Alan Ramsay recently lamented in the Sydney Morning Herald that the 40th anniversary of Australian commitment of combat troops to Vietnam will pass unnoticed, because, he says, it is a “foul corpse nobody will claim.” As with most things Ramsay writes, it’s hard not to stifle a bored yawn. However, 40 years on it’s worth reflecting on a little known unintended benefit from this “foul corpse”.
Brian Deegan, the Adelaide magistrate and one time independent candidate for the seat of Mayo, who lost his son in the Bali Bombings, claimed in August last year that Alexander Downer (incorrectly) and Robert Hill “avoided” the draft. The Australian followed up with a list of politicians who “avoided” service after being drafted. The theme of the story was summed up in the quote of a Queensland Vietnam veteran they managed to unearth, “they turn into latter-day warriors with someone else’s children,” obviously referring to the Iraq war.
Actually most of the politicians listed in the article opposed the war in Iraq and all had valid reasons for not serving, be it medical or academic deferment.
The article and Deegan’s revelations provoked a flurry of letters critical of the failure of the listed politicians to serve. One Vietnam veteran wrote, “I can assure you that politicians or their offspring serving in the defence forces was as unique then as it would be now”. (Another letter writer, Bob Buick MM, pointedly observed that Deegan, by wrongly naming Downer and ignoring Labor MPs, displayed how qualified he was to be an MP.)
The next day another letter writer complained, “There were … examples of sons of the higher professions drafted and swiftly separated, sent to Scheyville to gain an officer’s pip, and thereafter spent their remaining two years (sic) signing leave passes on Australian soil”.
Scheyville was an officer-training unit established in the 1960s to train national servicemen to be platoon commanders for operations in South Vietnam. It was a gruelling, punishing course with a failure rate that hovered around 30 per cent. Gary McKay, a Scheyville graduate and Military Cross winner, wrote in his minor classic In Good Company, “There was one standard and it was excellence”. If it was a sinecure for privileged sons, it was a curious one.
Bob Buick, the very same letter writer to The Australian, was platoon sergeant of 6 Platoon, D Company, 6 RAR. His platoon commander, 2nd Lieutenant Gordon Sharp, was a former television cameraman and a Scheyville graduate.
The last afternoon of Sharp’s life was spent busily crawling around his platoon position, which was under intense pressure from North Vietnamese troops. Meanwhile, another national service Lieutenant, David Sabben, was attempting to push his platoon through the rubber plantation, in heavy monsoonal rain, towards Sharp’s beleaguered men. Buick warned Sharp to keep his head down, the young subaltern is said to have replied, “Don’t worry about me”.
Desperate to find out what the enemy was doing, Sharp was taking risks, exposing himself to both view and fire. He was shot in the neck and died within minutes, leaving Buick in charge.
Sharp was the first Scheyville graduate to be killed in Vietnam and the only officer killed in the battle of Long Tan. Sharp was hardly a privileged son signing leave passes in Australia.
Scheyville was designed to break the officer cadets and then remould them. It placed the cadets under horrendous time constraints and they were harassed - and bastardised - by both other cadets and staff. Extra duty parades, the standard punishment, were handed out for the most minor infractions. Cadets that failed to reach the required standard were ruthlessly removed from the course, sometimes sinisterly via helicopter mid-exercise.
Almost 1,800 men graduated from Scheyville, a place of which most Australians have never heard. However Scheyville’s graduates have gone on to be extraordinarily successful in their chosen fields; the famed DFAT class of ’69 pales in comparison. It has been argued that they are perhaps one of the most successful, in material terms at least, cohort Australia has ever produced.
Most schools couldn’t claim as many successful sons as Scheyville. To be sure, schools like Perth Modern can claim a Prime Minister, departmental secretaries, ministers and a Governor-General - but it did not produce them within the space of seven years. Scheyville can claim a Deputy Prime Minister (Tim Fischer), a state Premier (Jeff Kennett), parliamentarians, the leader of the famous airline strike, a Vice-Chancellor, a coterie of Brigadiers, successful broadcasters, journalists and advertising men and a bevy of prominent businessmen - all from but seven short years. Scheyville also produced some very gallant young men.
What was it that made Scheyville graduates so special? National service, while burdening the army with the demand of training thousands of young men dragged from the streets by the misfortune of the a ballot, also gave it access to a pool of talent otherwise denied to it. Experience in the UK and the US during previous wars had shown that militia officers or those officers signed up for the “duration” were often brighter than their regular colleagues. The regular officer mafia might demur, but Scheyville proved this true again.
At the time regular officers looked down upon the “shake and bake” Scheyville Lieutenants - indeed some still do. The Royal Military College Duntroon has produced some fine and distinguished officers, but very little besides - they are soldiers and their impact is limited to that cloistered world. Scheyville produced in seven years what RMC hasn’t done for almost a century.
As for “signing leave passes” in Australia, Scheyville graduates were conscripted and trained to lead men in an unpopular war. While their peers were starting their careers or finishing their studies, going to parties and enjoying life, the Scheyville men were on some godforsaken military range on an endless exercise, cold, hungry and tired, or sitting at their desk cramming for an exam the next day, or were somewhere in Malaysia, New Guinea or Phuc Touy Province.
They have every reason to be angry or resentful and yet most see it as the defining moment of their lives, something to be grateful for. And given their achievements in later life, we have reason to be grateful too.