Sydney Herald, 15th August 1969
Australian troops in Vietnam were engaged in one of the war's bloodiest battles yet on Wednesday. As Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were warmly welcomed home, 4 Company, 3 RAR were caught in a very different heat. Under the command of Captain John Willicks (son of the noted war hero Colonel Archer Willicks), the company was to resupply and escort a platoon of Centurions that bureaucratic mismanagement had left stranded at the river hamlet of Phan Long. As the refuelling effort began, mortar and heavy machine gun fire hit them from both sides of the river.
Working hurriedly under fire to refuel the tanks, 1 Platoon tried to prepare a defense against unknown adversaries. Several members of the platoon died in the opening salvoes. Luckily, the two observation helicopters accompanying the tanks did heroic service with their personal defence machine guns, driving the heavy mortars away into the jungle. From their aerial vantage point, they would continue to identify threats and support the men on the ground throughout the engagement.
Unsure of the enemy's number or location, sure only of their mission, 1 Platoon kept trying to resupply the tanks, but were ambushed by fire from the previously unoccupied village. Taking only a few casualties, their response was in the best tradition of Australian soldiery and largely neutralised the position in the first few minutes.
As they responded to threats on their own position, 1 Platoon and Captain Willicks were unaware that a bloody firefight was taking place on the south bank. Under the command of Lieutenant McAwn and Sergeant Ryan, 2 Platoon was doing its best to suppress the heavy machine guns that threatened the ANZAC line of retreat. Unfortunately, they to be ambushed a second time by what military sources tell us was the bulk of the enemy force.
Combined with the continued pressure of the heavy machine guns, a murderous storm of fire cut down several soldiers from 2 Platoon, and a sudden communist charge saw most of the unit dead or fleeing from the enemy's savagery.
The remnants of 2 Platoon and the HQ squad under Sergeant Ryan were then masterfully handled by Lieutenant McAwn, who not only provided for the safe escape of his fellow soldiers, but then neutralised and drove back the enemy advance from the paddy fields.
Now resupplied fully, the Centurions began to move south, and the tattered remnants of 1 Platoon began to follow them, Lieutenant Hawkins and Captain Willicks herding their men along from the rear. As the officers devoted their attention to the infantry, the tanks began to spread out down the road,in order to claim better fields of fire.
There was still a heavy enemy presence on the north side of the river, and though some were retreating, fresh troops were taking their place. As 1 Platoon's forward elements crossed the river, Private Laine took a critical wound requiring urgent evacuation.
Among many moments of heroism in this unfortunate affair, the last stand of Lieutenant Hawkins and Captain Willicks stands strong. Having sent their men over the river, they spied a strong force of Vietcong coming for their battered band. Taking defensive positions within the bridge's stonework, they delayed the enemy advance with nothing but their pistols, and sold their lives dearly in the inevitable charge.
The tanks had made a significant way south, but were halted in their tracks by a new enemy ambush – Soviet anti-tank rifles immobilised one tank and damaged another before the survivors escaped. The crew of the immobilised tank also made it out alive.
Having taken some time to appear, the medevac chopper was now needed for another four cases. Though himself wounded in the leg, Lieutenant McAwn dragged his injured squad member to the medevac before going back out into the field to secure the other casualties. Running into the paddy fields, McAwn managed to get three men who were bleeding out there into the helicopter, and sent their surviving squadmates home with them, choosing to stay in the field himself.
Even as the medical helicopter flew out, one of the observation helicopters was brought down by enemy fire, crashing into the corn fields.
Not yet despondent – or indeed finished, Lieutenant McAwn rallied Sergeant Ryan's bloodied squad and got their casualties to the second, prompter medevac. As the squad prepared to forge south after the fleeing 1 Platoon, they were struck by mortar fire, and all six men died instantly.
Moments later, the helicopter was also destroyed, by what seems to have been an anti-tank round.
At this time, circa 1430 local time, the engagement ended. Total Australian casualties were 11 MIA, 4 critically injured, 48 other ranks KIA, Sergeant Ryan, Lieutenants Hawkins and McAwn and Captain Willicks also KIA. It is estimated that nearly seventy Vietcong were eliminated in the engagement.
Sergeant Ryan of the 3 RAR, and Sergeant Shaughnessy of the Flying Corps have both been Mentioned In Dispatches. Lieutenant McAwn has been nominated for the Victoria Cross.
A military investigation has been launched into the circumstances of the battle, the time taken for the medevac to arrive, and the lack of artillery support available to 4 Company.
This was only our second game of Charlie Don't Surf, and boy was it bloody! The pendulum of victory swung back and forth and ended up 35:17/107:96 in favour of the Vietcong. The main problem (as ever) was shock. The Vietcong couldn't retreat due to shock, and so kept taking potshots. The Australians couldn't reach more favourable positions due to shock, and kept taking casualties. Eventually, the whole thing reached farcical proportions with the downing of two helicopters and the abandonment of a tank.
One thing not mentioned in the newspaper report is that a squad of Australian SAS were also present, trying to get secret papers back to Free World HQ. Being the good soldier that he is, Barbarossa sent straight down the line, not using them to fight at all, although their medic did stirling service with the injured men of 4 Company.
The ASAS medic was the last man left on the table. With 11 MIA, I sense rescue mission informed by said SAS soldier coming on...