Story 81 - Courtenay Hill 1971

"A Home with a View"


By Ken Mackenzie

For Nick, Bob and Mike – three of the best

104 Sig Sqn, Vetstory 81
Photo:  4RAR Digger with 'a home with a view' on Courtenay Hill.    Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

Tabulated Data:

  • Located at Grid Reference YS450905, on the western edge of the De Courtenay Rubber Plantation, 700m west of Route 2 in southern Long Khanh Province, Republic of Vietnam;

  •  Narrow, rocky, 800 ft. high feature; approximately 160 yards long by 65 yards wide, with a sloping south to north summit;

  • Benched on Northern and Eastern Sides;

  • Dominated local area;

  • Ringed by 1000s of metres of barbed and razor wire;

  • Defended by strategically sited Strong Points; each equipped with GPMG M60s; Starlight Scopes; M18A11 Claymore Mines; M79 Grenade Launchers, M26 Grenades and M1927A1 Para Flare Illumination;

  • Crossed-Mesh Wire – [RPG Screening] protected each strong point;

  • Other defences included clusters of ‘Banked’ M18A1 Claymore Mines; M49A1 Trip Flares and ‘Phoo Gas’ [half 55 Gallon Barrels filled with, a mixture of Diesel and Petrol, using M49A1 Trip Flares as the igniters];

  • Over 100,000 sandbags were consumed in the construction of command posts, bunkers and strongpoints;

  • Two Helo LZs: one on northern end of hilltop, one on lower eastern side;

  • Refuel and Water Point on lower eastern side;

  • Topped with 11 RC-292 Masts; and in the words of the CO 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn,

  • Courtenay Hill was the “Perfect Attack by Fire Proposition”

AM Jun 13th 1971 at Grid YS525885, Fire Support Base (FSB) Trish.
Warned by Battalion Operations Officer (Bn OPSO) to standby for a move east to Courtenay Hill at Grid YS450905, with the Commanding Officer (CO). Mission: Provide Step-up Command Net for Battalion Headquarters (Bn HQ) relocation from FSB Trish to Courtenay Hill.

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Photo: Aerial view of Courtenay Hill (left) at the commencement of Operation Overload in June 1971.
On the photo right is Fire Support Base Cherie containing three circular gun pits (US Army 155s) beside
Route 2.   Centre right: De Courteray Platation Airfield.    Photo  sourced via the AWM.

PM June 13th 1971.
Flew by Huey from FSB Trish into eastern LZ below Courtenay Hill, with CO. Trudged up the south side of Courtenay Hill with great difficulty, as everybody was trying to get down off it.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81    104 Sig Sqn, story 81
Photo (Left):   HQ1ATF packing up to leave Courtenay Hill at the end of Operation Overlord.
Photo (Right):  The track up to the top of Courtenary Hill.  Both photos sourced via the AWM.
Click each photo for larger view in another window

Headquarters 1st Australia Task Force (1ATF) Main, is in the process of moving from Courtenay Hill back to Nui Dat. First impressions of Courtenay Hill is that it will need a lot of work and space is tight. Complete a quick recon around the summit to familiarise myself with the lay of the land and existing defensive positions.

Moving In

We are working out of two M577 Armoured Command Vehicles (ACVs) with Tent Annexes deployed. A US Army CH47 Chinook arrives overhead with a large, slung, wire basket of Defence Stores. We race out and desperately try to wave him off but he ignores us and descends anyway.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  Two bunkers on Courtenary Hill.  Note the helmet, M577 (ACV) and the very dirty digger.
11 x 11 Tent is the RAP.  Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

The cyclonic downdraft from the Chinook’s twin rotors destroys the tent annexes, sucks every piece of paper out of the ACVs and badly kinks our two ‘292 antenna masts 2. Miracle that nobody was hurt. CH47 Crew Chiefs’ are laughing at our predicament and wave as they depart.

But they’re the only people laughing; it wouldn’t have been so funny if we’d had troops in contact. We spend the next half hour picking up our scattered codes, maps, message pads and logbooks from across the top of Courtenay. Do the best we can with the twisted and bent annexes and the ‘292s.

Fortunately we’re using RT-524s 3, and still have 5x5 Voice with FSB Trish and 1ATF Rear off the ACV’s Whips. The Battalion Command Post (Bn CP) will take over what was previously the 1ATF Main CP.

The rest of Bn HQ, Support Company (Spt Coy) HQ, Tracker, Pioneer Platoons (Pnr Pl) and the 104 Field Battery (Fd Bty) Commander’s (BCs) Fire Support Control Centre (FSCC) Party 4 begin arriving. We quickly erect our ‘292 on the West side of the CP, 104 Fd Bty Comd Net ‘292 is erected on the east side of the CP, and the Bn Command (Comd) Net ‘292 is erected on the south side of the CP. 

All Bn elements are complete on Courtenay by early next morning.

One of the Operation Overlord units still in place when we arrived at Courtenay Hill, was Battery C, 5/42nd US Army Artillery (Towed 155mm Guns). They’re at FSB Cherie (aka NDP Garth) Grid YS455905, beside Route 2 to our immediate east. They remained for a week or so, firing missions in support of us, and US 2/8th Cavalry troops in contact, as well as usual nightly H&I Missions 5. They were good fellas, too – lots of ration swapping and souvenirs galore…

AM June 14th 1971.
Operation Overlord was officially over.     A narrow, cramped, sandbagged bunker on the north-western edge of Courtenay Hill was to be my home for the next four months.

Fort Courtenay

Once we consolidated on Courtenay Hill it was immediately obvious that we needed to beef-up our defences. However, Courtenay was rock and could not be dug into. Everything needed to be ‘sand-bagged up’ and covered with a minimum of 18 inches, e.g. three or four layers of compacted sandbags, as Overhead Protection (OHP). Tons of earth were trucked up from the old NDP Garth site, which we used to fill our sand bags. Everybody not on duty was ‘hard at it filling sandbags’.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  104 Sig Sqn members filling sangbags. L-R.  Bob (Dustoff) Martin and Ken Mackenzie.
Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

The bunkers and strong points we inherited from HQ 1ATF Main were improved and reinforced, and new bunkers and strong points constructed in and around our summit perimeter. Over 100,000 sandbags were used in fortifying Courtenay Hill.

