Archive number: 2437
Preferred name: John
Date interviewed: 18 August, 2004
Gulf War I
Weapons Inspection Iraq
You are listening to the interview audio
Okay, John, it would be great if for starters you could tell us a bit about early years, where you were born and grew up?
Sure, I was born in Melbourne. My father was a pharmacist
and Mother did microbiology. We lived in Parkville initially and it was always amusing that Parkes in Park Street in Parkville. I went to school at Haileybury College, a boys’ school in Melbourne, and spent the whole schooling there.
Yeah, it was a funny sort of school, a bit out of the 1930s with sort of discipline and caning and caps and boaters and that sort of stuff, but I found it was a good school for me. It gave me a good grounding in basic things, English and languages and stuff. I did classics there, Greek and
Latin, and at one stage I thought I might even be a professor of classics or something like that. I liked all that and the school, I suppose. I drifted into medicine. The school I went to a lot of people went into medicine. In fact it was sort of the natural progression of a good matriculation. I think in my matriculation
year there were some, I think we had sixteen people who went into med, eight at Monash and eight at Melbourne, which must have been some sort of record. But yeah, I suppose I enjoyed the school years. They were a bit hard in some ways with the discipline, but on the other hard they sort of prepared me well for life. But in a way it was sheltered being
in a boys’ school, then going to Monash, going to uni [university] was a different sort of thing. And I suppose I settled into medicine and found that I quite enjoyed it. The good thing about medicine is that it is all different people, and one of my mates can’t really stand people but he’s an excellent anaesthetist
and he’s very happy when they’re asleep, but I quite like people and I found that the opportunity to deal with people was a great one.
You said as well that Haileybury, if you matriculated medicine seemed the natural progression but had you actually contemplated the idea of an academic career? You talked about the classics.
I thought about
that and at one stage I thought I’d be an actor as I was in all the school plays and things, but I suppose there is a subtle pressure to push you in a direction. My uncle, my father’s twin brother was a, I mean he’s dead now but he was a GP [general (medical) practitioner] and I suppose there’s a bit of subtle family pressure that you don’t really realise. And looking back I
think that was certainly the case when I was quietly discouraged from other notions, but I’m not displeased with the choice at the end of the day.
So theatre was a pursuit of yours at school?
Yes, I enjoyed all that sort of stuff. I was in the plays and the debating. I wasn’t terribly sporting
but enjoyed the, I was on the school swimming team but that was about all. Yeah, it wasn’t a bad sort of school. I never dreamed of going into the military, particularly when I was at Monash. In those days Monash was against all that, marching
against Vietnam and all that sort of stuff, and it was much more sort of radical. There were a few of the people in our year had gone through with the Defence University Undergraduate Scheme and we’d look with scorn at them as they drove their nice cars around, as they were able to afford them, and looking back I wonder what all the fuss was about. I wish I
perhaps had gone through with the Undergraduate Scheme.
So what year did you go to Monash? 1970?
1969 to ’74 were the years that I was at Monash and it was then a six-year course, and it’s now gone to five years. Yeah, they were interesting years. I mean in some ways you grew up during your medical course and
it was just a long adolescence. I enjoyed the uni life. I was involved with plays and things then and did other things and I didn’t study as hard as I might have, and I enjoyed the uni time.
Tell us a bit about your treading the boards [being an actor], some of the highlights of your early theatrical years?
Well, just plays at school, A Man For All Seasons, I can’t think of the names of the others. At uni I was in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a Tom Stoppard sort of spoof on Hamlet, and
yes, some other plays at school, I mean in the community. I just sort of enjoyed that sort of thing.
And debating as well, did you say?
Yeah, did some debating, found that fun. Good to be able to argue from whatever point of view and I quite
enjoyed that. I remember we had at medical school, we had one of the Doctor In The House plays and I played Sir Lancelot Spratt and that was a lot of fun to play at being one of the bombastic surgeons, that we had a few role models [of] with the
honoraries that were looking after us, but that was a lot of fun.
We’ll just go back a bit to school. You said that it was a pretty old school, I mean the ’30s-style discipline and so on, and can you just give us a bit more detail on that and paint a bit of a word picture of what that was really like?
Well, I mean there was still the cane.
The vice-principal was the person who meted out the canings and he would prowl around and I found, I mean I didn’t get into trouble much but I found sometimes when I got bored in class that I’d get involved in doing other things. In my
early years I used to enjoy doing magic tricks and stuff and in fact at the school fete I ran a magic show and all that sort of stuff, and I remember one time I was doing a magic, I’d done my work and I was just doing, just playing with this new card trick that I had under the desk and the vice-principal saw me through he window and pulled me out of the class and I was in his office
and I was trying to explain but I got the cuts with the cane anyway. Yeah, I think that you just took that as it came, but I think for some of the boys it was very hard, and they were quite disciplinarian in some ways.
Are there any of the teachers that stayed with you?
I mean any particular characters, teachers or students who were quite memorable?
Yeah, we had this, we had a great Latin teacher, Mr Lightfoot, but he died and then they had this replacement teacher. I suppose it was hard even in those days to get replacement Latin teachers, but
that was Mr Fosdick I think was his name, and he was in his eighties and he had great difficulty controlling the class. We were in an old science demonstration room which had tiered wooden rows sort of overlooking a science bench in the front. Why we had a Latin class there I don’t know, but he would
look around and immediately a volley of chalk would hit the blackboard and he’d look around and say, “who did that?” And there was a trapdoor at the back and some boys went down the back and they were smoking and there was smoke coming out through the holes and it was terrible. I felt sorry for the fellow because he was really trying, but the boys just took advantage of him.
We had a science master called Mr Breen. They called him “Tamba,” I don’t know why. But he seemed to have no neck, and he was an interesting fellow, yes, so....
Sorry, with the Latin teacher, what was his name? Vostick?
What did he get called?
I think Fosdick was funny enough. And the vice-principal, he was Mr Northcott, Mr FM Northcott, and we called him “Fanny.” They seemed to work his name “Fanny” into school songs and things like that, and they’d try and annoy him by singing that in public times.
Yes, that’s a few of the teachers.
So this is the ’50s, early-mid-’60s. What, if you could sort of characterise or describe Melbourne in that era, how would you do that?
Oh, it was all very, it seemed very conservative
to us then. I suppose it was very safe. I mean I rode my bike to school and we’d be away from home for a long time. I think parents these days would be more concerned. And at that stage we were living, later on we were living in Brighton which was quite near the school, so I’d ride to school.
We’d often ride to the Brighton Beach Baths in summer and swim and they were in some ways idyllic days, but we never ever thought of “stranger danger” or the thoughts of things that parents have to think about these days. Yeah, I
think life was relatively safe and relatively easy but yeah, sort of idyllic I suppose, when I look back. Maybe it’s just my looking at it through the rosy glasses of today.
Now you said the thought of any sort of military service didn’t
cross your mind until a bit later on. Had your family had any involvement, your father or uncles or anyone been involved in war?
My father and my uncle had just joined the navy right at the end of the war, so they really just did their training and then the war ended and they were out, sort of thing. My older uncle, he was in the air force and he was over in Britain. He
was flying bombing missions over Germany in Lancasters and he wasn’t a pilot, I think he was a gunner or something like that, but he was fairly quiet about all that. And certainly at my grandmother’s house his uniform was hanging up there and we’d look at that and
we’d look at his portrait of him as a dashing young man in his air force uniform, but we found it very hard to get much information from him. In later years I spent time talking to him about his service and certainly he flew many missions over Germany and in some ways was fortunate to survive,
compared with a lot of his peers. But I suppose we didn’t really think about that, we sort of knew that. That was there. I wouldn’t say it was a military tradition.
And just as kid, in the ’50s and ’60s, how conscious were you of Australia’s recent past in World War II, especially Korea, was that something that
you were made to be aware of or was it sort of just there?
Not really. My parents would talk of what it was like in the war years and my mother as a boarder making nets for the mine hunters and that sort of stuff, and the blackouts and their cars, how they had to black the cars out, and the fuel
they had to use and rationing and all that sort of stuff. But I never really thought about war much, although I suppose my great-uncle went to the First World War and again I was aware of that, but again I wish he was alive so I could talk to him now. I mean as kids
you just, I just played with him and didn’t think to ask him all the important, heavy stuff that I would have liked to have asked him if he was alive today. He was gassed but I don’t really know about his World War I service, and more’s the pity, but I didn’t really come from a strong military family, so there wasn’t really
awareness of that. I was aware that there was a war and was swept up in baby boomer post-war consumerism sort of stuff.
Yeah, so on that subject, what about the Vietnam War and the early-mid-’60s, how much awareness was there as a teenager and a young man about what was going on?
I mean there was conscription, of course.
Well, I was actually, my marble was drawn so I should have gone to Vietnam, but because I was doing medicine it was deferred. But when I was doing my residency the government changed and Gough Whitlam got in and disbanded conscription, so it didn’t happen.
But there were fellows who were in my year at school who went to Vietnam and it certainly affected them and that was, again I didn’t have a great opportunity to talk to them about it, but I was certainly aware of that. Again the way we were at Monash, at
that time we thought that the Vietnam War was wrong and we were all up in arms about it and I marched along with many, many other medical students to say that the war was wrong, but I think we were just swept up in the sort of feeling of the times. And
having since spoken with a lot of Vietnam veterans I think we as a country did them fairly hardly and we should have looked after them a lot better than we did, particularly at the time.
So what year was it that the marble dropped for you?
So that would have been
’69, yeah, and it certainly focused one, thinking that one could be in Vietnam. So that made me think more about it and again that was going to come later, and there was all the medical course to think about.
So if you hadn’t been doing medicine, you would have...?
Yeah, then I would have been in Vietnam, as a number of my classmates were, so it would have been a sobering thought.
So that sort of activism of the time, you said Monash was sort of anti-war?
Yeah, it was a hotbed of that sort of radical thoughts
So those sorts of protests that Monash students were, there were moratoriums as well, was there that sort of micro and macro aspects to it, or was it mainly confined to the Monash students and were those protests at uni or was this a part of the bigger moratorium?
It was part of bigger stuff. I mean we would join the march that marched to Parliament House and stuff, so it was part of the bigger
picture, but there was stuff going on at Monash. But there was also radical moves at Monash itself about the governance of the university and sort of sit-ins and that, not that I was ever involved in that. And we were, even as medical students, we were concerned about the governance of the medical faculty and we thought that there should be more students on faculty
board. I mean it seems such a trivial thing now. There were only two students and we campaigned to get twenty-six students, which we got, and I believed in that. I learnt to touch-type, typing broadsheets late at night. I just laugh at it now. It seems so quaint that we were so concerned to get decent student representation
on the faculty board of the medical faculty, where it didn’t really matter very much about anything. But I thing we needed stuff to channel our energies into, and I look at it in that context. It would be easy to be a bit ashamed of how you were, but that was just the way it was and
that’s how I was then and that’s life.
They were charged times, I guess?
So do you remember that march on Parliament House, the mood of that day and what it was like to be swept up in that?
Yeah. We wore, medical students wear little half lab [laboratory] coat sort of things and we were wearing those, and some people had
banners, and I mean it felt sort of exciting, as though we were doing something. Again I smile at the John Parkes then compared to the John Parkes now. Again, that was the mood of the times but it felt very exhilarating and exciting, as though we were
doing something important.
So I mean you said you know you might have gone to Vietnam, but it sounds like you might have also contemplated the possibility of conscientious objection. Did that make you focus your thoughts on that subject?
No, I don’t think I ever would have done that. I was not thinking that way. I mean
I would have gone in then as a medical officer and talking to the medical officers of those times they had some very good experience and that was not sort of worrying me. I thought, “I’ll do my time as a medical officer and that will be
good, I’ll be sort of helping in some sort of way,” so conscientious objection didn’t cross my mind.
Okay, so can you give an idea of, we should talk a bit more about Monash and your studies and where you saw that talking you, just that wonderful era of sex, drugs, rock and roll, ’60s, early ’70s, your sort of memories of that, those social aspects, and
mischief, of any that you and your fellow students might have got up to?
Well, it became progressively less as the course went on because in the end you had to knuckle down and study because there was too much to be done; but certainly in the first and second year we sort of let our hair
hang out. I mean I had much more curly sort of hair, sort of out here, and I, yeah, I think it took us a while to get used to what our alcoholic tolerance was, particularly having been in a sort of cloistered boys’ school, so I’m sure we did drink too much. I can remember, well I can’t remember
much of some of the end of the medical balls and other sort of functions. I suppose that’s just a matter of growing up. I mean again it was a part of those times. I tried marijuana then but
again I’m sort of, I don’t feel particularly good about it now, particularly having seen in a number of patients the long-term consequences of that, particularly the mental things in some people, but again that was the spirit of the times and we tried those things. But it would only really be a, I wouldn’t say it was very much more than
a try, but again you felt good and free and all that sort of stuff. Yes, they were interesting times. And I thought I was cool with my flares and at one stage I had sort
of like platform shoes and some other shoes that were very sort of wide, just weird clothes that I’d hardly think of wearing now. But yeah, and that was that sort of time, and musicals like Hair and all that sort of stuff. And certainly in the pre-clinical, with the medical
course there were three pre-clinical years which were spent at Monash University Campus out at Clayton, so that was in the university environment, and then four, five and six years was spent in the hospitals, but then we were expected more to [conform] with the image and we were taking on the socialisation of becoming doctors, so there was a gradual
transmogrification into respectability as the years progressed. But the pre-clinical years we let our hair down and enjoyed life.
So you got your hair cut fourth year?
Yes. I don’t remember it as a particular ceremony, but as things went
on we became less radical-looking and more like the conservative doctors that we hoped to become one day.
So did you see yourself specialising in any area at that point? Where did you see your medical career heading during those years, at that time?
I’m just trying to think what I did think then. I enjoyed the different things. At one stage I thought I might be something like a surgeon or whatever, but in my residency year, which was at Queen Vic [Victoria] Hospital, I talked to the orthopaedic surgeon who I was working for as a resident and I said to him, “Oh,
Mr Shumach, what do you do in your spare time?” And he said, “Well, I don’t have very much spare time. I get home most nights and my dinner’s on the table and the family has already eaten and I have to stay up and dictate reports.” And he said, “Occasionally I get to have a game of tennis with my wife on a Saturday morning.” And I thought, “Oh, maybe I don’t want to be a surgeon.” I enjoyed the psychiatry when we did
it but I didn’t think particularly about being a psychiatrist, but yeah, I suppose general practice had crossed my mind. But we didn’t get exposed to things in a realistic way. My current speciality, which is occupational medicine, we weren’t really exposed to it at all, although I did do my elective in fifth year at the Trade Union
Clinic in Footscray so I saw a lot of occupational medicine, but I didn’t realise that’s what it was and that’s what I would later be doing.
So tell us a bit more about that elective year. I mean, you said you were at the Queen Vic, [Queen Victoria Hospital] which year was that? Sixth year?
So the first three
years were at Clayton, fourth year was largely at the Alfred Hospital at Prahran, fifth year there were a number of different attachments. We were at the old Prince Henry Hospital, which has now gone, and we also did some time at the Queen Victoria Hospital, which was then in the city, now it’s out at Clayton. We did our maternity stuff there and we had to attend a certain number of
deliveries and it was exciting. We spent some time at Royal Park, one of the psychiatric hospitals, and that was quite an eye-opener. I hadn’t seen anyone given shock therapy, electro-convulsive therapy, and I found that was,
just seemed incredibly primitive to me. They had the machine that gave the electric shock connected to one of the old-fashioned telephone handpieces so that the number of seconds’ shock it gave was on the dials. They used to dial up the number of the length of shock they’d have and just seeing these people lined up and in convulsion and just put in a
line, it seemed very empirical and very primitive to me, but I mean it does work with some people with profound depression. But I found and the contact with psychiatrically ill people, florid people, at the psychiatric hospital, that was an eye-opener.
So in sixth year we were at the Alfred Hospital, and I did my residency the year after I graduated at the Queen Victoria Hospital in the inner city. So we had to stay in the, fifth year was really a residential year so
we were staying in the hospitals, and that was the way you saw all the things. You went to casualty after hours and you’d badger the doctors and the sisters to be able to sew up the cuts and all those sorts of things, and that’s the way you learnt a lot of things. We got into scrapes and we did silly things with the nursing staff
who would usually pull us out of the poo [trouble] and point us in the right direction and smile and generally help us.
What sort of scrapes would you get yourself into? Can you give us an example or two to illustrate that? Without incriminating yourself?
I’m just trying
to think. I can’t think of anything in particular, but just playing jokes and doing sort of silly things. We were not being as respectful as we might have been.
I imagine it must have been
pretty daunting in your final years, in your first years of residency, when you’re dealing with nurses and doctors who have been around and know their stuff. What runs through your mind?
Well, there was a big transition from being a medical student to suddenly being a doctor and really being it. In those days we used to work much longer hours and that was one of the hard things, that you’d be on very long
times. At one stage I was doing like a hundred and eight-hour week, so you could be on call for all of the weekend and, when my honorary was on, on the Monday as well, so you’d be on Friday, Saturday. Sunday, Monday
and then get off Tuesday afternoon. And you could be busy all the time and sometimes were, so that was hard, trying to do all the things you were supposed to do. And the course hadn’t really prepared us to tell relatives that a loved one had just died or sitting with somebody when they were dying or telling people that they had some cancer
or whatever, and so we were still getting knowledge. And still, as you said before, there’s more knowledgeable people and [you were] dependent on them but [were] still the basic worker bee that had to do most of the work that was around. The hospital that I was with, the Queen Victoria Hospital,
it was largely a women’s hospital so its casualty didn’t have much in the way of trauma, a lot of emergencies that we got were more likely to be gynaecological or obstetric or paediatric emergencies, so we had to spend some time at Dandenong Casualty. That was an eye-opener. We saw
lots of trauma there, motorbike, skateboard accidents and people with quite nasty sort of trauma, and on my last day there I thought, “Nothing much can happen in this last morning,” but they brought in a woman, the ambulance did, and she had splints and that on and she had a number of breaks and that and
I just went through the normal examination, and I turned her over just to check the back of her and found that her buttocks had just been blown away. Her husband had put a bomb in her car and to be activated when she went into reverse, and when I turned her over a great spurt of blood shot out and I put my hand on it and we got her going
and all the rest. But just to think what people could do, and to see her young daughter, who was covered in shrapnel in the back, was sad, to see what man could do to man; but certainly there were those sorts of experiences where you were in the front line and seeing the reality of life.
