John Joss – Vietnam veteran, long-serving Parade College teacher and recently-named Honorary Old Paradian – has splendidly reflected on his life and times as Guest Speaker of the Old Paradians’ Association’s monthly luncheon at Bourke Street’s RACV City Club.
In rare form at the podium, John talked of his life’s journey before an audience of around 70 people – most of them Old Paradians and some of them - like Paul McCrohan OAM and Kevin Pilkington - veterans of the Vietnam conflict.
In acknowledging the veterans’ presence, John noted: “I must admit that I am just a minnow compared to some of these gentlemen and what they went through”.
“These men saw more action than I did and they were more involved more in the war than what I was, so they are far and above what I achieved,” John said.
“To draw an analogy, I suspect that if Hollywood was to churn out a film of the military lives of each one of these people, they’d probably enlist the services of John Wayne or Lee Marvin to play the parts. If they did the same for me I’d suspect Benny Hill or Groucho Marx would cop the part.”
In acknowledging the presence of fellow veterans and representatives of the RSL, John commended the association’s growth in raising the profile of those Old Paradians who had fought for their country in all conflicts.
He also acknowledged the interest of Old Paradians such as Craig Sandford, a former student now domiciled in London, who recently took it upon himself to visit and photograph the gravesites on the Western Front of fellow Old Boys who lost their lives in World War I.
Having registered for National Service, John got a call-up for the first National Service intake, but as he was half way through a teacher training course, he was permitted to defer until he completed the course and a year’s teaching, at Maryborough High School.
“Did I want to go to Vietnam and did I want to complete national service? The answers to those two questions are totally opposite,” John said.
“In terms of national service, 97 per cent of me said ‘no’, with three per cent of me saying ‘it won’t hurt you, go and do it’. My father had enlisted during World War II and while he didn’t go overseas he was an anti-aircraft instructor in Townsville.”
Having deferred from national service for more than three years, “they finally caught up with me, and it was with some trepidation I suppose that I fronted up to the Swan Street barracks at the end of January 1969, not knowing what to expect”.
“Anyway, I got to Swan Street with my Gladstone bag, and was told ‘Welcome to the Army, it’s a pleasure to have you’ and I perked up a bit as I got on the bus to Puckapunyal,” John said.
“But as soon as I got off the bus it was on for young and old. Anybody who stood out a little bit copped it from the time they got out, in those days I had a fair head of snowy hair and unfortunately nobody told me that I should have got it cut – hence ‘get your hair cut you blond-headed so and so’ was a constant theme.
John was to have committed to the cause as a teacher in New Guinea, “which was out of Australia and not in a war zone, which suited me down to the ground”.
Instead he was stationed at Singleton where he was subjected to various operations in bitterly cold conditions, then Ingleburn and finally to the dreaded jungle training facility in Canungra, Queensland.
“We have an Old Paradian to blame for that, Ted Serong,” John dryly suggested. “He was one of the early people in Vietnam and he could see that Australia needed a jungle training camp.”
John was then relocated back to Ingleburn and by then he knew it was only a matter of time before Vietnam beckoned.
“We’re talking 50 years ago so the memory’s a little hazy, but I quite enjoyed it up at Canungra and then Ingleburn. I then got leave and was sent home for three or four days to say goodbye to my parents in the knowledge that I would be off.”
John and a group of other fellow Australian soldiers jetted out of Mascot Airport at around ten o’clock one evening – at about the time anti-war protests were gathering momentum.
“That’s why we left late and at short notice, so as not to give the protesters any time to assemble,” he recalled, or that’s what they were told.
John’s flight stopped to refuel in Darwin, during which time nature called.
“I went to the urinal and there standing beside me was Johnny O’Keefe, the wild one,” he said.
“Johnny was a member of a concert party heading over there to do some gigs for the troops. Meeting him and having a yarn to him was about the only excitement I had for the trip.”