The perimeter on our western and north-western side was way too close-in for comfort. Dense jungle growth came right up to the perimeter wire. We quickly got stuck into clearing the jungle back, increasing the perimeter wire depth and moving it out another 15-20 metres.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  4RAR digger laying an M18A1 Claymore mine on the northern side of Courtenary Hill, while others begin moving the perimeter further out.    Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

The undergrowth was burnt back using a mixture of diesel and petrol. Murphy’s Law kicked in when the bloody wind changed and burning embers rained down on our hootchies, leaving them looking like they’d been blasted with shrapnel.

VHF Communications and the RC-292 Antenna Tango

Courtenay Hill was an ideal location for VHF Voice Communications (comms). We could always talk to each of our Companies, Nui Dat, and “Hurricane 31” the callsign of the G3 (Operations Centre) at the US Army’s HQ IIFFV 6, on ‘5x5’ Voice.

Our location made any rapid Ready Reaction Force support at night a near impossibility. FSB Debbie was our closest artillery/mortar support, however any night assault on us was certain to involve a simultaneous attack on them. That left Puffs/Spooky’s/Helicopter gunships, as our only support options. This is where Hurricane 31 came in.

The Bn CP was sited in an awkward location. It made the siting of our RC-292 VHF Antennas problematic. As mentioned, the 104 Fd Bty Comd Net ‘292’ was on the east side of the Bn CP, the Bn Comd ‘292 on the south side of the Bn CP, and our ‘292 was on the west side of the Bn CP. Due to the scarcity of suitable frequencies and close proximity of the three antennas to each other, there was continual problems with sporadic “Break-In’ across the three radio nets. We all learned to live with this eventually; though not before it caused a great deal of friction between the Regimental Signals Officer (RSO) and I.

104 Sig Sq, vetstory 81
Photo:  HQ 4RAR/NZ Bn on Courtenay Hill September 1971.   Photo supplied by Nev Haskett
Click photo for marked up details by Ken Mackenzie

Our relationship, already strained, became worse, when against my advice and strong objection, I was forced to relocate and remote our 1ATF Comd Net radio and ‘292 antenna away from the Bn CP, 70-80 metres north to the Pioneer/Tracker Sector. This put our radio and AN/GRA-39A 7 ‘Local Unit’ out of sight. Consequently, we would lose communications at critical times because of battery theft, or find the protective sandbags we’d used to cover the connecting telephone wire cable had been moved or stolen, leaving the uncovered wires to be tripped over/ripped out.

Fortunately, within days, we were issued with the magical TSEC/KY-38 Speech Security Unit and its companion KYK-28 Key-Loader ‘Gun’. These were a revelation and allowed us to run the 1ATF Comd Net ‘Secure’, when required. Best of all, the KY-38 couldn’t be remoted, and I wasted no time returning our radio to the Bn CP and ‘292 antenna to its original spot on the western side of the CP.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81

Several weeks later, it was discovered that our 1ATF Comd Net frequencies were not ‘discrete’, as we’d been assured by HQIIFFV.

It resulted in a new issue of ‘discrete’ frequencies and an additional TSEC/KY-38 to ourselves and 3RAR. This enabled the establishment of a separate “1ATF Commander’s Secure Net”, allowing Commander 1ATF to talk directly and separately to his Battalion Commanders. It also meant that we had to erect a second RC-292 antenna on the western side of the CP.

Active Enemy Electronic Warfare

 It was not uncommon to have local, alleged ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), or RF/PF (Regional Force/Popular Force) soldiers ‘come-up’ on our Nets. They had a bad habit of scrolling through the VHF frequencies until they found a quiet one and would start talking to each other. A few choice words was normally enough to get rid of them. However, we always had the suspicion that we were being tested.

From late July, early August on, within minutes of our larger contacts being initiated, Vietnamese voices would ‘come up’ on our Bn Comd Net and/or our fighting Company’s Internal Primary Frequency in brief, rapid, bursts of conversation, disrupting the command and control of the troops in contact.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  Showing the RPG screening on Courtenary Hill strong points.   Marked up by Ken Mackenzie

An immediate change to our Battalion/Company’s Alternate Frequency generally took care of the problem. However changing frequencies in the midst of a battle is far from ideal and fraught with danger.

Every half hour, each of our Company’s would radio in their current encoded platoon LOCSTATs 8. These would be decoded and passed to the Duty Officer, who would plot and mark them on the Bn Battle Map directly behind him. We would then pass these back to the 1ATF Comd Net NCS (Net Control Station), who would update their Master Battle Map in the 1ATF CP.

The moment one of our Company’s radioed “Contact – Wait Out!” – Bn Battle Procedures immediately swung into action. The CO would come straight into the CP and check the Bn Battle Map in company with the Bty Comd 104 Fd Bty.

To assist the CO to follow the battle more closely, we would switch the 1ATF Comd Secure Net Radio’s frequency to that of the fighting Company’s internal frequency. This allowed the CO to follow both the Company’s internal and external radio transmissions and ‘plan ahead’ as required.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  Looking north from Courtenary Hill with 161 Recce Sqn Bell Sioux 47G on the small pad.  Sioux used by the CO 4RAR/NZ.  Note the overhead telephone wires and the Pioneer Flag marking their stong point.
Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

As the Contact escalated, the Bn CP would go into overdrive. Contact Reports, Requests for Gunship/Artillery Support quickly followed and passed to HQ 1ATF for Ground and Air Clearance. However, the one we dreaded most was the Dustoff Request. These would be either Routine, Priority or Urgent. Often, a Company would transmit “Contact”, “Stand-by Dustoff”, “Wait Out”; signifying one or more of our soldiers had already been wounded or worse. This request was immediately passed back to the 1ATF Comd Net NCS. Our operators in the 1ATF CP were top blokes and always well ahead of the game; the moment we alerted them we were in “Contact”, they’d put the Dustoff and Gunship crews ‘on notice’.

