Birdwood Military Museum – Geraldton, Western Australia

Birdwood Military Museum Geraldton-01

One of the earliest known purpose-built Returned and Services League (RSL) halls in Western Australia is also home to one of the state’s regional military museums.

Built in 1935, Birdwood House in Geraldton, was named in honour of much respected soldier, Field Marshal Sir William Riddell Birdwood, who commanded the ANZACs at Gallipoli and I ANZAC Corps in France until he was succeeded by Lieutenant General John Monash in May 1918. It is still used by the local RSL but some rooms have also been set aside to showcase their collection, which is a constantly-evolving depiction of Geraldton’s and the Mid West’s military history.

Geraldton Volunteer Rifle Corps 1890

Geraldton Rifle Volunteer Corps camp at Separation Point circa 1890. Established in 1877, the Corps served in the Boer War in 1899 as ‘A’ Company 16th Battalion and was one of the most active in the State. The Corps, later renamed the Geraldton Rifle Club, continued to use the Army rifle range at Separation Point until the late 1940s. During World War II the Army called on local members of the Rifle Club to perform voluntary military roles in the town. Photo Courtesy Geraldton Regional Library – GRL, P 851

Like many RSLs, Birdwood House features various military artifacts spread around the building that reflects and reinforces the connection between the members and its history. At Birdwood House this includes a ‘rogues gallery’ of some of their members, past and present including interesting characters such as Derek Andrews, who after serving as an infantryman with 3RAR in Vietnam, travelled to Rhodesia in 1976. Derek first joined the Greys Scouts and then transferred to the Selous Scouts until he discharged in 1979 with the rank of sergeant. In 1981 he moved to South Africa and served as a pathfinder in the 44th Parachute Brigade alongside well known former SAS soldier and author of  Beyond No Mean Soldier by Peter McAleese who mentions him in the memoir. Derek returned to Australia in early 1984, then moved to Victor Harbor in South Australia in 2001 where he became a member of that RSL Sub Branch.

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Geraldton RSL’s ‘rogues gallery’ picture of 54909, Ronald Lindsay Gammie who served with SASR, completing a tour of Borneo with 1 SAS Squadron and 3 SAS Squadron’s first tour of Vietnam in 1966. Some of his personal items are also in the museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

The bulk of the Birdwood Military Museum’s collection on display is contained in two rooms that are packed full of artifacts including uniforms, photos, medals, weapons and personal effects. There are many more in storage and Treasurer Glenn Law says that display space is an issue, particularly as the number of items being donated by local veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts continues to grow.

The number of items crammed into a small, volunteer run, museum has created challenges for display which can create a sense of disorder. But the ‘staff’ are very knowledgeable, enthusiastic and happy to answer questions about specific pieces. Look closely and there are some fascinating treasures to be found such as the Darnley Dixaline.

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The Darnley Dixaline (Mark IV) made by Signalman Walter Darnley of the 2/28th Battalion during World War 2. Photo: Julian Tennant

This unique handmade banjo type musical instrument was made by Signalman Walter Darnley, who served with the 2/28th Battalion during World War 2. Sig Darnley made what he called the Darnley Dixaline (Mark IV) from battlefield remnants, including the skin from a discarded drum, wooden crates, and toothpaste containers. His wife, Thelma, sent the strings to him. The instrument, believed to be the only one of its type in the world, was crafted sometime between 1941 and 1942 and is believed to have been used at Tobruk. It is signed by all 29 members of Sig Darnley’s platoon and has a further 12 signatures of men from the battalion.

Naturally, being located in regional Western Australia, units such as the 10th Light Horse, 11th, 16th and 28th Infantry Battalions which recruited from the local population base, are well represented in the displays. But there are also some interesting pieces from as far away as the British Army of the Rhine and souvenirs brought back by returning servicemen.

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10th Western Australian Mounted Infantry beret and badge. The 10th W.A.M.I. was formed in 1949 and equipped with Staghound Armoured Cars and Canadian Scout Cars. In 1956 the unit was re-designated with its previous title, the 10th Light Horse. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Post WW2 Australian paratrooper’s beret. This beret quite possibly belonged to a member of the early SAS Company based at Swanbourne who wore the maroon beret and RAINF badge for a time after their formation in 1957. The ‘dog tags’ appear to be unrelated to the beret. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Composite ‘Vietnam’ Australian SAS uniform which includes a US ERDL camouflage shirt used by Corporal Ron Gammie who completed a tour of South Vietnam with 3 SAS Squadron in 1966-67. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Insignia belonging to 5/588 Corporal K.C. Burgess who served with the Royal Australian Regiment in Korea. Note the IRVIN parachute pin which was often presented to individuals who had undertaken parachute descents using rigs made by that company. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Royal Australian Navy is also reasonably well represented, and the displays include two very detailed scale models depicting the HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser/raider Kormoran (HSK-8) which both sank after an epic clash off the WA coast on 19 November 1941. A very impressive memorial to the HMAS Sydney is located on the hill about 900m away from the museum and a visit is recommended, along with the Museum of Geraldton which also includes a 3D film of the wrecks, detailed information about the battle as well as other artifacts and aspects of the city’s wartime history.

For those with an interest in military history visiting Geraldton, a trip to the Birdwood Military Museum should be on the agenda but it is important to plan ahead. Formal entry times are restricted as the ‘staff’ are volunteer members of the RSL however if you do wish to visit outside of the times noted below contact them and see what can be arranged. If possible, try to visit on a Friday evening as this coincides with their BBQ night which is also a good opportunity to meet with some of the local veterans for a feed and a beer or two. If you are visiting Geraldton and have some flexibility with timings, try to arrange your trip to coincide with the third Saturday of the month as this is when Leane’s Trench, which is run by the Geraldton-based 11th Battalion AIF Living History Unit, is open to the public. The trench is about 30km outside of the city, just off the road to Mullewa. Unfortunately, my Geraldton stop-over did not coincide with the opening times for the trench visit, but it has given me the incentive to plan another weekend away from Perth.

Birdwood Military Museum
Birdwood House
46 Chapman Road
Geraldton
Western Australia 6530
Australia

Phone: +61 (0)8 9964 1520 (Mon. and Thurs. 0900 – 11400) / 0427 612 479 or 0408 222 653 (all other times)
Website: https://www.geraldtonrsl.org.au/

Open:
Monday 0900 – 1400
Thursday 0900 – 1400
Friday 1700 – Late
Sunday 1200 – 1500
Other times by arrangement

HMAS Sydney II memorial Geraldton

H.M.A.S. Sydney II Memorial overlooking the Geraldton town centre and waterfront. The memorial is less than a kilometer away from the Birdwood Military Museum and can be reached within a few minutes by car or about 10 minutes if walking.

Geraldton 11 bn Leanes Trench

Members of the 11th Battalion AIF Living History Unit and visitors to ‘Leane’s Trench’ near Mullewa. Photos: Ken Lawson

Members of the the 11th Battalion AIF and the Gallipoli Trench P

Members of the the 11th Battalion AIF Living History Unit, Dr Stewart Adamson, Ian Wright, Mark Long, Phil Eather, Karl Edwards, Chris Cox. and Michael McGilvray. Photo: Elise Van Aken/Geraldton Guardian

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AATTV – WO2 Jock Rutherford MM

AATTV Jock Rutherford 2RAR museum

This Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) brassard and Military Medal group are held in the 2 RAR Historical Collection. The brassard is noteworthy as it features the distinctive locally made variation of the AATTV patch which was introduced as stocks of the Japanese made patches started to run out in the final years of the Team’s service in South Vietnam. Far fewer locally made AATTV patches were made and all those with confirmed provenance exhibit the same manufacturer characteristics as this example indicating that they came from the same maker, noteworthy when one considers the vast array of faked ‘in-country’ AATTV patches that have been made for the collector’s market.

The items belonged to 18237 Warrant Officer Class 2 Robert Boyd Dale Rutherford MM or ‘Jock’ as he was known, whilst serving with the Mobile Advisory Training Team in 1971. The  MATT (sometimes also referred to as the Mobile Assistance Training Team) programme was initially overseen by Major Patrick Beale who had been brought down to Phuoc Tuy from Special Forces in II Corps, shortly after the Battle of Dak Seang in April 1970, to facilitate its introduction.

