On Active Service

Anatomy of a Bunker Contact

An action replay from the Hat Dich

Rarely during the Vietnam War did an infantryman involved in a battle ever experience an "action replay", but that is exactly what happened to Lt Ian Hosie and his soldiers of 7 Platoon, C Company, the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) who had been embroiled in a prolonged engagement with an aggressive enemy on 31 July 1969. Some years after the war Lt Hosie received information that an RAAF gunship helicopter co-pilot, Pilot Officer Jack Lynch, possessed an audio tape containing much of the radio conversations between the ground troops and the various support aircraft in that battle.

7plt_map1

5RAR had just commenced Operation Camden in the Hat Dich Secret Zone, an enemy haven since the days of the Viet-Minh (or First Indochina) War, and in 1969 athumbnail map of hat dich stronghold base for the headquarters and battalions' of Sub-Region 4 (SR4, about 1,100 men), the battalions' of 274 VC Infantry Regiment (about 700 strong), both with a majority of North Vietnamese Army regulars, and the crack North Vietnamese Army unit, D67 Engineer Battalion. The Hat Dich (pronounced "hut zic") area was located in the north-west corner of Phuoc Tuy Province to the north of the Nui Thai Vai mountain complex, straddling the border into Bien Hoa Province. The combination of both road (Route 15 from Saigon to Vung Tau) and extensive waterway approaches through the marshy Rung Sat to the west of Route 15 gave it logistical importance, whilst the undulating and generally featureless dense tall-timbered jungle of the Hat Dich itself provided an ideal operational base for the enemy (see map above).

5RAR's Operation Camden had a twofold task: first, it provided the infantry protection for a US Land Clearing Team of thirty Caterpillar D8s with their huge Rome ploughs as they felled large tracts of jungle housing these enemy installations; and second, by reconnaissance in force, it aimed at locating and destroying enemy main force units. Bunker systems of company and battalion size, generally sited near water, were frequently located during this one-month operation for which the After Action Report summarised the successful discovery and destruction of over a thousand bunkers, hundreds of weapon pits and over 1500 metres of tunnels.

7 Platoon was newly-formed after the loss of 3 killed and 18 wounded from enemy mines a few weeks earlier in the Long Hai Hills. Its Platoon Commander, 2Lt Dave Mead, plus the platoon sergeant, two corporals, a lance corporal and the majority of the riflemen had to be replaced. Lt Ian Hosie ("Hoss") was moved from the Tracker Platoon to take command, new NCOs were promoted from within the Battalion (including West Australian assault pioneer, Cpl John ("Doc") Halliday, who became platoon sergeant) and 23 replacements were obtained from the Task Force Reinforcement Holding Unit. They assembled and underwent immediate training whilst still on Operation Esso within the shadow of the mine-ridden Long Hai Hills - a challenging task. The Battalion then returned to Nui Dat for a rest during which time 7 Platoon's training continued. It was a credit to Lt Hosie and his NCOs that, within such a short time, the platoon was not only trained to battle efficiency but was also moulded into a cohesive team.

The move to the Hat Dich occurred on 29-30 July 1969. C Company 5RAR began operating in an area about 9 kms east of Route 15 in dense jungle near the Suói Dá Vang, a substantial creek which flows generally west towards the small hamlet of Thai Thien on Route 15 before emptying into the Rung Sat. 7, 8 and 9 Platoons were deployed separately well ahead of the bulldozers to ensure no enemy interfered with the clearing operation, and within no time were making contact with enemy forces.

Then, at 0915 hours on 31 July, Hosie's 7 Platoon briefly encountered and fired at what appeared to be an enemy water party of 5 to 8 men on a well-used track leading to the stream. Dressed in grey-green uniforms and carrying AK 47 assault rifles and large plastic containers, they appeared to take casualties from a 7 Platoon machine gun before they rapidly withdrew to the north. Hosie immediately called for a tracker team from his old platoon to assist in the pursuit. Private Paddy Walker and his tracker dog, Caesar, attached to Company Headquarters (CHQ), were soon on the enemy scent. As speed and security were essential to a successful track, Hosie used a lightened fighting patrol (without packs) consisting of himself, his radio operator, Pte Lance Reeves, a 6-man section under the experienced Cpl Mick (Bolts) Bolton (the sole remaining corporal from the earlier 7 Platoon strength), and the tracking team of Paddy Walker and his Labrador-Kelpie cross, Caesar. They set a scorching pace. The balance of 7 Platoon, commanded by Sgt "Doc" Halliday, and CHQ followed a distance behind carrying the discarded packs and additional ammunition.

After 45 minutes with his nostrils close to the ground and rapidly closing in on the enemy through the thick undergrowth, Caesar suddenly froze, lifted his nose and pointed, straining his body and head forwards, ears erect. Bolton's section immediately swept through the designated area but no enemy was contacted, although there were fresh signs of their having stopped to treat their casualties, among them some bloody shell dressings and indications of saplings cut for stretcher poles. The pursuit continued along the northern side of the creek. At one point the fleeing enemy split up, one group crossing the creek, the other staying on the northern side and moving north-east. Paddy and Caesar, leading the patrol, followed the second group.

