Chapter 53: We sojourn to Tan Ru with 3RAR

It seems 3RAR needed some help, so Alpha Company was placed under operational control of 3RAR’s CO.  The callsign of 2 platoon is now Five Two and we head off north-east of The Dat to Tan Ru, Xuyen Moc District.

The plan was simple, 3RAR would sit on their arses while we did all the work.  Alpha Company, with its three platoons, would move forward across a front about a kilometre wide and head towards the rifle companies of 3RAR who would be the blocking force (read: sit on arse).

1 platoon, now callsign Five One, was moving along the Song Rai checking for enemy activity using the river as an axis while we were up on the high ground moving in the same direction.  I dunno where 3 platoon was, they must have been nursemaiding CHQ.

As a sig you get to identify each voice using the radio.  1 platoon’s commander Pat S called up the boss.

“Five Zero, this is Five One, fetch Sunray, over.”

A good sig can recognise the voice of 1 platoon’s commander and if the OC is nearby he would simple pass the handset to him telling him that Pat S is on the radio.

“Five Zero, Sunray, over.”

I think I mentioned elsewhere that the term ‘sunray’ is used to denote the boss of that callsign.

“Five One, are there any friendlies in my area, over?”

“Five Zero, ah, no, over.”

“Five One, roger, I have come across a track that is fresh and has been used by a large number of people, over.”

“Five Zero, there are no friendlies in the area, over.”

“Five One, roger, we’ll follow it up, over.”

“Five Zero, be careful, over.”

A few minutes later the radio lit up with a contact reports from Five One.  It sounded like a heavy contact.  When you are stressed the voice goes up in pitch as blokes scream into the radio handset.

Meanwhile, we were still on the high ground in two separate groups and I was with Mick.  1 platoon was in trouble, they had hit a large number of enemy who were dug in and wanted to stay and fight.  In all the contacts we experienced in the past 10 months the enemy tried to flee when we engaged them.

1 platoon was particularly gung ho and regularly chased the VC as they intended to flee, but this time it appears they are pinned down. It wasn’t like this in our normal AO west of Route 2.  We were in D445 territory now.  These guys were battle hardened.  They were part of the force engaging the Australians in the Battle of Long Tan a couple of years before.

Our platoon regrouped with CHQ loaded up with as much ammo as we could, left our packs behind and we ran down the ridge line towards the enemy.  By now you would know who was leading us – that’s right, Browny; and was he steaming through the jungle at a great rate of knots with us trying to keep up with him.

The jungle was not as thick as most of the stuff back in our AO so we were able to make good time without the need of secateurs to cut our way through.  We were generating some noise, putting us at risk of an ambush, but 1 platoon was in trouble so we powered on through the jungle.  Normally we patrol slowly and quietly and keenly observe our proposed route for mines, booby traps or anything else that doesn’t look right, including fire lanes.  Fire lanes are areas in the bush where the vegetation is thinned out to give a better view from a static location such as a bunker system; and the fire lanes are covered by automatic weapons.  No doubt Browny’s brain was working overtime quickly assessing what he sees in front of him.

Suddenly a medium-sized machine gun opened up in front of us.  A slower, heavier, meatier rattle;  a distinct sound that could be heard above the AK47s.    Browny reported low barbed wire entanglement.  There was probably mines and booby traps as well. We closed up, hit the deck and returned fire. The rounds were cracking overhead at a great rate; the enemy had a lot of firepower.  Normally leaves and twigs fall down around us, but this time the rounds were booming past and knocking bloody great branches on top of us – maybe they had a 12.7. A bloody 12.7! That means more than a platoon size enemy group, maybe two platoons.

Luckily the rounds were going way over our heads, they were poorly trained, they weren’t as good as us but they did have much more firepower and they were in well-prepared positions.  We, by contrast, were like shags on a rock with very little cover.  Moon took some men and tried to move to the flank, but it was too dangerous.  It seems the enemy were between us and 1 platoon; we couldn’t get to them.

The radio was going off its head as Moon was trying to get an appreciation of what was happening.  Certainly there was maybe a company-sized group of enemy heavily armed and probably dug in just a few yards in front of us.  We numbered 24, the enemy was at least three times that.  An attack was not on the cards.  Indeed we were pinned down to a certain extent, we could not go forward, but we could easily withdraw.  While we remained there exposed to the enemy it took the heat off 1 platoon as the enemy had to contend with a fight on two fronts.

Two helicopter gunships arrived.  Not the you beaut Cobra gunships, but heavily modified Huey gunships from 9 Sqn.  Ronnie RAAF was coming to the rescue.  They were called Bushrangers, quite an appropriate title.  I’ve got to hand it to these guys, when they talk on the radio they seem as calm as anything when you consider that each time they fly over the battle zone all enemy weapons are trained on them.

We were told to mark our location with smoke grenades, we had plenty; and the two Bushranger gunships would ‘offload their ordnance’ on the enemy which were between us and 1 platoon.

In they came adding more chaos to the scene.

Being pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire means that I can barely see what’s happening 25 yards away, so I rely on identifying sounds to get a picture of what is happening around me.  Moon has the radio to his ear but I can still hear plenty of chatter.  Our boys are engaging the enemy with our machine guns and small-arms fire as the Bushrangers make their run.  The rattle of the miniguns can be heard clearly above the din of the battle.  Hot extracted cartridges are falling down on top of us and the rounds from the Bushranger’s miniguns are nearly on us.  We are way too close.  Moon decides to move us back a bit further.  We move cautiously using fire and movement. The last thing we want is to be hit by ‘friendly fire.’  And we are starting to run low on smoke grenades.

