Sergeant ‘Al' Don was part of the initial deployment to the Republic of South Vietnam. The main body deployed to Bien Hoa, a provincial capital, 29km north-east of Saigon on the banks of the Song Dong Nai River in nine C-130 loads or ‘chalks' flown by No. 40 Squadron RNZAF, 24 hours apart between 15-23 July 1965.
Deploying to Vietnam
This move was heralded by the Battery mustering for a church parade on 15 July conducted by Father Frank Scott. Those parading felt keenly the solemnity of the occasion. Immediately after, in a pattern to be copied by the following eight chalks, the first chalk gathered at 1500 hours for a briefing on the day/night's activities.
Each load then made final preparation for tactical or active service loading aboard the C-130. This preparation included removing New Zealand tactical signs, flashes and license plates, ensuring that small arms ammunition was readily accessible for issue before the landing at Bien Hoa, and that rounds of fused 105mm ammunition were loaded on the planes carrying a gun.
In the early midwinter evening, the loaded vehicles were driven from Papakura Military Camp to RNZAF Whenuapai where at 2000 hours, the waiting C-130 was secretly loaded inside a hangar by loading teams.
Meantime, the outgoing chalk mustered at Papakura at 2200 hours for a final briefing and a meal. The chalk was then bussed to Whenuapai and emplaned. The aircraft took off for Vietnam at 0100 hours. The secrecy and the hour of departure prevented anti-war protests interfering with the orderly and collected departure of the Battery for active service. ‘Al' was part of this historic move.
Operation Ben Cat
The Battery deployed on a site adjacent to 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) and opposite B Battery 3/319 Artillery Battalion, US 173rd Airborne Brigade.
The first major operation for the Battery was a 14-day exercise codenamed BEN CAT (after the town closest to the gun position), 14-28 September. This operation was also a first for 1RAR which was participating with 161 Battery in what proved to be a major change in United States strategy in Vietnam, namely taking the war to the Viet Cong. Operation BEN CAT was the ANZAC's introduction to US ‘search and destroy' operations. Such operations were characterised by saturation infantry patrolling and rapid tactical movement of the guns by Landrover, Armoured Personnel Carriers and Iroquois helicopter.
The BEN CAT operation began tragically. During the road move south-east of the town of Ben Cat, 161 Battery was part of a Brigade convoy. Sergeant ‘Al' Don and the Battery Commander's signaller, Bombardier ‘Jock' White were killed when their vehicle, the sixth in the Battery convoy, was destroyed by a command detonated mine. They were the first men lost by the Battery in the war.
Their vehicle, Romeo 2, designated as a spare Forward Observers vehicle was being used to carry ammunition and two passengers, Lance Bombardier Ron Edwards and Chris Turver, the NZPA reporter. Passengers and ammunition escaped from the explosion because all Battery vehicles had been stripped to an Aden configuration. In the bloody turmoil which marked the hand over of power in that country the British had learned through experience to remove doors, canopy and windscreen and to sandbag the decks of their Landrovers. Passengers and cargo in vehicles modified in this way were thrown clear of the vehicle if it was mined escaping serious injury or damage.
Sergeant Don and Bombardier White were buried in Terendak Military Cemetery, Malaysia. Both men were decorated posthumously by the South Vietnam Government with the Cross of Gallantry with Palm and the Medal of Honour with Merit.