Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Bob Menzie Cowboys

On the 7 April 1939, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons suddenly died.

On the 20 April 1939. in the House of Representatives, Page said the Country Party could not serve in a coalition government headed by Menzies. He claimed Menzies was unfit to be Prime Minister. With World War II threatening, he claimed that Menzies was particularly unsuited to leading the nation. Page implied that Menzies was a shirker and a coward, asserting that in World War I he had resigned his commission to avoid overseas service. Such a person, Page claimed, would “not be able to get the maximum effort out of the people in the event of war”.
During the First war Menzies was a great campaigner for Conscription.
It was with this background, in 1951, that Menzies introduced National Service to provide partially trained soldiers to send against the Russians in the Middle East or Europe as cannon fodder.
(See the Cabinet notes made by the bureaucrats of the time).

Right from the start it was a sad bloody joke. I had to keep my earnings up to send home to my mother and sisters who by this time were living in Drouin east of Melbourne. So I got a couple of deferments and around this time we had met in Crookwell and you took me home to meet your mum. Who by the way, was very generous with me and welcoming .She got the message through that as a good catholic boy, I should make a commitment to respect her hospitality and ensure your girlhood transition to womanhood was protected by my respecting both of our virginities till after marriage.

I kept my promise. Some times I thought I might go cross-eyed. However, as you know I turned out to be a good little catholic.
During the time from leaving school at 14 till I was swept up in Menzies Nasho system I was learning to be a Wool classer and spent most of my time in shearing teams around Merriwa and New England, out at Booligal and Hay on the western plains and then back to Crookwell in what was known as a ‘Run’.
Most of that time working as a shed hand I earned adult wages plus my keep. I was the bread winner and the ‘man of the house’ a not unusual circumstance just after the war.
This meant almost all my money went home to mum, Rhonda and Joy. She and the girls had a rented house in Gippsland and my sisters were able to go study at school in peace for the first time in their lives.
I felt it was my duty to see my family through these hard times till mum got her health back. I literally was the bread winner from 15years of age on. So when conscription finally caught up with me in 1954, our income dropped through the floor.

I found myself climbing aboard a train leaving Warragul heading for an army camp just outside of Seymour, north of Melbourne, called Puckapunyal. An aboriginal name meaning “Valley of the Winds”.
Like almost every soldier before me I found the army had a specially focused talent finding the hottest, dustiest coldest, muddiest, and the very most windy and flyblown places across Australia to build a training establishment.
By the time we pulled into the siding at Seymour many other young blokes are getting off trains and being assembled by soldiers in slouch hats with chin straps and red faces, stamping around bawling out orders that seemed deliberately to add to the confusion. We are soon very hot and dusty by now in the February sun. We’re lined up in long ranks over a hundred yards long and three or four paces apart. We’re standing with our belongings at our feet. A general grumbling was growling its way around amongst our shambling ranks, when to our surprise we are told to drop our trousers around our ankles.
Jaws dropped and people exclaimed, ‘What for’? When the Sergeants begin letting us know precisely who is in charge. The air is full of their unbelievable bellows and curses and trousers begin to fall around white legs all about.
Some Nursing Sisters in starched uniforms accompanied by a Doctor in a white coat was coming from around the side of the shed in front of us. The order is now drop your jocks and bend over. I did that straight away so I couldn’t see the nurse’s faces as they move along the line inspecting our sphincters for piles.

So bloody embarrassing and as the time dragging on, backs start to ache and sweat is dripping off my nose. Just when I am thinking this couldn’t get worse, the main line just some 80 yards away behind us roars into life as the passenger express thunders past and the people on board got an eyeful of acres of acres as white as the day they were born. I thought to myself if there are any queers from King’s Cross on that train they will be thinking ‘Smorgasbord’!

Pondering what this is all about I came to the conclusion that with timing of the express train and the dominance this exercise demonstrated, put all of us immediately in our place and under the thumb of the Non- Commissioned Officers ( NCO’s) the Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers.
It did not end up being too bad an experience. After my first week of resentment my corporal explained to me that there are many more people like him and my bucking the system would only have me feeling unhappy so I should just “SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH”!

Having things explained to me so succinctly, and grateful for the early advice, I got into the swing of the thing and within weeks I was a Gun Layer on the twenty five pounders of the 14th National Service Battalion. Putting the data relayed down the communications system onto the gun’s range and elevation instruments and the bubble, line, bubble, line, bubble. Fire!! And CRACK that brilliant little gun would propel 25 pounds of HE (high explosive) some nine miles down range. We felt pretty smart when we hit what we were told we were aiming at.

