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I joined the Army as a conscript in 1953 during the Korean War. In those days conscription was compulsory, no exemptions, when boys turned 18. I was in the 3rd intake and went to Puckapunyal. I was a corporal in the 15th National Service Training Battalion. I was not a reluctant conscript. I had been a sergeant in the school cadets and liked the life.

After completing the initial 98 day stretch in camp one was then assigned to a CMF (Citizens Military Forces) unit for another two years.   

I went to the 6th Infantry Brigade HQ in Camberwell. The two year sentence was a demoralising experience. 

We had to attend regular evening parades and monthly weekend bivouacs where we achieved nothing and was bored to death with outdated equipment , if it worked at all, and lethargic officers who were more interested in the joys of the officer’s mess than in any worthwhile training.

I was appointed as the brigadier’s driver. The brigadier in civil life was the general manager of the National Australia Bank and we got along very well. I was given extra duties which attracted extra pay driving him at weekends to our battalions in Bendigo, Shepparton and Ballarat but I was not happy with the general waste of time that the system imposed and doing nothing that would enhance our defenses.

In February, 1955 there was an announcement that a Commando Company was to be formed in Melbourne as a CMF unit as well as another in Sydney. The Melbourne unit was called 2 Commando Company and was based at Picnic Point, Sandringham. I decided that this was something that could make a real difference and applied to join and transfer from 6 Inf.Bde. HQ. While driving the brigadier to Ballarat one day he asked me why I had applied for the transfer. I told him that I was dissatisfied with the lack of any worthwhile activity where I was and although I had no objection to driving him around I could not see how this was helping to defend my country. He said he understood and endorsed the transfer.

 commando badge

2 Commando Company was like a new world. The CO, a major, was a WW2 veteran, a real man’s man and a great example to his troops. The unit was a mixture of Nashos and volunteer recruits. The staff were all regular army but there were not many of them. The outstanding one was sergeant from the Royal Marines Commando, Sgt. Taffy McDermott, on secondment to the Australian Army. An expert in cliff climbing and rope work he was the kind of natural leader that one would follow into the gates of Hell.

The atmosphere and general pace of life was worlds apart from my previous unit. For starters we did not parade with our rifles, our working uniform was not khaki, it was navy blue so that we were invisible at night and there was a series of tests one had to do to qualify for the Green Beret. One did not march anywhere, you went at the double. There was a monthly bivouac somewhere up country. The weekly parades were spent doing useful training in things such as map reading, unarmed combat and training for specialist courses. As well as the compulsory annual camp one was expected to do one of the available specialist courses. In my first year I did the folboating course at HMAS Penguin, the submarine base at Middle Head in Sydney. This involved training in 2 man canoes and cliff climbing.

  

HMAS PENGUIN, BALMORAL NAVAL DEPOT, NSW. 1954-07-27. AERIAL VIEW OF THE BASE. (NAVAL HISTORICAL

In my second year I applied for the parachute course held at the School of Land Air Warfare at Williamtown Air Force base near Newcastle and was listed for a course stating about 6 months later. About 3 months before it started training commenced at our depot. This consisted of jumping off low heights gradually increasing to about 3 feet and practicing rolling falls. That sounds pretty dull, and it was, but vitally necessary all the same. Correct landing techniques had to become second nature to avoid serious injury.

At last the day of departure arrived. 15 of us went by train to Sydney where we were picked up by Army busses and driven to Williamtown along with a similar sized group from 1 Commando Company from Sydney. On arrival we were ushered to our barracks then issued with our working outfits, all khaki, and gym togs. Then to the mess hall to be fed. Williamtown is an RAAF base and just like my experience at HMAS Penguin, the food was outstanding, a far cry from what the Army was in the habit of providing. No.75 Squadron was operating out of Williamtown doing conversion to Mirage jet fighters. The noise of aircraft taking off and landing was never ending day and night. Work started the next day with a regular morning bout of PT. We were then given lectures explaining about how parachutes were constructed and the functions of each segment. 

