Taking 103 Signal Squadron to War

By Duncan Spencer

Raising the New Squadron

 

Having completed a short story on the early days of 103 Signal Squadron (103 Sig Sqn), I thought I would be sacked from any further writing of my ‘memoires’, but this was not to be and here I am again.

 

This story is about my memory of my time in the Army.  As this happened a long time ago (47 years or so), and my memory may be a little imperfect, I apologise in advance for any errors and or omissions.   It is however, as close as I can remember to the facts.

 

It all started for me when in 1965, I arrived in 1 Signal Regiment (1 Sig Regt) having completed four years at the Royal Military College (RMC), two years at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and attending two courses at the School of Signals.  Finally, after some six and quarter years in the Army, I was joining a unit, with the rank of Lieutenant.

 

At that time, 1 Sig Regt had two major sub-units, Command Operations (Command Ops) Squadron and Combat Operations (Combat Ops) Squadron.    Major Stan Smith was the OC of Command Ops, and Major Ken Taylor was the OC of Combat Ops.  I was attached to Command Ops, and after several months was promoted to Captain by the CO Lt Col Bruce Rogers.  Also promoted was Graham Arnold, a class mate of mine at RMC. 

 

In about June 1965, we were advised that a new squadron would be formed which would be an independent unit, reporting to the newly formed 1st Task Force (1TF).  While it was common knowledge in the Army that 1TF would be going to South Vietnam (SVN), this information was classified, and the civilian population were not to know that we would be sending a Task Force (or Brigade minor) to South Vietnam.

 

The new squadron had to fulfil both the role of Combat Ops and Command Ops, with the main role being Combat Ops.   Accordingly, the majority of the squadron was selected from Combat Ops, but for some reason, the SSM (Cliff King) and I were transferred from Command Ops.  The Sqn 2IC of Combat Ops at the time, was Captain Reg Elder (I believe), and he provided me with tremendous advice and support before moving on.   Reg was quite senior, and was due for promotion, hence the reason for his not staying with the Sqn.   My role was to become the Sqn 2IC, but also the Troop Commander of the SIGCEN Troop. The other Troop Commander was Lt Mick Thome, who was promoted Captain a few months later and transferred to the newly raised 145 Sig Sqn which was to become the Base Sig Sqn in SVN.   Mick was later killed over Vietnam, when a Thai police officer put his girlfriend and a bomb onto civilian plane flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong.

 

Lt Bill Elliott took over as the OC of the Radio Troop, and while only graduating from RMC in 1964, he very quickly picked up the reigns and did a good job.   A new graduate from OCS Portsea, 2Lt Bill Lawrie joined the unit as the 2IC of Sigcen Troop. Just to finish off a pretty hectic year, our OC, Major Ken Taylor was promoted to Lt Col and became the CO of the 1 Sig Regt.   His replacement, Major Peter Mudd was not due for a month or two, as he was attending Staff College, so I became the acting Sqn OC.

 

Although we knew we were going to SVN, we could not mention it, but needless to say we were working flat out to get ourselves ready.

 

Moving to South Vietnam

 

In early March 1966, the Prime Minister (Harold Holt) made the announcement that Australia would be replacing the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) then in SVN with a Task Force comprising two Battalions and supporting units. At the time, we had about 80% of our staff, but none of the new radios we were supposed to have, and only about 20% of our other equipment.  As we had to have all our vehicles and virtually all our equipment on HMAS Sydney which was sailing to SVN on about ANZAC Day, time was not on our side.

 

Fortunately, I found that Army HQ could really move when they had to. Typically, when I could not get any idea where the new equipment we were going to get actually was, I rang a Major Fegan in the Directorate of Communications (DCOMMS) at about 0830, explaining what the problem was.   At 1000hrs, I had received a signal from him, stating that the gear was at Bandiana, and if I got a couple of trucks there by the following day, I could pick it up.  That night, two trucks with four drivers headed out of Ingleburn on the way to Bandiana.   They returned a couple of days later loaded to the gunwales.

