W3 Company - 3Pl Accident 10 October 1970
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Part 4: Events Afternoon 10 October 1970
Accident between Mates. The accident between mates occurred officially at 12.18 PM in an area heavily masked by vegetation and spiky bamboo clumps, approximately 30 metres long by 20 metres wide, about a quarter of a rugby field in size. The weather was fine. Although all parts of 3Pl were basically within 40 metres of each other their professionalism and skill in jungle movement meant that so far there had been no noise or unnecessary movement to alert others to their presence. However as the two elements moved toward each other this changed, with the 2Sect people being the more alert since they were expecting to initiate a contact.
2Sect. After 10-15 minutes when the sweep had advanced no more than 20-30 metres [on a rugby field the distance from the try line to the ‘22’] Pte Kennedy recollects that he and those near him heard muffled talking to their front. Pte Kennedy lay down and looked forward under the vegetation to where he caught a fleeting glimpse of what appeared to be boots, in appearance like the Australian issue also worn by New Zealand troops. Expecting to see VC where he was looking he was surprised that they might be wearing combat boots. He did not associate the boots with 3Pl as he believed [as others did] that the remainder of 3Pl were still out to the right of their advance. Pte Kennedy had no time to report his observation as contact was initiated at that point.
Immediate Action - Contact Front. The
2Sect movement was interrupted by firing from the centre of the section line. Pte Ure recollects a 4-6 second burst of
fire from the machine gun, Tpr Henderson and Pte Hill both recollect the initiation being by a rifle firing two rounds before
the machine gun fired. After this the entire section initiated a ‘contact front’ drill, taking cover and firing rapidly
within their arcs of responsibility. The initial firing was directed toward the movement of the 3Sect patrol starting to
depart their gun group location about 20 metres away in front of them [on a rugby field the distance from the ‘22’ to the
half-way line]. Given the distance and poor visibility and the expectation of finding VC in this location, this sighting
represented a close contact with unfriendly forces. The response, ‘contact front’, needed to be immediate and in
accordance with hard taught drills and 2Sect reacted instinctively and professionally by engaging the target and surrounding
area with suppressive rifle and machine gun fire while moving to cover. The 2Sect initial fire was accurate and this
reaction would have saved New Zealand lives had they been engaging the VC – those firing were reacting in defence of
themselves and their comrades and no valid criticism can be made of their split-second decision making. In effect 2Sect
were desperately trying to ‘honk first’. Pte Kennedy, considered the best machine gunner in 3Platoon, fired a
burst of 150 or 200 rounds into the target area. Almost immediately 2Sect received return fire from the area of the
contact. Pte Lee broadcast on the W3 Coy internal radio net the standard call when a contact occurred: ‘Contact Wait
Out’. C/s63A also reported ‘in contact’.
[The radio message 'contact wait out' required all other stations to cease communicating so that the element in contact had
unhindered access to request support and report details].
Reaction. Regardless of where they were located, all 3Pl personnel were using their professional skills and instincts to analyse the situation. Given the volume of fire being directed from both elements involved into the ‘contact’ it was likely there would have been more casualties but for the quick response of several soldiers. There was an additional piece of luck when the 2Sect machine gun jammed.
3Pl HQ (-). After replacing the radio battery Sig Salt still had issues with receiving radio traffic, in exasperation he hit the side of the radio a blow with the blade of a machete and was delighted that after this treatment the radio appeared to work properly again. At that moment by the cruellest of coincidences the contact was initiated and small arms fire swept across the position.
3Sect. Cpl Preston was stepping off to follow his lead soldiers when ‘an enormous volume’ of fire swept his section from slightly left of his projected route. 3Sect took cover and some fired back, others were struck by incoming fire. Cpl Preston thought the volume of fire was not typical of the VC and therefore probably friendly so he dropped his M16 rifle on the ground to avoid firing and started yelling for the shooting to stop. Pte Newson heard two rifle shots before a MG started firing a long hard burst that sprayed across the area. He also recognised the machine gun sound was from the heavier M60 model carried by 3Pl and reacted by dropping to the ground and calling out to Pte Taukiri. Both soldiers together then crawled away from the impact area but hearing Pte Kenyon calling out ‘stop your fire, stop your fire’ they also starting yelling out. Pte Dunlea had also dropped to the ground and crawled back to cover behind a small ant hill before he then started to return fire, firing off at least one magazine of twenty 5.56mm M16 rounds. Cpl Preston recollects that the fire in both directions went on for some time; others report it was probably only 6-15 seconds at most. At no time during the short engagement did Cpl Preston or others see any people firing at his section.
