Musician Private Mervyn Wilson and Rifleman Private Drummer Chris Clark both members of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment Band were killed in action during Operation CRIMP by sniper fire at close range in ‘Ho Bo Woods’ doing what they had been trained to do as ‘Stretcher-bearer/Medics’. This fire-fight engagement of the enemy proved the exact location of the underground headquarters and other elements of the enemy known as the ‘Chu Chi Tunnels’.
Their bodies were buried in Malaysia soon after this tragedy. After many appeals and advocating the return to Australian soil of a large number of Australian soldiers buried in Malaysia during the early part of the Vietnam War the Federal Government has now negotiated and actioned this to occur on 2nd June 2016 with burials at Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery for Merv and Canberra for Chris on the next day.
Extract from 1 RAR Book by Bob Breen's First To Fight. Publisher: Allen & Unwin Sydney 1988. ISBN: 0043202187. This account is also supported by the OC D Company ‘After Action Report’.
8th January 1966.
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.
'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 washout...my 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 tree line 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 Wilson’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 kilometres 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
Scuffs Wilson was a gentle bloke, he’d go un-noticed ‘less he spoke. Just a bandsman with a tune to play, yet a sniper stole his life away.
AUSTRALIAN VETERANS BURIED IN MALAYSIA
If only they could speak today. I think that they would probably say, “Our duty was clear, we answered the call, fought the good fight, only to fall. Died for our country, but we won’t be back, they’ve committed our bodies to Terendak.”
“So keep all your medals, and save all your praise. All that we ask is our casket you raise, Carry us back to the land we hold dear, so we can rest quietly with loved ones near. Deliver our souls from eternal turmoil, by laying us down in our homeland’s soil”.
Bill Charlton Printed with permission.
Note: Bill Charlton has authored books on digger poetry. If you are interested in purchasing copies Bill can be contacted via email.