Coburg and Tet 68
THE C COMPANY BUNKER ACTION (5–7 FEBRUARY)
C Company had been detached from the battalion’s command and placed under the command of the Task Force Headquarters in order to provide its local defence. The local defence commander was Major Gerry Salom, an artillery officer who was Second–in–Command of 4th Field Regiment. C Company left the Battalion Command radio net and joined the Task Force base defence net.
During this period, C Company was involved in a major contact 6 km north of Trang Born over a period of three days.
Private Clive Swaysland described the action from the perspective of 8 Platoon:
In the morning of 5 February at about 1015 hours] C Company was moving through a forest along the side of a hill just north of Bien Hoa air base. We were in one up formation and I was the forward scout of the lead section. I was alerted by the sound of chopping off to my left so I called a halt and called the section commander, Corporal Graham Griffiths, forward and he brought the platoon commander, Lt Mark Moloney, with him.
The platoon commander discussed the situation with Major Chapman who decided that 8 Platoon with elements of the Forward Observer Party and Company Headquarters should go forward to reconnoitre.
Private Swaysland continued:
After discussion it was decided that our section should go ahead and investigate. The company remained on the side of the hill while the section moved down the slope in the direction of the sound until we struck a dry creek at the foot of the hill. The sandy bed of the creek showed signs of recent use by a large number of troops. I signalled enemy and moved into the creek, following it until I came to a path that led up out of the creek. The chopping began again and it was now very close so we continued very cautiously. I saw movement up ahead throughout the trees. I signalled enemy once more, only this time there was a lot more urgency about it. The section deployed silently on each side of the track. A VC soldier came into view carrying an AK47 assault rifle. He was obviously unaware of our presence and did not know what hit him when our machine gunners Bill Henderson and Tony Norris initiated the contact, killing him instantly. No sooner had our firing stopped than we were met by a hail of fire of such intensity and accuracy that we were forced to withdraw in a leapfrog movement. It was made extremely dangerous as there was no substantial cover and we were exposed to automatic weapon and rocket fire. However, we were able to withdraw to the company. As we pulled back through 7 Platoon, I saw Peter ‘Slippery’ Dowling holding Mick Ayres. Mick had been shot through the chest and he had died almost instantly.
Lance Corporal Peter ‘Slippery’ Dowling described the incident:
During the Tet offensive we made contact with NVA in a well fortified camp on and off over 3 days. We had 1 KIA and approx 20WIA. When the contact had been initiated I was really frightened by the amount of fire coming our way. Pte M. Ayres was wounded and I tried to put a dressing on him and was forced down by machine gun fire each time. I finally. dragged him off the track but he died in my arms. After the contact I was still frightened as we had to go back up again the next day.
Gunner Mike Williams described the contact:
We moved into the bunkers where we were all pinned down by heavy fire to our front. There was one main bunker with what sounded like the equivalent of a fifty cal firing at us but above our heads. The trees were falling on us as the heavy machine gun fire was having the same effect as a chain saw on the trees. We were lower than the bunker and the NVA could not depress the gun low enough to cause us casualties, other than Mick Ayres, who was a good fifty metres behind where we were pinned down when he was hit by a stray round in his chest.
There was a particularly ugly aftermath to Private Ayres’ death. In a vicious gesture, anti–Vietnam war protesters phoned his parents and said, ‘He got what he deserved’.
His parents have this despicable act imprinted on their memory to this day. There were also four other soldiers wounded in the first day of this action.
Private Swaysland continued:
The company withdrew to some high ground where we dug in. An O Group was called and Massa Clarke, Leon Fitzsimmons and I were asked to attend it and asked if we were prepared to carry out a reconnaissance of the enemy position. We agreed and got rid of everything we did not think we would need, paying particular thought to moving quickly and quietly over the ground. Artillery and airstrikes were called in on the VC position. After they finished pounding it, we moved out of our harbour and made our way to the perimeter of the VC position. We were able to observe VC moving around the camp. They appeared confident, calling out loudly to each other. Quite obviously the air and artillery strikes had not ruffled them. We thought they must be in numbers because if they did not have a numerical advantage they would have made themselves scarce after our first contact. We observed well–constructed bunkers. We reported our findings back to company and artillery was called in on the position throughout the night.
The next morning [6 February] after standing–to, the company moved to a staging point from where we could mount an attack on the VC position. We were moving in two up formation with 9 Platoon to the right of 8 Platoon and 7 Platoon just behind and in the centre. About 100 metres from the perimeter of the position, the foliage had been cleared, making it a killing ground. As we broke from cover, 9 Platoon came into contact, killing one VC soldier and wounding another. The VC were waiting for us and we were met by a wall of automatic fire, including the unmistakable deep thump thump thumping of 50 calibre machine guns. George Turner, a 9 Platoon machine gunner, got hit in the lower leg and was calling out for a medic. I watched the medic run forward through the fire. How he wasn’t hit was a miracle. It was one if the most unselfish acts of bravery I have ever witnessed. He treated George and I helped to make a stretcher to carry him out through the firing. We got George back to where a Dustoff chopper could winch him out. This was extremely hazardous as the chopper crew took small arms fire during the later Dustoff operation.
