters’. The Americans supplied us with some horrible stuff - perhaps Blue Ribbon Budweiser … and we even had a beer called Crown which Korean War veterans said was the worst beer in Korea … And it was horrible. But we still drank it hot or cold.
Was there much dope [marihuana] going around?
I think we had one dope incident that I can recall in three tours. We were nowhere near the problem that the Yanks had, nowhere near.
When you say 'incident' was it a critical incident?
No, I think a bunch of guys had been down in Vung Tau and got some and were sitting up in a bunker up the top having an experimental puff and someone sprung them
and said, “That smells. What are you smoking?” and they said “Oh we stuck some cloves in the tobacco.” and that was found out it was, yeah … but that sort of made headlines at the time. But no, we had virtually nil as far as dope goes … or drug related incidents. We had one serious murder incident though, probably due to alcohol, or a combination.
It happened on Christmas Day and a bloke went off his tree [went crazy] at the officers’ mess and shot a few of them, but that was the only serious incident that I can recall for the duration of the Task Force … of that nature.
What issues was he harbouring?
I think he wanted to go home …his girl had written him a ‘Dear John’[letter informing that a relationship is over] or something like that
and it played on his mind and they said “Forget about it. You have three months to go.” and he got liquored up and went back and decided to rewrite history. He walked in and emptied a magazine into the officers’ mess and I forget how many were killed, two or three … and he got life, and there wasn’t too much argument about that. But that’s the only serious incident of that nature that I can recall, it was quite common with the Yanks … you would always be reading articles with the Yanks
the term ‘fragging’ came into existence where they expressed their displeasure.
How did that term get coined?
Well it came from the term 'fragmentation' - a high explosive grenade is a fragmentation grenade. It is designed to segment and breaks up into small bits of shrapnel, and so if somebody was ‘fragged’ it meant that someone had thrown a fragmentation grenade under their bed to express their displeasure.
What kind of gossip were you hearing?
Oh, not a great deal really. We were very isolated pretty much so we depended on what came down from headquarters. Now, we had a system: every afternoon at four o’clock just on knock off
or sometimes in the morning, would be an orders group. The troop commander would go away to the OC who had been away to the Task Force commanders O Group and he'd get his troop commanders together and give them a briefing; then the troop commanders would come back and they would pass on the message. Now, things would come through the latest intelligence reports about what was happening in the AO
and we'd get what was going on with the Yanks up north, major battles that were going in country. And the Stars and Stripes newspaper was there, so we sort of had a fair idea on how the war was going from the US point of view; and news papers back from Australia and New Zealand always carried the anti-war movement on the front page, so we were fairly well aware of what was going on back here.
And then our signals - the 125 Signal squadron - was an excellent bunch of communicators and they would rig up a bodgie radio on Australian frequencies and they would put out an underground bulletin from the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Commission] to the rest of us … mainly VFL[Victorian Football League] footballs scores and things like that, and Australian gossip, yeah.
Who were you supporting?
At that stage I think I might have been a Geelong fan just for want of something, you know, to take sides in an argument in a boozer and that.
I actually knew nothing about the game, but I would pick a side because there were no VFL teams in WA at the time. Only WA players poached by Victoria to play over there.
Why did you choose that the Cats?
Oh, I have no idea. Because my best mate picked somebody else so I just picked that to argue with him.
Who was your mate?
Oh a bloke by the name of Dave Thompson. He finished up as a Northern Territory police officer and we're still in contact via the internet - get the odd email from him, yeah.
Did you have a nickname for Dave?
How did he get that?
He used to stumble around a bit and I would inevitably have to carry him home from the boozer … six cans was about his limit.
And were you both in the SAS together and did you go on patrols together?
Yep, same patrol all the way through. In fact, I was the first one in our patrol to break it up. I'd come up two months earlier as a reinforcement so that meant that my twelve months was up. So I came back before the rest of the guys - six weeks ahead I think. So I was the first guy to move out of our patrol. Guys used to come in and out because one might have been sick or something like that but
yeah, our patrol probably retained its cohesion probably more than any other patrol in the squadron I would think.
What were some of the experiences that bonded you and Dave together?
Oh, I think we used to I remember he had a habit of over-exposing himself in contact, and I grabbed him from behind
and when I pulled him down out of the line of fire I pulled him into a puddle of mud. And when we got out of that he abused me for deliberately pushing him down in the mud. Then when we got back to camp I went up to his pack and I put my finger through a hole it its flap, and said, “That could have gone through you,” and I pulled out his pack and about six rounds had hit it.
A couple had lodged in it and the rest had gone through, yeah. He was a bit heroic was Dave - too, heroic for his own good. And he used to travel at the end of the patrol and he had a weapon system … that … it was an M16 with a 40 mm grenade launcher tucked underneath, and we’d had a contact front and we were breaking contact and getting back out of it
and he used to try and run backwards and look through a gap in the trees to fire a 40ml round [grenade round] back on to the enemy … you know, lob it back onto the enemy, and he decided to let fly as he was running backwards and he tripped and missed his aim and the grenade went off and hit a tree. Now these rounds need fourteen metres from the muzzle to arm and it went off fourteen and a half and hit the tree and showered us all with shrapnel which
made him quite popular, yeah.
Did he have a nickname for you Kevin?
No, I can't recall. ‘Pest’ I think he used to call me most of the time.
What about the other guys in your patrol?
Being from New Zealand naturally my nick name was Kiwi. That stuck with me the entire time I was in the army and still lingers on today. It was almost inevitable. It’s like any one here with red hair is 'Blue', that sort of nick name … any Smith is a 'Smudger' …
anybody from New Zealand joining the Australian Army is automatically a 'Kiwi', yeah.
What were the nicknames of each of the guys in your patrol?
Oh, well the patrol commander was Lloyd Beam and his nickname was 'Bimbo' because if got sprung out on training at Bin Doon -he'd hopped away on a taxi and we all know the song about, "What was Bimbo doing, going down to road to see his little girlio." Well Lloyd was sprung running away to see his little girlio, so we called him 'Bimbo'.
Dave [Thompson] was Crumblefoot because he was always falling over; Mick Crassovsky, the tall White Russian was ‘Crazza’;Nev [Taylor] didn’t have a nickname … so that was about it, yeah; but I mean armies throw up nick names which can be pretty cruel and harsh. You could do twenty years in the army and know a bloke for twenty years and only know him by his nickname
or initials. That's the other thing. Guys will always remember each others initials simply because on roll call … when we went away with 1 Squadron we had about four Smiths : Smith AR Smith KL, and Smith GD … "Which Smith are you talking about." "Oh, GD" … or KL or whatever. So you'd refer to those sorts of guys by their initials.
Did you find your nickname unflattering?
No, not at all because it was unique.
Well you are an Aussie really because of your grandfather?
Well, I’m a trans-Tasman Anzac having served in both armies on operations, so yes, I think I am a true Anzac.
I'll buy that for a dollar …
Can you tell me about a few dangerous situations or shaves that you guys had while on patrol?
Yes, lets think. Probably one of the most hair-raising experiences … we had a long insertion flight, something like forty minutes out from Task Force heading out over into Long Tan Province
and the weather came in and Albatross Lead came down to tree top - he aborted the patrol insertion - and at the time the patrol commander had a spare set of headphones on and he tapped me on the shoulder and he stuck the earphone over my head so that I could hear the intercom - the crews talking.
Albatross Lead - it was lost. We were at thirty feet and he was trying to head down a road and everybody was low on fuel, right, and it was, “Ohh this is not sounding good.” and it was getting on late afternoon and he decided to head into Ham Tan to refuel. It was the closest refuelling point … and that was a pretty hairy forty minutes. There were five helicopters
up each others' arse flying at tree top height in heavy black cloud; you know, just zipping; and the cloud would part and you would be on the tree tops then it would come up a little bit and back down you would go again and the next thing up and over. That one was a pretty long and hairy ride.
What was the outcome of that?
