In the Tet offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong attacked more than 100 cities and towns. Australia’s Task Force played a major role in restoring order in Phuoc Tuy and safeguarding U.S. bases near Bien Hoa. Meanwhile, graphic television reportage revealed to the Western world all the horror and futility of the war.
The new year of 1968 was to see the heaviest fighting of the war to date. The enemy launched massive offensives against the cities, towns and military bases and suffered appalling casualties in the process. It was the year in which the South Vietnamese army partially redeemed itself in many brave actions that won the admiration of its own people and its friends. It was the year in which the Australian Task Force fought the enemy away from Phuoc Tuy in a series of savage battles that proved the value of the tank—for so long the Cinderella of the army. And it was the year in which the war was lost when the American people largely rejected their President and the war.
General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, had faced the New Year optimistically.
In November 1967 he proclaimed, “It is conceivable that within two years or less the enemy will be so weakened that we will be able to phase down the level of our military effort.’ When Westmoreland’s intelligence staff warned him that a major enemy offensive would probably be launched early in the new year, he felt confident that he had the troops to handle it. He commanded 500,000 American soldiers and another 55,000 allied troops, including the Australians. As well, there were 750,000 men in the South Vietnamese armed forces. Against this combined strength of more than 1.3 million men, the enemy strength was estimated by Westmoreland’s staff at between 250,000 to 380,000 men. Back in Washington, the CIA took a somewhat less sanguine view and put enemy strength at closer to 500,000. The difference in estimates depended mostly on whether or not part-time guerrillas and cadres were included. In any case, Westmoreland had an enormous advantage in manpower, and he exuded considerable confidence as he publicly declared, ‘I hope they try something, because we are looking for a fight.”
On January 21, at Khe Sanh, Westmoreland found the sort of fight he was looking for. A huge North Vietnamese force, estimated to be at least 20,000 and possibly 40,000 men, laid siege to an isolated U.S. Marine base in the north-western part of I Corps, about 30 kilometres south of the demilitarized zone. There, 6,000 Marines and Vietnamese guarded the critical flank in a barrier of defensive positions designed to thwart a North Vietnamese invasion across the DMZ. When the North Vietnamese attacked, many observers feared that Khe Sanh could turn out to be America’s Dien Bien Phu. President Johnson, especially, was haunted by the possibility.
But Westmoreland was convinced that American fire power would win out in the end. Events would prove him correct. The base was protected by trenches, bunkers and a perimeter reinforced with Claymore mines, barbed wire, razor tape and trip flares. And it had eighteen 105 mm and six 155 mm howitzers, six 4.2 mm, mortars, six tanks and 92 single or multiple- mount 106 mm recoilless rifles. Added to this immense weight of weaponry was Westmoreland’s Niagara program, which could activate an armada of more than 2,000 aircraft, from giant B52 Stratofortresses down to prop- driven A-i Skyraiders, plus 3,000 helicopters, for round-the-clock bombing and strafing of the enemy surrounding Khe Sanh. The battle was joined after 12:30 am. on the 21st, when the enemy showered hundreds of 82 mm mortar rounds, artillery shells and 122 mm rockets onto the base. Soon after, 300 North Vietnamese Army soldiers breached the defensive wire, but were driven back in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. The Americans then unleashed their massive fire power and prevented a further.
North Vietnamese breakthrough.
The siege lasted till early April, during which time the Americans hurled an incredible 158,891 artillery rounds at the enemy. When it was ended and the North Vietnamese faded away, their dead and wounded were estimated at between 9 800 and 13 000 or 49 to 65 per cent of the attacking force. The major question was why. Why Khe Sanh? Some analysts felt that the Communists genuinely wanted to crack Khe Sanh and its Marines standing astride a favoured invasion route. But others argued that it was a diversion, albeit an expensive one, to focus Westmoreland s attention on the north, while the Communists completed their final preparations for a general offensive further south. It certainly seemed more than mere chance that a huge offensive followed Khe Sanh by only ten days.
The Communists timed their new blow to coincide with Tet, the main Buddhist festival in Vietnam, celebrated with the lunar New Year, which began in 1968 on January 30. Tet is a sacred time of ancestor worship and family reunion, when soldiers expect to get leave to return home. The Viet Cong had announced a seven-day ceasefire to begin on January 27. The South Vietnamese government had opted for a more cautious 36-hour truce from 6 p.m. on the 29th, although it seemed unlikely that even the Viet Cong would violate the sacredness of Tet. Strategically, the Tet offensive was designed with no less a goal than to win the war; failing that, it was hoped at least to weaken America’s faith in a military solution in Vietnam. To achieve these objectives, General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s leading military strategist, was prepared to sacrifice thousands upon thousands of men.
The Viet Cong’s specific targets were to capture vital installations in Saigon and the provincial capitals and to overrun key ARVN and United States military headquarters and airfields. If these aims were realised, the Communists firmly believed that there would be a general uprising of South Vietnamese against their government and the Americans. A revolutionary regime would then be established in Saigon or in one of the other captured cities. Such success could bring victory in a single stroke. Even partial success would greatly strengthen the North Vietnamese bargaining position in any future negotiations with the South Vietnamese and Americans. The offensive was a marvel of military planning and co-ordination, with heavy attacks launched simultaneously throughout South Vietnam against more than one hundred cities and major towns as well as scores of military bases. The nights of January 30 and 31 were unique in the history of the war. On those two nights, 80,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers committed what amounted to suicide against the allied defences.