The enemy commander must have realised just how close the pursuit was to him as he began to employ some clever avoidance and ambushing tactics. After another half hour Caesar pointed a second time, and again the assault section swept through from the flank. This time some enemy were seen fleeing though the thick scrub and it became obvious they had doubled back to ambush their own tracks but had been foiled by the width of the flanking sweep following Caesar's early warning. By now it was early afternoon.

New enemy deceptive tactics were employed. This time they followed a track but then veered off at a steep angle through the thick undergrowth for several hundred metres before hooking back in a semi-circle to ambush their pursuers on the track. At this point Paddy and Caesar stopped while Hoss moved forward to give instructions. As he came close Paddy suddenly raised his weapon and fired from the waist past his skipper. He had spotted a Viet Cong in the undergrowth on rising ground above them 15 metres away preparing to fire his AK47, but fortunately Paddy was both quicker and deadly accurate. A second enemy concealed in the vegetation fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) before fleeing. An immediate assault located the dead enemy but, as he was dressed differently (in American greens) to the ones seen earlier, it seemed he might have been a sentry for a nearby bunker system. Other signs of a bunker system were also noticed including the distinctive ethnic smell, cut logs, stumps camouflaged with mud, twigs and leaves, the heavy use of a track system and close proximity to water.

As Mick Bolton's section had been working non-stop for hours during the pursuit and his section machine gun had just broken its firing pin, Hoss arranged a swap with Lance Corporal Ian Leis's section about mid afternoon. CHQ (Company Head Quarters) established a firm base on a small, timbered knoll near where Paddy had shot the Viet Cong sentry. No bunker system had been positively located at this stage so Hoss tasked "Leisy", Sandy McKinnon, Jim McMillan and a fourth man with a spare radio, to check further ahead for any bunkers. They silently followed the line of the 30 cm-wide track but kept either side of it in the thick vegetation. At one point forward scout Sandy noticed a cigarette lighter beside the track; he checked it; it worked. Then about 200 metres from platoon HQ Leisy noticed an unusually bushy area and stopped his patrol to check it. They slowly crawled up to a large log and carefully peered over it to discover an enclosed cooking area with pots, tins, Hessian bags and plastic water containers near the ashes of an old open fireplace. It was all well concealed by a bamboo frame camouflaged with fern fronds and leaves. The patrol crouched looking at this and small well-hidden tracks leading to what appeared to be bunkers several metres either side. With the smell of both cooking and humans now distinct at such a close range they realised they were actually within the bunker system. Although the jungle was completely silent the patrol members, with mouths dry and adrenalin racing, could hear their hearts thumping. Suddenly from behind a bunker beyond the cooking hut appeared two unsuspecting soldiers in grey-green uniforms, combat webbing with ammunition pouches, wearing pith helmets and carrying AK47 assault rifles. Reacting swiftly and taking advantage of their obvious amazement and fear, Leisy fired at them from point blank range, dropping them to the ground.

Enemy rifle fire seemed to erupt from every bush to their left (north) as the four men hastily pulled back, Jim McMillan effectively using his M79 grenade launcher to give them an initial break. Some enemy began to pursue them, firing both small arms and RPGs, but Leisy's men, using leapfrog fire and movement, covered each other and halted the enemy as they retreated to their platoon firm base. They reported their findings to their platoon commander: numerous enemy in at least 4 to 6 bunkers, well-concealed on the high ground to the north of the stream. These were not black-pyjama Viet Cong but North Vietnamese regulars. They were well-armed and aggressive but had taken casualties.

It was 1645 hours

Hosie discussed the situation with the acting Company Commander, Captain Bill Titley, and it was decided from prior experience that a quick aggressive assault would not necessarily be met by a staunch defence but would be more likely to cause an enemy withdrawal. Initially Hosie prepared his plan of attack on what he thought was a small platoon position: with air and artillery support they would do a left flanking assault with two sections up and one in reserve, while CHQ remained in the firm base. The attack H hour (start time) was set for 1730 hours.

Then things began to unravel: artillery and mortar support were unavailable and the fighter attack aircraft could not be employed because of the danger to the assaulting sections who would be too close to the target impact zone. As well, one rifle section remained with CHQ as part of the firm base thus leaving just two sections of 6 men each plus Platoon HQ for the assault, with its sole fire support from a RAAF gunship helicopter (light fire team). Hoss asked Paddy if he could assist in the assault. His reply was both tactically sound and given with Paddy's typical Aboriginal humour in an exaggerated accent:

"Boss, dem black blokes am good at lead'n and track'n but no good at attack'n. Dem white troops are legendary and best at dat, but dem poor black troops am hopeless."

In fact, despite the small quantity of ammunition held by the tracker (this assisted his speed of movement), Paddy said he would assist if required, but Hoss decided against it, keeping him for his specialty.

By now the late afternoon downpour of rain had begun.

