Story 66 - Honouring the Vietnam War Dead

 

at the 1st Combat Signal Regiment


By Denis Hare and Ken Mackenzie

 

104 Sig Sqn SVN       HQ Coy, 1ATF

Introduction

 

The 1st Combat Signal Regiment (1CSR) has 104 Signal Squadron (104 Sig Sqn) as one of its two combat signal squadrons.  104 Sig Sqn was an independent squadron that saw war service in South Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 and in this period three of its soldiers were killed.  They are honoured at Regimental Headquarters (RHQ) with a memorial.

 

     104 Sig Sqn War Dead Memorial

 

The Regiment also has a Headquarters Squadron which has an historic link with Headquarter Company (HQ Coy), Headquarters, 1st Australian Task Force (HQ 1ATF) from the Vietnam war.   A plaque at the front of RHQ, 1CSR also honours the soldiers killed in action whilst working with HQ Coy, 1ATF.

 

  1CSR Plaque

 

HQ Coy, 1ATF Overview

 

This was formed to provide administrative and logistical support staff to HQ 1ATF (the forerunners of HQ 1 Bde), which included personnel ranging from intelligence to pay clerks. During its deployment it suffered eleven killed in action (KIA), as follows:

   
L/Cpl A. Ruduss 12 Jun 1966
Pte D. B. Plain 01 Mar 1968
L/Cpl K. I. Dewar   24 Jun 1969
Pte T. A. Evens 25 Dec 1969
Cpl K. J. Boardman 12 Jun 1971
L/Cpl J. N. McCarthy 12 Jun 1971
Pte T. J. Attwood 12 Jun 1971
Pte R. W. Driscoll 12 Jun 1971
Pte D. C. Hill 12 Jun 1971
Pte P. Tebb  12 Jun 1971
Pte M. Towler 12 Jun 1971
   

HQ Coy, 1ATF, also had a Defence and Employment Platoon (D&E Pl) of infantry soldiers, who in the early days of the Task Force were employed in building the facilities required by HQ 1ATF. The D&E Pl further had the additional responsibility of defending HQ 1ATF by providing the last line of defence.

 

HQ 1 ATF Banner


D&E Pl, 1ATF, was the longest continuously serving infantry platoon in South Vietnam, being continuously reinforced through the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit.  The platoon remained on the Order of Battle until late 1971 when 1 ATF withdrew from Nui Dat to Vung Tau.  Another point of interest is that General Peter John Cosgrove AC MC, was the Pl Commander of D&E Pl from 30th Sep 1969 to 30th Jul 1970.  

 

 

Operation Overlord, South Vietnam 6th to 14th June 1971

 

Operation Overlord started on 6th June 1971 after reports from the Special Air Service (SAS) Long Range Recce Patrol (LRRP) that there were large concentrations of enemy troops in the province next to Australia‘s Area of Operations, Phuoc Tuy Province.

1 ATF SVN AO
Map of 1ATF Area of Operations (Phuoc Tuy Province) with De Courtenay Plantation on the border with Long Khanh Province.  Courtenay Hill on the left of the Plantation area, just inside Long Khanh Province.

Operation Overlord was a “Search and Clear” operation. It took place along the Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy Province border north-east of the De Courtenay Rubber Plantation in an area known as the “TRAC (Third Regional Assistance Command) Special Zone”.  It was discovered that Main Force (MF) VC/NVA: 274 VC Regiment, D445 VC Battalion, and 3/33 NVA Regiment troops were using this area to train, re-equip, re-enforce and launch attacks into Phuoc Tuy Province against local hamlets and villages, almost at will. 1ATF and US Army Forces decided to conduct a major operation (Overlord) with the aim of destroying and disrupting all enemy elements in this region. The plan was for the 2/8th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st US Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to block north-east and east along the Suoi Luc river.  4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion was deployed to block south and south-east along the Soui Ran river system and A Sqn, 3 Cav Regt was to be used as the cordon.  3RAR was to search between the two blocking Battalions and destroy any enemy found in the area. Operational Control was vested in the Commander of the 1ATF who’d located his Headquarters (HQ) on the top of Courtenay Hill, east of Route 2 and within the De Courtenay rubber plantation.

Elements of 104 Sig Sqn were deployed with HQ 1ATF Main at Courtenay Hill along with a Radio Relay Detachment from 110 Sig Sqn.  As well as manning the 1ATF Command Net, 104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators were permanently attached to 3RAR and 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn’s and other 1ATF units. In addition, 104 Sig Sqn Radio Operators were detached to Liaison Officer Teams travelling with the supporting US Army units. Also deployed to Courtenay Hill to support and protect the deployed HQ 1ATF was the D&E Pl from HQ Coy.

104 Sig Sqn ACV Callsign 85C104 Sig Sqn Callsign 85C SIGCEN and Radio Relay from 110 Sig Sqn plus other HQ 1 ATF ACV's  at Courtenay Hill during Operation Overlord June 1971.  Photo supplied by Pete Bird.

On the 12th June 1971, the worst casualties in the operation occurred, when three APCs with soldiers from D&E Pl riding on top of the carriers, was ambushed and hit with an RPG rounds. Note 1  One RPG round detonated claymore mines and other ammo, stored in an ammo box, on the top of APC Tango Alpha 84B. Seven members of D&E Pl were killed in action including the APC crew commander and driver.

At the time D&E Pl, were operating on the 1ATF Comd Net (VHF) and the battle for survival of the ambushed D&E Pl was broadcast on the net, jamming it!

Operation Overlord is now known as the Battle of Long Khanh.

1ATF Troops running on APCsUnknown 1ATF Troops riding on APC’s (WAR/70/0018/VN)

1ATF Comd Net Jammed

The 104 Sig Sqn Radio Sergeant 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn at FSB Trish, Ken Mackenzie, recalls the chilling details;

On the afternoon of Jun 12th, I was manning the Task Force Command Net radio in the 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn CP at FSB Trish. A “Tango Alpha” [M113] Callsign (CS) came up on the net calling “CONTACT”, “CONTACT”! Followed by graphic descriptions of the situation as it was occurring around him. Explosions, 50 and 30caliber fire, heavy small-arms fire and yelling could clearly be heard over the top of his transmissions.

Problems immediately arose because the Tango Alpha CS was not releasing his “Push To Talk” [PTT] and while we are getting a running commentary on the battle, he’s transmitting on a ‘524’ Note 2 and jamming the net. The Tango Alpha CS was pleading for help and on the verge of panic. Apparently there are many KIA and the two Tango Alpha CS preceding him are destroyed or disabled. The Net Control Station [NCS] is trying to contact the D&E CS with no success. The situation sounds ominous and extremely dire.

Within moments, the TF COMD Net has changed to our Alternate Frequency. The battle is raging close to 1ATF Main at Courtenay Hill.  Transmissions across the TF COMD Net indicate difficulties in reacting RAAF Dustoff support from Nui Dat, and CS “JADE”, our US Army Forward Air Controller [FAC], is coordinating Helicopter Gunship and “Fast Mover” support. Note 3

And it must be “Danger Close Support”, because Aircraft Commander’s are asking for the “Ground Commander’s Initials”. Note 4

Further transmissions indicate distinct possibility of two of our soldiers being captured.

CO reacts B Company and Assault Pioneers into the battle area.

A passing US Army Dustoff – “Medevac 66” comes up the TF COMD Net. He offers to extract our casualties from the contact area. Medevac 66 asks for confirmation that one  “WIA” [Wounded In Action] is missing a leg and “Papa Zulu” [Pick-Up Zone] is hot. I can’t hear ground transmissions to Medevac 66.

Medevac 66 lands thru fire and extracts our WIA. Pilot’s voice is calm, and 'matter of fact' and he advises he is inbound Long Binh [US ARMY Medical Hospital].

Grid references passed in clear indicate that the battle is now concentrated around a bunker system that parallels a creek line within 1500 metres of Courtenay Hill and most probably involves 3/33rd NVA Regt or 274 VC Regt. Note 5

Confirmation received that no personnel were captured by enemy. Both missing persons have now been accounted for.

We were later briefed that three M113 APC carrying members of the D&E Pl were sent to an area west of Courtenay Hill to investigate ‘Agent’ reports of enemy activity. However no sign of enemy activity was detected and they returned to Courtenay Hill. Later that same day, reports were again received of enemy activity in the area. The D&E Pl reboarded the M113s and proceeded back to the area by the same route they’d travelled earlier in the day. During the return journey, a box of M18A1 Claymore Mines fell from the leading M113 [each M113 carried a box of six (or more) Claymore Mines. These were used for protection at Halts and Harbours]. The second M113 stopped and a soldier retrieved the claymores, which were stowed next to this M113’s own box of claymores. At the same time, the last M113 had slowed to a stop to maintain his tactical distance from the second M113.

In the meantime, the leading M113, which had continued on, rounded a slight bend in the track and was struck by an RPG-7, severely wounding both the Driver and Crew Commander and disabling the M113. All three M113 were immediately engaged by enemy fire. Simultaneously, a Satchel Charge was thrown onto the second M113, which detonated both boxes of claymore mines as well as the first-line ammunition also stored on top of the M113. The catastrophic explosion that followed killed or badly wounded all those aboard the M113. It was the Crew Commander of the third M113 who’d called in the contact. Maintaining his distance from the second M113 had kept him out of the killing zone and allowed him to provide a firm base of fire in support of his leading elements caught in the ambush.

I have also heard that that the explosion on the second M113 was caused by an RPG-7 striking the claymore mines. Whatever the cause, it was a terrible and tragic day for the D&E Platoon. And one I have never forgotten.

APC Tango Alpha 84B   APC Tango Alpha 84BRecovered APC Tango Alpha 84B at Nui Dat. 
Left photo supplied by Nev Haskett and right photo supplied by Ken Mackenzie.

 Conclusion

While all soldiers killed on war service involve Signals for reporting within the Army system and the sad communications for the deceased to be returned to their love ones.  The Vietnam War dead from 104 Sig Sqn and HQ Coy, 1ATF are forever linked and commemorated at the front of RHQ, 1CSR.

1CSRLest we forget!

Notes:

1.    The practice of troops sitting on the top of the APCs as they travelled was frowned upon but this was common practice because the troops found it cooler.   Additionally, it was felt that there was far less danger in being ‘blown off’ the carriers, than ‘blown up’ inside them. The obvious downside was that there was little or no protection from enemy small arms fire.

2.    The RT-524-VRC was a powerful VHF Radio fitted to M113 APCs.

3.    JADE” was the Callsign (CS) of 1ATF’s resident US Army FAC (Forward Air Controller). “Fast Movers” were US Airforce F4 Phantoms delivering 500lb Bombs and Napalm into the contact area.

4.   US/AS Aircraft providing ‘Danger Close’ air-support to troops on the ground would always ask for the “Ground Commander’s Initials”. This was their means of confirming that they were actually talking to the ground commander involved, and to ensure that the ground commander was aware and understood that ‘friendly’ casualties may occur.

5.   It was elements of 274 VC Regt.

 References:

a.    HQ 1ATF War Diaries Jun 1971 (AWM95-1/4/225).

b.    The Battle of Long Khanh by Michael English ISBN 0642222266.

c.    Report on Operation Overlord – 104 Sig Sqn War Diaries, Jun 1971 (AWM95-6/2/51).

d.    Diary Notes Operation Overlord - Ken Mackenzie. 


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