Bill Morris's veteran story

William 'Bill' Morris joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1968, when he was 16. He travelled by train and then ship to HMAS Leeuwin naval base in Fremantle, Western Australia. Bill recalled junior recruit training Leeuwin like being at boarding school. If a recruit didn't write home every week, it was a chargeable offence.

When Bill was 17, he made the first of 2 trips to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney. The crew was ferrying supplies and Australian troops to Vung Tau Harbour. Bill worked as a crane operator and victualler (supplied food, drinks and other provisions for the crew).

While in Vung Tau Harbour, Bill witnessed bombardments of shipping and a radar station.

Bills' most enduring memory was the appearance of soldiers returning home to Australia on HMAS Sydney. Many were only a few years older than Bill, but they seemed ashen and drawn.

Bill has only joined a handful of Anzac Day marches, but one of his proudest moments was marching with is son, a veteran of Australian service in Afghanistan.

It took Bill a long time to accept that he was a legitimate Vietnam veteran because he had always considered himself to be just a carrier. He believed the infantry had done all the heavy lifting.



Early naval experiences

Lived in Victoria, and then our family moved up to Riverview just out of Ipswich. I spent five years there and the mines had just shut, so there was a lot of unemployment. I tried to get into the army, but they weren't taking anyone under 17, nor the RAAF, but the Navy was, they were taking 15 and a half up to 16 and a half and that was to HMAS Leeuwin, the junior recruit training establishment. We spent a year there and got our selection of what we were going to do.

In the Navy they call it branch. Not sure what they call it, oh, corps, I suppose in army. And then they sent us to sea for training. First went to HMAS Parramatta, which was in Williamstown, and it was in drydock for three months and it was going to go up to Hong Kong. Now, the captain at the time, I can say his name, but Commander Reece said, I'm not taking 16, 17-year-olds up to the perils of Hong Kong.

So the Navy in their wisdom sent us to HMAS Sydney, which, we had our kitbag and we had to board a LCH because it was out at Cockatoo Island, and that was our first introduction to the Navy and the first morning I happened to be picked as colour guard and I had to blow a bosun's call. Well, I've never, even at Leeuwin, I never blew up a bosun's call. I said, "Oh, excuse me, sir, It hasn't got a ball in it."

Wow. For the next three months, guess who was practicing between 1400 and 1600, blowing the bosun's call because at the time, all the communications on board HMAS Sydney were by pipe, there was no voice, now it's all voice but back then it was all pipe. So you had 'stand easy' or 'smoko', end of 'stand easy', 'lunchtime', 'knock off time', it was another whistle. Fire exercise was another whistle, and it was all various whistles, that you had to learn.

I learned them after three months of practice. It was originally named HMAS Terrible, and we got it off the Brits. Well, it should have been, could have kept the name because it was built for the North Atlantic. So you can imagine what it was like in the Pacific, around the tropics. It was shocking but it was home and Captain, Captain Clarke said, as soon as we left harbour, he said, "Right, you can grow beards, you can wear T-shirts, you can wear shorts."

He said, "It's a lousy ship, so I'm not going to enforce discipline on it. As long as you do your job, you're fine."

Unfortunately, because it was a RN ship, it didn't have too much fresh water, so you had to have a two-minute shower. A two-minute shower consists of, one bloke stripped off, one bloke in, getting wet. The other bloke jumps in, gets wet, jumps back soaps himself up and boom, boom. Anyhow, if you take more than two minutes there was a big leading stoker there to say you're wasting water so at midnight tonight you can go down to the evaporators and you can make it, but it was good.

Ferrying the troops and Vung Tau harbour

We took up 8RAR in November and they were, like the other blokes we've taken up, they were all, you know, oh cock a hoop, they really were. This was going to be an adventure of a lifetime. Now I never saw them leave and I never saw 9 RAR come back because my job was crane monkey at the age of 17. We had to load off the good jeeps and that and then bring the old ones back on because unlike the Americans, we didn't have that much money to spare to throw out the baddies.

So, the first time it took us six hours, mainly because in previous times they didn't want the ship to stay in harbour at night. So it used to steam out of Vung Tau Harbour and then steam back in because it was such things as, well, there was one there, there was a trader there and it got its bow blown off, you know, the enemy sort of under water, so we had to scarper in and out quickly.

Some of the action I saw was right at the end of the harbour was a great big radar station. Well, that used to get blown up apparently once a fortnight. And when I did have a quiet moment I could see anti flak over in the jungle, which wasn't too far away from us then. … It was a big storage ship and then, of course, we had to have enough for 500, that was about the Army contingent that come up and coming back we'd have more because the young fellas going up just ate like young fellas but the fellas coming back, well, for the first week they didn't go indoors, they were out on the upper deck letting the breeze cool and my only impression and it still remains with me today, they were grey as though someone had sucked up all the colour out of them, they were just grey, and it took them about a week to get down and eat some food and we really put on the food, you know, there were steaks every night, lunchtime eggs and bacon and whatever, sausages and whatever you want for breakfast.

