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161 (INDEP) RECCE FLIGHT 17 FEB 67- 17 FEB 68  


Hi all.  I’ve been promising myself to write this brief account of my time with 161 for some years. 


The present effort was sparked a month or so ago by a visit to the Possum website where I chanced to read Peter Ginman’s reccelection.  I was also (officially at least) a member of the RAAF, though only a humble two-striper while he was there as a SNCO.  We actually shared a few experiences and the odd can but I don’t think he ever picked up on the fact that I was a ring-in just like him.  Not surprising, as I was a bit of a dag and could easily pass as a RAEME type.


I’ll go back a year or so from Peter’s story to the beginning of my involvement with Army Aviation.  In 1966 I was a Radio Technician happily serving in 82 Wing at Amberley after a long stint working on Sabres in Malaysia and Thailand during the early to mid-60s.  I was still single after so long away from the land of the round-eyes and it was the fashion in the Canberra squadrons to send “singlies” on as many detachments as possible.  So I spent a lot of my time in Darwin and New Guinea with a couple of trips to Malaysia and New Zealand thrown in.  In between these diversions, I met a young lady who was completing her nursing training at Ipswich Hospital and I made feverish plans in my spare time to convert her to a Service model.  She was a bit hard to get and I was not confident of eventual success.  But life was good and there was always another trip on to distract me from my purpose.


In May 1966 I was told that I would soon be off to the States to learn all about F111s.  At the same time a fellow Corporal Radio Tech from my section was posted to 16 ALA, later to become 1 Aviation Regiment.  I thought that was pretty funny and heaped a fair bit of shit on him.


He had the last laugh, of course.  He managed to convince our chiefs that his wife was neurotic and would be unable to stand the stress of his anticipated absences with the green men at places like Shoalwater Bay.   So, as a single troop with no known attachments, I was directed to take his place while he took mine.  Luckily for him, his wife’s neurosis was of the type which permitted her to put up with his absence in the States for eight months. It was just the thought of his involvement with the Army that she couldn’t hack.


To add insult to injury, I had to move out of my small but adequate single room in a brick accommodation block into a tent across the road.  I had a bit of a thing about tents as I spent much of my childhood living in one.  I had also spent a good deal of time in Thailand during the past few years living in tents.  Readers can take it for granted that I was not amused at first.  After a while I saw the funny side of things and I remember laughing about it with B F S Nicholls one day while he was introducing me to the Sioux and showing me how good he was at autorotations.  In any case, I was too busy to grieve for long over my lost posting.  It took a month or two to become proficient on new aircraft and equipment types and to build test benches in preparation for Operation Barra Winga.  The prospect of F111s, life at Nellis AFB  and weekends in Las Vegas was soon a distant memory.


When it was time for Barra Winga I flew up to Shoalwater Bay with George Constable in a Sioux.  I remember that we told bad jokes and laughed a lot on the way up in between refuelling at Bundaberg and giving the crew of the Sunlander the finger from close alongside the engine.  I was beginning to enjoy myself in my new environment and had a good time on the exercise.  At times, too good.   Ron Tucker, who was our engineering leader at that time, was a bit annoyed when a bunch of his best corporals arrived back from a trip to Rockhampton a little the worse for wear.  We had borrowed a truck to go off and do our promotion exams for Sergeant. They were pretty easy so we celebrated a bit that night before heading back to Raspberry Creek the following afternoon.  For some reason Ron had expected us earlier and decided I was the ringleader.  He reamed me out accordingly.  I think he forgave me later but can’t be sure.


I put my foot in it another day as well.  I was out on the flight line when I was approached by an impressive looking chap who asked to see whoever was in charge.  Blue Searle was our NCOIC that day.  I yelled to him over my shoulder to get his arse out there as he had a visitor.  As it happened, the visitor was Major General Vincent and he was there to talk to the OC about getting flying lessons.  I think Blue was a tad embarrassed by my informality but I hadn’t looked closely at the General’s rank thingos and thought he was an RSM or something.  The General eventually qualified on the Cessna 180, finishing his training at Nui Dat during 1967 while he was Commander AFV, if my memory is correct.  I’m not sure how official it all was but he was a great supporter of Army Aviation and the training was no doubt a good investment.


