On 18 July 1968, Operation Merino began in the western side of the Hat Dich area, south of Nui Dat, with 4RAR and 104 Battery travelling to FSPB Chestnut by Chinook. W Company defended the base and B and D Company had a number of small contacts in a known VC training and operational planning area.
On the 20th, 104 moved nearly five kilometres east to form FSPB Dyke. I was still attached to Victor 3 Company as FO (c/s 25A) for 2 Platoon which flew about 2-3 clicks north east of Dyke by Huey, still north of the Firestone Trail. The company moved through the AO and, at one point, the forward scouts were fired on by a small group of VC. The scouts immediately counter-attacked, forcing Charlie back, propped long enough to set two claymores and then withdrew, drawing Charlie back onto the offensive. The claymores were detonated and there followed the screams of dying men - a sound I will never forget.
When the area was secured, the members of the Company all filed past the three dead VC. I guess this was part of a "blooding" exercise, the Company having been in Vietnam some thirty days. In a sense, I was an old hand, having been in country for six months, but this front line business was very different, most unlike serving with an artillery battery, notwithstanding 102 Field Battery, 12 Field Regiment's experience at FSPB Coral two months earlier north of Bien Hoa.
I have to admit that the surgical precision of claymores surprised me. The bodies were widely peppered with ball bearings, making very neat holes in the body, removing bits of fingers and even toes as if with a scalpel. But this morbid, almost clinical, curiosity was overwhelmed by their earlier screaming until they each died. Nasty business this soldiering.
Soon after, the Company broke up into platoons which conducted search and ambush operations over the next two days.
First defensive fire missions
On the first night, I fired my first defensive fire missions (DFs) in a night ambush position. The usual routine is to identify with the "foxhound sunray" (the Infantry platoon Lieutenant) two or three points from which the enemy might approach the ambush site. My task was to call fire missions to adjust the artillery to a point on each of three tracks approximately 200 metres away from the ambush site.
This is a very interesting exercise in an area where the jungle is quite dense, so you never see the adjusting round landing on the ground. The FO has to "sound range" the detonation point for bearing and distance, and, by referring to the map, adjusts the gun to the preferred point. When this is done, the target is "proved" by shooting 3 guns (not six). When I ordered "one round fire for effect", two rounds landed as expected, but the third round, which followed a few seconds later, landed very close by, sufficient for shrapnel to spray the NZ grunts preparing the ambush site. I recall sitting with three infantrymen around a tree. A large piece of shrapnel hit the tree above our heads and fell onto the leg of one of them, burning immediately through his greens. He quickly flipped it away and we all looked at the smoking, blue-hot piece of jagged metal on the ground.
This type of incident normally elicits a sharp response from the grunts, with some pretty rough language embellishing the words "drop short". Strangely, this did not happen although there were some very wide-eyed soldiers looking at me. I wasn't frightened by this apparent gun error so much as I was concerned that I might have made the mistake, albeit unlikely given the significant difference in the fall of shot. I quickly started going through my orders to the guns and matching these to the map. In the seconds that ticked away, the Battery (c/s 20) started calling, concerned that there was no "End of Mission" order from c/s 25A. I told my sig to ignore these calls until I was satisfied that the error was on a gun. Then I called c/s 20 with that short sentence that gun position officers (GPOs) and surveyors hate most - "Query error".
While the normal process of Section Commanders taking readings of settings of each participating gun and reporting these to the GPO was taking place, I told the platoon commander that I would have to re-fire the guns to prove the target. He informed the troops who immediately started feverishly digging in. I have to admit that, while digging in for the ambush was a good idea anyway, the correct settings for the errant gun would put all rounds together at a safe distance. I had to hide the smile.
When the gun error was confirmed, I ordered repeat and watched the grunts go to ground. I walked quietly to the lee side of my tree. The rounds detonated on target, and the mission was ended and recorded in case I needed those settings during the night. The Battery "reduced" the target and sent me the grid reference.
