On Active Service

To Nui Dat with the 173rd Airborne Brigade

In 1997, Peter Isaacs wrote this account of a visit he and Brian LeDan made to 173rd Airborne Brigade in May 1966, a few days before 5RAR deployed into its TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) on Operation HARDIHOOD. Peter was the Adjutant and Brian the Regimental Signals Officer of 5RAR during its first tour of Vietnam in 1966-67

To gain some experience of airmobile operations, particularly of how a battalion HQ operated in the field and to obtain first hand experience of central Phuoc Tuy Province, Brian LeDan and I went up to Bien Hoa to join the 1st Battalion of the American 503rd Airborne Regiment. (1/503rd) The 173rd Airborne Brigade operation in which we were to participate, was a two battalion sized operation (1/503rd and 2/503rd) aimed at a preliminary clearance of the intended 1ATF Tactical Area Of Operations (TAOR) in central Phuoc Tuy. In the afternoon before the operation was launched, we arrived at the 1/503rd. It was fascinating to walk through the camp and the adjacent artillery lines. The GIs were in the last stages of preparing for the following days operation and they seemed to be in good spirits. "Airborne all the way" was the frequently heard cry particularly from the Sergeants and the same expression was painted on the barrels of some of the 105mm guns of the artillery battery. The battalion CO was Lieutenant Colonel Coad. His S3 or Operations Officer was Major Phelan who would shortly become S3 at Brigade HQ. We listened to a briefing on how the operation was to be conducted. My chief interests in the operation were to observe how two battalions were to move by helicopter in two lifts and how control was exercised particularly the final assault and the preliminary air and artillery bombardment of the assault L Z (Landing Zone). The scope for cock-ups seemed enormous!

We stayed the first night with 1RAR who were now preparing to leave South Vietnam as soon as 6RAR arrived. The base camps of all three battalions of 173rd Airborne Brigade were adjacent to each other around the Bien Hoa air base with 1RAR in the centre. Before stand to, I visited John Healey who was commanding A Company. John had met me at Holsworthy when I arrived in Australia 2 ½ years before. He reminded me of it and said little did we know then that we should be here at Bien Hoa in 1966. All battalions "stood to," i.e. assumed battle readiness in their defensive positions from 30 minutes before last light until 30 minutes after last light. The same procedure was repeated in the morning before and after first light. It is the time when attacks are most likely to occur and a time when commanders can ensure that their defences are in order. It is also the time to change from a day to night routine at dusk and resume day routine at dawn. The 1RAR area was totally blacked out and quiet. Indeed, I heard Alec Preece the CO of 1RAR getting annoyed when someone opened the door of the battalion HQ tactical operations centre (TOC) before the lights were switched off. In the bases of the 1/503rd and 2/503rd there were no such restrictions on lights and indeed men seemed to be making the usual sort of noise as during the daytime. Looking around it was as though 1RAR's area was unoccupied between the two American camps.

After stand down I spent a couple of hours listening with great interest to my erstwhile colleagues in 1RAR explain how they had operated in South Vietnam during the previous year. John Essex Clark was in good humour and full of advice. Chris Peacock who had replaced me in 1 RAR was similarly helpful. It was with some excitement and not a little trepidation about the forthcoming operation that I turned in that night.

Before dawn on the morning of the 17th May, Brian and I drove to the airfield. The whole of the 1/503rd were already lined up in "chalks" i.e. six man groups, one for each helicopter along the edge of the runway. We joined the battalion HQ party and were assigned into chalks. The air filled with sound as an US Army Aviation Company of thirty Iroquois troop carrying "slicks" arrived and landed. A second Aviation Company was getting ready to lift the next wave. The light and heavy fire teams that were to accompany us flew around what to me was an air armada. I had never seen anything like it. We clambered aboard and the lines of helicopters slowly lifted off the ground and moved forward gaining altitude as their speed increased. What an experience! We flew south in two lines of helicopters escorted by the light and heavy fire teams on either side and ahead. In the early morning light the helicopters oscillated up and down relative to each other yet from the ground we would have appeared to be flying in rigid formation. The beat of the rotors, the noise of the turbine engines and the roar of the wind past the open sides. We grinned at each other. Most of the GIs were chewing gum. I think it helped calm nerves. About half the troops in my aircraft were black and several had 8mm movie cameras in their hands. We were flying to a fire support base between Ba Ria and Nui Dat where the battalion would assemble for the final air assault into the objective L Z.

