What happens when the platoon you served in during Vietnam disappears off your military record and you are told it never existed? If you are Don Tate, you fight against the machine and endure years of deception, threats, vilification, ostracism and violence. Don recounts his struggle here in this powerful, enthralling and disturbing Independent Australia exclusive.
ANZAC BETRAYED: The Battle to Validate the 2nd D&E Platoon
It’s amazing that just a few sentences in an article written more than thirty years ago could have such ramifications for a man, decades down the track.
But that’s what “Vietnam Revisited” did.
It was a freelance article I’d sent to The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 1987.
It wasn’t published as such. But a journalist by the name of Mike Cordell had ‘borrowed’ a few sentences (click here to read the article) from it about my recollections of the murder of a woman and child back in the Vietnam War on May 30th 1969, and incorporated them into his own article, out of context.
It was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Anzac Day, 1987, titled “Coming Home”.
The dogs started barking almost immediately.
While I was marching in Sydney that same day, my son received a death threat back at home, telling him I’d be killed if I didn’t shut up about what had happened in Vietnam.
I didn’t take kindly to the threat. It got my dander up.
ARMY PRONE TO DECEIT
The first inkling I had that the army was prone to deceit came when Mike Cordell contacted the army for details of my service record. If he was going to use extracts from my article, he needed to verify my bona fides. I gave him authorization to do so.
CARO apparently informed Cordell that I had only served with one unit in Vietnam — the 4th Battalion. Documents from CARO, which I procured a decade later, included a letter written by a “H. Seymour, on behalf of the CO of CARO”, which stated that I had served with only one unit during my time in Vietnam – the 4th Battalion – and that I’d done so from late December 1968 until August 1969. (Click on image to the right to see CARO letter full size.)
I supposed that Mike Cordell must have been given the same information in 1987, which is why he hadn’t used the whole article.
Clearly, this was an attempt to discredit me as far back as then. Simply — if the army said I’d only served with the 4th Battalion, it meant anything I had to offer about any other matter occurring in any other unit was false or secondhand.
That information provided in that letter by Seymour was demonstrably incorrect.
According to the military documents I received from CARO myself (at another time) the actual details of my service were that:
- I arrived in Vietnam as a reinforcement on December 23rd 1968. (Click here for confirmation.)
- After an initial acclimatization period of a month with the Reinforcement Unit, I was posted to the 4th Battalion on January 27th 1969. (See document.)
- I served with the 4th Battalion for about four months. When they were returned to Australia in May, I was officially posted to “6RAR”, but this never happened. (See document.) In fact, I was posted to Major George Pratt’s HQ Company as a later document shows. (See document.)
- I served with HQ Company for about six weeks. Then, after a series of contentions that occurred on May 30th 1969 (as a consequence of which that platoon was disbanded) I was posted to my fourth unit — the 9th Battalion (there is no record of this posting).
- On the 19th July 1969, I was wounded in action with the 9th Battalion. (See 9RAR Narrative.)
- I was medically repatriated to Australia on July 22nd. (See document.)
So any way one looks at it, that letter from CARO was blatantly erroneous.
Sure, it might have been sheer stupidity of incompetence on the part of “H. Seymour”, but since he was writing on behalf of the Commanding Officer of CARO, I could only assume CARO had sanctioned it.
But in the light of other deceptions by the Army, CARO’s incompetence in that first instance was minor.
Deleting all record of an entire platoon of men from the histories of the war was a much more complex undertaking.
"SHAT IN THE NEST"
A follow-up interview on the “TODAY” show with George Negus didn’t help my cause.
A brash Normie Rowe – a reluctant conscript who felt he’d been “pressganged” into serving his country – popped up during the interview to defend the honour of the Armoured Corps and call me a liar.
Not that Rowe knew anything about the matter.
But he was the army’s Mr Public Relations, had a lot of clout within the veteran community and was well on the way to securing a civilian award for helping organize the Welcome Home March in which he got to stride out boldly in the lead — much to the amusement of most veterans, who despised him.
Rowe demanded a Royal Commission into the allegations.
Of course, no such inquiry was ever held. The army was too smart for that. They knew better than to pursue it because they were well aware they were sitting on a veritable Pandora’s Box.
Instead, they trotted out another icon — Sir William Keys, President of the RSL of the day. He rushed out a media statement saying he saw “no value” in holding any such inquiry. And that was that.
But because I hadn’t been able to validate my assertions during that interview, my name was mud amongst veterans. Anyone who ‘shat in the nest” as one delicately put it wasn’t welcome in the fold. And the reason I couldn’t validate what I’d said was because everything to do with that particular incident, including the platoon involved in it – the 2nd D&E Platoon – didn’t exist in any official records.
So I found myself in a wilderness.
Not that it concerned me all that much. I was destined to always be a nowhere man. I had never been one to run with the herd, and marched to the beat of my own drum, so I learned to lean on no-one but myself.
But I never regretted writing that matter down.
I’d written it at a time when the memories and the images from the war were still relatively fresh and sharp and clear. Today, despite what has transpired since, I’m glad I wrote them down then, because in the years that followed, not only has my memory been dulled by the tyranny of time, but compromised by the recollections of others.
Having been machine-gunned in Vietnam didn’t help either. I don’t offer it as an excuse for not having clear-cut memories today, but as a fact. Men who never actually felt the real steel of war – received in such extreme circumstances as being ambushed in a Viet Cong bunker complex – can never appreciate what such trauma can do to the mind — and, believe me, there was enough trauma in that one single night to last me a lifetime.
Ask Captain Andy Ochiltree, who was also wounded in the same ambush — and received a genuinely deserved gallantry medal afterwards for his efforts trying to save a stricken Pte Ray Kermode.
Vietnam was just the start though. A lot more trauma was to come my way afterwards. Bashings. A couple of attacks with knives. A steel bar wrapped around my skull.
The other issue with memories of war, though, is that if an individual does dare to air them, it’s wise to sanitise them to some degree first so as not to offend the sensitivities of those whose service had been more sedentary. There are those who’d prefer not to know about matters that occurred outside the confines of their desk or the mess hall.
They should also be palatable to the majority of other veterans.
Can’t go putting one’s self at odds with the majority view. No sense in upsetting that notion of esprit de corps so many others hold so dear.
