Reflections by Anthony Eaton on Detachment 131 Div Loc Bty South Vietnam 14th Jan 1969 to 30th July 1969

The account that follows of events some 46 years ago is made through the mist of a very imperfect memory.  Consequently dates, names and places may not be particularly reliable.  Fortunately my memory has received some prompting by the contents of letters (thankfully saved by my wife) written during my time in Vietnam.  I have also refreshed my recollection about the location of a number of Fire Support Bases using the resources of the Internet.

I joined 131 Divisional Locating Battery at Holsworthy around March in 1968.   At that time the Battery was part of 19 Composite Regt (which subsequently became 8 Medium Regt).

When issuing my posting order some months earlier, the Directorate of Artillery at Army Headquarters advised me that I was to succeed Phil Perrin as OC of the Detachment in January 1969.

My service to that point involved a brief stint in 110 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery in 1965 and then as a Launcher Officer in Army Guided Weapons Trials Unit, Woomera, from December 1965 to March 1968. 

Prior to my posting to the Battery, I had virtually no knowledge or experience of locating apart from fleeting contact with the CMF 132 Div Loc Bty in Melbourne.  I was attached to the Bty while undertaking post RMC Duntroon civil schooling.  This attachment involved only very occasional contact and I don’t remember gaining much of an insight into the world of Locating at that time.

My posting to the Battery was as the Task Force Artillery Intelligence Officer (TFAIO) and soon after arrival I was sent on a Regimental Officer’s Locating Course at the School of Artillery (covering, over a two to three month period, Artillery Intelligence, the ANKPQ Radar, Sound Ranging and a smattering of survey).  So far as I can recollect this was the only formal training given with subsequent locating skills acquired on the job. 

I have vague memories of Battery and Regimental exercises during 1968 and I remember attending a 1 Field Regt exercise at Tin Can Bay that was part of the Regiment’s preparation for its 1969 tour of Vietnam.  I was invited to attend the exercise in anticipation of my working as part of the Regiment’s tactical headquarters upon its deployment to Vietnam.  Towards the end of 1968 I attended a Battle Efficiency course at the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra.

I departed Sydney on 13 January 1969 and arrived in Nui Dat on 14 January 1969 and succeeded Phil Perrin as OC about a week later.  The only thing of note about the flight to Saigon was that I shared it with Tpr Normie Rowe the size of whose farewell contingent far exceeded mine!

My handover from Phil was a busy week of familiarisation with elements of the Detachment including visits to various areas of 1 ATF and to a US facility in Long Binh.  At the time of my arrival the Task Force was deployed forward undertaking Operation Goodwood so as soon as Phil departed I joined the 12 Field Regiment Artillery Tactical Headquarters (Arty Tac) located at Fire Support Base Julia which was north of the village of Thai Thein on Route 14 in Bien Hoa Province, some 30 kilometres north of Nui Dat.   One of the Detachment’s radars was deployed in the FSB. 

The day-to-day role of the Detachment OC /Task Force Artillery Intelligence Officer was, apart from artillery intelligence duties, to act as a duty officer in Arty Tac.  This role was shared between the BC HQ Bty, the TFAIO and other officers posted to the Regiment on short-term attachments.  The role included fire planning (mainly harassment and interdiction [H&I] tasks), obtaining and issuing ground and air clearances for targets engaged by our guns, clearing targets within our Area of Operations that other artillery elements planned to engage and occasionally the conduct of opportunistic fire missions based on our intelligence.  A particularly onerous task was the manual decoding of long lists of target grid references in order to provide clearances requested by our US friends for their extensive H&I fire plans.

