Anatomy of a Bunker Contact
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Anatomy of a bunker contact
AN ACTION REPLAY FROM THE HAT DICH

© David Wilkins
Adjutant & OC C Company
2nd Tour
author: David Wilkins

Rarely during the Vietnam War did an infantryman involved in a battle ever experience an "action replay", but that is exactly what happened to Lt Ian Hosie and his soldiers of 7 Platoon, C Company, the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) who had been embroiled in a prolonged engagement with an aggressive enemy on 31 July 1969. Some years after the war Lt Hosie received information that an RAAF gunship helicopter co-pilot, Pilot Officer Jack Lynch, possessed an audio tape containing much of the radio conversations between the ground troops and the various support aircraft in that battle.

5RAR had just commenced Operation Camden in the Hat Dich Secret Zone, an enemy haven since the days of the Viet-Minh (or First Indochina) War, and in 1969 athumbnail map of hat dich stronghold base for the headquarters and battalions' of Sub-Region 4 (SR4, about 1,100 men), the battalions' of 274 VC Infantry Regiment (about 700 strong), both with a majority of North Vietnamese Army regulars, and the crack North Vietnamese Army unit, D67 Engineer Battalion. The Hat Dich (pronounced "hut zic") area was located in the north-west corner of Phuoc Tuy Province to the north of the Nui Thai Vai mountain complex, straddling the border into Bien Hoa Province. The combination of both road (Route 15 from Saigon to Vung Tau) and extensive waterway approaches through the marshy Rung Sat to the west of Route 15 gave it logistical importance, whilst the undulating and generally featureless dense tall-timbered jungle of the Hat Dich itself provided an ideal operational base for the enemy (see map above).

5RAR's Operation Camden had a twofold task: first, it provided the infantry protection for a US Land Clearing Team of thirty Caterpillar D8s with their huge Rome ploughs as they felled large tracts of jungle housing these enemy installations; and second, by reconnaissance in force, it aimed at locating and destroying enemy main force units. Bunker systems of company and battalion size, generally sited near water, were frequently located during this one-month operation for which the After Action Report summarised the successful discovery and destruction of over a thousand bunkers, hundreds of weapon pits and over 1500 metres of tunnels.

7 Platoon was newly-formed after the loss of 3 killed and 18 wounded from enemy mines a few weeks earlier in the Long Hai Hills. Its Platoon Commander, 2Lt Dave Mead, plus the platoon sergeant, two corporals, a lance corporal and the majority of the riflemen had to be replaced. Lt Ian Hosie ("Hoss") was moved from the Tracker Platoon to take command, new NCOs were promoted from within the Battalion (including West Australian assault pioneer, Cpl John ("Doc") Halliday, who became platoon sergeant) and 23 replacements were obtained from the Task Force Reinforcement Holding Unit. They assembled and underwent immediate training whilst still on Operation Esso within the shadow of the mine-ridden Long Hai Hills - a challenging task. The Battalion then returned to Nui Dat for a rest during which time 7 Platoon's training continued. It was a credit to Lt Hosie and his NCOs that, within such a short time, the platoon was not only trained to battle efficiency but was also moulded into a cohesive team.

The move to the Hat Dich occurred on 29-30 July 1969. C Company 5RAR began operating in an area about 9 kms east of Route 15 in dense jungle near the Suói Dá Vang, a substantial creek which flows generally west towards the small hamlet of Thai Thien on Route 15 before emptying into the Rung Sat. 7, 8 and 9 Platoons were deployed separately well ahead of the bulldozers to ensure no enemy interfered with the clearing operation, and within no time were making contact with enemy forces.

