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BLONDES,BOMBS AND BUNKERS

© Roger Lambert
C Company 1969-70

It's the late afternoon of 20 September 1969. We (9 Platoon, C Company, 5 RAR) had come across what appeared to be a well-used track and I decided, in the absence of other suitable sites and due to the lateness of the hour, that we would set up an overnight ambush.

I laid out a typical triangular ambush with the M60s sited at the base covering the selected killing ground on the track and we quickly and efficiently went into routine - Claymores and sentries out, tucker started and a couple of gaspers before last light. At this stage of the tour, the platoon operated like a well-oiled machine, orders were brief and the Section Commanders knew their roles very well.

As darkness fell, and with our locstat radioed into Company HQ, we stood to as a group. At the appointed time, one third of the platoon remained on 'stand to' while the others caught up on some well-earned rest. The night passed without incident and following 'stand to' just prior to first light, we went into morning routine. Orders had been received from CHQ and the Section Commanders were briefed on our initial patrol activities and direction for the day.

At this stage it was around 0745 hrs on 21 September 1969 as I prepared to give the order to move out. 7 Section would be point, then Platoon HQ followed by 8 and 9 Sections in single file. We were in the process of shaking out and as I picked up tail-end-charlie of 7 Section, I caught sight of movement to my left.

There was a chap of Caucasian appearance some 15 to 20 metres from me wearing greens and with what appeared to be a poncho not dissimilar in camouflage pattern to those horrible nylon green rain coats we were once issued with black splotches on them. He had no head covering and I can still see the fair skin and blonde hair to this day. He appeared to be carrying an M16 rifle. What the ?

Our eyes met and my brain went into high gear as it initially didn't register that there shouldn't have been any of my soldiers to my left at that distance. Then I saw the 'Charlie' behind this blonde cove. As the reality dawned that my diggers were in front and behind me and these guys were not friendlies, I raised my own M16 and fired two shots. At the same time, my blonde 'visitor' turned and quickly moved away through the scrub.

How dumb is this? "He's blonde, he's blonde" was all I got to shout out before he disappeared as quickly as I'd seen him.

CHQ was quickly advised of the encounter and permission was sought and given to follow-up in the direction that the blonde had fled. Little did I know that this unusual meeting would lead to one of the most unforgettable and toughest days of our tour (Note 1).

With our new compass bearing, and with a blood trail to follow, the lead Section hadn't travelled more than 150 to 200 metres when the first enemy signs were encountered. I halted the Platoon and using 9 Section as a firm base, I pushed 7 and 8 Sections to either flank to reconnoitre and to report back with their findings.

Both Section Commanders reported fresh signs of enemy activity including latrines. The signs were spaced well apart and I began to suspect that we were near a bunker complex - just how big we were to find out later. We regrouped and following a brief orders group, we cautiously advanced.

"30 this is 33 - contact, wait out".

The confrontation with my blonde 'mate' had occurred at around 0755 hrs and by 0900 hrs, we were up to our armpits in alligators.

Cessna O-2 FAC aircraft My original assessment of the extent of the bunker system, based on the reports of the frontage was uncannily accurate as we seemed to be taking fire from widely dispersed locations. To cut a long story short, an air strike was requested at around 1000 hrs because of the suspected extent of the enemy bunker system.

Now, we'd been well trained in the use of close air support and I had no qualms about directing the Forward Air Controller (FAC) onto the target with his White Phosphorous (WP) rockets. There was also a degree of comfort in being told that the aircraft delivering the ordnance was a RAAF Canberra of 2 Squadron (call sign Magpie) which happened to be on station in the vicinity. Now being a bit of an aviation buff, I knew that the Canberra was one of the most stable of aerial bombing platforms and from what I'd heard, 2 Squadron were earning a solid reputation for bombing accuracy.

With communications established with the FAC, on request, both forward sections popped smoke which was correctly identified by Jade (Note 2). What was to follow next is still talked about today at 9 Platoon Reunions and I get the distinct feeling that I'll never be forgiven in some quarters.

Canberra bomber with wing-tip bombs I have no idea what bombs Magpie 31 (Note 2) was carrying for the strike, either 500 or 750 pounders but I suspect they were 750 pounders. In later years, I subsequently read that 2 Squadron initially used 500 lb bombs but as stocks ran out, they had to switch to 750 lb US bombs. The earlier bombs were ex-WWII war stocks. Typical aircraft loads varied from 10 x 500lb bombs to 6 x 1000 lb bombs. Apparently, within 15 months of 2 Squadron's operations, all the war stocks of the ex-WWII bombs were exhausted and 2 Squadron changed over to the USAF M117 750 lb bombs; 4 in the bomb bay and two on the wing tips (these bomb racks being an Australian innovation). Apparently, more reliable fuses in these bombs resulted in few of the problems experienced with the earlier British designed bombs. Comforting stuff in hindsight.

"33 this is Jade 03. Magpie 31 is commencing bomb run." "Roger, Jade 03".

