Painting by artist Pat Miller, showing different aspects of the Viet Nam war. Top right: “Yackandanda” A Coy Boozer – Bottom right: Chopper insertion Center: Tank and infantry moving across the paddy fields – 12 helicopters to lift a rifle company Top left: Infantry on patrol – Bottom left: a young wounded boy Top KIA – Richard “Tiny “Parker, Tom Suter, Ron Field, Peter Gillson
Australia – New Zealand – United States
The ANZUS Treaty was signed in 1951. This gave Australia and New Zealand an assurance that the United States would remain as a forward line of defence in the Asian region. When America committed the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the defence of the Bien Hoa Airbase in 1965 and looked for support from its allies, the Australian Government immediately offered an Infantry Battalion and the New Zealand Government an Artillery Battery to serve side by side.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Menzies stood in the Australian Parliament on the 29th April 1965 and announced that an infantry battalion was to be sent to South Vietnam to provide military assistance. That battalion was 1 RAR.
Since 1964 1 RAR had been the AMBROSE or “stand-by” battalion. This meant that it would be the first Australian unit committed to operations in South-East Asia.
The Commanding Officer was Lt Col “Lou” Brumfield, who had been warned to prepare the battalion for deployment some weeks earlier. This preparation was greatly hampered by the lack of war stores, changes of personnel and training difficulties.
1 RAR had been reorganized in March 1965 from a pentropic establishment to a tropical warfare battalion, which involved the loss of men, equipment, vehicles, radios and weapons.
The battalion had a new Commanding Officer, four new Company Commanders and eight new Platoon Commanders. Companies were re-organized, which meant that platoons were re-grouped and had to learn to work together in a short time period. The battalion had not trained in live firing, air mobility and most of the NCO’s and officers had no real experience in calling in artillery or air support. This was not the way to send a major unit to war.
The battalion having worked and trained together as a fully professional unit with a high compliment of NCOs with experience in Malaya and Korea offset this.
Lt Col Brumfield graduated from the Royal Military College in 1947 and joined 67th Australian Infantry Battalion before it was redesignated 3 RAR. He saw operational service in Korea and, after several regimental and staff appointments, instructed at the Royal Military College from 1961 until 1964 and joined 1 RAR in 1964 as the Operations Officer.
The Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) was WO1 John Donald McKay MM who served with the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion at Kokoda and was awarded the Military Medal for “Courage of the High Order” against the enemy. He was RSM from 1963 to 1966.
The HMAS Sydney left Sydney on 28th May 1965 carrying elements 1 RAR plus the 4/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse (1st APC Troop) and the 1st Australian Logistic Company. The rest of the battalion left by air from Richmond RAAF base between the 1st and 10th June.
3 Pl, A Coy
Bill Devine, Squeaker House, Blue Waldron, Ali Barber, Blue Beynon
Peter Peddie and the 1RAR sign
Battalion Parade Ground
Sgts 1 RAR 1965
5 Sect, 2 Pl, A Coy
Home to 6 Section, 2 Platoon
A Coy Kitchen 1966
A Coy Kitchen 1965
Peter Peddie, B Coy 1965
A Coy arrives 2 June 1965
1 RAR area 1965
Infantry and Cav 1965
Trevor Hagan, 1 Pl, A Coy
The battalion’s home was a wide expanse of treeless ground with hundreds of rubber tree stumps. Pits were dug, wire laid out and grasses cut. The training programme included learning the ways of the Americans, their jargon, their weapons and their tactics. Within a few days the battalion was on patrol.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade had two airborne infantry battalions (1/503 and 2/503) an artillery battalion with 105mm howitzers, a supply battalion and several specialists units. 1 RAR was the third infantry unit in the brigade.
The Australian and American method of patrolling was vastly different. 1 RAR would move through the jungle silently and away from roads and tracks where as the 173rd would use noise and fire power to draw the enemy to them. Each learnt something from the other but 1 RAR maintained its own method of warfare. The battalion was armed with 9mm Owen Guns, 7.62mm SLRs and M60 machine guns and the equipment included WW2 packs and webbing and Tropical Studded boots and gaiters. The training, the enthusiasm, the will to win and the over all morale was high but the equipment was lacking.
