W3 Company - Service Stories
index of service stories
2RAR First Battle and Casualty - Bill Blair
2RAR officially relieved 6RAR and assumed the title 'The ANZAC Battalion' for the 2nd time on 15 May 1970. During the transition period W3 Coy was deployed initially on Long Son Island and then on 15 May the Company minus 2 Platoon moved back to the mainland for OP Ashfield. On 16 May W3 provided 2RAR with their first contact when a 1 Platoon sentry fired on and wounded an approaching VC who fled leaving a blood trail [the body was found six days later by another W3 patrol]. On 22 May 1 Platoon was to provide 2RAR with their first casualty during a 1 Platoon assault on a large group of VC .
Mid-afternoon 22 May 1970 1 Platoon was moving slowly towards the Nui Thi Vai hills. We had been working through the flatter coastal plain but the ground had begun to rise as we encountered the foothills of these mountain features. Tension levels had also begun to rise. It’s always dangerous when changing terrain from the flat to the hills; these areas seem to be a favourite camping and movement area for the Viet Cong. That also meant a heightened risk from an enemy contact or mines. We had made steady progress throughout the day but time was getting on and I was beginning to consider picking a spot for the evening harbour. Before I did that though I always liked to have a solid navigation fix. As was our custom I halted the platoon every half hour to sort out a map check. It was during one of these halts that I decided on a short reconnaissance. My normal procedure was to consult with the lead section commander and the mortar fire controller (MFC) and agree on a spot. This time there was more than the normal difference of opinion so I decided to push forward while the platoon had a rest and check the direction ahead for about 50 metres. It was a little dangerous to separate from the platoon but after carefully briefing the sentries I set out with two scouts. According to my reckoning we should have come across a small stream flowing from our right to our left. We had moved away from the platoon about 50 metres which was the distance beyond which I would feel uncomfortable. To my relief I picked up the scouts signal for flowing water, a slight ripple of the left hand. We paused as I had a quick glance at my map before intending to head back to the safety of the platoon. It was during this quiet moment when we were quite still that we picked the faint murmur of voices. The scouts and I exchanged a look. The area of the province we were working in was what was called a “free-fire zone" and that meant there should be no one friendly in it except us. If there was someone else they were almost certainly enemy soldiers. We listened some more and it was definitely human voices and what’s more they were Asian voices. I estimated the voices to be 50 to 60 metres away and further up the sloping ground. We were at the base of what seemed to be the start of a steeper hillside. Very slowly we eased our way back from the stream, moving carefully back towards the platoon location. When we spotted our platoon sentry I gave the enemy signal; thumbs down, which meant ‘the enemy is here’. This signal is never given unless you are sure because it scares the daylights out of the men. A signal of alternating thumb up and thumb down means possible enemy in vicinity and that signal will generate caution. The “thumbs down” signal electrifies the platoon and fingers will move to safety catches throughout the column.
I summoned the section commanders and the platoon sergeant and we hastily considered our options. It was mid-afternoon and if we were to attack we did not have a lot of time left before the tropical darkness descended sharply around 6:30PM. The VC were extremely elusive and remaining close by and undetected would be difficult if I contemplated some option for the following day. I decided to assault the position. After careful and deliberate orders I formed the platoon into a triangle formation with the base towards the suspected enemy position. I positioned my headquarters just behind this baseline and the sergeant’s party to the rear by the apex of the triangle. This was a formation secure from an attack from any angle. We were not sure of what we were getting ourselves into. I allowed the MFC to silently register a target 1000 metres out that he could call that in as soon as it was required. We were finally ready. I recall my heart thumping and my mouth going dry and tacky, I guess we all felt a bit the same. Ever so slowly with great care we eased ourselves forward by what we called “pepper-potting”. This involved one soldier at a time moving a few metres forward and his buddy then joining him. My plan involved getting as close to the enemy group as we could before opening fire. If they saw us first and fired we would be in a position to retaliate immediately and in volume. We would also have the advantage of being flat on the deck and in a good position to return meaningful fire. Also, we would be in a formation that no matter where the fire came from we should be able to respond in any direction. We had discussed and practised this technique several times during our work-up training. We made slow but steady progress. It was difficult to move the gun teams because of their larger weapons and belts of ammo that could rattle and clatter. To their credit they did very well.
