Vietnam - Caught in a Killing Zone

Caught in a Killing Zone - by Colin Smith

Further to my book "The Killing Zone - NZ infantry in Vietnam" I have received input from various NZ Infantry Vietnam veterans to considerably expand the narrative of an action relating to Sergeant Tuhiwai’s DCM citation described on page 30 of the book, which is incorrectly dated 1969 and attributed to Victor 3 Company.

During the years 1967 to 1971 New Zealand committed a total of nine infantry companies which were attached to the Australian Task Force, based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province South Vietnam. Up to two NZ Rifle companies served as attachments to the various Australian Infantry battalions serving their six month to one year tours of combat duty in that time frame. The New Zealand Government had previously committed 161 Battery Royal NZ Artillery Regiment and a medical team in 1965 in response to an American call for assistance from her regional allies.

The Australian Task Force had been assigned the mission to pacify Phuoc Tuy province by General Westmoreland following an initial combat employment by various Australian units as a part of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). This deployment had been successful but operational differences between the tactical methods of the ANZAC and US Army units had caused problems and misunderstandings.

Logistical problems had also arisen because of the equipment differences between the two armies, apart from radios, M16 rifles and M60 machine guns the Anzacs used indigenous or British equipment.

Basically the American Paratroopers aggressively sought out the Viet Cong to assault head on whereas the ANZAC tactic was to patrol silently and ambush the Viet Cong and avoid if possible immediate assaults on emplaced enemy troops. The "Body count" didn’t have the impact on the career prospects of the ANZAC officers as seems to be the case with some American units.

The US Paratroops were the cutting edge of the Air-Mobile concept at that time whilst the ANZAC infantry had come from the protracted jungle campaigns of Borneo and Malaya which emphasised foot patrolling and ambushing.

According to the official Australian Army history "Towards Long Tan Vietnam 1950-66 "by Ian McNeill, Phuoc Tuy province was chosen for the Australian Task Force because of several reasons.

Firstly the Australian logistics requirements could be resolved through the nearby port of Vung Tau.

Secondly the size of the province allowed for the Brigade sized Task Force to operate independently from the American command structure, for example if they had been based at Bien Hoa the brigade would have been managed by the US command structure present. This issue was essentially a political one but important to the Australian/New Zealand Governments to demonstrate their commitment to the Free World cause.

This autonomy also allowed the Task Force Commander to plan and implement the military and civic strategies successful in the Malayan Emergency campaign.

The New Zealand infantry were mainly from 1 RNZIR based in Malaysia/Singapore and served tours of duty of 6 months or 1 year depending on their company rotation period. The New Zealand infantry companies served as a integral whole in their respective tours with few individual replacements.

The soldiers were regular, professional troops with no conscripts or draftees. They had volunteered for Vietnam service and were specialists at a chosen infantry role, such as scout, machine gunner, rifleman, roles, which they were trained for prior to Vietnam duty.

The New Zealanders adopted Australian Rifle Company organisation of a Headquarters (Major commanding) and 3 Rifle Platoons, each of a Platoon HQ group (Lieutenant commanding) and 3 rifle sections (squads) consisting; a Corporal , Scout group (2 Privates), Rifle group (4 Privates including M79 Grenadier) and a Machine Gun group with Lance Corporal, 2 Privates with M60 GPMG.

Typically Officers, Signallers (PRC 25 radios), NCOs and 1 of each scout group carried Ml 6 assault rifles. Riflemen, including the M79 Grenadier carried the Australian manufactured FN licensed SLR (semi-automatic 7.62mm self loading rifle similar in capabilities to the US Ml 4).

The FN/MAG machine gun was generally replaced in Vietnam by the M60 machine gun of US manufacture as the section machine gun although 7.62mm calibre Bren guns also were used.

US issue M72 Rocket launchers, M26 grenades and Claymore mines were enthusiastically adopted by the New Zealand troops, along with butt packs, webbing and anything else they could scrounge from their lavishly equipped (and generous) American allies.

The ANZAC pacification strategy of mounting operations in specified areas and deploying by Helicopter or vehicles to cordon and sweep for the Viet Cong was similar to the US strategy in execution.

