Bomber – As Mad As A Cut Snake

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.

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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.

 

 

Australian Author Challenge : Enemy by Ruth Clare

Ruth Clare’s debut Enemy won the Asher Literary Award, offered biennially to a female author whose work carries an anti-war theme. She was born in Brisbane, Queensland,  and raised in Rockhampton. She earned a degree in biochemistry and journalism at QUT in Brisbane, Queensland. She went on to train as a copywriter and worked in advertising. During this time she had been working on a manuscript. After finishing it in 2014 she found an agent. Her first book was published in 2016.

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With the opening sentence, “I was born into the war still raging inside my father”, the reader immediately gathers that this autobiography is not going to be an easy read.

Doug Callum is an ex Vietnam Veteran, with a wife and three young children, with Ruth being the middle child. He is a totally different person to the young man conscripted to Vietnam and who was involved in the Battle of Coral–Balmoral. This battle (12 May – 6 June 1968) was a series of actions fought between the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) and the North Vietnamese 7th Division and Viet Cong Main Force units, 40 kilometres north-east of Saigon.

Ruth tells her harrowing story as a child growing up in a household of regimentation and strict discipline. She and her siblings are often covered in bruises and Ruth lives constantly on guard in fear of upsetting her father, and feeling unloved and unwanted.

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“I had never been to war, but I knew what it was like to be prepared to face the enemy every day. The difference was, my enemy wasn’t a faceless stranger. My enemy was someone I loved.”

She also tells her story as a young mother with her own children, looking back to take stock of her father’s behaviour, which she later learns has all the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She seeks out and communicates with numerous Vietnam Vets who admit to similar antisocial traits as well as seeking counselling through the Vietnam Veterans Association.

When Ruth’s parents inevitably divorce, we breathe a sigh of relief – though not for long. PTSD is insidious and leaches into other situations with frightening ramifications.

However, Ruth’s story is not all bleak and you can’t but admire her personal strength and resilience, as well as her compassion for her flawed father and other PTSD sufferers. On a more personal level I admire the author’s willingness to learn the details of her Dad’s role in the military, something he rarely discussed, which adds greatly to her understanding of his condition.

Doug Callum died too young of a skin cancer, suspected to have been brought on by sitting in the jungle of Vietnam for days on end with Agent Orange raining overhead.

I also respect Ruth for her compassion for her mother who has her own demons.

Written extremely well, this is another of those books that should be included on High School Reading Lists, not only for its information about the war in Vietnam, but also mental health awareness and domestic violence issues.

Not a “nice” book, but one that would have taken much courage to write.

NOTE: June is PTSD Awareness Month in Australia.

Australian Author Challenge: Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley.

I don’t do illness, or ill people, well. A character flaw and I blame the military patriarch who would yell at his daughters at the first sign of any slight weakness, “Toughen up. Stop being girls”. My father did not get sick until the month he died and I follow in his footsteps. The young things flag at work – I just march through it, soldiering on.

I softened once my own daughters came along and did not have the stomach for children’s illness’. If the six year old vomited, the seven year old had to clean up after her. Poor parenting I know, but I would be kneeling over the toilet bowl in sympathy. I remember having to take the teenager to the Dentist to get the last of her baby teeth pulled. She entered the surgery bravely whilst I fainted on the footpath outside.

Both my daughters have always had a fascination with medical procedures, and are addicted to those ghastly shows on the television that feature an assortment of lumps, bumps and stumps. There was one dinner party where the kids were far too quiet for my liking so I sneaked in to see what mischief they were up too. What did I find? Half a dozen cherubs fascinated by the DVD of my recent Colonoscopy!

So I was surprised when an acquaintance handed me a book and said “ I know that you will just love this!”

Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley, tells fifteen stories about civilian and military nurses, as well as a couple of medics, who all played their part in saving lives and comforting the wounded during this period of history.

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There were several common threads throughout this book:
• None of them had any previous knowledge of Vietnam and it was very much a “think on your feet “ process when they landed in the middle of a war zone.
• All those interviewed saw their efforts as both crucial and rewarding
• All feel as if there lives changed direction from the experience of serving in such a manner

Yes, the book did dish up blood and guts as to be expected, though many of the cases detailed had positive outcomes, with the larrikin spirit of young Australian Soldiers shining through. The constant themes were the camaraderie, strong working relationships and commitment to achieve the very best with the little that they had to help the injured.

This book is primarily personal recollections which added to my interest. It made the history more real.

One hundred and six nursing officers from the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Sisters ( RAAFNS) we’re deployed to No.4 Hospital at Butterworth Airforce Base in Malaysia to care for military personnel based there and to fly medivacs into Saigon or Vung Tua evacuating wounded Australian soldiers back to Butterworth, and then home. Between 1965 and 1971 thirty two of them were attached to the United States Air Force for 60 day rotations flying missions into Vietnam on a daily basis to evacuate wounded American soldiers.

There were also more than 200 civilian nurses who were members of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation who assisted civilian surgical medical teams across a similar time line, and operating within Vietnam.

And you know what horrified me the most? Not the shattered bodies, infestations of worms, or grenades under hospital beds. Did you know that it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that all RAAF nurses who flew from Butterworth to Vietnam to medivac injured Aussie soldiers, or who were seconded to the USAF, were acknowledged for their contribution?

Another pox on the Australian Government, who currently cannot find $200,000 to send a handful of weary Bomber Command veterans to the opening of the International Bomber Command Centre in England this year. They say they are “ too old”. I would argue that they were “too young” when they did their bit.

Great read. Highly recommended even if amputations aren’t your thing.

You’ll just have to wait till I share my dental experiences……..

 

PS Vietnam Nurse song by Australian, Russell Morris, who has long since lost his hair, but not his voice. (Courtesy of You Tube)