One thing that was noticeable was that most of the instructors were Army and none of them were the parade ground barking types. All quietly spoken sergeants. There were no ranks recognised in our group. Everybody was referred to as “Student”, the group was addressed as “Class”.

After our lectures on parachute construction we went to visit the parachute packing room. This was staffed by WAAF girls.

The first thing one noticed was the large signs on each wall 

“A SOLDIER’S LIFE DEPENDS ON YOU”.

Great Britain image. WW II Sorry, I couldn't find one for Australia in the 50's. 

We were also taken to the drying room. After every use, a parachute is taken here and dried slowly then porosity is tested to determine its ability to deliver the load safely.  Parachutes that had not been used for 30 days were pulled open and given the same treatment. Parachutes were previously made of silk but in 1942 the supply of silk from Japan was cut off and nylon used instead ever since. The feared and fatal “Roman Candle” was pretty much eliminated when nylon was used. We watched the girls doing the packing. They were very diligent and each phase was checked by a supervisor. We were all impressed by what we saw.

The next day we were introduced to some real training. We climbed the stairs to about the third floor level of a building where there was an open doorway with a small machine. It was a drum with a wire cable and at one end was a protruding axle with two small paddles attached. The exercise was that each student donned a parachute harness and was attached to the wire cable. Then you jumped out. The paddles going around as the cable ran out created enough resistance to the air to simulate the rate of decent in a real parachute. This was a pretty exciting exercise after the first go. One had to jump and land correctly into a tanbark pit and you could repeat it as often as you wanted to. This exercise gave us all a lot of confidence.

At this stage a few of the extrovert types were mouthing off about how un-scared they were. The instructor had the perfect response in his own quietly spoken way; “Where there’s no sense there’s no feeling”.

The next day there was another advance into the atmosphere. A large builder’s crane stood in an open area above a large tan bark pit. The type one sees on high rise building projects. The arm was about 100 feet high. We had to climb the stairs up to the top platform with our parachute harness on. The crane hook was then attached to your harness and you jumped off. This was a bit disconcerting as one swung under the crane jib in mid-air. The instructor used his loud hailer giving orders to go through various procedures. At the end he quietly said “Are you OK Old Soldier?” On answering “Yes Sir” the brake was released and you fell under control to the ground. Then you climbed the stairs and had another go as often as you wanted to.

By this stage we had all learned the Paratroopers song. Sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, 

“John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave, etc, etc, etc, 

And they scraped him off the tarmac like a  tin of strawberry jam, and his soul goes marching on, without a chute.”

We had come to the end of the ground based exercises and were given a day off to play basketball etc. The next phase was the start of the real thing, called “Air Experience”. For this we were fully equipped with parachutes attached to our harness. The whole class of 30 plus four instructors boarded a RAAF DC3. On the ground we were instructed how to hook ourselves up to a cable that ran the length of the plane and the sequence of orders and red and green lights. The plane taxied to the runway with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The DC3 has a tail wheel so that when it accelerated all sitting in seats along the side of the plane started to slide backwards but we worked out how to hold our seats. At the desired height the plane levelled out and the jump master gave us a demonstration of what we had to do. That was everything except actually jump.

The fuselage of a DC3 is curved. The door was opened, the plane throttled back to 110mph and levelled out. The idea was to go through the whole procedure one at a time. Each batch of jumpers was called a “stick” even if there was only one jumper. One by one as our turn came we got the order 

