5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966-67


 

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The Final Balance

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 

The arrival on April 20th of our relief, the Seventh Battalion, was a most welcome sight. These men had travelled to Vietnam on board H.M.A.S. Sydney and were airlifted off the flight deck of the carrier to Nui Dat by large Chinook helicopters. On the same day, our D Company went aboard the Sydney and set off for a nine day cruise to ease the temporary overcrowding at Nui Dat during the handover period, returning to Vung Tau to take aboard the main body of the battalion on April 30th.

 The Seventh Battalion had a settling-in period of six days, after which they were to take over our operational responsibility. During the six days settling-in period their men beganCol Warr presents the 'Tiger Pig' to Col Smith to accompany our patrols and to get to know the environs of the base. Great hilarity reigned within the Fifth Battalion as preparations for the journey home were made. The Seventh Battalion had adopted the pig as their emblem. The first thing they noticed on walking up the hill into the battalion defences from the airstrip was a large sign above the road displaying a rather tattered looking tiger greeting a fresh and immaculate pig. On the evening before the handing over of our operational responsibilities Colonel Warr gave Colonel Smith, the Commanding Officer of the Seventh Battalion, a piglet which had been adorned with tiger stripes by a local artist.
 
 On the afternoon of April 26th our final patrol of the base area came back to be cheered in by the battalion and played up the hill by the battalion band. Our active role in the war was over. These patrols had gone out every day since our arrival at Nui Dat. They were unspectacular tasks but the Viet Cong had been made to realize that they could not come within attacking distance of Nui Dat without discovery. These patrols represented a considerable commitment in terms of effort. While we were out on operations the area surrounding the base was patrolled by the Sixth Battalion and our rear defences and administrative troops. As soon as the men returned from an operation they had to begin patrols around the base to allow the Sixth Battalion to go out. One company could handle the base area patrols. Another had to be on thirty minutes stand-by continually to act as the Task Force reserve. A third company often had to act as the protective force for the guns supporting the Sixth Battalion, so that only one company was left spare. This meant that the troops were working hard every day, including Sundays. In addition nearly every man did a two hour shift as a machine gun piquet, or manned a radio or a command post every night. On forward operations some people were on duty for four hour shifts at night, while those who were lying in ambush had to remain constantly alert, hardly moving a muscle for up to twenty two hours at a stretch. Consequently the end of a year of operational duty was a major event in our lives.
 
 Our thinking became less preoccupied by the demands of the future and we were able to look back on the activities of the year and weigh the effectiveness of what we had attempted. The most significant factor in the course of the year had been the increase in Government control which had been brought to Phuoc Tuy as a result of the commitment of the First Australian Task Force to the province.1 The numbers of people and hamlets to which Government authority had been restored is shown in the table below:

Situatuon Analyses 1966 1967

It is very difficult to divide all of the hamlets into four categories such as those above because of the considerable variety of the degree of Viet Cong influence from one hamlet to another. Hamlets have been included as under strong Viet Cong influence where infrastructures were well established and wielding a strong influence in local village affairs, where acts of Viet Cong terrorism were frequent, where Viet Cong soldiers were usually in the hamlets, and where the people paid regular taxation to the Viet Congo Many of the hamlets classified as under Government control are still visited from time to time by Viet Cong and occasional acts of terrorism are possible, but the Viet Cong do not play a direct role in internal village affairs, their infrastructures have been rooted out or are inactive, and they no longer are subject to Viet Cong taxation and conscription.

Thus it can be seen that Government control has been re-established over ninety-six per cent of the population of Phuoc Tuy. It should not be imagined that this implies that the task in Phuoc Tuy is nearly over for the security of these villages must be maintained until the complete collapse of both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam and until the Vietnamese people have developed the machinery to administer the affairs of a populous state which has great potential for advancement in the second half of the twentieth century.

The second factor to be examined is the purely military balance of power within Phuoc Tuy. The Task Force established itself in central Phuoc Tuy and maintained its security despite the presence of considerably superior numbers of main force Viet Cong The military initiative has been taken away from the Viet Cong and they have learned that to attempt any major operations is to invite heavy casualties for no permanent gain. The area of influence of the main force units has been decreased although by no means completely eradicated. The main force regiments have suffered appreciable casualties, notably those caused by the Sixth Battalion at Long Tan in August 1966, and east of Dat Do in February and March 1967. The district companies have been seriously weakened by small scale patrolling and ambushes set by platoons and companies, and the standard of the village guerrillas who are still operating has been reduced to a very low level. However, both 274 and 275 Regiments and the D445 Battalion still exist and they must be credited with the capacity to inflict serious casualties on smaller Allied forces should the Viet Cong catch these Allied forces in an ambush or a surprise attack. These main force units are likely to continue in existence for a long time. Although they are being kept away from the people and are being denied the initiative, their corporate morale has not yet declined to the point at which they no longer see any point in attempting to inflict a military defeat on Government forces.

A third factor is the damage done to the bases, the food supply and the administrative installations of the Viet Cong Hundreds of bunkers, trenches and tunnels were destroyed, several hundred tons of rice were captured and means to deny permanently the rice harvest of Phuoc Tuy to the Viet Cong have been put into effect. Large quantities of ammunition, medical supplies, weapons and documents were taken from the Viet Cong and the replacement of these items will consume a large proportion of their efforts. Furthermore, the Viet Cong know that they are taking an appreciable risk every time they concentrate large quantities of supplies in one area and thus their problems of storage and distribution of supplies are accentuated.

Each of these reverses for the Viet Cong has an added significance, for in this type of war, propaganda and psychological considerations are of extraordinary importance. For twenty years Communist leaders have been lecturing the people of Phuoc Tuy, instilling the idea of Viet Cong invincibility, of their superiority over the Government in all matters and of the inevitability of a Viet Cong victory. During 1966 and 1967 the people of Phuoc Tuy have witnessed the ejection of the Viet Cong as a military power in the populated areas of the province, they have received medical attention, food, public buildings and education from the Government instead of providing food, money, men and women for the Viet Cong levies, and they have heard from the growing numbers of men who have returned from the Viet Cong that their claim of inevitable victory appears to be an inversion of the truth. Thus the people have come to realize that the Viet Cong are unable to live up to their promises in the short term sense and so their credibility on long term policies has been greatly reduced and disillusionment is setting in. On the other hand, the popularity of the Government which the Viet Cong have denounced so vehemently is benefiting from a back lash against the falseness of Communist propaganda and from a degree of surprise that this evil Government is concerned with the welfare of the individual. These forces have not reached their full power for they are just gathering momentum, but with adept Government handling it may be seen eventually that the Viet Cong are their own worst enemies.

This year in Vietnam had also reinforced many lessons concerning the nature of counter-insurgency warfare. We were convinced that the solution to the Vietnam crisis lay in the villages rather than in the jungles, but until such time as the Viet Cong main forces have disintegrated and the North Vietnamese desist in their efforts to make the South subject to them and to a system which the majority of South Vietnamese dislike there will be a need for the jungles to be patrolled and fought through. But these actions will not win the war for either side, they will simply help to prevent their winner from losing. In conventional terms the results of a policy of concentration on the villages are far from spectacular. It is interesting to place the battalion's body count statistics against those quoted in the table above. We killed seventy Viet Cong for a loss of twenty-three of our men. If one views the war in terms of dead bodies counted then these results do not justify the employment of eight hundred Australians at war for twelve months and an uninformed observer might jump to the conclusion that the war was at a stalemate. On the other hand, if one accepts that the goal of the war is the support of the people, these body count comparisons are the wrong statistics to consider. The important figures in this war are the numbers of people who support the Government, the degree of Government control and the speed with which the support of more South Vietnamese is won.

Apart from these strategic considerations, the year in Vietnam was of deep personal significance. We had met the Viet Cong and found them to be a widely varying force in terms of their proficiency. Their worst were rabble, their best were good fighters and cadre leaders by any standards. We pitied their miserable existence and the way in which their commanders were prepared to squander the lives of their men for very small military gains. We were revolted by their atrocities and amazed by their tactical ineptitudes such as the frequency with which they used lights for guiding their movement at night. They are a unique enemy, cunning in tactic but repetitive in strategy. They form part of an ideological crusade, but they are often pathetically ignorant of the doctrine on whose altar their lives are sacrificed. After we had come to know them it was difficult to maintain a personal dislike against the Viet Cong for considering the forces to which they had been subjected, they were understandable. This did not make the goal of their masters any more tolerable, but we were much happier to capture a Viet Cong than to kill him.

The villagers were impressive for their ability to endure adversity with stoicism while tending to hypochondria in small things. Many years of hardship had sharpened their sense of self-preservation and they were hard-headed when it came to questions of their own interest, but this competitive self-interest gave the civil aid programme more influence and showed us that the differences between Vietnamese and Australians were not irreconcilable. With firm leadership they showed dedication, endurance and courage to a remarkable degree as the defence of La Gom showed. One of the longest lived of our memories of the Vietnamese will be their sense of humour, for they could laugh at most things and their ability to make jokes with a fine point enlivened many a tedious situation.

The feeling of comradeship, of mutual dependence, which grew up within the battalion was a most powerful thing to feel. Without wishing to glorify war I know of no other environment which can make eight hundred men live together in a spirit of real comradeship, remote from their homes, separated from wives and families, under constant physical and mental stress. When a friend was killed we knew very clearly the extent of our dependence on each other. The most trying time for the battalion came in February, March and April when fatigue and bereavement fell heavily on us. Throughout this time the morale of the battalion held up well. Had we not been a happy battalion right from the start and remained so, then this time might have presented some severe problems. That it did not is sufficient tribute to leadership.

Shortly before we left for Australia, some of us were invited to a farewell function given by the Vietnamese in Ba Ria. We had come to know these people well during the course of the year. We had learned to rely on them for assistance with intelligence, with translation, with population control and with civil aid. They had relied on us for protection, for tactical proficiency and for ability to deal with the Viet Cong when they took the initiative. We had exasperated each other on many occasions and then bridged our differences. We had developed a relationship which turned on the proficiency with which any task in hand was dealt with rather than on the niceties of diplomacy. The room in which the gathering took place was brilliantly adorned with flowers. One wall was covered with the bright red blossoms of the flame tree. Sprigs of Oleander and of a small pink flower with the shape of a heart were arranged in front of the branches of scarlet. Each of these flowers has a special significance in Vietnam. The flame blossom means farewell, the oleander represents good luck and the third flower signifies 'in friendship from all my heart'. As I looked around at these people the year seemed to me to have ended on an appropriate note.


Thus ends the Fifth Battalion's first tour in the Republic of South Vietnam.


 

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