17 August, 2021
Wealth of Knowledge Col Benson
Colin “Col” Benson may well and truly be a local legend which is why the Mackay Local News sought him out after a moving Victory in the Pacific Day celebration led by Col. If His 75 years proves anything there is always a good story to tell. Col has many up his sleeve, he is someone that would be able to educate anyone with his knowledge on the past here is what happen when Jacob Cumner caught up with him.
Colin “Col” Benson may well and truly be a local legend which is why the Mackay Local News sought him out after a moving Victory in the Pacific Day celebration led by Col.
If His 75 years proves anything there is always a good story to tell. Col has many up his sleeve, he is someone that would be able to educate anyone with his knowledge on the past here is what happen when Jacob Cumner caught up with him.
How long have you lived in Mackay?
I was born in Mackay when my family lived at Gargett, approximately 50 km west of Mackay. In 1952, after about two years on a farm at Septimus, near Gargett, my family bought a small cane farm at Carmila West, approximately 100 km south of Mackay.
At the age of 15, after two years of high school in Mackay, I enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an apprentice radio technician for a term of 15 years. I served for 20 years.
Since retiring from the RAAF, in 1982, I have lived in Mackay.
Former radio and electronics technician, university and TAFE computing teacher/tutor, photo-finish operator, sugar mill weighbridge operator and cleaner, and warehouse clerk.
I’m now retired and a community volunteer.
How long have you been with the Mackay RSL?
“RSL” is the common name for the “Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) and I am a member of the Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) Mackay Sub Branch Inc.
I have been a member of Mackay RSL for more than 30 years. In 2013, I was appointed a Life Member that is a national award.
After being elected to the management committee, in 1988. Apart from about one year, I have been on committees ever since. I have been the Senior Vice President and Historian for many years.
What has been your greatest joy while you have worked with them?
I have served on Mackay’s ANZAC Day annual committees since the first, in 1988. During the 20 years or more, I have been involved with the organisation of Mackay’s Dawn Parade and Service and Morning Parade and Service with attendances up to 5,000.
After having marched in an ANZAC Day parade in Grade Two, with I have great satisfaction and pride being beside around 5,500 students and staff who march in Mackay’s Morning Parades.
For many years, I have worked with teams of veterans, ADF Cadets, council staff and civilians who contribute to the 1,000 or so tasks that ensure each ANZAC Day is successful.
Perhaps the greatest achievement was the Centenary of ANZAC Dawn Service at Town Beach, in 2015. An estimated 10,000 people assembled before Dawn, and a few thousand stayed to watch the sunrise over the Coral Sea. That was a massive organization involving Mackay RSL, Council staff, ADF Cadets, SES, Police and Committee members drawn from the community that had only minor complaints despite huge traffic jams.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My parents, born in 1908, were hard-working farmers. I am the youngest of nine of whom eight lived to adult-hood. We were little more affluent than the proverbial church mice. Only four children survive.
Our parents left school at the end of grade six, and were educated through the school of hard knocks, and educated their children as best they could. My older siblings and myself often discuss our father’s skills in farming and agriculture, fencing, sizing-up and cutting timber, sharpening saws and hair-clippers, and repairing bicycles, to name some. Our mother could make jams and lollies for fetes, make and ice cakes for weddings and other functions, as well as make clothes. They were both civic-minded, and served on various committees to raise funds and to ensure we had a functional community.
Although my father’s right foot had been mangled in a farming accident at the age of six, he never shirked any responsibility. By example, our mother and father taught their children resilience and to do their best at any task they had.
After walking several kilometres to and from school, there were two or three hours of chores each day to ensure we had food to eat, such as feeding chooks and collecting eggs, chopping and gathering wood and chips for the stove for cooking and winter warmth, filling kerosene lamps and a kerosene fridge, watering a large vegetable garden, and bringing cows and calves from a hill paddock and separating them for milking each morning. Then there was the table to set with plates, knives, forks, and spoons, and dishes to wash and dry after each evening meal. At some time, most children operated a hand-cranked separator that produced cream for making butter.
Only after chores were completed could I listen to the wireless for about 30 minutes to hear serials, such as Smokey Dawson, Kid Grayson Rides the Range, and the Argonauts.