The tactical methods of the ANZAC infantry were silent patrolling and ambushing for extended periods (depending on water supplies). Tracks were used for ambushing the Viet Cong but were not usually patrolled on.

Typical statistics, as supplied to the author courtesy of Major J D McGuire Commanding Officer Victor 5 Company, show that New Zealand infantrymen initiated contacts with the Viet Cong at the ratio of 10 to 1, indicating the level of dominance these professional soldiers attained against the Viet Cong "Home Team" D445 Battalion and the NVA 174 Regiment.

The narrative which follows is of the non typical end of the scale but is a situation which could potentially occur at any time as intelligence on the Viet Cong enemy in Phuoc Tuy was usually incomplete, even late in the conflict.

Prior to the New Zealand infantry committal to Vietnam the Australian D Company 6RAR had fought a large engagement at Long Tan, lessons of which set various procedures in place for operations. These included a much higher amount of ammunition, especially for the M60 machine guns, being carried than was the set amount previously, not patrolling in less than half platoon strength and operating within 105mm artillery range.

On 19 March 1970 members of 3 Platoon, Victor 4 Company, attached to the Royal Australian Regiment 6 Battalion, were caught in the killing ground of a Viet Cong ambush.

Against heavy odds the Platoon fought back superior numbers of enemy soldiers fighting from defensive bunkers on ground of their choosing, with an outflanking movement by the Viet Cong being thwarted by a contact with Victor company’s 1 Platoon and the Company HQ.

For the first time the complete story of what happened in that ambush has been related from the point of view of the soldiers present and to the best of my understanding is as follows.

Other than the DCM award to the 3 Platoon commander Sergeant T.H.Tuhiwai no awards or official recognition was given to the New Zealanders who featured in the action. The only previously published account of the action is a brief summary in the 6RAR battalion history which I referred to verify the accuracy of this narrative.

The Viet Cong actions are recounted from deductions made by various veterans and from the physical evidence left on that battleground which was found during a post-action sweep on 20 March 1970.

Victor 4 Company was tasked with a 3 day duration operation to search the nearby Nui Dinh hills for the Chau Duc VC company.

The initial deployment would be by helicopter in two lifts to Landing Zones on the top of the feature then a dispersed sweep on foot patrolling back towards the Nui Dat firebase across the eastern side of the hills to the lowland beyond. The company would be extracted by Ml 13 Armoured Personnel Carriers back to the Nui Dat base.

The Nui Dinh hills had been the subject of previous operations as they overlooked two highways, one of which was the main supply road between the Vung Tau Logistical base and the Nui Dat Fire base.

After an early intelligence estimate that an entire VC Regiment was entrenched in the heavily vegetated and broken hill terrain the first B52 bomber strike in support of the Australian Task Force was carried out. That and subsequent operations always produced evidence of the presence of the Chau Duc company in the hills but without any major combat encounters.

The short duration of the operation plus the information from a US Army radio relay station on top of Nui Ong Cau that no enemy activity was evident led to the decision being made to rest several personnel from 3 Platoon, Victor 4 Company including the platoon commander Lieutenant S D Kidd and the specialist scouts from 3 section. This was usual procedure as the NZ infantry companies operated almost continuously on extended operations.

The strength of 3 Platoon was 14 men including the acting platoon commander Sergeant Tuhiwai organised into two reduced rifle sections and a command group. The Operation code named Waipounama (probable misspelling of the Maori name for the NZ South Island - Waipounamu - the Greenstone source Island) commenced on 18 March 1970 with Victor 4 company being airlifted into two landing zones in the centre of the Nui Dinh hills by Iroquois UH 1 assault helicopters.

The Company HQ, 2 and 3 Platoons landed on the western side of the mountain top while 1 Platoon landed on the Nui Ong Cau feature.

The large re-entrant in the eastern side of the mountain was the objective of the immediate patrolling done that day, with 3 Viet Cong engaged in the early afternoon in a fleeting contact.

The Company deployed in a defensive posture at last light around the main plateau and an uneventful night passed.

