Raw War Recruits
In mid-1965 the first batch of healthy, innocent, naïve, 20 year-old Australian males boarded a country train at Sydney’s Central Station. They were about to begin two years of National Service at the Army’s Recruit Training Centre, in Puckapunyal, central Victoria. Most had little knowledge of what lay ahead and for them it came largely as a rude shock. The freedom they had enjoyed all their lives, thus far, had suddenly been taken away from them, and yet, in the main, they adopted an attitude of quiet acceptance and knuckled down to the task ahead. The military training at the three centres (Puckapunyal, Kapooka and Singleton) lasted 3 months, after which the graduates were assigned to their respective Corps. Most went to Infantry. Over a seven year period, of the 800,000 odd eligible male youths, just over 63,000 were conscripted, only 17,500 odd serving in Vietnam. Of these, 200 were killed and over 1,200 were wounded. The number affected psychologically remains unknown.
One can only imagine the reaction should such a requirement of service be imposed on Australian youth now. The knowledge that that is most unlikely to ever happen in peace time ever again should only encourage the many ‘disillusioned’ youth of today to conclude that ... Life doesn’t ‘suck’ so much after all!
“We were soon informed of our place in the order: ‘At the top of the pile’,
a corporal sneered, ‘ ... is the General, then the Brigadier, full Colonel, Lt. Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, W.O.1 [Warrant Officer Class 1], W.O.2, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant, Corporal, Lance Corporal and Private ... Then there are rats and mice, blowflies and cockroaches! Then there are ... YOU FUCKING RECRUITS !’ ... We got the message!”
- Robin Harris in Memories of Vietnam, 1991.
Raw War Recruits
A fictional phantom now feared heading,
A ‘yellow peril’ southwards spreading,
And gaining new momentum as it flows;
’Twas believed to be some kind of plague,
Symptoms clear yet proof quite vague,
Small nations would collapse, like dominoes.
An urgent need, for a fighting force,
Conscripts called to lend a hand of course,
Opponents of this view all painted: ‘Bloody Reds!’
With rumours raging, becoming lies,
Enemy agents camouflaged in disguise,
Even hiding, down under, our own beds!
Old men in charge, made biased choices,
Of selected victims, who had no voices,
Refusal meant a term locked up in gaol;
‘Pollies’ legislation endorsed this law,
Their own sons enrolled in ‘Uni’, avoiding war,
And my call-up notice posted, came in the mail.
So dear old Mum, paid my taxi fare,
To a Sydney suburb, I remember where,
’Twas Marrickville’s derelict Army Depot;
And that driver tried to leave me in no doubt,
That ‘wanker’ with his cheap and empty ‘shout’,
Claimed he wished that he just had the chance to go!
My new anxiety, I aimed to hide,
Despite intimidating guards outside,
First of many strange and threatening scenes;
’Twas definitely quite a daunting sight,
Spit-polished MPs, in khaki and white,
Contrasting with my long hair and denim jeans.
A lotto game, our birth dates drawn,
Innocent ‘kids’, each just a pawn,
Standing alphabetically, numbers in long lines;
Interrogation, by some strange Stoic’s face,
Processed all day, at a snail’s pace,
Old ‘doctors’ checking bodies and state of minds.
’Twas less than 10%, called at that stage,
Only conscripted males of that age,
Each intake to inflate the Army’s ranks;
Yet, many not selected, some rejected too,
Whilst others disappeared or just ‘shot through’,
A lucky few remained to get our nation’s ‘thanks’.
With mixed excitement and trepidation,
Heading off to the railway’s Central Station,
‘Civvy’ soldiers without uniforms or guns;
An angry crowd had gathered in that town,
Lots of chanting women marching up and down,
Placards reading: “Please Help! Save Our Sons!”
Conflicting viewpoints, now on collisions,
Serious social gap divisions,
Aggravated by what the media wrote and said;
Adventure visions, in each young mind,
A previous life-style, left far behind,
No one suspicious, of what ‘lies’ ahead.
These old country trains, well used before,
Both in peacetime and during any war,
Back then, they had carried all sorts of troops;
Although not quite up in that class, just then,
Several hundred ‘boys’ departed, not yet men,
’Twas First Intake of ‘Nashos’ raw war recruits.
* * *
Wide-awake or dozing, sitting bolt upright,
Little sleep enjoyed by anyone that night,
’Twas broken by each bump and carriage rattle;
In contemplation, I recalled those hapless Jews,
Would we now too make horrific headline news?
Treated like a herd of over-crowded cattle.
’Twas so bloody cold, I couldn’t feel my feet,
No chance to wash, nothing offered us to eat,
All minor problems, we were yet to face;
Since situated in that southern state,
An unpleasant place, we’d later come to hate,
’Twas Puckapunyal’s army training base.
Transferred to open trucks, from off that train,
And of course it had to be in drizzling rain,
With the last of freedom, then finally gone;
In the back together, huddling in a heap,
Exhausted, trying to catch lost sleep,
Since it was still dark, just barely breaking dawn.
Whilst not one delivered pleasantly,
Robotic orders barked forth, incessantly,
In the weeks ahead, each day outside our hut;
I never heard any words like: ‘please’,
Merely: “Att-en-tion!” and “Stand-at-ase!” Or sometimes: “Get ya bloody long hair cut!”
A section corporal drilled us, in all we had to do,
Procedures and practice, perhaps charge us too,
Any slackness, regarded as a ‘crime’;
A salute as homage in supplication,
Spit ‘n’ polish our boots, a daily application,
An inspection could be held at any time.
Apparently in the Army, there’s need to shout,
Reveille staged at six, names bellowed out,
Checking all still there, present and accounted for;
In green woolly greatcoats, still half asleep,
Falling-in at the bugle, like a mob of sheep,
’Twas just like a prison, under military law.
Once a ‘snake’ (with 3 stripes) approached me close,
The stench was awful, in fact really gross,
Mouthwash unknown, to this man called ‘Sarge’;
“You ain’t shaved today young lad!” he yelled,
Perhaps unaware that his hot breath smelled,
Smiling: “So now you’re on a bloody ‘charge’!”
What that meant for me, I learned real soon,
Ordered out in front of my whole platoon,
Like a lamb led to its pending slaughter;
Punishment administered on parade,
My 2-day growth ’twas cut, with blunted blade,
Dry-shaved without any soap or water!
All new arrivals, to the R.A.P.,
No bedside manner hospital-i-ty,
Stabbed by giant needles, each called a ‘shot’;
So in case we were going overseas,
They’d ward off all sorts of strange disease,
Like small pox, yellow fever, or God knows what!
Meanwhile, a roll call and PT, every day,
Religious lessons at night, from a red-nosed Padre,
Drilled in slouch hats, greens, and polished boots;
Our two-year service stint had started then,
We were just mere ‘boys’, turning into men,
Members of the First Intake’s raw war recruits.