Hoss designated Ian Leis's section with acting forward scout, Sandy McKinnon (usually a machine gunner), to lead the assault force to the bunkers through the scrub well to the north of the track. "Take as much time as you like Mac," he instructed Sandy, noting that stealth and surprise from this different approach might provide one of their few advantages. The undergrowth was thick and visibility limited as they slowly but quietly progressed towards the enemy. Sandy did not see the line of camouflaged bunkers until an enemy suddenly loomed two metres to his front raising his AK47 to fire. The rounds slammed into Sandy's chest with such force that he was thrown several metres onto his back. Other rounds that had struck his weapon shattered it and forced it from his grasp as he was propelled away. The North Vietnamese soldiers had been in position and, although surprised by this sudden appearance, were ready and immediately opened up with all their weapons at Leis's section and Platoon HQ who all hit the ground and returned fire. The onslaught had all the sudden explosive force of a sprung ambush.

"I've been hit, I've been hit." Sandy said as he struggled to regain his feet, realising that the traumatic impact to his chest had caused serious injuries. Doc Halliday, who was close by, yelled at him "Friggin' get down or you'll get another one!" (This was the second time Sandy had been wounded in as many operations.)

The light fire team gunship (radio call sign "Bushranger 71") had arrived as the assault sections' were moving towards the bunkers and soon after the battle began was requested by Hosie to fire its rockets at the bunkers through the forest canopy, and provide cover to the assaulting troops using its mini guns and mounted twin M60 machine guns.

[It is from this time that the audio tape commences, small extracts of which are shown in italics. The chopper captain was a New Zealander, Flight Lieutenant Ted Creelman, whose co-pilot and crewman were Australians', Pilot Officer Jack Lynch and LAC Alan Lamb.]

The momentum of the Australian assault was stalled by the ferocious impact of the well-armed and larger force. Rifleman Jim McMillan (a reinforcement to 7 Platoon only a few weeks earlier) scrambled to a mound from where he fired furiously into a bunker. His platoon commander also used this mound to better observe the enemy layout, but within minutes Jim was mortally wounded through the heart. He rolled over into the arms of Hoss who urged:

"Hold on Jim, hold on."
"No, I can't. I'm going, I'm going ..." Jim replied.

He died instantaneously. There was just a small hole and a tiny spot of blood to his left shirt pocket.

The withering enemy AK47 and RPD machine gun fire with its distinctive green tracer, together with the explosions of the RPGs was coming from just a few metres away. It was deafening and like a deadly sheet of hot metal slicing through the air and undergrowth just centimetres above the heads of the assault section and platoon HQ, pinning them down. It stripped the foliage from above the prone soldiers so that leaves and branches rained down and settled upon and around them. Hoss, acknowledging the crisis, said to his sergeant:

"We're in the shit, Doc."

He shouted orders from his position but immediately attracted increased fire upon himself and his headquarters group.

Nearby, National Service rifleman, Private Rod Zunneberg, was caught unable to move in an enemy fire lane. He yelled:

"For Christ's sake Jim, shoot 'em so I can move."

Rod couldn't understand why Jim was not firing ... Jim was already dead.

Rod's predicament was relieved, and he believed his life saved, through the furious firing and aggressive actions by his section commander, Ian Leis, who silenced at least one bunker by shooting directly into its firing slit. That caused the enemy to momentarily slow their firing long enough for Rod to roll to a less vulnerable position.

English-born machine gunner Pte Colin ("Rastas") Jones was also firing intensely at the bunkers, an action which immediately attracted additional attention from the enemy. To reduce the silhouette of his M60 machine gun, Rastas folded the bipod legs to keep the muzzle closer to the ground as his weapon pounded away at the defensive position. It was his gun that gave the most effective covering fire for the extraction of their casualties.

7plt_map2

Cpl Jock MacLean, section commander of the reserve assault section, repositioned hisMap of the area men to put in a right flanking attack, but the scrub was so thick as to be almost impenetrable and the enemy fire again too strong so that their movement was halted 50 metres from the objective. Hoss ordered them to pull back and redeploy about 100 metres on the left flank of Leis's men, and to attack again from that angle. This would enable better fire support at right angles from Leis's section when the new assault closed in on what the platoon commander assessed would be the rear perimeter of the bunker system. Overhead "Bushranger's" mini guns gave close covering fire to MacLean's section as it tried to move into position past some open spaces made by old B52 bomb craters.

Unfortunately the bunker system was far more extensive than initially thought andA heavily camouflaged Viet Cong bunker instead of hitting the rear they really had struck a lateral extension of the original bunkers, all of which were occupied by well-armed enemy. Within a short time that left flanking assault was also pinned down by intense RPG and machine gun fire with experienced section 2nd in command Lance Corporal Barry (Bazza) Baker, and recent reinforcements, machine gunner Pte Andy MacDougal and his number 2, Pte John (Buddah) Martini, isolated on the left flank close to the forward line of bunkers. This was the first indicator that 7 platoon was in fact facing a force considerably larger than initially estimated, and one that now appeared to be of company strength (the position was later found to be 150 metres in diameter and to have been occupied by members of 4th Battalion SR4).

Andy poured machine gun fire at the nearby bunkers and in doing so attracted intense return fire from adjacent ones that were sited in mutually supporting positions. A barrage of RPG 2 and RPG 7 fire exploded all around and above him and Buddah. The explosions of the heavier RPG 7 were particularly ear shattering and as Andy recalled later, their heat was like "putting your head in a 300 degree fan-forced oven." His number 2, Buddah Martini, was wounded in this exchange when an RPG exploded in a tree above them, showering them with branches, foliage and white-hot shrapnel. The worst shrapnel wound was to Buddah's inner thigh just above his left knee, exposing but not severing the main artery.