Each MATT was to consist of six Australian advisors, two warrant officers, four corporals and a Vietnamese interpreter. Of the corporals, two were drawn from infantry, one from engineers and one from the medical corps. They would work with Regional Force (RF) companies, Popular Forces (PF) and People’s Self Defence Forces (PSDF) platoons. Their role was to advise on field defences, booby traps, patrolling, ambushing and infantry minor tactics as well as providing medical assistance to the units as well as villagers as part of the Civic Action Programme.

The ten minute film below, is an Australian Directorate of Public Relations production (DPR201) showing Training Team advisors from MATT 8 and MATT 11 working with South Vietnamese Peoples Self Defence Force, Regional Force and Popular Force troops in Phuoc Tuy Province.  (Australian War Memorial Accession Number: F03235)

 

The brassard is from Rutherford’s second tour of Vietnam, the first being in 1966 where he had won the Military Medal.

Originally from Old Cumnock, Scotland, Jock first enlisted in the Australian Army in 1955 and served with 1 RAR, then on staff at Canungra until he took his discharge in 1958. He re-enlisted in 1963 and was posted to 2 RAR at Enoggera. In 1965 he was among 200 men from the battalion who were selected to form the newly raised 6 RAR. In June 1966 Corporal Rutherford arrived in Vietnam as a section commander in 6 platoon B Company. During Operation HOBART on 25 July 1966 his platoon bore the brunt of fierce attacks by a force of Viet Cong. Taking over from the wounded platoon sergeant, Rutherford, under heavy fire and mortar attack, distinguished himself by tending the wounded and distributing ammunition at great personal risk. As a result, he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery, one of two awarded on that day and the first such awards for 6 RAR.

The citation accompanying the Jock Rutherford’s MM reads,

“On 25 July 1966, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment was engaged on a Search and Destroy  Operation in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam.  Corporal Rutherford was a Section Commander in B Company.

In the early afternoon of that day an enemy force of well-trained and well-led  Viet Cong  guerrilla forces contacted B Company in a hastily organized mission.  Corporal Rutherford’s  platoon bore the brunt of the subsequent enemy attacks and suffered during the short fierce engagement ten casualties, including the Platoon Sergeant.  Corporal Rutherford, on his own initiative, immediately took over as Platoon Sergeant.

During the close and very heavy fire fight and mortaring which ensued, he moved with complete disregard for his own safety around the weapon pits tending to the casualties and the administration of the platoon. He moved forward to assist a wounded soldier but was driven back by heavy fire falling around him. Nevertheless, he persevered and again moved forward to dress the wounds of the casualty and pulled him back to his own shell scrape for safety. He continued to assist the wounded in this manner.

In addition, he took on himself the task of distributing ammunition to these positions where ammunition was running low and exposed himself to enemy fire whilst doing so. Throughout the action he continued to control fire and give orders in such a calm and confident manner as to inspire and encourage the men under his command.

Corporal Rutherford’s actions were outstanding, and he took far greater risks with his life than his duties as a Section Commander required.  His inspiration to all present by his actions and his timely and effectively treatment of the casualties deserve permanent recognition.”

6RAR Op Hobart 1966-Edit

Xa Long Tan, Vietnam. July 1966. Men of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) find some food and oil supplies in a camp. The soldier using the radio is probably 2781821 Private William Albert (Bill) Cox, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), contacting Platoon Headquarters during Operation Hobart. Note the M60 machine-gun crew with the gunner (second from the left) holding an M60 and the next man on his left, his No. 2, carries bandoliers of extra ammunition. Note also the sweat rags draped around their necks, a necessity in jungle conditions. Operation Hobart was in two parts from 24 to 29 July when members of 6 RAR were sent in to search the area in and around Long Tan. Long Tan was confirmed as being a well used transit area for Viet Cong. Large quantities of rice and cooking oil were found and destroyed, and some tunnels and caches destroyed. Two men were killed and seventeen wounded during the operation. (Donor W. Cox). Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P02763.020

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More detail about Operation HOBART can be found in this pdf of A Duty Done (A summary of operations by the Royal Australian Regiment in the Vietnam War 1965-1972) By Lt Col(Retired) Fred Fairhead. Jock completed his first tour with 6 RAR and returned to Australia on 14 June 1967.

Jock Rutherford returned to Vietnam when he was posted to the AATTV on 7 January 1971. Initially unallotted as part MATT MR III, in February when he was assigned to MATT 6 which was advising the 701st RF Company in Hoa Long and then in April he went to MATT Phuoc Tuy where he remained until returning to Australia in October 1971.

Jock Rutherford passed away after a long battle with cancer in July 2012. RIP.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM. Photo: John Alfred Ford. Australian War Memorial Accession Number:  FOD/71/0356/VN

 

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Mike Force, the AATTV and the relief of Dak Seang, April 1970

AATTV Shilston Group 01-01

Various insignia, including an exceptionally rare local made variation AATTV patch belonging to 25415 Captain Peter Shilston of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam whilst CO of the 1st Battalion 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in South Vietnam, March to August 1970. Note that key detail of the locally made AATTV patch has been intentionally obscured to deter unscrupulous fakers from making copies for the lucrative collectors market. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Over the years I have been fortunate to acquire a number of Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and ARVN Mike Force insignia from the family of the late Peter Shilston MC who is featured in some of the iconic Special Forces related photographs of the Vietnam War.

Mike Force was a colloquial name for the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) which was a key component of the United States Special Forces involvement in the Vietnam War. They were made up largely of indigenous Montagnard soldiers trained through the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programme and led by American Special Forces (USSF) and Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) personnel. The Mike Force units fulfilled a number of roles during the war but are best known as a quick reaction force, securing, reinforcing and recapturing CIDG / USSF A-Camps. The short film below, shot by  a member from the 221st Signal Company in early 1969 shows Special Forces at Ban Me Thuot and also includes the Pleiku based Australian Army Training Team advisors who trained and led Mobile Strike Force units in II Corps.

25415 Captain Peter John Shilston, an infantry officer, deployed to Vietnam in late August 1969, initially serving with the Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (Army Component). On 28 February 1970 he was reassigned to the AATTV in Pleiku as commander of 211 Company 1 Mike Force Battalion, 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command, Det B-20, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

AATTV Shilston Fairley photo July 1970-01

South Vietnam, July 1970. Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) advisor, Captain Peter Shilston checks over the radio that a cordon was around a Montagnard village in central South Vietnam before sweeping through to search it. Captain Shilston is the commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Mobile Strike Force, which operates out of Pleiku. A soldier of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Captain Shilston comes from Williamtown, NSW. Photo: John Fairley. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: FAI/70/0595/VN

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In April 1970 Peter Shilston was involved in the action to lift the siege on the Special Forces camp at Dak Seang, that would result in the award of a Military Cross in recognition of his bravery and leadership. The siege and relief of Dak Seang was hard fought and came at great cost to the allied troops. It also resulted in two American’s, USSF Sgt Gary B. Beikirch and Ranger advisor, SFC Gary L. Littrell, being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dak Seang Camp was located approximately 15 km north-east of the Tri-Border intersection about 12 km east of the Laos border and 64 km northwest of Kon Tum. It was an area of Kon Tum Province where the mountains rose to 1218m and the camp was on the eastern edge of Route 84 that ran along the Annamite Chain. The camp was first established by the 5th Special Forces Group and CIDG troops in 1964 to monitor infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was part of a long line of border outposts stretching from Lang Vei in northern Quang Tri province to To Chau in Kien Giang province in the south. From October 1966 it was manned by USSF Detachment A-245 plus, at the time of the siege, some 400 locally recruited Montagnards commanded by Vietnamese Special Forces.  

On 1 April 1970, the camp was besieged by the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment supported by the 40th NVA Artillery and elements of the 60th NVA Regiment. 1 Bn 2MSF, under the command of Australian Major Patrick Beale was, along with two Vietnamese Ranger Battalions given the task of breaking the siege. Of the three companies in the 400 strong Mike Force battalion, two were commanded by Australians whilst the third, by the USSF. 211 Company, under the command of Shilston, with fellow AATTV advisors, Warrant Officers Class 2 John Petit, George ‘Geordie’ Jamieson, Des Cochrane and Peter Sanderson serving as platoon commanders, were to lead the assault.

On 3 April, after redeploying by road to Dak To, the 1st Bn 2MSF then prepared for a direct air-mobile assault by helicopter onto the camp that same afternoon, however after doing a helicopter reconnaissance of the assault area they realised that air activity was too intense and an alternate LZ was selected some 2500m south of the camp. By 1700, just before dusk, Shilston’s, company was finally airborne and whilst in the air they received bad news. There would be no artillery or air support softening the LZ as it was needed in direct support of the camp itself.

