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operations conducted 1966-67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
Operation Ingham

18 November - 3 December 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

While most of our operations took place in the central and western Phuoc Tuy, we had been paying attention to one of the main problems of the eastern districtthe isolation of Xuyen Moc. This village contained approximately 1,500 people and was defended by two government companies of infantry, the one a regional Forces Company, the other a Popular Forces Company. We had become interested in Xuyen Moc for two main reasonsfirst to see if we could do anything about relieving its isolation and second to expand our intelligence net to the east to cover an area of heavy Viet Cong activity.

The village of Xuyen Moc was situated centrally within the district of the same name. It was a large district and the village was seven miles from the coast and twelve miles from the nearest village in central Phuoc Tuy. Government control was non-existent in the area between central Phuoc Tuy and Xuyen Moc village, and it was far from strong in Dat Do, the main village on the eastern side of central Phuoc Tuy. Consequently, the Viet Cong were able to range freely over the whole of the province to the east of Dat Do. The next province to the east, Binh Tuy, was sparely populated and defended by very few Government troops and so the Xuyen Moc district formed part of an immense zone of unrestricted movement for the Viet Cong. Much of this movement tended to concentrate on routes through the Xuyen Moc District because it was close to the current location of the Viet Cong fighting and because several roads ran through the district, leading the chain of Viet Cong bases in the north-east of Phuoc Tuy. These bases needed access to the sea coast for receiving supplies brought in from the north by small ships and junks, they required roads over which the Viet Cong could drive trucks and ox carts laden with rice from central Phuoc Tuy from which the Provincial Mobile and District Company activities could be sustained.

The network of roads that had been built through Xuyen Moc District in earlier times served each of these three needs very well. Route 23, the main road which linked Ba Ria, Long Dien, Dat Do and Xuyen Moc provided good communications for the Viet Cong from central Phuoc Tuy to the western part of Xuyen Moc District. They were not confined to using the road itself for there were many ox cart trails which ran in the same general direction as the road and offered the advantage of cover from view, because they ran through thick scrub and low jungle. Running north and south throughout the western section of Xuyen Moc District was Route 328, a well made earth road which bore the main weight of Viet Cong traffic to the coast and to central Phuoc Tuy. Route 328 was a prolongation of Route 330, which ran southwards from Route 1, swept around the western side of the May Tao mountain, crossed a jungle covered plain where the road became Route 328, and ran due south to Route 23 passed the former Viet Cong model village of Thua Tich and the junction with Route 327, which ran due west to Binh Gia and Route 2. After travelling westwards on Route 23 for half a mile, Route 328 swung off to the south again, passed through the village of Phuoc Buu and then ran south-east to the coast at Cape Ho Tram. Wide beaches ran along the coast for several miles on either side of the cape and so it was a very suitable area for landing supplies from small ships.

When we arrived in Phuoc Tuy, Route 328 was one of the best maintained roads in the province, in sharp distinction to Route 23. As one flew eastwards from Dat Do to Route 23 one saw a succession of blown up bridges and culverts which had been cut away and which could be crossed only on single planks, reducing the capacity of Route 23 to that of an ox cart track--or worse in those places where travelers' were not permitted to use the Viet Cong controlled fords. Route 328 had a broad, smooth surface of red earth. All its banks and culverts were in good order and the bridge over the Suoi Cay Gia near the junction with Route 23 must have been the only road bridge intact in Phuoc Tuy, east of Dat Do.

After passing the junction with Route 328, Route 23 turned to the north-east to run into Xuyen Moc village. In the centre of the village, the road turned at right angles and left the village running south-east. After a mile it turned east to link several hamlets in its last ten miles within Phuoc Tuy. After entering the Ham Tam District of Binh Tuy the road continued to run eastwards until it converged with the coastline and inclined to the north once more. From this section of Route 23 several other important Viet Cong roads branched to the north and south. From the centre of Xuyen Moc village in prolongation of the north-easterly direction of Route 23 ran Route 329. This was nothing more than a broad ox cart track, but it appeared to have been properly laid out by a surveyor and so it was capable of carrying more traffic than the normal winding narrow ox cart track. This route led into the southern part of the May Tao mountain and met several tracks of varying capacities, including Route 331, which ran along the Binh Tuy border to Route 23 and to the coast.

All of these roads and tracks, except for the area within two miles of the Xuyen Moc intersection, were heavily used by the Viet Cong. Consequently, the Viet Cong were anxious to dislodge the Government forces from their last foothold, but while the Government outpost continued to exist we were provided with an excellent listening post for detecting Viet Cong movement on the road system leading into the main bases of the Fifth Viet Cong Division.

The Viet Cong had always held a strong influence over the Xuyen Moc District, for since the time of the Viet Minh, it has been a base area for the Communists. For this purpose the district was well suited for it contained few people to observe the movements of the Viet Cong, it was relatively close to Saigon and it linked the sea coast with the May Tao mountain and War Zone D, further to the north. Ever since the early nineteen-sixties, the garrison had been confined to the immediate locality of the village because of the superiority of the local Viet Cong forces, particularly the D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion which had its bases to the north of Route 23, between Xuyen Moc and Dat Do, centered about the Song Rai. This battalion mounted several attacks on the garrison but suffered with losses in doing so that it seemed better to be content with having isolated the garrison from the provincial administration.

Because they were unable to take Xuyen Moc by force, the Viet Cong began to use means which were slower but which could have been just as decisive. They set up several tax points along Route 23 which the villagers had to pass through when they went to Dat Do. Xuyen Moc was not self sufficient in important food stuffs such as meat, fish and rice, so the people had to make frequent journeys to
Dat Do to sell their fruit, wood and hand-made articles and to buy foods they could not produce. Consequently the Viet Cong had an inescapable grasp over the lives of the villagers by their control over Route 23, and a sure means of local income. The taxation points were spread over a wide area of country on either side of Route 23 in order to catch people who tried to walk around the tax collectors. The rate of taxation varied up to as high as forty percent of the goods being carried, thus it imposed a considerable burden of poverty on the people of Xuyen Moc.

The village grew poorer and poorer. The people were faced by an acute dilemmathey either had to move to the central part of the province and abandon their homes and lands without recompense or they had to endure the continual loss of a major portion of their income until government control over Route 23 could be re-established. Had the people left Xuyen Moc, the Viet Cong would have won a considerable success in demonstrating to the people in outlying villages in Phuoc Tuy that the government could not protect them and that the Government was still the weaker of the two contenders for control of South Vietnam.

The Government attempted to assist the people of Xuyen Moc by supplying their needs by air. Every few weeks, several American C123 aircraft flew to Xuyen Moc to drop rice, medical supplies, ammunition and equipment for the garrison. The strength of the garrison was maintained at two companies despite reductions elsewhere in the province, and it was provided with two 105.mm field guns and a platoon of artillerymen. However, the scale of government support for Xuyen Moc did not meet it needs and so the fundamental problems of the people were still present.

The village was fortunate in its garrison commander, The District Chief, captain Duc. Duc was a lithe man and when one saw how well maintained his compound was and how effectively his troops went about their duties it was obvious that Xuyen Moc was under the leadership of an outstanding man. Duc had been at Xuyen Moc since 1961 and had been confronted with the serious problem of maintaining morale of the people over a long period. When we first made his acquaintance in October 1966 he was getting a little dispirited himself, for it was impossible to say when an improvement in Xuyen Moc's position would take place. Duc came from Go Cong in the Mekong Delta. he felt it was unsafe to bring his wife and children to Xuyen Moc and so he had seen very little of them for five years.

Duc had laid out the defences with some originality. Not content with simply a fortified compound which could not keep the Viet Cong out of the village at night, he had surrounded the compound with twenty- two defended posts which were scattered in an irregular manner in a perimeter some three hundred yards out from the compound. Each of these posts were sited so it could receive supporting fire from the two posts on its flanks in the event of an attack, and each was manned by seven Popular Force soldiers. During the time of day, this number was reduced to two to permit the defenders to go about their own business and to patrol the immediate environs of the village.

The village was made up of five hamlets, four of which were grouped together around the main road junction while the fifth, a Catholic new Life hamlet, stood by itself to the north-west, separated from the main village by five hundred yards. Each of these two settlement groups were surrounded by a ditch, rampart and barbed wire fences. Although the Catholic hamlet was defended by only twenty Popular Force soldiers, its potential for resistance was far greater than this would indicate for most of the villagers were trained to bear arms. Around the hamlets were minefields and on all the roads which led into settled the areas, barricades were placed one behind the other so that it was quite difficult to thread one's way even by day when they were partly opened. Within the four central hamlets was a small airstrip some three hundred yards in length. However, the possibility of sniper anti-aircraft fire from around the village had prevented aircraft from using the landing strip and it had fallen into disrepair.

I made my first visit to Xuyen Moc motivated more by curiosity than by any particular knowledge of the outposts need. Until October, all we knew about the village and its garrison was summed up by a blue circle on our maps which indicated that the village was still under government control. I wanted to know how the post had held out, what its problems were, what its worth was, how it could be relieved and what intelligence assistance it could give us. Prior to Operation Crowsnest I had made some preliminary arrangements with the R.A.A.F. for a helicopter. Normally, the R.A.A.F. pilots liked to have radio contact with any landing zone which they had to use. However, we thought that it would be most unlikely for Xuyen Moc to have a spare radio available for this purpose, even had we been able to contact them before the visit. Without direct contact with the landing zone, one did not know whether any artillery was being fired which could endanger the helicopter, or even whether the landing zone was secure from Viet Cong interference.

However, when I had explained the significance of making contact with this beleaguered outpost, the pilots agreed to make an attempt to land, depending on our assessment of the local situation as we flew overhead. We hoped that at least we would know whether the post was still in Government hands or not on the day of the visit, but until we had landed we would have no idea of what sort of local situation we were flying into.

We took off from Tiger Five, the battalion helicopter pad, at 10 a.m. on the morning of October 4th. Accompanying me were Bic, the interpreter, and private Browne, my Batman and bodyguard. We ascended over Nui Dat in tight spirals to a height of nearly four thousand feet, quite sufficient to cope with any anti-aircraft fire which may have met us when we were a long way out from the base. The green rows of rubber trees passed beneath us as we flew over Long Tan and looked out on a vast expanse of jungle, still bright green in the wet season. Here and there were large clearings across which ran the unmistakable marks of ox carts. The early part of the Dat Do rice harvest was evidently on its way to the rice caches of D445 Battalion and the Fifth Viet Cong Division. We swung south to follow Route 23.  so we could see the state of the damage inflicted by the Viet Cong . I gave up trying to count the number of culverts which had been destroyed and the number of holes which had been dug across the road. As one flew over mile after mile of jungle which denied visual penetration one came to feel Xuyen Moc was the end of the earth--nothing could be further away from one's concept of civilization!

After five miles we passed the staggered junction of both sections of Route 23. The red earth of the former was smooth for as far as the eye can see. Shortly afterwards the clearing in which Xuyen Moc lay came into view. The village looked perfectly peaceful. Small columns of smoke twisted upwards in moist air from huts of bamboo and houses of brick. A few herds of cattle moved between the edge of the jungle and the outer barbed wire of the village defences and the men could be seen at the road blocks guarding the approaches to the village. As we swung low over the centre of the village we could see a broad square of earth which formed the market place. Around the market place on three sides were shops. On the fourth side was the district headquarters compound. Small figures began to run out of the compound as we came low overhead. While we made another circuit of the village they grouped in a field one hundred yards in front of the compound and set off a canister of purple smoke. We took this as a good indication of where they wanted us to land and made a final steep drop to land twenty yards from the assembled group. No sooner than I, Browne and Bic jumped out of the helicopter than the aircraft had taken off again, not caring to risk enemy mortar fire from the jungle, a little over a mile away.


 

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