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“Practical Joke / Chain Reaction”


- From Martin WATSON, Senior Armament Technician.

A Cobra-mouthed 3SQN Hornet in 1987.

To set the story, it was around May 1987, I was 19 years old and only seven months post-graduation from my apprenticeship at RAAF Wagga, graduating as an Armament Fitter

I was posted to 3SQN at RAAF Williamtown, where the Squadron had just re-formed with F/A-18s under the command of WGCDR Bruce MOUATT.  We were about to deploy to Clark Air Base in the Philippines within the next 60 days, for Exercise Cope Thunder with the USAF.
This was the first international deployment of an Australian F/A-18 squadron (2OCU had taken two aircraft previously to Butterworth to show them off, but that was hardly a squadron deployment) and the Squadron was abuzz with pre-deployment activity, creating fly-away lists etc.  It was very busy.

As I was still only 19 years of age, my fellow Gunnies thought they would play a practical joke on me.  To do so, they also informed the ARMO (I think it was FLTLT Rod EQUID) and the C.O. (WGCDR Bruce MOUATT) of what they were doing to make it appear to be legitimate.  As Clark Air Base is officially a United States territory, I would not be able to drink alcohol on the trip, as I was not 21 years of age.  That was of course unless I filled in a concocted form that was signed by the CO, which would allow me to drink in a supervised manner!

Having no reason to believe this was a set-up, I duly went about filling in the (concocted) form that was handed to me and had the ARMO sign it before making an appointment with WGCDR Mouatt to have a chat about the responsible consumption of alcohol and expectations of me on my first international deployment.  After all, Gunnies have a certain reputation that the Boss was well aware of.  All of this reinforced to me the legitimacy of what I was being told about drinking alcohol on a USAF base as a 19-year-old. 

Anyway, this is the part where the story turns around and backfires on the instigators, in particular the C.O.

3SQN at the time was full of under-21s.  I would estimate that there were at least 30 in the Squadron at the time.  So, here I was with my newly-minted and autographed letter from the C.O. authorising me to drink responsibly by his direction, which I had to produce on receipt of any questioning about my age on said deployment.  In my wisdom, I thought I’d better ask the other guys under 21 if they knew about this, and if they had their own letters. 

To a man, every one of them said they knew nothing about it.  Something should have clicked about then, but just as I had fallen for it, so did they and there was a mass of young, under-21 guys running to their Section Commanders asking about a letter they need from the C.O. to allow them to drink at Clark because they were underage in the US system.  They all said that young AC Marty Watson over at Gunnie section had his letter and had shown them the evidence.

Each Section Commander, to a tee, called the 3 Sqn ARMO.  (Who, being in on the joke, thought it would be funny to keep it going - as to let it slip so early would be a waste.)  
He told the other Section Commanders that it was true

So, each and every person under 21 that was on the Cope Thunder deployment had to sit down and fill in the concocted form and head over to the Orderly Room to arrange a meeting with the CO for his signature.

As you can imagine, hilarity ensued in the halls of 3SQN Gunnie Section.  The CO, so as not to ruin the joke, had to sit through 30+ interviews with his young cohort of troops just to keep the joke going.

What was really well done was that OPSEC [Operational Security] was maintained by those in the know, including the C.O., as each and every one of us arrived in the Philippines with our letters in hand so we could partake in the joint festivities with our USAF brethren.  That letter was the most important document that we carried and it was guarded!  I kept mine in my pocket at all times.  (Because you never knew when one might be off for a drink.)

I’m not sure when it happened - I think it was mid-deployment - but we were eventually told that it was all a joke and that we had fallen for it hook, line and sinker.  Best of all, what had initially turned out to be a joke on one member (me), turned into a Squadron-wide joke that had the C.O. doing extra work over and above to maintain the joke, in a time of high activity, preparing for the Squadron’s first international deployment.

It was certainly a memorable deployment and very much an eye-opener for a somewhat naïve 19-year-old Aircraftsman at the time - and something that I still remember in detail today, as a somewhat less naïve 55-year-old!

[Sourced with thanks from Pete RING’s AHA page: Aviation Matters.]

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