Operation Crimp January 1966

Why am I looking into Op Crimp?

Private Chris Clark was killed in South Vietnam in 1966. He was 20, in the prime of his life.

I have a dim memory of Chris and rely on the black and white Kodak Instamatic photos of Chris in mum's album. My mum met him when he was working as a jackeroo on a station near Tharwa ACT, called Booroomba. I was six years old and about that time Mum's divorce "went through" in nearby Queanbeyan. Mum has a photo of Chris on his horse looking very handsome, looking every bit the typical Aussie macho man. Later Chris got in trouble in town (for stealing a car I was told -unconfirmed) and he was given an ultimatum by the local magistrate: either he could try the Army life or he could be gaoled. Back then.. these things happened. Chris was signed up and was sent to the Australian Army Recruit Training at Kapooka, just over the Dividing Range to the west of Tharwa. Recruit training has a certain reputation in many armies the world over.

Well, I heard from mum that Chris went AWOL during his time at Kapooka but he must have finished his training because the next memory is that of an Easter visit before he embarked for Vietnam with the First Australian Task Force, May 1965. My brother and I are pictured after the backyard egg hunt and he is there in the photos, in his greens, enjoying his time with us. Maybe he was happy to be getting a break from the Army, and immersing himself for an afternoon in normality. I think he had leave from Holsworthy Base in Western Sydney. I imagine he had also been to visit his parents in nearby Campelltown that Easter weekend of 1965.

For many years, whenever I noticed those pictures in the album, all mum said about Chris was that "Chris was killed driving an ambulance in Vietnam." Some 38 years later I noticed Chris' plaque at Kapooka. (Chris' plaque is one of the many KIA remembrance plaques that surround the Soldier's Chapel there). Previously I had been in contact with the AWM staff regarding the B.B.B. and I decided to find out all I could about how Chris had been KIA. A friendly AWM reseacher replied to my initial letter saying that:

"Chris may have refered to his posting to 1RAR as "Ambulance Driver" but it appears from his employment at the time of KIA that he was a trained stretcher-bearer attached (as normally occurred) to a Rifle Company for operations. Within Medical Platoon he may well have been employed, out of operations, as an ambulance driver."

Chris had been in-country about six months when he was a stretcher-bearer in a patrol that was shot at almost at point-blank range by enemy riflemen hidden underground. More of this further down. But first, here are Chris' macabre "fatalcas" documents from the Battalion HQ (now in the AWM War Diaries for January 1966).

Chris is buried at Terendak Barracks, Malaysia and his headstone reads, 'No greater love hath any man than this that he lay down his life for a friend'. (ref Breen First To Fight)

1RAR War Diary Documents

Because Chris' Platoon Commander, 2LT Bourke, was WIA and a medevac, the official record suffers a little, but nevertheless there's plenty of details in the D Company After-Action Report.

Yes, two medics were KIA as it says, but thats all. I was trying to find just how Chris had been KIA...

Sub Unit Analysis, D Coy 1RAR.
OC D Coy Maj. Fisher
Pl Commander 10 Pl, 11 Pl, 12 Pl.

Op Crimp 1/66

8-14 1966

  • extract 080845

    Heli lift from Bau Trai to LZ March. D Coy in first lift...

  • extract 080900

    Light resistance met on LZ. Coy cleared east from LZ... 11 Pl located a house from which a machine gun had been firing.

    11 Pl was instructed to destroy the house with M72 but did not do so because it contained women and children - the armed VC subsequently escaped, and women and children were apprehended. The matter of not firing at women and children has been rectified for future occasions.

  • extract 081140

    Moved from LZ to BnHbr. Blockhead. Order of movement 12 Pl, 11 Pl, CHQ, 10 Pl.

  • extract 081220

    12 Pl ambushed in clearing from bunkered and booby trapped position. Our casualties 2 KIA (incl A Coy medic) and 6 WIA (incl 2LT Bourke the Pl Comd).

    12 Pl incorrectly assumed the clearing had already been cleared and moved straight across the clearing where they were caught by ambush.

    The Pl Comd was wounded whilst trying to remove a cas.

    After the ambush was sprung the Pl remained on the ground where they were and made an effort to counter enemy fire for some 15 minutes by which time both other Pls were deployed to assist. The first Pl completely missed the ambush position in thin scrub. When the area eventually cleared no VC were found. One officer was wounded and 2 medical orderlies were killed whilst trying to evacuate the cas during this action.

1RAR mud map of their part of Operation Crimp:

1RAR Documents summarising Operation Crimp with some passages I highlighted:



The documents found in the AWM offer a view into a typical search and destroy operation. Similar Ops were carried out all over South Vietnam. B-52 bombings, intense artillery, gunships, choppers everywhere, paras, gas and smoke, and... the local villagers used as cover, the obvious lack of young men - or any men- to be seen, etc, etc. The brutal realities of the guerilla war.

So I sought out and read more books with chapters about Operation Crimp... All accounts reveal what a mess South Vietnam was! Granted, things can be more obvious in hindsight, but the campaign to counter the communists was a mess. The Republic's of South Vietnam's government was a mess as well - it was a model kleptocracy just like the others of the era around southeast Asia. And the Republic of South Vietnam's Army, referred to as the ARVN? It turns out that one or more high level South Vietnamese Republican Army officers in Saigon turned traitor and warned the VC about this (and previous operations), and not in vague terms. There was an intercepted radio message from Saigon to the target area and Op Crimp itself captured a document warning of their attack plan. The written message was received by their target about 24 hours before the Op Crimp lift-offs, despite efforts to quarantine the Op details from the top levels of the ARVN until the last moment. Our soldiers went out on an Op not knowing they were betrayed, and for all I know it was not for the first or last time in the Vietnam War.

I have seen movies about the Vietnam War. I can imagine that the traitor gave the VC the intel because his family was held hostage somewhere by the enemy; so maybe the intel was given as ransom. Both sides in the war used lists of civilian names and addresses, especially the VC. Maybe the traitor was paying off a family IOU. Maybe the family business of the officer was threatened with a VC attack and he was simply looking out for his family fortune. Maybe his friend had been murdered by a VC hit squad and maybe there was a message stating there was nowhere to hide and that he was next on the list unless he provided the intel. Maybe the VC simply purchased the intel or swapped it for a load of rice.

One thing became clear from the Vietnam War literature: the VC and North Vietnamese owned the night and could target civilians at will (the official toll was over 35,000 icluding the Hue Massacre during the 1968 Tet Offensive). The VC sought to control the rice harvest as a strategy and sought to manipulate the resultant misery and hunger of the peasantry; insecure and terrorised populations are easier to lead. The cities were harbouring spies, spooks, mercenaries, assasins, private armies and warlords. For all we know the CIA knew about the Op disclosures or even perpetrated the disclosures if it suited their mission. Anything is possible, South Vietnam was a crazy place. Maybe the Australian HQ realised that 1RAR was going to be ambushed on this Op, but since contact with the enemy was what they sought... Meanwhile, the diggers prepared themselves as best they could. (I wonder if the same type of games are being played out in the current asymmetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

A sample of the VC strategy docs captured in the ant hill:

The documents include a draft plan dated 20 March 1965 signed by the VC Command "requesting that qualified cadre, Party, and group members be selected and sent to Saigon Cholon to develop an agent network in order to create a strong force in this region. These cadre must have a knowledge of the area, relatives or close friends and be able to get a job to live on. Each party member will be given the mission of developing two agent cells by the end of 1965. Provincial cadre are also instructed to investigate the number of local populace who had relatives living in Saigon Cholon area."

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The Encyclopedia of Australia's Battles

Chris Coultard-Clark (1998) The Encyclopedia of Australia's Battles
publ. Allen & Unwin Sydney ISBN: 1865086347

Operation Crimp discussed on pages 279-280:

"The Ho Bo Woods, situated twenty kilometres north of Chu Chi in Binh Duong Province of the Republic Of Vietnam, in January 1966, became the scene of a major action involving troops of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The area was known to contain the headquarters of the Saigon Cholon - Gia Dinh Special Sector, which controlled all Viet Cong activity around the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. Although its precise location was unknown, the headquarters was believed to be concealed in an underground bunker system.

