W3 Company - Service Stories
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Ops while with 6RAR [Nov 24 1969 until ANZAC Day 25 Apr 1970] - Major Torrance
Our next operation was code named Marsden and planned for the AO designated as Gulliver. The AO lay astride the main VC approach and resupply routes into the Phuoc Tuy Province from the North. Of particular interest to our Australian CO, Lt Col David Butler, was the Nui May Tao hills to the east of the allocated AO. For some years these hills had served as a logistic and supply area for the VC. The intelligence indicated that we might be onto something big in this area and all the company commanders were keen to have a piece of the action. I remember being very disappointed when the company tasks were allotted. We were being sent off in the opposite direction to everyone else. Obviously, as far as the CO was concerned, this was a job for the old hands and the new boys would have to wait their turn. The operation began December 1st with our company being airlifted from FSPB Discovery to the newly established FSPB Picton in AO Gulliver.
W3 disembarking at FSPB Picton [Young]
When we landed FSPB Picton was still in the throes of being developed. Everywhere you looked there was a hive of activity. With so much air activity the area was a constant dust cloud. We all looked up in amazement through the haze when the first Sky Crane helicopter appeared carrying a bulldozer suspended on steel wire ropes. It looked like a giant praying mantis carrying some prey that it had plucked off the ground. Such was the down draft and dust that we decided to move our perimeter defence further away from the developing base.
Our initial direction of movement was to the southwest towards the Song Rai and Suoi Loc streambeds. The terrain was fairly flat but difficult to move through. The area had been defoliated some time earlier, probably with Agent Orange, and the secondary growth was thick and matted. It was very hot and shade was limited. The sooner we got into the shade afforded by the natural trees the better it would be for everyone. We didn’t have long to wait before the first incident reports started to roll in. Lt John Fisher’s 3 Platoon was first off the cab rank with reports of recent enemy presence and the finding of caches of grenades, mines, and Bangalore torpedoes (explosives in a long pipe and used to blow a path through wire fences and minefields). Once we reached the Song Rai we changed direction and followed the line of the stream to the north. It was on the Song Rai that we made our first major contact with the VC. 1 Platoon drew first blood and when the firefight was over three VC had been eliminated. Hardly a day went by without some form of incident. Our first medical evacuation by air in an Iroquois air ambulance codenamed “Dustoff” was for a soldier with a poisoned foot. Then there were the discovery of bunkers, camping equipment, ammunition, more mines, food and documents. There was never a dull day. On December 11th a reconnaissance patrol from 2 Platoon, led by Sgt Dave Heywood, came across an enemy camp late in the afternoon. They reported fires, the smell of cooking, and the sound of female voices and estimated there could be 30-40 occupying the site. We decided to attack at first light from one direction and use the artillery and helicopter gun ships to cover possible escape routes. The assault resulted in one VC killed and the capture of numerous weapons. The enemy had a well-concealed escape route along the dry riverbed and was probably making their escape by the time that we launched the attack. When it was all over the gun ships hovered over our position for some time and appeared reluctant to leave. Our company radio operator, Cpl Peter Glendinning, called me over to the radio and informed me that the pilots wanted to know whether they could get their hands on some of the AK47 rifles that we had captured. I promised them that I would look into it when we returned to base. I didn’t have the heart to tell the American pilots that trading captured weapons was a big no-no in the Task Force. We later found out that the group in the camp came from the Ba Long Rear Services and the Ba Long Province Procurement Section.
After the assault we continued to patrol and search the general area of the camp without finding anything of significance. As a result we were redeployed by helicopter to an area east of the Nui May Tao hills to follow the movements of B Company. At the same time 1 Platoon was given a separate task of moving to FSPB Picton to assist with its security. We were tasked to check again and see if we could locate a reported prisoner of war camp and munitions factory. Intelligence information had suggested that some USAF aviators could have been held captive in the area. Documents that we found indicated that there could have been installations of these types in the area, but nothing of real importance was discovered. We stayed in this area conducting patrols and ambushing until December 27th when we were extracted by helicopter to Nui Dat. The extraction brought Operation Marsden to a close.
