In the period leading up to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) [today’s Army Reserve] in Australia was a reasonably strong and viable force, with a mixture of younger soldiers, volunteers and 1950’s National Servicemen, strengthened by a small number of experienced former 2nd AIF, Korea and Malaya veterans.
In the early 1960s, the situation in Vietnam and in Indonesia created growing concern for the Government, and mobilisation of the CMF for overseas service became the topic of intense discussion at Government level. The CMF Member of the Military Board, MAJGEN Paul Cullen, argued strongly for the raising of a composite CMF Battalion for service in Vietnam. He proposed that the composite Battalion would undergo six months training to bring the skill levels up to speed before deployment to South Vietnam (SVN). After initially being in favour of the idea, the Regular Army members of Military Board decided not to support the proposal, as the Government of the day wished to introduce conscription for a Selective Service Scheme of national service which would involve 2 years full time service, followed by a period in the reserve or alternatively, 6 years’ service in the CMF. The CMF therefore was to provide an alternative of part time service to complete National Service, but had no other clearly defined role. The Government’s position was that mobilisation of the CMF would require amendment to the Defence Act (1903), although it should be noted that subsequently, the Defence Act was amended to allow National Servicemen to serve in South Vietnam as members of Regular Army units.
The Official History indicates that the relevant changes to the Defence Act to allow CMF units to be deployed to Vietnam remained an option for some time, however it was not until many years later that legislation was introduced to guarantee the re-employment of Reservists deployed overseas and to provide financial compensation for the employers who agreed to release Reservist staff members.
The Once and Future Army
In his book ‘The Once and Future Army’, Dayton McCarthy notes that, ‘Concerned at the snubbing of CMF units with long and gallant histories, Cullen vigorously continued to push the CMF barrow for a clear and worthwhile role and as a ‘trade off’, the Military Board finally agreed to introduce the CMF Observer program which allowed some 630 CMF officers to deploy for a period of two to three weeks to operational areas in Vietnam on attachment to Regular units appropriate to their relevant Corps, from January 1967 and continuing throughout the course of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam’.
Dayton McCarthy’s writings have also stated that the CMF was an organisation which he considers, became another casualty of the Vietnam War, and followed this theme by delivering a very thoughtful paper to the Chief of Army’s Military History Conference in 2002 entitled ‘Becoming the 3rd XV’ in which he stated that the name CMF Observer was something of a misnomer, as individual CMF members went on combat operations, drove trucks and armoured vehicles and in most cases, participated as much as possible to obtain the maximum operational experience during their deployment. Most found that after initial familiarisation they could fit in quite easily, whilst a number of them met up with former cadre staff or CMF personnel on Full Time Duty, as the Army at that time was really quite a small world.
McCarthy’s study went on to highlight the malaise that spread through the CMF as the war progressed and the CMF still had no clearly defined role to play. Training resources and cadre staff were diverted elsewhere and its image was tarnished by allegations that it had become a haven for draft dodgers. This attitude was unfair in some cases as many deferees accepted their responsibilities to the CMF and a good number had sound reasons for opting for part time service, such as University studies or heavy financial commitments in establishing “one man” pastoral properties or businesses. As the public mood of opposition to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam began to grow, it became apparent that the Government had no interest in pursuing those deferees who did not meet their obligations and as a result, standards dropped and indeed a number of deferees just simply walked away. He notes that by 1972, the CMF was in a poor state and a far cry from the CMF of 1965-66 when numbers reached 33,750, compared with 1973 by which time numbers had fallen to 22,592. McCarthy concludes that the CMF was one of the greatest casualties of the Vietnam War.
The CMF Observer programme
Approximately 630 CMF Officers volunteered for the CMF Observer programme and it is a matter of public record that, until the Veterans Entitlement Act was amended in 1986, these Officers were specifically denied any repatriation benefits or the protection of the Repatriation Act, unless killed or wounded. It should be noted that:
• All CMF Officers who served in Vietnam were volunteers. CMF Observers served for the period of time that was decreed by Government and had this decreed time been longer, they would have met this requirement.
• By their willingness to serve in Vietnam, they showed physical support for our troops in the most tangible form, at a time when those troops were being criticised, vilified and humiliated by elements of the Australian public.
