5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966 - 67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge'
operation renmark

18 February - 22 February 1967

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

 

One of the most important villages of the south central rice producing area of Phuoc Tuy was Phuoc Hai. It lay on a broad stretch of yellow dunes and faced onto the South China Sea. Fishing was the chief occupation of the eight thousand inhabitants, and their daily catch was so large that Phuoc Hai was an important source of fish for the Saigon market as well as for Phuoc Tuy. Fish was important to the Viet Cong as well as the Government and so the village had attracted a large amount of Viet Cong attention. Phuoc Hai was on the western edge of a vast, almost uninhabited stretch of country which ran for forty miles along the coast to Ham Tan and another thirty miles to the first large town of Phan Thiet. The hinterland to this coastal region was the May Tao mountains and the whole area had been a guerrilla base since the Japanese occupation. Hence control of Phuoc Hai was very desirable for the Viet Cong, and they infiltrated a large cadre into the village and had recruited guerrillas and regular soldiers from its youth.

After the cordon of An Nhut our attention turned to Phuoc Hai. We knew who many of the village cadre members were and a cordon looked to offer good prospects. Unfortunately the village was too large to be cordoned by one battalion so a Task Force operation, Operation Ulmarra, was proposed to take place between February 24th and 26th. The usual difficulties of establishing the cordon without betraying our intentions before the operation presented themselves. One battalion could be flown into the cordon  by helicopter at dawn on the morning of the cordon, but the other would have to make the long approach march and appear to be engaged in another pursuit, for it was vital to the success of the cordon to have a large part of it in position before dawn and this could only be done on foot. The nearest area of jungle from which the battalion could emerge during hours of darkness before the cordon was to be closed was at the foot of the Long Hai Hills, one and a half miles to the south-west of Phuoc Hai.

These hills had been in our thoughts for several months for they were known to contain several bases and caches used by both D445 Battalion and C25 Company. The American 173rd Airborne Brigade had swept rapidly through the hills in June 1966 after Operation Hardihood. They had suffered a high casualty rate and had discovered many bases which they not had time to destroy. Two smaller operations in the hills had been conducted by Vietnamese troops, aimed at rooting out the headquarters of the Viet Cong long Dat District which controlled all Viet Cong activity within the Long Dien and Dat Do Districts. They had been successful as far as they had gone, capturing the district secretary, his typewriter and records, several other less important Viet Cong, weapons, ammunition and equipment. They had also located several Viet Cong bases, some of which they had destroyed. Consequently there was a need for a larger sweep through the hills to destroy all of the bases and to capture any supplies which the Viet Cong had taken into the hills recently.

Such a sweep seemed to be a good prelude to the cordon of Phuoc Hai. A battalion could work its way through the hills from north to south and concentrate in the jungle at the south-eastern corner on the evening before the cordon was to be placed around Phuoc Hai. The Fifth Battalion was assigned to this role while the Sixth Battalion was to complete the north-eastern part of the cordon by helicopter at dawn on February 25th. We were to commence the move through the Long Hai hills on February 18th so we had six days to cover the area.

Our intelligence collection and appreciation had commenced several months previously and so our files on the area were thick. A preliminary survey of information regarding Viet Cong installations in the hills had been made by our Intelligence Section during January, when a quite period permitted the compilation of a great deal of intelligence data for several contingency plans. Consequently the final collection and consideration of information was not a lengthy process.

The Viet Cong who lived in the hills had been forced back from the outer fringe of the jungle into the deeper parts through the operations of 1966 and harassing artillery fire. The most significant occupant of the hills was C25 Company which was recruited by the Long Dat District Committee from the several villages that surrounded the hills. The company had dug up most of the main roads around the hills, Route 23 to the north, Route 326 which ran for five miles along the north-eastern edge of the hills and Route 44 which ran along the western side of the hills, on the coast, leading to Long Hai then swinging around the Long Hai Point to run north-eastwards for five miles to Phuoc Hai. Route23 had been repaired but the other two roads were still cut on the eastern side of the hills. The company had raided the Government outposts of the Popular Forces troops which existed in most of the villages around the hills and it had murdered and terrorised local officials. Until late 1966 armed members of C25 company could often be seen in the villages by day. After this time they appeared as guerrillas only at night. D445 Battalion had used the sanctuary of the hills on several occasions in 1966, although it did not keep significant elements permanently based in the hills.

In December activity in the hills flared up as the C25 Company and the D445 battalion made raids on the Government posts in Tam Phuoc, Phuoc Hai, Dat Do and on two small posts on the arm of Route 44 which connected Dat Do and Phuoc Hai and Phuoc Loi. The Sixth Battalion had responded to these raids with a thrust into the hills, and since then enemy activity out of the hills had been slight. However during Tet, the Lunar New Year in early February, the Viet Cong advertised their presence by flying large Viet Cong flags, one at Long My, on Route 326, two miles to the north-west of Phuoc Hai, and another on the summit of Nui Chau Vien, the highest point of the southern part of the hills. This latter flag had been illuminated at night by a spotlight.

The approaches to the hills presented several problems, the worst of which was the possibility of mines and booby traps. The road cuts on Route 326 and 44 required particularly careful negotiation for they were such obvious places to surround with mines. Once off the roads we had to continue to take great care for the whole area of the hills was known to contain many mines and booby traps.

Thirty-four base camps had been located by the previous operations and by special reconnaissance patrols. Most of these were concentrated on the lower slopes of the eastern side of the hills. In fact the western side contained very few installations so it was thought more important to concentrate our attention on the eastern side of the hills and on the crest line. This area was some five miles long from north-west and south-east and three miles wide. The hills were steep and rose to eleven hundred feet. A deep valley running north and south cut of a small part of the hills in the north-west from the main mass.

The base camps on the eastern side presented a suitable concentration for a heavy air strike just before we were to enter the hills and so the Americans had organized a B52 raid onto them, to commence at 6 a.m. on February 18th, ninety minutes before our first troops were to arrive to the east of the hills. Many of the bases consisted of tunnels and bunkers so we hoped that their tops would be blown in by the heavy bombs. leaving only minor demolition to be carried out by the men on the ground.

The frequency of air strikes and harassing artillery fire onto the hills made it unlikely that we would strike any large numbers of Viet Cong, although some were undoubtedly present in order to guard their bases, to liaise with the villagers and to conduct observation of all movement in the area from the hill tops. We expected any Viet Cong who were in the hills when we arrived to go into a counter sweep operation by splitting up into small groups and taking evasive action.

Everything necessary for the operation was prepared and the orders were given on the afternoon of February 16th. In the early hours of the following morning the Government post at Phuoc Hai was attacked by two companies of Viet Cong. They failed to get into the post but they did not leave off the attack until just after dawn. A relieving force of Government troops from the Regional Forces company at Hoi My set out for Phuoc Hai at first light. By this time we had become familiar with the often used Viet Cong technique of attacking a post without an attempt to overrun it in order to draw out a relieving force which could then be ambushed and cut to pieces outside of any fortifications. The commander of the relieving company was careful to take the precaution of moving to Phuoc Hai by an indirect route, well to the east of the road connecting the two villages, Route 44.

The caution paid handsome dividends for the company struck the flank of a two company Viet Cong ambush which was covering the road. Although the Viet Cong were superior in numbers they were caught in a bad position and the Government company were able to hold the Viet Cong off without suffering many casualties. However, assistance was necessary and it was the turn of the Sixth Battalion to supply troops which Brigadier Graham wished to send. Two Companies, A and B, were flown by helicopter into a landing zone behind the Viet Cong to cut off their withdrawal. Unfortunately these companies landed right alongside of the rear base of the Viet Cong and came under fire as soon as they stepped out of the aircraft. By this stage it was known that the Viet Cong were the D445 Battalion. A Company mounted an attack to thrust the Viet Cong out of their defences but the enemy held their ground so firmly that to  have pressed the attack further would have cost many casualties.

B Company also became involved in heavy fighting which went on for six hours. Viet Cong snipers were concealed over a wide area and harassed the attackers continually, concentrating on the company commanders, who were recognizable from their actions in controlling operations, and several radio antennas' which went with company headquarters.


 

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