Now, how many of us can remember sitting on the 'thunder box' back at the Dat enjoying a quiet read when the battery of US 155mm howitzers opened up on a fire mission? Well, their 'blast effect' was like getting bitten by a mosquito compared to what unfolded.

Now remember that we were only wearing our 'green armoured suits' and no head protection other than the ubiquitous giggle hat when Magpie 31 delivered her 'eggs' on Jade's WP smoke. What happened next almost defies description.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! He's bombing us!" or so it felt. The ground shook and the detonations lifted one bodily off the ground, ground which one was trying to burrow into for dear life. The 'crap and corruption' that came flying through the J (jungle) was unbelievable - it felt as if the jungle was literally being torn apart around us and if trees, foliage and dirt were being flung at us at alarming pace; surely the shrapnel wasn't far behind (some things one simply doesn't forget).

Sure enough, chunks of dead shrapnel started dropping in and around our positions. Brown corduroy pants would have been preferable to our Jungle Greens. The pucker factor was zero. Don Teichelman still has vivid memories of the 'shrapnel shower' and to this day, he regrets not keeping a piece as a souvenir.

In actual fact, all safety distances had been employed to the letter. That being the case, pity help anyone on the receiving end of a brace of 750 pound bombs, let alone the full complement of six of the things - that's 4,500 lb of high explosive and shrapnel delivered with deadly accuracy onto the target.

With the air strike completed and with Jade 3 doing the target bomb assessment, it dawned on me that the only cover that I'd had throughout the entire air strike was my trusty Special Forces (SF) aluminium-framed pack which I'd pulled in front of me. "Holy Dooley!" Some protection! Strapped down one side (the side that just happened to be facing the bunker system) was a 66mm LAW, on top of the pack was a Claymore complete with detonating cord and detonators, and a bandolier of ten magazines, each with 18 rounds of 5.56mm; 'staring at me' on the other side of the pack was a thermal grenade and two smoke grenades!
Water filled bomb crater.
C Company as a whole had some 'fun and games' all that day with running contacts. A LFT (Light Fire Team) was called for around 1650 hrs and they arrived on station at around 1730 hrs to assist in our clearance of the bunker system.  It turns out that there were some 45 bunkers, including command bunkers, barbed wire, kitchen etc and from documents later recovered, we'd hit a base camp of D445 Battalion. Oh, happy days.

And what about my blonde 'mate'? I guess we'll never know. There are stories to this day of Russian advisors working with 'Charlie' and even the more elaborate tale of the Caucasian working with the VC who wore two pearl-handled revolvers Western style. Fact or fiction? Who knows??

However, if the OC (Officer Commanding), Major Claude Ducker, MC can officially report a VC in a kilt (look it up in the War Diary - it's true), then I'm sticking to my guns about my 'blonde VC'.

Some 43 years after the event, I decided to try to identify the pilot of Jade 3 and the pilot and navigator of Magpie 31. I thought it would be interesting to have a yarn about their support of us that day and to give them some perspective of being on the receiving end of that support.

I ascertained that Jade 3 most likely would have come from the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) as they covered the III Corps area in 1969. As for the aircraft, that's was a little difficult as 19th TASS operated Cessna O-1s (Birddogs), Cessna O-2s (twin engine push-pull configuration) and North American Bronco's in 1969. However, something told me that it was an O-2.

I contacted the historian of the American FAC Association, Rick Atchison (Nail 229), with a request for assistance in identifying our FAC pilot. The FAC Association has a good network and within a very short space of time I was in touch with retired USAF Captain Jim Farris. Jim was the pilot of Cessna O-2 and his call-sign? - Jade 03.

We have regularly corresponded since that time, sharing reminiscences of our time in South Vietnam in 1969. Not surprisingly, Jim has a very high opinion of the Aussie digger and thoroughly enjoyed working with us in the FAC role.

As for who flew Magpie 31, this is proving to be a little harder. I'm trying to get hold of or at least get access to the 2 Squadron Operations Log or even the pilot's logbook - at least 2 Squadron is a current operational RAAF squadron again.

If, however, the RAAF followed the usual system, the Magpie 31 callsign may have been allocated permanently to a particular aircrew during 1969. Hopefully, the pilot and navigator shouldn't be too difficult to track down via the 2 Squadron Association.

Stop Press. I have located an image on the Australian War Memorial site taken in Vietnam on 26 August 1969 with the following caption: 'An aerial photograph showing the damage resulting from a mission flown by RAAF Canberra bomber crew Magpie 31 (Pilot Officer S.S. Welsh and Flight Lieutenant N.L. Duus).' Have I found 'our' Canberra crew? Time will tell.
Roger Lambert
Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company, 5 RAR, 1969/70


Notes:
1. According to the Battalion War Diary, the incident occurred on 21 September 1969 at Grid Reference YS565700.
2. According to the War Diary, the FAC was 'Jade 03' and the Canberra was 'Magpie 31'.


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