On the morning of 19 March 1970 the eastwards sweep commenced.

1 Platoon covered the movement of 2 and 3 Platoons as they investigated the tracks located the previous day. Around mid morning a command detonated mine injured Privates Paul Thomas and John White of 2 Platoon. The Viet Cong didn’t follow up this ambush and the injured New Zealanders were evacuated by helicopter "Dustoff’ medivac.

2 Platoon continued to patrol southeast to the bottom of the hill, following enemy tracks while 3 Platoon followed a circuit track back towards the V4 Company HQ, moving in thick vegetation, referred to as triple canopy which means jungle with plenty of large trees. At the bottom of a short steep downhill section the terrain opened out into open rocky ground which gently sloped uphill.

Various members of 3 Platoon had noticed the signs of enemy activity, such as fresh wood cutting for bunkers/hootchs and human waste as they slowly moved along in a single file patrol formation.

Private T W (Mo) Paenga led in his role of lead scout followed by Private Bill Keatch who was his cover scout. This pair worked in tandem, covering each other’s movement as they cautiously scoured the jungle surrounds for the Viet Cong.

The 3 section commander followed the scouts, Corporal Olly Taukamo, from where he commanded the depleted section. The M60 Machine gun group of Private Beau Heke, the gunner, and the number two Private Ray Symons followed next followed by the section 2nd in Command Lance Corporal Graeme Goldring who was the Machine gun group commander. Three Platoon’s acting commander Sergeant Tom Tuhiwai followed Goldring, with his signaller following.

The other section group followed, with another six soldiers organised the same as the 3 section and moving in single file. This section contained the 2nd M60 Machine gun group of Privates Aussie Young and Don Clark.

The limited visibility of the thickly vegetated terrain made excellent ambush country and the lead scout was placed under the stress of ensuring the platoon wasn’t caught in a devastating point blank range ambush in addition to the certain knowledge that if the Viet Cong were waiting in ambush he would be the first to know.

We will never know what the lead scout was thinking about that time as the leading 3 section members emerged from the jungle and made their way up the rocky spur that led to the Viet Cong company position. No doubt he was relieved to emerge into the more open terrain where he could see more than ten feet ahead, also the ever present chance of a trip wire booby trap would be reduced.

The Viet Cong had set an ambush on the main track approaching their main camp where they had set up aiming posts for their 60 mm mortars. They were aware that enemy troops were patrolling near the camp and hoped to annihilate a patrol before retreating back to the populated lowlands. The enemy firepower required the Viet Cong to engage at close range on ground of their choice with an escape route prepared before the weight of artillery and aerial firepower overwhelmed them.

The indirect approach of the New Zealand patrol threw this plan into disarray but the Viet Cong soldiers, being veterans of this long conflict, quickly prepared to ambush the patrol from a different direction which was covered by bunker positions. RPG teams moved through covered trenches into these bunkers and quickly assembled the 85mm Rocket Propelled Grenades from their wrappings, which were then slid into place at the front of the launcher. Other comrades set up RPD light machine guns or took up position with a SKS or AK47 rifle and waited.

Private T W (Mo) Paenga, scouting ahead of the 3 section across a small re entrant, was killed instantly when a Claymore anti personnel mine was command detonated at the New Zealanders, thereby initiating the ambush.

A split second later numbers of Viet Cong soldiers popped up out of their concealed bunkers to fire RPGs (85mm Rocket Propelled Grenades) at the leading New Zealand soldiers.

Lance Corporal Graeme Goldring, who was close to the Platoon HQ just at the jungle edge, recalls the sudden shock of having the infantryman’s worst nightmare suddenly occur - that of being caught in an ambush. The sheer mind numbing blast of firepower caused him to think that the leading section was being engaged by American troops in error.

The leading New Zealand infantry section was dispersed which meant the VC rocket fire and possibly several more claymore mines impacted mainly around the lead scout-Private Mo Paenga, the cover scout - Private Bill Keatch and the section commander Corporal Olly Taukamo.