Air power and firepower at the level the Americans used was new to the Aussies but they soon became used to helicopter assaults and certainly appreciated the volume of fire support when it was needed. Additional weapons to be carried by the platoon after arrival in Vietnam were the M26 Grenade, the M72 Light Anti-Tank weapon to fire at fortifications, and the M79 Grenade Launcher, which could fire a 40mm grenade out to 375 metres. 1 RAR was to incorporate five new weapons into its inventory within six months of arrival in Vietnam. Beer was also in short supply for the first few weeks unless a trip to the “Gun Slingers Club” on the Bien Hoa air base could be arranged.
Viet Cong military units were either Main Force or Local. The Main Force guerillas were cunning, well disciplined, adequately trained and adept at jungle operations using stealth, rapid movement on foot and deception. They would attack vigorously and bravely when they had the initiative or assessed they would greatly outnumber their opponents.
Main Force units, who were the revolutionary war equivalent of Western Regular Army units, operated from bases deep in jungle sanctuaries such as War Zones D and C, the Iron Triangle and the Ho Bo Woods. They would concentrate for specific operations and disperse to their bases afterwards. Their tactical doctrine was often expressed in simple maxims such as ‘Four Quicks and a Slow’ (quick approach, quick assault, quick reorganisation, quick withdrawal and slow preparation) and ‘The Three Firsts’ (first to open fire, first to occupy key terrain and first to assault).
In many ways Viet Cong tactics were a series of set piece techniques rather than flexible, responsive manoeuvres. Viet Cong operational planning was fastidious, methodical and often involved detailed rehearsals
Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units were built on the basis of three-man cells, which formed the squads, platoons, companies, battalions and regiments. The three men lived, worked, travelled, fought and died together. The cell leaders reported to the squad leader, who reported to the platoon leader, and so on up the chain of command. Every aspect of daily activity be it military, political, administrative or domestic, was supervised and controlled. If one of the three became a casualty, the others would evacuate him and his weapons.
The Local Force guerilla was a farmer or villager who operated close to his home and family. If he was of military age, he hid in the vicinity of his home, visited his family, and worked for his livelihood only when it was safe to do so. The relationship between the Main Force and Local guerillas was very close. The Local guerillas were the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Main Force units who depended on the Local guerillas to keep them informed about the locations and movements of ARVN, US and Australian troops. While they maintained surveillance for Main Force unit commanders, the Local guerillas set booby traps, planted mines, sniped, and occasionally retrieved 60 millimetre mortars from concealed locations and conducted harassing missions. Of equal importance to the war effort, the Local guerilla assassinated or terrorised unco-operative local officials, school teachers and tax collectors as directed by the local political cadre, assisted in the indoctrination of fellow villagers and helped the functioning of Viet Cong’s shadow government.
The Paratroopers and Diggers of the 173rd faced an opponent endowed with many military and political advantages. The Brigade was outnumbered by an enemy who could decide on the time and place for battle; an enemy who had prior information of the Brigade’s intended areas of operations and knew the locations of Brigade units during the conduct of operations.
An accidental grenade explosion in C Coy was a shock and also drove home that the battalion was in a war. The company had returned to their lines in American trucks (cattle trucks) and were jumping off the side of the trucks. As one soldier jumped the retaining pin on a grenade on his webbing caught on the side of the truck and the grenade exploded. Three Australians killed and seven wounded. The American driver was badly wounded but survived; however his co-driver signaler died.
The battalion settled into the patrol and operation routine of the war. During the next 12 months the battalion adapted to the weather, terrain, the people, new weapons, heliborne medical evacuation, re-supply and all that went with jungle warfare. Saturation bombing from high-level aircraft was devastatingly effective when accurate. Mines and booby traps inflicted severe casualties as seen in Ben Cat (Iron Triangle) where 1 RAR lost 2 KIA and 36 WIA.
Visits by politicians who wanted to see how “their” money was being spent became a normal event. A visit to the HQ and a photo session for the home press, ask some questions about something they did not understand any way, tell everyone they were doing a good job and then home. Strikes in Australia by the Postal and Waterside Unions led to the phrase, ”Punch a postie” and other less flattering remarks about the wharfies. These unions seemed to think that by hurting the soldiers fighting a war they would enhance their own position. They were wrong.