As the first wave of UH1D helicopters began to descend they were met by an intense barrage of rifle, machine gun and rocket fire from the surrounding jungle. Shilston and Sanderson were in the first helicopters to touch down, right into the sweeping fire of a 12.7mm heavy machine gun at the side of the LZ. Followed by their Montagnards, the two advisors charged towards the emplacement whilst at the same time Cochrane’s helicopter moved to within meters of the bunker. Cochrane jumped out and silenced the gun with grenades. As the helicopters disgorged their troops a further six bunkers were cleared. WO2 Sanderson who had been wounded by a grenade was evacuated. The landings had been delayed by events prior to their departure from Dak To and by nightfall only 250 of the Mike Force troops were on the ground before the remainder of the insertion was postponed.  The troops on the ground dug in and were subjected to mortar, rocket and heavy small arms fire throughout the night.

The following morning, 4 April, the battalion waited for the remaining troops and supplies to arrive whilst enemy fire continued to rain down. Smoke and dust reduced visibility and caused mayhem as one of the helicopters landed with both gunners firing into the battalion area killing one soldier and wounding three. Then a helicopter gunship accidently shot up the battalion wounding the American commander of 213 Company and four Montagnards. Incoming mortar rounds eventually forced off the remaining helicopters with only six out of the ten scheduled able to get in.

At 1300 the battalion started to move off to Dak Seang with Shilston’s company leading but within 20 minutes the lead platoon, commanded by three tour AATTV veteran WO2 John Pettit, had run into a bunker complex. Three Montagnards were hit and Pettit crawled forward alone, applying first aid to the wounded before attacking the nearest enemy bunker. Firing as he went, he got to within two meters of the enemy before being fatally wounded. For his bravery he was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and in April 2002 awarded the Silver Star by the USA in recognition of his ‘personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty’.

Progress was slow and by the end of the first day the battalion had only managed to cover 500m before they were forced to halt for and aerial resupply of food, water and ammunition. The following morning, WO2 Lachlan ‘Locky’ Scowcroft arrived to join Shilston’s company. Shortly after beginning their advance north they encountered a new line of enemy bunkers which were eventually cleared by airstrikes and grenades. The NVA defences consisted of a serious of mutually supporting, camouflaged positions about 100m in depth. As one strongpoint was attacked it drew fire from at least one other. The Mike Force troops accounted for at least ten bunkers but had no time to check for enemy dead and continued to push forward.

After two hours the battalion had reached a point approximately 1300m south of Dak Seang when the NVA opened fire on Shilston’s company which had been given a ‘breather’ in the rear. The battalion closed into a defensive position, but no sooner had this been completed than they came under a heavy ground attack from the south-west and south-east from a company sized force which quickly overran two perimeter positions. The attack was only stalled by the arrival of a ‘Spooky’ gunship. Then as the attacks continued various sorties arrived over the area, delivering payloads of bombs, rockets and napalm. Unfortunately, one of the napalm cannisters exploded in the middle of one of the platoons killing four and wounding a further seventeen Montagnard troops. Fighting continued for the remainder of the afternoon and into the night as the NVA pressed the attack with mortars and ground probes.

The following morning, 6 April, dawn clearing patrols found enemy dead, discarded weapons and blood trails all around the position. All the patrols encountered resistance, but it became apparent that the largest concentration was to the south-western side facing 212 Company, commanded by AATTV  WO2 Alan ‘Aggie’ White, who also had fellow Australians WO2 Alex McCloskey and WO2 Ray Barnes serving as platoon commanders. This area to the southwest was the only ground which could possibly be prepared as a helicopter LZ. But, despite continued fighting the enemy would not be budged and the situation was becoming desperate. Surrounded, low on ammunition, out of water and with depleted numbers an atmosphere of fatalism had become to settle over the weary Montagnards. Death chants could be heard as the more seriously wounded began to die. Then, at dusk, with patrols fighting to keep the NVA at bay, the helicopter pilots decided to take a risk and descended into the clearing from tree-top level, evacuating the wounded and then the heavens opened with heavy rainfall, both delivering a much needed morale boost to the Mike Force troops.

That night and the following day mortars continued to fall on the position and the battalion was still fighting to keep their position intact when, in the afternoon, reinforcements from the 4th Battalion 2MSF, which also included AATTV advisors, arrived by helicopter from Nha Trang, landing on top of their position. They were placed under Beale’s command and sent to form the outer perimeter as NVA the assaults continued. ‘Locky’ Scowcroft was badly wounded necessitating his evacuation with the other wounded.

At first light of 8 April a clearing patrol from White’s 212 Company made contact with an enemy bunker just 30m outside the perimeter and withdrew with one killed and two wounded. A company of the 4th Battalion made three assaults into the position, supported by airstrikes and was forced back, but by early afternoon they had eventually fought their way into the enemy area. They found an extensive well developed HQ complex, measuring 100 by 250m, consisting of seventeen big bunkers, observation posts in trees and an outer perimeter with weapon pits and more bunkers. The reason for the savage reaction by the NVA was now obvious, the Montagnards perimeter was within meters of the NVA regimental headquarters and also between that and their objective of Dak Seang. By coincidence, the Mike Force troops had caused a major disruption to the control of the siege.

The following morning, the Montagnards moved out, with the 4th Battalion leading. When they reached a river obstacle, the 1st Battalion formed a perimeter on the west bank and the 4th on the east. Here the 1st Battalion was subjected to further attacks resulting in three Americans and five Montagnards wounded. In the afternoon a LZ was established in the 4th Battalion area, enabling the casualties to be evacuated and an ammunition resupply. But for the 1st Battalion on the other side of the river, ammunition had once again, become desperately low and they were only able to survive due to the bravery of four Vietnamese helicopter pilots who ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to throw out ammunition boxes over the position. Of the four helicopters, three were so damaged by fire that they were forced down on their way back to base and the fourth, which managed to limp home was written off as beyond repair.

On 10 April, under continuing heavy mortar bombardment, the 1st Battalion commenced moving along the west bank of the river White’s company leading. After covering 300m, 213 Company hit a bunker system which they engaged. Meanwhile, Shilston and White’s companies moved around a flank and formed a hasty position on a hilltop. They had reached the edge of the jungle adjoining the clearing around Dak Seang and could see their objective, a smouldering fortification, ripped, smashed and surrounded by bomb craters and the black napalm scars. Then, after fighting through and clearing two more bunkers, 213 Company joined them in the battalion position.

It had taken seven days of constant fighting to move 2500m to the outskirts of the camp. Then, whilst Major Beale contemplated the next move, a small group of Montagnards from the camp arrived to greet them. It indicated that whilst there may still be fighting ahead, the siege had been broken. Beale decided to keep the battalion in its position and received a further resupply of ammunition in the afternoon. Overnight, the NVA continued to mortar and probe the Mike Force positions causing more casualties but it appeared that they were beginning to pull back from the camp.

This realisation prompted Beale to follow up the enemy and at 0800 on 11 April the battalion moved around the southern and western perimeter of Dak Seang and along a bamboo covered ridge running north-west from the camp. White’s company had covered 500m when they hit another enemy bunker, killing several enemy soldiers before being pushed back by heavy machine-gun fire. Adopting a defensive position, an airstrike was called in and then, after four separate assaults, the position finally taken.

In the evening, after dark, a clearing patrol from Shilston’s company, led by ‘Geordie’ Jamieson went to investigate noises outside the perimeter. Just 30m outside the battalion perimeter they encountered more occupied bunkers and Jamieson was shot in the stomach during the ensuing firefight. WO2 Alex McCloskey from 212 Company crawled forward and dragged the badly wounded Jamieson back to safety. Shilston immediately led a reaction force into the area and with the help of 213 Company cleared the enemy. Jamieson plus other wounded, including an American advisor and six Montagnards were evacuated later that night.

The following morning, the battalion continued to move forward clearing enemy from the edge of the bush surrounding the camp and it was clear that resistance was crumbling, but after ten days of almost continuous fighting the strain was also showing on the Mike Force troops. The soldiers were tired and becoming more reluctant to go into action relying more and more on the advisors, both Australian and American plus a handful of hard-core ‘Yards’ to do the fighting.

