The Australian Veteran and the Vietnam Experience
Bob Teusner ( ex-9RAR)
1RAR IN VIETNAM
Bringing 1RAR up to establishment strength for its deployment to Vietnam was not so much of a problem as the selection of whom to accept, with applications coming from the whole of the Regiment including the just raised 5RAR. As a result, the battalion had a strong component of veterans of Malaya and men with specialist skills such as ex-SAS. However, its Commanding Officer, Lt. Col I.R W (Lou) Brumfield, listed other problems such as pay (1RAR was not paid any area allowance such as the troops in Malaya were receiving), a defined period of service (which was announced some 6-8 weeks after reaching Bien Hoa), a lamentably poor postal system, and dissimilarity and incompatibility of equipment and operational procedures with their US higher formation. * Brig. I. R. Brumfield, "Starting Over: Korea-Vietnam" published in "Duty First", June 1992
1RAR together with an APC troop (Prince of Wales Light Horse, a title that was to bemuse our American friends) and the First Australian Logistic Support Company, began moving to Vietnam within 25 days of the Government's announcement. It was moved by charter Qantas aircraft and by the converted aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, and was fully established in Vietnam by 10 June 1965.
With the impending arrival of 1RAR, the Australian forces in Vietnam were given a superior headquarters, Commander Australian Army Force Vietnam (COMAAFV), in Saigon. Brigadier O D Jackson assumed office as Commander on 5 May 1965, having been relieved as Commander, AATTV, by Lt Col A V Preece.
1RAR was placed under operational control of the recently arrived US 173 Airborne Brigade, at its third battalion. It was stationed at the Bien Hoa air base north of Saigon, and its initial role was to conduct operations in the defence of the base.
Viet Cong Main Force units within III Corps operated from jungle sanctuaries in War Zones D and C, the Iron Triangle and the Ho Bo Woods (see Map B). War Zone D was occupied by the Viet Cong Main Force 9 Division. The first forays were in War Zone D. As the paratroopers of 173 Brigade stormed in, the diggers of 1RAR sought tactical advantage by stealth and surprise and the Viet Cong took no risks with a new and unpredictable enemy, which resulted in a tactical stand-off.
The disparity between Australian and US operational procedures thus were evident from the start. The US paratroopers stormed into an operational area willing to concede the choice of ground and nature of contact to the enemy just as long as battle could be joined, relying on their massive firepower to win the day. The Australians on the other hand patrolled dispersed in platoons over a wide area, keeping to the field for long periods and ambushing by night, seeking to fight the enemy on ground of their own choosing.
Although Australian casualties were fewer, American missions resulted in more enemy killed in action. It was to the credit of both Lt. Col Brumfield and the US Brigade Commander, Brig. Gen Ellis "Butch" Williamson, and the excellent mutual understanding they had, that 1RAR was allowed to operate as it had been trained.
On 16 July 1965, the ANZAC tradition was renewed when 161 Field Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery, arrived and within 24 hours of its arrival was supporting 1RAR in its operations.
For the next two months, 1RAR defended Bien Hoa while the paratroopers fought in the highlands, while back in Australia, intakes of national servicemen marched into 5RAR and 6RAR and training for Vietnam intensified.
In September, Australia's military contribution had increased with the commitment of 105 Field Battery, an engineer troop (3 Field Troop), 161 Recce Flight equipped with Sioux light helicopters, a signals detachment and further logistic personnel.
In October, the Brigade swept into the Iron Triangle, the first allied attempt to destroy this Viet Cong stronghold. For all involved, paratroopers, diggers and Kiwis, this was remembered for the death and mutilation from mines and booby traps. 1RAR lost 2 killed and 36 wounded, many of whom were maimed for life.
On the 5 November 1965, the Brigade conducted assaults on an area near the junction of the Be and Dong Nai rivers 20 kilometres to the north-east of Bien Hoa. The communication and supply trails between War Zones C and D met the Ho Chi Minh Trail in this area which had become a major staging point for Main Force formations. The commander of the Viet Cong 9th Division deployed his 271st Regiment in a complex of bunkers. It was a test of strength that proved bloody for both sides.
