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.