As we came towards the end of our time at Wagga we were instructed to fill in our posting preferences. That didn’t take me long – Williamtown followed by Richmond and Amberley but I can’t recall the order of the second two. These selections were made for one reason – to get me overseas. In 1969 this meant Malaysia or Vietnam and I figured that Williamtown was an almost certainty for Butterworth, and that while Richmond and Amberley gave me a chance of Vietnam the odds depended very much upon which unit I ended up in at either of these. As it turned out Williamtown was the smart choice. I didn’t know it at the time but Vietnam was coming to an end and very few, if any, of my apprentice intake got there.
The dream was fulfilled in September 1971, four days after my 21st birthday. On the morning we left Sydney I was picked up from my Aunty Aileen’s place, by taxi if I recall correctly, for the short ride to the airport. Here I boarded a Qantas 707 that had been chartered by the RAAF for the trip to Butterworth. The Qantas ‘charter’ was a monthly occurrence, transporting RAAF personnel and their families to Butterworth and returning with those who were being repatriated to Australia at the end of their tour.
I can’t recall how long it took, but it was probably around 8 hours. After leaving Sydney we first landed in Singapore so the jet could be refuelled and to allow crew change for the return trip. One thing that struck me as we came into Singapore were the number of thatched roof houses sprouting television antennas. It struck me as rather odd.
I still feel for those Qantas cabin crew. RAAF families were largely young families. In those days, and even now, I doubt if there would be many other flights with the percentage of young children that were carried on those charters. By the time we arrived at our destination the children were rather restless. After all, it was a long day and to be couped up inside a 707 for so long tried their patience. To this day I wonder if Qantas didn’t use those trips as a disciplinary measure for misbehaving staff – the Qantas equivalent to the Corrective Training we experienced drilling on the bull ring at Wagga after hours for disciplinary breaches.
The first thing that struck me on arrival at Butterworth was the aroma that wafted through the open door of the aircraft as we disembarked. I really don’t know how to describe it. Needless to say, high rainfall, high humidity and an abundance of decaying matter left a lasting impression. And as we stepped down from the plane there was the welcoming committee – our mates that had gone before us and who were now waiting to show us the ropes.
The baggers were placed on buses and taken to their married quarters – or to be billeted at the Hostie until one became available. Those of us who were single were shown to our barracks on the base. Then the education began.
My bags had barely hit the floor before I was on the back of Darrel Heffernan’s bike heading for the Island. This was a first in itself – I had no prior experience on a bike, either as a rider or a pillion. The first point of call was, I think, a restaurant out Green Lane way. I know a few of the blokes had houses out that way, including Garry Green. I can’t recall who else I was with that night other than that they were mainly, if not solely, blokes off my apprentice intake and one was probably John Meredith.
I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but I clearly remember the meal. I ordered a sizzling steak and was rather surprised when the waiter place a bib around my neck, but I soon found out why. The steak was delivered on a cast iron hotplate shaped like a bull. Never before had I had a meal that literally spat at me. It was, indeed, a sizzling steak.
After that it was into town to check out the night life. We probably started with the Tiger Bar – that seems to have been the standard operating procedure. Then we moved on. I can’t recall the name of the establishment but I was introduced to a young lady who went by the name of Fat Annie. She asked something about ‘Cherry Boy’, my mates answered in the affirmative, and Annie took a special interest in me. And that is all the information you’ll get.
We returned to base and hit the sack. Singlies were expected to report for work the morning after arrival, baggers were given the day off to help get their families settled. I had spent my first night in Butterworth.
Again, the posting preferences were filled in. This time Pearce was at the top of the list. I knew the family were on the other side of the continent but I wanted to see some of the world. When the time came I was posted to 38 Squadron, Richmond. As it turned out that was probably a good move. I enjoyed my time on the Gravel Trucks (Caribous) and got a six week trip to New Guinea out of it. At a reunion in Wagga on Anzac day 2013 I met one of our number who did time at Pearce. Pearce as a training base and suffered some of the same type of nonsense we put up with at Wagga. He had planned to reenlist after our initial nine year term and was on his way to the orderly room to do so when someone with a bit of authority reminded him that he was not acting in an airman like manner. ‘I’m not putting up with this bullshit any longer’ he said to himself, and that was the end of his RAAF career.
I had been at Richmond for about three years when I got the message, ‘Corporal Marsh, they want you in the orderly room’. ‘You’ve been posted to 75 Squadron in July’ I was told. This news was more than welcomed. Butterworth had been at the top of my posting preferences since returning to Australian and I had submitted a request for posting based on the fact that my wife was Malaysian and it would allow her to spend time with her family. We had, the weekend before, agreed to buy a house in North Richmond pending approval of finance, so that approval never came.
The trip went much the same as before, except that I was now one of the baggers with two young billy lids. We landed at Butterworth, got on the bus and were taken to our married quarter. I wish I could remember the address but all I can remember is that it was a short street on the left hand side of Jalan Gajah somewhere near the top. The upstairs floors had been freshly painted black – very freshly so I found when I dropped a suitcase on the floor. The bottom of that case had black paint on it until the day we disposed of it.
After a long day there was no chance of an early night. We were met by the welcoming committee. There were some basic food stuffs provided and our new neighbours were there to tell us the things we needed to know – and to share a beer or two. This was appreciated, because although we had been there before the experience of moving to a new posting with a young family was not always easy. But one thing was a certainty with the RAAF, you were not on your own. There were always mates who made you feel welcome and who helped you make that transition to the new location.
So that was it, my first night in Penang as a bagger. Different in many ways to my first night as a singlie, but both spent in the company of friends.
All together I spent five years at Butterworth. Those years stand out in many ways as the most memorable of my life. Of those, it is the first posting that really stands out as the most memorable, and it is this one that I seem to have the better memory of. I think there are certain things that make that so.
Obviously, it was my first time outside Australia. But I believe it was also the people I was with. A lot us had been through Wagga together, spent our time at Williamtown and ended up in Butterworth. Darryl Heffernan, John Meredith (we had been in 2 flight, ITS – Initial Training Squadron – in our first six months at Wagga), Garry Green, and Garry Davidson – the list goes on. Then there were my fellow sumpies – Jack Clarke, Steve Perrin, Lew Crowe, and more. Please forgive my failing memory if I have left you off the list. That’s over six years together in one way or another. And then there were the blokes I met at 77 who also spent considerable time at Butterworth with me – John Mantel, Butch Connolly and Bob Anderson to name a few.
Richmond took me out of the Mirage loop for a few years. When I returned there were still blokes there I knew, including those from the first trip. As the main route for a techo to Butterworth was through Williamtown there were a lot more blokes there I hadn’t met before and I find it harder to recall names. Still a lot of great blokes, a lot of good times, great memories, and a great experience for those kids old enough at the time to remember it.