It was always going to be an ambitious project that the Australian Army Apprentices Association (AAAA) first embarked upon in 2010 when it turned its attention on the original home of the Army Apprentices School at Balcombe in Victoria. From those who had visited in recent times, there was a feeling that more could be done so that the military significance of the area could be improved and preserved for future generations.
Much has been written about the history of the military area that lies just south of the town of Mornington on the Mornington Peninsula, a premier district of Victoria. Though in most instances it had been done very well but it didn’t have a sharp focus on the camp and its military tenants, was easily available to the curious. Thus the project known as Balcombe Gates was born.
The AAAA established a sub-committee comprising Barry Teal (10th Clerk), Geoff Martin (2nd VM) and Jack Westernhagen (3rd VM) and they made contact with the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council (MPSC) and other Associations of the Balcombe units to determine if they were interested in being a part of a heritage project. Enthusiastic replies were received from all. They also approached the 1st Div USMC Association and their prompt response was to despatch their Association Secretary to come to Australia and check it out.
The result was the establishment of a working committee in mid-2010, chaired by Barry with MPSC, Schools of Signals, Survey and Music, and AAAA reps. Good planning work was done until personal circumstances beset the AAAA reps around mid-2011 and they were unable to continue. As the AAAA was the driving force, the project stalled due to the focus on the Apprentices Together reunion to occur in Canberra in October 2011.
With that successful event out of the way, the President initiated reactivation of the Balcombe Gates job. A new sub-committee was formed comprising Lucas McGann (35th Elec Fitter), Peter Muir (25th VM) and myself.
What followed was months of planning interspersed with meetings with MPSC and other interested parties. In essence, Peter Muir took on the engineering works component whilst I saw the opportunity for a reunion of Balcombe soldiers, male and female together with the civilian staff. The Balcombe Barracks Commemoration 2013 event was created and rescheduled for 3 to 5 May 2013.
The date selected was significant: the Battle of the Coral Sea commenced on 4 May 1942, the US Marines arrived at Balcombe 70 years earlier in 1943 and AAS, the last of the four post-WW2 training units, departed Balcombe 30 years earlier in 1983.
The question asked in the early stages by MPSC was how many would attend. Wanting to secure their maximum involvement, I optimistically advised that we should cater for numbers in the range of 500- 700. This raised a few eyebrows around the table but, as it turned out, was almost right on the money.
Peter Muir had very busy days in the final months or so with coordinating the works program. This involved almost constant liaison with MPSC engineers and their contractors. He gave of his own time and worked tirelessly at all hours to ensure the desired result was achieved. All this whilst attending to his own daily professional chores. He also played a big role in the preparation, wording and layout of the storyboards and plaques. Mention here is appropriate of Norm Wells (14th VM) for his wording of the Army Apprentices School storyboard, and collating of the School of Survey board. Peter and Norm prepared the general Balcombe units board, and this was no small task either. Bob Ludlow (13th Elec Mech), in keeping with his keen interest in the Pacific War, prepared the USMC board assisted by Peter and Norm. So it was a case of many hands making light work.
The weekend was built around a Meet and Greet on 3 May at the Mornington Racing Club (MRC), which was our principal reunion venue. It kicked off about 3 pm with an 8 pm conclusion. By that time, all of the administration matters were attended to, refreshments were enjoyed, and blotting paper in the form of tasty and plentiful snacks was eagerly consumed.
Saturday morning saw the return of the administration element of Jeff (21st Radio Mech) and Jan Heron for the late registrations, which were many. At the same time, the Dinner tables were set up with an almost continual change of seating plan and catering numbers as the late registrations came in.
Saturday afternoon had us all assembled out at Balcombe Grammar School (BGS) with many locals from the Mornington Peninsula. The Principal kindly offered the School facilities for the Commemoration ceremony considering many aspects of the gathering but mainly the unpredictable weather at that time of the year. We conducted a symbolic unveiling of the plaques and storyboards indoors in the School gymnasium.
