5RAR Association Website
operations conducted 1966 - 67


 

australian infantryman's combat badge
operation queanbeyan
(Cont'd)

17 - 26 October 1966

Captain Robert J O'Neill

 


By this time the anti-tank platoon had reached the top of the spur. They cleared the immediate area of the pagoda, checking particularly for booby traps, and then saw the slope which ran up to the summit of Nui Thi Vai was free of Viet Cong. They caught a glimpse of several Viet Cong in the central part of this slope, but the Viet Cong withdrew swiftly. However, it was very dangerous for the whole of the battalion headquarters group that the anti-tank platoon had reached the top of the spur for they could maneuver from the high ground to make an attack on the Viet Cong who were holding up the reconnaissance party. Without the anti-tank platoon in this position, The Viet Cong could have held up our advance for a long time for their positions covered all the approaches to them from the lower slopes of the hill.

The area in which the encounter had taken place was an abrupt slope strewn with boulders up to fifteen feet high. Thick bush and large trees grew amongst the rocks, limiting vision to about ten yards in many places. The narrowness of the track permitted only one man at a time to advance. Although there were boulders at frequent intervals behind which one could shelter, most of them were isolated so that once in their shelter it was impossible to move without exposing oneself to fire again. The area which the Viet Cong had selected for their position was amongst a huge rock slide - a pile of boulders extended for most of the way down the hillside, covering it to a depth of over fifty feet. Within this rock slide the Viet Cong had many shelters and tunnels so that they could move from one fire position to another without exposing themselves to view. They exploited this position with skill and it was not until we captured their equipment that we knew we had faced a dozen to fifty men. The position of those who were trapped by the Viet Cong fire was rather terrifying because of their impotence to fight their way out of the area and, while they were safe from the fire which came from the right hand side of the track, they did not know if anyone was creeping up from their left side to fire on their unprotected flank.

The anti-tank platoon commander, second lieutenant Mick Deak, was ordered by Colonel Warr to move down onto the enemy position and flush them out. The platoon was rather weary as they had just climbed over 1,300 feet, heavily laden, so Deak ordered his men to take their packs off and leave them at the top of the spur in a central dump. Deak's problem was to get his men across a sharp gully which ran between the path on which the reconnaissance group were located and the beginning of the rock slide where the Viet Cong were. most of this gully could be swept by fire from the rock slide.

Deak ordered his second section under Corporal Womal to cross the gully while the first and third sections covered their movement by firing on to the Viet Cong positions from further up the slope. Womal's section advanced widely dispersed into the central part of the gully, dodging from rock to rock, without receiving any Viet Cong fire. But a they were about to climb out through the rocks on the far side, a shot rang out and Corporal Womal fell, yelling that he had been hit. A bullet had passed through his neck. He had fallen onto the top of a large flat rock and continued despite his severe wound to control the fire and movement of his section. He was out of sight to the remainder of his platoon and it took a short while for Deak to establish Womal's location in order to commence to extract him from the danger zone and to attend to his wound. Womal continued to give directions to his platoon commander and also directed the fire of his machine gun group to cover the movement of the platoon down towards where he lay.

The anti-tank platoon had taken the pressure off the reconnaissance group and Brian Ledan was able to reach the radio. We were tremendously relieved to hear him speak and to hear his description of the situation, for we had known very little of the exact disposition of the Viet Cong and how Deak's platoon was progressing. Tony White had dashed off up the track to give attention to Brian as soon as he had been hit and by this time he had almost reached him. The wound was quickly dressed and Brian began to move back down to the main body of the headquarters for he required immediate evacuation to hospital. In the meantime directly after the contact, Max Carroll had organized the Dust Off helicopter to come forward to the gun area on Route 15, three miles away.

