On 27 May 1965, the New Zealand Government, after a great deal of anguish and hand wringing, announced that it was to send 161 Battery RNZA for active duty in Vietnam. I must confess that I and the rest of the Battery greeted that decision with glee. All of us were professionals who had spent past years training, and here was the test.
For the next two months, we busied ourselves preparing for the move. The Army, with typical thoroughness, sent us to Waiouru in the middle of winter, amidst snowdrifts to carry out training for the tropics.
After a spell of departure leave the Battery left in the very early hours of 19 July. We flew in a Hercules C130 via Townsville, Australia and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea to Bien Hoa Airbase near Saigon.
Arrival in Vietnam
When we arrived in Bien Hoa we became part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the United States Army. On 29 July the 173rd left Bien Hoa for the town of Vung Tau. In the good days, Vung Tau was a holiday resort used by the French colonialists. The 173rd was to conduct an operation in the area.
The Battery and the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) were left at Bien Hoa. The night of 30 July was interrupted by Viet Cong (VC) activity in the area. Small arms fire took place throughout the night attended by equal degrees of excitement, apprehension and confusion. I thought to myself that while I was in Vietnam I wasn't going to get much sleep. It was on this occasion that the Battery suffered its first casualty, Bombardier Williams, who was hit in the leg by a rifle bullet. Rumour persisted for some time that he was shot by another gunner in the confusion.
In the first two weeks in Vietnam, the battery fired 789 rounds of 105mm artillery ammunition. The bulk of July and August was spent at Bien Hoa base acclimatising to the new theatre of operations and developing our base area.
During this period we were mainly involved in H&I (Harassment and Interdiction). H&I targets were selected on the basis of intelligence reports, as likely enemy routes, camps or staging points. In was in these shoots that guns would be fired at random intervals, often during the night with the object of catching the VC in places and at times when he thought he was safe. At its best, it could be very effective, although at its worse it meant that everybody was awoken whether they were on duty or not.
It was during this period that the Battery experimented with breaking down the guns and fitting them into Australian armoured personnel carriers. The advantage of this was that we could travel to operation areas, without the VC knowing until the last moment that we were armed with artillery pieces.
On 18 August the battery was deployed approximately 6000 metres outside of the base area in armoured personnel carriers of the Prince of Wales Light Horse. During the day the Battery fired 500 rounds. At about mid-day, a patrol from the 1RAR patrolling the south bank of the Dong Na River saw a small group of VC across the river. They opened fire and the guerrillas returned fire from a belt of trees on the north bank. The battery opened fire and the rounds fell directly on the woods. The patrol reported two enemy soldiers killed. On the following day, 400 sandbags and metal pickets arrived at the base and we were reintroduced to the joys of base development again.
On 3 September, the battery was deployed for the first time in Viet Nam by helicopter. At that time the UH1B and the UH1D Iroquois was the only helicopter available in any quantity in Vietnam, and neither version had the capacity to lift the larger American field guns.
Tragedy strikes the Battery
The battery began its first major operation with the 173rd Airborne Brigade on 14 September. This was to be a 14-day search and destroy operation near Ben Cat in War Zone D. The move to Ben Cat was by road convoy. About 1500 metres short of our destination, one of the forward observation party vehicles, the one directly in front of mine, was blown up by a command-detonated mine. The mine was triggered by two guerrillas waiting beside the road. More than 150 vehicles had travelled over the mine before it was triggered.
When the mine went off, everybody deployed into ambush positions that we had rehearsed so many times before. I was sure that we were about to be attacked, so I made sure that I was in a good position. It was at that point that the full impact of where I was came home to me. Nothing further developed and we began to relax.Gunner Wayne Robson, 161 Battery
There were four persons in the vehicle that was destroyed by the mine; three battery members and an NZPA reporter. The rear of the Land Rover had been sandbagged as protection from just this event. The civilian and one of the soldiers were thrown off the vehicle by the explosion, and the two seated in the front, Al Don and Jock White were killed instantly. They were the first battery members to die in Viet Nam.
On the fourth night of the operation, the battery position was mortared, injuring one New Zealander. This operation truly tested the battery, and it came through with flying colours. During this operation, the battery fired 1170 rounds of ammunition.
On 8 October the battery was deployed again in the Ben Cat area. The brigade was to penetrate the "Iron Triangle". This was recognised as an important VC base, and regarded by many as impregnable. The area was roughly triangular and was extremely dense jungle, and almost completely surrounded by minefields. No friendly forces and not even small intelligence groups had penetrated the area for years.
During this operation, one of the members of a forward observation party was wounded when he set off a tripwire mine. Two other battery members were also injured. The battery returned to base until 21 November and a leave programme was started.
On 21 November the battery deployed to a new area of operations on C131 aircraft. The C131 was a two-engine version of the C130. We travelled to Vo Dat, and the airfield was just long enough to accommodate the C131. On board, our flight was a very large tyre that was filled with diesel fuel. This was designed to be towed behind an armoured vehicle. The short runway required the aircraft's pilot to use full reverse thrust on touchdown. When the C131 touched down on the runway and reverse thrust was employed, the securing straps on the tyre came adrift, and the tyre began to roll down the inside of the aircraft hitting the bulkhead behind the cockpit. I have never seen anybody climb up the inside of an aircraft so quickly before or since.
