I always wanted a Mercedes Sports car. My father, a child of the Depression, always said that “nothing is handed to you on a plate, Girlie”. The only car he ever gave me was a Matchbox Toy. It was a Mercedes, however. My daughters had to buy their own cars too and both held down part time jobs throughout High School and Uni in order to do so.
My eldest, a slip of a thing, was a tea trolley girl at the Repatriation Hospital where she met some very interesting characters, including Tony Bower-Miles, a Vietnam Veteran. In the Australian vernacular, Bomber, as he is affectionately known, would be best described as rough as guts and as mad as a cut snake. He would also give you the shirt off his back. My daughter grew up surrounded by some hardened old men which meant big, burly Bomber with his beard and six earrings didn’t phase her one bit. In fact this scary looking bloke would assist my daughter to negotiate the wards full of men, mostly vets, many who were in not such good shape.
I’ve recently read Bomber : From Vietnam To Hell And Back. Co-written with Mark Whittaker, who provides the history, time fames and context, Bomber’s running commentary is full of colour, profanities and brothels.
Bower-Miles is one interesting fella. He likes a cold beer on a hot day, is not fond of authority figures, and is as courageous as they come. In Vietnam, where Land mines, in particular US made M16 anti-personnel mines, were one of the major threats faced by Australian troops, much of Bomber’s work involved cleaning up their aftermath. They were often positioned by the enemy and later used to great effect against Australian troops.
“A quarter of all the 504 Australians killed in Vietnam were killed by mines and booby traps. And of those, 55 were killed by M16 mines which were almost all lifted from the Australian minefield.”
( True story. There is a line in Redgum’s Song “Only Nineteen”, which goes : Frankie kicks a mine the day that mankind kicks the moon. Private Frank Hunt was seriously wounded on 21st of June, 1969, along with 18 others, with another killed, by an Australian land mine.)
Bomber’s commentary is raw, and in no way prettied up, and is both a fascinating and terrifying read. After Vietnam he was transferred to Singapore for a time, and nearing conflicts end, returned to Australia via Darwin, to assist with the cleanup after Cyclone Tracy, which absolutely decimated the northern city. This too gives a different perspective to what we know about this catastrophe – hearing it from someone on the ground assisting with the rebuilding.
His return to civilian life was not a happy one including a marriage breakdown, and Bomber spiralled downwards into a world fuelled by alcohol and violence, exascerbated by pain from injuries that occurred from having been thrown off tanks on several occasions by bomb blasts in Vietnam. Throughout this period he maintained his friendships with fellow veterans in a self styled support system.
And this is where the true measure of the man comes to light.
In 2001, Bomber returned to South East Asia, putting his minefield breaching and clearance skills to work in the task of locating and destroying some of the 4 to 6 million land mines that still contaminated Cambodia. This trip was self funded as were the others that he later took.
On a shoestring budget, Bomber established the Vietnam Veterans’ Mine Clearing Team. The men were removing mines planted by Pol Pot about 30 years ago as part of his battle for power. The Vietnamese planted mines during their invasion of Cambodia, and some farmers even used the mines to stake their claims.
The problem is none of these are recorded on maps, and walking around Cambodia can be life threatening. It’s anticipated there are about 40-thousand amputees in Cambodia as a result of land mines. In early 2008 the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team – Cambodia Inc was registered as an incorporated entity in Queensland. (IA:36313) and registered with the Australian Government Business Register .
Now that Cambodian Self Help Demining has official status, they work within the rules and that means Bomber and his mates must confine themselves to fund-raising. Interestingly, each of the mine detectors purchased through fundraising for the de-mining operation has a plaque attached in honour of one of the Engineers killed during the war in Vietnam.
Yes, Josie, you are quite right. Bomber is a larrikin and unsung hero, and most certainly, as mad as a cut snake.