Free Fire Zone incident

Submitted by bruceyoung on

On 20 April 1970, during Operation Townsville, W3 Coy moved some distance by APC from the bush down to the coast in a free fire zone – an area cleared of civilians within which artillery and aircraft could fire without clearance.

It was dirty work travelling on the tracks and when the vehicles reached a wide beach with white sand and blue waves they stopped on the edge of the beach under the canopy to give everyone a break. It is not a racist comment to observe that at this point most of the white guys stayed under the trees along the beach edge while most of the brown Maori boys headed off onto the beach into the sunshine to refresh themselves and look for kai (food). After the bedlam of the earlier APC movement the appeal of the sea and sun lulled our senses and made us think of other places and other times.

The OV-10 Bronco pilot who quietly popped over the tree line behind us and flew smartly down the beach must have had a sense of excitement at what he saw. He could be seen counting the people in the water before he stood on one wingtip a mile or so along the beach in a smart 180-degree skid turn. It suddenly clicked among those watching from the tree line that the pilot thought the blokes in the water were Viet Cong and the nose down attitude meant the aircraft was starting a strafing run. It was useless the guys on the beach waving, their fate was already decided.

Bedlam broke out in the tree line. One APC who still had an engine running revved wildly to create smoke and started to back out onto the beach. Others like me ran from the trees onto the beach ripping shirts off to offer lily-white skin as some sort of sign to the pilot. But it seemed impossible at the speed that events were unfolding that a 'blue on blue' incident could be avoided and the aircraft held all the cards. There were small bombs on the pylons under the wings and the muzzles of four cannon protruding from the gun blisters. The Bronco pilot had the firepower and the inclination to kill everyone on the beach in one or two passes. It was going to be his party...

But something we were doing must have distracted the pilot from his party and he pulled the aircraft nose up and could be seen looking into the tree line. He finally saw what we were and pulled into another 180-degree skid turn to again run along the water line. This time the pilot waggled his wings and waved before pulling up smartly and heading back inland, the party over. ALL us WHITE guys waved back but after the plane was out of sight no one seemed interested in being out on the beach to find kai or sunbathe. Go figure....


Bruce Young. First published on the W3 Coy website.

How to cite this page: ' Free Fire Zone incident ', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 04-Sep-2013