Sent as a present from Annam ... a red cockatoo,
Coloured like the peach tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men;
And they did with it, what is always done,
To the learned and eloquent;
They took a cage with stout bars,
And shut it up inside.
Po Chu-I 820 AD
Twenty five years after the first Australian conscripts were sent to fight in Vietnam (in a vain attempt it would appear to buy U.S. military support and long-term gratitude), I spent an evening reminiscing aspects of that war with an army commander at the Holsworthy barracks, NSW. In 1966, he had been a mere Lance Corporal serving in Vietnam, but since then he had ‘transformed’ into a silver-haired, moustachioed clone of the stereotyped senior officer of the Australian Army.
As we both, with a group of other veterans, browsed through a photo album, I remarked how young the now ‘old’ Diggers in the photographs seemed to appear, many with ‘baby faces’ that had barely felt their first shave. This officer, in response, espoused the virtues of those ‘young lads’ who had served overseas a generation earlier. He emphasised that indeed it was the very fact of their youth that had been the Army’s greatest asset, adding: “ ... and those young lads had acquitted themselves admirably! They had come through it with flying colours!” Indeed they had! He, now a battalion commander, likened them to the young charges under him then at present and proudly proclaimed that they were ready for the next war. I clearly detected an air of eagerness.
Brought home to me were the awesome responsibilities that had been placed on the shoulders of all those ‘boys’ in the photographs. Initially inexperienced with life generally and death in particular, they had been required to carry a burden the likes of which many of us will never scratch the surface in our attempts to comprehend.
Five years later, during an Anzac Day re-union (1996), I and several other veterans were locked in discussion with another battalion commander (ex-Vietnam), over concerns we still held for that occasion when 9 mates from our B Company had been killed by mines in the Long Hai hills in February 1967. It was pointed out to this ex-officer that this minefield had been detected (by one of us then present in the discussion group) prior to our entry into it (i.e. a skull and crossbones sign – a warning of mines - on the ground had been sighted) and our platoon commander had been duly informed at the time. After consultation on the ‘phone’ (‘sig set’) with ‘higher command’, this advice was dismissed/ignored and we were ordered to proceed, regardless, up into the Long Hai hills. The ex-officer listening to this account attempted to excuse the blunder by suggesting that that area had probably been checked out some weeks before and had no doubt been ‘cleared’. He said: “Sometimes mistakes were made when communications broke down ... but that was just part of ‘the game’!”
That concept of ‘the game’ cropped up on several other occasions during the discussion, including this ex-commander’s recollection of an abortive attempt by the NVA to launch an attack on Nui Dat from the north (in a separate action to that at Long Tan). “The enemy was kept at bay by salvos of artillery ... so we were denied a full-scale ground battle ... but that I suppose was all in the game!”, he said. One could hardly help but come away with the frightening impression that that was exactly how some (if not many) of the military leaders perceived the war ... as just one ‘big game’ ... and rewards for winning would be ... medals and promotion! Flashback scenes of officers outside the Intelligence tents in BHQ at Nui Dat during the war, standing around a sand-pit, manoeuvring models of armoured vehicles and troops, sprang immediately to mind.
Most Australians who served in Vietnam had spent many months training in various aspects of jungle warfare. Several units had had combat experience in Malaya during ‘The Emergency’ of the 1950’s and in Borneo during ‘The Confrontation’ with Indonesia in the early to mid-1960’s. Seven of the nine battalions were to complete two lots of 1 year tours in Vietnam. Meanwhile, members of the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) had been sent as ‘advisers’ in jungle warfare tactics to assist and train the ARVN (South Vietnamese soldiers), whilst members of other army sub-groups such as SAS, Engineers, Artillery and Armoured Corps became specialists in their respective fields.
However, it was this very experience in jungle warfare in Malaya which led Australian High Command and consequently their junior officers and senior NCOs, to adopt similar tactics (small size patrols) in Vietnam. Whilst patrol tactics using stealth compared favourably with those used by U.S. forces, it assumed the enemy would be in small 3-5 man patrols, ill-equipped and be operating largely unsupported by locals and the regular NVA troops. It was a policy based on false premise and fraught with misconceptions about both the enemy and the civilian population. It proved to be a dangerously inappropriate policy and it exacerbated the difficulties already facing the troops.
