This is an extract from a story titled 'The Nashos' that, in 1987, was used in a 'Time-Life Books, Australia' publication 'Australians at War. Vietnam, The Australian Experience'.
It was a bright sunny morning, hot, and soon to be hotter, on May 1 (it was actually May 5), 1966, as the first landing craft left HMAS Sydney anchored off Vung Tau. To the east, clearly visible from the carrier, was the dark mass of the Long Hai hills, a Viet Cong base area known as the Minh Dam secret zone. Beyond Vung Tau, to the north-west, could be seen the forbidding Rung Sal swamps. The 30 fully equipped troops, mostly young national servicemen gripping their weapons and packed inside the stifling landing craft, were taut with apprehension. For most, this would be their first experience of war.
The tension inside the landing craft increased as it neared the shore, the young soldiers unable to see where they were landing because of the high sides. Smoking had been forbidden when they came on board. As the craft neared the beach, the major in command gave the order "Fix bayonets."
The steel was clicked on, and as the men looked nervously at one another, the major explained how important it was to make the right impression from the start, to show that the battalion meant business. Moments later, the landing craft ground to a halt, the ramp was lowered and, with bayonets fixed, the men moved ashore, ready for anything. To their surprise and embarrassment, they found themselves on a concrete loading ramp in the middle of the busy Vung Tau port area, watched by bemused American and Vietnamese civilian dock workers.
The first sea-borne warriors of the Australian Task Force had landed. Funny though the incident was - and exaggerated versions of it spread like wildfire - it was an apt example of why the Australian Task Force would be so tactically proficient. The attitude of taking thorough precautions, even when they seemed excessive or absurd to the Americans and Vietnamese, was a major characteristic of the Australian military style in Vietnam that kept casualties to a minimum.
The new arrivals were members of the 5th Battalion advance party (the advance party had flown in earlier and were already established at Back Beach) who had just arrived off shore after a tedious twelve-day voyage from Australia accompanied by the battalion's mass of baggage and equipment. In a few days they would be joined by the remainder of the battalion, who would be flown in on chartered airliners. Later still they would be joined by the 6th Battalion, and together these two infantry battalions would form the fighting teeth of the 1st Australian Task Force in Vietnam.
The raw young soldiers who stepped ashore at Vung Tau that day were the first Australian conscripts to join the Vietnam War. Their presence was a consequence of Australia's increasing involvement in the war and a realisation that the burden of the fighting could not be borne alone by regular volunteer forces. New recruits were needed to increase the army's manpower levels, so conscription had been reintroduced in late 1964 and the first recruits integrated into army units by late 1965. Regular volunteers and conscripts would be treated in exactly the same way, and the initial policy was that not more than 50 per cent of the men in any unit in Vietnam were to be national servicemen.
As its soldiers continued to take the fight to the enemy in early 1966, America had again appealed for aid from its allies. Little persuasion was needed to convince the Australian government to increase its military involvement.
Australia still shared with its American and regional allies the belief that a Communist victory would have a disastrous effect on the entire Asia-Pacific area. And so Prime Minister Harold Halt declared Australia "all the way with LBJ." Australia's military and political leaders had another reason as well. Since they were in the war, they wanted an Australian presence strong enough to be independent and identifiable. They believed that this could be best achieved through the commitment of at least two battalions with supporting arms and logistics back-up. With the battalions went a headquarters staff, an APC squadron, an artillery regiment, a special air-service squadron, then signals, engineer and supply units, soon bringing the Australian contingent in Vietnam to a respectable 4,500 men.
The Task Force set up its logistic base on a deserted stretch of beach on the eastern side of the Vung Tau peninsula, in Phuoc Tuy province, and made plans to establish its forward fighting base 25 kilometres inland at Nui Dat. There were a number of reasons why Phuoc Tuy was chosen as the province in which the Task Force would operate. For one thing, the Vietnamese government had little control over most of its area and population, and there was a large well-entrenched enemy presence. The Australians would thus be performing a major, readily identifiable mission. The province also offered easy access by sea and air; and was not complicated by being on an international border. Operationally, it seemed feasible to separate the enemy from the population, and the terrain suited Australian equipment and tactics.
Lying to the south-east of Saigon, Phuoc Tuy was rectangular in shape, 62 kilometres east to west and 30 kilometres north to south. It was bounded by the South China Sea, the Rung Sat swamps, and Long Kanh and Binh Tuy provinces. In 1966 most of the province's 103,000 people were concentrated in the south central area in towns and villages close to the capital of Baria. This part of the province contained rich paddy fields and market gardens. The remaining three-quarters of the province was mostly flat, jungle-covered country, except for three large groups of hills or mountains: the May Tao in the north-east, the Long Hai on the southern coast, and the Dinh hills to the west. These mountainous areas were Viet Cong strongholds.