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 02
So we’ve got you at the Queen Vic doing your residency, so was there anyone, was there a sort of mentor figure for you during that period? Obviously if you’re dealing with some stuff that in a way I guess Monash can’t train you for, was there any influential figures during that period for you?
There weren’t really any mentors. I mean it was interesting that the
honorary consultants there, the Queen Vic used to be purely a women’s hospital, their motto was, “pro-feminists are feminists,” “for women by women” and initially they only had women doctors there and women patients, but in the ’60s they had male honoraries and doctors and it went on from there, but still the old guard were there and they were
interesting, powerful women. I had a couple of the women. There was Joyce Dawes, the surgeon, who always wore tweed suits and marched like this (demonstrates) and had a big sort of big carpetbag thing that she carried around, very sort of drab-looking but quite sort of businesslike.
She did a lot for the medical profession when she was in the AMA [Australian Medical Association] and she was made a dame when I was her resident, but she was always sort of jolly but no-nonsense. Another honorary that I had was Doctor June Hackware, a physician. She was always extremely elegantly dressed, beautiful suits
and immaculately manicured, but still very tough in her own way. I think a lot of the women in those days had to be tough to succeed in a men’s world, but they were a funny group and they.... Yeah, I remember Dame Joyce
had to have some, she’d gone away to Fiji and she’d got a palm frond or something like that in a calf and it needed to be operated on when she came back. But they had a completely women team there, a woman anaesthetist and surgeon and all the rest, and they decided to play a joke on her and instead of an intravenous drip they put a bottle of scotch [whisky] up and attached it to her
arm and made it look as though it’s intravenous scotch was going into her arm. They had some fun too, but they were tough, demanding people to work for but certainly they won my respect. But I’m, if anything it made me decided that a hospital career was not for me. I didn’t really want to go on with this. It just seemed
artificial in the environment and talking to the people who were climbing up the ladder, the registrars and all the rest, I mean their lives were not the sort of life that I wanted to live. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I.... I didn’t do a second-year residency. I did a variety of
jobs initially. I worked for the government at the Sexually-Transmitted Diseases Clinic which was then in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Venereal disease wasn’t the discipline it is today and the clinic was pretty terrible. It was an old bank and it had bars on the windows
and it was almost as if treatment was a punishment for people with VD [venereal disease]. It was a funny little, it had a men’s clinic downstairs and a women’s clinic upstairs that the, there was a little Egyptian fellow who was behind the little grille and the patients had to go in and he’d say, “Write your number
and wait,” so it was all just numbers, no names. It was terribly impersonal. A couple of old doctors there and the clinical staff who did the swabs and gave the treatment, I mean they were hard, old-school people. It was terrible with the men. Before they even saw the doctor they’d have to
have a penile swab taken, and they’d do that with a wire loop that you put in the flame to sterilise it and let it cool down a bit and, whoosh, down the eye of the penis and then put that on a slide; and even people just coming in to ask a question, they’d still have that
done, so it was pretty sort of primitive stuff. And the staff used to love it when people had to have injections because they’d really give it in a hard sort of way. I mean I found that sort of hard, and I sort of thought it would be something interesting and different, but the
women were just as bad. The women were upstairs but I sat in with them occasionally and there was, I think she was Dutch, there was a sister and everyone wore these very old-fashioned gowns that made them look just terrible. And the women would go around the side and there was a button on the wall and you’d press it and it made a horrible, loud, alarm-like sound,
and then the Dutch sister would lean over the balcony and, “Up the stairs, please.” And there wasn’t really much room for people to get undressed or anything and the women had to have similar swabs and things, and I thought [it was] done in relatively demeaning circumstances. I only stayed there six months and it was a bit of an eye-opener, and the clinic itself, in those days Fitzroy wasn’t the trendy
suburb it is now and it was at a corner where there were some notorious pubs and murders and things, and you’d have to sometimes step over some sleeping drunken Aborigines just to get into work. So it was an, that was a different six months for me, but I certainly got to
see a different slice of life and some fairly interesting patients as well.
Sounds like something out of a Gothic horror novel.
Something like that, yeah.
So what were your duties there at the clinic?
My duties were to see male patients, so once the door was closed and you were with them you could be humane with them and try and look
I imagine they’d be quite traumatised by what had....
Already happened, yeah. The staff there used to lament the old days because before they had antibiotics. The treatment, for instance, for gonorrhoea was much more prolonged and the men used to get what were called urethral strictures. It meant we had a narrowing of the pipe in
the penis so to, that would mean that those strictures had to be stretched from time to time and they showed me the old instruments and they had these things called hockey sticks and they were rather cunning. When you turned this knob at the end, the other end [turned] and it looked like a hockey stick because it had a bend, because that’s the way you had to
introduce it and it would sort of umbrella out and become much bigger, so the idea is that you put this into the penis through the bladder and then turn the thing and then reef it out to open these strictures. And these staff,
I’m sort of glad that these people are sort of gone and that era has gone, and they lamented those days because they thought that there was more punishment for....
Did they really think that, that it was a form of punishment? I mean there was an element of sadism?
Mainly it was just sadism and they enjoyed that sort of stuff, and maybe it just attracted the wrong sort of people,
but thank God it’s much more humane and free and open and they don’t do all those terrible things. But yeah, it’s all part of life’s rich experiences.
Yeah, that sort of gels from what we’ve heard from some of the World War II diggers and the films they were shown to warn them off going to the brothels in Cairo. I think they were shown all those instruments and the pain that
would ensue if they played up.
It’s right. And they used to use another thing called the urethroscope which you could look down into the tube in the penis and if there were little glands that were pussy they’d cauterise those without anaesthetic. I mean that must have been painful too, so there were plenty of things
in those days. I suppose it stood me in good stead for later on when I was at sea. I certainly had experience on the VD side of things.
Sure. So after that six months, what was the next bit?
Then I spent some time with the Red Cross blood bank, mobile blood
bank, which was another interesting experience. It made me realise about Melbourne’s blood needs because you had to take your turn along with the other doctors. The doctors from the hospital would ring you up and if you needed more than a certain number of units of blood you’d have to go by us, and you’d know what was in store for Melbourne and you’d have to
conserve that and be tough with the doctors and say, “Well, do you really need that?” and make sure that you gave it out, but you couldn’t give everything out. Yeah, I was with the mobile blood bank and that was quite good and it was completely different from the VD clinic. We’d set up at some
school or workplace or whatever and be basically be taking blood all day. I got very good at getting blood from pretty well anybody, I developed a sixth sense. But that was really just a fill-in thing but I enjoyed it and learnt a lot about blood and blood products and things like that. It sort of made me think about blood needs
and that. And then I did a stint at a community health centre at St Albans in Melbourne’s west and they were very keen to get me to settle there and tried all sorts of inducements, but I was not, I could see that was not for me. And there were lots of ethnic houses and columns and
things and they said, “You’ll be very happy here, doctor.” But it was interesting work, but again I didn’t think that was for me. I did a variety of locums in different places. I used to do a regular Saturday morning session in Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, which is again
an interesting area, a red light area, so you’d see all sorts of patients there. I used to enjoy my Saturday mornings. You wouldn’t know who was going to come in next. It could be some prostitutes; it was a wealthy Jewish area in the next sort of street and you might see some wealthy Jewess with some diamonds dripping from her arthritic
fingers and you’d be dealing with her; and there’d be a number of alcoholics. And I was surprised one time: this beautiful-looking lady came in and I said, “And what’s the matter?” “Oh, doctor, I’m having trouble with my balls.” But again I really enjoyed
it because it was such a wonderful cross-section of humanity. But still I hadn’t found out what I was going to do and I was just doing a variety of different things, nevertheless interesting, but I didn’t really think I was the sort of person that wanted to be in the one place for thirty or forty years, that
didn’t seem like a great idea to me. And then I inquired about the navy and I initially thought it might be a way to do some training and I made an enquiry. It was a while before they got back to me but I came, they actually invited me here to Victoria Barracks, the
Directorate [Director General] of Naval Health Services was here in Melbourne and he moved later to Canberra, and they took me to lunch to here and it was just amazing. And then the Surgeon Rear Admiral, the head doctor, his name was Jim Lloyd. We
used to call him “Noisy Lloyd”, mainly because he didn’t speak very much. He was a short fellow, and in summer he’d wear the white shorts but it used to look as though he was wearing sort of big underpants. He was a funny sort of fellow and when he was wearing his, his head was so sort of small and when he was wearing his cap with the two rows of gold braid that was
“scrambled eggs”, as they called it, the peak looked almost larger than the cap. But he was an interesting sort of fellow. And then there was the matron and the ward master there, and they took me to lunch here and they went through this ritual of selecting some wine and passing the port and I was just sort of reeling with it all. But nevertheless I could sort of hear what they were saying and it sounded as if there were interesting
things to do. I talked a bit more about it and I thought, “That mightn’t be too bad,” and I thought I’d give it a go. Again it took an inordinately long time to get back to me and eventually I had an officer selection board. Fortunately the week before there was a leader in the Medical Journal of Australia saying just how very short the services
were of doctors, and at my selection board they said, “Why do you want to be a doctor in the services?” And I said, “That’s the wrong question. The question is can you afford not to take me?” and I quoted the medical journal article. And perhaps I was a
bit brash in those days, but at any rate I answered all their questions and in due course I was in. But it was so unusual for them to have somebody to come in, as it were, off the street. Most of the people were coming in from the undergraduate scheme and they’d
do their sort of indentured time and most would go and a few would stay, and to have somebody join in third year, after graduation, just off the street was unusual, and I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me. I joined in September and there wasn’t, this was 1977, there wasn’t an officers’ entry course at that time so they said, “We’ll put you down at Cerberus,” which is down on the Mornington Peninsula,
and I went down there. I had no real course. The lieutenant commander took me through sort of three days of just the basics of how to salute and all the rest and I was into it. I got a uniform there. I was measured up for some stuff which would
have to come later, but they thought, “You could get some basic stuff,” but the only problem was there wasn’t a cap big enough for me. I’ve got a sort of biggish head so that had to be made, so I then had to wear civilian clothes because I couldn’t go outside without a cap, so it was a month before the cap came and that was sort of hard. People said, “Oh, we thought you were a civvy [civilian] doctor,” so it wasn’t the
best start to my service career. And because I hadn’t done the usual sort of stuff of taking squads and doing marching and that, it did leave me at some sort of disadvantage, but I didn’t seek to lead squads at divisions and other sort of marching things as a result.
Sorry, disadvantaged how? In sort of not being au fait with the protocol of the drills or...?
Yeah, it meant that, I think what they usually do is, I mean it’s something like a month-long course and you’re treated almost like sailors and barked at and told to do this and do it a hundred times until you get it right and leading squads
and all that, and because I’d only had my three days’ very abbreviated introduction to that I hadn’t had it really drummed into me, so I felt less comfortable than others might about those things. Not that it really mattered, as I was only a medical officer anyway.
Allowances were made for medical officers in that respect?
Yes. Some medical officers are very gung-ho and believe that they’re soldiers more than they are doctors, but I think you’ve got to get the thing right. I think to be
good at, to be a good doctor in the defence forces you have to be a good officer and a good doctor, but if you believe that one is more important than the other I think you get things wrong. It’s a both thing. So I was a doctor down at [HMAS] Cerberus, one of the many doctors there working in outpatients and the
wards and stuff, and it was a good introduction to naval life and naval medical life. I lived onboard in the wardroom there. Looking back I think one of my then unexpressed motivations for joining the Navy was perhaps to get away from home and my parents. I’d been, not that I was always living with my parents when I was doing my residency
and that. And my parents had moved to Frankston and I was largely living with them and I sort of thought, again in retrospect, I think I was trying to fly the coop and do something different. And then the, so I hadn’t been there all that long when the surgeon commander called me in and
said, “Oh, there’s a opportunity to go up to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea,” because at that stage we were providing medical officers for the Papua New Guinea Defence Force Hospital there, and how did I feel about that? I said, “That would be great,” so I went up to,
I did a pidgin language course for five weeks with the army. In that stage it was in Wagga Wagga and now it’s in Point Cook, but it was good learning pidgin [pidgin English]. And I had to do, because it was a remote area, I had to do, they wanted me to be prepared to give anaesthetics on my own, so I spent time doing that. I spent time with a surgeon because we’d have to do
surgery there ourselves and also do caesarean sections ourselves, but they didn’t let me do very much, but they let me assist. And because there was no dentist up there I spent a week at the dental hospital learning how to pull teeth and drain abscesses and things like that, so they tried to get me prepared for all that. That was all fairly exciting
So how long into your navy career did the Manus Island thing come up?
Well, this was, I was at Cerberus I suppose about seven months, something like that, before the training for this started. And so in ’78 I flew up to
Papua New Guinea, and Manus Island is a couple of degrees from the equator so it’s quite tropical, and it’s quite isolated. There’s one other doctor in the main sort of town, and at that stage we had two navy doctors at the patrol boat base where we were, and that was it. So I arrived at the
so-called Manus international airport and the other Navy doctor met me there. He said, “Hello, my name’s Nick Barnes. You must be John Parkes. What are you like at giving anaesthetics? There’s a caesarean section waiting for us on the table when we get back,” so it was quickly into it, in at the deep end. So we certainly had to do our own obstetrics there.
The Australians that were there, they could be medically evacuated back to Australia, but for the national people, the local people who were there that we were also looking after, the buck really stopped there and the medical care that we gave them was what they got. So that meant that we had to do the obstetrics or
if necessary do the caesarean sections or assist otherwise with the deliveries. We had to do what operations we could there. That was good, that gave me more confidence in myself. The medical course had taught us that we really need to have all these specialists to help us and you can’t really do anything on your own, but
we learnt that by following the basic principles of medicine and surgery, and as long as you weren’t too heroic, that by and large people would pull through and you could manage. I think that was a very valuable message to me. It was quite an idyllic environment. I didn’t live in the wardroom, the officers’ mess
there because it was under Papua New Guinea food rations so it was bully beef and rice and that sort of stuff, so I had my own house. It was just me, a three-bedroom house and you had like your own sort of servant there called a “house Mary”, like a maid, and she’d do all
the washing and cleaning up. I quite enjoyed it and I’d be able to have dinner parties and she’d just come up the back stairs and she’d wash it all up and it was good.
So could you just describe the set-up there for us? So it was PNG [Papua New Guinea] Defence Forces?
It was a patrol boat base, Lombrum was what it was called, so Papua New Guinea patrol boats
were based there. It was a big harbour during, there were a lot of American operations sort of from there in World War II and there was a airstrip there and there were a handful of Australians, largely there as advisers, and something like a dozen and their families,
that sort of thing, plus the Papua New Guinea servicemen and officers and sailors on that base. But we had all the people from the surrounding villages and islands and all the rest, so we would be expected to give medical care to those people as well. So somebody might come from a remote island
and come by canoe and be in obstructed labour for several days and arrive there; and we had people with malaria. And I had malaria myself a couple of times. We didn’t know at that stage that [with] the anti-malarial that we were taking you could get breakthrough with the type of malaria that was there. But it was interesting with the tropical diseases, this mixture of
surgery and obstetrics, and we were doing the antenatal care. I got, you had to talk pidgin all the time really, particularly with the national women. They wouldn’t talk to you through an interpreter, particularly about women’s problems, they’d just go quiet and the head would go down and you wouldn’t get anything, so you had to speak pidgin yourself or not get anywhere. And I can still speak pidgin. I’ve got one pidgin
patient, or one Papua New Guinea-born patient at the moment, and I speak pidgin with him. It’s a funny, quaint sort of language and sometimes you’ve got to talk yourself around how you describe things. But yeah, that was a lovely base in sort of a tropical paradise with coral reefs and all that. But
you couldn’t really drink too much or do too much, because even when you were, the two doctors would take it in turns to be on call. You’d have a sort of short week or a long week, but if there was surgery, well, one of you’d, you’d both be required anyway, so even when you were off call you couldn’t sort of do too much. That was, I enjoyed
the time there. We had a visiting orthopaedic surgeon who was also the lieutenant colonel based in Moresby. We’d do intensive operating when he came and he’d operate on people who had deformities and other things who would otherwise not have any surgery, and we’d look after them and that was
quite rewarding. I was, the first weeks there I was quite sort of homesick and out of sorts, but after a few weeks I liked it and sort of went on from there.
And prior to that, how had you sort of adapted to naval college? How comfortable were you feeling being a part of the forces as such?
I found it surprisingly comfortable, really. I mean, apart from the marching stuff that I felt a bit uneasy about if I was in charge of marching a squad somewhere. But I liked the tradition, and the wardroom life and the mess dinners and the toast of the day and all that sort of stuff was,
yeah, quite, I was going to say a lot of fun but it’s more than that. I mean I found it was something that gave me a bit of anchoring in a way at perhaps a time when I needed anchoring. Having come out of Monash and the other sorts of things and done the odds and sods of jobs that I’d done, I found
this was something that I enjoyed and could belong to and could believe in, and it gave me a value system and discipline, and I felt very comfortable about that. I think the good thing about navy life or service life is that it does give you an ongoing series of challenges. So for me, as I said before, I’m not somebody who likes to be doing the same thing for twenty or thirty years.
