You know when you are in trouble. It is somewhat like the build-up of an impending storm. The air becomes heavy, oppressive. You begin to feel unease. There is this air of anxiety. Suddenly the static of electricity as lightening flashes against the darkened back ground of brooding clouds. Then you hear the sound of wind in the trees and next the rain. Huge drops! Wind rushes through the surrounding jungle, a prelude to the oncoming rain. Then, a sound like thousands of hands clapping as the rain hits the leaves in the trees, followed by branches and foliage crashing to the jungle floor. Now it is a full-blown storm.
The above sentence is the best way I can describe what it was like in the lead up to this battle. We had been on a number of ops and I had felt reasonably confident. However, we had not begun this particular op and I already felt very ill at ease.
Setting out on patrol
Let me take you back some days before we were well and truly ‘blooded’ so to speak. Until now all we had experienced were small contacts, near misses, and a close encounter with a courier group taking care of a small camp - nothing as large as this.
This particular operation began as most did, with our deployment on APC's from our base in Nui Dat. This op commenced in the wee small hours of the morning [some referred to this hour as zero dark hundred hours.] The idea was to fool the enemy, or perhaps in the misguided thinking of our leaders, catch the enemy sleeping at that hour. Lucky b******s! Setting off at this time was always a trial as we were often terribly hung over from our few days of R&I. Dehydration [alcohol will do that] was my biggest enemy and I usually ended up drinking most of my precious water by the time we arrived at our drop off point.
We initially traveled ‘hull down’. This meant a section of ten men were squashed inside our APC [with all our equipment, ten days rations and ammunition…] Finally the vehicle comes to a stop, the metal tray drops down! We disembark in a militarily tactical fashion, guns to the apex…thank god...any more time cooped up and I was about to throw up.
God help the b*****d who farted in this vehicle as there was nowhere for the residue to escape to…except upwards through the turret where the APC commander was running things. Heat rises, so he would cop it as well. All this was made even worse if they picked us up days after being in the bush as we stunk to high heaven. Not that we noticed as we all smelled the same.
Bad news if you joined an op later as you would be fresh and the boys would be…well you get the idea. I digress. So we are all lying on the ground in our military tactical positions in case we have to react to enemy fire.
Daylight has just started to break and we can make out rubber trees and the land gently slopping away and slightly upwards. Then it starts, rifle shots away in the distance repeated at various intervals and at different points of the compass. Blast...foiled again! All this sneaking around and the enemy still notifies all and sundry of our arrival.
That is why I could never understand starting an op at sparrows fart in the morning. Gentleman’s hours would have been far more practical, and then, both the enemy and we could enjoy a bit of a lay in.
The APC’s depart thank goodness, as infantry soldiers get toey when there is too much unnecessary noise, as it makes it hard to detect the enemy. So, now it is just us; Two Platoon, as the other elements of our Victor Six Coy have deployed to their respective AO’s.
We settled in to our temporary tactical position - sentries moved further forward to provide us with early warning if there is enemy activity nearby. This reminds me of another story…Harry O, more on that one later. Section commanders gather round the boss for an O group; this is when we sorted out exactly where we are ‘in the world’ [called in military terms our locstat]. This is then passed on to Coy HQ.
We adopted our tactical formation [arrowhead] and the lead section moved out, followed by Platoon HQ, the second section, the Platoon Sergeant and finally third section. We moved to our first 'smoke halt' approximately one hour hence… [Unless we strike any signs of enemy activity first.] Of course this was a given as the enemy had not only notified their own, but us as well, that they were active in the area. For the reader’s benefit this firing did not always occur when we arrived in an AO. So, as happened, this time we knew they were active because of their use of this type of early warning system.
Again let me digress...the reason for this particular op was [and we were not told this aspect of information] because the Intelligence people had been tracking a large force of NVA all the way from Hanoi down the Ho Chi Minh trail to their final position, which of course was later to be our bunker battle. So the op was ostensibly to flush out the dreaded 274 VC Regt and other naughty enemy elements located in the general area.
