On Active Service

Pioneers Move Up!

The average battle order equipment weight for an infantryman in Vietnam was 60-70 lbs (30kg) for the Pioneers it was about 70-100lb (35-50kg) they carried exactly the same standard infantryman's weapons and equipment. However, the morning before each operation, boxes of TNT, plastic explosives, rolls of detonation chord, primers, detonators, and all sorts of things that went "Bang"! Plus a great assortment of other bits and pieces would be cast into a pile, in front of the platoon store. Along with this came an order to "sort it out and pick it up." There would then be a subtle and not too obvious haste to select items for the least bulk and weight. He who arrived late due to a prior appointment such as the R. A. P (Regimental Aid Post) or a "Fizzer" (Charge for conduct unbecoming a soldier) would be greeted with what had been thoughtfully left for him i.e. a 20 lb (9 kg) box of TNT!

The platoon had one Land Rover, if it were tactically possible to get this to the operation's location, we would load it and a trailer to the spring stoppers. If not, we would lug everything with us down to the choppers lug it on, lug it off, and lug it up! I often wondered what the 'Yank' pilots must have said to each other, when lifting the battalion for the various operations. Settling on the 'skids' at Luscombe Field, they would suddenly realise we were "Pioneers" (heavy lift!) and see boxes of TNT, Plastic PE2, and PE3, primers all set at our feet; then feel these things being rough handled into the chopper. They, perhaps, might think: "Hope its not a hot LZ!" (Landing Zone) or "No chance of a soft landing here then"! All the Pioneers realised, if one of our choppers were to crash for any reason, it was going to be, "fast down, and then bloody fast up mate!"

There was always that Australian humour. It has been a quality of the Australian character, since before the days of the 'Gold Rush'. You will find this humour though generations, particularly in those strong male groups of our tradition Henry Lawson knew so well, the Goldminers', Drovers, Shearers, and Australian soldiers. This humour is the wellspring of the images we all now carry and treasure in our memories. Images that have often returned to me down though the years, fading now like an old flickering film of those wonderful days in our youth. They come to me often, on calm late summer afternoons. Suddenly I find myself looking out the open door of a chopper, it is late afternoon, I see in my mind's eye that peculiar blinking effect of the sun, reflected in those water filled shell craters that often seemed to cover those tortured plains of Vietnam below. A shouted conversation is taking place. "Hope we don't have any problems eh? With all this shit!" shouts a soldier over the noise, a 20 lb box of TNT at his feet. "Yeh! you'll end up like a leper "Bugs" says another; "How's that?" Shouts the first; "You'll have bits and pieces falling down everywhere mate!" I struggle to hear their voices, the jet engine is blocking the sound, but I can see bright eyes and their laughing faces tremble to the belting rhythm of the rotors, and someone is hitting "Bugs" on his hatless head. In those wonderful terrible days, the image fades as the jet engine screams on, towards that afternoon sun and their destiny; those dark green peaks low in the distance ahead. "Nui Thi Vai."

The Mountain ... 'Nui Thi Vai'

The mountain Nui Thi Vai was actually a relatively high hill feature, approximately 1400 to 1500 feet above the flat coastal plain in the south-western corner of Phuoc Tuy Province. Situated about 10 kilometres (six miles) west of the Nui Dat Base, it consisted of a hard basalt or granite type rock overlain by rainforest; its two peaks Nui Thi Vai and Nui Toc Tien were separated by a saddle. They dominated the main road Route 15, which ran between the main coastal town of Vung Tau and the large American base of Bien Hoa. Task Force Intelligence had reason to suspect the enemy had an observation post on top of this feature, being used in directing and controlling attacks along the highway. It was also suspected the Viet Cong 274th Regiment had at least a company strength (about 80 men) situated on this mountain somewhere. The 5th Battalion had spent some time in these hills a few weeks before during Operation Canberra, and due to booby traps and the steepness of its slopes it had not been a pleasant experience!

In October 1966 Operation Queanbeyan was mounted by the 5th Battalion to remove the VC from Nui Thi Vai. However, unknown to the Task Force at this time, the 274th VC Regiment had a base situated in an extremely strong defensive position; deep in a complex series of "Rocky Caves" almost on top of this mountain.

