Operation Tong: 7-8 June 1969

Robert HallArticles, ARVN, Australian Army, Uncategorised, Vietnam War1 Comment

By Claude Ducker[1]

The men of C Company 5 RAR may not have been aware of it at the time, but President Nixon was meeting with the South Vietnamese President Thieu on Midway Island on 7/8th June 1969.  The main purpose of this meeting was to make the South Vietnamese take greater responsibility for the war; and Richard Nixon announced the unilateral withdrawal of 25,000 US troops as the beginning of a much larger staged US withdrawal.  In view of this the enemy planned a wide-spread demonstration of force including in Phuoc Tuy Province.  In Hoa Long the enemy announced the formation of a Provisional Government in areas of South Vietnam held by the Liberation Army.

Already on the 6th June 1969 the 1ATF Ready Reaction Force was committed to what became a highly successful action at the hamlet of Binh Ba, which had been occupied by a battalion of 33 PAVN Regiment.  Initially this action mainly involved D Company 5 RAR with a troop of APCs and a troop of Centurion tanks.  This major engagement soon required the involvement of B Company 5 RAR, helicopter gunships of 9 Squadron RAAF and Regional Force/Popular Force troops from Ngai Giao, about four kilometres north of Binh Ba.  The re-capture of Binh Ba was a brilliant combined infantry/armoured/RAAF gunship operation.

6 RAR and 9 RAR at the time were fully committed to operations well away from the Nui Dat base, and A Company of 5 RAR had proceeded to Vung Tau for their 36-hour break.  The only remaining infantry force available at the base for ready reaction duties was C Company 5 RAR which had just returned from their break at Vung Tau.

Late on the morning of 7th June 1969 I was called to HQ 1 ATF.  In the absence of Brigadier “Sandy” Pearson, who was following the main battle near Binh Ba, the GSO 2, Major David Chinn, briefed me on the difficult situation the Task Force was facing.  There were a number of different threats in the Task Force area of operations, including a report of 200 enemy having occupied the Ap Bac (north west) sector of Hoa Long village, about 1.5 kilometres from the 1ATF southern perimeter.   The enemy had resisted several attacks from three South Vietnamese Regional Force companies, and from artillery fire.

There had been a number of other incidents in the Task Force’s area of operations including enemy road blocks on Route 15 and the heavy mortaring of the 9 RAR Fire Support Base south-east of Dat Do, and some sporadic rocket fire on the Nui Dat base.

1ATF was reluctant to immediately commit us as we were “the last shot in the locker”.  Nevertheless, I did send a message back to C Company to be on a reduced stand-by time.  My “After Action Report” shows that I left 1ATF at 1320 hours. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Gration, who commanded the Civil Affairs Unit in Vietnam, was waiting outside my office on my return.[2] He told me about the large-scale damage inflicted on Binh Ba the previous day, requiring a massive restoration programme from his unit.  There had also been a large number of civilian casualties.  Lieutenant Colonel Gration seemed to be imploring me to ensure minimal damage to Hoa Long during the coming action to deal with the enemy in that area.  I told him that I had to get on with that task and that there was no time for delay.   Nevertheless, Gration’s intervention had an inevitable influence on the execution of my task.

Allied Troops Taking Part:

    • C Company 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) (Major C.H. Ducker – Force Commander)
    • Composite Troop, B Squadron, 1 Armoured Regiment (2 Lieutenant David Ritchie)
    • 3 Troop, B Squadron, 3 Cavalry Regiment (Captain Ray De Vere)
    • One Combat Engineer Team, 1 Field Squadron
  • In Direct Support:
    • 105 Field Battery, 1 Field Regiment (Captain Phillip Ratcliff, Airborne Fire Support Observer)
    • One Mortar Section, 5RAR
    • Two helicopters, 161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight
    • One RAAF Light Fire Team
  • Attached liaison:
    • S3 from Hoa Long Sub-Sector
    • 236, 577, and 578 Regional Force (RF) companies and a platoon from 609 RF Company were all used to cordon Ap Bac Village.

I gave some preliminary orders to facilitate our deployment.  There was also the dilemma that the CSM and most of our NCOs were involved with either instructing or as students on promotion courses at Nui Dat.  I decided not to interfere with this important opportunity for these men and did not ask for their release.  As with D Company at Binh Ba, it turned out to be that our senior privates rose to the occasion to ably command their sections.