Something like 4,000 enemy swarmed into Saigon itself and attacked the U.S. embassy, the presidential palace, the main radio station, and many other buildings and installations. But after the first shock, the American and ARVN military commands organized counter-attacks and within four days had recovered control of the country, although sporadic fighting continued in Saigon until the middle of February. It was in Hue, once the imperial capital and home of emperors, that the Communists achieved their lone real success by taking over most of the city and setting up a form of government. The Communists clung to Hue for 25 days of vicious fighting that half the world witnessed in awful fascination on television. What the world did not witness was the slaughter the Communists conducted in this lovely old cultural and intellectual centre. The remains of nearly 3,000 murdered people were discovered later in shallow mass graves. Another 4,000 South Vietnamese troops and 2,000 Americans were killed in the fighting nation-wide. American intelligence put the Communist losses at 50,000 killed.
For the Australian Task Force, the effects of Tet were most felt not by those units involved in spoiling operations around Bien Hoa but by the rear guard at Nui Dat. These were the men of the newly arrived 3rd Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Shelton, whose role was to protect the base. “It wasn’t really expected that anything dramatic would happen in Phuoc Tuy,” Shelton said. “That’s why two-thirds of the Task Force were away helping out around Bien Hoa.”
In the early hours of February 1, reports to tactical headquarters at Nui Dat indicated that the Tet offensive had come to Phuoc Tuy after all. Major Horrie Howard, commander of A Company, 3rd Battalion, recalled being briefed by Colonel Don Dunstan, acting Task Force commander. “We’d both only been in the country for about three weeks. My company was the Task Force ready reaction company under his direct command, and he told me that the ARVN sector headquarters in the middle of Baria wanted some help.
There were supposed to be about two enemy platoons making a nuisance of themselves.” In fact, there were many more than two platoons. The Viet Cong provincial D445 Battalion, reinforced by a local company, launched multiple attacks on five targets in and around the provincial capital of Baria just before 5 a.m. Two companies hit the Regional Forces administration and ammunition storage compound in the north-east of the town. In the centre, the sector headquarters came under fire, and another force of about two companies attacked several nearby bungalows housing the U.S. Provincial Aid organisation and the CIA representative’s office.
Yet another enemy company went after the main bridge on the western approach to the town. East of Baria, the airfield next to the National Training Centre of Van Kiep was captured by the Viet Cong soon after 7 am. All told, there were something like 600 enemy troops operating in the area. But at Nui Dat, the full strength of the enemy had not become clear from the fragmentary reports filtering through.
When Howard moved out to join the defence of Baria with two platoons and his company headquarters, about 65 men, he was utterly unaware of what he was up against. To relieve Baria as quickly as possible, the men were transported in nine APCs. Speed and the shock effect of the armoured carriers was Howard’s tactic — and it was a good one. A Viet Cong group lay in wait on the edge of the nearby village of Hoa Long to ambush a reaction force moving on foot. Against the charging column of carriers, the small arms fire of the ambush was notably ineffectual.
“The first enemy soldier I actually saw,” said Howard, “was a Viet Cong sitting backwards on a Lambretta as we drove into Baria; he was dressed in civilian clothes and he was firing at our leading APC with an AK rifle.
We returned fire with the APC fifty-cal machine-gun and just hosed him away.” The force was peppered with sniper fire as it moved into the outskirts of Baria, but the APCs rammed straight through to the sector headquarters. The building was still intact, though damaged by rockets. The troops leaped from the APCs and took up fire positions in the roadside monsoon drains.
“They told me they were all right at sector headquarters,” Howard recalled, “and they repeated their early guess of an enemy force of only two platoons. But they were worried about their ammo compound in the north-east. I sent one of my platoons off in APCs to reinforce that. They were also very worried about the U.S. Aid people and the local CIA guy, who were all holding out in a group of four or five houses about 800 metres away towards the southern edge of town.”
Howard remounted his remaining platoon and his company headquarters into the APCs and charged off again. Arriving at the group of houses clustered about 50 metres apart, Howard ordered his remaining platoon commander, Lieutenant Peter Fraser, to attack on foot.
“What exactly do we do, sir?” Fraser asked.
“Just use your grenades and go in after them,” snapped Howard.
The rescue force had arrived in the nick of time. Howard’s soldiers could hear firing in one of the houses. They dashed in and fought their way past several Viet Cong to an upstairs room where three American civilian aid workers, barricaded behind an overturned metal desk, were holding out against several more enemy soldiers. “The three of them were wounded, and in another thirty seconds they’d have had it,” said Howard. His men killed the Viet Cong and started searching the house for others. A big, burly private at one point lunged with fixed bayonet at a cupboard where he thought a Viet Cong was hiding. As Howard described it, “When he pulled back, the cupboard was bare, but he’d ripped the door off and it was skewered on the end of his bayonet. We were so tense we just cracked up at the sight of him.” Before it was over, the Australians had found and dispatched 15 Viet Cong in that one house. Six of Howard’s soldiers were wounded, but fortunately no one was killed.
Next in priority was the besieged CIA bungalow, where a section of Nung mercenaries were about to be overrun by the Viet Cong. Howard started to the rescue, but had to pull back to sector headquarters when word came of a fresh attack mounted from the northern part of the town. The attackers were soon dispersed by the arrival of Howard’s force in APCs and an air strike by a pair of U.S. Air Force Phantoms. Howard then rushed back to the CIA man and his Nung guards.
As we tried to get to the house, I had two APCs disabled with rockets. Then we charged the wall down with another APC. There seemed to be at least a Viet Cong platoon attacking the house, and the Nungs had just about had it when we broke in and rescued them and their CIA boss. Four of them were wounded.”
While this was going on, two ARVN reinforcement battalions flew in to help. One battalion came by helicopter, landing west of town. They then advanced cautiously towards the town. The other battalion was flown in by airplane. They landed early in the afternoon east of the town at the Van Kiep airfield, which had been recaptured by a force from the nearby ARVN Training School.
On the north side of town, the platoon sent to reinforce the ammunition compound had also been heavily engaged against the Viet Cong.
Lieutenant Harry Clarsen, the platoon commander, remembered There were bodies lying everywhere, especially round the gate. The compound covered an area about 100 metres square and was surrounded with cement walls reinforced by blockhouses. The Viet Cong had fought their way into the compound and were holed-up in several blockhouses. ‘There was a huddle of ARA soldiers clustered in one corner, not doing much. Then, as we moved through the gates, the Viet Cong opened fire.”
The Australians launched a grenade attack on the occupied blockhouses and cleared some of them. But that was only the beginning. Suddenly this mass of villagers appeared down the road saying the Viet Cong were coming through their village, which was about two hundred metres away,” reported Clarsen. “I’d called for an air strike to help knock out one strongly defended blockhouse, so I was able to redirect it for this new attack. The American pilot came in low along the axis of the road firing his twenty-millimetre cannon just over our heads into the Viet Cong coming through the village’ The pilot then advised Clarsen of a second group of Viet Cong in a nearby creek line forming to attack. Clarsen asked him to put in another strike. The pilot came howling down again, this time using napalm. He scored a direct hit, and 30 scorched bodies were later found in the creek bed.
Shortly afterwards, a second aircraft, a prop- driven dive-bomber, arrived overhead, and Clarsen guided it onto the remaining Viet Cong occupied blockhouse. Once again, the pilot scored a direct hit. Clarsen remembered it vividly “Suddenly about fifteen Viet Cong spilled out of the fire and smoke in the blockhouse and onto the open paddy fields below. They were making for a clump of bamboo. We had a field day picking them off.”
By late afternoon, Howard was able to send APCs to withdraw Clarsen’s platoon, which by then had won the battle for the ammunition compound. Re-concentrating his force, Howard moved towards the threatened bridge to the 98 west of town. As he advanced, towing the two disabled APCs, his force was attacked from the south-west. Howard described it: “It was just before dark and the CIA guy we’d gone to so much trouble to rescue copped it. He’d poked his head out of the APC he was in and was engaging the nasties with this Swedish K submachine-gun. He got hit in the face with an RPG round a rocket-propelled grenade — and it blew his head off. The rocket then went into the APC and killed four Nungs as well as an Australian warrant officer adviser we’d rescued.”
After fighting their way to the bridge, Howard’s men blocked it with one of the disabled APCs and set up a defensive position for the night. The force’s casualties were now 12 wounded, but no one had been killed. It was an anxious night. Braying trumpets sounded of ten the signal of a Viet Cong attack and the Viet Cong made several attempts to cross the river in boats. These were swiftly terminated by Howard’s men lobbing grenades into the boats.
For the people and defenders of Baria, Tet had run its course. Later that night, the Viet Cong silently withdrew from the town. The next day, Howard’s force was relieved by B Company of the 3rd Battalion, while the ARVN reinforcement battalions continued mopping-up operations. At the end of the battle, in which Howard’s force played such a major part, more than 200 Viet Cong were dead.
From Baria, the Viet Cong retreated to the village of Long Dien, about six kilometers to the west. An ARVN battalion was sent on February 2 to clear them out but failed. So D Company of the 3rd Battalion, commanded by Major Peter Phillips, did the job for them. “The ARVN battalion at Long Dien was pathetic,” reported Phillips. “I think it was a Ranger battalion, but my lads thought them to be little more than a nondescript Boy Scout outfit. They departed when we arrived. We cleared Long Dien on our own and without APCs. We killed quite a few, but I couldn’t say how many. Only one of my lads was wounded.”
That put an end to Tet in Phuoc Tuy but not to the action the 3rd Battalion would see. In mid February, the battalion was sent north to protect an American fire-support base near Bien Hoa. Known as Andersen base, the outpost interdicted an important Viet Cong communication artery with its 155 mm artillery and also gave strong fire support to the logistic base at Bien Hoa. Andersen was a major problem for North Vietnamese regulars operating in the area, and they had targeted it for destruction. Three separate times in the space of two weeks, Andersen was subjected to fierce attacks. It was a miniature version of what the U.S. Marines went through at Khe Sanh.