 

Major Mudd, meantime, was selected to go with Brigadier Oliver Jackson as one of the Advance Party to SVN, leaving me behind to make sure we actually got to SVN.   Once the Advance Party had gone, I received a Signal from HQ Eastern Command advising that the whole Squadron had to attend a pre-embarkation course at Canungra.  The timing of the course was such that we would still be at Canungra when most of the Squadron were supposed to be in SVN.  This time, I enlisted the aid of the CSO, Lt Col Rogers, and he suggested I call a Lt Col Hardiman (I think), who was responsible for such matters.   After all I, as a Temp Capt, told him (Lt Col) we would not be going to Canungra, he "suggested" I come and talk to him.   This I did, and after some vigorous discussion we agreed that I would send the National Servicemen (about ten), a competent NCO, and a 2Lt I could afford to go.

 

While we got new communication equipment, our vehicles were shockers.  The TF units including us preposition down at the Sydney docks among other units with our trucks, vehicles, artillery and the rest for loading into to HMAS Sydney.  It was to some extent farcical for us as we had to tow three vehicles to the docks and push four of them on-board.  Our advance party consisted of all the drivers and shotgun essential personnel.  The Sydney set sail four days before ANZAC Day.  The remainder were to fly out over the next two weeks.  Somehow, we got to SVN as a unit, and when I arrived there with the rear party, I found that Peter Mudd had taken over what had been "my" Squadron for the past six months. While I knew this had to-happen, it did come as a shock.  However, after an extremely hectic time, we had raised essentially a new unit from a strong base, trained it and deployed to SVN.

 

To quote the then Major General Ken Taylor, AO, first unit OC, who put it in a memo dated 30 March 2001 to the OC of 103 Sig Sqn on the occasion of the unit’s birthday in Townsville,

 

“We were the first task force unit to be raised in Australia.  I have always thought of this unit and its soldiers as ‘The First and the Finest’.  This Squadron was formed from the best that the First Signal Regiment had to offer.   We didn’t take all their good guys, but we got most of them.  That initial bunch of chaps then set the high standards for the rest of the Army to follow”.

  

 103 Sig Sqn

 HQ 103 Sig Sqn deployed at the Back Beach, Vung Tau - May 1966

  

When the Unit arrived in South Vietnam our Squadron was located with the Logistic and Support Group on the back beach of Vung Tau.  It was not until we had relocated from ‘Vungers’ that we realized how good we had it for a few short weeks.

 

Soon after we assembled the full Squadron, it was then time to move the now 1 Australian Task Force (1ATF) up the main supply route to our predetermined Area of Operations in Phuoc Tuy Province about 70 km north of Vung Tau and just north of Hoa Long.  The site was called Nui Dat or ‘Round Hill’ and from the top of the hill, one had a commanding view of the Province and hence the reason for its selection as a Base.

 

103 Sig Sqn

Lcpl Ivan Ward (OKC) and Sig Mick Meehan (Swbd Op).
Prepare to line-up for move to Nui Dat - 6 June 66

 

103 Sig Sqn         103 Sig Sqn

            Pineapple girls selling food and cold drinks                         My own sandpit (Back Beach)

 103 Sig Sqn
103 Sig Sqn camp Back Beach, Vung Tau - May 1966

 

Moving to Nui Dat

 

While the 1ATF was being formed in Vung Tau, 1RAR operating as part of the US Army 173 Airborne Division, conducted a sweep of the area and secured the area ensuring we would not be deploying into an ambush.  This worked well, and after successfully locating and clearing the Task Force base camp, 1RAR handed the area over to the 1ATF and returned to Australia.

 

As any serving and ex-military person knows, time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.  Accordingly, prior to our Unit moving to Nui Dat, a small Recce team from Headquarter (HQ) Company (Coy) and our Squadron were helo’d up to Nui Dat area to undertake a recce of the site and plan the layout of the TFHQ because the Squadron was to be co-located with the HQ.   This happened few days in advance of the main body of our Squadron and TFHQ arriving by road.   Myself, Sgt Gary Fizzell and a Radio Operator were part of the Recce team.  On landing on the ground we were met by a protection party from 5RAR led by a Captain Bob O’Neill, a Signals Officer who had been a Rhodes Scholar and was then functioning in an Infantry role.

