Part of all soldiers training, in the late 1960ís, was for the new recruits to carry out a 20 mile Route March. From Hedon-Greta, near Maitland, to Singleton Army Camp. The march formed part of the requirements needed to complete Recruit Training. In order to progress to Corpís Training, we had to successfully finish this march in 8 hours. This story is of one of those marches.
I was conscripted into the Australian Army in June of 1967. Dragged kicking and screaming, torn from my mothers breast. I had a fair idea of what was expected of a soldier in this manís Army. I had witnessed the training of the soldiers when I was a civilian working at Singleton Army Camp previously.
Nothing was to prepare me for what lie ahead.
We were housed in new steel barracks that had been built, to take the massive influx of servicemen conscripted into the Army. This conscription, was to swell itís numbers for overseas service. There were about 20 to each hut. Vietnam was on everybodyís lips each day as we wondered our future. Where would we go? What will happen to us? Will I survive? How will I survive? What Corps will I be sent to? Will I pass induction (recruit training) or, will I have to do this all over again? We were constantly threatened by the instructors that if we failed anything we would be made to complete the three months training again.
National Service was a name dreamed up by the politicians and soothsayers of that era. It a term to bring out the nationís youth to fight for their country. In reality National Service was a disaster politically. It is now seen as one of the most unfair way of treating itís citizens. The most unfair lottery that a countryís young men could face.
By Referendum, during the First World War, Prime Minister, Billy Hughes tried to have conscription passed twice and was defeated both times.
Call-up or conscription was then again used in the Korean War, 1950ís era, for a period of 90 days for all men 18 years of age. This lasted into the 60ís. These servicemen were not posted to overseas service but, completed their 90 days preliminary training and returned to their previous lives.
Conscription has been used in Australia, a few times and each time was a political bombshell! The Holt Liberal Federal Government was trying to big note itself to the great power of then and today, the United States of America. Australia in the 60ís had some sort of a "culture cringe" to USA and believed it had to kowtow to the Yanks. Looking for a pat on the head from the Yanks.
"All the way with LBJ", cried Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt as he sucked up to the Yanks. ( Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the USA)
Another politician, Premier Sir Robert Askin accompanied in an official car by LBJ was to say, (when confronted by conscription protesters laying in the path of the limousine), "Run over the bastards", such was the contempt our politicians had for the people, at that time.
I donít know if modern day pollies are any better. History will be the judge.
There seemed one clear path, to finish recruit training and that was to get fit. Run, run, the fittest will survive.
We were woken each morning at 5 am. Before dawn in Singleton, in the middle of winter. A bloody cold hole of a place, where the wind is so lazy that instead of going around you, it goes straight through you. A lonely backwater of a place that if the creek was tidal, it would go out and never come back!
This was our introduction to discipline. To speak when spoken to. How to address an officer, A Sgt, and a NCO. How to salute. Longest way up fastest way down. Up, down, up down until your arm hurt. When told to jump you asked, "How high?".
A recruit was subservient to even a private soldier and was required to be "On your feet" whenever even a private entered your room. We were the dogs of the Army. The low life.
We never questioned any of our NCOís as we were too tired to ask any questions.
Blind obedience was the order of the day. Drill, drill, drill until you and the platoon got good at it. No good, you all did it again.
One thing quickly became apparent, was that to get through the drills successfully, the better we did it, the quicker we could knock off for a smoke or relax. So, you accepted that this was "your lot" and to get on with learning a soon as possible. Even after awhile as one became more proficient, you could see the confidence and firming up of the individuals.
Every morning at the ungodly hour we went for a 5 mile run. Run, always running, fitter, fitter.
I began to run by my own. A couple of mates of mine deduced that if we were fittest we would maybe get out of doing some of the metered duties ordered out. Cleaning of toilets, emptying garbage cans, mess hands, picket duties and guard duties.
We had run 5 miles already before the Army ran us for 5 miles each morning. We would get up at 4.30am and run. If, on the night before, we would have been on the drink, we would be running along spewing up as we ran but, we were getting fitter by the day. Fat boys were getting slim, mummyís boys were toughening up, pencil pushers were finding what life was all about and soap dodgerís scrubbed.
One of our blokes , a pommie, used to have bad body odour. When you live so close to your fellow man, it becomes quickly obvious those that donít wash regularly.
I donít remember the blokes name but, he will. We complained to our NCOís. "What will you do?", we asked.
"Iíll do nothing, you recruits but You all can!", said Chalky White our section corporal and instructor.
"If he wonít wash, drag him into the shower and scrub him with a bass broom and sugar soap", was Chalkyís "suggestion".
