W3 Company - Service Stories

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Ops while with 2RAR [May until Nov 1970] - Major Torrance

Maj EJ Torrance RNZIR 1970 [Gundersen]The change over of battalions from 6RAR to 2RAR coincided with a change of V Companies.  V4 Company commanded by Larry Lynch was replaced from 1RNZIR in Singapore by V5 Company commanded by John McGuire.  They arrived in Nui Dat on May 7th and were quickly into the theatre familiarisation training that was along much the same lines as we had experienced.  During this period of “change of command” we were placed under the operational command of 8RAR and deployed to Long Son Island to protect Australian engineers installing a water pump and pipeline as part of a civic action project.  The company headquarters location on the island was on the edge of a sparsely wooded area and I recall that we were surprised at the number of wild flowers that were in bloom at that time.  It was a very pleasant spot and one could very easily have forgotten that we were in a war zone.  It was during this deployment that I took my R&R in Singapore.  During my absence the 2IC, Jim Brown, commanded the Company and on May 15th they moved back to the mainland leaving Bob Upton’s 2 Platoon to look after the Engineers.  This was the start of Operation Ashfield which was designed to re-establish the Task Force presence in the western half of Phuoc Tuy Province and hopefully disrupt enemy communications, liaison and supply routes.  We were to operate in the Nui Dinh Hills, in steep heavily wooded and quite rugged terrain.  May 15th was the official change of command day with 2RAR taking over from 6RAR.  The next day we provided our new commander with his first contact.  One of Bill Blair’s 1 Platoon sentries fired on an approaching VC and wounded him but he made off leaving a blood trail, which was followed up but soon lost.  However, six days later the body of this enemy soldier was found by a Coy HQ patrol.  During the 10 days that we were on Operation Ashfield we had four contacts, killed three enemy and found a number of recently occupied camps.  Meanwhile 2 Platoon still continued to operate independently on Long Son Island.  On May 24th they had an incident that they will never forget.  An assault boat that they were using in the mangroves sprung a leak and sank.  The upshot of the sinking was the loss of some weapons and Bob Upton almost being drowned. [Lt Upton was referred to as 'Admiral Upton' from that point in time]

2RAR launched its first operation on May 26th codenamed Capricorn.  The other four companies moved into the general area of the Nui Thi Vai and Nui Dinh Hills and the flat ground between the two features.  The area stretched from Route 15 to Hat Dich in the north.  As we were already operating in the Nui Dinh there was no need for us to shift.  Our Coy HQ and a section of mortars were located on the top of the Nui Dinh Hills at an elevation of 500 metres.  Our helicopter pad was a large rock and all supplies including water had to come in by air.  The wet season had begun with rain most days but despite the wet weather we were unable to collect enough water for our needs. The Battalion had occupied a FSPB, formerly called Gimlet, which was renamed Nola after the wife of the Commanding Officer John Church.  About this time another FSPB was established between the Nui Thi Vai and the Nui Dinh Hills at Grid Reference 313656 and it was called Zilla! [Ed: Evans wife]  Although we did not know it at the time this was to be the only operation in which all five companies of 2RAR would be deployed in the same area.  Therefore, it was to be the last “battalion operation” that we would be involved in.  May 29th was a black day for us all.  At map reference 338656 Private John Gurnick, a cover scout, missed an invisible trip wire just above the ground and activated a grenade hidden in a tree. He died while he was Pte John Gurnick RNZIR - DOW 29 May 1970being evacuated and his body was returned to New Zealand and buried at Pukekohe near Auckland.  Private Kennedy, the lead scout, was also wounded in this incident but Pte Chris Kennedy WIA 29 May 1970 - 1AFH Vung Tau May 1970returned to his platoon after recovering in the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau.  3 Platoon, commanded by John Fisher, had a contact on June 2nd that resulted in one enemy killed and another fleeing the engagement badly wounded.  John was not aware until the evening when he removed his boots that he had sustained a shrapnel wound in his foot. He was medevac'd to Vung Tau Hospital but was back with us in no time at all.  We returned to Nui Dat on June 10th.  This brought Operation Capricorn to a close for us and a couple of days later the rest of the battalion vacated the area.