I cannot say that the Command Post surveyors, knowing that this was my first fire mission, made sure that the grid reference was precisely on the track and about 200 metres out, but I was very pleased with the result. When my "shelldrake sunray" (c/s 25), called to give me a serve about the mission generally and the proximity of the target, I curtly referred him to the reduced grid reference and the foxhound sunray's request to pull the rounds in close, and signed off "Out". There was no further discussion on the matter and I continued with two further DFs without incident.
For some time that night, in the pitch darkness, I walked the ambush site, repeatedly rehearsing the locations and target numbers, so that, if I needed to call a Fire Mission during the night, I knew exactly which one I needed. The night passed uneventfully.
Fire support for the New Zealanders
The next day we were patrolling without any contact with Charlie. During a morning rest break, we heard another V3 Company platoon in the area engaged in a contact which included artillery support from 104. It was strange to do nothing while a fire fight was in progress not far from our location. Some minutes later, c/s 20 called, asking if I could hear the battle. Apparently, a mortar fire controller (MFC) was controlling the artillery, but the fire orders are different and the excitement level was rising. C/s 20 asked if I could take control of the fire mission. I asked the platoon commander if we could move approximately 1000 metres to support the engaged platoon. His request to the company commander was approved and we quickly moved up behind our troops.
I found the MFC, tapped him on the shoulder, and took over the fire mission. The fire fight did not continue for long, but I was very aware that FOs could not lose emotional control during a battle, that we were truly "observers" who had to dispassionately deliver ordinance on the ground at the request of the Infantry. Tomorrow, this was to prove a very valuable lesson.
Viet Cong bunkers
On 23 July, my platoon was patrolling single file through the AO when I started to notice bunkers on my left and right. The bunkers were in good condition, with no conclusive evidence that they were either occupied or deserted. I was surprised that the troops were not giving any indication that they had seen the bunkers by giving each other signals as grunts do. Maybe their training had indicated to them that the bunkers presented no threat. In any case, I was sufficiently concerned to want to lay on the guns just in case Charlie opened up. I tried to get the platoon commander's attention. But it was too late.
We were engaged from the front with small arms fire (rifle and automatic weapons) at approximately 9.30-10.00am. The platoon immediately implemented the usual contact front drill which means charging the enemy. My sig and I followed suit as if we were old hands at this sort of thing. In fact, neither of us would have been familiar with this drill, not having done contact drills at rookies nor having trained as infantry.
I have two very clear memories of the fifteen odd seconds of this event. The first was my sig losing his web belt around his ankles. The adage, "shrink with fear", sprang to mind. We all do it but, in his case, he was not wearing his full webbing, so his web belt, ammo pouches and water bottles fell to his ankles. He picked up his gear, virtually without a break in step, and kept running forward with the troops. The second memory was my thinking, "When are these b******s going to stop and take cover!"
After what seemed like forever, the troops started breaking right and left to form a front. It was like watching a well-rehearsed dance routine. Somehow, I ended up with the platoon commander and, as the troops started returning fire, I said to the Lieutenant, "Where the **** do you think we are?" as we both started studying our maps.
Navigating in the jungle over featureless ground becomes very difficult. There are no reference points and the very best one can do is take an intuitive guess, not that a surveyor or an officer would say so publicly. So we both had a quick chat and agreed that we were approximately somewhere! I told him that I was going to call a Fire Mission Battery on that grid reference, with an initial correction of add 400, left 400. Any correction greater than this would have told my brother surveyors at the Battery that we didn't have a clue where we were!
The correction add 400 would throw the round further east of our position, the commander and I being on the right flank. The correction left 400 would throw the adjusting round to the north away from the platoon. It must be noted that these corrections are relative to the gun-target bearing, not the observer-target bearing. I shot all of my missions with my head sitting with the Battery, i.e. the gun-target bearing, not my position on the ground, the observer-target bearing. The latter, however, would have been easier and is less prone to error.
As the fire fight continued, I called a Fire Mission with 104 Field Battery. The opening adjusting round fell where we expected (hoped?) it would be. I adjusted the shot with large corrections until I needed to see Battery Fire for Effect on the ground. Then I called for small adjustments of 25 metres and less until it was closer than prudence dictates.
