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1 Fd Hyg Coy

1 Fd Hyg Coy, 102 Fd Wkshp, The Hon Peter Costello


This photograph was taken in the upstairs foyer of the Malvern Town Hall and depicts three men in the tableau of an official presentation ceremony. The tall clean shaven man with short dark hair over a high forehead on the left of frame dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and a pale blue stripped tie is who is smiling at the camera is The Honourable Peter Costello M.P. Federal Member for Higgins and at the time of this memorable event, Treasurer of Australia and he is shaking hands with the man on the right while at the same time handing him a small black leather case.

The man on the right who is bearded and has longish greying hair swept back from a similarly high forehead is dressed in cream moleskins with the shirt open at the neck and has recently had an Australian Defence Medal which was intended for someone else pinned to his chest and is receiving the case which contains the miniature and ribbon bar. This is me and I should have trimmed the beard because although I am smiling as hard as I can I just manage look a trifle disgruntled which I am not, because from then on I have three medals to wear if I ever have the need. The mismatch is as yet undetected so the gravitas of the moment is not diluted. Later when chatting about names and initials over tea and biscuits and examining the names engraved on the rims of each other’s medals this error is revealed and promptly rectified. I am what is known in orderly room jargon as a wally with three initials and the curse of clerks whose job it was to record by hand all the transactions in pay books and regimental records and who as a class are aggrieved by having to perform any additional labour for any reason they consider irrelevant. Our name tags for the presentation being official issue displayed our names in full and it was when one wag recited the old chestnut about being from a poor family who could only afford one initial and, funny as it seems now, it may have been relevant at some time in the past when birth notices and such were paid for at so much per word or letter, but at least this started the discussion that lead to the discovery. I said the error was promptly rectified and so it was but not without a good deal of consternation and bustle which was gratifying.

The third man in the centre of this group, in military dress and obscuring the best part of the Australian flag is Brigadier David O’Neill, RAEME. David and I, along with many others from 102 Fd Wkshps, 5 Coy, 2 GH and 1 Fd Hyg Coy share the dubious distinction of having been housed in the asbestos clad barracks which once stood at Ingleburn, N.S.W. This connection came to light when David, as the Member Representing the Armed Forces asked me how I came to be there getting a medal. I said that as a conscript my unit had been 1 Fd Hyg Coy and that we had been stationed at England road Ingleburn and, among other things how we had camped beside the old WWII huts whilst the PWD workers prepared them for our occupation, beavering away without any protective clothing in the dusty, dilapidated old buildings. He recalled how as a young subaltern he had been stationed there sometime after 1972 with 102 Fd Wkshps. And with a somewhat fatalistic sigh confessed he and his cohort performed extensive repairs and alterations to their barracks and workshops, similarly without respirators or other protective clothing. It was all a parallel with us spraying cookhouses, mess halls, barracks, huts, small ships, HMAS Sydney III etc. with Dieldrin and Malathion, all unprotected, and there are official photographs of us doing it. It was all to do with our immortality.

David remembered 1 Malaria Research Unit behind 2 Camp Hospital but not 5 Coy and neither us nor 2GH. He was in good company, as at the time the Department Of Defence and The Army History Unit and GHD and Caroline Kelly and Olga Strachan all claimed ignorance of our collective occupancy of the Ingleburn Camp Site. A five year campaign was required to rectify this oversight and precipitated another campaign, this one to have conscript deaths in training remembered. This ramble has a lot to do with selective memory.

In April 2012 a man named Philip Malins died at the age of ninety two. In September 1945 he was awarded a Military Cross for his part in defending Saigon from the Annamites, later to be called the Viet Minh. This enabled the return of the French colonial administration and set the scene for the succeeding French-Indo China and American Vietnam wars. There is no record of his thoughts on June 1975 when the Viet Cong as successors to the Viet Minh overturned his work but in an article in the Burma Campaign Society Newsletter of September 2009 he said, “The Annamites had been fighting for their independence for some two thousand years, first from the Chinese and then from the French. My sympathies were very much with them. It was a bittersweet experience to go back in 1997, fifty-two years later, to see the many war cemeteries. But the people of Vietnam, smiling and friendly, were now rebuilding their country and speaking American English, not French”. Despite these sympathies, he justified his actions at the time in the 2009 television documentary ‘ROOTS OF WAR’ saying, “The British commander, General Douglas Gracey, was a seasoned colonial officer with limited political experience. His orders were to disarm the Japanese, and maintain law and order. He had absolutely no mandate whatever to start talking about handing over French Indochina to anyone other than the French. He had his straight, strict instructions”. There is possibly in this some irony and sadness at seeing the end of one war moving seamlessly into the beginning of the next.

I have just transcribed the opening paragraphs of chapter eight, “The Enemy” from Jerry Taylor’s book “Last Out” which tells his experiences with 4RAR/NZ in Vietnam in 1971. I picked this book from the shelves at the local library and leaved through it. When I got to those pages I was immediately struck by the similarity between his and Philip Malins’ attitude to the people of Vietnam. And if that really is the history, the story which was told so differently in the 1960s is misinformation.

That I chose to participate in this ceremony is mainly through the intervention of Neville Browne, a friend and former conscript from 1 Fd Hyg Coy. Neville had become aware that the heroic death of an old school friend in Viet Nam aroused little interest in their home town of Victoria Park and as he put his mind to setting that matter aright he was inspired to renew old friendships. Convening a unit reunion at Ingleburn in 2005 exposed the omissions at the military precinct memorial and led to the five year campaign mentioned above. And this was revealed as part of the injustice visited upon the Vietnam Veterans in their efforts to have the health problems they suffered through exposure to herbicide and insecticide spraying during that war and which was denied by government and the chemical companies responsible.

Popular Mechanics magazine published articles in the 1950’s describing the use of 245-T and 2-4-D as growth promoting chemicals for use on vegetable crops. The use of the components of Agent Orange received very good press in that magazine right up to the mid ‘60s. Then they were seen to be part of the technological revolution that would help feed the growing world population. These can be found on Google Books.

Which brings me to the role played by 1 Fd Hyg Coy then and which is only now in September 2013 being openly discussed.