There was no electricity in our farmhouse until after I had left home, about 1963 or 1964.
As a youngster, I suffered from bronchitis for which my mother had to light a kerosene lamp to attend to me. At about the age of seven, to help my mother, I “wired” my bed for electric lights – with copper-wire, torch bulbs and cells scrounged from “flat” wireless batteries gathered from neighbouring farmers.
I had a mechanical aptitude and built small machines with an old Mechanno set that helped to reinforce what I learned on our farm.
For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a variable condenser, then known as a “range-finder” that was the only gift I may ever have asked for. I used it to build a small radio. Although crude, I listened to distant stations at night, including the hit parade on 2SM Sydney.
I was fortunate to attend high school for two years that gave me sufficient education to be accepted as an air force apprentice, and for my parents to afford my board and keep away from home.
I was one of the “First Students at Milton Street, in 1960”, the new, Milton Street campus of Mackay State High School. I often see a few of my former high school class mates who became lifelong friends.
In July 1961, two army sergeants arrived with a 16mm projector, screen and a movie promoting the Army Apprentices School, in Victoria. I saw an opportunity to learn about wireless/radio. Instead of the army, myself and a class-mate applied to join the RAAF. After medical and psychological assessments, and aptitude tests, in Townsville, a few months later, we subsequently enlisted, in February 1982. After several days of travelling by train and aircraft, we arrived at our new home, an RAAF Base, in Victoria.
After learning service knowledge, being the lowest form of life in the service, and completing two years of college at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and eight months applying theory to air force transmitters, receivers, and radar, I graduated as a Ground Radio Technician [RADTECHG]. The remainder of my five-year apprenticeship was under supervision in the field. A four-month specialist course followed before I arrived at my posting in Darwin.
During my 20 years in the RAAF, I served, in Darwin (NT), Richmond (NSW), Laverton (VIC), with No 2 Squadron of Canberra Bombers in Vietnam, and in Townsville (QLD). My role in Vietnam, with two junior technicians, was to maintain equipment and keep the squadron in contact with Australia through working with other RAAF units, the Australian Army, the US Army and the US Air Force.
Whereas radio started as a childhood hobby, I achieved my goal when it became my job and my primary interest. As an experienced technician, and from the stroke of my commanding officer’s pen, I became and instructor to graduate and under-graduate radio technicians, and an engineering manager of huge communication systems. Although I wasn’t an officer or an engineer, because of my expertise, my air force career ended in an engineer’s position.
I had “grown-up” in the air force and had difficulty transitioning to civilian life. I had “to start at the bottom” as my air force experience meant little in “civvy street”. By the time I had gained tertiary qualifications in computing and education, I was “too old”, and only had mediocre jobs until I retired.
After becoming involved with the RSL, I developed into a military historian. In May 1992, with the unveiling of the Bakers Creek Memorial, at Bakers Creek, I took an interest in the wartime crash of an American warplane at Bakers Creek that had claimed 40 American lives.
In June 2003, at my invitation, the USAF flew a C-130 transport from Yokota Air Base, Japan, for a fly-past at Bakers Creek, and for 23 “Bakers Creek Pilgrims” who had travelled from mainland USA. That has taken me to the US on many occasions. On my first “US Memorial Tour”, in 2003, I had a tour of the Pentagon where I met the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Since then, I have participated in 10 annual US Army commemorative ceremonies, in Washington, DC. Several family relatives of the casualties have become very dear friends.
What military rank have you held?
I retired from the RAAF as a Warrant Officer – the highest non-commissioned rank.
In 2002, the Commanding General of the US 5thAir Force, in Japan, accepted my invitation to be Special Guest for the annual Bakers Creek Memorial ceremony and a formal dinner. During his visit, for honouring and remembering US Warriors, I was appointed an Honorary Colonel of the US 5thAir Force [entitled to the respect and privileges of a Colonel in the US military.
Three American WWII veterans were also appointed as Honorary Colonels. Two who had narrowly missed being aboard the doomed flight, on 14 June 1943. The third with whom I researched the crash from 1992 until his death, in 2005, had lost four friends in the crash. Now deceased, they all became very close friends.