So, by about the second week, they were starting to feel pretty good. However, their, for some reason they put their showers, the army's showers down at 7 deck, below, 7 Bravo and it was one of my jobs was, apart from the day job, you had night jobs and one of them was what they called HQ1 watchkeeper, I had to go down about every hour and open up the sea cock to let the showers drain because there was no drainage.

So if I'd forgotten there'd be water up to, they would have known I slipped in or something. So, yeah, but after a while they were getting used to it all and starting to get a bit of colour and starting to talk to us and all that sort of thing. So it was good for them to have a month to get back …

Sleeping quarters on HMAS Sydney

They put up, oh, what would you call them, oh, building, you know, building platforms and because we are still in hammocks, which I think were 1940 because you could still smell the sweat on it, in between these and we were in hammocks and they were, they had, well there was no bunks, very few bunks, so they had hammocks as well but we were in A Hangar and there was B Hangar and C Hangar was where they had closed off and that's where they had their movies of what to expect and we weren't allowed anywhere near that, so, yeah, so we were strung up there.

It was a pretty rough trip. I fell out of me hammock or jumped down and split me eye and put a towel on, and the leading hand was come to shake me for my round, "Ohh". The doc got up and middle of the night, stitched me up.

Lack of news

Because we were in HMAS Leeuwin and all that was drummed in was military, knot making, boat handling, navigation and there was no news. Come to think, there was no news whatsoever. We had to write home every week and if we didn't, we were on a charge, so we had to write home every week. But, no, there was no news, now that I come to think of it, but no, there wasn't any news.

And there wasn't anything about Vietnam. I remember sitting in a cafe on HMAS Parramatta before we moved and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, but he was supposed to do it at about one o'clock and this was about five o'clock because the captain had given us all the afternoon off to watch this event. So by 6:00 we actually saw him. So that was the only news because it was a world event, yeah, but nothing about Vietnam. I knew nothing.

Exhaustion of the troops

I assume and only assume because I didn't see them, that it'd be. because we had LCHs, they probably would have lowered them, either rope ladderways or ladderway itself, marched them down with their kit, and then pushed them in, you know, it was motorised and once they were unloaded, pick up the men, in this case 9RAR and bring them back. But the only time I saw them was after we left Vung Tau and there was all these fellows lying around the place in greens.

Well, I think that were greens once upon a time. But, yeah, and quite honestly, they were knackered. They really were, exhausted completely. And so we just walked around them that we normally, under normal conditions, have 7:00 rounds, you know, inspections. But when we had the boys coming back, it all just disappeared because, you know, they'd been through enough, so why put them through anything else … they were just exhausted, they really were.

Well, I suppose 9RAR was the biggest impression because I'd never seen young men about, just a bit older than me, look so terrible. The second trip round, well, I expected it, you know, it'd be a hard life and whatever. But the first time, 9RAR was, as I say, it was back in 70.

Anti-war agitation

Before our next trip to Vietnam, the thing was starting to get a bit hostile. The dockies wouldn't handle us or anything like that, so we had to go out but the Navy in their wisdom said, right, because we used to wear our uniforms ashore, that's all we had and oh, in the Cross, you know, I got spat on because it was after that, I found out later there was that poor little kid who was napalmed, you know, and they were calling us baby killers. What? The Navy in their wisdom said, right, you don't have to wear a uniform anymore. Fantastic.

But you have to be smartly dressed, black polished shoes and, you know, creases and in 69/70 short-haired and smartly dressed in the Cross, you might as well have put a sign on your head, you know. Some of the wiser fellas bought wigs, so they had long wigs, so it really didn't accomplish anything. I only saw the media after I left the Sydney.

Before that I, we were a: I suppose you'd call censored, but we never saw any of that, you know, never saw anything, just the hostilities and the, well, the powers that be must have known that there was hostility … the Sydney had to go out to Cockatoo Island to get food, fuel, and food and all that. But, you know, it was just, we thought it was, dare I say it, we thought it was just the dockies, you know, being unionists sort of thing.

Conditions on the Sydney

Each new ship you went to, you had to learn their, where everything was for a start, and the first couple of days out at sea you did everything, you know, where your life positions are. I must say, on the Sydney, they didn't have rope hawsers, they had steel hawsers and I remember the leading hand telling us, "If you hear singing, duck", because apparently when the wire snaps it sings …

It was the days before polyester so we had cotton shorts in Sydney in the summertime and you'd have grease all over and, of course, we didn't have washing machines, you had a bucket, big bucket with, someone made a handle, you know, with a cone with holes in it, adobe buckets, they used as much, well we used to use, which they can't use anymore is, because it's been banned, dieseline cleaner which was used if any diesel spilt, they'd throw that over and break it up, so that was our washing powder, so I got the grease off your clothes …

The ships used to have holes in them that you could close, you open that up, put an air scoop in and the air would come in and that was it. 4 Hotel was supposed to be air conditioned because that's where the communicators lived and the watch keep. Well, it was very loosely called air conditioned. In fact, it was lot hotter than anywhere else. When we first joined the Sydney, we were on what was called 3 Mike 2, which was third deck, mike and 2 was good.

