W3 Company - Service Stories

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MFC 85B – Bruce YoungLcpl Young, FSPB Picton Dec 69, after 1st patrol with 1Pl

Its 0500 hours ANZAC Day 2005, a cold and miserable morning in Christchurch and I have a cold.  I have decided that rather than gather in the cold and dark to remember my mates I will accept the challenge posed on this website and do my remembering in writing.  I am part of the team producing a verbal history of the NZ involvement in Vietnam and can use that format as my own process of remembering.

LCpl Young, FSPB Picton Dec 69, after first patrol with 1Pl

I am one of several ex-RF Cadet's who served in W3, others I remember being Bill Blair, Craig Cocker, Frank Ryan, Dave Spence, John Barkle, Nigel Clifford, Barry Boylan, Bill Kahaki, Mike Morrison, John Hatton, Roger Wait and Bill Seal.  I had trained in the army school of hard knocks for three years and was a qualified infantry instructor before posting in early 1968 to 1 Battalion Depot [1 Bn Depot] Burnham.  I trained there under guys who were ex-Borneo and early Victor coy veterans, I was impressionable and I wanted to do what they had already done. I particularly remember Cpl Ralph Kingi for the skills he taught me and the respect he and other veterans showed me for my enthusiasm.  I was only 18 years old, too young for operational service, but I did train under Bob Upton and others who would became W3 a year later.  I passed well on my mortar module in 1 Bn Depot and stayed with mortars as a career move, it being pointed out that mortars had a higher percentage of NCOs’ than any other subunit.  I was posted to 1RNZIR in Malaysia in May 1969 as a mortar section NCO and was selected for the mortar section that would deploy with W3.  The training in Malaysia was always interesting and I did some stints as MFC [mortar fire controller, travelling with the rifle platoons], mostly with 3Pl, although I loathed the old British radio sets that weighed a ton and never worked in the bush.  W3 seemed well prepared as a sub-unit and were a happy bunch to go campaigning with. 

I arrived in Vietnam four days before my 20th birthday. I remember two things from that day:

1.       Getting the cold sweats as the C130 Hercules flew over the Vietnamese coast, wondering if we would be under fire after we landed.  Since we had no ammunition I kept an entrenching tool handy to enable me to dig in beside the runway.

2.       After an uneventful landing and being given a 20 round magazine of ammunition for my rifle, the fright returned on the truck ride north to Nui Dat when we were surrounded by people in black pyjamas, supposedly the dress of the enemy.  I was about to shoot 20 Viet Cong when I noticed the Aussie truck driver was very relaxed and it finally clicked that everyone in Vietnam wore black pyjamas.  I also noticed others on the truck were very tense but perhaps I had spooked them..!M16 Claymore directional anti-personnel mine [internet]

My 20th birthday was celebrated a day late, on a TAOR patrol where a bunch of us from no particular sub-unit were sent out with an Aussie Cpl from another coy to familiarise us with the environment.  It poured hard with rain and we were in 6’ foot high grass the whole time.  When we stopped right on last light to establish an ‘ambush’ position I was told to deploy my claymore directional mine to my front and stepped off into the darkness in what I thought was a straight line.  The next morning when I went to collect the claymore by following the lead I found it sited within metres of my bed space and pointing into my position.  Had I fired it during the night my birthday present to myself would have been 900 ball bearings and a body bag home.  I was learning…

M16 Claymore directional anti-personnel mine [internet]

I discovered early on that being on the mortar line was 95% boredom and 5% yippee when patrols asked for DF or contact fire.  I started in Dec 1969 substituting with the other MFC, replacing Larry O’Brien for periods with 1Pl during Op Marsden while at FSPB Picton, and it was with 1Pl that I had my first contacts.  By March 1970 I had a permanent swap with Vince Butler in 2Pl under Bob Upton.  Between training in Malaysia and ops in Vietnam I had now served with all three rifle platoons.  Promoted corporal while on top of the Nui Thi Vai mountains late in the tour, I wrote home "promoted in the field, I must be doing something right".

