Busby Briefs the Minister
In 1971, there were major political decisions being made related to a partial or full withdrawal of the Australian Force from South Vietnam. It had already been announced that 8RAR, the next battalion scheduled for rotation to 1ATF would not be sent. Public servants, government advisers and politicians were regular visitors to South Vietnam.
When I was told that the Minister for the Army would be visiting the Unit, I was pleased and looking forward to seeing him. I had met him on occasion, at briefings and lunches, during the previous couple of years in Malaysia and Singapore. He was a young man of about my age, had read engineering at Melbourne Uni and also had young daughters. I found him open, knowledgeable and charming. I thought that, with his easy manner, a visit by him he would be good for morale.
I asked the Unit for a special effort to make his visit interesting and informative and made provision for him to chat with as many soldiers as possible.
When he arrived I was surprised to see that, rather than wearing uniform, he was elegantly dressed with a crisp white fitted shirt, open necked, with sleeves folded to mid forearm, expensive silver grey slacks and highly polished town shoes. He was his usual charming self, but, for some reason, kept delaying the start the briefing although he was on a tight schedule.
What I didn't know was that his visit was also being covered by the American CBS Television Network and they were late. He and his minders seemed to see it as a publicity exercise. This was evident by the way conversations were abruptly broken off as soon as the cameras moved. This quickly generated disquiet throughout the Unit.
One of the major programs the Unit had in hand was the upgrading of M113 armoured personnel carriers which consisted of cutting out an internal wall forming part of the integral fuel cell and installing a modular steel tank. A welder was used to cut the armoured aluminium plate, creating smoke, heat, noise and a spectacular shower of sparks in the process. It was even more spectacular if there happened to be traces of diesel fuel in the tank when cutting started. It could be dangerous requiring an offsider with an extinguisher to watch and douse any fires that occurred. To reduce the danger, precautions were taken to reduce the fuel presence before starting the operation
When we reached the Welding Section, Frank Busby, the Sergeant Welder, briefly explained what they did, and, observing that he had been told that the Minister was an engineer, invited him to see how armoured aluminium was cut.
Unfortunately this was accepted eagerly. The Minister was offered full body leather apron and shield. He declined. I told him that he would have to watch from a distance and use a face mask. Not pleased, he said he would stand beside the Sergeant, near the carrier, to better see but a face mask would be enough. I was in the middle of refusing when I was stopped by an Aide who suggested that the operation proceed.
On the nod, Sgt Busby ordered, "Masks Up! Hit it!" With that the welder struck his arc and what followed was like the attack of a medievil dragon; with a great whooshing sound, flames, sparks and smoke belched forth from the interior of the carrier, almost engulfing the Minister.
The Minister had been slow to raise his mask. Not only were his clothes spotted with spark burns but his face and forearms were showing signs of radiation burn. In every likelihood his eyes would feel gritty by the next day.
While I glared, a nonchalant Busby responded to questions about the working conditions, "Yeah Mate, It is always like this. Alright if you know what you're doing."
I got hold of Frank on his own as soon as I could asking what the *&***#! hell he thought he was doing. His reply, something on these lines was,
"Come on Boss! He wanted to see it. If he wouldn't wear the proper gear is that my fault? He's an engineer. Anyway he wouldn't get really hurt. We had an extinguisher trained on him. Apart from the fancy gear he'll be alright in a couple of days. I don't know what you are worried about. You said you wanted something special and I reckon we gave it to him, don't you?"