Australia and the Vietnam War

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Combat

Overview

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. [AWM SHA/66/0007/VN]

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. [AWM SHA/66/0007/VN]

Australians in Vietnam could be involved in several types of combat. Some engagements, such as when naval vessels provided gunfire support for land forces, carried relatively little risk for the Australians involved. Australian bomber crews ran slightly higher risks, but for the most part their war was also fought at a distance from those whom they engaged. Infantry, members of the armoured, artillery and engineer corps, along with helicopter crews and forward air controllers, were, however, among those who, sometimes fighting at close quarters and engaging in regular combat, were frequently in danger. For the most part these Australians in Vietnam experienced combat either in or above rural or jungle locales against experienced and skilled opponents.

  • Captain Gerry Cudmore, a Roman Catholic Chaplain with 1RAR, gives communion to Australian gunners and American troops, Bien Hoa, 1965. [AWM SHA/65/0017/VN] Fifty-five chaplains served with the Australian Army in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. They accompanied men on operations, ministered to them in the field and often carried their ecclesiastical tools in a pack that hung around their neck. One chaplain remembers: Mass celebrated on the ground, on an ammo box, in D Company Mess at the Horshoe, on a table in a deserted VC hospital camp, at dawn on a deserted beach… [Michael O’Brien, Conscripts and Regulars with the Seventh Battalion in Vietnam, Allen and Unwin Pty Ltd., St Leonards, 1995, p 151]
  • Troops from 7RAR dash from a United States Army Iroquois helicopter, one of 20 that dropped the battalion at the landing zone, to launch Operation Lismore, their first major mission against the Viet Cong. From left: Private (Pte) Ken Aspinal, Pte Jozsef Csorba and Pte Peter Gates from the Fire Assault Platoon, Support Company. Peter Gates described the operation in a letter to his family. [AWM GIL/67/0377/VN]
  • The bodies of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops who attempted to hold the rubber plantation village of Binh Ba, are laid out in an open area so they can be checked for documents before burial. In the foreground are some of the Australian troops who fought in the battle, June 1969. [AWM BEL/69/0388/VN]
  • Section Commander Corporal Joe Danyluk of NSW (right) and Private Dick Bligh of Qld,of B Company 8RAR, ‘take five’ before beginning their search of a Viet Cong bunker system in the Long Hai mountains during Operation Hamersley. In February 1970, 8RAR together with other 1ATF units fought Viet Cong soldiers entrenched in the mountains. The area was pounded by air strikes, naval bombardments from HMAS Vendetta and artillery fire, killing an unknown number of enemy troops. The Australians sustained very heavy casualties during the operation, eleven were killed and 59 wounded, among them many mine victims. [AWM WAR/70/0160/VN].
  • 6RAR troops watch a Viet Cong camp burn from atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC) of the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, Royal Australian Armoured Corps. The camp and food supplies were located during Operation Ingham, both were destroyed by the Australians. 18 Nov–3 Dec 1966 [AWM P05565.019]
  • Staff Sergeant Wayne Wells, 1ATF Intelligence Staff, of the ACT, with an aerial Personnel Detector (APD x XM3 people sniffer), which analysed smells to detect humans in the jungle below the aircraft. [AWM CUN/71/0404/VN]
  • ‘C’ packs and ammunition laid out ready for 5RAR infantrymen about to begin an operation, 1970. [Image courtesy of Carole Talty] We had a mixture of Australian and American C [Combat] rations. We preferred the American for the greater variety… in the Australian packs we would keep the tins. There were two tins. One for morning, one for evening and ‘dog biscuits’ for lunch. A tin of margarine, a roll of toilet paper, which was like greaseproof paper and no bloody good anyway. Box of matches, sachets of sugar, a tube of condensed milk, tea bags… sachets of coffee, a packet of rice and that was it, but we’d keep the two tins, condensed milk, tube of jam. Oh a bar of chocolate. Yeah, keep that. A packet of lollies as well, we’d keep them. Jam, rice, and that was about right. The cereal box and the dog biscuits. Stuff them. Throw that away. Get rid of all the extraneous crap and just keep what you need. [Corporal Anthony Hughes, 7RAR in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, pp 3–4. Drawing on Interview No: 2093 in the Australians at War Film Archive]
  • Members of 1RAR cordon and search a village near the Rung Sat area, a vast tangle of waterways and mangrove swamps between Vung Tau and Saigon used by Viet Cong to infiltrate troops and supplies from North Vietnam. The villagers have been placed in a temporary barbed wire compound during the search, 1966. [AWM P04959.049]]
  • ‘Weary looking soldiers of 6RAR move through thick jungle during Operation Vaucluse. The strain of patrolling, knowing that a contact could occur at any moment, is evident on the faces of these men.  This search and destroy operation lasted for 16 days and aimed to destroy enemy personnel and bases in the Nui Dinh hills, September 1966.’ [AWM FOR/66/0796/VN]
  • A soldier from 7RAR moves through a creek during a patrol on Operation Cung Chung in June 1970. [AWM EKN/70/0438/VN]
  • ‘These men of 2RAR/NZ (Anzac) grab the chance to rest before embarking on an operation in July 1967.  Once they reach their operational area the possibility of combat is ever present and opportunities to relax few and far between.’ [AWM CAM/67/0574/VN]
  • Captain John Brien of NSW checks a compass bearing on the bridge of the Army landing ship Clive Steele, while on operations in the Mekong delta, October 1969. [AWM COM/69/0732/VN].
  • A wrecked and burned out M113A1 armoured personnel carrier (APC) of A Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment, stands on a bare patch of ground at the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base. The APC was hit by three recoilless rifle rounds during Operation Bribie in the Light Green on 17 February 1967. One round killed the driver, Trooper Vic Pomroy, and wounded the crew commander, Corporal Geoff Strachan. After it  was struck, Australian soldiers set the APC alight to prevent the Viet Cong from salvaging it for their own use. It was brought back to the 1ATF base the next day. 18 February 1967. [AWM P02354.009]
  • Operation Santa Fe in Thua Tich, Ken McFadyen, 1968. [Charcoal, rubbing out on paper 56 cm x 38.2 cm, AWM ART40628]
 Everyone had to dig a hole. That drawing always symbolised how you survived out there, no matter what… and  it wasn’t long after that one of the soldiers lost his life through being a bit careless because he hadn’t dug it deep enough. [Official War Artist, Ken McFadyen, AWM98/0301]
  • Waterborne engineers beach their dinghy with the M60 gunner to the front left and the remaining crew armed with Australian-issue SLR 7.62mm rifles, 1969. [Image courtesy of Darryl Lavis]
  • An outdoor debrief using a giant map drawn by an 8 RAR intelligence Dutyman. The map was painted onto bed sheets and hung from the unit’s movie screen, 1970. [Image courtesy of Derek Walsh]
  • Chaplain Ray Stachurski, the New Zealand Army Roman Catholic padre, administering the last rites to Private (Pte) Robert Buchan, D Company 6RAR in a clearing near the Company Headquarters. Pte Buchan was killed in action in the north-east corner of Phuoc Tuy Province during Operation Marsden and his body was brought in on a stretcher from the contact area. 11 December 1969. [AWM EKN/69/0183/VN]
  • Lance Corporal Anthony ‘Mooka’ Jones, 4RAR, performing road convoy duty on Highway 15 in a Land Rover armed with a 106mm recoilless rifle, 1968. [Image courtesy of Tony Jones]
  • Operation Cung Chung, June 1970 – February 1971. Huey and Bell helicopters and a Centurion tank during the 2RAR-NZ operation Cung Chung 11. [Image courtesy of Leon Pavich]
  • ‘Have guns will travel’ [Image courtesy of Mick King]

