Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dexter Dutton

Fond may not be the word many appies would use to describe their memory of Dexter Dutton. But one thing is certain, any appy who had the privilege of knowing Mr Dutton is unlikely to ever forget this remarkable man. I and others I know hold him in very high regard.

As the RAAF School of Technical Training’s Warrant Officer Disciplinary (WOD) Dexter’s role was to maintain the discipline of the unit. In this role he answered to one man only, and that was the commanding officer. Junior officers and apprentices alike could feel the wrath of the WOD and Dexter did his job well. Bob Maddern, a 21 Intake framie recalls ‘He must be the only person I remember who could cause you to freeze in your tracks when you heard his voice.’

It was said that Dexter had written the air force drill manual, and although this was not true, he was the drill manual. No one drilled better than he did. I cannot recall a time I saw him moving around the base that he was not demonstrating military precision in all he did. It was also said that he went home at lunch time to re-iron the creases in his uniform and polish his shoes.  If he didn’t he always gave the appearance that he did. He had no higher expectation of us than the standard he set himself, unlike some others I remember. Dexter’s biggest challenge however was not to teach us to drill but to keep us under control.

In the first six months I was at Forrest Hill it was home to around 500 apprentices aged between 15 and 19 ½ (I believe one of the Kiwis on our intake was under 15 when he started) from 19, 20 and 21 intakes.  The senior intake graduated mid-year leaving two intakes for the remainder of the year. (These were the three largest intakes in the history of the apprenticeship scheme.) We were younger and there must have been significantly more of us than the adult trainees (thicks) who, while being by far the main source of RAAF recruits, moved through Wagga much quicker than we did. I remember meeting up with Pete Smith, a fellow 21 sumpy, at Wagga in January 1984 when I was on an Instructional Technique course. Pete, who was an instructor in the Engine Section at the time, commented on ‘those immature apprentices’.

It’s not that we pushed the boundaries, there were times we kicked them down. Water fights between appies and thicks was an ongoing tradition at Wagga. I remember one from my ITS (Initial Training Squadron) days that raged for probably a couple of hours on the bituminous area between our block and theirs before the authorities brought it under control. I remember one occasion, and it may have been this one but I think it was a later one, seeing canvas fire hoses hanging out to dry for days and each of us having something docked from our pay to reimburse costs.

There were spontaneous outbursts of riotous behavior when it seemed the entire appy population gave vent to its frustration over one thing or another. While I have no recollection of what our grievances may have been I remember the cries of derision directed at one member of staff. ‘Hardi-ha-ha’ we sang over and over, low on the ‘Hardi’, raised on the first ‘ha’ and lowered on the second. This may or may not have been during Dexter’s time but there was an unpopular instructor we first came across in ITS that ended up as a WOD.

The commanding officer of RSTT at the time was Group Captain Marshall. Again the voices would sing in unison ‘If’n yer appie acts up ‘ornery, holler for a Marshall’, being a direct copy of a well-known battery company’s advertising slogan.

Dekkie seemed to have the ability to materialise from nowhere if we were playing up. I clearly remember one occasion when 21 Engine Fitters were marching to lunch. In order to accommodate numbers at the mess trainees were rostered to attend at 1145, 1200 or 1215 hours with each getting their turn to go early. At 1145 we had the choice of one of three meat options. Those who arrived at 1215 usually had one choice - whatever no one else wanted.

On this particular day we spotted a flight of thicks also headed for the mess. Thicks and appies alike broke ranks and raced for the door, only to freeze in our tracks when ‘Halt, you horrible little men’ rang out from inside the mess. Dekkie emerged from the door to express his indignation at our disorderly behaviour. Our punishment was a period, probably 5 days, of CT (corrective training) which meant an hour of drill under the supervision of a drill instructor on the parade ground after work - and then getting to the evening meal in time for the dregs. As I recall Dexter was aware of this.

We sumpies were given a suspended sentence. We were preparing for a march through the city of Wagga Wagga and Dexter gave us real motivation to get this right - a good performance and our sins would be forgiven. I have no doubt that our effort on that occasion would have earned us star billing at the Edinburgh Military Tatoo. There is another side to this story. We were going to lunch at the rostered time and the thicks had jumped the queue. As I recall Dexter knew this.

I have a single recollection of meeting him off duty. One Sunday evening I was attending a Church service in town, as was my custom for much of my time at RSTT. In marched Dekkie. This was a bit unnerving. In civvies he still stood tall and was impeccably dressed in a jacket, tie and slacks.

Dexter retired in April 1968 and was given a largely spontaneous farewell by the members of 20 and 21 intakes. The following description of that event is based on a collective memory of some of those who took part.

