Call up and Rookie Training

by Bob Whittaker

Editor’s Note:
This story is an extract from the book ‘Jellybeans in the Jungle’ by Bob Whittaker. On his call up for National Service, as a teacher, Bob could have expected to be sent to Papua New Guinea but the army saw it necessary to send him to Vietnam. This story is his experience of the first ten weeks in the army and is very similar to what all the Chalkies experienced before they were posted to the Educational Corps – hence it is fitting to include it on this website.

There is a second article from Bob’s book and it describes his return home from Vietnam. It can be viewed here.

Call up and Rookie Training -

On the 28th January 1969, I boarded a chartered TAA Viscount at Brisbane airport to fly to Williamtown RAAF base. My parents, both teachers, had farewelled me at home in Texas in south western Queensland. They were getting ready for the school year. I was on my way to Singleton as a conscripted soldier as part of the 15th Intake of what was euphemistically called National Service. The term universally used for a conscript was “Nasho”.

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Farewell Party – January 1970

My registration for National Service was lodged in 1967, the year I turned 20. On March 10th that year, my birth date (June 5th) had been pulled out of a barrel by Air Chief Marshall Sir Frederick Scherger KBE CB DSO AFC, former chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He was one of a group of distinguished Australians who drew numbers in the ballot. I assume he must have supported the scheme. By 1970, this distinguished Australian would have been in the minority, but in 1967, more were in favour of conscription than against it.

Apart from conservative members of parliament and distinguished soldiers, others who participated in the ballot included Lindsay Hassett and Ian Johnson (former test cricket captains), Councillor E W Best, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, and Ron Clarke, former Olympic athlete and mayor of Gold Coast City.

Because I was called up in my final year of teacher training, the year I turned 20, my enlistment was deferred until 1969, to give me the experience of one year’s teaching.

As a “Nasho” who actually got to serve in Vietnam, I was a member of a select minority. From the introduction of the scheme in 1965 until its abolition in December 1972 over 800,000 young men registered for National Service. Of these, 63,000 were “called up” and according to the national archives, 19,000 served in Vietnam.

The odds were one in forty-two.

Apparently, the people making decisions about National Service saw that anyone dragged into the Army in the middle of a tertiary preparation course would be severely disadvantaged on discharge. I’m not sure I agree with that. Imagine the practical benefits of two years of soldiering for a trainee teacher. Those pupils fortunate enough to have such a teacher would surely have been fine examples of disciplined and well-organised young Australians.

Nevertheless, I was glad of the year’s teaching experience. It showed me that I enjoyed the work, gave me eighteen months’ advantage of maturity over the bulk of my conscript mates and provided something to look forward to during the occasional tough times that followed.
Born as I was into a family of Labor voters, I had been active at teachers’ college in the anti-war movement and had toyed with the idea of putting my money where my mouth was in terms of resisting call-up. Sanity (and an examination of the statistics) prevailed, and discretion became the better part of valour. My intention was to get into a non-combatant posting, in a unit that wasn’t going to Vietnam, save a bit of money, and pick up any post-discharge benefits offering.

I had no illusions that I was going to save the world from Communism, believing that we were in Vietnam at the bidding of the Americans. The irony of student activists being forced to join the army to fight against a cause for which they held some sympathy seemed lost on the army.
It wasn’t lost on me.

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My grade 5 class – Goondiwindi State School – 1968

As a child and a young man, I’d knocked about the bush a bit, most of the time with my family, as my dad was a primary school principal. The idea of being thrown in with a group of complete strangers from all over the country held no fears for me.

In 1963 at the age of 15, I took my first job in the Forestry Department, but went back to school a year later to complete my secondary schooling at Nambour State High. My early secondary years were spent at Downlands College, Toowoomba, so I was a product of both the state and private systems. During school and teachers’ college vacation, I’d been a postman at Caloundra during the Christmas rush, and worked on a tobacco farm at Beerwah. This had given me a degree of useful experience at teamwork and in the rough and tumble of the real world.

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Educated catholic gentlemen. Downlands 1962. Second row, second from right. Follow the ears!

Although the social aspect of compulsory military service held no worries for me, I was not as comfortable with the physical challenges. I was reasonably fit, but had always been poorly coordinated and had never been successful at sport, with the exception of endurance running. This later turned out to be a very useful ability on callup. I was skinny, had a bout of Polio when I was a baby and as a result, actually had one leg (the left) slightly shorter than the other. This medical history had convinced me that I would never pass the medical.

I was passed A1.

