“The Battle of Coral” by Lex McAulay
The crew of No. 6 gun, 102 Field Battery, photograph by Greg Ayson: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P01769.010
More Anzac Day reading …
This book tells the story of the largest unit-level battle involving Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the Vietnam War. A series of actions were fought over 26 days in May-June 1968 around Fire Support Patrol Bases Coral and Balmoral, north-east of Saigon. The North Vietnamese Army actively took the fight to the 1st Australian Task Force positions and even artillery gun positions fought close-combat actions.
It is an appropriate book for the Anzac Day period because the Patrol Bases included both Australian and New Zealand Army forces (as well as US Army units and elements).
Lex gives the background to this period in Vietnam and introduces us to all of the major players and the units involved. I don’t think I read this book until about 2003 or so, but over the course of my earlier time in both the Army and within the Department of Defence I had already met many of the characters mentioned. What surprised me was that over the two decades before reading the book, none of those people had sat me down and told me about what happened at ‘Coral’ in 1968. Even after 2003 as I started researching Coral and meeting with some of the battle’s veterans, most seemed very reluctant to say a lot about what happened, particularly with respect to the major NVA assault and battle on the first night (12/13 May 1968). None were boastful of their own actions and many told me that certain individuals deserved, but disappointingly never received, major bravery awards.
So all that makes Lex’s book a pretty essential record. He tells it in a typically laconic Australian manner. Lex covers the stories of most of those Australians who were wounded or killed during the battle. One well worth reading is the saga of Gunner Mal Hundt who was hit six times during the Battle for Coral on 13 May, at least two of which came from his comrades. Even as he was being evacuated, as Lex puts it “His troubles were still not over.” Mal continued to serve in the Army as a gun sergeant later on and I am pretty sure I met him during a Coral veterans’ 50-years on reunion in Canberra in 2008. He seemed pretty well adjusted to me. I like the way Lex manages to relate the way some of the soldiers kept their dry sense of humour and their ability to make massive understatements in even the darkest of circumstances.