W3 Company - 'Voices from Vietnam'
CHAPTER 33: A LITTLE AUSSIE BATTLER ON THE KIWI HOME FRONT
Wife of Lieutenant R.N. (Rob)1 Upton Whisky 3 (1969)
The night had been unusual in that Scruffy had been unsettled. Rhonda had done nothing different; she had locked up after the dog had had his pee outside, climbed the stairs, locked the bedroom door and retired. All seemed normal. She had woken at 2:00 am to find Scruffy patrolling the room and sniffing at the door. He seemed eager to get out; perhaps his bladder was playing up? So she unlocked the door to the balcony outside the bedroom and let him out onto the small landing, which overlooked the two spiraling flights of stairs down to the main entrance. The dog did not descend the stairs, but continued his patrol around the upper balustrade grumping and growling over the edge. She ‘whissst’ him back into the bedroom, locked the door again and flopped back into bed.
At daybreak, Rhonda, with Scruffy at her heel, danced down the internal stairs and saw the light, brighter than usual, flick lines across her spotless tiled floors as she went. The air smelled fresh that morning; all seemed right enough with the world. As she descended the last two steps in the lounge, her pace slowed and she stared at, and right through, her front door. Where the frosted glass panes had been the evening before, now there was nothing. She could see out into the morning and the wide-open spaces beyond her front gate. The door glass had been neatly removed with a glasscutter, and the middle of the three door locks (the two others were set top and bottom of the frame) had been undone. She shivered at the thought of what had happened; someone had attempted a break-in. Perhaps it had been Scruffy’s brief, snarling patrol of the upper floor at 2 o’clock that had disturbed the intruders and deterred them from entry. Who would know?
Dutifully she called the Police, the Army, and her landlord and reported the incident. The Police came and questioned her, dusted the door for prints and went away. The landlord, Mr Zhang, was more concerned and enquiring. ‘Whera yor husban’, Missis?’ ‘He’s away’, Rhonda replied cautiously. ‘His away, oh no, whera he go?’ the excited man continued. ‘He’s in Vietnam, he left in November.’ The landlord then revealed his theory of the night’s events; ‘Ah. Husban’ gone. Oh no, Nowemba. Wife alone. Not good. See, workman nex’door; they see you lady, no man. See you come, see you go, no man. So they think, ah, Chinese New Year, they come rob you.’ Rhonda was hardly relieved at this analysis of the crime, but she had the door repaired. She heard no more from the Police or the concerned Mr Zhang.
The New Year break-in was just one price that Rhonda Upton, young war bride of the 60s, had to pay for her lonely existence on the Home Front while her husband was away on operations in Vietnam with Whisky 3 (W3) Company in the period November 1969-November 1970.
1 His RMC and army colleagues knew Robert Upton most commonly as ‘Bob’, but Rhonda always referred to him as ‘Rob’ in deference to his mother’s insistence that he be called ‘Robert”.
The Romantic Path to
Theirs was a long courtship. They saw each other very occasionally, but regularly wrote letters and phoned each other for over three years. The romance blossomed and came to fruition with their marriage after Rob’s graduation in December 1967. Had marriage not been a prospect, Rhonda had planned a clerical career with the New South Wales Police. She had completed a qualification at a Secretarial College after leaving school. Secretly, she had held ambitions to become a teacher, but had met resistance to that idea from her mother, who did not wish to see her youngest child travel far away from home to attend teachers college. As it happened, Mrs Southgate was to lose her daughter to an even more distant destination and she was not too keen on that move either. To make the matter more problematic for her Mum, Rhonda’s father passed away, after a long battle with cancer, just three weeks before the wedding. The wedding went ahead, but it seemed more like a wake than a celebration for the Southgate family. But, at least, it had proceeded with her father’s blessing. Rhonda stayed in Sydney to comfort and help her mother for a few weeks into 1968, while Rob returned to New Zealand. He had to attend the infantry young officers course for a few weeks in Waiouru, and then make housing arrangements for the couple in Christchurch.