We got into Ham Tan and refuelled and then we went back we went out to sea and he came back in on the red lights on top of the tower antenna at Task Force in from … yeah that was exceptional airmanship - it really was, and pretty terrifying for … you know, you had no control over things and you totally relied on their bloody professional ability and it was of the highest order.
So that was a long hairy flight. And we did a night insertion in Zodiacs down to Long Son Island which was through the mangroves. And that …sitting in a Zodiac in the open with all your gear on and your life jacket on, and you are wondering if the enemy is hiding in the mangroves … yeah, that was a pretty … but we had one …
Sorry to interrupt, but what was the objective of that?
Well Vung Tau was generally a neutral area but it had been rocketed from Long Son Island - .107 mm rockets, and they had impacted on to the Vung Tau air strip, and so the only place that it could have come from was Lon Son. So we went
to go and find the, … well we found where he had been but we didn’t find him, he bailed out, but we found from where he had launched the rockets from. So you know that was ten days wandering around there in waist deep mud and swamp.
Did you locate the location where he was?
Yes, we basically gridded the island, or the eastern end of the island. There was an ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] outpost on the western end;
but we worked through it and found that he had a position there, but he hadn’t been there for about two weeks.
What had he left in his position?
Oh, just a bit of food wrapping. He had dug little bunkers for himself. The rockets had gone but he had put some aiming sticks up, so we figured that he used them for aiming. When you lined them up you could see the direction pointing in towards
Vung Tau …but we had …
Sorry, how could you tell that he hadn’t been there for two weeks?
Just the foot prints and the amount of rain that had fallen, and just the way the condition that it was in … so you know, not a fresh foot print “Oh he hasn’t been here.” worm casts on the ground, paper had started to break down, you know, he had some newspapers there that had been exposed to rain,
so just by looking at the site we estimated that he hadn’t been there for about ten days.
How accurately could you estimate between five or ten days or more?
Fairly accurate I guess … at the end of the time, I mean you would certainly know within twenty-four hours but after twenty-four hours it was a little bit difficult. You might get it to a day. But after a week of heavy rain you had no hope.
But if it had been relatively dry then it the signs will deteriorate at a lot slower rate, so it just depended on circumstances. You know, walk down the track and you see a broken spider web. Well, you know the spiders come out in the morning and put their webs up so hey, they had been there a couple of hours ago situation, so yeah there is a whole range of things in that tracking situation
that would give you indications of the aging a track. And the other and most probably the hairiest one of our making was… out to the east of the task force over in Long Tan province. Once again on the patrol where we had sprung the elephants, but we were following around the armoured thrust
and to see if Charlie was actually coming back into the area; and we came up to the edge of a long clearing. Now the clearing was about three kilometres long and about seven hundred metres wide, so we got there about two o’clock in the afternoon, and we had struck in the middle. So we wanted to wander around three kilometres around that way or three kilometres around that way or seven hundred yards across that way to get across
to where we wanted to be. So we sat there looked and OP'dd [Observation Post] the other side and there was nothing and we hadn’t seen any sign of the enemy around so we decided to take a punt. Now this is wide open flat grass clearing right. And away we go, diddley bop diddley bop and we get to the middle or about half way across and lo and behold an aircraft called a Bronco - an OV10 Bronco - he pings us. We're right out in the middle.
So he banks - puts it in a steep bank and comes down and right, he’s got us right there. But fortunately there was a shell crater and we all jumped into the shell crater and the patrol commander pulled out his radio on 241 international guard frequency, “Bronco, Bronco” - our call sign was Bravo 9024 -
“This is Bravo 9024 Australian at your port side. You are circling us now, over,” and then this American Negro voice comes up “Who dat down there?” “Ah Bronco Bronco this is an Australian reconnaissance patrol.” “You guys had better be you guys.” and so this exchange went on for a bit and in the mean time… and I mean he was loaded up - he would have wiped us all off the face of the earth no trouble, so he
goes around again, and finally the patrol commander persuaded him that we were friendly and could he please go away and leave us alone - which he did, and then we were out of there and we ran the last three hundred yards to get across to the other side.
What further threat did you fear once you ran?
Well, he would have drawn the crabs [drawn enemy fire] if there was any enemy around - an aircraft circling something would have alerted any enemy to something on the ground there … he was not circling that for the good of his health,
and we knew … we had taken a risk and it almost didn’t come off. It could have come to grief. If he had unloaded on us on his first pass he would have wiped us out, no worries?
Why did you take that risk?
Because we didn’t want to walk the three kilometres around. We were jack lazy. And we thought we hadn’t heard anything and it was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to get across to the other side
to a nice comfortable LUP [Laying Up Point] and we knew that a couple of hundred metres on there was a creek where we could have fresh water and plenty of brews so yeah, we took the risk and it nearly didn’t pay off.
Its not the kind of risk SAS guys I would think would take?
Oh yeah, yeah, there were a few of them. If we went into an AO and it had quite a few streams in it
and these streams were narrow and deeply cut alright, and at this time of the year in the dry season the stream beds were dry. Well, we were cross graining that and we came across an old camp. It wasn’t occupied, but it was about a thirty man camp. It was dug in, with trenches and fire positions overlooking one of those creeks. Well, when we went down and climbed up the other side
we looked down the bottom and there were foot prints down the bottom. The patrol that had been in there before us had walked along the stream. Now if Charlie had occupied that camp he was looking straight down on top of them and they were stuffed. If he had of sprung them in there he would have killed the lot of them. So that was the easiest route, the easiest way the terrain dictated but it was also the most dangerous.
Whereas we were working against the grain, cross graining, doing it a lot harder and a little bit more noisier, but, if the camp had been occupied then we would have had the drop on the enemy; but if the enemy camp had been occupied they would have had the drop on the other patrol. So when we got back and got up to the canteen and had a few beers someone said “You know we just got back out of an area that you guys were in a couple of weeks ago.
Now, you told us that this was your route.” and they said, "Yeah yeah." and we said "So how come we found your foot prints at the bottom of the creek down there?" and you know , they said, "Aww, did ya?" and they knew it straight away.
Was there any rivalry amongst..?
Yep, a bit of rivalry - some. It was suspected that some patrols would get themselves on a nice comfortable patch of grass and stay there …
Did you believe those rumours?
Oh, some of the patrol commanders had a little bit of a habit. If you understood the situation it was near the end of the war and no one wanted to be the last man killed in Vietnam, so particularly the older patrol commanders who were on their third tour and married with two kids were starting to be quite cautious all right, with that in mind.
It's late. You know, the Australian Government had already announced the withdrawal from Vietnam so as soon as the Australian Government announced the intention to pull out then the point was lost and most of the patrol commanders adopted a no risk policy pretty much. That’s not to say they wouldn’t do the job, but they would do the job with a lot more caution than what they demonstrated two years before
on their first or second tour and it was full on. So yeah, no one wanted to be the last man killed in Vietnam.
What characteristics defined a good SAS soldier?
… sense of humour.
Which you were well endowed with?
The ability to suffer fools.
No, I'm only joking. Yeah O.K. all those things, but I think being a good team player and being able to think for yourself is critical; and you've got to be able to think outside the square. One of the problems, one of the things in military life are structures, and it has to be the case in an authoritarian situation, but it doesn’t give much leeway for lateral thinking, lower down the ladder.
Well, right at the bottom of the ladder in SAS everybody has to be able to think for themselves. You have got to follow the game plan and stick with it but they've got to have their own one in case it all goes to pieces, you know, whereas in a conventional infantry unit or a normal unit - it doesn’t matter what the job is - they were all pretty much conforming to the one line of thought. So yeah, mental flexibility would have to be a second point.
But certainly a sense of humour, and the ability to enjoy yourself in adversity.
Nothing to add to the list?
No, not really. All the characteristics of a good Australian soldier are well-known I think. They are known and carved around the nation: mateship and endurance, bloody stoicism and that sort of thing.
We sort of made our mark in about four or five wars of the last century.
Do you think that is regarded internationally as it is here nationally?
