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

 


This action had consumed the whole afternoon and by this time it was 5 p.m. battalion headquarters could not stay where it was, in such an exposed and indefensible position. If we moved back to the foot of Nui Thi Vai we would concede the days gains in the advance to the enemy and would probably have to repeat the entire procedure the next day. In addition, the Viet Cong would know to set booby traps higher up the track, particularly around our goal, the pagoda at the top of the spur.

Colonel Warr decided to press home the advantage and move on up the mountain, hoping to reach the pagoda before darkness. It was going too be a close thing. Everyone trod the track anxiously lest the snipers should reappear. The anti-tank platoon went back to where they had left their packs, hoping that the area around the pagoda had not been booby trapped already by the withdrawing Viet Cong. Soon exhaustion replaced apprehension as we climbed rapidly, but the opening expanse of view  over the surrounding jungles was a pleasant distraction as we caught our breath at short halts on the way up.

Darkness was falling as we passed through the stone gateway at the edge of the pagoda garden and bats flittered through the archway and the branches of the trees overhead, or dived under the wide eaves of the pagoda. Just before we reached the gateway, we passed the mysterious cave of the hermit monk of our earlier encounter, Nguyen Van Xe. The growing gloom prevented us from seeing anything within the wide arched mouth.

The pagoda was a large low granite building, rectangular in plan, and with a red tiled roof. Grey stone swastikas looked down on us from beneath the eaves. The front section of the pagoda, facing the west, was in ruins. It had been shelled by the Vietnamese artillery from Phu My when they discovered that the Viet Cong were based there. At the back of the building we found a large kitchen and several shelters which the Viet Cong had been using recently. At right angles to the main building, another rectangular building ran out to the north from the rear of the former. A courtyard was formed by these two buildings and some outhouses on the northern side. A swiftly flowing stream ran into the south-eastern corner of the courtyard from the hillside to the rear of the pagoda. This stream was confined between beautiful rock lined banks and ran into a large concrete cistern which fed a piping system supplying water to the houses near the foot of the hill. A stone bridge with a covered walk linked the two buildings. Ornamental trees and shrubs combined with the stone walling of the banks of the stream and the raised stone platforms on which both buildings had been erected to give the courtyard great natural harmony. Some level ground ran out to the north and west for twenty yards but the hillside came down sharply to the east and south of the pagoda closely on all sides and the garden in front of the main building had become overgrown.

We were very glad to find that the pagoda and its environs had not been tampered with by the Viet Cong and we settled in rapidly. Battalion headquarters was set up in the rear of the main building where it could enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of working from a table and stools. The administrative section, this time commanded by Captain Ron Shambrook, went into the other main building and the two platoons spread themselves out around the outside of the pagoda complex to give complete protection at all sides. We did not dare risk showing any light to the Viet Cong who may have been lurking nearby, so we established ourselves in darkness. Fortunately we had heard no more from the Viet Cong that night. Each of the companies had harboured securely in their planned locations. Major Neville Gair, Commander of 103 Field Battery, produced a fire plan as usual for every halt that we made so that we were well prepared for an attack by the Viet Cong. Colonel Warr spoke to each of the company commanders by radio to pass on co-coordinating instructions for the following day, and then we were very glad to get what sleep we could between shifts of command post duty or sentry duty on one of the perimeter machine guns which were all manned constantly.

On the following day, October 18th, the clearance of the caves had to be commenced, not only for our own safety as we moved around the hill, but also to render them useless to the Viet Cong for as long a period as possible. The caves were protected by numerous booby traps so the Assault Pioneer Platoon, our booby traps specialists, were assigned to the task. One important tool for cave clearing, flamethrowers, had to be flown in from Nui Dat. Once they had arrived, the platoon set off to return down the hill to the caves with two guides from the anti-tank platoon and three sapper Captains as observers. The whole party was under the command of Lieutenant John Macaloney, commander of the assault pioneers.

They approached the caves wearily, positioned sentries on the track, above and below the area which the platoon was about to work, and located a machine gun in the dominant fire position overlooking the area immediately to the front of the caves in which the Viet Cong had been located on the previous afternoon. Macaloney told the guides to lead him to the caves where the booby traps had been found. Taking a radio operator and a sentry with them, the small group set off, clambering over and around the great boulders which had to be negotiated for the one hundred yards between the track and the furthest caves.

The cave in question was quickly located, and sentries were posted to either flank and uphill and downhill of the mouth. Macaloney then entered the cave and began to search for booby traps. The first trap did not take long to find for it was just inside the entrance below a large rock. The trigger mechanism had attracted John's attention. He lowered himself to inspect the workings of the trap so that he could disconnect it. Just at that moment a shot cracked across the rocks, narrowly missing the sentry below the cave mouth, Private D'Antoine. John climbed back out of the cave, told D'Antoine to crouch down and take cover and to indicate the area to which the shot had come. he ordered the machine gun and one section to move down the slope and locate the sniper. Another shot was fired, D'Antoine moaned and lay silent. John was already on his way across to D'Antoine and was able to approach to within twenty feet. D'Antoine did not answer his name when John called to him.

