One of my collecting interests is Australian cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War. In recent years I have tended to reduce my focus to (predominantly) Zippo lighters related to the Australian Special Forces units and the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). However, I do still collect some that are from other units or have interesting provenance. This Australian Army issue lighter, which I obtained from noted military author and historian, Lex McAulay OAM, is one of those unique objects that makes collecting interesting.
The marking’s on the lighter’s base indicate that it is the Department of Defence issue Mark III, which was one of the 96,000 made by the munitions factory in Footscray, Victoria, just before the end of WW2, in July 1945. These lighters continued to be issued to Australian servicemen for several years, including during the war in Vietnam. This personalised example is one of two lighters that I acquired from Lex, the other being a Korean copy of a Zippo (also shown below) which he picked up in Saigon during one of his later tours.
Lex McAulay joined the Australian Regular Army in June 1960 and trained as an infantryman. In 1962 he volunteered for language aptitude testing and was subsequently accepted to the RAAF School of Languages, where after completing a year-long Vietnamese language course, qualified as a Vietnamese linguist. Lex was subsequently posted to the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment but when Australia committed ground combat troops to South Vietnam in April 1965, he was immediately transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR).
The battalion departed Australia in May 1965 and upon arrival in Vietnam was attached (as a third battalion) to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) which was based at the Bien Hoa Airbase 25km North East of Saigon. 1RAR was initially restricted to operations protecting the airbase until, in September 1965, the Australian Government lifted these restrictions and the battalion was expanded to a battalion-group, with the addition of supporting artillery, engineers, aviation, medical and logistic elements. The battalion-group now began to undertake operations in the Viet Cong dominated areas of War Zones C, D and the Iron Triangle.
The battalion performed extremely well on operations with the American Brigade, most notably during Operation CRIMP in January 1966, when the Australians breached the extensive Cu Chi tunnel network. This operation is described in detail in the book, First to Fight, by Bob Breen and is also the main theme of Lex McAulay’s book, Blue Lanyard Red Banner. The US military policy of the time was to destroy tunnels and bunkers, but the Australian engineers of 3 Field Troop RAE began searching them, capturing large stocks of food, weapons, equipment and documents. It was during one of the tunnel clearances that the Viet Cong lapel badge that is attached to the lighter was discovered and in a note that Lex sent to me with the lighter, outlining its provenance, he writes,
During the operation, a small box, about the size of an old matchbox, was found in one of the tunnels being investigated by 1RAR soldiers. The matchbox was filled with these Vietcong badges. Corporal McAulay was the only linguist available to 1RAR for this operation and was responsible for sorting and sending back all captured items. His unofficial but personal policy was to send items of intelligence value back to higher headquarters but return everything else to the capturing sub-unit for use as souvenirs and keep the soldiers motivated to send captured items to him or other members of the battalion intelligence section.
McAulay goes on to note that he kept one badge and returned the rest to the platoon. The text on the Vietcong badge is: Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam which translates as South Vietnam People’s Liberation Front. The 173rd Airborne Brigade badge was acquired and attached by Lex sometime after the operation.
Whilst Operation CRIMP failed to achieve its objective of destroying the Communist Committee Headquarters that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District, the performance of the Australians in entering the tunnels, capturing valuable resources and intelligence information, led to a change in American policies and subsequently all American units throughout Vietnam were ordered to enter and clear tunnels before destroying them. The operation also highlighted the differences in doctrine and tactical principles between the Australians, who had brought years of counter-insurgency experience from Malaya with them and the Americans whose strategy was one of attrition, with ‘body counts’ being their measure of success. In 1966 as the allied build up in Vietnam grew, the Australian units were placed under direct Australian operational command with the formation of the 1st Australian Task Force in April 1966.
After completing a 12 month stint in Vietnam with 1RAR, Lex McAulay returned to Australia in 1966 and helped to set up a short colloquial Vietnamese course in Sydney. In late 1967, Lex went back to Vietnam as a staff member of the Military Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Saigon, returning in 1968. His final tour of duty in Vietnam was in 1970 where he eventually took charge of the Interrogation and Document Translation Section of the Australian field HQ. It was in Saigon during one of these later tours that he acquired the other lighter I acquired from him, a Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of a Zippo lighter which features a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) badge on one side and the US Vietnam Service medal on the other.
Lex completed his third deployment to Vietnam in April 1971 and was preparing for a fourth tour when the Australian commitment ended. He remained in the Army until his retirement in 1982 and has subsequently authored several books related to military history as well as managing Banner Books, which specialises in Australian aviation and military studies. In 2007 Lex was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to literature and as a military historian.
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