How Betty brings out the best in Mick

Roger “Mick” O’Donnell with his beloved Betty… he gave her a backyard makeover and now she’s a real looker who never fails to turn heads and bring smiles to the faces of older veterans. Photo by Gary Schafer

Roger “Mick” O’Donnell with his beloved Betty… he gave her a backyard makeover and now she’s a real looker who never fails to turn heads and bring smiles to the faces of older veterans. Photo by Gary Schafer

AS a veteran with 20 years in the Navy, military chaplain Roger “Mick” O’Donnell is a regular at the War Memorial’s Dawn Service on Anzac Day, and for the past six years, he’s had his special friend Betty by his side.

She wasn’t in great shape when Mick first met her about eight years ago in Berrigan, NSW, but he gave her a backyard makeover with the help of some mates and now she’s a real looker who never fails to turn heads and bring smiles to the faces of older veterans.

Betty was born the day before Anzac Day in 1945 and is a Ford GPW, one of the US military’s little drop-top workhorses that were built by several carmakers and given the moniker “jeep” as a nickname, not a brand name.

“Each Anzac Day, I assemble Betty with the marchers, and then transport older, frail diggers around the circuit of the march, past the saluting dais, and drop them off near the seating stands,” Mick explains.

“You see these old diggers on their walking frames, and their medals hanging off them, and they’ve got this look in their eyes like: ‘Oh gee, I wish I could march like the rest of the guys,’ so we just pick one out and say: ‘You want to hop in?’

“Often these men and women are very old, but you would be amazed when they come past the saluting dais, how they suddenly spring up and they hang on to the windscreen and proudly salute, then they fall back down into their chair.”

The feedback he’s received since first getting Betty involved in Anzac Day convinced him it was worth making her appearance an annual tradition.

“Some have said it was one of their greatest moments on this special day; rather than just standing on the sidelines, but to actually do the circuit in a vehicle that they are very familiar with,” says Mick.

“I think it’s a lovely gesture that all the work we’ve put into the restoration can be put back into assisting the frail diggers.”

Betty is quite a sight to behold, fully restored, resplendent in the insignias of the 2/7th Armoured Regiment (Mick’s dad served with them) and complete with all the accessories including a genuine antique military radio, similar to the kind Mick used as a “sparker” in the Navy.

He recalls his minor obsession with the near-indestructible, drab-coloured vehicles beginning to germinate in his teen years.

“When I was young I came from the Newcastle-Maitland area and there were a lot of old military jeeps still around up there when I was a kid in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and there were several up at a place called Seal Rocks, where we went for holidays,” he explains, recalling the thrill of getting to drive one of the old World War II leftovers around the beachside holiday spot.

“It belonged to an old digger up there called Moses, and I just loved it. I was hooked on them.”

Less than a decade later Mick served in the Vietnam War, where our side still drove the same trucks, albeit a more modern version.

“I joined the Navy and spent two years on Manus Island – long before it became a detention centre – and the Americans used it as a base for satellite tracking. They used to come out of Guam, and they brought a lot of these old jeeps with them and, of course, my love affair with these things was relit.”

The final catalyst to actually go and buy one of the trucks was finding an old picture of his father sitting in one near the end of World War II on the Pacific island of Morotai.

“I thought, that’s it, I’ve got to have a jeep.”

Mick then became a military chaplain and was employed most recently with the Australian Federal Police in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, where he found “jeeps and bits and pieces of them everywhere”.

Putting Betty together took a lot of afternoons with a lot of friends providing whatever expertise they could.

“It’s a bit like a Meccano set,” says her proud owner.

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