But every year or so there would be a new challenge and it would be a bit more challenging than the thing before, and that’s the beauty of it, and that’s what I found I really liked, doing interesting things in interesting places and talking to interesting people. The challenges would change as my career went on: the more clinical challenges
early on; sort of population-based challenges, “How do we make it safe for everybody?” sort of thing, as it went further on. I found I took to service life, to my surprise. I might have never thought as myself as a service sort of person, but I enjoyed it and I wished that somebody had really told me what it was like before instead of
the false notions that I had. I found that I could still be an individual. I could still do all sorts of different things. I could still be an ordinary humane sort of person but be within the service. And it’s amazing what you can do; and I think service life in many ways is a freedom rather than a restraint,
because you just have to know how the service works and how to do things.
You sound like you’ve got that continuity, that stability but at the same time the variety as well, which obviously was something you were seeking with those various others that you’d had prior to the navy.
Yes. When the navy and I finally connected, almost by accident, that was a good thing.
What was the spark, that sort of initial motivation to enquire, to look into the navy?
Well, I thought it might be a vehicle to get some sort of further training, but then, to my surprise, when I talked about it it sounded really interesting and I went on from there. But first of all I had to get rid of my false notion of military types and all
that sort of stuff. Yes, as I said, it was a great sort of freedom, but I had to just get past that mental block initially. It was really just a casual thing to see if I could do some further post-graduate training, which I later did; but what sucked me in was the variety of the
work initially, and I thought, “I’ll give it a go, four years’ short service commission, that doesn’t sound terribly bad, and I could get some good experience and do some different things,” and stayed for nineteen years.
And how long did you have in Manus?
I was there for some fourteen
months and then my job was moved to Port Moresby. They decided that they’d rather have a second doctor helping at the army PNG hospital at Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby. That was quite a different experience from the sort of tropical paradise
of Manus, where you could leave your door open, you could leave money on your bed or anything, and it just wouldn’t matter and nobody would ever think of ever doing anything. Moresby is drier than Sydney and it has rain shadow areas and it’s quite really dry and because of all these rascals, the local ruffians, the white people particularly
lived with bars on their windows and there were certain areas where you didn’t drive or didn’t tarry in and it was a much more controlled environment there. Again I had my own flat and I had a houseboy there, but you were aware of the
bars and the situation wasn’t anywhere near the pretty delightful life that it was up at Manus. But the clinical experience, the clinical responsibilities weren’t as much there either because they had surgeons and all the rest, so we weren’t doing the same sort of things. Yes, we were involved with births and giving anaesthetics, but
certainly not to the extent of Manus.
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 03
Okay, we’re back on. I wouldn’t mind going back to Manus Island for a little while. I’m just wondering, you were there for quite a while, fourteen months, so how well did you get to know the local community? It’s a very small place, isn’t it?
We got to know the people fairly well. I think the fact that you could speak pidgin really made a difference. In fact I found that
I could travel in, one time I went up to the highlands and I stayed in, one of the sailors from Manus, I stayed in his family’s village in the highlands and slept in one of their huts and they welcomed me, but I think it was because I could speak pidgin. I think that really helped. And we certainly went out into
villages. You couldn’t spend too much time away. My parents came and visited me at one stage and we took a three-hour canoe trip down to the south of Manus Island. There’s a village there called Bunai that Margaret Mead did research on some decades before, and that was very interesting being with those people.
They couldn’t believe my parents, who were in their fifties, who to them were incredibly old, like the (UNCLEAR Pinnas) they were very old. They sort of carried them ashore and generally looked after them and respected them. But it was just to see that sort of village and the life was very interesting.
Because we were delivering their babies and that, they respected us, and I enjoyed the life there. It was much more friendly and open than, compared with Moresby. There wasn’t that sort of nasty or rascal element at Manus. It
was just lovely, really.
Were you going out to the villages to deliver babies?
No, they’d come into the hospital.
Did you come across any concerns about that, women having babies in hospitals?
Some would have them at home and some of them wouldn’t stay in the beds
in the hospitals. Often there’d be a tribe of people with them. But we had, as well as Australian nursing sisters, we had national nursing sisters as well and I think that helped a lot because they felt comfortable with the national sisters there.
But a tricky mix of getting all that right, and I suppose we weren’t as culturally sensitive as we might have been, but we tried.
What about infant mortality?
It was certainly there. Very different compared to Australia. And things like malaria. You’d see people who were
very anaemic and you’d wonder how they could walk around, but again we tried to do what we could, but we didn’t really have a mandate for the public health of the island. Yes, our people would do spraying for mosquitoes for the base, but you
really can’t go beyond that sort of thing, so I mean it was sad, and you’d think, “This child in Australia would be a different outcome.” But really all we could do was there, and you would see babies die that you know in Australia would have survived, and that was not easy.
Did you come across tribal
spiritualism and perhaps sorcery at all on the island?
Not really. There was some traditional beliefs but we didn’t find that was a big thing. Yeah, there was
a Christian community and there were various missions and we came into contact with them to see some of the old missionaries. I mean it’s wonderful what they did. Again, some of the things that they did in the past might not have been as culturally sensitive as today,
but certainly their motivation was there and they clearly loved the people.
They were very good at educating the local people.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. It was a good environment.
life and friendships on the island: who were your sort of main friends, I guess?
I’d socialise with the other doctor and his wife and we’d go to the trouble of having dinner parties and things. I’d brought some extra
crockery and things from Australia just to set myself up a bit, and it was mainly with the families on the base that you’d fraternise. I had a bit to do with the doctor in the town, and certainly if one of the navy doctors was away
then we’d usually involve him or he’d call us in to do stuff with him if necessary. We had a bit to do with him and his wife. But I had a little ute [utility vehicle with small tray], a little yellow ute that I drove around, and you’d go into
town and you could buy things at the market. And they had these incredible coconut crabs that are blue in colour with a funny sort of after body with one very big pincher, and they could actually, what they ate was coconuts. They could crack the coconuts with this great
big pincher. The locals would sometimes tie one of them up and they could crack through the neck of a beer stubby [small bottle]. But you’d go to the sellers in the market and they’d be missing a few fingers from this. When you cooked them
they went red, but they had this coconuty taste to the crabmeat. It was very funny, the Australian matron of the hospital, a navy nursing sister, she’d bought one of these – you’d buy them live and they’re sort of trussed up in sort of like raffia ties, and it was quite a bumpy
journey from town through to the patrol boat base; it would take about half an hour – so she had one of these coconut crabs all trussed up next to her on the seat, driving the Land Rover; with all the shaking it came loose and she sort of quickly fled the Land Rover
and waited until it scampered off into the jungle.
Did you ever treat anyone for a coconut crab attack?
No I didn’t. I saw one fellow who’d had, he’d been bitten by a crocodile, who had crocodile teeth marks all along his leg, on the southern part of the island, but that’s the,
and we had some people who stood on stonefish spikes. Stonefish are these fish that look like stones but have these poisonous nasty spikes which are very nasty and get embedded in the skin. But those were the only local animal – well, apart from a mosquito and malaria – those were the only animal attacks that I had to deal with.
Is there any crime or violence on the island?
Not very much. The locals would occasionally get drunk and do some things that they later regretted. I remember a warrant officer who was a very respected fellow who had a bit too much to drink came into the hospital one night when I was on duty,
and again we just had to look after him. He would have very easily got into a violent sort of situation, “You just hold on, let’s just take you home, you’ll be right,” and all that sort of stuff. The nationals would get into problems with drinking but that was really the only sort of problem.
I wouldn’t say there was any great organised crime or robberies and, as I said, you could leave your house open and money on the bed and it would still be there. Another thing with the socialisation, we watched these, in the wardroom they’d have these dreadful old Western movies and other old movies that we’d watch. You’d go and watch them
because there was nothing much else to do. They were dreadful old movies.
I’d like to ask you a bit more about that aspect of the traditional belief system in PNG to do with sorcery, I’ve come across it myself, where they will blame an illness on something to do with a sorcerer’s spell that a
a sorcerer has put on them. And this is all part of their belief system, but it does create problems in getting medical treatment and medical education. Did you find that? Did you come across that at all?
In Moresby we had one soldier who had a type of, well, I would call it an
hysterical paralysis. There was no real reason why he couldn’t move his legs as far as we knew. But he had, so he thought, some sort of spell had been put on him and we couldn’t convince him otherwise. But you asked me before did I come across that in Manus, and I didn’t really find it in Manus, but in Moresby, yes, I did find that.
We tried all we could. Even tried to give this fellow a fright to see if he’d move, but he just wouldn’t and was solidly under the belief that a spell had been put on him and that was that. We, I don’t know what happened to him in the end, but it was very difficult. He was just lying in the bed
and quite afraid that this spell had happened. I mean, you could see the terror in his eyes that he did believe it.
Did he tell you the story or the background as to why?
He told us the story. I can’t remember, it was in relation to some sort of family feud about something, but I can’t remember exactly what the fine details were of why it had happened.
But yeah, he was in terror about it.
So your posting to Port Moresby, how did that come about?
Well, the authorities decided they needed more help, particularly with the Australian families who were in Port Moresby. There was nobody really looking after them and although
there were doctors attached to the Papua New Guinea Defence Hospital, they really wanted somebody they could call their own. Whereas my posting in Moresby [Manus] was like a secondment to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force - we wore the little bird of paradise, the green and gold
thing on our uniform; when in Port Moresby I was just broad Australian navy and the idea [was that] I was a resource to particularly look after the Australians and the families. Although I was at the hospital I could be directed to do things by the Australian military people there
rather than by the PNGDF [Papua New Guinea Defence Force] people. A fine distinction, and I still treated nationals, but they decided I was mainly a resource for the Aussies there. That was still good experience but again, as I said before, the environment was quite different. But I was only there for some eight
months, and that was the end of my time in PNG.
So what kind of cases were you treating there at the hospital?
Oh, the physical injuries that sailors and soldiers
have, infectious diseases, malaria. We were still involved in some antenatal care and obstetrics. I remember once a lady came in, we hadn’t done her antenatal care, and she came in, in labour and delivered a healthy baby. And the normal thing you’d do then was give an injection
to contract the uterus. And I hadn’t examined her as fully as I might, she was quite a big lady, to see whether there was another baby there, and there was in fact a twin there. I gave the order for this injection to contract the uterus and this second baby sort of shot out like
a cannonball. It was fine, it was just, but you were reminded of the basic principles of medicine and surgery. I gave anaesthetics for various things. Again, I was not operating. Yeah, I
can remember giving the anaesthetic and you do things perhaps you shouldn’t. I was looking at the patient and, “Oh, there is terrible blackheads there and I’ll just squeeze that terrible blackhead on that person,” but the things you do when you’re young and
silly and to pass the time. But it was just general medical things with a tropical flavour. You still got the tropical ulcers that you had to deal with but yeah, I enjoyed the work there.
And where did you live in Port Moresby?
I had a flat. I can’t remember the name of the district but it had bars on the windows and had a houseboy. I entertained but not on the same sort of scale that I did in Manus, again friends mainly with the expat [expatriate, non-native] community there. I occasionally
went out sailing with some people, which was quite nice. I had my little yellow ute brought to Port Moresby. I worked out a way of making it secure from the rascals. The Papua New Guineans have a morbid fear of snakes so
I had my mother send up a ten foot rubber snake which I had curled up on the passenger seat of the ute, so I never had any problems. You only had to shake it a bit and it would quiver a bit and they were just too distressed to think it might not be real, and so I found that was a good way of making sure that your car didn’t get stolen.
Were you ever at risk, do you think, or threatened in any way?
I didn’t feel at risk. Again I felt that because I could speak pidgin I could talk myself out of any situation. But I avoided going through rascal areas; I avoided going to Kung Fu movies
that the Papua New Guineans loved, and when they came out they’d be all sort of fired up; and just did sensible things. But I never felt at great risk myself. But things went on, people were raped and awful things happened, but you just had to be sensible about security.
Did you travel around PNG at all on your time off?
I did. I went up to the highlands and visited the home of a sailor that I’d known up in Manus. That was great. They welcomed me and I stayed in a hut there and just spoke pidgin all the time. I didn’t feel
threatened there. It was great seeing that part of things. I went with the, they had these flights, I went with army up to Mindi [?], they had a presence there, and from there there was a flight that went round
various areas so I got to see some different places. I thought, one place we arrived and all these people had all these blue faces and I thought, “This must be some incredible cultural thing,” and it was just that they had blue zinc cream which was the rage there at that time. It wasn’t any cultural thing at all. I had a little bit of time up at Wewak.
I was at an army base there. I can remember flying from the highlands to Wewak. I was the only other white person on the plane so the pilot invited me to join him in the cockpit. There were mothers and babies and men and pigs, and
some of the women would suckle a child on one breast and a pig on the other breast and the pig breast would be a lot bigger. So, with this pilot, he was saying, “In Australia we wouldn’t really be allowed to fly at these altitudes because of the oxygen as people get sleepy,”
and I was feeling decidedly sleepy and I looked back and all the mothers and the babies and the pigs were all sort of dopey. Then the pilot took out a cigarette which he lit and I thought, “Well, how are you going to manage with your oxygen?” But we got there. And very interesting flying in the highlands and very tiny airstrips that you only get one chance
to land on, but beautiful, isolated places and it was good to see these different places.
Okay, so we might come back to that a bit later, but perhaps we’d better move on to the next posting. Were you sorry to leave PNG?
I could have stayed
there longer, I thought, but again I was happy for the next challenge. I mean that was the good thing. You enjoy where you are and sometimes I regretted not staying longer, but you’d always find there was some good reason for that happening when time went on. Next it
was decided that I should really go to sea. After all, I was a navy officer and I hadn’t been to sea yet. So I went, I was posted to a destroyer escort, HMAS Swan, for a Southeast Asian deployment. That was about a six-and-a-half month deployment.
We went, apart from Australian ports, we went to the Philippines, to Manila and Cebu, and Bangkok in Thailand, to Penang and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, to Hong Kong and a couple of
ports in Japan. I found that fascinating. It’s like having your own floating hotel that’s taking you to all these places. At sea the medical officer’s job, there isn’t that much to do and you get in the way if you do too much. There is a pecking order. We had Jock, who was a petty
officer, a Scottish petty officer medic, and we had an able seaman; and the petty officer didn’t want to see me in the sick bay before a certain time and if I came too early, “What are you doing here, sir?” he’d say to me. But that was the idea: the POs [petty officers] were meant to be able to cope on their own at sea and we did the
wrong thing by them if we took too much experience away from them, because not all ships could have medical officers and the idea was that the petty officers were trained to manage on their own for up to seventy-two hours. So we had to make sure that they got their experience at the basic things. Jock was pretty good. He’d know when to call me in and I’d know if he did call me in there was something happening that he
really needed me. So you weren’t that busy medically, so there was good time to read and do other things. They made me do the wardroom books so I was like the treasurer for that, and it was great when you visited foreign ports. You’d typically have a
cocktail party the first night and you’d meet the local dignitaries and the lieutenants, like I then was, we’d try and latch onto some of those. “Baron strangling”, we called it, and if you found a good person they’d invite you out and take you around the next day, and we found it much better to be taken around by locals because they’d show you the local sights,
better than us struggling on our own. That was a great way to see those parts of the world. When we were in Japan, though, at times it got a bit funny. We were taught, before we went into any port we’d have a briefing on the customs in the local place so we wouldn’t
do the wrong thing. In Thailand you shouldn’t touch people on the head, you shouldn’t point the sole of your foot towards them, that was most undignified. Before we got to Japan we were taught about how important the giving and receiving of presents was, and if somebody gave you his business card it actually embodied him and the way that you dealt with the business card was important,
so you had to regard it and look at it and put it thoughtfully in your pocket and not just, “Oh, yes,” and do that (demonstrates). We thought we’d been prepared when we went into Japan and I was given the cocktail party the first night. This fellow I knew, he was a doctor but he didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Japanese
and we were just sort of nodding at each other, and I was quite unprepared for what he did to me. I mean I’ll do it on myself. I mean he went (demonstrates) and I thought, “Gosh, what’s that? What am I meant to do?” We called the embassy interpreter over and it turns out he was an ear, nose and throat surgeon and was just trying to tell me his speciality; and I’m glad it
was not an unseemly speciality, otherwise it might have been different! But that was a great way of seeing Southeast Asia and getting an idea of what was happening in different countries.
So when you did arrive in port, who were the dignitaries or what type of dignitaries would be greeting you?
Well, there’d be the local mayor,
there’d be somebody from the local chamber of commerce, there’d be some society ladies and these sorts of people. I mean the embassies would work a sort of standard invitation list when the ships came in. They were usually older people, but we found the society ladies
were often better to take you out. They were very generous people, thinking that we were silly, young lieutenants, and the way they looked after us in foreign ports, it was very nice. Yeah, but it wasn’t so terribly medically challenging. There were a few odd emergencies so you earned your keep,
but most of the time you were waiting for things to happen that never did happen. In your back of your mind there’s always the preparation for war so you’re trying to prepare for, do exercises so if you were in war you’d know what to do; and closing up for different exercises and setting up the emergency operating theatre; and
occasionally we’d have exercises with fake wounds on people and try and exercise the system that way.
Where would these exercises take place? On board ship?
On board ship.
When you were out at sea or when you were in?
At sea. You wouldn’t do that sort of stuff alongside. Oh, maybe you would in Australia
but not in a foreign port. I mean, it would alarm people to see you all in action working dress and going through all that.
What kind of a naval presence was there in that part of the world, in the ports you were going to?
