Mother’s choice

Bruce Wiltshire’s number came up at the same time as his brother’s.

NUMBERED marbles, each representing a day of the year, placed in a barrel. 

A number randomly picked by hand corresponded to the days of the year, and if you were a 20-year-old man and your birthday came up, you’d be required to present yourself for national service.

For Bruce Wiltshire, marbles were drawn out for both he and his brother, which was almost unheard of. They faced being conscripted to join the fight in the Vietnam War.

“They weren’t allowed to pick on a family, take two,” Mr Wiltshire says. 

When his mother questioned the army about what to do, the response was every family’s nightmare. 

His parents were informed they had to choose which son would go to war. 

Bruce, describing himself as the “rough and tumble one”, was chosen. 

“Because I’m here I suppose, I’m definitely pleased that they did,” he says.

As Anzac Day approaches, Australia and New Zealand remember the sacrifice made by veterans and those in active duty, helping to continuing their legacy.

Mr Wiltshire grew up in Geraldton and recalls a wonderful childhood revolving around sports, in particular sailing and hockey. 


Once he was conscripted, however, he had to grow up quickly. Approaching his 21st birthday he had nearly completed an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, which the army allowed him to complete. 

He was then sent for a 10-week training course at Puckapunyal in Victoria, describing it as “quite intense”.

“We changed from boys to men,” he says. 

His next destination was Sydney, to the School of Military Engineering where volunteers were requested for water transport. 

Mr Wiltshire, an avid sailor, shot his hand straight up and nudged his mate next to him to do the same. 

He thought the water would have to be better than crawling through tunnels and coming across mines.

His mate was not as convinced: “I get seasick,” he told him. 

Eighteen months later that same friend thanked Bruce as he ended up landing a job as a stevedore, organising and loading the ships. 

Once in Vietnam, Mr Wiltshire was assigned as an engineer on the ships, taking tanks and fuel trucks out and around a fight up the coast, instead of risking transportation on land. 

Based in Vũng Tàu, he and his comrades would also rebuild villages that had been bombed. 

Around the same time, he started studying the weather, and has done so ever since: “So now they call me the weatherman in our family,” he says. 

Mr Wiltshire said the Anzacs got along with the Americans.

The US Navy had bigger vessels, and often they’d get into mischief with each other in Saigon.

“We would quite often raid their sea containers and gear that we couldn’t get,” he adds. 

In Vũng Tàu they made friends on the US Navy’s food supply vessels.

“They use to swap food with us for beer because we had the large Fosters cans and they reckon the only thing they’d seen in cans like that was their automobile oil,” he says.


“We would get real food, a real chicken or a turkey on Christmas.

“We had a lot of fun there, other times it wasn’t as fun when you were getting shot at.” 

By the end of his tour, Bruce had vowed never to return to Vietnam as he felt he’d had enough, but one particular building, he can still picture in his mind: “the Grand Hotel, which was a massive French building,” he marvels. 

Mr Wiltshire will be staying in the Grand with his wife  when they return to Vietnam in November for the Water Transport Association’s 50-year reunion.

A rough journey through the South China Sea allowed the soldiers to return home, eager to live normal lives. 

Mr Wiltshire, decided to enlist in the army permanently because there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be put back in the firing line.

Instead, he earnt his engineer’s ticket and began a career on ships of all sorts. 

Now retired, he continues his loves of boats, attends the gym, supports the West Coast Eagles and is proud of the family he has created. 

Anzac Day is about “remembering and supporting those who went before us,” Mr Wiltshire says. 

A day full of tradition, his grandfather, father, mother and now son have all been involved with the armed forces, a fact that makes him proud and helps him to remember why Anzac Day is celebrated.


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