No mention of a large force concentrated at an actual grid reference. Now we were later to inadvertently discover this information was available and as the Intelligence Sgt said, he had 'informed our people'. No thanks to who ever it was that overlooked providing us with this information.
So, off we went in arrowhead formation into the rubber plantation and by now it was fully daylight. Our first indication of unusual activity indicating things weren’t right in the 'state of Maine' was a small group of civilians in a declared ‘non civilian’ access area cutting bamboo shoots. How they [the civilians] actually knew they were in an area restricted to them was a bit of a mystery to me. We duly dealt with this situation and as a result of information gathered followed up [unknowingly] in the general direction of the bunker system.
As we patrolled further into the AO we found a fully functioning mine and booby trap training room. This was well established under the biggest tree I had seen out in the middle of a grassed area. Once under this enormous tree, there laid out around the trunk, was a progressive set of stands. These enabled the teachers of the finer ‘arts of maiming us’ a very effective method of teaching the VC students. At the time we also learnt much, particularly the enemy’s methods of indicating different types of mine and booby trap signs - they wouldn't be the only ones able to observe and avoid the dreaded things. All these had been taught to us by the old soldiers in our jungle training in Malaysia, so it was good to see the same under this tree and confirm what we already knew. Now we were more certain than ever we were nearing enemy territory.
Evening was approaching, so we went into our normal routine for evening harbour. However, this particular evening we were more conscious or ‘ill at ease’ of the impending storm of battle than usual. I took out our clearing patrol to the eastern side of the harbour, whilst Hank's section went to the western side. On our side there was a mixture of grass, jungle and a deep dry streambed to our left flank. We were some one hundred yards away in the tall lalang grass. To our left some fifty odd yards away there was a dry streambed. Then it happened. Bang! Followed by a cacophony of small arms fire. Hank's section had made contact with a small group of VC. I ordered Harry O to fire the M203 at various intervals into the dry riverbed in the hope we would get any fleeing VC. We adopted a defensive formation just in case any naughty VC came our way.
Do you know the worst aspect of a contact if you have not initiated it? Well, it is this. You really do not know what is going on but have to react and follow procedures that help overcome a lack of immediate information. This we did and slowly made our way back to the harbour position. Once back we organised ourselves for what we thought would be 'the big attack!' Silence, a real b*****d after all the noise of battle tends to unnerve even the most hardened of veterans. Silence is what we were to encounter throughout that evening.
No attack! So, the next morning Old Man took out a clearing patrol to check out the contact area and within a short space of time an enemy body was found. Still warm to the touch and rigor had yet to set in, so this VC had only just passed away. A rope was tied to his arm and the body turned over, the reason for the rope exercise was simply that he could have booby trapped himself. Fortunately he hadn’t. Old Man decided to scout around to see if he could find the enemy’s tracks and having found them we began very cautiously following up. The VC trail would eventually lead us to our bunker system.
Coy HQ had a support section whose main task was to protect the Coy HQ elements - Brian M our Coy Commander; the Arty FO’s; elements from the engineers; and various other specialists traveling within this group. Manu was the section commander of the support section tasked to look after Coy HQ.
Company HQ would position themselves more or less in the centre of the AO and maintain radio contact and communication links with our other support elements. This time being in the centre of things would mean they [Coy HQ] would be the first to encounter the outer perimeter of the bunker system and sadly have our first and last fatal casualty. Manu was the section commander, an old campaigner from way back [almost as old as Old Man; perhaps on reflection older]. Ken was the lead scout and as they moved forward following enemy signs a VC [possibly the bunker early warning sentry] shot and killed Ken. Manu immediately shot the VC through the heart. We found this man on day two [after our day long battle] slumped over his AK47 with a maggot ridden hole directly through his heart.
When you have been together for as long as we had - a company of men under ‘one flag’, you need to understand that Ken, like all of us, was part of a family and we had just lost a very dear brother. That night we were all in mourning and I doubt anyone slept.