We landed in dry paddy fields either side of a road, tumbled out of the helicopters and I joined Colonel Coad's party close to a stone shack near the road. An Australian Captain named Craig Legget was there. (I next met Craig in Zagreb in 1993 where he was serving on the HQ staff of UNPROFOR during the Balkans conflict) He led an irregular band of ex VC known as the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit. The half battalion that had arrived in the first lift spread out across the paddy fields to await the next lift from Bien Hoa. We were behind the artillery battery that was preparing to shoot us in. to the objective L Z. I listened to the radio conversations between the officer commanding the helicopters and the assistant S3 who was controlling the lifts. The air commander was saying how many men his aircraft would pick up for the assault but they would have to refuel first at Vung Tau. This all seemed complex to me as there might well be much jockeying about as the numbers for troops for pick up by each Slick could change and sections and platoons could become mixed up. It didn't seem to worry the assistant S3 and he was passing orders to the companies telling them how many men to load.

I joined one of the assault Rifle Companies moving up to their positions along paddy bunds. The second wave of helicopters arrived and their troops disembarked rapidly. The helicopters then flew off to refuel. When they returned, air strikes onto our objective L Z had started. We boarded the helicopters and as we took off, the artillery battery commenced firing. We would approach the L Z at right angles to the line of artillery fire so that they didn't have to stop firing until we were practically touching down.

The adrenalin was certainly flowing as we began the descent in two lines of helicopters towards the objective L Z. There were two Rifle Companies in the first assault wave and I was in about the third helicopter of the right hand column. I could now see the objective L Z which was obscured by smoke from the earlier air strikes and the artillery fire now being put down. The fire teams were firing ahead as we approached and would cover the actual assault landing when the artillery fire stopped. What amazed me as we came in to land was that several of the troops had their 8mm movie cameras at the ready instead of their rifles! The side gunners on the outside of the two lines of helicopters were now firing their M60s into the tree line on either side of the L Z. As they poured into the L Z from above the trees, each helicopter "flared" into an upwards attitude which took off the forward speed. Before the skids touched the ground we were out and lying on the ground. The helicopters barely touched the ground and then rose swiftly into the air again to collect the next wave. As they did so we doubled across the open area to our assigned position to defend the L Z until the next lift arrived. There was no hostile firing - not surprising given the thorough preparation that L Z Hudson had received that morning! The Rifle Company spread out as commanders took control. We waited until the next lift arrived and I then joined the battalion HQ party and we moved off behind one of the Rifle Companies. It had all worked very smoothly but then, there had been no opposition!

The GIs were well equipped and heavily armed. They all carried 5.56mm M16 (Armalite) rifles and each man had a very good field pack attached to a light aluminium frame. Their green shirts and trousers were a better design than ours and had more pockets. They all wore steel helmets covered in a camouflaged material. We didn't wear steel helmets - just our green jungle hats, much envied by the GIs. Many of them had a broad rubber band cut from tyre inner tubes around their helmets in which bottles of insect repellent were secured. Some added a pack of Camel fags to this useful stowage space but it destroyed the effectiveness of the camouflaged material. Each Rifle Company had its own section of two x 81mm mortars. Each rifleman also carried a round of 81mm mortar ammunition which they dumped at the mortar position if a long halt was called. The machine guns were the same 7.62mm M60s as we had. Each rifleman carried at least five x 20 round magazines for his M16 rifle plus extra boxes of 50 rounds plus a spare belt of 200 of 7.62mm rounds for the Squad M60 slung bandolier style across one shoulder. Section Commanders had a 40mm M79 grenade launcher and about 10 rounds of ammunition. Each man also carried fragmentation and smoke grenades. A formidable load of ammunition and weapons to carry and then there was food (C rations), a change of clothing, two water bottles and spare radio batteries. Peacetime exercises are rarely conducted with troops carrying anything like the loads they have to carry in war. It is a nasty surprise the first time that reality arrives! The radios used by the GIs were the excellent ANPRC VHF range of sets with which the Australian Army had been equipped in 1963.

Battalion HQ moved in file - i.e. two lines walking one behind the other about four yards between each file and about two yards from the man in front. I had no responsibility other that to look around. I was close to the S3 and could hear him keeping track of where the Rifle Companies were moving. This was very difficult to do when we ourselves were on the move as I was to find out later myself. We followed the Rifle Company for two - three hours before we stopped near a clearing suitable as an L Z. On one side of the clearing was a small abandoned and overgrown rubber plantation. Banana trees grew nearby. Elsewhere, the vegetation was thick scrub with thorny bushes and patches of bamboo. The ground was red latterite.

The Rifle Company left us with a platoon for our protection and set off eastwards. We were all black with sweat and stretched out against the rubber trees. The radios chattered, the S3 called "Buckle Shine 2 this is Buckle Shine 1 over". "This is 2 over". American voice procedure was different to ours. They changed their call signs every day from a random list of names. There were always two names that identified the net and the number which followed indicated the sub unit. Of the hundreds of names that I heard on American radio nets over the following year, I can remember those used by 1/503rd during the first 24 hours of my first war "Buckle Shine" and "Sandy Reef". The American Province Advisors net call sign on that same day was "Stall Tattoo".