The Minister for the Army, Dr J Forbes visited the battalion and Lt Col Lou Brumfield made several points on the quality of the weapons, clothing and equipment issued to the unit. Boots falling apart, clothing rotting and WW2 webbing were some of the issues. The 9mm Owen Guns were not up to the modern standards and did not have the hitting power of the M16 rifle. The CO fought hard for his battalion but was reprimanded for this action after the press got hold of the story.
War Correspondents / journalists were for the most a pain to the battalion and the soldiers were generally wary of them. The CO had banned two such people from the battalion for several months for their unethical behaviour. Pat Burgess was a standout who reported the true, harsh realities of war as seen through his own eyes. He trained with the soldiers of 6 Platoon, B Coy and learnt the weapons, first aid and the skills of jungle movement. He was instrumental in saving the lives of two soldiers in a clash with the enemy and is held in high esteem by the members of that platoon.
The people of the Bien Hoa province were told the American and Australians were invaders and were in their country to protect the corrupt government in Saigon. The Viet Cong enforced this message with propaganda publications and promises of a prosperous and generous way of life to follow the overthrow of the invaders. The enemy was fighting in his own backyard and used this knowledge to the best advantage.
1 RAR patrolled the Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) around the Bien Hoa airbase and got to know the local area and some of the people. The first moves out of the TAOR were to War Zone D. On the 28th June the battalion moved by choppers into the enemy zone to secure the Fire Support Base (FSB) PHOENIX and protect the gunners position. The 4/19th PWLH was in support. The battalion moved to the Xom Dom village area and that night enemy mortar fire hit A Coy HQ with three WIA.
“The Yanks have a fantastic number of choppers. It’s nothing to see 140 go past in a straggling line. They’re all jet choppers and very fast … The chopper crew consists of two gunners and two pilots. Each flight has a different name. This morning we had the Esquires with top hats and canes painted on their noses. They don’t bother with seat belts or doors. Two passengers sit in the doorways with their feet dangling over the side-it’s a terrific feeling. There are two types, slicks and hogs. Hogs have six machine guns and 48 rockets, and troop carriers (slicks) have two machine guns.”
One hundred and forty four helicopters were used to support this operation. ‘Hogs’ flew in the vicinity of each landing zone firing at any movement as the ‘slicks’ approached.
It was a dangerous area as one platoon commander found out after accidentally shooting himself in the foot with his Owen Gun. Another platoon commander managed to wound himself (a few weeks later) after dropping his weapon on the butt causing it to discharge.
The development of weapon pits, patrolling and base routine continued. On the 6th July 1 RAR moved as part of a determined action to move the enemy forces out of the Zone D area. D Coy had the first “kill” for the battalion.
On the afternoon of 7 July Second Lieutenant Peter Sibree’s men were patrolling in a single line though thick jungle. A small overgrown track was the only means of penetrating the clumps of bamboo, vines and dense foliage. ‘We moved out a little wary and maybe just a little off guard. War Correspondent Pat Burgess was with the platoon. The Viet Cong crept in close before opening up,’ one eyewitness said later. ‘Munday got his real quick but he sat down and kept slamming magazines into his Owen Gun and firing back at them.’ Lance Corporal David Munday, Second-in-Command of Corporal Terry Loftus’ section, was a quiet but determined NCO who was now seriously wounded and fighting for his life.
‘ … one leg is all but severed and an arm lies spouting and slack at his side’ was Pat Burgess’ description of Munday after he was hit. ‘Then he is up again on one knee cocking his weapon by holding the stock between his thighs. One handed he fires … ‘ Munday called out to his men as he fired, ‘They’re over here! They’re over here!’ His voice attracted the attention of the Viet Cong who had begun bringing down fire on the platoon. As a small group rushed forward to finish Munday off, one soldier had his head severed by a withering burst of machine gun fire from Private Trevor Adams and three others fell wounded. Munday sagged forward and lost consciousness.
