Our base for Operation Coburg was Fire Support Base Andersen, situated near the village of
Trang Bom, on Route 1, north-east of Saigon.
I have already written about Andersen in another part of this website, in a short work of
fiction I called Benny's Story. One point I should make here is that Andersen was attacked three times
while I was there, and the events that are freshest in my memory may well have happened in any one of those three attacks.
At Andersen I was “hootchied up” with Garry “Polly” Polglase, a dog handler in the tracking team.
In other words, we shared a weapon pit and slept in adjacent sleeping pits.
You may well ask what is the importance of Polly's role at Andersen. The answer is that the
reason anybody would be interested in reading this story is most likely because I wrote the poem He Was A Mate, as
a way of dealing with my own feelings about Polly's death, and my friendship with Polly would not have been as close if we
had not been hootchied up together at Andersen.
Below is a picture of Polly and his dog, Julian. It wasn't taken at Andersen, but later,
at the start of Operation Pinnaroo.
As I tell the story of the battle at Andersen, I will make use of quotes from the battalion's
history of its tour of duty. This is one occasion when the battalion book goes into great detail, and is therefore a great
help to my own memory. I should also point out that, unlike Long Tan, Coral and Balmoral, little has been written about Andersen.
In fact, a recently published book by historian Paul Ham, entitled Vietnam: The Australian War, makes no mention
of it whatsoever. Not a single word! So what I write here and now will provide a rare opportunity for Australians actually
to find information about this battle.
We arrived at Andersen on the 17th of February. We replaced another Australian battalion.
I don't remember which one, but both 2RAR and 7RAR had been involved in Operation Coburg since late January. Anti-Tank platoon
took up a position on the perimeter, facing south, with the Americans on our right and the Assault Pioneer platoon on our
left. In front of us was a wide expanse of rice paddy, with a tree line beyond it, about 400 metres away. To the right of
the tree line was a couple of hundred metres of open space, and to the right of that was the village of Trang Bom. We moved
into the weapon pits and sleeping pits that were already there. They had no overhead cover.
The First Attack
The battalion book describes the beginning of the battle, that first night. I will write all
quotes from the book in red.
Sentries saw the first indication of an impending enemy attack shortly before midnight, when
a green signal rocket was fired above the base by enemy in the vicinity of Route 1. An hour later enemy mortarmen hit the
base with a heavy barrage of 60 and 82 millimetre mortars, accompanied by RPG7 rocket fire. Pte Doherty (Mortar Platoon) and
Pte De Vries Van Leeuwin (A Company) were killed in this initial bombardment.
Polly and I were woken by the first mortar barrage but, having never experienced a mortar
attack before, we didn't know what was happening until our platoon sergeant came around telling everyone in the platoon to
stand-to and prepare for a ground assault.
One comment I would make about the account of this and other actions in the battalion book
is that the book mentions only 3RAR casualties. There were seven men killed on our side at Andersen that night, including
Americans, as well as Australian engineers.
The Viet Cong mortar crews switched their fire from east to west along the position but were
engaged within six minutes of the initial firing by the 3RAR mortars once their positions had been pinpointed.
The VC mortar position was in the tree line directly in front of Anti-Tank.
Within fifteen minutes a green flare signalled the continuation of this attack with a ground
assault against the perimeter of the American medium battery and the battalion echelon and mortar position.
Anti-Tank and Pioneer platoons occupied the perimeter position right in front of the battalion
echelon and mortar platoon positions, so the VC had to go through us to reach their objective.
The Viet Cong pushed onto the wire in two successive waves from a high paddy bund to the south-west,
the first wave throwing grenades and immediately followed up by a heavier thrust accompanied by RPG2 and RPG7 rocket fire.
I have tried to find words that could describe what it feels like to have rockets fired at
you and to see them go right over your head or fly right past. But I'm afraid this is one time when I just have to say "you
had to be there."
One of these rockets flew past Anti-Tank and hit an American fuel truck just behind and to
our right. The explosion sent fireballs everywhere. Later I found that a hole had been burnt in the right sleeve of my shirt,
even though I know I hadn't been directly hit. What annoyed me most is that this was a shirt that had been given to me
by an American. Wherever we went in Vietnam, Americans were amazed at (by their standards) how spartan the Australian army
was. They couldn't believe we slept on the ground and not on airbeds. They couldn't believe we maintained complete silence
and darkness at night (no generators, no lights, and definitely no soft drink machines.) They couldn't believe we had to fill
in a loss and damage report to get a new shirt. When they found out how we lived, they were extraordinarily generous. When
we arrived at Andersen, we found ourselves working in close proximity to an American communications van, and we hadn't known
these guys for more than a couple of hours when they were giving us their clothes and equipment. So that burnt hole was in
the sleeve of an American shirt that I was wearing for the first time.
With support from enemy machine gunners the impetus of the attack carried the Viet Cong assault
waves through the wire only to be halted by machine gun fire both from the APCs and the American gunners. Close mortar defensive
fire was also directed into the forming up place behind the paddy bund.
I must point out that the VC got through the wire in the American sector to our right. They
did not penetrate the 3RAR perimeter.
Shortly afterwards a second probing attack was preceded by small arms and heavy machine gun
fire from the north and south-west. Riflemen and machine gunners manning forward weapon pits threw back the subsequent ground
assault before it reached the outer wire. There was a brief respite however before a second mortar barrage fell among the
American and New Zealand gun positions, the mortar lines and the battalion echelon. It was during this attack that an engineer
standing patrol received a direct hit from enemy mortars.
As I have previously mentioned, the mortar and battalion echelon positions, where this second
mortar barrage landed, were right behind us. I believe it was during this attack that the mortar commander, Captain "Blue"
Doyle, was wounded in the chest. He needed to get to the battalion command post to help to coordinate a return of fire to
knock out the VC mortars, so he simply pulled the shrapnel out of his own chest as he walked to the CP!
The fate of the engineer standing patrol was a terrible tragedy. These patrols, also known
as listening patrols, consisted of just four or five men who would go out to a designated position outside the wire. When
they got there, they would sit there all night, maintain radio silence, and watch and listen. The sig would report in every
hour by pressing the pressal switch on his radio just to confirm that all was well. Throughout my tour of duty, I was
the sig on a lot of these patrols. In fact, I went out on one the night after the engineer patrol was wiped out. In a known
enemy area such as Andersen, it is an extremely vulnerable position to be in. All but one of the engineers on this particular
patrol were killed, the other one wounded.
The enemy chose not to follow up this barrage with a ground assault and the base remained
quiet until dawn of the 18th of February. Four Viet Cong bodies were found on the southern wire at dawn; bloodstains and bandages
found during a subsequent sweep across the perimeter showed that the enemy had suffered additional casualties both during
his ground assault and at his mortar base-plate position.
And that was just the first attack. There were two more to come!
The Morning After
I regard the 18th of February 1968 as one of the more significant days in my life. The events
of that morning are still quite fresh in my memory 40 years later.
After morning stand-to, Polly and I settled down to brew up some coffee and breakfast and
clean our weapons. The air was thick with the unmistakable sharp smell of cordite. It was quite a still morning, and various
kinds of smoke mingled together with no wind to blow them away. Polly and I were exhausted, but also exhilarated. There was
a definite feeling of having come through some kind of rite of passage. Although we had been in action during Tet, Andersen
was different. It felt like our real baptism of fire. It had certainly been a night of firsts, with our first experience of
a mortar attack, our first experience of a rocket attack, our first experience of a ground assault in which we were the first
line of defence. The overwhelming feeling during the firefight had been adrenaline-fuelled excitement rather than fear.
It was while we were eating our breakfast and discussing the events of the night that we were
informed for the first time about the night's casualties. All of the adrenaline drained out of us when we heard that seven
people had been killed on our side, not to mention an unknown number of VC. John Doherty was someone we knew, and he was killed
in the mortar position right behind us.
Around this time someone came over with a book to swap. This was a common practice. There
is a lot of down time in a war zone, and most soldiers like to read. That is not to suggest that we were a bunch of intellectuals,
but given the variety of reading material available, most soldiers will find something to their taste. Since the number
of accessible books is finite, they have to be kept circulating. Whenever a soldier was finished reading a book, or found
a book not to his liking, he went looking for someone to swap with.
This particular morning, I took possession of a paperback with a red cover. Its title was
unusual: Catch 22. I started reading it sometime during that day, and I have to confess that this is one book
that did not continue to circulate once it came into my possession. I kept it with me, the way some people keep a Bible, reading
from it every day for the remainder of my tour.
Shortly after breakfast Polly and I were visited by an American we had met the day before,
and who would become a particular favourite of everyone in Anti-Tank platoon during our stay at Andersen. His name was
Slowtalker, and he was a native American, a Navajo from Arizona. He suggested that we go for a walk over to the American sector
and have a look at the VC bodies.
