Sunday, October 12, 2014

Australians in Vietnam: Hell, they're shooting at me!

Source: Everybody's Magazine 14 Sept. 1966

Tales of the fighting first

An Australian soldier relives his baptism of war in the jungles of Vietnam in this, the first of a series of portraits of Australian fighting men.

By Sgt. Rusty Smith as told to Tom King

BELOW us was the enemy. From the belly of the American helicopter the Vietnam jungle melted together in a vast green mat broken only by a web of rivers.

Off to either side of our helicopter other whirly birds hovered in formation like a great swarm of dragon flies. Somewhere beneath us the VC watched and waited.

The 1st Battalion was new in the field. None of us had ever seen a Viet Cong (VC) in actual combat, nor had we even been under fire.

We were heading for War Zone D, just north of our base at the Bien Hoa airfield. Our orders were to give support to American troops while they captured a large cache of rice the VC had hidden in a deserted village.

1RAR OC Major John Boyd Healy (c) and American officer in conference
The choppers were to set us down about 500 yards from the village. From there we would have to walk in. I guess we could have landed on top of the village, but if there were VC waiting, there was no sense in letting them know we were around.

There were four other fellows in the chopper with me. Nobody said much.

We either smoked or watched the scenery roll by below.

Suddenly the chopper started to lose altitude and the falling sensation shook us from our thoughts.

The jump-off point was coming up. I'm a signals and communications expert. I checked the radio on my back.

Once the chopper landed there would be no time to fool about.

The pilot would set the craft down for eight seconds. If you weren't out of the chopper by then, it was your tough luck.

Troops of 1RAR move through paddy fields as American helicopters
fly overhead after landing them during a search and destroy operation,
Bien Hoa, January 1966. 1 RAR made up entirely of regular soldiers,
was attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade at Bien Hoa.
[AWM SHA/66/0007/VN]

On a later mission I saw a soldier who didn't get out in time, and he had to jump from 20 feet.

As soon as the skis touched the ground I was out and flat on my face in the grass. My mates fanned out around the chopper in a pre-arranged pattern.

If the VC were waiting to ambush us on touch down, we would be ready.

Seconds passed. The chopper rose back into the sky and lumbered away. There was no other sound. Slowly the battalion regrouped and began the walk to the village.

Everyone was on the alert. We watched the jungle for the VC and watched the road for booby traps.

The VC, we knew, had a habit of burying mines haphazardly on roads ready to blast off by remote control.
With the cavalry waiting discreetly in the background, 1RAR infantrymen
patrol in the rubber, 1965. [Image courtesy of Rex Warren]

A VC would sit in a bunker that gave him a commanding view of the road and when something got close to the mine, he set it off.

Another favorite VC trick was to dig a hole in the middle of a road and leave it open for a security patrol to find. Demolition experts would check the hole, find nothing in it, cover it, and pass the word back that the road was safe.

The next night the VC would return and dig the hole out again, but this time they would leave a mine in it before filling it up again.

But today there was no sign of the VC. The march to the village was uneventful. There was nothing except the occasional villager, the ever-present insects, and the burning sun.

Our objective was deserted when we arrived. It was listed as a village on the map, but what was left of it wouldn't have even made a good bonfire.

Once it might have been a thriving hamlet, now it was just a scrapheap.

The 1st Battalion was to camp outside the village on the far side of a dirt wall that circled it, but well away from the wall. The Americans positioned themselves to our right around the perimeter of the wall.

The rest of the day was spent in setting up the camp. My job was communications. I had to string lines between the command centres to make sure that if we were attacked, we could keep in touch with the other units.

Pits had to be dug and guns positioned.

Night came and the camp settled down to wait. The plan was for the Americans to enter the village the next day, remove the rice cache, and then fall back to where trucks were waiting to pick us up.

I finished my watch at around 10 o'clock that night. The jungle was quiet and I found it hard to believe we were in enemy territory. The day had been rough and I was tired. It felt good to hit the sack.

I had just dozed off when the first mortar shell hit. It's a funny feeling to suddenly realise you're under attack.

