My Life Story - Vietnam 1967-68 - Tet

My Personal Pages


These two pictures were taken for my military and civilian ID cards, just before we left Adelaide for Vietnam in December 1967. I was nineteen.





Getting There


The battalion travelled to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney, an old aircraft carrier converted to a troopship, which made so many trips to Vietnam that it became known as the Vung Tau ferry. Our departure from Outer Harbour, Port Adelaide, was quite a big deal, with a huge crowd, streamers, and not a dry eye in the place when the crowd started singing "Now Is The Hour" as the ship pulled away from the shore.



This picture of 3RAR's departure from Outer Harbour, Adelaide, comes from the Australian War Memorial photo collection.



The voyage to Vietnam took about two weeks, during which three significant things happened. The first was my twentieth birthday, the third was Christmas, and in between, back in Australia, the Prime Minister disappeared while spearfishing at a beach south of Melbourne.


Sleeping conditions for the soldiers on the Sydney were ridiculous. We were expected to sleep in several levels of hammocks, so densely packed together that it seemed we all had someone to our right, someone to our left, someone above and someone else below us. There was no fresh air, and the atmosphere was stifling.


The first night out of Adelaide, in the rough waters of the Australian Bight, I went to see a movie. It was screened in a completely enclosed room, crowded with smokers. The atmosphere, combined with the rolling of the ship, made me quite ill, and I went outside onto the deck to get some fresh air. It was so pleasant out there that I decided to sleep there. From that night on, I did not spend one night in a hammock. The next day a sailor showed me the fo'c'sle area, where the anchor chains were kept. It was up near the front of the ship, and had huge openings in the sides for the anchor chains. Sailors would sleep up there because of the cool, fresh air that came in through those openings. No doubt the quality of their sleep was enhanced by being able to laugh at the discomfort of the soldiers crowded into their cramped quarters like sardines. That anchor compartment became my sleeping quarters for the whole trip.


I had a very enjoyable voyage. I was nominally a member of Signal Platoon, attached to C Company. When it was time for PT or training drills, if I wasn't with the sigs, they would assume I was with Charlie Company, and vice versa. In fact, I was sunbathing on the flight deck or learning from the sailors all the best places on the ship to hide to avoid duties. The one exception was target practice. This was done at the back of the ship, where balloons were dropped into the sea, and we would shoot at them as they floated away.  For target practice I would turn up with both Sig Platoon and Charlie Company.


We stopped briefly in Fremantle, where Western Australians were allowed to go ashore and meet their famiies. Then we sailed north, past Christmas Island and onto Sunda Strait. A highlight for me was the day we passed by Krakatoa, the Indonesian volcano whose eruption in the nineteenth century had been the biggest explosion in recorded history. If you can imagine the ideal image of what a volcano should look like, Krakatoa was it. A perfect conical shaped mountain rising out of the ocean. 





In Country

The Sydney anchored in Vung Tau Harbour on the morning of the 27th of December 1967, and a fleet of Chinook helicopters landed on the deck to take us to Nui Dat. A lot of veterans have vivid memories of the moment they first set foot on Vietnamese soil, but I have none. I saw nothing from the Chinook, and there was nothing memorable about our landing.




This picture shows 3RAR soldiers on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney in Vung Tau Harbour, loading onto a Chinook to fly to Nui Dat (AWM photo collection).


Arriving at Nui Dat (AWM photo collection).

Nui Dat


3RAR occupied a new area of the Nui Dat base, and was actually outside the previously existing perimeter. It was under construction when we arrived, and apparently the idea was that we would work on constructing a connection with the rest of the Task Force base at the same time as we carried out our patrolling duties. The Tet Offensive put an end to that idea, because we actually spent an average of one day in three on operations outside Phuoc Tuy Province. That meant that for the whole time I was in Vietnam there was no way that a 3RAR soldier could walk to the main Task Force area without being part of an escorted convoy. Consequently, in my whole tour of duty, I was never able to visit the PX, and I never saw a concert at the Luscombe Bowl.


I arrived in Vietnam at an interesting time in Australian history. While we had been at sea, the Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had disappeared while spearfishing at a beach on the Mornington Peninsular, south of Melbourne. When we arrived, with limited access to Australian news, I did the best I could to follow what was happening. Once the political machinery accepted that the Prime Minister had most likely died, a new leader had to be found in an unprecedented set of circumstances. The majority party made their choice, but again they made it interesting. They chose a Senator, John Gorton, who then had to resign from the Senate and find a seat in the House of Representatives. It was a remarkable time for a young digger with an interest in politics to be starting a tour of duty in a war zone far from home.