When she eventually did arrive in New Zealand, the chill of a Canterbury autumn was in the air. Rhonda and Rob did not have any points to rate them a place on the list for a house on Burnham Camp. So, they had to rent accommodation in Christchurch. The rental for their house in St Albans, the running costs for the car (albeit a second hand Mini imported from Australia) and the cost of living essentials, added up to an amount greater than Rob’s salary as a lieutenant. The young couple often drew on savings to make ends meet. Things became a little easier once a house was available for them at Burnham in July 1968, or did they?
We moved out to Burnham in July, mid-winter. Coming from semi-tropical Sydney, I had never struck anything like the (cold) weather in the South Island. The house we had was not much comfort; even though it was carpeted, it was the coldest house I have ever lived in. When the wind blew, the carpet lifted off the floorboards. Ice formed on the INSIDE of the windows in a frost. I shuddered just at the thought of having to go out in the icy weather to hang the washing on the line.
This was the first time that I also really felt the chill of being lonely. Rob was around quite a bit with his job at National Service, but he was also away on exercise regularly. I was heart-broken every time he went away. I was so lonely. I’d cry every time he left Burnham. Silly me! I got tougher later on. It wasn’t that I was totally on my own in the community. There was another Aussie girl across the road and I got to know her and many of the other neighbours. Most of them had relations close by. But I had no immediate personal network at all. All my family members were in Australia and Rob’s folks and sister lived up in Nelson. I was new to the Army and knew next to nothing about the military. I did not drive in those days; I did not have my licence. Now and again the major’s wife would have us all over for morning tea, and I busied myself, with the household duties, baking to fill the tins, knitting, reading and gardening. Those things helped to fill in the days, but nothing could console me through the lonely nights. I wrote letters home to Aussie every week; I wrote to all my sisters and to Mum separately so I would receive a stack in return. Then I could phone once in a while although the cost of trunk calls was exorbitant.
the Far East
I can remember the excitement of the posting to Malaysia when the Movements Officer came round and sat at my kitchen table taking notes for our move. We needed passports, inventories of the household goods, tickets, medical shots etc. You did not need a passport for travel between Aussie and New Zealand in those days, so I never had one. The time came round quickly, and we moved to Terendak in August 1969. We knew when we arrived that it was going to be a short-lived experience. Everything in the garrison was closing down and we would be gone inside three months. People told us how grand the place used to be, but already you could see signs of neglect and disinterest as the closing date neared. Many of the houses around us were empty and the grass was getting long. Most services were still running and I could use the pool and NAAFI2 . Rob was away even more in Malaysia than he had been in Burnham. He’d be out for a week or ten days in the bush then home for two or three days. He’d just have time to get all his gear cleaned before he was off again. At least, in Terendak, I had Ah Yong, the amah3, for company. The trouble with the amah system was that it took away some of the things that used to keep me busy. Ah Yong did all the cooking, washing, ironing and housework. She was that good she could even look after Rob’s jungle equipment, his webbing. He was aghast at first. But, when she had it all stripped, cleaned and assembled exactly right the first time, she had the job for good.
2 NAAFI = Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes; the armed forces canteen service of British origin.
3 ‘amah’ = female domestic servant or wet nurse, especially in India and the Far East. From the Portuguese ‘ama’ = nurse and the Latin ‘amma’ = mother.
With her more relaxed life style in Terendak Garrison, Rhonda Upton became to feel as if she was a tourist on a three-month holiday. Ah Yong had taken care of all the household duties and there was no garden to tend as such. Rhonda had taken her knitting, but was even foiled with her attempts at that hobby because the wool rotted in the hot, humid tropical air. She filled her time with swimming, going to the cinema, hosting the dressmaker who would call at the house for fittings and shopping at the local market place. She met a good friend in Chris Keay, who joined in these tourist activities with her.
