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Chapter Four: Close Quarters Fighting

Despite the fact that the enemy launched an effective surprise attack on FSPB Coral, and failed to over-run it, and that the fighting over 12 and 13 May was intense, the men from 102 Field Battery feel that the Official History obscures, or overlooks, their role and actions during those eventful days at FSPB Coral. This has disappointed the Coral veterans interviewed for this thesis. They question just how ‘official’ the Official History is. This chapter provides the soldiers’

voice and offers an insight into what the gunners and mortarmen remember about FSPB Coral.

With the 102 Field Battery guns arriving at Ahearn’s position, he immediately informed the gunners that something was amiss, but was unsure as to what it was. He therefore directed the soldiers to dig to stage one weapons pits. This is a defensive fighting position whose purpose is to shield the soldiers from incoming fire. The normal procedure, however, was to dig shell scrapes which are shallow in depth and used for temporary personal protection.1 This made Ahearn very unpopular as he remembers.

Some will say that they only had shell scrapes, and they might well have, but we as Officers had to go around and kick ass to make sure that people were digging. I think that shows in the results as you don’t get a number of RPG’s and things in without having excessive casualties.2

On 12 May, no defence stores had been delivered to FSPB Coral. With no barbwire, claymore mines or trip flares set up, the area lacked adequate protection. When the attack came, Ahearn

1 Ahearn, p. 3.

2 ibid.

68 was lying in his weapon pit. There was no sound, but he was awoken by a green glow over his hootchie (personal tent), a result of enemy tracer coming into FSPB Coral.3

Literally there was no sound; I didn’t hear anything until it came in like a ‘whomp’, it was the sound of RPG’s, mortars and machine guns.4

At this early stage of the battle, No. 6 gun was out of action as it had been overrun by the enemy. Gun Sergeant Max Franklin, however, had had the presence of mind to remove the No.

6 gun firing pin before withdrawing. This is a difficult task that requires a series of moves, and made all the more difficult by being under attack and with wounded men under his command.

Sergeants Franklin’s actions made the 105mm Howitzer inoperable in enemy hands.

Ahearn quickly made his way to the Command Post to find out what was happening.5 At this stage, No. 4 gun opened fire with small arms (rifles) and shortly after, the Gun Sergeant John Stephens reported to the Command Post that they had expended small arms ammunition and requested an ammunition resupply. The Gun Sergeant also reported that there was a considerable amount of activity happening at No. 4 gun and requested permission to fire the 105mm howitzer over open sights.6

The enemy were well equipped and were now within grenade throwing distance. Their grenades started landing among the Australian positions. Some of the unexploded ordinance was picked up the next day revealing Chicom ‘potato masher’ style grenades.7 As a result of the

3 ibid.

4 ibid., p. 4.

5 ibid.

6 ibid., p. 5.

7 ibid. Note: The Type 67 Chicom grenade is modelled on the WW2 German model 24 Stielhandgranate (handgrenade) and widely used by communist forces during the Vietnam War.

69 close quarters’ fighting, 102 Field Battery had suffered casualties. Supporting fire was called for and was delivered by 161 Field Battery, 3RAR Mortars and an American Battery located in and around Bien Hoa. The Battery Commander also arranged for Cobra gunships and a ‘Spooky’

gunship to assist in the fight and they began to pound the perimeter of FSPB Coral.8

When asked if an awareness of time becomes noticeable during battle as so much is happening, Ahearn replies.

You’re totally not aware of time at all which is one of those things; it doesn’t seem to neither drag nor go fast. It is just that things are happening and there is a whole heap of information coming in which you’re processing and therefore time, it becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t strike you one way or the other.9

Ahearn sent small parties out to get grenades as the gunners were not allowed to carry them, a direct result of an Officer being fragged (killed) at Nui Dat two years before. RPG’s were still coming in to FSPB Coral and No. 2 gun received heavy damage. Both tyres were blown out and the gun trail had large holes in it from either a RPG or an exploding mortar round. No. 1 gun received a hit to its ammunition bay. Fortunately, the rounds did not explode, but the cordite did, and a huge fire blazed away in the middle of the gun position.10 Figures 4.1 and 4.2 show the damage caused to No. 2 gun during the battle.

8 ibid., p. 6.

9 ibid., p. 7.

10 ibid., p. 6.

