The Vietnam War
Bien Hoa Province
'The Sun', Thursday 29 April 1965. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]
The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South-East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.’
[Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Hansard, 29 April 1965.]
On the afternoon of 29 April 1965, Australians were warned that the Australian Government would ‘provide an infantry battalion for service in Vietnam.’ Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies delivered a statement to the Lower House of Parliament that evening, explaining that the decision was made in response to a request for ‘further military assistance’ by the Government of South Vietnam and in consultation with the United States Government.
Five days after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, Arthur Calwell, spoke in Parliament, opposing Australia’s commitment of troops to South Vietnam.
Our men will be fighting the largely indigenous Viet Cong in their own home territory. They will be fighting in the midst of a largely indifferent, if not resentful, and frightened population. They will be fighting at the request of, and in support, and, presumably, under the direction of an unstable, inefficient, partially corrupt military regime which lacks even the semblance of being, or becoming, democratically based.
[Excerpt from Mr Arthur Calwell’s speech, 4 May 1965.]
The Qantas Air Ticket supplied to Jens Smith, an infantryman with 1RAR for his trip to South Vietnam in 1965. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]
On 27 May 1965, a company of 1RAR and attachments together with a small media contingent left Sydney for South Vietnam. Their voyage on HMAS Sydney took 14 days and they arrived at the port of Vung Tau on 10 June. The remainder of 1RAR travelled to South Vietnam by air. They were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade and stationed in Bien Hoa province approximately 25 kilometres from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), an area held by Viet Cong.
Lance Corporal Robert Richardson, 1RAR was one of the first to arrive at Bien Hoa:
We didn't realise it was going to be as rudimental as what it was… We thought there might have been some sort of preparation there for an area by the Yanks, but it wasn't, it was just virgin land, and we had to do everything ourselves. And if you wanted to sleep that night, arriving about four o'clock … three o'clock to four o'clock in the afternoon in the heat of the day of about 43 degrees as it was, to just drop your equipment and start digging and putting up your tents, it was a bit hard to take.
[Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No. 0998]
The Australians, comprising one infantry battalion of approximately 600 combat troops, an Armoured Personnel Carrier unit, the Prince of Wales Light Horse, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) unit with six Caribou planes, a small surgical team, a handful of civil engineers, diary and signals experts and the men in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), were under the command of Colonel, later Brigadier, Oliver Jackson, the Commander, Australian Army Force, Vietnam. Although Jackson, based at the Australian Headquarters in Saigon, was under the operational control of the Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, he remained responsible for ‘matters of Australian administration and support.’
Once they had set up their base and their defences around the 1RAR position, the Australians began to patrol their tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). Tasked with securing the Bien Hoa air base, deep patrolling and offensive operations into areas adjacent to the base, and conducting combined operations with US and ARVN troops, the Australians soon discovered their tactics were very different from those of their allies.
This, along with the recognition that a single Australian battalion would always need to be integrated with a United States brigade, led military and political planners to the conclusion that Australian forces in Vietnam should comprise a task force with its own area of operations. Thus, in 1966, the 1st Australian Task Force, made up of two battalions, 5RAR and 6RAR, was dispatched from Australia to Phuoc Tuy Province to set up a new Australian base at Nui Dat.