Vietnam Veterans Day
On 26 August we are ordered back to the east of Dat Do, specifically near the Ear (so called because it took the shape of an ear on our battle maps), to look for signs of the enemy. We patrolled all day on the 26th and 27th without cutting any sign but late on the afternoon of the second day we hit pay dirt, unfortunately. We were moving through the jungle looking for a safe harbour in which to hide and ambush for the night with the Platoon Commander, Staff Sergeant Col Rowley taking the lead. A little after 1600 Staff Sergeant Colin Rowley sights and fires on a fleeting glimpse of a Viet Cong soldier. It was such a good site for a lay-up that the enemy had also chosen it. They had been there for a fortnight on retraining when we arrived to add some reality.
As explained in the book Conscripts and Regulars by Mike O’Brien;
“On 26 August, the Reconnaissance Platoon had been detailed to search for signs of enemy activity around the feature nickname the Ear, midway between Dat Do and Xuyen Moc. It was so called because the shape of the map contours on a 1:50 000 map of the area was similar to an ear. The next day, the Platoon Commander Staff Sergeant Col Rowley was selecting a night harbour position for the platoon 1 km south of the Ear at about 1615 hours. He had been leading for about 25 m when he sighted an enemy soldier going to ground behind a tree. He opened fire on the enemy and took cover. The Viet Cong returned the fire; wounding the scout (Pte Ray Gladman and the section commander of the forward section (Lance Corporal Neil Richardson). The forward section deployed and returned the fire. Enemy fire was now coming from left, centre and right of this section. The second and third sections deployed into an assault and swept through the enemy position under Staff Sergeant Rowley’s command. The Platoon Sergeant (Sergeant Williams) and seven soldiers were detailed to care for the wounded. The assault group fought through a camp with accommodation for about fifteen men. While they were using spigot grenades to clear one of the huts, a further burst of fire detonated one of these grenades, wounding a further three soldiers – Private Pat Kelly, Private Neil Nitshke and Private Darrel Gillies – with shrapnel.”
Being second section in line I heard the rattle of the Kalashnikov and the screams of wounded men. My men all go to ground facing the direction of fire waiting for contact drills to click in place. They look to me but I don’t notice as I’m still dealing with the moment and waiting for the forward man to yell out something that would start contact drills. Leaves are clipped from the trees overhead and I hear the familiar crack-thump of incoming rifle rounds and think ” Oh, Jesus Christ, what now?” I know we’ve already taken casualties because I can hear Sergeant Williams (the Platoon Sergeant) call on the radio ” Zero Alpha, this is Six-One, CONTACT wait out,” then “Zero Alpha, standby DUSTOFF, out.” The “Stand By DUSTOFF” is the give away, we know we have someone down.
The enemy fight back with alacrity, as we appear to be taking fire from three flanks all at once. What’s left of the leading section is returning fire while the other two sections wait on developments. Staff Sergeant Rowley soon has things moving and we form up to move through the lead section onto the enemy camp. We are moving fast and blind, as there is no time for reconnaissance when you are under so much fire. We could all die where we lay if we stayed for too long. We assault forward for some 10 m when it becomes apparent the main camp is now to our right. Staff Sergeant Rowley orders me to bring my men round to the new line of assault and when we do, we can now see the camp better.
My blood is up, adrenalin surges through my body preparing for the onslaught. Our faces are white as the brain redirects blood to our torsos for the “fight or flee” actions. No fleeing here, only fight, we are Australian Infantry and trained to handle these situations. However, this is totally against everything the brain knows. The brains primeval thoughts, contained deep in the “Limbic system” that part of our brain that evolved long before we developed rational thought; where our basic, primitive urges and feelings reside; has no doubts that this is one of those “flee” moments. However training, repetitive drills, discipline from earlier days on parade grounds, the fear of letting your mates down and the fact that we have already taken casualties, all go to making it possible for a man to stand up and move froward towards other men firing machine guns. Another thought is, if you don’t fight and kill, you will be killed.
AK47 fire is still coming at us but hitting higher in the trees. I guess the enemy were panicking or, hopefully, firing blindly as they withdrew. Machine guns hammering, short bursts from M16s the solid crash of the SLRs and explosions from grenades fired from the end of rifles, all add to the cacophony of battle. As we come around to the right this leaves a clearing on my left. Not good but its the least of my problems.
As we straighten up the third section comes into line to my right and as they do I see Pat Kelly, kneeling with his rifle rigged for spigot. He had been firing the grenades from his rifle and was loaded ready for another shot. I place my men on the ground and shout at Pat through all the noise to wait until my men are down. Just as they are settled I touch Pat on the shoulder as a signal to fire the grenade.
Another burst of AK47 whips through the jungle aimed at Pat and myself (we were kneeling and just a bit more obvious) and if the thought that we were lucky that we weren’t hit was starting to form in our brains, it was stillborn. One of the AK47 rounds hit the grenade and it exploded. By the nature of our positions, myself to Pats left rear with my right hand on his left shoulder and with Pats rifle being in his right hand, butt on the ground and angling up at 45 degrees, I was protected from the shrapnel. Pat wasn’t. We both were blown through the air, myself being slammed against a tree and damaging my back. Pat wasn’t so lucky, his face and torso were shredded and bloody. He was in shock and the first thing I remember is Pat mouthing the words, “Help me!” I didn’t hear it actually; I was looking at his face looking for signs of life and lip-read the words. Even if I couldn’t lip-read I could have guessed that is what he would have said. The assault of noise and colour associated with close proximity to high explosives has a fearful effect on the body and mind. I’m totally deafened from the blast and I’m obviously in some sort of shock but self-preservation is a marvellous motivator. I have to keep functioning or it could become worse.
