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Tours De Force Live Part 2

Australian entertainers have performed for troops in war zones and peacekeeping operations since the Vietnam War. Their talent and celebrity have lifted spirits and brought a slice of home to service personnel abroad.

In this podcast, hear first-hand the trials and tribulations of entertaining on the front line with host Merrick Watts in conversation with Tom Gleeson, Charlie Pickering, Little Pattie and Normie Rowe. 

This podcast was recorded live at the Shrine in November 2022 to mark the opening of Tours De Force: Entertainers on the Front Line exhibition. 

Listen to part one here.

Content warning:

This podcast is not suitable for children. It contains adult themes and occasional coarse language.

Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Shrine of Remembrance.

Audio recording:

McLean Sound

Audio mastering:

Kris Keogh

Music:

Explorations by Reveille

Special thanks 

To all the comedians and performers for their time and generosity. 

For more information on the exhibition, click here.

We embrace the diversity of our community and acknowledge the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we honour Australian Defence Force service and sacrifice. We pay our respects to Elders, past and present.

Transcript

MERRICK WATTS: Welcome to part two of Tours De Force Live. I’m Merrick Watts, the host of the show, and in November 2022 I sat down in front of a live audience to chat with Australian entertainers who travelled to war zones around the world to entertain the troops. If you missed it, part one featuring Lehmo, Nick Cody and Ami Williamson is available now. Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of the show.

MERRICK WATTS: Next we have what can only be described as icons and legends of Australian entertainment and also too for their participation in overseas service, one of them having actually served in the armed forces. Ladies and gentlemen, Normie Rowe and Little Pattie.

MERRICK WATTS: What a wonderful pleasure to have you both here. And I know obviously you've got a suite of fans here that you've obviously rang up and said come along and and applaud. I'm gonna start with you first Normie, because you are in a unique position, because you've been both a soldier and an entertainer in Vietnam, give us the kind of, you know, a perspective of both of those roles.

NORMIE ROWE: Well, I was literally not an entertainer in Vietnam, only a soldier. There was one occasion that I actually went to, I had a guitar with me and I sang for the boys. But there's only one occasion I behaved like an entertainer, and that was for a telethon in Saigon to raise money for orphanage, and you'll see photos in the, in the exhibition here of that particular performance taken by a lovely man, dear friend of ours, who's gone now, Dennis Gibbons, who has probably the biggest photographic display of Australians in Vietnam. But having said that, I know how important it was to have people like everybody here to come and entertain us because at every step, as it says in John Schumann's song, I was only 19, your next step could be the last one on two feet. And that was exactly so in Vietnam. I would rather be in my war than the war that the young guys had been in, the guys and girls have been in over the last couple of decades because at least we could hide in the jungle even though we're in a 12-tonne armoured personnel carrier. It was a fantastic thing to see Australian performers come on a buck a day, that's what they got paid. Lorrae Desmond went five times. And you might remember Lorrae,  she was Shirl in A Country Practice. Johnny O'Keefe went once with my band The Playboys. Actually, I didn't even know until they left. Little Pattie was one of those wonderful entertainers with Col Joye. And between Pattie and Lorrae and Dinah Lee and Denise Drysdale and Patti Newton, Bev Harrell, all those wonderful girls, a lot of the guys that went across, we've had this fantastic connection for I won't say it...

LITTLE PATTIE: Say it

NORMIE ROWE: Over 50 years. And it was a great thrill.

MERRICK WATTS: Pattie, it's great. I mean, even as a small child growing up in the 70s and 80s, I knew who you were, and I knew that you had been to Vietnam. And you were also involved in one of the most historical I suppose battles. Although you know, you were maybe not aware of it at the time, but the the Battle of Nui Dat and Long Tan in South Vietnam, you were actually at the base in Nui Dat when that kicked off, you were 17 years of age. Tell us was like your 17 year old. It's the first time we've ever been outside of the country. And you were in Nui Dat.