1Sect. LCpl Welsh reacted to the sudden burst of fire by ordering Pte Herd to begin engaging the enemy. He recollects the burst of 2Sect machinegun fire cutting down the bamboo above his head.
2Sect. Pte Ure was easing his way forward with the rest of 2Sect when the machine gun to his left started engaging targets to the front. In his recollection no fire order was given, the engagement was a typical ‘contact front’. Pte Ure could not see anything to fire at but fired several rounds into his arc of responsibility. Others in 2Sect began to fire, Pte Hill emptying a 20-round magazine from his SLR rifle before changing magazines. Tpr Henderson was caught in a small clear space when the firing started and he dashed forward to shelter behind a raised mound of dirt at the base of a bamboo clump. From here he started firing into his arc of responsibility, shooting around one side of the mound. A burst of return fire from Pte Herd in 1Section sliced through the bamboo about three inches above the mound and left him buried under dropped vegetation. Tpr Henderson was aware that Pte Hill on his right and slightly behind him was firing into his arc. Neither saw any targets and both were firing ‘blind’ [as is typical in close-country encounters]. Pte Kennedy recollects return rifle fire striking the ground beside him, at this point his machine gun jammed, probably because the ammunition belt had dragged a piece of foliage into the feed tray. This was a fortunate break in the contact noise as Pte Kennedy had not yet finished firing a complete belt of ammunition, and in the lull others could now be heard yelling loudly in English. Pte Ure immediately applied his rifle safety catch and began screaming ‘STOP STOP STOP’. Others heard the shouting and some also started shouting. Pte Whatarangi, having first dashed for cover, afterwards could not see a target and by the time he was ready to fire the section was being told to stop engaging their arcs. Tpr Henderson recollects Pte Kenyon beginning to yell 2Sect a section fire order [a fire order stops indiscriminate firing and gets all weapons firing at one target] and someone in the target area [some say Cpl Preston] yelling back “is that you Pancho..?” then the firing started to diminish. Pte Kenyon recollects being bewildered; in trying to understand what he was hearing in relation to the expectation that the VC were in front of his section, he wondered if perhaps one of his section had got too far in front, or that 3Sect had arrived from the flank at the same time that 2Sect found the objective.
3Sect. Three members of 3Sect were hit by the 2Sect fire, Pte Cooper a glancing blow across the right side of his head, Lcpl Samson in the right thigh, probably by a smaller M16 round, and Pte Dunlea by a round which shattered the fibreglass butt of his M79 grenade launcher and slammed fragments into his right shoulder.
1Sect. LCpl Welsh recollects Pte Herd firing the section machine gun, [probably toward the left end of 2Sect as Tpr Henderson recollects a burst of rounds ‘cracking’ through the bamboo above his head], before almost immediately being struck three times by machine gun fire. Two bullets struck Pte Herd’s lower left side, one stopping near his spine, and a third struck a 200-round link belt draped across his body. The link belt shattered and an intact 7.62mm cartridge with metal link attached was pushed deep into his lower jaw until out of sight just below the left ear. LCpl Welsh recollects that in all the noise there was no distinctive sound of the VC AK47 rifle; he too realised that this was probably a ‘friendly’ encounter and started calling out.
3Pl HQ (-). From the direction of the firing, Sgt Yandall also realised the engagement was likely to be with his detached section and started yelling out. Sig Salt was able to see the 3Sect wounded near his position and radioed W3 Coy HQ that there was ‘possibly one KIA and two WIA’. This message was relayed by W3 Coy HQ to Bn HQ and was recorded in the 2RAR war diary at 12.18 PM which became the ‘official’ time for later reporting. C/s63A also reported ‘casualties’ taken, standby dustoff’ although where their information came from is not clear.
FOO(A). Gnr Brumm recollects that once the firing commenced he ordered the firing of his pre-prepared artillery fire mission and with Gnr Pavlovich moved quickly towards the sound of the contact. By the time the first ranging shot had landed (as planned 1000 metres to the east of the position), he had learnt the contact wasn’t with the enemy and cancelled the fire mission.
