On January 4, 1956 I was conscripted by Australian Defense for what was then called national service obligations. I was just over 18 years of age and a candidate for enlightenment. This experience fulfilled that purpose.
I can still remember my Mother standing at the front door wringing her hands as Dad drove me down to the local assembly point. The cold war was just getting cranked up, and memories were still fresh of the Second World War in people’s minds. Many of the locals had not long returned from their assignments in the Pacific and that was probably on my Mother’s mind. Dad was stoic; he’d watched the war wreck the health of both of his brothers not to mention his own, but that was the lot of men and Eric knew this had to be done.
At age 18 you are impervious to danger and lack the inclination to peer into the future. This was going to be a grand camp out with the boys, and there was that added attraction of doing it all without family intervention. In my mind I’d go into service as their boy, and came out a man with all the respect one craves at that early age.
The trip down to the capital city Brisbane with new recruits was a blast. Lots of new friends and everyone anticipating some kind of holiday experience away from home. Non smokers showed their new found freedom from parental restrictions by sampling their first cigarettes passed around in a ‘been there, done that’ fashion. I immediately crossed that off my list of freedoms. Tasted like poop and stank to high heaven afterwards.
Visions of holiday fun rapidly evaporated when we reached the training centre at Wacol. If I remember rightly it was reported there was a mental institution in that locality, and it soon became apparent instructors viewed us as inmates. We were assembled with shouts and a few pushes to instill in our teenage brains this was not the rest camp erroneously visualized on the way down. We were herded to the store and fitted out with whatever was thrown over the counter after a quick appraisal of our physiques. The theory was you would grow into your clothes, and your shoes would eventually fit your feet if you wore them long enough. The latter process was aided by filling shoes with water and putting them on. The theory was this would stretch leather and shape them to your feet size. No protest was allowed, and we were told up front it would be difficult to prove victimization in the army. In hindsight I’d agree to that.
We were the transportation wing, so had visions of driving footsloggers around and fulfilling our conscription duties that way for the term of service.
After issue of our outfits and kit we were given a short lecture on how to make beds, keep our kit in order and the protocol of dealing with superiors. Then we marched to an assembly shed and were ordered to strip for “short arm inspection.” I won’t go into that, except to comment that standing in line looking in wild eyed wonder at the assortment of naked bodies lined up to the horizon was something you never forget. Nor were the production line functionaries, army doctors and nurses to be forgotten. We were prodded, jerked and jabbed with amazing rapidity and came out sporting a range of punctures for ailments such as smallpox, typhoid and whatever. Then to reinforce the view this wasn’t a rest camp we were galloped around an oval for what seemed like a century. The farm lads loved this bit of excitement, the city kids were ready to croak.
We now knew this wasn’t a rest camp and were glad to be eventually released for the evening with the promise of interesting activities next day. That was the day we were introduced to the 303 rifle, an unusually heavy relic of the Second World War, which was just as much an exercise tool as it was a weapon of limited destruction. We learned to twirl it, hold it out in front of us in one hand and level with the head until our muscles screamed for mercy, and the protocol of cleaning until the barrel and stock showed a mirror image of you all distressed and dirty. We were told that a dirty weapon was punishable and it was left to our imagination as to what that punishment would be. We were left in no doubt as to what would happen to us if the weapon was lost!
Captain K and Lieutenant A conferred and came to the conclusion we were a bunch of softies needing special attention if we were to become soldiers. We marched for hours, and for the flimsiest of excuses were sent for circuits of the parade ground on the double. We’d flop on the bed exhausted to be woken from a deep sleep in the middle of the night with instructions to dress grab our kits and churn around the countryside on night sorties, wading through creeks, and occasionally sleeping out in those contraptions the army describes as personal tents.
Sleep out nights were usually well chosen nights when the heavens opened and pelted us with rain, but we were so exhausted we’d be happy to put up our pup tents and sleep in the streams flowing through our tents. Rainy days were our instructor’s favorite time for weapons training too, as we got to lie in mud for hours firing at dancing targets while the sergeant slapped us around for improper positioning.