 

  103 Sig Sqn

Practice Nui Dat deployment for the Sqn HQ.  SSM Cliff King and OC in foreground with
SIGCEN Sgt Bob Evans (smoking) and STT Barry Hubble

 

As Captain Dave Holford of HQ Coy (leader of the Recce) and myself had been given clear instructions on how the HQ and the Sqn were to be laid out, we dutifully followed these instructions and placed the appropriate markers (TAC Signs) in the appropriate places for the units to deploy.  During this phase, we suddenly saw military personal heading in our direction from the other side of the rubber plantation.  Fortunately, we discovered they were from the Artillery recce team.  We had not been briefed that they would be in our area, and as both teams checked before shooting, there were no casualties from friendly fire.

 

That night, with our protection party, we became the front line for the Australian Task Force!  Good Grief!  ME!    When the 1ATF Commander Brig Jackson arrived, we briefed him on what we had done and not surprisingly, he turned the whole layout through ninety degrees.  Over the next few days, the main body of the TFHQ and our Sqn moved into what became our home for the next 11 months.

 

Consolidation

 

Once the squadron had taken up "residence" in Nui Dat, the hard work commenced.  As well as setting up and maintaining the communications for the Task Force HQ, we had to build our base from a "green-field" site.  Our location was several hundred metres to the south of the hill called "Nui Dat," and was in a rubber plantation. The squadron was adjacent to the Task Force HQ, and later a laterite road between the rubber trees separated the HQ and us.  In addition to our squadron on the site, 547 Signal Troop (547 Sig TP), the radio intercept unit joined us not long after we had settled in. The OC of 547 Sig Tp was Capt Trevor Richards, an old acquaintance of mine.  While 547 Sig Tp undertook their very necessary "comms" work, we essentially provided the services and admin work for them.  This added to the effort we had to undertake, and we had not really been given the facilities to do this extra role.  A further unit to join us was a US Signal Troop which was the link to HQ 2 Field Force Vietnam (FFV) in Long Binh. The Australian Task Force reported to this American HQ for tactical control.

 

103 Sig Sqn

Construction of our Kingstrand SIGCEN.   Self help with a little guidance.

 

The work load for the squadron during this consolidation period was enormous, and to try to avoid "bum-out," Major Mudd stated that once we had set up the critical items, the troops would be restricted to a 16 hour working day, 7 days a week, plus 2 hours during the night when they were either on sentry duty or manning the communications facilities.  During the initial deployment to Nui Dat, I had working alongside me an Liaison Officer (LO) from HQ 2 FFV, a Capt David (I think) Butler.   He was a very competent officer and a pleasure to work with.   We had a good working relationship, which came in very handy later.  In the consolidation phase, apart from some Military Police and a few infantrymen in the Task Force HQ Company, we only had 5RAR, located a kilometre or so to the north to provide combat  support. Our perimeter was the front line!

 

The role of the 103 Sig Sqn was to provide communications from the HQ 1ATF to the units within the Task Force and to work with 145 Sig Sqn who provided communications from Australia to the Task Force via HQ Australian Forces Vietnam (AFV) in Saigon.  It was envisaged that our unit’s role would all be handled by VHF and HF radios, so we had virtually no "fixed" line comms except for a few SB-22 telephone switchboards which handled about 10 lines each.  Well so I thought at the time.  The unit subscriber list just grew and grew and we managed to fill an SB-86 telephone switchboard (60 lines).  Because the Task Force was taking up a fixed base at Nui Dat, with units patrolling throughout Phuoc Tuy Province, but based in Nui Dat, this was not very efficient.

 103 Sig Sqn

My digs

 

Fortunately Major Mudd had been to the Royal Australian Corps of Signals Base Signal Park at Kingswood in NSW, and had seen that they had portable "telegraph" poles, and telephone switchboards which would allow us to put in a telephone network throughout the HQ 1ATF.   He contacted DCOMMS, and in no time, we had the OK to get these items transported to SVN post haste.

 

Needless to say, the laying of quite a few kilometres of telephone poles and cables did not lower the squadron's workload.  At the same time that we were laying lines, the Engineer Squadron was building roads, and there was one group of lines that went from the Task Force HQ to the top of Nui Dat.  These were the rather important lines that connected the radios on top of the hill to the remotes in the HQ.  For some reason, the Engineers managed  to "accidentally" bring them down reasonably often, and we believed they used to conduct a  sweep on the time taken for our "linies" to fix them.  Nothing was proven however!  After we  had been at Nui Dat for a month or so, 6RAR arrived, and the Task Force was up to the planned numbers.

 

103 Sig Sqn

OR's Canteen and Kitchen on right

 

103 Sig Sqn

Sqn Orderley Room.  Red Post Box on the FS table

 

I mentioned before that we were to have a US Sig Tp attached to us, and they arrived a short time after we had moved in.  Their OC was a 2Lt, and I must admit he did not fill me with confidence. Typically, as our perimeter was the front line, I explained to him that they had to do sentry duty and showed them what part of the perimeter they were to guard.  His response was that they were "Signals Corps" and they did not do sentry duty.  I "gently" persuaded him that they were going to do sentry duty, and they proceeded to do so.  Being somewhat concerned about their level of training, we did a check on how they conducted such duty, to find out that on conclusion of the evening "stand-to," they would assign 2 soldiers to a weapon pit. These two would stay in the pit until morning "stand-to."   Needless to say, they were actually asleep very early into the night, so we had to have our own people nearby doing the real sentry duty.  Because of the foregoing, plus several other instances of incompetence, we decided that the 2Lt OC had to go.

 

I contacted Capt Butler who was then in Long Binh, and suggested that it would be in Everybody’s interest if this person was replaced.  This is where the US Army can perform. The above 2Lt was gone within a couple of days and a very competent replacement was in charge of the US Sig Tp.

 

In parallel with the setting up of the fixed communication capabilities, Lt Bill Elliott, as OC Radio Troop was deploying his radio operators to the various units and undertaking what training they could fit into the busy days.  One new capacity that we now had was to provide automatic rebroadcast using "rebro" radios mounted in Army Cessna’s.   Because of the heavily wooded terrain which made VHF comms difficult, and intense wet season storms which virtually stopped HF comms, this airborne "rebro" was of great assistance for all patrols/operations more than a "click" or two from the base.

 

As the establishment of the base proceeded, apart from the Task Force HQ, we welcomed new neighbours, namely the SAS, the ARU (Reinforcement Unit), Military Police and the APC's.  The ARU caused quite a bit of concern when they managed to send a fair number of M60 bullets into our unit because a new trainee became a bit trigger-happy on hearing a noise in the surrounding bush. Fortunately there were no casualties!

 

Shortly after, their M60s were replaced with shot guns as their pellets were expended by the time they reached us.

 

When we first arrived in Nui Dat, we were all in "hutchies," and at the end of three months, we received tents, showers and finally, floorboards for the tents.  In addition, due to knowing the right person in the Engineer squadron, we were about the first unit to get a deep-trench latrine.  It is amazing what can really excite you!

 

The SIGCEN was in a 16 x 16 tent, and as it had to be "blacked-out" at night so meaning no airflow, it was a very hot, humid, uncomfortable place to work.  In fact we had a significant number of online cryptos unserviceable, so I flew up to the US Maintenance Battalion in Saigon to get them fixed and complain about their reliability.  As well as fixing them, they gave me a thermometer to check out the temperature in the tent, and I found that it was well over 50 degrees C, the maximum operating temperature for the equipment.

 

During all this consolidation period, our operators, linesmen, cooks and indeed virtually all our troops were doing a great job under difficult conditions. While we were in the process of moving to Nui Dat, the "wet season" started and in a month or so working conditions was abominable.   Typically, the Engineers dug a huge monsoon drain through our unit area to take the rain from daily downpour away.  From memory, this drain was about 3M wide by 1.5M deep.    When the rain came, it was full in half an hour. 

 

103 Sig Sqn

  Sqn HQ tents looking down Mercury Lane from outside the SIGCEN on the right.

My 11x11 on the right.  October/November 1966 (approx)

 

Our area was one big mud-bath, and there were rats and mosquitoes and snakes everywhere.

 

Fortunately, there was no time to complain, so morale stayed high.  Unfortunately, there were, in the Task Force several cases of cerebral malaria and encephalitis, so the Hygiene Officer (known as Capt Blowfly), decided to spray the area with DDT.  He obtained a "fogging" machine, filled it with DDT and away he went to get rid of the mosquitoes.  As it was a serious problem, and time was of the essence, he had not checked the tank, and we subsequently found out it was half-full of Agent Orange.  He was then pumping quite a dangerous mix of chemicals throughout the Task Force HQ and 103 Sig Sqn.

 

The one positive was that the rubber trees dropped all their leaves, so some of the mud hardened.  The sun came out and dried up the ground and it was an opportunity for the troops to take their shirts off and clear up sweat rashes and infections.  It was also a positive for the Viet Cong, because they had a great view of our location-luckily, they did not have planes!

 

Of particular benefit, was the work of 547 Sig Tp who had learned the ‘sending signature’ of just about every Viet Cong operator in Phuoc Tuy.  This was to play an important role in the future.

 

By now, the SAS and Infantry units were patrolling the area, lengthy tunnels from Hoa Long just south of the TFHQ had been found, local roads opened for the farmers and we were  moving into what appeared to be a comfortable, and hopefully safe routine.  How wrong we were!!   We now felt we had consolidated our position in Phuoc Tuy Province.

 

The Hard Slog

 

As mentioned in the Consolidation write-up, it looked as though we were fully set up in Phuoc Tuy, and we could now have a comfortable existence. This was shortly to be turned upside down.  I also mentioned that the very talented Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operators in 547 Sig Tp could now recognise the ‘sending signatures" of just about all the morse code operators in the local Viet Cong (VC). While we in 103 Sig Sqn did not have access to what the 547 fellows were doing, apart from our OC Major Peter Mudd, it was clear something was up.  Peter called me into a meeting with Trevor Richards (OC 547 Sig Tp), and I was advised that the SIGINT boys were monitoring a large VC force that included the VC Regiment, 275.  It appears that this force was moving from north to south a few kilometres to our East.  This data was being continually passed onto the Task Force HQ via their S03 Int, Capt Bob Keep.  Unfortunately, Bob's boss, the S02 Int, decided he knew better than Bob, and having spoken to US Intelligence who told him this was not happening, he advised the Task Force Commander to ignore it.  This revelation is a story in itself, and better told in the history of 547 Sig Tp.  At the same time, Bob was fighting sickness, probably encephalitis, collapsed and was "medevac’d" to Vung Tau.

 

Despite this, we kept monitoring the VC, and took whatever precautions we could. Shortly after Bob Keep's collapse, on the night of 16/17 August 1966, the Task Force HQ received a sustained mortar and rocket barrage from the VC.  It appears that this was standard VC tactics ie. before attacking their enemy, they would mortar and rocket the target, and the following day, they would undertake the actual attack.

 

The amazing thing about this barrage was that no shells actually landed in 103 Sig Sqn area.  We did take some shrapnel, but most importantly, we took no casualties.  This luck stuck with us for the whole tour of duty.  What the VC did not realise, was that unlike their other enemies, our Infantry went out to find the enemy after being mortared.   Accordingly, on the 17th of August, Alpha and Bravo Companies of 6 RAR, headed out to find who had the temerity to mortar Australians. They did find base-plate positions, equipment and traces of blood, but no enemy.

 

By the 18th of August, they were heading back to base so they could enjoy the Col Joye concert, having been relieved by Delta Company.  But they didn’t make it.  They ended up turning around to support their sister Company in battle a few short hours later. Back in 103 Sig Sqn, everything appeared quiet in the afternoon, and we reverted to our normal routine.

Typically, I knew that if I went to the showers at about 1600, I could have a shower, and just get back to my tent before it rained: This time, at around 1700hrs however, instead of rain, there was the tremendous roar of the guns and the noise as the shells going overhead broke the sound barrier.  The Sqn stood-to. I quickly found out that what became known as the Battle of Long Tan was underway.  And the rain came down!

 

There are many books written on this battle, so I will not repeat what is now general knowledge, but I will mention a couple of things that I have not seen written up elsewhere.

 

The first incident occurred in the Task Force HQ Command Post (CP), and was relayed to me by one of the Duty Officers.  It appears that by about 1900 (or thereabouts), detailed information about the status of our forces was limited, and in the worst case, 11 Platoon, if not a large proportion of Delta Company, was wiped out.

