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A Vietnamese Christmas
Reconnaissance Platoon, Binh Ba Villa, 1966

© Michael 'Deaky' Baron von Berg MC
Recce Platoon Commander

Author: Michael 'Deaky' Baron von Berg

5RAR Recce Platoon having christmas dinner 1966

The above photograph shows the members of Recce Platoon celebrating Christmas dinner in the Binh Ba villa in 1966. The platoon was tasked to assist Capt George Mansford and his AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam) team over the Christmas period during what was also supposed to have been an agreed ‘cease fire’ by the enemy which turned out to be a complete fallacy. Our task was to assist in the training of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Sergeants in night ambushes while the rest of the Battalion enjoyed a bash up Christmas Dinner served by the officers, Recce Platoon was very much left to its own devices. Attempts by the CO to fly some goodies up to the platoon by RAAF Huey’s were thwarted by Task Force due to other more pressing requirements on the RAAF choppers and a last minute attempt by the CO to fly up to Binh Ba in an aircraft of 161 Recce Flight with a bag full of goodies was also cancelled due to once again the aircraft required for another task. The platoon had every confidence and respect for the CO and if there was a way of getting some cheer to them he would have pulled out all stops but when the resources available to him were withdrawn the platoon just had to accept that Christmas 1966 on the face of it was going to be a very lonely and “goodie” free affair.

Like all of the Battalion, Recce Platoon had been busy over the previous months and really did need a bit of a break, hoping perhaps for Vung Tau but they got Binh Ba. The task was one of working in with the soldiers and their families in the ARVN compound and defensive position, the centre piece The villa at the village of Binh Baof which appeared to be a 1920 style old French Villa. Good views from the upper windows and balcony which can be seen in the photograph of the villa, but also a whopping big target for an enemy RPG or mortar attack and that’s probably why the villa was surrounded by weapon pits and accommodation all with pretty solid overhead protection. That old soldier George Mansford would have been right on top of all that was required to defend the location and that was evident in the relationship between him and his team and the ARVN officers and soldiers. Thankfully the platoon had the services of an interpreter and a quick walk around the permitter with George and WO2 “Sooty” Smith and chatting to the local ARVN about the defensive strong points and likely enemy approaches all settled into a fairly normal routine and although there was supposed to be this hypothetical ‘cease fire’ the platoon maintained its normal routine to tie in with the AATTV team and ARVN in this outlying defensive position.

It also gave the platoon an opportunity to clean up some gear and Personal Make and Mend tasks which included some game enough to have a haircut provided by one of the ARVN soldiers who was a barber before his call up. Barbed wire and cut-throat razors in the middle of a rubber plantationMichael 'Deaky' Baron von Berg seem to put a different “spin” on the traditional haircuts and incremental extras enjoyed by some on R & C in Vung Tau. The ARVN and local commander was very accommodating in that night pickets were shared but a member of Recce Platoon was always present at each location strong point. Interestingly the defensive perimeter was totally different to what the platoon was used to where it was in the form of a square, almost 17th century stuff, but if it was good enough for George it was good enough for the platoon.

The lack of “goodies” however did not deter the platoon from celebrating an appropriate Christmas Dinner albeit in Vietnamese style. Platoon Commander with Sergeant interpreter and some of the usual suspects (escorts) arranged an ARVN vehicle to take them to the Binh Ba village and market to purchase some local goodies after the platoon had pooled their meagre financial resources. You just don’t think about taking large amounts of MPC (Military Payment Certificate) when on operations, and the locals didn’t accept Amex, but there was enough to secure some really interesting items after the appropriate haggling with the local traders. The culinary delights purchased were chickens, ducks, (yes all dressed ready to cook) pork, local vegetables, some of questionable usage, tropical fruits, sweets, and even some Christmas The Binh Ba Marketdecorations ala Vietnamese style. Oh and I nearly forgot the most important “goodie” with copious quantities of that local elixir Bah Mui Bah or 33 Beer as it was called. Good sized 32 fluid ounce (Darwin) stubbies albeit slightly warm really did the trick. The purchasing team not wanting to let their team mates back at the villa down, simply had to check the quality of the beer before the final purchase much to the amusement of the locals.

The Platoon Commander who fancied himself as a bit of a gourmand prepared the meal with the help of some of the ladies in the ARVN compound. Vietnamese roast chicken and duck and with both specimens being what can only be described as “old boilers” there certainly was much boiling and more boiling before the remains were let to dry and set as there was no oven. The stock from this process provided and excellent base for some Vietnamese soup and noodles, which went down a treat with the ARVN, because the boys from Recce reckoned it looked a bit suspect. Lots of fruit and sweets and of course the tepid local beer, and although the locals offered some rice whisky, it was wisely declined, with many having had serious hallucinations when in another setting imbibing this dangerous local brew..

The previous night many of the boys attended the midnight mass that the local priest conductedARVN soldiers about to attend midnight mass within the compound at a make shift altar built by the ARVN and the platoon. A small rubber tree resembled a Christmas tree complete with some decorations purchased in the village. Initially when tasked to assist the AATTV boys over the Christmas period there were some misgivings about missing out on all of the goodies and fun back at the Battalion location, but as the old saying goes “you make your own fun” and that the platoon certainly did in their accustomed style. And  Battalion Headquarters thought the platoon was doing it tough?

In Australian culture, Christmas is mostly about family and in particular children and that’s where the platoon from within their meagre resources purchased some sweets to distribute to the children on Christmas Eve which the Vietnamese Catholics seem to celebrate European style which is on Christmas Eve which must be a legacy of the French colonial days. These children of the ARVN two vietnamese children from the villagesoldiers who were severely underpaid and sometimes not at all, had very little to look forward to over the Christmas period except whatever their parents could provide so the sweets were very much appreciated.

Although there were contacts and sightings and one of our platoon Taffy Cheeseman was wounded by a booby trap (sadly missed in the platoon as he was repatriated to Australia) that period between the 24th and the 25th December 1966 and the platoon's Christmas celebration was almost surreal in what proved to be a bloody and unfriendly place for the Battalion on both tours. In retrospect the platoon's activities over that period had a bit of a “MASH” feel about it but without a Klinger or attractive nurses. The opportunity to celebrate the festivity with the families in the compound (all Catholics); to barter and purchase the requirements in the local village; to quietly celebrate and reflect as a platoon in isolation is something that the platoon will never forget. This was a great Christmas, albeit far from loved ones at home and the normal great Christmas celebrations within an Infantry Battalion on operations. It was an invaluable lesson in human relations and how a cultural divide can be breached throughARVN soldiers and families in the vilage compound respecting each other values which in this case was family, faith and a common enemy.

It is also a testament to so many other documented and sadly forgotten incidents and tasks carried out by the Battalion on its tour where there was always compassion and respect for the villagers caught in a very precarious situation and nothing has changed where the early lessons of hearts and minds and the Battalion in more recent operations are still valid today.
 

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