"On 8 January a search-and-destroy operation codenamed 'Crimp' was launched, involving the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (which included 1RAR) and 3rd Infantry Brigade under the Command of the American 1st Infantry Division. This began with airmobile assaults by 173 Brigade in the north and west, and 3 Brigade in the south, aimed at sealing off the area in preparation for sweeping movements designed to push trapped enemy east where they would be pinned against the Saigon River. Within this scheme, 1RAR's role was to establish a blocking position in a village beside the river on the northern edge of 173 Brigade's area of operations. As matters turned out, this plan -if adhered to- would have seen the Australians delivered by helicopter directly on top of the enemy complex being sought.

"In the event, the landing zone to be used by 1RAR was changed at the last moment - after an aerial reconnaissance by the unit's operations officer on 7 January revealed that the enemy had made preparations to deal with any such insertions into the designated area. The Australians were lifted instead into an alternative site three kilometres to the south-west, and moved on foot towards what was to have been their start point. No sooner had the leading elements of D Company, commanded by Major Ian Fisher, emerged into the cleared area of the original landing zone than the forward platoon recieved fire from the treeline on the north-east corner opposite. During the action which followed, six men of this platoon were wounded by VC firing from concealed positions, and two medics who tried to treat the casualties under fire were shot dead.

"Meanwhile the commanding officer of 1RAR, Lieut.-Colonel Alex Preece, attempted to push other companies around either side of where D Company was in contact and on towards the unit's blocking position. Soon these elements were engaged too, forced to fight through a maze of fortifications over ground heavily seeded with booby traps... Preece began to suspect that the enemy headquarters which was the whole operation's objective was actually under his battalion's feet...

"...As the Australians sat atop their human ant hill, they found that enemy individuals and small groups were able to pop up and disappear within the perimeter. Random actions continued into the night, although Preece felt obliged to give strict orders that fire was not to be opened unless an enemy target was positively identified; not only was he fearful of accidents leading to casualties among his own men, but a considerable number of civilians -including women and children- had been found to be present in the area."

First To Fight

This following explanations and quotes of the 1RAR soldiers involved are from Bob Breen's (1988) First To Fight
publ. Allen & Unwin Sydney ISBN: 0043202187.

"The written orders for Operation Crimp were deliberately delayed so they would not reach the ARVN III Corps Headquarters until the assault helicopters were in the air.

"Despite this effort to achieve tactical surprise, the Radio Research Unit detected and monitored a radio transmission to the Saigon-Cholon-Gia-Dinh Special Sector Headquarters as the first helicopters were leaving on the morning of 8 January warning the Viet Cong that the Paratroopers and Diggers were inbound...

"'My platoon was hit, and properly hit, soon after we crossed the road', recalled 2LT Jim Bourke. 'There was a washout in front of us, where the water had gouged out the track like a creek bed. Thats where we had our first casualties', recalled Bourke. As the leading sections moved into the open and through the tree line from the south-west corner of the clearing, they were engaged by a Viet Cong soldier firing a Thompson sub-machine gun from the north-east corner of the clearing. Bourke's men rushed forward and sought cover in the depression caused by the sunken road... A mound of earth like an island dominated the washed-out gully areas where the Diggers took cover. The mound had been hollowed out and small firing slits constructed so VC soldiers could crawl through a connecting tunnel undetected and fire at troops crossing the clearing without being seen.

"The opening burst of automatic fire from the mound scythed through Cpl Ron Smith's section. Pte Eddy Grills was hit in the hand and right leg, and a bullet broke Pte Grinter's jaw. 'Smith, poor bugger, took two bullets through the eye. One came out his forehead and the other came out further up...' Bourke recalled. As Ron Smith's forward scout, Pte Barry Delaney, turned to assist Smith he was 'laced up' the front with three bullets at point blank range by a VC soldier firing from a 6cm-wide slit in the mound just above ground level.

"Bourke recalled:

'I yelled out to the rest of the boys to give me some cover and went forward to try and bring Delany and Smith back. But when I got to Delaney some bastard got me from a slit in the face was a bit of a mess... The bullet had gone in through the cheek, broken my jaw and taken out a handful of teeth...'

"Up until this time none of Bourke's men had been able to determine where the fire was coming from and had not returned fire. Bourke screamed in agony for a few moments. With immense effort he settled himself down and, although badly shaken and in pain, he continued to direct his men... he whispered to his rear section leader, Cpl Jim Ehlers, to assault through the treeline to the west, take out a machine gun position and bring fire to bear on the mound area.

'My jaw started to fall out of place. Then a medic raced in and tied it up. We were both covered in blood -mine.'

"At the same time Bourke was injected with morphine, temporarily relieving the pain of his wound. Ehlers' section spread out in the tree line to the west and assaulted. Their movement attracted fire from trenches behind the mound and Ehlers fell after a bullet had drilled a hole through his mouth and nose. His Diggers went to ground and stayed there firing at the machine gun positions on the other side of the clearing.

"...The medic who had treated Bourke, Pte Merv Wilson, had run forward to treat Delany while the medic from A Company, Pte Chris Clark, bound up Smith's head wounds. Using the same slit that he had used when he shot Delaney, a Viet Cong soldier shot Wilson in the neck as he administered first aid. Wilson fell on Delaney, bleeding profusely. Clark saw Wilson had been hit and, despite warnings of the soldiers nearby, crawled towards his fallen comrade. As he opened his medical pack to pull out a dressing to staunch the gushes of blood from Wislon's punctured jugular vein, Clark was shot in the back at point blank range and died quickly. Wilson bled to death next to him.

"Meanwhile, Bourke was issuing orders to LCpl Jim Pratten, Smith's 2IC, to assault the mound and stop fire from the slits. Pratten gathered the few unwounded men from Smith's section and charged the mound under the covering fire of a machine gun. Pratten shoved the barrel of his rifle into one slit and kept firing... He was rewarded with the sound of a scream and scuffling noises...Pratten and his men pushed grenades into the slits and took cover. After the explosions there was a silence from the mound but the machine gunners positioned in trenches behind the mound continued to fire, pinning Pratten and his men down..."

[Hours later] "As night fell... 1RAR was on a human ant hill. From below ground the Diggers could hear constant scuffling noises, digging sounds and Vietnamese voices. After they had finished digging their fighting trenches, these sounds appeared to be even closer. Every now and then a VC would come to the surface and crawl away. The Diggers would hear the noises but were under strict orders not to fire unless an enemy was positively identified... Above ground were the pathetic sounds of hundreds of women and children crying, probably lamenting the fate of their husbands, fathers and sons who were trapped in the tunnels below the Battalion."

"...By 13 January over 17 kilometers of tunnels had been mapped out in the 1RAR area. Sappers had taken telephone lines down with them and, by measuring the length of line and recording the changes of direction with a compass, they were able to determine the routes of many tunnels underground."

1RAR casualties at LZ June, Operation Crimp, 8 January 1966:

  • KIA Pte Merv Wilson
  • KIA Pte Chris Clark
  • WIA 2LT Jim Bourke
  • WIA Cpl Ron Smith
  • WIA Pte Eddy Grills
  • WIA Pte Grinter
  • WIA Pte Barry Delaney
  • WIA Cpl Jim Ehlers

First To Fight offers the most information in the one place: Op Crimp diagrams, maps, tunnel diagrams, a photo of Chris, an Australian Army condolence telegram sent to Chris' parents, and letters from the US Army Commander and the Prime Minister of South Vietnam. But best of all, First To Fight has what the official diaries do not: how the action unfolded and how the two medics were KIA. I surmise the details came via MAJ Ian Fisher (OC D Coy), CPT Rothwell (2IC D Coy), and 2LT Jim Bourke (12 Pl commander), and SGT Jim Carnes (Pl section leader).

Breen's book is the only record so far to mention this: "Many were to be surprised later when Jim Bourke's and Chris Clark's actions were not recognised through the award of decorations for valour." Breen quotes a letter from an American officer accompanying 12 Pl (who was very nearly killed in the ambush as well), lauding 2LT Bourke as being worthy of decorations of valour.

ps: First To Fight review:

- Australian Diggers, New Zealand Kiwis and US Paratroopers in Vietnam, 1965 - 1966"
(Bob Breen)

ISBN 0 04 320218 7

Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd (1988)

"This is the unique history of two American battalions joining forces with an Australian battalion, to make up the 173D Airborne Brigade (Separate), at Bien Hoa, Vietnam in 1965 - 1966.

