Story 53 - An Eventful Year in South Vietnam


By Gordon Taylor

January 1968 (Vietnam)

I boarded the HMAS Sydney (III), also known as “The Vung Tau Ferry”, on the 17th January, 1968 bound for South Vietnam (SVN) along with another 319 soldiers. The ship was docked at Garden Island and there was a huge contingent of well-wishers and some media there to see us off.  I am sure that we didn’t sail with a battalion, but were a conglomerate group made up of various corps; to either replace soldiers who had completed their term of duty, or to increase the size of our particular corps due to the escalation of the war.  This was the ninth voyage to Vietnam that the Sydney had undertaken.

Original Telegram
Copy of the original Telegram sent to Gordon

As soon as we boarded and stowed our gear we were issued with sandals and hammocks. No shoes were to be worn while we were on board.  We had taken over the sailors’ quarters and they were housed on the hanger deck for the duration of the trip.

Other 104 Signal Squadron (104 Sig Sqn) members also sailed on HMAS Sydney at the same time, as follows:

       David Allen
       Alister Campbell
       Phillip Clohesy
       Henry Curtis
       Robert Ellis
       Desmond Godley
       Kenneth Greenwood
       Kenneth Harcoan
       Maxwell Hardy
       Terry Hunter
       Hugh Hutton
       Douglas Johnston
       Geoffrey Jonas
       John Koosache
       Scott Laycock
       Graham Lee
       Keith Oliver
       Ralph Schwer
       Gordon Taylor  (myself)

The sleeping arrangements were sparse and we hung our hammocks wherever we could below decks and there was very little space to stow our gear.  The air between decks was stifling both during the day and night, so Keith Oliver and I decided that we would string up our hammocks on the forecastle, which was directly below the flight deck where we could get some fresh air.

On the first night out of Sydney we caught the tail end of Cyclone Brenda, a category 2 cyclone which caused some consternation amongst many of the troops. The waves were crashing through the gunnels where the anchor chains lay in the forecastle, and water was gushing all over the deck.  Nevertheless our hammocks remained still and a good night’s sleep was had even though the ship was “rocking and rolling”.  I slept on the forecastle every night except for the night prior to arriving off Vung Tau.  It didn’t take long for other soldiers to realize that sleep was difficult to get below decks and space in the forecastle became hard to find as the voyage progressed.

We had a stopover at Manus Island where the RAN had a base.  I think that we had some servicemen on the island and we were dropping off some people and supplies. As soon as our anchor was dropped the local natives approached the ship in their little canoes trying to sell us trinkets.  We were at anchor just for a few hours, and then continued on our voyage.

HMAS Sydney 
Deck of HMAS Sydney was packed with vehicles for the war zone - Wessex Helicopter landing
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

When we crossed over the equator we held the “Crossing the Line” ceremony.  This is an initiation that commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the Equator. Originally, the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea.  These equator-crossing ceremonies typically feature King Neptune, who initiates those who haven’t crossed the equator before.

Crossing the Line
At the equator “Crossing the Line” Ceremony (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

We met up with HMAS Stuart (II) off Singapore on 25th January and the two ships sailed onto Sattahip, Thailand arriving on 31st January. The Sydney dropped off jeeps, trucks, military equipment and several Signals personal.  They were all destined to take part in a SEATO exercise in February.  Both ships departed at 1600 hours on the same day enroute to Vietnam, arriving in Vung Tau on 3rd February.

The voyage took a total of 17 days, during which time we attended lectures about what to expect upon arrival in SVN. We had daily physical training, tug-of-war competitions and chores to carry out, such as serving in the Petty Officers' Mess, working in the laundry, scrubbing down bulkheads and walls inside the ship and generally cleaning up.  We also had details arranged to bring the daily grog ration up from the hold, etc.  I am sure that there were other things that we did but memory fails me. We all thoroughly enjoyed the “yippee shoots” over the stern, trying to shoot the balloons that were sent over the side filled with water.

At the end of each day we were each provided with one large can of Fosters.  For those that didn’t drink, and those that wanted more, it was very easy to trade a few cigarettes for another can.

During loading and unloading whilst anchored off Vung Tau, Sydney’s crew was prepared to counter any attacks launched from shore.  The ship’s divers carried out constant patrols, checking hulls and cables while armed sentries stood on deck with orders to fire on suspicious movements in the water.  As it turned out, neither Sydney nor her escorts were endangered in Vietnamese waters.  But she performed in her role very effectively, safely transporting thousands of troops to and from Vietnam along with thousands of tons of cargo and equipment.

HMAS Sydney arrived in Vung Tau on 3rd February, and departed the same day for home, arriving back in Sydney on 16th February.

We were all supposed to be taken off by chopper first thing in the morning of the 3rd, but because of the TET Offensive, which was in “full swing” at this time, only two Chinooks (US Army CH-47 Helicopter) turned up.  We were all lined up in groups (chalks).  I was fortunate enough to get on the first “chalk”. Others were taken off by landing craft later on in the day.  The services of a Skycrane (US Army Sikorsky CH-54 Helicopter) were used to transport vehicles from the ship to shore and also to return empty sea containers and unserviceable vehicles to the ship.

On completion of the task the “Skycrane” crew was claiming a world record for the tonnage lifted by one helicopter in one day.  (From “HMAS SYDNEY - Report of Proceedings – February 1968”)

We had no knowledge with regard to TET, with us being “isolated” during our voyage.  We were told that the VC were very active between Vung Tau and Nui Dat and that the road was cut in three places and that it would be very dangerous to take us up by road at the moment.  We spent several hours “cooling our heels” on the back beach in Vung Tau before being trucked up to Nui Dat.  Some of the troops did actually fly to Nui Dat but there was a shortage of flights due to the operations in progress.

Bridge between Vung Tau and Baria
Bridge between Vung Tau and Baria
on the way to Nui Dat (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

It was getting onto nightfall when we finally arrived at 104 Sig Sqn.  We were issued with a rifle and 60 rounds, shown to our tents and mortar pits. We were also given a brief assessment of what the overall picture was with regard to TET, current operations and VC activity.

I spent my first week in camp carrying out odd jobs and familiarizing myself with the surroundings and the equipment that we were to use. WO2 Ron Still, Squadron Sergeant Major (SSM) sent two of us off to Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Andersen on the 12th February.  Our task was to monitor the radio net and provide radio checks as required.

February 1968 (Operation Coburg)

The first deployment of the Task Force in 1968 was on Operation COBURG. The Task Force Headquarters (HQ) had been established at FSPB Andersen near a rubber plantation on Highway 1, astride a well-known enemy route and was easily observable by the Viet Cong by day.  Throughout the operation the usual Task Force communications nets were established including the Command VHF Net and various links to the Task Force base at Nui Dat and the higher operational command, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), II Field Force Vietnam (II FFV) at Long Binh plus other adjoining units.  

US Signals were to provide the Radio Relay (RR) links to Long Binh and Nui Dat but suffered from numerous equipment breakdowns and appear to only have inexperienced technicians and operators available.  After four days the Task Force Signals Officer, Major Norm Munro (OC, 104 Sig Sqn) recommended that an Australian RR (AN/MRC-69) be deployed.

