B Coy at Nui Kho
This is an excerpt from the book “Conscripts and Regulars” by Michael O’Brien
Published by Allen and Unwin, Sydney
At about 0400 hours on 31 December a group of enemy (with strength of over twenty) approached an ambush position 5 km southeast of Xuyen Moc.The ambush consisted of troopers and armoured personnel carriers commandedby Sergeant Ed Levy from B Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment and soldiers from the headquarters of B Company and 6 Platoon. The build-up to this ambush is well worth examining because it is a good example of the worth of the detailed terrain and pattern of enemy activity knowledge built up by the battalion and its supporting arms. During late November and early December, significant track activity was detected by aerial reconnaissance by the Commanding Officer and Intelligence Officer in the area to the south of the May Tao hills and east of Xuyen Moc. The well used footpads were traced southwards to the northwest of the Binh Chau area. Support Company deployed by foot into the Binh Chau in late November and, as has been noted, on 8 November a patrol from the company contacted a well armed and carefully camouflaged squad of enemy.
The enemy reaction had been vigorously aggressive-their movement, camouflage and reaction were all typical of main force units. D445 was known to have been undergoing an intensive retraining and reindoctrination program in the Nui May Tao and Nui Be areas, and suspicions were aroused that the enemy battalion was beginning its long awaited reoccupation of the traditional D445 area of operations in the Viet Cong Long Dat District. This was confirmed on 29 November when a mortar barrage preceded a well coordinated ground assault on a Regional Force post at Xuyen Moc. The enemy had announced their return! In an effort to locate the enemy, B Company was deployed to the south and east of Xuyen Moc, where it began the tedious process of detailed tracking, searching and ambushing.
On 9 December contact was made. Early that morning, a nine man patrol from 4 Platoon (commanded by Second Lieutenant Karl Metcalf) was mortared in its night ambush location from a baseplate position barely 300 m away. As the 82 and 60 mm rounds were adjusted towards the ambush site, approximately 25 to 30 enemy formed up in extended line for an assault. The enemy movement was controlled, quick and aggressive; the enemy commander moved his groups forward by voice commands. His fire control was excellent but fortunately his sense of direction was not! The patrol watched as an almost perfectly executed assault passed 30 m to its northern flank. Once the assault group came into enfilade to the patrol, contact was initiated. The Operations Officer, Major Kevin Cole, described the action:
“The patrol displayed excellent fire control and selfdiscipline and withheld their fire. As soon as the VC realised that they had failed to hit their objective they immediately reorganised and commenced to sweep back. The standard of infantry training and professionalism on both sides really has to be admired. The patrol engaged the enemy and quickly the enemy force commenced to probe the position on all sides. RPG2 rockets were fired into the patrol area as well as grenades being thrown. One soldier, showing complete disregard for his own safety, picked up an enemy grenade and threw it out of the position.”
4 Platoon suffered two casualties in this engagement. Corporal Ken Weightman suffered a gunshot wound to his scalp. Lieutenant Karl Metcalf was wounded by a bullet through the sole of his left foot. He was particularly lucky he was not wearing his boots at the time of the engagement because he had a boil on his big toe. If he had been, his foot would probably have been blown off because his General Purpose Boot, the boot issued to Australian soldiers, had a metal plate in it to protect against panji stakes. Lieutenant Metcalf recalled the action:
“On hearing the enemy mortars being fired very close to our ambush position I am still surprised that we all lived to tell the tale! When the contact started I felt absolute panic in the first few seconds then constant fear as the enemy sweep (assault) neared. An enemy hand grenade landed between myself and my signaller, Private Dick Aly. I couldn’t reach it (even though it was touching my thigh) and I ordered him to grab it and throw it away. He did so. It was a very brave act. (Unfortunately he threw it so hard that it hit the tree on the other side of me and bounced back luckily it didn’t explode!) I was shocked at being wounded; angry at the (no names!) member, in the platoon who couldn’t do up the winch safety strap (I was worried I would be killed falling off!) and a sense of relief on arriving at hospital.”
