The Land Warfare Centre (JTC), Kokoda Barracks, was located approximately 2 Km south of the township of Canungra and is situated in one of the world’s largest remaining sub tropical rainforest reserves with rugged mountains and patches of pure jungle. JTC lies in the Gold Coast Hinterland but within the Beaudesert Shire.
During World War Two it was the main training area for soldiers being sent to New Guinea.
During the Malaya, Malaysia and South Vietnam campaigns, every Infantry unit and with very few exceptions, every individual Arms reinforcement destined for active service in these campaigns was required to undergo prescribed periods of training at JTC before being assessed as suitable for active service. This training was called the Battle Efficiency Course (BE) and was conducted by Battle Wing of JTC under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel as Chief Instructor (CI).
During the South Vietnam campaign two versions of the BE course were conducted; one for a subunit (company) of an Infantry battalion and the second, a course for groups of individual reinforcements, usually of company strength. Students were purposely accommodated in tent lines on Battle Ridge and isolated from the main barracks at all times.
Although both were of four weeks duration, the individual BE course was only slightly less demanding than the sub unit course.
BE Course Structure
The BE course syllabus contained lessons, practice and testing which included:
The Muscle Toughening Course,
The Confidence Course,
The Obstacle Crossing Course,
Weapon Handling and Shooting,
Fieldcraft and Living in the Field, and
Infantry Minor Tactics.
Physical training was conducted every morning by instructional staff when the course was resident within Kokoda Barracks. It was not until 1972 that a qualified Battle PT Instructor was appointed and a physical training cell established.
The Muscle Toughening Course
The Muscle Toughening Course was a series of 11 rope traversing and climbing systems suspended from trees and began with the a twelve foot smooth plank wall. This was experienced twice by students; the first time as an introduction dressed in shirt, trousers and boots commonly called “clean skin” and the second time a few days later, in patrol order. This course was immediately followed by the Confidence Course .
The Confidence Course was a series of some 21 obstacles along a creek line over approximately 800 metres and involved either going through, over or under a variety of obstacles and vertical and horizontal traverses as an individual.
It included balance walks, tunnel crawls, horizontal and vertical cargo nets, coiled barbed wire fences, a forty foot crawl under a horizontal cargo net laid on the ground, a ten foot vertical wall, monkey bars, rope traverse, a thirty foot high horizontal rope bridge, swinging bridges, a 6 foot wall climb and jump into a water filled pit (the bear pit) and others. Most of the obstacles were water filled or involved going through, over or into water
This was experienced twice; the first time in cleanskin and the second time in patrol order with weapons. The course culminated in a jump from a thirty foot tower into a river. Machine guns firing live ammunition into adjacent pits and the discharge of smoke grenades and canisters added to combat realism. The course was timed but NCOs and officers were expected to assist those members of their sections who were experiencing difficulties.
The Obstacle Course was a series of large vertical man made and natural obstacles over a distance of approximately 800 meters. It commenced with a river crossing either using self made flotation devices or by the use of wire bridges. Obstacles included a variety of high log walls, a vertical cliff face which had to be climbed using bayonets stuck into the face of the wall and others. This was also a timed course but sections had to work as a team to be successful.
Weapon Handling and Shooting
Weapon handling included the teaching, revision and testing of all infantry section weapons including grenades, light anti tank weapons and Claymore mines; weapon firepower demonstrations and the firing of section weapons by day and night and the throwing of grenades, all on conventional and improvised jungle ranges. It also included endurance and shooting exercises which involved 5 kilometre runs in full battle order immediately followed by range shoots.
Map reading and navigation was revised, taught and practised. Navigation exercises were conducted by day and night and the a timed and scored orienteering course over a distance of some five kilometres was also conducted.
Fieldcraft and Living in the Field
Fieldcraft and living in the field was taught, demonstrated revised and practiced at all levels.
Infantry Minor Tactics
Infantry minor tactics was taught, revised, demonstrated revised and practiced at all levels. This included:
Ambushing by day and night, and
Counter MT ambush drills
This series of instruction culminated in the Battle Inoculation Range which involved section attacks on defended positions with blank rounds whilst Vickers machine guns fired live rounds overhead and explosive charges were fired on both sides of the attacking force and smoke grenades were detonated by Directing Staff.
Tested and Assessed Exercises
Two company sized exercises were then conducted in the border ranges astride the Queensland and New South Wales borders. The first exercise was normally at Levers Plateau and involved either being trucked or helicoptered into an RV and a long hard climb up to the plateau. Infantry minor tactics and navigation was revised and practised. The final exercise was conducted at the Wiangaree State Forest in dense rain forest which for most of the year was wet, hot, humid and muddy. Similar but more demanding field craft and tactics practiced at Levers Plateau were then conducted under test conditions and sub units and sub unit members were assessed and reported on.