Chalky never gave us this order but, he gave us the idea. They talk about bastardisation in the services, well this certainly happened where we were, to this bloke. Funny thing though, he never smelt on the nose again. Sweet as a rose!.
After a few weeks of drill, the training started to become more interesting. We were taught bush-craft. How to camouflage yourself up. Walk quietly through the bush. How to signal and converse using sign language. We were issued weapons. Rifles, the mighty SLR, 7.62mm. We learnt to fire the weapon at the range. To zero in the weapon. To strip it, put it back together again blindfolded. All good training for being in the jungle, in darkness, under fire, after a gas stoppage, or misfire we could return fire and hopefully stay alive. No one knew if we were going to go to Vietnam but, it surely became apparent that we most probably would be going over to the "Funny Farm", South Vietnam. We also learnt to fire other weapons, the M60 Heavy machine gun, a weapon I was to get to know pretty well much later. The Carl Gustaf, pistols, grenades.
Bloody grenades! We were told of a recruit that had recently froze while throwing a grenade.
This poonce did not listen to his instructors and after he had extracted the pin, panicked and dropped the grenade. The corporal instructor grabbed him, threw the recruit around a 90d corner and spreadeagled himself over the recruit.
The instructor, Cpl. Constable, I believe, was wounded all up the legs, buttocks and back. He was awarded the Military Medal for his actions, but hurt badly. It goes to show the average digger what dedication that those instructors had for their charges. Us. Our life was in their hands and we woke up to that fact very early. There were many of that stated, they would be most happy to serve overseas with our instructors as we became to know exactly what they wanted and we did it!
But, after awhile we realised that it was standard Army regulation stuff that would be interpreted by all in the Army. Same shit, different day. Learn the system and it may just keep you alive.
We had no leave for the first 6 weeks. But, we were allowed visitors. My father came to Singleton with my little sister. Little sister, I had to keep an eye on all my lecherous mates to keep them away from her! After they left my best civvy mate came up the next weekend. What a disaster!. Wally came over to visit me at ĎBí Coy. "Gidday mate", he said, "Christ what have they done to you. You look as poor as piss. Youíve lost a ton of weight".
It was good to see somebody from the outside world. Someone that I had grown up with. A contact back to reality, civilian life.
"Gidday mate, good to see ya!, where ya park the FJ?". I said. Wal had a FJ Holden in 1967. Now a FJ was a icon of an Aussie car. Walís car we had "hotted up" before I went in to the Army. Dark grey with a 12" white stripe completely over the center of the car, front to back. Wide wheels, lowered, triple carbys, hot cam, extractorsÖÖnoise!. You had to have noise. The car sounded like a rocket or, so we thought.
"Oh well mate, no worries, there is a real big car park over there with no-one parked on it at all, canít understand it, all that space!". Said Wal. We all froze. Cripes!, he has parked on the Battalion Parade Ground. The shit will hit the fan now, drama!
Just then a MP drove up to ĎBí Coy, "Whoís the dickhead whoís visitor has parked on the RSMís parade ground?", he asked all.
"ERRR me Sergeant" I replied.
"Get that car off the parade ground, off the Camp as he doesnít have permission to even be in here!". " The RSM wants to charge the recruit whose visitor it is. He said to lock him up!".
The MP didnít report me but, Wal had to go. Wal as very good at making his presence felt and more so, his objection to being evicted from the Camp. He did half a dozen wheelies and figure 8ís to let the MPís of his displeasure. I was never so glad to hear the FJ going off into the distance. The RSM said, "Can that man" (lock him up in jail) but, he was off in the direction of Sydney.
As we were always running, we were always hungry. The mess queues were endless. Recruits would form up in a queue for up to 30 minutes before chow time. We were too smart for that. So, my mates and I thought up a way of getting in early.
Two mates and I had teamed up. Bob Dunn and Charlie Bartkus. Two of the most fair dinkum blokes you would ever wish to meet. A couple of larrikins to say the least. Charlie was short and stocky in stature and Bob same as myself, solid, 5í 10" tall, all of us athletic. Bob would act as ring-master and announce that Recruits Bartkus and Lyons were to put on a show to entertain the troops at chow time as we waited for chow.
I would lie on my back with knees and arms extended. Charlie would do a run up , hit my knees, I would push him up and he would do a couple of somersault into the air, landing back on his feet.
What athleticism, what power, what poise, what a show, what bullshit!. Then, we would get up, bow to the audience and take up our position at the head of the mess queue! Smartarses for sure, but you had to have an angle. Everyone laughed as it was all good natured fun.