The 110 Sig Sqn RR Shelter arrived under a US Chinook. The starting effect of the downdraft of the twin rotor helicopter as it deployed the shelter to a prepared scrape was a new lesson for all.  It demolished the signal centre (moved the SB-86 switchboard three feet and disconnected many lines, upturned a table and smashed a teletypewriter), blew the Task Force RAP tent 40 feet away and left the medical officer sitting bewildered in an open scrape amidst his smashed bottles, and wrecked the 104 Sig Sqn OC's tent. The Command Post (CP) remained intact only because every Soldier/Officer available held down the tent.  The scene afterwards resembled the aftermath of a Tornado and it became very important that the Australian RR provided the service that had been promised by Signals.   

Lesson 1:  Chinook deployments of communication equipments should occur before other facilities are setup.

Lesson 2:  Avoid using US Army Network for Australian internal communications to ensure control over the restoration priority.

FSPB Andersen was located at YT 208128, in War Zone D, 22 km due east of Bien Hoa, two km N of QL-1 (Highway 1) and seven km SE of FSPB Harrison. The FSPB was deliberately sited on a low bull-dozed hill astride a VC main avenue of communication. It was attacked three times during Tet 68 as a result. On 18th February, following 150-round mortar barrage, two waves of VC attacked the base, resulting in eight Australians KIA and 22 WIA. The base was also attacked on 20th and 28th February.

Enemy losses were: 167 KIA (Body Count), 7 KIA (Possible), 27 WIA, 5 POW. Material captured. 9 crew served weapons, 94 small arms, 10 RPG2 launchers, 3 RPG7 launchers, 5 transmitter/receiver radios, 2 compasses, 3500 lbs of rice destroyed. 49 RPG2 rockets, 8 HPG7 rockets, 9 RCL rounds, 13 claymore mines, 99 grenades were also found.

I was only at Andersen for a few hours and had just settled into the CP before being told to get a chopper to 199th Light Infantry Brigade at Long Binh where one Signalman was required.  I had no sooner arrived and been told what my job entailed when I had orders to move to Bien Hoa because the 199th no longer had troops in our area.  I was transferred to Bien Hoa by vehicle, where I met up with the Liaison Officer (LO).  There were three of us working shift, six hours on and 12 hours off.

We were using AN/PRC-25, VHF Radios and land line for communications.  We also had access to an American radio set (524) and an HF set using CW and voice for communications with Nui Dat and the FSPB. My role was to manage retrans messages, code and uncode grid references etc, between elements of the FSPB and Nui Dat.

Bien Hoa TOC
“Hurricane”, Tactical Operations Centre (TOC)
, Bien Hoa (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

At one stage in 1968 Bien Hoa was the busied airport in the world.  I worked in the “Hurricane”, Tactical Operations Centre (TOC).  Bien Hoa was the home of HQ II FFV, II Field Force's area of responsibility was III Corps Tactical Zone which included the 1st Australian Task Force (TF).

Main Aerial Mast at  Bien HoaThe TOC was covered by a wall of approximately 30 sandbags which equates to 30 feet or nine metres in height. I was stationed in the 101st Airborne lines.  

See photo right - The aerial main mast at Bien Hoa was large and packed!    (Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

The first night that I was there a major ammunition dump nearby was attacked. Incoming shells, etc went off all night, causing huge explosions which lit up the sky.  At the time I didn’t have a clue what was going on and as I didn’t belong to any particular unit, nobody told me (perhaps they didn’t know either).  We were never told if any VC came near our perimeter, but we stood to all night.  During Tet there was also NVA troops in the area.  Parts of Bien Hoa and Long Binh had been overrun by the VC/NVA at the beginning of the Tet Offensive.

8" Moblie Gun at Bien HoaI recall that on the second night that I was in Bien Hoa, not really knowing where I was and how secure we were, the Americans called an orange alert, which meant that they all retrieved their weapons from the armory in readiness for an attack.  They immediately started firing their rifles into the air.  There didn’t appear to be any discipline at all.  In reading some information about this night from searching the web there were thousands of US troops in the vicinity at this time.   When the 8" Mobile Guns (M110) fired a mission the ground  moved!

See photo right - M110 8" (203mm) Self Propelled Howitzer at Bien Hoa.  (Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

The Corporal I was working with, Bill Whitehead, told me that I would be promoted to Lance Corporal when I was sent back to Nui Dat, because he was actually assigned as a Royal Australia Corps of Signals (RASigs) member to 4th Field Regiment Artillery and as he was returning to Australia in a few days, I would automatically take over his role.  This promotion meant that I wouldn’t have to carry out piquet duty or work in the mess when back at 104 Sig Sqn.  I returned to Nui Dat on the 1st March and assigned to 4th Field Regiment on 4th March.

My promotion came through in early April and I received my Vietnam allowance ($1.55 per day).  This took my fortnightly earnings to $109.85.

March to July 1968 (Battle of Coral and Toan Thang II)

I was attached to HQ Company, 4th Field Regiment and worked in the Command Post (CP), manning the Enterprise SB-22 switchboard. Ebony was the switchboard address for the CP at Task Force HQ. Enterprise was the Artillery HQ CP address. Most of the traffic was between Ebony and Enterprise, but there were 19 Switchboard Designators in 1ATF which meant that during the day, traffic was very heavy.

 4 Fd Regt CP
Signal Centre Command Post, 4 Field Regt at Nui Dat (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

4th Field Regiment was replaced by 12th Field Regiment (12 Fd Regt) sometime in April and the regimentation took a turn for the worse.  Parades were held every day, even if you had been on night shift.  I guess that this happens with a new unit when it takes over and it tries to keep the same “order” as when back in Australia.

As most diggers in Nui Dat, we all spent some time filling and collecting sand bags from the Baria Sand pit.  The young Vietnam children would hang around looking for “handouts”.  I think that they also assisted in the filling of the bags, but not as fast or full as we did.

 Sand pit at Baria
Gordon Taylor with Vietnamese Kids, sand pit near Baria (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

By the beginning of May I felt that I wasn’t really doing what I was trained for. (The work was becoming very repetitive and I felt that my skills were not being used to their full potential.)

I was able to visit 104 Sig Sqn on several occasions and I kept hounding Staff Sergeant Max Hardy to get recalled back to the Squadron, but with no success.

There were also times when we were entertained by Australian singers at Luscombe Bowl.  These were always popular events and the whole area was crowded with diggers.  Plenty of wolf whistles were heard when the female singers “strutted their stuff”.

 Luscombe Bowl, Nui Dat
Luscombe Bowl, Nui Dat with a RAAF DHC-4 Caribou in the background (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Battle of Coral

On 12th May 1968 major elements of 1 ATF were airlifted into an area north of Saigon eventually to be known as FSPB Coral.  This was to intercept the movement of 7 NVA Division to Saigon and cut off its withdrawal.  The advance party of HQ 1 ATF included Major Norm Munro, OC 104 Sig Sqn and five other ranks from the Squadron.  This TF HQ advance party had to establish a task force headquarters area. 

The party was landed some 1500 metres from the proposed headquarters location and so the small signals element had to man-pack its equipment which was to operate initially as a substation on the task force command net.  This was no mean task as the equipment included an RT-524 radio (the receiver/transmitter of the vehicular borne AN/VRC-12 series VHF equipment), 150 amp hour batteries, 300 watt charger, RC-292 antenna, AN/GRA-39 remote control unit and an AN/PRC-25 radio.  It was an effort to prove well worthwhile. 