At first light on 13 April clearing patrols were once again sent out, but this time there were no contacts. The danger to Dak Seang had passed and the NVA had withdrawn to positions 3000m away. The Mike Force troops had begun to follow them up when orders came over the radio net that the battalion was to be relieved and that afternoon at 1445 helicopters arrived outside Dak Seang to commence the battalion’s extraction to Ben Het. The following day they were taken by road back to Pleiku.

The siege had been broken, but it had come at a heavy cost to the Mike Force troops. They had suffered over a hundred dead or wounded casualties, over a third of the battalion’s strength. Five of the USSF advisors had been wounded. Out of the ten Australian advisors, one, John Pettit was KIA, ‘Geordie’ Jamieson and Lachlan Scowcroft were both badly wounded and evacuated to Australia. Peter Sanderson who was also wounded was evacuated but after a period of recuperation would return to the unit. For their actions during the battle, George Jamieson and John Pettit (posthumously) were Mentioned in Despatches. Des Cochrane received the Military Medal, Alex McCloskey, ‘Aggie’ White and Ray Barnes all received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Pat Beale was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Peter Shilston, the Military Cross. In 2010, through the efforts of Bruce Davies, co-author of The Men Who Persevered: The AATTV – the most highly decorated Australian unit of the Vietnam War, the Australian members were also officially recognised as recipients of the US Army Valorous Unit Award (VUA).

Around the same time as siege of Dak Seang was occurring plans were being made to demobilise the Mike Force units as part of the ‘Vietnamization’ programme. Arrangements started for the conversion of the Mike Force Battalions into Vietnamese Regional Force (RF) or Ranger battalions, with the advisor personnel being withdrawn or reassigned. According to Ian McNeill’s The Team: Australian Army Advisors in Vietnam 1962 – 1972, “From a strength of fifteen advisors in Pleiku… it fell to eight in May, five in June and four by 1 July.”

Towards the end of April, Pat Beale had become the senior RF/PF advisor in the Phuoc-Tuy sector and command of the 1st Bn 2MSF went to Peter Shilston. He took the 1st Bn 2MSF on its last operation near Route 509 on the Cambodian border from 14 June to 4 July. The operation was largely uneventful but was accompanied by Sergeant John Geoffrey Fairley, a photographer for the (Australians) Directorate of Public Relations whose images of Shilston have become some of the most recognised photographs featuring the Mike Force troops of the war.

On 26 August 1970, Captain Peter Shilston became the last Australian soldier to leave Pleiku and returned to Australia the following day. According to the AATTV Monthly report for July 1970 (R723/1/35) serial/para 7on that date AATTV will sever its seven year association with US and Vietnamese Special Forces.’ After returning to Australia, he continued to serve in the Australian Army, including spending time as an instructor at the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka and ending his career as a major. He was formally presented his Military Cross by the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler VC,  during an investiture ceremony in April 1971. Peter Shilston died on 30 August 1993 and his ashes are interred at Ballarat New Cemetery.

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV)

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV) at the conclusion of his tour in August 1970.


AATTV beret badge Peter Shilston

Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) beret badge worn by Captain Peter Shilston whilst commanding the 1st Bn 2MSF (MIKE Force). Collection: Julian Tennant

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-01

For the special operations insignia collector, Thailand’s myriad of airborne and special warfare units presents a seemingly endless variety of badges to collect. A trip to the military and police regalia suppliers clustered around the Thithong Road area in Bangkok can be overwhelming as each shop appears to offer their own unique variations of the official parachutist wing patterns. It will be an impossible task to try to collect all the Thai jump-wing insignia and I gave up many years ago as I began to narrow my focus to specific conflicts or units.

I am still chasing some of the older Thai wings, including the rarely found first pattern Army wing that was awarded in the 1950’s and early 60’s, but it remains a ‘holy grail’ insignia for me and is rarely seen in the marketplace.

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Early ARMY pattern Thai parachutist wings. These wings appear to be hand made by a silversmith and appear to be issued until sometime in the early 1960’s. They are sometimes seen on the dress uniforms of early American advisors to the Royal Thai Army. I am still trying to find an example of this badge for my collection. If you can help, please contact me.

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The Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) of the Royal Thai Police is the one Thai unit that still remains within my collecting focus, although I do restrict myself to insignia from its formation up until 1974. Its innocuous sounding name was a deliberate act to disguise the role and function of this elite special operations unit that was in fact sponsored by the CIA and was one of the first clandestine groups deployed into Laos, way back in 1960.

After Mao’s victory in China in 1949, the USA became increasingly concerned about the spread of communism in South East Asia. In response to fears that the Chinese could invade Thailand, the CIA set up a station in Bangkok and in August 1950 arranged to train selected members of the Royal Thai Police, who were seen as more reliable than the army, in counter-insurgency tactics.

In March 1951, James William “Bill” Lair, a CIA paramilitary officer arrived in Thailand for this, his first assignment. With the assistance of the Agency’s front organisation, Southeast Asia Supply Company (SEA Supply) which would later be operating out of an office on the infamous Patpong Road, Lair identified an old Japanese camp at Lopburi to be used as the training camp. The course was designed to run for 8 weeks and included unconventional warfare and parachute training. The initial cadre of 50 volunteers came from the police but later recruits came from all branches of the Thai military as well as the police. The graduating groups were initially called the Territorial Defence Police, but these later became known as the Border Patrol Police.

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James William “Bill” Lair, CIA Special Activities Division officer and founder of the Royal Thai Police force’s Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) wearing his uniform that denotes his rank as a Lt. Col. in the Royal Thai Police. Note the PARU First Class parachutist qualification on his chest.

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As the threat of Chinese communist invasion subsided the program was threatened with cancellation which concerned Lair as the ‘knowledge base’ which had been developed would be diluted if the units were broken up and the men dispersed across the country. Pressure was also being exerted to turn the base, named Camp Erawan, at Lopburi over to the Royal Thai Army. In response Lair managed to convince the US Embassy and the Director-General of the Thai National Police Department, General Phao Siyanon to turn the force into an elite special operations unit. General Phao eagerly accepted the proposal as it would provide him with a militarised force that could counter the other two strongmen in the Government at that time, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and General Sarit Thanarat. Phao’s only condition was that Lair be a serving Police officer and after permission was granted by the US Government, Lair was appointed a Captain in the Royal Thai Police.

Lair then selected 100 personnel from the previous 2000 course graduates to undertake advanced instruction at their new base, next to King Bhumibol’s  Summer Palace at Hua Hin on the coast. This was then followed by a further 8 months of  training including offensive, defensive and cross-border operations, before some of these volunteers in turn became the cadre responsible for training new recruits. On 27 April 1954, King Bhumibol attended the official opening ceremony of their base, Khai Naresuan at Hua Hin and that date subsequently became recognised as the unit birthday.

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His Majesty King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at the shooting range during one of their many visits to Border Patrol Police compound at Khai Naresuan. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

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By 1957, the unit which consisted of two rifle companies and a pathfinder company, commanded by Captain Lair himself, was called Royal Guards. However, in September of that year a coup was mounted by Army General Sarit Thanarat and Police General Phao was sent into exile. Lair’s unit which was seen as being loyal to Phao faced being disbanded but managed to survive due to perceived support from the King and in early 1958 was rebranded as the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU). The intention was to eventually integrate the PARU into the Royal Thai Army and their headquarters was moved to Phitsamulok in Northern Thailand, although they still maintained their Hua Hin base, Camp Naresuan, as well.

It was also at this time that the unit became more closely involved with the CIA’s international operations, rigging parachutes for weapons drops to insurgents in Indonesia, and pallets of weapons for delivery to the anti-Chinese resistance in Tibet. Then, early in 1960, PARU’s pathfinder company was sent to the Thai-Lao border to gather intelligence from the ethnic minority groups straddling the border region.

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1960’s era Royal Thai Police parachutist qualification wings. These are the ‘downswept’ wing type which bears some similarity in overall shape to Royal Thai Army wings, but with significant differences to the RTA wings. Top: Third Class (6 to 29 static line jumps). Bottom left: Second Class (30 to 64 static line jumps). Bottom right: First Class (65 or more static line jumps). Note that in subsequent years other classes of parachutist wings have been added, notably a freefall wing featuring two stars on the wings and a ‘Tower jump’ wing which is for (non-PARU) police officers who complete jump tower training but do not undertake any descents from an aircraft. Variations of these qualifications exist in both metal and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Two 1960’s era variations of the Royal Thai Police Parachutist wing, Third Class. Collection: Julian Tennant

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In August 1960, Laotian paratroop officer, Kong Le led his unit on a coup which overthrew the Royal Lao Government. Many of Lair’s PARU troops were Thai citizens, but of Lao origin and could seamlessly blend into the Lao population, so permission was given for Lair and five teams of PARU to join the ousted Lao head of state (and General Sarit’s first cousin), Phoumi Nosavan, to prepare for a counter coup. The five man PARU teams spread throughout Phoumi’s forces providing a radio network able to communicate with Lair who was headquartered in Savannakhet and these were instrumental in the successful counter-coup of 14 December 1960. Lair then moved to Vientiene and the PARU’s long involvement in the ‘Secret War’ in Laos followed.

