TUNNEL RATS COMMEMORATION
By Brigadier John Carey, CSC.
The Corps RSM and I recently attended a National Commemoration Service on the 18th February to officially acknowledge the sacrifice of those Australians who fought during Operation Hammersley, in South Vietnam back in 1970. Operation Hammersley was carried out in the Long Hai Hills area of Phuoc Tuy Province and was defined by ambushing and intense close quarter fighting, along with landmine, tunnel and bunker clearance and demolition. The 28th February became known as ‘Black Saturday’ when a mine incident resulted in nine Australian killed and twenty-four wounded in action. Included in these casualties, were seven Tunnel Rats of the 1 Field Squadron, with Sapper Rodney Hubble paying the ultimate sacrifice.
Later, we attended an Australian War Memorial Last Post Ceremony, where the Corps remembered Sapper Allan Patterson, who was killed in action alongside his fellow 1 Field Squadron Sappers; Staff Sergeant Colin McLachlan, Lance Corporal John Garrett and Sapper David Steen. Their Engineer Section was acting in their secondary role of Infantry while conducting an overnight standing patrol forward of Fire Support Base Anderson near Bien Hoa, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive on the 17th/18th February 1968. This Last Post Ceremony was sponsored by the Vietnam Tunnel Rats Association and wreaths were laid to recognise all seven Australians (Engineers, Infantry, Artillery) and one American servicemen killed in action at the Fire Support Base on that night.
That evening we received a kind invitation to attend the Vietnam Tunnel Rats Association Dinner at the Hellenic Club in Canberra. What a night! It was a wonderful evening of remembrance and celebration with over 170 people attending, including 20 serving ADF personnel. For those soldiers, NCOs, warrant officers and officers who were able to make it, it was very much appreciated by all the veterans and their families in attendance.
President Mr Jim Marett showed yet again why he is such an inspirational leader; his devotion to the Corps and all veterans is second to none. Mr Peter Scott as the MC was the consummate professional. Both of them were outstanding hosts. My wife Aly, son Jack and I truly enjoyed meeting so many veterans and their families.
I had the remarkable privilege of speaking at the dinner. I would like to share with you some extracts from that speech:
‘On evenings like this most of us will remember the tragedy of losing comrades…and we do remember them…magnificent Sappers with broad smiles who led with purpose. But tonight is also about celebrating the Tunnel Rats – an absolutely essential part of RAE history.
Your efforts in South Vietnam were nothing but extraordinary. But we should not have been surprised.
I remember growing up as a young Sapper officer and learning about the legendary Tunnel Rats of South Vietnam. You were instrumental in finding and searching tunnels miles long and pioneering the employment of two man teams to carry out the search and demolition of hundreds of enemy underground bunker systems. You always led from the front – you had to. There was no other choice. The infantry and armour could not operate without you.
You developed new search techniques to save lives in the fight against mines and booby traps, which caused over 50 percent of Australian casualties at the peak of the war. And of course you paid an awful price, with 36 of your mates killed in action and just under 200 wounded from the same 650 men who operated in this role over the six years of the war, a casualty rate of around 33 percent.
The Tunnel Rats provided a flexible and adaptable force, quickly and without fuss – IT WAS WORLD-CLASS.
Your wide range of skills shown in the face of danger give truth to our Corps mottos of ‘EVERYWHERE’ and ‘WE MAKE AND WE BREAK’. It was your collective dedication and obvious professionalism that so easily impressed and I can tell you, it has left such a strong legacy for those who have served after you.
The Tunnel Rats adapted, innovated and overcame, in order to get to the objective and accomplish the mission, whatever it was…And to me that is what being a combat engineer…a Sapper…is all about: a state of mind that figures out how to get the job done – no matter what – and has the willpower, perseverance and strength to see the mission through to completion…all the while taking great care of our People.’
In closing, Jim regularly sends the RSM and I a copy of each edition of Holdfast – it has pride of place in my office for all to read who come and go. For those of you who know, on the back page, it always ends with a salute to modern-day Sappers. Well, to Jim and all Tunnel Rats everywhere – Admiration, Awe and Respect (Heaps of It).
The Corps honours all Tunnel Rats who closed with the enemy and never let us down. Even today, many years later, they continue to support the Sapper. Next time you meet a Tunnel Rat, or indeed any Engineer veteran from the war in South Vietnam, please shake their hand and thank them for their incredible courage, determination and Sapper spirit.
All the Best,
JOHN CAREY, CSC
Chief of Staff | Headquarters Joint Operations Command
Head of Corps, Royal Australian Engineers