Just inside the American sector, we found something that any Australian soldier would have
found remarkable: a soft drink dispenser. As soon as the sun went down each night, Australian soldiers would maintain complete
silence and complete darkness until morning. The Americans, on the other hand, took generators out on operations with them.
At Andersen they had lights going and machinery operating all night, and yes, they had machines to dispense cool drinks.
We stopped for a refreshing drink, and while I was pouring mine, I happened to look down.
There on the ground next to my feet was a disembodied human thumb. I showed it to Polly and Slowtalker and we looked
at each other, but what is there to say when you find a thumb just sitting there on the ground?
From the thumb and the cool drink dispenser, we moved across to the perimeter wire. There
were four Viet Cong bodies. One was just inside the wire, one just outside, and two were actually on the wire. The one that
made the greatest impression was the one without a head. Apparently he had copped a direct hit from a 40mm grenade fired from
an M79 grenade launcher. Not only was his head blown off, but there was not a sign of any part of it to be seen. It was
the cleanest beheading you could ever hope to see.
We walked back to the 3RAR lines, where everybody was hard at work filling sandbags to add
overhead cover to their sleeping pits. That is when my platoon commander told me I would be going out on a listening patrol
It would have been during a break from shovelling sand that I started reading Catch
22. Something about the madness of Joseph Heller's story of life in the US Air Force in World War Two really appealed
to me. In the book there is a belly laugh on just about every page, in the midst of death, destruction and insanity. It somehow
helped me to make sense of my own Vietnam experience.
The 18th of February, 1968. I learnt a thing or two about war that day.
The second night at Andersen passed without incident, which was a great relief to me, since
I spent the night with three other blokes outside the wire on a listening patrol. As I have previously mentioned, this was
the night after a similar patrol had been wiped out.
I thought I would take this opportunity to tell the story of my most memorable listening patrol,
even though it did not take place at Andersen. It actually happened at FSB Harrison, when 3RAR was on its way back to Andersen
for a second time, later in the year.
Harrison stands out in my mind from all the battalion's other fire support bases because of
its geographic location. It was on top of quite a steep hill, covered with thick jungle, which made fields of fire extremely
By the time we went into Harrison, I had left Anti-Tank and was working in the battalion command
post. I was co-opted for a listening patrol that needed an experienced sig. The patrol was led by an NCO I knew well, from
Anti-Tank, but its other members had never been outside the wire before.
We went out from the perimeter and down the hill into a steep valley. We took up a position
surrounded by thick scrub. Around midnight there was an explosion behind and above us. Dead shrapnel - that is,
shrapnel that had completed its arc into the air and was falling to ground - rained down on us, its fall fortunately broken
by the trees above us.
We were maintaining radio silence, so we didn't know for certain what was happening, but it
was pretty clear that someone on the perimeter had fired a claymore mine. That meant that movement had been seen on the perimeter
Before the shrapnel had stopped falling on us, we heard footsteps and heavy panting nearby,
as if someone was running through the scrub towards us. The scenario seemed clear: a VC patrol had been doing a recce of the
battalion's perimeter. They had been seen by someone in a weapon pit on the wire, who had set off a claymore. Now the patrol
was heading our way. From the sound of their breathing and the way they were crashing through the scrub, they were in quite
a hurry. They would be coming through our position any second.
A listening patrol is supposed to sit tight, watch and listen, and avoid contact. But if someone
comes crashing through your position, you have no choice but to open fire. So we lay there, waiting, trying to control
our nerves so that we could hold our rifles without shaking. It seemed to take ages, even though the panting was so loud
that it felt like someone breathing right into my ear. Then, finally, into a small clearing in front of us, came
- an enormous hedgehog! It was about the size of a medium to large pig. I could not believe it. The noise it was making sounded
so human. We all breathed a sigh of relief and settled down to wait out the rest of the night.
The Second and Third Attacks
The fire support base was stood to shortly before 9 p.m. on the night of the 19th, after enemy
movement had been sighted in the south-eastern rubber.
This was the rubber directly in front of Anti-Tank and Pioneer Platoons.
Sentries also reported fire and movement in the Trang Bom area. Five minutes after the general
alert bursts of heavy machine gun fire raked the base from a concealed position to the south-east. The Viet Cong then assaulted
over the ridge to the south-east, hitting the assault pioneer platoon position with two satchel charges and directing rifle
grenade fire into the anti-tank platoon sector.
To be continued . . .