Suoi Chau Pha
OPERATION BALLARAT was planned as a battalion-sized search and destroy operation between 4 and 16 August in an area of operations north-west of Nui Dat called LION. The Commanding Officer’s concept called for a overt’ move by foot into the area by companies so that the element of surprise would be preserved much more than if insertion were to be made by helicopters.
Corporal Bill Fogarty of the Fire Assault Platoon wrote to is father: ‘We set off with 5 days rations much to the consternation of the (Vietnamese Army attached) interpreters who think we are a bit simple to carry so much when there are choppers on call’.The operation was to be supported from a Fire Support Base (GIRAFFE) with the 106th Field Battery and the battalion mortars with protection provided by the lst Australian Reinforcement Unit. Companies were firstly to gain knowledge of the enemy dispositions, strengths and tracks and then to capitalise on this knowledge by ambushing. When the ambush phase had been completed, enemy camps and installations were to be destroyed. Battalion Headquarters was located on Nui Nghe throughout the operation. Private Barleif ‘Leif’ Harstad of A Company wrote to his parents on 2 August:
“Anyway, tomorrow we have to go out again. This time we will be heading further north to where B Company has had several contacts with the enemy in the past week. That is not all!! Gabby [Hayes], our Section Commander is in Saigon on guard duty and Blue, our 21C, is in hospital with some skin disease, so guess who will be in charge of the section tomorrow? Yep, me! … Today I’ve had to supervise the test firing of all the weapons in the section, give the section a briefing on what the next few days activities will concern and prepare my maps etc for the op … the lieutenant thinks 1 can handle it, and anyway it will be good practice for my up and coming officer training, eh? . . . PS. This may be a long op so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for about 2 weeks”.
A Company had been in the area of operations since 3 August. It needed a resupply on 5 August, which was accomplished as quickly as possible using RAAF Iroquois helicopters and a technique used for SAS insertion. In this way, the complicated resupply process was completed in 2 min 40 sec with a minimal compromise of security. A Company’s experiences on the next day were carefully recorded in the diary of their artillery forward observer, Lieutenant Neville ‘Nobby’ Clark. His description of the events follows:
‘It must have been a quarter of an hour later when the electrifying thumbs down sign [infantry field signal for enemy] passed swiftly down the line. Voices had been heard. Within seconds there were two or three loud reports followed by a sustained burst from a machine gun. And then an awful silence. Two Viet Cong KIA was the message. Cpl Tredrea (later Mentioned in Despatches) in command of the point section, had heard oriental chattering coming directly towards him. He quickly waved his men into ambush off the track and waited. Two heavily armed VC strolled into sight, as if they had not a care in the world. Within a second in fact they had none, quite literally. Gordon Tredrea and the forward scout shot them and the machine gunner put in a burst for good measure’.
‘As I lay down to begin the shoot I saw not five yards away the smelly and weirdly contorted bodies of the dead men. They were the first enemy I had seen in the jungle. They had of course been horribly mutilated by the machine gun fire. However I soon had a shoot on my hands and was obliged to gather my professional wits about me. All guns fell nicely and I directed them left and down as a cut off and deterrent. After ‘Shot’ we reported the two VC killed. Major O’Donnell had sent 2 Platoon on a sweep directly ahead of the company. Far back, 1 and 3 Platoons lay waiting for any developments. We expected none. For this was guerilla warfare, this was Vietnam, weeks of trudging and then a contact of a few seconds, over almost before it began. I had the [gunner] Regimental net to myself. Time stood still’.
‘They waited for the expected sweep. It came, boldly enough, and they opened fire with rockets and machine guns on our 2 Platoon. Within seconds 2 Platoon had lost the initiative and had sustained several casualties, including ‘Speedy’ O’Connor (seriously wounded), the Platoon Sergeant ‘Jock’ Sutherland (a Scot who had joined our Company only the other day) and the Platoon Commander (lightly). A regular fire-fight commenced immediately, a real soldiers’ stoush, with ‘Pud’ Ross going up again and again to hurl grenades at the enemy. He was wounded by shrapnel in the leg. Major O’Donnell still estimated the enemy at platoon (plus) strength and did the correct thing. The VC used to say that when in contact with the Australians, you had to watch your flanks. They were right. The OC [officer commanding], going by the book, sent Rod Smith and 1 Platoon out to the right to outflank the enemy. Rocket fire again slashed through our company with sickening concussion. ‘Jock’ Sutherland received a direct hit and lost a leg and an eye.Second Lieutenant Ross repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while throwing grenades so that his men could adopt better fire positions. He dragged two wounded men to safety. During the remainder of the battle, he reorganised his platoon and moved around it under heavy fire, encouraging his men and directing their fire on the enemy. Although he suffered a shrapnel wound to his leg, he refused medical attention until the enemy had been beaten off and all the other wounded had been treated.