"Are you badly hurt?" yelled Andy. "I think I'm OK," answered Buddah who had turned a ghostly white.

"Well, throw us your ammo, patch yourself up and do it tight, mate; then get yourself out of here" said the machine gunner.

Bazza Baker leopard-crawled up to Buddah as he was applying his shell dressing to pad the gaping wound and strapping it to his thigh before the wounded man slowly crawled away and extracted himself from the action. Bazza was concerned about some firing some distance to their flank so moved to a position 10 metres to Andy's left. They were now alone and isolated close to the bunkers on 7 Platoon's extreme left flank. Andy continued firing as targets occurred, including one who was aiming his RPG towards Hosie's platoon headquarters.

Platoon signaller, Pte Lance Reeves, radioed back to CHQ:

31: "30, this is 31, we have three casualties. Dustoff, over."

[CHQ was radio call sign 3 or 30 ("Three-Zero") while 7 Platoon was call sign 31("Three-One").]

30: "31 this is 30, yes we've got you. We have Dustoff standing by, over."

CO 5RAR, Lt. Col Colin ("Genghis") Khan (call sign "Niner"), was hovering in the "Possum" bubble helicopter nearby just above tree top level:

9: "30, this is Niner, I have arranged Dustoff through my means."

 (meaning he had passed this onto the Battalion Command Post using another radio net). The presence of the popular Genghis was a real morale boost for the diggers below.

Hosie spoke to CHQ:

31: "30 this is 31,we have three casualties: two bad. It looks like a sizeable bunker system. I've tried to whip around to the left but it is a bit doubtful."

By this time both assault sections were unable to advance because of the larger defending force with its superior firepower. It was apparent to Hosie that his force was too small to overrun this high quality NVA enemy whose effective use of its weapons was both accurate and intense, particularly along well-concealed fire lanes trimmed low through the undergrowth. After some time he reported on the radio:

30: "31, it's too big. I'm pulling back. When can we get Dustoff, over?"

Details of the three casualties were provided: "two walking and one litter; one is very bad, over."

Colonel Khan, overhearing this, suggested to Bill Titley:

9: 3 this is Niner, tell 31 if he can get those casualties back closer to your loc, there are a few shell crater clearings I can see there suitable for Dustoff. Also that will enable you to get Bushranger in, as well as safely extracting your casualties, over.
3: "3, that is being done. He's extracting himself now and as soon as they are sufficiently clear we'll get Bushranger and Dustoff in, over."

The medical treatment provided to the wounded soldiers in difficult conditions was fairly basic at this stage. Platoon medic, Pte Max Hedley, had quickly reached Sandy whose chest wound had caused blood to well in his mouth. "I think I'm dying," said Sandy to Max, who replied, "C'mon Mac, you'll be right. We'll get you back." Hugging the ground Sandy crawled onto Leisy's shoulder as they worked their way back to where Platoon HQ was now located. Hoss, unaware of Sandy's injuries, asked, "Where's your weapon, Mac?"

"I've been shot, sir," he answered. "Where?" asked Hoss. Sandy opened his shirt to reveal his chest wound. "Oh shit" said Hoss, "Leisy, can you get him back to CHQ?"

By this time Leisy was out of ammunition, having expended all magazines for his M16 Armalite. The two men slowly began their journey to the rear under fire, Sandy, strangely feeling little pain but very unsteady on this feet and supported by Leisy. He refused to lie down for a rest however, fearful he would go to sleep and not wake up.

Max Hedley next attended to Buddah Martini, stemming the blood flow with field dressings and administering morphine to relieve the pain, then painting the letter "M" on his forehead (in his own blood) to warn others of the medication given so far. Being close to the enemy weapons and restricted to the prone position, there was only so much that the medic could do. Rifleman and trained medic, Pte Bob Wyatt, had also experienced that grief and despair of not being able to do anything for Jim McMillan when he reached him and attempted to help, before assisting in extracting his body.

About 45 minutes had passed since the first assault had been launched.

A major problem was to extract themselves from under the enemy's noses, a difficult task with two wounded men and one dead. Crawling on their sides and pulling with their one free hand Doc Halliday, Rod Zunneberg and Max Hedley began desperately dragging Jim's body through the tangled undergrowth with the enemy fire just inches above their heaving bodies.

"God, give us strength," grunted Doc, a man small of stature but big of heart, as they struggled to extract Jim's body in these desperate conditions.

To assist the extraction Hosie coordinated increased fire support for each man or group as they pulled back. He called in the gunship fire as well, throwing smoke to clearly identify their position. Above the din Barry Baker and Andy MacDougal heard the call "withdraw" from their far left flank position. Baker threw smoke for the gunship (call sign "Bushranger 71") but deliberately lobbed it behind himself and Andy so that Bushranger's fire would come even closer to them and strike the nearest bunkers just 15 to 20 metres away. It was risky but justified in the circumstances.

Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, I can see smoke coming through the canopy and can hear small arms fire from there, over."
3: "31, yeah, that's us; you're above us now. We're firing that to cover our blokes getting out, over."

