Bill Coolburra: Stories of Service
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Bill Coolburra was born at Palm Island, North Queensland, and joined the Australian Army in 1964. As a sapper with the Australian Engineers, he served in Borneo, Vietnam, Malaya and Singapore. In the Vietnam War, Sapper Bill was part of 3 Field Troop, nicknamed the 'Tunnel Rats'. Their dangerous work was to enter and clear complex tunnel systems made by the Viet Cong. Well respected in his local community, Bill spent many years after service supporting and mentoring Indigenous youth. His story is one of audacity and friendship.
Student inquiry activities
- What were the Viet Cong tunnels and why were they so important to the enemy during the Vietnam War? Use the Stories of Service video and the link to help you.
- Bill was an engineer or 'sapper'. Engineers understand how and why things work. They design, create and fix things, and solve problems. List some of the tasks engineers did during the Vietnam War. Use the Stories of Service video and these links to help you:
- Imagine you are a sapper in Vietnam, like Bill. Picture yourself and another soldier entering a tunnel to begin the process of clearing booby traps. You're carrying a pistol and a torch. Describe how you feel as you move forward. What do you see? What do you hear?
- Sandy MacGregor describes Bill Coolburra as a 'morale booster'. What does that mean? How did Bill try to do that during his time in Vietnam?
- George 'Snow' Wilson and Bill Coolburra met as 19-year-olds in the Army. Their friendship continued for the rest of their lives. Why do you think they called themselves 'twin brothers'?
Indigenous content warning: The Department of Veterans' Affairs recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Nation People of Australia and acknowledges their continuing spiritual, cultural, social and economic connection to Australia's lands and waters. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this content contains images, names and voices of deceased persons.
Opening credits. The title 'Stories of Service: Vietnam War' appears. A collage of images shows an Indigenous soldier, a woman wearing glasses, a pilot in a cockpit, a map of Vietnam, the Australian Coat of Arms, an old typewriter, helicopters in a field, and a commander's diary dated 1968.
The presenter Ray Martin stands in front of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra. Several wreaths lay on the steps behind him. A caption reads 'Ray Martin AM'.
Ray Martin speaks: 'You know in the Vietnam War, there was no group more respected than the Tunnel Rats. They were members of the Australian Engineers Field Troops, also known as sappers, and their job was to search, clear and destroy enemy tunnel systems. The Tunnel Rats had a reputation for being a clever, brave and determined bunch. And there was no one more treasured than an Indigenous bloke from Palm Island off the Queensland coast. So what was it that made Bill Coolburra so special and such a favourite amongst his digger mates?'
A man's right hand sketches a male soldier in uniform using a lead pencil. He adds details with lead pencil and watercolours. Bill Coolburra's face slowly becomes clearer. The drawing merges with a photo of Bill with his wife and baby daughter. The photo is labelled 'Bill Coolburra' in white cursive text.
Footage shows Bill Coolburra looking out the window of a small plane at an island. A series of photos show Bill in a group with fellow soldiers and in a trench. Sections of old footage show engineers looking, reaching and climbing into dark tunnels in the ground.
Ray Martin speaks: 'For Bill Coolburra, Palm Island was home. It was where he was born in 1945, and where he lived out his life after his army career. That career started when he joined up in 1964. Bill served in Borneo for 6 months that year. Throughout the '60s, he served in Vietnam and in Malaya, then again in Singapore in the early 1970s. Sapper Bill was in 3 Field Troop of 1 Field Squadron, nicknamed the Tunnel Rats for their work destroying the tunnels of the enemy, the Viet Cong. This sophisticated tunnel system was used by the Viet Cong to communicate and move supplies and troops between villages undetected. The Cu Chi tunnel system housed underground hospitals, ammunition stores and kitchens. To stop or slow the Viet Cong, the tunnels had to be destroyed. But because they were so complex, above-ground attacks were often not enough. Troops needed to go down into the tunnels and blow them up.'
Old photos show army engineers at the entrances of tunnels carrying pistols or torches, setting fuses and wearing gas masks.
Ray Martin speaks: 'This form of underground combat was new to Australians. The narrow tunnels were better suited to the smaller Viet Cong fighters and meant that the Tunnel Rats couldn't carry supplies of food and water. All they usually took with them was a pistol, a torch and sometimes a gas mask. They not only encountered rats, scorpions and snakes, there were also 'booby traps' and land mines to clear. Bill's commander, then Captain MacGregor, remembers him fondly.'
An image of 4 books is shown briefly. Footage of an interview with a man in a home office. The caption reads 'Colonel (Rtd.) Sandy MacGregor Commander 3 Field Troop 1965-66'.
Sandy Macgregor speaks: 'He was a morale booster in Vietnam! He's not forgotten. That's for sure. He used to do things that nobody else would do. And he was a good soldier as well. Well, Billy was always involved in tunnel clearance. He would be going down tunnels, with a pistol, with another mate. And he would never hesitate. He'd be one of those engineers that would go forward and clear the mine. He was a brave guy. We were the first down tunnels in Vietnam. We would actually go down and chase them. The Americans weren't doing that. The Americans were blowing up the entrances all the time. But we physically went down the tunnels to clear them.'
Photos show engineers in Vietnam standing guard at tunnel entrances. A book is shown titled Tunnel Rats by Jimmy Thomson with Sandy MacGregor.
A photo in an open book shows 2 shirtless young men in army shorts with identification tags who have their arms over each others' shoulders. The caption under the photo reads 'Billy Coolburra and Snow Wilson-the 'twins' to whom Prime Minister Holt wanted to say hello. This picture is courtesy of Snow'. A series of photos show Bill in army uniform with 2 women and other soldiers, Bill singing on a stage with a guitarist, and sappers disarming explosive devices.
Ray Martin speaks: 'Off the battlefield, Bill used his talents as a prankster to relieve the stress of this dangerous work and to keep everyone's spirits up. Bill loved singing. He was called up on stage at a Christmas concert for the troops. Bill was injured twice in Vietnam. Once when a booby trap in bags of rice exploded. Another time, he was saved by his best mate.'
A painting of Bill and Snow Wilson in army uniforms with a helicopter flying in the background. The interview with Snow begins with Ray pointing at Bill's image in the painting.
Ray Martin speaks: 'What do you think when you look at that face?'
Snow Wilson speaks: 'Well he nearly always had a big cheesy grin on his face. Bill was a larrikin. He enjoyed playing the guitar and singing to entertain all his mates. I miss him every day, every day. Not a day goes by when I don't think of him or something that we've done.'
A series of photos show Bill and Snow in the Army, with their wives, and later in life.
Ray Martin speaks: 'So close were these two mates that they called themselves 'twin' brothers. And so did everybody else. They met as 19-year-olds in the Army. This was them 35 years later.'
Footage from a 60 Minutes interview. Snow Wilson speaks: 'Everybody was saying we should be blood brothers. And one day we just rubbed our fingers together and said, there, we are blood brothers.'
Bill Coolburra speaks: 'Yeah, we are blood brothers.'
Photos and footage of Bill and Snow on Palm Island. The two men appear with young soldiers and in a commemorative parade together. There are photos of the men dressed casually, relaxing in chairs.
Ray Martin speaks: 'After the war, Bill returned to Palm Island, and Snow went back to Adelaide. But they caught up regularly. In 2001, Bill was told that he had 6 months to live if he didn't find a kidney donor. And who do you think stepped up to offer a kidney? His best mate Snow.'
Snow Wilson speaks: 'The decision was quite easy. My best mate needed a kidney. I had two of them, they both worked well. We'll have one each.'
Footage shows both men laying in parallel hospital beds, holding hands and prepared for surgery. 'Snow' is wheeled away.
Bill Coolburra speaks: 'All I just said, I said "Snowy, ya know what you're doing?" and once again the answer is yes, he said, "it's my kidney, and I'll do what I wanna do with it". And it sort of touched me when he said that.'
Photo of Bill, Snow and their wives with their arms around each other in front of the street sign 'Coolburra Field'.
Ray Martin speaks: 'The operation was successful. In fact, it gave Bill another 9 years of life with his wife Edna and his family.'
Two photos of Bill in bushland holding a huge goanna by the tail, and arm in arm with a young man in an Australian Army camouflage uniform shirt. Footage shows Bill holding hands with a child during a commemorative parade, 2 rugby league teams playing on a dusty field, and the Bill “Kookaburra” Coolburra Memorial Shield trophy.
Ray Martin speaks: 'Bill was a proud Bwgcolman man. He became a pastor and an elder on Palm Island after leaving the Army. He worked hard to find pathways for the Indigenous youth in his community. And after his death in 2009, an annual rugby league match was started in his honour. It's played between an Army team from Townsville and a local Palm Island side. The shield carries his name. And no one was prouder than his old mate Snow.'
Ray Martin speaks in front of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra: 'Now make no mistake about it, Bill Coolburra was a dedicated and a brave engineer. And he was a good one. But I think that he's going to be remembered for more than just that. He was a peacemaker and a prankster. A man of boundless spirit and fun who made his mates laugh. A man who sometimes made this terrible war almost bearable.'
An old photo of Bill Coolburra in uniform with his wife and daughter. Then the white logo for the Department of Veterans' Affairs is shown on a black background.