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In memorium
 

 

Corporal Henry 'Eyes' Suttor Killed in Action 16 November 1969
 

When Ted Suttor arrived in South Vietnam on February 16, 1969, it was the culmination of over a years tough training with the 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, much of it in North Queensland. Although it was the Battalion's second tour of the War, most of the men were arriving for their first experience of combat operations.

The 5th was known as the 'Tiger Battalion' with a proud record from the first tour and was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Khan, a Korean War veteran and one of the most experienced combat commanders in the Australian Army.

To understand Ted's role, It's worthwhile to broadly understand how the Battalion was organised.

The foundation of any Infantry Unit is the Infantry Section commanded by a Corporal with a Lance Corporal as second in command (2IC) and 8 soldiers of the rank of Private. Three such Sections make up a Platoon and three Platoons make up a Rifle Company. Four Rifle Companies, a Support Company and an Administration Company form the Battalion.

At the start of his tour of duty, Ted held the rank of Lance Corporal, second in command of a Section in 8 Platoon, C Company. Others in the Company remember him as a great mate Nonetheless, they also recall how Ted had taken to the Army with enthusiasm and approached every stage of his training seriously. Of course, the Australian Army at that time was a vibrant organisation putting into practice its doctrines and training fighting a war. And that sense of purpose was reflected in Ted's character. He had joined the Army in November, 1967 and his promotion is evidence of how he applied himself to the challenge. According to Brian Shaeffer, Ted was someone who loved soldiering. He had joined as a regular soldier and not many knew his background, particularly that he had attended Kings School. The Company 2IC, David Wilkins, recounts how Ted was "very highly thought of" and one of the young NCOs who made the Company." Claude Ducker knew Ted after the battalion arrived in-country and Claude had taken command of the Company. Claude thought of Ted as one of his best young NCOs.

The battalion joined the Australian Task Force at the Nui Dat Base in Phuoc Tuy Province, south-east of the capital of Saigon . The province had been the responsibility of the Australian Task Force since 1966 and since that time the Task Force had been successful in virtually eliminating the local Viet Cong organization. In fact, since the major enemy offensives of the previous year - in February (the May TET Offensive), August and November, 1968 - the enemy organisation was quite different than that of the early years of the War, characterised, as it was, by a local village guerrilla force, supported by the population, operating in small groups and using hand-made booby traps, old weapons from the French period and hit-and-run tactics.

By 1969, most of the local support had evaporated and the enemy units moving into the province were made up almost entirely of North Vietnamese Army regular soldiers (NVA) who had spent months travelling down the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia.

The implication for the battalion and for its men was that they were now facing a very different enemy than the common perception held by the general public in Australia. The NVA were well trained, well armed and operated in Platoon, Company, Battalion and even Regimental size units. Their standard operating procedure was, after moving into the Province, to set up well-sited and heavily fortified bunker complexes hidden deep in the forests and jungles with the intention of conducting larger scale attacks on the many South Vietnamese army posts and bases located near the towns and villages of the province. By 1969, it was considered unlikely, but not impossible, for the NVA to directly attack the large Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat. From the end of February to October of 1969, the 5th Battalion conducted fourteen Operations in various parts of the province, mainly 'search and destroy' operations and mainly in the north and north-west of the province.

The NVA were well armed and trained. They operated in platoon, company, battalion and even regimental size units. The operations generally saw the companies of the battalion inserted into the jungle by helicopters or by Armoured Personnel Carriers, within range of an artillery fire support base. The companies would then search with stealth for NVA, utilising small-unit patrol and ambush techniques for which the Australian Army was world-renowned. In June, the battalion fought one of the most significant Australian actions of the Vietnam War. Just 5 kilometres north of the Nui Dat Base, a full NVA battalion established a position at Binh Ba, part of an operating rubber plantation. The 5th Battalion, supported by Centurion Tanks fought a pitched battle against the enemy, clearing the area and accounting for over 90 NVA; this was the Battle of Binh Ba..

At the time of the commencement of Operation 'Kings Cross' in October 1969, casualties (both operational and medical) and 'end of service' had meant changes had to be made to 2nd Lieutenant Roger Lambert's 9 Platoon. Corporal Brian 'Blue' Shaeffer, who had commanded 7 Section, had taken the role of acting Platoon Sergeant. Just before the operation, Sergeant Peter Knight joined the Platoon and 'Blue' Shaeffer had returned to 7 Section. 'Blue' suffered badly from prickly heat (a very common complaint) and was returned to Australia.

Ted, who had served as a Section 2IC in 8 Platoon during the early part of the tour and who was promoted in-country to Corporal and Section Commander, had been transferred to a base task during the monsoon season (May to November) essentially because he wore glasses which caused problems for him through fogging up in the wet. In those days, it was somewhat unusual, but not unheard of, to find front-line Infantry who wore glasses. So it is not surprising that Ted bore the nickname, 'Eyes' Suttor.