After Barra Winga I resumed my desperate courtship in Ipswich.  All was going well until the old alarm bells started to go off when someone in the radio workshop mentioned that “Derek Budd will be back from 161 before long and someone will have to replace him”.  I didn’t understand at the time why they were all looking at me, but I wasn’t left wondering for long.  I increased the intensity of my courtship, now pleading to Nurse (by that time Sister) Robyn that I might soon be off to the war and she might never see me again.  She seemed pleased at this prospect but eventually took pity and agreed to tie the knot.  We decided to get married early in 1967 but had to bring the date forward to December 1966 as I received my marching orders. Everybody assumed she was pregnant, of course, and I didn’t help by muttering that a man “had to do the right thing” when we were questioned by her suspicious friends. 


The wedding duly took place just before Xmas and did not make the social pages as a lot of my new green friends came.  Six weeks later I found myself at Vung Tau, albeit without any gear as Qantas thoughtfully sent it on to London instead of transferring it to my Pan-Am flight from Singapore to Saigon.  I got it back a week or so later. 


I was pretty used to Southeast Asia so there were no surprises apart from warnings about the size of the rats that might share my tent.  Not the RAEME ones, you’ll understand, but the grey furry chaps.  A few weeks later we moved to Nui Dat to escape the rats and dug a lot of holes, mostly in the wrong places.  I also remember filling thousands of sandbags with Eric Lindgren and trucking them to our new lines.  We eventually dug more holes in the right places and settled down in our tents among the wildlife and rubber trees.  We also started to get more established in the operational sense. 


A bonus at that time was that I saw my brother Tony a couple of times before he went home.  Our tours overlapped by about eight weeks.  He was a patrol leader in SAS.  When he returned to Australia he was able to drop in on Robyn to meet her for the first time and to assure her that I was OK.  Robyn and I used to write to each other every day.  She stayed working at the Ipswich Hospital as a theatre sister while I was away.  For lack of genuinely interesting news our letters usually described the minutiae of complex surgical procedures and life at Nui Dat respectively, and in retrospect it’s a pity we eventually threw them out as they would now provide a much more detailed and accurate history of 1967 and early 1968 than my failing memory can.


Speaking of memories, a standout from that time was Laurie Doyle’s departure on being relieved by George Constable.  I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the ORs and hand over a parting gift, I think from memory a footy jumper.  Laurie had surprised me some time earlier by calling me to his tent to enquire how I felt about leaving behind in Vung Tau the comforting presence of my own kind in 9 SQN.  I was a bit surprised when he asked me if I thought arrangements should be made for RAAF members of 161 to visit Vung Tau regularly to enjoy some home comforts.  I think I said something to the effect that home was where one worked and that there was no case for special treatment.  He seemed satisfied with this response and no more was said about it.  It was not until later that I learned there had been some earlier concerns about RAAF-Army relationships in 161.  I‘m glad to say that we didn’t seem to have many problems along those lines during my stay there.  We exchanged insults just as cheerfully as any group of Australians who lived and worked together under fairly ordinary conditions.


We didn’t have much in the way of workshop and general camp facilities during those early days at Nui Dat.  For some reason (probably I stood up at the wrong time) I found myself building a ramp and platform behind the cookhouse for garbage collection.  Eric Lindgren helped me.  A good troop, Eric.  After that I did a lot of building, making benches and tables and seats for our workshop and flight line crew area.  Then I got involved in getting the OR’s club (The Sundowner?) built and running, and I remember stealing a lot of tiles and adhesive from 9 SQN to make 161’s bars look pretty.  And didn’t we steal an ice machine from somewhere?  The details are fuzzy but I know we had a lot of fun organizing our home comforts.  I remember being known as “The Royal Carpenter” after a character in the Wizard of Id comic series.


I found time to beg a couple of rides to check out the locality from the air.  Col Scott was good enough to answer my questions about ops and demonstrate the use of rockets at ground targets.  I got to know the other pilots as time passed. Phil Roberts was 2IC.  Jim Campbell was the RW chief and I think Bernie Forrest was OIC FW.  My apologies if I get times and people and places mixed up. Their juniors included luminaries such as Tom Guivarra and Glen Duus.  And I remember Roger Colclough, Blair Weaver, Paddy O’Brien, Peter Spoor and that evil bugger Ross Hutchinson. I used to go with them on sorties sometimes to break the monotony.  It was thanks to Blair that I had a quick trip in a 9 SQN Huey, I think in May 1967, to see what was left of his Sioux after the unfriendlies disabled his tail rotor.  Mick Haxell dropped three or four of us off for 30 minutes or so to examine the remains.  I can’t remember who was with me from 161 but I remember Haxell because we served together at Butterworth and he was laughing at me for hanging out with the Army as I left the relative safety of his aircraft.  We were accompanied by other choppers with a section of grunts to protect us.  There was a lot of smoke and noise as gunships were having a go at the area as well.  In the event, we made our inspection and Mick returned us to Luscombe without incident.


As time passed our workshop routines became established but there were few dull moments, at least for me.  Mick Swain was the ASM and Brian Quee the SSM.  Peter Robinson (or Bush Mush as Peter Ginman and other disrespectful subordinates called him) was our Eng O.  There was a motley crew of RAAF and Army SNCO’s.  Names like Burgess, Engleby, Ryan, Kennett, Brown and Jones float in and out of the memories.   John Green had arrived to take over the radio section from Stu Wools-Cobb and I concentrated my efforts on keeping the gear going.  My offsider Rodney (Lurch) went home and a couple of Nashos arrived fresh from training. It was hard to keep our equipment clean and serviceable in the dirty operational environment and after a few months we came to realize that the Americans in Vung Tau (was it the 333rd Support Group?) were happy to support us.  From then on we used to regularly exchange our dusty FM transceivers for reconditioned ones.  I used to get dressed in my daggiest greens to give the impression that I lived a hard life at the front and drive our trusty (and equally daggy) Landrover down there about once a month.  They would give us almost anything, in particular if a piece of memorabilia such as a slouch hat was thrown in.  So we did well in the general acquisition area as well as getting our radios fixed. 


Funnily enough, it was on the first of these trips that I ran foul of the RAAF EngO at 9 SQN, a worthy officer named Clive Cotter.  The first time I sauntered into his hangar to check in my weapon at the Armament Section (did I mention I was a bit of a dag?) he got right into me.  Apparently I didn’t match up to his idea of what a RAAF junior NCO on loan to the Army should look like. I think he thought I should be wearing a peaked cap or something instead of an oil-stained bush hat.  Our relationship did not flower during the following months, and my passing visits to 9 SQN came to be conducted at the gallop.  But somehow the bugger always managed to spot me as I raced through the hangar and give me a few thoughts to go with.  I had the last laugh. In November 1967, he had to pass on to me the dreadful (for him) news that I had been promoted to Sergeant.  It was a frosty notification at best, and I think he would have blocked the promotion if he could.  A few years later I ran into him at the bar of the Officers’ Mess at RAAF Fairbairn while I was visiting Canberra on an EngO course.  I think that seeing me there just about destroyed his faith in the system.  My only regret was that I wasn’t wearing my greens, but instead had on an almost respectable uniform in keeping with my new status. 


But I digress.  Back to Nui Dat, where I had become involved in a psychological warfare exercise aimed at convincing Charlie that we were friendly and he would lead a much easier life after coming over to our side.  This involved playing tape-recorded messages through a bank of amplifiers attached to the doorway of a Cessna 180 or the skids of a Sioux, whichever was available at the time.  I have fond memories of flying with George Constable in the fitted-out Cessna to see what effect the installation would have on its stalling characteristics.  We mushed along over the jungle for a while, with George mumbling to himself (for my benefit, of course) about never really getting a handle on stalling Cessnas.  In the event, the noise machine made little difference so we were OK to go ahead with operations.  I spent quite a bit of time during the following months playing messages to our appreciative audiences below, not noticing until the first time we did it at night that we seemed to be attracting unwelcome attention.  So we decided to fly a bit higher.  I think I was with David McFerran at the time.  I remember going with him on an overnight to Bearcat as well, but can’t remember why.  He was a good bloke and I often wonder where he finished up.


