On the afternoon of 17 February 1967, an Australian force found itself facing defeat in a thick patch of jungle near the coast of Phuoc Tuy province. Operation Bribie, as the battle was known, was one of Australia's worst days in Vietnam.
Planned and organised in haste, Bribie was an attempt to destroy a communist force that had attacked the village of Lang Phuoc Hai earlier that day. The 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, were ordered to cut off the enemy's withdrawal routes. They were expecting to encounter small, scattered groups of soldiers heading back to their jungle bases.
First on the scene was A Company, 6RAR. After being landed by helicopter they quickly made their way into the forest but had covered less than two hundred metres before coming under fire. Machine gun and small arms fire, and snipers shooting from the trees, forced the shocked Australians to ground. Six members of 2 platoon were killed or wounded in less than a minute when they assaulted the Viet Cong position. This was not an just enemy camp, as the Australians assumed. It was a strong defensive position, its extent unknown, its occupants all but invisible. The contact was just minutes old but the Australians were already in trouble.
B Company arrived next. Under fire, they leapt from their helicopters into the scrub and moved towards the sounds of battle. Meanwhile, facing a company of Viet Cong armed with at least six machine guns, A Company's forward platoons were lying prone. After 20 minutes of unrelenting fire they managed to extricate themselves, some carrying the wounded on their backs.
Then C Company, carried to the battle in APCs, arrived. Moments later, D Company's helicopters flew into the landing zone. When the last aircraft was safely away, the Australians called down artillery fire on the enemy position and planned their assault.
In the continuing belief that the enemy position was merely a camp, 6RAR was deployed and ordered to attack. Within metres of their start lines the Australians came under fire. Every step forward took them deeper into a 'U' shaped position, fire from the flanks intensified, everywhere men were hit. With visibility limited to only a few metres hardly an enemy soldier had been seen.
B Company's 6 platoon were ordered to destroy a machine gun position. They fixed bayonets and rose yelling. Enemy bullets tore through some and forced the rest to ground. Then 5 platoon received a similar command; to advance 30 metres and try to outflank the same gun. Platoon commander John O'Halloran told his men to fix bayonets but most no longer carried the weapon, others could not hear him over the din of gunfire. On his order 5 platoon ran forward with a roar only to be cut down almost immediately. Hidden machine guns opened up on the right flank, leaving eight members of the nine-man-strong 1 section either killed or wounded. The Australians had advanced about 25 metres, and half the men in the forward two sections were casualties. 5 platoon was almost surrounded and taking heavy fire.
The wounded needed to be evacuated and the survivors withdrawn from where they lay, just metres from enemy guns. Help eventually came in the shape of APCs but unsure of the beleaguered Australians' positions, the crews had trouble locating B Company. Fires started by incendiary grenades added smoke to the confusion and now enemy soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons joined the battle. An hour after entering the jungle the APCs found B Company and, as fierce fighting continued, wounded men were loaded on board. One APC was struck by a recoilless rifle round which killed the driver. A second round injured the vehicle's commander and wounded for a second time the men in the back who thought their ordeal was over. Fire from the APCs poured into the enemy positions, eventually making it possible for the Australians to break contact and regroup at the landing zone.
The battle ended just before 7.30 that evening. In just over five hours of fighting eight Australians had been killed and another 27 wounded. That night the enemy position was bombarded. Napalm incinerated some of the corpses, making a terrible job worse for the soldiers detailed to return to the scene the following day. By then the enemy had gone. One of them had written in blood on the side of the wrecked APC Du Me Uc Dai Loi, the Vietnamese equivalent of 'Get fucked Australians'.
The men who inflicted such heavy damage on the Australians seemed to have been a rearguard, covering the withdrawal of a larger force. Making excellent use of an old position, they had built covered, well-camouflaged fighting pits. They employed impressive discipline and displayed great courage. Some Australian survivors felt that Bribie had been a defeat. 'It was us who copped a hiding,' said one. Official estimates numbered the enemy dead at between 50 and 70. As was so often the case in Vietnam, no-one really knew.