While it is commonly held that United States forces sought to draw the enemy into battle, aiming to defeat them with overwhelming firepower, Australian forces used a different approach. Australian counter-insurgency tactics demanded constant patrolling, the laying of ambushes and pursuit of the enemy. Units would spend long periods patrolling, painstakingly seeking signs of the enemy. Combat, when it came, was often at close range and of relatively short duration. There were, however, occasions when Australians were involved in longer battles such as those at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in 1968.

‘Casevacs and Medevacs’

  • Preparing for a casualty evacuation, two members of V Company, a New Zealand component of the Anzac battalion, use smoke to signal the location of men wounded during Operation Coburg  to a dustoff helicopter. Coburg took place in the border area of Bien Hoa and Long Khanh provinces, to the north-west of Phuoc Tuy. In the foreground is Corporal W Vautier, of the Anzac Battalion. February 1968. [P01661.012] I used to go down to the field hospital, this was at Vung Tau, and some of the fellows down there. They really would have been better off dead. It was an ironic tragedy, if that's not a tautology, that they could rescue people that had been badly wounded and have them on the operating theatre within twenty minutes of being hit. Now most of those blokes would have died, in any other conflict. They wouldn't have survived… There were some terribly wounded blokes. [Keith Williams, YMCA representative Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No 1096]
  • At the 8th Field Ambulance Dustoff Pad at Nui Dat, a wounded soldier is unloaded from an RAAF Iroquois chopper which has winched him out of the jungle. Identified, left to right: A19033 Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Kerin Williams of Newcastle NSW (carrying the plasma bottle above the stretcher); 43919 Private Charles Kerr Storie, 8th Field Ambulance, of SA; 4410808 Lance Corporal (L Cpl) Albertus Leonardus (Bert) Kuijpers, of the ACT; and 1411225 L Cpl Trevor Owen Skinner, 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit, of Redcliffe, Qld. This Dustoff Mission resulted from an enemy contact between 274 Regiment, a Viet Cong unit, and A Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR) members at the battle of Suoi Chau Pha (Operation Ballarat) in which six Australians were killed and 14 wounded on 6 August 1967. [AWM VN/67/0104/20]
  • Commandant Janice Webb (far right), Australian Red Cross, with walking wounded at 8 Field Ambulance, Vung Tau, during 1967. The men were going to the airstrip to board a RAAF C130E Hercules flight bound for 4 RAAF Hospital at Butterworth, Malaysia. [AWM P0217.016] Red Cross personnel provided valuable support to the sick and wounded men. They wrote letters, distributed comfort items and ran errands for them.
  • RAAF Nursing Sister, Squadron Officer Harriett Hardy Fenwick from NSW adjusts the litter strap of an Australian Army casualty as he is flown home on a RAAF Hercules for medical treatment, 1965. [AWM MAL/65/0083/02] Between 1965 and 1971, more than a hundred members of the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service flew more than 3000 sick and injured Australian and New Zealand servicemen on aeromedical  (‘medevac’) flights from Vietnam to Australia. The patients were transported in litters, stacked four deep and four high and were usually accompanied only by the nurses and medical orderlies.