It’s the problem men who’ve gone to war must constantly weigh up — either be part of the Anzac collective and wear it with pride, or stand alone and be alienated from it. And if one’s psyche is such that he cannot exist without the safety of the mob, he best not choose the latter.
In my case, it was easy not to belong. The bastardisation of my service records made sure of that.
But that aside, being sent to Vietnam as a reinforcement instead of with a unit – and being a reinforcement three times over, just to maximise the psychological import, and all within an eight-month tour of duty before being wounded – meant that I never did have the luxury and the security of ‘belonging’ to any one of them. This was exacerbated by spending the last half of my military career in hospital beds.
So I was going to be denied that psychological safety net most other veterans had to fall back on.
But while I do have something of a cavalier attitude to life, I did make two mistakes.
The first was in not being aware of the depths to which the Australian Defence Force would go to discredit any whistleblower — any critic of the military. I was to learn that the institution I had trusted to be a bastion of honour and integrity was nothing more than a monster which would eat its most impressionable and most vulnerable of soldiers if it meant protecting the reputations of those of higher rank from allegations of impropriety. How they’d close ranks, falsify records, hide documents, or ‘lose’ them if need be. And, of course, the age old maxim used by countless men of deception for centuries — deny, deny, deny.
And the second mistake was being ignorant of the relative psychological instability of much of the veteran fraternity — so that I wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of an outraged veteran minority that tore into me as I challenged the military establishment about the absence of any mention of the 2nd D&E Platoon from the official records.
The slander and the vilification that came my way would have silenced most men. Not me though.
My upbringing precluded any backing down in the face of cowards and their venality. "Hit ''em back twice as hard" was my father''s advice when I was a boy.
I put it into practice against the howling mob.
Anyway, most of the vitriol came from men who knew nothing of the matters I had written about. Most had endured next to nothing by comparison with respect to physical and psychological trauma.
But what it all did was provide me with the impetus to pursue the matters, to validate what I had written in Cordell''s article, and to prove that the non-existent 2nd D&E Platoon had not only existed, but had played a significant role in the war during a very short time.
Doing that meant going to war again.
THE ORPHAN PLATOONIn my memoir, The War Within, I spent just one chapter on the 2nd D&E Platoon.
I called that particular chapter — The Orphan Platoon.
In it, I set out in overview how it had been formed, some of the actions I could recall it being involved in, and presented my own opinions as to why it was suddenly disbanded and all trace of it erased from the history books.
I wrote it from the simplistic perspective of the baggy-arse soldier who was at the lowest end of the need-to-know totem pole and was happy to be there.
In that single chapter in The War Within, I took broad strokes to the whole issue….
- that the platoon had been part of a combined infantry/armour force under the command of an Armoured Corps Captain, Tom Arrowsmith;
- showed the contemptuous attitude by Major Pratt towards the motley crew of Privates who had just turned up on his doorstep;
- noted the disappearance of the platoon’s first commander, Lt Barry Parkin;
- revealed the fact that a former English marine, Cpl James Riddle, had assumed leadership of the platoon after Parkin’s disappearance;
- suggested the fact that it had been sent out against a very large Viet Cong force congregating in the Xuyen Moc area at that time was a reckless endeavour;
- pointed out that the platoon was operating outside the range of artillery, against recognised military practice in that war;
- suggested that the high brass had regarded the infantry contingent as ‘expendable’ in the pursuit of gallantry medals for the Armoured Corps (which was lagging behind other Corps on that point, at that time); and
- stated that a number of atrocities had occurred on May 30th 1969 which put the Task Force leadership in a precarious position, legally.
For my part, this was a continuation of a process I’d been pursuing since 1970, when former veterans I’d served with in the 4th Battalion had scoffed at the idea that a “2nd D&E Platoon” had ever existed and operated independently of the infantry battalions.
Other than placing a short history of the platoon on a g for anyone with further information about the platoon to contact me (which no-one ever did) I made no real headway with the matter until 2005.
Only then, with the veteran community getting behind a push to repatriate Cpl James Riddle from England, did the battle to validate the existence of the platoon gain traction.
Riddle’s repatriation put a searching spotlight on the missing platoon — and why there was no record of it.
By then, I had been joined in the fight by former members of the platoon, and by a number of outspoken veterans who had the wisdom to realise that there was a stench about the matter — and it emanated from the ADF and the Australian War Memorial. These outsiders also had the courage to voice an opinion that clashed with the view of the military ‘establishment’ — and while they were few, some of them were of the highest repute.
They too became targets of the faceless lapdogs of the high command.
But the fact was, our antagonists were many, and our friends, few.
I was also aware that those former members of the platoon who had joined the fight were somewhat reticent about doing so, and that their support was conditional on us not being too confrontational, too aggressive, in the pursuit of validation.
Not all old ex-soldiers still have the heart for a fight.
But being delicate and diplomatic wasn’t my style of going about things.
In my view, taking on the military and the government about the falsification of official records could not be won by a posse of yellow-backs that jumped at shadows and preferred the safety of anonymity with a white flag already stuck on a stick if the going got too tough.
Yet, I needed their support if only so as not to appear to be a one-man band.
So it was that an uneasy alliance of former Privates began the task of calling the military to account for the falsification of our service records and official accounts and demanding answers from politicians who weren’t really all that interested in any of it.
Best to bury the head in the sand than upset the senior officer ranks who were running the ex-service organizations. Without them keeping a tight control, veterans might actually have had a voice.
With access to a couple of reliable men within the veteran community who were able to tap into a relatively large internet base, I began to state the case that the absence of the 2nd D&E Platoon from the records was more a matter of a military conspiracy than just maladministration.
“Conspiracy” tended to generate more interest than the other.
And I pointed the finger at the most respected senior officer from the war as being personally responsible. Then I worked my way downwards through the ranks to a Major who fancied himself as a General Patton, as long as he was able to fight the war from the safety of home base, and down to a former Lieutenant who’d scored a gallantry medal for an action in which he hadn’t been sighted.
And the Australian Defence Force didn’t like it.
No sirree. Not one bit.
NEVER ABOUT THE ATROCITIES
For me, it was never about the atrocities that had occurred. They were incidental to correcting the historical record.
