5 RAR Republic of South Vietnam 1966 - 1967

INTERDICTION IN THE EAST, THE HORSESHOE AND THE FENCE
FEBRUARY ~ MARCH 1967

During the latter part of 1966 and in the early months of 1967, much thought had been given to the permanent denial of the Phuoc Tuy rice harvest to the Viet Cong. In order to complete the strategy of defeating the Viet Cong through control of the population rather than through control of the jungle, it was necessary to accompany the operations against the village cadres with a large scale interdiction programme. This was to be aimed not at the denial of the recourses of single villages to the Viet Cong, but the denial of the resources of the whole central district of the province. from Nui Dat we could keep the northern access routes closed to the Viet Cong, and patrols between the Nui Dat and the Nui Dinh hills were able to close the western approaches to the movement of large amounts of supplies. However the eastern approaches in central Phuoc Tuy were still wide open, and it was through these routes that the Viet Cong were best served, because they led to the largest Viet Cong bases in the province. Consequently a plan had to be developed to close the area to the north and east of Dat Do District to significant Viet Cong movement.

The minimum length of the boundary of the area to be protected from the Viet Cong was close to twelve miles. To have patrolled this distance from Nui Dat would have involved much wasteful movement to and fro, patrols would be operating outside artillery range unless a special fire base was established, and the numbers of troops required to patrol such a distance in order to seal it off by patrol action would have tied the whole Task Force down to an extent where it could no longer undertake any major initiatives. Certainly patrolling was indispensable so that we knew exactly what was happening in the area but it was not the only means of preventing access. A barrier fence and minefield would present a formidable obstacle, provided that it was patrolled daily to check for breaches or attempted breaches. The patrolling commitment required for the maintenance of the fence and minefield would be far less than the activity needed to close the area off entirely by a moving fence of men. Only large main force Viet Cong units had the capacity to breach such major obstacles. Unless they were prepared to fight a daylight battle for the fence, they could make only occasional breaches which could be sealed the following day. It was unlikely that the Viet Cong would think that the risks involved in such breaching operations would be worth the gains which they produced.

However, even these patrolling requirements made necessary the establishment of a small additional base, somewhere close to the midpoint of the line of interdiction. The stretch of country from Nui Dat, through Long Tan, around to the east of Dat Do, and to the east of the villages on Route 44 between Dat Do and the sea, was the area through which Viet Cong movement into Central Phuoc Tuy could take place. Just to the north east of Dat Do, approximately half-way between Nui Dat and the coast rose the steep slopes of what had once been a small volcano. A crater rim, roughly circular in plan except that the southern sector had been blown out, rose to a height of two hundred feet above the surrounding plain. The crater was six hundred yards across and the defences of a complete rifle company, its administrative installations, and a gun position for artillery of any size could all be sited within it. The fields of fire for defenders on the lip of the crater were limitless while an attacking force would have to assault up a slope of two hundred feet on a gradient of nearly two in one. Thus an excellent defensive position was available for a small force at a convenient point for controlling the eastern approaches and for preventing Viet Cong movement into Dat Do from Long Tan. Furthermore the hill was well placed for launching operations to the east, particularly towards Xuyen Moc.

Brigadier Graham's plans for interdicting to the east were completed in February 1967. They called for one rifle company and a troop of field artillery to be established permanently in the crater of what came to be called the Horseshoe Hill , because of its shape. The country between Nui Dat and the Horseshoe was to be controlled by patrolling from both bases and a barrier fence and minefield was to be built from the Horseshoe to the coast, covering seven miles in its course. At the same time a massive thrust was to be made out to Xuyen Moc to clear the country from the coast to over fifteen miles inland of Viet Cong and their bases, caches and other installations. Substantial American assistance had been made available in the form of a brigade from the Ninth U.S. Infantry Division. A squadron of the Eleventh Armoured Cavalry Regiment and a Vietnamese regiment had also been allotted to the operation, Operation Portsea.