Around the end of January while at FSB Julia I was asked to conduct a crater analysis at Bear Cat as part of an investigation into a friendly fire incident. (I can’t recall the details or the outcome but I have a vague memory that the analysis confirmed the round came from a Thai unit, the prime suspects)

One operational artillery intelligence task that has remained with me occurred when at FSB Julia (may have been later while at FSB Kerry) following rocket attacks in the area of operations.  The launch sites were identified through shell-rep reports from infantry elements and were successfully engaged by our guns.  The following day Infantry patrols located the launch sites including a number of enemy dead and unexploded rockets.  The 12 Fd Regt CO, Jack Kelly directed me to fly to the site to identify the weapons.  On arrival the infantry patrol commander met me and showed me the site.  It was not particularly pleasant; our counter bombardment fire had been very effective.    One body was clutching a rocket and another partly buried apparently in some haste.  It also appeared that the latter might have been booby-trapped. The weapons were 107mm rockets usually employed by North Vietnam Army forces.

I am not sure exactly when we left FSB Julia but it was towards the latter part of February when the task Force HQ redeployed to FSB Kerry.  This was around the time that 1 Fd Regt replaced 12 Fd Regt.  A friend, Phil Ratcliff was BC HQ Bty and I shared duties in Arty Tac with him for the rest of my time in Vietnam.  FSB Kerry was NE of Bien Hoa, about a kilometre or two north of Route 1.

One issue of concern to the Detachment during early 1969 was a significant reduction in the number of surveyors on establishment.  I mentioned in a letter at the time that the survey establishment had virtually been halved resulting in difficulty in meeting the demand for artillery survey in the Task Force.  Our requests to address this problem had apparently fallen on deaf ears at Army Headquarters.

The deployment to FSB Kerry lasted through March until we relocated to FSB Jillian on 3 April.  Jillian was located about four kilometres south of Route 1 and about 15 kilometres south east of Xa Trang Bom in a rubber plantation.  I recall that shortly after our arrival a number of large rubber trees fell without warning resulting in at least one case of injury to persons.

We left Jillian after only a few days and following a brief deployment to FSB Martine returned to Nui Dat around mid April.   B Battery 2/35 US Artillery (“Husky Bravo”) accompanied the Task Force to Nui Dat and I believe remained there for a number of months.  The BC, Dick Bresario (spelling?) was good company and was a regular guest in the Regimental Officers’ Mess!

I can’t recall any significant events for the Detachment in the months that followed our return to Nui Dat.  It was probably the first time that I caught up with the Section Commanders, Andy Overall and Paul Tys both of whom had arrived while I was deployed forward.   It also provided an opportunity for some relaxation.  I remember members of the detachment organising a Rugby League game at one point.  The game was played on a dusty patch of ground within the Base that was equipped with goal posts.  I had a referee’s ticket for Rugby Union so was co-opted to referee the game.  I had only a broad knowledge of the laws of League so many of my decisions no doubt left League fans wondering!  Never the less it was an enjoyable break for us all from the everyday routine.

In June a number of rockets were fired at the Task Force base with only one falling within the perimeter. There was no damage.  Paul Butcher and I were sent at short notice to do a crater analysis on the one that had landed inside the perimeter.  On arrival at the site we found that a press photographer was already there waiting to take a shot of the professionals in action!  Embarrassingly we had arrived without our crater analysis kit and to assist in measuring the angle of entry the only stick we could find had a distinctive dogleg along its length.  Nevertheless the photo was duly taken and appeared in the North Shore Times a week or two later.  (See attachment)

Around the middle of July the 131 Divisional Locating Battery Commander, Ian Darlington, who had recently succeeded Bob Donaldson, arrived from Australia to visit the Detachment.  One aspect of his time with us was a planed visit that he and I were to make to the US Marine Corps base at Dông Hà the northern most town in South Vietnam just south of the Demilitarized Zone.  Of interest to us was the employment by the Marines of a sound ranging base to locate artillery sites north of the border.

We arrived at Dông Hà around the 25th July.  We had barely settled in and met our hosts when I received a word that my second daughter had been born with a significant disability and I was to return to Nui Dat as soon as possible.  I returned to Nui Dat the following day and then on to Australia a few days later.  Subsequently it was decided that I should remain in Australia thus cutting short my posting to the Detachment by some five months.  My understanding is that Ian Darlington extended his visit to Nui Dat to bridge the gap between my departure and the arrival of my successor Brian Kennedy.