From Martin Watson, a Senior Armament Technician
I saw your letter to Peter Taylor asking for any RAAF stories, so I thought I’d drop you this one (I have many) to see whether it is worthy for your publication.
To set the story, it was around May 1987, I was 19 years old and only 7 months post-graduation from my apprenticeship at RAAF Wagga, graduating as an Armament Fitter. I was posted to 3 Sqn at RAAF Williamtown where the squadron had just reformed with F/A-18’s under the command of WGCDR Bruce Mouatt. We were about to deploy to the Clark Air Base in the Philippines within the next 60 days for Exercise Cope Thunder with the USAF. This was the first International Deployment of an Australian F/A-18 squadron (2OCU had taken 2 aircraft previously to Butterworth to show them off but this was hardly a squadron deployment) and the squadron was abuzz with pre-deployment activity, creating fly-away lists etc. It was very busy.
As I was still only 19 years of age, my fellow Gunnies thought they would play a practical joke on me and to do so they also informed the ARMO (I think it was FltLt Rod Equid) and the CO (WGCDR Bruce Mouatt) of what they were doing to make it appear to be legitimate. As Clark Air Base is officially a United States territory, I would not be able to drink alcohol on the trip as I was not 21 years of age. That was of course unless I filled in a concocted form that was signed by the CO, that would allow me to drink in a supervised manner.
Having no reason to believe this was a set up, I duly went about filling in the (concocted) form that was handed to me and had the ARMO sign it before making an appointment with WGCDR Mouatt to have a chat about the responsible consumption of alcohol and expectations of me on my first international deployment. After all, Gunnies have a certain reputation that the Boss was well aware of. All of this reinforced to me the legitimacy of what I was being told about drinking alcohol on a USAF base as a 19-year-old.
Anyway, this is the part where the story turns around and backfires on the instigators and in particular the CO.
3 Sqn at the time was full of under 21’s. I would estimate that there were at least 30 in the squadron at the time. So, here I was with my newly minted and autographed letter from the CO authorising me to drink responsibly by his direction, that I had to produce on receipt of any questioning about my age on said deployment. In my wisdom, I thought I’d better ask the other guys under 21 if they knew about this, and did they have their own letters. To a tee, every one of them said they knew nothing about it. Something should have clicked about then but just as I had fallen for it, so did they and there was a mass of young, under 21 guys running to their section commanders asking about a letter they need from the CO to allow them to drink at Clark because they were underage in the US system. They all said that young AC Marty Watson over at Gunnie section had his letter and had shown them the evidence.
Each section commander to a tee, called the 3 Sqn ARMO, who being in on the joke thought it would be funny to keep it going as to let it slip so early would be a waste, told the other section commanders that it was true. So, each and every person under 21 that was on the Cope Thunder deployment had to sit down and draft up the concocted form and head on over to the orderly room to arrange a meeting with the CO for his signature.
As you can imagine, hilarity ensued in the halls of 3 Sqn Gunnie Section. The CO, so as not to ruin the joke, had to sit through 30+ interviews with his young cohort of troops just to keep the joke going.
What was really well done was that OPSEC was maintained by those in the know, including the CO, as each and every one of us arrived in the Philippines with our letters in hand so we could partake in the joint festivities with our USAF brethren. That letter was the most important document that we carried and it as guarded. I kept mine in my pocket at all times (because you never knew when one might be off for a drink).
I’m not sure when it happened but I think it was mid deployment, but we were eventually told that it was all a joke and that we had fallen for it hook line and sinker. Best of all, what had initially turned out to be a joke on one member (me), turned into a squadron wide joke that had the CO doing extra work over and above to maintain the joke, in a time of high activity, preparing for the squadrons first international deployment.
It was certainly a memorable deployment and very much an eye opener for a somewhat naive 19-year-old aircraftsman at the time and something that I still remember in detail today as a somewhat less naïve 55 year old today.
Anyway, I hope that is worthy of your publication and at the very least, hopefully gave you a laugh.