I knew this progress couldn’t last and sure enough we came across their sentry. She was crouching by the stream and seemed to be drinking or washing. Inevitably she looked up and saw us as we were only 10 metres away. As she reached for her weapon she was shot. Then all hell seemed to break loose. Both of the machine guns in the base line section opened up and they were joined by other individual weapons. I doubt very much whether any soldier on either side could see each other but this was a fire fight and it was important to win it. I nodded to the MFC and he knew what to do and began calling for fire support. We were moving forward but keeping as flat as possible because enemy fire was growing in volume and cracking overhead. I saw half of a radio aerial disappear somewhere. Two of my soldiers on the right flank had crawled forward for a better position when they were horrified to come across a claymore mine facing directly towards them at a distance of about two metres. They couldn’t move back and down quickly enough but fortunately for them it was never triggered. Pte Bill Teller was somewhere to my left but between us there was a gap in cover. We later realised it was an enemy fire lane cleared for the prime purpose to allow the enemy to detect movement and direct their weapons. There was a tremendous flash and bang between us and Bill Teller disappeared backwards in a cloud of smoke and debris. Further fire slashed down the fire lane and it was only quelled after we poured fire back in the direction it was coming from. Pte Teller appeared out of the dust and he looked terrible. He seemed to have blood all over his face and arms. It turned out that the flash and explosion was caused by an enemy rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hitting a tree trunk between us but closer to Bill who copped a fair bit of blast but nothing too serious. He was a tough fellow and carried on with the fight despite being in considerable pain. I called to him to get under cover and we would help him as soon as we could but right then we couldn’t cross the fire lane.
LCpl Bill Teller 1970 [Gundersen]
By this time the MFC had got not only the mortars down to ‘danger close’ but he had organised 105mm howitzer support into the chaos. The indirect fire weapons were impacting up the slope beyond what appeared to be a major enemy camp site. I was aware that if we were on the fringe of a fully fledged bunker system it was going to require a major effort to push through. For the moment my concern was for the platoon and I was not clear on just who had been hurt and who was OK. After a lot of shouting and checking it seemed that only Pte Teller had been on the receiving end of enemy shrapnel. While he was still on his feet he would not remain so for much longer and needed evacuation before nightfall. In the meantime he kept active pointing out to others the enemy position at the top of the fire lane and firing his weapon in support of the movement of his section up the hill.
The soldiers meanwhile had fought their way over and into the boundaries of the camp. They were reporting a cessation in enemy fire and the few enemy that had been sighted were scrambling to escape both from our fire and the indirect fire from the mortars and guns. An initial and cursory search revealed hastily abandoned equipment including weapons, mines, caches of food and medicines, there was even food still cooking over rudimentary oven fires. It would seem as if we had stumbled upon a temporary camp-site for about 20 or more people, and while there was no evidence of dug in bunkers they had prepared fire lanes, claymores, shelters, caches, firing positions, even IED making equipment (some finished, some still half done). There was also the odd splatter of blood and fresh bandages but no sign of any other enemy casualties besides the hapless sentry.
The enemy seemed to have had an efficient escape plan and their initial bursts of fire must have covered their movement out of the camp. Luckily for us their firing was high and over our heads since they were firing from uphill. The fight had lasted almost until dark, which would have been about an hour. To search the camp thoroughly would take an entire day and we would need Field Engineer support. Meanwhile the problem of extracting Pte Teller was now my priority. We backed off a few hundred metres to a small clearing and arranged for the “Dustoff” helicopter to pick Bill up as soon as possible. As usual Company Headquarters had anticipated our problems and had all we needed standing by.
