Australia and the Vietnam War

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Phuoc Tuy Province

Overview

'Perfect terrain for guerilla warfare'. Lance Corporal Robert Slater of Holsworthy, NSW searches vehicle loads for weapons or explosives at a road block check opposite the base area of 5RAR. [AWM COL/67/0082/VN]

'Perfect terrain for guerilla warfare'. Lance Corporal Robert Slater of Holsworthy, NSW searches vehicle loads for weapons or explosives at a road block check opposite the base area of 5RAR. [COL/67/0082/VN]

The first Australians deployed to Vietnam were members of the Australian Army Training Team who were dispersed throughout the country. They were followed by members of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) who served in Bien Hoa Province with the United States 173 Airborne Brigade. However, Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General John Wilton, was keen both to field a force that could operate independently of United States forces, and to provide additional troops in support of the fight against the Viet Cong.

Wilton believed that deploying an Australian task force would achieve both these aims as well as allowing Australian soldiers to fight the war according to their own doctrine and techniques. The Government agreed and the expansion of Australian forces in Vietnam to a task force was approved on 8 March 1966.

Phuoc Tuy province was selected as the site of the task force base. Lying on South Vietnam’s southern coast, three quarters of Phuoc Tuy, in 1966, was covered with rainforest and grassland. There were hilly and mountainous areas but much of the province was flat. Those areas under farmland were mainly used to cultivate rice, Phuoc Tuy’s main industry, along with rubber. From a military point of view, the province was a suitable size for task force operations and it had access to the sea through the port of Vung Tau, which could serve as a logistics base.

  • At its peak the base at Nui Dat was home to some 5,000 Australian personnel, but for much of the time most of them were deployed on operations outside the wire. Here, a member of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) checks for weapons and supplies being smuggled to local Viet Cong cadres, 1966. [NAA: A1200, L58610]
  • Sapper Ken Lowdon of Vic climbs onto his bulldozer to begin a shift during the land clearing team's Operation Lyrebird in Phuoc Tuy Province.  Members of the 1st Field Squadron and the 17th Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), were involved in the operation to clear trails through 30 kilometres of thickly jungled foothills of the Nui Dinh, Nui Thi and Nui Thi Vai hills, a few kilometres west of the 1st Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat, 1968. [AWM ERR/68/0914/VN]
  • Members of 1ATF close in on a known Viet Cong house during Operation New Life, December 1965. The Australians discovered two Viet Cong who were later identified by local villagers.[NAA A1200, L58614]
  • South Vietnamese troops march through Vung Tau, 1968. [Image courtesy of John Cooper]
  • An APC patrols through a hamlet, Phuoc Tuy, 1969. [Image courtesy of Jock Harvey]

The South Vietnamese Government’s authority over Phuoc Tuy was limited almost entirely to the provincial capital Ba Ria. In the countryside, the Viet Cong had built up an extensive cadre and political organisation that reached into every town and village. The province’s roads were dangerous, subject to ambush and passable only with heavy escort. The Viet Cong had established bases in Phuoc Tuy’s mountains and jungles. Military estimates placed the number of communist troops in the province at about 5,000. These troops relied on the support of many of Phuoc Tuy’s villages.

Members of the Anzac battalion, 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) instructing troops from the 3/43 Battalion, 18th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), on the loading of an M79 grenade launcher at Horseshoe Hill, near Nui Dat, September 1969. [AWM COM/69/0623/VN].

Members of the Anzac battalion, 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) instructing troops from the 3/43 Battalion, 18th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), on the loading of an M79 grenade launcher at Horseshoe Hill, near Nui Dat, September 1969. [AWM COM/69/0623/VN].

Australian forces shared responsibility for Phuoc Tuy’s defence with the South Vietnamese Government and its military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and the United States. The ARVN were responsible for guarding the province’s towns and villages while the Australians were responsible for the countryside. United States forces operating in neighbouring provinces also frequently crossed into Phuoc Tuy, often calling on Australian support when they did so.

 

Nui Dat

Nui Dat painting icon

Nui Dat was considered an ideal location for the Australian base in Phuoc Tuy … However, attempts to win the support of Phuoc Tuy’s people were compromised by the decision to remove people from their homes without compensation … At its peak the base at Nui Dat was home to 5,000 Australian personnel. more…

Vung Tau

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Despite difficulties in construction because the more favourable areas had long since been developed, 1 Australian Logistic Support Group established a working base and the area became home to a hospital, RAAF units, engineers, transport, ordnance and service corps units. more…

Civilian Aid

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Civil action, involving medical and dental aid, construction work and agricultural assistance, was first conducted by a small team within the Australian task force and, by mid-1967, by a Civil Affairs Unit. But the task of ‘winning hearts and minds’ was made more difficult by military tactics that antagonised the local population. more…


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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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View booklet. Australia’s Task Force in Vietnam operated under the command of the United States II Field Force Vietnam, a corps-level headquarters. This booklet was provided to soldiers serving with II Field Force, including Australians. [AWM PR30502]

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The Commander’s Diary Narrative, 1-31 May 1966, pp 4-9 records the early days of the First Australian Task Force in South Vietnam. The complete file can be read on the Australian War Memorial website. [AWM 95 Item 1/4/1/ - Headquarters Ist Australian Task Force]

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View video of Interview with Captain Anthony Williams, Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, 7 RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.1751

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View video of Vietnam Scene

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View video of Interview 1 Lieutenant Peter Aspinall, 5RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.1972

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View video of Interview 2 Lieutenant Peter Aspinall, 5RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.1972

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View video of Interview 3 Lieutenant Peter Aspinall, 5RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.1972

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View video of Interview 2 Sergeant Bob Buick, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2181