Throwing a 303 Lee Enfield rifles around and simultaneously shouting ‘one two three, one two three, one’ over and over at the top of our lungs. We drilled and drilled until at some time we were all doing the same thing at the same time . We got to be quite pleased with ourselves as we got closer to being some-what competent. I must say once you heard the WHACK as one thousand Rifles crash down in unison when we ‘ordered arms’ the hair just had to stand on end at the back of your neck. That is, if the barber had left you any.
If one of us messed up we all copped the punishment. For instance, there is always a hill in these camps with a Trig Point on top and a road going up and up, getting steeper as it climbed. There is also always some bugger who has to open his big trap. One day, the Physical Training Instructor (PTI) took us off in our horrible baggy shorts and Dunlop sand shoes, on a five mile run up that bloody hill. We would do a double march, all running in step sort of twice as fast as the marching pace. Being first unfit as a group we slowly were lifting fitness levels, but still a ways to go. So on coming to a halt outside our barracks and busting to get a shower before knocking off for the day, we are breathing hard when a voice within our ranks pants in exasperation, ‘fuck me’.
The PTI who is that army fit, which is a really hard fitness, not athletic more a relentless fighting fitness that just doesn’t seem to stop.
The PTI on hearing the gasped exasperation says “soldier I wouldn’t fuck you with a rag cock. But what I will do is take you all back up the hill”. “ About turn , double march”, he growls and we learn yet another trick the army has up it’s sleeve.
Fairly quickly they can turn we individuals into an organism that we might call a team, but the laughing and sweating and striving together means that when you’re swinging down the road all in step and with an Australian Army swagger you feel you’re part of some thing that has a great purpose not just to work as a unit but that lives closer than a family would, because the group finds it must operate in a way that it will prevail. Because the people involved appreciate the character of the group and the character of each individual as valuable to it’s purpose and it’s survival.
Besides that, marching along covering the miles feels pretty damn good. When you finally cannot be a part of that entity any more you have lost something you won’t get back. Not once you’re back in civvy street..
What a fantastic experience, closer than a family.

We drilled with the Bayonet till our hands bled. We always had the rifle cocked with a round supposedly up the spout. This was in case the bayonet jammed between your enemy’s ribs, you could fire the shot and get clear quickly as another nightmare came at you. I always thought ‘I’ll aim the bayonet straight at him, fire first, the stick the poor bastard and then I’ll reload’. The shock, the impact of hitting the dummies meant that no matter how hard your grip, your right hand behind the bolt of the rifle slammed forward on your sweating hands up under the cocking mechanism. This caused the bleeding of the web between your thumb and forefinger. My fury with my father dissipated as I took my anger out on those straw dummies.
You may remember Mum fled to Victoria because I was coming close killing my father each time I knocked him unconscious with a four by two, when in his drunken PTSD, he bashed her and the rest of us kids. He was a Rat of Tobruk, a survivor of El Alamein and his demons and self hate were visited on us.
We had our lives completely turned upside down by war, but that is another story.

In the arm wrenching, muscle tearing, violence of training, often our bayonets snapped like carrots, yet Menzies wanted us to kill Chinese or Russian communist boys with these things and they (bayonets) don’t survive a fight with a straw bag.

Many of the nashos had never been away from home until they got to Puckapunyal. It was amazing to see the transformation, as self confidence grows and kids who have never ironed a shirt are within days are doing a credible job of ironing their uniforms. I can imagine their mothers spitting chips when the rotten little sods had never even tried to get out of bed to do washing and ironing for themselves.
There they go, sitting on the side of the bed Polishing boots till you can see your reflection in the toe cap. What’s more these boys seem to be getting to be proud of achievements as they add up their growing competence.
I got leave over a long weekend half way through the intake and caught the train up to Goulburn and when I came into Crookwell it felt like I was coming home to a real family. Your mum and Dad made me feel so welcome. You were so gorgeous and quiet within yourself at 15 your figure was already full and lithe, I remember the smell of your hair and how it was so easy and natural just to be with you, to stroll, to hold and touch you, to talk and laugh with you, for the first time I knew I wanted to be with you all my life, if you would have me once you came of age.
When I got back to camp I felt happier, resolved, than I had ever felt in my life before, yet I kept my thinking to myself ‘wait until a few more years go by. There was plenty of time.

