Trevor 'Taffy' Cheeseman
Throughout our tours of duty in Vietnam, Australian
fighting battalions were required at times to assist in
the protection of American engineer land clearing teams
building fire trails. The fire trail was a cleared area
in the jungle, generally about 500 metres wide but could
be up to 5 kilometres long to be used as a free fire
zone. Meaning any movement in that area drew deadly fire
that could be brought to bear from either helicopter
gunships, artillery ground attack, aircraft or troops,
no questions asked. Sadly local village woodcutters
often wandered into the free fire zone and never
returned to their village.
Bulldozers were used to build the fire zones, up to
thirty at a time were used with Rome ploughs. All were
heavily protected with thick steel around the cabin to
protect the operator from small arms fire and
rocket propelled grenades
(RPG's) plus they had additional American troops and
Carriers (APC's) in support close by for added
was to give added protection day and night to the land
clearing team the 501 Engineer Company (US). 5RAR was
to be in direct support. The need to patrol at a
distance, and ambush at night; and to clear areas that
are to be land cleared of any enemy, their camps and
protection the engineers pushed up earth 2-3 metres high
and formed a defensive circle at night around them with
everything inside protected with APCs forming strong
points here and there, making it reasonably easy to
defend. But you had to be constantly alert and not allow
the enemy to move unseen to the outer perimeter, as they
would be difficult to dislodge..
fire trails made it
easier for spotter aircraft
to locate enemy signs or movement as they would fly
around all day every day and at night dropping flares.
Free fire zones were tactically situated in areas where
there had been known movement of enemy units and major
base areas. To create open areas close to cities, towns,
villages and airbases to obstruct his movement, and to
make it difficult to get close.
a rifle company would be required for this task of
protection with all the three platoons patrolling in
different areas. Searching creeks looking for signs and
to deny the enemy the ground close to the engineers but
all the time not getting us to far away, but far enough
away not to hear the noise of the bulldozers.
quiet day of patrolling the platoon was given the task
on the first night to stay with the Americans. We looked
forward to that as we were rationed in for the evening
meal with them. Fresh food would be flown in everyday
and only for the evening meal. "You beauty!" as the
meals were excellent giving us a break from the 24 hour
combat rations we normally carried. With the meal you
had a choice of a can of soft drink or the famous one
litre carton of chocolate milk.
was uneventful other than the Americans were very noisy,
some were smoking dope and talked aloud amongst
themselves but were very friendly to us and we got on
very well. We teased them all the time that we were
going to win the America's cup, which we did a couple of
years later with 'Bondy'.
morning we moved out after our normal morning routine
i.e. cleaning weapons shaving and a cuppa with bickies
maybe with a tin of egg and bacon. It was not usual to
heat your food. Final orders normally followed which
consisted of a 'SitRep' (Situation Report). Likely
location of friendly forces, a mission statement and
execution of tasks, the enemy locations, what he is
doing and his movements, administrative and logistic
tasks, i.e. water rations ammo and other stores
required. Finally communications, radio sets, issuing of
codes, frequencies, unit call signs and passwords.
task was to protect the Americans at a distance with
slow patrolling, stop sit down rest listen, and then the
sequence would start all over again. At times the
platoon headquarters would prop, stay where they were,
then send one or two sections out in different
directions for five hundred metres or so to search, then
return rest and listen for awhile, then the whole
platoon would move on again.
now getting late in the day and it started to rain, it
was very heavy and the noise was so loud you could not
hear yourself think as the rain crashed down on your
pack and the surrounding jungle. We knew the platoon
commander was looking for a night harbour (all round
defence guns at 12 o'clock 4 and 8) with the field
signal given (upward pointing circling finger).
platoon commander signalled halt, then moved forward to
the lead section to 'recce' (reconnaissance) for a
platoon defensive harbour, met up with the section
commander and forward scout, and moved forward to have a
look. He then noticed a well worn recently used foot
track, and that meant one option only ... Ambush.
to do a serious recce of the ambush location so the
platoon commander decided we would have an area type
ambush by splitting the platoon into two killing groups
approximately one hundred metres apart. It was thick
jungle and it would require us to be very close to the
Killing Ground no more than 10 metres away. This type of
ambush was used as we were not sure what direction enemy
movement would come from. One section would act as the
Killing Group and the other section the Cut-Off group or
in reverse. This depended on the direction of the enemy.
