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operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Camden

11 - 30 January 1967

By Captain Robert J. O'Neill MID
 

During January 1967 we participated in a series of Task Force operations directed at the Viet Cong in Hoa Long. In October 1966, both Australian battalions had joined forces to provide a complete cordon for a Vietnamese battalion, the 1st/43rd Rangers, to search the village and gather the people for interrogation by the provincial team in Ba Ria. This operation had yielded over thirty Viet Cong but this was by no means the whole of the Viet Cong population of Hoa Long. Agents were still coming into Hoa Long taking messages to and fro, taxation was taking place occasionally and villagers were still being forced by the Viet Cong to perform tasks such as transporting bags of rice at night.

Consequently a much more thorough cleaning out of Hoa Long had to be done as soon as time permitted. The major difficulty in a cordon a search operation at Hoa long was the size of the village. Three thousand persons lived there and its perimeter called for three battalions if it were to be cordoned all at once. It was clearly beyond the resources of the Task Force to tackle the whole village at once and to comb it thoroughly so it had to be partitioned in some way and done piecemeal. The village was divided into four sectors by the two roads that crossed at right angles close to the village centre. These roads formed convenient boundary lines for it was possible to place a cordon along them in a matter of minutes by swiftly moving APC's. The outer perimeter of each sector could be cordoned by four infantry companies, so the operation could be carried out by the APC squadron and five companies of infantry, if one company was provided for searching the sector to be cordoned. Thus each sector was approximately a battalion sized operation and the whole village could be covered in two operations for each battalion.

Of course this method was not perfect for the Viet Cong in the second, third and fourth sectors to be searched would have guessed that their turn was coming. However the series of cordons was spread over several weeks so that the resident Viet Cong were placed in the dilemma of either continuing to live in Hoa Long and so risking arrest at any time or of leaving the village for good. Either of these outcomes suited our purpose. It was intended to keep returning to Hoa Long even after the whole village had been searched so that the Viet Cong would never feel secure there. We did not expect the Viet Cong to yield Hoa Long to the Government without a protracted fight which would continue for as long as the Viet Cong had resources within Phuoc Tuy.

The cordoning of the two sectors of the village which were allocated to the Fifth battalion were uneventful. In both cases the cordon was positioned without incident and each day of interrogations yielded a few Viet Cong. After the first cordon we were very glad to receive a letter from a Vietnamese journalist who had watched the operation and who had talked to the villagers during the day of the search and interrogations. He pointed out a number of ways in which we could minimise the inconvenience which the operations imposed on the people. Two of his suggestions were particularly useful. These were to process quickly those prominent persons whose loyalty to the Government were unquestioned so that their loyalty might be fostered, and to use some fencing material other than barbed wire for the enclosures.

These suggestions were incorporated into the second cordon and they produced excellent results. Other refinements which had been developed included Vietnamese music which was arranged by Bandmaster Bob Taylor for the battalion band, provision of awnings for shade, copious amounts of fruit drink which was very popular with the children, and a letter of apology for the inconvenience caused by the operation which was sent to each household on the day following the cordon. Arrangements were made for talks to be given to the assembled villagers collectively and to apprehended Viet Cong individually by some returnees, on why they had left the Viet Cong. A local Vietnamese official was also present to explain to the people the reasons for the cordon, search and interrogation.

After the cordon operations in Hoa Long, a barrier fence was placed around the village to prevent traffic between the village and the Viet Cong and to keep the Viet Cong influence away from the people. The fence was built of concertina barbed wire, six feet high and six feet wide and was thickened with aprons of stranded barbed wire. Three gaps were left in it for the people to enter their fields. These gaps were controlled by Vietnamese police by day and were closed and guarded by night. A Company controlled the operation and did much of the construction. They were aided by a company of returnees who worked with a will and infectious good humour. After part of the fence had been erected but not anchored, the commander of the returnees turned on a demonstration of Viet Cong breaching techniques. Several of his men, armed with short lengths of stout bamboo rushed to the fence with it and slid under the gap, keeping the barbed wire off their bodies with the bamboo which they rolled rapidly in their palms. The purpose of the fence was explained to the people of Hoa Long and captain's Kim's men took over responsibility for patrolling it constantly