entrance to VC cache [Philip]
During Operation Marsden I recorded these general observations that at the time were interesting: There was no water available from local sources. As a result all water had to be airlifted in four-gallon plastic jerry cans. The days were very hot but the temperature plummeted at night. I had to use a blanket in the early hours of the morning! Days went by with much the same routine and as a result we had difficulty remembering whether it was Wednesday or Sunday. Our signallers always knew so they ran the company headquarters guessing competition as to which day of the week it was. Our field rations were excellent. On resupply day we would get a hot meal from our own cookhouse and a mixture of American and Australian dry rations to see us through to the next resupply. I was amused that even cigars were available for those who wanted them! On Xmas day we were in the field. War like activities were reduced to a minimum to take advantage of parcels provided by the good folk of Raglan in the Waikato.
On December 27th I spoke to the whole company soon after arriving back in Nui Dat. This is what I said taken word for word from my Field Message and Notebook (Aust Military Forces (AMF) AAB 64. “Congratulations on the way you have worked during the past 34 days of our first operation – and I include our cooks, Q staff and the base element. Perhaps not as successful as we would have liked, however judged on the standards set by our predecessors it is well up there. During this period of backslapping I wish to issue a note of warning. Far too many of you still look upon the operations as an exercise – you must be constantly aware of the VC threat. Talking, coughing, banging mess tins and unnecessary loud chopping and digging noises all too frequent. Make a point of cutting down the noise level. General security – bunching, sentries not alert and “coffee housing” – we need to improve. Handling of firearms and explosives – no unauthorised discharges so keep it up – look at the placement of grenades on your webbing. Speed of movement – a command problem to control but endeavour to cut down the speed of movement. Behaviour in base. War is a man’s game – it is a unique experience for us all – we are ambassadors for our country – therefore as we are a small group our behaviour both good and bad is noticed – be on your best behaviour in this base – obey the rules – take it easy – act like grown men and enjoy yourself without going overboard – don’t touch arms or ammo, pyrotechnics etc as they could lead to death – don’t steal vehicles. Only by being well behaved will we win the respect and admiration of the other companies and the Australians. Rumours – don’t spread them. Identity discs to be worn at all times”.
A Late Christmas
2Pl waiting at Eagle Farm LZ control facility for the arrival of helicopters [Philip]
We all felt that we had been on a three-day route march and were looking forward to the belated celebration of Christmas and New Year on 1 January 1970.
Our base element looked after us very well. There was plenty to drink and a great range of excellent food. Sgt Ted Gorman had mentioned to me that he had a couple of turkeys in the oven for our festive season lunch. Two turkeys for 120 hungry soldiers didn’t sound right so I asked him why so few turkeys? He invited me to the kitchen to have a look at the American birds in the oven. There before me were the biggest turkeys I have laid eyes on – there was only room for one per oven. And yes, there was plenty of turkey meat and other goodies to go around. We all had a very relaxing time and Paul Edmonds the NZ Ambassador in Saigon joined us for lunch. Even had some Deep Cove beer that wasn’t too bad!
Operation Napier continued without a break to February 12th. Little did we know at the outset that this deployment would be the most action packed of our tour. Hardly a day went by without an incident involving the VC. It was also the first time that we were to suffer severe casualties to our own personnel. The first major contact was made by 3 Platoon when they captured a platoon commander of a finance platoon and killed a VC. The next day the CO 1RNZIR in Singapore, Rob Williams, made an overnight visit to our company headquarters and his training warrant officer, who accompanied him, stayed on for an extra couple of days. This was by way of a reminder that routine visits went ahead in the field despite the fact that there were a number of VC about. A few days later a Chiu Hoi (former VC soldier who had agreed to work for the Vietnamese Government) joined us. They were particularly useful in giving us guidance about VC operational techniques and interpreting the significance of installations and equipment that we discovered. But of course we couldn’t always rely on the information that they gave. It was a matter of making our own judgment as to the veracity of their advice. This Chiu Hoi was sent off to join 3 Platoon.