Early on the morning of 13th May 1968 the base came under attack from enemy mortar, rocket and small arms fire, causing signals casualties to men and equipment (including the RC-292 antenna).  Temporary repairs enabled the radio station to remain operational and it was the means by which Spooky (DC3 aircraft equipped with illumination and six miniguns) and helicopter gunships (Light Fire Teams) were called in to support the units under attack.  The FSPB Coral being partly over-run by the enemy during this action.  Signalman Rowan Gamble was WIA during the fighting. 

At 0240 hours on 16th May 1968 an NVA regimental attack was launched against FSPB Coral.  It started with 50 minutes of mortar and rocket barrage which included the signals area and was followed up by ground attacks, one enemy party coming within 50 metres of the signals perimeter which was directly protecting the task force command post.  The enemy finally broke contact at 0645 hours.  Signalman Alex Young was KIA during this action and two other Signalmen (John Koosache and Ian Crosthwaite) were WIA.   John came over to Vietnam on the Vung Ferry with me!

From Ken Cox’s letter home:

During the evening of the 28th I was told to go outside the CP and investigate the source of a light that could compromise our position. Colonel Donald Dunstan, the acting Task Force Commander put a paternalist hand on my shoulder and said, “Keep your head down son” as I exited the CP.

The Deputy Commander of 1 ATF at the time wrote later.

"For a period of approximately three weeks the task force was exposed to some of the heaviest fighting seen by Australians in Vietnam.  Throughout these engagements and a number of subsequent attacks by fire, the signals squadron not only held their ground but continued to maintain communications". 

During May several gunners from 12th Field Regt HQ Battery (Bty) were sent to FSPB Coral to assist with operations. Gunners Ian Scott and Christopher Sawtell were killed during their first night at the base (15th May).  They had only been in country for a few days, staying in the same tent as me in Nui Dat, and this was their first foray outside the base.  They were sent out to a forward point in the FSPB, which was overrun during the night resulting in their deaths.  I am very glad that I didn’t get sent out with them.

I was keen to get out to Coral but as I was a supernumerary (attached to 12th Fd Regt) they had no authority to send me out.

During my time with 12 Fd Regt I did manage to be involved with the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit (1ACAU) working as a radio operator out in the field.  They were very much involved in building accommodation and schools for the local population.  I also managed a couple of trips to Vung Tau, catching up with Sig Alex Shepherd (110 Sqn) on one trip.  He was part of our 15A OKR course in Balcombe.  On another of these trips I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time on the front beach water skiing.

I needed to get new frames for my glasses which meant a trip to Vung Tau.  It was supposed to be a one day trip, chopper there and back, but there was no room on any of the choppers coming back to Nui Dat that afternoon, so I had to stay overnight.  When I returned to the unit the following morning I was hauled in front of the HQ Bty RSM and read the riot act.  He thought that I had gone AWOL.  I guess I should have rung him.

During some of my spare time I managed to get up close and personal with A Bty 2nd/35th (US) Artillery which, along with 12 Fd Regt’s guns, carried out nightly Harassment and Interdiction (H&I) missions, which were supposed to keep the VC on their toes.  For the first few nights in Nui Dat I jumped every time one of these guns was fired, but it didn’t take long to totally ignore them.  The US battery was better known as “Husky Alpha”.  They had a “fleet” of track mounted 155mm guns.

 155 Gun   looking down the barrel of a 155 Gun
Left - Husky Alpha 2/35 US Arty track mounted 155mm Gun enroute at Nui Dat (1968)
Right - Looking down the barrel of a 155mm Gun (1968)
(Both photos supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Because we worked shifts I had quite a lot of spare time which I used either back at 104 Sig Sqn catching up with friends, or borrowing a jeep and driving up to “The Hill” to catch up with the people assigned there.  I do recall having many conversations with Sig Ken Cox about “the light at the end of the tunnel”.  I also spent a couple of weeks laying new phone lines, both underground and on telegraph poles from each of the gun batteries to the Enterprise switchboard and then onto Arty Tac.  (Arty Tac controlled the artillery fire from 1ATF base.)  I also worked in the HQ Coy canteen when I wasn’t on shift, just to keep myself busy.  I think that I also managed to get a few free drinks as well.

 104 Sig Sqn Radio Op on Nui Dat Hill
104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators on Nui Dat Hill at the front of the Radio Bunker  (1968)
L-R Gordon Taylor, Ken Cox, Richard Christiansen and Geoff Morgan

(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Long Binh

I left Nui Dat by road with 12 Fd Regt’s QM’s party on the 12th June as part of 1ATF 'TOAN THANG II’ (13 June-18 July 1968).

Deployment Details: A Sqn 3 Cav Regt. 3 Tp moved by road to FSPB KIAMA to support 1 RAR operations: Location: A Sqn (-) 1 ATF Base 3 Tp FSPB KIAMA YT0914.  102 Fd Bty deployed by air to FSPB KIAMA to support 1 RAR operations. Locations: 12 Fd Regt (-) and A Bty 2/35 Arty (US) 1 ATF Base; 102 Fd Bty FSPB KIAMA at YT0914.  1 RAR deployed by air to AO BIRDSVILLE (MODIFIED) Centre of mass YT1216, Assuming responsibility for that area from 1200H. Locations: Bn HQ and C Coy FSPB KIAMA YT094145, A Coy YT106184, B Coy YT138157, D Coy YT083140.

There was an operation being carried out about ten kilometres away from Long Binh (not very far from where I was sent when I first arrived in Vietnam).  My job with three others (not 104 Sig Sqn) was to man the radio communications for the Artillery net 24 hours per day.  We were also assigned to carry out food and equipment resupply for the 102 Field Battery at FSPB Kiama, supporting the operation in AO Birdsville.

Deployment Details: 3rd July, 1968 - 3 RAR relieve 1 RAR on OP "Toan Thang (Phase2)" in Area of Operations (AO) Birdsville.  FSPB Kiama - YT 09-14 10 km ENE of Bien Hoa, 5 km WNW of FSB Kerry, 2 km N of QL- 1. 161 Bty, RNZA (Hitching’s Bty 14Apr68-18Mar69) firebase set here 3rd-18th July. Bien Hoa Prov, III Corps.

We were stationed within the Long Binh complex adjacent to one of the main airstrips.  During the day there were at least twenty aircraft in the air at one time, from choppers to the latest jet bombers.  We were situated right alongside a chopper pad which created a huge amount of noise with choppers taking off and landing at all hours, which was most disconcerting when trying to send and receive messages.

After a week or so there we spent three days digging a mortar pit three feet deep and fifteen feet long to provide us with some protection.  We had started to line it with sandbags so that we could place an overhead cover over the pit.  The ground was so hard and the tools we had very inadequate.  We almost had it finished when we were told not to carry on as they were going to survey the area and level it off and put in proper drainage. The proposal was to make it like a semi-permanent camp so that at any time we had an operation in this area we would be able to set up our resupply easily.  What a waste of time and effort.  Typical Army!   We never did get our mortar pit.

On one of the resupply trips I was able to meet up with Sig Keith Oliver, who was stationed at FSPB Kiama (YT095145), about ten kilometres east south east of Long Binh. 102 Bty, 12 Fd Regt was based there.  During our time in Long Binh I made friends with several of the US troops and spent some of my spare time swimming in their pool and visiting their club.  So life was pretty civilized during our stay.  We also did a bit of trading of goods (raincoats, shorts, etc).  We liked their poncho liners and rucksacks and several of them were traded.

