1ATF Nui Dat, Vietnam – May 1966
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1ATF Nui Dat Vietnam

1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat, Vietnam

Once Phuoc Tuy in South Vietnam had been selected as the provincial site for the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF), a location for its base had to be chosen. There were three possibilities: Ba Ria, Phuoc Tuy’s capital; the port of Vung Tau; and an area in the province’s central region known as Nui Dat, Vietnamese for ‘small hill’.

Nui Dat (‘small hill’) was an ideal location for the new Australian Task Force base. It was on a main highway, Route 2, approximately 30 kilometres from the port of Vung Tau which was the new Australian logistic support base. Nui Dat was some distance from Phuoc Tuy’s provincial capital, Ba Ria, and was sufficiently isolated to enable the Australians to manage their own operations. However, the area around Nui Dat had been a well-known Viet Cong stronghold and many of the residents in nearby villages had family members in the Viet Cong. Removed from population centres but close to Viet Cong base areas, Nui Dat was considered ideal for the type of counter-insurgency warfare that Australians waged in Phuoc Tuy.

Its location in the centre of the province meant that Nui Dat was in the middle of Viet Cong territory. Therefore, security was of prime importance. The villages nearest Nui Dat – Long Tan and Long Phuoc – were both considered Viet Cong strongholds and the Australian task force’s first commander, Brigadier O.D. Jackson, with the agreement of the Province Chief, had the people and livestock of the two villages forcibly resettled. The removal of the local people from the vicinity meant that the chances of the Viet Cong gathering information about the base and the movement of Australian troops were significantly reduced. However, attempts to win the support of Phuoc Tuy’s people were compromised by the decision to remove people from their homes without compensation.

The base was established by members of the United States 173rd Airborne, the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) and the newly arrived 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) on 24 May 1966. This effort was called ‘Operation Hardihood’ [see below].

The first soldiers to occupy it lived in tents and worked to establish defences. Every soldier at Nui Dat had a fighting pit. Elevated bunkers, manned 24 hours a day, were constructed around the base’s perimeter which was further defended by wire obstacles and belts of anti-personnel mines. Vegetation was cleared from a 500-metre wide area outside the wire to provide fields of fire and a clear view of approaching Viet Cong.

At its peak the base at Nui Dat was home to some 5,000 Australian, New Zealand, and American personnel, but for much of the time most of them were deployed on operations outside the base.

Most Australian units and individual soldiers served in Vietnam for a 12-month tour of duty but most combat soldiers saw little of Nui Dat. The Australian style of counter-insurgency operations kept troops away from the base for long periods and many men only returned for a few days between ‘ops’.

Here is Part 1 of a Nui Dat Photo Album:

Operation Hardihood – Establishing a Base at Nui Dat

24 May – 4 June 196

On May 17th the two battalions of the U.S. 173rd Brigade, the 1st/503rd and the 2nd/503rd flew into the Nui Dat area to commence a sweep of the surrounding countryside. The 1st/503rd Battalion was accompanied by Captains Peter Isaacs and Brian Ledan. A few days later they reported back to Vung Tau with news of the operation. The Americans had encountered several groups of Viet Cong of company size and it was apparent that there was at least one enemy battalion in the area of Nui Dat, assisted by some companies of guerillas. One of the American companies had been badly mauled on the first day of the operation. At 3:30pm on May 17th, B Company of the 1st/503rd was moving up the western slope of hill 72, one and a half miles north of Nui Dat. They knew that they were being followed by a Viet Cong rifleman carrying a radio, but they did not know that in their path was a Viet Cong company who were being guided by the man with the radio. The Americans were caught in deadly cross fire of a box ambush to which were quickly added 60mm. mortar bombs. By the time that they had extricated themselves they had lost eight killed and twenty three wounded — a heavy blow for an infantry company to sustain.

While the American sweep was continuing, the battalions’ CO Colonel Warr was finalising his plans.