MFC work suited my personality.  I was my own boss for much of the time; I became an accomplished navigator and was an eager participant in any activity where I could fire the ‘guns’.  The majority of fire support was provided from 105mm field guns, mostly Aussie but on occasion 161 Bty or the Americans.  The practice of firing DF’s required a degree of safety because navigation in the bush was an imprecise science and there had been occasions when fire had hit misplaced friendly units [see this article].  The normal requirement was to add a safe margin of 1000 metres to the location where the fire was required, on a bearing from the friendly position through the DF grid reference.  This didn’t make sense to me as the platoon could be short or long on its supposed location so I always used ‘false’ direction [from the DF location at right angles to a side] so that as the fire was adjusted it could also be used to establish our position by back bearing.  So what if the battery commander didn't agree, he was Australian, he wasn't there and it worked.  As an immature youth I took great pleasure in having fired every type of gun available for close support including 8” howitzers with a safety radius of 800 metres.  I loved doing “danger close” DF with the shells landing inside the 250 metre safety zone usually required around any friendly position.  While supporting 2PL in a NDP south of the Horseshoe, I used 8” as close support for a DF and Ginge burnt his hands from the 6 inch chunks of shrapnel that landed beside us.  On another occasion in the Light Green I fired 8” at a group of VC across a clearing but the US battery required Pentagon approval before special ammunition [consisting of dispersible munitions] could be used.  After a wait of 20 minutes LCpl Young’s fire mission was approved at the highest level of the American war machine and a young Kiwi got to expend thousands of dollars of American taxpayers’ money.  I don’t think I hit anything, given the delay.  I just enjoyed the feeling that everyone else was in Vietnam to support the infantry, that any patrol could ask for support of any kind and it was usually available.

Back in 2005 the ANZAC dawn services are now underway.  So how do I remember..?  Of the three people killed while with W3 I was closest to Tom Cooper.  Tom and I enjoyed each others company when we could, over a beer in the Nui Dat lines or in Vung Tau.  He was a quiet sort of guy with a solid sense of humour, a genuine Maori of Billy T ilk.  He had enjoyed Vietnam in much the way I had, moments of terror and many good memories, we each had a good feeling about who we were and what we were doing. Tom was happy, brave, competent.  He died of wounds in an accident on 10 October 1970; three others were also wounded by friendly fire.  His loss hurt the company deeply given the circumstances and the fact that W3 was within days of finishing operations altogether. 

On 10 November I was waiting at Vung Tau airport for the Hercules coming to take a whole heap of us back to Singapore.  We were early (the air force would never have been late...) and a group of us were sitting and yakking on a steel container on top of an airport trailer. I remember we had each been given a bottle of New Zealand wine to help us celebrate the end of our tour back in Singapore.  I recognised the container as a casket used to transport bodies out of country, and it had a label on it.  Without much thought I flicked the label over and read Tom’s name.  This was the casket Tom’s body had been sent home in a month earlier.  Now in a fluke of timing it was back at Vung Tau just as we were leaving.  I initially thought that Tom was in the casket and travelling home on the Hercules with us.  But the timing was all wrong, there was no ceremony, it was just an empty casket.  Tom had arrived back in New Zealand before us, but he had somehow managed to also be present with us in Vietnam on the day we left.  In our enthusiasm to be gone we would not have stopped to think of Tom, or Dave, or John, had not Tom been there in spirit to remind us.  But that changed...   We still remember them

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Go Figure... – Bruce Young

On one occasion during the dry season [Op TOWNSVILLE 20 Apr 70] W3 Coy moved some distance by APC from the bush down to the coast in a free-fire zone [where anrelaxing in the sun, not a care in the world... [Stock]y movement could be considered enemy and shot at without warning].  It was dirty work travelling on the tracks and when the vehicles reached a wide beach with white sand and blue waves they stopped on the edge of the beach under the canopy to give everyone a break.  It is not a racist comment to observe that at this point most of the white guys stayed under the trees along the beach edge while most of the brown Maori boys headed off onto the beach into the sunshine to refresh themselves and look for kai (food).  After the bedlam of the earlier APC movement the appeal of the sea and sun lulled our senses and made us think of other places and other times.

relaxing in the sun, not a care in the world... [Stock]

The OV-10 Bronco pilot who quietly popped over the tree line behind us and flew smartly down the beach must have had a sense of excitement at what he saw.  He could be seen counting the people in the water before he stood on one wingtip a mile or so along the beach in a smart 180 degree skid turn.  It suddenly clicked among those watching from the tree line that the pilot thought the blokes in the water were Viet Cong and the nose down attitude meant the aircraft was starting a strafing run.  It was useless the guys on the beach waving, their fate was already decided.  Bedlam broke out in the tree line.  One APC who still had an engine running revved wildly to create smoke and started to back out onto the beach.  Others like myself in the trees ran quickly onto the beach ripping shirts off to offer lily-white skin as some sort of sign to the pilot.  But it seemed impossible at the speed that events were unfolding that a 'blue on blue' incident could be avoided and the aircraft held all the cards.  There were small bombs on the pylons under the wings and the muzzles of four cannon protruding from the gun blisters.  The Bronco pilot had the firepower and the inclination to kill everyone on the beach in one or two passes.  It was going to be his party...