Lt Blair was also awarded a “Mentioned in Dispatches (MID) ” gallantry award for aggressively fighting 1 Platoon into the camp and organising indirect fire to cut off the VC escape routes. Lt Blair's full citation is here
Bill Blair later wrote a précis of his thoughts and experiences commanding a rifle platoon on active service in South Vietnam. A copy of his précis is here.
B-52 Strike on the Long Hai Mountains – Bruce Young
I was a spectator to a B-52 heavy bomber strike on the Lang Phuoc Hai Mountains [the diggers called them the Long Hai's] nine kilometres south of the Horseshoe position early one morning just after W3 Coy occupied the Horseshoe. 8RAR had been operating in the Long Hai Mountains [Op Hammersley] since 10 February with the task of dominating the Minh Dam Secret Zone [MDSZ], home to the VC D445 Battalion and other VC base installations. On the evening W3 Coy mortars arrived [14 February] we had watched from a distance a major battle between 9Pl 8RAR [with tanks] and D445; the battle persisted until 2015 hours during which the Australian tanks used searchlights to illuminate and engage targets. Over the next few days 8RAR fought its way against sustained resistance into the MDSZ but on 18 February were ordered to withdraw a safe distance out of the mountains so that a B-52 strategic bombing mission could strike the area. The strike occurred early hours 21 February.
From the way the bombs were observed to fall it is likely that there were three aircraft in the strike with a mixed load of ordnance. The B-52 bombed from very high altitude using radar to find the target area, and three aircraft would often fly together and simultaneously release their ordnance to better saturate the target area [some describe it as ‘carpet bombing’]. Their typical load of 'dumb' high explosive bombs was 84 500lb bombs internally and 24 500lb bombs on the wing pylons [108 bombs total] or 41 750lb bombs, or a combination of 500lb bombs internally and 750lb bombs on the wing pylons, for a total payload of around 30 tons per plane. The Viet Cong called the planes ‘Whispering Death’ because the planes flew so high that the bombs were striking the target before the plane engines were first heard. The enormous shock wave caused by the explosions would crush bunkers and tunnel systems.
B-52 variant with a demonstration of the payload possible [internet]
W3 Coy was not apparently advised about the strike in advance but I was on radio watch [stag] enjoying the US American Forces Vietnam Network [AFVN] hour of country music from 5AM. The routine was to relay the music and any radio calls via the section tannoy system while sprawled outside on the CP roof enjoying the cool air. The CP had a very well protected sandbag roof and openings under the roof were covered over with clear plastic. I lay in the pre-dawn darkness with my head against the tannoy pole, looking south at the dark mass of the Long Hai’s. Without warning row after row of large lights [750lb explosions] started to march left to right along the sprawl of the mountains. When the large lights were about two third's the way along a multitude of smaller lights [500lb explosions] started behind them and quickly caught up. After perhaps 40-seconds of the light show the shock wave from 90 tons of explosives arrived like a powerful earthquake that shook structures around the Horseshoe. The mortar CP roof moved abruptly and the plastic ‘windows’ whipped in and out. I remember I grabbed the tannoy pole and yelled to others in the section to get outside and see the show. It was a truly awesome experience and I wondered at the impact it had on the 8RAR soldiers even closer to it, and of course the VC under it. As the shock wave subsided the bombers could finally be heard high above heading back to their base on Guam.
Mortar section command post - Horseshoe 1970 [Young]
8RAR went back into the MDSZ on 21 February and while D445 had used the opportunity of the earlier withdrawal to vacate the area the Australians found and destroyed numerous bunker systems and caches while contending with mine booby traps. In the worst incident, on February 28, two exploding M16 mines killed nine soldiers and wounded 15 on what came to be known as "Black Saturday". In all 8RAR and supporting elements lost 11 killed and 59 wounded, the VC lost between 42 [bodycount] and over 100 [intelligence] with around 75 VC weapons recovered.
