Sunday, April 26, 2015

It was 1967, I was 16

Airman Apprentice Marsh, 1967

Like me, you have no doubt heard of the young men - boys really - who signed up for the 1st AIF, many of them lying about their age, because they saw it as a big adventure and a chance to see some of the world outside Australia. I can identify with that.

I was 16 when I joined the RAAF in 1967 - at the height of the Vietnam war. The appy (apprentice) intakes of 65, 66 and 67 were the largest in the history of the appy scheme (mine the smallest of the three with 184 enlisting for Wagga). We were boys supposedly between the ages of 15 to 17 at enlistment, although some were accepted that were a little younger. Towards the end of my 2 1/2 years at Wagga I filled in my posting preferences. They were designed to give me the best chance of getting overseas, and there were only two places for a Sumpy (engine fitter) to go - Vietnam or Malaysia. Back then, the idea of overseas travel was economically out of the reach of most.

I figured my best chance was Williamtown as that would almost certainly lead to Butterworth. Richmond and Amberley I thought would give a chance of Vietnam, depending on what unit I ended up in. Did I give any thought to the fact that I could get shot? None whatsoever.

As it was I got 77 Sqn Willy and a little over 2 years later 75 Sqn Butterworth. There may have been a few off my Intake got to Vietnam, but I do not know of any. I did have one mate who had his posting only to have it cancelled when Whitlam pulled the last few out.

As I reflect on that time I wonder what my parents and grandparents went through. I recall Mum on the phone once saying something to someone on the other end about me joining the RAAF, that I could end up in Vietnam, and if it was good enough for her son ...

And I remember Nana Marsh crying as I walked away after saying my goodbyes. At the time I thought 'How nice, Nana is going to miss me'. But now I wonder.

Nana's brother Roy served in France where he was gassed and seriously wounded - but came home. Their uncle George Davis was killed in France. Sadly George's mother and Roy's grandmother was a native of Germany. Nana also had a cousin, a Nursing Officer who died in a prisoner of war camp in Sumatra. Mum had two cousins, brothers, one who is buried in the War Cemetery just outside Port Moresby, the other died on the Burmese railway.

To their credit, my family let me go - they had to sign the consent forms. Joining the RAAF was all I wanted to do as a boy and they let me realise that dream, one that I have never regretted. But they must have had real concerns.

As it worked out in 20 years’ service I never came under fire. But given the volatility that was South East Asia at the time the outcome may have been different. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Revised, August 2016

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