The fence to be constructed was to consist of two parallel belts of barbed wire, six feet high and six feet wide, separated by one hundred yards. A dense minefield was to be laid between the two fences. Several gaps were to be left in the fence so that local farmers could work by day on land outside the fence. These gaps were to be manned by Vietnamese police and to be closed at night. People who went out through the fence in the morning were to be checked back in at night so that no one could disappear to the Viet Cong by day without the police knowing. Similarly, any Viet Cong who tried to enter the district from outside by day would be discovered because he would not have been recorded as one who had gone out through the fence earlier that day. Any person who attempted to pass through the fence at night would have to cut his way through the wire and cross a belt of mines without treading on one or setting off a trip wire. While such a feat may have been possible for a single individual acting with stealth it would have been close to impossible for a long convoy of oxcarts carrying rice, and even if they did get through the obstacle, their time of passage would be known and a pursuit by helicopter and APC's would quickly catch such lumbering quarry.

The Fifth Battalion's part in these operations was to provide the company to build and man the Horseshoe base, to build the fence and to secure the Nui Dat base while the Sixth Battalion were out with the Americans on Operation Portsea. The company which had to vacate its base at Nui Dat and start afresh at the same primitive level at which we had begun after Operation Hardihood was D Company. This company had occupied a base position high on the slopes of Nui Dat itself, a mile away from the rest of the battalion in the rubber plantation to the north. Task Force Headquarters wanted Nui Dat for another unit and so D Company were chosen to go to the Horseshoe. The company took these gloomy tidings philosophically, aware that they would have less than seven weeks out in their new area before their return to Australia.

So that D Company were able to construct their new defences as rapidly as possible, B Company under their new commander, Major Ron Hamlyn, were ordered to precede the arrival of D Company at the Horseshoe, to secure it and clear it of any mines and booby traps, before maintaining a screen of patrols in front of D Company to the north and east for three days. B Company flew out to the Horseshoe by helicopter at 7a.m. on March 6th. D Company followed at 10 a.m. by APC and the Horseshoe was occupied without incident.

The commencement date of these operations had been timed to fit in with the plans of the larger American forces participating in Operation Portsea, but it was also influenced by a captured Viet Cong document which revealed that the Province Committee had ordered the collection of the 1966/1967 rice tax in March 1967. Collection from the villages was to be completed by March l0th, from the district caches to the provincial Headquarters by March 20th, and from the provincial caches to the main force bases by March 30th. Focal points of Viet Cong activity in the Long Dat District were to be the villages of Hoi My and Phuoc Loi. Continual attacks were to be launched on the Government outposts in both villages in order to regain control over their people, as a part of a 'Regional Expansion' plan. The reconstruction of the cadres in these villages was also to be commenced and an enquiry made into the shortage of youths for replacement of losses. Special supply missions had been assigned to district and village quartermasters. The items most needed were shovels, Claymore mines, 60 mm. and 81 mm. mortar bombs and 105 mm shells for the manufacture of mines, small arms ammunition, medicines and rice. These stores requirements pointed towards a build up for operations in the coming monsoon in May. Thus March was a very appropriate time to commence the severance of connection between the main force bases and central Phuoc Tuy.

The curiosity of the Viet Cong was quickly aroused by the great activity at the Horseshoe. On the first night of our occupation they sent in a force of some twenty-five. men to see what we were attempting. Fortunately an ambush had been laid on their approach route some thousand yards north of the Horseshoe. Ten of them were seen at 8.20 p.m. on a road twenty yards from the sentry manning the left machine gun of Four Platoon. At the same time a group of three or four Viet Cong moved in onto the right machine gun of the platoon. The sentry opened fire, killing two of them and wounding a third. Others came forward and dragged away the wounded man who was heard moaning. Immediately the group on the road went to ground. Another group of ten Viet Cong crossed in front of the platoon, moving along a creek line. The Viet Cong continued to probe the defences of the platoon until 2.30 a.m. On the following morning the two bodies and the scuff marks made by the man who was dragged away were found. The platoon also intercepted a man who rode into the area of the previous night's action on a bicycle. He was carrying a sketch plan of a nearby village, a list of drugs and had a photograph of Ho Chi Minh in his wallet. He was sent to Task Force Headquarters as a suspect. A further search of the area revealed one .45 calibre sub machine gun, five hand grenades and some equipment and documents. Possibly the man apprehended had been sent in to collect the weapons lost by the Viet Cong.