As the remainder of B Company moved towards the area, gunships called to support the patrol in contact received ground fire from two 12.7 mm machine guns fired from well built and effectively camouflaged anti-aircraft emplacements. These machine guns were first seen from a Possum during a low level reconnaissance. After the sighting, the escape speed of the Sioux seemed to exceed its manufacturer’s wildest expectations. Two gunships were hit by the intense defensive fire, causing one of the aircraft to make a forced landing on Route 23 to the south. It was later lifted out by a CH 47 Chinook after having been protected by a section of armoured personnel carriers deployed to the area. The follow up revealed a newly constructed battalion sized base camp 1 km to the northeast of the contact which had been evacuated within the hour. Documents in the system, including a diagram of its layout, identified major sub units of D445 as well as confirming reports that K8, the heavy weapons company of D440, had been attached to D445 Battalion.Despite the immediate air deployment of Support Company as a cut-off, the enemy managed to make good their escape and the task of tracking and searching began again for B Company.
The company continued its search, following the tracks away from the large battalion bunker complex which ran west towards Xuyen Moc and south towards the Tam Bo Mountains. As well as confirming that a group from D445 had launched the attack on Xuyen Moc, the search resulted in the location of a blood trail which curved south-west, leading B Company to the area of the Nui Kho, and further west of Phuoc Buu. Thorough searching of the area gained B Company an even more detailed knowledge of track systems in the area west of Nui Kho. It was this familiarity with tracks and terrain which led to the selection of a path running from the area of Lake Bau Ngam to the Nui Kho, through what became known as the `Waterfall Clearing’ (located 6 km south east of Xuyen Mac) as a most likely route for enemy movement to and from the traditional rice bowl area of Phuoc Buu. This track ended abruptly at a dispersion point where the enemy fragmented into small groups to infiltrate the dense jungle, leaving no telltale tracks which could lead pursuers to their bunkers and camps in the Nui Kho area.
Several caches were unearthed during a detailed search by the company in this area. On 14 December Private Tony Pout stepped on an M16 mine that did not jump but went off in the ground. Although he was wounded in the backside and legs, his injuries were much less severe than those normally caused by these mines.
Despite careful searching by the company and a fleeting and inconclusive contact with two enemy on 16 December, no significant sign of the enemy was found. Once again the enemy main party had eluded the pursuing company. B Company wheeled and carefully searched as it made back towards Binh Chau. Despite meticulous searching by platoons and detailed aerial reconnaissance, two weeks were to pass before any signs of the enemy were located.
The break came on Christmas Eve. During a visual reconnaissance flight over the Nui Kho, the Commanding Officer noted a newly constructed bunker in an area scattered with old and abandoned camps. A `Bushranger’ gunship strike was directed to the area and controlled by the battalion commander from the direct support Sioux. The strike was accurate and bomb damage assessment revealed two new bunkers uncovered and destroyed. On Christmas Day, further reconnaissance in the area located more new bunkers.
Fresh tracks were sighted from the air in the Nui Kho area on 28 December. Since it appeared that at least some of the enemy group had reoccupied the area, a platoon of B Company was deployed by armoured personnel carriers from the Horseshoe to search the Ong To jungle, a known and regularly used enemy base camp area. The platoon was to move further east to the Nui Kho if no sign was found. As 6 Platoon approached the Ong To and dismounted to release the armoured personnel carriers, signal shots were heard to the south. On searching through the thick timber, 6 Platoon found fresh signs, but contacted no enemy. They remained that night in ambush and moved the following day east towards Route 328 where fresh heavy tracks of about twenty enemy had been sighted.
It was planned that after searching the area of the Song Hoa and Route 328 crossing, 6 Platoon was to meet with a section of armoured personnel carriers from 2 Troop B Squadron at midday on 30 December and return to the Horseshoe. By mid-morning the armoured personnel carrier section was waiting at the rendezvous site. By that time, 6 Platoon had found a heavy and fresh track and was following it north. After a quick search through an abandoned system the platoon pressed on along the axis of the track towards the Nui Kho.
At 1030 hours they located a 155 mm unexploded artillery shell which had been tampered with by the enemy to try to remove the explosive. The sapper mini team with the platoon attached charges to destroy the round, and the platoon moved off out of the danger area. After listening for the demolition the platoon moved on, following the track which had turned to the east.
From the Viet Cong viewpoint, an hour before midday the loud demolition explosion some 500 m to the south of their occupied bunker system had alerted their local protection elements in the camp. Shortly after, the sentry post on the main entry track had reported a group of fifteen Australians cautiously paralleling the heavy footpad. None of the 26 bunkers, well camouflaged and in dense undergrowth, had been sighted by the approaching patrol. The sentries had withdrawn undetected. When it appeared inevitable that the Australians would find the camp they were engaged with heavy defensive fire.