But something we were doing must have distracted the pilot from his party and he pulled the aircraft nose up and could be seen looking into the tree line.  He finally saw what we were and pulled into another 180 degree skid turn to again run along the water line.  This time the pilot waggled his wings and waved before pulling up smartly and heading back inland, the party over.  ALL us WHITE guys waved back but after the plane was out of sight no one seemed interested in being out on the beach to find kai.  Or sunbathing.  Go figure....

OV-10 Bronco lifting its nose at the last minute, in recognition of our 'friendly' identity [Stock]
OV-10 Bronco lifting its nose at the last minute, in recognition of our 'friendly' identity [Stock]

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Seen in Black - Doug MackintoshCSM badge of rank worn on right wrist in black [Stock]

It is not unusual for New Zealand infantry units to adopt some change of dress to identify themselves as unique or different from other units. Before W3 arrived in Vietnam we looked identical to many other rifle companies. What identifying feature for our dress could we adopt that would show who we were?  Not just another rifle company, but Whisky3 Coy RNZIR.  Preferably it should be legal to avoid hassle, and an asset if it had some connection with our infantry history.

The answer was to change the colour of our rank patches.  Almost all New Zealand officers and NCOs when posted to units in South East Asia wore white badges of rank.  It is likely the unit tailors had a supply of white tape and copied British Army units.  The New Zealand regulations were examined and nowhere did it say that badges of rank had to be white.  So who would be upset if we arrived in Vietnam wearing some other colour?  The colour selected was black.

CSM badge of rank worn on right wrist in black [Stock]

Black was chosen for several reasons. Black rank had been worn by the British Rifle Brigade or Royal Green Jackets for some time, possibly as it blended in well with their green uniforms and did not stand out to make their leaders targets for snipers. Our regiment has an alliance with the Green Jackets, which goes back to the close association between them and our own Rifle Brigade during the 1914-18 war. The Ghurkhas also wore black rank and it looked quite smart on their jungle green shirts. Black did not show the dirt as white did. It was not so obvious from a distance and would certainly be safer if you got caught wearing rank in an unexpected hostile situation.

It was not the perfect answer; our riflemen had no badges to display the W3 distinction.  The answer came near the end of our tour when CO 1RNZIR Lt Col Rob Williams [later CGS] visited.  At that time All Ranks W3 were wearing the 2RAR lanyard, by coincidence also black.  To our surprise the CO said that on our return to his battalion in Singapore, Whisky Coy could continue to wear both black rank and black lanyard, a gesture very much appreciated at the time.  Later COs first removed the lanyard and finally the black rank, sometimes uniformity becomes very important.  A pity, perhaps the whole battalion could have worn black rank.  Within New Zealand units it is believed only W3 Coy and their successors used a different colour for badges of rank.  There is no truth in the rumour that Whisky Company chose black in recognition of Johnny Walkers superb liquor.

I Was There - Bruce Young
While the W3 NCOs wore black rank insignia a quick glance at photos of the officers show that in SVN they continued to wear white rank badges.  The change for officers appears to have happened on their return to Singapore.  photo here shows Capt Bill Blair wearing black rank and lanyard while with 1RNZIR training team at Terendak camp 1971. 

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The Cook with the Purple Heart – Bruce YoungUS Medal - Purple Heart

Who remembers the cook from the US battery [Husky Chuck] based at the Horseshoe the same time as W3, who told us how he got the award of the Purple Heart..?

There were a group of us enjoying a beer at the canteen up near the W3 cookhouse.  The American cook was working in the cookhouse alongside our guys and joined us for a break.  We were giving him a hard time so he asked if any of us had a decoration, and when we admitted 'no' he told us he had the Purple Heart.  For those not familiar with the US awards system, the Purple Heart is awarded when a US serviceperson is wounded.  Its not a bravery award per se, just recognition the recipient had been wounded in combat.  That's like REAL combat, so we queried how a 'cook' got such an award.  He admitted he too was really surprised.  Here's his story, as I remember it...

He said he received the Purple Heart in the mail; because so many US service people were being wounded the system was based on constant checks of medical records and people identified from their records as having been treated for a war wound would have the Purple Heart forwarded to them. He could only remember going to a medical aid post once, after an accident one morning in a cookhouse when he was preparing breakfast, something got in his eye when he wiped the sweat away. So he queried the medical aid post staff who checked his records, and yes he was entitled to the Purple Heart.  The records said that he had had a 'shell fragment removed from his eye'.

US Medal - Purple Heart

I Was There - Nigel Clifford
At the time I was the exchange cook posted with Husky Chuck, can't quite remember if it was to relieve the W3 chief cook (uncle Ted) of frustration, or get experience with another unit.  Anyhow the brain is a little confused (then and now), however I remember the story but not sure whether the US Sarge said his cook got the wound from a bomb shell or an egg shell.

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