Author on top of Nui Dat - a toast to all those who died on Wolverton Mountain - January 1995.
Nui Thi Vai was (is) one of the tallest (approx. 500 metres) mounts in the ‘Wolverton Mountain’ massif, located in what was known then in 1966 as Phuoc Tuy Province. In May 1966 the first Australian troops containing conscripted soldiers had arrived in Vietnam. The war was not only controversial back in Australia but the conscription issue had also bitterly divided the nation. Any deaths to the newly arrived Australian contingent (5RAR and 6RAR and their support troops) were always going to create added fuel for the explosive political storm that would eventually topple the Liberal/Country Party Coalition Government. On the first day of battle, one conscript, Errol Noack, had been killed. Ten weeks later, 18 young Australians were killed at the Battle of Long Tan (18 August, 1966) just outside the Australian base camp of Nui Dat. The government back home was gearing up for re-election in early November and the campaign to achieve that end was in full swing during October 1966. The Australian death toll for the war had just reached 75.
In the first week of October 1966, the Fifth Battalion (the ‘Tigers’) was tasked with clearing the rugged massif ‘Wolverton Mountain’, located 10 km west of their base camp. Just six weeks had passed since the world-wide publicity from the Long Tan battle and the accompanying political flak arising from the 18 Australian deaths, 11 of whom were conscripts. So the government was keen to put a lid on any more significant Australian ‘body counts’ at this crucial time. Thus, when B Company 5RAR had the NVA surrounded up there, high in the steamy rain forests of Nui Thi Vai, panic set in amongst the ‘High Brass’ located in Saigon. What if there were more than the estimated company of NVA troops and the battle ended in a fiasco? To them, withdrawal and aerial bombardment would be a much safer (political) option! Little regard was given to the real possibility of (a) an erosion of the morale of Australian troops, who had laboured so long and hard in getting into such a strategic position, to inflict a telling defeat on their elusive enemy and (b) on the likelihood of any NVA escaping, which could lead to further Australian deaths at a later date. In 1992, the Commanding Officer of the Fifth Battalion at the time (Lt. Colonel John Warr) attended an Anzac Day re-union. He confided in this author and several other members of B Company, that his decision to obey that order from Saigon, was one of the greatest regrets of his long military career.
It is time to correct a misnomer, which with time has become mythical and found its way into historical texts. In May 1966 the ‘Tigers’, arriving in waves of choppers, landed amongst the rubber trees surrounding Nui Dat (No.1). The province of Phuoc Tuy, some 100 odd km SE on the coast from Saigon, was topographically flat, in general, save for the isolated hills such as Nui Dat (1) itself and the larger massifs on the border with Binh Tuy and Long Khanh. Also, intermediate-sized rugged mounts existed in the south near Long Hai and to the west near Baria and at Vung Tau on the southern peninsula and on Long Son Island in the Rung Sat mangroves. Nui Nghe stood just 5 km NW of the base and Nui Dat (2) just 5 km to the east. The most dominating massif on the horizon was that located some 10 km west of Nui Dat (1). It was dark and foreboding in appearance, changing through all sorts of hues from dawn until dusk. Geologically, it was igneous in origin, a remnant intrusion from millions of years ago. Geographically, it was made up of several separate mounts with official names such as: Nui Dinh, Nui Ong Trinh, Nui Toc Tien, Nui Ong Cau and Nui Thi Vai. The latter two were the tallest, reaching 500 metres above the surrounding jungle and rice fields. This group of individual mounts, with their rugged peaks, appeared from the distant surrounds to be as if one entity, entirely covered in dense rain forests and cut by numerous deep ravines. These provided excellent hides for the Viet Cong. The overall base of the massif on a map, or viewed from the air, had a roughly circular dimension with a diameter of about 10 kilometres. It was this apparent ‘singular’ massif which earned the name ‘Wolverton Mountain’, given to it by the troops immediately upon their arrival. The name originated from one of the most popular Country and Western hit songs of the time, with the same title, sung by Claude King. The haunting words of the song (see over) immediately sprang to each soldier’s mind whenever he was drawn to glance westwards, or tasked to patrol it.
