Sunday, April 29, 2018

Welcome to the Real Air Force

I graduated from Wagga Wagga on 26th June 1969. This was farewell to many of those I had come to know over the last 2 ½ years. Some I would catch up with again over the ensuing years but there are many I haven't seen since.

I took a couple of weeks leave, travelling home in convoy with my parents and brother who had traveled to Wagga for our graduation. David must have traveled with me but I have little recollection of the trip.

Leave completed Aircraftman Marsh reported for duty at 77 Squadron Williamtown. 77 had recently returned from Butterworth to be reequipped with Mirages, the last squadron to do so. Memory tells me the Squadron had three bright, shiny new fighters at the time. Being unpainted they glared in the sunshine and could be rather hard on the eyes. Our Commanding Officer at the time was Squadron Leader Jim Treadwell who would be replaced as the Squadron came up to full strength with Wing Commander Bill Simmonds. Both men had served in Korea where Simmonds had been Mentioned in Dispatches. Of recent years I have become reacquainted with Jim through the Air Force Association.

Bill had a thing about hair - he had an aversion to it being short. A few years back I was told by one of the Squadron’s pilots from the time that officers were not allowed to get a haircut until he approved. I remember one trip to Darwin when the troops were banned from the airmen’s mess and the CO from the Officers’ mess until we all had regulation haircuts.

The ‘hair problem’ however was not limited to 77 Squadron. It was part of the culture at Williamtown until, some time after I departed for Butterworth, the Base got a new Officer Commanding. It did not take long until short back and sides were again the order of the day.

It wasn’t just the matter of hair. Williamtown was much more relaxed than Wagga Wagga. No longer did we line up in flights and march to work, lunch or anywhere else. Such regimentation would have cost operational efficiency. Gone were the continual reminders to straighten our arms or to get them up as we moved around the Base. Neither was it ‘yes sergeant’ or ‘no corporal’, especially in the hangar environment. Generally it was first name basis with our non-commissioned officers, although the commissioned ranks were always addressed as ‘sir.’

Panic night remained, this being essential as we continued to be responsible for the cleanliness of our rooms and barracks in general, including the ablutions. However the open cupboard inspections were a thing of the past as were the much hated bed rolls.

During my first six months at Wagga I had lived in a two story brick building. From there we moved to newly completed three story barracks that became our home for the next two years. This was in sharp contrast to my initial accommodation at Williamtown.

On arrival at Williamtown I shared a two-bed room in a hut that was a relic of WW2 and no doubt riddled with asbestos. In places the floor moved under our feet indicating it was well past its use by date. The ablution block was separate which meant exposure to the natural environment during trips to the toilets or showers. My roommate was Blue Bailey, a

Framie off my intake and Wayne Scholtz, another 21 Intake Framie lived in the adjoining room. There was some great after hours socialising in that old block but I did eventually move to a modern, two-story brick one. These were more comfortable although there were four to the room. One advantage was the fact the ablutions were part of the block.

There were six engine fitters (Sumpies) as I recall from our intake posted to Williamtown. I was the only one from A Flight and as I remember the only one posted to 77. My closest mates at Wagga had been posted to other bases so new friendships were formed. These included older blokes who took this impressionable, somewhat gullible, new chum under their wings, including those off earlier apprentice intakes. I know they tried to keep me on the straight and narrow, but it seemed to have been covered with oil spills - or maybe the fact we were Sumpies meant it just oozed out of us. Then again there was a Framie or two, and dare I mention that Sparky who drove us home from the Nelson Bay RSL with a hand over one eye to stop him seeing double more than once..

Of course I already knew blokes off 20, and there was a special bond between the ex-apprentice fraternity. Many of my closest mates, not only at Williamtown but throughout my career, were former appies. Technically ours was a five year apprenticeship so we were only halfway through that when we graduated. However it made no practical difference in the field. We were qualified RAAF tradesmen - no women in the trades back then - and were treated exactly the same as our peers.

That didn’t mean we were automatically authorised to work on specific aircraft or tasks. We were, for example, shown how to do a before flight inspection, refuel, do an engine change, etc. Then we would be supervised as we did the task until our supervisors were confident we could do the task properly. When I look back at my service records I see I was still being authorised to do some Mirage tasks when in Butterworth well over two years after arriving at Williamtown. For the first six months out of Wagga I was employed in Maintenance Control Section - an experience I have previously written about - which delayed further trade-specific experience.