Bazza began pulling back while Andy held his position and continued firing to cover the others till they were clear. This achieved its aim but also attracted intense enemy fire upon himself. Then he and Bazza gradually extracted themselves.

At CHQ Bill Titley was requesting an ammunition resupply and was preparing for the Dustoff evacuation of the wounded from his end where the trees were about 60 feet high:

"3 roger out."

3: "Niner this is 3, have you noticed any suitable spots for Dustoff to come in, or will it be winching, over?"
9: "Niner, it looks like winching from a bomb crater closer to your loc, over."
3:

Hosie's shouted orders were still attracting close attention from the enemy however, with the result that his headquarters group was hit by a number of exploding RPGs, one hurling Hosie to the ground in one direction and his platoon sergeant, Doc Halliday, and medic Max Hedley several metres in another direction into an old B52 bomb crater. Another blast threw radio operator Lance Reeves about five metres through the air and upended him so he landed on his head with the radio set propping his feet into the air. The blast not only stunned Lance but also temporarily deafened him, so that even by the time he got his radio set operational again he was unable to hear CHQ trying to make radio contact:

30: "31 this is 30 over."
30: "31 this is 30 over."

These calls were repeated several times over the next few minutes without response.

30: "31 this is 30 over."

Then, after several minutes Pte Reeves answered.

31: (with deafening sounds of explosions and small arms fire in the background): "31, over."
30: "30, we have a Dustoff position to your rear, closer to our loc, as soon as you can extract yourself."
31: "31, say again over." (He still had trouble hearing.)
30: "30, when can you get back here, over?"
31: "31, to your loc over?"
30: "30, affirmative, over."

[Silence]

"Roger, wait out."

30: "31 this is 30, tell your sunray that as soon as he is clear enough from the enemy, throw smoke so Bushranger can engage. He hasn't got much fuel left, over."
31:

The enemy detected what 7 Platoon was doing and began to counter attack through the scrub. This was also part of the North Vietnamese enemy tactic of "hugging" its enemy so as to avoid artillery, mortar and aerial fire called down on their defences. It enabled them, as Australians said, to "hold our belt and still punch us." It meant in this situation that Hosie would have to call in Bushranger's fire very close to his own troops.

31 (Hosie): "I need Bushranger now; I'll throw smoke, over."

They threw smoke to identify their extremities for the gunship.

31: "Smoke thrown over."
Bushranger 71: "31 this is Bushranger 71, I see yellow smoke. What distance for suppression from the smoke, over?"
31: "31, a bearing of 2800 from the yellow smoke, over."

[Providing a compass bearing from the smoke was essential to ensure the helicopter gunship engaged the enemy and didn't shoot up friendly troops.]

30: "31 this is 30, what distance is the enemy from the yellow smoke, over?"
31: "31, they are assaulting us, over!"
30: "30, roger we'll get Bushranger straight in, out to you; Bushranger 71 this is 30, the enemy is close in on the yellow smoke on a bearing of 2800. Engage over."
Bushranger 71: "Roger, we're rolling in 20 seconds. We'll start about 50 to 100 metres out initially, over."
31: "31, could you bring it in to 50 metres from the smoke over?"
Bushranger 71: "31 this Bushranger 71, rolling in now."
31: "What's that over?"
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, commencing firing path now, over."
31: "31, one of our flanks is also just throwing smoke."
Bushranger 71: "Roger, we'll be firing to the south-east of that smoke, over."

The gunship made a strafing pass, successfully firing at the designated target.

31: "Keep on that, over."
Bushranger 71: "How's that fire, over?"
31: "31, that's lovely, over."
7plt_gunship

Having left the cover of their bunkers the NVA troops were now more exposed and vulnerable to both 7 Platoon and Bushranger's fire. This effectively slowed the enemy counter attack and gave the withdrawing troops a little breathing space to extract themselves by about 40 metres. They still had another 150 metres to reach the bomb crater for the Dustoff but with the enemy pressing them they had to fight their way back towards the designated rendezvous.

The audio tape records the Bushranger crew's intercom discussion as they viewed the action below:

"Did you see those RPGs exploding down there? Bloody big flashes going off everywhere!"

It was clear by now that the enemy knew they were facing Australian troops as they were calling out:

"Uc Dai Loi, number 10. Uc Dai Loi, number 10." ("Uc Dai Loi," is Vietnamese for "Australian.")

At about this time, approximately 1900 hours, Creelman and Lynch's gunship departed to refuel, leaving 7 Platoon without any fire support: no artillery, no mortars and no aerial fire. Attempts to obtain a replacement gunship were unsuccessful. It was a perfect time for the enemy to pursue 7 Platoon and create havoc with more casualties. They saw this opportunity, no doubt when they heard the helicopter depart, and they took it.

Withdrawing with one body and two badly wounded men was difficult enough, but it was made particularly so with the enemy counter attacking. Lt Hosie split his troops into two groups, the larger, commanded by platoon sergeant, Doc Halliday, given the responsibility of safely extracting the casualties. Jim McMillan had been initially dragged about 60 metres from the firing line and was then carried by his shocked mates such as Pte Rod Zunneberg who had shared a tent with him in the reinforcement unit at Nui Dat, and rifleman Pte Terry Smith who trained with Jim at Kapooka in Australia. Sandy McKinnon had severe gunshot wounds to the chest but somehow was able to walk back with Ian Leis to support him. The courage and stamina of this big man was inspirational to those around him, particularly to the recent reinforcements. Those characteristics also saved his mates the difficult task of having to carry his 6'1" bulk. The similarly tough Buddah Martini, with lesser wounds, though still severe and debilitating, was also just able to walk and make his own way. (Buddah, a National Serviceman from Victoria had changed the spelling of his nickname to accommodate the wishes of Fung, the Company's Buddhist bushman scout, who said the name shouldn't be spelt the same as the real Buddha.)