The tasks of the Fifth Battalion in Operation Hardihood was first to clear the area to the north and east of Nui Dat to a distance of five thousand metres so the enemy mortar fire could not reach the future base area, and second, to establish a defensive position to give security to the Nui Dat area while the other units of the Task Force concentrated in the new base. Therefore, the first part of the operation entailed a sweep over a quadrant shaped piece of country with a radius of about three miles. It was possible that Viet Cong forces up to regimental size were in the area and therefore the battalion had to be sufficiently concentrated to allow the companies to reinforce each other within an hour or two. The area of operation was divided into several sections so that all four companies could search simultaneously. They were planned to be at least several hundred yards apart to avoid the risk of two companies clashingly unwittingly. The thickness of the vegetation limited visibility to twenty yards in many places and to make half a mile in an hour was pretty good progress. Each of the company areas was given natural boundaries, such as tracks or streams, rather then arbitrary lines drawn on a map so that the searching patrols could see clearly when they had reached the limit of their areas and the commencement of the territory in which the next company would be operating. The area to be searched was divided so that D. Company moved to the southern area around Nui Dat, C Company went to the central area a mile north of Nui Dat, and A. and B. Companies covered the northern edge of the area.

The morning of May 24th was dull and misty. Reveille was very early as the companies began taking off in helicopters shortly after dawn, in approximately half company groups. My lift took off at 0936 hours, punctual to a few seconds. The helicopters seemed to be amazingly close together in the air. From a distance they looked like a long line of cherry stones hanging and bobbing on strings. From close up it was like driving on a motorway with a third dimension added the movements of the vehicles around one. The country looked quite and sleepy, clad in small wraps of white mist which clung around the tall trees. The landing area was a broad flat hilltop in front of a rubber plantation which formed the north-western extremity of the An Phu sector. Rubber trees ran along two sides and low scrub on the other two. This landing zone was code named Hudson. The name stuck after the operation and whenever we referred to that ground it was simply called Hudson. When we landed we saw a few members of the 2nd/503rd Battalion standing around, washing and smoking and looking very wet for the wet season was well under way. As we waited in the rubber for the companies in front to shake out and move off, we were deafened by the American artillery and mortars which were firing in support of an engagement taking place a mile and a half away.

We moved off at about 1 p.m. just as a group of eleven Vietnamese were being escorted into battalion headquarters by members of A. Company, who had been searching the houses of An Phu. We passed through the bananas, around the hamlet and crossed Route 2. The narrow strip of French bitumen looked a little forlorn in these wild surroundings. On the eastern side of the road we moved into scrub. The heat in the opening was punishing for no air stirred in the tall grass and one had the feeling of being stifled. We were saturated by perspiration in ten minutes so that our jungle green shirts looked black. After clearing nearly a mile of country we made camp near the crest of Hill 72 at 5 p.m. An hour later Bruce sent out a water party to fill up our depleted water bottles from a creek some two hundred yards to the south-east.

A. Company had found a number of Viet Cong further away to our south-east during the afternoon and were following them up, so the water party, members of Five Platoon under Sgt Hassell, were treading warily. Shortly after reaching the stream and posting scouts around the water point the party were fired on. Everyone went to ground and the fire was returned. During a pause Private Noack, one of the water party, stood up to move to another position. As soon as he rose up he was hit by a burst of sub-machine gun fire. Just then, A. Company reached the stream from the other side and drove the Viet Cong off to the north. A stretcher was quickly assembled by Five Platoon, while Corporal Ron Nichols, the company medic, had dashed forward and dressed Noack’s wound. It was my task to call battalion headquarters on the radio and request a medical evacuation helicopter. For some peculiar reason these helicopters were known as Dust Off helicopters – probably a code name which stuck because of its convenient length and unambiguous sound when spoken over a poor radio net.