Lt. Col. Brumfield was med-evaced in November 1965 and was unable to command the battalion through some of its most successful operations. Lt-Col. Preece relinquished command of AATTV to take command of 1RAR on 3 December 1965.
In late November, the 173rd Brigade was deployed to capture a large rice bowl area of La Nga Valley and deny the harvest to the Viet Cong. In a series of well-executed battalion attacks, 1RAR captured the southern area of the valley and forced the Viet Cong to withdraw after inflicting heavy casualties on a Main Force Company.
In January 1966 1RAR continued to outmanoeuvre and outfight the Viet Cong in the Ho Bo woods where they assaulted a large Viet Cong Headquarter complex. This was a tunnel system on three levels and yielded so many documents that it was hailed by the Americans as their first strategic intelligence victory of the Vietnam War.
In February/March 1966,1RAR came under fire operational control of the US 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One", and was tasked to protect an engineer road building project. General Dupuy, the division's commander, personally selected 1RAR because of their aggressive patrolling techniques. The Viet Cong needed a major victory and chose the Headquarters of the US 1st Infantry Brigade as a soft target. Having ambushed elements of the Main Force 71 Regiment carrying new AK47 rifles and supplies, 1RAR informed the Americans that a major attack was imminent. A battalion of US Infantry, supported by tanks and artillery was rushed to reinforce the headquarters. The Viet Cong, prevented from last minute reconnaissance by Australian patrols, assaulted into the combined firepower of guns, tanks and infantry weapons. Over 150 Viet Cong bodies were bulldozed into a nearby bomb crater.
On 9 March 1966 1RAR conducted air mobile assaults into an area 25 kilometres north of Bien Hoa on the southern banks of the Song Be, assaulting across the river to secure a crossing point. The crossing was opposed by small groups of Viet Cong in spite of helicopter gunship support. In the following week 1RAR waged an intense patrol battle with reconnaissance elements of 9th Division and Local Force guerrillas. This support enabled the paratroopers to deploy a forward fire support base and sweep forward and destroy major Viet Cong installations and a headquarters. War Zone D was no longer a sanctuary.
Late in March, the 1st Infantry Division, supported by 173 Airborne Brigade and ARVN forces conducted search and destroy operations against the 5th Viet Cong division in Phuoc Tuy Province where the first Australian Task Force (1ATF) would operate later that year. 1RAR was to protect the fire support and logistic base in the Courtenay Rubber Plantation north of Binh Ba. 5th division avoided contact with the Americans and at the end of the operation, 1RAR had killed, wounded or captured more Viet Cong in patrols protecting the base than the sweeping brigades of the Big Red One.
The tour had been a demanding one for 1RAR, involving cooperation with the US Army, development of new techniques, tough battles with an elusive enemy and long operations with little respite. During the tour the battalion lost 18 killed in action. However, they established a reputation for Australian Infantrymen that was to last throughout the Vietnam War.
1ATF - SECURING THE BASE
In July 1965, only one month after the arrival of 1RAR, the chief of the General Staff began looking at ways to build up the force in Vietnam to task force strength, complete with logistic support units in case the Government should so direct. These military options were then presented to the Government. The governments of the United States, New Zealand and Australia had reached a conclusion at this time that only increased military effort in South Vietnam could save the situation.
Lt-Col John Warr, Commanding Officer of 5RAR, had assumed that his battalion would relieve 1RAR in June 1966. He and Lt-Col Colin Townsend, Commanding Officer of 6RAR, were informed in January 1966 that both their battalions would be deployed together in Vietnam and to be prepared to move by the end of May that year.
On 8 March 1966, the Government announced that a task force of two battalions and support would be deployed in Vietnam.
Australia required that their area of deployment should be an area of significant enemy activity, not contiguous with the borders of Cambodia, Laos or the DMZ, be accessible to shipping and overseas aircraft, and be a geographically distinct area which could be left to the task force and could readily be identified with the Australian national effort.
Phuoc Tuy was the province chosen that could best meet these criteria. This province is one of 11 provinces comprising m Corps lying south-east of Saigon on the coast. It is bounded on the east by Binh Tuy Province, the south by the South China Sea, and the south west by the Rung Sat Special Zone (an area of mud flats and mangrove swamp), the west by Bien Ho Province and the north by Long Khanh Province (see Map C).