The machine gun group was ordered to fire by John into the area in which the sniper was hidden while he crossed to D'Antoine. He had to halt the fire however, because ricocheting bullets were passing dangerously close to him. Corporal Burge, commanding the fire support section, then fired a single shot at a Viet Cong who had peered out at Macaloney from the cave entrance. The head disappeared. Burge was certain that his aim had been true. Macaloney then heard a scurrying tumbling noise through a passage in the rocks beneath him. D'Antoine's legs were hanging over the   edge of the rock and it was difficult for John to pull him back into shelter. The platoon medic came to John's assistance and despite the appearance of death on D'Antoine's body set to work with the  application of mouth to mouth resuscitation and dressed D'Antoine's wound. The bullet had passed through his back and out his chest. They found a faint heartbeat and evacuated D'Antoine immediately on a stretcher which had been hurriedly prepared. During this interval the Dust Off helicopter had been requested and by the time that D'Antoine had been carried the three hundred yards to the nearest landing zone, the helicopter was on its way. Once again rapid evacuation was of no avail, for D'Antoine died during the flight to Vung Tau.

John Macaloney returned to the cave and crawled up to the mouth to begin clearing it of any further Viet Cong who may have been inside. This procedure was particularly hazardous because our men had no idea of the numbers and whereabouts of the enemy and they were unable to clear any one cave without exposing themselves to danger from several others. Despite this, Macaloney personally led the clearance of the system into which the sniper had disappeared.

John began the clearance by throwing grenades into the mouth of the cave. No reaction from inside was observed and so a flame thrower was brought forward. Before it was used, John noticed D'Antoine's automatic Armilite rifle lying in front of the cave. He called in covering fire and began to crawl out to retrieve the weapon. The covering fire was of necessity extremely close as it had to penetrate the mouth of the cave in front of which John was crawling, but nevertheless, he felt more comfortable with it than without it--until a bullet ricocheted from the cave mouth and struck him in the temple, causing a good deal of bleeding but not a serious wound. He grasped the Armalite and crawled back to safety remarking laconically that it seemed a pity to waste it.

John then led the flame throwing party forward towards the mouth of the cave. First they squirted fuel from the high pressure nozzle right into the cave, saturating all exits from the first chamber, all holes, nooks and crannies. Then they made a rapid assault on the mouth of the cave by dashing forward from the cover of the rock where they had been in partial shelter. When they were standing at the centre of the cave mouth they poured fuel right down the main cavity under the cover of small arms fire from the left flank. They ignited the last burst of fuel and drew back as flame engulfed the cavities and passages into which the sniper had fled. The preliminary saturation had been so effective that the sentries higher up the slope could see flame billowing out of several rear exits to the cave system. By the time that the flaming had been completed, darkness had begun to fall and the small group withdrew to the track, regrouped and virtually ran back up the hill.

During the following several days, teams of men from A Company, the Assault Pioneer Platoon, and the First Field Squadron of the Royal Australian Engineers from Nui Dat entered the caves and searched them. A Company had moved to a position halfway up the hillside to the vicinity of the caves from where they covered the north-western side of Nui Thi Vai with patrols. When they entered the caves the men discovered that the system of tunnels was very complex for it contained several levels. Often the passages from one level to another would be very hard to see. It was pitch dark in many of the caves and passages, so the searchers had not idea of what a cave contained until they were standing in its entrance with a torch in their hands. The tension of the search was heightened by the danger of booby traps. A great number of these were encountered. Often they were found first by patrols from A Company who would gingerly enter a new cave or a lower level in the darkness and then began feeling their way delicately for the threads or the moving rocks which could trigger an explosion at a touch. Once the booby traps were located, sappers or pioneers were called in to dismantle them. So proficient had the men become that no casualties were suffered during this nerve-racking time

The caves had been the permanent base for up to a company of Viet Cong who maintained the observation posts on the hill and transported supplies along the track system which passed the foot of Nui Thi Vai The caves had been well developed. Most had planking beds in them, with small stoves built out of rocks. They had a piped water supply which had been tapped off the conduit which ran down the hill from the pagoda. Water storage and filtration facilities were provided deep under the surface so that the Viet Cong could have stayed underground for long periods without showing themselves. Some of the cave entrances called for amazing agility, for their only access was through  chinks in the rocks of just over one foot in diameter. Some caves were too difficult for any but slightly built Vietnamese to enter. Others had been improved by building walls of rock across openings, leaving only loopholes for firing from. As the search went on the complexity of the system revealed itself, with the discovery of succeeding levels. Each of the caves had several escape holes. One was discovered of particular ingenuity. A counter balanced rock was poised on the edge of a vertical shaft down which a fugitive could jump. Once at the bottom he could tug a rope which released a beam supporting the rock at the entrance. With this support removed, the rock would tumble over and mask the entrance to the shaft. The fugitive could then escape through a low level passage which led to an exit on the uphill side of the caves.

The area bore many signs of a rapid abandonment. Apart from a foul stench of considerable strength, the searchers discovered large amounts of personal equipment and papers. It appeared as if the Viet Cong were forced to flee with their weapons only. Their bedding, clothing and packs were still by their beds and cooked food was ready for eating in several of the caves. The greatest discovery of the operation was the radio station of the Deputy Commander of the 274 Regiment, Nguyan Nam Hung, together with some vital documents, including his diary. The radio was found carefully hidden on the third level of the caves on October 21st by A Company. It was a recent model Chinese Communist transmitter and receiver - one of the few that have ever been captured from the Viet Cong. For a piece of equipment such as this to have been abandoned indicates that the Viet Cong were in desperate straights before they fled, and we must have just missed capturing Hung and his party.


 

CONTINUE  

BACK TO OPS PAGE | BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE