5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966 - 67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
operation queanbeyan

17 - 26 October 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID


The decision to return to Nui Thi Vai was not taken automatically. When the original clearing operation had been launched we had not expected to find such extensive Viet Cong use of the area which we had cleared and so special plans had to be made to follow up the initial success, these special plans determined the whole operational programme for the Task Force for as long as we remained out of the base and so a lengthy extension of our operation required some serious consideration by Brigadier Jackson. Several intelligence reports which we had received from various sources indicated that the Viet Cong were still installed on Nui Thi Vai and that there were more bases to be discovered with possibilities of the capture of further documents, equipment and supplies. Brigadier Jackson was convinced that the operation was worth continuing and gave his approval a few days before the convoys were due to finish so that our planning could proceed.

The most fruitful area of Nui Thi Vai seemed to be the northern and western sides. A great number of tracks ran round to that part of the hill and the derelict houses on the north-western spur were the sort of shelter that the Viet Cong liked to use. Also, the western side of the hill offered the best view over Route 15 while the natural withdrawal routes from the hill lay to the north. Colonel Warr decided to move the battalion in around the northern and western sides so that two companies could advance up the western side of the hill, one could clear the ground immediately to the north of the hill and the fourth company could lie in ambush positions on the approach routes to the north of the hill, a little further out. This company could prevent the Viet Cong movement both toward and away from Nui Thi Vai if the Viet Cong used the track systems which we had discovered from the captured Viet Cong map. This task was assigned to D Company, B Company was to be its neighbour on the north, A Company was to search the central north section of the western slope, while Battalion Headquarters, protected by the Assault Pioneer and Anti-Tank platoons was to advance up the track to the pagoda and install itself in an area where good radio communications with the companies could be ensured. The Sixth Battalion assisted by providing one company, D Company, to protect the gun area.

It must have been fairly obvious to the Viet Cong on Nui Thi Vai that we would return when the convoys had stopped, so we had to take a few deceptive measures. In these we were both hindered and helped by the excellent visibility enjoyed by the Viet Cong over our movements along Route 15 from their observation posts on the hill. This visibility could be exploited, for the Viet Cong might imagine that they were secure until they saw us concentrate the battalion and begin the long move back to the base of the hill.

The jungle which covered most of the plain between the hills and Route 15 afforded cover from observation. Once we had disappeared into it without attracting enemy attention, the Viet Cong would not know where we were until we emerged right in front of their positions. The main problem was how to disappear into this jungle without the Viet Cong seeing. Two of the companies B and C, could move directly from their position along Route 15 to their areas of search, but A and D Companies had to come up from the southern sector of the road so that they could move by reasonably short routes to Nui Thi Vai, and so that their paths would not intersect the routes of the other companies for this could have caused an accidental clash between our forces.

D Company was moved from its position to an assembly area south of Phu My in small groups who travelled in closed-down APC's mounting and dismounting under cover. The movement was spread over the last day of the convoys. The APC movement was quite normal for armoured patrols had been running constantly along the road ever since we begun securing it. A Company and Battalion Head Quarters were moved at dusk in closed APC's to an assembly area midway between B and C Companies so that both these sub-units could advance straight to the east to strike Nui Thi Vai near the foot of the track which led up to the pagoda. The tents and installations of the battalion headquarters site on the road were left erected and some of the Sixth Battalion men moved into them so that the area was not deserted. The gun position was completely unchanged and the Sixth Battalion company was carefully introduced into the area amongst the daily resupply convoys.

Each of the companies were to cross Route 15 and the open ground to the east of the road in the early hours of the following morning, October 17th, so that they would be at least a mile into the jungle before first light.

These moves were completed smoothly. Battalion headquarters had  harboured a few hundred yards away from a Buddhist shrine beside which stood a white marbled Buddha nearly twenty feet tall between two lotus covered pools. We moved out into the darkness at 3 a.m., having silently put on our equipment which had been carefully packed the evening before and left undisturbed save for the use of our mosquito nets which were an essential precaution and had to be used every time we slept.

Our progress through the jungle once we had crossed Route 15 was accompanied by the booming of gongs and the ringing of a deep noted bell. These sounds wafted through to us clearly and lent a totally unreal atmosphere to our slopping progress through the half mile of water alongside the road. We had not been close enough to the shrine to have been seen by the monks so we presumed that these sounds were as innocent as they purported to be. Captain Ledan, who commanded the battalion headquarters party while it was on the move, led us onto a wide sandy track running through the trees which protected us from view. We were glad to have another couple of hours of rest in another harbour area some way along this track.