The terrain is generally flat, with a gradual increase in elevation north from the coastal regions, except for high, rocky, elevated land masses located in the South, South West and extreme North East, referred to as the Long Hai hills, the Nui Thi Vais and the Nui May Taos respectively. Apart from this there are a few places of high ground (mounds or eroded volcanic cones) generally known as Nui Dat (*is a geographic term, not a place name) in the central region. Low mangrove swamps are found in the South west, bordering on the Saigon River estuary. Much of the jungle area, secondary growth laced with bamboo, was located to the North, covering about three quarters of the province.
The population, just over 100,000 (but later increased by refugee movements) was mainly in the South, in the three major villages of Baria (or Phuoc Le, the province capital), Long Dien and Dat Do, with a scattering nearby of lesser villages. These villages are mainly supported by padi (wet rice) farming and fisheries. Isolated villages to the north work in rubber plantations.
Baria is linked by a causeway to Vung Tau, a port of historical, but no great commercial significance. The port of Saigon, many kilometres up river, is South Vietnam's entre port. However, Vung Tau has sheltered deep water anchorages and its sandy beaches were suitable for landing craft.
In mid 1966 the enemy forces in the Province were believed to be:
Local forces believed to exist in each village and hamlet forming an infrastructure and operating small village guerrilla units in the vicinity of their villages.
At this time the enemy had the capacity to mount offensive operations within the province with up to two main force regiments supported by a regional battalion and local forces. They operated from bases in sanctuaries throughout the province, but the three most formidable of these sanctuaries were the Minh Dam Secret Zone located in the Long Hai Hills, the Hat Dich Secret Zone located in the north of the province west of Route 2 in the area of the tri-province boundaries of Bien Hoa, Long Kahn and Phuoc Tuy provinces, and the most notorious of all, the Thua Tich Secret Zone in the north-east of the province, east of Route 2 and embracing the Nui May Taos (see Map C).
One source book (Gregory Pemberton ed., "Vietnam Remembered", Weldon Publishing 1990, pp23) commented rather smugly that "... Australians...could not grasp that in many cases it was not intruders from the North, but the villagers themselves, who were the PLAF". Actually, the diggers knew very well that villagers were induced or coerced to join the Viet Cong infrastructure or local guerrilla units. They also knew on the evidence of their prisoners what these pundits apparently "could not grasp", that Main Force units were so heavily reinforced by the People's Army of (North) Vietnam (PAVN, also referred to as the North Vietnamese Army, NVA) that by the end of 1967 as much as 75% of them were "intruders from the North". At this time the Regional Force units such as Provincial battalions had a substantial component of NVA personnel. As will be seen later, regular NVA Divisions and Regiments took part in the 1968 Tet offensive and continued to operate locally afterwards.
The "ill-armed peasant army" was also a myth as it was in the days of the Viet Minh. Main Force units and, to an extent, Regional Forces were well equipped with man-portable support weapons, such as medium and heavy machine guns, recoilless rifles, mortars, Soviet 122mm rockets and Chicom 107mm rockets. Before the 1968 Tet Offensive, they were nearly all equipped with the modern 50viet/Chicom family of small arms, AK47 assault rifles, SKS carbines, RPD light machine guns and RPG2 and 7 light anti-armour weapons (known in country as B40 and B41 rockets). Local Force units, such as village guerrillas, used a miscellany of weapons, including the older Soviet/Chicom arms, captured or stolen US arms and even arms of French, Japanese and Nationalist Chinese origin.
As 1RAR left Vietnam in late May 1966, the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) was arriving at Vung Tau. Besides 5RAR and 6RAR, it had on strength:
1 APC Squadron (less detachment) 1 Field Regiment (artillery, less one battery) with Detachment, 131 Divisional Locating Battery (Det 131 Div Loc Bty). 1 Field Squadron (engineers, less one troop) 103 Signal Squadron, and 3 SAS Squadron (less one troop). In addition, it had intelligence elements, a transport platoon, workshops and Light Aid Detachments (LAD) for cavalry and artillery. It was commanded by the ubiquitous Brigadier O.D. Jackson who was relieved as COM AAFV (now redesignated COMAFV) by Maj Gen K MacKay.