Private Dennis ‘Bottles’ Bathersby, a machine gunner in the platoon, was wounded in the arm when he exposed himself to fire in order to gain a better position to return fire. He continued the battle, throwing two grenades with his left arm. He then saved a badly wounded comrade by dragging him back to a safe area, returning to his machine gun to keep firing. Finally, his right arm became completely numb. He was then ordered back, but at platoon headquarters he continued to help the other wounded and went around giving out cigarettes. Private Keith Downward, a forward scout in 2 Platoon, came under heavy fire early in the battle. He continued to crawl towards the enemy until he was within 10 m of a machine gun that was causing the casualties. He leapt to his feet and, disregarding his own safety, charged the machine gun, killed its operator and captured the weapon. He was wounded shortly afterwards by a hand grenade but continued to bring fire on the enemy. When it became necessary to order him to move rearward for treatment, he dragged a wounded comrade with him.
Lieutenant Clark’s narrative continued:
Meanwhile 1 had the guns in to about 400 metres at Battery Fire for Effect. 1 was following Regimental Standing Orders for Close Targets, and, in fact, had them open in the mud before me. It was at this stage that 1 Platoon was hit from their right flank. Far from outflanking the enemy they had walked straight into them. We began to revise our estimates of the enemy strength. As ‘Speedy’ O’Connor was dragged past me, the top of his head shot away by the VC machine gun, and moaning ‘for Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake’, 1 seemed to see quite clearly the urgency of the situation. I ended my present mission and began two more: a Close Target with 106 Battery to our right front (NE) and a more distant (and, 1 hoped, deterrent) mission to our front with the 155 mm howitzers of Battery ‘X 2/35th US Artillery. Of course, to save time, 1 should merely have corrected 106 onto the enemy instead of ordering a fresh grid [reference], but 1 did not think of that. My mind must have been quite inflexible at the time. The guns began to fall, and very nicely too. The Mediums (155s) fell with a particularly satisfying ‘crump’. I ordered them to fire for effect.
The uproar increased. Speech of course was impossible and I had long ago taken the set from Gunner Lane, ordering him to keep a watchful eye to the front and to shoot anything that moved. (Our wounded enemy in front showed faint signs of returning aggressiveness until Jack Higgins put a bullet into his brain.) 1 shall never forget that diabolic and continuous crash of the automatic fire. It is the loudest noise I had ever heard-until the shells came. Every VC seemed to have an automatic weapon-the Soviet Assault Rifle AK47–and each one sounded like a light machine gun. The leaves in front of me flicked each time a round passed. Worst of all were the cries of the wounded. Our boys cried out in pain when they were hit, but the enemy screamed. You could hear them above the sound of battle, piercing and soul destroying.1 Platoon had really walked into it. Within minutes, two sections were leaderless, ‘Lofty’ Aylett being shot leading his men into action, and ‘Gabby’ Hayes, taking cover at the head of his men behind a log which unfortunately lay the wrong way, receiving a direct burst from a machine gun not ten yards away.’ Two section commanders dead, a dozen men wounded, and Rod Smith was in trouble. A shot for shot battle commenced.
