By Paul Mensch
SITTING down for a conversation with Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) veteran Jim Keppler could best be described as a stop-start affair.
The 90-year-old is a regular at the Mildura RSL, and as we sit at the bar, drinks in hand, his popularity becomes apparent as patrons and members greet him with handshakes, hellos and ‘shouts’ of beer – all of which are met with a big smile and happy replies.
In a lot of ways, it’s like trying to have a beer with a celebrity, or at the very least, eating your lunch alongside the most popular kid in school.
So popular is the man in fact, that the Mildura RSL, realising that driving has become difficult for the returned servicemen, decided to buy Jim a new ‘Gopher’, allowing him to get out and about and pop into the RSL once or twice a week.
Born in Fish Creek, Gippsland, on April 12, 1927, Jim grew up on a dairy farm run by his parents, with his RAAF career spanning 33 years, and a number of conflicts involving Australia.
Jim’s military career actually got off to a shaky start, as he lied about his age in an attempt to join the RAAF. He was only 16 at the time, with his true age discovered after a couple of months and he was sent home.
And while doing the right thing by the letter of the law, it appears the RAAF was excited about the enthusiasm shown by young Jim, as they sent him a letter as soon as he turned 18 (in April 1945) informing him that he was required to report to No.1 Recruit Training Centre in Melbourne.
While Jim had his heart set on being an aircraft fitter, his records revealed that he had learned Morse Code with the Air Training Corp as a kid, ensuring that the RAAF sent him to Signals School at Point Cook – much to Jim’s disappointment.
“I didn’t want to go to signals school, I wanted to be a mechanic!” he said.
Jim attended the training, but deliberately failed, ensuring he was then moved into aircraft engine fitter training.
Cairns was his first posting, where he worked on the Catalina flying boats, and at the end of World War 2, Jim was part of the contingent to occupy Japan, spending three-and-a-half years there while moving from the war-time RAAF to the interim RAAF and finally the permanent RAAF.
At the end of World War 2, there was a transition period as the RAAF reorganised itself for peacetime operations.
In a military career spanning 33 years, Jim was posted to many of Australia’s bases at home and abroad, spending nearly four years at RAAF Base Butterworth in Malaysia at different times, as well as Darwin, Melbourne, Sydney, Cairns, Wagga Wagga, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, just to name a few.
The list of aircraft he worked on is just as long and impressive, and you don’t have to be an aircraft buff to recognise the names Mustang, Tiger Moth, Dakota, Sabre and Meteor.
While posted to Butterworth, Jim had the job of being an engineer/bodyguard for the Australian Ambassador to South East Asia, travelling to many countries to not only protect the Ambassador, but ensure his C47 – which was fitted out like a luxury liner – was always ready to fly.
“He (the Ambassador) was a terrific bloke,” Jim said, “I really enjoyed my time working with him.”
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Jim recalls, with fondness, the time an American Ambassador had aircraft trouble at Saigon Airport and was offered a lift by the Australians – an offer that was, rudely, knocked back.
“The Australian Ambassador told him he could ‘bloody well walk’ if he didn’t like it,” Jim recalls, “he then saw the inside of the plane and was more than happy to get on board!”
Jim was posted to Woomera in South Australia during the 1950s, with his job to maintain Lincoln, Canberra and American Super Fortress aircraft during the atom bomb tests.
The aircraft were set-up to be radio-controlled, and were flown through the ‘mushroom cloud’ of a nuclear explosion.
Occupational health and safety was not a big consideration in those days, and as Jim put it: “The bloody things were radioactive!”
Jim completed four tours of Vietnam between 1966 and 1971, saying that his versatility was the main reason for the extended stay. He was proficient on both piston and jet engines, which made him extremely handy to any air wing.
“A lot of young airman at the time were strictly jet engine qualified,” he explained. “I would be at a piston squadron and a jet would come in needing maintenance – ‘get Keppler on it’ would be the call.”
Returning from Vietnam after his second tour, Jim was set up on a blind date with future wife, Kathleen. They had both been married before, with Jim saying he had been instantly taken by her.
“She was a Miss Australia contestant and I had to discourage a couple of other blokes hanging around,” he recalls with a smile.
Sadly, Kathleen passed away earlier this year, leaving a huge hole in Jim’s life. “She was a beautiful woman and many people have told me I was a very lucky man,” he said.
Unfortunately, Jim’s first impressions of Mildura were not great.
He’s first visit to the region followed a visit to an old school mate working in Pooncarie. With two months leave up his sleeve following his posting in Japan, Jim decided to visit his mate, purchasing a brand new 350 Panther motorbike to undertake the trip.
Unfortunately it poured rained from Melbourne to Sea Lake, with the cost of bed and breakfast 10 bob.
The next day he continued to Mildura, with the rain still pouring, and the journey made even harder with mud everywhere thanks to the lack of no man-made roads.
Jim’s opinion of Mildura was not high at this stage, in fact, the mud choked up his mudguards so badly he had to pull off the wheels to scrap it out!
He stayed at the Grand Hotel for 17 and sixpence, finally got to Pooncarie, stayed a week, and was made to feel very welcome.
It was actually while based at Victoria Barracks during the late 1960s that Jim’s wife Kathleen came to visit her daughter in Mildura. It was during that visit that Kathleen decided she wanted to stay, and while Jim wasn’t thrilled about it, he could never say no to her.
Now, years later he says; “I would never leave the place!”
Jim worked for himself after his Air Force career came to and end, fixing cars, mowers, chainsaws – you name it, he could fix it. He only stopped working about five years ago when age finally caught up with him.
To this day Jim takes part in ANZAC Day services, and up until about three years ago was among the marchers.
Now he gets a lift in one of the vintage vehicles, wearing his RAAF uniform with pride, before settling in for an afternoon catching up with fellow soldiers while remembering those mates who never returned.
If you are ever in the Mildura RSL and see Jim, be sure to say G’day – he’s always keen for a chat!