“First stick stand up”, “Hook up”. You attached your static line to the wire, an instructor inspected what you had done. Paratroopers all use static lines to open their parachute. This is a cord about 15 feet long attached to the chute.When you jump the chute is pulled out of the pack, the cord breaks and the chute opens. Next, the red light over the door comes on. “Red On. Stand in the door”. The jumpmaster all the time telling you “further, further”, the slipstream all the time catching your nose. There is a fear of falling out with an almost irresistible urge to jump. If one did fall he would be Ok because he was hooked up but it is a very disconcerting experience. We are all familiar with the expression “shitting one’s self” as an indication of fear or alarm. On this occasion I actually witnessed a bloke doing just that. The most voluble one in asserting how fearless he was actually did exactly that and fainted in the doorway. The jumpmaster grabbed him and pulled him back inside. The bloke was designated RTU (Returned To Unit) when we landed and sent home. This was not a black mark on his record. Jumping out of a plane 1,000 feet above the ground is not a normal activity for normal people and was not regarded as a disgrace. However, the rest of us survived with adrenalin running full bore. It is interesting that one does not get a sensation of height. There is no perspective like being on top of a tall building with the sides narrowing to a point on the ground. That gives the sensation of height but the plane bucking in the air is nevertheless disconcerting.

Next day was another day off with lectures on technique and rehearsing our procedures over and over because the following day was to be our first real jump. We took off at 6.30am when the air was a still as could be. I was to be number 4 jumper.

When my turn came the order was “First stick stand up. Hook up.” The instructor inspected my rigging, then “Red On. Stand in the door” The moment of truth had arrived but I was pretty calm and composed, so I thought, but determined. The jumpmaster was standing right behind me. “Green ON. Go”. I took the leap out of the door just like we had been taught to do, did the fastest left turn I have ever done as the slipstream caught me. I gritted my teeth then, lo and behold, I heard s slight noise as the parachute canopy opened and filled with air and I was floating down in the most wonderful feeling of elation I have ever experienced. An instructor on the ground with a loud hailer was talking me down; “That’s it laddie. Keep your feet together. Pull down on the front straps. That’s the way laddie.” I soon learned how to control the chute using the two sets of straps just like as we had been taught and practiced ad nauseum. One thing that occurred to me later was that with the training we had I never had the fear of an equipment malfunction and as the ground neared I carried out the procedure to the letter. Feet tightly together, knees relaxed, Harness pulled right down to slow the horizontal movement then as soon as my feet touched the ground the rolling fall that had been practiced for months. I grabbed the lower rigging lines and the canopy collapsed. All I had to do was gather up the chute and report to the instructor. “Well done laddie”.

After the whole class had done their jump we retired to a briefing room. A camera was fitted to the side of the plane. Every jump was recorded and a critique given at the briefing. My report was “Nervous but controlled” of which I was very proud but I expect that this would have been a standard report for any who did not attract any criticism. The most common criticism was men hesitating and not jumping as far out as possible and not keeping feet together on landing.

There is no rest for the wicked, so it is said, and we had to keep up the momentum. Each day following we did a jump until we had completed 8 of them. The second jump was from 800 feet. The third was in a stick of four. The 4th was with a bag of equipment strapped to the right leg and tied to your harness with a pin attached to a cord which, when pulled released the bag which then dangled 10 feet or more below the jumper so he could land with legs free. The final jump was the complete stick of 30 jumpers.

At this time the Army was experimenting with the square canopy which is in use today and allows more control over the decent than the round canopies we were using. Each time one of these attached to a dummy was just tossed out. The cutes never failed and we were told that the dummy had done over 300 jumps without mishap.

On completing our 8 jumps satisfactorily, and 29 out of the class of 30 did so, we were paraded and awarded with our wings, badges that are sewn on the right hand upper sleeve on your uniforms. We were also awarded a broach-like badge provided by the Irving Parachute Company, the manufacturer of the parachutes. I gave mine to me then girlfriend, now my wife. She still has it.

Parachute wings

After that I did another 5 jumps before I resigned from 2 Command Company to get married. My “days of philandering” so to speak, were over. Becoming a paratrooper was the culmination of the most exciting period of my life. I loved being in the army and at one stage seriously considered going to England to try to join the Royal Marines Commando. Thankfully my fiancé did not want to become a soldier’s wife and I preferred to get married to her above all else. There is no money in being a soldier and the choice of sticking to what I was doing turned out to be the right and sensible decision but I still reflect on my experiences in the commandos with satisfaction and pride.

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