Fire Support Base Coral – Balmoral 50th anniversary commemorative address

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

First line of our national anthem; we sing it often, we hear it sung often.

Less often do we pause to reflect on what it means.

Therein lays the great paradox.

It is often those things most important in our lives we are tempted to take for granted – the magic vitality of youth, not appreciated until it has gone forever; families who love and support us giving a framework and architecture to our lives; Australian citizenship – whether by birth or by choice, conferring upon us political, economic and religious freedoms.

We are Australians, defined less by our constitution and the machinery of our democracy than we are by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped by our heroes and our villains; our triumphs and our failures; the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will face the inevitable adversities that are coming, responding to new, emerging and threatening horizons.

As individuals and as a nation, every layer of experience shapes us, and in ways that we do not fully comprehend at the time.

The events that bring us here today changed lives, and they changed us.

We pause here today, half a century after the heroism of those who fought at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral.

We do so in honour those who died in our name and the 61,000 Australians whom veterans here represent – young Australians who served, fought, suffered, died and were wounded in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War inflicted deep wounds on many of these young Australians. Many returned bearing emotional wounds denied healing by many who shunned them as reminders of war they opposed. From indifference to anger, the hurt inflicted remains the source of deep sorrows.

In this, we failed you.

Our nation emerged from the Vietnam War deeply divided, yet now determined to learn from the experiences of those who went in our name and our responses to them.

With humility, gratitude and immense pride we say to you that what you did in Vietnam – at Coral and Balmoral, is as valued by us as those who landed at Gallipoli, endured the Kokoda track, held the line at Kapyong or fought under our flag in the dust of Uruzgan.

The power is in the story – your story.

Fifty years ago today, two Australian infantry battalions, three artillery batteries and support units moved in to establish the base in an area known to the Americans as “the catcher’s mit”.

For the 1st Australian task Force (1 ATF), it was a leap into the unknown.

Fire Support Base Coral was just 45 km north of Saigon and 60 km north-west of the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat. As dusk descended on the evening of 12 May 1968, so too did unease.

The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had attacked Saigon a week earlier in the communist Second General Offensive. The Australians now stood at enemy infiltration routes expected to be used in withdrawing from the capital.

Intelligence warned of a likely enemy presence – small groups wishing to avoid contact.

But a brief reconnaissance by the Australians discovered 100 freshly dug enemy weapon pits close to the newly established fire support base. Ominously, enemy ground fire prevented low level air reconnaissance.

The threat had been seriously underestimated.

After a messy, disorganised insertion into the landing zone, the American company commander providing initial protection warned as he left, “You won’t need to find Charlie, they’ll come looking for you”.

By nightfall the base defences were only partially completed with companies and support units dispersed.

Lt Colonel J.J. ‘Jim’ Shelton felt an enemy attack imminent. In an act that undoubtedly saved lives, he ordered his men to dig in. Most had time to dig individual ‘shell scrapes’ less than a metre deep. The gunners of 102 Battery had dug theirs only 15 cm when they were ordered, “stand to”.

Heavy dusk rain filled the scrapes with mud, causing many weapons to later jam.

Sporadic enemy contacts began probing the base defences, marking Australian positons by return fire.

The NVA commander at Division headquarters only 9 kilometres away, ordered a battalion and two infiltration groups to attack before the Australians settled. Only 250 metres from the base perimeter, the NVA dug in undetected.

Close to 3.30 in the morning, all hell broke loose.

Rocket and mortar fire fell onto the base – 102 Field Battery and 1RAR mortar platoon enduring the heaviest fire.

Five minutes of intense fire, a ten minute pause and then the North Vietnamese rushed the Australian position. One soldier shouted to Lt Tony Jensen, “There are about 400 nogs (slang for Viet Cong) 50 yards away”.

Bombardier Andy Forsdike was lying with his M60 machine-gun team of seven men 20 metres out in front of 102 Field Battery:

VC (Viet Cong) got up from all around us…they crawled up to within four feet of the M60 and we didn’t even know they were there…they were holding their AK47s up in the air spraying bullets….

….there was yelling coming from the Mortar section – we could hear one of the Mortar Crew yelling that they were coming in, and not to fire – then we heard two Australian voices screaming ‘they’ve got us’, but because of the number of VC between us and the mortars we could not help them…

…in the end we fired at the VC on the track and we possibly hit our two mortar men

The enemy assault quickly overran the mortars, moving through the positon at speed.

As luck would have it, shortly before the main attack, the artillery battery had fired a mission to the north. The gunners were still standing at their posts, their guns facing directly to the assaulting enemy lines of 150 to 200 men. Gunners began firing over open sights, point blank into the waves of enemy troops.

Lieutenant Tony Jensen, second-in-command of the mortar platoon, was facing annihilation from the overwhelming force. Two men sprang from their pits and were killed. Desperate, he ordered direct fire onto his own positon from the anti-tank platoon’s recoilless rifles.

He screamed to his men, “Stay down….Splintex coming in!” Thousands of Splintex darts swept across the platoon, clearing everything above ground.

Gunner David ‘Thomo’ Thomas of 102 Field Battery was forever haunted by this moment:

I will never forget carrying Splintex over the number 4 gun – Stevo’s gun…. I tripped and fell down and had a poncho wrapped around my ankles….I looked down and there was Bluey Sawtell.

He was dead; he had been shot in the head and was under the poncho near our gun bay. I covered him up and kept going.

