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George Main

George Main

Major, Australian Army


Trooper George Thomas Main

A and B Squadrons, 1st Armoured Regiment, Australian Army
Service number: 1202186
Rank on discharge: major

"Somehow, we ended up with a pet monkey. The monkey used to hang around the bar at night, and at some point it learned how to open our beers for us.

One day, we decided that the perfect match to the monkey was a goat. So we traded some rations to some villagers for a kid goat.

The monkey and the goat got to be fast friends. The monkey rode all over camp on the back of the goat and the two of them used to get into all kinds of mischief. We figured out that at night they would leave the wire. The monkey would move the razor wire around so they could get through the perimeter, then, the two of them would navigate through the mine field around base. So they’d go out into the jungle together and every morning they were back inside the wire.

No one ever saw them with cuts from the razor wire, and they made it through the mine field without ever blowing themselves up. No one knew how they did it."

Since he was a young boy, George Main wanted to join the military. He said, “My father was in the Second World War. He was a prisoner of war on the Burma-Thai Railway and survived four years on the line. I would listen to him talking with his mates about being prisoners of war. After listening to the men talking, I had this ambition to join the military.” 

“Dad died when I was about 14, and I had a hankering to join the military then,” George said. “When I turned 17, I went to the recruiting centre in Brisbane. I thought I’d look good in the Navy with the waves crashing over the bow, but the Navy door was locked. I thought I’d become a pilot, but the RAAF had gone to lunch. So, I went to the Army, and the door was open. Vietnam was on at the time, and the bloke there said, ‘we could use a young fellow like you.’”

“Next thing I know, I’m on South Brisbane Railway Station saying goodbye to my girlfriend and heading off to Kapooka for basic training. There were five platoons, a lot of them National Servicemen. There was no distinction between the Regulars and the National Service; we all had to work together.”

“Three of us from 24 Platoon D Company were allocated to Armoured Corps. They just picked three names; I had no driving experience. When I did my psychological tests, they said I had a very high academic rating and a very low mechanical one, but they made me a tank driver anyhow.”

“They put me in this huge Centurion tank and locked all the hatches. I had to stay in there for an hour and when they opened the hatches they said, ‘you passed the claustrophobia test. We’ll start to train you.’”

“We were training and training and training to get ready to go to Vietnam. I didn’t think much about it, whatever the government told me, that’s what I thought I should be doing. My focus was on being the best tank driver I could be, and on working with the crew. We had cross training, so we would know how to do everything – tank, infantry, cavalry, armoured – all combinations.”

“My goal was to get a War Service Home Loan. I was 18 now and married and I had no money. When we got married, I had just $20, so I sent my wife home to Queensland to stay with my mother and I went to the Personnel Depot at Watsons Bay, the staging depot before going to Vietnam.”

“You couldn’t go to a war zone until you were 19. I had to wait a week, then I got a knock at the door, and I was told, ‘You’re flying out today. Tomorrow you’ll be 19 when you land in Vietnam.’”

“We flew on a Qantas plane. We all had black pants and white shirts, so we didn’t look like soldiers. We looked like a plane full of waiters. We landed in Vietnam and that was an eye-opener. I’d never been to a third-world country. Tan Son Nhut Airport was one of the busiest airports in the world at that time with people coming and going everywhere. Then we flew in a Yankee Herc (C-130) to Nui Dat, and there we got to change our clothes.”

“It was late 1969. I had two weeks getting oriented to the weather and everything else, and then I was allocated to 1 Troop. I was the driver of the lead tank, and 1 Charlie was my call sign.”

“Our first operation was in week three. We were young and bulletproof, and we didn’t put down the hatches because we wanted to have our heads out wearing our armoured corps berets,” said George. “I’d only been on the road for a couple of hours when I hit my first mine. There were bullets going everywhere and guns going off, and I thought ‘far out’. I’m feeling my body parts, making sure they’re all okay. Dirt and stuff all over me. That was my first mine, and fortunately it was a reasonably small one, it didn’t do much damage.”

“As I got a bit more driving time, I realised Alpha Tank at the back would be a better place for me. The driver was leaving so I asked to take over. That was great until you drove through the jungle with the front tanks knocking over all the trees and saplings, which came poking up and spearing you when you came through in the last tank.”

“I was too tough to drive with the top down and anyhow it was too hot. So, when we were on operations, I would cover myself in insect repellent to stop the bugs. I had about 10 cans of insect spray and a Chaco shotgun in the driver’s compartment. It was a Chinese shotgun that was found in a bunker. No one was supposed to know about it, it was just there to kill bugs.”

