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THE DAY I JOINED 161 BATTERY
by Mike Subritzky
I had been previously 'Called Up' on my 18th Birthday, and made (by law) to go into the Royal New Zealand Navy, completing a Navy Gunnery course at HMNZS Tamaki in 1970. I remember it like yesterday as HM Queen Elizabeth came to Devonport in about January and we fired a 21 Gun Salute in our No 6 uniform (our whites), which scared the hell out of hundreds of local Mollyhawkes that immediately rose in the air and crapped all over us. I remember too that I stood to attention for five hours and eight minutes on that day as HM was several hours late.
Shortly after that parade I was posted to HMNZS Kiama and went to sea as an Able Seaman, only to learn that my wife of three months (Marilyn), was three months pregnant...being typically Polish I had suggested that we have the 'Honey Moon' first, and then she go on the pill. I then learned from my Bosun that I had been chosen to go to the UK and uplift HMNZS Canterbury (a Leander Class Frigate); an excellent trip but it meant 18 months away from home, kith and kin. I decided to choose my family and so resigned from the RNZN after serving 3 years as a 'Rocky' (Territorial), and one year as an AB in the Regular Force of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
I was out of the Navy for about a week and then started to miss the life; however my eldest brother Dave, who had been a Gunner (61 LAA Bty) in the RNZA, back in the 50's convinced me that the Gunners were the way to go. So I filled in the papers and after a comedy of errors ended up at RF Depot, where I completed a recruit course under the watchful eye of Roger Newth and Jim Taituha. I was then sent on leave, and later posted to the famous 161 Battery.
My first day at 161 Battery began when I arose at 0530, dressed in the required jungle green uniform, then walked up to the main road of Devonport (I was still living within the required spitting distance of HMNZS Philomel), and hitchhiked through to Barrys Point Road, Grafton Bridge, and from there I got about three rides out to Walters Road which runs East to Papakura Military Camp. By now it was 0730 and I didn't know where the hell I was, and was starting to become concerned with the time frame.
I was walking along Walters road towards the Camp when a blue Volkswagen stopped beside me. Inside was Gunner Roley Flutey and his wife who was a female soldier. "Get In!" said Roley, as he shook my hand , and who I noted was wearing two Vietnam ribbons above the left pocket of his starched jungle greens. At Papakura Camp I tried to stay with Gunner Flutey, but he just pointed to a group of other Gunners and left me to it. I immediately noticed that out of a group of about 120 men, I was one of about three soldiers who were not wearing overseas ribbons.
Presently the Sergeants arrived and I noticed that the Sergeants shook the hands of many and all of the Gunners and Junior NCO's, who were gathered at the Southern end of the 'Gunners Lecture Room', beneath a large spreading tree. Inside of myself I was having very real problems trying to put this scene together. A Sergeant was the same rank as a Petty Officer and I had never seen a Petty Officer shake hands with a Gunner, or even a Killick (Leading Seaman)...so this was very different to the norm for me.
I was then introduced to Sergeant Noel Evans, Sergeant John Niwa and Sergeant Les 'Jacko' Jackson all of 'Left Section'. Each of these veterans shook my hand and welcomed me to 161 Battery. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. Then the officers arrived. About six of them, Lieutenants and Captains. Some Gunners they shook hands with, and some they actually hongied, Maori style. As an outsider, to witness the camaraderie between this elite group of men was something that I immediately knew, I was not personally part of. It was very obviously a comradeship that had been formed in blood in the jungles of South East Asia, and the Republic of South Vietnam.
We formed up in three sections and marched onto the parade ground where I (personally) halted to the regimental command, whilst everyone else in my section did a 'slide' halt. In due course the Battery Sergeant Major came out and did some serious yelling at us. He was a smooth looking Brit chap, apparently a lady killer from way back, and I was to learn that his name was 'Pooud Twang !' after the unusual way he gave the command for 161 Battery to come to attention. Presently a tall slim gentleman came onto the parade ground wearing a major's crown on each shoulder and the ribbon of the Military Cross above his left pocket. This chap was the Battery Commander, and he was referred to variously as 'Dad', 'Motherhen' and 'John Millbanks'.
After the parade was over, the BSM who I now learned was not Mr Pooud, but WOII Neville Fisher, introduced himself to me and extended his hand which I then very cautiously shook. He then took me into the Battery Commander's office which was at the very end of a long corridor which seemed to go on forever. When we finally arrived I was introduced to 'Motherhen', the officer who was wearing the Military Cross ribbon. His name was Major John Masters. He stood up from his desk, extended his hand and shook mine, saying "My name is John Masters, and I am the Battery Commander; welcome to 161 Battery".
I had just spent four years associated with the Royal New Zealand Navy and during that entire time I had never spoken to an officer, apart from once when I requested permission to be married, and on another occasion when I was charged for assaulting a certain Leading Seaman. So to actually have an officer speak to me personally was beyond my comprehension. It took me (an ex-navalman), a very long time to come to terms with the the statements made by John Masters that morning, and the very many kindnesses that I saw first hand from the officers, NCO's and men of 161 Battery.
All in all it taught me, a young man a very good lesson, one that has remained with me to this day.
Some 20 years later I finally marched off the 161 Battery Parade Ground for the very last time. There were three Gunners present on that parade who were wearing overseas ribbons; and I was one of them. Major Masters was right.
I guess that God created all men equal, but Gunners he made just a little more perfect.