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operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge

9 January - 10 January 1967

By Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

The first battalion operation for 1967 was a return to Binh Ba. Since October 1966 the security of the village had been in the hands of a Regional Forces Company. Although often undermanned to a strength of forty to fifty men, this company had not been seriously challenged by the Viet Cong and it had constructed defences of sufficient strength to cause the Viet Cong severe casualties if they did attack the post. However, the post was only a small part of the village and it was easy for the Viet Cong to bypass it in order to have access to the people. The large size of the village coupled with the smallness of the garrison made it impossible for the Viet Cong troops to ambush all the approaches leading into the village every night. The Viet Cong discovered this and began, in November, to infiltrate a small group of cadre and tax collectors back into Binh Ba. They acted with caution, visiting the village on only one or two nights per month. By December they had found some sympathizers amongst the villagers, albeit mostly teenagers, and we were confronted with an attempt to regain the ground from which we had just ejected the Viet Cong.

This was only to be expected for Binh Ba had been one of the major Viet Cong prizes of the previous years and it represented a substantial source of revenue and prestige. In a way it was pleasing confirmation of the value we had placed on Binh Ba ourselves. Moreover, the incidents of November and December demonstrated that the Viet Cong were still prepared to put their efforts into the villages even though their main force operations had been severely curtailed.

Reports of new Viet Cong activity in Binh Ba came from some of the villagers themselves and from some of the Vietnamese troops. The soldiers had detected movement at night around their compound and along the airstrip. Small groups of Viet Cong had been making their reconnaissance's of the defences and the approaches to the village. On two occasions shots were fired into the compound just to indicate that the defenders were being continually watched. Several of the soldiers had made friends in the village and occasional reports of Viet Cong visits began to come into the Vietnamese company commander. He passed this information onto two Australian warrant officers who were attached to the company as advisers, and the warrant officers told me the news when I visited Binh Ba every few days. The Viet Cong had not been bold enough to visit either of the Frenchmen nor to intimidate Father Joseph, so we could learn nothing additional from them.

When we received word that the Viet Cong were re-establishing a cadre in the village Colonel Warr began to make plans for another cordon of Binh Ba between Christmas and New Year. However, just before Christmas the Viet Cong withdrew from the village so the operation was postponed until we received better indications for success. These came in early January with reports that several Viet Cong were back in the village. After conferring with Brigadier Graham, Colonel Warr fixed the date for the cordon as January 9th.

The first problem with mounting this operation was the insertion of the cordon, for the Viet Cong in Binh Ba were doubtless very alert and ready to flee at the least suggestion of another cordon. In particular they would be closely watching the behaviour and conversation of the Vietnamese troops in the village to glean any hint of an Australian operation directed at the village. Consequently the operation had to be mounted without the knowledge of the Vietnamese company, but with sufficient restriction of their movement about the time of our cordon so that we would not be ambushed by them in mistake for the Viet Cong. Fortunately we were able to count on the assistance of Major Presscot at Duc Thanh. At Colonel Warr's request he arranged for Captain Be to confine the Binh Ba company to its compound while we were in the vicinity. No reason for this confinement was given to the Vietnamese troops and so they did not know whether the restriction of their movement was due to the presence of large Viet Cong forces, or to the proximity of an Australian operation.

Not wishing to risk an ambush by using the same route to Binh Ba as on Operation Holsworthy, Colonel Warr selected an approach which led out to the north-east of Nui Dat and swung into Binh Ba on a westerly tack. The general order of the move was much the same as before. The battalion was to leave Nui Dat around 10 a.m. and to take most of the day in covering six miles through the jungle to a harbour area close to the eastern edge of the Gallia plantation. This harbour area was divided by a creek, the Suoi Da Bang, and while this creek was convenient for the replenishment of our water bottles and as a directional aid for our navigation it presented a rather inconvenient obstacle which made wet feet for the night inevitable.

The people of Binh Ba were to be interrogated at their own village this time, instead of being taken to Ba Ria, so that the whole operation could be completed within thirty-six hours. Special facilities for interrogation and processing of the people had to be planned and constructed within the first hour of the day in the village. In view of the increased security of the village it seemed reasonable to gather the people together on the green just in front of the market in the centre of the village. In handling large scale interrogations it was important to separate the men from the women and after the interrogation, the innocents from the suspects, so several enclosures were necessary, viz.:
two to hold the men and women who had not been interrogated,
one for the interrogators to use,
two to hold those men and women who were suspects, and
two to hold those who were innocent until the whole village had been searched for weapons, caches, and persons attempting to hide,
These latter two enclosures were part of the first enclosures in which everyone was gathered.

We had discovered during some of the previous cordon operations that many of the villagers had not had time to have breakfast before they had been gathered out of their houses and so they had gone hungry for the first few hours of the day. For this operation, which was called Operation Caloundra, arrangements were made so that the people were not moved from their houses until they had breakfasted. A loud speaker aircraft overhead was also to advise the people to have their breakfast as soon as the cordon was announced to them. So that the day would bring the villagers some assistance as well as some inconvenience, Task Force Headquarters had arranged for distribution of food and clothing, medical and dental treatment, and for the showing of South Vietnamese Government films on improvement of living standards, especially health and hygiene, and on the work of the Government armed forces.