The contact drill had brought us well inside the bunker complex. Charlie was within 30 metres of our front; the under foliage was about three metres high and the upper canopy was 13-18 metres. Our front lay at a bearing of approximately 4800mils (West) looking from the right flank and the artillery gun-target angle would be 0800mils (North East).
This meant that it was very difficult to see Charlie (and vice versa) and that artillery support would be coming over our rear left to land two tennis court lengths in front after flying through some timber. Most of the artillery rounds landed to the front of left section and the machine gun section. It should be remembered that a 105mm artillery round has a killing range of up to 250 metres depending on the ground cover.
There was one issue that I could not control. The Battery was firing low angle at a target some 4,500 metres away. Firing low angle is standard for most targets up to the maximum of 11,000 metres. High angle is preferred when the target is reasonably close (4-7,000 metres) and when trees or geography (hills) are a factor. The constraint to high angle is that recoil pits must be dug and this takes time. When the guns are set for low angle, there is little choice when you are shooting a contact mission at short range in timbered country.
The firing rate of the NZ Infantry was enormous. Our small arms weapons were 7.62mm SLRs (I don't recall any 5.56mm Armalites) and 7.62mm machine guns. There were a few M79 grenade launchers which look like short barrel shotguns with 35mm bores. In close country, these weapons worked against us as much as for us, in that the grenade frequently hit a tree with an ominous "blonk". There was no telling which way it bounced. The Infantry IA (immediate action) was apparently to call "S**t" when this happened and everyone seemed to duck in unison!
It seemed to me that the VC were concentrated at a point opposite our machine gun section and the left rifle section, but it was difficult to assess the rate of incoming fire. The question was - how many VC were we engaging? Charlie was obviously not prepared to disengage. Given that we had run through 50-60 metres of bunkers to engage Charlie, I suspected that they were stalling for time to extract whatever it was that they were protecting. This was a known training and operational planning area, so it was reasonable to assume that there was substantial materiel stored in the bunker complex.
I asked the platoon commander to call an abrupt cease fire so that I could gauge the level and direction of fire coming from Charlie. I actually called the cease fire after warning all sections, but had great difficulty stopping the machine gun section ("I can see ‘em, I can see ‘em!" he said). I was damned if I could see anyone and I was getting nervous about running up and down the line to see what was going on.
There seemed to be no break in the firing throughout the morning. While there was some minor adjustment of the guns to cover the area better and not be so predictable, there was not a lot of work to do for an FO. It may seem strange, but I have to say that I never fired a rifle in my tour of Vietnam other than test firing before operations. My weapon had a bore of 105mm and I had six of those at any one time, with more of the same on call. Nonetheless, it was tiring work, so I said to my sig, "Let's have some lunch", and we pulled back from the front line to where, coincidentally, the platoon medic was set up.
We found a large tree which had fallen over so we parked ourselves behind it and opened up some ration pack cheese and biscuits. While I ate, I couldn't help but notice a constant flow of soldiers with what appeared to be superficial injuries, primarily on their upper body, but mainly arms. It did not occur to me at the time that these injuries may have been caused by shrapnel from our own rounds! I also noticed that our rear was totally unprotected. Here we were inside a bunker complex, undoubtedly interconnected with tunnels, and at potential risk of being attacked from the rear. I had the feeling that we were on a hiding to nothing unless Charlie disengaged (which seemed unlikely) or we attacked or withdrew.
I rose to go back into the firing line, leaned on the tree, only to fall through it. It was totally rotten. It had afforded us no protection whatsoever!
I have no idea what time it was. It was probably mid-afternoon. I kept the rounds coming; watching the sky where I knew the rounds would come in. Every now and then, if you are quick and positioned at the right angle, you can see a round in the air. When you do, however fleetingly, you get an indication of height and angle of descent. On this occasion, I was not happy to see the rounds. They were too low as they crossed the left flank, and their angle of descent suggested that one of them had to hit a tree. Treeburst can be more deadly than ground detonation. The latter can be largely absorbed in the under-storey, with a large part of the detonation going skyward. Treeburst, on the other hand, has the "advantage" of height, adding another dimension to its kill range.
And then it happened.