On the following morning, Five Platoon came upon a Viet Cong camp. It was quite small, containing only four two-man weapon pits with overhead cover. However, there was a suspicious area of soft ground within the camp which looked as if it could have been a camouflaged command post. When members of the platoon dug down through the soft earth they found a large cache of rice, containing some five tons which they destroyed because it was loose and dirty, making recovery uneconomical.

B Company returned to Nui Dat on March 9th. But by this time D Company had dug themselves into ground which was composed of loose stones and very difficult to work. Bulldozers cleared the undergrowth off the forward slopes of the hill so that no cover was available to Viet Cong who might creep up on the camp. As the days went by the pits were developed into bunkers and wire fences were built in profusion around the hill at several levels on the forward slopes. The flow of materials, concertina wire, pickets, timber baulks, galvanised iron, artillery ammunition and rations went smoothly and within two weeks, D Company had established a base which they could have held against a regiment of Viet Cong.

Once the Horseshoe had become well established, work on the fence could proceed, based on the Horseshoe as a secure anchor. C Company, commanded by Major Ron Shambrook, were the first to construct, part of the long barrier. Their work began on March 16th and they continued until relieved by A Company on March 25th. Our rifle companies were concerned solely with the construction of the two belts of wire. The specialized task of mine laying was to be carried out by the engineers after the fence had been completed. The course of the fence lay around the eastern side of Dat Do, swinging around the south-east corner of the village to run parallel to Route 44, five hundred yards to its east to the next village Phuoc Loi, one mile south of Dat Do. The fence was then to skirt the eastern side of Phuoc Loi and run through to the coast, meeting the sea just to the east of Phuoc Hai. The fence was sited so that it could be patrolled easily by Government troops on the inner side and so that it was covered by machine guns from the Horseshoe and the Government posts at Phuoc Loi and Hoi My. However, the initial stage of the plan called for construction only as far as the river south of Phuoc Loi, the Song Ba Dap. This river, flowing eastwards to the sea, presented a fair obstacle to bulk transport of rice so the most vital part of the fence was that between the Horseshoe and the Song Ba Dap.

During these nine days C Company built nearly three miles of the fence. One of the problems which they encountered was the presence of some wells directly in the path of the fence. After detailed discussion with local officials in which the final course of the fence and the locations of the gaps were decided, it was agreed that the wells could not remain without unduly lengthening the fence. The loss of a well was a serious matter to a Vietnamese peasant so the well-boring equipment of our engineers was put to use to make new wells inside the fence and closer to the houses of the villagers than the old wells.

Special precautions had to be taken each night to guard against the Viet Cong stealing fence materials, booby trapping the fence which had already been erected, or laying mines and booby traps in the area through which they thought the fence was going to run. Each of the platoons of C Company protected the area close to the fence while the Reconnaissance Platoon laid ambushes on likely approaches further out from the fence. On the night of March 18th, the platoon was ambushing some tracks one mile to the south-east of Dat Do. At 8,30 p.m. four Viet Cong ran down the track at a steady jog in front of the platoon. Our men opened fire, killing two and wounding the other two. Lieutenant Deak (Baron von Berg) then heard orders being given a short distance away to the east. It was fortunate that he had laid a diamond shaped ambush with all round defence rather than a linear ambush along the track, for other Viet Cong launched an attack onto his flank. However they were caught in the fire of one of his machine guns and the attack was broken up, During the attack the Viet Cong had fired a Browning automatic rifle, wounding Private Twaites in the left leg with such devastating effect that the leg had to be amputated below the knee later that night. Deak withdrew the platoon to a new location and Twaites was evacuated by the perilous means of a night Dust Off. The Viet Cong encountered must have been a part of a larger force for voices were heard to the north-east and south-east of the platoon, indicating the presence of some twenty enemy. It was most fortunate that Deak had had the foresight to withdraw, for shortly afterwards the Viet Cong began to bombard the old ambush position with mortars from a base plate position a mile to the south. Evidently the enemy encountered in the ambush had been but one arm of several probes which the Viet Cong were making to examine the whole situation between Dat Do and Phuoc Hai. While the Fifth Battalion were busy with the Horseshoe and the fence, Task Force preparations for Operation Portsea had been approaching completion. After an initial postponement of three days, the operation was planed to commence on March 21st. During March 20th, several American artillery batteries stationed themselves out at the Horseshoe so that they could provide fire support for the rapid advance which was planned for the following day. Over one hundred APC's were to flood out over the plain to the east and northeast to the Song Rai. This force, together with the Sixth Battalion, was poised at Nui Dat ready for movement at dawn on March 21st.

