Hardest to Call
During the Vietnam War, many of the battles in which they fought resulted in clear-cut victories to the Australian troops (Long Tan in 1966, Coral and Balmoral in 1968, Binh Ba in 1969). However, contrary to popular belief, clear-cut victory was not always the case.
The two opposing sides in Phuoc Tuy operated in complete contrast to each other in many respects. The Australians fought from either a defined base camp or a temporary fire support base, each well protected with men and armaments and surrounded by barbed wire and mines. They patrolled from there (to seek out the enemy), well-equipped, using high tech rifles and machine guns, grenade launchers, grenades and claymore mines. They were supported by mortars, fixed and mobile artillery, APCs (and tanks after late 1967), helicopter transports and gunships, Chinooks, bomber planes and a variety of other vehicles. The troops in camp were relatively well fed and enjoyed a ‘reasonable level’ of comfort (at least after the initial stages), considering the circumstances.
The Viet Cong on the other hand had no artillery or armour or air support. They countered these severe disadvantages by being locals or nationals more familiar with the terrain, using the night, jungle, caves and tunnel hides and by adopting a range of counter tactics such as ‘hit and run’ (if out-numbered) or ‘hugging the belt’ to reduce the effects from artillery and air power. They made extensive use of booby-traps and mines and were adept at living off the land. Psychologically, they had time on their side, an almost unlimited supply of recruits and, since it was their homeland, enjoyed local rural support.
Strategists (e.g. Robert Thompson of the ‘Malayan Emergency’ fame, 1948-60) have stated that in a guerrilla war then, firstly the hearts and minds of the locals must be won over. Secondly, a minimum 10:1 ratio of troop numbers and battle casualties in favour of the anti-guerrilla force (Australia in this case) was essential in order to achieve dominance and to then claim victory. Yet, in reality, this goal was not always achieved by the Australians. To suggest otherwise (though popular in some quarters) is just simply wrong.
♪♪ One by one ... I see the old ghosts risin’ …
Stumblin’ across ‘Big Muddy’ ... when the light gets dim …
And day after day ... another muma’s cryin’ …
She’s lost her precious child ... to a war that has no end!
Did ya hear ‘em talk about it … on the radio?
Did ya stop to read the writing ... on The Wall?
Did that voice inside ya say: ‘I’ve heard it all before!’
It’s like déjà vu ... all over again. ♪♪
- from the song Déjà Vu (All Over Again) by John Fogerty, 2008.
Corporal Bill 'Sharpie' Drennan of 4 Platoon B Company 5 RAR, packing up the gear belonging to those Australians killed and wounded on Long Hai - February 21, 1967. - (Author's collection)
Hardest to Call
Battles were won at Binh Ba,
And of course up in Bien Hoa,
Also in the ‘rubber’ at Long Tan;
Yet there were others you see,
Fought throughout most of Phuoc Tuy,
Where the enemy died man for man.
Still, some claim we lost none!
Every battle we fought, we had won!
Repeated each April, 25th;
Yet 10:1, even more,
Against guerrillas in war,
Is the benchmark, so the claim ’tis a myth.
An attack on Phuoc Hai,
Had led to that trap near Hoi My,
Yet, the tactics have rarely been questioned;
History books fail to state,
That losing eight lives for eight,
’Twas no victory, yet this isn’t mentioned.
And now the hamlet Suoi Nghe,
Located in central Phuoc Tuy,
’Twas another ‘battle’ we lost;
At the Commander’s behest,
Who, for locals, knew what was best,
Caused a disaster, in light of the cost.
Nearly nine hundred or more,
Re-located almost next door,
To the Task Force base at ‘The Dat’;
From Xa Bang homes they were taken,
Ancestral farms and gravesites forsaken,
Seems ‘high brass’ never pondered on that.
Western huts built in rows,
On soil where jungle alone grows,
Yet ‘fertile ground’ for recruits prevailed;
Deep resentment the cost,
Battle for ‘hearts and minds’ clearly lost,
The experiment miserably failed.
At Suoi Chau Pha, six would die,
More in Ho Bo Woods and Long Hai,
Claims of success, make little sense!
And later Nui Le there would be,
And of course tragically,
There was the minefield, we called ‘The Fence’!
’Tis not a slur on the men,
Those ‘cannon fodder’ back then,
Since at Gallipoli, troops too gave their all;
Yet the claims that aren’t right,
Penned by hawkish leaders who write,
Suggest truth is the hardest to call.