Private Errol Weatherall, one of Munday’s riflemen, had also been caught in the first burst of fire. ‘. . . a single round has broken his jaw, cut through his throat, passed through his shoulder and out the back of his pack. Weatherall is fully conscious. He is moaning, his legs contract and shoot out in spasms, from the pain.’ Burgess crawled over to Weatherall, took his head on his shoulder and lay with him trying to stop the bleeding.
The initial confusion gave way to the battle drills of a well-trained platoon. Loftus directed his men’s fire and the Viet Cong were held back. Sibree gathered up the other section and attempted to get around to the flank of the enemy. This was impossible due to the thick undergrowth. He decided to conduct a frontal attack. He knew the lives of Munday and Weatherall hung in the balance.
By this time Loftus had dragged the headless body of the Viet Cong killed by Adams and thrown it in front of Burgess and Weatherall as protection from the incoming fire. Loftus was a big man, 108 kilograms (17 stone) and an ex-merchant seaman-he had lifted the body like a rag doll, dragged it and flung it down in one continuous motion. Burgess, who had already used several shell dressings to staunch the gush of Weatherall’s blood, pulled the deep blue scarf of the Phu Loi Battalion from the Viet Cong’s waist and applied it to Weatherall’s neck.
All around there was yelling, firing and cursing as Sibree’s men tore through the undergrowth and attacked headlong into the Viet Cong who broke and fled, leaving three wounded. There were also a number of blood trails indicating that others had been hit. Aggressiveness at close quarters had paid off, but not without an element of good luck. Sitting around after the attack, Privates Ross Mangano, Tony Brennan and John Priestly counted several bullet holes in their webbing. Priestly had most to be thankful for as he inspected the remnants of his ammunition pouch. A bullet hadhit it, drilled a hole through two magazines full of bullets and set several of them off. He had only suffered superficial powder burns.
“Pat Burgess flew out with Munday and Weatherall. ‘The alloy floor of the chopper is slippery as ice,’ wrote Burgess later. Now you [I] know why the side gunner stares straight ahead. From the floor it isn’t his first dustoff by a long way. He’s probably been doing it all afternoon, with the Airborne. The floor of the chopper is slippery not only with blood but with shit and a yellow substance and on the seats are thick slicks of new blood, some of it dark, some of it brilliant red.”
Munday and Weatherall were evacuated to Terendak in Malaysia the next day where British surgeons were able to save Dave Munday’s arm. His left leg had to be amputated the night before. Later he was awarded the Military Medal for his courage in continuing to return fire and direct the fire of others after sustaining such serious wounds. He and Weatherall were to serve in the Army for another twenty years. Weatherall returned to Vietnam with 8 RAR and was Mentioned-in-Despatches for bravery displayed on 21 December 1969.
The actions of Pat Burgess not only did credit to him but to his profession as a journalist. He took the personal risks involved to tell the public what it was like on operations. He produced eyewitness narratives and not the sanitised accounts typical of military after action reports and press releases. Burgess formed close bonds with the men of Sibree’s platoon as he told their story and was a friend to the Battalion.
This was a period of patrolling both 1 RAR’s and the 2/503rd’s areas as the other brigade units were on operations. A series of “booby traps” wounded two soldiers in different patrols, which highlighted the necessity for constant vigilance.
161st Field Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery (The Kiwis)
The Kiwis arrived on the 16th July and came under operational control of the 173rd Brigade. This was the third partner in the ANZUS Brigade Group.
War Zone D
The Brigade moved into the war zone via LCT and APCs and several contacts were made. However the enemy had departed the scene as the noise of the APCs, LCTs and the bombardment of the landing zone had fore warned the arrival of the troops. These operations were causing maximum disruptions and causalities to the Viet Cong, their base camps and supply routes.
On the 9th August 2 Platoon suffered two causalities (Cpl Max Ferguson and Pte Lou Bakker) in a short and sharp contact with a section of enemy. The battalion returned to base some days later and found the 173rd Brigade had moved from being on a short-term deployment to a Permanent Change of Station. This did not affect 1 RAR but did mean for the Americans that they were in for the long haul.
Pte Ron Field and Pte Lou Bakker – 6 Sect 2 Pl A Coy
Cpl Max Ferguson – 6 Sect 2Pl Acoy
The Brigade less 1 RAR had moved into the Central Highlands, which meant 1 RAR was covering the TAOR of the brigade area. On the night of the 26th the enemy mortared the air base resulting in 49 aircraft being destroyed and others damaged.