placement of the sections we all carried out our normal
ambush tasks of placing out to our flanks
claymore mines in the
most effective positions to act in themselves as cut
offs. The best position was on our right flank where the
claymores were spaced apart, so that their seven hundred
ball bearings would cross arcs. The claymore mine had a
small sight on top to aim but you had to lay down to do
this and then judge and aim waist height for it to be
effective. We needed to catch those outside the killing
scary out there, setting up the three claymore mines as
anybody could come along and surprise us. Moving around
placing the claymores, you took great care in not
leaving any signs you had been there, never walking on
the killing ground or overly trampling the surrounding
was still falling heavily as we positioned ourselves on
the ground in three groups of four one-hour pickets with
three hours sleep time throughout the night. This
started as soon as it got dark around 5pm and made the
nights very long and tiring. We had no meal or a brew as
we had no time because the track was discovered late in
the position behind the Killing Ground for the groups
was a skill in itself. The communications cord was laid
out to each group and to the platoon commander at the
rear. The communication cord was a thin piece of green
nylon cord, and very strong. Also used to put up our
hootchies (tents), and used as our perimeter cord at night in our harbour
positions to keep us from mistakenly wandering off the
track on a picket change. Within the ambush, the
communications cord had to be free to move so the shrub
had to be cleared along its length. Tugging on the
communications cord was done very carefully so as not to
give you away and was done by tugging slowly, not to be
jerked. Any obstructions in the way could give your
position away (noise). The communications cord was never
to be slack.
a rather tall man, well over six foot, was out on sentry
while all the section tasks were being carried out in
setting up our ambush position. Lofty was placed down
the track just out of range of our noise. Lofty feared
doing any form of sentry duties and would creep back in
and hide behind a bush close to us (another story). This
would make him feel safe and more secure. Whenever he
was placed on sentry duties you always had to check
again. Anyway we were ready to settle down; it was
getting darker and I signalled lofty to come in and
join his group and be quickly briefed.
shown his position on the left flank of the killing
group he seemed rather agitated, as he hated being a
sentry. Lofty was shown his position on the ground and
also pointed out the killing ground in front of him. He
was not happy with his spot it was too rough and uneven
"bullshit, thanks you blokes". Lofty mumbled a few more
words and moved to a spot he thought would be a better
position not realising that he was now getting closer to
the Killing Ground. He failed to realise this and
settled down and not realising it he pulled away from
his group. He did not realise where he was in relation
to the track, actually it came a little closer. That
group had a long night, as soon as lofty got himself
comfortable he fell asleep and failed to do his picket
with the other two. He placed himself just out of reach
of the others and this was not known until the next day.
platoon headquarters was to the rear of us with some of
the soldiers from the remaining section, as the rest
were split between the two killing groups. The platoon
headquarters had to be far enough away so you could not
hear the radio set, as an hourly radio check was
required to company headquarters. We then settled down
for the long night. We were ready now to pounce!
your chin on the butt of your weapon was the way to go,
as most had a field dressing taped to the butt on one
side and it was used as a rest spot and a pillow. But
you never got comfortable in ambush when lying on your
stomach with your webbing on. Wanting to move was to be
done very slowly and to never make a noise was
paramount. You had to lie perfectly still with your hand
on the communication cord, and the other hand around the
pistol grip of your weapon. If and when movement was
heard, a long slow tug was all that was needed to alert
un-taped, two per man. (grenades were taped as a safety
precaution after an accident when the pull ring was
pulled from a M26 Fragmentation Grenade on a jagged rear
corner edge when troops were jumping off a truck. Seven
were killed and many wounded (1RAR). The rain was still
falling heavily and the waiting game began.
passed when someone started snoring but was quickly
stirred by the others. If you were a snorer, you were
not aloud to sleep and were kept to the rear with
platoon headquarters. Within one group the snoring kept
on and on so I decided to crawl over "who the hell is on
picket!" No one was awake at all. Once that was sorted
out wriggled back and soon fell to sleep myself.
later my turn for picket and awoke with a cramp in my
lower right leg. What can you do with a cramp with the
need to be quiet moving slowly made it worse, I tried to
straighten my leg at the knee by curling up my foot.
"You bastard!" I whispered, it stayed with me for a long
while before it settled down.
my second time on picket you could hear in the distance
Carriers (APCs). They're getting closer, "what
are they out for?" I said to myself. "If they come this
way the buggers will run over us!" But later we learned
that the Americans generally drove around at night
stirring things up and hoping to run into the enemy.
They were heavily armed with three machine guns on top
and looking for trouble. There was never any less than
three APC's working together. What good tactics at the
time. Those American's were such a worry.
sound drifted off into the distance and we felt safe at
last, and things became quiet around us. The rain had
stopped, and listening was made easier. All the sounds
you heard you exaggerated. "Christ sake what was that!"
Something moving to our front! Yes they're here. Very
slowly I cautiously tugged the communication cord to
bring to alert the others. The time was 0545 hrs on the
morning on August 6th.
shapes could just be seen moving in the direction of the
other killing group at seventy metres away. The enemy
was moving cautiously stopping at times looking around
and making very little noise. They could be seen, as it
was clear to our front with no trees and with the scrub
thinned out and pressed down in parts. We now knew the
other section would initiate the ambush.
as they went by 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 seventy metres they had to
travel before the other group opened up so we had to
hold our fire until that time. It seemed to drag on for
ages. With fingers on the trigger our safety catches
were on safe shifting to fire would of made a noise, the
trick was to shift-fire all in one movement and was
practiced constantly in training on the range, as was
instinctive aiming of your weapon for day and night.
realised we had become the cut off group. Then all of a
sudden torch lights appeared a soft light; everybody had
a torch it seemed. Where the torch is placed and pushed
up under the chin, to reflect a small light towards your
feet and ground followed by twenty others. They were
stumbling and tripping over themselves and whispering.
Lofty was awoken by the noise just in front of him.
"These pricks appeared to be coming straight at me" he
said later, all he could do he said was to lie there and
dig his nose in and not move one bloody inch.
stated later, "my heart was beating that loudly surely
they could hear me. My whole body was trembling and was
unable to control it. All I was worried about was you
bastards shooting me up the arse." He realised where he
was in relation to the others. He was a lucky man as his
position was on the flank of the group and that saved
his life. Lofty never fired a shot in the ambush. They
were that close he said one kicked his muzzle of his
rifle in their eagerness to get away.
I gave up
counting after forty. It will be any moment when the
other group opens up. Bang! The claymores first,
followed instantly by machine gun and rifle fire and so
we in turn opened up instantly cutting them off as they
ran back. Our claymores hopefully were causing damage,
cutting those off who were not quite in the Killing
Ground. Their first reaction was to go to ground and
scamper away. They were very quiet, and never returned
fire. A typical reaction as we had come across this on
many occasions before in previous ambushes. This was a
common drill when caught at night in ambush and was very
Fire!" was shouted. The section stopped immediately and
we all listened. You could still hear the movement of
those crawling away to your front. They seemed to be
hanging around maybe dragging their wounded and dead
away. Bushes appeared to be moving here and there
"Grenade!" I shouted, so everybody knew to keep low, I
lobbed it forward then another. We were in the killing
zone of the grenades but if you kept low you were okay.
Then another grenade from the right hand flanking group
was thrown. 'Blue' failed to get down quick enough and
received a shrapnel splinter to the forehead, a minor
wound requiring a Band-Aid later.
now quiet in ambush but in the distance you could still
hear them crashing through the jungle. We estimated
about eighty were on the move. Not long after we could
here this funny noise coming from the killing ground, a
gurgling sucking noise. Followed by a howling sound,
like two cats facing up to each other for a fight and
this continued on for a couple of hours until just
before first light then it stopped.
light sentries were pushed out so we could search the
ground and all we found was one body of a woman with a
big gaping hole in the abdomen from a grenade blast.
That's what was making the sound; she was breathing
through that massive hole and her innards were spread
over the ground and down her legs. Numerous blood trails
and drag marks were seen. After all that, we swore we
had killed a lot more. Numerous blood trails could be
seen on the ground and at the base of trees heading away
from the killing ground.
searched the body three toggle ropes were tied together
then tied around her ankle and we pulled the body to one
side, ensuring their was no booby trap planted
underneath, not that the enemy would have time to do
such a thing but was a normal practice we carried out
often. The section checked the body for information,
found nothing other than a basket of utensils for eating
and a cooking pot. The section then proceeded to bury
the body in a shallow grave.
section buried the body I decided to wander down the
track to the bend that the claymores mines covered.
Passing the sentry I told him what I was going to do. As
I turned the bend my heart came to my mouth and stopped
me dead in my tracks. Packs all laid out in a straight
line and roughly counted about twenty-five from a
distance. What a silly thing I thought, but realised
later they were moving in three large groups. It must
have been the claymores that made them drop their packs
in fright. What an eerie sight. Gradually I shuffled
backwards to the bend keeping my eye on the packs. I
rushed back to where the sentry was and told him the
situation, then reported to the platoon commander.
time the other section had returned and they had killed
six. The enemy group they killed were the main fighting
group who travelled forward of the main body. The rest
travelled a distance behind. This unit was getting out
of the way of the APC's no doubt, they left their camp
late in the night, maybe to escape them.
platoon then moved to where the packs were, and carried
out the same booby trap procedures with the toggle
ropes, searching each one for information then we burnt
the whole lot. We then moved from the area to another
location so we could clean our weapons redistribute
ammunition and brew up. Have something to eat clean our
weapons and rest and half sleep. Feel good now, we were
29 July, - 30 August, 1969.
12 platoon D company 5RAR
documents later revealed that the enemy force
encountered in this action was the complete 3rd
Battalion, 274 Regiment. This enemy report of the action
stated that they suffered 13 K.I.A.
and 25 W.I.A.
Australians lost 3 K.I.A., 61 W.I.A., some of who
remained on duty. This was one of only forty separate
actions fought by 5RAR on this operation.
units identified in contact were the 1st
Battalion and 3rd Battalion, 274 Regiment,
and numerous sub-units. Overall enemy casualties were
54 K.I.A., 39 W.I.A.. and 1 PW.
Operation Camden was characterised by enemy aggression.
Rather than immediately breaking contact and
withdrawing, the enemy stayed and fought in his prepared
positions and defied the immense support of air and
artillery to dislodge him. He then withdrew under cover
of the Vietnamese night. Not only did he employ snipers
in trees, but he also tenaciously clung to the 'Diggers'
as they pulled back to evacuate casualties and to take
re-supplies of ammunition. This tactic was well executed
and consequently the enemy hugging our perimeter avoided
most of the artillery and air ordnance being hurled at