  

 103 Sig Sqn

Weapons left behind on the battle field at Long Tan

 

 As well as the Commander and the various Staff Officers in the CP, there was a US Major Forward Air Controller (FAC) who was a "gungho" ex fighter pilot from the Korean War. It appears that he was jumping up and down and exhorting the Commander to put all our resources into chasing the "fleeing" VC.  The situation in the CP was extremely tense amongst all levels of command and responsibility.  Within a few short weeks of deployment, the TFHQ and the units were in for the fight for our lives.

 

Meanwhile, the Australian Officers were concerned that the aim of the VC was to get our forces into an ambush, and the fleeing VC were just the bait!  Sometime after this, I was the Duty Officer in the 103 Sig Sqn HQ, and an American Naval Liaison Officer (as well as Artillery, we obtained fire support from Australian and US ships), said he needed to contact his ship to give them an update, and asked if he could borrow a radio. This I provided, and I was about 8/10 metres away from him when he called his ship. Before I could race across the intervening space, he outlined, in clear, what 5RAR were doing the following morning.  By this time I had ripped the handset out of his hands, but if the VC were listening, they knew far more than they should.  I then went over to the Task Force CP, and spelled out what had happened. The powers that be decided to take no further action, and 5RAR followed the plan that had been put over the airways. The next morning, no VC was found, and I have always wondered if this incompetent US Naval Officer was the reason.

 

Tactical radio communications at this time during the battle lost its composure, and became very difficult to control.  The Artillery nets worked by strict operational procedures while our TF VHF Comd and Admin nets could only deal the best way they could with the urgency of the situation.  Communications Security and procedures at times went out the window with the criticality of the situation.  Our SIGCEN later in the early hours after the battle became inundated with Flash and Immediate signals that had to be dealt with.  Our boys worked non-stop for days after the action, clearing traffic of all sorts and including the NOTICAS and FATALCAS and Public Affairs Officer reports.

   

This battle did turn the tide in Phuoc Tuy province, and activities by the VC in this province did  drop dramatically, however the Infantry continued patrolling and they and the SAS were moving further out.  In fact the overall number of patrols and minor operations were expanding.

 

 As the role of 103 was to provide communications from the Task Force HQ to and from the units, we had insufficient personnel to accompany the 5RAR and 6 RAR forces. To overcome this problem, Radio Operators were loaned to 103 from 145 Sig Sqn, and operations continued.

 

I mentioned before that we had had quite a degree of luck when the Task Force was mortared, as no shells landed in our area, and this luck stayed with us.  During the time we had Radio Operators on loan from 145, an APC carrying troops, including a 145 Radio Operator hit a mine, and sadly, among the fatalities was the Sig Barry Logan.   This was the only fatality our unit suffered during our tour in SVN, and he was not one of our personnel.  This was quite amazing, as our Operators were involved with every operation undertaken by the Battalions.

  

Despite the large number of operations underway, the routine daily work to be undertaken in Nui Dat had dropped to a level wherein the troops could be freed up to initially have a couple of days Rest and Convalescence (R&C) in Vung Tau.  Shortly after this, HQ AFV, set up the Rest and Recreation (R&R) program  which provided transport to and accommodation in, a variety of locations, including Hong Kong, Penang, Taipei and Bangkok.  Some months later, Australia was added to the list, and our SQMS, who had married a Japanese girl when he served in Japan after the 2nd World War, actually organised a trip to Japan for his R&R.

 

Around the end of September, we had found out that the VC were using an island in the Saigon River for their own version of R&C.  Accordingly, it was decided to move the Task Force including the HQ, to this island, Long Son, to remove the VC, but essentially to train the Task Force in a forward TAC HQ in such operations.

 

As with the initial move of the Task Force HQ to Nui Dat, a small recce team comprising Dave Holford and some troops from HQ Coy, plus the 103 team of me, Gary Fizzell (I think) and an operator were helicoptered into Long Son early in the morning. The remainder of our Sigs Support group arrived in the later chalks.  This was quite an interesting deployment, as we were using US Iroquois UH-1 helicopters, which did not have doors, nor seat-belts, so sitting on the side with nothing between you and the ground, was quite exhilarating!

