We patrolled in 2 platoon company size groups for several more days with only small contacts. What became clear was that the enemy main force units had decided to go somewhere else. They had been bloodied by the 1ATF and had inflicted minimal casualties in return.
Setting up ambush
One day we were tasked to ambush a well used track. We arrived and the ambush was set. A company sized ambush is really a large complex affair. You put out sentries both ways for early warning. You have a killing group to do the work of the ambush, blocking groups to prevent the enemy from escaping once it had been sprung and security groups to protect the ambush from being attacked itself. All have to be placed so that they do not fire into each other. The role of the artillery in an ambush is for blocking and security.
It is quite normal during a long ambush to spell each other so that there was always someone alert. The success of an ambush depends on it not being detected so movement is kept to an absolute minimum and most do not move from their original position. This was a particularly hot day and while we started out in the shade, eventually we were in full sun, although still out of sight from the track. During my turn for a spell, I dozed off. Unfortunately Truck Carr forgot to shake me once the early warning came through, perhaps he had been dozing as well.
The ambush was triggered by claymores and machine guns. From my horizontal position, I must have jumped a foot in my prone position it was that loud. I was patting myself all over trying to work out through the fog of waking, where I had been hit. One of the blocking groups was also activated as one enemy fled the scene. The ambush had been successful although my notes do not indicate how many were killed although I seem to remember about four with the claymores making a real mess.
The normal routine was activated. The bodies were searched, their equipment collected and the bodies buried in shallow graves. We then moved back to Balmoral.
It was about this time that we came to realise that the NVA, led their patrols with an RPG at the front in the scout position. Their first immediate reaction was to fire the RPG. It had a wonderful effect of making a loud noise, shrapnel sprayed round wounding a few and encouraging most others to duck. It thereby provided them a window of opportunity to get away.
We talked at great length to work out ways to counter this and to achieve the same effect so that they might get similarly pinned down. We tried M79s, but they proved too light to scare. The M72 shoulder fired rocket launcher was too difficult to handle quickly. To be effective you needed it in the loaded state which created a real danger to those round you. In the end, there was nothing in the arsenal other than an automatic weapon. We developed a lot of respect for the RPG and I often wondered why western armies did not have a similar weapon in their infantry.
A near miss
It was during this phase of the operation that I gave myself perhaps my biggest fright of my time in Vietnam. It was caused not by the enemy but my own inattention to my environment.
We had been patrolling one day and stopped for a break about mid day. I was focused on my map trying to work out the exact grid reference of our location so I could prepare a couple of precautionary defensive fire tasks to cover the break. I threw my pack on the ground and was looking round at the form of the land and heard this tinkling sound. I looked down and my boots were in contact with the copper tails from a USAF munition that was then called a cluster bomb.
Cluster bombs were shaped like a small bee hive, about 7.5cm in diameter at its base. The base held a detonation pad on the flat bottom. There were three stabilising copper tails that were hinged at the top of the beehive holding the detonation pad safe. The tails were spring loaded and sprung out when the munition was released, thereby releasing the detonation pad and arming it. The tails stabilised the munitions downward fall with the detonation pad downwards. It was painted an olive drab colour and was very hard to see. We did not normally see them in Phuoc Tuy Province, home of the 1ATF.
These cluster bombs were normally packaged along with many others, in a larger canister type of bomb. The canister would be dropped from a ground attack aircraft and a small explosion ruptured the canister and dispersed the cluster bombs over the target area. When the pad hit the ground, it then set off the main munition. Any area targeted by this munition would become a mass of explosions from each individual droplet. The effect was shrapnel and explosive blast everywhere. While they were quite effective as an anti personnel weapon because of their area coverage, they also had a high blind rate whenever the detonation pad did not hit the ground properly. This was especially so in areas of heavy vegetation.
This noise at my feet was one of those blinds and there were many more in the area that once alerted we had to avoid. I never use to worry that much about myself nor the potential consequences of being in Vietnam, however I was glad to get back to Balmoral that night with my legs intact. I have seen figures that indicate that 300 persons a year are still being killed by these blinds in VN.
At about this time Red Whyte (one of my FO Party) was rotated back to the Bty and replaced by Gnr Dick Wharerau. Red had been good sig and had got on well with the Aussies. He had been very friendly with the B Coy Intelligence Clerk who had been killed by the mortar fire in the second attack. He took the loss quite badly. The CSM of B Coy for reasons unknown, started picking on Red. The CSM was already a grumpy man and it probably had something to do with his own grief over the death. Red was in a no win situation.
When I saw what was happening I reminded the CSM that Red was my soldier and if he had complaints he was to speak with me. Burt and I discussed it, then with the BC and we decided it was best that Red went back to the Battery with his mates and defuse the situation. The CSM was not as easily moved.
At a recent Australian reunion, I enquired about the CSM and it seems he got into some serious trouble that put paid to his career. That brought a smile to my face. It was the only bit of ill feeling that I ever felt during my time as an FO with 3RAR, which was the best battalion that I served in support of during two tours.
Over the days following, patrols got smaller with eventually platoon patrols occurring as the area became totally dominated. While that was a relief for the company commander, I was still going out most days with my FO Party as we had no Technical Assistants who would have been capable of calling in fire support if it was needed.
Over this same period the road/track into Balmoral was upgraded by the engineers and regular truck resupply started. The process of improving weapon pits and field defences was continuous and some took great pride on how developed their own weapon pit had become. I often thought over the years of Colonel Malone's words written while at Gallipoli, that defence is as much about house keeping as it is about fields of fire.
General Westmoreland visits
Balmoral received a visit by General Westmoreland. He walked round the main areas of the defence and from the little I saw of him, seemed quite knowledgeable about what had happened. He was accompanied by an Australian General from Saigon.
My memory was that the contrast between the two Generals was stark. Westmoreland the older of the two, appeared fit, in good shape with well fitting combat fatigues with a minimum of display on them. The Australian General looked out of sorts. Not at all in good shape. He appeared more like a basic recruit wearing his combat fatigues and boots for the first time. Made worse with medal ribbons and red gorget patches that all seemed out of place in the field on Ops.
On the 3rd of June we were warned that we were pulling out on the 5th. The process of dismantling the defensive position started. All sandbags got slashed so that they could not be used again. Galvanised sheeting that had been used for bunkers and fighting trenches was recovered, as were a lot of the wire and iron star pickets. All was shipped out by truck. The problem is all the defence cannot be destroyed until the day you leave which was the 5th. Some of it inevitably got buried just before we left.
B Coy was tasked with providing the last security and was lifted out by a flight of choppers. I went with the final platoon. As we lifted off, the side door machine gunners started firing. Once again I had that ambush feeling. On asking who was firing at us? It turned out that in the helicopter world, a hot extraction gets entered in the log. It does not mean anyone has to be firing at you, only the helicopter firing back. While I have the greatest respect for those guys that use to fly us, I wish life was that easy. Ho hum.