Major Geoff Cohen, second in command of the battalion was placed in charge of the defence of the base on the afternoon of February 16, and he was uneasy about its defences. “It was a fairly typical American base,” Cohen recalled, ‘with bulldozed red soil like an ant nest with the top knocked off. The position was dug in, sitting on a large knoll overlooking a mixture of open grassland, rubber and jungle. The nearest jungle was about one hundred and fifty metres away, but what worried me was a second knoll undefended on the first night and that was the way they came’
Barbed wire and Claymore mines surrounded the base. But because he was concerned about the second knoll, Cohen reinforced that part of the perimeter with more Claymore mines and stationed a small patrol of engineers 100 metres beyond the wire to give early warning of any attack. In addition to the American 155s, the base held a battery of 105 mm New Zealand field artillery, a troop each of Australian engineers and APCs and an infantry company from the 3rd Battalion, together with the support company and the battalion headquarters. All told, Cohen could count on a force of around 500 men. The other infantry companies were patrolling and ambushing away from the base.
Looking back, Cohen recalled an incident on February 17 that no one thought much of at the time. In mid-afternoon, a group of about 50 schoolchildren and female teachers from a nearby village arrived laughing and chattering at the gate to the base. Unlike the Americans, the Australians were strictly forbidden to fraternise with villagers. But that did not deter one young Australian soldier, who strolled through the perimeter to talk to one of the teachers. After a short exchange, the soldier led her into the long grass nearby, to the great amusement of his mates. Once Cohen discovered what was going on, he flushed out the licentious soldier and administered discipline, at which the children and teachers drifted away. Said Cohen later: The school kids and the co-operative teacher were probably just cover for a brilliantly staged last-minute recce for the attack planned for that night.
Nothing happened until a few minutes before midnight. Then, a single green flare arced out of the jungle blackness. Another hour passed, and then scores of 60 mm and 82 mm mortar shells as well as rocket fire poured into the base. ‘Two Australians were killed in the first moments of the bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, the North Vietnamese infantry came swarming out of the night two companies racing across the unprotected knoll straight for the American gun position, the Australian mortars and the Australian administrative echelon. The enemy charged in two successive waves: the first wave blasted the wire with hand grenades and took the brunt of the Claymores: the second, heavier, wave dashed through the gaps in the wire and the minefield and into the gun position. The American gunners were staggered, but they held and sprayed burst after burst at the enemy with their light automatic weapons. Now, the Australian APCs joined in with their heavy .50-calibre machine-guns. And at that, the North Vietnamese wavered and retreated, giving Cohen precious time to reinforce the position. “It soon became clear to me the NVA were after the guns,” said Cohen, “so I reinforced the area with three more APCs.”
An hour later, the enemy came on again. “They didn’t do as well this time,” Cohen said. “We had Puff the magic dragon the flare ship lighting things up, the APC’s stiffening the perimeter, and then the helicopter gunships arrived. Also our counter mortar fire was extremely effective. Our mortar platoon was magnificent, firing away under direct attack. It was all over before dawn. We had three killed in the battalion and a couple of wounded, but the sad thing was the engineers standing patrol. They got hit by the enemy mortars, and I think only two of the patrol survived.”
Lieutenant Harry Clarsen from A Company of the 3rd Battalion led the patrol to bring back the engineers’ bodies. “The flare aircraft was still up there,” he said, “casting this eerie light that seemed to suck the colour out of everything. We were guided out by one of the survivors who’d managed to crawl back through the American gun position. It was a grisly sight.”
Before dawn, the North Vietnamese cleared the battlefield of their dead and wounded. Only four bodies remained on the wire at first light, but the blood and bandages in the battle area indicated that there were many more casualties. The North Vietnamese attacked the Andersen base twice more, on February 19 and 28. But the 3rd Battalion was ready for them each time, and they were hurled back with heavy casualties. These determined assaults by North Vietnamese regulars against a well-defended base position were a foretaste of battles to come.
By March the Tet offensive had petered out, and the Task Force was re-concentrated in Phuoc Tuy province. To assert their presence, the Task Force mounted a campaign to clear the Long Hai hills, one of the main supply dumps and staging camps used by D445 Battalion to prepare for Tet. At the same time, a major American and ARVN counter-offensive was in progress to the north. More than 100,000 men from 79 battalions were committed to Gia Dinh province alone in a vast operation to reduce the threat to Saigon.
In the United States, however, political developments and changes in leadership would profoundly alter the course of the war. The U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, was replaced by Clark Clifford, who soon became convinced that “there was no military plan for victory” and that American war policy was a dead end. The Tet offensive accelerated the publics increasing opposition to the war. On March 16, Senator Robert Kennedy announced he was standing as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. His attitude to the war reflected that of a growing number of Americans: “Total military victory is not within sight. It is probably beyond our grasp.”
In late March, President Johnson announced that Westmoreland was to be replaced as the U.S. commander in Vietnam. Then came Johnson’s speech to the nation on Sunday evening, March 31. The President made a renewed offer to the North Vietnamese for negotiations and declared a partial bombing halt evidence of his good faith. Johnson then ‘concluded with the statement, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
The North Vietnamese response was swift and positive. In early April they announced they core prepared to begin negotiations, and these were scheduled to start on May 10 in Paris. Meanwhile, North Vietnam continued to pour men south at the rate of 12,000 a month to replace those lost in the Tet battles. The reinforcements were urgently needed because classic Communist doctrine was to keep on making war while talking peace. General Giap therefore planned a major new offensive to coincide with the opening of the Paris peace talks in May.
There was ample warning of a second offensive. In late April a North Vietnamese colonel surrendered to the allies. He had with him detailed plans for a second wave of attacks, Saigon being a particular target.
While the negotiating teams in Paris prepared for their opening talks, the North Vietnamese struck. In the early morning of May 5, Communist soldiers launched 119 attacks against cities, towns and military targets throughout South Vietnam. In the days leading up to the onslaught, thousands of enemy soldiers infiltrated the countryside around Saigon. No fewer than 13 enemy battalions penetrated into the city; it took a week of savage fighting to rout them out. The allies quickly organised blocking operations to intercept the enemy’s withdrawal. The Task Force was sent to Binh Duong province north-east of Saigon and about 32 kilometres north of Bien Hoa on the southern edge of War Zone D. Five Communist regiments were known to be in the area, and more were expected to pass through. The Australian mission was to help shut down the enemy’s re-supply and withdrawal routes.
A new fire-support base named Coral was planned to give artillery backing to the Australian infantry battalions. The base was to be manned by a New Zealand artillery unit, the 161st Field Battery, and an Australian unit, the 102nd Field Battery belonging to the 12th Field Regiment. Together they would mount twelve 105 mm guns to support the infantry. Elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions were to provide infantry security. But delay and confusion in occupying Coral very nearly led to disaster.
At daybreak on May 12, the 3rd Battalion’s Major Cohen accompanied an American rifle company to the proposed site for the Coral base. The Americans were to make sure the landing zone was safe for the first arrivals. “We went in by forced march,” Cohen said, “and I suppose I was influenced by the jumpiness of the Americans. The place just had a dangerous feeling about it.” But the advance party gave the go-ahead, and the first elements of the 3rd Battalion flew in. They were to secure the surrounding area while the build-up of the base continued. Then things began to go wrong — not major but minor things, yet in total they spelled trouble. The main problems were helicopter delays and the switching of units because the U.S. 1st Division had become involved in heavy fighting nearby. Any major military operation has an element of self-adjusting confusion about it; the American army slang word SNAFU said it all: “Situation normal, all fouled up.”
Around midday, the reconnaissance elements of the artillery arrived and judged the immediate area totally unsuitable for the guns. As one gunner put it, “There was elephant grass up to your eyes you couldn’t see anything.” Major Peter Phillips’s D Company from the 3rd Battalion was securing the landing zone at this stage. He later observed, with dry understatement, ‘It was a fairly muddled sort of day.” As the artillery reconnaissance party was heading off to find a new site, giant American Chinook helicopters arrived carrying guns of the New Zealand artillery unit in slings beneath their bellies. The Chinooks had other pressing missions and could not wait around until a new gun position was selected, so the New Zealand guns were dropped then and there. This meant that they had to remain in place at least for the night and had to be properly defended. A 3rd Battalion Infantry Company was assigned to carry out the task. The search continued for a better Coral site. A new one eventually was found, 1,200 metres off to the north-east, and so the much-delayed operation of establishing the base could now be completed. But vital hours had been lost, and it was almost dusk when the last soldiers were flown in to Coral.
The new position was in a cleared area of rubber plantation. The ground was flat, with waist-high grass, and the base covered a semicircular area with a radius of a little over 100 metres. The six guns of the 102nd Battery were in the middle, and the 12th Field Regiment’s headquarters was on the rear western flank.
In the original plan, the guns were to be protected by D Company of the 3rd Battalion, positioned at the edge of the plantation south of the road about 300 metres north of the 102nd Battery position. The 3rd Battalion headquarters and the other three rifle companies were with the New Zealand battery at the original site. The 1st Battalion headquarters, together with its support company, had arrived so late that they remained at Coral for the night, instead, of moving to the planned position 2000 metres from the base. The battalion headquarters was positioned on the east flank of the guns, together with two platoons from its support company: the anti-tank platoon and the assault pioneer platoon. Two sections of the mortar platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Tony Jensen, were placed to the immediate northern front of the guns. In total, there were about 200 men, infantry and artillery combined, in the Coral base.
Unnoticed during the bustle and confusion of the day, a North Vietnamese battalion, described as the 275th Infiltration Group, had arrived in the general area en route to attack Saigon. From nine kilometers away they had seen the guns of the 102nd Battery being flown in. After a quick personal reconnaissance, the NVA commander decided that the guns were an ideal target. He noted that they were laid on a due-east axis and therefore decided to attack from the north. If his opening assault was swift enough, the guns would be overrun before they could be turned to fire.
Unaware of the enemy, the gunners and infantrymen at Coral went about their tasks of settling in, but without the sense of urgency that was required now they were in NVA ‘tiger” country a very different place from the comparatively pacified province of Phuoc Tuy. One of the critical rules in setting up any fire- support base was that the defences had to be fully developed by last light, and if that was impossible, then a strong, compact infantry screen was vital to protect the guns.
Using the battery’s small, jeep-sized bulldozer, the gunners managed to dig in their three front guns with chest-high earthworks. Then they dug individual weapon pits about a metre deep. The artillery regimental headquarters was also dug in, with some overhead protection enough to keep out the rain.