LITTLE PATTIE: By that time, we were seasoned war performers, you know, we'd done at least a week over there. And, you know, we were trained as well. And we had all the vaccinations to go and we were (told) 'Do this, don't do that'. So we knew. And we were very disciplined on the road team. We had a Major Don Chapell, who had been in the Second World War. And he looked after us very well. It took him quite a while to get used to the correctly named Joy Boys, it was day three, when we're all sleeping in a particular area. And he'd come around each morning and say, 'Right, it's five o'clock get up, up, up, out, you go quick up, you get,' and that saying that they talk about socks and other things and 'Get up. Take your tablets, take him and see you at breakfast', and then he'd wait and wait and wait. And after about two days of that, all I could hear was the Joy Boys singularly then together telling him what they thought he should do with his alarm clock. Welcome to being on the road, but it was fun. It was great. Everything was wonderful. I was not at all frightened, I think as Ami said, It was terribly obvious even to a fairly naive 17 year old that we were dealing and we were being looked after by the best trained soldiers in the world. And even the Pommies said that, they said, 'Your blokes are better than the Gurkhas', you know, and I think they were too. So we had, I mean, who's scared of anything at 17 and I just loved every minute of it. I was a tomboy, a quiet tomboy, who loved being in every Iroquois helicopter, I baggsed being next to the feller at the end with a 50 calibre machine gun. It was, for me there was fun, there was love. They all looked like my brother in the audience whose number had not come up in the very macabre ballot that was held. So I was having a fearless wonderful time, until the 18th of August 1966. When we were told our briefings in the morning, 'You're going to the biggest Task Force Base in South Vietnam. It's called the Australian Task Force Base in Nui Dat. And there might be 3000 there if, if they're all not out working for the day'. Okay, so we're quite excited about that. Three co we were told, first tour in the morning, and the second and the last one after a fairly lengthy lunch was in the afternoon. And during the second one, it was obvious that just over there in the rubber plantation was a bit of activity, you know, explosions, gunfire, and enough, you know, soldiers have told me years later, I think they exaggerate that I jumped every time, well that wasn't true. But maybe it scared me a little bit, just the noise went on and on. Then there was a break between show two and three, and no one said anything. I had not seen any officers leave the area. So I thought, 'Oh, we're in good hands, just, they might be pretending over there, or practicing'. And no one said anything. Show number three at all happened.

MERRICK WATTS: Yeah, kicked off, kicked off.

LITTLE PATTIE: And we weren't very far into the show at all. And our escorting officer and another officer came to the side of the stage and went 'Stop, get off', which we did quite smartly. And if you've been to Vietnam or many other parts of Southeast Asia, usually about four o'clock it rains, blinding rain. So there was the blinding rain, sirens galore, lots of explosions. And that was when it was obvious something serious was going on over there. I was pushed into the Jeep to catch the Iroquois. Col Joye, oh, yeah, that's right. I was in the jeep. And then some soldiers came along and said, 'Oh, we missed all your concerts, you know, we want you to stay here with us'. And they were four scallywags in a jeep who we've become friends with, who picked me up out of the Jeep. And the Joy Boys said 'You're not taking her, mate. She's coming with us'. Col Joye stayed behind. He stayed in the Padres tent that night. And I think you can imagine what happened because this huge battle was taking place. The ones who were saved like us, we flew over in the Iroquois. We flew over the actual battle. And I could see some of the Joy Boys and the soldier next to me. Normally in a Iroquois, there's banter, there are jokes, there's laughter. It's such lovely, lovely times. But I could see the blood draining from his face the soldier and the Joy Boys, and it was very serious. And I could see thousands and thousands of red and orange lights, you know, in the sky, tracer bullets,

MERRICK WATTS: It was the largest and most brutal battle.

LITTLE PATTIE: Yeah, we lost eighteen that night.

MERRICK WATTS: Eighteen men

LITTLE PATTIE: Yeah, and yeah. Memorable, unforgettable. And it, I think that trip to Vietnam shaped my life forever, changed me as a 17 year old, I suddenly became about 87. No, I, it really, I grew up and was ever grateful and respectful. Just as Ami said, of, of our boys, and they were all boys at the time. We rarely met a girl at war unless she was a nurse. And the next day Colin I visited the injured at the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau, just a silly little story. I remember Col and I were at the back door of this particular hospital. And he said to me, 'You know when this doors gonna open you're on, you're not crying, are you?' I said 'No, of course I'm not crying', It had kind of hit me what we've been through. And I said, 'You're not crying are you?' and he said 'No, I wouldn't cry'. We were both crying. And there were shrapnel wounds. There were all sorts of wounds. And how could you ever forget that?

MERRICK WATTS: Obviously, impressions made on your mind there. And obviously, you know, you've got great experiences and you know, warmth for those experiences as well, but in the face of a significant battle. Normie, you spent time there as a soldier in the third, third cavalry. And you know, you said to me just before you said to everyone, I've got some stories. Well, tell us. Tell us what your memories are. Because you were a household name before you went to Vietnam and some young people might not know that, like you were a star before you became a soldier. And then all of a sudden you're in Vietnam.