To view a larger scale map of Phouc Tuy Province Click Here. Just close the window or tab that opens when you are finished.
The Task Force's permanent base was sited around Nui Dat, a steep-sided, jungle-covered hill rising 60 metres above the surrounding terrain. Commonsense military criteria dictated the choice. Nui Dat was between the enemy's main-force bases and the bulk of the civilian population. The area was big enough to accommodate an airfield and for the Task Force to manoeuvre if the base came under attack.
The first major problem was the Viet Cong village fortifications of Long Phuoc and Long Tan to the immediate south-east of the proposed base. A joint American and Vietnamese operation in April destroyed the fortifications before the Australians moved into the area. The villages were largely laid waste, creating a legacy of bitterness among the already pro-Viet Cong inhabitants, who were resettled in surrounding villages, from where they spread anti-government propaganda and helped to strengthen the local Viet Cong infrastructure.
The Phuoc Tuy villages had first been infiltrated by the Viet Cong in 1959. Within two years, the Communists had succeeded in raising a company of infantry, and in the following years the force had grown into D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion, with perhaps 550 fighting men. Village committees also recruited men to serve in local defence squads and platoons. By 1966, there were four distinct companies of guerrillas of about 100 men each.
These were merely the local forces. The enemy's major, or main-force, units were vastly more powerful and operated from a chain of base areas in the province's northern jungles. A number of these bases dated back to the Viet Minh's nationalist war against the French in the 1950s and were well-camouflaged extensive bunker and tunnel complexes. In the north-west was the Hat Dich base area; in the north-east the May Tao mountain stronghold; to the west the Dinh hills base; to the south-west Long Son island, a rest and training centre; and to the south the Long Hai hills base.
By 1966, the northern Phuoc Tuy bases held two main-force regiments, the 274th and 275th, of three battalions each. Together, the regiments numbered between 3,600 and 4,000 men under command of the 5th Viet Cong Division, headquartered in the May Tao mountains. Thus, in total, there were seven battalions of Viet Cong in the province. And they could be reinforced by additional troops at short notice.
These main-force units had demonstrated their fighting capabilities at the end of the previous year in a devastatingly effective action at the village of Binh Gia on Route 2 in the centre of the province. On November 11, 1965, the 275th Regiment ambushed and virtually destroyed the 52nd Ranger Battalion, an elite ARVN unit.
The enemy's broad strategy in 1966 was to continue to build up North Vietnamese Army forces in the south, to conduct offensive action in I Corps and to continue progressive development of base areas. Around Saigon, War Zones C and D were strongly defended. Divisional tactical headquarters were established to co-ordinate joint regimental operations. In mid-1966, the Viet Cong/NVA main-force strength throughout Vietnam was estimated at about 80,000, organised into 29 main-force regiments and 42 independent battalions.
When the Australian Task Force began arriving in May, the beleaguered South Vietnamese were administering the province as best they could through a military government with considerable autonomy in local affairs. It was under the command of III Vietnamese Corps headquarters, and the province chief was Lieutenant-Colonel Dat. An energetic, cocksparrow of a man, he was decisive and realistic and profoundly grateful that the Task Force had arrived to help cope with a situation utterly beyond his control. He had only one ARVN battalion permanently based in the province, supplemented by several Regional Force companies, which were mostly tied up in the static defence of the province and district headquarters towns. Then there were the so-called Popular Forces, local militia platoons, which defended the villages as well as such key points as bridges and communication facilities. They were a ragtag lot, ill-equipped, ill-trained and under constant threat of annihilation. Not surprisingly, most of the RF and PF units had arrived at a sort of modus vivendi with the Viet Cong. They were, and would remain, largely ineffectual.
The problem of pacifying the province was enormous. The Viet Cong had isolated the district headquarters of Xuyen Moc in the east and Duc Than in the north. All districts were heavily infiltrated, and only the populated hub of villages radiating out from Baria was relatively secure. All roads in the province were frequently cut, and those loyal villagers who still ventured forth were taxed by the Viet Congo. The Communists held the upper hand, both militarily and psychologically.
Nevertheless, Phuoc Tuy was strategically vital to the immense American logistic build-up in progress. By the latter part of 1966, United States and allied forces had increased to more than 250,000, and Vung Tau was earmarked to become a major port supplying the delta, Saigon and Bien Hoa. This meant that Route 15 on the western edge of Phuoc Tuy had to be kept clear as the main road from Vung Tau to Saigon. To achieve this initial objective, the Task Force had to push the Viet Cong out of the central region of the province and provide a defensive umbrella for the population surrounding Baria.