I saw an artillery round hit a tree in front of my left flank and, since I was half-standing, I expected to get hit by my own shrapnel. I can still remember waiting for that awful whir of asymmetric shrapnel before it hit me. I felt I had to "stare it down". There was no doubt in my mind that some of us would be hit, and I might not be excluded. I was responsible for this. Instead, several soldiers in the left section were hit, one seriously.
I immediately ordered "Stop, stop, stop" to my guns, consulted with the platoon commander, made an adjustment to the guns and continued firing to keep Charlie's head down.
The platoon commander went over to the left flank to check the damage. When he returned, he spoke to Battalion headquarters. I listened to the Lieutenant's responses for a while until he handed me the handset and said "The boss wants to talk to you."
I was surprised at this and asked "Who is the boss?"
He told me it was the Battalion Commanding Officer.
Callsign Niner (CO 4RAR) asked for my assessment of the situation and what I felt was needed to prevail against the enemy. He made some suggestions (gun ships, white phosphorous!) which I declined for different reasons. Gunships sprayed an incredible volume of 9mm rounds, but I was concerned that, given our proximity to Charlie, we would likely suffer as well. When the CO suggested WP, I hesitated and then, needing time to consider the ramifications of this, responded automatically with a "Wait, out".
This is not what you say to a Battalion Commander! But I had to think of the issues behind the use of WP. Firstly, a WP round is heavier than a HE round. The Battery would, of course, correct for this by elevating the guns accordingly. However, the issue of proximity and the likelihood of internal and external burning of our own troops was not acceptable if the CO intended Battery Fire for Effect. And I knew he did not intend this to be a one round registration. I declined his suggestion. When he asked what I wanted, I told him we needed to let Charlie know that we were serious, notwithstanding that we estimated we were engaging 20+. I suggested that, being engaged so closely with Charlie, we either had to attack or retreat, the latter with heavy support such as an airstrike to keep Charlie's head down. He asked to be put back to the Lieutenant.
Minutes later, the Lieutenant said to me that the CO had agreed to the airstrike and that I was to be in the last section progressively withdrawn from the firing line. I have wondered many times if the CO knew he was talking to a baggy-arse private soldier, a gunner surveyor.
104 Battery was to continue fire support throughout the extraction until the aircraft entered the air space. I had no idea how many rounds that the Battery had expended but I was later to find that over 1,000 rounds had been fired during the total engagement and that the Battery was finally within eleven rounds of being out of HE ammunition. The Battery was also out of point-detonating or "quick" fuses and resorted to concrete-piercing (CP) fuses which was not a bad thing, considering CP fuses penetrated the ground before detonation. Further, the Battery Command Post had been flash-flooded by rain and all hands had been ordered to carry rounds through the mud to the guns. We had no rain 4.5 clicks away.
The extraction occurred with the last section establishing contact with two jets carrying one bomb each. I wouldn't pretend to know the size of this ordinance but, after we had progressively thrown enough coloured smoke to mark our position to the pilots, the airstrike was conducted. Now I know what the expression "Did the earth move for you" really means.
Our WIA was extracted later that afternoon by a chopper hovering at 60+ feet. I have to say that, once again, the NZ soldiers at no stage showed any animosity towards me as on a previous shoot when a DF gun error put shrapnel through our overnight ambush. However, I was concerned that, despite having broken contact with Charlie, the troops clustered underneath the chopper (which was using a spotlight) made a perfect target for an RPG. Maybe I was being over-cautious. As the chopper departed, the platoon headed for V3 Company HQ and, hopefully, a break from the fighting.
I was there told by my Arty Lieutenant that there was to be an enquiry about the seriously injured soldier, that I needed to tell him everything that happened and that he would appear at the investigation. I told Burns that I was prepared to respond to the enquiry and to accept responsibility for the injuries incurred by the NZ troops. He said that was not necessary. I never heard anything further about the enquiry nor the outcome of the evacuee.
I know old soldiers tend to exaggerate their war stories and it may seem to some that I am no exception! However, this is exactly how I remember this particular engagement. I took no pleasure from the engagement and I have had to live with the knowledge that I was responsible for seriously wounding a New Zealand infantryman. To this day, I do not know if he survived.