After about 8 weeks we were all loaded into a truck. The whole company. Full pack, rifle, rations the lot. We were going to Heddon-Greta.
We had , of course , been told of what was required of us but, no one could have told us of what we would endure. Heddon-Great was about 15 miles or so from Singleton Army Base and as we drove out everyone was conscious of our surroundings. Not too many hills they said as we went along, no worries, "a piece of piss this!".
We camped overnight and had lighthearted games of euchre and so on before we turned in. Tomorrow we march back!. Reveille was at about 4.30am, I recall. A heavy dew hung low over the cow fields that we camped in overnight. We looked at the old cows slowly chewing their cud as the steam from their nostrils rose in the damp air. The cows seemed to be thinking, " What are these silly bastards doing out here? They have an alternative we donít".
Silly bastards was right. They were the beasts of burden usually but, this time we were!
Have breakfast out of the ration pack, heated on the Heximine tablets, for our cuppa tea and shave with this residue hot water. "Fill ya water bottles and get ready to saddle up", was the first order of the day. Form up in column of route. Get ready to march out at 5 am.
I was with my mates and we wondered what the day would bring. Bob Dunn was close by as was Charlie Bartkus. Allan (Horst) Szepanowski was also with us. Horst was a mountain of a man and he was our machine gunner. He had the M60. You kinda thought that if ever we get into a fire-fight, Horst would be the one you would like with you. Horst was as hard as nails. He never wore socks, was tough but, was quite as a church mouse.
You thought , "Iíd never like to upset him". Horst used to ask me to read letters from home to him, he was semi-illiterate.
As I had read to him, I became to know him. He was a farmerís son from Queensland. A decent hard working bloke. He is a man that I will never forget.
" March out", was the order. Off we went. Full pack, rifle, striding out in full swing, not at attention, but a fast walk. We liked it at first as we realised we were going back to barracks. Back to barracks but, a hot shower, clean clothes, tucker and after knock off, straight to the Boozer. You beauty, lets go. Along what seemed to be farmerís back roads. No passing traffic. Not hilly up undulating hills and dales nothing too tough, so far. Every hour we were told to pull up. Take our packs off and rest for 10 minutes. Most of us never bothered to take the packs off, just sat down and had a smoke. Or go through the actions if you didnít smoke. It seemed like everybody smoked though other than the odd few that did not. It was the Digger thing to do. (How bloody stupid)
Russell Cass, a platoon member was , as, usual, joking along with us all. "This is easy", he was saying. Russ was a short stocky man. He was as tough as nails and had played hooker in Toowoomba, Queensland, before being conscripted. He has a tattoo of the little xxxx man on his forearm. He is a legend.
After 3 or 4 hours the drudgery began to set in. Men started to bend forward now under the weight of their packs. Bending forward was a way of helping you to propel yourself along. Crunch, crunch one foot after the other. Pain beginning in the lower back and legs. Bloody getting tired. Crunch, crunch. On the 4 hours mark, take a break. We were all told to put our feet up on the fence wire to let the blood circulate back to our body. This helped and your feet felt a bit better. "Couldnít be far to go now Sarge?" I asked Buster Keaton, our platoon Sergeant.. "No recruit, not far now, probably only another 4 hours". "4 hours", I thought. "Iíll never make it, shit!". "Well son, thatís the only way home so, shut up, saddle up, get back on the road ready to go", was the answer. Off we went again. When we first started out it would have been funny to the NCOís that as we walked along we were singing. After 4 hours there was no singing now. All you could hear was expletives, whingeing, moaning, crunch, crunch the sound of boots endlessly crunching the gravel under our boots. Our senses began to numb. Getting used to it , if possible. Onwards, bent over, keep up, this could save your life one day. The undulating countryside began to change. The low gradient hills became longer. Bob Carlile was also with us. Bob or Duke , as he became known was taking bets as to who would finish first.
Duke used to run the gambling nights in the huts at night . He was the main organiser of all gambling. He even had a shade over his eyes, a real professional. He got all my money but, I probably borrowed it back off him.
The countryside was changing. Whoever chose this route, so many years ago, had a warped mind. This was no picnic.
As we would march on to the horizon we, in the later stages, would glance up to the top of the up coming rise. Surely the camp would be over that rise. It wasnít. Up, down, up and down these bloody hills, will they ever stop? Our feet by now were numb. Just as well as everybody had blisters, even the instructors!. When we stopped for breaks in the morning we would remove our boots and look at our sore footsies, wondering how in hell we would finish. We were told," If you donít complete this route march, you will be back squatted and have to do it all over again".
