If a carpenter is a ‘chippy’ and an electrician is a ‘sparky’, what’s a ‘chalkie’? It’s a slang term for a teacher, and comes of course from the days when chalk and blackboards were the only teaching aids in a school classroom.
I’ve recently started doing some research and writing about a very special group of chalkies – conscripted Australian teachers in the Vietnam War era who were posted to the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG) as part of the Army’s contribution to the education of indigenous soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiment. The selected teachers became members of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and my later doctoral thesis was about the corp’s predecessors in the two world wars.
Between 1966 and 1972 (the year conscription was abolished), more than 300 young men (average age about 20) who’d been plucked from schools across the nation when their birthdate marble was pulled from the Australian government’s barrel, spent the second of their two-year ‘national service’ in Army bases in TPNG, teaching mainly English, Maths and Civics. I was one of them, and am enjoying the opportunity now to make sense of a relatively small but significant part of my life more than 40 years ago.
A small grant from the Australian Army History Research Unit is helping to support the research, and I have recruited a willing group of ex-chalkies as a ‘reference group’: Norm Hunter, Ian Ogston, Greg Farr, Greg Ivey and Terry Edwinsmith, shown with me in the accompanying photo. Even before my project, a number of these enthusiasts had set up a great website to document some of the stories, and quite a few have already contributed bits of history from the period to that site.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the period we were in TPNG was almost immediately before the coming of self-government and shortly thereafter the declaration of independence. So it’s a challenge to place the chalkies’ contribution in that broader context and as part of the Australian Army’s support for TPNG in the years we were there. As an historian and a writer, I’ve always liked a challenge like that.