At 1420 hours our reconnaissance group and 7 Platoon (commanded by 2 Lieutenant David Mead) arrived at Hoa Long Sub-sector HQ. There I had a further briefing from Colonel Ken McKenzie, our likeable Deputy Task Force Commander.  He had just arrived from hospital and said he was only armed with a tooth brush.  At this stage I was able to obtain a Sioux helicopter for a close reconnaissance of the enemy locations.  As we flew near the main enemy position two RPG rockets were fired at us.  When one of these came very close to us the pilot, Lieutenant Alan Jellie, indicated that we should withdraw (this intrepid pilot was shot down and killed on the 3 December 1969).

A major decision I had to make was whether to advance into Ap Bac, the enemy held north-west part of Hoa Long, on foot or be carried by Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC).  Hoa Long had much more vegetation around the houses than at Binh Ba.  Furthermore, in the limited time available no attempt had been made by the District Chief to clear the civilians, who in Hoa Long were particularly hostile towards the security forces ever since their forced removal from Long Tan.

The tank and APC commanders seemed pleased that I had decided to move in a dismounted extended formation in our initial sweep through the enemy-held area, bearing in mind the damage inflicted on the armoured vehicles and their crews in Binh Ba during the previous day. The disadvantage of advancing in this slower dismounted formation was the limited daylight that remained that day, after a considerable delay when two out of the three tanks broke down on their way to Hoa Long, requiring their replacement. I decided the tank support was too valuable to go without.   In the event their support did prove invaluable as they assisted the leading platoons to advance by demolishing several enemy-positioned claymore mines and several enemy occupied dwellings and bunkers.

The APCs also proved invaluable.  They not only carried infantry to the start line and during the mounted sweep on the following day but also gave us flank and rear protection. They were also particularly effective in eliminating enemy snipers who were firing from one or two trees at our Headquarters group soon after we first crossed the start line.

During our forming up stage I saw a large group of journalists and film crews gathering around our start line area.  I decided this was an unfair imposition on my men and asked the Public Relations person who was shepherding them around the place to get them out of the way as soon as possible.  It seemed he complained to Brigadier Pearson on his return to Nui Dat and Pearson wanted an explanation from me for my decision.  I replied in my defence that I considered the situation to be “my call” and he seemed to accept this.

(After my return to Australia I discovered that the PR man had become a member of the Victorian Parliament and I made my peace with him by inviting him home for Sunday lunch.)

After we swept through the enemy position by 1830 hours, I received orders to stay in Hoa Long for the night.  This was because the enemy were expected to return to the area to collect any weapons they had discarded during contacts before fleeing as “civilians”.

I ordered the company group to harbour in the main area of enemy opposition to prevent the enemy returning to that area.  At this stage a further enemy armed with an RPG was killed 200 metres to their north by 9 Platoon (2 Lieutenant Roger Lambert).  During the night torches were seen shining outside the perimeter.  These could have been “civilians” returning for dead bodies or weapons.

The next morning, we undertook three mounted sweeps of a larger area of north-west Hoa Long, encountering negligible opposition.  We were ordered to return to Nui Dat at 1620 hours.  We never had the chance for a thorough search for enemy bodies or weapons.  Enemy casualties as claimed were six VC killed, two captured and then a further four VC were captured by Regional Forces in the tunnel under where our Headquarters was located.

Documents captured at the main enemy area of resistance and the 29 freshly dug weapon pits indicated that there were 50 – 60 enemy from the Chau Duc Company (C-41), not the 200 that had been reported earlier that day.  The larger figure was probably put about in a bid to get a security force reaction to Hoa Long, perhaps drawing forces away from Binh Ba.

According to the subsequently captured diary of Nguyen Hoang Mai – the commander of C-41 Company,

On 7 June, we fought in Hoa Long against six attacks. In the final attack, there were Australians and armour – there were no aircraft. We killed 18 and wounded three from the Sector PF and RD Cadre. One M41 [sic] tank was burnt out and one damaged, two M113A1s were knocked out. Our casualties were two KIA, one CIA, one WIA, and one surrendered.

In actual fact, the Australians did not sustain any casualties. 

What did we achieve by our reaction to Hoa Long?