My file was sitting on the table whilst I was waiting to see the Government Medical Officer in Warwick during my medical, so I stole a glance when the clerk was having a toilet break.
Carefully filed along with everything else, was a press clipping from Time magazine. For reasons that made sense back then, I’d taken a picture of Marshall Ky, (the South Vietnamese President at the time) from the magazine and added a drawing of noose around his neck to make sure my opinion of Ky, our involvement in Vietnam, and the National Service process was clear. I posted this in with my registration. This had obviously been noted, and I swear that I would have been passed fit as an act of retribution, even if I’d presented with flat feet, slipped discs, and terminal halitosis.

There was a major drop in pay on enlistment, considering the difference between what I had been earning as a teacher, and what the army paid to a private soldier. As a permanently appointed teacher, I was entitled to a position on my return from military service.
My flight from Brisbane to Williamtown was my first experience of air travel, and I enjoyed it immensely. One of the stewardesses was very amused at my ignorance of the procedure for in-flight meals. As a novice flier, I assumed that the meal would have to be paid for, and reached for my wallet.

“We do feed our passengers!” she said, obviously amused at the naivety of this National Serviceman on his first flight. I was years before my time, given the way in which cut price air travel operates today.

This was the last time for a while that naivety was met with amusement. Our arrival at Singleton was greeted with yelling and abuse, the likes of which most of us had not encountered before. The NCOs1 that met us off the bus from Williamtown berated us non-stop. We were made to run at a stiff jog once we were separated from our luggage, and never given a moment’s respite.

Some of my colleagues began to retaliate verbally to this harassment and were singled out for special treatment (push-ups and the like) as a result. It seemed to me that the best way of dealing with the verbal abuse was simply to ignore it.

A few of the NCOs made absolute fools of themselves during these initial days and we had more respect for those who didn’t abuse us. On the whole, we cooperated with them.
Very early in the piece I learned to hide the fact that I was a teacher. There was a tendency for NCOs to target teachers for special treatment possibly because they didn’t have fond memories of school and teachers. Perhaps they were getting square.

There were about four other teachers in my platoon and we took delight in making quiet observations about our instructors and usually got away with it. Occasionally, a comment would be heard, and we’d pay the penalty – usually push-ups.

The first five weeks of recruit training were intensive and unrelenting. The worst aspects were the harsh physical environment and the sheer predictability of the training program. Singleton is always a few degrees warmer or cooler than other places in the vicinity.

Weapons training was intrinsically interesting and, after a few dramas, including an NCO throwing a bayonet in my general direction because he didn’t appreciate my chewing gum, I found myself enjoying it and getting good scores at the range.

I was warned by the wise that scoring well at the rifle range was not a good idea, as it made a posting to Infantry more likely than not.

Grenade throwing was much more of a challenge for me and I did not enjoy it at all.
But at that stage of recruit training, the biggest problem for me was the rope work. We were expected, as part of a confidence course, to monkey our way along a high rope using arms and legs. Using my legs was easy, but my upper body wasn’t strong, and I invariably lost my grip before I had made it all the way across and fell off the rope.

The military reaction was to send me across the ropes again, but with my arms already fatigued, I’d simply fall off a bit earlier next time. Generally, I’d fall on my feet, but on one occasion, I fell on my back squarely across my SLR2 (which was slung) and I displayed a bruise in the perfect shape of an SLR across my upper back for about a week.

Eventually, the Physical Education instructor decided that I wasn’t going to get any better and he was content with my getting further each time before falling – a kind of personal best. I did learn to fall safely.

We did lots of endurance training, as the army, quite rightly, felt that was important. Whilst I was undistinguished in other aspects, I usually did well at the endurance tests and never had to be recycled to achieve that necessary performance standard.

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Rookies at Singleton – Author hatless

We were allowed a weekend leave after one twenty-mile endurance test that we completed in the early hours of the morning. At that time, I owned a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle and set out to drive it to Texas Queensland (my parents’ home) from Singleton without taking a nap. About an hour into the journey I woke up from a brief snooze to find the car bumping along the verge on the right hand side of the road. This scare was instructive, and I camped for a couple of hours by the roadside to recover. I was lucky, as I’d crossed the oncoming lane before the bumping of the car woke me up.

The Volkswagen let me down on the return journey.

I left Texas on Sunday afternoon to drive to Singleton, planning to arrive just before midnight. (11.55pm was OK – 12.05am was AWOL3). Just to the North of Tamworth, the motor let out a muffled clunk together with a cloud of blue smoke, and lost power. A valve had perforated the top of a piston. I hitchhiked to Tamworth, arranged through the NRMA to have the car recovered, and went to the Police Station seeking help to get back to Singleton before the witching hour. The duty sergeant looked me up and down (I was in uniform), and said, “Don’t worry Digger, we’ll get you back in time.”