NORMIE ROWE: Some people call it notoriety, rather than fame. I have to just add a little bit to to Patty's story because Col hasn't been able to leave town for too long recently because he hasn't been that well. I've got to know Carl because he was one of my biggest heroes. And one of the great thrills is I've become a friend and he tells the wonderful story about when you go and have a look at the exhibition you'll see uniforms with Schumann meaning John Schumann and Patti will have Thompson and Col and Col Joye and the Americans love this because all you guys were being driven around by corporals and baggy arse or private soldiers. And Col, being Colonel Joy he was faded and always at the officer's mess so he had a wonderful tour of duty.

LITTLE PATTIE: He never denied it either.

NORMIE ROWE: But a funny thing. For me, there are two extraordinary events, or there were three extraordinary events. One was on the operational side. One was just a surreal moment. And the other one was, well, I'll tell you about the three of them. First of all, on an operational side, I was in an area called the light green. And about a year later, the eighth battalion walked into a minefield. And they, they were pretty much decimated by mines in this area, and we'd been operating in in the light green for some months. And we pulled around in as the way we used to operate in a troupe of vehicles, we'd do a sort of what we call a wagon wheel, with all the guns facing out, and we do some maintenance, you know, some servicing and make sure the vehicles were always going to operate accordingly. And so I was sitting there on the day that Armstrong landed on the moon. And I was sitting there with my driver, and we were fixing some track links on the track of the APC. And listening to this unbelievable thing. Here we are in a war zone, firing bullets at each other. And we're able to land a man on the moon and I couldn't work out the correlation. If we can do that, why can't we fix this? And all of a sudden, a Huey helicopter arrives, and lands in the middle of our wagon wheel. And out drops this guy with a big moustache and a piano accordion.

MERRICK WATTS: Is it Neil Armstrong?

NORMIE ROWE: That's the only thing that would be funnier, or more surreal. And this beautiful brunette and skimpily dressed Go Go dancer, and they come out and they do a little bit of a thing. And then they get back in the helicopter and they go off. And I was wondering what the smoke was that had been surrounding. When they said pop smoke, I thought that they'd pulled the thing out of the grenade. And because the smoke was a different smoke. The man's name was Eddie Mendoza. Some of the older people might remember Eddie, he was a comedian, musical comedian played the piano accordion rather very well. An Englishman, his daughter married the drummer from Normie Rowe and the Playboys some years later. And I'm gonna go and see them tomorrow morning. And, and so you know, that was an extraordinary event for me. I mean, it was just, I can't forget it. And there are photos around that you won't see them in this exhibition, unfortunately. But they had one at the Art Centre a couple of years ago. And there were photos of Eddie actually on that tour. And then another time, I was in a gunfight. People thought I went over there just to have a bit of a swan around for 12 months, you know, but I did the same thing that everybody else did. And we were in a big firefight. And when it all finished, one of my mates say to me, 'God, how do you feel after that?' NORMIE ROWE: And I said, 'Better than it was working for 110,000 people at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl'. And that was brought to me some 20 years later when during that firefight, there was an American guy who was an adviser to a local Vietnamese army base. And he was there we were working with them and and he got in touch with me. He said, 'I just wanted to thank you for my life'. And I, I wrote him back and I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'You probably don't remember it, but when we were under fire, we'd been ambushed. And you brought your carrier over and, and dragged us out of the ambush and said jump in. So I've tracked you down through the Australian Embassy. And I wanted to say thanks,' and Doc and his wife and his two kids came over when Channel Nine did their version of This Is Your Life on me and they were here in Sydney, and the little kids walked out and they put their arms around me And they said, 'Thank you for my daddy'. And that was that was one of the most touching moments. It was fantastic.

NORMIE ROWE: And the last one I'd like to share with you was I didn't drink until about 10 months into my tour of duty at all. I never drank before. I couldn't find an alcoholic drink that I would like. So I didn't bother.

MERRICK WATTS: Have you tried near beer? You should try near beer.

NORMIE ROWE: Yeah, Well, you know, it probably would have worked for me, but, but, you know, I was very careful too, you know, I didn't want to, I didn't want to lose my own life, but I didn't want to cause anybody else to lose theirs unless they were shooting at me. But I was sitting on the top of an ABC about a year, month ten into my 12 month tour of duty. I was sitting on the guns. And I had a kidney mug, the canteen mugs, and it was about half full of Bacardi and some terrible American drink mix of things. And I was sitting there and all of a sudden I felt a call of nature. So I stood up and I had that call and I walked back and promptly tripped over the two 30 calibre machine guns that were poking out of my turret. They went off bom bom, bom, bom, bom, bom. I'd paid for all the rounds, I'd signed for all the rounds. And unless I could say what I did with them, I would have to pay for them then. So I just called up on the radio and I said 'Stand to, I've seen lights, contact wait out'.

