'We thought we were going to die'

25 May 2018 by Claire Hunter

Brian Buzzard

Vietnam veteran Brian Buzzard: "It was psychedelic and psycho all at once."

Fifty years ago, Brian Buzzard was a 21-year-old national serviceman fighting for his life when his mortar platoon was overrun by the enemy at the start of what would become one of the longest and most vicious series of battles involving Australian troops during the Vietnam War.

“We all thought we were going to die,” Buzzard said. “Those of us who were Catholic said our act of contrition and said, ‘Okay, whatever happens now, it’s up to you.’ And thankfully He spared some of us.”

Buzzard was a Private serving in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). On 12 May 1968, two Australian infantry battalions, three artillery batteries, and support units moved to establish a base in an area of operations known to the Americans as “the catcher’s mitt”, about 45 kilometres north of Saigon and 60 kilometres north-west of the Australian task force base at Nui Dat.

Established to intercept and disrupt enemy forces withdrawing from Saigon during the Mini-Tet offensive, Fire Support and Patrol Base Coral was intended to provide defended locations for artillery and mortars.

“We couldn’t get in there early enough to set up a proper defensive perimeter,” Buzzard said.

“Sundown was about quarter past six, so we only had an hour and a quarter to [dig] our foxholes, set up our mortars, set up a machine-gun pit, and have a stand-to, which is just on dusk [because] if you are going to be attacked, quite often it’s then.

“Well, that night we were attacked. There was a probing party that probed our perimeter about 12 o’clock. Myself and another one of the mortar boys [were] on the machine-gun.

“We think we dropped three NVA soldiers then, but there were more in that party… [They] went back to their commanders and said, ‘Take them now. They are ready to be attacked.’ So [in the early hours of] the morning … the attack started. Mortars, rockets, grenades – everything that they could throw at us was thrown at us.

“It was so desperate we had to just lie down on the ground and … fire our weapons like an infantry person out of a shell scrape, not out of a mortar.

“They overran our position of 18 soldiers in the mortars [and] they overran part of 102 Field Battery. One of their forward guns was completely captured, and from then on it was intense hand-to-hand combat to try and get that gun back, but also to recapture our line in the mortars…”

With Buzzard and his mates facing annihilation, the second-in-command of the mortar platoon, Lieutenant Tony Jensen, ordered direct fire onto his own position during the attack. He screamed to his men, “Stay down … Splintex coming in,” and they pressed themselves flat against the earth as thousands of deadly steel Splintex darts swept over their heads.

“We only survived because some of the guys in the artillery … fired Splintex [darts] into our position,” he said.

“Of our 18, we lost five killed and eight wounded [that night], which is probably the highest casualty rate of any unit in Vietnam. 

“[The enemy] were trying to turn our mortars around and fire back at us, but fortunately they couldn’t aim them, so the rounds that they did fire went past the other surviving group. They tried to take away the mortars with bamboo poles, but the Splintex decimated those soldiers.

“We were overrun ... [and] if they hadn’t done that, there would have been 18 dead, not five dead. They killed all the enemy standing in our position.”

Helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft delivered support while a C-47 “Spooky” illuminated the battlefield with flares, hosing the enemy with tracer fire from multiple mini-guns.

“It was psychedelic and psycho all at once,” Buzzard said. “It was absolutely confusing, but in the end we maintained our positions. We buried 52 of their dead, but we lost 11 soldiers that night and 28 wounded.”

The attack was the start of a series of pitched battles fought around Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral over almost four weeks of fighting in May and June 1968. Twenty-six Australians lost their lives, 100 were wounded, and at least 300 North Vietnamese were estimated to have been killed.  

At a national ceremony in Canberra marking the 50th anniversary of the battles on 13 May 2018, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Darren Chester announced the award of the Unit Citation for Gallantry to "recognise all participants in the battles for extraordinary gallantry in action".

Buzzard flew from Perth for the commemorations and was one of more than 1,000 people who attended a Last Post Ceremony commemorating the life of his friend, Corporal Robert Bernard Hickey, who was killed when the mortar platoon was overrun

It was an emotional moment as Buzzard and some of his mates from the mortar platoon walked with Hickey’s sister as she laid a wreath by the Pool of Reflection at the Australian War Memorial.

“Somehow, someone or other convinces me that we won the battle, but when you lose 11 soldiers in one night, it’s not a real win,” Buzzard said.

“Today is a celebration of being awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry, but it’s really a commemoration of those 26 boys.

“It’s good to have the honour – 50 years is a long time to [wait to] receive it, and we’re happy to receive it – but the important things are like tonight where the next of kin lay wreaths, and [we’re] honoured … to walk with her.”

Buzzard still feels lucky to have survived. He was wounded during the battle, and was evacuated in a “dust-off” helicopter before eventually being sent home to Australia.

“I got my jaw shot off, and another piece of shrapnel went through my thigh,” he said.

“I had my mouth wired up in five places … and came home on a C130 Hercules Medivac plane. I was able to walk home, and I had the choice of sleeping in my own bed or a hospital bed, so I chose my own bed, and they gave me a six-week leave pass to get back to normal.

“We literally came home one at a time … so it was quite a secretive entry back into the country, and … we were supposed to just assume normal life after that incident. But nothing was ever normal again.”

The Australian War Memorial is marking the 50th anniversaries of the battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in Vietnam with a program of commemorations and exhibitions.

On Saturday 26 May 2018, the Memorial will hold a Last Post Ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of first enemy attack on Fire Support Base Balmoral. This ceremony will commemorate Private Lindsay Noel Brown, of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), who was killed in the action. The ceremony will be supported by Australia’s Federation Guard.