As these preparations were being made, 275 Regiment was preparing an attack on the small Government post of Lo Gom, several hundred yards to the north of Phuoc Hai. Lo Gom was one of the smallest outposts in Phuoc Tuy, defended by thirty-eight Popular Force soldiers who were peasants by day and sentries at night. The post had no artillery, it was exposed and could be attacked from all sides. It was ideally situated for the Viet Cong to deal a heavy psychological blow to the image of Government strength which was growing out of the Horseshoe and the fence. However, these characteristics made Lo Gom just as ideal for revealing the growth of morale amongst the Government troops and the growing impotence of the main force Viet Cong.

The second battalion of 275 Regiment accompanied by another battalion, possibly D445, made a defensive camp near the west bank of the Song Rai in the thick jungle between Route 23 and the coast during the night of March 19th. They lay up during the daylight hours of the 20th, emerged at dusk, and headed south-west for La Gom. They covered the seven miles in five hours and began to form up for an attack on the post at 2 a.m. Fire began to pour into the outpost at 3.20 a.m. The sentries sounded the alarm and the thirty eight defenders rushed to their posts, pulling on equipment as they ran through the darkness. Fortunately the post was surrounded by belts of barbed wire fencing and minefields which had recently been installed under the supervision of our sappers. At the same time the important bunkers of the post had been rebuilt and greatly strengthened.

The weight of the Viet Cong attack fell first onto these defences. They attempted to breach the minefields and the wire by firing towards the post rockets which grazed the ground, setting off the mines in their path and blowing gaps in the wire. Further rockets were fired at the command post bunker. Had these defences not been rebuilt they would have given way, allowing the Viet Cong attack waves to pour over the defenders, overwhelming the post within minutes. Instead, although the defences were severely damaged, the Viet Cong were unable to achieve a quick success. The defenders were able to shoot down all those who penetrated to the inner fortifications while time was gained for the artillery at Dat Do, the Horseshoe, and Nui Dat to place a ring of bombardment around the post on the Viet Cong forming-up positions.

The battle raged for over three hours as the thousand men of the two battalions tried to overcome the thirty-eight. Even at dawn the Viet Cong were still attacking until an air strike sent them fleeing into the jungle. Caught within the wire surrounding the post were the bodies of thirty-six Viet Cong, while one man clutching six rifles was still within the minefield, trying to find a way out. The casualties to the defenders had been one killed and ten wounded. Even if the Viet Cong had not removed many of their dead, 275 Regiment had failed dismally. Two of the defenders whom they had failed to kill were women, the wives of soldiers, one of whom was shortly to give birth.

A sweep through the area used by the attackers yielded two wounded prisoners and the following equipment flung away by the retreating troops:
one Chinese flamethrower, one 40 mm. recoilless rifle, seventeen Soviet automatic rifles, one American carbine, eight Chinese rifles, three Chinese light machine guns, two thousand rounds of small arms ammunition and six hundred Chinese hand grenades.

Attempts were made to persuade the man in the minefield to surrender and lay down his weapons so that he could be guided out. However, he persisted in shooting at anyone who exposed themselves to him, and after six hours of this procedure he was finally shot so that normal life around the post could continue.

The two prisoners talked readily, as was the usual case with captured Viet Cong They related the events leading up to the attack and described the withdrawal route. Two destroyers which had been cruising off the Phuoc Tuy coast in support of Operation Portsea then pounded the withdrawal routes with five-inch guns.

Brigadier Graham was not anxious to engage in a hot pursuit of the Viet Cong on foot in case the real object of the attack had been the usual scheme to draw a relieving force into a bloody ambush.