Propensity for Injury
The propensity for injury was extremely high throughout every lesson, activity and exercise. Students of all ranks were required to run everywhere as soon as they alighted from the trucks on march in, even when receiving their initial Q issues. They were required to run between lesson stands over unmade roads, tracks and cross country; perform field craft, patrol over various terrains, jump from moving and static vehicles, jump from helicopters, endure confidence, obstacle and muscle toughening courses, swim, operate as an Infantryman by day and night regardless of weather or terrain whilst carrying their equipment and weapons with a combined weight of up to 25 kilogrammes (50lbs).
Injuries sustained ranged from death (one incident on the Confidence Course), fractures, strained ligaments and tendons, twisted ankles, strained spines, snake bite, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, spider and snake bites, burns, blisters, muscle fatigue, mental fatigue, hypothermia, hyperthermia, bruising, tinea, heat rash and extremes of all weather with temperatures ranging throughout the year from minus 2 degrees Celsius to plus 40 degrees Celsius. Oft times a particular BE course would endure temperatures well within those ranges.
The injury rate requiring medical treatment was as high as 20% on all BE courses. The non battle casualty rate for Infantry companies in South East Asia was also as high as 20%, that is, at least two soldiers per section would at any time, be left out of battle due to non battle injuries. There was nothing timid about the training or the effort required by students on a BE course and the stated purpose of the BE courses was that soldiers should experience conditions worse than active service. The motto,”Train Hard, Fight Easy” was never more aptly applied than at JTC.
JELLYBEANS IN THE JUNGLE (A SOLDIER’S MEMORIES OF JTC)
Like generations of diggers before us, our unit went through the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra in the Gold Coast hinterland. It would be more accurate to say that Canungra went through us. I had mixed feelings about the place prior to the exercise. On the one hand it was close to home for me, and there was the promise of leave afterwards; on the other, the place had a reputation amongst infantry soldiers as being the toughest (and best) jungle training centre in the world.
A Canungra mythology had developed over the years and we had heard plenty about its fearsome reputation since call up. This stage of our preparation was obviously considered important by the army brass. Much of what we’d heard was so farfetched as to be impossible, except in the fevered imaginations of some of the Infantry instructors we’d met, who used its threat to help keep us under the regimental thumb.
Some of the stories were bizarre. We heard about the cemetery visible on the way in, which was reputedly the last resting-place of many soldiers who had not survived the experience. Then there was the obstacle course, which sounded like a combination of the Somme and Lunar Park on a bad day. We were told about the live fire exercises which had reputedly claimed the lives of many careless diggers.
We embellished some of the stories ourselves. I can remember using my “knowledge” as a bushie from Queensland to terrorize a soldier from the western suburbs of Sydney about “Drop-Bears”. These mythical creatures were a species related to the Koala, that lived in a certain species of eucalypt found only at Canungra, and would drop without warning on unsuspecting diggers encamped in the scrub, crushing them. He was not sure whether to believe the story or not, but we noticed that he always took a good look before laying out a hootchie space to make sure there were no trees overhead. Eventually the section commander got wind of it and we had to desist. These days the myth is used to sell Rum on television.
In reality we were very fortunate to be exposed to what was probably the best jungle training available at that time anywhere in the world. Our section morale was good, due as much as anything else to the quiet and confident bearing of our West Indian section commander, who had a genuine concern for our well-being. We trusted him, as it was quite obvious that he had no agenda other than that of soldiering, and trying to skill the diggers under his command in staying alive. I wasn’t all that keen on soldiering, but staying alive was okay by me.
As a section, we competed for points in each of the instructional areas against the other sections in the platoon, the company, and the battalion. These included weapon handling, marksmanship, grenade courses, and many and varied assault courses. None of us achieved individual stardom, but we worked well together. We surprised ourselves (and everyone else) by scoring highest in the company in at least two areas.
The countryside in which we operated was absolutely beautiful with lush vegetation, breathtaking views and sombre rain forests. The beauty of the environment was wasted on us. We were simply too close to the ants, the leaches and the ticks, to be appreciative. I finished up with a tick engorging itself on the inside of my forearm. Whatever it injected into the wound was powerful, as the scar stopped itching three years later.
The Canungra exercise consisted of a few weeks of very intensive training in all aspects of the infantry soldiers’ craft and culminated in an exercise in the Wiangaree State Forest in the high country on the Queensland-New South Wales border. We were trucked in over spectacular roads, and set off on foot into some very impressive looking mountains, laden with all our usual military paraphernalia. There is an old saying - “Soldiers are for hanging things on”. It was accurate as applied to members of 7RAR in 1969 at Canungra.
Our arrival at Wiangaree coincided with the beginning of a good old-fashioned wet season. The insertion route we followed seemed to cross all the steep ridges at right angles, rather than traveling along them, as any sensible bushman would. We were after all, training to be soldiers, and the military sees terrain as either to be taken or crossed. We were obviously doing the second thing. It’s put me off bushwalking for life, as the mountainsides were steep and it was very difficult to make progress on the way up, let alone remain in control of progress on the way down. The weight of the gear we carried was always a factor.