Now that it was November and the dry season had commenced, Ted asked to be transferred back to operations. He spoke to the C Company Commander, Major Claude Ducker, and specifically asked to be placed in 9 Platoon.

Roger Lambert's 9 Platoon had a reputation of being a very 'tight' outfit. The platoon had suffered less than most through casualties and reinforcements and was a very well trained and experienced group. Roger moved the current 9 Section Commander to 7 Section and appointed Ted to command 9 Section. Roger was more than pleased to get Ted to command a section because of his leadership abilities and his combat experience. The men of Ted's section were also relieved to have a commander who was very experienced, who they knew well and who they respected.

It was, therefore, a revitalised 9 Platoon and C Company that moved into the Hat Dich area of Phuoc Tuy with the rest of the battalion on October 31, 1969 for the commencement of Operation 'Kings Cross'.

C Company, with Armoured Personnel Carriers and a troop of Centurion Tanks moved to a position around 2000 metres east of Route 15 (the main route from Saigon to Vung Tau).

Over the next two weeks, the Platoons of C Company methodically patrolled the jungle searching for tracks that might show recent enemy movement and would provide worthwhile ambush sites. They also searched areas near streams and rivers where it was likely that enemy base camps may be located. The platoons' did find signs of enemy movement but had made no contact.

On the 15th of November, one of the platoons was with company headquarters and the troop of tanks. The other two were patrolling independently around 1,000 metres apart. The Centurions were halted with mechanical problems and one platoon set up a defensive position with the tanks.

On the night of the 15th November, 9 Platoon set up a night defensive position close to a creek-line and 1,500 metres south-west of the company and tanks. During the night, one of Ted's sentries could hear chopping' sounds coming from somewhere away in the jungle. Roger Lambert moved with Ted to the sentry position and could clearly hear sawing sounds in the distance. It was clear that it was the enemy building bunkers. They reported the incident to Company HQ and made their plans to move toward the sounds at first light.

On the morning of the 16th November, 9 Platoon moved east from their defensive position and parallel to the creek-line, in the direction from where the sounds were heard during the night. The terrain was generally flat with typical thick jungle vegetation. 7 Section was in the lead, followed by Platoon HQ group, 8 Section and Ted's 9 Section. The platoon had moved only 800 metres when, at 9:45 am, they came under heavy fire from the front.

The trained response to a contact (or 'contact drill') in the lead Section was for the gun group (the machine gunner, his number two and the section 2IC) to automatically move to the flank of highest ground, while the 'rifle group' move to the opposite flank. From there, the machine gun could lay down covering fire while a decision could be made by the section commander whether to assault the enemy position with the rifle group or, if the enemy is too strong, to call up the rest of the platoon. Judgement dictates that the Infantry Section can assault one third of its own strength, or two to three enemy. Once it is clear that enemy strength is greater, the platoon commander takes control of the contact.

It was clear then, to the 7 Section Commander, that the enemy was in such strength and in well-constructed and well-sited bunker positions to preclude a Section alone attacking. And so, the 7 Section Commander relayed the information to the Platoon Commander, Roger Lambert, who moved up immediately behind the lead Section.

The contact now demanded the next level of tactics where the platoon commander would move one of his sections to the right or left flank, lay down covering fire and make a decision whether to assault. A similar judgement is made - the platoon should be able to handle one third of its strength (and enemy Section of around ten). And again, if the enemy were in greater strength, then the platoon commander would call on the company commander.

Roger called on Ted to move 9 Section to the right flank. Ted did so and positioned his men to provide fire support to the rest of the Platoon.

It was clearly apparent to Ted, now in position right in front of bunkers, and to Roger that the enemy was in much greater strength. In fact, Ted's Section and the platoon was 'pinned down' by withering fire from the NVA. It was also now apparent that the sighting of the enemy bunkers, and their defensive 'fire lanes' (pre-planned channels of approach down which fire can be directed) made assault by Ted's section or by the platoon impossible.

Roger Lambert and other members of the platoon do remember particular fire from the bunker position, fired in bursts of two rounds at a time at any movement from Ted's Section or the rest of the platoon. A question remains today of whether the continuing 'burst of two rounds' was from the bunkers or from snipers possibly positioned high in the trees. Whatever the truth, the enemy demonstrated very professional fire control and were obviously confident of their defensive position. The battle had now reached a crucial stage. Roger Lambert called on the radio net to the Company for support but he, Ted and his other section commanders knew clearly that assaulting the position, even by the company, without the support of Centurion Tanks would be impossibly costly. Claude Ducker, the company commander, now moved to take control of the battle. The tanks could not be utilised because of the mechanical problems and he knew that an assault onto the position with Infantry alone was not a wise option. Claude closed on the battle, only 750 metres to his south. He planned for the platoon to move back from the bunker position, call in Artillery and Gunship fire support to force the NVA from their position. Far better to position his platoons' around the area to ambush the NVA in the open, than to try to have the pPlatoon and sections forcibly 'dig' them out of the bunkers.