Besides the training and drilling and firing range activities with Lee Enfield, Bren Light Machine Gun, and the Owen Machine Carbine, we also prepared to play a part in the First visit of Queen Elizabeth to Australia in Melbourne.

This was the time when Menzies and ASIO were whipping the electorate into a frenzy over the “communist threat” leading up to an election and right on cue, ASIO made suspects and targets of anti-war activists, homosexuals among many others. Even the wearing of a red tie caused government employees to be suspect –

The Queen’s visit offered Menzies the opportunity to denigrate the Red Ensign as the peoples flag by declaring the Blue Ensign as Australia’s National Flag often saying “he would not have red in his flag”. Many who had fought in both world wars saw the Red Ensign as the flag they fought under because the Blue was only used on official government business. So any person who protested were automatically labelled fellow travellers with the Communists.

When the Queen drove through the streets of Sydney she was waved on her way by thousands of school kids at the show-ground and crowds elsewhere waving red ensigns. Next day she was down in Canberra signing the Act that made our flag “Loyal” blue.
I still call it Menzies Flag mainly because he quickly used it as a symbol for his Liberal Party. Good political ploy, bitterly disrespectful to too many families who had Red Ensigns on their sympathy memorabilia.

Now we know even more about the Petrov Affair, and ASIO’s role in it. Charles Spry, the founding director of ASIO, Went to extraordinary lengths to watch what suspected Communist sympathisers were doing. The Queens visit and Petrov’s defection made for a perfect run up to an election. Bob the great toady was in his element

We rehearsed over and over again, till we had the lining of the route into Melbourne from Essendon Airport just right.
We were all decked out in our battle dress. Our 303 rifles, (some would have seen service in both the world wars and Korea), were polished within an inch of their lives, our Bayonets flashing brilliant in the sunlight, our boots could compare well with guardsmen outside Buckingham Palace.
We were meant to De-train at Spencer Street. March proudly up Elizabeth Street and take position in front of the Hospital where the road comes into town from Essendon Airport, where Her Majesty would De-plane blah, blah, blah!

Finally the great day arrived and we De-trained as planned, everything going like clockwork. Big crowds were lining the streets. The people got out early and were in a great mood for the occasion.
We formed up on the street in Column of Threes
“Right Dress” is barked out by the Regimental Sergeant Major and a rattle of steel heeled boots on the pavement, as proper intervals are established between us…….
We are ready to go. “Right turn” a long pause and that deep down from his bass diaphragm this large resonating Aussie voice, “By,,,,,,the left,,,,,,, quick march”, we’re off swinging along and the crowd begins to cheer us on. Applause rolls like waves around us as the speaker system along the route springs into life playing martial music and ‘click’ ‘slam’ boots down with a skip to get us into step with Colonel Bogey or something like it.

We are now up near the top of Elizabeth Street and it is such a sight of flags and bunting with columns of flashing silver bayonets out there in front us, as far as one can see.
The crowd is enthusiastic and enjoying the spectacle; then, as always happens , some idiot at the control centre changes the record and bungs on ‘The Teddy bears Picnic’ “if you go down to the woods today” and a thousand pairs of army boots of the 14th National Service Training Battalion go out of step and such changing of step and

banging of feet, the clashing of steel boot heels and hob nails on bitumen and tram tracks, the slipping sliding
ba

ck on heads of slouch hat like Sunday bloody bonnets, chin straps in mouths and flashing bayonets no longer in unison but wobbling everywhere. What a shambles!!
Worse still the Melbourne football crowd began jeering and cheering taking the piss as only they can. That is when I said to myself , “John, there goes three bloody months of your life shot right up the arse”.
The Queen went past in a flash.
We saw her around our Presented Arms and then we marched back to En-train. This time without the ‘Teddy Bears bloody picnic’ and laughed a lot and hoped no one recognised us individually or took our photo.

In the end, Nasho for us, the ‘Bob Menzies Cowboys’, was only a hundred days plus a fortnights camp each year for three years and lots of curried sausages.
We did not go to war like the Vietnam young men did, and each Anzac day I think of all those young Australian Vietnam Veteran war dead when the Ode is read.
The third verse of the ode to the fallen seems to fit well with the young conscripts and those young faces we have seen on TV reporting and yet, another sad deep loss from today’s more mature, volunteer, professional, men and women, who serve Australia well . Perhaps at 76 I feel their loss too keenly.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.