As I write this all these years later it still brings tears of sadness. I remember sitting in the lecture room in Nee Soon Barracks, Singapore as a company and being told by one of the more senior soldiers, "Look around the room, some of you won’t be coming back." Making this statement was a sort of final opportunity to leave the company and remain in Singapore. I thought, ‘I wonder if I will come back?’…Such is war.
At the same time Coy HQ and our boss were having an ongoing argument as to our exact map position. This would later have a negative effect for us, particularly when we desperately needed artillery fire support in the bunker system.
The shots I fired at the VC walking down the track towards me saw my rounds also fall into the Coy HQ position. This quickly sorted out any further arguments regarding the ‘where are we exactly now’ problem - more on that issue later in this story. On with tracking the dreaded enemy VC.
The bunker system
Late in the afternoon we began to see sawn tree stumps covered with mud and bark. This was the enemy’s way of trying to hide his nefarious activity from the air. I guess I could accurately say at this point I was beginning to feel more than ‘unease’. A sort of tightening of the sphincter muscles… this would be a more accurate way of describing how actually I felt at the time.
Now the standard rule is, if you think there is a bunker system nearby or there is irrefutable evidence they are present then ‘all the kings men’ should mount an operation with all the supporting elements - infantry companies, guns, tanks, gun-ships, nuclear weaponry, the diplomatic corp, fire brigade, Red Cross and not forgetting the tea ladies! Then, surround the entire area so the enemy cannot escape and ask them nicely if they would like to surrender…ha…not likely.
Not so, this day we shall do battle! Our glorious leader wanted to ‘take on’ this very formidable bunker system. Not that we were to know this. So back to the lead up to the releasing of my ‘sphincter’ muscles, chewing cigarettes and wishing I was anywhere but this place.
You will recall my relating the build up to this battle somewhat like a brooding storm about to break! Well this is how I felt now. At the time of the initial contact with Manu’s section, when Ken had been shot Coy HQ refused to tell us he had died. However we all knew in our hearts he had. We harboured up not fifty yards [unknown at that time] from the outer perimeter of the system. I don’t believe anyone slept that night. Very early the next morning we shook ourselves into battle formation prepared a pack base [thankfully Gary K our Pl Sgt thought to do this as it was to prove a godsend later in the day]. All of the section commanders had a quick O group with the platoon commander. His plan? We would advance until contact with the enemy was made and then 'wing it' from there…wing it!!!???
I was furious! "Why," I asked, "Can we not call in the Arty and soften them up now!" "Because," his reply was, "Coy HQ cannot confirm their position in relation to ours, so we can’t adjust fire as we may hit them." He wanted my section to go forward whilst he would take Hank's [Old Man] section around the left side and sweep up the hill. I decided not to involve my whole section in case we were pinned down and subsequent withdrawal was made difficult if not impossible. Also, a section moving in this kind of jungle environment would draw quite a lot of attention so just having my gun group would suffice for now. Once committed as a section well forward from our main platoon position [especially in a drawn out fire fight] would make for a very difficult time, particularly if we had to withdraw…as we would. Later this decision proved to be sound and probably saved our lives.
I left the remainder of my section with Gary K our platoon sergeant and moved forward with my gunner Mac and Johnny T [number two on the gun] behind me. Crawling on my belly, quietly cutting through the undergrowth and maintaining observation proved way back then that men can actually do more than one thing at a time! I found a very well used track leading into the system. Still on my stomach looking forward I called Mac and Johnny T to join me. They lay down either side of me; the storm is about to break! We could hear talking, then right in front of me was this rather handsome Vietnamese soldier. He smiled at me. How do you shoot someone that smiled so charmingly? I did, the storm broke!
The battle commences
I put my safety catch to auto on my M16 and fired in his general direction, which I was to subsequently find out, moments later, just happened to be the enemy [who were all around us]...Oh s**t! Mac opened up with his M60 machine gun and Johnny T with his SLR. That’s when I lost the hearing in my left ear as Johnny’s SLR barrel muzzle was next to it. Now all the noise of battle sounded muffled like I had my head under water.