70 Figure 4.1: Sergeant Leonard Humphry (Skeeter) Bravo, No. 2 gun pointing to a hole in one of his gun trails.11

Figure 4.2: No. 2 gun on the morning of 13 May after the first attack.12

11 Robert ‘Cossie’Costello, personal collection.

12ibid.

71 Lieutenant Jensen was in charge of the mortar baseplate and four mortar tubes. There were six tubes in a section, four were at FSPB Coral and two were kept at Nui Dat for base defence. At FSPB Coral, Jensen sighted the mortar tubes and told the section commanders to dig in and get organised before he and Signaler Parr started digging the command post and sleeping bay.13 The mortars had approximately 75 mortar rounds each and were supported by two machine guns. By last light the mortar pits and the command post had been prepared, the latter with a lightweight tent over the top to keep light to a minimum. This provided Jensen and party the ability to illuminate plotting boards without being visible from the outside.14

At midnight, NVA soldiers engaged the 1RAR Mortar machine guns. The machine gunners fired back. There were moans and groans from the enemy and then they fell silent. The mortars remained alert for another half an hour and at 12.30am they returned to their positions. At around 2.30am, the enemy came through the mortar position ‘in no time flat’.15 Everything was happening very fast, enemy and small arms fire was all through the mortars, as Jensen recalls.

There were 18 men in the Mortar Platoon and we were like a pimple on the side of the gunners and when they (NVA) came through, we basically surprised them and that created a bit of a problem as they didn’t expect us to be there. On top of that, we held our ground and fought hard.16

Bombardier Larry D’Arcy of 102 Field Battery No. 3 gun, had not been concerned where the next FSPB was to be located. As a Bombardier, his role began when the guns and men landed on the ground. When the artillery guns landed at FSPB Coral, the individual gun crews set up

13 Jensen, p. 1.

14 ibid., pp. 1-2.

15 ibid.

16 ibid., p. 3.

72 their guns for action. This required the men to manoeuvre the guns into the correct position, lay the gun on the sites, set the elevation and sort the ammunition. From landing on the ground to having the guns ready for action took around 10 minutes. As noted earlier, no defensive barbed wire was out on the perimeter, and no claymore mines set as they had not arrived, and did not, in fact, arrive until the next day. Initially, all six guns were without dirt bunding to protect them until the bulldozer arrived and bunded three of the guns, numbers four, five and six.17

At approximately 2.25am, 102 Field Battery was called on to provide supporting artillery fire for Delta Company 1RAR and all six guns were involved. At the completion of the fire mission, D’Arcy was busy reorganising the gun ammunition bay for his gun when small arms fire started.

D’Arcy assumed it was 1RAR firing their weapons. This had happened previously at FSPB Harrison when the men in an Australian Armoured Personnel Carrier had fired their guns without notifying the gun battery in the vicinity.18

D’Arcy comments,

When the first few rounds came into Coral I wasn’t really alarmed, just thought it was another balls up [sic]. As soon as I heard the ‘crump’ of the mortars being fired and the RPG’s coming into our position, I soon realised it was no mistake.19

With the sound of incoming mortars, RPGs and small arms fire, D’Arcy made a quick return to his weapons pit to find out what was happening. It was at this point that D’Arcy was ordered to get his M60, move onto the gun bund of No. 5 gun, and start firing. He was told in no uncertain

17 D’Arcy, p. 2.

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

73 terms to ‘give everything a spray’ as the advancing NVA were attempting to flank the Australians.20 He still remembers the incredible noise and the intensity of the battle.

The sky was pitch black and the incoming tracer rounds were very clear to see. The noise of the enemy mortars being fired was probably one of the worst feelings. Once you heard the primer go, indicating the mortar had been dropped into the tube, you just waited to hear it coming and hoped it did not land near you or your mates.21

The heavy rain and boggy ground had masked the sounds of the approaching NVA. They had moved to within grenade throwing distance and started throwing them at the Australians. A grenade landed a few feet from D’Arcy’s position, rolled away and then exploded. The dirt spoil from his shell scrape protected him, but the shrapnel from the exploding grenade damaged the M60 link belt ammunition causing the machine gun to jam.22

Unable to clear the stoppage, D’Arcy called to Gunner Costello (Cossie) to pass his rifle. Without hesitation, Costello passed his rifle, and D’Arcy emptied the magazines into the enemy area.

Now, having two guns not working, the M60 jammed and the rifle out of bullets, D’Arcy decided on clearing the M60 as it fired the most bullets. D’Arcy vividly remembers that throughout all this, Lieutenant Ahearn and Second Lieutenant Lowry were issuing battle orders to the men while they moved from one position to the next, and this instilled a lot of confidence in the soldiers.23 Figures 4.3 and 4.4 show Bombardier Larry D’Arcy from No. 3 gun on the morning of 13 May. Figure 4.3 provides what is often described as the ‘1000 yard stare’.

20 ibid.

21 ibid., pp. 2-3.

22 ibid.

23 ibid., pp. 3-4.

74 Figure 4.3: Bombardier D’Arcy on the morning of 13 May showing the strain of combat. Behind is the M60 that suffered the stoppage. In his left hand is the damaged link ammunition. At right are those damaged rounds caused by exploding grenade fragments.24

24 D’Arcy, personal collection.

75 Figure 4.4: Bombardier D’Arcy in front of his shell scrape. The dirt spoil (red arrow) which saved his life, is where the grenade landed before rolling away and exploding.25

With the dynamics of the battle constantly changing, D’Arcy and Gunner David Thomas (Tomo) were ordered to take extra artillery forward to the other guns. Both men leopard crawled with the rounds cradled in their arms to No. 4 gun as bullets, rockets and mortars continued to zap,

25 ibid.

76 crack and explode around them. They later laughed and remarked that ‘if we needed to, we would have carried another round in our teeth’.26

Upon landing in Vietnam, Gunner Tom Carmody of 102 Field Battery No. 3 gun was amazed with the amount of military activity. The amount of planes flying everywhere was hard to fathom. Carmody, like the other gunners did not know what was planned for FSPB Coral; the gunners were not privy to such information. When on the ground they got to work setting up the guns, putting out aiming markers and digging weapons pits.27 Carmody was standing to, awaiting fire orders as the infantry reported a contact when the enemy attacked.

I recall a green glow in front of me and thought that the fireflies were bright tonight and next minute, whoosh whoosh a series of RPG’s flew overhead, then the mortars started coming in. All hell broke loose. I thought this couldn’t be happening to me.28

The gunners had never been under this type of fire before and basic survival instincts kicked in as Carmody recalls.

102 Field Battery had never been under fire like that before. It’s instinctive, you know what to do and you follow orders. 29

During the NVA attack, the artillery guns still operated in their primary role which is to provide effective artillery support, Carmody continues.

We still had to do our job, we had fire orders and we fired on targets that were available to us. Our tannoy,30 it was knocked out so we had no direct means of communication.

We continued on doing what we were supposed to be doing.31

26 D’Arcy, p. 2.

27 Tom Carmody, (interview conducted 7 June 2012), pp. 1-2.

28 ibid., p. 2.

29 ibid.

30 ibid. Note: Tannoy is the loudspeaker system that formed the final part of the communications between the central command and the artillery guns.

31 ibid.

77 A fire mission was called which No. 3 gun conducted with a limited crew, and then the gunners ran ammunition up to No. 4 gun. Carmody was sent to the helipad to break open an ammunition crate. Approaching the helipad, fellow gunner Ross Prowse, in the light of the flares, was attempting to open the ammunition crate with an axe. As Tom emerged out of the dark, Prowse whipped around and was about to put the axe through Carmody’s head: ‘I swore at him and said ‘‘don’t do that’’, words to that effect’.32

Gunner David Thomas (Tomo) of 102 Field Battery No. 3 gun recalls that it was sometime through the night when all the whiz bangs started. Gunner Thomas was under his hootchie when the bombardment came. ‘I thought it was just a few rounds, I didn’t think it was going to turn out like it did’.

Thomas recalls that a fire mission was called to support 3RAR as they were in a contact with the enemy. No. 3 gun executed the fire mission with only three men available on the gun: Gun Sergeant Elgar (Algie), Gunner Costello (Cossie) and himself. Bombardier D’Arcy was firing the M60 on one of the gun bunds and Gunner Carmody was in another area. The fire mission went on while rockets and bullets were going through the gun position; this was all in the dark of night.33

It was at this moment of the interview that Gunner Thomas recalls a poignant moment that has remained with him since it occurred on 13 May 1968.

I will never forget carrying splintex over to No 4 gun, Stevos gun and I tripped and fell down and had a poncho wrapped around my ankles. You know, I looked down and there

32 ibid, pp. 3-4.

33 Thomas, p. 1.

78 was Bluey Sawtell, he was dead, he had been shot in the head and was under the poncho near our gun bay. I covered him back up and kept going.34

The following day, Murtagh came over to the No.3 gun position and started relaying pointless information. Thomas responded to Murtagh, ‘it’s your fault we are in this mess’. Someone grabbed Thomas; he told them to ‘piss off’ and turned around to see Bombardier D’Arcy laughing. In only six to eight weeks into the tour Murtagh had become ‘a bit of a laughing stock’.35 Figure 4.5 shows the morning after the first attack and the rough conditions the soldiers operated in.

Figure 4.5: The sleeping areas and spent artillery shell casings bearing witness to the heavy and sustained fight that the Australians were involved in. Note: Bottom right of photograph (circled) is the gun trail of a 105mm M2A2 Howitzer from 102 Field Battery. This indicates just how close the sleeping areas were to the gun position.36

34 ibid, p. 3. Note: Gunner Sawtell was killed instantly when the attacking NVA fired point blank into his pit.

35 ibid., p. 2.

36 D’Arcy, personal collection.

79 Gunner Robert Costello (Cossie) of 102 Field Battery No. 3 gun had been waiting with the other gunners at FSPB Harrison since daybreak to be flown into FSPB Coral. Landing at FSPB Coral late in the afternoon, the gunners established the gun positions, but were unable to prepare defences due to inadequate stores being delivered. Weapons pits were not completed and at this stage Costello had only half prepared his weapons pit by the time ‘Stand To’ was called.37

Very early in the morning all hell broke loose as rockets were going above the heads of the gunners about six to eight feet and mortars were exploding around them. The gunners were well commanded by the Officers and Non Commissioned Officers. The gunners’ training kicked in and ammunition resupplies, defensive fire and fire missions were carried out accordingly. The artillery guns were firing over the protective dirt bund at the enemy running across their front.

Unlike Ahearn, Costello remembers that the night flew by, faster than normal.38

The interview with Costello reveals more than just his memory of the battle. Costello reflected on the importance of mateship and the camaraderie that is built with the men he served alongside.

I may be biased in my thoughts here, but our group, not only as a unit, but you could call Charlie Gun (No. 3), the immediate family if you like. I’m very biased towards Charlie gun as I have always thought that our mateship and comradeship is something that could never be broken. In my eyes, it’s a true relation to what mateship really is. I’m sure every gunner feels the same way about their guns.39

37 Robert ‘Cossie’ Costello (interview conducted 7 June 2013), pp. 1-2.

38 ibid.

39 ibid

80 Figure 4.6: Left to right, No. 3 (Charlie Gun), ‘Pommy’ Fisher, Costello, D’Arcy, Thomas (obscured) and

‘Stoney’ Bourke sitting under there shelter on 13 May after a tough night of fighting. Note: The holes in the tent (circled) are from exploding shrapnel, rockets and bullets.40

As morning approached, incoming rounds were still falling around FSPB Coral, and the NVA were still firing sporadically at the Australian positions. Ahearn had now returned to the Command Post and instructed Second Lieutenant Lowry to take a clearing patrol and head out through No. 6 gun. At the same time Ahearn would take the medical officer and others and

40 D’Arcy, personal collection.

81 head through the 1RAR Mortar Platoon. This was to do two things: clear the area of any enemy and to check the situation of 1RAR Mortars.41

Ahearn recalls.

The first one we came across was a wounded NVA and I distinctly remember that he had been hit with a burst on F1 9mm (sub machine gun ammunition) and you could see the rounds in his chest as it was just getting light. It was 1944 ammunition so it had only just gone in, he wasn’t feeling great, but he wasn’t anywhere near dead [sic]. He was the first we came across.42

Ordered to take a clearing patrol out through the gun position, Bombardier D’Arcy gathered Bombardier Burns (Burnsie), Gunner Floyd and a few others before cautiously moving out to begin a clearing search. The gunners had not moved far from the gun position when Gunner Ayson (No. 6 gun) opened fire and shot an NVA in the grass. On instinct, the men went to ground. D’Arcy was now looking at an NVA soldier and the end of his AK47 and pulled the trigger of his M60; the sound was a resonating thud as his M60 jammed.43

All I remember was Ayson firing; I hit the ground as trained to do and seeing the barrel of an enemy gun I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I was yelling at Burnsie to bloody shoot him, just bloody shoot him [sic]. I did this more than once. Burnsie assured me that he was already dead and I can get up and stop shouting.44

41 Ahearn, p. 7.

42 ibid.

43 D’Arcy, p. 3.

44 ibid.