The enemy base plate position was in the ARVN sector, which extended the patrol boundries of 1 RAR even further.
The 173rd deployed into the Ben Cat area by air and road. The 161 Kiwi Arty suffered their first causalities with two members KIA and two others WIA during the road move. 1 RAR had to secure an area near the LZ BUSTER. Constant patrolling by all units discovered stores, equipment (radios – weapons), food and first aid supplies in large quantities.
Sniper fire killed one Australian (Cpl Frank Smith, 3 Pl) on the 21 September. B Coy found the vacated HQ of the Viet Cong 272nd Regiment next day and assaulted through clearing out a couple of snipers. One WIA had returned fire and had run back under covering fire with a compound fracture of the leg.
The second operation “Iron Triangle” was to sweep and clear the triangle and open Route 13. Mounted in APCs the battalion moved toward Ben Cat. An APC carrying C Coy broke down and was being recovered by another vehicle when a command detonated mine was exploded, which ripped the engine out of the vehicle. The diggers on top were thrown 30 / 40 metres into the air while the men inside were all wounded.
1 RAR continued to move west with A and D Coys leading the push into the Iron Triangle. Enemy machine gun, mortars and sniper fire harassed the lead platoons but the battalion continued to advance. On the 9th October one digger was killed by sniper fire and others wounded. The area was booby-trapped and the battalion was losing men without coming to grips with the enemy. A Coy had sustained more losses to mines in 1 Platoon.
The battalion was to continue through and secure the LZ for the 2/503rd. More mines slowed the battalion but the position was secured. (2 dead and 36 wounded – C Coy alone 19)
Pte Ron Field KIA 9th October 1965 – Forward Scout
Operation HUMP (5 – 8 Nov 65)
1 RAR, with under command 3 Fd Tp, in direct support 105 Fd Bty, in support 161 (Indep) Recce Flt, NE Bien Hoa province, twenty km NE of Bien Hoa air base. A brigade search-and destroy operation, 1 RAR being one of two manoeuvre elements of 173d Bde. The brigade AO was in the VC base area War Zone D, astride the Song Dong Nai to the NE of Bien Hoa; the AO of 1/503d Inf (US) was to the NW, and that of I RAR, 32 sq km to the SE of the river.
Undulating to hilly terrain covered mainly in jungle. Enemy forces object of the operation were Q762 Main Force Regt and D800 Main Force Bn. Deployment by helicopter. Results: Casualties own: KIA 1, MIA believed dead 1, WIA 6; VC: KIA 6, wounded/escaped 1, PW 1 and 4 children from a VC hamlet. Five VC hamlets, one camp and one heavily defended company position located.
“8 November 1965 started off like any other day in Vietnam for 3 Platoon of A Company, First Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment – better known as 1 RAR, now part of the US 173d Airborne Brigade. We stood-to before dawn, sent out clearing patrols at first light and established listening posts, before eating our American C rations, shaving, cleaning weapons and boots, and getting ready for the day’s activities.
We were on a sweep operation, Operation Hump, in Dong Nai Province along with 1/503 battalion, one of the other two battalions in the brigade. 2/503 had remained behind to provide security at Bien Hoa air base.
The mission for the day was to continue on a westerly bearing looking for enemy activity and engaging with the enemy as opportunities presented. Intelligence had warned of large enemy concentrations in the area so we were to move as a company, with one platoon forward, followed by the Company Headquarters, and the other two platoons following behind.
Normal practice was to rotate the lead section and the lead platoon because advancing to contact was hazardous and debilitating for the forward scout.
During the morning my platoon had two contacts resulting in two dead Viet Cong (VC) and no casualties for us. The VC had been trying to establish where we were as we moved parallel to a heavily used track that was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Unbeknownst to us, the sounds of the contacts were providing VC Commander, Lieutenant Bao, with a good indicator of the steady approach of A Company towards a company-size position that his troops had prepared on an unmarked ridge approximately 1,400 metres northeast by east of a feature known as Hill 82. Our westerly bearing was to take us by mid-afternoon to the centre of his position.
