Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Over the weekend I was alerted by my Australian Vietnam veteran brother-in-law to the furore that has broken out following claims by a 2RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion Platoon Commander that there was a deliberate cover-up following the shooting of unarmed civilians, including women and children, in an ambush where he was the commander.   You can read reports of the claim and counter-claim here and here.

I need to declare an interest.   The incident happened in October 1967.   Five months later I went to Vietnam two months ahead of my own Company (Victor 3) where I was attached to A Company (the sub-unit involved) to listen and learn.    I spent most of my time at Company Headquarters.   The dramatis personae and particularly Major White are known to me.   I endorse the comments of others that he (White) was an extremely competent and respected commander.   My memory of Lieutenant Morris is less vivid.   This post is in response to that association.   Let's examine what happened.

Fact:  On 23 October 1967 a patrol led by Morris ambushed a track close to the 1 Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat.   The ambush was sprung at dawn when a party of locals, later identified as bamboo cutters, moved into the killing zone.   Included in the party were women and children.   Five were killed and six were wounded.   The incident is recorded in the Battalion's War Diary lodged at the Australian National War Memorial in Canberra.   

Fact:    The ambush was located inside Line Alpha.    Line Alpha delineated an area adjacent to the 1 ATF base out to enemy mortar range that had been cleared of civilians.   Civilian entry to the zone was restricted and limited to daylight hours.   Anyone transiting the zone during night hours could expect to be engaged.   It was not however a 'free fire zone'.    During daylight the 'Rules of Engagement' applied.    Essentially they required you to identify people transiting the zone as enemy before engaging them made difficult by the fact that both civilians and the VC C41 Chau Duc local force Company wore the same black drab peasant garb.  

The Morris Allegation:   That the six bodies were evacuated by helicopter and possibly dumped at sea.    That White (back at Nui Dat) told him that he should have 'dressed' the bodies with captured weapons to make them appear as VC.    That he (Morris) included that detail in his 'After Action Report' (standard Report compiled after any contact) which was subsequently altered by White to exclude the allegation.

Comment:   The is absolutely no evidence advanced  to support the suggestion the bodies were dumped at sea (the South China Sea is about 30k from the ambush site).   Helicopter support for the Taskforce was provided by 9 Squadron RAAF which included RNZAF pilots.    Helicopters were a scarce resource.   It is virtually impossible for them to have been tasked for such a mission and, if it had occurred, that certainly would have been the talk of the Squadron .   Much more plausible would have been for the dead and wounded to have been evacuated to a civilian hospital at Baria (10k) or Vung Tau (30k distant) but again, there is no hard evidence to support this or even that helicopters were involved.

As to the allegation that White told Morris that he should have dressed the bodies with captured enemy weapons.   That is simply laughable.    No patrol would ever go out carrying captured enemy weapons on the off chance that they might have to 'plant' them.    You were burdened enough with weapons, ammunition, claymore mines, HE and smoke grenades, M72 LAWs and M79 grenade launchers, radios and your personal kit to have to worry about having to carry extra weight.    During my time in Vietnam and working both with Australians and New Zealanders I never saw an enemy weapon carried by us on operations.

It does concern me that Morris waited 47 years to make the allegations and against a man who is dead and can't defend himself.

So what might have caused Morris to speak out.?     Perhaps the answer might lie in what he may have judged to be his own command failings and the need to justify/atone for them.   As the ambush commander the buck stopped with him.   Did he properly brief the patrol on the RoE which required them to identify the party as enemy before opening fire?   Did he make the allegation to take the heat off himself?     But I need to immediately qualify that proposition by referring to the 'fog of war'.   It's too easy to apportion blame in retrospect. It was dawn; we don't know the state of the light or weather; they were in a restricted zone; 'they' were wearing black; the enemy wore black.   The machine gunner who initiated the ambush had to make a split moment decision.   Clearly he got it wrong. Yes, it would have been a hugely traumatic event for all those involved especially perhaps Morris.

I have to note too that Morris retired from the ARA in 2005 in the rank of Major.   He hardly enjoyed stellar career.    Does that say something about him?    You can make your own judgement.

In closing I draw your attention to the title of this post.    There is nothing particularly 'noble' about war per sae.   Real shitty things do happen and civilians do get killed and that is to be regretted.   But don't blame the soldiers.   They are working under huge pressure that very few of you will have experienced.   They can only do their best and sometimes they will make mistakes.




Adolf Fiinkensein said...

A very delicate and difficult matter about which to write Vet.

Jamie said...

That's some hard road. We may have some differences of opinion you and I...

But on matters such as these you know where I stand...


Don't blame the soldiers!!!

The Veteran said...

Adolf ... agreed.

Jamie ... thank you.

Anonymous said...

As you say, it's a bit odd that these allegations come out now 47 years later, and the other person of interest can't reply to it. Something doesn't smell right.

B Whitehead

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy said...

In my experience,as in yours vet, there was no availablity of captured enemy weapons. They were returned to Nui Dat to be presented to the interminable stream of visitors as 'trophies of war' to be displayed in unit smoko rooms as if the donor had actually been in a position to capture them. The vast majority of these visitors never made it to any area where they were remotely likely to get their shoes dirty. An exception being a party from the NZ Army Band who managed to spend an hour in Fire Support Base in all round defence of a tree 'drenched in Agent Orange' for which they recevied appropriate medallic recognition. Captured enemy weapons never made it to the soldiers who actually captured them - they obviously lacked thge personal responsibility to take propeer care of them!