by CHRIS GILMORE
After a 42-year career with the Royal Australian Air Force, ANZAC Day holds special significance for Alexandra Headland resident Dennis Olsen.
As the April 25 commemoration comes around again, Mr Olsen is taking the time to look back on what the occasion means to him.
“ANZAC Day means to me a reflection on my service days, particularly the men and women I served with during the years of my air force career, and in particular those that have passed away,” he says. “Life’s been a bit generous to me, I’m now 81, but some of my friends didn’t quite last that long and it gives me time to reflect.”
Mr Olsen’s RAAF career started in January 1958 and consisted of 22 years in the permanent air force, 17 years as a full-time active reserve and 2½ years as an officer in cadet training. He says he was inspired to join by his father.
“My father worked on aircraft engines during World War II and after the war he worked for Qantas,” he says. “I was rather impressed by the size of these aircraft engines and I thought ‘there’s a challenge when I leave high school, I’ll see what I can do to make a career out of that’, so I joined the air force and did my training there.”
Over the next four decades he travelled in Australia and internationally with active service, defence training and numerous representational appointments. Although trained as an aircraft maintenance engineer, he spent most of his career flying as a helicopter crewman and then as a flight engineer in the USA, France, Belgium, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“I loved it. I think that this service really shaped who I was as a young man,” he says.
“After doing my ground training working on aircraft, I had the opportunity to apply to fly as a helicopter crewman. I completed the training there and I was posted to the Malayan jungle squadron based at Butterworth (in Penang, north-west Malaysia).
“As a young, newly graduated aircrewman, I guess one of my career highlights was the work there that I did with the Malayan jungle flying doctor service and the work we did with the Malay army spotting or chasing the remnants of the communist terrorists that were still on the Thai-Malay border at the time (in 1965).
“Another one of the tasks we had was training the Gurkha soldiers at Sungai Petani, which is a town just north of Butterworth, to teach them the basics of helicopter operations, with the Gurkhas actually being infantry-type people. There were lots of little jobs like that that I was involved with on numerous occasions that made life flying with the helicopters very enjoyable challenging and very satisfying.
“From there I went to Vietnam and my career went on after I got back from Vietnam. Some of my friends didn’t of course – I was one of the lucky ones – but the work I did in the jungle with the flying doctor service was probably the highlight of my career.
“In Vietnam I was an aircrewman gunner in the back of the helicopter, involved in the helicopter war. Our purpose was to provide transport for the army, provide medical evacuation and supply and ammunition drop wherever the army wanted it, and of course to work with the SAS (Special Air Service), which was always quite an interesting job. There was more involvement with the enemy and more shooting involved when you were working with the SAS, they were in the thick of things.”
During his career Mr Olsen secured several awards and decorations including a battlefield mention in despatch award in Vietnam in 1966, an operational command commendation and an Order of Australia Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 1994. He says the OAM “came out of the blue, quite unexpected”.
“Through a strange series of events, after my flying days I went across to defence public relations and spent about 15 years taking the air force to the taxpayers of Australia by way of exhibitions,” he says. “My boss in Canberra directed me and I put together an air force display of engineering interests, like an engine and avionics, to show the public that though it was peacetime, the air force was advancing in technology and aircraft were being modernised. I basically got the Order of Australia for that. Plus I spent about five years teaching at a training school for non-commissioned air crew, I seemed to have done a good job there.”
His job did also bring other perks over the years, recalling one story from 1968.
“I was in charge of the non-commissioned airmen air crew school in Canberra at the time, away a lot helping to train the army in helicopter operations,” he says. “The commanding officer called me into his office and he said, ‘Sergeant, I’d like you to go away on another trip on behalf of the squadron.’ I never knocked back a trip – if it was a necessary task that had to be done I always went – but I said to him this time, ‘I’ve been away a lot, I’d like to spend a few days at home with my family.’ I’d only just come back from a week at Cultana (a defence training area in South Australia). He interrupted me before I could finish and said, ‘Look, I better tell you where I want you to go before you knock this trip back. I want you to go to Paris.’ I said, ‘Paris? Like Paris, France?’ He said, ‘Yes. How does 2½ weeks over there sound?’ I said, ‘Pretty good!’”
The trip was part of an invitation from the French government to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the cease of hostilities in World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Mr Olsen represented Australia, in particular the air force, at Amiens, Villers-Bretonneux, Paris and various other functions.
“It was another very special time in my life that I was very thankful for – and it was all at government expense!” he laughs.
Just as Mr Olsen, a father of three, was inspired to join the service by his dad, his eldest son has been in the air force for nearly 30 years, working as a loadmaster with the squadron at Amberley.
“He’s made a career of the air force, pretty much the same as what I did,” Mr Olsen says. “Whereas I was more on the technical side of things, which gave me the opportunity to advance to flight engineer, he is a loadmaster on the bigger aircraft.
“I’m very proud of him. He’s been here, there and everywhere.”
Shortly after retirement, health issues became a concern and the option of independent, supported living attracted Mr Olsen to Bolton Clarke’s Tantula Rise retirement community at Alexandra Headland. It was a homecoming of sorts, having attended primary school at Mooloolaba before his parents moved to Brisbane, where he did high school and then joined the air force.
“The very house my father built for my mother is only about a kilometre away from where I am living now,” he says.
“With sand, sea and sunshine close by, the move to the Sunshine Coast was an easy decision to make. The friendship and security provided by the Tantula Rise community has gone a long way in providing a comfortable lifestyle as I move further into my senior years where further medical support will be needed.”
Mr Olsen will join the ANZAC Day commemorations at Tantula Rise, where he has been living since it opened 14 years ago.
“I used to just go to a local service at the nearest RSL club but now that I live here at Tantula Rise I go to the service that’s put together here,” he says. “It’s a combined independent living and nursing home service that’s held on the premises. Most of the residents here don’t have a service background but there are four of us here and they all go to the service that’s held here on the grounds.”
Looking back, Mr Olsen considers himself very lucky to have had the life he’s had.
“I had a few crashes along the line, as an aircrewman and also as a flight engineer, but I was able to get out of those with little more than a few scratches and bruises,” he says. “The overseas postings and overseas attachments that I had were great for a young man and a person who was making a career in the air force. I had those opportunities and I took them with both hands and I made it all work.
“You put your heart and soul into it – there’s no point going about things half-hearted or timid, you just make the job enjoyable even though it may have a few rough edges at the time.”