As new units came to Nui Dat to replace the ‘Tigers’ over the following years, they brought with them their own influences and parochial views. Some Victorians apparently (judging on later references, post 1967) began referring to ‘Wolverton Mountain’ as ‘The Warburton Mountains’ or simply ‘The Warbies’ after that mountain range in their home state. A few others have even suggested that the name originated from that of a ‘Tiger’ (from D Coy 5RAR) named Graham Warburton, who was killed in action in October 1966. Whilst that may have been a plausible genesis for the ‘tag’ by 100 odd members of Delta Company, it was not the case for the remaining members (4,500) of the Task Force, most of whom were unaware of such a character (fine man though he no doubt was) until years after his death. With the odd exception, there was very little, if indeed any at all, fraternisation between members of different companies (except between the minority of higher ranks who had no influence over the men’s choice of ‘tag’ names anyway). So, it is most unlikely that members of A, B, C, Support, and Admin Companies, along with BHQ, Task Force HQ, Engineers, SAS, Artillery, Armoured, Air Crew and all of 6 RAR would adopt a name for the mountain after a soldier in D Company 5RAR of whose existence they were unaware. ‘Myths indeed mushroom well, given time and sentiment’.
I note with some amazement, that this myth continues unabated, with stubborn determination, on some websites.
[Verse 1:] ♪♪ They say don’t go ... on Wolverton Mountain …
If you’re looking ... for a wife …
'Cause Clifton Clowers ... has a pretty young daughter ...
And he’s mighty handy ... with a gun and a knife! ♪♪
[Chorus:] ♪♪ Her tender lips ... are sweeter than hon-ey …
And Wolverton Mountain ... protects her there …
The bears and the birds ... tell Clifton Clowers …
If a stranger ... should wander there! ♪♪
- from the C&W song: Wolverton Mountain by Claude King, 1963 .
“It’s headlines they’re worried about, not casualties!” said a visiting officer.
His starched ironed uniform and gleaming boots suggested he was from Saigon. “They’re not concerned with casualty totals in the long run. They just don’t want
20 or so in the one hit ... that makes headlines [that are] politically damaging!”
- Major Graham Walker in Memories of Vietnam, 1992 9, Ed. K. Maddock).
From Nui Dat facing west,
Some ten odd miles you could see,
Abrupt purple range on the plain,
Eerie and foreboding, to me.
Five hundred metres, highest peak,
Rainforests hiding trails;
Jagged, like ‘The Warrumbungles’,
Back at home, in New South Wales.
♪♪ Don’t go … on Wolverton Mountain! ♪♪
Played on some radiogram;
Good advice, though unheeded,
Sung on ‘GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM’.
Well-worn tracks, from off the plains,
With old and fresh painted signs;
Skull and crossbones on trees trunks,
Indicated ‘boobies’ or mines.
Up near the summit, a pagoda,
Monastic old monks lived alone,
Sympathetic to the VC,
Providing a safe conduct zone.
Anti-Buddhist regime in Saigon,
Violent street protests at laws;
Medical aid, food and shelter,
Supporting Cong in their cause.
These rugged hills, quite strategic,
Located in central Phuoc Tuy;
Junctions linking north-south trails,
From out west, then east to the sea.
Up there, one could see for miles,
Beyond Binh Ba and Long Hai;
Up there on Wolverton Mountain,
Known as Nui Thi Vai.
* * *
Reports from several sources,
Suggested a camp, perhaps a base;
Two Diggers killed by mortars, Three months prior, near this place.
Crawling up spurs, along ridges,
Scout leading, in single file;
Humid and slippery, slow going,
About three hours each mile.
Moss-covered rocks, thorny vines,
Giant ferns hung in festoons;
Laden down with 5 days’ supplies,
Along sheer cliffs, clung platoons.
A sudden volley, hitting boulders,
With lead zinging all around;
Snipers firing down from a ledge,
Forcing this patrol to the ground.