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“Upcountry Meeting”, a painting by Dru Blair from the CIA’s Art Collection which shows a meeting somewhere in remote northeastern Laos between Bill Lair and Hmong commander Vang Pao. Image courtesy of CIA.gov

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In January 1961, Bill Lair made contact with Hmong hill-tribe commander, Lt. Col. Vang Pao and three groups of five PARU commandos were inserted around the Plain of Jars to train his forces. By the middle of the year of the 550 strong PARU unit, 99 of its commandos were operating in northern Laos and Hmong special operations teams were being trained by the PARU back in Hua Hin. Funding for this was provided by the Programs Evaluation Office of the CIA under the code name Operation Momentum and eventually resulted in a clandestine army of 30,000 Hmong under Vang Pao’s command which included the battalion sized Hmong Special Guerrilla Unit and also a 30 man cadre from the Laotian paramilitary Directorate of National Co-ordination (DNC).   

In 1963 the PARU was coming under pressure from the army controlled government who had allowed the unit to continue to exist on the premise that it would be integrated into the Royal Thai Army. A joint Police-Army Special Battalion was to be stationed at the PARU camp in Phitsanulok, with the commander being Army Special Forces and two deputy commanders, one from PARU and one from Army Special Forces. The intention was to eventually integrate the entire PARU into the battalion, but the PARU resisted integration and kept the bulk of its manpower at Hua Hin.

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PARU Instructor Cadre at Hua Hin, circa 1962-3. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

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Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant

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CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officer “Vint” Lawrence in Laos circa 1964. Note the metal PARU wings worn on the beret. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

In 1964 it began training Cambodian and Laotian troops in commando and guerrilla warfare techniques at Hua Hin. The PARU also remained active in Laos and its training mission was expanding both in Thailand and also in northern Laos. It was also conducting reconnaissance and raiding operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Inevitably, the tempo of operations began to take its toll on the unit and towards the end of the decade, a retraining programme needed to be implemented to rebuild the unit into a 700 man battalion composed of ten detachments. In addition, by 1969, the unit had developed air and sea rescue sections as part of its role. The former providing a capability similar to that of the USAF Pararescue, locating and picking up downed aircrew within Laos.     

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Vietnam war period Thai PARU Parachutist certificate and wing. The First Class parachutist badge is awarded after the completion of 65 static line jumps.

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Vietnam War period Police Parachutist First Class variations in bullion and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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By the early 1970’s Thailand’s attention had begun to shift to the threat posed by the Khmer Rouge insurgency on the Cambodian border and PARU teams conducted several reconnaissance missions into the Khmer Republic. In 1973, thirteen years after first deploying to Laos the last PARU teams departed that nation. Then as Thailand started to grapple with its own communist insurgency it began conducting operations with the Border Patrol Police to combat insurgents in the south of the country, an area where it is still active today. Since 1974 much has changed for the PARU, including the establishment of the Royal Thai Police Special Operations Unit “Naraesuan 261” under its auspices in 1983. This specialist counter terrorist unit has been involved in several hostage release operations since its formation and is also responsible for providing specialist executive protection teams for the Thai Royal family and visiting dignitaries. However, as my focus is related to the PARU’s activities up until the mid-1970’s I will save the post-1974 years for a future article.  

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Embroidered variations of the Royal Thai Police parachutist wings including the ‘Special Class’ freefall qualification (with the two stars on the wings) at the bottom of the picture. I suspect that these insignia may date from the 1980’s. There are literally dozens and possibly over one hundred manufacturer variations of Thai parachutist insignia as military and government regalia suppliers is a thriving cottage industry.  For the Vietnam War period collector the challenge is always trying to ascertain which insignia is wartime period and what has been produced in subsequent years, particularly as the materials used in their manufacture has a tendency to tarnish or fade quite quickly if not stored appropriately and as a result often looking older than they actually may be. Provenance is the key for original Vietnam War period items.

 

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His Majesty, King Bhumibol during a visit to the BPP in the 1960’s. Note that the Royal Thai Police First Class parachutist badge on his chest does not appear to have the star in the wreath. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

 

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Vietnam War era Parachute club patches

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Collection: Julian Tennant

During the Vietnam war there was at least two sport parachuting clubs operating in South Vietnam although I have patches in my collection that indicates there may have been as many as three. Detailed information about the histories of these clubs appears to be quite scant although two of the three are mentioned in various accounts and the crossover is such that I wonder if they may in fact be exactly the same group of skydivers, just jumping under two different club names? But if that were the case why the different patches?

 

Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du

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Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du patch. Two versions of this patch are known to exist, along with a smaller metal ‘beer-can’ insignia. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du  was co-located with the Vietnamese Airborne Division HQ at Tan Son Nhut airbase. The club had a mix of Allied and Vietnamese members, with most of the latter coming from the Airborne School staff who sometimes used the opportunity for free-fall descents to qualify for the higher-grade parachute monitor wings.  Thom Lyons a long time skydiver, served with the USAF in Vietnam and recounted his experiences jumping with the club during his tour of duty in 1966-67. He recalled that after “Charles” had made jumping difficult at the old DZ“, jumps were done on the military DZ at Ap Dong, which was used by the Vietnamese Airborne school. 

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Thom Lyons’ Vietnam Parachute Club Nhay Du and Parachute Club of America membership cards along with his Vietnamese parachutist wings which he earned whilst jumping with the club. Photo: Thomas Lyons

 

The Saigon Sport Parachute Club

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Saigon Sport Parachute Club patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

Thom Lyons also jumped with the Saigon Sport Parachute Club (SSPC), which used the same DZ at Ap Dong. Thom recalls,

I was in a group of crazies in 1966-67 called the Saigon Sport Parachute Club jumping at Ap Dong. We used H-34’s which is strange cause when you spot you can yell “5 BACK!”.

The first incident was a 10,000 footer and at about 4000′ I noticed that the DZ was being shelled!!! I seriously wondered if it was worth it to open at all or just get it over with, but I wasn’t that young or that stupid.

Next was a few weeks later when the crew chief ordered everyone out for some reason. We were down wind over a jungle canopy to the east of the DZ and no way could we get back. I spotted a small clearing maybe 25′ in diameter and started towards it with my 28′ cheapo. I had to work the target and put my M-45 Swedish 9mm sub-machine gun together at the same time. I land in the clearing, but the canopy was in the trees and I was dangling a foot or so off the ground. I heard people running towards me and I almost shot three kids who came after me to carry gear or whatever for money or cigarettes. They got my gear out of the tree and when I went to put some ripstop tape on some small tears from the tree, I found two small calibre bullet holes! Don’t know when I got them. Let’s say the experience was UNIQUE! The DZ was also had as rock so you either did an excellent PLF or stood it up which wasn’t often in that heat and humidity. AP DONG was also the DZ for the Vietnamese 2nd Airborne Division and there was a small triangular fort on the DZ. The chopper could land right next to the packing area, but we discouraged that for obvious reasons.

Every time we jumped, we were plagued by people trying to sell us everything from Coke-Cola to their daughters and these boys were all over who would field pack for you for a couple of cigarettes. Carry your gear back for another one.

The club had mostly Army in it, and a couple of Navy and Air Force but also some Aussies and American Civilians. The first CrossBow in Viet Nam didn’t get jumped more than a few times. An American civilian brought it in and did a hook turn into a tree trunk and the H-34 had to fly him to the 3rd field hospital which left us without a jump ship for several hours.

By the way, the H-34 was Viet in VNAF colors and we paid the pilots a (5th) bottle of Johnny Walker each to fly for us, the chopper was free. I didn’t drink so it was usually my ration for 5th’s that got used up.

After TET in 1968 the club couldn’t get the chopper anymore and the club folded, I’m told.