Two weeks into training I meekly requested permission to visit the medical tent for treatment of badly infected feet. My shoes were proving a bit difficult in fitting themselves around my feet as we’d been assured they’d surely do. This request sent my instructor into fits of rage, and from then on I was singled out as “Mr. high and mighty typewriter fingers.” With the aid of band aids I survived the course, but suffered for years afterward from the experience of breaking in those shoes.
When our muscles began to visibly bristle Captain K and Lieutenant A congratulated themselves on their success and brought on an assortment of world war two vehicles for driving lessons. The old blitz wagon was a nasty customer to drive, but we eventually mastered them and graduated to the newer vehicles as well as semi-trailers, which we delighted to drive in heavy Brisbane traffic. We were then issued with licenses to drive everything but a space shuttle.
One of the memorable events of Wacol training was the convey trip out toward the centre of Australia. We drove day and night swallowing red dust created by our convoy’s progress, sleeping soundly in dry river beds so exhausted we surrendered our natural fear of snakes of the outback. Occasionally a vehicle would career off the road as the driver fell asleep at the wheel, but those crammed into the drivers cab would slap the driver awake and we’d find our place in the convoy to angry shouts of instructors and carry on with the journey.
Going through outback towns in the early morning was a great favorite. The footsloggers in the back of each vehicle would whistle and shout at the girls on their way to work and be rewarded by a wave and smile. Drivers learned that applying brakes suddenly when this happened would send the groveling gents into a pile of seething limbs to their great embarrassment and the delight of girls. This was followed by loud banging on the roof and threats to life, but it was all in good fun and forgotten by the time of our next rest stop.
After we’d been thoroughly indoctrinated it was felt safe to release us for an evening leave pass to the city of Brisbane. We’d head for Cloudland Ballroom in our army trucks and spend the evening dancing with girls from the Catholic Convent nearby. It was tradition we were to accompany the girls back to the Convent one by one and deliver them safely to the Nuns to be cloistered until the next night out in town. It was a sacrifice we were prepared to do for our country, so in sequence it was June, and return for Sal, and then Judy and so on. And on each delivery we received a kiss as a reward for our trouble. We felt very noble doing our duty.
Due to a mistake of a self appointed soldier barber in our barracks I had my first real crew cut, and looking at it in the mirror decided it preferable to the usual short back and sides favored by the army. On retirement I discarded the crafted hairdo of an administrator and went back to the crew cut.
Another event which stands out in memory is the trip to mountains on the border between Queensland and New South Wales. This was to be one of those pretend battles in which one battalion was to square off against another battalion. Big weaponry had been transported by trucks to the station, loaded onto our train and we naturally expected to load it on vehicles to take us up the mountain. Wrong again! In addition to our kits we carried that stuff up the mountain. I think they were trying to recreate a New Guinea substitute Kakoda Trail to toughen us up. By the time we reached the top of the mountain there was not a soldier who could easily stand. One of our group suffered a cardiac arrest on the way and was in hospital by the time we reached the summit and were instructed to dig trenches and prepare to be attacked.
It was the custom for two soldiers to occupy one trench, but there was one guy who no one was prepared to bed down for the night with. Like I said before, we won’t go there. In the middle of the night all hell broke loose and there was much hand to hand stuff with explosions and the works. Next morning we viewed the captives our battalion had taken and looked for the missing soldiers from our own group who’d been stolen away in the grand battle. People were being treated for cordite burns from blanks fired at close range and the wounds of a fake battle. We were happier walking down the mountain with our loads than we had been climbing up.
So how do I feel about my experience in national service? Actually I think it was a positive experience overall. I learned how to get along with people and adjust to their peculiar perspectives on life. I learned discipline, and found when you believe you can’t go any further, you can! I made friends in that shared experience and emerged a tougher person physically than I would have been as the pampered son at home. I learned even though you may be treated unjustly or unfairly it’s not the end of your life. You survive! And I learned to socially interact in a positive way.
“© copyright Ian Grice 2012 all rights reserved”