After stand-down we marched to his house and paraded on the main drag (road) out the front. Dexter, who lived in the first house on the right as you entered the base, probably thought it was another apprentice riot. 20 Truckies, with Henry Higgins being the main instigator, appear to have organised this. They had constructed a platform with long carry poles from a bed frame and mounted a RAAF issue chair on it.

This was used to carry Dexter, still in uniform (probably blues), shoulder high to the bull ring. He then took the saluting position and all the appies of 20 and 21 intakes completed a march past while he took the salute. After this he was escorted to the Sgt’s mess where it seems he was presented with a silver meat tray inscribed from the apprentices.

Norm Bruce (21 Framie) recalls Dexter appearing again as we formed up for our graduation parade. He barked out a few orders and we gave him a cheer. And that is the last most of us saw of him although Graham McLoughlin (21 Framie) recalls seeing him in Wagga five years after we graduation. He still greeted Graham by name.

I have just heard that Dekkie has passed away (2 Jan 2011). Yet he will live on in the memory of many of those who knew him and have valued enormously from the sense of discipline and the spirit of teamwork that he helped instill in us. It is also touching to know that although his funeral is a private family affair that ex-apprentices from his time at Wagga are invited to attend.

I think it says a lot about Mr Dutton that although he retired 15 months before I left Wagga I, and some others I have had communication with, cannot recall who took his place.  WOD Dexter Dutton. Truly a remarkable man.

Some Facts
The following facts have been taken from ‘Groundel’, 25 April 1968, the RAAF School of Technical Training’s newspaper which has been placed on the Hedgehogs Face Book by Lou Ferris, 21 B Instruments.

Warrant Officer Dutton retired from the RAAF on 22 April 1968.

Patrick William Arthur Dutton was born in Charters Towers in 1916. Dexter was a name given him by the apprentices. He had previously been known by the nickname ‘Starchy’ as a consequence of a reference to ‘that starchy-fronted corporal’ by a visitor he had shown around RAAF Base Amberley,

He was posted to Wagga as the Apprentice Squadron’s WOD in January 1960 and the following year he wrote the ceremonial parade for apprentice graduations. In 1965 he was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and the following year was awarded a Certificate of Outstanding Service.

Owing to his ‘impeccable dress and bearing’ his photos were used in the Manual of Drill (AAP 819)

I want to acknowledge the following whose memory has contributed to this story:
Bob Young, 20 Instruments
Bob Maddern, 21 Airframes
Lou Ferris, 21 Instruments
Ken Simpson, 21 Motor Transport
Bob Maxwell, 21 Instruments
Don Dummer, 21 Engines
Norm Bruce, 21 Airframes


  1. Mike Medhurst (17 intake 'Lizards )January 7, 2015 at 12:26 PM

    I have many memories of Warrant Officer 'Dexter' Dutton. This article is not at odds with the 'Dexter' I knew, and came to fear because of the inter-action of my wayward ways at the time and his staunch methods of dealing with trouble-makers like yours truly.

    Not sure of the chronological order, but these events happened during my period at RSTT Wagga from 1963 to 1965.

    I recall doing more than my fair share of time on C.B. (confined to barracks).
    We had to march to the main gate and sign the C.B. book before dawn each day, possibly 5am. On more than one occasion, 'Dexter' would be yelling at us ( from his open bedroom window ) to march properly as we sauntered past his house on the main drag.

    One Saturday morning while we were under his supervision ( still on C.B ), he was giving the drill orders on the parade ground. Somebody was irking him. He singled this poor sod out, and while the rest of us stood at ease, this person spent at least the following 30 minutes coming to attention and standing at ease. It was painful to watch and we were all glad it wasn't us.

    I have other stories also, but the highlight for me personally concerned an incident that occurred between he and I one lunchtime as the 'flight' was marching to lunch. ( I have recounted this story before elsewhere so please skip it if required ).

    'Dexter' called me out of the flight as we were nearing the railway line on our way to lunch. Apparently I was not swinging my arms high enough for his liking.

    He then ordered me to march back the way we had come, against the flow of all the other flights making their way to the mess. He impressed on me that I had to swing my arms shoulder high, and he continuously barked orders at me to get my arms up.

    Well, lo and behold, us 'appies' had NEVER had to swing our arms at shoulder height like adult trainees had to, we were special and only swung ours waist high.

    In case you haven't seen it coming, I started a form of goose-step, left arm in synch with left leg and vice-versa..

    The troops heading to the mess that I was passing by were in hysterics, and I could have hidden under a rock I was so embarrassed.

    I don't know if I made it to Formation HQ at the end of the straight, and I have hazy memories of how this episode finished.. thank God for memory loss.

    In spite of all this, I held 'Dexter' Dutton in the highest of regard, and came to realise early in my life that I was honoured to have had him as my W.O.D.