You mean Australian naval or...?
American, I mean Asian, Australian, British?
we’d do exercises with other navies. I mean in the Philippines there was much more, there was a Philippine navy and a US [United States of America] navy presence. Japan’s self-defence forces were evident. There were also Americans around there. We didn’t see so much in the other ports. Yes, you’d
see the Thai navy or the Malaysian navy and they’d be a part of the politeness and sometimes you’d exercise with them, but I wouldn’t call them a big presence.
So what kind of exercises, so would you actually be working with them? Were you able to get to know other navy members?
Not really. You’d
be working with ships in a sort of convoy or you might be trying to sink a submarine or do a missile firing or those sorts of things together, but not.... I mean, at least I didn’t get to know my counterparts on other ships, sort of thing. You wouldn’t be together enough for that to happen.
So can you tell me a bit about these exercises and what your role would be? What would you have to be prepared for, say for example, if a submarine emerged?
Not very much. With the ship closed up for action people had their different places on the ship.
I’d be in one designated area of the ship, the petty officer would be in another and we were ready to receive casualties and we’d set up the emergency things. There was an emergency operating, you’d use the wardroom as an emergency operating theatre. There was a table that you’d fold out and you’d get all the gear out and you’d test all your gear.
For an internal exercise there might well be some casualties in odd places on the ship and we’d have to, the people would have to make sure they strapped them properly on a stretcher and then bring them into you. But again, just making sure that the internal systems worked well and how you’d cope if certain.... for some of the exercises
I might say, “Well, the doctor’s just been shot. PO, you’ve got to cope,” and that sort of thing.
Who would you have assisting you in theatre, when you set up the emergency theatre?
The dentist on board would help you and the PO if he was around, but he could
well be on another part of the ship. There is also the able seaman medic [medical assistant] and he’d be helping me too, but you’d have to possibly do a number of things yourself, but that wasn’t so challenging as from New Guinea I learnt about that. In fact, in New Guinea I learnt about giving spinal
anaesthetics so if you were on your own you could give an anaesthetic and, say, do a caesarean section, and that was as well. It’s not ideal, but if you’re alone that’s what you’ve got to do.
So how would you be briefed? Can you recall one of these exercises and how you would be briefed about it? I’m just trying to get a picture of how the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] would be doing
a joint exercise with another navy, and what you would be told about it.
Well, a lot of it would be more at the seaman officer level. There’d be some sort of scenario about there being a war-like situation, and there may be some
designated ships or submarine that was meant to act as the enemy for the sake of the exercise, and it might be involved in tracking that particular submarine or things like that. From the internal side of the ship, that
wasn’t very much different from doing an internal exercise. We’d sometimes have exchange of personnel, but it would never be medical people, who would work on one another’s ships to get an idea of how they operated. We got to see other people’s sick bays and things, but it was really only when we were
alongside. So it was mainly the exercises would be ship-to-ship things and they wouldn’t affect most of the people, like the medical people, that much. Whether they got the submarine or not wouldn’t be a big deal to the medical people, but we’d all be in our, you’re wearing like....
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 04
So you’d just started to describe something you wore, was it?
Yeah, I was just saying with action working dress you had to be completely covered, so you’d be wearing your, this blue uniform, not the, yeah, just rough uniform with anti-flash hood,
as there was risk of there being explosion and burns, and you’d wear gloves, anti-flash gloves, as well, and that was the standard thing. The ships, depending on the exercise, if it was judged there was a possible nuclear, biological or chemical threat then the ships
have got, or they used to have what is called a “citadel”, so there would be an area inside the ship that could be shut off, from a ventilation point of view, from the outside of the ship. It would have a positive ventilation so that air is going outwards so the contaminated stuff was not being sucked in, so that if people had to go outside that they’d go through a series of locks to get outside. And outside
they would wear protective equipment and masks so they’re completely covered up, and rubber masks and boots, and then if they came back in that would all have to be stripped off them and they’d have to be decontaminated and they’d have to shower before they came back in inside the lock. But that was
in those days the thought, that those sorts of threats were still possibly real, and we would practise for those things from time to time.
Did you say that was in the event of some kind of a nuclear explosion or anything?
Well, yes, or if chemical or biological
weapons were used. I mean if there was some fallout, for instance say there had been some nuclear explosion and some fallout was drifting, it was important to keep that from the inside of the ship so the people on the inside can get on with the business of conducting the war, sailing the ship or whatever; and there were elaborate filters and ventilation to keep
this citadel inside the ship free from contamination.
So nuclear, chemical and biological; so had you been given any training in what possible injuries could result from that style of combat?
Not at that stage. Little was I to know that later I would become an expert in that
area. But partly because I think I missed out on my sort of initial training. If you’re entering the standard way, not off the street as I did, they did a basic nuclear, chemical and biological defence course, which strangely enough I never did. They’d also learn
how to plug leaks if the ship was sinking and all that sort of stuff, so at that stage those sorts of things, though we drilled for them, seemed far away. But later I was to do a much more detailed training for that, as we’ll
no doubt talk about soon.
And you said that you were a destroyer escort, is that right, HMAS Swan was a destroyer escort?
So were you actually escorting a destroyer?
It was really just the name of the class of ship. It had its own
weaponry including missiles and was quite capable of defending itself. I’m not quite sure why they were called destroyer escorts, but really in essence a destroyer in itself,
capable of tracking submarines and doing anti-aircraft stuff and all that and working either alone or in convoy.
So how well did you know the ship?
Pretty well, particularly with these exercises. I mean if something happened to somebody in one part of the ship you’d want to be
able to get there and know where to go to, and so don’t ask me to sketch the ship now but at that time I knew it pretty well and could find my way about easily. Yeah, it was, the petty officer was your sort of eyes and ears on the ship and he would tell
you what was happening, and he’d know all the gossip around the ship and he would let you know if he thought a sailor was malingering or not, because sailors are living with one another twenty-four hours a day and he’d know what the gossip was about this or that sailor. And he’d say, “Just a moment, sir,” and
he’d let you know what was happening. And I had my own cabin, unusual for just a lieutenant. Mine was really just the annexe to the captain’s cabin, but I had my own bunk there, which was great. And many of the other lieutenants had to share cabins, and the sailors certainly were in very close quarters in messes with
bunks sort of in threes above one another, living in very close quarters. It’s sad in a way those old days are gone. There was a lot of mess camaraderie in those days and you’d go into a sailors’ mess, and you’d have to be invited there, but there’d be laughing and joking and carrying on and do things together.
But my mates tell me that these days the sailors of today have all got their laptops and they’re watching their own DVDs [digital video disks] and doing computer games and largely don’t interact with one another and just escape with the modern technology, which is sort of sad in a way.
There was a lot of camaraderie in the older days.
It’s pretty radical times too, late ’70s. What would the sailors get up to when they got into port?
Well, things changed in the time that I was in the service. Certainly in the early days when I was, like when I was on Swan, I mean the venereal disease was still
very much there and you’d have a number of sailors who so many days after a port would come in and you’d have gonorrhoea and occasional syphilis to deal with, and they didn’t seem to think much of it. And later on, I’m going on in my naval career, once things like AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] came in
it really changed and you just didn’t see the venereal disease that you used to. I think sailors in those days thought that pretty everything was curable and it didn’t matter what they did and would get up to all sorts of shenanigans [mischievous fun] when they went ashore.
Would you advise them to wear protection?
Yes, we had a,
it was obligatory for medical officers, when I say “obligatory”, medical officers would give lectures on venereal diseases and stuff, which I think the troops would sort of snigger at, but you’d still sort of tell them. And there was a box on the door of the sickbay so that it could be accessed, even at night, so that people could take condoms from it without necessarily having to ask the stern PO,
“PO I want some condoms.” They could just take them, and that was regularly replenished and they were encouraged to do that. You’d have a small number of cases of VD out of most ports in those days, but later on when I was at sea that was not the case.
So you’d kind of gear up for
the post-port rush, would you?
Yeah. The PO would sort them all out and the PO would tell them what he thought of them and how stupid they were and all the rest, and he’d have it largely organised, and I ended up, he’d have them all lined up and he would have pre-seen them and sorted them out and what was real and what was just worried young sailors with nothing, and
“squeezers”, as he called them, and they were just imagining that they had a discharge but there was nothing there. And he’d sort them out. And then I’d come in and assign the orders for the various treatments and agree with him about the great majority of them, and off we’d go.
So these are the sailors;
what about the officers, was that the same?
The officers did that too, not all of them, but some of them did that. There was one time, I didn’t know, the captain and some other officers they actually roped me
into this, which was, I didn’t really know what was happening, but this was in Thailand and they took me to a brothel ashore. I’d never been to a brothel in my life and I thought this was just amazing. They had all these women behind a glass wall and the idea was you had to pick one and take her away with you.
That was not my scene at all, but I picked a woman and got her to give me a massage, and then I was surprised because the captain and all the others were all that much quicker than me and I’d just had an ordinary massage and they said, “What took you so long?”
Got the full treatment?
Well, the others clearly had sex but that was not my scene, so.... But it was very interesting seeing the inside of a brothel, and that’s the only time I’ve seen that. And so yes, the officers got up to that sort of stuff too, despite one encouragement. I think things have changed,
I think people are scared now; and I mean morality had something to do with it, too.
What about the behaviour of the sailors ashore, like generally? I mean, Australians do have a bit of a reputation, sort of loud and unruly.
Many of the sailors lived up to that reputation, ashore in Singapore and places like that they’d drink too much and display their cultural biases and things like that. Yeah, you’d....
Were you treating any of them for injuries from fighting?
Some, and some would fall places where they shouldn’t because they’re drunk and they’d fall down stairs or fall into a canal, and when you think of all the stuff that was in a canal I’d be worried about all the infections from that.
Yeah, not wonderful ambassadors, many of the sailors. But, having said that, there’s many good people too and it’s just a few people, I think, who give that bad reputation. But sailors get up to funny things.
Okay, so that was about
a six-month tour, wasn’t it?
Yeah. Nearly back to Australia, was in the Great Australian Bight and a signal came to the ship that the Australian Red Cross had asked the Department of Defence whether a Defence Force doctor could be made available for the relief teams with the International Red Cross on the Thai-Cambodian border, and as I had
some tropical medicine experience they’d thought about my name and “was I a volunteer?” And I said, “Too right.” So I was landed at Westernport and within a week I was up in Bangkok and, after briefing there,
driven to the border. And I was at a medical, I was one of the medical team of a refugee camp of some forty-five thousand refugees called Koh Samet, but we had a Red Cross base camp where we retreated to each night which was within Thailand. And
perhaps I’ll talk about Koh Samet first.
Well, actually I was going to ask you, you went to Bangkok: was that for a briefing?
A briefing from the Red Cross people there.
Can you tell me about the briefing?
Well, they just told us about the layout in the refugee camps and what the routine
was. There were refugee camps sort of along the border with a main holding refugee camp inside Thailand at a place called Khao I Dang and it had a hundred fifty thousand refugees, something like that.
But at each of the camps there was a number of Red Cross people from different countries doing medical, public health, construction and a number of other functions with a Swiss Red Cross person as the
sort of delegate there who was doing the liaison with the various parties, yeah, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and the Thais and whatever. It was just a basic sort of briefing, getting us ready for the way that things were done there, and then we were bussed to the border.
Your decision to go was a very, very spontaneous decision.
I’d learnt with your navy career opportunities come up, and one shouldn’t really hesitate because it’s often a narrow window with opportunities and you take them when they present themselves, and this sounded great so why shouldn’t I be into it?
It was also a real hot spot, though.
Oh yes, but again I was going to be with a Red Cross relief team, I was not sort of worried about that. And indeed we really learnt to respect the Red Cross, and that gave me an insight into the Geneva Convention that I never had, and we were really protected by the Red Cross.
We were wearing like, it was a bit like MASH [American television comedy program depicting life in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War], like made-up surgical fatigues, sort of thing. It looked a bit comical, but you’d wear your Red Cross badge, big Red Cross badge all the time, and you really felt protected by that. Later on, I suppose I should explain,
there were some nineteen Red Cross people at our camp. When I got there there was another fellow as the medical co-ordinator but he left, and then I ended up being the medical co-ordinator although I was younger than a lot of the others. But again, I found the limited military experience that I had had stood me in good stead.
These people were all prepared to just sit around and, “Let’s have a discussion about this and think what we’re going to do and work out all the things,” whereas here were people who were hungry and had mine injuries and just a lot of stuff to be done and it was a matter of getting in there and doing it. “Come on lads, follow me!” But it needed some firm direction, and so I found
myself as medical co-ordinator there and I really enjoyed it. And the limited training that the navy had given me fitted me peculiarly for the job of medical co-ordinator. So as well as doing treating I was overseeing what was happening in the camp. There was a surgical, there was a general little hospital sort of area,
there was an obstetric hospital where the births were going on and there were little first aid posts throughout the camp and sanitation, and we were also training the, because Pol Pot had killed off nearly all of the doctors who were on the border, there was one Cambodian doctor in all of the
hundreds and thousands of refugees there, so we were in the business of training people who had just been peasants to be “barefoot doctors” [local farmers with basic level of medical or first aid training]. The fighting would occur at night and we’d come in the morning and really sad to see kiddies with limbs blown off, and there’d be gunshot wounds from the fighting.
Well, it was deemed unsafe for us to be there at night, but we’d get these barefoot doctors that we’d trained up to at least stem the bleeding, put up drips for people with severe malaria to at least give the right initial treatment and all that, and it was amazing how they rose to that occasion. And that was the exciting thing, seeing these people, terrible things had
happened to them and you’d talk to each one of them and someone in their family had been killed or murdered in an awful way and the things that they’d been through as a group of people was dreadful, but here they were in these little plastic tents trying to improve their lot and make the most of their situation and really learn from it.
And they were just so hungry for being taught, and that was exciting. As well as that, we were involved in the negotiations with the warring factions, with the Khmer Rouge and that, and I found that was interesting, being along with the Swiss delegate and being involved in the talking about how we might try and arrange things peacefully. That was good, too. But
I didn’t answer the question before about, I didn’t finish what I was saying about the security type of situation. The medical co-ordinators in the end had to take their turn to be the sole Red Cross person who was at the.... There was one Vietnamese camp. These were Vietnamese land people who had come across the border. Now, if there wasn’t the Red Cross person there then that camp would have been overrun and those
people killed during the night. But my time there, so you were alone on the border, you’ve got your radio and you can communicate with all the others, but you know it’s just you, and the Red Cross that you’re wearing is stopping the camp being overrun, and it makes you realise the power of the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross.
So I felt safe that people respected the Red Cross and they wouldn’t dare do anything to us. I know Red Cross workers have been killed in other countries, but at that time I felt quite safe.
So can you tell me where the camp was located? I mean which part of the Cambodian border, I mean was it north or where?
This is on the border with Thailand and it’s roughly sort of east of Bangkok, so yeah, so it was hard to say where Thailand ended and where Cambodia started, and
part of the time we were in Cambodia and part of the time in Thailand.
You said you would come back to Thailand?
Come back to Thailand each night, yeah, but the camp itself was straddling the border and it was not as if there was a line saying, “This is Cambodia” and “This is Thailand.” In the far reaches of the camp I’m sure we were well and truly in Cambodia.
So who was protecting your camp?
Well, the camp wasn’t really protected at night. I mean fighting would still occur, there’d still be skirmishes with the Khmer Rough and we’d still find casualties when we came in. At times things would be, at one
stage the situation was deemed to be more dangerous and we were told only to take in the barest team and we had a, there was a bunker out the front and we’d need to, when I say “a bunker”, just with sandbags and things like that. And there was some fighting during the day and we
just had to be careful and if it was deemed necessary retreat to the bunker, but that never really happened. Again, I just felt we had a job to do and it was just a big job to do, and I never let that interfere with the big public health and general health job that had to be done.
So can you describe
the camp in a bit more detail, like how many people were living there?
Forty-five thousand refugees, so they were mostly in little tents, not very high at all, just a small sheet of blue plastic, and you’d look out and there’d be this sea of blue plastic tents there.
Then there was, as I said, there were these first aid posts, which were almost a kiosk-like affair, throughout the camp, and then a bare floor hospital with, again, just made of natural materials with patients
on mats on the floors for the general hospital, and then a separate obstetric hospital. Then there were a few other structures, but that was mainly it.
What about weather conditions? Was it wet?
There was a wet season and
a dry season. In the wet season it was very hard because the cars occasionally got bogged and you were wearing gumboots and there was a lot of mud around.
How did that affect the health of the people in the camp?
Well, there was certainly the water around and there was more malaria. That’s a tricky area of the world as far as malaria goes, because there’s a lot of resistant
malaria there and different strains just varying from one camp to another, and there were some quite sick people with the more severe forms of malaria and having to treat them quite aggressively to make sure they’d pull through. And again, there was the range of tropical conditions.
But yeah, these mine injuries were the saddest thing to see, particularly with the children, and to see feet blown off on these kiddies was really sad. I mean with adults as well. We’d do what we could for them and then they’d be evacuated to the
main holding camp at Khao I Dang. I should tell you how I met my wife on the border there. She was an operating theatre nurse there with the Nordic surgical team working at the
main holding camp and, although we worked at different camps, it turned out our bungalows were next door to one another at the Red Cross base. And I didn’t know much about Finland where she comes from, just that it was cold and had reindeer, and she didn’t know much about Australia, just that it was warm and we had kangaroos.
