On the 24th May 1966, the ‘Tigers’ of 5th Battalion (5RAR) had landed at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province in South Vietnam, to set up their base camp. An American light spotter plane (code named ‘Bird Dog’) was attached to the Australian Task Force, to help locate possible enemy positions. These pilots were feared by the Viet Cong because of the former’s ability to quickly call in air strikes upon them if spotted. They were revered by the Allies and hated by the enemy.
On the 7th June 1966, one FAC (Forward Air Controller) pilot, John Jacobs, and his flight observer companion, Charles Franco, flew out from Nui Dat in their Cessna, circled the base and then set a NW course towards nearby Nui Nghe. This mountain’s slopes were gouged by deep ravines between innumerable rugged spurs and ridges, entirely covered in dense rain forest. The plane disappeared for eight months, having been shot down by enemy ground fire. The sole survivor of the initial crash, Franco, was executed by a company of Viet Cong, following his desperate and futile effort to survive. An ambush was then set up by the enemy, ready to eliminate the anticipated Australian search party. Patrol after patrol (one of which this author was on) was sent out in the general direction of the plane’s last known position, but each search during that wet season of 1966 ended in vain.
Eventually, a patrol did locate the crash site in the dry season (January 1967) and the gruesome story of what had happened unfolded. The skeletal remains of the two airmen were sent back to the U.S. for burial. Their names, of course, appear together on the black granite wall in Washington D.C. This poem is a tribute to those two men and the contribution they made to Australia’s war effort.
♪♪ Where have all ... the soldiers gone? … Long time passing!
Where have all the soldiers gone? … Long time ago!
Where have all the soldiers gone? … Gone to graveyards everyone!
When will they ever learn? … When will they ever learn? ♪♪
- Pete Seger, 1962.
'The Wall' - Washington D.C.
Reflections on 'The Wall'
'Bird Dog' (Cessna) taking off from Nui Dat - 1966
Just Names on a Wall
Wreckage of Cessna- on Nui Nghe - January 1967
Obviously there had been a significant enemy force located on the jungle-covered slopes of Nui Nghe, some 5 km NW of the Nui Dat base. What was their function? Were they there to observe the activities of the new Australian base or perhaps merely serve to send out patrols to harass the Australians. Or, were they part of the initial build up for the looming Battle of Long Tan ... then just weeks away?
Courtesy of 5RAR Website (Modified) - (with thanks)
Just Names on a Wall
Haunting symbols, confront those there,
Who silently stand and simply stare,
At long golden lists, carved on a black roll call.
A flower, a prayer or poetry,
Is offered by those who can’t see me,
Because I’m just a name, on a black cold wall.
’Twas ’66 when I had died,
With a good mate present by my side,
In support of Australian infantry.
Tasked to fly low from the wire,
Attracting enemy rifle fire,
Anywhere within the province of Phuoc Tuy.
In our Cessna ‘Bird Dog’ spotter plane,
We’d crisscross it time and time again,
And ‘send smoke’ to any targets that we saw.
As gunships and Phantoms strafed that spot,
Running figures napalmed or shot,
We’d then fly away to search for any more.
Oh how I loved the freedom there,
In tropic skies with crystal air,
Above the dusty roads or rusty mud.
Below, rows of rubber trees, or thick bamboo,
Odd mountains draped in jungle too,
Paddy fields and streams, dry, or in full flood.
‘Twas the wet season then, it had been,
Terrain seemed peaceful, lush and green,
And yet there were signs one’s eyes could not ignore.
Surface pock-marks filled with waters,
Caused by ‘arty’ or maybe mortars,
A stark reminder, that this indeed was war.
Whilst ‘Tigers’ stalked out from their lair,
The Long Hais loomed ahead out there,
This day the skies grew black, coming from the sea.
Banking o’er ‘The Horseshoe’, Dat Do in view,
Long Son in turn, then ‘Wolverton’ too,
Heading north west for a hill, called Nui Nghe.
’Twas known to be a dangerous place,
A hidden enemy staging base,
Suddenly, green tracers streaked up from the ground.
Radio smashed and pilot dead,
Jacobs taking a direct to his head,
Our engine stalled and we started gliding down.
Canopy of giant vines, branches and leaves,
Cushioned our swathe through snapping trees,
Plane abruptly propped, upon the forest floor.
Strapping up my shattered bloody knee,
And spurting femoral artery,
Dazed, with Armalite, I crawled out through the door.
For I knew that it could not be long,
Those NVA or Viet Cong,
Would soon be here to proudly claim their prize;
With all communications blown,
As an M.I.A, location unknown,
A few minutes left, to say my last good-byes.
Images flashed of parents, their sole son,
Now alone, left cradling pistol and my gun,
I prepared to face the end, my pending doom;
Aware no funeral there would be,
For my companion, nor for me,
The jungle would serve as our enclosing tomb.
Foreign voices, getting very near,
Vietnamese, I could clearly hear,
So fired off my ‘mag’ at figures, just ahead;
Suddenly, a flash, then nothing, not a word,
The sounds of silence were all I heard,
In total blackness, lifeless, for I was dead!
An ambush ’twas set, ‘round us as a bait,
Enemy laying there, three days in wait,
Aussies searching, for this lonely hiding place;
Yet, failing time and time again,
For months attempts carried out in vain,
Our plane had vanished, without apparent trace.
A platoon of ‘Tigers’ on patrol,
Out scanning ravines upon that knoll,
At last, spied the wreck and spent shells, all about;
Having been I.D.ed from two ‘dog tags’,
Our remains placed into ‘body bags’,
And a ‘chopper’ called, to carry us both out.
As Charlie Franco, when alive,
I hailed from New York, just 25,
Perhaps today there’s some, who may still recall?
Yet, with John Jacobs, who I have mentioned,
We’ve often pondered, often questioned:
“Are we just two gold names, on a black cold wall?”