The final address was given by the Principal and, on completion of the ceremony, he invited the gathering to afternoon tea prepared by the domestic science students in the assembly hall. We were hosted by the senior students throughout the day. It was most impressive the way the Principal, Matthew Dodd, and the students created such a welcoming atmosphere for we older graduates of the Balcombe precinct.
The former AAS parade ground now boasts high quality storyboards and plaques for the four major Australian training units, the 1st Div USMC and the lesser-known minor units of which over the years there were many.
On the evening of Saturday 4 May, we were back at the MRC for the Reunion Dinner. From the start of the evening to the finish it was judged a roaring success. The highlight of the evening revolved around our Marine Corps veteran. Bob Ludlow recited a poem that he had written for the occasion entitled “The Old Breed” which is how the 1st USMC Division describe themselves. Bob signed all 100 copies that he prepared and which were snapped up by the audience.
He then went on to introduce LtCol John Stevens, 1st Div USMC (retired), together with his wife Jody who honoured us with their presence. When the elderly gentleman got to his feet the Marines Hymn was played. Now Marines wherever they are always stand to attention whilst the hymn is played but, within just a few seconds, he was joined by everyone in the room, on their feet, singing and clapping time – it was an awesome response. The old veteran told me later that he was overwhelmed and had never experienced such a powerful reception.
Our prime speaker was Colonel David Lawrence, Royal Australian Armoured Corps and a former Commanding Officer of AAS at the time it was relocated from Balcombe to Bonegilla. His well- chosen words resonated with all at the Dinner and particularly with those who were Apprentices at the time of his command. He was warmly received and his presence added to the vigour and spontaneity of the evening. Colonel Lawrence is an Associate Member of the AAAA.
Throughout the evening, our willing band of retailers continued plying their trade and conducted both the raffle and the retailing with great success. Brian (14th VM) and Barbara Daley along with Val Bennett Wife of Neil 13th VM), and Trish and Alf Richardson (14th VM) are the people to be thanked for the level of sales and profit return.
All through the evening the dining room exuded strong goodwill and fellowship. Ron Jervis (15th VM) took on the task of creating a mild military theme for the décor. This was done over preceding weeks and the end result fitted the occasion perfectly. Towards the end of the evening, my thoughts turned to the tidy up and what to do with Ron’s items. As they were far too good to be binned, we announced that they were for sale and for people to see Barbara and helpers, make a selection and then a reasonable offer. The offers were very good, they all sold, and a sizeable sum was generated for the Commemoration funds.
The MRC final bill to us for the Dinner was for 470 “plates” and we were delighted with the attendance of so many. A number of those making the pilgrimage travelled from WA, FNQ and all points in between. Such was the drawing power of one word, BALCOMBE.
But it was the Sunday activity when the veterans really rallied. We assembled adjacent to the Mornington football ground from about 8.30. The Australian Army Band Melbourne took their place at 8.45 and the marchers scrambled to form up. This was all staged by Kevin Noon (14th Musn) a former Army Ceremonial guru, so the Memorial Service and March Day commenced right on time. Having gained the approval of VicRoads and MPSC, we headed down Main St, Mornington with drums beating and under cover of numerous flags and a huge banner identifying us to the local community. Eight hundred metres on saw us at the Mornington Memorial Park for the Memorial Service conducted by our own Chaplains Bryan Nicholls (11th VM) from Ballarat and Alan Kelb (25th F&T) from Albury. The school Cadets from Frankston provided the Catafalque party and did themselves great credit and received vigorous applause at the conclusion of the event.
So ended a wonderful weekend of celebration, reflection and mateship. To all those who made the effort to attend, I hope we did you proud. I have received the final copy of the DVD that was made over the weekend so it should be available shortly; watch the AAAA Website for details.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the following people for their invaluable support: Peter Muir 25th, Owen Reynolds 13th, Frank Poole 10th, Ron Jervis 7th, Bruce Keevers 16th, Jeff Heron 21st, Norm Wells 14th, Kevin Noon 14th, and Bob Ludlow 13th.
I must also offer thanks to the ladies that made a very big contribution to the success of the Commemoration event. They were Barbara Daley, Trisha Richardson, Val Bennett, Jan Heron and Tina Reynolds.
13th VM, Events Manager