Story 43 - Retrans to Nui Chua Chan (Hill 837)
In search for SAS Trooper David Fisher
By Denis Hare
SAS Patrol 11
A five man 3 Sqn, Special Air Service (SAS) Patrol “Callsign Bravo Nine Sierra One One” operating in the north east area of the Australian Area of Operation (AO) after 7 days, engaged eight well armed North Vietnam Army (NVA) after one of the enemy appeared to have spotted the patrol on the 27 Sept 1969 at about 8:35am. The fire fight resulted in 4 confirmed enemy dead with the patrol withdrawing about 300 metres where it was then detected by a larger enemy force near the Suoi Trong Creek. The Patrol Commander received slight shrapnel wounds from two RPG rounds as about 30 enemy were sweeping towards the patrol. The patrol withdrew using fire and movement, and once they reached the cover of the primary jungle, they stopped firing and remained motionless, standing back to back in a thick clump of vegetation.
Away in the east they could hear firing from another group of NVA and an enemy officer was blowing a whistle, directing the advance against the SAS. At 11am the patrol could hear the enemy firing single shots, trying to draw their fire. At this stage the patrol commander told the radio operator to obtain communications with the SAS Comcen at Nui Dat to arrange a hot extraction. The radio operator threw only about two metres of antenna wire and started tapping the morse key on the small high frequency AN/PRC-64 Radio Set. In his excitement, he forgot to give his callsign.
Losing David Fisher
The alert 152 Sig Sqn Det SAS operator at Nui Dat, Sergeant Barry Standen, picked up the weak signal and recognized the message as coming from Patrol 11.
The patrol continued to stand back to back with the enemy moving all around. Quietly they attached their Swiss seats and waited for the helicopter. In less then 30 minutes, the patrol heard the helicopters in the distance vectoring to their location by the patrol radio set AN/URC-10 beacon. The patrol established voice communications with the Albatross lead and after a few minutes, the gunship started their run to the patrol. The patrol threw smoke, the gunships started firing as the lead helicopter skillfully dropped its rope 20 metres down into a gap in the canopy. The SAS patrol clipped on and were lifted about 10 metres but one of the troopers became caught in the fork of a tree. The radio operator spoke to the aircraft via the AN/URC-10 Radio Set and the helicopter lowered sufficiently for the trooper to extricate himself.
As soon as they were clear of the jungle the gunships moved in and the helicopter gathered speed. The ropes were all at different lengths and the Patrol 2IC, Private David Fisher was on the longest rope. Suddenly the other members realized that Fisher was missing; he had fallen from a height of about 80 metres back through the jungle canopy. The following chilling radio message was heard at the SAS Comcen from the Albatross flight: “Patrol member dropped off rope during extraction.”
The search for David Fisher
The helicopter, with the remaining four members of the patrol hanging on their ropes, travelled about two kilometres, landed and allowed the patrol members to scramble aboard. They then returned to the site where they thought Fisher had fallen but could see no sign of him.
A Sioux, accompanied by a light fire team, continued the searching until a nine man SAS patrol, “Callsign Bravo Nine Sierra One Six”, commanded by the OC, 3 Sqn, SAS rappelled into the jungle to begin the ground search at 4:30pm. The next day at 4pm (28 Sept 1969) they were joined by C Company, 9RAR. SAS Patrol 16 was extracted by helicopter winching and returned to Nui Dat. On 1 Oct 1969 the 9RAR Company was replaced by B Company, 6RAR. A SAS Liaison Officer (LO) and SAS Radio Operator remained with the infantry while they searched for six days for the MIA trooper without success.
Retrans deployed for the search
Back at Nui Dat, it was clear to the Task Force Commander that VHF communications in the search area were poor. SAS RASigs had in the past used Nui Chua Chan (Hill 837) as a “Relay Site”. The 837 metre Hill was just over the province border 50km (approx) NNE of Nui Dat, about 15km from the search area. It had a major US Army 53rd Signal Battalion communication installation and was used also as an American Long-Range Recce Patrol (LRRP) relay. Access to the site was by air only.
104 Sig Sqn was tasked to provide a VHF retrans site on Hill 837 to provide the searching infantry good VHF communications back to Nui Dat. However a special request came from SAS that the retrans detachment receive morse code from the SAS LO and other patrols that would operate in the search area.