The Military Cross and the Soldier

The platoon fought their way into the heavily booby trapped cave system over two days against a determined 274th VC Regiment rear guard, losing one killed and three wounded. The platoons' commander, Second Lieutenant John Macaloney winning the Military Cross in this action, for leading both the platoon and the flamethrower team from the front!

At 23, he was just three years older than most of his soldiers. Of average height; fair and physically fit; Decisive; immensely self-confident; and born to be a soldier, 2/Lt Macaloney could have served Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Queen Victoria with equal success. The words "We cannot" he would not tolerate, the words "I can't!" were not in his vocabulary, to his mind there was no impossibility -- only incapability!

He kept close that small perimeter of distance he felt was appropriate for an officer; he would take little advice and brook no opposition from subordinates; even from sergeants! At any platoon social function he would be friendly and personable. The next day he was once again the commander, and all would be well advised to remember it! He would not tolerate weakness, as brave as a 'Spartan' himself, he expected and indeed demanded no less from his platoon. He was the type that would be either loved, or hated as a leader for he believed ... 'fate would favour the brave'.

He did not seek affection from his men, he wanted only their respect. He would never ask a soldier to do anything he was not willing to do himself. A natural leader, all who met him realised he was truly born to the colours. His father had been a George Cross winner in the Navy; John Macaloney often demonstrated this genetic inheritance for leadership and fearlessness during the battalions' first tour, believing in the adage: "If you are the leader, then you must lead."

The Pioneers' Take The Caves of Nui Thi Vai

Tactically the cave complex on Nui Thi Vai was an extremely difficult thing to approach. The system was a jumble of rocks some the size of houses with trees and scrub growing up between. Think of a bucket of lap stones filled with sand, now wash out some sand, and this is what the complex resembled on a larger scale. They covered a large area high above the plains below. Though called caves, they were really a pile of huge boulders; a sniper's paradise; these would give any defender a multitude of possible firing points; to strike when and where he wished, with the possibility to change position without being seen. The slope this complex occupied was very steep; around an ratio of 3 in 1 or a little less than 45 degrees. The Anti-Tank Platoon had lost one NCO killed, and an officer with Support Company HQ accompanying them, was wounded by snipers while trying to get passed the cave complex the day before the action below.

18th October 1966: The platoon had no allusions as to whether this enemy would defend the cave complex or not. It was thought highly probable they would! The platoon being at this time drastically under strength (approximately 22 men out of 30). The normal three sections were blended into two groups. (From hereon, referred to as 2 and 3 sections). The platoon commander 2/Lt John Macaloney, with the 2 Section forward scout Pte G. H. D'Antoine, worked up to what appeared to be the main cave entrance. As 2 Section followed up alternately covering and moving, agitated hand signaling from nervous NCOs, was the order of the day. There had been many incidences with booby traps during earlier operations (Canberra) on the mountain. Every man was dreading that the next step might hurl him into the air in a turmoil of smoke, dust and debris, or the man standing in front could disappear in a red-black flash!

Up to this point there had been absolute silence as 2 Section's machine gun moved to the high ground above the main cave and 3 Section were covering from the front. 2/Lt. Macaloney accompanied by the rest of 2 Section, eventually got close enough to carefully peer around the rock face into the largest cave entrance and he could see what appeared to be the workings of a booby trap device when suddenly a single gunshot rang out! All were instantly frozen; no one had seen where the shot had come from. Pte Gordon D'Antoine made some comment, and Macaloney replied to the forward scout to "take cover." The platoon was now extremely uneasy, but there was nothing to shoot at and no one appeared hit. There is little that can compare to the sensation of thinking a gun-sight might be on you from somewhere! In deadly anticipation we stared at each other in the gloomy half light of the forest floor. There had been no cry of contact! Was it an A D? (accidental discharge). The answer came perhaps five seconds later when a second shot hit D'Antoine in the back. The sniper had fired from one of the many gaps between the large boulders and Gordon D'Antoine collapsed to the ground. Still We could not fire! No one could see the snipers position. 2/Lt Macaloney worried that the platoon might explode into uncontrolled fire among the angled rock faces that surrounded us, was now forced to identify himself to the enemy as the leader. He ordered the platoon to hold its fire "unless you have a target" and 2 Section's machine gun to be brought into position to cover him as he was going to attempt to recover the mortally wounded D'Antoine now lying exposed near the base of the cave. He yelled to his frustrated platoon that he wanted only controlled fire! 2 Section and its machine gun crew rapidly moved into position. An M79 Grenade Launcher was fired into the deeper gaps between the rocks. Macaloney ordered 2 Section machine gun group of privates Chris Kuchenmeister and David Goodman to open fire into the sniper's likely firing position; he then rushed out to pull D'Antoine back. Meanwhile the platoon tried to cover every possible entrance or opening a sniper might possibly fire from. A sniper was suddenly sighted adjusting his position within the cave system, when Corporal Burge, Section Commander 2 Section took a carefully aimed shot and hit the man in the upper body, he was heard to fall down and strike the floor of the cave complex. Cpl Burge yelled out to Macaloney that "I hit him!" I saw him clearly." This sniper was almost certainly trying to position himself to kill Macaloney who said later "I actually heard the man fall to the cave floor!" Macaloney having now recovered the wounded D'Antoine, 2 Section was ordered to continue controlled fire into the cave system to suppress the snipers while 3 Section withdrew some distance and a hasty re-assessment was made of the situation.

