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Once We Were Soldiers


Australian Infantryman's combat badge
Magpie 31
Blondes, Bombs and Bunkers – Part 2

© Roger Lambert
Platoon Commander
9 Platoon, C Company,
2nd Tour
Author: Roger Lambert

Readers would recall that I had added a 'Stop Press' to my original article, 'Blondes, Bombs and Bunkers' (http://www.5rar.asn.au/soldiers/blondes-bombs-bunkers.htm) stating that I may have identified the aircrew of Magpie 31. How wrong can one be?

In March 2013, the Webmaster, Ted Harrison, emailed me to advise that a Bob Howe had contacted him. Bob wrote "I've just come across Roger Lambert's article "Blondes, Bombs and Bunkers" on your excellent web site regarding No 2 Squadron (2 Sqn) bombing in Vietnam and it is the first time I've seen or heard of a description of what it was like to be on or near the receiving end of our bombs. On the day in question, 21 September 1969, I was the navigator/bomb aimer in Magpie 41, which was the flight after Magpie 31. Has Roger sorted out who was in Magpie 31 because if he hasn't then I can help?"

I was cautiously excited. As I wrote at the time "It's the stroke of luck I was looking for, Ted! They say all things come to those that wait but I'd just about given up hope. I'll let you know how I get on with Bob. Let's hope it's 'my' Magpie 31."

I wasted no time in contacting Bob to thank him for contacting Ted. "I would greatly appreciate it if you are able to help me out with identifying Magpie 31's crew that day. It would be great to be able to put a 'face' to the crew and to thank them for their support all those years ago. Having tracked down Jim Farris, the pilot of the Forward Air Controller (FAC) Jade 03, and exchanged memories, being able to be put in contact with the crew of Magpie 31 would be the icing on the cake. It would make a fitting addendum to the article and close the loop on a personal, human interest 'crusade' I've been on for many years.

I was a little surprised to hear that my article was the first time that you'd heard about what it was like to be on the receiving end of 6 x 750 lb bombs in Close Air Support (CAS). We were used to being supported by 105 Battery's 105mm howitzers whenever they were fired for effect when we were in contact with the enemy but nothing could quite prepare one for the effect of Magpie 31's aerial support. It gave a whole new meaning to the expression 'Did the earth move for you?' As I said in the article, I don't think that my diggers have ever forgiven me for that aerial bombardment. It's a subject that comes up at every platoon reunion and while we can have a chuckle about it now, it really was in deadly earnest some 44 years ago ..."

 Flt LT Bob Howe 2 Squadron RAAF at Phan Rang 1969Bob's response was almost immediate. "I served with No 2 Squadron from May 1969 to May 1970 at Phan Rang and completed 260 operational missions in that time. Those times are reasonably fresh in my ageing mind as I am in the process of writing up my experiences with as much detail as I can find and in doing some web research I stumbled across your web article on your outstanding web site.

I live in Canberra and close by in Tuggeranong is the Air Power Development Centre which gave me a copy of the Unit History Sheets (Forms A51) which I believe they obtained from the National Archives. These contain a page for each day and on these pages are listed in time order the missions/sorties carried out for the day.

They don't contain any Magpie numbers but, as my own logbook proves, they kept faithfully to the normal "fragging" (the RAAF use of this term is explained later) sequence which began the day with Magpie 11 and concluded normally with Magpie 81 or 91, depending on whether we flew 8 or 9 missions. As far as I know all 7th Air Force tactical air (tacair) flying units, including No 2 Squadron, allocated numbers such as that and did not marry any one number to any one pilot or aircraft.

Within the USAF community I believe only the FACs personally retained the same call-sign and number throughout, although in some cases you could get two Jade 03s when one succeeded the other. In fact a few of my RAAF fighter pilot colleagues also served as Jade FACs.

 2 Squadron's Mission Sheet for 21 September 1969I've attached a copy of 21 September 69 flight programme as recorded in the standard Form A.51. On that day I can confirm, from both my logbook and diary, that Ivan Grove and I flew as Magpie 41 and as you can see we are listed fourth.

The aircraft before us was A84-236 flown by our Commanding Officer, Wing Commander John Whitehead, together with the squadron Navigation Officer/Leader, Squadron Leader Bruce Hunt. So I'm virtually positive that your crew were our most senior pilot and navigator/bomb aimer.

You can see also that only M117 750lb bombs were used on that day, 6 each on 8 missions. All were visual day bombing missions (VIS) except for one night-time "Combat SkySpot" (CSS) which we flew under the control of a ground-based radar operator, usually in I or II Corps.

I knew both gents and as far as I know John still resides in Canberra and I believe Bruce passed away last year but I would need to confirm that. I would be pleased to follow up through my (No 2 Squadron Association) network to ascertain contact details if you wish.

In addition I would like to discuss more about that particular day as my curiosity has been aroused further."

Needless to say, I'd responded to Bob the next day. "Many thanks for your detailed response. I was in country with 5RAR from January 1969 to March 1970; platoon commander 9 Platoon, C Company (Call-sign 33). It's pleasing to hear that you are recording many of your experiences; as the saying goes, "If we don't write history, who will?" It's one of the reasons that I've been writing those articles for the battalion website; there are several articles on the site from me but more on the humorous side of soldiering.

I'm not familiar with the RAAF term "fragging" but I think I get your drift. "Fragging" for we infantrymen has a vastly different connotation - "fragging" derived its name from the fragmentation or shrapnel from an exploding M26 grenade, lobbed into an intensely disliked officer's or senior non-commissioned officer's tent.

