OVER New Year I heard a sad piece of news. Bill Cunneen had died. The name may mean little to most people. It means the world to me.
He was some 12 years my senior, of a respectable enough vintage to shuffle off. But it’s always hard to take when someone you know and value – even if as in this case, you haven’t seen him for years and were not in touch – departs Gaia for destinations unknown.
I knew Bill through the Australian Army, in which when I met him he served as a photographer. He was a Warrant Officer Class 2 then, nearly four decades ago. He had served in Korea as a private in the infantry and in Vietnam as an army photographer. We wore the same cap badge, but that was where the similarities began and ended. He was already a legend. I wasn’t and never would be.
But Bill once gave me the greatest and most valued compliment I’ve ever received in a military setting (the Australian one in this instance). I’ve never forgotten it, the circumstances in which he said it, and the pride I felt when he did.
For some time, back in the day, I combined my journalistic career with a part-time one, in a similar role, in the Australian Army. I was a reservist, recruited as an officer for my specific skills and made a captain.
Bill was a regular soldier, in every sense of that term. He’d earned his rank.
As far as I was concerned, he far outranked me. But on duty he called me sir. That’s the form. You respect the rank, not (necessarily) the person.
In 1979 we worked together for that’s year’s training exercise, K79 (Kangaroo 79). I’m not sure at this distance whether it was the Kamarians, Musorians, or the un-definable Orangeland that we were opposing. It didn’t matter, though, because in those days all our enemies were notional.
(I do remember that the Kamarians, who lived upon an upturned Tasmania somewhere in the Solo Sea, I think, and were for a time regular enemies until being surpassed as a threat by the fiendish Musorians, eventually acquired a lovely flag. This had been invented in part by another regular soldier of my long acquaintance, Ross Eastgate, a Duntroon graduate. The flag was dubbed Duck l’Orange, since its heraldic motif was a black duck on an orange field.)
In 1979 I had been given the task of running bits of the exercise media centre, since the reserve formation for which I was then part-time toiling was also engaged – and because they needed better people than me up at the pretend sharp end.
I did my best, turning up in uniform every day and trying very hard to be serious about the whole thing. Bill knew that I was a choco (a reservist). And my own policy was that I while I might be sir, I wouldn’t order so much as a coffee until I’d checked with him. We mucked in well together. His military professionalism was unshakeable.
At the end of the exercise he found a quiet moment and place to tell me this: “I thought you were just another wanker, sir, but you’re not.”
That’s the best, and the most valued, accolade that I ever got in uniform, anywhere, with or without a loaded weapon to hand.
Rest in Peace, Bill.
Wiiliam (BILL) James CUNNEEN
Korea (Pte) 30 July 1952 to 8 November 1952 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment 6 January 1953 to 19 January 1953 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, Royal Australian Infantry Corps. Vietnam (WO2) Headquarters, Australian Army Force Vietnam 16/02/1966 to 21/03/1967. Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (Army Component) 01/10/1970 to 20/02/1972. Royal Australian Army Educational Corps.
His funeral is in Sydney on Saturday (Jan. 7)