Rick “Barney” Bigwood
Reprobate, black sheep or wild child? Who knows? I was probably a mixture of all of these. But in 1967, aged 21, I was at a crossroads. I was forced to confront my life and lifestyle. My father approached me with the news that he wanted to retire and that both he and my mother were concerned about how this was going to impact on, not just them, but all of us. There had been arguments and disagreements about what I was doing with my life.
I was the youngest of four and my life seemed to be directionless, unfocused and less than meaningful. One of our confrontations was unpleasant and disturbing, when I came close to hitting my father. I had been hitting the grog pretty hard and seemed to have little regard for others. When he objected to how I was behaving I reacted badly. I seemed to have a chip on my shoulder.
I met his complaints with defiance and found a converted garage and moved into it. It belonged to a friend of mine, Alex Seminov, who had been a friend since kindergarten. It became a ‘party pad’ and I was living life in the fast lane: drinking heavily and eating badly. Not surprisingly my health suffered and eventually, I succumbed to glandular fever. My parents thought I should move back home which I did until I was well enough to move out again; this time into a unit at Lakemba. Shortly afterwards my parents moved to Currawong on the NSW south coast.
But it seems I hadn’t learnt any lessons. I certainly wasn’t fulfilling my potential by taking advantage of having gained my Leaving Certificate (HSC). I was working as purchasing officer at Betty Sydney (known for their cake mixes and instant dinners) but continued to live a pretty rough life: too much booze and takeaway meals. I wasn’t even particularly careful with my personal hygiene; and got to the stage of smelling my clothes each morning to see which were the least smelly to wear again.
National Service had been introduced in 1964, this required all males on their 20th birthday to register for a national ballot. A number of dates were drawn and those born on those dates were required to be assessed for two years continuous military service.
In 1966 Prime Minister Robert Menzies, a staunch supporter of “MOTHER ENGLAND”, saw the UK pulling down the Union Jack from its pre war colonies and withdrawing from its former possessions “EAST OF SUEZ” (as the policy was known). Also he knew the ANZUS treaty was no guarantee of US support to replace the vacuum left by the British withdrawal. With these thoughts uppermost in his thinking he wanted to demonstrate to the Americans that Australia was a loyal and supportive ally. Prepared to physically commit assets , such as troops, in support of US policy.
With this in mind and he committed Australia to supporting the South Vietnam regime. He manipulated a request for Australian combat troops from the South Vietnamese Government in addition to the Australian advisors that had been assisting US advisors train the local forces and actually leading troops into battle.
Realising the existing standing army could not sustain a prolonged deployment he had the law regarding Conscripted soldiers modified to allow them to be deployed overseas.
Regular Army (ARA) service was voluntary enlistment normally for 6 years, however, a decision led to a shorter enlistment. This was the Regular Army Supplement (RAS) which required a 3 year enlistment.
I had received my call-up notice to register for Conscription along with most of the guys in our ‘group’ – Alex Seminov, ‘Stench’ and ‘Scoofy’. Late in 1967, I got a notice stating I had missed out on the ballot. At first the feeling of relief overcame me then a sense of regret. I was no different to how the youths of 1914 had felt, the sense of adventure and seeing exotic places appealed to me. My then girlfriend’s father had previously been in the military and he held views about Vietnam which were similar to many others in the community at the time. His disparaging comments that it wasn’t a “real” war irritated me and strengthened my opposite view. Whenever there was any media coverage of the Vietnam war he would mock it. This seemed to galvanise me and proved to be a motivating factor in my subsequent actions. I was out to prove something to him; and to be honest it sounded like a bit of an adventure.
Another thing that seemed to push me was a worsening situation at work. At the time my boss was involved in a car-selling scam. He was responsible for purchasing all the new company cars, but was getting a kickback (spotter’s fee). Unfortunately, he involved me and my position became untenable as I was innocently dragged into the ensuing drama. He came unstuck when he stupidly applied his nefarious activities to the National Sales Manager’s car and was subsequently rumbled. But thereafter he made my life miserable.
I had always been a bit of a history buff and had read widely about ANZAC, Kokoda and other Australian campaigns. I was following the progress of the Vietnam war avidly and was influenced by the footage of it on television. And a lot of the guys I knew were already over there. I subscribed to the domino theory: that if we did not stop the communists on the border between North and South Vietnam, they would keep coming down and eventually threaten Australia. So with all these factors pushing and pulling at me I volunteered for National Service. It seemed like an opportunity too good to be missed.
I sent the papers off and waited. I was impatient and after waiting for quite a while I took myself off to York Street and signed up for the Regular army supplement for three years. This time I only had to wait two days before being accepted.
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