Searching and Clearing Caves Nui Thi Vai Mountains
Once we were soldiers

 

 

australian infantryman's combat badge
searching & clearing caves nui thi vai mountains

© Trevor Cheeseman
1966-67 1969-70

author: trevor cheeseman

 

On Operation Queanbeyan 17-26 October 1966, the 5th Battalion was tasked to search and clear the Viet Cong from Nui Thi Vai for the second time, which was a Mountain range in the distance, and can be seen from our base camp at Nui Dat. The Viet Cong used these hills as a rest camp and staging area.

It was a safe haven for the Viet Cong, as the mountain was pocketed with caves and tunnels. Some were rather large and ran up to three stories deep. They were very difficult to find amongst the rocky outcrops, as the whole mountain was a mass of rock boulders, some as large as a house, which made our searching very difficult. Nearly all of our movement into our area of operation was by foot and pathways. For most of the way, steps cut out of rock by the Monks provided our best advance up the mountain to the Pagoda, 1200 feet above sea level and just below the top of the main feature.

The Monks were now forced to live down on the plains because of harassing fire from aircraft and artillery, and the continuous enemy threat. The area was a 'Free Fire Area', and the Monks were required by the South Vietnamese Government to live below down on the flats in the shadow of the mountain range.

Viet Cong tracks were narrow and could easily be booby-trapped. A lot of booby traps were left by the Viet Cong in position and made safe, and the trip wire was folded away, when they left the area. The next unit moving in to re-occupy, would then re-arm them. Many a time we spotted these. If Viet Cong tracks led to bunker defensive positions, the track would always veer away, changing direction slightly, in a way that made you look ahead along the track, searching the ground, and not where the fighting pit may be. But just momentarily, you would spot it, but too late. If somebody was occupying the position. They were always excellently camouflaged. bunkers which would always cover the other by fire, and could turn the track into a deadly fire lane and killing ground. Generally they were the ones you would see first, and then you were in full view of the other, when contact was initiated.

Our direction of movement up the man-made steps built by the Monks was steep in parts, with a gradient of 1 in 2, although potentially dangerous, it was the only way up. It was unconventional in regards to our own tactical thinking; in keeping off tracks i.e. fire lane, booby traps, and mines.

Because of the rough terrain, and the requirement from time to time to travel off the pathway, sub-units commanders would lose visual control, and individuals would be spread over a wide area and out of sight. Soldiers could be channeled around boulders and rocks, in fire and movement tactics. But if contact was initiated, it could be deadly.

It was before first light that morning, when we moved out. We were anxious to get on our way. Movement would be very slow when moving in company strength, and travelling in the dark made it more complicated. It was the day before, that we were dropped off by APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers). Alpha Company had to be in position by first light to start our climb, which was approx one kilometre away near a Buddhist shrine, a white marbled Buddha nearly 20 feet tall, which stood out above the trees and defoliated dead scrub, killed off by Agent Orange chemicals (containing the carcinogen Dioxin) dropped by American aircraft months before. I remember often, snapping off a small dead tree branch and chewing it, not knowing the potential effects of Agent Orange.

The aim of the defoliants was to deny cover by killing all plant life and lessen enemy movement through the area, which could be easily spotted from the air. Battalion HQ and Anti- Tank Platoon led by Second Lieutenant Mick 'Deaky' Baron von Berg moved on through us to the Pagoda at the top of the feature. Movement would be slow being it was very steep, hot and humid. You carried a heavy load on your back, plus your ammunition and surplus water. The surplus water was carried because there was no guarantee of finding suitable water on high ground. In this situation you were always ever alert and watchful as the enemy, if in waiting, had the advantage of the tactical area of importance, the high ground.

A Company later found a well-constructed Viet Cong camp, equipped with communication trenches, with good overhead protection. It appeared that this was a two company positions straddling the track. We stayed there for a little while and searched the camp.

Within minutes a booby-trap was detonated, Cpl Edmund Harrison and three others of 1 Platoon were wounded, I quote him. "I was standing only a few metres away when it was tripped by someone, and remember being lifted off my feet and thrown to the ground like some rag doll, I could not breath as my lung had collapsed from multiple perforations. Later a medic offered me a cigarette, but doesn't go down well with a sucking chest wound." Cpl Edmund Harrison suffered multiple punctures to his left lung and to his small intestine and head. The others suffered minor shrapnel wounds.

When Assault Pioneer Platoon reached the wounded they cleared a 'Dust Off' pad to evacuate the wounded from a rocky outcrop and blew some trees. The helicopter could only rest its front skids, and could only hover while they were loaded. Max Carroll the Battalion Operations Officer organised this very scary helicopter medical evacuation on the side of the mountain.

The wounded were taken to 36 Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau an American Hospital, which I will visit a few months later with a facial wound from a booby trap that broke my jaw in three places, and later was evacuated home to Australia, to the 2nd Military Hospital Ingleburn NSW.

From our position, we heard shots being fired by Anti-Tank Platoon who spotted some enemy. After this contact and not finding the enemy, the Anti-Tank Platoon was ordered to continue its climb to secure the top of the feature enabling Battalion HQ to establish itself on top of the feature. Soon afterwards the Viet Cong opened fire and fired into BHQ, (Battalion Headquarters) and Captain Brian LeDan the Regimental Signals Officer was wounded. Captain Tony White the Regimental Medical Officer then came forward to dress Captain LeDan wounds. He was later evacuated by helicopter.

A Company moved on up the track as soon as the first shots were heard, after the evacuation of the wounded, until we came upon BHQ up near the Pagoda, and remember looking through it briefly, as my platoon secured the area for a short while.

