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operations conducted 1966 - 67


australian infantryman's combat badge
operation sydney 1 & 2

6 July - 20 July 1966

By Captain Robert J O'Neill MID


C Company returned to the headquarters area and their area of search was assumed by B Company. Late on afternoon a patrol from Four Platoon commanded by Sergeant Williams located a small Viet Cong camp on the edge of a clearing. Sergeant Williams had been advancing through thick jungle along the edge of this large clearing when suddenly the patrol heard voices a few yards in front of them. The men went to ground immediately, hoping that their presence had not been detected. The Viet Cong gave no sign of realising that they were being watched. Unfortunately the denseness of the jungle was such that it was impossible for the patrol to test the flanks of the enemy camp without risking noise which would have betrayed the patrol's presence, so the men lay still and watched,  hardly daring to breathe, waiting for the opportunity to discover  more of the occupants' nature before planning an attack. Sergeant Williams had hoped to lie up until dark and then withdraw to the clearing where the patrol could noiselessly creep up on the camp and annihilate those inside.

Because of the closeness of the enemy, Williams had not dared to speak into the radio to give his location report so Major McQualter was anxiously broadcasting messages, trying to find out what had become of Williams' patrol. Even the sound of a voice in Sergeant William's earphone endangered his patrol, so he had turned the volume of his radio almost completely off. Bruce realised that Williams must have been in some sort of position where it was too dangerous to speak into the microphone, so he asked Williams to press his microphone switch twice if he could hear. The two presses came back to the company headquarters set. Bruce then set about finding out Williams situation by questions which could be answered on a yes or no basis- three presses for no an two for yes. This system was sufficient for establishing facts like the number of enemy in the camp, but it was impossible for Williams to give his whereabouts, and so he could not be helped.

As darkness fell, one Viet Cong stepped out into the clearing and, following a hand line of wire, moved out to a small clump of bushes in the centre of the clearing. This was apparently their sentry position and a very good one it was. No one could approach the camp through the jungle without making too much noise to remain undetected, while to step out into the clearing in the amount moonlight at that time would have attracted the sentry's attention at once.  Williams lay and hoped the moon would go down. Suddenly, after the sentry had been at his post for about forty-five minutes, there was a clashing of cans being struck together. The muscles of the patrol tightened-- was this the signal of a Viet Cong attack on them? Another man walked out into the centre of the clearing and the first sentry came back. The signal was for the relief of sentries and the noise went on all night at regular intervals--a most curious procedure which must have attracted the attention of anyone within a few hundred yards of the camp.

Williams had to think of a new plan. He decided to wait until dawn when there would be enough light for aimed shots and then to launch a lightening assault. The patrol lay undiscovered through the night, the men not daring to stretch their cramped limbs, take off their equipment or sleep lest they snore. When dawn began to light the clearing one of the Viet Cong walked out of the sleeping hut to relieve himself. He almost fell over one of Williams' patrol and shouted an alarm. Surprised for an instant, the patrol took a few vital seconds to respond with volleys of fire into the sleeping hut. Although they may have wounded a few of the fleeing enemy, the patrol found no bodies and had to withdraw quickly in case it received a counter attack.

While the battalion had been sweeping around Nui Nghe, Colonel Warr had been thinking about the village of Duc My. Most of the inhabitants of this village were Montagnards who had been gathered together by the Government in 1961 from their isolated huts scattered throughout Phuoc Tuy. This resettlement had been carried out as part of a nationwide programme to complicate the supply system of the Viet Cong. The aim had been to separate the Viet Cong from the people on whose support they depended, applying the successful methods of the British in Malaya. However, the Vietnamese situation was a much more difficult one to control  than the Malayan. There were many more people to be resettled, the Vietnamese administration was not as experienced as the Malayan and the forces at the disposal of the Vietnamese authorities for sealing off the villages from the guerillas were neither as efficient as those in Malaya nor as numerous in proportion to the population to be controlled.

In the case of the Montagnards of Duc My, these complications were of vital importance to their behaviour in the following years. They had been taken away from their homes and fields and established in a new area with minimum facilities for the agriculture to which they were accustomed. Consequently, many of the Montagnards were strongly prejudiced against the Government after their resettlement and were highly susceptible to Viet Cong propaganda which was exerting a growing influence at that time.  Gradually the status of the Viet Cong grew in the eyes of these Montagnards to the extent that several men were prepared to join the Viet Cong as guerrillas and the majority of the village was ready to assist the Viet Cong with food and shelter.

The Montagnards looked incredibly wild along side the men from Binh Ba. They were smaller and much darker in skin colour--quite often they were coffee coloured. instead of smooth, neatly parted hair they had great tousled mops which looked as if they had not seen a comb in months. The Montagnard faces were more lined and craggy, more expressive then those of the other Vietnamese, and their features were more distorted, heightening their appearance of the primitive, and their eyes showed wider, whiter and wilder because of the darkness of their skin. Straggly wispy beards sprouted from their chins and several wore a type of black turban. All of these characteristics reinforced the unreasonable prejudiced conception of savagery in my mind, which has its roots in my earliest school-day reading of tales of imperial adventure set in Edwardian Asia. My first feelings were that these Montagnards were beings of a totally different nature to myself, quite beyond the communicational range of human personality.

