The fiercest urban battle fought by the Australians in the Vietnam War occurred in June 1969 at the village of Binh Ba.
This writer was involved in the battle as part of D Company, 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR).
Binh Ba (population of about 1,300) was a village adjacent to the French-owned Gallia rubber plantation, located on Route 2 just 6.5 kms north of Nui Dat.
Nui Dat was the 1st Australian Task Force Base (1ATF) and the attack on Binh Ba by a large enemy force was designed to demonstrate how close the enemy could get to the Australian base and then lure them out to an ambush.
The US government advertised a meeting on Midway Island between President Richard Nixon and South Vietnamese President Thieu, perhaps in hindsight, not a good thing to do.
The North Vietnamese Government soon became aware of this meeting and decided to stage their own PR exercise at the same time by creating 122 co-ordinated conflicts throughout South Vietnam as part of a ‘show of force.’
Binh Ba village was attacked and overrun by the 33rd North Vietnam Army (NVA) Infantry Regiment along with guerrilla forces from the local D440 Battalion to emphasize their ‘continuing capability to conduct offensive action throughout South Vietnam.’
Reports released in 2013 indicate 1075 NVA troops took part in the operation against Binh Ba and two smaller hamlets nearby.
Other enemy attacks were to take place close by aimed at confusing the Australians with three separate engagements at the same time.
‘The Heroic 33rd Infantry Regiment,’ according to its own history, had been raised in North Vietnam in 1965 and deployed into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A special task allotted to 33rd Regiment in this plan was to ‘attack an Australian mechanised battalion stationed in the Nui Dat area.’
D440 Battalion was to capture parts of Binh Ba village. Its A Company was to then remain within Binh Ba to lure rescuing forces, including Australians from Nui Dat, so they could be ambushed by 33rd Regiment.
The remainder of D440 were to remain adjacent to Binh Ba and conduct further attacks as the battle progressed.
On June 6, 5RAR was either resting, training, employed on company operations, convoy protection or on ready reaction standby at Nui Dat, having recently completed six weeks of continuous operations.
As it happened, a Centurion battle tank and an armoured recovery vehicle were travelling from Nui Dat responding to a call for a replacement tank working with 6RAR/NZ on Operation Lavarack further northand as they neared Binh Ba, were fired on from a house just 20m from the road.
The tank was damaged by a rocket propelled grenade and a crewman was injured but responded with machine gun fire before returning to Nui Dat.
If the NVA thought this was the Australian reaction force, they were not only mistaken but also would have been surprised by the quick withdrawal of the two tanks.
The ready reaction company was alerted to the issue at Binh Ba and given 30 minutes to move.
D Company, severely under-strength with just 65 men, together with a composite troop of three tanks and 13 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), left Nui Dat for Binh Ba, under the control of D Company commander, Major Murray Blake.
Several officers and NCOs were unavailable so just one platoon had an officer, the other two commanded by a sergeant and a corporal. Many rifle sections were commanded by private soldiers.
An initial intelligence briefing indicated a small guerrilla force was active in Binh Ba and it was thought the ready reaction company would have no problems dealing with the matter.
Upon arrival at Binh Ba, the leading APC was attacked when well out of range and
D Company left the vehicles and what followed was two days of fierce house-to-house fighting as the Australians removed the NVA and VC from the village.
On day one, the tanks took the lead with infantry behind, not realising how large the enemy force was and every tank crew member was wounded by anti-tank grenades sending red hot metal around inside their tanks. One infantry soldier was killed and some wounded.
The fierce battle raged until nightfall when the Australians withdrew to a safer position, three fresh tanks arrived overnight and another infantry company arrived in support.
Early next morning the enemy did a frontal attack on the D Company harbour position but were forced back by concentrated fire from the tanks, APCs and the infantry soldiers themselves.
Then followed an infantry attack on the village, backed-up by tanks and helicopter gunships. While several more soldiers were wounded, there were no more Australian deaths, the enemy held on but were beaten at every turn and by midday, had started to withdraw.
It is now believed over 350 NVA and VC were killed, many by concentrated artillery fire as they retreated.
D Company was withdrawn from the village late in the afternoon and engineers were called to deal with the destruction and war dead.
The village of Binh Ba, where four in every five houses were destroyed, was completely rebuilt by members of the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit.
The writer has recovered from the trauma of being in battle and having been wounded, thanks almost entirely on his faith in God and knowing Jesus as his Saviour.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.