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Australian veterans of five conflicts reveal what war is like

jack bell
Jack Bell, 100, served in the Royal Australian Air Force in WW II. Photo: Leigh Henningham
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Jack Bell, 100, World War II

‘There was no way out’

I became a prisoner of war for three years, three months and three weeks.

I was originally sent to a bomber transport squadron who took supplies, placement aircrew, medical staff and additional stuff to the front lines or just behind the front lines, where we rescued badly injured soldiers and took them back to the hospital base.

jack bell
Mr Bell endured starvation in a German concentration camp. Photo: Leigh Henningham

We were flying to this place called Murzuq, in Libya, to pick up these brigade headquarters fellows, and any injured.

We thought we were headed to friendly territory but British intelligence were two days behind. The Germans had advanced past Murzuq right up to Benghazi. It was enemy territory.

There was no way for us to get out, it was impossible. They just shot us out of the sky.

I’ll never forget the feeling when the shell burst inside the cabin, this horrendous smoke and smell and flame and ‘oh this is it, I’m gone’, that’s all I could think of.

Fortunately I lived but my friend didn’t. The pilot lost his leg and the second pilot crash-landed the aircraft in flames.

‘We kissed the earth’

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Mr Bell says he learned compassion, tolerance and respect during his hardship. Photo: Leigh Henningham

In the concentration camp we had about 33 different nationalities between 22,000 and 25,000 prisoners.

We were not happy because we were starving, but we got along with each other.

When I came back to Australia every one of us that was a prisoner of war all went down and kissed the earth.

That’s how precious and how much it meant to us. It was our country and I believed in it ever since.

‘I abhor war’

There are three little words I’ve adhered to all my life since the war: compassion, tolerance and respect. Now if everybody behaved like that we wouldn’t have any problems. Everyone would get on beautifully.

War was great at the beginning. It was a marvellous way to see different countries which as a boy in those days, in the 1930s and ’40s, we just couldn’t afford.

Today, I abhor war, I think its awful, shocking. The devastation it causes is incredible.

Rebekah Herron, 36, Afghanistan

Ms Herron served as a military nurse in the fight against the Taliban. Photo: Simon Rankin

‘Where do I put my pistol?’

My first night in Afghanistan, I was getting ready for bed and I suddenly realised I didn’t know where to put my gun.

So I’ve got this sidearm, fully loaded and I was like ‘do I cuddle it or do I put it under my pillow?’.

I don’t want to shoot myself. I felt ridiculous.

I ended up snuggling it. If I left it out of my bed, I’d be the nurse that lost the gun.

You live and breathe work everyday.

I was surrounded by these bristling infantry soldiers.

I thought I should be safe but you have those moments where you’re confronted by the fact that you have got a loaded weapon and you are wearing body armour.

But there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

‘It’s where I needed to be’

For me, Anzac Day is about remembering the people who have given their lives, whether it be making the ultimate sacrifice or coming home changed from conflict from their experiences of being in the military.

Nobody wants war. But that’s where I needed to be.

If I can be there in any way to make an Australian soldier, sailor or airman get home in the best and most comfortable way possible then I’ll get to the front of the queue to make sure that happens.

I remember one soldier who was lying in a hospital bed and on his way home after being injured.

He’d been given these little backpacks.

He pulled out a letter from this kid and he read it and straight away he said ‘I need a pen and paper, I need to write back to this child’.

That touched my heart.

John Wells, 72, Vietnam

Mr Wells was a forward observer signaller in Vietnam. Photo: Simon Rankin

‘I used to think it was glamorous’

What makes it so hard to see the pointlessness and the waste and the sadness and the destruction of war?

I have thought about this possibly everyday for the last 50 years.

I used to think it was glamorous, exciting and an adventure.

But war takes away things that cannot be replaced.

In 1967, I was in Vietnam as a forward observer signaller which meant I walked around with the infantry and directed artillery.

The majority of the time I was bored. There were a couple of times when I was extremely frightened. I still have the odd nightmares 50 years later.

