PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL AND MILITARY BACKGROUND:
I am a third-generation Territorian with a strong military background. My father was part of the Mobile Force that was sent to Darwin in 1935 to help build Larrakeyah Military base and the facilities at East Point.
My Mother and family were evacuated from Darwin in September 1941, just prior to the Bombing of Darwin in 1942. I was born in Geelong (Victoria) in 1946 and my family returned to Darwin in the early 1950’s when my father was posted as a Master Gunner (Warrant Officer Class 2) with the Royal Australian Artillery Regiment. He was in charge of all the fortifications at Dudley Point, Larrakeyah and East Point and the mobile artillery pieces; 25 Pounders and Bofors.
I had a stable upbringing, spending some of my early years with elders of the Larrakeyah indigenous people, fishing, hunting and attending ceremonies. I attended Darwin Primary School and Darwin High School. During this time, I played water polo for the first ever NT Diving Team and represented the NT in the SA Diving competition - I was the runner up to indigenous local boy and mate, Robert (Pegleg) Muir (dec.). In those days in Darwin (pre-TV) everything revolved around sport, you either played it, or supported it, there were no fences to properties, no need to lock the doors and you could leave your keys in the ignition and come back to find your car where you left it - it was a wonderful time to be living in that era.
During Year 10, I ran away from school and went Ringing (Stockman) at cattle stations south of Adelaide River. When I returned to Darwin sometime later, my mother arranged for me to meet with Mr Paddy Carrol, the head of the Workers Union in the NT. It was an interesting one-way conversation! It’s amazing to reflect on the influences people have in shaping your destiny - you have to take action if you want change. In hindsight, this was one of the major turning points in my life. I wanted to work my way up within the cattle industry, but I would never be in position to own a cattle station by being an uneducated worker, and the best way forward was for me to start an Apprenticeship. An opportunity had been pre-arranged for me to start a Carpentry Apprentice, which gave me more money and free time for water polo, swimming, Aussie Rules for Wanderers, shooting, fishing, cars and girls.
In January 1965, I made the decision to join the Regular Army after completing 4 years of my Carpentry Apprenticeship, however I was recommended for RAEME as a Mechanic. Interestingly, I always wanted to be a Mechanic, but in Darwin in the early 60’s there were no apprenticeships in that trade, so a Carpentry Apprenticeship made sense at the time.
I was trained as an Adult Tradesman Motor Vehicle Mechanic and learned how to fix everything the Army owned as a general Mechanic. We were also taught basic Fitting and Turning, Welding and Driver Training in all pieces of military equipment – what an amazing experience! I was then posted back to Darwin with the RAEME Workshops NT Command Larrakeyah.
As an Army mechanic in those days, we assisted with a lot of road trips throughout the NT. On our adventures, we met up with Woomera Research Teams clearing an area for missile testing in 1966. We also met Harry Butler and a team from National Geographic, Cadastral Survey team and explorers looking for Lasseter’s gold. At a location called Sandy Blight Junction we had to order in an arial drop of spare parts for the vehicles, including 4 boxes of Victor Bravo. We were also involved in a project called the “Mukkanini Explorer” and an Army film team travelled with us to document the trip.
During this time, I was promoted to Corporal, then Sergeant. I was posted to Midland workshops in Perth WA, then Canungra, then I was sent to Vietnam as the Sgt of 17 Construction Squadron Workshops RAEME. We were responsible for maintaining and repairing all of the equipment used by 17 Construction. During this time, we had an excellent team of tradesmen and soldiers who just got things done, worked hard and played hard (when allowed) - a strong bond was formed with a group of these soldiers that has endured for 50 years.
We repaired everything from D8 Bulldozers used on land-clearing, graders, dump trucks and all manner of equipment. During this time, I was sent to Lai Khe - the home of the “Big Red 1” US Army 1st Infantry Division and the US Combat Engineers. During my deployment in Vietnam, I severely dislocated my shoulder in an incident and was advised that I needed surgery in Australia. I was medevac'd to Penang Malaysia in a Hercules, alongside other wounded and amputees, then transferred to Sydney before travelling back to Darwin for surgery. I didn’t return to Vietnam and was relocated back to Larrakeyah RAEME Workshops until I discharged in January 1971.
Given my upbringing with several of my best mates being Aboriginal and playing football for the Wanderers Football Club, I was open to working in community-focused organisations where I could share my skills with Aboriginal youth. As I was looking for my next career pathway, I was advised not to mention that I had been to Vietnam as I probably wouldn’t get a job. I was also advised by a local veteran organisation that I could “return when I had fought in a real war” if I wanted to become a member - similar experiences like this were perpetrated on a lot of Vietnam veterans upon return from the Vietnam War.
After these incidents, I shut Vietnam out of my mind and got on with life as a Manual Arts Teacher with the Aboriginal Welfare Education Department, but I was a Tradesman not a Teacher, so the Department sent me to South Australia to complete a three-year Degree in two years, with a wife and two kids in tow. Upon returning to Darwin, I was qualified with a Diploma in Teaching (Tech) and an Advanced Diploma in Education.
