Chapter 54: The aftermath of the battle of Tan Ru

We survive the night without incident – if you can call a constant artillery barrage with shrapnel whizzing through the trees and wondering just when the enemy, who by now must be really pissed off and have a giant headache, will come screaming over the hill at us with fixed bayonets, a quiet night.

Surprisingly I managed a few hours’ sleep.  It just goes to show that dumb grunts can sleep anywhere.

Last night we carried out our normal routine.  That is, once down, we sent out clearing patrols and stood too until nightfall.  The three guns were placed strategically around our little circle of pits.  Did I say pits?  We were just on the ground.  It may have been appropriate to dig in but all our gear was back at CHQ, a few hundred metres away.

We manned two guns during the night.  That way we manage 6 hours sleep.  If we were attacked, the third gun could easily be used to engage the enemy.  It was very unlikely that the enemy would surprise us.  The jungle was our friend at night.  If the enemy decided to come looking for us they would find it very difficult to move quietly and their sounds would telegraph their movements.

We were sitting ducks though.  We didn’t have any Claymore mines to break up enemy movement as these too were with our gear at CHQ. That left our small-arm weapons and Wooly’s M79.  We were no match for the enemy.  I dunno why we were left there and not allowed to return to 3 Platoon and CHQ.

Dawn, and it is eerily quiet.

Nuthin’

We wanted to go back and have a go at the enemy, but this was impossible just by ourselves.  We were extremely frustrated and dejected when given the order to move back to CHQ and 3 Platoon. We all felt it was important for us and what was left of 1 Platoon to go back and take out the enemy.  But the CO 3RAR had a different plan.  He wanted Centurion tanks to assist in the bunker assault which 3RAR would carry out without us.

Charlie Company 3RAR entered the bunker system two days later.  Two bloody days later!  The CO who was shot down during the battle waited for the tanks to arrive before taking on the system.  And guess what they found?  Nothing.  Nothing!  The enemy had all got away.  How’s that for fighting the bloody war?  We couldn’t believe it.  1 Platoon had got a licking and we wanted to go in and sort the enemy out, not two days later, but at dawn the very next day – that’s what we infantry soldiers do, assemble our resources and hit ’em hard.  But not 3RAR apparently.  Oh they found a lot of blood and guts spread about inside the enemy camp, but no bodies.  They all got away while 3RAR sat on their arses waiting for the tanks.

The system was about 100 metres from the Song Rai.  It covered an area 350 by 200 metres.  It contained 32 bunkers with overhead protection.  It was estimated there were two companies of D445 plus a heavy weapons group – dug in.

We never hit anything like this in our AO (Area of Operations) west of route 2.  But then again we dominated our AO.  How many times had we been in the Nui Dinhs?  The Land Clearing Teams? We covered the whole of our AO continuously from the mangrove swamps in the Rung Sat in the south to the Courteney Rubber in the north, and everywhere in between.  We came across  many bunker systems and destroyed them and often hitting the caretaker teams. What had they been doing in the area east of Route 2?  Nothing, so it seems, and we come over to give them a hand and we pay the price for their lack of domination of their AO.

Bastards!

1 Platoon got hit pretty bad, and there were other losses as well.  The CO of 3RAR, who was the operational commander, was trundling around in his Sioux helicopter over the battle area.  He got too close to the bunker system and the chopper took a few hits and had to ditch.  How stupid is that?  Who did he think he was, getting so close to the battle area? – General Patton?  In effect he hindered the ability of the Bushrangers and the artillery to attack the enemy because his chopper was in the way.  On what grounds could he justify getting so close?  Sheesh!

Do I sound pissed off?  You betcha!

It seems our location on the edge of the bunker system caused a  few problems for the Bushrangers, maybe we should have disengaged from the enemy a lot earlier and let them get on with it.  We stayed close to the enemy so that they had to deploy some resources to keep us at bay thus taking some heat off  1 platoon.  This meant we had to indicate where we were to the Bushrangers by smoke grenades so that they could brass up the area between 1 platoon and us – that’s where the enemy were.  We started to run out of smoke grenades.  The Bushrangers are prepared for this with carry bags of smoke grenades which they dropped to us.  But the enemy ended up with some smoke grenades and started popping smoke which caused the confusion when the Dustoff arrived.  You will recall that I heard Barry on the radio calling the Dustoff to ‘come back’.  It seems they failed to follow the simple procedure of identifying the colour of the smoke they see and have 1 Platoon confirm the colour they threw.  This didn’t happen and the chopper drifted over towards the smoke the enemy threw.  The Dustoff got hit pretty hard by small-arms fire, seriously wounding one of the crewmen who later died of his wounds.

1 Platoon were pinned down for a long time.  Both machine gunners closest to the enemy had their weapons rendered inoperable by incoming fire.  Yogi told me that there was a line of muzzle flashes all across his front when the contact started.  The contact was initiated by 1 Platoon, who surprised the enemy.  Yogi got a stoppage at one stage.  His gun stopped working due to a misfeed.  We practice a drill to get the gun working, but it requires you to cock the weapon, raise up and clear the feed plate.  Yogi said there was no way he was going to get up on his knees, so he rolled over onto his back and tried to clear the gun with it held up above him.  He succeeded in clearing the stoppage, but not before some hot cartridges fell onto his chest and “burnt the fuck” out of him!

Not far from Yogi was Paul B.  His gun got shot up as well.  He got hit by a satchel charge in the guts and a gunshot wound to the thigh.  After the platoon disengaged from the enemy by fire and movement, he walked to the evacuation APC when Assault Pioneer Platoon from 3RAR came to them late in the afternoon.  How’s that for a tough bastard?

In the thick of the battle Lex A was not so lucky.  As the battle was raging very fiercely, Lex A exposed himself to enemy fire when he threw a grenade.  A few moments later he threw another grenade from exactly the same position and he was fatally wounded in the neck by small-arms fire.

Eight members of 1 platoon were wounded.  In addition, one member of Assault Pioneer Platoon was wounded during the evacuation.

At the end of the battle, friendly casualties were…

31 March 1971

KIA
1201945 Lex Adams
A111550 Alan Bloxsom (9 Sqn)

WIA
1735670 T Elliott
2792501 P Bateman
2794514 G Missingham
218937 K Brown
218886 M Price
3790851 A Povey
1202328 P Wood
1736448 D Horrigan
44939 C Fryc (3RAR)

A few days later, Alpha Company had a BBQ at Vung Tau with 9 Sqn where we all got pissed together and talked about the battle.  I noticed that the boss of 1 Platoon was in animated discussion with one particular fellow from 9 Sqn.  I guessed that he was one of the Bushranger pilots.  A little later I went up to him and introduced myself.  “Hi, I was the sig, callsign Five Two.”  I held my hand out to shake his.

With a beaming smile he took my hand and said, “Ah, Five Two, I was Bushranger 77.”  We talked shit for a couple of minutes about how they nearly brassed us up and the problem with the smoke grenades; and then I asked him if he remembered my calling him up to enquire if he was firing rockets.  I mentioned how many of us thought the enemy were using mortars.

He patted me on the back and said, “Yeah, I remember hearing that squeaky little voice of yours on the radio.”

I should have decked him then and there.

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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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