5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
operation hardihood
(Cont'd)

24 May - 4 June 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 

On the 28th of May we set off to move further to the east where some more Viet Cong tracks lay. At 10 a.m. we had a welcome stop and our first wash since the beginning of the operation. We changed our clothes and took our feet out of our boots for the first time in four days. However, the dry socks stayed dry for five minutes only as we then waded through a deep, swiftly flowing creek, the Soui Da Bang, swollen by the recent and heavy rains. After slithering and clawing our way up the far bank, which was ten feet high, we headed into thick bamboo.

Bruce halted the company at 2 p.m. on top of a steep ridge overlooking a well used track which followed the line of the Soui Da Bang. Then we received a radio warning from Max Carroll to stay off the high ground in case we struck a Viet Cong force which was too big for us to handle. An enemy battalion had been located further south down the valley, and A. Company had almost collided with it. The enemy intentions were uncertain. The battalion may have been coming up the valley to attack us or it may have been preparing to withdraw. We repacked our equipment and commenced to move back into the valley. Six Platoon descended from the ridge first in order to secure our northern flank against any Viet Cong who might have been coming down the track. Several minutes later several bursts of machine gun fire sent everyone to the ground. Six Platoon had encountered several Viet Cong coming south on the track. The confidence displayed by the Viet Cong was remarkable, right through this phase of the operation. Possibly this was the result of many years of undisputed possession of the area, but on many occasions, such as this one, the Viet Cong ignored all precautions and walked down the centre of the track talking loudly and with their weapons slung on their shoulders where they could not be used on the instant if they were ambushed. The Viet Cong had arrived on the scene just as Six Platoon were crossing the track, so there was no opportunity for surrounding them and cutting off their escape. One of our forward scouts opened fire and was quickly supported by his sections machine gun. One Viet Cong was killed and at least two others were wounded. Bruce called in artillery on the line of withdrawal taken by the survivors. The dead man was searched and then buried. The whole action had taken up some thirty minutes, so Bruce decided to return to the security of the ridge line for the night and to continue the search in the morning.

At this stage the whole of the Fifth Battalion were being redeployed to form a line of ambushes along the Soui Da Bang. Many Viet Cong had been encountered along this valley by the other companies and there was the possibility of the whole battalion of Viet Cong in the south attempting to move up the valley and link up with the main force regiment which was to the north of us.

We had gone only two hundred yards in the morning when five shots cleaved the air. The forward scout of the leading platoon had seen one Viet Cong moving towards him and had quickly called up the second scout. Unseen by the enemy, the two scouts had split up so that one could cover the Viet Cong with his rifle, while the other worked around to try to get close enough to capture him. When the latter scout was close enough to the Viet Cong to challenge him he called on him in Vietnamese to surrender. The Viet Cong dropped behind a log and made no reply. When he was told to surrender a second time  he darted off into the scrub. However he was not quick enough to escape the fire which had been covering him in case he attempted to escape and he was cut down.

After the burial the company moved southwards again. The route lay through a maze of bamboo clumps whose low arching branches forced us to duck and stoop while thousands of sharp little thorns snared our clothing and equipment. We rested on a small sandy spit at the junction of a stream with the Soui Da Bang, and felt, very sharply, the huge distinction between the moments when one was being shot at and those when one was not. The war seemed like a tramp through the bush for ninety five per cent of the time: it was that vital five per cent which made the differencethe time when danger threatened, or when one imagined that it threatened. At time it was very easy to put the thoughts of danger right out of mind. This may have been merely a human defence mechanism, but perhaps it was also a rationalisation for only seldom was one bothered enough by the dangers to feel fear.

After this rest we went onto the next creek junction where we laid an ambush for the night. Several tracks cut the creek at this point and Bruce arranged a brilliant series of ambushes so that all  the
approaches were covered, and if the enemy caught in one ambush tried to break and run away they would run into another. However, the Viet Cong made no movement that night and we lost our sleep for no gain.

On the morning of May 30th we found an extensive Viet Cong camp. It was several years old and the defences were in poor condition, but some of the huts had been used recently. The amount of work that had been put into a tunnel system connecting two was surprising. What was the purpose of this defensive installation in the heart of territory which had been securely in the hands of the Viet Cong for years? I could only suppose that it had been built as a training exercise.

It became apparent that the Viet Cong battalion had moved eastwards to avoid contact for D. Company had found their camp which had been hurriedly vacated by the enemy who left many tracks leading to the east.

The battalion plan was to concentrate to companies closer together in another series of ambushes in case the Viet Cong attempted to re-use the Soui Da Bang track. We moved some five hundred yards to the north and found ourselves in the ironical situation of ambushing the Viet Cong from the security of one of their old camps.

I made myself very comfortable behind the piled rocks of a Viet Cong Sanger for the next two days. This pause afforded us a very welcome rest and a chance to dry out our saturated equipment and bedding. This was confined to our packs when we were on the move and so never had an opportunity to dry out from one day's deluge to the next.

Evidently the Viet Cong were vacating the whole area for no contacts with them were made by any of the companiesthe first day of the operation on which this had happened. After a peaceful and dry night we continued to man our ambushes on the ridge line. The position abounded with fascinating insects and other wild life: big butterflies with black wings splashed with turquoise which glittered and shone, fat friendly brown lizards, bloated by the richness of the local provender, and black ants with large mandibles which we called chomper ants. These had eaten a hole in my groundsheet six inches square during the night. During the day we aired our feet. A couple of hours in the fresh air restored those whitish lumps of wrinkled flesh to something nearer their normal appearance.

We made no contact with the Viet Cong in this ambush. The other companies encountered a few however, and C. Company took two prisoners, a man and a woman who had bumped into the company position. without knowing that it was there. Another group of Viet Cong who probed C. Company were heard by an interpreter to remark 'Australians! Be careful!'

After a few days of sweeping the area it was apparent that the Viet Cong had departed and that now we could prepare to developed the battalion's permanent base at Nui Dat. On June 2nd the companies back into the immediate vicinity of Nui Dat and occupied a wide arc around the North-eastern side, about one thousand yards out from the hill. When I was back in the base area I went across to the camp of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on the opposite side of Route 2 to see what I could scrounge. Several others must have beaten me to the idea for when I asked for a few items which I said were still on their way to us on board the H.M.A.S. Sydney, The American Supply Sergeant replied, "Well goddamn, that Sydney must be the biggest ship in the world�the Queen Elizabeth, the Enterprise and the United States all rolled into one. There's so much gear on board it!"

During the following days Colonel Warr laid out the battalion defences and the companies began to dig themselves in. Once everyone had a weapon pit with thick overhead cover for protection from shelling, work was commenced on the perimeter wire. The companies were still widely dispersed with only A & B Companies near their final positions. This was because the whole Task Force area had to be patrolled every day and it was necessary to have one company, D. Company, at the southern extremity, some thousand yards south of Nui Dat, while another company, C. Company, had to be on the eastern flank a similar distance out from Nui Dat.

During this week the other units of the Task Force began concentrating at Nui Dat. The Headquarters flew in on June 5th and began to take over control of the Fifth Battalion from the American brigade which departed from Nui Dat on June 8th, having rendered us most vital assistance. In helping the Australian Task Force to become established, The Americans had suffered 23 killed and a 160 wounded.

As we dug ourselves in around Nui Dat the Viet Cong were not sitting idly by. Each night they began to creep up to our positions to see where we were, where the wires were sighted and how effective it was. They waved lights about on poles in attempts to locate our machine guns by drawing their fire. However, no one fired unless they had a man in very close range and the machine guns were under orders no to fire at all unless a heavy attack came in. This probing was normal procedure for the Viet Cong in preparing a large scale attack and it tended to confirm an intelligence report which we had received that 274 Regiment was planning to attack our position on a night around June 12th in order to throw us out of Phuoc Tuy and restore their loss of face amongst the local people.

In October 1966 we captured the diary of Nguyen Nam Hung, Deputy Commander of 274 Regiment who had commanded the group of reconnaissance teams which probed us early in June, so I can relate both sides of the events that occurred at that time. Hung had set off from his base in the Hat Dich area on June 4th in order to examine our position. He formed a small base to the north of us on June 6th, from which his men made their patrols. They saw the Americans depart on June 8th and he recorded that several of his men were wounded by our sentries as they probed our defences. The Regiment moved down from its base and concentrated near Nui Nghe, three miles to our north-west, on June 9th, where they awaited Hung's report. Just as Hung reached them in the late afternoon, an American light observation aircraft which had been supporting us during the day made a low sweep over the Nui Nghe on its way back to Vung Tau. Possibly the crew noticed a tin roofed hut at the foot of the hill and were investigating it. However, fire from 274 Regiment brought the aircraft down in thick jungle at the foot of the eastern side of Nui Nghe. After discussion with Hung, the commander of 274 Regiment decided that it would be more profitable to ambush the crashed aircraft than to attack us in our defended camp, so the regiment lay in wait for us for the following two days.

However, we had no knowledge that aircraft had crashed until we received a radio request the following morning from the Americans asking for their aircraft back. Nobody knew where it had crashed and aerial searches produced no evidence as the jungle was too thick. Consequently the battalion were unable to send out the recovery team to assist any survivors, which would have been sent had the location of the crash been known. Thus the battalion were very fortunate, for had a company had fallen into the Viet Cong regimental ambush it would have had a very hard time to hold its own. 

1 Platoon led by Lt. John Hartley discovered the aircraft in January 1967. It was invisible from 30 yards away and it was by chance that it was discovered. A. Company HQ under the command of Maj Max Carroll  secured the area and Recce Platoon under command of 2nd Lt Michael 'Deaky' von Berg were tasked to secure a helicopter infiltration point through the thick jungle canopy for the SAS to winch down and to assist in the recovery of the pilots remains. The pilot had been killed on impact and the observer had been able to climb out and the small pile of empty cartridge cases beside his skeleton testified that he had bravely held the VC off until his ammunition had run out. They had then shot him through the back of the head.

The final outcome of this incident was that our occupation of the Nui Dat area was completed without serious challenge, and the Task Force base was rapidly built into a fortification, which even a divisional assault would find difficult to enter. The Viet Cong did not leave us entirely alone however, for two members of D. Company were killed and three wounded on June 11th when a patrol was hit by artillery fire on the south-western side of the Task Force perimeter. But these incidences achieved nothing more than to keep us on our guard and to strengthen our resolve to push the Viet Cong deep into the jungles where they could harm neither the civilian population or ourselves. Once established in our base, we were free to begin consideration of how we could most rapidly remove the Viet Cong from central Phuoc Tuy and the planning for the next operation was commenced.


 

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