It was not unusual for the BC 104 Fd Bty to take the CO’s Helo to the contact battle/areas, so he could assess artillery support from above and possible enemy exfiltration routes for further artillery interdiction.

Nor was it unusual for our Doctor, CAPT Paul Trevillian to be flown into a hot zone to treat and stabilise our seriously wounded soldiers, prior to an Urgent Dustoff’s arrival.

All the while, we remained impotent, frustrated and worried witness, on the other end of the radio and LS-166/U speakers.

On a lighter note, at 1900hrs daily, after the last Company NIGHTLOCS (night Locations) had been received, plotted and marked on the Battle Map, the CO would come into the CP to Brief / Debrief his Company Commanders. We’d already been banned from smoking in the CP on his orders. However, the CO smoked a pipe. Before he’d begin his brief, he’d fill his pipe, light it, and puff away, filling the entire CP with dense clouds of rich, aromatic, tobacco smoke. Needless to say, we breathed this smoke in, for all we were worth…

Home is where you make it

As mentioned, our sleeping/living/fighting bunkers were sited around the perimeter of the hill in groups of three. Each was constructed with double-sandbagged walls front and rear, roofed with sections of heavy steel, semi-circular, ARMCO Culvert / Channelling, which in turn was covered with a minimum of 18 inches of compacted sandbags. Three star-pickets were equally spaced across the bunkers front and rear from which we strung our hootchies. They provided the only shade on Courtenay Hill!

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:   Homes with a view on Courtenay Hill.    Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

They were the days when it was good to be alive. As feral as we were, it was still exciting and every day was different. Fighting was going on all around us: Contacts aplenty; Day and Night Ambushes; Pitched battles; Dustoffs; Mine incidents; Gunship Runs; Tracking Patrols; Recon Patrols; Standing Patrols; Airstrikes; Mortar DFs from FSB Debbie around the western side of our hill, and night movement on our perimeter wire.

And then there were the neighbours

This area was a notorious haven for VC/NVA soldiers. In April 1966 during Operation Abilene, the US Army’s 2nd/16th Infantry Regiment was ambushed here in the De Courtenay Rubber Plantation. In what became known as the Battle of Cam My, the 2nd/16th Infantry suffered in excess of 100 KIA and WIA. 

From the time we settled in, the 274th MF VC Regt and the 3/33rd NVA Regiment took a keen interest in us. The easiest side of the hill to assault was the western side, which just happened to be where our (Sig Platoon) sector bunkers and strong point were located.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  An M113 Fitters Track and two harboured Centurion tanks and their crews at Courtenary Hill.
Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

There was constant night movement around our western and northern perimeters as the VC/NCA reconned our wire and defences. The Cam My farmers tending their paddy fields to our north and west and the De Courtenay rubber plantations to our east and south, never took their eyes off us. We never took our eyes off them.

And then there was the view

We were captivated by a never-ending passing parade of: Pink Teams 9; People Sniffers10; Cayuses; Snakes; Hueys; Kiowas; Chinooks; Sky-Cranes; Jade’s 02 Cessna11; 547 Sig Troop’s Pilatus Porter; OV1 Mohawks 12; Earth-shaking 15,000 Pound Commando Volt Bombs aka Instant LZs 13, and 1 Field Engineer Sqn’s Road Clearing Teams working up and down Route 2 with their Mine-Clearing US M48 Tank 14, just to name a few.

At night we would sit on the top of our bunkers smoking quietly and watch firefights, marked by streams of red and green tracers erupting from all points of the compass. Or the fire-hose volume of tracers pouring from Gunships, Puffs or Spooky’s 15 Miniguns, as they worked-over the bad guys.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  Diggers on Courtenary Hill looking at the view.  Note the RPG sceening.  
Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

Rapid series of successive bright white flashes to the North and West signified Mohawk low-level photo missions. All the while, sounds of gunfire, explosions and the distinctive, hollow, ‘Boooms’ of RPGs. carried the night breeze.

We quietly cheered at the shocked surprise of the 274 VC Regt soldiers who attacked the 177th Regional Force Company at Cam My Hamlet. As they bugged out west through the De Courtenay Rubber, they ran slap-bang into a series of mechanical ambushes 16, we’d set earlier that day. The bright flashes and ‘Booms’ of the banked Claymore’s, which marked their ever-diminishing withdrawal, was a spectacular sight and sound show.  

We watched and listened to 3 Cav’s successful ambush of a Track Junction NW of Cam My; two separate VC Units, one heading north met another moving south, at this track junction. Both groups who were carrying flashlights and lanterns, stopped for a yarn. The Cav sprung the ambush and caught them cold. The bright white spotlights attached to the M113’s .50 Cal barrels scythed back and forth across the killing-ground like Damocles’ Sword,

About every month in the early evening, the Vietnamese 177th Regional Force Company at Cam My, would put on a show when they fired off their monthly ammunition allocation. It was fire-works on acid. And an obvious signal to the VC/NVA.

We regularly observed the French Plantation Manager flying his light airplane into De Courtenay Airfield to pay his workers, and probably ‘protection money’ to the local VC commander, every few weeks.

Morning Stand-To’s 17 – When the top of our hill was an Island in a dead-calm sea of white mist, reaching almost to our strongpoints. These mornings were eerie, yet strikingly beautiful. Other mornings would find us totally enveloped in thick, damp, fog, reducing our visibility to several feet at most. Both were memorable for their unusualness, but at the same time sobering, because each would have perfectly masked the approach of attacking VC/NVA from view and from air and artillery interdiction.

Evening Stand-To’s were generally accompanied by stillness and beautiful sunsets. And often by monsooning rain.

