Jack wins fight for recognition, 50 years after battle
FIFTY years ago this month, he was lying in a 200mm hole in the ground, giving directions over a radio to men controlling guns, mortars and a "Spooky” gunship as North Vietnam soldiers metres away threw grenades towards Australians troops.
Rockhampton Vietnam Veteran Alan "Jack” Parr (Lance Corporal) is one of four veterans from the Battle of Coral Balmoral who spent the past three years fighting bureaucracy to have 2000 Australian personnel recognised for their bravery and sacrifice during a three-week long battle in the Vietnam War.
The other veterans were retired Australian Army Reserve Brigadier Neil Weekes, retired Major Garry "Pepe” Prendergast, who was a platoon commander for the Australian First Battalion during the battle, and retired Lieutenant Colonel George Hulse. Two of the four veterans died before the fight for recognition ended and success was announced.
They started with an application to the Department of Defence to have the units involved in the conflict receive the Unit Citation for Bravery, -which has been awarded retrospectively only twice before by Australian authorities.
It is awarded for a collective group's bravery in extraordinary circumstances. The first was awarded by Australian authorities in November 2004 to No. 1 Special Air Service Squadron for gallantry during Operation Falconer in Iraq in 2003.
Jack said their original submission was initially rejected by the army. They then appeal to the Defence Minister and this led to the Inquiry into Unit Recognition for Service at the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. Public hearings were held in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra for 34 of 170 submitters to give their submissions orally.
On April 26, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal publicly released its review into the battle, agreeing with veterans from all units involved deserved to be recognised.
On May 16, Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), as Commander-in-Chief, and Lady Cosgrove, attended a parade at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle.
At the parade, the Governor-General presented the new Regimental Colours to 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and affixed a Unit Gallantry Citation streamer in recognition of the unit's actions during the battle.
"I was very privileged to assist the Governor-General in this presentation,” Jack said.
Jack described the result as "momentous” due to the many hurdles the group had to overcome over three years, along with the memories veterans had to relive as part of their submissions.
Jack relived the battle with The Morning Bulletin this week to explain why the units of soldiers deserved the award.
He said Australian troops had moved into an area thought to be classified by the North Vietnamese troops as a safe area, and that the North Vietnamese 7th Division was based, at that point, across the border of Cambodia.
The base was 40km north-east of Saigon.
Jack, who was a radio operator in his second year of National Service, arrived at Fire Support Patrol Base (FSPB) Coral at 5pm on May 12, 1968, with the 1st Battalion's mortar platoon consisting of 18 men.
They dug 200mm-deep holes to lie in but time escaped them to construct other defence barriers such as barbed-wire fences or trip flares.
"That was our only protection besides the shirts on our backs,” Jack said.
Artillery had arrived at lunch time on May 12 and only three of the six howitzers had bund walls were built around them before dark.
At 2.30am, North Vietnamese troops attacked FSPB Coral.
"We were overrun within five minutes,” Jack said.
"We got out of it because of the artillery support.”
He said the artillery launched five rounds of 8000 heads of arrow-type projectiles called Splintex at ground level directly at the North Vietnamese troops walking through the section where the mortar platoon lay.
A further 22 rounds of the Splintex were fired at the rest of the North Vietnamese troops coming from other directions.
"At the same time, 'Spooky' gunships flying in shooting,” Jack said.
He said the Spookies had three mini guns firing 20,000 rounds per minute each.
"I was on the ground giving directions to Spookies, artillery and mortars,” he said.
"They (North Vietnamese) were throwing hand grenades at us. One landed one metre outside my pit.”
The assault carried on until morning, with mortar barrage for about five minutes, followed by rocket-propelled grenades and then human assault, anti-tank recoilless rifles and heavy machine guns.
"There wasn't many left standing,” Jack said.
Five men in the mortar platoon were killed and eight wounded.
The North Vietnamese continued attacking the combined forces, with American and New Zealand forces joining Australians, until June 6.
Jack said during that time, there were four main attacks, three bunker battles and 57 other major contacts, with 26 Australians killed and 109 wounded, along with five New Zealand personnel wounded and five US personnel wounded.
The second assault by the North Vietnamese was two days later and by that time, Australian infantry (companies A, B, C and D) had built a perimeter around the mortars and artillery.
Jack said on the second night, on May 16, the 1RAR A company was the hardest hit and the base had American air and artillery support.