Private Des Burley, the machine gunner in Corporal Hayes’s 3 Section of 1 Platoon, (who was later wounded) said: The bravest act that I saw in Vietnam was Gabby Hayes so intent on making sure that his section was down on the ground in firing position that he left himself completely exposed to enemy fire. He never fired a shot, he was riddled with machine gun bullets. My thoughts then were, what a waste of a great leader.Lieutenant Clark continued:
Now the guns of 106 Battery were over 10,000 metres away. Ten kilometres and very near their maximum range of 11,000 metres. I had little room to play with. The big 155s of 2/35th US Arty were well within range, but I was already using them, as I fondly hoped, on the enemy’s rear and lines of communication, (if any). Besides the mind baulked at bringing the big guns in below 400m. Their shells have a casualty radius of 400-600 metres, and 1 had not always found the Americans as accurate as I could wish. One slight error, one sum miscalculated and we in the Company would be wearing six 80 lb projectiles of high explosive. I ordered them a fresh method of fire for effect (10 rounds per gun) and decided to concentrate all my energies on my own battery. I had little time to play with as the casualty evacuation choppers were on the way back. Both the fire and the rain increased. The noise was absolutely appalling, the visibility down to a few metres, and all I could think of was ‘Jesus, make it stop’.'Guns: Splash, Over.’Instantly I was alert. I never answered that report of splash. The Command Post Signaller at the guns repeated it. Then with the whistle and hollow roar of an express train they were on us. They constitute the loudest noise I have ever heard in my life. The first one, flicking down out of the monsoon, crashed fair and deadly right on the spot I had identified as the most troublesome. Before I could draw breath, the second one fell in exactly the same hole. The third one hit a tree and the crack was ear splitting. The Company was showered with shrapnel. Screams were heard, a cry of ‘Stop the Artillery’ from 1 Platoon’s radio. Hot fragments of metal scythed through the jungle above our heads.
‘Stop!’ to the guns. ‘What’s up, Sir? How are they falling?’ Jake: ’1 Platoon says they’re amongst them’. (If only I’d dropped 25, 1 thought. If only. Perhaps the final ranging round was muffled and was much closer than my ear had detected.)I added 200 and went to Battery Fire for Effect with the whole Battery. Crump, Crump, Crump Crump Crump, Crump. ‘Drop 100 Repeat’.Again, louder, crump crump crump . . .CASEVAC [casualty evacuation] coming in! Stop the Artillery. ‘Rest’ to the guns. Wait. The whirr and heavy whine, the flap, flap-swish of the Huey’s rotor blades. And I, wondering whether 1 hadn’t foolishly annihilated 1 Platoon with my boldness. Casualty reports came in-5 killed in action, 12 wounded. Fourteen wounded. Major O’Donnell had gone to the aid of a 2 Platoon medic on our left, pinned down by fire. He’d brought the wounded man out while still directing the battle.
The small arms petered out and then ceased altogether. More Casevac choppers, and the wounded began coming back once more. They passed through us and 2 Platoon on their way to the rear. Some being carried, others walking or leaning on their mates. Barry Heard, the company radio operator, went to their aid. I remember one lad in particular, a big, strapping machine gunner with a horrible wound in his back, walking out, too proud to be carried. He typified the spirit of A Company that day.
Lieutenant Clark had acted calmly, methodically and with complete disregard for his own safety throughout the action. His calmness under fire and his professional skill were an inspiration. Major O’Donnell showed courage, leadership of an outstanding calibre, coolness under fire and calmness in directing all his resources during the battle. His resolve dealt the enemy a severe blow.After the engagement, while reviewing the captured material, Colonel Smith assessed that A Company had engaged the Reconnaissance Platoon and C]2 Company of 3 Battalion 274 Regiment. The enemy had shown themselves to be well disciplined, well armed and well trained, and their tactics were similar to our own. He praised the RAAF helicopters and their determination in evacuating the wounded despite the fire that they took (which, as well as wounding the pilot, Squadron Leader ‘Big Jim’ Cox, and a crewman, Corporal Reginald Atkin, on the first helicopter, rendered its winch inoperative). Squadron Leader Cox’s aircraft was hit eleven times. Five other RAAF helicopters, disregarding the enemy fire, evacuated the casualties to hospital. US Army helicopters also assisted in the Dustoffs. The RMO, Captain Tony Williams, was winched down to assist in the treatment of the wounded.The Commanding Officer believed that at least a second company of 274 Regiment helped the enemy recover many of the bodies of their killed, perhaps staging through the battalion-sized camp found 900 m away by B Company the next day.
