Colin F. Jones
THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM: Part 8
FSPB CONCORD (Operation Toan Thang)
Operation Toan Thang 2 (final victory) began on 23rd June and ended on 18th July 1968, it included the establishment of the Fire Support Patrol Base Concord.
A mid year offensive was expected by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army. They had been moving as small groups all year into the northern regions around the giant US storage bases, Long Binh and Bien Hoa.
The battalion was preparing to deploy in AO Birdsville in the north-east and in areas adjacent to the Dong Nai River, to attempt to dominate what is known as the ‘Rocket Belt’, to protect the bases from attack from these areas; the battery, in support of the battalion, were to occupy FSPB Concord.
This meant that we were to move from our own province of Phuoc Tuy to the Bien Hoa province much farther north, via route 15. The battalion deployed by air from Nui Dat on 23rd June 1968 and occupied an area on the left flank of 1RAR, who were also part of the Task Force contingent. 102 Fld Bty supported 1RAR.
The battery moved by convoy along route 15 via Long Binh.
The perimeter wire of the Long Binh complex seemed endless as we moved slowly along the road towards our destination. It was estimated that the complex covered 72 square miles of land area.
Here we had our first close up look at the Bell UH-1B/C Huey Cobra gunship. This tactical Helicopter was by all accounts an astounding success in the South Vietnamese war zone. The ones we saw may have been the AH-1 modal.
The Cobra had a very narrow fuselage (only 38ins or 0.96mm wide) housing a nose gunner and a pilot, who sat a little above and behind the gunner in the cockpit.
Fixed to its stub wings were both rockets and missiles and a grenade launcher was fixed in the nose.
The cobra is a very sophisticated gunship capable of massive firepower, armed with grenades, cannon and as many as 76 high velocity rockets.
Additional weapons could be fitted as well as ‘sensors’, such as ‘smash’, (South East Asia multi-sensor armament system for Huey Cobra), mounted in the nose with IR (infrared) and MT (moving target indication), radar automatically linked to the weapon aiming sub system.
Also in evidence at the complex was the Sky Crane, a far more powerful helicopter than the Chinook, the Sikorsky CH-54 TARHE ‘CRANE’. As its name suggests it was capable of lifting incredible loads.
Fire support base Concord lay south of the river Song Dong Ngai and had been established by elements of the 199th US light infantry Brigade. B battery 2/35th US artillery was deployed there along with units of 4RAR/NZ Anzac battalion and ourselves, 104 Fld Bty RAA.
The mission was to protect the huge air and storage bases in the area from enemy rocket attack. The battery occupied the front perimeter that overlooked the river Song Dong Ngei, for Concord was a hill.
The existing gun position was a shambles of rotting sand bags, empty hypodermic needles and other distasteful rubbish. The sleeping bays were built on top of the ground but very low to it, so low in fact that one was required to lie on ones back to roll in under the sand bags because once in there was no turning over. The stench inside was disgusting. The actual gun platforms were good but the protective sandbagged walls around the platform were only half built and falling apart from rot and enemy fire.
Concord was a mess: unclean and unkempt. How the soldiers in occupation had lived in such conditions was beyond speculation. None of the strong points, sleeping areas or fighting pits were below ground level. Everything was exposed.
The strong points were small mini fortresses barely big enough to hold a single man; small sandbagged structures offering prime targets for enemy rockets or machine gun fire. There was no grass left on the hill (similar to Nui Dat): the whole area being a dust bowl. There were no defence in-depth trenches. A tall wooden tower had been erected in the centre of the position to house a radar system to detect mortar base plates and rocket launch sites.
Thus we began the task of rebuilding the base.
Having a small bulldozer available prompted us to dig a single underground structure to house all of the gun crews. It was not considered a good idea to have soldiers grouped in one place for obvious reasons, but the materiel was available to build such a structure that would be safe against most types of attack.
The walls were lined with timber from the ammo boxes and the roof at ground level held up by 12ins by 12ins beams consisted of sheets of steel PX supporting 5 layers of filled sand bags.
The ammunition bays were always built above ground but we built thick sand bag walls around them and overhead often reinforced with sheet steel, as was the case here. The walls around the gun platforms were reconstructed with fighting pits built into them.
Meanwhile the battalion troops began to deploy.
The main aim was to dominate a belt about 11,000 metres from Long Binh and Bien Hoa, which, because of the range of rockets, offered the enemy suitable sites from which to fire. It was hoped that intensive patrolling would deny the enemy the use of this vital ‘rocket belt’.
C Coy’s AO, included the FSPB, thus it was their responsibility to maintain patrols a round the parameter. They would also conduct boat patrols on the river and use APCs with the land patrols. Later Victor Company relieved Charlie Company who took over the patrol base defensive role.
The 2nd NZ Coy was operating with 4RAR for the first time. Victor Company later exchanged places with Whiskey Company who moved to the FSPB with Victor Company occupying an AO north of the Dong Ngie. The forward echelon was established for supply at Long Binh from where the forward companies were supplied by air.
Fire missions became constant, mounds of spent shells piling up near the gun emplacements. Time passed and despite the many fire missions, boredom became the main enemy. Concord was a very hot exposed position and was overrun by plagues of rats.
The solid work rate was maintained. The areas around the gun platforms and command post were transformed into efficient defensive structures. The American contingent dubbed the battery the ‘engineer battery’ as a result.
Volleyball played with the usual fervour and other creative activities got underway in an attempt to break the terrible boredom.
Despite this fire missions especially at night became a constant ever increasing activity, depriving the gunner of sleep that was impossible to retrieve during the day due to the intense heat. In fact it was estimated that an average night’s sleep for a gunner was just two hours.
So constant were the fire missions that the gun barrels became hot and so worn that they began to lose accuracy. Thus the gun fitter was called in to calibrate them to restore them to normal function.
Supplies normally came in by helicopter hung below on the hooks and contained in specially made slings normally of nylon webbing or cargo nets. Cargo nets were made from rope and were periodically renewed as weather and use took its toll on them.
The use of rope was considerable among soldiers much correct rope is used, particularly in a tropical area, where most things, such as rope are affected by the humidity and rot.
