Being a RAAF apprentice was in some ways different to being a civilian apprentice. When I enlisted in 1967 the first thirty months were spent at RAAF Base Wagga. Here we were apprenticed into our different trades with a mix of theory and practical work. However we did not work alongside qualified tradies, learning as we went. At the end of those first two and a half years we graduated as qualified tradesmen (there were no tradeswomen in the RAAF back then) and were posted to different RAAF units. At these units we were part of the workforce, having the same rights and responsibilities of others of same rank and trade although technically we did not receive our trade certificate until we had completed five years. This certificate gave us civilian recognition as fitters.
The major difference however was the fact that we were military apprentices, and that meant that part of our training was devoted to basic military training. Unlike many civilian workplaces the military was not cursed with silly rules designed to protect the vested interests of those in specific job categories. If there was a job to be done and you had the necessary prerequisites you could be called upon to do it.
In the RAAF that meant we could be called upon to take part in defence and security operations. So we were trained in the use of the standard issue service rifle or our day, the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, or SLR 7.62 mm. This included firing, stripping, cleaning and reassembly, all of which could have been necessary at some time for our survival.
Very early in our final 12 months at Wagga we went on a week’s bivouac. Whether that was seven days, or simply Monday to Friday, I can’t remember. My memories of that time are, like so many others, scant and may be challenged by others with better recall.
It was winter and the event was conducted in the hills somewhere near Tumbarumba on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. We slept on stretchers in service tents so I guess it was not as primitive as it could have been. As I have no recollection of erecting or dismantling the tents I assume that was cared for by others before we arrived and after we left.
The same for the communal thunderboxes. This was something I was totally unprepared for. At Wagga, in some of the older toilet blocks reserved for the other ranks the individual cubicles were doorless, no doubt to allow a supervising NCO ensure no one was bludging on the job. It was always easy however to find something a little more private and, so far as I was concerned, a trip to the dunny was always personal time.
There they were. On the side of the hill, surrounded by hessian, the communal thunderboxes. From memory, there was no shelter from rain or sun. It was a simple arrangement, a long plank with something like six or eight holes designed so that this special time could be shared with others. Still, when nature calls.
At night we did the lantern chase. The aim of this exercise was to climb up a hill and capture the lantern without being caught. We took turns at attacking and defending. I remember once doing a day time unit patrol though the bush trying to locate the enemy before we walked into their ambush. Again, we took turns at being the patrol and the ambush party.
As I said above, this was winter at the base of the Snowy Mountains. To say it was cold would be an understatement. The only water available for washing, shaving and the like was cold, a degree or two above freezing point. Most of spent the week without bathing, but if one was keen enough there was a way.
One of our exercises was to cross a stagnant water hole using a single rope suspended between two trees. This meant hanging upside down passing hand over hand, foot over foot without letting go of the rope. In a perverse way there was an inducement to fail that was taken up by some of our number. In the interests of health and hygiene anyone who fell into the water was required to take a warm shower. Most of us however did not avail ourselves of the opportunity so who knows what we smelt like on our return to Wagga.
While it was part of our training it was almost a holiday camp, a pleasant change from the daily routine at Wagga. With the possible exception of the communal thunder box I have no bad memories. It was far removed from the pictures I have seen of young men, only a few years older than myself, patrolling through the jungles of Vietnam, moving in water up to their waists and higher, knowing at night they slept on the ground. I am so thankful that that was never my experience.
Then again, I often recall the words of my great uncle Roy, a veteran of the trenches in WW1 as I left home. ‘Your RAAF blokes are smart. You send your officers out to do the fighting.’ My choice was the RAAF, and I have never had reason to regret that choice.