The club jumped every Sunday morning and had a mix of military and civilian members from Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the USA. The club seems to be run on a shoestring budget, with Dan Bonfig, the President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer and Chief Rigger who was working for the RMK-BRJ construction consortium based at 12 Thong Nhut, Saigon administering the club from his workplace. Unfortunately, he has passed away and I have not yet been able to find out any more information about the SSPC or its relationship to the Viet-Nam Parachute Club.  A lot of the anecdotal information that I have uncovered so far seems to cross over between the two clubs, hence my belief that there may be a direct connection between the two.

Saigon Parachute Club 1967 - Photo: Hector Aponte

Saigon Sports Parachute Club circa 1967. Photo: Hector Aponte

 

Cape St Jacques Skydivers VN

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Cape St Jacques Sky Divers VN patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The club represented by this last patch is a complete mystery to me. Cap Saint-Jacques was the French Indochinese name for Vũng Tàu, which during the 2nd Indochina War was home to the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group as well as various US military units. It was also a popular in-country R&R destination during the war so it does seem logical that a skydiving club may have existed there. However, I cannot find any record of this club existing during the war and none of the Australian veterans I have asked about it have any recollection of a parachute club being located there. The spelling of Cap Saint-Jacques as Cape St-Jacques on the patch suggests to me that it is post French era and my best guess is that it may be an earlier club that had folded by the mid 1960’s when the military presence started to build up in the area, but this is speculation on my part.

If anybody can help provide more detail about any of these clubs, I would love to hear from you to help clarify the situation and record some more detail about their respective histories before they are lost forever.

 

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Australian War Memorial update and SAS trooper Don Barnby’s Vietnam items.

The Australian War Memorial will be reopening to the public on 1 July 2020. However due to COVID-19 restrictions visitors must now have a ticket (free) to gain entry. Tickets may still be obtained at the entrance, but as availability is subject to museum capacity, a better option is to pre-register for tickets online as some time-slots have already been booked out.

For those who cannot visit, the AWM has also been working hard to make its collection and archives available to the public online, including virtual tours of the galleries via Google Street View plus podcasts, the AWM YouTube Channel  and a collection of over 6000 archival films which have been digitised and available for viewing online. For collectors, the AWM collection archive is a particularly useful resource to find out more information about the objects that are on display.

AWM SASR Barnby

US ERDL pattern camouflage uniform and equipment used by 217585 Trooper Donald Richard Barnby whilst serving as a member of Patrol Two Five, F troop, 2 Squadron, SASR in South Vietnam from 17 February until 10 October 1971. On display in the Vietnam Gallery of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Julian Tennant

I took the above photograph during my most recent visit to the AWM, which was back in 2018 when I flew across to Canberra to check out the Australian Special Forces exhibition, From the Shadows.  This photograph shows a display in the Vietnam War section of the 1945 to Today Galleries that features items belonging to Australian SAS trooper Don Barnby during his service with 2 SAS Squadron in South Vietnam in 1971. Using the AWM’s collection search facility  uncovers a trove of material related to his service, some of which is shown below.

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Nui Dat, South Vietnam. Trooper Don Barnby, patrol signaler in Two Five Patrol, ‘F’ Troop, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service (SAS), Prior to commencing a patrol. AWM Accession Number: P00966.083

Donald Richard Barnby was born in Brewarrina, NSW on 8 April 1950 and joined the Australian Regular Army aged 17 in May 1967. After completing basic training at Kapooka in New South Wales, Barnby was allocated to the Royal Australian Ordnance Corps and after completing his initial employment training was posted to 2 Base Ordnance at Moorebank, NSW. Frustrated by not having a combat role, Barnby volunteered for service with the Special Air Service Regiment. After completing the selection and reinforcement cycle, including Military Free-Fall parachuting,  Barnby became part of F Troop of 2 Squadron.

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Nui Dat, SAS Hill, South Vietnam. 1971. Trooper Don Barnby, ‘F’ Troop, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service (SAS), outside his tent “316 Wilhelm Strasse”, named after a brothel at 316 William Street, Perth, WA. AWM Accession Number: P00966.021

From 17 February to 10 October 1971, Trooper Barnby deployed to South Vietnam as a member of Patol Two Five, F Troop, 2 Squadron, SASR. This was 2 Squadron’s second tour of Vietnam and the last of SASR’s involvement in the conflict. Based out of the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province, the squadron conducted clandestine reconnaissance and offensive operations against the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.

After returning from his tour, Don Barnby decided to leave the Army in early 1973 and joined the Australian Capital Territory Police Force, which later became the Australian Federal Police (AFP). He served in numerous roles during his police career including as a United Nations Australian Civilian Police Officer (UN AUSTCIVPOL), with the AFP 1st UN Police Contingent, deployed to East Timor on behalf of the United Nations and responsible for organising the independence referendum in August 1999. His story is recounted in detail in an interview that features  on the AWM’s podcast series, Life on the Line. The podcast is worth listening to as Don goes into some detail about his tour, the equipment he carried and other aspects of this service.

In addition to the photographs that Don Barnby took whilst in Vietnam, searching the collection database also shows many of the individual items in the display, with the descriptions providing valuable additional information. Click on the smaller photos below to enlarge and read caption the details.

SASR Don Barnby bush hat

Australian bush hat : Trooper D R Barnby, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment. Description: Modified Australian Army issue cotton patrol ‘giggle’ hat with shortened brim and green nylon chin strap attached. The nylon chin strap is attached to the hat by a pair of holes made into the side of the hat with a knot keeping it in place on either side. An adjustable plastic toggle allows the wearer to tighten or loosen the chin strap. A pair of circular metal ventilation holes are on both sides of the crown. A mixture of faded green and black paint has been randomly applied to the exterior as a means of camouflaging the hat. History / Summary: The Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) in Vietnam were well known for modifying issued equipment for their own unique purposes. This hat is an example of this adaptive attitude. The brims of many SASR hats were removed to allow a better field of vision for the wearer, and the added chin strap ensured the hat would not be lost on patrol or in transport. AWM Accession Number: REL/14214.002

SASR Don Barnby beret

SASR beret : Trooper D R Barnby, 2 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment. Item Description: Special Air Service Regiment fawn coloured wool beret, with gilded metal badge. The badge is superimposed on a black shield shaped felt patch. The badge is a silver dagger with gilded wings, superimposed with a gilded banner reading ‘WHO DARES WINS’. The beret has four cotton reinforced ventilation eyelets, and is lined with black cotton fabric. The headband is made of sandy coloured synthetic material. The drawstring has been removed and replaced with a decorative bow. A maker’s label marked ‘SIZE 7’ is sewn into the lining, and another label ‘217585 BARNBY, 2 SQN’ is sewn into the left hand side. Maker: Beret Manufacturers Pty Ltd Place made: Australia: Victoria Date made: 1967 AWM Accession Number: REL/14214.007

In addition to the links and mentioned above, there are also curated online collections and the Australian War Memorial blog which includes a fascinating selection of articles from the AWM’s historians, curators, librarians and exhibition team that covers Australian military history, recent acquisitions, events and exhibitions. There is more than enough material to keep one engrossed for days and I found that once I started looking new avenues of exploration just kept on opening up. It is an incredible resource, even if you cannot visit in person.

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The Australian War Memorial Collection database also includes some home movies of 2 SAS Squadron during Don Barnby’s tour of Vietnam, which were made by another F Troop soldier, Ian Rasmussen. To watch the movies click on the link below: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C191676

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every second Sunday (at least) and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

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Army buddy and fellow militaria collector, Trevor ‘Spud’ Couch looking for a cold beer whilst visiting Angkor Wat in the late 1990’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

For most tourists visiting Cambodia, the ruined temples of Angkor near Siem Reap are the main, if not only, reason to visit the Kingdom. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor attracted 2.2 million visitors in 2019 and plays a vital part in the Cambodian economy where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.

At its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire which stretched across much of South East Asia, used Angkor as its capital before finally going into decline after it was sacked by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431. In 1863 Cambodia was placed under French protection and then became part of French Indochina in 1887. In 1953 the Kingdom gained independence from the French but by the latter half of the 1960’s it was becoming increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then, in April 1975, after a seven-year struggle, the communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. During the three and a half years that followed at least 1.5 million Cambodians died during the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime. Repeated incursions into Vietnam by Khmer Rouge forces tested the patience of the Vietnamese and in December 1978 a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power within weeks. However, the subsequent Vietnamese occupation caused a civil war that would last until the end of 1997 when the remaining Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms.