They lived in a rambling village of huts built of grass or of teak with iron roofs. Duc My is divided by a swiftly running creek whose waters, some three feet deep and wide, pluck with considerable force at anyone wading across or along its course. Thick tropical undergrowth and trees abound on the luxuriously drenched banks. Behind this line of high vegetation and between the houses lie paddies whose thick black mud clogs and sucks as one walks across them, relinquishing with soft shuddering sighs their apparently desperate attempts to drag the boots off those who have intruded upon them. Dissecting the paddies are the boundary mounds or bunds, often several feet high. Any novice rash enough to persist in the crossing of these slippery sided bunds will probably find himself ejected headlong down the far side before he has gained his balance at the top of the mound and he will then have to extricate himself from a further expanse of ooze. Often the other side of the bund descends a further few feet into a drain which might be filled with stone, slush, or more fortunately water. Around the paddies lay dense banana plantations, untended for the most part, choked with grasses high enough to conceal a man standing and so intertwined as to make a pace of six inches fair progress through their tangled growth.

Duc My contained some fifteen Viet Cong Guerillas and our presence in the area to the west of the village seemed to offer a good opportunity for capturing some of these men. Colonel Warr had been thinking about the possibilities of first placing a cordon around the village by night so that it would be undetected while it was being positioned and then of searching the village the following morning with all the means of escape to the Viet Cong cut off by the cordon. The major difficulty in such an operation from the tactical point of view was to move the whole battalion at night through strange country over a distance of some miles with precision sufficient for each company to occupy a final position within a few yards of where it was meant to be. The movement had to be executed in complete silence without loss of contact from one man to the next so that individuals and groups did not become separated from the main body and lost. Finally, security of the operation was vital for the whole battalion was extremely vulnerable to ambush when it was strung out in a number of lines of men moving on fixed paths, close behind each other. Night movement was carried out by a very few units on the Government side in Vietnam and consequently the Viet Cong enjoyed all the advantages which the cover of darkness confers. There were many risks to be run, but they did not appear to be insuperable in the light of our training and so Colonel Warr had decided to attempt the cordon and search of Duc My in late July.

The first requirement was detailed information of the approaches to the village and of its edges. The battalion had to know exactly what sort of terrain it would pass over, what landmarks there were and their location and the time it would take for movement between the assembly area and the final cordon position. In a cordon operation involving the simultaneous movement of several groups, timing must be known down to a few minutes so that the cordon appears in position without any open sides at the required time. In addition, each part of the cordon must know where to locate itself on the ground with respect to the local landmarks so that nowhere is there a gap of no more than ten yards between men.  To achieve this in the case of the join between two companies who have approached the village from an assembly areas a mile or more apart demands the most precise knowledge of the edges of the village. Different approaches might suggest themselves and the practical merit of these had to be tested. Enemy activity in the area had to be ascertained. In particular, enemy sentry positions or ambush locations had to be discovered. The amount of movement at night within the village had to be known. The presence of dogs which might bark, of pigs which might charge about in the darkness, and of buffalo and cattle which could caused casualties as well as betray the movement of our troops had to be determined before the planning of a cordon operation could be completed.

All of this information could be obtained only by a ground reconnaissance of Duc My at night. I was given charge of the patrol which was to provide this information. With the second in command of each of the other three companies I was to take two dozen men who were to be the platoon guides for the insertion of the cordon. The route we had to check led upstream along the creek which flowed out of Duc My. It seemed to offer the advantage of a permanent guide line which could hardly be mistaken. The companies could all diverge from the creek  at a dispersal point and move around the edges of the huts to their final positions. On paper it looked a good plan, but as is so often the case with infantry tactics, there were many small factors, all capable of wrecking the operation, which could be discovered only by walking over the proposed route. I made a preliminary reconnaissance of our route by helicopter on the morning before we were to set out. We wound upwards in a spiral fashion out of the Tennis landing pad and set off to the west rather then flying directly to our objective and hovering over villages who might swiftly put two and two together. We spent a few minutes over Nui Nghe, a few more over the tempting villas of Binh Ba, inhabited by the French managers, the Binh Ba village itself with a good oblique angle view to the south over Duc My. We then took the liberty with a few minutes directly above Duc My, while I made corrections and additions to the map on my knee, peering at the little clusters of houses in bright sunlight1,500 feet below us. The wind blew coldly in on us for the small Sioux helicopter had both its doors removed. Maps flapped and threatened to tear out of my hand. I though how ironical it would be if my new enlargement, complete with guide markings, were torn out of my hands to float down into the curious hands of those people below. Their interest in us suddenly grew beyond the stage of mere curiosity as a shot, harmless at our height, went close to our flight path.