Time came to move to Singapore. The move was to take place just one week before the men of W3 were to deploy to Vietnam. Rob and Rhonda would spend their last week in each other’s company setting up a new house in another strange place, then he would be gone for twelve months. The house was packed up in Terendak and the Upton's were flown to their new abode in November 1969. The group of married personnel was not a large one, but there was not enough space in one garrisoned location to accommodate all the officers’ families on the one site. They were spread across the city. They felt, and were, extremely isolated from each other. The size, quality and rent of married quarters were determined according to Army rank and family size. The Upton's, being at lieutenant level and without children, would have expected a modest but comfortable dwelling. The house they were taken to was in what was known as ‘a very swish part of town’ in a new development at Mt Sinai. They thought they had been given the wrong house; such was the degree to which it exceeded their humble expectations. The door was opened on their first visit to reveal a brand new, three-bedroom, three storey dwelling. The builders had only finished work a few weeks before and had left behind the usual collection of unswept workmen’s dross all around the floors and shelves of the house. The Uptons had to wade through piles of dust, shavings, cigarette butts and empty drink bottles, which had all accumulated around the brand new furniture and appliances, still wrapped in plastic and stacked in every room. The Army had supplied some household items like crockery, cutlery and linen, and these were heaped upon the dining table. Rather than a week of consolation and fond farewells, Rhonda’s and Rob’s five days of pre-embarkation leave were spent sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and packing away household goods. They also had to attend to the administrative aspects of domestic life in Singapore. They had to organise mail delivery, telephone and power connections, property insurance and the like, all of which meant hours of waiting in office queues at the beck and call of Singaporean bureaucracy. The jobs were all done in five days, the time flew; and then he was gone. This time she did not even have an amah for company, nor were there any neighbours to talk to. Rhonda was alone again, and the blues returned.
I had gone
the edge of
thinking about Rob
down my cheeks; I must
have made a sorry sight. After a while, some Brit Army
guy came by. He and his
family lived over the back of our street. He was
driving past in
kindly invited me
for him to do. They were in the process of packing up to return to
the UK, but they still made time
for me just when I really needed some
I eventually did get some nice neighbours. They were a Canadian couple in the block next to ours in the complex, only about 30 feet away. Ellen was an older lady and she took me under her wing; she treated me like her daughter. Curly worked on the oil rigs and was away a bit too. Ellen took me shopping and out to dinner even when Curly came home. They were my saviours. After the break-in, I bought a telephone set from a department store in town, and Ellen and I rigged it up across the gap between our third- storey bedrooms. (There were no phone jacks upstairs.) We had our own security intercom and that was some comfort to us both.
He picked me up in a Land Rover and drove me around seven or eight houses across Singapore. The only one that meant anything to me was in Nee Soon. I had heard of Nee Soon because some of the other girls lived there and I knew it was a relatively safe garrison environment, so if I was to have to move, I would choose there. I was shown a ‘split’. This was a house of very basic but functional design; it was a single storey bungalow, behind the Officers Mess and it had amah’s quarters attached.4 I told the guy that I’d have the split and he agreed. Two days later he rang and said someone else had been allocated that house and that I would have to choose another. I told him I’d think about it. It was coming up to Christmas time and the major rang back to ask what I would most like for Christmas. I told him I’d like Rob to come home, but he said that was not possible. He then told me the good news was that I could stay in Mt Sinai.
4 The split house was actually an architectural blunder turned to a useful purpose. The design was meant to be double storey. But the builders’ drawings showed the two levels side-by-side in plan view; so that is how they were built by the local construction company – on a single level, side-by-side with a short staircase in between.
A View of the Vietnam
War from the Home
Rhonda Upton had an inkling about the nature of the work that Rob would be doing, but she did not know or understand the detail. Nor was Rob about to enlighten her. Upton was the kind of man who avoided telling his wife much about Army operations. He thought she was better off not knowing; what she did not know could not worry her. His decision was motivated, partly by the operational security aspects of his job, and partly by the desire not to put Rhonda in any position where she might become embroiled in the often inaccurate and unsavoury rumour mill that could be rife among Army wives. The rumour mill would take on second or third hand reports of incidents, then grind them into garbled nonsense that did nothing at all for morale in the front line or back home. Rhonda was better off out of the process.
But for all her ignorance of the detail of the Vietnam War, as it might have affected her and her family, Rhonda did nothing to deter Rob from his chosen career or operational purpose as an infantry officer. Whatever he did, wherever he went, he did and went with her absolute blessing and support. She was saddened by the news of his colleagues killed or wounded in action; she just hoped and prayed that such tragedies would not strike her or her loved ones. Ultimately, in her pragmatic, down-to-earth Aussie way, she resigned herself to the fact that Rob did what he had to do and that she would be there for him. If he wanted to spend his working hours plodding around the bush, thirsty, hungry, dirty and smelly, sleeping on the ground, being bitten by all manner of bugs and grubs, ‘Good luck to him!’