"There was an Australian RAAFie from Forward Air Control who was flying around this battle in a Cessna,” he said with tears forming in his eyes.
"He was calling in air strikes and artillery... for four hours by himself.
"He had to go and refuel half way through.
"They were shooting heavy machine guns at him.”
Jack said the mortar platoon, which had reformed with new soldiers coming in, fired 2000 mortar rounds in four hours on May 16.
FSPB Balmoral was established on May 24, four kilometres north of FSPB Coral, by the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, supported by armoured vehicles.
The North Vietnamese 165th Regiment launched a two-battalion assault on FSPB Balmoral hours after tanks arrived - the Battle of Balmoral I.
Jack said four Centurion tanks, supported by infantry, attacked a bunker system built by the North Vietnamese on May 25. They were involved in a 2.5-hour battle.
Jack said this was the first time Australian tanks had been involved in a battle since World War II.
The next day, 1RAR's D company went back to the bunker system, with the tanks, and battled for half a day to destroy almost all of the system.
A B52 strike was called in to get the rest with its 90 tonnes of bombs.
Jack said the Battle of Balmoral II on May 28 was similar to the first battle on May 24 but 3RAR was now better prepared.
Minor assaults continued for about a week.
On May 30, 1RAR's C company located an extensive bunker system outside FSPB Coral and became surrounded by the enemy.
"They couldn't be extracted and artillery fire support was impossible because of the closeness of the enemy,” Jack said. "They were saved by the tanks again.
"Then we had fewer contacts with the North Vietnam Army. The entire 7 Division NVA then packed up and left... moved 50km into Cambodia. The Australian force enjoyed a rare strategic over the NVA.”
He said during the Battle of Coral Balmoral, there were 108 air strikes by the Americans and five B52 strikes.
The Units at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral
HQ 1 Australian Task Force
A Sqn 3 Cav Regt
HQ 12 Fd Regt with 102 Field Battery Royal Australian Artillery, A battery, 2/35 Artillery (US) 161 Field Battery Royal New Zealand Artillery, and elements of 131 Divisional Locating Battery, Royal Australian Artillery
C Squadron 1 Armoured Regiment, including forward repair teams
1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR)
3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR)
1 Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers
Elements of 5/2 AA Artillery (US)
161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight
Elements of 104 Signals Squadron, Royal Australian Signals Corps, Logistics Corps and elements of a detachment of 1 Ordnance Field Park.
Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove's speech at the Townsville ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Coral Balmoral
The Battle of Fire Support Base Coral we commemorate today and that other desperate struggle at Fight Support Base Balmoral, stand stark in our memory half a century on.
Our troops were outnumbered in the dead of night by a well prepared adversary as part of the TET Offensive.
The fighting that occurred is now considered amongst the most deadly and hard fought by Australians in the Vietnam War.
Casualties were high on both sides.
Twenty-six Australian soldiers lost their lives.
For the Vietnamese the number is uncertain-but probably in the many hundreds.
It was under ferocious attack that the soldiers of 1 RAR and the entire Taskforce displayed their true valour.
You veterans did not waver.
You held the line.
You stayed strong, resisted and repelled, when the combat was immediate and close, when the consequences of success and failure were as high as they could possibly be.
As soldiers, comrades and mates, you were a tribute to your units, to the legacy of your forebears, to the ethos of our fighting forces.
The contribution made by so many mattered then, it still matters to this day.
No greater testament to this than the recent announcement of the Unit Citation for Gallantry to 1 RAR and to other units.
The citation is just recognition of those who risked and lost lives and the gallantry of the protracted struggle.
Formal acknowledgement of a nation's enduring respect and gratitude.
At this parade those currently serving in 1 RAR continue and carry forward the Battalion's fine traditions.
We see this in your parade performance and your fine drill and bearing.
We see it in the 1 RAR Band under the direction of MAJ Matt Chilmaid, adding immeasurably to the atmosphere of this day.
And we see it with the consecration of the new Regimental Colours, and the attachment of this streamer.
The colours a symbol of unity and camaraderie.
A symbol of what it means, and is, to serve and be part of
- To put nation first.
- To put 'duty first'.
- To stand ready for the challenges and sacrifices that inevitably lie ahead.
On this anniversary we remember the loss and cost of a battle that was unforgiving.
In our sombre reflection we also remember with pride and a warm heart the enormous bond which unites all those who serve in 1 RAR.