But I decided that I’d try to get to know this lady and I invited her out to have dinner in this little local restaurant in the village, and we couldn’t read the Thai so we went into the kitchen and we just
pointed to what we’d have. It was fairly dark and we couldn’t see one another very well so I asked for a candle, and we were just about to start talking when this Thai crooner started singing. I can remember it was Please Release Me, Let Me Go, but the singing was so loud and the lights went down even further so everybody was looking at us, so I quickly blew out the candle. The music was so loud we didn’t have any
chance to talk to one another so that didn’t work. So then I decided I’d invite her out to dinner in the local town, Arunya Pratet, which was a further drive, and because I was a medical co-ordinator I had my own vehicle and I had my own Thai driver, and I thought, “We’ll take the driver Meta along because he’ll be able to find us a good place for us to eat.” Wrong. Meta talked all the time and I couldn’t sort of
say anything and, Kaisu is my wife’s name, Kaisu said to me at one stage, “Oh, John, I’d like to go to the toilet but I can’t really see from the Thai which door I should go through,” and I whispered to Meta, “Kaisu would like to go to the toilet,” and then Meta shouts to the whole restaurant, “She’d like to go to the toilet.” So that didn’t work out,
so it wasn’t working out very well at all. It turns out she’d started a month earlier than me and so it was time for her to go and I thought, “At least I’d like to set things up so I could at least see her again.” Before you went back to your
home country you spent three days in Bangkok in a nice hotel just having a decent, warm shower and doing some shopping and getting readjusted reality a bit. Kaisu was going to do that. We used to take, we had one day off a week but we’d take it all in one go and, as I was medical co-ordinator and I was due for some time I could
take, I decided I’d take mine at this time. I decided I’d take mine in Bangkok this time, which most people didn’t do that, they went to one of the seaside resorts. And I saw Kaisu on the bus and she said, “Hello, John,” and I said, “What are you going to do in Bangkok?” And she listed all the things that she had to do, and I thought, “I’m never
going to get in with all that,” but it turned out when she got to Bangkok she ended up getting diarrhoea. The last day in the camp she’d gone out and had some food with the local people and got food poisoning. They would have admitted her to the Bangkok Nursing Home but I said, “There’s another nurse in her room and I’m in the same hotel, so it so happens we can look after
her.” So anyway there was the opportunity to talk to her. But then Meta decided he’d come up to Bangkok and he wanted to take us round and drive us everywhere and again I thought, “When am I going to have time to talk to this lady?” because things were just not working out, but on the very last night before she went I finally got rid of Meta and went
up to her room and knocked on the door and talked to her, and to my surprise, and we talked for several hours, and to my surprise I found myself proposing to her on that last night, and to her surprise she found herself accepting. She said, after a while she said, “John, just ask me again. That was just so quick,” but we got engaged. She flew off the next day
and we were married in Northern Finland the following May and it’s been great and it’s been a great relationship, but so I’ve got Red Cross to thank for meeting my wife.
So did you get to have contact back at the base? You had bungalows next door to one another? I’m just wondering how you got to know her.
Yeah, you had contact back at the base and you did sort of social things as a group together, but it was often hard to get people alone together, there were always things going on. And we’d go for drives and do things as a group but just conspiring to see someone alone I mean turned out to be difficult,
but it all worked out in the end.
But you would have had a period of separation, I guess, once she went back?
A period of separation, yes.
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 05
So yeah, John, it would be good to get a summary of, you’ve sort of given us a really good overview of that, so how long were you there on the border?
Well, the usual stint was for three months. You could extend for another month but the work was so intense that they tended not to let people stay beyond four months. I extended for another month.
So can you give us a sense of just how intense the work really was?
drive in in the morning and there’d be a number of casualties from the fighting the night before that you’d have to sort through. We had a Japanese surgeon with us and he’d do the immediate stuff that needed to be done, if they needed to be patched up to be evacuated. The more definitive surgery was done back at Khao I Dang, the main holding camp. In fact my wife saw the other end of that
and she saw a lot of interesting surgery as a result of that. Then there’d be stuff in the obstetrics hospital to deal with and to check what the midwives were doing there. Things would happen in the camp and there might well be sanitation issues, and then there’s the sort of overriding political
situation and negotiations with all the different factions on top of all that, but as well as that trying to feed forty-five thousand people and make sure of the food deliveries and all that all happened, and it was quite a lot of work on all fronts but busy medically, and lots
of clinical material all the time, ordinary illnesses as well as the tropical stuff and, as I said before, malaria and the occasional tuberculosis and so on and so forth.
So my history of that part of the world is not great, but is this the period when the Vietnamese had networks moving in, was it around that, to sort of deal with the Khmer Rouge?
Well, the Vietnamese were there but the Vietnamese that we saw were really people who were trying to escape to the west but not very liked by the Cambodian people who, as I said before, would have happily killed them. The thing that was interesting
there, if you don’t mind me changing the subject, was because we had medical people from a number of different countries and we were trying to teach the Cambodians barefoot medicine type things, and we all had different national approaches. The Germans said, “This is the way it should be,” and the French said something else equally emphatically and the Aussies said something else, and it was,
we realised that we were just confusing the poor Cambodians by sticking to our national lines so staunchly, so it meant that we had to get together and discuss how we did things and that was very interesting, and you realised that some of the things that you were doing you were doing for your national reasons, which might not necessarily be the
best thing as far as medical science went. And we ended up having a negotiated treatment handbook and, “This is what we’ll do and the one line we’ll take across all the border camps and this is going to be the one day we teach things.” But going through that sort of process of international negotiating was a very interesting one, and working out
what was real and what wasn’t in one’s firmly held medical beliefs. But yeah, as I said before, it was good teaching the Khmers and it was good to go through that sort of process.
How did you all sort of overcome those national differences, though?
Well, we had meetings of the medical co-ordinators back at the base camp and we’d slowly work our way through it all and
you’d have your chance to speak and at the end of it we’d have to come up with one party line, so you’d speak staunchly and then think, “hey, maybe I can negotiate on that” and so in terms of drug treatment and surgical procedures and other things we ended up having an agreed line which was good. I learnt a bit about international
negotiation at that time.
And who had the final say there, the ultimate authority, who was that with?
Well, there wasn’t really a single medical authority there and that was a situation where we all had to come up with a consensus, but I mean we had to come up with
a line and I certainly encouraged the group to move forward and make a decision.
So how far from the violence was the camp? I think you might have mentioned you could actually hear bombs going off and that sort of thing.
Well, the night I spent in the Vietnamese land camp which
was nearby to our camp at Koh Samet, I could certainly hear the fighting and the mines and the stuff during the night, and a lot of it occurred on the fringes of the camp and further beyond; and occasionally at that time, when we had the worsening of the situation, where there was a possible danger in the camp, we had the sandbags and
all that. But it was nearby. Certainly the casualties were fresh in the morning.
Were there at all times when you feared for your own safety?
No. Maybe that was just my rash youth, but I never felt that I was personally under threat and again I felt very protected by the
And can you tell us a bit more about, you said you were trying to train up the Cambodians to do the sort of work you might be doing, barefoot doctors as such, can you talk a bit more about those experiences, how you would train them and how sort of responsive those guys were?
You would try and explain the
science to them but some of the things they just learnt empirically. I mean there were physical things like knowing how to put in an intravenous drip or to stop a mine injury from bleeding to death and knowing the basic things of resuscitation, but there was also the business of like children, calculating the appropriate dose of
anti-malarial – I mean you have to get that right or a child could be sick from the anti-malarial – but trying to teach them what to do, and it’s amazing what they could learn. But again you had to teach them their own limitations so that they know what they could and
couldn’t do. But they were so eager to learn and so willing to give things a go, and I think for some of them it was difficult that so many of them had seen so much violence, and to do what they could to improve the situation they were keen to do that. But I wonder how some Australian farmers would manage if we said, “We’re
going to make you a glorified paramedic next week.” So it can’t have been easy for them.
How would those people be selected? Would they volunteer their services or was it a matter of whoever was on hand?
Well, it would be largely volunteer, but you’d have to make sure there was some aptitude there; not everyone would be capable of
being able to take all that on. But we found them resilient and intelligent people and easy to train and uncomplaining and working terribly hard and just trying to make their lives better.
How were you communicating? I mean you picked up some pidgin?
wasn’t much use because there is no pidgin there, but because of Cambodia’s history a number of them spoke French and I found myself going to speak my schoolboy French but then often the pidgin word would pop out, so it was a bit silly. But we had a number of interpreters who would speak English. But the
Cambodians themselves would certainly get used to the way you were talking about the medical things and get better and better as time went on, but interpreters and a little bit of schoolboy French and that was the way we coped.
I guess the Latin didn’t come in too handy there?
No, nor the Greek nor the German.
We learnt a few words of Khmer ourselves but they’ve all gone now, don’t ask me any of those. But you’d learn some basic things so you could ask some basic questions of patients about where it hurt and all that sort of stuff.
So are there any particular
success stories that come to mind, whether it be dealing with the Cambodians and getting them trained up, seeing them working well under pressure or in cases of where you turn a bad situation into a good one?
Yeah, well, the training was great. I was glad to visit the main holding camp at Khao I Dang and see what happened to people at the end of the line. My wife saw much more of that. But certainly with these
kids with the horrific mine injuries, they were fixing them up and making like simple basic bamboo prosthetics for them, and to see these kids get mobile again, with a bamboo wooden leg or whatever, that was pretty good to see that they could move past that and still have some sort of life
beyond that. But just seeing the spirit of the people rise in adversity, just the terrible things that they were subjected to and to see that as a group they really wanted to try and lift their game and make the best out of the situation. And yet it was a seemingly helpless situation, and initially a number of them went to other countries, but then countries
put up their barriers and then Thailand said, “We don’t want any more of them going past,” so there were that many, hundreds and thousands of people sort of stuck, and unless you had a relative overseas or whatever it was hard for them to move anywhere and a seemingly helpless situation. But certainly
we helped, and even just feeding the people and stopping them from starving. And I felt that I was doing a lot more there, and in fact I found it difficult when I got back to navy life because it seemed such shallow sort of stuff that we were doing and it was just almost play mitts. And the other stuff, I mean I found it
quite exhilarating, and I was quite gung-ho [inspired] and full of energy in the time when I was there, just because there was a job to do and people would die if you didn’t do it. Seeing whingeing, complaining sailors whining about minor things when I got back,
I thought, “Get a life.” That settled down after a while.
So what were some of the more confronting things for you during that time?
I suppose that the, just the whole
situation, the violence in these people’s lives, the continuing senseless violence, particularly to see maimed children was difficult. Those were the main things, the violence. The situation didn’t worry me; I think in fact I would have stayed doing Red Cross
sort of work if I had not met my wife. I found it more exciting than anything that I’d previously done, and I could understand how people work for aid agencies for long times. And we saw a number of aid agencies there and
the work there generally. I was glad I was with Red Cross because I think Red Cross gets further into places because of the Geneva Conventions than many of the other aid agencies.
Who else was based there and what were the relations like with the other agencies?
They were fairly good. There was a German team up there; there was World Vision; there
was Médecins Sans Frontières, and they tended to be more French nationalistic than they are now – I mean now they’re much more encompassing, but there was a strong French nationalistic streak there and it got in the way of doing business at times; fortunately
they’ve attended to that these days, as far as I can tell – and lots and lots of agencies trying to do good and help, and some seemed to be doing good things and others seemed to have a lot of overheads and administrators and all the rest. Sometimes the Red Cross hierarchy seemed
a bit funny in the way they did things. I got to know the Swiss people and their sort of interesting take on life, but I got to respect them nevertheless.
What is that Swiss take on life?
The Swiss are funny people because they’re
not really part of the UN [United Nations] and that, and in many international things they’ve sort of copped out of being part of the international organisation. So much occurs in Geneva and they benefit so
much from it, but the International Committee of the Red Cross is perhaps the most single exception because they’re actually Swiss and the Geneva Convention is based in, rooted in having Swiss people run it, and I found those people I could respect better
as they were a different sort of take on the international scene than other people, quirky feeling, relaxed but yeah, interesting people.
Were there many other Australians there?
There were a number of Australians, different camps. We had another Australian nurse and sanitation
engineer in our camp and the other camps would have one or two Australians, and there was an Australian contingent, and at times out at the base camp we’d have different national or international evenings and we’d get dressed up and do things,
and then the Japanese would put on like the kabuki sort of makeup and appear in their kimonos and yakata and all those sort of things, and the Aussies were never that organised and all we could do was sing Waltzing Matilda and that was it. But yeah, I suppose it made you, it gave you a
bit of a surge of nationalism. And the interesting thing was just getting on with all the different countries, and it was good working in that environment and just so many other countries.
What can you tell us about the living conditions, your quarters and the sanitation and
that sort of thing?
For us or for the...?
For you now.
We had simple little fibro [fibreboard] bungalows with a stretcher in them. We had a shower block with cold showers but the weather was warm, it didn’t really matter. They had a sort of a
canteen restaurant sort of thing with Thai food on the base, nothing very flash, and then we had groups of bungalows with a sort of central area and some chairs and a table and some sort of deckchair sort of thing, so that you could sort of
relax out of hours, have a beer or whatever. Yeah, usually you were fairly tired after having worked and would have a few beers and that would be it. Finns being Finns they made a sauna there
in a tent and they’d fire that up occasionally and people would enjoy that. But you’d set out fairly early in the day and stock up the fleet of vehicles
and then go to the camp. We had a big like a pharmacy on the base and you’d stock up what you’d need and then take it in. A lot of the countries had donated things but some of the stuff was just useless that they’d donated, out-of-date cancer treatments and stuff like that, it was just sort of dumping things; but there was a lot of good stuff that was donated as well.
Did much sharing go on between the various agencies or were they sort of protective about their gear?
I think if anybody needed things people would give people what they needed, but the agencies were largely self-sufficient.
Was there enough beer?
Of course there was enough beer. There was Thai beer. We all looked a bit comical with gumboots and these fatigue things, a bit like pyjamas,
and straw hats, but that was the sort of practicality. It was so hot and you didn’t want constricting gear and that was practical and easily washed and didn’t matter if it got dirty, and the camps are certainly not a place for wearing any sort of good gear as it got dirty with mud or blood or whatever quite easily.
What about, you might have mentioned earlier, blood
supplies, were they quite sufficient?
Yeah, that was more difficult. We would tend to, at our camp, just use intravenous fluids, and they were more involved with blood at the holding camp where they’re doing the definitive surgery,
and again they had to get blood from other people in the camp or from the workers themselves, but not always easy, so they tried to do without it as much as they could. But it wasn’t in big supply.
And how were most patients brought in? What was the sort of evacuation process at this point?
Well, they were injured somewhere out there and they would be brought in by soldiers or family to maybe one of the first aid posts, and from there they could
radio and we’d pick them up and take them to the hospital. And from there, once they were stabilised, particularly by the Japanese surgeon, transport would come or we’d take them to the holding camp in Thailand. That was all regulated by the Thais as they didn’t want to let too many people through, so you had to be generally [genuinely?] injured
to get through that.
Were there problems with bandits and the like? I mean getting people into the hospital or through that terrain?
Not problems with bandits. There were lots of Thai people around and sometimes you were stopped at checkpoints and things, but
there was still a flourishing black market and a certain amount of Thai corruption added into all that. You’d go into the camp and they had a little black market there and you’d find amazing drugs and medications for sale and that made it hard, and I think that was why there was a lot of antibiotic resistance
as the people could just buy what they wanted without prescription and they’d just take antibiotics for a few days and then just stop it, and as a result we had trouble with people became resistant to the ordinary antibiotics that we were using. But we didn’t see bandits.
So the Thai military had a sort of a hand in the black market there?
I’m sure they did. I mean the Thai society is a funny thing. You can buy just about anything you want. It’s surprising because the Thais seemed ordinarily to be just lovely, peaceful, gentle people, but there was this layer of corruption on the top of it all.
So other than your wife-to-be, I mean who were the people
that you were sort of closest to during the time?
They would have been the people in my camp. There was a, I had a couple of other Finnish nurses in my camp and they,
once they, I mean I stayed on after my wife and once they knew I was keen on Kaisu they took it upon themselves to give me coaching about Finnish life and customs and things and preparing me for my time ahead, and we had some nice times talking with them. And there was a Dutch doctor,
Alfred, and I quite liked him and it was good to talk with him about different things and the difference in our lives. He also came from a military background, and that was interesting, to compare the Dutch military with the Australian military. You got to know the Swiss
delegates in the camp and I got to know them and I quite liked them, so they’re the people that I mainly go on with.
Were there many other romances? Did they flourish?
Well, there was a lot of activity. Whether you could call it
romance.... The other nurse who came with Kaisu from Finland, another theatre nurse, her name was Sao. She was a lady of the world. She reminded me of Marlene Dietrich, blonde and the cigarette, and she had many romances
when she was there, and she smiled in a sweet sort of condescending way at Kaisu and my sort of faltering romance. She had no such trouble or difficulties. But
those situations throw a lot of people together and people do what people do, and I think in difficult situations seek solace in one another’s company.
Any stories or anecdotes you can,
while we’re still there, as it’s probably time for us to move on, but moments, memories, visions, images, things that you shouldn’t really be telling us but you might as well?
Not that I can particularly think of. So do you want me to move on from there?
Yes, I do, yeah, let’s move
on. So, four months...?
So then I came home to Australia. My parents were living up in Echuca at that stage and it was boiling hot for Christmas, I think it was in the lower forties [degrees Celsius]. And on the second of January I flew to Northern
Finland, and it was minus twenty-eight [degrees], to meet up with my fiancée. Mother said, “It’s going to be cold, John,” and she took me out to a old-fashioned country men’s clothing shop and bought me long underwear, which was terribly embarrassing, and I blessed her later. It was really necessary.