At this time the platoons were operating independently some two to three thousand metres from the Coy HQ base which was static. The reason for Coy HQ to remain in one place was twofold. Firstly, the area that we have been allocated is not large. Secondly, a fair proportion of the area is rubber estate, some of which is still being tapped. Strangely enough we had difficulty communicating with each other in rubber with the signals reluctant to “bounce” off the rubber trees. By staying put we are able to deploy larger aerials above the rubber tree canopy. We had sufficient personnel at Coy HQ to mount a fighting patrol most days and there was never any shortage of volunteers. It was a good way of keeping everyone sharp and alert and there was always the chance of making a contact with the VC! Back in Nui Dat there was little for the Assault Pioneers to do so they were assigned to our company for tasking. Purely by chance I put them in an area that would prove to be very active and, as a result, was chided by my platoon commanders for having allotted them such a productive zone. They were allocated call sign 62 and made 13 eliminations while under our command. Our Coy HQ base location covered a natural clearing that we used as a LZ [landing zone]. A machine gun post was permanently manned and its arc of fire covered the LZ. Shortly after an Iroquois had left from the LZ two VC were seen to approach the LZ making directly for the company base. They were engaged and killed. One of them was carrying a US Army issue hand torch in near brand new condition. One of the torch filters had been hand carved in the shape of a star and his name was on a piece of paper wedged into the base. I still have that US Army/VC torch.
A 24-hour truce was put in place in Vietnam to coincide with Chinese New Year or Tet as it is called. During that period there was no gunfire, no aircraft movement and no patrolling. We were pretty sure that the VC would have used the truce to move about unhindered – that is, if they knew a truce was in force! On January 28th 1 Platoon had a contact which resulted in our first casualties. During the contact a soldier threw a grenade which rebounded off a tree and resulted in four men being hit by fragments. They were evacuated to the Australian 1 Field Hospital at Vung Tau. Fortunately none of them were seriously hurt and all returned to their platoon some time later. This embarrassing accidental wounding of our own soldiers was partly offset by the fact that we captured a VC in the same action.
Our good fortune wasn’t to last much longer. January 30th was a sad day for us all. At 1120 hours Bob Upton’s 2 Platoon made contact with armed VC and wounded one. They followed up the blood trail and were ambushed by a group of about six. This resulted in two of the platoon being seriously wounded. David Wright died March 19th in Australia from the wounds that he had received January 30th and Dave McLeod was evacuated to NZ with gunshot wounds to his thigh and arm. Two VC were killed in this action. The serious wounding of two of our soldiers made us all take a reality check. I reemphasized to the platoon commanders the need for constant vigilance and careful appreciation of the situation before committing soldiers to the pursuit of VC.
Pte David Wright RNZIR - DOW 19 March 1970
The next major incident involved 3 Platoon on February 8th. A VC group made contact with the last man in the platoon patrol formation. The VC had obviously mistaken our soldier for one of theirs and tried to start up a conversation in Vietnamese. Our “tail end Charlie” quickly summed up the situation and replied with rifle fire. When the firefight was over three VC lay dead. A check of the equipment and rations that they were carrying revealed Australian issue mosquito nets and ration packs. It would be fascinating to do an audit to determine how they came to have these Australian sourced items. On February 12th we were back in Nui Dat preparing for our move to the Horseshoe.
I took the opportunity as soon as we had returned to Nui Dat to speak to the entire company. The notes that I wrote before the talk are as follows: “Speak for 10 minutes then invite questions. I want to talk about the two wars – a. VC b. Liquor and the consequence of over indulgence. 1st the VC. Congratulations everyone on the way you have worked on the past operation. Over 20 eliminations to the company – 30 if the Assault Pioneers total added. Own Casualties – Two. Pray that Dave McLeod and David Wright will make rapid recovery to full fitness in short time. Not a time to sit back and gloat. Overconfidence only leads to fall in standards and security. 2nd Liquor. 90% of non-operational problems stem from over indulgence in alcohol. It should be your aim, for it is mine, to ensure that as few members as possible get themselves into trouble. Blind eye turned over Xmas/New Year. As we are in an operational zone certain rules must be obeyed – drink only in the canteens provided – drinking in lines strictly forbidden”.