As we were obviously staying put for some time, many of the GIs wasted no time in getting a brew going and opening up cans of C rations. They discarded the cans and trash without attempting to bury them. The CO and S3 were busy with maps and radios as the Rifle Companies searched their assigned areas for signs of VC presence. Late in the afternoon, B Company reported that they had spotted a VC following them who appeared to have a radio. Shortly afterwards, they reported being in contact with a sizeable VC force. A nasty fire fight developed and B Company called in artillery and mortar fire. At some stage, several rounds of their own artillery fire landed on a platoon of B Company. Whose fault it was we didn't know. It could have been the infantry moving into an area already called as an artillery target or it could have been the artillery forward controller with B Company Commander making an error and calling the fire in too close. Or it could have been a fault at the gun lines - firing on a moving bubble or some such artillery technical fault. We were about a mile and a half from B Company and could hear the firing quite clearly.

Unlike the Australian system where the artillery battery commander is always with the infantry battalion commander, the Americans had a junior artillery officer with the infantry commander and the battery commander stays with the guns. The senior artillery officer with us at battalion HQ was a young captain. He seemed calm but not surprisingly very concerned that his rounds had caused casualties to B Company. I thought it would have been better if the battery commander was with battalion HQ. The CO seemed to me to be not too concerned. Indeed, I was surprised at the whole atmosphere within the TOC group. B Company had run into what was probably a VC company sized force. They had been caught in cross fire but were extricating themselves. They had casualties both dead and wounded but no one raised their voices and didn't seem too concerned that larger VC forces could well be nearby. Colonel Coad gave orders for his other Rifle Companies to move towards B Company but they were some way off and no helicopters could be made immediately available to lift them into B Company's location

Perhaps fortunately for B Company, the VC broke off contact and the S3 called in "Dust Off" helicopters to pick up the wounded and the dead. In the hour or so that the contact been in progress, B company had taken 8 killed and 23 wounded.

Word was passed that we would be remaining in our present position for the night. The Top Sergeant who seemed to be in charge of the defence of battalion HQ moved men into perimeter positions. I think the Rifle Platoon that had earlier provided our defence had moved to assist B Company. From what followed, I think we must have been on our own that night which is not recommended for a battalion HQ.

By now it was getting late. No one had dug any defensive positions and no one seemed to be preparing meals before it got dark. Brian and I were tired and switched into automatic mode. We dug a shell scrape about three feet deep and four feet long. We then started to cook our C rations. It was at that moment we understood why nobody else was cooking. A lone helicopter clattered into the L Z and dumped hot boxes -aluminium food containers, paper plates and cups and then departed - presumably for a Rifle Company's L Z. The GIs set to and ate with gusto and within a few minutes they had finished eating. The paper plates and cups were discarded. They then began to prepare for last light. Many had nylon hammocks which they strung between rubber trees.

As last light approached, everyone stood to in their assigned defensive position. Those on the perimeter had dug shallow trenches but apart from Brian and me, no one else had. Someone shouted a command - probably the Top Sergeant and those on the perimeter opened fire. The noise during the one minute of firing was deafening. Australian tactical doctrine is that before last light, clearing patrols go out from a perimeter to ensure no enemy forces are within a couple of hundred yards of the defensive position from which they can either observe or assault as darkness falls. Each patrol might also drop off a two man listening post to give early warning of enemy approach.

Americans do it differently and believe in clearing by fire. OK if you have the resources of ammunition to sustain it but it also gives away your position to the enemy - as does a visit by a helicopter shortly before last light. Brian and I settled down in our lightweight sleeping bags on the ground rather envious of those who had clambered into hammocks nearby.

At some time during the night we were awakened by a low shout - "Stand to, stand to, VC are inside the perimeter!"

We rolled out of our sleeping bags and into our slit trench. Pistols drawn we peered into the inky blackness and waited. We were very pleased with ourselves for having dug that trench. Those in their hammocks about two feet off the ground before stand to was called, were very vulnerable to small arms fire.

There was an odd burst of fire from our positions on the perimeter but nothing incoming. After a while, stand down was announced.

At dawn the next morning, a large circular directional mine was discovered just outside the perimeter. It was wired to torch batteries taped inside a length of bamboo. Had it been detonated, the casualties would most probably have been devastating to the battalion HQ staff, most of whom were well within the lethal range of the mine - and in their hammocks two feet above the ground!

Brian and I stayed with 1/503rd for another 24 hours. During that time there were no further contacts with the VC. We climbed the hill at Nui Dat that was soon to become the base of our D Company and then took out leave of 1/503rd and returned by a re-supply helicopter to Vung Tau.

We reported our adventures and joined in the last minute preparations for Operation Hardihood - the establishment of 1ATF at Nui Dat.


© Peter Isaacs
Adjutant 5RAR
1st Tour

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