I’d enlisted as an eighteen year old boy with all the empty-headed notions of war’s grandeur common to young men of the day, and never suspected, or intended, that I’d be a party to detracting from it in years to come.
And if the army had had any integrity, and if the Directors of the Australian War Memorial hadn’t been so ham-fisted and dismissive of our claims that we’d served in a “2nd D&E Platoon”, despite their being no record of it in the “official” records, the atrocities would never have been aired.
As it was, they became bargaining chips — a last resort.
Only when it became obvious we were battling a corrupt military bureaucracy where senior officers were prepared to deceive politicians and falsify records did we up the ante.
A letter from Bruce Billson, Minister for Veteran Affairs in 2007 was the game-changer. He declared that he had consulted “former commanders and soldiers” of the day, and none had had any recollection of any such 2nd D&E Platoon having existed.
But, intriguingly, Billson also declared that there was “no authority to create a second D&E Platoon”, because one such platoon already existed within HQ Company — and one was all that was allowed.
This had a profound consequence — should we be able to prove that the 2nd D&E Platoon had existed, it would have meant it had been done illegally. To compound it, if the same platoon was then found to have been involved in a series of atrocities (though not responsible for them, I should make clear) then the fall-out would be severe.
Becoming increasingly aware that a conspiracy was afoot, and our attempts to break through were proving futile, I determined that it was time to let loose the dogs.
Other men from the 2nd D&E Platoon were reluctant to raise the issue of atrocities at all because they were ensconced in the whole Anzac spirit and needed to belong. Although their own records were also compromised, most were prepared to let it be. They wanted to let sleeping dogs lie and get on with the rest of their lives.
Not me, though.
Not because I was attempting to destroy the Anzac heritage, but because the personal attacks I received from sections of the veteran community were so vociferous, so fierce, and so brutal, I had no option but to return fire.
But while those elements thought they would beat me down by lie and innuendo, it simply steeled my resolve. Spending a year in a full body plaster after I was wounded gives a man some spine — and since my detractors mostly hid behind cowardly pseudonyms and offshore he advantage of having one.
What I didn’t have was access to any sort of network from which I could respond, other than a small contingent of veterans who were themselves isolated to some extent — men who’d also dared question the military at some point.
This was the ‘lunatic’ fringe as one particular veteran labelled them — the ‘Mad Galahs’.
But they did have a network I could use, and they obliged.
Thus, the three atrocious acts committed by the combined infantry/armoured force under Captain Tom Arrowsmith on May 30th 1969 left the shadowlands of individual memory and entered the public domain as leverage — and as history in the making.
ONLY PERSON WHO HAD SPOKEN
There was one grey area that caused me the greatest problem — not being able to say with assurance that I’d been involved in the ambush at Thua Tich on May 29th — the prelude to the atrocities.
In my memoir, I said I had no recall of it. I thought that was honest enough.
But Cpl James Riddle had placed me with him at the listening post — and he had the best recollection of detail of any man I ever met. But at the same time, Cpl Kevin Lloyd-Thomas was adamant that I’d been his machine-gunner at Capt Tom Arrowsmith’s end of the ambush — and he was also a man whose opinion and recollection you could trust.
It worried me a lot that I only had a few clear images myself, of any of it.
It worried others a damn sight more — and my honesty in not being absolute about my memories of that night gave my antagonists plenty of ammunition.
Whatever the case, one fact was most significant — I was the only person who had ever spoken or written about those matters for more than thirty years. And if I wasn’t there, how could I have been able to detail it as precisely as I did in the absence of any official records, or even oral anecdotes?
One former member of the platoon, an ex-federal copper turned drunk, steadfastly refused to accept my being present and went to great lengths to prove it. I pursued him into a courtroom from whence I intended to utterly destroy him. But he pleaded insanity — and it was accepted by the Court.
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO
The fact that history could be compromised for no other reasons than to protect the reputations of senior officers, or to hide wrongdoings in the field, bothered me greatly. So too, a whole platoon of men ''disappearing''.
I’d become an English/History teacher since the war and, in my mind, a nation’s military history was sacrosanct. How could I teach “history” to young minds knowing that what I was teaching wasn’t necessarily accurate, that it may have been ‘doctored’ for some reason, where strategies and outcomes of battles weren’t decided upon by first-hand accounts of those present, but a consensus view of historians and armchair generals at a later date.
What else about our military “history” was being compromised?
In my mind, proving that the 2nd D&E Platoon had existed, despite what the official view was, became something I could hang a hat on. A challenge.
So I let it be known that such a platoon had existed, without doubt, and for some reason, had been ‘erased’ from all histories of the war.
Slowly, the eyes and ears of the veteran community began to be engaged. And nowhere was this sudden interest in the 2nd D&E Platoon being monitored more closely than deep within the corridors of power of the Australian Defence Force.
Politicians were asking questions — and that wasn''t good.
The questions we posed were simple:
- Was there such a thing as a 2nd D&E Platoon?
- If there was, why was the platoon formed?
- If there was, what role had it played?
- If there was, why was it disbanded?
- And, if so, what about our history — why was there no record of it in any of the histories of the war?
On May 29th, 2008, Labor’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon Dr Mike Kelly MP, thought he had put a sword to this most contentious and divisive debate once and for all — whether or not the 2nd D&E Platoon existed in the Vietnam War.
He announced that it had. And on behalf of the government, formalised it.
I thought that would be the end of it.
But that was a mistake.
For decades, I had fought to prove that I had served in this platoon, and that it had been involved in significant actions with the Viet Cong during May and June of 1969, but there being no record of those specific actions in the histories of the Vietnam War meant that its activities would pass from view.
What’s more, the service histories of every man who had fought in that platoon had been compromised as part of a cover-up, showing us as having served in units we’d never even set foot in.
The Central Army Records Office (CARO) said there was no such record of any platoon by that name.
The Australian War Memorial said it could find no trace of any such platoon in any documents it had in its collection.
So, after years of private and public brawling within the veteran community, which had included death threats being made against me, along with the personal attacks, I had taken the matter to my local MP, the Hon Jennie George in 2007. She and I were on opposite sides of the political divide, and we’d had a few disputes in the past, but in the Illawarra, Jennie George was known as the go-to MP — a fighter for her constituents.
