As a young fighter pilot flying RAAF Meteor jets in the Korean War, Rev Bob Macintosh recalls how readily he described himself to any who asked about his beliefs with the curt reply “I’m an agnostic”. But that was all to change. Bob was one of 17,000 military personnel who served Australia under the direction of the United Nations in the Korean War, 1950-1953. Before an armistice was declared, this terrible conflict had claimed over two million lives, including 339 Australians.
But it was the death of Bob’s best mate, Des Nolan, who was killed in a mid-air accident, which left Bob searching for the answers to life’s deepest questions. “After Des died my idea of myself as an agnostic just fell away,” says Bob. “An agnostic, I came to realise, is a fence-sitter who’s having a two bob bet each way. But that was no longer good enough. I decided I had to be either a believer or an atheist. There wasn’t an in-between.”
There was however one source of enlightenment Bob was prepared to explore. In fact, it was handed to him by his future father-in-law- a copy of the King James Bible. Opening the pages, Bob took his first tentative steps into Bible studies. But he found it confronting. “I thought, ‘Where do I start? Hmmm, OK, I’ll start reading from Page One and aim to finish one chapter a day!'”
It was a simple plan but by the time Bob got up to the book of Leviticus, he said he was having “real trouble” understanding it. “I spoke to the Airforce padre who listened to me. He was a bit quizzical of what I was doing but I insisted I was sincere and he took me seriously and offered to help. And so, little by little, my understanding grew even as my faith deepened.”
Meanwhile as a career RAAF pilot, Bob’s service took him into another fierce conflict – The Vietnam War. In the mid-1960s Bob was flying the army’s workhorses, “Huey” choppers from the Australian base in Nui Dat. The choppers were instrumental in ferrying troops back and forth from the front, and were often under fire. Among around 2,000 sorties he flew, Bob played a crucial part in evacuating wounded troops at the Battle of Long Tan.
It was here on the afternoon of 18th August 1966 that a company of Australian troops encountered a much larger, determined and well-equipped regiment of North Vietnamese troops. In monsoonal rain, with several dead and fighting for their lives, the Diggers dug in at a rubber plantation, resisting over many hours the sustained frontal assaults of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers.
After the battle Bob Macintosh piloted one of three choppers used to medically evacuate wounded Australians from the battlefield. It was a feat of night flying for which no training could prepare him. “It was pitch-black and I was unable to put on my landing lights until I was about 50 feet off the ground. Prior to this I was guided down the pencil-thin beam of a penlight held up by a soldier.”
After active service, Bob became a Base Squadron commander in South Australia. His RAAF career had not in the least diminished his hunger for deep spiritual knowledge. He was by now a committed Christian. Now Bob’s hunger to forge new life in religious ministry was stirring in him constantly. He couldn’t ignore it. At age 49, he retired from the RAAF, and with the support of his wife Jenny, Bob sought out his religious vocation. He was accepted into theological training in Adelaide as a Minister in the Uniting Church.
While at his first posting as a Minister at Bordertown, South Australia, Bob was approached by Frontier Services’ Superintendent, Rev Gray Birch, in the hope that he might join the Church’s home mission in the aerial patrol based in Meekatharra, WA. The patrol area was 460,000 square kilometres and a Cessna plane was used to cover the distances between 150 stations, 12 mines and conduct services at six churches.
Bob knew nothing would be possible without the blessings of Jenny, his wife. He introduced Gray Birch’s proposal rather obliquely. ” ‘Jenny’, I said , ‘How would you like to LEARN TO FLY?’ ” She knew something was up. ‘Hmmmm. So what’s the catch?’ she asked.”
Jenny Macintosh OAM did indeed learn to fly the Frontier Services’ Cessna*. Beginning in 1985, and for the next nine years, Bob and Jenny Macintosh were the face of Frontier Services in the Murchison Patrol. The dependable Cessna they both flew became the means by which the Good News of Christ was carried to many far-flung places.
Looking back on the happiness that typified those outback days, Bob says being a flying padre “was a job made in heaven for me”. Bob gives credit to Jenny’s contribution throughout the ministry. “Jenny was of vital support,” he says. “Together we made a very effective ministry team. She came with me everywhere and everyone knew her.”
Typical, Bob recalls, was landing the Cessna in the red dust at an isolated station. The woman in the house hadn’t seen another female for over six months. As soon as she saw Jenny her face lit up, “Come in! Come in!” she said “Welcome! I’ll just pop the kettle on!”
* the same Cessna used today by Rev Colin Gordon in Centralia Patrol