Ben and Les Whittaker

The Passing Out Parade was supported by the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund and was coordinated by South West Arts in partnership with South West Music Regional Conservatorium and Outback Theatre for Young People.

By Ken Falahey

Dad called me Ben but my brother Les and I are known in the working horse circles as Victor Whittaker’s boys. When World War Two broke out we were not allowed to join any of the services because our horse teams were building the new channels for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme and that was considered an essential service. As horse team contractors we specialise in doing jobs in the soil that tractors cannot do.

Now, in Nineteen Forty-Two, our work has changed because in February the War Cabinet gazetted regulations for “the total mobilisation of all the resources and material of Australia on a Commonwealth-wide basis to ensure the defence of our country”. Work on the Murray and Murrumbidgee Irrigation Schemes suddenly came to a halt because the horse teams and other large equipment have been requisitioned to build this major Allied Air base. It is located on what the government people call the “Brisbane Line” which is where the United States Army Air Force need heavy bombers based in order to defend south-eastern Australia if the Japanese invade our country.

Two huge drag line dredges each weighing one hundred and twenty tons, crawled seventy miles from Deniliquin at a third of a mile an hour. They travelled straight across country, building their own pathway, filling, crossing and clearing creeks, drains and channels as they came. On government orders, we all followed with our horses, drays, old Bedford and Ford trucks, farm tractors and even a huge labour force wielding picks and shovels.

The scale of the operation opens my eyes I have never seen such a variety and numerous machinery, breathtaking.

I mentioned this to my brother Les and he agrees. Our part of the colossal undertaking is only small.

When I ponder feelings of pride that Whittaker’s have been chosen to take part in the project that may help save this country’s future.

In times to come the population will appreciate the efforts of the Whitaker boys.

We have worked on some big irrigation developments before but nothing of the scale of this project. I suspect that there has never been such an assembly of men in the workforce here and machinery has been commandeered from lots of workplaces. Even shire councils have been forced to hand over machinery with a promise that it will be returned after the war. Manpower is critical and there are advertisements appearing in newspapers all over New South Wales and Victoria offering full trade awards and overtime for carpenters and labourers.

Now the sun is rising over the far off horizon just a faraway glow to herald another day and this place is certainly not as quiet as I had expected. Most of the heavy earthmoving machinery has been working through the night by the light of kerosene flares. They have been scraping, watering, hauling, dumping and rolling on one of the most urgent projects in Australian history.

Every day we are using an assortment of equipment and in some cases have to tidy up after large machinery. One of the advantages of using horses was the constant tramping by their large hooves which increased the compaction and reduced the requirement for continuous rolling.

We are now at full gallop on this huge endeavour the today the lock scoop team will start filling and shaping a depression, slow steady work in ever moving circles where our horses excel. The most efficient horses had been bred for this type of work we do not use pure Clydesdales.

It can be hot and dusty but this breed are magnificent workers and never shirk a challenge. Even though water carts provide water for the compacting process there is a constant dust haze hanging over the site but our horses are contributing to bringing peace closer to our country and at the end of the day they will be unyoked and attended to as they rightly deserve.

This morning Dad told us the Americans have decided to name this place McIntyre Field in honour of Captain Patrick W McIntyre who was killed in action, but to us boys it will always be Tocumwal Aerodrome.