Close into the position, meanwhile, Ted's section and the platoon remained 'pinned down'. The very accurate enemy fire - some of which continued to be the 'burst of two rounds' from the NVA - made any movement by the men of the platoon extremely dangerous. The platoon sergeant, Peter Knight, lying in his fire position, rolled onto his side to reload a magazine. Again, a sniper's burst of two rounds was fired one of which hit Peter in the thigh, badly wounding him. At the same time, the platoon medic, Private Hunter was also wounded. On the right flank, Ted could see one of the bunker positions only a few metres to his front. He shouted the information to his platoon commander. He then called out, "I'm going to grenade it".

Ted raised himself to throw the grenade. At that moment, another of the sniper bursts of two rounds was fired by the NVA, both hitting Ted. He fell. The grenade exploded - he was killed instantly.

Ted and the two battle wounded were taken out by helicopter shortly after. Artillery and air strikes were brought down on the bunker position as planned. Late that afternoon, the company swept the position. The NVA had been forced to withdraw. Just how many NVA were in the bunker complex that day is unknown. What is known is that, in a series of contacts with the battalion in the area over the following weeks, 49 NVA were destroyed. Australian casualties for the Operation were 4 killed in action and 19 wounded.

Ted's action in the battle was not vainglorious. He was doing his job. Ted had a responsibility to the eight men under his command and to his platoon. It is true, however, that his position did require tremendous courage and coolness under fire and he carried out the role as a true professional.

There were hundreds of small unit battles fought by Australians during the Vietnam War that bare a striking resemblance to Ted's action. It is often called the 'Platoon Commander's war' or the 'Section Commander's war' because it was the Infantry Lieutenants and Corporals, who faced the danger, held the responsibility of leading their men in close quarter fighting and suffered the extreme mental and physical stress, day-in and day-out, for months at a time on operations. Yet, because of their great discipline, skill and their leadership abilities, the Australians were never defeated on the battlefield at any time during the conflict. Corporals like Ted Suttor were the very heart of an organisation, which was regarded by many, at that time, as the best small unit, close-country combat army in the world.

Few, beyond those who were there, really understand the danger the Australian infantry soldier faced in the war in Vietnam. Casualty rates have been regarded by some commentators as 'low', but a closer scrutiny of the statistics is illuminating. It was not unusual for infantry combat units to sustain 25% of their number killed or wounded in action - 1 in 4.

Ted's own unit - 9 Platoon, C Company, 5 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment - suffered 10 battle casualties during their tour of duty. From the thirty men who began the tour in early 1969, that represents a 30% casualty rate - high by any measure of any war fought by Australians.


Post script


    
As often as I can when I travel to Canberra, I take time out to visit the Australian War Memorial.
     The Memorial sits across the City from Parliament House and the two buildings and the Avenue between are probably the major architectural feature of the Capital.
     The Memorial and the fine Museum that it houses is a place I've always found fascinating. For me, it is a place of powerful memories, ghosts of sadness and, yes, great pride.
     Inside the Museum, the artefacts and stories of battles from places like Gallipoli, Kokoda, Kapyong, Long Tan, Coral, Binh Ba, Hat Dich and hundreds more represent the spirit of the country as nothing else can.
     Whenever I'm there, I never fail to be impressed with the interest in the Memorial and the Museum from visitors, particularly young Australians who cannot have experienced a time of war. Yet, they are as touched by the experience as any of us.
     For all Australians it's a very special place. For those who served and suffered in war it is a place of5RAR Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial great emotion. For those who did not return it is a place of immortality.
     Just inside the entrance is the Pool of Remembrance and, on the surrounding walls along a mezzanine walkway, is the names of those Australians lost in war. Close to the entrance, on the right hand side, are the more than five hundred who fell in the Vietnam conflict. And there, among the fifty-one under the heading '5 Battalion' is inscribed the name: "SUTTOR H. E."
     Ted's name will be there and be remembered long after the rest of us are forgotten. Years from now - a hundred years from now - and probably much, much longer, young Australians will be there and look upon his name with awe.

Above right: 5 RAR Roll of Honour

 Gordon Alexander
Sydney
March 1999

Acknowledgments

30 years is a long time. Those who served with Ted are now spread all over Australia. I've had great help from Brian London of the 5 RAR Association; from Brigadier Colin Khan, Claude Ducker, David Wilkins, Roger Lambert and Brian Shaeffer who all knew Ted personally and who felt his loss heavily; from Maurice Neil QC who commanded the 5RAR Mortar Platoon and who was kind enough to track down some of the photographs; from David Chinn, Military Historian at the Australian War Memorial Museum; and from members of my own Battalion Group, 1RAR/102 Battery RAA, including Geoff Bowcock, who served with me in Vietnam in 1968, the year before Ted was lost.
 

Lest We Forget
 

The editor has added or omitted some images in the original document by Gordon Alexander due to web page graphic requirements......Brian London.
 
 


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