Possible closure on Hill 82, Vietnam

In 1964 I joined 1 section, 1 Platoon, A Coy, 1RAR as a very raw recruit fresh out of Infantry Centre, Ingleburn. The Section 2ic was Lance Corporal ‘Tiny’ Parker and one of the other diggers in the platoon was Peter Gilson. ‘Tiny’ Parker brought me up to speed in Infantry Section work and was a patient and friendly proffessional soldier. We had many a friday happy hour over that year after a weeks hard training or after major exercises, and the team spirit that becomes apparent in infantry developed. Tiny was married then and at Platoon parties I met his wife and the girlfriends and parents of the others in the section and platoon. In March 1965 I was posted to 5RAR as I was a month too young to deploy with 1RAR on their first tour of Vietnam so I left that small band, that team that took me from recruit to soldier and gave me many life-time friendships. We had worked hard and played hard and I was saddened to leave my new ‘family’. Time marches on. I continue training with 5RAR while my old 1RAR platoon was in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. 1RAR was the first Australian infantry unit to serve in Vietnam and was one of the three battalions of the Brigade. On the 8th of November, forty years ago this month my old section and platoon came to grief. Last night Lateline carried a story that may offer closure to all those who fought on that day, to the relatives who have suffered for all these forty years and to me who counted Tiny and Peter amongst my many army mates. The story from one who was there.
On the 8th of November 1965 A Company (1 RAR), led by Major John Healy, headed across the northern edge of Gang Toi plateau. Around 1030 hrs, 3 Platoon had a contact, killing a Viet Cong. A round struck a grenade carried by the Viet Cong and blew him apart. Later on, 2 Platoon found an unoccupied company sized position consisting of fighting pits and dugouts and a little later were fired upon without casualties. The Viet Cong escaped again. Later again, 1 Platoon killed two Viet Cong who approached the Company area. The order of march was changed to 1 Platoon followed by Company Headquarters, the 2 Platoon with 3 Platoon coming up the rear. (1 Platoon was under strength and only had two sections of seven men instead of three of nine). Corporal “Tiny� Parker’s section was up front in thick jungle moving towards the feature known as “Hill 82� and the whole Company was in single file, stretched out over almost 300 metres heading towards the top of the plateau. As the lead section reached the top, the Viet Cong opened fire with devastating effect, using three or four well-placed machine guns backed up with other small arms and grenades. The lead section took several casualties almost immediately, then, when the section moved up in support, their Section Commander was also wounded. Two of the wounded from Tiny Parker’s section managed to crawl back to the rest of the platoon. Parker lay in front of the enemy gun and was hit again and again. The platoon was pinned down in a vicious crossfire. 3 Platoon meanwhile killed two more Viet Cong along the creek line below the action at the top of the plateau. Major Healy asked Clive Williams (3 Platoon Commander) to move up to the left of 1 Platoon and sweep through in assault formation. Reaching the high ground, 3 Platoon formed up in extended line and began the assault and soon struck another strong enemy force on their flank. Using fire and movement, they continued their advance when Private Peter Gilson, a machine gunner, was hit and fell into a tangle of tree roots that he was trying to negotiate while trying to get a better firing position. He was only15 metres from the enemy. Two Viet Cong tried to get his gun but the wounded Gilson raised himself and shot them at point blank range. 3 Platoon tried to press home the attack but the enemy fire was too intense. A stop was called to the assault as the Platoon realized they were being outflanked. The Platoon Sergeant, Col Fawcett, crawled forward under heavy fire to try and retrieve Gilson’s body. He managed to feel for a pulse and found none, then made several attempts to retrieve the body but each time sustained bursts of fire hit Gilson. (He later told me he felt rounds striking the body as he was trying to pull Gilson clear). Sergeant Fawcett later received the Military Medal for his bravery under fire. 3 Platoon looked like being cut off from the rest of the Company and were forced to withdraw. With the support of the highly accurate New Zealand artillery, the Company used fire and movement to extract themselves and the wounded from the killing ground and killed two more Viet Cong in the process. They were unable to recover either Parker or Gilson’s bodies. The men of A Company never forgot the horror and perceived guilt of leaving their mates behind.
173rd Brigade Commander pulled the troops out and they were never allowed to go back. The search for the bodies of Tiny and Peter never stopped as I have had letters over the years detailing the progess of the eternal search for the remains of our mates. Jim Bourke set up Operation Aussies Home three years ago. It’s dedicated to finding the bodies of the six missing servicemen. On a fact-finding mission to Vietnam earlier this month, they had a breakthrough in the search for the two Australians killed during the assault on Hill 82. Jim echoes all of our thoughts when he says;
Tiny, mate, it’s been 14,623 days and we’ve remembered you for every one of those.
Thanks to Rick Hollingdrake, Secretary RAR Association (Qld) for the pointer to the Lateline article.