MERRICK WATTS: Someone's gone 'Normie, you're drunk'

NORMIE ROWE: I said 'I saw lights out in the J, there was lights here'.  But, you know, when we were on operation, we made our own entertainment. But for one time, at the end of that particular operation, I came in, in the middle of it. Johnny O'Keefe arrived in country and they said, 'The task force commander would like you to go in and have some photos taken with Johnny O'Keefe'. And I said, 'Sir, do I have to go?' and they said 'No it's not an order'. And I said, 'Well, I've got to tell you. I'm crew commander and the commander of my own vehicle, my responsibility is my driver, and the infantry guys I'm carrying, if something happened to them while I was on a swan getting my photo taken with Johnny O'Keefe, I wouldn't be able to live with it'.  And he said, 'Fair enough. So you don't want to go?' And I said, 'Of course I want to go. But no, I couldn't do that'. So John and I didn't have a photo taken together. But there are photos of John actually singing as somebody pointed out in, in Vietnam. It was an extraordinary period of time. 10 years. The one person I would like to point out is Lorrae Desmond, who was and I've said it before, and you know, she was the epitome of the Australian performer who gave whatever they could give to look after her boys and Pattie's boys. And we are 50 years later ever grateful.

MERRICK WATTS: With that, Normie, Pattie, thank you very much for your time and for sharing those stories. Wonderful.

MERRICK WATTS: I asked them to pass the mics to two friends of mine, great performers, television identities, who have taken the time out of their busy schedules of earning stacks of ABC cash, which you've all paid for. So essentially you've paid for them twice. Charlie Pickering and Tom Gleeson, ladies and gentlemen.

TOM GLEESON: Thank you.

MERRICK WATTS: You boys have actually toured together, haven't you?

CHARLIE PICKERING: Yeah, after Normie you finally want to hear from some guys who saw some shit.

TOM GLEESON: Yeah. We saw a lot of action. We really did. You should have seen the lattes I drank over there.

MERRICK WATTS: We're back to speaking to entertainers now aren't we really, comedians. Did you boys share a bond from you know, touring together? I mean, obviously would have known each other you work together but did it change,  you know, your relationship and friendship as a result of being in a part of the world?

CHARLIE PICKERING: I'll ask Tom to go first.

TOM GLEESON: Yeah I guess so. Because something really strange happened during our trip together. We were there with Fiona O'Lachlan and Lehmo as well. And we got to the staging base called Al Minhad in UAE and I, my inner ear was full of blood, it just it had burst or something during the descent of when the plane landed, so I wasn't allowed to leave. So the rest of the tour left and I was just on a base on my own just wandering around.

MERRICK WATTS: The worst base too

TOM GLEESON: Yeah, I know, it's not a fun base. And I was just like wandering around, like I am now as like the mascot of the base. And they're like 'Oh, there's that lonely arse comedian on his own, walking around drinking near beer all by myself.'

CHARLIE PICKERING: And while we were in country, at that point, I would always talk about Tom like, 'Oh, we lost a good guy back in Al Minhad'

TOM GLEESON: And I'd be having a latte and a doughnut on my own. It was really odd. But yeah, so in a weird way, I felt really lonely. I was on this base. And I knew nobody because the entire Entertainment Group had left because they had to go and do shows, obviously. And it's kind of the loneliest I've ever felt. So when I saw them back again, when when I saw them in Kandahar, I was like, 'Oh, guys, I really missed you. What have I done without you?' It was three days later.

CHARLIE PICKERING: But it was it was a genuinely emotional experience. It was quite amazing

TOM GLEESON: And to get into Kandahar of course there was a weird connection because I'd missed, they'd all gone to Afghanistan, and I had to meet them there. I was on a Hercules on my own. The only Australian on the entire, it was a New Zealand Hercules with these other Romanians. And they all didn't. It was just the weirdest experience I've ever been in my life. Sitting in this weird plane going, 'What am I doing?'

MERRICK WATTS: Charlie, your first tour when you went overseas, what inspired you to go overseas and to perform for troops?

CHARLIE PICKERING: Well, a few things. My grandfather served in Tobruk, who was one of the Rats of Tobruk and I've always respected and revered our armed forces and what they contribute. And so I always just had the feeling that you should do what you can to support the soldiers. And it's interesting Lehmo was in Iraq, and we were in Afghanistan, and they were heavily political wars at times. And as obviously Vietnam was as well.

