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operations conducted 1966-67


australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Crowsnest

1 - 3 October 1966

By Captain Robert J. O'Neill MID

Attention in September was focused very sharply on the national elections which were held to elect a constituent assembly. This was to draft a democratic constitution preparing the way for the restoration of an elected government in Saigon. The election was regarded as a vital test of the attitudes of the people towards the Viet Cong because the Viet Cong had instructed the people to boycott the election. Government officials were worried that many Vietnamese might not vote, not because they supported the Viet Cong but because through ignorance they might not have understood the significance of a national election and they may not have desired to take the risk of exposing themselves to Viet Cong terrorism. These officials reckoned that a 60 per cent turn out of electors would be about as good as the government hoped for in the circumstances. The Viet Cong began to exert themselves several weeks before the elections by spreading instructions that people were not to vote, that the candidates were capitalists who would exploit the workers and that Viet Cong displeasure with those who voted would be demonstrated by acts of violence against them. Reports began to come in of local Viet Cong committee meetings which had been planning the terrorism which was to take place on the day of the elections.

All members of the allied forces were instructed to have nothing to do with the elections and to remain in their camps while the elections took place, so that there could be no hint of foreign interference in Vietnamese internal politics. We remained interested onlookers and awaited the results with eagerness for they would have a vital bearing on the whole conduct of the war, particularly on the confidence with which it was fought. When it was announced that 80 per cent of those eligible throughout Vietnam had voted our spirits rose, for we had not expected that the Viet Cong counteraction would have been so ineffective. In Phuoc Tuy, 85 per cent of electors voted and no acts of terrorism took place due to the effectiveness of the Government against the activities that were known to have been planned. The only act of the Viet Cong in Phuoc Tuy  to mark the day was the erection of a barrier across Route 15 between Baria and Vung Tau. Throughout Vietnam 166 acts of terrorism occurred - only one act per 100,000 people - and approximately thirty persons were killed.

The reaction which these results produced in our thinking was reinforced during September by the local success of the Government Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) policy of amnesty and rehabilitation for any Viet Cong who surrendered himself voluntarily. Thirty-two Viet Cong gave themselves up during August and twenty-two came in during the first eight days of September. These men were sent immediately after their surrender to the provincial Chieu Hoi centre in Bar Ria where they were well cared for and received their first instruction on what the Government policy offered them. In brief, each returnee or Hoi Chanh was taught a trade or a manual skill, given a plot of land in a New Life Hamlet and building materials for a house, and received Government assistance payments until he had established himself.

Particular emphases was given to the fact that a returnee was to be treated with courtesy and respect from the moment that he surrendered. If a man brought in a weapon or item of military equipment he was paid for it according to its worth. All these points were announced to the Viet Cong by leaflets and safe conduct passes dropped from the air and by loud speaker aircraft which flew over the Viet Cong bases. The Viet Cong reacted very sharply to this programme and decreed death as the punishment for any individual  who attempted to become a returnee. Severe punishments were also given to anyone found with a safe conduct pass in their possession or to anyone discovered picking up an air dropped leaflet. Special squads were stationed near approaches that returnees were likely to use in giving themselves up to a Government post in order to intercept them at the last minute. Several cases occurred in Phuoc Tuy  in which these intercept squads then carried out an especially horrible type of deterrent killing in order to discourage other Viet Cong who were tiring of the hardships of the jungle.

Most of the returnees were local guerrillas or men from the D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion. These men were persuaded to surrender mainly by their families and they knew that they would not have to face any domestic disruption as a result of giving themselves up. The main force regulars were not subject to the same family influence and they seldom came near enough to a Government post to surrender, except during a battle when it was difficult to make a surrender to the type which was normally expected of a returnee as distinct from a battlefield prisoner who gives himself up under coercion of arms. The main force soldiers were subject to daily indoctrination lectures and lived in groups of three in which each was responsible for the others' conduct and reports on their attitudes and behaviour. In addition, if a main force soldier came from a Viet Cong controlled area, or if he was a North Vietnamese, he knew that reprisals would be taken against his family if he surrendered.

However, on September 28th we received a returnee from 274 Regiment. Colonel Warr and I had been visiting Binh Gia by helicopter in the morning to talk to local officials about Viet Cong activity around their village. We had then gone over to the Duc Thanh District compound which lay a mile to the west of Binh Gia, to talk to the newly arrived American adviser, Major Bill Prescott. He had been posted to Duc Thanh shortly after our operation at Binh Ba in order to advise the Duc Thanh District Chief, Captain Nguyen Van Be,  and he was swiftly improving the efficiency of the troops who manned the compound. Major Prescott was another important link in our intelligence system for his compound was less than a mile to the south of Ngai Giao, a village which was under Viet Cong control and which lay on the main east-west route which the Viet Cong used in moving between their bases in the north-west of Phuoc Tuy and those in the north-east.

Shortly after our arrival we received a radio call from Warrant Officer King, the Task Force Civil Affairs Unit representative who lived in Binh Gia. A returnee had just come in from the jungle to the north of Binh Gia and had been taken to the house of Father Francis Dinh Quoc Tuy, the priest of the eastern hamlet of Binh Gia, who sent the following note.

Dear Mr. King
Being very happy to propose that we have
a glad receiving a V.C. member into the
national rank, who is now being in myself.
By the reason, please to call to major
Prescott or your Australian officers if
who are now in the village.
I gladly invite all to myself.

The Vinh-Trung Parisher
Father Francis Dinh-Quoc-Thuy

We immediately flew across to Binh Gia, landing on the broad lawn in front of Father Francis's church. A great crowd of villagers had collected on the broad veranda of his house. We were conducted through the excited throng and in through the wide open double doors of the reception room where a slim figure in a dark shirt and grey shorts was seated. Another throng of household retainers and their friends packed the two doorways which lead out of the room at the back so that the whole proceedings had the flavour  of a Breughel crowd scene. The young man in shorts who was holding a glass of orange juice in one hand and a new Russian AK-47 automatic rifle with a full magazine in the other was the object of fifty staring faces. Sitting proudly alongside him was a very old, gnarled little man who had been the one to conduct the returnee to Father Francis. The soft mud on both pairs of feet had not yet had a chance to dry and was dripping onto the red tiled floor.