Yes, but that comes with a proviso. When any army, and it doesn’t matter what it is, when you start to believe your own lies and that you are 'the best' then somebody is going to disprove that very, very quickly.
I think that’s one of the things that the SAS has always kept at the back of their minds: that you always had respect for the enemy and we have never lied to ourselves about how good we are, we always know that we have shortcomings and that the enemy isn’t as dumb as we would like to think he is. And I think that was born out in Iraq.
The successes in Iraq were largely due to very professional preparation and planning by the guys. It is the first time that Australian guys have gone away well-equipped - definitely superior to their enemy in all aspects, but they never short changed the enemy. They always gave him the respect that they were due and treated them accordingly. Subsequently they got back without any casualties. Lost one guy in Afghanistan through a mine incident,
but other than that, yeah, didn’t loose anybody in Timor, one guy in Afghanistan, a couple of guys wounded in Timor, and no casualties in Iraq … not a bad record.
How do those statistics compare with other Special Forces do you know?
Definitely at the top.
So statistically it’s undeniable?
Yep, and you will find that one of the reasons that the US asked specifically for the SAS
is that the SAS has retained skills and capabilities that other units have said, "We will never use that again." So history … that was our vehicle mounted capability - it was within SAS itself and close to being shelved and done away with - yet, it was vehicle capabilities in Afghanistan
and to a lesser degree and certainly in Iraq gave us the edge, for sure, and it was something that we were going to say that we don’t need this anymore so lets put it aside, lets not commit the time, the effort and the money to train guys in that area. We didn’t, and thank God someone had enough brains to keep it, and it payed off for us at the end of the day.
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 08
When we were last talking we were talking about your second tour of duty. How did it actually come to a close?
The second tour wound up in December of 1970 'cause I had gone up two months prior as a reinforcement and so I came back two months prior to the squadron changing over …
sorry, 2 Squadron replacing 1 Squadron, and I came back and I was back in Perth for the Christmas of ’70, New Year, and ’71 back into a bit of training and a few courses. And by about May 2 Squadron
had a major problem: the major in charge was a major problem and 2 Squadron was the first squadron to take away National Servicemen away. He extracted a promise from his National Servicemen who where only obliged to serve two years that they would stay on after their two years and complete their tour. But by May their two years had come up and they had had enough of the OC
and they pulled the pin and came back to Australia . So this left 2 squadron pretty short-handed. So about half a dozen of us here in Perth put our hands up and said, "Yeah well go back up and reinforce 2 Squadron." And at that stage 2 Squadron had the word that they would be withdrawn and not replaced …no, that’s right, they hadn't got the final word at that stage; and we went back into the same normal patrolling routine that we
did in ’70 and ’71. About July the OC of 3 Squadron came up and had a look and I spoke to him and I said, “All right can I get a slot and stay on with you?” and he said, “O.K.” and he came back to Australia and then he was only back a couple of weeks and the word came down that we had been pulled out
and won't be replaced. And I think about the August I went on … no I didn’t …SAS’s last patrol was mounted in Vietnam and I went in on a patrol on a helicopter as an escort to put these guys on the ground. I didn't get off the helicopter. But we came back and five days later they went in and pulled them out; and after that op we started to pack up the base and clean up everything
and got ready to return to Australia, and we would have been back here at the end of August/ September I guess, ’71.
When you came back on your second tour and you came back for Christmas, and I mean it must have been great to get home, you said you mentioned some training?
Well, it was back into the training cycle and there was a number of courses going on; and one of the things any unit does is never to go static- it can't stagnate, right, it suffers from lack of funds towards the end of the financial year money runs out and things get cut back but it still … certain things have to occur, and certain courses have to be run and people have to be qualified nobody has a truck drivers licence so all right, you’ve got a drivers course you have got to do in order to have guys with a truck drivers licences.
You need signal operators, so you have got to do things to sustain the unit. So there's always an ongoing requirement for training. As well as that within your own career stream there are courses and qualifications for promotion and all that sort of stuff on going regardless of operations. The army still has to sustain itself regardless of whatever operations it is doing. So there is no such thing as a 'break' in
any real sense - You'll get a change of scenery, a change of venue, a change of pace, you know … The general public seems to think that when there are no wars you sit in the barracks all day waiting for a war to happen. Heavens knows where they get that idea from. “Oh we’ve got the army why can't we use them to do it?” In fire fighting or flood relief for instance. They seem to be oblivious
to the fact that it is a constantly on-going organization - things are happening all the time. Occasionally you will come to a stop for various things. We came to a stop in ’75 when supply was denied - nobody knew what to do with the troops. Would they be sent home to their mother's to feed them and they couldn’t pay them because they didn’t have any money? But that got itself resolved.
But I mean that was an unique event in Australian history. But generally, I mean, there is always something going on.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the troops not getting paid and fed?
That was in ’75 and I was over in 1RTB in Wagga Wagga at a place called Kapooka just outside Wagga Wagga. And supply was refused by [Malcom] Fraser
who was then in opposition; and supply is the money bill for the government and the government didn’t have any money so they couldn’t afford to pay the troops bill etcetera and therefore couldn’t afford to feed them and we were all thinking “What are they going to do - send the recruits home to their mothers?”
and we were going to go out and drive wheat trucks around the Riverina. That lasted for a couple of weeks then the crisis passed and Mal Fraser became Prime Minister and we moved on. But that was an exciting event that one on November the 11th 1975.
It was a strange thing to have happened?
It was. It forced a double dissolution and I think there has only been three double dissolutions in Australian history. So it was a unique event in the political history of the country, that’s for sure.
Just going back to your third tour how long was that? Was it the full term?
O.K. No. In terms of twelve month tours the second one was only. The first one was six months, the second one was twelve months, and then the third one I think I was up there for four months and it was cut short
and we all came back to Australia.
Can you tell me why it was cut short?
Well the Government of the day and the US had started the ‘Vietnamisation’ program; which was another word for their withdrawal, they got the troops out and Australia just followed suit, basically. I think the Australian Government was war weary - it no longer had the will to carry on the fight, and the Americans certainly didn’t. They were quite happy then
to hand it over the South Vietnamese and let the cards fall where they may. Certainly the American public had had enough of the war, so the peace movement and the anti-war movement for one … Ho Chi Minh’s greatest asset was the American public, yeah.
What was the main difference between your second tour and your third?
I think definitely in the third tour the attitude was the ‘nobody wants to the last man killed in Vietnam’
so it was caution, caution, caution pretty much. There were still a few incidents but nobody was taking risks any more.
When it comes to taking risks, towards the end of your tour do you get more nervous about something happening?
Definitely, yes. As a result of that incident that I described in that first tour with the Cobra gun ship …
because the majority of those killed or wounded were National Servicemen at the end of their tour, the Task Force implemented a policy that nobody was allowed outside the wire within a month of going home, right, so that was to stop the impact on the nation - the family and the nation - of having National Servicemen
killed just before they were due to come home. It didn’t apply to SAS for obvious reasons but it was applied to try and minimise the damage that morale would have … I mean, there were a lot of things done towards the end that normally would not have been done as a matter of course. And that was to knowingly allow the enemy to escape from a situation because we didn’t want to run the risk of taking casualties,
because that would look bad in the press. So we started to fight the war, from about 1970 onwards, to fight the war with one hand behind our back. In real terms Australian commanders were reluctant to put us in areas where they knew we would run into the enemy. We still ran into the enemy but that was by accident not by design. So that sort of thing was going on, yeah.
What did you think about that decision to pull back?
Yeah, I thought it was bad tactically, and it was bad for morale in the guys. And when I have read subsequent accounts of it recently published in books here, yeah, it was bad for their morale. They had done all the hard work and they had pinned down and they were ready to deliver the final blow and told to back off, yeah.
What's your opinion of the demonstrators?
