A BLAST FROM THE PAST — — THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN DUTY
FIRST — — FEBRUARY 1972
– – — Some thoughts from the first Commanding Officer Colonel E.H. Smith, DSO
When I was asked to write an article on 7 RAR I wondered how I could do so in a way that would not be boring to the reader. After all, everything or just about everything, that relates to Vietnam has already said, and it does seem as though any article on any battalion would have to follow pretty much the same pattern as any other. However, I do appreciate that the readers of “Duty First” do have a professional interest in reading articles such as this, exactly as they have had in reading accounts of the other battalions which have been published previously. So I’ll do my best to avoid something that approximates to a Staff College précis or alternatively producing several pages of facts and statistics. Well, then how do I
begin and follow through in a fashion that will tell you as much as you would like to know about 7RAR – its raising and its first tour in Vietnam – and present it in such a fashion that it’s reasonably acceptable . . . Well, I’ll try . . .
First, I’d like to say a few words about the raising of the battalion, and how it came to be. 7 RAR was raised in Puckapunyal in September 1965. For quarters it was given a set of tired old iron buildings – probably the worst buildings existing in the Army at the time. There was insufficient accommodation, very poor messes for the soldiers and nothing existing at all resembling officers or sergeants’ messes. Needless to say, there was no canteen for the troops. Ultimately, one of the tin huts was turned into a canteen of sorts, which in due course, played an important part in the battalion’s history. More about this later. The hard core of the battalion came initially from 3 RAR and had just finished a tour in Borneo – about 35o unmarried members of 3 RAR had been sent to Puckapunyal to form the basis of 7 RAR. As you can appreciate, coming straight from an active situation and a formed unit to a place as cols as Puckapunyal in the winter, into tin huts of dismally low standard, without proper messing or canteen facilities, they were not very impressed with their new unit.
So in the beginning there was a certain amount of antipathy from the men, expressed in various ways – it became a hobby and a weekend pattern for large numbers of them to proceed to the neighbouring towns of Seymour, Shepparton, Bacchus Marsh, Benalla and other towns within a 50-60 mile radius of Seymour, and there to living it up in no uncertain terms.
This continued for about two months, and whilst it may have satisfied some to a degree, and no doubt gave them an outlet for their pent-up feelings, it precipitated much trouble for myself and the unit. On one particular pay weekend I recall a group passed the hat round for a collection in the canteen to pay staff to stay open all weekend. The result was that on Monday morning the place was ankle deep in broken glasses, and quite a few soldiers were in a pretty bad state of health. It was a real mess. I believe, at the time, the phrase I chose to describe it was a “pig sty”. I had lined up the entire battalion on parade, told them they had acted like pigs and had turned their only facility – their – canteen – into a pig sty. For this I put the whole battalion on Confinement to Barracks and on the dry.
As so often is the case, this particular incident proved to be the turning point for the unit during its formative stages. Soldiers began to see a little humour in their situation. Local pigs became captives and appeared tied to posts in the camp bearing inscriptions like, “I’m a pig from Porky Smith’s pig sty”. The standard greeting in the battalion, in place of the usual “Hello” – was a grunt and a honk. Thus, the stirrings of unit spirit began to appear, and in time, the motive, Pork Pig, came to be adopted by the original members of 7 RAR.
After two or three months the battalion filled up with National Servicemen in about equal proportions to Regulars, and a very active period of training began. This was designed initially to get the unit to operational standard after about eight months for possible use in confrontation: but before this period of training finished, confrontation itself wound up. However, the training cycle continued since we had been warned to take over from 5 RAR in Vietnam in April 1967. Thus, the unit underwent a very protracted period of intensive training, which was later to stand us
in good stead. Sufficient about the training.
There were many humorous incidents and much hard work. Many people contributed at that time to the basic foundations of the unit – tremendous skill, energy and dedication were shown which have proven of value since.
Now about the first tour.
I think, rather than laboriously wade through the operations in sequence, I would prefer to highlight the things I remember most. I’ll try to put them in some sort of sequence, but it will be difficult because I’ll jot them down as they come to me in reminiscing. Perhaps in that fashion it will be more appealing to you, the reader.
I remember . . . The first operation the unit undertook in the Long Green, a patch of jungle so called because of its appearance on the map.
I remember . . . the black Labrador tracker dogs which we used for the first time, leading a patrol into an ambush. It was fortunate indeed the enemy could not shoot straight on that particular occasion, and although a few people got an awful fright, nobody was hurt.