MERRICK WATTS: Yeah.

CHARLIE PICKERING: But I always felt that you should be able to separate the political argument from what the soldiers are doing on the ground, and they deserve everything you can to support them and help them along the way. I was quite inspired. Historically, actually, I brought a prop, I've got to show you a prop for this story.

MERRICK WATTS: This will be great for the podcast

CHARLIE PICKERING: It will be described in detail.

TOM GLEESON: Charlie has just picked up a massive dildo by the way for people listening.

MERRICK WATTS: It's not the prop we were hoping for, I'm not going to lie. I apologise.

TOM GLEESON: Yeah, this is gonna be a very interesting story, anyway, as you were Charlie

CHARLIE PICKERING: Yes, this dildo, it was given to me by my grandfather. Telling a story much like Christopher Walken's story in Pulp Fiction. No, so I was always a massive fan of footage of Bob Hope entertaining the troops in World War Two.

MERRICK WATTS: Yep. Yep.

CHARLIE PICKERING: And his USO shows were famous. And they were part of his brand and part of why he was a hero around the world. And he was, I mean, so funny. But I always loved just his whole air and the fact that he would rock on the stage swinging a golf club. Like he'd just been out, playing golf while everyone was fighting a war and had this wonderful vibe. And so when we were going over, I actually took my seven iron with me and chucked it in with all the luggage going 'Do you know what? I'm going to just get a photo of me on stage with a golf club in a war zone. That's funny. My little Bob Hope moment'.

MERRICK WATTS: Yep.

CHARLIE PICKERING: And, and I respect the Armed Forces of Australia but someone nicked my golf club on the way somewhere in transit, my golf-

AUDIENCE MEMBER: The Americans

CHARLIE PICKERING:  Yeah, that's right. We can blame the Americans for that. But I was bummed that I couldn't have my little Bob Hope moment and I told this story to the maintenance guy in Kandahar, like on the base, this soldier who did all the maintenance, had every shit job at the base in Kandahar and got talking to him and told him what had happened. And the next day right before the gig, he handed this to me, and I will now describe it for those listening to podcasts. But this is, well, it's a putter made of what you can get your hands on, on a base in the middle of a war. And it's made out of wood and he sanded it and carved it, he lacquered it, he even made like a woven handle to hold it. And so I actually got to get my photo on stage with my golf club in Kandahar doing the gig, my little Bob Hope moment. And I just, that to me, epitomised the camaraderie of everyone over there. It didn't matter, like whether you were an SAS guy who had to do things that you can't even talk about in you know, polite conversation, or us idiots bumbling about just trying not to, like hurt anyone else or ruin everything for everyone. I'd hate to ruin this war for everyone. But there was just something that camaraderie of everyone there and that common experience and and it was even like, listening to Pattie and Normie, it was about people. It was all, it's such an enormous thing a war. But it is actually about individuals and people at the end of the day, and that really brought it home for me.

MERRICK WATTS: Yeah, you go to a war zone like that, and you love Australians more than you thought you loved Australians. No matter what, it's not about politics, it doesn't become about politics, doesn't even become about war. It just becomes about you know, getting to understand that you love the people that live in your country, and particularly when they're serving and sacrificing their time and their efforts. Tom, you spent some time with the SAS when you were overseas and you actually subsequently wrote a book called Playing Poker with the SAS. How was that reviewed by SAS operators?

CHARLIE PICKERING: Anonymously

TOM GLEESON: The funny thing is like I yeah, I mentioned that I played poker with the SAS. And we all got on the beers, we had Tigers if you're interested from Singapore, and it was in the middle of a dry base. And so a lot of them read the book and they liked the book, but they were upset that I disclosed, that they had alcohol on a dry base, and they're worried about it. Anyway, that's from the olden days, when that's all that they were worried about. Turns out, they've had a lot more to be worried about since but at that time, they were quite concerned about those beers being found.

MERRICK WATTS: And what was it like performing you know, again, you know, performing stand up in Australia, even in the most hostile environments, like Dubbo, or anywhere else. But then, you know, you get to a war zone and you are performing to people who are on high alert, you know, on those bases, there's people who've got very, very serious jobs and tasks to handle, we've got no idea as civilians what is actually going on in the background, but they obviously do. How is it performing and telling jokes to that crowd?

