Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?
I was born at Cook on the Nullabor Plains in South Australia. In 1949, my family moved to Hope Valley in Adelaide, where we lived for three years. When I was seven years old, we shifted over to the Eyre Peninsula, where my father had grown-up; it was close to his country. My family had strong links with Elliston and Eyre Peninsula. We lived in an ancient house on the edge of the swamps on the fringe of town. Dad was share-farming at Mount Wedge.
I was ten when Dad transferred our family to Arno Bay, on a farm at the six-mile post. My final two years at High school was at the Tumby Bay Higher Primary School following our relocation to the old telegraph station at Lipson near Tumby Bay. When I turned 14, my father settled in Port Lincoln. My ambition was to become an electronics engineer, but without being allowed to finish high school, I needed to get an apprenticeship. Because this opportunity was not available to me, I worked as a clerk at the Barley Board.
My grandfather, Joseph, was from the famous pioneer family of Robert and George Standley. Grandpa had a farm near Kimba. For some reason, we were not forced into the reserves as many of our family and friends were. The government banned us from mixing with those friends and relatives that they had put on the reserves. One of my father’s best friend, Uncle Dick, told us many years later that we were the poorer for not having our culture taught to us. Uncle was quite correct in that assumption, sad but true.
During my early days, I grew up with no neighbours. With the six brothers and three sisters, it was a full life with many crises. I did not acquire communitive skills to deal with other boys my age, no mates to bond with as normal boys have which led to poor communitive skills to deal with other boys my age. The Lincoln South Football Club became my method of obtaining friends and skills. Football became and has remained one of my favourite activities. Even today, I am an active member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.
Culturally, my life was barren as a child, but there were some glimpses. My grandfather was 84 when he died. Nevertheless, in the last three years of his existence, he taught me Aboriginal aspects of our culture. However, he did not articulate their meaning or importance. My father highlighted the difference between our two cultures on a trip to see an elder, Uncle Mooney Davies at Andamooka near Woomera Rocket Range. Near Woomera, we met a stranded English migrant. My father stopped to help and gave him half of everything we possessed at the time, food, money and unfortunately petrol. Our old car was gravity-fed, no petrol pump, causing us to have back up the hills until we got to Andamooka.
Can you tell us when you enrolled in the Australian Defence Force, your military credentials, where you served and how long for?
I joined the Australian Army at Keswick Barracks in May 1964 at age 19 for a six-year term. I left South Australia for the first time to attend recruit training at Kapooka Barracks near Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. I trained as an Electronics Technician at Balcombe near Mornington and East Hills in Sydney. The training took up almost two years of my service life. On graduation, my next posting was 2 Signal Squadron at the Watsonia Army base in Melbourne. Several months later, in December 1966, I was posted to 103 Signal Squadron Nui Dat in South Vietnam. Nui Dat was Task Force Headquarters.
As I mentioned earlier, I was still trying to learn how to make friends. I had an extraordinary friend I met at recruit training at Kapooka, Signalman Ian “Lofty” Logan. We were both country boys, Lofty from Mildura and me from Port Lincoln. We celebrated my birthday together at Nui Dat. Lofty was on patrol with an American unit when he died from explosive wounds.
The following month, 103 Signal Squadron returned to Australia and was replaced by 104 in June 1967. I did have a great mate, Corporal Dennis Connelly, another country boy from Mudgee in NSW in that unit. We met at corps training two years earlier. Dennis helped me with my grief at the loss of Lofty. In August, he was tragically killed and died in my arms. I returned home in time for Christmas.
My final Australian posting was as a Corporal in a small detachment of 6 Signal Regiment at Rockbank near Melbourne. I felt so uncomfortable living in Melbourne that I volunteered to return to South Vietnam in May 1969. I was posted to Saigon but lived in the twin city of Cholon for four months. I was happy because I accomplished many things that few soldiers did. I fixed up electrical problems at the Australian Consulate. I rewired the medical rooms for that amazing young nurse from Adelaide, Rosemary White.
I took over command of a detachment (4 men) at the 1st Signal Battalion, US Army Task Force Headquarters at Long Bihn. One of the other soldiers was my best friend, Signalman Paul Vaughan.