 Enroute to FSPB Kiama from Nui Dat   On route to FSPB Kiama
Both photos - Taken on route to FSPB Kiama (1968)
(Photos supplied by Gordon Taylor)

102 Fd Bty, 12 Fd Regt at FSPB Kiama
102 Fd Bty, 12 Fd Regt area at FSPB Kiama (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Even though I didn’t have a license, I carried out a lot of driving around the Long Binh camp. If there was a need for a job to be done and there was no driver available then I was quick to volunteer.  This allowed me to get to see a lot of the Long Binh complex.

At the beginning of July I also had the opportunity to take supplies out to FSPB Concord (YT034174). The FSPB was set up adjacent to the Dong Nai River, west north west of Bien Hoa. 104 Bty 12th Field Regt were based there with 4 RAR.

 FSPB Concord
FSPB Concord which was adjacent to the Dong Nai River, West North West of Bien Hoa (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Before the end of the month we had about two hundred Aussies at Long Binh.  Our camp was called 1ATF Forward – Long Binh.  The US camp Long Binh was 55 square miles in area. There is no need for radio transmissions from our particular area now that there are so many people here, so I am spending my time on resupplying the FSPB’s on a daily basis.  Of course more troops mean more discipline and we are having daily parades and rifle and tent inspections.  Life was easier back at “The Dat”.

At this stage of my tour of duty I was looking forward to rest and recuperation (R & R) leave and spending some time and money in Hong Kong.  Our options for R & R were Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok and Australia.  Hawaii was also on the list but I think that might have been only for US troops.

I flew back to Nui Dat in a Caribou (RAAF de Havilland Canada DHC-4) on the 12th July. I spent a few days with 12 Fd Regt before being re-attached to 104 Sig Sqn again.  My many discussions with Staff Sergeant Hardy must have finally paid off.  At this time my pay increased by $4 per fortnight.

In reading the Commander's Reports for 104 Sig Sqn there was always a shortage of Radio Troop personnel, so I guess that eventually they brought me back from 12 Fd Regt because Staff Sergeant Hardy realized that he could get me back in the Squadron rather than being assigned where I wasn’t really needed.  I don’t think that my position was replaced, at least not in the short term.

I went to Hong Kong on R&R on the 15th July.  I had tried to time my R & R with Geoff Morgan and Ken Cox, but this was not possible.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong we were all “booked in” to our various hotels.  As usual, officers first, who were given the best accommodation and the “baggy arses” got what was left over.  Nevertheless after living in the bush and tents for six months, anything with a roof, hot and cold running water was great.

I picked up a stomach bug whilst on R & R.  I must have been drinking too much local water and not enough beer, so I was put on light duties upon my return for a week whilst I recovered from whatever bug I had.

August 1968 (Operation Lyrebird)

On the 30th July I was detached to 17th Construction Squadron, along with Sig Marty Pandelus and Sig Gordon Sanderson, in preparation for Operation Lyrebird.

We were part of a Land Clearing program (Operation Lyrebird) in AO Warburton. The operation we were on is designed to hinder movement of the enemy without being seen.  It allowed us to move APCs, tanks, artillery and troops easily into the area.  The first phase of the operation is to blaze a trail 200 metres wide and 14,000 metres long along a valley in between the mountains about 17 kilometres west of Nui Dat.  The trail to be cleared was between the Nui Thai Vais and the Nui Dinhs in AO Warburton, clearing from Route 15 to the north. 

Our role was to manage communications between infantry units surrounding the FSPB as well as Artillery at Nui Dat, incoming chopper flights, such as resupply of food, water and fuel along with dustoffs and movement of troops.

 On the way to FSPB Hague
Moving to FSPB Hague with the D8 Dozers and other equipment (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

We left Nui Dat on the 1st August with seven D8 bulldozers on trucks.  We were escorted by a troop of APCs (A Troop, A Sqn, 3 Cav Regt).  We also had some air support given that we were travelling from Nui Dat to Baria and then along the main route (Q15) towards Phu My and Saigon for several clicks before turning right into the bush.  We had a company of infantry with us (Whisky Company, 4RAR/NZ).

The APCs and infantry moved out into the bush for about 4,000 metres and cleared the area before we moved in about three hours later.  During the setting up of the FSPB one of the dozers was hit by RPG rocket propelled grenade.  There was also quite a lot of semi-automatic fire coming into the FSPB. The bulldozer driver was wounded and evacuated.  The D8 was recovered and returned to Nui Dat.

The enemy reacted vigorously to this operation causing severe damage to two bulldozers by RPG fire and one APC by mines, and the land clearing teams were subjected to considerable harassment during the first few days, after which there was minor contact with the enemy.

  D8 Dozer on fire at FSPB Hague
D8 dozer on fire FSPB Hague
after being hit with a RPG Rocket Propelled Grenade (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

On the 4th August there was a contact on the perimeter of FSPB Hague about 50 metres from our position. Several VC had sneaked in close to the perimeter and fired automatic weapons and rockets at sentries on the perimeter and into the FSPB. Two bulldozers were badly damaged. One of the bulldozers was buried to extinguish the fire.

We all stood to (grab your rifle and head for your mortar pit) – in our case there was no mortar pit so we ran to the nearest berm, fully expecting to see some Viet Cong on the other side.  During this contact one of the infantrymen was wounded and medevac’d out. The Platoon Commander was also slightly wounded in the head. Another D8 was mined during the recovery operation of one of the rocketed D8s. Two dozer operators were wounded at this time and were evacuated.  They were both eventually casevaced to Australia.

On the 12th August a platoon on patrol made contact with five Viet Cong who quickly withdrew.  On the follow up an enemy camp was located which contained a large quantity of ammunition and supplies hidden deep in a tunnel system.  During the search of the camp two enemy walked in, one was killed and the other escaped. Although many signs of the enemy presence were picked up and trails followed, it was not until 29th August that an estimated ten enemy were sighted and engaged with artillery and mortar fire with unknown results.  Also on the 29th an enemy hutted camp of fourteen huts and cookhouse was located and destroyed.

There were several reports received from Intelligence to say that the local VC division (D445 Provincial Mobile Force Battalion) was likely to pass through our area during the time that we were there, so we were on high alert and for this reason we had another company (B Coy, 3RAR) sent out to protect us.

Our CP took some time to set up and establish all radio communications.  This was the beginning of the rainy season and everything was totally drenched, certainly the floor of the CP was flooded.  The three of us were working five-hour shifts with a two-hour shift at night, which seemed to be the best way to provide 24-hour coverage.

CP at FSPB Hague
CP at FSPB Hague
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

In the middle of our camp we had a cleared area where the dozers and APCs have to move through and park.  It didn’t take long with the churning up of the dirt to turn the whole area into a mud heap.  We had to cross through this quagmire every meal time and consequently end up with mud up to our knees. We were not able to send a convoy out from Nui Dat with water and clothing because it was deemed still to be too dangerous to send anything by road due to the recent attacks and general enemy activity in the area.

Gordon Sanderson at FSPB HagueThe CP became very hectic at times as we have seven radio networks in operation, as well as a switchboard which allowed us to communicate with the perimeter. 

