Built tough, built to last

Bill Perry has led a varied and tough life: Pest control, contract fencing, an army service with frontline combat duty, farming, civil contracting – and now, importing Dressta dozers from Poland. Richard Silcock caught up with him near Masterton.

From South Wairarapa, Bill Perry was the eldest of six children. He grew up on a farm and from an early age was expected to help around the place.

“I used to get up at five, milk the cow and chop firewood for the stove before running or biking nine and a half kilometres to school in all weathers,” he says.

“Dad ran the farm for the owner, and was also a roadman for the local council. We didn’t have any luxuries and life was pretty tough. I used to go fishing and possum trapping to earn some pocket money.

“My best friend was my dog. I pretty much taught myself to read and at high school showed an aptitude for metal work, though I was pretty good at academic subjects as well and was often top of the class.

“I liked anything I could do with my hands. I enjoyed the outdoors and from an early age decided I wanted to be my own boss and own a farm.

“I left school at 15, did a stint as a farm hand until 17 and then went contract deer culling on the West Coast for the Forest Service for a couple of years. It was a tough life and only the fittest survived the rigour. You slept rough and had to carry your own provisions.

“If you shot your quota you got paid £40 – £45 a week and because I was not a drinker or a smoker and had no interest in girls at the time I pretty well saved every penny.”

Moving back to the Wairarapa in 1967, he taught himself to drive and purchased a series-2 Land Rover for £1500 and went contract fencing on large sheep stations.

“The Vietnam War had been going since 1960 and as a young man I saw it as an opportunity for an overseas adventure, so I enlisted in the army and did core training at various military camps before being shipped via Australia to Malaysia for training in jungle warfare.

Attached to the Sixth Royal Australian Infantry Regiment as a M60 machine gunner, he was posted to Vietnam in May 1969 to carry out close-quarter offensive operations.

“Our platoon would be helicoptered to a position with all our gear and ammo for 30-day patrols, seeking out the enemy and living rough in fox holes.

“We were often under heavy artillery fire and aerial bombing, and the Viet Cong had booby trapped areas with lethal trip-wire mines and mortars.

“The stifling humidity, heavy rainfall and malaria-carrying mosquitos added to the discomfort. You needed to be strong to survive.”

On August 2, 1969, Bill’s life almost came to an abrupt end. He’d been helping reinforce a forward camp with sand bags when a fellow soldier tripped an 81mm mortar bomb. One man was killed instantly and Bill, along with several others was severely wounded.

“My right leg was almost completely blown off, several ribs broken and my right lung and my liver pierced. I had 14 shrapnel wounds and lost a lot of blood.”

Lucky to be alive he managed through sheer grit and determination to hold on as he was helicoptered out to hospital at Van Tang where he underwent extensive emergency surgery.

“I was eventually airlifted back to Australia and on to New Zealand in a Hercules lying on a canvas stretcher along with other injured personnel. It was 15 hours of sheer agony,” he recalls.

“I was denied admittance to Middlemore Hospital, so after spending some time at Ardmore I was eventually flown to Wellington and admitted to Hutt Hospital where I underwent more operations to ‘patch me up’ and was fitted with an artificial knee and hip.”

With the distinction of being one of the most severely wounded New Zealand soldiers to survive the Vietnam War he was eventually discharged from hospital and the army.

Moving back to the Wairarapa, he got a job with the Manawatu Pest Destruction Board and applied for a government-sponsored, Vietnam-vet ballot farm in Taranaki.

However, due to his injuries he was unsuccessful, though Bill says he thinks there were other underlying reasons.

“It was then that I decided to follow my dream and set up on my own. I purchased a second-hand HD6 dozer and started doing scrub clearing and rib-raking for farmers in north Wairarapa and the Manawatu.

“This led to getting work for the Forest Service, Fletcher Forests and Carter Holt clearing land for the planting of pinus radiata seedlings around the Central Plateau, Hawke’s Bay and the Bay of Plenty.

“This enabled me to purchase new CAT D5, D6 and D8 machines and hire several operators on contract.

“However, with the restructuring of the Forest Service and the downturn in the economy in the late 80s I decided to get out of contracting, so I purchased 2432 hectares of hill country out the back of Greymouth, which I converted from a run-down cattle and sheep farm to a successful stud deer operation which I ran organically with no artificial fertilisers.

“It was an outdoor man’s paradise.

“There were chamois and thar in the hills and trout in the river. I was running near 1000 head of sire deer and selling the venison.

“It was pretty lucrative, however, after 17 years I decided it was time for a change and I had a hankering to get back to the Wairarapa, so I sold up and bought 5700 acres near Tinui and got back into sheep farming.”

With the advent of the big motorway projects in the lower North Island, Bill saw an opportunity to get into contracting again, so he imported three, GPS-equipped, Dressta dozers direct from their factory in Stalowa Wola, Poland and won an earthmoving sub-contract working on Transmission Gully for the CPB/HEB JV and doing forestry work for Greater Wellington Regional Council.

“The contacts I made when visiting the Dressta factory on four occasions and following some prompting by their CEO got me interested in importing their crawler dozers.

“They’re not well known in New Zealand but are used for large earthmoving projects, at open-cast coal mines and by the oil industry in Australia, USA, Europe and the Middle East.

“They’re tough machines built for durability, performance and versatility.

“We used the TD14 and TD15 machines, which are capable of moving up to 19 tonnes of earth at a time when doing Transmission Gully.

“Along with the machines, I’ve imported a heap of parts, so together with my son and step-son I am now busy setting up the New Zealand agency for Dressta.”

Bill still takes an active interest in world economics and manages to shoot the odd deer around the rugged Tararua Ranges. He lives with his second wife on a large property just out of Masterton.

“My life has been a tough but interesting journey. From when I was a farm boy with very little other than my dog through to today where I am importing machinery.

“I’ve got no regrets – I’m supposed to be disabled, but my philosophy is you are not disabled unless you are disabled in the head!”

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