In 1980 I had a close-up look at the B-52 bomber while overnighting at a USAF SAC base in California. As we were boarding our RNZAF C-130 Hercules a number of these huge 8-engined bombers taxied past before lifting off into the Los Angeles smog - I was happy they were on our side..!
CONTACT CONTACT WAIT OUT! - Gary Brooker [with permission]
The day, the eighth. The month, February. The year, 1970. The place, South Vietnam. We had walked miles, the hot tropic sun beating on our aching backs, the glare causing us to squint through narrowed eyes. The fine dust from the road mixes with the sweat, turning our faces, clothes and rifles to the same brick red colour as the road, indeed the same colour as the whole country. ‘The dry’ in South Vietnam is in full swing. It has rained once in the last three months and isn’t likely to rain more than once in the next three.
Occasionally a pack is shrugged on someone’s back, to shift the load slightly, packs which seem to weigh a ton and get heavier with every step. In these packs is a soldiers second home, a bush home if you like, tents, mosquito nets, bedding, food, water and the equipment used in war. If it isn’t in the pack, it is strapped to his web-belt, about his waist, but wherever the ‘gear’ is hung it will drag on hardened muscles. On we plod, the dust rushing silently and steadily round us. The signal is passed back, ten minutes smoke. Gratefully we throw our packs on the ground, making the most of the available shade, and dig into soaking pockets for a cigarette. I drag one from the plastic container and touch a match to it, then reach for my half full water bottle; bad policy to drink during the heat of the day, one drinks too much, better to wait for the evening when we aren’t sweating so much. I sip slowly and carefully, just enough to moisten my parched mouth and throat. It would be so easy to empty the bottle in one or two mouthfuls, half a dozen swallows.
Man, that was some hike we had since the last ‘smoke’ stop, about two thousand yards I reckon. It’s a lot slower moving through the jungle but at least there is shade. The signal comes back, --- ‘pack on’. We move back into the sun on the road and start to march again. Not a march one would see on a parade ground, but a swinging, steady walk. Thirty men, dirty, sweat-stained, tired, straining slightly forward against their loads. In spite of the heat, dust and the heavy packs, each man watches,--alert to his side of the road. Not the nervous glances of new soldiers, but the firm steady sweeping of battle experienced men, searching and probing the likely enemy hiding places, noting the little scrapes, hollows, stumps and rocks nearby that could be used for cover if fired upon.
We move another thousand metres along the road: --- I don’t like roads or tracks, too easy to get ambushed or perhaps stand on a mine. The patrol stops, then moves off again, to the left, into the jungle. During the stop the patrol commander had moved up to the front of the patrol and checked his map against the landmarks the lead scout had found, making sure it was the correct turn-off point. Good jungle this, very little undergrowth, plenty of shade. Here the trees haven’t been torn and twisted by the shells and bombs, nor have they had the top leaves destroyed by the powerful defoliating chemicals which leave beautiful trees nothing but gaunt skeletons of war, their branches, reaching to heavens like the gnarled fingers of a decrepit beggar. None of this here, this part of the country is almost pretty.
About a hundred yards from the road we discover an old disused Viet Cong trench, running for several hundred yards through the trees. We stop here and move into formation that offers us the best defence, then have another smoke stop while our command element consult maps and compasses till all are agreed on the location. I dampen my mouth again with precious water. Once again the signal is passed, --- packs, --- the scout is given a direction and we move again. Away from the road this time, deeper into the jungle. Thirty men like a long snake wind in and out through the trees on a path made by the lead scout. Thirty men, five yards or more between each man, a hundred and fifty yard long snake. More deadly, more vicious, but just as slow to warn and quick to strike as a cobra, if aroused.
The lead scout comes across a ‘hot’ track and his section commander starts to pass word back along the long line of men to be even more alert as they are on a well used Viet Cong trail. At the same time the Tail-end Charlie of the second section turned to the sergeant, who was following him, and reported hearing noise in the heavy bush to his left rear. After they listen and discuss this in soft whispers they decide it is most likely the tail end of the patrol as it curves through the jungle.