During the last week in January, A Company laid a number of successful ambushes on tracks which ran close to the foot of the eastern slopes of the Dinh Hills. linking central Phuoc Tuy with the Hat Dich base area in the north-west. On the afternoon of January 26th signs of ablutions and teeth cleaning carried out that morning were found by a creek, indicating the Viet Cong were near by. Major Carroll planned to move into his ambush position under cover of darkness at 7.30 p.m. Just as the company were preparing to move from its harbour at 7.15 p.m., fifteen Viet Cong walked into the company perimeter from the north-east. One Platoon opened fire killing one Viet Cong and wounding several others. Five men were seen to fall. Artillery fire was brought down onto enemy movement heard outside the company perimeter shortly before midnight. On the following morning the dead Viet Cong were buried and blood trails of the wounded were followed for three quarters of a mile. With the dead man were found his Garrand M2 carbine and a pack containing letters identifying the Viet Cong as members of the Chau Duc District Company.

On the afternoon of January 27th A Company moved to a new ambush area to the south-west. Major Carroll and Lieutenant Hartley, commander of One Platoon, made a forward reconnaissance and discovered the tracks of three Viet Cong no more than twenty four hours old. An ambush was planned for the area and the officers moved back to the company. Again, just as the company was in the exposed position of preparing to move, a group of twenty five Viet Cong moving cautiously from the south-west came onto the rear sentry of One Platoon. The sentry killed one of the Viet Cong and wounded another. The enemy reorganized and put in a flank attack one a front of one hundred yards. The other machine guns of One Platoon broke up this attack and the platoon countered with a hooking movement into the flank of the Viet Cong. They withdrew to the south, split into two parties and ran off through the thick vegetation.

At midday on January 28th, Major Carroll divided the company into three separate ambush groups in order to cover a wider an area as possible. Evidently the group of Viet Cong who had tried to get through the company and escape to the north on the previous day were becoming desperate. D Company of the Sixth battalion was nearly a mile to the south and the Chau Duc company was alternately striking the two Australian companies.

Lieutenant Sheehan, who had become commander of Three Platoon in January, was making a reconnaissance in the early afternoon of the area which he was to ambush when suddenly six Viet Cong entered the opposite side of the clearing he was crossing. Sheehan opened fire immediately, wounding one of the group who spun around flinging his arms in the air. The group then ran off while artillery fire was called onto their escape route. As a result of the contact Lieutenant Sheehan and his two escorts, Privates, L. E. Gates and N. B. Hexter were wounded. The three casualties, the only ones suffered by A Company during five successive contacts with the Viet Cong in three days, were quickly evacuated by helicopter. Lieutenant Sheehan was wounded so seriously that he had to be returned to Australia.

At 2 p.m. on the following day, January 29th, ten Viet Cong were seen approaching cautiously by a sentry of One Platoon. He opened fire and the enemy immediately deployed into extended line and assaulted the section position. This attack was broken up by firing a Claymore mine into the enemy who then commenced to cover their withdrawal by fire and movement. While one group of Viet Cong moved the others fired at One platoon to prevent our men from pursuing. When the first group had withdrawn some fifty yards they covered the second group by firing at One Platoon while the former pulled back to a fire position well in the rear of the covering group. While this was taking place Lieutenant Hartley had be organizing another flank attack onto the withdrawing enemy. This attack broke up the Viet Cong tactics and they dispersed in full flight.

They ran straight into another ambush which had been set behind them by Two Platoon. Two Viet Cong were killed instantly and two others were wounded. The Viet Cong responded with an immediate counter ambush hook and threw grenades into the Two Platoon position. This determined action enabled them to recover the Browning automatic rifle from one of their men who had been killed. The Viet Cong then fled to the north leaving heavy blood trails. A Thompson sub machine gun was found with the two dead men. One of these was a man of some importance, probably a platoon commander, for several certificates of commendations for bravery were found in his wallet. Both of these men belonged to the C20 Chau Duc District Company. No further contact with the Viet Cong was made that night and A Company returned to Nui Dat by helicopter on the following morning.

 

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