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Magpie 31 - Part 2
(Blondes, Bombs and Bunkers Part 2)
© Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company,
2nd Tour
Author: Roger Lambert

Readers of the earlier Magpie 31 article would be aware that, having tracked down AIRCDR (retd) John Whitehead, DSO, we arranged to meet when his wife and he were in Sydney in October last year. Having exchanged contact details, we arranged a mutually suitable date/time and venue for us to meet.

In preparation for the get together, I compiled a series of photographs which I printed and placed in a folder to give to John. Some of these images have appeared in support of my earlier Magpie 31 article while others were relevant to John's career from flying Meteor twin-jet fighters in Korea to flying the Canberra bomber with 2 Squadron (2 Sqn) in Vietnam while he was the Commanding Officer (CO).

I must admit that I was like a "kid in a candy shop" thinking about the prospect of finally meeting the pilot of Magpie 31 (A84-236) when John and his navigator/bomb aimer, the late SQNLDR Bruce Hunt, provided close air support (CAS) to my platoon on 21 September 1969. To say that I was eagerly looking forward to the meeting would be a gross understatement.

As the appointed rendezvous drew near, however, I began to feel some nervous trepidation about finally meeting the pilot of Magpie 31 some 44 years after the event. I need not have worried...

John Whitehead DSO with Roger LambertMy wife, youngest daughter (she is an avid follower of all things 5 RAR) and I spent a most enjoyable evening with John, his wife Adrienne and their second son Andrew at the apartments where they were staying. It was rather strange being greeted at the door by a person whom I'd never actually met but yet feeling as though I had known him for 40 odd years. We were afforded a very warm welcome and made to feel very much at home from the outset. There were some tears from Adrienne and they were genuinely interested in my personal account of the events of 21 September 1969. I guess it helps having been part of the ADF 'family' but one really felt comfortable in their company.

John is a really interesting gentleman to speak with and some of his recollections of his time in Korea and South Vietnam on active service were fascinating to hear. I think what made John relax somewhat was the fact he realised very early on that I had a very good knowledge of aircraft and aircraft types, and that he wasn't just speaking with a 'dumb grunt'.

Typically military however in that John couldn't help rub in the fact that their aircrew lifestyle at Phan Rang was diametrically opposed to that of the infantryman in country, He could get up in air-conditioned comfort, have a hot shower, breakfast of bacon and eggs, briefings, fly on ops ― sweat like hell for a while, debrief, shower and change, get some paperwork out of the way back in the air-conditioned comfort of the office. All of that five or six times a week, every week, relentlessly. Then there were mortar/rocket attacks on the base almost every other week, but no mud and slush to speak of, etc. Discussing Phan Rang/Nui Dat lifestyles was interesting ― good natured banter but typical inter-service rivalry.

I was amazed that John actually flew some 260 bombing missions plus some ― training, test flights, ferry, and others during his time as CO of 2 Sqn. He had some interesting tales to tell including, on more than one occasion, having his Canberra hit by AK47 fire, or shrapnel from his own bombs on low-level missions.

Adrienne was especially interested in my perspective of the events of the day on 21 Sep 69, starting with my 'blonde encounter' and running through the day leading up to John in "Magpie 31" providing the CAS for my platoon. We even toasted "Magpie 31"

With his 77 Sqn service, John said it was pretty uneventful. He did however prick his ears up when I referred to the "blue note" generated by the Meteor when 'doing a rate of knots'. John said it was a real 'buzz' to get that sound going during a high speed pass in the Meteor F.8. He couldn't be sure but he thought that the 'note' was generated by the spent cartridge ejection chutes that, as John put it, "acted like tin whistles under the aircraft."

“John also told of the time when some ‘big wig’ at Command HQ decided that the RAAF would assist with the Australian Gliding Championships been held at Waikerie, South Australia. John was CO of ARDU at the time when he was told that the RAAF would be providing Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Winjeels as tow aircraft for the championships, the ‘big wig’ stating that the Winjeel could easily tow a glider. John pointed out that that was possibly not the case because of potential cylinder head temperature problems with the extra drag and weight of the glider. The HQ insisted that the Winjeels would be used and John equally insisted that they couldn’t ― and won the day after his trials showed serious overheating problems. Required modifications were too costly. An insight into the measure of the man.”

Incidentally, John did fly the Winjeel as a flying instructor during 1961/62 and was aware of its engine problems.

He's a fascinating man to listen to. He pointed out that the 77 Sqn Meteors came home from Korea on HMAS Vengeance with wings removed late in 1954. Vengeance docked at Garden Island, the (L-R) Adrienne and John Whitehead with Roger and Rhonda LambertMeteors were off-loaded onto barges and then towed up the Parramatta River where they were transferred to road transports and taken to the Aircraft Depot at Richmond for re-erection. John was temporarily based at Richmond and was the pilot as each Meteor was reassembled and test flown or as John put it "to make sure that the wings didn't fall off." After that, unlike after Vietnam, 77 Squadron had a welcome-home parade down Bridge Street to Martin Place in Sydney, with a fly-past of its Meteors. A happy ending.

All in all, it was a great evening albeit a late one but one that 'my girls' and I thoroughly enjoyed. From my perspective, I've closed a small chapter in history. It's hard to describe but I felt a sense of overwhelming relief as we drove home ― a sense of mission accomplished.

But it's not all over yet. I've identified the 9 Sqn aircrew of the two "Bushrangers" that supported the company that day and the quest to track them down has commenced...

Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company, 5 RAR, 1969/70