He drove me out to a radar trap set up on the edge of town, and flagged down the first speeding motorist that came along. The driver, a dapper looking businessman in a near-new Zephyr Zodiac, was prevailed upon to deliver me to 3RTB4 at Singleton by midnight in exchange for getting off the speeding charge with a warning.

Singleton was on his way, but the conversation was a bit strained for the first half hour. I made it with only minutes to spare, as my new chauffeur carefully observed all speed limits for the rest of the journey.

At that stage of our training, we were allowed weekend leave from time to time, but I was without a car until I could buy a second hand short motor for the Beetle, and get it to Tamworth to be installed. That meant that I did plenty of hitchhiking between Singleton and Texas and had some interesting experiences along the way.

Getting a lift was easy – I always wore uniform and never had long to wait. Sometimes, though, the drivers were not the best.

On one occasion, outside of the township of Manilla, I was picked up by a very drunk grazier in a Chevrolet Bel-Air. I didn’t detect his inebriated state until I was sitting next to him on the Bel-Air’s wide bench seat. The car was near new and he was determined to show me that it could do the imperial ton (160kmh). I pretended to be going only as far as the next township, and was very pleased to get out of the car in one piece.

A few weekends later, I was hitching again near Tamworth when a car came along driven by a young woman. She pulled up, but she didn’t allow me to get in until she had well and truly given me the once over. Initially, she insisted that I ride in the back seat, but once she realized that I was respectable, I was promoted to the front. She was down-to-earth, pretty, and had an engaging laugh. We had a very pleasant journey. She told me that she didn’t think we should be in Vietnam and was surprised when I agreed with her.

After the twelve weeks of recruit training, I participated in the passing-out parade with the rest of the intake. Prior to this we’d registered our preferences for Corps posting. As a teacher, it seemed logical to apply for Education Corps. My second preference was Transport because I liked the idea of sitting on an upholstered seat with a roof over my head to keep the elements out. Driving also meant not walking. Unsurprisingly, I’d developed an aversion to both walking and inclement weather during recruit training. I felt reasonably content with these preferences. After all, I could teach and I could drive, so it made sense for them to post me to one or the other. The only corps I wasn’t keen on was Infantry.

My posting came out. It was Infantry.

The logic of posting a teacher to Infantry rather than Education Corps escaped me entirely. I mentally prepared myself for another stretch at Singleton. It seemed that the bulk of the teachers in my intake had the same posting, although a few of the lucky ones were going to the Pacific Islands Regiment with the rank of sergeant (and higher pay) to teach English to Papuan soldiers. They still did Infantry Corps training with us.

Those not posted to Infantry went their separate ways to Corps training and were joined by people who had done recruit training at Kapooka and Puckapunyal. For the first time, we teamed up with soldiers from Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
To Queenslanders like me, they were “Mexicans”. They were much like us, but there were regional differences in the way they talked. You could tell a South Aussie by his usage of some common words, and North Queenslanders are easy to identify because they added the interrogative “hey?” at the end of most sentences.

Corps training was much more businesslike than recruit training and there was less harassment. The relationship between training staff and Diggers was more egalitarian. We continued to be instructed in the basic weapon and field craft skills that were the bread and butter of the Infantry soldier, and physical conditioning and endurance continued to be a major focus.

I thrived on it physically, and by the end of Corps training, was the fittest I’d ever been. Our next posting was to units, so I decided to request 4 Battalion, which had just returned from Vietnam and was based at Townsville in my native Queensland.

It didn’t happen.

I found myself posted to 7RAR5, which was Sydney-based, and already warned for its second tour to South Vietnam in 1970. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it, but pack up my gear and drive my Beetle (with a replacement second-hand motor installed) to Holsworthy barracks to join 7RAR in June, 1969.

I was not a happy Digger, and I spent many sleepless nights trying to come to terms with my immediate future, although I hid my feelings from my parents. Later I understood that my anger was matched by theirs, but like me, they also had to live with it.
It seemed to me that some higher power had determined that I was heading for Vietnam.

1. Non-commissioned officers (Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants etc)
2. Self-loading rifle. Australian version of Belgian (FN) Fabrique Nationale rifle
3. Absent without leave
4. 3rd Recruit Training Battalion
5. 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment

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Frank Cordingley
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