TOM GLEESON: Well, it changed my life. It changed my complete view of comedy and how it works. Because I was looking at everyone and I thought 'I've got to crack this nut, like how am I gonna make these people like, what can I give them that they don't have?' And I realised they're not allowed to rag on authority because they have to respect the chain of command. And it clicked, something clicked in me. And I thought, 'I can make fun of anybody. This is the best.' And so I was in a base, I think it was Kandahar, and the guy in charge of that base said, 'Look, you can swear as much as you like, you can say whatever you like, just don't say the C word'. And I was like, 'All right'. I went on stage, and I said, 'The guy in charge of this base over there. He said, I can say whatever I want, as long as I don't say {beep}'. And it got a massive laugh. And I looked at him, I eyeballed him and I said, 'Oh, what are you going to do? Send me back to Australia. Oh, what a shame. I don't get to hang out in this shithole'. And then I thought, 'This is how you're supposed to perform'. You're supposed to perform in a fearless way where you don't care whether you get fired or not. And I came back to Australia and I've been doing that ever since. It just changed everything for me.

CHARLIE PICKERING: It's funny. I had a slightly similar experience, actually, Tom had said to me, 'The one thing you can do is challenge your authority'. And so I would do the same thing, make jokes about I mean, I remember like, everywhere you go, getting back to the occupational health and safety of a war zone, which is through the roof. The number of safety briefings you have everywhere you go and you land at every new base and they spend five minutes explaining how to wash your hands. This is pre COVID when washing your hands became very important.

TOM GLEESON: They'd say 'We're going to have a brief' and they never were. They were never brief.

CHARLIE PICKERING: And then they'd say, 'If you hear this siren, that's a rocket attack, you want to do this', and it gets a little bit terrifying. But once you've heard it 30 times, all it is, is fodder for material. And so I talked about how I knew that whenever the siren went off, I would just start washing my hands. But on our first night in Tarin Kowt, it was sort of half Americans, half Australians on the base, and it was a huge crowd, Lehmo mentioned it, it was a giant crowd. And all we'd said was you can't like similar thing, you know, mind some language. And they said 'With the Americans, don't say anything negative about the president'. The president at the time was Barack Obama. It's no secret that I love that man. And I'm incapable of saying anything negative about him. But I had material about how great he was, and about how inspirational he was. And so I did that got some Americans in there said, 'Yeah', and I said, 'I love your President' and told a couple of jokes. Now at the end of the gig, we were all getting handed these coins like, you know, little medallions for for being on base. Yep. And they were being handed over by Colonel Creighton, the American colonel that ran the base, who some people might know from news footage of when Tony Abbott got in trouble for saying 'Shit happens'. Right? Do you remember that? He was over in in Afghanistan. He said 'Shit happens' and he was talking to a colonel.

MERRICK WATTS: That's right.

CHARLIE PICKERING: And it was Colonel Creighton. And I understand that Tony Abbott was just trying to sound tough, because Colonel Creighton is the scariest man you've ever met in your life. He like makes Robert Duvall look feeble in Apocalypse Now, right? He's the most intimidating person I've ever met. And he hands me my coin this little medallion on the base and leans into my ear. He says, 'Great show. Now stop saying shit about our president'. I was like, 'Wow, okay. Yes sir'. And that was probably the scariest moment for me.

TOM GLEESON: I always loved it when there were Americans in the audience because it was easy to make fun of them without them noticing.  I remember, there were some Americans in and whenenver I'd say 'Are there any Americans in?' they'd always go 'Whoa, yeah', you know, and I'll be like, 'I just want to say thank you to you guys. Thank you for supporting Australia's war in Iraq'. And the Australians would lose their shit, but the Americans are just like, blank. Like, 'I think it's our war. I think we started it', and it's like yeah, that's why it's a joke.

MERRICK WATTS: Isn't it funny how some of the scariest moments are actually the Americans. Were you ever like, genuinely a moment where you went, 'Wow, I could lose my life. Like I could actually die here.'