2Sect. 2Sect had stopped firing and were listening to the frantic calling from mates nearby and in front of them. Some of them reacted in horror that they were firing at their mates; they describe their feelings as being shock, nausea, and panic. Others unable to initially understand what had happened went to ground to get a grip on the reality of the accident; their reaction was more ‘a need to keep doing the job’. Tpr Henderson recalls that he did not reload his weapon. Pte Ure ran forward through the bamboo into the area 2Sect had been engaging. So did Pte Hill [the section medic]. Pte Kenyon and Pte Whatarangi moved to the 2Sect gun and went to ground with Pte Kennedy on the edge of the bamboo while trying to figure out what was happening. They all looked at each other and none of them spoke. Pte Kennedy felt ‘gutted’ and succumbed to tears. Through the bamboo was what Pte Kenyon recollects as a shambles with people running around and calling out. Pte Whatarangi remembers seeing the injured from a distance but was uncertain of who was hit.
Dog Team. A member of the dog team approached Tpr Henderson to ask what was happening. Tpr Henderson replied that it was likely they had engaged one of their own sections.
2Sect. Pte Ure burst through the bamboo clumps into the platoon harbour. He was later to realise that in running through the spiky bamboo he had torn his shirt to shreds. The first person he saw was Pte Herd with LCpl Welsh nearby, LCpl Welsh had already begun helping Pte Herd and had torn his shirt open. Pte Ure also remembers seeing a short distance away to his right Pte Cooper lying on the ground with Pte Drylie behind him. Pte Ure ran to where Pte Herd was lying on his side with a hole in his back and pushed his sweat rag into the wound. He was joined by Tpr Henderson. Pte Hill also arrived and started first aid although his recollections of doing this are hazy.
3Sect. Cpl Preston and others in 3Sect were in shock that half the section was wounded. Pte Newson recollects the display of strong leadership by Cpl Preston as he gripped his section together, calming them down and directing their actions. Cpl Preston first established a perimeter by ordering Pte Newson to ‘get back out there and make sure no one comes down that track’ [referring to the VC exit track heading south-east from the watercourse] before checking the injuries of first Lcpl Samson, then Pte Dunlea, shoving his hand down the front of Pte Dunlea’s shirt to see if a bullet had exited his body. Looking around he saw a large group gathered around Pte Cooper. It was the opinion of this group that Pte Cooper was probably dead but Cpl Preston noticed that while he was unconscious he was still moving and appeared to be talking; he applied his shell dressing to the wound in his head. He remained focussed on his section personnel and has little knowledge of what others in 3Pl were doing. Pte Hill also applied a further three field dressings to Pte Cooper’s wound; he demanded field dressings from those standing around him.
3Pl HQ. Sgt Yandall took stock of the situation and being conscious that the VC were still a threat directed people to move out and secure a perimeter. He then began looking after the wounded, telling Cpl Glendinning to prepare a spot in the clearing for a winch extraction, while seeing to it that stretchers were cut from nearby brush and other 1st aid administered. At about 12.25 PM Sgt Yandall directed Pte Lee to pass a DUSTOFF request to W3 Coy HQ, this was then passed to Bn HQ at 12.30 PM, and amended at 12.33 PM when W3 Coy HQ was advised that there was no KIA, but four WIA, two sitting, two lying. At 12.36 PM Bn HQ advised W3 Coy that ‘dustoff’ was 15-20 minutes away, 2-minutes later a query was made concerning the request for a semi-rigid ‘Stokes’ litter and seeking further information on the wounds [the answer was ‘back wounds’]. [this information meant the US MEDEVAC helicopter waiting at Nui Dat was required as RAAF helicopters did not routinely carry semi-rigid stretchers].
2Sect. Pte Kenyon was directed into a harbour-type position covering basically back the way they originally approached from. He directed the other 2Sect soldiers into some kind of formation and then just sat there letting the detail sink in. It was now obvious to him that 3Pl had been in some kind of ‘cock-up’ and there was confusion without a lot of detail being passed around. Pte Ure started wandering around in a form of shock, at some point he recollects a helicopter flying over and firing into the area nearby because a hot link landed on his neck [probably about 1.20 PM]. His memory, like that of other 2Sect people, is sketchy after the accident but he does remember going out and standing watch on the perimeter still worried about the likelihood of contact with the VC that always seemed to be in front of the dog. Pte Hill and Tpr Henderson both believed their fire could have injured Pte Herd. Tpr Henderson in a panicky state retraced the direct route back to where he had been firing from, including pushing straight through any bamboo clumps, and returned convinced that he was responsible for Pte Herd being wounded. [on his return to New Zealand Peter Henderson visited Ian Herd in Christchurch Hospital to personally apologise. In 2007 Doc Welsh reassured Peter Henderson that the rounds into 1Sect were actually fired by a machine gun].
