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Operations conducted by 5RAR 1966-67
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7 - 18 August 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

Binh Ba was a village which held a strange fascination. Probably this was due to its well cultivated and highly developed appearance which contrasted so sharply with our tents and holes in the ground carpeted by mud at Nui Dat. We had flown over Binh Ba on several occasions and had been tantalised by the acres of smooth green lawn surrounding the French villas, by their gardens laden with exotic flowers, by the cream plastered elegance of the large houses with their flood-lit lawn tennis courts and by the almost suburban character of the village as a whole. The plantation workers' houses had been built by the French in a style far better than any native built village house. Each was constructed of brick with cream plastered walls and roof of red tile. Great brown wooden shutters were hinged back from the windows by day to let the cool air of the rubber plantation blow gently through the rooms. The houses were built in pairs, each dwelling the size of a small Australian suburban house, set in an enclosure of garden which was used both for vegetable growing and ornamental shrubbery. The whole village was laid out on a strict rectangular pattern of intersecting streets, all of which were lined with green hedges of thick-leaved shrubs which produced red, pink, gold or white flowers at different times of the year.

The village itself was like a delicate piece of impressionist design set within the broad frame of rubber trees, whose regular pattern and even colour served to focus one's attention on the rich reds, browns and yellows of the village. In our early days in Phuoc Tuy as we flew over the village, watching the pits creep slowly across the Binh Ba airstrip, our sense of apprehension that this conglomeration of buildings and people beneath us was controlled by the Viet Cong was heightened by the state of the village's development. The factories, the plantation and the houses were symbols of power---power which had passed in recent years from the Vietnamese Government to the Viet Cong.

The importance of Binh Ba to either side in this struggle was its contribution to the local economy. Not only was the plantation a direct source of wealth, which could be tapped by taxation, but it was a source of good employment for several hundred Vietnamese, and it was the main source of maintenance for some three thousand persons. Whoever controlled the plantation had the first claim on the services and support of the people. Binh Ba had known many masters over the previous twenty five years. The French had been displaced by the Japanese in 1941 and had lost the output of the plantation until they were able to resume control in 1946. During the Indo-China war, the French had built a triangular fort, surrounded by a high mound at the western end of the village. Occupied by a company of Vietnamese troops who were commanded by a French officer, the fortification had maintained French authority until the pressure of the Viet Minh in the north and in the Central Highlands grew too great for the French to be able to afford the men who manned the Binh Ba post. The strongest local influence then became the Viet Minh, who introduced Communism and dissent against the Saigon Government and its local representatives. The ending of the war in 1954 did not bring the influence of Communism in Binh Ba to a finish for villages like Binh Ba were too far away down the chain of command foe the Diem Government to do more than exhortation and occasional visits. When the war began to build up against the Viet Cong in the early nineteen sixties, the old French triangular mound was taken over by Government troops. The people of Binh Ba were compelled to convert their village into a strategic hamlet. They dug a ditch several feet deep around the village and raised a corresponding mound on the inward side of the ditch. Barbed wire obstacles were placed around the perimeter and watch towers were placed in the important corners and at the village gateways. Huge steel gates with spikes were hung from brick pillars to close off Route 2 at the northern and southern ends of the village. But all these works went for naught because the Viet Cong came by night and compelled the people to dismantle the fortifications, and most of the materials that went into the construction went to the Viet Cong.

Viet Cong Cadres came into Binh Ba in 1961 and began accumulating popular support, both by conducting political meetings and by assisting the villages with education and agricultural advice. By 1964 the Viet Cong had taken control of the village and they set about intimidating any opposition. They tortured the former head man of the village to death and terrorised the local police and teachers so that they departed to safer areas. Strangely, the Viet Cong did not take much deliberate action against the Catholic Priest or the French plantation managers. They were well aware that they could not let the plantation fall into disuse, for then the village would disintegrate and they would be to blame. Initially, they attempted to humiliate the Frenchmen by making them work as rubber tappers and by subjecting them to some public brutality. The management of the Soci'ete Indochinoise de Plantation d'Heveas (S.I.P.H.), the group who owned the Gallia Plantation at Binh Ba decided to attempt to weather the storm, reasoning that whoever was to control Vietnam in the long run would need to keep the rubber industry working. Hence the losses entailed by the interruptions of war might be offset at a later date. At least there was the possibility of compensation to be paid by a nationalising government if the French owners held on, while to quit their holdings without receiving a cent for their vast investments seemed foolish. Hence the local plantation managers had to coexist with the Viet Cong as best they could. The French were allowed freedom of access to their plantations through Viet Cong controlled areas,   but it was expected of them that they would reveal nothing of intelligence value to the Government. When called upon to provide medical assistance for the Viet Cong sick and wounded they were expected to open their hospital which they maintained for the plantation workers. If, as in February 1966, an allied force visited the village, the French were expected to give the Americans no co-operation in matters such as permission to use the plantation water supply. While the Viet Cong were the local masters, these conditions had to be upheld by the French, both for their own personal safety and for the health of the rubber trees, which could be quickly ruined by indiscriminate slashing of their bark, should the Viet Cong have desired to put the plantation out of business.

Whether the Viet Cong taxed the S.I.P.H. directly through Paris as they did with other firms who were lucrative sources of income for the Communists, I do not know. However, the Viet Cong did not hesitate to take a local tax from the plantation workers, consisting of one day's pay and two litres of rice per month in normal circumstances. At special times, 'acts of patriotic and heroic solidarity' were called for, when the contributions expected were far greater than these amounts. Of course the village had to fill its quota of young men for military service with the Viet Cong. Those who declined such service were required to take a special course to eliminate 'reactionary tendencies'. If they failed to show the desired amount of reformation they were taken off and never heard of again.

Father Joseph, the village priest, was from North Vietnam. He had been able to leave the north in 1956 and he had come to Binh Ba. Although nearly three quarters of the people of Binh Ba were nominally Buddhists, there were still some hundreds of Catholics to be cared for. The Catholics were not in a strong enough position too prevent the growth of Viet Cong power, but they were sufficiently numerous to present a special problem to the new controllers of the village in 1964. The Viet Cong knew that Catholic teaching was against them, but they did not attempt to close the church or to get rid of Father Joseph. Probably confident that they could deprive the church of the support of the youth of the village, they reckoned that they would save themselves a great amount of trouble by tolerating the Catholics, provided that the Catholics did not become too militant towards them. The Catholic Church was placed in a similar position to S.I.P.H.--- it had to coexist in the hope of better things to come, or lose all that it had built up. Occasionally the Viet Cong carried out measures against the Catholics, such as forbidding services, or preventing Father Joseph from travelling to his bishop at Xuan Loc.

It was fairly obvious that Binh Ba would have to be one of our first goals in Phuoc Tuy. Not only was it the most important village in Viet Cong hands in the province, but it was blocking road access for the Government to the Duc Thanh outpost, and preventing 5,000 people of Binh Gia, the nearby Catholic village, from getting into the Ba Ria markets. Furthermore, Binh Ba was well sited for the Viet Cong aggressive action against the Nui Dat base. Not only could the Viet Cong collect intelligence through the people of Binh Ba, but the village was a useful staging point for any big attack which might be made against the base. The attack of which we had been warned for the night of June 12th had been dubbed by Captain Bob Milligan, second in command of C Company, 'the Binh Ba Ten Thousand', and whenever Intelligence suggested an attack on the base was likely, it was sufficient merely to pass the word, 'the Binh Ba Ten Thousand is on tonight', and the appropriate precautions would be taken.