Khmer Rouge soldiers march at Angkor Wat. — Documentation Center of Cambodia

Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat. Photo: Collection of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

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A corrugated plastic core Unexploded Ordnance warning sign from Japanese Demining Action (JDA) which I bought at the Cambodian Landmine Museum in 2000. JDA had a small team undertaking EOD work near the Thai border at the time. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

After nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia with the scars of its recent history still visible. For visitors to Siem Reap, there are a couple of military museums in the area that provide a welcome break from scrambling over the temple ruins.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum is located 25km north of Siem Reap, near the Banteay Srey Temple complex and whilst it is further away from the town, it is worth visiting. The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was taken from his family by the Khmer Rouge when he was just five and who fought for various factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the opposing Vietnamese army before UNTAC arrived in 1993.  He then went on to help them with their EOD activities and then, when he finally returned to his village, he used this experience to defuse and clear the mines in his community using homemade tools.

Whilst clearing the ordnance, Aki Ra often encountered orphaned, wounded or abandoned children which he took into his care. To help pay for their upkeep, he displayed some of the mines which he had diffused at his home near the ticket booth for Angkor Wat Park and charged tourists a dollar to view them. I recall visiting this, the original, Landmine Museum around 1999 and listening to Aki Ra tell his story. It was a very humbling experience.

In 2006, the local authorities ordered it closed supposedly on safety grounds, however Siem Reap expatriates told me that the real reason was because local authorities felt that Aki Ra’s museum was attracting more tourists (and money) than the Siem Reap War Museum which had been started in 2001 as a ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. This may well be little more than idle gossip, but given the high level of corruption that permeates Cambodian officialdom, this would not surprise me in the least and during one of my early visits to the Siem Reap War Museum, one of the guides did offer to sell me some of the exhibits that I expressed an interest in. Behaviour that I found strange for a museum supposedly existing to preserve the history of the conflict for future generations of Cambodians, so who knows… but I digress.

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Vietnamese made fragmentation grenade/mine and anti-personnel mine on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

With the help of Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, a charity the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief  Fund was started.  Donors raised funds to buy a block of land and build a new museum which opened at its current location in 2007. In addition to the museum, the land also housed a Relief Centre for children including a small school. In 2008, with the help of the charity, Aki Ra established a formal de-mining NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining, which is a separate NGO and apart from the Museum. They clear un-exploded ordnance throughout Cambodia, generally at sites deemed to be a low priority by the larger de-mining agencies, but where the presence of the UXO’s pose a real threat to the farmers who are attempting to work the surrounding land.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gives visitors a good overview of the problems caused by this un-exploded ordnance and also some insights into Cambodia’s recent conflict. After paying the entrance fee, visitors are provided with a headset and audio player which provides some additional contextual information for the exhibits on display.

Exhibits include a variety defused ordnance, weapons, uniform items plus equipment such as de-mining tools and also artwork created by the children from the Relief Centre. There is also a small shop selling souvenirs including books, t-shirts and DVD’s.

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1990’s period uniforms and weapons on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As previously mentioned, the museum is some distance away from Siem Reap town and the best option to visit is to either grab a tuk-tuk, which will take around 30 minutes and cost about US$20 for a round trip, or hire a local driver and car for the day, which should cost up to US$50. This second option allows you to also visit the nearby Banteay Srei Temple which is much less crowded than the other temples closer to Siem Reap.  You can then return to Siem Reap at your leisure and have the driver take you to visit the War Museum Cambodia  (which will be the subject of next week’s post) after lunch.

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Various EOD team patches from Cambodia in my collection. Top row left to right: Mines Advisory Group circa 1999, Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group type 2. Bottom row left to right: US Special Forces UXO Detachment Cambodia (2002), Cambodia Mine Action Centre variant, Australian Mine Clearance Training Team patch circa 1994. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Cambodia Landmine Museum
67 Phumi Khna
Siem Reap Province
Cambodia

Website:  https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Email: bill@wmorse.com
Phone: +855 (0) 15 674 163

Open: 07:30 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5
Free for children under 12 and all Cambodian citizens

 

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The Patpong Museum – Bangkok – Thailand

patpong museum collage

The Patpong Museum is not strictly a military museum per se, but the history of Bangkok’s Patpong Road is closely connected to the activities of the OSS, CIA, the Vietnam War and of course the thousands of servicemen who have passed through Thailand on R&R and subsequent military exchange programs.

The 300-square-meter Museum, which opened in October 2019, reveals why Americans fighting on the battlefields of Indochina flocked to Patpong for business, friendship and to let their hair down. It also shows how Patpong evolved over time to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and expats, before most of the action moved across town to bars elsewhere in Bangkok — namely Soi Cowboy and the Nana Entertainment Plaza.

Patpong’s story begins when Chinese immigrant, Luang Patpongpanich purchased a banana plantation on the edge of Bangkok in 1946 for $300. Prior to this, Patpongpanich’s son, Udom, had been studying in the USA and then during WW2 was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to be one of the Seri Thai (“Free Thai”) insurgents resisting Japan’s occupation. He undertook special operations and radio training before completing the parachute course at Fort Benning in 1945.  Udom was then sent to the OSS camp at Trincomalee, Ceylon where, under the supervision of Jim Thompson (who is best known as the businessman who helped revitalise the Thai silk industry), he prepared to infiltrate back into Thailand.

Patpong Museum Udom Patpongpanich

OSS ‘Seri Thai’ (Free Thai) recruit, Udom Patpongpanich undertaking parachute training at Fort Benning in 1945. Photo: The Patpong Museum

However, the war ended before he was inserted, but Udom had made new connections which he put to use. In 1950, Luang Patpongpanich passed away and Udom who inherited the family business transformed the land into a road lined with shop houses,  which he then rented to his OSS and CIA friends. The road that Udom built remains one of the few privately owned thoroughfares in Bangkok and he encouraged foreign companies, including Caltex, Shell, IBM, United Press International and Air France  to set up offices in the area.

Patpong Road, 1960

Jim Thompson, Udom’s old OSS boss founded the Thai Silk Company across the road and in 1958, legendary CIA operator, Tony Poe (Anthony A. Poshepny), joined the  South East Asia Supply Inc (colloquially known as Sea Supply), a CIA front company operating out of Patpong, supplying arms to Chinese Kuomintang Nationalists in Burma. By 1964 Patpong had become the Central Business District of Bangkok  and also included the included the US Information Service library and CAT (the CIA owned Civil Air Transport company), which later evolved into Air America and until 1972, had its office in the Air France building on Patpong.

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Patpong Road in the late 1960’s. CAT, the CIA owned Civil Air Transport company, which then evolved into Air America had its office in the Air France building on the left of the photo. Directly across the road is a small circular sign designating The Red Door bar and next to that is Max’s bar, the preferred watering hole of the Air America pilots when they made it down to the head office in Bangkok.

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Legendary CIA operator, Tony Poe (Anthony A. Poshepny) who co-ordinated many of the CIA’s secret operations in Laos from Patpong Road. He is with Hmong General Vang Pao (middle) plus another unidentified Hmong and an American.

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CIA financed Laotian Hmong guerillas.

Patpong became a hub, not only for businessmen, but also for spooks, correspondents and off-duty military types who also took advantage of the growing nightlife entertainment options that were becoming available on the strip after dark. Contrary to popular myth however, Patpong was not a magnet for US troops on R&R during the Vietnam war. Most of the GI’s went to New Petchburi Road which, at the time, was nicknamed “The Golden Mile”.

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Former ‘Secret War in Laos’ veterans, including Jack Shirley (yellow shirt) and Tony Poe (back right) and Bill Dettori (RIP) in the blue shirt at a reunion in the Madrid Bar on Patpong Road.

The Madrid, which was opened by Vietnam veteran, Rick Menard in 1969 was one of the early bars which, not only became the preferred watering hole for the spooks and SF types but also had a CIA safe-house located upstairs. Around the same time Menard also opened the now-defunct Grand Prix Lounge & Bar, the first go-go bar in Thailand. Within a few years more bars would spring up and the entertainment area spread from Patpong Soi 1 to the smaller Patpong Soi 2 as the area gained popularity with expats and visitors who became aware of its ‘attractions’ through movies, travel guides and the media. Longtime Kiwi expat and blogger Stickman wrote an interesting piece about some of these old venues  back in 2013 when he was still living in Bangkok and I fondly recall the weirdness of finding an island of tranquility in a quiet British themed pub, Bobby’s Arms, by entering the Foodland carpark (the first steel-framed carpark in Thailand) on Patpong Soi 2 after an army exercise back in the early 90’s. Some of these venues were like stepping back in time and a stark contrast to the craziness that was going on all around.

