I had just returned from R&R and was waiting in Nui Dat for a flight out to 2Pl W3 when someone fingered me to quickly join a Force Signals Sqn TAOR patrol as MFC. Going from horizontal to kitted out in 60-minutes meant I cut a few corners. I thought I had it all together when the truck arrived to uplift me so I relaxed until after we were dismounted on the road to the Horseshoe [very close to the Long Tan battle site] where I found my compass missing from my belt order. To a MFC a compass is a vital piece of equipment but I figured it out and decided to say nothing: after all, TAOR patrols never had contacts, they never went very far before harbouring, the Aussies were unlikely to notice, and I could map read well enough to be able to figure out a LOCSTAT. Wrong on every account!
The Aussie commander [a warrant officer] set off north at a fast walk so pace counting and observing my arc stopped me using the map to match marked with actual features as often as I would have liked. Then I noticed that the local vegetation had heaps of dirt piled around the stems under the foliage, a likely sign of concealed digging in the area. When I pointed this out to the patrol commander, he headed off in every direction checking other vegetation and I was soon hopelessly lost. Finally, we stopped to set up an ambush near some good sign and I figured a LOCSTAT out of the commander, which I first submitted, to the FSCC in Nui Dat before dialling my assigned fire unit, an Aussie mortar section at the Horseshoe. I had the mortar section register a silent DF at a location near where I thought we were. The Aussies had some weird ‘L’ shaped ambush and weren’t interested in any advice from me so I setup with a tree between me and the likely initiation point and settled down for the night.
Just after dark, a whole bunch of people started talking Vietnamese and calling to each other just beyond the ambush area so the Aussie commander asked me to call indirect fire onto their position. Shit! The silent DF was in theory quite close so I called the mission and whispered to the Aussies to keep their heads down. The Horseshoe reported ‘shot’ [I even heard the primaries] but the impact was a long way to one side, somewhere in the distance along the route we had earlier followed. Shit again! We had come further East than I had earlier calculated and I needed to adjust fire. But I had no way of getting a bearing to use and adjusting in the dark onto a point likely to be within ‘danger close’ of the ambush was dangerous.
I was casting around for a way out when I recognised in the sky above the Horseshoe the ‘Southern Cross’ star constellation. The pointers were below the horizon but I could locate South by counting the length 3½ times down. I decided to use the ‘Southern Cross’ to give me a false direction of 3200 mils to adjust the DF [I was ultimately to move the DF 1.4 kilometres before it was close to our area, a huge distance]. Once I had the DF close by and still using false direction I ran the fire across our front and then down one side as directed by the patrol commander, flinching every time I called for rounds in case this adjustment landed on top of the position. The patrol however thought I was brilliant and probably saved them from being ‘overrun’ [although no direct contact was experienced] but I couldn’t fool the guys in the Horseshoe who thought I was incompetent, especially at map reading. We found no dead VC the next morning [no surprise] and returned to Nui Dat. I never found my missing compass and had to steal another from the CQMS store.
*Title from ‘Beneath The Southern Cross’ by Patti Smith – the upper most star of the Southern Cross constellation is visible as far north as Korea.
Bruce Young. First published on the W3 Company website