50 years ago in June 1965, the first Australian combat troops, 1RAR along with support elements; 105 Field Battery, 161 Field Battery (New Zealand) and a Troop of Australian APC’s – all attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade – arrived in Vietnam. 49 years ago on 9 June 1966, the first Australian Task Force arrived in Vietnam.
An infantry battalion, 6RAR, comprising approximately 600 combat troops, an Armoured Personnel Carrier unit, the 4/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse, Australian Artillery, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) unit with six Caribou planes, a small surgical team, some civil engineers, diary and signals experts and the men in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), were under the command of Colonel, later Brigadier, Oliver Jackson, the Commander, Australian Army Force, Vietnam, who although based at the Australian Headquarters in Saigon, was under the operational control of the U.S. Supreme Commander, General William Westmoreland.
Earlier on 6 June 1966, eight Iroquois helicopters from 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), landed at the Vung Tau airbase, Vietnam. The Bell UH-1B Iroquois or “Huey” is almost synonymous with the Vietnam War and for the next five and a half years 9 Squadron’s Hueys supported the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF).
*30 advisers as part of the AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam) departed Australia from Mascot, New South Wales, aboard a Qantas charter flight on 29 July 1962. The unit’s first commanding officer, Colonel Ted Serong, arrived in Saigon on 31 July – the date that is mistakenly considered the unit’s “birthday” – and the main body arrived three days later. On arrival, they joined a large group of US advisers and were dispersed across South Vietnam in small groups. Three groups were dispatched to South Vietnam’s northern provinces, while a fourth was based at the Ranger Training Centre at Duc My near Nha Trang in the south; a headquarters was established in Saigon. The groups began training the Vietnamese in barracks, providing instruction in “jungle warfare techniques and technical areas such as signals and engineering”, but initially, the team was prevented from actively taking part in combat operations; this restriction was later lifted, but until this occurred, the advisers deployed on operations as observers only.
The men and equipment arrived at Vung Tau on HMAS Sydney which had left Australia’s shores on 27 May 1965 on the first of 25 voyages it would make to South Vietnam, during which time the ship would become to be known among the troops as “the Vung Tau ferry.” The ship left in secret at 1.39am with only its navigational lights lit up to avoid protesters. The arrival of Australian combat troops on 8th June 1966 followed a dramatic build-up of U.S. soldiers which had begun just weeks earlier.
6 RAR was raised on 6 June 1965 at Alamein Barracks at Enoggera in Brisbane, Queensland, when a cadre of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and two rifle companies were transferred from 2 RAR to form the nucleus of the new battalion. The battalion was then brought up to full strength when an intake of 250 national servicemen marched-in in September 1965. The battalion’s complement of platoon commanders was rounded out shortly after this with the arrival of six Scheyville graduates.
The battalion’s first commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend, DSO, while Warrant Officer 1 George Chinn, DCM, came from the SASR based at Campbell Barracks in Perth as its first regimental sergeant major. It was initially assigned to the 6th Task Force (which was later to become 6th Brigade). In early 1966, 6 RAR received orders to deploy to Vietnam as part of the expansion of Australia’s forces there. In order to prepare for this, the battalion undertook lead-up training at the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra and then at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area before the advance party flew out for Saigon on 31 May 1966.
9 Squadron, RAAF arrive in Vung Tau via Saigon (Iroquois choppers). The pilots move into an old French Villa on the foreshore. They fly their first mission the next day.
Due to increasing intelligence that the enemy might be moving into the Nui Dat area – location for the Australian task force (ATF) base – 6RAR are quickly moved by Chinook choppers from Vung Tau to Nui Dat ahead of schedule. The afternoon at Nui Dat was spent digging shell scrapes and clearing the immediate area. That night D Coy maintained 100% stand-to. It rained all night.
For the duration of a tour of duty the Platoon routines at Nui Dat were more or less organised on a 3 day rotation:
- Day 1 – all day patrol following an overnight ambush 2 to 5 km’s from the base and returning late afternoon the next day.
- Day 2 – Platoons spent time in the forward defensive lines (FDL’s) building up defensive works by hand without proper equipment, doing battalion duties such as kitchen or other development works and defending the perimeter of Nui Dat. A listening post was also manned about 1km from the FDL’s. Every late afternoon would be spent bailing water out of the weapons pits and trenches as like clock-work, the heavens opened up with a monsoonal downpour.
- Day 3 – once again the platoons would go out again on a day/night patrol and engage in setting up ambushes.
These numbing routines with little, if any enemy contact created an endless tension within each soldier – hours on patrol, or sitting waiting in an ambush all the while under threat of enemy contact. The stress of the heat and dust, mud, the endless rain, the boredom of routine and the never ending threat of an unseen enemy bore heavily on everyone’s shoulders.
6RAR’s first operation, Enoggera. D Coy’s job was to complete the destruction of a village. They were to destroy or remove any caches of food and other supplies and then destroy the tunnels and hides which honeycombed the area.
