W3 Company - 3Pl Accident 10 October 1970
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Part 2: Activity 4 - 9 October 1970
The following records the movements and activities of C Coy and W3 Coy and other elements of 1ATF over the period 4 to 9 October 1970.
C Coy 2RAR. On 4 October 1970 C Coy less 9Pl was air inserted to the north of the Hat Dich in area YS4081. At 9AM 5 October C Coy located a VC track with good sign heading roughly south from YS409812 and started to follow it. Further tracks were spotted by a helicopter at YS383813 moving south along a broad ridge to the east of the Song Xoai stream. Several references in the war diaries from this period report various call signs having difficulty getting reliable radio communications while within the area and initially the helicopter could not pass this track information to C Coy until A Coy used the battalion command net to assist. During the afternoon 5 October C Coy requested a ‘mousetrap’ to allow it to move further south, requesting further ‘mousetraps’ became a frequent occurrence as the VC they were following continued to move south toward the mountains behind Baria. At this stage C Coy believed they were following 50 VC carrying heavy loads. Maj Petersen was offered the 2RAR tracker dog section but with such good track in front of C Coy declined to use them ‘in case the dogs became tired’.
Mid morning 6 October C Coy advised Bn HQ that the track sign was only 24-hours old, well cut and heavily used. By late afternoon C Coy were at YS382766 and reporting the track turning west toward the Song Xoai River. An offer to fly in a Hoi Chanh defector who had operated in the area 6-weeks prior was declined to maintain surprise. That night C Coy reported the track had reached a crossing point on the Song Xoai River and that they had located a small deserted VC camp on the far [west] bank. They also acknowledged their on-going difficulty getting reliable radio communications, attributing the problem to the thickness of the jungle canopy and expecting to lose communications again the following day.
On 7 October C Coy searched the camp and local area then continued to follow the VC track as it moved west. By that night C Coy, located close to the Suoi Chau Pha River near a LZ at YS352761, was admitting the track had gone cold and that smaller groups of VC had mingled with and then split from the larger party. Having exhausted much of their food and water [rations] they arranged for a routine MAINTDEM the following morning at 8.30AM.
SAS Patrols. During their movement south and then south-west C Coy was required to move between operational patrol areas allocated to small 4-5 man SAS patrols, as a safety measure these areas were designated as non-negotiable ‘no-go’ areas to all other allied troops.
W3 Coy 2RAR. From 2 October W3 Coy was 1ATF Ready Reaction Company with each platoon cycling through the role while others conducted refresher training and administration. This break in the operational routine allowed individuals to recover physically from bush sores and other minor ailments, it also brought home to individuals the short period of time they had left in country [known as ‘being short’]. It was planned that W3 Coy relinquish the Ready Reaction role to V5 Coy RNZIR at noon 8 October and on 9 October redeploy, for the last time on their tour of duty, to the north of the Hat Dich, initially to take over the C Coy area vacated when C Coy moved south. On 3 October 2Pl was reacted to support the destruction of a large VC munitions dump and 1Pl became Ready Reaction platoon in their place. 3Pl, Ready Reaction platoon on 7 and 8 October, were alerted at 2.45 PM 7 October to assist a SAS patrol who had located a cache of VC weapons hidden in a well. 3Pl were warned they would remain in the field and rejoin W3 Coy after 9 October. This alert was later cancelled but late afternoon 7 October the platoon was again alerted to guard a crashed Australian helicopter, but stood-down without deploying at 7.20PM.