At 1113 hours the platoon came under heavy and accurate machine gun fire from enemy fighting in well constructed and camouflaged bunkers. The lead section commander, Corporal John Lawson, wrote;
“As the enemy gun was concentrating its efforts on Platoon HQ and the lead sections, Alan Lloyd ran ten to twenty metres just forward of those wounded and Bob (`the Wog’) Cusack leaped between the wounded and myself. Allan immediately brought fire to bear and suppressed their ambitions to attack. Lloydie was totally determined to deflect the enemies’ attention from his mates and they were now going to tangle with him and his gun. His ruthless effectiveness now brought the attention of the enemy lead elements. The AKs now found one of their targets. Lloydie had kept his gun firing in too long bursts. He was on my right and mentioned that he had burnt his hand on the hot gun barrel. This statement puzzled me and I looked at his hand. One of his fingers had the first and second joints shot away. I told him to move from the gun and we would swap weapons. As he rolled away he was shot again, this time in the leg above the knee. His single action forced a well prepared enemy to redirect its firepower, allowing the balance of us to regain our composure, to force the issue and to exploit the opportunity he created.”
At one stage the platoon commander had one of his soldiers wounded in front of him and two behind. He dragged Private Allan Lloyd back and staunched the flow of blood from a severed artery. The other wounded were Privates Les Myers, Lloyd Harmsworth and Darrel Lockley. Australian Dustoff was requested but, because of the danger involved, would not come in. US Army Dustoff, however, accepted the risk and started to evacuate the wounded. Sadly, Allan Lloyd died on the Dustoff helicopter. Ninety minutes elapsed before it was possible for them to break contact and completely evacuate the camp. The platoon did not withdraw in order to extract casualties and bring in close fire support as the enemy perhaps expected. Instead, armoured personnel carriers appeared surprisingly quickly. Their heavy and accurate fire and the well aimed rockets and mini guns of the gunships, which had materialised within minutes of the initial firing, had made orderly evacuation of the camp difficult.
The Viet Cong rear party broke contact an hour after midday and by late afternoon all elements had regrouped and lay waiting for darkness and the order to move further to the north and east. Later, in darkness, the 70 soldiers filed along a well worn path which wove its way through thick vegetation towards Lake Bau Ngam, 8 km to the north east.
Reaction to the contact was quick. As 6 Platoon moved forward to suppress the enemy fire and allow evacuation of those wounded in the initial firing, the section of armoured personnel carriers waiting at the rendezvous 1 km to the west moved rapidly towards the contact area under direction of the battalion commander flying above in `Possum’. At the same time B Company Headquarters and 4 Platoon were reacted in armoured personnel carriers to the Song Hoa crossing.
Soon afterwards, Bushrangers arrived in the area and began suppressive rocket and machine gun fire. The armoured personnel carrier section pushed its way through the thick scrub and eventually reached the platoon, still in contact, to evacuate the wounded. It had not been feasible to break contact earlier to use helicopters for casualty evacuation. By this time B Company Headquarters and 4 Platoon had reached the Song Hoa crossing and were awaiting orders for deployment.
6 Platoon broke contact with the enemy and joined up with Company Headquarters and 4 Platoon. 4 Platoon was ordered to follow up on foot in order to track where the enemy had moved and to apply pressure if the enemy was again contacted. The more important task, however, fell to 6 Platoon and the Company Headquarters. They were to rush well to the east of the Nui Kho in order to ambush the enemy escape routes.
Here B Company was in familiar territory. Five thousand metres northeast of the site of the 6 Platoon contact, the company commander halted the armoured personnel carriers carrying his headquarters and 6 Platoon They were less than 0.5 km from the well used northern track which led through the `Waterfall Clearing’ towards the battalion base discovered three weeks earlier. The group proceeded on foot to the northern edge of the jungle clearing which had been previously selected as a favourable ambush site
6 Platoon moved off to ambush another well used path 1600 m to the south, leaving a small group to act as flank and rear protection elements for the armoured personnel carrier ambush the company commander had planned.
It had taken the dispersed squads of D445′s C2 Company and the Sapper Reconnaissance Platoon all afternoon to regroup with the headquarters element of D445. The insistent presence of a light observation helicopter had hampered their movement to the reorganisation point. Shortly before sunset however, all had reached the familiar track which led to the northeast, away from the Nui Kho feature and the bunker system they had been forced to abandon.