Pte Chris Kennedy WIA 29 May 1970
1AFH Vung Tau May 1970

Pte John Gurnick RNZIR - DOW 29 May 1970

The senior New Zealand officer in Nui Dat was the 2IC of the Battalion.  In 6RAR it was Major Neville Wallace and in 2RAR it was Major Roy Taylor.  They were both excellent officers and supported the company and me fully at all times.  Both did 15-month tours (three months with the Aust Battalion in Australia and 12 months in Vietnam) and when Neville Wallace left in May he had had one trip back to New Zealand where his wife and family had chosen to stay while he was overseas.  Roy Taylor spoke to me after the just concluded operation to sound me out about Jim Brown going to A Company as their 2IC.  I wasn’t all that keen to lose him but the CO, who felt he was the best officer available, had made the request.  Besides, it would be a unique opportunity for a NZ infantry officer to be part of an Australian rifle company.  We discussed Jim's replacement and it was decided that Bill Blair would take over as 2IC and David Keay would join us as Bill’s replacement.  For some reason this plan was changed and Jim Cutler joined us instead.

For the next operation codenamed Cung Chung (Togetherness) we were based in Nui Dat or rather the Coy HQ was. The idea was to have two platoons deployed and one back in base.  The deployed platoons would be out for eight days and then back in Nui Dat for four.  Our task was to conduct ambushes on the tracks leading westward into the Nui Dinh's from Route 2 from its junction with Route 15 to the southern boundary of the village of Hoa Long.  We were also responsible for providing the infantry element of the boat patrol, which maintained surveillance over the water channels of the Rung Sat.  We were a little surprised to be given this task in view of the disaster that befell Bob Upton’s platoon when they were operating on Long Son Island!  The platoon based in Nui Dat worked around the company lines, mounted sentries on the perimeter wire at night and patrolled in the TAOR.  There were no contacts during this period that concluded on the June 25th.  After the post operation company barbecue we spent a couple of days in Vung Tau at the Peter Badcoe Club.monsoon rain about to start falling, late afternoon FSPB LeLoi [Stock]

I have already mentioned that we were now in the wet season and were happy to be based back in Nui Dat for a few days.  The wet season meant rain most days and red sticky mud everywhere.  We couldn’t avoid the mud and our boots were always caked.  We didn’t like operating in the wet and we believed that the same applied to the VC.  The lack of contact probably meant that they were staying put also.  Who knows?  Back in the base there was the continuous hum of the power generators, which you eventually got used to.  Then there was always the noise of gunfire.  We got used to the 105mm guns but the 155mm and 8-inch guns really gave us a fright, especially if they were firing overhead.  

monsoon rain about to start, late afternoon FSPB LeLoi [Stock]

Our next mission was to occupy the former American FSPB Le Loi, and ambush approaches to the villages along Route 2. The FSPB was huge by our standards and had been carefully constructed using empty shell cases filled with dirt, steel revetting, sand bags and heavy timber.  Our first task, with the help of the engineers, was to reddemolishing FSSPB Leloi - [fm left] W02 Doug Mackintosh, Graeme Edwards, Dave Hall, Bruce Young, Dick Bennett, Pete Rowsell [Stock]uce the FSPB area by half and thereby make the task of defence a lot more manageable. 

demolishing FSSPB Leloi - [fm left] W02 Doug Mackintosh, Graeme Edwards, Dave Hall, Bruce Young, Dick Bennett, Pete Rowsell [Stock]

