Patrolling As A Reaction to Incoming Fire
Milton C. W. Pearson, CSM, 106 Field Workshop, 1968-1969
It was the 13th Jun 1969. Just.
Sometime between 1 and 2am I awoke to the sound of the motor of an incoming rocket. I was just pulling on my boots when the Task Force siren sounded. Two NVA rounds, a 122mm rocket and a 107mm shell, hit just off the western end of "Luscombe" landing strip.
The Task Force Headquarters reacted immediately.
I was ordered to the main briefing room (the room where the daily sitreps were given to the Units by the SO2 Int on TF HQ). An operation was to be mounted to find possible fire bases that "Charlie" had used to attack Nui Dat that night. 106 was tasked to patrol an area from north of Nui Dat 2 and east towards Xuyan Moc.
Having warned John Clarke, nominated as patrol 2ic, and told off the patrol members, I drafted a task request on 161 Recce Squadron, Australian Army Aviation Corps. I needed to reconnoitre for Landing Zones suitable for two Iroquois (Huey) choppers to insert and, later, extract my patrol.
A prompt reply from 161 had me up in a Sioux (Sue) helicopter just after first light and briefing the pilot. I found and plotted suitable LZs.
This machine was also tasked to carry out a recce from Binh Ba towards the Fire Stone Trail well to the north. A second Sue joined us as a spotter aircraft. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was, that while we were operating at tree top level, the spotter plane would observe from 1500ft and call down protective and supporting fire, either ground or air, if we were fired on.
Whilst we were at 15 to 20ft, a big black boar broke cover. On the intercomm the pilot called on me to have a shot. He heeled the chopper over and gave chase while the wild pig kept disappearing and re-appearing. Suddenly, with a large tree dead ahead, we had to abort and climb hurriedly while the pig disappeared. Great sport! Big game hunters pay thousands for such a privilege!
By early morning, fed and kitted, with weapons at the ready and ammunition issued, we loaded into two Hueys at Paratus Pad with the rubber trees and Nui Dat hill in the background.
As we approached the LZ, I was in the lead chopper and hit the ground running. The M60 machine gunner was with me and quickly placed into position to counter any ground assault while we were vulnerable, as you always are during the insertion phase. The second Huey landed. We went into an all round defense until both aircraft were clear of the ground and out of small arms fire range, a matter of moments.
I immediately pushed the patrol East at best speed, faster than normal patrol pace. My aim was to clear the LZ as quickly as possible so that, if we were hit in this phase, the Hueys could provide supporting fire and call down artillery and other air-to-ground fire support while I was getting organised.
Having waved off the Hueys, we went into a preplanned defensive perimeter. I removed my large back pack and ran a re-section. Having established my bearings, I gave the forward scout, Vern Cowan, the direction of advance and other instructions about the line to take, and prepared the patrol to advance.
Just as Vern started off, I realised I no longer had my pistol, a 9mm Browning, with me. This I carried in addition to my main weapon, an M79.
When we went into night harbour, my practise was to set out and arm the Claymore Mines after dark. I did this to reduce the risk of being observed and having the Claymores turned against us by the enemy, especially before an assault. Carrying this equipment, I needed the pistol for personal protection. Besides, we were operating out of range for support of the Artillery guns at Nui Dat and I was not taking any chances.
Mind racing, I grabbed Vern and then conferred with the 2ic, John Clarke. The patrol was put back into a defensive perimeter and I retraced my steps back to the LZ looking for the 9mm.
A quick search of the LZ revealed nothing; no friendlies, or otherwise, were following us. I reasoned that the pistol must have dislodged whilst I was sitting on the floor of the Huey; it had either been left aboard or had fallen when I first made the leap for terra firma.
However, the aim of my Mission did not involve searching for my lost weapon. Although pistols were the prime weapon used by terrorists for executions in the villages, I was bound to maintain that aim. I certainly made a vain attempt to find the weapon, and would have searched more fully but I could not delay further and compromise my Mission or the patrol.
Rejoining the patrol, I reshot the bearings and we pushed off.
We were patrolling along the western side of a north-south running creek. I knew we would have to cross the creek eventually and filed away in my memory a couple of likely crossing points. We actually carried out quite an extensive search pattern parallel to the creek. One of the obstacles to going was the need to penetrate through a type of bamboo that has thorns and was latching onto webbing
Later, having crossed the creek under cover of the M60 we started to move into an area that was a bit suspect. So I thought I would pull an American trick and do some reconnaissance by fire; besides, calling in some Artillery would also be useful for confirming our position by re-section and giving the members of the patrol experience of supporting gun fire. An important point was to make contact with the gun Battery located on the Horseshoe, given we were outside range of the M105 howitzers at Nui Dat
I adjusted the gun fire prior to calling for rounds on the target area close to our location. I was happy with the angle of shot, relative to the patrol and the trajectory of the rounds to impact on the bush ahead. Once I called for fire for effect, the Battery opened up with three rounds each gun thus putting 18 rounds into the target area.
During the noise and explosions that followed, I looked around to see how the men were handling the pounding, especially with live shrapnel whistling through the tree canopy and showering us with leaves. A sight I would never forget was that of our Medic, Cpl Arthur "Rainbow" Aplin. Arthur had pestered me to go out on patrol and here he was, burying himself in the leaves
When we pushed into the area that had been shelled, I saw my first in country gum tree. A round had hit the tree fairly high up resulting in a large branch being blasted from the trunk.
On the second day we came across some sort of bunker system. It seemed vacant, but I reasoned that, even if it was vacant now, they might use the complex for laying over at night. We attacked it by covering it with fire and sending quite a few M26 grenades through what appeared to be an air shaft (It was too narrow for any of the patrol members to go down). In spite of the blasting, nobody was flushed out.
We spent some days patrolling but to no avail. Still morale was pretty high on our return to 106. The TF HQ was pleased with the patrol report and the LZ I had selected was recorded as suitable for a larger force insertion should the need arise
Nui Dat was not bombarded again in my time at the Dat
And that pistol?
It didn't have much rifling left given that it gone out on every patrol and was used for familiarisation firing by a lot of soldiers during weapon training. From then on, after each daily briefing at Task Force, I scanned the list of weapons captured from the enemy, especially the serial number of the pistols. Thankfully mine was never among them. Although the OC, Claude Palmer, was sympathetic to my position and willingly signed the L&D for one pistol, other members of the Unit saw it as a way to stir the CSM at every turn. Even to this day, they stir. However, I have it on good authority, and nobody is going to persuade me otherwise, that mounted above the fireplace in the home of one of the erstwhile members of that patrol is that pistol
Dennis [Rats] Ratcliff
Having a little read about the missing pistol and remembering back to a "who has the biggest gun" discussion with Mr Pearson.
His little 9mm was no challenge to the Recovery Section 45 pistol with its painted black grips (so that it looked like a 9mm).
On a range shoot, our erstwhile CSM and I challenged each other to dislodge each others bush hat from sticks on the range. His ended up with 45cal holes in it and mine, well it spun around and fell on the ground but lasted my tour without a hole!, so whoever found the 9mm didnt find much of a pistol!