She had allowed me a two-hour presentation of the facts.
From there, all the documentation and evidence a few of us former members of the platoon had gathered was sent to the Army History Unit under Colonel Bill Houston for analysis. After careful and prolonged consideration, it had conceded that the histories were wrong – the 2nd D&E Platoon had indeed existed – and it informed Mike Kelly of its findings.
Essential to that investigation was a list of all the actions attributed to "D&E Platoon" —and when analysed, proved that there had to be two such platoons, because one platoon couldn''t be in two places at the same time.
A simple statement found in the Engineers’ Narratives dated the 14th May referred to a "new" D&E Platoon.
Then, there was a clear statement made publicly by Major George Pratt that he had, indeed, created the "2nd D&E Platoon".
Couldn''t be much clearer.
Anyone who''d worn stripes could have worked it out that there were two platoons, so one had to be the generic one which had always existed – the legal one – and the other one had to be the "2nd" D&E platoon.
Trouble was, it all seemed to be beyond the comprehension of generals.
On May 29th 2008, Mike Kelly bypassed the officer ranks, who were still turning a blind eye, and issued a formal announcement. A former military officer himself, and a lawyer as well, he didn’t mince words.
He officially found that the 2nd D&E Platoon had existed, had performed with distinction, had been involved in significant encounters with the enemy, and was to be “forever enshrined in the histories of the war”. (See Mike Kelly Announcement)
But rather than end the matter, it only served to intensify the debate, and increase the vitriol aimed at me by the cowardly element of the veteran community.
AND TWO WARS AS WELL
Fighting a war to validate an historical anomaly is made all that more difficult when one’s own service history is corrupted.
So I had two wars going.
The trouble is, not only does it deny you clear air to argue your case when you’re forced to fight on two fronts, but it divides your time and energies.
And when the Australian Defence Force calls in favours owed, the task is made all that much more difficult.
Bob Buick was one such man who owed a big favour.
He’d been the darling of the military establishment ever since the battle of Long Tan. A self-appointed expert on all things military, and the founding father of a out “wannabees” within the veteran community, Buick had a network of his own. He was arrogant, abusive and dismissive of our case.
But one day, inadvertently, he erred when he boasted in an email that his attacks on us had “support at the highest levels of the military and the government”. Pressed to reveal who those supporters were, Buick went to ground.
I suggest a few generals ducked for cover too.
Buick had no option other than disappear from view. Years earlier, a barrister, Fergus Thomson, had written to The Australian concerning admissions made by Buick to the effect that he’d murdered at least one unarmed, wounded enemy soldier the day after Long Tan. Thomson was a former senior officer as well, and had been a legal officer in Vietnam, and had argued the case that Buick should have been charged with murder. (See letter right.)
He wasn’t. They gave him a Military Medal instead.
And, despite being an officer of the court himself, Thomson never pursued the matter. It adds to the intrigue.
With that information at my disposal, Buick was easy to dispose of.
In his place came Keith Tennant — a convicted paedophile. (See Tennant document.)
Discharged from the army for anally raping the nine-year old son of a fellow sergeant, Tennant was found guilty of a lesser offence (a conspiracy in itself) but then contacted the Chief of Army to have his indiscretion hidden from view on his service records.
It was caused by his PTSD, you see.
To its eternal discredit, the Chief of Army allowed it.
But they had another servant from that day forth, and Tennant became the chief architect of one of the vilest offshore Australian Veteran Matters (AVM). Hosted by a “Fergus Fairfax” (curiously close to the name of the barrister who was involved with Buick) the AVM allowed its contributors to hide behind pseudonyms and throw all the mud they wanted.
Tennant also ensured that its targets were unable to respond to its preposterous comments — simply by bouncing emails. The inability to respond left onlookers thinking the targets had failed to do so, making their predicament even worse — making them look guilty.
It was clever work by a practised low life.
Letters of complaint to state and federal police authorities were ignored.
Cowardice on social network sites was here to stay.
But, one by one, a number of the more significant cowards were unmasked — including Normie Rowe. There were others: Alan Price, a little big man who’d stated publicly that he wasn’t a contributor, but had been all along; Barry Billing, a convicted fraudster; Frank Grady, a former veterans’ advocate who’d been removed from his organization for reasons to do with money; ‘Bomber’ Bob Gibson , who had been an infantryman no battalion wanted; Arthur Clive Mitchell-Taylor, who’d been a blanket counter but wished he could have been so much more; and so on. They shared similar traits — very little war service at the coalface. Not men you’d cross a street to shake hands with.
Then there was General Steve Gower. He is a Director of the Australian War Memorial and a gatekeeper of the nation’s Anzac heritage. Gower had given little credence to our arguments that the 2nd D&E Platoon had existed.
What’s more, his researchers hadn’t found any documentation within the AWM records to substantiate our claims, and they had been unable to locate any of the key senior officers involved — Arrowsmith, Pratt, and co.
But we had. And we had.
Watching the evidence mount for the existence of the 2nd D&E Platoon, and realizing how inept the Australian War Memorial looked in its handling of the issue, Gower went on the attack.
He sent out an email via a number of ‘postmen’ within the veteran community to the effect that a donation of colour movie footage I’d shot in Vietnam wasn’t valued at the $100,000 I’d claimed — but just $5000. I guess he mused that surely this would put the nail into my credibility.
It turned out to be an extraordinary error of judgement by a man of Gower’s status within the military ‘establishment’ and as Director of that august military institution. The fact that he included in his list of postmen the infamous paedophile, Keith Tennant, spoke volumes to a disbelieving veteran community who thought such a man was not one anyone should associate with — but continued the trend of significant ex-servicemen supporting the ADF.
In reply, I was able to produce the two valuations done by independent valuers on behalf of the Valuer-General’s Department, which were necessary under the Tax Incentive for the Arts Scheme. One valued the films at $80,000 and the other at $110,000 — but that had been in 1996, a decade earlier. Their value had only increased. A valuation of $100,000 was modest.
Gower quickly retreated from sight.
But he made sure that the AWM ignored Mike Kelly’s formal announcement about the 2nd D&E Platoon.
He ruled, not Kelly, and he and his historians would make their own conclusions, thank you very much.
And it didn’t include recognising the 2nd D&E Platoon.