Medical assistance was quickly organised for D'Antoine and a stretcher party was ordered to get him to A Company's position at a temporary 'LZ' (Landing Zone) further down the mountain as fast as possible. It was decided the platoon needed to change tactics. The natural formation of the cave complex offered snipers' endless opportunities to change positions. As quickly as one felt secure from one position a sniper would be able to fire from another. It was decided a flamethrower was the answer and two were immediately ordered to be prepared and delivered by chopper from the base at Nui Dat. These were duly delivered via an LZ on the mountain. When the equipment arrived, a quick test and familiarisation was made to ensure everything was in order. After all one would not wish to step out in front of the cave, have the thing go pop! and blow smoke rings at 'Charlie!'

The platoon now prepared to attack the cave complex a second time, using one flamethrower team, covered by the 2 Section machine gun. 3 Section was nominated to provide the 2 man flamethrower team and it was suggested by 2/Lt Macaloney that Pte Allen "Snowy" Walden, might perhaps volunteer to carry the flamethrower device? And Pte "Bugs" McKenzie might -- err -- volunteer also to be his number two? Macaloney, being as confident as ever of success, would accompany them in person as the third team member. (Hereafter to be referred to as the F.Team)

It was a pivotal moment; all were now thinking of the consequences for Allen Walden if this flamethrower device were to be hit by small arms fire -- theirs or ours, as it would mean almost certain death engulfed in a ball of fire! It was also obvious that if this were to happen, it would be impossible to separate Walden from the apparatus as there would be no way of suppressing the burning chemical! And all the while the enemy snipers would be able cover the area. It was an horrendous thought! And in light of the accuracy demonstrated by the enemy over 2 days, it was an appalling risk to take. It was never said but you could read it in the mens' eyes ...'poor Snowy he's probably a goner mate!' Close combat in war, shatters all pretensions about ones self. (Truth! in a moment, is here discovered, that in all conscience, "might torture you for life!") For no one offered to take his place.

As the platoon moved back up to assault the cave complex it was noticed that D'Antoine's rifle, an M16 Armalite automatic rifle, was still lying where it had fallen when he had been shot. In this position, it would be destroyed by the flamethrower. 2/Lt Macaloney decided this must be recovered first. In view of the morning's action many felt this to be almost foolhardy. Often things are decided in the heat of battle that on later reflection might be considered to have been unwise at the time. He went on to inform the platoon he was going to retrieve this weapon himself, using once again 'controlled fire', to cover his movement.

Grenades were now thrown into the cave mouth and the platoon opened fire. Lt Macaloney quickly moved foreword to recover the Armalite. As ricochet and rebounding rounds from the platoon's covering fire smacked the rock faces around him, he seized the rifle, but as he turned to come back, suddenly he cried out! He appeared to stagger, go down on one knee and drop the weapon. It was not clear at first what had happened, it appeared he had been shot by the enemy and we all thought "well that's Macaloney done for!" When he suddenly recovered himself, snatched the rifle from the ground, and dashed back to cover. It was believed he had in fact been struck in the temple by a ricochet from the platoon covering fire. Though bleeding profusely from a head wound, he now insisted on immediately leading the flamethrower team forward to the cave complex, covered by the M60 machine gun.