I look to continue carrying out my last order and as I look around I find two men as yet seemingly untouched by rifle or grenade. I gather these two and we assault further towards a visible tent form whence we reasoned the grenade detonating AK 47 burst had originated. Expecting further bursts we move fast, low and spread out with our rifles to our shoulders aimed at the tent with fingers having taken “first pressure” on our triggers. We get there without mishap and exploit forward past the tent to the edge of the clearing. Going to ground we look for movement but any movement is on the other side. They’ve fleeing! I give them 2 mags of 5.56 mm rounds to help them on their way, more in frustration than tactics, but I knew some of my rounds struck home.The pressure is off! I’m relieved at still being alive but now thoughts turn to the wounded and the tallying up of the price we have paid to the gods of war.
Leaving a soldier to cover the enemies withdrawal route on that flank, I doubled back looking to help with first aid and comfort. Seeing the Platoon Medic with Pat, I went to Blue Nitshke and placing my hand on his thigh for balance, asked him where he was hit. He paled significantly and said some unkind words about my ancestry. Taking the hint I took my weight off his leg and noticed, under my hand, disguised by the thick dirty greens, a red pulpy mass of multiple shrapnel wounds.
(To this day Blue refuses to come to any sort of reunion and I sometimes think my leaning on his wound has something to do with that.)
“Sorry mate!” was my weak rejoinder, as I started to cut the trouser leg to apply a shell dressing. We worked furiously to comfort Blue Nitshke and then Darrel Gillies (GSW to the chest) while the Platoon Sergeant got on the radio to relay the bad news, five casualties and no Charlie to show for it.
“Six-One, this is Dust-off. Is the clearing North of you clear?” Charlie was most probably still running, but if they weren’t, they would be lying on the other side of the clearing, in ambush, watching our every move.
“Blue, are you wounded?” I yell.
” No!” he replies.
” Then grab a rifle, double across the clearing and shoot any bastard you see!” I said. He was a machine gunner and as we couldn’t afford to lose a man and a machine gun he would have to take one of the wounded men’s rifle. I went on.
” You are security for the Dust-off, so keep your eyes open!”
Blue being a good digger doubled away. Maybe he was cursing me, but he did it.
With the North secure, so to speak, the Dust-off Choppers started landing and evacuating the casualties. This went well and within 30 minutes we were ready to settle in the harbour that had cost us so much. We dined well that night on rice and bamboo shoots that Charlie had cooked, and then left in his haste to avoid a fight. We found more than food there including documents indicating that Charlie was C2, D445 Battalion, our opposite number, so to speak. The enemy platoon had just about finished a two-week refresher course and was obviously very switched on to defending and fleeing. Hope the poor chaps got their course reports.
Seven in Seventy, the history of 7RAR in South Vietnam commented as follows;
“Meanwhile the Reconnaissance Platoon who had deployed with Support Company in the Long Green had been moved North into the area of NUI NHON At 5 pm on the 27th of August, contact was made as the platoon moved into harbour. When the Platoon Commander moved forward to conduct a reconnaissance he sighted and fired on one VC. The VC returned fire wounding the scout and the Section Commander of the forward section. The Platoon deployed and received enemy fire from the left, centre and right of their axis. The two rear sections under the Platoon Commander deployed into attack formation while the Platoon Sergeant tended the wounded. The attack was pressed home but the enemy had withdrawn.”
Short prose records another day at war. We spent the night on the position each thanking his respective God for giving him another day, and quietly suggesting another night wouldn’t be out of order either, as we were short manned and expected a counter attack or at least some mortars. Nothing happened and the next morning we made our way to an RV with the APCs that would ferry us back to the base. Have a sleep, a cooked meal, maybe a beer that night and a day or two off. No way!
When we got back to the Horseshoe we learnt that Neil Richardson died in-flight and we were gutted. The scout recovered but will never be the same, Pat lost an eye, has had a heart transplant and Doctors are still getting shrapnel out of his body. The other men wounded that day will always remember lying shocked and bleeding in a far off jungle for a short but very significant period of their lives. They’ll never be the same; none of us would ever be the same.
What did happened was a reissue of ammo, more rations, no reinforcements and “out on patrol lads, no time to lick your wounds!”
Mike O’Brien concludes;
” In this action, one of the documents captured by the Reconnaissance Platoon was the training program of C2 of D445 for the fortnight beginning 13 August. The program was translated and issued widely in the battalion on 30 August. It gives a good idea of the attention paid by the local enemy battalion to tactical, weapon and field craft training. The Operations Officer, Major Kevin Cole, prefaced the captured translation with the thought that the lecture on the afternoon of 27 August had been rudely interrupted by the attack of the battalion’s Reconnaissance Platoon. If the Viet Cong had conducted the course critique that afternoon as planned it must have been interesting”
The survivors of Recce Pl, 7RAR gather ever year on the weekend nearest to Neil Richardson’s death and on the actual day (the 27th August) we hold a memorial service.
With three killed on active service, over 20 wounded and 19 having gone to their maker since Vietnam from suicide, cancers and the general difficulties of life, from an initial deployment strength of 31 soldiers, there are not that many left but while there is two of us we will remember!
Lest we forget!