THE “QUIET YEARS” 1970 to 1999 – THE COLD WAR
29 April 20223
DISCLAIMER. The following article is based on my life experiences and therefore the opinions expressed within are mine and mine alone. Constructive criticism is eagerly acceptable for any errors on my part, in order to enhance the article with other; points of view, years, stories and tales tall but true. The article is a living document and the final product will be posted on the website found at abalinx.com for historical purposes and therefore please do not shoot the messenger. THE QUIET YEARS 1970 to 1999 – THE COLD WAR
[It is important to note that our generation was a product of training by veterans who had served during WW2, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnam, Borneo and Indonesian Confrontation veterans. Without their superb leadership, management, support and training, many of us would not be here today.] Peter Adamis. Image: Painting by Gene Pratt (Ex 1 RAR)
HANZAC. Those who are familiar with the Hellenic ANZAC Memorial (HANZAC) in Pellana, Laconia Greece will understand that it is a tribute not only to the Hellenic people, the ANZACS, but also to mates in my life and to those who trained my generation. Our generation won the Cold War! To quote Peter Feeney [Ex RAR]: “As a member of that generation, we were the highest trained but least experienced Australian Army since federation”.
The Vietnam War was in its last three years hell and its death throes were being felt in the political swamps of negotiations, unbeknownst to the general public. The United States was conducting secret peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese while the battles raged in earnest, killing lives on all sides for a war that could only be won by conciliation and the cessation of hostilities. The Australian public in general were against sending anymore of its youth to a war they believed Australia should not have been involved in and protests were conducted throughout the continent.
The wharfies like their counterparts during WW2 (prior to the Soviet Union joining with the Allies) abjectly refusing to load war assets destined for Vietnam, Postmen were also a source of derision amongst battle wearied veterans returning home. It was not a good time to be a member of the Australian Defence Force.
In December 1972, The Labor government under Whitlam burst upon the Australian landscape sweeping aside years of Liberal ideological and political philosophies. All of a sudden, the Infantry battalions that had a composition of National servicemen were depleted of manpower. Overnight, soldiers had shed their military uniforms, packed their personal belongings, bade their mates a farewell and made their way back home from whence they first came from. Some travelled in vehicles of their own, others by public transport and some hitch hiking back to their homes state.
Senior commanders who had wind of what was about to occur had approached selected personnel who in their opinion were outstanding soldiers and asked them to remain behind with the promise of a bright future should they decide to re-engage instead of leaving their national service obligations. Very few took up the offers and yet those that did remain went onto a bright future, rising through the ranks and a career spanning some twenty or more years’ service. Mind you some National servicemen did in fact return after finding that civilian street no longer appealed to them and missed the comradeship of the mates they had left behind.
I remember the night at 1 RAR in Townsville, seeing my mates, packing up their belongings and leaving in droves. The next few days was taken up with finding as many of those national servicemen who had not left and all were requested to sign documentation releasing them from their national service obligations and allowed to leave the life of the soldier. This was done mainly for insurance and compensation purposes and to ensure that some form of separation had occurred. I can only fathom that for those that had left of their own accord, the military system in their wisdom would have caught up with them and ensured that official separation documentation was signed.
Gene Pratt, a mate from A Coy 1 RAR remembers vividly the time “when Vietnam finished and the Nashos went home. Gene still remembers “being on the 1st battalion oval with the 2/4 RAR in attendance and all the other corps in a half-moon shape. Brigadier Thompson was standing on the back of a truck saying his farewells to the soldiers in green. He said: “Stand at ease. Note that this is a third of the Australian fighting force. Gene nearly fell over seeing there were so few of us on the parade ground. Since then, Gene said that he referred that whole thing from Gough Whitlam’s statements: as ‘The night the Army died’ Absolute desolation. After day, Gene decided he would serve out his time and get out, which was in November 1973”.
Then there was one case of a couple of my best mates who had a gutful and conspired with the section that they were homosexuals. As such they were reported to the military authorities. Homosexuality was frowned upon in those days and attracted immediate discharge. In any case our two mates were given their discharge papers and disappeared over the Nullarbor horizon and back in West Australia. We all knew that they were not homosexuals but we all went along with it any way. Occasionally we would get letters from them advising us of their exploits and adventures. Unfortunately, one of them became inebriated, climbed a electric pole and died being electrocuted.
Others who desperately wanted to leave took more desperate actions such as attempting suicide, becoming drunk and disorderly that not even being charged or placed into confinement had any effect. I came back to my barrack rooms one evening to find one of my mates slicing his wrists with razor blades. I stopped him there and then and called the guard room to take him to the hospital. He returned a couple of days later and all seemed well. However, it was not long before that he attempted suicide again and was taken away by the guard and hospitalised and later discharged.