We saw this bond in action at Coral, we see it-timeless as ever-before us today.
Armed with memory, gratitude and respect, with a new citation and colours, the Big Blue 1 is famed across the ADF and the nation.
Inquiry submission - some comments by veterans
The Inquiry received 170 written submissions. In the main, submissions recounted very powerful narratives of personal experience. Throughout the submissions the theme of teamwork and collective gallantry is readily apparent and consistently referenced. The message to the Tribunal from all of the veterans of the battles was that, regardless of corps and parent unit, they had fought as a coordinated group and that everybody who was there deserve recognition.
Here are some comments about what happened during the battle by various veterans in their submissions to the inquiry:
In the occupation of Bn Posn Balmoral, sleep and rest were luxuries enjoyed by the few. We experienced 50% stand-to each night, except the nights of the attacks when we were at action stations from 0345hrs and 0230hrs to dawn respectively.
The impact to the individual was an average of 3-4 hours sleep per night. This combined with the physical effort in wiring, digging and patrolling over a protracted period added to the fatigue experienced by the soldiers.
The fatigue was compounded by the anticipation which is companion of every man faced with heavy sustained mortaring, RPG and small arms fire.
Every time you wake up you expect something to happen - sustained expected combat. You cannot wind down because there's nowhere that feels safe.
For troops trained for and expecting to be fighting rag tag Viet Cong part-time soldiers, it was learning on the job.
After about one hour or so I awoke from a half daze to the sound of a lot of small arms fire, the 'whoosh' of rockets, loud explosions and flashes of bright light. I instinctively rolled straight into my pit, pointing my weapon out. I could see a line three and four deep of what I assumed were the enemy N.V.A. as far as I could see in both directions. You couldn't shoot quick enough, they just kept coming and coming, wave after wave.
I looked over to where all the noise was coming from and then I saw a line of them silhouetted in the half-light of the flashes from the exploding mortars. There must have been a hundred of them, shoulder to shoulder and they were coming our way.
Along the perimeter through the rubber trees to the north and west, waves of enemy troops began their assaults. The volume of firing along those perimeters increased rapidly until individual shots became a continuous roar.
The enemy tactic was to move in close to avoid the artillery and airstrikes. Wave after wave of enemy troops displaying remarkable courage were being repulsed time and time again. It was bloody infantry fighting at its worst.
Our situation at FSB Coral was so dire that I had resigned myself to the fact that this was where I was going to die. Every day since then has been a bonus.
In all it is estimated that over about four hours of the battle the 1RAR mortar platoon fired around 2400 rounds from its four mortars. (That was more than a year's normal allocation of mortar rounds for the platoon).
It is difficult to explain to the uninitiated what it's like to be exposed to a continuous bombardment of high-explosive projectiles.
The RPGs can be heard coming in. It was most unnerving.
Then comes the impact of the arrival. The noise is beyond belief. It is nothing like in the movies. It is palpable. It has physical as well as an aural dimension. The earth shudders and pulsates. It is terrifying. There's nothing you can do about it. You just huddle in the bottom of your pit and pray for it to end. The expression 'foxhole religion' takes on a whole new meaning.
I received a direct hit on my pit, blowing me some distance in the air and destroying my rations and medical supplies. I was deafened for about four weeks as a result of the explosions. After that incident I spent the days patrolling with C Coy and tending the wounded as a result of the many contacts we were involved in. When C Coy was stood down I went on patrol with both A and B Coys when their medics were unavailable for various reasons.
Most of us were physically worn out but this did not stop us from stepping up to the plate when the chips were down. When the first shots rang out everyone reacted positively and this is another reason why we were able to limit our casualties. Mates were helping mates with everything from pulling the wounded out of harms' way to resupplying people with ammunition and backing each other up.
On a daily basis I was always impressed with the attitudes of not only my soldiers but of all those in other units that I had the opportunity to speak to and observe. Overwhelmingly the attitude was one of getting on with the job, regardless of the events of the night before or of the day, or of the problems that occur in a complex fire support base due to shortages, difficulties in communication, or changes that created a need for adaptation, such as in the weather.
The extraction of the wounded was one of the bravest things I have seen - both by the American chopper crew and by the Company 2IC, Brian Altham and the Platoon Sergeants and NCOs. We all knew how dangerous it was. When the medevac was complete, we breathed a huge sigh of relief and the Company reorganised the harbour position - now much more a defence position rather than an ambush.