Well, I was, I had a fun time over there. And I didn't really have many frightening moments. Just more in retrospect. There was a time when I was in Hercules flying over Baghdad. And it was, it was night and the war was ongoing at the time. And I was sitting next to Molly McClymont, who's from the McClymont sisters, country music act. She was 19 at the time. And there was just a giant white flash out the window, just a massive white flash, and she jumped in my lap. She was just was in my lap. And I'm like, 'God, I don't know what that was'. And I said, 'It's probably nothing' I didn't know, obviously. And then we landed. And then afterwards, I said to one of our minders, I said, 'What was that about?' And they said, 'Oh, when when we fly over that area of Baghdad, it's, you know, it's a little bit hairy. So we often just let out flares on the off chance that there are heat seeking missiles. So that's just to divert them. And that's just a precautionary step that we take'. But the problem is her older sister, Sam, married someone in the Air Force. And we told him this story. And he said, 'We never let them out just in case. There was a missile buddy'. So when I think back, I'm like, 'I should have been really frightened'. But I wasn't at the time. But looking back, I'm like, 'Oh, God,

MERRICK WATTS: Similarly, but different, again I was flying into Iraq on a Herc, and we were flying over the Euphrates River and I'm looking at you know, the birthplace of civilization. I'm in the cockpit with the pilots, so the two parts in front of me, two young people who again, you know, look like too young to drive a car. But there's a female pilot and a male copilot. And they were very, very professional and calm and having a conversation. So we're all on comms having a bit of a chat. And I'm looking down at the birthplace of civilization, thousands of years of history, the Euphrates River and I'm going 'My god, I can't believe it'. I'm just ear-to-ear smiles because this is something that my friends and family will never experience looking at this part of the world and most people won't see it again. And as we're flying over, and I'm in the jump seat directly behind the pilots, and there's all of a sudden a bit of a siren going, and there is a red button directly in front of me that is flashing and it says 'missile lock' . And I thought, 'I wonder what that does'.

MERRICK WATTS: And the pilots were so professional and calm and cool they just went into a procedure of aversion for the plane and went into protocols and they were calm and at that moment I was like literally thinking at any second there'll be impact on the airframe. It says missile lock, that's what's going to happen, and I thought 'My god, this is it, this is how I'm gonna die and this is the end of my story right now' and I thought 'You know what? This is pretty good for my profile.' I'm a glass half full kind of guy I'm going 'I might even get a state funeral out of this'. Amd I went 'You're going too far. Just to be happy with a bit of a press shot, maybe a story by Richard Wilkins.'

TOM GLEESON: What if the headline was Tim 'Rosso' Ross' friend dies?

MERRICK WATTS: Truly the worst day of my life. So you guys have both done tours, what are some of the you know, like the final impressions that have been left on you, you know, there's those moments where they're lasting and forever, you know, whether it be a comical moment or a moment of reverence

TOM GLEESON: For me it's, there was always a guy wandering around who had these sleeve tats, looked really buff. And I'd always see him. I didn't know his name, but he was always around. And once I just said, 'Who's that guy? He just seems to be at all the bases we're at'. And the people looking after us said 'He's your security'. I said 'Yeah, okay cool. So what's he do?' (They said) 'Oh, if people come and kill you, he'll go and kill them'. And I was like, 'Okay', but there was something really humbling about that, to think someone would do that for you. It's a lot to deal with.

CHARLIE PICKERING: I had an identical experience. Because with the Hercs often, like they're almost like a taxi. Like, they've got to take some people to this base, and then they're gonna, you know, they've got lots of transport to do. And often all the comedians, we'd be there waiting. And then other people would rock up who would be sharing the flight with us along the way. And there was someone who was just there on the first day and just there the whole time. And I just assumed, 'Oh, he's going with us because he's going on to somewhere else'.

TOM GLEESON: I think it's the same guy I'm talking about

CHARLIE PICKERING: And it was four days in, I said, 'What are you here for?' And he goes, 'I'm here to make sure you don't die'. And like and to hear someone say to it was like, it was like, I felt so idiotic for not realising 'Oh, that's right. We're useless in this'. We're defenceless little puppies, and it's quite overwhelming that moment that that's their gig.

MERRICK WATTS: Do you find that it's kind of disconcerting and comforting at the same time? Because when I was in East Timor, and this was in 2000, and they had still been a little bit of gunfire, and shooting at aircraft and stuff, and we were flying in a helicopter, and we had similar, we had a security detail with us, and I believe in now that time passed, that they were New Zealand soldiers. And they were SAS from New Zealand, Kiwi operators. And this guy who was looking after us on the helicopter, I went, 'He looks kind of scary'. He was a Maori guy. And he had Maori tattoo, and he was massive. And his name I think, and from recollection, I think was Cedric, or Cecil. It was an entertainers name from the 1940s.

CHARLIE PICKERING: That sounds more terrifying thought

MERRICK WATTS: That's what scared me. I was just like, his name is Cedric but he looks like the most lethal human I've ever seen. He was armed to the teeth. He was massive. And I was talking to him on the helicopter as we're flying. And I said something along the lines of 'Well, what happens if you know, the helicopter gets shot down?' like dumb questions. And he was like a character was almost like from a Taika Waititi film, right? Really Maori and friendly and he spoke really softly. And I'll try to impersonate him. But I said, 'So, what happens if the plane gets shot down?' And he said 'Oh yeah, no problem. So what will happen is the helicopter will land. Then I'll go out. And I'll go for a little while. And then I'll come back. And then we'll all go together.'