Although not a military rank, in 2001, I was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky - the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s highest award. I believe that followed a recommendation by a retired US Army General from Pennsylvania whose uncle perished in the Bakers Creek Crash. I share that honour with former US Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
What excites you about Mackay’s history?
As with most other places, Mackay and the District has a rich history through its development from a pioneering settlement; men and women who became business leaders and developers, fought in Australia’s wars with distinction, produced a Queensland Premier and a Federal Treasurer, and had the vision to turn Mackay into a prosperous community; initially through cattle and sugar and then with coal mining. Development of, and construction in Mackay and the Northern Beaches along with Renew Mackay is building upon that history.
Recent visitors from southern states have been amazed at the local prosperity.
The greatest historical item is ancient – the Pioneer River is unique as one of the few blue water rivers in Australia and the world.
What has brought you the most joy?
Within a few weeks of my daughter starting school, influenced by her first-grade teacher, she said she wanted to be a teacher. At about the age of nine, when she began music lessons, she said she wanted to become a music teacher. In 1982, I bought her a piano, a 1937 Beale, that I expected would soon be gathering dust. She persisted and, in grade 12, obtained a music diploma that paved-the-way for her to become a music teacher. Observing her as the music director for a magnificent production of Oklahoma, by the Musical Comedy Players, in Mackay’s Entertainment Centre was one of my proudest moments.
As a former colleague stated on Facebook several months ago, the air force provided an amazing opportunity and realized the dream of to a shy boy from the bush who had limited career prospects.
Tell us a bit about what makes you tick?
Rubbing shoulders with a myriad of veterans and like-minded volunteers is inspirational and rewarding. Although much of what many of us do is out-of-hours, mundane and burns-the-midnight-oil, I like working with members of a team to bring a project to fruition. I often feel thanking supporters is inadequate for the effort they spend.
Through being a Toastmaster, I have gained the confidence to participate in numerous US Army commemorative ceremonies, in Washington, DC, to work in public on ANZAC Day, and with the media for interviews that promote those activities.
My clock “is ticking” and I am slowing-down: it seems we now have decimal time of 10 hours-per-day in which to achieve our goals. I need to wind-down my community activities to give more time to my family and to attend to personal matters put-on-hold for decades.
I am willing to mentor much younger, dedicated persons who are willing to give 10 or more years of service to the community.
Would you like to tell us anything else?
Senior citizens underpin every facet of our service clubs, sporting clubs and other community activities. I encourage young people to become involved in any way possible to ensure we remain a community and not merely a collection of citizens.
Volunteers rarely appear when invited. Instead, they are civic-minded individuals who arrive and become involved through their own initiative.
Is there some one special you want to thank?
In my early days in the RAAF, I met a college instructor and four air force instructors; great mentors who treated us as young adults when we were being broken-down and moulded into airmen by drill instructors and others who seemed to lack compassion.
Several years later, after we had both returned from a year in Vietnam, “Reg” Maloney became my section commander and a close friend. The time we spent together in the Sergeants Mess, in Townsville, after work – comradeship - overcome many of the problems we had that was lacking for other Vietnam Veterans, especially National Servicemen.
When going on posting/transfer as a single airman was quite simple – take a travel bag with a few changes of clothes and the air force took care of everything else packed into a steel trunk. Preparing for my first posting as a married airman with a wife and baby, and having to produce multiple copies of an itemized inventory, was over-whelming. I asked my friend and mentor, Reg, for help that he willingly gave.
As I was leaving to move to Melbourne and a different adventure, I said, “Reg, I don’t know how to thank you.” “You can’t”, he said, “and you are never to try. I want you to help others, and some day someone will help me and the debt will be paid.”
Reg Maloney changed my life that day, in September 1973. Since then, I have tried to help others; often as a community volunteer.
After losing contact in the late 1980s, and believing Reg had passed, in mid-2020, I found on Facebook that he had celebrated his 90thbirthday, in 2018. A search located Reg and his wife were in a retirement village after which I visited them, in September 2020. During a precious hour with them, I told Reg how he had changed my life. He said he had tried to do “the best thing” during his 40 years of service. What I had told him showed he had made an impact. He had terminal cancer, and would remember what I told him.