At first I thought the explosion was a hand grenade. Not that I really cared what it was. It was enough to know that someone was shooting at me.

I was out of my bunk and into the pit in front of our tent before the second shell hit.

Kevin Grey, the second radio man and my tent mate, was slow getting into the bunker. He'd been hit with a piece of shrapnel from the first shell.

I left Kevin in the bunker and raced for the OC's tent and the communications bunker. Communication had to be set tip right away.

The third radio man, Mick Jones, should have been in the bunker with me but the second VC mortar wounded him before he cleared his tent.

Major Healy, the OC, was already waiting for me, his leg torn by a piece of shrapnel. I got on the phone just as two more shells landed in rapid succession around us.

Suddenly the telephone went dead. There was a break somewhere in the wire.

In a matter of seconds after the sneak attack, the Americans opened up with everything they had. Howitzers, mortars, rifles, and pistols. They ripped the perimeter of the camp with heavy strafing, hoping to knock out the VC mortar and to stop any troops from overrunning us if the VC tried to come in under the mortar fire.

Nothing happened. Two minutes after the first shell fell, the jungle was silent again. It had only been a probing hit-and-run attack.

But the VC's accuracy had been deadly. All the shells landed in the area of our HQ. Four men had been wounded in my company and the phone lines had been hit.

I was scared. No one had ever taken a shot at me before, and I didn't like it.

But there was little time to worry about it. The phone lines were cut. They had to be fixed.

As soon as the barrage stopped I began crawling back along the lines trying to find the break. I couldn't use a torch in case the VC were still out there, and there was always the chance that a VC had cut the lines and was waiting for me to come along and repair it.

By now the Americans had begun to drop flares in an effort to find the VC. The light made the area almost as bright as day.

The flares were a mixed blessing. I could see the VC - but now they could see me.

Not a pleasant thought when you're by yourself in a pitch-black jungle.

As I got near the dirt wall that surrounded the old village, I found the break. A mortar had cut the lines. It had landed almost on top of the wire. In the half-light I could just see the crater the shell had made.

I found one end of the wire tangled in some bush - the other end was lying off to one side of the trail.

I couldn't really see to mend the wire properly and was further hampered by the lack of tools. Kevin Grey had my wire cutters and he was still lying wounded in our bunker.

I finally made a temporary splice in the line using my knife and teeth!

With the phone repaired there was nothing to do except return to my tent and try to sleep. But you don't really sleep. You lie in your bunk and wait.

Maybe the VC will come back.

The next morning I surveyed the damage. The first shell had landed just outside our tent. It had been the shell that wounded Kevin Grey. The tent itself had been ripped by a number of pieces shrapnel.

But luck had been with me during the night, too. When I repaired the phone line during the night, I had made only a temporary splice. Now that there was enough light, I returned to the break to do the job properly.

When I got to the crater the VC shell had gouged around the snapped line, I found that two mortar shells had landed in the same spot, but only one exploded.

The other had buried itself in the mud with just its tail fins showing.

I must have gone through the crater four or five times in the night never realising the "blind" shell was there. Had I kicked it, it probably would have exploded. Don't mistake a "blind" shell for a dud. This mortar was very much alive. It just hadn't gone off. It was later exploded by a demolitions crew.

The rest of the operation went off without a hitch. The rice was captured and we marched miles down the road to where the trucks waited.

This time sniper fire occasionally broke the silence and the column was stopped as the lead group cleared the road.

We arrived back at Bien Hoa late that evening.

This had been our first major mission and we had come under fire from the enemy. Actually it was hardly more than a skirmish. The mortar attack only lasted a short while but it had been a baptism for the 1st Battalion.

It was something none of us would forget as we slowly began to realise the full meaning of the word "war."



 Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam from 1962 until 1973

During that time a total of 521 died, 496 from the army.


Sergeant Harley Robert (Rusty) Smith 214292
born at Dubbo 23 July 1942
passed away 30 August 2004

The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra.
The memorial was dedicated on 3 October, 1992.
[National Library of Australia pic-an23818021]

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