Grown Men Do Cry –and- The Green, Green Grass of Home
But then, maybe the fact that we did cry shows that in some ways, despite the “hard favoured rage” of the Bard’s English soldier, we were really lonely young men on the cusp of manhood – who happened to have chosen a profession that required an exterior image different to whatever was happening inside our young heads.
The first of my two examples of this happened on my first night at Burnham Camp, outside Christchurch.
I had been sent there from Waiouru in the centre of the North Island after completing my basic infantry training.
Burnham was home to the Depot of the 1st Battalion, Royal NZ Infantry Regiment. It was here that the Army took new recruits who had successfully passed the basic tests of being a soldier…and turned him into a skilled infantry fighter, capable of living off the land in open and jungle terrains, anywhere in the world.
During this specialised “Corps” training, one potential area of focus was the border war in Borneo, where our Battalion was already serving as part of the British Commonwealth response to Indonesia’s invasion of and aggression to the newly formed Malaysia.
The other scenario that we trained for was more open warfare in such terrains as southern Thailand– an area still plagued by terrorists.
I don’t remember Vietnam being mentioned at this time – though I’m sure that it was on the minds of our instructors.
As I was about to find out, our jungle skills and drills worked just as well in NZ bush, Malay jungle or Vietnamese paddy/jungle/village/roadways.
As long as we became expert at all things infantry we would be fine.
I was soon in my new and very unfamiliar bed and surroundings in Burnham Camp.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I thought.
How had I come to be in this God-forsaken place?
Lying in my new bed that first night, I thought that a review of my army “career” so far would help distract me…
Basic Training – Waiouru
I had left my cushy life in Wellington four months ago and spent a sunny day on the train from my home town to the main Army camp in NZ – Waiouru. I was excited, confident and full of visions of adventure and maybe even glory.
I can remember sitting on the right hand side of the rattling old 1940’s carriage as we wound through the Plimmerton hills and came out onto the narrow strip of line above the Raumati straight. Up the steep hill to my right were glistening slides of shingle, blooming bushes of yellow gorse and patches of grass in small, steep valleys.
In the bottom of one of these valleys my eye caught something move. I focused on it. It was a rabbit…about 300 yards up the hill.
I alone in the world could see it. My superior eyesight and natural hunting skills had pin-pointed him. I could have shot him from the moving train even at that range and sharp uphill angle, I thought.
Man. This Army is getting one helluva sharp recruit. Bring it on. I revelled in my choice of lifestyle change.
As this change became profound over the next three months of basic training, I never once lost this enthusiasm for my new career.
Ahead of me were sleeping quarters that were so cold the wet boots at the end of my bed froze at night.
Walking was a mode of transport that was filed away in the mind under the heading of: Other, Later.
As a rookie grunt I had to double-time (jog) everywhere, at all times, within camp. My new army boots were not issued until day three of my induction…and my civilian shoes peeled off my feet along with the beer-induced layers of flab from the rest of my body.
For some inexplicable reason I was joining a national service intake to do my basic training for the regular force that I had signed on for. I had been waiting 18 months from signing up in 1965…and when I was offered this chance to start my new life I took it.
I discovered that the basics were no different from a regular force basic course…except that I was a bit of a “geek” standout as the only one in our three platoons of reluctant national service guys who really wanted to be there.
This became obvious in my practice of doing extra map reading swot or weapons manual reading at night, instead of socialising in the mess.
On weekends, during off duty times, I would go for a five mile run around the frozen wastes of Waiouru.
It was at Waiouru that I had the first of a series of good luck appointments in NCOs placed over me in my career.
Our platoon sergeant was a mild-mannered and immaculately dressed soldier. Sergeant Mouat had the rare skill of yelling softly on a parade ground…being heard loud and clear with wit, sarcasm…and most times, compassion.
His was the job of changing us from civilian slobs into trained infantry soldiers who were capable of going on to any Corps of the Army, should the need arrive.
I don’t remember being treated any differently because I was a regular recruit, but I was very much aware that my attitude to the daily grind was different and more upbeat than my new mates.
One unforgettable parade ground drill session sticks out in my mind. We had to parade in our dress number ones. We were a motley looking lot…and he told us so in his soft, powerful way.
He then told us about pride. Pride in our personal appearance. What it did for our fellow soldiers. How our personal example lifted the performance of ourselves and of those around us.
This was not “sinful” pride. It was “soldierly” pride. “Keep it as a very private attribute,” he said. “Don’t talk about it, don’t be vain about it…but make it the cornerstone of everything you do when you present yourselves in public, in the bush or on parade.”