We remained in the area until 17 December, when we moved to Long Khan province, some 25-miles southwest of Bo Dat. This operation was designed to disrupt an expected VC attack in Long Khan. It lasted for five days, and then the battery returned to Bien Hoa.
Support from home
We received a great of support from a small group of people in NZ, and they went to a great deal of trouble for us. The main ones were the Raglan town committee, the Victoria League of Auckland RSA, Leopard Breweries, and DB Breweries. We also received four large Christmas parcels from thirty-six citizens of Lorrain, Ohio in the US.
At 0700 hrs on New Year's day the battery moved out of base for another operation. This was another ‘search and destroy' mission in the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong delta. After seven days the battery moved to the Ho Bo woods area west of the Iron Triangle. The aim of this operation was to seize the headquarters of the ‘Committee for the Liberation of Saigon'. The area contained a massive network of tunnels and bunkers, all heavily protected. The tunnelling extended for literally miles and connected with concealed gun pits above the ground. In places the tunnels were on three levels and included a hospital, kitchens and a radio station. The enemy resisted vigorously and the struggle was fierce. More than 100,000 pages of documents were seized in this operation.
The next was operation ‘Rolling Stone' near Ben Cat. Until 23 January 1966, there was little activity. That night, the battery came under heavy small arms, mortar and recoilless rifle fire from an estimated battalion-sized VC force. The contact lasted from about 0245 to 0600 hrs.
Over the next three months, the battery was involved in various operations in the area and on the Cambodian border. In May it was decided to move the battery to join the Australian task force being set up at Nui Dat in the Phouc Tuy province, and the battery prepared to move.
It was at this point that I transferred to forward observation party duties and was attached to 1RAR. In June 1RAR was replaced by 6RAR and I was attached to B Company.
On 26 June 6RAR searched the village of Long Phouc for enemy food, medical supplies, arms and ammunition. The battalion found 49 tonnes of rice, 15 tunnels, 9 tonnes of salt, 11 weapons, medical supplies, documents, clothing, ammunition and explosives. Four enemy soldiers were killed and one Australian wounded.
On 24 July operation ‘Hobart' was mounted in the east of the Task Force area. The two major actions in this operation both occurred on the 25th. At about 1300 hrs C Company engaged an enemy force of company strength. The fight lasted for about thirty minutes with the result that the enemy withdrew to the south. Our company formed a blocking force on the route that we expected them to take. They didn't let us down, and another firefight developed. The VC attacked us and we drove them off. They then withdrew to the south. The enemy losses in this operation were thirteen killed and nineteen wounded. Our losses were three killed and nineteen wounded.
On the night of 16-17 August, the task force base at Nui Dat was subjected to a heavy mortar and recoilless rifle attack. B Company (less two platoons who were on leave), was sent out in the early morning to find out where the enemy positions were and to destroy the attacking force. The Artillery OP party was Lt KP (Pat) Murphy, myself as a radio operator. We located the mortar positions the next day but were relieved by D Company as we were only on light order and had taken one-days rations with us, and a helicopter resupply would have revealed our position. D Company was prepared for a three-day patrol. When D Company arrived at our position we moved off toward the base area.
We started to make our way back to the base area, and about 1540 hrs we heard a burst of fire from D Company's area. We called them up on the radio and were told that there had been contact with six VC and that they in pursuit of them. After a short spell, another firefight was heard, and we learned that 10, 11 and 12 platoons had been engaged by a very large force. We were making our way to their position as quickly as we could to help them out. D Company was re-supplied with ammunition by helicopters. A heavy monsoon rain had begun to fall by this time, which made our jungle green uniform seem black in the fading light of the rubber tree plantation.
Armoured personnel carriers were despatched from the base with A Company on board to help us. They came into contact with three companies of Viet Cong forming up to attack the rear of D Company. A Company routed the enemy and arrived at D Company's position at about the same time we did. It was now about 1910 hrs. D Company deployed behind the screen provided by A Company to attend to the wounded and extract them by helicopter.
The following morning the Battalion moved forward into the battle area. We found two survivors of 11 Platoon. Three enemy soldiers were captured, including two North Vietnamese regulars. The enemy lost 245 killed in action, and an estimated 500 wounded in action. Our losses were eighteen killed in action and twenty-one wounded. There was no doubt in my mind that it was accurate artillery fire that saved the day.
This is an evening which is indelibly etched in my memory; even after 46 years I still feel the emotions I felt then when recalling the event [Battle of Long Tan].
After this action, I remained with B Company for another operation in the Nui Dinh hills. We spent about two weeks there and we suffered one wounded in action. The enemy losses were eight killed and four wounded.
I returned to NZ in December 1966.
Note: I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Major C.R. Flinkenberg and Mr Robert Eaddy of the Defence Department for their assistance to me in researching the details of my service in Viet Nam.