While we were completing this task a helicopter crashed nearby so we undertook to protect the site until it could be recovered.  This wasn’t the first time that we had been involved with downed aircraft.  Sometime earlier we had seen the aftermath of a crashed and burnt Chinook helicopter.  It had been on a resupply task taking ammunition to a FSPB when it went out of control.  I heard later that the inquiry had found a steel-drinking mug jammed under the pilot’s foot lever controls.  Apparently it had been in the cockpit and had rolled under the pilot’s feet.  Thereafter steel mugs were banned from aircraft and paper cups became the norm.  With the FSPB down to half its former area we were able to get on with some patrolling and ambushing in the general area.  While one of the platoons stayed in the FSPB for protection the other two conducted long range patrols in the Binh Ba Rubber Plantation and mounted half platoon ambushes at night.  The operating conditions weren’t very pleasant with the ground wet and sometimes very boggy.  It had been a month since our last contact but “the drought” was broken on July 21st by 1 Platoon commanded by Jim Cutler.  In this incident the VC had fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) that missed the scouts and exploded near the machine gunner.  Three of our soldiers were evacuated with minor wounds, Corporal Simons and Privates Turner and Jane.  One enemy was dead.  sodden equipment after a night ambush in Binh Ba Rubber during the wet season [Philip]We were forever mindful of the problems that occur when innocent civilians walk into the area that we had been cleared to operate in.  We were sure that the VC harassed civilians to walk through the area to make sure it was clear of Allied Forces.  1 Platoon faced this dilemma on at least two occasions.  In one incident they called upon a party to surrender only to have the two males in the group make a run from the contact.  In another 14 children were intercepted carrying 23 packs of food.  It was difficult to decide whether they were innocent or being used by the enemy.

sodden equipment after a night ambush in Binh Ba
Rubber during the wet season [Philip]

During our stay at FSPB Le Loi we were visited for the third time by the CO 1RNZIR Lt Col Rob Williams.  Maj Brian Monks who was doing a reconnaissance as the next Company Commander to be deployed to Vietnam accompanied him.  As it happened we were not replaced and he didn’t bring his company (V6) to Vietnam until May 1971.  On July 9th we started our commitment to providing a guard for the NZ Embassy in Saigon.  We were reluctant providers, as our soldiers had not been trained for such a task.  We expected to have some problems caused by the boredom and unfamiliar surroundings of Saigon and we were not wrong.  Quite a number of the charges that I had to hear when I got back to Nui Dat arose from the dreaded Saigon Guard!

The Le Loi FSPB was very luxurious and comfortable.  There was even a lounge in which we had a TV.  The US Military had a TV station, which broadcast all the latest programmes from the USA commercial free.  I can recall seeing the “Ed Sullivan Show”, “Bonanza”, “Andy Williams”, “Dean Martin”, “Johnny Cash”, “Hee Haw featuring Goldie Hawn”, “The Lennox Sisters”’ “Ironside”, “Mod Squad”, “Gunsmoke”, “Iron Horse”, “Bewitched”, and “Kraft Music Hall”.  And then we got plenty of American football and baseball as well!  To pass the time of day there was the Armed Forces Radio that we all tuned into from time to time to get the latest update on how the war was progressing.  This was the Armed Forces Radio that featured some time later in the film “Good Morning Vietnam” starring Robin Williams.  From what I can recall he portrayed the early morning disc jockeys extremely well.  Also, the Le Loi FSPB wasn’t only used by 2RAR and its supporting units.  8RAR were conducting operations to the northwest of the FSPB and used it as a fire support base and the location for their battalion tactical headquarters.  They must have thought that they were onto something really big as they mounted an operation that must have rivalled El Alamein in the use of artillery.  As I recall 161 (NZ) Battery who were supporting 8RAR were joined by a battery of 155mm and 8in guns from the American Artillery.  The firepower was coordinated by the Battery Commander, Major Ray Andrews, from the battalion tactical headquarters.  We had never heard and seen such a concentrated and intense use of artillery fire.  When it was all over the 8RAR company commanders and their Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) met at Le Loi for a debrief.  I was not party to the debrief but understand that there were no enemy found in the target area.  I spoke to a NZ FOO Lt Gus Rivers a little later on and he said that the company that he was with found it very difficult to move through the area that had been pounded by the artillery fire.  And when I saw him he was still exhausted from the ordeal.  On July 27th I wrote “Am seated at the working desk of the Command Post as it has the best light in the FSPB.  In front of me are four radio sets that are liable to bleat out at any minute so I could have a number of interruptions as I write this letter.  We are still at FSPB Le Loi.  This base was built by the Americans and is rather luxurious as far as Fire Bases are concerned.  Wouldn’t mind staying on here for some time as we are operating independent of the Battalion.  By way of interest Le Loi was a Vietnamese King that defeated the Chinese invaders many years ago.  Vietnam needs another Le Loi today”.