I remember . . . in the same operation, Charlie Company recovering a number of prisoners, some of whom were shot by their guards a few minutes before recapture.
I remember . . . visiting Charlie Company and standing between two mines, one of which was a few inches from my foot. I can recall standing there for several minutes before the prongs for the mine were spotted by the sentries.
I remember . . . our first use of helicopters – and in fact their continual use in assaults, insertions and extractions, and how expert we quickly became in getting out of them on landing – 4 to 9 seconds.
I remember . . . the Pioneer Platoon finding and lifting 159 mines in one afternoon, none of them exploding. I can remember in the whole first tour
that not one person was killed or wounded by a mine. No because they did not exist but because we were able to accept the challenge of their existence and were usually able to think where they would be placed.
I remember . . . total of thirty battalion and task force operations with 299 contacts, 8 of them major contacts, 16 killed and 137 wounded – and
numerous company operations.
I remember . . . the unit arriving in Vietnam at a very interesting time when 5 and 6 Battalions had set up the Task Force area and had consolidated the position out to several thousand yards, leaving for us the great adventure of probing deep into the Province and moving the enemy out of the Province.
I remember . . . a night on the beach when a company sentry swore he saw somebody walking along out of the water, and he was desperate to open fire – which in the morning turned out to be a star picket.
I remember . . . the six week courses RSM Alex Thompson used to run for promotion, how keen the soldiers were to go on those courses and how they worked in the sweltering heat.
I can remember that every single person who held rank from Corporal up was qualified for the rank he held
I can remember Sergeant Manson, then Corporal Manson, being paid as a Sergeant on HDA all year until he qualified at a course.
I remember . . . the difficulty of keeping platoons up to strength in operations, and how sickness and casualties and R and R all tended to reduce the strength of the platoons in the field.
I can remember bidding for extra R and R places so that everybody could get off on a five day break. I remember, too, that we had to begin this almost as soon as we got into the theatre to get everyone through.
I remember . . . TET and the tremendous effort Task Force made in moving such a long, long way out of the Province on the first occasion. I recall the recces – I recall the smoothness of the whole move – I recall it was done within 24 hours. I can recall some of the desperation of the fighting in TET – and especially I remember the attack by Charlie Company and the 27 casualties that resulted.
I can remember D Company seeing off a North Vietnamese Battalion. Lake O’Donnell on the river and Peter Stokes with his black panther, also the leopard man.
I can remember using Napalm in desperation .
I can remember when an enemy division advanced toward Long Binh and in so doing surrounded the unit so that patrols could not even get
out 50 metre.
I remember they kept going.
I remember Don Patterson’s ambushes in Death Valley and the whole unit waiting without stirring each morning until 8 o’clock – hearing the sound of machine guns. It seemed incredible that the same ambush should succeed morning after morning – but it did.
I remember Doug Clively being trapped in a minefield with his Company at night and having to walk back along their own footsteps to get out of the minefield. Two mines were detonated and both failed to detonate.
I remember . . . evacuating 186 field workers in order to retain security in one of our early operations, and so flooding the facilities at the rear, and my indignation at finding them all returned next day, there being no place to hold them.
I remember . . . soldiers being winched out of operations to go on R and R and a week later being winched back into the same operation.
I remember one time when a winch cable broke.
I remember . . . the summaries of the enemy SITREPS, the dismay of a lost patrol, the urgency of LOCSTATS, and the tremendous crash on the open
fire of the guns.
I remember . . . Wally Brown’s cheerful smile, the dust in Nui Dat, a chopper that took-off at exactly the wrong time, a storm out of Dat Do that nearly downed the chopper, the frustration of suspects returned after a cordon and search, and the only we were really sure we won the hearts and minds of the people when we took their rice in the morning and gave it back that afternoon.
In particular, I remember . . . the tremendous will to live of Jock Sutherland.
In conclusion, I think it would be fair to say that I could go back over the first tour and write at great length in an impersonal fashion about operations that were conducted and the lessons learnt, and in so doing I could make it either as interesting or as boring, as the interest of the particular reader varied. Whereas perhaps what I have said is enough to provide a picture for those who weren’t there and recapture memories for those who were. It may even recall similar events to the minds of those who served in other battalions, either in Vietnam or in other places like Malaya or Korea.
Perhaps I may even provoke others to send the editor a few lines by way of recollections and anecdotes of theirs. At any rate, what I have tried to do is to dwell on the human interest side of life in the battalion, to enable some idea of the feelings which the Vietnam tour and preparation for it had on me and others in the battalion. To me this is what mattered most, and I make no apology for taking this approach.