Vietnam veterans heroic actions ‘swept under the carpet’
Dragging his wounded mate into a shallow pit in Vietnamese soil in May 1968 under heavy enemy fire, Private Alan "Jack" Parr knew his platoon would be lucky to make it out alive.
Under lifesaving direction from Lieutenant Anthony Jensen, Parr survived by the "skin of his teeth."
But his mate didn't make it, dying in the pit beside him as the remaining men in the platoon struggled to hold back ruthless North Vietnamese soldiers advancing on their position just northeast of Saigon.
The extraordinary drama that played out 52 years ago marked another chapter on Friday as Jensen was awarded a Medal of Gallantry by the Australian Governor General.
Yet, the soldiers now say, the 26 deaths of their mates in the engagement could have been avoided if commanders had listened to intelligence conveyed by the Americans.
Surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers in thick scrub, the 26-day Battle of Coral-Balmoral saw Diggers from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) and 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) suffer through grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and stealth attacks, and against all odds survived the chaos.
But the heroic actions of nine Australians who served in the Army and the RAAF have been "swept under the carpet", in a decision that would see them wait more than 50 years for recognition.
Lieutenant Colonel George Hulse OAM is now fighting for seven members of the Australian military, some dead, to receive the correct medals and decorations he claims should have been awarded.
Soldiers who fought in the fierce yet somewhat unrecognised battle, including Hulse and Parr, claim the medals were never awarded as it would have drawn attention and public scrutiny to the inadequacies of the command at the time.
Poor deployment of troops and failure to listen to American intelligence that warned of heavy enemy presence in the territory allegedly resulted in 26 Australians being killed.
"There were lots and lots of enemy in the area - the American intelligence were aware of that," Parr, now of Rockhampton, said.
"The higher up Australian signal intelligence were aware of that and that information was not passed down.
"They (North Vietnamese) were smart enough to be able to manoeuvre into our position - right up to us in the middle of the night. They stealthily travelled many kilometres and they brought all their troops up and they were about 5200m from us. And we did not know they were there.
"We had no trip flares or warning devices to make us aware of that - the first indication we had they were there was the firing of their mortars … we heard the pops from the mortars they were firing and then the explosions as the bombs landed around us."
Parr, who left the Army as a Lance Corporal, said he saw hundreds of North Vietnamese shoulder to shoulder as they came out of the scrub, armed with RPGs, as their position was overrun in just minutes.
"Our commander Tony Jensen said 'stay in your pits, that's your best chance of survival', and he was right," he said.
"If we had of got up and moved, we would have been cut down by automatic weapon fire. We lost a couple of men like that - they tried to move and they were shot and killed.
"We lost five men altogether....It was chaos, absolute chaos. We all should have been killed."
The battle was so intense that, at one stage, Parr was directing American aircraft to fire into their position to eliminate North Vietnamese soldiers who had gotten too close.
"I was talking to him on the radio and directing him to fire into or very close to our position to eliminate the enemy near us," he said.
"I thought at one stage I had directed him into our position because I looked up and saw the tracer coming straight at me.
"I said to myself, 'this is it', but it was very adjacent to me, it didn't strike my position. I was very lucky there."
It was one of the many instances where the Australian military survived close calls with the enemy during the battle, before returning home to face public scrutiny after protests erupted against the country's involvement in the war.
The actions of the Diggers in the battle, Parr says, would have seen Jensen's military career enhanced if he was given the medals earlier.
"They didn't want to hand out medals. If they'd have handed out a lot of medals they'd have brought forward shortcomings and inadequacies of command."
Jensen said the battalion commander of 1RAR and 3RAR were unaware of the enemy situation, and instead were focused on looking for stragglers coming out of Saigon.
"In fact we ended up getting hit by a battalion going in to reinforce the attack on Saigon and they saw us as an opportunity target," he said.
"Things started to build up during the day when we arrived and that should have been given more credence than it was and the second part of it is the man who was in charge of the actual sighting at the fire support base - he was incompetent, he was way out of his depth, he took charge of the gun position because his boss wasn't much chop either.
"We took it on ourselves - there was a Major in charge and we never saw or heard from him during the battle, he was useless."
Hulse is also appealing for the correct decorations for six others who fought in the Battle of Coral-Balmoral including John Kemp, Neil Weeks, Eddie Hughes, John "Chris" Johnson, Dennis Walker, and Richard Norden for the Victoria Cross.
"The six Australian artillery guns of 102 Battery were the objective of the swarming North Vietnamese soldiers," he said.
"They captured one gun, damaged another, set fire to the ammo of a third and almost captured the fourth.
"The gunners under the leadership of Lieutenant Ian Ahearn literally "stuck to their guns" and held off the enemy at very close quarters."
Originally published as 'Inadequacies of command': Vietnam veterans heroic actions 'swept under the carpet'