About this time I wrote an assessment of the situation in Vietnam and this is what I penned. “We are reasonably optimistic about the outcome of the war. There are not all that many VC about now and those that are around have very low morale and exist by stealing food from the villages as a lot of them are close to starvation level. Around us at the moment are about 10-12 battalions made up of Aust, ARVN and US forces. Apparently the US and ARVN forces have next to no VC in their areas so they have come here to try and catch what few we have. The VC are expected to mount a Tet offensive any day but it is difficult to see how he can possibly succeed. We have a number of ex VC working for us as scouts. They are really amazed and naturally delighted to find out that the US and Allied Forces aren’t as sadistic as they had been led to believe”.
extinct volcano with collapsed wall at south end gave the feature the 'horseshoe' name. Dark plantation top left is Nui Dat [Young]
Besides being responsible for its defence we were to undertake the training of ARVN soldiers – something very different from the routine patrolling and ambushing that we had been doing. We had quite a challenge in store. The Horseshoe was a dormant volcano “horseshoe” in shape and only 80 metres high. However, as the surrounding country is as flat as the proverbial billiard table the view was unsurpassed and of course the hill dominated the surrounding countryside. On arrival we took under our wing the following personnel and equipment: A Squadron 1 Armoured Regiment (Australian) x 15 [people] with three Centurion tanks, Administration Company drivers x 2, 1 Aust Training Team Vietnam (1ATTV) x 1, 104 Signals Squadron x 3, 110 Signals Squadron x 2, 131 Divisional Locating Troop with locating radars x 13, US Searchlight team x 5, 17 Construction Squadron x 1, 1 Field Squadron x 44, Support Company Mortars x 10, Interpreters x 6, Assault Pioneers x 5 and US Army 105mm tracked howitzer battery x 95.
On February 18th we were forewarned to stay under cover while a spray aircraft flew overhead and dosed the area with a DDT mixture to combat the mosquitoes that were spreading malaria. I recall telling everyone on the Horseshoe about the spraying operation and it was accepted at the time as a routine anti malarial spraying mission. Some years later I was surprised to read that some of the soldiers had claimed that the spray was the defoliant Agent Orange that is linked to some serious health problems that ex Vietnam soldiers suffer. The next day Major John McGuire (V5 Company) arrived to have a look around during the course of his pre deployment reconnaissance.
We were not expecting the ARVN soldiers until February 28th so we decided to undertake some refresher training on a roster basis with, at any given time, one platoon away patrolling. The refresher training consisted of range practices and zeroing of personal weapons and the M79 grenade launcher, dry training and shooting of the M60 machine gun, handling of flares and trip flares, firing the Claymore mines, movement and formations in open country, badges of rank of US, ARVN and Police Forces, checking of civilian identity cards and work papers and medical first aid. The live firing was conducted on a small firing range just outside the perimeter on the north side. It was very basic and had been used by a number of companies before us.
APC adapted to roll over and detonate anti-personnel mines [King]
The weather continued to be very hot and dry. The engineers were operating a quarry on the Hill and the dust from that operation was tremendous. We couldn’t get away from the dust and it was everywhere. A brick red film covered everything. We kept the dust moving by wiping the tables and desks constantly, shaking and brushing ones clothes and giving the bed a few whacks before retiring.
mine clearing on the Horseshoe perimeter [Young]
Some years earlier a minefield had been laid from the Horseshoe to the coast a distance of about 9000 metres. All military manuals state that a minefield can only be effective if it is covered by sight and by gun fire. This minefield was out of sight most of the time and as a result the VC started to lift the mines and use them against us. The decision was then taken to remove the minefield. Lifting the mines by hand was out of the question so it was decided to have the Engineers use their plant and ingenuity to clear the minefield. They modified an APC to assist with the clearing. Extra plates were welded to the sides and underneath and a boom attached on which they threaded large used tyres. The APC moved backwards and forwards through the minefield with the mines being detonated by the tyres. From the Horseshoe we could see and hear this clearing being carried out and it continued throughout our stay there.
