Australia and the Vietnam War

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When complete the fence will be 10 miles [16 kilometres] long and will, I believe, form an effective barrier and considerably reduce the ability of the VC to operate in this area. (1 Australian Task Force Commander’s diary, March 1967)

Hung Manh crawled under the fence, found an E3 [M16] mine and closed its safety catch. He was in luck: the M16 [M26] grenade under the mine was damp and did not explode. He took the mine and the grenade and learned how to defuse this dangerous E3 mine. Phan Ngoc Danh and Tran Quang Toai, Dong Nai: 30 years war of liberation (1945-1975). Pp. 7-8.

Phuoc Tuy Province

Nui Dat - Australian Task Force Base: A Minefield

Privates Robert Wright (left) and Bill Cavanagh, of 8 Platoon, C Company 5RAR, erect part of the minefield barrier fence at the Horseshoe, near Dat Do. [AWMP01353.014]

Privates Robert Wright (left) and Bill Cavanagh, of 8 Platoon, C Company 5RAR, erect part of the minefield barrier fence at the Horseshoe, near Dat Do. [AWMP01353.014]

In early 1967, Brigadier Stuart Graham, the new Australian Task Force Commander, drew up plans for a barrier minefield which he believed would sever a vital Viet Cong supply route, preventing their movement from their mountain bases to the rice-growing areas in the west and protecting local villagers from communist influence. It would contain approximately 20,000 ‘jumping jack’ mines between two wire fences for a length of 10 kilometres, from the Horseshoe near Dat Do to the coast. Sappers of the Royal Australian Engineers would lay the mines, fitted with anti-lift devices, and the completed minefield would be guarded by Task Force and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops.

  • An aerial view of the Horseshoe fire support base north of the township of Dat Do. The old volcanic crater, 269 metres above the surrounding paddy fields, provided a vantage point for the supervision of the barrier minefield and the surrounding area. [AWM P01353.040]
  • Lance Corporal Basil Dutko from NSW (left) and Craftsman John Forster from Victoria, 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), move tyres with steel plating bolted to their tread at Dat Do in July 1969. The tyres are part of an experiment to detonate anti-personnel mines laid by the Australians in the Barrier minefield. The tyres are fixed to the back of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) so that their weight will detonate any mines well behind the APC. The device was developed in the 1st Field Squadron’s workshops in 1969. [AWM BEL/69/0520/VN]
  • A US tank modified for mine-sweeping by the addition of several thickly-rubbered tyres to the vehicle’s front. The lead wheels detonated mines and the tyres absorbed the impact, 1970. [Image courtesy of David Wheare]
  • Sapper Raymond Francis Ryan, MM, Rosalind Buley, 1973. [Oil on canvas 55.8 x 40.6 cm, AWM ART 40863]

Sapper Raymond Francis Ryan, MM, a national serviceman, was posted to the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers in South Vietnam in November 1968. On 9 March 1969, he and other members of 5RAR were mistakenly led into a minefield near Hoa Long. When some of the tripwire-triggered mines were detonated, Ryan was among the rescue teams sent in to help the wounded. They spent four hours in the darkness, prodding the ground with bayonets to reach the casualties and clear a path for their evacuation. As the rescuers withdrew through the field, Ryan detonated a mine and was severely wounded.
  • The operating theatre of the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau. Surgeons remove dead and shredded tissue from a landmine victim’s left leg. His right leg was beyond saving and was amputated below the knee. C.1969 [AWM P02320.006]

On 25 May 1967, the 1 Field Squadron Operations Log reported:

Mines laid today 1348. Total mines with anti lift 2088. Total mines without anti lift 1148. Grand total 3236.

[AWM 95 Item 1 Field Squadron RAE Ops Log, May 1-31 1967]

There were a number of injuries and deaths during the mine-laying operation and casualties continued after its completion. The minefield’s security was ineffective and the Viet Cong breached the barrier fences, lifted the mines and re-used them against the Australian and ARVN troops.

They were very clever. They would set a mine, for instance an M16 mine; they were pulling them up from our minefield. Pulling a pin out of a grenade and sitting down, under the ground, and sitting the mine on top, the M16 to keep the grenade loaded and fill it in. When we’d come along we’d see the mine and unscrew the mine. Make it safe at the top; unscrew the detonating device out of it. Lift the mine out and, when we did, the grenade would go off.

[Sapper Robert Earl, MID, in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 193. Drawing on Interview No: 639 in the Australians at War Film Archive]

Sapper Robert Earl, 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers, suffered serious injuries while he was assisting 5RAR troops with a ‘dustoff’ casualty evacuation in the Long Hai hills during the night of 4 July 1969. He and the 5RAR casualties were ‘casevaced’ out to Vung Tau.

The choppers came in then to pick us up. They were still transporting out the wounded. It was an M16 jumping mine… they had put a snail on top of the three prongs, so all you would see was a snail. A snail… in daylight you wouldn’t see it. In fact, I think it would encourage the blokes to walk on the snail anyway.

[Sapper Robert Earl, MID, in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 188. Drawing on Interview No: 639 in the Australians at War Film Archive]

In August 1969, during Operation Esso, a 5RAR attack in the Long Hai mountains, fifty-eight Australians were wounded and nine killed. Most of the casualties were the result of jumping jack mines.

Details of the minefield had been kept from the Australian public but the continuous stream of minefield casualties prompted public controversy and some difficult questions in Parliament.

In 1968, Australian engineers began the dangerous task of sweeping and clearing the ‘barrier minefield’. Their success was limited until late 1969 when Major Rex Rowe, the commanding officer of 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers and his colleagues devised a solution. Attaching large steel-plated rollers to the rear of an armoured personnel carrier (APC), they were able to trigger mines more safely. It took nearly two years to clear the mines from the field. By then, the Australian mines had contributed significantly to the Australian casualty rate in Vietnam.

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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View a map of the Barrier Minefield, Phuoc Tuy Province.

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View Log Records This 1 Field Squadron Narrative Operations Log records details of casualties suffered in May, during the construction of the minefield. The complete log is available on the Australian War Memorial website. [AWM 95 Item 4/2/24 1 Field Squadron Narrative Operations Log 1-31 May 1967, pp 5-10]

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View Log Records The 1 Field Squadron Narrative Operations Log records details of the minefield clearance in July 1969. The complete log is available on the Australian War Memorial website [AWM 95 Item 4/2/49 1 Field Squadron Narrative Operations Log 1-July 1969, pp 7-9]

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View an article dated 23 May 1967, on page 3 of The Canberra Times reporting that four more Australian soldiers had died while laying mines in Vietnam.