1Sect. There was confusion in 1Sect over the wounding of Pte Herd who was in obvious pain and making considerable noise. Conscious and worried that he had ‘lost’ his legs Pte Herd was reassured by someone that ‘his legs were attached to his arse just like they were meant to be’ and that he would use them again. Pte Herd then felt a hard pinch to a leg which reassured him. He recollects that those with him worked hard to keep him calm and to prepare him for evacuation.
US 45th Medevac Coy. About 12.40 PM HQ 1ATF Air Cell reassigned the DUSTOFF task to the US Army specialist MEDEVAC helicopter [c/s DUSTOFF 20] waiting on the Red Earth LZ at Nui Dat, about 10-minutes flying time from the accident site. The helicopter was airborne within 2-minutes of being tasked.
3Pl HQ. About 12.45 PM Sgt Yandall had the wounded moved into the clearing. About seven soldiers deployed into the clearing with the four wounded soldiers while others were positioned around the clearing and watercourse to secure the ground approaches. The following were part of the pad party: Sgt Yandall, Sig Salt, Cpl Preston, Pte Taukiri and Pte Newson, others have yet to be identified.
Casualty Evacuation. There were now two
critical issues facing Sgt Yandall: a large VC party was still unlocated in his area; and his injured soldiers needed urgent
medical treatment. The scattered tall timber [estimated at 65 feet] and dense high grass in the clearing meant a
suitable landing point for the DUSTOFF helicopter could not be found quickly and when DUSTOFF 20 arrived over the
position at about 12.55 PM the pilot agreed to winch all injured into the helicopter, ignoring in the process any likely VC
threat. DUSTOFF 20 had an escort of two Bushranger helicopters and these continuously covered the
helicopter in case the VC attempted to interfere with the extraction. The DUSTOFF pilot hovered for about 10 minutes
while his crew and the 3Pl pad party performed three lengthy winch extractions. An unconscious
Tom Cooper and seriously wounded Ian Herd were separately extracted with a ‘Stokes’ semi-rigid litter. Finally a jungle penetrator was placed on the winch and lowered. Once ‘Sammy’ Samson
and Ross Dunlea were seated together they were winched aboard the helicopter and at 1.09 PM DUSTOFF 20
left on a 20 minute flight to the Australian primary treatment hospital, 1st Australian Field Hospital [1AFH] in Vung Tau.
Herd in Stokes litter [bare arms] on winch
Cooper on winch in Stokes litter underneath DUSTOFF 20
group [left] loading Dunlea [bare arms] and Samson [back to camera with safety belt around waist] onto jungle penetrator
Dunlea and Samson on jungle penetrator.
Outside Agencies. At this point it was not known to outside agencies that the 3Pl ‘contact’ was actually an accident and these agencies remained concerned that there was a VC party still in the area of 3Pl capable of inflicting further casualties:
At 1.08 PM CO 2RAR and the operations officer spoke to W3 Coy with suggestions that the enemy party be followed up. Maj Torrance warned out 2Pl while waiting for more details from Sgt Yandall.
At 1.20 PM the Bushranger armed helicopters offered to stay in the area as direct fire support and after radio contact with Sgt Yandall and despite no targets being identified, engaged an area on the VC route to the south of the position for 10-minutes before leaving at 1.36 PM. Care was taken to identify and avoid W3 2Pl’s position 2-kilometres away to the SW.
At 2.12 PM Maj Torrance advised Bn HQ that the ‘contact’ was actually a friendly patrol clash and provided further details as passed to him by Sgt Yandall. This included detail of the dog pointing, a sweep by half the platoon to the ‘west then south’ around a clearing to clear bamboo, a garbled radio message and the accident. Bn HQ queried if a further sweep had been conducted to discover what the dog was pointing at, and while it was unlikely, W3 Coy replied in the affirmative that the dog had been pointing during the day and each time a sweep revealed nothing.
At 2.35 PM CO 2RAR called W3 Coy, and while ‘deeply sorry about the accident’, noted that it required a formal investigation and asked if it was convenient to send 2ic A Coy [Capt Jim Brown MC RNZIR, formerly W3 Coy 2ic] to 3Pl to investigate and view the area. 3Pl advised that it had a pad suitable for a small Sioux helicopter which could be secured within 15-minutes. Throughout the period Bn HQ continued to direct other forces to move to and maintain blocking positions.
