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OPERATION Massey Harris

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[ Eddie Tricker Recalls ] [ Photos from Massey Harris ]

29 August 1970 to 20 September 1970. 23 days.
© Copyright - Eddie Tricker

 Day One - 29 August 1970

Eddie Tricker recalls ....

Operation "Massey Harris" was delayed by one day so that bogged Centurion tanks could be recovered and got on the road again. In hindsight this delay was probably a god-saving exercise. It enabled an Armoured Personnel Carrier that was located at the 1st Australian Logistical Support Group, Vung Tau having armour plate retro fitted to its floor to be relocated back to Nui Dat, so the it could be used to provide transportation for D & E platoon personnel on this operation. This same carrier, as you will learn was to be involved a terrible mine incident.

The objective of "Massey Harris" was to locate, destroy and eradicate illegal market gardens in the Binh Chau area along the lower eastern Phuoc Tuy and Binh Tuy boundary area, where the VC of 84 Rear Services Group were ingeniously growing crops below the jungle canopy.

Topographically the countryside in this area, which was reasonably near the coast, consisted of white beach sand with wide open kunai grassed plains and "river valleys" and depressions where these rivers ran. Pockets of dense and open jungle dotted these plains and each sandy open plain was surrounded by the usual dense rain forest-type jungle, so typical of the rest of South Vietnam.

Thus the countryside we were travelling through and the very nature of its soil made it ideal for the Viet Cong to plant mines in. There was no population in the immediate area of this operation, no doubt having been relocated to major villages within Phuoc Tuy province many years previously. The soft sand made digging and concealment very easy, so the expectation was that mines would probably be located during the operation.

Our only route into this area of the province was the major route that headed out to Xuyen Moc to turn off in a south easterly direction towards the coast and province border with Binh Tuy. The once main road was useable by both the Centurion tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers but once these vehicles left this former main road they stood a good chance of becoming bogged down to their drive axles.

On 29 August the convoy moved off on the main road to Xuyen Moc, but had not gone far before it was forced to stop when an Armoured Personnel Carrier, D & E diggers were riding on, became entangled in barbed wire which it successfully wrapped around its front drive and rear wheels forcing it to totally stop. A lengthy exercise followed with the Carrier reversing and moving forward until it was freed.

Further incidents ensured as the convoy proceeded beyond Xuyen Moc when a lead Centurion Tank ran over a small mine on the road. The mine dislodged one of the Centurion's tracks causing only minor damage which the crew fixed by reversing the vehicle until the track was back on its driving wheels.

The convoy then proceeded on without further major incident until it reached a major river crossing. This presented a massive obstacle for the "task force group". The bridge at this river crossing had been blown for many years, possibly when the population that resided in this area had been relocated or by local VC. The remaining wreckage in the river were going to have to be cleared by explosive charges before the Tank Bridge Carrier could be used.

By this time all of the tanks and tracks had "jigged" alternatively sideways off the road to set up their arcs of fire (areas of responsibility). The whole convoy was vulnerable to attack. We were on a single lane raised dirt road on an open grass plain and had been stopped by a wrecked bridge at the river crossing. We could not move forward and could only reverse back up the road should a contact be initiated.

Engineers from 3 Troop, 1 Field Squadron, RAE, attached to the operation were tasked to blow up the bridge wreckage so that the Centurion Tank Bridge layer could lay its bridge. A couple of engineers had dismounted from their APC and had moved to the river to survey the ruins in the water and to work out the best way to tackle the problem.

A troop of Armoured Personnel Carriers, call sign 13, decided that they would survey further around the river bank for a narrow point where the tank bridge could be laid as an alternative to blowing up the bridge ruins in the river. They turned in a general northerly direction taking a left hand turn off the road into the kunai grass and boggy sand plain.

These APC's, who had the bulk of Defence and Employment platoon on them, had not gone very far when they became progressively bogged in the wet, silty soil on the side of the road and river bank, one after the other, first the lead APC then the second and so forth.

When this happened the Skipper of D & E platoon decided what the tracks could not carry out, the infantry could do far easier on foot and 2 Section dismounted from the "tracks" and made off in a general northerly direction down into the depression where the river ran and along its bank.

The rest of the "Task Force" continued to provide security for the "engineers" placing explosive charges on the bridge wreckage in the river, by bringing their machine guns to bear on the river and its far bank. The engineers were actually working on their task still, when there was an almighty explosion from the right hand side of our position, behind us from the area of the Armoured Personnel Carriers that we had just alighted from.

The Skipper had been down on the riverbank with us walking along talking to 2 Section Commander when the explosion occurred. Fortunately we were in a slight depression and saved from the flying bits and pieces of APC as it hurtled close by to the Skipper. Instantly everyone's adrenalin took off as nerves honed up in anticipation of action to follow, cautiously we all ran back in the general direction of the APC's. I cannot remember initially actually seeing the mess of the explosion, however it is clear in my mind that the Skipper immediately took over control of the situation from the point of view of the platoon.

