/If you ever pulled on the boots, youre in the club: Incarnations of a digger

If you ever pulled on the boots, youre in the club: Incarnations of a digger

Posted

April 25, 2019 03:10:18

One fought a seemingly swashbuckling, shirtless war in Vietnam. Another was a child soldier in the jungles of New Guinea. A third returned from East Timor, injured — he believes — by something designed to keep him safe. But a digger is a digger.

The old man sits on a wooden bench. Chest, plated with medals. Collar, crisply ironed.

Hearing aid and walker have replaced gun. Age has wearied.

“I have aches and pains all over,” he says mildly to the guy next to him. More statement of fact than complaint.

“When I look in the mirror I still see a fit, young man,” remarks his companion.

The conversation is ordinary enough.

But these veterans, and a third standing nearby, represent a living history of Australian military conflict. They served in vastly different wars in different eras. Three incarnations of the Australian digger.

“If you ever pulled on the boots, you’re in the club.”

That’s John Wells, who served in Vietnam.

“There is a kinship, a bond that is just there. Family is not a bad metaphor.

“That’s one of the values of Anzac Day,” he says. “We can get together and talk openly with each other.”

World War II: ‘I didn’t think it would be as bad as what it was’

The boy in the photograph wears a grin and a steel helmet tilted to one side.

His bare, pubescent chest jars with the rifle in his hand.

It’s 1940. Andy Bishop has just lied himself into the army at the age of 16, when you are supposed to be 21 to enlist.

“I was only getting twenty-one [pounds], six [shillings] a week in wages on the farm in those days.

“When I was in the army I was on a man’s wages. That’s why I went in. Also, a trip overseas.

“I loved it. I was secure, it was nice people. But I didn’t think it would be as bad as what it was.”

Here and now, the old man has a tear in his eye and a smear of his daughter’s red lipstick on his cheek.

At 95, the war figures larger than ever in Andy’s mind.

“Every day I think of it. I try not to.”

“I sort of can’t forget it. The mates who’re dead.

“Especially my best mate. He got it in the stomach and died straight away.”

One of only two men left from his battalion, it’s as if the collective memory of all those departed souls has settled on him.

“I wake up at night and it goes through your mind. People don’t understand what the war was like. Not today.”

Andy was a Vickers machine gunner in the infamous battle of Rabaul off the coast of New Guinea, a rout which produced one of the worst casualty lists of the war.

“There were 5,000 Japanese landed against 1,800 of us.

“There was Japs lying around everywhere on the wire netting. And then they sent word down to us, ‘Every man for himself’, because they’re surrounding us. So we had to find our way out.”

A truck Andy tried to escape on was strafed by Japanese bombers and overturned. He remembers fleeing into the jungle on foot.

80 years on, the scenes swim in his head.

The disorienting 200-mile trek through the jungle, going in circles half the time. The mud and the slush.

The mosquitoes eating them alive night after night.

The small band of Australians weak with fatigue and malnutrition, the only food taro scavenged from native gardens. Once, on the coast, they managed to use grenades to blow up a few schools of fish to cook on hot coals.

At one point the Australians found and repaired a boat.

“We got 7 miles out to sea when the motor broke down. We got stuck on a reef. We pulled floorboards off the deck to use as paddles. It was slow going. There were two formations of Japanese bombers flying above us.”

And finally, he remembers the plantation where a nurse called Mrs Baker gave them shelter. Later, men sleeping everywhere on the deck of the ship that carried them back to Australia.

“We arrived home wearing the same old clothes that we had been wearing for three months.

“We marched up the main street of Cairns looking like hobos.

“The people watching us must have wondered where we came from.”

Few of Andy’s battalion survived the war.

A number were captured and bayonetted en masse by the Japanese in an incident that came to symbolize the worst aspects of the war. Others who made it off the island alive were inadvertently killed as prisoners of war when the Japanese ship they were captive on was hit by an American torpedo.

Andy lived to fight further battles. He was twice wounded during the Aitape-Wewak campaign, including by a bullet to the lung (“We had a very good doctor who plugged me up with gauze.”) and another to the thigh, an injury that affected his back.

He spent his 21st birthday in a military hospital.

“After about two months there I wanted to go home, I wanted to go back on the farm. But they wouldn’t send me. They said, ‘We have to get everyone right because we can’t get reinforcements over here’. They sent me to water transport then, on the barges.

“You didn’t know when your day was finished in the wartime.

“Otherwise everything was alright,” he says, in summary.

The truth, though, is there in his rheumy eyes. In all that goes unsaid.

“I appreciate life. At least we’re at peace.”

After the war Andy worked on a cattle station in western New South Wales.

“The quiet and the solitude suited me as I felt a bit mixed up.”

Later he worked on the railways near Broken Hill, and later still became a lines foreman laying coaxial cable from Sydney to Melbourne. He was often sick from his war injuries.

There were marriages, three. He lost his first wife to breast cancer, his second to divorce. His third he visits every day. She has dementia.

Andy gets around with a walker. He still drives.

The RSL is a bright spot.

“It’s a good club. No-one talks about nothing. They’ll never talk about the wars.”

Vietnam: ‘A boys’ own adventure’

To hear John Wells talk almost nostalgically about Vietnam you can momentarily forget it was a war.

For all the danger, it was also an adventure for a 21-year-old who’d been training to become a teacher before he found himself in an artillery unit in the jungle.

“I didn’t have a particularly difficult war and I got home perfectly safe and healthy. I made some good mates, had a boys’ own adventure, climbed in and out of helicopters, had an automatic rifle, all sorts of good stuff.

