The Australian Veteran and the Vietnam Experience
Bob Teusner ( ex-9RAR)
Australia's Strategic and Foreign Policies
The coalition between the Liberal and Country parties which came to power in December 1949 under Prime Minister R G Menzies followed a generally coherent and consistent foreign policy during its 23 years tenure of office. Two lessons of the Second World War had made a profound impression on their policy-making decisions. One was that the geopolitics of Asia, particularly South-East Asia, was of more importance to Australia than Europe or the Middle-East. The other was that the United States was the only power with the resources and the propensity to ensure the security of the Pacific area and assist Australia in protecting her territory from aggression.
The outbreak of communist insurgency in South-East Asian countries, particularly in Malaya in 1948, followed by the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) under Mao Tse-Tung in 1949, and a series of Communist-led strikes within Australia led to the fear of an international communist movement replacing the fear of rearmed, resurgent Japan as the main threat to Australia's security. When the Korean War broke out, Australia was quick to contribute forces to support the United Nations operations. Staunchly anticommunist, the Government only narrowly failed to secure the outlawing of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in a country-wide referendum in 1951.
Some insurance was gained however when Australia signed a security treaty with New Zealand and the United States that provided for "continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid" and that the three parties would consult whenever any of them felt that the "territorial integrity, political independence or security" of any of them was threatened in the Pacific, and in the event of an armed attack, each "would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional process."
ANZUS remained as a principal pillar in Australian foreign policy in the following years. Although it may have been seen as putting Australia in the demeaning position of client in a patron/client relationship with the United States, it did provide a measure of security at a time when Australia's Defence Forces had been pared to the bone and Australia was looking nervously at the highly unstable situation in the region to its north.
Australia's concern about communist aggression in South-East Asia could best be explained in terms of US President Eisenhower's domino theory in which the countries of South-East Asia were likened to dominoes stacked side by side and if one domino was to topple it would start a chain reaction pushing other dominoes over. If one of these countries fell to the forces of Communism, all would fall as the momentum of revolution increased.
It is not a just comment to say with the wisdom of hindsight that the domino theory was patently false in that the communist success in the former states of Indo-China did not give any perceptible impetus to the communist party in Thailand, and that the international communist movement was therefore a chimera. World domination by communism was a declared aim of the communist powers and promoting and assisting "wars of liberation" were the means of achieving it. In the '50's, communism was aggressive and ready to take advantage of any perceived weakness or power vacuum. By the 70's they too had suffered from attrition, their energy and resources were depleted and their common purpose was fragmented.
Australian strategic planning had evolved a "forward defence" policy, which meant holding a line in South-East Asia against communism and at the same time providing depth to Australia's defences. This is why Australia joined SEATO in September 1954. Its value to Australia was in the stimulus it gave to regional defence cooperation and, more than that, it provided for an American presence to protect against our northern neighbours.
This too is why Australia agreed in January 1955 to the establishment of a British Commonwealth Far Eastern Strategic Reserve (BCFESR) to be based in Singapore and Malaya, undertaking to provide naval ships on an annual visit, an infantry battalion with supporting arms and a RAAF fighter wing of two squadrons, a bomber squadron and airfield construction squadron. (Australia had committed RAAF units to Malaya in 1950, but commitments to Korea prevented us sending ground forces.) The major land component of the BCFESR was to be the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, with one British, one Australian and one New Zealand Battalion. Britain was clearly winning the emergency when the 2nd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) arrived in Malaya on 19 October 1955, so Australia's involvement was due to wider considerations than Malaya's internal security. When Malaya became independent in 1957, a formal agreement provided for the continued presence of the BCFESR and this was extended after Malaysia was created in 1963, three years after the end of the emergency.
Australia's concern with Indonesia during the confrontation with Malaysia was that, not only was it a militarily strong and populous immediate neighbour which was making warlike incursions into an ally's sovereign territory, but it displayed a drift to communism, indicated by its overtures to the People's Republic of China and an accommodation for its communist party, the Partai Kommunis Indonesia (PKI) within its power base. It was because he was compromised by an attempted PKI coup, that Sukarno fell from power.
When America requested support for its "Many Flags" policy in Vietnam, Australia's response was hardly in doubt. Apart from having an obligation to the United States as an allied partner through ANZUS and SEATO, the American policy of containment of communism was exactly in line with Australia's strategy of "Forward Defence".
On 24 May 1962, The Minister of Defence, Mr Athol Townley, announced that on the invitation of the South Vietnamese Government, Australia was to send a team of 30 military instructors to Vietnam "to assist in the training of ground forces of South Vietnam."