Within two years, we found that there was a shortage of ammunition, little or no material war assets being channelled down the ranks and the battalions doing more with less. Training did not change except that for fewer live firing and other range related shoots. Equipment and material assets were cannibalised to keep enough of them in operational order and to conduct defensive and offensive operations. My long time mate of my youth, Mark Stephens gave an excellent example of making do with less: “During the those with no ammo, I can remember at Mount Spec using a kids rattle that when I fired my M60, I had to spin the rattle around to pretend I was firing.
When anybody fired their rifle you had to yell out “firing now”. Helicopter training consisted of 6 chairs put together facing one way on the oval with a guy standing in the centre with a filled water bottle tired onto toggle ropes that he had to swing around his head pretending to be the rotor blades.” The other corps were no different as Phillip Needham advised: “I was a trooper in 2 Cav when all that happened. We lost a third of our Regiment, but they didn’t lessen our commitments or training schedule. Trying to get parts for our tracks out of War Stores was virtually impossible. They also brought in “Track Milage”. Each unit was allocated a certain amount and that was it. Definitely not a pleasant time as we lost a friend who just left. A couple stayed but not many, some re-enlisted back in at a later date. Took a long time to recover our unit strength.”
There were rumblings of discontent, muttering of taking matters into our own hands, concerns that we were not going to be paid, those that were married were wondering how were they going to pay the rent, put food on the table and educate their children. Worst was when we began to see droves of Special Air Service (non-commissioned, Officers, Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers) being reposted to infantry battalions. At the time we were advised that they were being reposted to raise the level of infantry battalion battle ready efficiency to a higher level. However, the old grape vine according to the Jungle Bush Lawyers and furphy/gossip mongers was that the Special Air Service personnel were considered dangerous due to rumours that they may stage a political coup.
We as young soldiers with some four years’ experience had been trained by WW2, Korean, Vietnam, Malaysian, Borneo and Indonesian Confrontation veterans and found these comments and innuendos very hard to believe. Still, they made good stories and yarns around the odd bonfire after the cessation of a major training exercise. Many of us learnt much around those bonfires, stories that we found hard to believe because they were not common knowledge and not written anywhere. Stories of courage, bravery, selfishness and acts of cowardice and/or those seeking glory just for the sake of increasing their medal count.
It was not a good time being a soldier for the morale of the Defence Force had dropped to an all-time low and if it was not for our highly disciplined nature, loyalty, faith in our commanders and our motto of: Duty First, life would have been unbearable. Other arms Corps suffered from the same maladies and they too had to scrounge and make to with equipment that was not only out of date but useless to meet a modern war. Simulation, difficult terrains, tough training environments and exhausting battle drills were sone of the methodologies used to create real life battle ground scenarios in which soldiers could effectively be hardened to withstand a two-way live firing range.
One such example, was in Papua New Guinea on Exercise Treble Change by 1 RAR. This was designed by LtCol Blue Hodgkinson and that beloved “Warrie” George Mansford. It was created with the aim of providing a realistic battleground with as many simulations as possible and to demonstrate that despite the changes, Australia was still capable of putting into the field a Battalion sized force. Many years later, such a force was out into practice during the East Timor conflict. The East Timor force ammunition and asset preparations were created by a small group of dedicated officers who had to return back to WW2 scenarios in order to obtain the appropriate war logistical material required. This was another lesson learnt from past conflicts.
Overseas training or deployments were extremely competitive and only those considered to be above average or had connections with the higher ranks were able to be deployed overseas. Those did not get a guernsey took it very badly and found it difficult to cope within the military system, after all they were just as good as those that were deployed overseas. There are many military operations that will not see the light of day until the relevant embargo on them is lifted for reasons of national security. The SAS, ASIO, ASIS, and likeminded forces operated outside the shores of Australia to ensure that Australia and Australians were safe. Members of these organisations are often not acknowledged and the public lives on in ignorance of their good work.
Some who did not get the opportunity for overseas service, became so despondent, that they took their own lives, drank themselves to a stupor, were often charged for one negative incident or another. It got to the stage where Infantry Commanding officers were given a directive to weed out those soldiers whose charge sheets did not reflect the image that the Army wanted for the future. I can attest to that as in 6 RAR in Enoggera, soldiers who had served in Malaysia, Vietnam and Borneo received such letters asking why they should remain in the Army. In other cases, the Commanding Officer took it upon themselves to select soldiers who in their opinion did not fit the model of an Australian soldier.