At dawn we moved off into taller trees which arched over the straight sandy track to allow only tiny patches of sunlight to strike the ground. The track was heading in the direction we wished to follow so we kept to it, moving rapidly. At an intersection with similar trail which crossed the one we were following at right angles, we were puzzled to find a sign, written in English, warning that danger lay ahead. My first reaction to seeing this sign was to pinch myself. To encounter a well made printed sign, in English in the middle of a Vietnamese jungle was not something we had expected that morning. The sign was not booby trapped and it had been made at least six months previously. There was no Vietnamese translation to accompany the English so it must have been intended for an American force or for ourselves. Its purpose was hard to fathom for all that it did was to make us aware that Viet Cong were active in the area, and shortly afterwards, A Company who were leading the advance found a well constructed Viet Cong camp, equipped with trenches and cover from artillery, sited with roughly one company on either side of the track. A booby trap was tripped just by this camp but it exploded without harming anyone and we continued on, realizing that that this explosion must have made the Viet Cong suspicious although they may have put the noise down to a pig which run into the trip wire.

After passing through the camp we came to the first of the houses which lay at the foot of the hill. Some of them had been well built of brick and reinforced concrete. Several bore signs of Viet Cong occupation and it was evidently going to take A Company at least a day to search them. A Company then began to spread out to secure the area and have a brief rest while the battalion headquarters group, which had to get up to the pagoda twelve hundred feet above before darkness, continued on up the track.

The path began to ascend steeply after leaving the houses. The sandy track became a series of rock steps which were sometimes very rough, but often had been carefully hewn and fitted by hand or set in concrete in difficult parts. We climbed to about two hundred feet and waited for the anti-tank platoon, who were leading the battalion headquarters, to clear the next stretch of high ground dominating the track. While we stood on the rocks it began to rain in swift heavy drops. It was already passed midday but we did not want to pause for lunch before climbing Nui Thi Vai because of the effects of exhaustion on a full stomach. The path ascended extremely steeply and we were looking forward to being at the other end of it.

A huge rock was discovered a little further up the track. It was like a large triangular prism resting on its edges, leaning on and supported by some huge trees. It was some fifty feet long and thirty feet high, with a roughly horizontal top of approximately the same dimensions. There was plenty of shelter under one side of the rock so we gathered in out the rain, sharing the cover with a few sleepy bats which had suspended themselves upside down from the rough stone ceiling

After some twenty minutes the anti-tank platoon radioed that they were approaching the crest of the north-western spur. Then three shots cracked through the air above us. The platoon had seen one Viet Cong disappearing behind a rock to the side of the track. The enemy was pursued for a short distance but was not found.

Brian Ledan then asked Colonel Warr if he could push on up the track with with the reconnaissance group of battalion headquarters so that he could get the headquarters laid out on the ground at the pagoda before the main body arrived. Colonel Warr assented, adding a warning about the enemy sighted further up the track. Despite his awareness of the possible dangers lying in wait for his small party Brian made an optimistic reply and bounded off up the rocks holding his Owen Gun at arms length   to balance his rapid movement.

Ten minutes after Brian had departed battalion headquarters moved off up the track. We were strung out over one hundred yards of the steep slope. This meant that there was a long interval between the different individuals making up the headquarters, and therefore all communications between the groups which comprised the headquarters had to be by radio, with the double disadvantage of one-way traffic at any time and the broadcasting of our thoughts to anyone listening in on our frequency. For a headquarters composed of different groups which were required to command and co-ordinate the numerous diverse activities of several hundred men, from tactical deployment to ammunition resupply, direction of airstrikes and the evacuation of casualties, we were not in an ideal situation. However we had become accustomed to this sort of inconvenience by dint of experience and Max Carroll had become cynical enough to hold that fate decreed enemy contact when battalion headquarters were on the move, it was raining and we were hanging onto a rocky precipice by our fingernails. His cynicism seemed fully justified by events on this afternoon of October 17th.

Shortly after setting off we heard a few shots crackling around the rocks above us. They immediately aroused our apprehension for they were clearly not from one of our own weapons. A strong volley of Australian fire replied. A few minutes later, Brian Ledan's radio operator reported that the reconnaissance party was under fire. Brian had been hit and was pinned down by Viet Cong behind a rock so he could not get to the radio to give the details of the enemy's location and number. The Viet Cong had evidently recognized Brian as the commander of the group and had fired at him first. Despite the fact that he had been wounded Brian had been extremely lucky. The sniper's bullet had hit his Owen Gun on the safety slide, missing his body by a fraction of an inch. The bullet had smashed the safety slide and jammed the gun, preventing Brian from returning the fire. It had ricocheted from the Owen Gun and had passed into his chest on the right side making a deep gash which took months to heal, but which caused no serious injury.

 

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