The company had broken off the fire–fight and had withdrawn to the staging area. We were harassed by VC following us to this staging area. I believe they were trying to find out our strength. Airstrikes were again called in on the position, including napalm runs and bombing runs by Australian Canberra jet bombers. Artillery again pounded the position during the night.
On the recommendation of the Company Commander and at the Commanding Officer’s insistence, C Company reverted to 7 RAR’s command on 7 February. Major Alf Garland soon free–dropped much needed ammunition to the company from his helicopter, giving (as one platoon commander said) ‘an air of confidence that we were at last back home’.
Gunner Mike Williams of the Forward Observer’s Party described the actions on that day:
The first shells landed beyond the NVA and as we started to call the shells closer, Major Graeme Chapman, the Company Commander, ordered us all to pull back a bit so we could re–group. The bullets and shrapnel from the RPGs made movement difficult but we started to inch our way back. I was a bit slow as the radio which had become partly detached from my webbing was giving me trouble. I had to climb over a tree which had been knocked over and just as I reached the other side I felt a tremendous whack to the head – a bit like being thumped on the footy field but a lot harder. Everything went black but I do not know whether I was knocked out or momentarily stunned. After I realised I could move and stopped the flow of blood a little I was by myself. I yelled out and located John Phillips and someone else about 30 metres to my rear. Tony Keech, the mortar bloke, was off to one side of John and in a slight depression.
In front I could see the bunkers where the fire was coming from. Bullets were ripping through the undergrowth and I can distinctly remember a succession of RPGs detonate in the trees to my right, not the bright flashes of the movies but dirty brown explosions. I could not move back or forward, so I just hung on in there passing the coordinates John was calling out to the Battery and listening to the shells coming in. We called them in so close we asked for delayed action fuses to reduce the risk of shrapnel to ourselves from tree bursts. I told the Battery I had been hit and to double–check the coordinates I gave them as I was not feeling very well and the rounds were landing very close. I estimated the closest shells landed about 30 metres to my front. The small arms fire was deafening and never let up. It was about this time that the Battery Commander (Major Paul Jones) came up on the radio net and asked for a situation report. I was not very polite when I asked him to get off the net.
After half an hour I developed a painful backache, paralysis set in down my right side and I had a great deal of trouble with the chomper ants who liked the taste of my blood. Eventually the shells started to slow the NVA down and, when I sensed a lull in the shooting, I started to move towards Tony Keech. He pulled me into his depression and bandaged me up as best he could. The shells were still roaring in and as the small arms fire diminished further I belly–shuffled to John Phillips where we continued to call in fire. John was marching the pattern up and down which I am sure took a great toll on the NVA. 7 Platoon were called up to go through and clear out the bunkers, I passed my radio set to a new bloke who was on his first operation and slithered back to where the wounded were being gathered in a large depression. As darkness fell the NVA broke off the
contact and bugged out. It was the heaviest and longest contact I had been involved in, lasting most of the afternoon.
Private Swaysland continued:
I gave Griffo covering fire, then I scurried back. A soldier next to me said he had been shot in the back and I had a look and found a spent round protruding from his back. He had lost some blood and would need a new shirt but he was OK. I gave him the round and told him to keep it for luck.
Corporal Griffith’s part in this action was summarised in the citation for his Military Medal, which read in part:
Corporal Griffiths directed the fire of the rest of his section and twice exposed himself to enemy fire so that the wounded could be evacuated. He then volunteered to indicate the well hidden bunkers to the follow up assault force so that they could be neutralised.
The citation noted his complete disregard for his own safety and the inspiration he gave his men, setting an example of resolute and courageous leadership.
Private Swaysland continued:
It was decided to call in an airstrike to try and take the initiative away from the VC. They were extremely confident and were mocking our shouted commands and also shouting insults at us from their bunkers. We threw smoke for the airstrike and, with the VC counter–attack stepping up, the strike was ordered into the smoke no more than 20 feet away. The ground shook as the planes attacked.
Shrapnel was screaming through the air and the noise of the aircraft climbing steeply away after strafing and firing their rockets was deafening.
Hooky Hughes and Bert Baayens, an 8 Platoon machine gun team, were just off to my right and getting plenty of attention from the VC gunners. Hooky and Bert kept hammering away at them until their gun was destroyed by rocket and machine–gun fire. Bert was badly wounded (he had been hit in the head) and I asked Hooky if I could help him to get Bert out. He told me he would be OK. It wasn’t until after the contact that I found out Hooky was also seriously wounded.
