W3 Company - Service Stories
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Debacle - Bruce Young
This is a background article on the health controversy for New Zealand [and Australian] veterans who were exposed to a toxic chemical environment in South Vietnam. It’s been 50-odd years since the Americans supported a Government of Vietnam [GVN] operation to employ herbicidal sprays in their war-fighting in South Vietnam. The Europe-centric US Army of the time was facing new challenges from a sneaky opponent using the cover of the jungle to defeat the US tactics of the time and the US Army was happy to remove the jungle rather than adapt their tactics.
The ‘Agent Orange’ story in general is full of dark drama, initially ignorance of the effects, denial of the effects, defence of the effects, grudging acceptance of the damage caused followed by official recognition, a sequence only borne out over 40-odd years because of the determination of veterans to expose the facts. A small group of Kiwi veterans who deserve acknowledgement for their in-depth research and persistent tub thumping include Noel Benefield 1ALSG and Victor Johnson V3, there are others. One veteran's story is told here.
Defoliants [herbicides] were sprayed over vegetation in areas dominated by the Viet Cong and NVA to penetrate the canopy, including over Phuoc Tuy province and the areas surrounding Saigon where Kiwi servicemen were at times deployed. Backpack sprays were used around static bases to clear vegetation from defensive barriers and lines of approach. Chemicals used in the sprays are credited with creating long-lasting and destructive effects on the health and genetics of both these veterans and their children. New Zealand was one of the last countries to acknowledge their veterans concerns, even after other respected medical authorities had clearly agreed that the chemicals were capable of the damage claimed of them. New Zealand authorities initially chose to rely on two deceitful official reports by authors who had little empathy for the veterans and their distress until a NZ Government Health Select Committee inquiry held over two years from 2004 and championed by National Party MP Judith Collins forced the Government to acknowledge, apologise and make amends for the shabby manner in which they had treated veterans. The report [at this link] formed the official New Zealand Government response to the veteran community and while technical details in the report may still be in dispute the report is the foundation for the remedies offered to veterans.
What are some important facts about the Agent Orange [AO] debacle as regards New Zealand veterans..?
• The three
common sprays used
in Phuoc Tuy were named for their drum colour [veterans tend
to call all sprays agent orange or
• The overall land clearing and food denial project was called Op TRAIL DUST, and the USAF part of Op TRAIL DUST was called Op RANCH HAND. The military aerial spray programme ran from January 1962 until January 1971; this link has more background details.
• Op RANCH HAND spray missions were controlled by MACV directive 525-1 and how the missions were planned and controlled is explained in detail here. It might surprise veterans how involved and time consuming the planning for AO missions was and that many requests were made by GVN provincial officials, contrary to the general understanding that AO operations were US initiated. Note also that on almost every occasion three or more C-123 type aircraft were employed in formation and that the aircraft had a camouflage paint scheme and were frequently escorted by attack aircraft. There were no reports of blue on blue casualties during the entire herbicide program and no missions were aborted during flight at the request of local forces. All flight records and SOP's are in the public domain.
• Aerial spraying over Phuoc Tuy province started on 10 November 1965 and finished on 30 June 1968, these dates are reflected here against the deployment of the New Zealand contingents. Further land clearing in Phuoc Tuy was mechanical as in the 1ATF engineer effort to create wide trails north of the Nui Thi Vai mountains.
• The Health
Select Committee was shown a map [the
Master's map] that
reflected that land clearing had occurred where
NZ troops were deployed but as the map only covered the area
around Nui Dat the Committee
requested a new map be prepared from US metadata of spray
missions to tie together aerial spray paths and NZ operational
areas to clearly show where the two coincided; the request was addressed by 2 Engineer Regiment
Linton who produced the summary map at page 18 of the Committee report
GIS Task Herbicide Overlay 12.
So did Agent Orange impact W3 Company..?