For example, in Vietnam, contrary to initial advice, it is now widely recognised that the main enemy forces at the time were not foreign invaders operating without widespread support from local civilians. Indeed, in fact, many had been recruited from surrounding villages. Even when NVA or main force VC came into one province from another, or from over the Cambodian border, or by sea, they were not regarded as foreigners since they were still Vietnamese. This was in stark contrast to the Malayan/Borneo situations where the guerrillas, patrolling in small units, were either dissident ethnic nationals (in the 1950’s) or Indonesians (in the 1960’s), without widespread local support. Furthermore, British, Australian, Kiwi and Gurkha troops there at that time were not considered foreign invaders by the ‘Malaysians’, since their presence was part of long standing agreements between the governments involved. This was not the case in Vietnam.
Australian troops (advisers, 1RAR and their support units) had been operating in various parts of South Vietnam between 1962-66, but as sub-units of ARVN or U.S. forces. The pioneering troops at Nui Dat (namely 5RAR, 6RAR and their support units) as well as being on their own, were faced with extra burdens. They had been sent into the centre of this coastal VC dominated province (roughly 60 by 40 kilometres in area), to set up the base camp, with inferior equipment and sub-standard weaponry. The Owen gun had been effective and reliable in New Guinea and in Malaya and Borneo at close quarter. However, in these new conditions, where initial contact was often beyond 50 metres (within open rubber tree or banana plantations or across exposed rice paddies) this weapon proved to be unsuitable with respect to ‘punch’. This was evidenced in all early operations up to and including Long Tan, when on numerous occasions, some VC who were shot at (using Owen guns) beyond 50 metres, were seen to be knocked down, get up and run off into the jungle with no apparent serious injuries. Only after the Battle of Long Tan (18 August, 1966) was the Owen finally replaced by the M.16 armalite, which had superior penetration and range.
Added to these initial problems, M.60 machine gun spare parts were in short supply with most units having to ‘make do’ initially. Digging equipment was crude and the old marquees were often rotten, having been ‘hand-me-downs’ from 1RAR who had operated in adjacent Bien Hoa Province to the north the year before. Even basic amenities like floorboards for the 4-man tents, electric lighting and ablution blocks were denied the troops for the first few months. Not surprisingly, when some of the base support troops and ‘high brass’ were first to be supplied with these ‘normal comforts of home’, the friendly contempt traditionally held by the combat troops for these ‘base wallahs’, became somewhat strained.
Meanwhile, our transport ‘choppers’ (‘Hueys’) in those early days, were stationed at Vung Tau, some 30 km away to the south and gunships (‘choppers’ with side-mounted M.60s and rockets and nose-mounted grenade launchers) were in short supply, courtesy of the Americans. Perimeter defences were initially poor since they took time to be constructed and weapon pits had no overhead protection. Furthermore, sand-bagged walls around our tents, proper latrines and metal pre-fab canteens and messes were non-existent. Later units at Nui Dat took all these ‘extras’ for granted.
Patrols were sent out to clear our ‘Tactical Area of Responsibility’ (TAOR), a surrounding zone with a radius of 4-5 km. However, the obsession with the ‘Malaysian’ experience dictated tactics in this initial period. As it was assumed that the enemy would be present only in small, ill-equipped guerrilla bands, our patrols were under-manned (often only 6 or 7 men per section instead of the recommended standard of 9 or 10) and initially (prior to Long Tan) equipped with insufficient ammunition: 60 rounds (3 magazines) for each rifleman and only 300 rounds (3 belts) for each M.60 machine gun. Platoon patrols (down to 25 men or less at times) ventured out several km, distances later considered unsafe unless done in at least company strength of around 100-110 men. Sections of 7-9 men were patrolling alone to zones later considered to require at least platoon strength. Now all this was done in the face of four very important known facts.