• The Australian War Memorial web site shows that 1 member of the CMF was killed, 7 were wounded and 3 became Non Battle Casualties.
• The degree of risk in Vietnam was significantly higher than in later ADF deployments. Of the 504 Australians killed and 3,141 wounded in Vietnam, some 121 were killed and 250 wounded by mines and booby traps and the great tragedy is that many of our casualties were caused by Australian anti-personnel mines, which had been recovered by the Viet Cong from the ill-fated ‘Fence’ and used against our troops in the years 1967 –1971. In his book entitled The Minefield, Greg Lockhart noted that ‘Stolen M16 mines became the guerrilla enemy’s number one strike weapon.’
• The nature of the war in Vietnam was such that there were no safe areas. The Task Force base at Nui Dat, and the various Fire Support Bases and Night Defended Positions were subjected to infantry, rocket and mortar attacks, and the dangers of ambush or mine incidents which faced our troops who operated outside the wire are well known to any student of field operations in Vietnam. Danger was present from day one in Vietnam, and this is illustrated by the experience of 3 RAR who arrived in Vietnam for their second tour on 25 February 1971. The Battalion commenced ‘In Theatre’ training on 27 February 1971, experienced their first contact on 1 March 1971, then suffered the loss of a Platoon Commander and one soldier killed, and a further two soldiers wounded on 2 March 1971. Another Platoon Commander was killed and two soldiers wounded on 20 March 1971.
My experience as a CMF Observer.
In May 1970 I was a 1st Lieutenant serving with the 10th Battalion Royal South Australia Regiment. At the time I held the posting of Battalion Transport Officer and was based at Torrens Parade Ground in Adelaide. I was advised that I had been selected to do the CMF Observer’s tour to South Vietnam and that I would be leaving for overseas in mid to late June. By this time, several more senior officers had already done the trip, however I was among the first of the Platoon commander level to go. In preparation I was required to present myself for inoculations for Smallpox, Cholera, Testox, TAB, Plaque 1 and 2, Yellow Fever and Polio (Sabin Vaccine).
Some six months before going to Vietnam, I had been to the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra and completed a Navigation and Patrolling course. It was the best possible preparation for overseas as the course was very professional in every way and quite physically demanding. At that time most of the staff had at least one tour of Vietnam under their belts and several had been with AATTV and thus had a huge range of practical experience which they were able to impart.
I left Adelaide on a cold morning in June bound for Sydney and the personnel depot at Middle Head, for a final medical and kit check before leaving for Vietnam. An early sobering experience as I drew some items from the Q store when I spotted three identical grey boxes about two feet cubed, each with a stencilled notice ‘Personal effects of Pte (name) Deceased’. The three, including one South Australian had been killed in a mine incident some days beforehand.
On the evening of our departure, our group of Officers on posting and replacements for various units was assembled by a senior Warrant Officer and officially ‘warned for war service in South Vietnam’ which meant that from that moment we were under Active Service regulations and discipline and we were not allowed to leave the depot. We were to leave on a Qantas charter flight and there was a feeling of unreality as we were bussed through busy Sydney streets to the airport whilst outside, Sydney people went about their normal daily lives.
It was extremely hot in Darwin when we landed for a brief stop-over. My shoulder was extremely sore as an infected TAB inoculation had burst during the flight and I had to clean all the pus and blood out of it as best I could whilst in the aircraft toilet. In Darwin there was a Pan Am flight full of Yanks heading south for Sydney on R&R and they were ticking over really well. Most of the blokes who staged through Singapore will remember the circus at the airport. The Singapore Government did not officially sanction the phasing through Singapore of servicemen bound for the war zone, so whilst the aircraft was refuelled, we all disembarked wearing black issue shoes, polyester issue trousers and jazzy civilian sports shirts; all set off by short military haircuts.
Arriving in South Vietnam
Early morning mist obscured the view as we climbed out of Singapore airport for the short flight to Tan Son Nhut airport at Saigon. As we closed on the airport, the Captain came up in the intercom to warn us that since there had been incidents of aircraft on approach taking ground fire, our approach and landing would be steep and fast. The airport at that time was one of the busiest in the world with a take off and landing every 30 seconds. From my window as we taxied in I could see helicopters, jet fighters, transport aircraft and civilian planes busily waiting for their chance to take off.
The heat and the noise hit us as we disembarked, into a very busy place with people and stores of every kind being loaded or unloaded. Our next move was to join a Wallaby airlines Caribou to be taken to the Task Force Base at Nui Dat. A very noisy flight but interesting as I had a window close by and could see a bit of the country as we flew over it. Below there was a mosaic of the paddy fields with the sun reflecting off the water after early monsoon rains. Numerous craters of all sizes which had been made by artillery, mortars, bombs and rockets were filled with water.
We landed in the dust at Luscombe Field to be collected by the duty vehicle and taken to the Seven Battalion lines to check in. The Q blokes under CAPT Cliff Nord were very good and quickly organised a weapon and ammunition issue together with a couple of pairs of shorts which were gratefully received as the Monsoon was about to break and the weather was very hot and humid. He also organised a set of dog tags as the official ones had not arrived in time for my departure.
Joining 7 RAR
CAPT Brian Hicks was the 2 i/c of Admin Company and he was also extremely supportive. He helped me to settle in to my sandbagged tent in the rubber plantation which was to be home briefly for a couple of days before I was to go forward to link up with a Rifle Company. I had been issued with an M16 Armalite which was a weapon that I had not previously used as they were not yet on issue to CMF units. The Q bloke showed me the basics and so I then took every opportunity to strip, assemble and practise Immediate Actions in order to become familiar with it before I went outside the wire. Brian also arranged a trip to the range in order to put some shots away and get a feel for the weapon.
I made my way up to the orderly room to check in and I was able to renew the acquaintance of the Chief Clerk S/Sgt Alan McGuiness who had been a CMF Warrant Officer instructor on my OCTU course in 1965. Alan had dropped a rank to go full time duty and was running a very busy Headquarters function. I was to repeat this experience a number of times, as the Army at that time was a fairly small family and having served in four Military Districts, I had come in contact with a lot of people. I was taken to meet the CO, Lt Col (later General) Ron Grey and to attend the Intelligence briefing that afternoon which gave me a good idea of the area and the Battalion activities. This was followed by a trip to the mines room established by the Engineers and a thorough briefing on mines and booby traps employed by the enemy.
First time outside the wire was a visit to the Horseshoe which was located on the site of an extinct volcano and was named
from its very distinctive contours which appeared on the map. It had a commanding view across the surrounding countryside
and by late June 1970 it was the location of the Battalion forward Headquarters as well as a home for one of the Rifle Companies. I travelled with the Battalion 2i/c Major Neville Smethhurst, and the RSM WO1 Reg Bandy. Part of this visit involved the inspection of a dead VC who was lying on a stretcher near the HQ. He had been ambushed the night before and had been thought to be from the hamlet of Hoi My.
I was based in Nui Dat for three days, before I went forward to join A Company, but prior to this, I was sent out as part of the protection party with a medical team who were doing some Civil Aid work by supplying medical and dental services (DentCap) to the villagers in Lang Phuoc Hai. The Dentist spoke to me about the poor state of the teeth of the locals then set up a mass production line for extractions. He lined up his patients and injected them one after the other. By the time he had finished the injections, the first patient was ready for extraction so away went the dentist at great speed. Lang Phuoc Hai was also my first introduction to the traditional Vietnamese market place complete with its compliment of bugs and flies. During this time I had the opportunity of flying a last light recce patrol in a Cessna with one of the Aviation Regiment’s pilots, which was not without its risks, as shortly beforehand, a Pilatus Porter had been shot down shortly after take off with both crew members killed. I was also able to spend some time with an American 155 mm self-propelled artillery unit, who were firing H & I tasks in support.
Night Defensive Position – BRIGID
The next day I was sent forward to the Night Defensive Position named BRIGID located in sand dunes near Lang Phuoc Hai. BRIGID was occupied by A Company which was commanded by MAJ Chris Thomson who had joined the ARA following extensive service with the British Army, including some years with the Ghurkhas. The area was dominated by the Long Hai mountains which provided a sanctuary for the VC, particularly the members of D445 VC local force Infantry battalion. I was welcomed to the unit and my local briefing was complete, concise and very professional. The company was patrolling and ambushing very aggressively in its area of responsibility and they had been quite successful. The area East of the Long Hais had developed a bad reputation for mine incidents and the most wretched feature of these incidents was that so many were caused by our own mines which had been lifted from the Barrier Fence by the VC and used against our troops. The immediate terrain around BRIGID was sand dunes and it was not unheard of to have mines uncovered by wind driven shifts of sand. As a footnote; the personal effects boxes which I had seen in the ECPD Q store before my departure had belonged to three members of 7 RAR who were killed by a mine in the Light Green area near Brigid.