Then, at 0915 hours on 31 July, Hosie's 7 Platoon briefly encountered and fired at what appeared to be an enemy water party of 5 to 8 men on a well-used track leading to the stream. Dressed in grey-green uniforms and carrying AK 47 assault rifles and large plastic containers, they appeared to take casualties from a 7 Platoon machine gun before they rapidly withdrew to the north. Hosie immediately called for a tracker team from his old platoon to assist in the pursuit. Private Paddy Walker and his tracker dog, Caesar, attached to Company Headquarters (CHQ), were soon on the enemy scent. As speed and security were essential to a successful track, Hosie used a lightened fighting patrol (without packs) consisting of himself, his radio operator, Pte Lance Reeves, a 6-man section under the experienced Cpl Mick (Bolts) Bolton (the sole remaining corporal from the earlier 7 Platoon strength), and the tracking team of Paddy Walker and his Labrador-Kelpie cross, Caesar. They set a scorching pace. The balance of 7 Platoon, commanded by Sgt "Doc" Halliday, and CHQ followed a distance behind carrying the discarded packs and additional ammunition.

After 45 minutes with his nostrils close to the ground and rapidly closing in on the enemy through the thick undergrowth, Caesar suddenly froze, lifted his nose and pointed, straining his body and head forwards, ears erect. Bolton's section immediately swept through the designated area but no enemy was contacted, although there were fresh signs of their having stopped to treat their casualties, among them some bloody shell dressings and indications of saplings cut for stretcher poles. The pursuit continued along the northern side of the creek. At one point the fleeing enemy split up, one group crossing the creek, the other staying on the northern side and moving north-east. Paddy and Caesar, leading the patrol, followed the second group.

The enemy commander must have realised just how close the pursuit was to him as he began to employ some clever avoidance and ambushing tactics. After another half hour Caesar pointed a second time, and again the assault section swept through from the flank. This time some enemy were seen fleeing though the thick scrub and it became obvious they had doubled back to ambush their own tracks but had been foiled by the width of the flanking sweep following Caesar's early warning. By now it was early afternoon.

New enemy deceptive tactics were employed. This time they followed a track but then veered off at a steep angle through the thick undergrowth for several hundred metres before hooking back in a semi-circle to ambush their pursuers on the track. At this point Paddy and Caesar stopped while Hoss moved forward to give instructions. As he came close Paddy suddenly raised his weapon and fired from the waist past his skipper. He had spotted a Viet Cong in the undergrowth on rising ground above them 15 metres away preparing to fire his AK47, but fortunately Paddy was both quicker and deadly accurate. A second enemy concealed in the vegetation fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) before fleeing. An immediate assault located the dead enemy but, as he was dressed differently (in American greens) to the ones seen earlier, it seemed he might have been a sentry for a nearby bunker system. Other signs of a bunker system were also noticed including the distinctive ethnic smell, cut logs, stumps camouflaged with mud, twigs and leaves, the heavy use of a track system and close proximity to water.

As Mick Bolton's section had been working non-stop for hours during the pursuit and his section machine gun had just broken its firing pin, Hoss arranged a swap with Lance Corporal Ian Leis's section about mid afternoon. CHQ (Company Head Quarters) established a firm base on a small, timbered knoll near where Paddy had shot the Viet Cong sentry. No bunker system had been positively located at this stage so Hoss tasked "Leisy", Sandy McKinnon, Jim McMillan and a fourth man with a spare radio, to check further ahead for any bunkers. They silently followed the line of the 30 cm-wide track but kept either side of it in the thick vegetation. At one point forward scout Sandy noticed a cigarette lighter beside the track; he checked it; it worked. Then about 200 metres from platoon HQ Leisy noticed an unusually bushy area and stopped his patrol to check it. They slowly crawled up to a large log and carefully peered over it to discover an enclosed cooking area with pots, tins, Hessian bags and plastic water containers near the ashes of an old open fireplace. It was all well concealed by a bamboo frame camouflaged with fern fronds and leaves. The patrol crouched looking at this and small well-hidden tracks leading to what appeared to be bunkers several metres either side. With the smell of both cooking and humans now distinct at such a close range they realised they were actually within the bunker system. Although the jungle was completely silent the patrol members, with mouths dry and adrenalin racing, could hear their hearts thumping. Suddenly from behind a bunker beyond the cooking hut appeared two unsuspecting soldiers in grey-green uniforms, combat webbing with ammunition pouches, wearing pith helmets and carrying AK47 assault rifles. Reacting swiftly and taking advantage of their obvious amazement and fear, Leisy fired at them from point blank range, dropping them to the ground.