ARVN troopers on the range outside the Horseshoe [King]
Our month of training and operations with the ARVN had gone off well but it wasn’t without incident. On March 11th an unexploded M79 grenade on the makeshift firing range was trodden on by one of the ARVN soldiers. Two ARVN soldiers and one of our own received minor shrapnel wounds and were medevac'd to Vung Tau to 1 Aust Field Hospital. They all returned to duty within a few days. In another incident an ARVN soldier lost part of a finger as he sat eating his meal in the ARVN mess tent. How he came to lose part of his finger was a complete mystery. His company commander, through the interpreter, told me not to worry as the soldier had probably cut off the finger so that he could be repatriated home. The soldier was in good spirits and he didn’t want to make too much of the incident. A short time later word came through that one of the soldiers manning the machine gun overlooking the entrance to the Horseshoe had had an accidental discharge during routine maintenance of his personal weapon. The CSM Doug Mackintosh and I did an investigation of the unauthorised discharge and came to the conclusion that the bullet had been responsible for the loss of the finger. We located the small hole in the side of the tent where the bullet had entered and from the line of trajectory assumed that the bullet had ended up embedded in the ground. I charged the soldier responsible and to this day we are thankful that no one was killed.
With the ARVN gone we got back to the routine that we had prior to their arrival. One platoon would be out on patrol/ambushing, one platoon securing the feature and one platoon on other tasks like providing protection for the engineers doing the minefield clearing. We were getting tired of the Horseshoe with its dust and the boredom of manning sentry posts. We were approaching the two-month mark, which was a longer period than any other Company had had on the feature. Nevertheless, we kept up the intensity with our operations and were rewarded with some successful contacts. In one very successful ambush 1 Platoon eliminated 5 VC who were part of a resupply party making their way towards Dat Do. We were very pleased to see the advance party of C Company 7RAR who had been assigned to take over from us. We were looking forward to rejoining 6RAR for the last part of their final operation in Vietnam.
After the Horseshoe
The AC-47D was equipped with three 7.62mm SUU-11A Gatling miniguns mounted in the fifth and sixth windows on the port side of the fuselage and in the aft passenger/cargo door area. 16,500 rounds of ammunition was carried on a typical mission. For night missions, the aircraft carried 48 MK-24 Mod 3 flares, each flare could last up to three minutes and produce a light magnitude of two million candlepower. The delivery system was extremely simple, the loadmaster armed and dropped each flare out the cargo door when the pilot signalled by flashing a cargo compartment light. Airspeed during attack manoeuvres was normally 120 knots. With the Miniguns firing at a rate of 6,000 rounds per minute, aerial coverage was provided over an elliptical area approximately 52 yards in diameter, placing a projectile within every 2.4 yards during a three-second burst. [internet]
During this last week of 6RAR operations two incidents resulted in the death of two officers. Lt Stan Kidd, a platoon commander with V4 Company was killed on April 17th and a few days later Lt Tony Garland, an Aust Artillery Officer who had worked with us for our first two months was killed in a mine incident. We were all very sad about these deaths but as I wrote at the time our concern for the living keeps us from getting too preoccupied with the more unsavoury aspects of war. see further comment here
On the night of our return to Nui Dat we had the V4 Company officers and senior NCO over to our lines for a drink. We took the opportunity to farewell them and catch up with the advance party of the new V5 Company. The next day we paraded with 6RAR and heard the CO, Lt Col David Butler, make his farewell speech. There were over 1000 men on parade so it made for quite an awesome sight. We had an early start on ANZAC Day for the dawn service which was followed later by a parade for the Task Force Commander to officially farewell 6RAR from Nui Dat – quite a lot of parades in a short space of time. Then the next day something very different - we were Reaction Company. This meant that we had to be ready to go at 15 minutes notice to anywhere in the province. Fortunately we weren’t called out so we were able to stand down for a couple of days before taking off to the Badcoe Club in Vung Tau.
At the end of our first six months in Vietnam we had spent 10 weeks on operations, 9 weeks on the Horseshoe, 2 weeks on operational preparation, 1 week as the Ready Reaction Force and 3 weeks on stand down/ Vung Tau/ Nui Dat. What was in store for us during the next six months?
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