This passed with little attention by the media, no reaction at all by the Australian public and, indeed, hardly any in the Army except by those seeking appointment to the team. Such was the beginning to an involvement in a conflict that was to last longer than any other war that Australia was ever engaged in, and would divide the Australian public in bitter and acrimonious dispute.
The Australian Army in the late 50's and early 60's
What was the Australian Regular Army (ARA) like in that long-gone era? Well, firstly, it was small, minute, in proportion to the country's size and population it was arguably the smallest in the world. It could meet limited commitments, as in Korea and Malaya, but there was no pretence that it was capable of defending Australia against a foreign aggressor.
This would be the role of the Citizens' Military Forces (CMF), a loose arrangement of militia units which purportedly was structured to form divisions and higher formations of an army. In actual fact, they could only form at best a framework, a skeleton that would have to be fleshed out by volunteers and/or conscription in a time of emergency. Their training was based on the World War II experience and standards varied widely. They rarely, if ever, exercised in combination as formations to give some coherence to training. The only realistic hope for defence was from Australia's good friends, the Americans.
The effectiveness of training under the National Service Act of 1951 was viewed differently. It provided for active training of 176 days (reduced to 140 days in 1953), of which 93 days were to be served on a full-time basis at training centres located in each state staffed by ARA cadres, and the remainder on a part time basic with a CMF unit near to their home area.
This compulsory training was accepted generally by everyone except, perhaps, the "Nasho" who probably had some reservations. Parents, except for the most protective ones, were quite positive about it. "Our Willy went away a boy and came back a man". Many trainees found to their surprise that they enjoyed it and the National Service was the biggest single source of recruits for the regular forces. National Service full-time training was considered to be equal to basic training for the regulars and the National Service recruit could go straight to Corps training. The termination of the scheme in November 1959 was a matter of general regret.
The ARA was basically an infantry force, and the regular field force consisted of just three battalions; the First, Second and Third Battalions Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR, 2RAR and 3RAR). There was also 4RAR, but at this time it was purely an RAR depot based at Ingleburn, NSW, which was responsible for infantry corps training. For a time, it was the personal fiefdom of RSM Ronald McDonald, "Ronnie the One"' whose eccentricities were the stuff of many a story that still bemuses the hearer.
The battalions moved on rotation of 2 yearly intervals, Holsworthy NSW, Malaya, Enoggera Qld. Usually the one in Malaya was the only one at full strength, its replacement battalion being in the throes of building up its strength and the third being milked of its manpower by the second.
ARA flirted with organisational changes. There was always talk of a "New Army", but it always seemed to remain "Old Army". One was the organisation along "pentropic" lines, introduced in 1960, which increased the established strength of the battalion by about a further 50%. Recruitment could not cover the increase, but it was expected to be met by the cadres released from the now defunct National Service Scheme. As it happened, the ARA had to keep reverting back to the old tropical establishment (TE) for Malayan service anyway. The pentropic scheme was abandoned in 1965.
Infantry training was for the jungles of South-East Asia, to the exclusion of all other forms of training. To this end, recruits had to endure freezing cold on exercises in places like Kangaroo Valley and Bulli Pass to prepare them for the conditions in the tropics. The only Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) warfare training I can recall is seeing an ancient (even for that period) film on the effects of the nominal, 20 kiloton bomb and one training session with respirators and a gas chamber at basic training.
There were supporting arms, artillery of the 1st Field Regiment at Holsworthy NSW, who had traded their World War II 25-pounders in for the Italian L5 105mm pack howitzers. (These were found to be too fragile for conditions in Vietnam and were later exchanged for the older, heavier US M2A1 105mm howitzer). There was no medium artillery after the 5.5 inch howitzer had been phased out.
There was the 1st Armoured Regiment with Centurion tanks which served all through the Vietnam period and also a Cavalry regiment equipped with the British Indonesian Confrontation might not last till we got there, we scrambled for transfers to 4 RAR. Then came news of greater moment 1RAR was allotted for service in Vietnam.
NATIONAL SERVICE AND THE COMMITMENT TO VIETNAM
On 10 November 1964, Prime Minister Menzies made a major defence statement in the House of Representatives, announcing the expansion of the Regular Army from 22,750 to 37,500 men. The previous organisation would be replaced by a light, air portable division consisting of nine regular infantry battalions. The Pacific Island Regiment, the SAS Regiment, the CMF, Navy and Air Force were all to be increased in size and new weapons and equipment would be provided.
Since voluntary enlistments could barely man four battalions, the manpower requirements would be met by the introduction of selective national service from mid-1965. This was due primarily to the perceived threat from Indonesia, which, having been censured by the UN for its aggression against Malaysia, sought closer ties with the Peoples' Republic of China in November and December 1964. Considering that five months later, in April 1965, the government decided to send a battalion to Vietnam as the first step of a wider commitment, the public naturally saw the defence expansion as laying the groundwork for that commitment.
On 29 April 1965, Prime Minister Menzies announced that Australia, being "... in receipt of a request from the Government of South Vietnam for further military assistance ...", would provide a military battalion for service in South Vietnam. The background to this decision was that in 1965 the US government assessed that South Vietnam was on the brink of collapse. US President Lyndon B Johnson responded by the bombing of strategic targets in North Vietnam and deploying a Marine brigade and an Airborne brigade to Da Nang and Bien Hoa respectively in April/May of 1965. It appears that the Australian Government had not received any request from South Vietnam, but had made an offer for political reasons and believed that it was in the long-term defence interest of Australia. The only document tabled from the South Vietnamese Government was an acceptance of Australia's offer.
The purpose of the Second National Service Scheme (as it was known to differentiate from the National Service Act of 1951) was to build up the strength of the ARA and to build up a reserve of trained men in the citizen forces. It imposed a two-year period of continuous service with the obligation to serve overseas if required and three years in the Reserve. Service was confined to the Army.
In March 1966, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced the decision to send national servicemen to fight in units of the ARA in Vietnam. However, the charge that the Regular Army personnel maintained the administrative structure while the national servicemen were used as cannon fodder can not be sustained. From the outset, the army set out to integrate the conscripts with the regular forces.
"The Team" - AATTV in Vietnam
The first contingent of the Australia Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, on 3 August 1962, where they were met by their commander, Colonel F. P. Serong, who had arrived 3 days earlier. Colonel Serong had recent experience of communist insurgency in Burma and was a former Commandant of the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, Qld. The members of AATTV, composed of officers, warrant officers and sergeants were all trained in jungle warfare and with Malayan experience. The group was predominantly Infantry, with some from Armour, Intelligence, Signals and Engineers.
Colonel Serong was seconded as special adviser in counterinsurgency to General Paul D. Harkins, commander of MACV, in Saigon. The other members of AATTV were deployed as part of the US advisory system and located mainly in the northern provinces in I Corps (South Vietnam was divided into 4 Corps Tactical Zones, CTZ or simply "Corps", of which I Corps was the northern most).
They were under the operational control of MACV, except for 2 members allotted to the Combined Studies Division (CSD) under control of the United States Mission. CSD was the cover name of a paramilitary wing of the CIA. The superior Australian headquarters was Headquarters Australian Far East Land Forces based in Singapore. This was changed to Commander, Australian Army Force Vietnam (AAFV), when 1RAR and its supporting elements arrived in country.
A capitation rate (that is repayment for supplying all logistic needs on a per capita basis) was paid to the United States, who provided all needs, including personal weapons, uniform items, even sunglasses. However, it was the desire of both the US and Australian Governments that the Australians would be recognisable by the wearing of their own uniforms, badges and "Australia" flashes.
The initial role of AATTV was strictly training. They were not to accompany Vietnamese forces on operations. The members soon found this unsatisfactory. Apart from the desire to experience the combat conditions in Vietnam, they also felt the need to evaluate the validity of their training, based on their Malayan experience, to ensure that it was appropriate to the local situation and this could only be done by observing it applied to operations in the field.
One of the most unusual stories to come out of Vietnam was that of Captain Barry Petersen, who was posted to the AATTV in Vietnam in August 1963 and attached to CSD based at a provincial capital at Ban Me Thuot in the Southern Central highlands.
USSF personnel were assisting the CIA in training Montagnard tribes people in Civil Irregular Defence Groups (CIDG) for hamlet defence operations, Mobile Strike Forces and border outposts. "Montagnard" is a collective French term for hill tribes living along the Annamite Chain of Mountains (Truong Son) forming the backbone of North and South Vietnam. The Vietnamese called them moi (savages) which reflects the lack of empathy, even hostility, with which they viewed them.
Petersen found he was without responsibility, authority or direction on arrival but employed his time visiting the Rhade (a local Motangard tribe) villages and learning the Rhade dialect. Involving himself in the security and welfare of the Rhade, he gained the responsibility of supporting and supervising the operations of Montagnard paramilitary political action teams in the province, which was subject to Vietcong infiltration from Cambodia. Thus began a perilous adventure lasting 2 years, which involved him living in some of the loneliest and isolated areas of Vietnam, gaining acceptance as a Rhade chieftain, acting as a central figure in the quelling of a widespread tribal revolt against the South Vietnamese Government and, at the height of his influence, leading an army of over a thousand whom he had recruited, trained and organised. Ironically, he became a focus of suspicion by both American and Vietnamese authorities. He was removed from his post by political pressure and left Vietnam in October 1965.
