Other War Stories
Who could have possibly have imagined it? That this young naive 16 year old apprentice studying to become an Armament Fitter and work on the weapons systems of several RAAF aircraft would one day end up writing Operations Manuals for Qantas Pilots?
Well in this article, I hope I can describe the wonderful path taken by this fellow and some of the interesting spots in between.
For many years, I had been reluctant to write such an article as this, as I always thought of myself as simply an ‘average Armourer’, and also thought I was indeed privileged to serve on some of the RAAF’s finest squadrons. Later in my career, when I pursued a career in Qantas Airways Limited, once again I was privileged to be offered a path not expected of an average Armourer. However, as it has been revealed to me by some, I am possibly one of a few Armourers who has seen service on five or six different types of units and has been certified to carry out servicing on up to eight different aircraft types not including a couple of Qantas aircraft. Service as an Armourer has a price to pay at times, but it can give amazing rewards.
During the year of 2002, the initial version of this article was published in the “Australian Armourers’ Association” newsletter, serialised over three issues. Soon after it was published, realising the published edition was somewhat abridged, a few people asked if they could read the ‘unabridged’ version. So, over a period of three or four years, I have been working on the expanded or more comprehensive version.
I hope to cover not only service and work related issues, but also a number of social and other entertaining events. A greater proportion of the events described were actually witnessed by myself, but there will be some within that were related to me by other Armourers, or events which occurred at a unit just prior to my arrival or just after my departure.
Above all, the article is meant to record a period of life and of service which we may not ever see again. Over the years, many things have changed; procedures have been improved, technology has improved, all of which are to the betterment of the service and the aviation industry in general. But there was a camaraderie in the ‘old’ service which when looking back had a certain attraction. As is usually the case with many of our servicemen, I did not take as many photographs as I should have at those overseas bases, as I simply thought my experience was no different to many others.
The difficult part of writing a book such as this, is when the manuscript is nearly completed, it seems to stay that way for some considerable time. The danger is that when one is wrapping up the script, one remembers yet another anecdote! So, another amendment is organised to include this recently remembered anecdote and fit in the correct place and order of events.
So, as we are now at March 2006, the aim now is to think of any notable events not yet mentioned, include them in the text and wrap up the book for final vetting and printing.
So I ask my readers to simply read on. I hope you find it as enjoyable as you do interesting and informative.
List of Chapters
Note: each chapter requires Acrobat Reader 6.0 or higher to be installed on your computer, if you do not have a copy it can be downloaded from www.adobe.com
Butterworth - Malaysia - 1965
Ubon - Thailand
ARDU - Aircraft Research at Laverton
Vietnam at Last - No 9 Squadron Helicopters
Return to Amberley - February 1972
Tuggeranong - Bombing Range Clearance
Kingswood - an Ordnance Depot - February 1975
Operational - Maritime Squadron - August 1978
Amberley Again - January 1981
New Life - Outside the Service
Welcome Home Parade - At Last
A New Career - with Qantas Airways
Motor Cars - The Good, Bad and Others
My Spiritual Journey
Final Chapter - Retirement - New Start
The Price of Freedom
The motto of the RSL is: “The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance”. Whilst this quotation is very true, in my opinion it doesn’t go any where near far enough to cover the real price of freedom.
This morning, I would like to explain how this price, particularly for service personnel, becomes higher as they grow older.
When we think about the price our service personnel pay for our national freedom, the visual examples, ie, the physical injuries are there for everyone to see and are easily explained. It is the emotional and psychological injuries that are the more difficult to accept and understand. Sadly, these are more plentiful by far. Before continuing, I wish to emphasise that military personnel do not have a monopoly on stress related illnesses. I have a huge empathy for those in the Police Force, Emergency Services, Ambulance and ER nurses, etc. However, it is the military with whom I have had firsthand experience, and I know that there are many service personnel who suffer from PTSD.
Before I talk about the military, let me explain, as a Psychologist did, just how simply a person can be subjected to Post Traumatic Stress. It only becomes PTSD when it is prolonged.