We kept going onwards, upwards. Then we encounter "HEARTBREAK HILL" What a great name for this hill. It was so aptly named. It was like the zig-zag railway.
To look at it went up to the top at a slight gradient . When you got to the top of that, hidden from view ,was another tangent off to another angle to the top, when you got there another and so on. One after another, it was hard going.
Charlie my good mate was beside me. He was doing it tough. He was short and had to struggle very hard to keep up. "F%^&( this", he said, "You bastards are going to volunteer for Infantry, they do this all the time, you must be troppo". Charlie was getting tired, his speech was laboured, he was on his last legs.
He wouldnít stop though, his courage and strength of character wouldnít allow it.
Another bloody hill. We tried to perk Charlie up. "Have a go you mug!", "Short arse, keep up, weíll be at the boozer soon!", we said.
Then an amazing thing happened. It was one of the most eerie things that I have ever experienced. Something came over most of the men that surrounded Charlie. Old Charlie was stuffed. He was spent. He began to stumble. Bob, our mate, took Charlieís rifle off him, "Come on Chas, not far to go mate", said Bob. Charlie was knocking up bad. Bob gave his rifle to me and took Charlieís. I slung both rifles over my shoulder. Never felt so heavy as now. Then Bob removed Charlieís pack. We never stopped. Charlie protested but, we wouldnít let him fail. We were all one. One in, all in. Mates. "No way Iím going with you dickheads to Infantry, if I ever survive this Iím going to Artillery", moaned Charlie.
Johnnie Cunnington was at our side. We were all helping each other. Teamwork, the essence of the serviceman. Amazing!.
By now Charlie was beginning to loose consciousness. The pain that racked us all was overtaking him. He collapsed. As he did, one of the most remarkable thing that I have ever experienced happened. Horst Shepanouski had come over to us to help. Horst already had the M60 heavy machine gun to carry. As Charlie slumped, lost consciousness Horst, just swung Charlie up by the arm and rested him on top of his pack. He didnít even stop. He never lost pace, stagger as he took the load, nothing, just marched on with our mate over his pack. We shared the rifle, the pack and at times dragged the gun off Horst, to give him a hand. Horst said, "Leave the gun alone or, I will bash ya!". We knew he did not mean it.
This mountain of a man just took up the extra load, never complained and got on with it. The march home.
Soon, the camp came into view. Fantastic, it gave everybody a lift. Charlie had regained conscious and was telling Horst to let him down off his back. Charlie, always the larrikin was saying," Let me down Horst you big damn ox. Itís too high up here!". When Horst and Bob were sure he could make it they let him down. Then as the camp came up closer, Charlie was given his gear to put back on. They gave him back the rifle. At about one mile out of the camp we were called up to attention, on the move, " ok lads, you have just completed your 20 mile route march. Youíve done very well. We have marched the last 20 miles in 7 hrs and 15 minutes. A 3 RTB record. Well done. Now, at attention, unsling your rifles, at attention, Quick march!". Left, right, left, right I could see the pride ebbing in all the men. We had done it. We had set the record. I donít know if we actually did set any record but, we thought we were champions.
Charlie was at attention, Bob, Horst, Duke Carlisle and John Cunningham all our mates around each other. Egging each other on. One team, united by pride, stamina and a sense of achievement . Everybody finished that day. Many could not walk for blisters for a few days after that. When they removed their boots, they were full of blood. The NCOís were good, they let us be. They had been successful with their recruits and were as proud of their achievements with us as we were. We all wound up at the Regimental Aid Post getting condies crystals and band-aids for our feet. We survived, we beat the route march but, we had lost one man. Charlie Bartkus told us at the boozer the night we finished the march,
" Fellas, I love yousí like brothers but, Bob and Tom there is no way any bastard is ever going to make me walk that far again. Iím going into Artillery like my brother. You two are mad".
We just hoped our great mate didnít become a drop-short in our AREA later. He didnít
Alex, Russell, Bob, Duke, Horst and John all went to South Vietnam with the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Charlie went on to also serve in Vietnam with the Royal Australian Artillery. I was to serve in 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in Malaysia.
Life turned out to be cruel to Alan (Horst) Szepanowski. He died recently of complications from his service in Vietnam. He was a broken man but, I will never forget him. His courage and determination on that 20 mile route march is something I shall never forget. I was never to become a long time friend of Alex as we were posted to separate units and countryís. But, his memory will always be etched in my mind as one of the men I met, in the Army, with the biggest heart. Vale Allan Szepanowski RIP.