The most pressing problem at battalion headquarters was to find a landing zone for the aircraft. The nearest clearing was at the foot of Nui Thi Vai, several hundred yards away over ground which would have made stretcher bearing painfully slow. At that point the top surface of the large rock which we had just left suggested itself. It was roughly horizontal, it was easy to climb onto from the uphill side and its breadth was sufficient to allow a Sioux helicopter to sit near the centre without its rotor blades striking any trees. The chief complication was to find a line of approach for the helicopter. The machine had to come in and depart at an angle gentle enough for it to acquire sufficient forward velocity to keep lifting once it passed over the edge of the rock. The surface of the rock was important in enabling the helicopter to lift off because the helicopter needed the support derived from the upward thrust of the direct draught of air sent downwards onto the rock by the spinning rotor blades. This support, called ground effect, was important until the helicopter had reached a speed through the air of twenty knots, when it could derive all the vertical lift needed from its forward motion. Once it had flown out across the edge of the rock, the helicopter would have lost most of its ground effect and a great deal of skill would be demanded of the pilot to keep the machine flying. Fortunately their was an appreciable current flowing up the hillside which had the same effect as if the helicopter had been flying horizontally through the still air at the speed of the air current, so hovering was made easier. But despite this current, the angle of ascent possible for the helicopter was still very gentle.

There were tall trees all around the edge of the rock. The only feasible line of approach was from the western or downhill side because of the steepness of the hill. The assault pioneer platoon scrambled around to the western side of the rock and chopped down the obstructing trees. Now it was up to the skill of the pilot. It was still an extremely difficult landing zone to use for there was only one line of approach and this was just wide enough to take the main rotor blades of the aircraft, permitting the tail rotor only a few degrees of swing from side to side. To get out again, the pilot would have to fly backwards off the edge of the rock, climbing as he went until he achieved enough height to turn the tail of the aircraft around to the east so that he could fly over the falling slope of Nui Thi Vai, picking up speed as he went. It was a very severe test and there was no way of foretelling its outcome.

The Sioux which was equipped with stretcher frames on the outside could then fly the casualty out to the big clearing below us and transfer him to the Dust Off aircraft, a larger Iroquois, which could provide immediate medical attention while it was flying the wounded man back to Vung Tau.

The Sioux aircraft which was directly supporting our operations came overhead within minutes of the trees falling and began to attempt the landing. Lieutenant Bob Askew, the pilot, made a few preliminary passes over the rock to estimate the difficulties of the approach. It was an acid test of his judgment because once he was committed to the landing it was not possible to pull out at the last moment without grave risk of crashing. However, like all of the pilots of the 161st Reconnaissance- Flight who had flown so much for us since we had been in Vietnam, often up to eleven hours a day, we knew that Askew's judgment was to be relied upon.

Captain Bob Supple guided the aircraft in. An additional danger that the pilot had to face was the risk of being shot down by an enemy sniper from the group further up the slope. While on its final approach, the aircraft was virtually a sitting duck and the pilot had no protection apart from a flack jacket.  The surface of the rock was saucer shaped with a high lip on the eastern side, the side from which we could climb up onto it. The rotor blades cleared this lip by about two feet so no one could approach the aircraft while its blades were still spinning, and Bob Supple had to bring the helicopter right in alongside him to avoid decapitation.

A few minutes later, Brian Ledan came walking down the track. He was wearing only trousers and boots and looked quite unruffled despite the large blood soaked shell dressing tied across his right chest. We chatted on top of the rock after Brian had climbed into the aircraft and Askew began the start up procedure. The signals course of which I had first worked with Brian in 1961 seemed strangely distant. It looked as if he was going to be alright though he must have been in considerable pain. We kept our fingers crossed that he was not bleeding internally. The helicopter lifted a few inches off the rock and began to reverse outwards, taking great care not to back the tail rotor into one of the trees that were close behind. This feat was delicately accomplished, the pilot swung the machine clockwise to the west and sped off down to the clearing to the waiting Dust Off aircraft.

Some minutes after Brian Ledan's departure came notification of Corporal Womal's wound. The Sioux was recalled to take Womal out and the landing procedure was repeated. However the extraction of Womal to a safe area was presenting some problems to his platoon on the spur above. The snipers knew where Womal Lay and could shoot anyone moving to his assistance. Although the anti-tank platoon could neutralize the Viet Cong by covering fire for a short time it was doubtful if they could keep the fire up long enough to extract Womal.