See Photo Right - Gordon Sanderson, 104 Sig Sqn at FSPB Hague.    (Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Things seem to have settled down in camp into an orderly routine.  We have three patrols out at all times. They have come across a lot of VC and a lot of food and ammunition and documents, but they have only killed one VC so far.

The other night one of our patrols started shooting, only to find out that they were shooting one of their own fellows.  Nobody knows how this happened but apparently this fellow wandered away from his post and somebody opened up on him.  He was very lucky only getting shot in the leg.

A bore was sunk to provide additional water for showering, much to everyone’s relief, as we have not had any water or change of clothes flown in.  I received another rise in my pay and was now earning $113.96 per fortnight.

One day we were out on a jeep travelling along the cleared area, I have no recollection of why we were there or where we were going to or from.  We were about two kilometres from camp when our jeep became bogged in the ruts caused by the D8s.  A photo I have shows that my companions were Gordon Sanderson and Marty Pandelus. I can’t recall any other details except that we were very exposed if any enemy had been in the area at the time.  We radioed for assistance and thankfully managed to get “rescued” before nightfall.

 Bogged on the trail
Bogged 2km from FSPB Hague in VC country - Gordon Sanderson and Marty Pandelus in the Vehicle
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

We spent three weeks at FSPB Hague before moving to FSPB Hokanui as the dozers have to move too far from camp each day. Our move was carried out in typical Army style.  We had half packed up the day before to ensure a smooth start to the move early the next day.  We spent most of the morning waiting for trucks to arrive from Nui Dat.  When we finally got started it took five hours to move five kilometres.  We had been experiencing some torrential rain and all of our vehicles got bogged at some stage of the journey and had to be towed by the bulldozers or the APC’s.

 Moving from FSPB Hague to FSPB Hokanui
Moving from FSPB Hague to FSPB Hokanui (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

The CP was set up very quickly and we managed to hack out a place in the scrub to put up our tent.  We had so much rain that the CP became flooded and we ended up abandoning it about 8:30pm and set ourselves up in the makeshift kitchen.  The next morning the CP had five feet of water in it. We dug a new one the following day and then spent two days in trying to make it waterproof.

We are working in well with the Infantry as far as Signals work goes and we take it in turns to man all of the radios.  It is good experience for me because I hadn’t worked any really busy networks before, and with seven networks going at once and sometimes only one man to handle them, things get a bit hectic from time to time.

An additional Signalman was required to go out on a day patrol.  I volunteered to go out (don’t they tell you never to volunteer?)  The platoon already had an infantry sig attached but for some reason they wanted an additional radio op.  We came across a huge B52 bomb crater half full of water during our patrol.  Thankfully there were no incidents during the day.

I spent a couple of days working on the chopper pad, communicating with the pilots and guiding them in.  It was interesting carrying out the process of throwing smoke and calling them in.  Whisky Company (NZ) was extracted from the FSBP during that time. We have both Chinook and Iroquois helicopters landing here.  Actually the Chinooks only land if they are ferrying troops.  They are also delivering bladders of diesel fuel for the bulldozers and the Iroquois bring in food and other supplies.  On the radio network the Chinooks are called “Hillclimbers” and the Iroquois are called “Albatross”.

Whisky Company moving out of FSPB Hokanui
Whisky Company, 4RAR moving out of FSPB Hokanui by Chinook (1968)
Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Each bulldozer uses 10 gallons of diesel per working hour. Therefore we need around 1,000 gallons of fuel per day.  The diesel contained in 500 gallon bladders are flown in by Chinook with the bladders slung underneath.

I was choppered back to Nui Dat on the 8th September.  I believe that Gordon Sanderson and Marty Pandelus stayed on until the end of the operation.  I was back in camp after five weeks out in the bush.  I spent ten days at 104 Sig Sqn before being choppered out to Blackhorse on the 18th September at the start of another operation.

September 1968 (Operation Hawkesbury)

One day a group of us was supposed to be carrying out a protection party run down to Vung Tau and we were given copious instructions outlining what our tasks were.  In the middle of this all going on Geoff Morgan and I were told to report to the OC Radio Troop regarding an assignment ASAP.

We were told that we were going out on a liaison job with the Yanks.  Geoff was going to the Thai Regiment, Bearcat and I am going to the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment (11 ACR) at Blackhorse.  I was there from the 15th to the 24th September.

The operation was Hawkesbury and 4RAR/NZ carried out a reconnaissance in AO Tuggerah. The battalion moved into blocking positions east of Route 2 on the western edge of the enemy zone known as the Thua Tich. They also carried out operations in AO Canowindra.  Two fire support bases were used, FSPB Gabo and FSPB Wattle.  The first near Ap Ngai and the other on the Firestone Trail near the junction with the Blackstone Trail.  A Military Cross and a Distinguished Conduct Medal were awarded to two members of 7 Platoon, C Company as a result of their actions during the operation.

The 11 ACR is a lot different from the other American units I have been with.  They are a lot more “rough and ready”, but still nice guys.  The yanks that I was working with had not come across Australian soldiers in their unit before and we were treated as a bit of a novelty, being shouted free beers, etc.  Many of them had no idea where Australia was or that we had been deployed to SVN.  Their geographic knowledge of the world seemed to start in Los Angeles and end in New York.

Blackhorse was the base of the US Army 11 ACR.  Their motto 'Find the bastards - then pile on'.  During 1968 the 11 ACR was commanded by Brigadier General George S Patton Jnr., the son of old 'Blood and Guts' Patton from WW2. 

Quote from the History of 547 Sig Tp from 1968:  “George Patton Jnr arrived at the 547 Sig Tp Compound - Nui Dat (within the lines of 104 Sig Sqn) in full battle order - steel helmet, grenades strapped on this belt, an M16 in this hand, a low slung pistol on this right side and a mean looking Colt Cobra in a shoulder holster.  Squatting in front of the big wall map he chewed on an unlit cigar as he received the usual briefing from Steve Zagon (Capt).  On conclusion of the briefing he jumped up and slapping Steve squarely on the back barked in a heavy drawl "That's great stuff fella's!  Keep it up!  Remember, you find 'em and I'll kill 'em!"  With that he strode off, grenades and guns slapping against his sides, leaving the operations staff rolling with uncontrollable laughter.”

The yanks are all a bit trigger happy.  I was travelling somewhere in a jeep with them during my stay at Blackhorse when one of them asked if he could fire off a few rounds from my rifle as he hadn’t used a 7.62mm rifle before.  He fired several rounds into the bush and looked very happy with himself before handing it back to me.

Bearcat, where Geoff Morgan and Peter Menagh were based, about 20 kilometres from Blackhorse, seemed to be a bit of a hot spot.  They had been mortared a couple of times over the past few days.  Bearcat was the base for the Royal Thai Army Volunteer Forces.

I heard Geoff on the radio quite often as we were working the same channels.  I was listening to him one day, when I heard him say quite nonchalantly over the network “We have mortars landing just outside our perimeter.” He sounded so casual about the whole incident.  I returned to Nui Dat on the 25th September.

October 1968 (Operation Windsor)

I was only back in Nui Dat for a few days before being deployed on Operation Windsor to manage a re-trans station for the Artillery net.  Keith Oliver, Pete Menagh and I were sent over to the 161 Bty RZNA on the 1st October and we flew out in Chinooks the next day to FSPB Cedar.

