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Updated: Jul 27, 2022

Honouring David Raleigh Webster

Last week the Jerramungup community came together to commemorate the sacrifices made by the men and women of Australia on ANZAC Day. It was a moving service made even more special thanks to the research of Neil Foreman who shared the story of one of Jerramungup’s fallen soldiers, David Raleigh Webster.

Private David Webster (far right, back row) with members of 5 Platoon B Company 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR). Source: Australian War Memorial

Private David Webster

Service Number #571398

6RAR 6th Battalion 5 Platoon B Company

While playing with the kids at Roe Park back in November, I strolled over and had a look at the war memorial while they played. On the memorial is the name of David Raleigh Webster who was killed in Vietnam 1967.

I looked his service number up on the Australian War Memorial website on my phone as I stood there and decided I had to share his story with you all. The journey I took to find out about him was simply fascinating and ultimately very, very sad indeed.

The Webster’s previously had the farm which Malcolm & Ellen Turner now call home just west of Needilup. The story going around was that the Webster’s had lost a son in Victoria, that being the reason they had moved to WA, but this version of events was only hearsay at best. There was a sister, but no one knew her married name, and his mum & dad had obviously passed. I was at a loss to know where to turn next.

I knew that the family had all gone to Geelong Grammar, so I got in contact with the Geelong Grammar Old Boys Association, who told me that the family had come from Boweya in country Victoria. I then contacted the local historical society in Boweya, they had told me that one of their members was a Webster, her husband’s name was David also, and oddly he had fought very close by at the same time in Vietnam. And when our David was Killed in action, they were worried it was their David that had been killed.

Sometime later, The Old Boys Association had called me back to say not only had they found David’s sister, but they had talked to her and that she would love to tell me about her brother. I also had the privilege of talking to his Commanding Officer Lieutenant John O’Halloran, and one of his best friends in the company Private Tony Trevenen.

David Raleigh Webster was the third child of Percy Robin & Phyllis Webster born in Corowa, NSW on 20th February 1945. David was joined by his older sister Julia, and brothers Peter & Richard (John). They farmed in the Corowa district but after suffering five years of drought the family moved to Boweya in the Benalla Shire of Victoria where they took up their digs on a small farm in the area.

According to David’s surviving sister Julia, they had a very loving and close family, all of whom spent their school years at the prestigious Geelong Grammar school. David and his brothers were all sportsman of note, with David apparently being under the eye of the Collingwood FC in his high school years.

As time went on it soon became evident that the small family farm wasn’t going to accommodate the three brothers, all of whom hoped to farm one day. The decision was made to head West to the vast expanse of WA, so in approximately 1963 the Webster’s took up the conditional purchase block which now of course is now owned by the Turner family.

David and John both played cricket for Needilup and football for Ongerup with some distinction. David especially was an exceptional full back, being 6’2”, rather burly and solid with a mop of red hair. Talk is that people would go to watch David and his brother play just because they were the only two players in the league who had long hair below the shoulder!

David’s number was called in the National service lottery draft and on 29th September 1965 he commenced his basic training at Puckapunyal. He immediately joined the 7th Battalion and became a very popular and well- liked member of the Battalion. He soon earned the nickname ‘Doc' due to his first initials being D.R. David volunteered to join 6RAR, and after extra training in the Victorian bush and the Queensland jungle, joined 5 Platoon B Company.

It was during this period of jungle training that tragedy struck the Webster family, when their youngest son John was killed in a car accident on 13th March 1966. David was released on compassionate grounds so he could be with his family and mourn his little brother. He was told not to come back by his commanding officer as he was conscripted and that his family had already suffered enough. His platoon had made their way finally to Vietnam, and to the amazement of his comrades he returned to them.

When asked why he came back he just said, “he couldn’t leave his mates!”