Support Networks – or
1968 Vespa Sprint, of the type Rhonda rode pillion to Chris Keay around the streets of Singapore
Apart from the monthly club meetings, Rhonda found the support network in Singapore to be fairly flimsy. The official (Army) support system was about as stout as the elastic on Chinese panty hose. The Chaplain used to visit every Tuesday to deliver the mail, which had arrived at the Headquarters through official channels. But the Man of God was about the only Army representative to appear in the lives of those on the Home Front. Now and again, an officious Housing Officer would come to carry out an inventory check and inspection of the property. The bulk of the support network was self-help and was largely arranged by well-meaning and enthusiastic civilians. Chris Keay somehow conned Rhonda into joining the Maori Cultural Group. The group met from one o’clock to three-thirty pm every Wednesday, and for two hours on a Saturday morning. Apart from these regular practice sessions, there were often performances booked somewhere in Singapore or Johore on a Friday or Saturday night. Rhonda became the little Aussie alto in the back row, and lent the gusto of her traditional ‘Home Among the Gum Trees’ to the ‘Pokarekare ana’ chorus line, complete with piupiu and poi.
The mail was a vital element in the support system for most women like Rhonda Upton. Rhonda kept a diary and wrote every day to her man away in the fields of combat to the north. She felt it not only her family duty to write, but also saw the letters as her contribution to the support of Rob’s morale.
well as a diary, I used to mark
off the calendar with the number of
days- to-go before Rob was to come home. But, I’d write religiously
I’d tell him
met. I’d tell
that there was much he would request. Apparently, he didn’t need much
in the bush with W3; it seemed
to be a very bland existence.
I did not receive much back in return for all my writing. I would often wait for days for any news from him. And then it would be four pages of hastily scribbled text on the Army field notepad paper that was lined with little grid squares. He told me nothing about operations in the letters, nothing about the enemy, and nothing much about his mates. Often the envelope would contain small pieces of twigs or leaves from the bush and even the odd leg or thorax of a small Vietnamese insect. I loved receiving his mail all the same, although I didn’t keep any of the letters.
The Army in Vietnam ran a most welcome Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leave scheme for Kiwi soldiers. A number were able to go to Singapore on RNZAF flights that plied the skies between Singapore and Vietnam weekly. Rob Upton made it back to Rhonda twice for R&R breaks; the first was in April 1970 and the second was in August. The R&R time should have been very happy affairs for the reunited couples. Rhonda looked forward to the homecomings immensely. The April break was not an entirely happy occasion because of a tragedy that had befallen close friends of the Upton's in Singapore. The friends, a colleague of Rob’s from RMC days and his Aussie wife, had arranged a christening ceremony and celebration for the period Rob was home on leave. But, tragically, the baby died beforehand and the Upton's had to attend a funeral instead. Rhonda was saddened to see the tiny (18-inch) white coffin carried by a soldier on one shoulder, and to witness the cries of the distraught parents. On a happier note, the August R&R had infant-related implications for the Upton's too, although unbeknown to Rob.
When he’d returned to Vietnam after the second R&R, I found out I had fallen pregnant. We had enjoyed a great few days together shopping, touring, dining out and hitting the nightclubs. I had also bought a mah- jongg set; after that, it seemed whenever I played mah-jongg I fell pregnant. I always blamed the mah-jongg. Anyway, I was pregnant, but Rob did not know. I didn’t tell him either, I didn’t want him to worry. I was anxious enough about it, but I consoled myself with the belief that, should something untoward happen to Rob, I would always have something of his. I was able to keep the news from him until he came home in November; and he did come home so all was well.
Policeman: ‘You live in Singapore, how long?’
Rhonda: ‘Yes, about six months.’
Policeman: ‘Where is your husband?’
Rhonda: ‘He is serving in Vietnam for 12 months.’
Policeman: ’12 months. He gone too long. Maybe you live single life, married no more? You have own home?’
Rhonda: (Thinking) ‘What the hell is this to do with the accident? Where is this going?’