I can remember skidding down one ridge on my backside when I lost my footing. I finished up passing our forward scout in a shower of mud and small sticks, and being told in no uncertain terms to stop and return to my formation. All I could do was to smile and wave as I slid past, until I was able to grab a sturdy tree branch on my way down the hillside. Again, military logic prevailed and my idea of waiting for everyone else to pass was not on. I had to climb up the slope, rejoin my section, and clamber down again to arrive at the spot where I started.
During this exercise, I was taken out of my rifle section and assigned to operate as platoon medic. This was because the Platoon Commander was not entirely sure what to do with me, as diggers with my attitude were always a problem and being kept closer to HQ meant that there was less potential for me to create problems. Also, he didn’t have to put up with a section commander incessantly moaning about me, and this was probably less stressful all round. It’s a bit like what I’ve frequently done as a teacher with problem students - you keep the problem under your nose to make it easier to manage.
Whatever the reason, I was platoon medic and, as such, assigned to carry the Paludrine. This stuff was a course of anti-malarial medication that each soldier had to take daily in tablet form. It was important, as any soldier who missed even one dose could become susceptible to malaria. It must operate in the same way as my youngest daughter’s asthma preventative; she needs only to miss it once or twice and it’s off to casualty with a bad case of the wheezes. Soldiers going down with malaria would be bad medicine indeed where we were going.
Given that we were in Australia, and that the drug was not available, some bright spark had substituted jellybeans and as platoon medic, I was assigned to carry them. This was okay by me because they weren’t heavy and no one counted them, so I was able to hook into the black ones every now and again without getting sprung.
I used to carry them in the thigh pocket of my greens, along with other bits and pieces. At every platoon harbour in the evening, I had to produce these jellybeans for the platoon sergeant at the Paludrine parade, and every digger would get a jellybean. No one noticed that there were no black ones. All went well until the third day of the exercise.
After a particularly arduous slog up and down the mountain all day in low cloud and drizzle, we harboured for the night. I remember that it wasn’t a very comfortable harbour as the ground was closer to 45º than horizontal. Finding somewhere to sleep without sliding down the ridge was a challenge. There was an argument between our platoon commander and an NCO acting as an umpire for the exercise. The platoon commander wanted a harbour position a little closer to the horizontal than the one the umpire selected. I was barracking for him.
We stood to, and I went across to the platoon sergeant for the pill parade. It wasn’t a bit funny to discover that the jellybeans were no longer in my greens. The sergeant had plenty to say, most of it referring both to my parents and my mental capacity, and most of it delivered in a kind of hoarse whisper, as we were supposed to be in enemy territory. I thought a lot about the bizarre nature of the exercise of grown men stomping through the rain forest carrying military hardware, blanks and jellybeans. I believed that he would have been entitled to whinge if I had lost something expensive like my SLR. Perhaps he was angry because he had become rather fond of jellybeans? I kept these thoughts to myself, having learnt long ago that this was probably not the time for witticisms.
Eventually, he ran out of breath and I was ordered to go back, retrace my steps and find the jellybeans. Now this in itself was probably not a good move from a tactical point of view. If we had been in real bandit country such as South Vietnam, a soldier going off by himself would constitute a “never happen” scenario. I seemed to be caught in some kind of twilight zone between a non-tactical situation (losing a packet of jellybeans) and the tactical imperative of maintaining the health of the platoon. In any case, the bizarre nature of my quest was taking over and I was having a lot of trouble taking the whole thing seriously. Moving at my own pace without full pack wasn’t difficult. There was about 45mins of daylight left.
I didn’t have far to go. About three hundred metres back along the track, I found the packet of jellybeans. I remembered a five-minute break, during which I’d noticed that the thigh pouch of my greens was open. I’d fastened the buttons without checking the contents.
There was probably an excuse for my inattention. I’d been wakened that morning by a fat leech making a meal of me. It had attached itself to a spot just above my right eye and there was blood everywhere. If I was off with the fairies, it was probably as a result of loss of blood.
By the time I found the packet, I was finding it difficult to keep a straight face, and had a hard time remaining appropriately serious when I reported my find to the sergeant, who mumbled something about what he was sure would become a very short military career if I went to Vietnam with my prevailing attitude. The thought of tromping through the rain forest looking for a packet of jellybeans still sounds bizarre.
One thing that was less amusing was being unable to vote in the 1969 federal election, which coincided with the end of our Canungra exercise. There was no transport available to get us to a polling booth, but we were told that we wouldn’t be fined for not casting a vote. Thinking about it now, I suppose that anyone daft enough to go looking for a packet of jellybeans in the jungle would be a bad risk in a ballot box.