ATROCITIES - HORS DE COMBAT
So to the intrigue in relation to the questions as to why the 2nd D&E Platoon was deleted from all histories of the war….
Some time ago, I was made aware that a Major R. Joua had written a 4-page document for the Chief of Staff on the 17th November 1968. It related to the current manpower ceiling for the Army contingent in Vietnam, which had been set at 6,886. The report discussed ways whereby that figure could be fudged and manipulated against the express wishes of the Prime Minister.
I never actually saw that document, but the information purported to be contained within it seemed to explain why the 2nd D&E Platoon had never been formally promulgated as such.
The Task Force ‘high brass’ simply created an extra platoon without the express approval of Cabinet.
This was substantiated by Major George Pratt when he was interviewed by documentary- maker, Adam Rainford. The interview was captured on film.
According to Pratt, the “D&E Platoon” he had inherited in 1968 as OC of HQ Company was made up of inferior infantrymen (“best suited to kitchen duties”) and this had always been the case, apparently. They were emu-bobbers and rock painters.
Pratt said the generic D&E Platoon served just one purpose, other than administrative tasks — to provide security for convoys between Vung Tau and Nui Dat, and as a security force whenever Task Force Headquarters was in the field.
Such a platoon was not to be called upon for any major engagements.
So the arrival of the 40 regular infantrymen from the 4th Battalion in May of 1969 was timely, given the strategic situation developing in Phuoc Tuy Province in May 1969. Pratt''s eyes lit up — he suddenly had 40 professional soldiers on his doorstep to work with, for a change.
SAS patrols had reported large numbers of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops on the move in AO’s Frog and Scorpion (including Thua Tich and Xuyen Moc) in early May, 1969. In fact, the official “3 SAS Squadron Narrative, Duty Officer’s Log Annexes May 1969” records 35 sightings of enemy (Viet Cong and NVA), totalling almost 1 000 enemy soldiers.
Since the three infantry battalions had already been deployed in specific AOs (and moving any of them would be a costly and difficult enterprise) the Task Force Commander only had the HQ Company unit at its disposal. At that time, it contained the fully functional, generic D&E Platoon made up of those ‘inferior’ soldiers, as Pratt called them (under the command of a Lt Ray Woolan MC) as well as the forty of us leftovers (supernumeraries) who had just arrived in the Company when the 4th Battalion completed its tour, awaiting re-deployment to other battalions.
According to the Field Commander’s Diary, May 12th1969, Brigadier Pearson decided to create a “second D&E Platoon” to counter this activity. He opted to only use the regular soldiers from the 4th Battalion for this special platoon. (There had been 76 leftover soldiers in all, but the ‘nasho’ contingent was either sent home with the 4th Battalion, or was divided into the three remaining battalions.)
This suggests that Pearson made a deliberate decision about the make-up of this platoon –with one eye on the tactical situation he was presented with, and the other on political expediency – and Pratt carried it out.
The platoon then formed part of a combined armoured/infantry force under Capt Tom Arrowsmith MID MG, of the Armoured Corps (B Sqn 3 CAV), and was deployed into Thua Tich/Xuyen Moc area on Operation Garryowen. Major Pratt gave the combined force the title, Sabre Force. Cpl Jim Riddle was given the radio call-sign, I(India)63.
Although this wasn’t the only time it happened in Vietnam, I am advised that, generally speaking, we operated contrary to accepted military practice of the day — operating without an imbedded infantry commander or a 2IC, operating outside the range of artillery, and doing so without a medic or medical supplies.
Between May and June of 1969, this platoon made a number of contacts with elements of that congregating enemy force.
On May 29th and May 30th 1969, the 2nd D&E Platoon had two major clashes with the enemy, resulting in 11 ‘official’ kills at the gates to Thua Tich, and another 5 en route to Xuyen Moc (There were many more, but the VC were extraordinarily pedantic in removing their dead from battle scenes. Many graves were located in the general area, afterwards.)
Early in the morning of the 30th May 1969, Brigadier Pearson arrived by helicopter with a number of other senior army officers who had been assembled for exactly this reason, as well as two photographers — Army Sgt Bellis and civilian Dennis Gibbons. They took hundreds of photographs of the battle scene (these photographs are found in the AWM Collections).
The photographs include:
- BEL/69/0370/VN: Pte Simpson and Pte Bigwood dragging a VC body to the carrier to be slung up.
- BEL/69/0354/VN: Pte Elcombe in action, en route to Xuyen Moc.
- BEL/69/0372/VN: Pte Blazely; Pte Elcombe; Pte Manski; Pte Slattery; Pte Colmer; the gates; dead bodies.
Those photographs were primary evidence that not only confirmed the presence of an infantry platoon at the ambush site — but confirmed that those infantrymen were not part of Lt Ray Woolan’s generic D&E Platoon (which was 30 kms away in a rubber plantation at the time).
On the 30th May, 1969, a series of acts occurred which many of the members of this platoon considered to be acts of atrocity, and believe to have contravened the Geneva Convention (under Part: 1, Article 3 - Fourth Geneva Convention (or GCIV) with Article 3, stating with reference to combatants who are ''hors de combat''(out of the fight) due to their death from the ambush, with (a) & (c) inter alia, relating to mutilation, and degrading treatment, irrespective of whether they are dead or alive. The Australian Military (Commonwealth) Law at the time would have also considered this treatment prohibitive, and subject to Court Marshal ):
- some VC bodies were dragged into a bomb crater and blown to shreds with explosives;
- five VC bodies (including that of a female VC doctor) were strapped upside down to the backs of APC’s (including that of Capt Tom Arrowsmith) and ended up being dragged headless into Xuyen Moc; and
- en route to Xuyen Moc, troopers on the APC’s fired at civilians, indiscriminately, killing at least one woman.
In 2008, in The War Within, I first made mention of those matters.
“Afterwards, when Pearson and his hangers-on had gone, they got us infantry boys to drag most of the bodies into a bomb crater. There was going to be a ‘sapper’s burial’, as they called it. We all cheered that. Especially the cavalry boys — they didn’t want to load the bloodied carcasses into their APC’s. Fair enough too, we thought. Who’d want to ride in there after they’d been carting around bodies as mutilated as some of them were. ‘Spooky’ tended to do that…There was another incident too, that day, on the road to Xuyen Moc when some of the boys were ‘out of their lids’, as Riddle described it. But I’ll let it lie. Some dogs shouldn’t be disturbed.”To that point, no mention had ever been made of atrocities having been committed. After Murdoch Books published The War Within in July 2008, there was veritable stampede. All it had taken was someone with guts to open the gates.
