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operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
operations yass and hayman

6 November - 12 November 1966

By Captain Robert J. O'Neill MID

 

While we were operating along Route 15 in October, we were able to form a detailed picture of Viet Cong activities along the western coast of Phuoc Tuy. This area was important for two types of Viet Cong operations. First a significant amount of traffic from the Mekong Delta came into Phuoc Tuy via the Rung Sat. The Viet Cong in Phuoc Tuy needed both supplies and men and these were available from the heavily populated rice producing areas within the Fourth Corps area. They could be loaded onto small sampans which could pass swiftly and inconspicuously through the maze of narrow channels which led to the Phuoc Tuy coast. Second, the Chau Duc District Company was active along the western coast and on Long Son Island to the south. This company had been recruited from the island and from several villages along Route 15 and so one of its main functions was to exert as much control over these areas as possible. Another important function was to assist with transfer of supplies which had been brought from the Mekong Delta from the landing points to the bases inland close to the hills. Now that we had struck at some of these bases, it seemed opportune to attack these landing points and harass the activities of the Chau Duc District Company.

Long Son Island was situated near the junction of several sea channels, some of which led into the Rung Sat to the west and two channels which led into the Phuoc Tuy coast. Thus the island was a natural staging post and a small landing jetty had built on the north-western tip, Ben Da. Most of the population of the island lived on the eastern shore, in a well constructed village which nestled at the foot of Nui Nua, an abrupt but smooth-sided grassy hill rising to six hundred feet and dominating the island. Three-quarters of the island lay to the west of Nui Nua and the Viet Cong had converted this area into a training and rest area controlled by the platoon of the Chau Duc District Company which was stationed on the island. The area between Nui Nua and Ben Da was a plain, two miles long by one mile wide, broken by a long ridge that ran north-south a little to the west of the half-way point between the western coast and Nui Nua. The ridge ascended to two hundred and fifty feet and was covered by low scrub. Officially no people lived to the west of Nui Nua for the Government had ordered all the inhabitants to live in the main village which could be kept under some form of control by the local Popular Forces Platoon. However, some inhabitants of the island had not complied and had remained in the area used by the Viet Cong. This defeated the Government programme for making the western end of Long Son Island into an area that any persons sighted from the air could be engaged by artillery or strafing, on the grounds their being in a prohibited area and hence aiding the Viet Cong, if not actually Viet Cong themselves.

The eastern settlement, Long Son village, housed several hundred people in white plastered brick houses which lined narrow sandy streets. Most of the houses were set in yards and amongst trees which gave the village an appearance of softness and coolness. In the centre of the village was the largest pagoda in Phuoc Tuy. Much of the pagoda had been built in the mid-nineteenth century, before the arrival of the French in the south. Steep red tiled roofs descended to curling eaves which swept upwards in semi circular curves. Bright blue porcelain dragons breathed fire and arched their backs from the crests of roofs. Small chapels rose above each other in low towers linked to the main building by high gangways. The interior of the pagoda and market bore witness of their construction to the former importance of the island as a holy place and the wealth which had thereby flowed to the island. The main part of the pagoda contained several small chapels, each with alters of teak, inlaid with mother of pearl, and decorated with candle holders and vases of hand worked silver. Huge tables with tops of polished teak planks two inches thick stood by the walls with paintings of local scenes. The market was a vast structure, approximately one hundred feet by forty, with a high, steeply pitched roof supported by columns of teak. The redbrick floor blended with the weathered teak of the columns and the teak beams of the roof. These two buildings were to us the most impressive in the entire province.

Running forward to the east from the village was a long narrow spit over a mile long. A deep drainage canal with high banks ran for a few hundred yards along the northern side of this spit, linking the village to a sickle-shaped arm of the sea which curved on through half a mile of mangroves. Fishing boats and sampans were moored in the canal, which formed the main harbour of the village. At the mouth of the canal a special landing post served the Government outpost which stood on the spit at the head of the channel to the open sea. The outpost was a small quadrangle of fortifications, surmounted by a tower and distinguished by a flagpole flying the gold and red flag of the South Vietnamese Republic. The quadrangle was surrounded by several fences of barbed wire and by minefields set amongst flooded ground from which occasional mud banks protruded. Thirty village men defended the fort and endeavoured to exert the authority of the Government over the island.