Enemy rifle fire seemed to erupt from every bush to their left (north) as the four men hastily pulled back, Jim McMillan effectively using his M79 grenade launcher to give them an initial break. Some enemy began to pursue them, firing both small arms and RPGs, but Leisy's men, using leapfrog fire and movement, covered each other and halted the enemy as they retreated to their platoon firm base. They reported their findings to their platoon commander: numerous enemy in at least 4 to 6 bunkers, well-concealed on the high ground to the north of the stream. These were not black-pyjama Viet Cong but North Vietnamese regulars. They were well-armed and aggressive but had taken casualties.

It was 1645 hours

Hosie discussed the situation with the acting Company Commander, Captain Bill Titley, and it was decided from prior experience that a quick aggressive assault would not necessarily be met by a staunch defence but would be more likely to cause an enemy withdrawal. Initially Hosie prepared his plan of attack on what he thought was a small platoon position: with air and artillery support they would do a left flanking assault with two sections up and one in reserve, while CHQ  remained in the firm base. The attack H hour (start time) was set for 1730 hours.

Then things began to unravel: artillery and mortar support were unavailable and the fighter attack aircraft could not be employed because of the danger to the assaulting sections who would be too close to the target impact zone. As well, one rifle section remained with CHQ as part of the firm base thus leaving just two sections of 6 men each plus Platoon HQ for the assault, with its sole fire support from a RAAF gunship helicopter (light fire team). Hoss asked Paddy if he could assist in the assault. His reply was both tactically sound and given with Paddy's typical Aboriginal humour in an exaggerated accent:

"Boss, dem black blokes am good at lead'n and track'n but no good at attack'n. Dem white troops are legendary and best at dat, but dem poor black troops am hopeless."

In fact, despite the small quantity of ammunition held by the tracker (this assisted his speed of movement), Paddy said he would assist if required, but Hoss decided against it, keeping him for his specialty.

By now the late afternoon downpour of rain had begun.

Hoss designated Ian Leis's section with acting forward scout, Sandy McKinnon (usually a machine gunner), to lead the assault force to the bunkers through the scrub well to the north of the track. "Take as much time as you like Mac," he instructed Sandy, noting that stealth and surprise from this different approach might provide one of their few advantages. The undergrowth was thick and visibility limited as they slowly but quietly progressed towards the enemy. Sandy did not see the line of camouflaged bunkers until an enemy suddenly loomed two metres to his front raising his AK47 to fire. The rounds slammed into Sandy's chest with such force that he was thrown several metres onto his back. Other rounds that had struck his weapon shattered it and forced it from his grasp as he was propelled away. The North Vietnamese soldiers had been in position and, although surprised by this sudden appearance, were ready and immediately opened up with all their weapons at Leis's section and Platoon HQ who all hit the ground and returned fire. The onslaught had all the sudden explosive force of a sprung ambush.

"I've been hit, I've been hit." Sandy said as he struggled to regain his feet, realising that the traumatic impact to his chest had caused serious injuries. Doc Halliday, who was close by, yelled at him "Friggin' get down or you'll get another one!" (This was the second time Sandy had been wounded in as many operations.)

The light fire team gunship (radio call sign "Bushranger 71") had arrived as the assault sections' were moving towards the bunkers and soon after the battle began was requested by Hosie to fire its rockets at the bunkers through the forest canopy, and provide cover to the assaulting troops using its mini guns and mounted twin M60 machine guns.

[It is from this time that the audio tape commences, small extracts of which are shown in italics. The chopper captain was a New Zealander, Flight Lieutenant Ted Creelman, whose co-pilot and crewman were Australians', Pilot Officer Jack Lynch and LAC Alan Lamb.]

The momentum of the Australian assault was stalled by the ferocious impact of the well-armed and larger force. Rifleman Jim McMillan (a reinforcement to 7 Platoon only a few weeks earlier) scrambled to a mound from where he fired furiously into a bunker. His platoon commander also used this mound to better observe the enemy layout, but within minutes Jim was mortally wounded through the heart. He rolled over into the arms of Hoss who urged:

"Hold on Jim, hold on."
"No, I can't. I'm going, I'm going ..." Jim replied.