Generally to this day I hold the anti-war movement in the highest of contempt with the exception of the ten percent who are genuine conscientious objectors either from religious up-bringing or genuine conviction. That’s fair and reasonable, but those that seized
the moral high ground and decided that other people could go and fight this war but, “I’m too good for it.” no that was ... no, to this day I hold them in the utmost contempt, I think they aided the enemy and there's there is no doubt about it. In other political regime other than the western democracy that was treason and they would have been taken out and up against a wall and shot. No questions asked.
Certainly, as I said, the US media was Ho Chi Minh’s greatest unpaid ally. They won the war for him and he didn’t have to pay them a cent. All they did was put it on the television screens of middle America and Mum and Dad saw little Johnny getting killed on TV, and they lost the will to fight.
Surely the media had a lot to do with it?
They did. I mean the media are partially to blame but the whole US military system at the time,
it was a mess of their own making and this was contributed to by the media and certainly, look at the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive was one of the most serious defeats that the NVA sustained yet if you were to believe the media the Americans lost.
Now the NVA never came back into South Vietnam until 1972 right, they were soundly defeated in 1968 and the local Viet Cong were gutted. They never regained the same numbers or support after ’68 because they were decimated - yet, if you read the newspapers of the day they put it up as a great victory. Yet, it was a major defeat for the NVA.
They never came back in force until 1972 and then finally, won in ’75 for sure, but the power of the media was certainly evident through the Vietnam War, which is why in subsequent conflicts the military - the Australians, the US, and the UK - have gone to great lengths to control the media to ensure that what goes out
is not sensationalised across the TV screens of the nation. So the Falklands, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, the Gulf War with Iraq where the media were bedded into units - this became part of it, and filmed the narrow … alright, what they filmed was true but narrow, but they had no scope for interpretation.
Whereas Vietnam they had open slather and they were basically were fed a lot of lies. There was a thing in Saigon called the ‘five o’clock follies’ in the afternoon, and the General would come down and feed the media the rubbish, and they would file the reports. A small percentage were actually out with the troops where it was all happening, and they supplied accurate reports, but the majority had made it up. They had sat in a bar in Saigon and
concocted a report and sent it back to the States coupled with a bit of footage and it goes on TV around the nation.
What was your reaction … because at some time you must have become aware of the way the media was reflecting the public’s attitude towards war in Vietnam?
Oh, definitely by 1971, yeah, when I came back in Christmas ’70 definitely.
I was definitely aware the war was being lost by our own propaganda.
How were people treating you?
At that stage of the game the Australian public was pretty negative towards anybody coming back from Vietnam. Quite a few of the little watering holes around Perth … there were numerous altercations … the Pink Pig down at Subiaco was notorious for it;
Chelsea Tavern was another place; the student crowds out of UWA [University of Western Australia] would mingle with the lads and a few words would be exchanged and the next thing it would be on for young and old. Yeah, so I even to this day I just basically hold them in contempt, really.
Could you see an obvious change in the way your friends and family treated you?
Well, not so much family because I had only casual contact once every two or three years with the family. Friends no, because at that stage I had no friends who were civilians - all my friends were within the military. So that wasn’t a problem for me, and I stayed on in the army, so I stayed on within the military situation.
Before I get into what you did after the Vietnam War can you tell me about the day you left Vietnam for the last time?
Yep, I think we trucked down to Vung Tau and had a few beers and loaded up on the Hercules and flew back to Pearce. Then we got off and got paid.
And then what did we do?
How did you feel about leaving?
Yeah, pretty empty, because it was an unfinished job. We hadn’t completed what we set out to do and we knew that once again the little Vietnamese rice farmer was the guy that was going to suffer, Charlie moved back in and he would be made to pay - and at the end of the day they did. ’75 demonstrated very clearly
where their intentions for anybody who had been of any significance to the South. And certainly anybody who had worked for the Americans or us. So that was one of the reasons why I hold Gough Whitlam in contempt. He had it within his power to ensure that every South Vietnamese
who supported the Australians - from our barbers to our maids- could have been given a sanctuary or a refuge in Australia. But we left them to their fate and a lot of them didn’t survive. We got a few out and we were hit with a wave of boat people thereafter fleeing from it, but a lot of the people who should have been evacuated because of their loyal service to us, they were left there to their fate, and I thought that was a shocking thing.
So what did you end up doing after you came back from Vietnam?
Soldiered on … what was that ’71 … stayed here in Perth until ’75 and went over to New South Wales … Wagga Wagga in ’75’. '76.'77 went up to Townsville in ‘78/’79
and by 1980 I had had enough.
Well you continued your military career even after Vietnam, so could you tell us a little bit about what you were doing?
Pretty mundane, pretty boring, . The army went - not for the first time - this is a common situation, demobilising after
a conflict, reducing numbers. The army went into a post-Vietnam depression. Down hill, down hill, down hill. Morale went down hill, the numbers dropped, it lost its direction, everyone scrabbling for whatever crumbs were left on the table, and there wasn't much. The governments were cutting budgets, “We can save money we can put it somewhere else, we don’t need an army anymore,” the whole sort of scenario we suffered from
in a big post-operational depression. And that didn’t bottom out until … and it bottomed out for the SAS when CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] met in ’82. CHOGM in '82was where it turned around for the SAS, because of that bombing then, then the Hilton bombing - that’s what gave the impetus to SAS
and put the money back into it and they put it on the counter terrorist direction road. SAS then rebuilt from there and went on from strength to strength. But the rest of the army wasn’t so lucky and it was still going down hill - still hack and slash, so basically by 1980 I saw no future in this.
What sort of duties were you doing?
Monotonous, boring, repetitious, no, it was just a charade. I was in Townsville with 2 /4RAR 2/4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment] and it was just going through the motions, trying to get a tick in the box here and a tick in the box there. So you know “God this is a joke. They can't be serious.” and they weren't serious - people just getting their twenty years in and saying, "All I have to do is suffer
this and I’ve got my pension and I’m out of here." sort of thing. No, so I gave it away in 1980 and got out of the army, the regular army, and came over here and worked back on Coolam Island, and then in 1981.
What did you do on the island?
What did I do? I went back as a kitchen hand, using my military skills, which I had polished to a high peak of professionalism.
I was a kitchen boy … and anyway a bloke turned up and said, “We are raising Norforce [North West Mobile Force] and we looked at this and we looked at that and he said we are going to put a patrol here.” and I said “Oh yeah that’s interesting, tell me more.” and here and there and one thing led to another and I spent the next thirteen years in Norforce
and ran the Coolam Island patrol for I guess for twelve or thirteen years.
Can you describe more about Norforce?
When Vietnam finished and SAS was in the wilderness looking for something to do, we looked at the surveillance of Northern Australia. Right, Continental Defence was the buzzword
and the country was wide open. I mean one man and two dogs would have given us a headache. The dogs might have had rabies for example. So SAS ran a couple of exercises and a whole lot of brain picking and the CO - now our Governor-General - after an exercise called Long Vigil wrote a paper and he said “O.K. this job needs to be done
and SAS isn’t really suited for it; we have got other priorities but we need an army reserve unit comprised of people in the region to conduct surveillance across our North." That's it in a nut shell. So by 1981 Norforce was raised in Darwin under the venerable John George - who've I'd known from previous times - and they had all of the Northern Territory
and the Kimberley region of Western Australia as their backyard to play in, so away we went. So I was doing then about eighty or a hundred days a year of army Reserve service in Norforce which I did up until 1993.
So what does that actually entail?
Well, that was an interesting one. Coolam Island was a water operations patrol, ten man Zodiacs, outboards, blah, blah, blah, and all the gear
that we needed to run around small watercraft around the coast, basically running beach reconnaissance and coastal surveillance. What would happen is we would get away for a ten day patrol. On a Friday one of the Navy patrol boats would call in and we would have a briefing and tell them what we wanted to do, and load up the patrol boat and sail at about midnight and steam til six o’clock the next morning .