We disrupted the enemy’s ostentatious takeover of Ap Bac causing the enemy to flee or hide among the population or in the extensive tunnel system in the Hoa Long area.  Although the body count of enemy dead was only six there was the probability of more enemy casualties bearing in mind the enemy’s habit of clearing their bodies after any encounters with our troops.  The RF morale would also have been boosted by the enemy’s withdrawal and by the RF’s successful capture of four enemy in the tunnel system under the C Company harbour.

We received no complaint that indicated there had been civilian casualties.  This was despite the fact that no arrangements had been made to clear the civilian population from Ap Bac.

Had the enemy launched their action in the Hoa Long area a day earlier to better coordinate with the enemy actions in the Binh Ba area and elsewhere, then C Company would not have had the vital support of the tanks and APCs which were fully committed at Binh Ba on 6 June 1969.

Notes:

[1] Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Claude Ducker was Officer Commanding C Company 5RAR and commanded the Reaction Force sent to Hoa Long to eject the enemy from the north west quadrant of the village.

[2] General Gration later served as Chief of the General Staff (1984-87) and Chief of the Defence Force (1987-93).

One Comment on “Operation Tong: 7-8 June 1969”

  1. The article by Claude Ducker was very informative indeed. Ever “hyperbolic”, several post-War communist accounts mention the “battle” in Hoa Long in early June 1969:
    – The 2004 Chau Duc History relates: . “At Long Lễ Sub-Sector, the Châu Đức District troops entered and occupied Ấp Bắc hamlet of Hòa Long village and repelled eight counter-attacks by the puppet troops. At 2pm, the Australians deployed infantry and tank ((xe tăng)) reinforcements and advanced deep into our battle positions. The firepower of our unit’s B-40s destroyed two tanks ((xe tăng)) in the first volley. One of our comrades was killed and two were lightly wounded.”
    – The D440 Battalion History – includes: “In this battle ((ie the “combined” engagements at Binh Ba and Hoa Long : 5-8 June 1969)), only our thrust against the enemy in the area of Ấp Bắc hamlet (Hòa Long) achieved a success close to complete. There, for almost a day of fierce fighting, the Châu Đức District troops and village guerrillas repelled eight counter-attacks by the puppet military. At 2pm on the same day, the Australian military – comprising both infantry and tanks, came to their relief but were attacked by the District elements. Two tanks were set on fire, and the enemy was forced to withdraw. On our side, only one comrade was killed and two comrades were lightly wounded.”
    – According to the Hòa Long History (2009): “our forces set fire to two tanks and killed a large number of mercenary troops.” – The History of the Hòa Long Village Party Chapter (1930-2005).
    – Claude mentions the subsequently recovered diary of Nguyễn Hoàng Mai – the commander of C-41 Company. Mai related that there was a prior “battle” when Australian troops attacked the unit’s base camp on 4 and 5 June 1969 – resulting in one C-41 soldier killed and one wounded, and in which “six Australian enemy were killed.” These engagements apparently disrupted the planned timing coordination between the Binh Ba and Hoa Long attacks. Mai continued: “on 7 June, we fought in Hòa Long against six attacks. In the final attack, there were Australians and armour – there were no aircraft. We killed 18 and wounded three from the Sector PF and RD Cadre. One M41 tank was burnt out and one damaged, two M113s were knocked out. Our casualties were two KIA, one CIA, one WIA, and one surrendered.”
    On 6 and 7 June, rockets were fired into the 1ATF base at Núi Đất – up to 15 107mm rockets impacted in the base and in the vicinity on the afternoon and evening of 6 June; and four (or five) impacted in the base on the afternoon of 7 June. According to 1ATF: “These rockets were probably fired by an element of 74 NVA Artillery Regiment”. Earlier, on 5 June, other rocket firings had been attempted by “Tay’s unit” in the Bình Ba area – but were reportedly unsuccessful. As noted at the beginning of Claude’s article, he notes that the enemy attacks at Binh Ba, Hoa Long, and in the Hoi My area (RD Cadre post, 9RAR FSPB Thrust) were elements of the communists’ Summer-Autumn “High Point Campaign” associated with the Nixon-Thieu meeting at Midway on 8 May 1969 (to discuss the withdrawal of US troops) and the formal announcement of the founding of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. This “High Point’ strategy reportedly included 122 enemy-initiated attacks in III Corps.

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