The Battalion also occupied another Night Defended Position named ISA which I went to at this time. ISA overlooked Route 44 and was located quite literally in the shadow of the Long Hai mountains. It was not a nice place to be, however its location was strategic and the layout made the best of a difficult location. The Long Hais were formed from a combination of granite and limestone and were honeycombed with caves which provided shelter for the VC. The area was bad for mines and the local Regional Forces (RF) unit had recently attempted to penetrate the area only to lose 8 dead and 15 wounded without even firing a shot. We paid a visit to an American MAT team located with the RF and the visit to their camp was most enlightening. The families of the RF lived with the soldiers and the place was quite messy with claymore mines and mortar bombs untidily positioned in the defensive wire. We accompanied the Americans to the Van Kiep training area to watch some RF activity which culminated in an RF soldier having a foot blown off after stepping on an anti-personnel mine.
A Company was conducting ambushes in small groups and I was slotted in with the Support Section who were tasked to establish an ambush to the East of BRIGID in an area at the edge of the Light Green. My briefing by the patrol commander CPL McKenzie was pithy and succinct; ‘this is where we’re going, this is how we get there, we stay until we come back. If we’re in contact, lift your tracers into his guts.’ I was introduced to the boys and after test firing our weapons, I was then issued with a flak jacket before moving off into the approaching dusk. Everyone shook out and maintained their spacing and their arcs exactly as we had been trained to do so I quickly felt at home, although the thought of mines gave me the creeps. Darkness saw us in position with claymores and trip flares deployed, the gun and radio rosters organised and a disciplined silence being maintained. I was somewhat wide awake and therefore took a couple of extra shifts on the radio and let the boys get some sleep. They had been patrolling incessantly for a long time and they were all very tired. So, as they say, there I was: with radio, M16, claymore clackers, two hand grenades and the sky above me.
Operations with B Company 7 RAR
My return to Nui Dat next morning was to be very brief as I had been allocated to B Coy who were about to leave that afternoon to conduct a Company operation which was to take us through the Long Tan area where D Coy 6 RAR had fought a ferocious action against huge odds in 1966. MAJ Greg Warland was the OC and he attached me to 6 Platoon which was commanded by LT George Wenhlowskyj. George was a National Service officer who had extended in order to serve in Vietnam and he was to be awarded the Military Cross later in the tour in recognition of his leadership, professionalism and courage. He struck me as a very switched on young man who led literally from the front, as he moved right up with his forward scout. The Platoon was short of men due to the usual reasons of casualties, leave, sickness or courses and so I was once again slotted in as a rifleman.
Relying on my Canungra experience, I was able to pack the essentials for the four to five days that we would be out in the field. I had obtained some extra water bottles so organised my personal gear plus rations, bandolier of 20 loaded M16 magazines, two M26 grenades, minimal sleeping gear, extra water, plus 100 round belt for the M60 and I was ready to roll. George’s boys also organised me with some C3 plastic explosive, a small portion of which was ideal to heat a very quick brew. It was a very stable explosive until you added a detonator at which point it would lift your house off its foundations.
We were picked up by M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers of B Squadron 3 Cavalry Regiment who were to carry us to our drop off point which was in the vicinity of Nui Nhon along Route 23 on the road to Xuyen Moc. George explained that the Platoon were to move in an arc to the North West and to cross the Suoi Lo O Nho river before moving West to the rubber near Long Tan. At first the going was through abandoned paddy fields and I felt somewhat vulnerable being out in the open, however I soon had my fill of close country which was stiflingly hot and contained its regulation number of leaches, green tree ants and other assorted bities.
