Bill Wilcox’s watch stopped dead at 2.20pm on 21 July 1969 and never restarted. A field engineer in 1 Squadron in the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) in the Australian army, he’d been up in the Long Hai hills in south-eastern Vietnam for about 10 days. He and his mates were due for a break.
It had been dirty work, even by wartime standards: dropping into active tunnel systems used by the Viet Cong, at risk of underground combat or possible asphyxiation and mine demolitions.
The irony was the engineers were mostly destroying their own mines, laid two years earlier. Nearly 23,000 US M16 “jumping jack” mines had been buried in a barrier aimed at isolating their enemy combatants in the jungle.
But the field hadn’t been properly secured. At enormous risk to themselves, with many soldiers lost, the North Vietnamese army learned to excavate and redeploy the mines against Australian forces.
Wilcox and the rest of 1 Squadron were heading back to base in a helicopter when they received the news that members of the 6th Battalion, of the Royal Australian Regiment, had strayed into a minefield in the “light green”, with one killed and many more wounded.
The “light green” was an area on the map that had been partially cleared – where defoliants including Agent Orange were used to strip the forest canopy of cover and where mines were likely to have been buried.… Read more..