Many modern ropes, such as the soldiers toggle rope are nylon, but although such ropes are long lasting and very strong, they are harsher on the hands than other types of rope and can be very slippery thus being potentially dangerous in some applications.
The term rope refers to both fibre rope and wire rope, the term ‘cordage’ being used to denote fibre ropes only. The composition of cordage is several fibres twisted together forming yarn. Several yarns twisted together form a strand and three or more strands twisted together form a rope.
The method by which the strands forming a rope are twisted together is called ‘lay’. The angle of ‘lay’ is the angle between the direction of each strand and the direction of the centre line of the rope. Increasing the angle of lay makes the rope weak and less supple but makes it more durable.
Cordage is made from the fibres of hemp, sisal and coconut husk (coir). There are four main types, these being Manila, which is the best cordage to use because it stands up to weather better than ordinary hemp or sisal and is less likely to kink because it is soft and pliable; Hemp, (ordinary) is harder and less pliable cordage than manila and is often tarred to preserve it from the weather.
Italian hemp is about equal in strength to the best quality manila, but due to its high cost is not often used. European and Indian hemp correspond to a second grade manila. Sisal is a rough cordage, equal in strength to low-grade manila and coir is a light cordage but much weaker than other fibre cordages, but will normally float on water. Spun yarn (string) is made of three to nine yarns of any type of fibre in coils of five to six pounds weight. It is used for seizing and mousing cordage attached to pulley blocks. A length of cordage is measured in fathoms and its size by its circumference in inches. The standard length of a coil of cordage is approximately 113 fathoms.
Cordage will stretch under load, and stretching in a new rope when subjected to its safe working stress stretches approximately one twentieth of its length.
The correct types and sizes of rope need to be used when lashing loads and cargo to be transported by air or by other means where restraint is critical. Ropes are used in river crossings where troops need some support for themselves and their equipment.
Normally a river crossing is made by a good swimmer taking a light rope across (coir) which is tied to a larger rope, (manila), which is pulled across and secured to enable heavily laden soldiers to cross hand over hand along it.
The patrol in single file, mere shadows in the shadows of the jungle growth, moved stealthily. Mud sucked and clung to booted feet that felt the contours of the ground for sure footing. The monsoonal rain poured in a steady torrent causing the already limited visibility to decrease. The patrol closed up, but only enough that each man could see the man ahead and behind him. Curses were stifled as boots slipped and hands were thrown out to grasp saplings to prevent falling. Sweat mingled with the wet, steam rising from the shirts and trousers of them all. Many fell to the ground rather than risk taking a hand off their rifles, the mud splattering their clothing.
The day was almost at an end and the skip signalled to his scouts to form a harbour for the night. They moved into all round defensive positions with practised ease, digging into the mud where they would spend the rest of the night.
The skip checked his M60 emplacements and one at a time each man cleaned his weapon and ate from his ration pack. The night grew dark as the torrential rain continued. No one spoke, all commands being given by hand signals.
It had been an eventful day for earlier contact with the enemy had been established but the firefights that had followed resulted in an enemy withdrawal. It was thought that there were only four in number, armed with automatic weapons. The initial contact had been fierce, the Australians getting the better of it, killing one of the VC, before they withdrew.
The patrol was nervous now and keyed up. One always felt worked up after a contact; every tree and scrub it seemed was hiding a VC. The mud, the stench and the deafening, mind shattering racket straining the nerve endings to breaking point.
The signaller had called in the guns from the FSPB, blasting into the jungle in the wake of the fleeing VC. Moving up the patrol found a small rice cache, among the devastated trees and crated mud holes.
They had followed the VC trail for the rest of the day, sweeping through a deserted bunkered camp, and checking it out thoroughly before moving on. The camp showed recent sign of occupation… the VC had left in a hurry, leaving behind a bag of rice and food on the well-constructed table built from saplings from the surrounding jungle. The camp was relatively small by VC standards so the patrol moved on warily through the sopping jungle.
It was almost daylight, about an hour before, and the patrol prepared to move from the harbour. The scouts prepared to sweep around the harbour to ensure no VC had dug in close to them during the night.
The rain had continued all night. The sounds of night, the fear, the muddy water filled shell-scrapes that served as protection and beds, were a thing of the past.
All weapons had been cleaned and checked… the patrol was ready to move.
The sound of an RPG discharging sending its rocket screaming through the air is a terrifying sound. It swept down the ridge side like an unstoppable train loaded with high explosive, striking a tree and ricocheting; exploding off target near the patrols position. The noise was horrifying.
CONTACT! CONTACT! CONTACT!
A claymore mine blasted its ball bearings through the scrub as the patrol went to ground as one. Bark and branches flew from the trees overhead. Mud splattered, faces were buried in it. Soldiers rolled scrambled and squirmed for positions of cover, as a crescendo of automatic small arms fire sprayed the area with deadly venom; and the rain continued to fall.
Stealth was no longer a requirement and the skip was shouting orders getting his men into favourable positions. They returned fire but the enemy was well dug in and out of sight.
More RPG rockets slammed into the jungle: sparks and flame flying. Gun barrels sizzled and spat as trees were uprooted and flung into disarray.
The patrol began to pull back, slithering along on their bellies, choking with fear, anger and firing at every muzzle flash. The air was choked with rain and smoke, as the patrol withdrew to better protection covering each flank. The battle went on.
A gunship was called in on the radio and swept above the trees dispatching rockets into the area of the enemy. When the rocket pods were empty the mini gun rattled its strings of rounds into the jungle.
The FO in contact with the gun battery called in adjusting fire and the first round whined overhead crashing into the jungle 500 hundred metres ahead of them over shooting the target.
The second round exploded in the top of the trees only 100 yards ahead of the patrol.
The patrol hugged the ground for their dear lives as the gun battery opened up. Rounds burst all around them in the trees some breaking through to explode within 50 yards of the patrol. The rounds rained in whirring through the wet air slamming into the enemy positions in explosions of mud, jungle material, flame and smoke. The noise was utterly deafening.
Skin parted from bone, limb from body and the mud turned red with flowing blood. Cries of agony and anger rent the air mingled and lost with the deafening explosive racket of rockets, claymores and automatic small arms fire.