John’s plane touched down in Saigon in August ’69. He alighted from the aircraft and was immediately hit with an oppressive heat, the likes of which he’d never before experienced.
Records reveals that Lance-Corporal John Joss served in the Royal Australian Infantry Corps – with 1 Australian Reinforcement Unit from August 20 to September 2, 1969 and later the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, from September 3 to March 5, 1970.
As a reinforcement, John was called upon to cover the losses of those killed or wounded in action, “but in reality I became a spare parts man”.
“In the end, I was told: ‘Joss, you are a schoolteacher – one of our company office staff has gone back to Australia on R and R – we want you to take over – just follow your nose’,” he said. “I suppose they weren’t going to give me a machine gun for fear I’d collapse under the weight of it.”
John remembered having to man the observation posts which stood some 15 metres off the ground. He’d fulfil these duties at two-hour intervals, the worst from one to three am. Another requirement was riding shotgun for any outgoing trucks or jeeps, “which meant you’d sit up front trying to look important with your rifle across your knee, looking for any impending attacks”.
“Had we been attacked by a Vietnamese farmer on one water buffalo I would have backed myself in. Had we been attacked by two Vietnamese farmers on two water buffaloes I reckon I’d still have been in front. With three I reckon Sportsbet might have given me even money to survive,” John said.
“So you can see now why I am just a minnow compared with the veterans over here.”
Whilst in Vietnam, John not surprisingly sourced the local SP bookmaker, and towards the end of his stint backed half a dozen winners.
“I remember placing the bets on a Saturday and thinking this would do me for when I got home to Australia the following Tuesday,” John said.
“Now being the shonky bookmaker that you expect him to be, he realised that if he went underground for a few days, Joss would be on the plane home and minus the cash – and as much as I tried, I couldn’t locate the bloke anywhere.
“So if anyone knows of the SP bookmaker who operated in Vietnam, he owes me about three and a half million dong.”
John returned to Australia on the HMAS Sydney safe and sound – which perhaps explains his long-held belief in divine intervention, based on his parents’ deeply religious beliefs.
“They believed that the power of prayer could fix anything and that remained in the back of my mind because I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” John said.
On his return, John completed a six-month stint at Holsworthy Barracks. The education department then allocated him a teaching role at Moreland High School, which brought him in contact with “a few left disenchanted staff” who made remarks re Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.
“A few comments were made which at the time I took fairly seriously,” John said.
“But when I look back on it now I think to myself, ‘Jossy, how soft and fragile were you to react to those comments when there wasn’t really much in them at all’.”
In early 1972, after a year’s stint at Moreland High School, John parted company with the school and holidayed at his parents’ farm at Mathoura in New South Wales. Whilst there, he was summoned to the phone by his father “who said ‘Oh there’s a Brother Greening on the phone – he wants you to go on a parade, or something or other’”.
“The telephone conversation went along the lines of ‘Hi John, this is Brother Bill Greening from Parade College. We believe you’re not happy with the education department and we would like you to come and teach at Parade’,” John said.
“So began a 30-year stint at Parade which I have never regretted. It was a great 30 years and I couldn’t have enjoyed it any better. I had six headmasters, all with one thing in mind – the welfare of the boys – and I feel very sorry for what they have had to put up with over the past decade
Old Paradian Ray Hangan (1950) capably served as Master of Ceremonies at the luncheon and amongst those in the audience were Stefan Kos (1980), Tim Livy (1987) and Peter Cosgriff (1985), together with Alistair Wenn (1987) and the College Captain of 1965 Mike O’Meara OAM.
The Old Paradians’ Association Luncheon, a Melbourne institution since 1936, is held every second Wednesday of the month at the RACV City Club Melbourne.
The association encourages any Old Paradian working in the city to spare an hour to support the Luncheon and keep the flame aflicker. Guest Speaker at the next Luncheon is Noel Vincent (1963), who will discuss Parade’s support of the less fortunate through its successful Brekky Van initiative, while Michael Donato, the College Captain of 2017, will also be in attendance.