Australia and the Vietnam War

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Phuoc Tuy Province

Nui Dat - Australian Task Force Base: Settling in

At the 1ATF base, walls of sandbags protect the sides of the tent occupied by Lieutenant Adrian Roberts, commander of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier (1APC) Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Ian Charles Savage of the same unit, 1966. [AWM P02354.037]

At the 1ATF base, walls of sandbags protect the sides of the tent occupied by Lieutenant Adrian Roberts, commander of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier (1APC) Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Ian Charles Savage of the same unit, 1966. [AWM P02354.037]

Nui Dat (‘small hill’) was an ideal location for the new Australian Task Force base. It was on a main highway, Route 2, approximately 30 kilometres from the port of Vung Tau which was the new Australian logistic support base. Nui Dat was some distance from Phuoc Tuy’s provincial capital, Ba Ria, and was sufficiently isolated to enable the Australians to manage their own operations. However, the area around Nui Dat had been a well-known Viet Cong stronghold and many of the residents in nearby villages had family members in the Viet Cong.

The first reinforcement battalion to arrive at the new base in April 1966 was 5RAR, which included the first draft of National Service conscripts. The newly arrived troops erected their tents, dug foxholes and worked to set up base defences. A 12-kilometre barbed wire fence defended by claymore mines surrounded the new base and the perimeter was cleared of jungle, rubber and forest to deprive the Viet Cong of cover for attacks.

'Nui Dat life'

  • The 4RAR lines in Nui Dat, with excellent access to the facilities, 1968. [Image courtesy of Tony Jones]
  • Sapper Michael O’Hearn, 1st Field Squadron Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) of NSW, buying Christmas gifts from Private Rick Cook of NSW at the 2nd Australian Field Canteen Unit at Nui Dat. 1968. [AWM BULl/68/ 0978/VN]
  • 108 Field Battery RAA arrive at Koala Pad, Nui Dat, after being relieved at the Horshoe. [Image courtesy of John Dalton]
  • Infantrymen from 6RAR by their showers, 1969. [Image courtesy of Peter Fischer]l
  • Sorting thousands of Christmas cards and parcels at the Australian Forces Post Office (AFPO) at Nui Dat are [L-R] Private Peter Braiotta of NSW, Private John Gaudion and Corporal Robert Merrilees of Victoria, November 1970. [AWM FAI/70/0828/VN] 
            In 1967 and 1968, a series of strikes by the Amalgamated Postal Workers’ Union of Australia (APWU) interrupted the regular free mail service which operated between Australia and Vietnam. The troops were incensed and retaliated with the production of a ‘Punch a Postie on RTA’ (return to Australia) leaflet which in turn raised the ire of the postal workers.
  • By 1969, the latrines at Nui Dat had risen to new heights. [Image courtesy of Norm Cooper]
  • Official war artist, Lieutenant Bruce Fletcher of Victoria, holds an impromptu outdoor exhibition of a series of his portrait paintings before they were despatched to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.  Discussing the paintings with him is Private Peter Fossey of SA. [AWM EKT/67/0027A/VN]
  • Cricket at the Oval, Nui Dat, 1968. [Image courtesy of Richard Cranna]
  • A tricky moment for engineers in the Task Force at Nui Dat as a sky-crane lowers a tank onto a pre-manufactured structure, 1968. [Image courtesy of John Dalton]
  • Private Rod Scott, 3 Troop, 1 Field Squadron at Nui Dat, 1970. There was always the risk of snakes, spiders and scorpions finding their way into the soldiers’ foxholes. [Image courtesy of Kenny Laughton]

Fundamental to the security of the new base was the removal of all the civilian residents from within a 4000 metre buffer zone to an imaginary line - Line Alpha. Together with the US 173rd Brigade and 1RAR, 5RAR conducted their first operation, Operation Hardihood, removing the villagers, their livestock and their possessions from Long Phuoc and Long Tan and relocating them at nearby Hoa Long, Dat Do and Long Dien. During the operation, Private Errol Noack, a 21-year-old National Serviceman from Port Lincoln in South Australia was accidentally killed by ‘friendly fire’. He had been in Vietnam for twelve days.

In June 1966, 1RAR finished their 12-month tour of duty and boarded HMAS Sydney to return home. They were replaced by 6RAR, most of whom had just disembarked from the Sydney. The newly arrived 6RAR troops were transported to Nui Dat where they found conditions were still very basic.

After two weeks sleeping on the ground, we got Second World War tents; they all had holes in them. We got some floor boards and we all dug drains to get rid of the water round the tents. We had stretchers to sleep on… Things start to get a bit tense with some people, living in these conditions, living out of ration packs because there is no kitchen set up. Water everywhere, red mud everywhere and it starts to test a few people; people start to do their block a bit…

[John Robbins, 6RAR in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 159]

There was a network of Viet Cong tunnels and bunkers underneath the area around the village of Long Phuoc. This enabled the guerrillas to remain after the villagers had been removed. When mortar attacks against the task force area continued, three companies of 6RAR were ordered to search, clear and destroy the deserted village. The mission, Operation Enoggera, began on 21 June and continued until 5 July. When it ended only Long Phuoc’s pagodas and churches remained.

It was obviously a rich village in the days when that part of the country was at peace… The buildings were well constructed and sound, filled with furniture, the place just reeked of a pretty rich productive area. Not a dirty hamlet with shacks falling down or anything like that. We knew we had to do it and we bloody well did it quite successfully, but we did not like it.

[Colonel Colin Townsend, 6RAR in Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, p 255]

‘Sufferer’s Paradise’ – ‘the wet’ and ‘the dry’ at Nui Dat, 1968. [Images courtesy of Ron Hedges, John Cooper and Roger Herrod]

Most Australian units and individual soldiers served in Vietnam for a 12-month tour of duty but most combat soldiers saw little of Nui Dat. The Australian style of counter-insurgency operations kept troops away from the base for long periods and many men only returned for a few days between ‘ops’.

After ten years of war every Australian infantry battalion except 9RAR had served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Most had been based at Nui Dat which, by the time the base closed in November 1971, had developed into a military town with buildings, roads and street signs, a field hospital, an airfield and helicopter pad.

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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Headline The announcement that the Australian Government would send a Task Force to Vietnam. The Canberra Times, 8 March 1966.

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1 Field Squadron Commander’s Diary Narrative, 1-31 May 1966, pp 4-8. Some of the early logistical problems faced by the engineering units both before and after their arrival in Nui Dat are recorded on these pages. The complete file can be read on the Australian War Memorial website. [AWM 95 Item 4/2/11 -1 Field Squadron]