Inflicting casualties on ones own side through friendly fire was quite a common happening and hardly a week went by without an incident.  We had had a number of unauthorised discharges from small arms weapons and luckily there were no serious outcomes.  On July 27th I also penned a few notes about friendly fire incidents.  “Our gunners are rather upset with the reports of them having killed the Australians.  Was speaking to the V Force Commander today and he was saying that they had been cleared of blame.  There is little that can be done if a platoon commander sends an incorrect location then proceeds to call artillery fire close to his location for no reason at all.  In the past four months it has been reported that over 100 Australians have been injured through accidents, 90% of which are avoidable.  To date we have been accident free so am hoping that it stays that way.  V5 Company has been going through a bad period of operational injuries inflicted by Charlie (VC).  Hope things take a turn for the better for them.  We will have to tread warily from now on to ensure that we continue to be as lucky as we have been to date”.

On August 2nd our month long occupation of Le Loi came to an end.  The Battalion had been relieved of the responsibility of looking after the 'Rock' LP Nui Thi Vai featurethis former American FSPB and it was time to join the remainder of 2RAR on Operation Cung Chung 2.  We were assigned once again to the high ground and given the task of reconnaissance and ambush operations in the Nui Ong Trinh and Nui Thi Vai Hills.  Intelligence suggested that there could be elements of D67 NVA Engineer Battalion operating in the area so it was decided to do a hot insertion into the selected landing zone.  Hot insertion entails the landing zone being raked with artillery rocket or small arms fire both prior to and possibly during the insertion.  The landing zone chosen could accommodate only one helicopter at a time so two Bushranger armed helicopters were assigned to cover the fly in.  The helipad was on the peak of the Nui Thi Vai feature and it took over an hour to insert Coy HQ and one platoon. 

the 'Rock' LP Nui Thi Vai feature

"I was There" - Bruce Young  2Pl was to lead the assault onto the 'Rock' and we were briefed that the Aussie helicopter pilots would land the four assault helicopters in a certain formation so we would know which was the lead ship etc and we could load the slicks accordingly.  Bob Upton beefed up the first slick with extra MG and arranged for the HQ group to be in the 4th ship so we could fly overhead and control things, call for fire if necessary etc.  Typically the Aussie pilots did not know about the arrangement and the very under-gunned Pl HQ was surprised to be the first onto the likely 'hot' LP, to endure a very nervous wait until the next helicopter arrived.  It almost goes without saying that the slick with extra MG arrived last.

Maj Torrance [continued]  We operated in this area for only six days without any contacts and then it was time to move back to Nui Dat and prepare for another period of R in C at the Peter Badcoe Club in Vung Tau.  I wrote home from the Club and noted “Operationally things are very quiet at the present.  We didn’t see any Charlie on our last outing!  Our wet season has turned out to be too wet so far.  The nights are pleasantly cool and if it does rain it doesn’t last all that long”.

On our return from Vung Tau we were assigned to the task of Reaction Company based at Nui Dat.  We would remain on this duty until August 23rd when we were deployed to operations once again.  During this period we sent a party of 11 soldiers to work with a Vietnamese Regional Force Company in the North Nui Dinh area and a group of us attended the Long Tan memorial service on August 18th at the site of the Long Tan battle.

The task of Reaction Company was to have a platoon on constant standby to react to any situation that required some reinforcement.  The two platoons that were not involved in the ready reaction task were involved in patrolling the TAOR and doing general duties around the task force base.  While it was great to sleep in a comfortable dry bed most of the Company would have preferred to be away from Nui Dat on operations.  I had to agree that we were happier when we were away from the base where alcohol, TV and a dull routine took its toll both physically and mentally.