From the start his commanding officer was fellow ‘Nasho’ 2nd Lt John O’Halloran, who was to become known as one of the finest Platoon commanders of the Vietnam War. O’Halloran was held in the very highest regard by his men, and he had their unwavering loyalty in return.

Lt O’Halloran is still considered to be one of the best platoon commanders. The Platoon were involved in many of the key battles in the Vietnam War, namely Operations Hobart, Brisbane, Long Tan, and Bribie, becoming the most decorated platoon of the entire Vietnam campaign.

Operation Bribie or the Battle of Ap My An in the Phuoc Tuy province occurred on the 17th February 1967, six months after the infamous Battle of Long Tan. Failures from high command, where artillery and air support weren’t utilized, would ultimately result in the unnecessary loss of Australian lives, who were led “like lambs to the slaughter” and “what could go wrong, did go wrong” at Operation Bribie.

At approximately 13.30 hours a signal had come from the South Vietnamese Regional Force that they required reinforcements. David Webster’s 5 Platoon B Company, along with other members of 6RAR were airlifted to assist.

Immediately they were pinned down by well dug in Vietcong with at least 4 machine gun nests at the ready. B Company went into reconnoitre, in doing so they became trapped surrounded on both flanks. With no-way out Lt O’Halloran issued the order to fix bayonets so the machine gun emplacements could be charged.

One of the final words uttered by Private David Webster to his comrades was that he had wished he had joined the Navy, showing a small piece of unlikely humour in the face of near certain death.

David was also seen trying to help wounded comrades but soon after paid the ultimate sacrifice and was mortally wounded in the chest, three days short of his 22nd birthday. When one of his old school chums found out how David got killed trying to help the wounded, his response was “how typical of the man.”

After a five-hour battle in the space of a quarter acre house block, Private David Webster lay dead with seven of his comrades and a further 27 wounded. Australian forces finally broke contact at 19.00 hours and although 6RAR ultimately prevailed, the vicious fighting at Ap My An was probably the closest the Australian Army came to a major defeat during the Vietnam War.

David’s body was repatriated to WA for burial a short time later. He received a full Military funeral with his casket led down the main street of Gnowangerup in the afternoon on a Gun Carriage adorned with the Australian flag and his Slouch hat.

Yougenup Street Gnowangerup was lined with hundreds of people paying their respects from the town church to his final resting place at the Gnowangerup cemetery. His dear friend Private Brian Waters of Tambellup, who was also killed in the same engagement, received similar honours earlier that day.

David’s family were devastated losing all will to work the farm and from all reports were in danger of losing their CP block because of certain deadlines not being met. A meeting was called on 13th March 1967 at the Needilup Hall and soon after a working busy bee was organized.

A huge contingent of farmers from around this district rolled up to the Webster’s farm and put in nearly 1400 acres of crop in only a few days, truly a remarkable feat at the time.

It just goes to show how a small community like ours can wrap its arms around families who are suffering. After losing two sons and the passion to farm, the Webster family sold their farm to Les & Ida Turner in 1969.

Sister Julia who is in her 80’s is the only surviving member of the family, I had the pleasure of sitting down with her only 2 weeks ago to chat about David’s life, she lives on a small farm in the Vasse district in the South- West with her husband David. If that’s not remarkable enough it pans out that ex-Jerramungup farmer Simon Cullam is their spreading contractor; a truly small world indeed.

I often wonder how I would perform if I was put in the same situation as David Webster. I guess when it’s a case of life or death, ones will to survive and to protect your comrades would hopefully shine through.

So, when one feels the pressures of modern life, whether it be relationships, paying the mortgage, getting vaccinated, going into lockdown, doing some unpleasant tasks, feeling hard done by, or whatever the world is throwing at you, spare a thought for the likes of Private David Raleigh Webster and the ultimate sacrifice that they paid.

Neil Foreman

You can find more photos from Jerramungup's 2022 ANZAC Day service in the latest edition of the Council Buzz and the Jerry Journal.

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