Due to the angled rock faces all around us, and having already been wounded possibly by the platoon's covering fire, the danger of once again risking a ricochet, rebound or worse from the platoon's weapons, was obvious in such a rocky confined space. (Macaloney was heard to say later in reference to the recovery of the rifle incident above -- "it was better to risk perhaps being shot by my own people, than to be shot for certain, by the enemy!").

In light of this earlier experience, along with the plan to have 3 men of F.Team now moving across the front of this confined rock space, the risk from the platoon's covering fire would be unacceptable. This covering fire would have to be stopped the moment the flamethrower team began to move. The plan was that the team would quickly move to the front of the caves, spray the chemical unburned into the main entrance and withdraw; only then would the chemical be ignited and flames engulf the caves. Pte Walden was unsure about this, as he felt not lighting the device would leave him rather vulnerable to enemy fire. It was explained that 'not' to ignite the flame thrower device at first, would maintain the element of surprise. (The platoon had been careful to camouflage their intentions by keeping this device out of sight). This would also lesson the risk to Walden if the device were struck by small arms fire. He would always be covered by 2 Section's machine gun situated high and to the left along with the riflemen of 3 Section from cover in front of the caves but there could be no actual suppressive fire once the F. Team began to move! And though it had been some time since the enemy had reacted, there could be no guarantee they were not just laying low merely waiting for us to attack. If so, the F.Team could then be simply 'shot down' as soon as the platoon stopped its covering fire! The lives of the F.Team would now depend on how! This was done.

Late afternoon the second assault on the caves began. The two men of the F.Team accompanied by 2/Lt Macaloney prepared to advance from the right side of the cave. As the machine gun opened fire. Fading afternoon light amplified the sparks flickering off the granite-like hard rock as the bullets struck. Now and then between the steady bursts of machine gun fire, a tracer round would ricochet and shriek out though the canopy like some demented firefly. Then all firing was suddenly ordered to stop! The F.Team were now reliant on only their own weapons and the vigilance of the 2 Section's machine gun along with 3 Section's riflemen behind rocks in front of the caves. The F.Team had been waiting against a vertical rock wall on the right side of the cave mouth, they rushed forward, across the front of the caves, and the cave entrance was spayed with chemical; this only took about 20 seconds or so, but these were the slowest 20 seconds of their lives! The chemical was then ignited; roaring flames suddenly appeared from gaps all around the Cave complex. The platoon had not realised until now, just how many firing points for the snipers had existed. Pte Walden soon found himself standing in the mouth of the main cave, silhouetted against the reflected light of the flamethrower. He stated later that for him this was the most terrifying point in the action, with the real possibility of being shot from the front by the enemy, and from behind by his own platoon; at one point he felt he could easily have been shot in the head by his own number two! He rounded on the equally nervous and unfortunate Pte Mackenzie at the time and left him in no doubt as to the opinion in the matter, in a way only a son of the Southern Cross could! (He has re-lived this whole scene on many occasions since) The F.Team now withdrew back to cover. In the face of flames and grenades, the enemy had been forced to withdraw back though the complex, taking possibly one casualty with them. The objective had been gained, hard won but not yet secured, for the caves were found to be infested with booby traps. It was now almost dark. Unfortunately booby traps and the dark do not compute!

2/Lt Macaloney was now faced with a conundrum; the platoon had been fighting for over six hours, lost one killed and over 500 rounds had been expended by 2 Section's machine gun alone!. The objective had been achieved, however it was almost dark. Occupying these caves infested with booby traps in the dark was out of the question. But if he withdrew, the enemy could re-occupy the cave complex and it would all have to be done again tomorrow! The platoon could not harbour in front of the caves, for if the enemy re-occupied the position during the night, this would give them a lethal advantage at daybreak! There was also the real risk, during the night, the enemy might get inside our defensive perimeter via the large number of unknown tunnels and exits around the area. There was no option; he ordered the platoon to withdraw from this hard won position, back to the company's position on top of the mountain. We would have to move back up quickly as it was already getting dark. All understood the implications, the enemy would most probably realise we had withdrawn; they would then re-occupy the caves. During the following early hours, a mortar bombardment on the caves tried to discourage "Mr. Charles" from preparing a reception for us in the morning. We had doubts as to its effectiveness, maybe it would interfere with his reception of "Hanoi Hanna."

