by Sgt Paul Taylor
What the heck is a Chalkie?
Before I answer this question I would like to take you back to 7th February 1968.
Why is this date significant to me? Because it was the first day of my National Service, the day I became a Nasho – the first day of the next two years of my life – the day that I nervously arrived at the Albert Park Barracks to be packed into buses with a couple of hundred others for the journey to Puckapunyal, the start of 10 weeks of basic training – a step into the unknown.
Most of us were quite apprehensive about what lay before us – remember that this was the time when the Vietnam War was raging. As we started the journey, the silence was deafening as we withdrew into ourselves and contemplated our future. However it soon dawned on us that we were all in the same boat and had no choice but to suck it up. That’s when the jokes started keeping us amused for the rest of the trip.
But it was no joke when we got off the bus and the yelling and the screaming started. Comments such as “You’ll wish you never met me!” or “I’m going to make your life miserable!” or “You’re mine for the next 10 weeks!”- comments from regular Army guys many of whom had completed tours in Vietnam and who were not that keen to have to babysit (train) a bunch of guys who really didn’t want to be in the Army.
Upon our arrival we were organised into platoons of 27 conscripts, issued with our gear including the 7.62mm SLR rifle (low-behold if you could not recite the serial number of your rifle when demanded), and marched off to the medical centre for a full medical examination including numerous injections to both arms.
So began our basic training- quite a culture shock for most of us living in a barracks hut with people you had never met before from a diverse range of backgrounds. Lots of marching and field training, lots of boot polishing, lots of weapons handling (I’ll always remember the bayonet training – quite confronting) and lots of saluting. But as the weeks rolled on, the yelling and screaming lessened as we were subtly moulded into soldiers with training based on discipline, skills, fitness and mateship.
Towards the end of our basic training we were asked to give our preferences as to which section (corps) of the Army we wanted to be drafted to, be it infantry, artillery, transport, service etc etc.
About this time I became aware that the Army was looking for suitably qualified Nashos to be posted to the (former) Territory of Papua New Guinea to teach soldiers of the Papuan New Guinean Army. Much to my surprise my application was successful, even though I was not a trained teacher (although I had completed a university degree).
During the period 1966 to 1973 approximately 300 Nashos were sent to various parts of PNG as teachers (we were colloquially known as Chalkies) in an effort to raise the educational levels of the PNG Army in the lead-up to PNG achieving self-government and independence. The Royal Australian Army Educational Corps (RAAEC) provided courses in literacy, numeracy and citizenship to non-commissioned ranks at various army barracks in PNG. English, Arithmetic, Science and Social Studies were taught and soldiers also attended lectures on civics and ethics.
Because I had completed my basic training towards the end of April 1968 and my Chalkie posting wasn’t to commence until September of that year, the Army wasn’t quite sure what to do with me, so to fill in time I was sent to Kapooka in Wagga for a few months then to Vic Barracks in St Kilda Road and finally to the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Mosman where I met up with the 40 other Chalkies who were also posted to PNG.
The two weeks at ASOPA were spent learning about the country (22 provinces), the people (then approximately 4 million), the culture (more than 700 distinct languages), the geography (extremely rugged terrain) and coming to grips with a tribal based, subsistence economy. There were parts of PNG where villagers lived an almost stone aged existence as there were many remote communities which had had little contact with white men particularly before WW11. We also learned the basics of pidgin English which was universally used throughout PNG and were told to expect a dose of “culture shock” upon our arrival.
And then we were off on our big adventure. The last image I had as I departed from Essendon Airport was my mother standing at the departure gate in a purple overcoat crying her eyes out. Funnily enough, the first image I had as I returned to Melbourne some 14 months later was my mother standing at the arrival gate in the same purple coat and still crying her eyes out! (Bless you Mum!)
The first thing that struck us on stepping from the plane in Port Moresby was the oppressive heat – boy was it hot. We were ushered onto Army trucks for the ride to Murray Barracks where the PNG Army was headquartered and were then given our assigned postings. I, with 4 other Chalkies, was posted to the recruit training depot at Goldie River approximately 30 kms from Port Moresby. Others were sent to Lae (Igam Barracks), Wewak (Moem Barracks) and two separate locations in Port Moresby (Murray Barracks and Taurama Barracks).
The posting to PNG carried with it the rank of Temporary Sergeant and with it a relatively high pay grade. Accordingly, our arrival in the Sergeants Mess was a little testy as some of the regular Army guys had been in the Army for years before they had earned their third stripe, but here we were, having been in the Army for what they considered to be about 5 minutes, walking into the Mess with three stripes on our arms!
A few beers later and their feelings towards us soon improved and we became accepted as part of the landscape. I became the Treasurer of the Mess and one of the other Chalkies became the Bar Manager.
At Goldie River our role was to teach the young Papuan/New Guineans who had just joined the Army English, Arithmetic, Science and Social Studies. Most of them had enlisted straight from school and were good young men, a microcosm of PNG having been recruited from all parts of the country. Of course they were also doing their basic Army training so their days were very demanding.
We also taught older soldiers who had been in the Army for a while and who needed a higher level of education in order to be promoted up the ranks.
During my posting I was lucky enough to be part of a 28 man civic action patrol along the Kokoda Track where we stayed in one village for about 10 days helping the locals build a small airstrip. The whole village was involved in digging out this airstrip with picks and shovels (no bulldozers there!). Each shovel load of earth was placed on a banana frond and hauled away by the ladies of the village by a rope tied onto the stalk of the frond with the other end secured around their head – a real community effort. I was also fortunate to be sent to Lae for about 10 days to help train school boy cadets from all over the country.
Occasionally during our off-time we able to get onto a charter plane – a cargo version of the DC3 – and visit other parts of this extraordinary country including Mount Hagen, Rabaul and the Trobriand Islands (the islands of love!!)
So this was my life for 14 months trying to have a positive impact on the lives of young Army recruits in a developing nation. I consider myself very lucky and am forever grateful that I had the opportunity of becoming a Chalkie and experiencing the unique culture of Papua New Guinea, an experience that I would not have had if I had not been conscripted.
I would like to dedicate this tale to the 63,735 national servicemen conscripted into the Army from 1965 to 1972, to the 15,381 who served in Vietnam, to the 1,279 who were wounded and especially to the 202 who made the ultimate sacrifice. Lest we forget.