The golden rule when in contact with Charlie was initially, not to fire on automatic. There are lots of other golden rules. So, realising this I said to Mac, "Hold your fire until we are really in the s**t!" What the hell was I thinking, we were! Moments later a flash followed by hissing sound erupted along side of us. This, I was later to find out came from a bunker mere yards from us. I said to Mac, "What’s that?" "Oh it’s just an RPG, but it’s tangled itself up in the scrub." Next to us there was a big bundle of dried weed something like the tumbleweed seen in those cowboy movies. Oops! That’s what happens when you fire into the enemy on automatic - they do not like it. So they always reply with an RPG rocket up you. In our case they fired two at us, the other exploded further down the track.
Well everything the enemy could throw at us they did. I guess they were very angry that we had woken them up at that hour of the morning, no sleep in for them today. We had definitely buggered up their daily routine.
At the same time as I engaged the enemy, Old Mans section, Johnno [our intrepid radio op] and the boss were advancing up a slope. The VC on Hank's side of the bunker system decided to blow their string of claymores. This again was a sort of mixed blessing, as had Hank continued advancing and the VC held off firing for a few more minutes he and the section would have sustained heavy casualties. Fortunately the only casualty from that explosive episode was Johnno’s whip aerial [ANPRC 77] - only the lower half remained attached to his radio. I believe he still has what was left of the aerial in pride of place at his home in Paekakariki.[Whilst on the subject of Johnno, he held the record for loosing the most jungle hats in Viet Nam. Twenty-one was the last count.]
Remember I spoke about Coy HQ not being in agreement with our loc stat? This meant we could not call in arty support because of the discrepancy and uncertainty of our exact map locations. Well not anymore. My first burst from my M16 rifle landed almost in the middle of Coy HQ, causing them to scrabble for cover. No longer was there any doubt as to where we were in the world. Unfortunately my M16 jammed and no immediate action could dislodge the bullet that had lodged in between the gas port and upper M16 slide housing. I thought then, what if the enemy charge us? We should charge them as this is costing the New Zealand tax payer good money.
I was later to extract the round using my bayonet, as no amount of IA drills taught would remove the thing. During my tour in Viet Nam I had no end of trouble with this weapon. When I returned to Singapore some years later I was issued with the same weapon. Go figure. I went straight to the weapons tech and pointed out the faults particularly the aiming post, as this was off centre. Whilst in Viet Nam I could not convince these people that is was a major problem.
On with the battle - I was slightly wounded in the eyebrow, Johnny T copped a peace of Vietcong claymore shrapnel in the chest, dangerously close to his heart, and Mac thankfully was fine. This occurred as a result of the enemy engaging Old Mans section. The enemy’s claymores were strung from the trees and if we had been standing when they fired them they would have been very effective. I decided it was time to leave the scene of the crime and beat a hasty ‘tactical’ retreat back to our pack base and rejoin the remainder of my section. I grabbed Johnny and with Mac’s assistance [he was bloody heavy and so was his webbing] we worked our way back to the platoon.
There was, to say the least, a real ruckus going on, s**t was flying everywhere! [S**t being the vernacular for the bullets, bombs and explosions that happen in times of war.] The nasty enemy were not about to relinquish their place in this part of Viet Nam! I think on reflection we should have asked them nicely to leave - this would have saved them and us all this angst. Later, it transpired, we were mere meters from two of the main command bunkers. The whole system was shaped like a Z and we were at the top centre of the Z. One of the bunkers had a Japanese 12.7mm machine gun; the other an M60. We knew this as each weapon has its own peculiar sound when fired.
I believe the undulating topography was to be our salvation - that and staying close to the ground. Having arrived in the pack base Gary [our Platoon Sergeant] sorted us out and placed us in a sort of wagon wheel affair [shock was starting to set in and the best thing for me now was to keep busy]. Someone gave me a cigarette and I remember chewing up the filter and spitting it out - lucky because cigarette smoking will kill you!