Once More Into the Breach.

19th October 1966: Mornings on the Mountain were always cooler, much more comfortable up there and the air was always sweeter, above those humid "fish Sauce" stinking villages on the coastal plains below. We were informed at daybreak that we would be moving down to the cave complex again immediately after 'Stand-To'. The Pioneers adjusted their 32 to 36 Kilograms (70-80 pounds) of equipment and saddled up. Many had mixed feelings about the withdrawal the day before, and especially what that might mean for today. Having passed the caves on the 17th behind Anti-Tank Platoon, and attacked and withdrawn twice on the 18th. This would be the fourth time the platoon had been in front of this cave complex, and the third time they were about to attack it!

Once again the platoon moved cautiously down though that accursed re-entrant, towards those caves. We passed once again by the ruins of that ancient mountain top Buddhist Temple, with its stone carved swastikas, symbols of an ancient wisdom that had survived a hundred foolish wars and would no doubt survive this one. The platoon was in a state of nervous anticipation, what had occurred overnight? What could we expect? What would be our first warning if the enemy had re-occupied the caves, a sniper? Someone suddenly cut down perhaps?

Once again the platoon was divided into two groups, one to provide cover from above, and one to advance towards the cave below. A few minutes of quiet passed, and then there was a loud sharp clap! The dreaded red black flash with two men engulfed in a cloud of dust and debris, a split second of intense anticipation, followed by the sound of men in shock and pain. .It was immediately apparent a mine or a booby trap had been triggered, two men had been injured -- one severely!

Because booby traps were usually set in groups, nothing can compare To the sheer bloody terror of trying to recover mine casualties where you believe the field is covered by the enemy! There! Before you! Is the appalling sight of mine injuries, and with every slow agonising step towards them, there is a dreadful bell clanging In your head saying stop! Closer still! And you feel yourself blanch at this fearful paralysing spectre; fear and gut wrenching pity in mutual conflict drown you in a sea of turmoil and emotion! It takes every ounce of will power you possess to move forward, with a silent scream! For the years ahead in every, one, more, step!

Pte Trevor Lynch had been leaning forward to pass under a low tree branch when the booby trap device exploded in his face. He suffered terrible injuries; he lost both eyes and was profoundly blind for life, his legs appeared broken, along with other serious injuries. Pte David "Benny" Goodman had shrapnel wounds to the legs. Covered by 2 section's machine gun, The two men were recovered and carried out for 'Casevac' (casualty evacuation) at the Company L Z.

2/Lt Macaloney turned the platoon back to the purpose. Once again we moved nervously up to the caves. Fortunately, and to our immense relief, there was no further incident. The enemy had left this booby trap as their 'Parthian shot;' they had withdrawn overnight through a hidden exit and did not contest again our right to occupy the caves.

Macaloney for some time, had been suffering with mild symptoms of concussion, migraine headaches, dizzy spells and some confusion. It was decided a medevac for examination at the First Field Hospital would be in order. Though he resisted this, he was ordered out of the field by his superior. Over the next few days along with the Pioneers, men from A Company 5th Battalion and 1st Field Squadron Engineers (Sappers) were brought in to de-mine and search the quite extensive cave tunnel complex, meanwhile the exhausted Pioneers secured the surface area.

20th October 1966: Daybreak again on top of the mountain After Stand-To the sun slowly burned away the night fog lifting from the tree tops on the plains below; and flickering reflected light filtered though the leaves off the water of Vung Gan Bay in the distant south. The Pioneers were quiet. It was a time for reflection. Some had paid and some had not! Four men where no longer with us via that random draw of combat -- why those four? The platoon was now down to about 18 soldiers, some of these men would return, some would not. We smoked and chewed our C rations in silence; we pondered the big question. But we could not find the answer, even unto this day, for there is no answer to that question.