I’d not really thought about what I was going to do, but the captain who was our poster had sent me a letter, did I want to, “how about going to Sydney University and doing some post-graduate training in public health medicine?” and I thought, “That sounds great,” and
I said yes to that. I knew there were different options to that and I imagined that I could follow the tropical public health option, but when I got back I found out what they wanted me to follow was the occupational health option, which was to become the specialisation that I’m doing. I found I really enjoyed that and to learn about workplaces and the hazards of work
and the effect of work on people, heat and all the toxic things and the heat and the stress and shiftwork and all those things, was great and I very much enjoyed that year. In the May holidays I flew to Finland, got married and brought my wife back.
And that was a good year to be just doing uni stuff and just to be newly-married, and we had a unit in Newtown in Sydney, very cosmopolitan, and we sort of arrived, I timed things just so I got back on the first day
lectures were starting again. I sort of dumped my wife in the unit and said, “There’s a milk bar on the corner, here’s ten dollars, I’ll be back at lunchtime.”
“You’ll be Australian when I get back.”
But she went down the street and hardly heard any English, such is the cosmopolitan nature of Newtown in Sydney. But she likes Sydney and she sort of thinks of Sydney as being
her home town in Australia because that’s where she started off. So at the end of that year I went out to the west of Sydney, to HMAS Nirimba, Quakers Hill. There was an apprentice training establishment there and I was the medical officer there, which
was good from my occupational medicine point of view. It’s a funny area of Sydney where in summer it gets very hot as it’s where the wind from inland and from the sea sort of meet one another, and you get a number of very still, very hot days. We had an unattractive married quarter on the base in Vampire Row,
named after one of the navy ships, with glass windows facing west and it was very hot and my wife was pregnant then and she found it was unbearably hot, and we had to get an air conditioner for the front room and she just basically lived in that front room. But
it was nice to be on a base. And it was a little base and the people, you got friendly with all the people on the married quarter and the captain and his wife, even though they had great difficulties pronouncing my wife’s name and called her a number of things before they finally got it right, but that was a good base. As well as training Australian
apprentices there were a number of Malaysian apprentices there and some whom we got to know quite well, and they were very keen once our son was born, and they were bright and enthusiastic and used to looking after little brothers and sisters and missing them, and were good babysitters.
There, that was a good posting. Then I did a....
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 06
Okay, so you settled in Sydney. Let’s find out what you were actually doing there?
So this was on the apprentice training establishment, so it was just a matter of looking after the apprentices and their health. There were some workplaces there but
otherwise it was the ordinary business of around the base. You had to go on inspections with the captain and looking at all the sailor apprentices’ quarters and all that, and when there were parades you’d walk around with the captain, supposedly looking at the health of the men. I thought that was good because I was really excused from all the marching and stuff and it was
easy to walk around with the captain, yeah, but nothing terribly taxing. I think the thing I found the most difficult to do is that they had an apprentice boxing tournament and I, I’ve only ever seen boxing on the TV [television], but
to see these young lads pounding away at one another and they just seemed so young and fresh and innocent and I found that very hard, just to sit through all the boxing. But of course it’s supposed to be a good character-building exercise for the apprentices, but it just seemed like a merciless
punching match to me, but that was only one night and we got through that and nobody got knocked out or whatever.
Had you thought about your career path at all? What you were planning, the training and...?
I hadn’t thought of it, but then I was starting to think about it.
We didn’t really have any dedicated occupational medicine jobs in the navy although we clearly needed them. I mean, occupational medicine is really what a lot of navy doctors are about, looking at people’s work and their health and the interaction between those, and rehabilitating people from
work injuries and making workplaces safe. And the navy has got all sorts of environments, asbestos and radiation and toxic fuels and so on and so forth, and a number of us then started pushing the navy to say, “Well, we need to take this whole area further,” and that then became what I did in my next
posting. They said, “We’d like you to write a paper about this. We want you to do a study on what the occupational health needs of the navy are in the eastern Australian area, on the sort of eastern seaboard area.” So I was based at HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney and
wrote up a paper there of which the recommendations then did establish some occupational medicine jobs, and there was a Director of Naval Medicine in Canberra and a Deputy Director of Naval Medicine (Occupational Health), which I became
the first one of those. That job started off in Sydney in the Naval Support Command but then after six months that was switched to Canberra, so that was good because I then got to start doing the implementing of things that needed to be done and looking at things on a more population-based
level. That was a very interesting time. We had all sorts of problems to solve, like there was a cluster of leukaemia at the naval air station at Nowra and the question was, “Was there some occupational causation for this?” So it meant we had to look and compare them with the people in the surrounding area and we had to look at the
known hazards that could cause that, and they did use some benzine on the base and there was the use of depleted uranium in aircraft and that, so those sorts of things were quite challenging. The navy was introducing a new asbestos policy and I was involved with that and had to be
involved with the selling of that to the unions and the navy people, so I travelled to the dockyards and I faced hostile unions talking about asbestos, so it was so much interesting work to be done. And I found that was an very interesting time and I was glad
that I had the training for it and found myself getting a lot of very valuable experience in the wider aspects of occupational medicine.
So then you went on to do some training in nuclear and biological and chemical warfare?
when did that start? That sort of started around ’84 and then I was the sort of designated person who would gradually get training in that. The Department of Defence considered it was important to have one or two people who were deeper experts in the
nuclear and biological and chemical warfare medicine, not that Australia is involved in any of those weapons; in fact, we’re leaders in the disarmament areas. But they just felt it was important that there were people who understood those things. It’s very much a dormant discipline in that most of the time nothing happened. It was an area
that traditionally certain naval medical officers were involved in, that same Noisy Lloyd that I talked about before, I mean he was a such an expert and he saw some things in that he went to some of the late nuclear testing at Montebello and places like that, but since then it’s a discipline that you train
for but nothing happens. The fellow after him was Captain Kerry Delaney, who was my boss as the Director of Naval Medicine, and you were sort of serving an apprenticeship and gradually doing courses to get you ready for that and finally doing an overseas attachment in the UK [United Kingdom], the US [United States] and Canada,
at all the principal research and development places and the medical aspects of those things – and that’s where all the deeper experts are – and then coming back as the expert. So I did that. And we’re jumping a bit to that, but I did that
in 1989, ’90. But then I was lucky that once I finished that training the first Gulf War came up. And we’d been told that there was no possibility of a war
involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons within the next fifteen years, we were told that one week; and the next week we were told that Prime Minister Hawke had decided to send a couple of ships to the Gulf and that we need to protect those troops
against the possibility of nuclear and biological and chemical warfare. And I was a commander then and they said, “They’re sailing this Thursday, Commander Parker, what do we need to do?” That was a frantic sort of weekend because the ships, although they did these drills, there were never enough gas masks and things
for everybody because people had thought, “Fifteen years is a long time, there’s plenty of time to build up.” They did have the gas masks in storage but the problem is that a number of people like myself wear glasses and you need to have special optical correction inside your gas mask so that you can actually see and a little
pair of spectacles that fit inside the gas masks. So the ship sailed from Sydney but they were going to Fremantle, it stopped there for a while, so we arranged that while they were in transit the people
on board would measure their inter-pupillary distance because you need that distance between your pupils to make the glasses in the right place. We looked at people’s last medical records, because everyone’s got a duplicate set of medical records that was kept in Canberra, got their last prescription that we had on record, had them made round the clock by OPSM [eye care company, Optical Prescription Spectacle Makers] and matched the people up with their gas mask inserts there.
We had an intensive training for the doctors who were going to the Gulf. I flew over there and gave them all the protocols and the antidotes for the nerve agent intoxication. And we didn’t have vaccinations for anthrax, I mean it just wasn’t
available, but we had stockpiled plague – I mean it’s made by CSL [Commonwealth Serum Laboratories], an Australian vaccine, a good vaccine, so we’d stockpiled that – so we were able to give people vaccination against plague, and so the troops were relatively well-protected. We also gave them the
prophylactic medication to take against nerve agent attack. There are these tablets you can take that give you a level of protection against nerve agents. The nerve agents commonly called “nerve gases”, they’re very poisonous substances and people can die very quickly and suddenly from them, so it’s
quite a difficult thing to protect against. So it was good for me, having just having come back from my overseas finishing school in nuclear and biological and chemical warfare medicine, to then have to call the shots for really providing protection for the troops going to the Gulf.
Before we get to the Gulf can you
tell me a bit more about that training period? You were in the UK [United Kingdom], yeah, and the US?
Can you give me some details about that, as I imagine that would be very sort of kind of frontline or state-of-the-art training that you were getting?
Well, that’s a funny sort of area. Again in the UK and the US they’ve got fairly big sort of research establishments, but
they’ve got, there will be one fellow who’s a deep expert in anthrax and another fellow who’s a deep expert in certain aspects of nerve agent intoxication and another who’s a deep expert in Q fever and another who’s a deep expert in this, so it was great to be able to talk to these sorts of people. Because a lot of their research
is, well, sort of some is classified but some wasn’t, and there’s not a big market for them to talk to people about it, I mean they were very happy and willing to talk about things and I was doing the sort of stuff that you are doing, a deeper interview with all of these people, and it was great. You could see the research they were doing, and I’ve found that that was a wonderful way
of getting a very good overview. And you could also see the different national positions and you could work out what was real science and what was political posturing, and I think it’s given me a very good overview, an overview which few of the people, say, in Britain or the US get because they’re so compartmentalised. There’s a few people that get to see how it all fits together.
you give me some idea of what the difference was between the US and the UK in their knowledge and their approach and their attitude to the subject?
Well, they’re all very knowledgeable but insisting on certain drugs as being the way to go. Some of it was science but some of it was to do with
other reasons, I mean to do with their research programs or political things or supporting their industry or whatever.
Do you mean like the official, what would be the drugs that would be the official treatment to counteract the effects?
That’s right, yes. Again
I mean it was the same sort of thing, in some ways, that I was seeing on the Thai-Cambodian border, but because I had the deep time in the three countries I found it easy in the end to dissect out was real and what was just national posturing. And it’s interesting in those sorts of national meetings, I mean you see some of that
national posturing going on, but I found it easier, having talked to all the players separately and at leisure, to work out what was what. In the UK I was based just out of Salisbury at the Defence NBC [Nuclear, Biological and Chemical]
Centre at a little village called Winterbourne Gunner. I found the British military by and large infuriatingly condescending and, “This is our Australian fellow and what do you think?” And I found it hard, too, because at a number of the briefings, because I was not NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] I was asked to stand outside, but the
Turks and the others would be in there. Certainly it changed my ideas about Britain and that, and I could see how a lot of them laughed about the way we felt about Britain and the Crown and that.
I mean it made what last vestiges of royalism I might have had evaporate. Having said that, we lived in a British, an English village and that was lovely and we were very accepted by the village.
By this time we had our daughter as well and our kids went to the church school that was next to the village church, and the roly-poly vicar, and it was good to see English life, village life in the country the way it’s, you hear about it. But that was lovely, and we’ve
still got friends from the village that we at least write Christmas cards to, and that was a magic time. Although the knowledge I was gaining was terrific, I just found the Brits [British], the military Brits, really annoying and much the time they couldn’t see past me being an Australian somewhere down there in the pecking order.
Sounds like nothing much has changed from the Second World War.
I did interesting courses: the Senior Medical Officer’s Nuclear Protection Course, where we had to do all the sums for if a plane carrying nuclear weapons ploughed in – I mean it wouldn’t actually explode, but there may be a spread of radiation – and how you’d go about cleaning that up and the protection of the public and
all that sort of stuff; and we also did a tabletop exercise of, “What if one of the British nuclear submarines went hot?” This was alongside in Gibraltar. I mean it was all just theoretical stuff, but working out safe zones and how you’d evacuate people and how long you could send people in to fix up the situation on board the ship, and that was all interesting stuff.
And also seeing what was happening on the chemical and biological side I found quite fascinating, a great opportunity to burrow deeper into a subject that I was beginning to like more and more. In the States I was based in, just out of Washington DC, “the murder capital of the world” in Bethesda in Maryland, as
they say, and that was different again. We lived in an enormous apartment block. The Americans were very friendly, didn’t know much about Australia and always saying, “Oh, you must come round,” but nothing happened.
We found, we got friends with one of the researchers at this Armed Forces Radio Biology Research Institute and he was a Greek fellow who was, I mean he was well into his
seventies then, but he had, he was on the last train out of Berlin and he had fought with the Greeks in World War II and he was a very interesting fellow, but he and his wife befriended us and looked after us and we had a great time with them; but more so we fraternised with the
other Australians. So I learnt a lot more about the nuclear side there, but also seeing what had happened in the past with the Americans’ chemical and biological warfare programs, I mean long since abandoned, but it was good to hear from the old timers exactly what did happen.
I found it a very interesting time, and similarly some time in Canada, but my family stayed in the States while I visited Canada.
Okay, so it was shortly after you got back that you were informed, were you actually preparing a ship that was going or was this part of
your preparation to go as well to the Gulf?
I went after the Gulf War. But this was, then I was the nominated expert whose job it was to look after this area, so it was I who
made the advice as to what the protection should be, which I found was good. And we had to do other things like working out the range of the Al Hussein warheads and when we should put people on to taking their nerve agent prophylactics as the ships neared the Strait of
Hormuz, and we had to work all that out, and it was good to follow things from day to day. I mean nothing chemical or biological or nuclear happened in the Gulf War, but Saddam certainly had the chemical or biological weapons so it could have happened, and he certainly succeeded in breathing terror
into the Middle East and getting most of them into the gas masks and all that.
So how confident were you, or what did you base your confidence on, in regards to the biological or chemical weapons that he did have?
We had to go on the intelligence that we then had, but we knew from previous UN
inspections after and during the Iran-Iraq War that they had mustard and they had nerve agents, so we knew that, and it was suspected that they had biological agents and they’d been doing nuclear work, otherwise why would the Israelis have bombed their nuclear
facility some years before? So the threats were taken seriously. I think it’s, I mean looking back, the preparation for the second Gulf War is being much more detailed than that; and we were in a sense caught unawares, and the threat that we were told was that nothing was going to happen for fifteen years.
So we were directly ready for things, we knew what to do and had protocols and were prepared, but all the ships weren’t immediately ready to face those kinds of warfare. And there’s still the question of Gulf War Syndrome, is it a real thing or isn’t it?
I mean the research that I have read is that there is no new or special condition. People have blamed it on the various preparations, the vaccinations and the nerve agent pre-treatment that they were given. I think that, it’s made
me think about things since then, but I still think that I do think the same, given the circumstances that we were in and the knowledge that we had. I don’t believe that anybody has come to any real harm from having those things, but it’s certainly made me think when people are talking about Gulf War Syndrome, as I’m the person that
made the decision about those having that treatment, that pre-treatment before it all.
I understand that you met and possibly worked with David Kelly in the UK?
That’s right. Where I did my training in the UK I spent some time with David Kelly’s division. He was running the biological division at
the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Portadown, which is their main research establishment for that, which is not too far from Winterbourne Gunner, again in the Salisbury area, and I got on quite well with him. It then happened that after the Gulf War, well, they decided that we needed to have chemical and biological and nuclear weapons inspections just to see what Saddam did have,
and they said, “Well, you should go, John, because you understand all this sort of stuff.” So an Australian contingent was made ready and in the end they didn’t call the whole contingent, they just called ones and twos, but we had to put in our like our resumés and stuff. And David Kelly was chosen for
the first biological weapons inspection and I mean he knew me and he said, “Well, I’ll have Parkes as one of the doctors,” so he had myself and two American doctors. But it was very interesting that they were much more the deep experts but I found I had the overview of things, and in some ways they’d never been out on an operational
thing. I mean they’d spent their lives in laboratories, so that was interesting. David Kelly also knew that I knew something about heat stress and knew that was going to be a problem in Iraq, particularly with the European people, and so he was keen to have me on the team. And I think I certainly contributed to that. I found it very interesting
dealing with my American counterparts. We did some training in Bahrain beforehand. We added anthrax vaccination, we had our anthrax vaccination in Australia before that, but we also had botulism toxin vaccination before we went into Iraq. The Iraqis, before we went in, said yes, they’d had a biological
program but it was only a research program and it hadn’t got any further and all the biological stuff had been destroyed, but it later turned out that they had indeed weaponised botulism toxin and anthrax and plague and some other bits and pieces, and they’d carried out some trials with the weapons.
What form did those weapons take?
For biological weapons to work they usually have to be in something like a bomb or a rocket that’s dispersed. The usual mode of entry of a biological weapon is through breathing, so for anthrax it’s breathing in the spores. The anthrax spores
last a very long time and it’s one of the easiest things to weaponise. It causes a nasty form of anthrax. Anthrax is usually a skin disease, particularly from cattle, where you get local death of tissue where it goes black, and it comes from the word meaning “black” in Greek.
But when you breathe it in it causes the same sort of tissue death inside the top area of the lungs, and that can be rapidly fatal even with treatment with antibiotics, so it’s a much nastier form of, as indeed most of the diseases caused by biological weapons are usually nastier than the natural ones.
But yes, there is some sort of bomb or rocket where there is release of the aerosol which you breathe in, is the usual form of biological weapons. So I did that one inspection and came back to Australia. But then I’d impressed the New Zealanders, who for some reason got the
overall medical supervision of the inspections, but because the New Zealanders with their anti-nuclear stand had been shut out from a lot of sharing of information with UK, Canada and Australia they found they didn’t have the expertise, but the New Zealanders felt quite comfortable with me
and, because I had the knowledge across the areas, that I was a good generalist who understood what it was about, so they invited me back and I was there for some six months. And for that first period that I was in Iraq we did a number of biological and chemical inspections. So the Iraqis, on the chemical side they declared a number
of weapons, so that there were thousands of mustard shells and rockets and bombs containing other chemical weapons. They had nerve agents particularly: these were fairly
crudely-made and, with the warheads, they were using Russian warheads with a tank crudely welded in the end of that; and when we first saw these warheads they were lying, strangely enough, in an eucalyptus grove where the Iraqis had put them. Apparently Australia gave a lot of eucalypts to
Iraq in the past and they had sort of flourished there, but it was a little bit surreal seeing these weapons in the middle of a eucalypt grove. The Russian on our team, he fell about laughing when he saw that these because the standard of engineering was so poor that he was not sure that they would have even flown very well at all, but there was certainly nerve agent in them.