Once we were there, we were told the enemy had moved a little further up the feature and had entered the tunnel systems, and that Anti-Tank platoon were in full pursuit

Then we heard that Anti-Tank Platoon was in a major difficult contact, where one section was under heavy fire in a deep re-entrant, and the rest of the platoon was endeavouring to extract them. The enemy were firing from caves all up and down the re-entrant, which made pinpointing the enemy and neutralising them very difficult. The caves had other exits at different levels, enabling the enemy to escape. We later heard that a member of the platoon, Cpl 'Normy' Womal was seriously wounded and later died, prior to evacuation.

2/Lt Mick Deak (Baron von Berg), called for fire support, and A Company, who could see the enemy positions from their location, fired into the enemy position in support of Second Lieutenant Mick Deak, as he led his platoon under fire to retrieve his wounded section commander Cpl Womal. He later was awarded the MC (Military Cross). Private Fraser, the platoon medic, who crawled under fire to Corporal Womal and bandaged his wound, was later awarded the MM (Military Medal). Corporal Womal was mentioned in dispatches posthumously. The battalion had lost a fine NCO and team member.

2/Lt Mick 'Deaky' Baron von Berg then called in American gun ships where Anti-Tank Platoon, Battalion HQ and A Company were required to mark their positions. The helicopter fire team used rockets and machine gun fire to into the cave entrances at almost point blank range before peeling off, and coming in for subsequent passes. The American gun ships expended all of their ammunition, and Deaky then led his platoon back into the re-entrant to clear out the enemy without further loss.

A Company remained in this location for a further seven days patrolling in force in platoon size groups, along spur lines (ridges) searching for more caves and tunnels. We already knew that the enemy units could be of company size (50-100 men) from the equipment found in the cave systems.

Mountain deer lived up in these hills, they were a size of a small cow and would prop and lay low in the scrub, and stay perfectly still, until you got too close, then spring up, and bound off at great speed, These happenings always put you on edge, and had everyone going to ground carrying out our normal contact drills.

In the caves we found a lot of equipment, weapons, paper work, a radio, and rice. We destroyed the food on the spot, by splitting the bags of rice, then we scattered contents around the floor of the cave, walking it in, with the heel and ball of your boots. Often the tunnels dropped to one level then to another, dropping off suddenly, and difficult to see as you would look and follow the torch light to its furthest point.

It was pitch dark down there, and you sweated profusely due to the close proximity of the walls of the caves, and the stress not knowing what you would confront as you continued your search of the extensive system. The air always smelt stale. In some parts you could still smell body odour, and at times, recent cooking, and of course lets not forget the 'shit -pits'.

Only section commanders and second in command carried torches. When down a cave which had been tunnelled out, we used one at the front, and one at the rear to shine forward through the legs and feet of others in front. If the light started to fade, the best option was to stay put, pass the next torch forward, or change the batteries that we carried and collected from others within the platoon and move on. Groups sent down would consist of no more than four soldiers, minus webbing, (Ammunition Pouches). You could spend up to half an hour below the surface, but it always seemed like bloody hours.

Booby traps were a constant worry, and when we found some, we called in the Sappers or Pioneers to dismantle them. It made you tremble, and to this day if you walked down a dark hall, or an unlighted walkway, you cannot but think of those times. This was the scariest thing anyone could do on Active Service.

We believed that an  enemy of company strength occupied these caves, and A Company who searched these caves for some seven days, discovered the radio station and the operational diary of Nguyen Nam Hung, the Deputy Commander of the 274 Regiment, and some other vital documents, which suggests the occupants left in an almighty hurry. The caves, which could have with stood a B52 bomber strike, were very well developed, some even had  running water, and some had beds, and were more of a permanent enemy position.

On our way down the mountain, after completing our tasks, we made sure no enemy were hiding in those deeper bunkers along the track we found days earlier, by lobbing in gas grenades to force them out, if some of the enemy decided to sneak back and hide. On others we used explosives to destroy them.

On my second tour with 5RAR 1969/70 we came back up the mountain, and did other operations around the base, on the other side. Our ambushes were very successful.

Anti-Tank Platoon was replaced by Reconnaissance Platoon which was specially formed in October 1966 from selected volunteers, from throughout the Battalion. After an intensive course run at Vung Tau (Logistic Support Base), I am very proud to say that I was a selected for the platoon. The platoon was organised to operate as a number of small teams (4-5 man patrols), each equipped with radio. Our task was to reconnoitre up to 10-15 kilometres ahead of the battalion.

Second Lieutenant Deak MC who commanded the platoon later went on to serve in the Special Air Services Regiment (SASR) and Commandos. Other members went on to serve in the SAS with distinction.

A book of the Reconnaissance Platoon 'CROSSFIRE', was written by Robert Kearney, my section/patrol commander at the time, and with whom I spent Anzac Day at Gallipoli in 2003

We learned a lot about how to build bunkers and fighting pits, but never rewrote the training manual from experiences. Sadly, not much was rewritten from the Vietnam War in terms of tactics and how we fought an unconventional enemy.

The 'Vui Tui book', which meant photo album in Vietnamese, was used in Recce Platoon, and could fit in a pocket. I brought back a handful in all colours, from a rest and recreational (R and C) period of two days in Vung Tau. They are still in use and on issue to this day in the Defence Force. They are now olive green in colour, and can be bought from any good army disposal store.

We used the plastic pocket pages to waterproof our codes, and contact incident reports. Over- writing on the plastic page was done with a china graph pencil to record your information, which could be rubbed off later. Once completed, your information was sent off over the platoon radio back to BHQ, using a simple code, which were changed daily.


 

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