I remember the Skipper telling us not to come any closer until the area had been swept for mines. It was common practice for the Viet Cong to set up more than one booby trap or mine in situations such as this. They also used mines fitted with switches that could be triggered by the downwash of a Huey's main rotor blade. Fortunately this was not to be the case.

The scene was one of controlled pandemonium. Someone in the "task force group" had already called for "Dust off" choppers and my strong recollection is that an Australian "Dust Off" chopper that had been flying over head would not land until the whole area had been swept for mines, but continued to circle overhead at a high altitude, like a little bird of prey looking for its victim. Much to their intestinal fortitude, and it goes a long way in supporting my view of the American helicopter pilots in South Vietnam, an American "Dust-Off" chopper that had been flying overhead at the time, answered the request and dropped from the north like a peregrine falcon to pick up its prey.

Putting down on a spot ahead of the Skipper despite him indicating through field signals that there was likely to be more mines in the surrounding area. It quickly took on board the sickest casualties. The badly wounded diggers including the APC Crew Commander, were placed first on this chopper along with the body of the only person unfortunately killed, our Bushman Scout.

The second chopper that had been cautiously circling overhead immediately filled the gap left by the former "Dust off", it picked up the rest of the D & E platoon wounded, including the APC driver and those Armoured Corp diggers who had been sitting on the back of the tank when the mine went off.

The reporter that we had with us also jumped on board, obviously anxious to get out of the area to file his story and photos for the world wide papers. All wounded, including the unwounded news photographer, were dusted off to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau, Phuoc Tuy Province.

This "reporter" was Denis Stanley Gibbons, a UPI photographer and reporter who accompanied us on this operation and was actually riding on this particular APC prior to the explosion. Denis had got off the APC to follow the Skipper and 2 Section along the river bank so that he could take pictures of everything happening around him. He was a very, very lucky man in more ways than one. He wasn't involved in the incident and was there to take the photos of it. Lucky? Someone up top was watching over him on that day.

My recollections of him are his immaculate greens, his cameras and the bag he carried all his gear in. I do recall that he took pictures of the explosion and got onto a "Dust Off" chopper; a bloke who was not injured. His comments that his pictures were world-wide news material were made from the "Dust Off" helicopter as it was lifting off.

There was only one person killed in this mine incident. This person was a Vietnamese "Bushman Scout", whose name was Thanh. A Hoi Chan, he had turned himself in under the Chieu Hoi program and now worked for the ARVN forces in this capacity. He was accompanying D & E platoon as an Interpreter and had been staying in D & E platoon tent lines for a couple of days prior to the commencement of the operation with D & E diggers. During this time he learnt some basic "Aussie English". Another recollection I have is that he had only just been married.

As I mentioned earlier all Australian personnel were immediately dusted off to the 1st Australian Field Hospital, Vung Tau. Some twelve Aussie diggers were injured in this mine incident. Eight of these were D & E platoon diggers and two were 3 CAV personnel; the Crew Commander and Driver of the APC. Whilst two Armoured Corp personnel on the back of the Centurion tank were also affected by the mine blast but I understand remained on duty.

Initially they were all dusted off to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau where they were assessed and medically stabilised. Then on 7 September 1970, all the severely injured left South Vietnam by Hercules arriving at 3 RAAF Hospital, Butterworth, Malaysia that same day. With a short stopover stay they all left Butterworth on 8 September, arriving in Australia and an Australian military hospital on 9 September 1970.

Two D & E platoon diggers, who were not so severely injured, joined the platoon in the bush a couple of weeks later after rest in hospital and back at Nui Dat.

That we had only lost one killed as a result of this mine explosion was in itself a miracle. Lots of factors had contributed to this miracle though by minimising the extent of the explosion.

First of all the Armoured Personnel Carrier, call sign 13 A and nicknamed The Nympho involved in the incident, had been fitted with armour plate to its floor at 1st Australian Logistic Support Group, Vung Tau, only days prior to the commencement of operation.

Secondly D & E platoon diggers adopted a standard operating procedure of never riding inside Armoured Personnel Carriers.

Thirdly the location of the blast in relation to the carrier itself lessened the effort of the blast. The carrier took all the blast and damage to its rear left hand side drive train combined with the armour plate in the floor, which took the brunt of the blast, it deflected the blast sideways and downwards. This accounts why the carrier was lifted into the air and blown sideways about a quarter of a turn of a circle to land on the back auxiliary fuel tank of the Centurion tank, call sign 92A.

It got into the local newspapers, as a school mate had been injured in this incident and I spent the next couple of letters explaining to my Mother that I was all right and not in any danger at all!

© Copyright Eddie Tricker ... All rights reserved.

Massey Harris PHOTO GALLERY

To see the full size image, click on the thumbnail below

RHS rear showing damaged APC on tank Internal damage, taken from tank. Note weapons on APC Left side, ground hole is actual mine site

3 CAV surveying the damage Checking damage to Crew Commanders area Recovery OK ... take it away!!!

Photos ęCopyright Wayne Scott. All rights reserved.

Massey Harris Naval Support Pictures

Hobart USS Buck - pic 1
USS Lloyd Thomas USS Buck - pic 2


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