(Ladies, imagine you work in an administrative capacity in a medium size company and you are content with your work. One day, your manager has asked you to stay back after work and complete an admin function of a large project. He explains that you will be on your own, but the building will be secure. You accept and phone home to say you won’t be home until late and continue with your work. Then just about 5.15pm, your manager bids you good bye and you check the security with him and you are satisfied. By about 8.30pm, you have completed your work and are very happy with your work. You let yourself out of the building, checking security, and head for your car in the under cover car park. As you head for your car, you have good thoughts – a nice dinner awaits you, happy family, etc. Then, you hear footsteps approaching from behind – heavy ones! Instantly, your brain goes into survival mode. In about 3 milliseconds, the adrenalin in your brain deletes all unnecessary thoughts. Your aim is to get to your car and exit the car park safely. Unbeknown to you, the combination between your brain and your body now turns you into a finely tuned machine. You are now working at the most efficient you have ever been. Then, the footsteps suddenly have a voice and you realize that it was Joe the Security Officer asking how you are. You suddenly realize that there was no problem after all. However, you wonder why you are still shaking some two to three hours after the event and when you finally stop shaking, you are totally exhausted. Well, the answer is that when operating on Adrenalin, your body is using more than twice than usual energy and although it only took about three milliseconds for your brain to accelerate, it takes several hours for your brain to unwind). Now imagine if your whole training was based upon keeping your body at this highly efficient state while it is running on Adrenalin. You never get to run down and you are using your energy at an alarming rate.
Whether we talk about the soldier on patrol, the sailor on watch, or the pilot flying a mission toward or over enemy territory, or even the maintenance man in the hangar, there are a few common factors between all of them.
Once the mission has begun, our man is living on his adrenalin. His professional training is such that he never turns his back on aggression, nor does he walk away from a problem, as it becomes a challenge. He faces it head on. Certainly, he would not barge into an aggressor in a ‘Gung Ho’ manner, like in the movies, nor would he solve a major aircraft technical problem in seconds, but he uses a highly disciplined and methodical approach, and he is accustomed to making difficult decisions under pressure and often on the run. The important factor is that while he is operating on adrenalin, he is operating at his absolute peak efficiency. When the adrenalin is at its highest, ie, when he actually senses danger or a definite risk, he knows from his training that all unnecessary thoughts will be removed from his mind. He is concentrating on the task at hand.
This high degree of training and professionalism often results in a high success rate for the overall missions, a very high aircraft serviceability rate, and a very low casualty rate during operations. For operational purposes, this is an excellent outcome. This is also why our Australian Forces are one of the finest operational and most efficient defence forces in the world today.
There is another area where the serviceman regards his/her political leaders with a great deal of cynicism. If a Government Minister has “An Error of Judgement”, the worst punishment he/she may expect is to be sacked from that ministry, and even worse to possibly lose his/her seat at the next election. However, if an Officer or a SNCO were to have “an Error of Judgement”, it would be highly probable that such an error would result in one or more fatalities. The consequence of that finding is that our serviceman would receive the punishment handed down by a Court Marshal, and then be handed over to a civil court on a prima facia charge of Manslaughter by Neglect and face a long period of imprisonment. Yes, I have seen it happen.
However, when a normal person is fired up on adrenalin due to some immediate or imminent danger, he/she will normally take an hour or three or four to return to normal. But our serviceman, particularly whilst on active service, almost lives on it. He becomes accustomed to working at his peak; this is what he is trained for. Therefore, after several months of this practice, ie, meeting an aggressor head on, or staying with a problem with unusually high dedication, he will find it very difficult to return to a normal peaceful existence without being counselled through a proper winding down process.
Even when our man returns to his home country, but is still involved in the service, whether that be normal home base activities, or simply training new squadron members, our man is still, to some extent, operating on his adrenalin. After all, he is continuing the excellent tradition in which he was taught.
When our man leaves the service after some 25 or more years of service, he will probably have little difficulty obtaining employment due to his high standards of discipline, his high standard of dress and bearing, his high standard of training within his wider profession, and his professional approach. Also, once employed, he will likely prove to be a most arduous worker, an outstanding employee, and probably achieve excellent production for his company. Then, after some time, he wonders why he cannot achieve the same standard of professionalism he did years before. He cannot understand why his body does not function as it did when he was in the service. Our man continues to work harder, to put in more effort, perhaps longer hours, in an effort to bring his achievement levels back to what he believes to be an acceptable level. It needs to be emphasised here that our fellow’s longer working hours have nothing to do with career enhancement; he is simply trying to achieve a standard of workmanship which HE believes is an acceptable standard. Yet, unknowingly, this extra effort is costing him dearly in his health. He does not understand why he continues to make numerous yet simple errors in his work. He finds it difficult to prioritise his work, he often procrastinates, and he is becoming unreliable; yet, he is nowhere near retirement age. So, he pushes himself harder.
The next stage our man reaches is when his employer informs him of his substandard quality of work. Our man is starting to pay the price of living on adrenalin for such long periods of time. He will likely begin seeking other positions, and once appointed, he will apply himself more diligently, try harder to achieve the standard he once did. This pattern is likely to be repeated several times before he is truly aware of his deteriorating health.
Now comes the dangerous part, and when we reveal the real cost of freedom which our man is beginning to pay. If our man does not have the support of a strong family, or the support of a compassionate church family, or the simple faith connecting him to a God and a Saviour who cares for him, our man is now at risk of falling into periods of deep depression, and tries to find solace in other false hopes. He will often try to find peace from alcohol, or from infidelity, or from both, not realizing it will only be a temporary peace. By this stage, whatever family he did have may have departed from him, as they were unable to cope with the emotional pressure. If our man does search for another partner, particularly when he is devoid of any Christian support, his sense of quality is seriously affected and any partners he does find will no doubt be temporary.
Without making this an epistle, those ex-servicemen who do succeed in finding purpose in their later lives, and who recover contentment to some extent, are usually those with a stable family support and also those who have the privilege of strong church support. So, here is the punch line: Once our man begins to realise that he is paying the price for the freedom his nation purchased at his expense, this “price” begins to become a burden for him to carry. It is fuel for his depression. There are numerous little scenarios which highlight this truth. On several occasions, when I have been to a highly successful Anzac reunion, all the men are happy and jovial as they are in a safe environment. However, when I have been walking with one of them up to a railway station afterwards, and we come across an example of young hooligans behaving badly, this fellow will ‘bravely’ go up to this group and say, “Do you realize that thousands of men and women died so you have the freedom to be an idiot?” (Yes, I too have been guilty of saying this to some young ones at times). On some occasions, I have had to diplomatically extract some fellow away from a group who do not understand what they have heard. Clearly, our fellow is still carrying the burden for the price he and others have paid.
From a Welfare Officer point of view, it is widely known that in many cases, it is not the veteran himself who makes the initial approach to a Welfare Officer. Rather, it is the fellow’s wife who often makes the initial contact, sometimes on her own, asking for the Welfare Officer to initiate contact. Sometimes, the poor wife is seen to be dragging her ‘proud’ veteran husband along to the Welfare Officer, saying, “You’ve got to see someone about your nightmares!”
It is only when our man begins to realise that there is a Saviour who has already paid the ultimate price, not only for others, but more particularly for him, then and only then can he begin to relax, and his healing becomes a long process.
So, the price of freedom is high – very high. However, of all the men and women involved, in my opinion whilst the serviceman has paid a very high price for freedom, it is the wives and families of our servicemen who have paid a higher price.
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People have also asked that I share a small testimony of my personal price and how I became to be in this place. When I began to show many of the symptoms described above, I was introduced to a Psychologist who interviewed me at considerable length over a long period of time. His findings were that to a large extent, my state was strongly connected to witnessing aircraft crashes, and also to examining helicopters immediately after they had been shot down.
Firstly, during the years from 1965 to 1968, I personally witnessed on three separate occasions and on three different locations, an aircraft crash and burn due to engine failure. On the first occasion, I could see that the crew were still in the aircraft when I saw it hit the ground and explode, between one and two hundred metres from where I was standing, knowing that they had been killed. The pilot was practicing an approach to the airfield when the port engine flamed out just as he tried to exercise an overshoot. As the starboard engine accelerated, the aircraft simply rotated around its axis, fell toward the ground at an angle of about sixty degrees, hit the ground and exploded. With the other two, we were informed within an hour after the impact that the crew had escaped with minor burns as the aircraft burnt. One of these, a fully fuelled and bombed Canberra bomber, suffered an engine failure just after lift off and was unable to continue to fly. The pilot placed the aircraft back on to the runway and tried to stop. The aircraft overran the runway and crashed into the grass section after the runway and burnt. I was standing with other fellows at the other end of the runway. Fortunately, both the Pilot and Navigator were able to escape from the aircraft. In the third event, we saw four fighters all take off from our base in Malaysia, again fully fuelled and armed, then one suffered an engine failure at about 200 feet altitude. With a ‘dead stick’ aircraft, the pilot guided his aircraft on to a rice paddy field and landed. However, during the landing run, the wheels and one wing were torn off and the aircraft began to burn. From our position on the tarmac, we saw everything until the aircraft disappeared just before the actual landing, then we saw the explosion and the flames. We were to learn that the pilot just managed to escape the burning aircraft as the flames licked up his back. It was explained to me that witnessing these incidents had caused me to develop a very inflexible attitude to aircraft maintenance. It had to be right, there were no grey areas.
