Chapter 3: Ninety-Day Wonders

Those first few days at Kapooka are a bit of a blur now.  I was in 22 Platoon, we were all Nashos.  Two of my school mates were with me in my platoon.  Darcy who bunked next to me, and Ian whom I would catch up with again in Vietnam some 12 months later.  Before I get on with all my wonderful stories about basic training I’d better tell you how the officer selection ended up.

In a word, it didn’t.

I was called out with a group to see if we had the aptitude for officer training.  Nasho officers were known as ninety day wonders because that’s how long it took to churn out Second Lieutenants at Scheyville west of Sydney.  The last thing they taught them out there was how to walk on water.

We were given a few teamwork type activities to solve problems as a group, there wasn’t any shortage of blokes trying to take over and dominate the group.  I felt it was a little artificial with blokes trying to outdo each other in front of all that Army brass.  So I adopted what they call in the Army a low profile.

It worked.  When it came to an impromptu five minute talk, they selected me to go first.  I should mention that all of the other blokes were in their early twenties.  Their Nasho service had been deferred due to their university studies.  So the young skinny 19 year old clerical wiz kid eventually gets his time in the sun.

I spoke about the lunar mission.  Those guys up there in space hadn’t landed on the moon just yet but I knew all about it.  Some months earlier I was in Sydney as part of the audience for the Tommy Leonetti Show, a forerunner to the Don Lane Tonight Show.  They had a guest on the show who explained the whole lunar mission.  I was able to dazzle these uni guys and the Army brass with such things as it was Johnson who had the responsibility of fulfilling the promise made by Kennedy.  Getting to the moon wasn’t a problem.  They could do that easily.  The hard part was getting them home.  The scientists wanted to construct a space wheel in orbit around earth and then go to the moon from there.  This saved a lot of energy  because the craft did not need to free itself from earth’s gravity.  The scientists of course were not really interested in going to the moon, they wanted to explore the planets and the space wheel would certainly help them to achieve that.

Then some bloody engineer came up with the idea of jettison.  As fuel cells were used up, they were discarded.  The scientists fought this radical idea because they could see that such an exercise would see no need for a space wheel and their real plans of interplanetary travel would be done and dusted.  Anyway, the politicians thought it was a great idea and the rest they say is history. I also explained the orbits, about how the lunar module remained on the moon, blah, blah, blah.  I had them eating out of the palm of my hand.

Next day, the numbers of potential ninety day wonders had halved and this day we had to do some written stuff.  I recall one scenario where we were told we were stranded on an island and although it was uninhabited there was evidence that it was frequented by cannibals.  The island was also visible to passing ships as it was on a main shipping lane.  We had a map and we had to indicate what we would do and where we would do it.

Well as it turned out I put in another sterling effort.  You see in 1968 I saw a television series made by the French on Robinson Crusoe.  All I did was write about what he did saying this is what I’d do.   I would set up camp near fresh water and I selected a base protected from the elements and where the cannibals would have to come to it across open ground so they couldn’t sneak up on me.  The back of this camp area had large cliffs so the cannibals would have a hard time coming up that way.  I’d build log dumps and set them alight so that any passing ship could see my smoke signals.  If the cannibals tried to climb the cliffs I could set the logs alight and push the burning logs down onto them. And on I went with my grandiose plans.

Just call me Monty, OK?

Day three and our ninety day wonder numbers had dwindled even more.  Today we had to front the Selection Board.  Someone said if you don’t step on your dick you’re  in!

I stepped on my dick.

I had prepared a speech for them.  It went something like this.  “Gentlemen, I am not like the rest of the group.  They are much older than I am and they have tertiary studies under their belts. I am a clerk with a high school education with very little life experience, I don’t feel I would be able to command a platoon in Vietnam effectively.”

The top brass were clearly taken aback.  One old codger cleared his throat and said something about they believed I had the necessary attributes and all I needed was some confidence, training and channelling of those skills.  I’m pretty certain he used the word channelling.

I went on to tell them, “I volunteered for National Service for one reason, to go to Vietnam.  I wanted to experience war and I believe the best way to do that would be as an Infantry soldier.  If I went to Officer Training there would be no guarantee that I would go to Vietnam and I believe that the chances of my commanding an Infantry Platoon in Vietnam would be very slim indeed.”

That silenced them.

They thanked me for my candour and wished me luck.

I went back and joined the boys at 22 platoon.

So now you know.  I was a volunteer Nasho.  My parents had to sign a paper which they were reluctant to do at first, but as they could see I was serious and after a bit of ranting and arm waving from my mother they signed.

My brother was a Nasho and he had served 12 months in Vietnam so  I knew what I was letting myself in for.

So why did I do it?  Why volunteer for war?  Well I don’t think I ever explained it properly to my mother but I think it had something to do with my wanting to achieve manhood status.  Here I am, 19 years of age, living in a small country town and going nowhere.  I felt I had to do something with my life, I had to test myself, to prove to myself that I could do anything, no matter how hard it was.  The reason I didn’t apply to be a regular soldier was because as a Nasho I only had to do two years service and my job would be waiting for me when my time was up.  The shortest time for a regular soldier was three years service and then you were looking for a job.

I read a story, A Man Called Horse. It was written by a woman surprisingly enough . It was about an Englishman who didn’t like the class structure, as he believed all men were equal.  He wanted to go somewhere where this was so.  He went to America looking for it there.  Eventually he was captured by Indians and not only did he survive but he became an Indian brave and married an Indian girl.  It was a great story. He experienced a lot of great things with the Blackfeet tribe and he used to say to himself “Wait until I get back home and tell all the people the things I have done”.  Finally when he did return to England and people asked him what he did in America, he simply said he lived with the Blackfeet tribe for a few years and told them nothing more.

His story is my story.  I joined the Army.  I went to war. I came home and I said nothing about it for a very long, long time.

That is about to change.

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Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.

ian_cavanoughHi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.
Ian Cavanough,
Tumut, NSW

 


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Brian Hartigan

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Ninety-Day Wonders

  • 20/06/2016 at 4:30 pm
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    Thanks Kevin

    But doesn’t ’90 day wonder’ have a special kinda ring to it?

    Cheers

    Cav

    Reply
  • 20/06/2016 at 11:32 am
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    Just a minor error – the National Service Officer Training unit (OTU), Scheyville NSW, course was 6 months not ninety days.

    Reply

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