He died instantaneously. There was just a small hole and a tiny spot of blood to his left shirt pocket.

The withering enemy AK47 and RPD machine gun fire with its distinctive green tracer, together with the explosions of the RPGs was coming from just a few metres away. It was deafening and like a deadly sheet of hot metal slicing through the air and undergrowth just centimetres above the heads of the assault section and platoon HQ, pinning them down. It stripped the foliage from above the prone soldiers so that leaves and branches rained down and settled upon and around them. Hoss, acknowledging the crisis, said to his sergeant:

"We're in the shit, Doc."

He shouted orders from his position but immediately attracted increased fire upon himself and his headquarters group.

Nearby, National Service rifleman, Private Rod Zunneberg, was caught unable to move in an enemy fire lane. He yelled:

"For Christ's sake Jim, shoot 'em so I can move."

Rod couldn't understand why Jim was not firing ... Jim was already dead.

Rod's predicament was relieved, and he believed his life saved, through the furious firing and aggressive actions by his section commander, Ian Leis, who silenced at least one bunker by shooting directly into its firing slit. That caused the enemy to momentarily slow their firing long enough for Rod to roll to a less vulnerable position.

English-born machine gunner Pte Colin ("Rastas") Jones was also firing intensely at the bunkers, an action which immediately attracted additional attention from the enemy. To reduce the silhouette of his M60 machine gun, Rastas folded the bipod legs to keep the muzzle closer to the ground as his weapon pounded away at the defensive position. It was his gun that gave the most effective covering fire for the extraction of their casualties.

Cpl Jock MacLean, section commander of the reserve assault section, repositioned hisMap of the area men to put in a right flanking attack, but the scrub was so thick as to be almost impenetrable and the enemy fire again too strong so that their movement was halted 50 metres from the objective. Hoss ordered them to pull back and redeploy about 100 metres on the left flank of Leis's men, and to attack again from that angle. This would enable better fire support at right angles from Leis's section when the new assault closed in on what the platoon commander assessed would be the rear perimeter of the bunker system. Overhead "Bushranger's" mini guns gave close covering fire to MacLean's section as it tried to move into position past some open spaces made by old B52 bomb craters.

Unfortunately the bunker system was far more extensive than initially thought andA heavily camouflaged Viet Cong bunker instead of hitting the rear they really had struck a lateral extension of the original bunkers, all of which were occupied by well-armed enemy. Within a short time that left flanking assault was also pinned down by intense RPG and machine gun fire with experienced section 2nd in command Lance Corporal Barry (Bazza) Baker, and recent reinforcements, machine gunner Pte Andy MacDougal and his number 2, Pte John (Buddah) Martini, isolated on the left flank close to the forward line of bunkers. This was the first indicator that 7 platoon was in fact facing a force considerably larger than initially estimated, and one that now appeared to be of company strength (the position was later found to be 150 metres in diameter and to have been occupied by members of 4th Battalion SR4).

Andy poured machine gun fire at the nearby bunkers and in doing so attracted intense return fire from adjacent ones that were sited in mutually supporting positions. A barrage of RPG 2 and RPG 7 fire exploded all around and above him and Buddah. The explosions of the heavier RPG 7 were particularly ear shattering and as Andy recalled later, their heat was like "putting your head in a 300 degree fan-forced oven." His number 2, Buddah Martini, was wounded in this exchange when an RPG exploded in a tree above them, showering them with branches, foliage and white-hot shrapnel. The worst shrapnel wound was to Buddah's inner thigh just above his left knee, exposing but not severing the main artery.

"Are you badly hurt?" yelled Andy. "I think I'm OK," answered Buddah who had turned a ghostly white.

"Well, throw us your ammo, patch yourself up and do it tight, mate; then get yourself out of here" said the machine gunner.

Bazza Baker leopard-crawled up to Buddah as he was applying his shell dressing to pad the gaping wound and strapping it to his thigh before the wounded man slowly crawled away and extracted himself from the action. Bazza was concerned about some firing some distance to their flank so moved to a position 10 metres to Andy's left. They were now alone and isolated close to the bunkers on 7 Platoon's extreme left flank. Andy continued firing as targets occurred, including one who was aiming his RPG towards Hosie's platoon headquarters.