I remember also flying with Ross Hutchinson when we had the equipment on the Sioux.  Ross was a devil-may-care type as you know, and I remember him saying “Whoops!” as the skids bounced off a mound of dirt alongside the runway as we were easing into forward flight.  I was always mildly surprised that we got back in one piece. I ran into Ross quite a few times during the decade after our tour, at places as far flung as East Sale and Swanbourne.


The equipment worked pretty well in terms of the noise we could generate, but I’m not sure now whether we managed to influence many of the enemy.  I’m sure we merely pissed a lot of them off. However, it was a change from the grind to get airborne regularly, and we found other uses for the gear.  I seem to remember making a derogatory announcement to my friends in 9 SQN one day, secure in the knowledge that the Army would be blamed.  And didn’t we circle Nui Dat that Christmas, playing “The Green Green Grass of Home” to our maudlin Kiwi friends?  I can tell you that I’m glad I only spent one Christmas there.  There seemed to be a lot of champagne flowing.  I think that George Constable ordered a dozen but finished up with a dozen cases.  And we had to drink it before it went bad.  Something like that, anyway.


I enjoyed good relationships with my Army counterparts in the maintenance hangar.  Al Sherman, John Brown, Merv Petherick-Collins, Alan Meiklejohn, Vince Olivieri, Jimmy Jones, Allan Ible, Ray Fellenberg, Kev Cupitt, Felix Mitchell (I still laugh about the runaway model Cessna), Graeme Timson and Chris Hills spring readily to mind.  And so many others who made our unit such a good one to be with.  We worked well together and everybody pitched in whenever and wherever a helping hand was needed. 


I won’t bore you with my memories of awful food, compression waves and toilets, snakes and scorpions, noisy artillery, endless practical jokes, weapons practice, birthday parties, red dust and red mud and the daily filling in of the figmos by those who were counting down to the end of their tour.  You all know about those things.  But I will tell you a little about my second honeymoon.  I devised a rat cunning plan to combine my R&R and R&C into a 10 day holiday on the isle of Penang.  My bride flew up from Brisbane while I hitchhiked on various aircraft (including a Yank Huey which I swear was piloted by Groucho Marx, complete with cigar).  I managed to get to Penang a few hours before Robyn’s flight landed.  I knew Penang well from my time at Butterworth, of course, and after showing her some of the sights we settled on Lone Pine as the place to stay.  I can’t tell you how much that brief interlude meant to us.  Robyn was alarmed that I had lost a lot of weight and insisted that I eat enormous curries nightly, washed down with good Tiger beer, to restore my strength.  I was too weak to resist. 


All too soon I was on the fortnightly milk run C-130 back to Vungers and Robyn was off to Australia.  We took comfort from the fact that I now had only three months to go.  When she got back she sent me a large food parcel which included a giant bottle of multivitamin capsules.  “Friends” such as Mick Swain and Jimmy Jones got wind of this and advised all and sundry that Robyn was trying to make sure that I came home ready to rock and roll.  You’d be surprised how many of the diggers sidled up to me and asked if I could loan them a few pills to prepare them for their R&R.


Christmas came and went and before long it was the Tet offensive and I remember that we were all kept rather busy.  Those last few weeks passed quickly and then one day Wallaby Airlines came to take me away.  George Constable had bet me that I wasn’t game to go home in Army uniform and blue beret like a real Possum.  He lost.  I got some strange looks but only one digger asked me if the RAAF was now an Army Corps.  I don’t have a lot of memorabilia but I still have the beret.


The trip home was pretty awful.  Tan Son Nhut was under fire and some aircraft had been destroyed.  Our charter was delayed for about six hours until things became quieter.  We had a full load and I think the fuel tanks were overflowing because the 707 took forever to get airborne and I remember thinking it would be a fitting way to end the tour if we became part of the boundary fence.  We cheered a bit as the thing slowly rotated and before long we were sipping a complimentary beer.  We dared then to believe that we were going home.


Eight hours later we landed at Sydney.  It was a bit late and there were few to meet us.  The Army had laid a few trucks on to take us to our billets for the night, I forget where.  I was too tired to care.  We threw our bags in and climbed aboard.  “Welcome back”, said one of the drivers. 