As for the infantry, the 1st Battalion headquarters group barely had time to dig shallow personal weapon pits and a rudimentary command post without overhead cover. Tony Jensen’s mortar platoon, which did not arrive till after 3 p.m., just managed to dig in their four mortars to a depth of about a metre and then gouge out shallow weapon pits. Neither barbed wire nor Claymore mines were laid in front of the base. There was simply no time to do so.
At 5:30 p.m. the Australians made their first contact with the enemy. About 2,500 metres away from the Coral base, soldiers from Major Tony Hammett’s D Company of the 1st Battalion were setting-up an ambush position when a group of North Vietnamese materialised before their eyes. As Hammett tells it: “An NVA patrol walked into us, and we killed one of them. So I was expecting more trouble, and I told everybody to dig, dig, dig! I also ordered a fifty per cent stand-to all night. It was about midnight when they hit us next. There was this light drizzling rain, and they fired a salvo of RPG sevens at us. Some of them burst in the trees and we lost two killed. We also had another nine wounded.” Hammett called for artillery support, and because he was north of the Coral base, the guns had to be swivelled from east to north. Later, this gun realignment would decide the fate of Coral and its defenders.
At five minutes past midnight, a small enemy patrol was spotted by the mortar platoon sentries. They opened fire and killed three North Vietnamese before the patrol broke contact. For an hour and a half the enemy made no further move. Then at 1:45 am. a mortar platoon sentry was the first to see what was coming. He just had time to crawl back and whisper, “There’s at least 400 noggies only 50 metres away, all gibbering.” Moments later the base was under siege from a barrage of rocket and mortar rounds followed by a major battalion assault with hundreds of North Vietnamese troops from the 275th Infiltration Group attacking from the north.
The 18 soldiers in the mortar platoon were all standing to when the NVA hit, but they had no time to fire their mortars. “I could see their assault waves coming,” Jensen said, “and I just had time to cut down the small tent I had over my command post. The NVA were firing the RPGs at any tents they saw. I think they were a bit confused by running into us first and not the guns.”
The leading North Vietnamese troops swept through the mortar platoon and up to the earth ramparts, or bunds, protecting the forward guns. Lieutenant Ian Ahearn, the gun position officer, recalled, “The gun crewmen held them off with small-arms fire, but they couldn’t get the NVA off the bunds without grenades, which they didn’t have right then. So they fired high explosive rounds at point blank range instead. That cleared them off.” However, the gunners were unable to hold their left forward gun position. The NVA threw a shower of grenades, the gun and the crew were forced to leave it and fall back to the gun position behind.”
In the general confusion after his mortar platoon position was overrun, Jensen remembered seeing “this calm oriental face looking down at me. He had his hands clasped behind his back. I was in an awkward position, lying on my left side half out of the weapon pit and cradling my rifle, which I’d just fired. I lay as still as I could, as if I was dead. Then he turned away and walked off still with his hands behind his back, so I guessed he must have been an officer or a political commissar. Then I took aim and shot him. When we inspected his body in the morning, his pistol was still packed in grease in wrapping paper in the holster as if it was straight from the factory.”
Desperately, Jensen radioed for New Zealand artillery fire to be brought down on his position. But initially there was reluctance to do this because battalion headquarters still had not accepted the fact that the mortar platoon had been overrun. Instead, the artillery was brought in to within 20 metres. Meanwhile the enemy had begun firing one of Jensen’s mortars against the guns. Fortunately, the six rounds they fired all passed harmlessly overhead. Again Jensen called for artillery fire on his own position, and this time three Splintex rounds were fired directly across him by one of the neighbouring 102nd Battery guns. Each Splintex contained thousands of small darts, and their explosion cut devastating swathes through the milling North Vietnamese attackers.
The balance of the battle now began to tilt in favour of the Australians. Another salvo of Splintex exploded 400 metres north of the base and caught a reserve wave of attackers. As for the captured gun, Ahearn said, “I made a decision not to try and retake it immediately that would only have meant more casualties to the other gun crews but to neutralise it instead. So we kept firing small arms at it and laid one of the other guns on it in case they still tried to use it. In fact, they tried to destroy it using satchel charges.”
American air support was requested, and at 2:30 a.m. helicopter gunships arrived as well as DC3 aircraft known as Spooky and Puff. Spooky dropped parachute flares to illuminate the area, while Puff was equipped with six-barrelled machine-guns that could lay down an astonishing volume of fire as much as 6,000 rounds per minute per gun. The New Zealand artillery was ordered to cease fire so the aircraft could move closer. Colonel Philip Bennett, commander of the 1st Battalion, then took over co-ordination of the battle, previously controlled by the 12th Field Regiment headquarters.
‘We could see clearly by the light of the flares,” Jensen said, “and the DC3 was spraying down bullets like water from a hose and then walking the fire around within ten metres of our weapon pits. I was able to yell out to Ahearn from time to time throughout the battle, and he’d yell out to me — say, to keep our heads down because they were going to fire Splintex. But every time we spoke we both drew a lot of NVA fire. Just before dawn, most of the NVA decided to pull out. I could see them running around, perhaps twenty or thirty, half crouched, dragging their casualties.”
At dawn, Ahearn organised a counter-attack to recapture the gun. He sent Lieutenant Bob Lowrey with a group of about 10 gunners to sweep out and assault the gun, while he led another group which gave covering fire. Lowrey’s men killed three enemy and got the gun back. Finally, near 8 am., the enemy broke contact. As they withdrew, they were pounded by artillery and tactical air strikes.