C Coy. C Coy began local patrolling at 8 AM. At 8.14 AM 8 October 7Pl crossed to the west bank of the Suoi Chau Pha stream and surprised three VC collecting vegetables at YS347758, killing two and wounding the third; 8Pl also joined in the contact from their position on the east bank. 107 Field Battery at FSPB Jill fired a contact mission nearby at YS349769. CO 2RAR requested photographs of the bodies and arranged to send a Sioux helicopter with a camera, so the bodies were recovered to the C Coy HQ area and partially buried. C Coy requested the tracker dog section and Hoi Chanh be flown in and directed 7 and 8 platoons to further search both banks of the stream. Consequently at 9.50 AM 7Pl found a major VC bunker system at YS345756, 300 metres from where C Coy had halted the night before and 200 metres from the earlier contact. The position was newly constructed, in size 100 metres long by 80 metres wide, initially thought to have 28 large bunkers, one or more wells and several kitchen areas. While it would have been a formidable objective to attack it had been abandoned around the time of the earlier contact at 8.14 AM. Initially thought to hold 50 people, the figure was later that day revised upwards to 80 and VIP’s were also thought to be present. [It was surmised on 9 October that the position had actually held 100 VC, of which 30 were combat personnel from D445, the others admin groups from Chau Duc company]. C Coy, under -strength with 9Pl detached, requested ‘a small force to guard bodies while we keep searching’ and CO 2RAR asked Bn HQ to arrange with 1ATF for the Ready Reaction platoon to be released for this task. CO 2RAR expanded the 3Pl W3 Coy task to include securing the bunker system and other equipment while C Coy platoons moved to check out all exit tracks from the bunker area. C Coy needed to drop two large trees on the designated LZ YS347759 to allow the Iroquois UH-1 helicopter to land, initially with the tracker dog section. While these activities were under action Bushranger armed helicopters covering the insertion to the new LZ identified a party of VC 500 metres west of the bunker system [YS341756] and a further party of 2-4 VC 600 metres to the south [YS345750], and engaged both groups with rockets.
3Pl W3 Coy. In Nui Dat 3Pl paraded after breakfast and played volleyball until at 10.15 AM they were warned-out to support C Coy [HQ 1ATF issued the order to deploy at 10.31 AM]. As part of his preparations for deployment Sgt Yandall reassigned at least one soldier, Pte Neil Ure, from his regular post in 3Sect across to 2Sect where he was given the M79 grenade launcher normally carried by Pte Kenyon.
C Coy. In the Hat Dich the two C Coy platoons were each given a tracker dog and directed to follow-up different VC exit trails. Lt Purcell commanding 8Pl queried Maj Petersen about the wisdom of splitting the tracker section into two dog detachments in case a single dog’s concentration waned if it wasn’t spelled regularly, but Maj Petersen wanted one dog with each platoon. Using the stream as a boundary 7Pl with dog Milo moved west, 8Pl with dog Marcus east; their field packs were left at the C Coy HQ night harbour location.
3Pl W3 Coy. In Nui Dat 3Pl reacted to the deployment order with little fuss, checking ammunition and water before gathering for the move to LZ Eagle Farm a short distance from the platoon lines. The platoon then deployed on several 9Sqn UH-1 Iroquois helicopters and landed at 11.10 AM at the C Coy LZ, a large clearing with elephant grass. After the platoon moved off the LZ they were met by a small party from C Coy HQ and guided to the location of the large VC bunker system. Sgt Yandall deployed the platoon tactically and advanced through the bunkers checking for equipment and ensuring all bunkers were vacated. Afterwards, Gnr Brumm recollects that 3Pl moved to the C Coy harbour, a Polaroid camera was provided and 3Pl was required to dig up the bodies of the two VC killed earlier by C Coy, wash their faces then photograph their faces and profiles. The camera was retrieved by Sioux helicopter.
digging up the two VC bodies
Bn HQ. The 2RAR command post [CP] started to direct forces from Nui Dat and FSPB Jill into block positions to trap the VC force thought to be escaping from the bunker system and heading west and south.
9Pl C Coy. At 1PM a section of 9Pl C Coy mounted in APC from FSPB Jill was deployed along the north/south firetrail to a block position at YS323754.
W3 Coy. W3 Coy deployment plans for 9 October were altered to fit the changing tactical scenario around C Coy and once released of the Ready Reaction role at noon [the role passed as planned to V5 Coy RNZIR] the Company [less 3Pl] was tasked to block the VC withdrawal routes south and south-west of the bunker system. W3 Coy was directed to insert by helicopter at 2.30 PM into a LZ at YS327722, 4-kilometres south of the bunker location, having been allocated an AO bounded by map coordinates YS30 to 36, 72 to 74. Once inserted, 1Pl was to move west to a block position on the fire trail junction at YS303731 and 2Pl was to move NE to a block position on known trails at YS340730. However a 30-minute delay was experienced while armed ‘Bushranger’ helicopters were organised to cover the W3 Coy LZ and the company started flying at 3PM, with all elements deployed in the AO by 3.30 PM.
C Coy. Around 3 PM 7PL were located at YS342759 and 8Pl had reached YS354747 while following their allocated VC tracks. At 3.10 PM 8Pl caught up with about 30 VC who were preparing a new bunker position in close vegetation at YS356743 [see following map]. While dog Marcus gave no indication of VC in the vicinity the dog handler Lcpl Denis Ferguson fired at a lone VC on the left side of the track. The remainder of the VC then engaged the platoon from the right, catching the tracker dog and forward section of the platoon in the killing area. The tracker dog commander later told Lt Purcell that dog Marcus was exhausted from its effort that day, had lost its concentration, and gave no warning of the VC ambush. The enemy were well concealed and in the confusion were able to inflict casualties on 8Pl with rocket propelled grenades and AK47 automatic rifles. At 3.20 PM the MFC with 8Pl had 107 Field Battery at FSPB Jill fire a contact mission impacting 105mm artillery shells at YS357742; known as ‘danger close’ and only allowed under desperate conditions the artillery shells landed within 100 metres of the 8Pl position. At 3.22 PM C Coy requested that 8Pl have armed helicopter support but the Bushranger aircraft had used their weapon loads covering the insertion by W3 Coy to the south and needed to return to base to rearm. In the contact one Australian was killed [KIA] and three others wounded [WIA] [a 4th soldier with minor wounds remained with 8Pl until routinely evacuated the following day] and about 4 PM, when the VC broke contact and withdrew, 8Pl called for Dustoff for their casualties.
3Pl W3 Coy. About 4 PM 3Pl returned to and secured their original LZ for the fly in of engineers tasked to destroy the bunker system with explosives. Afterwards 3Pl joined C Coy HQ and 7Pl in the C Coy defensive harbour at YS347758, initially stopping close to Coy HQ on a small mound above a water point being used by C Coy soldiers. Gunner Brumm recalls being briefed by someone that C Coy had for a few days been following the tracks of about ‘90’ enemy moving south down the Song Xoai stream, and that C Coy had contacted some of this enemy group and killed two of them. Gnr Brumm also recollects the incredible amount of noise C Coy soldiers were making in their harbour, including much talking at normal conversation levels. He asked some of the soldiers why they were so noisy and was told it were “the boss’s policy”, that Maj Petersen preferred the American way of operating – ‘make plenty of noise and attract the enemy to you’. Pte Ure recollects meeting Pte Ron ‘Johno’ Johnson the handler of tracker dog Milo, at that time still assigned to 7PL.
C Coy. Around 4.30 PM C Coy HQ were busy assisting 8Pl evacuate
their casualties so 8Pl could return to the main C Company harbour. The first 9Sqn RAAF helicopter
was fired on by the VC and also suffered a broken
winch cable and a second helicopter summoned to the site also had problems winching semi-rigid Stokes litters into the
helicopter. A third helicopter was summoned and the Dustoff was finally finished at 4.45 PM. The co-pilot of the 2nd helicopter was Flt Lt
Robin Klitscher RNZAF, he later wrote to his wife "We got called
off the milk run to do a Dustoff this PM, and we hovered over the trees for 25 minutes [a long time due to equipment
difficulties] winching two wounded Australians up. The enemy was only 200 metres away, and we had two gun ships
pounding them to keep their heads down while we completed our jobs, plus artillery....... unfortunately there was one Aussie
killed, too, and one of the other aircraft lifted him out....” At the same time attempts to pass details of the Australian casualties by
radio were hampered by continuing poor radio communications caused by conflicting frequencies, and one query from CO 2RAR to C
Coy at 5 PM was answered using the 3Pl radio net [
3Pl W3 Coy. Pte Ure and Pte Roy Whatarangi both recollect that around 5 PM C Coy HQ announced they were going to fire rifle shots as a marker for 8Pl to march on. However as the shots were fired C Coy soldiers at the water point reacted as if the shots were a local contact with VC and fired back, forcing 3Pl personnel to quickly move away to avoid harm. 3Pl then moved out onto the C Coy perimeter to harbour and to escape from the different C Coy culture. 8Pl finally rejoined the C Coy harbour after last light about 6.45 PM.
Intentions 9 October. Maj Petersen discussed his intentions with CO 2RAR at 7.30 PM. The decisions were that on 9 October C Coy HQ would remain in the area of the bunker system until it was destroyed while assigning local exit tracks to 7 and 8Pl to check. 3Pl would take tracker dog Milo with four Australians [Lcpl Kevin Cleary team leader, Pte Shaun Fletcher radio operator, Pte Johnson Milo’s handler, and Pte John Hobbin visual tracker] and proceed back to the site of the earlier 8Pl contact. 3Pl would then use Milo to track and re-establish contact with the large group of VC previously encountered at that location. CO 2RAR spoke to Maj Torrance that evening around 7.55 PM and updated W3 Coy on his intentions for 3Pl. Later that evening information was received from the Hoi Chanh [still in Nui Dat] regarding the likely VC reaction to the contacts that day, these being to expect the VC to take precautionary actions such as ambushing, laying booby traps and mines, and digging a new position close to good water.
Comment. The 3Pl task sends the New Zealanders off on an independent mission despite the issues caused by the earlier deployment of 8Pl: a single tracker dog was inadequate because of likely exhaustion, and a party of 30 VC was not an easy task for an under strength platoon experiencing difficulties with communications.
3Pl W3 Coy. It is probable that Sgt Yandall was given his task by Maj Petersen after morning stand-down 9 October [around 7.30 - 8.00 AM]. It is accepted that Sgt Yandall was aware of the issues 8Pl had faced and that 3Pl was being deployed under similar conditions to locate a VC force at least 30 strong, and of the likely VC reaction to his approach. Sgt Yandall would also have known the remainder of W3 Coy was deployed nearby and that he was to revert to W3 Coy at some point in the next 48 hours. In the meantime he was directed to remain on the C Coy internal radio frequency with the proviso that W3 Coy would make occasional contact. Other veterans do not recollect Sgt Yandall discussing any misgivings he might have had about the task.
3Pl Communications. The management of the 3Pl independent task was carefully coordinated by the 2RAR operations officer Maj Tan Roberts: it was accepted that the platoon was in limbo between two sub-units and needed management. C Coy and W3 Coy were not able to hear each other on the command net but could use Bn HQ to relay messages. 3Pl was expected to have one radio on the C Coy internal net and one radio on the W3 Coy internal net [it is not known which net the tracker team radio was on at this time, there is evidence it later joined the W3 Coy net]. Maj Torrance advised Maj Roberts that by the time 3Pl reached the 8Pl contact area W3 2Pl would be in a position from which W3 Coy could decide on the best movement for both platoons. The 8Pl contact location was only 300 metres north of the W3 Coy northern boundary and 2Pl was about 2-kilometres to the south-west.
Dog Section. Dog Marcus was found to be bleeding from the nose and suffering concussion from explosives fired the previous day and was stood-down while a replacement was sought. The replacement dog at FSPB Gail [probably Trajan a 3rd 2RAR dog] had a sore leg from earlier hitting a trip flare and the only available handler was a keen amateur but the dogs were changed over later that afternoon.
C Coy. 7 and 8Pl C Coy left the C Coy harbour at around 9.40AM. C Coy discovered that at least one wounded VC had returned to the bunker system during the night, either lost or looking for something important. 7 Pl was directed to receive a MAINTDEM at the LZ and then either 7 or 8Pl were to track the fresh sign to the north-west. Meanwhile the engineers prepared the position for demolition [their charges were blown at 2.30 PM].
3Pl W3 Coy. 3Pl W3 Coy also left the C Coy harbour at around 9.40 AM. The 3Pl scouts back tracked the 8Pl route to arrive early afternoon in the area of the 8Pl contact [YS356743]. There was ample sign of the engagement in the form of abandoned equipment from both sides, damaged vegetation and VC digging but no contact was made with VC. 3Pl spent the afternoon checking over the area, reporting they had located 15 bunkers under early construction in an area 300 metres by 50 metres. 40 VC [from identified hammock spaces] were likely to have been in the area during the contact before most withdrawing on a well worn track in a SE direction alongside a small unmarked stream. At 5.50 PM Maj Torrance advised Bn HQ that given the strong track sign heading SE he intended for 3Pl to continue following the track the next day while having 1 and 2Pl remain in blocking positions to the SE and SW. The discovery of crutches and medical supplies in the area of the 8Pl contact suggested the VC had wounded slowing them down and Maj Torrance thought it likely that they were probably still between the W3 Coy elements.
3Pl harboured for the night nearby. Sometime around dusk 3Pl changed both platoon radios to the W3 Coy internal frequency, it is likely that the tracker radio was also changed to the W3 Coy internal frequency as they were notified that for control purposes their radio callsign was changed to c/s63A. The war diary shows that subunits in the area continued to have radio issues with conflicting frequencies and poor reception. Several soldiers recollect that dog Milo had noisy drinking sessions during the night.
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