The dividends of four weeks of patient searching, tracking and ambushing were shortly to be realised by the group of Australians who lay waiting some 5000 m north-east of the abandoned bunkers. At 0357 hours on 31 December, sentries of Sergeant Levy’s combined Headquarters B Company and 1 Troop B Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment ambush listened to the enemy group as it moved into the killing ground. After careful reconnaissance by the company commander, Major Greg Warland, the armoured personnel carriers were called forward and sited in ambush, pushing into the thick scrub until positioned close to the track at the northern end of the clearing. By 1700 that evening the ambush site was fully prepared. Three armoured personnel carriers covered the killing ground, and the eight soldiers of B Company and the remaining armoured personnel carrier were sited in depth to provide protection to both flanks and the rear. Thirty-two claymores covered 40 m of the path. It was by no means a matter of chance that the ambush lay waiting on that specific track. Their presence was the direct result of painstakingly accumulated knowledge of local terrain and enemy tactics gained during a series of events which had begun one month earlier.
Shortly before 0400 hours the next morning, the ambush sentries allowed one enemy to pass through the killing ground and waited for the large party which could be heard following him. At 0715 hours 6 Platoon arrived in the area to secure and sweep it. Twenty one enemy bodies littered the killing ground and the immediate area to the south, and until the arrival of 6 Platoon there was still some movement on the western flank. Throughout the two and a half hour battle, the enemy had fought determinedly, repeatedly regrouping and moving into the ambush killing ground to remove their wounded and dead. Despite almost constant illumination from hand held flares and Pilatus Porter flareships, elements of the enemy remained in the contact area until dawn, attempting twice during the night to flank the ambush position. Continuous suppressive fire from .30 and .50 calibre machine guns mounted, on the armoured personnel carriers and from the GPMGs fired by the flank groups prevented the enemy from removing their dead from the killing ground and from executing any successful flanking manoeuvre.
The numerous attempts by the surviving enemy to remove bodies and equipment from the killing ground, and their reluctance to leave the area until forced to do so by imminent daylight, indicated that the ambushed party included some important personnel. Soon after first light, as 4 Platoon moved in armoured personnel carriers to the area, 6 Platoon and the company headquarters cleared from the battlefield 29 packs, thirteen individual and four, crew-served weapons, 34 hand grenades, 22 claymore mines and a quantity of ammunition including twenty-five 60 mm mortar bombs. 4 Platoon arrived to continue the collection of foodstuffs, a large quantity of medical supplies and an ANPRC radio set, while 6 Platoon moved off to follow nine blood trails and the track of about twenty enemy which led towards the west. Soon afterwards, in an attempt to intercept those enemy who had escaped the ambush, company headquarters moved southeast with a section of armoured personnel carriers towards the battalion sized enemy camp to which the ambushed trail led. However, time had run out for B Company. The 24 hour New Year truce came into force at 1600 hours that afternoon and the company, limited to defensive patrolling only, was unable to follow the enemy because of truce restrictions. The enemy in the province generally honoured these restrictions.
The company spent the day of truce in their new ambush positions. listening as the Intelligence Officer gave the results of the ambush.
Those he identified as being killed were:
Nguyen Thanh Tam Second in Command, D445
Nguyen Than Long Company Commander C2 D445
Tranh Van Tho Second in Command C2 D445
Trinh Van Liem Political Officer, C2 D445
Phanh Thanh Chien Secretary, Long Dien District Party Chapter
Nguyen Van Minh Reconnaisance Platoon Commander, C5 D445
Muoi Chien Commander Long Dat Forward Supply Company
Two Squad Commanders and four soldiers of C2 D445
Six Soldiers of C5 D445 and two soldiers who remain unidentified
Several days after the truce, a patrol from C Company 7RAR found two bodies which had been abandoned by the fleeing enemy in a camp to the North of the ambush site.
This action was one particularly remembered by the former commander of D445 when he was interviewed in 1994. It had dealt his battalion a telling blow. Through Armoured-Infantry team work and excellent battle discipline in the ambushes, good results for perseverance had been gained. The bunker system was destroyed by elements of 1 Troop B Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment, assisted by elements of 1st Field Squadron on 1 January