Firstly, it was obvious that the enemy forces would have to make some early move on the base before the Australians got established so as to re-assert their control over the province. Up to this point Viet Cong ‘authority’ had largely gone unchallenged to any serious degree, at least outside the major provincial towns. Secondly, the VC needed to avenge the local peasants who had been dislocated from their farms and hamlets because of the Australian proximity (Ap An Phu and Long Phuoc had been totally destroyed and Long Tan evacuated). Thirdly, one of the really significant battles that had taken place early in the war had occurred just 18 months before our arrival (December 1964 - January 1965) at Binh Gia. This was a large village within Phuoc Tuy Province, set up largely by the Catholics who had migrated south from North Vietnam in 1954. It was located just 11 km north of Nui Dat. During that Battle of Binh Gia some 1,800 VC had taken the town and held it for 2 days and had engaged a total of 4,300 ARVN troops. American advisers, helicopters, armour and conventional aircraft had also been involved. The ARVN suffered 461 casualties, the U.S. suffered 16 and the VC a mere 32 confirmed dead. Also, 4 helicopters, 2 APCs and 1 tank were destroyed (see Burstall, 1990).
Fourthly, the ‘hit-and-run then ambush the relief force’ ploy had been a well-known tactic used frequently and successfully by the VC and their predecessors, the Viet Minh. It had helped bring about the defeat of the French one decade before. I vividly recall its significance being instilled into us during our training in Australia. Again it had been put into practice to great effect at Binh Gia. Coincidentally, 18 months later (August, 1966) some 1,800-2,000 enemy headed for the Australian base, defended by far less than 4,300 men (approximately only 2,000-2,500 men in fact).
So here we were, poorly defended and ill-equipped, in hostile territory, sending out small patrols waiting for the inevitable. Just how well informed/competent were our ‘high brass’? Either they were aware of the dangers and ignored them or they were ignorant of the recent history of the area and therefore, on that basis alone, could not some of them be fairly judged as having been incompetent for the task at hand? Plenty of sound historical literature was available at the time for those in command to peruse. These included respected works by Bernard Fall (Street Without Joy) and Roger Trinquier (Modern Warfare), all clearly detailing mistakes made by the French in Indochina in their doomed attempts to counter guerrilla tactics. What the hell was on the Duntroon History curriculum?
Whilst the political responsibility of ‘high brass’ was to restore control of the province to the South Vietnamese Government, their prime responsibility should have been to maintain maximum safety for all the troops under their command. One could logically come to the conclusion that some degree of irresponsibility was displayed by some members of High Command during those early days at Nui Dat. Can I hear a few howls of indignation? Military ‘histories’ and commentaries on the Internet and in such magazines as Duty First abound with self-serving affirmations of ‘good practice’ and denials of the existence of incompetence and ‘stuff-ups’. So ... what else is new? At such outbursts I’m readily reminded of that line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “[they] doth protest too much, methinks!”
In addition to their task of patrolling the jungles, rice paddies and mountains and searching villages around Phuoc Tuy Province, the ‘pioneer’ (in the sense of ‘first’) combat troops were required to both construct and defend their base camp, on the few occasions during which they were back there. They had little respite from all these duties. Initially, after 6 odd weeks, all troops, in turn, were allotted an 8-hour daytime leave pass to the main beach at Vung Tau, 30 km to the south. This was followed later by 3 days R and C leave (Rest and Convalescence) in Vung Tau proper. Also, they were each given one lot of 5 days R and R leave (Rest and Recreation) in either Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, or Singapore (a total of 9 days in the year). At that stage there was no option to take R and R in Australia. A governmental inquiry 2 years later found that that amount of leave was totally inadequate for troops under such stress and consequently the leave entitlements were increased significantly and extended to Australia. However, the early troops (those before 1968) missed out.
Australian troops served in a variety of areas during the Vietnam War (in towns and cities, on strategic air bases, at Special Forces camps, in Bien Hoa and on navy ships) but the vast majority (over 80% of the 50,000) served in Phuoc Tuy Province, based at Nui Dat. This book then is largely a reflection of their story. Nevertheless, I have included poetic tributes to those who participated in other war zone areas throughout South Vietnam.
The Vietnamese people have endured the ravages of war for ages, particularly during the middle decades of the Twentieth Century. It is to them, along with all those who fought, died or suffered in Vietnam, and to the tragic and neglected relatives of the dead, that I also dedicate this book.