Adding further interest to those early days in country, the next news sensation in Australia was happening just up the road from my family home. It became known as the Glenfield Siege.


Glenfield was part of the catchment area for my high school, and the young woman involved in the siege, Beryl Muddle, had attended my school.


A local young man, Wally Mellish, apparently fired a shot at some police who had knocked on his door wanting to talk to him about some relatively minor matter. This led to an armed stand-off between Wally and the local police. It turned into a "siege" when the police found out that Beryl Muddle and her young baby were inside the house. At first the police thought she was a hostage, but they had to change their minds when Wally announced that one of his demands was to marry Beryl.


The siege became the biggest spectator event in local history. It turned into a farce of the highest order when the State Police Commissioner went in to negotiate and became not only a hostage but a witness at Wally and Beryl's wedding.


The Commissioner then escalated the farce to a new level when he made Wally an offer he couldn't refuse. Since Wally seemed to be so handy with firearms, the Commissioner reasoned, why not ask him if he would kindly consider joining the army and going to Vietnam to fight our nation's enemies instead of the local police? Having secured immunity from prosecution for the siege as part of the deal, Wally agreed. He was then taken to army headquarters, only for the army to discover that Wally was way, way below their minimum standard for education and aptitude. So Wally walked free! Too dumb to go to a foreign country he'd barely heard of and be shot at, but not too dumb to pull off one of the greatest tactical victories in Australian legal history! Little wonder that the movie that was made of the siege ends with Wally putting his arm around Beryl and saying "you've gotta love this country."





Anti-Tank Platoon


While I was in 3RAR I was nominally a member of the signal platoon. I was an infantry signaller, or radio operator (sig for short). Sig platoon does not operate as a platoon however, because its sigs are deployed to various parts of the battalion. I arrived in Vietnam as a sig attached to ‘C’ Company. But I was only in country for a few days when I was shifted to anti-tank platoon.


In 3RAR, anti-tank platoon was a multi-tasked outfit. The Viet Cong did not have tanks, at least not in the III Corps zone where we operated. So we used our anti-tank weapons as infantry fire support. Anti-tank platoon also contained the battalion’s tracker teams, comprising tracker dogs, dog handlers and visual trackers. In addition, anti-tank could also be used as a long-range reconnaissance platoon, or as an extra rifle platoon attached to one of the rifle companies.


From the time I arrived in anti-tank, we seemed to be on an endless programme of patrolling around the battalion’s TAOR (tactical area of operational responsibility). In Stuart Rintoul's book Ashes of Vietnam, I recount the experience of my first patrol with Anti-Tank, and the fact that I was too busy worrying about the two live grenades I was carrying in pouches on my chest to be scared of running into the VC. Obviously I had thrown grenades before, but I had never previously carried live ones around with me. I would laugh about that experience later, when carrying grenades became as much a part of the daily routine as carrying a sweat rag.


I also remember that first patrol with Anti-Tank for my first experience of hearing a live bullet whizz past my ears. Or at least that is what it felt like. We were heading back to Nui Dat, walking across a rice paddy when that shot rang out. As we all hit the dirt I discovered that a rice paddy in the dry season feels just like concrete! We reported that we were under fire and prepared to carry out a contact drill, when a message came through on the radio that we had come too close to an ARVN post, and they had fired a warning shot over our heads. Welcome to Vietnam!


On one of my first mornings in Anti-Tank, I walked out of my tent intending to have a wash and a shave, when I saw an aircraft fly over and spray the area with a nasty smelling, greasy liquid. With hindsight I believe it was an insecticide, most likely Malathion. The smell and the greasy feel of the stuff comes from the fact that the herbicides and pesticides used in Vietnam couldn't be sprayed from aircraft in their pure form. They had to be mixed with a solvent that would break down into a fine spray, and the solvent that seemed to work best was diesel fuel.


I went back inside my tent, and when I emerged later for my wash and shave, I looked down, and on the ground I saw the biggest, blackest, hairiest, meanest looking spider I had ever seen. It was on the ground at my feet, and it was dead. Other members of the platoon came over to have their photos taken with "Fang," as I called him. Most of them posed holding him in an open hand to demonstrate that he was so big that his legs would hang over the sides of the hand. Two thoughts occurred to me that morning. One was that I was lucky to find Fang dead, not alive and angry, the other was, whatever they sprayed from that aircraft must be pretty powerful stuff. 