So what, they were just stacked in amongst the trees?
Not, just laid out in amongst the trees, yeah, and indeed many of the places we found the weapons just higgledy-piggledy, particularly on airfields, and they’d just been put there. Some of the mustard shells in the heat had blown open and had
just ripped open and the stuff had come out. What we had to do was to check that what was in the weapons that the Iraqis had declared was what was in there, so we’d have to drill into the weapons to find out what was there.
We had done a lot of drill in Bahrain for this because it was potentially quite a hazardous procedure. People doing that had to wear totally impermeable clothes because we were worried about over pressure forcing the nerve agent through the normal permeable protective suits that we wear. But then, because we were working out in the
heat, often in the desert, there’s the problem of if you’re wearing a totally-enclosed suit that you could perish for the heat stress, so I was there with my stopwatch and temperature probes in various places in people’s bodies trying to work out what was happening with people’s temperatures when they were wearing these suits. We trialled a number of them and the people who were going to work in them, I had a pretty good idea of their individual responses
so that I knew the safe times for them and their suits, and we drilled and we drilled and we drilled so we knew what to do in the event of a spill. What would happen would be that, first of all, the person that was doing it would be decontaminated – and we had a decon [decontamination] team – and then washed down and then checked with a monitor, and that would be done until
they were clear. And one time we had, there was a testing of all that. I’m rather keen on Middle Eastern archaeology and we managed to visit a number of the places in Iraq, and we’d been to Babylon and Nineveh and I was looking forward to going to
the ancient city of al Oula, where there’s a ziggurat, it’s from sort of Abraham’s time, which was just nearby where we were going to see these rockets filled with nerve agent. We meant to do that in the afternoon but we never got to do that because of the incident that then happened. These were these hundred and twenty-two millimetre rockets that had a well inside them.
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 07
So you’d done all these well-rehearsed drills in Bahrain, and then?
And so we had to drill into these weapons. And this particular day, not far from the ziggurat, there was a little depression where there were these one hundred and twenty-two millimetre rockets. The Iraqis had, their standard of engineering
wasn’t all it might be; there were these wells inside them which contained a Teflon sleeve in which the nerve agent, which is liquid, was. There was some air space there but apparently they’d made them, the wells, a bit too small for the these Teflon sleeves so they’d used, unbeknownst to us, they’d used a pneumatic ram to get them in there, so it meant consequently
they were under enormous over-pressure. And this rather phlegmatic Austrian warrant officer was the fellow who was drilling into this, so he had his impermeable suit and that suit had its own source of air, so there was a compressor far away from him so he could breathe fresh air, and then he also had pumps
behind him with filters so that kept the suit inflated so it cooled him; I mean otherwise he would have got too hot; and when he was drilling in he had an inverted half-tennis ball to try and keep, deflect any little over-pressures that we thought we might get. But once he drilled into this there was a three metre high plume of nerve agent
spouted out. We used to carry our gas masks on our hips. The idea is that you’re meant to be able to put your gas mask on in nine seconds, and I think I got mine on in about point nine seconds. We’d hired a local photographer in Bahrain only he hadn’t had the military drill on getting his gas mask
on in that time and he just continued photographing and we didn’t realise that he was photographing, and when we looked around and saw him still taking photos we said, “Hey, get your gas mask on,” because we were just on the top of this ridge looking down at this. But the team sprang into action, did the decontamination. We had a water truck there which hosed him down, more decontamination, checking with the nerve agent monitor until he was clear, and
then he came out to us and we got him out of the suit and then he was fine, no signs of either nerve agent intoxication or heat stress. The enterprising New Zealand medics that were with us, they had some beer secreted in the ambulance, little known to me, but they thought it was a good time to produce it. It also happened to be the Austrian warrant officer’s birthday
and it seemed doubly appropriate, and I was only too happy that they produced the beer once we got him over that kerfuffle [problem], but it was good to see that the planning that we’d made for the worst case scenario had paid off and that we could handle the worst case, which indeed happened then, without any casualty or ill health, and that gave me confidence in the systems that we
What was the first thing the Austrian fellow did when he got out of his suit?
I can’t remember. Some German swearword, no doubt. But it was interesting dealing with the Iraqis. They constantly told us different stories about things so, as well as the fieldwork we were also involved in
back in Baghdad, we’d be talking to them and asking for inconsistencies, and again, I mean that was never worked out and that was the lead-up to why they had the Second Gulf War, not that I particularly support it. But certainly there were things left still unaccounted
for, and they were trying to work out, “Well, you started with this amount of precursors which you got from this and this place, and you turned them into this and this, and there were so many weapons you used in trials, you did this, you did that,” and there were still unaccounted for things that it was impossible – well, it wasn’t impossible, but the Iraqis just didn’t give us information about that. I found I got on fairly well with
the Iraqis. They were quite happy to talk to me as the doctor because they saw me as not a particularly threatening person. The lady who ran the biological weapons program was a Doctor Taha, who was, did her post-graduate education in the UK, and I spent,
we’d drive out on buses or we’d take helicopters and I spent a long time on the bus sort of talking to her, and indeed I was quite often to give some information to the teams from things I’d just gleaned from innocent conversation with the Iraqis, but they seemed to respect me. I found the ordinary Iraqis were wonderful people
but it was just the higher-level people that we dealt with that, and they were hard and they were trying to conceal the weapons programs and all that. The average person, if you could get him or her aside from minders and all the other people who were around,
would say that they were not happy with Saddam Hussein and occasionally spit on the ground or whatever, but they didn’t want to make those things known publicly because they were worried that they might disappear. And a lot of people did.
During your time there, did you say people dispelled some stories, but people you came across who maybe the second time around...?
people that I saw. Certainly one of the UN photographers, I mean that happened with one of the people that he saw, the person did disappear. But I’m just saying the people were very guarded in what they said to you and they’d have to be sure that they were totally alone before they said anything because they were clearly worried about what might happen to them.
How blatant was, you said to me there was obviously some obstruction going on, some attempts to conceal: how blatant was this?
Well, they’d do anything they could just to try and change the conversation, even saying, “Would you like some tea?” or just talk about anything, just to, and they’d tell incredible porkys [pork pies, i.e. lies]
that just didn’t make any sense and you’d sort of laugh at them as they were just so far-fetched. It was, yeah, a funny sort of business. We went and saw the place where the chemical weapons were manufactured, al-muthanna it was called, and it had vast drums and containers
full of precursors and things in various states of decay, so there was quite a safety issue with even sampling those sorts of things, but it was all done. Sometimes we had to use breathing apparatus to get into containers that could be potentially filled with toxic gas and
all that, but we got through all that just by.... I found it hard because a lot of the military people were very gung-ho and really eager to get in and look at things and do things and terribly curious, and [I’d have to] (demonstrates) and pull them back, the occupational physician side of things saying, “This is the work we’ve got to do and we’ll do it safely and well and carefully and deliberately.”
And the Iraqis had lost a number of people in the manufacture of the chemical weapons but that was all just the will of Allah, and fortunately we didn’t have any casualties of our own people. So we stayed in a hotel in Baghdad. Initially we were staying in the Palestine Hotel, and in previous days it was a five-star hotel
but more tawdry in its latter years. We’d go out to local restaurants in Baghdad and we quite enjoyed ourselves and socialised with one another and in general felt safe,
but there were some incidents happened. They were stirring, they were trying to stir people up occasionally and occasionally dinners would be dropped into people’s laps or things would be spilt on them. One time I was, there was a New Zealand doctor in the front of this Land Rover and I was in the back seat and the New Zealand medic,
he was driving, and we were in Baghdad, stopped just before a roundabout, and there was this almighty crack behind me and the back window shattered. I thought it was gunshot. But it just shattered and I just reflexed and ducked down behind the seat. The New Zealand doctor, who was a lot cooler than me, he just looked over his shoulder and recognised, there was a fellow
running away from us with a crow bar. In fact all he’d done was just shattered the window with a crowbar but it was one of the people who was one of our so-called minders, so that was just meant to stir us up. But I didn’t really feel any danger from that point of view. I’d be more worried about being in Iraq now, but in those days it was
quite different. There was the, when we were working in a hazardous environment you couldn’t depend on Iraqi people to have done them safely and well, so there was always that side of things. I felt that I knew about that and that was containable and I’d just have to do my homework and do it well and I could work with that. But again,
wonderful you had this [experience]; you never get called out for nuclear and biological and chemical warfare things. My predecessor slaved for years and nothing happened to him, nothing, just total potential discipline that you’d never ever use, and here I was working with these things day after day so that was great.
So just a couple of questions, I mean if in Baghdad or in a populated area, what sort of security did you have?
Well, we had none of our security. No-one had any weapons. We weren’t in uniform. We were just in, the army fitted us with Paddy Pallin
type jeans and akubras and that sort of stuff before we went out, and when we were on any inspections there were Iraqi minders there but there weren’t any sort of weapons round, and security wasn’t the concern it is now.
There were occasional sort of stand-offs in the inspections but that was not a big deal. I don’t think that any of us really thought that our lives were threatened, from a security point of view.
How large was the team?
There were a number of teams doing different inspections.
Inspections would typically have, the first biological inspection might have twenty people but subsequent ones had sort of eight or nine, but chemical ones again would have about twenty. Then one of the big, when we had to survey all the stuff on this al-Muthanna
establishment, that had more like thirty because it was just a very big task to be done. Some of the later inspections just had half a dozen people. But there was a core of UN support people, which included New Zealand medics and communication staff and people like that,
and there were teams flying in and out of Iraq all the time, but there might have been fifty people in country all the time. So we’d get a daily allowance in US dollars which would be changed into Iraqi dinars which would, you’d get more and more from them as each day went on.
And I found it interesting. I made one particularly good friend there, a British Army officer, an engineer, that I still keep up with
and we got on very well. On leave one time we went to Egypt together and that was very interesting, so that was the first time.
So how long was that?
It was six months altogether.
And how long after the surrender
was the actual Desert Storm? Had that taken place?
That was, yeah, it would have been within a month of the surrender. And it was originally envisaged that it was going to be a fairly short thing and they’d do all the chemical inspections, be done and out and move into a destruction program within sixty days. Wrong. It was
a protracted thing that went for many years, as we know.
Just, obviously you were well-drilled and well-prepared for the worst case scenarios: if you’d come across anthrax and there’d been contamination, as the medical man, what would your role be? How would you deal with that?
Well, we’d prepared for
that. We were taking an antibiotic certainly while we were on that first biological inspection, and we’d done our best guess at what it would be sensitive to and we picked a sort of top-shelf antibiotic
that we thought the Iraqis would have been most unlikely to have bred resistance to, so we were prepared from that point of view. We had all sorts of protective suits and isolating things ready to take all the samples and that. We didn’t expect
to see any people infected with anthrax, it was largely geared towards samples. We felt that we would be protected even if we were in a situation where we came across it. We didn’t realise, but we inspected the place where a lot of the biological stuff was made, a place that nobody
knew existed, a place called Al Hakam which was later destroyed by UN order, it was a place where they were supposed to be making single cell protein with these big vats and they were actually making biological weapons there.
Yeah, we were geared to treat things if necessary, but had we had any casualties we probably would have flown them out. And we’d worked out possible evacuation. We had two passports because we thought that it might be, the nearest best medical place might be Israel and it might be difficult
to get there with certain stamps in our passports or to get back, so the Australian Government gave us a blue passport and a green one, but we never used that. But we’d thought about all those sorts of things and if we had to evacuate somebody and what we’d have to do. One of the Swedes got a tiny little mustard burn, about the size of my
fingernail, but that was the only thing we ever had. I was happy about that. I was not looking for any casualties. That would have been a bad thing.
So what was, with that instance of him getting that tiny mustard gas burn, what was that upshot of that, the treatment and so on?
Well, you just basically treated it like burn. Fortunately it wasn’t too big. I mean with the big burns you worried because the mustard also causes bone marrow suppression, and a lot of the badly-burned mustard burn people in the Iraq War was not so much the blistering but
the inability of their body to fight other infections, so they died of other infections as the mustard had affected their bone marrow. But his was a local burn, and making sure it was probably decontaminated and all the rest.... You don’t get instant burning with mustard,
some of the other chemicals you do, but you don’t know for about an hour so we just presumed there was a hole in his glove and that was where it had come from, but you don’t know for an hour until the blister starts forming and the burn has occurred. Mustard has a sort of a garlicky smell. I did
get to smell it on the wind and confirm what the textbooks said, and it does smell garlicky.
So how many experts did we have, did Australia have, prior to the Gulf War? Obviously you were trained up in that area, but were there many other people trained up like yourself?
just really one or two medical people at any one time. And there was a fellow who did it after me and a fellow who did it after them, and they’ve both left the service, so it’s sometimes difficult for the service to keep up continuity in the area.
But yeah, I mean it’s expensive going through that sort of training but it’s a call for the government, risk assessment, and how many people do you need? What’s the risk to mainland Australia? Again it’s interesting now, a lot of the emergency services and hospitals are going through all the drills about possible
terrorist chemical or radiological or biological events, but how likely are they? But a lot more people know about it now and you’d find that most major hospitals have at least thought about it and know basically what to do, which is good. Well, is it good, but?
I think it’s good.
Whether one thinks that Australia is really a target is another question.
What was our state of preparedness in 1990?
Well, not very much at all. I mean if there had been terrorists then, few would have known things. We didn’t have any response units. And now the defence force has got
a proper response unit and most emergency services and most hospitals at least know the basics on how to set up a decon [decontamination] line and how to treat the casualties. It’s a pity the world’s come to that, but that’s where we are. So
do you want me to talk about the second time when I was in?
I would like you to, yeah. So we’re talking...?
Just after the first Gulf War was the first...?
Yeah, the second half of 1991.
Yeah. So just fill us in on the interim period. You came back?
Came back to Australia, so there
was a, things happened to me. I mean there’s still a gap we didn’t talk about before, not that it’s that important, but I had been back to Cerberus as the medical officer in charge of the hospital, I’d been to sea as Fleet Medical Officer on HMAS Stalwart, and
so they were things before the first time; and then I was, I became Director of Naval Medicine which turned out, the job changed into Director of Naval Medicine (Occupational Health), so
again that was a Canberra-based job doing things at a higher level that I’d done before. And then there was an opportunity, they were then moving into a second phase of the UN inspections of actually destroying the chemical weapons, and I put my hand up again as I thought it would be good to see the weapons destroyed and it presented an interesting
problem from the technical point of view of doing it safely, so that was in the second half of 1993 that I was involved in that. Before we went in there was a stand-off with the Iraqis and some American missiles sent in again and there were
no people going in, and I was on the first plane going back in once things were sort of normalised. We were escorted by Iraqi jets as we flew in on the UN Hercules, and that was interesting seeing them just out the window, and it was good when we landed. I didn’t
quite feel like doing what the Pope does and kissing the ground, but it was good to be on the ground. We’re normally not escorted by fighter jets. So they had a dedicated chemical destruction group that did the destruction largely at the same place that the chemicals were made. The nerve agent, they could use the
same vessels to reverse the process, to change it into less toxic precursors which they then mixed with concrete and other things, but that was a strongly exothermally heat-generating procedure and it had to be watched just in case the vessels blew up. But that was largely a supervision thing.
And supervision, the Iraqis built a large incinerator where the mustard was incinerated at over a thousand degrees, but for a number of weapons it was unsafe to dispose of them in that way. The warheads, for instance, they basically had to be blown up with a lot of aviation fuel and
the nerve agent consumed in the resulting fireball. The explosive ordnance people, they were wetting themselves with excitement that they were actually able to use explosives and to blow things up and to make very big explosions, and they thought it was absolutely terrific and they were as happy as pigs in mud doing all that.
But with the nerve agents it meant that because these were such potentially toxic things the medical team had to be right next to them, just over the hotline on the clean side, in our suits but with the masks off. We had a big UNIIMOG [United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observers Group] ambulance there and we were essentially like a mobile intensive
care thing, ready to resuscitate our own people if the worst came to the worst, and that meant hours and hours of just watching the, all these operations. And again there was a decon line and everybody that came over had to be decontaminated, and again endless drills about what we’d do if we had casualties. And it meant, too, within the medical teams we were practising what
we were doing so we could act quickly if we had to do what we had to do. There were, we had some, we had to do some stuff off-site. And, typically, there was a place in the western desert in Iraq. It was an armaments depot that had been heavily bombed by the Coalition forces and
going there, when you arrived, there was just twisted metal and twisted bombs and all sorts of things everywhere, quite a potentially hazardous environment, and things had to be checked out, even as we took every step. But
we had several visits there, but in the end the leaking weapons there, they were burnt on-site, again with aviation fluid, and it made a lot of smoke but it was better than leaving a terribly contaminated environment there. At least it was cleaner there than it was before, despite the smoke.
That’s the photographs over there with the four chappies?
The photographs over there. And one day we realised that there were four Aussies there and decided we’d have a snap of us: myself and an Aussie navy medic, a Chief Petty Officer Don Hodgkinson, and an army and a navy explosive
disposal person. That was interesting times, and it was good to see the weapons actually destroyed together, the warheads.
So you said there was actually leakage happening at that site: was that a hazard at all?
Well, yes, it was.
Okay: with the sunlight and that it would destroy things in due course, but there was leakage all around the place so we had to be protected and know where the safe areas were, and it was possible to get poisoning from the leakage there.