Australian clearing patrols then swept the base, checking for any surviving NVA wounded. Ahearn’s men found one North Vietnamese survivor. “He looked terribly young, perhaps eighteen,” said Ahearn. “He was lying on his back and his chest was stitched across with four bullet holes. We turned and searched him, then our medic looked after ‘him and he was casevacked with our own wounded.” North Vietnamese dead were everywhere. “A lot of them had been hit by high explosive shrapnel, and they had massive wounds,” said Ahearn. “Others had been hit by small-arms fire and flechettes. They were all wearing black shorts and shirts and, mostly, Ho Chi Minh sandals. They had on their basic webbing and light packs. They were well equipped and their weapons were in excellent condition.”
These North Vietnamese regulars had fought a skilful and tenacious battle and had taught the Australians a harsh lesson about the vulnerability of an inadequately prepared fire-support base. It was a lesson, however, that needed no repeating, and the Australians were ready when the next attacks were launched against them in the following days. In addition to the prisoner, 52 North Vietnamese bodies were found, together with a variety of weapons. The Australians had suffered grievously, too, with nine killed and 28 wounded; five of the dead and eight of the wounded were from Tony Jensen’s mortar platoon.
Later that day, May 13, a second fire-support base named Coogee was established five kilometres east of Coral by the 3rd Battalion.
Meanwhile, Coral was substantially reinforced with the 1st Battalion’s rifle companies, extra artillery and a squadron of APCs. Undaunted by the reinforcements, the North Vietnamese launched another battalion attack in the early hours of May 16. Major “Blue” Keldie, commander of the APC squadron and coordinator of the defence, later described the scene: It was like living through a constant electrical storm, like a fireworks display, as they advanced in near perfect formation.”
The enemy succeeded in occupying some of the forward pits of A Company of the 1st Battalion, but the main attack was stopped at the defensive perimeter. Two more attacks were launched that night. Finally, at 6:45 a.m., the enemy broke contact and withdrew; 34 North Vietnamese were found dead and many more had been dragged away. Casualties in the Coral base were five killed and 21 wounded. It had been a determined attack by the NVA, but there was never any serious danger that the base would be overrun.
At this point, Colonel Don Dunstan, the acting Task Force commander, requested tank reinforcements to defend the fire-support bases. So the recently arrived C Squadron of the 1st Armoured Regiment was called forward from Nui Dat, 140 kilometres away. Three troops of the squadron, equipped with Centurion tanks and commanded by Major Peter Badman, arrived at Coral on May 23. The Centurions were 50-ton monsters armed with a high velocity 20-pounder gun and two .30-calibre Browning machine-guns. Heavily armoured and impervious to small-arms fire, the Centurions had a maximum speed of 34 kilometres per hour.
The day after the tanks arrived, the 3rd Battalion moved out to establish yet another fire-support base, named Balmoral, five kilometres north of Coral. The next day, May 25, a troop of four tanks commanded by Lieutenant Mick Butler was sent across country to reinforce Balmoral. Screened by B Company of the 1st Battalion, with platoons at the front and rear of the column, the tanks made steady progress. “Suddenly there was a flurry of shots,” Butler said. “The infantry forward scouts had hit an ambush on the edge of a box of jungle about a kilometer across. We put in a quick right flank attack with the infantry. I kept two tanks to give fire support while the other two attacked with the infantry. Sergeant Len Allen’s tank caught an NVA running at a distance of about thirty metres with a blast of canister. He was so pummelled; they had to turn him over with a shovel.” At the sight of the tanks, the North Vietnamese withdrew, leaving three dead. The Australians had no casualties and the column pressed on to Balmoral. Their arrival was perfectly timed. At 3:45 a.m. on May 26, a battalion-sized North Vietnamese force attacked Balmoral.
An intense barrage of mortar, rocket, machine- gun and small-arms fire proclaimed the first Balmoral attack. Two soldiers were killed. Major Peter Phillips, commanding D Company of the 3rd Battalion, said: “Their mortar fire was terribly accurate. The NVA had sent scouts in with pieces of string to get exact distances.” Assault waves of enemy soldiers then hit D Company’s perimeter position, but the riflemen and machine-gunners, supported by the awesome Centurions, kept them back. The outcome was never in doubt. The enemy had gone after Coral at the same time, but that attack also had failed. At daylight, Tony Hammett’s D Company of the 1st Battalion, supported by four Centurions, left Coral to clear out the enemy position between the two fire-support bases, which had fired on Butler’s armoured column the day before. Australian intelligence believed that Butler’s force had only bumped the edge of an extensive bunker complex. As Hammett’s force soon discovered, the enemy were indeed there, dug in and in strength.
The fighting that took place that day was the first combined infantry-tank assault by Australians against enemy bunkers since World War II. The four Centurion tanks commanded by Lieutenant Gerry McCormack were devastatingly effective. As soon as the infantry advance was held up, the tanks were called forward. With a withering blast of machine-gun and canister fire, all vegetation was stripped away in front of them and the enemy bunkers, and as the tanks advanced, any remaining tunnel entrances were crushed under their grinding steel tracks.
Later in the day, the infantry successfully used flame-throwers against two large bunkers.
