Graham J. Christie JP – Keynote Address – VV Service North Geelong Memorial – 12th August 2018
Veterans, Distinguished Guests, AAFC Cadets, Band Members, Ladies, Gentlemen & Children – condensing 26 days of a War is difficult – but to do the same for the 50 years since is decidedly hard work – but I will give it my very best.
As one of seven urgently required Reinforcement Troops we National Servicemen – or more correctly –Temporary Soldiers – as Morse Code trained Radio Operators from the 777 Troop in Ingleburn – we 7 nervously arrived by Boeing 707 via Darwin to Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon on the 18th November 1967 – within the hour we were flown by Caribou aircraft to the Luscombe Airfield at Nui Dat – We had now arrived into another Asian mess and the sadness that was Vietnam. A short Base orientation – then I was assigned to the 161 Independent Recce Flight where I was privileged to have flown with the CO Major George Constable – a hero killed later near Fire Support Base CORAL.
At this same time the other six 777 chaps – went onto Signals, Battalions and Engineers. A few months later I was transferred to the Operations War Room of Task Force Headquarters to maintain Battalion radio communications, decipher priority coded messages and place troop movements on huge wall maps – for the Task Force Commander, GSO2 Ops and Duty Officers – in 12 hour shifts.
Following a very strange Christmas – 1968 hit us like a train wreck – as the Communist juggernaut lead by Russia, China, North Korea and now North Vietnam was being used against the freedoms of all Western Democracies – the World was in crisis and we Temporary Soldiers were in a most unfriendly place – when 10 months earlier as civilians we had very different hopes and aspirations.
The Year began horribly with the Tet Offensive or Vietnam New Year fully engaging the US in massive battles at Khe Sanh, Hue City and Quang Tri – all at a time when the medium of television was now placing this absolute horror show – as it happened – into the lounge-rooms of every American home. These devastating images and the seemingly endless lines of body-bags of American Soldiers – was frighteningly changing the once optimistic confidence that was the Heroic American Vietnam Story to hometown USA – this phenomenon of carnage was also now slowly filtering into the World News media – ultimately becoming an all pervading influence on the Australian psyche – the Politicians, their Constituents and the pending future lot of eligible 20 year old young men – and their Families.
The Paris Peace Talks were gaining headlines as the possible solution – but in reality they were just a complete ruse by the North Vietnamese Leaders Ho Chi Minh and his General Vo Nguyen Giap who saw an opportunity to launch their annihilation strategy of human-wave warfare to overrun and destroy every Allied Base in the Country – a no retreat – kill or be killed policy – at a time when they perceived that the US particularly – were at their weakest – politically, strategically and emotionally.
We Temporary Soldiers were a long way from home – as History was taking a turn for the worse.
The World News could not keep up – Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the National Guard were shooting Students on Campuses, Black Panther and Civil Rights marches were turning American cities into firestorms and urban battlefields, Russian muscle had invaded Czechoslovakia with 200,000 Troops, hundreds were killed in riots in Mexico City, the USS Pueblo was captured with all hands by North Korea, millions went on strike in France – the upheaval of the Cold War was now universal with violence & civil disobedience rampant throughout the World.
In this time of increasing conflagration – Direct Orders to the Task Force increased markedly from the 21st April from the US Commander 11 Field Force – General Fred Weyand and the Supreme Allied Commander – General William Westmoreland as they sought to enter the Australian Task Force into mainstream hostility via the jigsaw of expanding warfare within the eleven Provinces around Saigon.
The ATF Forward were ordered to move from their normal Area of Operations in the Phuoc Tuy Province at Nui Dat in the East and now locate West with Two Battalions and Support Units to a most inhospitable and seemingly isolated site about 40 kilometres North of Saigon in the Bien Hoa Province – with the Ho Chi Minh Trail snaking in from the North and the massive wetlands of the Mekong Delta spreading out to the South and West – areas entrenched with huge units of both Viet Cong and NVA Regulars collectively focussing their destructive intent to the ultimate prize – Saigon.