In June 1964, the AATTV was increased to 83 men and they were now permitted to be employed in the field in adviser teams with the ARVN at battalion and company levels. As new members arrived, they joined regular ARVN battalions, sector (provincial level) headquarters, territorial forces (Regional Forces, RF, and Popular Force, PF) training centres, and the CSD. They also joined USSF teams with the CIDG.
At this time, six RAAF Caribou aircraft with crew and support facilities arrived and were based at Vung Tau.
On 6 July 1964, Warrant Officer Class 2 Kevin Conway became the first Australian to be killed in contact with the enemy in Vietnam.
The headquarters of the Team was in Saigon where the commanding officer, adjutant, two administrative warrant officers and two Vietnamese staff were located, but because the Team was so widely dispersed, small administrative centres were set up, usually located in the advisers' compound for the area. The most important of these was at Da Nang, being in the centre of I Corps where the bulk of the Team members were located. The "Australia House" in Da Nang, first established by Major John Murphy, AATTV, in February 1964, soon became the "up country" headquarters of the Team and it was here that they paraded on ANZAC Day, the only time of the year that they assembled together until their relocation in l972.
Colonel O D Jackson arrived in January 1965 to take over command of the team from Colonel Serong. He saw a country that was on the verge of collapse. Instead of a training effort which had optimistically been predicted to permit a complete US withdrawal by 1965, the advisory programme had become part of the political/military structure of the country. The number of US advisers had doubled in 1964 to reach 16,000 by December. The AATTV was built up to 100 men in January/February 1965. Faced with a South Vietnamese defeat, the US Government opted to commit combat ground forces.
In the following years, four members of the AATTV were awarded Australia's highest honour, the Victoria Cross, the only Australians to be so honoured since the Second World War. On 13 November 1965, on operation with a CIDG company, WO2 K "Dasher" Wheatley refused to leave his wounded mate, WO2 R J "Butch" Swanston and was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 7 April 1967, Major Peter Badcoe was killed in action leading two companies of Vietnamese Regional Forces. For his outstanding heroism on this and two previous actions, he too was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 6 and 11 May 1969, serving as a company commander with a Vietnamese Mobile Strike Force, WO2 Ray Simpson, who had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for action in July-November 1964, displayed outstanding heroism and disregard for personal safety in two fire-fights with enemy forces. His actions made him the third member of AATTV to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 24 May 1969, WO2 Keith Payne, also a company commander with a Mobile Strike force, earned the AATTV's fourth Victoria Cross.
In 1970, in accordance with the Australian Government's policy, the Training Team began concentrating in Phuoc Tuy Province where the Australian Task Force was also located. With a reduction of the Task force to 2 battalions after the withdrawal of 8RAR on 17 November 1970, the advisory presence was increased to 200. The Team reverted to its training role with the establishment of a Jungle Warfare Training Centre (JWTC) to train Vietnamese junior leaders. Also six-man Mobile Advisory and Training Teams (MATI) were raised to work with Regional Force companies, Popular Force platoons and People's Self Defence Force (PSDF) platoons throughout Phuoc Tuy Province.
With the withdrawal of the Task Force and Logistical Support Group in December 1971, AATTV, though reduced in strength, was the principle unit of the residual force, now named Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam. The last tasks of the JWTC was to train Cambodian army battalions of the Forces Armee Nationale Khmer or FANK (its previous title was FARK - Forces Armee Royale Khmer).
The Team remained in Phuoc Tuy until the election of a Labor Government in Australia on 2 December 1972, and was ordered to withdraw on 18 December 1972.
In addition to the four Victoria Crosses mentioned above, team members received the following British Imperial Honours, Decorations and Awards: 2 Distinguished Service Orders (DSO), 3 Officers of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), 6 Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), 6 Military Crosses (MC), 20 Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), 15 Military Medals (MM), 4 British Empire Medals (BEM), 4 Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct, and 49 mentioned in Dispatches (MID). In addition many foreign (i.e. American and South Vietnamese) awards were made to Team members, but because of the confusion attending the Australian policy regarding foreign awards, some were accepted, others not. The AATTV was also awarded the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation and the US Army Meritorious Unit Commendation.
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