The next forty minutes were crowded with activity as we waited for the Dust Off. The defences of the company had to be sighted properly and checked to see that each of the three platoons were linked in with each of the other two on its flanks. The siting of each of the ten machine guns had to be individually checked to see that the main approaches to the company position were covered by fire and that each gun was capable of giving mutual support to its neighbours by firing across their front in the event of the latter receiving a frontal assault. While I was doing this, Bruce was arranging for A. Company to pass through our position so that they could make camp to our north-west. A landing zone fifty yards across was cut for the Dust Off and Noack was carried to the edge of the clearing. He had been hit in the side and the back and the wound looked serious. Nichols had given him some morphine but he was still in pain and complained of a lack of feeling in his legs. Bruce spent several minutes talking with Noack and giving what comfort he could. We were very thankful to see the helicopter appear overhead just as darkness was gathering. The pilot saw our coloured smoke marker and confirmed the colour so that he knew he was not being lured to a killing ground by the Viet Cong. A huge Negro medic jumped out of the aircraft when it landed. He looked jet black in the gathering gloom. His direct brusqueness seemed professional and reassuring. We returned to digging the defences before darkness became complete, keenly aware that we were close to the point at which the American company had been attacked and feeling rather uneasy, wondering what Viet Cong force be gathering to pounce on our position whose location had been betrayed by the Dust Off helicopter.

As events turned out we need have had no worries, but we were shaken by the realisation that death could come in this war without warning and without knowledge of the assailant’s intentions or numbers. At 10 p.m. we received a call on the radio from battalion headquarters. Noack had died in the helicopter on the way to Vung Tau. The worst had happened and its acceptance was very difficult.

On the following morning we pressed on through country which was a mixture of low scrub, overgrown banana plantation and tangled secondary jungle. There were several open areas in our path which had to be negotiated carefully lest an ambush lay lurking on the edges waiting to catch us in the centre. The country was carefully searched as we went, so progress was slow. Near midday we came to some low forest, through which two well used ox cart tracks ran, one of which had been used by a rubber tyred vehicle in the past few days. These tracks were obviously part of the Viet Cong road network which ran from the coast to the inland bases. We had laid an ambush on one track but then received orders to move half a mile to the south-east to clear some huts.

Soon after starting off, Five Platoon saw two Viet Cong in black pyjamas and carrying rifles running through the bushes a few hundred yards away. As we were moving down a long gentle hill we heard a rushing scuffle coming through the bush and were startled by three wild pigs who dashed through our formation. Shortly afterwards, the forward elements of Five Platoon, who were leading, crossed over a small ridge in front of us. Suddenly they went to ground, firing vigorously at a hut some fifty yards ahead in which there were four Viet Cong with rifles. The enemy fled into thick scrub at the back of the hut, deserting their tools and equipment. We burned the hut so that it could no longer shelter Viet Cong.

As we moved carefully through the dense bush in the wake of the fleeing Viet Cong two more huts were discovered. This area was a small Viet Cong base. Each hut contained a bed and beneath each bed was a bunker. On the roof of one hut were two hand grenades without their strikers. They were triggered to explode at the least disturbance. We set fire to the huts and moved well away from the sharp explosions which sent showers of metallic fragments through the air near the huts. We camped for the night in a large banana plantation. It was quite and peaceful under the weird sail-like shapes of the huge banana leaves, silhouetted against the soft moonlight of the tropical sky.

Early the following morning three helicopters arrived bringing food. After their departure, a fourth helicopter, bearing Colonel Warr appeared. It landed and suddenly a burst of firing broke out from the southern edge of the landing area. The Viet Cong had been lurking close by awaiting an opportunity to strike us a sharp blow. A clearing patrol forced the Viet Cong away. The helicopter had three holes in it—one in an oil line. The pilot said he would chance getting off the ground again if Colonel Warr agreed. Colonel Warr had finished conferring with Bruce about the coming phase of the operation. He climbed into the helicopter with a light remark about the pleasures of the unknown. The machine took off successfully, climbed to fifteen hundred feet and disappeared over the western horizon to battalion headquarters.

Bruce then moved the company to a hilltop in the banana plantation some five hundred yards away. We arrived without incident and I proceeded to lay out the company’s defences. Bursts of machine gun fire rattled out from our northern flank. Two Viet Cong had walked straight into our position from the north, directly onto one of Four Platoon’s machine guns. Bullets also came into our position from the south-east, so we temporarily had the impression that the Viet Cong were all around us and the next few minutes were rather exciting. Four Platoon set off in pursuit of the two who had walked into them. They found a lot of blood and brought back one sandal, blood covered, made from an old rubber tyre. Known as Ho Chi Minh sandals they were the formal footwear of the Viet Cong. The amount of blood on the trail indicated that one had been killed. The other must have hidden the body before making off.

During the afternoon several of our patrols went out, locating some Viet Cong huts and a bunker which they destroyed. One patrol saw a group of Viet Cong crossing a piece of open ground which was over a thousand yards away from them. Lieutenant Pott, commander of Six Platoon, ordered one of his machine guns to open fire, more to give the Viet Cong a fright then to hit them, for at that distance accuracy is almost impossible. However, a patrol from A. Company found a body riddled by our machine gun bullets near that open ground on the following day.

During the night we set an ambush on the track which the two Viet Cong had used in the morning. The night passed uneventfully if a little tensely, for once again we had given away our position in the afternoon by taking a helicopter resupply.

On the morning of May 27th we moved off to clear another area which lay fifteen hundred yards away to the north-east. The country which we passed through was extremely beautiful. The jungles were a little thorny and tangled in places, but much of the country was lush and green, rather like an overgrown English park. Great festoons of greenery hung down from the high trees on long vines and lianas like absurdly overdone Baroque ornament. Short green grass carpeted the ground. Even the mosquitoes’ seemed elegant. They had black bodies, very slender, and their legs were banded with black and white.

Patrolling through that sort of country had its own peculiar atmosphere of tension. The hot sun beat down and was reflected from the ground in a slow moving stream of heated air which enveloped the body. All around the air was filled with the clicking and whirring of insects and jungle birds. Heat dripped from everything around and poured in torrents from our brows. The scenery shimmered. Even the metallic sounds of the birds seemed to glint and shimmer with the heat.

We moved in two groups. Five Platoon was separated from the remainder of the company and investigated the area to the south of our line of march. The northerly route was quite, but Five Platoon had a more successful morning. They encountered a Viet Cong defensive position, which was occupied by five men. The platoon commander, Lieutenant O’Hanlon, ordered an attack which drove out the Viet Cong, who left a considerable trail of blood. On following this blood trail, voices were heard. One wounded Viet Cong attracted attention to himself and surrendered. Our chaps bandaged his wounded leg and splintered it in case it had been broken. He accepted a cigarette and a drink of water. Within twenty minutes of receiving his wound he was flying to the same hospital we used at Vung Tau. Near the huts of the base Five Platoon discovered a cache containing 1300 pounds of rice. Disposal of captured rice is always a problem when it is found in such large quantities as it is seldom possible to lift it out by helicopter or by road. Often the only expedient which can be used for denying the rice to the Viet Cong is to blow it up. Five Platoon were forced to do this because the helicopters supporting us were too fully committed to carry out the rice and no more helicopters were available.

The company formed a harbour around a wide clearing in the forest. Bruce positioned men in ambushes along a track which ran through the clearing. Around mid-afternoon we jumped into our weapon pits at the sound of firing just outside our perimeter. Two Viet Cong had walked into our western ambush. They had come up the track quite casually with their weapons, American M1 rifles slung on their shoulders. One of the men were killed by a burst of machine gun fire. The other, wounded, dropped his rifle and equipment and ran into the trees.

It was my task to take out a small patrol to bring in the body and the equipment. We went down to the ambush position from where we could see two thin bare legs protruding from behind a bush. We cautiously approached the clearing where he lay, for his companion or others could have been lurking nearby. The body was a pitiful sight; the ageless features of the oriental may have been deceptive but he looked only eighteen and was pathetically thin. However, his weapon and equipment laden with grenades and ammunition quickly dissolved much of my remorse, for he was armed and trained to kill us. I searched him, finding only some unimportant papers in a plastic document case and a cigarette lighter in his pockets. We carried him back to camp and buried him.