There were two Mirage squadrons at Williamtown - 76 and 77. These were supported by 481 Maintenance Squadron. Engine fitters in Mirage squadrons did limited maintenance and repair tasks. Major servicing and repair tasks were carried out in the Engine Repair Section (ERS) of the maintenance squadron. Sumpies were attached to ERS for six months to gain experience in these deeper level tasks and I spent six months there before being posted to Butterworth.

I remember my first trip into Newcastle, only a few nights I arrived. Newcastle was a steel town back then and you really could see the air you breathed and this meant heavy fogs at times. Another night I had a burger at a cafe in Raymond Terrace. As I sat there this rather large bloke in a leather jacket walked up to his bike - probably a Honda 350 - and pressed the starter button. Being used to seeing the kick start it looked most out of place.

This was before the bridge over the Hunter into Newcastle. Saturday morning trips to town were a regular feature - I think the shops closed at lunchtime back then. It was common to park at Stockton and catch the passenger ferry to town. A regular Saturday morning haunt was a pub on the corner Hunter Street and another. This provided a great viewing platform along the side wall where we could sit with our refreshments and watch through the window as the young ladies of Newcastle paraded past in their rather short mini’s.

Nelson Bay proved a popular spot. In those days the road to the Bay was a narrow, sealed one - at least most of the way - with few opportunities to overtake. The Bay was small compared to what is now and it was here that I tried my hand at snorkeling and spearfishing, something I didn’t continue after I left. Then there was the ANZAC Day the Col Winter, a 19 intake Sumpy, told me to dress in uniform and accompany him to the Bay RSL. He assured me we wouldn’t have to buy a beer all day, that the old diggers would look after us. And they did.

Williamtown had an active car club of which I was a member. I competed in different events, including at least one rally, in my Austin Lancer Mk 2. There was also the day trip to Oran Park Raceway in South West Sydney to do a Peter Wherrett advanced driving course. Oran Park was a popular race track back then and I remember a few trips down to enjoy the racing.

It was a most enjoyable day, hanging the rear out around Creek Corner of my Falcon Ute and who remembers what else. The only thing that spoilt the day was a cop on the way home who was obviously not impressed with my new skills.

And how can I forget Hubey Parrish, a Pommy RadTech. He had a sports car - possibly an MG Midget. And he also had the gift of the gab. The story goes that one evening he was driving around Newcastle when he drew the attention of a police officer. He drove over a bridge and while out of sight of the officer did a hand brake turn and headed back the other way. Once on the other side he repeated the manoeuvre. This may have happened a few times until the office finally caught him. Then, it being raining Hubey invited the Officer to sit in the passenger seat out of the rain while they got to know each other a little better.

It was in my first months here that I was ordered to the Padre’s office. My Grandfather had been ill for some time and as I walked in the door I said ‘It’s my Grandfather isn’t it.’ ‘Yes’ he replied. Williamtown was something like a 7 hour drive from home and so I was able to take a few days off the attend the funeral. Of my four grandparents Pa Marsh’s funeral was the only one I attended. And as far as postings go, in the first six months of my first two - Wagga Wagga and Williamtown - I lost my great-grandmother and my grandfather.

I arrived at Williamtown in July 1969 and left for Butterworth in September 1971. Other than the sadness of my Grandfather’s death I have many good memories - far too many to record here. It was not until I moved to Sydney for work in 1996, nine years after my discharge, that I returned to the Port Stephens area. I could not believe how much it had changed. As for Williamtown itself, some years ago now I attended a Mirage era reunion. We were meant to meet at Fighter World and get bused onto the Base but the drive had a rostered day off - unheard of in my day. So they allowed us to drive onto the base if we had our driver’s license as identity. What a shamozzle. The reunion was in the 76 Squadron hangar but we were left to our own devices to find it. The roads had changed and the route I would have taken back in 1970 was closed off. This left a lot of civilians driving around a RAAF Base in utter confusion until somehow we found our way to the hanger. So much for security.

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