And they would drop us off somewhere and we would hop into the boats. It would be over the horizon the skipper would say, "Run in on 315 O.K." So we'd set the compass and away we went. An hour later land would come up on the horizon and we would make a land-fall and then start working our way around the coast. The patrol boat would stay out there as a safety craft and refuel for us and rations and we might
go back to it one because we might have all ready installed the patrol; so we worked around the St. George Basin and the Kuri Bay Pearl Farm; around to the old Camden Sound settlement, …oh we found an old grave up there … yeah,
it was Mary Jane Pascoe 1833 I think … not bad… it wasn’t the original marker and it was where they used to careen the old sailing boats and where Governor Grey came down the Prince Regent River - right up the Prince Regent and up past tidal influence; so we worked that Kimberley coast
and Walcott Inlet, right around between Coolam Island and Wyndham. So three times a year we would do a ten day patrol, so over a period of years we would cover the whole coast and then it was time to start doing it again … chart changes and beach surveillance; looking for water points and anything that then developed on from after my time …
there are now three surveillance in the north, Norforce based in Darwin, Far North Queensland based at Cairns and the Pilbara Regiment at Karratha. They are in fact are in fact doing what's called Operation Cranberry in conjunction with customs and coast watch, and carrying on .. we apprehended crocus fisherman and we got a boat load of Pakistanis in business suits and brief cases.
They wanted to find out where the bus stop was. That was a bit strange. Came ashore on Coolam Island, got dropped off, suit, tie and brief case and we said “Where are you going?” and they said, “Where can we catch the bus to Perth sir?” “This way to our local police station, sir.” yeah so early days of involvement in that. And that was really a good satisfying time in Norforce.
But once again a long way from our headquarters. The CO was in Darwin and I was on Coolam - pretty much a free range to do our own thing. They gave us general guidance, and we would tell them what we needed to do the job and lambast them if they didn’t provide it … and we got it. They accepted pretty much everything that I put up to them, in terms of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go and very seldom got a knock back
What was the most enjoyable part of that job?
Petty Cash. Spending the Governments money. I rorted it. If the CO in Darwin had chocolate biscuits for morning tea then the CO had chocolate biscuits on Coolam, and the petty cash paid for it. Yeah, that was good, I had to bend the system to make it work but it worked.
But I ran a patrol out of my own chequebook at one stage and the CO found out and freaked out about it and I said “Well sorry sir, but your quartermaster could not provide and your ops officer wanted the patrol provided, and my chequebook was the only way we could get it done.” "Well, we'll get this sorted out." he said. So away he went and stormed off and yep he got it sorted out and we didn’t have to do that again.
That was a radical decision to take it out of your own pocket?
Yes it was, but I had the system bluffed. I knew they wanted it done and they said “Do it.” and they didn’t know how to do it, so I solved the problem for them. And by doing that I forced them to sit down and work out how to do it. We had to pre-position fuel in containers and the containers that we used were four gallon
jerry cans and they were the only ones approved by the army; and we couldn’t recover them, so we had to write off something like twenty jerry cans and they were fluffing around like an old hen saying, "Ooh, they cost twenty dollars each and that’s four hundred bucks and we can't really afford that." So in the end I fixed it. I paid a bloke to go and put them in and we used sixty-gallon drums and I sent the bill to the army.
It didn't happen again. I sorted that one out. But I had a ball when I was there. I went to the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli. The CO asked me lay a wreath on behalf of Norforce and 7MD [7th Military District – ie the Northern Territory] as it was at the time I said I would be pleased to do it; and I bought a couple of wreaths and bought a couple of cards and laid them and when I got back I sent the cash officer a bill for ten million Turkish Lira.
They completely freaked out - saw the word 'million' and didn’t read anything else. So that took them quite some time to sort out.
What made you decide to go to the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli?
I guess the fact that my grandfather had been there. I had accumulated long service leave by that time and I felt the time was right; and I went with a friend still serving in the regular army serving in 2/4RAR; and we went to the UK and stayed with
his family in the UK and then travelled together across Europe and down Italy and across to Greece and into Turkey and Gallipoli.
What was the best part about being involved in that?
It was still dark. Bob Hawke [Australian Prime Minister] came strutting along. I picked up a rock and threw it at him and nobody saw me …
unfortunately I missed. I am only joking. No, no, the greatest thing there were a couple of the old diggers, brought along on wheel chairs and they had attendants with them and they stopped just in front of me and John, and one of them got out of his wheel chair and “I walked up here seventy-five years ago and I'm gonna walk up here again.” I thought that was magnificent, yeah.
And certainly the fact that young Australians and New Zealanders from all over Europe - all over the world I guess - flocked to Gallipoli in their thousands. You would have thought it was a bloody AFL [Australian Football League] grand final.
How surprising did you find that?
Very surprising, yeah, because I had pretty much at that stage written off the youth in the sense that they had no value for the heritage of the past
and no appreciation of what had been done. But that’s turned around and I’m pleased to say that I have been proved wrong on that point. Each successive Anzac Day has more youth participating and watching. I go to schools and give Anzac Day talks at various schools around here, and yeah there is an increasing awareness
of that we are a country with heroes - people have done more than play say two hundred games at the AFL or won the Bathurst Five Hundred twice … you know, people who have really achieved great things in their lives.
Have you got any theories as to why it has turned around?
I think Australia as a nation was probably looking for heroes,
trying to find its own identity. This has probably been spurred on by the Aboriginal land rights claims, where the aborigines are grabbing the high ground on who we are and regaining their own culture and identity and seizing it back from the rubbish bins of history. White Australian is waking up too and saying “Hey they are stealing the march on us, we have a heritage too!” and its time that we sat up and valued our heritage and its time that we taught our kids about it
because if we don't, all they are going to be taught at school is sixty-thousand years of aboriginal occupation - we don’t want … we want them to know something of white Australia, so I think Geoff Gallop [Western Australian Premier] - bless his little cotton-picking heart -has put Anzac Day into the education syllabus and things are now to be taught on a formal basis … probably put me out of a job.
What do you do as part of Anzac Day?
Well, I tend to go to a different location within the state each year for a different reason. And the fact that I served with a number of different units I have got different affiliations. If I am home in Perth I will usually march with the New Zealand contingent. I will then have a few beers afterwards with the Vietnam Vets and then I'll head off to the SAS; and if I go away and like last year - we picked a little town down in the southwest that had just built a war memorial - down at Walpole,
so we got a bus load of guys and said “Well Walpole hasn’t had an Anzac Day since 1950 so let's go down and give them an Anzac Day,” so fifty of us went down and got together with the locals and we marched through the town and they treated us like royalty and we had a great time.
That’s a really delightful thing to do.
Yeah, I enjoyed it and it must have been a good day because I woke up with a hangover.
You certainly have put your finger in quite a lot of pies?
Well, after thirty years of assorted service in two armies, yes, you can say that. It tends to go that way.
Do you find the SAS really stick together?
Pretty much. All the units at this stage of their life from the Vietnam this era are now tending to stick together; and the realisation is and it is quite clear
either side of politics Labor or Liberal - they really want to do away with the Veteran's Entitlement Act. They no longer want to pay the bills and foot the costs twenty years down the track of the consequence of sending young men off to war. If you have a look at the latest piece of legislation to be tabled in parliament - the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme - it’s a disaster,
it is basically the end of the Veterans’ Entitlement Act by a slow death. Entitlements will cease and the old guys will die and they won't have to pay TPIs [Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension] any more. So we are now fighting, the veteran community is fighting for the interest of today’s young men and women, because the Government is out to shaft them, it really is, there is no two ways about it.
Even though Danna Vale [Minister for Veterans’ Affairs] stands up on television hand on the heart and says “I will die in the trenches for the veterans.” it is not true. She will go through the motions and she will put up a bit of a fight in cabinet, but at the end of the day Howard [Primie Minister] and Abbot [Health Minister] will call the shots and we will be sold down the drain. Howard is the greatest grandstand merchant. He rides on the back of reflected glory
and is there to wave the troops off and welcome them back, but when it comes to putting legislation through Parliament for the benefit of veterans he doesn’t want to know about it.
The Vietnam Veterans Society always tends to be politically active?