I worked through the NT Education system as a Teacher, Senior Teacher, Assistant Principal of several High Schools, Regional Coordinator for TAFE Katherine Region, Assistant Director of Aboriginal Education and Principal Education Officer NT Open College. After 25 years in Education, I accepted a redundancy from the Department due to my challenges with anxiety, depression and onset of PTSD.
I then set up a Multimedia and Communications business which grew steadily over a few years, however after attending my first Vietnam Veterans reunion, my wife gave me an ultimatum to seek help for my PTSD. I applied to DVA for help, which took several years, and I was eventually granted a TPI. After treatment, I re-joined the Vietnam Veterans Association NT and have dedicated my life to the veteran community.
WHAT SKILLS HAVE YOU LEARNED IN THE MILITARY THAT YOU CONTINUE TO USE THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE?
The leadership skills I obtained in the Army have allowed me to navigate civilian life and to deal with everyday challenges that life throws at you. I also learned that you are part of a much bigger team irrespective of what role you undertake – all roles are important and dependent upon each other to get the tasks done.
FAVOURITE MEMORY FROM THE MILITARY?
The comradery from Vietnam - we were thrown together with a small group of people we had never met and the mateship has survived for over 50 years!
In 1987, the Vietnam Veteran “Welcome Home Parade” (albeit many years too late) was a watershed in my opinion that allowed 20,000 Vietnam veterans to hold their heads up proudly for the first time and be publicly honoured instead of being the subject of taunts and ridicule for many years previously. Up until this point, many of my friends (including myself) hid our Vietnam service and got on with life.
BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED?
Early on in my childhood, my mother would recite a poem that is written on the end of the World War 1 “Furphy” water tanks; “Good Better Best, Never Let It Rest, Till Your Good Is Better, And Your Better – Best”. This poem always comes to the fore when undertaking any task to confirm whether this is your “Better – Best”.
Early in my military career, I was advised sternly on several occasions that if I wanted to get ahead, “I should keep my eyes and ears open, and my mouth shut”. This was sometimes difficult to put into practice as you can imagine. It was later added that I should “read a few books” to gain knowledge on the subject in contention and present my case with evidence. It’s also great advice to “make the most of every opportunity” that comes your way.
YOUR ADVICE FOR OTHER VETERANS
Take advantage of the Transition Seminars and use that time before discharge to set yourself up for the inevitable transition to civilian life.
You may have a small group of mates you served with or deployed with; stay in touch with them. This comradery is unique to the military and may last a lifetime like it has for me. Reach out to your mates, their family members and check in regularly - you may just need it yourself one day, like I have at times.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN 3 WORDS?
Visionary, Passionate, Mentor
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT?
As a Vietnam Veteran, I spent years lobbying governments at all levels to bring home the only NT Soldier to be killed in the Vietnam War - Cpl Reg Hillier MiD. This was refused by the Minister for Veterans Affairs at that time.
During my research, I established that there were another 25 remaining Australian soldiers from the Vietnam War who were buried overseas after they were killed in action over 50 years ago. These brave Australian’s remained in lonely graves in foreign countries when their mates had been repatriated. This was not right, and I was determined to correct this ‘terrible wrong’.
On behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia NT, we founded ‘Operation Bring Them Home” in 2014. As a result of ‘Operation Bring Them Home’, these soldiers, who had made the supreme sacrifice for their country, were brought home to Australia on the 2nd June 2016, including Reg Hillier, who was re-interred at Adelaide River War Cemetery as per his family’s wishes.
As a result of this program, seven New Zealand Vietnam Veterans who were buried overseas were repatriated home to New Zealand in September 2019.
WHAT AWARDS HAS BOB SHEWRING RECEIVED?
2022 Order of Australia Medal – Queens Birthday Honour List
2022 Life member Veterans Australia NT Inc.
2020 Awarded Lifetime Contribution to Volunteering Volunteers Australia
2019 Awarded NT Senior of Excellence
2019 Awarded Highly Commended NT Volunteer of the Year
2016 NT Senior Australian of the Year
2015 Pride of Australia NT Medal (People’s Choice)
2011 Life Member Freds Pass Sport and Recreation Management Board
1987 Churchill Fellowship Awardee
WHAT ORGANISATIONS HAS BOB SHEWRING BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH?
President of Veterans Australia NT Inc. (previously Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia NT) (10 years)
Vice President Palmerston RSL
Foundation President of Southern Districts Football Club and Life Member
Member of the Freds Pass Sport and Recreation Board (30 years) and Life Member
Past President of Darwin South Rotary Club
Past President of Darwin Rural Rotary Club
Past President of Darwin Legacy
Past President of Darwin RSL
Previous Director of the NT Australia Day Council
Previous Board member of RSL SA/ NT and Broken Hill State Board
Past President 17 Construction Squadron Workshops Vietnam Association (3 Years)
Past President of National Seniors Topend Branch (9 years)
Member of the NT Ministers Advisor Council on Veterans Affairs (9 years)
Member of the NT Ministers Advisor Council on NT Seniors (8 Years)
Interviewed by Deb Herring Committee Member The Top Ender Magazine