These two photos are of a USAF C123 Provider flying low over the Horseshoe. Many of us can remember watching the liquid being sprayed from it although this isn't obvious in the [degraded] photos. Major Torrance wrote in his notes "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."
lone USAF C123 Provider aircraft aerial spraying at low level above the Horseshoe position 18 February 1970. Click photo and scroll down to 'Notoriety' for more details of the aircraft
The method of deployment for AO was by several aircraft flying in close formation, but since FLYSWATTER did single aircraft missions and since the photo of the aircraft over the Horseshoe is of a single aircraft, in silver paint, after the end-date for Op RANCH HAND missions in Phuoc Tuy the spray would only be anti-malarial so the information given to Major Torrance was correct. Which means W3 Coy could not have suffered from being directly drenched in AO. Yet 25% of my War Disability Pension is for loss of vision in my left eye based [in the absence of other evidence] on the assumption that dioxin from AO caused the damage, a symptom also attributed to other veterans. So where is the AO or dioxin connection..?
For this one should consider the effects of ground sprays released around the lines in NUI DAT and other places and the lingering contamination to the environment from earlier herbicidal spraying be it aerial or ground based. Based on the 2 Engineer Regiment map W3 Coy appeared to operate in dioxin contaminated areas when in the 'Light Green' area east of the Horseshoe, on all operations conducted to the west of Nui Dat, and on the 6RAR operations in the Nui Mao Tao mountains and around FSPB Discovery.
It is my belief that in arguing about our ills and seeking assistance for the genetic impact, adverse health effects and birth outcomes on our children W3 should avoid the temptation to claim drenching by aerial sprays [which can be disproved] instead focussing on the more likely long term contact with weed killing or insect control sprays that we regularly encountered - see this article that supports this view. This article connects Malathion to Parkinson's disease. The list of disabilities presumed to be attributable to Vietnam service are here. This is an Australian paper on herbicide reporting involving 1ATF and Nui Dat.
It is good that at least the underlying problem has been acknowledged and remedies addressed by the proper authorities. Pray it may never come to this point again.
webmaster: the W3 website position on chemical defoliants used in Vietnam is to support the veteran by informing them and their families of developments and processes that affect them personally, and to encourage them to take advantage of medical care offered. The website leaves it to others to debate elsewhere the technical aspects and consequences of the aerial spray programme.
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'I Was There' - add a comment
Caught in the Rubber – Mark Binning
The mortar section was involved on operations with 3 Cav toward the end of the dry season, around March - April 1970. The first of these comprising one section of APC's (3 carriers) our two Mortar AMC 125's and a section of assault pioneers was in the Courtenay Rubber to the north of the 1ATF base at Nui Dat, looking for NVA moving on supply routes to their units in the mountain areas. Courtenay Rubber was a disused rubber plantation from the days of the French administration and a frequent battleground between 1ATF units and the VC.
During the first operation the APC force caught VC moving in the rubber in daylight and the subsequent fighting and attempt to escape by the VC involved some interesting game plays by both sides before the superior fire power and speed of the APC vehicles prevailed. The VC got caught in a section of the flat open rubber plantation and after an initial fire fight the VC bugged out and the APC's gave chase, firing on the move. The APC's fitted neatly between the narrow lanes of old rubber trees, but it was difficult turning round or changing lanes. When the VC ran in one direction the APC's would chase them but a few rows of trees away on either side. As the APC overtook the VC on each side they were then in jeopardy of shooting at each other so would stop and the surviving VC would scamper off in another direction knowing there was a delay in the APC's making turns and repositioning themselves for the next chase. The VC were good at getting the APC's opposite one another so they had to hold fire and the drivers became very adept at making some tight turns in confined spaces so the chase wasn't lost. In the end the APC's won. I remember going to drag the bodies away to bury them and grabbed one by the arm, pulled and came away with the arm. On closer inspection I found the VC had taken a 50 cal round in the shoulder which had all but separated his arm from torso. I recall being somewhat amused by this - something that would probably make me sick today.
APC moving in the close confines of the Courtenay Rubber
We buried the dead in shallow graves, and some days later when moving past the graves saw one grave had an arm sticking straight up in the air through the dirt - probably delayed rigor mortis. When we went back to the area on a second trip Ross Cherry pointed out the burial spot and by this time a leg had sprouted as well.
I Was There - Roi McCabe
[or Kiwi McCabe to his Aussie mates - Roi did National Service
at Waiouru before joining the Australian Army in 1968 and
eventually being posted to the 6RAR Tracking Platoon].
one of the c/s 85 AMC carriers parked on the edge of the Courtney Plantation, Dave Condon in hatch [Binning]
I Was There - Mark Binning
responds to Roi
I Was There -Graeme Merkel
I was the Crew Commander of APC call sign 33B. 3 Section consisted of 3 carriers, with call signs 33, 33A and 33B. I recall that day very well. As set out in the story we were chasing the NVA through the rubber and as I remember there were quite a few of them. It was true that we kept over taking them and it was very difficult for the drivers to make right hand turns when we suddenly saw one of the enemy to our right or left a few rows of rubber away. I also recall it was difficult to converse with my driver over the intercom at the same time as conversing with other carriers in the section and firing at the enemy.
turret with two 30 cal machineguns
I vividly recall one particular part of the contact, and I might add have had a few nightmares over the years about it. My carrier was fitted with a turret and within that turret were mounted twin 30 cal machine guns. To traverse the turret one had to turn a little wheel inside the turret which was a bit difficult. I saw one enemy 90 degrees to my right, lying facing toward me and firing at me. I turned the turret and commenced to fire at him and just I did the round feed line to the twin 30's jammed. I was in a predicament, the other two carriers in the section were adjacent to me on my left with about 4 or 5 rows of rubber between each of us so were not of immediate help as I was directly between them and this enemy. I picked up an M16 rifle I carried beside the turret and used this to fire at him. It was both him and I firing at each other and like the other writer I remember his face to this day. As my bullets struck him I could see him flinch but he kept on firing, I still don't know why my rounds did not stop him. Finally Call Sign 33 was able to make a right hand turn and pull up beside me and finish him off with the 50 cal machine gun mounted on his carrier. This may very well have been the enemy mentioned by the previous writer as having been shot by a 50 cal.
impact of VC fire embedded in the side of APC 33B [G Merkel
After the contact was over I discovered a number of bullets lodged in the side of my carrier and holes in a flack jacket that was hanging on the turret hatch. I was not one for souvenirs but admit that when this body was searched later I took a few dong notes with a bullet hole through them out of his top pocket. I still have those notes today. As for the rumour of running down and squashing the enemy, that did not happen.
Address to W3 Coy 9 November 1970 - Major Torrance
“Tomorrow we leave South Vietnam. As you know our government has seen fit to match the withdrawal of 8RAR by a similar withdrawal involving our Company. The decision to withdraw troops from Vietnam has been accompanied by wide publicity and there would be hardly a soul in New Zealand that would not know of our pending departure. Politically our move is most important for besides serving to quieten the anti Vietnam protesters it indicates to the thinking public that conditions are right for withdrawal – that the war is being won and that our services are no longer required. All this adds up to the simple fact that we are history in the making – tomorrow you can identify yourself with the first New Zealand pull out from South Vietnam. As you think about this fact you’ll probably be asking yourself the questions. Are we doing the right thing? Was it worth it? What does the future hold for South Vietnam? and possibly others. The answers to these and other questions are not always clear. We find that we live in an age where there is great controversy over many things but nothing matches the controversy over the involvement in South Vietnam. So as I speak to you for the last time as your Company Commander I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t present to you my thoughts on aspects of the war that have effected and will in the future effect you and I. Now what is the best way to tackle this ticklish problem? Probably best that I quickly run through what I deem to be the highlights of our tour and at the same time indicate to you where we have made a valuable contribution.