At noon 12 Platoon stopped for lunch and the platoon assumed all round harbour defence so they could brew up. They had only just posted sentries and lit up their hexamine stoves when there was a yelp from one of the diggers – Pte Paul Large. Such a breaking of strict code of silence quickly brought everyone to their firing positions, sending brews flying and throwing dirt on burning stoves. It turned out that Paul had been bitten by a scorpion – not the small translucent brown ones but one of the bigger, highly venomous solid black ones. In minutes Paul was in a bad way. He was sweating profusely and his eyes were losing focus. The medic gave him some pills but within 15 minutes his temperature was well up and so 2Lt Sabben determined he had to be sent out. Sabben radioed that he had a medical casualty and requested a Dustoff flight (medivac chopper). It took another 10-15 minutes to clear it in as there was artillery being fired in the area. The Dustoff landed in a swirl of dust and leaves in a nearby clearing and Paul was on his way to hospital. As he was being carried to the chopper Large said, ‘Hurrah for the Flying Doctor!’
6RAR’s next operation was Hobart. This was a search and destroy operation in reaction to intelligence indicating a large enemy force nearby. However after 3 days of searching nothing of significance was found. This operation, previous and future ones began to build an attitude of cry wolf among the diggers about any so called ‘intelligence’ reports.
First reports come in from Australian adviser Capt Mike Wells that a VC battalion was seen in dense jungle within Line Alpha (a line encircling the ATF base out to 5km – all civilian populations were removed within this radius of the Australian base. Anyone in it could be more easily identified as enemy.).
In the afternoon two heavily armed Chinook choppers were ordered out to strafe the enemy position. So intense was the ground fire on the choppers that they reported they were receiving more than they were giving. An immediate airstrike was called on the position. Further reports came in indicating that 3,000 VC had arrived in Phuoc Tuy to attack allied forces. Jackson despatches Cap Robert Keep (ATF Intelligence officer) to HQ II FFV in Saigon with intelligence indicating a large enemy force was near Nui Dat. Keep relayed Jackson’s request for reinforcements. The American’s almost laughed them out of court based upon the resources they already had and comparing the information with what they already had.
547 Signal Troop (Australia’s top secret radio tracking unit) at Nui Dat begin tracking transmissions from the radio of the enemy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 275 Regiment. Due to the scarcity of radios amongst the enemy, they would only be found at the regimental level and it was logical for intelligence to assume that along with this enemy radio was with the entire 275 Regiment (2,500+ soldiers). 547 Troop keep tracking the enemy radio through to 14 August, locating its last position at the Nui Dat 2 feature on the edge of the Long Tan rubber plantation. Ironically, this is where the first major attack on 11 Platoon, D Coy comes from on 18 Aug.
D Coy, 6RAR ordered out for a 3 day patrol to the north east extremity of Line Alpha. They were to determine the extent of any enemy activity and locate and destroy any enemy camps.
Capt Robert Keep sent to 2 Field Ambulance hospital at Vung Tau. Capt. Keep has been the most vocal proponent of an imminent large scale enemy attack on the Australia task force base at Nui Dat.
Capt Keep transferred to the RAAF hospital at Butterworth, Malaysia.
D Coy return from their 3 day patrol. Ironically their patrol took them to the north east around the Nui Dat 2 feature where the last reported enemy radio signals were picked up and then back via the Long Tan rubber plantation and the rubber tappers hut, but with no contact with the enemy.
Chief Intelligence officer Major John Rowe is evacuated to 2 Field Ambulance hospital at Vung Tau with Hepatitis. As fate would have it, 1ATF HQ had now lost both its intelligence officers.
Pte Paul Large from 12 Platoon fronts Major Harry Smith for punching a Lance Corporal. Large had been before Harry the Officer Commanding (OC) of D Coy three times previously. Harry was going to give him 21 days field punishment and 21 days loss of pay so Large asked for a court martial as he said he had good evidence and 4 witnesses to support his version of events. Large said he would have won the court martial as his witnesses would have said he only defended himself. Harry dismissed the charges. The real story was the Lance Corporal called Large a gutless little bastard so Large got stuck into him. His mates were prepared to lie to help him out!
A Coy, 6RAR followed the patrol route of D Coy and they were based just north of the Long Tan rubber plantation, patrolling south over Nui Dat 2. A Coy discovered signs of enemy. Late in the afternoon they had several small contacts with enemy dressed in greens (Viet Cong guerrillas wore black and only regular North Vietnamese Soldiers (NVA) wore green). During one of these engagements an enemy officer was killed who appeared to be carrying details associated with the firing of the mortars. A Coy harboured for the night. In the early hours on the morning of 17 Aug they were startled by the sounds of significant and sustained mortar and artillery fire on the Australian base at Nui Dat some 5 km’s away.
- 2.43am – The enemy bombard the Nui Dat base for 22 minutes resulting in 67 mortar craters. 24 Australians are wounded – one seriously who loses a leg. 7 vehicles are damaged and 21 tents damaged. The enemy artillery mainly and accurately targeted the Australian artillery, engineer lines and the FSCC command post.