So we had air coming through, beautiful, you know, even in your hammocks it was lovely. But then we lost all that. I think the cooks took that over and we got the hammocks in the bay. The only time we ever got the beds was in about May, they brought in beds and I got to spend a month on a bed, on an actual mattress. We had to shake off the asbestos and everything else because all the piping was all asbestos, shake it off and hop on.

Travelling to Western Australia (HMAS Leeuwin)

12 months at Leeuwin. Now, I joined at, used to be South Brisbane railway station, it's no longer there now but and we travelled eight in a boxcar to Sydney. They showed us around Garden Island, we were just gobsmacked, you know, all this noise and cranes and everything else and then we picked up the Sydney troops. We went down to HMAS Cerberus and were, "Oh, okay". So we picked those fellows up.

This is all by train, went across to South Australia and they put us on a bus and showed us the hills and whatever, and we had lunch at the Adelaide railway station, which is now the casino. But at the time there was a butler, linen, and silver. There's a knife and fork, so he was watching us like a hawk in case we knocked off the silver. We had our thing, we picked up the South Australians, went on the Trans-Australian to Kalgoorlie and they said, "No, you can't have beer" and some snuck ashore and got loads of beer.

And then we went on to the Westralia. Oh dear, nearly getting into Fremantle and the thing burnt, burnt down, so we had to march all the way into Leeuwin and by the time we got there a meal had gone, so they cooked up some steaks and some chicken. Wow. Well, put it this way, I think they took them out to the sun and warmed them over. I think that was about it. I didn't eat chicken for about another 20 years …

The North Queenslanders, they were first on and they went to Brisbane and picked us up … Leeuwin was, it was my impression of a boarding school. Never been to a boarding school, but I thought that was it and, as I said, the chief made sure we wrote home every week. If he didn't see a letter with our name on the back of it, you were on a charge.

Contracting meningitis

I got meningitis and I reported to sick bay and they said, "Oh", you know, "take two panadol and come back in the morning", usual thing. Well, in 7:00, at rounds, Petty Officer Steigler came in and saw me, because meningitis, you can't bear light and it feels like someone's kicking your brain around. It's a soccer ball. He got on the phone, didn't wait to see who was there, who happened to be Matron and he let it rip.

So I was in an ambulance, went to Perth repat, lost the day completely, apparently, I died nine times, I don't know, that's what they told me and missed a day and they put me in with an army WO. Because I was on penicillin in the back side and sulphur tablets, so imagine everything tasted, anyway, so eventually they got me to eat some ice cream and jelly.

I remember the nurse saying to me, because every time the trolley came it was injection time in the bum, and she said, "Lucky you can't see this, your bum looks like a pin cushion." So I spent two weeks in there and there's a photo I gave to Mum and I've got it now, I was as white as a ghost but they flew me home and flew me back.

Post-Vietnam experience

After I'd left the Navy and certain, well, people that would have been university students at the time, still had a grudge against us. If you found, well, you didn't say you' were from Vietnam. The RSL didn't want to know us and I was down at HMAS Cerberus and there was this old Colonel said, "I'll get you into the RSL."

And that was the Crib Point RSL because he was president. So he got me in there. But it was afterwards, people, well, you didn't really mention it, you know, it wasn't, you know, "I'm a vet." I still don't , it took me many years afterwards to consider myself a vet because it was the army that were the vets, you know, they did the dirty work, but, you know, they class me as a vet. I now accept it but for a long time, no, I was not a vet. I was just a carrier.

Anzac Day marches

As I said, whenever the 50 year-one was up here, then it was something for me because we were all Navy, the Naval Association from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, wherever, you know, and the crowds lined the street, you wouldn't believe and we weren't in uniform, we just had our medals and they were really cheering and that was when I thought, "Right, now I'm accepted." …

When my son, second son came home from Iraq, you know, he was like a dog with two tails, he didn't know what to do or whatever else. Anyway, he moved up here, and the next year he rang me up and said, "Dad, would you march with me on Anzac Day?" and I said, "Yes mate, no problems." So we marched at Brisbane Street, no, North Brisbane about 2K on the foreshore and round we went and then about three hours of talking and that, but that was the most, that's my Anzac Day when my son asked me.