I now found myself lying next to my section 2IC Les. We were lying in a slight dip in the ground and the next thing I heard was a crack! Followed by a dull thwock! Then, Les started to scream! If nothing else it made my hair stand on end. I turned my head and yelled at Les, "Where are you hit?" He stopped screaming and still holding his head, [I thought he had been hit in his head - this was a good place because Les had a really hard head] "In the foot!" was his reply. I said, "Well shut up then, it can’t be that bad." [We were to later extract Les, along with our other wounded up through the jungle canopy on an Australian dust-off chopper - full marks to these guys as they came in under fire.]
I was now thinking, ‘this seems to be going on a little longer than our military exercises in Singapore and Malaysia use to’ [these had a time limit and you knew when and how it was going to end]. This thinking was bought on because Gary [our Pl Sgt] was calling out for an ammunition state. The replies coming back did not make for a healthy return of fire should the enemy really get serious, which they were about to. In addition to this because there was so much ground fire from the enemy the Australian gun ships were not allowed within cooee [Aussie bush call] of us.
As I said the ammo state was not good. Added to that, the VC decided to have another go and mounted a charge. Now my section is mixed in with Hank's I am laying next to Old Man, I turned to him and said, "S**t Hank, this never happened at the West Melton rifle range!" Old Man replied, "Now I remember why I shouldn’t have come back to this place." This was Old Man’s second tour.
We now hastily reallocate ammo throughout the platoon, none too soon, as the first assault had commenced from the enemy. This was quickly repulsed and I remember how deafening the noise of battle was. The boss at this point was desperately calling for support fire from anyone listening in. We still could not use the artillery; actually we were never to use them in this battle, mainly due to too many friendlies in the immediate area and loc stats being difficult to verify.
Soon the sweetest sound any desperate soldier caught in this situation has heard, 'Throw smoke Kiwis'. We did, just in front of our forward section. Imagine blowing a long raspberry through your mouth. Oh yes, the hot brass casings landed on top of us…this was the first indication of help arriving in the form of Gatling gun fire from the Huey gunship. Then a pop, pop, pop, as the automatic M79 bombs were fired. This was followed by a whooshing sound as their rockets passed directly over our prostrate bodies, which signaled the end of their first attack. These saviors’ flew down from [we were later to find out] the American Blackhorse Firebase. Later the aussie gunship’s would join in. I guess they, [the Aussies] felt a little embarrassed that the Yanks had not hesitated and were prepared to risk their equipment and pilots for us.
I know the Aussie pilots would not have hesitated and in fact would have come to our rescue but for a decision not to allow them to assist from higher command. Their medivac team however came in under fire to extract our wounded. I remember watching the yellow jungle penetration unit coming down through the tree canopy. The pilots had sunk the chopper through the tree line using their blades to remove branches etc and take our guys out, all this whilst still receiving ground fire. Very brave…. thanks from us who ever you were.
Well there was never a more grateful group of Kiwi soldiers than us. The gunships' Gatling guns, rockets and M79 bombs were a most pleasing sound. There were three of them flying in rotation and this gave us the respite we needed. At the same time our re-supply helicopter was inbound and as soon as the Hueys' had finished their run, smoke was requested again. Then our ammo resup was dropped in. Again a special thanks to JR and the rear echelon team for filling the magazines and preparing the ammo so we could literally ‘lock, load and fire’. This enabled us to carry on virtually uninterrupted with the battle.
With all the enemy activity going on to our immediate front moving forward was not an act us mere mortals were contemplating at this stage of our lives. However the resup chopper dropped the ammunition in between the nasty enemy and us. Having just repelled their uninvited advances no one wanted to answer the bosses call, "Did anyone see where those boxes landed?" Another golden rule in the army is don’t volunteer for anything in the army. Well Chas P had seen where the ammo landed and without further ado yelled, "Cover me!" He then leapt up, ran and recovered all the boxes.
A sad note here, Chas recently passed on. He is missed by all of us and in my humble opinion should have received more than a Mention in Dispatches [MID]. A MID is an acknowledgement of bravery under trying circumstances. When none of us were able to, or prepared to run out under threat of enemy fire Chas did. Thank you Chas once again from all of us in Two Platoon.