As we finished blowing up the captured grenades and ammunition a flurry of shots broke out on the northern side of our harbour. The companion who had escaped had evidently come back to take a good look at us in order to carry a full report to his commander. We attempted to capture him but the thickness of the bush gave him to much cover. Since our position and numbers had been observed we prepared our defences for the night with great care, laying ambushes on all likely approaches. Around midnight, peals of thunder broke the silence like artillery and rain crashed down in sheets. I soon found myself lying in a stream of water three inches deep. Fortunately the heat of the night made it a small matter if one was wet. However I became rather anxious for our security, because the rain made it impossible to detect any movement outside our perimeter: we would not have known that the enemy was upon us until he had entered our defences. Fortunately, as so often, these fears were groundless and no one bothered us. Also, determination to get some sleep was a good antidote to anxiety. As time went by we found that we were frightened only if we had enough energy left over to feel fear.

On the 28th of May we set off to move further to the east where some more Viet Cong tracks lay. At 10 a.m. we had a welcome stop and our first wash since the beginning of the operation. We changed our clothes and took our feet out of our boots for the first time in four days. However, the dry socks stayed dry for five minutes only as we then waded through a deep, swiftly flowing creek, the Soui Da Bang, swollen by the recent and heavy rains. After slithering and clawing our way up the far bank, which was ten feet high, we headed into thick bamboo.

Bruce halted the company at 2 p.m. on top of a steep ridge overlooking a well used track which followed the line of the Soui Da Bang. Then we received a radio warning from Max Carroll to stay off the high ground in case we struck a Viet Cong force which was too big for us to handle. An enemy battalion had been located further south down the valley, and A. Company had almost collided with it. The enemy intentions were uncertain. The battalion may have been coming up the valley to attack us or it may have been preparing to withdraw. We repacked our equipment and commenced to move back into the valley. Six Platoon descended from the ridge first in order to secure our northern flank against any Viet Cong who might have been coming down the track. Several minutes later several bursts of machine gun fire sent everyone to the ground. Six Platoon had encountered several Viet Cong coming south on the track. The confidence displayed by the Viet Cong was remarkable, right through this phase of the operation. Possibly this was the result of many years of undisputed possession of the area, but on many occasions, such as this one, the Viet Cong ignored all precautions and walked down the centre of the track talking loudly and with their weapons slung on their shoulders where they could not be used on the instant if they were ambushed. The Viet Cong had arrived on the scene just as Six Platoon were crossing the track, so there was no opportunity for surrounding them and cutting off their escape. One of our forward scouts opened fire and was quickly supported by his sections machine gun. One Viet Cong was killed and at least two others were wounded. Bruce called in artillery on the line of withdrawal taken by the survivors. The dead man was searched and then buried. The whole action had taken up some thirty minutes, so Bruce decided to return to the security of the ridge line for the night and to continue the search in the morning.

At this stage the whole of the Fifth Battalion were being redeployed to form a line of ambushes along the Soui Da Bang. Many Viet Cong had been encountered along this valley by the other companies and there was the possibility of the whole battalion of Viet Cong in the south attempting to move up the valley and link up with the main force regiment which was to the north of us.

We had gone only two hundred yards in the morning when five shots cleaved the air. The forward scout of the leading platoon had seen one Viet Cong moving towards him and had quickly called up the second scout. Unseen by the enemy, the two scouts had split up so that one could cover the Viet Cong with his rifle, while the other worked around to try to get close enough to capture him. When the latter scout was close enough to the Viet Cong to challenge him he called on him in Vietnamese to surrender. The Viet Cong dropped behind a log and made no reply. When he was told to surrender a second time he darted off into the scrub. However he was not quick enough to escape the fire which had been covering him in case he attempted to escape and he was cut down.

After the burial the company moved southwards again. The route lay through a maze of bamboo clumps whose low arching branches forced us to duck and stoop while thousands of sharp little thorns snared our clothing and equipment. We rested on a small sandy spit at the junction of a stream with the Soui Da Bang, and felt, very sharply, the huge distinction between the moments when one was being shot at and those when one was not. The war seemed like a tramp through the bush for ninety five per cent of the time: it was that vital five per cent which made the difference—the time when danger threatened, or when one imagined that it threatened. At time it was very easy to put the thoughts of danger right out of mind. This may have been merely a human defence mechanism, but perhaps it was also a rationalisation for only seldom was one bothered enough by the dangers to feel fear.

After this rest we went onto the next creek junction where we laid an ambush for the night. Several tracks cut the creek at this point and Bruce arranged a brilliant series of ambushes so that all the approaches were covered, and if the enemy caught in one ambush tried to break and run away they would run into another. However, the Viet Cong made no movement that night and we lost our sleep for no gain.

On the morning of May 30th we found an extensive Viet Cong camp. It was several years old and the defences were in poor condition, but some of the huts had been used recently. The amount of work that had been put into a tunnel system connecting two was surprising. What was the purpose of this defensive installation in the heart of territory which had been securely in the hands of the Viet Cong for years? I could only suppose that it had been built as a training exercise.

It became apparent that the Viet Cong battalion had moved eastwards to avoid contact for D. Company had found their camp which had been hurriedly vacated by the enemy who left many tracks leading to the east.

The battalion plan was to concentrate to companies closer together in another series of ambushes in case the Viet Cong attempted to re-use the Soui Da Bang track. We moved some five hundred yards to the north and found ourselves in the ironical situation of ambushing the Viet Cong from the security of one of their old camps.

I made myself very comfortable behind the piled rocks of a Viet Cong Sanger for the next two days. This pause afforded us a very welcome rest and a chance to dry out our saturated equipment and bedding. This was confined to our packs when we were on the move and so never had an opportunity to dry out from one day’s deluge to the next.

Evidently the Viet Cong were vacating the whole area for no contacts with them were made by any of the companies—the first day of the operation on which this had happened. After a peaceful and dry night we continued to man our ambushes on the ridge line. The position abounded with fascinating insects and other wild life: big butterflies with black wings splashed with turquoise which glittered and shone, fat friendly brown lizards, bloated by the richness of the local provender, and black ants with large mandibles which we called chomper ants. These had eaten a hole in my groundsheet six inches square during the night. During the day we aired our feet. A couple of hours in the fresh air restored those whitish lumps of wrinkled flesh to something nearer their normal appearance.

We made no contact with the Viet Cong in this ambush. The other companies encountered a few however, and C. Company took two prisoners, a man and a woman who had bumped into the company position. without knowing that it was there. Another group of Viet Cong who probed C. Company were heard by an interpreter to remark ‘Australians! Be careful!’

After a few days of sweeping the area it was apparent that the Viet Cong had departed and that now we could prepare to developed the battalion’s permanent base at Nui Dat. On June 2nd the companies back into the immediate vicinity of Nui Dat and occupied a wide arc around the North-eastern side, about one thousand yards out from the hill. When I was back in the base area I went across to the camp of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on the opposite side of Route 2 to see what I could scrounge. Several others must have beaten me to the idea for when I asked for a few items which I said were still on their way to us on board the H.M.A.S. Sydney, The American Supply Sergeant replied, “Well goddamn, that Sydney must be the biggest ship in the world—the Queen Elizabeth, the Enterprise and the United States all rolled into one. There’s so much gear on board it!”

During the following days Colonel Warr laid out the battalion defences and the companies began to dig themselves in. Once everyone had a weapon pit with thick overhead cover for protection from shelling, work was commenced on the perimeter wire. The companies were still widely dispersed with only A & B Companies near their final positions. This was because the whole Task Force area had to be patrolled every day and it was necessary to have one company, D. Company, at the southern extremity, some thousand yards south of Nui Dat, while another company, C. Company, had to be on the eastern flank a similar distance out from Nui Dat.

During this week the other units of the Task Force began concentrating at Nui Dat. The Headquarters flew in on June 5th and began to take over control of the Fifth Battalion from the American brigade which departed from Nui Dat on June 8th, having rendered us most vital assistance. In helping the Australian Task Force to become established, The Americans had suffered 23 killed and a 160 wounded.

As we dug ourselves in around Nui Dat the Viet Cong were not sitting idly by. Each night they began to creep up to our positions to see where we were, where the wires were sighted and how effective it was. They waved lights about on poles in attempts to locate our machine guns by drawing their fire. However, no one fired unless they had a man in very close range and the machine guns were under orders no to fire at all unless a heavy attack came in. This probing was normal procedure for the Viet Cong in preparing a large scale attack and it tended to confirm an intelligence report which we had received that 274 Regiment was planning to attack our position on a night around June 12th in order to throw us out of Phuoc Tuy and restore their loss of face amongst the local people.

In October 1966 we captured the diary of Nguyen Nam Hung, Deputy Commander of 274 Regiment who had commanded the group of reconnaissance teams which probed us early in June, so I can relate both sides of the events that occurred at that time. Hung had set off from his base in the Hat Dich area on June 4th in order to examine our position. He formed a small base to the north of us on June 6th, from which his men made their patrols. They saw the Americans depart on June 8th and he recorded that several of his men were wounded by our sentries as they probed our defences. The Regiment moved down from its base and concentrated near Nui Nghe, three miles to our north-west, on June 9th, where they awaited Hung’s report. Just as Hung reached them in the late afternoon, an American light observation aircraft which had been supporting us during the day made a low sweep over the Nui Nghe on its way back to Vung Tau. Possibly the crew noticed a tin roofed hut at the foot of the hill and were investigating it. However, fire from 274 Regiment brought the aircraft down in thick jungle at the foot of the eastern side of Nui Nghe. After discussion with Hung, the commander of 274 Regiment decided that it would be more profitable to ambush the crashed aircraft than to attack us in our defended camp, so the regiment lay in wait for us for the following two days.

However, we had no knowledge that aircraft had crashed until we received a radio request the following morning from the Americans asking for their aircraft back. Nobody knew where it had crashed and aerial searches produced no evidence as the jungle was too thick. Consequently the battalion were unable to send out the recovery team to assist any survivors, which would have been sent had the location of the crash been known. Thus the battalion were very fortunate, for had a company had fallen into the Viet Cong regimental ambush it would have had a very hard time to hold its own.

1 Platoon led by Lt. John Hartley discovered the aircraft in January 1967. It was invisible from 30 yards away and it was by chance that it was discovered. A. Company HQ under the command of Maj Max Carroll secured the area and Recce Platoon under command of 2nd Lt Michael ‘Deaky’ von Berg were tasked to secure a helicopter infiltration point through the thick jungle canopy for the SAS to winch down and to assist in the recovery of the pilots remains. The pilot had been killed on impact and the observer had been able to climb out and the small pile of empty cartridge cases beside his skeleton testified that he had bravely held the VC off until his ammunition had run out. They had then shot him through the back of the head.

The final outcome of this incident was that our occupation of the Nui Dat area was completed without serious challenge, and the Task Force base was rapidly built into a fortification, which even a divisional assault would find difficult to enter. The Viet Cong did not leave us entirely alone however, for two members of D. Company were killed and three wounded on June 11th when a patrol was hit by artillery fire on the south-western side of the Task Force perimeter. But these incidences achieved nothing more than to keep us on our guard and to strengthen our resolve to push the Viet Cong deep into the jungles where they could harm neither the civilian population or ourselves. Once established in our base, we were free to begin consideration of how we could most rapidly remove the Viet Cong from central Phuoc Tuy and the planning for the next operation was commenced.

After ten years of war every Australian infantry battalion except 9RAR had served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Most had been based at Nui Dat which, by the time the base closed in November 1971, had developed into a military town with buildings, roads and street signs, a field hospital, an airfield and helicopter pad.

As told by Captain Robert J O’Neill MID, 5RAR.



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