A 'Base Wallah' at BHQ - Jan. 1967 (photo courtesy John O'Callaghan)
In the Army it was standard practice for all equipment to be officially listed with the adjective following the noun. For example: Boots - General Purpose; Socks - khaki; Rifle - SLR; Belt - webbing ; Ration Pack - U.S.; Shirt – polyester, etc. When the first troops landed at Nui Dat in Vietnam (May 1966), conditions were indeed primitive and the ‘Diggers’ survived under atrocious conditions with the bare essentials. When the patrolling infantry came back into base camp they had only their stretchers to sit upon inside their sleeping tents (‘hootchies’) or hard wooden forms to sit upon down at their mess tent. Initially, in their company ‘wet canteen’, they had only timber planks propped on small empty drums which served as seats. At the open-air movie show (‘The Mayfair Theatre’) at BHQ, on the odd occasion that they could attend, crude wooden forms were scattered amongst the rubber trees, serving as seats. Again, at the early concerts which were staged at Task Force Headquarters, seating was rough and indeed many had to stand for the entire performance.
However, there were the lucky ‘privileged’ few who managed to acquire fold-up, colourful deck chairs, which they had had time and the wherewithal to purchase at the PX store. Initially, these were the prerogative of the officers and ‘base wallahs’ who never left camp. You’d spot them at the movies and at the concerts down in the front rows and around their tents in centrally located safe areas. For the ‘Digger’ coming back off patrol, this vision was somewhat irksome, as it epitomised the comparisons between those doing the ‘hard yards’ and those with cushy jobs. In the typical cynical Army vernacular, these chairs were labelled ‘chairs millionaires’, sarcastically emphasising the differences in roles played by the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ .
This poem is a light-hearted look at this aspect of camp life. It centres around the time of the Battle of Long Tan when the popular, always smiling entertainer Col Joye, was trapped at Nui Dat overnight, having missed his return ‘chopper’ flight to Vung Tau. He had been ‘kidnapped’ by some members of B Company 5RAR and taken to their ‘wet’ canteen (‘The Vile Inn’) to spend an evening of revelry with some ‘base wallahs’, with the tent flaps down of course. The remainder of the company manned the perimeter whilst the battle raged on some 3 km to the east.
“The chair [for common use] first developed around 1500. Whilst the lord of the house might have enjoyed the luxury of a chair, lesser people made do with a stool, bench or form. With time, the chair became associated with authority, status and privilege. He who sat in the chair was the ‘chairman’ whilst his subordinates or ‘inferiors’ sat together on benches or boards (hence ‘The Board’).”
- from Chairs by Peter Johnson, 1989.
Chairs millionaires’, small fold-up seats,
Reserved for a special few;
Such as all ‘base wallahs’ and ‘pogo brass’,
I.D.s clear, with ‘greens’ brand new.
You’d spot them at the movies,
’Round their tents, chatting face to face;
You’d swear they were on holidays,
Far from a war zone base.
One could always pick out combat boys,
Eyes affixed, with glassy stares,
From daylight hours, searching jungles dark,
At night in ambush, falling flares.
Most ‘brass’ and ‘wallahs’ without that look,
Each relaxed, with no such cares;
In safety, well back, behind barbed wire,
In their ‘chairs for millionaires’.
Airstrip completed, by engineers,
Entertainers, came and they went;
Col Joye himself, ‘smiling’ of course,
Was ‘kidnapped’ and brought to this tent.
As a ‘guest’ within ‘The Vile Inn’,
Music and laughter filled the air;
Yet, embarrassed for they could offer him,
Just beer, but no bloody chair.
At a concert held, late that August day,
‘Wallahs’ had rocked, in each front-row seat;
Artillery noise caused Col to quip:
“I wish they would keep with the beat!”
At other times, all around that camp,
Having plenty of time to spare,
You’d see some reading, just relaxing,
Or fast asleep in a chair.
Today, some memories are far from clear,
As they line up with all the rest,
Wearing proudly pretty ribbons,
And shiny medals on each chest.
As some read that list of fallen men,
Sight those chained to ‘wheels on chairs’,
Smiles might fade, recalling when,
They sat in theirs, as ‘millionaires’.