From the outset, 1ATF came under operational control of the US II Field Force Vietnam. The Task Force was however permitted to operated very much according to its own methods.
The 1 ATF base at Nui Dat (so called because it was centred around a hill) was selected because it was located between the enemy's main force bases and the areas of the densest civilian population, had space for an airstrip and maintenance areas, and was not too close to densely settled area so that the maximum use of firepower in its defence would not imperil the civilian population.
Prior to the forward deployment of 1ATF, 173 Airborne Brigade was given the task of clearing the operational base, which they did with their usual gusto and were engaged by several Viet Cong companies sited in ambush. Both the paratroopers and the Viet Cong took heavy casualties. After the paratroopers, 5RAR moved in and secured Nui Dat. On 5 June 1966, Brig. Jackson flew in with his tactical headquarters and took command. By 14 June, 6RAR moved forward to complete the 1ATF concentration.
On 25 May 1966, Errol Wayne Noack became the first National Serviceman fatality of the war. He had been in Vietnam for only 10 days.
The First Australian Logistic Support Group (lALSG) was established at Vung Tau to provide items of clothing, equipment, vehicles and weapons while other items, such as ammunition, defence stores and rations would be provided through the Americans in the theatre again through the payment of a capitation rate. However, because the arrival of 1ATF coincided with a massive build-up of US forces in the theatre the US supply system could barely meet its own requirements, despite the partisanship displayed to Australia by the Americans. The problem was exacerbated by the failure of some Australian units to bring their first 30 days maintenance with them. The result was an increasing number of priority demands being sent back to Australia. 1ALSG grew in size and extra and unforeseen tonnages had to be sent to the theatre at short notice. The provision of logistic needs from American sources was never fully implemented.
The first priority of 1ATF was to ensure its own security. The first step in the concept was to control the area around the base to a line designated Line Alpha that was outside enemy mortar range. The second step was to extend the area out to artillery range. The third step concerned force maintenance. This was to be by daily road convoy from Vung Tau and forwarded to troops in the field by helicopter.
Initial security was based on continuous and aggressive patrolling. 50% of the Task Force infantry component were out of base on offensive patrolling every day and night. The remainder, apart from make and mend, had to secure the Task Force perimeter. This rate was maintained for two months despite the onset of the monsoon within a week of occupying Nui Dat. In early July 5RAR cleared the Nui Nghe area to the North and 6RAR the Long Phuoc area to the South of Nui Dat. Late in July, 6 RAR had its first taste of combat with a company of D445 Battalion. In a series of intense fire fights B and C companies lost 3 killed and 19 wounded and inflicted 13 killed and 19 wounded before the Viet Cong withdrew, taking more dead and wounded with them.
In the process of securing its base, 1ATF did something not previously done in Vietnam that drew some initial criticism. With the approval of the Province Chief, all Vietnamese were evacuated from the area enclosed in Line Alpha and relocated in the Long Dien area. One of the villages to be thus relocated was Long Tan, north of Dat Do, which was then razed. This gave 1ATF a free fire zone, protected the base from observation of patrol comings and goings, and ensured that civilians were not endangered by military activities. This free fire zone was the task force's Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR).
In early August 5RAR carried out a cordon and search of Binh Ba village that netted, according to South Vietnamese authorities, over 70 cadre, guerrillas and sympathisers, the village had been brought back to government control and road access north to south had been re established.
On 17 August 1966, a number of mortar and recoilless-rifle rounds impacted on the Task Force base causing casualties. On 18 August, 5RAR returned to base from Binh Ba, while D Coy, 6RAR searched for the mortar crew that perpetrated the attack. At about 1600 hours, D Coy made contact with 275 Main force Regiment with elements of D445 battalion in support in a rubber plantation near Long Tan. A ferocious and heroic battle ensued in the teeming monsoonal rain as just over 100 diggers withstood the assaults of over 1500 Viet Cong. Artillery and mortar fire from the 1ATF base caused carnage among the Viet Cong assault waves but it was the small arms fire of D Coy that caused the most casualties. As night fell A and C Coys 6RAR mounted on the APCs of 3 troop, lAPC Squadron, linked with D Coy and the Viet Cong withdrew carrying many dead and wounded. Australians lost 17 killed and 21 wounded, with two of the wounded spending a terrifying night isolated in the rubber plantation as the Viet Cong moved about them, recovering their casualties.