The huge operation order that Caloundra required was written by our new S3, Major Peter Cole. Major Cole had taken over from Major Carroll in December when they exchanged jobs. Major Cole was well suited for this position being a graduate of Duntroon and the Australian Staff College and having had extensive experience as a company commander in New Guinea with the Pacific Islands Regiment.

The battalion wound out of the base through the wire defences in front of B Company. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was filtering through the dark green leaves of the rubber trees in bright slanting shafts. The day was still sufficiently young for the temperature to be mild and it was no effort to appreciate the soft brightness of the rich foliage we were filing through. During the first part of the approach we had to cross through the south-eastern corner of the La Son sector of the Gallia Plantation. ThisThumbnail of cordon and search of Binh Ba village area was closed to the local inhabitants because of its proximity to our base so tension mounted when one of the flank scouts signaled that some Vietnamese were approaching us from the east. We went to ground and waited for clarification of their intentions. Fortunately the group were composed of women who had been out in the jungle gathering bananas from an overgrown plantation--- probably one of those through which we had passed on Operation Hardihood. The women were surprised by the sudden appearance of Australians girded for war all around them. Through Chinh, my interpreter, I explained to the women that they had placed themselves in danger by entering an area which had been closed by Colonel Dat for they could have been mistaken for Viet Cong. The women had come from Hoa long so they were escorted back to their village under observation from our supporting Sioux helicopter. We hoped that they were not in fact Viet Cong for it was possible that they could have sent warning to Binh Ba once they had returned to their homes. However, there were many places to which we could have been heading from that point so we did not worry greatly about losing chances of achieving surprise through this encounter.

The evening harbour had been laid out in advance of our arrival by our new second in command, Major Ivor Hodgkinson. Major Maizey had left us in December to become senior operations staff officer at Task Force Headquarters. Major Hodgkinson had recently commanded a company in the Borneo Fighting and had been awarded an M.B.E. for his skill and daring. Just as darkness was falling we began to move out of this harbour area to the edge of the rubber plantation so that we would have, we hoped, no night movement through the jungle which hid us from any Vietnamese plantation worker who may have been in the plantation in the late afternoon. However this intention was not achieved for a large part of the battalion. Movement out of the harbour area was slower than had been planned and darkness had become complete with one half of the battalion was still on the eastern side of Suoi Da Bang. The moon was not due to rise until midnight and so visibility was reduced to nothing. Fortunately we had only a few hundred yards to go to the edge of the plantation, but it took nearly two hours for the battalion to cover this distance.

The chief problem was the creek crossing. The creek was only a few feet deep but the banks were steep and slippery and the bottom was soft mud. The first few men through it stirred up the bottom making it harder to plough through and they made the banks into slippery slides which took some effort to clamber up. The passage of the creek became slower and slower as man followed man. A long queue of men formed on the eastern side, waiting their turn to cross, while the intervals between men on the western side grew steadily larger until the point was reached when one man climbing out of the creek would stand on the bank, peering into the blackness with no idea of which direction the man in front had taken to follow the winding path through the jungle. Fortunately everyone's navigation was fairly proficient and all the companies met at their correct locations on the edge of the plantation.

The night was cold and we were frozen after being accustomed to sleeping without the need of a blanket in the hotter part of the year. To add to the discomfiture we were wet and mud covered from the waist down and we had to remain still for several hours until we began the final part of the approach to the cordon position a few hours before dawn. However, it was the only part of the operation during which we could get any sleep so many of us were soon aware of the cold only at infrequent intervals when it woke us up.

The final stage through the rubber trees was easy going except for an obstacle created by the village defences which the Viet Cong had destroyed. Several men fell into a ditch six feet deep and liberally strewn with barbed wire, but no great harm was suffered. A Company, who were in the lead, were charged by some pigs which caused great confusion in the darkness, but no one panicked and no shots were fired. The cordon went into position without further incident. It then remained to be seen whether it was due to complete surprise or whether the Viet Cong had already departed before the cordon was closed.

The dawn heralded the usual procedures of troops and Vietnamese police going around the houses while the loudspeaker aircraft told the villagers what was happening. The Assault Pioneer Platoon busied itself with the construction of the holding enclosures and the provincial interrogation team of twenty-eight men arrived. Unfortunately these interrogators took a long time to organize their system in this new location. They had become accustomed to operating in  Ba Ria where they had familiar set of enclosures and facilities for handling large numbers of people. They had to interrogate some fifteen hundred people during one day so we became a little anxious at their delay, Fearing that the result of twenty-four hours effort by several hundred men might go for naught as the people could not be held in enclosures overnight. However, all went well and the whole population was screened,.

The results of the interrogation were heartening for several suspects were arrested, indicating that surprised had been achieved by our careful move. The Viet Cong circle in Binh Ba had been broken by a boy aged twelve who had admitted to carrying messages for the Viet Cong. He then identified the persons to whom he had brought messages and so a new cadre-in-embryo composed mostly of persons under twenty was dissolved and our determination to keep the Viet Cong out of Binh Ba was demonstrated. Although Binh Ba was visited on a few occasions after Operation Caloundra by the Viet Cong, they had not come back into the village to make another attempt to establish a cadre before we finished our period of duty in Vietnam.

 

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