’10 foot tall and bulletproof’

I had a couple of contacts with the enemy but I can’t remember much of the details. My biggest memory was the night nothing happened.

We were undermanned and far from assistance. The tension was incredible.

We went to a village that was being used by the Viet Cong. We surrounded it.

We had helicopters in the air, we had artillery standing by and we didn’t find any Viet Cong in the village.

All of the men from my battery are friends of mine. They were certainly a big part of the emotional survival.

We all believed we were 10 feet tall and bulletproof. We were full of bravado and young men’s testosterone. Total overconfidence.

I certainly don’t believe that now because I realised some of us weren’t bulletproof.

There’s something in the human condition, though, some belligerence, some ancient atavistic need to fight. Logically there’s no reason.

‘No regrets’

I’m proud I did it, I’m glad I did it. I see it as an accomplishment.

There are no regrets about the fact I did it. It’s always been a nation of people who have put up their hands when things got hard and I’m proud to have been part of that.

We don’t do photo displays or new medals or military songs but people do carry on those values.

That is the best memorial we can give the Anzacs.

Tom Parkinson, 85, Korea

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Mr Parkinson served in Korean as part of a machine gun platoon.Photo: Simon Rankin

‘Her eyes were the saddest thing I saw’

When I was in Seoul, the Korean capital, a woman came along and her eyes were just vacant.

There was something wrong with her.

A policewoman happened to be on duty and she comes along and she said: “She is carrying the baby on her back and the baby is dead. She has been walking around like this for a couple of days.”

That was the saddest thing I’ve seen.

There was nothing we could do. We were thinking about giving what food we had but the policewoman said: “Don’t worry, it won’t do any good, she’ll just walk away and drop it in the gutter and that’ll be it.”

‘It made me a man’

I enlisted in the army at 18, and I was 19 when I got to Korea.

I joined the army in 1951 when the Korean War was on. I was 19 when I got to Korea and I spent 12 months in Korea.

I was a machine gunner. It involved firing a machine gun at the enemy.

There was never much relief, because if they weren’t coming at you, they were dropping shells and mortars on you, so we were up in the front lines, all the time. There was no relief.

I was a teenager when I joined the army and I was a man when I got out.

‘Anzac Day is not a celebration’

There’s no person alive that understands everybody but I think I do now understand what makes people do things.

Anzac Day is not a celebration. It’s about remembering the fellows that went before, especially the chaps in the first World War, mainly.

Remembering them and what they’ve done to make Australia the place it is. Which they certainly did.

Matt Redwood, 38, Iraq

Mr Redwood served as an electronics technician in Iraq. Photo: Simon Rankin

‘The grenade just missed me’

I had my 25th birthday as I flew into Iraq.

At that stage we were basically repairs and maintenance. I thought I’d probably watch it on TV but not really have anything to do with it.

I was deployed twice to Iraq. Both trips I was placed in a combat role.

We were travelling through one of the towns and a rocket propelled grenade fired over the top of our vehicle and missed.

It landed not that far from me and just the concussion of the blast, that one was a fairly vivid memory still.

The comrades, you miss like crazy.

‘Not everyone is shooting’

Most people don’t realise there are people who work in the army post office, people in logistics, people who just drive trucks around. Plenty of us do very menial jobs.

People think everyone’s there shooting or patrolling. That is not the case. The support roles are just as important, if not more important because you can’t go anywhere without them.

I don’t miss being stuffed around constantly. Those higher up have a university degree in how to muck you around.

‘Here, dig a hole there, no that hole is one foot too far that way, can you move it over there.’

It’s not the hardest work in the world but mentally it’s frustrating when you’ve just been digging for an entire day.

In two months we had three showers. We just didn’t have the water. We couldn’t do it.

Wet wipes were our friend.

‘Anzac Day is for mates’

I’m third generation military. My great grandfather was in the first World War. My grandfather and grandmother served in the second World War.

I got out on my terms. I look back on my military career positively. It was a big eye-opener. It was a great experience. But I’m glad I’m out now.

Anzac Day is a good day to catch up with my old army mates and just reflect.

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