Every few weeks, the monotony would be broken by a “Clear by Fire” aka “A Mad Minute”.  On command, everyone would fire their individual weapons into the surrounding countryside for one minute. In the Sig Pl sector, this sometimes involved seeing who could get their tracers to set alight to the local’s thatched shade platforms that dotted the edges of the paddy fields, several hundred meters to our west, first.

Visitors

We had regular visitors, too. These included senior staff officers from Australia as well as ‘blow-in’ CMF 18 Officers (getting their ‘tickets punched for their one day in-country qualification for the Vietnam Medal) on “Familiarisation Tours”.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:    In the morning fog on Courtenary Hill at the front of the 4RAR/NZ CP is the visiting US Army Xuan Loc Commander's jeep AKA "Head Bastard".   Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

LCPL Doug ‘Rinso’ Purcell was an especially welcome visitor. Doug worked in Comms Con (Communications Control) at 104 Sig Sqn back at Nui Dat. He flew in weekly to deliver our Codes and the Secret Keylists for our TSEC/KY-38s. On the first occasion, Doug stepped out of the helo resplendent in his immaculate starched greens and polished black GP boots.

We, who were filthy dirty, covered in red dirt, and in clothes that were slowly rotting off us, looked on in stunned and envious, amazement.

After dropping off the Codes and Keylists at the Bn CP, Doug sensed the building resentment at his clean, pristine appearance. As he tried to tiptoe his way back to the waiting helo, Nick Mazzarol threw a handful of mud at Doug and it went nuts from there, we all started hurling clumps of mud at Doug as we laughed like maniacs. The incident was a great circuit breaker and a morale boost for us, and Doug took all in good humour. But Doug didn’t just deliver the Keylists, he’d keep us up to date on all the ‘Gossip, Rumours and Happenings’ from back in ‘civilisation’, bring copies of “Trouble Shooters Inc” 19, and other items we couldn’t source through the Bn.

In early September, we were blessed with a visiting South Australian Concert Party ‘who played the hill’. I stood guard in the Eastern Arty Strong Point that overlooked their makeshift stage. They were absolutely magnificent and the last Australian Concert Party to visit Vietnam.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  South Australian Concert Party at Courtenary Hill with vocalist Anna Allwood.   
P
hoto sourced via the AWM

The Commander 1ATF (1st Australian Task Force), BRIG Bruce McDonald (lovely bloke with a terrific sense of humour) 20 was a regular visitor to our hill. He would make a special point of coming into the Bn CP and say hello to us. The CO always extended him the honour of being formally ‘Piped On and Piped Off’ Courtenay, by the Battalion Pipe Major.

The Politician lost for words

One notable Australian politician was also a visitor to Courtenay Hill. Accompanied by the Comd 1ATF and entourage, he flew in for a ‘Handshake and Hello’ with the troops. Unfortunately for the politician he was late, we’d been kept waiting for his arrival for hours.21

Bored silly, the diggers in the next bunker to us, found some spare water and did a bit of washing. They strung their wet clothes across the front of their bunker to dry. And then began playing cards in the shade behind, as they waited.

Unaware of the politician’s arrival, they ignored him when he finally walked up and spoke to them through the still-dripping clothes. Only the RSM barking at them got their attention and they piled out and lined-up with the rest of us.

It got better.

The smiling politician cheerily asked one of these young Infantrymen if he needed anything. The young digger, a tall National Serviceman, forcefully replied Yes!”, “Can you stop those Fucking Bastards back at Nui Dat, from opening and reading the newspapers my Mum sends me from Australia, before they bring the fucking things up here? 

The politician, taken completely aback, stood open-mouthed as the CO went bright red. Comd 1ATF turned away smiling and the RSM tried hard to look serious. Tears streamed down my face. The politician mumbled something as he was quickly bustled away to the CP.

The fallout was immediate and the following edict issued: “In case of visitors; all people are to remain alert, no cards or games, no washing hanging from bunkers. No swearing, No questions!”

But our mail was never touched again.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo:  Nick Mazzarol flanked by two 4RAR/NZ Signal Platoon soldiers.  Left Pte 'Water Rat' Wallace and on the right Pte Ken Nelson.  All three smoking "King Edward" cigars courtesy of our regular US Army "Supplementary Packs".    Photo supplied by Nick Mazzarol

The Weather

It was either hot and dry or hot and wet, depending on the season. But Electrical Storms were the bane of our lives. The highest points on our hill were the top elements of our 292s! One lightning strike blew the ceramic pot on our TF Comd Net 292 to smithereens and completely fried the coaxial cable! Simultaneously, the heavy steel Arc Mesh reinforcing across the ceiling inside the CP lit-up with a sheet of bright blue Saint Elmo’s Fire. Fortunately, it was one of the very few times nobody in the CP was holding a radio handset.

There was another more dangerous side to electrical storms. A close lightning strike would initiate the blasting caps in our ‘banked Claymores’ 22. Apart from the danger posed by the back-blasts, if the claymores detonated they would blow big gaps in our perimeter wire.

Late one evening I was leaving the CP when a call came in reporting “Mortar Primaries east of Route 2”. As I waited outside for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, there was a large explosion at the southern end of Courtenay. I sprinted to my bunker thinking it was the first of several mortar rounds. We quickly discovered it was a lightning strike detonating a set of banked Claymores.

A Trooper was sitting guard in an APC to the rear of the Claymores. The back-blast blew him out his turret and into the cargo compartment through the open cargo hatch.

SPAR Alert

When the anniversary of the TET Offensive rolled around, the Bn received a warning via a “SPAR” or Special Agent Report that Courtenay Hill would be the target of a ground attack. There’d been increasing movement at night around the perimeter wire entanglements below the western and northern Strong Points. On one of these occasions, a number of M26 Grenades were thrown towards the sounds of movement.

The next day, our clearing patrol found several blocks of Chicom PE that had been dropped during a hasty retreat. For several nights in a row, I sat quietly on top of my bunker waiting, but nothing happened.

