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australian infantryman's combat badge
The Day The Sun Went Out

© Bill Grassick
2IC A Company
1969-70

Bill Grassick

 

A Company had been deployed into the suspected enemy approach route to Long Binh - the company position had been heavily stocked with a further 2nd line of ammunition and additional weapons such as Claymores and M72s. So much so that, when it came time to redeploy, a transport group of US Army trucks were sent to collect and backload the additional supplies which were well beyond the means of the available 2 legged "mules".

One platoon of the company and part of Company HQ were provided the "pleasure" of APCs, (Armoured Personnel Carriers) while the remainder of the company and the massive amount of ammo and weapons was trucked out across country to a main road location. After what seemed like more confusion than usual we were directed to off-load the excess ammunition and get back on the trucks for a new deployment.

I often think back on the decisions made at a time when they seem to be good ones but subsequently turn out to be very bad ones. This was to be one of those days - I had religiously avoided ever riding in the front of any vehicle since our first operation in South Vietnam when all the company 2ics were sent on a vehicle recce of a village area which the battalion proposed to later cordon and search. We were all in one Landover waiting for the Engineers to clear a stretch of road and were told it was clear to proceed as soon as the last Engineer truck moved out of the way. When that truck then drove over a mine we were not at all impressed with the display and there was no argument about sitting "in the front"! However, this time the American sergeant came up to me and said I should ride in the front of the first truck as we were now to follow the APCs on the highway - I declined but he said he didn't know the route or the destination and didn't want to be responsible if the trucks lost contact with the APCs. Hey, it was a sealed road - no mines there so what the hell.

It was a hot day that 27th of March and it wasn't long before I was dozing in the front with an occasional eye open to check on the APCs. My little catnaps were abruptly discarded when I realised we had turned off onto a dirt road. My alarm was only matched by my confusion as this was not the route I had been told but the APCs were charging on and we had to follow. Shortly after, not far from the village of Long Phanh, I remember looking at an old woman standing by the side of the dirt road - she was shaking her head and already the hairs were prickling. I told the driver to follow in the exact tracks of the APCs, to which his reply was they are wider than us, which wheel should I try to track with? Just pick the best looking one, I replied. Within a minute or two there was a great explosion under the truck following us. My driver screamed out "Ambush!" and immediately accelerated. I shouted to him to stop so we could debus to assist - and then the sun went out.

There was this incredible silence and we were immediately cloaked in intense dust and everything seemed to be moving in such slow motion - I hadn't heard anything but I was being bodily lifted out of my seat, my rifle was tumbling and I tried to grab it but even though the rifle was moving in slow motion my hand was moving even slower. The dust was incredible, but dense as it was I could see every speck of it swirling in slow motion. Then real time came back with a thud as the truck returned to earth minus much of the front of it. I struggled out and started yelling at the troops to use the vehicle as cover and not deploy into the roadside ditches in case there were AP (Anti-Personnel) mines. But nobody seemed to hear me - in fact I couldn't hear myself. The mine blast had immediately deafened many of us. By frantic signs though we managed to reorganise and set up some form of defence. I must admit I was not feeling all that good - I couldn't hear and my back was complaining bitterly from the blast. However, I was luckier than the driver who suffered severe wounds to his legs and had to be dosed with morphine to stop his screaming - in my fumbling attempt to jab a syringe into him I initially neglected to take the cap off! Sorry Mate.

Our medic, Doc Christensen, was busy attending to the casualties and there were plenty - some 10 or 12 needed immediate medevac and fortunately my radio operator Alex had enough hearing left to make contact with and request immediate Dust-off. The US Army Dust-off teams were outstanding. Not only was the response very quick but they took great risk to land as close as possible and with what seemed just inches of clearance for their rotors. I can still see "Doc" running alongside one of the stretcher cases who was unconscious and with vomit all over his face - I thought Doc was giving mouth to mouth but he has since told me he was checking to see if the casualty was still breathing.

By this time a sweep had been carried out of the area but all that was found was a web belt and pouch. Initial thoughts were that the mines had been command detonated but subsequently most agreed that they were pressure detonated as the rear wheels were blown off the second truck, and the front wheel and much of the engine off the first truck.

Sometime after the immediate crisis, a Thai cavalry unit turned up to assist and the captain in charge told me he was amazed that we had attempted to use that road with wheeled vehicles. He said that they had advised the Australian Task Force HQ that the road was known to be mined. That little gem was confirmed when, about a month later, I met one of TF (Task Force) HQ staff (a major who has long since passed away at his own hand) and he confirmed they had received the information from the Thais but had discounted it. So much for "intelligence"!

The end result was that some 23 casualties occurred that day - I think about a dozen were immediately evacuated, including 2 US Army attached personnel, After the first medevac casualty report had been passed, I instructed the platoons' to make sure they recorded all who were hurt but remained on duty and then passed this second report later that night from our next harbour. Not very popular Bill! I was given a verbal rap over the knuckles and told the original list had already been submitted to Australia and now they would have to amend it. Do I regret that? Absolutely not! - A number of those who were unfortunate enough to go through that experience subsequently suffered from their injuries and, because the records were on file, they have received the attention they deserved without having to fight for acceptance.

There were many other stories of that day - but the saddest one was 20 years old Private Joe Stawyiskj. He was standing in the second truck when the mine blasted right beneath his feet and he was blown off the truck, landing on his head on the roadside. Only after we returned to Nui Dat a week later did I find out that his next of kin had not been informed of where he was hospitalized and we had to search for him. It turned out that he had been taken, correctly, by the US Army Dust-off to the American Neurological 93rd Specialist Hospital. He was eventually recovered into the Australian medical system having been treated for his very severe head injuries, only then to find that the Americans had been so pre-occupied with his head injuries that they had overlooked the less obvious - both ankles had been fractured by the force of the blast! To this day he is still wheel chair bound and has lost much of his memory, not to say his quality of life.

Truck destroyed by the mine

another aspect of the truck;

I am sure there are more tales to be told of this event which, unfortunately, didn't get a mention in the Year of the Tigers. Perhaps others would like to add their comments or, if thought necessary, correct my impressions of that day.


Webmaster's Note: Sadly, Joeseph StawyskyJ passed away on the 20th December 2012 aged 65 years.
 

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