The Kid from Katunga
What else does a Kid from Katunga do?
When I started at Katunga State School, the Head Teacher was “Mr. Menzies”. I thought he was also the Prime Minister of Australia that I had heard about on the radio. He must have gone to a lot of meetings at night time like my dad.
By 1960 when I started at Numurkah High School, my perception of the world was: not “wide” but at least “wider”. My understanding of it remained shallow. The 1960’s decade was, for perhaps “most”, the age of dissent, awareness, public protest and individual freedom. If that age reached Katunga or Numurkah – it must have been after I left to join the Army in December 1965. We were the children of “Returned” men. We were raised on the virtues of conforming – to “mainstream values” I suppose. But really, there was only one stream. It was a stream of insecurity (the “cold war”), McCarthyism (ask me about McCarthyism at Katunga State School), misplaced “patriotism” and xenophobia (the “Yellow Peril”). Hatred of Communism was compulsory, and the “Domino Theory” was an article of faith. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” attracted more attention than the Melbourne Cup, but still there was no “debate” – It was still “us or them”. These matters were fenced off, by both the parents and the Department, from the teachers at Numurkah High School. “Debate” at High School came only with a capital “D”. It comprised a formal, polite and “adjudicated” contest of arguments between senior students in the Assembly Hall – on subjects of the utmost triviality.
By the time the “real” Prime Minister Menzies committed Australian soldiers to combat (C/F advisory) roles in Vietnam, we were in about Form 4 (Year 10), aged about 15 and almost “combat ready”.
When my father sold the orchard I was 17 years old, and I enlisted in the Army (I was not “conscripted”). They couldn’t send me to Vietnam until I was 19 years old, so I spent a couple of years in Recruit Training (at Wagga), Infantry Training (Sydney) and in various Infantry Units in Qld, WA and NSW. I did specialized training in reconnaissance, medical aid, radio communications and parachuting. The parachuting was fun if a bit scary.
I went to Vietnam with the First Battalion in 1968. For the first couple of months we engaged the Viet Cong in guerilla warfare – initially in the Long Hai Mountains (referred to by us as “the Wolverton Mountains”).
In May we were sent out of our usual Province to establish a temporary base of operations called “Fire Support Base Coral”. There began the most terrifying experience of my life – the “Battle of Coral”. Books have been written about the Battle of Coral – I record only a few personal observations.
Intelligence Reports (my father had warned me about “Intelligence Reports”) were that defeated North Vietnamese soldiers were withdrawing from the Tet (New Year) offensive on Saigon, in complete disarray. We were to cordon them off. The Intelligence Reports did not mention that a Regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers was moving toward Saigon to form the 3rd wave of the Tet Offensive – and we were directly in their path. Less than twelve hours after we landed on the ground- in the middle of the night – they attacked.
This was not guerilla warfare – this was Ho Chi Minh’s “Mobile Warfare” on a large scale. However, the scene – to an independent observer, would have been reminiscent of a scene from WW1:
A few hundred Australian soldiers, crouched or lying in partly built trenches, are defending their position (and lives) against waves of enemy foot-soldiers (a thousand or so) who have partially overrun the position. Additionally: the earth and sky are afire with the modern embellishments of rockets, helicopter “gunships”, and war-planes dive-bombing the enemy – perilously close to the Australians.
Eleven Australian soldiers were killed and Twenty-eight wounded in that first few hours of battle. I still have nightmares about it, but I remember the universal courage of my comrades : including the mortar platoon and the artillery soldiers whose positions were overrun by the enemy. Even the Transport Officer (another job not usually associated with close combat) performed with considerable personal courage in re-supplying the soldiers with ammunition. Mr. Fischer was later to become Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (for real). There were many actions of great courage that have not been “officially” recognized. They do not need to be – for we the survivors know!
Next morning, the Americans dropped in a bulldozer (under a “Sky Crane” helicopter) so that we might bury the enemy dead. Our dead were, as usual, gathered into “body-bags” and placed in helicopters. They were flown by RAAF transport planes to burials in Australia (if the family paid the fare) or in the nearest Commonwealth War Grave (Malaya). I am reminded of Eric Bogle’s song “No-mans Land”. It concerns the burial of a fallen soldier (“Young Willie MacBride”)in “Flanders Fields” during WW1. In a reverse of that situation, our Vietnam soldiers were not the mourners by the graveside. Our soldiers were the bereaved far away – with no opportunity to grieve, to mourn, or to pity. For the war moved on to another day – to perhaps another “contact” with the enemy. Indeed, the Battle of Coral continued relentlessly – though with fluctuating intensity, for weeks. “Coral” was part of the wider battle including the nearby Australian Fire Support Base of “Balmoral”. My 20th Birthday passed without death or celebration, and we eventually returned to our permanent base at Nui Dat. Twenty-Six Australians had been killed and a Hundred wounded at “Coral/Balmoral”
The continuous patrolling Operations left all of us, in varying degrees: undernourished, underweight, chronically tired, emotionally numb and intellectually flat. And dirty. One of my rare personal contacts with the Americans was in a “safe” area near a large village. We had been out in the jungle for about four weeks, we had dug trenches and we had not had an opportunity to wash at all. We were greeted by some American soldiers with the question: “How did you guys get so dirty?” We were confused and speechless! We learnt that the American soldiers had hot meals and showers brought to them by helicopter!