Anti-Tank's routine patrolling duties included day patrols, night ambush patrols, and night listening patrols. Our home base covered a sector of the Nui Dat perimeter, so every night that we spent at Nui Dat we would all be rostered for two-hour shifts on a machine gun post.


And then came Tet.



This is a picture of Anti-Tank Platoon preparing to leave FSB Coral in May 1968. I was no longer with the platoon when this picture was taken. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of myself with Anti-Tank. I found this picture on the internet. A veteran had posted it on a web site with a query, asking if anybody knew who the soldiers and dogs in the picture were.


The Tet Offensive

On the first morning of February 1968, I was doing my watch at a machine gun post when an order came for us to get ready for a patrol. This came as quite a surprise, because it was still pre-dawn. An overnight listening patrol had found a Viet Cong mortar base plate position with a cache of ammunition. Anti-tank platoon was to go out and find the listening patrol, set up an ambush on the ammunition cache in case anybody came back for it and, if not, blow it up.

At this stage 2RAR, 7RAR and one company of 3RAR were away from Nui Dat. They were in Bien Hoa Province on Operation Coburg. 3RAR were still the new boys on the block, having been in country for just a month. Because of the absence of so much of the task force, the listening patrol was made up of rear echelon personnel with little patrolling experience. That’s why anti-tank was tasked with this job.

On the western side of the road between Nui Dat and Hoa Long there is an old rubber plantation. Beyond the rubber there is a wide expanse of rice paddies. The paddies end with some thick bush flanking a stream, the Song Dinh, that runs from north to south. The listening patrol was in the rice paddies. A troop of armoured personnel carriers picked us up and took us as far as the rubber trees. That is when they told us that they couldn’t take us any further. The provincial capital, Baria, had been attacked. Our APCs had to go back to Nui Dat, pick up ‘A’ Company, one of our battalion’s rifle companies, and go into Baria and take back the town. Baria had become part of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese offensive, which took advantage of the national cease-fire for the Tet national holiday to attack every city and major town in South Vietnam.

After they dropped us off and picked up ‘A’ Company, those same APCs drove into Baria, where they were hit by rocket propelled grenades in a VC ambush. In charge of the APCs that morning was a young Lieutenant, Roger Tingley. Roger was wounded in the RPG attack, but stayed on duty, and was later awarded the Military Cross. Some 20 years later, Roger and I would find ourselves working together in veterans’ organisations in Western Australia.

We found the listening patrol, and they led us to the ammunition cache. We set up an ambush, but the VC did not return. So, just after dawn, we blew it up. My old mate Jack Hammer was the demolition man who did the job. Jack and I had been founding members of 8RAR (in Brisbane), before we were both transferred to 3RAR (in Adelaide). I owned a car at the time, so Jack and I cashed in our travel warrants and drove non-stop from Brisbane to Adelaide together. When we arrived, I was placed in Sig Platoon, while Jack went to Anti-tank, where he was a machine gunner, as well as being a demolition expert.

By the time we blew up the ammunition cache, a battle was raging in Baria. We could see it, and we could hear it. At some time during the morning, a message came over the radio. Four VC had been seen leaving the fighting in Baria, and they were headed in our direction. We were given a grid reference for a place where the track they were on would cross the Song Dinh. If we hurried, we could reach the crossing and set up an ambush.

We charged off in the direction of the crossing. Before we got there though, there was some pretty thick jungle to get through. It included an incredibly thick stand of bamboo. When this stuff grows in the wild, it bears little resemblance to the ornamental bamboo that grows in domestic gardens. Its branches are pointed like spears, and it gets so thickly entangled that the only way you can get through it is to crawl on your belly. Even then it can rip the clothes right off you.

Now remember, at this stage we were not just anti-tank platoon, with its extensive patrolling experience from its first month in country. Our numbers also included the members of the listening patrol we had picked up earlier. They were cooks, clerks and storemen, and this was their first time outside the wire.

Just as we arrived at the creek crossing, another message came over the radio. It wasn’t four VC, it was forty, and we had better get the hell out of there! Now, I actually remember the number as four hundred. But anti-tank had a reunion in 2002, and was evenly split between those who remember it as 40 and those who remember it as 400. So, in telling the story, I have decided to err on the side of not exaggerating. Let’s just say it was 40. That is still too many for a platoon to ambush. So, as quickly as we had struggled through the bamboo jungle to reach the crossing, we now had to clear out of there.

