Vietnam Experience - Part One - Tet
History Pages


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). This 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.


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.


This is a work in progress. As I find time to get more pages written, I will post them here.

Back to My History Pages