Sometimes on Operations we did get to wash. On one occasion, we had moved into a safe Fire Support Base out in the jungle somewhere. We went down to the creek and had a wash – next to some artillery soldiers. One of them called out “Hey Bill! What are you doing here?” It was Peter Dealy from my Form at Numurkah High! That was a catch up! Like having a trip home for a few minutes. I enjoyed the update on the Murray League even though I was a supporter of the Picola League. In fact: any news from “the outside world” was more than welcome. Generally, out in the jungle, we only knew what we could see or hear with our own faculties. One story that did miraculously reach us in the jungle was that: an American athlete at the Olympic Games had smashed the long jump record. It was true!
My memory is a little hazy on the point, but I think it was not long after catching up with Peter that I was shot. I was the “forward scout” for Charlie Company at that moment. Nobody was keeping scores – but anecdotal evidence was that forward scouts had a high casualty rate. The enemy bullet went through my Right eye – across behind my nose and lodged in my Left jawbone. Two of my comrades were killed and five of us were wounded. The enemy was still firing over us from a bunker position, when about five of my comrades moved forward under this enemy fire to retrieve us. They were “pinned down”. Pete got a “smoke grenade” to work – picked me up and carried me out! He saved my life! They retrieved us all. Back a little from the “front line”, one of that “rescue” group; “Doc” Clark, was now in a state of shock. “Doc” was the Company medic. He told me years later that: what started his brain going again was the realization that I was drowning on my blood. He immediately found a scalpel and: on the jungle floor he performed a “trachy” on me (cut a hole into my “windpipe” so that I could breathe). He saved my life too! “Doc” had been an electrical salesman, and had run a transport business before he was conscripted. The Army made a good call when they allocated him to Medical Core! He is revered by all who served with him.
My mate Daryl copped the job of carrying me to the helicopter. I wasn’t looking real flash I suppose. Something happened to the first helicopter, and Daryl had to carry me through the jungle to another one. When Daryl returned to Charlie Company, he told them to “forget Bill – he’s dead!”. When I went to a “Coral Reunion” about 15 years later they were saying to me: ”But you’re dead!”. Daryl, who then and now comes from South Gippsland (“via Mirboo North”) is a very good mate.
The Army had “lost” me for a week or so The helicopter had carried me to the American “21 Evacuation Hospital” at Long Binh . There, I awoke on the Operating Table, and I knew nothing! According to theatre staff: they told me that I was “in Vietnam” and I replied: “Vietnam – that rings a bell!” When they told me that I had “been shot”, I replied: “I am very tired and I am going back to sleep – wake me up if anyone starts shooting!” That is how we lived – and you can’t stop living.
After a short stay at the Australian hospital at Vung Tau, they sent me back to Australia. Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital became my home until they closed the Ward for Christmas in December 1968. At Watsonia Barracks Major Anderson (Officer Commanding – Personnel Depot) asked me what I intended doing when I “got out”. I told him I was “going back to school”, and he replied that he would give me a Discharge “next January in time for School”. This was a huge favor. Watsonia became my “halfway house” where I learnt to be a civilian – where I learnt to live in the city – with civilians. There were many Vietnam Veterans who were thrown straight back into civilian life and couldn’t cope. Pete (who was awarded the “Military Medal” for his bravery), became an alcoholic. Like many Veterans he was restless and nomadic. He finally settled in Cairns because that’s where he was when someone stole his car and all his “worldlys”. Years later, when Pete was dying in hospital, it was “Doc” Clark who sat by his bed for days – because he wasn’t going to let a mate die alone.
I approached the “Repatriation Department” for assistance under the “Soldiers Children’s Education Scheme”. My dad had died a TPI (he had been a POW of the Japanese). At 20 years of age I was still a “child”. My brother Bob (now Dr. Rob Cantwell of Newcastle University) was studying at Monash under that Scheme. The clerk asked what happened to me. He suggested that I should be assisted under “The Disabled Members & Widows Training Scheme” (known as “Dimwits” for short). “Dimwits” it was and I studied Year 12 (missed Year 11) and then Law. There were five hundred Australian soldiers killed in Vietnam, and three thousand wounded. So far as I can find out – there were only four of us on “Dimwits”. It wasn’t a Secret but nobody knew about the “Dimwits Scheme”. My six “gap years” made it difficult, and I am sceptical of the benefits of even one “gap year”. I was fortunate enough to practice law for about 30 years, mostly in “litigation” (court work). This kid from Katunga is now peacefully retired in Melbourne, and enjoying life.
I would like to thank the Alumni for this opportunity to share some of my experiences with my real peers – the ex students and teachers of Numurkah High School.