Heavy automatic gunfire from an array of AK47 assault rifles, RPD light machine guns and at least one 30 calibre machine gun laced the area from the killing ground back to the edge of the jungle.

In that immediate maelstrom of incoming fire the lead section was effectively decimated, with only one soldier able to return fire amongst those caught in the open. Private Ray Symons fired approximately ten 7.62mm rounds from his SLR at the area the deluge of VC fire was coming from.

Further back at the edge of the jungle other platoon members fired their rifles with no noticeable impact on the entrenched enemy. The situation at this point was that the Viet Cong had achieved dominance over the New Zealand infantry platoon and had the initiative on the battleground.

In situations such as this the actions of individuals who seize the moment and perform beyond that which is reasonable to expect can make all the difference.

Private Ray Symons who had taken cover behind a large tree heard one of the leading New Zealand soldiers cry out in pain and without further ado ran forward into the area where the explosions had occurred. He encountered Private Beau Heke, the section M60 Machine gunner, who had just been laced with shrapnel in his shoulder an instant before when a RPG round impacted near him.

Symons pulled Heke away from the M60 machine gun and after giving him his SLR directed the shocked and bleeding man into an area of dead ground back towards the jungle.

The section commander, Corporal Olly Taukamo, who had been up front with his scouts staggered back towards Symons. Symons assisted the wounded and deeply shocked Taukamo (wounded for the third time in two tours of duty) and directed him back to where Beau Heke was. Symons decided to take the fight to the Viet Cong at this point and of his own volition picked up the M60 machine gun and moved forward to a position from which he judged he could effectively engage the enemy.

The cover scout Private Bill Keatch appeared next, walking upright and seemingly oblivious to the hail of projectiles shrieking through the air.

He was bleeding from his head and had lost his right eye. Symons paused to drag Keatch down to the ground and when Keatch was clear of his position opened up with the M60 machine gun. He had approximately 800 rounds of linked 7.62mm ammunition for the M60 with him and set about firing controlled bursts at the enemy position. His actions earned him the attention of a number of VC who fired back at him, mainly with automatic weapons as the firepower generated by the M60 machine gun would have dissuaded most of the RPG gunners from standing up out of their bunker entrances in front to fire at him. (If fired from within an enclosed space the back blast from the RPG could kill the gunner). They were still able to launch their rockets at the area behind Symons however.

Private Don Clark arrived forward to assist Symons, having been called forward by Sergeant Tom Tuhiwai with Private Aussie Young carrying the rear section M60 Machine gun. Young set up his M60 behind and to the left of Symons while Clark moved forward. Symons was concerned that the linked ammunition supply was getting low and sent Clark back to recover belts of that ammunition from the wounded men. Between firing controlled bursts from the M60 machine gun Symons repeatedly called out ahead for the missing scout Private Mo Paenga, to no avail. Covered by the barrage of bullets pumped out by the two M60 machine guns Clark attempted to crawl forward to where Symons indicated that Paenga would be. Twice Clark was literally pinned to the ground as fragments whirled around him from RPG rounds exploding. He recalls having to wipe the dirt out of his eyes while waiting for the explosions to pause. On the third attempt Clark found Private Paenga’s body. At first sight Clark knew that Paenga had died instantly. The VC position was less than 50 metres away and in spite of the best efforts of Symons and Young firing the M60 machine guns the enemy fire was too intense for Clark to bring Paenga’s body in. Clark picked up Paenga’s M16 rifle, grenades and ammunition and scampered back to the main 3 platoon position.

The Viet Cong continued to pour automatic fire back at the New Zealanders throughout as Clark returned with enough belts of linked ammunition to enable Symons to continue a heavy rate of fire with the M60.

According to the Australian 6RAR Battalion history Clark made three trips across that exposed area with ammunition. He reported the death of Mo Paenga to Sergeant Tuhiwai during one of his forays.

Clark recalls that the other New Zealand soldiers in the main position had spotted VC movement flitting around the flanks of the ambush and after informing Tuhiwai of Paenga’s fate was ordered to tell the M60 machine gunners to fall back to the main position.