Hoss controlled the second and much smaller group, the rear guard, tasked to keep the enemy at bay and allow Doc Halliday's troops sufficient space to reach the bomb crater and have the wounded men winched safely into the Dustoff helicopter. Doc's group handed over some of its ammunition to the rear guard in order to maximise the covering fire while they withdrew. Initially the rear guard consisted of Hoss, his radio operator, Lance Reeves, and machine gunner, Colin Jones, who waited astride the track for Baker and MacDougal to join them. They then took up fire positions about 60 metres from the bunkers and engaged the enemy as they counter attacked. This then developed into a fighting withdrawal by fire and movement as the rear guard soldiers took advantage of the cover provided by a series of B52 bomb craters. As they neared the medevac location it was just Baker and MacDougal astride the track as the final guard.

Meanwhile Bill Titley had despatched a small group commanded by the Company Sergeant Major, WO2 Jack Lake, to move forward from the firm base and secure the area of the bomb crater about 50 metres from their position.

About 1920 hours, with the light becoming gloomy under the jungle canopy, the gunship returned to continue its support.  Two RAAF Dustoff helicopters from 9 Squadron were also nearby awaiting the word from the ground troops to commence the medevac.

Bushranger 71: "This is Bushranger 71, we are back in the area now."
3: "Bushranger 71, this is 3, good to see you back. Can you do a run while Dustoff comes in? We have Dustoff with us now."
30: "31, wilco wait out."
31: "31, smoke thrown over."
31: "Bushranger 71, I see red smoke over."
Bushranger 71: "31, red smoke affirmative, over."
31: "Bushranger 71 this is 3, the area we want suppressed is along the creek line slightly to the north. There are no friendlies to the south of the creek line."
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, ... rolling in now."

While this was happening Doc Halliday (call sign 31A, Three-one Alpha") reached the bomb crater and met up with Jack Lake's group (call sign 3C, "Three-Charlie") and prepared for the Dustoff.

Dustoff 2: "Dustoff 2, roger, 31 can you throw smoke?"
31A: "Three-one Alpha, smoke thrown, over."
Dustoff 2: "Dustoff 2, roger. I've got purple smoke over."
3C: "Three Charlie, that's affirmative. Be my guest. That's where I'll have the medevac, over."
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, we'll be suppressing just to the east of that purple smoke, over."
Dustoff 2: "Three Charlie, this is Dustoff 2, do you want the Stokes litter or jungle penetrator first?"
3C: "Three Charlie, jungle penetrator first, over."
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, rolling in from the south-west to the north-east in 20 seconds, over."
3C: "Three Charlie, watch out for Dustoff, out."

It was 1925 hours, and nearing last light, with Hosie's rear guard now close to the Dustoff crater, having temporarily broken contact with the pursuing enemy. Unbeknown to him, however, the enemy had heard the Dustoff helicopter and had gone silent and hidden with a plan to work their way closer in readiness to cripple the aircraft.

The Company's priority was now to save the badly wounded Sandy McKinnon. The Australian Dustoff helicopter hovered over the old B52 bomb crater and lowered a jungle penetrator through the hole in the canopy to the troops waiting under the downwash of the chopper blades. Sandy was secured to the seat by Jack Lake and winched upwards. Some of the enemy, concealed about 50 metres away, were quietly waiting their opportunity.

3C: "Dustoff 2 this is Three Charlie, that man is fairly bad. He has a hole right into the chest above the heart. WE ARE TAKING FIRE, WE'RE TAKING FIRE! PULL OUT DUSTOFF, GET OUT DUSTOFF."
30: "Dustoff is getting fired at. GET THAT CHOPPER OUT OF THE WAY, YOU'RE BEING FIRED AT DUSTOFF."
3C: "PISS OFF DUSTOFF, WE'RE TAKING FIRE!"
Dustoff 2: "Dustoff 2, roger, we're taking some pretty heavy tracer from that same position also, out."

Everything was in slow motion for Sandy McKinnon. As he reached tree top level on the jungle penetrator he had a most unnerving bird's-eye view of the action below. Bursts of Chicom RPD (machine gun) fire with its green tracer (1 in every 5 rounds) were streaming towards him from the vicinity of the original bunker system and striking the Dustoff chopper just above him, which he noticed was rotating its tail towards the fire. One of the rounds clipped the winch cable causing him to spin in the air, but fortunately not to descend in a free-fall.