“We had a fine old time. We climbed down ropes out of helicopters with nothing but our hands and feet. I remember riding the helicopter once just standing on the skids.

“We had a saying: I’m 10 feet tall, Teflon-coated and even shit won’t stick to me.”

It’s a bulletproof feeling.

Until it comes apart.

“There were times when I was scared witless. But you’re not scared at the time. You go onto this plane of intense focus. That’s the thing about young men.

“I remember once finding my sergeant down on his hands and knees vomiting.

“But we had to show tough.”

The time a round of machine gun fire from a sniper thunked into a rubber tree about six feet away.

The night when John’s unit came under heavy attack from its own side.

“The Viet Cong had got in between us and actually killed one of our blokes in the gun position and for about 45 minutes we had a torrent of fire coming out of the fire support base into our position, which was very scary.

“I was worried that if I breathed in, I would inhale a bullet.

“I had this little trench dug about 8 inches deep and I was trying not to raise my nose or my ears or any other part of me out of that. The problem was it wasn’t quite as long as I was, so bits of me stuck out.”

The recurring nightmare that stays with John, even as a 73-year-old, is about a night where nothing happened.

“We were short-handed at battalion headquarters so as well as doing my shift on the artillery radio, I did a shift on the wire [manning the perimeter of the position].

“The jungle was about a metre in front of me, with a single strand of barbed wire.

“It was a black and white moonlit night, crystal clear black and white.

“And you could hear things in the jungle all night. Crabs and scorpions and God-knows-what moving leaves as they got around. And it just kept you so intensely on edge that I have never really been able to get rid of that memory.

“You go back there. But you wake up and you see it for what it is and you move on.”

John’s mother had three sons in Vietnam.

“I always thought it never had any great impact on her life but my wife has told me since that she was terrified the whole time, my mother was. But she never showed it. She was of a generation that didn’t show it, see.”

When he came home from the war, his mother was sitting at the kitchen table.

“She looked up and she said ‘Oh you’re home, love, that’s nice. Put the kettle on, make a cup of tea.’

“Never even got out of her chair.”

East Timor to Afghanistan: ‘That’s what Dad did’

The first thing you notice about Rodney Hargrave is how his six-foot-four frame towers above everyone else in a room.

The second is — unavoidably — his stilted speech and gait.

But more about that later. It’s not what he’d have you focus on.

The 39-year-old is a study in quiet courage.

Over a 13-year military career, he served in just about every Australian fighting force since Vietnam, from the infantry in East Timor to army intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve been to a lot of places and done a lot of things. I see myself as yeah, well, I’ve given service, so? Some other people have probably done more, so I don’t like showing medals and things.”

He describes his military service in such a understated manner that his daughters, sitting nearby, interrupt.

“Tell the real stuff, Dad.”

That’s Jaydene, his 18-year-old.

“He’s modest with us as well.”

“I guess it’s just training,” Rodney explains, half to his daughters and half to me. “Part of the negative effect of being with the army is that you learn to disengage as a third party.

“You gain some personality hardness.

“So a lot of things that are disturbing, such as injuries and dead bodies and things, they’re part of training so you just move on.”

Rodney takes an equally unsentimental approach to himself.

It’s only as an aside that he acknowledges what could be the most dramatic way his military service still impacts his daily life.

“The injury you can see is from East Timor,” he says.

“I was taking anti-malarials, a trial that the army was doing … there’s been neurological problems caused by the medication I was taking.”

While Rodney’s not been the only digger to suspect post-war symptoms may be connected to anti-malarial medication, the Repatriation Medical Authority in 2017 decided there was “insufficient sound medical-scientific evidence” of a link between brain injuries like Rodney’s ataxia disorder and drugs like tafenoquine. A Senate inquiry last year noted that there was “no compelling evidence that tafenoquine causes long term effects”.

But it’s what Rodney believes.

What her father’s sacrifice means hasn’t been lost on Jaydene Hargrave.

“It’s very important to remember the freedoms we do have and the veterans who’ve made sure that we get them and then the present diggers who make sure that we keep them.

“That’s what Dad did.”

‘Ten feet tall and brightly shining’

John Wells went to Vietnam partly to get away from his ordinary life and take a good look at himself. It was the 60s.

“When I went in I was a long-haired layabout. I was a smart alec, I knew everything. When I was in the army I learnt that I didn’t know everything.

“Many was the occasion that I got to the point where I could not take another step, but I did because I didn’t want to be the first one to drop out. And that applied to all of us and gradually we learnt that we could do far more than we thought we could.”

Now, having served as president of the Dandenong/Cranbourne RSL for the past six years, John sees the commonalities between all veterans, no matter the conflict.

“When you’re in the services you’re in a bubble, you’re outside normal society,” he says.

“If you think about it, you’re in a place where you’re authorised to kill. That’s about as far from normal, humane, civilised society as you can get.”

But he’s also acutely aware that no soldier’s experience is the same as the next.

“You can’t assume the bloke you’re talking to feels the same way about everything that you do.

“World War I blokes never ever complained about things. World War II blokes, I do a bit of welfare work and they’ll always tell you they’re fine, look after the other bloke.

“The Vietnam blokes fall into a couple of kinds.

“There are some who’ve never let it go because we were 10 feet tall and brightly shining, then when we stepped out of the bubble again we found we were just ordinary people.

“I’m happy with just being an ordinary person but some people mourn that moment of brief time of being something rather special.”

He sees the digger spirit whenever veterans get together, no matter how many years pass.

“There are fat old men and bald old men but every one of us has his shoulders back and his head up.

“It’s just that intensive training that makes us always want to get it right.”

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