The gunships do a couple of strafing runs which are followed by loud explosions.  “Mortars!  Has the enemy got mortars?” Mick asks.  I won’t say he was panicking, but he was certainly wide eyed.  Indeed some others in the platoon thought it was mortars as well.  I reckon they were rockets fired by the Bushrangers.  This was the first time we had heard them up so close but I could discern the ‘shiiirrrsttt’ noise before they impacted.  They had to be rockets from the choppers.  Mick tells me to ask the choppers if they are firing rockets.  I don’t wanna do this, so I ignore him. Mick glares at me and says, “Ask them.”

“OK”

I take a big deep breath and in the calmest radio announcer type voice that I can muster I press the  switch and talk. “Bushranger this is Five Two over.”

“Five Two this is Bushranger 77, over.”

“Five Two can you confirm you are firing rockets, over.”

“Bushranger 77 affirmative, over.”

“Five Two, roger, be advised we are running low on smoke, over.”

“Bushranger 77, roger we will drop smoke for you, standby by.”

A chopper makes a low pass over us, I can hear the enemy firing at him as he hurtles overhead.

“Five Two, this is Bushranger 77, smoke dropped, over.”

“Did anyone see the smoke.” yells Mick.  Word comes back that it was dropped over towards the enemy, no one is going to go over and look for them; it’s too dangerous.

“Bushranger 77 this is Five Two, drop no good, please drop further west over.”

“Bushranger 77 roger, standby.”

He comes over a second time, the enemy are waiting for him and they open up on him again.  We see the bag!  The smoke grenades are in a hessian bag that Roy and Browny grab and add them to our supply.

“Five Two, we have the bag, thank you, over.”

“Bushranger 77, roger, out.”

There’s barely a break in transmission on the radio. Sometimes a buzzing sound is heard as two people try to transmit at the same time, I doubt if the enemy has jamming equipment as it would be continuous.  I hear Barry’s voice.  He was one of our section commanders and he is now 1 platoon’s sergeant.  He has a Dustoff request in and within minutes the Dustoff has arrived.

“Five One, Five One, this is Dustoff, inbound your location figures five minutes, standby to throw smoke, over.

“Five One standing by.”

“Five One this is Dustoff, throw smoke, over.”

Something terrible has happened.  I hear Barry yell over the radio, “Dustoff, come back, come back!”  Gee has the Dustoff taken off without the wounded blokes?  1 platoon must really be in the shit and we are stuck here on the other side feeling really helpless.  To make matters worse the choppers are running out of fuel and they ask 1 platoon if they want all their ordnance delivered before they leave.  Five One answers with a simple ‘yes please.’

“Five One, Five One, this is Bobcat One and Bobcat Two over.”

It’s the fucken Yanks!

“This is Five One over.”

“We are in the area if you guys need a hand at all.”

I didn’t catch the rest of the exchange, but Bobcat One and Bobcat Two didn’t drop any stuff.

Now that the gunships were gone the artillery started to arc up and pound the enemy.  Shit it’s close.  We could hear the rounds coming over our right shoulder and then ‘clomp, clomp, clomp’ just ahead of us.  Not only was the noise deafening, but I could ‘feel’ the explosions in the back of my throat of all places as the percussion hit me.  In addition, shrapnel was whizzing through the trees above us.

Things were grim.  But it must be worse in those enemy bunkers.

It’s getting close to dark, the choppers were back for another go.  Gee this must take some coordination between all parties – we can’t have the artillery firing while the choppers are in the area.  It seems the APCs have arrived to help 1 platoon too.

We move back onto a small knoll and adopt all round defence for the night.  We don’t have any packs with us, no food unless someone managed to stuff a can of something into their webbing, but my guess is they were full of ammo when we left CHQ.  No brew gear and no sleeping gear; and I’m also low on water.  Nobody is saying much.

A pretty big battle has raged this afternoon and we know that 1 platoon has some casualties.  All we did was get pinned down.  We feel dejected that we couldn’t help them.  My spirits must have been particularly low.  I am lying there beside the radio in platoon headquarters.  There are 24 of us in a little circle on that small knoll, just a short distance away was the enemy, a large number of enemy.  If the enemy came up the ridge line they would be through us in a matter of minutes.  We wouldn’t stand a chance.

My worried expression must have been written all over my face.  Tiny came up, looked at me and said, “Don’t worry Knackers, it may never happen.”  I managed a grin, I think.  The artillery was intermittent now, every now and then we’d hear it coming, a few more ‘clomp, clomp, clomps’ and more shrapnel whizzing past.

Oh I nearly forgot.  The artillery shells are 105s.  But the Yanks had a 155 battery and they were also engaging the target.  The 155s had a different sound in the air, almost a buzzing sound, and boy when they hit the ground the whole place shook and the back of my throat also took a bigger pounding.

I don’t think I’ll get much sleep tonight.

 

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This story is now also available in ebook format. See here for details.

Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the Vietnam War – which is now also available in ebook format. See here to order.

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ian_cavanoughHi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.
Ian Cavanough,
Yeppoon, Queensland

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