Map of Movements 10 October 1970
2Pl W3 Coy. Around 2 PM Maj Torrance decided to send 2Pl to link with 3Pl. The move was prudent given the continuing worry about VC in the vicinity and the requirement from the CO to continue to follow-up the VC party. Pte Peter Rowsell recollects 2Pl being told to abandon their ambush and move quickly to join 3Pl – “when we got the word, we packed up in a hurry and ‘Duke’ [Pte Earl Henry] just about took us all the way at close to a trot, didn't even slow down to cross a swamp which Bob [platoon commander Lt Bob Upton] wasn't too impressed with, but we got there pretty quickly”. Pte Rowsell recollects the Australian dog handlers sitting at the base of a tree looking very nervous and dejected, not knowing what to do [distraught New Zealanders may have unfairly accused their dog of causing the accident]. A number of 2Pl people were told to ‘buddy up’ with 3Pl people and offer support, the remainder formed a perimeter. Pte Newson recollects a feeling of relief when 2Pl arrived; he felt their arrival compensated for the poor emotional state of 3Pl at that time. Pte Rowsell remembers overhearing worried discussions about who might have fired the [fatal – his recollection] shots. Pte Peter Brown was probably assigned security duties - “A facet of war out in the bush was that you hardly saw anyone much except the person in front and behind you and your own platoon only at harbour-up time, and even then you saw mostly your own section. When the company got together out of the bush the social situation was still the same. So it’s not surprising that you wouldn't actually see anyone from another platoon even if platoons were temporarily linked up”.
Capt Brown. It is likely that 2Pl secured the LP for Capt Brown’s arrival - Pte Brown remembers linking with 3Pl and recollects Capt Brown (no relative) alighting from a helicopter at a LP. Capt Brown arrived about 4 PM, after speaking to personnel and taking some photos of the terrain and vegetation he left about 6 PM. The Sioux helicopter that initially delivered Capt Brown removed the back packs of the four injured 3Pl personnel. Cpl Bruce Young [2Pl] remembers Capt Brown in a huddle in 3Pl HQ talking with people from 3Pl, Pte Kenyon thinks he took Capt Brown out to the mound of fired brass casings and link where the 2Sect gunner had fired during the contact. Capt Brown at some point was convinced by Cpl Glendinning to give his shirt to Pte Ure as a replacement; Pte Ure has a recollection of Capt Brown removing his rank badges from the shirt before handing it over. Capt Brown moved around the 3Pl people, speaking encouragingly to individuals, saying that ‘the bosses were concerned about you and to keep your head up’. A number of 3Sect people wanted to leave the bush that night but Cpl Preston calmed them, asking them to ‘stay and do the job’ and by doing this held the section together.
Bn HQ. At 5.41 PM HQ 1ATF advised 2RAR Bn HQ of the status of the four casualties: one sent directly to Long Binh, head wounds, very seriously wounded [Cooper], one evacuated from 1AFH to Long Binh very seriously wounded [Herd], remaining two, at 1AFH, minor wounds. There is no record of this information being passed forward to troops in the field although it undoubtedly reached W3 Coy HQ.
2Pl and 3Pl W3 Coy. 2Pl and 3Pl harboured together for the night a short distance from the contact site. Gnr Brumm recalls that things were very sombre and tense. He recollects that there were five sentry posts deployed that night but that two were manned only by individuals – it is likely the individual posts were simply soldiers needing space to think, the others were probably manned by 2Pl. Some routines were ignored in the harbour, for example Pte Ure slept in a hammock, something he would not normally do. Pte Hill recollects that afterwards ‘there was very little talking, most guys tried to bury it. I think we felt a lot of guilt but we couldn’t blame each other. I know we blamed the Aussie dog but they stayed well away from us, I don’t think I saw them again’. That evening some people believe the news came through that Tom Cooper had died of his head wound [unlikely - see this comment].
Bn HQ and Coy HQ W3 Coy. During the evening 10 October CO 2RAR and Bn HQ decided on the 2RAR programme for the following day. Over the period 8.30 – 9.50 PM orders were issued and discussed for W3 Coy to send W3 2Pl north into C Coy’s AO to take over the track being followed by C Coy 7Pl. C Coy complained about not being able to finish the 7Pl task but this was ignored and boundaries were adjusted to match the new deployments. There was no reaction at this time from W3 Coy.
Strength States. The first record of actual deployed strength states for each element of W3 Coy and attachments is for 12 October [after the accident but before Maj Torrance’s party joined 3Pl] when the strengths were Coy HQ 23, 1Pl 30, 2Pl 25, 3Pl 24. This strength state was probably taken for rations distribution during the MAINTDEM and is unlikely to include the [departing] tracker dog party. Therefore the 3Pl strength the morning of 10 October was probably 26 New Zealanders, two Australian artillery and the four strong Australian tracker team.
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