Clark explained to Tuhiwai that the M60’s were in a better position to engage the VC where they were and Tuhiwai consented to leave them in place. The NZ platoon couldn’t move with all its casualties as the VC would have slaughtered them in a running fight and to leave the wounded to the mercy of the enemy was unthinkable. The NZ infantry had a code that they would never leave their dead behind on the battlefield, even if they couldn’t recover the body immediately they would remain nearby to prevent the VC from getting to it.

For these reasons Sergeant Tom Tuhiwai and the platoon remained where they were.

The amount of firepower now being put out effectively dissuaded any thought of overrunning the New Zealand platoon the VC might have had in a frontal charge. The VC were not going to run across open ground into the combined firepower of the two M60 Machine guns but started to send out small groups of riflemen around the flanks of the NZ patrol to scout for other NZ troops prior to assaulting the ambush ground from a flank.

Back at the Platoon HQ frantic requests had been made for support from the Australian Task Force. Unfortunately the action was outside the range of friendly mortars and the topography made artillery fire impossible to safely use.

The wounded men had been placed in a stream bed at the base of the slope and were being tended by other platoon members. Sergeant Tom Tuhiwai was wounded by a mortar round hitting the tree beside him and a large white hot fragment slashing into his leg, which was the second time he was injured during his Vietnam tour of duty. The VC firepower had set fire to scattered patches of vegetation around the New Zealand platoon and efforts were required from the soldiers to contain these fires near the main platoon position.

After what must have seemed a long time of continuous fighting and constant pandemonium outside help finally arrived in the form of US Army AH 1 Cobra helicopter gunships clattering in line formation and calling on the NZ 3 Platoon HQ radio for confirmation of the Viet Cong position prior to attacking.

The order was probably shouted by the platoon HQ for the forward group to throw a coloured smoke grenade , in any case to avoid being victims of US firepower it was judged prudent by Symons to throw smoke to mark their position.

Once the gunship pilots had established the location of the NZ troops they proceeded to blast the VC bunkers with rockets and machine gun fire, some of the fire coming perilously close to the forward NZ group in spite of the smoke marker. The VC fire noticeably eased off after the Cobra gunships had made several passes and for the first time since the ambush started the New Zealand soldiers realised they would probably survive. An order was shouted for the forward group to fall back to the main platoon group as the VC fire had ceased completely.

Before they did so both M60 gunners resumed a heavy rate of fire to enable Private Don Clark to crawl forward to recover Mo Paenga’s body.

After this they rejoined the platoon in the stream bed and set up a perimeter to protect a hovering "Dustoff’ medivac helicopter which by means of a jungle penetrator device extracted the casualties.

The Victor 4 Company headquarters group had come under spasmodic mortar, machine gun and rocket fire prior to this as the main VC force moved from the bunker complex.

A Viet Cong scout group had pinpointed their position but as reports of other NZ troops in the vicinity came in the Viet Cong commander decided to withdraw his forces from the area. A fleeting contact also had occurred with the NZ 1 Platoon - probably with a VC scout group probing to follow up their initial ambush success to annihilate the remnants of 3 Platoon.

The VC company moved quickly away from the New Zealand troops and were tracked later to a lowland regional South Vietnamese Army force post, where they disappeared amongst the population nearby.

The Victor 4 Company harboured that night in the mountain area, with the shock of the day’s action suddenly hitting Private Ray Symons. As he relaxed with a meal and cup of coffee, alongside Lance Corporal Graeme Goldring, he realised they were the only members of 3 section left - he cried.

Further Reading

Towards Long Tan - Australian Army Vietnam 1950-66 by Ian McNeill
The Killing Zone - NZ Infantry Vietnam 1967-71 by Colin Smith
First to Fight - ANZUS Brigade 1965 by Bob Breen
Various privately published RAR (Australian) Battalion histories.

I acknowledge the assistance of Ray Symons, Aussie Young, Don Clark, Graeme Goldring, Graeme Beattie and Geoff Dixon in preparing this article, in the form of filing out questionnaires and a number of interviews, and the cooperation of the Vietnam Veterans Association secretary Alan Nixey to help me contact these people throughout New Zealand and Australia.


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