The operation in and about the Courtenay was, as you know one of our more successful operations. Here we tried out the half platoon ambush, the move in under cover of darkness, and the saturation patrolling concepts that the ground and enemy tactics made us evolve. Here we witnessed the fact that Charles (VC) depends for his sustenance on the locals. Mao has said, “Communist soldiers are like fish swimming in the water of the population”. We could see that by denying Charles access to the Viet Cuong and B6 villages he would drown. You will recall the Armoured Personnel Carrier journey from Ngai Giao to FSPB Peggy. At the time of our trip Route 2 north of Ngai Giao was subject to frequent mining's and ambushes. When I talk about progress shortly remember Route 2 as we knew it then.
Then to the Horseshoe. “Vietnamisation” calls for the eventual takeover of the combat role in South Vietnam by Vietnamese troops. Already great strides had been made and we were to do our part in the training of elements of 18 ARVN Division. This was accomplished in a most effective manner and we can feel justifiably proud that B Company 5 Cavalry Regiment acquitted itself beyond expectations in operations to the north of Xuyen Loc and in Cambodia. Besides the ARVN training role we effectively contributed to the security of Dat Do to such an extent that now D445 is fragmented and out of province.
The last six months has seen us operating between Route 15 and Route 2. Whilst not spectacular we, more than anyone have caused the scattering and continual movement of D65 and Chau Ducs. This has led to these units becoming virtually non-effective and such is the continual harassment that substantial numbers are now Chieu Hois (A programme to encourage enemy soldiers to lay down their arms – a financial incentive was involved)
For most of us the “holding of the ground” operations at Le Loi, Long Son Island, Gail and Jill would be passed off as a waste of time. And it was interesting last Thursday for the CSM and I to hear the Task Force Commander Brigadier Henderson make mention of our role during this period “ You fellows filled an important gap and did it magnificently. Such is the depth of skill and experience in your company that you are able to operate as a mini battalion”.
So those are some of the highlights of our active service tour.
Has it been worth it? What have we achieved? I asked these questions earlier. Now to attempt to answer.
Was it worth it?
1. The well organised and effective units D440, D445, D65 and Chau Ducs have been fragmented and put on the defensive and are as of now not engaging in any attacks by fire of their own planning.
2. Town and village security is such that local government, education, agriculture and commerce can carry on with only sporadic and poorly coordinated interference.
3. ARVN, PF, RF, and PSDF would appear to be prepared to accept the fact that come another 12 months or less they could well be left on their lone. They have set about to improve their efficiency and combat readiness.
4. Good progress has been made in opening up the country. Most of us have seen the progress along Routes 2 and 15. We have witnessed the fields of Japanese hybrid dry rice, maize, beans, and pumpkins on land won from the jungle. We have noticed the surveyed land along Route 15 that has been claimed by peasant farmers. Those shanties were occupied by the claimants.
5. Withdrawal of American forces has been able to take place without a worsening of the situation.
To be fair we must accept that the people at times have resented our wealth and presence, that corruption is a way of life of these people and that the Vietnamese Forces at times seem to have no heart in the fight. However, I honestly believe that given time, patience and our moral support that this country can become a free viable country with a future. Optimistic perhaps but we owe David Wright, John Gurnick and Thomas Cooper an outlook such as this.