Policeman: ‘Are you on the Pill?’
Rhonda: (Shocked) ‘And what is that to do with you?’
Policeman: ‘I think, maybe, I come and visit you!’
Rhonda: (Not thinking) ‘If you come visiting me, Mate, I’ll call the Police!’ (‘Hey, hang on, you ARE the Police.’)
The implication for Rhonda was that if she did not do what the Policeman asked, things could be bad for her friend. She had, for the first time, run up against corrupt and unsavoury practices in Asian society, and she had to deal with them alone. She extricated herself with honour in due course, and she learned that the child was fine. Nothing more came of the incident, although the Vespa riders were warned not to visit the child or her family, and were told that calls to the Chinatown district might not be wise.
As a treat to celebrate the homecoming, the Upton's took themselves off for a week’s luxury at Runnymede, the military-run government guesthouse in Penang. Runnymede had been the 19th century home of Stamford Raffles, boasted pleasant seafront views and presented a very British service. Unfortunately, Rob Upton, after week-upon-week in the Vietnamese jungle living on Army rations, was not quite ready for luxury. Rhonda found him to be in a shocking state as he ‘came down’ from Vietnam. He suffered shivering and shaking through the night and could not eat breakfast. He would wake up suddenly with a shout in the middle of the night and leap up off the bed. He would talk extensively in his sleep and often engage Rhonda in precise repeat sessions of conversations the couple had had during the previous day. Rhonda put up with all this, after all she was glad to have him back.
Shades of the Raj: the Runnymede guesthouse
The Upton's moved house once more in Singapore, when, in about August 1971, they left Mt Sinai for Seletar camp. They remained at Seletar through to October 1971 after a tour of duty that was extended to permit Rob’s participation in the presentation of new Colours to 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (1RNZIR) on 25 September that year. But, after that final ceremonial fling, Rhonda returned with husband and daughter back to New Zealand. Upon her return, she remained singularly unimpressed with the standard of support offered and provided by the New Zealand Army to wives and families. The family arrived in Auckland for Rob’s posting to be told they could have one night at public expense in a motel in Epsom. There was no cot for baby Kylie, so, one had to be borrowed from an older Army major who knew Rob’s father well. Again, only the informal, unofficial network was available to assist. Furthermore, despite arrangements that had been made back in Singapore, there was no house allocated to the Upton's in Auckland, and their New Zealand house pack was still in the South Island. Rob had to seek out a house to rent from the state housing pool, and they managed to set themselves up temporarily with an issue of two-of-everything from Army Stores. The house had no curtains; Rhonda, as resourceful as ever, secured the family’s privacy by fixing grey army blankets over the windows with the baby’s nappy safety pins.
After that unimpressive return to New Zealand, Rhonda Upton dutifully followed her husband around New Zealand and beyond through his Army career that eventually spanned over 25 years. She bore four children in all, and was mother and father to them all as Rob became more senior and more dedicated to his work. She moved house seventeen times in 25 years, and settled her children into numerous schools along the way. Kylie, for one, attended three secondary schools to complete her education through the Army’s posting cycles for her father. In some kind of ironic twist of fate, Rhonda returned to Singapore for another posting, between 1985 and 1987, when Rob took over as Commanding Officer of 1RNZIR. Rhonda became the colonel’s wife and had to orchestrate events for the Wives Club as the lady in the big house at 3 Mount Road Nee Soon had done for her nearly 20 years before.
Rhonda’s career was as a professional parent; she did it all. She chose her children and her family above all else, and did not contemplate re-entering the workplace herself until Rob had left the Army and the children had finished their schooling. When she did seek a working life outside the home, she found that her 1960’s secretarial skills were a little outdated. People could not even spell P.I.T.M.A.N. for shorthand in the 1990s, let alone use it in the office. So, she offered the rest home industry the skills she had developed as a wife and mum; she became a cook at St Helena’s Care Centre in Christchurch. Her culinary success in preparing meals for large groups proved as popular with her rest home clients as they had done with her hungry family. Rest homes seeking relieving cooks clamoured for her services. But, as a grandmother, she applied the same principles to her later life as she had done as a young wife and mother - ‘Family First’.