Brigadier Graham assessed that the length of the contact indicated that the enemy company was fighting a delaying action to allow the rest of its battalion to move. He also found that a notable aspect of the contact was the ‘hugging’ tactic employed, whereby the enemy remained close to our troops to limit the effect of our artillery. Nonetheless it appeared that our artillery had inflicted moderate casualties on the withdrawing enemy, evidenced by the many blood trails found.A Company suffered heavily in this action. Five of its soldiers were killed in action and a further one died from wounds. The letters of Privates Leif Harstad and David Milford quoted above were their last. This toll was the heaviest suffered by 7 RAR. On 6 August, seventeen casualties were evacuated and a further three were evacuated over the next two days suffering from ‘minor shrapnel wounds which went unnoticed on 6 Aug 67′. Three of those evacuated, including one who was wounded, had been stung by wasps. These wasps were disturbed from their nest in a tree early in the battle when Lieutenant Ross was throwing grenades. The wasp stings were so severe that some soldiers (including Corporal Tredrea) were incapacitated during the battle. It is interesting to note that twelve of the wounded had returned to duty with the company by 19 August. One of those who was hospitalised, Private Laurie Hoppner, wrote on 13 August in his first letter to his fiance after being wounded:
“By now you will have received my tape [recording] and I know it sounded shocking. My right hand has been stitched up and there are 8 stitches on the back. My thumb is a bit of a mess. I had had 24 stitches on the right side of my hand, 2 in my cheek and 4-6 in my right shoulder. 1 don’t know what my back is like but 1 know there is quite a hole in it. But don’t worry darling. I’ll be as fit as a fiddle in a few weeks.”
The aftermath of being wounded was often traumatic. Private Rick Brown was transferred to the US 36th Evacuation Hospital at Vung Tau. While he was recovering consciousness, his camera and the money he had drawn for the rest and recuperation leave he had expected to take in just a few days were stolen. Although he informed the Military Police, no investigation effort was evident to him. He received few visitors and no debriefing on the battle prior to being evacuated to Australia to recover from his wounds. Like too many National Servicemen, he felt abandoned by the battalion and the Army. He was not invited to join the battalion’s march through Sydney when it returned. To its shame, the military often did little to thank those who had sacrificed most in its service.Five enemy bodies, including those of a platoon commander and two non-commissioned officers, were recovered after the battle as well as several weapons including a B40 rocket launcher that was painted red and had been conspicuously visible throughout the action. There is little doubt that the enemy suffered crippling casualties, most of whose bodies were dragged from the battlefield. Although the number of enemy soldiers killed is probably the least important aspect of this battle, there is an unwarranted slur cast on it in Terry Burstall’s Vietnam-The Australian Dilemma. Because Burstall had not found the record of enemy casualties he deduces that the five enemy were ‘possibles’. He therefore implies that enemy casualties were exaggerated by 7 RAR in this instance. He does not make clear that he had not been granted access to official records. These records confirm the enemy killed as bodies counted, however unnecessary this detail will seem to those taking part.Artillery played a vital part in the battle, emphasising the close cooperation that had been achieved with the infantry. The number of rounds fired is not recorded, but the average monthly expenditure rate of nearly 46 rounds per gun per day in August (more than twice the usual monthly average for the 105 mm guns) was greatly boosted by this one day’s firings.