245 Viet Cong bodies were found, an unknown number having been evacuated through night. It was believed that 275 Regiment was massing for an attack on the Task Force base and was forced to abandon the mission after the mauling it received. This was the battle of Long Tan, the most dramatic single action of the Australian forces in Vietnam. D Coy 6RAR was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation for its action.
Because of the limitation of a 2 battalion task force and the vulnerability of his base, Brig. Jackson was unable to mount a follow-up action to capitalise on his success. Instead, the US II Field Force mounted a large scope sweep of Phuoc Tuy Province using two brigades of the Big Red One, the 173 Airborne Brigade, a US Marine battalion with several ARVN battalions and 5RAR but after two weeks it was called off with little contact with the Viet Cong.
A pattern was set for the battalions of 1ATF, conventional (search and destroy operations), pacification (patrolling and ambushing the routes of cadres to the villages, and cordon and search of villages, as well as civic aid programmes) and security (to ensure security of the base). These operations were constant, manpower intensive and time consuming.
In January 1967, Brig. Stuart Graham relieved Brig. Jackson as commander of 1ATF.
In February 5RAR deployed by helicopter to the Long Hai Hills to sweep the Minh Dam Viet Cong sanctuary. This had been preceded by a B52 bomber strike on the suspected base areas. Though successful in locating camps and caches, 5RAR suffered heavily from mines and booby traps, with 7 killed and 22 injured, several of whom were maimed for life. Armour could also be killed, an APC with a section of B Coy 5RAR on board was blown up by a command-detonated 500lb bomb.
In March 1967 Brig. Graham sought to deny Viet Cong access to the population centres in the south and to their bases in the Long Hais by establishing a forward base at the "Horseshoe", an eroded caldera of extinct volcano just north of Dat Do village and running a mine field enclosed in a barbed wire fence for a 12 kilometre stretch from there to the coast along the eastern side of Route 44. The minefield was completed on 11 April 1967. Though it had some initial success, the minefield proved the validity of the Australian "Manual of Mine Warfare" that "minefields should be covered at all times by view and fire". It was to become an almost inexhaustible supply of mines to the Viet Cong, who cheekily cached some of them within the precincts of the minefield itself.
In April and May of 1967, 7RAR commanded by Lt Col Eric Smith and 2RAR commanded by Lt Col. Noel "Chick" Charlesworth relieved 5RAR and 6RAR respectively. 2RAR, with their arrival, began a unique association with the First Battalion, Royal New Zealand Regiment (1RNZIR). The New Zealand government had decided to increase the presence of its forces in Vietnam by one infantry company. The first Victor (V) company arrived at the same time as 2RAR's advance party. V Company became 2RAR's fifth rifle company, joined in December 1967 by Whiskey (W) Company. On 1 March 1968, the battalion was regrouped with six rifle companies under command and designated 2RAR/NZ (ANZAC).
From July until December 1967, 2RAR and 7RAR conducted conventional, pacification and security operations in the same manner as 5RAR and 6RAR. By October, Brig Graham was telling his successor, Brig Ron "Wilbur" Hughes, that the Viet Cong were virtually finished in the province. In December, 3RAR commanded by Lt-Col Jim Shelton arrived bringing the strength of lATF up to three infantry battalions.
There were signs that the Viet Cong were building up for an offensive during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet Nguyen Dan, in January-February 1968. Warning orders were issued for deployment outside Phuoc Tuy to defend the approaches to Saigon. The stage was being set for conventional battle with the Main Force Viet Cong formations. The difference would be that this time the Viet Cong would be joined by the North Vietnamese Army in a bid to rouse the South Vietnamese population into a general revolution.
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