Sometime after this action it was discovered that the deputy Commander of the VC's 274th Regiment, Nguyen Nam Hung, was in the caves when the battalion had almost trapped him. His personal diary was also found and this proved to be of great value to our Intelligence Group of the Task Force. This fierce defence of the cave complex was obviously a determined rearguard left by this locally important enemy officer, ordered to give him time to gather important documents and escape capture. Also found in this complex was the 274th Regiment's radio set, the enemy leaving this valuable piece of equipment, showed the 5th Battalion had got very close to capturing him! Unfortunately Pte Gordon D'Antoine was dead on arrival at the US 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau. Pte Trevor Lynch never regained his sight and was profoundly blind until his untimely death on 8th April 1997. Pte Benny Goodman recovered from leg wounds and returned sometime later to the platoon. 2/Lt Macaloney recovered and returned to the platoon after a few days of observation. On the other side it is thought that at least one enemy soldier was killed in action, and some evidence to prove this was found during the search of the complex.

This small rear guard of the VC 274th Regiment soldiers left behind, admirably achieved their mission. They held their position against the 5th Battalion long enough to ensure the escape of their deputy commander Nguyen Nam Hung and after three days they withdrew in good order. These soldiers of the 274th were not 'Easy Beats'. For thousands of years in primitive societies, warriors were judged by the strength of their enemies. Those who have never shouldered arms may find it hard to understand how these soldiers of the 274th could have served the Royal Australian Regiment. But we take pride in the fact that,

We once were soldiers, we were "The Regiment" and we defeated them.


In the interests of accuracy, given the vagaries of individual memories, my own included over 40 years, the timeline for the story of the action above was taken from a small diary. This was kept by Pte David Harries of 2 Section Assault Pioneer Platoon though 1966-67, I have contacted seven former members of Assault Pioneer Platoon 66-67, and seven have responded. All see things from their own perspective, however the specifics and timeline of events are accurate.

The Flamethrower Team: ... As a member 3 Section I was an eye witness to this action.

Many Australian soldiers during the Vietnam conflict witnessed individual acts that deserved recognition but they went without reward. This was entirely due to the attitudes of Government bureaucrats and or military administrators with there own agendas at the time. In saying this I do not for a moment wish to lessen the actions or achievements of 2/Lt J. D. Macaloney, His award of the Military Cross for bravery was entirely justified; he was simply without doubt the bravest man, in the platoon on any day! There were of course, many more in the platoon who deserved mention. The machine gun group who lay for 6 hours exposed to the many sniper positions; the men who moved to recover those wounded by the mine knowing the immediate area had not been cleared of further booby traps at the time. However, in regard to the performance of the men in the Flamethrower Team, and in particular, the case of Pte Allen "Snowy" Walden.

2/Lt John Macaloney did not so much as order, but requested Pte Walden to carry this flamethrower device into the caves and if the essence of true bravery is both the recognition of risk, and the choice to accept it, this was one of the bravest things I have seen in my lifetime. It was 'the pivotal point in this action', the enemy had no option but to stop this flamethrower, or withdraw back through the cave complex. At the time Pte Walden was well aware over the previous two days that at least one of the snipers had proved to be a 'marksmen'. He also understood, of the three men in the F.Team, that the flamethrower itself, would of course be the enemy's priority target. Had this 'apparatus' been struck by small arms fire (This device being under pressure), Walden faced an appallingly painful death. Having no way to suppress the fire and with the enemy covering the ground, the platoon would have been utterly powerless to assist him. His valour deserved acknowledgment at the time, as it does to this day, for it was witnessed by the great bulk of the Assault Pioneer Platoon.

Allen "Snowy" Walden is an unassuming man, like all the true Vietnam veterans of the Regiment, he does not seek praise for himself, embarrassed lest he steal credit from his brothers. So I speak for Allen 'Snowy' Walden.

Dedicated to the memory of Pte. Gordon H. D'Antoine, killed in action in the assault on the caves as described above on Nui Thi Vai Mountain, 18th October 1966. And Private Trevor Lynch (deceased) who was severely wounded and permanently blinded in the same action,

Screenshot 2024-01-17 at 2.29.46 pm

The Vietnam War was a war won by soldiers, but lost by their people. I predict it will not be the last. For The Republic of South Vietnam's opposers used the greatest strength of our democracy itself, to bludgeon its greatest defenders into defeat ... A free press.

"As for five hundred and four, who fell,
These words toll! Through history's bell;
Go stranger, and to The Spartans tell,
That here, obedient to their laws, we fell."


© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers

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