The country was very thick in parts with some solid stands of bamboo in which in some places, the VC had dug spider holes which very small and impossible to see until the VC opened fire from them. I noted that the scouts were using hand secateurs to clear a way through and this seemed to me to be a very practical idea as the noise level made when clearing with machetes was considerable. I learned later that the secateurs had been purchased through Regimental Funds as the requests by the Battalion to obtain stocks through the Army system had been refused by Canberra.
Once again I was impressed by the professionalism of the soldiers and they seemed to operate pretty much by the Infantry Manual which had, after all, been written out of the solid experience of units such as this Battalion. The Platoon knew this area well, having operated in the vicinity on several occasions; there was also plenty of indications. that the VC were also familiar with the area. Our first overnight harbour was a welcome break for me as my shoulder was still a problem and I had also found the humidity very trying having been in the middle of an Adelaide winter only one week earlier.
On the second night I was treated to an awesome display of nature’s power when a violent electrical storm hit us with incredible thunder, lightning and a tropical downpour. I lay under my hootchie and hoped that it wouldn’t collapse, not that I could have got any wetter!
The patrol was relatively uneventful except for an unexplained burst of automatic gunfire up front when we were in heavy bamboo which sent everyone to ground, and we ultimately made our way into the Long Tan area where we had arranged to be picked up again by APCs. It was quite eerie moving towards the RV through the rubber as the trees were planted in regular rows and whichever way I looked, the view was of long straight fire lanes. Long Tan was the site of a famous battle between Australian soldiers and the enemy in 1966. 17 Australians and 245 enemy were killed in that battle and I was glad that we did not stay overnight in that place, as it seemed to me to be full of ghosts.
After returning to Nui Dat I was advised that our group was scheduled to leave in a short time to go down to Vung Tau and inspect the Logistic Support Group which supplied the Task Force. I went round to say goodbye to LT George and his boys and found them in a state of high excitement. They told me to grab my gear and come with them as the Int people had a strong tip that there was a VC paymaster in the area known as the Bone, which was close to where we had just been and he was reputed to be carrying some 2 Million piastres to pay the VC. I declined with thanks and told them to ‘spend my share’ as I was going to ALSG to continue my education. Once again, the arrangements were very well organised and we were given a very sound insight to the facilities and function of ALSG.
The Regular units to which we were attached were highly professional and very welcoming. It is fair to say that we were all very privileged to represent our units and to wear the Unit lanyards overseas on Active Service for the first time since WW2, and we were very proud to have served with the Australian Forces in Vietnam.
The Observer programme was very worthwhile in that it gave a number of CMF Officers exposure to and experience of, operational service, however the term of two to three weeks was not long enough, as by the time one acclimatised to the weather and began to get to know the ropes, it was time to go home.
The descriptive of “Vietnam Veteran” does not generally sit comfortably with most of our group since our time in Country was limited, however we have been universally welcomed by Veteran individuals and groups, and this has contrasted markedly with the bitter bureaucratic objection and rejection of any proposals for recognition of our service. The struggle for recognition of our service was a long and at times, very acrimonious one. Along the way, I was fortunate to meet up with Michael Prowse of the HMAS Sydney Association and together we eventually succeeded in obtaining recognition of our service by the award of the VL&S medal and later the Australian Active Service Medal 1945-75 with a bar Vietnam. In all, some 5000 additional servicemen and women who were previously deemed ineligible under the old rules, formed the military group of the estimated 20,000 individuals who became eligible for the VL&S medal.
About the Author
Major Don Hawking was called up for National Service with 20 NS Battalion, Watsonia in 1957 and completed his CMF obligation with 59th Infantry Battalion. He re-enlisted in the CMF, 5th Battalion Royal Victoria Regiment in 1963 and commenced officer training in 1965. In 1966 his civilian work saw him transferred to Tasmania and also commissioned into the 1st Battalion Royal Tasmania Regiment. In 1970 he was selected for CMF Observer Familiarisation South Vietnam and attached to 7 RAR. Between 1969 and 1986 he served with 10 Royal South Australia Regiment and the Command Staff Training Unit. He was appointed Regimental Colonel 10/27 RSAR from 1999 to 2003.
By Major Donald Hawking OAM RFD (Retd)
Defence Reserves Association South Australia
‘Reprinted with permission of the Author and The Australian Reservist’
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