Platoon signaller, Pte Lance Reeves, radioed back to CHQ:
 

31: "30, this is 31, we have three casualties. Dustoff, over."

[CHQ was radio call sign 3 or 30 ("Three-Zero") while 7 Platoon was call sign 31("Three-One").]
 

30: "31 this is 30, yes we've got you. We have Dustoff standing by, over."

CO 5RAR, Lt. Col Colin ("Genghis") Khan (call sign "Niner"), was hovering in the "Possum" bubble helicopter nearby just above tree top level:
 

9: "30, this is Niner, I have arranged Dustoff through my means."

 (meaning he had passed this onto the Battalion Command Post using another radio net). The presence of the popular Genghis was a real morale boost for the diggers below.

Hosie spoke to CHQ:

31: "30 this is 31,we have three casualties: two bad. It looks like a sizeable bunker system. I've tried to whip around to the left but it is a bit doubtful."

By this time both assault sections were unable to advance because of the larger defending force with its superior firepower. It was apparent to Hosie that his force was too small to overrun this high quality NVA enemy whose effective use of its weapons was both accurate and intense, particularly along well-concealed fire lanes trimmed low through the undergrowth. After some time he reported on the radio:
 

30: "31, it's too big. I'm pulling back. When can we get Dustoff, over?"

Details of the three casualties were provided: "two walking and one litter; one is very bad, over."

Colonel Khan, overhearing this, suggested to Bill Titley:
 

9: 3 this is Niner, tell 31 if he can get those casualties back closer to your loc, there are a few shell crater clearings I can see there suitable for Dustoff. Also that will enable you to get Bushranger in, as well as safely extracting your casualties, over.
3: "3, that is being done. He's extracting himself now and as soon as they are sufficiently clear we'll get Bushranger and Dustoff in, over."

The medical treatment provided to the wounded soldiers in difficult conditions was fairly basic at this stage. Platoon medic, Pte Max Hedley, had quickly reached Sandy whose chest wound had caused blood to well in his mouth. "I think I'm dying," said Sandy to Max, who replied, "C'mon Mac, you'll be right. We'll get you back." Hugging the ground Sandy crawled onto Leisy's shoulder as they worked their way back to where Platoon HQ was now located. Hoss, unaware of Sandy's injuries, asked, "Where's your weapon, Mac?"

"I've been shot, sir," he answered. "Where?" asked Hoss. Sandy opened his shirt to reveal his chest wound. "Oh shit" said Hoss, "Leisy, can you get him back to CHQ?"

By this time Leisy was out of ammunition, having expended all magazines for his M16 Armalite. The two men slowly began their journey to the rear under fire, Sandy, strangely feeling little pain but very unsteady on this feet and supported by Leisy. He refused to lie down for a rest however, fearful he would go to sleep and not wake up.

Max Hedley next attended to Buddah Martini, stemming the blood flow with field dressings and administering morphine to relieve the pain, then painting the letter "M" on his forehead (in his own blood) to warn others of the medication given so far. Being close to the enemy weapons and restricted to the prone position, there was only so much that the medic could do. Rifleman and trained medic, Pte Bob Wyatt, had also experienced that grief and despair of not being able to do anything for Jim McMillan when he reached him and attempted to help, before assisting in extracting his body.

About 45 minutes had passed since the first assault had been launched.

A major problem was to extract themselves from under the enemy's noses, a difficult task with two wounded men and one dead. Crawling on their sides and pulling with their one free hand Doc Halliday, Rod Zunneberg and Max Hedley began desperately dragging Jim's body through the tangled undergrowth with the enemy fire just inches above their heaving bodies.

"God, give us strength," grunted Doc, a man small of stature but big of heart, as they struggled to extract Jim's body in these desperate conditions.