The eyes, ears and noses of the company have been out front with the lead scouts. At any given time 10 of you have been relied upon to see Charles before he sees us and for you to initiate a successful contact. You are the hookers. You need to be able to strike fast to win the ball of initiative. Without the ball the rest of us can’t play this war game. You have done your job well and the statistics of the game are the proof. Up front our hookers have been ably supported by their props. The section commanders have played like Wilson Whineray's. Strong, determined, skillful – watching for an opening to lead their sections through the opposition without taking own casualties. Then the cover scouts who complete the front row. Ever ready to assist the hooker win the vital ball and being prepared to take over should our lead men get kicked in the shins. We have had a formidable front row that has not buckled under pressure and has given far more than it received. Well done you lads. We’ve got our iron men too. The Meads of W Company are our M60 gunners. The strong men of the pack who uncomplainingly have carried the gun and up to 800 rounds of link through difficult terrain over long distances. You are the fellows that we have relied upon for the breakthrough, the drive, and the weight of fire that will crumple all opposition. You have played a most important part in our successes. No team is complete without fast effective flanking riflemen and M79 numbers. You have been required to maneuver around the gun to catch the opposition in possession and be prepared to continue the drive into enemy territory. Your contribution and outstanding play is such that even Winston McCarthy would agree that as professional riflemen you are the best in the world today. No pack is complete without a thinking, cool, calculated and skillful Number 8. We, you’ll agree, have some of the best in the business in our CSM and our Platoon Sergeants. Always hovering around broken play to tidy up. Watching the administrative back line to ensure that everyone is ready for the ball. Watching play up front and using their experience to find weaknesses in the opposition play and then adding that extra weight to gain possession. The generals and admirals of the war are the Platoon Commanders. From their half back position they have dictated play with uncanny skill. They have known when it was best to kick or pass, use artillery or gun ships, ambush or patrol. Our tactics haven’t catered for the go it alone halfback nipping around the scrum to try and get through the opposition forwards. It has called for kicking ahead for the forwards to follow or feeding the backs. Our Platoon Commanders have been the Laidlaws without the Rhodes Scholarships and the Goings minus the sideboards. Who can we pick as first five eight? I don’t think we can go past the MFCs, the FOs and the AFOs even though they may be Australian – some of them anyway. Never too far away from the half back, well up with the play and forever waiting for the signal for a particular move. With the great firepower but a call away our stand off halves have been able to crumple the opposition with well-placed DFs from the boot. In any team the half back and first five eight have to have had complete understanding of each other. We have been most fortunate in W Company. In our team the second five eight is but a link and back up player. Our signalers and medics have been great second five eights. Open play has been our main tactic and the signalers have been great links in the back chain. Then the medics, forever on the spot to pick up the ball from broken play, to win the advantage then look after the injured until the St John’s Dustoff arrives. Unspectacular perhaps but as important as the air we breathe and the C130 tomorrow. Now what about the centre? In my team the cooks are the centre's. We can all appreciate the move where the cooks place great steaks in cutting inside the opposition and passing onto the forwards for a try. What wonderful service those cooks have given us over the past year. The excellence of their cooking has been the centre of our high morale. We are indeed grateful. The wings are traditionally fleet of foot, possess good balance and have a good eye. Our wings might not have the speed of other teams but they are honest toilers who have given of their best for the whole game and have excelled in tidying up the play. I refer to our clerk, storeman, drivers and hygiene dutyman. Perhaps they don’t see as much ball as you fellows up front but you can’t deny an accurate MAINTDEM from the line makes it so much easier to get possession. Your efforts are really appreciated. No team is complete without a fullback and my pick is our 2IC’s and the CQMS. No one will deny the importance of this position. You’ll agree the fullback must be strong and essentially practical with his hands. He must be forever prepared to meet any eventuality and he must be well positioned at all times. If he has a good pair of boots and more where they came from then he can send the forwards charging off into the opposition territory. We have been admirably served and you’ll agree that the 2IC’s experience as half backs on this and previous teams has meant that they have been able to add the extra points just when we needed them.
Over the past year I have been most proud to coach this match winning combination that has no equal. The scoreboard does not lie. General Abrams the US Force Commander in Vietnam has probably never played or watched rugby. What a great pity that is. However, he has written to me to comment on our play over the past year. He writes glowingly about our contribution to the war effort over the past year.
All that needs to be said now is goodbye. It has been a wonderful experience and if you have got half as much as I have out of us being together then we are all the better soldiers, citizens and ambassadors for New Zealand as a result. Have a good leave, a very happy Xmas and all the very best for the years that lie ahead."
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