In early May 1968 I had just turned 22 while stationed at the large US Base at Long Binh – learning new call-signs and test firing weapons during sweeps from RAAF gunships – when on the 12th of May we were urgently mobilised to arrive by another Huey Chopper into an area of rolling grasslands and rubber plantation – at around midday – to a new patrol Area of Operations codenamed “SURFERS” – composed of the Task Force Forward, the 1st & 3rd Infantry Battalions – lead by both Lt. Col. Phil Bennett and Lt. Col. Jim Shelton with support units of the A Squadron 3 Cavalry Regiment, 12th Field Regiment, 1st Field Squadron and detachments to establish two separate sites within the defined Area as the larger Fire Support Base “CORAL” and the alternate Fire Support Base “BALMORAL”.
The beach theme was bizarre and an amazing paradox.
The aspect of our commanders not being fully advised of all the information regarding the immediate enemy unit strengths in our area – was highlighted more by a large but unknown conflict the US were engaged in to our Northwest – adding strength to the analogy of us as “the canary in the coalmine” – a vulnerability that became more relevant as establishing these Bases became more convoluted.
What was to become abundantly clear – after the event – was that the invasion strategy by this elite North Vietnam Army 7th Division of around 5,000 soldiers – was fully in play – as they grew supremely confident of annihilating us – strategically reducing our two locations to nuisance value – as they watched from their hidden vantage points physically witnessing our haphazard and complicated insertions. This advantage was highlighted even further as the battles raged – when it was finally found we were within the immediate vicinity of their huge bunker systems all along – their advantage was consummate – it was obvious to them that militarily they could confidently move South to Saigon – after completely destroying these irritant Australian sites and every defender in them.
Our fate had been sealed as we had become the only obstacle that stood in their way to Saigon.
Insertion of our Units on the 12th May was indeed a mess – far too late in the day, an inability to land at pre-determined sites, late changes to preferred perimeters, incomplete communications, late locating and bunding of the guns and unit placement of infantry – all made uncertainty compelling as night closed in – then – as if on cue – torrential rain fell as the daylight disappeared in an instant – reducing everything to black – water filling many of the pits of those who actually had them – drenching them and putting the many who ran out of time to dig their own life-saving pits as fully exposed and above ground, saturated, with eyes frantically trying to pierce the black bucketing rain – urgently seeking to connect with mates, frantically removing the clinging mud from weapons and trying to avoid sinking into the soft smelly mess – put everything on a natural high alert – as we resolutely took up our sodden positions with hearts pounding and nerves jangling.
The scenario could not get any worse – or could it.
The initial Orders of this deployment was to interdict with spasmodic Viet Cong units moving North from Saigon after their murderous incursions – as time passed this was SNAFU in its purest form.
As noted – the enemy were not regional village Viet Cong but battle-hardened North Vietnamese Regular Army and they were not heading North but South from behind us. Our predicament escalated to the extreme – when in the early morning hours of Sunday 13th – of that first night – Mother’s Day in Australia – all hell broke loose as a massive barrage of hundreds of mortars and rocket propelled grenades accurately landed in our relatively small area – seemingly lasting for ever – the roar of the incoming bombardment intensified as their crunching explosions impacted in and all around us – the chaos of splintering trees, mud, shrapnel & death was unabated. We reacted to our defences instinctively while our senses screamed to us that we were now fighting for our very lives.
The 1RAR Mortar Platoon were another late placement and though linked with elements of 12 Field Regiment HQ and 102 Battery – they were all inexplicably on the exposed northern perimeter of the Fire Base – a mute-point that was soon to become deadly – in a heart-beat – as an incredible human-wave onslaught of literally thousands of the enemy – seemed to rise from the ground only metres to their front – a fearsome avalanche of rampaging shadows and chilling noises – rapidly firing as they ran defiantly into CORAL – attacking with a resolve to terrify, confuse and overwhelm the Task Force with a two-fold plan – to murder every defender before them while capturing all the artillery pieces to increase their arsenal with the very weapons they could use – to ultimately sack Saigon.