To assist the extraction Hosie coordinated increased fire support for each man or group as they pulled back. He called in the gunship fire as well, throwing smoke to clearly identify their position. Above the din Barry Baker and Andy MacDougal heard the call "withdraw" from their far left flank position. Baker threw smoke for the gunship (call sign "Bushranger 71") but deliberately lobbed it behind himself and Andy so that Bushranger's fire would come even closer to them and strike the nearest bunkers just 15 to 20 metres away. It was risky but justified in the circumstances.
 

Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, I can see smoke coming through the canopy and can hear small arms fire from there, over."
3: "31, yeah, that's us; you're above us now. We're firing that to cover our blokes getting out, over."

Bazza began pulling back while Andy held his position and continued firing to cover the others till they were clear. This achieved its aim but also attracted intense enemy fire upon himself. Then he and Bazza gradually extracted themselves.

At CHQ Bill Titley was requesting an ammunition resupply and was preparing for the Dustoff evacuation of the wounded from his end where the trees were about 60 feet high:

3: "Niner this is 3, have you noticed any suitable spots for Dustoff to come in, or will it be winching, over?"
9: "Niner, it looks like winching from a bomb crater closer to your loc, over."
3:

"3 roger out."

Hosie's shouted orders were still attracting close attention from the enemy however, with the result that his headquarters group was hit by a number of exploding RPGs, one hurling Hosie to the ground in one direction and his platoon sergeant, Doc Halliday, and medic Max Hedley several metres in another direction into an old B52 bomb crater. Another blast threw radio operator Lance Reeves about five metres through the air and upended him so he landed on his head with the radio set propping his feet into the air. The blast not only stunned Lance but also temporarily deafened him, so that even by the time he got his radio set operational again he was unable to hear CHQ trying to make radio contact:

30: 31 this is 30 over."
30: "31 this is 30 over."

These calls were repeated several times over the next few minutes without response.

30:

"31 this is 30 over."

Then, after several minutes Pte Reeves answered.

31:

(with deafening sounds of explosions and small arms fire in the background): "31, over."

30:

"30, we have a Dustoff position to your rear, closer to our loc, as soon as you can extract yourself."

31:

"31, say again over." (He still had trouble hearing.)

30:

"30, when can you get back here, over?"

31:

"31, to your loc over?"

30:

"30, affirmative, over."

[Silence]

30:

"31 this is 30, tell your sunray that as soon as he is clear enough from the enemy, throw smoke so Bushranger can engage. He hasn't got much fuel left, over."

31:

"Roger, wait out."

The enemy detected what 7 Platoon was doing and began to counter attack through the scrub. This was also part of the North Vietnamese enemy tactic of "hugging" its enemy so as to avoid artillery, mortar and aerial fire called down on their defences. It enabled them, as Australians said, to "hold our belt and still punch us." It meant in this situation that Hosie would have to call in Bushranger's fire very close to his own troops.

31 (Hosie):

"I need Bushranger now; I'll throw smoke, over."

They threw smoke to identify their extremities for the gunship.

31: Smoke thrown over.
Bushranger 71: "31 this is Bushranger 71, I see yellow smoke. What distance for suppression from the smoke, over?"
31: "31, a bearing of 2800 from the yellow smoke, over."

[Providing a compass bearing from the smoke was essential to ensure the helicopter gunship engaged the enemy and didn't shoot up friendly troops.]

30: "31 this is 30, what distance is the enemy from the yellow smoke, over?"
31: "31, they are assaulting us, over!"
30: "30, roger we'll get Bushranger straight in, out to you; Bushranger 71 this is 30, the enemy is close in on the yellow smoke on a bearing of 2800. Engage over."
Bushranger 71: "Roger, we're rolling in 20 seconds. We'll start about 50 to 100 metres out initially, over."
31: "31, could you bring it in to 50 metres from the smoke over?"
Bushranger 71: "31 this Bushranger 71, rolling in now."
31: "What's that over?"
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, commencing firing path now, over."
31: "31, one of our flanks is also just throwing smoke."
Bushranger 71: "Roger, we'll be firing to the south-east of that smoke, over."

The gunship made a strafing pass, successfully firing at the designated target.

A bushranger gunship engages the enemy with machingun and rocket fire

31: "Keep on that, over."
Bushranger 71: "How's that fire, over?"
31: "31, that's lovely, over."

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