The task force signal squadron had the morse skills embedded in its radio troop, however few had used their skills since arriving in Vietnam, as all communications were voice.
The unit quickly searched for the Radio Operators with the skill required for the very urgent task.
Cpl Richard “Rick” Male was available at the Squadron after just returning from Operation Neppabunna (FSPB Serle and Wells) with 9RAR.
Signalman David “Murf” Murphy, a national serviceman, had topped his radio operator course in morse but was located at Xuan Loc. He was quickly pulled back to the unit by helicopter.
The third member of the detachment was Signalman John “Dinga” Bell. John aged 19, had only just arrived in Vietnam the week before but was fresh from 1 Sig Regt, where he had just completed several exercises using morse code.
A Huey delivered the radio detachment to Hill 837 in the afternoon of the 28 Sept 1969, with the detachment members only having time to practice morse by reading messages to each other in “dits” and “dashs” as no equipment was setup for morse training at the unit.
The detachment quickly setup and started its communication task.
David Murphy was to later write:
“Our slight doubts about the quality of their Morse transmissions disappeared with the very first message. It came as smooth as silk, as good as the machine we had trained on. The trooper was sending it on a keypad strapped to his knee, hardly ideal conditions. Messages came coded in groups of five letters, tapped out at times decided by the patrol leader. The code was not known to us. We merely had to read it back to the patrol for confirmation, and then send it on to SAS HQ at Nui Dat by voice.”
The detachment manned the Radio Sets 24 hours, 7 days a week. While the SAS patrols had two routine signal schedules using One Time Letter Pad (OTLP) at fixed times each day (each patrol at a different time), the relay station was always monitoring for non scheduled traffic, like an urgent hot extraction request.
The detachment had arrived at an over crowded site and had to hot bed it with American signalers between radio shifts for a period, until bed spaces for them, could be allotted.
Nui Chua Chan (Hill 837)
The communication base was on the top of a very steep mountain within the top five to ten metres. A road could never be built up to it in the war, with all resupply by air.
David Murphy was to later write:
“The US Army had blasted away part of the mountain top, as best they could, sprayed some agent orange, squashed in a company of infantry, operators, technicians and a forest of aerials and towers of microwave dishes. They then called it a communication base.”
While the Americans had regular days away from the Hill, the Australian signalers remained until replaced.
The Detachment had a bird’s eye view of the war from their 837 metre perch, which included bombing by fighter jets and B52 bombers plus night time Spooky action. Hill 837 also came under rocket and mortar attack, a number of times, while the retrans detachment was at the site.
The detachment did receive a number of visits including the Radio Troop Commander, Lt Peter Diddams. One was fondly remembered by John Bell who later wrote:
“I remember the Troop Commander bring our voting papers for the general election back home, in late October. I was only 19 and got to vote. Voting age at that time was 21, but soldiers in Vietnam were given the privilege of being able to vote.”
The 104 Sig Sqn detachment had two Radio Sets AN/GRC-125 (vehicular/ground station of the Radio Set AN/PRC-25) with retrans cable arrangement plus additional AN/PRC-25 Radio Sets, RC-292 antennas, etc.
The SAS Patrols when relaying using Hill 837 had a special morse key arrangements from an old A510 Morse, adapted for use on the AN/PRC-25 Radio Set. This was done with a small modification contained in a matchbox size adaptor, which plugged into a handset terminal. This was an excellent innovation that gave the option of VHF using morse code, which solved the noise problem while providing the convenience of instant communications giving the Patrols greater safety.
Dinga Bell was the last of the original detachment members to be replaced on the Hill in early 1970, with 3 Sqn, SAS being replaced by 1 Sqn, SAS in Feb 1970. The 104 Sig Sqn retrans site stayed at Hill 837 until the 8 Jul 1970 when the 1 Sqn, SAS requirement ceased. It allowed the Australian Task Force good VHF communications to the most Northern parts of the AO, while supporting the SAS task.
104 Sig Sqn played its part in the search for the SAS Trooper in 1969 but Private David Fisher was never given up by the Australian Vietnam Veterans. After 39 years in Oct 2008 he was found by the searching veterans from Operation Aussies Home and his remains were returned to Australia for burial by his family and mates. Lest we forget
A Tour Out of this World (Chapter - On Top of the Mountain)
by David Murphy