George was troubled by the bugs and the rubber tree spiders. “They were these huge black and yellow spiders about the size of my hand, lots of them. They were worst when I was lead tank. I would get Gunner Mick Payne, to traverse the gun to knock the spiders away from me. Sometimes they’d hang off the barrel and I’d stand on the seat and hit them in the head or shoot them.”

George was involved in Operation Matilda, the only fully Armoured Corps operation staged in Vietnam. “It was the largest Armoured Corps operation since the Second World War. We had 44 vehicles driving around for weeks trying to find the baddies, but all we got was one Chieu Hoi, which is a guy who surrenders, and I think we killed a couple of market gardeners. When you’ve got 44 vehicles going around, the baddies go away. They wait till you’ve gone and come back then.”

“The US Air Force would clear an area of land where they thought the baddies were living. They would spray Agent Orange, and we’d all sit there and watch. They put bulldozers on each corner, and we’d sit back in the tanks just in case any baddies came running out.”

“The bulldozers would drive around the square and knock over all the trees and all the monkeys would run to the tree in the middle. We thought it would be great if we could catch a monkey for a pet, because everybody at Nui Dat was having pets.”

“The bulldozers were pushing out the last tree and the monkeys were riding the tree down to the ground. Mick and I decided we’d catch this little brown monkey, and so we were running along and jumping over logs, and we caught this monkey and threw a tarp over him and rolled him up.  When we got back to camp that night, we opened up the tarp and the monkey was still alive, so we started to feed him, and he became quite friendly.”

“The monkey would go down to the mess hall and sit in a tree where we all queued up. Somebody taught the monkey how to kiss, so it would drop on your shoulder and give you a love bite in the back of your neck. We taught the monkey how to open cans of beer with a two-pronged lever on a stand, and the monkey wanted a can of beer for every can it opened.”

“Another time, we decided we wanted a pet goat. So, we went to this little village that had goats and traded a full C-ration pack for a baby goat, which we shouldn’t have done because the rations would have gone straight to the baddies. Anyway, we got this beautiful little black and white goat, wrapped him up and brought him back to camp and he became our pet.”

“But the goat became a bit of a pain. He got into the ops room one night and decided to chew on the maps. The OC decided to officially charge Bill Goat No. 1. His penalty was a week confined to barracks, but the monkey worked out he could free the goat and together they could get through the wire, through the mines, through all the flares and out the other side. They would go running through the bush and then come back again without setting anything off.”

“The monkey and goat became great mates. The monkey actually rode on the goat’s back. Eventually the area commander decided we had too many animals, and it was time to put them on a truck and get rid of them; people had bears and all kinds of things.”

George remembers Vietnam being very hot and sweaty. “You were told to take underpants and socks, but after you were there for a week, you didn’t wear underwear and you didn’t wear socks. You just had on your greens. Everything’s hot, and in the wet season everything’s wet, so it’s hot and it’s sticky.”

George said, “We had the advantage of being able to shower. We carried our water in jerry cans on the back of the tanks and cool air would be sucked in over the motor, blow up over the radiators and heat the water. So, most nights we could have a quick wash under a shower bucket.”

George’s other home comfort was his toilet. “I hated having to go to the toilet in the bush. So, I asked the guys in the workshop to build me a toilet out of a big oil drum. They cut the bottom off and put a toilet seat lid on top. It hung off the back of the tank, and that became everyone’s toilet. You could go and have a fag and sit, and you could have a moment’s peace in the middle of the jungle.”

“I knew how to cook, so instead of eating C-rations all the time, I would see if the cook could give me something. And my fiancé and my mother would send me calico bags with cans of ham and things. So, I would drive all day, set up the meals, cook for everybody and get the beds organised. That was my job.”

“Some nights we’d have the infantry sleeping between the tanks. I’d knock up a nice little meal and I’d ask the blokes if they wanted to come and join us. They said ‘no, no’ we’ll stick with what we have. And they didn’t want to shower because they didn’t want to smell too fresh.”

“The baddies used to say they could smell the Australians because they cleaned their boots and cleaned their teeth. They could smell the boot polish and the toothpaste. In a Centurion tank, they could hear you coming.”

“I would like people to understand that we went to Vietnam because we were told to go there, and we went there basically to prevent the yellow hordes coming over the hill. Looking back now, it was a total waste of time. We didn’t achieve anything really, and people died.”

“I have grandsons who are 17 to about 20-odd. While I would walk down the street with a banner saying, ‘Don’t send my sons to war,’ if they came knocking on my door, I’d go back tomorrow.”