To commemorate the part played by the guns in this battle, the accommodation of the 4th Field Regiment in Lavarack Barracks, Townsville is called ‘Suoi Chau Pha Lines’.The Battle of Suoi Chau Pha, as it is called by the battalion, was a relatively minor but vigorously fought engagement between approximately equal forces. Three Military Crosses were awarded for bravery during this action (to Major O’Donnell, Lieutenant Clark and Lieutenant Ross). Sergeant Sutherland was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for repeatedly exposing himself to fire while moving among his soldiers, reassuring the wounded and directing the fire of the remainder on enemy strong points until he himself was seriously wounded. He arrived at lst Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau without a pulse but responded so well to repeated transfusions that within 12 hours of having a leg amputated above the knee and losing his left eye he sat up in bed and wrote two letters home. He spread hope and inspiration among the other wounded and kept their morale high by his example. Although even a change of bandages required a general anaesthetic, he never failed in his cheerfulness and exhortations to others. He was visited at Vung Tau by General William Westmoreland, the US Commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), who was so impressed that the General recommended him for a Congressional Medal of Honor (which was not awarded). He also wrote to Sergeant Sutherland’s sister saying how impressed he was with his heroism during the battle and with his determination and cheerful attitude while hospitalised.Private Downward was awarded a Military Medal. Corporal Spradbrow, a section commander in 1 Platoon, showed cool and calm bravery in this action which contributed to a later award of a Military Medal. Corporal Tredrea and Corporal Bathersby were Mentioned in Despatches. Squadron Leader Cox’s part in the action contributed to his later award of a Distinguished Flying Cross
.As a result of A Company’s battle, B Company was deployed by the helicopters of a US airmobile company to a blocking position to A Company’s north. Once again, difficulty was experienced with this emergency move. The airmobile commander advised that one aircraft could fit in the landing zone and take five soldiers at a time. Two aircraft actually used the landing zone and picked up six soldiers at a time. The company estimate of the landing zone was that it would take five aircraft at once. The Officer Commanding B Company also experienced quite a deal of difficulty with the radio communications in the aircraft used for command and control. He felt that an aircraft commander gave an incorrect order to troops on the ground to prepare for immediate extraction. Although this air move was eventually completed successfully, it was far from efficiently achieved.On 7 August, A Company wounded one Viet Cong who was spotted by a sentry from 2 Platoon. Later that day, B Company located an extensive track system and patrolled along it, engaging three Viet Cong without result. The tracks led to a freshly vacated newly dug battalion-sized bunker position. Warm rice sufficient to feed 50 men was found. On 8 August it was decided to continue the search for enemy from 274 Regiment with companies in groups of two: one searching while the other was close enough in a firm base to give support if needed. B Company experienced several stoppages with M16 Armalite rifles during this operation and the Officer Commanding (Major Des Mealey) withdrew it from use in his company. M16s were frequently criticised by experienced soldiers for their proneness to failure and perceived lack of hitting power. The age of the battalion’s M16s, which were handed down from unit to unit, was a contributing factor to the former. Many soldiers chose to carry the heavier LIA1 self-loading rifle to compensate for the latter.The possibility of further contact with 274 Regiment caused lst Australian Task Force to have 2 RAR stand by to fly into the area if needed. US forces were also positioned to the north. No further contact occurred until 13 August when at 1100 three Viet Cong were engaged by Lieutenant McGuinness’s 4 Platoon B Company. Private Ross Jack described the contact:
11 am. Harry [Private Edwin Harrison and I were back having a smoke, with two number twos [on the M60s] and two section commanders there. Tony [Private Anthony Bennett] was on sentry, looked up and put himself on the deck. Shorty [Private Brian Doyle said to Go Go [Private Patrick Goggins] ‘Look at Tony sighting up’. He also looked out front and saw the nogs, as Tony said, ‘Head down, arses up, moving fast’. Tony opened up with the gun. Accurate. There were at least two, for a Cong rifle opened up when their scout went down.
One enemy soldier was killed and the other fled. 4 Platoon had a further three Viet Cong approach its ambush position at 1600 hours the same day. This group exercised quite a degree of caution and it was felt that they were attempting to recover the body of their comrade killed earlier. A further Viet Cong was killed in the resulting fire fight, the other two were wounded and escaped despite M79 fire by Corporal Michael Logan. The dead enemy was from the Chau Duc District Company.
Private Chris Seymour of C Company recorded an encounter on the evening of 14 August:On stand-to
Slip, Allen, Ary and myself were in one pit. The light was in between dark and light and we could make out this shape coming towards us. We could make out that it was an animal, big as well, but were unable to tell what sort it was till it was some 15 yards away. It stopped as if it had smelt us, which wouldn’t have been hard, as we stank. It turned and started to run. It was not until then that we knew what it was. It was a tiger about four to five feet long and stood three feet high. We were relieved to see it high-tailing the other way.
