April 2018

National Vietnam Veterans Museum

On 21 February I had the privilege of travelling down to Phillip Island, situated in Western Port Bay east of Melbourne, to visit the Vietnam veterans museum next to the airfield on the main road onto the island.  The trip was made in company with retired Colonel Marcus Fielding, president of Military History & Heritage Victoria, and another MHHV member Brent Taylor.  While Marcus busied himself with a meeting of the museum’s board, Brent and I had a couple of hours to explore what we both agreed is a surprisingly good interpretation of Australia’s experience of what was (until Afghanistan) our country’s longest war.

Now in existence for nearly 25 years, the museum was independently created and is entirely run by volunteers.  It contains an impressive array of artefacts and audio visual displays, all designed to honour and explain the veteran experience of the Vietnam War (1962-1975).  Included are not just the sort of items to be expected from individual soldiers (uniforms, bits of kit, medals, letters), but very large items of military hardware like a Centurion tank, an armoured personnel carrier, artillery—and even aircraft!

Although Phillip Island might seem an out-of-the-way and even slightly outlandish location for such a serious and dedicated tribute to our Vietnam veterans, it is well worth a visit.  The admission prices ($15 adult; $10 children 5-15 years, under 5 free) are also very reasonable for a museum that entirely sustains itself without official support or subsidy.

“Masters of War” conference

On 14 April Military History & Heritage Victoria held a conference at the Camberwell RSL hall to mark the centenary of the last year of the First World War, or the Great War of 1914-1918.  Late last year I was asked to be a speaker at the conference, on the topic of the air war, but in January this was changed by a request to deliver the keynote address to introduce the conference theme of “Masters of War”.

By all accounts the event was rated a huge success, probably the best MHHV conference so far—so I was told, as I am only a new member of MHHV!  Certainly it was well attended, with nearly every seat filled in the Pompey Elliott Memorial Hall at Camberwell.  I don’t claim that my role had anything to do with that outcome, since—as so often seems to be the case—the weeks leading up to the conference coincided with a particularly frantic and chaotic period in domestic affairs involving early elections in the owners corporation of the complex where we live (four consecutive nights of AGMs), along with preparations for a wedding in early May and an impending overseas holiday.

Oswald Watt’s war medals

April proved to be a busy month, because three days after the MHHV conference I drove to Point Cook, on the western shore of Port Phillip Bay, just below Altona, to visit the RAAF Museum.  In the car with me were Bob Watt, the grandson of Oswald Watt (the subject of my 2016 book The High Life of Oswald Watt), his wife Alison, and Bob’s step-brother, Charlie Farquharson.  Bob and Alison had come from Darwin to visit Melbourne with a special mission in mind.

Ever since the timely rediscovery of Oswald Watt’s medals from the First World War ahead of the book launch at Canberra 18 months ago (see the October 2016 issue of this Newsletter), Bob had been pondering what to do with the medals and some other items of memorabilia that he had in his possession.  Added to this were more Oswald Watt letters and other documents which step-brother Charlie had turned up in recent months.  After much deliberation, he decided he wanted to donate all this material to the RAAF Museum at Point Cook.

Since I have known Dave Gardner, the director of the museum, for nearly 30 years, I offered to take Bob down to Point Cook to make the introductions and facilitate the hand-over of the medals.  A very enjoyable day was spent at the museum, with Bob and Alison feted by Dave and his curator, and the Chief of Staff of Air Force Training Group at nearby Laverton.  Included was an opportunity to watch an interactive flying display by one of the museum’s heritage aircraft.  The museum has promised to put the Watt medals on display in the near future, to recognise the war service of one of the Australian Flying Corps’ most important leaders.

At RAAF Museum, Point Cook, 17 April. From right: Dave Gardner, Alison and Bob Watt, author