As a first step, the Nui Dat base area had to be cleared. A preliminary operation was carried out by the two battalions of the American 173rd Brigade, later assisted by the newly arrived Australian 5th Battalion. But the Americans started off badly; the 173rd began clearing operations a week before the 5th Battalion was available and encountered a force of at least a Viet Cong battalion; one American company was ambushed and took heavy casualties eight Americans killed and 23 wounded.
Robert Q'Neill, second in command of B Company of the 5th Battalion, described the move to Nui Dat vividly: "The morning of May 24th was dull and misty. Reveille was very early as the companies began taking off in helicopters shortly after dawn. The helicopters seemed to be amazingly close in the air. From a distance they looked like a long line of cherry stones hanging and bobbing on strings. The country looked quiet and sleepy, clad in small wraps of white mist which clung around the tall trees."
Late that afternoon, Private Errol Noack, a national serviceman, was the first member of the battalion and the Task Force to be killed in action. He was in a party sent to fetch water under command of a sergeant. The sergeant had just posted sentries at the water point when they came under fire. As they traded shots with the enemy, Noack thoughtlessly stood up to change position. He was immediately hit in the side and back by a burst of machine-gun fire. The Viet Cong were driven off, and Noack was evacuated by helicopter but died before reaching the hospital in Vung Tau.
During the next week or so there was little further contact with the enemy, and by early June it was apparent that the Viet Cong had temporarily pulled out of the immediate Nui Dat area. So the other units in the Task Force moved up from the staging area on the beach at Vung Tau. The headquarters arrived on June 5 and took control of the 5th Battalion from the 173rd Brigade. The Americans had paid a heavy price to help secure the future Task Force base: 23 killed and 160 wounded.
Life at Nui Dat was tense during the first few weeks. The headquarters and supporting units were spread out over a wide area and were only thinly defended. At night, the Viet Cong probed the perimeter defence with small reconnaissance patrols. Then the annual monsoon season began, and weapon pits were soon filled with muddy water.
Until the 6th Battalion arrived on June 14, the base was also vulnerable to a major Viet Cong attack, and there were numerous intelligence reports that one was being planned. Indeed, later in the year a cave-clearing operation uncovered the diary of the deputy commander of the 274th Regiment, which was concentrated at Nui Nghe, only five kilometres north-west of the base, giving detailed plans for an attack on the base after the Americans pulled out. However, the enemy changed plans after their gunners shot down an American observation plane; instead of attacking the base, they laid an ambush around the wreckage of the plane. As luck would have it, the Task Force was unaware of the crash - the pilot had had no time to radio for help - and so a search-and-rescue company patrol was never sent. The crashed aircraft was eventually discovered by accident in 1967.
With the arrival of the 6th Battalion, the base was now formidably equipped with two infantry battalions, a regiment of artillery, other supporting arms and services, and a perimeter of wire and mines. The Viet Cong had missed their best chance to attack the newly arrived force, and the military balance was beginning to tilt against them. How long the Viet Cong would accept this was the question uppermost in the minds of everyone, from the Task Force commander, Brigadier O.D. Jackson, down to the lowest-ranking infantry rifleman.
As an experienced infantryman and former commander of the Team, Jackson was promoted from Colonel to Brigadier to take command of the Task Force because of his extensive background knowledge of the war and his strong working relationships with the senior American and Vietnamese commanders. His first step was to dominate, by aggressive patrolling, an area surrounding the base out to 4,000 metres, a perimeter designated Line Alpha. This would put the base beyond enemy mortar range. His second step was to secure the area out to the limits of field artillery range, a distance then of about 11,000 metres.
Part of the process of securing Line Alpha was the resettlement of Vietnamese living within the area. The program had obvious problems, but there was one great advantage: in the event of an attack, the Task Force could employ its formidable fire power without endangering civilians. Moreover, the Viet Cong were not in the least averse to using populated villages as a screen for their attacks.
One of the 6th Battalion's first tasks was to search and finish the destruction of the previously fortified Viet Cong village of Long Phuoc, only two kilometres south-east of the base. Huts and buildings were torched or blown up and crops destroyed in an operation that lasted from June 21 to July 5. For many of the raw young soldiers, it was an unpleasant and distressing task, more so as one of the battalion was wounded and four of the enemy were killed. A succession of other towns were cordoned off and searched, until on August 13 the province's main north-south road was reopened, giving the northern villages access to Baria for the first time in months.