Next day I flew to Brisbane and Robyn met me at the airport and took me back to our flat in Ipswich.  I remember thinking how weird it was that I had left Nui Dat only the day before.  So much for Vietnam; time now to get on with life.


There is a little more to tell before I close.  I resumed my Air Force duties and before long it was on the news that George Constable had been shot down on 23 May 1968.  Laurie Doyle called to tell me about the funeral service arrangements in Sydney and a Caribou was laid on for us to go down.  I felt pretty gutted because we had been good friends and I could still see the grin on his face as I said goodbye to him in my Army uniform and blue beret.   And a lot of other good times as well.  My heart went out to his family, and for once I was lost for words.


A few months later I found myself back with the regiment, this time as an instructor.  There were six of us, including Mick Swain, Keith Scott and Darky Otago, under the command of a fairly tolerant Major whose name escapes me. He let us do our own thing as long as we produced results.  We ran the raffles at the Sergeant’s Mess on paydays and spent the odd hour on syllabus development in the local pubs.  I also took the opportunity to further my education at night school and did well.  Robyn had our first son, who was named Michael Peter after Mick Swain and Peter Robinson, in February 1969.  We bought a little house at Mt Gravatt to get away from Ipswich.  It was a good life for a year or two and then the RAAF called me back to the fold.


This time they had left it too long.  Over the preceding four years I had missed the introduction of a number of new aircraft types.  There wasn’t much on offer at Amberley except resurrecting worn out Canberra’s at 3 Aircraft Depot.  My new bosses there recognized that I was unlikely to recover from my Army experiences and decided that I would do the least damage as an Engineer Officer.  But that’s another story.



I find now that I am not finished at all.  My good friend Tom Guivarra is dead and I must include a few postwar reccelections.  I ran into Tom a few times when we were both still serving, including one day in Washington while I was posted to the Embassy there and he was passing through on his way to the Sinai.  We got together again in Brisbane in the early 90’s when I was working for the Government and Tom was pursuing his new career in the financial planning world.  By that time I had trained as an economist and was a bit of an expert on the superannuation, tax and Social Security/DVA legislation relevant to retirement income.  Tom used to visit me regularly to curse me for the many and irrational policy changes which complicated his work and, on a more friendly note, to sign me up for financial planning seminars so that I could explain what I thought the Government was trying to do to us all.  We had a good time and more than a few beers along the way, during which we devised ways to solve many of mankind’s problems.  He always slagged me off for being an engineer, as pilots do, when he could not find any new way to dispute my logic.


He was such a good and conscientious planner that I had no hesitation in trusting him with my own money when I decided to borrow a heap and invest it.  It came about like this.  I called Tom to ask if he could recommend any financial planners who were both competent and honest.  There was an uncharacteristic silence.  Finally he said, “You could do worse than me, you little bastard”. 


That was in 1997.  I left government service in late 1998 and moved to the Sunshine Coast shortly after. We stayed in regular contact for lunches and spoke often on the phone.  I used to try to get him to slow down a bit and join me for a round of golf.  The last time we spoke, a couple of months ago, he said to keep my clubs warm as he would be up soon. 


I got the bad news from his office when he was admitted to hospital and from then on Big Bird kept us up to date.  I was immensely saddened by his death.  He was one of a kind and I

admired and respected him very much.  He was always a little larger than life, with the charisma and open-heartedness and caring nature that made us all love him.  The world is a poorer place for me now that I will never again answer the phone and hear his voice: “G’day, buddy, what’s happening?”


I think his send-off was all that he would have wished for.  I felt privileged to be there, and to have known him. No need to say “Lest we forget” for Tom.


It’s a hell of a long time to look back to the 60’s now, and through the years since we have lost too many friends from the Possum ranks.  But I tell myself that there are lots of good memories mixed up with the sad ones. 


Finally, a special thanks to Big Bird for his outstanding work in keeping our memories alive and our information up to date.


Regards to all, Peter Nolan

31 May 2004.


Previous Reccelections:  Brian Calder | Tom Jobling | Peter Ginman | John Stead | Eddie Bevans | Peter Spoor

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