During the morning of March 21st the APC's of the U.S. Eleventh Armoured Cavalry swept out to the Song Rai to cut off any withdrawal to the north. About mid afternoon to the east of the Song Rai they discovered one hundred and twenty Viet Cong packs, carefully concealed and laid out. The Viet Cong who owned these packs had evidently taken them off to participate in some vigorous action before returning to collect their equipment. Several of the packs belonged to North Vietnamese soldiers. In one of them, belonging to a North Vietnamese company commander, were found documents which revealed that the packs belonged to 275 Regiment. One of the documents was a map which showed a three battalion attack on Xuyen Moc. The map indicated the directions and strength of the attack but did not reveal the intended date. The area in which the packs were found coincided with the rear area allocated to this company for the attack on Xuyen Moc. Hence it seemed likely that the Cavalry had caught the attack in the preparatory stage.

The map was swiftly interpreted at Task Force Headquarters and warning sent to Xuyen Moc. Two air strikes were made on the forming-up areas for the battalions participating in the assault. The Cavalry then swept around to the north-east and harboured inside Xuyen Moc for the night, daring the Viet Cong to follow through with their plans. No attack took place and what was left of 275 Regiment withdrew rapidly over fifty miles to the north-east.

The Sixth Battalion went out to sweep through the area through which the attackers of La Gom had withdrawn. Our A Company went with them on March 22nd, landing near the west bank of the Song Rai. and sweeping back through the country which the Viet Cong had used to reach La Gom. The Sixth Battalion found copious evidence of the success of the naval shelling, and a light aircraft on reconnaissance discovered over one hundred graves in the area.

A Company's sweep took them until late on March 24th. Originally A Company had been intended to relieve C Company of their arduous task on the 23rd, but C Company were unable to cease work on the fence until March 25th. They then had one night in base at Nui Dat before flying out to the Song Rai to protect the forward fire support and engineer base for Operation Portsea. A large engineer effort was being put into rebuilding the bridges and culverts along Route 23 so that the road to Xuyen Moc could be reopened and the isolation of the post ended. C Company remained for three days at the fire support base, where Major Shambrook had an extremely difficult job coordinating the protection requirements of the gunners, sappers and cavalry who were all based there. B Company relieved A Company at the fence on March 29th, by which time it had reached to the eastern side of Phuoc Loi's.

A Company returned to the base for a few hours and then set off to the west of Nui Dat to guard the north-western approaches to the Task Force base. On the evening of March 29th Three Platoon under Lieutenant Ben Morris were ambushing some fresh Viet Cong tracks. Half an hour after darkness had become complete the platoon heard voices of approaching Viet Cong. The enemy were allowed to come right up to the ambush position before they were blasted by a Claymore mine and automatic fire. The Viet Cong withdrew to the protection of a creek bed into which the platoon lobbed hand grenades. Out of eight Viet Cong counted, two bodies were found in front of the ambush in the morning. Three blood trails left by wounded Viet Cong were followed for a short way and scuff marks made by bodies being dragged were found. The two dead men must have been important couriers for they were carrying 13,955 piastres (approx. $130 Aust.), Communist psychological warfare publications in both English and Vietnamese, private letters to persons in Hoa Long, Long Phuoc and Ba Ria, and a notice of a meeting of the Chau Duc committee on April 8th. The group had been one of several from the Chau Duc District Company, C20, which A Company had ambushed in the previous few months.

On April 3rd Three Platoon had a further success with an ambush. They were lying in wait on a trail three miles to the west of Nui Dat. In the early evening, a few minutes after 7 p.m. three Viet Cong came down the trail from the north. The leading enemy scout must have noticed some traces of recent activity around the point at which the northern Claymore had been concealed. He stopped and began to make a careful examination. That was the last mistake he ever made for the Claymore was detonated just as he was about to discover what it was. He was killed instantly. His two friends took to their heels and ran into an artillery barrage which was brought down onto their withdrawal route. The platoon recovered the body and the man's weapon, a Garand MI.

B Company's first few days on the fence, south of Dat Do, passed quietly. On the night of April 4th the company was in ambush on the south-west approaches to Dat Do. Just after dark two Viet Cong coming from the Long Hai hills walked into the position of Six Platoon. They were engaged with machine gun fire. One was killed and the other ran off, badly wounded. This incident was an interesting study in the slowness of the passage of information amongst village level Viet Cong for although B Company had moved into their evening location at 5.30 p.m. through open paddy fields in full sight of the villagers of Dat Do, no warning had been passed to the two Viet Cong who walked directly onto B Company's position.