One of the tasks of Reaction Company was to man the Base Defence Command Post and keep abreast of what was going on in the Task Force area.  Then, if called upon to dispatch the Reaction Platoon, you would have a better picture of what you were likely to encounter.  On the night of August 11th I was in the Command Post writing letters and keeping one ear on the continuous chatter that was issuing forth from the array of wireless sets tuned to the other battalions command nets.  About 2100 hours I heard that a large group of enemy had moved though an 8RAR ambush.  The ambush had not been initiated because they were still in the process of preparing the site.  I left the Command Post wondering how the sergeant in command of the ambush would explain this missed opportunity.  Our Duty Officer told me at breakfast the next morning that the ambush had been initiated at 0315 hours that morning when the enemy resupply party returned via the same route.  The result was 19 enemy dead, 6 captured, and vast quantities of weapons, food, clothing and equipment taken.

So, on August 23rd we were re-deployed as a Company back into the area of the Nui Ong Trinh and Nui Thi Vai Hills to continue with Operation Cung Chung 2.  While we were waiting for our helicopters to arrive at Eagle Farm (the Task Force helicopter pad) the Coy HQ group took the opportunity to put ourselves over the scales at the weigh station to see who was carrying the most weight.  As expected I came out with the lightest load but it still was around 55 kilograms.  I think that the M60 machine gunner with his 800 rounds of ammunition and seven days of rations came out on top with about 90 kilograms.  It was little wonder that the helicopter pilots would see us NZers coming and drop a passenger from their normal loading.  If they hadn’t noticed that it was Kiwis that they were carrying they would take the normal load and try to lift off.  When the helicopter failed to respond they would look over their shoulder and ask for at least one soldier to get off and wait for the next helicopter.

After a week back in the operational area and no sign of the enemy we were redeployed yet again.  The task this time around was to protect the engineers who were carrying out land clearing east of Route 15.  The aim of land clearing was to widen and clear fell the jungle either side of the tracks that criss-crossed the country.  It was thought that with Allied air supremacy and the loss of daylight cover afforded by the trees and jungle foliage that the enemy would be restricted to night movement.  If they moved by night we would have a better chance of ambushing them and reducing our own chances of casualties.  The land clearing was taking place in an AO called Mango with the engineers using large tracked bulldozers fitted with an angled blade known as a Roman Plough.  It was assessed that only one platoon was needed to provide protection for the Engineers, which meant that the other two platoons, could patrol aggressively in the remainder of the AO.  On September 10th the rest of the Battalion moved back to Nui Dat leaving only ourselves in the area to protect the Engineers and provide security for FSB Gail which was going to be used by the Battalion when they redeployed after their break.  With 2RAR less ourselves back in Nui Dat it was decided that we would come under operational control of 8RAR who were conducting operations in an AO close by.  Not a problem.  At this time Sergeant Joe Yandall was leading 3 Platoon and they were operating with the South Vietnamese forces east of the village of Thai Thein.  Arrangements had been made for a “Mousetrap” for them to operate in. A Mousetrap is the codename for the procedure adopted by a unit to enter the operational area of another unit, especially close to or astride an interunit boundary.  The platoon had two contacts with the enemy, which resulted in three enemy dead.  These successful contacts were the catalyst for us to cynically predict what would happen next and we were not wrong.  Within a few hours of 3 Platoon successfully completing their contacts the CO 8RAR Lt Col Keith O’Neill arrived at our Coy HQ by helicopter.  He was delighted with the outcome of the contacts, and as we were under his operational control, he wanted full details so that the enemy body count could be credited to his Battalion.  We were not surprised, as he had made a similar request when we were under his operational control briefly during the change over of Battalions in May.  Then there was the question of how long would we be allowed to have the Mousetrap?  Our guess was that we would be out the next day and we were right.  We were withdrawn from that area and an Australian element took our place.  It certainly wasn’t the first time and we predicted that it was unlikely to be the last!

We returned to Nui Dat on September 25th and then had a couple of days in Vung Tau at the Peter Badcoe Club.  I have already mentioned that I did not enjoy these periods of R in C as the soldiers, despite the exhortation to behave themselves, always got into trouble.  When we arrived at the Club the whole Company was given a briefing by the Military Police.  Even I found their warnings provocative and I am sure they have a lot to answer for if blame for our soldier’s behaviour was to be apportioned.  After this visit I wrote, “We have just returned from a couple of days at Vung Tau.  Everyone enjoys the break but it isn’t really a holiday for the command element!  NZers, beer, money and Vietnamese women are a pretty volatile concoction so we have to be constantly on the alert.  Fortunately none of the soldiers to the best our knowledge use drugs even though they are easily obtained.  It is quite a load off the mind to know that save for the day we fly out our visits to Vung Tau are through!”

The low level of enemy activity throughout the Task Force was probably best illustrated by low patient numbers passing through the Task Force Hospital in Vung Tau.  I commented at the time “Our last few days on operations were very quiet indeed.  All over Vietnam the level of war activity is very low.  This fact is pleasantly reflected in the number of casualty patients in the Hospital in Vung Tau.  I noticed yesterday that one of the wards was closed and that they hadn’t had a war injury for 27 days”.

We had not operated as part of 2RAR for some time.  On September 21st the Battalion less ourselves had commenced Operation Cung Chung 3 and the tasks assigned were to continue to protect the land clearing in AO Mango, to protect the Engineer Road Construction on Route 2, to secure FSPB Gail and Le Loi, to maintain the boat patrol in the Rung Sat, to maintain the security of the Task Force Base and provide a ready reaction force.  Over the past few months we had been involved in most of these tasks so it was a case of carry on as usual.  On October 8th we were getting ready to deploy for our last operation when 3 Platoon, the reaction platoon, was activated to block the suspected escape routes of an enemy party that had made contact with C Company 2RAR.  For some time the CO had been trying to get the company commanders to employ the tracking dogs in the Anti Tank Platoon.  No one wanted tracking dogs because they had proven to be unreliable and we had no prior experience of working with them. We considered that our trained soldier trackers could do the job and more importantly they could communicate what they saw and heard.  Someone in Battalion HQ decided to deploy a couple of dogs with 3 Platoon when they were given the short notice message to move.  The rest of our Company was activated a few hours later.  By 1500 hours we were inPte Tom Cooper RNZIR - DOW 11 October 1970 ambush positions about 3 kilometres from the C Company contact.  For three days we patrolled and ambushed the area but there was no evidence of enemy having used or passed through in recent times.  Meanwhile 3 Platoon working with a dog had been frustrated with the amount of “pointing” which on further examination proved to be false.  They were working through a very closely wooded area as a half platoon on October 10th when the dog once again gave the sign that there was enemy close at hand.  Unfortunately the enemy happened to be the other half of the platoon and an engagement was initiated.  The upshot of the tragic mistake was the death of Private Thomas Cooper and the wounding of Privates Dunlea, Samson and Herd.  Having avoided inflicting own troop casualties though friendly fire for 11 months we were now faced with an avoidable catastrophe during our last operation in Vietnam.  [the full story of the accident is here I was both sad and very angry.  Sad that Thomas Cooper had died and angry that I had not insisted that the dog be withdrawn because of our lack of experience in working with them.  The next day I decided to join 3 Platoon with my radio operator so that I could speak individually and collectively to the soldiers about the tragedy.  The platoon continued with their patrolling and ambushing, minus the dog, and I acted as a supernumerary for a couple of days before rejoining the Coy HQ group.  On October 31st we flew back to Nui Dat to prepare for our return home.

Pte Tom Cooper RNZIR - DOW 11 October 1970

Four days before leaving the jungle for the last time we commenced the 14-day course of anti malarial pills.  The idea was to rid our systems of malaria.  The course to be taken was exactly the same treatment given to folk who contract malaria.  We were warned that during the first few days we could have a number of sick soldiers about.  The course had to be strictly controlled with the pills taken with food three times a day under supervision.  Primaquine (small brown pill) was taken three times daily every day and Chloroquine (large pink pill) taken twice daily for the first day and one pill over the next two days.  The information given with the pills said that the course should rid the body of malaria that would have been suppressed by the Paludrine that we had been taking all year.

Back in Nui Dat we hosted three farewell functions.  The first was the traditional company barbecue held on the evening of November 4th. The next was a lunch gathering a few days later to which we invited representatives of the units that we had worked with.  Then to the final gathering in the mess hall on November 9th where I made my final speech and presented mementos to everyone.  It was quite an emotive time as we were breaking up after 18 months together and the opportunities to see and work together in the future would be fleeting and probably infrequent.

more:  Farewell Address to W3 Coy

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