In 2009, an armoured corps trooper,Allan Stanton, the driver of Capt Tom Arrowsmith’s APC, published his own account — Before I Forget. It was remarkably similar to mine. He wrote:
“The Arrow (Capt Tom Arrowsmith), like me, did not want the bodies in the cargo area of our carrier, so it was decided to take five bodies, tie them together and hang them by their ankles from the back of the carrier for the trip back to Xuyen Moc. ……. "Before leaving the ambush site we had one further task to perform — dispose of the other six bodies. We dragged them to an old bomb crater just to the side of the old gates of the deserted village. Along with the bodies were placed explosives, hand grenades, a number of Claymore mines, a few gallons of petrol and a long fuse cord…. The fuse was lit and about five minutes later the explosion of our crude burial could be heard....”
After the second VC attack on the way to Xuyen Moc:
"There was now one more task to perform before our return to the Dat — take the bodies of the five VC still hanging from the back of Two-Alpha-Zero (Stanton ''s APC) into the village square. I knew they were still there by the shocked looks on the faces of the locals as we drove through the village....The bodies were cut from the carrier and left with the village chief to do what he wanted with them."
Cpl Jim Riddle also had his say:
“That was when we dragged the bodies behind us. Yes, the lads came and asked me what I thought about that, and I told them I was pissed off, but it was the thing soldiers do who are in their first combat and who are ''out of their lids’. I''d seen it before, and felt bad, but war is not for humans, so for a while, we were not human. I later got a lecture about teaching my blokes to be killers. I agreed with the view...”
“I recall the girl who was killed at the ambush, and there was another on the way back, after the ambush, when the tracks were in a panic and heading at speed while firing at people in the fields, on the way to Xuyen Moc the following morning. It wasn''t a deliberate killing. It was pure and simple panic by ‘trackies’ who had just been ambushed and were shit scared. We tried to stop them shooting, but we were all standing up in the back of the tracks and couldn''t get at the gunners in time. These gunners were the untried ones. They joined us after the night ambush.”
Former member of the 2nd D&E Platoon, Ted Colmer, raised the ‘sleeping dog’ matter I’d referred to in The War Within, but hadn’t elaborated on:
“…the villagers hated us for brassing them up en route to Xuyen Moc, from the Thua Tich engagements.”
And Richard Bigwood, also a former member of the platoon, felt strongly enough about ensuring the historical record was accurate, by writing a Statutory Declaration and sending it off to the Australian Federal Police. Then, he published his own book.
So, make no mistake, atrocities of one kind or another were committed. But given the growing dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war back in Australia, with moratoriums in full swing, the last thing the military wanted was for the Australian public to hear about the mistreatment of the enemy dead.
Thus, the cover-up began.
Where did history finish and deceit begin?
I’ll tell you when — the very moment General Tom Daly, Chief of the General Staff, became aware of it and started kicking backsides.
In Xuyen Moc, on the evening of the 30th May 1969, as we were welcomed into the village by its chief for a celebration of sorts, word got around that there were serious repercussions following the contentions of the day. Cpl Jim Riddle casually advised us that a General Daly was apoplectic with rage when he heard what had happened, and had advised Brigadier Pearson of his displeasure. He told us that instead of a medal, Arrowsmith was “getting kicked up the date”.
Within a day or so, Arrowsmith’s APC troop was replaced by Capt David Lawrence’s — and there was significant animosity between Lawrence’s troopers and us infantrymen. Lawrence made his opinion of Jim Riddle and the infantry platoon quite clear, calling Riddle a “foul-mouthed mercenary” in charge of “ill-disciplined animals.” (Lawrence had seen no action with the 2nd D&E Platoon and most likely formed this opinion after word broke about the contentions that had occurred.) He erroneously concluded that it was the infantry component that had been responsible. This resulted in the troopers throwing our infantry gear out of the APC’s and into a running stream at one point and Cpl Riddle threatening to thump an obnoxious Normie Rowe for stupidity when Rowe kept banging metal against metal whilst in ambush positions.
To this day, veterans across Australia wish Riddle had given Rowe as good an uppercut out in the bush as he got from an aged Ron Casey on national television twenty years later.
Within a week, the 2nd D&E Platoon was disbanded, and the members dispersed among the other battalions (mostly to the 9th Battalion)
It wasn’t for many years that we became aware that all trace of the 2nd D&E Platoon had been erased from the records.
Apparently, the shit had well and truly hit the fan in Canberra.
MYSTERIOUS "SEPTEMUS" EMAIL PROVIDES ANSWERS
In 2010, out of the blue, I received an email from a “Septemus Prime”. It made interesting reading — and answered a lot of questions.
This was the email:
From: Septemus Prime [email address deleted] To: [email address deleted] Sent: Tuesday, 27 July 2010 3:15 AM Subject: Don Tate
The occurrences which were documented by Don Tate in his book ''The War Within'' did indeed occur. I happened to be working at AHQ in Canberra shortly after the event and I can tell you the incident caused quite a stir, especially within the ranks of the Australian Army Public Relations Service. I recall a mad scramble headed by Lt/Col Lance Logan, the CO; and Major Ross McKenzie (2IC).
I was informed of the incident by Captain Eric Barnett, well after the fact. The incident was common knowledge by all members of the AAPRS. A complete statement of denial was written at that time at the highest level at AHQ to thwart inquiries from journalists and news organizations should the incident become widespread public knowledge. Lt/Col Logan oversaw this.
The Australian Army deliberately destroyed documentation, falsified documentation and intimidated witnesses to cover up certain unsavory acts and atrocities committed by Australian soldiers in the field in South Vietnam.
16mm cinefilm and 35mm photographs did exist showing an APC towing dead suspected Viet Cong through a muddy field. I saw the film myself before it miraculously ''disappeared'' from AAPRS custody. It was not something anyone could ever forget after viewing.