He'd done his time, he did his time in Solomons and then over at Iraq, and he asked me to march with him and I felt proud to march with him. I've marched a couple of other times on Anzac Day. One of the towns in Victoria, Stawell, an ex-navy bloke who was president, he asked me to be the parade marshal and he said, "But you have to learn different language."

So I had to learn army language and that was a great honour too, to lead the whole contingent of RAAF, oh, old fellas but RAAF, Army, Navy, you know, and then to take the salute for the flag and that, yeah, that was great. I really, nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but, you know, had the suit on and the medals all and used me parade training. We all do parade training, as you know, and the higher up in world you go the more you've got to, don't yell at them, use a deep voice, so that worked well and the last time before that, it's me hometown in St. Arnauds, I was asked to carry the Navy flag for the march. So they're the only three times, but they've been significant times.

Naval lessons learned

I learned a few things, as I say, I did have a talk to the soldiers and that and eventually they were, you know, became one of the troops. I learnt how powerful a typhoon is. The Sydney was heavy, you know, and a typhoon was up and down. I was at the time in the victualling branch, which was my profession, and I was in the flour stall, that was seven floors down and I was climbing up with one bag and the next minute, whoa, bonk.

So, yeah, typhoons and that mean nothing to ships, you know, but on the other hand if a ship was going into port, the captain had to sail over there to get wet, to wash down, get the sulphur off and then steam back. But, as I say, I can't remember my mates I had on there but we had a good time. We made our own time and one of the jobs we had to do was cleaning our plates and dishes. Right?

So, you'd wash one, throw one through the port hole, wash one, throw one to the big washing machine we called it because at the time, the Navy doesn't do it anymore, but used to have at sixteen hundred or four o'clock, they used to put on afternoon tea which was generally, the cooks made up a massive big fruitcake or whatever else, so being cafe party you get the first taste and then you'd wash up. It was hard but we were allowed to wear a t-shirt and shorts and after two o'clock, after we tidied up after the midday meal you could knock off for an hour or so and then come back set up whereas other jobs on board. you couldn't knock off from, you know, ding, ding, ding, ding. But the cafe party was good. As long as we did our job they left us alone. We had good times, we really did.

Good memories

It's off the point a bit but I feel really sorry for the SAS blokes that had to do two, three, four tours, Afghanistan, you know, one tour was enough of Vietnam but if they had to go the next year again, well, they're going to make mistakes because it's 24/7 on, it really is and you can't afford to relax, we couldn't afford to relax, we had a job to do and that was it, you just didn't worry about anything else. Later on, found out that everyone's like a little cog in a big wheel.

If the small cog doesn't do its job, well the whole system falls over, found out that everyone's job was important from the lowest to the skipper, you know,, but that was after Vietnam and after, you know, after eighteen years or so in the service. It was a horrible ship, not built for the Pacific but we had a good time, good captain and the EXO was Commander Ralph who later become Vice-Admiral Ralph but I was bosun's mate then, I used to have to tell the captain things, knock on the door.

I heard Captain roof into him, so I didn't bother. He said, "When you're in charge, you can run your ship like you run it but when I'm in charge, it's a lousy ship and I'm telling the troops what they can do. If you don't like it, report me." I thought, "I didn't hear this." Oh, I must tell you.

On the Sydney they had two gangways, one for the troops, which was manned by leading seaman and able seaman and the officer gangway was manned by a midshipman and an ordinary seaman, meself sort of thing, and it was Christmas Day. Well, the poor, middy, midshipman, he didn't get invited, but Captain Clark invited me up. The wardroom had a big, big Christmas do, thing, and he invited me in. "What's your name?" "Ordinary Seaman Morris, sir." "No, no, no, your name?" "Oh, Bill, sir." "Right. Well, Bill, that's Fred. That's his wife, Mabel." And he said, "Here, have a plateful." "Oh, no" "You better take a plate for your other mates, because we had a switchboard operator. "Better take a plate for the …", you know. "Oh," I thought, "what a great man."

The other thing there, I learnt how to, I got me helmsman certificate. Now, the Sydney had the officers up on the deck there and the passage or the steering wheel was this big, you couldn't see anything, so you had a leading hand and it would come down by voice pipe, you know, steer such and such and the CEL would tell me, steer such and such and you had to learn not to chase the rabbit because you had a marker and just put it to two twenty, let's say, but the marker would move because of the ocean, but you weren't to chase the rabbit.

So, I got my helmsman certificate there but that was good too. The only thing bad was that you had to creep through at a night with a tiny little torch to wake people up. Now, they used to tell us after you got a few black eyes, "Shake them by their feet, don't come up to them and shake because you'll get a swing. So, all in all, the ship itself was old but the memories of it, when I look back on it, the good memories because you never remember the bad memories except for those poor, as I say, I'll never forget what they look like, they were grey. But you remember the comradeship and all that, yeah, navy as it is.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Bill Morris's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 5 March 2024,
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