 

On arrival on Long Son, we planned the layout of the Forward TFHQ, and completed same several hours before the HQ were due to arrive.  As we now were in the sun, something we had missed while in the Nui Dat rubber plantation and rain forest, I took the opportunity to take of my shirt and introduce my white skin to this yellow orb.

 

According to the plan for the deployment, prior to our moving into Long Son, a company of 6RAR were supposed to undertake a sweep through the area, and "stand-guard" to protect we non-combatants.  Somehow this went amiss, because as I was lying in the sun, a section of our troops came up from behind us.  Having told me they were our protection party and asking me where they should go, I "suggested" exactly where they should go and that they should get there quickly.

 

In essence, our small recce party were the "forward scouts" of the Australian Task Force.  I must admit, it would have been quite embarrassing to be shot while lying in the sun!  For the few days we were on the island, there were continual small incursions by VC soldiers. They would get in close, fire a few shots and then withdraw. Very inconsiderate, as we were about to wolf down a lovely curry and rice for lunch.  On one occasion, the size of the incursion force caused a Company from 6 RAR to call for artillery support.

 

The guns were still located at Nui Dat, and the VC troops were in direct line between the guns and our position on Long Son.  When the first few Artillery rounds came in, it was clear that the TFHQ including 103 Sig Sqn were in the beaten zone of the guns as we had shrapnel flying all around us.  Bad move.

 

The CO of the Artillery Regiment, as the 1ATF Commander's adviser, was within the TFHQ.   He immediately radioed to the guns to cease firing, which occurred, much to our collective relief.  As the support fire had been called in by the Infantry, the Artillery CO did not have the authority to stop firing.  I believe there was quite a degree of tension between the CO and the Commander, and the Commander "sacked" the CO on the spot. The following day we returned to Nui Dat.

 

 103 Sig Sqn

View from up the side of the Nui Dat Hill outlook NW towards the Long Hai Hills.

 

103 Sig Sqn

103 Comd Net members preparing to deploy with 6RAR on ‘Op Bribie’ Feb ’67
From left Sig Jim Leslie (NS), Det Comd Sgt Neil Tonkin and Cpl John Chenoweth (decd)
Photo taken by Sig Pete Connor (NS) (decd)

 

By this time, we were about halfway through our tour of duty, and with the spare time available because all our communications facilities had been set and were working well, boredom and indeed morale concerns became a problem. This had not been of concern when danger always lurked around the comer, or the troops were putting in eighteen to twenty hour days.  It was around November when the engineers delivered our Kingstrand Hut complex (all encased in boxes) for our brand new Communications Centre as per the training manual.  Work party after work party took part in the construction of our new SIGCEN.  It was an exciting time of the modernization of our miserable existence.  Before us the TFHQ Kingstrand went up and we couldn’t wait for civility to re-enter our lives.  The consolidation of all of our TFHQ communications assets in one place under tin.   Now that they could see they still had 6 months to go before they could see loved ones and return to normal lives, some very good soldiers had their demons. Unfortunately, one of the Chaplains actually stirred up problems with one of our Corporals, and we had to ensure this Chaplain was isolated from the troops.  Earlier, I had mentioned we had a troop of US troops stationed with us and they provided communications to HQ 2 FFV based in Long Binh.  HQ 2 FFV were our Operational Commanders.     .

 

After their original OC was replaced, the troop worked well with us, and despite being not of the standard that we expect, they were a good group of guys. There was one concern that we had, and that revolved about their being "gun-happy." On one occasion, one member of this troop accidentally (I hope it was accidental), fired an M79 grenade into the air, and it landed not very far away from the TFHQ Officers' Mess.

 

On another occasion, from what I can gather, several of the Americans were effectively playing "cowboys and Indians" with loaded pistols, when one shot his best mate through the heart.   I got to him just as he was in the "death-rattle" stage, and despite our people having him at the RAP in just a few minutes, he was dead on arrival.  Both of the above "accidents" arose from their troops not being properly trained. Needless to say, we imposed stricter weapons controls on both their and our troops from then on.

  

 103 Sig Sqn

US Army 173 Airborne Division HQ during Nui Dat clearance Operation.

 

 

On a positive note, after Long Tan, and the drop in VC operations, 1ATF opened the main road from the north of the province to the markets at Baria in the south of the province.   This was the first time for many years that the peasants in the north could access the markets, and it was a joyous parade of carts and ancient vehicles on the day the road opened, that wended their way down to Baria and back again.