Despite Deak's orders to the contrary, the Platoon stretcher bearer, Private Fraser, began to crawl forward to Womal, under fire. He reached Womal and proceeded to dress his wound, placing his own body between Womal and the enemy in order to shield Womal from further fire. The snipers opened up again, missing Fraser by inches. In the meantime, the stretcher party which Lieutenant Deak had organized was moving forward under the direction of Sergeant Calvert and protected by the covering fire of the remainder of the platoon. By this time, the enemy had learned to recognize the voice of Deak as that of the leader. Each time he shouted orders bullets  flew overhead from the snipers.

The boulders were imposing severe difficulties on the stretcher party. In places they had to lift the stretcher head-high to get through the rocks and they were exposing themselves continually to fire. Each time they had to expose themselves like this, Sergeant Calvert called down covering fire and they managed to cross the killing ground in both directions without being hit, although the volume of enemy fire made movement extremely slow. However, the extraction was successful and the stretcher party struggled back to the cover of the rocks behind positions occupied by the remainder of the platoon.

Tony White had taken the risk of moving forward to the platoon position and was waiting to dress Womal's wound when the stretcher party arrived. He saw very quickly that Womal had very little hope of survival for the bullet had severed major blood vessels in his neck. A few moments later Womal died and we had both lost a very fine man and an outstanding section commander. The stretcher bearers clambered down the wet rocks to place Womal's body onto the helicopter. Shrouded by a ground sheet, he was placed on the aircraft and flow out to Vung Tau, While the impact of his death settled over all those left behind on the hillside. The stretcher bearers laboured back over the rocks with tremendous weariness and dejection.

The next problem was to extract the section which was still trapped in the gully by the Viet Cong fire. It seemed unwise to attempt to dislodge the enemy by further movement of this section because of the difficulties of the ground. Also they had done such a good piece of work in providing prolonged covering fire for the extraction of Womal that they were running low on ammunition. The whole platoon were experiencing a similar shortage, although to a slightly lesser degree. Some way had to be found to neutralize, or preferably, to dislodge the Viet Cong by fire support without endangering the men who were trapped in the gully.

Major Peter Cole , commander of A Company since September, radioed from the bottom of the hill, two hundred feet below, that he could see exactly where the Viet Cong were located on the deep slope six hundred yards from him and he could smother their position with machine gun fire from his current location. Also available were the two gunships of the American light fire team which was in support of us. It was impossible to use artillery or mortars because our men were too close to the Viet Cong for their own safety, but both A Company and the gunships were capable of hitting the Viet Cong position without risking casualties to the anti-tank platoon.

All of us on the hillside began to mark our locations with coloured smoke and soon four plumes marked the anti-tank platoon, the two groups of battalion headquarters and the assault pioneer platoon. While the gunships were brought onto station, Colonel Warr gave the order to A Company to open fire.

Soon the air above us was filled with the peculiarly sharp cracks of bullets heading in our direction but passing over us from A Company to the Viet Cong position. In a few minutes the gunships came overhead and circled slowly over the target area, picking out likely caves to fire into. Soon the double thumps of their firing and the explosion of their rockets reverberated around the hillside. The aircraft expended their rockets and then poured machine gun fire into the enemy position. From their altitude, the gunships, which were simply elevated gun platforms using mobility as their main protection, were able to fire down into the cave mouths  which were unreachable from below. Many of the rockets were fired on trajectories which were almost horizontal. The rockets roared straight into the cave mouths, blowing up inside.

This combination of strafing were effective in making the Viet Cong withdraw. They retreated to the south, moving quickly through tunnels in the rocks which gave them protection from both observation and fire as they went. After the gunships had completed their fire missions, The anti-tank platoon moved forward to examine the results. They soon found that the Viet Cong had departed, leaving blood stained bandages strewn about behind them and taking their casualties with them. The anti-tank platoon discovered a great number of holes and tunnels amongst the rocks which had enabled the Viet Cong to dash from one position to another without having to expose themselves to danger. As they proceeded they found that the caves had been extensively booby trapped and it looked like it being a very slow operation to clear them. It was still possible that the Viet Cong had withdrawn to lower levels of the cave systems to await the cover of darkness before re-emerging to escape or attack us.


 

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