Eventually we made it back to the rice paddies between the rubber and the Song Dinh. This was when we realised that there was a role we could play in the Battle of Baria. The creek, with its thick cover, was a VC escape route from the fighting in Baria. As long as we could stay out of sight, we could observe their escape and call in artillery or air strikes on them. Staying out of sight was the key, because we were in the middle of an expanse of wide-open (dry season) rice paddies. If anybody saw us, we were sitting ducks, and heavily outnumbered sitting ducks.

We started calling in artillery, and that appeared to be working. Then some American pilots asked for a chance to get in on the action, and we found ourselves calling in air strikes. The American pilots soon grew impatient going through the usual radio procedures, so one of the pilots gave me a radio frequency that I could use to talk directly to him. This was against the rules we normally operated under, but my platoon commander, Lieutenant Clarke, agreed to it. So we were calling in air strikes and giving immediate corrections to the American pilots as they bombed the escaping VC. We had our own fireworks display all through the afternoon.

So that is my memory of Day One of the Tet Offensive. It was just the beginning of my adventures with anti-tank platoon.

The events of the next couple of weeks are somewhat blurred in my mind. I remember the things that happened, but the order in which they happened are not clear. I have consulted the battalion history, but that has not exactly helped.

The events that I remember are firstly, Anti-tank going into Baria with B Company when they relieved A Company; secondly, a cordon and search of Hoa Long; thirdly, the battle in Long Dien, in which Anti-tank participated using our anti-tank weapons as fire support. As I describe these events, the confusion of my memory and the facts will become apparent.

The battalion history confirms that “B” Company relieved “A” Company in Baria on the 2nd of February; that is, the second day of the Tet Offensive. There is no mention of anti-tank going with them. The book does show that we accompanied B Company into Baria on the 8th of February, but that is the excursion that would take us into Long Dien. I still believe that anti-tank accompanied B Company into Baria on the 2nd. What makes me so certain of that is the strong memory I have of walking through Hoa Long on the day after the battle of Baria.

Hoa Long is the nearest Vietnamese village to the Australian base camp at Nui Dat. The Australian base and the Hoa Long village had been co-existing relatively peacefully for a couple of years. Australian patrols going through Hoa Long would normally be greeted by crowds of young children, cheerfully running around amongst us, asking for chocolates and cigarettes. But I distinctly remember the eerie feeling of walking through a totally silent Hoa Long the day after Tet. Not a soul was in the streets, and it felt as though all of the residents were hiding inside their houses, watching us but staying out of sight.

After the VC had been cleared out of Baria, they moved on to Long Dien, a market town a couple of kilometres east of the provincial capital. By contrast with Baria where, despite the savage fighting, A Company had taken back the town without loss of any 3RAR members, the battle in Long Dien cost us the first four members of our battalion to be killed in Vietnam.

There were two stages to the battle of Long Dien, and here again I am somewhat confused. Anti-tank went into Long Dien with our 106mm anti-tank weapons mounted on the backs of Land Rovers. I remember us coming under fire in the market place, and using the 106s to blow up a building. However, I also remember us being with B Company. The problem is that the battalion history shows that D Company fought in the market place on the 4th, while B Company fought in a different part of the town on the 8th. The book’s account of the first part of the battle mentions the destruction of a house, which suggests that this was indeed the battle in which we used the 106s. 

Since I wrote that last paragraph, I have received an email from Dave Morgan, who was a platoon commander in B Company. He remembers being supported by vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapons in Long Dien. So it was definitely B Company that we accompanied into Long Dien.
In that battle in Long Dien, three members of B Company were killed. One was a platoon commander, and one was a platoon sig. I was a platoon sig, and I worked closely with my platoon commander. Imagine how it made me and all the other platoon sigs feel when we heard this news. It felt like we were walking around a war zone with a target on our backs.



This picture shows me, at left, with Anti-Tank Platoon Commander Colin Clarke.

FSB Andersen

After the battles of Tet, 3RAR left the Australian area of operations in Phuoc Tuy Province for the first time, to take part in Operation Coburg, in Bien Hoa Province. There we would earn the distinction of being the first Australian unit to come under ground assault at a fire support base in the Vietnam War. That is the subject of the next chapter of my story.


My Life Story - Vietnam 1967-68 - FSB Andersen

My Life Story - Vietnam 1967-68 - The Long Hai Hills

My Life Story - Vietnam 1967-68 - The Battle of Coral and Balmoral

My Life Story - Homecoming

My Life Story - Itchy Feet

My Life Story - On The Road Again

My Life Story - London, QPR, and the North Sea

My Life Story: Vietnam Veterans

My Life Story - The Welcome Home Parade

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