As published in the 2019 Winter Your Margaret River Region magazine.
Late 1960s. The Vietnam War is raging to a bloody peak and the horrific details are overshadowing government propaganda. Public sentiment is shifting and a cultural revolution is sweeping across the world. Peace, love, and happiness are penetrating proud patriotic and subservient traditions. The worlds youth don’t want war. They’re making it known.
It’s around this time that surfing begins to emerge as a bona-fide counter-cultural indicator. Surfing was emblematic of the revolutionary ideals, and a middle-finger to authority and war.
The two opposing worlds of surfing and war came to a clash in many a young surfer who was conscripted. Some went, others rebelled and sought refuge in Yallingup, a burgeoning surf-town in the bush, and as far from war as you could get.
Some of the surfers who escaped to Yallingup still live there today. They’ve graduated from panel vans in the car park to houses, and many have recently retired from respectable careers. Some even still surf, and remember the great lengths they took to avoid war.
These are their stories.
Ian ‘Mitch’ Mitchellson was nineteen-years-old and living in Perth with his parents when his marble came up in the conscript lottery.
“It was literally a marble,” he says. “They had marbles with a number on them in a drum, and if yours came up, you had to go. Well, mine came up.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Mitch wasn’t too concerned. He was adamant he would not go to war, and the alternative punishment of jail didn’t fase him either.
“I just thought, I’m not going. The idea of going off to a jungle in a foreign land and being given a machine gun - shooting other guys and having them shooting me - it was just ridiculous. I could barely get my shit together to go for a surf. Let alone fight a war. So I just thought, well I’ll come down here [to Yallingup].”
Mitch kept putting of his medical examination, but the letters kept arriving in the post. One day a final warning arrived urging him to go in immediately, and Mitch came up with a plan he thought would fool the doctors.
“I just had a surf at Cott Main, and was sitting around at some mates’ house, near the beach. We were choofin’ away, and someone came up with the idea that if you get a whole lot of alfoil and roll it into balls and swallow it, it’ll come up on the x-ray machine and look like you’ve got lung cancer.”
So Mitch rolled up the tin foil, swallowed it, and went in for his medical. But things didn’t work out exactly as he planned.
“In those days the x-ray machine was on a big swinging arm,” he says.
“The radiographer swung it right around under my chin and pushed it up really high. I pulled it down, to my stomach. He goes, ‘what are you bloody doing? Leave it alone.’ I felt like saying, ‘yeah, but all the alfoil is in my stomach, you’re gunna miss it!’ So that didn’t work. Then I went home and had to make sure all the alfoil came out again.”
Fortunately for Mitch he was never called up to fight. A few months after his medical, Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister and abolished conscription. Mitch was free to go surfing.
“Gough Whitlam may not have been the greatest man to run the economy, but he’s the greatest prime minister we’ve ever had as far as I’m concerned. You won’t hear a bad word about him from me,” he says.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Mitch remembers the Vietnam War as an event that divided the community, and says the people he knew who fought returned to a different Australia.
“They had a terrible time when they came back. They were called murderers. War must be awful. They’re not all bad people and they copped a lot of abuse. A lot of us young guys, it’s a shame we didn’t have more empathy for them. You went to war and you were a mongrel.
“It was kind of like us and them. We were young and idealistic and it took me a while to realise that they weren’t bad guys, they just thought they were doing the right thing.”
While Mitch managed to avoid the army, Pete de Bruin wasn’t so lucky. Bruno, as his mates call him, was turning twenty-years-old in June, 1972, when he was called up for the July intake. He debated dodging the draft but was convinced to “do the right thing” by his parents, whom Bruno respected. He was about to get on the plane to Puckapunyal, a training barracks in Victoria, when he changed his mind. But by then it was too late.
“We got to the airport early, and I knew then and there I was not going. I was going to go straight out. Taxi home, pack some clothes, grab a board, ring a friend, and, you know, pick me up down the back lane, and I’ll hitch down south. Lo-and-behold, I’m heading straight out the door, and my mother and father walk in the door of the airport to say goodbye,” he says.
Bruno’s parents convinced him to go, but as soon as Bruno at the Puckapunyal barracks he knew he had made a mistake.
“It was a huge shock,” he says. “We got kitted out with uniforms, they were barking orders at us and giving us lectures on rifles and guns, and I’m not into that. I’m not into rifles, I’m not into weapons. I’m a lover, not a fighter. I wanted out of there.”
Bruno planned to climb over the fence. But the barracks were out bush and Bruno had been brought in in the dark. Sentries guarded the gravel and barbed wire perimeter. Too afraid to escape, Bruno was forced to make another plan.
“I planned to feign a fit,” he says. “Hyperventilate and wriggle around. So the second night I did this jiggle and a wriggle. We were in a lecture. There were forty or fifty people there – the corporal and the sergeant too - but I didn’t care. I wanted to get out of there.”
Bruno’s superiors knew he was faking it, and the next day he was sent down to the medical centre and given a bottle of Valium to calm his ‘anxiety’. But as Bruno was on his way out, the desk sergeant told him something that inexorably determined his plan.
“He said to me, ‘you wanna get out of the army, don’t you mate.’ And I just told him. ‘Yeah, I do’. He said, ‘I’m a conscript too, I know how you feel. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The last intake, there was a recruit who said he had fits, and they didn’t believe him. He was in a bunker with three recruits and the corporal. He pulled the pin on a grenade, dropped the grenade, went into a fit and killed them all. Keep doing what you’re doing. They won’t take the risk.’”
When Bruno woke up the following morning he told two of his mates he was getting out of the army today. They laughed at him. Later that day, he ate the entire bottle of Valium and feigned another seizure while marching. This time, his plan worked.
“I did the whole hyper-ventilation thing, lay on the floor and really got myself red in the face. This time they believed me. They carted me off to the medical centre, and the funny part of it was, the two guys I told were the ones who had to chair lift me down there.”
Bruno was relieved from active duties and sat out the remainder of his time in the medical corps, until the war finished. He later travelled to New Zealand and Europe, where he surfed with Mitch, before eventually realising his dream of settling in Yallingup.
A few years earlier, in 1967, Barry Young avoided conscription because of the board bumps on his knees. He was in South Australia when he got called up, and planned to make the most of his last six months of surfing freedom by travelling to Western Australia.
“I knew WA had good lefts - I’m a goofy footer - so I quit my job and headed over,” he says.
“I came over and lived here for six months out of a car, a panel van, in the Yallingup car park. And then had to go for my medical in Bunbury.”
“In the course of the medical, I stripped down to have my physical examination, and they noticed these board bumps on my knees and feet – in those days we were riding malibus, which you had to knee paddle, so I developed these big mounds, callous kind of things. The doctor knew if I didn’t surf they would slowly go away. He asked me if I wanted to go in. I said, ‘mate, I’ve never shot a rabbit. I don’t want to go in the army, I’m a surfer’. So he signed a paper and I didn’t have to go in. I got out with board bumps.
“I dodged a bullet.”
Barry has lived in Yallingup ever since, and is still an avid surfer. He’s since worked as an agent for surfing corporation Quiksilver and won a couple of Aussie titles, and says he wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Surfing has been my life all the way through,” he says.
“I’ve lived the dream.”
Yallingup’s surfing history is memorialised in the WA Surf Gallery, at Aravina Winery.