The day wears on and we become very concerned that this group of VC are not [for some reason] behaving true to type - in other words, buggering off. They must realise that all the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men are going to be after their collective a***s. So this leads us to think there must be more to this bunker system than we first thought. We subsequently established there was.
It appears they had some foreign advisors with them. These people apparently came from western and not so western countries. What these people were doing there was written in detail in the dairy found in the VC command bunker. Come to think of it what ever happened to that diary? However China, France and Switzerland thank you very much for such an entertaining day.
By mid morning we were looking forward to relief in the form of the tankies. Tanks! Yahoo!!!! When we heard this we were elated as we thought, 'Yes! We’ll be saved at last'. No…wrong! The tanks needed the support of infantry which meant our other platoon along with our assault pioneers would need to accompany them so their eminent arrival was not to be until late afternoon. Oh s**t! They [the tanks and our other platoons] were engaged by the VC on the other side of the system, so no one was going anywhere soon this day.
There were many very brave and heroic acts by a number of others of our company. These were justly rewarded in the form of an MM [Military Medal] and other forms of recognition. To write about the events that took place would [as the writer of the gospels once said] would take many books and words there would be no end! Suffice to say thanks to all of you who helped us extract ourselves from a very tough scary military day.
As I previously wrote, much happened and there were many brave acts throughout the day. One particularly funny incident, although no less frightening, was the attempt by two of the platoon hard cases to locate a concealed VC, who had kept most of us pinned down and was [I suspect] responsible for wounding Les. Well the two hard cases conspired to expose themselves by standing up in turn, behind the cover of a tree and drawing the fire from the VC [who was in a tree]. By gradually exposing themselves to fire they actually located this tricky enemy fellow and subsequently shot and killed him. This gave the rest of us great relief.
The golden rule taught to all of us in jungle warfare training in Malaysia was always look up into the trees. I had forgotten this rule when I initially crawled onto the VC bunker track. Perhaps if I had remembered to scan the trees things would have been a little different. Who knows? We managed to extricate ourselves late in the afternoon and find an early evening harbour position. As I was placing out one of the claymore mines to our forward position I put my hand [it was very dark at this stage] through a hornets nest and was stung into the bargain! A whole day with lumps of lead being thrown at us, nary a scratch and this to end the day! Old Man called out quietly in the dark, "Come here Rob." He gave me a hug as I feigned tears and swore.
The next morning I left the claymore where it was as the hornets had repaired their nest around it and there was no way I was going to go through that experience again! That day we would be tasked with following up blood trails, of which there were many. One in particular had very bright coloured frothy blood on the track and as I and my lead scout followed we became very concerned. I looked along the line the trail was leading and could see the track turn - where it turned there was a large copse of bush so we decided to give this particular blood trail a wide birth. The reason? The last V Company had almost the same set of circumstances and lost a very good soldier as the wounded enemy shot him as he searched the ground nearby. I did not want this to happen to either my scout or myself. The platoon commander asked me why we weren’t continuing with the follow up…I said, "It [the trail] had disappeared, no point continuing..."
The morning of the second day we were tasked to go back to the bunker system. On our way we were to find the VC soldier Manu shot - the same VC that shot and killed Ken H. We did, good shooting Manu right through the heart. Eventually I retraced my steps to the place where the battle had started and found a felled tree lying across the track; it was absolutely shredded with the enemy’s bullets. They were serious after all. The bunkers where we heard talking and where the firing came from were mere meters away. We were much closer than I had realised. So, we had definitely been watched over that day.
The whole area was now a mess as a result of the tank activity and there were a number of VC bodies still to be buried. The operation was considered a success and we continued on with our new tasks. We were to stay on this particular operation for a number of weeks and some of the incidents that occurred during that time I may add to this site.
Looking back, remaining on operations was sort of bizarre or surreal. I can’t quite find a way to best describe how we felt, because we just carried on with the operation as if nothing had happened. Apparently some one at rear echelon had sent out to us a quantity of liquor; this was confiscated at the Courtney Firebase by the CO. Probably just as well as we would have been off our faces.
Read more Lloyd Roberton memories here.