We were introduced to the parade ground very shortly after we arrived at Forrest Hill and over the next two and a half years would spend many hours on the impeccably maintained, tree lined graveled square. Here we learned important things - like left wheel, right incline, right dress, order arms and that, if we fainted on parade, we had to hit the ground before our rifle.
Our drill instructors drilled us for hours on end, day after day, until we got it right. Round pause, up. Halt - right foot, left foot, in. To salute - longest way up, shortest way down, not that American casual wave. And then there was that classic command, probably unseen on any military establishment other than a training camp anywhere in the world, ‘Pick up [said quickly, followed by a pause] bags’ - we were issued with a bag to carry our textbooks and other paraphernalia as we marched to and from work each day.
Who can ever forget our DIs barking out ‘Get those arms up’, ‘Don’t you know your right foot from your left laddie?’, ‘Chest out, shoulders back’ and their continual berating of those ‘horrible little men’ who were so slow to learn. And then there were the regular inspections, lined up in ranks of three as the inspecting NCO (non-commissioned officer) walked first along the front of each rank and then the rear making sure we were up to standard and letting us know when we weren't. Standing directly in front of us, almost nose to nose and spitting out ‘Did you shave this morning laddie’ or directly behind us with their mouth almost in our years with (if our overalls were too short) ‘Get your boots to have a party and invite your overalls down’. Or, ‘Am I hurting you laddie?’ ‘No corporal/sergeant!’. ‘Well, I should be, I’m standing on your hair. Now get it cut, you Horrible Little Man’.
Here we paraded every morning before we marched off in ranks to our scheduled activities. And there were the weekly Tuesday morning parades, when we dressed in full uniform instead of our overalls. The Officer Commanding would hand out Long Service Medals to those who qualified and read from the official text, congratulating recipients on ‘achieving this significant milestone’ in their service careers to which he would always add his personal congratulations, reading, no doubt, from the speech authorised by the Air Board for such conspicuous occasions. And before we marched off the parade ground we would witness the march past of those adult trainees who had successfully completed their training at the RAAF School of Technical Training.
Some of us spent more time on the bull ring than others. In our first six months we had the option of attending Church Parade - one for Catholics, or left footers as we called them, and the other for Protestants, or right footers - or doing an hours drill every Sunday. And we didn't have to step too far out of line to land some CT (correctional training) which meant we would drill again after stand down.
It was here we prepared for our penultimate event at Forrest Hill. First, there was the graduation march through Wagga Wagga. Now we paraded in front of family and girlfriends, dressed in full dress uniform with full webbing, spit polished boots and carrying rifles with bayonets attached. This was an all apprentice affair. Over the time we were at Forrest Hill some of our numbers were promoted to the rank of apprentice NCOs. Ably led by Warrant Officer Apprentice Ted Keetch, an Instrument Fitter from the Electrical Trades Squadron, we drilled with great precision, supported by 22 intake who themselves would graduate in 12 months time. We marched so proudly off the bull ring for the last time and all that remained of our time at Wagga was the graduation ball and the farewells the next morning.
We came to RAAF Base Forrest Hill as boys. We left as disciplined young men who understood teamwork, responsibility and accountability well beyond our years, well prepared to serve our country, first in the service and later in civilian life. It was more than our time on the bull ring that prepared us for our future careers, but this time played a major part in our development.
We said goodbye to good mates, some of whom had become very close over that time and some we would never see again. But we remain forever bonded through our unique and privileged experience as air force apprentices.