30: "Bushranger 71 this is 30, can you bring that fire in closer now. Dustoff has been taking enemy fire, over."
Bushranger 71: "Bushranger 71, roger, we'll suppress, out."
31: "30 this is 31, we are giving covering fire over."
30: "30, roger out."
3C: "Dustoff, be careful with those guns, we're down here too, over."
31: "30 this is 31, STOP DUSTOFF FROM FIRING. HE'S SHOOTING US UP!"
30: "30 roger out to you, Dustoff 2 this is 30, cease your firing. You are engaging friendly troops, over."
Dustoff 2: "Dustoff 2  wilco out."

Dustoff's side-gunner had mistakenly fired on the withdrawing elements of Ian Hosie's group closest to the enemy. Fortunately no casualties resulted.

The Dustoff chopper had itself taken over 30 hits but the pilot had remained calm, rotating the aircraft's tail towards the enemy to protect his crew as they continued winching in Sandy.

Miraculously escaping further injury, Sandy was raised closer to the chopper. As his head came level with the floor the crew reached out and, in perfect well-practised unison, heaved him up and catapulted him inside. "GO, GO, GO, GO!!" they yelled to the pilot. As they sped off Sandy noticed that the gunship ("Bushranger 71") had deliberately flown into the path of the tracer to be a screen between the Chicom machine gun and the Dustoff chopper, and was itself firing down the line of the tracer at the enemy position.

Jack Lake, with his typical dry humour, turned to Martini and said: "OK, Buddah, you're next." "I don't bloody well think so," came the reply; the morphine probably seemed just fine for the time being!

Bushranger 71: Bushranger 71, rolling again in 20 seconds, over.

[Here, the audio tape ends with the sound of Bushranger's roaring mini guns. Recording did not usually occur; it was just that Jack Lynch had taken his own tape recorder with him on the flight, making the taping of this engagement all the more remarkable.]

Hosie regrouped with Cpl Mick Bolton's section from the firm base and immediately counter attacked the enemy, pushing them back about 100 metres. The combination of this and the covering mini guns and twin M60s from Bushranger kept them back until darkness closed in shortly afterwards. Sandy McKinnon was safely extracted but the lack of light and more particularly the threatening enemy presence prevented further medevacs, which meant Buddah Martini stayed the night in the scrub with limited resources to stem his pain. He spent a sleepless night with Ian Leis well inside the defensive perimeter lying beside Jim's body wrapped in a plastic hutchie.

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For the first few hours of the night the enemy kept probing the consolidated CHQ and 7tracer bullets from puff the magic dragon Platoon position where the diggers expected an all-out enemy attack at any time; so Bill Titley called in the big guns of "Spooky", an AC47 aircraft with multiple mini guns, also known as "Puff the Magic Dragon", so named because of the roar of its weapons and the torrent of its fire containing a large content of red tracer. One mini gun alone was able to spew out 6,000 rounds a minute. Spooky was deadly accurate throughout the night as Bill "walked" the wall of fire in close to their position, which identified its perimeter to the aircraft with two strobe lights and a few tiny lights from the soldiers' hexy stoves (hexamine burners), all shielded from enemy observation.

It was a tense night for CHQ and 7 Platoon, and although on 50 percent stand-to (alert), most remained nervously awake until first light when, to their huge relief, all was quiet. Although Buddah's wounded leg had become stiff and swollen with the shrapnel embedded in his thigh he was still able to hobble along with the Company as it moved about 1,000 metres to a more secure landing zone to evacuate Jim McMillan's body, to take a resupply and to transfer Buddah to "Vampire" (the 1st Australian Field Hospital) in Vung Tau. There, with the shrapnel removed from his leg, he recovered sufficiently a few weeks later to rejoin his platoon for the next operation.

The previous evening when Sandy McKinnon was evacuated, he still wasn't feeling much pain in the Dustoff helicopter and although weak he refused to lie down. The flight crew lit him a smoke, then another, and another as he watched the treetops speed past below on their way to Vung Tau. Sandy was familiar with the chopper pad at the Australian Field Hospital as he had been a visitor previously, in fact as one of the 7 Platoon mine casualties in the previous operation. On that occasion he had 16 shrapnel wounds to his back, right shoulder and lung, and not all the pieces could be removed. This time, as the Dustoff skids touched down, Sandy did not wait for assistance but walked away from the chopper towards the surgery as the stretcher team raced past him to the chopper. "Where is he?" they yelled to the Dustoff crew.

"There, he just walked past you," they pointed.

"Mac, it's you!" the hospital staff exclaimed as they recognised him. "Lie down mate, you'll be OK now."

Sandy was quickly transferred into the surgery where the waiting surgical team sprang into action. His filthy greens and boots were sheared off in an instant and the work began. For the first time he felt confident he would live. An immediate scan was performed, revealing four pieces of 7.62 mm AK47 rounds lodged in his chest, one partially in his heart and one in his right lung.

"It's like a Chinese junk yard in there," announced the Army surgeon.

Sandy McKinnon was too badly wounded for a speedy recovery, and was evacuated to Australia. He later married one of his nurses from Concord Hospital, Shani Hennessy.

The body of Jim McMillan was also returned to Australia to his final resting place in his hometown of Horsham in western Victoria. Commemorative plaques to this brave and popular volunteer National Service soldier are laid in Victoria's Garden of Remembrance and also in various memorials to Vietnam Veterans throughout Australia. Engaged to be married, Jim had died just two months short of his 21st birthday.