 

With Phuoc Tuy province being pretty much under control, apart from support for the constant patrolling, 103 Sig Sqn, compared to the pressure cooker of the first six months, had dropped to a lower level of activity.  This made time go slower, and everyone was counting the "days-to-go,".  To assist in overcoming boredom, the squadron was encouraged to play sports such as volleyball which did help.  In fact our team became so good; we managed to line up a game against the local ARVN soldiers.  My memory is fading, but I seem to recollect that we got beaten!  

 

Handing Over

 

Somehow, we managed to get through to April 1967, when the first members of 104 Sig Sqn advanced party arrived to replace us, and the handover began. I am sure we did not endear ourselves to the 104 boys when you would hear the comment from a 103 veteran "How many days do you have to go??”  The troops were replaced virtually one for one on the job and our unit was in a state of ‘wind-down’.  There was some sadness after the troops received their posting orders.  They learnt that 103 Sig Sqn was to be wiped off the order of battle (ORBAT) and put into a shelf somewhere in Canberra.  Many of our boys were on their way out of the Army and that was a definite for our National Service members.

 

Time moved very quickly then, until suddenly it was well into May and there was only the 103 Sig Sqn rear guard with me as their leader.  One evening late in Apirl, in the Task Force Commander's Orders Group, I had the pleasure of announcing that the following morning, 103 Sig Sqn would formally hand over to 104 Sig Sqn  at (I think) 0800 hrs.  Shortly after, through no fault of either 103 or 104, the communications link  to Saigon dropped out! This would be the commencement of 104 Sig Sqn tour which would last right up to the withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Vietnam.

 

Return to Australian

 

On return from SVN, I was appointed the Senior Instructor of the Eastern Command Wing, School of Signals as this basically entailed welcoming several hundred National Servicemen and a lesser number of Regulars to the Corps every three months, and running exams to see what trades they should do.  It was an extremely boring job.  The actual training of the soldiers was done by the Marconi School of Wireless.

 

As I had a lot of spare time and Bankstown aerodrome was not far away, I commenced learning to fly (aeroplanes that is).  Six months into this role, I was posted to Canberra, working in DCOMMS.  I got married at this time and could not afford to continue my flying lessons so I sold my cape.

 

My main role in DCOMMS was planning the technical side of Signals units and Projects, and this involved spending quite a bit of time working civilian companies such as STC, RACAL, Plessey and AWA.  I was then fortunate enough to get job offers from several of the companies.  And I thought I should give working in Civvy Street a try so I resigned from the Army and actually got out at least three months later pending a position with STC.  I worked for Department of the Navy for some time and this was helpful in building up my knowledge of the total Defence Electronics and Co.

 

I spent about thirty years as a Gun Runner during this time, in different companies.  I was appointed to take over, and hopefully fix, the running of several major Defence Projects.  These included DEFCOMMARS, the communications system at Russell Offices. Then RAVEN, the development and manufacture of the Combat Net Radio System for the Army.

My time moved me onto DISCON, the Defence Fixed Communications System.  And then BARRA, the Sonar Buoys for the RAAF and also the Sonar System for the COLLINS Class submarines.

 

Conclusion

 

In concluding, I can say that I am extremely proud that I was given the opportunity to serve my Country as an Officer, and that I had no hesitation in accepting my responsibilities as a Signals Officer in combat.  I won’t say that I landed on my feet once separating from the service, but it was probably a fortuitous time for me, to take advantage of the developing world of communications in our military.  My military experience served me well in this regard.

 

I remain a proud member of 103 Signal Squadron and also proud to be known as an original member.  The Unit of course nowadays has many sophisticated communications roles, and it is with this equipment I lament, that our job in Vietnam could have been so much easier.   Who could have foretold or had the ability of remote viewing to see the future of tactical communications?

 

Author:
Former Captain Duncan Spencer, 2IC/OPS Officer, 103rd Signal Squadron 1966/67, South Vietnam  

Compiled by:

Major Christopher Brown, OAM (retd), LCpl OKR, SIGCEN Tp, 103rd SIgnal Squadron 1966/67, South Vietnam


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