From home to Recruit Training 1946-1963
I started life in the backwoods of South West Western Australia in the heart of the Karri forests three miles north of the small mill town of Pemberton. I was born at St John of God Maternity hospital in Perth and two weeks after my birth I was brought back to the farm in the bread-box of the family sulky drawn by faithful horse Panic. I was the only son and third child of Les and Phyllis Gillett. My mother was from the Pemberton Guppy family who had long been associated with the town. Her Grandfather and Father were the Mill Rights who built the first Pemberton timber mill. My Father was from a Perth family and had just finished five years service with the Royal Australian Navy. Dad joined the Naval Reserve from Kalgoorlie where he met and later married my mother on May Day, 1939. He was posted to the Light Cruiser HMAS Sydney and one day in November 1941, he was called off the ship with one other to go to hospital to sort out some vision and neuropathic pain symptons that had plagued him since the last trip to Singapore. The Sydney was ordered to sea the next morning sailing into tragedy, thankfully without them. The ship was lost with all hands . A shock to the nation, I can only image the shock it had on my Father and his shipmate. There were still wearing the Sydney talisband and had to plead with their Lieutenant to take it down as they were accosted by wives and mothers as they walked through Fremantle. They were dark days as Dad went on to serve in Darwin during the Bombing.
The farm, at Barronhurst Siding was some 160 acres of dairy or potato country and Dad farmed it until the vision and migraine problem became worse. Battles with the Repatriation Department and doctors eventually led to his becoming a Totally and Permanently Disabled (TPI) Serviceman in 1959 by which time we had moved from the farm to the town of Albany to be nearer too medical care. These years between 1946 and 1959 have left unpleasant memories with my older sisters as Dad struggled to come to grips with his medical problems and Mum soldiered on helping to keep the family fed and together. Stories of dripping for butter and meatless stews, school without shoes and hand-me-down clothes are family folk law but little remembered by me, the baby.
My high school years at Albany were blissful. I managed a certain amount of academic success without trying, had reasonable athletic ability and fell in and out of love at regular intervals. Unfortunately I was coasting and life ground to a halt in 1962 when I failed fourth Year. This was made all the worse by the fact that I had been selected to go to the Royal Military College at Duntroon, Canberra on a scholarship pending fourth year and fifth year confirmation of my academic standing. Not for the first time in my life I took the second option and tried to turn it into a virtue. In October 1963 I enlisted as a private soldier.
While I’m blissfully moving though my young life the scene in Washington is far from uncomplicated. Kennedy had been recently elected as President and we young people of the world saw something fresh and new. Years later it became apparent that’ fresh and new’ was actually no change. Women, the mob, strange political bedfellows and The Bay of Pigs were all a harbinger of times to come. I didn’t see that and I didn’t know that while I was in transition from boy to man and civilian to soldier events of great magnitude that would affect my life were being set in place.
Subsequent to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided at the seventeenth parallel with the Viet Minh retaining control of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai controlling South Vietnam. The Viet Minh were also to withdraw from Laos and Cambodia. As much as it may distress the Left to read this, The Viet Minh were always expansionists and had years of conflict in Laos and Cambodia while supporting the communist movement there. From 1950 through 1960 the US spent $300 million in aid, including the entire cost of maintaining the Royal Lao Army in its attempt to hold Laos
In 1962 Prime Minister Menzies and his cabinet were deliberating the events in South-East-Asia and were concerned that should any of the countries in the area fall to communism then others would be weakened and more likely to fall as well. Battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment had seamless transfers from fighting communists in Malaya then to Korea and again in Malaya; then Malaysia and Borneo. The British Army were there and we were alongside contributing to what we thought was a reasonable and just cause. On the 24th of May 1962 the Australian Minister for Defence, Athol Townley, announced that Australia was to send up to thirty instructors to Vietnam to assist in the training of the South Vietnamese armed forces. This force was led by Colonel Ted Serong and was a small start to a very long war.
I have read a book completely devoted to exposing the Menzies Government to the fact that they lied about being “invited by South Vietnam” to contribute troops. I don’t see the point. If the Menzies Government was concerned about Vietnam falling to communism then whether they construed a request or not is, to me and millions like me, irrelevant. We had to go to try and stop the terror of communism and, in this case, I truly believed, and still do, that the end justifies the means. Cut the problems of life down to one sentence. Makes it easier to understand, easier to respond to. So Ngo Dinh Diem was a rat-bag, Vietnam was corrupt and the CIA conducted wet ops. So what? Anything is better than living under a communist yoke.
The concern that if one country should fall then others would follow became known as the Domino Theory. It made sense to me then and still does but more importantly it made sense to Robert McNamara, US Secretary of State and John Kennedy, the president. It was, in fact, generally accepted throughout the world and although the world was terrified of communism only America and a few Allies were prepared to try and stem the flow. To this day I’m still amazed at the number of people who claim both an education and intellect who saw no ill in communism. Not for them the truths of mass murders, of Gulags and the Iron Curtain. An ideology that denied all freedoms and locked their citizens behind barbed wire was somehow, in a distorted mind set, superior to the freedoms we in the west enjoyed and all to often took for granted. I never ever questioned the evil characteristics of communism and for 25 years it was to become my raison d’etr.
The Australian Communist Party
In 1956, after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, an agreement was reached between Moscow and Peking that the Chinese Communist Party would take over responsibility for the training of Australian and South-East Asian cadres. By 1961 more than 100 members of the CPA had attended courses in Peking, and the works of Mao Tse-tung and Liu Shao-chi became prominent in CPA schools. In 1961 I was in third year high school and would have been astounded and disbelieving if anyone had suggested that there were people and organizations in Australia that wanted Australia to become a part of the communist world.