Back in the Hat Dich it was business as usual as the evacuated bunker system was destroyed before C Company continued searching and fighting for the remaining 4 weeks of the operation. The Battalion's many contacts in the month-long operation resulted in at least 73 enemy confirmed killed and one captured. Countless were wounded and may have died later. 5RAR itself lost 3 killed in action and 61 wounded.

Platoon Commander, Ian Hosie later commended with high praise the overall performance and courage of his soldiers in this action, many of whom were experiencing their first taste of combat. Specific mention should be made of the following:

The ferocity of Pte Jim McMillan's courageous attack upon the enemy bunkers' before he was killed in action. He had also earlier performed calmly and creditably during the reconnaissance patrol;

The skill of the giant forward scout, Sandy McKinnon, in the lead up to the assault on the bunkers, as well as his courage, stamina and remarkable stoicism in making his own way under fire when severely wounded;

The professional actions of Cpl Mick Bolton and his section who 'performed superbly through the day', particularly in combination with the tracker team, and also in the final counter attack;

The competence, skills and advice of Pte Paddy Walker, with Caesar, were invaluable. Paddy's own alertness and swift accuracy with his rifle undoubtedly saved the life of the platoon commander;

The courageous and aggressive actions of the two machine gun teams of the assault sections in the attack upon the bunker system (Ptes Colin Jones, Andy MacDougal and Buddah Martini) and section 2ic, Lcpl Barry Baker;

The actions of the platoon radio operator, Pte Lance Reeves, who despite being in his first combat experience, was calmly efficient throughout the action, and maintained crucial communications for his platoon;

The calm and competent work of platoon medic, Pte Max Hedley, in treating the wounded men in the thick of the battle. (Max would become the only remaining original member of 7 Platoon until February 1970 when he too was evacuated with multiple gunshot wounds during the Battalion's final operation.)

Particular mention should be made of the conspicuous courage and leadership displayed by Lcpl Ian Leis and machine gunner Pte Andy MacDougal.

Leis, a 3-year regular soldier, successfully led the reconnaissance patrol to locate the bunker system when he shot two enemy at close range, enabling his small group to extract itself without casualty. He then led the assault section in the subsequent attack upon the bunker system where his actions, aggressive firing and strong leadership undoubtedly saved the lives of some of his men and enabled them to reposition themselves out of the direct line of the withering enemy fire. The following month he was wounded in action and evacuated to Australia.

MacDougal, a volunteer National Serviceman and recent reinforcement experiencing his first combat action, distinguished himself with his courageous actions in moving close to the enemy bunkers on the left flank of the assault and constantly engaging the enemy using tactically sound enfilade fire across the front of Leis's section and Platoon HQ, as well as having to protect himself from the closer enemy to his front. His platoon was assisted by his actions, which then attracted intense return fire from the enemy; but without faltering MacDougal continued with his task. On hearing the command to withdraw, he disregarded his own safety to remain in his position to provide covering fire to his mates pulling back before he too extracted himself with Baker. This pair were then involved in providing rear protection to the withdrawing platoon, with the inexperienced MacDougal instinctively selecting optimum fire positions along the line of the track to engage the counter attacking enemy force. His initiative and leadership skills later led to his being promoted to lance corporal.

Special mention should be made of the outstanding leadership and courage of the platoon commander, Lt Ian Hosie. This popular and highly respected young officer, a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, not only engendered confidence in his troops, many of whom were raw and inexperienced, but also through his inspirational and determined leadership, as well as his clear thinking whilst under fire from a larger enemy force, undoubtedly saved his men from sustaining further casualties. On numerous occasions during this battle he exposed himself to enemy fire and disregarded the increased danger to himself to successfully organise and redeploy his troops. His bravery and leadership were commendable.

Finally, all the ground troops were full of admiration for the professionalism, skill and courage displayed by the helicopter pilots (Flight Lieutenant Ted Creelman and Pilot Officer Jack Lynch and the Australian Dustoff pilots) as well as their crews, whose actions in supporting the diggers during the day, and then extracting the severely wounded Sandy McKinnon before dark, whilst being fired on by the enemy, very likely saved his life and possibly the lives of others.

This was just one of thousands of engagements between the Australian infantry and its Viet Cong and North Vietnamese enemy during this war; some were minor, some major and more intense, but in all these contacts the soldiers were doing what they were trained to do, although some did so more conspicuously than others. A minority of Australian officers and soldiers were decorated for bravery or for greater than usual efficiency in the war; the vast majority just did their job and have gone without public recognition. The members of 7 Platoon in this action on 31 July 1969 were typical of the latter group. Not one was decorated for bravery and whilst this was not unusual, the men of 7 Platoon and Tracker Platoon were undoubtedly heroic, fighting in the true spirit of the ANZAC tradition.

CO 5RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Khan, subsequently praised the soldiers of 7 Platoon and Tracker Platoon in this action in the following way:

"These soldiers, a mix of regulars and national servicemen, and their actions epitomised the spirit, loyalty, teamwork, bravery and above all professionalism of the men we officers had the privilege to command in Vietnam. It is little wonder all our battalions did so well in that war."

7 Platoon C Company 31 July 1969

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Lest We Forget

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© David Wilkins
OC C Company
(Dec 69 - Mar 70)

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