‘BANG!’ Every man in that patrol freezes. Silence! The seconds tick by. Some-one mutters, '‘AD' (accidental discharge). Nobody seemed even sure where the shot had come from. Suddenly the silence is shattered as two automatic weapons chatter a deadly chorus. One is the light ‘Armalite’ automatic rifle, the other the heavier, belt-fed ‘M60’ machine gun. The radio operators punch their handset switches and shout above the noise. ‘Contact! Contact! Contact! Wait out!' These few words have alerted everybody on their radio net that this patrol is in battle with an unknown number of enemy. Miles away field guns are made ready, their crews waiting for directions and orders.
watching his arc for movement during contact [Philip]
As soon as those first shots rang out the jungle at the rear of the platoon seems to be full of running, shouting figures, all shooting blind into the jungle. Soon the entire rear half of the patrol is lying on or near the track firing a steady stream of hot lead into the bush. The machine gun of the rear section has stopped, --- jammed--- the section commander yells, ‘Get that bloody gun goin’!” A minute later the weapon bursts savagely into life. The section commander of the second section has a grenade launcher and starts firing the small bombs, not in the conventional manner, where the weapon is used like a rifle, instead he uses it like a mortar, so the bomb went up on a slight angle, then straight down through the trees. this was to delay and harass the enemy’s withdrawal. Further away the heavy shells from the field guns start laying down a pattern of hot steel across the enemy’s escape route, directed by the ‘FOO.’ (arty forward observer) who travels with the platoon. Now the heavy shells have started landing, the enemy is, we hope, sandwiched between them and the advancing soldiers.
As I run past the soldier who initiated contact I find him shaking his head in disbelief and muttering, “E said gidday to me, ‘e just walked outa the bush and started talking to me!”
'Bang!' "Body here!” someone shouts through the undergrowth. A minute or two passes then another call, “Body to my front!” “Make sure it is a body, “the sergeant replies, “we don’t want him coming to life behind us. “ The soldiers clad in jungle green still move forward, their mouths dry, the hands and faces sticky with sweat. It looks as though the ‘Kiwis’ may have won this battle, but although each man may be thinking this, not one of them lowers his guard or relaxes. “Blood trail to my front, going straight ahead“ calls a soldier. Any evidence of satisfaction, that may have been starting to show in the strained faces of the searching soldiers quickly disappear, as three of the same company had been wounded when fired upon after following a blood trail which led to a wounded Viet Cong who was waiting in ambush, just a few days previously.
The shooting thickens again, and the soldiers search the ground for every available piece of cover before they move. Without warning three shots ring out as two soldiers spot a movement simultaneously. Again the shout, “Body here!” As the sergeant stops to inspect this body on his way past it, he finds the enemy is still alive. Locating the wounds, the sergeant, expertly, and with the same care he would use on one of his own men applies a field dressing to stop the patient bleeding to death. Even as he is doing this the sergeant is still shouting orders to the sweeping soldiers. Try as he might, the sergeant’s efforts are futile and a few minutes later, this Viet Cong joined the others. The sweep is stopped, as any other enemy would either be miles away by now, or else lying in a carefully prepared ambush. The bodies of the enemy dead must now be checked for ‘booby traps’ and ‘pin-pulled’ grenades, then searched for documents, papers, and concealed weapons. The amount of food and water each man was carrying must be carefully noted then destroyed. To send this information by radio a special order of codes is used, called a contact report.
While the contact report is being transmitted, several soldiers start burying the dead Viet Cong in graves where they had fallen. The remainder of the troops surrounding them, prepared in the event of the enemy counter attacking. The food, clothing and equipment that is not required by intelligence is destroyed by bayonet and scattering. Word comes back over the radio for the captured papers and weapons to be taken back to the road where we turned off earlier that day, and a helicopter will collect them. The soldiers who had been on the sweep with the sergeant collected the required items and moved off. The other half of the platoon, with the officer, set up an ambush on the ‘hot’ track that was reported half an hour earlier.