How did three boys from totally different backgrounds, all the products of a technical school education, wind up in Australian bases in Antarctica during the 1960s? Their story is as much a tribute to the quality of their technical education as it is to the spirit of adventure that moved them to take risks, and go to the ends of the earth, just because they could.
Evan Lee, PTS 1948–50, Antarctica 1963, 1969
Evan, one of 10 children of a Chinese-Australian family, was evacuated to Melbourne from Darwin in 1939, just before the Japanese bombed the city. His mother died when he was young, leaving his father with ten children to bring up. Evan was the only Asian student at Preston Technical School from 1948 to 1950.
Evan says, “The school was tough, and so soon after World War II, I was often mistaken for Japanese, and bullied constantly. Many tech schools had boxing teams that competed with teams from interstate, so I joined the boxing team as a bantamweight and learned to defend myself.”
Evan says that at Preston he also learned other ways to use his hands to solve problems, with the school forming the foundation for an exciting career in a highly technical field. After three years at PTS and three years as an apprentice electrician, Evan returned to Darwin where he joined the Bureau of Meteorology and was trained as a Weather Observer. In response to advertisements for Weather Observers in Antarctica, he went to Davis base in 1963 and to Mawson in 1969. The difficulties of his early life caused him to become self reliant, strong and resilient, all qualities needed in the harsh and isolated environment in Antarctica.
During a 45 year career as a Weather Observer he travelled widely, including being seconded to the RAAF during the Vietnam War where he collected and collated weather information in Thailand and briefed Sabre squadron pilots.
Bob Watson, PTS 1952–1955, Antarctica 1963
Bob’s father and grandfather attended Collingwood Technical School, his father was a knitting machine mechanic who also worked on the tramways.
Bob attended Preston Tech from 1952 to1955 and developed an interest in engineering. “Preston Tech taught me to imagine something, and then make it – to make something abstract real.”
Bob became an engineer with the State Electricity Commission and built power lines across Victoria. He says, “As a boy I read stories of polar exploration by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, and a neighbour of ours, Frank Keating, had been to Heard Island. I wanted to go somewhere, but overseas travel was expensive and slow, so I applied to the Australian Antarctic Division and was trained in meteorology.” Bob then went to Mawson in 1963 under the leadership of another former Preston Tech boy, Ray McMahon.
As part of a team of four in the meteorology section, he worked as a weather observer, ‘man-hauled’ sleds, survived tent collapses in snow and blizzards and got frostbite. He says, “Preston Technical School gave me a rounded education where I met a broad range of people who later went into a wide range of trades. I think that experience led me to appreciate how other people think, and I valued the training it gave me”.
Ray McMahon, PTS 1946–49, Antarctica 1963
Ray was from a family of six generations of Scottish butchers, but his mother wanted Ray to follow a different path. Among his friends Ray was always the fixer. “I was the practical one who fixed the bikes. I loved making things and building things so Preston Technical School was perfect for me. The skills and training I received there, especially Technical Drawing, were useful all through my life, and the school gave me the opportunity to express myself and to be adventurous.”
After five years as an apprentice fitter and turner, Ray went to the UK on an empty migrant ship and worked as a toolmaker in Britain. In Canada his technical drawing skills earned Ray a job far above the capacity of Canadian ex-apprentices, and he also spent some time in the Canadian navy during the Cold War, while Russian ships circled and Russian planes buzzed overhead. “My overseas experience had given me skills that would enable me to manage 26 men in a hostile environment, and in 1963, at the age of 28, I became Officer-in-Charge of a team going to the Australian base, Mawson, for over 12 months. I was commissioned to go as far inland as I could to prove to the Russians and Americans that Australia had the capacity to manage its Antarctic territories.”
From Mawson, with two other men, he mushed a team of huskies to explore the Amery Ice Shelf, covering 1700 kilometres in harsh conditions. Medical help was out of reach and for three months they were only able to communicate with their base by Morse code. For his expeditionary activities Ray was awarded the British Polar Medal by the Queen, and the Australian Antarctic Medal. A mountain in Antarctica, Mount McMahon, was named in his honour. Now, at the age of 77, he returns regularly to Antarctica as a travel guide and historian.
What were the qualities that these three shared? A family background where they were expected to help the family, help their fathers and work hard. They read adventure stories and wanted to travel. They were disciplined, self reliant and self directed, able to make decisions and take responsibility. They were confident and not unduly worried about what could go wrong.
They also shared a technical education with clear rules, high expectations, firm but fair discipline, a range of subjects that prepared them for a career in any number of trades, but with a good general education as well, with English, mathematics, geography, art, music, social studies and either sex education or religious instruction. From this broad base they were able to choose further education in an academic setting, to take up apprenticeships, or to work and learn on the job. Underpinning all their skills was technical drawing, incorporating all the calculations, measurements and specifications they needed to design, draw and make almost anything.