Much of that day the company was moving in single file because we were making our own path through primary and secondary jungle. By mid-afternoon, 1 Platoon was the lead platoon as we approached Hill 82. As the lead section mounted the slope leading to the enemy position, it came under intense machinegun fire, decimating the lead section of six men. Lance Corporal Richard (Tiny) Parker was killed and most of the others wounded.
Mine was the second platoon in the line of march. I was called forward to an O (Orders) group with the Company Commander, Major John Healy. “Pud” as he was known behind his back, was a well-liked and experienced officer who had already served in the Malayan Emergency and with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). To me, as a 20-year old, he seemed old, but he was probably only 30. Major Healy ordered me to mount an immediate flanking attack to relieve the pressure on 1 Platoon.
I took my platoon of about 20 soldiers (our platoons were well short of the establishment 33) and headed around to the left flank. Officer Cadet School, Portsea, had taught us to do a reconnaissance and appreciation before mounting an attack – and not to attack unless we had a 3:1 superiority!
We formed into an extended line and moved forward towards the enemy position. Because it was very thick vegetation we were only about five metres apart in order to maintain visual contact. On previous occasions, the enemy had always withdrawn as we swept through. This time was different. Machine guns opened up along our whole 100 metre front. They had more firepower than we did. They all had automatic AK-47s, whereas we had a mix of rifles, sub-machine guns, and three general-purpose machineguns.
Private Peter (Gilly) Gillson was one of the machine gunners. He was crossing the buttress roots of a large tree when he was hit by enemy fire and fell forward where he was in full view of an enemy weapon pit. My Sergeant, Col Fawcett, bravely tried to pull Gilly back over the tree roots, but came under heavy fire himself. He was able to establish though that Gilly had been hit multiple times and had no pulse.
The remainder of the platoon engaged the enemy with fire and movement until we started to run out of ammunition. By this stage it was getting dark and the VC were starting to outflank us and pour fire into our position from behind. We were told to try to extricate ourselves and withdraw back to the company position. Artillery was brought in to within 25 metres of our position to help us break contact.
A Company consolidated its position during the night and received ammunition resupply by helicopter, delivered personally by the Operations officer, Major Essex-Clarke, popularly known as the “Big E”. Since we could not see the deliveries coming through the jungle canopy, it was a dangerous, but necessary, activity.
The VC continued to probe for us until it started to rain heavily around midnight. The next morning A Company was able to find an area where we could winch out the wounded through the jungle canopy. Fortunately, all of our wounded had survived through the night.
1 RAR’s intent had been to give priority to evacuating the wounded and resume the operation the following day to retrieve Parker and Gillson’s bodies. That did not happen because the US Brigade Commander terminated the operation. While we were engaged, 1/503 had suffered 49 killed and over 100 wounded i.e., close to 40% casualties. They had been operating just over the Dong Nai River from us and had adopted their usual tactic of advancing along existing tracks to attract a VC reaction and then destroy them with firepower. The VC countered this by letting the 1/503 troopers get very close and then ambushed them, making the use of close artillery and air strikes more difficult.
1 RAR was never given an opportunity to return to the area. And in 1966, Australian forces were deployed away from Bien Hoa to Phuoc Tuy province. Parker and Gillson thus became two of our six Vietnam MIAs.”
Lt Clive Williams Comd 3 Pl A Coy 1 RAR 1965-66
A Coy 1965-66 Bearer Party
A Coy 1965-66 Bearer Party.
1 RAR Bearer Party
1 RAR Bearer Party.
The remains of the two missing soldiers, L/Cpl Parker and Pte Gillson were found and returned to Australia at 1000hrs, 6th June 2007
Harry Mimi – 1 RAR 1965-66
Guard of Honour
The Bearer Party from A Coy 1965-66 were – Ken Garner, George Constable GM, Edward Townsend, Ray Curtis CSM, Bob Pinkerton, Jeff Cave, Dave Allgood, Bruno Flematti DCM, Bill Collins, Bert Thirkell, Bob Piper, Bill Bale, Lindsay Dalton and Sam Domashenz.
These two soldiers were bought home due to the hard work and the “never give up”attitude of Jim Bourke and his Operation Aussie Home Team.