Gisborne-born James Scott had his sights set on following in the medical footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming a dentist before any idea of joining the military occurred to him.
Born on 1st October 1937, Jim went to Gisborne High School before heading to Dunedin and the Otago University Dental School.
But as the reality of being confined to a practice in a small room began to dawn on him, he followed a friend’s advice and applied to join the Navy and see a bit of the world.
After a great interview in Wellington where the interviewer invited him to ‘send us a signal’ that you’ve passed when you get your final year results, Jim did just that.
“I remembered this obligation, so I sent a telegram to the Navy Office. To my horror I received a call from the Post Office telling me that the Navy had refused to accept it, so I had to send another one!
“In my euphoria and immature exuberance, I had blithely told My Lords: ‘Haul up the ladder Jack, I’m on board!’”
Despite that, Jim was commissioned as a Surgeon Lieutenant (D) in the Royal New Zealand Navy, and went on to enjoy a very rewarding 12 years. This included 1.5 years of post-graduate study leave on full pay which he completed in England at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Young Jim in his navy blues.
His commissions included HMNZS Tamaki, Royalist, Philomel, Otago and Waikato and took him to countries such as Singapore, Hawaii and Japan.
In Japan, when invited by the Ambassador to a reception at the NZ Embassy, he found himself in the company of a group of Japanese ladies dressed in kimonos and the only way of making conversation was to turn his schoolboy French.
“It was bizarre, speaking French in the New Zealand embassy to Japanese!”
The RNZN retained many of the traditions and formalities of its parent Royal Navy. Formal letters to one’s superiors were signed ‘I have the honour to be Sir, Your Obedient Servant’.
Jim had to write one such letter to his ship’s Captain, requesting permission to get married. This was granted, on condition that the CO and wife were invited to the wedding.
Being a dentist didn’t exclude him from doing many of the shipboard drills, exercises and watches that everyone else had to do.
However, it certainly gave him a very different perspective.
“I often had patients requesting that their appointments should be after lunch.
“This was because they received their ‘tot’, or rum ration, at noon. Alcohol can be an effective self-medication, as most people knew their optimal dose and it was then socially accepted.”
A significant highlight was being in Belfast in 1968 at the launch of the new frigate HMNZS Waikato, by Princess Alexandra.
By 1969, Jim was promoted to Surgeon Lieutenant Commander (D) and later was offered a two year posting to Singapore – but only if he transferred to the Army first.
This was part of the Government’s decision to unify common services such as dental, medical, education and so on, and as dental was the smallest, they were unified first.
If Jim accepted, it would mean big changes, not least of them wearing a green uniform.
“I was very reluctant to make the change to Army because each service has its own culture and a different mindset.”
During this period of transition, Jim sometimes wore his Navy beret, but with an added Dental Corps badge. He was seen by the Corps Commander, a Brigadier, who commented that the only other person that he had seen with two badges was General Montgomery!
An ‘interesting’ period of Jim’s career was an operational tour of South Vietnam with a Mobile Dental Unit in 1972, soon after the Tet offensive.
“We treated all comers – NZ, US, Korean, Australian and local Vietnamese which probably included a few Viet Cong.
“I was embedded for several weeks with a US Special Forces (Green Beret) group, who were out actively patrolling the Cam Rahn Bay area.
“It bemused me that returning after risking life and limb on these operations, they would come to me, reporting that it was time for their routine fluoride application.”
In his Army days, Jim did meaningful work during a tour of South Vietnam.
There was a useful PR side to this work too. The team visited the Saigon orphanage named after SSgt Graham Grigg, the first Kiwi soldier to be killed in Vietnam.
It was apparent to Jim that many of the children he treated simply just craved the one on one attention that this offered.
During his last years in the Army, he had the honour to be appointed as an Honorary Aide de Camp to the Governor General, Sir Denis Blundell. In this time he assisted during a visit by Queen Elizabeth, selecting and introducing the various chosen people to meet her at a Government House garden party.
As a Major, it became apparent that if he wanted further promotion he’d be sitting behind a desk at Wellington Headquarters, so he decided to retire from the Defence Force after 17 years and go into private practice.
Military service left him with the reputation for being a stickler for time keeping, which was bedded in thoroughly in his practice years, and also being philosophical about the great number of people who come and go in life.
“There’s a fair amount of carpe diem - they’re nice people, you have a great time together, and you would like to keep in touch, but after it while it becomes impractical. That surprised me at first.”
He is now a dedicated attendee of ANZAC Day services in the village.