The Australian response was determined, courageous and deliberate – in the ANZAC Tradition – although scrapping as hard as possible – our small-arms fire did not seem to halt the massive assault that was fast becoming their killing field – in pitch black – the probability of annihilation was at hand.
As the assault grew – Invention replaced convention when the order was made to use the remaining Howitzers (as one had already been captured) – 105 mm guns that were initially tracked to support BALMORAL some 4 kilometres away – were now ordered to be urgently levelled to the horizontal – over open sights – firing high explosive Splintex – each round containing thousands of metal darts – in rapid fire over the heads of the prostrate soldiers of the Mortars immediately to their front – a sustained thunderous fury that comprehensively stopped the swarming enemy in their tracks – immediately saving the lives of those Australians who had survived the first onslaught – as gravely outnumbered defenders. The official enemy body-count was patently inaccurate – as many of this huge swathe of charging NVA humanity were simply vapourised by the efficient point blank maelstrom from these big guns.
The battle volume over the next 26 days at these Fire Support Bases was constant and large, including four Human-Wave Assaults, 5 mass saturation mortar attacks, more than 57 firefights in Open Warfare and three huge bunker battles – engaging our Task Force in many, many battles – the outcome conclusively changing how Australians fought the War from that time on – battles that were heralded within the Military as an accomplishment of outstanding battle cohesion, unity and valour. In time it became apparent that the US Military Command had reasons for having us deployed to this location – at this time – from a canary we realistically had become “the prey to attract the Tiger”.
A second huge onslaught took place at CORAL on the 16th May – with such arrogance that highlighted the enemy’s dire need to save face against an adversary they had previously rated as highly inferior. They incredibly attacked from the same direction and with the same battle plan – a mortar barrage then a human-wave – inspired without doubt by their duty to honour Ho Chi Minh’s pending birthday on the 19th May – their plan was to celebrate the Day with the blood of these impertinent Australians – such a cleansing being the only recourse for this Army to emphatically reinstate their battle honour.
The initial smaller numbers in CORAL had now increased and was fully Militarily prepared – supported by the heavy 155 guns of the US Artillery, an air superiority with devastating firepower from Huey Gunships, Phantom Fighters and their napalm, Cobra Assault choppers and the exceedingly accurate multiple machine gun fire of the DC3 Spooky – the NVA were decimated with even heavier losses.
After a few more days, the enemy strategy changed tack and they now sought to direct retribution on the outlying BALMORAL – initiated by flattening CORAL with an even greater massive mortar & rocket barrage – as a diversion for this separate human wave assault which was met again by a heavily prepared defence – with Centurian Tanks adding even greater ground resources to the BALMORAL Base – their additional guns inflicted exceedingly heavy losses on the enemy. The order to have these Tanks brought up from Nui Dat made by the Task Force Commander – Colonel Don Dunstan – had immediate impact – putting the Task Force now at Brigade strength for the first time since World War 2 – the tables were turning – the new Task Force strategy was to resolutely counter the enemy’s invasion strategy by taking the attack to them – head-on – in Open Warfare – an “in your face” offensive to totally crush their remaining forces – actions that lead to the many firefights and the powerful attacks on their huge bunker systems – lead by the Tanks – to inflict such losses on their unit structures that the enemy was forced to arbitrarily concede and totally withdraw.
The horror initially planned by this large enemy force had been conclusively averted with their Division being comprehensively flattened – a resounding result that had effectively saved Saigon.
The impact of the loss of 25 young men – although devastating over each day of the conflict – began to resonate as the enemy contact subsided – the men of the Fire Support Bases began to reflect emotionally on the deaths of their mates – as despair and exhaustion finally caught up with the previous overpowering hyped-up adrenalin of pure survival – this despair increasing further when later in the conflict Major George Constable was shot down and killed on the outskirts of CORAL.
