ONE SMALL STEP, ON MOON OR MINE.

The destruction of 3 Platoon in the “Light Green”.

July 21st, 1969.

Garry Adams

We were on our second operation in Vietnam, Operation Mundingburra, in the southern part of Phuoc Tuy Province in an area known as the “Light Green,” so called by its colouring on the military maps.  We had been in the bush since the 14th of July and had killed a couple of enemy in fleeting clashes without suffering any losses ourselves.

On the 21st, we were operating, along with 3 Platoon, in the sandy coastal scrub near the old deserted village of Hoi My.  All movement had stopped, the Americans had set foot on the moon and the news of this historic moment was being broadcast over the military radio network.  We had stopped for a break on the slopes of a sand hill which gave us a good view of the surrounding scrub.  The words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,”  had barely been uttered when there was the crump of an explosion, a brief burst of fire and then the dirty brown gray smoke cloud rolled up out of 3 Platoon’s area about 300 metres to our north east.

There was silence for a couple of minutes, then someone from the platoon came up on air calling for immediate medical assistance.  The platoon had hit a mine, a M 16 anti personnel mine, which when activated, would be propelled about waist high out of the ground before detonating and spreading its 8 lb. of cast iron shrapnel in a lethal 360° arc.  The initial reports were bad, one dead and many wounded, some of those would have to be stabilized very quickly otherwise they would die.   The evacuation system soon swung into action and a helicopter bringing the doctor, Capt. Anderson and an engineer mine clearance team was inbound to their location.

The name of the man killed was sent, it was the platoon commander, Lt. Peter Hines, who had been killed instantly.  The names of the wounded were also coming through, Jerry Newberry the platoon sergeant, Frank Hunt, Ben Hall and on it went, all of our mates badly wounded, 18 in all.  Bill Wallace, our platoon commander, came around to tell us the news.  He was pretty upset because Hines had been one of his best friends.

As we watched, more helicopters came in to ferry out the wounded.  The engineers had worked quickly to establish a safe area and had marked it with gray plastic minefield marking tape and the doctor worked hard to save a number of those critically wounded.  The battalion C.O. flew in and with him was our C.S.M. Jim “Smiley” Myles who had come to take charge of what was left of the platoon.  It had been about 30 minutes or so since the mine went off.  All of the wounded had been evacuated and were on their way to hospital in Vung Tau which was only about 15 minutes flying time away.  As we watched the whole affair from our vantage point, there suddenly came the rolling boom of another explosion. One more dirty cloud of smoke rose above the scrub, they had detonated another mine.  

The doctor, Capt. Anderson had done a lot of work getting the worst of the wounded stabilized for their life saving flight to hospital.  When they were all gone he spotted a Viet Cong mine warning sign, “Bai Min” (danger mines) on a tree just outside of the marked safe area.  Thinking it would make a good souvenir and before anyone saw what he was doing, stepped over the safety tape and trod on another mine.   The mine was buried a bit deeper than normal and exploded at ground level.  Anderson had both legs broken and lost both eyes.  Lt. Colonel Butler, the C.O. was wounded, as were three of the engineers and one of the survivors of the first blast.

The C.S.M. moved around checking for casualties and found John Needs, a section commander who’s efforts had saved a lot of the wounded from the first mine, sitting down against a tree.  When he was asked if he was okay, he said that he just felt a bit tired but he was okay.  When he was asked something a few minutes later they found that he was dead, killed by two pin head sized bits of shrapnel that had punctured his heart.  There was a lot of sorrow in the company at John’s death, it was his second tour of Vietnam and he had been married only a couple of weeks before we left Townsville.  He had been a good friend to many of us. 

 This half hour or so, on a fine and warm July morning, a day that history will always remember as the day man landed on the moon will forever be remembered by those of us who were there as the day we lost two killed and twenty four wounded on two U.S. made mines, stolen from an ill conceived and utterly useless Australian laid minefield,  the brainchild of one of our senile senior officers that provided the enemy forces in the area with an unlimited supply of mines that would kill many fine young Australian soldiers for years to come and still have the capability kill and maim young Vietnamese to this day.

A day or so later we were moving out of the area, I was leading the company down the side of a large sloping sand hill.  We paused for a moment to watch the B 52’s hit the Long Hai hills with a massive bombing run and after this rather awesome display had finished I moved on.  I turned around to see if the others were following, they were, about 100 metres behind me and each member of the company was following in my footprints.  I had the feeling I was the living mine detector that day, and that is something I will never forget.

Garry Adams

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