The Battle of Long Khanh

hueyIf you’ve ever thought that the Vietnam War was basically all over by 1971, despite the fact that our Troops were still there, think again. This intense battle proved otherwise, and it yet again showed that at the platoon level, well-trained and disciplined troops could overcome huge odds. This was the biggest operation 3RAR had been involved in so far on their second tour, and it pitched B Company, (with Tunnel Rats from 1 Fld Sqn attached) against tough and experienced North Vietnamese troops with long years of combat experience behind them. At the centre of the action was 5 Platoon, and to their credit they were able to hold their ground until support from the other platoons of B company arrived. For Operation Overlord special permission was obtained from the then Prime Minister Mr John Gorton to allow Australian troops to operate outside Phuoc Tuy province. The Operation, conducted on the Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy province border, was initiated because the enemy were using the buffer zone between the two provinces to train and equip troops before moving them into Phuoc Tuy province to attack and harass the local villages. 1ATF and the Americans decided to conduct an operation aimed at destroying the enemy and their installations in that region. The plan was for the 2/8 battalion US to block the northeast and east along the Suoi Luc River, 4RAR was to block in the south and A Sqn 3Cav Regiment to block along the Suoi Ran River. 3RAR, with Tunnel Rats from 2 Troop attached was to provide the searching troops and they were tasked with destroying any enemy and any enemy bunker systems found in the area of search. 3RARs plan was to search it’s AO with three rifle companies (A, B, and C) with D coy being held in reserve. Two-man Splinter Teams of Tunnel Rats from 2 Troop were attached to each of the rifle companies, as well as to HQ in the Fire Support Base (FSB). Two-man Mini-Teams of Tunnel Rats (the difference being the carrying of a mine detector) were also attached to the tanks and APCs supporting 3 RAR on the Operation. The enemy that 5 platoon met on 7June 1971 were battle hardened and were suspected to have linked up with D445 battalion for sapper training in preparation for attacks on military installations in Phuoc Tuy province. As the troops landed into their designated LZs, B Coy was no doubt seen by the VC as they began their search. Captured documents later indicated that the LZ was just 500 metres away from the enemy position. The heavy weapons company of 3/33NVA was able to stall 5 platoon B Coy for almost eight hours as the enemy moved away rapidly along pre-designated escape routes. Colonel Peter Scott, the CO of 3 RAR on their second tour of Vietnam recorded his perspective on the Operation for the “South Australians at War Oral History Project 2002”: “Once again we were operating as a result of enemy wireless intercept, and we were advised that the 3rd Battalion of the 33rd North Vietnamese army regiment was in this location. So this was the first time that we were up against the North Vietnamese. And we found them on the first night (6th June 1971), when 5 Platoon of B Company sighted the bunker system. It was about five o’clock at night and there was no way I was going to get involved in a night operation so they were pulled back until the next morning. “It turned out to be the most intensive operational day that we had during the whole period that we were there. The enemy certainly wasn’t running on this occasion. He was sitting in his bunker system, which we found and then advanced against the next morning, and he fought very tenaciously. I had to bring in the tanks on one flank, the artillery, helicopter gunships, everything that I could produce to try and overcome this enemy opposition. “And I think really what happened was that he left a small force there which allowed the rest of the regiment to bug out. We found about thirty bunkers in that area, plus another thirty adjacent to it which had been occupied by D445 battalion. They were obviously assembling there for a major operation against the Task Force in Phouc Tuy Province. “We had a number of early casualties. One of our officers from the field regiment was killed while he was directing artillery fire. A helicopter was shot down that was trying to drop ammunition. It burst into flames, and a few of my soldiers went into the flaming helicopter and rescued the crew, for which they were awarded gallantry decorations.” It turned out that the enemy was waiting in prepared positions for 5 Platoon that morning. At 0600 the Platoon moved off towards the bunker system and had only gone 90 metres when all hell broke loose. In the initial burst Pte Hack was wounded and Pte Mitchell was shot through the throat. The Platoon was under fire from the flanks as well as from their front. 5 Platoon engaged the bunkers aggressively with their M60 machine-guns but fire from the enemy continued virtually all day, pinning the platoon down. Any withdrawal would have caused even higher casualties, so they had to hold their position while an Infantry and Armoured assault using tanks and APCs was assembled.

apcMounted on those APCs were to be men from D Company plus the Tunnel Rats from 2 Troop attached to D Company and to the tanks and the APCs. Meantime 5 Platoon was now receiving fire from rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) which the enemy were skilfully firing into the trees above the men, causing the shrapnel to burst down on them from above. The tanks were edging their way towards 5 Platoon, and were themselves coming under RPG fire. On reaching the contact point they soon realized the bunker system was so large the tanks were outflanked and that they were taking RPG fire from all directions. In response, the tanks let fly with everything, sending a rain of high explosive (HE) and canister rounds into the jungle and into many of the bunkers. RAAF and US gunships were now also flying and firing in support, often dropping rockets and gunfire within 15 metres of the troops on the ground. By 0900 CHQ and 6 Platoon had reached 5 Platoon but Pte Manioloff was wounded in the move and Pte Bob Drinnan and Pte Trevor Sharland were wounded shortly after. At this point a chopper dropped much-needed ammunition, but while distributing this to the men, Pte Peter Fyfe was wounded. The artillery support was critical to the survival of the men in contact, and they had lobbed in a total of 1,388 rounds during the day from FSB Pamela, plus further support from FSB Trish and FSB Cherie. The artillery forward observer (FO) Lt. Ian Mathers was moving to a better position to direct his fire, when he was killed by enemy fire, leaving Lance Bombardier Peter Maher to direct the fire. At 1100 another vital ammunition re-supply by helicopter was taking place when the chopper was hit by enemy ground fire as it hovered over the contact area. The helicopter fell to the ground behind 5 Platoon and burst into flames, igniting the ammunition on-board. Men from B Company rushed to pull the crew from the burning chopper, getting them all out, but two of them were killed and three were wounded. Many of the M60 machine-guns were now jamming because of the over-heating caused by continuous fire. The mortars back at FSB Pamela were also jamming and misfiring due to over-heating. By mid-afternoon D Company with the tanks and APCs and the attached Tunnel Rats from 2 Troop finally moved into the bunker system in a two up formation in support of B Company. The tanks had only been able to move as fast as the Infanteers and Sappers walking beside and behind them. Each bunker had to be searched as they moved through the massive system, with the Tunnel Rats checking for mines and booby traps. Eventually the system was cleared of enemy and 5 Platoon could be relieved and sent back to a safer area for a well-earned rest. They had been in contact for over eight hours. In the following days, the Tunnel Rats thoroughly searched all the bunkers and the entire camp area before setting charges to blow up the whole system. It was an extensive and well-established enemy camp, with lecture areas, an assault training course, a mine warfare training area, a fresh-water well and a grave yard. The camp covered an area 1km by 1.5km and comprised over 100 bunkers, many of them with unusually deep overhead protection. This was one of the last major Operations of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, and fittingly, the Sappers of 1 Field Squadron were right amongst it, as they were throughout the war.

With thanks to Bob Wood and 1 Fld Sqn