We’ve had to be because the sad thing is both the World War I and the World War II veterans were basically shafted by DVA [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] - the bureaucrats ran the scene. It was not until the advent of
the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that actually forced bureaucrats in DVA and the government in general to justify their decisions. They were making decisions outside the Act, they were ignoring the content of the Act, “Oh this year we have got to save a million dollars,’ that means twenty applications for the TPI had to be knocked back in each State, or what ever the process was, so
guys who should have been getting compensation from the Government from World War I and World War II were denied it. They got knocked back once so they never went back again - totally discouraged and that’s all my Government thinks of me and they never go back. Every man that came back from three and half years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, in my opinion, when they got off the boat in Australia they should have got TPI straight away that gave them a breathing space to get back on their feet.
If they did they could have come off it and gone back on it any time they wanted to but they have the chance to work again if they felt up to it. Instead, guys just lived lives of misery, shattered lives, shattered romances, you know and just a huge amount of pain, suffering and personal loss simply because the Government would not recognise the sacrifice they made. I think the Vietnam Veterans were more aware that if they shut up and put up
the Government would walk all over them exactly the same way, so they started to fight - and its going on now and it will be an on-going one.
Well there is always the constant Agent Orange [herbicide used in Vietnam] affair …
Agent Orange has sort of moved on and it has now gone on to the second generation and the effects that Agent Orange is having on children of veterans. Once again they don’t want to know about it. They will pay it out for veterans but will they accept it for defects in child birth and that sort of thing
and the effects on their kids they will argue the point, argue, argue.
Where you ever in the vicinity of Agent Orange?
Yes, indeed, we frequently were patrolled through defoliated areas and we frequently took water from streams that had been running through defoliated areas [tape ends]
Interviewee: Kevin Bovill Archive ID 0543 Tape 09
You were telling us about your exposure to Agent Orange?
Yeah, we were drinking water from streams that ran out of defoliated areas I think we got sprayed once in ’67 on slope thirty but yeah, there would be I'd say, ninety percent of any Australian/New Zealander who servicemen
in Vietnam and particularly if they had been in Task Force and served in Phuoc Tuy Province, has be exposed to it no question about it. There were a few lucky ones that never left Vung Tau or never left Saigon, then OK, they would not have been exposed. But we used it. We killed vegetation around the perimeter - you would get a knapsack sprayer and go down and mix it up and put it on and pair of greens and walk around spraying the stuff.
How prevalent have side effects from Agent Orange been?
Well, a couple of friends of mine, their wives had three or four miscarriages before they went full term - their kids were O.K. as far as we know, but yeah there was quite a bit of that. There were a couple of guys that I can remember coming back to Australia with very bad acne - that came out after exposure from Agent Orange, very bad,
but it was the only sort of direct affects that come to mind.
Have you been alarmed personally?
I always suspected that something might happen, that one day I might wake up crazy or crazier, yeah it was always in the back of my mind that I could well be affected by it in some way or it could skip a generation.
It's always a worry for kids, and those that are that way inclined to have families.
I was going to ask you of what was the significance of Australia securing the Phuoc Tuy Province in the Vietnam War?
Well, it was the decision to take an area and keep ourselves separate from the Americans, so if we had gone in under direct American command they would have sent us from one major fight to another, alright, which
the Australians wanted to have its own area to operate in its own way outside US control. So they selected a province, selected an area and got the agreement of the Yanks and away we went to do our own thing .But from time to time we would call them in to get their support but basically we operated independently of them.
In terms of the overall conflict how significant were the VC occupants of Phuoc Tuy?
Well, they exerted a considerable influence over the local population, through terror and extortion. They probably didn't win too many over through love and kisses but they certainly got them at the point of a gun. They probably … around … I would say that in 1968/69
the Task Force had the most secure control of the province, then after that, once the withdrawal started Charlie moved back in; and of course the day that we left he basically took it back over again. It was one of his heartlands prior to the Australians arriving and the Long Hai mountain complex was a traditional haven going right back
I think Denise [interviewer] asked you earlier about at the time you were leaving, how you might have felt when you heard about the fall of Saigon?
Yeah, April 30th 1975, a very sad day, and I think I put the troops to bed at seven thirty and went up to the staff mess with a couple of other Vietnam Vets and I think we drank ourselves into oblivion by about
two in the morning.
Have you gone back to Vietnam?
I went back in 1993, back to Vung Tau. I hired a vehicle and went up to the Task Force and went around a few sights and went up to the Horseshoe and drove up Route 2 up as far as Courtney Rubber, I guess, looked around. I had a rather interesting little experience. I was on a bus
and I had a seat alongside the driver and we were coming down Route 15 from Saigon to Vung Tau and I couldn’t recognise anything. The countryside had changed pretty dramatically plus the villages had expanded and spread out along the highway. And the first thing … when Nui Thai Vais came into sight and we got a bit closer and they had been denuded of vegetation
and I said to the driver “Oh, Nui Thai Vais,” and then I looked over and said “Oh Long Son Island” and Vung Tau … cause you could see the rabbit ear antenna on the hill. They were from our time and they were still there and he sort-of got the message that I had been there before.
What had you gone back to Vietnam for?
Probably to lay a few ghosts and to see how the place was, to see how I would feel, how I could handle it, which wasn’t too bad. It was a little bit emotional to get up the top of the hill and look around, but yeah, I didn’t have any real problems with it. In fact I went up to Da Lat - and I hadn’t been to Da Lat before and I quite enjoyed that … as well I had been to Nha Trang before but, ah the place had improved out of sight.
Vung Tau was still the same old fleapit that it always was - probably even worse. Certainly the locals were a damn sight avaricious, but yeah I enjoyed going back.
Who did you go back there with?
On my own. I was in Saigon and I booked a car and the driver had arranged for two other people to come with me and it turned out they were girls from Sydney, sort of a surfing crowd, the pair of them. They were quite characters in their early twenties I guess
and we were driving along and we got out toward Bien Hoa and I was giving them a bit of a running commentary on things as we were going along and I said to them “That’s the Bien Hoa air base - we had a big battle there in ’65 and you might remember reading about it in the papers,” and one of them turned around and said to me, “I wasn’t into newspapers when I was three.”
Had you considered going back there with anyone else?
No, but I mean that’s only because that hadn’t come up - most of my trips have been pretty much by myself, yeah.
I agree that travelling alone is probably the best way to travel. Do you have any other opinions on that?
I did twenty three thousand miles through the US in a campervan by myself -
not a problem, and most of my trips back through Asia and Indonesia were all pretty much by myself.
How many times have you been back to Asia?
Thirty-plus … I lost count at one stage. I added them all up to convince Immigration
about my situation when my wife was applying for a temporary residency visa. And I think I had done … I had spent something like five years all up in South East Asia when I added the whole lot together sort of thing.
Can I ask you first what is that attraction to South East Asia? That is an incredible number of times to visit.
Oh, a combination of things. I have always enjoyed the food, cheap food, cheap booze, cheap accommodation. One of the few pluses that I came out of the army was a degree of fluency in Indonesian, so that certainly helped me travelling around Indonesia and it opened a few doors being able to speak a bit of the language -
definitely an advantage and I guess I’m one of those characters that enjoy travel. You know, you get bit by the travel bug and it just stays with you.
Are you attracted to leaving Australia because of the time that you spent in Vietnam?
I guess that must have been where the seeds were sown. I was gone at eighteen and never went back to live again,
and I have only ever been back for short periods ever, but I guess since from eighteen years of age I have always been a bit of an itinerant. What I have been here … ten years … that's the longest that I have been anywhere, since I joined the army at eighteen. Ten years in Perth, a record!
Can you tell me how you met your wife?
Yes, I met her on the internet in a chat room, and I was
looking for a bit of a conversation to sharpen up my Indonesian and she was looking to improve her English so everything she said to me in English I replied to her in Indonesian; neither of us was any good, and it completely defeated the purpose, but it just went from there and one day I said “I’m going on a trip in a couple of months time and you can come with me if you like.” and we arranged to meet and we travelled together for six weeks. And
that’s where it all started, yeah.
