5th Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment Masthead
special mention
 


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
the long hai hills incident

Battalion's doctor Tony White treating a VCIt was on the afternoon of February 21, 1967 when B Company riding in Armoured Personnel Carriers hit mines and booby traps killing nine and wounding 22 others. This article was from an interview by Tony White  who was the Regimental Medical Officer of the Battalion 1966-67 and was published in the Canberra Times 22 February 1997.


It was hot and dusty, the height of the dry season. after nine months in country and with three months to go, the  troops were weary. They had effectively been on duty 24 hours a day seven days a week apart from five days R&R. They were also intensely wary. Wary from the sporadic inconclusive fire-fights and encounters with mines and booby traps. The jokes were more sardonic. "Lets get a shot of you where you still have two legs," were to be heard from the diggers as they lined up for a photo shoot before setting out on patrol. The boys were only half joking when they talked wistfully about getting a "Homer" a wound decent enough to ensure their evacuation to Australia but not resulting in any great permanent incapacity. On this day's patrol there was to be a sweep through the Long Hai Hills, a Viet Cong stronghold known to be full of bunkers and well defended with mines. Mounted on APC's, (Armoured Personnel Carriers) the Battalion HQ group and B Company ground out of the village and halted on a gravel road to 'bolt' down a quick lunch and finalise plans. Around us stretched rice paddies, grey-brown and quivering with heat haze. Six months ago they were green and brimming with water.

B Company set off across the paddies into the scrub at the base of the hills. 15 minutes later, just as we were about to follow, we were startled by the sound of a massive explosion. A dark mushroom had formed over the bush in the direction of B Company's line of travel. Four minutes later there was a second, smaller explosion. A radio report of casualties followed but there was no clear picture as to what had happened.

By chance an army Sioux helicopter was in the area. The Battalion CO called me over, "Tony get over there and see what you can do." I grabbed my medical backpack and climbed into the Perspex bubble of the Bell 47 helicopter. It was a two minute skim to catch up with B Company. Banking to find a cleared area to land we saw the astonishing sight of the lead APC on its side. I jumped out on touchdown and the sound of the rotor blades faded. Only to be replaced by a soundtrack of suffering, groans, cries and mutterings. I was led over to Major Bruce McQualter, officer commanding B Company. He had a head wound. With a rifle in one hand and a map case in the other, he was appealing for a hand to help him to his feet, but his eyes were closed and he could not respond to either questions or instructions. Close by, also with a head wound, lay the lanky form of lieutenant Jack Carruthers. He was unconscious, stretched out on his side. His trademark ginger moustache was drenched in blood. The third member was Sergeant 'Tassie' Wass, sitting propped up against his backpack in great pain. Both arms outstretched , both elbows were smashed and his forearms dangled from the butchered joints. Acutely aware that I had seen only a fraction of what lay around, I made him as comfortable as possible, with dressings splints and morphine.

APC Totally destroyedTen metres away the APC lay on its side. The back door had been blown off and nearby lay what at first glance seemed to be a pile of discarded uniforms blackened and dusty. Getting closer I realised that the heap was composed of dead and wounded soldiers. In amongst the carnage, I came across the body of Mick Poole. He had just turned 20 and was a favourite of the village kids because of his cheeky good humour. He played the tenor horn in the Battalion Band. On patrol, bandsmen acted as stretcher bearers and provided first aid. I caught up with the B Company medic and three more stretcher bearers all dazed and wounded but getting on with the task at hand. The task was to make a rough order of priority, identifying those in need of first aid and those not in acute need. There was a third group, those mortally wounded and beyond any help. The situation was out of control. The number of casualties was overwhelming. Horror was piled on horror. Close to the APC lay the torso of its driver. The lower part of his body was missing. Protruding from under the APC was a detached arm, its hand still grasping an M16 rifle.

While moving around this slaughter house, I was powerfully aware that we were stalled in a mine field. At any instant I could find myself joining the dead or, even worse, the living mutilated. At one time I spotted the three prong wires of a "Jumping Jack" mine close to my foot. My heart stopped and I felt a bitter chill despite the stifling dusty bush around us. Pathetically I found myself moving among the wounded with one hand over my balls even though I knew these mines could ablate not only the genitals but the legs and more I was amazed by the torrent of weird thoughts that surfaced as I worked. People who are dying or who are terrified are said to see their past life rushing by like a speeded up movie. My mind raced with a stream of images of childhood, home and family. Mixed with these were other bizarre reflections. I thought of 'Tassie' Wass and his shattered, dangling forearms. The absurd line "Look Ma no hands" kept revolving through my head. I had recognised the distinctive features of Barney Gee the only soldier of Chinese extraction in the battalion. He was quite calm as I got him to press on a dressing I applied to the spurting artery in his arm. His skin was blackened by the explosion. "Red on black — very Chinese" I thought. I recalled a movie that I had seen as a child in which the minister was trying to halt the alien invaders. With his congregation cowering behind him. He advanced with an open Bible, reciting Psalm 23. He had just mentioned "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil" when he was carbonised by the alien ray gun. After an eternity, sappers were choppered in. They quickly went to work with mine detectors, laying white tape on cleared pathways through the mine field. One sapper spotted me "Do you want to get us all killed? for fuck sake stick to the cleared areas" he screamed! I had to bite my tongue to avoid pointing out that I had been walking around here for the previous half hour or so. A landing zone was cleared for the 'Dust Off' choppers. The critically wounded were shipped out first, then the lesser injured and finally the dead. The evacuation included a macabre audit, matching up corpses with missing parts as they were retrieved. Some parts were never found. Jack Carruthers died three days later and Bruce McQualter after two weeks never regained consciousness.

removing equipment from destroyed APCI remained with the shaken remains of B Company for a short while. On one afternoon's outing they had lost their company commander, a platoon commander and numerous comrades. It had been an entirely passive event, with no trace of the enemy and no opportunity to strike back. A more potent prescription for anger and despair could not be imagined. On getting back to BHQ I was too shaken to hold a cup of coffee. I tried to describe the scene and discovered the futility of words for communicating such an experience.

What had happened? It appears that the lead APC had detonated a mine of enormous destructive power. There was a crater 2metres wide by 1metre deep. The 13 tonne vehicle had been tossed 3 metres away and onto its side and there was a large hole in the hull under the drivers seat. The patrol halted and prepared for an ambush. The officers dismounted and summoned the company medic and stretcher bearers. As they walked towards the wounded, there was a second explosion. One of the party stepped on a M16 mine causing more casualties to B Company. For years, like a diminuendo drumbeat, February 21 was to spook most of those who had participated in this calamitous and futile episode.

crater formed by mine blastDid any good emerge from that afternoon? I would offer three positive observations. First, the way the medics and stretcher bearers went forward to provide help for the first group of casualties. Their response was immediate and selfless, as evidenced by the fact that all of them were wounded. Second, the tattered remains of B Company continued to function in the immediate aftermath. Junior officers stepped in to fill the gaps. Morale and discipline were maintained. All this reflects very well on the quality of their training.

Finally, 30 years on, most of the survivors are getting on with life and contributing to the community. These surely are the qualities that Australia needs now.

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