 Keith Oliver, Marty Pandelus and Peter Menagh at 161 Fd Bty, Nui Dat
L-R Keith Oliver, Marty Pandelus and Peter Menagh at 161 Fd Bty in Nui Dat (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

FSPB Cedar: YS 29-89 25 km NW of Nui Dat, 3 km NE of FSB Digger’s Rest and 17 km W of the Courtenay Rubber Plantation. Described as a "Tight and dirty location where 161 was put back-to- back with an Australian Bty, separated by a fallen windrow of trees." 161 Bty, RNZA (Hitching’s Bty 14 Apr 68-18 Mar 69) firebase set here 28 Sep-12 Oct 68. Bien Hoa Prov, III Corps. We were supported by A Coy, 3 RAR.

We had to set up comms for two stations, both of whom were several thousand metres to our west and our role was to re-broadcast their transmissions back to Nui Dat.  The first tasks on our list were to pitch our own tent, set up our equipment and each dig our own pit.  We were plagued with trouble right from the start. Everywhere we put our gear down someone wanted to pitch a tent, or dig a hole or the guns wanted to fire in that direction.  It poured with rain all that afternoon and every time a Chinook came in with a load we had to hang onto our tent and gear to stop it from being blown away.

 Skycrane at FSPB Cedar
Skycrane at
FSPB Cedar – never set up camp under the flight path (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

A Chinook creates a wind comparable to a 90-mile an hour gale.  All our codes, signal instructions and secret papers were scattered over the place.

Chinook at FSPB Cedar
Chinook at FSPB Cedar
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Once we were set up we realized that we couldn’t get comms for some inexplicable reason, no matter how we tried.  We gave up for the night and first thing in the morning reviewed the situation by recharging our batteries and resiting our aerials. We had just finished this process when Major Munro (our OC) arrived to see what was going on.  In the end they decided that we were too far away from Nui Dat for the equipment that we had been supplied and we were airlifted back the next day.

L/Cpl Bob Parkyns, Sig Morgan and Sig Abraham were sent out to act as a retrans station during this operation.  They were stationed at Blackhorse, the same LO that I was on a few days earlier.  Abraham was able to get a ride in a chopper and while they were flying around carrying out some testing of equipment they were shot down by enemy ground fire.  Unfortunately there were no survivors.  I believe that Geoff was also offered a ride but he was rostered on duty, so had to decline.

29 September - From Geoff Morgan letters home:-

Denis "Abe" Abraham missing.

Abe and I met a helicopter crewman in the canteen last night. Abe took up the offer of a short flight this morning while they tested their guns and made a visual reconnaissance of a designated area. Shortly after taking off no more was heard of the chopper. Bob delayed informing Nui Dat until late this afternoon in the hope that he would turn up.

30 September - Wreckage of helicopter discovered.

Although a search was quickly started, it was not until today that the wreckage was discovered. Abe's fate is not yet known. Neither is it known whether the helicopter was shot down or crashed through mechanical failure. The last report I heard was that two bodies have been recovered, but as yet have not been identified.

 01 October - Abe's death confirmed.

Abe's body was brought in today and Bob had the unenviable job of identifying it.

Naturally this has hit us pretty hard as he was a good friend to all of us. It leaves me rather bewildered when I realised that I won't be able to enjoy the company again of a fellow who had the ability to get the most out of life. The irony of it is that every person who comes to Vietnam aims to have as many helicopter rides as possible and therefore takes every opportunity to get up in one. Then something like this happens!

It's been ascertained that as the chopper was flying low on its visual reconnaissance an unknown number of VC took shots at it with their rifles. The pilot was shot in the head and being so low the co-pilot didn't have time to take over the controls. It ploughed into a creek bank at well over a hundred miles per hour. I suppose, in one way, one can be thankful that they were all killed instantly as I dare say the VC went in to inspect their work and any injured would have been in for an unpleasant time, to say the least.

Initially I was going to go on the flight but swapped with Abe when we realised that it was me who was on duty the next morning.

PHU MY (Operation Harvest)

Deployment Details: 25 Oct 68- 2 Nov 68.  Allied Units Involved: C Coy, 3RAR

Objective of Operation: reconnaissance in force and interdiction operation

FSB Nelson - YS 21-81 On QL-15, 18 km WNW of NUI DAT, 10 km SE of FSB Archer, 38 km NNW of Vung Tau. 161 Bty RNZA (Hitching’s Bty 14Apr68- 18Mar69) firebase set here 27Oct-2Nov68 (right section). Phuoc Tuy Prov, III Corps.

After a respite of a couple of weeks back at the squadron and being completely bored cutting grass, filling sandbags, etc; Keith Oliver and I were informed late in the afternoon that we were going out with C Coy 3RAR the next day, 25th October, on Operation Harvest.  We spent the rest of the day putting all of our equipment together for the operation.  We were to be stationed at Phu My, several clicks north west of Baria on Route 15. Our role was to liaise with the ARVN, Thai’s, Yanks, along with elements of 3RAR during the operation.

Ken Cox was sent to Xa Bang, an ARVN outpost, as part of this operation.

We had to be ready at 0700 hours on the 27th October to move out with C Coy, 3RAR and A Sqn, 3 Cav Regt.  This was my first ride in an APC.  We had it to ourselves given that we had about 1000lbs of gear to carry, (Wet cell batteries, generator, fuel, aerials, radios, and all the usual paraphernalia.)

The APCs dropped us off at Phu My and then continued north up the road to AO Everglade to set up HQ at FSPB Nelson.

We were stationed with the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam  (ARVN) 655 Regional Forces Company at YS 237772.  Their main, and only, armaments were 2 x 105mm field guns (which I never saw).

We had no sooner set up our communications channels when some Yanks came into the compound to ask for help.  There had been a smash not far up the road. When they tried to go back to their base for help they had their way blocked by a contact on the road. We spent quite a bit of time trying to communicate with our contacts in Vung Tau to ask for assistance (by land line) with their unit.  They ended up staying with us overnight until some tow trucks were sent up from Vung Tau late the next day to take them away.

Phu My is also the area HQ for smaller outposts nearby.  From here, patrols go out every night to an ambush position, but I have my doubts as to whether they do much good or not. The soldiers live here with their families in nothing more than hovels which are dug out of the mound of earth which surrounds the camp. There are several tin buildings inside the camp and it is inside one of these that we are operating from.

Keith and I are working long hours with the radios. We are each working eight hour shifts. I am glad I am out on this job for a couple of reasons. This is one of the few assignments I have been on where I have felt a sense of achievement. It is also the first time that I have worked with the Vietnamese. Their life is so much different to ours in many ways, and while we are stationed here, we have to live more or less the way that they do. The children are generally very well behaved and we get on very well with then, and the adults, even though neither of us can understand what the other is saying.

On one occasion the LO from 3RAR, who was working with us, and I went over to the Vietnamese quarters for a few drinks with the CO and some of his fellow officers. We had to take off our boots and socks before we entered the building.  We were seated on the floor with our legs crossed and a bowl of rice and a few bowls of meat and sauces placed in the middle of the circle.  Chopsticks were the order of the day and I had a hell of a job trying to eat with them.  We did talk about the different sorts of cuisines that we ate.  I don’t know if they were having us on or not but a cooked cockroach turned up on one of the plates.  I had finished eating by that time, thank goodness.  The Vietnamese had a great laugh when we refused the offer to eat the cockroach.