How long have you been married now?
Can you tell me about the wedding ceremony?
Yes, traditional Suvanese style, cast of thousands … dressed up like a Potentate in tradition Suvanese garb, with a lot of civic dignitaries, and I bowed a million times
and shook hands with a million people, yeah, quite different, I could show you the tape!
Did you have a second ceremony?
Well, I did a registry office wedding here mainly to get the ball rolling with Immigration for a temporary resident's visa and then to satisfy the social requirements to my wife’s family and the expectations of all her friends etcetera
we had a traditional wedding in Perlcarta [?].
I’m surfing around a bit at the moment … but you mentioned that when you came back from service in Vietnam you experienced a heightened … your senses were heightened during war time there. Does it revive that heightened sense when you return to Asia as a tourist?
To a certain extent … once I leave Bali and get on the bus and I’m across the Bali Straight there at Gilimanuk on to Banyuwangi you're into bandit country once again, yeah. Travel is always a bit of an adventure. I swam across the Rio Grande and half expected to meet Yul Brenner and the boys riding up, you know, that sort of thing.
And yeah, I actually had an Anzac Day in Mexico.
How did you spend that day?
In a place called Mammas Cantina drinking Corona beer and eating enchiladas I think.
There wouldn’t have been too many Aussies there I suppose?
No, a bunch of very confused Mexicans though.
What does Anzac Day mean to you now?
Well I guess in the first instance it’s commemoration, recognition of what was done and the sacrifices that were made before; and secondly it’s a day to get together with old mates and draw strength from one another and lend morale support. Some guys are on a rocky road. So it's part of our lives where we are actually starting to come back together, our lives are sort of getting on behind us, and those that have had families are all grown up
and gone, and guys know that their time is finite and we have lost a lot through illness and a lot through suicide, so our numbers are thinning significantly and yeah … so we just are basically getting back together. Rebuilding old bonds, yeah.
You mentioned a lot of Veterans committing suicide. Is the RSL [Returned Services League] taking any steps to address that issue?
Yeah. Through Veterans’ Affairs and various Ex-Servicemen’s organizations I guess that they are.
Any of the World War I Veterans - if they are still alive - would have long committed suicide if they were going to, so that’s past for them, but certainly in the Vietnam ranks there are some shocking statistics on suicide and in fact just this last month there was a particularly tragic case of a friend of mine
in New Zealand who had submitted a claim. He had thirteen aspects to his claim - thirteen things that were wrong with him - and he got his letter back from Veterans’ Affairs and they had only accepted him for three claims and granted him a 15% pension to which he replied “Is that all I’m worth to the Government, 15%?”
He didn’t read the rest of the letter which said his other claims would be reviewed, he would have to make doctors’ appointments … he just went out into the shed and shot himself. That caused a bit of stink in New Zealand and their Director of Veteran Affairs was pretty well shattered by it, and so she should have been - it should never have been presented that way. But the same things happen here. Yeah, it’s still a big issue.
How do you think the issue could be well addressed?
Short of a social revolution it's difficult. Neither Government on either side of the Tasman really wants to know about it, they just do not want to know, don’t want to spend the money, don’t want to set a precedence. What they want to do is legislate the problem out of existence. Which is what they're doing.
So it's not something that can obviously be well handled?
no, no hope. Bureaucrats have very little understanding - almost no understanding of what veterans have been through, and those that have been through it themselves, they are generally politically on the other side of the fence and they are a protected, mollycoddled bunch. They've got their snouts in the trough and just do not want to know about it.
They are alright, and they don’t have to give the concern. So yes, it is a sad situation … our system is probably the best of the western world but there are a lot of faults with it so you can imagine how much worse off other guys are, particularly in the UK and New Zealand.
You have been working as a volunteer in the war museum. Can you tell me about your role there?
The Army Museum of Western Australia is located at the Fremantle Barracks … basically as a volunteer guide, doing a bit of researching … so just a general help out. I have been pretty active in the campaign to save the barracks, just another example of bureaucratic intransigence and indifference … that in 2000 the army decided to sell it. Bearing in mind
and the historic significance of the site - the Commonwealth has occupied it for 93 years and it’s the longest continuously occupied military site in the state, dating back to Swan Colony days, and there is no other place in Western Australia of equal significance. It is also, outside the War Memorial in Canberra,
the next biggest collection of military artefacts in the country, conservatively worth between two and two and half million dollars of exhibits on display. To that effect the army wanted to sell it and the public protest prevented that and the Howard Government then decided to sell the site to Western Australia for a peppercorn lease
and walk away. Now when they walked away they left a maintenance bill of around four to five millions dollars - they had let the place run down because they had thought they would flog it to Notre Dame University. So anybody would take it over would have to spend five million to get it up to scratch
and the government … Geoff Gallop [Premier of WA] yesterday at four ‘clock released a press statement saying that they would not accept the gift - some 'gift' when you have to spend five million bucks to get it up to scratch. The Federal Government indicated they would not pay the State Government any rent for the army museum, so we have gone from square one and just about got to square two and we are now at square minus five,
so what the Federal Government will do, we don't know. What we would hope that they would do, we can't expect them to do the principled thing - because they haven't got any - but we would like a situation similar to the Sydney Harbour Trust - where they found one hundred and fifteen million dollars for the Sydney Harbour Trust to look over seven Commonwealth sites around Sydney Harbour, five of which were Defence.
They found one hundred and fifteen million to do them up. We only want five million and we will run the site ourselves. The Army Museum Foundation has put together a business plan but we really need a Trust. We are not in the business of running a business. We just want to run the museum and the Trust can run the site. However that’s up to the Government, Fran Bailey the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Defence has indicated
that, very clearly, that they will not spend any money on it. They want us to survive but they don’t want to provide us the means to survive and prosper. So it’s potentially a world class museum and be a tragic loss to W.A. if we have to shut it down. And once you close the museum down and disperse the exhibits and you will never get them back - once a collection goes it is never reconstituted.
How and why is the preservation of Australia’s military history important to you?
Well, if we don’t preserve it for future generations they will never know what was done. This is why the Aborigines they have realised they have to fight to retain their culture, that they have to teach their kids the language and their own history and tell their own stories,
because if they don’t do it and it goes it is gone forever. You can't bring back a dead language. It’s the same with our heritage, once the bull-dozers go through the site you can't rebuilt the old artillery barracks with was built in 1910. It just doesn’t happen.
Extending that question beyond the significance of the barracks, how and why is preserving our entire military history important?
Well, it gives a yardstick for future generations to measure themselves against. Right, take an example … all right when we joined the army in 1915 we were given an thirty pound pack and we had to march thirty miles in five hours right; the kids today say well, let’s convert that to metric, and so can I put a 40kg pack on my back and can I march
60km in five hours. Am I as good as granddad was? So it's a yardstick. It also creates our sense of nationhood and gives us our identity, of who we are as a nation and I guess our place in the world. I mean, we are a European race in a South Pacific region, pretty out of place, and if we have a clear understanding of our heritage and a strong grasp of
history, then, we become secure in our place both geographically in the world and within ourselves I think, yeah. How does that sound?
It sounds profound. As a veteran of war, what place does war have in perhaps in our future?
It should have none. It should have none.
Warfare is the most futile undertaking known to mankind. Yet, for some inexplicable reason for however long we have been on planet Earth we still haven’t found a better way of solving our problems, and if we look at the situation that the world is in today, here we are in the 21st century and we are still no further on from day one when we came out of the caves and started
picking up dollops of dinosaur poo and firing them off at each other. I mean the conflict was still there and we are at the highest order of the creatures that inhabit plant Earth yet we are the only ones that wage eternal war on ourselves, heaven knows.
How would you justify or explain that to a peace flag waving hippy?