At the end of the operation the next day, the unthinkable occurred. A soldier from C Company became lost. Private Allan West had been the ‘tail-end charlie’ of the company and had not been remembered after a halt. The company had split into its platoons and Private West found it impossible to follow their tracks. Two helicopter searches and one by a fixed wing Cessna aircraft were conducted without finding him. The Assistant Adjutant told what happened:
Eventually the CO came to the conclusion that further search would only jeopardise more lives. The CO went to Task Force HQ to outline the situation; no other avenue presented itself and the search was called off. Returning to Battalion HQ in the helicopter, the CO spotted a lone figure in a small jungle clearing. He got the pilot to investigate and sure enough it was the lost soldier. The helicopter landed and for his effort the CO got a smack across the face from the soldier’s rifle in his mad scramble to board the helicopter. He was a very lucky soldier who owes his life to a good pair of eyes that never stopped searching and a pilot who was prepared to take a risk with his aircraft and crew.
Private West had been lost for almost eight hours. He described being picked up by the helicopter:
I thought to myself, Jesus, I am in trouble now but the CO said, ‘Jump in quick’. Being only a two-seater I had to sit on his lap-the only bloke in 7 RAR who did I think! But, all jokes aside, 1 was bloody glad to see him. We flew back to Battalion Headquarters at Nui Nghe and he had his batman make me a brew. Seeing the operation was ending the next day, the CO said 1 could go back with the helicopter to Nui Dat.
BALLARAT caused a heavy enemy toll. As well as the confirmed seven enemy killed, a further five dead had been seen but their bodies not recovered. Twenty-eight enemy soldiers had been wounded and a considerable quantity of their equipment captured or destroyed. In summarising the lessons from this operation in his report, Colonel Smith suggested that thought should be given to training section and platoon commanders to control their groups by a simple system of whistles and passing orders from man to man, rather than the existing practice of shouting orders. He pointed out that the enemy used whistles, did not shout and had good fire control. He noted that the enemy practice of firing very short bursts from their light machine guns made them very difficult to locate on the battlefield. He also noted that the M79′s projectile failed to arm on many occasions, and saw the need for a weapon like it that produced an enhanced shrapnel effect and that would be able, for example, to dislodge an enemy behind cover if it were fired at a tree above him. This weapon could be used just as the enemy used their RPG’s. Once again, the Commanding Officer commented on the need for section radios: ‘Radios from platoon to section are absolutely necessary. These should be obtained at once’. And again it would appear that his advice was not heeded. It took the Army until 1993 to raise a project (called PINTAIL) to acquire section radios for all infantry battalions. During the 1st tour the Battalion printed a newsletter named Smiths Weekly. In the ‘CO’s Corner in addition no 10 the CO wrote of the battle:
At 1030 hours on the 6th of August 1967 A Coy ambushed and killed two Viet Cong beside the Suoi Chau Pha. An immediate sweep of the area was conducted to clear it of any other enemy elements. During this sweep A Coy contacted a large enemy force. After a four hour battle the enemy were forced to withdraw through air strikes. light fire teams, artillery and mortar barrages.In retrospect what actually happened was that two forces of equal size, training and weaponry made contact; one company against another. A Company attacked to the right, the enemy Company (C12 Company of 3 Battalion of 274 Regiment) attacked to the left. This brought both companies into a two platoon up position 20 to 30 metres apart.The enemy lost to us 5 bodies, 5 weapons, two packs and other miscellaneous military equipment; one enemy KIA was a Platoon Commander and two others were Section Commanders, these he only leaves in sheer desperation.After the battle the victory was clearly ours as we had killed 5 Viet Cong confirmed by body count, and were credited another 5 enemy dead. On an equivalent ratio to our casualties the enemy would have sustained a conservative forty wounded. These estimates do not take into account the airstrikes, light fire teams artillery and mortars which also must have taken a heavy toll of the enemy. He was forced to withdraw against a curtain of fire.Six of our men were killed in this battle and a further 19 wounded. Fourteen of the wounded have already, or shortly will rejoin us. This is a sad loss to the Battalion but nonetheless a price that is exacted in fighting for the principles we believe in. We can be proud that we knew those brave men who made the final sacrifice.Every man in A Company contributed to the victory of Suoi Chau Pha and many others throughout the Battalion, Task Force Headquarters, Royal Australian Artillery, Royal Australian Air Force and United States Air Force played an important part. This is a victory of which all can be proud.
(Eric H Smith)