I suspect that they had carried this out in jest as we had been talking earlier about eating rats, mice, cockroaches, etc.

 Phu My    Phu My
Both photos - ARVN Post at Phu My (1968)
(Photos supplied by Gordon Taylor)

The LO is driving us round the bend.  He is a young 2nd Lieutenant from the infantry we are working with, and in my opinion is very immature.  He just makes a fool of himself all the time, trying to impress everyone and impressing no-one. He was actually two years younger than me.

He got dragged over the coals by his CO the other night after ordering me to call up 3RAR  Company HQ and advising them “contact, wait, out” when we thought that the compound had been hit by a rocket, when in actual fact it was actually a rocket that was attached to the perimeter facing outwards that had been fired.  No-one knows why it went off.  He got a bollocking because he hadn’t gotten the facts straight before making a call and giving the whole Company, which was stationed in the bush, a scare.

We returned from Phu My on the 4th November. It was a great experience working with the Vietnamese.  Keith and I felt that the 2nd Lieutenant was a complete idiot and we were left to do all the work and we made most of the decisions.

One of the most played songs on American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) radio station at this time was Jennie C Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”.  I can remember thinking that it was absolutely fantastic.  AFVN also played “Chickenman” every morning. It was a fairly stupid take off of a superhero.

One morning someone in the Sig Centre played an episode straight off the radio and broadcast it over the taskforce network.  I don’t believe that anyone was charged with this, but it certainly caused a ruckus at HQ.

AFVN Radio was run by the American Military – you may remember the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” – They played fairly tame music but from time to time they would play the top hit parade songs. Their ads were really targeted at the lower level, less educated troops with simple ads about keeping your mosquito repellent on, or how to purchase government bonds, or pushing the re-enlistment barrow which was incentivised towards having troops re-enlist or extend their tour of duty.

November 1968 (Operation Capital II)

The day after we returned to Nui Dat there was another operation starting up but I was too late to get a job on it, so I just hung round the 104 Sig Sqn lines trying to keep out of everyone’s way.

For the two weeks I was in camp I learned to make myself seem to be invisible during the day.  I had my bed in the same tent as Cpl Richard Christiansen, Sig Tom Richardson and one other.  I don’t have any sheets, pillow, etc. I just have a poncho that I use as a sheet/blanket.  Each morning I would fold up the poncho and hide it in my trunk under the bed.  This meant that I didn’t have to have any tent inspections as there is no evidence of anyone sleeping there. There were no roll calls and because people were moving in and out all of the time there was no double checking of numbers.  I am sure that Cpl Alan Lohrisch and a few others knew that I was in camp, but didn’t really know how to find me, so I could sort of please myself so to how I spent my day. When I had the opportunity I volunteered to drive whomever, usually officers around the base, managing to take a few photos of interesting things.

We are now in the middle of November and there is still no definite word on when we will be going home.  It could be a week before Christmas or two weeks after.  Life has been quite dull the past few days, although I have spent a few hours driving around the place delivering mail, equipment and officers who want to move around the camp, still with no licence, and with over half of our unit out on operations the place is very quiet.

 Dave Ellis, Digger Downs and Keith Oliver at Nui Dat
L-R Dave Ellis, Digger Downs, Keith Oliver at Nui Dat (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

Our beer ration was lifted last week, most units have unlimited supplies but we are now on four cans a day, instead of two as it was before.  Shirts are still on and we won’t be back into shorts for a while yet.

Somewhere around this time I was involved in a “mission” to go to a Vietnamese village and “arrest” a VC suspect.  As best as I can recall I was the radio operator for the group.  Travelling in two land rovers we arrived in the village just on dusk (I guess when most of the villagers would be cooking their evening meal) and pushed our way into one of the houses to arrest a person who was suspected of being a VC sympathiser.  As we were taking him away the wife and children were screaming at us (along with some neighbours).  The woman was so distraught that she would not let go of her husband and in the end we took her with us back to Nui Dat and delivered them to the “gaol.”

This was the first time that I had been “up close and personal” in a confrontation where we were dealing with the grass roots villagers and I must confess that I found it most disconcerting.  I never did find out whether he was involved with the VC.

Operation Capital II

On the 11 November, Keith Oliver and I were choppered out to Suoi Cat, via FSPB Lion, several kilometres east of Xuan Loc.  We were working with the 43rd Regt, 18th ARVN Division at FSPB Penny.  Our callsign on the network was “Bridle Shaker”.  There were quite a few Americans in the FSPB who obviously are “running the show”. There was a Task Force operation on, called Operation Capital II and it involved the ARVN, American and Australians all working in conjunction with each other in more or less the same area trying to find and destroy a suspected VC Battalion.

The first deployment of the HQ 1 ATF Main using Armoured Command Vehicles (ACV) for Operation and Signal CP’s, was on Op Capitol at FSPB Lion in early November 1968. This allowed communications and other functions to be set up immediately instead of building a bunker

Comment:  At Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Coral in May 1968, the deployed Australians along with its Task Force HQ and supporting Signals came within an ace of being wiped out by the North Vietnamese Army. The HQ was most vulnerable and the complete command, control and communications had to be dug underground in bunkers. This took a number of days which was handicapped by enemy action, limited defence stores and poor weather.

The ACV callsigns and functions were as follows:

  • Callsign 85 (ARN 134469) – Operations Command Post

  • Callsign 85A (ARN 134470) – Air Support Command Post

  • Callsign 85B (ARN 134465) – Artillery Fire Support Coordination Centre

  • Callsign 85C (ARN 134457) – Signal Centre (104 Sig Sqn)

Our job was to liaise between 18th ARVN, FSPB Lion and other troops in adjacent AO’s to ensure that there were no friendly troops in any areas that were likely to be attacked by artillery fire or air strikes. 

During our second day there we had an incoming artillery shell fired, presumably from a nearby ARVN FSPB, into the middle of our FSPB. I was on duty in the CP which at this stage was a tent in the middle of the compound which was sandbagged up to around five feet, so that I was shielded from the explosion.  I am glad that I was sitting down at this time otherwise I would have certainly been wounded.  There were several ARVN soldiers killed and wounded and dustoffs were called in to take them to hospitals.  We never did find out who or what caused this to happen.

A couple of days later a couple of Aussies turned up out of “nowhere”.  They had been out with the ARVN Artillery for several days and one of them was from our unit (Cpl Phil Denton).  So now we are working two nets, carrying out liaison for Artillery and ground troops in the surrounding areas.

I had my camera stolen while on duty.  I am not too worried about the camera. It is the photos that were in the camera – shots of Phu My and here. (With no photos to remind me of people, places, etc it makes it more difficult to recall what happened during this period.)

An email from Keith Oliver – 6th Sept 2007

“I will check out my slides to see if there are any from our time at Phu My and at that FSPB with the "Mighty Anvil".  I can still remember those “delta fox-trots” dropping around the perimeter followed by an enormous bang when the drop-short hit us very close by.”

Before this event we had been sleeping in tents with the ARVN soldiers.  In no time flat the Yanks had commandeered a bob-cat and created a huge scrape in the ground.  It was least three metres deep and was soon ready for us to move into.  We were able to walk down the gradient until it flattened out where we laid out our bedding and gear. We slept a little more soundly after this although we had no roof.

