In 1962, Ray Burnard was in the Directorate of Military Operations and Plans when Australia was invited to provide advisors to help the Vietnamese fight the Communists from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong insurrection. Ray oversaw the selection and deployment of the advisors.
“We sent two dozen officers and warrant officers to Vietnam,” Ray said. “They were spread around the country, but mainly in the northern part of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone.”
“There were four regions from the Demilitarized Zone down to the Delta. The ARVN, the Army of Republic of Vietnam, had their two best divisions deployed in MR1 and the North Vietnamese had their regular force deployed on the other side. The airborne and marines were by far the cream of the South Vietnamese forces. They were a very well-trained unit.”
In the mid-sixties, during the American buildup, Australia sent a battalion to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the Sky Soldiers. “For 12 months they fought with the Americans around Bien Hoa near Saigon. All the Australians were regular soldiers and it was good experience for them,” Ray said. “But later with the introduction of National Service we had mixing in a battalion. From then on almost 50 percent of the private soldiers were National Servicemen. The Army didn’t want to differentiate them in any way. They were all treated exactly the same, and I think that was the right way to do it.”
Ray said, “By that time the advisors had become the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, commonly known as ‘The Team’. The Team consisted of 20 officers and 80 warrant officers. There were no corporals or privates, so it was a most unusual unit.”
In 1968, Ray was appointed to command the Training Team. He arrived in Vietnam right at the time of the launch of the Tet Offensive in late January 1968 and he was there for the entire year.
“The Tet Offensive was an uprising that took place all over South Vietnam in about 50 towns and cities. The North hoped it would be enough to overthrow the ruling government, but it wasn’t. At one stage they captured the American Embassy and had to be forcefully driven out.
“The main fighting ended two weeks after it started, but bitter fighting continued around Hue in Central Vietnam in the military region,” Ray said. “But within two months they had all been driven back or driven out or killed. It was all over for the first stage of the Tet Offensive.”
“The Tet Offensive was a military defeat, but it was a public relations victory because it had a great effect in America. The decline in morale of the American forces was quite noticeable to everyone.”
Ray said, “The Luc Luong Dac Biet were the local special forces. They had formed to fight with the American Special Forces, but their training had been very sparse. So, we agreed to put our advisors with the local special forces. We worked with the Americans on this project.”
“We provided a number of officers and warrant officers who acted as Company or Platoon Commanders of the local high tribespeople. They were called the Mobile Strike Forces. They got a lot of combat and it was a useful project, but they had a fairly high casualty rate. We lost a number of men, either killed or wounded. Four members of the team were awarded Victoria Crosses, three of them were working with the American Special Forces. They were the first Victoria Crosses awarded since the Second World War.”
“The Team was one of the most highly decorated units in the Australian Army, but they were only a hundred strong. Only a thousand people served in the Training Team in its 10-year existence, while 50,000 people served in Vietnam. So, it was a very small select group and a unique unit.”
Ray said, “The advisors I sent to the Special Forces with the Mobile Strike Force had mostly served with the SAS Commandos and were all highly experienced. I had advisors in their late 40s and early 50s who were able to provide the knowledge and experience gained from all their years of involvement. Those on their second tour were particularly valuable to the American advisory team with the Vietnamese Army battalions. A chap in his late 40s who had been in the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam tended to be a dominating figure in the advisory group.”
Ray said, “The war developed to where the South commanded everything by day and the Viet Cong in the north tended to take over at night, and that's when night operations became very important. We introduced the Village Defence for night operations. We started that down in the Delta and we had mobile training teams going around.”
The Team also took part in the Phoenix Program under the command of the CIA. Ray said, “I was asked to provide one very experienced soldier to become the trainer at Vung Tau and the chief instructor of the Phoenix Program. We had a sergeant major who wasn’t Regular Army but who joined up every time there was a war on. He was very much a loner but an excellent trainer.”
“By the 1970s, battalions started to go home. When President Johnson came in everyone could see that the war was not going to go well. The Americans gradually ran down and so did the Australians. The last survivors of the overseas presence in Phuoc Tuy Province were the Training Team, and we finally left in December 1972.”
“I returned to Vietnam in January 1973 for my second tour of duty as the Defence Attaché for the Australian Embassy, when the so-called peace treaty was agreed by Kissinger and the North Vietnamese.”
“In the two years I was there, from 1973 to 1975, the ARVN and the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong suffered more casualties than they had in the previous 10 years.”
“I’d spent a year at language school learning Vietnamese. It was a bit of waste of time because when I got there, I was the only attaché who spoke Vietnamese. Mind you, I didn’t speak it very well and I found it difficult to comprehend what people were saying, but I could read and write it. The only real use it had was when we had attaché luncheons with the wives. I was always the attaché who had to sit next to the ladies that couldn’t speak any English.”
Discover more stories of Vietnam War veterans at the Stories of the Dat Do Dogs photography exhibition open at the Anzac Memorial until 1 March 2024