Support Company advanced,
Private D’ Antoine cut down,
Near the entrance to a cavern,
A deadly ricochet round.
Womal lay dying from neck wounds,
Still cover-firing each mate,
Directing his section to safety,
Yet, his own ‘Dust-off’ too late.
Search ‘n’ destroy, ’twas their mission,
I guess that’s what they did,
Leaving that pagoda, like a scene,
Out of the movie ‘El Cid’.
Escaping our artillery,
Snipers moved further up high;
‘Wolverton Mountain’, their backyard,
Known as Nui Thi Vai.
* * *
Now, Route 15, wound out west,
Via Baria, to Saigon;
Secured by ‘Tigers’, 20 K’s,
From those marauding Vi-et Cong.
Meanwhile, brash Yanks rode their convoys,
To Bien Hoa from Vung Tau;
Yelling: “Hi guys! ... We’re A-mer-icans!
God bless yo’ all now!” ... then ... “Ciao !”
So Bravo saddled-up, left this highway,
Crossed a vast, putrid marsh;
Wading muddy, stagnant waters,
Dwarfed and hidden, through elephant grass.
Leeches sucking, ‘mossies’ biting,
Strange eerie noises close by;
Holding rifles high overhead,
Keeping them at least dry.
Into the pitch of night, roped tight,
Struggling mile after mile;
A luminous compass, sole aid,
That Asian moon wouldn’t smile.
Quite impressive, that occasion,
His navigational skills;
Major McQualter in charge,
Negotiating swamps, rugged hills.
Spread single file, along a spur,
High on ‘Wolverton’s’ west side,
Just after dawn we crept up on,
A band of enemy in hide.
Camouflaged there, in a saddle,
Canopy, a shield from the sky;
A mix of Viet Cong/NVA,
A base on Nui Thi Vai.
* * *
Bamboo huts, pits and bunkers,
Uniformed troops, well-equipped;
Concealed wires here and there,
Booby traps to be tripped.
Bravo manoeuvred with stealth,
Each ‘Tiger’ prone in disguise;
A platoon block on each side,
A third would assault up that rise.
“Fix bayonets!” ’twas whispered,
Chilling sound for the lead;
Around sixty soon to feel,
Cold steel from this deed.
Command to: “CHARGE!”, then withdrawn,
‘High Brass’ interference, the source;
A radio message from Saigon,
Reasons offered? … None of course!
Political flak thus avoided,
‘Lib’ re-election close at hand;
‘Pollies’ in power that October,
Daren’t risk another Long Tan!
All opposition held at bay,
With this ‘doctored’ record,
Casualty count now delayed,
Opinion polls not ignored.
Meanwhile, far below,
Glancing up, from our retreat,
Phantom jets attacking, napalming,
Artillery, gunships and bombers,
As if Zeus still ruled on high;
Destruction of all forms of life,
Up there, on Nui Thi Vai.
* * *
Future sorties to that mountain,
Involved mainly ambush and wait,
With odd VC caught up there,
And alas an odd Aussie mate.
And should you return there, today,
You’ll find the caves still exist;
Old tracks and huge granite boulders,
And even some signs still persist.
Tall trees, tangled vines, lush jungle,
Animals affected the worst;
All disappeared from its surface,
Locals claiming now, it’s been cursed.
Well, that could be so, and it’s true,
People remember those days,
When ‘orange’ agents rained down,
In the form of chemical sprays.
From Nui Dat now, one approaches,
Those rugged peaks, up ahead;
’Tis home only for the spirits,
Of Diggers and VC long dead.
Water-filled craters, scorched earth,
Unburnt solid dollops of napalm;
Such a familiar sight, I suppose,
Across all of Viet Nam.
An old stone ruins, partly stands,
Despite shell-holes in each wall,
Receiving years of bombardment,
On a high mountain, once bald.
Monastic old men, who’ve returned,
Smile and nod, knowing why,
‘Wolverton’s’ still haunted, by old ghosts,
Roaming Nui Thi Vai.