One howitzer of 102 Field Battery was overrun, another damaged and abandoned. Desperate close-quarters fighting continued. Two Australian officers attacked the gun pit with grenades and regained the captured gun.

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

The enemy began a fighting withdrawal at 4.30 am, the last one found and killed in the number 6 gun emplacement just after 6 am.

The enemy had left 52 of its dead.

On a clearing patrol, several Australians were not far from the gun position when Gunner Ayson (No. 6 gun) opened fire on an NVA in the grass. On instinct the men went to ground.

Bombardier D’Arcy was now looking at an enemy soldier and into the barrel of his AK47. He pulled the trigger on his M60. It jammed:

All I remember was Ayson firing; I hit the ground …..and seeing the barrel of an enemy gun I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I was yelling for Burnsie to bloody well shoot him, just bloody shoot him…..Burnsie assured me he was already dead and I could get up and stop shouting

Of the 18 men in the Australian mortar platoon, five were dead and 8 wounded.

In total, 11 Australians had been killed and 28 wounded. Their average age was 22.

This is a story of sheer courage, determination, leadership and luck.

The attack on Fire Support Base Coral was the most sustained ground attack on an Australian gun positon since the Second World War.

Thomas Robert ‘Tom’ Loughridge of 1RAR wrote to his brother ‘Tiger’ on 21 May 1968, days before Balmoral.

Across the top of the 1RAR letterhead he scrawled, ‘Don’t let anyone else read this’.

….our first night out here one of the chaps in my section was killed by shrapnel from a 2” mortar bomb. He was Bevan Trimble from Bendigo. He was lying only 3 to 4 feet away from me when he was killed.

Please don’t tell mum, dad and Sue any of this as they would only worry like hell and there is nothing to worry about now as it is all over and things are very quiet again…

Over almost four weeks in further actions at Coral and the nearby Fire Support Base Balmoral, Australians fought some of their largest and most sustained battles of the Vietnam War.

At its end would be 26 Australians dead and 100 wounded.

Together they had repelled a massive attack and accounted for more than 300 enemy soldiers killed.

None who survived would ever be the same again.

Robin Carbins was a member of 3RAR. On 23 May – his 23rd birthday, he inserted into Balmoral. The next day he came under heavy attack, Centurion tanks helping defend the position.

Robin completed his tour and returned to Australia ashamed to tell anyone he was a Vietnam veteran.

He had 13 jobs in two years, describing Vietnam as “the dirty war”. He married, divorced and married again.

When a mate asked one day if he would march on Anzac Day, Denise, his wife of ten years said, “Why would he do that?”

Emotionally Robin turned to her, “Because I’m a Vietnam vet”. He had never told her.

Years later he said:

It’s been a long journey with PTSD…I spent 30 years trying to forget about the war, keeping myself busy.

I still have nightmares and bad days, but I’ve come to terms with it.

A Unit Citation for Gallantry has been finally awarded these men of Coral-Balmoral. Many among us will wonder what that means.

It means this.

Bob Wilson was 17 years old in 1963 when he joined the army. A boy from Oberon, he had never heard of Vietnam – “had no idea where it was”. On his second tour in 1968 he fought in these actions. Of the belated award he said:

It feels like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders. This is not about personal recognition, these are battle honours for our unit…we can carry the colours on our flag and all the young blokes can wear the citation.

When we came back, World War Two veterans didn’t want to know us, they turned their backs.

We want to make sure the young ones get proper help and are well cared for. This citation is part of that.

I’m terrified of crowds and I can’t go to the Anzac Day Dawn service, but when I’m with these blokes, it’s like a pair of old slippers. I can relax.

The wife of one veteran said this of her husband’s reaction to the news:

It is not often that he shows his emotions like that….he had another big cry after (speaking to you)… and…it was good that he was able to ‘let it out’….thank you so much for being there for him….. you always have been….

I think you are all….very, very brave to have not only survived being there in Vietnam, but for all these years that have followed.

Australia owes you a great deal

And we do.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes of our history, headlines, popular imagery and mythology.

Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and our country.

Corporal Allan ‘Jack’ Parr of 1RAR’s mortar platoon was there fifty years ago today, calling in the Splintex fire on his own positon at Coral. Only last week he said:

Numerous times I have stood in front of the Vietnam (Roll of Honour) panel and read ‘our’ names.

I come to John O’Brien and dwell some time…… He died in my shallow shell scrape next to me.

Bob Hickey was 5metres away.  Jock W was 10 m away as was Errol Bailey and ‘Tiny’ Watson.

I think to myself…. Just what more could I have done to save them? It happened so quickly.

Then there was the 8 wounded, some of whom are still with us.

We still see their faces. We still hear their voices. We know what pain and grief their passing caused, and still causes today.

I console myself by saying… well what I did was enough to prevent another 8 names or 13 more names appearing on the panel.

I feel a little better.

I move on, I don’t look back and I give thanks.

I pledge that I will do everything possible, until my dying day, to ensure that their sacrifice and service to our great nation is remembered, and honoured…

The challenge and responsibility we place at the feet of the next generation is to not allow the past to become a distant stranger.

To young Australians, these Vietnam Veterans amongst us – like you, were once young.

Yet out of a sense of duty to our country, they gave their innocent youth; 521 of their friends gave their lives, and thousands more their good health – for us.

You will honour them best by the way you live your lives and shape our nation.

To fail in this will be to diminish ourselves and demean the values that bind us for which they gave so much that is so precious.

For we are young, and we are free.

Lest we forget.