Story 21 - Stories from CMF Soldier

By Leo Powning


Familiarisation Detachment to 104 Sig Sqn

I was attached to 104 Sig Sqn for familiarisation in March 1969 from 8 Sig Regt.  Communist forces had been very active throughout South Vietnam in the previous three weeks, with US losses at over 1,100, so I expected anything to happen.  Here are some notes on a few of my familiarisation activities.

From the Service Record of Leo Powning showing Detachment to 104 Sig Sqn

 Convoy Escort

VC or Friendly ???We waited at the Nui Dat main gate while a few diggers did the early morning clearing ritual of driving up and down the road to the highway in a Landrover while an interested throng gathered at the gate to watch.  The clearers and we were pleased they discovered no mines in the road the hard way and after they returned we set off in our three APC’s.   Like every new arrival I knew from my training back in Australia that the VC dressed in black pyjamas and carried AK47 rifles, so when we passed a group wearing black pyjamas I queried the crew commander who enlightened me that all peasants wore black pyjamas.  We then came across men with AK47s and I was advised that friendlies also used AK47s because of their reliability.   Nonplussed, I asked the crew commander how we could identify the enemy:  he replied - "you'll know they're enemy all right if they start shooting at us".

APC's in harbour triangleAfter the first escort run from the Courtenay plantation area to Baria, we pulled into the scrub off the road and waited for another convoy to arrive at the RV.   We formed the three APC’s up in a harbour triangle, leaving each with a man on its 50cal machine gun, and got out for a leg stretch.

 We no sooner got out of the APC’s than youths appeared out of the scrub selling Coke and joined us inside the triangle - bizarre!  Would have been a mess if a firefight had started.  Back on the road again in the APC’s, ours with a faulty track clutch causing us to make a zig-zag course along the road.  More escorting always being courteous to locals including pulling off the road and stopping to let funeral processions, etc, go by.   Having seen those mine-damaged APC’s in the workshops, knowing what an RPG round could do to them through their thin sides, and not knowing how to identify the enemy, I was glad to get out of the APC at the end of our convoy escorting.

Dat Do Pickup

We were to pick up a suspected VC in Dat Do for questioning.  A small section of troops, a sergeant, interpreter, and myself.   We pulled over and planned the operation outside the village.  I had previously been ordered to notify the police when we entered the village but the sergeant advised against it saying that the police would just warn the VC - I agreed we should advise the police on the way out of the village.   We entered the village at high speed in the Land Rovers, tore down the main street, made a right into the suspect's street, and screeched to a halt outside his house.  The sergeant and interpreter went into the house and I deployed the section around the house in hedges, etc.Waiting outside a vietnamese house !

 After 10 minutes no one had come out of the house and bursts of 50cal machine gun fired, a click away, signalled some sort of activity.   I sent a digger into the house to check the status.  He came out with the sergeant, the interpreter, and a frightened old woman.  I asked the interpreter what was going on and he answered that we had gone to the wrong house. There was a province house numbering system and a village system, we had used the wrong one!   He said it would be a waste of time going to the right house; the suspect would be long gone.  Back into the vehicles, advise the police on the way out (they were unhappy about it), and back to Nui Dat.  If the old lady wasn't a VC sympathiser before, I wonder if she was when we left.

Psychology Operations (Psy Ops)

Psy Ops needed one of those small Swiss-made tape recorders fixed urgently for installation in an aircraft to play recordings over a PA system to the enemy after contacts to  try and get them to surrender.   Everyone in 104 Sig Sqn was too busy - or smarter than me - to spend time on it so I had a crack at it.  I found the fault, repaired it, and put the Psy Ops tape in to test it.  Damn, the whole audio section took off - awful feedback.  I was trying to trace the feedback fault when the Psy Ops bloke came in, heard it, and thanked me for fixing it.   I told him it was still faulty and he said "No - it's working well!"   What I thought was feedback were the wailing spirits of their dead, which was supposed to frighten the VC and encourage them to surrender.

Cessna 180 were used for Psy Ops missionsI suspected the wailing spirits had about as much impact on their morale as those leaflets the VC left around our lines asking why we were helping the "American Imperialists". Then again, at least we were able to use their leaflets for toilet paper.

Forward Air Control (FAC)

Cessna 0-2 at Nui DatI had done RAAF basic flying training in the 1950s so jumped at the opportunity of the Observer's seat in a USAF O2A (Cessna 337 push-pull twin) with a Kiwi pilot out of Luscombe Field.  We stooged around free-fire zones looking for VC and saw groups of people but the pilot said they were just woodcutters. The signs around the area advised that anyone inside would be regarded as VC but the peasants couldn't read anyway so we left them alone.

We then joined up with a small Bell observation helicopter.  The 'possum' helicopter was to fly low at a few hundred feet over a plantation while we stayed up at a few thousand feet.  If anyone fired at the possum from the plantation, its pilot would advise us, we would note the location and call in artillery.

Bell Sioux The plan worked - after flying around the plantation for 20 minutes the possum pilot reported he was receiving ground fire.  He said the helicopter was damaged, and he was returning to Nui Dat.  We called up for artillery but it was refused.  Artillery said there were no enemy in that area.  The Kiwi pilot said "they just don't want to have to pay the plantation owner for the destroyed rubber trees".  We waited up at 5,000 feet for whomever the shooter was to leave the plantation.

After a while a fellow came cycling out of the plantation and we followed him up the road.  He turned into a house and we noted the location so we could hand it in and have the shooter picked up.  We had marker rockets on board and couldn't land with them on so had some target practice firing them at trees then headed back to Nui Dat.  On the way back to Nui Dat the possum pilot called us up.  After landing he had found that he hadn't received ground fire, it was a mechanical fault.  Just as well (a) artillery refused fire when we requested it and (b) the possum pilot corrected his report or there would have been a few less rubber tappers that day.

 Looking for US Army Signals Officer

I palled up with a US Army Signals Officer who headed up their detachment at Nui Dat in March 1969.  I was away at Long Binh for a few days and when I got back to Nui Dat, went looking for him.  His sergeant told me they had lost communications for a few hours and the Officer had been pulled out.  I have lost the officer's name; does anyone from 104 Sig Sqn remember it?  He had been a schoolteacher in Civilian Street.


Leo Powning

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