The terrifying shrieks of the artillery shells sliced through the smoke choked air slamming with echoing violence into the enemy positions, again and again. Strong men wept and shuddered with desperate fear, urinating in their clothing, some vomiting violently.
Reactions were automatic, knowledge, experience and desperation driving them with great courage to retaliation. Fingers and minds combined with expert precision to trigger their weapons, to seek advantageous positions and to hold their ground. They screamed like hunted animals, cursing the enemy, cursing the War, and cursing God.
As suddenly as it had started the violence of the action subsided; the silence was a deafening enclosure of smoke, fear, and pouring rain.
“Move!!” cried the Skip, and the patrol advanced, sweeping through the enemy positions; firing at anything that moved. The enemy, those who had survived, had fled. The artillery had devastated the enemy position. The large bunker complex lay in rubble smoking and sizzling in the rain.
The patrol searched the position carefully checking for booby traps before occupying the defensive bunkers themselves. The rest of the platoon moved up and the battle was over.
It was daylight and still raining. The platoon would regroup, attend to the distribution of ammunition, to the wounded and dead and move on to seek out the enemy once again.
In six weeks, there were only six contacts with enemy forces in the battalions AO. Four involved Delta Company, one Victor Company and Bravo Company made the other. Sadly the battalion lost its first soldier killed on this operation – a private from 12 Platoon D Coy. May God rest his soul where men don’t die for the ambitions of others…
At night we observed ‘Spooky’ in action for the first time. Spooky was a DC-3 aircraft equipped with three mini guns and which illuminated its target with powerful flares. It had massive sustainable firepower and its arcs of tracer fire streaming through the night sky lit with ghostly flares, was a spectacular sight.
Shadow, a similar concept to Spooky, differed in that did not use illumination thus maintaining the element of surprise.
Light fire teams were used to great effect and ‘Playboy 17”, a team of Huey gunships, one equipped with a powerful searchlight seeking out enemy ground forces for the other two to engage with rockets and mini gun fire, were devastating The power of the mini gun in particular is awesome, with it’s six barrels capable of firing 6000 7.62mm rounds per minute.
As the operation drew closer to a close, Delta Company was re-deployed to the northeast and was supported by a section of 102 Battery. APCs were used as security and one was use as a command post – it must have been nerve-racking way out there in enemy territory.
An estimated 18,000 allied troops occupied the battalions AO. The operation was successful in that no rockets were fired from the Battalions AO. The operation was almost over, our stand too routine though, continued as always. As we stood to in full battle gear the Americans stood on the sandbag walls drinking beer and taking photos of us. They referred to us as bird watchers, but then our concern for the lives of our men seemed somewhat more pronounced than theirs. Operation Toan Tang II ended on July 18th 1968.
FSPB CHESTNUT (Operation Marino)
We did not return to Nui Dat for the end of operation. Toan Tang II marked the beginning of operation Marino. The battalion was air lifted by Chinook to secure an area for the establishment of FSPB Chestnut on the edge of Route 15 near the village of Thai Thien. The operation was a reconnaissance in force, a battalion operation conducted in the area known as Hat Dich.
Hat Dich was an area where the Viet Cong felt relatively safe, thus there were numerous camps where such things as training and operational planning was taking place. It could be expected that numerous tunnel systems would be established in the region.
Heavy rain hampered occupation, but FSPB Chestnut was soon established. Whiskey Company remained in the FSPB and the rest of the companies moved out to occupy their various AO’s. Victor Company moved about 4,000 metres along the firestone trail, Delta Company deployed south of Bravo Company who were northeast of the support base. Whiskey Company not only looked after the defence of the base, but also covered ground as far as a stream running through Thai Thien.
Delta Coy had a contact long before reaching their AO and, in fact, did not reach their destination at all. Bravo Company also had three minor enemy contacts and Delta Company contacted an occupied enemy base camp. Delta Company was delayed considerably by harassing enemy contacts and was obvious that enemy troops were in force in the area and were quite willing to fight.
The battery was well established in Chestnut and after a day occupation the base began to display reward for labour. However Chestnut was not ideally positioned to support the battalion under current circumstances and was abandoned.
FSPB DYKE – First occupation
The battery moved on July 20 to establish FSPB Dyke on the firestone trail about 4,000 metres from Route 15.
Meanwhile Victor Company clashed again with enemy troops, springing several ambushes. The enemy struck back Victor Company became caught in an ambush, but they received no casualties.
The battery established Dyke very quickly and was immediately supplying supporting fire. The monsoon was in full torrent and the gun position was flooded, thick dust turning to foul smelling quagmire.
Victor Company had located what appeared to be a large bunkered camp occupied by a potent force hostile VC. It was July 22 1968. Two from Victor Company moved up to investigate the camp but heavy rain and the advent darkness forced them to return to the company base.
The following morning, Victor Company moved up towards the enemy camp but was forced to pull back due to heavy RPG and automatic weapons fire. They called in an air strike and then as night fell again, the battery guns engaged the enemy camp and the company were unable to move up under cover of darkness.
Torrential monsoonal rain made movement difficult and the enemy was hostile and well dug in. For the first time, the command ‘Continuous fire’ resounded on the battery tannoy. The gunners responded and the position was soon fogged with cordite smoke lingering in the heavy rain throughout the position.
As darkness fell, the guns continued to fire, setting up a wash that surged through the gun positions like a tide.
The mud was black and stenching, ankle deep and clinging to boots like slimy glue. To move was difficult but the ceaseless loading the guns continued; the steady barrage continued, the rain continued. The night wore on in a bedlam of gunfire and hissing shells.
The ammunition vehicle, an old short wheel base land rover, struggled through the slime and slush delivering the high explosive fodder to the gun platforms. Men worked desperately to unload the heavy boxes and the guns numbers worked equally hard to un-box the rounds and load them into the smoking breaches. Ammunition supplies began to dwindle at a rapid rate as the battery continued to fire into the night, into the enemy camp.
At 4RAR/NZ (Anzac) Battalion Headquarters the first set piece Anzac Battalion attack was planned. A deliberate attack such as this one staged against well-organised enemy forces required considerable planning.
Basically, there are four stages to consider when launching a Battalion Attack; these are Preparation, Movement to the FUP (Forming up point) and SL Assault, and Reorganisation.