John Sargent, the 8 Platoon radio operator, had been wounded and his radio knocked out. Lt Mark Moloney, the 8 Platoon Commander, collected all the M72 rocket launchers he could and single handedly attacked bunkers until he was unable to carry on because of wounds sustained during his assaults. This was one of the greatest acts of individual bravery I witnessed on the day.
Gunner Mike Williams’s bravery resulted in an award of a Military Medal. His citation in part read:
At about 1400 hours Gunner Williams was seriously wounded in the head but still remained at his post, passing fire orders which resulted in most effective artillery fire which was a major factor in ensuring the final success of the assault. Once the position became relatively stable a replacement for Gunner Williams was brought forward but even then Gunner Williams remained on duty until he was satisfied the replacement had been fully briefed and communications were still open. Only then did Gunner Williams seek medical attention.
Private Chris Seymour described a further incident:
The company was suffering casualties in 8 and 9 Platoons. Corporal Roy Savage was on the left side of a VC machine gun fire lane with a bunker commanding the area. Roy and Cpl Bob McFarlane (8 Platoon) made plans to take out the bunker, Roy up one side, Bob up the other, myself and another gunner from 8 Platoon giving covering fire. Roy moved up half way and propped. Bob was to move but said, ‘You’re half way, you can go the rest’. Roy did and dived over the bunker and dropped a grenade as he went. That started the clearing of the rest of the camp.
Private Swaysland continued:
Massa [Clarke] and Graham Steele, along with quite a few other wounded, were being pulled back for Dustoff. The VC were starting to break out of their bunkers and retreat. What was left of us [9 Platoon] started to form up for a last attack on the bunkers. However, 7 Platoon took over this task and swept over us and cleared the area just before last light. We had been in contact for most of the day. Peter Dowling told me afterwards that when 7 Platoon swept over our position he was surprised that any of us were still alive. We were spread through the VC bunkers, and after standing my watch, I curled up beside a bamboo mat with my arm draped loosely over it.
The next morning, I decided to inspect the bamboo mat I had slept beside. I lifted an end and a foot fell out. The Platoon Sergeant of 8 Platoon, Paddy Craig, Leon Fitzsimmons and I attached toggle ropes to it and pulled the VC soldier’s body out of the bunker. I breathed a sigh of relief that it was not booby trapped. Some of us were put to work clearing a helipad to fly in an engineer team to blow up the bunker system.
A team of high–ranking officers also came in and inspected the area. The bunker system itself was huge and well constructed. Each bunker had fire lanes cleverly cut so they would be undetectable to an attacking force. The system was expertly designed and easy to defend. We captured a large cache of enemy weapons including machine guns, assault rifles, rifles, recoilless rifles, rockets, grenades, ammunition, clocks, papers, money, a large amount of rice and assorted food items.
The use of napalm on the third day followed the Commanding Officer’s practice of employing this weapon as close as possible to friendly troops to stabilise the situation. In this instance, he felt that the napalm strike concluded the action. The 75 mm recoilless rifle had six flechette rounds ready when it was captured. If the assault and its fire support had not kept the enemy from firing these captured US rounds, very much heavier casualties would have been suffered.
The Commander’s Diary of the 1st Australian Task Force rather cryptic description of this action is, ‘After calling in artillery and airstrikes to 100 metres and light fire teams to 25 metres, the enemy withdrew leaving 2 VC KIA and a 75mm RCL’.
Lieutenant Mark Moloney felt strongly that the inspiring leadership of the Company Commander (Major Graham Chapman) saved many lives in this action. He praised the Company Sergeant Major (Warrant Officer Class Two Ted Lewis) who had looked after the casualties and distributed ammunition throughout. He remembered that the medic and stretcher bearers had won the praise of all the company for their devotion to their job in those hazardous circumstances, particularly when one of them was himself wounded. He praised the thirteen soldiers of 8 Platoon
who were in the fight. Characteristically, he made no mention of his own bravery.
This was a significant battle. There was good evidence that most of a North Vietnamese Army regiment had occupied the bunker system.
Private Seymour wrote after the engagement:
In searching the camp we found documents and personal letters. They showed that there had been about three companies in the camp. They were the HQ Company, Support Company and a rifle company of a North Vietnamese Army regiment.
Brigadier Hughes flew in to take a look that afternoon. When he arrived and did a cook’s tour he said, his exact words, ‘My God, I didn’t know what you were up against. But your determination prevailed and you won. Congratulations on a job well done. You can all be proud of this achievement and showing the spirit of fighting Australians’.
While this battle had not resulted in Australian casualties4 to the extent of the Battle of Long Tan or of Suoi Chau Pha and did not last as long as the Battle of CORAL, it was nevertheless one of the more significant engagements during Australia’s war in Vietnam. Its story would have been more evident if it had not taken place among the confusion of Tet. C Company fought a long and hard battle: they won it because of their tenacity and the volume and accuracy of the extensive fire support used.