- 2.50am – Australian counter-bombardment artillery and mortar fire commences.
- 4.10am – Australian artillery fire ceases.
- 4.50am – Townsend orders B Coy, 6RAR to patrol out and locate the enemy firing positions.
- 6.31am – B Coy with 80 men depart Nui Dat.
- 8.00am – B Coy locate first enemy mortar base plate position. They fan out and eventually locate sites for 5 x 82mm mortars and weapons pits for 35 men. They also locate tracks from the enemy party and follow it.
- 10.30am – The main track that B Coy are following fades away.
- Midday – 6RAR now had three separate elements searching for the enemy in the general area of the base plate positions and to the north east of Nui Dat. A Coy was 500 metres north of Nui Dat, 9 Platoon C Coy was to the south of the known base plate positions and B Coy was between the two approximately 2km’s south west of A Coy and 1 km north east of 9 platoon. It was difficult to imagine that any significant numbers of enemy in the area could remain undetected. A Coy reported heavy enemy jamming of his radio transmissions.
- 5.30pm – A porter party with food rations arrives at B Coy. B Coy stay out overnight to continue the search.
- 7.05am – B Coy recommences the search but 48 men out of their compliment of approximately 100, return to Nui Dat for their scheduled R&R (Rest & Relaxtion).
- 8.00am – D Coy HQ radio signaller Graham Smith advises Harry that he received a message for him to report to Townsend to receive orders for a company patrol. Harry issues an informal warning order to D Coy to prepare for a patrol.
- 8.30am – D Coy begin to draw rations and ammunition, test fire their weapons and pack their equipment.
- 9.30am – Harry Smith holds an ‘O’ (orders) Group with his platoon commanders; 2Lt Dave Sabben (12 Platoon), 2Lt Gordon Sharp (11 Platoon), 2Lt Geoff Kendall (10 Platoon), NZ Artillery Observer Capt. Morrie Stanley, D Coy CSM (Company Sergeant Major Kirby) and Harry’s signallers to let them know about the patrol. Their orders are to locate the enemy mortar positions, locate and engage the enemy and relieve B Coy. Harry could feel the disappointment amongst his men at missing the concert. This concert scheduled for later that day was the first concert for the ATF in Vietnam and it featured the gorgeous 17 year older singer Little Pattie and Col Joye and the Joye Boys. Everyone had been looking forward to this rare treat and break from the monotony and boredom of life at Nui Dat. Some also felt that Harry’s strained relationship with his boss Lt. Col. Colin Townsend (Commanding Officer of 6RAR) might have contributed to D Coy drawing the short straw, once again.
- 9.45am – 9 Sqn RAAF Pilots Riley & Grandin in one chopper and Pilots Lane & Dohle in another pick up the Col Joye and Little Pattie party from the US Airforce Base at Vung Tau and fly them to Nui Dat.
- 10.30am – The choppers carrying the concert party arrive at Nui Dat.
- 10.35am – B Coy report that they have found enemy pits dug for 25 men and 22 empty tubes for 75mm RCL (Recoilless rifles) rounds.
- 11.00am – Concert setup and rehearsals begin.
- 11.00am – D Coy depart Nui Dat with the echoes of the concert rehearsals in the distance. Most of D Coy are pretty pissed off that they are missing the first ever concert at their base.
- 1.00pm – D Coy rendezvous with B Coy approximately half way between the task force base and the Long Tan rubber plantation and have lunch. Harry Smith and B Coy commander Major Noel Ford discuss the tracks that B Coy found and likely routes the enemy may have taken.
- 3.00pm – D Coy leaves B Coy behind and begins to follow the enemy tracks towards the Long Tan rubber plantation.
- 3.00pm – Concert starts at Nui Dat.
- 3.15pm – D Coy enters the Long Tan rubber plantation.
- 3.40pm – 11 Platoon has their first contact at track crossing. They kill one enemy soldier and recover an AK47. The company formation used at the time means that D Coy HQ is approximately 200 metres to the rear left of 11 Platoon, 12 Platoon some 200 metres behind D Coy HQ and 10 Platoon some 200 metres to the extreme left of 11 Platoon.
And so begins The Battle of Long Tan which would see 105 Australian Soldiers and 3 New Zealand soldiers fight for their lives over the next three and a half hours against 2,500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Soldiers in the rubber plantation at Long Tan. 18 Australians and more than 500 enemy would be killed.
Members of D Company 6RAR display the cigarette cases and dolls received from the South Vietnamese government for their action at Long Tan. Front row, [L-R] Privates (Pte) Noel Grimes, Allan May, Bill Arkell, Neil Bextrum and Lance Corporal (LCpl) Bill Rocher. Back row: Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall, Sergeant Bob Buick, Pte Geoff Peters, Cpl Bill (Bluey) Moore, LCpl Barry Magnussen, Pte Ian Campbell.