In June 1968, Nui Dat welcomed the PM John Gorton who arrived probably as a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s advice to him that the Allied Supreme Commander in Vietnam – General William Westmoreland had recommended a US Citation for Bravery to all Those who had served at the Fire Support Bases – as a result of his personal inspection of CORAL – the day following the second Human Wave Assault. The PM congratulated all on their success and then returned to Australia and not only put a lid on the achievement – he did not even follow through on the US Citation.
The fall-out from this time to the Veterans of the Fire Support Bases onward – was maximised by insipid journalism, political interference and the angst of censorship taking priority over bravery – this became a pill too hard to swallow – especially when we finally returned home – the extraordinary closeting of information on these many Battles started to impact – as Those who had served in these life-changing conflicts – now felt betrayed – but the neglect was to continue for many more years yet.
The very first Public Notice that these Battles had even occurred was finally announced by personal invitation to the 40th Anniversary of the Battles – an incredible 40 years late – an event held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra in 2008 – which incredulously – soon after this fish-bowl event – Civilian Australia were still kept unaware – the Schools, the Universities, the Media and from other Commentators who embarrassingly ignored or suppressed the facts – the void had now become an insult – empowering Veterans that were left – to keep passing the baton on to all those who remained – to fight for National awareness – for the children and the grandchildren – for our Mates both past and present – for the People of Australia – to right a wrong – that was so very wrong.
Eventually after another 10 years of lobbying and attending onerous submission Hearings – the celebration of the 50th Anniversary became more significant – when finally a much deserved Citation for Gallantry was awarded– the disquiet of waiting for the same aching period of 50 long years – became an anti-climax of jumbled elation, immense pride and sadness – to some – emotions froze.
In all humility we Veterans will forever remain sad for those many – far too many – as their passing denied them the journey to receive the grateful thanks of the Nation – included two in particular that worked so hard over the years for this recognition, namely Major Garry “Pepe” Prendergast and Brigadier Neil Harvey Weekes of 1 RAR who both sadly died before the acclaim – their loss being further exacerbated when the CO 3rd Battalion at BALMORAL – Lt. Col. Jim Shelton died on the very day the Citation was announced – the emotion of our Remembrance to the Fallen of Fire Support Bases CORAL and BALMORAL – after such a long time – again magnified – as the hurt went deeper.
We that are left are all humbled by the Gallantry Citation – and we now trust that the pages of Australia’s Military History will be opened – for all the Nation to see – that the seeking of recognition by the CORAL BALMORAL Veterans particularly – enduring years of indifference and ignorance – will receive the heartfelt appreciation of a grateful Nation for their valour, their resilience, their youth.
Without dispute the many Battles of CORAL BALMORAL are the most epic by Australian Troops in the Vietnam War – they genuinely deserved to have become folk-lore, the Soldiers eulogised, the Battles commemorated, their Courage acclaimed by the Nation – at the very time they were actually fought.
However History was altered by Politics and a Decree so savagely and wrongly applied – coloured by Street Marches and the noise created by the other MANY – who publicly scorned their very own age group – a reaction probably created by fear – but a criticism that was completely inappropriate.
When in reality from 1965 to 1972 the 63,000 lads that actually did honour the Call-up as National Servicemen and therein Serve their Country – were in total union with that other unique band of Nasho’s – the 19,000 who actually did go on to serve in Vietnam – where 200 were killed, 1,279 were wounded and over this journey – the many hundreds that have died since – All embraced the Spirit of ANZAC – proudly bonding with the Regular Career Soldiers – as their Brothers-in-Arms – for all time.
All Vietnam Veterans following their Tour of Duty – resolutely continued to hold their heads high – though many – did so in their very own way – or as best they could – in isolation – with loved ones – in silence – in pain – or all of the above. But All knew their service was as worthy – as it was remarkable.
While The Epitaph for every CORAL BALMORAL Veteran in the mess that was 1968 – will always remain – that they were Heroes a lifetime before Their Country even became aware of Them, of their Battles, or of their Gallantry.
LEST WE FORGET