Then in 1971, during my Vietnam posting, there were three separate occasions when I was one of a team called to inspect a helicopter which had been shot down, but had not burnt. This team would arrive at the crash scene, usually adjacent to where the helicopter had received the ground fire, and our team’s arrival was only minutes after the aircrew had been medically evacuated. Our task was to examine the helicopter and declare whether it could be flown for one flight back to base for repair. If the answer was ‘No’, then it would be returned to base slung under a large US helicopter so repairs could begin. On one of these events, while we were inspecting the helicopter, we could see our own helicopter gunships attacking a target about a kilometre away. However, upon arrival at the scene on each occasion, the one factor every time was the blood. Yes, the blood from the aircrew member who had been shot was right throughout the interior of the helicopter. The interior sound-proofing material was soaked in it. (I simply could not believe that so much blood could come from just one man). But, we were there to do a task – and we kept our minds on the task at hand and we did it well.
In the years that followed, I didn’t think much about those incidents. I just did my job well – until I too began to fall apart. By the time I was in my late 40s and early 50s, I began to exhibit many of those characteristics described above, and my inflexible attitudes began to grow into other areas. Not only did I began to make silly unacceptable mistakes, but I became intolerant of several fellow workers who may have made smaller errors than I did, and more seriously, of some representatives of other associated companies, including Boeing, CASA, etc. I was expecting, and often demanding, high standards from my own work and of others in my associated capacity, but I was not achieving it myself.
To give you some examples, if at a meeting and things were not going to my expectations, I would finally say, “Fine, when I attend the Court of Inquiry after the prang, I’ll mention your name”. And I once told my supervisor after yet another example of what I considered to be a cost cutting exercise, “I have personally witnessed on three separate occasions an aircraft burn, and it’s not a pretty sight. So, if you wish to have the same privilege, just keep going the way you are – for it won’t be long”. So it was little wonder that I was fast using up any good brownie points I might have once had!
Also during this time, I served as a Deacon at my local Baptist Church. Sadly, I was bringing my intolerance and perfectionism to my role as a Deacon. Several times during a Deacons’ meeting, I would ask, “Where is the discipline here?” Then my demand for accurate minutes became as serious as it did at my workplace. Fortunately, our Pastor saw my condition as seriously ‘out of character’ and graciously accepted my resignation from the Diaconate.
Then domestically, and more seriously, whilst working long hours and becoming more and more exhausted, I was bringing my inflexibility home to the family. If the children had made a mistake, my reaction was, “Let’s work this out – we can fix this thing”. So I would concentrate on rectifying what ever the error was, but not giving much thought to my children’s morale. However, if any of the children looked at me and said, “NO – I am not doing this”, then there would be a huge blue. The old “Sergeant” in me simply could not handle a direct disobedience.
There were many times when my dear wife became the intercessor between our children and myself, just to soothe the scene. Yet, I was indeed fortunate to have a Christian family who supported me; and a Christian Church who supported both myself and our family; or otherwise, I might have become one of those depressing statistics today.
You know, depression can be a cruel master, even for the Christian. Several times, when I was experiencing this depression, not only is your self esteem seriously affected, but during these periods I would often even doubt my salvation. So, once again, I would get down on my knees and pray the sinner’s prayer all over again. Then one Saturday morning, when I was giving a small informal talk to a ‘Christian Men’s Breakfast’ about the symptoms of PTSD, the leader of that group said to me and the others when I had finished, “Pity your faith was not strong enough to combat this illness”. You’ve no idea how much damage this man did on that morning. It took several months to recover from his attack.
When I look back, I now realize that our children have missed out on so much. My harsh disciplinary attitudes, my long hours of work, and my inflexibility took a heavy toll. It wasn’t until very late in my working life that I began to mellow and started to look at things differently.
My biggest hurdle has been to accept that God’s Grace is sufficient to heal the wounds and that I do not have to make that extra effort to correct all those wrongs myself. The last five or so years, ie, since my forced retirement, have been years of healing. By and large, my family have expressed their forgiveness for all my shortcomings, but by that time, I had begun to realize the high price they had paid.
Thank you for the privilege of speaking today. It has been very emotional but very rewarding. And may I finish by emphasising again that I am the person I am today because the Lord Jesus Christ has paid the ultimate price for my freedom. The cost of freedom for our nation helps me appreciate the freedom from sin and hopelessness that Jesus has brought to me.