We were working in with the American advisors and we also have an American Artillery battery at the FSPB.  We got fresh rations and the food was better than we got back at Nui Dat. Washing was the problem.  We had to go down to a muddy stream and paddle around in there and do our washing as well.

In typical American fashion the food at the FSPB was top notch.  Here we were, out in the bush and we could order our eggs in a number of ways, scrambled, over easy, fried; ice cream was available for lunch and dinner, a far cry from the C-rations which was normally what we would have when out in the bush with our own troops.  On some occasions we would have had, from time to time, hotboxes delivered in the FSPB when with our own troops; otherwise it was C-rations.  There was always a bartering process that went on with C-rations; lima beans were the least liked and were very hard to trade.

There was a river close by and it provided us with the opportunity to bathe and carry out our laundry.  There were four of us in the stream one day when all of a sudden a snake about four feet long, came swimming down towards us.  I don’t know if it was venomous or not but it took us about two seconds to get out of the water.  These are the hazards of washing in a Vietnamese stream.

Stand to at dusk was an interesting experience with the Americans. Instead of sending out patrols from the FSPB at dusk, they all congregated along the perimeter and fired their weapons into the bush.  This was called the “Mad Minute”.  Not sure what this achieved, other than to tell the enemy exactly where we were.  No doubt they already knew this anyway.  One of the Americans was very keen to fire a few rounds with my rifle at one of these “events”.

The 18th ARVN Div HQ came in out of the bush after ten days and now we were attached to the US Army LO team from MACV HQ.  We lived in one compound and worked in another (about two clicks apart). The shifts were, morning (one Sig) – afternoon (one Sig) – evening/night 1730 until 0730 hours (two Sigs).  Movement was restricted after 1800 hours hence the need to have two on during this time. Keith Oliver was sent back to Nui Dat and Ken Cox and Marty Pandelus were sent up from Nui Dat to work with me with the LO team from MACV HQ.

 Marty Pandelus and Ken Cox at Xuan Loc
L-R Marty Pandelus, Ken Cox and Unknown in Xuan Loc Village (1968)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

We returned to Nui Dat on the 30th November after spending five days in Xuan Loc.  I was fairly confident that this would be my last job with only a short time left to go.  Ken Cox and Geoff Morgan were going home on the 10th December and there are more flights on the 17th and 23rd.  There was a mortar attack one night somewhere between our two compounds.  I didn’t hear it, I can be a deep sleeper, and was only informed when I came on duty in the morning. (Ken Cox’s notes say that there were five mortars fired into an ARVN base not far from our compound.)

December 1968 (Xuan Loc , Return to Austraila)

I was back in Nui Dat for three days before being sent back up to Xuan Loc with Keith Oliver because another operation was about to start in the same area (FSPB Julia).  Sig Jeff Fewson, from Balcombe days, came up to Xuan Loc a few days after us. Jeff arrived in Vietnam on the 3rd December.  He managed to get hold of a revolver from somewhere in Xuan Loc and fired a round from it.  Upon my return to 104 Sig Sqn, I was paraded in front of Captain Arnold, 2IC, 104 Sig Sqn to explain what had happened.  I only knew that the incident had occurred but had no knowledge of the exact details.  He will be reprimanded when he returns to Nui Dat.

Hurray!  I have heard through the grapevine that I will be Returning to Australia (RTA) on the 7th January.

104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators having a drink at FSPB Julia, 25 Dec 1968
104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators having a drink on Christmas Day at FSPB Julia (1968)
L-R Jeff Fewson, Bruce O'Brien, Keith Oliver, Bob Vallance, Unknown and Peter Quinlan
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

On Christmas Day the Sigs that were out on LOs in our area were flown into FSPB Julia, where Task Force HQ Forward was based and provided with a Christmas lunch, served by the senior NCOs and officers.  We were also given a few small Christmas presents.  I flew back to Nui Dat from Xuan Loc on New Year’s Day.

I spent the last week in camp getting prepared to depart, handing in rifles and other bits and pieces and making sure that our dress uniforms were neat and clean.  We spent a couple of days driving around Nui Dat having a last look around.

 104 Radio Operators at Nui Dat - There tour almost completed!
Group of 104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators at the Nui Dat prior to RTA
L-R Dave Ellis, Gordon Taylor, Glen Sweet, Keith Oliver, Tab Hunter and Richard Christiansen
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

January 1969 (Return to Australia)

We had a big farewell party on the evening of the 6th as there where quite a few of us going home.  I think that we all ended up with sore heads the next morning.

I spent almost six months out of Nui Dat on operations and only two months in camp with 104 Sig Sqn. The rest of my time was spent with 4th Field and 12th Field Regiments.

 Returing to Australia
Last look at Nui Dat before returning to Australia
L-R Richard Christiansen, Robert Lyons (110 Sig Sqn), Keith Oliver,
David Tiernan and Unknown
(Jan 1969)
(Photo supplied by Gordon Taylor)

A whole group of us flew by Hercules to Ton Son Nhut at about 0730 hours on the 7th January, 1969 and boarded a Qantas 707 around midday, arriving at Mascot around 2230 hours (in the dead of night when the airport was closed).  There was no official ceremony upon arrival, certainly no “welcome home” parade.  Only parents and friends of those coming home were at the airport to welcome us.  There was no one there to welcome us home and or to say thanks for your efforts.

As an aside, of the nineteen 104 Sig Sqn who sailed to Vietnam on the HMAS Sydney, Terry (Tab) Hunter, Keith Oliver and I were the only three who flew home on the 7th January. The others had already completed their “tour of duty”. The other three Sigs who came home with us were Richard Christiansen, Glenn Sweet and Dave Tiernan.


The first week back was very strange.  Coming straight from a war zone to civilian life took some adjusting.  Even walking down the street and looking out for traffic as you crossed the road was difficult.  Any strange noises certainly had you on your toes.

I wore my uniform a couple of times and on one occasion was spat on and called a child killer.  Not a very nice welcome home message.

I went to South Head military barracks a couple of times to fill out paperwork and have a medical prior to discharge before being officially discharged on the 31st January 1969.

I travelled to Melbourne to meet with Gordon Sanderson, Keith Oliver and Ken Cox, Geoff Morgan and some others who we knew from Balcombe or Nui Dat in mid February.  Ken was getting married, Gordon and I were arranging a trip overseas in October (and I wanted to catch up with Keith as I had spent a great deal of time with him in various operations).

Gordon Sanderson and I sailed to the UK on the SS Iberia and spent 12 months together working in London and travelling all over Europe.

In gathering information for this story I found that the detail recorded in the 104 Sig Sqn operational documents from AWM War Diaries quite sparse. It is a pity that documents outlining the various operations and LO’s along with the names of those who were sent out were not recorded.  A lot of information relating to operations during 1968 can be gleaned from Infantry and Artillery War Diaries on the AWM website.

My wife and I took a three-week trip to Vietnam in 1999, during the “Asian Meltdown”.  At that time there had been very little western money spent redeveloping the country, so we saw it in a somewhat similar way as it was in 1968.  I did not travel to Vung Tau or Nui Dat, but did see many places in both the old north and South Vietnam and talked to many men who had served in the ARVN during the war who had since spent years in re-education camps.  I have to say that I found the Vietnamese to be a very gentle and friendly race.

Gordon  Taylor

Click Overview of Gordon's Army Service and Detachments in South Vietnam

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