I can’t recreate the passion with which he drilled us in this philosophy…but I have never forgotten his lessons, backed up with his personal example, every day.
Sergeant Mouat is one of those men I would like to meet today – to say thanks.
Three outstanding pieces of training stand out in my mind…
He and a drill instructor taught me how to defend myself against a man attacking me with a bayonet on a rifle…and flip him over in such a way that I had the rifle and the bayonet to the attacker’s throat while he lay on his back.
Defence against a man armed with just a knife, underarm or overarm, came next…and is still remembered by me to this day.
He showed us, and then drilled us, time and time again how to “debus”, fully laden with pack and rifle from an RL Bedford truck travelling at speed. We worked up from five miles an hour to a top speed of 50 miles an hour. This enabled our platoon to disperse onto two sides of a road, “float” from the back of the truck, land on our feet and move into defensive positions. It was an exciting and never- used trick. A drill from WW2…but we loved it. How powerful we felt.
That sergeant was the first of many inspiring leaders to come.
Infantry Corp training – Burnham
A short week at home in Lower Hutt, a cold trip in the overnight Ferry to Lyttelton, a day’s wait in a windy Army office in Christchurch and I was finally on my way by truck to Burnham, the home of the Depot of 1 Battalion, RNZIR.
Luckily I had with me my universal and timeless Army Greatcoat. It helped me through the long day of waiting for a ride out.
This was the battalion that was posted to Malaya (since the 1950’s) to meet our commitments in South East Asia. Current operations were on the border between Malaysia and Indonesia in Borneo, repelling Indonesia’s aggression and attempted invasion of the new state.
We were training to join them.
I was to join a platoon of recruits to be sent to Malaysia for this replacement role as soon as were had mastered the skills of our craft as riflemen.
But, back to that first night…the duty corporal signed me in, in the only lit building in the entire camp. It was 10.30pm and the place was silent and deserted.
“I’ll take you to your barrack where you’ll be living. Your training platoon sergeant is Sergeant Bob Hewlett. You’ll meet him in the morning.
“Get some sleep tonight. Don’t unpack…you’ll wake the others…they’ve had a big day.
“You will have some extra time in the morning the get your gears organised.”
A very friendly and reassuring set of welcome instructions. I had become accustomed to being a “loner” in the Army, due to the difference of my timing/recruitment from day 1.
I walked quietly down the length of the barrack room…I counted 12 beds on each side of the old WW2 building…my empty bed was at the end of the right hand row.
All was quiet except for the usual grunts, soft snores and rustling that you get in a room full of young sleeping men.
I quickly stripped off, found my wardrobe next to the bed and stowed all my gear in it, hopped into bed in my underpants and lay back wondering if/when sleep would come.
Three or four minutes passed and I was settling in…something caught my ear…a new noise about half way down the row of beds…across the aisle from me.
It was a snuffling noise…that I soon recognised as crying. I had heard it on the first night in the barracks in Waiouru…evidently reasonably common in the first week of basic training.
But this was the next step up. We had passed the basics and were here now – voluntarily – to hone our soldierly skills and graduate as battle-ready infantry soldiers.
I felt embarrassed for the soldier, whoever he was…maybe he’s had a family death, or something…
No one said anything…or did anything…the crying went on for some time…and I found myself lying back thinking strange thoughts.
I’m a long way from all that I grew up with…all that I knew I was good at…every hour of every day yesterday and tomorrow was filled with new, difficult, testing, sometimes impossible tasks.
Could I cope? What the hell was I doing here?… in a bedroom with 23 complete strangers?
I started to wonder what my brother and sister were doing tonight…Mum & Dad? School mates…and of course girl friends!…
I came out of my intense thoughts…my new friend-to-be was still crying…now it sounded like loneliness…a little like despair…
It was quite frightening…what happens in this place that they have sent me to, where a grown man of 20 years of age cries himself to sleep in the dark…surrounded by “friends” who ignore him.
I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow. Better get some sleep.
I turn over…pull up the rough blanket.
Silence. Soft crying again…
A voice from directly across from the foot of my bed. Loud! Angry!
“For Fuck’s Sake, Shirley…if you don’t shut up that fuck’n snivelin’, I’m coming down there to do it for you!”
No more crying.
“And don’t you start, new boy…or I’ll sort you out, too!”
“Hmmm…I thought…I’ve found the pack leader, anyway…and he doesn’t like me already…ah well…tomorrow’s going to be interesting.”