 WG CDR John White Whitehouse and SQN LDR Bruce Hunt in front of their Canberra Bomber A84-236So, it seems that Magpie 31, A84-236, was flown by the CO no less, Wing Commander John Whitehead, together with the squadron Navigation Officer/Leader, Squadron Leader Bruce Hunt, the squadron's most senior pilot and navigator/bombardier. It sounds as if we were in very good hands but then the same could be said for all you 2 Sqn pilots and navigators flying the missions in Vietnam. The squadron has a solid and well-earned reputation with both the Australians and Americans alike for discipline, determination and precision bombing skills.

And thanks for confirming that they were 750 lb bombs. I would have been disappointed to have to tell my boys that were merely 500 pounders (tongue firmly in cheek).

That's sad that Bruce has passed away if that is the case; we're losing too many veterans of that conflict but I guess we're all getting on in years. It would be good to catch up with John at some stage to put a face to the name, to shake his hand and to thank him for his accurate bombing in concert with Bruce that day. In that light, I'd be very pleased if you follow up through the 2 Sqn Association regarding contact details.

I'm happy to discuss the events of that day although some details are a little hazy after all this time. I'm still tickled pink that thanks to you, the final part of the puzzle may have fallen into place ― at least from an Aussie perspective. I'd still like to know who my blonde 'friend' was and whether he survived the conflict."

Bob replied the next day "Regarding the term "fragging" from an Air Force perspective, it comes from the Operations Order (Ops Order) where each element that defined a mission was regarded as a fragment of the Ops Order and became common usage for tactical air missions in South Vietnam; i.e. each mission was 'fragged', being the authorisation to launch the mission.

I've made contact with John Whitehead who's currently overseas and who advises that he will check his logbook when he returns shortly."

With Bob's news about his contact with John Whitehead, I now had a very positive feeling that thanks to his contact with Ted Harrison, we may well have closed the chapter in my quest to ID the crew of Magpie 31. And true to his earlier 'heads-up', Bob posed a series of questions to assist with his own writing of his experiences. I warned Bob that I'd do my best to answer his questions, reminding him that we're talking events of some 44 years ago.

What follows are the questions posed by Bob and my answers:

Q. When you said you had no qualms about directing the FAC, I understood that most times a "Possum" LOH (light observation helicopter) was in the vicinity with 1 ATF operations and would act as the go-between for you on the ground, the FAC and ourselves. I presume that there was no LOH around that day. Was this usual or rare?

A. SOP for directing air support was to delineate your position on the ground through the use of coloured smoke. We always carried a variety of coloured smoke grenades (red, green, yellow, purple). The one colour smoke was used to indicate the flank of the platoon's position and therefore our frontage in relation to the enemy. This always applied whether one was being supported by "Bushranger" gunships or fast jets. It was quite normal for ground troops to communicate directly with the gunships and in my case with the FAC, Jade 03, on 21 September 69. The "Bushranger" or in this case, FAC, would come up on the Company net frequency so we had direct communications with him. Once communications were established, that's when FAC would ask us to throw smoke to delineate our position and then ask for range and direction to the target if he didn't have a visual. He'd then roll in and fire a Willy-Pete (WP) rocket to mark the target and then ask for any correction from us. In this case on 21 September 69, we'd struck a large bunker complex (we didn't know how big until later that evening). We'd pulled back some ways while in contact and I'd asked Company Headquarters for artillery support. If memory serves me correctly, 7 and 8 Platoons were busy with their own contacts and the guns were already in support of those actions. That's when we were advised that there was a Magpie available and could provide close air support (CAS). That's a rather long-winded answer to your question and I hope that covers off on it for you. 21 September 69 was the only occasion during my tour with 9 Platoon, C Company, 5 RAR that I had the use of CAS. I Cessna 0-2 FAC Aircrafthad however, earlier in the tour, had the opportunity of actually flying with a USAF FAC (Cessna O-2) out of Nui Dat. We put in an airstrike on some VC market gardens to the North using a flight of Cessna Dragonflies armed with napalm. Our CO, LTCOL Khan, in his wisdom, arranged for Platoon Commanders to go on these sorties to get a better understanding of the problems that a FAC could face in flying his aircraft, putting WP onto a target, directing the fast jets, and then going in to do a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA). From this, I had a reasonable idea of what Jade 03 would require from me with the Magpie strike.

Q. Were you able to talk directly with the FAC, i.e. having been given his call-sign and frequency beforehand or did you communicate via a third party?

A. Yes, I had direct contact with the FAC at all times once he came on station. Jade 03 would have been given our frequency by Battalion HQ; my Company Commander had two radios nets ― one was called the Command Net for communications between the CO (Battalion Headquarters) and his Company Commanders and the other was the Company Internal Net for communications between the OC and his Platoon Commanders. The OC, MAJ Claude Ducker, would have been communicating with Battalion Headquarters (Zero Alpha) on the Command Net and that's where frequencies would be exchanged. There is always the possibility of course that Task Force HQ was also involved where CAS either from the USAF or RAAF was involved. I still have the vivid memory of Jade 03 coming up on the Company frequency with "33. This is Jade 03, over." (33 you'd recall was my Platoon call-sign ― Company HQ was 3, 7 Platoon was 31 and 8 Platoon was 32).

Q. Could you see the FAC at all and the Canberra?

A. Yes, we had glimpses of the FAC through the jungle canopy and we could hear his engines as he put his WP into the bunker complex. We never did see Canberra.