The Viet Cong had not been seriously threatened by this smaller force and had established a machine gun post and observation point on the summit of Nui Nua. From this point they watched over the activities of the village and the Government platoon. If these men attempted to patrol around the northern or southern sides of the hill, they were fired on from the summit. Provided that they kept within close proximity to the village, they were not molested. In the face of superior forces, the Government platoon could do little else but comply with this policy of divided control over the island

We began to consider the possibilities of an operation on Long Son Island in August, but the priorities of our other commitments had compelled the postponement of the idea until November. However, the months between August and November were very useful for conducting aerial reconnaissance over the island, without arousing direct suspicions of our intentions because the reconnaissances' could be conducted from the heavily used air corridor from Vung Tau to Saigon. After a few flights over the island, it was possible to select sites for the battalion headquarters, search areas for the companies and helicopter landing zones. Close liaison with the Vietnamese naval patrols which worked around the island in small boats in the hours of darkness enabled us to know the degree of use which the Viet Cong were making of the island and the points at which their sampans usually called.

In order to catch the Viet Cong on the island before they had time to disappear into the surrounding mangroves, the whole battalion had to be landed on the island within a very short space of time and at widely separated points, so that the companies could spread out and cover the whole of the Viet Cong area. At the same time, a seal had to be placed between the village and the remainder of the island so that the Viet Cong could not disappear into the village. The only way to get the troops onto the island was by air for a sea approach would have been slowed down by the mangroves around the island. However we could we could obtain the services of only one American helicopter company of ten aircraft which could lift seventy men in one load. To have lifted the battalion direct from Nui Dat to the island would have taken twenty minutes for each seventy men, thus spreading the concentration of the battalion over several hours, allowing for refueling pauses. This would have robbed the operation of any surprise and the Viet Cong would have been given sufficient time to flee from the force which had made the first landing and so escape. Alternatively, it was possible that the first men on the ground could encounter superior Viet Cong forces, if they happened to arrive at a time when a Viet Cong battalion was resting there. Thus the delays in reinforcing them from Nui Dat was unacceptable.

Consequently the battalion had to be assembled at some point on the mainland as close as possible to the island, from which it could be flown in, taking less than ten minutes for each round trip by the helicopters. The next problem was how to concentrate the battalion on the mainland opposite the island without making it perfectly obvious to the Viet Cong that the island was our goal, long before we had begun to land on it. This difficulty could be overcome by commencing the operation by the cordon of a village on Route 15 which was conveniently situated with respect to the island. The battalion could concentrate after the cordon, and instead of flying back to Nui Dat or some other part, descend on the island.

One of the major Viet Cong tracks into the interior of Phuoc Tuy was the one which crossed the low ground between the Dinh hills and Nui Toc Tien. This track began at Phuoc Hoa, a village of five hundred people on Route 15, and very close to Long Son island. Phuoc Hoa possessed one of the best harbours on the western coast and it was known that the village played an important part in the Viet Cong supply system. We had specific information concerning the identities of several of the Viet Cong who lived in Phuoc Hoa and so a cordon of the village seemed to be a worthwhile project.

In September we received indications that the Viet Cong were expecting us to go to the island in the near future. Some bar girls in Vung Tau had been asking our men when we were going to operate against the Viet Cong on the island. It was known that some of these bar girls were in the pay of the Viet Cong so the girls represented a ready made earpiece through which we could feed misleading information to the Viet Cong. Because the Viet Cong had some idea that the island was possibly one of our goals it was important to attempt to give them the notion that although we might be operating near Route 15 in the near future, these operations would not involve the island. Four seasoned members of the battalion were chosen to go to Vung Tau and to spread a cover plan by discussing the plan discretely yet somewhat unguardedly amongst themselves in circumstances where barmen or waitresses might overhear. The men went in pairs at different times and moved at random through several bars which were thought to be suitable for our purpose. According to our cover plan the battalion was going out along Route 15 and from there were striking north into the western part of the Dinh hills.

Colonel Warr's plan for cordoning of Phuoc Hoa was to move the battalion out to Long Cat on Route 15, one mile south of Phuoc Hoa, then to walk inland into the cover of scrub where a harbour area would be formed. Once night had fallen, the battalion would then move in an arc around to the west to meet the cart track which ran back into Phuoc Hoa from the gap between Nui Toc Tien and the Dinh hills. This cart track was an excellent navigational aid and the battalion could then move into and surround Phuoc Hoa in the cover of darkness. Unfortunately the sea front of the village could not be covered by a land cordon, but the assistance of the Special Air Service Squadron in supplying men in assault boats made a sea cordon possible. After the cordon, the battalion was to move off towards the Dinh hills, stopping for the night at the edge of a large clearing from which we could fly to the island at dawn on the following morning.

The cordon of Phuoc Hoa, Operation Yass, was scheduled for the night of November 6th/7th, and the landing on long Son Island, Operation Hayman, was to be on the morning of November 8th. By fortunate coincidence the Chief of Long Le District, Captain Kim, in whose district the island lay, was making a visit to the Popular Forces platoon on November the 4th in order to pay them for the month. This visit offered an excellent opportunity for finding out at first hand about recent Viet Cong activities and strength on the island. Kim had invited me to go with him but I was troubled by the possibility of my presence on Long Son arousing the suspicions of the Viet Cong so soon before an operation, for they could easily disappear to the mainland for a week if they thought my visit presaged the anticipated Australian landing on the island.

Fortunately a cover plan was available. On November the 4th we were to receive a visit from Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes around the area of Nui Dat and as one of my functions was to brief and escort visitors to the battalion I was detailed to show Sir Wilfred around the area of Nui Dat and whatever Government controlled areas he wished to see. If I were to visit Long Son as escort to Sir Wilfred and if we were to ask a few casual questions while we were on the island, there seemed a good chance that not even the local garrison nor Captain Kim would connect the visit with a possible operation in the near future. I put the problem to Sir Wilfred and he agreed to help us, so we set sail with Captain Kim and a platoon of his troops from a naval station on the Vung Tau peninsula on the afternoon of November 4th.

We travelled in two medium sized landing craft of the Vietnamese navy which churned along through the broad channels between the mangroves at twelve knots. Each craft were armed with several machine guns mounted on the gunwales behind armour plate shields. The trip was considered to be perfectly safe, but no chances were taken lest an ambush had been laid along one of the narrower channels which were used to avoid the detours made by the wide meanders of the broad reaches. After nearly two hours on the water we wound our way into the narrow curving arm which led up to the island landing point by the fort.

The local soldiers were a curious sight for their religion required them to wear their hair long and fastened in a bun behind their heads. This long hair and the smoothness of their skins confused my determination of their sex for a few moments. Instead of green uniforms they wore long black robes, rather like cassocks. They were in good spirits for not only was it pay day, but the Viet Cong had only some twenty men on the island at that time and so they felt reasonably secure. The Viet Cong had sent a few bursts of machine gun fire into the fort from the top of Nui Nua a few days previously as a type of psychological warfare, but they had hit no one. The main force battalion had used the island for a rest centre since our arrival at Nui Dat so it was unlikely that our landing would meet with substantial opposition.

We had to wait an hour while the American medical team which had accompanied Captain Kim attend the villagers. The monks at the pagoda were keen to show us around when they learned that an Australian VIP was visiting, so we passed the time in going from chapel to chapel, ascending and descending dark teak staircases, and walking apprehensively along the high gangways which spanned the chasms of tiles between the upper chapels. Captain Kim departed late in the afternoon, at a time which afforded us some splendid views of the setting sun behind the island and of crimson reflections in the long reaches of dark water which settled quickly to calm after our passage.

On the afternoon before the cordon, while travelling along Route 15, Major Miller noticed a portable wire barrier, festooned with grenades, standing by the main gate of Phuoc Hoa. If the APC's hit this barrier as they drove into Phuoc Hoa at dawn on the following morning some casualties make have been caused. However, it was possible that the barrier was not placed across the gateway at night and so Major Miller paid a visit to the village chief just at dusk on the pretext of announcing a visit by an Australian medical team on the following day. He saw that the gate was not blocked by the barrier and so the APC's were able to enter the village the next morning without any hindrance.


 

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