The Patpong Museum, documents all this history, charting Patpong’s development from banana plantation through development as a business hub to its notoriety as a red light district. Museum founder, Michael Messner spent a decade scouring archives and acquiring hundreds of artifacts to include in the museum which tells Patpong’s story through documents, models, objects, photos and interactive displays. Special attention is given to its role in the Cold War era with a section devoted to Tony Poe and Patpong’s importance during the ‘secret war’ in Laos. Exhibits are captioned in Thai and English and the 350 Baht entry fee includes a free drink inside a recreation of  Rick Menard’s Grand Prix bar.

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Rick Menard’s Grand Prix Bar in the 1970’s and the Patpong Museum’s recreation where visitors can enjoy a complimentary drink as part of their ticket entry fee.

Unfortunately due to COVID-19 getting to Thailand could be problematic right now, but whilst it may be difficult to visit the museum until the pandemic is brought under control, they do offer a nice virtual tour here on the museum’s website.

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Patpong related novelty insignia. Collection: Julian Tennant

Patpong Museum
No. 5 Patpong Soi 2
Bang Rak, Bangkok
Thailand

Website: https://www.patpongmuseum.com/
Phone: +66918876829
BTS: Sala Daeng
MRT: Silom

Open: 11am – 8pm daily

Admission: THB350 per person, which includes a 50-minute guided tour and standard cocktail at the bar. Tours are offered in Thai, English, French, Spanish and Italian. Japanese and Chinese tours will be available in the future.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The 6th (Franco) Laotian Commando Badge 1946 – 50

Laos 6 Franco Laotian Commando ser28-2

Badge of the 6ème Commando Laotien which, in January 1948, was redesignated the 6ème Commando Franco-Laotien. This example is number 28 of the original 600 numbered badges ordered from the Drago company in France and features their 25 R. Beranger address. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The 6th Laotian Commando (6ème Commando Laotien) was created on 16 August 1946 to relieve the Bataillon de Marche du 5 (BM5) of the 5th Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment (5e REI), which had been based in the Sam Neau region of northeastern Laos since June 1946.  The unit’s initial strength was 34 European officers and NCOs, 151 enlisted troops and 50 auxiliary ‘partisans’. This was further reinforced by an additional 50 legionnaire volunteers. Administratively, the unit was attached to the Dien Bien Phu based Thai Autonomous Battalion (which would, the following year become the 1ere Bataillon Thai). In September 1946 the unit recruited a further 200 volunteers from the Sam Neau region and in October, along with the 6e Bataillon de Chasseurs Laotiens (6BCL) and Bataillon Thai formed part of Groupement QUILICHINI.

By early 1947, the Commando’s Sam Neua operational area covered 400km and the unit was under intense pressure from the Viet Minh. This led to a hasty recruiting campaign and in September 1947 a re-organisation of the unit, which according to the S&T book, Les Insignes Des Forces Armees Au Laos, was divided into;

A Company consisting of 2 regular commando sections, 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops and 1 section of ‘partisans’;

B Company consisting of 3 regular commando sections and 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops;

C Company consisting of 2 regular commando sections and 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops;

60th Partisan Company consisting of 3 sections of partisans;

61st Partisan Company consisting of 1 regular commando section and 3 partisan sections.

The terms ‘partisan’ and ‘suppletif’ both refer to auxiliary indigenous troops that are not part of the ‘regular’ forces. Most researchers and historians use the terms interchangeably as it is generally believed that the descriptor reflects a time period when it was in use. In reference to the Laotian context, the term ‘Partisans’ was first used in 1945 then replaced by ‘Soum’, a Laotian word for ‘group’ in 1948  and finally by ‘Suppletifs’ from 1950 onward. In Michel Bodin’s Les laotiens dans la guerre d’Indochine, 1945-1954 the author makes a further distinction, stating that whereas the ‘suppletif’ was an auxiliary soldier serving alongside the ‘regular’ troops, the ‘partisans’ served as village guards and could be described as a self-defense militia.

The 61st Partisan Company did not last long and a month later, on 31 October, it was dissolved with its members being reassigned to C Company. Then on 31 January 1948, C Company itself was dissolved with the 6th Laotian Commando now consisting of A and B Companies, the 60th Partisan Company and the Detachement Autonome de Muoung Pao (D.A.M.P.). All four companies consisted of a mix of regular and auxiliary/partisan troops.

On 1 July 1948, the Commando was formally separated from the 1ere Bataillon Thai to become an independent administrative unit and re-designated the 6ème Commando Franco-Laotien (6th Franco-Laotian Commando). A year later, on 1 January 1949, a new unit, the 8e Bataillon Chasseurs Laotiens (8BCL) is formed which incorporates members of the commando. Finally, on 1 January 1950 the 60th Partisan Company becomes the last of the commando to be integrated into 8BCL and becomes part of the 24th Company based at Muong Het approximately 65km north of Sam Neau.

 

Insignia

The gold anchor bearing the unit number 6 reflects the Commando’s relationship to the French colonial forces whilst the tricephalous (three-headed) elephant and parasol reflects the Laotian connection.

According to J. Y. Segalen’s 1985 edition of the insignia classification book, Les insignes de l’armée Française, 1000 of the 6th Laotian Commando badges were made bearing the Drago Berenger maker’s mark. Of those 600 were individually numbered. A later batch was also produced by Drago, this time featuring the Drago Olivier Metra markings but no further details are available.

 

 

 

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A Vietnam War MIKE FORCE Zippo to an Australian Advisor

Unfortunately due to work commitments related to the COVID-19 virus, I have not been able to complete the content that I had planned for this week. So, rather than miss my Sunday deadline, here is one of the pieces from my small cigarette lighter collection. Collecting military lighters is a sideline to my insignia collection and is focused on Australian airborne and special operations unit Zippo (or other brand) lighters. If you have a lighter that fits into this area and you wish to sell or trade for insignia or other militaria, please contact me via my Facebook page.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-01

Zippo lighter presented to AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent who served with  2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70. Collection: Julian Tennant

This is a 1968 dated Zippo lighter that was presented to Australian Warrant Officer Class-2 John Roderick Vincent who served with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) as an advisor to the Pleiku based 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70.

WO2 Vincent deployed to Vietnam as a member of the AATTV on the 28th of May 1969. Upon arrival, in June, he completed the 5th SFGA Combat Orientation Course at Hon Tre island off Nha Trang. After completing the course, he was posted as a platoon commander with 223 Company of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force battalion (2MSF) based at Pleiku. On the 23rd of June, shortly after taking command of his Montagnard platoon, Vincent’s MIKE Force unit was committed to the Battle for Ben Het, where 3000 NVA troops had besieged a camp housing a twelve man US Special Forces A-Team (A-244) and their 200 CIDG Montagnard tribesmen plus families.  In September 1969 Vincent was reassigned to the Training Company of 2MSF in Pleiku where he remained, apart from a brief period in early April when he provided support during the Dak Saeng Special Forces camp siege, until completing his tour on 14 May 1970.  The concluding date on his lighter states 14 April 1970 and I am not sure why this is earlier than the other documentation related to his service.

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AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent, with soldiers of 2MSF Pleiku. Far left is the Montagnard Company Commander, next is John’s radio operator and to his right is John’s bodyguard. John described them as “the most loyal soldiers I have ever worked with.” Photo courtesy of Tom”Stumpy”Burke, Pleiku Mike Force, 5th Special Forces Group.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-02-2

WO2 John Vincent’s Zippo lighter that was presented to him towards the end of his tour as an Australian Advisor with MIKE Force. The front reads “1st June 1969 – 24th April 1970″ and features an enameled C-4 Mike Force, IV Corps ‘beer can’ badge. The reverse is panto-graphed to “WO John R.Vincent 29581 From the Officers and Men of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command (Mike Force).” Collection: Julian Tennant

aattv john vincent

Pleiku, South Vietnam. 1969. Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) John Vincent of Northwood, NSW, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) watches carefully as a Montagnard soldier receiving parachute training practices landing from the height of a few feet. At the end of five days training the wiry Montagnard will jump from 1200 feet into a training area. WO2 Vincent, an Army Physical Training Instructor is one of the AATTV men who train the Montagnards and operate with them. The Montagnards of Mike Force, part of the Special Forces in Vietnam, are taught their basic infantry skills and given parachute training by AATTV advisers. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: EKN/69/0135/VN

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages