Command Blunder That Killed 60 Aussie Soldiers, 1967


Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006
Blunder that killed 60 troops - Simon Kearney [reporter]
[article from 'The Weekend Australian' newspaper 13 August 2005, as posted on the Vets Net]

An Australian commander's fatally flawed decision to lay a minefield in Vietnam in 1967 cost the lives of at least 60 of his own men and maimed hundreds of others, new research has revealed.

Five sappers died in May 1967 planting 21,048 American-made M16 "jumping jack" mines, which were intended as a barrier to prevent the Viet Cong infiltrating villages in Phuoc Tuy province, close to the Australian military base at Nui Dat in southern Vietnam. Dozens more Australians were killed in subsequent assaults on Viet Cong positions surrounded by M16 mines stolen from the Australian-laid minefield. The mines were laid on the orders of Brigadier Stuart Graham, who went against the advice of his predecessor and other senior military advisers in the mistaken belief the barrier would stop a Viet Cong advance.

Details of the ill-fated mission have been uncovered for the first time by military historian Greg Lockhart, whose painstaking study of official records, many of them only recently declassified, revealed what he describes as the greatest Australian military bungle since World War II. His research reveals that M16 mines planted on Brigadier Graham's orders were responsible for 12 per cent of Australian casualties in Vietnam from May 1967 to the withdrawal in 1971. Of the more than 50,000 Australians sent to Vietnam, 520 were killed.

"The mines not only gave the enemy their No1 armament but when they laid them against us it helped the local VC leaders organise the population," Dr Lockhart told The Weekend Australian. Federal MP Graham Edwards, who lost his legs in 1970 when one of the M16 mines exploded, said Diggers nicknamed the minefield "Charley's ordinance depot" because of the number of mines that were stolen by the Viet Cong. "These were mistakes that cost a lot of lives and caused a lot of suffering," Mr Edwards said.

Jumping jack mines were packed with gas that propelled them up to a metre above the ground before they exploded, causing serious injuries to its victims' legs and torso. They were usually fatal within a 25m radius. During the height of the operation, Brigadier Graham ordered that 1000 of the mines be laid each day, putting pressure on soldiers who had received scant operational training and were protected only with standard-issue flak jackets.

Dr Lockhart, the Vietnam Veterans Association honorary historian, checked the records of every mine incident, interviewed scores of survivors and examined official taskforce records and battalion histories before concluding that at least 60 Australians had been killed and about 250 seriously wounded, including many who lost limbs. "We were just blown up by our own mines for no good reason, that's the chilling point," he said. More than 50 men were killed by stolen M16 mines during a later assault on the Minh Dam Viet Cong stronghold in the nearby Long Hai mountains and during patrols in Phuoc Tuy province between 1969 and 1971. In the worst incident, on February 28, 1970, two exploding M16 mines killed nine soldiers and wounded 15 on what came to be known as "Black Saturday".

Brigadier Graham, who died in 1996, was warned by his engineer adviser and other advisers not to lay the minefield. His decision went unchecked by his superiors in Saigon and Canberra. In an interview with Dr Lockhart two years ago, the army chief in 1967 Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Daly, who has since died, said he did not agree with the minefield. "I had discussed the minefield with Graham in Vietnam. I said I didn't think it was a good idea because protection would be a problem," he said. Even before the minefield was finished, local villagers were already lifting mines and giving them to the Viet Cong. By August and September 1967, hundreds were being lifted every night. As a result, the Viet Cong had gained a powerful weapon, one that effectively, according to Lockhart, allowed them to defend the key base area in the Long Hai mountains from Operation Pinaroo in 1968 and later operations in 1970.

The psychological and physical scars of the use of mines - which Australia has since abandoned under the international Ottawa Agreement - are still fresh for many thousands of Diggers, most of whom served in Phuoc Tuy province. Private David McKenzie, who lost both legs and his right arm in Operation Pinaroo on March 22, 1968, is still angry about the mines. He said everyone knew they were Australian mines but no one said anything. "It was a different time," he said. "The commander, Brigadier Graham's, conduct was disgraceful, the legacy they left was an absolute disgrace. "It had to be one of the silliest things done in the Vietnam War. It's one of those things where you look back and think you're lucky to be here but it has to be one of the worst things done to the military since Anzac."

Dr Lockhart's research forms the basis of a documentary, 'Vietnam Minefield'. Greg Lockhart has since written a book 'The Minefield - An Australian Tragedy in Vietnam, it is worth a read for the full details of the minefield debacle and has many stories of heroism among those caught up in the mine explosions and later clearance.

'I Was There': Bruce Young

I recollect a very old women being bought into the NDP when 2PL were guarding the engineer detachment clearing the minefield. She had been collecting mines in the dark by feel for a number of years. She finally decided she was too old for that caper & surrendered to the SVN Government troops. She led a patrol back into the minefield proper to collect the 80 or so mines she had picked up & stored inside the minefield perimeter, on the last night she bothered to report to work..!Australian armoured D8 bulldozer alongside the minefield November 1969 [Greg Lockhart book 'The Minefield']

In early April 1970 I also remember the armoured D8 bulldozer destroyed by a VC anti-tank mine laid on the track alongside the minefield, the driver [Cpl 'Blue' Baker RAE] was wounded in the abdomen and legs but survived because he was sitting on the roof steering with his feet through a hole in the armour. [I understand that particular bulldozer is now in the Australian War Memorial Museum]. The bulldozer had been digging deep ditches across each minefield section to be cleared, then bulldozing the top 12" of soil with any surviving mines into the ditch. A sapper would sit outside & count the odd explosion from a disturbed mine. In some sections there were no explosions, so effective was the VC collection plan. Ironical that the bulldozer was destroyed by a mine, next to an empty minefield..!
More than 50 men were killed by stolen M16 mines during a later assault on the Minh Dam Viet Cong stronghold in the nearby Long Hai mountains

I was in Minh Dam platoon during my Infantry training.

Graham's folly was probably trusting the ARVN to do their job properly (over watch of the mine field), although putting the field in in the first place was probably a bigger cock up.
The histories of Long Dat District thus recount the story of how a combat engineer named Hung Manh had an unexpected reprieve after being ceremoniously sent off (with drinks) on a likely suicide mission to the minefield. The crucial detail: ‘the grenade beneath the mine did not detonate because the detonator was damp.’ The mechanism of the anti-lift device was studied. Mine lifting training was soon devised for local guerillas and many others in the villages. The mine lifting had begun by the night of 28-9 May when Australian records show that M16 mines, some of them with anti-lift devices, were lifted from the southern part of minefield...

I recall this guy was decorated by the VC/NVA with Hero of the Revolution Medal or some such.

Graham did not understand that the people he was attempting to protect were the source of the local resistance to 1ATF’s presence in the province and the basis for the links between this resistance and the regular forces that were both in and entering the province. Unaware that the villagers of Long Dat had different political and historical views from them, Graham and his superiors were unable to comprehend that the population, which the minefield was designed to protect from the plunder of those regular forces, would in fact plunder the minefield. Staring at their own imperial reflections, they made the stunning strategic error of attempting to defend their enemy.