A number of weapons still were full of the particular agent concerned and it was hard to see whether things were full or empty when you see a twisted thing in front of you, but just going carefully and gradually and the planned way it’s amazing what you can do.
And the agents that you were coming across, is it all the stuff that you learnt about,
was it the stuff that you expected or were there unexpected materials?
Largely what we had expected. But the Iraqis had made what they called a “binary” weapon, but it wasn’t a real binary weapon. The binary weapons which the Americans had in their old chemical program were things that you’d add one thing that was not toxic to another thing that was not toxic and they would make the weapon in flight
or whatever. But their binary nerve agents were a mixture of two nerve agents: sarin, which is one of the ancient nerve agents discovered by the Nazis and at the end of World War II; and the new one, GF [nerve agent], which we all heard about and knew about and it was all
sort of theoretical, and it had been made I think by the Brits but nobody ever imagined that they would use that; but it was a mixture of GF and sarin that they used as their so-called binary weapon. I think on the biological side camelpox was a thing we didn’t expect them to have and I don’t think
it’s terribly much use as a weapon, but the idea is the Middle East depends on camels and it might nobble [disable] the camel population and it might be well worthwhile in the Middle East. Some of the toxin weapons that they had, we didn’t expect that.
We thought this botulinum toxin was a possibility and we vaccinated against that; but there was another, chlostridium perfringens toxin, and it’s an organism usually associated with gangrene and things like that, they had weaponised that. But otherwise things were as supposed, expected. And I mean in the beginning they said there was no biological
program, and it was only when there was a defector that the truth of the program came out. But, yeah, they certainly had active programs.
And you said a couple of times how sometimes, I guess, crude the technology was, but were there times when there was also a bit of, you were perhaps surprised by the cunning involved?
The cunning involved was how to get the precursors and things. And Australia is a part of this group that it started off called the Australia Group which has been going for over twenty-five years now, a group of countries get together
to voluntarily ban chemicals and later organism type things that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons, and that put programs like Iraq’s back tremendously. It was an Australian who was involved in the UN weapons inspections in the Iran-Iraq War
that realised this was a bad thing, and we should try and stop the flow of precursors that could be used to make chemical weapons, so Australia sort of started this all off. And initially there were countries like Japan and Germany that thought this was an interference with free trade, but through
the sharing of intelligence they realised that this was a bad thing, and those in other countries have come into line. But the cunning with Iraq is how to manufacture the things from even more basic building blocks and to get the things through third and fourth and fifth way round, so the cunning was in the manufacture, not so much the
engineering. And as far as the organisms, I mean they just ordered them from the culture collections in the States, like laboratories do. I mean that angle has been closed now, but it was, they just said, “We’re a lab, we’ll order them, and can we have some anthrax because we need it to diagnose anthrax in our cattle?”
sort of thing.
Interviewee: Frederick Parkes Archive ID 2437 Tape 08
One of the things that you mentioned earlier was the deception, that is, for example, you went to one factory and they were producing what they said was single cell processes but they weren’t; are there other cases of that where you were deceived or you had to identify what a factory was working on?
Yeah. There was a vaccine-producing factory
made by the French, a place called Daura, and yeah, that was supposed to be making animal vaccines but it turns out later that also was being used to make biological weapons, so we were certainly deceived there, and it later came out that it had been used
for other things. When we went over it, it seemed fairly squeaky clean, but the thing is with biological weapons it’s fairly easy to destroy them, just pop them in the autoclave and they’re gone. Certainly the rest of the infrastructure for vaccine production was there, and indeed the French had certified it as being okay.
Can you take me through kind of a day in, what you would do in a day with your work in Iraq? How would you approach it? For example, would you be given information about the site you were going to? Would you be briefed, you would have a meeting with the team?
That’s right. Countries would share intelligence about things.
Some of that intelligence might be satellite intelligence, certain things look as though they might have a pattern that might suggest weapons might be being made there and it might be a good place to look at. Or it might be that something has come out of with discussion with the Iraqis on previous inspections that needed
following up on. Some inspections were largely just talking to the Iraqis, the higher-up side, as to what happened with the programs and all that, but it was different at different stages. I mean the first inspections with the chemical ones were just counting all the weapons that they’d declared
and verifying those and then looking at other possible candidates, other sites, but my second time there was different. It was just daily overseeing of the destruction of these weapons.
Okay, but you were going to different types of weapon facilities, like from biological to chemical?
You would need different kinds of preparation for attending?
Yes, but certainly on those initial ones, when we didn’t quite know what we would find, we had to be prepared for the worst. For chemical ones if necessary you’d be taking the chemical prophylaxis, and for the biological ones you’d be taking
the biological prophylaxis, but as time went on less and less was found and it was judged that there was no need to continue with all those personal preparations.
What about the attention of all the Iraqi security people?
In what we were doing, or...?
Well, again we had to be careful with our own security of information and not leave notes and things around. But they were obviously
interested in what we were thinking. But a number of the discussions would go on outside Iraq. Back in Bahrain there was a support team called Gateway and they would often put together the missions, so that the missions would be put together outside of Iraq, and they’d look at the intelligence and
decide what needed to be done. Sometimes they’d get it wrong, things were not weapons facilities, they’d be a chicken farm. Once it was the headquarters of the local Mujahadim. I mean it was different things, some innocent, some not. But one of the things I experienced,
it makes me understand the current context of things about intelligence, with the Americans there was a certain pressure to find things and to put the worst interpretation on things. I mean there was pressure to find weapons and to look for things, and that’s a little bit reflected today. I thought the Brits and the Canadians and the Australians
were perhaps much more even-handed about the interpretation of possible intelligence, but I found the US people much more gung-ho and there seemed to me much more political pressure on them to find things, but sometimes they were spectacularly wrong. But you had to, the whole system needed intelligence to work out. I mean it’s a big country and
how do you find where the weapons are? I mean you have to have intelligence to work all that out. But the interpretation is often a tricky thing.
Yeah, so what kind of things would the US be very wrong about?
Well, some facilities were quite sort of innocent that they were absolutely sure were facilities.
It meant basically that was it, but there was being sure that the Iraqis were hiding something at certain things. I mean it was very difficult because the Iraqis were hiding things, but just how far do you go and how do you interpret some of these things? That was the difficulty.
My impression was that the Americans were more likely to suspect some nefarious thing was going on than not, such was the nature of their people. I found the other countries just more even-handed, but perhaps I’m not the best person to talk to as I’m not,
I’m just a doctor, sort of thing.
But you were a witness to that situation?
A witness to all that, yes, of course.
Can you tell me about an event?
It’s hard to come up with specific incidents. I mean I don’t carry all the operational details of saying we went to this facility and there was nothing there.
It’s more an attitude of the Americans. There were a number of American people who were quite driven to finding things, rather than looking and seeing what was there, and it’s more....
I think I can remember stories of a dried milk factory being mistaken for a weapons facility.
Yes, we drove past that often.
I never did an inspection there. But the Iraqis would make political play of those sort of things. And there were dual sort of facility things that were used for the manufacture of good things, but it’s this whole difficult thing of interpretation.
And I’m just making a comment in passing that I thought a number of times the Americans, with the pressure they were, I felt that they were under, they were more inclined to get it wrong than some of the other groups that were there.
It’s quite a responsibility, isn’t it, because it’s a very severe matter about producing chemical and biological weapons, and they definitely need to be inspected and eradicated,
but I guess the risk is if you get too gung-ho and expect the worst all the time that you can create tension and not get the co-operation: is that what you were finding?
Maybe it’s me just looking at things in hindsight, but in the current situation with the emphasis on
intelligence for the Second Gulf War, which I was not involved in, in any way, I just assumed before that Gulf War that they must have had some very good intelligence to have made the sorts of political decisions that they did. Now I wonder if that intelligence was there. And I’m only saying that in retrospect, looking at the
American system and how there is pressure to interpret intelligence in a certain way, that I can understand that maybe in this current situation – and I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not privy to any of the intelligence for this Gulf War – but maybe similar pressure existed to try and find things that weren’t really there.
That’s what I’m trying to say, if that makes any sense.
Oh yes, definitely, context of the last year or so. Yeah, the program, the chemical and biological weapons program that Iraq had, my understanding of the program is that there was a list of facilities and types of weapons that Iraq was saying, “This is what we have,
you can inspect and they can be destroyed.” But by the time you’d finished your second tour there, what was your sort of impression of the stage that the program was at?
Well, the program was initially much more, particularly on the biological side, than the Iraqis had ever admitted. On the chemical side I wonder if there was ever much more.
I mean they’ve discovered a few bits and pieces but no startling enormous additional revelations, but certainly they hid an active biological program where they had trialled the weapons.
So Iraq certainly had the programs. Whether they continued in the time once inspectors were shut out, before they were allowed in again, is another question.
Did you have to have medical treatment, a medical check
sort of periodically or regularly during your inspection tour?
We did our own monitoring. With exposure to a nerve agent it can affect an enzyme in your body and I instigated regular
checks of the enzyme, the same as we do with workers who are working with pesticides, just to make sure people’s levels were okay. I mean if they’re going down too much you take people off the work for a while and let the body recover. Fortunately the levels of our people were okay, and it was important to record that.
I also tried to record what potential exposures people had as some sort of record for the future. But we’re not having detailed medicals, but certainly the periodical blood tests, which we thought were an important part of checking on people’s continuing health.
And were there problems for anybody?
No problems. Again, we tried to do things very safely with no exposure, wearing the appropriate gear and doing the appropriate things.
And your protective gear that you wore, it was satisfactory?
We were wearing the gear that is largely developed for chemical and biological warfare defence and these are semi-permeable suits, because if you’re wearing permeable suits, as I said before, you’ll die from the heat stress. But the semi-permeable suit that can breathe has still got filtering capacity there
but allows you to operate in the suit for a much longer time. We did things that were not really according to chemical or biological warfare defence doctrine, things like just wearing the mask, but our situation was different from warfare in that if you weren’t expecting a splash situation then you could just wear a mask if you were
expecting a vapour hazard. Yeah. We had more for specific things, like I talked about before, for the warrant officer drilling in we had much more sophisticated suits; similarly on the first biological inspection we had inflatable suits, a bit like – I don’t know if you’ve seen the James Bond film Dr No – but those funny sort of
inflatable, see-through suits, and we did some training with those, but those weren’t necessary as we found nothing as they’d destroyed it all. But we would have needed that if we’d come across some high-level threat.
Once you’d done an inspection
what were you required to do to complete the mission?
We’d usually fly back to Bahrain and we’d go through a debriefing session where all the stuff was compiled. The chief inspector of the mission would write a report which would go back to the UN Special Commission headquarters in New York, and
they’d also direct missions from there, too. They’d do more research and work out what was necessary. The chemical destruction group, I mean that went on for about a year, that went on further than my half-year there. I mean other people came and took turns,
and that was the longest mission, but they had a specific mission to destroy all the chemical weapons and all the precursors. Yeah, it took them over a year to do all that.
It flared up again in the late ’90s, didn’t it?
Well, yes, for a while Saddam said no more inspectors could come back in and then he allowed them in again, and this led up to eventually to the events of the Second Gulf War.
Were you ever, well, I
guess I should find out what you did once you completed that mission, but my question was going to be whether over the last decade you’ve been consulted about your knowledge?
I was working in that, I continued to be, regardless of the other jobs I was doing, involved in the nuclear side of things until I left the navy in
October 1996. My then successor had then been trained and groomed and he largely took over from me. I mean I did, I provided some training and expertise to the
medical officer courses that they run regularly, but it’s not been very much. I’ve given talks to emergency groups with the general interest of things, and when we had the anthrax postal scare I talked to the post office people here in Melbourne
What did you tell them? What were you able to tell them to assist them?
Just about anthrax and what it’s like and how it’s spread and talking about how to deal with potential situations and risk and managing that risk, what
to do with parcels with white powder in them and that sort of stuff. I was also, there was some controversy regarding the vaccination of defence force personnel prior to the Second Gulf War with anthrax vaccine.
Again that was, it was unfortunate that was not done before people left Australia, as a number of people had it done out at sea and the call was that, because of the duty of care that they had to people, and they worried about anthrax being a threat, that if people decided not to be vaccinated for anthrax that
they would be landed and basically sent back to Australia. But that created a bit of a stir in the community. And people were worried about the possible effects of the vaccine so they had a, they put together this Defence Anthrax Advisory Panel for a few weeks where they had a 1800 number where people or their relatives or sweethearts
could ring up and ask questions about anthrax and vaccinations, and they got me on that panel and I happily answered the questions for people. They were more worried about the situation than the actual situation demanded.
The anthrax vaccination was a pretty newly-developed vaccination, is that right?
No, it’s been around for some years. I mean I’d had it prior to going to Iraq the first time so I can speak from firsthand experience and I’m not aware that anything terrible has happened to me, but the vaccine existed before that. We’ve had a number of people, even in Australia, vaccinated against anthrax.
I mean it’s more the vets in the country who have to handle animals with anthrax, but anthrax vaccine has been around and had a place in the world for a long time. There’s an American vaccine and a British one and they’re reasonable vaccines, from what I can tell and the literature that I’ve read.
But people get worried about things, particularly things that they’re told they have to have done. But it’s all, these days it’s all about informed consent and if, people have a right, it’s their bodies, and if they don’t want to have vaccines or other things they don’t have to have them. But if they don’t have them then it means that the defence force might not wish to put them in harm’s way
because they believe they can’t meet their duty of care to them if they were unprotected. I mean it would be unthinkable if somebody did get anthrax. But again, whether the threat was there is another call. But yes, they asked me to be involved in that, and in recent times if I might be prepared to provide
a bit more advice, as their current expert has left. I’m thinking about that. It’s not something that I keep up with as I did in the past. There’s a lot of reading to do to keep up with it, and there’s enough keeping up with my own
area of occupational medicine. I’m about to do some other work for Defence [Department of Defence] and back onto the Reserve, and one of the areas that I’m interested in and have some expertise in is colour vision, the colour vision demands of people’s work.
The defence standards need, are old and in some areas not easily defensible, and need to do some field work and other things to get some new defensible colour vision standards, so I’m going to be doing some work for them in that area, that I find quite exciting. It will be good to get out and do some
You did mention that earlier off-camera, but can you explain to us what you actually mean by “colour vision”, what it applies to?
It refers to the area that people commonly call, “colour blindness.” At the back of our eyes we’ve got three different types of colour vision receptors.
One is mainly responsive to blue light, one to green light and one to red light, and it’s the mix of those three as to how we interpret colour. Some people can be missing one of those types of receptors or have defective ones and thus confuse colours.
The most common type is what is mostly commonly referred to as “red-green colour blindness”, where people are confusing reds and greens. This can be important in the military context, particularly regarding red and green lights, for instance at sea or in aviation environments; and there’s increasing use of colour in computer displays and all sorts of other things.
The services have got different standards of colour vision and certain people with certain standards of colour vision can do certain jobs, but in these days with discrimination and all that you’ve got to be able to show that you’ve got something that’s defensible. That’s something that I’ve developed a lot of expertise in and I’ve got a lot of equipment and it’s an area that I enjoy,
and it will be a pleasure doing some research for Defence to update their colour vision standards. But I’m not sure that I have the time to read up on that plus my ordinary speciality area plus getting involved once again with the nuclear, biological and chemical side of things. I mean there’s just a limit to how many hours in the day and what you can do, I think. You’ve got to make
choices as to what you can do in your time, rather than spreading yourself too thinly.
You’ve certainly had a very interesting career as a doctor. You said when you first studied medicine and thinking about your career path that you wanted to do something, or put yourself in a position that would open doors for you and expand your experience: do you feel that has occurred?
Yes, I think the services offer a great experience for anyone, medical people particularly.
I find myself well-trained with good experience and certainly can compete with my colleagues who have been civilian-taught all the time. There was a time when I worried whether I could sort of make it in the outside world, but I’ve got a successful occupational medicine practice, we’re about to open other
rooms, and I’m happy to find that military experience has held me in very good stead for life outside the military.
Something I’m curious about, it’s been raised before with other medical people that we’ve spoken too, and that is the, I guess the standard – not so much the standard of treatment but the status of medical teams and the status overall of
medical treatment of injured servicemen and women. Has that ever been an issue for you or something that you’ve had concerns about?
You mean the standard of military treatment?
Well, more the status, that it isn’t given the status that it should be given and that medical teams aren’t given the status that they should be given.
Well, it’s always a difficult thing. I mean how do you balance up the image of budgets for guns versus field hospitals? I think it’s a difficult thing. I think that certainly in recent years, because there’s been so many operations that have had medical elements, that the medical side of things has got a real boost
with hospital ships and deployable field hospitals, the expenditure is certainly more than it was in the past. But, as with the status of health in the community, I mean how do you weigh it up, education, roads versus the status of health? And health budgets everywhere
seem to be burgeoning. As we get more developments in medicine where do you draw the line? And the same applies in the military and some tough decisions have to be made, and I think they’re getting the balance more right these days than certainly when I started in the defence force. There weren’t that many deployments and they kept medical on the side, but they’ve realised
that they’re doing a lot of deployments now and they often have an embedded medical component that they’ve just got to pay attention to it. And it makes good operational sense to look after your people which are, after all, the thing that you’re going to fight the war best with, more than guns. I mean it’s better to look after them more than not look after them, excellent operational sense.
I thought with your nineteen years of scope there that you
may have seen some changes.
That’s interesting. All right, we’re close to the end of the tape and I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d like to add to the archives for posterity, for your children, for your grandchildren who may see this interview at some point in the future?
No, that’s about it. Certainly I would encourage people to entertain the idea of a
military career. I thought it was nonsense early on before I joined, but I found great fulfilment and something that suited me and that I was able to in many ways find myself through the military, and I would encourage other people to do that and consider it.
Okay, thanks a lot.