My final posting was at 110 Signal Squadron at Vung Tau. It was like a holiday camp on the “sandhill”. Paul and I climbed up a huge cliff to take some great photos of the South China Sea. Unknown to us, it was a Rest and Recreation camp for North Vietnamese. After a real fright, when they ran towards their weapons, we sat down and happily showed each other photos of our families while drinking a mug of black tea.
I returned home to Keswick in May 1970 and retired.
What inspired you to join the Defence Force?
It was the space race in the 1950s which inspired me to become an electronics engineer. It was a race the Russians were winning with their cosmonauts and the Sputniks. In my country at Woomera Rocket Range, the European Launcher Group were firing up the Black Knight rockets. It was an exciting time to be a teenager, and I loved it. Because I was not allowed to finish high school, I was at a significant disadvantage at advancing my career into electronics. I saw an advertisement for the Army, which promised that if I signed on for six years, I would be eligible to be trained as an electronic technician. The Army said, following the end of the Korean War, Malaysian Confrontation and Borneo I would not be serving overseas in any conflict. I chose to become an electronic technician.
What kind of challenges did you experience when you returned home after your service, and how did you try to overcome these?
My mates who died in Vietnam left me grief-stricken. I struggled with the many anti-war marches and demonstrations. My memory was a mess because I still could not remember the last three months of my first tour, but I was distressed because my best mate’s name, Dennis, was not in my memory. I was ashamed about this until four years ago when I realised, and I will never be able to remember those months again. I met my wife when I returned from Vietnam, and we married, and my lovely daughter Yollette was born. The mental stress that I was going through resulted in my marriage breaking down.
In 2008 I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. My psychiatrist gave me great advice to finally talk about my service with family and friends. The question you may ask is, have I been able to overcome these things caused by the syndrome? The short answer is no! I am aware and are comfortable knowing that I probably never will.
Can you tell us a bit about your post-service career and studies?
There was no work for me in Port Lincoln or Adelaide. I found employment in Melbourne as a test technician at Erikssons in the telephone exchange industry. It was interesting because we were changing from a point-to-point telephone system to the crossbar exchange system. At one stage, I worked on the first computerised telephone exchange in Australia at Lonsdale Street Telephone Exchange in Melbourne. This type of telephone exchange allowed people to dial directly to places like London and New York rather than going through an operator.
I began a position at Singer business machines as a business machine technician. When Singer went out of business, I joined the Melbourne Stock Exchange working as a peripheral computer technician, on their ticky tape machines and other peripherals. One of my mates from the Army gave me a start as a computer engineer at one of the big American computer companies, Data General. I worked for nearly 20 years as a computer engineer for Data General and a third-party computer company Digicom. These companies went out of business in the 90s when the smaller PCs and software became interchangeable.
I drove taxis for the next 20 years until 2008. At the height of the Iraqi war, I was getting flashbacks of incidents in Vietnam. It affected my sleep so bad I struggled to earn a living. I took the War Service Pension, early, to study a Law/Arts degree at Latrobe University which I completed in 2014. I am doing a Master of Laws degree at La Trobe. I am a casual lecturer of contract law at the Institute of Koorie Education (NIKERA) at Deakin University. I tutor Aboriginal and Torres Strait students at both Deakin and Victoria Universities.
As an Aboriginal Veteran, what does the Aboriginal Veterans Commemorative Service mean to you?
The Aboriginal Veterans Commemorative Service is a marvellous chance for our veterans to engage with the whole of the Australian and especially Aboriginal communities, along with our family and friends about our service. Country Arts SA and the Vietnam One In All In Exhibition is an active part of my life. The Exhibition has been successfully travelling around South Australia, led by Samantha Yates and Jess. Jess asked me to speak on ANZAC afternoon last year. My best friend from 110 Signal Squadron was with me. It was quite moving for both Paul and me. When the Exhibition moved to Port Lincoln, Sam and Jess suggested all the guys might like to tell their stories slowly. Even if no one else had heard those stories, I noticed the healing effect that it was having on our members and of course, their families. The sister of one of the Veterans said she had never heard some of the stories before. We should share these stories because they are vital information.
The Aboriginal Veterans Commemorative Service must be doing similar good for all our Aboriginal veterans. On a personal note, one of my young nephews told me that after he saw the Aboriginal War Memorial, he now sees that as a sacred land for our people.