Vietnam vet recalls horror of war
A Townsville Digger still hears the sound of gunfire and death as if it was yesterday, almost 50 years on from Australia's last and most brutal fire fight in South Vietnam.
Just weeks before soldiers were due to return home in time for Christmas they became engaged in what would become known as the Battle of Nui Le, a bloody four-day long fight.
It was four days of "sheer pandemonium," according to Townsville veteran Garry McGlone whose recollection of the battle is as clear today, as it was then.
On September 19, 1971, in humid conditions, Mr McGlone was part of a seek and destroy operation to locate the Vietcong in South Vietnam.
He said troops experienced the full force of a Vietnamese wet season with heavy rainfall adding to the complicated nature of taking on the enemy.
Australian troops were ambushed by approximately 20 enemy using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire on September 20.
But, it wasn't enough to unnerve the Australians and a quick counter attack took place killing one enemy.
A machine gunner for Delta Company, as part of the 4th Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand (ANZAC) Battalion, Mr McGlone said the battle which unfolded in the following days and nights has stayed with him all 49 years later.
"We knew we were chasing a lot of bad guys but we didn't know what strength or who they were," Mr McGlone said.
"During the day we hit two guys laying out wire and identified them as North Vietnamese Army so straight away we knew we were up against professional, well trained troops.
"They stayed in their bunkers and to look at the bush you'd think there was nothing there but they'd cut out fire lanes and if you laid down in a fire lane it was goodnight."
Written into history books as the only enemy capable of exploiting Australian forces, the 33rd North Vietnamese Army Regiment was notorious for conducting well planned and detailed reconnaissance discreetly.
On September 21, the threat materialised quickly.
"Early in the morning we got the message 'contact, contact, contact'," Mr McGlone said.
"We were at this bunker system all day and at 4 o'clock we were going to just pound the place silly with artillery, bombs, napalm.
"They (Vietnamese) knew if we ever pulled back something was going to happen so they did too and they came around us ready to get us from all sides."
With sketchy and unreliable communications between command, Mr McGlone said he and his mates found themselves in the thick of heavy gunfire.
He said the situation unravelled quickly, claiming the lives of five Australians and wounding 24.
Mr McGlone said among them was Private Ralph Niblett who was shot in the chest.
The bullet went through his spine exiting his kidney.
"They couldn't stop the bleeding, the chopper had nowhere to land and was taking fire and we could see Ralph being lifted up and he was hanging really tight and then just went limp and was gone," Mr McGlone said.
"One of the officers got hit twice in the shoulder and his scream unnerved everybody, a blood curdling sound I'll never forget.
"It was black, so black because we were under a heavy rainforest canopy so you don't know where anybody is."
Delta company was ordered to pull back leaving their packs and their dead mates behind to a night defensive position, something Mr McGlone said he's never resolved.
"None of us liked it, but we had no choice or we would have been beside them.
"I started to fall backwards and fell into a hole so that's where I stayed.
"We could hear them pushing carts 20 metres from where we were but everyone was reluctant to pull the trigger, it was just mass confusion.
"They probed us, some guys got involved hand to hand as I did earlier but thankfully I had a shovel."
After very nearly being overrun, the North Vietnamese troops withdrew leaving Australia to claim victory, on September 22.
With the help of New Zealand forces and in torrential rain, troops were winched to safety on September 23.
Mr McGlone said he returned to Australia a changed man but the impact of war didn't become apparent until years later with outbursts of anger and a marriage breakdown.
He said it wasn't until he was at a reunion with his "brothers in arms'' decades later that he realised he had all the symptoms of PTSD and sought professional help.
"Listening to the blokes talk about their problems and things they'd experienced I thought 'hang on, that's happening to me'," Mr McGlone said.
"My biggest regret is how I treated my children."
Originally published as Vietnam vet recalls horror of war