The AAPRS was charged with the processing and release of all ''official'' media activity concerning the Army''s role in Vietnam. Those images deemed un-PR-like, were censored and listed NFR (not for release). Images showing death and destruction were always marked NFR. Images of Diggers receiving awards, doing good deeds for the local population, attending to the medical and nutritional needs of villagers were always good PR and released for publication. The AAPRS was highly active in controlling information, anything portraying Australia''s involvement in Vietnam in a ''positive'' light was deemed ''good'' PR.
The people of Australia owe Don Tate a huge apology. Those most vocal in shouting him down should be suspected as either stupid, insane, or perhaps part of the cover up, which has continued far too long.
I’d like to have shaken “Septimus’” hand.
In 2011, investigative journalist Frank Walker’s book on the 2nd D&E Platoon was published – Ghost Platoon (Hachette) – and it was a significant milestone in military history.
He’d spent more than a year interviewing key players in the saga of the 2nd D&E Platoon.
Some had been willing participants, but the pea-hearts amongst us took their papers and refused to let him use the information they had gathered.
Walker concluded that the deletion of all trace of the 2nd D&E Platoon stemmed from the contentions that had occurred at Thua Tich. Simple as that.
While Brigadier Pearson had ensured two photographers were on hand to capture a record of what he knew would be a significant clash between his newly-created platoon of “assault-troopers” (as he called them) and the enemy force posing a security threat to the Task Force — it proved to be a critical error.
Because they not only captured Pearson’s dramatic walk along the raised dirt road that ran through the ruined village, littered with the carcasses of the enemy dead — they also captured the images of men dragging bodies into the bomb crater beside the large gates to the village. They captured images of the bodies strapped to the back of Arrowsmith’s APC. They captured the iconic images of Arrowsmith’s textbook counterattack when the force was ambushed en route to Xuyen Moc. And they also captured the horrified looks on the faces of villagers as the headless bodies were dragged into Xuyen Moc.
When those images landed on desks in Canberra, questions were asked of Brigadier Pearson. In turn, questions were asked of Major Ron Rooks — the Armoured Corps boss. And questions were then asked of the buoyant Captain Tom Arrowsmith, enjoying a beer with the village chief in Xuyen Moc.
When Normie Rowe commandeered a guitar and belted out a few numbers in an impromptu ‘concert’ (as we called it) that night, all was well with the world.
The next day, all hell broke loose.
Arrowsmith’s Troop was replaced, and Arrowsmith himself got packed off to a desk-jockey job. Major Pratt then began the process of disbanding the 2nd D&E Platoon altogether and dispersing its members among the other battalions — out of sight, and out of contact with each other.
And that’s the way it stayed for almost forty years, until I mentioned the death of that woman on the road to Xuyen Moc in Mike Cordell’s article back in 1987.
If that wasn’t the seminal moment in bringing the 2nd D&E Platoon story out into the open, then the publication of my memoir, The War Within, certainly was.
It forced the government to amend the history of the war.
I’m chuffed about that — it is something very few men have ever managed to achieve.
But being vindicated by a man of Frank Walker’s reputation was a milestone in my life.
Especially his revelations about the ‘smoking gun’ he found buried within the National Archives that proved the Task Force ‘high brass’ had been well aware of the atrocities committed at Thua Tich — and rather than comply with international law, covered them up. And threw in a couple of gallantry medals for good measure. To find a file that the ADF and the AWM couldn’t find, despite their resources, proved that there are those who will still bury documents to maintain the cover-up of those events all those years ago, just as there are those who will be unable to find them.
Warmed my heart.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED...
I afforded myself a wry smile when I read in Frank Walker''s Ghost Platoon that ex-Brigadier C.M. Pearson AO, DSO, OBE, MC has accused me and other members of the platoon of "ambushing him pretending to be a SBS film crew".
What utter nonsense. Sounded to me like a man under some pressure to explain himself.
In fact, myself, Edward Colmer and Richard Bigwood, wearing suits and our service medals, certainly confronted him up at Springwood in the August of 2007 — but we confronted him as veterans who had served under him, and were respectful not only of his prior rank, but also his age. We felt that, given it had occurred under his watch, we had every right to ask him pertinent questions about the intrigue surrounding the disappearance of our platoon from the record books.
Pearson played a straight bat, and asked me to put the matter down in writing and he would respond by mail. I did so, and he responded a few months later, no doubt after apprising himself of what stage the debate had reached — how much we knew, and what we didn''t know.
After that, we met twice more — me and the other former members of the platoon. Each time, he refused to allow any sound recording of our conversations, though what he demanded and what transpired is for us to know and for him to wonder about. On one occasion, he even shouted us a beer!
He eventually acknowledged that a platoon had existed, though not necessarily by the name of "2nd D&E Platoon", though he conceded it may have been called that, informally. He confirmed that he regarded us as "assault troopers" and we had performed "with distinction".
I suspected he was only confirming what we already knew.
General Steve Gower had told us at an earlier meeting with himself and the national historian, Ashley Ekins, that Brigadier Pearson had had a very low opinion of SAS — and that had accounted for the hasty formation of the 2nd D&E Platoon.
We were told that Pearson was sick and tired of extricating the SAS units who weren''t performing to his satisfaction. "No sooner were they inserted, than they were screaming to be extracted again," said Gower. "They weren''t cost effective."
Instead of using SAS, we were told that Pearson wanted an infantry unit that actually engaged the enemy, not one that just sat and watched the enemy walk by — or bolted if the situation got dicey.
SAS have every right to be offended by such assertions because, in general, they are recognised as having performed admirably under the most difficult of conditions. So, one might have taken these comments with a grain of salt, except that I received a letter from a close associate of Pearson''s — an ex-officer of equal rank, verifying Pearson''s opinion of SAS. (See PRIVATE LETTER RE SAS.)
In fact, and this was crucial, the letter explained that Pearson had privately admitted to having stood SAS down for a short period till they got their act together — and it was in that particular period that the 2nd D&E Platoon was birthed.
I think not.
LET THE RECORDS SHOW...
So, to the bastardisation of my service records.
Not only had CARO falsely declared that I had only served with 4RAR (see the first document) but in a later letter (correcting that earlier misinforrmation) continued the corruption by stating that they had "no records" of my having served with the 9th Battalion (9RAR).