We lost quite a few excellent soldiers who had a number of charges up their sleeve and had no means or the education to fight back effectively in order to remain. Ron McGrice rightly so pointed out that: “Some of the good Soldiers weeded out by their Commanding Officers were suffering from PTSD, not recognized at that time”. I lost some great mates during this period of uncertainty, one of them Godfather (Thursday Islander – now deceased) to my eldest son. From my end of the stick, I confess, I received such a letter (signal), describing me as a borderline case and that should I wish to remain, I would have to demonstrate those attributes of a model soldier and not attract any more charges. I must say the letter had a profound effect on me and I did not get charged again. (Not for a while anyway) I was just married and did not want to leave the Army which had also become my home.
As the years rolled by, matters improved slightly, the Prime Minster, Gough Whitlam, was removed unceremoniously by the Governor General and Malcolm Fraser came to the throne so to speak. Fraser who was once a past Defence Minister, knew only too well the machinations and workings of the military and in no time restored the morale of the Australian Defence Force. Many years later under the Hawke government, Labor having learnt its lessons of the Whitlam years ensured that Defence and its manpower assets did not become degenerate or fall into the abys ever again. Policies were created to ensure that the morale and military expenditure of assets were given the appropriate measure of accountability and political support. (But that’s another story).
Still, the period between 1972 to 1998 was considered a period of relative peace when compared to previous generations. Some would say since Federation. A time when the rest of the world was realigning itself politically, militarily and economically to become more assertive by aligning themselves with likeminded trading partners. (We are seeing history being repeated today). Given the strength of the Australian Defence Force at the time, overseas deployments on a large scale were few and far between. As shown below, on paper it may seem as if Australia’s involvement was huge but in reality, it was minuscule and at company level at the most.
Australia’s involvement overseas was reduced to troops being involved in such exotic places as Papua, New Guinea, Bougainville, Singapore – (ANZUK), Malaysia – Second Malaysian Emergency – (Rifle Company Butterworth at Penang), Somalia, Rhodesia, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, Namibia, Balkans, Cambodia, Exchanges at Exercise Long Look, Peace Keeping Missions in the Middle East and other places, anti-terrorist, managing the arrival of the boat; people, deterring the illegal people smugglers and Urban warfare in the United Kingdom. Overall, Australia’s contribution to world peace is undeniably a credit for such a small nation and all those serving at the time can take heart in the knowledge that they were the keepers of the skills and knowledge handed down to them by battle hardened veterans of a previous generation.
The lessons learnt during this period were invaluable and those who had been trained by veterans of WW2, Korean Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo and the Indonesian Confrontation were able to enhance those skills and pass them into a new generation. I say this because, there was one time when the Chief of the Defence Force signalled to all units that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dismantling of the known USSR, we who continued to serve helped in winning the Cold War. This signal had a profound effect on those of us who had remained in the Defence Force. I kept a copy of that signal for the sake of history. The new generation of soldiers went on to do us proud in East Timor, the Gulf War, Iraq, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan to name just a few of the overseas deployments.
Those who served during this period can hold their heads up high, for without them, the skills, knowledge and war craft could not have been passed onto succeeding generations. Today, our Defence Force has changed considerable with greater emphasis on technology, personal skills, moral fibre, resilience and the courage to make decisions based on real live Intel. Today, many of us are greatly affected of seeing mates drop off the perch suddenly due to health-related reasons, others committing suicide [1600 since 1997], Defence coming under scrutiny for abuse, Pension (DFRDB) about face and reneging by the Government, poor leadership and errors of judgement, poor optics by Department of Veteran Affairs and lack of acknowledgement for overseas service. Then we wonder why recruiting (Outsourced) is having problems achieving their targets.
This article has merely scratched the surface and as the author, I will not be surprised if it evokes emotions and memories of the past. The article is meant to be a tribute to all those who carried the torch from one generation to another. [I thank and acknowledge all those who have contributed to this article] The many who served silently and not wear medals like those who saw overseas service, they may not always march on ANZAC Day; but they are always there amongst us in society in our midst going about their daily lives. They are the silent guardians of our generations, all of whom contributed to winning the Cold War.
As always, remain vigilant, be of good cheer for the world is still a beautiful place, never give up and always fight the good fight.
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Peter Adamis is a writer, freelance journalist and a retired Australian veteran. He holds a Bachelor of Adult Learning and Development and a post-graduate degree in Environmental Occupational Health and Safety. Abalinx.com [Just an ordinary bloke]