Hot August Nights (and Days)

We lived under constant threat of attack by the VC/NVA. The probes around our perimeter wire, particularly during August, served only to reinforce our belief that it was not a matter of “If” But “When.”

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
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.
See red circle on map.

Prior to departing for Vietnam, one of the courses I’d attended included a demonstration of just how easily and silently VC/NVA Sappers could penetrate barbed wire entanglements. It was also hammered into us that the VC/NVA preferred to attack in the late night/early morning hours, when defenders were least likely to be attentive. I never slept soundly nor took my boots off at night on Courtenay Hill. I would simply doze in snatches. And always with my .45 cocked and locked, in my hand.

This nearly proved disastrous. One evening Mike Jauncey was on sentry duty in our Sig Pl strongpoint. Mike detected noises in our perimeter wire. He came to my bunker, grabbed my feet and shook hard. Startled awake, all I could see was a crouching figure silhouetted against the night sky, I levelled the .45 at the figure and pulled the trigger but nothing happened. Then the silhouette whispered urgently, “Ken! Ken!” “There’s movement in our wire!” Heart-in-mouth, I climbed out and followed Mike to the strongpoint. We listened for half an hour but the movement had ceased and nothing further was heard. When I checked the .45, I realised the hammer was still on ‘half-cock’. I’ve never mentioned to Mike just how close both of us came to tragedy. After that, I kept the hammer down.  

Some of Courtenay’s August’s memorable incidents were:

040917hrs Aug 1971, on Route 2 SE of Courtenay at YS458896 20-25lb mine, aimed at our resupply vehicle was detonated by a US Army ‘Deuce and a Half’ 23.

112145hrs Aug 1971: Movement, followed by sounds of wire-cutting was detected below our Sig Platoon Strong Point. Engaged area with M79 HE fire which resulted in crashing movement away from perimeter wire down the hill. Pioneer Platoon also reported movement in front of their position. Stand-To ordered. Stood down at 2230hrs

112235hrs Aug 1971: Several personnel were observed approaching Spt Company’s position from the west. They quickly withdrew in the same direction when engaged with M79 HE fire. Sounds of movement and wire cutting were detected on Spt Company’s western perimeter. Area was also engaged with M79 HE. Enemy withdrew downhill to the west.

We could clearly hear whistle blasts and shouting in Vietnamese. Movement had now been reported in front of four of our strong points. All sectors were Stood-To.

120015hrs Aug 1971: A Trip Flare was activated on the perimeter wire in front of Spt Company’s sector and the sector Stood-To.  Stand Down ordered at 0030hrs. Movement was again detected on their perimeter at 0140hrs. First light search of Spt Company’s perimeter revealed a dropped grenade beneath in a partly-built shelter just adjacent to our perimeter wire.

222005hrs Aug 1971: Sentry detected 1 enemy crawling within 30m of our Sig Platoon strong point. Illumination fired and M26 grenades employed. At 2030hrs a figure was again observed on the perimeter wire below our strong point. More grenades were thrown resulting in heavy movement withdrawing to the south.

Between 2031 -2100hrs, the sounds of dogs barking and moaning were reported coming from the western base of the hill. At 2355hrs, further movement was detected on the perimeter in front of our Sig Platoon strong point. Grenades were again thrown resulting in movement heard withdrawing to the south. 

Further investigation by our Clearing Patrol found more scuff marks, less than 24 hours old. No friendly movement had been in that area during this time. Marks were approximately 40m from the Sig Platoon strong point on the western side of Courtenay. No other sign was detected. An aerial VR (Visual Recon) of the area flown at 0900hrs revealed fresh tracks approaching Courtenay Hill from the southwest.

230030hrs August 1971: Movement sighted on perimeter below our Sig Platoon strong point. Hand-held M127 parachute flares fired and area engaged with M26 grenades.

230230hrs Aug 1971: Voices clearly heard along perimeter wire between Spt Company and Sig Platoon strong points. Parachute flares fired and area engaged with M79 HE. A search at first light revealed fresh drag and scuffmarks. Clearing patrol found similar marks further down the hill.

232010hrs Aug 1971: Pioneer Platoon Strong Point detected the sounds of wire-cutting on their perimeter. M26 grenades were thrown into area and noises ceased.

The majority of these incidents occurred during our Bn’s Operation Northward, where we were operating to both the North and West of Route 2, chasing 274 MF VC Regt.

Good News and Bad News

The month of August 1971 also lives on in my memory for two other things; firstly, that’s when we were informed that 4RAR would be withdrawn from Vietnam by Christmas. This not unexpected news was greeted with relief by some, dismay and disbelief by many others, including me.

Secondly, I was finally able to take an R&C. It was my first time out of the field since we deployed on Operation Overlord back in early June.

On August 26, 1971, I flew down to Kanga Pad at Nui Dat and walked up into 104 Sig Sqn’s Lines. I’d arrived just as they preparing to take the Squadron Group Photo (See 104 Sig Sqn VetStory 5). Perfect timing.

An Army marches on its stomach

We normally ate US “C” Rations (Meal Combat Individual) or Freeze-Dried “LRRPs (Long Range Recon Patrol)” rations. These were terrific compared to our miserly Australian equivalents, which thank goodness, we rarely received. Apart from lousy menus, the biggest downside of the Australian ration packs were the cereal blocks each contained. We were beset with plagues of bush-rats. It was bad enough that the bloody things would run all over you at night, and more than occasionally bite you.

However, these ravenous rodents would chew completely through a rucksack and into a ration pack just to get at the bloody cereal blocks!

Once a fortnight we’d receive ‘U.S. Army Sup Packs’ (Supplementary Packs). These were issued one between ten men. Each contained: Cartons of Cigarettes (all Brands and types), Packets of King Edward Cigars, Tins of Flavoured Chewing Tobacco, Cans of Shaving Cream, Chewing Gum, Writing Pads, Biros, Envelopes, Packets of Kool Aid Crystals (all flavours), Tooth Brushes, Toothpaste, Toilet Paper, Soap, etc. etc. Our American brothers never did anything by halves.

Our Bn Resupply Vehicle, a GS Mk5 Truck, would travel the 35km up Route 2 from Nui Dat with an escort several times a week. It would bring mail and whatever else that was needed which couldn’t be flown in. Where people needed to be returned to Nui Dat for RTA, R&R or R&C 24, etc. one or more Mk 5 Trucks fitted with ‘centre-seating’ would accompany the Resupply Vehicle.

104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81    104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo (Left): View from Northern end of Courtenay Hill looking East towards NDP Garth/FSB Cherie.  Note RC-292 Antenna.    Photo (Right): View from Northern end of Courtenay Hill looking East towards
NDP Garth/FSB Cherie.   Photos by LCpl Lindsay Spratt, 4RAR/NZ Bn and sourced via the AWM.
 
Click each photo for larger view in another window

We looked forward to its arrival, because it would also bring the occasional hot meals. These arrived in the venerable, green, mermite Hot Boxes and would be either a lunch or a dinner. The hot boxes were distributed around the hill by sectors, to avoid large groups of people gathering in one spot.

Dinners were interesting, as we had to eat and clean up before Stand-To. On the downside, if one of the hot boxes contained a sweet dessert such as the usual “Berries in Syrup”, we’d be swarmed by Vietnamese Honey Bees.

If it rained, then we simply ate in the rain [21 years later, on our first night in Cambodia, I stood amongst my soldiers in monsooning rain eating a cold meat salad out of my dixies, when a Cambodian Soldier not 20 feet way, let loose with an AK47. I flashed back to Courtenay Hill – not much had changed and I was only a couple of hundred klicks west of my 1971 home!].

And it was in one of these small Courtenay Hill meal queues, that a soldier suffering from conjunctivitis, stood quietly. Inside three days, most of us had pussy, red eyes, too. The conjunctivitis seemed to disappear as quickly as it appeared.

The Route 2 Mine Incident

In an effort to destroy our Bn Resupply Vehicle, suck us into an ambush or both, the VC/NVA planted a 25-pound landmine on Route 2, just south of the turn-off to Courtenay. Fortunately for us, they hadn't counted on a US Army Artillery convoy also travelling north up Route 2 that day.

Suffice to say they got the only empty truck in the convoy! The remainder of the convoy immediately employed anti-ambush drill and ridded both sides of the road with all calibers of ordnance. We heard the almighty "Boom" of the explosion and ran to the East side of the hill to watch the action, especially the Cam My rubber-tappers breaking all sorts of Olympic cross-country hurdling records, as they beat it in all directions - but mainly towards us!

And we began to get the over-shoots! Within minutes Loaches and Cobras were cruising around overhead, looking for trouble and people to shoot – we did a lot of waving!

Nick Mazzarol, Bob “Dust-Off” Martin and Mike “Audie” Jauncey were amongst enthralled audience, that day. Mike even managed to capture some photographs of the action...

Battalion Operations

 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion launched the following Operations from Courtenay Hill:

a.   Operation Hermit Park, 14 June - 27 July 1971, North East & North West of Route 2;
 

b.   Operation Iron Fox, 28 July to 04 August 1971, North West of Route 2;
 

c.   Operation North Ward, 06 August to 17 September 1971, North West and North East of
  Route 2;
 

d.   Operation Ivanhoe, 18 September to 02 October 1971, North East of Route 2 in the vicinity
   of Nui Le.   This was Delta Company’s life and death battle for survival deep in the bunker
   system housing the 3/33rd NVA Regiment’s Headquarters. This action elevated Delta’s OC,
   Major Jerry Taylor’s already formidable reputation to legendary status
25, and
 

e.   Operation Valiant, 03 October to 06 October 1971, East and West of Nui Dat.

The End is Nigh

Come September, we were all well and truly “feral”. I managed to stop "Dustoff" from shooting the RSO (Dustoff swears it was the other way around). Shortly after, the RSO and I got into it. Dramas aplenty. Then an ‘Open-air Orderly Room’ in the middle of Courtenay and Severe Reprimand from the CO. Probably the only time the Accused and Escorts were all armed – in the ‘Loaded Condition’, too! 

104 Sig Sqn, vetsory 81    104 Sig Sqn, vetstory 81
Photo (Left):  Looking West to Eastern side of HQ 4RAR/NZ Bn on Courtenay Hill.    Photo (Right):   View from South-Eastern side of Courtenay Hill looking East.   Australian Army International Mk IV 21/2 Truck can be seem traveling on the road to the Hill.    Photos by LCpl Lindsay Spratt, 4RAR/NZ Bn and sourced via the AWM.
Click each photo for larger view in another window

Later, I was asked if I’d remain with 4RAR during the 1ATF withdrawal phase from Nui Dat. If not, I could swap places with SGT Mick (Bluey) Joseph, who was Troop SGT of Radio Troop at 104 Sig Sqn back in Nui Dat.

By this time, Nick MazzaroI had left to run the Bien Hoa Detachment and Bob “Dustoff” Martin had gone to Duc Thanh, where he was to earn his famous nickname.

They were two bloody good soldiers; tough, determined, no nonsense operators who knew the business inside out. Their replacements had very hard acts to follow and found life in the Bn difficult.

Mike Jauncey and I were now the only two originals.26

I’d loved to have stayed, however my working relationship with the RSO had completely disintegrated and it was time for me go. However, I was genuinely sorry to leave the Battalion.

So, on the 5th of October 1971, I bid a final farewell to Courtenay Hill and flew down to 104 Sig Sqn at Nui Dat.  And on the 6th of October 1971, the first day of Operation Southward, I took over as Troop SGT of Radio Troop and SGT Mick “Bluey” Joseph took my place at 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn.

I’d forgotten how good it was to shower every day, instead of once every week, wear clean clothes, eat three cooked meals a day, instead of canned ‘C’s or Freeze-dried ‘LRRPS’. And sleep on a comfortable bed, rather than the cramped confines of my narrow, sandbagged bunker, with hungry bush-rats for company.  

But whilst it was good to be back in ‘civilisation’, I really missed the camaraderie and adrenalin of being out in the ‘Boondocks’ with the Battalion, and whether tonight was finally the night that the 3/33rd NVA and/or the 274th VC Regt, finally determined that Courtenay Hill was well worth the risk... and have a seriously good crack at us.

There was absolutely no doubt they’d closely reconnoitred our hill. And there was no quick, or easy way off Courtenay, either. If they’d simultaneously hooked into us and our guns and mortars at FSB Debbie, we’d have been in a world of very serious hurt.

There’d been numerous ambushes, battles, contacts and mine Incidents all round us. We’d caused the VC/NVA no end of pain and suffering since Operation Overlord.  So, why they never hit us hard has always remained one of life’s enduring mysteries to me. Especially since the 274th VC Regt thought nothing of ambushing the 1ATFs D&E Platoon aboard three APCs, coming within a whisker of wiping them out, so very close to Courtenay Hill on 12 June 1971.

Perhaps they simply decided to ‘wait us out’, knowing that within a couple of months, they would have it all to themselves anyway…

Postscript: Courtenay Hill, my home for so long, was handed over to the Vietnamese 177th Regional Force Company, from Cam My, a small Ville 2 klicks East of Courtenay Hill. If things ran to normal, they’d do what they did at Cam My; that is, pick a clear evening and fire off their entire monthly ammunition allowance at one go, just to let 274 VC Regt or the 3/33rd NVA, they represented no opposition.

 

References:

     A.   The Fighting Fourth – 1972.

     B.   Fire Support Bases Vietnam - Brice Picken, 2012 (Bruce was a 4RAR Pioneer on Courtenay.

Notes:

1.    The M18A1 Claymore mine was an aboveground, directional fragmenting antipersonnel mine. It weighed 3½ lbs; 1½ Ibs of which was C4 explosive that sat behind 700 steel ball bearings. Correctly sited, it had a kill range of 50 to 100metres across an arc of 60 Degrees.

2.  The RC-292 was a lightweight, aluminium 40ft mast topped with a long range, Vertical ¼ Wave Antenna and ground plane, with a frequency range of 20 to 76MHz.

3.   The RT-524VRC was a powerful VHF Radio fitted to M113 APCs, M577 ACVs and as the ‘Base Station Radio’ for the 1ATF Comd Net.

4.  104 Field Battery was our Battalion’s Direct Supporting’ Artillery Battery. Their Forward Observers (FOs) were located with each Company and Platoon. The Battery was equipped with US M2A2 105MM Howitzers, which had a range of 11.2Km. Both 104 Field Battery’s 105s and our Mortar Platoon’s 81MM Mortars were located at FSB Trish, as there was no room on Courtenay for the mortars. The Battery Commander (MAJ Towning), and his party of 6, comprised the Fire Support Control Centre (FSCC) and were also located in the Battalion Command Post. In simple terms, their role was to coordinate all our artillery support. This including plotting and registering nightly artillery Defensive Fire positions (“DFs”) around each of our halted Company’s. In artillery parlance, these “DFs” were colloquially known ‘Tin Trunks’. Ground and Air clearance had to be sought from 1ATF before any artillery could be fired in support of our Battalion.   

5.   H&I, or Harassment and Interdiction Missions, engaged suspected VC/NVA routes and positions with a number of artillery rounds fired at random intervals throughout the night and sometimes during the day.

  

6.  HQIIFFV was the abbreviation of Headquarters, 2nd Field Force Vietnam. This was a US Army Unit and our superior Headquarters. They were located at “The Plantation”, close to the sprawling US Amy Base at Long Binh, not far from Saigon.

7.   The “Radio Set Control Group AN/GRA-38A” allowed a radio to be remotely located and controlled up to 2miles (3Km) away from the operator’s actual location. It consisted of a Remote Unit, which stayed with the operator, and a Local Unit, which was located with the radio at the transmitting antenna location. Each was powered by 6 ‘D-Cell Batteries. The Remote and Local units were connected by the standard US Army WD-1/TT telephone cable or the lighter weight ‘Assault Cable’.

8.  A LOCSTAT was a location given as a Six Figure Grid Reference and Status i.e. ‘Halted’, ‘Moving’, or ‘No Change’. 

9.   A “Pink Team” was the term used to describe a US Cavalry ‘hunter-killer’ team of two Helicopters. It comprised a White Troop 0H6A ‘Cayuse’ Light Observation Helicopter aka “Loach”, and a Red Troop AH1G Cobra Gunship aka “Snake”. The mixing of the two (Traditional Cavalry) colours of Red and White produces ‘Pink’ – hence the name “Pink Team”.

10. “People Sniffers” was the term used for a US Army Personnel Detector. This was a device that could detect the human scent or body odours of people on the ground. It could be man-packed or larger versions fitted to UH1H ‘Huey’ Helicopters, which is what we would see flying early morning missions.

11. Jade was the Callsign of our FAC or Forward Air Controller. He was a US Airforce pilot attached to the 1ATF and based at Luscombe Field, Nui Dat. He flew an O2 Cessna Airplane and would be in the air over our Battalions every day. If we needed air strikes or Gunship support, Jade would call and coordinate their bombing / napalm / Gun / Rocket runs. Jade was cool, calm and collected with a lazy drawl. He was known to ‘dog fight’ with 547 Sig Troop’s Eve’s-Dropping Pilatus Porter, when bored.

12. The OV-1 Mohawk was a very quiet, twin-engine US Army observation and attack aircraft. It was renowned for its photographic ability and for its Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) capability. In our region, they were based out of Vung Tau Airbase.

13. Commando Volt Bombs or “Instant Landing Zones (LZs) were not something you’d ever forget in a hurry. 15,000 pounds or just over 7 tons of explosive, makes a big noise. We were forewarned that one would be dropped 20 klicks to our west. The subsequent explosion and incredible shockwave felt like it was next door. The ground shook beneath our feet.

14. 1 Field Engineer Squadron had somehow managed to ‘acquire’ a US Army M48 Patton Tank. They had a special set of large ‘Mine-Rollers’ fitted to the front of the tank to detonate landmines. Their ‘road-clearing team’ would drive the tank up and down Route 2, daily. It was pretty hard to miss especially with Callsign 92T painted in white on the turret. The tank did its job well and was badly damaged by mines on several occasions.

15. “Puff” (Puff the Magic Dragon) and “Spookys”, were nicknames of the Douglas AC47   Dakota aircraft, which had been fitted with three Mini Guns, each of which fired around 4,000 rounds per minute. These aircraft were an awesome sight to behold, especially at night; when they fired their guns, they appeared to be breathing fire.

16. A Mechanical Ambush was a set or sets of banked claymore mines fitted with trip-wires at both ends of the bank and camouflaged.

17. Stand-To is a state of immediate readiness traditionally observed at Dawn and Dusk, normally for one hour before and after each. After which, Stand Down can be ordered. Stand-To can also be called if attack or action is imminent.

18. CMF was the abbreviation of Citizen Military Forces. Now known as the Army Reserve.

19. “Trouble Shooters Incorporated” was a small, Radio Troop newsletter. It contained all sorts of gossip, innuendo, rumour and scandal, of goings-on in Radio Troop and the rest of 104 Sig Sqn. As well as a bit of fun, it kept all us far-flung Radio-Troopers up to date. It was produced and typed in Comms Con by LCPL Doug ‘Rinso’ Purcell. “Trouble Shooter”, was the callsign of the Radio Troop Commander, LT Graham Botwright, “Trouble Fixer” was the callsign of the Troop SGT, Mick ‘Bluey’ Joseph and “Trouble Maker” was the callsign of SGT Ken Mackenzie.

20. During Exercise Kangaroo 2 at Shoalwater Bay, Queensland in 1976. I happened to be in the Headquarters ACV checking a KY-38. The Commander Field Force Command, now MAJGEN Bruce McDonald, entered the ACV with a full Colonel in tow. I stood up. He peered at the nametag on my shirt, thought for a moment, smiled and said “I know you, Sergeant Mackenzie!” I replied, “Yes you do, Sir, Good to see you again.” He shook my hand, turned to the Colonel and said “Sergeant Mackenzie served with me in Vietnam.” and left the ACV. Reckon my chest didn’t puff out.

21. We weren’t the only ones. The Politician’s first stop was to be one of our Company’s which had just completed a gruelling Operation west of Route 2. Instead of being transported straight back down to Nui Dat, the tired and exhausted soldiers were made to wait, harboured up on the side of Route 2 in the sun. They were ordered to shave and clean up with what little water they had left, so they’d look ‘presentable’ for the politician. It did not go over at all well. Most especially when he arrived very late.

22. ‘Banking’ Claymore Mines is the linking of a number of these mines with Detonating Cord (Detcord), a thin, white, flexible plastic tube filled with high explosive, which burns at approximately 6,400m per second. When initiated, it synchronises the simultaneous detonation of all the ‘Banked’ mines. We normally banked our claymores in ‘Fours’.

23.  A ‘Deuce and a Half’ was the US Army’s nickname for their standard 2½ ton 6x6 truck.

24. RTA, R&R and R&C are the abbreviations for ‘Return to Australia’; ‘Rest and Recuperation’; a 5 Day out of Country Leave (plus travel time), and ‘Rest and Care’, a 3 Day In-country rest break, normally taken down at Vung Tau.

25. Jeremy Hepworth Taylor AM, MC, was the consummate Infantry Officer. Cool, calm, collected and Ice-cold under pressure. Brilliant tactician and brave as a Lion. He led from the front. I had the honour of previously serving with Jerry following his first tour of Vietnam with 2RAR. He loved his soldiers and would never ask them to anything that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. We caught up again when I went across to 4RAR. Jerry was then OC Admin Company. He took over Delta Company ‘in the field’ when their OC left suddenly for medical reasons. On one occasion when the sections of his forward platoon were pinned down under withering fire in a bunker system, Jerry took the ’77 off his radio operator, leapt onto the back of a supporting centurion tank and directed the tank into the bunker system and around his prone and wounded soldiers. All the while under the same withering fire. He then had the tank manoeuvre so it could squash the enemy bunkers one by one, until they were neutralised. And the end of the engagement, he was briefing the CO over the radio and remarked “It’s moments like these you need fucking Minties’!”, then a very popular advertising jingle and saying, back in Australia. Not long after this battle, Jerry and I were chatting on Courtenay Hill.

I noticed there was a paperback book in his right-hand ammo pouch instead of another two magazines. When I remarked on this, Jerry pointed to the magazine on his SLR, laughed and said, “Ken, I’m the Company Commander, if I have to fire more than one magazine, we’re in serious trouble!”


On the 21st of September 1971 during Operation Ivanhoe, Delta Company managed to get into the middle of a bunker system which housed the 33rd NVA Regiment’s Headquarters. All hell broke loose. Jerry calmly directed the battle and led his men out of it afterwards. His soldiers would have followed him to hell and back. This action later became known as “The Battle of Nui Le”. Jerry Taylor later wrote the penultimate account of his Battalion’s second tour of Vietnam.

 
The book is titled. “Last Out”--“4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion’s second tour of Vietnam”, published by Allen and Unwin in 2001, ISBN 10: 1865085618, ISBN 13: 9781865085616. Sadly, Jerry Taylor passed away on 18 November 2017.   

26. Mike Jauncey was to be the longest serving RASigs member of 4RAR, later moving across to Delta Company. Delta became the designated rear-guard who covered 1ATFs withdrawal from Nui Dat to Vung Tau. Then Delta Company too, departed for Vung Tau and Australia.


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