"The Australian unit - the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) - joined forces with the 173D (consisting also of 1st and 2nd 503rd battalions), to provide defense of the airbase at Bien Hoa, and to take the fight right into the Viet Cong territories, with patrols through 7 provinces.

"They also worked with the 'Kiwis' - the New Zealand 161 Field Battery (Royal New Zealand Artillery) - to form an ANZUS combat force.

"The 173D and 1 RAR was the first into War Zone D, the first to face the North Vietnamese in the Central Highlands, the first into the Iron Triangle, and the Ho Bo Woods (and the Cu Chi tunnels).

"The tactics employed by the Australian infantry caused some controversy, compared to the US methods of patrolling, fighting, and ambushing techniques - but in the end proved to be successful, and led to others adopting their techniques. Even the Viet Cong saw merit in the tactics, and tried to modify their own behaviour to counter the surprise intrusions into their strongholds.

"With a lot of humour, and battle diagrams, along with numerous personal anecdotes, this is no 'dry' military history, and Bob Breen is to be applauded for his ability to convert what appears to be very complex tactics, and battle descriptions (complete with diagrams), into easily followed stories of casual heroism, mixed with moments of both sheer terror and humour.

"All the stories that make up life in a combat zone are there - the 'stuff-ups', miraculous escapes, 'friendly fire', split-second decisions changing the course of a battle, the "sixth sense" that guided units out of danger, the ignoring of inane orders, the 'training' of fresh young officers, the unlikely heroes - and the traumatic moments when loading friends, in a body bag, onto the "Dust Off" chopper."

The American media and the American public

The American media reported the Vietnam conflict directly, electronically, instantaneously, and even "Live". Yes, the "Vietnam conflict" was not a Declared War, and yes, that little legality allowed many reporters, cameramen and domestic politicians to make hay out of the situation: after all, freedom of the press is an american ideal... but did the US and International media actually assist the enemy? Some say yes. When looking back at the Vietnam War period, some say the US media were biased or even combative in their views regarding the war and that they gradually poisoned public opinion about the war and hence the returning serviceman encountered were sometimes shunned or shamed ("Baby killer!!"). For a review of the media of the time, click here to link to a web document.

An interesting sidebar to that topic:

Mark Moyar (2006) Triumph Forsaken
publ. Cambridge University Press ISBN: 0521869110

"In October 1962, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy asked the CIA Director John McCone to suppress information on the arrival of Soviet medium bombers in Havanna until the completion of the mid-term Congressional elections. If such information became known to the press before that time, Kennedy said, it would become a contentious campaign issue and thus restrict his freedom of action. In addition, Kennedy requested that "all future information be suppressed." The President backed off only after McCone notified him that the intelligence on the bombers had already been dissemminated and that a policy of suppressing future information would be "extremely dangerous".

"One of the first and most significant attempts to enforce Kennedy's new press policy came in the middle of December 1962, when the USS Core traveled to South Vietnam carrying the better part of two helicopter companies. Officers on board the Core were under orders to keep secret the number of men and aircraft the ship was transporting. Blowing out billows of black smoke from its single stack, the huge gray aircraft ferry plowed forty-five miles up a tributary of the Mekong River, then followed the Saigon River to the only dock in Saigon suitable for unloading the ship's heavy cargo, which happened to be right in front of the Hotel Majestic and the Cafe Terrasse, two hangouts of the foreign press.

"'Is that an aircraft carrier across the street?' the correspondents asked US officials.

"'No comment,' came the reply.

"Some of the reporters were infuriated by this secretiveness... The alienation of the American press from the US government had begun."

ps: Triumph Forsaken back cover blurb:

"Drawing on a wealth of new evidence from all sides, Triumph Forsaken overturns most of the historical orthodoxy on the Vietnam War. Through the analysis of international perceptions and power, it shows that South Vietnam was a vital interest of the United States. The book provides many new insights into the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 and demonstrates that the coup negated the South Vietnamese government's tremendous, and hitherto unappreciated, military and political gains between 1954 and 1963. After Diem's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson had at his disposal several aggressive policy options that could have enabled South Vietnam to continue the war without a massive US troop infusion, but he ruled out these options because of faulty assumptions and inadequate intelligence, making such an infusion the only means of saving the country."

edited by Ross C. (Sep 2008)