Finally, D Company broke contact to return the three kilometres to Coral before dark. No Australians had been killed or wounded, thanks largely to the Centurions. In Hammett’s words, “The feeling of elation amongst the company was indescribable. Like the tank crews, they felt ten feet tall, and when we got back to the base a lot of the soldiers went up to the tanks and patted them, like horses.”
In the early morning of May 28, Balmoral was again heavily mortared as the prelude to another intense attack from the NVA’s 141st Regiment. An initial probing attack was launched against Major Horrie Howard’s A Company. “There was fairly heavy timber right up to our wire,” said Howard, “and they got in close and blew it in a few places with Bangalore torpedoes. Then they put in what turned out to be a deception assault; we held them off before they could get to the wire. There was a fair amount of moonlight, and using a starlight-scope we spotted a political commissar about fifty metres away, all dressed-up in starched uniform and pith helmet haranguing his troops. We shot him with a burst of fifty cal.”
Ten minutes later, the main ground assault was launched on the other side of the perimeter against D Company and the troop of four tanks. “I was lying under my tank when I heard the first mortars coming in,” Butler, the troop commander, recalled. “Later, my tank crew were doing an infra-red sweep and we caught six NVA laying a Bangalore in the wire. We caught them with canister. Then my tank was hit with a mortar round which wounded the turret crew. I counted over twenty NVA on the wire in front of us, and there were more behind. We were firing everything at them, machineguns high explosive, armour-piercing and, of course canister.’
Major Phillips called for artillery and mortar fire support, and his company held the attackers on the wire. Air support arrived with flare ships and helicopter gunships. “There was an enemy anti-aircraft gunner sheltering in a B52 crater firing green tracer from a 12.7-millimetre machine-gun at the helicopters. We used APC and tank fire and silenced him.” The attack continued till 5:30 a.m., but the enemy failed to penetrate the Balmoral position and withdrew. Butler reported, “We could see them trying to drag away their dead.”
At first light, two tanks, Butler’s Centurion and one other, moved outside the wire to mop up pockets of enemy pinned down in B52 craters. Later they were supported by APCs and two platoons of D Company infantry. Dick Lippett, the 3rd Battalion doctor, who had been treating Australian casualties all night while exposed to enemy fire, went out with one of the clearing patrols to tend to the North Vietnamese wounded. ‘He was a big, dark, hairy, wild man – a great battlefield doctor,” Major Geoff Cohen recalled. “He found one wounded NVA, but the fellow pulled a grenade and threw it at Dick. It went off between his legs and wounded him in the thighs, the right hand and his scrotum. He shot the NVA, then had to be casevacked himself.” Later, 42 enemy dead were counted and seven prisoners were taken. Major Peter Badman, the Centurion squadron commander, witnessed a macabre display of the effectiveness of a tank canister. ‘It was in front of Sergeant Len Allen’s tank. A whole assaulting platoon had been caught, and they’d fallen in three ranks with about nine men in each rank. An infantry soldier said to me in the morning ‘Hey, sir, look at this!’ He lifted up a North Vietnamese head by the forelock. The face was intact but the back of the head was blown away like half an eggshell with the yolk running out. Then the soldier laughed and said, “This bloke hasn’t got a brain in his head”. That was a gruesome but sardonically apt comment on the North Vietnamese tactics of making frontal assaults against Australians in well-defended positions. Wasteful and senseless though such tactics seemed in the immediate aftermath of the battle, they were the logical consequence of the North Vietnamese strategy of maintaining maximum military pressure to ensure a stronger hand at the Paris peace talks.
At Balmoral, the Task Force had fought its last major battle of the operation, and it returned to Phuoc Thy in early June. That same month, General Creighton W. Abrams replaced Westmoreland as U.S. commander. This reflected a major shift in American policy: no further force increases and the beginnings of Vietnamisation. A new strategic emphasis was placed on pacification, population control and the destruction of the Viet Cong infrastructure. In Phuoc Tuy, the Task Force returned to a familiar routine with clearing and ambush operations in the Hat Dich and Thua Thich areas north-west and north-east of the Nui Dat base. After the high drama of the Coral and Balmoral battles, it was anticlimactic but still grindingly hard work for the soldiers. There were also few lasting results. No matter how many times areas like Hat Dich were swept and the Viet Cong camps destroyed, the enemy were invariably back in occupation and transiting the place as soon as the Australians left. It was rather like the housewife’s lament: ‘No matter how often I sweep this house, there’s always more dirt.”
The problem was compounded by continual Viet Cong recruiting and fresh North Vietnamese reinforcements. However, as a result of the Task Force’s rigorous housecleaning” operations, the main forces of the enemy were mostly held at arm’s length in Phuoc Tuy, and the province appeared to be one of the safest and most pacified in the country.
On November 1, 1968, President Johnson announced the cessation of aerial bombing and naval shelling of targets in North Vietnam. Four days later, Richard Nixon narrowly won the U.S. presidential election and promised to end the war and negotiate an acceptable peace. From now on, it was unquestionably a no-win war to be fought against a backdrop of the worst internal upheavals and anti-war sentiment ever seen in the United States or Australia. For the Task Force soldiers, however, the protesters might have been on another planet. The soldiers had a job to get on with — a long and arduous spoiling operation to forestall a renewed 1969 Tet offensive.
Courtesy of: Time Life Books 1987