Two days later B Company encountered further difficulties. At 11.30 a.m. on April 6th a mine was detonated by a work party on the northern side of Phuoc Loi, killing Private R. E. Lloyd and wounding two others. All were members of Four Platoon. In Major Hamlyn's opinion, the mine had been planted by the Viet Cong, for it was directly in line with the path to be taken by the fence. However it was impossible to say how long the mine had been in the ground. It was another U.S. 'jumping Jack'. At 7.25 p.m. that evening, Four Platoon opened fire on a Viet Cong scout who tried to creep up onto their position. The man escaped into thick bushes to the north. At 11.10 a.m. on April 7th B Company was shaken by another explosion. Taking great care after the previous explosion, the company had been working behind a team of sappers who were searching the ground with mine detectors. Four Platoon had just received a new commander, Lieutenant Kerry Rinkin. Rinkin had been commissioned as a national service officer and he had transferred to the regular army. He was a very active leader and tried to set a vigorous example to his men in all their activities. On this morning he stood on one of the raised paddy bunds near the fence and explained to his platoon the area which had been cleared of mines by the sappers so that his men knew where they could work in safety. One of the boundaries of the cleared area was the bund on which Rinkin was standing. Immediately after this explanation, he stepped back off the bund into the uncleared area, perhaps because he lost his balance for a moment, and had the extreme misfortune to step onto another mine which had been planted in line with the fence and with the mine which had been detonated on the previous day. Rinkin was very seriously wounded and died shortly afterwards.

B Company withdrew for the night to the south-west edge of Dat Do. Four Platoon, now under the command of Lieutenant Lew O'Dea who had been transferred from Five Platoon, took up a position of all round defence to harbour for the night. One Section was across the southern flank, Two Section faced to the north-west and Three Section covered the north-eastern approach. At 11.05 p.m. the machine gun sentry of Two Section thought he saw three Viet Cong move quickly towards him from the south-west. He fired a burst of automatic fire at what he saw and the whole platoon tumbled into their pits and stood to. One of the men in One Section looked to the west and saw a large number of rifle flashes outside the perimeter, advancing towards him. During the following exchange of fire one of the members of Two Section was hit as he was moving towards his pit.

Lieutenant O'Dea went forward and called the platoon medic to treat the wounded man. At first the wound did not appear to be serious but further examination revealed a serious laceration and a deep wound in the chest. A Dust Off aircraft was requested. Lieutenant O'Dea ordered the firing of artillery illumination shells over his area so that his men could examine the ground in front of them. The helicopter was brought into a landing zone twenty yards east of the platoon. Initial attempts to guide the aircraft in by torches failed so a small beacon fire of grass was lit to solve the problem. After the departure of the helicopter, O'Dea reorganized One and Two Sections into four man weapon pits so that control over the perimeter could be tightened. A fifty per cent stand-to was ordered and O'Dea then checked his men and saw that all was in order. B Company were withdrawn from the fence on the following morning and replaced by A Company.

This new team completed the assigned length of the fence by the early afternoon of April 11th and commenced to move into position for the Fifth Battalion's final operation-the clearing and patrolling of the road to Xuyen Moc. The engineers had completed their bridging and road repair operations and the resumption of normal unrestricted civilian traffic was scheduled to commence on April 12th after a break of several years. The battalion flew out in the early morning of the 12th and took up a series of company positions along the road between Dat Do and the Song Rai bridge. Patrols fanned out to sweep the jungle to a distance of several hundred yards out from the road. The road and its environs were checked with mine detectors to guard against any Viet Cong activity which had taken place during the previous night. No trouble of any kind was encountered and the road was open from 11.09 a.m. A ceremony conducted at Xuyen Moc by Colonel Dat and Captain Duc released a flood of traffic as civilians took advantage of the Government trucks provided to carry them into Dat Do and Ba Ria. We felt that our last operation had closed on a significant note with the restoration of full communications between the Provincial Headquarters and all of its subordinate districts. It was particularly satisfying to know that for the people of Xuyen Moc the tide of the war had begun to flow strongly in the direction of their own wishes.

Captain Robert O'Neill
Intelligence Officer
5 RAR

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