Well, I guess you have to decide at the end of the day, "what do you value", and if you value anything in your society or your way of life then you have got to be prepared to fight for it, because there are people out there who want to take it off you. One way or the other we have to fight the politicians for the welfare of the veterans because they want to do away with it. And I guess on a global thing it is exactly the same thing, and there is no shortage of oppressed minorities around the globe …
the increasing gap between the western developed nations and the poor, you know, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer .. and what are we doing about it?
What do you think about global stability at the moment?
An oxymoron isn’t it? The accurate description is 'global instability' - the World Trade talks at Cancun have broken down
because they can't agree to give a little bit more to the poor. The Green House - the Kyoto agreement - you know, we've thrown that in the bin. We still want to pour the crap up our chimneys, we don't want to shut down or modernise factories or cut down our green house emissions … so you know, the rich western nations led by the US are consuming the Earth’s resources far out of proportion to what the population warrants, yeah.
You know, we've got three TV sets in each house and half the world hasn’t even got a house.
Do you think war has a place in sustainability ?
Well, only as a population control. As the world’s population increases the globe is less capable of producing food to sustain them then war is a natural limiting factor.
Do you think we should adopt nihilistic attitude to the future or..?
I would try and be optimistic and hope that mankind develops enough common sense to resolve these problems without resolving to warfare, but history tells us that to date we have not been able to do that. So we must maintain a standing defence force with a capability to deter anybody who wishes to inflict harm upon us
and also to project the Government's will beyond our shores. An example of that was Timor where we owed the East Timorese a pretty big debt of gratitude - they saved the lives of a couple of hundred Australians in 1942 but we sold them down the drain after the war and let the Portuguese come back; and in ’75 we sold them out to the Soeharto regime
and we allowed twenty-three years of brutal regime just off our shore and just over our horizon and allowed them to rob, rape and plunder, you know, they went in with a population with about 1.5million and when they finally left in 2000 I think there were 750,000 left. They slaughtered the East Timorese and we stood by and we did nothing.
Once again, Whitlam, a man I hold in the utmost contempt! Don Willisee, the recent passing of Don Willisee the Foreign Relations Minister … he said we should support the East Timorese and we should not let the Indonesians occupy, rob, rape and pillage
through East Timor. So poor old Don had a vision that Gough was blind too, but Gough won't tell you that because he is ‘the greatest’.
Hypothetically if there was a threat to Australia’s security in the future what would you hope of the young generation of men at the time?
Yeah, that’s a bit of worry and the worry is this: the way the government is going and the way that the government treats veterans and the way the government - through political correctness and the mores of society and the social engineering that is going on - you will, in a very short space of time, have a generation of people
who are incapable of bearing arms to defend the country. They don’t know how and they won't want to know how , and they are will be useless to do it. There is the old geriatric brigade - Dad’s Army - will have to crank up again until these dudes develop a bit of backbone. But really, it is. Ask yourself the question everybody of your generation: if we had to mobilise
and conscript the nation for war.
Working on this project has brought the reality of that question to my mind whereas before I don’t think I had ever really contemplated it.
Your mates will not be flocking to the enlistment centres. They will be flocking to the airports on one-way tickets but they will not be queuing up outside recruitment offices to enlist in the services.
I have grown up with the Anzac myths and legends but this project has brought the reality of war much closer to me. At what risk do you think those myths and legends are, of being sustained in the future?
It's dangerous … we cannot … a nation cannot live on myths and live on its own lies, like you know, "Australian soldiers are born a soldier and are invincible," nonsense! And it is a folly to believe it. As a nation we really need to look at some of the things that previous governments have done
that have been of an advantage to us when we were threatened. And the first thing that comes to my mind is from Federation 1901 to the outbreak of World War I there was a universal cadet scheme whereby high school kids were trained with real guns and were allowed to shoot real bullets, unlike today's cadets.
And then, it was compulsory, and if you look at between the war periods when Australian forces were really in the doldrums we sustained the CMF [citizens military force] and we nourished it to a certain extent, so many of the senior commanders in World War II had been junior commanders in World War I and had a very clear idea of what their responsibilities were
in terms of what they had to do, in training the guys and preparing them for warfare. So we were particularly lucky to go into World War II with a body of men who had some very hard learning experiences in World War I, and that really saved a lot of lives that would have otherwise been lost through stupidity or negligence or bloody plain incompetence. And then if you look … post-1945 then the Australian Defence Forces have changed
their nature . The …our Citizens’ Army, the CMF as it was, no longer exists as an army in its own right, and it now just exists as a reserve to primarily trickle feed individuals into regular units to bolster them up if they needed. We no longer have a large defence component, right, but we haven't committed units as such, we have committed individuals.
When 5/7RAR [5/7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment] went to Timor they took a company of Royal Victorian Regiment - one hundred and twenty reserve guys went away, but that’s an exception, and it's not what the regular army really wants to do. So probably we have got to look at reverse social engineering and try and
in culture to the youth of today something of the 'warrior ethic' which has been stamped on and crushed out of society through a whole lot of bleeding hearts and do-gooders … and you know, "Little Johnny is too sensitive to join you know," all that, you hear it, the bleeding hearts believe that they can stand in the middle of the desert and stop Saddam shooting at George Bush, yeah.
So do you think the Anzac myths and legends are alive and well?
Yes, and one of my goals in life is to try and convert the myth and legend into reality. I speak to school tours that come through and I give the good and the bad and try and prick the bubble of mythology and give the story as it really was.
Not every man was a hero. We did have a few cowards. Fortunately they were few and far between. Not every man was a military genius we had a few idiots at the top you know … and all that sort of thing … the reality of it.
What makes a coward a coward and a hero a hero?
Ah, very little, and there is a fine line. Men have been decorated for gallantry, have come to the bottom of the well of courage and by the time the next one comes around and they just can't hack it.
Yeah, there is not much difference between a hero and a coward. It is only the spur of the moment.
Did you witness any particular acts of heroism during your service?
You might call it 'fool-hardiness' - guys who were a little bit more prepared than other to put their heads up when they should perhaps have been pulling it in Oh yes,
I guess one of things that you always appreciate about your mates when they exhibit it and it’s called 'coolness under fire.' I gained a reputation of being one of the very few people who could actually stutter on a Morse key under fire, so when I was trying to send the message, "Send help now," it went out more like, "sssseeeeend hhhhhhelp nnnoow." Therefore I fell into that cowardly category
because I could stutter on a Morse key.
Would acts of heroism be recognised at the time?
Vietnam was a very difficult situation because there was a shocking thing called 'a scale' and it was an allocation of medals, and once that allocation was filled then any act of heroism that arose afterwards wasn’t recognised
You had x number of MMs [Military Medals], x number of DSOs [Distinguished Service Order] and once the allocation was spent, that was it. So that was a shocking system and we tried to redress it when Bronwyn Bishop was the minister and she stuffed it up something shocking and almost made it worse than what it was - if that is possible
so we really need to look … I think, Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq we have probably moved on from that and if you read the citations that have been in the newspapers quite recently you would not be blamed for thinking it was a one man army - Trooper X - because he first engaged the enemy with a javelin missile and stopped their vehicles. And
then as they hopped out of their vehicles and milled around he then engaged them with a .50 calibre machine gun - which gave them something to think about - and then, as they set up a mortar he took out his sniper's rifle and picked them off. And you might ask what the other four guys along side him were doing? Were they were making a cup of coffee while he was doing this?
I should ask … did you recognise each other’s acts of heroism?
Yes, in fact that was last year …
the SAS Association in a one-off situation … we had a guy by the name of John Matten who had gone unrecognised right through the whole thing and the association presented him with basically a scroll signed by his OC at the time and his CSM,
recognising the gallantry that he had displayed that had gone unrecognised by the government and an old wrong had been righted. But I know of no other case where that has been done.
How did you recognise each other’s acts of heroism on the day?
Oh, buy them a beer, if you got back together. Yeah, that was about it and of course your own
personal estimation of the guy went up accordingly.
A slap on the back worth more than a medal?
Yep, for sure. The recognition of your peers is worth more than anything that’s for sure.
I think we are at the end of the tape.