Air force and naval helicopter crews flew troops into and out of combat, evacuated the wounded and provided gunfire support to ground troops.They ran considerable risks to do so and were often exposed to intense enemy fire in the course of their operations.

6RAR troops load a confiscated rice cache into a cargo net before using smoke to call in a US Chinook helicopter that carries the rice away, 1966. [Images courtesy of Peter Fischer]

For Australians, combat in Vietnam meant more than exposure to mortar and small arms fire. Even where there was no contact with the enemy, men could be wounded or killed by concealed landmines and booby traps. This type of warfare carried a heavy psychological burden, danger was ever-present and many of those who suffered no physical injury were nonetheless traumatised by the experience.

The other side

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The Vietnamese thought of the Americans as they had of the French, the Japanese, and the Chinese, as colonialists who sought to occupy their country. They called their struggle against the most recent invaders ‘the American War’ and they fought it using a combination of guerrillas and regular troops; the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, who were more closely integrated than is often realised. more…

Patrolling

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Patrolling was the cornerstone of 1 Australian Task Force’s (1ATF’s) operations in Phuoc Tuy Province … The Australian tactics surprised the Viet Cong who were used to meeting an enemy that fought from defensive positions and rarely pursued them into the jungle. more…

Viet Cong Tunnels

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The tunnels concealed living areas, storage depots, ordnance factories, hospitals, headquarters – a range of facilities than enabled people to live, and wage war from, underground for years at a time … The existence and the extent of the tunnel systems surprised the Americans and Australians. more…

Battle of Long Tan

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Almost as soon as the battle began a torrential downpour added to the gloom in the rubber plantation. The Australians, surrounded, short of ammunition and fighting an enemy whose strength they could only guess at, called for helicopters to drop ammunition to them … more…

Operation Bribie

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On his order 5 platoon ran forward with a roar only to be cut down almost immediately. Hidden machine guns opened up on the right flank, leaving eight members of the nine-man-strong 1 section either killed or wounded. more…

Battle of Coral/Balmoral

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Australian, New Zealand and United States forces were involved in a series of actions between May and June 1968 at fire support bases Coral and Balmoral some 20 kilometres north of Bien Hoa city. more…

Battle of Binh Ba

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Fire came at the Australians from the doors and windows, from any vantage point that offered the enemy cover. By now it was clear from the uniforms that some of the dead included NVA soldiers as well as Viet Cong. That explained the heavy weapons seen that morning and the surprising intensity of the fighting in Binh Ba. more…

 

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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A report from 8RAR containing details of booby traps encountered during a patrol. 2. Booby trap incident 612 RF Coy at Hoa Long, 8 September 1969. [AWM 98 – VC Mines and Booby traps – [222]

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An Australian Army publication revealing potential mines and booby traps set by the Viet Cong. [Battle Intelligence Section 1ATF ‘VC Mine Markers’, AWM 98 [222]

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Private Peter Gates of Victoria, 7RAR, arrived in Vietnam on 19 April 1967. In this excerpt from a letter to his family Gates describes his feelings on arrival and having been on his first operation, Operation Lismore. [AWM PR83/218]

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The 173rd Airborne Brigade Situation Report (SITREP) for the period 141800H to 151800H December 1965, during Operation New Life, reports on security operations to protect the harvest in the ‘Rice Bowl’ area, Australian and US patrols in the Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) and the provision of road security for Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) convoys passing through the TAOR. [AWM 273 Item 14]

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The Austforce Vietnam Monthly report – July 1966, from Headquarters Australian Force Vietnam, gives details of operations and activities for the month, including civic action projects initiated by the Australians. [AWM 98/R723-1-13 part 1]

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The Commander’s Diary for the period 1–31 July 1966, provides an insight into the Australian Task Force’s early operations and the problems it faced at Nui Dat. [AWM 95 1/4/4 Headquarters I Australian Task Force Narrative 1–31 July 1966, pp 1–16]

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A message from Austforce Vietnam to Defence Canberra on 30 April 1967, advising of future operations to restrict Viet Cong influence around the Task Force Base and curtail their supply routes around Dat Do and the Barrier minefield. [AWM 98/306 Pt 1]

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View video of Interview 1 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585

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View video of 'Return to Long Tan'. Troops of Charlie Company, 6RAR, completed their last operation in Vietnam, Operation Bowen, in May 1967, when they re-visited the village of Long Tan on a search and destroy mission.

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View video of Vietnamese and Australians on joint operation