MERRICK WATTS: And I asked him again, I said, 'I'm sorry, what's that?', and he goes 'Oh, we'll land. I'll go out. Then I'll come back. And then we'll all go'. And I was so dumb. I'm thinking 'What's he doing in the meantime? What does he mean I'm going?' And then I realised, he was basically saying, 'I'll go and kill everybody in a 30 kilometre radius who looks like a threat, then I'll come back and we'll have an icy pole.' And it was that disconcerting but very comforting notion that, you know, this guy was friendly and professional and everything like that. But he was the scariest person I had ever come across. And he had every desire to keep us alive. And I wish I'd stayed in contact with him because he would be a weapon of a friend.

CHARLIE PICKERING: I think he might actually work security and The Espy. I think I've seen him clear some people out of The Espy on occassion.

MERRICK WATTS: If he can clear out a region I'm sure he'd be okay with a pub.

CHARLIE PICKERING: It's, it's interesting, a perspective that I get just us all laughing telling stories, even the most serious stories have all had laughs in there and, and as useless as we feel in a serious situation like that, I did love the fact that we took the one useful thing we do, which is our sense of humour. And we took it to a place where people really needed a sense of humour. And I think the, the jokes and the moments, you actually felt like you were contributing in some way. And it was great. And I remember, it was slightly more high tech, people were FaceTiming, or, you know, like doing video calls back home. And there was a guy who his wife had just had their baby back home. And he was, you know, he was there in Afghanistan. And he'd just gotten off a video call with his wife who's just had a baby in hospital. He's not there for that incredible moment. And he walked out and I was going into to call someone in the room. And he's just had his baby. And he was going 'That joke he did last night...' and like repeated a joke back to me and just going wow, that is that is just an incredible, yeah, like an incredible experience. I'm going 'Mate, you've had a baby. Go and focus on that. Crack and near beer and enjoy it.'

MERRICK WATTS: It's funny, you know, we, we understand having performed for the troops overseas, their appreciation. And I think, you know, the general public wouldn't necessarily be aware of just how grateful, you know, the two way gratitude between the performers who, you know, we kind of like to see ourselves as a proxy or representative of a very grateful nation, but just how incredibly grateful our servicemen and women are when we go and perform for them, because it just breaks it up. Because it's the one thing I kind of like to leave with people is it's not just about the sacrifice, meaning the sacrifice of injury or death that our soldiers face. It's the sacrifice of missing birthdays, missing weddings, missing funerals, missing those special moments that they literally sacrifice knowingly, when they go over, they are going to miss those important appointments. And I think that's a huge sacrifice that people in the general public might not necessarily appreciate it. But when you're over there, you just think, 'My god, imagine being here on your wife's birthday. Imagine being here on your child's birthday. Imagine being here drinking near beer when I could be blind at a pub in Sydney or Melbourne'. It's those small things. And for that, I think we're all very, very grateful.

TOM GLEESON: Yeah, but having said that, I went over there for Christmas and New Year's. And it was cruisy man. I got to avoid my family, they thought I was brave. It was one of the easiest Christmases I've ever had. There were no arguments. It was chill.

MERRICK WATTS: I don't know anybody who's got more benefits from touring overseas than Tom Gleeson. You owe so much to this country. It's ridiculous. Tom Gleeson. Charlie Pickering. Thank you very much. And a big thank you to all of our guests this evening. We've had Anthony 'Lehmo' Lehmann, Nick Cody, Little Pattie, Normie Rowe, Ami Williamson, I've been Merrick Watts. Thank you all very much. A big thank you to the Shrine and its staff and the audience here this evening for being part of it. The Tours De Force: Entertainers on the Frontline exhibition is on now until October 2023. The Shrine is open every day from 10am to 5pm. Entry is free. So come and see the exhibition. Special thanks to the Victorian Government and the Victorian Veterans Council for supporting the exhibition. Thank you all for listening, watching, enjoying and appreciating our troops and servicemen and women. Thank you very much.

MERRICK WATTS: Thanks again for listening, I hope you enjoyed the podcast. Thanks again to the performers and the staff and supporters of the Shrine of Remembrance. And lastly, thanks to our servicemen and women, present and past. Lest We Forget.

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