First light…stirring in the ranks.
The “pack leader” is a scruffy-looking bloke with a tattoo on his arm of what appears to be Andy Capp. The caption on it says: “Geeze- am I seedy?”
He speaks to me…a series of questions about who I am and where do I come from…The others are all doing getting up/getting ready for latrine/bathroom things. They all grin and say nothing.
Then I notice…the bloke’s got an Australian accent! What the hell’s he doing here? I notice his name tape on the front of his helmet on his wardrobe – “Brian Ellis”.
“Nice to see someone else with a poofter name”…I say with a grin, pointing at his helmet…he glares…”what do you mean “poofter”…you fucken faggot…I’ll give you poofter”…and glares at me, preparing to come over and sort me out…
Time to end this intellectual conversation…”I’m Brian Wilson…same name, see…my school mates sometimes called it a poofter name…I was always the only “Brian” around.”
“Yeah,” he says with a grin…”me too.”
“C’mon. I’ll show you where the bathrooms and breakfast are…”
I was in.
The bloke became one of my closest mates for the rest of his life. We served together in Vietnam, debauched ourselves in bars all over Asia, we spent a day and a half stuck in a shell-hole with a Yank, under fire and scared shitless; he went AWOL in 1969 to attend my wedding and I went to Adelaide in 1977 to meet his family – and the Yank (see “Adelaide reunion 1977).
He was one of a many extremely colourful soldiers I met. He was borderline soldier material at all stages of our training and service. He was always on a charge and serving fatigues (or cell-time) for crimes large and small. I never got placed on a charge in NZ, Malaya or Vietnam…it used to drive him nuts…
We were chalk and cheese – and inseparable…my Aussi (his name) mate was by my side in adventures for years after we left the Army…even, years later, when I was a senior Corporate manager at IBM and he was wharfie on Wellington’s wharf, we would meet for a few beers several times a week.
He became a brother to me. He looked like a sad sack as a soldier…but one day, inVietnam, in very dicey circumstances, he carried a man and his pack and rifle along with his own gear all day, out of water, until we could get the injured guy to an APC for help.
Aussi was a soldier when it mattered.
Although, his arriving drunk at an IBM cocktail function in a Wellington hotel in the 1970’s didn’t enhance my career any. Things were just manageable until he jumped up onto a table, lowered his trousers, bent over and yelled “How do ya like this, Ya Wankers!”.
Stunned silence amongst the gentlemen and ladies as we all stared in wonder at the huge, coloured rat disappearing up Aussi’s backside…it wasn’t the only time I saw old Roger The Rat (see the donkey story in “Bukit Street Blues)…but it was the time that made the biggest impression.
In fact, somewhere on these pages I must find room for some “Aussi” stories. My old mate died in Wainuiomata in 2000. We gave him a great send off. I miss him.
So, somehow Aussi and I made it through Corps training. My last memory of Sergeant Hewlett is at a Graduation celebration with a large keg of beer on the back of a ute, in a riverbed somewhere…sitting around the fire all night with Sgt Bob leading the way with songs and stories. He was a terrific trainer.
Aussi proudly showed me his country when our C130 Hercules stopped at Alice Springs, 12 hours into our flight to Singapore. Then it was Singapore, Malaysia and on to Vietnam together, as you will read about elsewhere in these pages.
But I never saw Aussi cry until our last day inVietnam.
We’d completed our last night patrol, packed our gear and were sitting around on the Horseshoe waiting for the choppers to come for us. We were going home.
The Yanks had been conducting a “hearts and minds” exercise in our province for some months. They would drop pamphlets in the bush and fly their little Cessna around with a huge loud speaker mounted in the doorway.
They would play messages that exhorted the VC to give themselves up to their local forces. We didn’t think much of the program…but here we are on the last day “in country” and the bloody Cessna appears overhead and begins circling us.
From the speaker we hear the booming voice of Tom Jones…singing “The Green Green Grass of Home.”
From every bunker, from every trench and all over that Horseshoe came yells and cheers of appreciation…and when I looked around…tears…everywhere…even Aussi, in the bunker next to me, had tears running down his face.
I’d love to know who thought of, and organised that wonderful gesture for V Company.
It was one of the most memorable incidents of the war, for me.
To this day it is the theme song of our Company. It is the only song I have ever sung on a Karaoke stage.
It will play at my funeral….and if you are lucky enough to be there…look around…if you see any survivors of
V Company (I may be the last!), they will be crying once again.