Since it was with this unit that I''d been so severely wounded, and the consequences so permanent, the error had enormous psychological sonsequences for me.
Did I serve with the 9th Battalion? Or was that a figment of my imagination — like my story about a non-existent platoon lairizing around Phuoc Tuy Province independent of all other units, had been?
Not according to CARO, I didn’t. They specifically refused to accept it — even though their own documentation clearly recorded that I had.
- the Signal sent from Vietnam to Australia the night I was wounded, and clearly setting out all the pertinent details;
- an army document containing information about battle casualties; and
- the first page of my hospital records.
All those documents clearly recorded my having served with the 9th Battalion.
Documentation aside, and of far more consequence to me, was an exchange I had with a former platoon commander within “C” Company of 9RAR. I’d challenged the Battalion to explain why my name was left out of the account of the ambush of July 19th 1969, when my platoon was caught in a Viet Cong bunker complex.
With all but one man from the first section either dead or wounded, Lt Brian Osborn had ordered my section to run into that killing field in support of the remnants of that section.
It was the last thing I ever did in the war.
I received a response from Lt Michael Mummery. I’d met him in 2009 when he invited me to Adelaide to show his veteran organisation the colour films I had taken — which included film of “C” Company, 9RAR.
I asked Mummery if he knew who had written the account of the ambush as it appears in the 9 RAR book. He responded, as follows:
From: Michael Mummery [email address deleted] Subject: Re: 19th July 1969 G''day Don, Most of it came from Guy (Bagot) or myself. At the time we had no access to any "official" reports such as the Commanders Diary and everything was from memory. All those who we had contact with at the time where asked to contribute. Unfortunately we did not have contact with them all, such as yourself, and most chose not to contribute. As you know the book was written 25 years after the event and despite the best efforts a number of mistakes were made. The one thing I can assure you of Don, there was nothing deliberate in your part in the 19th July 1969 being left out. I don''t know how we could have forgotten those details but that''s what happened… Regards, Mick
So let’s be clear about this.
The “official” account (in 9RAR’S book) was written by two ex-officers from the battalion (Lt Mick Mummery and Lt Guy Bagot) neither of whom was directly involved in the initial and fiercest actions of that ambush — and wrote their accounts of the ambush twenty-five years afterwards.
I am not being critical of either man for this, just stating the facts.
In conclusion, Michael Mummery was man enough to correct the record on behalf of the battalion.
In December, 2009, he wrote:
In response to your e-mail below can I say that there is no doubt in my mind that you were severely wounded on the 19th July 1969 whilst in action with 7Pl C Coy 9RAR.
That whilst I was not in the same Platoon as you on that day/night, I was with 9 Platoon- and I was very aware of the difficulties that 7 Pl were in I am now aware that the description of the C Coy action on the 19th of July 1969 on pages 82 & 83 in the book "9th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Vietnam Tour Of Duty, 1968 - 1969, On Active Service", was inaccurate in that it did not include all those members of 7 Pl that were wounded in that action, and that along with you Don, John Walker and Dave Jeffrey should also have been mentioned as having been wounded.
I also acknowledge that, (due to the deployment of 9 Pl up on the left flank of 7 Pl), until the mid 1990s I was unaware of the evacuation of you and three others, on the night of the 19th, by jungle penetrator. It was my understanding that all evacuations took place the following morning, by USAF helicopter landing at a landing zone, prepared by members of C Coy.
I would also like to provide to you a quote from the preface of the book by Ted Chitham on page XI of the book states, "We have tried to include as much detail of operational activities as possible but have been restricted by access to official information and book size limitations. Therefore, not all actions are recalled nor all casualties named. To those who carry the physical scars and are unnamed, we offer our apologies.
I hope that the details above are of some help for you in clearing the smears that have occurred to your name.
I finally had some answers.
In 1997, CARO officially corrected the record, and the Nominal Roll.
It had only taken me 28 years to square that matter away.
Why CARO had insisted I hadn’t served with the 9th Battalion will always be a mystery to me.
I know one thing — if you’re an organization that takes pride in the Anzac traditions, you don’t get any more corrupt than ignoring what’s in the official files, and stating otherwise.
DEATH THREATS, BASHING, NEW TWIST!Now the goons within the veteran community who had issued me with death threats haven’t managed to carry it out. Not yet, anyway. I’m glad about that.
I did cop a bashing though. It was in January, 2011.
In November 2010, I sent out a detailed submission about the entire matter – with all its corruptions – to senators and Ministers, and let the veteran community know. A month later, the bastards had placed a picture of my house on the internet — and a few weeks later, out walking Saturday night – following a knee replacement – they struck.
As bashings go, I’ve had worse. Black eyes. Stitches. bruises and abrasions. Run of the mill stuff.
But it was the daring that got to me for a little while — out on a public highway.
I involved the local coppers, but to no avail. Not only couldn’t they manage to find the pools of blood, but missed a bloodied handprint on the back of a bus shelter nearby.
I just thought, ''Yeah sure. As if the ADF hasn’t got tentacles in the state police forces as well as the Australian Federal Police.'' Ex-military officers, now in high office, and well-placed to circumvent complaints made by troublesome ex-Privates.
But after the publication of Frank Walker’s Ghost Platoon, thinking the 2nd D&E Platoon matter had settled for the time being, I once again requested a copy of all my service documents from CARO.
I was astounded to find that, as corrupted as they had already been in 1969, they had become even more so in the years since.
The original batch of documents now had thick black texta lines drawn through my name on page after page. Now I’d been deleted completely.
If I’d been baffled by the reasons for the original corruptions, I was now confounded.
What possible reason could there be for CARO to deliberately corrupt a veteran’s service records?
Was it payback?
It appeared that all connection between me and the 9th Battalion had been erased.
My posting to the 4th Battalion in January had been erased.
My movements after being wounded with the 9th Battalion had been erased.
It didn’t matter. It was yet another monumental error by CARO. They’d not realised that I’d already received the earlier set of documentation, so I could compare the new corruptions against the old.
It’s a new twist.
The corruptions are now in the hands of various authorities.
(This story is Copyright © to Don Tate, 2011, and is not covered by our usual Creative Commons licence. The opinions expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Australia.)