Orders are passed down from the battalion commander, to the company commanders, who in turn allocate the orders to the sections within the platoons. After orders are received a warning order is given. The warning order indicates the task at hand and the time to be expected to move.
The place of rendezvous and the time the orders group will be held as well as information concerning the location of the assembly areas and the forming up place (FUP) where it is known and any administration arrangements are made where necessary.
Obviously, the location of the enemy must be known, and his purpose for being there should also be considered. The best method of attack and when to initiate it needs to be well thought out. This requires reconnaissance to establish the enemy’s strength, provide information regarding the terrain including trails, waterways and established escape routs.
Before the attack actually takes place, all troops check weapons, equipment and ammunition, don camouflage and ensure that they have been supplied with adequate rations. The assault troops then move up to the FUP, which is previously determined by an estimation of the speed with which they are able to move, and this factor is mostly dependent on the terrain through which they must move.
Normally when the rate of advance has been determined, the supporting Artillery will have planned action at this rate. Control of the moving troops at this stage is difficult but essential. The assault must not waver, and must continue its advance, the wounded being left to the medics who follow up the advancing troops.
To stop means greater losses since the enemy can better pinpoint positions.
The assault does not stop until the enemy position is overrun and the area beyond is secured. The Artillery bombardment continues until the last possible moment.
As the forward units sweep through the enemy position, rear units clear bunkers, tunnels and trenches that have been by-passed, taking prisoners where possible and protecting the rear against any enemy who might be pretending to be dead.
When the mopping up is completed and the enemy position is secured, details of ammunition still held, information is gathered regarding the amount of casualties suffered and prisoners taken.
The Task Force reaction company, Charlie Company 1RAR operating on route 15 linked up with an APC Squadron and moved into the area to assist with the battalion attack. Delta Coy 4RAR took over the defence of FSPB Dyke. A Victor Company platoon was deployed in a cut off position on the left. The assault echelon consisted of Bravo Company, which was the right assault company; Whiskey Company, the left assault company, and Charlie Company 1RAR were held in reserve.
Another air strike went in, giving the gunners a brief interlude.
102 Fld Bty also engaged the enemy bunker complex and the big 155mm guns of a US Medium Battery zeroed in from the established American base Bearcat, the massive 100lb shells screaming in over Dyke like diesel locomotives towards the enemy camp.
Our gun battery resumed firing, ammunition running perilously low.
Desperately, the command post contacted Long Binh calling for Helicopters with underslung cargo nets filled with all kinds of ammunition were diverted and sent to supply Dyke. Drenching rain hampered the supply effort; the helipad was a wash of mud and swirling water.
Every available man, medics, cooks, mechanics, drivers formed long lines from the helipad to the guns lugging the heavy ammunition boxes through the rain and mud. The gun crews worked furiously in the darkness, unboxing the ammunition, which was loaded and fired as fast as it arrived.
The guns reeled back from the continual recoils driving the trail spades deeper and deeper into the mud and slush – moving back of their sight markers. The gunners worked frantically to dig them out and manhandle the heavy guns back over the markers, filling in the holes that were suction wells of black ooze.
The breeches gaped, were filled and slammed shut, empty cases fizzled still hot and flame filled in the rain. The guns continued to fire. The command post became flooded and the signallers dove into the murk to restore vital equipment.
The boxes of ammunition kept coming, exhausted men continuing to struggle through the gluey mud with their heavy loads. Cartridge cases, cordite bags, empty canisters and ammunition boxes lay in the mud, scattered everywhere, gun barrels were steaming and hissing in the rain.
All manner of ammunition was being fired, some being armour piercing rounds, in salt eroded boxes manufactured before the 2nd world war, many failed to fire.
Suddenly the tannoy crackled… Cease fire!
The gun crews sank down into the mud exhausted; the guns were silent sizzling in the torrential rain. The ammunition lines did likewise, but all were waiting tensely for the order to continue.
At first light, the first Anzac battalion attack since the Korean War was launched against the bunkered complex; they swarmed in and overran the position.
The complex had been devastated by the bombardment, smoke rose from the bunkers and the litter and the craters left by the shells.
The battalion searched every inch of the complex, but it was empty. Not a single enemy body was found; the camp was deserted.
The battery had fired more than 1,000 rounds, coming within eleven rounds of having to report, ammunition expended. From the ruins of the complex a 60lb bag of rice was recovered. Operation Marino was over. The battalion had lost four men wounded on this operation. 17 enemy soldiers were known to have been killed, and one was captured. The operation ended on July 25th and the battalion and the supporting battery returned to Nui Dat having been on continuous operations for 33 days.
The gun Battery had fired 1,034 rounds in the first ten hours from FSPB Dyke and finally, in two and a half days, 1,797 rounds.
The NVR Division, which had intended attacking Saigon from the West, had retreated further west and another Division whose mission was apparently to attack Bien Hoa and Long Bihn with rockets and mortars had also retreated. The Battery was called upon to fire on one of the withdrawing Battalions as they made a river crossing very close to FSPB Concord.
The people we refer as the enemy are those whom we, as soldiers, are committed to fight and to attempt by killing, maiming or capturing, to overcome.
It is accepted that, like us, the enemy is a member of a family, has friends, relations and is a citizen of some town, city or village. He is in fact a human being, though often it may be difficult to visualise him as such. We know that he is basically crueller than we are and his politics are different.
The character of the Viet Cong guerrilla is primarily determined to his geographical location. He has a traditional dislike and mistrust of foreigners due to centuries of isolation from the rest of the progressive world. Such dislike is even more pronounced, now-a-days, by the establishment of the communist bloc and their propaganda.
Most of the population lead hard tasking lives, subject to the fervour of the unpredictable elements. Extreme comfort, lack of food, and intolerable conditions are the normal; shaping a man capable of surviving on very little that promotes survival skills not normally associated with western man.
To the Vietnamese life is cheap. Thus death is not a rarity, but a way of life. He faces it with great courage for it is but a matter of life or death for him. He chooses life but will accept death if it must come.
The Vietnamese have a vast population, but although such numbers are his greatest assets in terms of military forces, lack of education offsets it. Many of them are completely illiterate, naive and even superstitious. Teaching them the skills required with modern weaponry is, therefore, difficult.
However with nation-wide propaganda designed to glorify the armed forces, improved uniforms and equipment, and the introduction of a graduated pay-scale and a selective conscription system ensured that the better types are recruited; the North Vietnamese army became a very capable fighting machine. The officers have extensive experience in guerrilla warfare and apply themselves with great dedication and seriousness.
The troops are well disciplined by vigorous punishment. Training is thought out most carefully and is well organised. They are eager to learn writing whilst the illiterate contribute by teaching military skills to the more educated. The equipment and weaponry is mostly obtained from overseas countries, particularly the USSR and China – thus there is a variety.
There is little doubt that the North Vietnamese Regular Soldier (NVNR) has advanced a long way in becoming familiar with modern sophisticated weaponry. Among the potent array is the RPG 2 RL (rocket launcher) RPG 7 RL, American M1/M2 Carbines, Colt M16 Amourlite rifles, (often captured from American soldiers), Gerand, SKS, 57mm Mortar, 57mm RCL, LMG, SMG, HMG, A variety of grenades Claymore mines, land mines, both manufactured and hand made – and so on.
The ground forces in Vietnam, The Americans and, to an extent, the Australians, did not enjoy an advantage when it came to small arms, that is, issued rifles.
The standard American rifle, the M14, which had replaced the M1 after the Korean War, proved to be inferior to the rifles the North Vietnamese forces were using.
Because of the use of the very good Kalashnikov AK-47 by the enemy, the M14 was replaced by the plastic M16, much to the displeasure of many who liked the wooden strength of the M14 and its long-range capability.
The Ak-47 however, which was fully automatic, fired a lighter round (7.62 x 39) as opposed the M14’s 7.62 x 51 NATO round, carried a 30 round mag (the M14 having a 20 round mag), was lighter, shorter, therefore easier to carry and handle, and was utterly reliable.
Even the SKS Carbine used extensively by the Viet Cong, was far lighter than the M14, but was handicapped by the 10 round ‘clip’ type magazine.
The South Vietnamese liked the .30-Cal M1 Carbine (introduced in the Second World War after Pearl harbour) because of its very light weight, but its lack of penetrative ability made it no real match for the AK-47 and not a suitable weapon for Vietnam.
The M16 was introduced in 1966; its 5.56-mm round (eventually to become the standard NATO round) allowing soldiers to carry more ammunition. The actual bullet weight is about 3.56 grams; velocity 1,005 metres per second, the Soviet 5.45-mm being 3.4 grams in weight; velocity 900 metres per second.
The FN FAL (SLR – self loading rifle) issued to the Australian forces, was a little heavy at 5 kg (loaded) but was effective at long range as well as short-range targets. It fired the standard NATO 7.62 x 51 round (weight 9.3 grams; velocity 838 metres per second) whereas the Soviet 7.62 x 39 weighed 7.91 grams; velocity 710 metres per second.
The AK weapons were indeed an equalising element among the ground forces in Vietnam. That tested weapon, would, after the war, develop into the AK-74 5.45mm x 39, weighing in at 3.6 kg.
Australian SAS units used the Colt Commando CAR-15 to good effect. American SF teams and SEALs also carried it. It was much shorter than the AR15 and M16 rifles and was equally accurate. It had an extendible stock, 20 round magazine (5.56-mm x 45) and weighed only 2.78kg or 3.1kg loaded. The SAS soldiers used to remove the flash hider, that adequately used to reduce the weapons massive flash and indeed loud noise as well, but increased the length of the 254mm barrel to 305mm.
The SAS also used the under and over, an M16 fitted with the XM148 40mm grenade launcher under the barrel.
A most useful arm carried by some soldiers, and preferred by them to even an Assault rifle was the M79 40mm Calibre grenade launcher. It weighed 2.72 kg unloaded; 2.95 loaded and had a muzzle velocity of 72 metres per second.
This weapon, if any, gave the Americans and Australians advantages in certain situations. Certainly the GPMG M60 was well matched by the PK, with a 7.62 x 54R round, which was probably more reliable.
The light machine gun RPK, an AKM with modified barrel etc., was used in Vietnam, which, of course, was more accurate than the AKM since it was fitted with a Bipod and the longer barrel gave it more stability.
The war in Vietnam despite the available technology was an infantryman’s war fought on the ground at very close distances. The thick jungle denied air support, and combat was more often than not joined within 25 metres and less.
Normally there was no warning, everything happened with suddenness. This was combat that required lightweight high firepower weapons, such as the “spray and pray” M16, and AK-47.
The Viet Cong relied on this close combat method to prevent Assets and air support from aiding the ground troops; if the action was close then they could not fire in support for fear of hitting their own people.
The M16, marred by early problems, was soon sorted out and was a worthy adversary to the very reliable AK. The real problem with both weapons was the ability to fire them on fully automatic, as many soldiers did, rather than in controlled bursts.
The Australian soldier for example had always been trained to fire an automatic weapon in short bursts, and certainly experienced regular soldiers did so.
But both the American and Vietnamese soldiers wasted a great deal of ammunition, for when firing fully on automatic most of the rounds fire high and are useless. Targets as close as 5 metres away were missed.
The Viet Cong made some very elementary mistakes. For example they moved with a round in the breach ready to fire, but with the safety catch on. The sharp ‘click’ of the safety catch often gave them away, allowing the fraction required to instigate retaliatory measures.
I recall when I was serving in Malaysia with ‘A’ Field Battery RAA. I was part of a Jungle Training Team, training the Queens Own Shropshire Light Infantry in Ambush and Contact drills. I had set up an ambush site off the bend of a track, but as I saw the patrol pass vision I realised I had committed this fundamental offence, that of not releasing the safety catch on my SLR.
Very carefully and slowly I released the catch with the minimum possible noise. The silence was deafening, and I knew I had been heard. As I decided to creep away, the patrol came bursting through the jungle in a sweep leaving me without any chance whatsoever.
The Shropshire Light Infantry earned my respect from that day on, and proved to be a brilliant unit in Jungle warfare as time went on.
At the Australian Jungle training base, Canungra, Queensland, any soldier found to be on patrol with his safety-catch still on would be penalised 100 push-ups. I knew one or two people who had to do two or three thousand push-ups before they were allowed to leave the base at the end of the training course, penalties for this offence and others, such as having the safety catch ‘off’ inside a friendly base; so discipline of the most vigorous kind was a factor.
The M60, of course, used even more rounds, 1000 rounds and more being common in a single firefight. The RPD light machine gun used by the Viet Cong was no better used. Both the Americans and the Vietnamese in fact were very poor shots, and the reliance of ‘spray and pray” was commonly evident.
More sophisticated weapons were adapted for sniper use and the Americans, in particular, developed two man sniper teams which were very effective.
These teams were equipped with long-range accurate rifles with telescopic sights and suppressors. Early these teams were trained using the M14. The M16 was tried, but as the snipers improved they found that it was no problem to accurately engage the enemy as far away as 700 metres, which was ok with the M14, but the M16 lacked consistency.
They trained in such a way that one man called the shot in wind and range while the other located the target and fired. To judge the wind and range experience was required, but binoculars were used to acquire the target.
As the standards of shooting improved thus did the equipment, and the M14’s were ‘match’ prepared, when telescopic sights were added.
Soon, however, technology took a hand and a sound suppressor manufactured by the small American firm, Sionics Inc, was obtained and found to be superior to anything previously used.
Image intensifiers, (starlite-scopes), were fitted to the rifles for night work, passive infrared sights in conjunction with remote illumination were used and outstanding results were achieved.
Soon many more teams were being trained, and instructors were trained (mainly at Dong Tam) as the word of success began to spread. The US Marines used Remington 700 hunting rifle with telescopic sight and other personal choice weapons (the 700 becoming the standard sniper rifle). However the secret of the success of the sniper teams was without any doubt the suppressor (sometimes called a silencer).
Mitchell K WerBel III, the Vice President and Director of Research and Developments of Sonics Inc, said, and I quote,
“The suppressor is designed to accomplish two major functions. First, the suppressor traps gas the muzzle of the weapon and dissipates this gas slowly into the atmosphere, which largely suppresses or completely eliminates muzzle noise. Second, this controlled dissipation completely eliminates muzzle flash. The internal tube construction acts as an extension of the barrel and tends to stabilise the bullet eliminating to some degree, the initial of the bullet. The added weight (just over one pound) dampens barrel vibration. Both of these factors, weight and construction, increases the accuracy of the weapon.”
This was indeed found to be quite true with the exception of the word “accuracy” in the last line, which would be more acceptable if changed to the word ‘consistency’.
Snipers, of course, are special people, are normally marksmen, strongly individual and self confident, and are able to withstand long hours alone concealed often in positions where movement is almost impossible. They need to know the lay of the land and therefore must have an understanding of nature and have the ability to survive where an ordinary man might fail. Concealment is his closest friend, and this makes vital, the use of the suppressor.
The sound of a rifle shot is composed of the muzzle blast and the sonic crack of the projectile. A suppressor can effectively conceal the muzzle blast but the sonic crack travels along with the projectile and cannot be hidden. Using half charge cartridges can overcome the crack of the projectile, reducing the speed below the sonic barrier.
However, a quality of the sonic shock wave is that it is difficult to relate it to a particular direction. The very short duration sound exists over the whole of the path of the projectile while it remains supersonic and is propagated in a ‘V’ formation behind the point of the projectile.
Due to this, an observer can be quite wrong in the location of the origin of the sound providing there is no ‘thump’ to correspond to the ‘crack’.
Snipers were successful in many roles. For example, often VC groups sent out long range scouts in pairs, or alone. As this is often how couriers operated as well, allowing the ‘scouts’ to pass and waiting for the main group might well mean that ‘couriers’ had been allowed to pass. Snipers using suppressors were able to deal with this situation quite successfully. A suppressor was soon designed for the multi barrel 20-mm Vulcan air defence weapon, thus there appears to be no technical problems to producing suppressors for weapons such as the GPMG-M60, or other weapons of the future.
Vulcans, of course, were used in the AC-130 Gunships. This weapon was developed in the 1950’s (M61 Vulcan) to arm the ‘Century’ series of fighters for the US Air force. Fitted inside the Lockheed AC-130 ‘Spectre’ they were quite potent, firing 100 rounds per second but normally used half such a rate in an effort to conserve ammunition. The first Hercules gunships mounted four of these weapons but the rear pair, in the case of the AC-130H was replaced by the Bofors 40-mm Cannon. The early gunship (Spooky) was an AC-47 and after using an array of machine guns was fitted with the more efficient rotary-barrel General Electric Minigun.
The Fairchild AC-119G ‘Shadow’ was introduced to combat in 1968. Like the AC-130 it was a Big Gunship fitted with two 20-mm cannon and four 7.62-mm (0.3-in) Miniguns. The South Vietnamese also operated this gunship.
The American soldier was indeed well armed by 1968, but he was not a soldier orientated with the role he was committed to be apart of.
As the war wore on, the efficiency of the US soldiers did not improve. The rapid turnover of conscripts simply weakened unit cohesion, and ill trained officers provided poor and unstable leadership. Drugs were rife among Americans causing many units to deteriorate badly, some falling apart. Drugs were readily available all over South Vietnam.
Having had long experience in Guerrilla warfare, the North Vietnamese realised that it could not be waged without the support of the local populations, which are not always sympathetic to their cause. Thus terrorist acts are sometimes required to convince them otherwise.
Time is of no significance and it has been said with much conviction that ten years of war represents only the preface.
The methods of training and building up forces requires the establishment of small groups of Guerrillas among the widespread populations, building up to much larger groups in an ever expanding series of temporary and established base camps. Method of attack is based on numbers. They seldom, if ever, attack a larger force, or for that matter one of equal numbers, conducting large battles only when the situation favours them with an over whelming force.
They use local sympathisers as spies, guide, porters and road maintenance gangs and to grow food and form local Guerrilla units. Major attacks take place from the combining of these smaller units spread throughout the country, in this way accumulating vast numbers. After the conflict they are able to disperse back into small groups.
They use the same tracks regularly, even though they may have been ambushed on them, establishing food caches, mostly in sophisticated bunker complexes. Ammunition and Weapons caches are set up in a similar way. They can travel great distances, normally at night, moving from camp to camp the force growing bigger and bigger as they do so. Usually they attack just after dark, after very careful planning and recce of the battle area, often digging in just outside the parameter of the target.
The attack is usually launched upon many points simultaneously, keeping two thirds of force to attack the weakest point. The method designed to pin down the defending force, and then break through the flanks to overrun the target with overwhelming numbers. Most major conflicts are planned months ahead of the actual event.
Night probes are a common occurrence, to establish data of the defensive positions and when the attack initiated and were normally preceded with mortar and rocket attack. In the jungle, they give up space for time, withdrawing in small groups through the network of established camps until numbers grow sufficiently to launch a counter attack. The camps are interlaced with tunnels and the bunker systems are very strongly built.
When under attack, they remain in the bunkers that are well fortified against Artillery and Air strikes, however if they feel a disadvantage they crawl out through tunnels the entrances opening below river levels along riverbanks, or on the far side of the hill on which the camp has been constructed. They run, return to harass, run again, adapting to the elements with practised expertise.
In the jungle, the element of surprise is essential and ambushes are the guerrilla’s most effective tactic. They are experts in the art of ambush, but the Australian soldier, has, and would prove to be if not a better jungle fighter, then certainly his equal in an element where the guerrilla has all of the advantages.
OPERATION LYRE BIRD
After Operation Marino when most were trying to relax and unwind at Nui Dat Operation Lyre Bird was conducted. The Operation took place from August 1st to September 4th and was harass land-clearing operation carried out by the Engineers of 17 Construction Squadron. The protection was provided by elements of Bravo Company and by Whiskey Company, supported by guns and mortars.
HARASS troop of APCs from HARASS Squadron deployed with the companies providing transport apart from protection for those guarding the bulldozers.
The Operation would last five weeks during which time the bulldozers would clear harass strip 13,500 meter’s by 200 metres, operating in monsoonal downpour and in the mud and slush created.
The area was the Nui Thai Vais and Nui Dinhs in an AO code named Warburton. Two FSPBs were established, called Hague and Hokonui. The enemy responded vigorously attacking with mines and sustained RPG fire.
Two bulldozers were damaged as a result and one APC. One man was killed and six others wounded during these actions. During one of these contacts with the enemy a VC as one of his comrades mistook a Maori soldier who was wearing a headband, similar to those worn by the VC. The VC waved and politely the Maori waved back, then raised his rifle and promptly shot him.
Vung Tau situated on a peninsular which juts out into the South China Sea on the southern coast of Phuoc Tuy province and South Vietnam. The battery arrived by convoy from Nui Dat passing many buildings holed and damaged by shells and bullets from past actions. Apart from the resident Vietnamese, Americans, Australians and Koreans occupied Vung Tau.
The convoy rolled past the harbour that was strewn with all kinds of sailing and transport craft. Many military strategic and storage bases occupied the surrounds and administration and other buildings were evident internally
Australians taking in country R&R were billeted at the Peter Badcoe club where many enjoyable events took place. More vigorous events might have taken place also had it not been for the presence of the Military Police who, dare I say, lacked the sense of humour required for sympathetic flexibility with regards to some ‘extended events’.
For some, there was a reasonable amount of recreational facility, a good beach, made somewhat ignominious by the barbed wire (a credit to the resident 1ALSG) and there were a few ski boats and skiffs for sailing. There was a restaurant of sorts, a bar, (always a bar) which had little to offer and a swimming pool, the most popular spot, and the other popular area the table tennis room.
But the men did not come here to wallow in the rather boring atmosphere of the Peter Badcoe club, but to sample the delights of Vung Tau itself.
The battery had one night in town drinking the rather low quality Barmy Bar beer, Saigon tea and other brews of devious repute. Most places were out of bounds; always, of course, the places one most wanted to go to. Even the American Club was out of bounds but such things were not successful deterrents for I, among others, found my way in.
Soldiers are always warned of the risks involved in sexual escapades but despite this, VD meant trips to the Skin department, and there were numerous related diseases rampant among the troops.
The South Vietnamese Police were called ‘White Mice’ because of their spotlessly clean white uniforms. Their motto was to shoot first and ask questions later. They each carried a whistle, and when it was blown it was advisable to freeze or the sound of the following gunshot would be the last thing one would hear.
Some, such as I broke curfew: never deliberately of course. I found myself wandering around lost. I managed to get a lift in a three-wheeler bus (FOR A PRICE) and alighted short of the main gate. There was no way one could get through the gate without being nabbed by the MPs so the alternative had to be considered. This meant going around the back way via the beach.
This in fact proved to be a good test of the defences for as I was crawling under the wire I heard the breach of an M60 rattle back.
“Shit!” “Hey! I’m Aussie…!” One just lies there at that point waiting to be ripped apart by machine gun fire. “Get up here you stupid bastard!” was the unseen reply causing me to scramble up the beach to the machine gun post that I had obviously not known was there. “You are lucky mate, the Sergeant isn’t here. He’s on his rounds,” said the sentry. “Follow the trees around to the left and stay in the shadows.” “Thanks.”, I grinned innocently (and I might say a little drunkenly) and plunged off into the night. I was not always so lucky.
FSPB DAGGER (Operation Innamincka)
Operation Innamincka began on September 7th with a cordon and sweep of Nui Nhan upon a suspected VC camp. Later however it became a battalion recce in force more to the west in the area code named Illbillee.
The battery deployed in FSPB Dagger near a village called Ap Suoi Nghe. Charlie Company deployed to the west of Nui Nghi setting up a block. Whiskey Company would do likewise to the north, Victor Company the east and Bravo Company would sweep from the south.
Battalion head quarters occupied the top of Nui Nghi. Victor and Whiskey Companies formed a deception element involving the deployment of a dummy FSPB and a roadrunner operation. FSPB Dagger was not very far from Nui Dat thus the dummy run was deemed necessary because the VC almost always knew of a pending operation before it took place; such was the efficiency of their system of intelligence even though, unlike American bases, Vietnamese personal were not allowed to enter the Task Force base.
The intended sweep had to be postponed because Charlie Company were hampered and delayed by impenetrable vegetation. Meanwhile Victor Company made contact with the enemy, killing one and wounding another. Bravo Company advanced but failed to find any evidence of enemy occupation in the area. The operation in fact was something of a lead balloon and on September 12th the whole dismal show was terminated.
FSPB GABO (Operation Hawkesbury)
The termination of Operation Innamincka marked the beginning of Operation Hawkesbury, which was intended to be a recce in force, to be carried out initially in three stages. The AO was code named Tuggarah. The battalion was deployed to occupy blocking positions east of Route 2 at the western edge of the Thua Tich Zone. 1RAR swept to the west.
Intelligence reports indicated that a shipment of rockets being delivered was being transported from east to west through the area of the Don Dien De Couterway rubber plantation. The battalion, less Victor and Whiskey Company, who deployed to the north of the plantation, moved to the Blackstone trail to carry out a recce in force in the AO code named Canowindra. The battery established and occupied FSPB Gabo, which was situated on the site of an old ARVN post a little north of the village of Ap Ngai Giao.
Gabo occupied a rather exposed area and local people from the village often took short cuts via the base seemingly oblivious to the purpose of its existence. No doubt much information concerning the bases defences was passed on as a result.
One day I spotted a rather delightful looking wench traversing the area by way of walking most provocatively along a sandbag wall some distance from our gun platform. I quickly manned the gun and traversed the sights for a better and closer observation of this delicate morsel. She was indeed a pleasant sight to behold. My action however caused a chain reaction and the gun position officer became rather puzzled by the movement of the barrels of his gun battery.
Such events became frequent thereafter, breaking the monotony, which is associated with all FSPBs at one time or another. It seemed rather strange being deployed on a battlefield with the local population strolling about as though it was the Sabbath back in Australia.
I recall when we were deployed at Concord; a village just to the north of the position and south of the river was vacated overnight. The villagers always knew, were pre-warned of any impending enemy action. It was always a problem that the VC could not really be identified from the locals (the apparently ‘friendly’ folk) and it was well known that many of them were VC or VC collaborators. Victor Company established a base near the perimeter of FSPB Gabo, flying in by Iroquois Helicopter. The Iroquois was used extensively throughout the zone carrying the infantry and deploying them, and were also used most effectively as gunships armed with rockets and GPMG M60s.
Charlie Company and a recce group secured a feature known as Trentham from battalion HQ in readiness for a heli-lift in by the rest of the battalion. Bravo Company occupied a position to the south and Whiskey Company deployed to the east. The companies began intensive patrolling in their respective AOs on Friday September 13th, perhaps an omen for the superstitious.
In the jungle visual distance is reduced dramatically. It is humid, always wet and filled with a million kinds of biting, crawling, stinging, flying, blood sucking insects. Impassable bamboo clumps and thickets hamper progress.
Steeply banked contaminated streams, bottomless gullies, heaped debris and precipitous tree covered inclines and ridges, all contribute to making life difficult for a patrol… and there is always the enemy waiting, cunning, and concealed in country he knows as well as his own name. He is an expert with booby traps, in the art of ambush, in stealth.
He uses a type of Claymore mine with great skill and constructs lethal traps once used to kill or capture animals. Some are holes dug in the ground, filled with Pungi spikes, sharpened bamboo dipped in human dung and embedded in the bottom of the pits which are camouflaged to resemble the natural jungle floor.
Saplings are bent back and spikes attached to them. When triggered by a hidden trip wire the sapling is released the spike slamming into the body of the unsuspecting victim as the sapling swishes up. He builds strongly constructed bunker systems, living below the jungle floor like an ant, creeping out at night to strike at the enemy forces and installations.
The VC shows no mercy and expects none. His method is hit and run; lure the enemy into maiming traps and ambushes. He is able to subsist on a small quantity of rice for many months.
The jungle is a place of smells; vibration to the nerve endings, every movement ignites a current of fear.
The jungle fighter is a body of tenseness, filled with shuddering silently screaming nerves and animal instinct. He is sensitive to change of odour, colour, unnatural sound (no matter how slight), and in particular foreign motion. He is a tense coiled spring ready to release. His eyes constantly probe the shadowy jungle until they ache intolerably in their sockets.
His booted feet become sensitive antennae, searching the jungle floor for a silent foothold, detecting the slightest touch of a hidden trip wire. He peers through the jungle not at it. Moving like a phantom despite the shuddering nerves and muscular spasm brought on by fear – fear of the unexpected.
The jungle is its self an obstacle filled with obstacles and of course, the enemy lurks there. They wait hidden. Theirs is the advantage for they have concealment, protection and lack of motion to aid them. They have time… planned escape and withdrawal routes and counter attack methods that have been revised over and over again. They are in their own element, their own domain.
The Australian though, is persistent. He keeps on coming, never giving up. He is like a shadow silently seeking to vanquish his target.
His reactions are incredibly rapid. He is brave, desperate and afraid. He is well armed, highly skilled and fear does not daunt him. He has an arrogant pride, an unstoppable determination to win. He fears death yet faces it with courage and dignity. He hates to lose.
He is an individual; many individuals forming a team of individuals; a fighting team; self-determination and individual skill combining as a protection for all. Yet he is gentle, harbouring no hate for an enemy he respects.
Yes, he likes to win, but he does not condemn the loser. He carries no undeviating course in his heart, no real purpose, only a pride in himself: only the knowledge of the fact that he is an Australian. An Uc Da Loy, the man from down under. The enemy will know that he came.
He will be remembered without hatred. They will respect his fighting abilities, honour him… Uc Da Loy, Uc D a Loy, go home, this is not your fight…
An RPG crashing through the jungle, to explode among the entanglement of trees and bamboo thickets, suddenly shattered the silence.
Automatic small arms fire tore splinters from the trees and splattered across the muddy jungle floor echoing through the deep gullies… and blood flowed… and there was know one to see them die.
No one to feel the pain, the fear, the tears; no one cared… how could they? How could they know… how could they possibly know… those who had never experienced Hell?
Goodbye. An echo to be unheard
Wasted, as now the withered bloom.
‘Twas sweet the taste of treasured life
That died within a heart so soon.
Now I wither in my own regret,
That I heard no baby cry.
The land unmarked. I never lived,
And no one saw me die.
©Copyright 2004 by Colin F. Jones